Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Monster On The Campus- Beware The Bite of The Coelacanth!

By Steve D. Stones

Director Jack Arnold is best known for two great 1950s masterpieces – The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).

While Monster On The Campus (1958) may not be highly regarded by film critics and sci-fi fans, it is still a worthy effort that is fun to watch on a Friday night with a large soda and buttered popcorn. Professor Donald Blake, played by veteran actor Arthur Franz, is a paleontology professor at Dunsfield University who receives a frozen prehistoric fish – a coelacanth.

The frozen fish thaws as it’s delivered to Blake’s laboratory. A student’s dog drinks some of the water from the fish’s tank, which turns him into a fierce canine beast. While examining the fish in his lab, Professor Blake cuts his hand on the teeth of the coelacanth. The cut causes him to experience blackouts while students on the campus are being attacked and murdered by some unknown beast.

The cut has caused Blake to transform into a prehistoric Neanderthal man. Blake and two students observe a dragonfly transform into a giant insect after it bites the coelacanth in Blake’s lab. Blake soon realizes that anything that comes in contact with the fish reverts back to its prehistoric origins – a sort of evolution in reverse.

He also observes that his blackouts are a result of his own devolution – evolving
backwards to a prehistoric man. He tests this theory by isolating himself in a mountain cabin while movie cameras record his transformation.

On the surface, Monster On The Campus appears to be a homage or rip off of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Curt Siodmak’s The Werewolf tale. Sources claim that director Jack Arnold was not happy with Monster On The Campus. In comparison to his other efforts, Monster is a bit tacky in content, and not as technically competent as his other classics. However, it is still a very fun movie to view.

Star Arthur Franz appeared in a number of sci-fi films of the 1950s, including: Flight To Mars, Invaders From Mars, The Atomic Submarine and the car racing classic – The Devil’s Hairpin. Happy viewing!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Capsule reviews: Santo en el Tesoro de Dracula, The Monster, and The Sex Killer

All of these films are available via amazon for sale.

SANTO EN EL TESORO DE DRACULA: The 1969 Mexican masked wrestler battles with Dracula and a masked criminal in this insane, chaotic entry that blends time travel, the Lugosi Dracula tale and a search for Dracula's treasure in one convoluted flick. It's funnier than heck, though, particularly the time travel sequences, the cheesecake scenes of a Latina lovely in a sheer nighty, and the obligatory wrestling. And what's with that mask, Santo, do you ever take it off to sleep, shower, make love ...?
THE MONSTER: The presence of Lon Chaney Sr. as a mad scientist/doctor who is using patients at a sanitarium the imprison several is reason enough to watch this too-often stagy adaptation of a popular comedy thriller stage play of that era, 1925. Johnny Arthur, a comedian of that era, provides the laughs but Chaney's menace and strong facial emotions dominate the film.
THE SEX KILLER: Viewers will feel like they'll need a strong shower after watching this grimy, 1967 Barry Mahon directed "nudie roughie" filmed in that era just before grindhouses surrended and starting showing triple XXX. "The Sex Killer" would be an R today. It's about a loner who works in a manniquinn factory who progresses from peeping to rape and murder, although only breasts and flimsy nightwear is shown. The film is worth viewing only for the stark, lengthy shots of New York City in the 1960s. In fact, it's almost like a documentary of the city's grimy section of that era. The final scene, which scans the New Yorks business and industrial skyline, is great gonzo cinematography.

