Sunday, October 15, 2017

Film Reviews: Murders in the Rue Morgue & The Black Cat


"Murders in the Rue Morgue*** (out of ****)

Bela Lugosi gets mixed up in a lot of monkey business in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1932).

In the space between Universal Pictures release of "Dracula" (1931) and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" Bela Lugosi had appeared in a few movies, in insignificant roles including an appearance in the Olsen & Johnson comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) and a Joe E. Brown comedy, "Broadminded" (1931). However it was here that Lugosi was given his first prominent role since playing the iconic character that defined the rest of his career.

Many literary scholars believe Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue", published in 1841, was the first modern detective story. A lot of Poe's short story was changed for this screen adaptation, changing it from a procedural detective story to a horror / mystery movie with the usual anti-science theme.

It is 1845 Paris and Lugosi plays Dr. Mirakle, a scientist that has a side show at a carnival. His attraction is Erik the Ape. According to Dr. Mirakle he has re-learned Erik's language and is able to communicate with the ape. You see, Dr. Mirakle believes humans are descendants of apes through the process of evolution. His audience strongly rejects this theory which forces the doctor to prove his ideas. He wants to mix the ape's blood with that of a woman, hoping this would create a female companion for Erik. In other words, we are almost dealing with bestiality. Remember this is a pre-code movie and is a bit racy.

Dr. Mirakle has set his sights on Camille (Sidney Fox). She and her fiancee, Pierre (Leon Waycoff, later known as Leon Ames) attend the carnival one night, with some friends, and catch the doctor's show. Camille and Pierre walk up to Erik's cage where he takes Camille's bonnet and tries to strangle Pierre. At this moment Dr. Mirakle is sure Camille would be the perfect selection for Erik.

One of the most notable scenes in the movie involves Dr. Mirakle kidnapping a prostitute (played by Arlene Francis in her screen debut) and discovers her blood is "rotten", which I guess means she has a sexual disease. When the doctor finds this out he yells at her, her "beauty was a lie", suggesting she isn't "pure".

Another interesting scene has Pierre at home trying to solve the murder of the prostitute and two other woman that have been murdered (which are not shown on-screen). His roommate, Paul (Bert Roach) is making lunch and begins to complain when Pierre doesn't come to the table to eat. Obviously this has homosexual undertones with Paul playing the nagging wife and Pierre the neglectful husband. Paul even has an apron on which is a symbol of emasculating the character.

There is also an interesting camera technique used in a scene when Camille is on a swing. As Camille swings back and forth, the camera sways as well. The cinematographer was Karl Freund, who is credited as the inventor of the unchained camera, providing more mobility. This scene is an example of that. Freund was also the cinematographer on "Dracula" and directed "The Mummy" (1932).

So many of the Universal horror movies of the 1930s have a strong anti-science theme to them. Here of course the characters reject the theory of evolution. The character that does believe in it is presented as a "mad scientist". The doctor character also wants to interfere with biology implying science should just leave everything alone, much like a later Universal movie, "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" (1954). Science is meddling in things it should not and ambition is getting the best of scientist.

And although it was made in 1932, the idea of an ape being attracted to a woman made me think of "King Kong" (1933) which of course is impossible, since "Kong" hadn't been released yet. But we even see the ape climb up the side of a building to enter the bedroom of the woman.

If I had to guess what prevents this movie was being better it would be it needed more for the Pierre character investigating. It needed more of the slow build-up that Dr. Mirakle is behind the murders. It would have also been nice to show the murders on-screen rather than talk about them in the past tense. Supposedly nearly twenty minutes of this movie cut to tone down the violence.

Directed by Robert Florey, "Murders in the Rue Morgue" may not be able to scare audiences it does however do a nice job of creating mood and suspense. The performance by Lugosi is good but at times its a bit over dramatic. Still, Lugosi has been in worse movies with primates, "Bela Lugosi Meets The Brooklyn Gorilla" (1952) comes to mind.


"The Black Cat"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

The honeymoon in Hungary turns into a honeymoon from hell for the newlyweds in "The Black Cat" (1934).

"The Black Cat" has the honorable distinction of the being the first of several movies to co-star Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the two men who starred in arguably Universal's two best horror movies, "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" (1931).

For marketing purposes alone you could see why this pairing would be considered a big deal, Dracula mees Frankenstein's Monster. In fact the movie was a box-office hit and is even today considered a classic horror movie and usually ends up on lists of the best horror movies ever made.

Starting off on a dark and rainy night, a car accident leads a group of passengers into the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a famous architect however it may not have been a coincidence.

This set-up is not unlike other movies which focus on a big scary house with people trapped inside it. In fact Karloff starred in one himself, "The Old Dark House" (1932). By comparison, that is the better movie and is one that serves up more freights and makes better advantage of its setting.

"The Black Cat" has a nice look to it but doesn't give the house enough personality to create a menacing presence, the same with Karloff's performance. The character has an interesting look but Karloff plays the character too stiff and doesn't really interact with the other actors, feeding off one another. And Lugosi is just way over-the-top.

The newlyweds are Peter (David Manners, who played Harker in "Dracula") and Joan (Julie Bishop, billed as Jacqueline Wells, who appeared in "The Bohemian Girl" (1936) with Laurel & Hardy). This nice American couple is taken to Poelzig's home by Dr. Werdegast (Lugosi), a psychiatrist who fought in World War I and for the last 15 years was in a prison camp. He now vows revenge on his old commanding officer, Poelzig, who the doctor believes was in love with his wife and told her the doctor had died. Now this innocent couple will be caught in the middle of their feud.

We discover Poelzig married Werdegast's wife, who is now dead, and has kept her body in his basement along with several other women. Why? Who are these other women? The movie doesn't explain any of it. We further learn after his wife died Poelzig then married Werdegast's daughter. This is too much even for Freud. You couldn't get away with this once the production code was being strictly enforced.

The movie also has nothing in common with Poe's story, "The Black Cat", other than the appearance of a black cat. Poe's story was about guilt associated with murder. This movie is about revenge and a man that collects dead bodies and makes questionable marriage choices.

To say "The Black Cat" is an oddity is putting it nicely. The movie does have bizarre startling images, the dead women in glass cases and a Satanic ritual. There is a scene where Werdegast and Poelzig play a game of chess to determine the fate of the young married couple, which adds no dramatic impact at all. We don't even get to see the moves they are making.

Some have suggested the movie can even be interpreted as a commentary on the effects of World War I and the rise of Hitler in Germany. Prior to their accident, the young couple was on their way to the town of Gombos, which as a Hungarian myself, I never heard of. Gombos was however the name of the Prime Minister of Hungary, who was one of the first foreign heads of state to meet with Hitler. Geographically the only Gombos I know of is a river in Romania.

"The Black Cat" lacks thrills but does make an effort. I just don't understand the praise that has been thrown at this movie. A minor effort.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Film Review: Psycho

"Psycho"
**** (out of ****)

It's all about a mother's love in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960)

"Psycho" is generally regarded as Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film, his crowning achievement. It is without question a well made film featuring two magnificent performances from Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh at its center. This is not to mention the iconic score composed by Bernard Herrmann, which has become something of the quintessential slasher movie theme.

But, as many times as I have seen it, I simply can't avoid the fact I am ahead of the characters. I know exactly where it will lead. I know all the masterful twist and turns Hitchcock has in store for the audience. And that doesn't keep "Psycho" "fresh" in my opinion.

I can, as most film lovers do, watch movies over and over again, even some of Hitchcock's. I love "Rear Window" (1954) and "Vertigo" (1958). Naturally I know how those movies end as well yet I am involved in their story and the characters. "Psycho" by comparison seems so reliant on its twist ending that once you know the secret it can never grip you with suspense as it did the first time you saw it. I cannot think of many modern movies that I feel fall into the same category. Maybe "The Sixth Sense" (1999) which is another movie where it all leads up to a twist ending.

"Psycho" has become such a major part of popular culture it is difficult to find someone that doesn't know anything about it. If you have never seen the movie before I bet you know about the shower scene. We associate the very name Norman Bates with a crazy person. How can someone have a "pure" movie going experience and walk into the movie cold? I wish I could.

