Cleaning Out the DVR #19: Things To Watch When You Have Flumonia!

So I’ve been laid up with the flu/early stage pneumonia/whateverthehellitis for the past few days, which seemed like a  good excuse to clean out the DVR by watching a bunch of random movies:

Bette Davis & Jimmy Cagney in “Jimmy the Gent”

JIMMY THE GENT (Warner Brothers 1934; D: Michael Curtiz ) –  Fast paced James Cagney vehicle has Jimmy as the head of a shady “missing heir” racket, with Bette Davis as his ex-girl, now working for his classy (but grabby!) rival Alan Dinehart. Allen Jenkins returns once again as Cagney’s sidekick, and Alice White is a riot as Jenkins’s ditzy dame. Some funny dialog by Bertram Milhauser in this one, coming in at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era. Cagney’s always worth watching, even in minor fare like this one. Fun Fact: Cagney’s battles with boss Jack Warner over better roles were legendary, and the actor went out and got a Teutonic-style haircut right before shooting began, just to piss the boss off!  

Dwight Frye & George Zucco in “Dead Men Walk”

DEAD MEN WALK (PRC 1943; D: Sam Newfield) – Perennial second stringer George Zucco starred in a series of shockers as PRC’s answer to Monogram’s Bela Lugosi series . Here he plays twins, one a good doctor, the other a vampire risen from the grave to enact his gruesome revenge. Despite the ultra-low budget (PRC made Monogram look like MGM!), it’s a surprisingly effective chiller due to some ingenious camerawork from Newfield. Much of the film’s plot elements are borrowed (some would say stolen) from Universal’s DRACULA , including casting Dwight Frye as the vampire’s loyal servant. Fun Fact: Romantic lead Nedrick Young later won a Best Story Oscar for Stanley Kramer’s 1958 THE DEFIANT ONES, which featured another horror icon, Lon Chaney Jr.

LADIES DAY (RKO 1943; D: Leslie Goodwins) – Broad baseball comedy (no pun intended) about star pitcher Eddie Albert , who is easily distracted by pretty women, falling for movie star Lupe Velez . They get hitched, and the other player’s wives band together to kidnap her and keep them apart so Eddie can concentrate on winning the World Series! Silly but enjoyable farce elevated by a cast of comic pros: Patsy Kelly, Iris Adrian , Joan Barclay, Max Baer Sr, Jerome Cowan , Cliff Clark, and Tom Kennedy (Nedrick Young’s in this one, too… a banner year for the actor!). Maybe not a classic, but a whole lot of fun, especially for baseball buffs like me. Fun Fact: Director Goodwins has a cameo as (what else?) a movie director.

MYSTERY STREET (MGM 1950; D: John Sturges ) – Tight little ‘B’ noir as a Boston bar girl’s (Jan Sterling) skeletal remains are discovered on Cape Cod, and police Lt. Ricardo Montalban tries to piece together the murder puzzle with the help of a Harvard forensics professor (Bruce Bennett) and some good old-fashioned detective work. Early effort from Sturges benefits from excellent John Alton photography and a script co-written by Richard Brooks . Elsa Lanchester is a standout as a blackmailing landlady among a strong cast (Betsy Blair, Walter Burke, Sally Forrest, Marshall Thompson, Willard Waterman). Fun Fact: Filmed in Boston, and many of the neighborhood sights are still recognizable almost 70 years later to those familiar with the Olde Towne.

Victor Buono as “The Strangler”

THE STRANGLER (Allied Artists 1964; D: Burt Topper) – Lurid psychological thriller stars Victor Buono in his best screen performance as a sexually repressed, schizoid psycho-killer with a creepy doll fetish. Ellen Corby plays his domineering, invalid mother. Cheap, tawdry, sensationalistic, and definitely worth watching! Fun Fact: Lots of old horror hands worked behind the scenes on this one: DP Jacques Marquette (ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN ), Art Director Eugene Lourie (director of THE GIANT BEHEMOTH and GORGO), Editor Robert Eisen (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ), and makeup man Wally Westmore (WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, WAR OF THE WORLDS).

