Thursday, September 30, 2010

Zucco in Dead Men Walk!

By Doug Gibson
Dead Men Walk, 1943, B&W, 64 minutes. Producers Releasing Corp. Directed by Sam Newfield. Starring George Zucco as Dr. Lloyd Clayton and Elwyn Clayton, Mary Carlisle as Gayle Clayton, Nedrick Young as Dr. David Bentley, Dwight Frye as Zolarr, Fern Emmett as Kate and Hal Price as the sheriff. Schlock-meter rating: Six stars out of 10.

This 1940s PRC cheapie about a vampire who rises from the grave and attempts to destroy his niece to spite his brother is a lot of fun. It stars horror great Zucco in dual roles; as ocultist brother Elwyn who is murdered by his good brother, a doctor named Lloyd, also played by Zucco.

Alas, the evil Elwyn's death fails. Elwyn has learned how to resurrect himself as a vampire. With the help of demented servant Zolarr (Frye in a great, meaty role), he begins to murder. A woman driven crazy by grief (Emmett) suspects him, but no one takes her seriously. Once she starts to gain credibility, she is killed off by Zolarr. Elywn's chief target, however, is revenge against his brother. He appears to the startled doctor, and promises to suck the lifeblood from his beautiful niece Gayle (Carlisle). She's engaged to another doctor (Young) who, as Gayle starts to wither away, begins to suspect Lloyd of trying to kill her.

There are rumors all over town that Lloyd killed Elwyn and the townspeople, spurred by the murders, start to talk vigilantism. The sheriff blusters a lot, but accomplishes little. Eventually, there is a showdown between the undead Elwyn and brother Lloyd.The low budget, of course seriously hampers the film. The FXs are virtually non-existent. Zucco's Elwyn seems to fade away rather than pass through walls. The lighting is very poor. The script weak. Many of the characters are stereotypes. There's the rich doctor, the rich young couple, the crazy old lady, the blustery sheriff, the very superstitious townspeople.

The acting, except for Zucco and Frye, is quite poor. The direction, by cheapie legend, Newfield, is pedestrian. However, the plot is quite unique for a vampire film of that era. Film writer Frank Dello Stritto, writing in Cult Movies 27, describes Dead Men Walk as the best plotted vampire film of that era. However, Dello Stritto agrees the finished product is mediocre.

Nevertheless, Zucco is magnificent. The doctors are not cast as twins. It's amazing how different Zucco appears as the respected Dr. Lloyd Clayton and the balding, gaunt brother Elwyn. His timing and delivery is first rate. Frye's Zucco is menacing, and watching it is bittersweet, since the talented horror star died of a heart attack a few months after completing the film. Students of the early horror films, particulary Poverty Row Bs, should own Dead Men Walk. It's easily available on VHS or DVD.

"Dead Men Walk" is on UEN's Sci Fri Friday on March 20 at 9 p.m. on Channel 9 in Utah. Here is an essay from UEN on the film. It's a wonderful example of a low-budget 40s C horror film with stars (Zucco and Frye) that elevate the film beyond its low-budget production values.


Here is the UEN information:

When your twin brother is way into the dark arts, do you really want him dead?
The 1943 gem, "Dead Men Walk", features not one, but two (!) performances by George Zucco. As Dr. Lloyd Clayton, he's a kindly uncle and caring village doctor. As Lloyd's evil twin, Elwyn, he's a Satan-worshipping, vampiric goon bent on revenge against the gentle brother who shoved him off a cliff in an attempt to stop him.

It's worth noting that Elwyn learned the skills he needed to become a vampire on a trip to India. Western interpretations of vampire lore generally rely on ideas developed by authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, who found inspiration in the historical figure Vlad (The Impaler) Draculea. But vampires lived in legend long before Bram first put pen to paper and even before Vlad first put stake through victim.

