Friday, April 28, 2017

#2,345. The Blood of Dracula's Castle (1969)

Directed By: Al Adamson

Starring: John Carradine, Paula Raymond, Alex D'Arcy


Trivia: The introductory sequence was shot at Marineland, located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County

At this point, I know what to expect from an Al Adamson film; along with their shoddy production values, his movies usually feature actors and actresses who aren’t quite up to snuff. Like most of the director’s flicks, 1969’s The Blood of Dracula’s Castle was produced on a shoestring budget, and as a result the set pieces and make-up effects fall well short of the mark. This time out, though, Adamson was able to assemble a decent stable of actors, all of whom do their best to make The Blood of Dracula’s Castle a tolerable motion picture.

I’d even go so far as to say I had a good time watching it.

The Count (Alex D’Arcy) and Countess Townsend (Paula Raymond), aka Dracula and his bride, are centuries-old vampires, and for the past 60 years have been living in a California castle with their longtime butler George (John Carradine) and a deformed mute servant named Mango (Ray Young). To satisfy the Townsend’s thirst for blood, Mango roams the countryside, capturing nubile young women and dragging them to the castle, where George chains them to the wall and, each night, draws blood from them. Thus far, this set-up has worked well for the Count and Countess, and they welcome the recent news that another of their faithful servants, the handsome but psychopathic Johnny (Robert Dix), has just escaped from prison and is on his way back to them.

But the good times might be coming to an end sooner than they think. It seems that the owner of the castle the Townsend’s call home has died, and left the property to his estranged nephew, Glenn (Gene Otis Shayne), a fashion photographer engaged to be married to his voluptuous model, Liz (Jennifer Bishop). The Townsends’ attempts to reach an agreement with Glenn fail to generate any results, and before long the new owner announces that he and Liz intend to move into the castle as soon as possible (meaning the Count and Countess must go). As Glenn will discover, however, the Townsends and their domestic staff are an ornery bunch, and they have no intention of leaving the premises peacefully.

John Carradine, a Hollywood veteran who spent his later years dabbling in low-budget schlock, is predictably solid as George, the moon-worshiping butler whose chief job is to draw the blood that keeps his employers alive; and Robert Dix proves he can play a psychopath as well as anyone (his Johnny even turns into a werewolf some nights when the moon is full, an aspect of the story that, for some bizarre reason, is never fully explained). The real stars of The Blood of Dracula’s Castle, though, are Alex D’Arcy and Paula Raymond, who, by bringing an air of sophistication to the Count and Countess Townsend, single-handedly transform the film into a dark comedy. While introducing themselves to Ann (Vicki Volante), the newest addition to their plasma supply chain, the Townsends reveal to the frightened young lady that they’re vampires, and they need her blood to stay alive. Ann, of course, scoffs at the notion that these two are, in reality, the living dead. “Well, I know we may seem to be a novelty”, the Countess replies matter-of-factly, “but there are a few of us left”. Acting at all times like a pair of rich snobs on their way to a high-society ball, D’Arcy and Raymond are genuinely funny, and the scenes in which they appear are, without question, the film’s strongest.

Its cast aside, The Blood of Dracula’s Castle features a threadbare storyline that runs out of steam at about the halfway point (even a sacrifice to the Moon God falls flat), and the make-up used to depict Mango’s deformity looks like it’s always about to slide off his face. Thanks to D’Arcy and Raymond, however, this particular Al Adamson monster flick has its moments.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

#2,344. The Hearse (1980)

Directed By: George Bowers

Starring: Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux

Tag line: "There is a door between life and death and now, that door is open!"

Trivia: William Bleich originally devised this movie as a more teen-oriented slasher outing when he was first hired to write the script

The Hearse, a 1980 horror film, harkens back to an earlier time when a haunted house and a creepy mystery were all that was required to give an audience a good scare. Unfortunately, director George Bowers and his crew forgot that one basic element that even a classically-styled horror movie can’t do without: imagination. From start to finish, The Hearse is a routine fright flick, and never once does it bring anything new to the table.

In need of a change, recently divorced schoolteacher Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere) decides to spend the summer at a country house that belonged to her late Aunt, who died 30 years earlier under bizarre circumstances. The house has been abandoned for decades, and Pritchard (Joseph Cotton), the lawyer who handled the aunt’s will, was hoping to buy it from Jane’s family. Needless to say, he’s none too happy that Jane is suddenly interested in the old place, and does what he can to discourage her from staying. 