HYSTERIA (MGM/Hammer 1965; D: Freddie Francis ) – This Hitchcockian homage gives character actor Robert Webber a rare starring role as an amnesia victim embroiled in a GASLIGHT-like murder plot. Director Francis’s keen eye for composition hide the budget restraints, and producer/writer Jimmy Sangster’s script pulls out all the stops, but I couldn’t help but wonder while watching what The Master of Suspense himself could have done with the material. As it is, a fine but minor piece of British noir with horror undertones. Fun Fact: Australian composer Don Banks’s jazzy score aids in setting the overall mood.

BEN (Cinerama 1972; D: Phil Karlson ) – Sequel to the previous year’s horror hit WILLARD is okay, but nowhere near the original. Crazy Bruce Davison is replaced by lonely little Lee Hartcourt Montgomery, an annoying kid (no wonder he’s lonely!) who befriends Ben and his creepy rat posse. The rodents cause havoc at the grocery (“Rats! Millions of ’em! At the supermarket!”) and a health spa in some too-brief scenes, but on the whole this looks and feels like a TV movie, right down to it’s small screen cast (Meredith Baxter, Joseph Campanella, Kaz Garas, Rosemary Murphy, Arthur O’Connell, Norman Alden). We do get genre vet Kenneth Tobey (THE THING ) in a bit as a city engineer, and the climax will remind you of THEM! , but like most sequels, this one fails to satisfy. Stick with the original. Fun Fact: Montgomery would grow out of his annoying stage and become an 80’s heartthrob in GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.

And now, here’s Michael Jackson singing the cloying love theme from BEN at the film’s conclusion. Rats – yuchh!:

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Rockin’ in the Film World #16: Herman’s Hermits in HOLD ON! (MGM 1966)

In yesterday’s  ‘One Hit Wonders’ post on the Blues Magoos, I told you Dear Readers my first concert was headlined by Herman’s Hermits, five non-threatening teens from Manchester, UK – Karl Greene, Barry Whitwam, Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby, Keith Hopwood, and lead singer Peter Blair Denis Bernard Noone, known as Herman for his slight resemblance to cartoon character Sherman (of “Mr. Peabody and…’ fame). Their infectious, peppy pop rock and Herman’s toothy grin made the teenyboppers scream with delight, with hits like “I’m Into Something Good”, “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”, and “I’m Henry the VIII, I Am”. Even parents liked The Hermits, and they seemed destined to follow in the cinematic footsteps of The Beatles. MGM, who released their records stateside, concocted a ball of fluff for Herman and the lads called HOLD ON!, and any resemblance between that title and The Fab Four’s HELP! is strictly not coincidental!

It’s your basic Sam Katzman production, who’d been cranking out teen oriented rock flicks since 1956’s ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK . Like most (okay, all) Katzman movies, the budget is decidedly on the low side, aided and abetted by some clever camerawork and plenty o’stock footage, not to mention veteran director Arthur Lubin, who’d been around since the 1930’s, directed the first five Abbott & Costello films, the Francis the Talking Mule series, and created the TV sitcom MR. ED. He wasn’t outstanding, but very competent, especially when it came to comedy.

The plot? It’s thin as a cup of weak tea, with Herman’s Hermits going on a big U.S. tour, and NASA astronauts (or rather, their kids) wanting to name their new space capsule after the band, causing an apoplectic State Department official to send a man to follow the boys a “get a full report”! A couple of subplots (yes, there are subplots!) involve a publicity hungry starlet determined to be linked with Herman, and a rich young girl who falls for the singer. There’s some merry mix-ups and slapstick gags along the way, as a charity ball the Hermits play becomes a catastrophe, but by the end everything works out for the best, as these things usually do.

This flimsy story, written by Robert E. Kent (WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS ) under the pseudonym James B. Gordon, serves as an excuse to hold together a plethora of songs by Herman’s Hermits. Besides the title tune, we get hits like “A Must to Avoid” and “Where Were You When I Needed You”, as well as lesser songs “All the Things I Do For You, Baby”, “Got A Feelin'”, and “Wild Love”. There are a couple of fantasy sequences set to “The George and Dragon” and “Leaning on the Lampost”, but again, this is a Sam Katzman production… don’t expect anything fancy!

