Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Monday, December 31, 2007

HOLD THAT GHOST


HOLD THAT GHOST (1941). Director: Arthur Lubin.

Lou Costello: I'm afraid to go outside by myself with no one to talk to.

Bud Abbott: Why don't you talk to yourself?

Lou Costello: I get stupid answers.

It's a toss-up as to which is Abbott and Costello's best and most-beloved film, this or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In Hold That Ghost the boys wind up inheriting a spooky abandoned inn from a mobster who died in a shoot-out with the cops. His money is hidden in the house and nefarious characters run about acting like ghosts while the fellows and a bunch of stranded travelers try to keep their nerves from jangling. The most nervous of the bunch -- after Costello -- is Camille, a professional radio show screamer played by the hilarious Joan Davis. Lou and Joan make a delightful pair, and their inventive dance to the Blue Danube Waltz is the picture's highlight. Sure, this is pretty silly at times but it's also very cute and amusing, with everyone in top form. Evelyn Ankers, Richard Carlson, and others offer fine support, and Mischa Auer is as dinstinctive as ever as Bud and Lou's exasperated boss in the opening scene. The hokey but likable Ted Lewis asks "Is Everybody Happy?" more than once, and the much-less-than-beautiful Andrews Sisters sing two songs. And there's the loopy three-way interchange between Bud, Lou and Joan that ends with Lou angrily answering "The Twain on Twack Twee!"

Verdict: Real good classic comedy if you're in a silly mood. Plus the Andrews Sisters sing Aurora! ***.

NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST


NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1958). Director: Bernard L. Kowalski.

This is yet another early horror/sci fi flick that was influential on the later Alien, while being influenced itself by such films as The Thing from Another World. In this the first man sent up into space in a satellite returns to Earth in his capsule, apparently dead. Later he comes back to life because his body is harvesting a host of alien organisms. A strange energy traps him and a team of scientists in their shabby mountain headquarters as a bizarre bear-like creature with a parrot head bursts in from time to time, and even decapitates the hapless doctor. This, of course, works against John the astronaut's (Michael Emmet) assurances that the alien monster means no harm. Sure. Kowalski also directed the better-known Attack of the Giant Leeches the following year, but this picture requires much more claustrophobic tension than he is able to deliver, although it's certainly watchable and has an interesting plot. The cast does quite well with this material, especially lead Michael Emmet and dependable co-star Ed Nelson. Emmet also played Cal, the rakish character who dallies with Yvette Vickers, in Leeches -- he was a good, versatile actor who did most of his work on television. Alexander Laszlo re-used most of his sometimes overwrought score for this film in Leeches.Six years earlier John Baer, here playing Steve Dunlap, starred on the TV show Terry and the Pirates as Terry Lee.

Verdict: Of interest to 50's creature feature fans and so on. **1/2.

THE SPY WITH MY FACE


THE SPY WITH MY FACE (1965). Director: John Newland.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was such a successful program that the producers decided to try to make even more money by expanding certain episodes and turning them into movies. (Later on they only did this with two-part episodes, which generally needed no extra material.) This was fine for the foreign market, but a bit of a rip-off for Americans who had to pay to see what they'd already seen for free on TV. The Spy with My Face began life as "The Double Affair," a first season episode of the show in which THRUSH replaces Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) with a surgically-altered lookalike. Senta Berger is the sexy THRUSH villainess who dallies with both the original Solo and the copy, and Sharon Farrell is the perky stewardess who falls for Solo. The plot has to do with Project Earthsave, which will employ a unique and deadly force developed by scientists in the event Earth were to be attacked from space. Naturally THRUSH wants to get its hands on this energy for its own purposes. The best scene has several agents approaching the underground vault that holds the mysterious force as the director (an effective Paula Raymond of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms fame) warns them not to look into the vault without goggles once it's opened -- for some reason you could be sucked inside the vault and killed. The Solo-double murders someone who's on to him by "accidentally" knocking off his goggles. Strangely, no one even makes an attempt to rescue the poor guy as, mesmerized, he walks into the vault and the director intones "we can't save a man who no longer exists." Scenes added to the telecast include an opening raid on a THRUSH HQ, and some sexier bedroom and shower scenes with Vaughn, Berger, and Farrell. This may be basically minor-league all the way, but it's still fun if you're an U.N.C.L.E. fan. Still at its shorter length as a TV episode it probably worked much better. (The TV episode was shown in black and white; the movie version is in color.)
Verdict: Fun for Man from U.N.C.L.E. maniacs. **1/2.

SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY


SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY (1965). Director: Eber Lobato. NOTE: Certain key plot points are discussed in this review.

Okay, this is a rarity, a kind of semi-gay psychological thriller done in the sixties, a little ahead of its time in some ways and a little homophobic in others. David (Nick Navarro) is arrested for running over Marla, the married woman (Nelida Lobato) he was having an affair with. Most of the film consists of flashbacks interspersed with scenes in district attorney Farmer's (Robert Miller) office, as he, the public defender (Ron Vesario), and the prosecuting ADA (John Richards) debate what's to be done with David, and if he is truly guilty. David's lawyer says that the key is a man named Christian (Alan J. Smith), who lives with David, and has made him realize that he, like Christian, is essentially gay. (Smith also co-wrote the screenplay). When Marla discovers this she's horrified that she risked her marriage by having an affair with someone like David, who "doesn't even know which fence you're sitting on." In truth, Scream of the Butterfly isn't very good but it certainly contains interesting elements. It sets up an interesting situation, has some striking visual images, and moves along quickly enough to hold the viewer's attention, at least initially. The trouble is that it was made too early to take advantage of more sophisticated attitudes toward homosexuality. The three actors in the D.A.'s office are all very good but the rest of the cast is uneven, sometimes amateurish. Lobato, whose husband directed the film (they were an Argentine couple), was certainly well cast, however. Despite the intriguing plot this doesn't quite work, but it has some sexy and effective scenes (such as the first meeting of Marla and David) and a kind of nifty "twist" ending which could be taken more than one way.
Verdict: At least it's something different. **.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE


DAY OF THE NIGHTMARE (1965) Director: John Bushelman.

Clearly influenced by both Psycho and Homicidal, this is actually a very low-budget exploitation film with several very soft core sex scenes, including a lesbian love scene, assorted hetero sequences, and a mild group orgy wherein the dorky participants are blind-folded. The story concerns a married artist, Johnathan Crane (Cliff Fields), who is yet another in a long line of psychotic cross-dressers -- he also has an interested in S and M. He is suspected of murdering his female alter ego, Doris, and at one point goes after his confused wife (Beverly Bain) with a knife. He also has issues with his philandering psychiatrist father (John Hart). John Ireland, who plays a cop, is the only fairly well-known cast member. The acting in this isn't bad all, and there are certainly interesting story elements, but it is filmed without elan or pacing, and --despite all the "crazy' goings-on -- is essentially a snooze fest of limited interest.
Verdict: Not great but awful. * for the acting.

THE MIGHTY GORGA



THE MIGHTY GORGA (1969.) Director David L. Hewitt.

Director Hewitt's script is an affectionate homage to great and not-so-great old monster movies like King Kong (giant ape), The Lost World (plateau with dinosaurs), Monster from Green Hell, and so on, but the film lacks the budget and imagination to make it work and the whole thing comes off like an ambitious home movie. Anthony Eisley plays a circus owner who teams up with a female animal trapper (Megan Timothy) to find a mythical giant ape in the supposed jungles of Africa. [This section of the jungle is referred to as "Green Hell" and is supposed to be an area where no white man has ever gone -- even though the natives are all played by white guys!] Climbing to the top of the plateau (shades of The Lost Continent with Cesar Romero), the couple encounter a hilarious forced perspective T Rex with a flapping bottom jaw, as well as a kind of cave lizard or dragon brought to life by a few seconds of crude stop motion animation (the only time it's employed in the film). Gorga turns out to be man in an ape suit and a mask with immobile eyes. Miniature props are used to make the ape seem giant-sized. This is a cheapjack, ultra low-budget film devoid of pacing, style or suspense. The actors aren't bad at all, and give the film more than it deserves. Kent Taylor and Scott Brady are also in the cast. Even if you think you love monster movies you should probably skip this one.

Verdict. Not great but atrocious. 1/2* for the creditable acting.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

TORSO



TORSO (1973/Italy). Director: Sergio Martino.

