Tuesday, July 31, 2012

'Trog' a sad feature finale for Joan Crawford

By Doug Gibson

Late in her film career, Joan Crawford chewed up the screen with good, over-the-top performances in thrillers such as "Strait-jacket," "I Saw What You Did," "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," and "Beserk." Those who has seen Jessica Lange have fun in the TV series "American Haunting" and seen the late Crawford in her 1960s features can easily see Joan doing Jessica's role today.
Unfortunately, Crawford made one more feature in 1970, "Trog," for director Freddie Francis. A low-budget "major release," it features an outlandish plot that generates little energy from the 65-year-old Crawford, who for the first time looks old, and tired. Joan stars as Dr. Brockton, who gets really excited as a half-man, half-beast (played badly by Joe Cornelius) is discovered in the British countryside by two unfortunate underground explorers; one dies.

Once Trog is discovered, Crawford's character makes several impassioned pleas to allow science to study him. She also engages in long, boring diatribes about the missing link and evolution. (One of the problems with this film is that Trog is never allowed to really go crazy and act like a missing link. In fact, he too often resembles a repulsive baby monster who accepts treats from Dr. Brockton. There are a few murders by Trog, but not nearly enough to justify the price of a movie ticket.

Another veteran of horror films, Michael Gough, who starred with Crawford in the better 1967 circus thriller, "Beserk," outshines Crawford as a town resident who desperately wants Trog killed by authorities. In fact, Gough is almost psychotic in his hatred of the missing link, and he does chew up the scenery and provide a little life to the muddling film. Unfortunately, he's killed off by Trog in a ludicrous scene.

Despite the discovery of something that would have shocked the world, the whole Trog saga appears to be small potatoes in the the world that Francis film world. There isn';t much media covering Trog, and ridiculously, there's only one mild security man guarding Trog! Perhaps the budget wouldn't allow more extras to serve as media?

Crawford looks frumpy and unattractive in the film. Just three years ago, at 62, she's still been quite a dish in "Beserk." But in "Trog," she's dressed in unattractive pantsuits. Some reviewers have claimed that Crawford was suffering from a drinking problem during the making of this film. That may explain her overly earnest, low-key performance and hangdog demeanor that she presents. She can't carry this slow-paced low-budget offering with bad FX anywhere. There's too much talking, little enthusiasm and minor action.

In the final scene, when (spoiler alert) Trog is killed, reporters ask Dr. Brockton for a quote. Actress Crawford stares bleakly at the reporters, shakes her head in despair, and walks heavily away. It's a fitting metaphor to her last feature, a mediocre offering. Joan would star in three more TV movies before dying in 1977 at age 72. Watch the trailer to "Trog" above.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The 1931 Universal Spanish-language 'Dracula'

Dracula (Spanish-language version), 1931, 104 minutes, Universal, black and white. In Spanish with subtitles. Directed by George Medford and Enrique Tovar Avalos. Starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Dracula, Lupita Tovar as Eva Seward, Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield, Barry Norton as Juan Harker, Carmen Guerrero as Lucia, Jose Soriano Vioscia as Dr. Seward and Eduardo Arozamena as Professor Van Helsing. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 and 1/2 stars out of 10.

Universal's Spanish-language version of Bram Stoker's tale was shot at the same time the Bela Lugosi classic was filmed. The same sets, props and backdrops were utilized. As the story goes, the Spanish-language version was shot late at night, after other Dracula director Tod Browning's cast and crew shot during the day. This version was out of circulation in the United States for decades before being rediscovered. The film is wonderful, and only the talent of Bela Lugosi prevents it from rating as high as the "conventional" Dracula. In fact, in many ways, this longer, more gothic, version is an improvement on director Browning's too often stagey version. However, star Lupita Tovar, very sexy in the film, is still with us and just celebrated her 102nd birthday!

The Spanish-version Dracula is a very sensual movie. However, unlike Lugosi -- who is the sexual creature in Browning's film -- it's the women in the Spanish-language Dracula who radiate sexuality. Unlike the buttoned-up, Victorian-like Helen Chandler's Mina Seward in Browning's version, Lupita Tovar's Eva Seward (the same character) is a sexual creature whose erotic awakening is brought on by Conde Dracula (Villarias). She's shy and virginal at first, but, late in the film, in a low-cut nightgown which shows a surprising amount of cleavage for a 1931 film, she rises from her bed under Dracula's spell, eager to meet the night. Carmen Guerrero, as Dracula victim Lucia, is also sexier than her counterpart in Browning's version.

