Thursday, October 29, 2015

Universal's Mummy Movies of the 1940s

Jack Pierce's make-up, shown in
shadows here, is impressive.
The Mummy's Hand (1940) - Perhaps surprisingly, this reboot of Universal's Mummy franchise may be the most influential of all movies about the cloth-wrapped creature. It reinvents the ancient Egyptian backstory from the 1932 original, with Prince Kharis stealing tana leaves to restore life to his beloved, deceased Princess Ananka. When his plans go awry, he is arrested, mummified, and buried alive. Centuries later, when American archaeologists discover Ananka's tomb, a high priest revives Kharis to protect her. Strictly a "B" film, The Mummy's Hand has a running time of just 67 minutes--though it takes 38 of those minutes for the Mummy to make his first appearance! Dick Foran stars as the bland hero and Wallace Ford provides unnecessary comic relief. Still, there are a couple of old pros around to lend some credibility to the proceedings: George Zucco as the high priest and Cecil Kellaway as a magician who finances the expedition (his name is misspelled as "Kelloway" in the credits). Former cowboy star Tom Tyler makes an impressive Mummy; it's just too bad he wasn't in more of the film. The Mummy's Hand was a big hit for Universal and a new 1940s franchise was born. Incidentally, the effective music score was borrowed from 1939's Son of Frankenstein.

Elyse Knox.
The Mummy's Tomb (1942) - Thirty years after the incidents of The Mummy's Hand, Kharis (now played by Lon Chaney, Jr.) and a young high priest (Turhan Bey) seek revenge on the Banning family in a New England town. Despite an unnecessary eight-minute recap of the preceding film, I found this sequel entertaining thanks to an exciting, fiery climax and the atmospheric shots of Kharis trudging alongside white picket fences and across lonely nighttime landscapes. Alas, the blaze at the end of The Mummy's Hand has left Kharis with a blind eye to go along with his pronounced limp and bad left arm. He moves so slowly that it's hard to fathom why his victims just don't run away. On the plus side, Elyse Knox--who became Mark Harmon's mother--makes a fetching heroine. It's easy to see why Turhan Bey's character puts Kharis on the back-burner and shifts his interest to her. The aforementioned climax, featuring a posse with torches setting fire to the Bannings' mansion, oddly recalls the ending of 1931's Frankenstein. Finally, if this took place 30 years after The Mummy's Hand, that would make the year 1970--an interesting thought.

Lon Chaney, Jr. as Kharis.
The Mummy's Ghost (1944) - Amina, a young Egyptian woman who works at the Scripps Museum in Mapleton, gets "jittery" whenever someone mentions Egypt. The reason becomes clear when Kharis and another high priest (John Carradine) try to retrieve Ananka's mummified corpse from the museum. Just as Kharis reaches into the casket for his loved one, Ananka turns into dust and her soul is transferred into Amina. While the whole town searches for Kharis, the Mummy sets his sight on Amina, who has developed a white stripe in her hair (similar to the one sported by the Bride of Frankenstein). A lackluster entry in the series, The Mummy's Ghost limps along until it's almost redeemed by a nifty climax that's truly unique for the horror genre in the 1940s. Robert Lowery, who plays the dull over-aged collegiate hero, later became the second actor to play Batman in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin. He later had a lengthy career on television.

Virginia Christine as Ananka.
The Mummy's Curse (1944) - Following his swampy demise in the previous film, Kharis reappears when a bulldozer unearths him in the Louisiana Bayou. Yes, somehow the nearby town of Mapleton has been magically relocated from New England! Another young high priest and his unsavory assistant revive Kharis with the hope of reuniting him with Princess Ananka and transporting both back to Egypt. Meanwhile, Ananka--who is not quite a mummy yet--digs herself out of the swamp and reverts back to a beautiful, but very confused, young woman. The Mummy's Curse is the weakest of the four post-Karloff Mummy movies. It's a very repetitious outing (did we really need another flashback of Kharis' origin?). The Louisiana setting and a deserted monastery add a little atmosphere, but that's all this chapter in the Mummy saga has to offer. The only cast member of note is Virginia Christine, who played Ananka. She had a long career in supporting roles on films and in television, but may be best remembered as the Swedish Mrs. Olson in a series of Folgers coffee commercials in the 1960s.


This post of part of the Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by our friends at Silver Scenes. Click here to view the entire blogathon schedule!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Hammer's Dracula Films Ranked from Best to Worst

David Peel as Baron Meinster.
1. The Brides of Dracula (1960). This should be no surprise to readers of this blog. Indeed, I recently ranked Brides among my top five choices for the greatest horror films of all time. It's a first-rate affair from start to finish with strong performances, interesting themes, and an exciting, inventive climax. The only thing it's missing is Count Dracula--but David Peel's Baron Meinster is a worthy substitute. Less physically threatening than Christopher Lee's vampire, the charming, handsome Meinster may be a more dangerous adversary. One of the film's best scenes is when the sweet Marianne introduces her paternal friend Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) to her new boyfriend.

