Movie Reviews 424 – Ace in the Hole (1951)

February 14, 2020

ACE IN THE HOLE [US 1951] DIRECTED BY BILLY WILDER WITH KIRK DOUGLAS Date: 1951

When legendary actor Kirk Douglas passed away last week at the ripe old age of 103, most of the obituary notices made mention of his most famous titular role in Spartacus, the epic Stanley Kubrick film. While the film was a huge success, Douglas himself never really got the accolades and award recognition for it. At least for his work in front of the lens that is.

His real success and achievement with Spartacus was what he had done behind the scenes. As executive producer and having acquired the rights to the novel, Douglas openly hired blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to pen the script for the film, thus breaking tradition with the studios who adhered to the unwritten code banning those accused in the infamous HUAC proceedings during the McCarthy era Red Scare. This act is generally recognized as the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the success of the film forced the studios to formally recognize the blacklisted writers, most of whom were still working but using pseudonyms and ‘fronts’, and being underpaid for those efforts.

A prolific actor in both films and television, one of my favorite movies starring the charismatic dimple-chinned Douglas has always been Ace in the Hole (1951) in which he plays a newspaper reporter that crosses the line in order to advance his career.

Chuck Tatum (Douglas), a former high flying, big city reporter finds himself down on his luck, out of a job and out of money, even enough to pay for gas for his car. Stuck in remote Albuquerque, New Mexico and plumb out of options he basically begs the editor of the local paper for what he believes will be a short term stint until he gets back on his feet. But after a year of writing mundane news filler, he is at wits end, looking for that ‘big break’ that will get him back into the big league papers. As luck would have it on his way to yet another bland assignment (a rattlesnake hunt), a stop at a desert gasoline station brings news that the station owner, also a relic hunter, has just gotten himself stuck in a mountain passage after a cave in. Already smelling a scoop he is the first on the scene to venture the perilous cave path that leads to the half buried man. It is clear that a rescue will take time and equipment. Time, Chuck muses, that he alone will be in a position to scoop the story.

As soon as Chuck leaves the cave he begins scheming to retain his exclusive reporter status and to make sure that the world hears about the human interest story. He first coaxes the equally unscrupulous Sheriff to keep other reporters out of the cave, while peddling the story to all the major newspapers. As news quickly spreads, the mountainside erupts into a veritable roadside carnival – ferris wheel, barkers, treats, the whole zoo – for rubberneckers who want to savor every aspect of the rescue mission. But Chuck hits rock bottom (so to speak) realizing that the crew shoring up the cave will get to the man in a little over a day. Needing more time to raise his profile, he manages to redirect the rescue crew to dig a rescue hole from the top of the mountain instead of proceeding with the simpler approach.This method will take seven days, enough time for Chuck to punch in his ticket back to the majors and even, perhaps a Pulitzer Prize.

Despite initial assurances from the local doctor that the trapped man can last that long, his deteriorating health soon becomes a race against death. A race, Chuck realizes, that will have the eyes of the world clearly focused on him, but for the wrong reason.

A tale of selfishness taken to extremes, Chuck is not the only one looking out for himself. The trapped man’s peroxide blonde of a wife (Jan Sterling), on the cusp of leaving while her husband lay trapped, is lured back by the sudden flow of the cash register ringing at the station and manages to squeeze every last cent she can from the mass of visitors. Chuck even manages sway a budding young photographer down the path of glory over value.

While perhaps not up to par with some of director Billy Wilder greatest films (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Witness for the Prosecution being just some examples), Ace in the Hole, initially released unde the title The Big Carnival, remains a noteworthy and a riveting story.

R.I.P Kirk.

It – Stephen King (1986)

February 7, 2020

I’ve done It. Or to be more precise, I’ve read It. I have to admit that as much as I am a fan of the recent two movies by director Andy Muschietti which adapted Stephen King’s voluminous novel It, coming in at nearly 1100 pages of fine print reading the novel seemed a daunting task. But having increasingly read more King these last few years I’ve come to appreciate the author’s talent at delivering engaging prose with interesting and well defined characters that make it easy to read no matter how long the text. Despite the two movies clocking in at over five hours in total I could not clear my mind that there could be so much more hidden creepiness to the story yet to be enjoyed in the ‘brick’ of a novel. I was not disappointed.

Assuming many reading this may already be familiar with the main elements of the films (or even the less successful, but also faithful television mini-series which aired in 1990) I’ll only give a very high level plot synopsis here.

Small town Derry, Maine has been experiencing a repeating historical pattern of child disappearances every 27 years or so. When Bill Denbrough’s little brother Georgie becomes a victim in 1957 Bill becomes fixated on finding out what happened to him. He and six friends slowly decipher Derry’s strange past of missing kids and other anomalous events that have occured there over the years. But each of the kids, Richie, Ben, Stan, Eddie, Mike and Beverly have experienced their own personal encounters with this unknown entity they simply refer to as “It” and which is often seen in the personification of Pennywise the clown.