The supporting cast consists mainly of TV actors. Bernard Fox (BEWITCHED’s Dr. Bombay, HOGAN’S HEROES’ Col. Crittendon) plays the band’s manager, whose job is to keep girls away from Herman (and vice versa!). Shelley Fabares (THE DONNA REED SHOW, COACH) plays Herman’s love interest, and gets the chance to warble “Make Me Happy” (Shelley had a #1 hit of her own in 1962 with “Johnny Angel”). Herbert Anderson (DENNIS THE MENACE’s dad) is the put-upon State Department guy spying on the Hermits, getting constantly doused with water for his troubles. Sue Ane Langdon, a frequent TV gust star who costarred with Elvis in FRANKIE & JOHNNY, is the publicity-mad actress.

I loved this when I saw it in the theater, but then again I was only 8! Times change, and now that I know a little more about films, I can tell you it’s not all that great. If you’re not a fan of the band, you won’t understand what all the hype was about. The songs are good, but you won’t find any thespic talent among Herman and his Hermits. It’s a time capsule movie of a more innocent era, when the group was riding high on the pop charts. As I said, times change, and the harder, more experimental rock sounds of the late 60’s soon left Herman’s Hermits by the wayside. I still like ’em though, and even own a double-CD of their music (and break it out of a couple times a year).  In fact, I’ve heard Peter Noone himself will be playing the Cape Cod Melody Tent later this summer with another 60’s pop rock group, Tommy James & The Shondells. Yeah, you just KNOW I’ll  be there!

Cecil B. DeMented: MADAM SATAN (MGM 1930)

It’s wild! It’s weird! It’s Cecil B. DeMille’s  MADAM SATAN, a movie I’ve heard about for decades, but never had the chance to catch, until now. It’s got a little something for everybody, from drama to comedy to musical numbers to half-naked women to jazz baby Lillian Roth! Was it worth the wait, Dear Readers? Well… read on!

Better hold on to your seats though, as MADAM SATAN shifts abruptly in tone throughout it’s running time. It’s slow going the first few minutes, starting out as a stiff drawing-room drama. Angela Brooks (Kay Johnson) is worried about her dissipating  marriage to Bob, who neglects her and stays out all night. Now here comes comedy, with Bob (Reginald Denny ) and his pal Jimmy (Roland Young) trying to sneak in at dawn, two wasted wastrels drunk as the proverbial skunks. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the maid (Elsa Peterson) breaks out into song! No wonder Angela decides to leave Bob, with all this chaos going on!

Angela follows Jimmy to the flat of the saucy Trixie (Lillian Roth), with whom Bob has been dallying. Jimmy tries to cover by saying Trixie’s his new wife, but Angela’s not buying it, and asks to spend the night. Things being what they are, we get a comedy of errors as Jimmy and Trixie are forced to stay in the bedroom together, then Bob comes in, and more chaos ensues! Now things really get weird, as Jimmy throws a masquerade party aboard a zeppelin (yes, I said a zeppelin!), which begins with a dance number that’s a cross between Busby Berkeley and Kenneth Strickfaden!

There’s a contest to decide the Queen of the Ball which Trixie, decked out as a Golden Pheasant, is determined to win, when suddenly, the mysterious Madam Satan shows up, a masked Angela dressed like a demonic superheroine! Angela seduces the unsuspecting Bob away from Trixie, and the two retire to the chart room for a sizzling tete’a’tete, when… Good Lord, a raging storm causes lightning to strike the zeppelin, and we shift yet again to a proto-distaster movie as the panicked revelers have to parachute to safety or face certain doom!

To call this movie bizarre is an understatement, but somehow DeMille manages to make it all work. I’m not really doing it justice trying to describe all that’s going on here; it’s one of those films you have to see for yourself to believe! Since it was made in the Pre-Code Era, there’s a lot of risqué business, though DeMille was told to tone it down a notch or two, especially with the masquerade party costumes. But there are more than enough eye-popping moments to make the viewer think, “How did they get away with THAT in 1930?!?”.

Kay Johnson as Angela/Madam Satan does a fine job walking the tightrope between the two different characters. I watched another film featuring Miss Johnson the same night, the forgotten horror THIRTEEN WOMEN (coming soon to this blog!), sort of a mini-Kay Johnson film festival (Kay was the wife of director John Cromwell , and  mother of actor James Cromwell ). Reginald Denny (Bob) was a silent star who made the successful transition to early talkies, and had a long career as a character actor. 19-year-old Lillian Roth (Trixie) was already a show biz veteran and is a little firecracker; her life story was filmed in 1955 as I’LL CRY TOMORROW starring Susan Hayward. But it’s Roland Young as Jimmy who stole the show for me. Young’s droll sense of humor and way with a line are priceless! He’s fondly remembered by most film buffs as the title character in TOPPER and it’s two sequels.

