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

Thursday, April 30, 2009

LADY OF THE NIGHT


LADY OF THE NIGHT (1925). Director: Monta Bell.

Norma Shearer is excellent playing dual roles (although there is no reference to the two characters actually looking alike) in this touching silent drama which segues back and froth from high to low society. Molly Helmer is the poor daughter of a convict, while Florence Banning is the daughter of a wealthy judge. Molly has an "understanding" with a clunky [if kind-hearted] kind of boyfriend "Chunky" Dunn (George K. Arthur) but longs for a more romantic relationship, which she finds with David Page (Malcolm McGregor). Unfortunately, Page meets and falls in love with Florence, and sees Molly just as a friend. Florence, however, upon meeting Molly, immediately grasps the truth of the other woman's feelings. Both women turn out to be much more alike than they are different in the poignant conclusion. TCM presented this with an excellent new musical score.

Verdict: Another home run for Norma. ***.

THE BOOGEYMAN


THE BOOGEYMAN (2004). Director: Stephen Kay. Written by Eric Kripke, Juliet Snowden, and Stiles White.
A young boy who is convinced that the boogeyman is hiding in his closet is comforted by his father, who moments later is sucked into said closet by an unseen monster. Fifteen years later this same boy goes home after his mother's death and has to confront the demon in the closet. Although the premise has possibilities, most of them go unexplored in a film with little internal logic, insufficient characterization, rather bland acting [for the most part], and an off-putting directorial style that distances the viewer from the action, constantly reminding him that this is a movie, instead of pulling him into it. The movie is short but slow, and the only real excitement comes in the final minutes when the hero finally faces off against the creature, who looks good and is brought vividly to life – but still has much too little to do. By the numbers horror that is derivative and not very scary, although a couple of scenes come close. Sex symbol Lucy Lawless is cast as the hero's mother.
Verdict: Very disappointing **.

FEUDIN', FUSSIN', AND A-FIGHTIN'


FEUDIN', FUSSIN', AND A-FIGHTIN' (1948). Director: George Sherman.

A fast-running traveling salesman named Wilbur (Donald O'Connor), comes to the town of Rimrock and is held captive there because they want him to run in -- and win-- the annual foot race they have with a rival community. With Marjorie Main as the Mayor and her Pa Kettle co-star Percy Kilbride as her sort of boyfriend, you know there'll be some fun in the picture --but there really ain't enough of it. Donald O'Connor mugs his usual schtick. Joe Besser of Three Stooges fame is one of the townspeople and Penny Edwards is the pretty love interest. With this cast you just wish there were a lot more laughs. Main and Kilbride are given the final scene, however -- and that's funny!

Verdict: Stick with the Beverly Hillbillies instead. **.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1951)


MYSTERIOUS ISLAND 15 chapter Columbia serial (1951). Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet.

This may not be the worst cliffhanger serial ever made but it certainly comes close. Captain Cyrus Harding (Richard Crane) and comrades escape from a Southern prison during the Civil War by balloon and wind up on an isolated island inhabited by strange volcano people, a raving wild man on a rampage, Captain Nemo and -- a space babe in silver lame from the planet Mercury! This last bit has absolutely nothing to do with Jules Verne, of course. Rulu from Mercury (Karen Randle) has come to Earth (with henchmen who wear a kind of spider-mask) because they need a certain substance that can only be found on our planet. There's one decent cliffhanger involving a burning cabin; otherwise this is meandering and dull, dull, dull. Sappy music score, too. In the first episode there's an old man who is kind to the Yankee prisoners. When Harding and the others take off in the balloon, Harding encourages the old man's dog, Top, to jump into the car with them -- gee, what a way to repay the old man's kindness!

Verdict: Don't follow Top and jump in this balloon. *.

GEORGE WHITE'S SCANDALS


GEORGE WHITE'S SCANDALS (1945). Director: Felix E. Feist.

Joan (Joan Davis), a comedienne with George White's Scandals, wants to marry partner Jack (Jack Haley), but his older sister Clarabelle (Margaret Hamilton) insists he can't wed until she does. And with her looks and personality that's a real problem. This plot -- if you can call it that -- is regularly interrupted by performances by Gene Krupa and his band and others. BetteJane (Jane) Greer is cast as a bitchy chorus girl, and Phillip Terry (Mr. Joan Crawford # 3) plays one of White's staff. The men in this movie seem to have a real disdain for women, or at least chorus girls, whom they dismiss and talk about as if they were so much cattle. Rose Murphy is fun as Joan's saucy maid, Hilda. Fritz Feld, who seems to have been in every other movie ever made, is in this one, too. Glenn Tryon plays George White. Hamilton is swell and her encounters with Davis are very amusing.

Verdict: Anything with Joan Davis in it is worth watching, but this ain't no masterpiece. **.

HAUSU aka HOUSE


HOUSE (Hausu/1977). Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi.