Dracula is staked--but not for long.
2. Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968). Vastly underrated, this lively tale has a revived Dracula (Lee) seeking revenge against a Monsignor who has "desecrated" his ancestral home by performing an exorcism. The theme of religion combating the evil of vampirism is not an uncommon one, but rarely has it received such a rich treatment. The film also benefits from director Freddie Francis' brilliant cinematography, some fabulous rooftop sets, and a solid cast. Veronica Carlson may be the most fetching of all Hammer heroines (well, let's call it a tie with Caroline Munro..and Valerie Leon).

Van Helsing's makeshift crucifix.
3. Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula) (1958). The one that started it all is an effective adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. The opening scenes with Jonathan Harker at Castle Dracula and the climatic confrontation between Dracula and Van Helsing are marvelous. My only complaint is that the pacing drags in the middle when the action shifts to England. Still, it set the standard not only for the rest of the Dracula series, but for all the Hammer vampire films that followed it. James Bernard's exceptional score would become very familiar to Hammer fans.

John Forbes Robertson as Dracula.
4. The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Who would have thought that a mashup of vampires, kung fu, and The Seven Samurai would be so much fun? When Dracula and some unconventional vampires take over a small Chinese village, its residents send for visiting lecturer Van Helsing (Cushing). The journey to the village, punctuated by some well-staged fight scenes, sets the table for an all-out climax that ends with another Dracula-Van Helsing face-off. Be sure to skip the heavily re-edited version called The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula.

Barbara Shelley as a vampire.
5. Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1964). Although well-made and sporting an impressive cast, the direct sequel to Horror of Dracula lacks inspiration. Christopher Lee seldom has much dialogue in the Dracula films, but, in this one, he has none! The premise, which injects attractive English tourists into the Transylvanian landscape, seems recycled from the previous year's superior Kiss of the Vampire. Still, there are some nice touches, such as how Barbara Shelley goes from a dull lass to a smoking-hot vampire.

Lee strikes an imposing pose.
6. Scars of Dracula (1970). An improvement over the same year's Taste the Blood of Dracula, the sixth film in the series offers little of interest other than a flashy finale and a creepy shot of Dracula climbing down a castle wall, face first, as he did in Bram Stoker's novel. In The Films of Christopher Lee, the actor said: "Instead of writing a story around the character (Dracula), they wrote a story and fit the character into it."

Count Dracula--corporate CEO.
7. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). As modern-day variations go, I like the idea of Count Dracula as a businessman who recruits four influential blokes to help him take over the world. I don't like the idea of Drac releasing a strain of bubonic plague as some kind of revenge on mankind. The resulting film reminds me of a lesser episode of The Avengers that sorely needs Steed and Mrs. Peel.


Cushing as a Van Helsing descendant.
8. Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972). My main problem with this entry is that it came two years too late. The 1970 Count Yorga, Vampire had already mixed vampires and contemporary youths. Hence, there was nothing jarring about seeing Count Dracula in modern-day London. The film does get credit for pairing Lee's Dracula and Cushing's Van Helsing (a Van Helsing descendant actually) for the first time since the 1958 original.

Dracula on the verge of being destroyed.
9. Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970). There was no Dracula in the original film treatment for this fifth series installment. The intention was for Ralph Bates' character to be killed and then resurrected as a vampire to avenge his death. However, when Christopher Lee agreed to appear in the film, the script was rewritten and Bates' character stayed dead--with Dracula avenging him. The premise, which revolves around a sort of Hellfire Club, is initially interesting. However, it soon evolves into a straight revenge tale and ties Satanic Rites for the worst climax in the series.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Move Over Kolchak for "The Norliss Tapes"

A more serious version of The Night Stalker (1972), The Norliss Tapes (1973) featured Roy Thinnes as an author who becomes an investigator of supernatural phenomena. In the film's opening scenes, David Norliss (Thinnes) confides to his publisher that his book debunking fake spiritualists has taken a different turn. When Norliss suddenly disappears, his publisher discovers a set of tapes in the writer's home. The plot unfolds as Norliss' publisher listens to his tapes.

On advice from her sister, Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson) seeks out Norliss when her recently-deceased husband shows up in his art studio, takes a blast from a shotgun, and vanishes. Ellen reveals that her husband, sculptor James Raymond Cort, died from Pick's Disease (a brain disorder). Shortly before his death, he became obsessed with the occult and befriended an antiques shop owner who gave him a scarab ring symbolizing the Egyptian god Osiris. With ashen skin and glowing eyes, Cort is definitely dead--but that hasn't stopped him from working on an unusual statue molded from red clay.

