Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Brute Man was disowned by its creator Universal

By Doug Gibson

I love the 15 golden years of Universal Studio horror films, starting with Dracula and adding Frankenstein, Igor, The Wolf Man, two Mummies, various Invisible humans and assorted mad scientists, creatures and tortured professionals (think Inner Sanctum). But the final film of the genre, "The Brute Man," stinks. 

Rondo Hatton was a truly tragic figure. Universal's last "monster," he was "The Creeper," except he didn't creep. He more or less staggered. He suffered from acromegaly, which disfigured his face and badly affected his health. In fact, he died of a heart attack a couple of months after "The Brute Man" wrapped at Universal. It was eventually sold to Producers Releasing Company, not due to quality; Universal, in the midst of a merger, was shedding its B-film productions. 

"The Brute Man" involves a series of murders committed by "The Creeper," an ugly, tall figure who apparently can slither through the city and kill at will. The police, doing nothing, are badgered by the mayor to catch the Creeper. Meanwhile, in a risible plot development, the Creeper orders groceries to his shack by the waterfront and then kills the delivery boy when he gets too curious. 

Finally, the police gather that The Creeper is an embittered former college football star who was disfigured in a lab accident. He's getting revenge on his ex-college pals whom he blames for his predicament. One of the ex-pals is wealthy Clifford Scott, played by Tom Neal. Now, Neal is usually an interesting actor to watch; anyone who has seen "Detour" or "Bowery at Midnight" can see he has some screen presence. But not in this film. Befitting the boring story and drab direction from Jean Yarbrough, Neal is a bore sans charisma who is killed by The Creeper.

Meanwhile, in what film historian Tom Weaver has correctly tagged as a grotesque homage/parody to the superb "Bride of Frankenstein," the Creeper becomes infatuated with a beautiful blind piano instructor, played by minor starlet Jane Adams, (best known for being a hunchback nurse killed by mad doctor Onslow Stevens in "House of Dracula.") Despite the Creeper's declarations that he's wanted by the cops, Adams invites him to visit her as often as he can. Also, for a little while, the Creeper is unaware she's blind ...

Eventually, The Creeper" kills a pawnbroker and gives the blind woman, named Helen Paige, diamonds to pay for an operation to restore her sight. Naturally, when she tries to redeem them, the police inform her they are stolen. (This is as boring to write as it was to watch).

Eventually, the languid cops use Helen, having her publicly confess-- via the press -- that she knows who The Creeper is. (Why they wouldn't keep it secret and wait for another Creeper visit, when he wouldn't be angry and ready to kill, is beyond me.) Anyway, the Creeper learns that Helen "turned" on him and hurries to her apartment to kill her. There, he's intercepted by the police and captured. End of story.

"The Brute Man" runs under an hour. It's strikingly underscores how Universal's chiller Bs deteriorated in the last couple of years, with Spider Woman and The Creeper. Everyone attacks Rondo Hatton for his poor performance, and it is bad. He whines rather than talks and his attacks are poorly staged. But has anyone considered that poor Rondo Hatton was in the final months of his life. He was dying! I'm sure he could use the money in the final few years of his life but the use of him as The Creeper is creepy and exploitative.

Ironically, Hatton's grotesque visage has become very iconic. The now defunct Cult Movies magazine used it on its cover for years and the Monster Kid Classic Board, or whatever it's called, has annual "Rondo" awards for excellence in the genre. I supposed the iconic status of Hatton justifies using his face today, and I don't doubt the good will or sincerity of the fans today. But it still seems like one more bit of exploitation toward a man who suffered from a truly tragic disease that caused him great pain during his life. If any screen visage should honor excellence in the genre, it should be Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera. Watch "The Brute Man" below, via MST3K.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The best book on A Christmas Carol and its adaptations

Review by Doug Gibson

If you are A Christmas Carol fanatic, like me, who reads Dickens' novella every year and watches seven or eight film versions of Ebenezer Scrooge's ghostly visitations every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas ... you have found Nirvana. It's "A Christmas Carol and its Adaptations: Dickens's Story on Screen and Television," by Fred Guida, McFarland, 2000 (800-253-2187). You can also get it via Amazon here.

You don't have to be a fanatic like me to love the book too. If you enjoy Dickens, A Christmas Carol, or just Christmas you'll love what's to learn from author Guida. I have spent more than a generation looking for a really good book that highlights film adaptations of A Christmas Carol. For 25 years I've relied on the OK but slightly kitschy A Christmas Carol Trivia Book ... I've read it 20 times but it's second string to McFarland's offering.