A young Japanese school girl decides that she'd rather go visit her aunt than spend vacation with her father and his new girlfriend. She takes several friends with her to her aunt's spooky house, where they each experience nightmares and hallucinations (or are they?) and apparently come to a bad end. Weird horror-fantasy-comedy from Japan has both the quality of a fairy tale as well as a cartoon. There's no denying that the movie has some imaginative moments and excellent art direction, but the ultimate effect is childish and boring.

Verdict: A house you may not want to enter. *1/2.

MR. AND MRS. NORTH (1942)


MR. AND MRS. NORTH (1942). Director: Robert B. Sinclair.

"Oh! Bristles from Brussels!"

There's trouble afoot when a body is found in the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. North (Gracie Allen and William Post Jr.) Paul Kelly [Secret Code] is the cop on the case; Virgina Grey, Jerome Cowan, Tom Conway, Rose Hobart, and others are among the suspects, which include the title couple. There's also a "Fowler Brush" salesman (Felix Bressart) who has important information to impart to the police, if they'll only take him seriously. Allen basically plays the usual daffy characterization that she was famous for; Post provides more sensible support. The film is light-hearted and easy to take, but also quite easy to forget.

Verdict: Gracie is always fun. **.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE


THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE (1973). Director: John Hough.

A group of parapsychologists come to investigate the haunted Belasco house, known as "The Mount Everest of haunted houses" as part of a paid experiment to see if there really is life after death. The last investigating team were all killed except for one man, Ben Fischer (Roddy McDowall), who is going along on this trip as well. Also in the party are scientist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill), his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), and the psychic Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), who is convinced that the strong presence of the dead old owner Emeric Belasco is permeating and corrupting the spooky mansion. The film has a choppy continuity, but it's also suspenseful, absorbing, and quite creepy at times. McDowell and Franklin give particularly good performances, and Michael Gough has a notable guest appearance. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson, who also did the screenplay.

Verdict: Watch after midnight with a friend. ***.

THE TWONKY


THE TWONKY (1953). Director: Arch Obeler.

"Individualism is the basis of all great art."

Cary West (Hans Conreid) discovers that a TV set that has been delivered to him is a robot from the future than can even walk around when it wants to. This was probably meant to be an allegory on how television was taking over everyone's lives in the fifties (and beyond) but the problem with the movie is that while it's a little crazy, it's never especially funny. The exception is the amusing Coach Trout, played by Billy Lynn, who also appeared in The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Conreid's performance is fine, but the material he's been given to play is mediocre. A few minor chuckles along the way. Evelyn Beresford is fun as an old woman who gives Conreid a ride, and the hapless Gloria Blondell appears as a woman from a collection agency.

Verdict: Have some twinkies instead of a twonky. *1/2.

SHOW BOAT (1929)


SHOW BOAT (1929). Director: Harry A. Pollard.

This first film version of Show Boat is actually based on Edna Ferber's novel, and not on the stage musical, although there is some singing late in the picture [in scenes where the characters would sing naturally, such as when performing]. The photography is excellent, and the strong, sensitive performances of the two leads -- Laura La Plante as Magnolia and Joseph Schildkraut as Gaylord Ravenal -- are what really put this over. Alma Rubens is also fine as Julie; in this version she is apparently not a mulatto. Stepin Fetchit is Joe; Otis Harlan is Captain Andy; and Emily Fitzroy plays his wife as a sneering termagant. This was filmed part silent and part sound; the sound for many of the latter sections are lost. Shown on TCM.

Verdict: Has it charms -- and fine actors. ***

THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER


THE WORLD'S GREATEST SINNER (1962). Director: Timothy Carey.

A vanity production for Timothy Carey (pictured), who wrote, produced, directed and stars in this fairly terrible home movie. Carey plays Clarence Hilliard who quits his hated insurance job and sets out to make himself famous as "God." Before long he has masses of followers. There are many scenes of Carey making out with assorted women from the elderly to the under-aged. Carey was actually a good, charismatic actor -- he looks and sounds like John Turturro, who is not a relation -- who had some impressive screen roles in other movies, but this is too cheap and silly to amount to much. Whatever points the film is allegedly making are lost in a pretty bad screenplay.

Verdict: Schlock with a talented lead, but still schlock. *.

GREAT OLD OPERA -- IL PICCOLO MARAT


IL PICCOLO MARAT by Pietro Mascagni. Presented in concert by Teatro Grattacielo at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, Monday, April 13th, 2009.

Teatro Grattacielo is an opera company that not only does not look down at the "unfashionable" composers of verismo and other works [late 19th to early 20th century] but especially champions the work of the great Pietro Mascagni, whose first opera, Cavalleria rusticana, has become an opera house perennial across the globe. Finally people are beginning to realize that Mascagni was far from a"one-hit wonder," but rather composed a great number of striking operatic works, including this one. Il piccolo Marat (Little Marat) takes place during the French revolution where a prince in disguise -- the title character -- hopes to save his imprisoned mother even as he falls in love with Mariella, the niece of the cruel "Ogre" who would just as soon see his mother and many, many others die cruel deaths. With thunderous choruses, both lyrical and modern touches, a gorgeous love duet, and much, much beautiful music, all one can say about the North American premiere of this opera is that it's about time.

