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

Thursday, December 29, 2016

ARCH OF TRIUMPH

Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman
ARCH OF TRIUMPH (1948). Director: Lewis Milestone.

"A refugee without a passport has lost his membership in the human race."

In pre-WW2 Paris two strangers meet and become unhappily involved. One is Ravic (Charles Boyer), who was tortured in Austria by the Nazi Haake (Charles Laughton), and has taken illegal asylum in France. Joan (Ingrid Bergman) is a woman of "easy virtue" whose latest lover has just died. The couple seem to fall in love, but Ravic's illegal status and very real fear of jail and deportation, means he cannot get married. Then there's the added complication of Alex (Stephan Bekassy), with whom Joan gets engaged during a period when she is alone, and who is very possessive of her. Arch of Triumph, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, should have been a powerful film, and it does have its moments, but it never emerges as the dramatic triumph that it could have been. A big problem -- besides the fact that everything is too prettified -- is that Boyer and Bergman have absolutely no chemistry, and even if one might acknowledge that Ravic might be a rather dour character, Boyer's emotionless and often perfunctory performance -- one of his worst -- doesn't help. Bergman is much, much better, and the picture is nearly stolen by Louis Calhern [Athena] as a friend of Ravic's who works as doorman at a Russian nightclub. Charles Laughton [They Knew What They Wanted] is excellent, as usual, as the repulsive Haake, but much more should have been made of his very final confrontation with Ravic. The fake "prince" Michael Romanoff, who opened his own Hollywood restaurant, plays the captain of the aforementioned club, and is rather unprepossessing. Ruth Warrick comes and goes too quickly to make any impression. William Conrad [East Side, West Side] , who later starred in TV's Jake and the Fat Man, has a terrific bit as a police man who corners Ravic and questions him after the former tends to an injured woman on the street. This is, I believe, the one and only picture made by Enterprise studios.

Verdict: Not terrible by any means, but not at all what it should have been. **1/2.

BELLISSIMA

Anna Magnani and Walter Chiari
BELLISSIMA (1951). Director: Luchino Visconti.

Maddalena (Anna Magnani) is a visiting nurse with a husband, Spartaco (Gastone Renzelli), and a cute little daughter named Maria (Tina Apicella). Hoping her daughter will have a better life, she takes her to Cinecitta where they are having auditions for little girls for a movie entitled "Today, Tomorrow, and Never." Maddalena encounters a man, Alberto (Walter Chiari), who has a minor job with the production company, and offers his help -- for a price. She manages to get a screen test for Maria, but has she pinned all her hopes on the child in an unrealistic fashion? Bellissima is a notable comedy-drama that boasts an absolutely superb performance from Magnani [Wild is the Wind]. Chiari is charming and amassed a great many film credits, also starring as an Austrian playboy on Broadway in The Gay Life with Barbara Cook some years later. Handsome Renzelli is excellent as the husband, but he did very little film work. The little girl in the film doesn't so much act as react. Visconti's direction isn't quite of the nail-the-camera-to-the-floor variety, but it is a bit stodgy at times. The film is full of interesting touches and flavorful character actors, as well as a few inside jokes (including the name of the film the child auditions for). Outside the couple's apartment there is an outdoor cinema, and Maddalena remarks to her husband how nice she finds Burt Lancaster, making Spartaco a bit jealous. "I have a sense of humor, you know," she tells him. Ironically, Magnani and Lancaster would work together in the film adaptation of The Rose Tattoo four years later.

Verdict: Amusing, touching, and very well performed. ***.

SONG OF THE THIN MAN

William Bishop, Myrna Loy, William Powell
SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947). Director: Edward Buzzell.

The gambling ship, S. S. Fortune, is the sight of the murder of band leader Tommy Drake (Phillip Reed). Suspects include songstress Fran (Gloria Grahame); her ex-boyfriend Buddy (Don Taylor of The Girls of Pleasure Island); gangster Al Amboy (William Bishop); Mr. and Mrs. Talbin (Leon Ames; Patricia Morison); and Phil Brant (Bruce Cowling), whom the police are after for the crime. His fiancee, Janet (Jayne Meadows of Enchantment), comes to Nick Charles (William Powell) for help, and he digs into the case with his usual jaunty style. Nora (Myrna Loy) tags along to no great purpose, while their cute little boy Nick Jr. (Dean Stockwell of The Werewolf of Washington) is left in the charge of Asta and the housekeeper, Bertha (Connie Gilchrist). Song of the Thin Man is not one of the better entries in the series -- in fact it was the last --  although it does have a lively and quite amusing finale. Gloria Grahame is completely wasted in her very small role as Fran, as is Marie Windsor, playing the gangster's wife in just one sequence. This has one of the dumbest murderers ever. The catchy song "You're not so easy to forget" is pleasantly warbled by whoever is dubbing Grahame. Ralph Morgan is Janet's grumpy father, and Morris Ankrum is the police inspector.

Verdict: Talky and dull with few bright spots. **.

SHOCKER

Mitch Pileggi
SHOCKER (1989). Director: Wes Craven.

Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) discovers to his horror that his family has been the latest in a series of families slaughtered in their homes by the maniacal Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi). Jonathan has some sort of psychic connection with Pinker that lets the police, including his foster father, Lt. Parker (Michael Murphy of An Unmarried Woman), zero in on the killer. But even after Pinker is tied into an electric chair and fried, he manages to stay alive by transferring from person to person with an electric charge. Jonathan determines to use every method he can to finally destroy the monster. Shocker was an obvious -- too obvious -- attempt for Wes Craven to repeat the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but although Pileggi gives an excellent, chilling and dynamic performance, Pinker is just not as interesting as Freddy Krueger. The attempts to imitate the Nightmare series include frequent dream sequences, a pack of youths banding together to take down Pinker, and so on. Shocker is too long and a bit slow, rather confusing at times, and not very well directed by Craven. It starts getting boring when it should be at its most exciting. Its sole saving grace is the climactic sequence in which Jonathan and Horace enter a television screen and jump from program to program, interacting with everyone from Boris Karloff's Frankenstein to Leave it to Beaver to WW2 soldiers in documentaries; unfortunately the humor in this sequence completely dissipates the tension. (Timothy Leary plays a televangelist!) The other performances, like the score, are mediocre, although the vaguely intense Berg gives it the old college try. Shocker didn't do well enough to engender sequels. The opening sequence depicting a football game reminds one more of Porky's than a horror film. This is not the first or last film to employ the premise of an evil presence jumping from one person to another but one wishes more had been done with it. Four years later Ghost in the Machine had a similar plot of a serial killer changing into electricity.

Verdict: Some interesting elements but by and large a failure. **1/2.

HOT CARS

John Bromfield and Joi Lansing
HOT CARS (1956). Director: Donald McDougall.

Nick Dunn (John Bromfield) is a used car salesman with a wife, Jane (Carol Shannon), and a young son. When he learns that his new boss, Arthur Markel (Ralph Clanton), is dealing in stolen cars, Nick decides he wants out -- until his son gets sick and he wonders how to pay the hospital bills. Nick goes back to Markel, but a cop named Davenport (Dabbs Greer) comes in one afternoon and wants to buy -- a hot car. Hot Cars is a typically cheap Bel-Air production but it benefits from location filming, some good performances, and a climactic battle inside a rushing roller coaster car. Mark Dana also makes an impression as the dangerous hood, Smiley Ward, while Joi Lansing [The Atomic Submarine], as the "niece" of Markel, is primarily decorative but certainly fills out her evening gown. Bromfield and Greer [Young and Dangerous] give solid performances. Bromfield [Crime Against Joe], who usually played sexy bad boys, doesn't get much lovin' in this, although Lansing gives him a hot smooch or two.

