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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

THE NANNY (1965)

THE NANNY (1965). Director: Seth Holt. Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster.

A ten-year-old boy, Joey Fane (William Dix), suspected of being responsible for the drowning death of his younger sister, comes home from an institution and gets into a battle of wits with the middle-aged nanny (Bette Davis, pictured) -- in the process testing the patience of his stern father (James Villiers) and fragile, emotionally-devastated mother (Wendy Craig). But does his hatred of the nanny perhaps have a basis in reality? This very suspenseful movie keeps you guessing nearly until the end, and Davis' excellent performance [for once her latter-day affected style works to her advantage] doesn't give it away. Little Dix, a remarkably confident and talented child actor, is more than a match for Davis, and the other performances, including that of Jill Bennett as his aunt with a weak heart, are all very effective. Pamela Franklin is also good as a young upstairs neighbor who wonders if it's nanny or little Joey who's nuts. Very interesting story with a moving finale. Dix later appeared in Doctor Doolittle but his career did not continue into adulthood.

Verdict: One of Hammer studios' best pictures. ***1/2.


EXECUTIVE ACTION (1973 ) Director: David Miller. Written by Dalton Trumbo.

This interesting if little-seen movie -- which today we would call a "docudrama" -- utilizes stock footage of JFK and other key figures as it presents the fictionalized behind-the-scenes story of how a group of ultra-conservative politicians, [played by Burt Lancaster (Farrington), Robert Ryan (Foster), Will Geer (Ferguson), and others] conspired to have President Kennedy assassinated, using Lee Harvey Oswald as the perfect dupe. It's interesting to see the liberal Lancaster playing such a super right-wing character. Dick Miller has a small role of one of the riflemen. The movie is chilling and depressing in equal measure. Although there have always been conspiracy theories about the shooting of JFK, Executive Action disappeared from theaters fairly quickly, although a similar film, The Parallax View with Warren Beatty, didn't suffer the same fate.

Verdict: Interesting take on a significant moment in world history. **1/2.


WAR OF THE SATELLITES (1958). Director: Roger Corman.

As the head of a space project, Dr. Van Ponder (Richard Devon) and his associates Dave Boyer (Dick Miller) and Sybil Carrington (Susan Cabot) try to figure out what's destroying their rockets. Earth receives a message from aliens declaring that they are responsible and won't allow earthlings to "infect" the universe. Dr. Van Ponder is replaced by one of the aliens, who can split himself into two duplicate beings. Boyer decides that Earth can't be bullied into giving up its space program and therefore a new satellite, with most of the principles aboard, is launched ... Despite a couple of intriguing ideas, this dull script clearly did not inspire Corman to deliver one of his better directorial jobs, as the film hasn't got a single scintilla of flair or interest. The actors are all wasted as well. The production values are often laughable.

Verdict: Possibly Corman's most boring and forgettable movie. *.


CRIME WAVE (1954). Director: Andre De Toth.

Ex-con Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is trying to build a new life with his wife when former inmates show up and force him to participate in a bank robbery. Sterling Hayden is the cop who leans on Lacey in an attempt to get the goods on the bad guys. Charles Bronson is a murderous hood, and the wonderful Jay Novello is a vet who comes afoul of the gang and Bronson. Song and dance man Nelson gives a solid performance, as does Hayden and Phyllis Kirk as Nelson's wife. Lacey's actions are occasionally inexplicable and the picture just misses being special.

Verdict: Minor but absorbing film noir. **1/2.



In the Salton Sea prehistoric mollusks -- or "krakens" -- that resemble giant caterpillars and suck all the fluid out of their victims arise from a new fissure and present quite a problem. Commander Twillinger (Tim Holt) of Naval Intelligence is assigned to hunt down and eradicate the beasts even as he carries on a romance with a pretty widow and lab secretary named Gail (Audrey Dalton). Hans Conreid is oddly cast as a scientist and Gail's boss, although he is quite effective, as are Holt and Dalton. The cadaverous Milton Parsons shows up as an historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs. The creatures are very well-designed mechanical beasties who perform better than you might imagine, and there's a creepy climax in the lab when one breaks out of its container and pursues Gail and her little daughter. The script is flavored with some interesting characters and touches.