They finally track and battle It by the end of that year and each goes their separate way until 1985 when the abductions resume and the now adult group make their way back to Derry to rid the town of the evil entity. So powerful is the evil force that they have forgotten most of the memories of that first encounter. Led by Bill, the motley group have formed a bond that is the essence of their power to perceive It while others are oblivious and even controlled by It. But can they still muster the strength to combat It a second and final time?

The characters in this novel are indeed much more fleshed out than in the cinematic versions for both the teenaged kids and their later adult lives. Aspects that are merely hinted at in the films, such as Ben’s success as an architect (and a particular precisely timed habit of appearing at a bar in remote Nebraska) provide some riveting reading. There are multiple horrific tales of town history which are not directly tied to our protagonist group, but which add to the mystique of It and the subjugation of the town. As exclaimed at one point, “Derry is It!”

For those that are fans of King’s other works and the man himself, there are plenty of royal nuggets to enjoy. For one, Bill grows up to become a successful horror writer and King manages to address questions writers like himself are deluged with such as “Where do you get your ideas from?”. Bill becoming neglected and invisible to his parents after Georgie’s death is nostalgically reminiscent of The Body In Different Seasons (later filmed as Stand By Me). There are also building blocks that would later turn up in other stories such as “a cavalcade of creatures darting a shrouded landscape” (The Mist). And the section that describes a sentient 1958 Plymouth Fury (Christine) roaming Derry was a nice thrilling surprise.

And then there are those parts excised from the films as they wander into sexual taboo territory. I’m not just talking about sexual exploration such as the teen masturbation portion, or more to the Bill-Beverly-Ben love triangle which is in the film, but a pivotal point near the finale where all the kids engage. Never saw that coming.

The novel is written from a non-chronological perspective, alternating between the events of 1957 and 1985, but that aspect becomes increasingly interlaced towards the end of the novel when the adults are basically retracing the actions they took as teens. The last section of the novel uses chapter transitions in which a sentence at the end of one chapter is completed in the next where the setting and context are entirely different, yet the sentence remains apropos. What I find most fascinating in this is that comic writer Alan Moore used this technique so effectively in his masterpiece Watchmen whose issues were released between 1986 and 1987- almost exactly the time King was writing It. I can’t help but wonder if one of them borrowed the concept from the other. (To be fair, Moore’s use was superior in the quality of the transitions, also daring to go further by blending more than just two separate timelines.)

Going back to Muschietti’s film adaptations, he has stated that he actually filmed a lot more than what was shown in the theatrical release for both films and that he would someday like to put out an edition with all of those extra scenes. I for one hope that he does so, and now having read the novel can only wonder which missing bits from the novel made it into those extra scenes. To be sure there are favorable points in the film that were never in the script such as Bill’s surprising guilt-ridden confession to the others for why Georgie was really out that day he went missing.

I can go on and on about the novel. Just read It!

Movie Reviews 423 – Forbidden Planet (1956)

January 31, 2020

Ah, the classics! While Forbidden Planet is certainly one of the classics when it comes to 50’s Science Fiction films, the fact that it shares a number of elements from Shakepear’s The Tempest adds to its legitimacy to the term. Notably preceded by Destination Moon, Rocketship X-M and Conquest of Space as films that attempted to portray scientifically accurate depictions of future space travel, it nonetheless pushed a few boundaries forward and introduced us to  Robby, the first loveable (I liken him to a walking vintage washing machine) cinematic robot.

The story has the crew of Earth spaceship C-57D voyage to distant planet Altair IV with the aim to relieve the crew of a previous mission, only to find that the only remaining inhabitants are the evasive Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his striking daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). Morbius at first tries to convince the commander (Leslie Nielsen) that all is fine and dandy, and that they should just move. But then the encampment around the landed spaceship is breached by someone – or some thing – who managed to evade their security detail and destroy some of their equipment. Dr. Morbius soon confesses that an amazingly advanced society called the Krell long ago inhabited the planet leaving behind a vast underground city of running machines and contrivances whose functions Morbius has been trying to ascertain. Morbius himself was exposed to one of their devices that doubled his own cerebral functions. Adams explains that such a find needs to be studied by humanity but Morbius contends that mankind is not ready for this discovery and that he, and he alone, must study the treasure trove of knowledge left by the Krell. As Morbius battles with bouts of headaches, the encampment of the C-57D detect a creature visible only when it tries to make its way through the protective force field as the one that has been attacking them. The truth of what the creature represents is shocking in more ways than even Morbius could have imagined.

