Thursday 29 April 2021

The Falcon And The Winter Soldier

More Tease, Falcon

The Falcon And
The Winter Soldier

Air Date: March 19th - April 23rd 2021
Nine Episodes

Warning: This one has all the relevant
spoilers... you have been cautioned.

Okay, so the second of the post-Avengers: Endgame internet shows, following on from the very interesting WandaVision (reviewed here), is The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Now, this is going to turn out to be a very short review, I think because... well, a) I mostly had no huge problems with it overall and b) it’s a very simple story with a little bit of character development in it but also a heck of a lot of action. So it would be fair to say, I think, that nothing much happens in this one.

It was pretty obvious from the announcement of the show that the intention of this series was pretty obvious. One, they needed to have the previously ‘at each others throats for the most part’ pairing of Sam Wilson (aka The Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier) go through a healing process and get some bonding there so the characters could be friends by the end of the last episode. And, yes, that indeed happened. The second thing which I thought was an obvious thing was, they would need to set up the events which happened in the comics for a while (and which I already thought had more than enough set up at the end of the aforementioned Avengers Endgame to require anything further but... here we are). Namely, they had to have The Falcon taking over the mantle of Captain America. And they tried to be oblique about it by having Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) in there as the new Captain America but, yeah, pretty much everyone knew he was going to become U.S. Agent by the end of the show, right? The truth is, when Bucky brought Sam a new set of wings from Wakanda in the fifth episode, it was pretty obvious that when Sam did eventually open up the suitcase, that he’d find a new suit which is basically The Falcon painted up as the new Captain America.

So, yeah, no surprises in this but the writing is good and, it turns out, Anthony Mackie (The Falcon) and Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier), both reprising their roles from various Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, actually have good chemistry and it’s quite fun to watch the cynical ‘partnership’ evolve over the course of the six episodes. The story features both cameos and more substantial roles from regular characters/actors in the movies, such as Don Cheadle as War Machine, Daniel Brühl as Baron Zemo and Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter (niece of Agent Peggy Carter). There’s also a few of the female warrior women from Wakanda in the mix, in one of the few surprising moments in the show.

And it’s straight forward action fodder for sure but, it works really well, is pacey and often feels like there’s more at stake than there probably actually is. One bizarre change, however, is the transformation of the comic book character Karl Morgenthau, aka Flag Smasher, into a woman... Karli Morgenthau, played by the wonderful Erin Kellyman (who played the young girl who started the rebellion against the Empire in Star Wars - Solo... reviewed here), who leads a group of terrorists known as the ‘flag smashers’. Her presence brings one of the few attempts at tonal colour in the show as The Falcon wrestles with the idea of bringing down and stopping a perceived ‘terrorist’ whose ideals he believes in, while obviously not approving of her ‘murder everyone’ methods.

Actually, if there’s one criticism I could level at the show, if I really felt the need, it might be that it was just too much emphasis on action throughout and not enough talk but, honestly, Marvel does this stuff so well at the moment that I honestly didn’t mind it. One of the things which did make me concerned was the idea that Sharon Carter is ‘the powerbroker’ and, at the end when she is welcomed back to the US government, it’s made quite clear in a post credit scene that she’s definitely the villain of the piece, ready to sell the secrets of the US Government to the highest bidder. Which is a bit of a turnaround for the character, I believe... unless of course, she’s a Skrull version of her character. That’s something which is an alley the writers could definitely go down after the scenes pertinent to that little subplot in Spider-Man Far From Home (reviewed here) and WandaVision.

One of the things which is a shame is the inclusion of Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Valentina Allegra de Fontaine. Her character has a very strong, ‘non-introduction’ in this when she first contacts the person she will recreate as U.S. Agent. There’s not much information given to the audience (nor the other characters) about who she is and the reason is, I believe... coronavirus. Yep. Turns out, from what I can understand, this character was supposed to be a call back to her first appearance in the new Black Widow movie (out soon at cinemas, maybe) but, of course, because of the pandemic, the release of the movie was severely delayed so it turns out this is our ‘by proxy’ introduction to her character. So, yeah, I guess that character doesn’t die in the upcoming movie then.

Another grumble might be why, with the subplot of the first black Super Soldier from the Second World War, that they didn’t get Chris Evans back to do a cameo in the last episode but, well, I guess that would have put a lot more strain on the budget. As it is, in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier... well... all I will say is that Baron Zemo has all the best scenes here. I also liked composer Henry Jackman revisiting thematic elements from his score to Captain America - The Winter Soldier (reviewed here) for some of these sequences involving characters from that movie.

And that’s that for The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Like I said, a short review for a short series which did the job it needed to do and, yeah, we’re already hearing that there will be a fourth Captain America movie headed up by Anthony Mackie as Cap (please change his costume... the new one doesn’t work guys... it just looks clunky) and Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier. Yeah, that could probably work well but... I think having a Captain America who doesn’t have the benefit of the Super Soldier serum is a bit of a stretch of the imagination, even for Marvel comics fans, to be honest. We shall see, I guess.

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Scored to Death 1 and 2

Scorey Movies

Scored To Death
Conversations With Some Of
Horror’s Greatest Composers
by J. Blake Fichera
Silman-James Press ISBN: 978-1935247142

Scored To Death 2
More Conversations With Some
Of Horror’s Greatest Composers
by J. Blake Fichera
Silman-James Press ISBN: 978-1935247234

Just a quick shout out of two books my friend Dr. Rob gifted me for both Christmas and my birthday recently. Anyone who has been reading any of my reviews with any regularity over the years has probably picked up on the fact by now that I love movie scores. I listen to them all the time and, funnily enough, the guy who gave me these two tomes is the only person I know in real life, who has the same kind of passion and dedication to them as I do although, curiously, he doesn’t listen to a lot of horror scores, it has to be said. Which is the subject of these two tremendous tomes by J. Blake Fichera...

Basically, what Fichera’s done here (and also apparently on some podcasts of the same title, which I really need to catch up with some day when time is not my enemy) is to take some key film score composers who are still with us (or were when he started out on each of these two projects) and interview them with a special emphasis, for the most part, on their contributions to the horror genre.

