Sunday, April 22, 2018

Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)

Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) leaves his fiancee Elizabeth (Mary Fuller, star of the first film serial, What Happened to Mary) to attend college, where he experiments in bringing the dead back to life. Unfortunately, the product of his research proves to be a gruesome monster (Charles Ogle), who he rejects. On Victor and Elizabeth's wedding night, the monster makes his untimely return, seeking revenge...

This will probably be the shortest review I've done to date, partly because it's the first that's of a short film. Produced by Edison Studios, this was the first of hundreds of adaptations of Mary Shelley's iconic novel, but it's not a very faithful adaptation. Victor creates his monster through what looks like alchemy rather than true science, and flesh seems to just appear on the skeleton of the soon-to-be monster (who doesn't look nearly as cool as the image above seems to imply). Whereas the Monster of Shelley's novel murders everybody Victor loves (his younger brother, his father, and his best friend), culminating with the death of Elizabeth on their wedding night, and Victor then pursues his creation around the globe, dying the process, here Frankenstein chases the monster away before he can kill Elizabeth. The Monster then just...looks into a mirror and disappears, though his reflection lingers a bit longer, and Victor and Elizabeth get to live happily ever after. Considering how the book makes such a point of Victor being the true monster for rejecting his creation and denying it any kind of compassion whatsoever, this will probably piss off fans of the original tale. It did me. The Monster itself has none of the pathos of Shelley's (or rather Victor's creation), so amazingly captured by Rory Kinnear in the late lamented television series Penny Dreadful.

This film was considered lost for several decades, but a fan bought a copy in the '70s, and released it on DVD in the early 2000s. A restored version came out in 2010. I don't know if the restored version is the one I watched on Amazon Prime, but if so, holy shit they didn't do a very good job. Having seen the restored Metropolis on the big screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which added to my existing love for that film a thousandfold, the picture quality on this print is just pitiful. I've seen plenty of Frankenstein movies. I love James Whale's, of course, even though it's even less faithful to the novel than this is. Young Frankenstein is without a doubt Mel Brooks' masterpiece. And I've also seen a lot of trashy or weird takes on the legend, such as William A. Levey's Blackenstein, Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein, Dick Randall's Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks, and Jerry Warren's Frankenstein Island. This film is nowhere near the excellency of the former two films, nor the curiosity value of the latter four. It just kinda is, and I wanted more from the first film version of one of the most adapted books of all time. On the other hand, at least Edison didn't rip off Nikola Tesla or electrocute an elephant in the course of making it, so credit where it's due.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Immoral Mr. Teas (Russ Meyer, 1959)

A few "typical" days in the life of Willie Teas, a dental appliance salesman who finds himself constantly coming in contact with beautiful well-endowed women, about whom he often fantasizes.

I've always loved Russ Meyer's films, but even I admit some are simply better than others. Lorna didn't do much for me. The Immoral Mr. Teas is an example of what are known as "nudie cutie" films, and is therefore heavy on female skin (though never viewed fully frontal, even when the women are completely nude), but virtually free of plot. As a result, I couldn't warm to it the way I do Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or my personal favorite, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Mr. Teas, played by Bill Teas (who served as a combat photographer in the Pacific during WWII, where he served in the same unit as Russ, becoming good friends in the process), sees a lot more boobs in the course of his day-to-day life then you would think a seller of truly scary-looking dental equipment who looks kinda like Paul Bartel with more hair and Carl Kolchak's hat would see. The straw hat isn't his only questionable fashion choice: his work outfit consists of a pink jumpsuit, and his beachwear is trunks with a drawstring and two back pockets(?). I'm tempted to say Teas is a nudie cutie take on Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot, but I haven't seen any of Tati's Hulot films, so my gut instinct may very well be wrong.

Of course, Russ doesn't skip on the pulchritudinous pneumatic females. One dentist's nurse shows considerably more decolletage than most women I've seen in non-sexploitation movies and TV made in 1959, while also going braless. Interestingly, though Teas peeps at and fantasizes about many of the women he meets, none of those dreams involve him actually, y'know, having sex with them. This may explain why he is seen crossing "Cantlay Street" more than once during the course of the film. Also, his jumpsuit is blue rather than pink in said fantasies. Maybe he feels self-conscious about wearing a color perceived by many as effeminate? Russ himself makes a cameo as an audience member at a burlesque show. Famous British sex symbol June Wilkinson's bare breasts can be seen through a window. The film has no dialogue whatsoever, but plenty of "funny" narration written by Edward J. Lakso (who, in addition to also providing the film's music., wrote for a lot of well-known TV series in the '60s and '80s) and spoken by G. Ferrus. Perhaps the most inexplicable line is the claim, made while Teas fantasizes about three of the ladies he's met frolicking nude as he watches from a distance, that rubber was invented in 1873. Rubber is found in nature, and according to Wikipedia Charles Goodyear patented vulcanized rubber in 1844, so not sure what the hell Mr. Ferrus is talking about there.