Teatro Grattacielo provided us with a first-rate concert performance of this opera, which premiered in Italy in 1921. The orchestra was packed -- this is a much bigger house than Alice Tully Hall, where Teatro G usually has its performances -- and the crowd gave the work and its performers a standing ovation at the end. The singers were wonderful: tenor Richard Crawley, who stepped in at the last minute and was on top of the difficult role throughout; bass Brian Jauhiainen, who also stepped in late, and offered a dramatic interpretation of the miserable Ogre; soprano Paula Delligatti (pictured), whose lovely voice well-served Mariella; and mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Batton, whose fine voice gave life to the prince's mother. Daniel Lee and Joshua Benaim were also notable, as was the Cantori New York and Long Island University Chorus who thundered out Mascagni's powerful and stirring chorale writing -- there's a lot of powerful stuff in this opera, but Mascagni's trademark sensitivity is also much in evidence.

Music Director David Wroe, who conducted, almost literally threw himself into the score, leading the orchestra to bring out the values -- both the intensity and the sweetness -- in every vivid note of this early 20th century masterpiece.

What's next? Dare we hope for Mascagni's Parisina? Whatever, let's hope that Teatro Grattacielo keeps up the great work!

Verdict: Rousing stuff, well-served. ****.

NOTE: For more about Il piccolo Marat and Mascagni [who rates a whole chapter], see my book Opera of the Twentieth Century. I also wrote a piece on Mascagni for BBC Music Magazine some years back. -- William Schoell

JUKE BOX RHYTHM


JUKE BOX RHYTHM (1959). Director: Arthur Dreifuss.

So Princess Ann (Jo Morrow) has come to New York to find a coronation gown and she winds up getting into a wild swing thing with handsome Riff Manton (Jack Jones, son of Allan Jones). Riff is the son of down-on-his-luck Broadway producer George Manton (Brian Donlevy), who is keeping time not with Riff's mother (Marjorie Reynolds) but with a hotter blonde (Karin Booth) -- for shame. Then we mustn't forget former junk man Balenko (Hans Conreid) who fancies himself the greatest fashion designer in the world. He thinks Riff and the princess are "just like that" and asks him to somehow get Her Highness to look at his designs. But will the princess' uppity Aunt Margaret (Freida Inescort) allow it?

So let's see. We've got Freida Inescort of Return of the Vampire, Brian Donlevy of the Quatermass films, "Mr. Livermore" of I Love Lucy (Hans Conreid), Edgar Barrier of The Giant Claw, Fritz Feld of a zillion features (almost always playing the same role and doing it well) and the son of Allan Jones -- all in the same movie!

Jack Jones [dig that groovy haircut!] can act and has a pleasing personality, so it's a wonder his movie career didn't go further. Jo Morrow (who also appeared in 13 Ghosts) is decorative [she's the ginchiest!] and competent. Donlevy and Conred are fine, which is to be expected. Inescort adds a touch of class to the proceedings, which are perfectly amiable and utterly forgettable.

Low point: George Jessel shows up, tells bad jokes, and sings -- very badly!

Verdict: You probably won't dig it the most but some might think Jones is "the most"! **.

UNMAN, WITTERING, AND ZIGO


UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (1971). Director: John MacKenzie.

On his first day on the job at a boys' school, teacher John Ebony (David Hemmings) is told by his teenage male students that they killed his predecessor and will in all likelihood kill him if he doesn't stay in line! Ebony isn't quite certain whether or not to believe them but the feeling of paranoia and danger persists and intensifies. This should have been a crackling thriller, and it does hold the attention, but somehow it's just never believable. Hemmings gives a very good performance, and he gets good support from Douglas Wilmer as the Headmaster, and Carolyn Seymour as Ebony's wife. Some of the boys are good actors as well. But you may feel that you've sat through a real shaggy dog story. The title refers to the last three names on the alphabetical class list; Zigo is never there.

Verdict: Intriguing but disappointing. **.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

UNDERGROUND


UNDERGROUND (1941). Vincent Sherman.

Returning from the German army after losing an arm, Kurt Franken (Jeffrey Lynn) is unaware that his brother Eric (Philip Dorn) is the radio voice of the underground resistance movement that hates the Nazis and everything they stand for. Then Kurt falls for a woman (Kaaren Verne) who is working with his brother, and all Hell breaks loose. The most affecting and best-acted scene has to do with Eric and an associate confronting a man who was released by the Nazis after years of imprisonment and torture as he begs them to understand what he went through and tries to assure them that he didn't betray them. Eric feels that one has to be prepared to give up one's life for the cause, giving added resonance to the wind-up. Martin Kosleck is excellent as the nasty Colonel Heller (sic) who is determined to wipe out the members of the underground at any cost. This may have been a propaganda film, but it still has some power today and must have been very strong stuff in 1941. Some striking scenes and good performances, too. It's all rather minor-league, unfortunately, despite the subject matter, but the ending is poignant.