The creepy dead husband.
Producer-director Dan Curtis follows the same general premise as his earlier made-for-TV films The Night Stalker (1972) and its sequel The Night Strangler (1973). The difference is that Darren McGavin played Kolchak, the investigate journalist in those films, with a dash of humor--thus balancing the chills with levity. With The Norliss Tapes, Curtis clearly intended to make a straightforward fright film--and he largely succeeds. His film evokes an eerie atmosphere, enhanced by the scenic Carmel coastline with its winding roads. There are some genuine shocks, too, such as when Cort's creepy face pops up at a window when the curtain is brushed aside.

Roy Thinnes, less frantic here than in The Invaders, makes a believable hero. Angie Dickinson lends some class to the proceedings and Vonetta McGee proves once again that she deserved a better career.

The Norliss Tapes also served as a pilot for a TV series, though NBC passed on it. Interestingly, Dan Curtis filmed an earlier pilot, back in 1969, about another investigator who specialized in cases involving the supernatural. Kerwin Matthews starred in In the Dead of the Night, which ABC broadcast as a 60-minute TV movie called Dead of Night: A Darkness in Blaisedon.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dan Curtis was not involved in the original Kolchak TV series. He did serve as an executive producer for the 2005 revival, Night Stalker, starring Stuart Townsend as Kolchak.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Double Case of Murder on the Orient Express

Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot.
The 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie's controversial mystery Murder on the Orient Express spawned a string of theatrical and made-for-TV films based on her works. I recently revisited Orient Express and, for comparison purposes, also watched the 2010 version starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot. It was an interesting exercise in which each film boasted certain strengths. In the end, though, it came down to which Poirot was the best and, for me, the choice between Suchet and Albert Finney is a no-contest.

The plots of each version closely mirror Christie's 1934 novel. While aboard the Orient Express en route back to England, Poirot is approached by a wealthy, distasteful man named Ratchett, who fears for his life. Ratchett tries to hire Poirot to protect him, but the Belgian detective refuses. Two nights later, Ratchett's bloody corpse--which features, significantly, twelve knife wounds--is found in his compartment. The obvious solution is that the murderer disposed of Ratchett, then departed the train. However, Poirot quickly makes a connection to the kidnapping and subsequent death of young Daisy Armstrong, which occurred five years earlier (an obvious nod to the real-life Lindbergh case).

The snowbound train.
The 1974 Murder on the Orient Express boasts a running time of 128 minutes, which surprisingly works to the plot's advantage. First, it allows director Sidney Lumet to open the film with a well-constructed montage that encapsulates the Armstrong kidnapping and its aftermath. This sequence not only piques the viewer's interest from the beginning, but its eliminates the need for lengthy flashbacks later or incorporation into Poirot's explanation. The second advantage of the long running time is it affords Poirot time to reveal the mystery's solution in detail (indeed, the "reveal" scene lasts almost 25 minutes).

Wendy Hiller.
The casting of big-name stars as the suspects may be entertaining, but it actually adds little to the mystery. I suppose one could argue that it's easier to tell the suspects apart, because they're played by performers such as Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Jacqueline Bisset, Ingrid Bergman, and others. However, with the exception of Wendy Hiller as the elusive and deathly pale Princess Dragomiroff, no one has enough screen time to add any depth to their character.

Ingrid Bergman.
Albert Finney, as Poirot, dominates Murder on the Orient Express and that's unfortunate because he's a poor choice to portray Christie's sleuth. Finney may have mastered Poirot's manners, but there's no passion in his interpretation. I also have no idea what accent he was using--it certainly didn't sound French. Apparently, I hold a minority opinion of Finney's portrayal; he received both Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Actor. (Incidentally, Ingrid Bergman won those two awards for supporting actress, though I think it was more for her career than for her performance in this picture.)

Eileen Atkins as Princess Dragomiroff.
The 2010 Murder on the Orient Express, made by Britain's ITV network, lacks the grand scale of the 1974 version. Still, it looks expensive for a made-for-TV movie. In lieu of an all-star cast, many of the suspects are played by actors familiar to fans of British drama: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Eileen Atkins (Doc Martin), and Toby Stephens (Midsomer Murders). Perhaps, the most recognizable face for U.S. audiences is Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), who was still relatively unknown in 2010.

