Sunday, 15 April 2018
The U.S. Navy has a research establishment on the Salton Sea. They do all sorts of things there, including the testing of parachutes. Navy personnel make parachute jumps into the Salton Sea and are then recovered by boat. It’s all routine stuff, until three men are killed. Why they died is a mystery but it’s what happened to their bodies that is worrying.
Lieutenant Commander John Twillinger (Tim Holt) is not happy about it. He’s a guy who does things by the book and doesn’t take chances so he advises the local sheriff to close the beaches (to the disgust of the locals since it’s the height of the tourist season). And he sends some samples to Dr Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) at the laboratory at the base.
The results are puzzling. Even more puzzling to Dr Rogers is the radioactivity. He’s pretty sure the Navy hasn’t been doing anything that would explain the radioactivity, but there it is.
And then more people start dying.
It’s a nice slow buildup. We know something terrible is happening but at this stage we have no idea what it might be. As always what you don’t know and what you don’t see are more frightening than the things you do know and see. This is something that makers of horror movies keep learning, and then forgetting.
Of course eventually comes the dreaded moment when the monster has to be shown. Since the monster in question is a giant carnivorous mollusc one expects the worst but it’s actually not too bad. And the special effects in general are very good. There is real creepiness here. It was a standard feature of monster movies of the era to have the Scientist giving an expository lecture and showing a little film to explain things to the other characters. In this movie Dr Rogers has a little film about the very unpleasant habits of molluscs and I have to say that it enhances the creepiness fact quite a bit. It makes you really not want to encounter a gigantic mollusc.
Even after the monster is revealed this movie still relies on building suspense and genuine terror rather than just the slightly silly mayhem you so often get in this genre. Director Arnold Laven understands pacing as well and on the whole this is a pretty well-made film. The ending is very expertly handled. It’s also a bit more grisly than most 50s monster flicks. And even the hero shows real fear at times, a hero of course not being someone who is without fear but someone who can be afraid and still do his job.
There are some intriguing foreshadowings of a much more famous later movie, a movie about a deadly shark made by some guy called Spielberg.
And there’s some decent underwater photography. This was obviously a B-picture, but just as obviously it was made on a slightly more generous budget than usual.
The acting is well above the standard you expect in a monster movie. Tim Holt is very good as Lt. Cmdr. Twillinger, a character with a bit of complexity (by monster movie standards). He’s a man who pushes others, and himself, very hard. He’s a bit of a martinet and not overly popular with the men under his command. This seems to be just the way he approaches his job since he can be quite affable with civilians. He’s not an obviously sympathetic hero type but right from the start we respect his professionalism.
Hans Conried is not an actor you expect to find playing things straight but that’s how he plays Dr Rogers and it works pretty well. The supporting players are all competent.
The Salton Sea, a huge saltwater lake in the middle of the desert in southern California, is a good choice as a setting for this type of movie. In the movie at least it has a rather brooding feel to it (particularly at the beginning). The All American Canal System also features prominently and is used just as effectively.
While other giant critter sci-fi horror movies gained cult followings The Monster That Challenged the World ended up being pretty much forgotten. This is both surprising and unfair because this happens to be a well above-average example of the breed.
I caught this film on TV and happily it was a very good letterboxed print. It’s been released on DVD and more recently on Blu-Ray as well.
The Monster That Challenged the World turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, 3 April 2018
Unfortunately it just isn’t true. The Spanish version certainly has its virtues. Melford and his cinematographer George Robinson equal and in many cases surpass the visual brilliance of the Browning-Karl Freund version.
On the whole the acting is slightly better. Lupita Tovar is a more lively and more sexy heroine than Helen Chandler, Barry Norton is much less annoying than David Manners and Eduardo Arozamena is a less stilted Van Helsing. The atmosphere is less stuffy.
There are however some very big problems with the Spanish language version. The first is that Pablo Álvarez Rubio is just a bit too over-the-top as Renfield while failing to achieve the levels of creepiness that Dwight Frye reaches.
A much bigger problem is the absence of Lugosi. Carlos Villarías is, quite simply, an awful Dracula. He grimaces continually but rather than being scary it simply makes the Count seem ridiculous. More seriously he lacks Lugosi’s presence. Lugosi could make Dracula ingratiatingly charming and genuinely sinister. Villarías just seems hyperactive and silly. The more menacing he tries to be the sillier he seems.
Yet another problem is that this version is half an hour longer than the English-language version. Melford was obviously determined to shoot every scene that was in the shooting script. The trouble is that almost all of the extra scenes he shot were unnecessary, and they’re mostly very dialogue-heavy and they make Tod Browning’s leisurely paced film seem brisk and economical.
