Monday, March 31, 2014

Godzilla is on this author's mind

By Steve D. Stones

The following is a review of William Tsutsui’s book “Godzilla On My Mind – Fifty Years of the King of Monsters:" The enormous impact of Godzilla on all aspects of popular culture cannot be overstated. William Tsutsui’s hilarious and well researched book “Godzilla On My Mind,” published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2004, makes the reader aware of just how much impact the large rubbery reptile has had on anything from breakfast cereals, fine art paintings, rock music lyrics, political speeches, TV commercials and collectible toys. 

The appeal of Godzilla for me as a child was from seeing the giant lizard destroy everything in his path without having to clean up after himself – which is a dream come true for most children. As Tsutsui notes in his book – “Godzilla is a timeless and eternal icon. . . .  Godzilla’s not just a man in a latex costume, not just a cheesy B-movie hero . . . Godzilla is a state of mind.” It’s amazing to consider that the Godzilla films are the longest running series in motion picture history – spanning over 26 films in six decades.

The original 1954 Godzilla, entitled Gojiro in Japan, depicted the reptile giant as a merciless destroyer of Japanese cities – a metaphor of the devastation Japan suffered after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The films that followed after 1954, however, depicted Godzilla as a playful hero who battled other large beasts that threatened Japan. Godzilla even has a son named Minilla that appears in Son of Godzilla. This may be why children are drawn to Godzilla.

Tsutsui spends a considerable amount of time discussing why the 1998 Hollywood version of Godzilla was such a huge failure. How could viewers possibly take seriously a monster movie that places Ferris Buehler (Matthew Broderick) in the top role? The film fails miserably for putting too much emphasis on special effects with no substance. No one can make Godzilla films like Toho Studios in Japan, and the 1998 American version of Godzilla is strong proof of this.

Tsutsui also observes that some of the appeal of Godzilla had worn off after the events of September 11th, 2001. Viewers had a hard time stomaching the idea of a giant reptile toppling over tall buildings, when in reality this took place in Manhattan on that tragic day none of us will ever forget.

Tsutsui was once asked by a fifth grader at one of his Godzilla lectures if Americans enjoyed watching Japanese people die when they view Godzilla films. Unable to effectively answer the question, Tsutsui admits that the question has haunted him ever since the young boy asked it. The events of September 11th, 2001 and two wars in the Middle East have made us all very sensitive to death and destruction.

An interesting chapter of the book entitled Godzilla’s Spawn discusses all the rip offs and spin offs of the Godzilla films. Such films as the Gamera series, Ultraman, Yonggary, Reptilicus, the Mysterians and others are all direct descendants of Godzilla. None of these films reach the level of entertainment value of the Godzilla series. Godzilla could easily chew up these films and spit them out with no conscience.

Godzilla On My Mind is a delightful book that is mandatory reading for any serious fan of the Japanese Godzilla films. Happy reading!

Friday, March 28, 2014

George Arliss is the best reason to see the creaky 1937 adventure 'Dr. Syn'

By Doug Gibson

Recently, Scarlet: The Film Magazine, a twice-yearly publication that I highly recommend (its website is here) published a lengthy, fascinating piece from Frank Dello Stritto, a film scholar best known for his research on Bela Lugosi, on the Dr. Syn literature and movies. Dr. Syn has fallen into a memory hole, such as Svengali or the old play The Bat, but like those two literary offerings, it was extremely popular long ago and has had more than a couple of screen adaptations. (Dr. Syn, by the way, was a series of books by Russell Thorndike that dealt with a country parson in the southeast of England who in reality was a pirate, Captain Clegg, long thought dead.)

In the most popular book, "Dr. Syn: A Tale of Romney Marsh,' the good Dr. Syn is also leading a group of spirits smugglers. A squadron of British government soldiers are sent to investigate. Smuggling liquor, etc., is a serious business. It can lead to a death sentence. With the squadron is a creature called "the mulatto," who long ago had his tongue cut out, was tortured and left to die by Captain Clegg.

There's a lot more to the plot. Dr. Syn is trying to protect a young girl, Imogene, who loves a man above her station in life. He loves her too, so that helps. There's a brutish confederate of Syn's who wants Imogen for himself, and meanwhile, the soldiers, under Captain Collyer, are getting closer to discovering the spirits operation. It's quite an enjoyable cat-and-mouse game between Syn and Collyer.

In the Scarlet piece, Dello Strito reviews in detail three films that are derived from the Syn. novels. The first was made in 1937, "Dr. Syn." (here) It stars George Arliss, an elderly actor who apparently rivaled Lionel Barrymore in fame generations ago. Arliss is, indeed, a great actor. Although he's likely 20 years too old to play Syn/Clegg, he has tremendous screen presence and a voice that is both soothing and commanding. He has the ability to transform himself from a non-threatening, caring country parson to an angry, threatening force with the mere changing of his countenance, a quick movement, or a change in the timbre of his voice. It's quite impressive to witness.