While this Italian giallo film lacks the style, finesse and classy art direction of the best of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, it does manage to work up some suspense and chills in the final quarter. Young women are being stalked, murdered and dismembered in Rome. The suspects include a professor, a love-sick student, a handsome doctor, a co-ed's uncle, the "village idiot" and others. The heroine, Jane, (Suzy Kendall) retreats with three friends to a house in the country high atop a cliff, but finds she can not escape the killer. The movie begins inauspiciously and promises to be a pretty dull item, but it sustains interest until an excellent sequence when Jane hides from the maniac as he begins to dismember her friends. Later there is a very taut, chilling sequence when he goes through her room in search of her and nearly finds her. If the whole movie had been on the level of these tense scenes it really might have amounted to something. As it is, horror fans may find it worthwhile. The professor, Franz, is played by John Richardson, who co-starred with Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1967) and did little else of note. The script throws in a lesbian love-making scene for no apparent reason other than to presumably add some extra titillation. None of the killer's many victims, either male or female, ever seem to fight back. At one point he manages to dispatch three women (off-screen) at the same time!

Verdict: Not great, but of interest to fans of psycho-shockers. **1/2.

NEXT TIME I MARRY


NEXT TIME I MARRY (1938). Director: Garson Kanin.

Lucille Ball plays an heiress, Nancy Fleming, who's in love with a gigolo European count (Lee Bowman), but needs to marry an American (James Ellison) so she can inherit her late father's money. Ellison is a road laborer that agrees to marry the gal for a few hundred dollars, but when he learns who she is he's anxious to reach Reno before she does so that he can file for divorce first, avoiding any charges that he's a male gold digger. They wind up traveling together in his trailer, with Bowman trailing along and creating mischief. Lucy -- who displays amble star quality and comedic skill in her first starring part -- and the less talented but effective Ellison play very well together, and there are numerous amusing sequences and funny lines. Minor, but easy to take and fast-paced. One quibble. The Great Mantan Moreland doesn't get enough to do as Bowman's funny chauffeur. Bowman is fine as the oily count.

Verdict: Not great, but worth a look. **1/2.

THE UNDYING MONSTER


THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942). Director: John Brahm.

At the turn of the century the Hammond family of England is under a strange curse, and become victims of an unseen, prowling monster that tears them apart at night. Helga Hammond (Heather Angel) believes the tale of the curse is all stuff and nonsense, but then her brother Oliver (John Howard) is attacked and nearly killed by the monster. Inspector Bob Curtis (James Ellison) of Scotland Yard is called in with female associate "Christie" Christopher (Heather Thatcher) to investigate the attack on Oliver and a lady friend who was tramautized by the assault. Then there's the sinister Doctor Colbert (Bramwell Fletcher), a special friend of Helga's, who stands to inherit if Oliver dies. Lucien Ballard's crisp cinematography, handsome production values, and some superlative scenic design and art direction add immeasurably to the film's atmosphere, but the comic relief provided by Ellison and Thatcher detracts from same. Ellison was perfectly okay in light comedies and romances, but he's an odd choice to play a Scotland Yard detective (and doesn't even try to affect a British accent). This is sort of a non-werewolf werewolf story. Minor all told, but not without interest.

Verdict: Not great, but has its moments. **1/2.

PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER


PHONE CALL FROM A STRANGER (1952). Directed by Jean Negulesco. NOTE: This review includes important plot details so you may want to wait until after you've seen the movie to read it.

Now this is an odd one. The premise is workable: A lawyer (Gary Merrill) becomes friends with three other passengers on a plane that crashes. These three people are among the victims, and Merrill pays a call on their relatives and helps them resolve some conflicts. Nunnally Johnson's script -- which goes all over the lot -- may have looked good on paper, but the finished product is a mite ungainly and decidedly uneven. Some of the flashbacks to the earlier lives of the passengers occur after they've been killed, and some of these run on and on and on. There's something disjointed about the entire movie. The shame of it is that there are lovely and trenchant moments in the film, parts of which are quite moving. Merrill is workmanlike, stoic, but generally effective in a modest sense, low-key but much too inexpressive. Shelley Winters scores as a failed show biz hopeful who's winging her way back to hubby, who -- unbeknownst to her -- has filed for divorce. Michael Rennie offers one of his better performances as an alcoholic doctor who has decided to fess up about his role in a deadly drunk driving accident five years earlier. Keenan Wynn is as fine as ever as a gregarious jokester who is married to Bette Davis, who is much too artificial, perfunctory and grand lady-ish as the wife, but who has a solid moment recalling how much Wynn forgave and loved her. Evelyn Varden offers a dead-on portrait of a harridan mother-in-law to Winters, and Beatrice Straight turns in perhaps the best supporting performance as Rennie's grieving wife. Helen Westcott and Warren Stevens also do good work as, respectively, Merrill's once-unfaithful but still loving spouse, and Davis' lover, who leaves her flat after she becomes ill. Ted Donaldson is also good as Rennie's troubled son. Jean Negulesco's direction is smooth and both the drunk driving and plane crash scenes are powerful and expertly handled without being too grisly. Franz Waxman's opening theme music is also memorable. But the movie suffers from a surfeit of logic, such as Merrill getting hardly a scratch on him (comparatively) when most of his fellow passengers have been killed. The movie begins very well but wears out its welcome before too long.