A film ahead of its time, Forbidden Planet presents a high brow concept using visually stunning sequences that stand up to this day. The color palette and background matte paintings by Henri Hillinck are reminiscent of Chesley Bonestell SF pulp art covers. The look and feel of most of the animated sequences and trick photography remain comparable in quality to modern CGi effects. While anyone today would swear that the acclaimed music score are feature sounds from a theremin (popular in the era), they were in fact created by specialized electronic circuitry (predating synthesizers) created and operated by Bebe and Louis Barren, and are prominently identified in the opening credits. And of course there is Robby the bubble headed robot with whirling gears, antennae, lights, grills, ribbed flex-hose arms which can only be described as a gimballed Vegas slot machine.

The film centers it story around Altaira, who having grown up with only Morbius as a guide, is innocent and naive to the ways of the world (and wearing skimpy clothing that must have been shocking in the 50’s). As the all male crew of the C-57D journeyed two years before arriving at Altair IV, most quickly ply their best pick-up lines on her. All except the commander who of course ends up being the one she falls for.

Highly recommend for Science Fiction aficionados, those who want something a little more intellectual than a simple BEM (Bug Eyed Monster) and perhaps Shakespearean scholars.

I should add that while perusing the extra features on my Warner 2010 Blu Ray release I was surprised to find that it included The Invisible Boy, a lower budget feature film that was released the next year in order to capitalize on the popularity of Robby.

January Movie Marathon – 2020 Edition

January 24, 2020

Time for my annual 31 Movies in 31 Days challenge that I’m glad to report was successful with one caveat. In past years these were January challenges where the movies had to be watched during the month alone. Suspecting that I would be a bit busier this year I cheated a bit by shifting the challenge to begin Christmas day,and gave myself 31 days from that point, so ending January 24th (today!), which also made more sense given that those interim days between Christmas and New Years are really prime relaxing viewing days. My suspicions were correct and even with the shift I just made my quota!

Unlike previous years where my movie viewing was across the gamut of genres and eras, my son and I decided to binge rewatch all the Harry Potter movies so the scale is slightly tipped in favour of those eight movies. But I think the others films preent are a nice variety regarding content and quality. In the order in which I watched them, here are my short reviews.

#1 – Dead Snow (2009) My second viewing of this Norwegian Nazi Zombie film was not as memorable as the first time I watched it at the Fantasia film fest years ago. A bunch of young adults shack up in a remote cabin for a few days of skiing the slopes when (surprise!) World War II era SS troops led by recalcitrant commandant disturb their snow bound vacation. Some fairly funny bits and I did love the Nazis popping out of the snow like Whack-a-Moles at and arcade.

#2 – The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)  As are all the Roger Corman Poe adaptations, this one is a very loose interpretation of the source material. But with Vincent Price and Barbara Steele headlining you really can’t go wrong. And damned if there really isn’t a pit and a giant human slicing pendulum in it and other interesting devices in a torture chamber.

#3 – Christmas with the Kranks (2004) Well I had to watch at least one Holiday film for this list, didn’t I? Sadly, there are a lot better than this one. Even Jamie Lee Curtis as the wife of a couple who decided to forego Christmas for a cruise couldn’t really raise my interest above “Meh.” Should have gone with other Christman movie standards like Die Hard, Gremlins, (Yes, those last two are Christmas movies!), A Christmas Story or It’s a Wonderful Life. I guess you could say this one left me Kranky.

#4 – Mommie Dearest (1981) The legacy of silver screen diva Joan Crawford is not so much her films as the events described in the tell-all book “Mommie Dearest” (adapted here) by her daughter after her death in which she revealed that her troubled childhood included beatings with coat hangers. It made headlines at the time and I can’t get it out of my mind that arch enemy Bette Davis must have loved every minute of it. Faye Dunaway nails it as Joan. (Disclaimer: No Nails were used in the beating of the children.)

#5 – Ransom (1996) Mel Gibson turns the cards on Gary Sinise, his son’s kidnapper by putting a ransom on his head rather than paying one, much to the surprise of his own wife (Rene Russo). A decent thriller although Mel is over the top at times as is the entire premise. Much better Gibson/Russo chemistry in Lethal Weapon 3 and Gibson is crazier in that one as well.

#6 – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) It’s been a long time since I watched the Harry Potter series. The first movie about the boy wizard, introduces us to Hogwarts, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Snape, McGonagall, those other meddling kids (Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley), a few muggles and not to forget: Quidditch!

#7 – The Night Strangler (1973) This was the second Kolchak TV movie before the The Night Stalker TV series. (I already watched The Night Strangler  pilot movie which started it all a month earlier). l Always wanted to watch the proto-X Files series and I’m finally getting around now 47 years later.  This one has Kolchak (Darrin McGavin) being aided by an exotic dancer (Jo Ann Pflug) solve the mystery of a recurring murderer popping up every few decades since the civil war.

