Thursday, August 26, 2010

KING KONG (1933)


KING KONG (1933). Directed by Cooper and Schoedsack.

77 years after its initial release, King Kong remains an outstanding film and one of the most exciting motion pictures ever made. While some may consider them "crude" today, the fact is that many of the stop-motion effects by Willis O'Brien and company are still eye-popping and extremely effective, with Kong himself being a wonderful creation -- both playful [flapping the cracked jaw of a defeated T Rex with amusing curiosity] and extremely dangerous, to say the least. The picture is fast-paced, intense, and at times quite disturbing. (You can feel sorry for Kong if you want to; the one who gets my sympathy is that poor terrified woman who's grabbed out of her bed in the hotel and dashed to the ground -- not to mention all of the big ape's other victims]. Max Steiner's excellent score imbues the film with atmosphere, as do the elaborate sets, beautiful matte paintings, and other FX work. All in all, King Kong is a kind of epic tragedy for all concerned. This is still the best version of the story bar none. NOTE: You can read more about this and other monster movies in Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Cinematic and magical. ****.

ANNIE


ANNIE (1982). Director: John Huston.

In 1932 Manhattan, a little orphan named Annie (Aileen Quinn) who lives in a home run by the nasty Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett) is chosen to spend a day with the super-wealthy Oliver Warbucks (Albert Finney). But there's trouble afoot when Miss Hannigan's brother (Tim Curry) and gal (Bernadette Peters) -- along with Hannigan -- concoct a scheme to kidnap Annie for cash. Based on the Broadway hit, this is a good, old-fashioned musical comedy served up with flair and bolstered by excellent performances and a tuneful and memorable score. ("You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" is probably the best number, although "Tomorrow" is more famous.) Little Quinn is marvelous; a very funny Burnett nearly steals the picture as Hannigan, and Ann Reinking is effervescent as Warbuck's singing and dancing secretary. Peters and Curry are also wonderful, as is Lois de Banzie as Eleanor Roosevelt. Although Albert Finney is woefully miscast as Warbucks, he givers it the old college try and does have a terrific sequence with Burnett. The splendid Reinking also appeared in Movie, Movie, Micki + Maude and All That Jazz, but did not have many non-Broadway credits.

Verdict: Very entertaining movie with Burnett in top form. ***1/2.

SHE DONE HIM WRONG


SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933). Director: Lowell Sherman.

"When women go wrong, men go right after them!"

In New York's Bowery during the Gay Nineties, saloon singer Lou (Mae West) has taken up with the owner, Gus (Noah Beery Sr.), after her previous boyfriend, Chick (Owen Moore), wound up in jail. Lou doesn't really want either of these comparative plug-uglies, but instead hankers for Russian Rita's (Rafaela Ottiano) man Serge (Gilbert Roland), and especially do-gooder Captain Cummings (Cary Grant), who has a secret. But Chick isn't about to let his gal wind up with another man, so he breaks jail ... Louise Beavers is fun as the maid, Pearl, and Rochelle Hudson appears as a poor little waif named Sally. This is an amiable movie -- not so much a parody of a melodrama as a melodrama with laughs -- that is full of West's patented double entendres and sex-emphatic "acting." Grant comes off very well in his scenes with West. As usual, West's character is a shady lady who plays the game as the men do, and generally comes out on top.

Verdict: Brief and minor but amiable and with some great one-liners. **1/2.

STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES


STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES 1973 - 1974. Created by Gene Roddenberry.

All in all this filmation series based on the original science fiction program was not that memorable. The lead actors of the show -- William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Leonard Nimoy -- all gave voice to the main characters, with James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Majel Barrett voicing not only their own characters but many others. The series' animation was competent but unimpressive.

Out of two seasons there were about six above average episodes, which include: "The Survivor," in which a man who was missing for years and is reunited with his fiancee turns out to be a shape-shifting alien; "The Terratin Incident," involving a shrinking gas that affects the crew; "Practical Joker," in which the Enterprise itself has a nervous breakdown; "Albatross," wherein Bones is accused of causing a plague that killed thousands; and "How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth," in which the crew battles a powerful flying serpent that claims to be the Mayan god, Kukulcan. Perhaps the best episode of the series was "The Counter-Clock Incident," in which the Enterprise winds up in a universe where time goes in reverse, making the ship's first captain [Robert April, a name that was used before being changed to James Kirk] and his wife, both elderly, become young again.

Verdict: Another speed bump in the Star Trek saga. **.

DESPERATE


DESPERATE (1947). Director: Anthony Mann.

Steve Randall (Steve Brodie) is a married trucker who innocently gets involved in a warehouse robbery because of an old school chum, Walt Radak (Raymond Burr), who heads a group of thieves, one of whom is Radak's younger brother. First Radak hopes to set up Randall for the cop-murder committed by his brother, then decides he just wants to kill him -- and pursues him and his wife (Audrey Long) to a farmhouse where her aunt and uncle reside. One problem with the movie is that the lead character is an idiot, consistently doing one stupid thing after another and getting in deeper and deeper. Still, the movie has some suspense, the performances are competent, and Burr offers one of his most vivid portrayals. Jason Robards [Sr] plays the cop assigned to the case. NOTE: This is one of the films on Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5.

Verdict: Minor but well-done. **1/2.

STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH


STAR WARS EPISODE III -- REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005). Written and directed by George Lucas.

Fearing for his wife's safety and wishing for the power to protect her, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) succumbs to the dark side of the force and becomes Darth Vader. [Of course the fact that young Skywalker is put on the council but not made a "master" by his superiors and the resentment this engenders also influences his decision.] All these years after the original Star Wars it seems strange that anyone would even care about this long and rather silly saga that in general has always been below comic book level [while battening off the ideas of such comics giants as Jack Kirby]. Typical of today's FX movies, there is so much computer animation in the film that it resembles a cartoon. The miniature spaceships and the like which were once so striking now just look like miniatures. The wizened Yoda gets a lot of screen time and is as irritating as ever. Most of the acting in the movie can't be characterized so much as "bad" as simply "dull." At 140 minutes this will best be enjoyed by diehard Star Wars fanatics and may put everyone else to sleep. There are some good scenes, such as a battle between Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) over a river of lava, but the ultimate effect is rather numbing.

Verdict: Hopefully the last Star Wars movie ever. **.

THE HOT SPOT


THE HOT SPOT (1990). Director: Dennis Hopper.

"I'm f--king you to death, George."