Verdict: **1/2.

13 GHOSTS


13 GHOSTS (1960). Director: William Castle.

Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods) and his family have serious financial problems, but discover that an uncle has left Cyrus his spooky old house-- and all of its ghosts. This movie has two clever ideas -- that the uncle actually collected ghosts to study, and that he invented a pair of weird goggles through which one can actually see the ghosts. Aside from that 13 Ghosts isn't one of the more memorable William Castle thrillers, although it's fun in its minor way. Rosemary DeCamp is Cyrus' wife and little Charles Herbert is his mischievous son, Buck; Martin Milner plays Ben Rush, the uncle's lawyer, who may have his own agenda -- all give good performances. Margaret Hamilton might seem like a casting coup as the dead uncle's creepy housekeeper and assistant, but her performance is only adequate. Donald Woods is perfect as the put-upon Cyrus, however.

Verdict: Worth seeing once. **1/2.

ANNA LUCASTA


ANNA LUCASTA (1959). Director: Arnold Laven. Screenplay by Philip Yordan from his play.

"Don't you want to see me respectable?"

"You'd only be cheapening yourself."

Caught by her father necking with a boy in the park, Anna (Eartha Kitt) is thrown out onto the street by her father, (who seems scared of her sexuality perhaps due to incestuous feelings on his part) and has to do what she can to survive. But when an opportunity comes up to marry Anna off to the well-off son, Rudolph (Henry Scott) of an old friend, the father, Joe (Rex Ingram), goes to bring her back home. When it looks as if Anna will have a new life with a very understanding Rudolph, Joe sets out to make sure her happiness is destroyed. This is a powerful family drama that happens to be about a black family. Eartha Kitt gives an outstanding performance as Anna, and the rest of the cast is splendid. Scott offers a sensitive and appealing portrayal of a decent, kind man who can overlook anything out of love. Anna's mother Theresa (Georgia Burke) says "Women play dumb. Men are born that way." Frederick O'Neal, James Edwards, Rosetta LeNoire, Isabel Cooley, Alvin Childress, and especially Claire Leyba as the old lady who only wants a drink, Blanche, are all notable.

And then we come to Sammy Davis Jr, who plays one of Anna's boyfriends, Danny. As much as I admire Davis, I have to say he isn't very good in the movie. His acting is too broad and almost amateurish. The scene when Anna runs off with Danny goes on much too long, and even has inappropriate sequences of Davis tripping the light fantastic. And this is what we get instead of a strong dramatic climax that the movie has been building toward but never quite arrives at. Otherwise, this is a very absorbing drama with an effective cast.

Verdict: Nearly derailed by Davis but still worthwhile. ***.

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008 Telefilm)


JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (2008 telefilm/Hallmark channel). Director: T. J. Scott.

Yet another version of Jules Verne's classic story, this was probably rushed out because of the Brendan Fraser theatrical version. For one thing, in both movies the entrance to the underworld is through an abandoned mine (which has nothing to do with Verne). In this a wealthy woman (Victoria Pratt) hires Jonathan Brock (Rick Schroder) and his nephew Abel (Stephen Grayhm) to go find her missing husband (in the Fraser version it's a missing brother). It seems to take forever until they're actually under the Earth, and then in five minutes -- vavoom! -- they're suddenly at the center!! There is no attempt to make the underground world look like it's actually under the Earth -- it just looks like the sunny, unremarkable outdoor location it is -- and there's no sense of wonder or atmosphere of any kind. There is one -- and only one -- good scene, and that's when they cross the lake and a gigantic plesiosaur attacks their raft. This monster is very effective and credible. But after that all you get is the missing husband -- played by Peter Fonda, of all people -- who has become the leader of a group of sub-humans. The acting in this is professional, and Pratt -- despite a somewhat irritating haughtiness -- and Mike Dopud as the big handsome Russian Sergei have a lot of presence. This is about neck and neck with the direct-to-video version made the same year, but nowhere near as good as the 1959 adaptation.

Verdict: Not worth the journey. **.

THE 27TH DAY


THE 27TH DAY (1957). Director: William Asher.

This picture certainly has an intriguing premise. Earthlings from different countries are taken into space by aliens who claim that they need to populate a new planet: Earth. They are not violent beings so an out and out invasion is out of the question. Instead they give these individuals containers/devices which hold a kind of poison that, once released, could wipe out the human race but leave everything else intact. After 27 days the devices will become inactive. Then they take over world communications and tell everyone on Earth just what the situation is. An American reporter (Gene Barry aka Amos Burke) and a very pretty Englishwoman (Valerie French) combine forces and decide the best thing to do is to hide out until the 27 days are over. Things aren't as simple for the Russian who was given one of the devices.