At a zippy 89 minutes, this adaptation moves almost too quickly, making it difficult for viewers to differentiate among the large number of suspects. In lieu of the 1974 film's opening montage, Poirot explains the connection to the Daisy Armstrong case as part of his climatic "reveal." It's a lot of information to absorb at one time and I wonder if individuals unfamiliar with Christie's plot will be able to fully follow Poirot's explanation.

David Suchet as Poirot.
Despite these minor misgivings, I probably prefer this version for one reason alone. David Suchet is--as always--superb as Hercule Poirot. One of Suchet's great gifts was being able to find the humor in the Poirot character, while never mocking the detective nor making him intentionally funny. Thus, we may smile when Suchet's Poirot measures his eggs to ensure they're the same size, but we never laugh at him. (In contrast, when Finney races down a train car to question a suspect, he looks like Charlie Chaplin).

The 2010 version also ends on a stronger note with the religious Poirot pondering the impacts of a personal moral dilemma. Interestingly, the same theme is explored at the conclusion of Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, the excellent 2014 film that marked the last of Suchet's 70 appearances as Hercule Poirot.


This review is part of the Trains, Planes, and Automobiles Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click here to view the complete schedule of first-rate film reviews.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Vincent Price Disappears...in The Invisible Man Returns

While James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein is widely regarded as a masterpiece, I'm always surprised that his adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1933) remains largely overlooked. Personally, I may even prefer it over Bride, given its striking visuals and Claude Rains' standout performance (all the more impressive because his face is never shown until the end). Thus, it is somewhat surprising that Universal waited seven years to make a sequel. I suspect the long gap can be attributed to securing the rights to make sequels to the Wells novel.

The Invisible Man Returns opens with Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) in prison for the murder of his brother--and just hours away from the gallows. Following a visit from his friend, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), Geoffrey miraculously escapes from his cell...although the guards find his clothes lying on the floor.

No, that's not Darth Vader--but Jeff
wearing a gas mask.
Frank Griffin, of course, is the brother of Jack Griffin, the scientist who invented the invisibility formula in the original film. Frank hasn't solved the serum's two biggest drawbacks: (1) there is no way to become visible again; (2) the formula eventually causes madness. So, while Geoffrey tries to uncover the real murderer of his brother, Frank tries to create an antidote.

The Invisible Man Returns is a solid sequel, but certainly not on par with its 1933 predecessor. It benefits from a first-rate supporting cast led by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the villain, Alan Napier as a bribed accomplice, and Cecil Kellaway as a Scotland Yard inspector. (Also on hand is Mary Gordon, who would play Mrs. Hudson in the Universal Sherlock Holmes films.) The film's biggest assets, though, are its star, special effects, and trademark Universal atmosphere.

Cecil Kellaway, the Invisible Man outlined in smoke,
and Cedric Hardwicke.

Vincent Price had appeared memorably in the preceding year's The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (as Walter Raleigh) and Tower of London (as the Duke of Clarence). The Invisible Man Returns provided him with his first starring role. Just as with Claude Rains in the original, Price's face remains behind bandages for almost the entire film. However, Price's distinctive voice conveys all the requisite emotion as his character evolves from mild paranoiac to egomaniac.

John P. Fulton, who created the invisibility special effects for the 1933 film, returned for the sequel. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his amazing effects (losing to Lawrence W. Butler for The Thief of Bagdad). Fulton would also earn Oscar nominations for his optical tricks for The Invisible Woman (1941) and Invisible Agent (1942). He eventually won two Oscars, in 1945 for the Danny Kaye comedy Wonder Man and in 1956 for Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandants.

The Invisible Man stealing clothes.
Director Joe May, who worked with Fritz Lang in Germany, lacks the visual flair of James Whale. However, he has his moments, such as when Geoffrey steals clothes from a scarecrow against a desolate gray sky. Although May contributed to the script, I suspect the wittiest lines (Geoffrey's girlfriend: "Geoff, when shall I see you?") can be attributed to Curt Siodmak. While his brother Robert carved out a successful career as a director (The Spiral Staircase, The Killers), Curt penned screenplays for horror classics such as The Wolf Man (1940), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

I think The Invisible Man Returns would have worked better as a legitimate mystery with an invisible detective. As it is, there is only one likely suspect and, sure enough, he turns out to be the killer. Still, with a running time of 81 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome and the efforts of Price and Fulton make it worthwhile.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Seven Things to Know About Vera-Ellen

1. Vera-Ellen attended the Hessler Studio of Dancing in Cincinnati, Ohio. Other famous alumni include Doris Day and Tyrone Power. Harry Hessler and his wife operated the dancing school until sometime in the 1940s. The historic building is a residential home today.

2. Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney, who famously played sisters in White Christmas, both grew up near Cincinnati. Vera-Ellen was raised in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, Ohio (making her a “Norwooder” as the locals say). Rosemary was from Maysville, Kentucky, located about an hour southeast of Cincy.