A drifter named Harry Madox (Don Johnson) comes into a sleepy town, gets a job as a car salesman, and winds up bedding his boss, George's, wife (Virginia Madsen) as well as romancing a 19-year-old clerk in the office (Jennifer Connelly). Johnson and Madsen make a sexy duo, there are bank robberies, steamy sex scenes, beatings and murders -- and a lot of jealousy -- but while the picture holds the attention, it never really amounts to much. There's no real sense of time or place, the characters are vague or simply unlikable, the plot [based on the 1951 novel "Hell Hath No Fury"] is old-fashioned, and both the acting and pacing are rather too languid, although Madsen isn't bad and William Sadler nearly steals the picture as the sleazy blackmailer, Sutton. Some gay material that may have been inserted into the picture to make it seem more modern only makes it even more dated.

Verdict: Perhaps more fog than steam. **

Thursday, August 19, 2010

MY LITTLE CHICKADEE


MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940). Director: Edward F. Cline.

"I feel as though a midget with muddy feet has been walking over my tongue all night." -- Cuthbert J. Twillie.

When Flower Belle Lee (Mae West) is run out of town because of her midnight dalliances with a mysterious masked bandit, she runs into Cuthbert J. Twillie (W. C. Fields) on a train and "marries" him when she sees his valise full of cash. All this leads into various highly amusing complications as Flower Belle is torn between two other men [one good/Dick Foran; one bad/Joseph Calleia], and Cuthbert winds up as the sheriff in a town where sheriffs need to be frequently replaced due to violent death. Fields is as marvelous as ever; the ever-liberated West doesn't so much as act in the movie as she inhabits it, but she's a lot of fun; Calleia and Margaret Hamilton [ as a disapproving but kind of lovable old maid] give give their usual flavorful performances; and the under-rated Dick Foran is pleasant and solid. Donald Meek is also great as a gambler who pretends to be a pastor so the two stars can get married on the train. West sings "Willie of the Valley" with great aplomb if without a voice. Lots of great dialogue in this.

Verdict: An unbeatable combo. ***1/2.

SEARCH FOR A MOVIE


A reader in Romania would like to know if anyone has seen or heard of a movie she once saw on late-night television but whose title she didn't catch. She believes it may be a French film -- or French-American co-production -- made after the fifties. It was definitely not a television program. The plot is quite unusual:

"In Paris, a few years after the end of World War II, a female former member of the Resistance is now a rich and successful writer (I think), and, in spite of her not being young any more, a still attractive woman. She is in love with a much younger man (an American), who also loves her passionately. (Not long after the beginning of the movie, the two lovers are on their way to an official meeting, and they have a romantic encounter in an elevator). For some time they are happy together but the woman is deeply concerned about the difference in age between them, and she wants him to love someone "better" than her, i.e. younger. He does not agree with her at all. Under such circumstances, the woman thinks of a plan: with the help of her former comrades in the Resistance, she stages her death as if in a car accident, while leaving in her will her entire fortune to him. Being now dead to everybody, she goes to a doctor, a scientist who had an experimental, risky and painful rejuvenating method, and undergoes the treatment. She becomes a young woman, bearing only a slight physical resemblance to her former appearance. (The treatment also presupposed periodical injections in the neck, to alleviate the recurring excruciating pain she experiences, and to maintain her youth.) Pretending to be a young, poor and shy translator, she makes him notice her by going to his favorite cafe. Struck by the resemblance with his lost love, he, who is inconsolable after her "death", gets acquainted and then involved with the young and - to him - dull translator. After some time, still torn by mixed feelings and almost reluctantly, he marries her. All this time, however, he is actually longing only after her, the mature one, and he is secretly spending time at her former house. Paradoxically, the now-young woman has to fight not only a shadow, the ghost of his previous love, but HER OWN shadow! There is a scene when he shouts at her something like "...look at you! You are stupid, a banal translator!.. How could you ever compare with her?... She was beautiful, she was smart and sophisticated..." Eventually, she discovers his visits at her former house... Towards the end, there is a scene in which, in that house, out of desperate love and not knowing what else to do any more, she appears to him dressed in one of her old dresses. He is outraged, yelling something like: "How dare you wear her dress??!!.." I cannot remember well what happens in the end... I think she tells him the truth and soon afterwards she dies, as a consequence of her (deliberately?) interrupting the treatment.

Also, the title of the film consisted of more than one word, one of which may have been "obsession" or something similar.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? If so, please leave a comment, or contact me via email. Many thanks!

CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010)


CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010). Director: Louis Leterrier.

This is a big-budget, 3-D, inferior remake to the 1981 Clash of the Titans starring Sam Worthington of Avatar as Perseus. As in the original film, Perseus must get the head of the gorgon, Medusa, to use against the monstrous Kraken, to which the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) is going to be sacrificed. This time it's all part of a war between Zeus (Liam Neeson) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes). [Hades was actually the name of the underworld, not a God.] Clash of the Titans has no characterization to speak of, and worse, little narrative drive. It's not well directed and comes off for long, long stretches like a dull TV movie. [I can't imagine that the 3-D would have helped much.] Worthington is okay as the hero, even if his accent comes and goes. The computer-generated giant scorpion is not that impressive, although the scene with Medusa is much better [although still not as good as the same sequence in the original film]. Pegasus the flying horse gets a lot of action, as he did in the 1981 version, but Bubo the owl only shows up briefly. The movie picks up in the final moments with the very dramatic introduction of the Kraken, and the effects therein are impressive.

Verdict: If you're going to do a remake, make sure it's a lot better than the original. This isn't. **1/2.

BURNT OFFERINGS


BURNT OFFERINGS (1976). Director: Dan Curtis.

A married couple with a young son rent a mansion for the summer for a ridiculously low price, with the "catch" that they have to prepare meals for the reclusive matriarch of the house, who stays alone in her room in the attic. The occupants of the house -- who are going on vacation -- also include Roz Allardyce [an effective Eileen Heckart] and her brother Arnold [Burgess Meredith, who is also effective, although for some reason he plays the role as a total gay stereotype]. Karen Black and Oliver Reed, both giving good performances, are the married couple, and Lee H. Montgomery also does a fine job as their son, David. As their Aunt Elizabeth, Bette Davis is at first as "grand lady-ish" and affected as she usually was in her older days, but eventually settles in to give one of her better latter-day performances. And we mustn't forget Anthony James, who makes an impression as the sinister nightmare chauffeur without ever saying a word. [James has over 75 credits in movies and television.] Burnt Offerings is an entertaining horror flick, even if it's not always convincing as to the [confusing] supernatural aspects of the storyline. Nonsense the movie may be, yes, but it still builds up to tragic consequences and the ending packs a small wallop. You might say that Burnt Offerings does for the haunted house story what Rosemary's Baby did for witches. William F. Nolan and Curtis scripted from Robert Marasco's novel.

