Saturday, April 30, 2016

#2,084. All Cheerleaders Die (2013)

Directed By: Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson

Starring: Sidney Allison, Charon R. Arnold, Shay Astar

Tag line: "You can't kill their spirit"

Trivia: One of the locations used for this film was Cathedral High School, which, in 1925, was built on top of a cemetery

When I picked up my DVD copy of All Cheerleaders Die a few months ago, a few preconceptions leapt immediately to mind. 

Actually, “preconceptions” is the wrong word; “stereotypes” would be more accurate. 

I’m sure that, somewhere, in the long history of the cinema, someone has made a deep, insightful film about the sport of cheerleading. More often than not, though, cheerleaders are depicted as gorgeous, overly-enthusiastic girls in short skirts, with I.Q’s smaller than their waistlines. So, going into this 2013 horror movie, I figured I’d meet characters that fit this... stereotype.

Well, I was partly right: the young women of All Cheerleaders Die are, indeed, gorgeous. But they’re also the only ones in the movie that are worth a damn!

Shy girl Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is in the midst of shooting an end-of-school year video for her good friend Lexi (Felisha Cooper), a popular cheerleader. At practice one day, Lexi hams it up for the camera, but when Maddy seems unimpressed with her cheerleading routines, Lexi ups the ante by having two guys toss her high into the air. Instead of falling into their arms, Lexi crashes to the ground head-first, breaking her neck. She dies instantly.

Several months pass, and school is about to resume. Maddy, who never before showed any interest in cheerleading, decides to try out for the squad, and so impresses team captain Tracy (Brooke Butler) that she is chosen to fill the spot left by Lexi’s untimely demise. 

But Maddy couldn’t care less about sports or school spirit. She is looking to take revenge on Tracy, who began dating Lexi’s boyfriend, football star Terry (Tom Williamson), before Lexi was even in the ground. 

As she gets to know Tracy, though, Maddy has second thoughts about her plan, and instead focuses her anger on Terry. Convincing Tracy that Terry cheated on her over the summer, Maddy manages to break the two of them up, and even succeeds in luring Tracy into bed with her. This doesn’t sit well with either Terry or Maddy’s former girlfriend Leena (Sianoa Smit-McPhee), a practicing witch.

Things come to a head at an outdoor party, when Terry shows up half-drunk and throws a punch at Tracy. Threatening to tell the school about what Terry has done (which will almost certainly get him kicked off the team), Maddy and Tracy climb into a car with fellow cheerleader Martha (Reanin Johannink) and Martha’s little sister Hanna (Amanda Grace Cooper) and speed away. In a fit of rage, Terry gives chase and runs the girls’ car off the road, sending it plummeting into the river, where all four drown. 

Distraught over Maddy’s death, Leena pulls the bodies from the water and, using enchanted crystals, casts a spell on them, bringing Maddy, Tracy and the others back from the dead. There's one small catch, though: none of the four are actually alive, and now require a steady diet of human blood to sustain them. 

But, hey, these gals aren’t going to let a little thing like being zombies keep them from getting their revenge on Terry, are they?

No… of course they aren't!

All Cheerleaders Die appears, at first, to be a typical cheerleader movie. The girls on the squad call each other “bitches”, and are obsessed with their looks. But we soon see there's more to these girls than first assumed. At a pool party one evening, Maddy confesses to Tracy that she thinks she's a bad person because she hooked up with Terry so soon after Lexi’s death. A seemingly self-confident girl up that point, this confession unmasks a level of insecurity in Lexi that neither Maddy nor the audience was expecting. 

Lexi isn't the only one who will break stereotype. Martha is a deeply religious young woman, and is saving herself for marriage, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend Manny (Leigh Parker). There's even an intriguing love triangle: Martha's little sister Hanna is also in love with Manny. Whereas most movie cheerleaders are depicted as mindless beauties, or, in some cases, even villains, they prove to be the most appealing characters in All Cheerleaders Die, and we get to know a little bit about all of them.

A mash-up of the zombie and witch sub-genres, All Cheerleaders Die does, unfortunately, fall short as a revenge film. The scenes in which the newly-resurrected girls face off against Terry and his pals are, with one exception, surprisingly bloodless, and a few kills even occur off-screen. But with a female-centric story, combined with some impressive make-up effects (overseen by Robert Kurtzman) and respectable performances (especially Caitlin Stasey as the clever yet slightly vindictive Maddy; and newcomer Tom Williamson, who knocks it out of the park as the villainous Terry), All Cheerleaders Die is a horror film that will have the ladies in the audience standing up and doing a cheer of their own.

Friday, April 29, 2016

#2,083. The Living Dead Girl (1982)

Directed By: Jean Rollin

Starring: Marina Pierro, Françoise Blanchard, Mike Marshall

Alternate Title: In Japan this film was released as Zombie Queen

Trivia: Actress Françoise Blanchard found the shooting of this film to be physically exhausting, and one day she even collapsed on the set

Director Jean Rollin was no stranger to violence; movies like Fascination and The Demoniacs certainly had their share of bloodshed. But with 1982’s The Living Dead Girl, he achieved a whole new level of brutality, and in the process made what I consider to be one of the most effective horror flicks in his filmography.

Looking for an out-of-the-way locale to dump a few barrels of toxic waste, three men (played by Alain Petit, Jean Cherlian, and Jean-Pierre Bouyxou) eventually agree that the best place to store it is the burial chamber situated under the Valmont family estate. Once there, the trio decides to do a little grave robbing as well, and break open a casket housing the remains of Catherine Valmont (Françoise Blanchard), a gorgeous young woman who passed away several years earlier. Just as they do so, an earthquake strikes, spilling some of the toxic sludge onto the ground. And as the men will soon learn, this was no ordinary waste; seconds after it’s exposed to the air, Catherine Valmont suddenly springs to life and dispatches the three intruders in grisly fashion. 

Alive yet still unaware of her surroundings, Catherine makes her way back to the Valmont family estate, where, a short time later, she meets up with her life-long friend Hélène (Marina Pierro). Thrilled to have Catherine back, Hélène does what she can to make her comfortable, but soon realizes the only thing the recently-reanimated Catherine needs to survive is human blood. With Hélène’s help, Catherine feeds on a steady stream of unsuspecting victims. The question is: how long will the two be able to get away with murder?

Like many of his previous films, Rollin shot The Living Dead Girl on-location (for the duration of the shoot, the entire cast and crew lived in the mansion that served as the Valmont estate), and even managed to put his own unique spin on the zombie subgenre (over time, Christine learns to talk again, and becomes more self-aware with each passing scene). But it’s the film’s high level of gore that sets it apart. Created by Benoît Lestang, who at age 17 was working on his first movie, some of the film’s gore effects look surprisingly good (unlike most walking dead, who use their teeth to tear open a victim’s throat, Catherine relies on her sharp fingernails to get the job done), culminating in a climactic scene that’s sure to disturb you (arguably the most violent finale Rollin ever turned out).

