Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lugosi! Karloff! Ulmer! The Black Cat!

By Doug Gibson

The 1934 Universal Studios' The Black Cat is a magnificent film, the best pairing of stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. It is masterfully understated, both rivals mad but possessed of grace, dignity and impeccable manners. Lugosi is the good guy, but he's also crazy enough to skin the bad guy (Karloff) alive at the end.

The plot involves an American mystery writer, and his fiance (Julie Bishop) honeymooning in Hungary. They meet a courtly gentleman, Dr. Vitus Werdegast, who is traveling to meet an old nemesis, Hjalmar Poelzig, played by Boris Karloff. It reminds me a bit of the famous Hungarian novel, Embers. The tone of the film has a classic Hungarian fatalism.

While traveling to a city, a coach overturns. The young couple and Lugosi seek shelter at Karloff's forbidding castle. It is built on the site of a prison, where Werdegast was once held. He seeks his wife and daughter, who were in Poelzig's care. Karloff's Poelzig is the soul of courtesy, but that masks a truly terrifying evil. There are dark secrets in Castle Poelzig, and once Werdegast learns them he's driven to righteous madness.

Stuck in the middle of this is the young bride (Bishop) who becomes an object of desire to Poelzig. Naturally, that puts her husband in danger too.

This brisk, 65-minute horror film is well directed by Edgar Ulmer, who later hamstrung his career by winning the heart of a Universal executive's wife. The plot moves at a dignified pace, and what is literally a cinematic chess game grows more sinister until suddenly the horror of Karloff's character bursts out to the audience.

Lugosi excells at his role, that of a decent man with decent gestures who can't suppress his bitterness and longing. His final rage is memorable. There's little of Edgar Allen Poe's tale, just a cat that Lugosi's Werdegast has a phobia of and Karloff sometimes puts to use.

Horror fans, and Universal afficianados will love this black and white classic. Watch it in a single setting, marvel at the skill of horror experts Lugosi and Karloff. They deserve such respect.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Favorite Christmas films from Plan9Crunch bloggers

Hello Plan9Crunch readers, in honor of the holidays, bloggers Steve D. Stones and I, Doug Gibson, offer readers our five favorite Christmastime films. We hope you enjoy reading our picks and perhaps you will sample one or two as Christmas day approaches. So, here we go!
Doug Gibson’s list of favorite Christmas/holiday-themed films
1). “A Christmas Carol,” 1951: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge. a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”  Simply put, Alastair Sim best represents Scrooge as depicted by Charles Dickens.  His redemption after visits from three spirits is also the best, most joyfully portrayed on film. Old screen veterans Kathleen Harrison and Ernest Thesiger also add spice and cheer to this adaptation.

2). “A Christmas Carol,” 1984: George C. Scott’s portrayal of London’s meanest businessman is superb, and just a tad below Sim’s definitive portrayal. Scott gives Scrooge a faint of air whimsy and humor, even when he’s coveting pennies within sight of beggars. To be fair to Scott, it translates well to the screen. Edward Woodward, as an imposing, scolding Ghost of Christmas Present, is the best Christmas ghost captured on the screen.

3). “Going My Way,” 1944: Bing Crosby, as Father Chuck O’Malley is a joy for Christmas, mixing wonderful songs with a story about a talented young priest called to a struggling to secretly help a grizzled old veteran priest, Father Fitzgibbon, (wonderfully played by Barry Fitzgerald) back on its financial feet. Perhaps no other film captures life in the heart of NYC so well. The finally scene, in which Father Fitzgibbon is reunited with his mother after a half-century, will cause the driest cynic to tear up.

4). “Miracle on 34th Street,” 1947: This witty tale of Santa Claus on trialbasically made Edmund Gwenn iconic as who Santa Claus is. The most tear-inducing scene is Gwenn’s Santa speaking Dutch with a WW2 orphan girl at Macy’s. There are two main threads in this marvelous slice-of-NYC life film. The first involves a witty court fight to legitimize Gwenn’s Santa. The second is Gwenn’s quiet but effective campaign to teach a cynical mom and her impressionable daughter the true spirit of Christmas.

5) “The Shop Around the Corner,” 1940: I love this Christmas film, where two shop clerks, who initially actually have a history of disliking each other, share love notes as anonymous pen pals. Jimmy Stewart is great as the male lead, and Margaret Sullavan is beautiful as the shopgirl. This is based on a Hungarian play, and is set in “Budapest,” which looks like the most beautiful city on Earth.

Steve D. Stones’  list of favorite Christmas/Holiday themed films
1). Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964). This favorite pick is predictable, but how can anyone resist a Christmas movie with dopey characters named Drop-O, Keemar, Voldar, Girmar and Bomar? The acting, dialogue, make-up, sets and costumes are amateur, at best, but the film has a lot of heart. John Call in the role of Santa Claus is irresistible, and may be the only convincing character in the entire film. Watch for the cheap spaceships designed from toilet paper rolls and toilet plungers are used as ray guns.  No toilet humor is involved. The green Martian make-up is lightly applied to many of the actors, likely for lack of budget. Don’t miss it! See Doug Gibson and I review this film as a video-cast on this web-site.

2). Die-Hard (1988). Yes, believe it or not, this box office action yarn can be considered a “Christmas movie.” Not since Sylvester Stallone played John Rambo in “First Blood” (1982) has Bruce Willis’ John McClane action hero had such great appeal to mass audiences.  His famous “Yippy-Ki-Yah-Mother-Fu*#er” line has become a staple of popular cinema culture. McClane takes on a group of European terrorists on Christmas Eve who have seized a high rise building in Los Angeles.  The result is a dynamite, edge of your seat action film that never lets up, and allows the audience to cheer for the killing of every bad guy McClane chalks up on his arm with a marker. Willis is perfect in this role, and went on to make three more in the series. This is a film where you’ll find yourself cheering for police and law enforcement.

3). Scrooge (1935). Although there have been many screen adaptations with larger budgets of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” classic, this one is a particular favorite of mine because it was the first VHS video I ever bought with my allowance money when I was 13. The dated, worn out look of the film helps add to its nostalgic quality.  Ebenezer Scrooge is played by Sir Seymour Hicks, who also co-wrote the script. Hicks is perfectly cast. The film is as poverty looking as its subject matter, but is worthy of a viewing just to see what one of the first screen adaptations of this Dickens classic looks like. Most public domain prints run 58 minutes, but an extended version runs over 80 minutes. Even the 58 minute versions list the film length on the box cover as 83 minutes. Don’t be fooled by this.

4). Black Christmas (1974). It has often been said that John Carpenter’s 1978 film – “Halloween” ushered in the so-called “slasher” horror films of the 1980s. Halloween owes a great deal to this holiday horror feature. Beautiful Olivia Hussey plays a college girl with boyfriend problems living in a sorority house, who is terrorized on Christmas Eve by threatening phone calls. The phone caller-killer is never shown on screen, adding to the suspense. He hides in the attic of the sorority house, which makes perfect since, considering how cold it is outside on Christmas Eve. The film was also marketed as Silent Night, Evil Night and Stranger In The House.