Verdict: Disquieting -- and depressing -- in its own mostly quiet way. ***.

THE BLACK CAMEL


THE BLACK CAMEL (1931). Director: Hamilton MacFadden.

Inspector Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) is called in when an actress, Shelah Fane (Dorothy Revier), filming on location in Hawaii, is found murdered. Apparently Miss Fane knew too much about the unsolved murder three years earlier of another actor with whom she had been involved. The suspects include a fortune teller named Tarneverro (Bela Lugosi), a maid named Anna (Violet Dunn), Shelah's friend Julie (Sally Eilers), her boyfriend Jimmy (Robert Young in his "film debut," although he was also an extra in The Campus Vamp in 1928), Shelah's fiance Alan (William Post Jr.), an odd painter and beachcomber named Smith (Murray Kinnell), and Shelah's ex-husband Robert Fyfe (Victor Varconi). Aside from Oland, most of the actors are merely serviceable, although Violet Dunn is vivid, as is the ever-overwrought Dwight Frye in the role of a butler. Lugosi has a good-sized role, but is not really seen to good advantage. Handsome Varconi seems to have stolen his accent from Lugosi! Born in Hungary, Varconi was also in The Man Who Turned to Stone and Atomic Submarine. Stage-bound and slow, The Black Camel is a fairly dull Charlie Chan movie. Even the Monogram Chans were better than this. There's an amusing scene showing Chan at home with his snappy and very American family.

Verdict: It creaks. **.

THRILLER SEASON 1


THRILLER Season 1. 1960 CBS TV series.

After Alfred Hitchcock Presents had been running for several years on CBS with half hour episodes, it moved to NBC. CBS then decided to hire horror star Boris Karloff to host an hour-long mystery anthology series entitled Thriller. [Alfred Hitchcock Presents was eventually turned into The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.]
Karloff made an excellent host [although one could argue that Hitchcock was even better] and generally gave good performances on the infrequent occasions when he appeared in an episode [in the second season]. Stories on the program ran the gamut from mysteries to crime thrillers about gangsters -- anything that thrilled -- but eventually there was a strong concentration on macabre and outright horror stories, some adapted from classic short stories. The program ran for two seasons.

Highlights of the first season of Thriller include "Worse Than Murder" with the versatile Constance Ford [who played a very different role in the superb Hitchcock episode "The Creeper"] as a hard-as-nails blackmailing bitch; "The Mark of the Hand," based on a Charlotte Armstrong novel; "The Poisoner," with Murray Matheson doing away with irritating in-laws; "The Merriweather File," about a man accused of murder; "Late Date," with a man covering up for his brother after the latter commits murder; "Papa Benjamin," a tale of voodoo with John Ireland as a musician playing a very memorable "Voodoo Rhapsody;" "Final Impulse," with a bomb in a woman's purse and a frantic search to find her; "Prisoner in the Mirror" with Henry Daniell as wizard Cagliostro; "Dark Legacy" with Harry Townes as a magician who's desperate for a book of secrets; "Pigeons from Hell," an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard tale with Brandon De Wilde; and "The Grim Reaper," a Robert Bloch story about a painting with a death curse starring William Shatner and Natalie Schafer.

The very best first season episodes were: Robert Bloch's "Cheaters," in which an old pair of spectacles reveal others' secret thoughts to the wearer; "Trio of Terror," a trilogy of macabre stories well-directed by actress Ida Lupino [who directed several episodes of the series]; "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," based on another classic story by Robert Bloch with John Williams and Donald Woods [directed by actor Ray Milland]; and "The Terror in Teakwood," a fascinating chiller about a pianist's severed hands with Guy Rolfe and Hazel Court.

Verdict: Spooky, entertaining, and pretty classy all told. ***.

THE INVADERS BOOK TIE-INS


THE INVADERS paperback tie-in novels.

There were a small number of paperback book tie-ins to the sixties Invaders TV show. The first book was published by Pyramid books in August 1967 and was written by Keith Laumer. The book does not follow the "origin" story of David Vincent as in the TV show. For one thing, Vincent is not an architect, but an engineer, and he doesn't see a spaceship until the end of the book. He learns about the aliens when they begin farming out pieces of a deadly weapon -- a disintegrator gun -- to various manufacturers. The aliens look alike, talk in an alien language, and have super-human strength -- none of which is from the TV show. [There is no mention of the "mutated fourth finger."] The gun takes up the first third of the book, while the second part deals with a crazy man who attends UFO meetings and tries to trap aliens-- he thinks Vincent is one of them -- in his trap-laden old mansion. The third section of the book has to do with a large meteor coming down which is actually the aliens, Vincent's attempts to get the brass to take it seriously, and a sergeant who came across a slimy alien in its original form after it dropped to Earth. The book is acceptable, not badly written, but not that memorable, and the changes from the show are a little disorienting.

The second Invaders paperback, also written by Keith Laumar, was entitled Enemies from Beyond, and was an improvement. The first story, "The Survivor," has Vincent checking into the story of a man who witnessed a huge explosion at sea, leading Vincent to investigate a possible underwater base for the aliens. "The Allies" has the invaders unleashing huge, deadly monsters that attack people, with Vincent and a young lady trying to survive their attacks in a sprawling abandoned hotel. "The Clairvoyant" has Vincent befriending an old man who can predict when the aliens will try to kill the former. "The Telescope" has Vincent discovering an alien installation on the moon. All good stories, generally well-told.

The third Invaders paperback Army of the Undead by Rafe Bernard, was a disappointment. In this David Vincent travels to Auto City where the aliens are taking over human beings in the car industry by entering their bodies at the very moment of death. [These deaths occur during auto accidents engineered by the aliens.] Bernard introduces some new concepts -- the aliens' use of telepathy, which Vincent has somehow tapped into -- and explores other aspects of their nature. But while all this is admirable, it's also a trifle confusing, and the basic plot and characters are not that interesting. The book is also talky and the pace drags. Vincent notices that the aliens take over male bodies, and sort of hypnotize women who are in a highly emotional state. The main alien force -- at least in this story -- turns out to be female.

Verdict: The Invaders **.
Enemies from Beyond **1/2.
Army of the Undead **.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

THE RAVEN


THE RAVEN (1935). Director: Lew Landers.

The credits should give a thrill to any classic film enthusiast:

"Karloff and Lugosi in THE RAVEN!"