#8 – Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber (2002) Harry, with the help of Ron, Hermione, Dobby the elf, Moaning Myrtle (not a porn star as you would be led to believe), and a book previously owned by Voldemont himself rescue Ron’s sister from the titular chamber. And of course more Quidditch!

#9 – Halloween (2019) I was very excited to hear that there would be another Halloween reboot after the dismal last entry in Rob Zombie’s reboot. The fact that Jamie Lee Curtis was returning in her original role sealed the deal. Now I have to admit that this was not as good as I had hoped and the slow, predictable start nearly had me give up on it entirely but stick with it to the end, bear some of the sillier aspects, and it does carve out a place for itself in the Halloween pantheon. At least it’s a lot better than some of the others.

#10 – The Rock (1996) When a bunch of uber-patriot elite Marines feel slighted by their country they take over Alcatraz and threaten to launch missiles they’ve set up on the isle of the former prison. Without any accurate blueprints and layout of the compound they ask a current convict Sean Connery who is also being screwed over to help.The plot is as convincing as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it’s Bad-Ass Connery so who cares?

#11 – Godzilla VS. Hedorah (1971) Read review here.

#12 – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Someone is out to kill Harry, Ron’s rat escapes, and there’s a werewolf. If nothing else, this was an excuse to get Gary Oldman into the storyline. And there’s a game of Quidditch against a team with the unlikely name of Hufflepuff.

#13 – The Thirteenth Floor (1999) Twists and turns galore as character’s jack-into a 1930’s virtual world with mols, cops, murder and mystery. Sure the effects are dated (even for that time) but this is all about plot and plotting and the truth is a doozy!

#14 – Red Eye (2005) Nearly the entire film takes place within the confines of an airplane as a hotel manager is coerced by a terrorist (Cillian Murphy) to make particular arrangements for a special guest.

#15 – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) Not just any Quidditch but nothing less than the World Cup of Quidditch. And then a Tri-Wizard tournament! Sounds like a lot of fun except for that Voldemort dude killing folks.

#16 – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) Harry Potter gets expelled from Hogwarts! Actually one of the better films in the series but (egads!) no Quidditch! Includes one of the most wasted character names in cinematic history: Nymphadora Tonks. Nuff said.

#17 – The Purge (2013) The Purge series of films set in a not too distant future America in which once a year, for 24 hours, people can kill one another to ‘purge’ pent up frustration (the thinking being that it’s somehow better in the long term). This first movie has an upper scale family being safely locked in their home until one of the kids decides to ‘save’ a stranger being hunted. But the stranger ends up being the least of their problems.

#18 – Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009) The ‘blood’ in the title must be indicative of the many fluids in the plot including love potions, poison, liquid luck, and mead. My least favorite of the series and more a setup for the ending in the next installment.

#19 – Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) Read review here.

#20 – First Strike (1996) Jackie Chan dishes out his usual “Chan-anigans” as a Hong Kong cop helping the CIA nab an arms dealer in Australia and meeting up with some Russians. I think they were going for International appeal.

#21 – The House that Dripped Blood (1971) Read review here

#22 – Dead Reckoning (1947) Humphrey Bogart has to track down his best friend and fellow former paratrooper after he ditches at a train stop just before the to are set to receive prestigious war medals in Washington. Following a byzantine set of clues (including a false name to begin with) he finds that his buddy was an accused murder on the run. But why did he suddenly go back to the scene of the crime and them seem to disappear altogether. Bogey has to rely on his buddy’s former gal (Lizbeth Scott) but can he even trust her? (prosecution witness?)

#23 – Duck Soup (1933) You can never go wrong with The Marx Brothers’ vaudevillian humour. Between Groucho’s fire-a-minute witty one liners, Harpo’s voiceless antics, and Chico’s accented haggling and scheming, who needs a plot? But if things like that are important to you, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is sworn in as the new leader of Freedonia to remedy their cash shortage, while his brothers are bumbling infiltrators sent in from a rival country hoping to start a war. I won’t mention Zeppo.

#24 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) Harry and his friends ‘jump the shark’ with this entry in the series. What began as a fun, interesting saga with great characters has transgressed into a dark, repetitive here as they set up the finale in Part 2. And not even one damn Quidditch game (although a Snitch figures prominently in the plot).

#25 – Romeo Is Bleeding (1993) A greedy cop (Gary Oldman) earns a little extra side income by tipping off the mob on informant hideout information but things start to go wrong when they take out an informant about to spill their secrets but also take a few cops with them in their assault. Not only can he not back out of their little deal, but he is now being forced to take out one of those informants on his own. But Mona (Lena Olin) is no mere informant, but a mob hitwoman who took out the previous informant and a roomful of cops. Intense, action packed, saucy and sentimental.