As beautiful as it is bloody (the picturesque country setting is utilized to great effect), The Living Dead Girl is a truly intense motion picture experience.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

#2,082. Burke & Hare (1972)

Directed By: Vernon Sewell

Starring: Derren Nesbitt, Harry Andrews, Glynn Edwards

Tag line: "The pimps and the prostitutes and the body-snatchers. The brothels and dens of iniquity"

Trivia: This was the last film Vernon Sewell ever directed

1972’s Burke & Hare, directed by Vernon Sewell, centers on the infamous Edinburgh-based duo who killed well over a dozen people in Victorian-era Scotland, then sold the bodies to a local surgeon. With a subject such as this, it’s logical to expect that the film itself is going to be a dark, brooding tale of terror. Then the theme song kicks in, an upbeat, catchy tune performed by The Scaffolds, with lyrics like:

Burke and Hare, beware of ‘em 
 Burke and Hare, The pair of ‘em
Out to snatch
Your body from you

All at once, I started to wonder what to expect from the movie: was this going to be a straight-up horror film (like IMDb claims), or a bawdy sex comedy (one of the earliest scenes is set in a brothel that caters to high-end clients with… unusual desires)?

Burke & Hare is, in fact, a little bit of both.

It’s the early 19th century. Irish immigrants William Burke (Derren Nesbitt) and William Hare (Glynn Edwards) run a boarding house, renting out their already crowded back room to a steady stream of elderly men. When MacTavish, one of their tenants, drops dead, Hare, claiming the man owed him two pounds back rent, convinces Burke that the best way to collect what’s owed them is to sell the man’s remains to medical science. Burke is reluctant at first, but soon changes his mind when he learns that Dr. Knox (Harry Andrews), a surgeon who also teaches anatomy at the Medical College, is willing to pay as high as 10 pounds for each body delivered to his door. Sure enough, the pair walks away from the transaction with over 7 pounds in their collective pockets. When another tenant (and prospective source of income), who seemed to be near death, suddenly recovers, Burke and Hare decide not to wait for nature to run its course, and finish the poor old guy off themselves, resulting in yet another lucrative payday

When the duo’s wives, Helen (Dee Shenderey) and Margaret (Yootha Joyce), catch wind of what’s going on, they aren’t shocked or appalled in the least, and even recommend a few different ways to “euthanize” future victims. Before long, Burke, Hare, and their significant others are living the high life, murdering people nobody is going to miss, and raking in the profits.

In addition to its lead characters and their macabre business practices, Burke & Hare also focuses on a brothel operated by Madame Thompson (Joan Carol), which is visited by some of the most influential men in Edinburgh. Arbuthnot (Alan Tucker), a student of Dr, Knox’s at the college, stops by Madame Thompson’s establishment on a regular basis, having fallen in love with new arrival Marie (Françoise Pascal). The two youngsters spend a great deal of time together, but when a fire destroys the brothel, Marie and her friend Janet (Yutte Stensgaard) find themselves homeless. Fortunately, a well-to-do local, who happens to be William Burke, offers them a place to stay, leading to a series of events that threaten to shake Edinburgh to its very core.

It isn’t long after the opening credits (which feature the above-mentioned theme song) that Burke & Hare introduces us to its title characters. Edwards is effective as the hard-nosed Hare, easily the most ruthless of the two, but it’s Derren Nesbitt who shines brightest, playing Burke as a temporarily conflicted partner whose doubts and inhibitions melt away the moment Dr. Knox pays them for the corpses they bring. The scene in which Hare first tells Burke about the body-selling business is played for comedy (when Hare sits on the pine crate holding MacTavish’s remains, Burke tells him to show some respect and “move your arse off the coffin”), as are many of the sequences in Madame Thompson’s house (looking through peep holes, Madame Thompson witnesses everything from S&M sessions to a topless girl riding a man as if he were a horse). 

But Burke & Hare isn’t just a laugh-riot; it’s listed as a horror film as well, and on occasion we’re shown why. In one particularly troubling scene, Burke and Hare lure a young vagrant known in the area as “Daft Jamie” (David Pugh) into their abode, filling him up with liquor to make it easier to kill him when the time comes. At this moment, all comedy slips away, and the resulting melee (Daft Jamie is stronger than they expected) is, indeed, difficult to watch.

The shifts between serious and silly are quite jarring (as seen in the film’s final sequence: a drunken Halloween party that erupts into violence), and the romantic subplot involving Arbuthnot and Marie never materializes into much. But there’s plenty of dark humor, interrupted at times by some genuinely tense scenes, and while this combo doesn’t make for a perfect film, there’s enough going on throughout Burke & Hare to ensure you’re always entertained, and appropriately horrified, by what’s playing out on the screen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

#2,081. Monty Python Live at Aspen (1998)

Directed By: Paul Miller

Starring: Robert Klein, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam

Line from the film: "The great thing about being around Graham was that he adored bad taste"

Trivia: Among the audience members who were on-hand to watch this live show were George Wendt, Ted Danson,and other members of the cast of Cheers

It had been 18 years since they last appeared together. John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Eric Idle. Even Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, was there (his ashes, anyway, encased in a tastefully decorated urn). They’ve all had their successes separately; Michael Palin hosted some amazing travel documentaries for the BBC, and Terry Gilliam has become a world-class director, creating such fantasy classics as Time Bandits and Brazil. Together, though, these six men will always be known as Monty Python, and Monty Python Live at Aspen is as much a tribute to their incredible accomplishments as it is a refreshing walk down memory lane.

Hosted by Robert Klein, Live at Aspen was recorded in front of a studio audience at the 1998 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. All five living Pythons (as well as the lone dead one) were in attendance, reminiscing about the early days of Monty Python's Flying Circus, their BBC-produced television show (including how the initial audience didn’t “get” their humor), and the freedom they experienced while writing and performing their sketches, many of which should be enshrined in the Comedy Hall of Fame (if there is such a thing). Along with the behind-the-scenes stories, we’re treated to clips from their various skits, such as the wildly popular “Dead Parrot” routine (Michale Palin recalls that it was his mechanic at the time who inspired this particular sketch; whenever his car would give him trouble, this mechanic would tell him that everything was fine).

When the TV show ended, the Pythons turned their attention to the big screen, and in the process churned out comedy gold: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life. Again, some clips are shown, like the Black Knight scene in Holy Grail and the always disgusting Mr. Creosole segment from The Meaning of Life (alas, there were no snippets from Life of Brian, due, apparently, to some legal issue they were experiencing with that movie at the time). There are even scenes from their live performance at the Hollywood Bowl (the “Sit on my Face” barbershop quartet is hilarious), and a brief discussion of the shows they did for German TV (including a bizarre tale of how they were met at the airport by the German producers, then immediately shuttled off to Dachau for a tour of the infamous camp. To this day, they have no idea why).