The first volume collects interviews with Nathan Barr, Charles Bernstein, Joseph Bishara, Simon Boswell, John Carpenter, Jay Chattaway, Fabio Frizzi, Jeff Grace, Mairizio Guarini, Tom Hajdu (of Tomandandy), Alan Howarth, Harry Manfredini, Claudio Simonetti and Christopher Young. The second volume comprises interviews with Michael Abels, Richard Band, Holly Amber Church, Charles Clouser, Robert Cobert, Disasterpeace, Koji Endo, Brad Fiedel, John Harrison, Kenji Kawai, Joseph LoDuca, John Massari, Bear McCreary, Rob, Donald Rubenstein and Craig Safan. Of those two lists, I have at least one score from the majority of them listed (some of them, many shiny discs... I’ve even been to concerts by some of the guys) so there’s a lot of familiarity with their work and styles for the most part but, even when the interview was with a composer I hadn’t experienced myself, I found the answers they gave to Fichera’s questions very interesting and I especially liked the back story provided by many of the composers about how they came to find their calling of writing music and how the film scoring side started for them.

Even certain questions which were duplicated, more or less, through various chapters, were interesting because you get to get a feel for how each different composer (of very different ages in some cases) correlate with their answers or, indeed, contradict each other as their processes differ. Some of them, for example, find the script a helpful start but many of them would rather not read the script and compose from what the director actually managed to get worked up into the rough cut. Although many composers, as I expected, hated the more common practice these days of providing a temp track with the cut (where a film would be cut to found music from other sources which, because of using these tracks to support the rough cut, brings the danger of the director loving the temp score... perhaps the most famous example of this would be Stanley Kubrick rejecting Alex North’s score for 2001 - A Space Odyssey and licencing the music on the temp instead), there are actually a couple of people in these books who welcome the inclusion of the temp track as an aid to a communication of the emotional feel of the pieces they need to compose. Of course, the worst thing I hear sometimes when I listen to a score is actually hearing the temp track kinda bleeding through into the composer's own music, because you can recognise the structure of the cue and realise straight away what track from another film was probably there in its place when the rough cut was assembled. You can often tell when a composer has been asked to imitate something fairly well known.

And of course, the composers won’t always jell with various readers. A couple of composers came across as a little naive to me, for example and another one or two came over, it seemed to me at least, at just the wrong side of pretentious. I suspect that all comes down to the baggage and life experiences a reader brings with them as much as anything actually on the printed pages here though and it really is to be expected. Sometimes they get it a little wrong too. Without naming names, for example, one composer quoted a very famous film composer saying that they weren’t, because of their period, as experimental as he and always did things with a big orchestra when in fact, the composer he was referencing was as much known for his smaller, unusual groupings of instruments and spirit of experimentation as the composer pointing the finger here (probably more so).

It’s not a surprise that my favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann, comes up a lot on almost everyone’s favourites or most influential, although I wish people wouldn’t keep thinking that movies like Psycho are horror films (nor William’s Jaws, nor Shore’s Silence Of The Lambs for that matter)... it’s like one day, everybody in movie appreciation land just woke up and forgot the genre of thriller ever existed.

Overall though, these two tomes are both entertaining and illuminating and it’s great hearing about experimental instruments, the odd score I’ve not heard and the odd film I’ve not seen (I watched the phenomenal Under The Silver Lake, reviewed here and grabbed Disasterpeace’s score for said film on CD as soon as I found out about them from this book... um... yeah, actually this book is another one of those which is turning out to have an expensive afterlife affair with my wallet). It’s good that the almighty Ligeti was referenced as one of those composers who, inadvertently because it certainly wasn’t his intent, invented and influenced the vocabulary of horror film scoring and is still regarded highly by many composers today (who also list Penderecki, obviously, as an influence on the genre). I was also delighted and bemused to find that composer Kenji Kawai, who wrote the scores for the original Ringu and some of its sequels and spin offs, lists Burt Bacharach as one of his primary influences.

Probably the worst part of the second volume, for me, was when one of my absolute favourite contemporary score composers, I won’t name him here, talked about a certain common practice as to how modern film and TV composers write scores these days and his approach seemed to me to be very disheartening and disappointing. In fact, I could almost picture Herrmann and Morricone spinning in their graves about what he said here. That was a real eye opener.

All in all, though, if you are someone who has an active interest in either horror films, film scores or that wonderful place where both those things come together to make art, then Scored To Death Volumes 1 and 2 by J. Blake Fichera are definitely worth your time and money. And, of course, if you have the scores, then you can play one or two of them after reading each chapter, which is a nice thing to do of an evening, for sure. Definitely pick these two up.

Monday 26 April 2021

The Mummy's Tomb

Tomb It May Concern

The Mummy's Tomb
USA 1942 Directed by Harold Young
Universal Blu Ray Zone B

I think people tend to forget this when looking back on The Mummy’s Tomb but, this was a really brave movie on the part of Universal pictures at the time... especially in terms of the way you build a franchise. I’ll get to that in a minute. Alas, this is also the film where all of the continuity between the movies in The Mummy franchise is completely shot to hell and makes constant ridicule of the series much easier too.

This film calls back the two leading men from the last film... Dick Foran as Stephen Banning and Wallace Ford as Babe Hanson. However, the film is set 30 years since the events of The Mummy’s Hand (reviewed here) and so Foran is seen in ‘aged make up’ at the start of the picture, telling his son John Banning (played by John Hubbard, who was only two years younger than Foran in real life) and John’s fiancé Isobel (played by the gorgeous Elyse Knox)... and also Stephen’s sister Jane (played by Mary Gordon, who was Mrs. Hudson in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film series)... all about his last adventure. Truth be told, even in his old make up, Dick Foran looks a little younger than the guy playing his son.

So what we have here, for the first ten minutes of the movie (and it’s only an hour long B-feature), is Foran narrating a series of no less than six sets of clips and highlights montages, replaying the salient points of the last movie. Interestingly, the footage used does not include the hand painted ‘dark eyes’ used in the last movie and Tom Tyler’s eyes are clearly visible in the shots of him in wrappings. After it’s over, Foran looks to the ‘aged’ photo of his leading lady from the last movie, who has apparently passed away in the intervening years.