#26 – Forbidden Planet (1956) Read review next week here!

#27 – The Money Pit (1986) Mid-eighties rom-com where a young couple (Shelley Long and Tom Hanks) are suddenly in need of a place to stay and chance upon a mansion that needs a little work but is surprisingly within their limited means. But as all “too good to be true” parables their fortunate find ends up putting a strain on their relationship as their dream house begins to crumble before their very eyes. Corny but fun.

#28 – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011) I must admit that my disappointment with part one of this finale was fully redeemed with this satisfying ending. All the questions, some looming since the very beginning, are answered here although not always to fan’s hopes. Which is as is should be. My one complaint was that a lot of scenes seemed to be pilfered directly from other blockbusters including Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. How many times must we see hordes of evil creatures descending on an isolated hamlet backstopping the forces of good? How many times must we see the two most powerful characters, good vs evil, deploy mystical weapons against each other, streaming in mid air (conveniently in different colors), to determine which is stronger?

#29 – Charlie Chan in Egypt (1935) One of nearly fifty movies featuring the illustrious pulp-era Chinese sleuth (the first few being silent era films and many of the others now lost). Hard to believe that it’s been nearly 40 years since the last, loosely based on a real life Hawaiian detective of Chinese descent. Scored ten DVDs last week so I’ll be enjoying a few more. This one even has Stepin Fetchit who only adds to negative stereotypes depicted in these films. (The DVDs even include a warning lest some be offended.)

#30 – Watching the Detectives (2007) Not the Elvis Costello song but a film about a versed film buff (Cillian Murphy) who owns and runs a low key video rental store whose life gets turned around when he meets quirky Violet (Lucy Liu) who lives her life on the edge, moment by moment while playing sophisticated, agonizing pranks on him. Some pacing irritants but the characters make up for it. I must confess that I just loved all the movie references bantered between all the video store employees although the message of the film is to abandon viewing and start to live instead. Disingenuous as had I done that I wouldn’t have watched this film.

#31 – Fury (1936) This was Fritz Lang’s first American film after escaping an increasingly Nazi led Germany. Spencer Tracy is a hardworking, honest man saving every penny so that he can get married to the love of his life. But life throws him a curveball just as he has finally saved up enough and is on his way to meet his fiance when he is thrown in jail suspected of being a member of a group of kidnappers that have taken a child. As word of the capture spreads across the grapevine, the overzealous townsfolk have made up their mind and storm the jailhouse which is soon engulfed in flames. Miraculously managing to escape the inferno, the innocent man, now out for blood himself, decides to lay low as a number of the lynch mob are put on trial for his murder having established that they had the wrong man. Great suspense and pathos.

Movie Reviews 422 – The House that Dripped Blood (1970)

January 17, 2020

My love for The House that Dripped Blood began long before I saw the film. While there have been many horror films for which my adoration started from reading horror magazines as a kid, in this case it was not because of any article but rather the use of the gorier portion of movie poster (just look at it!) as part of the cover of the september 1971 issue (#86) of Famous Monsters. (Ironically not one of the countless acclaimed Basil Gogos painted covers for that magazine.)

While esteemed Hammer studios produced the bulk of the British horrors of the sixties and seventies, the smaller Amicus Productions who copied Hammer’s Bosoms and Blood formula were known for producing anthology films comprised of three or four self contained stories with a “wrapper” story that tied them all together. (Another fine anthology example being Black Sabbath).

Aside from the beautifully graphic gory poster (surprisingly actually relevant to one of the stories) this film stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee – horror royalty if there ever was – Jon Pertwee (best known as the third doctor in the Doctor Who TV series) and if that weren’t enough, scream queen Ingrid Pitt. I don’t think I would be alone in stating that in this case the house itself – with or without the blood – can be considered a character. While plain looking on the outside, the interior is full of old portraits, statuary, and beautiful ornate carvings. Just the perfect digs for a horror setting.

Famous Monsters issue #86, September 1971

Every one of the four segments in this anthology with styles range from dead serious to mildly amusing are solid stories.

In the first, a horror novelist and his wife rent the house for a short period so that he can finish his latest book. But almost as soon as they settle in the husband begins having apparitions of an ashen faced, gnarly smiling man both in and around the house. While he believes a character from the very book he is writing is the haunting entity, his wife cannot see this man. In the end, there is not one but two delicious twists to the story.

Next is the story of a recently retired stockbroker (Cushing) that buys the house hoping to relax in his golden years, reminiscing memories of some young past lover. As he strolls through the nearby town one afternoon he is enticed by a wax museum that catches his eye. Inside he is shocked when he comes across a ghastly exhibit of a woman holding a platter with a man’s severed head upon it. The troubling aspect is not the horror of the display but the fact that the woman depicted is clearly the woman whose memory he romanticizes.  When an old friend visits him they suffer the same shocking reaction to waxen woman. The woman is one they both loved at some point and both men feel compelled to return to the display. But the man is unable to convince his friend that going back can only lead to some heinous resolution. He was right on that point.