Verdict: One of the better creature features of the period. ***.


GET SMART Season 1. 1965.

This silly but often very funny series about a bumbling spy who somehow manages to outwit and defeat his foes every week was certainly bolstered by great casting. Don Adams as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart; Barbara Feldon as Agent 99; and Ed Platt as The Chief of spy group Control could not have been bettered. Adams expertly handles the slapstick, while Feldon -- with great aplomb -- watches in loving exasperation, and Platt's deadpan delivery of his lines just makes them even funnier. The show gave birth to the catchphrases "would you believe?" and "And ... loving it!," among others. Some of the episodes, such as "Ship of Spies," had actual plots and managed to be suspenseful along with the laughs. One of the most hilarious devices was the Cone of Silence [the portable version is pictured] which is supposed to keep others from overhearing a secret conversation but which never works. Some scripts were written by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks. Much better than the 2008 theatrical remake. Adams also played Smart in the amusing theatrical feature The Nude Bomb.

Verdict: Memorable action comedy. ***


LAND OF THE LOST (2009). Director: Brad Silberling.

Dr. Rick Marshall (Will Ferrell) and colleagues wind up in another dimension where prehistoric animals roam and there are bad-tempered savages to boot. This is a grossed-up comedy version of a TV series but it is strictly for the mediocre Ferrell's two or three remaining fans. Great seamless FX work -- including a sensational T-Rex -- and some stunning scenic design are wasted on a silly, sporadically amusing time-waster. Matt Lauer has an amusing cameo as himself, and Jorma Taccone makes an impression as the other-dimensional Chaka. The screenplay is so bad that there are not one but two jokes about gays and show tunes! And if you're making a comedy, is it necessary for some poor snack bar guy to get his arm torn off?

Verdict: Watch the dinosaurs and fast-forward past everything else. *1/2.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

DECOY (1946)

DECOY (1946). Director: Jack Bernhard.

Margo (Jean Gillie) wants all the good things in life, but the problem is that her boyfriend Frank (Robert Armstrong), in prison on death row, simply won't tell her or anyone else where he's hidden all the loot that he stole. So she cooks up a wild scheme along with another boyfriend (Edward Morris) and a doctor (Herbert Rudley) who happens to do work at the very prison where Frank is incarcerated. Sheldon Leonard plays, of all things, a cop who's trying to put everything together [Leonard still seems like a hood]. This is a fast-paced, well-acted film noir crime thriller with a terrific Gillie in control of all the men in her life and then some -- or so she thinks. Although Gillie (who was married to director Bernhard) was "introduced" in this picture, she had actually already appeared in several movies. An early death cut short what may well have been a promising career. Snappy and absorbing stuff.

Verdict: Possibly Monogram studios best picture ever? ***1/2.


TARZAN'S DESERT MYSTERY (1943). Director: William Thiele.

In this very entertaining Cheeta vehicle -- oh, yes, Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) are along for the ride -- an absent Jane asks Tarzan to go to a certain jungle to obtain plants that can be used in a serum. But before he and Boy can get there, they have an adventure in the desert involving Prince Selim ( Robert Lowery), a young lady magician named Connie (Nancy Kelly), and bad guys played winningly by Otto Kruger and Joe Sawyer. In the aforementioned jungle Tarzan and company encounter some big lizards [courtesy of stock footage], carnivorous plants, and a giant spider that sets its sights on Boy trapped in its web. All this is lots of fun, but the highlight is when that wonderful chimp Cheeta puts on a show for the natives in the arab city.

Verdict: Cheeta [aka Cheetah] steals the show! ***.


GENE WILDER: FUNNY AND SAD. Brian Scott Mednick. BearManor Media; 2010.

Gene Wilder had a small but interesting role in Bonnie and Clyde and really came to prominence when he appeared in the original film version of The Producers. He quickly developed his own quirky appeal that was seen to great advantage in such films as The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, Young Frankenstein, The Frisco Kid, and many others. Mednick has written an extremely entertaining and very readable bio of the actor, one which is clearly admiring but not sycophantic. As the author notes, Wilder is a very private man, but Mednick manages to etch a three-dimensional portrait of him in spite of it. We learn about his career highs and lows, his marriages [including a well-known union to Gilda Radnor that was not without its problems], and some of his attitudes towards his films and co-workers. Mednick makes clear that Wilder has had a more interesting and varied career than people may realize.

Verdict: Highly recommended for Wilder fans. ***.


THE JUNGLE (1952). Director: William Berke.

Princess Sita (Marie Windsor), daughter of a progressive maharajah who is ill, returns to India to learn that villages are being decimated by sudden and inexplicable elephant stampedes. Rama Singh (Cesar Romero) her advisor, has hired a famous hunter Steve Bentley (Rod Cameron) to find out what's going on, but he reports that the elephants are being spooked by huge animals that appear to be prehistoric woolly mammoths or some hybrid breed thereof. The Princess and Rama, whose brother was killed by these creatures, travel to the affected areas to see if Benton's incredible story is true. "Filmed entirely in India," The Jungle offers a nice travelogue of the country along with an intermittently interesting storyline. The picture has its zany aspects, along with some clumsy editing, and so many singing natives that at times it almost seems like a musical! Presented in sepia tone.

Verdict: Not as terrible as it sounds but not so great either. **1/2.


CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971). Director: Dario Argento.

A blind former reporter, Franco Arno (Karl Malden) and a younger newspaper man, Carlo Giordoni (James Franciscus) team up to try to find out who's behind a series of murders tied to the Terzi Institute, a genetics lab. The film's premise has it that people with a special XYY chromosome are more inclined towards criminal behavior than the rest of the population. The film is intriguing and suspenseful, full of quirky scenes and characters, and loaded with lots of suspects with secrets. These include Catherine Spaak as the supposed daughter of the head of the institute, and several professors (such as Horst Frank). Some of the murder scenes are done with flair. As is usual with Argento's movies, the gay material is slightly progressive for the period but also a bit dated. Not bad score by Ennio Morricone. Must be seen uncut and in wide screen for the full effect.

Verdict: Proof that Argento once made pretty good movies. ***.



This hardcover collection of short stories [also issued as two paperbacks] purports to represent tales that were too verboten to be permitted on network television in the fifties. Ironically, the very first story, "Being a Murderer Myself," was adapted as the episode "Arthur" for a later season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Robert Bloch's "Water's Edge" wound up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and I believe the somewhat homoerotic "Love Lies Bleeding by Philip MacDonald was adapted as well. M. R. James' "Casting the Runes" was turned into the far superior motion picture Curse of the Demon, and The Most Dangerous Game was also adapted as a motion picture. Perhaps the grossest story in the book, Ray Bradbury's "The October Game," could definitely not be adapted for TV. Once shocking, it now seems rather stupid. All in all, however, this is an interesting collection.

Verdict: Apparently Hitch just couldn't resist some of these. ***.

PIRANHA (2010)

PIRANHA (aka Piranha 3D/2010). Director: Alexandre Aja.

An undersea quake unleashes a horde of hungry prehistoric piranha who proceed to snack on and cause carnage among young people on spring break. Don't be fooled into thinking this remake of the 1970's Piranha is a horror film or monster movie as it's really directed at the kinds of people who seek out snuff films, true-life accident footage, and documentaries like Faces of Death [even if the film's gore isn't real]. You'd expect a movie about carnivorous fish attacking people to have some creative bloodiness and shock effects, but Piranha goes so over the top that it's simply too graphic and stomach-churning to be fun or remotely entertaining. It's not merely a mindless "frat boy" movie made for and by morons, but a monster movie filtered through a Columbine sensibility. While men are killed off in the film, the most excruciatingly horrible deaths are reserved for women, giving the film a misogynous tone that critics, even female ones, didn't seem to pick up on. Why an Oscar-nominee like Elisabeth Shue is starring in crap like this is anybody's guess, but she'd be better off doing a TV series [which co-star Jerry O'Connell did] than make movies like this. [What's next? Starring in the sequel for the Syfy channel?] The acting isn't bad, and the monsters are very well-designed, but director Aja [who should probably be known as Alexandre A--wipe] should have spent more time crafting suspense scenes and less on the vomitous, "lovingly"-detailed carnage [To be fair, the climax is somewhat suspenseful, but Aja is no Hitchcock]. Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss of Jaws fame are also in this mess.

Some critics were soft on this movie because they were afraid of seeming un-hip, but come on -- movies like Piranha aren't hip -- they're beloved only by disaffected, misanthropic geeks who chuckle over a young lady getting pulled into an outboard motor out of their own self-hatred! Years ago movies like this were barely released for midnight showings by very minor production companies but Piranha was released by Dimension films -- in 3D no less -- with a massive advertising campaign. And this is progress? As one intelligent critic put it, Piranha doesn't seem to have been made for anyone -- human, that is.

Verdict: Atrocious and ugly beyond belief. 0 stars.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY (1934). Director: William Beaudine.

"He's all dressed up like a well-kept grave."

Baby Leroy (pictured) stars in this great comedy -- okay, W.C. Fields is the real star, but little Leroy certainly has his most memorable part as Albert Pepperday, the nemesis of the Great McGonigle (Fields). Fields based much of the picture on his own early experiences in show business, and arguably this is his greatest role. Along with his daughter Betty (Judith Allen), her boyfriend and show biz hopeful Wallace (Joe Morrison), McGonigle travels from town to town with a troupe of actors putting on a performance of "The Drunkard." Pursued by the sheriff of the last town, McGonigle gets money from the local widow, Cleo Pepperday (Jan Duggan), promising her a part in the play. This is a very funny movie but it's distinguished by its poignant underpinnings as we come to understand McGonigle's sad, struggling life in the theater. For McGonigle, unlike Fields, there was no happy ending of true success. Fields is superb; Duggan is hilarious as she sings her seemingly endless song number for a distressed McGonigle; and Allen and Morrison are simply charming [the latter does a nice job with his "Little Bit of Heaven" number]. The dinner table sequence with Fields and Baby Leroy is a scream!

Verdict: A sublime classic comedy. ***1/2.


THE YOUNG RAJAH (1922). Director: Phil Rosen.

"Men should be judged, not by their tint of skin, the Gods they serve, the vintage that they drink, nor by the way they fight, or love, or sin, but by the quality of thought they think."

Amos Judd (Rudolph Valentino), who is actually the son of a maharajah who was murdered in a palace coup, has been adopted by an American family and given an Ivy league education. He falls in love with Molly (Wanda Hawley), the son of Judge Cabot (Edward Jobson), but although Molly returns his feelings she just can't get past her own prejudice. To make matters worse, factions from India come to the U.S. determined to capture and murder the true heir to the throne. Amos has always had premonitions, and now seemingly foresees his own death. Turner Classic Movies presented this incomplete print of this "lost" movie by using many stills and title cards, although the second half contains a lot of the real footage. In any case, The Young Rajah is an interesting movie, and Valentino certainly exudes star charisma. Jon Miralis' music is a plus.

Verdict: See why Valentino got everyone excited. ***.

BATMAN (1989)

BATMAN (1989). Director: Tim Burton.

"I am the world's first fully-functioning homicidal artist." -- The Joker.

In Gotham City there are rumors of a bat-like creature preying on criminals. A mobster named Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) falls into a vat of chemicals while battling this creature -- Batman (Michael Keaton) -- and turns into the grotesque Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, who causes numerous deaths by poisoning various cosmetics and household supplies. Batman must then stop his nemesis from not only slaughtering thousands of Gothamites at a celebration, but must rescue his lady love, reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) from the Joker at a climax in a cathedral. Batman, whose human dramatics are awkwardly written and played, is more a campy black comedy than anything else, and is a bit slow and dull to boot. The movie is overlong and over-produced, although it gets points for its striking scenic design if little else. Keaton is miscast, and Nicholson walks off with the movie, although his psychotic Joker is never really scary. There are some moments that are dumber than anything in the old Batman serials. The climax, which may or may not have been intended as a homage to Vertigo's bell tower sequence, is stretched out to a tedious degree. Jack Palance and Michael Gough are good as hoodlum Grissom and Alfred the butler, respectively.

Verdict: All too typical of movies that pay more attention to production design and FX than they do to story and character. **.


MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1958). Director: Kenneth G. Crane.

Two scientists (Jim Davis and Robert E. Griffin) shoot animals into outer space to gauge the effect of radiation on them. Unfortunately, some wasps wind up being over-exposed and crash land in Africa in a place the natives call Green Hell. Now the wasps have mutated into gigantic monstrosities that threaten to overrun all of Africa. There's some okay stop-motion animation and the scenes with the monsters -- often portrayed by full-size mock-ups complete with out-sized stingers -- are fun. The movie is padded with exciting stock footage from previous jungle epics. Davis and Griffin aren't bad (especially the latter) but Barbara Turner as doctor's daughter Lorna is amateurish. Eduardo Ciannelli as a guide and Joel Fluellen as a concerned native add some flavoring to the proceedings. The giant wasps look nothing like they do in the film's poster. Good score from Albert Glasser, as usual. NOTE: For more on this film and others like it, see Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies.

Verdict: Generates some positive buzz. **1/2.


G-MEN VS THE BLACK DRAGON (15 chapter Republic serial/1943). Director: William Witney.

Agents Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron), Vivian Marsh (Constance Worth) and Chang Sing (Roland Got) are in a deadly battle with a Japanese society of saboteurs, the Black Dragon, and its leader, Haruchi (Nino Pipitone), a dapper little devil. One of the Black Dragon's nefarious schemes involves a paint that can explode ships. This is a terrific serial with furious fisticuffs in every chapter and a lot of exciting cliffhangers: Vivian is tied to a buzzsaw; Rex falls out of a skyscraper; Vivian is tied to a chair in a spear-trap; and there's a thrilling aerial battle in chapter eleven. Cameron and Got are fine but Worth and Pipitone are even better (Worth is especially good when she pretends to be a villainess). Cameron also played the same character in Secret Service in Darkest Africa. Very well-staged fight sequences and superior FX by Howard Lydecker.

Verdict: Snappy serial. ***.


V (1983 four hour two-part mini-series). Written and directed by Kenneth Johnson.

Those who enjoy the new weekly V series may be interested in looking back at the original mini-series which aired nearly thirty years ago. My advice is not to bother, as the new TV show is much, much better, and the original V is nowhere near as good as the earlier sci fi alien invasion show The Invaders. Supposedly friendly aliens land on Earth in huge spaceships asking for our help and offering their knowledge in exchange. They are actually reptiles in human guise and eat mice, rats -- and people. They conspire against earth's scientists by fabricating a supposed plot by these scientists to conspire against them. In what seems like short order the aliens create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, basically a police state, and have pretty much taken over, while some humans become quislings and collaborators. The analogy to Nazi Germany is cemented in a memorable scene in which a Jewish man explains to his son why he has to hide a scientist neighbor and her family. Marc Singer is a photojournalist who is pursued by the aliens even as he tries to expose them, and Jane Badler is Diana, a sadistic member of the invading force. The score sounds like an inept, pallid imitation of Herrmann's music for North by Northwest. Myron Healey, Andrew Prine, Robert Englund and William Russ are also in the cast.

Verdict: Somewhat entertaining but minor-league. **1/2.


THE PSYCHO LEGACY Written, produced and directed by Victor Galluzo.

This is a fair-to-middling rather superficial documentary focusing on Psycho, its three sequels [the last of which was made-for-cable], and the amazing influence of Hitchcock's masterpiece. There are file interviews with the late Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, but most of the actors interviewed appeared in Psycho 2 and the later films and not in the original. Now it's one thing to interview Robert Loggia, Olivia Hussey, Henry Thomas, Tom Holland, etc. but quite another to include quotes from individuals whose sole connection to Psycho is that they have horror oriented web sites or directed some direct-to-video slasher features! One silly guy in a backwards baseball cap, who is presumably a friend of the documentary's producer, remarks how Norman Bates [in the later films] attracts women half his age and he therefore sometimes wishes he was Norman -- yeah, right. [This kind of nonsense only cheapens the whole tone of the project.] Also too much is made of this business about how people feel "sorry" for Norman. An unintentionally comical moment occurs when Tom Holland, who wrote the screenplay for Psycho 2, says "I thought it was a terrific script!" Nothing like blowing your own horn! Mick Garris, who directed Psycho:The Beginning, probably comes off best.

Verdict: Okay overview, but Hitch deserves better. **.