3. As a teenager in the 1930s, she won as one of the weekly performers on the national radio program Major Bowes Amateur Hour. She subsequently toured New York theaters, dancing for $50 a week. (Major Bowes Amateur Hour eventually moved to television and evolved into the classic Ted Mack and the Original Amateur Hour.)

On the set of White Christmas.
4. She made her Broadway debut in 1939 with a small part in the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical Very Warm for May (which starred June Allyson). After Vera-Ellen appeared in three more Broadway musicals, including By Jupiter with Ray Bolger, Samuel Goldwyn signed her to a contract with MGM.

5. Although Vera-Ellen only made 14 films, she was paired with all the famous Hollywood dancers of her day: Fred Astaire (Three Little Words; The Belle of New York); Gene Kelly (On the Town); Donald O’Connor (Call Me Madam); and Danny Kaye (White Christmas and others). Her singing voice was usually dubbed (including her numbers in White Christmas).

6. She retired from performing at age 38 after appearing on television in The Dinah Shore Show in 1959. While married to her second husband, millionaire Victor Rothschild, Vera-Ellen gave birth to her only child in 1963. Sadly, daughter Victoria Ellen died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

7. After her divorce from Rothschild in 1966, Vera-Ellen kept a very low public profile. She allegedly gave a couple of interviews, one in the late 1970s and one shortly before her death. Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe died at age 60 in 1981 from ovarian cancer. Reference her famous name, she explained in an interview: “When Mother was expecting me, she had a dream that she would have a baby girl named Vera-Ellen. She even saw the hyphen in her dream. And so, though Daddy didn’t like it, that became my name.”

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Best Movies You May Have Never Seen (Oct 2015)

Never Take Candy from a Stranger (1960)  (reviewed by Toto from the Classic Film & TV Cafe)

In the opening scene, two little girls are playing on a swing in the woods, laughing and enjoying a lovely afternoon. Then we see they are being watched by an old man with binoculars in a nearby isolated house. One little girl tells the other that she knows where they can go to get candy. As the two girls skip off together in the left side of the screen, we see that the abandoned swing dominates the foreground on the right side--a sign of leaving childhood behind.

Jean (Janina Faye) and Lucille (Frances Green) leave childhood behind.
That night, Jean Carter, one of the girls, tells her parents about her day and innocently reveals that she and her friend danced without their clothes on for the old man. Her horrified parents mask their emotions and the mother questions her daughter. The parents conclude that she wasn't molested, but they know that some kind of action must be taken.

Janina Faye as nine-year-old Jean.
There are two prevailing themes in Never Take Candy from a Stranger. The first is the threat of losing childhood innocence, which is symbolically represented in the film by the empty swing, an abandoned bicycle, and a stuffed animal. The second theme is societal isolation. Early in the film, we learn that the Carter family has moved from England to a small industrial Canadian town so Peter Carter can become the principal of a school. The town's residents refer to the Carters as foreigners more than once. Initially it seems to be in jest, but it quickly becomes clear that there are some townspeople who resent the "trouble" caused by "the outsiders."

Niall MacGinnis questions the witness.
It doesn't help that the prosperity of the town centers around a mill owned by the Olderberry family. The retired family patriarch turns out to be the old man that the Carters accuse of improper conduct toward their daughter. The eventual trial places young Jean on the witness stand, with the Olderberry's attorney (effectively played by Niall MacGinnis) questioning her aggressively, his face jutting toward her on one side of the screen and then the other.

With a first-rate cast, a literate script, and excellent direction from Cyril Frankel, Never Take Candy from a Stranger should have garnered stellar notices. Instead, it was panned by critics and ignored at the boxoffice. Undoubtedly, the title didn't help (neither does the original British title Never Take Sweets from a Stranger). I also suspect that moviegoers expected a more conventional tale of horror from Hammer Films, the home of Dracula and Frankenstein.

This one includes a truly horrifying scene near the climax as the two girls are chased in the woods and find a rowboat. They climb into it, thinking they are leaving danger behind...when they realize the boat is still tethered to the dock. Their pursuer then grabs the rope and begins to pull them in.

Without ever showing violence, Never Take Candy from a Stranger ranks as one of Hammer's most frightening films, right down to its somber conclusion.

“X” The Man With The X-Ray Eyes   (reviewed by Grand Old Movies)

Roger Corman’s unsung 1963 masterpiece, “X” The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, is a film examining cinema’s very essence—the act of seeing. As movies capture the world in visual terms, we thus experience movies as visual objects, viewed through our faculty of sight. Corman thrusts that notion right at us from his film’s first shot, a giant eyeball staring at us as we in turn stare back at it. This is how we understand what’s before us, the film seems to be saying, through our own fleshy orbs—the only pair each of us has, as one character notes. Eyes are our primary organ for taking in the world around us, and we’d better be damn careful how we use them.