Many discussions of Indian vampires begin with Kali, a complex Hindu goddess typically associated with death and destruction. When confronted with a demon that replicated from his own spilled blood, she solved the problem by drinking him dry. But this isn't exactly what most of us think of when we think "vampire." Not to fear: Indian lore offers a rich variety of true demonic-style vampire types that range from Brahmaparusha and Pacu Pati to Rakshasha and Baital, each of which have different origins and powers.

Anyone interested in ancient vampire lore would do well to check out the Indian story Baital Pachisi, a.k.a. Vetala Panchvimshati. First written in Sanskrit, this well-known classic is an early example of a frame story, one that places multiple tales within an overall narrative. In the frame for Baital Pachisi, the hero Vikrim pledges to present a sorcerer with a Baital – a vampire spirit who inhabits a human corpse at a cemetery. The Baital agrees to let Vikrim carry him to the sorcerer on the condition that the man doesn't speak until the journey is done, but as Vikrim lugs the weighty Baital down the road, the vampire tells him a story that provokes a response. Baital flies back to the cemetery and Vikram gets to try 24 more times, hearing a fresh tale every time. According to scholars, the original tale had a profound influence on European literature and contributed to Western frame stories such as Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. An English translation of 11 of the tales first appeared in 1870 under the title Vikram and the Vampire, by Sir Richard Francis and Isabel Burton. Numerous editions are available today, including e-books and paperbacks issued as recently as 2008.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Them! & Tarantula – An Evening of 1950s Nostalgia!

By Steve D. Stones

Patrons of the Ogden Peery’s Egyptian Theatre were greeted to the pleasant, yet chilling sounds of a Wurlitzer organ on the evening of Saturday September 18th, 2010. The mood provided by the organ was like traveling back in time to the silent era of films. There were no poodle skirts or Brylcreem styled hairdos in attendance, but the evening was filled with 1950s nostalgia, courtesy of a drive-in double feature – Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955).

Local film historian, collector and archivist Van Summerill appeared on stage to introduce the two films and to give some interesting facts about these 1950s classics. Between the two features, a 10-minute 1950s intermission clip was shown – adding to the ambiance of the event.

First up was Tarantula, starring John Agar, Mara Corday and Leo G. Carroll. Carroll plays a scientist who is conducting secret lab experiments in the desert to create a nutrient to end world hunger. One of his lab assistants is injected with the nutrient, causing him to develop acromegaly, a condition causing body glands to enlarge dramatically. The lab assistant attacks Carroll and accidentally unleashes a giant tarantula, which finds its way into the desert, grows larger and attacks local cattle and citizens.

A young Clint Eastwood saves the day at the end of the film as a jet fighter pilot who drops napalm bombs on the giant tarantula before it makes its way into town.

Considering that filmmakers would not have had the benefit of digital computer technology in the 1950s, scenes showing the giant tarantula walking across the desert landscape are quite convincing and amazing for their time. I thought of all the times as a child where I brushed away a giant spider on my window seal, or stepped on one on the sidewalk.

Next up was Them! Them is considered by most film historians and critics to be one of the best 1950s science-fiction films, a point which Summerill mentioned in his introduction to the film.

Them stars veteran actor Edmund Gwenn, as an entomologist, James Arness as an FBI agent, James Whitmore as a police officer, and Joan Weldon as Gwenn’s daughter assistant. Gwenn is called in by New Mexico law enforcement to examine strange prints left in the sand where a young family was attacked and killed during a camping trip. Gwenn and Weldon discover the print to be of a giant ant. They conclude that an atomic explosion conducted in the New Mexico desert in 1945 has caused desert ants to grow large.

The nest of the ants is found and destroyed, but not before some make their way to the canals of downtown Los Angeles. Arness and Whitmore team up with the National Guard to burn and destroy the giant ants in the canal waterways.

Both Them and Tarantula follow in a long line of “giant insects run amuck” films of the 1950s. Others to follow include: The Beginning of The End (about giant grasshoppers attacking Chicago, and starring Arness’s brother Peter Graves), Earth vs. The Spider (AKA The Spider), The Black Scorpion and The Deadly Mantis. These films clearly reflect the fears that postwar audiences had at the time of the Cold War and the atomic age.