Unlike such films as Black Friday, The Raven is a highly memorable teaming of the two great horror stars. Lugosi is Dr. Vollin, an Edgar Allan Poe enthusiast, who operates on Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) at the urging of her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds). Unfortunately, Vollin falls in love with Irene, and her father tries to discourage Vollin, basically telling him he's too old and unsuitable, enraging the doctor. Vollin enlists Edmond Bateman (Karloff), a disfigured man who's come to him for help, in his scheme to get revenge on the Wares and others. Vollin operates on Bateman and makes him even more hideous, telling him that he won't make him look normal unless he helps him carry out his plan. This plan involves descending rooms, chambers whose walls close together to crush those inside, and of course a pendulum that threatens to cleave the judge in two in a bravura climax. Karloff and Lugosi play well together and the movie is delightfully gruesome fun. With the exception of Hinds, the other actors in the cast don't even seem to be on screen whenever the two stars appear.

Verdict: Not really much to do with Poe, but quite entertaining nonetheless. ***.

CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981)


CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981). Director: Desmond Davis.

"I was partial to tragedy before experience taught me that life was quite tragic enough without my having to write about it." -- Ammon [Burgess Meredith].

When the lovely princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) is told by the angry goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) that she must be sacrificed to the Kraken or her entire kingdom and everyone in it will be destroyed -- because Andromeda's mother dared suggest her daughter was more beautiful than Thetis -- the smitten Perseus (Harry Hamlin) sets out to capture the head of the gorgon Medusa, to use to destroy the Kraken. [Both the Kraken and Medusa are "titans," hence the title.] The deliberate pace of the film -- it does take a while to get going -- turned off the critics at the time of its release, but it's actually a fine fantasy film with excellent Ray Harryhausen stop motion FX [although it is not quite in the league of Harryhausen's masterpiece Jason and the Argonauts]. The scene when Perseus and his pals invade the temple of Medusa to slay her is outstanding, and there are also some fine scuttling giant scorpions, the winged horse Pegasus, and the hideous Kraken who shows up for his sacrifice -- and supper. The scene when Thetis condemns Andromeda is handled with dramatic flair [as opposed to a similar sequence in the recent remake]. Hamlin is fine as Perseus; Meredith is excellent as his friend, the writer Ammon; Bowker and Tim Pigott-Smith memorable as Andromeda and the warrior Thallo. Laurence Olivier, merely flexing his acting muscles, is superb in his portrayal of Zeus, King of the Gods, and he gets wonderful support from Smith and Claire Bloom. Laurence Rosenthal's score and the art direction are assets. Bubo, the mechanical owl that is a gift from the Gods, is slightly irritating, but he grows on you. The scene with Perseus confronting the three blind witches (Flora Robson, among them) is also notable.

Verdict: Not Harryhausen's best, perhaps, but still quite entertaining. ***.

TOO LATE FOR TEARS aka KILLER BAIT


TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949/aka Killer Bait). Director: Byron Haskin.

This picture was re-released under the much more appropriate title Killer Bait. Jane and Alan Palmer (Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy) are driving to a party when suddenly someone throws a valise full of loot into the back of their convertible. Jane wants to keep quiet and keep the money, while Alan thinks it would be better to turn it into the police. While they decide what to do, Alan puts the money in a baggage check at the train station. Then Danny Fuller (Dan Duryea) comes calling, wanting his money back ...

Killer Bait is full of lots of intriguing plot twists, none of which I will give away here. Suffice it to say it's a thoroughly absorbing crime thriller that boasts perhaps Scott's finest and most ferocious performance. Dan Duryea is equally outstanding, and Kennedy gives his usual fine support. The normally dull Don Defore was a surprise as a military friend of Alan's, and Kristine Miller is lovely as Alan's sister, Kathy. While it might have been nice to have this directed by Hitchcock, Haskin does keep things moving at an absorbing pace. Roy Huggin's screenplay, based on his Saturday Evening Post serial, is almost completely unpredictable and full of nice touches and dimensional characters. "Jane Palmer" is a fascinating portrait of a certain type of personality.

Verdict: Excellent performances, great script, make this one of the best film noirs ever. ***1/2.

SON OF ROSEMARY IRA LEVIN


SON OF ROSEMARY Ira Levin. Dutton; 1997. WARNING: This review contains spoilers.

In 1976 there was a made-for-TV sequel to the film version of Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby starring Patty Duke as Rosemary and Stephen McHattie as her grown-up son entitled Look What's Happened to Rosemary's Baby. In it Andrew/Adrian (McHattie) struggled with his divided feelings over good and evil. Not much has been heard of the telefilm since it was first aired.

About twenty years later Levin decided to write his own sequel to the story.
Levin had been fairly lucky in that the film version of the original novel was given a pretty faithful adaptation by Hollywood. But Son of Rosemary has never been filmed -- and it's no wonder. I had forgotten the book existed or that I had read it until I read it for the second time and then remembered why the darn thing had fled from my mind.

First let's quickly examine the original novel. Rosemary's Baby was a credible suspense novel. Throughout the book the reader wonders if these neighbors of Rosemary's really are a coven with sinister designs on her baby, or if she's having paranoid delusions. It would have been more than enough if they were simply a bunch of nut jobs who worshiped Satan, but Levin has to introduce Satan himself in a "nightmare" scene and has Rosemary deliver the anti-Christ at the end of the story. [This, of course, influenced movies like The Omen trilogy which its slowly aging anti-Christ figure.] Levin even goes so far as to make Satan the old hokey stereotype with the tail, claws, eyes and even little horns atop his head.

In other words, as entertaining and influential as it was, Rosemary's Baby was basically geared to the sub-literate.

Which is certainly the case with Levin's sequel. It's an understatement to say its approach is unintellectual; in fact, it's as essentially mindless as any bad movie inspired by the original book. Writing for a quick buck, Levin adds absolutely no depth to either the situations or the characters.

As the novel begins, Rosemary wakes up from a thirty year or so coma. Her son has grown up to be a kind of Christ figure, a goodwill ambassador attempting to unite the world in peace and harmony. Reunited with his mother, he tells her that he has renounced Satan and is only out to do good. The best aspect of the novel is the undeniable suspense the reader feels as he wonders if "Andy" -- as he's known -- is telling the truth or has a deep, dark secret [for much of its length Son of Rosemary is absorbing and a "good read"]. Of course, as soon as Andy tries to make out with his own mother you know that all is not well in paradise. Although disturbed by this, Rosemary sort of glosses it over, which is definitely where things begin to go awry in Levin's story-telling.

