Monday, October 31, 2022

A Halloween Vampire Movie Marathon

Count Orlock's shadow in Nosferatu.
Celebrate this Halloween with seven bloodsucking chillers and a miniseries featuring a variety of vampires! You'll have to start early in the morning to cram in all the capes, stakes, and heartaches (get it?). We recommend watching the movies in the order below and topping off your evening with the 1979 minseries adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot.

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, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Peter Cushing as Van Helsing.
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. If you want to opt for a more historically significant Hammer vampire film, you can substitute Horror of Dracula (aka Dracula). It also has the bonus of featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) - Take a laugh break with this funny, well-made send-up of Universal's 1930s and 1940s monster movies. The best scenes are the ones between Lou Costello's buffoon and Bela Lugosi's Dracula, who wants to transplant the former's brain into the Frankenstein Monster. Who thought Bela could play such a perfect straight man?

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 fright fest with a strong Vincent Price performance. Despite its budget limitations, it's superior to the semi-remake The Omega Man (1971) and the disappointing I Am Legend (2007).

The Night Stalker (1972) - Cynical newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) discovers that a vampire is roaming the streets of contemporary Las Vegas--but no one will believe him. This made-for-TV movie became the highest rated television for many years. It spawned a pretty good 1973 sequel The Night Strangler and the short-lived Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series.

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 Lost Boys (1987) - A divorced mother and her two teenage sons relocate to Santa Carla, California, to live with her father. The older son's sudden interest in a mysterious girl leads to his involvement with a gang of teen vampires. It's stylish and fun, if a bit lightweight. You may choose to substitute one of two other above-average 1980s teen vampire pictures: the more serious Near Dark (1987) or the more lighthearted Fright Night (1985), which features a delightful performance by Roddy McDowell as a Peter Cushing-like TV horror host.

Ralphie Glick at the window.
Salem's Lot (1979) - Stephen King's bestseller about a vampire snacking on the residents of a small New England town works well as a miniseries. Director Tobe Hooper emphasizes atmosphere over shocks for the first two hours, which allows viewers to enjoy the fine supporting performances from Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Bonnie Bedelia, and especially James Mason as the vampire's sinister, but suave, caretaker. Salem's Lot features one of the most iconic scenes of network television horror: teen vampire Ralphie  Glick hovering in the fog outside his brother's bedroom window, pleading to be invited inside. (For the record, a later similar scene with Danny Glick is almost as effective).

Monday, October 24, 2022

Three Coins in the Fountain: Lookin' for Love

Louis Jourdan and Maggie McNamara.
Time has not been kind to Three Coins in the Fountain, a 1954 blockbuster that earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination. What may have once seemed fresh, colorful, and romantic now comes across as lightweight, sluggish, and a little condescending to its three female protagonists. Of course, the Rome scenery is still spectacular and the title song, as crooned by Frank Sinatra, has become something of a standard. Incidentally, the cinematography and the song each won Oscars.

Stars Maggie McNamara (The Moon Is Blue), Jean Peters, and Dorothy McGuire play secretaries who room together in the city of love. Maria (McNamara) has just arrived and quickly become enamored with a handsome, playboy prince (Louis Jourdan). Anita (Peters), who has fallen into a rut and decided to return to the States, suddenly realizes she and a good-looking interpreter (Rossano Brazzi) have romantic feelings toward each other. Finally, there's Frances (McGuire), who has been working for a reclusive author (Clifton Webb) for 15 years--hiding her love for him behind a strictly professional veneer.

Jean Peters and Maggie McNamara--framed for Cinemascope.
Each woman must overcome significant obstacles en route to finding true love. This is where Three Coins in the Fountain becomes borderline condescending, implying that love is necessary for a single woman to find happiness. It would have been more effective--and certainly more realistic--if one of the three experienced an unhappy ending. Flash forward just six years later to Where the Boys Are, in which four female college students spend spring break in Fort Lauderdale, and you'll find a more potent ending.