Meanwhile, George Zucco, playing the high priest in the last movie, is also back as an aged version of his character who tells his new successor, Turhan Bey (played by Mehemet Bey), that the bullets only went into his arm! Kharis, the mummy, is also somehow back, not having perished in the flames that engulfed him in the last movie and looking... well, just a little bit singed really. Audiences might find this new version of Kharis hard to take because, as we are reminded from the flashback clips, he was played by Tom Tyler (of The Adventures Of Captain Marvel and The Phantom fame) in the previous movie but, from here on, Lon Chaney Jr dons the bandages for this and the next two sequels. The trouble is, Lon Chaney Jr is a heck of a lot pudgier than the slim, bandaged form of Tyler and, yeah, it really shows. Has this mummy been swigging beers for the last thirty years?

Even so, the new Kharis has a mission of revenge and Turhan Bay relocates to be the new caretaker of Mapleton Cemetery, in the same home town as Stephen Banning and his family. Here, Bey starts to carry out ‘Kharis destiny’ of revenge on the people and family of those who defiled his tomb. Once again, using the nine Tana leaves to animate him each night, we watch as the leading man from the last movie is strangled to death by Kharis. Seriously, how brave is that for a 1942 movie playing with audience expectations? Then, to attend his funeral, Babe is recalled to town but he’s too late to stop Banning’s sister escaping the same fate. Then, after giving various people the dope on the threat of Kharis, Babe is also killed off in a similar fashion. Wow... the two leading men from the last movie killed within the first 25 mins or so of the film that you thought they were going to be the heroes of. These days this would be known as a ‘passing the torch movie’, where one generation of characters hands over the franchise to the next generation of actors. Here, though, it’s only two years since these characters debuted so... yeah, I do think this is quite something in terms of a way of giving a franchise new legs (like the modern GI Joe movies). I don’t know if any other film franchises were doing anything similar at the time (comments below if you know of any) but I find this incredibly interesting and gutsy.

As a stand alone movie, it’s not bad. Lots is made of the shadows cast on walls by Kharis as he goes about his business and, I’m pretty sure the scene where Kharis kidnaps Isobel (because Bey fancies her himself and wants to do unspeakable things to her) is an homage, of sorts, to the 1922 German Expressionist movie, Nosferatu - A Symphony Of Horror, where similar use of the shadows of the monster’s hand creeping over the sleeping form of the leading lady is used.

The film ends predictably with bullets and fire, much like the last movie but, if you can handle the bizarre lapses in common sense, you will probably find that this is one of the more watchable films of the Universal Mummy franchise, although not as good as the previous entry in the series. Stock and re-recorded music abounds via Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, Heinz Roemheld and Charles Previn... which is just as well considering the strength of their scoring on The Mummy’s Hand flashbacks in the first ten minutes. Musical continuity is, at least, maintained therefore.

Of course the biggest problem is... the last movie was set in 1940. This film is set 30 years later in... 1942. Which makes no sense. There’s even a reference to John Banning getting drafted into the war so... what the heck is going on? What were the screenwriters thinking? Whenever I compare a new series of cinema movies which have really awful continuity between pictures, such as all of the X-Men films, I always invoke The Mummy series of the 1940s as something equally as terrible in this area. And, as I review the next two films in this franchise, you’ll see that the writers tend to compound these ‘errors’ in each one, not just in terms of time but even, in one case of outstanding inexplicableness, in location. Well, I’ll keep all that ‘under wraps’ until the next Mummy review and unbandage these things for you when I get to them.

However, if you can ignore the unbelievable stupidity of the continuity then, I think you’ll find that The Mummy’s Tomb is a real gem of a movie. Admittedly an unpolished gem but, all the same, the direction they went in to kill off the leads from the previous film when you least expect it is a real eye opener and you have to applaud them for their thinking here, at least. Always happy to give this one a watch.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Under The Silver Lake

Owl In Hand

Under The Silver Lake
USA 2017 Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Vendian Entertainment

Sometimes you come across a great movie in the least expected way. Now, I loved It Follows (reviewed here) and for a while I was waiting for a couple of things to happen... one was a sequel to this outstanding horror movie (I still can’t believe they’ve not turned it into a franchise yet) and also, to see whatever the next film by the writer/director of It Follows, David Robert Mitchell, happened to be. After a while I gave up on either option though and, I have to say, Under The Silver Lake didn’t even come onto my radar until a day or two ago (at time of writing).

You see, I love movie scores and the composer of the score to It Follows, a guy called Disasterpeace, also scored this movie. However, it wasn’t until I was reading the second volume of J. Blake Fichera’s Scored To Death books, which features interviews with a whole bunch of horror movie composers, that I realised both the director and composer had worked on another film together after that. So I immediately had to take a look at it and, around about 20 minutes in, I had to pause the movie so I could order the last cheap copy of the soundtrack CD on Ebay, because I already liked the music so much.

Now Under The Silver Lake is not a 'horror movie' but it’s a significant puzzle of a movie. I might liken it to the works of British director Peter Greenaway in some ways, not in terms of the visual or audio style but in terms of the mystery at the heart of the story and the... well, the resolution or lack of, as such. I would perhaps best describe this as a paranoid conspiracy movie set in modern times and highlighting contemporary themes and attitudes but viewed through a 1940s film noir sensibility.

Also, if you’re heavily into movies, you will find an awful lot of references to various works in film history from homages to Marilyn Monroe’s scenes from her unfinished movie Something’s Got To Give through to various Hitchcock thrillers and so on. Certainly, the hook of the movie is something which borrows liberally from a more formulaic style of movie making. Now, I’m determined not to spoil the film with any key revelations here because, more than most films, it trades on the sense of intrigue set up by the characters and situations which play out in some truly brain twisting ways on screen.

