Saturday, April 22, 2017

Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy best as a familial biography

Review by Doug Gibson

It's been a long wait for a new biography, "Harry Langdon: King of Silent Comedy," (University Press of Kentucky, 2017). Author Gabriella Oldham began work on the project generations ago, with Langdon's wife, Mabel, who died in 2001. There was always talk of a biography from Mabel -- and indeed she is listed as a co-author, although the writing belongs to Oldham, a researcher of the silent film genre.

As noted early in the biography, an attempt is made to go beyond Langdon the showman and explore the businessman, the artist, the family man. And also his more "mature" years, after a career fall, that Oldham tells us produced a more humble man, able to plead for loans from friends, be closer to his family, and still thrill over a steady paycheck in front of or behind the camera. As Oldham notes, the book cover photo of Langdon (above) underscores her wish to present him in this serious light.

To be frank, the biography's main strength is in its familial tale of Harry and Mabel. The best parts of the book start when the pair are matched for a date. Their life anecdotes, clearly garnered from Mabel's recollections, convey a tale of two people who needed each other. He, impoverished by two divorces, worked hard for her and she, without a yen for the film industry, offered her husband a happy home and eventually a son, Harry Langdon Jr., who writes forward to the biography. (Harry Langdon Jr., now in his 80s, has enjoyed a successful career as a photographer.)

It's bittersweet that Langdon had to die with his son only 10 years old. As Oldham notes, having a wife and a son together with him was probably the happiest era of his life. Particularly enjoyable are accounts of Langdon, Mabel and baby Harry heading across to Australia where Langdon appeared in the play "Anything Goes." From there the family would eventually arrive in England where Langdon would act in one film and direct another.

There was a cheerful spontaneity to the family. When Harry wanted to make an effort to be on the stage in the  East Coast, Mabel quickly agreed to sell the house and leave, even if it meant leaving the piano with the new owners. The best parts of the book are accounts like this, including the very early years of Harry as a youngster in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he would put on plays, try to get into playhouses for adults and eventually, by his early teens, be a traveling performer.

Although I've read often of Langdon's death at age 60 in 1944 -- he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage after a long day of soft shoe dancing for his final Columbia short, "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," the drama of the lingering days before his death is captured. As Oldham notes, he first thought he had a toothache. His descent must have been rapid because he was soon bedridden and unable to speak to his son or wife. Even then, as director Ed Bernds' notes reveal, his contemporaries were surprised he died.

I rarely am moved to tears, but Mabel's recollection of telling Harry Jr. that his father had died deeply touched this father of two sons, one deceased, the other 12. "He turned around, went to his room for over an hour, then came out as if I hadn't said anything at all." My heart breaks for the boy who began processing deep grief in that hour.

So, how does "Harry Langdon: King of Comedy" compare with two other biographies of Langdon, "Little Elf," by Chuck Harter and Michael Hayde, and William Schelly's "Harry Langdon: His Life and Films." This new book finishes third. There is, however, valuable information. The vaudeville years and his life with first wife, and acting partner, Rose, are covered quickly, but success with Mack Sennett and First National, followed by the fall, and the on-again off-again successes in sound cinema are not ignored.

The Frank Capra/Langdon  drama is interesting because Oldham, while certainly appropriately critical of Capra's less-than-truthful later observations of Langdon (the guy never seemed to get over being fired), also seems to infer that Langdon did indeed disrespect his gag man-turned-director. Anecdotes include Langdon's future second wife, Helen Walton, arrogantly sitting in Capra's director's chair, and an unpleasant scene where Langdon humiliates Capra for trying to get the star out for an extra shot in a scene.

Langdon had a swift fall at First National, and apparently it was ugly enough that Hal Roach verbally told Langdon he'd take none of the First National nonsense at his studio. Indeed, Langdon only lasted a season with Roach before moving to movies and shorts at other studios. He later worked a lot with Roach's studio behind the scenes and even starred with Oliver Hardy in "Zenobia."

Oldham is very critical of the Langdon-directed "Three's A Crowd" and "The Chaser," both flops. Langdon was also critical of "The Chaser" and the lost "Heart Trouble," his final First National film (and one film I dearly, desperately want found). Personally, I think the films Langdon had control over, "Long Pants," "Three's A Crowd," and "The Chaser" are more unique, cultish films than the hits, Harry Edwards' "Tramp, Tramp, Tramp" and Capra's "The Strong Man." But there's no denying that the first two films, fine movies, were more appealing to audiences.

Langdon was trying to take risks, to explore facets of his Little Elf character. Certainly a darker perspective was influenced by collaborator Arthur Ripley, but Langdon was the star, the director, the man responsible for the money. He lost First National several hundred thousand dollars with the final four films. I do agree with the assessment that Langdon was trying too hard to perfect individual parts of his movies at the expense of the overall success of the whole film. Audiences wanted underdog stories of the Elf overcoming adversity and getting the girl. They didn't want tragic and loveless endings for the Elf. Neverthless, "Three's A Crowd" is a surreal, dreamlike set masterpiece and it's an outrage that it's never aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Langdon was far more successful professionally than many might be aware of in the sound era. He made at least 30 shorts (several are lost), a lot of movies, including the big-budget "Zenobia" and "Hallelujah I'm a Bum," was on the stage a lot (as was Buster Keaton, another sound-era success), was a gag man with Roach, worked overseas, and was still headlining shorts and appearing in B movies until he died. Though most of his shorts were with Columbia, his best overall work was with Educational Pictures, with independent producer/director Arvid E. Gillstrom, of Mermaid Pictures.

These shorts, and some can be found at YouTube, are very strong. They often co-feature Langdon's close friend, Vernon Dent, who had worked with him since his silent Sennett days. Two I highly recommend are "The Hitchhiker" and "Knight Duty," but about all the Gillstrom films are great. (One can see Charles Chaplin's "City Lights" street sets in Gillstrom/Langdon/Dent's "The Big Flash.") Eventually Paramount released Gillstrom's shorts, which was a boon for Harry and Dent, who were almost becoming a team. But Gillstrom died, so the series ended and alas, today the Paramount Gillstrom shorts are lost. Most feature Harry and Vernon in roles similar to what Laurel and Hardy might do. One can only hope these Paramount shorts are one day discovered. What we do know is that there were no serious future efforts to co-star the two stars, although they appeared in films together often.

Late in his life, Harry, with good humor referred to his Columbia shorts, heavy on slapstick, as 'O Ouch O" comedies. Some are still pretty good. I enjoy "Tireman Spare My Tires," with Louise Currie, "To Heir is Human" with Una Merkel, and "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," with El Brendel, with whom Harry made several shorts. Harry also starred in a few low-budget comedy programmers for Monogram and PRC, the best of which is "Misbehaving Husbands," produced by Jed Buell, who ironically was the first filmmaker to sign vaudeville star Langdon almost 20 years earlier.

I've spoken very positively of the new biography. Overall, I like it. But there is one flaw that must be corrected in a Kindle version or future editions. I discovered several factual errors that are embarrassing. I'll mention a few here. (The fact I found several just through my read of the book worries me that there are other errors I did not catch). I urge University Press of Kentucky to fix this. Errors include:

Writing that Vernon Dent was a co-star in "Three's A Crowd." It was Arthur Thalasso.

Claiming that Raymond Rohauer, the admirable film scholar, bought and restored "Plain Clothes." He didn't.

Writing that "His New Mamma" is a lost film. It is not. I watched it yesterday.

Writing that "Hallelujah I'm a Bum" was a big monetary hit. It was not. It's a fine film but it went way over budget. The film was a major financial flop.

The Langdon short "Skirt Shy" is compared to "Saturday Afternoon" because Harry is dressed as a woman. I believe the author intended to use "The Chaser" and not "Saturday Afternoon."

And the writer implies that the Langdon Jam Handy film short "Sitting Pretty" still exists. It is, unfortunately, lost.