The trouble with the movie -- which is basically a cold war anti-communist tract -- is that it talks itself to death and does very, very little of interest with its intriguing situation. In other words, it's a complete waste of time. French also appeared in The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake and Jubal with Glenn Ford.

Verdict: Read 1984 instead. *.

WEEKEND FOR THREE


WEEKEND FOR THREE (1941). Director: Irving Reis.

"Every married man ought to be a bachelor!"

One night when he's tight, Jim (Dennis O'Keefe, pictured) invites a friendly guy, Randy (Phillip Reed), in a club to come visit, and the guy shows up at his house -- and shows no signs of ever wanting to leave. Worse, he and Jim's wife Ellen (Jane Wyatt) are old friends and have great fun dancing all night together. Had this low-grade Man Who Came to Dinner been made in the 21st century, it probably would have had all sorts of psycho-sexual developments [Randy seems stereotypically gay for one thing] but for a screwball forties picture it certainly doesn't have enough laughs. O'Keefe and Wyatt are fine, but the picture is stolen by those old pros Zazu Pitts (as the maid), Edward Everett Horton (Jim's associate, who's had several bad marriages) and Franklin Pangborn (as a waiter in their favorite establishment). This is a picture you really want to like but it's very third-rate and never really erupts into the hoped-for hilarity. And this had a screenplay by Dorothy Parker -- I wonder how much of her original script actually made it into the movie. Not much, I bet.

Verdict: You'll have the feeling you've been this way once too often. *1/2.

THE GRUDGE


THE GRUDGE (2004). Director: Takashi Shimizu. Written by Stephen Susco.

In an attempt to have another smash hit like The Ring, Columbia has taken another Japanese horror film and come out with an American remake – although it still takes place in Japan with some transplanted Americans. Sarah Michelle Geller is the nominal heroine who becomes embroiled in a frightening ghost story when she fills in for a home care provider who's disappeared. She sees spooky visions of a little boy who is central to the mystery. Apparently there was a murder-suicide in the house, and the evil that lives within is reverberating outward to ensnare anyone who comes into its invisible web. A workable if unoriginal idea is given mediocre execution that all but spoils the movie; it also has a much less interesting storyline than The Ring. Although there are a number of creepy moments, they are also rather silly, and the whole movie is quite predictable and, at times, illogical. Prosaically filmed, there are absolutely no surprises to The Grudge. The ghostly little boy is generally too helpless and cute-looking to be very scary. Bill Pullman appears as a man who commits suicide sometime after seeing the child and he isn't bad. Geller, on the other hand, isn't much of an actress. She seems to have little future beyond bad movies like this.

Verdict: Why horror films have a bad name. *

Thursday, April 9, 2009

MICKEY ONE


MICKEY ONE (1965). Director: Arthur Penn.

Mickey One is the stage name of a young comic (Warren Beatty) who is on the run because he owes money to the mob. His landlady -- apparently he owes her money, too -- rents his apartment to a young lady, Jenny (Alexandra Stewart), who sort of becomes Mickey's girlfriend after he refuses to move out. But what difference does it make -- because Alan M. Surgal's screenplay has no real plot and paper-thin characters. Beatty really has nobody to play, but at least he has charisma if little else. Stewart mopes about and makes little impression, probably no fault of hers. Franchot Tone and Hurd Hatfield give vivid, even memorable performances, but their characters are also cyphers and the movie wastes their talents. Director Penn opts for a stylish approach which never disguises the essential emptiness of the film and is remarkably pretentious as well -- Penn is no Fellini. Worse still, the movie is excrutiatingly tedious. An example of the subtlety of the picture is Hatfield, as a club manager, banging on the door behind which stands Beatty and shouting "I want you!" Later Beatty winds up for no real reason in a junkyard and comes across a bunch of derelicts, one of whom campily gives him come-hither looks -- oy vey! This movie is so awful on so many levels it isn't funny.

Verdict: One of the worst movies ever made. 1/2*.

OF MICE AND MEN (1992)


OF MICE AND MEN (1992). Director: Gary Sinise.

John Steinbeck's heartbreaking study of loneliness and shattered dreams has such a strong story that it carries this flawed remake both starring and directed by Sinise (pictured). As actor and director Sinise is perfectly competent but rather lightweight, although he certainly isn't bad as George Milton. Although John Malkovich is not as memorable as Lon Chaney Jr. in the 1939 version, he is more on the money as Lennie. Ray Walston offers a solid performance as old Candy -- is there anything more pathetic than seeing him crying on the cot after his dog has been shot?-- and Casey Siemaszko scores as the nasty little Curly. Sherilynn Fenn is excellent as Curly's unnamed wife, who is much more sympathetic in this version. This also gives a good scene [per the novel] to the black character Crooks (a vivid Joe Morton), as in the original version. The 1939 version was more artistic, but this version has its own strengths, a certain graphicness, and it does pull one along. But it's empowered every step of the way by Steinbeck's genius. Screenplay by Horton Foote.

