Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'Tod Browning's Dracula' a defense of an often-maligned film and director

By Doug Gibson

It’s a safe bet that when the word Dracula is uttered, most of us think of Bela Lugosi, who played the iconic role, or Bram Stoker, who wrote the novel. But far fewer have heard of Tod Browning, the man most responsible for Dracula and other vampires maintaining their edge in the popular culture and not stuck on the sidelines with, say, Svengali.

Academic Gary D. Rhodes, of Queen’s University, Belfast, is one of the best genre scholars and he’s often tackled the film career of Bela Lugosi, who starred in Browning’s 1931 “Dracula.” In recent years, he’s broken new ground in books he co-wrote with others on Lugosi’s “lean years,” the mid 1940s and 1950s. Rhodes, along with Arthur Lennig, Frank Dello Stritto, Andi Brooks, and others underscore why Bela Lugosi, and Dracula, exceed Boris Karloff, the Frankenstein monster, Lon Chaney Jr., and the wolf man, as icons. 

But one man who has got the shaft the past couple of generations is “Dracula” director Tod Browning. In fandom and scholarship, it has become the norm to demean the 1931 film, to trash Tod Browning’s direction, and even occasionally Lugosi’s performance, although that’s more rare. David J. Skal and William K. Everson are among respectable researchers who often maligned Browning’s “Dracula,” notes Rhodes in the book “Tod Browning’s Dracula,”  376 pages Tomahawk Press, 2014. Another strong genre writer, Tom Weaver — who graciously praises Rhodes’ book — has been none-to-kind to Lugosi, Browning, and “Dracula” over the year, particularly in his excellent multi-authored book, “Universal Horrors.” 

I’m taking a long time to get to Rhodes’ book, but I enjoy the minutiae, and want it all on the pages. But here we go. Rhodes’ new book, out in the USA this year, is a spirited defense of Tod Browning’s direction of “Dracula” and the film’s high quality (which by the way, was nearly universally praised by critics when it was released 84 years ago). 

Unlike a lot of apologetics, “Browning’s Dracula” is not full of forced defense or spin; he has accumulated a strong amount of evidence to support his claim that “Dracula” is worthy of classic status and that Browning’s direction was carefully nuanced and designed to create a dark, scary classic story that is both creepy, other-worldly, full of specific images and very well-paced. Also, Rhodes easily swats away long-accepted myths, such as that Browning offered little direction to the film, or that cameraman Karl Freund actually directed the film, or that Freund, in protest left the camera static, or that Browning’s “Dracula” had less camera movement than the longer “Spanish” version. 

Take this example: It’s long been a source of amusement to “Dracula” and Browning critics that there is a piece of cardboard stuck between a lamp and a headboard of the bed where “Mina,” Helen Chandler’s character, is resting. Through careful examination of the film, Rhodes makes a strong case that the inclusion of the cardboard is a story device in which the protagonists, eager to protect a resting Mina, have placed the cardboard there to keep light rays off her face. Also, Rhodes notes that the scene as displayed also allows more light to shine upward. One can criticize Browning’s choice of prop, but it wasn’t a result of carelessness or ineptitude by the director, as so many have claimed..

Rhodes also, I hope, puts the definitive end to the long-held fantasy that the “Spanish” “Dracula” is a better film than Browning’s “Dracula.” It’s a splendid film, I agree, and a lot of fun, both as a companion piece and bit of history that’s mostly lost today (films made specially for foreign lands). But it’s not as good as Dracula. It plods at 30 minutes beyond Browning’s 74-minute film, and the acting, save Lupita Tovar’s “Eva,” (Mina) is too melodramatic. Also, as Rhodes writes, Browning has far better camera placement and interaction between his principal actors, better pacing, better continuity, better symbolism, better lighting, better dialogue, better scene selection (the Spanish “Dracula” neglects Dracula’s attack on the flower girl) and, as mentioned, the direction is better paced and more suspenseful.

