Sunday, October 29, 2023

Of Vampire Bats and Manitous!

Nick Mancuso as the hero.
The late 1970s saw the release of two horror films based on popular novels that featured Native American protagonists: The Manitou (1978) and Nightwing (1979).

The latter movie stars Nick Mancuso as Youngman Duran, the only law enforcement officer on a tribal reservation in New Mexico. Duran is coping with a lot of stuff: his physician girlfriend is pondering a move to Texas; a energy company has acquired oil rights from a neighboring tribe; an old medicine man, who raised Duran, is dying; and something is draining the blood from cattle--and eventually tourists.

David Warner hunts bats.
Enter British scientist Phillip Payne (David Warner), who announces grimly that the bloodless victims were attacked by vampire bats. Payne has dedicated his life to tracking and killing the night-bound creatures. He now believes they are living in the local mountain caves and--brace yourself for more bad news--are carrying the bubonic plague!

Nightwing is a film filled with unrealized potential. Its strongest element is its desert setting, which typically works well in the horror genre (see Gargoyles). However, Arthur Hiller, a director best known for romances and comedies, can't capitalize on the visual splendor of the dark dunes and the isolated mountains.

Deputy Duran could have been an interesting character, but Mancuso, saddled with a lackluster script, comes across as angst-ridden and befuddled. The screenplay also tosses in heaping helpings of mysticism in the hope of making some kind of profound statement about the destruction of the environment.

David Warner lends some gravitas to Nightwing in spite of portraying an under-developed character. Sadly, the movie wastes the talents of the legendary character actor Strother Martin. He appears briefly as a supply store owner, then vanishes from the movie. That just isn't right.

Susan Strasberg as Karen.
The Manitou may be no better than Nightwing, but it sure is more fun. Susan Strasberg stars as Karen Tandy, a woman who seeks medical help when a large lump starts growing on the back of her neck. After examining her X-rays, her perplexed surgeon comments that the growth looks like a fetus! 

He's right. It turns out to be the fetus of a "manitou"...the spirit of an ancient, evil, dwarf-sized medicine man. Once Karen gives birth, she will die and the manitou will grow in power until it can destroy the human race. Karen's on-and-off-again lover Harry (Tony Curtis), a fake medium, eventually learns what's happening. He journeys to South Dakota to find a contemporary medicine man, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara), to battle the formidable manitou. 

Tony Curtis as Harry.
The premise of The Manitou might have worked in Graham Masterton's novel. But seeing it on the big  screen is something else and I suspect most of the cast recognized that when they read the screenplay. Tony Curtis can't keep a straight face and the same applies to a trio of screen veterans featured in brief parts: Ann Sothern, Burgess Meredith, and Stella Stevens (who appears to stifle a laugh after a séance scene). However, to their credit, the cast goes with the flow and somehow keeps The Manitou from transforming into a parody--despite having to speak mystical chants like "pana witchy salatoo" or coming face-to-face with the little manitou guy in a dark hospital room.

It helps that director William Girdler had previous experience in the horror genre, having helmed Abby (1974), Grizzly (1976), and the wacky The Day of the Animals (1977). He knows that showing less is better and keeps the blood-soaked manitou bathed in shadows after its birth. The climax, set in a hospital on emergency power as a thunderstorm rages in the background, works well in spite of the cheap special effects. Sadly, Girdler died in a helicopter crash shortly after he completed The Manitou.

You can watch The Manitou and Nightwing for free! Click here to watch Nightwing on the Creatures Features channel on Rumble (a YouTube-like streaming service). Click here to watch The Manitou on the Internet Archive

Monday, October 16, 2023

A Study in Terror and The Detective

A Study in Terror (1965).  Murder By Decree (1979) may be the best known pairing of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper--but it wasn't the first. That distinction belongs to the mostly forgotten A Study in Terror. Produced with the cooperation of the Arthur Conan Doyle estate, A Study in Terror boasts an original screenplay that finds Holmes investigating a series of brutal murders in London's Whitehall area. His interest is peaked when he receives a case of surgical instruments that is missing the scalpel, the type of instrument that Scotland Yard believes was used in the murders. Holmes quickly discovers that the case belonged to Michael Osborne, the older son of Lord Carfax. Osborne vanished two years earlier, but could he have resurfaced as Jack the Ripper? Made on a modest budget, A Study in Terror recreates Victorian London convincingly and features a splendid performance by John Neville as the Baker Street detective. In fact, I'd rate Neville's portrayal as the fourth best, topped only by Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, and Peter Cushing. Donald Huston makes an acceptable Dr. Watson, though he gushes over Holmes's deductions a bit too much. While the plot holds interest and moves swiftly, the fiery climax rushes to a conventional conclusion. Mostly disappointingly, the killer's motivation feels like an afterthought. Still, the primary reason to watch A Study in Terror is to see John Neville's Holmes. Fans of 1950s teen horror films might recognize one of the producers. Yes, that's the Herman Cohen, who made unforgettable drive-in classics such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. You can currently watch A Study in Terror for free on Rumble by clicking here.