There are other irritating things as well. Levin introduces an anagram that's supposed to have profound significance, but this is basically an inside joke that goes nowhere. We discover that Rosemary's stinky husband Guy never became a big movie star as he'd hoped, but Levin never tells us exactly what happened to him. But worst of all is the ending, in which Rosemary confronts the Devil himself, then wakes up to find out it was all a dream, including the events of the original novel. However, there are hints that Rosemary is still dreaming. Whatever the case, it is clear that Levin's imagination failed him, as Son of Rosemary certainly has no satisfactory ending and it left even fans of the first book frustrated and angry.

The book is dedicated to Mia Farrow, but if Levin was hoping she would star in a film version, it didn't work.

Verdict: Some sons should stay in the shadows. **.

FORGOTTEN BUT NOT GONE: MEL GIBSON


FORGOTTEN BUT NOT GONE. # 2 in a series. MEL GIBSON.

Gibson is another example of a celebrity who just won't go away no matter how disinterested the public is in him. He doesn't make Hollywood movies anymore, but does deals with overseas producers who still see him as a "name" with marquee value in Europe.

Gibson has had a career because he had the right look, and a modicum of acting ability [or it might be more accurate to say star charisma], although I and many others never thought he was much of a thespian. [Gibson may not know that thespian means actor.]

Gibson has a right, of course, to his conservative politics, but his rants and drunken binges and racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and woman-hating attitudes and remarks have become increasingly offensive and tiresome. Gibson's problem -- among many -- is that he's getting older and seeing his star slipping. I'd like to feel sorry for him but in this economy he's probably in better shape than most people. Surely he's saved up enough money over the years to live comfortably for the rest of his life. No one can be a big-time movie star forever.

If his movie career is over, Gibson can sit back, sip on a pina colada -- and dare I say it -- try cracking a book for a change.

Let's hope it doesn't give him a headache!

ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS SEASON ONE


ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS Season One. CBS Television program. 1955 - 1962.

Alfred Hitchcock was the host of this successful half hour mystery-suspense anthology series for seven years, then followed it with The Alfred Hitchcock Hour for three more years. While occasionally Hitch's introductions and closing can be lengthy and a little tiresome, more often they are quite amusing, benefiting from the host's comically droll delivery and timing. Hitchcock probably could have had a successful career as an actor a la Robert Morley.

The very first episode, "Revenge," with Vera Miles sending her husband after the man who supposedly assaulted her, has become famous but is just a trifle flat. Among the more notable first season episodes are: "Into Thin Air," with Pat Hitchcock [Hitch's daughter] searching for her vanished mother; "Breakdown," in which Joseph Cotton gives an excellent performance as a man who struggles to communicate to people, who think he's dead, that he's still alive [his character is an SOB, however]; "Our Cook's a Treasure," with Beulah Bondi suspected of poisoning Everett Sloane; "A Bullet for Baldwin," in which John Qualen kills his nasty boss with surprising results; "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby" with Meg Mundy; "The Baby Sitter" with Thelma Ritter and Mary Wickes; "Mink," a comedy of errors involving a fur piece starring Ruth Hussey; and "Momentum," an ironic tragedy with Joanne Woodward.

As good as those episodes were, they were surpassed by the following: "Don't Come Back Alive," an insurance scam story with Virginia Gregg and Sidney Blackmer; "The Long Shot" with John Williams [who frequently appeared on the program], Peter Lawford and Gertrude Hoffman; "Help Wanted," with John Qualen as a man caught up in a sinister scheme; and "Legacy," about a woman who comes alive when she thinks a prince has killed himself for love of her. "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" was a touching and nicely sentimental change of pace with Barry Fitzgerald and Virginia Gregg [who frequently appeared on the show] and "The Older Sister" suggested that it was older sister Emma Borden who murdered her parents and not Lizzie, a theory that is now pretty much accepted by those who have researched the famous murder case.

The very best episodes of the first season include the following: "Triggers in Leash," a suspenseful piece about gunslingers with Ellen Corby, Gene Barry, and Darren McGavin, all in top form; "The Case of Mr. Pelham," with Tom Ewell bedeviled by a perfect double; the very sad "Guilty Witness," with Judith Evelyn and Joseph Mantell in an unexpected tale of homicide; and the absolute best episode of the entire first season [and possibly the best episode of the entire series?] "The Creeper." In this unforgettable story Constance Ford offers a memorably sympathetic and tragic portrait of a woman who is frazzled by reports of a maniac murdering women in the neighborhood. The story is not just frightening, but ultimately heart-breaking. Reta Shaw, and everyone's favorite Percy Helton, are also in the cast, along with Steve Brodie and Harry Townes. "The Creeper" was very well-directed by Herschel Daugherty. Robert Stevens also directed many episodes, and Hitch himself stepped in to helm such stories as the aforementioned "Mr. Pelham."

Not very episode was memorable, but virtually all of them were entertaining. Some fine actors were given wonderful opportunities to show off their range and versatility. Alfred Hitchcock Presents was one of the best television programs of the fifties and sixties, and remains quite watchable today.

Verdict: You can't beat Hitch. ***1/2.

CHERI


CHERI (2009). Director: Stephen Frears.

"I love you -- but it's too late."

An aging courtesan named Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer) has a love-hate "friendship" with a former rival named Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates, whom one can't quite imagine would ever have made a likely courtesan) and at her urging takes Peloux' son Cheri (Rupert Friend) under her wing and into her bed. Then tries not to let it upset her when Peloux tells her that Cheri is to be married off to a girl his own age. Lea takes a new lover who bores her, and Cheri realizes that his life seems without meaning without Lea in it. Cheri is a very well-acted romantic story -- Pfeiffer and Bates are both in top form and Friend is appealing -- and the movie does have its moments as it delves into the realities of relationships between people of different generations. But all the pretty scenery, fine thesping, and some good dialogue can't quite disguise the fact that, ultimately, Cheri is a bit of fluff. Well turned out fluff, admittedly, but fluff all the same.

Verdict: Almost as insubstantial as cotton candy, but not without sweetness. ***.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932)


MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Director: Robert Florey.

In this very loose adaptation of Poe's famous short story, Dr. Mirakle (Bela Lugosi), who works in a sideshow with an ape named Erik, kidnaps, binds, and tortures women, ultimately injecting them with the ape's blood, bringing about their deaths. [He callously drops their bodies through a trapdoor into the river.] Mirakle has developed an unhealthy interest in pretty Camille (Sidney Fox), and there is a recreation of a scene from the story when the ape comes into the home of a young woman -- in this case, Camille -- and her mother and attacks them. A disconcerting note is that close-ups of an obvious chimp are intercut with long shots of a man in a gorilla outfit, and they certainly don't match. However, there are some great Parisian sets and shots, and the acting isn't bad. Leon Ames [as Leon Waycoff] plays "Pierre" Dupin, a friend of Camille's who investigates the case when the police get nowhere. Not one of the great Lugosi's better roles or performances.