These are errors easily corrected, like typos in a newspaper, and they shouldn't take away from what is an enjoyable biography worthy of a spot in a bookcase. Like my other Langdon books, I'll read it often, but I hope the errors are corrected.

Langdon was a marvel of an actor; a minimalist genius, able to bring laughter and pathos to the smallest gestures and eye glances. He appropriately joins Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd as the four greatest silent comedy stars. His silent shorts, with Dent, "Saturday Afternoon," and "All Night Long," are among the best made. This biography has many photos of Langdon, his family and peers, as well as much of his artwork; he was a talented artist. (In fact, I just got a copy of The Harry Langdon Scrapbook, with lots of photos and text from Langdon Jr. It was released last fall and we will review it soon at Plan9Crunch).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter brings the best giant killer bunnies movie

By Steve D. Stones

If I didn't know any better, I could have easily mistaken “Night of The Lepus” for a Bert I. Gordon movie. Gordon, aka “Mr. B.I.G.,” is known for low-budget 1950s and ’60s science-fiction films that explore the theme of gigantism — giant grasshoppers, ants, mice, spiders, teenagers, and even a giant 50-foot man in a diaper, which is “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957)

But in 1972’s “Night of The Lepus,” Rory Calhoun stars as Cole Hillman, a rancher whose property in Arizona is being invaded by a herd of rabbits. Hillman calls on the help of two zoologists — Roy and Gerry Bennett, played by Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman — to control the rabbit population.

Roy and Gerry suggest controlling the population of rabbits through hormone injections instead of poisoning the herds. Their daughter Amanda switches one of the hormone-injected rabbits with another rabbit. The hormone-injected rabbit gets free and grows to a giant size. The rabbit's offspring also grows to a giant size and takes over the Hillman ranch.

Animal rights activists should steer clear of this film. Many scenes show the impact of gunfire on rabbits when it hits their bodies, even though it is fake. An opening sequence shows stock footage of ranchers with shotguns chasing after and rounding up herds of rabbits.

“Night of The Lepus” was filmed in Arizona with domesticated rabbits set against miniature sets and actors dressed in rabbit costumes. The film fails to depict rabbits as scary or threatening in any way. The furry critters come across as cute and cuddly, just like the Easter Bunny.

Enjoy an offbeat Easter by catching this flick tonight, April 15, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies at 9:30 p.m. MST.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Hurray for 'Hollywood Hotel'

Review by Doug Gibson

I love the opening scene in "Hollywood Hotel," 1937, in which a perky, cute, girl next door type of hotel operator brightly says, "Hollywood Hotel!" The unnamed actress, in a few scenes, captures the innocent energy of this ensemble musical.

"Hollywood Hotel" is best known as the film that first featured the iconic song, "Hurray for Hollywood." The Busby Berkeley-directed film, lots of songs and Benny Goodman's band, is one of the type of films that were popular in the first decade after talkies replaced silent -- the upbeat, girl and guy makes good musicals with literally dozens of stars, billed and unbilled, in the cast. These films likely cheered up Depression era audiences, allowing escapism.

The plot involves handsome saxophonist Ronny Bowers (Dick Powell) who gets a 10-week contract from All-Star Pictures. He gets a great send off and once in Tinsel Town is shuffled aside. After Ronnie is used to be the escort of a stand in actress (Rosemary Lane) impersonating a temperamental star (Lois Lane) who won't go to her premiere, he's fired and paid off  by the studio after the angry star learns of the deception.

"Hollywood Hotel," however, is one of those films in which you know all's going to turn out well in the end. Ronnie becomes a singing waiter. He and the stand in are already falling in love, and a plan is hatched to make Bowers a star. He's allied in this by wisecracking, often disparaged photographer Fuzzy Boyle, played by the great Ted Healy, who tries his hand at being an agent to help Ronnie. 

Eventually, the path to stardom for Ronnie begins with an appearance at a popular radio show called Hollywood Hotel, hosted by Louella Parsons. Hollywood Hotel was a real show with actors recreating scenes. Parsons plays herself in the film.

I won't give away the rest of the plot except to say that at the end, Ronnie is re-signed by All Star Pictures at a higher salary! As mentioned, there are guest appearances galore by stars. I enjoyed seeing a pre-star Ronald Reagan as a radio broadcaster and veteran comedy character actor Hugh Herbert, with his "woo woos," as the temperamental star's father.


But my favorite character in the film, and the reason I'm reviewing it, is Ted Healy's Fuzzy Boyle, celebrity photographer turned celebrity agent. His comedy relief is more appropriate in this type of film than his still talented turn in the truly horrifying pre-code horror "Mad Love." He's wonderful in the role, with crackling dialogue and strong comic timing. An example is an early scene where photographer Boyle uses his wit to con his way past a guard who wants to keep him away from a celebrity shoot. The scene is as polished as any comedy team's best work and I wonder if Healy had honed such a scene long ago on vaudeville. Scenes of Healy loyally working the waiting tables with Bowers and trying to boost his career are very entertaining. So are his scenes as an unenthusiastic potential romantic partner of the strikingly odd but funny actress Mabel Todd. Attractive blonde Glenda Farrell also has a small role.

The one drawback is that Healy, still a young 40, looks 10 years older. He would die soon after his 41st birthday in December 1937. He was beaten badly in a brawl while out on the town. For years it was suspected that his injuries killed him. However, it is more likely that years of hard living and neglected health contributed more to his death. Healy biographer Bill Cassara noted in his recent biography that kidney failure was a major cause of his death.

UPDATE! Bill Cassara, in a mention on a Facebook post, has provided the answer to who plays the Hollywood Hotel operator: (she's actually in the credits).

"And now the "mystery woman" of the opening seconds can be revealed: It was Duane Thompson who also started off the radio program of "Hollywood Hotel" with the same cheerful opening. For Vernon Dent fans, she used to be Vernon's little leading lady when he starred in the Folly Comedies back in 1921. Her stage name then was 'Violet Joy.'" ... ME: I wasn't looking for the name Duane.

Below, watch the opening scene of "Hollywood Hotel, along with the pretty telephone operator.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Deadly Mantis - Giant Mantis Breaks Free From Frozen Arctic

By Steve D. Stones

Here we have another entertaining giant insect movie of the 1950s - released in 1957. The Deadly Mantis is certainly not the best of the giant bug movies, but it's still a fun, delightful science-fiction film, despite its many flaws.

Producer William Alland wrote The Deadly Mantis. Alland is best remembered as a reporter who investigates the meaning of "rosebud" in Orson Welles' 1941 film - Citizen Kane. Alland also produced a number of other 50s science-fiction cult classics, including -  This Island Earth (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956) and The Colossus of New York (1958).

The opening of The Deadly Mantis treats us to a boring classroom-like lecture about the three radar stations in Canada - the Pinetree radar line, mid-Canada radar fence and the Dew line. Much like the opening of Alland's - The Mole People (1956) which opens with a boring lecture about the layers of the earth, this opening sequence seems a bit unnecessary, as if to pad out the length of the movie.

A volcano erupts in the South Seas, causing the polar ice caps to shift. A giant praying mantis, frozen in the ice for millions of years, breaks free from a melting iceberg at the North Pole. The giant mantis eventually makes his way to Washington D. C. and New York City by the end of the film.

A weather shack outpost on the dew line in Canada spots a blip on the radar detection. Something large attacks the shack, leaving no trace of the two men inside. Colonel Joe Parkman, played by Craig Stevens, investigates the attack, finding large skid marks leading up to the shack - as if something giant crashed into the shack.

Parkman is later called to look at a crashed  C-47 jet plane near the site of the wrecked weather shack. A large green colored wedge shaped object is found lodged in the plane. Parkman takes the giant wedge back to the Pentagon in Washington D. C. to be examined.

The Pentagon calls in Paleontologist Ned Jackson, played by William Hopper, to examine the wedge object. Jackson concludes that the object could not have come from an animal, but is most likely the giant spur from an insect leg. This conclusion is later verified when a giant praying mantis attacks a military barracks in the Arctic. The rest of the film is an attempt by the military to track down and destroy the giant mantis.

