Saturday, November 14, 2009

A stylish movie that flopped in its day

The Old Dark House (1932)
Starring: Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Bremer Wills and Boris Karloff
Director: James Whale
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A violent storm forces five travelers to take shelter in an isolated house in the Welsh mountains. Before the night is over, love will come to some of the inhabitants of the house, while death will come for others.

"The Old Dark House" is a quirky horror film from the days when the genre was still taking shape. It features an even mix of romance, dark comedy and melodramatic horror action in a household so riddled with insanity that even the House of Usher looks like the Cleavers by comparison. It's a tone and mixture of elements that has only rarely been achieved, with films like "Drag Me to Hell" and "Dead Alive" coming closest in the past decade.

When it was first released, it failed to appeal to the public nor to most critics, due in a large part to a marketing campaign that centered on Boris Karloff, who had just been featured in the mega-hit "Frankenstein." Marketing and top billing aside, Karloff's role in this film is rather minor, and he is more red herring than monster. Although a definate ensamble piece, the actors who fill the key roles in the flick are Gloria Stuart, whose character is threatened in turn by every one of the menacing figures in the old dark house; Melvyn Douglas, whose roguish war veteran character is the heroic and romantic center of the film; and Bremer Wills, whose late-arriving character is nonetheless the most memorable in the entire picture.

Although those three actors are the lynchpins keeping the film together, everyone does a remarkable job. Also of particular note are Lilian Bond, who is perhaps better here than in any other film she would make; Charles Laughton, who actually sympathetic for once; and Ernest Thesiger, who manages to be funny and scary at the same time.

The staging of each shot is also remarkable, as is the attention paid both to the visual composition of each scene, as well as the careful deployment of sound throughout. There is no music score for the film, but the sounds generated by the storm raging outside the house provide far more drama than any orchestra could do.

Because the film was a commercial disaster both in 1932 and during its re-release in 1939, Universal Pictures considered it worthless. They sold remake rights to Columbia Pictures and let all of its rights revert to estate of the novelist whose work the film had been based on in 1957, and the negatives were left to rot in storage in New York City. If not for a concerted effort on the part of filmmaker Curtis Harrington--a fan of the film and friend of director James Whale--it might have been lost forever by the late 1960s. Even the best available print shows some damage, despite the restoration efforts.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House
Fortunately, the film has been now digitized and released on DVD for all of us to enjoy again and again. And this is a film that has definate replay value, as there are many subtle interplays between characters and stylistic touches that might not be noticed on the first time through. Also, the careful composition of scenes and use of sound make it as worthy of study as more celebrated early horror films, like "The Mummy" or "White Zombie."

Or it's worth seeing again and again for the excellent performances. Based on the job she does here, it's a shame that Gloria Stuart was not given any further decent parts at Universal and an even bigger shame that she basically quit acting in 1939.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Universal distribution deal brought forth one of Hammer's very best films

Night Creatures(aka Captain Clegg)(1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed, and Yvonne Romain
Director: Peter Graham Scott
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Captain Collier (Allen) of the King's Navy marches into a small swamp-bound coastal village that is a suspected hub of smuggling, not to mention the center of activity by ghostly nightriders on skeletal horses. He is soon matching wits with the masterminds behind the smuggling operations--the kindly Reverend Blyss (Cushing) and coffin maker Jeremiah Mipps (Ripper), both of whom hide secrets deeper and darker than a mere smuggling ring.

I love this movie.

"Captain Clegg" ("Night Creatures" in the U.S. market, so retitled by Universal Pictures when they picked it and seven other Hammer productions up for distribution) is perhaps one of the finest movies ever be produced by Hammer Films.

Set in the 18th century against a backdrop of smuggling and piracy, "Captain Clegg" is an excellent melodrama that's got a thrilling, well-paced story, with compelling, likable, and complex characters, and a near-perfect ending.

High points of the film include the opening scenes with an old man running from spectral riders in the marshes, only to be finished off by a nightmarish scarecrow with human eyes; the sequence where Mipps and his fellow smugglers set out in the hopes of making their scheduled delivery of fine French wines right under the nose of Captain Collier and his men; the breakfast scene where Collier thinks he finally has the goods on Blyss, and the build-up to the film's climax as Blyss's past comes back to haunt him and the smuggling operation starts to come unglued.