As Rhodes notes, much of the criticism of Browning’s “Dracula” is rooted in what we wish we could see, such as victim-turned vampire Lucy’s death scene, or more depth to Dracula’s sea voyage, or a deathly flight back to Transylvania, or even more blood (although Rhodes notes that many critics error on their tallies of blood in the film.) However, Universal was working under budget constraints due to the Depression, and finances were tight. Rhodes’ thesis, which I agree with, is that a very talented director made a memorable, classic film. Particularly interesting uses of symbolism recounted include Chandler mimicking a bent-over male figurine — representing Dracula — by Lucy’s bedside, and an insect in the Dracula’s castle opening scene appearing to be near the size of a “coffin.” More examples: the symbolism of three women on Lucy’s bedside lamp, and their relationship to Dracula’s three wives; and Browning having Chandler, with long dress train, following Lugosi on Carfax Abbey’s stone stairs as if she is nearly another vampire wife. In the Spanish Dracula, the symbolism is lost with Tovar being carried by actor Carlos Villarias.

There’s far more to this book than I’ve mentioned. Rhodes deals with the public perception of vampires through the 19th and early 20th centuries. Readers may be amused to learn that in the early days of silent cinema, Theda Bara and “vamps” were more often associated with vampires. In fact, Universal, wary of complaints, pitched “Dracula” initially as a strange romance. As Rhodes adds, once the film was out, it quickly become known as a horror film. 

Besides Rhodes’ intent to set the record straight on “Dracula” and Tod Browning, the book, with loving detail, delves into the minutiae of the making of the film, its initial reception, and its long lifespan through the decades. Our opinions are subjective, and we are entitled to like and pan as we please. But facts are important, and Rhodes has compiled the facts well in “Tod Browning’s Dracula.” I imagine it will settle a lot of arguments and debates. You can buy the book from the publisher here or via Amazon here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Queen of Outer Space (1958) - She Hates All Men

By Steve D. Stones

Even Zsa Zsa Gabor's Hungarian beauty cannot save this 1950s sci-fi clunker. Still, it's a fun little film to watch - if only to laugh at the cheap pastel colored sets, politically incorrect language about women and the fulfillment of every male's fantasy to live in a world only inhabited by pretty gals in short skirts carrying ray guns. Listen carefully for the cute gals saying over and over again - "Botchino! Botchino!"

Originally entitled "Queen of The Universe" and produced by Allied Artists (formerly Monogram Pictures), the film was not the first to employ the idea of men landing on a planet only inhabited by beautiful women. Cat Women of The Moon (1954), Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956) and Missile To The Moon (1958) are others that use the same plot.

Opening sequences recycle stock footage from other Allied Artists films of the early 1950s - such as Flight To Mars (1951) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Costumes and props are also recycled from Forbidden Planet (1956). A giant rubber spider is used in a cave scene that bears a resemblance to other giant rubber spiders used in many sci-fi films of the era.

Four men travel to Space Station 8 to investigate reports of alien attacks on the station. While in route to the station, the four men crash land on the planet Venus, which is inhabited only by women. The lovely gals in mini skirts do not greet them with open arms. In fact, their Queen Yllana - played by Laurie Mitchell - hates all men and wants the unwelcomed males imprisoned and executed.

One of the men - played by tall, lean, chisel faced Eric Flemming (of TV's Rawhide) tries to charm Yllana so he can save himself and his men. The Queen plans to use her "beta-disintegrator" ray to destroy the earth. The beta-distintegrator is a machine with an atomic beam aimed at the earth - which looks made of cardboard and oversized Erector playsets. Even Ming The Merciless' atomic beam in Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938) looked more convincing than this laughable "Beta-Disintegrator."

Talleah, played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, is a scientist who is part of a group that opposes the queen's hostile ways. It's tough enough for the viewer to be convinced of Gabor as a scientist with a Hungarian accent on Venus, but what's even more silly is the fact that Gabor's outfits change in every scene she is in. She leads a small revolt against the queen and teams up with the men.

Gabor and the men are eventually captured by the queen and forced to witness Yllana power up the beta disintegrator ray to destroy the earth. The ray has been sabotaged by Talleah's group, and it blows up with queen Yllana inside. A televised communication from earth informs the men that they cannot return home for a year or more. The film ends with each man smiling from ear to ear, happy to be stranded on a planet with lots of beautiful women.