What puzzles me about The Deadly Mantis is why the producers of the film decided to have the giant mantis make a loud roaring sound like King Kong (1933) when it attacks its victims. This sound effect is very laughable. The Deadly Mantis also makes a loud, mechanical vibrating sound when it flies. These sound effects are not effective, to say the least, and could have been made much better.

Most close up shots show a rigid, slow-moving mantis, with little movement from its legs and body. Perhaps the most effective shot of the mantis is in a sequence in which a real mantis is used to climb up a miniature model of the Washington Monument at the National Mall in Washington D. C.

In 2008, Universal Studios Home Entertainment released The Deadly Mantis on DVD as part of a two volume box set of Universal films from the 1950s. This is a great set to have for any fan of 1950s science-fiction. The set contains The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) , The Leech Woman (1960), The Land Unknown (1957), Cult of The Cobra (1955), and six other titles. A must have for any serious fan of science-fiction cinema. Watch the trailer here. Happy viewing.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Teenagers from Outer Space -- wooden-acted cult manna

By Steve D. Stones

If it wasn’t for the wooden acting and poor production values, the 1959 sci-fi film "Teenagers From Outer Space" could pass with flying colors as a well-made, entertaining piece of celluloid. The film was distributed by Warner Brothers, which seems a bit odd, considering most low budget sci-fi films of the 50s era could never get a major studio like Warner Brothers to fund or distribute their product. The film couldn’t be placed in the Ed Wood School of bad acting and film making because, from a technical stand-point, its cinematography is well done, and the actors seem to take their dialogue very seriously. Many have suggested that this film could be a blueprint for the Terminator films, since the plot is one long chase sequence.

A group of teenage aliens led by actor King Moody land their spaceship somewhere in the Hollywood hills to place a gargon creature from their planet to harvest for food. Gargons have to be raised a safe distance from their planet. The gargon showed on screen is nothing more than a lobster in a cage.

Gargons grow to a million times their original size. One teenager named Derek, played by David Love, insists that the gargon creatures not be placed on planet earth because he has found evidence of intelligent life in the form of a dog. The dog is blasted with a ray gun by Thor, one of the other teenage aliens. All the aliens in the ship wear overalls that look like an auto mechanic might be wearing.

Derek insists that gargons not be raised on earth as he threatens the rest of the alien crew with his ray gun. Derek escapes, and Thor is assigned to chase after him and bring him back to the ship. Derek finds his way to a Hollywood neighborhood where he lodges with an attractive young girl named Betty and her grandfather. Betty and her grandfather naively accept that Derek is dressed in a strange outfit, and carries no luggage with him.

The rest of the film is a long, drawn out chase between Thor and Derek. While hunting for Derek, Thor blasts a gas station attendant, a sexy girl in a swimming pool (what was he thinking?), a college professor and a couple of police detectives with a focusing disintegrator ray-gun. Thor stops at nothing to find Derek and bring him back to the spaceship. The ray gun shines a reflective ray as the actor points the front of it in direct sunlight.

In a clich├ęd subplot, Derek falls in love with Betty, played by Dawn Anderson. Eventually Derek has to tell Betty that he is not of this earth. She is not too concerned, and maintains her love for him. The two go scouting for Thor’s ray gun after he is thrown from a car in a chase.

As Derek and Betty search for the ray gun near Thor’s car crash, a giant rear projected lobster (i.e. a gargon) appears on screen to attack the couple. Derek conveniently finds Thor’s ray gun in a bush and blasts the rear projected lobster as it falls to the ground.

The entire film has a Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet innocence to it that seems appropriate for the era. Some of the music used in the film can be heard in George Romero’s 1968 film – Night of The Living Dead, and Robert Clarke’s 1959 film – The Hideous Sun Demon. Director Tom Graeff cast himself as a newspaper reporter. Some accounts suggest that he cast David Love in the role of Derek because the two were gay lovers at the time. Neither of the two men went on to make a living in films in Hollywood. Scary Monsters Magazine #88 has devoted the issue to Teenagers From Outer Space, with interviews and articles about the film and surviving cast members and crew. The film is now in the public domain, and can be found in many DVD packs with other low-budget 1950s sci-fi titles. Happy Viewing.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Doctor Dracula, another Al Adamson two-movie composite

Review by Doug Gibson

I mentioned "Doctor Dracula" in an earlier post. It's not much of a film and merits its very low rating on

What makes the film marginally interesting is one, it's directed by schlock auteur, the late Al Adamson, two it's likely the only film in which Dracula meets Svengali, three, it has John Carradine (although what trashy '70s film doesn't) and four, it's another example of Adamson practicing film composites, in which he takes two thin films to make an even thinner film.

Adamson and his partner Sam Sherman got their hands on an unreleased film called "Lucifer's Women." They shot a vampire tale to mix with it and managed to get a few actors from the earlier film to create a plot that is deliciously nonsensical in the Adamson tradition.

The film commences with a vampire killing a woman who welcomes his bite. We then switch to an author and mystic named Wainwright (Larry Hankin) lecturing and hypnotizing an audience. He has a book about Svengali. In the audience is Carradine's character and a doctor, Gregorio, (Geoffrey Land) who is openly derisive of Wainwright.

Also in attendance is the daughter, Stephanie, of the woman slain in the opening scene. She's played by actress Susie Ewing, best known as the trucker "Hot Pants" in the film "Smokey and the Bandit."

Stephanie is desperate to find out why her mom died. She consults Wainwright but he's not helpful. She receives greater assistance from Gregorio but his help comes with a bite; more on that.

We also kick to dull scenes in a nightclub where a beautiful singer named Trilby (get it) is performing. Wainwright is falling in love with her. That's because he is turning into the reincarnation of Svengali. There's a whole cult of people, including Carradine, who worship the devil and are involved in the Svengali resurrection. Wainwright/Svengali doesn't want to kill Trilby but the devil cult has a more powerful pull on him and she eventually is readied to be sacrificed. More later.

Meanwhile, Gregorio is -- big surprise -- really Count Dracula. Occasionally he kills women including a somewhat amusing scene where he gives the bite to a tipsy floozy who loves being in a coffin, played by Adamson's wife, Regina Carroll.

In what is probably the sole scene that provides any chills, Gregorio/Dracula produces the undead mother of Stephanie. She has no human qualities left, and openly scorns her daughter.

Dracula has similar plans for Stephanie, and he begins a slow process of controlling her. She may have something to say or do about that later; more on that.

Eventually, the film leads to the sacrifice of Trilby, played by Jane Brunel-Cohen. She may be the worst actress I've seen in a film. Even as she's about to die, she's incapable of conveying emotion.

Dracula crashes the sacrifice and viewers expecting a battle royal between the bloodsucker and the Svengali cult will be disappointed. Spoiler alert: Dracula wins with barely an effort. Land, by the way, is not too bad as Dracula. He's far better than Zandor Vorkoff in "Dracula Versus Frankenstein" or Mitch Evans in "Gallery of Horrors."

There is an abrupt, mildly surprising ending involving Stephanie and Dracula that I won't give away in case you want to see the flick. I recommend it only to Adamson completists and fans of composite films, of which Adamson made several,

The history of the film is interesting. It was made in the late 1970s, in which Adamson's Independent International, and other indie schlock producers, were being moved out of the business. Bigger studios were either making their own shockers or buying better-produced low budget shockers and tidying them up for major releases.

To my knowledge, "Doctor Dracula" was only released to television, which may explain why it's very tame, with virtually no nudity. Rumor has it that it played VHS with Adamson's "Horror of the Blood Monsters" and it got a sole DVD release in 2002. The DVD has the trailer for "Lucifer's Women." A better idea would be for Sam Sherman to apply the entire Paul Aratow-directed film, Lucifer's Women," (if it still exists) as an extra to the DVD.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bela Lugosi as character actor: The Saint's Double Trouble

By Doug Gibson

At Plan9Crunch, today's review is the 1940 film, "The Saint's Double Trouble," filmed in late 1939 for upper-tier film producer RKO. If you're a Bela Lugosi completist, you need to see this entry in the Saint, Simon Templar, series with starred George Sanders, and which is today the most popular offering precisely because Lugosi is featured in a supporting as -- literally -- the "partner" of a the Saint's adversary in this film, "Boss" Duke Bates, a ruthless jewel thief who casually kills anyone who gets in his way.