If you enjoy beautiful women showing what their mama gave them, this film delivers. But if you're looking for Russ at the top of his game, this is probably not the way to go.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Tomb of Torture (Metempsyco; "Anthony Kristye" [Antonio Boccaci], 1963)

Two young women (one of whom is played by Emy Eco, Umberto's sister) visit a seemingly abandoned castle, where they see the portrait of the beautiful Countess Irene, who mysterious vanished on the eve of her wedding night twenty years ago. The Countess Elizabeth (Django's Flora Carosello, billed here as Elizabeth Queen) demands that they leave, but they find all the doors locked. The girls fall victim to a gruesomely deformed man, who kills one and prepares to torture the other. Soon after, Dr. Darnell (Trinity is STILL My Name!'s Adriano Micantoni, aka "Thony Maky") arrives via coach at the castle, where the girls' bodies are being examined by a police constable. Said policeman believes they died of exposure, but the turbaned Raman (director Antonio Boccaci, aka "William Gray") thinks otherwise. Dr. Darnell, who is moving into the castle, has a daughter named Anna (Annie Alberti, aka Annie Albert) who is a dead ringer for the long lost Countess Irene.

Anna has a nightmare where she encounters several bizarre figures, including an individual clad in knight's armor who shoots a crossbow through her chest, after which she turns into Irene. Later, she meets reporter George Dickson while skinny dipping, and the two quickly become an item. The questions that must be answered are: is Anna indeed the reincarnation of Countess Irene, and if so, exactly how did the Countess die?

Tomb of Torture, originally known as Metempsyco, is an enjoyable enough piece of Gothic horror all'Italiana, but nowhere near the level of Mario Bava at the top of his game. Director Antonio Boccaci turned out a number of lurid and violent paperback novels prior to this film, so it's disappointing he didn't really go far enough here. Picked up for distribution in the United States by Richard Gordon, the dubbed version saddled many of the actors with questionable pseudonyms, with poor Adriano Micantoni in particular burdened with the unfortunate moniker Thony Maky, as stated above. The film was shown on a double bill with previous Diary of a Madman subject matter Cave of the Living Dead, which sadly is a better film in almost every way. While the Gothic tropes are all there - a decaying castle, a horrible secret, a lovely and innocent damsel in distress, etc. - it never quite gels into a solid film, and many things are left unanswered. Who is the monstrous torturer? What exactly were the Countess Elizabeth, Raman, and Dr. Darnell's connections to Countess Irene?

George and Anna have what seems like the quickest romantic connection in the history of Italian horror cinema. When they first meet, Anna thinks George is an annoying peeping tom, but soon comes to like him a bit. In the very next scene of them together, they're talking about leaving the castle and getting married. Keep in mind, there were no scenes in between developing their relationship, so I guess in the universe of this movie love at first sight is indeed a very real thing. Flora Carosello (or rather, the actress dubbing her voice) wildly overacts in the film's climax. It is interesting that the movie presents a character of Eastern ancestry whose ethnicity never really factors into the plot, though I've gotta deduct points for the fact he's played by the director in brownface. The most WTF line in the movie is when Dr. Darrell, flippantly dismissing the concerns of Constable Dobson, suggests he get himself an enema! Armando Sciascia's (The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein) atmosepheric music is without a doubt the best part of the movie. But if you want to judge for yourself, check it out on Fandor, assuming you have an account with them. And if you're still not sold, here's the trailer.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Arrest Bulldog Drummond (James P. Hogan, 1938)

Richard Gannett, the self-styled "Earl of Destiny" (The Mummy's Leonard Mudie) sends a letter to Colonel Nielsen of Scotland Yard (H. B. Warner, Mr. Gower in It's a Wonderful Life) saying with his invention he will bring peace to the world, whether they want it or not. Meanwhile, Captain Hugh C. "Bulldog" Drummond (The Invisible Woman's John Howard) is preparing for his forthcoming nuptials to Phyllis Clavering (Alice in Wonderland's Heather Angel) when his chum Algy Longworth (Rebecca's Reginald Denny, no relation to the truck driver who was a victim in the L.A. riots) shows up, having also received a letter from Gannett about his invention. They go to Gannett's flat in Birnam Wood Road to investigate. Gannett is showing his machine, an explosive ray, to Rolf Alferson (the ever-dependable George Zucco). Gannett wants to offer his device to the governments of the world, beginning with his own country's, but Alferson murders him with something called "the Stinger."

