Friday, August 28, 2015

Queen of Blood a decent B sci-fi film of the '60s

By Doug Gibson

Not many know it, but the 1960s was a fertile field for low-budget science fiction space operas. Like 1970s slasher films, the sci-fi genre had not been co-opted by A studios yet. There was a wide variety of low budget scifi, running the gamut from Edgar Ulmer to Hugo Grimaldi to David Hewitt and even Mario Bava.

I'd say among the best of the lot was Bava's Planet of the Vampires, the worst including Space Probe Taurus and Hewitt's Wizard of Mars, although that kitschy film is still a lot of fun. Other mediocre offerings of low-budget scifi include The Human Duplicators, and also that silly film with Richard Kiel as an oafish monster that miniaturized spaceman overpower, when they're not making out with teeny alien women (can't recall the title). Hewitt's Journey To the Center of Time isn't too bad, though, despite its five and dime budget.

Somewhere in the middle, with a definite tilt toward the positive, is the 1966 scifi "Queen of Blood," which you can watch on Amazon Prime or buy as "Planet of Blood" from Sinister Cinema. As you can see above from the green alien woman, it has one creepy monster alien. I use the term "alien" because I think, not unreasonably, that this film played some inspiration for the eventual film "Alien." Our title monster is on a space ship with several astronauts, including an earth woman, and victims get picked off in solitary fashion.

So, the plot: Earth has discovered communications with aliens. The head of all this is a slumming Basil Rathbone, who chews the scenery well as a scientist/administrator who regards gathering and storing information on aliens as more important that the personal welfare of human astronauts, or frankly the earth's future. Speaking of astronauts, a couple of them are played by star John Saxon and future bigger star Dennis Hopper. The obligatory love interest female astronaut, and these films usually had 'em, was played by Judi Meredith.

Once earth learns that the aliens are in distress, earth sends some assistance. Eventually, our human astronauts discover a mysterious colorful (in the hue sense) alien woman (Florence Marley) who is as mentioned, creepy to the max. She doesn't talk, has a smile that would suit Medusa and shies away from any contact. While the astronauts are separated, she preys one the unlucky one, hypnotizing them and sucking out all their blood. The others discover their colleagues dead and the Queen of Blood asleep, with blood trickling from her mouth. She's satiated, until she wakes up again to feed.

Although on my first watch of the film I wished we could learn more about the alien, maybe have her speak, on second viewing I realized that keeping her silently mysterious, even after she's revealed as a killer adds to the sinister themes. Why is she doing this? Is she even aware of its evil, or is it normal behavior among her planet?

I won't give away any more of the plot except to point out that the film does extend beyond the action and horror to illustrate the callousness of scientific obsessives who care far more about keeping the blood-sucking aliens alive than the astronauts in their care. Rathbone is the chief example of this sentiment in the film.

Queen of Blood is a fun, at times shocking 1960s' offering. It was released through a larger studio, MGM, and made a lot of money, although the film has the look of a lower-budget offering. Saxon is good as the chief astronaut and Hopper exudes the charm that more audiences would discover.

Watch the trailer below and check this out if you haven't seen it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Kitten With A Whip - She'll Sink Her Claws Deep In You!

By Steve D. Stones

The first time I saw this film, I thought it could easily pass as a Russ Meyer feature. In fact, I had to look at the credits on the DVD cover to double check and see if Meyer's name was listed as director. Ann-Margret may not be a busty, big boned woman like Tura Satana or Haji, but Kitten With A Whip has all the ingredients of a Meyer film - an angry, sex starved psychobabe who manipulates men and leaves a trail of violence and bloodshed in her path.

Kitten With A Whip (1964) is said to be the film that ruined Ann-Margret's career, which is unfortunate, considering her performance is well done and believable. It could be that the film may have been too ahead of its time in 1964 in how it depicts violence and anger on the screen. Ann-Margret only mentions the film  briefly in her 1994 autobiography. The film has certainly earned its cult status, and is now enjoyed by a younger generation of fans.

Jody Drew, played by Ann-Margret, has escaped from a detention center after stabbing a security guard and setting the place on fire. She breaks into the home of a middle-aged socialite named David Patton, who is running for public office as a senator, played by John Forsythe. Patton discovers Drew sleeping is his daughter's bed one morning when his wife and children are out of town.

Drew parades herself sexually around Patton in a bath towel in an attempt to get him to be sympathetic to her situation. This is where she really digs in her claws, sort of speak.  Patton takes her to the local bus station after almost getting caught with her in the house when a neighborhood friend drops by to see how Patton is doing.

Drew returns to Patton's home and threatens him with a rape charge if he does not allow her to stay in the home. Eventually two of Drew's male friends arrive at the home and kidnap Patton, forcing him to drive them to Mexico. Patton survives a car crash in Mexico, while Drew and the two kidnappers are killed in the wreck.