Except that the film’s protagonist, Dr. James Xavier, has lost all caution in regards to his own. A medical researcher experimenting with increasing the range of vision, he’s developed a drug to expand the eyes’ ability to see light, and becomes his own guinea pig. A colleague warns him that “only the gods see everything”; “I’m closing in on the gods,” Xavier replies, and indeed he does. From seeing through paper, clothes, and then walls, he then sees through flesh (including his eyelids) and bone, into interior organs, able to diagnose disease and even impending death. But Xavier gets hooked on his drug and applies it more and more; the result, far from achieving heaven, plunges him into hell. He no longer recognizes a human being, but only “a perfect breathing dissection”; an urban metropolis appears “dissolved in an acid of light—a city of the dead.” The more Xavier sees, the more the world loses substance, evaporating into particles and atoms, into wavering light itself. He now gropes like a blind man, longing for only one thing—to again “have the dark.”


As with Xavier’s vision, Corman’s film looks beneath its low-budget, sci-fi surface, and finds mythic resonances in its anti-hero’s quest. Is Xavier a doomed Prometheus, enduring torture to bring fire to humanity, or a disobedient Adam, defying divine law in seeking knowledge? But in its hallucinatory effects and theme of expanded vision, the film also anticipates how the Sixties generation pursued mystical experience via drugs and esoteric religions. While working as a sideshow attraction Xavier masks himself with a bandanna decorated with a large, open Eye, a reference to the “third eye” that signals inner perception, beyond mere physical sight. Xavier’s irony, however, is that the more he sees, the less he knows; people, places, the world itself, have slipped away from him, leaving him in a spiritual abyss.

Yet the film’s overarching viewpoint is seemingly Biblical, especially in the famous final scene, in which Xavier staggers into a revival meeting and hears the preacher exhorting his flock to repent. Instead, Xavier proclaims his own apocalyptic vision: beyond “there are great darknesses,” he cries, but at the center he can see “the Eye that sees us all.” Has Xavier’s sight finally reached God? No answer is given; rather, the appalled reverend responds with Matthew’s advice to the lagging sinner: “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out!” And so Xavier does, raising two bloodied sockets to our own appalled gazes. The screen swiftly goes black; then light gradually returns—or rather, waves and lines of light, through which skeletal impressions of buildings and landscapes bleed through, as if the camera now participates in Xavier’s torment, its mechanical eye imprinted with his human ones. It’s a vision of unending horror: of knowledge that can’t be unlearned, and of eyes that can’t be closed.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)   (reviewed by Rick from the Classic Film & TV Cafe)

Sharon Tate as Sarah.
Whether intentional or not, The Fearless Vampire Killers comes across as a perfect parody of Hammer Films’ fangs-and-damsels formula. One’s affection for the film will depend, in part, upon familiarity with the Hammer approach. All the expected ingredients are present: attractive women in low-cut attire, a Transylvanian setting, an eerie castle, garlic hanging from the ceiling of a beer haus, a hint of eroticism, and a well-prepared vampire hunter. To this mix, Polanski adds a dash of the unexpected: a bumbling lovestruck assistant, a Jewish vampire, a gay vampire, and a darkly humorous ending.

The vampire killers of the title are Professor Abronsius (Jack MacGowran, looking like Albert Einstein with a big red nose) and his assistant Alfred (Polanski). Shortly after their arrival at a snowy Bavarian inn, a young maiden named Sarah (Sharon Tate) is kidnapped by Count Von Krolock (Ferdy Mayne). The girl’s father sets out after his daughter, but later turns up dead—the blood drained from his body. Knowing now that vampires are at work, the Professor and Alfred head toward Von Krolock’s castle to destroy the bloodsuckers.

Polanski, who had not yet directed Rosemary’s Baby, shows a genuine flair for the horror genre. There’s a masterful scene in which Sarah is taking a bath, while Von Krolock watches her through a skylight. Snow begins to float into the bath water. As Sarah looks up, the vampire crashes through the glass and bites her neck. Bath water splashes against the door suggestively and then stops. Later in the film, Polanksi stages a ghoulish scene in which vampires emerge from graves in a cemetery, still wearing their rotting clothes, as they make their way to the Midnight Ball.

Alfred tries to destroy a vampire!
As an actor, Polanksi proves himself to be a skilled comedian. He and Tate share a funny scene in which she talks about the joys of taking a bath which he misconstrues as a proposition (“Do you mind if I have a quick one?” she asks). The supporting cast has its share of comic highlights, too, especially Alfie Bass as a new vampire who wants to keep his coffin in the Krolocks’ vault (and not in the drafty barn!).

