Sunday, January 28, 2018

George Zucco as the vampire -- Dead Men Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn

1987, Color, 85 minutes (less in some foreign versions). Directed by Sam Raimi. Cast includes: Bruce Campbell as Ash, Sarah Berry as Annie Knowby, Dan Hicks as Jake, Ted Raimi as possessed Henrietta Knowby, Denise Bixler as Linda, and John Peaks as Professor Raymond Knowby. Schlock-Meter rating: Eight stars out of a possible 10.

So many reviews like to call Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 a comedy, or a tribute to the Three Stooges, and there are some great "gross-out" gags, as well as my favorite comic scene, where Bruce Campbell's Ash, minus his possessed hand, traps it by piling a copy of Hemingway's "A Farewell To Arms" on a container holding the hand. Yes, this film contains a lot of comic parody, and after the first half Campbell plays his part mostly for laughs. And it's true that Raimi's very fast-paced, boom-boom-boom "I'm going to jar the viewer every 30 seconds" seems a tribute to Stooge-like filmmaking. And the excessive gore does desensitize the viewer after a while.

But let's not forget that Evil Dead 2 is a very scary, suspenseful thriller that throws out just about every horror/action plot element that exists. Most work. There are only a few clinkers, and the result is a cinema gem. Critic Roger Ebert pegged it best when he wrote that the film was not in bad taste, but about bad taste. Evil Dead 2 is sort of remake of Raimi's micro-budgeted Evil Dead, but with a little more plot and a twist ending that set up another, even more comic sequel, Army of Darkness. The plot: Ash and his girl Linda (Bixler) decide to squat for a night at a cabin in the Michigan woods. Once there, Ash turns on a tape recorder where a professor, who lives in the cabin, invokes a chant from The Book of the Dead that sends a demon to the cabin. From that point on, all hell breaks loose. Eventually, Ash and a few later arrivals, including the professor's daughter (Berry), are forced to fight it out with the demons.

The film is so fast-paced that you just marvel at the speed and special effects in the film that you forget the plot is pretty light. Director Raimi was destined for bigger assignments (A Simple Plan, Quick and the Dead, the Spider Man series). He's thrifty and economical. I suspect many minutes were spliced out of the final cut of Evil Dead 2 to maintain the fast pace, horror shocks and, yes, comic timing. Most of the cast is mediocre, except for Campbell, who is outstanding. For the first half of the film, he is largely responsible for carrying the flow of the film, and he uses the right amount of fear, fatigue, anger and outrage to pull it off. There are great visual effects, including a twisted, ominous looking bridge over a high drop, a dancing headless woman-demon, a human snake, a psychopathic hand, a woman being attacked by a tree, a demon's eyeball flying into a screaming mouth, and the most chilling, Ted Raimi's possessed Henrietta Knowby, a thoroughly gruesome old demon hag who hangs out in the cellar.

By all means rent or buy Evil Dead 2. It's well worth the price. However, while it is funny, expect more shivers than chuckles. Also, those who leave the room for a snack will miss several shock scenes. They happen so fast.

-- Doug Gibson

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mark of the Vampire -- A remake of London After Midnight

By Doug Gibson

MGM's 1935 thriller, Mark of the Vampire, directed by Tod Browning, is such a marvelous film for 50 minutes that you just want to scream at what Browning did to cheat viewers in the final 9 minutes. Yeah, I know it's a sort of remake of the 1927 London After Midnight, (now lost) and Browning stubbornly refused to mess with that plot. But nevertheless, it was a big mistake to turn this supernatural fantasy into a murder mystery. There's a reason Mark of the Vampire is not discussed in the same revered tones today as Dracula, Frankenstein, or even White Zombie ... it's because that cheat of an ending.

First, the plot: Sir Karell Borotyn, master of an estate in central Europe, is found dead, bloodless, one night in his reclusive castle. The villagers are sure it's the work of a vampire, but Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) scoffs at such a theory. And inquest declares the death from causes unknown. A planned wedding between the Sir Karrell's daughter, Irena, and a young man named Fedor Vicente, has been postponed. Baron Otto Von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) is handling the late man's estate.

Move forward nearly a year. The murder is unsolved. The castle is decaying, full of vermin and insects. Suddenly, two vampires are seen by villagers and other. They are described as the undead bodies of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland). Fedor and Irina are both attacked, presumably by the vampires. The villages are in an uproar. The skeptical Inspector Neumann is joined by eccentric Professor Zelen, played by Lionel Barrymore in an outstanding performance of a very chewy, Van Helsing-like role. Zelen supports the vampire theory. Through further investigation, it is revealed that a personage who resembles the dead Borotyn has been seen roaming the castle and heard playing the organ. A visit to his crypt reveals an empty coffin. Baron Otto Von Zinden is getting very nervous.

The gothic, horror atmosphere in this film is superb. Lugosi is at his best. His vampire performance, short though it is, rivals his Dracula performance. The beautiful Borland radiates screen presence as Luna. Inexplicably, she had a very small film career but her image became iconic because of this role. A scene where she swoops down, in batlike fashion, to the castle's floor, is one of the finest scenes I have seen. The ghostly, filthy decay of the castle is better than Browning's depictions in Dracula. As mentioned, Barrymore is great with his dedicated persistence as the "vampire seeker."

The final 10 minutes reveal the whole affair to be an elaborate practical joke to enable the actual killer, Baron Otto Von Zindon, to recreate the murder on the actor playing Sir Karell. That's bad enough, but Browning also turns Lugosi and Borland into actors and provides silly dialogue at the end. One reason the film maintains such effective mood and atmosphere for so long is because Browning only revealed the trick ending near the end of shooting. Legend has it that most of the cast was furious. In his biography, "The Immortal Count," Lugosi's biographer, Arthur Lennig, mentions Lugosi suggested that the real actors for Mora and Luna arrive at the very end, apologizing for arriving late. That sounds like a great idea that would have retained more fame for this otherwise excellent film, but Browning, and MGM, said no.

The short running time, 59 minutes, was trimmed from an original 75-minute film (the excess is lost). Some say that village humor scenes were cut, Others claim that a subplot, where it's mentioned that Mora committed incest with his daughter Luna, and later killed her and himself, was taken out.It is ironic that Lugosi's Mora has a clear bullet wound on the left side of his forehead/temple. As mentioned, Mark of the Vampire is a remake of Browning's London After Midnight, in which the faux monster is played, with truly horrifying makeup, by Lon Chaney Sr. A 45-minute version of that lost film has been gathered into a movie comprised entirely of still shots. It has played on TCM and turns out to be much better than it would seem to be.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Pistol Packin' Nitwits -- Harry Langdon's last film

Review by Doug Gibson

I've probably seen "Pistol Packin' Nitwits" about 40 times; even though its circulation days are long over. With a YouTube dupe and my own duped DVD, courtesy of a kind fellow Harry Langdon fan, I have easy access to this Columbia comedy short via a DVD-R print.

There's pathos involved in my interest and fascination. It's sad but compelling. Harry died after completing the film. Although not the last released, this was the final film Harry made. According to his wife, Mabel Langdon, he came home feeling very ill after a day of shooting, citing in particular a soft shoe dance routine he did with co-star El Brendel. (The dance, by the way, is one of the highlights of the short). Watching the dance, you realize it's more or less the last work this comedy genius ever did.

Harry was 60 and there seemed to be a history in his family of dying relatively young. His doctor diagnosed a cerebral hemorrhage, and Harry unfortunately quickly declined, dying on Dec. 22, 1944. Besides Mabel, he was survived by his son, Harry Jr., who still lives and has enjoyed an excellent career as a photographer.

There's another reason I enjoy "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," even though it's far from Harry's best sound short, or even his best Columbia short. It's a wildly free-ranging film, a blunt spoof that's 90 percent western and 10 percent "old-time serial superhero with amazing powers."

The plot: In Hangman's Gulch, Nevada, the beautiful Queenie Lynch (Christine McIntyre) owns Queenie's Place," a saloon. Her future is threatened by thuggish and buffoonish Rawhide Pete (Dick Curtis) who owns the mortgage on the saloon and will foreclose if Queenie won't marry him by midnight. Queenie appeals to the handsome cowboy Jack (Brad King) to help her and he promises to have $2,500 by midnight.

Harry and "Professor" Brendel are grifter salesmen peddling fake cleaning fluid. With Pete as a volunteer, they mistakenly put real axle grease on his clothes and make a huge mess. This so amuses Queenie that she hires the hapless duo to "help run the place." Inside the saloon, Pete, when he isn't falling over and threatening Harry and El Brendel, tries to kill Jack with a gun. In the "superhero" spoof portion of the film, the bullets bounce of the chest of a smiling Jack. Harry and El Brendel think Pete was firing blanks but almost lose their lives learning that he is using real bullets.

The middle portion of the film has two shining moments; the aforementioned soft shoe dance of the comedy duo (see screen shot above) and a solo song, "Father, Dear Father," by McIntyre. She has a beautiful singing voice, as anyone who has seen the Three Stooges short, "Micro-phonies," already knows.

In between are the gag scenes, with El Brendel hitting the jackpot on a machine, Harry avoiding an unfunny stereotypical old cowboy, the duo trying to use a test-your-punching-strength machine to steal the mortgage from Pete, and Pete being generally buffoonish, at one time having a bumblebee fly into his collar.

IMDB incorrectly lists Edward Bernds as the director. It's actually Harry Edwards, a one-time major talent who had sunk to mediocrity by this time. While this is better than a host of Langdon 1940s Columbia efforts, it still suffers from poorly presented gags and editing is poor. An example is inclusion shots of Jack racing on his horse to get back to the saloon. They play to The William Tell Overture but the inserts last about one second and are place clumsily in the film. (Bernds has co-credit with Langdon for the story).

There's a showdown at the end with Jack, Pete, Harry, El Brendel and Queenie. I'll let readers watch the film and be surprised.

As mentioned, I have a fondness for the film. It's quirky and has some good song and dance routines. Harry is funny; El Brendel is less funny but some of the gags work, including the cleaning fluid demonstration and the efforts to rid Pete of the mortgage.

Langdon enjoyed the security of working at Columbia (he called them "O-Ouch-O" comedies). He was looking his age, though, and starting to get overshadowed in shorts by lesser talents, such as El Brendel and even Elsie Ames. On the other hand, he was working in B movies, as well as sometimes on the stage and writing. This was the happiest time of his life, with a comfortable home, a loving wife and a son growing up.

Both Edwards and El Brendel only lasted about a year with Columbia after "Pistol Packin' Nitwits." Although Curtis died at 49 in 1952 of pneumonia, he made about 250 films, and was active in Columbia shorts as well as early television. McIntyre (see below) had a long association with Columbia shorts, particularly with the Three Stooges. In fact, today she is iconic for her association with the trio as their co-star.

"Pistol Packin' Nitwits" was remade as "Out West," in 1947, with the Three Stooges as the stars. McIntyre reprises the role of the damsel in distress. "Out West" is directed by Bernds. The probable reason Bernds is listed as director in IMDB is because Columbia goofed in their release posters for "... Nitwits," listing Bernds as director. I must confess, of the pair, I prefer "Pistol Packin' Nitwits." Give it 17 minutes of your time, and watch Harry Langdon gamely finish the scenes and wrap his final film.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Invisible Agent mixes World War II, Nazis and patriotism

By Doug Gibson

How many of you have heard of "The Invisible Man," the one starring Claude Rains from Universal in 1933? Probably a healthy percentage. It's a legitimate classic, with Rains, then an unknown, giving an intense, unforgettable performance as scientist Jack Griffin, turned insane by his invisibility formula.

Precious few likely recall "The Invisible Agent," one of four sequels to the Rains' original, which was also directed by James Whale, by far Universal's best horror director. However, the 1942 "Invisible Agent" was Universal's top-grossing sequel in the Invisible Man series. It was part of a long series of World War II-era patriotic, propaganda films that cast the Axis, mostly Germany and Japan, as the baddies to be defeated by tough Allies.

Playing a Nazi and a Japanese follower of Toho are respectively, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre, and both are very good in their roles, particularly Lorre. The veteran actor is very sinister and menacing. In a particularly strong horror scene, he disembowels Hardwicke with a knife and then kills himself with the knife, because both men failed in their duty.

The hero of the movie is two-fisted everyman Jon Hall, playing the grandson of Raines' character. Although working as a printer in the USA, Hardwicke and Lorre try to grab his invisibility formula. They fail. Hall goes straight to the U.S. military, eventually allowing the USA to use his formula if he can be the spy. He embarks on a very dangerous into Nazi Germany, battling Hardwicke, Lorre and others to grab a list of Axis spies in the U.S. 

While there, he matches wits with a beautiful double-agent spy, the truly gorgeous starlet Ilona Massey. Both are attracted to each other but Hall's character is never sure if Massey can be trusted.

All ends well in this pro-war effort film, which is quite exciting. Directed by Edwin L. Marin, it plays often as a tightly directed, higher quality "daredevil" serial-like movie, as Hall and the other good guys escape death on several occasions. Supporting cast includes veteran character actors J. Edward Bromberg, as a pompous Nazi officer, and Keye Luke as a Japanese surgeon.

There is one twist to this Invisible Man series film. Hall, particularly in scenes with Massey, swaths himself in cold cream, and shades and head covering, to present a very lifelike outline of himself. It's a bit too lifelike, though, as we can see his teeth and inside of his mouth. In one scene designed to show the cruelty of the Axis, actor Albert Bassermann, an Allied spy in Germany, is tortured by Nazis. When Hardwicke's character demands he sign a "release" form stating he was not mistreated, he displays his mangled, broken fingers, explaining he can't write due to the torture.

At 81 minutes, "Invisible Agent" is well worth the asking price. Amazon sells it as part of the Universal Invisible Man series. Watch the trailer below.