Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bela Lugosi and 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 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 Lugosi's best late 1930s films.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Atomic Brain – For Die Hard Fans of Brainless Entertainment!

By Steve Stones

For fans of truly bad films, The Atomic Brain is required viewing. Bad films just don’t get much worse than The Atomic Brain (AKA Monstrosity), unless you’re viewing Manos: The Hands of Fate or The Creeping Terror. It helps that the film was spoofed on the wildly popular TV series Mystery Science Theatre 3000 back in the mid-1990s. The MST3K treatment of the film makes it a more watchable experience.

A rich old woman living in a gated mansion is obsessed with finding the fountain of youth and beauty. She has become disgusted with her wrinkly old body. She employs a mad scientist in her basement to conduct brain transplant experiments on stolen corpses from a local cemetery. Three young and beautiful European girls are hired to be the old woman’s servants. The old woman hopes to have her brain transplanted into the head of one of the beautiful girls.

Director Joseph V. Mascelli also worked on Ray Dennis Steckler’s loved cult classic – The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living & Became Mixed Up Zombies, as a cinematographer. Actor Frank Gerstle, who plays the mad scientist Dr. Otto Frank, also starred in two other cult films – The Wasp Woman (1959) and Killers From Space (1953). Gerstle’s voice can be heard as one of the characters in the 1961 cartoon – Calvin & The Colonel.
The Atomic Brain would certainly make a great, fun double feature with The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1959) or The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961). Enjoy!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bela Lugosi and The Devil Bat

The Devil Bat

The Devil Bat, 1941, Producers Releasing Corporation, directed by Jean Yarbrough. Starring Bela Lugosi, Suzaane Kaaren, Dave O’Brien, Guy Usher, Hal Price. Sixty-nine minutes. Schlock-Meter Rating: 10 stars out of 10 stars. Note: Once sold on some video labels as Killer Bats.
By Doug Gibson
Okay, I know that the plot of Devil Bat is silly. I know the budget is a $1.89. I know the special effects are ridiculous with rubber bats swooping down to victims’ necks. I’m aware that many critics, including John Stanley (whom I respect) consider Devil Bat an example of Lugosi’s slow side to oblivion, and Ed Wood movies. But Stanley is wrong, wrong, wrong!

Nevertheless, I love this film. It is a great cult movie because it has heart. Lugosi -- and the rest of the cast -- take their job seriously. They take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. The plot is as follows: A seemingly kindly scientist (Lugosi) has toiled his entire life for a perfume company. The scientist’s discoveries had made millions for the firm’s family, but he remains a salaried employee. For that he is bitter and angry, and has harvested killer bats that will attack the scent of a perfume. Of course, Lugosi gives the perfume to the rich family members, and murders occur. By the end, nosy reporters (including great 40s genre star Dave O'Brien, and cops uncover Lugosi’s crime and he is killed at the end. Of course, as was PRC’s and other minor 40s film companies’ wont, there is also a love story mixed in this thriller between O'Brien's reporter and starlet Suzanne Kaaren's heiress.

Bela Lugosi’s greatest talent was providing an excellent performance no matter the subject matter. His performance as a brooding scientist, bitter, angry, feeling underappreciated, is a masterpiece. There is a scene at the beginning of Devil Bat where the family members of the firm -- who really seem to love the scientist -- throw him an appreciation testimonial and provide him with a $25,000 gift. Lugosi’s scientist is all decorum in this scene, and it’s chilling when he’s alone and the mad, angry, bitter murderer is revealed. It’s an effective contrast, which I don’t think other 40 chiller stars George Zucco or John Carradine could have pulled off.

By all means, rent Devil Bat (I recommend you buy it) and lose yourself in a great actor making the most of a simple story. Lugosi on screen can hypnotize a viewer. One ignores the plot flaws and poor special effects and appreciates a master actor in a great performance.

Devil Bat is now available in a colorized version, and it's a lot of fun to watch. The public domain film can be seen for free on the Internet. I used the UEN Sci-Fi Friday version of the film, along with the educational podcast, in my beginning newswriting class in the University of Utah. It helped the students learn how to write a news feature story.

Star O'Brien was a low-budget western star for most of the 40s but also acted in 40s low-budget Lugosi thrillers, Bowery at Midnight and Spooks Run Wild, a farce with the Bowery Boys. Director Jean Yarbrough was a reliable low-budget film director, making the cult film The Brute Man with Rondo Hatton. He also directed the strange country music western film "Hillbillys in a Haunted House" with John Carradine, Lon Chaney Jr. and Basil Rathbone. Kaaren made about 40 mostly low-budget films between 1934 and 1942. She came out of retirement in 1982 for a role in the big-budget "The Cotton Club." Kaaren died in 2004 at age 92!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Leprechaun – It’s Not Nice To Steal Gold Coins From A Leprechaun!