Reports over the years have suggested that Laurie Mitchel and Zsa Zsa Gabor did not get along very well on and off the set of the film. Mitchell confirms that this report is not true on the audio commentary for the film on DVD. Mitchell says that Gabor liked to keep to herself and was very quiet and shy off camera. She also mentions that Gabor was very picky about wearing many of the dresses assigned to her character to wear on camera - in an attempt to protect her image as an actress.

For every student of bad cinema, particularly bad sci-fi films - Queen of Outer Space is a must. Don't miss it! Happy viewing! 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Laurel and Hardy in the 1940s film 'The Big Noise'

The Big Noise

by Doug Gibson

"The Big Noise," a 1944 Laurel and Hardy feature from Twentieth Century Fox, directed by Malcolm St. Claire, is generally panned by Laurel and Hardy enthusiasts. In fact, it was listed as one of the "50 worst films" in the Medved brothers book that was popular 30 years ago.

But that's all nonsense. "The Big Noise" is not a great film but it's a passable way to spend 74 minutes with a classic comedy team. It's certainly not among Laurel and Hardy's best films. To see those, buy the Hal Roach feature "Sons of the Desert" and the Roach short "The Music Box." But in "The Big Noise," the boys' genius still works at times.

The plot involves Stan and Ollie as bumbling janitors working in a private detective's office. A scientist named Alva Hartley (Arthur Space) calls the agency asking for detectives to guard his bomb, called the Big Noise. The bomb is so powerful it can win World War II for the allies (how prophetic!). L and H want to be detectives, so they pose as such and take on the assignment.

Next door to the Hartley live a pack of criminals, who want to steal the bomb and sell it to the Nazis. Somehow a pretty young lady (Doris Merrick) is also there (she's innocent of the plot) and Hartley takes a small fancy to her.

Eventually Laurel and Hardy take off with the bomb with the crooks in hot pursuit. Incredibly, the whole shebang ends in the ocean!

This is just an OK film. L and H fans will be more tolerant. Those unaccustomed to the pair should watch a better entry. The boys were starting to age in 1944 and the physical hijinks suffered. There are funny scenes, though, of L and H trying to relax in a bedroom with beds that come out of the walls and tables that rise out of the floor. A scene where the pair eats food in pill form is flat and unfunny, though.

One scene that works is the pair trying to sleep in a Pullman train compartment. Another unfunny part of the film is an annoying brat in the Hartley house who plays pranks. He's played by child star Robert Blake, who later gained fame as an actor and then earned notoriety after being accused of murdering his wife (he was acquitted).

Also, Veda Ann Borg overacts as a chunky matron who has eyes for Ollie. One trivia bit in the film is that Stan, on his accordion, played the popular song "Maisey Doats." According to the film's press book, the pair deliberately cut back on wasteful gags to help with the WWII effort.

To sum up, it's an OK way to kill 74 minutes and should be watched by completists, but there are better L and Hardy outings. Again, though, it's not as bad as one might think. Watch the trailer below.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Reviews of documentaries about Edward D. Wood Jr.

THE ED WOOD STORY: THE PLAN 9 COMPANION Of all the Ed Wood documentaries that have been released in the last fifteen years or so, I would have to say that this one is the best. Not only because it carefully examines the career and films of Ed Wood, but also because it highlights the lives and careers of the key actors of Plan 9 From Outer Space: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson and Criswell. This documentary also has informative insights and humorous commentary by famous fans of Ed Wood and Plan 9 From Outer Space, such as: Sam Raimi, Drew Friedman, Harry Medved, Bill Warren, Joe Dante, Forrest J. Ackerman and Wood’s biographer, Rudolph Grey. Of great interest is the segment of Conrad Brooks taking the viewer on a tour of the old Quality Studios in Hollywood where Plan 9 was filmed. The first time I viewed the Plan 9 Companion, my heart raced with excitement in being able to see what Quality Studios looks like today. Conrad even reenacts a famous cemetery scene that was shot there with his co-star Carl Anthony. Lee Harris, the host and narrator of The Plan 9 Companion, also takes us on a tour of the old cemetery location used in the opening shots of Plan 9. Director Mark P. Carducci produced the film with Harris in 1994 and released it to MPI Home Video. Vampira fans will also be pleased with this documentary, since Maila Nurmi offers many insights into her own career and the career of Ed Wood. ON