So, was MADAM SATAN worth the wait? I’d say yes; even though those shifts in tone can be jarring at times, and it’s a bit creaky in places, the movie was  entertaining enough to hold my interest. And it’s certainly historically significant, being DeMille’s only stab at a musical, even though it’s not really a musical, it’s more of a comedy… or drama… or disaster flick… oh, never mind, just watch for yourselves and you figure it out!

Repent, Ye Sinners!: STRANGE CARGO (MGM 1940)

Any film condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency can’t be all bad!  STRANGE CARGO depicts a bunch of hardened, unrepentant criminals escaping a brutal French Guiana prison, with a prostitute in tow to boot, and is laced with plenty of lascivious sex and brutal violence. But that wasn’t all the self-appointed guardians of morality objected to… there was the character of Cambreau who, though the film doesn’t come right out and say it, supposedly represents none other than Jesus Christ himself!

One more time: Clark & Joan

Clark Gable and Joan Crawford , in their eighth and final film together, lead this pack of sinners through a sweltering jungle of lust, murder, and ultimately redemption. He’s a con named Verne, “a thief by profession”, whose several attempts at escape have proved unsuccessful. She’s Julie, a two-bit hooker plying her trade on the island. The pair, as always, crackle like heat lightning with some hard-bitten, racy dialog (Gable: “Supposing I wasn’t a convict? Supposing I was sailing through on my yacht, or a guy selling brushes?” Joan: “Yeah, suppose I was Snow White”). Verne manages to sneak out and into Julie’s boudoir (upstairs from the local saloon, of course!), but the swinish M’sieur Pig, who lusts after Julie, rats him out, forcing Julie off the island by order of the local authorities. Pig is played by Peter Lorre at his creepiest, such a scumbag even Julie won’t sleep with him (“You’re the one man in the world I could never get low enough to touch!”).

Verne’s enemy Moll (the equally scumbaggish Albert Dekker ) has planned a great escape, along with some other unsavory characters ( Paul Lukas , Eduardo Ciannelli , J. Edward Bromberg, John Aldredge). The saintly Cambreau pays his and Verne’s way to join them, but that double-crossing rat Moll conks Verne in the head while he’s asleep (with a shoe!), leaving Verne behind – but not for long, because Cambreau has left behind a map of the escape route inside a Bible! Verne, after rescuing Julie from the clutches of a horny mining camp owner (Bernard Nedell), catches up with what’s left of the cons, and they make their way to a waiting boat. But freedom always comes with a price….

Saint Ian Hunter

Cambreau is played by Ian Hunter , and it’s never fully explained just who he really is, but there are all sorts of clues along the way. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and offers aid and comfort to the sick and dying. The film is loaded with theological and spiritual debates, as when Cambreau comforts the dying Tellez (Ciannelli). Later, when Hessler (Lukas) bids the survivors adieu to search for another rich woman to kill, the two have a sparring match about whether or not they’ll meet again. It’s pretty obvious to me this is God and the Devil talking! Finally, in the scene where Verne loses his cool and knocks Cambreau off the ship, the angelic Cambreau hangs onto a piece of driftwood in the raging sea, arms splayed as if he were on the cross. No wonder the Catholic Legion of Decency got their cassocks all in a bunch!

CONDEMNED: The Legion of Decency protests

Then again, these guys were out to censor just about everything they didn’t think impressionable young minds (or old minds, for that matter) should be exposed to. Formed in 1933, the Legion was even stricter than the Production Code then being enforced by the dour Joseph Breen. A ‘CONDEMNED’ rating from the Catholic Legion of Decency meant certain doom, and they put their black stamp on anything they deemed offensive. Besides the anti-drug films of the era (ASSASSIN OF YOUTH, THE PACE THAT KILLS, REEFER MADNESS ), some other films judged taboo were THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII (divorce), THE OUTLAW (can’t have people staring at Jane Russell’s boobs!), THE MOON IS BLUE (for daring to use the word “virgin”), and BABY DOLL (just fat-out “morally repellent”). Even something as innocuous as 1945’s MOM AND DAD, a Roadshow production promoting sex hygiene, was denounced as being too strong for delicate audiences. The Legion wielded enormous power during their heyday, until the 1960’s rolled around with a new breed of filmmakers determined to make more adult pictures…. for better or worse.