Three Coins in the Fountain must also overcome an oddly-structured screenplay in which each woman's love story is presented as almost a stand-alone tale. For example, Anita's subplot takes place near the start of the film and then is virtually forgotten when the narrative shifts to Maria and then Frances. The separate stories link up hastily at the end, but, by then, you may be trying to remember the subplot with Anita.

The Rome locations are striking, though they were used more effectively in the previous year's Roman Holiday. Also, for a film that won an Oscar for cinematography, it's jarring to see several scenes utilizing grainy rear-screen projections.

The Loni Anderson remake.
Still, there is no denying that Three Coins struck a chord with post-war audiences looking for love fantasies. The premise has also proven to be a reliable one. Three Coins director Jean Negulesco helmed a 1964 remake, The Pleasure Seekers, which was set in Madrid and starred Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin, and Gene Tierney. Yvonne Craig starred in an unsold 1970 pilot for a Three Coins in the Fountain TV series. And Loni Anderson starred in 1990 made-for-TV version called Coins in the Fountain.

Monday, October 17, 2022

Disney Takes on a Children's Classic and a Spooky Washington Irving Tale

Mr. Toad--in disguise--and friends.
Released in 1949, Walt Disney's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad consists of two half-hour animated shorts strung together for a theatrical release. The connecting device is simply that each featurette boasts a memorable character from literature. 

Mr. Toad is a loose adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children's classic The Wind in the Willows. The main character is the wildly unpredictable J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq., who lives in Toad Hall, the grandest manor along the river bank. Toad's latest obsession is a horse-drawn cart, which he drives recklessly throughout the countryside, causing so much damage that he's on the verge of bankruptcy. 

His friends Rat, Mole, and McBadger try to curb Toad's "adventures," but fail badly. Shortly after seeing his first motorcar, Toad is arrested for stealing it and sentenced to 20 years in the Tower of London. Can Toad's misfortunate change his frivolous ways? And though he may be guilty of "motor mania," did Toad really steal the car?

Viewers who have never read The Wind in the Willows may find Mr. Toad amusing. It's colorful, lively, and warmly narrated by Basil Rathbone. It's just a shame that Disney veered so far from Grahame's novel. Toad has been given an accomplice, a horse named Cyril, who is just as silly as his amphibian owner. Badger has been transformed in the Scottish Angus McBadger. The focus on Toad relegates Rat and Mole--the book's most charming characters--into supporting characters. It's all a shame because the source material was there for a true Disney animated classic!

The creepy Headless Horseman.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been "Disneyfied" as well, but the end result works much better. The plot stays mostly true to Washington Irving's 1819 short story about Ichabod Crane, the new schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, a quaint New York town. Pursued by several women in the village, Ichabod sets his sites on marrying the lovely Katrina van Tassel, whose wealthy father owns the biggest farm in the area. Ichabod must fend off a rival, though, in the handsome, muscular Brom Bones.

At a harvest party hosted by Katrina's father, Brom notices that Ichabod is extremely superstitious, so he recounts the legend of the headless horseman who roams the country roads at night. On Ichabod's way home that evening, he becomes terrified as he is pursued by a...headless rider in a black cape on a black steed!

Most of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has a light air about it with Bing Crosby narrating the story and crooning catchy songs with Jud Conlon's Rhythmaires. However, it takes a delightfully creepy turn with the climax, which is probably the scariest animated sequence in Disney history. The vivid black, red, and orange palette serves as a stark contrast to the soft, rich autumn colors employed earlier in the story.

It's also interesting to note the similarity between the village scenes in Sleepy Hollow and Disney's much later Beauty and the Beast (1991). Additionally, Brom reminded me very much of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Brom from Sleepy Hollow and Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Mr. Toad and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow were subsequently shown separately on television and in theaters. For its 1978 re-release, Mr. Toad was retitled The Madcap Adventures of Mr. Toad and shown with Disney's feature film Hot Lead and Cold Feet.