"Captian Clegg" is also beautifully filmed and expertly directed--on par with some of Terence Fisher's Hammer work, I think--with Cushing and Ripper giving excellent performances. In fact, Cushing may well give the finest on-screen performance of his career as the enigmatic country vicar with a rebellious streak. Cushing's range as an actor is shown more clearly in this film as in no other I've seen (and I've seen most of them).

I can't recommend this film highly enough. If you order the Hammer Horror Series pack from I think "Captain Clegg" alone is woth the purchase price for Cushing fans. (The inclusion of another of his greatest films--"The Brides of Dracula"--is icing on the cake. Click here to read my review of it and two other of the films in the set.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

See the Classic Monsters
as you've never seen them before!

During Universal Picture's Golden Age of Horror, lots of mad scientists were conducting bizarre experiments with even more bizarre results. Click on the "Mad Science" index link in the column to the right, and you'll see lots of examples.

Modern-day B-movie maven Charles Band (best known as the guy who created Full Moon Entertainment and helped lay the foundation for the direct-to-video market as it exists today) made a movie in 1997 that not only features a mad scientist who could give any one of the old-timers a run for their money as far as unforeseen consequences go, but he also reincarnates Universal's Classic Monsters in a way that we've never seen them before....

Yes. Those ARE midgets.

If you're a fan of classic horror flicks and possess a sense of humor, I think you might enjoy Charles Band's "The Creeps."

Click here to read my review of "The Creeps," and to check out a preview of the film. (If you like what you see, I even provide a handy-dandy link to, so you can see more reviews or even grab a copy for yourself.)

Trivia: Around the time he made "The Creeps," Band produced two TV films directed at kids that also revolved around the classic monsters: "Frankestein Reborn!" and "The Wolf Man Reborn!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

'The Fourth Kind' is kind of a waste of time

The Fourth Kind (2009)
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas and Will Patton
Director: Olatunde Osunsanmi
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After the strange death of her husband, Nome-based psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler (Jovovich) vows to carry on his work, investigating sleep disorders. She discovers that the root cause is alien abductions, only to be targeted by the aliens herself. Or is she being targeted?

"The Fourth Kind" is a different sort of hoax movie than "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity." While it lays claim to being just as real, it takes a "America's Most Wanted" or "Unsolved Mysteries" approach, mixing re-actments with supposedly real video footage and audio tapes. They also decide to use a split-screen approach in many cases, trying to bolster their claim of reality by placing the reenactments side-by-side and even merged with the "documentary footage and recordings."

Of course, it's all a bunch of hooey. Just like no student filmmakers vanished in the forest and there is no demon-possessed Katie wandering the streets of San Diego, there is no Abigail Tyler and the people of Nome aren't disappearing because of alien abductions; they're disappearing because drunkenness and harsh winters don't mix (or so says the FBI).

But that doesn't mean the notion of space aliens preying on Alaskans isn't a good idea for a hoax movie. If it is, though, it didn't translate into this film. Writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi spends too much time showing off his cleverness with split-screens and sharing his apparent love with areal shots of Alaska and overlong establishing shots to make the movie scary or even interesting. It moves too slowly to ever be truly exciting, and the characters are too drab for it to be scary, because we never really get invested in them. The one truly scary moment in the film is a BOO-Gatcha! moment that doesn't come close to making up for the boring build-up. Not even the secret surrounding the death of Tyler's husband turns out to be all that interesting. (Although it does make you wonder why stronger action wasn't taken against Tyler sooner.)

Ultimately, this is a forgettable film that is badly put together. The most remarkable thing about it is Jovovich's greener-than-green eyes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Beauty and beast are one in 'Captive Wild Woman'

Captive Wild Woman (1943) 
Starring: John Carradine, Milburn Stone, Lloyd Carrigan, Acquanetta, Evelyn Ankers and Ray Corrigan Director: Edward Dmytryk 
Rating: Six of Ten Stars 

A mad genius (Carradine) proves the correctness of his cutting-edge theories in glandular functions by transforming a gorilla into a shapely young woman (Acquanetta). Tragedy and death ensue. 