Originally, Polanski planned to cast Jill St. John as Sarah, but a producer friend introduced him to the stunning, red-haired Tate. The two were married soon after The Fearless Vampire Killers. Tate’s career was on the rise (she co-starred in the trashy but popular Valley of the Dolls) when Charles Manson and his cult murdered her in 1969.

Released as Dance of the Vampires in Britain, The Fearless Vampire Killers was trimmed nine minutes for its U.S. release. The video version is the full 107-minute film. The famous subtitle Or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck never actually appears in the film credits. (For a more in-depth review of this film by Cafe contributor Sark, click here.)

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Movie-TV Connection Game (October Edition)

What do James Stewart and Sal Mineo
have in common?
Welcome to the October edition! As always, you will be given a pair or trio of films or performers. Your task is to find the common connection. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1.  Billy Wilder and Bewitched director William Asher.

2. James Stewart and Sal Mineo.

3. Errol Flynn and Robert De Niro.

4. Julie Andrews and Bette Davis.

5. Richard Basehart and Lloyd Bridges.

6. Martin Landau and Ross Martin.

7. Robert Fuller and Steve McQueen.

8. Christopher George and Clint Walker.

9. Errol Flynn and John Barrymore.

10. Chuck Connors and Kurt Russell.

11. Oliver Reed and Michael Landon.

12. Them! and The Third Man.

13. One Touch of Venus and Burn, Witch, Burn.

14. Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, and Robert Wagner.

15. Judy Garland and Peggy Lee.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The 25 Greatest Classic Horror Films

We thought October was the perfect month to unveil our choices for the 25 Greatest Classic Horror Films. Note that these are "classic" horror films, which means they must have withstood the test of time. Thus, you won't find any movies made after 1980. You also won't find any science fiction films, though sometimes the horror and sci-fi genres seem to overlap. But, on the basis they were more sci-fi than horror, we omitted some fine pictures like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both versions of The ThingQuatermass and the Pit. In compiling our list, we considered historical significance, influence, and fright factor for each film. Some well-known horror movies didn't make the grade. Frankly, we have never been impressed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, or even Kwaidan.

1. Curse of the Demon (Night of the Demon) (1958) - If Hitchcock had made a straight horror film, I think it would have turned out like this one-of-a-kind chiller about a villain that conjures up a rather hideous demon to dispose of those who oppose him. Niall McGinnis shines as the kind of Hitchcock bad guy that lovingly cares for his mother and hosts a Halloween party for the kiddies.

Kyra Schon in Night of the Living Dead.
2. Night of the Living Dead (1968) - Long before The Walking Dead TV series, George Romero made flesh-eating ghouls fashionable with this drive-in classic. It's funny, scary, gory, and grim (especially the ending, which has caused some critics to label it a Vietnam War analogy).

3. Brides of Dracula (1960) - No Dracula and no Christopher Lee? No problem--as those constraints inspired Hammer to reach new heights with an intelligent vampire tale filled with fine performances, an imaginative plot, and the best ending of any vampire movie.

4. The Last Man on Earth (1964) - Writer Richard Matheson didn't care for this Italian-made adaptation of his popular novel I Am Legend, in which a plague of vampirism wipes out most of the Earth's population. I think it's an inventive, effective chiller with a strong Vincent Price performance.

Margaret Johnson in Burn, Witch, Burn.
5. Burn, Witch, Burn (Night of the Eagle) (1962) - An amateur witch tries to further her husband's academic career, but runs afoul of someone else practicing the black arts. I'm flummoxed as to why this smart look at believers vs. skeptics isn't better known.

6. The Leopard Man (1943) - Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) dubbed its most famous scene "one of the greatest horror sequences ever filmed." I agree. But this Lewton-produced mystery, set in New Mexico, also boasts several other tension-filled set pieces (especially the cemetery murder).

7. Halloween (1978) - This ultimate slasher film is a remarkably well-crafted picture from director John Carpenter. His use of the widescreen frame is a virtual textbook on creating suspense using nothing but space.

Sharon Tate as Sarah.
8. The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)- Roman Polanski's parody of vampire films is so good that it stands on its own as a first-rate horror picture. Polanski displays an uncanny understanding of the genre, from the snowy setting to the famous dance of the vampires (the film's original title). Sharon Tate exudes charm as the heroine, proving she was more than just a pretty face.

The famous pool scene in Cat People.
9. Cat People (1942) - With the first of his RKO films, producer Val Lewton proved that the horror in our imaginations is far more frightening than what any filmmaker can show us. It also boasted rich psychological undercurrents with its themes of sexual repression and jealousy.