As a fan, I loved seeing them all together again, and the Pythons showed that, after all these years, they could still make people smile; Eddie Izzard pops up at the beginning (posing as part of the group), though, ironically, it was Graham Chapman’s ashes that got the biggest laugh of the night. There were even some celebrities in the crowd (I noticed just about every cast member from the hit TV series Cheers). If you love Python like I do, Live at Aspen will serve as a reminder of how great they once were, and reassure you that, after all these years, they haven’t lost their touch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#2,080. Female (1933)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz, William Dieterle, William A. Wellman

Starring: Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Lois Wilson

Line from the film: "I know for some women, men are a household necessity; myself, I'd rather have a canary"

Trivia: Barbara Stanwyck was originally offered the role of Alison Drake while on tour with her husband, Frank Fay. Before Stanwyck returned to Los Angeles, Ruth Chatterton had been assigned the role

Directed by Michael Curtiz (with an assist from both William Dieterle and William Wellman), Female, a 1933 comedy / romance, was undoubtedly scandalous in its day, but modern audiences may have a tougher time digesting the film’s finale than they will any of the “questionable” material that came before it.

Alison Drake (Ruth Chatterton) is the CEO of Drake Motors, an automobile manufacturer. She took over the company years earlier when her father died, and her tenacity, coupled with a sharp business sense, has made her one of the most powerful women in town. 

When old college friend Harriet Brown (Lois Wilson) pays her a visit, Alison confesses to her that she’s too busy for a real relationship, and that’s she’d rather have a “canary” than a man in her life. But the truth is, Alison likes the company of men, and has enjoyed many one-night-stands with her more handsome employees. Thus far, her so-called “loose morals” haven’t hurt her reputation at the office. Far from it, in fact; her personal assistant, the elderly Mr. Pettigrew (Ferdinand Gottschalk), worships the ground she walks on, and her chauffeur Puggy (Huey White) will punch out anyone who questions her character.

Then Jim Thorne (George Brent) enters Alison’s life. An engineer who developed a new automatic clutch, Thorne is offered a multi-year contract to leave his current job and work for Drake Motors. He accepts, but when Alison puts the moves on him, Thorne turns her down flat, saying he was hired as an engineer, not a “gigolo”. But Alison isn’t looking for Thorne to be one of her many conquests. To her amazement, she’s actually developing feelings for him, and for the first time in a long time, Alison Drake is wondering if being a successful businesswoman is all there is to life.

From the get-go, Female sets itself apart from most movies of this time period by taking us into the board room, where a woman (Alison) is talking down to a bunch of men, criticizing them for a poor sales year. Hard-nosed and confident, Alison is a woman who clearly knows what she’s doing, and no matter how many phone calls she takes, or questions she answers, she never once wavers or hesitates. This attitude extends to her personal life as well. After the board meeting, she invites new employee George Cooper (Johnny Mack Brown) to dinner at her mansion, where they can discuss some of his new sales ideas. But instead of talking business, Alison sets about seducing Cooper (with the press of a button, her butler, played by Robert Grieg, enters with a carafe of Vodka, a drink that, we learn, was used by Catherine the Great to break down a man’s resistance), and he seems more than ready to take their boss / employee relationship to a much more intimate level.

Of course, once back in the office, Alison is all business; when Cooper sends her flowers the next morning, she chastises him for mixing business with pleasure. It’s a blow for Cooper, who thought Alison had genuine feelings for him. But he isn’t the first man who’s felt this way, as we discover when Alison’s assistant, Briggs (Gavin Gordon), blurts out that he loves her during a meeting. His reward? A reprimand, followed by a transfer to the company’s Montreal office! Then, in the second half of Female, Alison meets her match in Jim Thorne, who isn’t impressed by her power or authority. And she has no idea how to handle the situation, especially when she finds that she’s falling in love with him.

It’s at this point that Female veers off in a new direction, and without spoiling it, I’ll just say that while the ending probably made audiences of the 1930s stand up and cheer, modern viewers are more likely to roll their eyes when Alison makes her big “decision” at the end of the film.

I’m not trying to frighten you away from Female. On the contrary, it’s a well-paced movie with sharp, witty dialogue and features an absolutely magnificent performance by Ruth Chatterton. It’s a pre-code picture that’s well worth seeing. Just keep in mind that, even though it was ahead of its time, Female is still a 1930s film, and as progressive as it seemed back them, its sensibilities were nonetheless steered by the era in which it was made.

Odds are you’ll enjoy Female, but you may not like every single minute of it.

Monday, April 25, 2016

#2,079. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Akira Takarada, Yuriko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi

Tag line: "WHAT IS IT... How much terror can you stand?"

Trivia: The scene where Godzilla destroys the castle in Nagoya actually had to be filmed several times, and the castle had to be built twice

The 4th movie in the Godzilla franchise (after Godzilla, Godzilla Raids Again, and King Kong vs. Godzilla) and the second to feature Mothra (released three years after the original), Mothra vs. Godzilla started a trend, matching two of Toho’s Kaijus against one another in the same picture. And as you’d expect, when these giant monsters meet on the battlefield, the result is one hell of an epic fight.

While in a small coastal village reporting on the damage caused by a recent typhoon, newsman Ichiro Sakai (Akira Takarada) and his photographer Junko Nakanishi (Yuriko Hoshi), witness what proves to be an amazing find: a giant, brightly-colored egg floating in the middle of the ocean. The egg is promptly retrieved by some local fishermen, but when scientist Shunsuke Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi) attempts to examine it, he’s informed that the egg was just purchased by a businessman named Kumayama (Yoshifumi Tajima), who, teaming up with millionaire tycoon Torahata (Kenji Sahara), announces his intentions to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. Soon after these plans are announced, the tiny twins from Mothra Island (played by Emi and Yumi Ito) show up, and, after explaining that the egg, which belongs to Mothra, was swept away in the typhoon, ask that it be immediately returned. When Kumayama and Torahata refuse to part with it, the twins have no alternative but to go home empty-handed.

But the egg wasn’t the only thing caught in the storm; while taking pictures of the landscape, Junko notices the ground is moving, and within moments, Godzilla, who had been buried under the sand, stands up, and begins wreaking havoc across the countryside. When military weapons fail to take Godzilla down, Sakai, Junco, and the scientist Miura head to Mothra Island, where they ask Mothra (through the twins) to help them drive Godzilla away. Will Mothra agree to assist those who refused to turn over her egg, or will Japan instead be decimated by the mighty Godzilla?

Though it features a handful of cool scenes (the one where Godzilla rises out of the ground is positively awesome), it’s the battle between the two giant monsters that makes Mothra vs. Godzilla so much fun. At first glance, you’d think Mothra would be at a severe disadvantage (along with Godzilla’s incredible strength, he has fire breath that’s powerful enough to melt stone), but as it turns out, the humongous flying insect has a few moves that catch her opponent (and the audience) off-guard (when Godzilla threatens the egg, Mothra grabs him by the tail and drags him hundreds of feet in the opposite direction). Yet as good a job as Mothra does, it’s two creatures appearing late in the film that give Godzilla a real run for his money.

