Sunday, March 29, 2020

Boris Karloff in a time of pandemic, Isle of the Dead

By Doug Gibson

Isle of the Dead, 1945, RKO Radio Pictures, 71 minutes, black and white. Directed by Mark Robson, Produced by Val Lewton. Starring Boris Karloff as General Nikolas Pherides; Ellen Drew as Thea; Marc Cramer as Oliver Davis; and Katherine Emery as Mrs. St. Aubyn. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The mid 1940s was the beginning of a transition period for thrillers. The great Universal monsters were now B pictures, and soon to be relegated as fodder for comedy teams. The terrors of the nuclear age to come would bring a new type of horror star, Godzilla and various over-sized insects crawling across movie screens. But in between that change came several great horror films from Val Lewton, who knew how to exploit the supernatural and make the spines of World War II movie-goers chill.

In this current era of Coronavirus pandemic, Isle of the Dead seems appropriate to discuss. It is about our worst fears, death, the plague and even being buried alive. Producer Lawton and director Mark Robson are old hands at slowly building a story, creating unease, and then slamming the viewer with a terrifying climax. There is a scene, about two-thirds of the way through, that takes this film from suspense to terror. An invalid woman (Katherine Emery) fears being buried alive. It's a legitimate fear since she suffers from spells where she appears dead. She suffers a spell and is presumed dead and put in a coffin. In a crypt, the camera pans to her coffin. She screams, and desperate clawing is heard inside. It's a scary payoff to a well-made chiller.

The plot involves a dour Greek general (Karloff) and an American reporter (Cramer) who visit an isolated island near the front of a war. They spend the night with an anthropologist and his several guests (all of whom have been forced to the island to avoid the war). A British guest (veteran cult actor Skelton Knaggs) is discovered dead. A doctor decrees it to be the plague. The general orders everyone confined to the house. One by one the plague starts to claim its victims.

As mentioned, the film drips in atmosphere. The first scenes show Karloff and the reporter walking through a battlefield strewn with the bodies of dead soldiers. There's a creepy sight of suffering soldiers hauling away wagons full of the dead for disposal. As Karloff explains, it must be done immediately to avoid the plague. The house on the island has a claustrophobic feel, none of the rooms are too large. The island is dark, foggy and creepy, the crypt dark and forbidding.

Karloff does a very capable job as a villain who can still inspire some sympathy. The heartless, but courtly Greek general who places "rule of law" over mercy is a study of extremism from two sides. When the plague starts, Karloff's general scorns the superstitions of an elderly Greek maid, preferring to put his trust in the doctor. But when the plague claims the doctor, a disillusioned Karloff switches beliefs. Still the extremist, he allies with the maid, and with frightening intensity, believes a young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew) is possessed with an evil spirit. They plot to kill Thea.

Today very few horror films rely on atmosphere to turn suspense into horror. Most try to use foreground shots (like John Carpenter's Halloween) to create tension. Some succeed. Most don't. Too many filmmakers err by throwing away characterization, thinking that a quick knife killing serves as a payoff to a lazy viewer. Val Newton's Isle of the Dead is a reminder that creating a scary film is a gradual process that takes time and care.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul – The First Coffin Joe Feature

Review by Steve D. Stones

In tribute to Brazilian filmmaker Jose Mojica Marins (aka Coffin Joe) who recently passed away on February 19th, 2020. He was born on March 13th, 1936 in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Considered Brazil's first horror feature – At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964) is directed by and stars horror icon Jose Mojica Marins (aka Coffin Joe) as Ze do Caixao. The film is part of a trilogy of Coffin Joe films followed by - This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967) and Embodiment of Evil (2008). See also – Awakening of The Beast (1983).

It Midnight I'll Take Your Soul opens with Coffin Joe (Jose Mojica Marins) standing in a dark, smoke filled environment while asking the viewer questions like “What is life? It is the beginning of death. What is death? It is the end of life.”

After attending a burial at the local cemetery, Coffin Joe is hungry for a meal of meat. Because it is a local religious holiday of Holy Friday, he is not allowed to have meat. He leaves to buy lamb for his meal and eats it in front of his home window to taunt the beliefs of a religious procession that passes by.

Coffin Joe is known as Ze do Caixao in the film and is the undertaker of a small Brazilian town who disdains religion and dresses in a dark cape, top hat and carries a cane clutched in fingers of talon like fingernails. His appearance is similar to Dracula and Dr. Jekyll in the Robert Louis Stevenson classic - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In fact, Coffin Joe even pursues beautiful women in the film, much like Dracula, in an attempt to continue his bloodline by finding the perfect female companion, even though he is married to Lenita (Valeria Vasquez).