Verdict: For those who can't tell the difference between a chimp and a gorilla! **.

ROSEMARY'S BABY


ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968). Director: Roman Polanski.

Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) moves into a new apartment [that a barely recognized actor, her husband, could hardly have afforded even in the 60's] and discovers that her neighbors are witches and devil worshipers and have their eye on her unborn baby. Rosemary's Baby was based on the novel by Ira Levin, one of the first, highly influential horror novels of the modern period. For the most part the movie eschews creepy atmosphere, monsters, familiar horror iconography and the like as in the old Lugosi/Karloff films, bringing horror out of the dark woods and musty castles and into Manhattan and the daylight. This more prosaic approach was influential on such as Stephen King, but some viewers may find it all a little too matter of fact or just a new take on a very old notion. The devil worshippers mostly come off as normal people -- which is the point -- although it must be said that if you want your villains to appear "ordinary" you probably shouldn't cast someone as odd and rather gross as Ruth Gordon. [Sidney Blackmer is more on the mark as her husband.] The bizarre casting of some of the satanists threatens to turn the movie into more of a black comedy than a horror film, although it has to be said that Patsy Kelley is better in her role than you'd ever imagine. Charles Grodin is a doctor, as is Ralph Bellamy, and producer William Castle has a cameo as a man at a phone booth. John Cassavetes is fine as the actor-husband who finds his career suddenly taking an upswing. Elisha Cook shows up early as a rental agent, setting the tone of familiar faces often cast in sinister roles. The whole thing is rather silly all told, but undeniably entertaining. Mad Magazine did a funny spoof entitled "Rosemia's Boo Boo," with a horrified Mia looking at Alfred E. Newman in the crib.

Verdict: Overall fun it you don't take it seriously. ***.

TCM SPOTLIGHT ERROL FLYNN ADVENTURES


TCM SPOTLIGHT ERROL FLYNN ADVENTURES.

Warner Brothers has released five restored and remastered Errol Flynn features in a five DVD set: The films include Desperate Journey (1942), in which Flynn and Ronald Reagan are pilots stranded behind enemy lines; Northern Pursuit (1943), in which Flynn is a Canadian officer infiltrating a bunch of Nazi saboteurs; Edge of Darkness (1943), in which Flynn is a brave resistance fighter; Uncertain Glory (1944), in which Flynn is a French playboy who makes the supreme sacrifice; and Objective, Burma (1945), in which Flynn is part of a platoon sent to destroy a "strategic Japanese outpost." The directors are Raoul Walsh and Lewis Milestone.

In addition to these films, this box set also includes selected short subjects from the period, such as cartoons, classic movie trailers, and newsreels!

Check out the official site.

Verdict: A must for Flynn, war movie, and action fans. ***.

THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON


THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON (1959). Director: Robert Clarke.

Handsome "B" movie actor Robert Clarke both stars in and directed this interesting if highly imperfect monster movie. Dr. Gil McKenna (Clarke) is exposed to radiation, which has the unusual result of making him turn into a lizard-like creature -- somewhere down the evolutionary scale, it is explained -- every time he is hit by direct sunlight. McKenna's drinking problem is exacerbated by his understandable depression over having to be isolated and stay out of the daylight. Eventually it proves too much for him and he goes on a rampage. The Hideous Sun Demon is not always well-paced but there are some great locations for the climactic scenes, as well as notable attempts for some good camera angles. Despite a couple of overwrought moments, Clarke's performance is basically good, and the other actors are low-key and professional. Nan Peterson makes an impression as a buxom nightclub singer who briefly takes up with Gil. John Seeley contributed a very effective score for the film, which helps a lot. The make up is appropriately "hideous" if not entirely convincing, and there are a few unintentionally comical moments. Still, The Hideous Sun Demon holds the attention despite some talky scenes that go on too long. Clarke also appeared in The Man from Planet X, The Incredible Petrified World, and Outrage [possibly his best performance].

Verdict: Hardly a classic, but not completely terrible either. **1/2.

STAR TREK (2009)


STAR TREK (2009). Director: J. J. Abrams.

This theatrical reboot of the Star Trek series with new actors playing the original roles of Spock, Kirk, Bones etc. lands with a thud and is unlikely to lead into a successful franchise [although a sequel has, unfortunately, been announced for 2012]. It's not the fault of the actors, but a script that is dull, not nearly enough action, and revisionings of some of the characters -- Kirk for instance -- that makes them a little unlikable. The main villain is Nero (Eric Bama), a Romulan who saw his world destroyed in a future time period, and came back in time -- along with Spock -- determined to destroy all the planets of the Federation. [He succeeds in decimating Vulcan, while the backward time jump has created a kind of alternate universe.] The old Spock is again played by Leonard Nimoy, while his younger self is well-enacted by Zachary Quinto, a villain on the TV show Heroes. Chris Pine is okay as Kirk, while Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, respectively, do competent impersonations of DeKelley and Doohan as Dr. McCoy and "Scotty." Some of the actors are so young -- Anton Yelchin as a "cute" Chekov, for instance -- that at times this seems like a Hollywood High School production of Star Trek. Ben Cross plays Spock's father and Bruce Greenwood of Nowhere Man is Captain Pike. Zoe Saldana of Avatar is cast as Lt. Uhura, but she has little to do aside from smooching more than once with this sexier version of Spock. The "alternate reality" storyline is confusing, the pace drags, and ultimately this Star Trek is boring and unmemorable.

Verdict: Paging Shatner, Nimoy and company! **.

THE WILD, WILD WEST SEASON 1


THE WILD, WILD WEST CBS Television series 1965 - 1968. Created by Michael Garrison. Season 1.

This show had a great premise. Instead of another Man from U.N.C.L.E., James Bond, or comical Get Smart, The Wild, Wild West presented two Secret Service agents/spies/undercover men working under President Grant in the post-Civil War period. Like other spies, they had all sorts of nefarious bad guys and gals whose dastardly plots had to be stymied, not to mention certain megalomaniacs and genuises who had death devices and scientific achievements that were well ahead of their time. But our boys also had their own gadgets as well.