Also, the Spanish-speaking version of Dracula is much longer than Browning's version. Sometimes this hurts -- occasionally the film will lag as scenes go on to long -- but mostly it's an improvement. Characters like the mad Renfield, Eva Seward and Professor Van Helsing are more developed, and viewers will care more about their fate. Also, there are wonderfully spooky scenes that are missing in Browning's version. They include: Dracula walking through a spider's web without disturbing it; Renfield's horror at watching Dracula commanding a door to open; the terror of sailors battling a storm who see Dracula on their ship; shots of rats and bugs as Dracula's had reaches out of his coffin; and Renfield repeatedly assuring Dracula that no one knows of his trip to his castle in Transylvania. There is a wonderful scene -- not in the Browning film -- where Renfield, politely relating the history of his life to Van Helsing, calmly stops to catch a fly. Also, Renfield's death at the hands of Dracula is captured in a more brutal shot than in Browning's film. Finally, Tovar's Eva Seward is much more aware of her fate and the possessive spell Dracula has over her. In a memorable scene, she begs Professor Van Helsing to kill her after Dracula is finished with her.

The weakest link is Barry Norton's Juan Harker. He's as mediocre as David Manners in the Lugosi film. Villarias as Conde Dracula does a good job, but he pales in comparison to Lugosi. But in fairness, who can compete with Lugosi? Lugosi is sinister and charming. Villarias is forbidding and creepy. Also, Villarias will occasionally mug too much for the camera, a problem that Renfield's Rubio (who also does a good job overall) has as well. Rubio's madness is a bit more forced that Dwight Frye's Renfield. Instead of Frye's calculating, horror-filled mad chuckles, Rubio periodically breaks into hysterical screaming, which is annoying. Arozamena's Van Helsing is good, but also fails to rise to the level of Edward Van Sloan's Van Helsing in the Browning film. His delivery is a little too forced, and his character lacks the subtle wit that Van Helsing utilized while verbally sparring with Dracula. Vioscia is adequate as Dr. Seward.

However, if you're a Dracula fan, you'll love this film. It's a must for any cult film collector and today can be easily found (Amazon sells it online). As mentioned, the story is richer (viewers of this film now know what Browning cut from his Dracula) and Villarias, while no Lugosi, is still better than 90 percent of the rest of the Draculas of filmdom. Also, the "I never drink ..... wine" line is as great in Spanish as it is in English. Co-director Medford was a veteran of many silent films.

-- Doug Gibson

Friday, July 20, 2012

Hanif Kureishi's 'London Kills Me,' a review

London Kills Me, 1992, 107 minutes, color, United Kingdom. Written and directed by Hanif Kureishi. Starring Justin Chadwick as Clint Eastwood, Steven Mackintosh as Muffdiver, Fiona Shaw as Headley, Emer McCourt as Sylvie, Tony Haygarth as Burns, Naveen Andrews as Bike, Roshan Seth as Dr. Bubba, and Brad Dourif as Hemingway. Rating on a scale of 10: 8.

London Kills Me seems a cross between Trainspotting and Drugstore Cowboy, yet a cut below those films, and not quite as gritty in its portrayal of the drug culture. It’s more lighthearted, and frankly, the actors look too cute and healthy to be drug addicts. But it’s still a superior film, and a great directing debut for writer Hanif Kureishi, who captures the seediness of the post-Tory ruled London in the early 1990s.

The plot, which is amusingly off the wall, concerns a very small-time London drug team run by Muffdiver (Mackintosh, who looks just like Charlie Hero of Buddha of Suburbia), and populated by his sellers, one of whom, Clint Eastwood (Chadwick) is disillusioned with drugs and wants a job as a waiter in an upscale cafe. The cafe’s manager Hemingway (Brad Dourif, in a great cameo), says he can have the job if he can come up with a cool pair of shoes to wear by Tuesday. No shoes, no job, says Hemingway. Also, the drug team breaks into and squats a luxury condo so they can impress some high-level drug dealers who Muffdiver wants to deal with.