Besides, extensively detailed, and sagely opinionated critiques of the various film adaptations, Guida presents readers with a history of fiction, in America and Britain, that preceded Dickens' and paved the way for the spiritual, moral and familial themes Dickens' utilized in A Christmas Carol. The author also provides short recaps and analysis of Dickens' Christmas-related works including "Cricket on the Hearth," and discusses Christmas in other novels, such as A Pickwick Papers. This deepens readers' understanding of Dickens' motivations and his state of mind when penning these tales.

I learned a lot about the history of 19th century adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Many were cheap pirated editions that kept Dickens in court trying to stop them and prevent losing royalties that he deserved. The first adaptations were stage readings, usually a shorter version written by the author. The journey toward "flickers" versions of A Christmas Carol" in the 19th century included the delightfully named "Magic Lantern" adaptations. They are the early ancestors of slideshows in which a lantern, projected against a painting or drawing, provided a screen that audiences could enjoy the tale. It would be fascinating to see a restored magic lantern version of the tale today. Early stage versions are covered. It was interesting to learn that Cricket on the Hearth was a more popular stage play for Christmas than "Carol" in the 19th century.

Although it's a scholarly work, the author has a relaxed, conversational tone. He breaks in often with firm but gentle opinions and I enjoyed his "on to the next"-type of transitions from adaptation to adaptation.

As for the theatrical versions, silent and talking, just about everything from 1900 to 1990 or so, when the book was published, is covered well. Many of the silents are lost but the author has retained still photos and film reviews when available. To understand Guida's assessments, it must be noted that he places great relevance of the moral changes of Scrooge from selfish, superior misanthrope to repentant, spiritual man. Guida also includes the familial warmth of the The Cratchit family as an essential part of any adaptation. There is one particular scene that he feels strongly should be included in adaptations (and I agree). It is Scrooge being shown the pitiable children "Ignorance" and "Want." There are versions that he likes that don't include it, but he's correct that versions should include it. The final scene with The Spirit of Christmas Present provides stark evidence of what Scrooge has callously neglected to assist. It shows him that smug self righteousness masquerading as "self reliance" is harming "millions like this child."

Guida's favorite theatrical versions are the 1951 "A Christmas Carol" with Alistair Sim and the 1984 version with George C. Scott. They portray Scrooge as a cold superior bereft of empathy, rather than as a pitiful crabby man (portrayals of which hamper the 1938 and 1935 talkies versions). His favorite cartoons are the early 1970s A Christmas Carol, again with Sim, and the 1960s Mr. McGoo's A Christmas Carol." Both are regretfully seldom seen today on TV.

I was surprised Guida likes the 1970 big-budget musical "Scrooge," with Albert Finney. It seems brassy to me but Guida argues that it's a successful version that captures well a big-budget musical of Dickens' tale. I'm willing to give it another shot. The author does sort of dismiss "A Muppet Christmas Carol," arguing that it will have less influence than other versions. I think time has proven that wrong, as probably 80 percent of young children are now introduced to A Christmas Carol through Kermit and Miss Piggy as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit. And the songs in the Muppet version are better than the 1970 musical offerings.

However, despite versions that Guida considers second tier, he generally still enjoys the films and finds positive points in the films. He has a scholar's love for his topic and gets deep into the details of the planning and production of the films. And he finds gems that I had never heard of. I will be searching for a 1947 Spanish (Spain) version of "... Carol" called "Leyenda de la Navidad."

While I appreciate Guida's efforts to track down every TV version inspired by A Christmas Carol, it's an impossible task. We didn't need reviews of versions from "Beavis and Butthead" or kitschy sitcoms. The small-typed scores of pages devoted to this would have been better filled with maybe 20 select, superior TV adaptations, such as The Andy Griffith's Show's "The Christmas Story," with the Scrooge-like merchant Ben Weaver, covered in two-to-three pages of more detailed analysis.

It's a shame that the book stops at about 30 years ago. I'd love to see summaries of, say, A Christmas Carol with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge, and the big-budget Disney's A Christmas Carol, with Jim Carrey. But still, if you love Dickens' tale, or just like it, buy this book -- either to learn more abolut what's arguably our most famous fictional work or to just joyfully revel in the wonderful, inspired Christmas tale.

And just so you know, fans, a 2019 version of A Christmas Carol, with Tom Hardy, is set for release this year. We are only about eight months from the start of the Christmas season!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Hazel Court recounts her life as cult actress

Review by Steve D. Stones

First, I'd like to thank my loving aunt and uncle for presenting this book, Hazel Court: Horror Queen, 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 Hazel 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. 