But Pritchard isn’t the only one in town who treats her badly; aside from Paul (Perry Lang), a lovestruck teenager Jane hires to work as her handyman, the rest of the townsfolk want nothing to do with their newest resident, especially when they discover whose house she's living in.

According to local legend, Jane’s aunt spent her final days romancing a man who worshiped Satan, and in so doing made an unholy pact with the devil. Jane dismisses these stories as rumor and innuendo, but after a while begins to experience some strange phenomena of her own, including a black hearse that follows her wherever she goes. Things improve temporarily for Jane when she meets Tom Sullivan (David Gautreaux), with whom she falls in love. But is Tom really who he claims to be, or does he know more about the house’s history than he’s letting on?

Trish Van Devere delivers a solid performance as the strong-willed Jane, who won’t let anyone or anything (living or otherwise) run her out of town, and Perry Lang is also good as the young man who develops a crush on her. In addition, The Hearse marked the big-screen debut of Christopher McDonald (Requiem for a Dream. Happy Gilmore), who plays one of Paul’s friends, and while I can’t find him listed anywhere in the credits, I’m 99% certain that Dennis Quaid makes a cameo appearance in the film (as a repairman who is on-screen for about 10 seconds). As for Joseph Cotten, the role of Pritchard won’t be remembered as one of his finest screen portrayals, but it’s always fun to see him in this sort of movie.

Alas, try as they might, the cast of The Hearse can’t save it from the throes of mediocrity; the scares are of the generic variety (banging doors, quick glimpses of a ghost in a mirror, etc.), and while Jane is, indeed, a determined, strong-minded woman, she also isn’t very bright (she doesn’t go to the police when someone breaks into her house one evening). Yet the film’s worst aspect is its central mystery, which is anything but mysterious. In fact, it’s as predictable as they come, making the “big reveal” at the end a major disappointment.

Even in 1980, when slasher films were all the rage, it was still possible to make a decent haunted house movie; The Changeling (which also co-starred Van Devere, playing opposite her real-life husband George C. Scott) was released that year and is a damn scary motion picture. But then, The Changeling wasn’t afraid to try something new, whereas The Hearse gives us nothing we haven’t seen before.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

#2,343. Fairy Tales (1978)

Directed By: Harry Tampa

Starring: Don Sparks, Sy Richardson, Irwin Corey

Tag line: "A lusty, rowdy spoof of all your favorite fairy tales!"

Trivia: Martha Reeves was apparently unaware that she was appearing in an adult film, until she took members of her church to see it.

Fresh off the success of Cinderella in 1977, Charles Band and company again threw their hat into the adult arena with Fairy Tales, a 1978 musical sex spoof that takes aim at a number of classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes.

The Prince (Don Sparks) has just turned 21, and the entire kingdom expects him to produce an heir. But there’s a problem: the Prince is a virgin, and says the only girl who enflames his passion is Beauty (Linnea Quigley), who he’s never actually met! Still, the law is quite clear on this matter, and if the Prince doesn’t find a mate by the middle of the week, he must forfeit his claim to the throne.

So, it’s off to the far-away land of make-believe, where the Prince strikes out with Bo-Peep (Angela Aames) and doesn’t find a single girl who tickles his fancy at the brothel co-owned by Gussie Gander (Brenda Fogarty), aka the madam who lives in a shoe, and her pimp Sirus (Cy Richardson). Not even an encounter with the perpetually horny King Cole (Bob Leslie) can inspire the Prince to take his predicament more seriously. But Sirus and Gussie have one more surprise hidden up their sleeves, and if it’s successful, this story will surely have a happy ending.

A handful of familiar faces turns up throughout Fairy Tales, including Cy Richardson (the Fairy Godmother in Band’s Cinderella) as the pimp Sirus; Angelo Rossitto (the diminutive actor who portrayed “Master” in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) as Otto, co-sheriff of the territory; and Linnea Quigley (in her screen debut) as Beauty, the only girl the Prince has the hots for.

Along with its talented cast, Fairy Tales features some decent musical numbers. The opening song, a hilarious tune titled “Been a Virgin Too Long”, is performed by a trio of royal physicians (Irwin Corey, Robert Harris, and Simmy Bow) who urge the Prince to go out and find a wife; and while Snow White (Anne Gaybis), one of Gussie’s best “girls”, is busy belting out a song, her seven dwarfs join in on the act, tearing off Snow White’s clothes as she parades around the room! In addition, there’s a BDSM-themed ditty that owes more than a little to the Andrew Sisters; and Motown sensation Martha Reeves even shows up to sing a catchy disco tune. Fairy Tales also has its share of humor, with plenty of one-liners that hit the mark (while leading the Prince into the brothel / shoe, Sirus tells him it is “The place where Pinocchio got his first nose job”).