What's most interesting for Lugosi fans is that this marks the dawn of the era when Lugosi -- except for a few monster pics -- was shoved out of great roles in A upper-budget productions. In film after film that wasn't a Monogram or other low-budget offering, Lugosi would usually be wasted as either a "red herring butler type" or a "secondary criminal." He's the latter in "...Double Trouble." As the Egyptian partner of Boss Bates, he has decent screen time in the 68-minute programmer, but no real memorable lines. He's more cautious than the sociopathic Bates.

This is still a fun film and Lugosi provides good acting skills. Sanders absolutely a delight as the British, superficially polite rogue who matches wits with both police and crooks. The character, Simon Templar, is based on a popular detective series of the time penned by Leslie Charteris. "...Double Trouble," however, was the one flick that was not based on a book. The plot is a tad convoluted but clever, and it all warps up well. These programmer mysteries were forerunners to TV detective shows.

Today, the Saint might make a good series for cable or even HBO if the producers wanted to unclothe a few actors. Frankly, that would seem a bit gauche for Sanders' Saint, who has a fine time flirting with and protecting the gorgeous daughter (Helene Whitney) of a past professor of his who is, unfortunately, rubbed out by Bates before justice is served. The film was directed by Jack Hively and Jonathan Hale ably portrays Inspector Henry Fernack, who matches wits with the Saint in more than one film in the series. A fun film, so long as one accepts that Bela is only a minor presence in the movie.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Braniac -- Mexican horror kitsch at its best

By Steve D. Stones

Producer K. Gordon Murray took a number of Mexican horror films in the late 1950s and early 60s, duped them in English and released them to American audiences. The Brainiac is one of many of his Mexican imports released in the early 1960s. Like many of the Mexican imports from Murray, The Brainiac stars German Robles, who starred as a vampire in other Mexican films.

The year is 1661. A Mexican Baron, played by producer Abel Salazar, is accused of witchcraft, “dogmatism,” infidelity and other crimes. The Spanish Inquisition sentences him to be burned at the stake. Before his death, he vows to return from his grave and seek vengeance on all the descendants who execute him.  As the Inquisition reads the charges against him, he smirks and laughs at them, showing no fear of his sentence.

Fast forward to the year 1961 and the Baron returns to life from a fallen meteor in the sky. It is never explained why the Baron’s soul has to return in the form of a meteor, which adds to some of the strangeness of the film. After crashing on Earth from the meteor, the Baron attacks a man as his clothes magically appear on the Baron after the victim’s death.

The Baron continues his womanizing ways of the past by picking up beautiful women at local bars. Soon, he hosts a formal party for some of the descendants of his executioners to kill them. Before he attacks his victims, he turns into a forked tongue demon with pincher hands that sucks out the brains of his victims with his tongue. He keeps their brains in a chalice locked away in a chest. He occasionally eats the brains as a quick late night hors d’oeuvre.

The pulsating mask of the Baron as he transforms into the forked tongue demon is hilarious, and not to be missed by any fan of low-budget monster movies. Close up sequences show the demon placing his forked tongue behind the neck of his victims as he attempts to suck out their brains. Very silly stuff, but also very entertaining and fun to watch. Seeing the demon walk around in a three piece suit as his face pulsates and his pincher hands move like a crab has to be seen to be believed. You won’t want to miss – The Brainiac.  Happy Viewing! 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Vampire films of the 1970s covered well in new book

Review by Doug Gibson

"Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between," a new book from genre author Gary A. Smith, does the usual, thorough McFarland Books job with its subject. Smith reviews the bloodsucker films of the era to a fault. To a cult nerd's delight, he spends time with 70s vampire films of schlock auteurs Andy Milligan and Al Adamson.

The low-budget Europe import films of Jean Rollin, Jess Franco are covered well, as is the "Dracula included" films of Europe's most famous werewolf, Paul Naschy (his films are a pleasant surprise after the leaden Rollin and Franco efforts). In fact, Smith spares a few paragraphs for porn versions of the vampire legend.

So, from Hammer, to Blacula, to AIP, to Franco, to Naschy to Rollin, to Langella, Dan Curtis, Santo the wrestler, porn, Masterpiece Theater, TV with the Night Stalker, and other oddities, "Vampire Films of the 1970s covers a lot of ground.

It's a delight for genre fans. Although Smith lacks the tolerance for "bad" films that most genre fans enjoy, he assesses dozens of films concisely but thoroughly, with strong plot outlines as well. Hammer, of course, is the dominant player of 70s vampire films through about 1975. Smith, intentionally or not, captures a readable scenario in charting Hammer's slow march to insolvency through the decade.

Early in the 70s, Hammer exploited the lesbian possibilities of the "Carmilla" novel, and other vampire plots, with such as "The Vampire Lovers," "Twins of Evil," "Lust for Vampire." The Countess Bathory was another popular option, with films such as "Countess Dracula." The films were full of gothic beauty, and an abundance of sex and nudity. Others were "Scars of Dracula" and "Vampire Circus."

European filmmakers tried to imitate Hammer, with some small success, particularly "Daughters of Darkness," a Belgian import. The aforementioned Naschy tried his hand with "Count Dracula's Great Love," an inferior Hammer imitation with beautiful women, lots of flesh, and, save Naschy, abysmal acting. "The Werewolf versus the Vampire Woman," from Naschy, is a better film, with a memorably creepy performance from the Bathory-like Patty Shepard.

And yes, gutter auteurs Rollin and Franco produced several films. They are unique -- the mark of an auteur -- but leaden and lifeless. The women are gorgeous, and often unclothed, but the films creep and creep along. I watched Rollin's "The Nude Vampire" and 80-plus minutes seemed like 5 hours. As for Franco, watching his "faithful" adaptation of "Count Dracula" with Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom and Klaus Kinski (he had talent in the cast!) is painful. It's a test the Spanish director fails. (Smith provides an interesting backstory of how Spanish cinema became more daring as the Franco dictatorship came to an end).

Author Smith is to be commended for the bits of information gathered, including the box office success of the films, where they played in Europe, and the United States. As mentioned, he charts Hammer's decline into bankruptcy. Near the middle of the decade, the company moved its vampire films' time periods to present day. "Dracula AD 1972" is a dated mess, "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" is better, but again with a present-day setting, the gothic beauty of the Hammer films is lost.

"Satanic Rites...," one of a several 70s vampire films I watched the past week, is also overly sadistic and more prurient. It seems to be an effort by Hammer, strangely, to try to emulate the inferior Franco and Naschy efforts.

"Satanic Rites" flopped, Lee left the series, Hammer made a strange martial arts vampire film, and the company slipped into insolvency.

Smith notes well the low-budget films that competed for bloodsucker box office. AIP made "Blacula" and a sequel, Santo the wrestler battled some vampires, Adamsom mixed two movies to make "Doctor Dracula," a film with both the vampire and Svengali! Two Milligan films, "The Body Beneath" and "Blood," are reviewed. Smith dislikes both, but "The Body Beneath" is quite good, in my opinion.

Lest, I forget, "Andy Warhol's Dracula" (AKA "Blood For Dracula), is also looked at by Smith. Director Paul Morrissey threads the vampire story with a strong Marxist theme conveyed by the Van Helsing-like Joe Dallesandro. Ironically, a little bit of that social justice is also present in the far-better "Countess Dracula."

As Smith notes, late in the decade the above-average "Dracula," with Frank Langella, was a major release if not overwhelming hit. Also, there were well-produced television adaptations of "Dracula" produced.