This may make it sound to some like I don't like "Psycho". Not true. But my reaction to the film will never be what it was the first time I saw it. I can only imagine the thrill audiences in 1960 must have experienced when they first saw the film.

"Psycho" is unique. Hitchcock does do something amazing with this movie. Hitchcock proves that he was not only the master of suspense but a master manipulator as well. "Psycho" doesn't just play with our emotions, the way all films do, but it also plays with our expectations of what movies are and how they function. It is a well told story, "Psycho" changed movie going habits. Hitchcock warned audiences they must see "Psycho" from the beginning otherwise they would not be admitted into the theater.

For me "Psycho" is all about the manipulation. I can think of no other American movie that does what it does. It establishes a character that we think will be the star of the movie only to kill that character less than half-way through the movie. The movie is about two crimes only one of which is resolved.

Hitchcock didn't want "Psycho" to be like his other movies. This one looks different. It wasn't made with his usual crew. It is in black & white. It looks like a cheap exploitative movie with a plot that matches it. In the end it beat the odds and became something special. A work of art to some.

As "Psycho" begins, we are in a hotel room. We see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in her white bra as she is getting dressed after spending her lunch hour with her boyfriend, Sam (John Gavin). It is not the only time we see Marion in her bra getting dressed. It happens one more time, this time she is wearing a black bra, meant to signify "good" (white) and "bad" (black), before we see a famous scene of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) peeping through a hole into her hotel room as she undresses before taking a shower. Here we are all voyeurs staring at a woman getting dressed. It is only when we are watching someone else watch the woman do we feel the act of watching is cheap.

Marion and Sam are talking about their future together. Sam is divorced and paying alimony. He has nothing to offer Marion. Marion feels cheap meeting Sam in hotel rooms and wants a "respectable" relationship. Money is the cause of their problems.

Through a strange coincidence Marion finds an opportunity to solve the money problem. It won't be legal but it will achieve the desired result. She will steal $40,000, that was part of a real estate transaction, and split the money with Sam so they may start a life together.


She drives from Arizona to California to meet Sam. Along the way however, after causing some suspicion and tired from the long drive, she pulls off the road to spend the night at a motel, the Bates Motel. There she finds the lonely owner of the motel, Norman, a young man who finds himself instantly attracted to Marion.

In desperate need of the company, Norman asks Marion if she would like to have dinner with him. She agrees. The two eat in his parlor, where Norman, who has an interest in taxidermy, has a collection of stuffed birds. They talk about Norman and his mother, whom Marion overheard arguing with Norman. Norman implies his mother is ill and belittles him. Marion defends Norman and tells him he should put his mother in an institution. This upsets Norman greatly.

What is interesting about the way this scene is shot is at one point the camera is placed near the floor, looking up at Norman, sitting in his chair. In the background is one of the stuffed birds with its wings spread out. It looks like it is about to swoop down on Norman as if he is prey. And Norman is his mother's prey, just as Marion turns out to be prey for Norman.

After this scene comes the famous shower scene. For a slasher movie what is interesting is we never see the knife touch Marion's body and never see full frontal nudity. The amount of blood is limited. This is in complete contrast to today's slasher movies which seem to almost pride themselves on trying to disgust the audience. Again, Hitchcock is manipulating the audience. He isn't going to give us what we expect.

Many have commented on Norman's actions after the shower scene, where he cleans up after his mother's murder, disposing of Marion's body. Some have suggested in this scene Norman is actually sympathetic, playing the role of the good son, protecting his mother. I can't say I had the same reaction. Maybe because I know the truth but Norman's behavior is very mechanical in this scene. He appears to be acting out a familiar scene. He never flinches when he sees the body and knows exactly what to do. It is also difficult to sympathize with someone covering up a murder, no matter what his motive is.

Hitchcock has a little fun at one point in the movie creating suspense as Norman tries to sink Marion's car in a swamp. At one point it looks as if the car won't. What will happen if the car doesn't sink? What will Norman do? It has been suggested again the audience is to sympathize with Norman and we want the car to sink. Again, that wasn't my reaction. It just felt like a moment of black humor to me. 

If there is one scene audiences agree seems a little out of place it is an explanation scene at the end describing Norman's personality and behavior. It goes on a bit too long and become redundant. It wants to perfectly wrap everything up with a bow, just to make sure everyone in the audience perfectly understands what they have just seen.

Watching "Psycho" again I thought of a movie directed by the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, "L'Avventura" (1960). Ironically both movies were released in the same year and have a similar structure in the sense both manipulate our expectations. In "L'Avventura" a woman disappears during a boat trip. We suspect the movie will be about her recovery and rescue. It isn't.

Even though "Psycho" doesn't shock me as it once did there is no denying the movie is one of Hitchcock's signature films and perhaps the last one he made to make a mark on pop culture, though "The Birds" (1963) may also be a contender. If you've never seen the movie before, you truly are in store for a treat. And remember, be good to your mother, she's been good to you.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Film Review: Images

"Images"
**** (out of ****)

Watching Robert Altman's "Images" (1972) you never know what is real and what isn't. That is mostly because the lead character doesn't know what is reality and fantasy.

I must be honest and fully disclose, I cannot with any confidence state I know what "Images" is about. I'm not sure I am able to "read" the movie and "decode" it. But, that is what makes the movie so enjoyable to me. It is one hell of a ride. Some of the fun watching it, is trying to figure it all out.

"Images" was released at a time when the public was just starting to notice Robert Altman. By 1972 Altman had completed "M*A*S*H" (1970) and "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" (1971), two hallmarks of the 70s. But "Images" was dismissed by much of the public upon its initial release and today is a lesser known Altman movie that gets lost in the shuffle of what was clearly a decade when Altman was at his creative peak. Although Susannah York won a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance.

In the wonderful book by David Thompson, "Altman on Altman", the two men discuss Altman's career film by film, ending with the television series, "Tanner on Tanner" (2004). Altman says the idea for "Images" was one that had been floating around in his head since 1968 and he originally wanted Sandy Dennis for the lead. Over the years, other actresses considered for the role were Julie Christie and Sophia Loren.

It is no accident Altman conceived the idea of the movie after Ingmar Bergman's "Persona" (1967) was released in America. Altman admits in the book "Persona" was an influence stating the movie impressed him a lot. "I'm sure that film was largely responsible for Images and 3 Women. There was a power in Persona". And like "Persona", I believe "Images" is largely about a traumatic sexual experience. For me, "Persona" is about guilt associated with a woman's choice to have an abortion. In "Images" there is talk about a woman wanting to have children and it is hinted at she may have had a daughter outside of her marriage. At the very least "Images" is a story about a woman's guilt in having an extramarital affair.

Altman presents these ideas within the confines of a psychological suspense film as we follow Cathryn (York) a middle-aged woman who seems to be spiraling into madness. It all begins late one night when she is home alone. The telephone rings and another woman is on the other line. The woman implies Cathryn's husband, Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) is cheating on her.

From this moment on the movie begins its descent into Cathryn's disturbed mind as she and Hugh head for their secluded cabin where Cathryn can finish a children's book she is writing and rest. Characters are introduced to the story that we are never sure if they are real or not. One is supposed to be a dead lover, Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi) and the other a friend of the couple, who it is implied had an affair with Cathryn, Marcel (Hugh Millais). Do you see how Altman is adding to the confusion naming characters after the actors? Cathryn even sees her own doppelganger, who at one point in the movie we follow and switch point of view.

What is so impressive about Ms. York's performance is we can see the terror and confusion on her face as she struggles to determine what is real and what isn't. Many times while talking to her husband his appearance will change into one of the other men causing her to scream in horror. This is a demanding role which is tricky to play because so much of the movie is about the character's mind and her psychology. That is not always easy to translate on the screen.

This leads to some very suspenseful sequences. In one scene Cathryn kills Marcel, or at least his apparition, late at night after Marcel makes sexual advances at her. The next morning we see Marcel's bloody body lying on the floor. Did she really kill Marcel? We know Cathryn can see Marcel's body, as she walks over him to get to the kitchen to make her morning tea, but she is purposely avoiding the body. Soon people approach the home, a local elderly man and his dog and Marcel's teen daughter, Susannah (Cathryn Harrison). Cathryn invites them all inside for a drink. We sit in anticipation. What is Cathryn doing? She is going to be discovered. She killed a man.