Melford’s film, despite its visual splendours, also cannot avoid the stagebound feel that was a basic flaw in the script. The initial mistake made by Universal was to adapt the (admittedly very commercially successful) stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel. Both versions of the film are for much of their running times too much like filmed plays. Of course it has to be said that Stoker’s novel has its problems too.
Being able to utilise the same sets as Browning’s movie was obviously a huge advantage. For very little money (a budget of just over $60,000) Universal got a movie that looks like an A-picture.
The Spanish version is certainly interesting. It’s fascinating to see the slightly different ways that essentially the same scenes were shot and to see the ways in which Melford and Robinson were often able to improve on the original (they had the further advantage of being to see the dailies of Browning’s film and so of course could see what worked and what didn’t).
The Spanish-language Drácula is included as an extra on both Blu-Ray and DVD releases of Dracula. Apart from one reel it looks terrific. English subtitles are of course provided.
It is definitely worth seeing even if it’s even more flawed than Tod Browning’s version.
Of course the biggest single problem with this movie is that it was so influential and has been imitated, quoted, homaged and parodied so many times. Everything about the movie became a horror movie cliché. What you have to keep always in mind is that in 1931 these were not clichés. At the time of its release this film was new, fresh and exciting. While Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu was the first vampire movie for the vast majority of viewers in 1931 the Universal Dracula would have been their first exposure to the vampire film. In its day it had genuine shock value. It was not just the horror content but also the sexual implications. Dracula’s victims are almost all female and there is a very strong element of seduction in his hunting of his victims.
While Bram Stoker’s novel was well known and the stage adaptation had been very successful it’s also fair to say that most of the plot elements that are now so very familiar would have been new to most of the movie’s initial audience.
Dracula also marked the first appearance of the Universal gothic aesthetic. While that aesthetic would itself become something of a cliché there’s no question that in 1931 this movie must have been an extraordinary visual experience.
This naturally also applies to Bela Lugosi’s performance.
This at least is what I tried to do this time and it did help, to some extent at least.
The first twenty minutes is in my view as good as anything you’ll see in any gothic horror movie. We’re told what we need to know in very economical fashion but mostly the focus is on building the atmosphere. Which is accomplished with outstanding success. There are just so many superb visual moments in this early part of the film. The first scene in the crypt below Dracula’s castle, the first glimpse of an undead hand opening a coffin lid, the celebrated scene on the staircase when Renfield first encounters the Count, the wonderfully eerie scenes with the three brides of Dracula - all absolutely superb.
There is a school of thought that the strengths of this movie are due to brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund while its weaknesses are the responsibility of director Tod Browning. That might be going too far but certainly the visuals are consistently superior to the story-telling. In fact there are accounts of the making of the movie that suggest that Browning had little interest in proceedings. That would certainly explain the fact that the movie loses direction halfway through and never quite gets back on track.
The early part of Dracula is very cinematic. Once the Count arrives in England though it becomes more and more simply a filmed stage production, and the performances (including Lugosi’s) become more stagey and much less effective. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing gives a performance that is both overly melodramatic and rather dull. Dwight Frye is certainly memorable as Renfield although again it’s essentially a silent movie performance.
Universal’s Blu-Ray release looks very good although the menus are unbelievably aggravating. There are plenty of extras - a couple of documentaries and an audio commentary by David Skal. The most exciting extra though is the Spanish-language Drácula, shot at the same time as the English version. It’s interesting enough to be worth its own post which will follow shortly.
Saturday, 24 March 2018
Jorge (Ramón Gay) and his wife Béatriz (Rosa Elena Durgel) live on a sugar plantation in Cuba. They’re slave owners but Jorge is an enlightened master and life is generally peaceful. Or at least it was peaceful, until Yambaó came back. Yambaó (Ninón Sevilla) is the grand-daughter of the witch Caridad. Caridad had been killed (or was presumed to have been killed) by Jorge’s overseer Damián a few years earlier. Yambaó disappeared at that time but now she has returned and things are going to get very complicated.
Yambaó has always been in love with Jorge and although she realises there isn’t much hope for such a love it hasn’t stopped her and hasn’t diminished her passions in any way. Jorge also certainly has more than a passing interest in Yambaó. Damián’s son Lázaro is also in love with Yambaó. Lázaro, like his father Damián, is a slave so he’s a much more realistic target for her affections. But she still loves Jorge.
It’s worth pointing out that Yambaó is not a slave. She was born a slave but the old master, Jorge’s father, freed her. Which adds to the difficulties, since Jorge therefore has no control over her.