Verdict: Not so great despite memorable moments. **1/2.

THE BAT


THE BAT (1959). Director: Crane Wilbur. An acceptable "light" version of the famous Mary Roberts Rinehart story features an old dark house, a mysterious masked villain who tears out throats with metal claws, an embezzler who comes to an untimely end, a doctor (Vincent Price) who breeds bats, including one that seems to be giant-sized (in one quick shot), and a famous mystery writer (Agnes Moorehead) who comes afoul of all of this because she's staying in the mansion, The Oaks, that seems to be the focus of the action. The Bat acts more like a creeping villain out of an old movie serial than anything else, and the actor who portrays him acts so sinister in his ordinary life that he sort of gives the game away (hint: it ain't Price). Moorehead and Price strike just the right note, and Lenita Lane (who also appeared with Price in The Mad Magician) is great as Moorehead's housekeeper-companion. Darla Hood, who played "Darla" in all the old Our Gang comedies as a child, shows up briefly as a witness who has an unfortunate run-in with The Bat. Director Crane Wilbur keeps things moving at a brisk pace. Some amusing moments and even a couple of quick chills but it isn't always very logical.
Verdict: Not great but has its moments. **1/2

Friday, December 28, 2007

NO SAD SONGS FOR ME


NO SAD SONGS FOR ME (1950). Director: Rudolph Mate.

A young wife and mother (Margaret Sullavan) discovers she has inoperable cancer and tries to arrange for another woman -- a co-worker of her husband's -- to take over when she's gone. This sounds like very depressing subject matter, but while the movie is very moving, it's also uplifting due to the artistry of Sullavan, whose performance is compelling, affecting and restrained yet believable. Although you of course know the outcome from the first, the story is still unpredictable. Howard Koch's fine screenplay transcends soap opera, and the supporting performers (Wendell Corey as the husband, Viveca Lindfors as the co-worker who falls in love with him) are also excellent. The raw graphic treatment that you would see in a film of this subject today is avoided, but at the same time, Sullavan does not get more glamorous as her health worsens. Some might find the final scene a bit pat, but it works for this movie, and avoids a morbid air. Very worthwhile. This is "adult" material in the best sense of the word.

Verdict: Great. ***1/2.

SKY RAIDERS


SKY RAIDERS (1941). 12 chapter Universal serial. Directed by Ford Beebe and Ray Taylor.

A fairly standard but reasonably entertaining serial with bad guys trying to get the secrets of a new plane away from the bad guys. The characterizations are a little more interesting than usual, and there's even a love triangle between hero Captain Dayton (Donald Woods from the Mexican Spitfire series) ) and buddy Ed Carey (Robert Armstrong from King Kong.) who both are hot for pretty secretary Mary Blake (Kathryn Adams). Armstrong even gives Miss Blake a hot lingering kiss at one point, a rare occasion in serials! Billy Halop (Eastside Kids) is along for the ride as a young wannabe pilot, Timothy Bryant. Eduardo Cianelli is the villain of the piece, the wonderfully named Felix Lynx. The bad guys employ an exact lookalike of Dayton for a couple of episodes, and there's a sinister countess (Jean Fenwick) who doesn't hang around very long. No really spectacular cliffhangers in this, unfortunately.

Verdict: Not so great. **.

WELCOME!

As the title suggests, this is a blog about Great Old Movies -- and a few that are not so great. This blog will cover everything from Marx Brothers movies to horror flicks to classic cliffhanger serials to serious dramas and everything and anything in-between. The catch is that most if not all of the movies covered will be at least 25 years old. So catch up on some Great Old Movies right here. Feel free to leave a comment on any post or email me at tawses67424@mypacks.net.
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