By Steve D. Stones

Long before actress Jennifer Aniston starred in the hit 1990s TV series Friends, she starred in the low budget horror feature - Leprechaun from 1992. Warwick Davis plays the role of the title character – Leprechaun. Davis also starred as one of the Ewoks in Star Wars Episode VI – Return of The Jedi, and went on to star in director Ron Howard’s film Willow from 1988.

A drunk Irishman named O’Grady returns to his North Dakota home after claiming to capture a leprechaun in Ireland and forcing him to reveal the location of a pot of hidden gold coins. The leprechaun hides in one of O’Grady’s suitcases to murder O’Grady and his wife when he returns home.

Before his death, O’Grady manages to trap the leprechaun by nailing him inside a wood crate. He places a four-leaf clover on top of the crate in hopes to keep the leprechaun trapped inside forever.

Ten years later Tori, played by Aniston, and her father move into the rundown O’Grady home. Tori and a house painter discover the crate containing the leprechaun in the basement. The leprechaun soon escapes and is determined to find his bag of gold coins.

Another house painter at the O’Grady residence follows a rainbow in the sky, which leads to an abandoned old truck. Inside the truck is the bag of gold coins.

For the entire film, the leprechaun terrorizes Tori and the house painters in an attempt to get his coins back. Writer-director Mark Jones manages to build tension in the first forty minutes of the film by keeping the leprechaun’s face in shadow or by projecting his silhouette as a shadow on walls. The tension soon dissolves as the viewer is revealed the grotesque features of the leprechaun.

Since Aniston has gone on to star in many big budget Hollywood films, it’s likely she no longer includes Leprechaun on her resume, mostly out of embarrassment. Warwick Davis has not gone on to star in many significant films since the Leprechaun series, likely because he is always conveniently tape-cast as a “little person” in every film he stars in.

Perhaps director Mark Jones and director Claudio Fraggasso should team up to create a Leprechaun-Troll II feature together? Both involve little green people and lots of green color. What great fun a movie like this could be. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

All about Evil Dead 2

1987, Color, 85 minutes (less in some foreign versions). Directed by Sam Raimi. Cast includes: Bruce Campbell as Ash, Sarah Berry as Annie Knowby, Dan Hicks as Jake, Ted Raimi as possessed Henrietta Knowby, Denise Bixler as Linda, and John Peaks as Professor Raymond Knowby. Schlock-Meter rating: Eight stars out of a possible 10.

So many reviews like to call Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 a comedy, or a tribute to the Three Stooges, and there are some great "gross-out" gags, as well as my favorite comic scene, where Bruce Campbell's Ash, minus his possessed hand, traps it by piling a copy of Hemingway's "A Farewell To Arms" on a container holding the hand. Yes, this film contains a lot of comic parody, and after the first half Campbell plays his part mostly for laughs. And it's true that Raimi's very fast-paced, boom-boom-boom "I'm going to jar the viewer every 30 seconds" seems a tribute to Stooge-like filmmaking. And the excessive gore does desensitize the viewer after a while.

But let's not forget that Evil Dead 2 is a very scary, suspenseful thriller that throws out just about every horror/action plot element that exists. Most work. There are only a few clinkers, and the result is a cinema gem. Critic Roger Ebert pegged it best when he wrote that the film was not in bad taste, but about bad taste. Evil Dead 2 is sort of remake of Raimi's micro-budgeted Evil Dead, but with a little more plot and a twist ending that set up another, even more comic sequel, Army of Darkness. The plot: Ash and his girl Linda (Bixler) decide to squat for a night at a cabin in the Michigan woods. Once there, Ash turns on a tape recorder where a professor, who lives in the cabin, invokes a chant from The Book of the Dead that sends a demon to the cabin. From that point on, all hell breaks loose. Eventually, Ash and a few later arrivals, including the professor's daughter (Berry), are forced to fight it out with the demons.

The film is so fast-paced that you just marvel at the speed and special effects in the film that you forget the plot is pretty light. Director Raimi was destined for bigger assignments (A Simple Plan, Quick and the Dead, the Spider Man series). He's thrifty and economical. I suspect many minutes were spliced out of the final cut of Evil Dead 2 to maintain the fast pace, horror shocks and, yes, comic timing. Most of the cast is mediocre, except for Campbell, who is outstanding. For the first half of the film, he is largely responsible for carrying the flow of the film, and he uses the right amount of fear, fatigue, anger and outrage to pull it off. There are great visual effects, including a twisted, ominous looking bridge over a high drop, a dancing headless woman-demon, a human snake, a psychopathic hand, a woman being attacked by a tree, a demon's eyeball flying into a screaming mouth, and the most chilling, Ted Raimi's possessed Henrietta Knowby, a thoroughly gruesome old demon hag who hangs out in the cellar.

By all means rent or buy Evil Dead 2. It's well worth the price. However, while it is funny, expect more shivers than chuckles. Also, those who leave the room for a snack will miss several shock scenes. They happen so fast.

-- Doug Gibson