That’s the plot, and it’s a lot of fun. Kureishi provides viewers quite a glimpse into the underbelly of London and the young grifters who populate it, selling and seeking drugs, sleeping where and with whom they can. Chadwick is a talented youngster, but he seems too pretty to be a homeless drug addict. Mackintosh is great as the small drug lord. As in other films, he uses his face and eyes to betray his anger and frustration.

The talented Naveen Andrews seems wasted as a bicycle-freak named Bike, and I would have preferred him in the Clint Eastwood role. Roshan Seth is marvelous as a serene guru named Dr. Bubba. Young actress Emer McCourt is Sylvie, the one girl in the drug team, and the object of both Muffdiver’s and Clint’s lust. Her character seems to be the one who actually suffers in this film. She mutilates herself and in one scene, suffers a bad case of the drug shakes. Film has an upbeat ending that is generally in sync with the light treatment of the topic.

-- Doug Gibson

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Castle Films edit of 'Dracula

Courtesy of Castle Films and YouTube comes this eight minute-plus version of the classic Universal Bela Lugosi Tod Browning directed 1931 Dracula. Castle Films' heavily edited adaptations of classics used to be on all the time. I first saw this brief adaptation during an assembly at summer school in the early 1970s.


Friday, July 13, 2012

'Dead Men Walk' - George Zucco plays the vampire

By Doug Gibson
Dead Men Walk, 1943, B&W, 64 minutes. Producers Releasing Corp. Directed by Sam Newfield. Starring George Zucco as Dr. Lloyd Clayton and Elwyn Clayton, Mary Carlisle as Gayle Clayton, Nedrick Young as Dr. David Bentley, Dwight Frye as Zolarr, Fern Emmett as Kate and Hal Price as the sheriff. Schlock-meter rating: Six stars out of 10.

This 1940s PRC cheapie about a vampire who rises from the grave and attempts to destroy his niece to spite his brother is a lot of fun. It stars horror great Zucco in dual roles; as ocultist brother Elwyn who is murdered by his good brother, a doctor named Lloyd, also played by Zucco.

Alas, the evil Elwyn's death fails. Elwyn has learned how to resurrect himself as a vampire. With the help of demented servant Zolarr (Frye in a great, meaty role), he begins to murder. A woman driven crazy by grief (Emmett) suspects him, but no one takes her seriously. Once she starts to gain credibility, she is killed off by Zolarr. Elywn's chief target, however, is revenge against his brother. He appears to the startled doctor, and promises to suck the lifeblood from his beautiful niece Gayle (Carlisle). She's engaged to another doctor (Young) who, as Gayle starts to wither away, begins to suspect Lloyd of trying to kill her.

There are rumors all over town that Lloyd killed Elwyn and the townspeople, spurred by the murders, start to talk vigilantism. The sheriff blusters a lot, but accomplishes little. Eventually, there is a showdown between the undead Elwyn and brother Lloyd.The low budget, of course seriously hampers the film. The FXs are virtually non-existent. Zucco's Elwyn seems to fade away rather than pass through walls. The lighting is very poor. The script weak. Many of the characters are stereotypes. There's the rich doctor, the rich young couple, the crazy old lady, the blustery sheriff, the very superstitious townspeople.

The acting, except for Zucco and Frye, is quite poor. The direction, by cheapie legend, Newfield, is pedestrian. However, the plot is quite unique for a vampire film of that era. Film writer Frank Dello Stritto, writing in Cult Movies 27, describes Dead Men Walk as the best plotted vampire film of that era. However, Dello Stritto agrees the finished product is mediocre.

Nevertheless, Zucco is magnificent. The doctors are not cast as twins. It's amazing how different Zucco appears as the respected Dr. Lloyd Clayton and the balding, gaunt brother Elwyn. His timing and delivery is first rate. Frye's Zucco is menacing, and watching it is bittersweet, since the talented horror star died of a heart attack a few months after completing the film. Students of the early horror films, particulary Poverty Row Bs, should own Dead Men Walk. It's easily available on VHS or DVD.