As Jim West, Robert Conrad is like no Secret Service agent imaginable, but that's part of what makes the show fun. Handsome West plays the role not in the humorless, stiff fashion you associate with government agents, but with a sexy, knowing insolence that makes his portrayal that much more enjoyable. He also wears the absolutely tightest pair of pants worn by any actor then or now on a TV show as part of an outfit that kind of resembles a bullfighters. Ross Martin is also notable as West's partner, Artermis Gordon, who generally dresses up in disguises in every episode. These disguises wouldn't fool anyone but they give good ol' Artemis more to do.

These first season episodes were in black and white. Among the more memorable episodes are: The Night of the Deadly Bed, which features a bed with a descending spiked canopy and a very exciting climax; Thousand Eyes, which presents a band of ship wreckers led by a blind captain; Howling Light, a relatively serious story of peace talks between the U.S. and native Americans being threatened; Steel Assassin, with John Dehner as a man made of iron parts; and Two-Legged Buffalo, with Nick Adams as a foppish prince and Dana Wynter as a woman supposedly hired to assassinate him. The Night of the Burning Diamond featured a jewel thief who had a super-speed formula, and Grand Emir boasted an excellent performance by Don Francks as the dandyish head of a club of assassins whose stronghold is invaded by West and Gordon. These last two were probably the best episodes of the first season, along with The Night of the Murderous Spring, about which more in a moment.

West's most notable antagonist was Dr. Miguelito Loveless, an evil genius dwarf played winningly and expertly by the wonderful Michael Dunn. Loveless, along with his giant helpmate Voltaire (Richard Kiel), was introduced in The Wizard that Shook the Earth, a disappointing episode despite the presence of Loveless/Dunn. His next appearance, The Night that Terror Stalked the Town, in which he creates a perfect duplicate of Jim West, was more memorable. His third appearance, Whirring Death, was pretty awful, but his final first season appearance, the aforementioned Murderous Spring, was more on the mark. In this Voltaire is replaced by obese Kitty Twitty (an excellent Jenie Jackson), who thinks Loveless will make her beautiful when he really intends to wipe out the whole world's population with a formula spread by ducks in the country's waterways.

Some of the episodes were real stinkers -- Night of the Freebooters was one of the worst -- but most were clever and entertaining, and some were quite excellent.

Verdict: Wild fun in the 19th century! ***.

ARMORED CAR ROBBERY


ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950). Director: Richard Fleischer.

William Talman, who played Perry Mason's perennial opponent Hamilton Burger on the TV series Perry Mason, is herein cast as bad guy Dave Purvis, who plans an armored car heist and kills off some of the gang members he's supposed to share the loot with. Adele Jergens is cast as club performer Yvonne LeDoux, who's married to a mug named Benny McBride, but has a hankering for the more dynamic -- if not exactly more attractive -- Purvis. Charles McGraw is the tough cop investigating the armored car robbery during which his married partner was murdered. Don McGuire and Gene Evans [of The Giant Behemoth and Park Row) have smaller roles. The picture is minor-league for the most part, but it does boast an exciting and satisfying climax on a runway. NOTE: Armored Car Robbery is one of the films in the new Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 5.

Verdict: Punchy performances help put this over -- and Jergens is always fun. **1/2.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE


SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (1978). Director: Richard Donner.

NOTE: This review is of the expanded "Richard Donner" cut.

Thirty-two years after its initial release, Superman still has its charms although it's also lost some of its lustre. The early sections of the film, meant to be stately, are so deliberately paced that they border on the tedious, and the film almost completely sinks with the introduction of the moronic trio of villains played by Gene Hackman, Valerie Perrine, and a shameful Ned Beatty. [With the rich history of the Superman character and all of his many foes, that was the best they could come up with?] At times Superman nearly sinks to the level of the sixties Batman TV show, but if it's saved by anything it's saved by those magical flying sequences when the movie itself really takes flight. Superman going out on patrol and his taking Lois Lane for a flight are probably the best sequences in the movie. The performances of Christopher Reeve [it's hard to think of his sad and ironic fate] and Margot Kidder are assets, as is the musical score by John Williams. The crystalline motif for Krypton is a little weird, as is the slightly ossified performance of Marlon Brando. The whole business with Jor-El's (Brando) ghost someone mentoring his son doesn't really make sense, and the the time travel business at the end of the movie is too confusing. Still the movie overall is entertaining, and better than the more recent Superman Returns.

Verdict: You'll still believe a man can fly. ***.

THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK


THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946). Director: Arthur Lubin.

"But it won't really be dying -- you'll live on in this beautiful plant!"

Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) arrives at an isolated community where coincidentally an old boyfriend, Hal (Kirby Grant), just happens to be living. Jean has been hired by a supposedly blind woman named Zenobia Dollard (Gale Sondergaard) -- without either ever meeting the other -- to be her live-in companion. [You would think that name alone would have frightened Miss Kingsley off.] Zenobia seems quite charming, if a touch smarmy, and has a brutish deformed servant, Mario (Rondo Hatton) who has rather poor manners. While a nervous Jean tries to find out what really happened to Zenobia's last companion, who supposedly went off to get married but was never heard from again, Mr. Moore (Milburn Stone) of the Department of Agriculture is trying to find out where the weed is that's poisoning so many of the farmers' cows. Sondergaard is as excellent as ever as the rather batty, vengeance-minded woman who feeds both spiders and human blood to her collection of carnivorous plants. One supposes the title of this film was meant to tie the movie in with the great Sherlock Holmes film The Spider Woman, made two years earlier, which also features a deadly spider and stars Sondergaard [as Adrea Spedding, a completely different but similarly evil character]?

Verdict: Gale Sondergaard and flesh-eating plants-- wow! **1/2.

THE NUDE BOMB


THE NUDE BOMB (1980). Director: Clive Donner.

In this theatrical film based on the sixties TV series Get Smart, evil forces of the sinister group Kaos have created a "nude" bomb which will destroy all fabric, leaving everyone on the planet in their birthday suits. Don Adams is as wonderful and funny as ever as Maxwell Smart, although Dana Elcar makes little impression as the Chief [after Ed Platt]. Andrea Howard, however, is appealing as agent 22. ["Barbara Feldon's "99" does not appear in the movie, for shame.] Some of the funniest scenes feature Bill Dana as Jonathan Levinson Seigle of the garment trade. For some reason the organization known as Control on the TV series is now called PITS. Vittorio Gassman seems to be having a lot of fun as the villain of the piece, and there's a wild finale wherein dozens of his clones get in a melee with dozens of Smart's duplicates. Rhonda Fleming has a nice bit as an ex-wife of Gassman's whom Maxwell pays a call on. The Nude Bomb is silly, yes, but it's also quite amusing. Fans of the show will definitely enjoy.