As with some of the earlier entries in the series, Mothra vs. Godzilla has plenty to say about nuclear testing; when Sakai, Junco, and Miura first arrive on Mothra’s Island, they’re shocked to find what was once a lush, green paradise has (thanks to a string of tests conducted in the area) been reduced to a grey wasteland. But along with its anti-nukes stance, the film also takes some effective jabs at commercialism (aside from purchasing the egg, Kumayama and Torahata are so amazed by the miniscule twins from Mothra Island that they attempt to buy them as well). Though not subtle, these messages definitely hit their mark, and, combined with the exciting action scenes and well-realized special effects (for the early ‘60s, anyway), make Mothra vs. Godzilla one of Toho’s most entertaining outings.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

#2,078. The Family Jewels (1965)

Directed By: Jerry Lewis

Starring: Jerry Lewis, Sebastian Cabot, Donna Butterworth

Tag line: "Jerry is seven times nuttier in seven gems of character portrayal!"

Trivia: Gary Lewis & The Playboys have a cameo, singing their song "Little Miss Go-Go"; their hit song "This Diamond Ring" is also featured

Truth be told, I’m not the biggest Jerry Lewis fan. I thought 1980’s Hardly Working (which marked his return to the big screen after an 8-year hiatus) was dreadful, and Cracking Up, released in 1983, was only sporadically funny. Yes, he was excellent in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, but when it came to his own “unique” brand of humor, I admit I never understood the appeal. The one exception is 1965’s The Family Jewels, a comedy in which Lewis portrays seven different characters, all vying for the attentions of a wealthy little girl named Donna. Unlike most Jerry Lewis movies, The Family Jewels actually makes me laugh.

Per the terms of her late father’s will, young Donna Peyton (Donna Butterworth) must decide which of dear old dad’s brothers will be her new guardian. Accompanied by her chauffeur / best friend Willard (Lewis), Donna travels far and wide to spend some quality time with her five uncles (all played by Lewis): Ferryboat captain James Petyon; circus clown Everett Peyton; professional photographer Julius Peyton; Airline Pilot Eddie Peyton; and private detective Skylark Peyton, who, with the assistance of Dr. Matson (Sebastain Cabot), always gets his man. A sixth uncle, gangster Bugsy Peyton, was reportedly murdered years ago by one of his underworld associates, though his body has never been found. Her back against the wall, Donna must choose one of these men to be her new Father, but in her heart, she knows the right man for the job isn’t even a relative!

Not all of the jokes in The Family Jewels work. The opening scene, a slapstick bit in which Willard inadvertently prevents a gang of thieves from robbing an armored car, is far too broad; and the sequence featuring Uncle Julius the photographer, whose mannerisms were inspired by Lewis’ Nutty Professor character, seemed to drag on forever (along with shooting a breakfast cereal ad, Julius has two models posing under hot lights, and his scatterbrained approach keeps him from finishing either job in a timely manner).

Even with these few hiccups, The Family Jewels is a very funny film. A scene in which Willard temporarily runs a gas station owned by a friend of his definitely has its moments, as does the later sequence where we meet Skylark Peyton and Dr. Matson for the first time (when Donna arrives, the two are knee-deep in their latest “case”). The film’s best scene, however, involves Uncle Eddie the pilot, whose plane is the aeronautical equivalent of a jalopy. Hired to take a group of women to Chicago, Eddie proves that he may not be the most talented navigator out there, but he’s certainly the most entertaining. In addition to Lewis, Donna Butterworth does a fine job as the young heir, and is one of the better child actors I’ve come across in a while.

It’s quite possible that I haven’t given Jerry Lewis a fair shake; I remember very little about The Nutty Professor, and I’ve not seen either The Bellboy or The Geisha Boy, both of which are supposedly good. But even if these other movies fall short of the mark, I’ll always have this one to fall back on. The Family Jewels, is, indeed, a treasure.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

#2,077. Three on a Match (1932)

Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Virginia Davis, Joan Blondell, Anne Shirley

Line from the film: "I can tell you're a real woman, not one of those stuffed brassieres you see on Park Avenue"

Trivia: Director Mervyn LeRoy disliked the acting job Bette Davis did in this film. She, in turn, hated his directing and called him a "hack"

Among other things, 1932’s Three on a Match is a curiosity for movie fans, offering glimpses of Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart years before they became big stars. But that’s not what you’ll remember about this film. Tackling issues such as infidelity, kidnapping, and drug addiction, Three on a Match has lost none of its punch, and stands as a reminder of just how risqué Hollywood could be during the Pre-Code era.

The movie opens years in the past, following three young girls who were classmates in New York’s public school system: the prim and proper Vivian (Anne Shirley), the smart but kind Ruth (Bety Carse), and party girl Mary (Virginia Davis), who, by all appearances, was on a one-way path to self-destruction. A decade passes, and by chance, Vivian (now played by Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Ruth (Bette Davis) all meet up and set a date to have lunch together.

From the looks of it, their lives have turned out pretty much as expected: Ruth graduated from business school, and now works as a secretary, while Mary, after a brief stint in reform school, became a Broadway actress, and is waiting for her big break. As for Vivian, she married high-powered attorney Robert Kirkwood (Warren William) and has a son they lovingly nicknamed Junior (Buster Phelps). But Vivian has grown restless, and is tired of her life of privilege. So, to get away from it all for a short time, she and Junior board a cruise ship, and the first night there, Vivian attends a party, where she falls in love with gambler Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot). 

Without sending word to her husband, Vivian and Junior leave the boat before it sails and go into hiding, living with Loftus in his apartment under assumed names. Anxious to get his son back, Kirkwood searches frantically for the two of them, and turns to both Mary and Ruth for help. Yet, try as they might, Vivian refuses to listen to reason, and seems ready to throw her entire life away.

Even by Pre-code standards, the second half of Three on a Match features some hard-hitting stuff. Having fallen deeply in love with Loftus, Vivian begins neglecting Junior, who has to beg for simple water and bread (it’s Loftus who finally intervenes, telling Vivian to feed the child). What’s more, Loftus owes money to Ace (Edward Arnold), a powerful crime lord, and if he doesn’t come up with the dough soon, he’s sure to meet up with Ace’s chief henchman, Harve (Bogart). As for Mary, she helps Kirkwood find Vivian, and both she and Ruth assist him with raising Junior in his mother’s absence. The day after his divorce from Vivian is final, Kirkwood and Mary get hitched, but their happiness will be short lived; Loftus has a bright idea of how he can blackmail Kirkwood for the money he needs, and kidnaps Junior, holding him for ransom! In addition to all the drama, there are hints that both Vivian and Loftus have become drug addicts (it’s never spoken out loud, but all the signs are there).

