Saturday, June 29, 2019

Strange Confession is our favorite Chaney Inner Sanctum film

By Doug Gibson

For a few brief years in the 1940s, Lon Chaney Jr. was the top monster man at Universal Studios. He even took Dracula away from Bela Lugosi in the vampire sequel. Chaney was a far better actor than many realize; he proved a great capable character actor in western and gritty dramas; think "High Noon" and "The Defiant Ones." But 70 years ago Universal wasn't sure if its star was "Lenny-turned-Monster" or a tortured intellectual, man-about-town.

Hence, Universal's last effort to keep Chaney as a leading man, the Inner Sanctum series, six psychological dramas, based on pulp literature, and early distant cousins of the soon-to-be-flourishing film noir of the late 40s and on. In most of the Inner Sanctum films, five of which were introduced by a floating head, Chaney was miscast as an upper-crust academic or a supposedly suave entertainer, the object of both treachery and adoration by beautiful women.

What played against those high hopes was that Chaney, despite a still-rugged build, had a face that was slowly morphing into folding decay courtesy of a severe alcohol addiction. He was also what you might call a "regular Joe" kind of guy, with passions that included hunting, bending the elbow and practical jokes.

As for the Inner Sanctums, which were B movie material, Chaney gave decent performances despite the casting, "Weird Woman" is pretty good, almost as good is "Calling Dr. Death," "Dead Man's Eyes" ... pretty bad. I had seen four and finally picked up the DVD to see them all.

"Strange Confession" threw me for a loop. The series entry, which for years had been filed away by Universal, away from TV, is a damn good 62-minute programmer. It's about a dedicated researcher, Chaney, who is exploited by his truly evil millionaire boss, an excellent J. Carrol Naish, who lusts after both quick millions marketing a flu medicine (and who cares if it's the medicine that works) and also for Chaney's very shapely wife, played by Brenda Joyce.

Early in the film, Chaney quits Naish's employ, realizing what scum he is. Blacklisted, Chaney's character, Jeff Carter, is working as an assistant pharmacist or something, barely able to plug out a living with his wife and toddler boy. Naish, a visitor to a party at the Carter's humble abode, offers his former scientist wealth if he'll return. Carter says no, but is later persuaded to accept the job by his wife, who is tired of poverty.

Joyce's Mary is a complex character. She clearly loves her husband but plays the traditional "Eve" character, persuading him to follow "Satan," Naish's Roger Graham. Also, rather creepily Mary seems to provide limited encouragement to Graham's slow but persistent efforts to have an affair with her. This was, of course, the Breen era, so we never even have a hint that adultery occurred but that is Graham's goal. He even sends Chaney's Carter off to Brazil, with an assistant played by a young Lloyd Bridges, to find the ingredients to complete the flu medicine. Chaney finds it, but not before a flu epidemic hits the U.S. Graham ignores Chaney's correct formula, and markets an inferior earlier concoction to make a quick buck.

This leads to a particularly heart-wrenching tragedy and a truly gruesome climax that, this again being the Breen era, is not shown in gory detail.

Although Chaney is an academic he's more of a loner, a socially awkward rumpled professor full of obsession and angst and he carries it off, playing a more determined Larry Talbot, Naish is also superb; he's pure evil, without conscience but also gifted with a silver tongue and the art of persuasion. Others who are good in smaller roles are Milburn Stone as a business confederate of Graham's and Mary Gordon as a stereotypical but appealing nanny to the now-prosperous Carter family.

Even as Universal's horror offerings solidified as B films they were still above the quality of Monogram and PRC C films. The chief reason was tight scripts, better supporting actors and lean direction. As with other "Universal Horrors," "Strange Confession," directed by John Hoffman, is a lean-mean offering with a disciplined plot that's over before you know it.

It's one of Chaney's better late-Universal films and his portrayal of a dedicated scientist cheated in many ways by a sociopath boss allows him to retain sympathy despite the revenge he takes. Below is a screen shot of Naish, Chaney and Joyce.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Incredibly Strange Creatures film chaotic, colorful, bizarre

Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, 1963, director Ray Dennis Steckler, Starring Cash Flagg (Steckler), Carolyn Brandt. Color, 82 minutes. (Also know as The Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary.) Schlock-meter rating: 6 stars out of 10.

By Doug Gibson

I'll say this much: Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies is a GREAT title. And for that the late director/star Steckler gets three stars right off the bat. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is very confusing, and only the carnival scenes somewhat save this semi-boring monster musical with strippers who are very clothed.

A word about the carnival. It is the old Pike in Long Beach, Calif., a wonderful amusement place by the beach that was torn down more than 25 years ago. And a plus for the film is that it's very colorful. Cult director Steckler used color to advantage. The viewer will appreciate that this is a unique film by a cult director.