The level of violence in this film seems almost unbelievable for its time. One of the hostage takers is cut in the left arm with Patton's shaving razor. The camera holds a shot as the arm continues to pour out blood. The other hostage taker is clawed in the face and chest, and Patton is also clawed in the chest by Drew in one scene.

Some critics have compared Kitten With A Whip with Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film - Lolita. Obviously Kubrick's film had a much bigger budget and does not employ the level of violence of Kitten With A Whip. Both films evolve around a sexually precocious female.

It's unfortunate that Kitten With A Whip received so many vicious reviews from critics at the time of its release. In my opinion, it holds up well, is well acted, and employs an interesting plot device that would be considered cliched if used in a more contemporary film. Happy viewing!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

'John Carradine: The Films' captures the diversity of the poverty row 'bard'

By Doug Gibson

There is a anecdote, in "John Carradine, The Films," that perfectly sums up the helter-skelter career -- and life -- of the late actor John Carradine, a man who would take virtually any role, so long as the check would cash. As producer-actor Tony Cardoza relates to author Tom Weaver, he and his associate, Coleman Francis, were traveling down the Hollywood Freeway when they noticed Carradine, in a convertible sports car. Coleman, spotting an opportunity, yelled for Carradine's attention, asking him if he'd discuss acting in a movie they were going to shoot.

Carradine suggested they pull over and go to a diner. At the restaurant, a deal -- for $600 advance money -- was hatched and Carradine subsequently had a small part in "Night Train to Mundo Fine," a hideously bad film that bored the few who saw it then, and later was played for laughs on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Incredibly, for what I'm sure was a few hundred dollars more, Carradine warbled the film's title song. That placed him in the same schlock legendary status as fellow horror actor, Lon Chaney Jr., who sang the theme song to "Spider Baby." (a much better film)

The year "Night Train ...." was released, Carradine also acted in "Munster Go Home," for big studio Universal, "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," for a tiny studio, and in "The Emperor's New Clothes," an early Bob Clark film shot in Florida that appears to be lost.

But that was a typical year for Carradine, always short of money, grabbing a few thousand wherever he could but still popular enough to to get cast in the occasional big-studio film. "John Carradine, The Films," from McFarland Press, was published more than a decade ago but it remains the definitive work on the melodramatic hard-drinking thespian who traversed through Hollywood, and many other shooting locations, for almost 60 years. Weaver's book is fantastic, a true labor of love, since the odds are probably slim he's made a lot of money off this extensive research. He provides magazine-quality features and recaps of Carradine's hundreds of films. And he's enough of a sleuth to ferret out information on Carradine's most obscure films, the cheapo westerns ("Cain's Cutthroats," "Five Bloody Graves" ...) that are poor imitations of "The Wild Bunch", the south-of-the-border Mexican thrillers --  including a yet-to-be-marked cult classic with Basil Rathbone -- that have yet to be dubbed into English, and not-released, or plain lost crap, such as "... Emperor's New Clothes."

Carradine merits this attention from Weaver, as well as tribute essays from contributors Joe Dante and Fred Olen Ray, both directors who worked with Carradine, who never retiring, died in 1988 at age 82. Despite the poor quality of many of his films, Carradine's participation, however slight, marks them as films worthy of note. Virtually every director, or other film crew member, that Weaver managed to contact offers only praise for Carradine, his work ethic, as well as his candor, and even bluntness. The elderly actor, battling crippling arthritis and trying to keep a fee of $1,000 a day from the cheap-set independents that always sought him out, would carefully learn his lines, deliver them well, and then leave the film, unaware of the entire plot and likely never seeing the completed film.

As many interviewees relate, while on the set, Carradine would regale actors and crew members with anecdotes and tales of his half-century of experiences as a prominent actor. "Great stories told by a master raconteur," is how Dante put it. Dante, by the way, directed one of the better late films that Carradine acted in, "The Howling." Another great story collected in Weaver's book is how Carradine, spending a few days on the set of "Shock Waves," a slightly above-average 1970s horror tale about zombie Nazis, put himself in danger by allowing five shots of his "dead body" in the ocean to be filmed in a pool. On the fifth take, as Fred Olen Ray relates, Carradine's head collided with a wooden dinghy strategically placed over his body. He was quickly rescued, and Carradine, about 70 at the time, collected his $8,000 check and was off to a new film. One can only repeat -- what a trouper. Years later, Olen Ray noted that Carradine claimed no remembrance of the film.