I recommend Smith's book, pricey as it may be. It's thorough and entertaining. It'd be fun to read a "Frankenstein Monster Films of the 1970s," if just to read an overview of the truly dreadful, unique schlock "Blackenstein."

You can find out more by calling McFarland at its number, 800-253-2187.

A postscript: I watched several of the films mentioned in Smith's book last week. Here are some capsule observations:

-- "Doctor Dracula" -- It's typical Al Adamson, editing two films to make one. The actor who plays Doctor Dracula isn't too bad, but the camp value is in how bad the actress who plays Trilby is. John Carradine slums in this effort.

-- "The Nude Vampire" -- Jean Rollin managed to cast the most beautiful actresses, but his films are pretentious and dull. There's a slight anti-capitalist theme in this story of exploited "mutants" who act like vampires. I do love the twins in this film, though.

-- "Count Dracula's Great Love" -- I like Paul Naschy as the vampire in this Hammer imitation with more nudity. But the other actors are terrible, and the plot pedestrian. Naschy, though, makes it worth a viewing.

-- "Dracula Vs. Frankenstein" -- Very dated, set in the '70s with Michael Rennie (his last film) as an alien trying to do something that involves many monsters. Naschy, as a werewolf, battles a mummy, which may be a first. Also know as "Assignment Terror."

--"The Werewolf Vs. the Vampire Woman" -- My second-favorite of the films I watched, with Naschy acting well as a man-werewolf trying to protect women from a truly creepy vampire woman.

-- "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" -- It has its moments, especially with Joanna Lumley being menaced in a dungeon by women vampires. But's it's often sadistic and the 1970s setting weakens the film's impact. Cushing and Lee are good, though.

-- "Countess Dracula" -- The best film I saw, Ingrid Pitt is superb as Countess Dracula, Lesley-Anne Down good as her imprisoned daughter. The film is beautifully shot, lush in color with a strong Gothic feel.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Science fiction, fantasy and horror; all from 1957

Review by Steve D. Stones

It really didn't occur to me that many of my favorite low-budget science-fiction films were released in 1957, until I read Rob Craig's awesome book - It Came From 1957: A Critical Guide to the Year's Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films  (McFarland - 2013 - - 800-253-2187). If you are familiar with Craig's writing, you know he is no fan of big budget, Hollywood produced science-fiction films. He loves the more creative, thought provoking films made on a shoe string budget by smaller studios. Director Roger Corman is an example of this. Craig gives an interesting analysis of Corman's 1957 releases, such as Attack of The Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth.

In 1950s America, the Cold War was a hot topic, the expansion of the Military Industrial Complex was underway, a grandfatherly figure and war hero - Dwight D. Eisenhower - was in the White House fulfilling his conservative agenda, and the space race had also just begun. Science-fiction entertainment of the 50s reflected all of this, as Craig points out in his book. The 1950s, with its robust economy and birth of the "baby boomers," was truly a decade which bred consumerism and a hope to fulfill "The American Dream."

One of Craig's more interesting reviews of a 1957 film is his review of From Hell It Came, a favorite of mine, produced by Jack and Dan Milner. This film breaks from the stereotypical 1950s portrayal of the woman as homemaker and bearer of children. A woman scientist and feminist named Terry, played by beautiful Tina Carver, is pursued by a male scientist, Tod Andrews. Andrews suggests in one scene that she should be like "normal women" by getting married to him, having children and settling down as a house wife. Carver rejects his suggestion, and feels it is a lifestyle she could not be a part of. As she says in a scene from the film "I live by my intellect!"

Like From Hell It Came, Roger Corman's - Attack of The Crab Monsters also focuses on a group of scientists living on a Pacific atoll while conducting research, only this time the scientists are not necessarily trying to impose an Imperialistic agenda on natives. The scientists discover that one of the giant crabs is pregnant. Craig gives a Freudian analysis of the giant crabs, with their raised frontal limbs and large mouth opening, as the opening of a vagina ready for intercourse, particularly in the missionary position. Their teeth devour the penis of any male who dares enter. A strange, yet humorous analysis of the giant crabs.

If you have read much of Craig's writing, you know he is often critical of what he calls the "phallo-centric" and "patriarchy" of male dominance in popular culture. He often relates his subject matter to the patriarchal dominance of men in culture and cinema. He makes this clear even in his book about Texas director Larry Buchanan - A Critical Examination.

Craig even references the male erection in relation to the subjects of the films he discusses, such as the giant architectural monster in Kronos, who sprays his electrical energy as if it is sperm erupting from a penis. Craig sees the giant walking tree in From Hell It Came, known the Tabanga, as a walking penis who enforces his male agenda on its creators.

Don't forget to read Craig's conclusion at the end of his book. It is here that he opens up on his views of the Star Wars and Alien franchises, calling them brain dead serial junk which act as propaganda to encourage a perpetual state of war. It is safe to say that fans of Star Wars would not take too kindly to his analysis, but perhaps many Star Wars fans would also have no desire to see any of the low-budget films Craig so passionately writes about.

Craig's analysis of Star Wars may be more of a frustration of film viewers favoring special effects and swash buckling action over a more thoughtful, intellectual approach of lower budgeted science-fiction films. I see his point, and I agree with him, for the most part. However, there is no denying the impact of Star Wars on science-fiction cinema and popular culture.

For further analysis of Craig's views on big budget, Hollywood produced films, see Andrew J. Rausch's and Charles E. Pratt, Jr's 2015 book - The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood. Craig is interviewed in the book and makes a great case for the importance and entertainment value of Ed Wood films. Like Rudolph Grey, Craig is an expert on all things Ed Wood.

For further reading of Craig's works, see his other excellent books - Ed Wood: Mad Genius - A Critical Study of The Films (2009), Gutter Auteur: The Films of Andy Milligan (2012), and The Films of Larry Buchanan - A Critical Examination (2007). I am anxiously waiting for his latest project about low-budget director Jerry Warren to be released. It couldn't come out soon enough for me. Happy reading.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Moron Than Off, a comedy short remake of Langdon effort

Review by Doug Gibson

As part of our occasional series that explore the old-time Columbia comedy shorts that do not feature the (great) Three Stooges, we turn to Sterling Holloway, a skinny, gangling funnyman who made a half-dozen shorts for Columbia in the mid 1940s. Holloway had a long, distinguished career. His voice was unique, and heard as Winnie The Pooh and many Disney cartoon characters. My favorite screen moment of his is a one-time guest spot on The Andy Griffith Show as Bert Miller, low-pressure salesman who can't stand doorbells.

For this post, we're going to look at the 1946 short "Moron Than Off." As always, we thank Greg Hilbrich's The Shorts Department for getting these shorts available. YouTube address here. Actually, a short called "Man Or Mouse" is a better Holloway effort, in my opinion, but we look at "Moron Than Off" because it's a remake of a 1935 Columbia short, "I Don't Remember," starring the great Harry Langdon. It's worth a comparison. (We thank YouTube's Johnny Flattire for this and other offerings.

The plots of both concern an absentminded husband who is driving his wife, and mother, to despair over his general ineptitude. He's the kind of man who brings home dogs panting from the heat when his wife asks him to buy hot dogs, and leaves himself to dry, rather than the umbrella, after a jaunt in the rain. Holloway's character is named Elmer Fossdinkle. He draws paintings with cryptic humor that are unsalable. Langdon's character, by the way, is named Harry Crump.

A problem Holloway has is that he lacks the subtle, facial humor of Langdon. Langdon can arch an eye, or stare blankly at a dilemma and get laughs. Holloway has to play the role more broadly, with exclamations and some face-mugging. The budget for "I Don't Remember" seems much higher than "Moron Than Off," and the cast is better. Holloway's sidekick is Monte Collins. Langdon has Vernon Dent. Also, Geneva Mitchell as the harried wife to Langdon is better than Eleanor Counts as Holloway's better half.