The story starring Christophe Lee has him moving into the house as a single parent to a very young girl. The live in tutor he hires for the daughter notices both his disassociation with the child and a number of strict odd rules he imposes including that she have absolutely no dolls. It turns out he had every good reason for those rules. Too bad the tutor did not know the real reasons before it was too late.

The last segment hilariously depicts Pertwee as conceited old horror actor making yet another vampire film with one of his usual vivacious co-stars (Pitt). Flouting his knowledge of horror and vampires, he purchases a cloak from an antique shop to be used in the film. Not only does the cloak have a surprise for him but so does his co-star. There one particularly clever line where Pertwee brags about his illustrious career playing Dracula while putting down “this new fellow”, clearly a comical reference to Christopher Lee who was at the time the de facto reigning Dracula at Hammer.

Cast aside, genre fans will immediately note the name in the credits of former pulp writer Robert Bloch, best known for penning the original Psycho novel, but who’s talents garnered him Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards.

While my heart will always be with Hammer when it comes to Gothic horror, films like this remind me that other studios like Amicus are good for an occasional bloody drip as well.

Movie Reviews 421 – Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

January 10, 2020

During the midst of the Italian Spaghetti Western craze other countries started to get in on the action, so to speak. Two Mules for Sister Sarah is a Mexican production that has the odd pairing of Clint Eastwood, the predominant Goombah oater at the time, with the whimsical Shirley MacLaine best known for her comedic talents.

What brought back memories of this movie was watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained and hearing the distinct whistling of Ennio Morricone’s great “The Braying Mule” theme song from this movie (you can hear a mule bray if you listen carefully) as well as “Sister Sara’s Theme” later in the film. But the relationship to Django Unchained is actually something of a triangle as there are distinct plot elements here that were lifted right from the original Django. For starters, this movie begins with our protagonist Hogan (Eastwood) meandering in the mountains when he suddenly comes across a damsel in distress, Sara (MacLaine) about to be raped by a group of armed thugs. With precision gunslinging Hogan picks of the ravagers like a 5-7-10 bowling split and ends up being accompanied by the woman, shocked to find out that she is a nun, the rest of the film. This is not only the exact same beginning as Django but the revelation of Sara’s true identity – which I’m not going to mention here as it would spoil the movie – is also nearly identical.

Hogan is on a mission to aide Mexican revolutionaries take out a French garrison in the city of Chihuahua with a promise to get half of the gold being held there should they succeed. As it turns out, Sara has intimate knowledge of the layout and defence of that garrison. A fortuitous meeting for a pair made in heaven – well at least the nun.

While evading the French cavalry who have a particular sore to settle with Sara, the duo avoid rattlesnakes and dynamite the odd trestle bridge making their way to the city. Dealing with her constant prayers, huge silver cross that Sara brandishes to ward off evil and her feisty temperament that is conveniently flexible to catholic doctrines whenever necessary, Hogan must fight off the urge to get his hands on his lovely companion who is much more than she claims to be. The two trade barbs as Brother and Sister children, polar opposites pitting his carefree, vagabond lifestyle against her feigned abstinence and purity.

The revelation isn’t much of a surprise but both the comedy and action are more than enough to sustain this odd western. The climactic battle pulls no punches and even has a bit of gore that would make Sam Peckinpah proud. Entertaining, but make no mistake that this is not anywhere near Eastwood as his Man with No Name spaghetti best.

Call this one a spaghettini western with a bit of salsa.

Movie Reviews 420 – Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)

January 3, 2020

Every now and then Godzilla is more than a giant dino-lizard stomping on cardboard buildings and miniature toy tanks at the foot of Mount Fuji. His humble beginnings in 1954 was nothing less than a symbolic warning of the dangers of nuclear power using thinly veiled references to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb drops as well as other actual tragic events such as the Daigo Fukuryū Maru. But over the years his solemnity has wavered, sometimes regressing to the point of being little more than kiddie oriented comic relief. But look a little closer and there are others inklings of social commentary sandwiched in between the bursts of atomic breath and tail wagging destruction.