What I will say is that the lead protagonist Sam, is played by Andrew Garfield, who is nicely seen holding a Spider-Man comic in one scene (a role which he played in two previous films and will be reprising at the end of the year...assuming the post-pandemic cinema release schedules remain unchanged). He meets a girl by the swimming pool in his apartment building one night while he’s fulfilling the same role as the James Stewart character in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a poster among many old movies posters up in his apartment) and becomes obsessed with her... more so when, the next day, Sarah (played by Riley Keough) disappears and may, or may not, have been burned to death in a car along with a missing billionaire.

From this point on, the film becomes an intriguing and very strangely shot fairground ride as Sam tries to find out what has happened to Sarah, as the film details his adventures which involve secret symbols, secret codes, a local comic book guy who produces a fanzine style comic book of the neighbourhood called “Under The Silver Lake”, a mythical naked lady Night Owl serial killer and...lots of other stuff which I won’t mention here.

The film is very well shot with slow zooms and camera movements on long shots which suck you into the movie in the way that lots of old movies used to but, few modern ones seldom do... at least using this particular aesthetic. There are even some nice, black and white animated segments which play out pieces of the comic book whenever somebody reads it.

The Hitchcock references continue with a shot of his grave stone in one sequence, a Vertigo shot where the camera is zoomed/pulled (you know, the one Spielberg later used in Jaws) and this goes for a lot of the music too, which I suspect is influenced in some of the scenes here by the great Bernard Herrmann. Indeed, a wordless and extended sequence where Sam follows three girls across town with just music is absolutely a stand in for the scene near the start of Vertigo where James Stewart follows Kim Novak’s character and Disasterpeace’s score in this sequence certainly gives off the same kind of vibe. Which is nice (and, as I said, had me reaching for ebay).

And that’s it... I’ve gone as far as I can without giving things away. The film is definitely ‘not safe for work’ as they say, in that there’s a lot of female nudity (absolutely not complaining about this) and even a couple of extremely gory scenes too, perhaps made more shocking because they aren’t occurring in a horror movie but something which is using the syntax of historic movies from a time where such violence would not be shown on screen (we’re talking almost Cronenbergian levels here, in a couple of scenes). And it’s a great movie. The ending gives us some sense of awkward resolution while, at the same time, probably leaving us with more questions than we might like. In that way, I suspect it’s a little like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which is another film which I believe won’t reward multiple viewings with anything like a clue as to what certain aspects of the movie were about (and which is all the richer for it). Still, I was totally captivated by Under The Silver Lake in the very best way and I would certainly recommend it to anyone with a love of cinema and an appreciation for the history of the art. And I’ll just leave it at that. 

Thursday 22 April 2021

Five Bloody Graves

Yaqui Doodle Dandies

Five Bloody Graves
(aka Five Bloody Days To Tombstone)

Directed by Al Adamson
USA 1969 IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: Some very slight spoilers here.

It’s ‘Cowboys and Indians’ time again for Al Adamson, as he follows in his father’s directing footsteps to produce this luridly titled Western, written by the main male lead Robert Dix as ex-lawman Ben Thompson. Now, in a ten minute extra which includes an interview with Dix (it must have been made shortly before he died in 2018), I learned that Ben Thompson was an actual person and a bit of a notorious one at that. Dix said that, because he wasn’t as well known as some of the Western legends, he wanted to write something which would highlight this character. That being said, when I looked at an article on Thompson’s life in preparation for this review, the short episode depicted by this movie has no resemblance to anything that actually happened (including the back story about what happened to the character’s wife) and so it would be fairly safe to say, I think, that this is a highly fictionalised account at best.

Also, just for the record, the title of this movie, Five Bloody Graves, is a bit questionable too. There are plenty of deaths here (way more than five) and the last shot of the film includes... um... four graves. So, yeah, not sure where that title comes from but, still, it sounds pretty good to me.

Anyway, once again Adamson surprises me because... it’s not a bad Western in some ways. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has it’s problems but, I know Adamson was always proud of what he could do for the incredibly low budgets he was working with so, yeah, this is pretty good for the money. A low budget western but it has some very nice things in it to counter the terrible stuff.

This film deals with a Yaqui called Sartago, who once shot Ben Thompson’s wife on their wedding day. So Ben wanders the land looking for the Yaquis in the hopes he can get his revenge and, along the way, makes friends and enemies of various characters played by people like Vicki Volante, future director John 'Bud' Cardos (in two roles), Scott Brady, Jim Davis, Paula Raymond, Julie Edwards and Darlene Lucht. There’s even a role for the director’s famous father, Victor Adamson, playing a supporting character... I didn’t know what he looked like but I recognised him straight away as bearing a striking family resemblance.* Al Adamson also makes a quick uncredited cameo near the start of the film as one of the Yaqui’s trying to kill Thompson but, true to form, his character doesn’t survive more than a few minutes of the movie.

It also features John Carradine as a preacher who is a very strange character in that he’s very Christian but is not above sneaking a peek at a lady as she undresses nor, indeed, saving everybody’s lives when he pulls a derringer from behind his bible and kills the current threat. A decidedly ambiguous character who, like a lot of people in Al Adamson movies (I’m starting to discover), is not cut and dried when it comes to first impressions.

Another addition to the cast is Gene Raymond as the voice of death. I quite liked Dix’s somewhat poetic writing here and, although you never see the character of death, he gives a voice over commentary as he is the constant companion of Ben Thompson, riding on his (invisible) pale horse beside him wherever he goes.

Well... I say you never see death but, on the print which carries the Five Bloody Graves title, the opening animated credits sequence, which is pretty good for the low budget, features various skulls on a cartoon of the rocky canyons and the skeleton of death riding that very same pale horse. The music on the credits, however, sounds more like a 1940s horror movie and... after a while I realised why (I’ll get there in a minute, okay?).

Once again the cinematography here is by a young Vilmos Zsigmond and, it really shows. There’s some nice stuff done with double mirrors (Adamson seems to like using mirrors, I’ve noticed), a shot of Thompson approaching the camera from under a stationary horse and a truly spectacular series of shots where one cowboy is chasing another on his horse which does some amazing things with the way its focused and, frankly, just keeping up with these riders is an art in itself, I suspect. He also does that thing which I think is kinda ahead of its time, where he uses the camera pan to search for and then pick out a detail like a Yaqui standing on the edge of a cliff in the distance. That being said, there’s also a scene where he uses rack focusing on two characters facing the camera, changing from one to the other when each speaks, which is a bit excessive and was getting on my nerves a little, to be fair.