And truthfully, Arliss is the only real reason to see "Dr. Syn." When he's not in it, it's mostly a creaky film with only adequate performances and little sustained drama. There is one great exception. The opening prologue scene, in which the mulatto is dragged to shore, his tongue cut off, and left to die lashed to a tree with a proclamation over his head. The scene is very strong and quite chilling for an era in Great Britain that frowned on horrific images in films.

You can see "Dr. Syn" on YouTube and it can be purchased easily. In fact, all of the Syn films, including the Hammer "Night Creatures," with Peter Cushing, and a Disney version with Patrick McGoohan, are available via YouTube.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The Screaming Skull -- Fred Olen Ray's favorite low-budget, five-actor, one-location thriller

By Steve D. Stones

Director Fred Olen Ray once said that The Screaming Skull is perhaps the greatest low budget film made with only five actors and one location. If it wasn’t for Roger Corman’s 1961 classic The Pit and The Pendulum, I would agree with Ray. The Screaming Skull has my vote as second best for a film limited to less than six actors and one location.

The film opens with an interesting gimmick of a coffin opening with a sign inside that says: Reserved For You. The narrator insures viewers that the producers promise a free burial for anyone who dies of fright while watching The Screaming Skull. I wonder if they ever had to follow through with their promise?

Next, a boiling stream of water is shown with fog as a skull floats to the surface and a loud screaming of a wild bird is heard. The bold letters of THE SCREAMING SKULL dash out in front of the floating skull.

Eric Whitlock brings his new bride named Jenny, played by Peggy Webber, who later was a frequent actress on Jack Webb's TV show "Dragnet," to his mansion in the countryside after having been gone for two years. Eric lived there with his former wife Marion, who died in the garden when she slipped and fell on a concrete wall, banging her head.

The reverend Snow and his wife arrive to meet Jenny and to bring the couple some groceries for the night. Eric informs reverend Snow in private that Jenny’s parents had died many years ago in a drowning accident, making her emotionally unstable, but also inheriting their wealth.

That night while in bed, Jenny hears a constant banging sound, which she discovers to be the wind banging some window shudders against the house. The next morning she tries to make friends with the shy, introverted gardener named Mickey by suggesting they take some flowers to Marion’s gave.

The following night Jenny has nightmares as the sound of screaming peacocks haunts her dreams. She wakes to the sound of a loud knocking on the front door. She opens the door to discover a skull on the doorsteps. What follows for the rest of the film is a series of Jenny finding the skull all over the mansion, driving her insane.

Eric suggests that Jenny is hallucinating, and that perhaps her nightmares are a result of a portrait in the house of Marion. Eric decides to burn the portrait as Jenny witnesses the destruction of the painting. As the couple rake over the hot coals from the fire, another skull emerges, causing Jenny to faint.

It turns out that Eric placed the skull in the ashes of the fire to frighten Jenny. His goal was to drive Jenny insane so that he could inherit her wealth.

By some supernatural force, the skull returns to haunt Eric, causing him to be struck by lightning and drown in his garden pond, the same pond where Marion was killed.

It’s unfortunate that many film encyclopedias give The Screaming Skull such a poor rating. I find it to be a fun little film worthy of any serious B-movie fan’s list of guilty pleasures. It’s a film that goes well with a large bucket of buttered popcorn and a soda drink at 1 in the morning. Who knows, perhaps the producers of The Screaming Skull may still promise you a free burial if you die of fright while watching the film? Happy viewing!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Our annual St. Patrick's Day tribute to Leprechaun

By Steve D. Stones

Long before actress Jennifer Aniston starred in the hit 1990s TV series Friends, she starred in the low budget horror feature - Leprechaun from 1992. Warwick Davis plays the role of the title character – Leprechaun. Davis also starred as one of the Ewoks in Star Wars Episode VI – Return of The Jedi, and went on to star in director Ron Howard’s film Willow from 1988.

A drunk Irishman named O’Grady returns to his North Dakota home after claiming to capture a leprechaun in Ireland and forcing him to reveal the location of a pot of hidden gold coins. The leprechaun hides in one of O’Grady’s suitcases to murder O’Grady and his wife when he returns home.

Before his death, O’Grady manages to trap the leprechaun by nailing him inside a wood crate. He places a four-leaf clover on top of the crate in hopes to keep the leprechaun trapped inside forever.

Ten years later Tori, played by Aniston, and her father move into the rundown O’Grady home. Tori and a house painter discover the crate containing the leprechaun in the basement. The leprechaun soon escapes and is determined to find his bag of gold coins.

Another house painter at the O’Grady residence follows a rainbow in the sky, which leads to an abandoned old truck. Inside the truck is the bag of gold coins.

For the entire film, the leprechaun terrorizes Tori and the house painters in an attempt to get his coins back. Writer-director Mark Jones manages to build tension in the first forty minutes of the film by keeping the leprechaun’s face in shadow or by projecting his silhouette as a shadow on walls. The tension soon dissolves as the viewer is revealed the grotesque features of the leprechaun.

Since Aniston has gone on to star in many big budget Hollywood films, it’s likely she no longer includes Leprechaun on her resume, mostly out of embarrassment. Warwick Davis has not gone on to star in many significant films since the Leprechaun series, likely because he is always conveniently tape-cast as a “little person” in every film he stars in.

Perhaps director Mark Jones and director Claudio Fraggasso should team up to create a Leprechaun-Troll II feature together? Both involve little green people and lots of green color. What great fun a movie like this could be. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Friday, March 14, 2014

An interview with James L. Neibaur, author of The Silent Films of Harry Langdon: 1923-1928

At the newspaper I work for, The Standard-Examiner, I have posted a review of two books, "The Silent Films of Harry Langdon: 1923-28," by James L. Neibaur, and "Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual Chaplin Specials," by Michael J. Hayde. The review can be read here at StandardNET. It will be published in print on March 16, 2014.

Here is an interview with James L. Neibaur, author of the Langdon book, from Scarecrow Press (link here), who was kind enough to answer these questions.

1) How did Harry Langdon go from a silent comedian eager to take direction from Mack Sennett and content to slowly develop his comic persona to one who felt strong enough to make out-of-the mainstream films such as Three's a Crowd and The Chaser? 

Neibaur: When Harry Langdon was new to movies he accepted the scripts and direction and did what he could with them based on his years of experience on stage.  When he made Pluck of the Irish, he found that director Harry Edwards would ask for his input and ideas, so Langdon used the elements of his established character more discernibly in this film.  That character was even further honed in subsequent movies.

2) What elements of Harry Langdon's edgy vision are in Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and The Strong Man?

Neibaur:  In Tramp Tramp Tramp , once he is convinced to enter the foot race that is the body of the film, his absolute focus on the task despite all obstacles there are surreal coincidences that compound to ultimately turn out in Harry's favor.  Perhaps the edgiest scene is when his rival convinces him to consume enough drugs and alcohol to kill him.  On the surface this is merely a setup to the next scene where a groggy Harry must be awakened the following morning to compete in the race.  But the idea of this child-man innocently and trustingly swallowing what amounts to a potentially fatal overdose is a good example of Langdon's edgy approach to his character.  A lesser comedian could not have pulled such a scene off as effectively.

In The Strong Man, there  are many instances where Harry focuses on one thing despite surrounding dangers.  In the battle scenes toward the beginning of the movie, Langdon is shown concentrating on a bothersome "cootie" so completely, he ignores the fact that enemy gunfire is whizzing about him.  When does realize he is under attack, he confidently pulls out a slingshot and fires back at them, never understanding the futility of such an action.  He is ensconced in his own surreal world where a child's toy from a child-man is an effective counter-action to bullets in the midst of a war. 

3) Critics of Harry Langdon have referred to Three's A Crowd as a pale attempt to imitate Chaplin's The Kid. I personally disagree but what is your response to those critics?

Neibaur: It is interesting that these "critics" do not also believe that City Lights is a pale attempt to imitate The Strong Man.  I am sure Langdon was influenced by Chaplin's success with blending comedy and drama for greater depth, but Langdon's approach was far less romantic and far more edgy and surreal. 

4) Do you think that elements of Harry Langdon's personal life. The end of his marriage, his battles with Frank Capra, influenced his desire to make darker, edgier films that he must have known would lose money?

Neibaur: I don't think so.  From my perspective it would appear that Langdon's vision simply clashed with Capra's.  Langdon was more interested in surrealism and Capra more interested in folksy sentiment.  As Langdon enjoyed greater success and was allowed more creative freedom, he wanted to explore these ideas.  Capra was put off by them, but Arthur Ripley appears to have encouraged them.  I don't think he believed these would lose money, however. I think he felt there was an audience for his more radical and original ideas.  There was, but not within the massive throngs of the mainstream.

5) How many years of training and other experience did it take for Harry Langdon to perfect his unique form of silent comedy that relied on long pauses, gradual realization, and scenes that took longer to get a punchline across? Did he learn it in vaudeville or was it learned with Sennett?

Neibaur: I believe the character was already there, and Langdon honed it as he started making more films and was allowed increasingly greater creative input.  The idea that he was a simple minded guy who was guided through every movement by others, and he had essentially no creative will or input of his own, is a long held story that is completely false.

EXTRA QUESTION: If you have time. How does Long Pants serve as a bridge between Langdon's Capraesque films and the later silent ones? And I'm haunted by Harry's expression at the end of Long Pants. What do you think his character is saying?

Neibaur: Capra wanted to continue with the more sentimental approach that had occurred in The Strong Man, while Ripley enjoyed exploring more offbeat ideas.  Langdon's vision was more similar to Ripley's.  He wanted to place his childlike screen character is more offbeat situations (like being court ordered to assume the female role of the household in THE CHASER, or attempting to murder his fiancee in LONG PANTS).   More interested in art than artifice, Langdon followed his creative vision without regard to box office success.  I don't think his character at the end of LONG PANTS is saying anything, actually, I think it is just a simple expression of remaining mired in a surreal world that would continue in the same way as his life went on.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mini-review of Strangler of the Swamp, a great '40s PRC chiller

This is a fabulous film, perhaps Producer Releasing Corporations best, along with Bluebeard, although I have a soft spot for The Devil Bat. The 1946 film is lean, just under and hour, directed by Frank Wisbar. It's based on a French film. The atmosphere is incredible. The swamp is other-wordly, and the rural Americans seem toexist in another time and world. Charles Middleton, the gaunt, frightening Strangler, was the Emporer Ming in the old Flash Gordon serials. Rosemary LaPlanche, former Miss America, has a purity an innocence that connects to the vengeful Strangler. A young, later to be famous as a director/writer Blake Edwards, is good as LaPlanche's love interest. Rural locals in the film are well cast as well. (LaPlanche later starred in PRC's weird "sequel" to "The Devil Bat," "Devil Bat's Daughter. Here is a small capsule review I wrote for "Strangler of the Swamp" as part of a column for The Standard-Examiner and later Plan 9 Crunch's main blog:

"Strangler of the Swamp" — Made in 1948, this atmospheric thriller involves a man, hanged for a murder he didn't commit, who returns as a ghost and assumes the role of ferryman at the swamp. Instead of ferrying passengers, he strangles locals in revenge. Finally, a young woman (Rosemary LaPlanche) prepares to offer herself as a sacrifice to get the ghost to leave. The strangler (Charles Middleton) was "Emperor Ming" in the old "Flash Gordon" serials.

As mentioned, a great 40s C genre film, better than most A productions of that time. Don't miss it!
-- Doug Gibson

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Love that old-time Toho! Godzilla versus Monster Zero

Godzilla versus Monster Zero, 1965, directed by Ishiro Honda, color, 93 minutes. Starring Nick Adams as Astronaut Glenn, Akira Takarada as Astronaut K. Fuji, Yoshio Tsuchiya as Controller of Planet X and Kumi Mizuno as Miss Namikawa. Schlock-meter rating: Eight and one-half stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

This is an extremely enjoyable, very campy monster-fest with shoddy but fun special effects as Godzilla and Rodan team up to defeat Monster Zero (also known as Ghidorah) and thwart the plans of the controller and the rest of the evil baddies who rule Planet X in a galaxy far, far away. Also, vampy Asian Kumi Mizuno plays a semi-robot spy who gets the hots for mumbling Nick Adams, the Marlon Brando of low budget shockers.

As is often the case with these wonderfully kitschy Japanese monster films, the plot seems to have been hatched out after an all-night mushroom party. Astronauts Adams and Takarada explore Planet X. There, they are told that Monster Zero threatens that planet and Godzilla and Rodan are needed on loan to beat him. The Planet Xers, to get Earth to help, offer a cure for all diseases as a swap for the muscle-bound monsters. Earth agrees but after the monsters are delivered, the baddies of Planet X pull a fast one, telling earthlings that unless they agree to be colonized, the three monsters will destroy Earth. Chaos results with lots of stock footage of wars and riots. All looks grim, but eventually hard-working scientists learn that a recently invented tinny sound can render the Planet X baddies insensible; also an electronic ray is invented to free Godzilla and Rodan from the computerized clutches of the Planet Xers, who are controlled by computers themselves.

The dubbing is surprisingly well done in the American version on AMC. Adams' Jersey persona is in great form as he utters lines like "dirty double crossers," "you rats," and even "baby!" during his romance with the spy Mizuno's Miss Namikawa. Notes: Adams and Mizuno were briefly lovers off the screen. They also starred together in Frankenstein Conquers the World. In 1968, Adams, who had once been nominated for an Academy Award before his career slipped, died of a drug overdose.