Altman throws visual clues and metaphors at us, one of which is a puzzle, what is exactly what this movie is. Some of the characters try to put together a puzzle they have found in the cabin. The puzzle represents Cathryn, something that is fragmented and needs to be arranged in order to create an coherent image. Before the puzzle is assembled it is disjointed pieces, just like Cathryn's mind and the pieces are the characters in her head.

The fragmented quality is also present in the Oscar nominated score by John Williams which isn't melodic and lyrical but rather the score is comprised of  fragmented "sounds" and sound effects. The score really heightens our suspense and involvement in the movie.

It should be rather obvious but this is not your typical Robert Altman picture. It doesn't have a large ensemble cast. It doesn't have that wonderful overlapping, seemingly improvised dialogue. And it isn't the antithesis of its genre the way "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" was to the western or "Popeye" (1980) the musical. "Images" works rather well in the thriller / suspense genre.

"Images" is better, much better than the movie going public will have you believe. It doesn't deserve to be seen as a "lesser" Robert Altman movie. You can't even buy a new copy of it on amazon. You can't rent it on Netflix and it is not streaming on their site. "Images" is a bit of a challenging movie but that shouldn't scare an audience away. This is a well made, wonderfully acted and photographed movie. This is first-rate filmmaking. For me, it is one of Altman's best. Try and find a copy of it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Film Review: The Vampire Bat

"The Vampire Bat"
*** (out of ****)

Don't go batty watching "The Vampire Bat" (1933).

Made at the low-rent movie studio, Majestic Pictures, "The Vampire Bat" has a classic mainstream Hollywood horror feel to it comparable to what was being made at Universal Pictures. In fact, I prefer "The Vampire Bat" over many of the movies Universal was releasing after its first major monster movies of the 1930s such as "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931).

Speaking of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" it is these two movies that "The Vampire Bat" seems most inspired by but in no way should you believe the movie is a cheap imitator.

We are in the small European town of Kleinschloss. Many deaths have been reported. Although there are no clues or evidence, the police believe the deaths were all the result of murders. Each victim had the same two small punctured marks on their neck, which drained the bodies of all their blood. The townsfolk believe it is the work of a vampire terrorizing the town.

One of the police inspectors, Karl (Melvyn Douglas) however simply cannot believe in such superstitions. There are no such thing as vampires. But what is causing the murders? Karl can't explain the loss of blood from the bodies and no a trace of it is found at the murder scenes. But, vampires can't be the answer.

Naturally this part of the story will make some think of "Dracula". Is Karl wrong? Is there really a vampire sucking the blood from the townsfolk? Of course we could also compare it to the silent movie, 'The Bat" about a serial killer that dresses like a bat.

Although he doesn't receive top billing (Lionel Atwill does!) Melvyn Douglas is the hero of the story and gives the best performance in the movie. Mr. Douglas' interpretation of the character is so good I can't think of another actor, during this time period, playing it as well. To me the tonspeople give off an old European 19th century vibe that clashes with Mr. Douglas who plays a young, modern, metropolitan character that has a sarcastic side to him. As the inspector, Karl repeatedly makes remarks about the belief in vampires as ridiculous and sometimes plays along with the townspeople just to get them worked up and scared.

The only two sensible people in the town, according to Karl, are Dr. Niemann (Atwill), who wants to help Karl solve the case and eventually tries to get him to accept the theory a vampire is the cause of the deaths, and Ruth (Fay Wray), Karl's girlfriend and is something of Dr. Niemann's assistant.

Unable to explain the deaths, the townspeople become anxious and start to suspect Herman (Dwight Frye, who was Dr. Frankenstein's assistant in the original movie and Renfield in the original Dracula). Herman is mentally challenged and keeps bats as pets. Mr. Frye plays Herman in the same way he played Renfield, with a certain deranged, lunatic quality.

"The Vampire Bat" is also able to inject a lot of humor in its story though I wouldn't refer to this as a comedy / horror. The humor comes from Karl's remarks about vampires and a character that is a hypochondriac and amateur doctor that believes she has every disease she reads about in medical books.


As much as I like many elements of "The Vampire Bat" there some shortfalls to the movie. One of the issues is the movie's running time. The total running time is approximately 60 minutes. This is essentially a "B" movie and the running time is average for such movies however what was edited out? There is a lot of story here that a longer running time could have benefited. That leads to the second issue with the movie. There are no death scenes. Not to sound morbid but a good horror movie needs a death scene. We never see any characters get killed. All violence is off screen.

Imagine scenes where the victims sees a menacing shadow, we see fear in the eyes of the victims. Music swells to a high pitch. We see the eyes of the murderer and the beginning of the attack while the camera pulls back. It may sound cliche but that's what you see in horror movies. Scenes like this create suspense. Although I have no proof, I'm willing to bet scenes like this were filmed but due to pressures to keep the running time at a particular length were left on the cutting room floor. If true, that would be unfortunate.

What "The Vampire Bat" does right is create a nice sense of community. It has interesting characters played by a fine cast of actors, who give very good performances. The story-line is interesting although its conclusion feels a little rushed and I felt could use more explanation. The villain's motivates will remind you of Dr. Frankenstein's motivates. It leaves us with the same theme as Universal's horror movies, the dangers of science and the far reaching ambitions of scientist.

For years only public domain copies existed of "The Vampire Bat" but thanks to the UCLA a restored version has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. I have not seen this restored version but can only assume it has a better print quality than the version I am familiar with.

"The Vampire Bat" did not reach the level of cultural influence the Universal horror movies during the same period did but this a very good movie that deserves an audience. Interestingly the director, Frank R. Strayer, directed the Blondie and Dagwood movie adaptations of the popular comic strip.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Film Reviews: Haunted Spooks, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case & If A Body Meets A Body


"Haunted Spooks ** (out of ****)

It is a dark and stormy night. There is an old mansion. A dead body. A family gathering for a reading of a will. Yes, it sounds like the makings of a horror movie but it actually is the set-up for a comedy.

As this collection of two and three reeler comedies reveal, there has long been an attempt to combine comedy and horror, often placing a comedian or comedy team in cliche horror situations and finding ways to spoof the genre. It leads one to wonder, what exactly is the line that separates our reaction to laugh at something or scream? On its face you wouldn't think horror could lend itself to comedy. Their objectives are drastically different and perhaps that's why it is so fun to watch and why so many great comedians have starred in comedy / horror movies. It is also why not all attempts work. It is a difficult balancing act.

Take for example the Harold Lloyd comedy short, "Haunted Spooks" (1920). At its heart, despite its title, "Haunted Spooks" wants to be a love story, a romantic comedy. With a running time of 25 minutes, the majority of the comedy serves as a set-up to get the boy and girl together and spends little time spoofing the horror genre.

Now that's not to say "Haunted Spooks" doesn't have its fair share of laughs. It does. Portions of the the comedy resembles "Never Weaken" (1921), one of Lloyd's best comedy shorts, where Lloyd played a lovelorn young man who has been rejected by the woman he loves. In his despair he decides to kill himself. In "Haunted Spooks" it creates some really good visual gags with each suicide attempt failing. As shown in the case of "Never Weaken" that set-up alone is enough to make a memorable comedy. But "Haunted Spooks" quickly moves on from this premise to get Lloyd in the scary old mansion.

Mildred (Mildred Davis) learns she has inherited an old family mansion, provided she and her husband live in the mansion for one year. If Mildred fails to do this then her uncle (Wallace Howe) will be the sole heir. The problem is Mildred is not married. Her lawyer tells her not to worry. He will find her a husband, enter lovelorn Lloyd. The next obstacle is the uncle wants the mansion. If he can scare Mildred into believing the mansion is haunted she won't last a year.

If given more time to develop the story, it could have served as an enjoyable feature-length comedy and could have been one more title in a list of haunted house movies made in the 1920s & 30s such as "The Cat and the Canary" (1927), "The Bat" (1926) and "The Old Dark House" (1932). However, given its current running time, the entire sub-plot of Lloyd being rejected by the woman he loves and wanting to kill himself should have been abandoned. The comedy should have started off with Lloyd and Davis married which would then give us more time in the mansion creating more comic set-ups. The movie does have a classic visual gag that normally I wouldn't want to spoil but it has become such an iconic image you've probably seen it. It involves Lloyd's hair.