Verdict: Much better than that remake. ***.

AVATAR


AVATAR (2009). Director: James Cameron.

Wheelchair-bound ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) takes the place of his dead twin brother, a scientist, in an unusual mission on the world of Pandora. The Omitacaga people, the indigenous natives of Pandora, have made their home right on top of a generous supply of oil -- uh, I mean, "unobtanium," a rare element-- and the company that wants this element hopes to either get the natives to cooperate and move, or will simply wipe them out if they don't. Jake is one of several people who transfer their minds into artificial life forms [called Avatars] that are a cross between human and native. While in this form Jake bonds with a native woman named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and is accepted by her people even as he falls in love with her, her tribe, and the beauty and simplicity of Pandora. But he learns that there are reasons why these natives can never be talked in to leaving their home, and tragedy ensues. Writer/director James Cameron has taken various elements from sword and sorcery epics and melded them to a rather heavy-handed allegory that evokes everything from American treatment of Original People to intervention in Afghanistan. On the plus side the film is well-directed and fast-paced [if definitely overlong, repeating itself and its ideas], and it is full of beautiful images and wonderful FX and photography. [A particularly memorable moment has Jake and Neytiri soaring through the air on pterodactyl-like lifeforms.] On the debit side, Avatar is simplistic, drawn out, and at times there are so many composite FX elements that it just seems like a particularly cluttered, if ingenious, cartoon. Worthington is noteworthy, and there are also good performances from Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, and especially formidable Stephen Lang as the ferocious bad guy who heads the mercenaries.

Verdict: Eye-popping and intriguing for some; tedious for others. **1/2.

PERCY HELTON


PERCY HELTON 1894 - 1971.

You may not recognize the name, but you certainly recognize the face -- for Percy Helton had a grand total of 209 film and television credits. I suppose one could argue that Helton played the same role 209 times, but that may be unfair, as I haven't seen every single appearance of the actor. Generally Helton was cast as the superficially friendly but smarmy undertaker/janitor/clerk and so on, who smiled in your face but had larceny or something worse in his heart and would sell out his own mother for a nickle. The word that first comes to mind when thinking of Helton's portrayals is "weasel." Perhaps his most famous appearance was in the film Kiss Me Deadly, in which he squeals in agony when anti-hero Ralph Meeker sadistically crushes his fingers in a desk drawer. Helton was always very adept in his roles, but he was so unique in his way that he really wasn't the kind of expert character actor who could lose himself in a characterization -- he always seemed to be playing a variation of Percy Helton. In spite of this he was a very busy actor throughout the 50's, 60's and for many years afterward. My mother once said that if Don Knotts made her stomach turn, Percy Helton made her flesh crawl. Helton, who radiated a quietly sinister quality that served him well on such series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was decidedly one of a kind. One of his best roles was in Wicked Woman with Beverly Michaels.

I AM LEGEND


I AM LEGEND (2007). Director: Francis Lawrence.

This is the third film version of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend [after The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man] but it really seems more like a remake of The Omega Man than a faithful adaptation of Matheson's novel. [Indeed, the new screenplay is not only supposedly based on the novel but on the screenplay for Omega. I'm willing to bet that the screenwriters for this film never even bothered to read the source novel.] As in Omega, the lead character lives in a multi-million dollar town house [in Manhattan's Washington Square no less] and as in both earlier versions he's been turned into a scientist. The quasi-religious overtones of Omega have been slightly carried over into this remake as well, but are thankfully not as overt.

Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) seems to be the sole survivor of a virus that has turned most of humanity into mutated ghouls. [These computer-generated creatures, referred to as "darkseekers" in the dialogue and "hemocytes" in the closed captions -- I watched this with a hearing-impaired friend -- relish blood but seem more like cannibals than vampires. This discarding or muting of the essential vampire element of the novel also reminds one of Omega Man.] The revamped measles virus was actually supposed to cure cancer, but instead it had a much more negative effect. As in Omega, Neville eventually meets up with another immune woman who believes there is a colony of survivors out in the country. Neville's wife and daughter have been killed in a copter accident while fleeing Manhattan, so there's no scene of his dead wife coming back from her grave as referred to in the novel and depicted in Last Man on Earth.

Smith gives a solid performance, avoiding the swaggering of Charlton Heston in Omega and never quite playing the role like the flippant "action-hero" that fills so many movies nowadays. Sam, the German Shepherd, is an appealing pet [played by two canine actors]. Alice Braga is okay in the thankless role of Anna, the other survivor [along with her son]. There's a tense scene with Neville hunting for his dog in the dark confines of a building infested with ghouls, a few suspenseful sequences, and the climax with the creatures rushing Neville's townhouse at night is exciting and well-handled.

But there are slack and illogical moments, and a scene with Shrek playing in the background goes on way too long. By default, this may be the best or at least most cinematic version of the novel [Last Man on Earth remains the most faithful], but it seems more influenced by all those Living Dead movies than by Matheson's book. The new storyline strips the title of its meaning, although the screenwriters try their best to live up to it with the closing monologue.

Verdict: The great film version of Matheson's novel has yet to be made, but this certainly has its moments. ***.

BLACK FRIDAY


BLACK FRIDAY (1940). Director: Arthur Lubin.

When his friend Professor Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) is killed in an accident at the same time as a gangster, Red Cannon, Dr. Sovac (Boris Karloff) transplants the gangster's brain into Kingsley's body. Right away you can see the problem with this, especially when at first Kingsley unaccountably retains his own memories and personality. Later on, of course, Kingsley begins acting like the hoodlum whose brain he acquired. [There's some attempt to intimate that parts of both brains were combined in one cranium, but this is never really made clear.] In the meantime, Sovac hopes that Kinsgley can remember where "he" hid some loot so that he, Sovac, can use it to fund some experiments. But Kingsley seems more interested in getting revenge on fellow mobster Eric Marnay (Bela Lugosi) and the henchmen who were responsible for his death. Ridges makes an impressive transition from the meek and kindly professor to the homicidal Red Cannon and back again, often at inopportune moments. Anne Nagel of Winners of the West and The Secret Code gives a flavorful performance as an old girlfriend of Red's. Black Friday is not a bad movie, but it's more of a gangster picture than a horror film. Karloff and Lugosi have not a single scene together, and Lugosi, in particular, has little to do. The movie is really a showcase for Ridges, who gives an excellent dual peformance. James Craig of The Cyclops, Winners of the West, and While the City Sleeps has a small role as a reporter. Generally fast-paced.

Verdict: A waste of the talents of Karloff and Lugosi but Ridges certainly scores. **1/2.