A few years later, when the code was finally re-established, the Pre-code films scheduled for re-release faced major cuts, designed to bring them in line with the new regulations (Cagney’s The Public Enemy lost as many as 12 minutes). That said, I don’t think any amount of editing could have helped Three on a Match qualify as a post-code motion picture. Though smartly paced and well-acted, the themes are far too powerful, and had its production been delayed by two years, the censors would have never allowed this movie to see the light of day.

Friday, April 22, 2016

#2,076. Van Nuys Blvd. (1979)

Directed By: William Sachs

Starring: Bill Adler, Cynthia Wood, Dennis Bowen

Tag line: "The Greatest Cruisin' in the Land Takes Place on the Street -- Where it all Began..."

Trivia: Per its director, the time between the initial idea for this film and its release was three months

I first saw the trailer for 1979’s Van Nuys Blvd. while watching the 42nd Street Forever collection (it was featured in the series’ 2nd Volume, The Deuce), and while I can’t say I was blown away by the preview, I kept it in the back of my mind, and figured that, some day, I’d more than likely get around to seeing the movie.

Well, “some day” turned out to be today!

Looking for a change of pace, small-town mechanic Bobby (Bill Adler) hops into his souped-up van and heads to Los Angeles, where he plans to do a little drag racing on Van Nuys Boulevard, a place known for its fast cars and even faster women. Soon after he arrives, Bobby befriends Greg (Dennis Bowen), who is trying to hook up with the “girl of his dreams”, Camille (Melissa Prophet); and a local celebrity known as “The Chooch” (David Hayward), whose hot-rod draws plenty of attention, including that of police officer Albert Zass (Dana Gladstone), who has thrown The Chooch in jail more times than either of them can count. Bobby’s chief rival on the drag circuit is a groovy chick named Moon (Cynthia Wood), and even though they start out as adversaries, it isn’t long before Bobby and Moon are an item. But will their competitive nature allow the two to get close to one another, or is their love doomed to go up in smoke like so much exhaust?

Van Nuys Blvd. is an oddity in that it’s entertaining without being particularly good. And I don’t mean in a “so awful it’s fun” sort of way, either (the movie isn’t that bad). If anything, Van Nuys Blvd. is far too impatient; characters are haphazardly tossed together and quickly become the best of friends (the five leads meet in, of all places, a police holding cell, where they decide on the spur-of-the-moment to spend the entire next day, in each others' company, at a nearby amusement park), and. in some cases, they even turn into lovers (less than 24 hours after their first drag race, Bobby and Moon are head-over-heels for one another). 

Along with its failure to develop its characters and their relationships, many of the “humorous” situations in Van Nuys Blvd. simply aren’t that funny; at one point, the pals rush Greg, who suddenly got lockjaw (while eating an oversized sub sandwich), to the hospital, where they encounter what might be the most ridiculously unreasonable nurse in medical history (played by Minnie Summers Lindsey). It’s a one-joke scene that goes absolutely nowhere.

Yet despite the fact we never really get a grasp on any of them, Bobby, Moon, Chooch and the rest are a likable bunch, and I didn’t mind spending the majority of the film in their company. In addition, Van Nuys Blvd. features a handful of crazy, yet inventive scenes; Greg first spots Camille at a gas station, where she’s sitting in a car with her boyfriend Jason (Don Sawyer). Needless to say, Jason is none too happy when Greg starts hitting on his girl, but instead of fighting one another, the two grab hold of some blunt instruments and beat the hell out of each other’s cars! 

Toss in plenty of T&A (moments after his ride is destroyed, Greg is picked up by a smoking hot biker chick, played by Di Ann Monaco, who brings him back to her place and has sex with him) as well as a rockin’ title song (composed by Ken Masnfield and Ron Wright), and you have what proves to be a fairly enjoyable slice of late ‘70s exploitation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

#2,075. The Hostage (1967)

Directed By: Russell S. Doughten Jr.

Starring: Don Kelly, Harry Dean Stanton, John Carradine

Tag line: "An Outrageous Kidnapping ... and a town is gripped with FEAR!"

Trivia: Shot in 1965, this movie received a limited release in 1967 and a general release in 1968

Directed by Russell S. Doughten, Jr. (whose previous claim to fame was producing the ‘50s sci-fi classic The Blob), 1967’s The Hostage is a slick little drama / thriller that’s bolstered by a handful of strong performances. 

The Cleaves family is moving out of their small Des Moines apartment into a new house. As Steve Cleaves (Ron Hagerthy) and his wife Carol (Jenifer Lea) try to finish up the packing, their young son Davey (Danny Martins) plays outside, where, after chatting briefly with a passing vagrant (John Carradine), he climbs into the back of the moving truck and lies down. Unfortunately, the movers, Bull (Don Kelly) and Eddie (Harry Dean Stanton), don’t realize he’s there, and after filling up the truck with the family’s belongings, they close the doors and hit the open road. 

But before making their way to the Cleaves’ new house, Bull and Eddie have one small, personal errand to run: the disposal of a dead body! See, Bull gets a bit mean when he’s drunk, and the night before, after knocking back a few, he killed a man during a heated argument. It isn’t until they’re burying the remains that they realize Davey has seen everything, and despite the protests of Eddie, Bull decides that, in order to keep their secret, Davey will most likely have to die.

A quick glimpse of his profile page on the Internet Movie Database revealed that Danny Martins, who portrayed young Davey in The Hostage, never appeared in another film. After seeing the movie, you’ll understand why; in a role that demanded a bit more, Danny relied solely on cuteness to carry him through (he does cry a few times, but in most scenes, the boy looks like a deer in the headlights). It’s a shame, too, because the rest of the cast is solid. As Davey’s parents, Ron Hagerthy and Jenifer Lea do a fine job conveying the fear that goes hand-in-hand with not knowing what’s happened to your child (Lea is especially good, going from worried to near hysterical as the hours tick away). Veteran actor John Carradine is entertaining as Otis Lovelace, the old bum who, after being seen talking to Davey, becomes the focal point of a missing persons investigation (nosey neighbor Miss Mabrey, played by Ann Doren, tells Mr. and Mrs. Cleaves that she saw Danny with Otis just before he disappeared, leading them to assume he kidnapped the boy). Not knowing he’s a wanted man, Otis goes about his business, walking the streets of Des Moines, begging for cash from passers-by, and visiting a church center (where he’s intimidated by a rather ominous-looking portrait of Christ). In a movie filled with tension and suspense, Carradine provides just the right dose of lighthearted comic relief.

When not centering on the search for Davey in Des Moines, The Hostage follows Bull and Eddie (and, of course, Davey) on the road, and it’s here where the film’s true strengths shine through. Harry Dean Stanton, who in later years would wow audiences in movies like Alien, Repo Man, and Paris, Texas, plays Eddie, the meek sidekick that allows his friend / business associate to walk all over him. Feeling sorry for Davey, Eddie promises to do what he can to help the boy, but we realize early on that he doesn’t have what it takes to stand up to a guy like Bull.