While the world continued to fret as the superpowers continued the arms race buildup towards the end of the sixties, another new, man made threat was rearing its ugly head. The smokestacks of factory furnaces and the mass consumer desire to have a car in front of every house was taking a toll on the planet. Pollution. The air was filled with smog and the oceans were filled with oil slicked flotillas of garbage. Once again Godzilla was called on to deliver a message.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (AKA Godzilla vs.The Smog Monster) has our heroic behemoth fighting off a creature born in the Japanese waters from particulates that not only live and grow but combine to form a single entity. A scientist and his young son come across an oversized tadpole-like creature and within days news coverage in the area start reporting that a much larger creature is menacing the coast and destroying ships. The kid’s wishes that his hero Godzilla comes to their rescue come to fruition, but ol’ Zilla has his hands full as the creature undergoes multiple, ever-bigger transformations from the ‘tadpole’ to a flying raylike monster and finally an oversized bug eyed pile of slimy detritus.

Facing a barrage of fiery balls of ooze, a corrosive trail and a sulfuric mist, Gozilla seems overmatched, and while they do have a plan of action, the authorities and bumbling army don’t seem to be much help. But together, man and Godzilla must put Hedorah down with nothing less than the fate of the world at stake.

Social commentary aside, this movie boasts a number of oddities including a few cartoon animated sequences (sadly not good ones) and a few songs, one melodically sung in a delightfully psychedelic night club. I have no idea what the lyrics meant but with the superimposed images I was pretty sure it delivered a sombre message matching the movie’s theme.

The rubber suited battles are as fun as always and the variant designs of the Hedorah evolutionary stages are truly unique in terms of monster originality. There are some exceptionally rare human carnage and gory wounds, even bodies melting into skeletons, but the more horrific images are those of litter strewn seabeds and black spewing smokestacks.

So where are at now with pollution nearly fifty years since this movie was released? The good news is that the air, while still hazardous in places and on occasion just as unhealthy, is nonetheless noticeably a lot better than it was. While we have cleaned up our parks and cities some of that garbage has not only ended up in the oceans but has created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – it’s never a good thing when it actually has a name – twice the size of Texas. And of course today we have yet another man made global issue in Climate Change which is worse and even harder to remedy (if even possible at this point).

I’d like to think that perhaps Godzilla needs to be summed for yet another mission saving our collective asses but we didn’t seem to take much notice last time he tried.

Movie Reviews 419 – Mad Detective (2007)

December 27, 2019

I found Johnnie To’s PTU to be a bit overrated but thought I’d give the director  another chance with Mad Detective, yet another one of his staple cop/detective films, this time co-directed with Wai Ka-Fai. Unlike the enigmatic PTU, in this case the title pretty much says it all. But don’t think that the Mad attribute is one meaning feigned dementia à la Mel “Riggs” Gibson in Lethal Weapon or terror inducing Jack like The Shining. What we have here is insanity in its purest form.

The movie begins with flashbacks of detective Bun (Ching Wan Lau) skillfully solving a number of murders using the most bizarre of sleuthing techniques to puzzle out the whodunits. Slicing a pig carcass to determine slash angles. Repeatedly rolling a colleague down a staircase while zipped in a suitcase only to proclaim that he has solved a murder based on the resulting bruises. And slashing off his own ear at the retirement ceremony of his superior.

But at some point (probably the Van Gogh self mutilation imitation incident) the force has had enough with his strange antics and he is put to pasture. That is until rookie detective Ho Ka-On (Andy On) comes knocking at his door. Professing his admiration for the legendary Bun he asks him to help him solve a baffling case, one involving other cops.

Ho explains that 18 months earlier an officer disappeared after he and his partner Chi-Wai (Lam Ka-Tung) chased a suspect into a forest. Chi-Wai, a cop with a sullied reputation and thus the prime, was interrogated repeatedly but claimed he did not know what had happened to his partner. But the real problem that the authorities have now is that there has been a rash of fatal robberies and the gun used in those belonged to that missing officer.

Bun agrees to help and when asked by Ho what is the secret to his success claims that he has a gift in that he can see the ‘inner selves’ of people and therefore know their true intentions beyond any facade they may be putting on. And that ‘vision’ reveals that Chi-Wai has not one alter ego but seven! Now the clearly insane Bun has to determine which, if any, of Chi-Wai’s alter egos is capable of murder.

This film requires viewers to adjust to not only the insanity induced visions that are only in Bun’s mind – some of which are skillfully filmed so as not to be obvious at first – but also how Bun often interacts with alter egos rather than the characters they represent. Chi-Wai’s alter egos (always shown together in place of Chi-Wai from Bun’s point of view) include a headstrong woman, a chubby weakling and one who is ready to pop a bullet at any opportunity. But is Chi-Wai guilty?

As the movie progresses we begin to comprehend the degree of Bun’s madness and the labyrinthine world he lives in and in which Ho is slowly drawn into. The action sequences are nicely balanced by the sombre revelations of Buns reasons behind his descent into insanity and baring a few of Ho’s inner demons as well.

Crazy film but in a good way.