There’s a lot of bad stuff here too. For example, when a cowboy finds a squaw staked out and left for the ants, he rips her clothes off and then rapes her. After he’s raped her it cuts back to her and we see she is still wearing the clothes she had on when the cowboy found her... this is followed by a long shot of him throwing her clothes back on her body (now naked once more) before he puts two bullets in her. So, yeah... continuity, probably caused by a rearrangement of elements in the edit, is not good here.

And then there’s the music. There are a couple of scenes where I was watching the cowboys battle the Yaquis and, on the soundtrack, was the music they use for News At Ten, here in the UK. I was just waiting for the Big Ben chimes to go off at the end of each Indian raid. Apparently the piece of music is called "The Awakening" by John Pearson and that tipped me off why I didn’t see a composer’s name at the start. This movie is scored entirely by needle dropped library music and, it shows. It needn’t show but, honestly, whoever was running this music in didn’t know much about how you fit image to score, it seems to me. The music here is fine to listen to but has been used so inappropriately, with slow leisurely scenes where nothing is happening suddenly invaded by fast, jazzy action music for no apparent reason, for example, that it really harms the film in places because it’s so laughable. I understand the technique of trying to actually add pacing with the music (something Elmer Bernstein excelled at with his score for The Magnificent Seven)... but it kinda falls flat here, it has to be said. So, yeah, there’s that.

Other than that though... the actors are mostly pretty good in this one (especially Dix himself) and, while Five Bloody Graves is not a spectacular, or even great, entry into the Western genre... it’s not a bad watch and one wonders what Adamson might have been able to do with a bigger budget and a more leisurely work pace. I did find this one entertaining and I could easily watch it again. It’s a bit like a road movie infused into the American Western and it’s really not an odd fit at all.

*a very good friend advised me to tone down my
description of Al Adamson’s singularly arresting features. ;-)

Tuesday 20 April 2021

Giant Monster Dogfight: Gamera Vs Gyaos

Gyaos Reigns

Giant Monster Dogfight:
Gamera Vs Gyaos
aka Daikaijû kûchûsen:
Gamera tai Gyaosu

Japan 1967 Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Daiei Arrow Gamera Complete Collection
Blu Ray Zone B

So this is only my third Gamera film watched to date but, I have to say, this new Arrow boxed Blu Ray edition was money well spent because I’ve watched three strong kaiju eiga in a row now. I’m not expecting that batting average to hold up for all 12 films in the set but, well, so far three out of three is pretty good.

This one starts off with a series of volcanoes which, this time, unleash a new monster from captivity in the depths of the Earth. This one was originally supposed to be some kind of giant Dracula to combat the box office draw of Toho’s giant Frankenstein monster films but, in the end, the beast in this one kind of evolved into Gyaos... who is pretty rigid and angular of facial expression and, to me, looks a little like Sam The American Eagle in The Muppet Show, I have to say. However, the blood craving of the Dracula template was kept as this monster likes to feed on people and on the bloody pulps of their corpses it leaves in its wake. Yep... this guy isn’t content to step on those pesky humans... he likes to pat them and then scrunch them up in his fist to presumably lick the blood afterwards (off screen).

Gyaos also fires sonic but clearly visible beams out of a combination of what he can blow through his two throats (his double throat genetics meaning he can’t actually turn his head to see what’s behind him). These look pretty much like laser beams and can cut pretty much anything they come into contact with... and we see him slicing up a fair few things in this movie, including Gamera who, it turns out, bleeds a kind of greenish blood. There’s an impressive shot early on in the movie where his laser-like beams slice a big helicopter in half and a real sized cabin was obviously built for a great side view of the halves parting and various passengers falling to their death.  

Talking about the gore, this was something which was pretty much absent at the time from most of Toho’s various Godzilla films. When the previous Gamera film didn’t hit so well at the box office, the original director who had made the first one was reinstated for the series (as well as retained to do the effects shots he made so successful in Gamera VS Barugon which I reviewed here) and one of the things he wanted to do was to push the kaiju gore to find a way to compete with the product Toho were putting out. The presence of Noriaki Yuasa here may also explain why those terrible ricochet sound effects are back on the soundtrack when something explodes. It just sounds so fake.

Another thing Gyaos can do is fire a kind of fire extinguisher out of his belly, which really seems to knock Gamera for six. By now, in keeping with what was going on in Toho’s Godzilla series, Gamera was already thought of much more as a protector creature than a threat... but he’s bested many times here in fights with Gyaos.

The cast are all great here, with Kôjirô Hongô returning as a different character from the one he played in the previous Gamera film and a lot of emphasis on a child who befriends the giant turtle. Now, I’d heard that the emphasis on the Gamera films were mostly focussed on kids but the way it’s done in this one, at least, is not too over the top and it doesn’t in any way ruin the watchability of the movie. Although, I have to ask myself why it’s always the kid who picks up on the ways to try and kill Gyaos and not the adult characters. It’s he who works out, for example, the Gyaos is a nocturnal character and helps lead the adults to the fact that Gyaos’ main weakness is sunlight (originally scripted as giant Dracula, remember).

Unlike a lot of the kaiju eiga, there’s no real exploration or researched explanation as to Gyaos’ motive and penchant for destruction throughout the film. He’s just released from his hibernation and that’s it, he just wants to slice up buildings, eat people and lick up their blood. However, already a pattern is emerging in the films as I see them. And that is that the humans cook up a plan to defeat each film’s villanous monster, only for that attempt to fail and then, thankfully, the help of Gamera saves the day.