A special thanks goes out to Carolyn Bennion, Van Summerill and the Peery’s Egyptian Theatre Committee for bringing these two cult classic1950s films to the theatre. It was a fun evening for all in attendance!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Ship

By Doug Gibson

This British 1936 film is a treat for Lugosi fans. He is Anton Lorenzen, a broken-down one-armed sailor who inspires a pity as part of the doomed crew of the Mary Celeste, a ship that in real life in the 1870s was discovered in the Atlantic sans crew.

This film, released in a much longer -- unfortunately lost -- version as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in Britain, is an entertaining murder mystery. It sort of plays like a rough version of Agatha Christie.

The plot: A captain and his bride (Shirley Grey) set sail with a ragged, rough, sinister ship's crew, including Lugosi, who inspires pity. One by one people start to die. The captain and his wife disappear. Finally only Lugosi's Lorenzen and the sadistic first mate are left. At that point, Lugosi, acting like a 30s version of The Usual's Suspect's Keyser Soze, announces he is the killer, there to avenge a previous wrong. He kills off the first mate but then is hit by a beam of wood and falls into the sea to his death.

Before he dies, Lugosi brags of killing the capain and his wife. That scene appears clunky though. It almost sounds as if Lugosi's voice is dubbed. This is important because the ONLY remaining print is the 62-minute U.S. version, The Phantom Ship. The longer, lost 80-minute version, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, apparently had an epilogue where the captain and his wife are discovered alive on an island, having escaped death on the Mary Celeste via a raft. It sure would be fun to locate a copy of the lost version. Lugosi biographer Frank Dello Stritto has located director Denison Clift's original shooting synopsis for the film and it includes the island epilogue.

Lugosi is great in The Phantom Ship, which used to be rare but in today's digital world can be found easily and in fact watched for free on the Net. He inspires pathos and pity and then effectively turns cold-blooded killer. He did this very well also in the 1930s The Black Cat, the Monogram Black Dragons and even Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster. Rest of cast is capable and the ship scenes are quite effective for the low budget. Definitely worth a buy. One of Lugois's best late 1930s films. (This film aired on Sept. 17 on UEN's Channel 9 in Utah's Sci-Fi Friday Show)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Killers From Space – Dopey Aliens With Ping Pong Eyes

By Steve D. Stones

It’s hard to recommend a film like Killers From Space, even to die hard 1950s science-fiction fans. The plot and pacing of the film is quite dull and dry, even by the standards of 1950s films. Lots of stock footage of atomic explosion tests, flying airplanes and rear projections of giant insects are used over and over again in the film. Still, the film is worth a viewing if you’re a fan of Miles and W. Lee Wilder, the brother team who brought us The Snow Creature, Manfish and the much more superior and entertaining Phantom From Outer Space in 1953.

Killers From Space stars Peter Graves in the role of American nuclear scientist Dr. Douglas Martin. Dr. Martin’s plane crashes while observing an atomic explosion over Soledad Flats, Nevada. Officials from a local air force base conclude that Martin must be dead after finding no bodies in the plane’s wreckage.

Soon, Dr. Martin turns up at the main gate of the air force base. He can’t recall how he got there or why he is still alive. A doctor examines Martin and finds a surgical scar near his heart that was not there before the plane crash.

While in a hospital bed, Martin later recalls that a group of aliens living below the surface of Soledad Flats took his body from the wrecked plane and surgically saved his life by reviving his heart. This is why a scar was discovered on his chest. He explains to his doctor and some of his colleagues that the aliens have recruited him to help tap some of the nuclear power flowing into the air force base for experiments. The aliens plan to use the power to rule the earth.

Of course none of Martin’s colleagues believe his story and think he is crazy, so he forcefully frees himself from his hospital bed and heads to the local power plant to turn off all the power. This causes another atomic explosion, which wipes out the alien population living under Soledad Flats.

