Friday, November 28, 2014

In honor of Black Friday, a review of Black Friday with Bela Lugosi, Karloff

By Steve D. Stones

Just In Time For Black Friday – It’s Black Friday (1940), starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff
No, this movie is not about what happens at retail outlets the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, the opening sequence of the film shows dates on a calendar slowly tearing off a page until it stops on Friday the 13th. The film stars two great horror icons - Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Both give fine performances in the film, even though they never appear on screen together.

Karloff stars as a doctor who is sentenced to the electric chair at the beginning of the film. Just before his electrocution, he gives a book of writings to a newspaper reporter who he trusts. We go back in time to witness a horrible accident of Professor George Kingsley, one of Karloff’s friends, who is ran over and killed in a car by gangsters being chased by police. A gangster named Red Cannon is also killed in the accident, leaving behind a half a million dollars hidden somewhere.

Karloff decides to transplant Cannon’s brain into the head of his deceased friend in hopes that Cannon will reveal the location of the money. No surgical procedure is ever shown on screen, and we never see how Karloff is able to steal Cannon’s brain while still evading police.

Karloff takes Kingsley to the same New York hotel that Red Canon hid from the police in. As Karloff pries Kingsley for information about the money, his features begin to transform into Cannon until he actually becomes Cannon. Cannon leaves the hotel in the body of Kingsley to kill members of his gang that left him for dead. Newspaper headlines report the murders of Cannon’s gang members.

Film noir elements are used in a sequence when Cannon hides in the back of a car to surprise a member of his gang to strangle him. As the gangster gets into the car, vague shadows consume Cannon’s face to hide his identity. Cannon lunges to strangle the man inside the car.

Lugosi’s character, a member of Cannon’s group, sets a trap to follow Cannon to find the money by using Cannon’s girlfriend as bait. The plan backfires when Cannon discovers Lugosi hiding in the closet of his girlfriend’s apartment. Lugosi and the girlfriend are shot and killed by Cannon.

The police question Kingsley at the end of the film when a taxi driver is tipped a thousand dollars by Cannon as he flees the murder scene. Kingsley does not remember the incident after being unconscious. His body returns as Cannon to seek out Karloff and the money. When Karloff shoots Cannon, he switches back to Kingsley’s body, and the viewer is now aware of why the film started with Karloff being sentenced to the electric chair.

Black Friday can be purchased in a Universal Studios- Bela Lugosi DVD set with four other Lugosi films - The Black Cat, Murders In The Rue Morgue, The Raven and The Invisible Ray. This set is a must have for any serious Lugosi fan and collector of his films.  Watch these films back to back. They are great fun.

Don’t get hassled by all those pesky Black Friday shoppers out there on November 23rd. Maybe it’s best to stay home and watch this 1940 classic – Black Friday. Happy Shopping!!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book on regional horror films is manna for cult movies enthusiasts

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.

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..

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Comparing "Ed Wood" the movie with the book

By Doug Gibson

Tim Burton's wonderful film, Ed Wood, recently was chosen as one of the "new classics," by Entertainment Weekly. It's a worthy selection. Burton's black & white tale of Hollywood in the 1950s is a romanticized fairy tale. Johnny Depp's exuberant, ceaselessly optimistic Wood carries the day with a triumphant Plan 9 from Outer Space premiere at the Pantages. (That didn't happen, of course. Plan 9 was screened once at the tiny Rialto and then sat on the shelf for three years). When Plan 9 was put into general release, Wood didn't see a cent.

Later, before the credits to Burton's film roll, the epilogue tells us Wood descended into alcoholism and pornography. It's appropriate that not be shown in Burton's film. It is, as mentioned a fairy tale, of optimism and perserverance. In a general sense, it is accurate. Wood battled tremendous odds in the 1950s. He filmed Glen Or Glenda, Jail Bait, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Night of the Ghouls with virtually no money. He managed to attract a diverse and eccentric collection of well-known and semi-known cast names, including Dolores Fuller, Criswell, Kenne Duncan, Steve Reeves, Bud Osborne, Timothy Farrell, John Carpenter, Harvey Dunne, Lyle Talbot, Vampira, Herbert Rawlinson, Gregory Walcott and, of course, Bela Lugosi. It appears Wood's enthusiasm was contagious, and many thought he might make it. That he didn't have a long career at least in directing low-budget thrillers must be attributed to his alcoholism, which made him unreliable. Even near his death, his writing was amazingly prolific. More than one friend recalls him writing a screenplay in a day. He wrote hundreds of paperback novels.

The following are some inconsistencies between Burton's Ed Wood, the romanticized, fairy tale film, and Grey's often gritty absorbing oral biography account of Wood's short rise and long descent. One day I'll add to this as time goes on. Here are inconsistencies by film:

Glen or Glenda: In the book, George Weiss is shown as short and trim. In the film he is an overweight slob; It is doubtful that Wood's gay friend Bunny Breckenridge auditioned transvestites for the film. By the way, actor Bill Murray does a great job portraying Breckenridge. The film set for G&G though, matches it as described in the book. Lugosi was not divorced, as the film depicts him. He was still with his wife, Lillian, although she left him soon after. In fact, Grey reports that Lillian pushed Lugosi to take the film. It is also very doubtful Wood gave G&G to a major producer to watch, as the film shows. Also, the film shows Depp's Wood as unhappy that the film was not reviewed in LA. Obviously, Wood would have known where the film was debuting and not checked the LA Times for a review. Burton's scenes of Wood's company stealing shots on LA streets are accurate, according to Grey.