"Dead Men Walk" is on UEN's Sci Fri Friday on March 20 at 9 p.m. on Channel 9 in Utah. Here is an essay from UEN on the film. It's a wonderful example of a low-budget 40s C horror film with stars (Zucco and Frye) that elevate the film beyond its low-budget production values. Watch the film above!


Here is the UEN information:

When your twin brother is way into the dark arts, do you really want him dead?The 1943 gem, "Dead Men Walk", features not one, but two (!) performances by George Zucco. As Dr. Lloyd Clayton, he's a kindly uncle and caring village doctor. As Lloyd's evil twin, Elwyn, he's a Satan-worshipping, vampiric goon bent on revenge against the gentle brother who shoved him off a cliff in an attempt to stop him.

It's worth noting that Elwyn learned the skills he needed to become a vampire on a trip to India. Western interpretations of vampire lore generally rely on ideas developed by authors such as Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, who found inspiration in the historical figure Vlad (The Impaler) Draculea. But vampires lived in legend long before Bram first put pen to paper and even before Vlad first put stake through victim.

Many discussions of Indian vampires begin with Kali, a complex Hindu goddess typically associated with death and destruction. When confronted with a demon that replicated from his own spilled blood, she solved the problem by drinking him dry. But this isn't exactly what most of us think of when we think "vampire." Not to fear: Indian lore offers a rich variety of true demonic-style vampire types that range from Brahmaparusha and Pacu Pati to Rakshasha and Baital, each of which have different origins and powers.

Anyone interested in ancient vampire lore would do well to check out the Indian story Baital Pachisi, a.k.a. Vetala Panchvimshati. First written in Sanskrit, this well-known classic is an early example of a frame story, one that places multiple tales within an overall narrative. In the frame for Baital Pachisi, the hero Vikrim pledges to present a sorcerer with a Baital – a vampire spirit who inhabits a human corpse at a cemetery. The Baital agrees to let Vikrim carry him to the sorcerer on the condition that the man doesn't speak until the journey is done, but as Vikrim lugs the weighty Baital down the road, the vampire tells him a story that provokes a response. Baital flies back to the cemetery and Vikram gets to try 24 more times, hearing a fresh tale every time. According to scholars, the original tale had a profound influence on European literature and contributed to Western frame stories such as Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. An English translation of 11 of the tales first appeared in 1870 under the title Vikram and the Vampire, by Sir Richard Francis and Isabel Burton. Numerous editions are available today, including e-books and paperbacks issued as recently as 2008.

Friday, July 6, 2012

At long last, found, Ed Wood's "Final Curtain"

The Ed Wood short film, Final Curtain, was previously thought lost. Portions of it had turned up in the Wood film, Night of the Ghouls. It's been found and premiered at a film festival last month in Florida. It's now on YouTube, in its entirety, and we share the bit of film history with our Plan9Crunch fans. Enjoy. I watched the film and it's quite a treat. The narration, provided by Dudley Manlove (Eros in Plan 9 From Outer Space) captures the unique, cultish, muddled, mysticism of Woodian dialogue. And the entire film is Wood's narration. Moore does a good job portraying an aged actor losing his grip on reality as he treks through a deserted theater at midnight. It's a creepy trek thanks to William C. Thompson's cinematography skills. Jeanne Stevens is suitable creepy as a vampire dummy who might have come to life. Perhaps it's due to the short running time, but suspense actually builds as Moore heads toward the climax. "Final Curtain" has the opportunity to provide for Ed Wood what "Vapors" did for Andy Milligan --- the chance to boast of a technically above-average film. -- Doug Gibson

The Astounding She Monster -- a curvy cutie!

By Steve D. Stones

What do you get when you combine all the poor qualities of filmmaking, such as bad dialogue, unconvincing special effects, amateur acting, boring long shots that seem to last forever, mismatched stock footage and frequent continuity errors? The result is a film like The Astounding She-Monster. Still, the film has many redeeming cult qualities to recommend it to any cult film fan.

For starters, She Monster was directed by a protégé of Ed Wood named Ronnie Ashcroft. Wood is unaccredited as a “creative consultant” for the film. Ashcroft made a film with all the markings of a Wood film. In fact, if the opening credits were left out, it would be easy to mistake She-Monster for an Ed Wood film. The opening credits even say: “Hollywood International Pictures Presents,” just like the opening of Plan 9 From Outer Space.

The music for the film is by Gunther Kauer. The same music was used for another cult film, The Beast of Yucca Flats. Actor Kenne Duncan, who appeared in Ed Wood’s Night of The Ghouls (AKA Revenge of The Dead), also appears in She Monster. Another Wood regular, William C. Thompson, served as director of photography. These qualities alone make The Astounding She-Monster an immediate cult item.

The film opens with a boring long shot of wealthy socialite Margaret Chaffee, played by Marilyn Harvey, leaving her mansion to drive away in a Cadillac. Chaffee is a wealthy Beverly Hills socialite. As she drives down the street in another boring long shot that lasts forever, she is stopped and kidnapped by Nat Burdell and Brad Conley, played by actors Kenne Duncan and Ewing Brown.

A meteor soon crashes high in the San Gabriel Mountains, bringing with it a sexy space alien in a tight spandex suit, played by Shirley Kilpatrick. Geologist Dick Cutler, played by Robert Clarke, and his dog Egan, witness the meteor crash near Cutler’s cabin.

Burdell and Conley are next seen driving the kidnapped Chaffee to the San Gabriel Mountains. A second woman named Esther Malone, played by actress Jeanne Tatum, appears in the car with them. Malone appears to be drunk. The group is forced off the road by the site of the sexy alien. Why she is called a “She-Monster” in the title of the film is anyone’s guess? She is any thing but frightful. In fact, she is very sexy and beautiful.

The group leaves their car on the road and walks to Cutler’s cabin. Duncan and the group force their way into the cabin and take Cutler as a second hostage.

Conley soon sees the She-Monster starring in the window of the cabin and leaves to investigate. He takes Cutler’s dog Egan with him. He and Egan are attacked and killed by the She-Monster. Burdell goes out looking for him and brings his corpse back to the cabin. The corpse is covered with radium poisoning. Cutler insists on going out to find his dog, but Burdell continues to hold him at gunpoint.

The group finally decides that they must get away from the She-Monster by leaving the mountain in Cutler’s jeep. While driving down the mountain road, the She-Monster blocks their path, forcing them out of the jeep. Burdell is attacked and killed by the She-Monster as he attempts to flee the jeep.

Cutler and Chaffee flee back into the cabin and are met once again by the She-Monster. Cutler throws a bottle of nitric acid on the She-Monster, and she immediately disintegrates. Chaffee notices the She-Monster’s necklace on the cabin floor. Cutler opens the locket to find an important message.

It turns out that the She Monster is an emissary sent by the Council of Planets with a message of peace for the earth. Cutler concludes that the She-Monster only attacked because she was forced to protect herself.

It’s interesting to note that The Astounding She-Monster follows in a long line of alien invasion-themed films that saturated the drive-ins of the 1950s. Hollywood produced many much better films earlier in the decade of a similar theme, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World.

Robert Clarke also starred in The Man From Planet X in 1951, which has a similar theme to The Astounding She-Monster. In Man From Planet X, the alien also attempts to communicate with those who encounter it, but is misunderstood as being an enemy from outer space.

Cult film fans are greatly indebted to Wade Williams for rescuing and buying the copyright of a number of films that would have otherwise been lost or never released on DVD, such as The Astounding She-Monster, Ed Wood’s Night of The Ghouls, The Cosmic Man and Cat Women of The Moon, among many others.

I’m still waiting for a Robert Clarke film festival to come to my town so that I can see Man From Planet X, The Hideous Sun Demon, The Astounding She-Monster, The Incredible Petrified World, Beyond The Time Barrier, Terror of The Blood Hunters and Secret File Hollywood all in one day’s screening. In the meantime I will be satisfied seeing these films on DVD. Watch out for that curvy cutie in a tight spandex outfit!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A tribute to the late, great Andy Griffith

Here at Plan 9 Crunch, we are fans of The Andy Griffith Show. Here's a review of the TAGS episode "Family Visit." Today, we remember the late, great Andy Griffith. RIP Sheriff Taylor

The Andy Griffith Show, Season 5, Episode 3, "The Family Visit." Starring Andy Griffith, Ron Howard, Frances Bavier. Guest starring James Westerfield and Maudie Prickett as Uncle Ollie and Aunt Nora.

As TAGS afficionados know, Don Knotts needed a few breaks a year from TAGS duties. Oftentimes, the Barney-less episodes lack the manic comic punch Knotts offered, but it often allowed others to shine. A good example is Frances Bavier's blend of comedy and pathos in "The Bed Jacket." Another Barney-less gem is "The Family Visit," which first aired Oct. 5, 1964. (It must be wonderful to be a TAGS fan who saw these episodes premier)

The episode starts with an enjoyable Taylors-on-the-Front-Porch scene where the family relaxing, is greeting other families on their way to preaching and spending time with relaxed chatter. Aunt Bee's observations about several generations of Beamers walking to church leads to reminiscing about their own relatives, and why they don't see them more often. It is finally decided to invite Uncle Ollie and Aunt Nora and their two boys for a weekend in Mayberry.

Once Uncle Ollie and Aunt Nora arrive, the comedy conflict arises. As the Taylors learn, our memories favor the positive, not the negatives. Ollie and Nora are nice folks, but a fussy, middle-aged pair who like to bicker. Their sons tussle with Opie. Nora wants to set Andy up with a "skinny widow with a bakery truck" -- "with the original paint," Ollie chimes in. Ollie, bless his heart, is an impulsive blowhard and house messer-upper. He also dreams he's riding a bike, as bedmate Andy discovers. In short, after a couple of days with Aunt and Uncle and the boys, the Taylors have had their fill of a family visit. Of course, that's when Ollie and Nora decide to extend the trip for a week. Andy finally gets rid of the family by calling a reckless bluff Ollie made earlier. There is a fun epilogue where Andy gives Aunt Bee an incredulous look when she pines to have Ollie, Nora and the boys back soon.

As always, Griffith, Bavier and Howard are good but the success of "Family Visit" must go to ubiquitious character actors and TV comedians James Westerfield and Maudie Prickett. Both were fixtures in mid-century TV and film and their comic timimg as a long-married, squabbling couple is perfect. Some of their best scenes include Nora forcing a busy Andy on the phone with "the skinny widow" and Ollie bullying a meek traffic violator. Westerfield and Prickett's squabbling over "Ollie always forgetting" is also classic TV comedy. Westerfield and Prickett's Ollie and Nora characters were, frankly, good enough to become regulars on TAGS or as a spinoff TV sitcom.

Notes: Westerfield played the character of "Big Mac" in the classic 50s film "On the Waterfront." He was in dozens of TV shows, including Mayberry RFD, and a fixture in westerns. Prickett later played an occasional roles as Mrs Larch in TAGS. She was also in Mayberry RFD and Gomer Pyle USMC and Bewitched and Dragnet. Uncredited roles included "The Music Man" and "North by Northwest."

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a review


— Directed in 1919 by German expressionist filmmaker Robert Wiene, this silent masterpiece has been regarded as the first cult film in cinema history. The film concerns a young student named Francis who encounters an evil magician named Dr. Caligari at a traveling fair. Caligari's "act" at the fair consists of a frightening somnambulist named Cesare, who has lain asleep in a coffin for over 25 years. When awakened, Cesare predicts certain death to Francis' friend, and is blamed for a series of murders that take place in the nearby town. (A scene from the film is shown above left) Story continued below)

(Watch Plan9Crunch bloggers Steve Stones and Doug Gibson discuss The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)

This film has many interesting characteristics of both German-Expressionist painting and film, such as the transformation of everyday objects — furniture, windows, walls and buildings — into unmistakable symbols that reveal a hyper-psychological essence and the opposition of the standards of naturalism.

"Caligari" is an important film in the history of the cinema because it lays the groundwork for many devices used in contemporary horror films, such as the use of the "mad doctor" or "mad scientist" theme used in many Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s, and the use of light, a sense of terror and tension in filmmaking. I highly recommend this film to anyone studying silent films.
(This review was originally published in the Standard-Examiner)

-- Steve Stones