THE TRAIL OF ED WOOD Although the title of this documentary informs us of being on the trail of Ed Wood, perhaps a better title would have been: On The Trail Of Conrad Brooks. I say this only because the entire fifty-six-minute documentary is from the point of view of Conrad Brooks being interviewed in his home, unlike so many other Ed Wood documentaries that interview many of Wood’s stock actors and friends. I got the feeling that the producer Buddy Barnett and director Michael Copner did not have the time or budget to include other Ed Wood actors and friends in this documentary, or perhaps they weren’t interested in anyone else’s views about Wood? However, there are some informative aspects of this documentary. Conrad takes us on a tour of Ed Wood’s Yucca apartment complex in Hollywood, the last apartment complex he lived in before his death at Peter Coe’s apartment in 1978. The tour also takes us to the KFWB soundstage in Hollywood, which was Ted Allen’s studio in the 1950s when Bride of The Monster was filmed there. Conrad explains in the documentary that Tor Johnson demanded double his $100.00 salary for his acting roles in Wood’s films. According to Conrad, Wood almost reconsidered using Johnson in his films because of this demand. He also claims that Ed took a job as a cab driver in the 1970s to make ends meet. Copner and Barnett, both contributing writers and founders of Cult Movies Magazine, released this documentary in 1990. If Copner or Barnett happen to read this article, we would greatly appreciate it if Cult Movies Magazine was back in publication. The magazine is a valuable resource.

 LOOK BACK IN ANGORA This is the only Ed Wood documentary, besides The Incredibly Strange Film Show, I am aware of to feature Ed’s wife Kathy Wood in interview segments. That alone makes it a valuable piece of Ed Wood history. Produced by Rhino Home Video in 1994, the documentary takes sound bites and images from Wood’s films and uses them to give the film a humorous narrative. The opening gives us Kathy Wood commenting on how no one really cared much about Ed Wood until his death in 1978. Now, ironically, there is a renewed interest in his films and life. Ed’s marine buddy Joseph Robertson is also interviewed, and describes Ed’s fascination for wearing women’s clothing, even under his army outfit. Robertson produced such 1960s cult classics as: The Crawling Hand and The Slime People. He went on to direct the adult feature entitled Love Feast, also known as The Photographer and Pretty Girls All In A Row (see my review of Love Feast on this website.). This documentary also borrows segments of Conrad Brooks’ interviews from On The Trail of Ed Wood (see my review above of On The Trail of Ed Wood.). The documentary is presented in segments that use Wood’s name in a clever way, such as: Drift Wood, Holly-Wood, Wood’s Stock Company, and Dead Wood.

  -- Steve D. Stones

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals = cinema stinky

By Doug Gibson

Sinister Cinema has released "The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals," a truly terrible film that was almost completed in 1969 by the Vega International, a Las Vegas-based film company. Never released to theaters, it was eventually grabbed for video by Academy Home Entertainment in 1986 -- the peak of the video era when fly-by-night video firms were grabbing cheapo 60s and 70s thrillers and packaging them as if they were more modern horros.

The film stars Anthony Eisley as a scientist, David Barrie, obsessed with a the perfectly preserved mummified corpse of the Princess Akana (Marliza Pons). He believes he can bring her back to life and does, but it comes with a couple of twists. The first is that Eisley -- in scenes so badly produced that they defy description -- turns into a jackal/werewolf and kills a few unluckies. Also, Ankara's revival prompts the revival of the mummy of one of her past admirers. They monsters eventually traipse through parts of Las Vegas where the most fun is watching passers-by try hard, and often unsuccessfully, not to giggle.

John Carradine is the "name" attached to the project. He shares a couple of scenes as a mentor to Eisley's scientist. Both Eisley and Carradine are solid professional who provide good acting performances. The rest of the cast varies from adequate to mediocre. The music is canned stuff that fails to provide any lift or emotion to the scenes. The whole mess ends in a confusing manner, with the werewolf and the mummy fighting in a lake and the Princess Ankara decomposing, with very poor FX.