After breakfast, the wife of Holloway's friend, played by Collins, comes over to complain that Fossdinkle is making her husband gamble. As she arrives, Holloway, thinking the doorbell was the phone, carries on a phone conversation briefly with her as she talks just behind him. This is actually one rare moment where the remake has a scene funnier than the original. In "I Don't Remember," Langdon sees his friend's wife before he can start talking on the phone.

Eventually, Fossdinkle is told to go pay for the home furniture or it will be repossessed. Instead of doing that, he gives the money to his friend Collins to bet on the Irish sweepstakes. Returning home to his mother's lamentations, he decides to paint the walls of the house to look like it's furnished. This leads to some gags of Fossdinkle and his wife trying to st down and falling. This scene is done much better in Langdon's "I Don't Remember." There are more paintings shown in a much better home setting. The cheapness of "Moron Than Off" shows in this scene as only a small wall is shown.

After failing to save the furniture, Fossdinkle, in despair that he'll likely lose his wife, prepares to commit suicide, but instead decides to try to kill his friend, who comes to visit. This scene might jar more politically correct audiences today but it's played for laughs, involves a policeman, and in "I Don't Remember," a hapless maintenance man as well. During the chase, both notice newspapers with headlines saying they won the sweepstakes. The pair go to turn in their halves of the tickets. Predictably, Holloway and Langdon's character can't recall where their half is, then find it, then lose it, then find it, then lose it, and so on ...

I love these Columbia shorts and I think Holloway does a good job. He's no Langdon but he has a certain, goofy enthusiasm and physical comedy skills. Certain parts of "Moron Than Off" have stock footage from "I Don't Remember," including a final scene at a beach with Fosdinkle still searching for the ticket in the sea.

Jules White directed "Moron Than Off" and his brother "Preston Black" directed "I Don't Remember." Remakes were not uncommon with Columbia shorts. We'll back with another Columbia comedy short review in a couple of months or so.

Friday, February 10, 2017

'Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors ...' a breezy recap of a golden era

Review by Doug Gibson

On the cover of BearManor Media's enjoyable new offering, "Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors 1931-1934," is the infamous still from "Freaks," the one where the murderous trapeze artist Cleopatra, played by Olga Baclanova, is seen post-mutilation by the sadistic, vengeful carnival freaks. She's turned into a type of duck woman, and can only quack.

That "end scene" jarred me as a child watching the only version of "Freaks" then available in the 1970s, at least for TV consumption. It reminds that for decades the Hollywood pre-code horrors were seen on TV only in truncated versions, victims of the mid 1930s censors. "Freaks," by the way, has an epilogue beyond the duck woman. * However, like "Dr, Jekyll and Mr Hyde," and "Mystery of the Wax Museum," "Freaks" and other films, were even pushed out of circulation by the studios; a few were thought lost.

The films you could see: "Dracula," "Frankenstein," "King Kong," etc. were missing memorable scenes, such as the vampire's death groans, the Frankenstein monster tossing a child into a lake, or men being eaten by spiders on Kong Island. It's been about 20 years ago that fans finally began to see these films as they were presented in the pre-code era; first in video, later on DVD and now the Internet and streaming offer options.

With this comes more genre books on the pre-code era and its movies. BearManor's author, Raymond Valinoti Jr., provides an entertaining, informative look at these early '30s horror films. It's not as deep a dive into the pre-code horror era as McFarland's "The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror ...", but its breezy, one-film-after-another style makes for an easier read for genre fans. And the chapters are packed with information despite the slender several-pages chapters. I'd wager that the average genre fan will learn at least one fact about each film that he or she didn't know before.

Cast and crew, plot summary, the background of each film, why it was released, an explanation of the pre-code elements of each film and how they were received; audience and critics' reactions; recollections by principals and the financial fortunes of the films are popular topics in the chapters. All the essentials are covered, including "Doctor X," "Island of Lost Souls," all the Universals, including the delightful "The Old Dark House"; "White Zombie," and the grisly "Murders in the Zoo." In all, 19 films are profiled, including "The Mask of Fu Manchu" and even "Supernatural," an obscure pre-code horror directed by Victor Halperin with Bette Davis. It's the sole movie featured that I have yet to see.

Valinoti is a fine writer, and the book features a valuable introduction to the genre as well as an epilogue discussing post 1934 genre films. Frankly, I think "The Raven," "Mad Love" and "Bride of Frankenstein" should have chapters in this book. However, "Dracula's Daughter" and "The Walking Dead" are appropriately noted as films that were somewhat sanitized due to the code's renewed strength.

The author overdoes it a little in pointing out the sexism, racism, nativism, and other isms of some of the films. I don't disagree but these are 1931-1934 films, and need to be assessed in that context.

But there is little to complain about. "Hollywood's Pre-Code Horrors ..." is another fine BearManor Media offering to satisfy those whom delight in the minutiae of film genre.

* The TV version of "Freaks" I saw may have been the roadshow version that was peddled by exploitation filmmaker Dwain Esper long after the film was removed from general release by MGM.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

'Murders In the Zoo' has the most sadistic pre-code scene

By Doug Gibson

Murders in the Zoo” is a largely forgotten fairly large-budget Paramount film from 1933. It merits far more attention. Like its Paramount predecessor, the better-known “Island of Lost Souls," it has scenes of sadism and pain that are unique for its era. Film critic Leonard Maltin has called the film “astonishingly grisly.” In any event, it’s a great tale and well worth owning.

The opening scene is a shocker. A man, Taylor, is being calmly tortured by Lionel Atwill’s character, who comments that he’ll never kiss another man’s wife again. Taylor is left in the jungle, presumably to die due to the elements or wild animals. Hands tied behind his back, he staggers forward. As he turns his face, the camera reveals that his lips have been sewn shut! And his pain-filled, terrified expression adds horror and discomfort to the scene.

The film involves a sadistic, psychopathic millionaire sportsman named Eric Gorman, played very well by Atwill, who murders men who display a romantic interest in his wife, Evelyn, played by Kathleen Burke (the panther woman in “… Lost Souls.”  The murdered man, we learn, had kissed – in jest – Evelyn. Gorman announces that he has disappeared, dryly telling his wife that he "didn't say" why he left.

Gorman returns from the Indo-China region with many wild animals that are put in a financially struggling zoo. The principals there include Professor Evans (Harry Beresford), his pretty daughter Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick), and her romantic interest,  Dr. Jack Woodford (played by future cowboy films star Randolph Scott). Meanwhile, Evelyn, despite her brutish husband, is engaged in an adulterous affair with playboy John Lodge, played by Roger Hewitt. Also thrown into the plot for comic relief is alcoholic public relations man Peter Yates, played by Charlie Ruggles, a popular comedy player of that era. In fact, Ruggles is top-billed! 

More murders occur prior to the climax. It’s interesting to see films other than “… Lost Souls” that feature the iconic, beautiful Burke, and she’s not a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, the audience cares about her fate because her husband is a world-class movie villain. Atwill’s pursuit of Burke’s Evelyn from their home to the zoo, where he throws her, alive, over a bridge with alligators below is chilling.

By far the most interesting character is Atwill. He is absolutely superb portraying a combination of intimidation, strength and cruelty. Picture a combination of Leslie Bank’s Zaroff in “The Most Dangerous Game” and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly in “On the Waterfront.” A merciless character, he sees his wife as his possession. Atwill’s Gorman is also cunning, able to change his personalities and facial expressions on a whim to to his advantages and desires. The scene where he demands sex from his unwilling, repulsed wife is macabre. He taunts her with brutal, pre-murder sexual humiliation much the way Fredric March's Mr. Hyde did to streetwalker Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins in "Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde," another shocking pre-code horror.

In one of most erotic pre-code scenes ever, Hopkins' Ivy comes close to seducing the Dr. Jekyll side of March's character, which eventually unleashes the sadistic Hyde.

Atwill’s performance is worthy of Lon Chaney’s best silent offerings and it would have been interesting to have seen Chaney in the role. Scott is semi-bland as the ultimate hero who gets the girl but it’s fun to see him in a non-cowboy role.