If you have only seen Harold Lloyd's feature-length comedies, you should definitely do yourself a favor and see his two and three reel comedies. He helped establish the romantic comedy as we know it today. As an example of comedy / horror however, "Haunted Spooks" isn't a good example of the genre at its best although there are good visual gags.


"The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case*** (out of ****)

Like Harold Lloyd the comedy team Laurel & Hardy were not known for comedy / horror however of the three comedy shorts reviewed it is "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" (1930) that is the best example. Unlike "Haunted Spooks", Stan & Ollie waste no time with a romantic sub-plot and spend more time on creating comedy within a horror situation.

This time around it is Stan Laurel that may have inherited a family fortune when Oliver Hardy reads in the newspaper a reading of a will for the late Ebeneezer Laurel, who Stan may or may not be related to. Oliver assures him, if he just leaves everything to him, the money will be theirs.

Prior to their arrival a detective (Fred Kelsey) reveals Ebeneezer did not die of natural causes but was murdered. There will be no reading of a will and the entire roomful of relatives are suspects. No one is allowed to leave. It is at this moment, with their usual good luck, Laurel & Hardy arrive.

Forced to spend the night at the old mansion, the boys share a bedroom and their imagination gets the best of them as they hear noises, see scary shadows and encounter a bat (undoubtedly the best gag in the short).

"The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" understands how a comedy / horror movie is supposed to work. You create a believable scary situation and then allow the laughs to naturally emerge from the scenario. If the scary stuff isn't scary and treated in a serious manner, the movie won't work. Then it is all just one big silly movie. The humor stems from seeing the comedians react to the horror. Their exaggerated reaction is what will be funny.

If you aren't familiar with the comedy team the boys play the same characters they always play and you will quickly understand their relationship. Oliver Hardy is the leader of the team. He is supposed to be the brains. Stan Laurel is his faithful friend. If Oliver is really dumb, Stan is dumber because he thinks Oliver is smart and allows him to be the brains.

There is one downside to "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" and that is the ending. It isn't really satisfactory and kind of feels like the writers didn't know how to end it and settled on a cop out. Still, there are a lot of big laughs here and it is always fun watching Laurel & Hardy.


"If A Body Meets A Body** (out of ****)

The Three Stooges' comedy "If A Body Meets A Body" (1945) is almost a remake of "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case". In fact Fred Kelsey plays the same character in both, a detective investigating a murder.

As in the Laurel & Hardy comedy, one of the stooges, Curly, may have inherited a family fortune. Moe and Larry sensing a small fortune to be gained, take Curly to the reading of the family will. At the reading it is revealed Curly's uncle, Bob O. Link was murdered and everyone is a suspect.

Forced to spend the night at an old mansion, the stooges share a bedroom (are you starting to see the similarity?). They can't sleep after they learn they are in the same room Bob O. Link died in. The main visual gag of the comedy short involves a walking skeleton skull (which a bird has managed to get inside of) that scares Curly and Larry.

The problem with "If A Body Meets A Body" and really any Three Stooges' comedy is there is too much fighting, at least for my taste. The skull gag is good but there is little else that emphasizes the horror part of the comedy / horror. It doesn't do enough to create a scary atmosphere.

The Stooges actually appeared in a few comedy / horror shorts. Released two years prior was "Spook Louder" (1943). There was "The Ghost Talks" (1949) with Shemp as the third stooge which was remade as "Creeps" (1956).

This actually could have been a good comedy / horror short if it would have tried a little harder. "The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case" even had a soundtrack with a thunderstorm throughout. "If A Body Meets A Body" can't even do that. If you are a stooge fan you will probably like it and find it funny but in the context of comedy / horror movies there are much better examples.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Film Review: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

"Four Flies on Grey Velvet**** (out of ****)

There are three scenes in the Italian horror movie "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" (1972) worth discussing.

In the first scene, it is late a night. A man is home sleeping but suddenly hears a noise in another room of the house. He gets up to investigate. The house is pitch black. The lights are out. The man can barely see his hand in front of him. Someone grabs him and suddenly the man is being strangled with a wire. The strangler says he can kill the man but won't.

The second scene takes place at a park. A woman is sitting on a bench waiting for someone. The time passes and soon it is late and the woman is all alone. The park closes. The woman hears something and starts to run. She is caught in a maze. As is typical in horror movies, the audience cannot see the killer and neither can the victim. No matter how fast the woman runs it is not fast enough. Eventually she comes to a wall. She is trapped. She calls out for help. A man on the other side of the wall hears her and says he is going to help. But it is too late. We hear the woman scream. She is dead.

Finally, in the third scene a different man is walking into his apartment, speaking to someone the audience cannot see. The man is going to expose the off-camera person's scheme. Soon the man is hit with a bottle multiple times. His face is covered with blood. He too is strangled with a wire.

What is remarkable about the first two scenes is they were directed by Dario Argento, the famed Italian horror filmmaker known for making ultra gory movies where his camera lingers on blood like a animal going after its prey. Argento almost has a fetish for blood. This time however the violence is off-screen.

But then there is the third scene. This time the audience must confront the violence. "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" was the third movie directed by Argento and is in a way the bridge between his two styles. In his first two movies Argento largely kept violence off the screen. By his fourth movie, "Deep Red" (1975) Argento becomes the filmmaker we known him as today. The man who directs elaborate death scenes.

Also unique about "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" is the amount of humor Argento injects into the story. Borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock, Argento would sometimes breaks tension in his movies to add humor, "Cat O' Nine Tails" (1971) is an excellent example but "Four Flies" takes it a step further. One character is named Godfrey (Bud Spencer) whom everyone calls God for short. Another character, Gianni (Jean-Pierre Marielle) is a private detective however the character is portrayed as a homosexual. This is meant to gets laughs as it suggest how tough can this detective be? And Mr. Marielle really goes all out giving us the usual exaggerated, stereotypical interpretation of a gay man with all the wild hand throwing gestures and delicate feminine voice.

Not so unique however is the story-line, which Argento had done some variation on in his first two movies and "Deep Red"; an innocent man who observes a murder and is stalked by a serial killer who happens to see him at the scene of the crime. This time we follow Roberto (Michael Brandon), a drummer in a rock band, who notices a man has been following him for a week. Finally fed-up, Roberto decides to confront the man and chases after him, when he sees the man lurking around a corner.

Their chase ends inside an empty theatre. The man denies ever following Roberto and demands to be left alone but Roberto refuses he let him off that easy and is relentless in his pursuit for an answer. The man pulls out a knife on Roberto and in a struggle Roberto accidentally kills the man. If that weren't bad enough, a mysterious person wearing a mask, standing in the balcony, is taking pictures of Roberto.

Now photographs of the dead man are being mailed to Roberto's home. The phone rings late at late with no answer on the  the other end. Photos of Roberto with the knife in his hand are discovered in his home. Who is doing this? What does the person want?

Argento takes these scenes and cuts to flashbacks of an insane asylum. We see a room with rubber walls as a strong male voice is heard speaking sternly telling a young boy he must learn to be tough and how disappointed he is to be the boy's father.

This leads us to one of the theme's in the movie, masculinity. We assume the boy being verbally abused by his father has grown up to become the murderer and the one stalking Roberto. Is this his way to prove he is a man and tough? Is that why Argento created the homosexual detective? Is that a comment on masculinity as well? What defines a man?

It is usually a disturbed childhood that leads individuals to become murderers in a Dario Argento movie and "Four Flies on Grey Velvet" is no exception. Freud would be proud.

For his third movie Argento demonstrates he is a filmmaker confident in his story telling ability and understanding of the horror genre. Despite some plot holes the movie genuinely intrigues me even after multiple viewings. The scene in the park exhibits Argento at his creative peak proving in horror films sometimes less is more, which builds suspense.

Argento also proves he is able to walk that fine line of suspense and dark humor, always finding the right moment to go for a laugh.