Not all of the musical numbers are entertaining (Bo-Peep’s song, which she performs moments after meeting the Prince, was like nails on a chalkboard for me), and despite its short runtime the movie still drags in spots (especially the late scenes involving King Cole). But odds are that, if you enjoyed Cinderella, you’ll probably get a kick out of Fairy Tales, too.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#2,342. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Directed By: W.S. Van Dyke

Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, Neil Hamilton

Tag line: "He Knew Only The Law Of The Jungle...To Seize What He Wanted"

Trivia: Clark Gable was considered for the role of Tarzan, but was deemed too much of an unknown to play the ape man

Tarzan has been a popular cinematic hero since the days of silent movies, and in my lifetime alone there have been a number of films featuring Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous jungle dweller. The year 1981 saw the release of John Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man (starring his wife, Bo Derek, as Jane); and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hit theaters in 1984. Even Disney threw their hat into the ring with an exceptional 1999 animated musical/adventure, and in 2016 Alexander Skarsgård played the title role in The Legend of Tarzan.

But for those of us who love the classics, Johnny Weissmuller will always be Tarzan, and 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man marked the first of many times he would portray this iconic character.

Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) has made the long journey from England to Africa to visit her father James (C. Aubrey Smith), who owns a trading post that borders the jungle. But while Jane is busy taking in the rustic beauty of her new surroundings, dear old dad is trying to raise enough cash to leave Africa once and for all, and with the help of his business partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), he’s concocted a scheme that will net more money than he’s ever had before. In short, James and Harry are undertaking an expedition to find the fabled Elephant Graveyard, a place that, if it exists, will surely house enough ivory to make both of them extremely rich. Against the wishes of Harry and her father, Jane decides to tag along, and together the trio (as well as a handful of servants and guides) make their way deep into the jungle.

Many dangers lie ahead of them, including snakes and crocodiles, but one thing they didn’t expect to find was Tarzan (Weissmuller), who, despite his obvious European lineage, lives among the creatures of the jungle, unable to speak or understand a word of English. Swinging through the trees from vine to vine, Tarzan abducts Jane (the first white woman he’s ever seen) and carries her back to his treetop home. As James and Harry search frantically for her, Jane tries to communicate with her captor, and over time she and Tarzan develop feelings for one another, but is love enough to keep them together, or will their differences ultimately force them apart?

Tarzan the Ape Man is a top-notch adventure movie; even before the title character hits the screen, there’s excitement aplenty (while traveling down the river on makeshift rafts, Jane and her companions encounter angry hippos and hungry crocodiles; and a walk along the side of s sheer cliff nearly costs Jane her life). Once the Ape Man himself enters the picture, the action kicks into high gear, with Tarzan and his pet chimp Cheeta dodging a steady stream of ravenous jungle cats (director Van Dyke recruited a number of real animals for the film, though Tarzan’s ape “family” was mostly men in suits).

Weissmuller may not have been the most charismatic actor ever to play Tarzan, but physically he was perfect for the role (a world-class swimmer, he won gold medals at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics), and O’Sullivan delivers a spirited performance as Jane (carrying the scenes she shares with Weissmuller on her own). But as well-realized as these two characters are, even they take a back seat to the film’s numerous action scenes, all of which are flawlessly staged (the final sequence, when Tarzan must save Jane and the others from a violent pygmy tribe, is as thrilling as it gets).

The first in what would be a long-running series (12 movies in all), Tarzan the Ape Man is arguably the best adventure film to come out of Hollywood during the pre-code era, and one of the greatest of all-time.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

#2,341. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)

Directed By: Gene Wilder

Starring: Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman

Line from the film: "Is this rotten or wonderfully brave?"

Trivia: Apparently, Gene Wilder asked Mel Brooks to direct this picture. Brooks declined, stating that he would find it difficult to direct a screenplay that wasn't his own

Fresh off of Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder wrote and directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, a 1975 comedy that co-starred a trio of Mel Brooks regulars (Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Dom DeLuise). Brooks himself even lent his voice to the production (he utters one line, spoken off-screen, when a character walks through a wrong door). 

Unfortunately, the “Brooks Touch” could only take this film so far; intended as a spoof of a classic mystery, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is funny in parts, but doesn’t match the sustained hilarity of Mel Brooks’ best work, making it a hit and miss affair (with more misses than hits).