Jail Bait: This film is not even mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood (probably for time and continuity reasons) so let's give it some ink. It's a crime thriller that involves a hood (Farrell) pressuring a plastic surgeon (Rawlinson) and his daughter (Fuller) to make him a new face. Interesting co-stars were Reeves (in his pre-muscleman days) and then-top model Theodora Thurman. Also in the cast are Wood regulars Mona McKinnon, Don Nagel and Bud Osborne. The film's score, which is a bit grating, was taken from Mesa of Lost Women. Howco Films released the film, which likely mostly played the southern drive-in circuit. It's too ambitious for its budget, but is not a bad hour-long time waster. According to Grey, scenes were stolen at an LA motel. (Scene stealing is shooting at private and public locations without permission) Grey, and many rumors, claim that ex-silent film star Rawlinson died the morning after his scenes were shot. Lugosi was slated to play the plastic surgeon, but was either exhausted from his recent Las Vegas gig, too addicted to morphine, or perhaps just had a better offer.

Bride of the Monster: Burton's scenes in LA's Griffith Park of Wood filming in the early AM the finale to Bride are accurate to Grey's description with one exception: Lugosi never got in the water to tangle with a rubber octopus. That was handled by his stand-in, stuntman Eddie Parker. Burton portrays Loretta King, who starred as a nosy reporter, as an airhead. Grey's depiction is fairer, and recent interviews support that she was a capable actress who got the job not for her supposed money, but for her skills. Dolores Fuller's anger at losing the role is accurately portrayed in both film and book. Also, Burton is very unfair to leading man Tony McCoy. He is portrayed as borderline retarded. Wood calls him the worst he ever had in Grey's book. But a viewing of Bride of the Monster shows McCoy to be a very average but capable actor. He certainly knew his lines and can be personable on screen. In fact, McCoy and King were both handled by agent Marge Usher, who supplied Wood with several actors.

Plan 9 From Outer Space: First, although it is a marvelous scene in Burton's Ed Wood, Wood and his idol Orson Welles never chatted at a Hollywood bar. That scene is fiction. By the way, Wood's friend and actor Conrad Brooks plays the bartender in that scene. Also, Burton has Vampira and Kathy Wood being baptized as a Baptist with other Wood regulars to get funding for the film. I don't believe Vampira would have done it, and Kathy Wood says in Grey's book she wouldn't get baptized. It is doubtful Wood would have been angry at Gregory Walcott being cast in his film, since he was a minor name actor at the time. Also, Wood never agreed to his film, Grave Robbers From Outer Space, being changed in title to Plan 9 From Outer Space, as Burton's film show. A minor point; but Ed and Kathy Wood did not meet at Lugosi's hospital, as the film shows. In later interviews, Kathy Wood said they met in a bar. The film was not premiered at the Pantages, and certainly wasn't the elaborate affair as Burton's film shows. In fact, Wood sold the rights to Plan 9 to his Baptist financier, J. Edward Reynolds, for $1 (as Grey recounts) and the film received a minimal release from a small firm, Distributors Releasing Corporation of America. It opened as a second bill to a now-obscure British film called Time Lock.

Night of the Ghouls: Again, not mentioned in Burton's Ed Wood, this film was a sequel to Bride of the Monster, as it involved Tor Johnson's giant Lobo, and a semi sequel to Plan 9 as it had Paul Marco's Patrolman Kelton and Duke Moore's Lt. Daniel Bradford in the cast. It involves a phony medium (Duncan, in a role obviously intended for the late Lugosi) and his young squeeze (Valda Hansen) ripping off elderly fools in an old house. The tables are turned on the pair as the police close in on them and the dead really do start to awake. It has Criswell, narrating from a coffin as he does in Plan 9 and having a brief acting role as well. (Let me digress and say that Jeffrey Jones was brilliant as the late psychic in Burton's film). As mentioned, Tor Johnson's Lobo shuffles around menacingly. The film is intermixed with scenes from an unreleased Wood film called Final Curtain. That sequence, which stars Moore and actress Jeanne Stevens, is quite creepy. If anyone knows where to find a complete version of Final Curtain, it would be quite a find. Night of the Ghou;s was premiered but Wood ran out money, couldn't pay a lab bill and the film was seized for about a quarter of a century before Wood fan Wade Williams paid the bill and it was released. The film's budget is threadbare and dirt-cheap. A cut out picture of Ed Wood is posted on a police wall. The police commander's office has no doorknobs. Obviously, Wood planned more editing and shoots before he lost control of the film. Night of the Ghouls was the first in a planned sequence of films that Wood wanted to make.