The Detective
Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) is a no-nonsense NYC police detective who stands up defiantly to meddling politicians, cop corruption, and his superiors. His investigations into the brutal murder of a gay socialite and the mysterious suicide of an accountant take their toll on Joe--professionally and personally. His marriage is crumbling, in part because his wife Karen (Lee Remick) copes with her emotional insecurities by sleeping with other men. Used to bottling up his own emotions, the middle-aged Joe can't connect fully with Karen except on a physical level. Made in the turbulent late 1960s, The Detective is an ambitious, but shaky attempt to merge a Chandleresque crime drama with a character study. The former works better than the latter, with the flashbacks detailing Joe and Karen's relationship interspersed with Joe's investigations. It's a clunky structure that distracts the viewer from the best part of the movie. It also hampers Lee Remick's performance by relegating most of her scenes to poorly-written vignettes with Sinatra. The screenplay saddles some fine supporting actors with stereotyped characters: Ralph Meeker as a cop on the take, Robert Duvall as a bigoted detective, and Al Freeman, Jr. as a young Black officer who suddenly transforms from a naïve newcomer to a ruthless, overly ambitious detective. As a mystery, The Detective works well, though it's certainly not a surprise when Leland learns his two cases are connected. The NYC locations and Jack Klugman, in a small but pivotal part, are nice bonuses. Ultimately, The Detective doesn't compare favorably with Sinatra's best 1960s films (The Manchurian Candidate, Von Ryan's Express), but it is a worth a watch. You can view it for free on Hoopla if your local public library subscribes to that streaming service.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Cornel Wilde's No Blade of Grass

Nigel Davenport as John Custance.
Actor Cornel Wilde directed eight films, beginning with 1955's Storm Fear. His best picture is The Naked Prey (1965), in which he also stars as a safari guide being hunted down by African tribesmen. It's a lean, gripping adventure that showcased Wilde's promising future as a first-rate filmmaker. Unfortunately, Wilde never realized that potential as a director, as evidenced by his bizarre 1970 science fiction opus No Blade of Blade.

The film opens with a five-minute montage showing man's pollution of the environment, accompanied by the melancholy title song performed by Roger Whittaker. The story then picks up with the London-based Custance family, which has been warned to evacuate the city by their friend Roger Burnham. In flashback, we learn that a grass disease, created by pollution, has caused worldwide famine. Food has been rationed. Martial law has been declared in large cities. There are rumors of government-directed mass killings in some countries.

John Custance (Nigel Davenport) plans to take his wife, daughter, and Roger to his brother's rural farm in the north. They barely make it out of London, though, as rioters and looters attack their cars. They stop at a hardware store to buy guns and ammunition, but the elderly store owner refuses to sell to them without a firearms license. An argument ensues and a store employee named Pirrie kills the old man. John allows Pirrie and his wife to join their caravan. It's the first of many questionable decisions made for the sake of survival.

As the travelers make their way north, they encounter violent gangs, desperate families, and soldiers who have turned on their superiors. It's a bleak look at humanity. When the Custances are ambushed and robbed of their supplies, a shocked Ann Custance asks: "What kind of people are you?" The reply: "The same kind of people you are, ma'am." In a handful of scenes like this, director Wilde drives his points home effectively. 

Lynne Frederick and Anthony May.
Unfortunately, his heavy-handed approach dilutes the overall effectiveness with flash forwards, too many pollution montages, and an overreliance on news broadcasts to substantiate the events (a technique George Romero used effectively in Night of the Living Dead). The treatment of the Custances' teenage daughter, Mary (Lynne Frederick), is also disturbing. In the film's opening scenes, she is apparently in a nonsexual relationship with Roger, who must be twice her age. She and her mother are later raped by the biker gang, in a scene that is unnecessarily explicit. Even worse, the trauma surrounding that event is never addressed in the film, almost as if it never happened. Finally, after the borderline psycho Pirrie "disposes" of his wife, he expresses his interest in Mary. She agrees to go with him because she feels safe--a decision that her parents accept all too quickly.

Jean Wallace, aka Mrs. Wilde.
The standouts in the cast are Nigel Davenport as John Custance and Anthony May as Pirrie (the most interesting character). This was the last film made by Jean Wallace, who was Wilde's spouse at the time. It marked the film debut of Lynne Frederick, who married Peter Sellers at age 22 (she was the last of his four wives).

Adapted from John Christopher's 1956 novel The Death of Grass, No Blade of Grass was hard to see for many years. You can now view it for free on the Rumble channel Silver Age Science Fiction Classics 1965-90 by clicking here

For an interesting comparison, you may want to seek out Ray Milland's Panic in Year Zero (1962), a similar--but more effective--examination on the potential end of civilization through the eyes of one family.