As always, Stanton is superb, but it’s Don Kelly as the ornery, occasionally dangerous Bull who commands the screen in this particular movie. From the opening scene, when we watch him commit the murder he’ll conceal later on, Bull is an out-of-control egotist, shouting insults at Eddie and flirting openly with Mrs. Cleaves (later on, he’ll tell Eddie that she “wanted” him). And that’s when he’s sober; once drunk, Bull is even worse, and like Eddie (and Davey), we fear him. More than a villain in this film, Bull is a damn monster, and Kelly does a near-flawless job of making us hate his character (alas, the actor would die right after making this movie, and before it was released).

A gripping, dynamic thriller and a sometimes moving family drama, The Hostage is one of the many cinematic well-kept secrets floating around out there, a low-budget movie you’ve probably never heard of that, in the end, will surprise the hell out of you.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

#2,074. Gone With the Pope (2010)

Directed By: Duke Mitchell

Starring: Duke Mitchell, Lorenzo Dardado, Jim LoBianco

Tag line: "You're either in, or you're in the way!"

Trivia: Filming began in November 1975 and finished in January 1976. It was only shot on weekends

Duke Mitchell’s Gone with the Pope is a crazy movie, but the story behind it is even crazier. 

Shot on weekends in the mid-‘70s, Gone with the Pope (initially titled Kiss the Ring) was supposed to be Mitchell’s follow-up to 1974’s Massacre Mafia Style. Unfortunately, he died before he could finish the film, and for years, the negatives, along with pages of hand-written notes, sat in a parking garage, collecting dust. 

Then, sometime in the 1990s, Mitchell’s son Anthony turned everything over to the folks at Grindhouse Releasing, and for the next 15 years a team of editors, led by Bob Murawski, worked on the movie whenever they could, assembling the footage, adding music (some of which was written and performed by Mitchell himself), and molding it into a finished work as close to Mitchell’s original concept as possible. 

Considering they had no script to guide them (Mitchell shot a number of scenes for Gone with the Pope on the fly, making them up as he went along), I’d say what Murawski and his crew accomplished was nothing short of a miracle!

Within days of his release from prison, Paul (Mitchell) is offered $100,000 by the local mob to kill seven men. Ignoring the pleas of his longtime girlfriend Jean (Jeanne Hibbard), who wants him to give up his life of crime, Paul agrees to carry out the hits, and asks his buddy Giorgio (Giorgio Tavolieri) to assist him. 

The job goes off without a hitch, and Paul, looking to lay low for a while, uses his portion of the money to buy a boat. Joined by three of his former prison mates: Luke (Jim LoBianco), Peter (Peter Milo), and “The Old Man” (Lorenzo Dardado), Paul sails the boat to Rome, and once there, he and his pals kidnap the Pope (also played by Dardado) and hold him for ransom. 

Their demands? $0.50 from every Catholic in the world! 

Can Paul and the others actually pull off the crime of the century, or will their consciences get the better of them?

With a supporting cast made up entirely of Mitchell’s friends, the performances in Gone with the Pope are - as you’d expect - on the weak side (with the exception of Mitchell himself, who does a fine job in the lead role). 

But what the movie lacks in the acting department, it more than makes up for with some kick-ass individual scenes. The killings carried out by Paul and Giorgio (Giorgio shot three men in Las Vegas, while Paul took care of the remaining four in Hollywood) are fairly brutal, and a later sequence set in Rome, when Paul surprises Peter (who is looking to get laid) by bringing an obese hooker (Nola Hand) back to their hotel room, is absolutely bat-shit crazy (after yanking off the woman’s clothes, Paul and Peter, laughing uncontrollably, barricade themselves in the bathroom, at which point they learn just how strong their “guest” really is). 

In addition to the sex and violence, Gone with the Pope has its share of romance (early on, Paul and Jean spend some quality time together in the park), and a scene where Paul has a frank conversation with the Pope concerning, among other things, the church’s indifference towards the Holocaust packs a dramatic punch.

Like Massacre Mafia Style, Gone with the Pope is a glorious bit of exploitation goodness, and if it wasn’t for Bob Murawski and the gang at Grindhouse Releasing, it would have never seen the light of day. 

This alone makes it a must-see; the fact that it’s entertaining as well is a nice little bonus.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

#2,073. The Maid (2005)

Directed By: Kelvin Tong

Starring: Alessandra de Rossi, Huifang Hong, Benny Soh

Award: "Won the European Fantastic Film Festival Federation (EFFFF) Asian Film Award at the 10th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival"

Trivia: According to English language promotional material, this 2005 production was the first horror film produced in Singapore

People try to frighten me with all kinds of stories about the Chinese Seventh Month. Scary stories about death, hell, and hungry ghosts. But I wasn’t scared. For me, this was something new”.

Billed on the DVD case as “Singapore’s First Homegrown Horror Movie”, 2005’s The Maid has quite a bit in common with other Asian horror films from this era, relating a ghost story that’s steeped in ancient tradition. But while director Kelvin Tong does manage to conjure up a few creepy scenes, it’s the mystery surrounding his characters, and the manner in which he builds that mystery, that makes The Maid an interesting watch.

Rosa (Alessandra de Rossi), an eighteen year old girl from the Philippines, has just arrived in Singapore, where she’s accepted a position as maid for the Teo family. Both Mr. Teo (Shucheng Chen) and his wife (Huifang Hong) are active in the local Chinese opera company, and when they’re not busy staging shows, the couple is usually at home, raising their mentally backwards son Ah Soon (Benny Soh). 

Welcoming their new housekeeper with open arms, the Teos nonetheless warn Rosa that she’s come at a very chaotic time, a period known as the Chinese Seventh Month, when, according to legend, the gates of hell open up, allowing the spirits of the dead to walk among the living for 30 days. The Teos have taken all the necessary precautions to protect themselves from the wandering specters (offering up prayers, burning money in the street, etc), but when Rosa inadvertently breaks the rules by sweeping up some sacrificial ashes, the young girl finds herself besieged by a number of angry ghouls, one of which stirs up a secret from the past that threatens not only her safety, but that of her employers as well.

The Maid definitely has its share of spooky scenes; moments after sweeping up the ashes, Rosa is grabbed by an unknown entity and transported to a darker version of the real world, one inhabited only by spirits. Over time, she’ll also find herself face-to-face with the ghost of a teenage girl, with whom she has more in common that she realizes. Yet the various apparitions that populate The Maid are, for the most part, on the passive side, appearing often, but doing little more than making a nuisance out of themselves (the spirit of a young boy recently killed in a traffic accident has lots of fun tormenting poor Rosa). This does reduce the ghost’s overall creepiness, but, to be honest, it wasn’t the supernatural that drew me into the film, anyway. it was the story’s twists and turns, which caught me off-guard on a number of occasions (not even the narration track is as straightforward as it seems).