Verdict: Minor meller but fast-paced and well-acted. **1/2.

THE AVENGER (1960)

Heinz Drach
THE AVENGER (aka Der Racher/1960). Director: Karl Anton.

An unknown person who calls himself the "Executioner," has been running about decapitating criminals and the terminally ill and leaving their heads in boxes. Special agent Michael Brixan (Heinz Drach) follows a lead at a film set where he finds a clue in an old script. He is convinced that someone connected to the film company may be either the Executioner or an ally. Suspects and other characters include the director, Jackson (Friedrich Schoenfelder); his temperamental star, Stella Mendoza (Ingrid van Bergen); the elderly Henry Longvale (Ludwig Linkmann); the perverse Sir Gregory (Benno Sterzenbach); Bhag (Al Hoosmann), Gregory's brutish native manservant; the scriptwriter Voss (Klaus Kinski); and Ruth Sanders (Ina Duscha), the niece of the latest victim and an aspiring actress. Based on another novel by the prolific Edgar Wallace, The Avenger is not as horrific or gory as the plot may suggest, but there are some creepy final scenes taking place in old tunnels and caverns beneath an estate. Lots of red herrings in this but the wind-up is satisfying. Many more West German Wallace adaptations would follow.

Verdict: Another convoluted but entertaining Wallace story. **1/2.

DARK SHADOWS: RETURN TO COLLINWOOD

DARK SHADOWS: RETURN TO COLLINGWOOD. Pomegranate Press; 2012.

Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans on Dark Shadows, came out with this new photo book on the eve of the release of Tim Burton's quite dreadful big-budget film adaptation. Scott writes of how the members of the old cast, especially Jonathan "Barnabas" Frid, were disappointed that they were given no actual characters to play but were condescendingly cast as "party guests" (whom I never even spotted). Helena Bonham Carter, cast as Dr. Hoffman, was pleasant to their faces but later announced that the old series was "awful." (Apparently she said this before she saw the movie!) The rest of the book is full of notes and photographs pertaining not just to the original series, but the 12 episode remake starring Ben Cross as Barnabas. Then there are such anecdotes as the time Gale Sondergaard showed up on the set of the sixties series, and apparently auditioned for a role she either didn't get or didn't want. Scott also writes of what went on behind the scenes of the two Dark Shadows movies, such as House of Dark Shadows, that were made immediately after the cancellation of the TV show. The main focus of the book, of course, is on Scott, but there are interesting observations of the other actors as well.

Verdict: Primarily for Dark Shadows fanatics but packed with good photos. ***.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

DESTRY RIDES AGAIN

James Stewart
DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939). Director: George Marshall.

Kent (Brian Donlevy) who runs the saloon and the town in the old west, conspires with singer Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) to cheat Lem Claggert (Tom Fadden of Winners of the West)  out of his ranch during a crooked card game. When Sheriff Keogh (Joe King) objects, he is dispatched with, as is anyone who gets in the way of Kent. Into this situation comes Tom Destry Jr. (James Stewart), the son of the legendary Sheriff Destry and now the deputy for inept and half-drunken Sheriff Washington Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). Destry doesn't carry a gun, although he's a crack shot (wouldn't you know?)  It's now his job to enforce the law, clean up the town, and find Keogh's body, while dealing with the hooker-hard Frenchy, who eventually warms up to him and vice  versa. Destry Rides Again is an odd movie, a sometimes uncomfortable combination of grim situations and unpleasant characters with moments of out and out farce, and the characters never seem remotely real. On the other hand, the movie is entertaining and certain sequences are quite well-staged by Marshall, including Frenchy's post cat-fight meltdown in the bar, and the sequence with the angry townswomen going on the march. As for the acting. it's top of the line all the way, with Dietrich giving an outstanding portrayal that almost manages to make her rather heartless character sympathetic. Jack Carson scores as a cattleman, a less genial role than he usually plays, Una Merkel is fine as the gal who tries to give French a good thrashing, Dickie Jones [Blake of Scotland Yard] is charming as young Claggett, Brian Donlevy [Juke Box Rhythm] is brisk and commanding as the evil Kent, and Charles Winninger gives a typically winning performance as the "new" sheriff, Wash. Dietrich's voice, with every other note sung flat, is wretched, but she still manages to put over such songs as "See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have" with her emoting. It's interesting that while Frenchy is somewhat redeemed, she is still punished for her actions as she would probably not be today. This was remade with Audie Murphy as Destry, and seven years earlier Tom Mix starred in a very different version of Destry Rides Again. Andy Griffith starred in the Broadway musical version with songs by Harold Rome, and John Gavin starred in the short-lived television series. These all originated in a book by Max Brand.

Verdict: Peculiar in some ways but Dietrich knocks it out of the ball park. ***.

FORTUNATE SON: THE LIFE OF ELVIS PRESLEY

FORTUNATE SON: THE LIFE OF ELVIS PRESLEY. Charles L. Ponce de Leon. Hill and Wang; 2006.

This slender biography of Elvis Presley provides an overview of the life and career of the singer/actor, surveying his early life, first recordings, romances, movie roles and so on. Presley first sang "Hound Dog" and "Don't Be Cruel" on the Ed Sullivan show, although he was introduced by Charles Laughton. who was filling in for Sullivan (talk about two very different kinds of artists being juxtaposed). As he got more famous and wealthier, Presley was surrounded by a group of friends who jockeyed for position as Number One Yes-Man. Then there was his stint in the Army and his marriage to wife Priscilla, and his reliance on drugs as he got older, the Beatles emerged, and he struggled to stay relevant during the British invasion and the release of many if-you've-seen-one-you've-seen-'em-all movies. Elvis had his meeting with Richard Nixon as he turned into a paranoid monster who didn't trust anyone around him. Fortunate Son is a quick, entertaining read for those who may not want to plow through a more in-depth volume that has dozens of interviews. There's a lot more to say about Elvis, however, as this almost never goes behind the scenes of his movies.

Verdict: The basic facts and spirit of Elvis Presley's life. ***.

DEADLY FRIEND

Kristy Swanson and Matthew Labyorteaux
DEADLY FRIEND (1986). Director: Wes Craven.

A brilliant student named Paul (Matthew Labyorteaux) moves to a new town with his mother, Jeanne (Anne Twomey), and a talking robot he built called "BB." Paul makes two friends: a pretty next-door neighbor named Samantha (Kristy Swanson) and a good buddy named Tom (Michael Sharrett). When Sam is killed by her abusive father, Paul decides to bring her back to life by using circuits from BB implanted in her brain. Needless to say, the experiment doesn't go well, and Sam loses her sweet disposition ... Deadly Friend has an excellent, if absurd, premise, but it seems determined to schlock it down as much as possible, with foolish "gross out" scenes substituting for pseudo-scientific drama. It's especially a shame because the movie sets up interesting situations and is well-acted by the entire cast. Swanson and Labyorteaux (billed without the "y" in this film) make a good couple, Sharrett is adept and appealing, and Anne Ramsey, with a face like a baked potato, nearly walks off with the movie as the hateful old woman with a shotgun, Elvira Parker. At one point The Bad Seed -- a much, much better movie -- is playing on television, and another in-joke has a man who resembles Freddy Krueger popping up from Paul's mattress in a nightmare. Reportedly the film was messed with against Craven's objections, because it certainly looks as if the powers-that-be didn't trust that a movie with a weird plot like this could play without adding gratuitous gore and so on. It may also be that Craven was simply the wrong director for the film.

Verdict: Just misses being a really interesting outre thriller. **1/2.

AUTUMN SONATA

Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman
AUTUMN SONATA (1978). Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman) is a successful, middle-aged concert pianist. After the death of her close friend, Leonardo (Georg Lokkeberg), she is invited to the home of her daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann), who lives with her husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork), and her sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), who is both mentally and physically disabled. One night, full of wine, Eva tells her mother what living with -- and without -- her was like, excoriating her and even blaming her for her sister's illness, causing a rupture that may never be mended. Autumn Sonata is an interesting, if typically talky, character study/soap opera that never quite comes to grips with its central problems. Charlotte is a career-driven woman, and certainly no mother of the year, but her daughter in her own way seems just as self-absorbed, blaming Charlotte for basically acting like a typical mother when she was fourteen -- she even complains about her getting braces even though they straightened her teeth. Generally people grow out of their parent- hatred, recognizing they are only human, as they themselves reach adulthood, but Eva is apparently too neurotic and perhaps jealous of her mother's comparatively glamorous life to acknowledge this. If anything, more people would object to Charlotte's almost complete neglect of Helena over her alleged monstrousness toward the very whiny Eva. "Not a shred of the real me could be loved or accepted," Eva tells her mother, but isn't this the way most boys and girls feel at fourteen? Autumn Sonata is very well-acted, and there's some good dialogue, but there is a dramatic weakness at its core that even Ingrid Bergman noticed. Bergman was also uncomfortable playing in a movie that somewhat mirrored the sometimes difficult relationship between herself and her daughter, Pia Lindstrom. This is the only time both Bergmans worked together. Bergman has made much better pictures, such as Sawdust and Tinsel and Cries and Whispers.

Verdict: Critics raved, and Ingrid is terrific, but this is not one of Bergman's best. **1/2.

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE

Rudolph Klein-Rogge
THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933). Director: Fritz Lang.

A disgraced cop named Hofmeister (Karl Meixner), who is still involved in criminal activity, desperately tries to get a message to his former employer, Commissioner Lohmann (Otto Wernicke). Hofmeister tries to tell Lohmann that the notorious Dr. Mabuse (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) is behind the latest crime wave. But Mabuse is now an elderly man who has been in an asylum for years -- Mabuse's hypnotic influence has taken over the mind of the institution's head, Dr. Baum (Oscar Beregi, Sr.)! As Lohmann tries to track down the new mastermind behind the scenes, one gang member, Tom Kent (Gustav Diessl) has a crisis of conscience, mostly to do with his beloved, Lilli (Wera Liessen). Tom and Lilli then find themselves trapped in a warehouse by "Mabuse," with a time bomb ticking away and water filling up the room -- the movie's best sequence. Fritz Lang had already made a long silent film about the German master criminal, Mabuse, and this was his follow-up for the sound era. The film has brief spurts of action and interest -- the murder of Dr. Kramm (Theodor Loos) when his auto stops at an intersection, for instance -- bu it's rather slow as well, and the Commissioner, although well-acted by Wernicke, borders on a buffoon. Mabuse in this is essentially an anarchist and terrorist whose main scheme is to set fire to a plant and unleash poisonous gases on the population. Lilli's reaction to the revelation of Tom's murderous past makes her seem like a sap! There are some flavorful supporting performances in this. Lang followed this up many years later with The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Made in 1933, Testament was not released in the US until nearly twenty years later. A remake made by others was alternately titled The Terror of Dr. Mabuse.

Verdict: So-so Mabuse with interesting moments. **1/2.

EVERGREEN

Just a guppie: Jessie Matthews
EVERGREEN (1934). Director: Victor Saville.

Music hall star Harriet Green (Jessie Matthews) has fallen in love and decided to retire. Her sycophants tell her that she is ageless and will remain "evergreen." Then someone gives her distressing news and she runs off all of a sudden. Decades later, Harriet's lookalike daughter, also named Harriet, shows up in London, and winds up masquerading as her own "ageless" (and deceased) mother. She herself becomes a music hall star, but how long can the deception last? Aside from one lovely tune, 'Springtime in Your Heart" -- which I believe is by Roger Woods and not Rodgers and Hart, who contributed one or two minor ditties -- this is a decidedly poor British musical starring the "talents" of the fish-faced Jessie Matthews whose singing is a trial for the ears -- Betty Boop, anyone? At least when her friend Maudie (Betty Balfour) does a horrendously bad version of an aria from Rigoletto, it is meant to be funny. At one point young Harriet's singing boyfriend Tommy Thompson (Barry MacKay) pretends to be the older Harriet's son, and the two put on a romantic (!) act together, which is gross in of itself. The final production number is okay, there is a weird "futuristic" bit with descending tubes transforming dancers into space-types, but for the most part these numbers are bad imitations of MGM musicals. Matthews later played the mother of Tom Thumb. Matthews has her fans; I am not among them.

Verdict: Stupid, with mostly uninteresting players, and just one good song. **.  

THE TERROR OF DR. MABUSE

Wolfgang Preiss as Mabuse
THE TERROR OF DR. MABUSE (aka Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse1962). Director: Werner Klingler.

"Mabuse -- the criminal? No -- Mabuse the genius!"

"Dr. Mabuse will very much enjoy this -- watching you squirm, hearing you shriek."

This remake of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse follows the story pretty closely. A series of ingenious robberies -- of everything from armored cars to banks -- befuddle Inspector Lohmann (Gert Frobe of Goldfinger) and his assistant, Kruger (Harald Juhnke). Mortimer (Charles Regnier) leads the men on their assignments, but they all answer to "Dr. Mabuse," who has resided in an institution for many years. Mabuse's strong will and hypnotic powers have turned Professor Pohland (Walter Rilla ), the head of the institution, into a carbon copy of himself. In the meantime, Mortimer enlists a washed up boxer, Jonny (Helmut Schmid), into the gang, but he has a crisis of conscience, and winds up imprisoned with his girlfriend, Nellie (Senta Berger of The Spy with My Face). The chief differences between both films is that in the latter Mabuse is strictly a criminal mastermind while in the earlier film he is an out and out terrorist. There is no scene in the remake equivalent to the sequence involving the room with a bomb that fills with water in the original, although this version has a suspenseful bit in regards to a descending elevator car. Unlike the first film, Lohmann winds up tortured by electroshock by the professor. The main problem with this film is that it doesn't improve on Fritz Lang's version, which itself was not exactly a masterpiece. The acting in this isn't bad, and Anneli Sauli makes a brief impression as the prostitute, Heidi.

Verdict: So-so Mabuse. **1/2.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

STROMBOLI

Trapped: Ingrid Bergman
STROMBOLI (aka Stromboli: Terra di Dio/Land of God/1950). Director: Roberto Rossellini. NOTE: This is the Italian version.

"Even those born here want to leave."

Lithuanian Karen (Ingrid Bergman) is living in a camp for displaced persons in Italy after World War 2. According to her story, she had a husband who was killed in the war, but there are those who think she is deceptive. In the camp she meets, and then marries, a soldier named Antonio (Mario Vitale), who takes her home to the volcanic island of Stromboli where he'll be a fisherman. There she is horrified to discover that she'll be living in a stark place on a barren landscape where people are narrow-minded and unfriendly, and she finds herself going crazy. She decides that she has to get out of this situation no matter what ... Stromboli was excoriated by many critics at the time of its release because of the adulterous affair between star Bergman and director Rossellini, which unfortunately overshadowed the film itself. While the plot of the movie is nothing like Bergman's real life, there are certain parallels, but whatever the case Stromboli is a memorable film. Rossellini wisely filmed on Stromboli itself, giving it an atmosphere that no studio could have duplicated. He used the islanders as extras, and also cast two real-life fisherman as Karen's romantic interests. Mario Vitale, who plays her husband, had a few credits after this picture, while Mario Sponzo, who plays a lighthouse keeper, only appeared in this movie; it's hard to judge how good they are as actors but they are both effective in their roles. Renzo Cesana is excellent as the island priest; this was his first credit but he later did much work for American television. Bergman gives another wonderful performance, and the film builds up to a poignant and powerful conclusion. Rossellini's brother, Renzo, has contributed an excellent score for the film, Otello Martelli's cinematography is first-rate, and there's some insightful dialogue in a screenplay in which several writers had a hand. There are certain aspects of the film that, oddly, remind one of Beyond the Forest, but to say they are very different movies is a major understatement.

NOTE: Before falling in love with Bergman, Rossellini's previous mistress was Anna Magnani, who was so angered by her lover's actions that she made her own Stromboli- like movie, Volcano, the same year.

Verdict: Not quite a masterpiece but an Italian classic with a striking lead performance. ***1/2.

INGRID BERGMAN: MY STORY

INGRID BERGMAN: MY STORY. Ingrid Bergman and Alan Burgess. Delacorte; 1980.

Ingrid Bergman (1915 - 1982) worked with writer Alan Burgess on her memoirs just before her death in 1982. The book consists of Burgess' observations interspersed with lengthy sections written by Bergman, with quotes from those who knew her, personal letters, and diary notes. Therefore the book emerges as a fairly complete look at the life and career of Bergman, although one senses that certain things were probably swept under the rug. Born in Sweden where she became a film actress fairly easily, Hollywood took notice of her in Intermezzo, and set out to make an American version with Leslie Howard. Bergman hit the heights with such films as Casablanca, Notorious, Spellbound, Gaslight, Joan of Arc and others, earning more than one Oscar, before her career was nearly derailed by her adulterous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who was also married and whose mistress was Anna Magnani. Leaving her husband and daughter, Bergman flew to Italy to make Stromboli with her lover; they later married and made a series of indifferent films such as Fear before they, too, divorced. Bergman managed to survive the scandal, marrying for a third time (a union which also ended in divorce) and came back to Hollywood for Anastasia and subsequent films. Although described as a great beauty and not a typical actress, Bergman was not really beautiful in the conventional sense, although she was a great actress. Like most movie stars, she wanted what she wanted when she wanted it, and first husband Petter [sic] Lindstrom was jettisoned in favor of a more romantic type who was also an artist with whom she could, presumably, make masterpieces that never quite materialized. There is only a little behind-the-scenes details about Bergman's movies, but a great deal about her personal life and impressions of intimates. The truth about Bergman is that her primary concern throughout her life was her career, and considering her talent, she probably made the right, if difficult, choices.

Verdict: The Life and Times of Ingrid Bergman. ***1/2.

GIRL HAPPY

Shelley Fabares and Elvis Presley
GIRL HAPPY (1965). Director: Boris Sagal.

Club owner Big Frank (Harold J. Stone) is afraid of what might happen if his 21-year-old daughter, Valerie (Shelley Fabares), goes to Fort Lauderdale for vacation, so he hires singer Rusty Wells (Elvis Presley) to be her secret chaperone. In the meantime, Rusty does his best to romance the more voluptuous Deena (Mary Ann Mobley), but his burgeoning feelings for Valerie get in the way. Girl Happy seems inspired by Where the Boys Are, made five years earlier, which had similar hijinks occurring in Fort Lauderdale. Cliche follows cliche as Elvis and his combo -- Joby Baker [Looking for Love], Gary Crosby [Mardi Gras], and Jimmy Hawkins -- warble some pleasant if minor songs, the snappiest of which is "Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce." Nita Talbot shows up briefly as a sexy dancer, Jackie Coogan is a cop, and Fabrizio Mioni romances both Valerie and Deena as an Italian exchange student. This is another in a long line of crappy Elvis Presley musicals that are often indistinguishable from one another. Presley performs nicely, but his character is rather negative. At first thinking that Valerie is unattractive, he immediately pronounces her a "loser." Fabares has a nice enough figure, but she was clearly told: "shoulders back, chest thrust forward." Peter Brooks [The Girls on the Beach] offers some fun as the intellectual Brentwood Von Durgenfeld, who in movies like this only elicits scorn, especially regarding his preference for brains over beauty. His scene with Nita Talbot provides the movie's only laugh, however.

Verdict: Elvis schlock with a couple of decent tunes. *1/2.

MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP

Our hero snoozes with the rest of the audience
MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP (12 chapter Republic serial/1954). Director: Franklin Adreon.

In the old west, a man named Barnett (Mauritz Hugo) has discovered that there is gold on an Indian reservation, and wants both the natives and nearby ranchers to get out of the area. His chief opponent is Jerry Randell (Dick Simmons), who dresses up for no good reason as the legendary "El Latigo," whom he thinks the Indians will respect. Barnett is aided in his nefarious plans by Crane (Dale Van Sickel) and the ugly Indian Tosco (Lane Bradford of Zombies of the Stratosphere). Jerry gets tea and sympathy and some solid help as well from pretty school teacher, Nancy Cooper (Barbara Bestar of Safari Drums). A runaway wagon goes over a cliff in at least two episodes. Man with the Steel Whip is, as usual, a fast-paced and slick Republic production, but this has an especially dull premise, a villain that is just as colorless as the hero, and only one memorable cliffhanger. The acting is at least professional. The best thing about the serial is R. Dale Butts' theme music. Roy Barcroft [Don Daredevil Rides Again] is the sheriff and Tom Steele a henchman.

Verdict: One of the last and lesser Republic serials. **.

THANKS FOR THE MEMORY

Shirley Ross and Bob Hope
THANKS FOR THE MEMORY (1938). Director: George Archainbaud.

Steve (Bob Hope) and Anne (Shirley Ross) are a married couple with a few annoying friends. Steve is working on a novel, and Anne goes back to work as a model so he can finish the book and keep house. Naturally the latter part offends his manhood, and instead of being grateful he winds up acting like a complete jerk. This is only one of several problems with this comedy, which also features Patricia Wilder as a sexy, "helpless" neighbor; Roscoe Karns as a kept man; Laura Hope Crews [Confession] as his battle ax of a wife; Charles Butterworth [The Mad Genius] and Hedda Hopper as two more friends; Eddie Anderson as the building's super; and Otto Kruger [Beauty for Sale] as a publisher and Anne's former flame. Based on a play by Hackett and Goodrich, the film is merciless towards Crews' character, when it is her gigolo husband who should be the object of contempt. This may have worked on the stage, but it's not a good fit for Hopes' brand of comedy, and while Ross is quite pretty and capable, one can't help but miss the much-more-amusing Martha Raye. Ross and Hope originally sang the Rainger and Robin tune "Thanks for the Memory" in The Big Broadcast of 1938, and they were reunited for this movie. They also sing the memorable "Two Sleepy People," co-written by Frank Loesser.

 Verdict: Very contrived, with an unsympathetic lead character -- and Hopper can make your flesh crawl. **.

TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS

Gustavo Rojo as Tico
TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948). Director: Robert Florey.

Mara (Linda Christian) belongs to the race of Aquaticons, and is in love with Tico (Gustavo Rojo). Unfortunately, the high priest (George Zucco), who supposedly is the good right hand of their god Balu, has decreed that Mara must marry this masked, forbidding Balu. Mara quite sensibly dives into the ocean, and eventually makes her way to the territory where Jane (Brenda Joyce) and Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) make their home. When some of the Aquaticons forcibly carry Mara off in their canoe, Tarzan goes after her, getting involved with the island race and rescuing Mara. Tarzan and the Mermaids is the final Tarzan film to star Weissmuller -- he then moved over to the Jungle Jim series -- but he goes out on a high note. One could easily argue that the flick doesn't have the greatest plot, and that the danger and action seem reserved for the last ten minutes, but the movie is well-directed, well-paced, beautifully photographed by Jack Draper, and also boasts a flavorful score by Dimitri Tiomkin. Highlights include Tarzan's fight with a very big octopus, and a charming scene when the natives have a jousting contest with poles and boats. Linda Christian [Athena], who married Tyrone Power the following year, was "introduced" in this film, although she had had small roles in previous films. Uruguay actor Gustavo Rojo, who is still alive and still working on television in his nineties (!), later appeared in It Started with a Kiss and The Valley of Gwangi. John Laurenz plays the amiable, singing Benji, who brings mail to Tarzan and Jane from Boy, who is attending school in England. George Zucco hasn't nearly enough to do but he does it well. Director Florey invests the film with more style than the usual Tarzan feature, and it has excellent production values as well.

Verdict: A fitting farewell to Weissmuller's Ape Man. ***.

BEACH BALL

Call her Miss Ross
BEACH BALL (1965). Director: Lennie Weinrib.

"Wriggle, wriggle. Dr. Tickle, Dr. Tickle, Right now." -- lyrics.

Dick Martin (Edd Byrnes) tries to raise money to pay for instruments for his band, the Wrigglers, by getting grant money for college under false pretenses. When Susan (Chris Noel). the gal who hands out the grants, discovers the truth. she and her intellectual lady friends put on bikinis and try to get Dick and the guys to stay in school. This is the plot -- I wouldn't kid you. Five minutes into the flick The Four Seasons appear to sing the catchy "Dawn," but, unfortunately, they are never seen again. There are appearances by the Righteous Brothers, the Hondells, and the Supremes, each of whom are given one number except for the last group, who are forced to sing a couple of bad, inappropriate "surfer" songs, although the second one, the title tune, is somewhat less awful than the first. Desperately playing college boys are Aaron Kincaid and Robert Logan, the latter of which appeared with Byrnes on 77 Sunset Strip. Even the worst episode of that series would have been better than sitting through this excruciatingly boring and completely unfunny farce, although the actors are at least enthusiastic. The songs sung by the "Wrigglers" are mostly dreadful, although "Candy, Baby," is perhaps the least dreadful. Rock movies in the fifties generally spent more time on the special guest-stars than the plot -- if only that had been the case with Beach Ball, whose acts have limited running time. If they'd just let Frankie Valli and the fellows sing one number after another, you might not be reaching for that fast forward button. The fellows dress in drag for their final number, and a gag is lifted from Some Like It Hot. A guy asks Logan, still wearing his wig, for a date. Logan removes the wig and says "It wouldn't work out between us." The guy replies, "Yeah, you're taller than I am." He then turns to Kincaid, "what about you, honey?" This little bit of gay humor. albeit unoriginal, is handled with perfect amiability. The movie, alas, is too stupid to ever really amount to anything. Dick Miller has a small role as a cop and is fine. James Wellman, who plays Bernard Wolf, the man who wants the money for the band instruments, is pretty bad.

Verdict: This imitation of the AIP Beach party movies from Paramount is even worse than the originals. *1/2.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

WATCH OUT FOR THOSE SLASHERS!

Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
WATCH OUT FOR THOSE SLASHERS!

While it's not exactly what one could call perfect holiday fare, this week we're looking at that sick, sick, sub-genre, the mad slasher, or stalk-and-slash film. One could hardly say that any of these movies are in good taste, but horror in general has never been the most tasteful genre. Although Halloween is generally considered the first modern-day slasher film after Psycho, I think Friday the 13th, which came out two years later, was much more influential. Before you knew it there was movie after movie in which young people -- high schoolers, college kids, camp counselors, teens or twenty-somethings, people at the very start of life -- are sliced and diced in often horrendous ways by some anti-social maniac. The most famous of these is Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th franchise, although Freddy Krueger was the more imaginative and diabolical sociopath -- Jason was mostly just a killing machine. Some of the maniacs in these films had motives, however specious or outlandish, generally focusing on revenge for a misdeed in the past, or romantic/sexual obsession, or just a jealous hatred of one's peers. Some murderers were serial killers; others' identities were never revealed even at the film's conclusion. So this week we've got a whole slew of slasher movies, including one Nightmare, one Friday the 13th, and several others of varying quality, not to mention a whole book on slasher films. Don't eat on a full stomach! NOTE: Although there have certainly been a few very effective slasher films, the only real "slasher" masterpiece is Psycho, and likely to remain so.

William Schoell is the author of Stay Out of the Shower: 25 Years of Shocker Films Beginning with "Psycho" and The Nightmare Never Ends: Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street Films (with James Spencer).

TERROR TRAIN

Hart Bochner feels the hand of death
TERROR TRAIN (1980). Director: Roger Spottiswoode.

"You can't have a good time without hurting someone?" -- Alana.

On New Year's Eve some pre-med students and their friends have a masquerade party on a moving train, unaware that a masked killer with a grudge has some violent plans for the celebrants. Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis) was an apparently unknowing participant in a sick practical joke three years before, a joke played on Kenny (Derek McKinnon) and perpetrated by "Doc"(Hart Bochner), Alana's boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber), and her best gal pal, Michelle (Sandee Currie). Terror Train has a great premise, and while it's not exactly a nail-biting classic, it does have suspense, some intensity, and plenty of atmosphere. The gore level is not that high, although there is an (off-screen) beheading. One interesting bisexual bit has Doc, who seems paired with Michelle, telling Mo that "if (Alana) dumps you, you still got me" with  that certain look on his face. The acting in this is professional, with Ben Johnson taking the lead as the harried but competent train conductor. David Copperfield, who was already a well-known magician, plays, well, a magician who entertains on the train, and he's so effective that he could easily have had an alternative acting career. Offspring of well-known actor parents, it's no surprise that Curtis [Prom Night] and Bochner [Urban Legends: Final Cut] went on to many other vehicles, but Timothy Webber has also amassed nearly 130 credits. Terror Train was director Spottiswoode's first assignment, later helming everything from The Matthew Shepard Story for cable, and the disappointing James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies.

Verdict: Interesting early slasher film with a clever ending. ***.

NIGHTMARES (1980)

NIGHTMARES (aka Stage Fright/1980). Director: John D. Lamond.

A little girl feels she is responsible for the death of her mother in a car accident, and grows up unhinged. Years later Helen (Jenny Neumann) is an actress appearing in a play which the nasty director, George (Max Phipps), describes as "a comedy about death." Meanwhile someone goes about using large slivers of glass to bloodily penetrate the bodies of cast members and others. Nightmares is a very minor slasher flick from Australia which does absolutely nothing with its interesting premise. There is no style, very little suspense, an insufficient screenplay and character development, and the murders are uninspired to say the least. Brian May's opening title music is okay, but the rest of the score is monotonous and does little to drum up any excitement. There's a fairly good cast of actors in this, with Phipps, John Michael Howson (as a "nasty old queen" of a critic), and Gary Sweet as Terry, Helen's new sweetheart, taking top honors. This was made the same year as the original Friday the 13th but is not in the same league.

Verdict: Almost a complete waste. *1/2.

GRADUATION DAY

Is the coach killing off the track team? Christopher George
GRADUATION DAY (1981). Co-writer/director: Herb Freed.

Laura, a pretty young runner on a high school track team, drops dead due to a blood clot and everyone somehow blames the pushy, hard-edged coach, George Michaels (Christopher George). This includes Laura's sister, a Navy ensign named Anne (the strangely-named Patch Mackenzie). Well, someone is sure pissed off about Laura's death because the other members of her team start being killed off the day before their graduation. Suspects and other persons of interest include Anne's nasty stepfather, Ronald (Hal Bokar); the obnoxious principal (Michael Pataki); Laura's sensitive boyfriend, Kevin (E. Danny Murphy); Officer McGregor (Virgil Frye); "Blondie," the Principal's assistant (E. J. Peaker); Inspector Halliday (Carmen Angenziano); and the weird Mr. Roberts (Richard Balin). Although there is some attempt to create a few interesting characters and a minor kind of sub-text, Graduation Day is a depressing and unpleasant movie with mostly unlikable characters; even the cops could care less about the teens' disappearances. The murder scenes are handled without any special flair, and the pace is too slow to create any suspense. The actors are professional enough, with special mention to Patrick Wright as a sleazy truck driver and Linnea Quigley as the "sluttish" gal who has sex with a professor. "Graduation Day Blues" is sung by a guy who seems to be doing an Elvis Presley voice impersonation. Herb Freed was also responsible for Haunts, which was slightly better than this. Remade in 2015.

Verdict: Minor-league slasher film. **.

THE PROWLER

Vicky Dawson 
THE PROWLER (1981). Director: Joseph Zito.

A "Dear John" letter sent in 1944 leads to an initial dual pitchfork murder at a graduation dance, and then into a whole series of gruesome slayings when the dances are begun again 35 years later. Before you can say Friday the 13th, an unknown man wearing army fatigues and carrying gun, knife, and pitchfork is stalking the young people who wander away from the party. The Prowler is nearly indistinguishable from so many similar slasher movies, but it does have some atmosphere and suspense, and Richard Einhorn's music certainly adds to the eeriness. The acting is good, with Vicky Dawson making an appealing heroine, and Christopher Goutman is solid and likable as her boyfriend, who also happens to be the deputy coming upon several dead bodies. You wish these two talented performers had been given more dimensional characters to play. Farley Granger, miles from Strangers on a Train, shows up briefly as the sheriff, and Lawrence Tierney's scenes as a major are either too brief or were left on the cutting room floor; in any case I never spotted him. Carleton Carpenter [Three Little Words] plays an emcee in the 1944 dance segment. Goutman later became executive producer of As the World Turns. Many of Tom Savini's gruesome and well-done make-up effects were trimmed for its theatrical release, but the DVD has the assorted throat-cuttings and shower puncturings in all their "glory" for the gorehounds. This has some plot similarities to My Bloody Valentine, which is a better movie.

Verdict: No better nor worse than so many others of its ilk. **1/2.

THE FUNHOUSE

Killer in a Franky mask 
THE FUNHOUSE (1981). Director: Tobe Hooper.

Amy Harper (Elizabeth Berridge) is anxious to go to the fair with new date Buzz Dawson (Cooper Huckabee) and her pals Liz (Largo Woodruff) and Richie (Miles Chapin). Not being terribly responsible individuals they basically do nothing when the fortune teller (Sylvia Miles) is murdered after an assignation for money goes wrong with a client -- said client being a hideously disfigured psychopath who runs around in a Frankenstein mask. The quartet find themselves trapped in the funhouse with the psycho and his father as the pair determine to do away with all of them. The Funhouse takes absolutely forever to get going, and when it finally does it's too snails-paced to build up much momentum although there are some spurts of action at the end. There are some good touches, but the fright scenes aren't especially well-staged for the most part. Like Eaten Alive, this is another disappointing early follow-up to director Hooper's famous Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If The Funhouse was an attempt to create a new popular maniac a la Leatherface, it didn't work. The widescreen Panavision works against the would-be claustrophobic feel of the funhouse scenes. The acting is good, however, with a sympathetic Berridge, and Sylvia Miles stealing the show with her fun portrayal of the fortune teller, Madame Zena, who drops her phony foreign accent when she gets mad. The script is terribly contrived and often implausible. John Beal's theme music is a plus, although the rest of the score is pretty much a waste. [This is not the actor John Beal.] Unlike most of the actors in movies like this, some of the cast members went on to other and better things.

Verdict: Not very memorable. **.

FINAL EXAM

FINAL EXAM (1981). Written and directed by Jimmy Huston.

Final Exam is one of a great many movies cobbled together after the twin successes of Halloween and Friday the 13th. On a college campus only a few students remain to take finals, and a stalker is on the loose killing them -- a la Jason Voorhees -- without rhyme or reason. Aside from a murder scene right at the beginning, there are no killings for 55 minutes, with the first hour almost completely devoted to the comparatively dull goings-on of some students. Some moronic frat boys stage a massacre with assault weapons (summoning up later images of Columbine) as a practical joke, and you have to wait and wait -- and wait -- until these a-holes finally get fricasseed. The last half hour has most of the murders, which are done adequately if without any particular inventiveness. The film is low-budget, but professional looking, even if most of the cast are amateurs, talented and untalented alike. DeAnna Robbins is spirited as Lisa, who gets good grades by sleeping with her teachers, and Sherry Willis-Burch makes an attractive Janet. Of the guys, Terry W. Farren is appealing as Gary, the helpless Gamma House pledge who is dating Janet, as is Joel S. Rice as Radish, the somewhat nerdy, possibly gay character who shows more internal strength than guys twice his size. Most of the movie comes off less a slasher film than an unfunny Porky's variation, and there is no final twist or even motive for the killings such as revenge -- the killer is never named. The poster apes the one for Friday the 13th, and the musical score reminds one of Halloween. Jimmy Huston also directed a couple of films starring Earl Owensby, the low-budget filmmaker and actor.

Verdict: Rather poor stalk-and-slash feature. *1/2.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP / RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP

SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983). Writer/director: Robert Hiltzik.
RETURN TO SLEEPAWAY CAMP (2008). Writer/director: Robert Hiltzik.

With its obvious model being the original Friday the 13th, this slasher film makes its camp's victims both counselors and kids. The opening depicts a boating accident in which Angela (Felissa Rose) loses her family and is taken in by her weird Aunt Martha (Desiree Gould, who turns her character into a ludicrous caricature). Angela and her cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tierstein) attend the festivities at Camp Arawak, where Angela is bullied because of her habit of giving everyone the silent treatment. A boy named Paul (Christopher Collet) is attracted to Angela and helps bring her out of her shell, but still there's something amiss. Then the murders start, with one pedophile cook being boiled in oil, and assorted bullies getting set on fire, stung by bees (that, incredibly, seem to eat human flesh), and so on. The "shock" ending packs a decided wallop -- until you think about how far-fetched and rather silly it is; it is also similar to the ending of The Incubus. Mike Kellin gives a lousy performance as the owner of the camp, but both Rose and Tierstein give effective performances, as does Karen Fields as the bitchy Judy. Most of the victims in this, aside from three little boys, are so obnoxious that their deaths are almost welcome. The make up effects are good and the film holds the attention.

Sleepaway Camp was followed by two campy sequels in which Pamela Springsteen, the younger sister of "the Boss," plays Angela. Then Robert Hiltzik, the writer and director of the original film, came out with his own sequel, Return to Sleepaway Camp, that ignores the two films made in between, hiring a few of the actors from the first movie. Frank (Vincent Pastore) is the owner of Camp Manabe, where Ronnie (Paul DeAngelo), who used to work at Camp Arawak, is head counselor. Alan (Michael Gibney) is a obese camper who is as bullying as he is bullied. When a new series of murders begin, Sheriff Jerry goes looking for Ricky (Jonathan Fierstein), who tells him that, as far as he knows, his cousin Angela (Felissa Rose) is in an institution. Or is she? Return to Sleepaway Camp begins on a note of hysteria and maintains it throughout the whole shrill movie. The characters are almost universally unlikable, the victims so totally obnoxious that, as in the first film, their deaths are welcome, and the bullying aspects are, frankly, pretty hard to take at times. One death scene involving a man tied to a tree trunk with a loop of wire around his penis goes on for an excruciatingly long time. Fierstein, who was so good in the original film as a boy actor, is pretty terrible as the adult Ricky in this. Michael Gibney is effective as Alan, but one has to wonder how Isaac Hayes wound up as a cook in this picture, appearing for only a couple of minutes. Gross and graphic, the movie, like the first film, holds the attention, but is hardly a classic.  Robert Hiltzik only directed these two films, the second of which was direct-to-video.

Verdict: Sleepaway Camp. **1/2.
              Return to Sleepaway Camp. **1/2.

STAGEFRIGHT (1987)

Key, cat and killer
STAGEFRIGHT (aka Bloody Bird/1987). Director: Michele Soavi.

A theatrical company is putting on a kind of avant garde (and rather awful) production led by the unpleasant director, Peter (David Brandon). Meanwhile a convenient escaped maniac hides in the trunk of the car belonging to one of the actors, and makes his way to the theater. For some strange reason the main door to the theater can be locked from the inside as well as the outside (!) -- this is apparently true with the other exits -- and the theatrical troupe find themselves locked in with the maniac and with no idea where the key to the front door could be. Said maniac, who wears an owl mask, proceeds, in Jason Voorhees fashion, to slaughter everyone in the theater. Beginning with knives, he works is way up to power drills, axes, chainsaws as the violence becomes increasingly graphic (with some sequences being much gorier than anything in the earlier Friday the 13th movies). Despite its stupid aspects, and director Soavi's general lack of style (he's no Dario Argento), StageFright presents a nightmarish situation that becomes increasingly tense and leads to a suspenseful business involving the "final girl," Alicia (Barbara Cupisti) and that key. The actors are good, especially Brandon and Cupisti, and the characters are, perhaps, slightly more dimensional than in similar films. Of course, there's little pity for the victims and no attempt at pathos, but that's not why people go to these movies. Possibly influential on later slasher films. One wishes there had been a real twist ending to this instead of the cliched one we're offered.

Verdict: Effective shock scenes and some ghoulishly macabre moments. **1/2.

FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE

Robert Englund as Freddy
FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (1991). Director: Rachel Talalay.

The population of Springwood, Ohio, especially its children and teens, has been decimated by Freddy Krueger. John (Shon Greenblatt), a runaway from the town, winds up in a youth shelter where he encounters a counselor named Maggie (Lisa Zane). She inexplicably decides to take John back to Springwood, where the two of them -- along with Tracy (Lezlie Dean), Carlos (Ricky Dean Logan), and Spencer (Breckin Meyer). who are stowaways in the shelter's van -- become victimized by the demented Freddy (Robert Englund). By now Freddy has been turned into a kind of stand-up comic and the Nightmare films were black comedies, but Englund [A Nightmare on Elm Street] and the other actors all give good performances, although at times Lezlie Dean seems to be trying too hard. One unpleasant scene depicts the sadistic torture of Carlos at Freddy's hands. Yaphet Kotto [Live and Let Die] plays a dream specialist at the clinic, and Elinor Donahue is a disturbed woman at an orphanage. Rosanne Barr and Tom Arnold have embarrassing cameos, although Johnny Depp's cameo is at least amusing. The best scene shows Freddy flying around on a broomstick a la the Wicked Witch of the West. The last few minutes are in 3D. The FX and make up work is good, as it generally was in this series, but the direction -- also as usual -- is competent but uninspired. You would think a movie in which all the young people in a town are killed and their heartbroken parents have become irrational would emerge as some kind of grim horror classic, but this is basically just another silly "Freddy" movie. Despite the title, Krueger would be back. This picture tells us more about Freddy's awful childhood, and introduces us to his now-grown child.

Verdict: You've seen most of it before. **1/2.

FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN

Kane Hodder stalks "Manhattan"
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN (1989). Written and directed by Rob Heddon.

Rennie (Jensen Daggett) has been raised by her Uncle Charles (Peter Mark Richman), and she has always had a fear of the water due to a forgotten incident in her past. She keeps seeing images of a dead, drowned boy. Despite her fears, she goes off with her graduating classmates on a cruise to Manhattan. Unbeknownst to the revelers, Jason has again been revived and climbed aboard the ship, hacking away at crew men and teens with equal abandon. He seems to have a particular desire to get his hands on Rennie. [One presumes the cruise ship is not located in Crystal Lake, but that Jason got out of the lake and somehow made his way to the ship.] Jason Takes Manhattan was made at the height of the crime rate in New York during the crack epidemic of the 80's, and it seemed inevitable to bring one more maniac into a city that had more than its share of sociopaths. Most of the movie actually takes place on the cruise ship, and when Rennie and her pal, Sean (Scott Reeves), manage to get to "Times Square," it appears to be located not in Manhattan but in Vancouver! The picture has slick production values and a fast pace, but it doesn't quite have that edge-of-your-seat quality that would make it a winner -- the film should have been cut by twenty minutes. As well, some of the comedy relief turns up at inappropriate moments, lessening the tension, but the movie is never really scary or especially suspenseful in any case. As the lead couple, Daggett and Reeves are competent but little else. Richman gives the best performance, and Sharlene Martin is fun as the bitchy prom queen (a persistent stereotype if ever there were one). Kane Hodder has a commanding presence as Jason even if he never says a word. The finale attempts to bring the series full circle with Jason undergoing a startling transformation. Paramount sold the series to New Line when the grosses proved comparatively disappointing, although it still made a lot of money.

Verdict: Entertaining if standard Friday film. **1/2.

THE SLASHER MOVIE BOOK

THE SLASHER MOVIE BOOK. J. A. Kerswell. Chicago Review Press; 2010.

This thick, heavily illustrated trade paperback looks at the slasher film genre: Friday the 13th, Freddy Krueger, Halloween, Jamie Lee Curtis, and so on. There are chapters on pre-Psycho horror movies; Italian giallo films; German-made multiple murder films based on novels by Edgar Wallace; British and American Gothic films; "The Golden Age of the Slasher" from 1978 to 1984; and slasher films from other countries in the eighties, nineties, and afterward. In addition to notes on the usual suspects, I came across quite a few movies I had never seen or heard of before. I didn't agree with everything in the book, of course. For instance, Kerswell writes of Psycho: "Equating transvestism with mental illness seems to date the film,"but the sequence with the psychiatrist at the end goes to pains to make it clear that Norman Bates was not a true transvestite. But The Slasher Movie Book is more concerned with the later slasher outcrop than anything else, and does as good a job as anyone of knowledgeably surveying the scene. The book is chock-full of movie stills and posters.

Verdict: If you dig this sub-genre, the book is engaging and interesting, if a little gross,  to look at. ***.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

THE NAKED KISS

Bald and Beautiful: Constance Towers
THE NAKED KISS (1964). Produced, written and directed by Samuel Fuller.

A prostitute named Kelly (Constance Towers) comes to a small town, Grantville, after a violent incident with her pimp, and briefly hooks up with a hypocritical cop named Griff (Anthony Eisley of The Mighty Gorga). Griff wants Kelly to "get out of town" and go across the river to an establishment of ill repute run by Candy (Virginia Grey). Instead Kelly gets a job working at an institution that helps disabled children. Kelly then meets the hospital -- and the town's -- chief benefactor, the romantic and cultured Grant (Michael Dante). Despite at least one red flag, Kelly finds herself falling for Grant, but he has one highly disturbing secret. The Naked Kiss is superior to Fuller's earlier Shock Corridor, and full of equally controversial material. Of course it's not the first movie to have a hooker for a heroine, and not even the first to look into the subject of pedophilia (Never Take Candy from a Stranger came out four years earlier in Britain). The movie has a very interesting script, but, unfortunately, it descends into melodrama that only cheapens it. Towers is more effective and not as overwrought as she was in Corridor; Eisley is perfectly cast as the slimy Griff; Grey is terrific as ever; and Dante, while his character is essentially a charming if one-note villain, has his moments as well. Patsy Kelly appears as a nurse in the institution. The Naked Kiss, whatever its flaws, certainly has some interesting scenes. There's the opening with Kelly assaulting the pimp who shaved her hair off as her wig falls off of her head and she's revealed to be bald; Kelly's smack-in-the-face purse assault, this time on madame Candy; Kelly's landlady (Betty Bronson of The Locked Door) talking about the soldier she intended to marry but who never came home from the war; and especially the poignant scene when all of the children sing the plaintive melody 'Tell Me Why." Towers, who years later co-starred with Yul Brynner in "The King and I," reveals a lovely voice in this sequence. Edy Williams, who dated Dean Martin, appears briefly as a hooker. In Grantville, the movie theater's marquee reads "Shock Corridor."

Verdict: Good story, but too lurid and superficial. **1/2. 

GIVE ME A SAILOR

Martha Raye and Bob Hope
GIVE ME A SAILOR (1938). Director: Elliott Nugent.

"Try to look like something." -- Hope to Raye.

Letty Larkin (Martha Raye) is in love with sailor Walter Brewster (Jack Whiting) who is, unfortunately, engaged to her prettier sister, Nancy (Betty Grable). Walter's brother, Jim (Bob Hope), who is also in love with Nancy, hooks up with Letty to come up with a scheme to break up Nancy and Walter so each can have the person of their dreams. Unfortunately, fate has a way of conspiring to keep the "lovers" apart -- or does it? Give Me a Sailor has a very amusing screenplay (Anderson and Butler) and features some fine comedic performances, especially from the top-billed Hope and Raye; J. C. Nugent [Midnight Intruder] is also appealing as Mr. Larkin. The plot goes a little haywire toward the end, but it's consistently funny. Give Me a Sailor also boasts some very pleasant tunes (by Rainger and Robin), including "A Little Kiss at Twilight," well sung by Raye, and the bouncy and irresistible "What Goes On in My Heart?," a very snappy number indeed. Whiting and Grable do a very charming dance routine as well. Irving Bacon plays the druggist with his usual panache.

Verdict: Raye and Hope play extremely well together and the picture is a pip.***.

COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE

Judd Holdren  and Aline Towne
COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE  (12 episode Republic series/1953). Directors: Harry Keller; Fred C. Brannon; Franklin Adreon.

In the near-future Commando Cody (Judd Holdren of Zombies of the Stratosphere) whose identity "must" be hidden behind a mask "for security reasons," and his team are up against, the Ruler (Gregory Gaye of Dodsworth), an outer space despot who is out to take over the earth, as he has other planets, or destroy it. The Ruler creates weather changes that lead to tidal waves, destroys atomic research stations, employs germ warfare, alternately freezes the earth than causes super-high temperatures via twin suns, then tries to tilt the earth using a magnetic field. In each episode the Commando and his assistants foil the Ruler's plans, taking off to such places as the moon and Mercury when they need to in the Commando's rocketship (he also uses a jet pack to fly). There has always been a debate over whether Commando Cody is a serial or a TV show. Apparently it was originally conceived as a TV series, but for some reason was shown in theaters first as a series of short films (the episodes don't end with cliffhangers as serials usually do, but are more or less self-contained). The series was then shown on television. In any case, Commando Cody is a lot of fun, with adequate acting and more than serviceable special effects. Along with the colorless Aline Towne, William Schallert [The Man from Planet X] and Richard Crane play Cody's associates, Lyle Talbot is cast as an equally colorless earth guy working with the Ruler, and Rick Vallin plays Captain Duron. Gloria Pall is the space babe who answers messages for the Ruler; she is decorative and little else.

Verdict:  You either love this stuff or you just hate it! ***.

NEVER SAY DIE

You're strangely attractive, my Henry: Devine and Sondergaard
NEVER SAY DIE (1939). Director: Elliott Nugent.

"I don't want any trouble with you -- you get back here in bed!" -- Henry to John.

Scene: the Bad Gassewasser health spa in Europe. John Kidley (Bob Hope) is worth twenty million dollars, and is being chased by "black widow" Juno Marko (Gale Sondergaard). Meantime, Mickey Hawkins (Martha Raye) is ordered by her father (Paul Harvey) to marry a man she does not love, the impoverished Prince Smirnov (Alan Mowbray), only so that he can get into the country club. John and Mickey decide to marry each other to keep out of the hands of their persistent suitors, but then Mickey's boyfriend, Henry (Andy Devine of Between Us Girls) shows up and accompanies the couple on their honeymoon, with the two men sharing a bed! An added complication is that John has mistakenly been told that he only has a short while to live. not to mention the fact that the prince wants to fight a duel with him. Never Say Die is a very funny movie with a great script and terrific performances from everyone in the cast, which includes Monty Woolley [Life Begins at Eight-Thirty] as the confused doctor; Ernest Cossart as "Jeepers," John's helpful butler; and Sig Ruman [Thank You Mr. Moto] as the hotel proprietor who is astonished by John's apparent bed-hopping.

Verdict: As usual Hope and Raye make a splendid team. ***.

TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS

Cheetah's pals
TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS (1947). Director: Kurt Neumann.

"We really have to do something about Cheetah -- she's getting as vain as a peacock." -- Jane

Animal trainer Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison of The Fallen Sparrow) comes to Africa with boyfriend Carl Marley (Jack Warburton), and hooks up with gruff Paul Weir (Barton MacLane of Cry of the Werewolf) for help. Tanya importunes King Farrod (Charles Trowbridge of The Fatal Hour) to allow them to take many animals out of the jungle, but the king says they can only take a pair of each species. A bigger problem for the king is that his evil nephew, Ozira (Ted Hecht), is plotting against him. A bigger problem for Tanya is that Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) is mightily opposed to anyone caging his animals and takes decided action with the help of Boy (Johnny Sheffield) and Jane (Brenda Joyce). Desirous of a compact owned by Tanya, Cheetah, unfortunately, winds up playing into the hunters' hands, for shame. Boy also does the wrong thing by taking two bear cubs from their mother in exchange for a flashlight he covets. Tarzan and the Huntress is the penultimate Tarzan/Weissmuller film, and it's one of the better of the latter "B" movie entries, with plenty of, at times, bloodthirsty action and a very fast pace. Cheetah gets a large share of the screen time, and has a funny encounter with bees -- the finale with the chimp parachuting out of an airplane is priceless. As usual, we've got a lot of elephants going on the rampage. Maurice Tauzin plays Prince Suli, the son of the king. Paul Sawtell's musical score is a decided asset. This was Sheffield's last appearance as Boy.

Verdict: Exciting and amusing Tarzan adventure. ***.