Mind you, with the plan they hatch in this one, you can see why it would fail. After manufacturing a kind of fake, pink and bubbly blood which smells and tastes the same as regular human blood, they use a big fountain of it to lure Gyaos to the top of a big, revolving restaurant/hotel. Then, when Gyaos takes the bait, they spin the restaurant around at speed to try and dizzy the monster up so it will fall over and be defeated by the dawning sunlight. Not only does this plan look pleasingly ridiculous on film... in just the way every kaiju lover wants to see... it fails miserably but, of course, by this point, Gamera is on hand for his third and final showdown with the creature.

Like the previous two films in the series, the shot design in this is pretty cool and there’s some lovely bright lighting throughout. The turquoise pulsating cave in the first ten minutes of the movie is especially nice. There’s also a lot more action and less explanation in this one, in a deliberate move to stop the child section of the audience getting too bored, too quickly with the movie. That being said, the film retains the satirical edge by focusing on a roadblock protest of the building of a new highway through farmer’s land, which was very much on the mind of the Japanese at the time due to some pressure put against the building of a new airport with similar, aggressive protests.

There’s no real human villain in this one either, although the main kid's grandpa, played by Akira Kurosawa regular Kichijirô Ueda, does fulfil a kind of mini version of this role for a little part of the film, before the character is softened considerably as the plot progresses.

All in all, I had a lot of fun with Giant Monster Dogfight: Gamera Vs Gyaos and it’s been an absolute pleasure to watch through these so far. I really wasn’t expecting the Gamera series to be this good so... well... I can’t wait to see what the next one will bring.

Monday 19 April 2021

Batman - A Celebration Of The Classic TV Series

Don’t Deny Your
Eyes To Roam,
This Beautiful,
Titan Tome!

Batman -
A Celebration Of
The Classic TV Series

by Bob Garcia and Joe Desris
Titan Books ISBN: 9781781167885

Just a quick snip of a review to warble the praises of a beautiful book I received for my birthday this year, the wonderful 2016 publication, Batman - A Celebration Of The Classic TV Series (Thanks cousin Steve and Allison). Does what it says on the tin, for sure but, well that’s a good place to start actually, as the gorgeous ‘tin’ in question is a hard bound book presenting a picture of actors Adam West and Burt Ward in their Batman and Robin costumes, nicely spot varnished. Added to this, instead of a regular dust cover we have a dust belt. That is to say, a miniature Batman utility belt, also with some nice spot varnishing highlights on it, wraps around the covers from front to back instead of the traditional dust jacket.

Now, while I would have loved if the book was twice the size and had even more minutia of the show for me to ponder (a sign of a good book, for sure), it’s got a lot of stories, accounts and anecdotes about the production of the three seasons of the Batman TV show, not to mention the tie-in movie, that it certainly enlightened me about a lot of elements of the show I’d not known before.

Continuing the theme of the rhyming couplets of a typical Season 1 or 2 double episode set of titles (the show used to play two nights a week with a cliffhanger at the end of the first of the week’s shows)... such as Episode 21 The Penguin Goes Straight, Episode 22, Not Yet, He Ain’t or Episode 31 Death In Slow Motion, Episode 32 The Riddler’s False Notion...the book is split into lots of mini chapters detailing specific facets of the show and uses similar rhyming couplets for each section title, such as Catwoman Is A Wow, Julie Newmar Take A Bow or Bruce Lee Paid The Set A Visit, Showed Ward His Fighting Spirit. Which is a nice touch.

Following on from an introduction written by Adam West himself, it turns out there’s a lot of information to be found here, most of which is all first hand knowledge garnered from a lot of the show’s stars and production crew from when they were alive and, like I said, most of this is new to me. So you’ll get stuff on script development, screen tests, using discarded props and backgrounds from old Irvin Allen shows, dyeing all the clothes those bright colours, the onomatopoeic typography bursts over the fight scenes, the music of Neil Hefti’s theme and Nelson Riddles scoring. There’s loads of stuff here to please the most avid Batfan.

For instance, did you know that Lyle Wagonner, who people probably best remember for his portrayal of Steve Trevor in the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman and The New Adventures Of Wonder Woman TV shows, was actually one of the people shortlisted and screen tested for the role of Batman along with Adam West? Well, yeah okay, maybe you did but it was news to me. Thinking about it and knocking about ten years off of him (from how I remember him)... I can kind of see how that might have worked too. Although, of course, Adam West totally got the special style of the ‘camp’ humour from day one. 

Similar revelations were the fact that producer William Dozier (who you hear from a lot in this book), did the voice over narrations and cliff-hanger questions for the show. He interviewed a lot of people to do it and none of them could get it the way he needed it to be done... until some bright spark realised that Dozier should just do it for the deadline of the pilot and, after that was successful, should just keep doing it.

Another thing is some of the information on legendary martial artist Bruce Lee. Batman paved the way for a TV version of The Green Hornet and, of course, Bruce Lee stars as Kato in that TV incarnation, highlighting the grand nephew of The Lone Ranger (look it up if you don’t believe me, I’m constantly reminding people of this). Now, I’m sure most people know the story of how Bruce Lee colluded with the crew to wind up Burt Ward and make him fearful of his upcoming fight with Kato in the crossover show when Batman and Robin meet The Green Hornet and Kato, which was a well received joke and, yes, that story is confirmed here. However, what I didn’t know was that they’d been trying to get Lee into a TV show for a while and the show which was in development but ultimately turned down for him, while Batman was still being conceived, was Number One Son. This would feature Bruce Lee as, oh yes, Charlie Chan’s Number One Son but as a secret agent. So, yeah, that’s a show I wish they would have made, to be honest.

There is one big error in the book that I found... which always makes me worry in a tome about something I don’t know much about because, who knows what other errors I can’t identify which could have crept in? In a section about the actor playing The Joker in the show, the one and only Cesar Romero, it mentions that his debut feature was the 1933 production The Shadow Laughs, based on the pulp character The Shadow. Something didn’t ring true with that to me so I looked it up and, indeed, the film has nothing to do with the famous ‘Maxwell Grant’ character of The Shadow, from what I can find.