Publicity still for Captive Wild Woman The more one watches horror and sci-fi films from the 1940s, the more obvious it is why Universal's attempt to recapture the magical horror profits that carried them through the depression in the 1930s failed. Too many of the films from this "revival period" are no different than the sort of nonsense that was issuing forth from small studios like Monogram and PRC; instead of living up to greatness of "The Mummy" and "The Invisible Man," Universal production executives and directors instead lowered themselves to the level of those who had followed on their coattails.

When compared to the classics of the 1930s, or even "Ghost of Frankenstein" and "The Wolfman" from the 1940s--something the modern-day Universal marketeers are encouraging us to do by including this film is DVD multipack titled "Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive"--this movie falls woefully short. It's more in the league of low-budget efforts like "The Devil Bat" or "The Monster Maker," just to pick two movies about mad scientists at random. That is a serious step down from the great horror shows of the 1930s.

While disappointing when considered in the light of the cinematic greatness that Universal had once brought to the world, "Captive Wild Woman" is well-acted and well-filmed, with a fast pace to carry us quickly through the story. While Carradine is no Bela Lugosi or Lionel Atwill, he does a decent enough job as the mad doctor at the heart of the story, and the exotic beauty of Acquanetta makes the movie more enjoyable as well. This is not a "classic" in any sense other than it's an old movie, but it's worth checking out if you like the fantastic pulp-fiction science of the early sci-fi and horror flicks.

(A bit of cast trivia: The Universal Studio marketing department nicknamed Acquanetta "The Venezuelan Volcano." Her real name was Mildred Davenport, she was born in Ozone, Wyoming, in 1923, and was of Arapaho decent with no trace of Venezuela in her blood or family tree.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

'The Red Violin' is a fascinating, artsy drama

The Red Violin (1999)
Starring: Irene Gratzioli, Anita Lorenzi, Jean-Luc Bideau, Kristoph Koncz, Jason Flemyng, Sylvia Chang, Colm Feore and Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Francois Girard
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A 17th century violin maker creates the perfect violin that ends up causing heartbreak and tragedy as it moves through history toward its destiny.

The friend who recommended I see this movie did so because he felt the violin at its center was just like the cursed objects in the fictional world of Ravenloft I used to contribute to. They, like the violin in this movie seems to be, are charged with supernatural energies that lead those of impure hearts to destruction while usually have no effect or actually bringing beneficial circumstances to the users who are either selfless or who purposefully or by accident help the item fulfill whatever purpose it has been imbued with.

While this is by no means a horror film--nor is it a thriller, despite what the marketing monkey who wrote the cover for the home video version would like buyers to think--my friend was right about the red violin. Its creation (including its shocking secret), the effects is has on those who come into possession of it, and even the method by which the story is being told to the viewers, is very much in keeping with the tone that we strove to establish in the best of the Ravenloft products that were produced. I particularly like the fact that the story is being told by way of flashbacks to a Tarot reading as the violin maker was working on his creation--it's a nice mechanism to organize the film and it introduces the supernatural element in a definate but subtle way.

Although there are ghosties or ghoulies in this film, I think it is a movie that those who enjoy more subtle horror films will like. Something is definitely going on with the red violin, as it's more than coincidence that as it wanders through the years that the moment a person in control of it tries to use it for some sort of personal gain or glory, something bad happens to them.

The film is also skilled and very beautifully shot. The various locations around the world that the film takes place in are nicely captured both through the fantastic cinematography and through the well-crafted script that evokes the personalities of the people living in those times and places with an economic precision needed for a film that essentially tells five separate stories in the space most movies spend on telling one. (I think if one particularly dimwitted member of the Barack Obama administration saw this movie and accepted the fictional version of Chairman Mao's China seen in this film, as opposed to the fictional realm of a worker's paradise brimming with freedom and equality that she imagines, she wouldn't be so quick to praise Mao and his Cultural Revolution. Although... I suppose it's to everyone one's benefit to know that the President of the United States grants positions of power to men and women who admire murderous dictators and the totalitarian regimes they lead.)

For an unusual and moving viewing experience, "The Red Violin" is the place to look. It's an artfully done movie that features the highest level of craftsmanship from all involved. It's not the movie equivalent of the red violin, but it's pretty darn good.