Verdict: Disturbing and affecting. ***1/2.

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?


WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971). Director: Curtis Harrington.

In the 1930's two women whose sons are convicted of murder move to Los Angeles to start new lives and open a school for budding Shirley Temples. Adelle (Debbie Reynolds) is a pretty dancer with high hopes for the future while Helen (Shelley Winters) is a religious type who's haunted by the gruesome death of her husband. As Adelle becomes romantically involved with the father (Dennis Weaver) of one of the moppets, Helen becomes increasingly unhinged, leading to violent complications. Written by Henry Farell (Baby Jane; Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte) Helen has an excellent premise that isn't developed as well as it could have been, and Harrington's uninspired direction is no help at all. The trouble is that the "horror" stuff has to happen to justify the film's existence (despite it's already interesting plot line) and it just isn't as convincing as, say, Hush ... Hush. The two lead actresses are fine, however, even if Reynolds falls a little short during the more dramatic moments. Weaver and Agnes Moorehead as a greedy evangelist are on the money. Micheal (sic) MacLiammoir seems to be doing a Sidney Greenstreet impersonation as Hamilton Starr, the school's vocal and dramatic teacher, but he's a lot of fun, and there's some humor generated in regards to the tykes -- one of whom is Pamelyn Ferdin -- and their mothers -- one of whom is Yvette Vickers (Mrs. Barker)! While much of the movie is predictable, Farrell still manages to stick in a minor twist or two. The little girl who does the "You Big Bad Man" number is terrific!

Verdict: Interesting failure. **1/2.

KAY FRANCIS: A PASSIONATE LIFE AND CAREER


KAY FRANCIS: A PASSIONATE LIFE AND CAREER. Lynn Kear and John Rossman. McFarland Publishers; 2006.

A solid biography of the not-quite-forgotten movie star of the thirties and forties, Kay Francis. While this volume doesn't go into the individual movies too much, it does look at all the career and personal highlights of Francis' life, and -- via her diary -- notes many, many of her intimate relationships over the decades. What was the truth about her sexuality? The authors wisely note that "there is the possibility that Kay ... was reticent about writing about her lesbian activities in her diary ... It wouldn't be surprising that Kay occasionally edited certain activities from the written record." At times, with her excessive drinking and almost desperate bed-hopping with practically any male that came along -- not to mention several unsuccessful relationships -- Francis comes off like the female equivalent of a "Don Juan homosexual," hoping to find a man who'll finally convince her she's not a lesbian. Her writing in her diary that she slept with one woman only because the other woman wanted her to sounds a little disingenuous. Whatever the case, Kay Francis definitely made an impact on Hollywood style and on many of her peers and fans, as the authors of this very readable study make clear. Attractive and stylish, Francis may not have been a raving beauty in the classic sense, but she didn't exactly have to beg for dates. What comes across in this book is a woman of contradictions who wanted stardom and all it could bring to her (chiefly money) but who also had a disdain for the whole Hollywood lifestyle [not that she was alone in that] that informed many of her decisions.

Verdict: Good book about the not-so-forgotten Kay. ***.

PRAYERS FOR BOBBY


PRAYERS FOR BOBBY (2009 telefilm/Lifetime). Director: Russell Mulcahy. Based on a true story. Teleplay by Katie Ford from a book by Leroy Aarons.

Bobby Griffith (Ryan Kelley) comes out to his family in 1979 California, and they all seem to take it well except for his overly religious mother, whose well-meaning but homophobic attitude only adds to his sense of isolation when he sees his boyfriend with another man -- leading to his suicide at 20. Mary Griffith (Sigourney Weaver) makes it her business to learn why not all churches and religionists believe that homosexuality is a sin, and discovers that what she was taught was based on bigotry and distortion. This is a "safe" gay film that, while admirable and well-intentioned, is also a bit patronizing -- and like something made thirty years ago. In one scene at a meeting of PFLAG --Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays -- the parents all talk of how they knew their children were "different." Not only does this help foster stereotypes about the very diverse gay community, but isn't the whole point that gay people aren't different? Although Weaver of the Aliens series is a little self-conscious at first, she eventually manages to give a first-rate performance -- probably the best of her career. Kelley and the rest of the cast are all on target.

Verdict: Gay Lite, perhaps, but not without value. ***.

THE LOST MISSILE


THE LOST MISSILE (1958). Director: William Berke. Screenplay by Berke and Jerome Bixby.