-- Doug Gibson

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tod Browning: Master director of the sinister

(This column originally ran in the Standard-Examiner newspaper)

By Doug Gibson

My friend, Steve Stones, and I have a blog on cult movies. As a result, sometimes we are asked to recommend a suitably chilling Halloween movie. That’s a little like being given $25 and being asked to buy that one novel you want more than any other novel. There’s just too much competition.
To enjoy great films, think of them as samplers of genres, directors or stars. You like Bela Lugosi, (I do), Check out “Dracula,” “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” and “Son of Frankenstein.” You like Vincent Price? Try “The Tingler,” “Tower of London” and “The Conqueror Worm.” I favor the older films but I don’t discriminate against new films. Watch Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” and then rent his earlier films “Army of Darkness” and “Dark Man.”
This year I hope people will discover, or re-discover Tod Browning, a director whose popularity peaked during the silent era. Although he directed Lugosi in “Dracula,” his career declined in the ‘30s and by 1939 it was over. As a boy late in the 19th century, Browning ran away from home and joined the circus. He was a contortionist and lived closely with the carny lifestyle. Later he was a fairly successful early silent movie actor before gaining fame as a director.
Always fascinated with the circus lifestyle, Browning cultivated the talents of a young actor named Lon Chaney. Dubbed the man of a thousand faces, Chaney was the biggest star of the late silent era. The actor was an incredible physical specimen, and a perfectionist. He created faces in two films, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the now-lost “London After Midnight,” that have not been matched in fright value. Chaney died just before he was to film “Dracula.” His death opened the door for Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s monster) to achieve stardom.
In 1927, Browning directed Chaney in the silent film “The Unknown.” It is my first selection for a Halloween evening. Set in a circus, it stars Chaney as circus attraction, “Alonzo the Armless,” who shoots arrows safely at a pretty circus girl, Nanon, played by a very young — and gorgeous — Joan Crawford. Chaney really isn’t armless, he’s a violent criminal on the lam. With a trusted assistant’s help, he wraps his arms to his sides to escape detection. Chaney is in love with Nanon. With his eyes and facial grimaces, he lets us know what a possessive, frustrating, tinder-box love it is. He can’t bear the sight of the circus strongman, Malabar the Mighty, who admires Nanon, and he encourages Nanon to distrust Malabar.
Chaney’s obsessive love for Nanon leads him to really remove his arms in an operation. When he returns weeks later, expecting to pursue Nanon and find his love requited, he discovers Nanon and Malabar have fallen in love and will be married soon. In my opinion, the two minutes of Chaney’s reaction to the news, bewilderment, frozen smile, pantomime of maniacal laughter and threatening glare, is the finest acting of the silent era. This is a tight, 50-minute film (some inconsequential scenes are lost).
Besides “Dracula,” the film Browning may be best known for is the 1932 “Freaks.” It is a masterpiece of surreal horror. The plot involves a selfish, beautiful trapeze artist (Cleopatra) who marries a little man (Hans) for his money. With her strongman lover (Hercules), she plots to kill Hans. Their big mistake is that they assume the circus “freaks” are little children, rather than adults capable of retribution. What they learn too late is that the “freaks” — and the actors really were such — act like children as a defense mechanism. They want to be left alone. But threatened in their environment, they draw strength from numbers.
For 40-plus minutes of this slightly longer than an hour film, we are not scared. Instead, we learn about life in a circus, and we view the “freaks” as human beings. The last 20 or so minutes are horrifying as the “freaks” gain revenge on two who would falsely request their trust and then try to kill one of them. The scenes of the “freaks” with knives and guns, peering through windows and under wagons, slithering, hopping, sliding and pursuing Hercules and Cleopatra through a dark rainy night are frightening. For years, the fim ended with a brief, jarring shot of what the “freaks” had done to Cleopatra. It’s one of the most shocking finales in film. But I recently saw “Freaks” on Turner Classic Movies and the print added an epilogue with Hans and other characters that diminishes the impact a little.
“Freaks” was ahead of its time. The suits at MGM hated the film and barely distributed it. More than any other film, it damaged Browning’s career. In fact, it was banned in Britain for 40 years. See it for yourself: it’s a masterpiece that draws on Browning’s love and respect for carnival life.
One more Browning film worth seeing is the 1936 “The Devil-Doll.” It stars Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond, a framed banker who breaks out of France’s Devil’s Island prison with a mad scientist who can turn people into doll-sized humans who can be manipulated by human masters’ thoughts. It’s a wild plot. Outside Paris the mad scientist dies. Lavond’s and the scientist’s widow — who is as crazy as her husband — continue the experiments. She wants to turn the whole world little; Lavond just wants to gain revenge on his ex-partners who framed him and also help his blind mother and daughter, who were impoverished by his imprisonment. He uses the “devil dolls” to get his revenge on his ex-partners and clear his name.
Watch this film for the special effects and Barrymore’s performance. He’s great as a mostly decent man who can’t control his thirst for revenge and knows it.
All these films are inexpensive, pop up on Turner Classic Movies and can be rented. Trust me, they are far better than “Saw VI,” or any of the “Saw(s)”.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Haunted Palace