However, this was the only problem I had with this book and I now know cool stuff like the famous Bat-climbs, where various guest stars pop out of the windows and make funny remarks as The Dynamic Duo Bat-walk up the sides of buildings, were just another quick thing to shorten the queue of the ever rising tide of famous actors and actresses who wanted to appear in what was pretty much the hottest show on television. And, bear in mind, this was in the days (and we’re not all that far out of them) that TV was seen as a lesser media that  an actor could be doing and often a bit of a movie career killer. But what everyone forgets is that... with the deadpan humour, the bright colours, the fiendishly ridiculous devices and the leaps in deductive logic... the show was unlike anything ever seen on television before (or since). So they had actors lining up to play parts but, when the time schedules wouldn’t permit, people like Jerry Lewis would pop his head out of a window and deliver some lines, whereas celebrities with a less tight schedule... such as Vincent Price, George Sanders and even director Otto Preminger... would be given the expanded, guest villain of the week spots on the show.

And that’s that. Whether you’re familiar with the TV series and background detail on the show with its various spin offs or not, Batman - A Celebration Of The Classic TV Series is an absolutely great book to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with it. It even finishes with a detailed episode guide to the three seasons with short summaries of each episode, which is handy if you need to quickly find or refer to something. A great addition to any bat-lovers book shelf and a solid recommendation from me.

Sunday 18 April 2021

The Vast Of Night

A Cayuga Production

The Vast Of Night
USA  2019
Directed by Andrew Patterson
GED Cinema

The Vast Of Night is a film that would have passed me by completely had I not been pointed towards it so... firstly, thanks to Biggles for the recommendation. It’s a shame this isn’t more widely known or available on physical media (I would buy a Blu Ray of this for sure) as it’s one of those damn ‘near perfect’ films which come along every now and again. One of those features that are technically brilliant and actually manages to use the camerawork and editing to really pull an audience into a story.

Well, okay, perhaps story is too strong a word to use here as the film definitely has a 'one note' mystery set in the late 1950s at its heart and the strength of both the arresting visual and audio components coupled with some great performances from the two leads... Jake Horowitz as local, small time radio DJ Everett Sloane and Sierra McCormick as local telephone switchboard operator Fay Crocker... makes for a film which is not overly reliant on its somewhat simple idea, transcending it all by confounding any expectations that this would anything other than humdrum.

Simply put, the film plays out one night in the fictional town of Cayuga (yeah, I know, I’ll get there in a moment, the whole film is littered with these kind of references) and takes place pretty much in real time, as a basketball game in a local high school serves as both an anchoring point and a countdown clock for the one and a half hour the course of events depicted take place. Said ‘incident’ in the film deals with... ‘something over the skies’ during this summer evening and how two friends, Everett and Fay, latch onto a strange sound concurrent with some activity seen by a few people who are out on the streets while the basketball game is in progress. I’ve not headed this review up with a spoiler warning because, in terms of spoilers, the film really is essentially a one trick pony and there’s no real reveal of anything you’re not set up to suspect from the start.

The story is supposed to be inspired by both the Foss Lake Disappearances and the  Kecksburg UFO Incident but, yeah, I couldn’t find too much of a correlation with these so, ‘inspired’ is definitely the word. However, the film does wear it’s science fiction influences on its sleeve right from the outset, when we are treated to a shot of an old TV set from the 1950s which is beginning to play a TV show which is... yeah, well it’s a deliberate parody of the opening of the old The Twilight Zone TV show called, in this iteration, Paradox Theatre and they’ve even got an actor called Mark Silverman doing the opening narration in the exact same tone and style of delivery as Rod Serling’s intros for the show (indeed, a quick check on the IMDB shows that the actor also provided the voice of Rod Serling in the recent 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone, as it turns out). It’s a nicely done parody and then we find the title of the movie, The Vast Of Night, is the title of the episode we are watching. Shakespeare afficionados may recognise that phrase as being from The Tempest, which makes perfect sense here because one of the most successful 1950s science fiction movies of that decade was Forbidden Planet, which was a science fiction variant of The Tempest.

We then slow zoom into the action on the black and white TV and into the film which then opens up into widescreen and full colour imagery. Here’s the thing though, the film is split up almost into little mini chapters to begin with and, when one sequence changes we zoom back out and watch it back as a black and white image on the TV each time before re-entering the picture. We are right from the start introduced to the fictional town of Cayuga and, again, any fans of The Twilight Zone will recognise this as Rod Serling’s production company Cayuga Productions.

The film starts off by catching us up to the main characters in a twenty minute sequence where the camera follows Everett setting up the sound system for the high school game and then both he and Fay as he teaches her how to use her new tape recorder. It’s a frenetic and brilliant opening and, I’d like to say it’s all done in one take but I don’t think it is... I was too drawn in to take much notice but I believe, when I looked into it, that the longest take is a ten minute shot in the next mini chapter of Fay at her switchboard so, there must have been a few cuts in this opening sequence (there were, I watched it again when i showed the movie to someone else a few days later). The pace is deliberately more static (ish) for the switchboard sequence which makes up the next ten or so minutes of the film and then, when Fay opens the door of her room, she kind of frees the camera which picks up the pace on its own, makes it’s way all over to the other side of town in one shot, checks out the game and then travels over to Everett’s nearby radio broadcasting room. The call sign of the radio station, WOTW, might be a puzzle in terms of the region it’s supposed to be operating from... until the viewer maybe realises that it’s also the initials of the title of one of the most famous, inadvertent radio hoaxes of all time... Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre production of H. G. Wells' War Of The Worlds.

This is a film with absolutely brilliant camerawork which sometimes, as in that sequence, takes on an almost narrative voice and at other times, more often, focuses on bringing you the characters and giving them room to breathe as you watch the performances. Indeed, it’s an old trick but the director uses a very slow, almost imperceptible zoom on some of his ‘static’ shots to pull you into the characters and make you feel even more like a fly on the wall. He’s got a good thing going here with a combination of different styles for different uses but the shots are always smooth and controlled, I don’t recall seeing much hand-held stuff here at all, even during the scenes where there is a lot of running going on... Fay has a quirk where she forgets that you can just get in a car and go somewhere, always running somewhere as a result (which I guess you can kind of do in a small town).