In the end, The Maid may not be as frightening as Ju-On or The Eye, and when it comes to the Chinese legend at the heart of it all, Eduardo Sanchez’s similarly-themed 2008 movie Seventh Moon featured more threatening ghosts (in that movie, the ghouls actually hunted down the living). But with its well-rounded characters (especially Rosa and Ah Soon, who grow close to one another over the course of the film) and perplexing tale, The Maid ultimately brings more to the table than your average “J-Horror” fare.

Monday, April 18, 2016

#2,072. School for Scoundrels (1960)

Directed By: Robert Hamer, Cyril Frankel

Starring: Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, Alastair Sim

Tag line: "Learn to gain weight by LOSING scruples!"

Trivia: Much of the movie was directed by Cyril Frankel, as original director Robert Hamer, who was an alcoholic, kept showing up for work drunk

Whenever the subject of favorite movies was brought up in our house, my father would always talk about the 1960 British Comedy School for Scoundrels, which he praised as being both clever and funny. Still, despite having heard so much about it, this was the first time I actually watched the movie, and I must say I agree with him 100%; School for Scoundrels is an intelligent, incredibly amusing film.

Henry Palfrey (Ian Carmichael) is one of life’s losers. A meek executive who gets pushed around by his more experienced assistant, Gloatbridge (Edward Chapman), Henry can’t even hold onto April Smith (the lovely Janette Scott), the woman of his dreams; while on their first date, April falls under the spell of suave bachelor Raymond Delauney (Terry-Thomas), an acquaintance of Henry’s from the country club who they run into at the restaurant. In an effort to regain April’s attentions, Henry purchases an automobile from a pair of less-than-reputable used car salesmen (Dennis Price and Peter Jones), only to find that the vehicle is no match for Delauney’s brand new sports car.

So, to gain some much-needed confidence, Henry enrolls in the School of Lifesmanship, a facility that, under the guidance of Dr. Potter (Alistair Sim), has turned even the most hopeless loser into a winner. After several weeks of classes, Henry, armed with a newfound understanding of how to get the upper hand in any situation, begins putting his life in order, all in the hopes of winning back April, with whom he is still very much in love.

Ever since I first saw him in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, I’ve been a fan of Terry-Thomas, and in School for Scoundrels he turns in a hilarious performance as the haughty yet debonair Delauney, whose every word and action is designed to make Henry look like a fool in April’s eyes (when Henry and April are late for their reservation at the restaurant, Delauney invites them to join him, then maneuvers himself to be seated next to April on the couch, leaving Henry all alone at the head of the table). Even a “friendly” tennis match between the two men leads to some embarrassment for Henry (the sun in his eyes, Henry is beaten by Delauney in straight sets). Equally as humorous is Henry’s visit to the used car lot, where he drives off in what would best be described as the biggest, loudest, gaudiest vehicle in all of London.

After establishing that its lead character is something of a buffoon, School for Scoundrels changes gears by letting us sit in on a few of the Lifemanship “classes” that alter Henry’s way of thinking. Learning everything from how to humiliate someone at a party to how to get a girl to spill a drink on herself (thus making it easier to remove her clothes), Henry gets down to business, taking revenge on those who, in one way or another, made him feel two inches tall (and because watching how he does so is a whole lot of fun, I won’t dare go into any more detail).

With memorable performances by Thomas, Alistair Sim (who, as Dr. Potter, makes even the most deceitful action appear respectable), Ian Carmichael (perfectly believable as both a fool and a schemer), and Janette Scott (whose good looks and bubbly personality make it easy to see why any man would fall for her), not to mention a smart, witty script penned by Patricia Moyes and producer Hal E. Chester (and based on the “Gamesmanship” series of books by author Stephen Potter), School for Scoundrels is guaranteed to make you laugh, and, thanks to its satisfying conclusion, will almost certainly leave you smiling from ear-to-ear.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

#2,071. Faust (1926)

Directed By: F.W. Murnau

Starring: Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings, Camilla Horn

Tag line: "The Voice of the Tempter"

Trivia: Leni Riefenstahl applied for the female lead role, but was turned down

Four years after directing the horror classic Nosferatu, director F.W. Murnau returned to the genre once again with Faust, and in so doing delivered yet another gothic masterpiece.

Vying for control of the entire world, the demon Mephisto (Emil Jannings) makes a wager with one of God’s Archangels (Werner Fuetterer) that he can corrupt the soul of a good and honest man. To this end, Mephisto turns his attention towards Faust (Gösta Ekman), an elder scientist who has devoted his life to helping his fellow man. Setting his plan in motion, the demonic Mephisto unleashes a plague on the city, one that leaves hundreds dead in its wake. Try as he might, Faust is unable to cure this fatal illness, and in his anger turns against science and God and summons the devil, in the hopes the Dark Prince will stop the spread of the disease. Shortly after Mephisto appears to Faust, the plague ends, but the townsfolk, realizing who actually helped them, try to execute Faust by stoning him, forcing the scientist to retreat into his house.

It’s at this point that Mephisto launches the second portion of his scheme and changes Faust from an old man into a young one. Once this is complete, he shows Faust images of a beautiful Italian Duchess (Hanna Ralph), then promises to deliver her if he'll agree to surrender his soul. When Faust hesitates, Mephisto sweetens the deal by offering the former scientist a 24-hour “trial” period, promising to return him to normal in a days’ time if that’s what he desires. Sure enough, after stealing the Duchess from her new husband the Duke (Eric Barclay), Faust finds that he’s quite happy in his new way of life, and, with Mephisto as his servant, he revels in his debauchery.

During his travels, Faust meets a young, innocent girl named Gretchen (Camilla Horn) and falls deeply in love with her. With Mephisto’s help, Faust sets out to entice this fair maiden, yet when a run-in with her brother (William Dieterle) turns violent, it leads to a scandal that could ultimately cost Gretchen her life. Will Faust do right by Gretchen, or will she be left to suffer on her own?

Based on the famous play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust is an extraordinary motion picture, telling a tale of good vs. evil in a very stylish and engaging manner. Gösta Ekman does a fine job as the title character, and the make-up that transforms him into an elderly man is practically undetectable (at the outset, I had no idea Ekman was in his mid-30’s when the movie was made). Yet it’s Emil Jannings, delivering a tour-de-force performance as Mephisto, who steals the show. Whether smiling slyly in the background, knowing that he has Faust under his control, or getting directly involved in Faust’s affairs (in what proves to be a humorous scene, the demon pretends to seduce Gretchen’s Aunt Marthe, played by Yvette Guilbert), Mephisto is utterly fascinating from start to finish, and every bit as evil as you’d expect.

More than anything, though, Faust is visually stunning, with Murnau using camera tricks and special effects to bring this macabre story to life. In what is the film’s most ominous scene, Mephisto, grown to an enormous size, towers over the town suffering from his plague, a smile curling his lips as he admires the chaos below (one poor soul sees Mephisto’s face emerging from the clouds and immediately drops dead).