The Haunted Palace, 1963, 85 minutes, American International, directed by Roger Corman. Starring Vincent Price as Charles Dexter Ward/Joseph Curwen, Debra Paget as Ana Ward, Frank Maxwell as Ian/Dr. Willett, Lon Chaney Jr. as Simon Orne, Leo Gordon as Edgar Weeden/Ezra Weeden and Cathie Merchant as Hester Tillinghast. Schlock-Meter rating: 7 stars out of 10.

This is a better-than-average Vincent Price AIP 1960s offering. It offers chills, atmosphere and good direction from movie legend Corman. The story concerns a mild mannered man (Price), who moves to the mysterious town of Arkham with his wife (Paget) to inhabit a creepy castle, or palace. The townspeople, a forbidding, brooding, suspicious group except for one doctor (Maxwell), react in panic after they discover Price's character (Charles Dexter Ward) resembles an evil ancestor (Joseph Curwen) who was executed by Arkham residents long ago.

It isn't long before Price begins to take on the personality of his evil ancestor, much to the terror of his lovely wife, whom he begins to treat very roughly. With some assistance, the now evil Price (possessed by Curwen) spends much of the film extracting revenge from the descendents of the townspeople who killed him, and trying to resurrect to life a long-dead love (Merchent).
The film boasts a lot of atmosphere. Including aging horror great Lon Chaney Jr. was a casting coup for Corman. As an evil henchman of Price, he doesn't have much to do, but he lends a spooky credibility to the film just with his presence.

The title The Haunted Palace is from Edgar Allen Poe, but there's no resemblance to the story. Indeed the plot is from an H.P. Lovecraft short novel, The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward, but even then, the story only touches briefly on Lovecraft's plot. As is often with a Lovecraft tale, the sinister town of Arkham is the setting. Fans of Price will really enjoy this film. He's at his best. Others will find it an excellent sample of AIP's 60s horror offerings. Watch the trailer above.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tower of London

Review: Tower of London


Wow, I absolutely love this low-budget 1962 gothic adaptation of Shakespeare (well, sort of) that stars Vincent Price as the mad wannabe king Richard who goes around slaughtering anyone who gets in his way, all the while dealing with those voices in his head and derisive laughter only he can hear.

It's directed by Roger Corman, who can stretch a budget as far as it can go without snapping. The black and white adds to the grim mood. There are some chilling scenes. A young maiden is tortured to death on a stretching rack. A man is murdered when a cage with a hungry rat is placed over his head. The scenes of a climatic battle that leads to Richard's death are from the 1939 Tower of London, a fine adaptation starring Boris Karloff.

I want to spend a little time on star Vincent Price's performance. A characteristic of Price's is he can be truly evil while keeping his tongue in his cheek. In Tower, he is clearly mad, and carries a confused, pained expression on his face. It's excellent acting. The audience almost wants to feel sorry for a suffering madman doomed to defeat, but he's simply too evil to care about. Although most critics deride the final battle scene where Price is superimposed over stock footage of battles, I like it. It adds to the hallucinatory atmosphere of Richard's madness.