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review of the novel, ScreenSaver! a magical rom-com adventure

Review and interview from Doug Gibson

Imagine a pair of computer game designers, male and female, named Denny and Jo, pressed with time to put the final touches on a game starring a female superhero named Brynthila. The day is drawing near that your boss, Max, has to have everything ready for the money people. A video game expo, a comic con of sorts, is also drawing near. Suddenly, Brynthila steps out of her game, mostly real, prepared to continue her quest on Planet Earth. It’s an intriguing plot and novelist Beth Porter, who has has had a varied career ranging from prominent acting roles, writing, directing, even political observer, has crafted a witty, very funny novel, ScreenSaver!, (Womenstuff Publishing, 2018). The novel is a magical fantasy but it’s also a rom-com (romantic comedy) with dueling creators (feminist Jo and masculine Denny) clearly repressing considerable interest in each other. Meanwhile, the deadlines draw nearer as their boss Max gets more frantic. The main plot involves the creators trying to keep the game's hero, Brynthila, in check. Brynthila is a fascinating creation. Early on her experiences on earth and how she interprets them are subject to the world created for her. Her matter of fact assumptions and actions lead to many amusing passages of mayhems and confusion. As time progresses, though, she gains in independence, surprising her creators and making them more dependent on her for their success. In my opinion, Porter’s prose is at times satirical, subtly touching on cultural and political themes. She demurs a bit, saying the story focuses on a pair of primary themes. I’ll stop there to invite readers to follow my interview with her. You can buy Screensaver via Amazon here or its Kindle version here. With its combination of romance and fantasy done with comic timing, I think the tale would make a great film.