Murnau’s penchant for the spectacular is on display throughout Faust, and while I still consider his 1927 film Sunrise to be his most imaginative use of the medium, there’s no denying that Faust was the work of a master craftsman.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

#2,070. The Nude Bomb (1980)

Directed By: Clive Donner

Starring: Don Adams, Andrea Howard, Sylvia Kristel

Tag line: "Would you believe... Maxwell Smart goes undercover to expose a plot to make the world naked?"

Trivia: When this film premiered on US television in 1982, it was re-titled as 'The Return of Maxwell Smart' and was broadcast on the NBC Network

My father was a fan of the ‘60s TV series Get SmartSo, in 1980, when The Nude Bomb, a film based on that show, was released, he was first in line to see it, and brought my brother and I along with him as well. 

I hadn’t even thought about this movie in 30 years until I saw the DVD for it sitting on a shelf at my local FYE store. Thinking it might be fun to re-live a bit of the past, I decided to buy it.

Yeah, that was a mistake. The Nude Bomb may not contain any actual nudity (it was rated PG), but man, is it a bomb!

Don Adams returns as Agent 86, who, despite being the clumsiest spy in the entire organization, always gets his man. So, when the terrorist group KAOS again threatens the world’s security, the Chief (Dana Elcar) assigns Agent 86 to the case. With the help of his new team, including camouflage specialist Agent 22 (Andrea Howard); gadgets coordinator Carruthers (Normal Lloyd); the sultry Agent 36 (Pamela Hensley); and a twin brother and sister duo (Gary Imhoff and Sarah Rush) who are computer experts, Agent 86 attempts to thwart masked KAOS leader Norman Saint Sauvage and his associate, Nino Salvatori Sebastiani (Vittorio Gassman), who intend to detonate a series of bombs that will vaporize every stitch of clothing on the planet. By doing so, Sauvage, a frustrated fashion designer, hopes to force the governments of the world to buy his specialized clothing line, but with Agent 86 on the case, Sauvage’s designs could just as well end up on the discount rack.

The original Get Smart series sprang from the creative minds of Buck Henry (The Graduate) and Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein), and was an often hilarious spoof of the James Bond / 007 franchise, poking fun at everything from Bond’s suave demeanor to the amazing gadgets that helped him on his missions (a running joke involved Agent 86’s “shoe phone”, which usually rang at the worst times). Unfortunately, neither Brooks nor Henry were on-hand for The Nude Bomb (the film’s script was written by Arne Sultan, Bill Dana, and Leonard Stern), and their absence is evident from the get-go (the opening credit sequence, designed to spoof the stylish Bond openings, is a painfully unfunny mix of slapstick and sight gags). Don Adams does what he can as Agent 86, but his pratfalls soon wear thin, and even the gadgets lack imagination (he has his shoe phone, of course, but a scene in which his desk transforms into a car is just plain goofy).

I laughed twice during this recent viewing of The Nude Bomb; once early, when Agent 22, after disappearing into thin air, still carries on a conversation with the Chief (confusing the hell out of Agent 86); and later, when Agent 86, in Austria to interrogate Sebastiani’s ex-wife (played by Rhonda Fleming), is driving down the road with foreign counterpart Agent 34 (Sylvia Kristel) and encounters a danger sign with “Achtung” and a skull and crossbones on it (“Just our luck” Agent 86 says after noticing the sign. “We gotta run into a poisonous Achtung”). I also liked the chase scene that interrupted a Universal Studios tour, during which we see such landmarks as the Psycho house, the shark from Jaws, and a few of the studio’s more popular set pieces (including the European street used for Frankenstein and other classic horror films). 

That amounts to about 5 minutes’ worth of entertainment in a 90+ minute movie, so no matter how you slice it, The Nude Bomb is an utter waste of time.

Friday, April 15, 2016

#2,069. The Black Sleep (1956)

Directed By: Reginald Le Borg

Starring: Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney Jr.

Tag line: "The Terror Drug That Wakes the Dead!"

Trivia: The hands performing the brain operation are those of an actual neurosurgeon at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, hired by the producers to make the operation look authentic

There’s nothing quite like an old-time, star-studded horror film, and even though The Black Sleep came a bit late in the game, it still featured some of the genre’s biggest and brightest.

London, 1872. Dr. Gordon Ramsay (Herbert Rudley) is a day away from being executed for murder, though he has no memory of actually committing any crime. His mentor, brain surgeon Dr. Joel Cadman (Basil Rathbone), pays him a visit, and during their short time together slips a drug into Dr. Ramsay’s drink, telling him it’s a sedative that will dull his senses when he’s taken to the gallows. The next morning, Dr. Ramsay is found dead in his jail cell, the victim of an apparent heart attack, and per the instructions of the court, his body is turned over to Dr. Cadman’s assistant, Odo (Akim Tamiroff).

But Ramsay is not dead; the powder that Dr. Cadman put in his drink was, in reality, a drug from the east known as the “Black Sleep”, which shuts down the body’s main functions, making it appear as if the person has died. Once Dr. Cadman and Odo administer the antidote, Ramsay immediately wakes up, and, thankful for his life, agrees to accompany Dr. Cadman to a laboratory on the coast, where he will help the noted specialist develop a new type of surgery. If successful, this revolutionary procedure could make fatal brain tumors a thing of the past, but as it turns out, Dr. Cadman is actually looking for a way to cure his wife Angelina (Louanna Gardner), whose own tumor has kept her in a comatose state for several months. And after meeting some of the “survivors” of Dr. Cadman’s experimental surgery, including Mongo (Lon Chaney Jr., The Wolf Man) and Casimir (Bela Lugosi, Dracula), both of whom have suffered major brain damage, Dr. Ramsay begins to believe that his benefactor is quite insane.

Released in 1956, The Black Sleep is a decent horror flick with an interesting premise and at least one fairly graphic operation scene, in which the two doctors slice open the brain of a sailor (George Sawaya). But what makes this movie a must-see for genre enthusiasts is its extraordinary cast, starting with lead actor Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Son of Frankenstein), playing a man who fully believes that nothing, not even human life, should stand in the way of medical progress. In addition, The Black Sleep features Akim Tamiroff (Touch of Evil) as Odo, the gypsy assistant who “finds” the men and women that serve as Dr. Cadman’s guinea pigs (the role was originally written for Peter Lorre, but was recast when Lorre’s salary demands were too high); and Herbert Rudley, who’s damn good as the sole voice of reason, Dr. Ramsay.

When it comes to the genre’s big-name stars, however, some fare better than others. Lugosi, in what would be his last completed film, isn’t given much to do as the mute servant Casimir, while Lon Chaney Jr. shines as Mongo, who, when he isn’t lurking in the background, usually has his hands around the throat of Dr. Cadman’s nurse, Laurie (Patricia Blair). 

Toss in John Carradine (The Grapes of Wrath) as a loud-mouthed preacher and Ed Wood regular Tor Johnson (Bride of the Monster) as a blind giant, and you have a film that’s sure to please any fan of classic horror.