Lenita is unable to bear children, so Coffin Joe decides to torture and murder her by tying her to a bed while allowing a giant poisonous spider to bite her on the neck. The local police are unable to find any clues connecting Coffin Joe to the murder, so they accept the death as a simple spider bite.

Terezinha (Magda Mei) is a beautiful local woman that Coffin Joe wants to impregnate to have her bear a son to continue his bloodline. She rejects Coffin Joe's advances because she is married to Antonio. To get Antonio out of the way, Coffin Joe murders him by bashing his head into a bath tub and drowning him.

Coffin Joe is not a man to cross paths with or confront in any way. Anyone who crosses him is met with extreme violence. For example, in a scene that takes place in a tavern, Coffin Joe joins a table of card players. One of the players refuses to give his money to Coffin Joe after he wins a poker hand. Coffin Joe becomes violent with the man and breaks a wine bottle, then drives it through the fingers of the card player at the card table. The card player screams in painful agony. Coffin Joe sends for a doctor and agrees to pay all medical expenses. It appears he does have some sympathy for his victims.

In another confrontational scene in the tavern, Coffin Joe removes the crown of thorns from a Jesus sculpture on a table and punches a man in the face with the thorns after the man confronts him for making advances on his niece - Maria. This scene further reinforces Coffin Joe's disdain for religion, symbols and all things sacred that he disagrees with.

The end of the film foreshadows much of the bizarre sequences we can expect to see in the follow up film – This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967). A reflection of the counter-culture atmosphere of the 1960s, Coffin Joe injects the last few minutes of the film with strange, surreal images that make the viewer think perhaps they are watching an experimental Salvador Dali/Luis Bunuel film. These scenes are very psychedelic and hallucinogenic. The black and white treatment of this film gives it a gloomy atmosphere that is every bit as creepy as the classic Universal Studios monster classics of the 1930s and '40s.

May Coffin Joe rest in peace. His unique, bizarre films will live on forever to his many devoted fans all over the world.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Harry Langdon as The Shrimp is an early-talkie comedy gem

Review and observations by Doug Gibson

During the years 1929 and 1930, Harry Langdon starred in eight talkie comedy shorts for Hal Roach Studios. A screen shot from the film, "The Shrimp," is above. Thanks to the "Frank Capra Fibs" legacy, Langdon's Roach shorts have been breezily derided and scorned for decades. The truth is, five of the six films I have seen (two have lost sound discs) I find better-than average examples of early-early sound comedy shorts.

And "The Shrimp," I believe Harry's penultimate film with Hal Roach, is a gem. I consider it a classic within its admittedly small genre, sound comedy shorts prior to the early 1930s. Co-stars include an already-established comedy star, Max Davidson, a budding star, Thelma Todd, and a reliable heavy of the genre, Jim Mason. I've read that Hal Roach Studios was a fun place for actors to work, and the cast seems as if it's having some energetic fun.

The plot involves Harry living in a boarding house. He's weak, timid and easily bullied. He does admire the daughter of the house (Nancy Drexel), and she seems to like him, urging him to stand up to his tormentors. Harry, in a halting sing-song, toddler-like voice, one that was used in his vaudeville appearances and some films during his entire career, says he will stand up to them.

However, dinner is a disaster as Harry is viciously and sadistically bullied by Jim (Mason), and his girlfriend (Todd). Most of the other boarders unfeelingly laugh at his plight. The cruelty does allow the talented Harry Langdon to create a lot of pathos. One particularly funny scene is Harry trying to get at least one bite as food is passed around the large table.

We soon find out that Harry works, or volunteers, as a product tester for a goofy, well-known scientist (Davidson). In a highly publicized event, courtesy of the experiment, Harry assumes the personality of a rambunctious dog. Harry quickly runs away from the event and returns to his boarding house with a whole new attitude, and aggression.

As mentioned, these are early talkies and somewhat crafted in the style of a silent film. I think the same movie, without changes, could also have been as effective as a silent with subtitles. I wonder if "The Shrimp" played older movie theaters as a silent?

I will not give away too many details of the hysterically funny climax of the film where Harry settles scores with, among others, the lazy father of the boarding house, and in a big fight, with Jim the bully. It is fast-paced and funny, and the credit goes to Langdon, who despite no changes in his body or even tone of voice, become head of the household, and "the boss," through the sheer brute will and tenacity of, say, a bulldog. In the last scene, Harry's focus is taken away by the presence of a cat, that, of course, needs to be chased. For a second, Harry eyes a telephone pole with interest, a nice subtle joke, the type of mild, off-color humor Langdon used in the late '20s, particularly in his penultimate silent feature, "The Chaser."