Movie Reviews 418 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

December 20, 2019

Bogie and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Jolie and Pitt. These were the Hollywood power couples whose romances captured headlines fueled by adoring fan’s fascination for the rich, famous, and lens worthy. Rising above all of those were Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whose tantalizing trysts sizzled the tabloids as much for their public battles as for their romances. Twice married to each other and then divorced (among the multiple other trips down the matrimonial aisle), their respective careers had many ups and downs, but without a doubt their pairing in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is easily the pinnacle of their collaboration and their best respective career performances.

Martha and George (Taylor and Burton) come home late one night from a party held by her father, the head of a University. Almost as soon as they arrive, the bickering begins. George is a languishing History professor going nowhere and with no real ambition. Martha makes clear her disgust with him not having been able to advance even being the school president’s daughter. As he is about to head to bed she tells him she’s invited over a young couple that was at the earlier party for a few late night drinks. When Nick (George Segal), a newly arrived biology professor and recent bride Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive, they find themselves in the middle of a battlefield of put-downs, candid revelations and accusations.

Based on a play by Edward Albee (more on that later), the four characters ramble through a long night indulgent imbibing as the young couple are used as both weapons and targets for Martha and George. Along the way Nick and Honey discover that they are more like their hosts than they are willing to admit. But some other forces are at work here. There are cryptic references to a child among the flirtation, slurs, denunciations and confessions.

The script is an intricately layered jigsaw that is just as sharp today as it was when this film was getting the accolades. All four cast members where deservingly nominated for Oscars – the women winning theirs. While the knives are wielded throughout the night, the onslaught wavers. While mostly at each other’s throats, their are poignant respites between George and Martha. And like a good puzzle, the last piece is satisfyingly fitting. The lines “You have history on your side. I have biology on mine” is but one of many clever double entendres.

If there could be a fifth character it would have to be the incessantly swirling liquor that flows through both couples to the point that peeling labels of bottles is something of a theme. And that ‘game’ is part of the overall ‘couples playing games’ theme. Everything is a game of sorts including a parlor game called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in reference to the title.

The play was selected by the jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but was shamefully rejected by the award committee due to its subject matter and language. Thankfully the film remains for us to enjoy the electrifying performances, the simple but mesmerizing low key theme song, and exceptionally brilliant script.

A timeless classic. No need to be afraid of watching this one.

Movie Reviews 417 – Nightmare Beach (1988)

December 13, 2019

Nightmare Beach (A.K.A Welcome to Spring Break) is not one of those 80’s juvenile hormonal beach frolic films where a bunch guys just want to get laid in a sea of bikini clad babes while swilling beer and ogling wet T-shirt contests. Oh, it has all that to be sure. But behind the sand strewn beaches of spring break mecca Fort Lauderdale is a twisted serial killer leaving a path of well tanned murdered grisly bodies.

The assumed culprit is a biker gang leader named Diablo who we see frying in the electric chair  at the beginning of the film while proclaiming his innocence and vowing revenge from the dead. His ire is squarely aimed at police officer Strycher (genre film stalwart John Saxon) who he claims framed him for the murder of a teenager. The assembled execution audience includes a smirking Strycher and Gail (Sarah Buxton) the older sister of the murdered teen who watch with the rest of the gallery as Diablo sizzles.

When Diablo’s grave is later found to have been unearthed and students – or ‘breakers’ as they are called – start dying in various gruesome ways. The town mayor and Strycker want to keep it hushed up at the risk of losing their cash cow of visitors at the peak of the season. To keep it quiet they blackmail one the resident doctors (Michael Parks) to cite obvious incorrect cause of death assessments for the growing list of bodies.

The killer rides around town on a full geared up travelling motorcycle wearing a helmet with full face shade visor, thus creating the legend that Diablo has returned from the grave to enact his vengeance. One of the victims was the wisecracking best friend of a jock named Skip (Nicolas de Toth) who has been hanging around one the the watering holes trying to figure out his buddy’s sudden disappearance. He soon teams up with Gail who is working as a waitress at the bar and the two set out to lure this mysterious rider out and find out the truth behind the rumours.

Arguably directed by Umberto Lenzi of Nightmare City fame or screenwriter Harry Kirkpatrick depending on who you believe, this italian production (originally titled La spiaggia del terrore) takes more than a few cues from Jaws but stays firmly in the street killer mode. While the first few kills are literally electric, the spree continues with a number of novel killing moves. The sleaze factor is bolstered by some light comedy from a promiscuous call girl who leads a string of older Johns to visit her room in the hotel – each falling for a different sob story for some extra cash – and a pervy hotel clerk who sneaks peeks on the proceeding with a closet spyhole.

While not as satisfactory as other Italian giallos of the era, fans will instantly delight in the techno score by Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti. I do have to admit that the final reveal was a bit of a surprise and helps bringing this one closer to home. That is if you’re at home with thong bikinis, car chases, slashing, strangling, and lots of blood.