As is the case with these type of films, the stoy behind the film is more interesting. As bad as The Mummy and the Curse of the Jackals is, it is faithful in plot to the old Universal mummy films, particularly the Kharis films of the 1940s. Indeed, the director, Oliver Drake, an old director of low-budget westerns, wrote the screenplay for the 1943 Universal Kharis film, "The Mummy's Curse." According to film historian Tom Weaver's exhaustive book, "John Carradine: The Films," Lon Chaney Jr. was originally tabbed to be the werewolf but dropped out. The next choice was another low-budget actor, Scott Brady. After he dropped out, Eisley took over. For Carradine, it was another of those walk-on roles where he would stay a day or two (at $1,000 a day), read his lines and leave, never seeing the completed script or film, and forgetting that he had ever been in it when queried years later. Perhaps Carradine's most humorous line is when he tells a copy, "We can't just stand by and let a 4,000-year-old mummy and  a jackal man take over the city!"

Enjoy a scene from this wretched film below. It really captures how bad this film is:

Monday, February 2, 2015

Book review - Hazel Court: Horror Queen (An Autobiography)

Review by Steve D. Stones

First, I'd like to thank my loving aunt and uncle for presenting this book to me as a Christmas gift in 2014. I feel very fortunate to have the book in my collection because it is not sold in the United States - and traveled from Court's native country of England to end up in my hands. The book was published by Tomahawk Press in Sheffield, England in 2008.

Court takes the reader on a chronological journey of her life from her birth in Birmingham, England, to the loss of her first love during the time of World War II, to her motion picture stardom, her marriage to director Don Taylor and on to her accomplishments as an artist and sculptor studying in Pietrasanta, Italy. Her sculptures have gained some international recognition over the years.

American audiences best know Court from her appearances in several Roger Corman films of the early 1960s - based on Edgar Allan Poe stories - such as Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963) and The Masque of The Red Death (1964). Masque of The Red Death is regarded as Corman's greatest film - and Court certainly adds to the greatness of the film - even after burning an upside down cross above her right breast in one scene.  Corman's films have given Court the reputation of  a "Scream Queen." 

Before acting in Corman's films, Court was cast in a number of Hammer Studios films in England, such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959). That same decade in the 1950s, Court starred in a low-budget sci-fi film that has gone on to earn international cult status - Devil Girl From Mars (1954). Court says she gets lots of fan mail because of this film.

Court also has the distinction of being the only actress who has ever starred with all of horror films' leading men at the time - Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Ray Milland, Peter Lorre and Christopher Lee. She says working with these great male actors was a pleasure, and each treated her with great respect and professionalism.

Court enjoyed a successful TV career in America - starring in such big hit TV shows of the sixties - such as Bonanza, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Director Graham Baker gave her a small walk on role in Omen III (1981) that she was not cast for - thinking no one would recognize the aging Court. Fans immediately poured out fan mail after seeing her on screen in Omen III after a long lapse in appearing in any films.

The biggest message the reader gets from reading Miss Court's book is that she has a very positive, upbeat personality - and never has anything negative to say about anyone. Her tone is as attractive as her good looks. Even those who have encountered her seem to have a very positive image of her.

An example of this is when Court met Winston Churchill in his garden as he was speaking to some of his goldfish. Instead of speaking of Churchill in a negative way for this peculiar behavior, Court sees this experience as part of Churchill's great genius.

Her daughter, Sally Walsh, penned the forward of the book and tells the story of her and Hazel accidentally hitting a policemen with their car on the way to Buckingham Palace. Instead of citing Court for reckless driving, the officer asks for her autograph - claiming he was a big fan. He then told Court that she could hit him with a car anytime - according to Walsh.

The book is filled with 200 beautiful, rare photos of various stages of Court's career from many of her film and TV productions. Some have never been published, and one is a topless photo of a scene cut from the American print of The Man Who Could Cheat Death.

Court passed away in April of 2008 at her Lake Tahoe residence in California. May her films live on for fans in generations to come.