The plot is very tangled,  but here goes. An ugly gypsy fortune teller (who looks a lot like an old Liz Taylor with a big mole) turns a bunch of hapless fortune seekers into scarred, drugged-out zombies who have an urge to kill. (Why do zombies always have an urge to kill in films? by the way.) No reason is ever given as to why the gypsy wants these zombies around. One night free spirit, cool young guy (Steckler), who looks a bit like a homely Nicholas Cage, goes to the carnival with his rich-girl lady. They have a spat when he eyes a comely dancer, and she stalks off.

Steckler goes after the dancer, and falls into the clutches of the evil fortune teller. He spends the rest of the film wandering around in a daze, occasionally killing and once trying to kill his girl. Later the zombies revolt and wreck havoc around the carnival. Steckler is pursued to the beach, where he meets his fate. Steckler is not a bad actor. He later was very good in a private eye flick he directed, Super Cool. He also made some great C films, including the spoofs Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and The Lemon Grove Kids series, as well as genuinely nervy psycho killer film called The Thrill Killers.

But this film is too undisciplined to take seriously. Several times scenes don't seem to mesh with the plot and often there is no explanation for why anything is occurring. The viewer is never told how the evil gypsy controls minds. She mumbles in dreams and we see a bad imitation of the Twilight Zone spiral (was this film shot originally in 3D?). In theaters ushers were forced to dress up like zombies and run through the theaters. Steckler's then-wife, Carolyn Brandt, who often starred in his films, plays a sexy carny dancer.

It was advertised as a monster musical and as a result, we're forced to watch a lot of bad singing and dancing. The acting is overall poor. The best part of the film is the weird carny world where so much of the action occurs. The film captures the seedy side of small-time carnival life a generation ago. Unfortunately, the limitations of the filmmakers and likely, a very tiny budget, produce an often talky bore. But still a great title! I must mention that the late Steckler, in interviews I have read and watched, seems like a good guy, modest and candid. Other titles for this film included "Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary." 

Steckler was dissatisfied that the original distributor turned it into a second feature to another low-budget film so he regained rights to the film, and according to Wikipedia, bought rights to Beast of Yucca Flats to be Incredibly Strange Creatures ... second feature, and barnstormed the nation showing the film. I imagine it made a profit.

This is the film Steckler is best known for, even if it's not his best. Try "Body Fever" or "The Thrill Killers." It's fun to say Steckler acting in the film. He was a fine thespian. The film was also spoofed in MST3K. Watch the film above!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Frankenstein Conquers the World through Japan

Frankenstein Conquers the World, 1965, Toho, Color. Director: Ishiro Honda; Cast includes Nick Adams, Kumi Mizuno, Tadao Takashima and Kuji Furuhata. 87 minutes in most prints. Seven out of 10 stars on the Schlock-Meter.

Review by Doug Gibson

This is a fun film that doesn't fail to deliver cheesy thrills with a fast-growing boy Frankenstein (Furuhata) eating everything in sight and battling a monster named Baragon at the end. Scientists (Adams, Mizuno and Takashima) battle to save the boy monster so he "can be studied."

The FXs are cheesy, with the boy Frankenstein looking pretty silly on miniature sets and with overhead camera shots. The battle scenes are fake but fun, with a rubber monster flipping around a lot. The dubbing is as bad as expected. The most campy dubbing involves a German scientist, who sports an accent so bogus that even "Hogan's Heroes" would be ashamed to use it.

The bizarre plot is as follows: Late in World War 2, the heart of the Frankenstein monster is stolen from the lab of Dr. Frankenstein by Axis soldiers. It makes its way to Japan, where it survives the atomic blast in Hiroshima. It then somehow attaches itself to a small boy who survives the Hiroshima blast. He grows and grows and grows. There are a lot of twists on Mary Shelley's legend: Frankenstein can never die, and if you cut off a limb, it grows again!

This film, corny as it is, can be at times compelling. It takes place in Hiroshima and the horror of the Hiroshima bombing hangs over the plot. Star Adams's doctor is an American so horrified by what happened in Hiroshima that he's chosen to travel across the world and treat those still suffering. Frankenstein Conquers the World, while a misleading title, is a silly film, but it's a cut above its genre. The wild plot and classic Toho effects make it worth a rental and a tape if you can catch it on TV. I saw it on American Movie Classics.

Notes: According to an article in Cult Movies magazine, stars Adams and Mizuno had a brief affair; The film was released in the USA by Henry Saperstein's UPA company; There was more than one ending filmed (the ending for this review has the monster sinking into the earth); Toho made one more film with the Frankenstein monster, War of the Gargantuas, starring Russ Tamblyn.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Dracula Never Dies ... a sample of Christopher R. Gauthier's signature work

Readers of our blog are familiar with narrative writer and poet Christopher R. Gauthier, who started the popular Facebook page A Celebration of the Life and Art of Bela Lugosi (here). We interviewed Chris nearly two years ago in which he talked about his admiration and love for Lugosi and we also shared some of his poetry. And, about 20 months ago, Chris joined a few other reviewers in a Lugosi post, reviewing Bride of the Monster for our readers (here).

Chris' signature work, still in progress, is an extensive novel titled "Dracula Never Dies: The Revenge of Bela Vorlock." I have read early draft versions and it's an impressive accomplishment. He has already recited excerpts of the work on radio shows. The first publication of this book is scheduled for August 16, 2020, by Arcane Shadows Press. There will be more books, all comprising the story, published in later years.

Also, an excerpt of "Dracula Never Dies ..." is published in an anthology, by Midnight Marquee Press (buy it here). Below is an excerpt from the MMP contribution. It captures Chris' unique style that blends passion, emotion, pride and enduring love of a horror icon:

Bela Vorlock obtained his flask of Hungarian plum brandy that rested alongside his sterling silver cigarette case. A short sketch of written lines rested on the dresser that he had been told to review for this evening's theatrical performance, in the defunct slum encrusted theatre. The brandy soothed his tingling throat as it swam down his parched canal, bringing him back to the almost vanished rays of peace … the deception that solitude had given him. He thought of the vivid recollection of his reality and it shook his jagged nerves that were fragile as glass. He whispered about peace, the lone true human emotion that was both an edacious need of starve and greed for his soul of crumbled blemished torment. There was a vacant dream of havened internal amity, and it was all that Bela Vorlock had longed for. To finally grasp in the cores of his mangled and tortured soul, a permanent slice of peace, which was a diminishing primeval haze of a subservient memory so utterly vague and almost forgotten to him in the final mournful days of his life.."

As a fellow Lugosi fan, and frankly fan is too small a term; I adore the iconic actor, "Dracula Never Dies ..." hits me with emotion. It places me in a location and time I have never been. Early 1951, in a shabby theater on the east coast for a midnight spook show, with Lugosi adding dignity to a tacky program, with a bad film, and poor accompanying actors, populated by unappreciative teenage fans more liable to laugh than applaud. That really happened to Lugosi, who was struggling to support a career and family. He never gave less than 100 percent. I can't locate this reference, I apologize, but I once read of Lugosi, while doing one of the above-mentioned spook shows, finally having enough of the catcalls and hooting. As I recall reading, he stopped, became silent, and coldly stared down the audience. What magnificence by a great thespian. What an appropriate rebuke to a boorish audience.

In "Dracula Never Dies ...," Chris captures the enduring dignity of a great actor. The prose speaks of a distinguished, iconic artist refusing to compromise his dignity and talent, no matter what the circumstances. There's deep passion to the prose. I suspect the author shares some of the challenges "Bela Vorlock" faces. His prose is perhaps also his response to the world he lives in, and underscores his continued devotion to a man, Bela Lugosi, that he emulates to the best of his ability. 

One more note: "Dracula Never Dies: The Revenge of Bela Vorlock," will be published as four separate, roughly 100,000-word novels, with Part 1 slated to be published by Arcane Shadows Press (Facebook page here) in October. Thanks Chris, for allowing us to share an excerpt of your work in this post.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Homicidal is William Castle at his best

The late-great William Castle was a master showman, and he made some great thrillers. In homage to his showmanship, I offer this trailer that starred Castle more than the film. I personally tag "Homicidal," 1961, as his second-scariest offering, second only to "The Tingler."

As most readers of this blog already know, "Homicidal" was Castle's version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." "Homicidal" as a lot of scary scenes, similar in content to the movies such as "Drag Me to Hell" or the "Insidious" series. However, one of Castle's trademarks was to keep his tongue firmly entrenched in his cheek during his movies. As a result, "Homicidal" never approaches the intensity and suspense of "Psycho." How could it with gimmicks such as a clock materializing on the screen and giving "faint-hearted" patrons 45 seconds to leave the theater before the terrifying conclusion!

The plot is standard Castle -- a dysfunctional family gathered together (the setting is Solvang, Calif.) prior to a settlement in which a young man, the mildly repulsive, clean shaven, prissy-voiced Warren, is set to inherit a fortune. He has a disturbed, beautiful friend, Emily, who culminates a long prologue by murdering a justice of the peace (James Westerfield) in front of his traumatized wife (Hope Summers) and Emily's surprised  faux husband to be (Snub Pollard) whom she hired for the murderous ruse.

Emily's deadly deeds are unknown -- at least for a while -- to Warren's generally happy sister, Miriam (Patricia Breslin). In fact, family and townspersons seem to generally like Warren despite his vague creepiness, which includes baring his closed teeth while he talks. Back to Emily: She's taking care of a crippled, mute, Helga, (Eugenie Leontovich) whom Emily treats rather cruelly. There is the boyfriend (to Miriam), a detective, and the country doctor, all stock characters.

There's lots of intrigue, spooky moments, thrills and giggles, and a particularly chilling scene in which Emily sadistically draws out a terrified Helga's final moments. I won't give away the surprise ending, although -- unlike "Psycho" -- sharp viewers can more easily guess what's going to occur. By the way, the actress who plays Emily does an excellent job. She's really the best actor in the film.

- Doug Gibson