Arriving at Birnam Wood Road, Drummond and Algy discover the lights in the building have been flickering every night. Breaking into Gannett's place, they find his body, and are promptly arrested by the police. The autopsy confirms their innocence, and reveals he was murdered by a stingray. Drummond and Algy become resolved to look into the matter further, aided by Drummond's butler Tenny (Bride of Frankenstein's E. E. Clive), even though it may jeopardize Drummond's wedding plans.

Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond was the two-fisted hero of a series of novels by H. C. McNeile, who wrote under the pen name "Sapper." Drummond was a Great War veteran who found peacetime utterly monotonous, and being an adrenaline junkie, soon found himself getting mixed up in thwarting evildoers, notably the master of disguise Carl Peterson, who appeared in several of the books alongside his equally sinister mistress Irma. Arrest Bulldog Drummond was the fourth film Paramount Studios made with John Howard as Drummond; he was neither the first nor the last to play the character, the latter being Richard Johnson in Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and Some Girls Do (1969).

The reason the character has not been seen on film since is probably due to some unfortunate content in the novels. Their depiction of non-WASPs is not always very enlightened. I hesitate to call them "a product of their times," since that implies everyone in the past was a bigot, but of the two Drummond novels by McNeile I've read, The Return of Bulldog Drummond has Drummond using the expression "n***** in the woodpile" in the very first chapter, while one of the criminal conspirators in Bulldog Drummond at Bay is a wealthy anti-Semitic stereotype. I understand, however, from people who've read more of the series than I have, that McNeile dialed back the xenophobia in the later books, and Gerard Fairlie, who continued the series after his death, even called out some of Hugh's earlier methods of crimefighting as fascist in the text of the books themselves. Apart from the cringeworthy bits, I found the ones I read enjoyable if not particularly deep adventure stories.

Arrest Bulldog Drummond is based on McNeile's The Final Count, but makes several changes, including replacing Carl Peterson with the somewhat less distinctive Rolf Alferson. Carrying over from the previous films, Hugh's significant other, the lovely Phyllis Benton, has her surname changed to the more unwieldy Clavering, while Drummond's butler Denny's name is changed to Tenny, presumably to avoid confusion with actor Reginald Denny playing a different role. The script was written by Stuart Palmer, better known for his series of novels about spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers. Howard pulls off the literary Drummond's wisecracking swagger reasonably well, though he's a little too good-looking compared to McNeile's Bulldog's "pleasantly ugly" features. The aforementioned Reginald Denny and E. E. Clive provide some adequate comic relief, with one notable example being Tenny lighting a candle in a warehouse that turns out to be storing fireworks, with predictable results. George Zucco is as sinister as ever, and deserves more screen time than he actually gets.

Being based on a book of the mostly male-oriented "clubland heroes" genre, it's no surprise that the women come off pretty undeveloped here. Heather Angel as Phyllis is a pretty bland love interest, and her Aunt Meg (Werewolf of London's Zeffie Tilbury) doesn't do much more than provide moral support for her niece in her nuptial travails, while Jean Fenwick doesn't do much as Alferson's female accomplice, presumably taking Irma's place.

As with other movies from the '30s I've seen there's surprisingly little music in the film - only a bit at the beginning and the end. One thing that I find astounding is that when Drummond is rehearsing his speech at his bachelor party, he addresses his "fellow members of the Drones Club." For the uninitiated, this is the name of the London gentleman's club (not in the ecdysiastal sense) many of P. G. Wodehouse's upper class twit protagonists, including the immortal Bertie Wooster, belonged to. I love crossovers myself - in fact, I've written two massive books on the subject, and if you haven't bought them yet, click this link RIGHT NOW, so finding a shout-out to Wodehouse in an unexpected place tickled me to no end. This is a fun film, the second with Howard in the role I've seen, and you can bet I'll check out the others.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Pace That Kills (Wm. A. O'Connor, 1935)

Nick (Noel Madison) and his cohort are making a cocaine delivery for their boss when they find themselves pursued by the cops. Nick goes to a diner, where he meets waitress Jane Bradford (Lois January), who he convinces that the men following him are hijackers. Afterwards, he tries to convince her to go to the city with him. He offers her some coke, which he calls "headache powder." They marry and move to the big city. Jane, now called Lil, learns that the "headache powder" is actually dope. Now hooked, she is forced by Nick to get a job at the Dead Rat Cafe. Meanwhile, Jane's younger brother Eddie (Dean Benton) comes to the city to look for her, getting a job as a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, where he works alongside waitress Fanny (Sheila Bromley), a customer of Nick's. Lil recognizes Eddie at the restaurant, and is careful not to be seen by him. Later, at the Dead Rat, Eddie does see Lil, who pretends she doesn't know him. They also encounter Dan (Charles Delaney) and his "questing" girlfriend Dorothy Farley (Lois Lindsay), who were also at the restaurant. Fanny introduces Eddie to cocaine, and soon they're both fired, and living as addicts in a cheap apartment.