Obviously, once the code was enforced, for decades viewers missed the opening lips sown shut scene. Since it serves as sort of a prologue, it could easily be cut. Another scene, less shocking but perhaps reminiscent of the morals codes of the early 1930s, that was cut for decades was a tipsy Ruggles, waking up after fainting from seeing a snake, asking if anyone knew where a laundry was.

Do you get it? It's a kind of funny, but what's even funnier is that it once offended censors.

"Murders in the Zoo" made money for Paramount but not a lot. The grisly opening scene may have scared off repeat viewings, and a publicity stunt by the studio of using real animals in a scene backfired, as the animals went out of control, with deadly fights and one panther escaping for a while.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie ... bizarre, surreal

By Doug Gibson

I finally got a chance, via YouTube, to see the infamous "The Last Movie," the 1971 Universal bomb that starred directed Dennis Hopper. I'd always wanted to see it after reading about it almost 30 years ago in the Medved brothers book, "The 50 Worst Films of All Time." The film, which barely got a VHS release and has never been released on DVD, damaged Hopper's career for about 15 years.

Although, there is a small contingent of film fans who claim "The Last Movie" is a misunderstood genius, don't believe it. It's an incomprehensible, pretentious, expensive ego trip for the star, who had become a hot property due to "Easy Rider." Given $1 million by Universal to make a film, Hopper and many friends, hopped to a small town in rural Peru and shot a film. Purposely not shot in sequence (one waits almost 30 minutes before the title "The Last Movie" is shown, it stars Hopper as "Kansas," a stunt man for a Hollywood western film production. Kansas is shacked up with the town whore and decides to stay after the western filmmakers go home.

At this point, locals, egged on by a Catholic priest who hates Kansas and the others western film people, decide to make their own film. They use fake cameras (made of wood) and worse, real weapons and violence, that kill and main people. The priest blames Kansas, and he's wounded and on the run from the filmmaker villagers, who want to finish the film with Kansas as the villain.

This sounds mildly interesting but the film is shot out of sequence and with little coherence. The film "begins" with a wounded Kansas being hunted by villagers ... and so on, back and forth. At one point, the plot goes away and Kansas and a buddy visit a degenerate couple with plans to invest in a mine. The degenerate is played by Julie Adams, star of Creature of the Black Lagoon and once a girlfriend to "Andy Taylor" in The Andy Griffith Show. She's very fetching as a 40sh trophy wife but her performance is so bad it has to be seen to fully comprehend how bad it is. As poor as Hopper is in the film, Adams is beyond belief. The film has a couple of "erotic" scenes, including a voyeuristic one involving staged lesbianism.

The rest of the film flies back and forth sequentially. At one point is seems to settle with a climax of Hopper facing death in the villagers' "film," but then everything goes out the window and we're subject to what looks like outtakes from director Hopper. Then the film just ends, and the people of Chinchero, Peru are eventually thanked. ...

The backstory of the film is more interesting. As mentioned, Hopper was provided a million plus to make the film from Universal execs, who did not oversee the filmmaking. There are rumors, and from viewing the film I'd tend to agree, that drug use was frequent on the set. Apparently, Hopper did prepare a conventional, sequential version of a film. However, it was mocked by "El Topo" director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Hopper, humiliated, tore apart the film and attempted to make a "deep" "metaphysical" "spiritual" incomprehensible adaptation that allegedly poked fun at materialism. Some of the co-stars include Adams, Tomas Milian, Sylvia Miles, Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, James Mitchum, Dean Stockwell, Michelle Phillips, Russ Tamblyn and Kris Kristofferson, who sings.

The film horrified Universal execs. Despite winning a minor award at a Eiropean film festival, after it played in NYC, LA and a few other major cities, it was dumped into general release as a second or third feature on the drive in circuit, often titled "Chinchero." The film bombed, Hopper's career was harmed. Defiantly, he took the film on the road during the 70s, showing it on college campuses. After Hopper's career returned, he regained rights and before his death spoke of getting a DVD release. That never happened, although I'm sure one day there will be an art house label DVD release. When that occurs, don't expect much, but it's worth a peek just to experience the pretentious banality. Maybe it will pop up on TCM Underground some day. Watch the trailer above.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Ship of Monsters (La Nave De Los Monstruos) - 1960

Review by Steve D. Stones

This south of the border science fiction feature, "Ship of Monsters," has everything a good low budget cult film should have - sexy space girls in bikinis and high heels, a giant robot, a phallic rocket flying through the universe and ugly space creatures trapped in a cave.

Sexy Venusian gals Gamma (Ana Bertha) and Beta (Lorena Velazquez) have been assigned to bring back "perfect male specimens" to Venus. The male population on Venus has been destroyed by atomic destruction.  Their spaceship lands in Mexico where they meet cowboy - Laureano Atrevino Gomez, played by Eulalio 'Piporro' Gonzalez. Gomez was hoping the universe would bring him a lovely female companion as he watched Gamma and Beta's ship soar through the sky. Now, he has encountered two of them. He will have a difficult choice to make.

Gamma and Beta tell Gomez that they are part of a traveling circus and are looking for a place to stay while their giant robot Torr makes repairs to their spaceship. Gomez decides to allow the two to stay at his home. He is puzzled that the two sexy gals do not have boyfriends and have never heard of love and marriage. Lucky for them, they've never had their hearts broken. Gomez proceeds to explain what love and marriage is. Beta wants to take Gomez back to Venus to have him for herself.

Some of the male specimens in the spaceship have gotten out of control. With the help of Torr, Gamma and Beta encase them in frozen blocks and hide them in a remote cave. These male specimens are obviously not human, for they are ugly and look like space aliens.  One of the specimens is named Tawal - Prince of Mars. His head is shaped like a giant brain, similar to the aliens in Invasion of The Saucer Men (1957). Another is a cyclops with vampire teeth named Uk - King of The Fire Planet.

Beta is sentenced to death after Gamma witnesses her turn into a vampire and murder some local villagers. It is never explained how or why Beta becomes a vampire. Perhaps Uk bit her on the neck? She escapes the spaceship and frees all the aliens from the cave. Uk slaughters Gomez's cow, and eventually his horse.

The film tries to merge several genres - science-fiction, comedy, a musical and a western. Gomez has a number of scenes in which he sings. In one sequence, Torr says to the jukebox in Gomez's home "Oh baby, what lovely bulbs you have," which is an obvious sexual reference, after the fact that Gomez has sang a love song to Gamma.

Ship of Monsters would make a great double feature with the 1966 Larry Buchanan film - Mars Needs Women. One film has women searching for men to bring back to their planet for breeding purposes. The other film has men looking for women for breeding purposes on their planet. Perhaps director Buchanan may have been inspired by Ship of Monsters when he made Mars Needs Women? Happy viewing.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A look at Ed Wood's short stories ... A Muddled Mind

Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by David C. Hayes, 2009 update, Ramble House Press, Reviewer received a review copy.

By Doug Gibson

Depending on your point of view, Ed Wood was either a famous, or infamous filmmaker. What the average Ed Wood fan doesn't know is that Wood wrote a heck of a lot of novels, short stories and news articles; 80 novels, several hundred short stories and a few hundred non-fiction articles. And Wood was a damn good writer, Imagine Elmore Leonard writing without an editor and submitting a first draft. That's Wood.

The tragedy of Wood's life is that he was a drunk; after the mid 1960s most of his written work -- and all of his film work -- was in porn. But even that sleaze had Wood's iconic and unique touch and value. His books and sleazy magazines -- many of which he created all by himself -- are still in demand, fetching big prices for collectors.

It's high time someone provided a detailed overview of Wood's literary output, and Chicago writer, actor, screenwriter and filmmaker David C. Hayes does a pretty good job in Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Edward D. Wood Jr. It's a reference book of all of Wood's writing; from the semi-sleazy mid-60s tales such as Death of a Transvestite and Devil Girls to the raunchier books and stories and finally the hard-core porn Wood was reduced to writing his final years.