5). Santa Claus (1959). Not to be confused with the 1994 Tim Allen movie, or the 1985 Dudley Moore film of the same title, this bizarre 1959 Mexican import is notorious for VHS prints that cut out scenes involving the devil. Santa Claus also shows scenes of children from different countries
singing Christmas carols in their native languages at Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. The film has a moral tale to warn children not to steal the toys they want just because their parents may not have the money to buy them for Christmas.  It’s not known why public domain prints cut out all the scenes of the devil, but those scenes depict the devil as playful and ridiculous and are an important part of the film. Perhaps the scenes were cut so as not to scare children?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Andy Griffith Show Christmas episode

Perhaps the best Christmas episode ever from a TV show was The Christmas episode of The Andy Griffith Show, aired in December 1960, with character actor Will Wright as the mean Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver. Wright (here is his imdb page) was made to be Ben Weaver, the lean, old, cranky businessman with the secret heart of gold. Wright played Weaver thrice in memorable episodes before his death in 1962. The character of Ben Weaver was never as effective on TAGS, although other actors, including Tol Avery, played the role. Above is a scene from The Christmas episode on TAGS and below is a re-run of my review of this wonderful 24-minute or so show.

The Andy Griffith Show, Season 1, Episode 11, "The Christmas Story." Starring Andy Griffith, Don Knotts Ron Howard, Frances Bavier and Elinor Donahue. Guest starring Sam Edwards, Margaret Kerry and Joy Ellison as Sam, Bess and Effie Muggins, Will Wright as Ben Weaver.

Review by Doug Gibson

Most successful TV situation comedies tend to have a Christmas episode and for some reason they are often produced in the first season: think "Mary Tyler Moore Show, "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days." TAGS was no exception producing its Christmas-themed show in the 11th episode. It's a well-paced, funny, heartwarming tale that features Ben Weaver, Mayberry's most prominent merchant, a cranky, stooped-shouldered somewhat Dickensian figure with a well-hidden heart of gold tucked behind his gruff exterior.

The plot involves Weaver (Will Wright) dragging in moonshiner Sam Edwards to the courthouse on Christmas Eve and demanding that Edwards be locked up. A big Christmas party is being planned and Andy asks Ben if he'll let Edwards have a furlough through Christmas. True to form Weaver refuses. It looks like the Christmas Party is off, until Andy invites Edwards wife, Bess, (Kerry), and daughter, Effie, (Ellison), to stay in the jail with dad. In a funny scene, Andy overrides Ben's objections by cross-examining Sam's smiling kin, who admit they knew about the moonshining!

Other amusing parts are Andy teasing Barney for being called "Barney Parney Poo" by his sweetheart, Hilda May, in a card, and a skinny Barney, with a bad white beard, playing Santa Claus.
The funny plot seamlessly turns serious as a lonely Weaver, his Grinch-like plans foiled, tries to get himself arrested. Writer Frank Tarloff -- who penned 9 TAGS episodes -- deserves a tip of the hat for his funny, ironic script. Ben's plans to get busted are foiled when party-goers, including Ellie, either pay his fines or donate "stolen property" to him. Finally, in a scene that can bring tears, we see a lonely Ben Weaver, standing in an alley, peeking through the jail window bars, softly singing along with a Christmas Carol sung in the courthouse.

I won't give way the end for the very few who might still have missed the show, but it should be noted that perhaps the reason TAGS never again attempted a Christmas episode is that it could never have topped this. Wright as Ben Weaver is simply magnificent. His page on says he looks as "if he was born old." The grizzled, stooped ex-Western actor actually died at the relatively young age of 68. He played Ben Weaver in three TAGS episodes, the last before his death of cancer. Several other actors played Weaver in later episodes, but only one, Tol Avery, captured even a smidgen of the cranky magic Wright gave the role.

He was, and remains, Mayberry merchant Ben Weaver to TAGS fans. In his three episodes, Weaver created a happy Christmas, saved a family from homelessness and gave a tired traveling merchant a job.
Notes: "Family members" Edwards, Kerry and Ellison were the same family Wright's Weaver threatened with eviction in another TAGS episodes. They were the Scobees. Knotts' Fife played Santa Claus, in full costume and "ho ho hos." Donahue's Walker sang "Away in the Manger." Season 1 was a little uneven, with the cast developing their roles. Knotts was still being too often used only for manic comic relief. Taylor's Andy was still the impetus for most humor. In the second season Sheriff Taylor would began to react to the humorous situations of others, and the show would move to its current classic status as a result.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I Cannot, Yet I Must - A Book About Robot Monster

Review by Steve D. Stones

Unlike so many of the films we review here at Plan 9 Crunch, Robot Monster is a film that immediately appealed to me. Its strong elements of surrealism, the monster's bizarre costume with a diving helmet, strange dinosaur stock footage and a story told from the point of view of a child in his dream, makes it an interesting film. Robot Monster is the film that director Phil Tucker will always be best remembered for. (Above art is by Steve D. Stones).

Author Anders Runestad's book - I Cannot, Yet I Must: The True Story of The Best Bad Monster Movie of All Time (published by Radiosonde Books - 2016) does not leave a stone unturned when it comes to all things Robot Monster. Everything you ever wanted to know about director Phil Tucker, writer Wyott Ordung and producer Al Zimbalist is covered in this book. Details about the life and careers of the main actors of Robot Monster is also covered.

The book discusses the stories surrounding Tucker's suicide attempt shortly after the premiere of Robot Monster in 1953. A letter written by Tucker at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel before his attempt is published in the book. Many believe his suicide attempt was a publicity stunt to keep his name in the headlines after the poor reception of Robot Monster. Tucker's son, Phil Jr., mentions that his father was too upbeat and full of  life to have tried to commit suicide. He believes his father enjoyed life too much to have wanted to commit suicide.

One particularly interesting section of the book contrasts the script of Robot Monster with what was actually filmed and put on the screen. For example, the script indicates that when Alice, played by actress Claudia Barrett, confronts Ro-Man in an attempt to save her family, she is supposed to be "as undressed as the law will allow," and tells him that she can only really love him if she can be allowed to know everything about him. Obviously this is one of many script details that is not in the finished film. Many other script omissions are also mentioned.

Tucker also had a relationship with beatnik comedian and satirist Lenny Bruce.  The two were involved in a film together in 1956 called Dance Hall Racket about a dance club being used as a front for diamond smugglers.

Tucker is said to have also been involved in Ed Wood's cult masterpiece - Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Tucker often gets compared to Wood by critics, but the distinct difference of the two men is that Tucker acknowledged that he was making bad films, and Wood felt that his films were great. Timothy Farrell, an actor employed by both Wood and Tucker, once told Wood biographer Rudolph Grey that Wood and Tucker both knew each other, but said they did not like each other.

It's unfortunate that Tucker's Wikipedia page does not list two of his lost films - Pachuco (1957) and Space Jockey (1953). Both films are discussed in great detail in the Anders book. Fans have long waited to see both films, particularly Space Jockey. Tucker claims it is his worst film, even in comparision to Robot Monster. Both films were made the same year.

Tucker eventually got fed up with the tough Hollywood system and stopped directing altogether. He spent the later part of his life as a film editor for films and TV shows because it provided steady income. He was working as a dishwasher in a restaurant at the time he directed Robot Monster.

Anders mentions that the Al Zimbalist-produced film - Cat Women of The Moon, also from 1953, is the perfect companion film to Robot Monster. He contrasts some of the similarities of the two films. Both films employed the music of Elmer Bernstein, a respected composer in Hollywood in the 1950s.