The movie has a great idea and not a bad script but with a 99 cent budget and probably a shooting schedule of about a week it never realizes its potential. A racing explosive deadly missile of unknown origin, possibly extraterrestrial, appears out of nowhere and is on its way to New York (obliterating poor Ottawa along the way). This is the day that Dr. David Loring (Robert Loggia) wants to marry his girlfriend Joan (Ellen Parker), and the same day that another scientist's wife is having a baby. All of this takes a back seat to the fact that New York has to be evacuated in record time, and there seems to be no way to destroy the missile -- or is there? Alas, there's only so much you can do with stock footage (and there's a lot of it) and a lack of directorial panache. Ottawa is destroyed with a few shots of people falling down beneath a fiery beam or something, and there are reasonably well-staged scenes of panic in the subway and elsewhere. One scene that should have been powerful is when one character is exposed to deadly plutonium, dooming him, as the woman who loves him -- unable to touch him for one last time -- watches in horror. This probably worked a lot better on paper than it does on the screen. Too bad. The performances are generally solid.

Verdict: Watchable but minor-league sci fi. **.

THE CAVE


THE CAVE (2005). Director: Bruce Hunt. Written by Michael Steinberg; Tegan West.

In the Carpathian Mountains, a group of men come across an old church on top of an ancient cavern, and are apparently killed by an avalanche. Years later, a new expedition decides to explore this enormous cave, and discover that strange parasites have [very improbably] mutated those long-ago men into weird, carnivorous winged creatures. The leader (Cole Hauser) of this new group has been bitten, and is slowly mutating himself. There is a cave-in and the members of the party have to find an alternate route out of the cavern while trying to avoid not only those big flying monsters but huge eels that swim in the underground river. Sounds exciting, but it's rather dull, despite the busyness and all the hard work that went into the production. There are some decent effects and good sets as well as an occasional striking underwater shot, but the monsters aren't seen very often and don't interact nearly enough with the cast. Even in the climax we never really get a long, clear view at these mutated creatures, who in passing resemble the flying Mayhars of At the Earth's Core and in close-up look like the creatures from Alien. Underwater they seem like swimming pterodactyls. There is a lot of walking and talking and swimming to little purpose. The main problem is that the director just covers the action in a highly uninspired fashion; quick shots come and go leaving the viewer not quite certain of what happened. The acting is competent but the script could have used some work. The booming soundtrack does a lot toward drumming up [often unwarranted] excitement but isn't otherwise memorable. This is one movie that should have premiered on the Sci Fi Channel or Direct to Video.

Verdict: Even monster movie devotees will be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

SAMSON VERSUS THE TURKEY MONSTERS


SAMSON VERSUS THE TURKEY MONSTERS (1962). Director: Federico Fellini.

Although Fellini has denied for decades that he ever directed a sand and sorcery epic, this picture has finally surfaced and has many of Fellini's directorial touches. The movie was filmed in the early fifties as The Loves of Samson and was meant to be a fairly serious epic with psycho-sexual pretensions. The studio deemed it unreleasable -- not only because it ran over four hours -- and it was put in the vault. In 1962, the film was cut down to eighty minutes, and what was meant to be a brief humorous scene involving Samson's capture of a wild, giant turkey was expanded into a whole movie about Samson saving a village from an attack of carnivorous turkeys thirty feet tall. New, very bad footage was shot and inserted into the film. Although it's called Samson versus the Turkey Monsters plural, there is actually only one giant turkey terrorizing the villagers. Some atmospheric shots and fascinating faces are all that's left of Fellini's original vision. A no-name cast except for Alida Valli as a horny sorceress.

Verdict: A giant turkey indeed. *.

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA


VOYAGE OF THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961). Director: Irwin Allen.

This was one of Twentieth Century-Fox's big CinemaScope "thrill"pictures that all the kids had to see. The amazing thing is how entertaining the darn thing is. Meteors have set the Van Allen belt aflame and it looks like the world could be doomed. Many scientists feel that the fire will simply burn itself out, but Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) is convinced that the only way to save Earth is to fire a missile into the fiery belt about a day before it's predicted that the flames will expire. So Nelson sets sail with his fancy nuclear sub the Seaview and heads for the Marianas, where the missile can be fired. But he has to contend with a disgruntled crew, saboteurs, waters full of mines, a bad-tempered squid, a giant octopus, a nutty religious fanatic, and mutineers before its over. The movie works up a considerable amount of suspense as Nelson makes his mad dash to save the planet. The special effects work is uneven but generally credible. There's a terrific shot of Manhattan with a sky full of flames overhead. The squid is phony-looking and has limited movement, but the octopus is a better actor. Robert Sterling (as Captain Lee Crane) Barbara Eden, Henry Daniell, Joan Fontaine. Michael Ansara, and the inimitable Peter Lorre are all fine in supporting roles. Sterling is given a good speech in which he tells off Ansara for preaching fatalism -- accepting the inevitable -- to the sailors when he needs them to be at peak strength to pull off the impossible. Best scene: Joan Fontaine falls into the shark pool! Good script, fast pace, and effective musical score help enormously. Although this was clearly inspired by Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it's actually more entertaining.