Monday, October 10, 2022

The Alternate Movie Title Game (Hammer Films Edition)

Here are the rules: We will provide an "alternate title" for a Hammer film and ask you to name it. Most of these are pretty easy. Please answer no more than three questions per day so others can play. You may have an answer other than the intended one--just be able to defend it!  

1.  We Are the Martians!

2.  Kung Fu Vampires.

3.  Professor Petrie's Place.

4.  Who Do Voodoo?

5.  The Quatermass Movie That's Not a Quatermass Movie.

6. Christina & Hans: A Love Story.

7.  The Terror of Tera.

8.  Vampire Masquerade.

9.  Snake Eyes.

10. Monkie Business.

11. Guy and Doll--Together as One!

12. The Eternal Fire.

13. Sanna and Her 'Saurs.

14. The Wheelchair and the Swimming Pool.

15. Bank Holiday Heist.

Monday, October 3, 2022

Weird Woman Shines Its Spotlight on Three Unsung Actresses

Lon Chaney, Jr. and Evelyn Ankers.
Fritz Leiber's 1943 supernatural novel Conjure Wife has been adapted for the screen three times. The best version is 1962's Burn, Witch, Burn (aka Night of the Eagle), an exceptionally chilling tale about academic ambition and witchcraft--real or imagined. It's one of the finest horror films of the 1960s. Witches' Brew (1980) takes a comedic approach with unimpressive results. That brings us to the first film version, the oddly-titled Weird Woman (1944), which was the second entry in Universal's Inner Sanctum series starring Lon Chaney, Jr.

Lon stars as Norman Reed, a professor at Monroe College who seems destined to become the new head of the sociology department. Norman's wife, Paula, struggles to fit in among the academic set. Of course, they don't know that she was raised on a South Seas island by a voodoo high priestess.

Anne Gwynne as Paula.
Sensing evil in her new surroundings, she has cast a spell of protection over her husband and herself. Norman, an adamant skeptic, finds her voodoo charms and burns them. With the spell broken, Norman's life falls apart: he loses the department chair, stands accused of inappropriate advances by a young female student, and gets arrested for murder. Could a spurned colleague be behind Norman's destruction?

The central theme in the later Burn, Witch, Burn is the rationalization of magic. Norman finds himself having to work harder, as his plight worsens, to explain events which his wife simply attributes to witchcraft. At the end, even he has to accept that some things cannot be easily reasoned away. Weird Woman takes a more conventional--but still interesting--approach. Once the culprit is identified, Norman and friends employ psychology to instill fear to the point of a confession.

Although Norman is the protagonist, strong female characters dominate Weird Woman--and they're played convincingly by Anne Gwynne, Evelyn Ankers, and Elizabeth Russell.

Gwynne spent most of her career saddled with insignificant parts. However, she personifies insecurity, vulnerability, and fear as Paula. By the way, Gwynne became one of the most popular pin-up girls for American servicemen during World War II.

The lovely Evelyn Ankers (shown on right) was the resident "scream queen" for Universal's 1940s horror films. She even co-starred with Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein. In Weird Woman, she gets to play the villain--and she's fabulous. But Universal failed to take notice of her acting range and she left the studio in 1945. She retired from acting five years later at the age of 32. She was married to actor Richard Denning.

Elizabeth Russell.
The real cast stand-out, though, is Elizabeth Russell, who plays the widow of one of Norman's colleagues. She holds Norman and Paula responsible for her husband's suicide--and her caged fury is a sight to behold. My wife recognized Russell and her piercing eyes instantly from Val Lewton's marvelous The Curse of the Cat People, in which her character tries to murder a young girl. Russell appeared uncredited in several Lewton films. Like Gwynne and Ankers, it's hard to fathom why she wasn't groomed for more meaningful parts or at least more substantial supporting roles.

If you only see one version of Fritz Leiber's novel, then your choice must be Burn, Witch, Burn. But once you've seen it, I encourage you to seek out this lesser, but still worthwhile, version is that buoyed by three actresses who deserved better.