A secret document that Queen Victoria (Susan Field) entrusted to the British Foreign Minister, Redcliff (John Le Mesurier), has been stolen. Instead of tackling the theft himself, renowned detective Sherlock Holmes (Douglas Wilmer) passes the case to his younger brother Sigerson (Wilder), who he hasn’t seen in years. To assist his brother, Sherlock hires Sgt. Orville Stanley Sacker (Feldman), a Scotland Yard detective with a photographic sense of hearing, and together Sacker and Sigerson begin looking for clues, knowing full well that if the document falls into the wrong hands, it will plunge England into a costly war.

Sigerson’s first break in the case comes when actress Jenny Hill (Kahn) pays him a visit. Though she’s clearly a pathological liar, the younger Holmes gathers enough information from Ms. Hill to discover that the document is currently in the hands of Opera singer Eduardo Gambetti (Dom DeLuise), who intends to sell it to none other than Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis Dr. Moriarty (Leo McKern)! Despite the fact he cannot trust her, Sigerson soon falls in love with Ms. Hill, and is determined to protect her at all costs. But how does she figure into this bizarre case? Further still, can Sigerson and Sgt. Sacker retrieve the document before Moriarty turns it over to a foreign power?

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother does have some very funny moments, including Sigerson’s first meeting with Jenny Hill (Madeline Kahn, always a gifted comedienne, is especially good throughout the movie); as well as  Moriarty’s initial attempt to buy the document from Gambetti (DeLuise is so deliciously over-the-top that you can’t help but laugh at his antics). In addition, there’s a horse-drawn carriage chase that has a great payoff, but it’s the big opera scene towards the end that is the film’s most uproarious sequence (Gambetti translated an Italian opera into English, putting his own unique spin on the story, and the result is positively hilarious).

But with its straightforward approach to its central mystery (which is never as well-defined as it should be), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother doesn’t really work as a spoof (aside from a clever bit at the beginning, Sherlock Holmes and his illustrious sidekick Dr. Watson, played by Thorley Walters, are hardly in the movie at all), and many of the jokes fall flat (a ballroom dance scene late in the film, set moments after Sigerson and Sacker have escaped a deadly trap, drags on a bit too long to be fully effective).

I hate to dismiss the film completely, in part because I remember loving it as a kid (I recorded a sanitized version off of network TV in the ‘80s, so this is actually the first time I’ve seen the movie in its unedited form), but if it’s laughs you’re after, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is only fitfully successful at delivering them.

Monday, April 17, 2017

#2,340. Lady Frankenstein (1971)

Directed By: Mel Welles

Starring: Joseph Cotten, Rosalba Neri, Paul Muller

Tag line: "Only The Monster She Made Could Satisfy Her Strange Desires!"

Trivia: Rob Zombie sampled a line from this film for his song "Living Dead Girl"

After years of medical training, Tania Frankenstein (Rosalba Neri) returns to her ancestral home, eager to assist her father, the Baron (Joseph Cotten), in his most recent experiment. With the help of his crippled friend (and longtime lab assistant) Charles (Paul Muller), the Baron is ready to show the world that, under the right circumstances, dead tissue can be reanimated. Using cadavers that he purchased from Lynch (Herbert Fux), a professional grave robber, the Baron does, indeed, build a man out of spare parts and bring him to life. Unfortunately, his creation is a hideous monster (Peter Whiteman) that, after murdering the Baron, escapes into the nearby woods.

Distraught over the death of her father, yet at the same time anxious to prove his theories were correct, Nadia sets to work creating a “man” of her own. Learning from the Baron’s mistakes, she intends to use the body of a handsome, backward farm boy named Thomas (Marino Masé) and the brain of her father’s longtime assistant, Charles! But as Nadia toils in the laboratory, The Baron’s monster is busy roaming the countryside, killing villagers and capturing the attention of Constable Harris (Mickey Hargitay). As Harris probes into this very strange case, Nadia draws closer to finishing her grand experiment, but will she actually succeed where her father failed, or is her “man” destined to be as unstable as the monster that is now terrorizing the locals?