Beth Porter's career began in the early 1960s. She worked with the famous acting troupe, La Mama. She has appeared in films that include Love and Death, The Great Gatsby, Reds and Yentl. We reviewed her autobiography, Walking On My Hands, a few years ago in this blog. INTERVIEW WITH BETH PORTER Plan9Crunch: If I needed to give a quick summary of Screen Saver! I’d describe it as a witty, romantic comedy/satire farce. But it’s also a video game character, Brynthila, coming to life to achieve pre-conceived goals but then developing earthly independence. But I know there is more that is being said. Feminism, gender roles, capitalism, sexism, greed, altruism, big business … Tell us about messages told thru the story, or if I’m wrong let me know? Beth Porter: Messages? That quotable film producer Samuel Goldwyn [co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer] is reputed to have said “if you want to send a message, use Western Union.” but whether he said it or not, I never set out to send messages to the reader. That’s a tool of the Propagandist, not the Fiction Writer. There have been some writers - very few - who’ve managed both - such as Robert Trestle’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, and much of Charles Dickens, e.g. Bleak House - also I suppose Hugo’s Les Miserables and Tolstoy’s final novel Resurrection which sets out to expose hypocrisy inherent in The Law and The Church. So, no trip to the telegram office for me! The themes I intended for ScreenSaver!, on the other hand, are primarily about the nature of reality, and one of my recurring literary themes - the lifelong search for identity. The latter, of course, is not anything new. It’s what so many literary genres attempt to answer: Who are we? It’s such a fundamental question, and we never get tired of exploring it - in every way we can! Even before we as a species could write, we were telling stories that helped us define ourselves. In addition, and considering that although I was born an American and raised in NY until I moved to the UK when I was 26, I’ve had to take into account the phenomenon of class into account when thinking about identity. There really is no parallel in America. It’s not about wealth or so-called breeding. People claim it’s disappearing, if not gone entirely. Those people usually are speaking from within the class system. As an outsider I can testify that class is alive and well and one of the most insidious unacknowledged prejudices by all its members. It influences other prejudices such as gender, age, and ethnicity. It would have been impossible to tell the story of ScreenSaver! without it. My challenge was to make it funny. So you’re certainly correct to call ScreenSaver! at least in part, a satire, because I definitely wanted to use my characters to subvert their search for who they are. Plan9Crunch: Who is Brynthila modeled after? Or is she a composite of several game characters? (I don’t play video games so excuse my ignorance of the genre). Beth Porter:
Brynthila isn’t actually modeled after anyone or any game character. Yes, I’ve been playing vid games since the late 1980s, but my choices have been very limited and have tended not to include story-based games. Mostly I play a genre called HOG or Hidden Object Games, which rely on examining a brilliantly-designed screenful of images that have various objects cunningly hidden. You then have to identify those objects, either by choosing them from a list, or by their silhouettes, or by selecting bits of the object to create a new object. Then you can move on to the next level of the game. There are HOG games which also include solving other brain-teasing puzzles, and some have begun attaching stories to progress to the next levels. But those stories are pretty formulaic and not very well written. None of them has in any way inspired me or my own story. Plan9Crunch: Could you share with us your experience with the genre and what led you to create the tale of Brynthila, the Goddess, Jo and Denny, Max, Fiona, Lovelace (love the name by the way), and the other characters. Beth Porter:
OK I’m a bit confused because I’m not entirely sure I understand what you mean by “the genre.” From its inception as a story in my head, many decades before I started to write it as a story, I was convinced it should be a rom-com, which is a well-honed genre familiar in 20th century films, but not so much in other tales of popular fiction. I mean you wouldn’t call Cinderella a rom-com, would you? Of course, Sheridan’s 18th century romantic conceit The Rivals showcasing Lydia Languish, and a century later Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Austen’s several romantic satires, et al are hailed for their comic effect. But for me, and great as they are, the comedy tends to emerge from the behaviour of the subsidiary characters like Mrs Malaprop and Mrs Bennett, rather than the more serious lovers themselves. What led me to my own story was my growing analysis of the digital world. Yes, it was playing computer games that had led me in, but I became fascinated not by the hardware, but by the possibilities. Given this amazing technology, what visions might be achieved by creative people working in other contexts. I expanded this line of thinking in the central chapter of my first published book. It’s called The Net Effect and it was commissioned by a small publishing company called Intellect. Apart from having learned some presentation coding called html, I don’t have a clue how to program anything. I only learned html so I could construct my own websites - but they weren’t very sophisticated, and by then I knew where I could acquire code snippets to make my sites look and run better. So, as my story just wouldn’t go away I figured out how to combine the rom-com genre with a fantasy twist that could work with a pinch of the suspension of disbelief. Of course, that’s exactly what readers of comic books and fiction as well as film audiences have to do to enjoy genres such as horror or space travel or other time travel epics. The more I had to devise the scenes I needed to tell the story, the more I was able to create characters to support the main story of the two seemingly mis-matched lovers. Plan9Crunch: Are Jo and Denny based in part on any artistic characters? Also, I find it interesting that the success of the game is helped by Jonathan, who has the wealth necessary to counter Max’s ineptitude. Beth Porter:
The short answer is no, they’re not. For a few years I was the Executive Producer of some big brand commercial websites, in charge of teams of programmers and graphic artists for an international webhouse. I watched both those teams and could assess their work although I have neither programming nor graphic design skills; the process was quite similar to my years of experience as both a practitioner and Development Executive for BBC Television. It was clear that the technical roles were primarily taken by men [I think I only ever met two women coders], though the design teams both in TV and online were more equally balanced gender-wise. When it came to developing my own story, and guided by my desire to explore the theme of identity, I concluded that it would give me greater comic possibilities if Jo were the programmer and Denny the designer. As to Jonathan’s wealth, it serves several purposes for the story. The first is the parallel with Brynthila’s almost ridiculous origins - after all she’s programmed by Jo, who comes from a very wealthy “old money” family. She also has very little actual knowledge of the extent of her father’s international corporate influence, but, like a few British aristocrats [such as the late Tony Benn who renounced his inherited title], have started to question the morality of the world around her. I thought it would up the ante of the comedy if Denny had a purely digital relationship with Jonathan via their mutual passion for chess. It’s his discovery of Denny’s actual identity - not to mention his learning of the enormity of the games market - which prompts Jonathan to help him - and, of course, his baffling daughter. The seeds have been planted, of course, by Jonathan’s falling in love with and marriage to Elaine, a morganatic match which, one assumes, would have been frowned on by his ancestors. And, in terms of the real world, it’s undeniable that a cabal of wealth holders influence, if not directly control, most decisions these days. But that’s a consequence, not a starting point for him as a character. Plan9Crunch: I enjoyed this read. It reminds me of a gentler Hanif Kureishi novel, like Gabriel’s Gift or The Nothing? Please add anything you think is important for readers to know. Beth Porter:
Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to fill in some of the gaps about the writing process. When I first became obsessed with the story of ScreenSaver! I assumed it would be a screenplay, since I’d never before written a novel, just a few short stories. But I couldn’t make it work, so I put it away for another day. Over the years the idea kept diverting me; I found myself thinking about it, trying to figure out ways to do this or that, characters that would be both believable and entertaining. Until finally, I had the time to devote, and began the grand task of climbing that novel mountain! I just hope readers can enjoy the humor of a story that stands on its own unusual feet while breaking a few barriers of fiction.