Anti-drug films of the '30s are often good for a few easy laughs, such as the infamous Reefer Madness, but The Pace That Kills (aka The Cocaine Fiends, a remake of the 1928 silent film of the same name, with which it shares Wm. A. O'Connor as director), while not exactly the searing indictment its opening text makes it out to be, is less histrionic and more depressing than Dwain Esper's cult classic. Although the film never shows the characters actually taking cocaine, the effects of the drug on addicts are shown in a fairly realistic manner. All the drug users have tragic fates, with the possible exception of Eddie, and he will have to deal with heartbreaking loss even if he kicks the habit. Jane, meanwhile thinks she has no hope of ever going straight, telling her brother "girls can't come back," an obvious bullshit sexist premise. In addition to the sexism, there's also a racist song in pidgin English sung by a guy at the Dead Rat (and who wouldn't want to frequent an establishment with that name?) called "Towsee Mongalay." As a (hopefully) enlightened Millennial, this song made me cringe.

The performances are mostly understated, with Lois January as the initially naive Jane/Lil being a standout. Amazingly, four years later, she would appear in The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy's manicurist in the Emerald City! Charles Delaney's last film role was in The Beatniks, notable for characters who resembled beatniks in no way, shape, or form, not to mention a wildly overacting Peter Breck, who gives the shrillest delivery of the line "I KILLED THAT FAT BARKEEP!!!" imaginable. In a golden example of how financial times march on, Eddie and Fanny's bill of $9.79 at the Dead Rat is portrayed as exorbitant spending. Fanny also points out an actress to Eddie, who is played by stock footage from the original The Pace That Kills of the actress who played Fanny in that film! This never becomes important to the plot, so I assume it was added for padding. The happy ending for Dan and Dorothy doesn't ring true, particularly as we find Dan has been lying to her the whole film. This is a pretty unspectacular anti-dope film for the era, certainly never reaching the heights of Dave O'Brien imploring Lillian Miles to "Play faster!" on the piano while they both furiously puff on joints, but it's worth a view for those who want to see how America's attitude towards drugs has evolved over time.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Count Dracula's Great Love (El gran amor del conde Drácula; Javier Aguirre, 1973)

Imre Polvi (Victor Barrera, billed as "Vic Winner"), his lover Marlene (Ingrid Garbo, no relation to Greta), and her friends Senta (Two Undercover Angels' Rosanna Yanni), Karen (Haydée Politoff), and Elke (Cria Cuervos' Mirta Miller) are traveling through the Borgo Pass when their coach loses a wheel and the driver is killed by one of his own horses. They seek help at the mansion of Dr. Wendell Marlow (Paul Naschy, born Jacinto Molina Alvarez, who played werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in a long-running series of Spanish horror films), which was formerly a sanatorium run by Dr. Kargos, who was hanged for draining his patients' blood. The girls, checking out the library, discover a book written by Dr. Von (sic) Helsing that says Dracula returned after he and Jonathan Harker killed him, and he needs the blood of a virgin to bring his daughter Rodna back to life. Meanwhile, Marlene falls victim to a vampire, and bites Imre in turn. Karen forms an emotional connection with Dr. Marlow, who is hiding a bloody secret...

Count Dracula's Great Love is a pretty mediocre film, but in a "so bad it's good" way. While the women are all gorgeous and many of them bare all, the plot is pretty thin. Drac apparently can't keep his servants in line, as many of them rebel and force him to kill them. Senta's description of Naschy (who like Lon Chaney in the arguably-misnamed Son of Dracula, transitions from playing a werewolf in a series of films to a standalone turn as the Lord of the Vampires) as "handsome" is being generous, and even Karen doesn't get the appeal at first. Of course, there's lots of fake redder-than-red blood. The dubbing is hilarious. Dialogue and lip movements are not synced at all, many of the Transylvanian peasants have Southern accents, and there are memorable lines like, "You'd sleep with a broom if it wore pants!" Curiously, Imre says Count Dracula is the descendant of the historical Prince, whereas Stoker makes it pretty clear they're the same person. There are some cool visual effects, such as a dream sequence of Dracula biting a female victim shot in photo-negative. Of course, the film wouldn't be complete without Dracula having sex while we see a mirror with the reflection showing only his inamorata. The Daninsky films are more fun, but this is a enjoyable way to pass an hour and twenty-two minutes.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A Colt in the Hand of the Devil (Una colt in mano al diavolo; "Frank G. Carrol" [Rafael Baldanello], 1973)