Verdict: More fun than it has any right to be. ***.

HATCHET (1966)


HATCHET (1966). Director: William Castle.

This was Castle and Joan Crawford's unreleased follow-up to Strait-Jacket. That film made so much money that Castle immediately made plans for Crawford to do a sequel, but Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Crawford's alleged illness got in the way. By the time Crawford got around to doing the film, there was a brand new script and she was a new character named -- ironically -- Mrs. Vorhees (although spelled with one "o.") Jackie Vorhees owns cabins for rent in Maine. Who should show up one day but the man who jilted her years ago and the woman he married. The two are killed in a gruesome sequence, but their bodies disappear. Eventually there are more murders-by-hatchet and Jackie is the prime -- although certainly not the only -- suspect. Gloria Blondell isn't bad as the manager of the cabins, who has some odd secrets of her own. Cameron Mitchell is a horny handyman, and Christine Jorgenson has a great guest appearance as a traveling saleslady. Gregor Tanese is fine as an overly ambitious reporter. The film was never completed, however, because Joan walked off the set, although the ending was shot and a DVD is expected to surface in early 2010.

Verdict: Compelling hatchet job with a zesty Joan. ***.

KIND LADY (1935)


KIND LADY (1935). Director: George B. Seitz.

Mary Herries (Aline MacMahon) gives a cup of tea to an impoverished stranger, Henry Abbott (Basil Rathbone, pictured), and before long he's moving in to her townhouse with his wife, baby, and several friends and relatives. It's no secret that it's all part of a plot to separate the woman from her money and from everyone who cares about her. Eily Malyon and Barbara Shields are vivid as Mrs. Edwards and her idiot daughter Aggie, and Nola Luxford is effective as Mrs. Herries' worried maid, Rose. While the acting is good, the problem with the film is the lack of suspense and tension and an easy, too-quick resolution. Despite all its promise, this never really amounts to much.

Verdict: Disappointing but Basil's diction is always a delight. **.

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET MAE WEST, THE VAMP


ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET MAE WEST,THE VAMP(1946). Director: Charles Lamont.

Not seen for decades due to litigation, this turns out to be a very funny teaming of the boys and one risque gal named Mae. Just as A & C had done a film with "Boris Karloff, The Killer" in the title, they also did a similarly titled film with West. In this she plays a black widow who marries off and presumably murders one husband after another for their money. Her latest target is Lou Costello -- who's inherited a bundle, or so he thinks -- but his buddy Bud will have none of it -- until he falls under Mae's spell, too. The most hilarious scene has Mae trying to teach Lou the best way to make love to a woman. He then practices on Bud!

Verdict: You have to see Lou impersonating Mae to believe it! ***.

AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR


AVP: ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (2004). Writer/Director: Paul W. S. Anderson.

This is the fifth in the Alien series and the third in the Predator series. But while the predators may emerge triumphant -- or do they? -- most people will buy this DVD because of the Aliens. [Frankly, the two Predator films, while not without their moments, couldn't compare to the Alien movies.] A scientific research team descends into a tunnel somehow burnt into the frigid wasteland to discover a pyramid that is centuries old and shows evidence of several different cultures. They also find themselves smack in the middle of a battle between the Predators and the Aliens, who seem evenly matched. The movie explains the relationship between the two alien species and mankind and features some excellent special effects and well-handled action scenes. It is also a very good-looking, well-photographed movie. It isn't especially scary, however, and at times seems more of an action film than a horror flick. There is an attempt at characterization with some appealing actors but they get killed off before we can really bond with them. Although there are a couple of scenes featuring the acid blood of the Aliens, there are times when the little critters get torn apart without that same blood having much of an effect on the people or Predators standing nearby. Lance Henriksen is the only name in the cast, and he's fine, as usual. The lead actress, Samaa Lathan, isn't bad, but she lacks that Sigourney Weaver-type presence [this is not to say that Weaver is a great actress] and doesn't always nail her scenes convincingly.

Verdict: There's life in those old aliens yet. ***.

SISTERS-IN-LAW


SISTERS-IN-LAW (1968). Director: Armand DiAntoni.

Filmed in Italy, this surprisingly effective and poignant shocker teams Bette Davis and Faith (It Came from Beneath the Sea) Domergue [pictured] as two women trying to come to terms with each other as they live together in a crumbling mansion a la Baby Jane. But the plot line is very different. Davis was married to Domergue's brother, whose death has always been shrouded in mystery. Many believe that he was murdered by Davis, but her sister-in-law has always maintained that her brother committed suicide. She has other issues with Davis, however, especially her jealousy of Davis' relationship with a handsome, aging gigolo played by Gregor Tanese. Davis is more restrained than usual, turning the histrionics over to Domergue, who is not only credible but fascinating. There are two grisly murders, and a very surprising denouement. To say any more would be criminal.

Verdict: Grand Guignol galore. ***.