As the reader may have guessed by now, I find Carradine's later acting years more fascinating. There were fewer big-budget films -- two exceptions were "The Shootist" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" -- but the countless films, with titles such as "Horror of the Blood Monsters" or "Vampire Hookers" or Hillbillys in a Haunted House" or "Crowhaven Farm," or "Doctor Dracula" ... and so on, the recaps and memories paint a fascinating portrait of a hard-driven old actor, alone despite his several marriages and well-known actor sons, indefatigably pressing forward, knowing he alone had the power to earn the money needed to pay alimony, feed his body, quench his alcoholic thirst, and find warm places to sleep.

Carradine's acting career began in earnest in 1930, when he lodged a small part in the sound remake of the silent classic "Tolable David." He claims he was tested by Universal for the Frankenstein monster role. Carradine's salad days in Hollywwod were the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he was a contract player for 20th Century Fox. He was in "Stagecoach," "Cleopatra," several well-regarded films about the James boys, played Mormon enforcer Porter Rockwell in the big-budget "Brigham Young," and is perhaps best known for his role as the radical, irascible preacher in the classic "The Grapes of Wrath."

One gets the impression that Carradine would have shucked his career in films on a moment's notice if he could have made it big on the stage. He tried, particularly with his second wife, actress Sonia Sorel, to start acting companies. The legends of Carradine, usually in his cups, quoting Shakespeare on Hollywood streets are true. However, there never was enough money to leave films, and money became more scarce after he was dropped as a contract player. One of his best films, however, "Bluebeard," was filmed at ultra-cheap PRC studios in the mid-1940s. It helped that the director was the great Edgar Ulmer, a friend who was also on the outs with the big studios.

Factor in an ugly divorce, an unwise second marriage, constant carousing with the bottle, and alimony and support problems that led to infrequent jail stays, and Carradine's final 40-plus years were basically a sprint of frequent films that were the means to stay ahead, however precariously, of the many bills he was faced with. In the mid-1940s, Universal flirted with Carradine, using him as Dracula in two monster-fests, but the horror craze died at that time. As mentioned, Carradine would take just about any role offered. In two films, "Voodoo Man" and "The Black Sleep," he's almost hilariously cast against type, playing a moron in the first and a mutated, insane theologian in the latter. No role was too offbeat for this character actor.

As Weaver relates, Carradine's career was so significant because some of his performances are iconic. He can be the eccentric preacher, later mixing this persona with a western bounty hunter role. He was Dracula, with an interpretation that is still debated against Bela Lugosi's. He was a mad scientist in several productions -- usually with Jerry Warren and other cheapo producers -- with the fill-in movie role of narrator/scientist, usually spouting scientific babble to pad up chopped-up older films.

Film historian Gregory Mank provides a 50-plus page small biography of Carradine. It's fascinating, with much of its focus on the actor's dysfunctional personal life, his wives and his relationship with his children. The biography, as well as Weaver's research, leaves many questions about Carradine's relationships with his wives, his sons, as well as his agents. In fact, as good as Weaver's book is, and it is a must-read for film fans, it underscores the need for a serious, in-depth scholarly biography of John Carradine. He needs what Bela Lugosi has -- a biographer with the writing talents of an Arthur Lennig, Robert Cremer, Gary Rhodes, or Frank Dello Stritto, to probe his interesting life.

End Notes: According to Weaver, Carradine liked to call "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula" his worst film. It wasn't. My guess is he was struck by the ridiculous title, and plot. In later years, Carradine was fond of telling people that he had long forgot about some of the films he had been in. No doubt most of those were of the level of his Al Adamson, Jerry Warren films. Late in his career/life, director Olen Ray took advantage of a day shooting Carradine to film scenes that were intended for several films. As a result, some of Carradine's "films" were released after his death. Some of my favorite Carradine films, besides "Grapes of Wrath" and "Bluebird," are "The Unearthly," for his mad scientist role, "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," for his sheer hamminess, "The Wizard of Mars,' for its sheer lunacy and Carradine as the "Wizard," and "Cain's Cutthroats," an otherwise nasty low-budget revenge western where Carradine tears up the scenery as a Bible-quoting preacher/bounty hunter who collects his criminals heads as evidence he got them. I respect Weaver a lot and appreciate his work in film history and criticism. If I have one minor quibble with him, it's that Weaver often looks at cult films and/or low-budget films with a conventional critic's eye. As my co-blogger Steve D. Stones says, many of these films are malformed little puppies with a curious charm that one needs to watch often enough to love. The harsh criticism of a good Universal film, "House of Dracula," is a tad disconcerting, and even the grime heaped on a films such as "The Wizard of Mars" seems unfair. After all, Carradine is dealing with American General Films here, one step below even PRC and Banner Films of the 1940s. I recall something I once read in the now-defunct Cult Movies magazine, where Lugosi's Monogram efforts were compared to "Michelangelo working with a crayon." With that mindset, the films can become very rewarding and the same applies to Carradine, even if he's Dracula battling Billy the Kid.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Chaplin's Vintage Year reviews the series of early comedy shorts

By Doug Gibson

Despite the fact that Charlie Chaplin is generally regarded as the top silent film comic and his persona, as the Little Tramp, is iconic, few realize how incredibly popular he was almost 100 years ago. As Michael J. Hayde notes in his new book, "Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual Chaplin Specials," (Bear Manor Media) it was not uncommon for movie theaters to play a Chaplin short every day of operation. When the British-born star signed to make 12 two-reel shorts for Mutual, a film-exchange group that rented production facilities, he received $670,000 in 1916, an amount akin to about $15 million today.