At a prison rock quarry, Roy Koster (Seven Guns for the MacGregors' Robert Woods) gets into an altercation with a guard. Fellow inmate "Sulky" Jeremiah Scott (stage-turned-screen actor Attilio Dottesio) kills the guard with a pickax, and tells Roy he wants him to repay the debt when he gets out of jail. Jeremiah is brutally flogged for the killing, but before dying he says the word "Silvertown" to Roy, and gives him his cufflink. After his sentence ends, Roy rides into Silvertown, a town in Texas. At the saloon owned by Dennis McCorney (spaghetti western icon William Berger, sporting long hair and a mustache), Roy plays cards with three men, who seem alarmed when he produces the cufflink. Roy gives the alcoholic Thomas $10 in exchange for the location of Jeremiah's ranch. Thomas tells Roy the town is under the control of a gang led by a man named Warner, of which Roy's fellow card-players were members. Soon after, Thomas is found hanged with two $5 bills clenched between his teeth. Roy gives the undertaker money for his funeral, then goes out to the ranch, where he meets Jeremiah's grieving widow Martha (Giovanna Mainardi) and her children Grace (Fiorella Mannoia) and Phil (Ursus' Nino Fuscagni), who hold their late father in contempt. Phil is a member of Warner's gang. Warner's henchmen attempt to prevent Thomas' funeral from taking place, saying that he committed suicide and they are "good Christians," but Roy knows it was murder and guns them down. Martha reveals to Roy that Jeremiah was accused of robbery and murder after telling Warner (George Wang) and McCorney about his need for money. The duo, along with McCorney's dishwasher Sam Dayton (W Django!'s Mario Dardanelli) did not corroborate Jeremiah's story, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. Convinced the man who saved his life was framed, Roy seeks to bring Warner to justice, in his own way...

The 1970s are generally considered a low period for the Spaghetti Western. The genre largely devolved into self-parody, in the wake of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer's Trinity films. Despite this, there were a few last great films of the genre, such as Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma (despite its infamous songs, which I personally find grow on repeated viewings) and Lucio Fulci's underappreciated Four of the Apocalypse. A Colt in the Hand of the Devil isn't on the level of those two films, but it is certainly one of the more watchable '70s SWs. Robert Woods and William Berger were both old hands at the genre at this point, and both turn in good performances, the debonair Berger in particular. (Curiously, although his character is listed on IMDB and the excellent Spaghetti Western Database as Isaac McCorney, he is referred to as "Dennis McCorney" at one point during the trial flashback, and therefore that's the name I'm going with for this review. This is somewhat similar to Berger's character in Lamberto Bava's Devil Fish, whose name initially appears on a sign as Dr. Donald West, but is later called "Walter" by his wife.) Popular singer Fiorella Mannoia as our hero's love interest is attractive and a talented actress. She was also, interestingly, a frequent stand-in for actress Monica Vitti, as well as Candice Bergen in The Hunting Party. There is a scene where Grace is treating Roy with contempt, which causes him to slap her twice, then force a kiss on her, which of course causes her to immediately fall in love with him and return it. Given the current #MeToo movement, this made me cringe a bit. As is often the case in SWs, the law is too incompetent and/or corrupt to stop the gang that runs the town. Thomas provides a few bits of lame drunk comedy relief, but luckily Baldanello has the good sense to kill him off early. One thing I wondered about was the obviously Chinese George Wang playing a bad guy named Warner. Is his character supposed to be completely white, or half-Asian? It seems hard to believe his men would follow him in those times if that were the case, if the likes of the television series Kung Fu and the SW My Name is Shanghai Joe (also featuring Wang in a small role) are any indication. Curiously, there was an earlier SW called Colt in the Hand of the Devil, directed by Sergio Bergonzelli, but apart from having a character with the surname Scott and George Wang being in the cast, Baldanello's film does not appear to be a remake. There are lots of shootings, though not much blood. Piero Piccioni's music is superb. A Colt in the Hand of the Devil may be a fairly standard story lacking in some of the more flamboyant touches SWs were known for, but it's better than the likes of such '70s genre nadirs as God's Gun and Cry Onion any day.

The film can be viewed on Amazon Prime.