Anyway, back to STRANGE CARGO. The film was directed by Frank Borzage, who won the first directing Oscar for SEVENTH HEAVEN, and whose credits include STREET ANGEL, BAD GIRL (his second Oscar), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, and THE MORTAL STORM. His films are filled with romanticism and spirituality, and it’s no surprise to find STRANGE CARGO in his canon. His work is considered old-fashioned by many today, but it’s definitely worth looking into. This particular film would’ve been called a classic if made during the Pre-Code era, and can be enjoyed on several levels. Just don’t let the Legion of Decency know you’re watching!

Oh, and Happy Easter!

Joan and Christina Crawford in their matching Easter bonnets – you’re welcome!

That’s Blaxpolitation! 12: SHAFT (MGM 1971)

“That Shaft is a bad mother…”

“Shut your mouth!”

“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft”

“We can dig it!”

  • – lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from SHAFT

1971’s SHAFT, starring Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, is the movie that kicked off the whole 70’s Blaxploitation phenomenon.  Sure, Mario Van Pebbles’ indie SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG was released three months earlier, but it’s X-rating kept younger audiences out of the theaters. SHAFT reached more people with it’s R rating, and the publicity machine of MGM behind it. In fact, John Shaft not only saved the day in the film, but helped save the financially strapped MGM from bankruptcy!

The opening sequence alone makes it worth watching, as the camera pans down the gritty mean streets of New York City (42nd Street, to be exact!) and that iconic funky theme song by Isaac Hayes kicks in! There’s a couple of heavy hitters on the prowl for private eye John Shaft… too bad for them! After Shaft throws one of them out of a window, his police frenemy Lt. Androzzi (Charles Cioffi ) wants some answers, including what’s brewing up in Harlem with rackets boss Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn).

Shaft wants to find out too, and soon discovers Bumpy’s daughter has been kidnapped, possibly by a radical militant gang led by Shaft’s old running buddy Ben Buford (Christopher St. John). He’s hired to find her, but when some of Buford’s crew are gunned down by unknown assailants, Shaft finds himself caught in a gang war between Bumpy and the Mafia. Being the ‘bad mother’ that he is, Our Man Shaft enlists the militants to aid him in rescuing Bumpy’s little girl from the mob in a wild climax.

Richard Roundtree as John Shaft is closer in spirit to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer than PI’s like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe . Shaft’s a take-no-crap kinda guy, as quick with fists as he is with his wits, and of course the ladies all love him! He’s got attitude to spare, especially when sparring with white establishment cats like Androzzi. Roundtree went on to portray the super sleuth in two sequels (1972’s SHAFT’S BIG SCORE and 1973’s SHAFT IN AFRICA) and a brief TV series (1973-74). Some of his other films include EMBASSY (1972), CHARLEY ONE-EYE (1973), EARTHQUAKE (1974), DIAMONDS (1975), and AN EYE FOR AN EYE (1981).

Director Gordon Parks (1912-2006)

Director Gordon Parks was a true renaissance man. He first gained notoriety as a photographer for LIFE Magazine, and turned his autobiographic novel THE LEARNING TREE into a 1969 Warner Brothers film, making Parks the first black director for a major studio production. He was editorial director for ESSENCE Magazine from 1970-73, and an accomplished poet, painter, and musician. Among his other screen works are the buddy-cop pic THE SUPER COPS (1974), THOMASINE & BUSHROD (1974, a sort-of Blaxploitation Bonnie & Clyde), and the biography of folk-blues legend LEADBELLY (1976). His son Gordon Parks Jr. was director of another iconic Blaxploitation flick, SUPER FLY (1972).

Parks’ photographic eye brilliantly captures New York at its down-and-dirtiest, and handles the obligatory 70’s sex scenes with taste and discretion. The script by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black (based on Tidyman’s novel) is righteous, but I know what you’ve all really been waiting for, so here’s that super-cool opening credits scene featuring Isaac Hayes’ super-funky Oscar-winning “Theme from SHAFT”!:

More in the THAT’S BLAXPLOITATION series:

BLACK BELT JONES

BLACULA

FOXY BROWN

ABAR THE BLACK SUPERMAN

The CLEOPATRA JONES Saga

TOGETHER BROTHERS

TROUBLE MAN

SUPER FLY

THREE THE HARD WAY

HELL UP IN HARLEM

SLAUGHTER

 

Bats in the Belfry: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (MGM 1935)

Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is a masterpiece of terror, the film that launched the Golden Age of Horror and made Bela Lugosi a star. Four years later, Bela and Browning teamed again for MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, loaded with horrific atmosphere but staked through the heart by two fatal blows – too much comic relief and an ending that’s a trick, rather than a treat, for horror buffs.