Hayes' book is tongue in cheek at times, with a fictional "co-author," and it's not a deep book, but it's of real value to Wood fans. We learn what an amazing, tireless writer Wood was even with the crutch of alcoholism. For example, he was invaluable to the fly-by-night porn magazine publishers of the 1970s. Wood would write an entire issue of "Tales for a Sexy Night" or another similarly title magazine, and then do again a few weeks later.

In what Hayes describes as The Golden Age, Wood wrote some fast-paced, compact Elmore Leonard-type novels, such as Killer in Drag, Devil Girls and Death of a Transvestite. They are not porn, and must have earned Wood some prestige as a writer, although he was probably lucky to see $2,000 for all three books. Wood's desperate straights made him easily exploitable by low-brow publishers. (Come to think of it, that's also a fate that plagued the actor Bela Lugosi, who, as most know, starred in a few Wood films)

Hayes repeats what I have read in other sources that writing porn is part of what destroyed Wood in the last years of his life. Muddled Mind respects Wood enough to offer critiques on his work to the bitter adult sleaze end. Hayes writes with both humor and respect for Wood. It is amazing that more than 30 years after his death, we are still finding Wood novels, stories and articles (he wrote often under pseudonyms) and it's likely that 50 years from now, we'll still be finding Wood's output. He was indefatigable.

I've saved the best part of Muddled Mind for last. It includes complete copies of three excellent, distinct Wood stories. The first, The Night the Banshee Cried, is a spooky tale of a woman fearing a sinister presence. It's Wood's very credible effort to invoke the atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe. The next, Pearl Hart and the Last Stage, is a very entertaining fictional essay on an infamous lady stagecoach bandit. Again, Wood manages to capture the spirit of a Zane Grey-type tale.

The last, and best story, To Kill a Saturday Night, is simply brilliant. The tale of a pair of bloviating farm workers contemplating casual murder on their day off will remind readers of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Both Pearl Hart ... and To Kill ... were written in the 1970s, a time when Wood was sadly, firmly padlocked into lowbrow porn. But even then, an alcoholic semi-bum, the man could still write talented prose.

There is one more treat in Muddled Mind. There is Wood's prologue to an audio version of Plan 9 From Outer Space that was produced by Wood's porn producer Pendulum Press. The audio may have been a reward for Wood's previous workload. Who knows? Wood wrote this prologue after being kicked out of his apartment. Living as a charity case with actor Peter Coe, Wood died days after he penned this friendly, optimistic intro with a lot of literary license. If you love and admire Wood's work, you will get goose bumps reading this. It's nice that Wood was aware, while alive, that there was a young cult following for his work. He deserved that.

Muddled Mind is a great follow up to Wood's literary life after we were teased about it in Rudolph's Grey's excellent oral biography on Wood, Nightmare of Ecstasy. Ramble House is a very tiny press, and Wood fans should be grateful that it is critiquing Wood's writing and searching for more of his works. In fact, Ramble House, under the name Woodpile Press, is selling reproductions of much of Wood's writings. Muddled Mind has a list of the offerings. This is wonderful news and we hope Ramble House keeps rambling.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The life of the man who was Old Mother Riley -- Arthur Lucan

By Doug Gibson

Let's face it, in America at least, to most cult movies fans, Arthur Lucan (AKA Old Mother Riley), is a footnote, the eccentric co-star with Bela Lugosi in the 1952 British film "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire." Watching that film, which is on YouTube, Lucan's pantomime dame is frankly, a "whirling dervish" of energy, prancing around the sets, singing songs and speaking 300 words a minute in the working-class dialect.

He's a talent, there's no doubt about that, but a strange one to U.S. viewers, or contemporary viewers today, because his chief skill is a largely forgotten one. As mentioned, Lucan was a "pantomime dame," a not uncommon feature of the British stage and music halls of the first half of the 20th century. "Old Mother Riley" was not a drag act, or geared toward gay audiences. It was comprised of comedy sketches, many of which were bathed in pathos and social messages, explains Robert V. Kenny, author of the new biography, "The Man Who Was Old Mother Riley: The Lives and Films of Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane (Bear Manor Media, 2014) here.

Arthur Lucan (1885-1954) was married to Kitty McShane (1897-1964), who he described as his Irish beauty. Unfortunately, after a few years of marital bliss, it turned into a dysfunctional nightmare with the mild-mannered Lucan eventually becoming a kept cuckold in his own home, with McShane, who by most accounts exhibited sociopathic behavior, taking control of the money, bankrupting the couple and using her lover, actor "Willer Neal," as her co-star in "The Old Mother Riley ..." films that she starred in with Lucan.  I often seriously wonder if there is an entertainer as universally disliked by those who knew her, and historians, as Kitty McShane. Kenny's account of their lives only seems to add more evidence of her malice, insensitivity and drunken cruelties.

The "Old Mother Riley" films, though, were a huge success prior and during World War II as topics such as the war, war profiteers, parliament, the rights of the poor, and even relations with Ireland were explored within the comedies. The basic premise stayed the same: Lucan played widow Old Mother Riley with McShane as her daughter, who was always seeking romance and usually found it. British audiences loved Lucan and McShane, who had developed the characters, if not with the same name, as early as the 1920s. However, Kitty McShane's narcissism led her to continue to play the "young daughter" in the post-World War II films, despite that she had become a plump matron.

Lucan honed his skills at the turn of the 20th century, learning a lot from a family of actors he lived and worked with prior to going out on his own and marrying McShane. Kitty McShane's pleasant voice and young good looks made the team very popular. One of their first skits, called "Bridget's Night Out," featured pantomime dame "mother" Lucan fretting over "daughter" Kitty's late night out. As Kenny explains, these skits not only were meant for humor, but tapped into the fear in those times of how a wayward daughter's life could be ruined if she was taken advantage of by a man.

I can't adequately explain Lucan as a performer except to say again that he is clearly talented in what he does. On YouTube, there is an early skit with Lucan and McShane that is similar to "Bridget's Night Out." It's heavy on pathos as well as comedy and one can't help but marvel at Lucan's skill, even if it's hard for us to comprehend. Watch it here but note that despite the title card, Lucan was not known as Old Mother Riley at the time (1936).

At their peak, with many movies and a performance in front of the Royal Family in Britain to their credit, Lucan and McShane were very rich, the equivalent of millionaires. McShane blew the money with excess spending and bad investments. Her behavior became so abominable that by the early 1950s, the pair, while married, had split; hence the reason that there's no Kitty McShane in "Mother Riley Meets the Vampire."

Kenny's book still fails to capture the dysfunctional but stubbornly durable connection between Lucan and his wife. Perhaps we'll never know why he put up with her cruelty, that extended to violence on occasions (Once her boyfriend Neal beat Lucan mercilessly). According to Kenny, McShane stopped -- in the late 1920s -- plans for Lucan to team with a comedian in U.S. films because there was no planned role for her.

As it was, Arthur Lucan eventually died as he lived most of his life, in a theater, collapsing while preparing to play his most famous character, pantomime dame Old Mother Riley. As for Kitty McShane, her career was more or less over. She lived almost 10 more years, in increasing squalor, and died shortly after her boyfriend, Neal, passed away.

Today, Arthur Lucan has been rediscovered in Britain and his grave is well cared for and there are occasional analysis of his career, which spanned roughly 50 years. Kitty McShane's funeral was attended by a few mourners, and despite knowledge of the cemetery she was buried in, a stone was never placed, and no one is sure exactly where she is buried.

Kenny's biography is superb. He makes a myth out of the idea that some entertainers are too old and gone to find interesting information into their lives. The book captures a period of entertainment history that few know much about, and appreciates the talent of the master of that particular entertainment. Until this book the most Lugosi fans and generally everyone else in the U.S. knew about Lucan and McShane came from a segment in Frank Dello Stritto and Andi Brooks excellent book, "Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain."

Watch Mother Riley Meets the Vampire below under a different title.