To make Jorge’s life even more complicated plague breaks out. And the plague makes no distinction between master and slave.
The superstitions that had always been simmering away beneath the surface of life on the plantation now blossom in potentially very threatening ways.
Meanwhile Yambaó plots. Perhaps she does not have her grandmother’s powers but she certainly has powers of her own, both supernatural and feminine. Whether the spells she casts on men are mainly witchcraft or mainly the result of her earthy eroticism is hard to say but either way their efficacy cannot be denied.
Jorge and Béatriz are awaiting the birth of their first child and that can only add fuel to the fires of Yambaó’s jealousy.
This movie is perhaps more melodrama than anything else (which is no problem for me since I happen to enjoy a good overheated melodrama) but there’s enough of the witchcraft angle to keep horror fans reasonably satisfied.
The musical angle should be put into perspective. This is not at all a Hollywood musical. The musical interludes all serve a purpose. Most are connected with various rituals and do a great deal to build the atmosphere of malevolence and foreboding. And most of them feature Ninón Sevilla’s dancing, and her dancing is a sight to behold. As well as being a successful actress Cuban-born Ninón Sevilla was an extremely famous dancer, known for doing her own choreography and for the extreme eroticism of her performances. And there’s plenty of that eroticism here. It’s easy to see why she was a sensation as a professional dancer.
The music itself was obviously intended to capture an Afro-Caribbean-Cuban feel and it does so pretty successfully.
Ramón Gay gives a fine performance as the tortured Jorge but the film belongs to Ninón Sevilla. She might not have been a great actress in a conventional sense but she has an extraordinary smouldering presence.
There’s no gore but there are some creepy moments. Somewhat surprisingly (this is a 1957 movie after all) there’s some brief nudity.
There’s some surprising subtlety here. Jorge is hardly a paragon of virtue but he’s no villain. Yambaó is dangerous but is she evil? Or is she herself being used by an evil force?
Yambaó was shot in Cuba and visually it’s very impressive. In fact it’s a very well made movie. The script, by Julio Albo and Julio Alejandro, is also surprisingly intelligent and provocative. Director Alfredo B. Crevenna (responsible for many of the more interesting Mexican genre films) does a fine job.
This movie is paired with Mermaids of Tiburon in the Kit Parker Films/VCI Entertainment Psychotronica Volume 3 DVD release and is also included in their Psychotronica Collectors’ Set. The transfer is acceptable if not dazzling.
Yambaó is an oddity but it’s an interesting and very entertaining oddity.
Thursday, 15 March 2018
Drum is the name of a slave. We start with a brief prologue about his birth and upbringing. He is the offspring of a white woman, Marianna (Isela Vega) and a black slave. Marianna’s slave Rachel raised the boy as her own to avoid a scandal.
Now, twenty years later, Marianna runs the most celebrated whorehouse in New Orleans. Drum enjoys a comfortable enough life as a house slave. Then fate takes a hand.
The sinister degenerate Bernard DeMarigny (John Colicos) has organised a fight between two slaves to serve as entertainment for his friends but one of the slaves has been withdrawn from the fight by his master. Rather than be embarrassed in front of his friends DeMarigny coerces Marianna into allowing Drum to fight. DeMarigny’s slave Blaise (Yaphet Kotto) is a formidable opponent. After half-killing Blaise Drum decides he wants to be his friend. It will be an uneasy friendship.
DeMarigny offers Drum anything he wants as a reward for winning the fight and Drum decides he wants a woman. He gets Calinda (Brenda Sykes). As a bonus he also gets Blaise. Things turn very awkward however when DeMarigny tries to seduce Drum and not only gets rejected but gets clobbered as well. DeMarigny vows to get his revenge.
To get Drum out of the situation Marianna sells him to Hammond Maxwell (Warren Beatty). Maxwell’s plantation, Falconhurst, is devoted entirely to the breeding of slaves.
To set up a nicely explosive situation two more elements are added. Maxwell wants Marianna to find him a nice whore to help him raise his very troublesome daughter Sophie (Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith) but Augusta (Fiona Lewis) turns out to be a lady rather than a whore and being a lady she is determined to change things at Falconhurst.
Even more explosive is Sophie herself, whose chief hobby seems to be trying to seduce the male slaves. When set sets her sights on Blaise things are clearly going to get messy. If the master finds out he’ll have Blaise killed, if Blaise is lucky.
The stage is set for the standard slavesploitation ending - a revolt with lots and lots of violence.
The plot offers obvious opportunities for copious amounts of sex and violence. The sex includes every deviation you can think of. There’s a great deal of nudity. Most of it is entirely gratuitous but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else, which at least is refreshingly honest.
This was not an exploitation B-movie. It was a genuine big-budget A-picture. It was originally a Paramount project but ended up being released by United Artists. The switch to UA entailed major reshuffles with Steve Carver replacing Burt Kennedy as director, major cast changes and a complete rewrite of the script. It also meant a cut in the budget but the budget was still insanely high by exploitation movie standards. Not many exploitation movies have a crew of 150. And when they needed a mansion they built one, at a cost of one million dollars (and that’s one million dollars in 1976 money). They then burnt it to the ground.
With lots of money spent on it and an extremely generous 63-day shooting schedule you’d expect Drum to look sensational, and it does. The sets are superb. And they’re big! Having multiple Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lucien Ballard onboard also doesn’t hurt.
The movie’s biggest asset is Warren Oates. He gives a performance that very cleverly combines campiness and subtlety. He gets plenty of laughs but he makes Hammond Maxwell surprisingly complex. Maxwell might be a slave-owner but in his own bizarre way he’s a kindly man with his own individual but rigid moral code. He is definitely no melodrama villain. He’s the most interesting and in some ways the most sympathetic character in the movie.
Ken Norton can’t act at all but he looks the part. Yaphet Kotto can act, and does so to good effect. Fiona Lewis is a delight as Augusta, combining primness with spirit and managing to be scheming but in a good way. Pam Grier gets very little to do as Maxwell’s bed wench Regine (unfortunately most of her scenes were among the many that the MPAA insisted be cut). Rainbeaux Smith is great fun as the terrifyingly slutty Sophie.
While it tries to be a bit more serious at the beginning and at the end the middle part of Drum is outrageous and often very funny.
Drum is the kind of movie that no-one would dare to make today. While it ticks all the right political boxes and takes all the correct political stances (it is certainly very much an anti-slavery film) it still manages to be outrageously politically incorrect. There’s nothing pious or preachy here - despite the big budget this is unequivocally an exploitation movie and it delivers the exploitation elements with enthusiasm. Steve Carver was a graduate of the Roger Corman school of film-making and the end result is exactly like a Roger Corman movie made on an enormous budget.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that if this film seems a little disjointed at times that’s because it was cut to ribbons by the MPAA.
Kino Lorber’s Region 1 DVD includes an audio commentary by the director. The transfer is anamorphic and it’s excellent.
Drum is totally disreputable but it doesn’t care. It sets out to entertain and it succeeds. Highly recommended.
Saturday, 3 March 2018
Franklin certainly nails his colours to the mast straight from the start. Psycho II not only opens with a clip from Hitchcock’s original, it opens with the famous shower scene in its entirety. Which means Franklin is really setting himself up to look foolish if he can’t deliver the goods. He certainly can’t be accused of trying to make things too easy for himself.
Psycho II takes up the story just over twenty years after the events of the first movie. Norman Bates (again played by Anthony Perkins) has been pronounced cured and released from the mental hospital in which he had been confined. Perhaps a little unwisely he’s decided to return to the Bates Motel. Even more unwisely his psychiatrist Dr Raymond (Robert Loggia) doesn’t seem to think this will be a problem.
The motel is being managed by the sleazy Warren Toomey (Dennis Franz). Norman has got himself a job in a local diner where he befriends waitress Mary (Meg Tilly). Norman isn’t exactly relaxed around women and given his incredible twitchiness plus the fact that Mary knows he’s been in a mental hospital it’s a little surprising that Mary moves into the Bates House after breaking up with her boyfriend.
Norman is pretty obviously becoming obsessed with Mary and he’s also started getting messages from his dead mother. Adding to Norman’s rapidly increasing anxiety levels is the vendetta that Warren Toomey launches against him after Norman fires him.
It’s not exactly a shock when the murders start happening. The local sheriff is however not convinced that Norman has gone back to his old habits. He’s not prepared to take any action without hard evidence and such evidence as he has is a long way from being conclusive.
Of course the murders haven’t stopped yet although the final body count is not particularly high by the standards of 80s slasher movies.
The problem for Norman is that he has no way of knowing if he’s responsible for these murders. He never did remember carrying out his original series of murders.
This movie begins very conventionally and with the kind of obviousness you expect in a TV movie. After it’s drifted along in this vein for a while Franklin clearly decides he’d better start doing something clever. If you’re going to attempt a Hitchcock sequel you’re going to have to pull off at least a couple of impressive visual set-pieces. The first murder is rather disappointing. The second though is extremely well done, and it’s in keeping with the tone of the original movie as well. On the whole Franklin does a fine job with some nice use of odd camera angles and lots of atmosphere.
Screenwriter Tom Holland faced a real problem. Anybody who had seen the first movie would already know the whole setup with Norman and his mother. A mere rerun of the same events would have been too obvious and entirely lacking in suspense. He had to find a way to keep within the framework established by the first movie whilst somehow convincing us that maybe this time events would follow a different course and that the final explanation might not be quite the same. He had to make us consider the possibility that maybe this time Norman wasn’t the killer, or then again maybe he was. This was certainly a challenge.
He meets that challenge reasonably well. The story keeps to the spirit of the original but with some completely new and startling twists. What’s perhaps most unexpected is that this movie plays fair with the viewer. The big surprise twist will surprise you but it shouldn’t since there have been numerous clues pointing in that direction. But then there’s some nice misdirection as well.
Tony Perkins is even twitchier this time around. He really goes all out with the crazy person stuff. It works because he does manage to make us feel sympathy for Norman as a man who thinks he has conquered his insanity but is now put under extreme stress - the twitchiness really is only to be expected.
Meg Tilly is pretty good. She manages to make Mary seem like the sort of girl who might well make a habit of befriending recovering serial killers. She has a certain innocence combined with an odd protectiveness towards Norman. The Norman-Mary relationship is certainly a bit strange but it’s weirdly touching and against the odds Perkins and Tilly make it seem convincing.
Obviously this film is not in the same league as Hitchcock’s film. Having said that it stands up as a fairly interesting variation on the slasher movie theme with less gore but more intelligence than most movies of that type. Overall it’s one of the better 80s horror movies. Recommended.
Sunday, 25 February 2018
Lewis was an important figure in exploitation cinema in the 60s but somehow I’ve always found his movies to be not quite as much fun as they sound like they’re going to be. The Alley Tramp is no exception. The threadbare plot isn’t a problem. Plenty of sexploitation film-makers could have taken such a flimsy idea and made a highly entertaining film out of it. Lewis’s approach just seems lifeless, as if he just wanted to get it over and done with.
The plot revolves around young Marie Barker (Julie Ames). Marie is sixteen, but she’s not exactly sweet sixteen. Her mother has always feared that one day she’d run wild and now she’s convinced that those fears have turned out to be well-founded. What sets Marie off is the sight of her parents having sex (which is apparently a very rare occurrence in the Barker household). As everyone knows this is a sight that can trigger nymphomania in teenage girls, and Marie is soon running amok sexually.
Her first target is her good-natured third cousin, Phil. Phil is a decent enough young man but he is utterly unable to resist Marie’s very determined advances.
Marie’s mother Lily (Amy Heath), already suffering from extreme sexual frustration, suspects that her husband is having an affair (which he is, with his secretary) and since her chances of ever getting any marital sex seem remote she decides to have an affair as well. She picks Herbie as a good prospect, or at least a good prospect for a woman who likes it rough (as Lily does).
Inevitably things get complicated, with Marie seducing Herbie. After having an abortion and then seducing the doctor in the hospital Marie is packed off to a mental institution. But all is not lost. Her parents are assured that nymphomania is a treatable medical condition.
The sex scenes are pretty much what you expect in a 60s sexploitation feature, the sex mostly taking place under the bedclothes with the men keeping their jockey shorts on at all times. There is however plenty of nudity, including frontal nudity, and including at least one remarkably explicit shot that Lewis presumably hoped (rightly as it turned out) that he could get away with. Or perhaps he was so uninterested he didn’t notice it himself.
Julia Ames and Amy Heath are both quite attractive (with Amy Heath looking rather young to be the mother of a sixteen-year-old) and they both spend plenty of time naked.
This film features some of the worst acting you will ever come across. That turns out to be its saving grace. Julia Ames is atrocious but she’s enormous fun especially when she goes completely over-the-top in the scene in which Marie finally snaps and lets her mother know exactly how things are going to be from now on. It’s a gloriously epic piece of overacting. Amy Heath is no slouch in the overacting department either. Between the two of them they turn what could have been a dull film into a deliciously entertaining exercise in bad but thoroughly enjoyable film-making.
There is also a brief go-go dancing scene. More go-go dancing would have helped but we have to be grateful for what we get.
Something Weird paired this one with another sexploitation film, Over 18…And Ready! (which I haven’t watched yet). The Alley Tramp looks terrific. There’s the usual array of Something Weird extras.
The Alley Tramp is I suppose a borderline roughie, although it lacks the edge to qualify as a fully-fledged member of that species.
It has to be admitted that this is far from being a classic of the genre but it is a must-see movie for true connoisseurs of excruciatingly bad acting. If you’re a H.G. Lewis completist you’ll also be interested.