Lugosi and his “daughter”, Carroll Borland

The shadow of vampirism is terrorizing a small European village, as Sir Karel Borotyn is found murdered, drained of his blood! Inspector Neumann investigates, not believing in such supernatural hokum and suspecting everyone. Lovely young Irena Borotyn, engaged to handsome young Fedor, stands to inherit her father’s estate, with family friend Baron Otto serving as her guardian. When a peasant is found also drained of blood, the villagers suspect the evil Count Mora and his daughter Luna have risen from the dead to conduct a reign of terror.

The Two Lionels (l-r): Barrymore & Atwill

Occult expert Professor Zelen is called in to consult on the matter, and he concludes the vampires are real, despite Neumann’s protestations. Irena and Fedor are attacked by the undead creatures, and an exhumation of Borotyn’s grave finds his coffin empty. Fearing an infestation, Zelen leads the charge after sunrise to find and destroy Mora and his minions. Zelen then hypnotizes Baron Otto to confront the undead Sir Karol, but we find it’s all been an elaborate ruse to unmask Sir Karol’s real killer – Baron Otto!

The Great Bela Lugosi!

That’s right, the “vampires” have been nothing more than actors hired to smoke out the Baron. We do get a treat in Lugosi enacting the part of Count Mora, silently stalking his prey and skulking about among the cobwebbed, vermin-infested castle. Our favorite Hungarian almost gets the last, delicious word as the film ends on a comic note. But the “comedy relief” from Donald Meek as a local doctor and Leila Bennett as Irena’s maid are a bit too much for my dark taste in horror, and the trick ending spoils what could’ve been a horror classic.

Carroll Borland as Luna

Lionel Barrymore  gets top billing as Professor Zelen, working once again with Browning, as he would a year later in THE DEVIL DOLL. It’s always good to see horror regular Lionel Atwill , playing the first of many roles as an Inspector. Jean Hersholt portrays Baron Otto, and Elizabeth Allen makes a fetching Irena, but Henry Wadsworth is a total twit as Fedor. Carroll Borland, who played onstage opposite Lugosi in DRACULA, creates an iconic vampiress in Luna, and an inspiration for future TV horror “g”hostess Vampira. Miss Borland only appeared in a handful of films, but left an indelible mark on the horror genre with her creepy portrayal of Luna.

The gang’s all here!

James Wong Howe’s  photography is eerie enough, and reminiscent of the best of Universal. But the script by Guy Endore and Bernard Schubert is riddled with holes; Endore also wrote the script for THE STORY OF G.I. JOE and the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which was adapted into Hammer’s 1961 CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, so I’ll give him a pass. MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is a remake of Browning’s lost 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT, but since I (nor anyone currently alive, far as I know) has seen that Lon Chaney frightfest, I can’t compare the two. Perhaps Browning was trying to make up for the stir he caused with 1932’s FREAKS by adding all that extra comedy and false ending; whatever the case, MARK OF THE VAMPIRE is definitely a lesser entry in the classic horror canon. Without Lugosi and Borland, it would be even less, but as it stands, it’s worth at least one viewing.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR #18: Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?

There’s a lot of good stuff being broadcast this month, so it’s time once again to make some room on the ol’ DVR. Here’s a quartet of capsule reviews of films made in that mad, mad decade, the 1960’s:

THE FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE (MGM 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) –  MGM tried to make another Elvis out of rock legend Roy Orbison in this Sam Katzman-produced comedy-western. It didn’t work; though Roy possessed one of the greatest voices in rock’n’roll, he couldn’t act worth a lick. Roy (without his trademark shades!) and partner Sammy Jackson (TV’s NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS) peddle ‘Dr. Ludwig Long’s Magic Elixir’ in a travelling medicine show, but are really Confederate spies out to steal gold from the San Francisco mint to fund “the cause” in the waning days of the Civil War. The film’s full of anachronisms and the ‘comical Indians’ aren’t all that funny, but at least Roy gets seven decent tunes to sing. Familiar Faces Lyle Bettger, Iron Eyes Cody, John Doucette , Joan Freeman, and Douglas Kennedy try to help, but the story kind of just limps along. Worthwhile if you’re an Orbison fan, otherwise a waste of time. Fun Fact: Roy’s MGM Records label mate Sam the Sham (of “Wooly Bully” fame) has a small part as a guard at the mint.