The Mutual series of films are likely the most accessible of Chaplin's early work. As Hayde explains, they have been by far the most ubiquitous of this era. They were reissued frequently over the next 30 years, in varying formats, with different music, even in one-reel editions. One constant is they tended to make money. For as much as Mutual paid Chaplin for the series, it was a bargain, the 12 films grossed several times what Chaplin earned.

Hayde's book is part of the genre of film and culture where the minutiae of a subject is delved into. For historians, Chaplin enthusiasts, silent film fans, there is a desire to delve deeper into the subject. Hayde, who has authored a book on the Dragnet TV series and co-authored a deep biography of the silent/talkie comedy star Harry Langdon, is capable of fulfilling this duty. The history of the Mutual films, "The Pawnbroker," "The Fireman," "One a.m.," etc., provides a fascinating read. Chaplin was not an actor -- such as Ben Turpin -- who stuck to the same film company. Always seeking bigger paychecks and creative freedom, he moved from Keystone, to Essanay, to Mutual in rapid succession. After the Mutual series, the comic star bolted again. Mutual enjoyed a profitable but short tenure with the Little Tramp, and then faded away. Watch The Count below.

The "ins and outs" of the early movie-making business is described in loving detail by Hayde as it applies to Chaplin. The efforts to consolidate power by a few in the early days of cinema were doomed as the production spread west to Hollywood and stars realized that they were worth more than assumed only a decade earlier. As Hayde writes, as the 20th century began, films were logged at the bottom rung of entertainment, fir for the poorest of the entertainment clientele.

Even when a production company lost control of a star such as Chaplin, Hayde notes that there were still ways to continue making big dollars. Essanay, for example, used just about every extra stock of its Chaplin film to create longer "films" that piggybacked on the Mutual successes. This grafting annoyed Chaplin and others, who sometimes attempted legal action against the slapdash "films."

Many of the executives, film crew and co-stars of the Mutual films are profiled in Hayde's book. I found the life story of Edna Purviance, co-star of the Mutual film series and Chaplin's paramour at the time, to be most interesting. She eventually tired of Chaplin's roving romantic eye but remained on the Chaplin payroll for years until she married. After her husband died in the 1940s she was slated for a Chaplin-related comeback but it didn't happen. Nevertheless, she was on her former lover's payroll for the rest of her life.

Chaplin appears in Hayde's book to be a man focused on details, wanting more time and money spent than execs were comfortable with. If there is a shortcoming to Hayde's book, it is that the main man, Chaplin himself, remains an elusive figure. He's basically portrayed in the passive sense, reacting to events and personalities. To be fair, though, the subject of the book is on Chaplin's Mutual series, and not on the actor.

As for the movies themselves, they are superb efforts, which can now be seen as easily as surfing to YouTube. Their lives, from debut screens to revivals to additions in documentaries to Blackhawk status for collectors, to video, DVD and finally Internet access, is very interesting reading. An extremely detailed summary of the films, from scenes, titles, production, reviews, etc. takes up much of the second half of the book. My favorite of the films is "The Fireman," which encapsulates Chaplin's ability to create sympathy with the audience, despite his foolishness, by virtue of his inimitable mannerisms and deadpan facial expressions. "One A.M.," however, may be the most interesting of the films because it strays from the most successful formula, as noted in "The Fireman." "One A.M." is almost a one-man show from Chaplin. It's interesting that it was among the least successful of the series, it does underscore, though, that Chaplin was not afraid of expanding his artistic persona.

As Hayde notes, his usage of the term "vintage" means excellence with staying power. That defines the 12 Mutual films. Books such as "Chaplin's Vintage Year" are appreciates as they provide new information on a subject that has already been analysed from likely 1,000 different angles.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Today is the anniversary of Bela Lugosi's death

It's been 59 years since Bela Lugosi passed into another sphere of existence on August 16, 1956. His biographical is well know to many, including most readers of this blog. Suffice to say that he was a working actor until he died. Just prior to his death, he was promoting "The Black Sleep," a film he had a role in and shooting random footage with Ed Wood, some of which turned up in "Plan 9 From Outer Space. (To read the many obituaries published at his death, go to the Vampire Over London blog.) (I also published my review of Vampire Over London: Bela Lugosi in Britain in the Standard-Examiner newspaper today.)

At Plan9Crunch, we offer three links today to posts regarding Bela Lugosi, who has become the most famous, and iconic, figure from the Universal glory days of horror that began with "Dracula" in 1931. Lugosi did not require loads of makeup to play the vampire, his acting skills and personality defined the role.

So, let's celebrate Lugosi's Deathday. Read the posts below, and even better, spend time today watching one of our favorite actor's films. It's been a while since I have seen Bela as the Count in "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." My son and I will enjoy it again.

Here are three links, with a short snippet from each blog:

1) --

'Bela Lugosi In Person' captures the stage, personal appearance career of screen 'Dracula'

"He was a star, and a gracious star, attentive to fans and charmingly tongue-in-cheek sinister with the media, particularly local media, which pursued him often during his long stage assignments. Lost in dusty old-media files and updated media websites are reviews of the many plays Lugosi entered, as star, or supporting role."

2) -- 

A Tribute to Bela "Dracula" Lugosi

"I have seen "Dracula" scores of times, and Lugosi is the key to the film. He is a tall, courtly, menacing figure who promises a fate worse than death. And that is the appeal of these early horror films compared to the sadistic gore-fests of today — a fate worse than death awaits the vampire's victims. That fate is conveyed to perfection in the scene where Lugosi's vampire murders actor Dwight Frye's cringing, pathetic, mad disciple Renfield. Dracula's exterior is charming. But his filthy interior attracts darkness, fog, storm, chill winds, rodents, flies, spiders, blood and undeath."

Voodoo Man, Monogram's last Bela Lugosi production

"... it may be the best-paced, least convoluted Monogram film Lugosi made. It's ably directed by William Beaudine and looks like a lean, mean film-in-a-week film. (It was helmed in October of 1943). The plot involves Dr. Richard Marlowe, who kidnaps young lovelies in an attempt to transform their conscious life into his "dead" comatose wife, Evelyn (Ellen Hall)."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Cult films inspire art -- the work of Steve D. Stones

As readers know, Steve D. Stones is the co-blogger at Plan9Crunch blog. In fact, his work, Plan9Crunch is our blog logo. We've taken advantage of Steve's talents many times to provide art for blog posts. Steve is a professional, highly regarded artist and teaches at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

Today we are starting an occasional series in which we feature Steve's art and link to blogs that likely served as partial inspiration for the art.

As you can see above, the first art is a Post cereal box with Hideous Sun Demon Flakes. We have reviewed Hideous Sun Demon and the link is here. Here's an excerpt: In his autobiography “Robert Clarke: To B or Not to B: A Film Actor’s Odyssey,” Clarke mentions that he had a desire to create a film similar to the Robert Louis Stevenson story Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. He was impressed with Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde while seeing it in a movie theater at the age of 12. He wanted to create a film that would have much more substance than The Astounding She Monster. 

Steve's next art is a Vampire Crunch cereal with Nosferatu enjoying a meal. The link to a review of the film is here. And the excerpt: Max Scheck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is grotesque and iconic, a true screen legend that continues to haunt audiences even today. Scheck’s Orlok is more truthful to Bram Stoker’s vampire in the Dracula novel. More contemporary depictions of Dracula show him as a handsome aristocrat that attracts and repels beautiful women. Scheck’s Orlok is meant to be a frightening creature, avoiding any romantic references.

The final work of Steve's for this blog is Kellog's Creature Crunch, which features the iconic Creature From the Black Lagoon of Universal horrors. Here's a link to a review of "Octaman," a low-low-budget ripoff of original Creature. We hope you have enjoyed the art and the reviews. And here's an excerpt: Some viewers have described Octaman as a low-budget version of The Creature From The Black Lagoon. There are some similarities. For instance, there is a scene where the expedition is trying to leave the local area in their motor home. They encounter a fallen tree that blocks their path on the road, making it so that they cannot leave. This is similar to when the creature in The Creature From The Black Lagoon moves a fallen tree in front of the boat expedition.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Andy Milligan's 'Nightbirds' is a gem

By Doug Gibson

I'd been meaning to write something about "Nightbirds," a 1970 Andy Milligan film, helmed in Britain for the owner of a "cinema club," that apparently had virtually no showings. According to Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough, the cult director had a 16-millimeter print of "Nightbirds" that passed to the writer after Milligan's death. Eventually, McDonough (read an interview here) sold "Nightbirds" and other Milligan film memorabilia to filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who had the cash to get Nightbirds a Region 2 release courtesy of the BFI's Flip Side label. (Read) Living n America, I bought the film and watched it on my laptop.

First, it's pure Milligan, a dysfunctional love affair where a weak man, Dink, played by oft-used Milligan player Berwick Kaler, meets a striking manipulative blonde, Dee, played by Julie Shaw. They begin an idyllic affair in Dee's rummage-filled upstairs flat making love often (this is one of the more erotic Milligan films) and talking, although it's mostly Dink revealing his feelings. Despite Dee's interest in Dink, there's a remoteness to her. Eventually, the pair develop conflicts. One involves Dee's mysterious relationship with her male landlord. The other involves Dink's friendship with a flirty, very middle-aged friend named Mabel. In a scene that is pure Milligan, the queenish Mabel physically flutters around Dee, appearing both maternal and sexually interested.

The film is similar to "The Servant," in that Dee slowly grows more calculating and manipulative toward her lover, so much so that the viewer realizes she's playing a sadistic game with a much-weaker, more vulnerable prey. All of Milligan's routine misogyny is on display, although Dee is more multi-dimensional, and harder to read, than the average Milligan antagonist. Whether this is due to Milligan, who made his unique films quickly and in slapdash fashion, or the superb performance by the beautiful, "vulnerable-looking" Shaw, is worthy of debate. Most of the cast is adequate, Kaler pretty good, but Shaw is simply marvelous in her role. Had independant film been more popular 40-plus years ago, she may have become a star. As it is, she disappeared after this non-release, never making another film.

I won't reveal more of the threadbare, dysfunctional but haunting "Nightbirds." Go see the film, readers. Buy the DVD, and take advantage of the trailer above. I have a challenge for TCM Underground, or IFC's more disappointing Grindhouse nights. Get a Milligan film. Although my preferred choice would be "Torture Dungeon," I'm sure that "Nighbirds," one of Milligan's top 5 films, and more like "Fleshpot on 42nd Street" than "The Ghastly Ones," would be an easy grab for either network. Readers should send emails to TCM and IFC and get Milligan on. If "Nightbirds" makes it TCM Underground, the director's early gay short, "Vapors," (read) would be perfect for a TCM Underground short.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

'Final Curtain' Ed Wood does 'The Twilight Zone'

By Doug Gibson

Those who have read the recent BearManor Media book "The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood" are reminded that a previously thought-lost Ed Wood film resurfaced about three years ago (thank heavens it wasn't another porno). It is "Final Curtain," a film that had long tantalized Wood fans due to its partial inclusion in "Night of the Ghouls."

In "The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood," there is an interview with the pair who resurrected "Final Curtain," Jason Insalaco (nephew of Wood actor Paul Marco), and Jonathan Harris. After Marco died, Insalaco discovered production papers from the film in the late Marco's home. The interest led him to search for the film, eventually buying the decaying film from a collector. With Harris' assistance, it was restored and premiered at a film festival. Shortly thereafter it was bootlegged and placed on YouTube. That's where I saw it, although Insalaco and Harris say their original is a far better print.

It's an intriguing, odd film, an episode of a Twilight Zone-type series, "Portraits in Terror," that Wood failed to sell. It stars James Duke Moore, a perennial Wood star, as an aging actor trolling through a deserted theater in early AM after the troupe's last performance. Shot by William Thompson, it looks well on the computer screen, with appropriate shifts between light and dark. The film is all narration, done in emotional but unintentionally campy style by Dudley Manlove, Eros in "Plan 9 From Outer Space." Moore, a limited actor, is not too bad aping the moods and fears expressed in the narration.

The creepiest sequence is the complete scene of Moore encountering a vampire mannequin (played by Jeannie Stevens) in a closet who comes to life, flashing a sinister smile and beckoning the aging actor. This scene is also in "Night of the Ghouls." Stevens is creepy effective in the small role and it's the scene that comes closest to igniting any terror in the film. (Wood apparently made a second episode of "Portraits in Terror," the lost "The Night the Banshee Cried," and it's a safe bet that scenes of Stevens' character by a cemetery in "Night of the Ghouls" is what's left of "Banshee.")

In the new book, Insalaco, misstating Stevens' name as "Janet," claims that she's a mystery and that nothing is known about her. It's true little is known about her, but Rudolph Grey's Wood oral history, "Nightmare of Ecstasy," has a newspaper photo, from 1948," that shows Stevens and her sister, Suzi, pictured, listed as cast members of a Wood play, "Casual Company."

Many have criticized or lampooned Manlove's narration as overly melodramatic, and it is, but it's important to remember that Manlove was a radio announcer, skilled in that medium. It'd be interesting to just hear "Final Curtain" as a 30s or 40s radio show. It might have worked. Also, Harris notes that when viewed sans sound, it has a creepy element. It would also be interesting to re-show "Final Curtain" with mood music substituting for narration.

The final scene is fairly effective as Moore's character lifts the lid of a coffin. When it drops he is unseen, having entered the coffin for an eternal rest.

A rumor, more or less debunked, is that Bela Lugosi was reading the "Final Curtain" script when he died in 1956. However, it is accurate that Wood wrote "Final Curtain" with Lugosi in mind. Had Lugosi been alive and healthy enough to star and narrate, "Final Curtain" would undoubtedly be a lot better and may have made it to at least local Los Angeles TV 58 years ago. As it stands now, it's a worthy addition to Wood's body of work and we can be grateful to Insalaca and Harris for finding it and restoring it for viewers.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The People Who Own The Dark - A Post-Apocalyptic Nightmare

By Steve D. Stones

A group of rich capitalists and military men meet in the cellar of an old European castle to take part in a strange cult ritual conducted by a beautiful woman who lives in the castle. The men sit at a table in masks and are instructed to drink a potion mixed with wine while surrounded by young half dressed girls chained in shackles. As they drink their wine, an earthquake shakes the room tremendously.

After the quake, the group discovers that a nuclear holocaust has occurred outside the castle. Citizens wander aimlessly through town in sunglasses from blindness. The group forages the town for food and supplies.  Some of the innocent blind are murdered by the group.

Eventually the town's blind citizens raid the castle to force the occupants out, much like the zombies in Night of The Living Dead (1968) attacking a farmhouse with survivors inside.

It's not very convincing that a nuclear holocaust has occurred as the film progresses. Buildings are never shown destroyed, and cars in the streets look as if they could have been driven right off the showroom floor of an auto dealer. Streets are not littered with debris or destruction.

Plus, the title of the film is also confusing. Who are "the people who own the dark?" Is it the occupants of the castle who took part in the cult ritual? Is it the town's blind citizens wandering around disoriented? No scenes are shown during the night time, which further confuses the viewer in wondering who "the people who own the dark" are.

Actor Paul Naschy is the only well-known actor in the film. Naschy starred in a number of 70s European horror films. He also directed a number of horror films during his career.

Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon sells a good print of this film, both as an individual title or as part of their Drive-In Double Feature series with another 1970s film - The House With Laughing Windows. Happy viewing.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tod Browning's 1929 The Thirteenth Chair; early Bela Lugosi

By Doug Gibson

Tod Browning's early talkie, "The Thirteenth Chair," 1929, suffers from the common maladies of early sound cinema. It's static, talky, and seems a recreation of a stage play, which it really is, as virtually every moment is "drawing room mystery" with scene after scene of familiar rooms. Also, the camera work is stage-like, with stationary long and medium shots.

Nevertheless, it's a rewarding film experience for those who can endure the first half hour. The second half features a compelling murder mystery and fine performances by two cast members: Margaret Wycherly, as a medium and mother of the chief murder suspect, Helen O'Neill, played by an absolutely gorgeous Leila Hyams; and, a pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi, who lifts the quality of the film several notches with a strong performance as Inspector Delzante, tasked with finding the murderer of a despised "bounder," Spencer Lee. Lugosi takes command of the talky film and shows an energy and grasp of the English language that puts to shame rumors that early in stage and Hollywood he spoke his lines phonetically. (See him in a scene below).

The plot involves Sir Edmund Wales contracting a medium (Wycherly) to find the murderer. Hyams, a secretary, is engaged to be married to Richard Crosby (Conrad Nagel), son of the wealthy Crosbys. During the seance, Wales himself is murdered in the dark. As Lugosi's Inspector Delzante investigates, evidence seems to point to Helen (Hyams). That throws Helen's mother/medium Wycherly into a panic and she feverishly investigates to clear her daughter. Wycherle, whose husband, Bayard Veiller, was the author of the 1916 play the film is based on, shares compelling second-half scenes with Lugosi, even with the static filming, as she pleads for her daughter to the skeptical detective. (See a still of both below.)

The 72-minute film, released Oct. 19, 1929, has a strong twist ending that is both macabre and compelling.

Notes: Wycherle was a member of the original 1916 stage cast. The movie was filmed at least five times, in 1919, 1929, 1937and for TV in 1953 and 1954. The 1937 version is the one that is easily available via YouTube. Browning's version was also filmed silent, but that production is considered lost. The "Thirteenth Chair" is set in Calcutta with a typical English colonialist cast of characters. The play is free via Amazon Kindle. Lugosi and Wycherle both died within scant months of each other in 1956.

Monday, August 3, 2015

'What -- No Beer? is a pre-code curio with Keaton, Durante and prohibition

1933, MGM, 66 minutes, Buster Keaton as Elmer J. Butts, Jimmy Durante as Jimmy Potts, Phyllis Barry as Hortense, Edward Brophy as Spike Moran, Roscoe Ates as Schultz and Charles Giblyn as Chief. Schlock-Meter rating: Six stars out of 10 stars.

By Doug Gibson

What -- No Beer? is a curio, a relic from the past. The plot of the comedy deals with prohibition and efforts to repeal it, an issue which dominated headlines more than 80 years ago. It was a box office winner due to its stars, Keaton and Durante, but is generally regarded as a mediocre comedy of the 1930s. It was the pair's last film together. Keaton's drinking problem and absences from the set caused the studio to fire him even before the film was released. It was the start of a spiral into film oblivion for Keaton, and his career really did not surge again until television began to thrive two decades later.

The plot: Jimmy Potts (Durante) is a barber and Elmer J. Butts (Keaton) is a luckless businessman. Potts, incorrectly thinking prohibition has been repealed, convinces Butts to invest his money in a long-closed brewery. The stone-faced Butts moons over a pretty gangster moll named Hortense (Barry). He wants to be a millionaire so he can win her love. Seeing no other way to earn the million bucks, he agrees to get into the beer business. Police quickly raid the brewery and arrest the pair, but discover there's no alcohol in the brew. Later, they learn that a stuttering tramp at the deserted plant (Ates) was once a great brewer and real beer is made, which is a big hit. Soon the police and the mob muscle in on Potts and Butts.

There is a sexy pre-code scene in which lovestruck Keaton splashes sexy Barry's dress with water and she disrobes down to sheer underwear while the comic Elmer tries to avoid seeing what the audience is enjoying. The first time I saw this film Durante's obnoxious and loud character annoyed me but it does improve on repeat viewings and one is able to ignore Durante's excess and enjoy the time-capsule period and the final major comedy feature that Keaton starred in. His physical prowess is evident despite the boozing.

Durante bellows and brays and cracks many unfunny jokes. Although he is clearly half-bagged in many of the scenes, one can still admire Keaton. His talent for physical comedy is on display in several scenes, and his naivete and trusting demeanor leads to misunderstandings that bring laughs, particularly a scene where gangsters, sent to muscle him, interpret his bland replies as extreme coolness under pressure, and leave impressed.

What! No Beer? is not a great movie, but it's worth a rental to see an early sound Keaton offering.

'Werewolf of London' Universal's first wolf man

Werewolf of London, 1935, 75 minutes, Universal, black and white. Directed by Stuart Walker. Starring Henry Hull as Dr. Wilfred Glendon, Warner Oland as Dr. Yogami, Valerie Hobson as Mrs. Lisa Glendon, Lester Matthews as Capt. Paul Ames, and Lawrence Grant as Sir. Thomas Forsythe, Scotland Yard chief. Schlock-Meter rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The Werewolf of London, which pre-dates Lon Chaney Jr.'s The Wolfman by several years, drips in atmosphere. There's foggy London nights, remote Tibetan valleys and sinister chilly nights in deserted country homes. It's the tale of a London botanist (Hull) who travels to Tibet to find a rare flower which blooms when the moon shines. Also, legend has it that it serves as an antidote to lycanthropy, or literally, becoming a werewolf. In Tibet, Hull is attacked by a werewolf, and while fighting him off, is bitten on the arm. He returns to London with the flower.

Once in London, the workaholic Hull is visited by an Oriental colleague (Oland) who asks for the flower to help patients, or so he claims. Oland, who carries a charmingly sinister persona, hints that he was the werewolf Hull fought off in Tibet. Meanwhile, Hull's Dr. Glendon, much to his surprise and horror, become a werewolf. The transformation leaves him evil, and he kills several women when the moon is full. An old beau (Matthews) of Glendon's neglected wife Lisa (Hobson), visits the community and begins to suspect Hull.

This film is not too scary, but it's still very well made and very entertaining. Hull is a bit too skinny to inspire much fear and his werewolf is not too threatening or awful in appearance. In fact, the werewolves in this film aren't much stronger than the women they attack. Nevertheless, Hull's feelings of horror and helplessness at what has happened to him create strong pathos. In a particularly emotional scene Hull, desperately prays to God to spare him the werewolf curse. Then, he adds a final prayer, asking that at least he be spared of killing his wife if he be so cursed. In a way, Hull's dilemma is similar to John Abbott's in The Vampire's Ghost (Republic, 1945). They are reluctant monsters!

There are a few silly scenes of stereotypical neighbors and party guests who distract from the plot, and another subplot where the hero Matthews makes a play for Hull's wife, Lisa. But star Hull, despite his physical limitations, does a better-than-average job, and Oland also contributes to the fun. The music is splendid, and was copied in many other horror films of that era. The method of Hull's "werewolfism" is a flower plant. That was certainly changed by the time Chaney Jr. became the wolfman. Werewolf of London was a box-office flop for Universal, and that ended Hull's bid for horror star status. Still, the film holds up well today. Catch it when you can on Turner Classic Movies or you can buy it fairly cheap.

Notes: The film seems to have originally been envisioned as a vehicle for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in the Hull, Oland roles.