10. Nosferatu (1922) - F.W. Murnau's silent vampire classic still chills today thanks to the director's haunting visuals and Max Schreck's memorable Count Orlok. It's the first horror screen classic.

A shadow scene from The 7th Victim.
11. The 7th Victim (1943) - Val Lewton's eerie tale of devil worshippers in Greenwich Village predates the better-known--but far less effective--Rosemary's Baby by three decades. Mark Robson's use of dark shadows gives the film a noirish feel.

12. The Innocents (1961) - The best of the horror films in which the supernatural elements may be real or (more likely in this case) imagined. Deborah Kerr gives a tour de force performance as the unhinged governess and Martin Stephens matches her in possibly the best child performance of the 1960s. Superior in every way to The Haunting.

Elsa Lanchester as the unwilling bride.
13. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - James Whale's masterpiece is generally considered the finest Universal horror film (though personally, I'm quite fond of Son of Frankenstein). Thematically rich, Bride gives the Monster a voice and Karloff the opportunity to make the creature all too human.

14. Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) -Hammer's best Frankenstein movie is a potent portrayal of obsession for the sake of science. Peter Cushing is excellent as the driven doctor, but Freddie Jones matches him as the sympathetic "monster."

15. Horror of Dracula (Dracula) (1958) - Along with The Curse of Frankenstein, this vampire classic established Hammer Films and reinvigorated the horror genre for a whole new generation. It also transformed Van Helsing into an action hero, presented a new Dracula that inspired genuine fear, and made genre stars of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

Chris Lee in The Devil Rides Out.
16. The Devil Rides Out (The Devil's Bride) (1968)- Christopher Lee portrays the hero in this lively tale, set in 1929, about an aristocrat that heads a cult of devil worshippers. Charles Gray makes a formidable villain and his appearance in a car's rearview mirror is genuinely creepy. Ditto for a daring rescue during one of the cult's ceremonies.

17. The Uninvited (1944) - This well-made ghostly tale remains unique for two reasons. It was a mainstream Hollywood film with a big-name star (Ray Milland) at a time when horror movies were "B" fare. It also featured actual ghosts--unlike later films where the lines of reality become blurred (e.g., The Innocents, The Haunting).

Bernie Casey as the head gargoyle.
18. Gargoyles (1972) - For many years, I felt as if I was the only person who truly appreciated this unique made-for-TV terror tale set in the Southwestern U.S. However, a 2011 DVD release and a recent showing at an Austin, Texas, "drafthouse cinema" confirms that I am not alone!

19. Black Sunday (1960)- Bathed in deep shadows and swirling fog, Mario Bava's black-and-white masterpiece made a genre star of Barbara Steele. She plays a witch who returns from the grave to wreak vengeance.  (Note to self: Never remove a gold mask from a rotting corpse!)

Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night.
20. Dead of Night (1945) - The first great horror anthology is most famous for its clever and disturbing framing device. The individual tales are all good, but the one with Michael Redgrave's ventriloquist is chilling.

21. Psycho (1960)- The shower scene and the staircase murder still pack a wallop, but it's Hitchcock's narrative structure that makes Psycho so memorable. For many of us, it was the first film we saw where the (supposed) heroine was killed halfway through its running time.

22. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)- The most famous film of the first horror superstar, Lon Chaney, Sr., is a must for this list. In addition to its historical significance, Phantom offers two iconic scenes:  the crashing of the crystal chandelier and the unmasking of Erik.

Rathbone in a publicity still.
23. Son of Frankenstein (1939) - With Bela Lugosi's Igor and Lionel Atwill's one-armed prefect, Universal created two of its most famous horror film characters. This unheralded classic has other virtues, too: Karloff's last appearance as the Monster, Basil Rathbone's manic performance, Jack Otterson's brilliant sets, and Frank Skinner's music.

24. Phantasm (1979)- A youth, a tall undertaker, dwarf zombies, and a deadly flying sphere.... Phantasm doesn't always make sense, but if Luis Bunuel had fashioned a surrealistic horror film, I'd like to think it would have turned out to be something like this.

25. Suspiria (1977) - I originally included Italian director Dario Argento's Deep Red (Profondo rosso) (1975) in this final slot, since it helped define the Giallo genre that grew out of Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. However, I bumped it in favor of Argento's supernatural classic about the world's most terrifying dance academy. In addition to Argento's trademark camera work, his use of color is breath-taking.
Red is the dominant palette in this scene from Suspiria.

Honorable Mentions: Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter; The Masque of the Red Death; Trilogy of TerrorThe Exorcist; The Tingler; and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave.