Movie Reviews 396 – Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

June 14, 2019

For decades Ray Harryhausen was a household name when it came to stop motion animation sequences in feature films. Having been inspired by Willis O’Brien’s King Kong in 1933, the teenaged Harryhausen began creating his own household menagerie of creatures that he then crudely filmed in 8mm. Before his career ended he had given us science fiction classics that include It Came from Beneath the Sea (based on a Ray Bradbury story) and  H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon. But Harryhausen will forever be remembered for the creatures he created for his fantasy films including three Sinbad the Sailor films and the original Clash of the Titans. Jason and the Argonauts may not have been his best overall film, but it is certainly as creature crammed as the rest and notably contained his most challenging and visually stunning achievement, the incredible skeleton pack battle.

The story, based on Greek mythology, has the heroic Jason (Todd Armstrong) round up a crew of brave, athletic and skilled men (Hercules among them) in a quest to find the Golden Fleece as they sail the seas in their trireme, the Argo . It’s actually an overly complicated setup that includes prophecies, roman army sieges, slaying of royal offspring, but most importantly all under the influence and meddling of Greek gods playing chess in Olympus (as they always tend to do in such films). In fact Jason’s fate lies in the hands of the god Hera (Todd Armstrong) who guides Jason throughout the journey and is ever present for consultation as the rear figurehead on the Argo that occasionally comes to life.

Their journey has them doing battles with Talos a gargantuan bronze statue, two winged, shrieking Harpies endlessly aggravating a blind man, and a seven headed serpentine Lernaean Hydra. One of the lesser special effects in the film (not involving Harryhausen I should add) does have us endure a ridiculously mundane looking Triton (nothing but a man shot against a miniaturized background) holding back the so called Clashing Rocks to make way for the Argo.

But the spectacle of the film will always be the finale featuring the famous skeleton battle. Seven bony bipeds emerge right from the ground and clash with Jason and two cohorts among Grecian ruins next to an ocean cliff. Brandishing swords and shields Harryhausen painstakingly choreographed every swing and counter save bringing what in reality were no more than 12 inch miniatures to life. The shooting is all the more impressive because the battle included three humans, requiring miniatures of them for some of the shots and more impressively coordinating the battle to blend with the moving, live action actors for most of it. Harryhausen’s finest few minutes that took months to shoot.

This film is particularly memorable for me as I was not only able to see it on a large cinema screen in 2005, but at a special viewing in which Harryhausen himself attended and where I met him personally, however briefly.

With modern computer generated special effects today any imaginable creature or scene can be realistically rendered so, sadly, younger contemporary audiences relegate Harryhausen films as archaic and perhaps ‘cute’ novelties. But to myself, and a lot of other more appreciative fans, this will always be nothing short of cinema magic.

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Movie Reviews 395 – When a Stranger Calls (1979)

June 8, 2019

I clearly remember the chilling tag line from the TV trailer ad. “Have you checked the children?” Without context, it is a benign question and bears no terror. But as we learn in When a Stranger Calls when told to a lone babysitter, late at night from an anonymous caller, it is a chilling omen of ill tidings.

Jill Johnson (Carol Kane) is the babysitter who first receives the repeating calls, which progresses from ignoring it as a wrong number, mistaking it as a prank from a friend, becoming concerned enough to put in call to police to finally realizing that the caller is watching her every move. When she learns the calls were traced to the house itself, Jill runs to the door to be shocked not by the killer but by season cop John Clifford (Charles Durning).

But this is curdling sequence all that takes place in the first fifteen minutes or so. We learn that, yes, the children were already far gone by the time those phone calls were made and all Clifford and his team can do is console the sitter and family.

We cut to seven years later and hear how the perpetrator that night was Curt Duncan (Tony Beckley) a lone English sailor, but that he has now escaped. Clifford has retired from the force and is now a private investigator and upon hearing of the escape, the father of the murdered children that night hires him to find Duncan. But Clifford is way ahead on this one. So troubling was the case that he has decided that should he get his hands on Duncan he intends to end the problem once and for all.