A great film, easy to find on TV or buy. Also stars Michael Pate, Joan Freeman and Sandra Knight. It's fast-paced at 79 minutes. You can watch it in several parts free on YouTube. Part 1 is above.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

American Movie

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern, color, 107 minutes, Northwest Films. Directed by Chris Smith. Starring Mark Borchadt, Mike Schank and Bill Borchadt. Rating: Nine stars out of 10.

American Movie: The Making of Northwestern is the most original slice of Americana captured on film since Michael Moore chronicled the corporate-caused decay of Flint, Mich. in Roger and Me more than a decade ago. Judged top documentary film at Sundance a few years ago, it’s the best of its genre since Waco: The Rules of Engagement managed to snag an Oscar nomination several years ago.
It’s the story of Mark Borchardt a wannabe film-maker, who redefines the word persistence. He lives in Wisconsin. Mark is, by most definitions, a loser. He failed to finish high school. He’s unmarried but has three children. He’s under-employed. He’s a border-line alcoholic. He owes several thousand dollars in child support and thousands more in other debts. He lives at home with his mom, sleeping on a thin mattress. His best friend is a dazed ex-stoner musician named Mike who’s addicted to scratch lottery. His family scorns his goals, suggesting that he’s fit at best to be a factory worker.
Mark has no prospects, but he has a goal. To be a feature film-maker. His almost-obsessive pursuit of that dream and his infectious optimism is captured by director Chris Smith. You want to see reality on film? Ignore the “Big Brother’ and “Survivor” garbage heaped onto television screens recently. American Movie is a primer on micro-budget film making and the fragile dreams of its creators.
Mark’s been making short films with his friends since he was a teen. Horror is his preferred genre. He counts The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a major influence in his life. Mark wants to make a feature film called Northwestern. The first part of the film focuses on Mark and his team’s fruitless effort to get the production off the ground. Kitchen-table production meetings provide only pessimism and finally the project is shelved for lack of funds.
Not deterred, the rest of the film concerns Mark’s efforts to finish and release Coven, a 40-minute psychological horror drama that he started years earlier. Despite setback after setback, the film gets finished, thanks largely to Mark’s dying, lonely Uncle Bill, who lives in a trailer park and has $280,000 in the bank. The scenes between Mark and his curmudgeon uncle are touching. Mark exploits him to be sure, but he’s not fooling Bill, who knows Mark has pipe dreams but is nourished from the attention Mark pays to him.
There are priceless scenes in American Movie. They include a desperate Mark pleading with his mom to put on a costume and play an extra in Coven. “But I need to go shopping today,” she protests. There’s the 30-plus take scene of Uncle Bill delivering a few lines in Coven. Another is Mark’s glee at unexpectedly receiving a credit card offer in the mail. There’s Mark’s “office,” the front seat of his car parked at the airport. Another is the poverty-inspired panic which results in post production when a few seconds of film are discovered missing. Also, there’s a hilarious scene from the filming of Coven where several takes are required to smash a hard-headed actor’s skull through a kitchen cabinet.
A serious side to this film adds to its strength. Film-maker Smith provides viewers a peek in Mark’s personal life. It’s dysfunctional. While watching the Super Bowl with his family, a drunken Mark allows some of the bitterness he usually hides to come out in the surface. It’s tough to watch, but important as it rounds out his character and offers a peek into inner demons that have kept him from success.
Besides Uncle Bill, Mike Schank, Mark’s best friend, is an asset to American Movie. His blank stare, accompanied by monotone voice, might lead viewers to think he’s suffering from an acid flashback. However, Mike grows on you, and before the end of the film he’s shown to be a talented musician.
Despite no formal training, Mark is a talented self-taught film-maker, and you can’t help cheering for him once he finally finishes Coven and stands outside the theater, amidst a long line of people waiting to see his film. He may not have a home of his own, but he’s a director with a film under his belt, a colleague of Steven Spielburg. He has triumphed. Note: The DVD version of American Movie contains Mark’s film Coven. I have seen it and it's not too bad. Very low budget but with a cold, dark nihilism feel.

Doug Gibson