The funniest sequences in the film show Graves running around in a soiled jumpsuit, as giant insects are rear projected on cave walls. When he meets up with the head alien of the group, the alien shows him film clips of what their alien civilization looks like on their planet. The clips are borrowed from the 1936 classic Things To Come. I’m not sure why a 1954 film would borrow clips from a 1936 sci-fi film, but the appropriation is quite obvious and out of place.

A DVD print of Killers From Space was put out in 2000 by Triton Multimedia, which uses green filtered sequences for all the scenes showing the aliens in the film. The DVD also contains director Wilder’s Phantom From Space, and the 1959 classic(k) Teenagers From Outer Space. Goodtimes Video released a double feature VHS tape of Killers From Space in the mid-1980s with Day of The Triffids. The comic geniuses of Mystery Science Theater 3000 also released a Killers From Space DVD under their Film Crew name back in 2005. Happy Viewing!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Broadminded, Invisible Ray, and other films with capsule reviews

By Doug Gibson
I have a conundrum; I watch lots of great cult films but have no time -- at least now -- to review them in depth. So, in the spirit of Leonard Maltin, here are four capsule reviews of some films I've watched recently. I hope in the future to write longer reviews of these films on Plan9Crunch!
Broad minded, First National, 1931, starring Joe E. Lewis, Bela Lugosi, Ona Munson, William Collier Jr. and Thelma Todd. 3 stars - This semi-forgotten Joe E. Brown comedy (it's not on DVD or VHS) is a treat for cult movie fans who want to watch a pre-Dracula Lugosi. As Pancho Arango, a hot-tempered Latin lover, Lugosi shows his comic skills in dueling with the clownish, wide-mouthed Brown, who pesters him. Plot involves Brown and Collier as playboys traveling across the country and meeting girls. In California the leads fall in love with various blondes, including Munson, who played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind. Film has funny moments and Lugosi shows his versatile, comedic character acting skills. I caught this long-awaited viewing courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. Opening scene is of a "baby party" for adults that is prurient when one looks at the women, and creepy when looking at the males, especially Brown!
The Invisible Ray, Universal, 1936, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton. 3 stars - One of the classic 1930s Universal pairings of Karloff and Lugosi. This film is unique in that it is a science fiction film, rather than a horror film. Karloff and Lugosi are scientists who travel to Africa to find "Radium X," who Karloff has proven crashed into earth millions of years ago. "Radium X" is discovered, but contact with it turns Karloff radioactive, and deadly to the touch. Lugosi prepares medicine that counters the poison, but when Karloff's wife, (Drake) leaves him for an adventurer, Lawton, Karloff, going slowly insane, shirks the medicine and goes on a killing spree. Violet Kemble Cooper is creepy as Karloff's mother. Easy to buy and usually on TCM once a year.
Blood of the Man Devil, 1965, Jerry Warren productions, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Dolores Faith. 1 star - This is a so bad it's good film. Trash film producer Jerry Warren took an uncompleted film, finished it with mainly lots of bad bikini dancing, advertised horror legends Carradine and Chaney Jr., and produced an incomprehensible yet compelling mess. Film involves a town of devil worshipers locked in a power struggle between dueling warlocks Carradine and Chaney Jr., who never appear on screen together. How could they? They were making different films! The whole mess is populated with actors who, besides the leads, look nothing like devil worshipers. The plot sort of resembles a dark arts version of Peyton Place with the screen's cheapest werewolf mask. This barely released film, which amazingly has atmosphere, must be seen to be believed. Sinister Cinema sells it. See a short feature on the film here
Gun Crazy: 1950, King Brothers Productions, Peggy Cummins and John Nall. 4 stars - This low-budget gem is a film noir classic of the lovesick male with a reform school past who falls for the bad girl and follows her to both of their dooms. Cummins and Nall, little-known actors, generate real sparks as greedy sharp shooters who don't have the patience to live a normal life. When she kills in a robbery and the law closes in on them, the claustrophobic atmosphere director Joseph H. Lewis creates is outstanding and final love to the death moments between these two losers is moving. There's a reason Gun Crazy is taught in many film schools. Don't miss it. It's easy to buy and pops up on TV often.