Working with information provided by a sympathetic force commander who was also present that night, Clifford learns that Duncan is prowling around a particular neighborhood and has had an odd encounter with a woman he met in bar (Colleen Dewhurst). With that information he enlists her help to nab Duncan but soon finds out that Duncan has not finished with Jill, now socialite and mother of her own. And once a again, Duncan is dialling up a storm.

The problem with this film is that once it has spent it’s dread in those first few minutes it becomes a mediocre police drama. I actually liked the touch that an actor with the middle age physique of Durning was used instead of the stereotypical young and fit cop but that same realism also shatters the credibility when Durning engages in prolonged chase scenes with Duncan. Even some of best parts of this film are really rethreads. The ‘inside the house caller’ schtick was effective in 1974’s Black Christmas. The psycho killer was already masterfully done in Manhunter (the first true Hannibal Lecter film) and … well Psycho. Even the vigilante cop routine had already been cemented long prior by Dirty Harry.

Sorry to say that I don’t share the love of this film that others have plied on it to the point that even a remake was cobbled together in 2006. So my advice on how to deal with this stranger calling is simply to hang up.

Movie Reviews 394 – Rashomon (1950)

May 31, 2019

When Rashomon premiered outside Japan in 1950 the world was introduced not only to the great director Akira Kurosawa but also to one of the country’s most distinguished actors, Toshiro Mifune.

The tale of a couple travelling through a forest who meet Tajōmaru, a bandit (Mifune) who ends up raping the woman plays like a case study of human values, or the lack thereof. The narrative is presented as flashbacks while the story is told to a stranger from a village woodcutter who remains dumbfounded by what was proffered during the trial of the events.

The fundamental of the events are not in question. The bandit did rape the woman (Machiko Kyō), and in the end the husband (Masayuki Mori), a Samurai, was murdered. But exactly who murdered the husband and why remains to be determined. The trial recounts the events as told by the bandit, the woman, and even her dead husband (as told through a medium).

Tajōmaru boastingly confesses to the rape after luring the husband away and tying him to a tree, but says that the woman, defensive at first, soon became a more than willing participant in the act. The bandit then simply wanted to free her husband but at the woman’s instance to kill the husband, opted for a duel in which he won fairly and with honour.

The woman’s version has her returning to her husband only to see his accusatory eyes. After pleading with him to then kill her with a dagger, she fainted only to awaken and find the dagger embedded in her dead husband.

The Samurai’s version has Tajōmaru asking the woman to depart with him and to just let her husband free. But he then shockingly hears her tell Tajōmaru to kill her husband. Tajōmaru refuses her ghastly request (which actually has the husband regain respect for the bandit). Angered by the bandit’s refusal to do her bidding she runs away leaving the Samurai to then take his own life.

The woodcutter gives all three accounts to the stranger and a priest as they are holed up the in ruins of a city gate (Rashōmon) as they await the end of a torrential rainfall. But he then surprises them with yet another account, his own, as hidden witness to the events. But he was unwilling become involved and testify at the trial. His version, an amalgam of the other three, is just bad as the others in terms of righteousness.

And this is the crux of the tale. Regardless of whose point of view is the truthful version of events, the one common factor with all is that in the end none of the characters are untainted. It is this pitiful realization that make the woodcutter despondent. But the film ends on an even more surprising note once the tale is told and one last distasteful event addresses the question of whether humanity’s redemption is possible.

Kurosawa’s flair for novel storytelling technique’s is already evident in this, one of his earliest films. While we see and hear all the trial testimony, the judge or panel is neither heard nor seen, merely implied. His knack for creative framing and shooting stances was already well developed as was his tendency to have the weather be part of the story (watch the intensity of the rain as the movie progresses). And as always, underneath his mastery, there is a darn good yarn to enjoy.

Movie Reviews 393 – Prom Night (1980)

May 27, 2019

The high school prom can either be a terrifically exciting event or a dreaded affair depending on an adolescent’s social standing, milieu of friends and most of all, dating status. But in horror films proms take center stage and sovereign standing even greater than any queen and king.

The high school prom was first featured prominently (get it? prom-inently) in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie, a story about a girl with supernatural abilities. But with the huge success of John Carpenter’s Halloween the 80’s became the decade of slasher horror cinema and one early entrant was Prom Night which also borrowed the services Halloween’s star and newly minted scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis.

The film begins with a flashback to four young kids, Wendy, Jude, Kelly, and Nick playing Hide’n’Seek in an abandoned building. We then shift to three other young kids immediately outside, walking to school. When Kim, the eldest of the three, realizes she’s forgotten something back home she urges her siblings to continue the walk without her. Her little sister Robin hears the other kids playing inside and wants to join them while her brother Alex refuses. But once inside, Robin becomes the target of taunting and is chased until she backed against into a second floor window. Her tormentors, pressed by Wendy, persist until the inevitable deadly crash to the pavement. The four kids then take an oath of silence.

Six years later Kim (Curtis) and her brother (Michael Tough) are enduring the usual shenanigans and anxieties as they are about to graduate from high school under the watchful eye of the school principal, their father (Leslie Nielsen).  Robin’s murder was never solved and the guilty kids,now all grown up have gone on to lead regular lives. Kim and Nick are even dating, and Kelly is one of Kim’s best friends. Wendy however is still a bitch, moreso since Nick dumped her before falling for Kim, him never having mustered up the courage to tell Kim he was partially responsible for Robin’s death.

But there is another card being played by a mysterious killer who has been phoning the four perpetrators. Could it be the sexual predator who took the fall for the murder, now having just escaped from prison? Perhaps it’s the creepy looking janitor?

This film was one that tried to capitalize on the Disco dancing craze with the horror slasher motif and frankly it was an odd mix then, and stands out like a sore thumb now. Even the surprise ending isn’t all that hard to figure out when looking back on certain emphasized scenes. But it does deliver on a few good true to form ‘slashes’ and even a gloriously fake plastic head decapitation under the rays of a disco mirror ball.

For what it’s worth, many horror fans regard Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II one of those rare instances where the sequel is even better than the original. I’ll soon find out as I’ve got the Prom Night Collection box set with the four movies in the arc. I’ve never picked up the 2008 remake, but from what I hear, that is probably a good thing.

Movie Reviews 392 – Danger: Diabolik (1968)

May 17, 2019

Some of you may recall my review of Les Diaboliques the magnificent French thriller by director Henri-Georges Clouzot starring Simone Signoret. That film had it all. Dynamic performances. European easygoing, yet thought provoking pace which at the same time delivers a nerve-wracking murder plot.  A love triangle with a unique feminist twist. In a nutshell a groundbreaking classic.

Well the similarly titled Danger: Diabolik has none of that. And yet…

Sculpted from a completely different cinematic mold, this Italian production based on a fumetti (Italian term for comics) was brought to us by Dino De Laurentiis, the man who also produced  such campy fare as Flash Gordon, Conan the Destroyer, King Kong (the World Trade Center version), and notably in this case Barbarella. In the right hands, in this case being director Mario Bava, the patriarch of Italian horror cinema (Black Sabbath, Black Sunday and Planet of the Vampires), this cult-favorite anti-hero is faithfully transformed from print to screen without losing any of the outlandish premise, characterizations or artistry of the source material.

Thwarted by every attempt to capture him, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) and his statuesque sidekick Eva (Marisa Mell) stage elaborate high priced crimes across the land much to the chagrin of police inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli) who also has to placate the politicians (one being everyone’s favorite gap-toothed comedian Terry Thomas) as he tries to apprend the headline grabbing foe. As Diabolik keeps one step ahead of each trap set – and making off with the bait – Ginko turns to another criminal, mobster Valmont (Adolfo Celi, the eye patched SPECTRE agent in Thunderball) to help him by capturing Eva. But one daring plane jump and a few theatrics later (including death itself) Diabolic and Eva are reunited only to fall for Ginko’s surprise backup plan. But does a molten gold body cast really spell the end of Diabolik?

Part Austin Powers with all the James Bond gadgetry, part Phantom of the Paradise, Bava’s colorful cinematography and use of fisheye lenses delivers an action packed story with all the rampant zaniness of the 60’s wrapped in the flamboyant fashion of the times. Speaking of the cinematography, comic readers will recognize how the framing of many shots in the film are indicative of comic panels, sometimes in the most clever ways. Aside from Andy Warhol zeitgeist, viewers will revel in Diabolik’s secret, subterranean lair, second  only to the Batcave. One thing that you probably could not pull off today is the concept of a sympathetic terrorist, but during the counterculture movement, this was palatable to a degree. All this and a music score by maestro Ennio Morricone to boot!

My Paramount DVD contained an exceptional special feature documentary in which comic artist, Stephen Bissette (clearly a huge fan of the film and original comic) presents many details that went into the adaptation, in some cases from original panel to scenes. And you have to check out the Beastie Boys Body Movin’ hommage video track.

Movie Reviews 391 – Five Fingers of Death (1972)

May 9, 2019

What can I say about a movie with a title like Five Fingers of Death? Anyone who’s even vaguely familiar with Kung Fu movies of the 70’s have already memorized the tropes and repetitive plot threads that were plucked and strung together by the Hong Kong studios churning out these films to milk the Kung Fu craze at the time.

In the case of Five Fingers of Death the items from that checklist case includes:

  1. A superior martial arts school run by the disciplined and respectful ‘good guys’
  2. A competing inferior fighting school run by the law breaking thug ‘bad guys’ who are clearly jealous of (1) above.
  3. A wise elderly martial arts master hoping to pass on his skill to a young protégé.
  4. A ‘Big Championship Competition’ coming up in which the ‘bad guys’ hope to finally usurp the ‘good guys’(usually by cheating).
  5. A rarely used but powerful fighting technique known only to the sagest masters that is only to be used judiciously and for admirable causes.
  6. Last but not least, a budding young fighter must prove his worth to be admitted to ‘good’ school and win the heart of a lovely woman.

Without going into any overly detailed plot description beyond the above, our protagonist is Chao Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) who joins Sun Hsin-Pei’s (Mien Fang) illustrious martial arts school (entry level dishwasher to start) after his mentor’s daughter Ying Ying (Wang Ping) is accosted by the goons of the local bully Meng Tung-Shun (Tien Feng). Once there, Chin-Hao soon reigns over his peer fighters and is soon proclaimed as the school representative in the upcoming championship. This make him the target of of the rival school which, not surprisingly, is run by Tung-Shun himself.

The varied battles and brawls throughout the film are enhanced by a trio of Japanese assassins brought in by the bad guys, a huge muscular Mongolian taking on anyone willing to wager a battle (the unmistakable Bolo Yeung as featured in JCVD’s Bloodsport), and a travelling singer who tries to charm Chih-Hao. Further drama is provided by another student who turns traitor when Chih-Hao takes his place as the school’s best fighter.

And what’s with those Five Fingers in the title? That represents the all powerful “Iron Fist” technique that Chih-Hao learns in which his hands glow bright red and basically makes him invincible. There seems to have been a thing for the quintet slanted title as other films like Five Deadly Venoms and Five Element Ninjas were part of a trend. (Although clearly both of his hands glow so if you ask me Ten Fingers of Death, would have been more apropos, n’est-ce pas?)

Produced by the great Run Run Shaw, this was indeed a Shaw Brothers release however it predates those that featured the iconic gong ring clip and the shield SB logo so familiar from their later films. While the SB style is not as evident, the use of multiple titles was already an established game, as alternate titles for this film include King Boxer and The Invincible Boxer, and likely a handful of others.

While not as impressive today (although still an exceptional movie) it was one of the forerunners that started the North American Kung Fu Mania well before the emergence of Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon which really opened the floodgates and had kids flailing homemade nunchucks. Going back to that list above, what makes Five Fingers of Death truly remarkable was that the filmmakers were not necessarily recycling those tropes, they were creating of them!

Movie Reviews 390 – The Shuttered Room (1967)

May 3, 2019

Did you ever remember a movie from your childhood where you can vividly recollect a number of particular scenes and the gist of the film and yet the title totally eludes you? Worse yet, any attempt to question others in search of an answer elicits nothing but blank stares? A few months ago my brother brought up such a film that we both saw as kids long, long ago which was terrifying enough to that we still remembered certain scenes. Being so young at the time neither of us had even an inkling of a title. But as the cinephile in the family (and more than a bit familiar with classic horror as this blog hopefully has proven)  I thought I should be able to deduce that fleeting title fairly quickly with a few well crafted internet searches. My first attempts were fruitless and the title dogged me for more than a month and after talking about it with my brother on a second visit I was determined to track that sucker down.

I didn’t have much to go on. We both remembered some feral woman either peeking through a barbed hole and otherwise spying on people, the main object of her prying eyes being another woman, her lovely sister. The only other thing I could remember was a haggard looking grey haired elderly lady and that in the finale she and the wild woman burn among the flames of a building fire.

It took awhile but I finally came up with a title – The Shuttered Room – and promptly managed to secure a copy.  In the back of my mind I worried that watching the film today would not live up to my childhood memories and that I may regret finding a turd erasing my fond recollection. My only glimmer of hope was seeing Oliver Reed as one of the stars.

The story is basically about a newlywed (Carol Lynley) reluctantly returning to her childhood home at the urging of her husband (Gig Young).  Sarah Whately has only vague memories of the place and even her parents, never having understood the circumstances in which she was ushered away as a child to be reared in a foster home. Almost as soon as the couple arrive on the island on which her ancestral home is located and Sarah’s identity is revealed to the locals the couple receive a frosty welcome with dire warnings to pack up and leave immediately for their own good. A chance encounter with a bunch of rowdy youths led by Ethan (Reed), Sarah’s cousin, is no more cordial but does come with an invitation to visit her aunt Agatha (Flora Robson) who basically gives the same warning, claiming a “Whately Curse” that has claimed many victims.

But the couple are determined to stay overnight in the mill house despite Sarah’s sporadic feelings of unease. Before long victims do surface as the mysterious individual keeps a keen eye on Sarah and other visitors. Before the couple end up as victims themselves aunt Agatha fesses up to the truth and takes matters into her own hands to end the ‘curse’.

Not only did this movie live up to my memories but I can honestly say that as I watched it and other memories clicked in my mind, it deepened my appreciation for this forgotten jewel of a thriller. Based on a short story by horror heavyweights H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth, the film is rife with rattling scenes. From the very beginning in which a man is riding a pallet dragged by a pickup truck next to a barbed wire fence to it’s chilling frankensteinian ending, this film will chill and tingle. The ambiance of the gloomy English coast – I didn’t buy into the notion that this was supposed to be somewhere in Massachusetts – is a perfect setting. While there are little things like a focus on Sarah’s old doll house and Agatha’s servant’s infatuation by hosiery that add to the atmosphere, Reed of course caps all the performances as he was at the peak of his ‘bad boy’ years with the real life facial scars – prominent here – to prove it.

This is not a perfect movie by any means. The prelude to the film gives us a pretty good idea to who and what is up in that attic but leaves just enough to entice us to get the details.Gig was well beyond Lynley in age to their relationship being even remotely believable even as a May-December romance. But the parts that do work do so remarkably. It’s time this movie gets the credit it deserves and that starts by giving it your attention.

Movie Reviews 389 – The Great White Hope (1970)

April 26, 2019

The Great White HopeJack Johnson was probably the greatest heavyweight boxer that ever lived. With all due respect to Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson was ‘The Greatest’ from a fighting statistics point of view with 77 wins (48 of them by knock out), 13 loses, and 14 ties. But as in the case of Ali, what qualifies Johnson as the greatest are not just the ring stats but more so the life battles he fought outside the ring.

Johnson’s biopic The Great White Hope (based on a book of the same name) stars a very young James Earl Jones in the title role (inexplicably renamed Jack Jefferson) which captures Johnson’s struggles after he ascends the ring throne as heavyweight champion in a segregationist Jim Crow America.

While boxers of African American descent not only form the majority but dominate the sport today, back in 1908 this was hardly the case when Johnson won the title. The white powers that be, not only within the sports association but within the US federal government itself, were not happy to say the least. To them, having a brash, outspoken black man imposing superiority over caucasians in any form was considered a potential festering pot for a class rebellion and a rallying point for insurgency. Making matters worse was Johnson penchant for white women, namely his wife Eleanor (Jane Alexander), an indiscretion many considered even worse than his boxing success.

One possible solution envisioned by his foes was to have a white man win the title back – hence “The Great White Hope“- and this resulted in what many people refer as “The Fight of the Century” when the former white champion was coaxed out of retirement for what many considered a sure bet to secure the title. When that fails the government decides to twist the interpretation of The Mann act (a.k.a the White-Slave Traffic Act) to arrest Johnson.

Facing a few years in prison he flees the country and after a few short stops in Europe the couple end up in Mexico, living in dire poverty, a far cry from the lavish lifestyle Johnson once flaunted. But Johnson stubbornly refuses to return to face his sentence and continues to maintain his boxing form despite not having any worthy fights until he is offered a chance to have his sentence reduced, but only if he takes a fall in a fixed match. His stubbornness has already cost him dearly, but will he now throw in the real towel along with the proverbial towel?

I recall seeing this film as a child and even then Jones’ deep and forceful voice made a lasting impression. The performance perfectly captures the bold thundering character of the pugilist taking the world on his shoulders. Bowing to no man (or woman), Johnson is no stooge to anyone, admonishing even those blacks who are only rooting for him because of his color.

Most people have enjoyed many a James Earl Jones performance over the years, but probably haven’t taken in the marvel of the youthful actor in his prime effectively using that booming voice to earn an Oscar best actor nomination (as did Alexander for her performance). You may enjoy the performances, or you may learn a thing or two about history and one particular man, but either way, you can’t lose. Just like Johnson.

Movie Reviews 388 – The Nest (1987)

April 19, 2019

It’s been a while since I dipped into the B-Movie realm of Roger Corman so I thought it was high time to stir up that nest. In fact this week I’ll be reviewing exactly that, The Nest which was produced by Corman but not directed by him.

Set on the remote island town of North Port, this film includes many of the usual clichés of low budget horror thrillers that borrow heavily from preceding blockbusters like Jaws as well as adding elements from the recipe of ingredients for these ‘science gone awry’ movies.

We begin with the mandatory greedy corporation breaking rules and regulations while keeping nosy residents in the dark in the guise of property developer Intec corporation. They need a compliant elected official which we have in the form of a short sighted mayor Elias (Robert Lansing) who risks the town for what he believes is a profitable venture. Our flawed but heroic protagonist is Richard (Frank Luz) the young sheriff who is despised by the mayor having inherited the job when his father, the former sheriff, passed away. The requisite love interest role is filled by Beth (Lisa Langlois) who left Richard for the big city and who’s dad happens to be mayor Elias which is yet another reason for the animosity between the men. And the last, but not least, final ingredient is the evil scientist performing unsanctioned biological experiments dutifully fulfilled by entomologist Dr. Morgan Hubbard (Terri Treas).

The stars of the movie are the bane of mankind since time immemorial: cockroaches. The evil deed in question is introduction of genetically altered roaches that were supposed to do nothing more that eat other roaches and then roll over and just die – a superbug that would end the pestilence of these bugs once and for all. But instead of dutifully dying as intended the superbugs have adapted and not only keep growing in numbers have now developed an immunity to the only chemical that will kill them.

As usual in Corman films, while sating our lowest common desires for cheap thrills and creatures he is smart enough to make sure these films have other redeeming qualities, just enough to have them qualify as ‘fun’ viewing. Most it it here delivered in the form of Homer (Stephen Davies) the goofball local exterminator (excuse me “Pest Control Agent”) who ends up trying to help Richard when the entire Island is threatened with annihilation. With the exception of cool boxing bag sized hanging nest sacs and some eviscerated dogs, the special effects are pretty tame. But there is one lively scene in which a diner infestation is repulsed with the bugs being fried, toasted, blended, microwaved, and spatulated(!) all to the rhythmic harmony of La Cucaracha playing on the radio.

There have been other bug movies in the past that are been much better. The original series or Cronenberg remake of The Fly. The broader category of all insects as miscreants in Bug (based on the novel The Hephaestus Plague) or more recently del Toro’s Mimic and it’s sequels. But if you want to watch a 80’s pop infused fun movie, The Nest is a fine film to roost in. And if you want to see some other nests stirred up by Corman himself (which includes a rare cameo of him acting) check out The Wasp Woman.

 

Movie Reviews 387 – Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

April 12, 2019

Back in the silent era of Hollywood films, American audiences began embracing certain actors over others almost as soon as films became popular. As text boxes filled the audio gap, something on those celluloid frames, whether it was pure looks, facial expressions or specific actions, made some screen personalities stand out and “Stars” were born. Charlie Chaplin was the comedy master as “the tramp”, Rudolph Valentino captured the hearts of women, while Lillian Gish was equally effective captivating young men. Among those ranks was one other surprising star that made his mark by completely transforming his looks from one film to the next; Lon Chaney. So imaginative was his ability to create unique caricatures that he quickly became billed as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”.

James Cagney takes on the title role in Chaney’s biopic Man of a Thousand Faces made nearly thirty years after his passing in which the makeup is peeled back to reveal a number of hardships he had to endure as well as his less endearing qualities, all while changing the rules to become the face – well faces – of horror. The film begins with Chaney already living the life of an entertainer as a vaudeville clown with his wife Cleva (Dorothy Malone) a singer. Cleva’s professional setbacks keep Chaney on the road but the couple are overjoyed when they learn they are expecting.

But when Cleva insists that she must finally meet Chaney’s family with the news of a coming child, Lon can barely suppress his horror at the thought. He has kept a dark secret from her. While he and his siblings are all completely normal, both his mother and father are deaf. But Chaney cannot muster the courage to tell her and Cleva only learns the truth upon her arrival. Shocked and unable to contain her fears that her own child may be born impaired, she storms out. Their relationship remains sour and despite reassurances from Lon that all will be fine it is only after the birth of their healthy son Creighton do the couple return to happier times.

But that respite is short lived as Cleva decides to resurrect her career and gains a following of her own, one surpassing even Lon who is still performing as a stage clown. The marriage finally crumbles with Cleva’s infidelity and hints of Lon himself eyeing chorus girl Hazel (Jane Greer). But the split leaves Lon with the only thing he desires, his son. However juggling a performer’s career while raising a child is less than ideal and authorities eventually place Creighton in a foster home until Lon can provide him with a real home.

It is this hell bent need for a steady income that brings Lon to Hollywood, but one there he learns that Vaudeville veterans do not have a leg up and he is one of hundreds seeking work as extras. Noting that extras are chosen on a daily basis according to whatever character types are needed for scenes, he brings along his trusty makeup kit and in minutes of learning what the daily call up sheets require, makes himself suitable. Whether it be scarred pirates, dark toned Asians, or any other character, Chaney is ready. Working tirelessly he inches up his career with bit parts until his big break in a scene in the film The Miracle Man. The scene in which he transforms in front of our very eyes from a hobbled cripple dragging twisted legs to a standing perfect figure earns him accolades and recognition.

After that, there is no looking back.  Now married to Hazel and with Creighton back in their home, Lon works hand in hand with the studio head to tackle one character after another. Film after film, his legend and fame grows. But when Cleva returns one day wanting to see her son, Lon’s darker side is revealed. And when a persistent cough turns out to be much more, only his friends and family can make his last days happy ones.

The film is entertaining as it presents both Lon acting in his most famous roles as it does his real life trials and tribulations. The film highlights a parade of drawings that capture a multitude of famous caricatures that he created over his career which are shown as both on-set, framed art and as scene transitions. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the pointed teeth ghoul in London after Midnight (considered the holy grail of lost films) and of course his most famous role of all, The Phantom of the Opera, with that unforgettable unmasking scene are all revived here.

While those folks who are well aware of Lon Chaney will certainly get a kick out of seeing this biopic, I think there is enough drama in his life story to make this an interesting watch for anyone. Horror fans will certainly pick up on the fact that Creighton later adopted the stage name Lon Chaney Jr. and went on to have a long illustrious career in horror movies himself. Perhaps we’ll see a movie of his life as well some day.