In the handful of films I’ve seen her in (Jess Franco’s 99 Women, Fernando DiLeo’s Slaughter Hotel), Italian-born actress Rosalba Neri was relegated to supporting roles. In 1971’s Lady Frankenstein, however, she plays Nadia, the lead, and is quite believable as a woman of science hoping to follow in her father’s footsteps. Along with Ms. Neri, Lady Frankenstein co-stars Mickey Hargitay, who, with appearances in Bloody Pit of Horror and Black Magic Rites, was himself no stranger to the cinema’s seedier side, while Joseph Cotten plays the Baron with plenty of gusto, portraying a man of science whose research sets the entire story in motion. Despite an impressive Hollywood track record, which includes Citizen Kane, The Third Man, and Shadow of a Doubt, Mr. Cotten was also an integral part of the Vincent Price vehicle The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and was effective as a scientist (and Barbara Bach’s father) in 1979’s Island of the Fishmen

With a cast like this, you might expect Lady Frankenstein to be just another sleazy European flick, and while it does have a smattering of nudity and a few genuine shocks, this 1971 movie has more in common with Hammer Studio’s classic horror films (Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula) than it does the standard ‘70s exploitation fare.

For one, the set pieces are superb; the lab in which both of the Frankensteins perform their experiments looks as if it was lifted straight out of a 1930’s Universal film, while the castle that serves as their ancestral home is as eerie as it is extravagant. In addition to its sets, Lady Frankenstein relied on several actual locations to move its story along (its exterior scenes reminded me, in a way, of Jean Rollin, who was himself a master at incorporating real locales into his movies).

Lady Frankenstein does have its weaknesses, chief among them the make-up effects (the Baron’s monster, with its protruding eye and scarred face, isn’t as creepy as it could have been). But with its gothic sensibilities, better-than-average production design, and unique approach to the time-honored story of man acting as God, Lady Frankenstein is a step or two above the typical Eurosleaze flick.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

#2,339. White Slave (1985)

Directed By: Mario Gariazzo

Starring: Elvire Audray, Will Gonzales, Dick Campbell

Tag line: "Only one thing kept her alive"

Trivia: This is the first of two movies that adopted the alternate title of Cannibal Holocaust 2

White Slave, a 1985 horror / adventure set in the jungles of South America, was released under a number of different titles, including Amazonia and, in a few European markets, Cannibal Holocaust 2, a blatant attempt to cash in on the notoriety of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust. While there are, indeed, similarities between this movie and Deodato’s notorious film, White Slave doesn’t contain nearly as many shocks as Cannibal Holocaust, and at times is even a little dull.

Fresh out of boarding school, teenager Catherine Miles (Elvire Audray) decides to spend the summer at the South American rubber plantation owned and operated by her parents. To celebrate her arrival, Catherine’s father takes the family (including Catherine’s Aunt and Uncle) on a boat trip down the Amazon River. The good times are cut short, however, when the group is attacked by what appears to be a tribe of headhunters. Temporarily paralyzed by a poisonous dart, Catherine is eventually taken prisoner, and forced to watch as Umukai (Will Gonzales), a jungle warrior, beheads her mother and father.

Dragged to the headhunter’s village, Catherine is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who claims her as his wife. This doesn’t sit well with Umukai, who has fallen in love with Catherine, and he challenges her new husband to a fight to the death. Umukai is victorious, and over the course of several months tries to win Catherine’s heart. Because of his role in her parents’ demise, Catherine has sworn she will never submit to Umukai, and does everything she can to escape. But was Umukai actually the one who murdered her mother and father, or were they killed by someone else?

In addition to their similar settings (the jungles of South America), Cannibal Holocaust and White Slave are both presented as if they were documentaries; a large chunk of White Slave takes place inside a courtroom, where Catherine, months after her captivity has ended, is standing trial for murder (to explain this further would constitute a spoiler). But with its story of a white person being integrated into a primitive tribe, White Slave has more in common with 1972’s Man from Deep River, the Umberto Lenzi movie that’s credited with kicking off the cannibal subgenre, than it does Cannibal Holocaust

Unfortunately, White Slave has a few too many scenes set in the headhunters’ village, and after a while Catherine’s ordeal begins to lose its potency. Worse still, there are sequences that are downright boring. And while Cannibal Holocaust did a decent job showing how “civilized” people could be more barbaric than so-called “savages”, White Slave’s attempts to do the same fail to hit the mark (a late scene involving a pair of hunters in a helicopter is anything but subtle).

As with most cannibal films from this era, White Slave has its share of extreme content (Elvire Audray is topless during her entire stay with the natives, and the scene in which Catherine’s parents are beheaded is appropriately gruesome), and even features a couple of animal deaths (unlike Cannibal Holocaust, however, the jungle creatures in White Slave are killed not by humans, but by other animals). The movie is also quite beautiful, taking full advantage of its picturesque setting. In the end, though, White Slave is too lethargically paced to be effective, and even with its handful of exciting moments is never as interesting as its predecessors.