"Four Flies on Grey Velvet" is a good example of why Argento was often compared to Hitchcock in the early part of his career and called "the Italian Hitchcock". It is one of Argento's best movies, addressing themes he would touch on for nearly the rest of his career.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Film Review: Blair Witch

"Blair Witch"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

"The Blair Witch Project" (1999) engaged in one of the greatest marketing campaigns in the history of modern horror movies. Upon being released the movie was being marketed as based on a true story. Audiences would get to see found footage (the movie) recorded by three student filmmakers, who went Burkittsville, Maryland to make a documentary on a local legend known as the Blair Witch. The three students vanished. One year later someone had discovered one of the recordings. That recording was going to be released in theatres.

Saying this now, 18 years later, some readers might think to themselves, what was so great about this marketing campaign? I cannot tell you how many people, people I knew, friends, that actually believed the background story. The three main actors in the movie were unknowns, adding to the believability. They were prohibited by the filmmakers from doing publicity. There was even a television documentary filmed on the legend of the Blair Witch and the three students that filmed the story.

When I saw the movie in theatres in 1999, I summed it all up by writing the movie was nothing more than "watching trees for 90 minutes". The movie was a box-office hit and was shown much love by movie critics (sheep). The late Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the movie four stars. After the first couple of weeks, word on the street was the movie was bad and the public quickly learned this was a "movie". There were complaints, due to the shaky hand-held camera work, audiences would leave the theatre, becoming dizzy.

Although I disliked the 1999 movie, I have to admit it was influential in the horror genre. Would we have "Paranormal Activity" (2009, which I prefer) if not for "The Blair Witch Project"? The movie inspired an unnecessary sequel, "Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2" (2000) and this unnecessary reboot / sequel.

"Blair Witch" (2016) takes place approximately 20 years after "The Blair Witch Project". James Donahue (James Allen McCune) is the brother of Heather, one of the student filmmakers from "The Blair Witch Project". He believes his sister may still be alive, trapped in a cabin in the woods. He along with some friends will make their own documentary about rescuing Heather. The footage we are about to watch...blah, blah, blah.

By and large "Blair Witch" is a duplicate, in style and tone, of "The Blair Witch Project". This is all presented as "real". We get the same crummy hand-held camera work and get to look at trees for 90 minutes.

Yes, there was great potential in this story-line but, I can't help it. Neither this movie or the original were scary to me. This is an example of great set-up but poor execution. The entire "found footage" concept with the hand-held camera work and first person point of view are more of a distraction than contribution.

Once again, as the terrified young adults, roam the forest, all we see are trees and leaves. The movie primarily takes place at night, in the pitch dark. I couldn't see anything! I understand how someone could write a nice thesis on how this is effective because it plays to our fears of the dark and "sounds that go bump in the night". Or how not seeing something is more scary because our imagination does all the work (a defense for the 1999 movie) but the camera moves so fast I couldn't register what I was seeing. And, did I mention everything takes place at night and I couldn't see anything!

"Blair Witch" reminds me of a television I used to watch occasionally called "Ghost Hunters". It was a show that followed two plumbers that double as paranormal investigators. They travel to various haunted locations to try and make contact with the spirit world. In the few episodes I have seen, NEVER have the two come face to face with a ghost. Instead the show would feature moments with the two men standing next to each other saying things like they feel a draft or heard a strange noise in the background. None of that is scary. And that's the "Blair Witch" - a group of people telling us they have bad feelings and running away from things, which we can't see because it is too dark.

The performances in the movie unfortunately don't amount to much either. These characters aren't presented as people but merely pawns for the story. Who are they? What are their motivations? We understand James' motivations but never emotionally open up to any of the characters. Everyone, I suppose, is doing the best they can with the script they were given but nothing is fleshed out. Having said that however the performances in this movie are actually better than the 1999 movie, which made no attempt to distinguish its characters. Here we can say the same thing here though. We have the two pretty girls, you always need a damsel in distress. The misunderstood loner, who knows all the town secrets but everyone thinks is a quack, the token black best friend, who isn't good at camping and putting together a tent, and the brave, noble male hero. Outside of the cliches there is nothing here.

What was the purpose of "Blair Witch"? Why make another sequel 17 years after the original and 16 after the last sequel? Do we really need a franchise series of the "Blair Witch"? Given all the new technology since 1999 did a studio head believe today they could do so much more with the story with smart phones and drones? Was it all an attempt to introduce a new generation to this story? Was this all just a sell-out attempt to make money?

"Blair Witch" may scare some audience members but given the reaction the public had to the first movie, I can't imagine a large portion of the audience responding positive to this movie either. It's a copycat. If the first movie gave you motion sickness, so will this one. If the hand-held camera work bothered you the first time around, it will this time too.

"Blair Witch" doesn't feel like a complete movie. There is no sense of a resolution, only a hint at another sequel (!). It becomes more of an experience than a movie. You sit down watching this movie and in the end nothing happens. Maybe one day they will find the footage that had the story.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Film Review: Tales of Terror

"Tales of Terror"
*** (out of ****)

"It is with death and dying that we concern ourselves with."
Vincent Price (voice-over narration)

"Tales of Terror" (1962) was directed by Roger Corman, based on the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. It was the fourth entry into the "Poe Series" of movies directed by Mr. Corman adapted from Poe stories. There were eight movies in total with "Tales of Terror" coming after "House of Usher" (1960) and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1962), both starring Vincent Price. In fact Mr. Price starred in all of the Poe adaptations with the exception of one, "The Premature Burial" (1962) which starred Ray Milland and was third in the series.

At this point in the Poe series Mr. Corman tried something different. First, "Tales of Terror", as the title may suggest, is based on several stories, using an anthology format consisting of three stories; "Morella", "The Black Cat" (which is largely based on Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado") and "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdeman". Secondly, as is the case in "The Black Cat", Mr. Corman incorporates humor into the story. Perhaps pleased by the result, in Mr. Corman's next Poe adaptation, "The Raven" (1963), the entire movie would take a comical approach to Poe's writing. However some may claim there was always a level of camp in Mr. Corman's movies making them humorous.

With the theme of death and dying linking the stories together, "Tales of Terror" cuts between the stories to Mr. Price's voice-over narration, over a predominately black screen while the sound of a beating heart is heard, making us think of another of Poe's short stories, "Tell-Tale Heart". If it matters to anyone, that is actually my favorite of Poe's stories. The stories try to explain what happens after death to a person that didn't want to die, what leads to death and finally how to prolong avoiding death.

"Morella"

The first story in the anthology is "Morella". Here we met Lenora (Maggie Pierce), who travels from Boston to meet her estranged father, Locke (Mr. Price), whom she has not seen in for more than 20 years. Locke and his now deceased wife, Morella (Leona Gage), blamed Lenora for her death. Morella died a few months after giving birth to Lenora, causing Locke to sink into a deep depression, which is supposed to be made evident to the viewer by the cob-webs found on the walls and furniture. Locke lives alone and spends his time drinking while his dead wife remains in their home, rotting in her bedroom.

Locke and Lenora initially have a contentious relationship with Lenora unaware her parents blamed her for her mother's death. Their relationship changes when Locke learns Lenora is terminally ill. This scene is so poorly constructed as the emotions swings back and forth with each new line of dialogue. Locke goes from being indifferent and cruel to Lenora to quickly showing sympathy back to anger and once more back to kindness.

The entire story is shot a little too "pretty" for my taste, not making use of shadows and darkness. The sequence with Lenora arriving to the empty home, should have taken place at night, creating more atmosphere in the cob-web ridden mansion. Instead it is morning and brightly lit.

The conclusion to the story happens a bit too quickly with again Locke's emotions swinging back and forth and remains unclear not fully explaining what we have just seen.


Still Ms. Pierce is decent in the role, playing the sweet unsuspecting innocent daughter and despite some dialogue issues, Mr. Price is well suited for the role, swinging for the fences, as he usually did. There was something about him though, I guess a natural screen presence, where no matter how campy the material and / or performance, Mr. Price was always watchable.

"The Black Cat"

Peter Lorre is Montresor Herringbone, a drunkard married to Annabelle (Joyce Jameson), who absolutely hates her black cat. The love in their marriage is gone with Montresor preferring to spend his time drinking wine at the local pub. One night, after spending all of his wife's savings, he stumbles into a merchants wine tasting gathering, challenging the guest of honor Fortunato Luchresi (Vincet Price), the foremost wine tasting expert. Although merely looking for free drinks, Monstresor surprises the group by actually knowing the various vintages of wine before passing out, forcing Fortunato to accompany Montresor home, where he becomes enchanted by Annabelle and even likes her black cat.

Discovering Annebelle is in love with Fortunato, Montresor plans his revenge by drugging his wife and her lover, changing them to a basement wall, where he plans to leave them there to die while he entombs by building another brick wall. Will the police discover his devious act? Will Montresor be haunted by the sounds of Annabelle and Fortunato's voices?

As a dark comedy the story is mildly successful with the two veteran actors, Mr. Lorre and Mr. Price, doing exactly what is expected of them. Never really winking at the camera, they know how to play up the comedy without tripping over the line into camp but they are clearly having fun. Of course, I say that even though there is a sequence where Annabelle and Fortunato rip Montresor's head off and toss it between each other while Montresor's headless body chases his head back and forth.

"The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"

M. Valdemar (Price again) is dying but with the help of a hypnotist, Mr. Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), can be put into a trance to ease his suffering. Valdemar's wife, Helene (Debra Paget) and his doctor (David Frankham) remain suspicious of Mr. Carmichael's methods and motives.

Mr. Carmichael and Valdemar reveal their true intent, which is to prolong death through hypnoses. Can Mr. Carmichael delay death by putting Valdemar in a trance before the fatal moment? What would the consequences be for Valdemar?


Tone wise, this finally story has more in common with "Morella". Of the three stories "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar' may be the one trying to be the most dramatic. It may try a little too hard and like "Morella" rushes its conclusion. Once again it is too nicely lit as well. Mr. Corman seems to resist the temptation to provoke an eerie atmosphere through lighting and shadows.

As an entire viewing experience "Tales of Terror" is entertaining despite some flaws and a less serious interpretation of Poe's writing. You must consider the source and remember this is a Roger Corman movie. Mr. Corman may be thought of by some as a hackneyed filmmaker but I don't judge him so harshly. I admire the independent spirit of American filmmaking I believe he represents. Yes, you can make an argument because of Mr. Corman's influence the world has been given the "Sharknado" series, I can also argue the Poe movies are Mr. Corman's most accomplished movies of his career. On the occasions I have reviewed Mr. Corman's movies, it has only been his Poe adaptations.

Essentially "Tales of Terror" is a "B" movie but it looks better than "B" movies made in the 40s at Universal. Before dismissing Mr. Corman, I would recommend at least watching his Poe adaptations. "Tales of Terror" isn't the best among them but its almost simplistic nature is still charming, in its own way, and entertaining, whether or not you want to view it as pure camp or not.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Film Review: Son of Dracula

"Son of Dracula"
*** (out of ****)

Like father, like son.

Universal Pictures' "Son of Dracula" (1943), like "Dracula's Daughter" (1936), was another unnecessary sequel to the original "Dracula" (1931).

"Son of Dracula" bears a distinction from the previous two movies. In this movie Dracula finds his way in America, at a small southern plantation. Given that the movie was released in 1943, during World War II, there is part of me that believes this was a commentary on the war and the threat of foreign invaders entering the country. Remember, the "official" position of the U.S. government was the war was considered a war of ideology. Americans were fighting the spread of Fascism. We had to "fight them over there" so they don't enter America. It also "helps" that much is made of Dracula being Hungarian. Again, remember, Hungary fought against America (sadly) during the war. They were "the enemy".

It would be a mistake to compare "Son of Dracula" to "Dracula". This sequel would be on the losing end of that comparison. I'm willing to bet a majority of movie fans would agree. As its "own" movie, it is somewhat successful. It fares much better than "Dracula's Daughter" but doesn't provide enough, if any, scares. It does a decent job making an effort to create atmosphere however. There is also the issue of the "B" movie production values. A little more money spent on production designs would have greatly improved the movie.

But, I suppose the biggest problem with "Son of Dracula" is the casting of Lon Chaney Jr. (billed as Lon Chaney) in the title role. Lon Chaney Jr. could be a bit of a ham. He does give a good performance in "The Wolf Man" (1941) and believe it or not "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943) but here he is a bit stiff. He doesn't portray Dracula as a menacing figure. Given that Dracula is supposed to be Hungarian, Chaney doesn't even go to the trouble to speak with a Hungarian accent, instead using his natural voice. What is interesting to note is Lon Chaney (the father) was reportedly considered to originally play Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. It also makes Lon Chaney Jr. one of the few actors that can say he played Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein's Monster.

In "Son of Dracula" we follow the Hungarian Count Alucard (Dracula spelled backwards, played by Lon Chaney, Jr.). He has arrived in America, New Orleans to be exact, to meet Katherine, (Louise Allbritton), the daughter of the wealthy plantation owner, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving). Katherine met the Count in Budapest and it appears has fallen in love with him. At least that is what Katherine's childhood sweetheart Frank (Robert Paige) believes and fears she will call off their wedding. In seems ever since she visited Budapest she has developed a morbid personality and interest in the occult (as a Hungarian, thanks a lot!), which may have led to her fascination with Count Alucard.

Lacking a Van Helsing character, the local doctor and friend of the Caldwell family, Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven) becomes suspicious of Count Alucard when he discovers the Count's name is Dracula spelled backwards. The good doctor contacts a Hungarian professor living in Memphis (!) Prof. Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg, who was actually born in Romania, in the town now known as Timisoara). Also worth mentioning is Lazlo is not a common surname in Hungarian culture. It is more commonly used as a first name. Prof. Lazlo informs Dr. Brewster about Dracula and vampires in general. The two team up to reveal Alucard's true identity and ultimately destroy him.


On a few occasions it is mentioned Dracula's homeland is a country of dry soil, filled with the blood of 100 nations. Dracula has decided to come to a "younger" country, one more "powerful" and "virile". Hence my belief this all has something to do with WW2 and America being a powerful country capable of fighting enemies abroad. Frank also tells Katherine that she is foolish to believe superstitions of foreign countries. Americans are much smarter and pay no attention to such nonsense. This is similar to a theme found in the classic horror movie, "The Cat People" (1942).

There is also never any mention of Count Alucard being the son of Dracula but rather Dracula himself. Prof. Lazlo states the last known Dracula was believed to have died in the 19th century but none of the characters in the move ever come to the conclusion they are fighting Dracula's son.

The movie was directed by Robert Siodmak, who was nominated for a best director Academy Award for his direction of "The Killers" (1946) and was also behind "The Spiral Staircase" (1946) and "Criss Cross" (1949), from a story by Robert's brother, Curt, who wrote several horror films, including "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943). Robert really makes the most out of what he has been given. Despite the small budget he is able to maximize the surrounding production values and create some atmosphere in ways I can't say other Universal horror movies of the 40s did.

Of course the original "Dracula" was directed by Tod Browning (a well established filmmaker in silent era, known for a thematic interest in the macabre) and inspired by German Expressionism, which makes it a more ambitious movie and more influential. It demonstrates what "Son of Dracula" could have been, under the right circumstances.

"Son of Dracula" is not a bad movie but far from a classic. At its root, it is a good "B" movie with a stiff performance from Chaney but makes modest attempts at creating an eerie atmosphere. It's conflict between Dracula and Katherine isn't played out completely, leaving some questions to be answered, but, what it does it does well within its limited scope.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Film Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"
**** (out of ****)

The doctor will see you now in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920).

Watching "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is more of a visual experience than anything else. This German silent movie, directed by Robert Wiene, is often considered the definitive example of German Expressionism in cinema, distinguished by the use of architecture and production designs consisting of sharp edges and slanted camera angles, which help emphasize psychological states of mind.

I first saw "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" when I was studying film in college, more than a few years ago. Ever since that time, the one thing that stuck with me was the look of the film. It will probably be the same for anyone else that sees this movie for the first time. That says something about the lasting impression this movie will make.

Nothing in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" looks believable. More modern audiences might feel that shows how the movie is dated. Movies back than weren't as well made as they are now. Not so fast my friend. The movie resembles a dream, more appropriately, a nightmare. The movie involves a serial killer, a deranged doctor and an insane asylum. The movie's aesthetic is a representation of the character's mind. The question is which character? Exactly who is "normal" in this movie and who is insane? Each character seems slightly off kilter.

Some movie historians credit this movie as the first horror film. I'm not sure about that. What was "Frankenstein" (1910)? As far as I know, this was the first adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. You can find it on YouTube in its complete 16 minute form. There was also D.W. Griffith's "The Avenging Conscience" (1914) inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, mainly "Tell-Tale Heart" and "Annabel Lee". That had horror elements to it. Of course, of the three movies, "Caligari" is the most popular and by extension may have been the most influential. Would we have "Frankenstein" (1931) if it weren't for "Caligari" or "Nosferatu" (1922)?

Others see more deeply into the film and comment on the social significance of the story. It has been interpreted the movie is about World War I and the characters are symbols. One character represents the working German people, the soldiers, that were trained to kill, while another character presents society's need for a menacing authority figure, even while the movie presents authority figures as untrustworthy.

The story is told in flashback as Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells us of an amazing experience he and his fiancee, Jane (Lil Dagover) have went through involving Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss). We are taken to the town of Hostenwall, where the townsfolk are getting ready for a big fair to take place. Francis and his best friend, Alan (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) attend the fair and come across an exhibit by Dr. Caligari which features a sleepwalker (called a somnambulist in the movie) named Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who has the ability to see into the future. Intrigued, Alan asks Cesare how long he will live. Cesare informs him until dawn. When the prediction turns out to be true, the remainder of the film involves Francis trying to prove it was Dr. Caligari and Cesare that were behind Alan's death as well as multiple other murders in the small town.


Another interesting visual element of the movie is the use of iris shots. Given that the movie deals with a character that is in a constant trance-like state and since the movie resembles a dream, it has been pointed out the iris, which begins and ends almost every scene, is shaped like an eye, opening and closing. Adding to the dream-like quality of the movie.

Over the years I have been reluctant to call "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" a "horror" movie, as it simply doesn't elicit any feelings of freight for me. However I suppose we can view it as an early example of the serial killer genre. I've always considered this movie dramatic and fall on the side of interpreting it as symbolic in its social critique. Of course the age of the movie may also play a factor in why I don't view it as a horror movie though it is equally as old, I do consider "Nosferatu" a horror movie and would argue it is the scarier of the two. And speaking of "Nosferatu" and vampires, it is interesting to point out that Cesare sleeps in a box which looks awfully close to a coffin.

Although overall movie visually is unsettling, the movie has some very effective death scenes that take interesting advantage of shadows. During one character's death, we see a shadowy figure on wall while the victim looks on horrified. We see the shadows of the characters on a wall as one stabs the other.

There is another effective "scary" scene with Cesare attempting to kill Jane in her sleep as he creeps into her bedroom. It is shot in an extreme long shot with Jane in the forefront and Cesare in the background. The audience sees the impending danger approaching Jane, which builds suspense. Will she wake up in time to defend herself? The entire movie of course was filmed in black and white but it is interesting to note Cesare wears all black and Jane is in white. In movie terms this signifies good versus evil.

Despite "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari"'s reputation as a classic, the star of the movie, Conrad Veidt, may be best known to American audiences for his role in "Casablanca" (1942). Veidt was also in other German Expressionist films such as a pair of films directed by Paul Leni; "Waxworks" (1924) and "The Man Who Laughs" (1928). It is kind of difficult for me to comment on how good Veidt's performance is in the movie. Everything is so exaggerated that we have to use a different metric to judge the performances but I will say Werner Kraus does stand out giving an overly stereotypical portrait of a "mad scientist" / villain character.

Prior to this review, I watched two versions of this film, which leads me to want to comment on the importance of music in silent cinema. Music is so important to film in general but in particular to silent film. Music truly adds to the mood of a movie. In the case of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" the first version I saw had a score done with a guitar and synthesizer. The second version had a orchestra score by Timothy Brock. Of the two the one with the orchestra score was superior and added to my involvement watching the movie.

"The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" helped establish so many of the movie cliches we have seen today and rightly deserves its place as an important film in the history of cinema. Some may not be aware but the movie's title was remade in 1962. I joke only the title was remade because the story is very far from what we see here. Watch this classic instead or at least, let this silent version be the one you see first.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Film Review: Dracula's Daughter

"Dracula's Daughter"  *** (out of ****)

The lady is a vamp in "Dracula's Daughter" (1936).

Watching and re-watching all of the Universal Monster movies of the 1930s and 40s, I am astonished how quickly things went south for the series. Sure, things started off good with "Dracula" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931) and "The Mummy" (1932) but whether it was due to a greedy thirst for more money or simply bad creative decisions, Universal made several unnecessary sequels and reboots to its series of wonderful Monsters, hurting the brand they had created. In fact, Universal would eventually assign its horror movies to their "B" division.

"Dracula's Daughter" was made one year after "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), the sequel to the original "Frankenstein" and a movie that some argue was not only better than the original but was the best of all the Universal Monster movies. It is not a sentiment I share but mention it to bring up the point, Universal, very early on, wanted to cash in on these characters, regardless of the quality of the script.

In all honesty, I can't say "Dracula's Daughter" is a bad movie or an embarrassment to the "Dracula" franchise, Universal would later stick the stake in the heart of all its Monsters, but I'd be lying if I said it is a truly effective horror movie. Though I'd rather watch this again than see Tom Cruise in "The Mummy" (2017). Yet again, another example of Universal cashing in on these characters.

Although Dracula (Bela Lugosi) "dies" at the end of the original movie (I'm sorry if you consider that a "spoiler"), "Dracula's Daughter" begins with Dr. Von Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his role, though originally named Van Helsing) chasing after Dracula and killing him again, while London police officers discover what he has done and the dead body of Renfield. Von Helsing tries to explain to the men he has killed a vampire, by sticking a stake through his heart. The policemen however take Von Helsing to Scotland Yard, wanting to charge him for murder.

What no one seems to know is Dracula's daughter, a countess named Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), is also in London, of course there was absolutely no mention, whatsoever, of Dracula having a daughter in the original movie. Dracula arrived in London by himself. She steals his body to perform a ritual, while cremating him. We discover Countess Zaleska is a tortured soul, wanting to rid herself of vampire-ism. She believed by burning her father's body, this would free her soul.

Of course it doesn't. Desperate to find a "release" she turns to Dr. Garth (Otto Kruger), a psychiatrist. The Countess doesn't  tell the doctor she is a vampire but speaks of someone from the grave that influences her impulses. The doctor tells her, her feelings can all be overcome by will power. Fighting her impulses will help her find her release.

Many modern film historians interpret these "impulses" the Countess speaks of as a not so subtle reference to lesbianism. It doesn't help when one of the victims of the Countess is a beautiful woman, who was tricked into entering a studio to be a model for an artist. Naturally before the Countess can drain the woman of her blood she needs to take off her shirt.

As dead bodies start piling up, each with two tiny puncture marks on their necks, Scotland Yard soon begins to believe Von Helsing about the existence of vampires. But how do they find out who it is?


Directed by Lambert Hillyer, whose career dates back to the silent era and mainly directed Westerns, "Dracula's Daughter" has a "B" movie vibe to it and lacks the impressive visual aesthetic of "Dracula", which was inspired by German Expressionism. "Dracula's Daughter" doesn't have such high standards. As was the case with most of Universal's later horror films, each scene is shot the same way, usually with dim lighting. Creating a lighting contrast could have helped create mood and create tension in the more "scary" scenes. Unfortunately, nearly every scene looks the same.

The best moments in the movie are in the beginning. The most visually impressive scene takes place fairly early in the movie as the Countess is performing a ritual over the body of her father. This scene has a sinister look to it as the Countess holds up a cross, praying the evil spirits release her father.

"Dracula's Daughter" doesn't feel like a sequel. It feels like its own movie, telling it own story. There really wasn't much room left after the end of the original "Dracula" to continue the story. The main character dies. "Dracula's Daughter" does try to have some fun with its story, attempting to recall elements of the first movie. There is a scene where the Countess is at a dinner party and is offered a drink, a glass of wine. She replies, I never drink...wine. The movie even changes locations going back to Transylvania, taking us back to the castle Dracula sold.

The Countess however, unlike her father, never comes across as a scary figure. Dracula was a character of pure evil. A charming, seductive character out for blood. You can make the case the Countess is never meant to be scary. She fights inner demons. Fine. Then why attach the name "Dracula" to the movie, outside of exploitative reasons, merely to boost box office?

It would seem the Countess shares more in common with the Wolfman character than Dracula. Although most of the public is familiar with Universal's "The Wolf Man" (1941), Universal had released "Werewolf of London" (1935) prior to the release of "Dracula's Daughter". The Countess and the Wolfman character (whomever is playing it) are innocent bystanders that had evil thrusted upon them. They each seek moral redemption. In "The Wolf Man" the character spoke to the duality of man. I'm not sure what the Countess speaks to. The movie toys with the same theme however it doesn't state it as effectively as "The Wolf Man" or heck, even the Incredible Hulk.

If we look at "Dracula's Daughter" in a larger context, yes, it is not better than "Dracula", it is better than what Universal would release afterwards including movies such as "House of Frankenstein" (1944), its reboot of "The Mummy" franchise, "The Mummy's Hand" (1940) and "The Ghost of Frankenstein" (1942). Keeping that in mind, I'd recommend "Dracula's Daughter". It doesn't do much for the Dracaula franchise but it is, at times, interesting, and is able to stand on its own.

Some may find it interesting to note another offspring of Dracula was given a movie, "Son of Dracula" (1943) with Lon Chaney, Jr. playing the title role.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Film Review: The Princess Comes Across

"The Princess Comes Across*** (out of ****)

If I described "The Princess Comes Across" (1936) to you on paper it would sound quite good and show potential. For some reason the movie doesn't live up to its potential while still having its own charms.

The movie stars the wonderful comedic actress Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable) and the genial Fred MacMurray, teaming up once again after co-starring together in "Hands Across the Table" (1935). Naturally their presence alone elevates the movie because of their star power.

Among the movie's writers includes Frank Butler, who often wrote Bob Hope comedies; "Road to Morocco" (1942), "My Favorite Blonde" (1942) and "Never Say Die" (1939) and Mr. Butler's frequent co-writer Don Hartman, who co-wrote the same Bob Hope comedies as well as some Danny Kaye comedies; "Wonder Man" (1945) and "The Kid From Brooklyn" (1946).

And finally there is a wonderful cast of supporting characters played by familiar faces including William Frawley, George Barbier, Porter Hall, Sig Ruman, Mischa Auer and George Chandler.

Yet all of these things combined still doesn't make "The Princess Comes Across" a memorable comedy.

The story, based on a novel, "Death Cab" by Louis Lucien Rogger, has a tone problem for starters. We meet Princess Olga (Lombard), a Swedish princess on her way to America to star in a movie. The princess character is an obvious takeoff on Greta Garbo. All that's missing is the princess saying she wants to be alone. She boards a ship where she meets bandleader King Mantell (MacMurray). Mantell is smitten with her at once. Their "meet cute" involves Mantell reserving the ship's royal suite but asked to move to another room to make way for the princess. At first Mantell declines and protest but as soon as he sees the princess he is all but willing to accommodate.

We quickly learn the Olga is not really a princess. In fact, Olga isn't even her real name. She's Wanda Nash from Brooklyn. A struggling actress who got the idea to impersonate a princess that becomes an actress. The question is can she keep her identity from Mantell? Will Wanda and Mantell fall in love?

So far, so good. It is kind of a variation of the old story of a woman having to chose between fame and fortune or being with the poor man she loves. Nothing we haven't seen before but with two good movie stars in the leading roles it could work.

These opening scenes provide some laughs with jokes built around the difference in class between the princess and Mantell and his attempts to get her attention.

But then the movie becomes a murder mystery when a dead body is found in the princess' room and Mantell agrees to help dispose of the body. Eventually the two are suspects in the murder.

This is not necessarily a sign of trouble. There have been some good comedy / mystery movies. One starred Bob Hope, "The Great Lover" (1949). Another was with Abbott & Costello, "Who Done It?" (1942). The problem though becomes one of tone. The movie doesn't follow the normal movie conventions of the mystery genre, finding laughs in the formula but instead almost becomes a mystery story forgetting to provide big laughs, which is hard to believe with Butler and Hartman among the writers.

The movie doesn't establish a love affair between the two main characters either. There is never a moment when the audience sees the two of them slowly falling in love with each other. The movie wants to be part comedy, part romance and part mystery but can't juggle all three genres at once.

That is unfortunate because Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray deserve better. While a comedy like "Hands Across the Table" wasn't great it at least utilized each actor's charm and likeability. "The Princess Comes Across" starts off well enough but deserts its characters not allowing more scenes to showcase their chemistry and easy going charm to make the romance aspect more believable.

Lombard, who was nominated once for an Academy Award, for her performance in "My Man Godfrey" (1936), was on her way to major stardom after "The Princess Comes Across". "Godfrey" was the next movie she starred in. From there she would star in "Nothing Scared" (1937), the wonderful Hitchcock comedy (!) "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941) and her final movie the Ernst Lubitsch comedy "To Be or Not To Be" (1942). She would also co-star with MacMurray again on two more pictures including my favorite with them, "True Confession" (1937).

Watching "The Princess Comes Across" I wonder how much was edited. The movie is 77 minutes. Something was cut out of the picture. You also wonder if a better director would have made a difference. This time around William K. Howard sat in the director's chair. He directed William Powell in "Rendezvous" (1935) and Powell and Myrna Loy in "Evelyn Prentice" (1934). What could a Billy Wilder or Leo McCarey do with this material?

I can't call "The Princess Comes Across" a success but I can't quite call it a failure. Lombard and MacMurray are always fun to watch but the movie doesn't do enough with them. The tone is a bit off, not being able to properly combine comedy and mystery. There are no big laughs. As a Carole Lombard fan it is interesting to watch these early comedies with her just as her stardom was about to take off.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Film Review: The Villainess

"The Villainess"
*** (out of ****)

It begins with one of the most remarkable, bloody and violent first person POV sequences in recent memory. Men are seen running towards the camera being shot and in some cases cut with an ax. Blood squirts out and the walls of the hallway are red with their blood. "Our" hands reload a gun, in a way resembling a video game, as the camera fights to keep all the action in frame.

The movie, "The Villainess" (2017), was directed by Jung Byung-gil and come to us from South Korea. It is one more example of the "lady seeks revenge" genre a la "Kill Bill" (2003), "Lady Snowblood" (1973) and "The Bride Wore Black" (1968).

It also follows in the tradition of most South Korean movies in the amount of extreme violence shown on-screen. American audiences that have seen "Oldboy" (2003), one of the country's most famous imports, will be better prepared.

"The Villainess" refers to the lead female character, an assassin, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). Her husband, Lee Jong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), was murdered on the night of their wedding. The two had met after Sook-hee witnessed her father being killed when she was a child and vowed revenge. Jong-sang helped train her to reach that goal. With the two men she loved gone from her life, Sook-hee will avenge their death.

Premiering at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, "The Villainess" has a labyrinth plot structure switching between present day and flashbacks. In some situations the movie jumps ahead several years without warning. If this structure was meant to create a level of intrigue and suspense by withholding information to heighten our involvement, sometimes it creates confusion. Where exactly are we in the story?

To minimize the amount of blood shed, the movie's screenwriters developed a love story between Sook-hee and her neighbor, an undercover government agent, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung Joon). These scenes achieve an objective to humanize Sook-hee and create a more fully dimensional character, one which the audience may have an invested emotional interest in. To a small degree it works and gives the movie an opportunity to get some easy laughs.


As an actress however Kim Ok-bin seems better suited for the action sequence, emulating a sexy tough girl persona and is never really able to sell the emotional, dramatic moments to the degree originally intended. It isn't all the fault of acting, as some blame should be placed on the screenwriting as well. Still, for all the "heroics" of the character what we are left with is a rather cliche theme; a woman is always the victim of a man's cruelty.
 
But what does the audience walking into "The Villainess" expect? Does it delivery based on their expectations? At the end of the day the best moments in the movie are going to be the high octane action sequences. This is what is expected of the movie.

Some will argue about the amount of violence on-screen. Was it all necessary? This will be an ongoing debate between filmmakers and society. Do movies glorify violence?

"The Villainess" has good action sequences, good visuals and an engaging actress. Despite its violence and at times uneven script "The Villainess" is still a bloody good time and a wild ride.