 

KILL A DRAGON (United Artists 1967; D: Michael D. Moore) – Minor action yarn with ruthless Fernando Lamas out to hijack a load of nitroglycerine washed upon a small Japanese island, and the villagers hiring soldier-of-fortune Jack Palance to protect them and their bounty. Palance gives an engaging, tongue-in-cheek performance, Lamas makes an evil adversary, and Aldo Ray is among Jack’s mercenary crew… seeing Aldo in drag is something you won’t wanna miss!! Nothing special, but an adequate time filler for action fans. Fun Fact: Director Moore (who also helmed FASTEST GUITAR) was a former silent film child star (his first film was 1919’s THE UNPAINTED WOMAN, directed by Tod Browning ) who began working behind the scenes in the 1940’s. He became one of Hollywood’s highest regarded Assistant and Second Unit directors, and worked on films ranging from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS to GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, KING CREOLE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, PATTON, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (and it’s two subsequent sequels), and NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. His last was 2000’s 102 DALMATIONS before retirement; Moore passed away at age 98 in 2013. His contributions to Hollywood movies may be unsung, but for people like Cecil B. DeMille and Steven Spielberg, Michael “Mickey” Moore was the go-to guy for action scenes. Job well done, Mr. Moore!

PSYCH-OUT (AIP 1968; D: Richard Rush) – A Hippiesploitation classic! Susan Strasberg stars as a runaway deaf girl looking for her brother Bruce Dern in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. She hooks up with pony-tailed rock musician Jack Nicholson and his bandmates (Adam Roarke, Max Julien) in a drug-soaked film full of far-out thrift store fashion, plenty of hippie-dippie jargon (“Peace and love, baby!”), LSD and STP induced nightmares, and classic rock from bands Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds (featuring their immortal lead vocalist Sky Saxon!). A group called Boenzee Cryque (with future Poco members Rusty Young and George Grantham) plays a sideways instrumental version of “Purple Haze” called “Ashbury Wednesday” during Henry Jaglom’s trip scene, and the cast includes Dean Stockwell as a philosophical, groovy satyr, future producer/director Garry Marshall as a cop, and low-budget stalwarts John ‘Bud’ Cardos, Gary Kent, and Bob Kelljan in support. Director Richard Rush went on to films like THE STUNT MAN and COLOR OF NIGHT, and the cinematographer is none other than Laslo Kovacs (EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES, PAPER MOON). It’s a psychedelic artifact of its time, and a treat for exploitation fans. As Stockwell says, “Reality’s a deadly place”! Fun Fact: One of a handful of late 60’s youth films produced by the legendary Dick Clark, of TV’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND and NEW YEAR’S ROCKIN’ EVE fame.

THE BIG CUBE (Warner Brothers 1969; D: Tito Davison) – Glamorous Lana Turner plays a glamorous stage actress who marries rich Dan O’Herlihy against the wishes of his daughter Karin Mossberg. Dad drowns in a yachting accident, and daughter conspires with LSD-making gigolo George Chakiris to drive Lana mad by slipping acid in her sleeping pills! This awful attempt at mixing Lana’s Ross Hunter-era soap operas with 60’s “youth culture” features bad acting, a putrid script, heavy-handed direction, and is a total mess all around. Even the presence of Lana, O’Herlihy, Chakiris, and Richard Egan couldn’t stop this movie from stinking up my living room! No redeeming qualities whatsoever (except the fact that the wooden Miss Mossberg was never heard from again!) Fun Fact: As I sat watching this bomb, slack-jawed and shaking my head, I kept muttering to myself, “This is bad. Just… bad”. The film’s worse than a bad acid trip, but I stuck with it for this review. You have other options. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!!

I hate to leave you on such a sour note, so here’s Roy Orbison doing “Pistolero” from Mickey Moore’s FASTEST GUITAR ALIVE! Take it away, Roy: