Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Wrecking Crew (1969)

Wrecking Crew2The Wrecking Crew, released in 1969, was the last of the delightful Matt Helm spy spoof movies starring Dean Martin, and it took the series out on a fairly high note.

In this installment super cool super spy Matt Helm (Dean Martin) has to track down the master criminal responsible for the theft of one billion dollars in gold. ICE (Intelligence and Counter-Espionage) is certain that Count Contini (Nigel Green) is responsible for the daring train robbery in Denmark. Matt’s boss MacDonald (John Larch) decides that if Matt can’t find Contini he’ll let Contini find Matt, so he deliberately blows Matt’s cover.

Contini doesn’t take long to find Matt. Matt does have an ally, but an ally who’s not entirely reliable. This ally is bumbling British intelligence agent Freya Carlson (Sharon Tate), but Matt frequently has to ask her if she’s sure she’s on his side.

Matt has been following up one of the few leads ICE has - an ex-girlfriend of Contini’s named Lola Medina (Tina Louise). Contini dumped her for his new girlfriend, Linka Karensky (Elke Sommer), so Lola wants revenge. She also wants one million dollars in cash as her price for helping Matt. Unfortunately Linka Karensky knows all about Lola, and Linka is not the kind of girl who likes to leave lose threads. 

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Matt and Contini are now involved in a cat-and-mouse game, but who is the cat and who is the mouse?

Of course the plot is relatively unimportant in a Matt Helm movie. What’s important is that Dean Martin should be given every opportunity to ham it up, and that the supporting actors follow his lead.

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In this movie those conditions are amply satisfied. As in all the Matt Helm movies Dean Martin is having great fun and the use of classic Dean Martin songs, with the lyrics given a twist to fit in with the tone of the movie, is a nice touch. I’ve heard it suggested that Dean Martin only did these movies for the pay cheque. I don’t buy that theory. I suspect he did these movies because they were great fun.

Elke Sommer made many spy movies and she knows how to play the scheming femme fatale to perfection. Nigel Green could always be relied upon for a suitably larger-than-life performance and he and Elke Sommer make a wonderful villainous team. Tina Louise makes the most of her small role, vamping it up for all she’s worth. Sharon Tate is a delight as the well-meaning but not notably efficient British agent, and she works very well with Dean Martin.

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B-movie veteran Phil Karlson does a solid job as director, and he knows enough B-movies to understand the importance of keeping things moving along. Screenwriter William P. McGivern is best known as the author of the classic crime novel The Big Heat.

The budgets of the Matt Hem movies didn’t run to spectacular special effects or stunts. There are a few gadgets but they’re not terribly imaginative. The revolving bar seat that propels its occupants into the villain’s lair is a nice touch though.

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This movie is available in the Matt Helm Lounge DVD boxed set. There are no extras but it’s a good print.

The Wrecking Crew sets out to be silly harmless fun and it achieves its objective very successfully. If you love 60s spy spoof movies you can’t afford to miss any of the Matt Helm movies.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939)

Man They Could Not Hang1The Man They Could Not Hang is a 1939 Columbia horror flick starring Boris Karloff as a mad scientist.

Dr Henryk Savaard (Karloff) is a brilliant scientist who has come up with an amazing breakthrough that will revolutionise surgery. He has invented a mechanical artificial heart which allows him to kill a patient and then bring him back to life. As he explains, you can’t repair an engine while the engine is running. You switch off the engine, do the repairs, and then restart the engine. It’s the same with the human body - if you can bring it to a complete standstill the surgeon has enough time to do the necessary repair work while the patient is technically dead, after which the patient can be revived.

He naturally needs to put his theories into practice, and a young medical student volunteers to be the first human subject (Dr Savaard has already tested his theories successfully on animals). Unfortunately the medical student’s girlfriend panics and calls the police. Dr Savaard pleads with them to give him time to revive the young man but the police surgeon decides that Dr Savard’s theories are dangerous nonsense and refuses. As a result the young man dies and Dr Savaard is charged with murder.

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Dr Savaard stands trial and is condemned to death. He is naturally very embittered about his experience and vows to take his revenge on the fools who have condemned him - the jury, the judge and the police surgeon. Of course he won’t be able to carry out his plan of revenge if he is put to death. Or will he? Putting a man to death who knows the secret of life and death is not an easy matter.

This is a classic mad scientist film. The mad scientist starts out as an idealistic and humane man who only wants to benefit the human race, but misunderstood and condemned he is transformed into a homicidal madman.

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This is the sort of role Karloff always played so well. It gives him the opportunity to be both a crazed monster and a gentle sensitive man. Karloff plays both sides of Dr Savaard’s personality to perfection. The supporting actors are all quite adequate but Karloff dominates the movie completely.

Director Nick Grinde spent his entire career making B-movies and he does a competent if not unspectacular job, and he doesn’t commit the cardinal sin of low-budget film-making - he doesn’t allow the pace to flag. He keeps things moving, and with a reasonably good story and a fine actor like Karloff that’s enough.

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The settings for both the mad scientist laboratory and the revenge scenes look reasonably impressive. The visuals are nothing spectacular but they’re effective enough.

The movie raises the usual questions that mad scientist movies raise. How far should science go? Are there territories that should be off-limits to science? Should scientists be free to pursue their researches no matter where those researches take them? The movie doesn’t really draw any profound conclusions about these matters, other than suggesting that the dangers of science going too far are real, especially the dangers to the scientist himself.

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The biggest strength of this movie is Karloff’s subtle performance as a man who tries to be a benefactor of mankind only to find himself labelled as a madman and a murderer. Karloff pretty much carries the movie single handed and he’s more than equal to the task. This is an entertaining movie even if it reaches no great heights and it can certainly be recommended to fans of 1930s horror and to Karloff fans.

This movie is released on DVD as part of Columbia’s Icons of Horror: Boris Karloff collection. There’s a lack of extras but it’s a nice clean print.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Twins of Evil (1971)

Twins of Evil1Twins of Evil was the third film in Hammer’s notorious Karnstein trilogy. The series had got off to a great start with the superb The Vampire Lovers and had then gone badly off the rails with the ill-fated Lust for a Vampire. Twins of Evil was a definite improvement over that film but it still fell a long way short of The Vampire Lovers.

Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) is a decadent aristocrat who lives for pleasure, but he is bored. Ordinary pleasures don’t interest him at all these days. He wants something stronger, more shocking. His secretary Dietrich (Dennis Price) provides black magic spectacles to titillate him but the Count knows they’re faked. He wants real magic, real blood. He desperately wants to be evil. When he unwittingly calls up the spirit of Mircalla Karnstein he gets his wish. She transforms him into one of the undead.

While all this is happening at Castle Karnstein two orphan teenagers arrive at the home of Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing). Frieda and Maria Gelhorn (Madeleine and Mary Collinson) are from Vienna and they’re used to the easy-going pleasure-seeking ways of that city. But Gustav Weil is a humourless puritan obsessed with evil. He leads the Brotherhood, who fill in their leisure hours burning witches. He immediately disapproves of the two girls. 

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Maria is basically a good girl but Frieda is a wild child. She is a bit like Count Karnstein - she’d love to play at being evil. She will get her chance. Gustav Weil will find that his next witch hunt will lead him to his own door.

The setting of this movie is rather puzzling. Mostly it looks like typical Hammer 19th century middle Europe but Weil’s puritan dress and the witch-hunting theme strongly suggest the 17th century.

There’s one major problem with any vampire movie. Vampires have a lot of weaknesses. They’re either helpless in daylight or they burn up, if you can find their coffin filled with the earth of their homeland they’re doomed, they’re powerless against anyone holding a cross and they can be destroyed in various ways. And their enemies always know these weaknesses.

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To make a vampire a convincingly menacing monster something has to be done to shift the odds in their favour. There are three main ways this can be done. Firstly, by giving the vampires the power to transform themselves into other creatures. Secondly and more effectively, the vampires can be given formidable hypnotic powers. And thirdly, you can simply cast an actor who can convey the necessary menace. That’s what made Christopher Lee so effective as Dracula - he had the presence to make us believe he was truly dangerous.

And that’s where Twins of Evil falls down badly. Apart from one brief scene the vampire’s hypnotics powers are ignored, he has no compensating special powers and Damien Thomas conveys no sense of being a threat to anyone but himself. His Count Karnstein is a vampire wannabe, a bored and spoilt aristocrat playing at being evil. The result is a very unscary vampire and a very unscary movie. It’s not that he’s a bad actor - he just isn’t the slightest but threatening.

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The movie’s second big problem is that the Collinson twins don’t have the acting chops top carry off their roles. Hammer’s strategy of casting Playboy centrefolds in their gothic horror movies often worked better than you might expect. Susan Denberg is extremely good in Frankenstein Created Woman. But in Twins of Evil the results are disappointing, and coupled with such an innocuous master vampire as Count Karnstein it’s almost enough to doom this movie.

Fortunately Peter Cushing is on hand, delivering one of his most thoroughly evil and frightening performances as the disturbingly obsessed Gustav Weil. Of all Hammer’s vampire movies this is the one that most strongly suggests that vampire-hunters can do more evil than vampires. In fact it’s as much a witch-hunting movie as a vampire movie and was clearly influenced by other non-Hammer horror movies like Witchfinder-General and Blood on Satan's Claw. Peter Cushing is much more frightening than Damien Thomas as Count Karnstein. Cushing’s performance can be favourably compared to Vincent Price’s turn as Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder-General although Gustav Weil differs from Matthew Hopkins in being truly sincere even if he is tragically wrong.

The rest of the supporting players are adequate enough.

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There’s nothing particularly wrong with Tudor Gates’ screenplay or John Hough’s directing and the scene featuring Mircalla includes one of the best special effects shots you’ll see in any Hammer movie.

The Synapse combo pack includes the movie on both DVD and Blu-Ray. There is virtually zero difference between the two, with the DVD being perhaps marginally superior. If you already own this movie uncut on DVD there is no reason whatsoever to upgrade to this Blu-Ray edition. If you don’t own the movie already then it’s worth buying for the extras, among which are an excellent 90-minute documentary on the movie featuring people like Kim Newman and Tim Lucas and including interviews with star Damien Thomas and director John Hough.

Twins of Evil is very much a lesser Hammer offering but it’s still great fun. Recommended.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

13 Frightened Girls! (1963)

13 Frightened Girls2Even for a William Castle movie 13 Frightened Girls! is a lightweight offering. It’s a mildly amusing spy spoof movie featuring a 16-year-old girl amateur spy.

This 1963 movie is unusual for a William Castle movie in not involving any of the elaborate gimmicks that made his movies so much fun. The only thing approaching a gimmick in this one is the use of five different alternative opening sequences for use in different markets. One of the girls has won first prize in Latin and as a reward has been given the privilege of driving the school bus to the railway station from which the girls will depart on their holidays. In the Swedish version it’s the Swedish girl who wins the prize, in the French version it’s the French girl, and so on.

Miss Pittford’s academy for Young Ladies is an exclusive Swiss boarding school reserved solely for the daughters of diplomats, diplomats from all over the world. Her 13 current pupils include girls from Britain, the US, France, Germany, the Soviet Union and even Red China.

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The American girl Candace Hull (Kathy Dunn) is to spend the holiday with her father, the US Chargé d'affaires. Of more interest to her even than her father is Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton), the local CIA bureau chief. Candace has had a crush on Wally for years and now that she is sixteen and considers herself to be a woman she is determined to get Wally.

Unfortunately things have not been going well for Wally and he’s on the point of being recalled to Washington. As an espionage agent he’s proving to be a bit of a washout. Candace decides to save his career. What Wally needs is a star agent, someone who can bring him some spectacular secrets. She figures that a girl attending a boarding school composed entirely of diplomat’s daughters should be in a pretty good position to discover some secrets, and who is going to suspect a 16-year-old girl? So Candace becomes Kitten, spy extraordinaire.

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As it happens Candace soon stumbles across some secrets in the Red Chinese embassy, thanks to her friendship with Mai-Ling, the daughter of Khang (Khigh Dhiegh), a top official there. Khang is a Red Chinese master spy, but he’s no match for Kitten. Soon Wally is on top of the world, with the mysterious Kitten feeding him high quality intelligence. Wally has no idea of Kitten’s real identity.

Of course things don’t keep running this smoothly forever and eventually Khang kidnaps Wally’s girlfriend and fellow spy Soldier (yes, she’s called Soldier) and threatens to kill her unless Kitten’s identity is disclosed to him.

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Murray Hamilton is quite good as Wally. He’s not your average movie spy. He’s middle-aged and slightly weather-beaten and he’s no glamorous action hero James Bond type. Kathy Dunn is adequate as Candace. This movie represented the high point of her very brief acting career. Khigh Dhiegh has a lot of fun as the villainous Khang. Look out for the glamorous future star of the cult TV series The Champions, Alexandra Bastedo, in a small role as the British girl at Miss Pittford’s Academy.

I’m not sure that this movie was really such a good idea. Castle was very much at home in the horror genre but this is essentially a teen movie and probably needed an even more campy approach than Castle’s. In spite of that it’s still moderately entertaining in a very undemanding way.

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This movie is available as part of the William Castle Collection DVD boxed set. Extras on the disc are limited to the five different opening sequences mentioned earlier. The transfer is 16x9 enhanced and is excellent.

This is not a movie that would be worth a purchase but if you’re a William Castle completist it’s possibly worth a rental.

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Friday, 18 January 2013

Shanty Tramp (1967)

Shanty Tramp2Shanty Tramp is American sexploitation at its most lurid. This 1967 “roughie” is sleazy, dirty, violent and generally highly entertaining. It was written and directed by Joseph P. Mawra under the pseudonym of Joseph Prieto.

Lee Holland is Emily, the shanty tramp of the title. Her daddy is a drunk and they share a shack in the worst part of a very unappealing town. Her daddy knows she’s a whore and he knows it’s all his fault. When a revival preacher comes to town Emily’s daddy decides to put things right, with predictably catastrophic results.

The shanty tramp quickly catches the eye of the preacher man. He knows that here is a poor lost soul he must save. He invites her to come back later for some private spiritual advice, in his caravan after midnight. Emily has also caught the eye of Daniel, a young black man whose own daddy was lynched when he was a youngster. Daniel’s Ma warns him to keep away from Emily but it does no good.

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Emily will also catch the eye of Savage, the leader of a biker gang. Savage’s gang descends upon the local dance spot and pretty soon all the bikers have got themselves enthusiastic new girlfriends. It seems that all the girls in this town are shanty tramps at heart. They all want violent boyfriends who’ll treat them to some rough loving.

After the night spot closes Emily invites Savage back to the bar’s storeroom so they can get to know each other better. But Savage is not impressed when she informs him that it’s going to cost him. So he decides to take what he wants without paying. Then Daniel arrives to save the day, and that proves to be Daniel’s undoing. Emily and Daniel get some action going and then Emily’s pa arrives and catches them. Poor Daniel thinks that Emily is going to do the right thing and explain things to her pa but instead she cries rape.

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Emily’s pa, all fired up by the preacher man’s preaching, decides to save Emily’s soul by taking a whip to her and by getting Daniel lynched. Daniel takes off through the woods but soon he has a whole posse of irate townsfolk hunting him down. Things are not looking good for Daniel. Meanwhile the shanty tramp has her own problems which she solves by taking a knife to her daddy.

This movie combines the popular hicksploitation sub-genre with a whole mess of other sub-genres, many of which it invents for itself. It’s blaxploitation, but it’s also preachersploitation and it’s southernsploitation. There are hints of every kind of depravity one can imagine, all explored in a delightfully sleazy manner.

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Lee Holland isn’t much of an actress but squeezed into a white dress which displays her charms to full advantage she certainly has presence. She is the ultimate shanty tramp, radiating sex and evil. The actor who plays the oversexed preacher is outrageously and superbly over-the-top. This preacher man has such a yearning to save Emily’s soul. As he memorably puts it, “I’m going to show her the power and the glory.” We hear you preacher man. Amen.

The movie was shot on location in Florida. Considering the themes it explored it was a fairly bold move to make a movie like this anywhere in the south in 1967. The Florida locations are magnificently seedy.

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The script is liberally peppered with classic exploitation movie dialogue, adding considerably to the fun. There’s more of a general ambience of sleaze rather than much in the way of actual sex and nudity although Emily does get topless as often as possible.

The movie is presented as a double-feature along with Common Law Wife (which I haven’t had time to watch yet). It’s released by Alpha Video and it fully lives up to this company’s reputation for awesomely bad DVD transfers. Sound quality is OK but the picture quality is truly and spectacularly atrocious. 

Shanty Tramp is great fun from beginning to end. If you’re an exploitation movie fan it’s worth putting up with Alpha Video’s horrible DVD just for the sheer glorious sleaziness of this movie.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Black Moon (1934)

Black Moon1Black Moon belongs to one of my very favourite horror genres - the voodoo movie. Even better, this 1934 Columbia production is a pre-code voodoo horror movie.

Juanita Perez Lane (Dorothy Burgess) was brought up on the island of San Christopher in the Caribbean. There is a dark secret in her past relating to this island. We know it involves voodoo, because at her flat in London she still hears the voodoo drums. And she has an obsessive desire to return to San Christopher.

Juanita is married to Stephen Lane (Jack Holt) and has an eight-year-old daughter, Nancy. For some reason Juanita wants to return to San Christopher alone. There are two thousand people on the island, only two of whom are Europeans. One of these two Europeans, the overseer, is sent to London to warn Stephen that on no account should Juanita be allowed to return to the island. The overseer is murdered before he can deliver this message.

Stephen does however manage to persuade his secretary, Gail Hamilton (Fay Wray), to accompany Juanita and Nancy.

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When they get to the island they find that things are very uneasy. The drums have been beating regularly, always a bad sign. The plantation on the island is owned and managed by Juanita’s uncle Dr Perez (Arnold Korff). He fears that another native uprising may be imminent.

Gail is a sensible girl and she managed to get a message to Stephen advising him to come to San Christopher at once. He arrives on a schooner skippered by ‘Lunch’ McClaren (Clarence Muse). Lunch is a black man but he has no time for the blacks on San Christopher - he fears them, and with good reason. But Lunch is a brave man and agrees to land on the island with Stephen Lane.

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Things on the island rapidly become more unsettled. The full moon is approaching (a time when blood sacrifices are made to the voodoo gods) and Dr Perez pleads with the Lanes to leave the island before then. Stephen agrees, but Lunch’s schooner is stolen. Another bad sign. And Nancy’s nurse, Anna, is murdered. Now Nancy has a native nurse and it’s obvious (to the audience at least) that this new nurse is deeply involved with voodoo.

It’s also obvious that Juanita is deeply involved with voodoo. That’s her dark secret. Her parents were murdered and she was raised by a native nurse, and raised in the voodoo cult. And she is a keen, if deeply naïve, devotee. It’s clear that her loyalties are not to her husband or to Dr Perez but to the voodoo priest.

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Things go from bad to worse and soon the handful of Europeans, along with Lunch McClaren but minus Juanita, are holed up in the tower that the Perez family built long ago for such eventualities. Lunch has lost his girlfriend to voodoo - she was offered as a blood sacrifice. There are never any doubts as to where his loyalties lie - he hates voodoo with a passion. He is Stephen Lane’s only reliable ally, and the only one who had been brave enough to accompany Stephen to witness the bloody voodoo rites.

Dorothy Burgess is truly frightening as the obsessed Juanita, a woman caught between two cultures who cannot see where her devotion to voodoo will lead her. Fay Wray this time has the less crucial female role but she gives it everything she’s got and she’s excellent. And she doesn’t scream in this movie - Gail is a courageous and resourceful young woman. She also has a secret, a secret that has little bearing on the main plot but does explain her motivations.

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Jack Holt isn’t the most exciting of heroes but he’s quite adequate. Arnold Korff is excellent as Dr Perez, a man who knows far more about Stephen Lane’s wife than Stephen himself knows. Clarence Muse makes the most of his role as Lunch McClaren.

Roy William Neill, as always, does a fine job as director. This movie captures the steamy and ominous atmosphere of the tropics rather wonderfully.

Columbia’s DVD presentation is barebones but it’s an excellent transfer. Both the DVD and the movie are highly recommended. It might not be quite in the same league as the classic  I Walked with a Zombie but this is still a terrific voodoo horror movie.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Monster of Venice (1965)

Monster of Venice1Monster of Venice (AKA The Embalmer, AKA Il mostro di Venezia) is an average competent and rather obscure 1965 eurohorror flick with a Venetian setting that makes it worth a look.

Beautiful young women are being stalked by a frogman killer who uses the canals of Venice as his hunting ground. He kills his victims, then embalms them so he can keep them with him forever. This guy obviously has a few issues he needs to deal with.

A newspaper reporter suspects that a series of disappearances of young beautiful women mean that a crazed killer is on the loose in Venice. We, the audience, already know this is true but the police and even his own editor refuse to believe him. His editor won’t report his story because it’s too sensational - he’s obviously not really cut out to be a newspaper editor!

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A party of schoolgirls from Rome is visiting Venice and the newspaper reporter offers to be their tour guide. Pretty soon he has fallen in love with one of the girls but it’s obvious the mysterious killer has targeted this group of girls and soon one of them falls victim to him.

In some ways this one feels more like a German Edgar Wallace krimi, probably not surprising in view of the popularity of this genre on the Continent. There’s even the comic relief you expect in a krimi.

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The reporter continues to pursue his story, still facing the disbelief and hostility of those in authority. A report from a couple of boatmen about a mysterious fish with lights gives him an idea. The boatmen also provide the comic relief, another feature that makes this film feel like a krimi.

The body count steadily mounts, until the reporter decides to take matters into his own hands.

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The Venetian settings are used very skillfully and form more than a mere picturesque backdrop - it’s the canals that hid the secret to this mystery.

Dino Tavella (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does an adequate job as director, and the acting is adequate.

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Retromedia’s DVD release is a rather disappointing letterboxed transfer. It would have been nice to have this one in a 16x9 enhanced format but at least the correct aspect ratio is preserved.

Monster of Venice is nothing special but it’s worth a look.

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Black Room (1935)

Black Room2The Black Room is a very good 1935 Boris Karloff gothic horror vehicle from Columbia, which happily is now available in the Boris Karloff: Icons of Horror DVD boxed set.

The movie opens in the mid-18th century, in 1760 to be exact. Baron de Berghman’s wife has just given birth to an heir. You’d expect the baron to be delighted but in fact he’s horrified. He’s horrified because it’s not one heir but two - twins. And he knows the ancient prophecy (and what’s a gothic horror movie without an ancient prophecy) that the family will end the way it began. It began with twins, with the younger twin murdering the elder, and according to the prophecy that’s how the family will end. And the murder will take place, like the original murder, in the Black Room of the family castle.

The baron thinks he has found a way to evade the prophecy - he has had the Black Room bricked up. But we all know that no matter how hard you try to evade an ancient prophecy it will never do you any good.

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Many years later the twins will meet again. Gregor (Boris Karloff) is the elder twin and has inherited the family title. He has now sent for his younger sibling Anton (also played by Boris Karloff). Gregor is an unpopular lord; within minutes of his arrival Anton finds himself the victim of an attempted assassination, an assassination aimed at his brother Gregor.

Gregor is cruel and debauched. The peasants hate him and there have been countless plots against his life. Many of the village women have gone to the de Berghman castle, never to be seen again. Anton, who has a withered right arm, is by contrast kindly and civilised. He believes his brother has sent for him because he is lonely, but as we will soon see Gregor has another agenda.

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Gregor has found a foolproof scheme both to escape the prophecy and to avoid the consequences of his wickedness. His problem is that he also has to get around Colonel Hassel, who still remembers his father. And Gregor also has plans to marry Colonel Hassel’s beautiful daughter who is in love with a handsome young lieutenant. Can Anton prevent his brother from doing further evil, and can he save himself from his brother’s unreasoning hatred?

Of course there will be a great deal of further wickedness and we will see that prophecies often take very unexpected forms. And we will discover the secret of the Black Room.

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Karloff is excellent in his dual roles, being charming and sensitive as Anton and degenerate and sadistic as Gregor. Marian Marsh is good as Colonel Hassel’s daughter and Thurston Hall gives a fine performance as Colonel Hassel, but with Karloff in this sort of form he dominates the movie completely.

Roy William Neill was always a very capable director and he was always comfortable with hints of the gothic (as in several of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies he directed). This movie is fully-fledged gothic and he does an excellent job, as does cinematographer Allen G. Siegler. Columbia weren’t known for gothic horror but this movie manages the gothic atmosphere admirably.

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Columbia have done a fine job with the DVD presentation of this movie. Both picture quality and sound quality are more than acceptable. The DVD boxed set includes four Boris Karloff horror movies including several that have hitherto been difficult to get hold of.

With Karloff in dynamic form and with all the gothic trappings you could wish for - secret passageways, dungeons, prophecies, good and evil twins, murder, a young man’s life hanging in the balance, a beautiful heroine betrothed to an evil nobleman, mysterious disappearances and general wickedness, this movie ticks all the gothic horror boxes. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Giant of Marathon (1959)

Giant of Marathon1Giant of Marathon (La battaglia di Maratona) is a 1959 peplum with two major attractions for cult movie fans. It was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and the cinematographer was the equally great Mario Bava. In fact Bava took over as director at some point during the shoot.

It’s also interesting as a peplum inspired by historical events rather than mythology. In this case the historical event is the first Persian invasion of Greece in 490BC under Darius I, which culminated in a stunning against-the-odds victory won by the Athenians standing almost alone against the might of the Persian Empire.

It is also inspired by an event following the battle, when an Athenian named Pheidippides ran 26 miles to Athens to bring the news of victory to the citizens. Or so the story goes. In any case the story is commemorated by the modern marathon race. The movie renames him Phillipides, and makes him a champion athlete at the ancient Olympic Games. And since he’s played by muscleman Steve Reeves and since this is a peplum, he’s a Hercules-like superman who inspires the Athenian resistance to Persia.

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This peplum doesn’t have a beautiful but evil queen, but it does a beautiful but evil temptress in the person of Karis (Daniela Rocca). Only she’s not really evil, she just looks that way. In reality she’s being manipulated by the arch-villain of the piece, Theocritus (Sergio Fantoni). Theocritus is in league with the Athenian tyrant whom the Athenians have recently expelled. And this tyrant is a traitor who intends to sell Greece to the Persian invaders.

Creusus is also being manipulated by Theocritus, who wants to marry Creusus’s beautiful daughter Andromeda (Mylène Demongeot). But Andromeda wants to marry Phillipides. The various conspiracies by Theocritus essentially drive the plot of the movie - the survival of Greek freedom as well as the happiness of our young lovers both depend on the foiling of this arch-villain’s plots.

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The movie, not surprisingly, takes considerable liberties with history. Much of the action of the movie comes in the climactic naval battle, when in fact the crucial battle of this stage of the Persian Wars took place on land. The film-makers have some very cool if very fanciful ideas about ancient naval warfare but it all makes for some very exciting and imaginative action scenes, especially the underwater combats! Yes, the Greeks in this movie have an early version of the Navy Seals!

The action scenes in generally are quite well done. The budget was obviously reasonable by the standards of this type of movie. Visually, as you’d expect with people like Tourneur and Bava involved, the movie is fairly impressive.

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Steve Reeves makes a more than adequate hero, Mylène Demongeot is a sympathetic and glamorous heroine, Sergio Fantoni is a suitably villainous bad guy and Daniela Rocca is seductive in the femme fatale role.

The movie starts a little slowly and spends perhaps a little too much time on the romantic sub-plot. It could have used some tightening up. Once the action starts though the movie shifts into top gear and the naval battle is worth the price of admission on its own.

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My personal preference is for the more outrageous peplums with monsters and all-round silliness but Giant of Marathon is still highly entertaining and can certainly be recommended to fans of the genre.

Retromedia have done a fine job with their Steve Reeves Collection. They offer two movies, both 16x9 enhanced widescreen transfers - an unheard of luxury for peplum fans. The transfer of Giant of Marathon is a good one too, with the colours quite vivid and generally very good picture quality.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Venetian Affair (1967)

Venetian Affair2The Venetian Affair is a 1967 spy movie starring Robert Vaughn. Given Vaughn’s high-profile role in The Man from UNCLE you could be forgiven for thinking that this was one of the movies cobbled together from episodes of the TV series, or at the very least that it’s a light-hearted campy spy spoof of the kind that was so popular in the 60s. You’d certainly be forgiven for expecting a James Bond-style spy movie. In fact you’d be wrong on all counts. The Venetian Affair is not only a very serious spy movie, it’s also a very dark one. In fact it has much more in common with the Len Deighton adaptations of that area, such as The Ipcress File, than with either The Man from UNCLE or the Bond movies.

A disarmament conference is wrecked by a bomb. The Americans blame the Russians; everyone else (as usual) blames the Americans. It’s clear that the bomb was on the person of the American delegate but it’s not clear why he would want to blow himself up along with everyone else.

Dr. Pierre Vaugiroud (Boris Karloff) runs his own private intelligence network and he believes he knows who really planted the bomb. He has information that the top CIA investigator Frank Rosenfeld (Edward Asner) wants, but he will only give it to Bill Fenner (Robert Vaughn).

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Fenner is a former CIA operative who was fired by Rosenfeld, presumably on account of his drinking. Now he works for a wire service but he seems to spend most of his time drinking. Rosenfeld isn’t thrilled by the idea but he has no choice; he has to take Fenner back, at least temporarily.

Of course there’s more behind this than just an attempt to disrupt a disarmament conference. The real prize is a scientific invention that promises to be a deadly threat to world peace.

Fenner had at one time been married to Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), a communist agent. That may have been the reason he was fired from the CIA. In any case Sandra is involved in this case, but as to which side she is really on - well that’s one of the things Fenner has to find out.

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The movie was based on the novel of the same name by Helen MacInnes, who was at one time one of the big names in spy fiction. This is a rather dark espionage movie, and is certainly no spy spoof. It’s all played with deadly seriousness. The story has plenty of twists and turns with Fenner not knowing who he can really trust.

It’s not an action movie. This is a movie in which psychology and plotting takes centre stage but there is some action towards the end with a rather good chase and shootout sequence through the canals and bridges of Venice. Director Jerry Thorpe makes good use of the Venetian locations.

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Robert Vaughn is called on to do some serious acting in this film and he handles the role of Fenner fairly adroitly, playing him as a man who long ago stopped believing in anything except the bottle. The supporting cast is excellent with Kark Boehm, Elke Sommer and Edward Asner all contributing good performances.

There are none of the spectacular visual set-pieces you find in the Bond movies, and few gadgets, but the Venetian setting makes up for this.

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This Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a superb 16x9 enhanced print in the correct Cinemascope aspect ratio. 

The 60s was the era of far-fetched spy movies with an emphasis on high camp, but the decade produced some good serious spy films as well. The Venetian Affair is not in the same league as the Harry Palmer films but it’s still a reasonably effective spy thriller. It’s not a great movie but it’s better than its reputation would suggest and it’s worth a look.