Readers can find "The Shrimp" on the Internet if one searches thoroughly. I'm not going to give a link for two reasons. One, I don't want it lifted, and two, Kit Parker Films (also known as Sprocket Vault Classic Films) is releasing via DVD, in April, Harry Langdon at Hal Roach: 1929-1930. It will have all eight films I have read, and that must mean the two without sound discs will be included. There will also be a Spanish version of one of the Roach shorts, which will be fascinating, and other extras. To my knowledge, this may be the first factory release of any of Langdon's talkie shorts. I am extremely excited about this release. I have already pre-ordered it.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Regional Horror Films a great look at no-frills filmmaking

By Doug Gibson

If you're a cult- or alternative-film fan/geek like I am, and I assume most of our readers are, then Brian Albright has provided a great service with his latest McFarland Publishers book, "Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews." (here) The book is comprised in two parts: a series of interviews with directors or persons otherwise associated with regional horror films; and a lengthy, fairly complete listing, state-by-state, of regional, ultra low-budget horrors for the 32 years covered. (Amazon page is here.)

Albright correctly describes a regional film as shot outside of the entertainment industry, or southern California, and not associated with a major, or even minor, studio. In many cases, these were labors of love, or hobbies that turned into several-year projects, punctuated by stubborn persistence by the filmmakers to get the thing done. What's fairly consistent through the interviews that Albright gathered -- probably over several years since some of the essays are from 2008 -- is that the filmmakers saw little, or no money, from their endeavors. Distributors took all the cash, the films were pirated and sold throughout the nation and world, the made-for-video market collapsed in the late 1980s ... survivors of the original filmmaker sold the film for a quick buck, and so on. (It would be interesting for McFalarland to publish a book on the many ways ways small-time, regional filmmakers were shut out of whatever cash flow came from their films.)

It's wise that Albright resists the urge to provide interviews involving regional films that hit it big and spawned imitators, such as "The Evil Dead" or "Night of the Living Dead." While their stories are fascinating, there is more than enough articles and books out there for fans to go to. Instead, Albright picks an eclectic group to interview. I particularly enjoy the interview with Robert Burrill, the man behind "The Milpitas Monster." Although previously published in FilmFax, the story of how a school and a small city banded together to make an ecological monster film, partially as a protest against a larger city critic's slamming of said city, is interesting. What started out as a short literally grew, like a monster, into a finished film.

In fact, future filmmakers can learn from some of the stories, including Donald Barton of Florida, who cobbled together investors willing to put in almost $100,000 to make "Zaat," a story about a scientist who turns himself into a catfish monster. (Barton even got a local Baptist church to help out!) After seeing "Zaat" falter and even be turned into other titles by distribution deals that yielded no money, Barton shelved his movie for 30 years before fans convinced him to publicize it on the Web, show it -- to a big crowd -- at an locla theater, and (later) move it back into DVD distribution. Amazingly, I watched "Zaat" recently on Turner Classic Movies' TCM Underground series; a similar "distinction" was awarded another Florida regional film listed in the compendium, "Carnival Magic," directed by the late Al Adamson. (It was also fascinating to learn that regional horror films were easier to make due to tax write offs that were unfortunately eliminated by Congress, strangling the genre by the latter half of the 1980s.)

It'd be nice to see a TCM Underground showing for regional director, J.R. Bookwalter, who is interviewed by Albright, mostly about "The Dead Next Door," his homage to Romero's zombie movies that for a while, received some support from "The Evil Dead" director Sam Raimi. Bookwalter eventually moved into low-budget producing and distribution, and it's facinating to read about the details of that industry. It may be the only viable way for most talented micro-budget regional horror filmmakers to make some bucks.

I also enjoyed the interview with the eccentric Milton Moses Ginsberg, who crafted the bizarre monster/political film, "The Werewolf of Washington," a staple today for horror movie hosts looking to cheaply lampoon public domain films. Ginsberg, who admits to being most horrified by "The Wolfman" as a youngster, created in the early 1970s what seems like a natural take off on the Watergate ... except that the film was hatched and created prior to the Watergate scandal breaking. In any event, it's a prescient regional film, and (of course) died quickly at the box office, before being pirated to the VHS and DVD market.

As mentioned, the compendium is fairly complete, and includes at least a paragraph, and most often more, on the hundreds of regional films included. A lot of low-budget cult figures are covered pretty well in the list, including Andy Milligan and Bill Rebane. The video nasty Utah regional horror, "Don't Go In the Woods ... Alone," is included, as well as the interesting, Texas regional from the 1960s, "The Black Cat." The pre-porno adult regional filmmakers are mentioned from time to time, including the late Barry Mahon's "The Sex Killer," which captures many bleak late-1960s shots of the New York City business districts.

A lot of the films mentioned in this book, including "Black Cat" and Milligan's "Torture Dungeon," would be great picks for future TCM Underground selections. Let's hope the brains behind that series is reading Albright's book.