Rhino Video released a 3-D VHS print of both Robot Monster and Cat Women of The Moon with 3-D glasses in the mid-1990s. The 3-D treatment does not work, even with the glasses on, but nevertheless, these two videos are a treasure to have for Phil Tucker-Al Zimbalist fans. Happy reading. And watch the film in its entirety here.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Drakula Halala -- the first filmed Dracula

Recap by Doug Gibson

"Drakula Halala," a 1921 Hungarian/Austrian film, is considered the first "adaptation" of the Bram Stoker novel. The film is lost; all that remains are stills and news reports, including a small novelization of the film. Above are the stars of the film, Paul Askonas as Drakula, and Margit Lux as Mary Land, the young lovely he menaces.

Scholar Gary D. Rhodes has the past several years become the man who fills in the pieces of a 50,000-word puzzle of the history of Dracula, Bela Lugosi and Ed Wood. Rhodes recently wrote an essay on the history of "Drakula Halala," which more or less means "Dracula's Death." He also translated the novella from the Hungarian.

I've always been fascinated with this film, and I am appreciative of Rhodes' essay, which will be the template for this post. The essay is part of a new book that Rhodes has co-edited with Olaf Brill, Expressionism in the Cinema, published by Edinburgh University Press.

Rhodes is the postgraduate director for Film Studies at the Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Brill is a German writer on film with an impressive resume. Rhodes notes that from his research, it seems that "Drakula Halala" was an expressionistic film. In what makes one ache to see this lost film, he sees similarities with "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Certainly, the novella compares to Caligari in plot.

I urge readers to buy Expressionism in the Cinema and learn more about "Drakula Halala." I will present a short recap of Rhodes' translation of the novella and afterwards mention a few facts unearthed by Rhodes in the chapter.

The melodrama, suffering, despair and pessimism that is ingrained in the Hungarian culture is represented in Rhodes' translation. Mary Land lives alone, a seamstress working long hours to support her father, confined to a mental institution after the death of his wife. The family was once happy and wealthy, but all that is gone. Mary's boyfriend, a woodcutter named George, implores her to rest but Mary will not.

Eventually, Mr Land's death appears near and Mary and George travel to the asylum. Left there by George, Mary talks with Dr. Tillner. Left alone she is accosted by several of the inmates, including a sadistic man, Drakula, who believes he is immortal. Another, who laughs, is called the "Funny Man." Mary visits her father, who dies. Overcome by sorrow and the fear of Drakula and other inmates who visit her and pretend to be doctors, Mary is advised to spend the night in the asylum.

That night, alone, Mary is kidnapped by Drakula and taken to his castle, where he says, they will be married. Mary's revulsion, her cross and the light push Drakula away from her. He promises to return for their wedding when night comes. That evening there is an elaborate wedding ceremony prepared with other brides of Drakula. It's a strange ceremony, with elaborate lights, shrill music and flowers flowing from the ceiling. Just before Drakula kisses her, Mary pushes the cross toward him. Everyone flees, including Mary.

Outside the castle, Mary is rescued by a family. An attempt by Drakula to recapture her fails. A real doctor cares for her until he is led away on a fool's errand by Drakula. He returns to Mary before any harm can come to her. Nevertheless, thoughts of Drakula torture her in her bed, and seeking relief, she runs out of the house and into the cold snow.

We then cut back to the asylum, where Dr. Tillner is conducting his rounds. Mary is sleeping. The nurse informs the doctor she's had a terrible night of bad dreams.

Mary's kidnapping, attempted marriage and flight was all a dream.

Outside, in the courtroom, the mental patients are gathered. The "Funny Man" has a gun. Seizing an opportunity to prove his immortality, Drakula goads the "Funny Man" into shooting him. He does and Drakula dies.

George returns to gather Mary. They return home to a lifetime of happiness.  Mary requests that no one ever speak of Drakula, and asks that a manuscript of his be burnt. (Below is a still of the wedding scene in "Dracula Halala.")

The film, if the novella is correct, is hardly Stoker's "Dracula." Maybe they wanted to exploit the Dracula cultural sensation without paying any royalties to Stoker's widow, Florence. In later years, she would shut down "Nosferatu" and nearly destroy every print due to copyright violation.

The director of "Drakula Halala" was Karoly Lajthay, who acted in films with a young Bela Lugosi. It was shot mostly in Vienna but created by Hungarians. Interiors were shot in Budapest. Askonas had also played the sinister, mesmerizing Svengali in a 1912 version of "Trilby." Lux has appeared in the Mihaly Kertesz co-directed "Alraune."

Kertesz later became the famous director Michael Curtiz. He worked with Lugosi, his future expatriate, in Hungarian cinema. Curtiz was one of three screen writers credited for "Drakula Halala."

Rhodes' recounts publicity and advertising efforts for the film. There were expectations of a long showing of the film in Hungary. But that didn't happen. The film premiered in Vienna in 1921 but only played briefly in Budapest during the spring of 1921.

It's anyone guess as to why the film had a limited showing. Rhodes merits our appreciation for unearthing the information he has discovered. It may be that tucked away, forgotten in an Eastern European film vault, exists a print of "Dracula Halala." Only time well tell. Rhodes, nevertheless, has intrigued us enough to want to know more about the "first Dracula film."

Friday, December 2, 2016

Freaky, funky Christmas films!

(This essay originally ran in the Dec. 20, 2007 Standard-Examiner)

By Doug Gibson

Every December (or after Thanksgiving!)  the best Christmas films pop up on TV: "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "Going My Way," "The Shop Around the Corner," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" — I refer to the Boris Karloff-narrated cartoon — "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" and, of course, that other Jimmy Stewart classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

We all have our favorite Christmas cinema moments. George Bailey's joyous run through Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge dancing for joy on Christmas morning, Macy's Kris Kringle speaking Dutch to a World War II orphan girl, and my favorite, crusty but lovable Father Fitzgibbon's surprise reunion with his mother after decades apart.

There are great holiday films. Much has been written about them. But today let's spill some ink about the other Christmas films, the kitschy ones. They're all over the dial. Just turn on the Hallmark Channel!

Most aren't worth five minutes of our time, but some still spread holiday magic. We've all heard of "A Christmas Carol" or "Scrooge," but how many recall the Fonz — Henry Winkler — starring in "An American Christmas Carol"? There are two well-received versions of "Miracle on 34th Street," but do you recall the kitschy 1973 TV version in which the lawyer was played by actor-turned-newsman David Hartman?

Even the biggy, "It's a Wonderful Life," has a kitschy cousin. Remember "It Happened One Christmas," the gender-switching knockoff starring Marlo Thomas?

Indeed, the competition is fierce for those kitschiest Christmas movies that still entertain us. But here are three finalists, all made on the cheap, yet still being sold and garnering holiday TV showings.

So, without further adieu, here is the best kitschiest Christmas film:

"Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" — This 1964 film was shot in an abandoned airport hangar in Long Island, N.Y., using many minor cast members from a NYC stage production of "Oliver Twist." It has a catchy theme song, "Hurray for Santy (sic) Claus," that you'll hum afterward. The plot involves Martians coming to earth, kidnapping Santa and whisking him away to cheer up the Martian kiddies. Two earth children are kidnapped along with Santa. Santa and the earth kids fight off a Martian baddie, prep a goofy Martian to become that planet's Santa, and launch off to earth in the spaceship. We never know if they made it home — perhaps the budget didn't allow that. The acting has to be seen to be believed, but the film has a goofy charm. It was a big hit on the now-gone "weekend matinee" circuit and played theaters for years. Pia Zadora, who was briefly a sexy starlet in the 1980s, plays one of the Martian children. John Call, as Santa, does a mean "ho, ho, ho." (Update, in 2011 holiday season this film played at the North Ogden Walker Cinemas for $2 plus a donated can of food!)

And now, the second-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa Claus" — Don't confuse this 1959 Mexican film with Dudley Moore's "Santa Claus: The Movie" or Tim Allen's "The Santa Clause" films. This import is weird and a little creepy, but it sticks with you. Old Kris Kringle is a sort of recluse who talks to himself and lives in a castle in outer space. He has no elves. His helpers are children from around the world who can't sing very well, though they belt out a lot of songs. Santa's reindeer are, I think, plastic and he uses a key to start them. Santa also works out on an exercise belt to slim down for the chimneys. For some reason Santa hangs out with Merlin the Magician. Enter "Pitch," a devil. His goal is to stop Santa from delivering presents. Pitch is a wimpy fellow in red tights and wears what looks like a short middy skirt. Santa and Merlin foil Pitch's nefarious plans. The film also focuses on two children, a poor girl and a rich, neglected boy, who resist Pitch's temptations. There are magic flowers and even special drinks. Santa glides safely to a chimney using a parasol. If this film sounds to readers like the after-effects of taking two Percocet, you got the gist of it. Watch it below!

Finally, the third-best kitschiest Christmas film:

* "Santa and the Three Bears" — If you lived in Southern California long ago, this 1970 blend of live action and cartoon was a Thanksgiving afternoon staple on KTLA Channel 5. The animation is mediocre, but the story has a simple charm. A forest ranger teaches two excitable bear cubs about Christmas while their grouchy mother bear wants them to hibernate for the winter. The ranger agrees to play Santa for the cubs on Christmas Eve, but a storm keeps "Santa" away ... or does it? The best part of the film is the live-action beginning and ending, where the ranger sits by the Christmas tree with his grandaughter, a sleepy cat and many toys. The ranger is voiced and played by Hal Smith, best known as Otis the town drunk on "The Andy Griffith Show." Grumpy Mama Bear was voiced by Jean Vander Pyl (Wilma on "The Flintstones"). The uncredited director is Barry Mahon, who made soft-core sex films in the 1960s with such titles as "Nudes Inc." and "The Sex Killer."

A footnote: These films can occasionally be found on TV. Indeed, "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians" and "Santa Claus" are usually broadcast a Friday in December on KULC Channel 9 in Utah at 9 p.m. Antenna TV plays "... Martians" during the Christmas season. Both Santa Claus films mentioned here have also been spoofed by the snarky robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Sh! The Octopus - A Fun Lighthouse Mystery

By Steve D. Stones

This 1937 comedy-mystery feature produced by Warner Brothers is loosely based on a stage play known as The Gorilla, then later made as a 1930 talkie, and was then made into a comedy starring the Ritz brothers in 1939. In this version, an octopus is substituted for the gorilla role. The script has many miles on it from its various filmed versions. The film stars two great comedy veterans - Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins as bumbling police detectives. They provide great comic relief to the film.

A young artist named Paul Morgan, played by John Eldredge, purchases a secluded lighthouse so he can work in private on his marine paintings. Captain Cobb (Brandon Tynan) escorts Morgan into the lighthouse and tells him the place has not been occupied for over twenty years. Morgan finds evidence that this is not true. A soft, warm candle is on the table, indicating that someone has been there recently. A knock at the door reveals another local captain - Captain Hook, who is the only other person with keys to the lighthouse.

Meanwhile two police detectives, Kelly (Hugh Herbert ) and Dempsey (Allen Jenkins)  are traveling on the mainland by car in the pouring rain when a tire blows out. They stop to change the tire and are confronted by a screaming attractive woman named Vesta Vernoff (Marcia Ralston) soaked by the rain. Just before the tire blows out, a radio report in the car tells of an octopus sinking a ship. Vernoff tells of seeing her stepfather's corpse at the lighthouse and of an octopus that lives in the bottom of the lighthouse.

When Vernoff and detectives Kelly and Dempsey arrive at the lighthouse, a hanging corpse is discovered at the top of the lighthouse dripping blood on the table below. Kelly and Dempsey try to investigate, but discover that the stairs of the lighthouse have been removed. A secret panel opens in the wall, and the detectives find some stairs that lead to the hanging corpse. The corpse turns out to be a stuffed dummy with a bottle of ketchup dripping on the table below.

I won't spoil any more of the plot, but some of the fun elements of this film are of scenes of octopus tentacles reaching out from behind doors and a curtain. Somehow the octopus manages to get out of the water below the lighthouse and make it to the main level to reach out behind the doors and curtains to scare the main characters.

Another fun sequence shows a pair of Detective Kelly's shoes hopping around, which is later revealed to be toads inside the shoes. A turtle with a lighted candle on its back burns the seat of Kelly's pants as he is sitting in a chair. Kelly's scuba outfit fills up with water in another hilarious scene as Dempsey and Morgan try to deflate all the water out of the suit.

In March of 2008, Turner Classic Movies played this film on a double-feature with another octopus film - It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955). For further information about Sh! The Octopus, refer to Gary and Susan Svehla's entertaining book - Guilty Pleasures of The Horror Film, published by Midnight Marquee Press, Inc. in 1996.  Happy viewing.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Glove Slingers' Fresh as a Freshman -- a Columbia comedy short

By Doug Gibson

It's been several months since we posted a review of one of the lesser (read non-Three Stooges) Columbia comedy shorts, so let's continue this infrequent series with the 1941 short, "Fresh as a Freshman," (watch it above courtesy of The Columbia Shorts Department).

"Fresh as a Freshman" was part of The Glove Slingers series of comedy shorts. It followed the life of young boxer Terry Kelly, played by David Durand in this offering, but there were three Terrys in the series. As Ed Watz and Ted Okuda note in their book The Columbia Comedy Shorts, the Glove Slingers were a sequential series, rare for the Columbia shorts.

But this presented some problems with finding a theme for the series. Initially, Terry is a boxer, but then he goes off to college, with romance, songs and dance and the inevitable fistfight climax. "Fresh as a Freshman," directed by Jules White, is moderately entertaining but encompasses the series' failure to latch on to a regular theme. There's Terry, his ma, his buffoonish but warm-hearted manager and trainer duo, a girl (Pamela Blake) Terry gets a crush on, college life, an oafish former boyfriend, and another cute girl (Dona Drake) who does a singing act in the middle of the 18 minute short.

That's a lot of fish on the fire and the oafish slapstick of Terry's boxing world uneasily cohabits with the college life and fraternity dances.

The plot: Terry, on his way to school, takes a picture for ma. The previous failed picture of a beautiful coed meshes with Terry's dime slot picture. He falls in love with her and improbably meets her fixing her car. Even more improbably he mistakes this beautiful woman in mechanic's garb for a guy.

Anyway, they're a couple at college but the ex-boyfriend recruits the aforementioned singer to pretend to be Terry's paramour, thereby alienating his current girlfriend. Terry's ma and boxing team come up to college for a mixer and all is eventually resolved with Terry punching the oaf and kissing his girl.

I've omitted the constant slapstick, usually involving the trainer and manager or the ex-boyfriend. There's some racist humor early and Jules White's penchant for violent humor gets in. In an early scene, Terry kicks his newfound love in the butt when she loses a car part. He doesn't know it's her then but it's still cringe worthy.

I love the Columbia comedy shorts. Watch this just to learn a bit more about the comedy shorts that shared screen time with the Stooges. The Glove Slingers only lasted for 12 episodes and "Fresh as a Freshman" underscores why its time was limited. There were too many tools in the box for the Glove Slingers to maintain the interest necessary to have a long run.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

RIP Lupita Tovar -- The Spanish Dracula's Eva

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.

By Doug Gibson

(We note the death of the actress Lupita Tovar, who died Nov. 12 at the age of 106. She will always be iconic for her superb performance as Eva in the 1931 Universal Spanish "Dracula.") 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.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

It's election season: Enjoy 'The Dark Horse' again

The Dark Horse, 1932, 75 minutes, B and W, First National Pictures, directed by Alfred E. Green. Starring Guy Kibbee as Zachary Hicks, Warren William as Hal S. Blake, Bette Davis as Kay Russell, Vivienne Osborne as Maybelle Blake, Hal's ex-wife, Berton Churchill as William A. Underwood and Frank McHugh as Joe. Rating: 7 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

A quick note: "The Dark Horse" is one of those wonderful 1930s programmers that would sit neglected in a film library (or perhaps sit seldom seen in a Bette Davis film collection DVD) if it wasn't for Turner Classic Movies. Film-lovers are in debt to TMC, which daily offers an invaluable history lesson of cinema with its offerings.

Now, on to "The Dark Horse." This is a delightful satire of politics that proves that, even 76 years ago, we weren't fooled by the absurdities of the political arena. Veteran actor Guy Kibbee plays, Zachary Hicks, a bumbling fool of a man who is accidentally nominated by his "Progressive" Party to be governor of an unnamed state after the two front-runners are deadlocked.

A party secretary, Kay Russell, (a very young Bette Davis) recommends that a fast-talking, charming cad of a man Hal S. Blake (forgotten leading man Warren William) be bailed out of jail -- where's he sitting due to unpaid child support -- to run Hicks' campaign. Blake does a masterful job, all while trying to stay one step ahead of his scheming, vindictive ex-wife (Vivienne Osborne) and romancing wary secretary Russell.

The key to the film, though, is the dumbness and naivete of 50sh Hays, thrust out of nowhere. Kibbee is perfect in the role. He provides understated humor in his misunderstanding of situations and constant "yes ... and maybe no" to any question. William's political operative is uncannyingly on-target, you could almost picture him spinning on cable news shows today. Davis hasn't much to do but viewers can sense her screen presence that would lead her to stardom. A fun, fast-paced film that still has relevance today, it's well worth watching when it's on TCM. Watch the trailer here.

Notes: Kibbee was a very much in demand character actor and B-film starrer in the 30s and early 40s. He is best known as the corrupt governor controlled by Jim Taylor in Frank Capra's 1939 classic "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." He also starred in the only sound version of Sinclair Lewis' tale "Babbitt." Kibbee is great as Babbitt in that seldom-seen 1934 film, which aired recently on TCM. Frank McHugh, who played William's political sidekick, is best known as Father Tim Dowd in the 1944 Bing Crosby classic "Going My Way."

Sunday, October 30, 2016

For Halloween -- Scariest scenes from Steve Stones

Editor's note: This week, in honor of Halloween, Plan9Crunch bloggers Steve D. Stones and Doug Gibson will share what they both see as the five scariest minutes in film. 
1). Night of The Living Dead (1968) – After witnessing her brother being attacked by a zombie in a Pennsylvania graveyard, Barbara (Judith O’Dea) runs to a nearby farmhouse to hide. She walks up stairs with a horrified look on her face and a kitchen knife in hand. The shadows of the banister cast across her face as the camera quickly zooms in closely to reveal a rotting corpse lying on the floor at the top of the stairs.

2). Poltergeist (1982). – A paranormal researcher investigating reports of ghosts in the suburban home of a young family goes to the kitchen to find something to eat.  He places a raw piece of meat from the refrigerator on the kitchen counter while eating a chicken leg. The meat suddenly starts to crawl slowly across the counter and the piece of chicken in his mouth spits out maggots. He runs to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. While looking in the mirror, he starts to pull the flesh off his face as chunks fall into the sink and blood drips everywhere.

3). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – After being terrorized by an inbred family of cannibals, including Leatherface – a chainsaw carrying psycho wearing a human skin mask, Sally (Marilyn Burns) is gagged and bound to a chair made of human arms. The grandpa of the family drinks Sally’s blood and attempts to knock her out with a hammer, but is too weak. This scene is so grueling that the sweat pouring from the faces of the actors involved heightens the uncomfortable, uneasy feeling the viewer experiences while the scene unfolds.  Sally eventually gets free and jumps out the window as Leatherface chases her once again down with a chainsaw – the most famous scene of the film.

4). Nosferatu (1922) – In this German Expressionist masterpiece of the silent era, Hutter – a real estate agent, is trapped inside the castle of Count Orlock. Hutter discovers the crypt where Orlock sleeps at night. Peeking through the crack of a stone coffin lid, Hutter can see the count lying in the coffin. He quickly pushes the stone lid off the coffin as the count stares directly at the camera in a frozen glance. This scene will chill your blood.

5). Jaws (1975) – Police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) are onboard a boat called the Orca to hunt down a giant shark terrorizing the sunbathers and swimmers of the ocean town of Amity. Brody leans over the boat to throw a “chum line” of fish guts into the water to attract the shark.  A giant shark raises its head from the water as Brody throws the line into the water. He immediately stands upright and walks backward with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and quietly says the most famous line in the film to Captain Quint – “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

Happy Halloween!

Steve D. Stones

For Halloween -- My five scariest scenes in film

By Doug Gibson

The late-great Alfred Hitchcock was fond of saying, “People pay money to be scared.” In honor of this Halloween season I offer my take on the five scariest scenes in film history. If you want more commentary on scary movies scenes, read my blog colleague Steve D. Stones, art professor at Weber State University, offer his five most chilling scenes here.

Without procrastination, let’s get to scariest movie scene 1: It’s the final 10 minutes of “Suspiria,” a 1977 Italian horror flick directed by Dario Argento. It stars Jessica Harper as a U.S. dance student who discovers her European dance academy is run by a coven of witches. The final ultimate scary scene involves a possessed colleague of young Ms Harper who goes on the attack at the film’s climax. Argento’s skills have deteriorated in recent decades but “Suspiria” remains a contender for the scariest film ever made.

To read the rest of this "scariest movie scenes column, go to the Standard-Examiner newspaper site, where I also published this. You can keep on reading here.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Vampire is a nice matinee type of Halloween chiller

Review by Doug Gibson

If you can get past the typical white bread, horror comes to Pleasant-town feel of 1957's "The Vampire," it's not a bad little G-rated chiller that probably scared its fair share of children at matinees.

Like, "Earth Versus the Spider," "Return of Dracula," "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," and others, dastardly deeds and horrific images are infecting themselves in suburbia with mostly non-threatening parents, loyal women and kids with straight teeth.

Veteran actor John Beal plays a small-town doctor who comes across an eccentric colleague who dies of a heart attack. This late doctor had been doing experiments into adrenaline, the release of inhibitions and blood depletion. Apparently, it kills every animal except vampire bats. Before this doctor dies, he provides pills he'd been taking.

In a pretty clever twist, the good small town doctor's cute as a button daughter accidentally gives dad one of the experimental pills when he asks her for his migraine pills. Zammo, he's infected and his patients start turning up dead, often with little bite marks on their necks.

I digress to let the reader know that Vampire in the title is kind of tease. Other than the prick marks, this is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of movie, with Beal's character turning into a Mr. Hyde more grotesque than Fredric March's interpretation. Under the influence, he loses all inhibitions and wants to kill.

Beal carries the film with his performance. He's generally crushed by what's happened to him and wants to stop his nocturnal changes ... but not enough to take the sensible step of turning himself in and insisting he be jailed, both to prove his malady and protect others.

His co-stars do a good job in workmanlike roles. Coleen Gray is the loyal nurse saved at the end by the good sheriff, Kenneth Tobey. In small roles are capable vets Herb Vigran as a cop and Hallene Hill as an elderly victim.

The excellent character actor Dabbs Greer has a strong role as an academic friend of Beal's who has been overseeing the research that killed the first doctor. He and Beal are supposed to be friends. I like Greer but he's a little miscast here, seeming more like a small time dentist than a major scientist. He's also vapid as heck, not believing Beal's very credible claims that he turns into a homicidal maniac until it's tool late.

Paul Landres does a capable job directing this lean film with more than a few sanitized shocks. If you haven't seen it you can watch it above. It's a worthy choice for this Halloween season.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Paul Lynde Halloween Special - 1976

Watch the Paul Lynde Halloween Special at Amazon Prime.

By Steve D. Stones

This fun 1976 TV episode of the Paul Lynde Show is like a pairing of the 80s TV show Solid Gold meets The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The three musical performances by the rock icons KISS is obviously staged and lip-synced. KISS perform their super hits - Detroit Rock City, Beth and King of The Night Time World, all from their Destroyer album. Florence Henderson gets into the lip-syncing act by singing That Old Black Magic in a black dress.

The funniest skit of the show is Lynde playing a truck driver named "Big Red" the Rhinestone Trucker, which is an obvious parody of Rhinestone Cowboy. Rhinestone Trucker wants to marry a sexy waitress named "Kinky Pinky" at Big-D's diner, played by Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly.

Comedian Tim Conway creates a love triangle by rushing to the diner in an attempt to marry Kelly on the same night at midnight.  Lynde crashes the wedding by driving his semi-truck into the diner. Lynde eventually gets the girl and gives her a lug-nut wedding ring from his truck tire.

Lynde begins the episode by dressing as Santa Claus and making us believe that it is Christmas instead of Halloween. His housekeeper, Margaret Hamilton, reminds him that it is not Christmas. He then switches to Easter, then Valentine's Day, and finally realizes it is Halloween season. Hamilton repises her wicked witch of the west role from The Wizard of Oz (1939) by dressing in a black witch's costume with green make-up.

The entire episode is filled with pop-culture references. Don't miss the young Donnie and Marie Osmond shoving Lynde into a garbage can in an early musical number in the episode. Betty White also makes an appearance.

This episode of The Paul Lynde Show only aired once on October 29th, 1976, and was thought to have been lost forever. It's fortunate that the episode was found through one of the producers of the TV show and put out on DVD a few years ago. For fans of KISS, this is a must have in their collection. Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Street Corner - Premarital Sex Gone Wrong

By Steve D. Stones

The title of this 1948 exploitation classic is a bit misleading. The title itself and the artwork on the DVD cover of a girl leaning against a street corner pole leads the viewer to believe that it is a film about female prostitution.  It's really more of a morality tale mixed with sex education clips.

Kroger Babb produced a film in 1945 - Mom and Dad, which showed a graphic depiction of child birth on the screen. Street Corner was made just a few years after Mom and Dad, and may have tried to top Babb's film by showing several child birth sequences, including a caesarean birth sequence that is not for the squeamish or those with a weak stomach.  This sequence was difficult for me to sit through. It makes the viewer sympathize with what a woman goes through to give birth, which is likely the point of the sequence.

Teenager Lois March and her boyfriend Bob Mason are two naive lovers who want to get married on prom night. Mason is leaving for college soon, and the two decide to put off marriage for a short while. Mason feels it is important to at least start college before diving into marriage.

While in a local diner, Lois hears on the radio that Bob has been killed in a car accident. Knowing that she is pregnant with Bob's child, she becomes ashamed and hopeless after his death. She decides to visit an abortion clinic to terminate the life of the child. She feels she cannot face her family and friends with the news that she is pregnant out of wedlock.

Street Corner ends with a very lurid sex education segment hosted by a medical doctor, played by Joseph Crehan. Here the viewer is subjected to a series of films showing natural child birth. The most graphic of the films included shows a C-section (caesarean) procedure that is difficult to sit through. It would likely only appeal to medical students, and not viewers of 1940s exploitation films. Other sequences show close up views of a vagina and penis with syphilis and gonorrhea.

The DVD of Street Corner put out by Video also includes a short 1943 film - Easy To Get. This is another sex education film, but aimed at servicemen in the military. This is a venereal disease prevention film that warns servicemen of the dangers of picking up women at clubs, bars, restaurants and dance halls. The film also includes graphic close up shots of the penis in various stages of gonorhea. The narrator also emphasizes the importance of using a condom.

Watch a clip from Street Corner here. Happy viewing!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: A review

Review by Doug Gibson

"The Turn to Gruesomeness in American Horror Films: 1931 to 1936," by Jon Towlson, McFarland ( (800-253-2187), has a provocative thesis. Towlson differs with other scholars that early sound horror films were tamer than the so-called torture porn today. I was skeptical of that claim. I abhor garbage such as the "Saw" and "Hostel" films; conversely, I love the early- to mid-1930s cycle of horrors. However, I must confess that Towlson makes a pretty good case.

While we watch these old movies, with nary a cuss word and the obligatory "good" ending, often with a heterosexual couple embracing, it's easy to forgot what we've seen on the screen is pretty darn gruesome and sadistic. An iconic reminder of such can be glanced above at the book's cover, with Bela Lugosi, as Dr. Mirakle, torturing to death the prostitute played by Arlene Francis in "Murders In the Rue Morgue." She's on a cross, looking a lot like a female Christ.

But work the brain to think of the other classic oldies. The "Frankenstein" monster tossing a child to drown. "Dracula" killing a young flower girl. "Dr. X"'s face melting. The deranged doctor in "Mad Love" played by Peter Lorre seems to achieve orgasm as he watches a faux torture scene in the Grand Guignol. Or a mad wax sculpture artist in "Mystery of the Wax Museum," with tender voice, leading a young lovely to have hot wax poured on her. Or the nymphomaniac daughter and sadistic father in "The Mask of Fu Manchu." Or the "Freaks" turning Cleopatra into a bird. Or implied necrophilia and overt Satanism ("The Black Cat"). Or finally, the scene that sticks with me: the unlucky admirer of a sadist's wife who gets his lips sown together because he kissed the said sadist's wife; such occurs in"Murders In the Zoo." And what about the implicit bestiality in "Island of Lost Souls?"

These are grisly images, and just because they are not as explicit as what we see today doesn't lessen their shock value. It may even enhance it, as Towlson explains, with the use of shadows, sound, symbols, and the force of these things, which can play on the viewers' imagination. As the author notes, many of these films were either locked away for decades or played in heavily censored .versions until only a generation ago.

"Five reels of transgression followed by one reel of retribution" is a quote from the Nation magazine. It's the title of the longest chapter, the one that provides overviews of the films discussed. That phrase probably captures the heart of the book. Towlson claims that having a happy ending, or a side plot with goofy guests or wisecrack reporters, allowed the early horror filmmakers to get a lot of the horror, with sadism and shocks into the films. Is there a 1930's horror film from a major company without a "good" ending? Even "Freaks" has a tacked-on scene with a guilty Hans being consoled after the shocking scene of Cleopatra post-torture.

The book details the many battles, and concessions made with censors, to get the films completed and into theaters. There's a lot of tantalizing what ifs. What if "The Bride of Frankenstein," a superb film, had followed its earlier "Return of Frankenstein" plot where the monster kills his creator and his wife, but still, a character with pathos, draws to his knees imploring a kind word from God. At that point, a bolt of lightning kills the monster. That's a pretty cool ending; I'm sure James Whale would have loved it.

Or what of "Dracula's Daughter," still a fine film -- with pretty overt lesbianism that the prudish censors missed -- which was intended to have a prologue with Dracula and friends both ravishing and consuming captive young women. In fact, screenwriter John Balderston, Towlson tells us, was urging that the film push the boundaries of horror to more shocking levels. Alas, "Dracula's Daughter" was filmed in that mid-30s when the censors were putting more muscle on the horror filmmakers. It's one of the last of the pre-code horrors.

If you don't believe that the earlier films pushed more buttons than the later ones through the 40s, take the test. Watch "Dr. X" and then watch "The Return of Dr. X"; watch the Frederic March "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde," with an erotic scene between the good doctor and a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins) and watch later adaptations. Watch "Dracula" and compare it to "Son of Dracula." Or "Bride of Frankenstein" and then "Son of Frankenstein." Although still-excellent films, much of the sadism, the lust, the sheer enjoyment of wallowing in wickedness was taken away after 1936.

Towlson devotes chapters to how the filmmakers managed to get around the censors -- it was always a chess game -- with the cheesy endings of love and kisses. MGM in particular would have wisecracking reporters suddenly announce marriage at the end. Universal would have cast members in films such as "The Raven" and "The Black Cat" make wisecracks very soon after experiencing, and surviving, intense horror. Towlson surmises that the these were subtle protests of the directors who wanted to make their "happy endings" as unrealistic as possible. Maybe, but I think that during the Great Depression, weary movie-goers wanted scares that came with happy endings. Real life wasn't ending so well.

Another chapter deals with the film censors, the Breen people, finally asserting their will and "cleaning" the movies up." As Towlson notes, this had an effect on new movies such as "The Walking Dead," "Devil Doll" and the aforementioned "Dracula's Daughter." It also helped bring in the horror ban that lasted a few years until the industry realized the public wanted more monsters, even if they were a little sanitized.

Towlson's book is a brainy one and it may take some careful reading. There's a section on how these films' critics of a couple of generations ago clash with more modern scholarship, and so on. But it's a rewarding read because it brings us to the table of the filmmakers, what they wanted to create, how far they wanted to go and were able to go. We're witnesses to the negotiations with the movie industry and state censors. I was surprised to learn that in the early 1930s, the film studios were often helped by industry censors who argued their cases with more restrictive state censors.

And, this is very important, watch the movies that are described in this book. It will make the viewing a more rewarding experience.

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Unknown highlights Lon Chaney's intensity

By Doug Gibson

When I watch Tod Browning's 1927 silent masterpiece "The Unknown," and I've seen the film many times, for 50 minutes time ceases to exist. I'm lost in a film that is simply Lon Chaney's greatest performance, and yes that includes "Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." "The Unknown" is the most intense performance Chaney had, and 90 percent of the effectiveness is in his facial expressions.

The film involves a small circus troupe, owned by a gypsy entrepreneur. Alonzo the Armless (Chaney) is the star attraction, a man without arms who can do amazing stunts, such as throw knives around the pretty torso of the circus owner's daughter, Nanon, played by a very young, barely clothed, and very gorgeous Joan Crawford. Another star performer is circus strongman, Malabar, played by Norman Kerry. Malabar loves Nanon, but she shrinks from him, telling Alonzo that she hates to have men's hands pawing her.

Alonzo is assisted by a little person, Cojo (John George). Cojo helps Alonzo conceal a secret -- that he really has arms. In fact, he has a hand with two thumbs. Alonzo, it's learned, is on the run the police, who are looking for a suspect with arms. All this is interesting but ultimately it is supporting material to the film's theme, which is Alonzo's desire to posses Nanon and gain her love. I hesitate to say that Alonzo is in love with Nanon. He equates love with possession, and ownership. Chaney's facial expressions when Alonzo is near Nanon are movie legend, combinations of pride, desire, lust, deformed love, coveting, desperation.

In the guise of being a friend, Chaney encourages Malabar to try to embrace and kiss Nanon, fully knowing that will repel the object of his desire. When Malabar is near, Alonzo's face often changes into a furious loathing individual, with envy, jealously and hate making his visage truly terrifying. One senses easily what a dangerous man Chaney's Alonzo really is when disturbed. Indeed, after being humiliated by Nanon's father, circus owner Antonio Zanzi (Nick De Rita) Alonzo swiftly finds him alone and kills him.

It's evident that if his possessive longing for Nanon -- one that Alonzo can only hide with great effort -- is not requited soon, mortal trouble may emerge soon. This leads Alonzo to engage in a macabre, desperate act that he hopes will win Nanon's love. When his ploy backfires, the minute or so where Chaney's countenance changes from hope, ecstasy, confusion, despair, anger and finally rage disguised as maniacal laughter is perhaps the strongest in silent films, and perhaps all films. The late Burt Lancaster cited the scene as the most compelling he ever witnessed in film. Alonzo's ensuing desperation leads to a climax that threatens Nanon, Malabar and himself.

Adding to the eccentricity and creepiness of this movie is its accurate descriptions of life in a small-town circus, a job that a younger Browning once had. Chaney was, as always, a perfectionist, and with Browning's direction gets excellent acting performances from Crawford, Kerry, and others. Although it looks on the screen as if Cheney is actually performing stunts, and everyday activities, with his feet, Browning used a an armless double, Paul Desmuke, to manipulate the toes. For a long time "The Unknown" was virtually a lost film, until a print was located in 1968 in Paris. The 50-minute version is missing a few unimportant scenes. The shorter version actually improves the film, making it leaner and more focused. Chaney's obsessive, jealous desire for Nanon is more focused, with fewer interruptions.

This film is shown several times a year on TCM, and is on in a few hours after this post, on Oct. 8, 2016, at 6:30 a.m. EST -- don't miss it the next time it airs. It's also on DVD and YouTube, with part one above. The film was released by MGM. Versions seen today have a suitable creepy, semi-synthetic score. Watch the trailer below!

Friday, September 30, 2016

An interview with In Search of Lost Films author Phil Hall

Interview by Doug Gibson

Recently, we reviewed Phil Hall's fascinating new book from BearManor Media, "In Search of Lost Films." You can read our review here. Phil's book provides us all hope that our fondest and most-hoped-for lost films may surface, whether in dusty foreign archives, the end shelf of a private collection, or even at a yard sale.

Today, he answers several questions related to his work, providing readers more insight into the search for lost films. You can buy Phil's book here and here. On with the interview!
            If someone with unlimited resources was looking for a typical lost film of the 20s or early 30s, one that was fairly widely distributed, where are the best locations to search

             Hall: If we are talking about American films, the best places would be foreign archives. A lopsided majority of recovered American films turned up in Europe and many have emerged in Australia, most likely because the distributors for those films didn’t bother to recover the prints from their overseas releases. If you are talking about Asian films, the same answer would apply: Indian and Chinese films that disappeared in their respective countries have turned up in archives and collections with a significant Asian expatriate population.

1    Why was silent film so disregarded by film companies so quickly? Did sound film make it seem obsolete quickly?

           Hall: The popularity of sound films was fast and furious, catching many film companies off-guard. Indeed, “The Jazz Singer” and the early talkies were initially seen as novelties by the Hollywood studios and many film critics. But audiences were the ones that ultimately decided what they wanted to see and once dialogue and synchronized music was incorporated into films there was no turning back.

          In retrospect, this was curious because so many early talkies were not very good, while many silent films from the 1927-1929 period represented the apex of screen art. But obsolescence did not occur over immediately: many small town U.S. cinemas were not able to afford a rewiring for sound until the early 1930s, so there were still venues for silent movies. Silent production continued in Russia, Japan, China and other nations well into the mid-1930s, while many independent and avant-garde U.S. productions remained silent well into the 1940s

Why were motion picture companies so lax for so many decades at preserving their products? I refer mainly to allowing nitrate film to store inefficiently and corrupt, and allowing these old films’ prints to be stored in the same location?

Hall: Because they never saw films as anything more than a disposable commodity. Prior to the advent of television, once a film ran its course in release there was no place for it to go, unless it was a mega-hit that could be re-released every few years. Plus, storage was expensive (especially off-site in warehouses). Unfortunately, the film companies lacked contemporary prescience in realizing the cultural, historic and commercial value of the older films.

1    In your opinion, what are five “lost” films that you think are likely to be found?

Hall: That’s hard to say, because films that were considered to be irretrievably lost, such as Orson Welles’ footage for “Too Much Johnson,” have miraculously turned up in the least likely places. I would like to imagine that Welles’ footage for his unfinished “Moby Dick Rehearsed” is still out there (it was last seen in the late 1960s), and I would hope that the Kubrick preserved the deleted pie fight climax from “Dr. Strangelove.” Otherwise, I would wager that three long-lost silent comedies – Harry Langdon’s “Heart Trouble,” Laurel and Hardy’s “Hats Off” and the first Marx Brothers film “Humor Risk” are resting in the dusty corner of a private collection or a foreign archive.

1    Why is so much excess footage, edited out of features, not preserved? I refer to "The Wizard of Oz," "Greed," "Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman," etc. It amazes me that a director like Stroheim would not have saved his first cut of "Greed," for example.
                Hall: There was no perceived commercial value for deleted sequences – the whole notion of including deleted sequences as part of a film’s release only occurred when home video came into the forefront. Plus, as stated earlier, storage of film is expensive, and storage of footage that was cut from a release was not considered practical. With “Greed,” von Stroheim had no control of the footage that he shot – that was an MGM production, and he actually reneged on his original contract by going far over the original budget. I am surprised the film was ever completed, let alone released. 

1    There are a lot of grindhouse films that are lost, particularly Andy Milligan films. Where’s the best places to look to discover these non-nitrate lost films.

             Hall: Those are most likely in private American collections – very few theatrical prints were made from those releases, and the lucky people that snagged the prints after their releases were over probably put them away and forgot about them.

      What are three key things you learned from researching this book?

            Hall: First, I have the most patient publisher on Earth: the book was delivered a year late because of the extraordinary level of research and fact-checking required. Second, I never truly realized the depth and scope of lost films until I started doing research on the subject. And, third, many people are unaware that so many films are lost, and I honored to be able to introduce them to this issue.

1    Finally, what advice do you give to the average person on find a location to stumble across a lost film? Where should they?

     Hall: Lost films have  turned up in the strangest places – garbage bins, garden sheds, basements, and even in archives and museums under the wrong label. If you are in the U.S. and find a rare print, get in touch with a reputable archive, such as the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art or the George Eastman House, to ensure that the film is properly stored and can receive the appropriate restorative care.

       Although you mention in the book that the Medved brothers wrote about the gay porn film, "Him," why do you think they did?

     Hall“Him” was included in “The Golden Turkey Awards” in the chapter on bad porn concepts. I don’t know if the Medveds actually saw “Him” or read about it from a trade journal review. I assume they didn’t see the film – I can’t imagine Michael Medved in a gay porn venue. When the book came out in 1979, the film was not considered lost. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that people started to realize that no print of “Him” was in circulation or available from any adult film sources, and it was only then that it was declared a lost film. Of course, had it not been for the Medveds, we would never have known it existed in the first place.

    Thanks very much for your time, Phil. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Black Sunday – A Film To Make Your Skin Crawl With Goosebumps!

Review by Steve D. Stones

If someone were to ask me what I thought the top ten scariest horror films of all time are, I would definitely list the 1960 classic Black Sunday in the top five. The film certainly deserves to rank as the best horror film of the 1960s. If ever there was a film that fits the title “Gothic Horror,” Black Sunday is it.

Italian director Mario Bava is masterful at creating an eerie atmosphere of old world decay. Black Sunday marks his directorial debut and was also a first for the beautiful raven-haired English born actress Barbara Steele. After the success of Black Sunday, Steele went on to star in a number of 1960s European horror classics, such as Nightmare Castle, Terror Creatures From The Grave, Castle of Blood, The Long Hair of Death, and the Roger Corman classic The Pit & The Pendulum.

Steele plays a Russian princess named Asa living in 17th century Moldavia. Asa and her companion Javutich are accused of witchcraft and making a pact with the devil. Both are executed at the stake with a spiked demon mask hammered into their faces. Before their deaths, Asa vows to return from the dead and seek revenge on all her descendants.

The film then takes us into the future to the nineteenth century. Dr. Choma and his young assistant Dr. Gorobec are traveling through Moldavia in a coach when one of the wheels breaks. The two stop to rest as the driver attempts to fix the wheel. They wander into an old crypt filled with bats and lots of thick, creepy fog. Choma is immediately drawn to a coffin with a glass window. The coffin is of witch Asa executed two hundred years ago.

Dr. Choma accidentally breaks the glass with his cane while trying to hit a flying bat. He reaches into the coffin to remove Asa’s demon mask and cuts his hand. Large scorpions crawl out of the empty eye sockets of the dead Asa. Her skin also reveals the spike punctures from the mask. This is one of the creepiest sequences in the entire film. Choma’s blood drips onto the face of Asa, bringing her back to life.

Another frightening sequence shows a young Russian girl strolling through the dark woods at night to fetch a pail of milk. While milking a cow next to an old cemetery, she witnesses Javutich crawl out of his two hundred year old grave as Asa summons him. He removes his demon mask to reveal a pasty, shriveled complexion covered in cobwebs. This scene makes my skin crawl with goose bumps every time I see it.

What follows for the rest of the film are attempts by Asa and Javutich to murder Asa’s descendants. One of the descendants is the beautiful Katia, also played by Steele, who resembles Asa perfectly.

Black Sunday was also known in European markets as La Maschera del Demonio (The Mask of The Demon), House of Fright and Revenge of The Vampire. Sinister Cinema in Medford, Oregon sells a beautiful widescreen print with scenes cut from the American release. The film was banned for nine years in England because of some of the intense, graphic scenes of horror and violence. Director Bava went on to direct many less effective cult horror classics, such as Planet of The Vampires, Kill Baby Kill, Blood & Black Lace and Baron Blood. None of these films achieve the stylish gothic horror atmosphere that makes Black Sunday such a great classic of the horror genre.

Black Sunday is a film I would highly recommend as part of your Halloween festivities this season. Happy viewing and Happy (upcoming) Halloween!