Another thing the director does, which is absolutely terrific, is when a ‘caller’ who tells one of those great “the Government are collaborating with the aliens” stories, gets a lot of airtime and instead of sticking with the image of Everett listening to his voice on the air, the screen blacks out completely for a few minutes (a couple of times) so we can experience the story with just the sound alone, like a radio audience would. This is a great and brave moment for the film as far as I’m concerned (and for the director or whoever had this idea) and I don’t remember, off hand, seeing this done before.

And it’s the little things which also help give the illusion that the film is very much a 1950s thing. Such as the language used by the characters. Not many period movies think about the way language can change these days but expressions like “Double Dealing Devil Dog” and “Ras My Berries” give it a real historic feel and kind of act as verbal anchor points to ground the movie in its time frame and I enjoyed the way the director (who also wrote this under a pseudonym) uses repeat stories like ‘the squirrel who bit through the wire’ incident to give a credibility to the feeling of ‘ordinary people living in a an ordinary town’ sensibility, which is shot through the narrative. I also loved the ‘future predictions’ that Fay tells Everett about from the time and their ‘almost but not quite right’ nature, which were indeed culled from issues of Mechanix Illustrated of that period. This itself says a lot about the two characters, with Everett seeming a bit sceptical and so gives a bit of foreshadowing to the attitude of the two of them later, with Fay being quick to embrace the obvious phenomena on which the film is centred while Everett is much more inclined to speculate that... “it’s the Soviets”.

There were two moments which did manage to pull me out of my transfixed state and pop me out of the movie at different points in the film. The first was when, as Everett walks Fay to her switchboard and the two are getting ‘fake interview’ footage from the people they meet on her new tape recorder, one of the families in the car mentioned the recent incident of the Grimaldi’s. Well of course I pricked my ears up straight away at this because, as soon as they said it, I could hear Kevin McArthy’s voice as Dr. Miles Benwell saying... “And so I ran. I ran as little Jimmy Grimaldi ran the other day.” Was this a reference to the 1956 version of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (reviewed by me here). Well, I looked it up and, you bet, in my excitement at hearing the name Grimaldi I missed some references to the fictional town of Santa Mira, which is where the original Invasion Of The Body Snatchers takes place. Another of many references by the director to 1950s sci-fi movies.

The other thing which jumped me right out of the picture was when the camera is first in the radio station. I’d assumed from The Twilight Zone parodies that the film was set in the late 1950s and the director himself says the events of the film take place in 1958. All fine and dandy but I spotted the prominent placement of the vinyl soundtrack album to Walt Disney’s Peter Pan in a few shots. Okay, so fine that Peter Pan was a 1953 movie but, something rang wrong here and, yeah, it turns out that the soundtrack album in question wasn’t released until 1960, over a year after the time setting for this movie. So, yeah, while I’d like to believe this was  the director practicing something I read about in the early 1980s called ‘controlled anachronism’... I suspect he just made a mistake and didn’t realise the album wasn’t released until later, in this case.

The music on this one by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer sounds strange and ethereal and really helps to sell the atmosphere of the movie... especially in some of the ‘action scenes’ (for want of a better term) towards the end of the picture. It also doesn’t oversell the emotion, instead counteracting it in some ways, almost to get the audience through some scenes which might otherwise have been a little oversold with the wrong musical approach. There’s also some nice use of camerawork towards the end, where the placement of the camera obscuring one of the characters with another standing in front of them, causes anxiety in an almost unbearably intense suspense sequence by a nice piece of misdirection which, actually, foreshadows to a degree, the very last shot of the movie. So that was nicely done.

Actually, my main piece of negative criticism also comes from this sequence which, I won’t spoil here but will say there are a couple of shots which I think should not have made it into the final cut. We don’t need to see ‘the things’ in question in what has so far been an incredibly subtle film in terms of manipulating audiences to the obvious conclusion. Sometimes, as is the case here, less would have been much more and I really could have done without actually seeing what is causing the strange events here. Now, it might have been that the internet station who are distributing the movie (and holding off from putting out a proper physical release) may have insisted on seeing the thing in question or it might directly be something which could be laid at the feet of the director, I don’t know. But it does kind of take the edge off of the last couple of minutes of the movie... which still has a perfect last shot relating to a story told to the film’s two main protagonists by an old lady in an earlier section of the film. It would have been much better left to the imagination of the audience I think but, I suspect there were commercial reasons necessitating the inclusion of a couple of ‘model shots’ so, I won’t complain too bitterly here, especially when the rest of The Vast Of Night is an absolutely brilliant and spellbinding experience which I think many students of film might want to take a look at. Certainly a movie I’d strongly recommend to just about everyone and I’m glad I was pointed towards this one.

Thursday 15 April 2021

Half Way To Hell

Mexican Stand Off

Half Way To Hell
Directed by
Victor Adamson as D. Dixon
(and Al Adamson, uncredited)
USA 1960 IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: I guess, technically this thing has spoilers on it.

Well, if there’s one thing that starting to delve into Al Adamson’s body of work has done for me for certain then it’s made me trust the IMDB even less than I did before. I don’t know who’s filling this stuff in on Adamson’s films but, at the very least, their interpretation of the facts seems to be at odds with what you can see with your own eyes in Severin's amazing box set, Al Adamson - The Masterpiece Collection.

For example, Al Adamson is in this as, it turns out, the main bad guy. However, the character name listed for him in the IMDB is of another major character in the movie... who is also listed as another character. Seriously IMDB, sort yourselves out. I’m used to looking for movies which have no entry or a bare bones of an entry or often no information about a release whatsoever but, presenting the wrong information goes one step further. For something which is supposed to be an industry standard database to impart the facts about movies, the IMDB is pretty much the only game in town but it’s seriously lacking. Anyway... back to our main feature.

This is the first (and probably the last) time that Half Way To Hell has seen the light of day on home video. It’s been painstakingly restored as best they could do it by Severin... from what they could get. So, barring a couple of cuts where the odd snippet of dialogue may be missing along with some questionable damage to the film stock, this is pretty much the whole thing.

And it’s a black and white Western made by Adamson’s dad. Half Way To Hell is the last of literally hundreds of films that Victor Adamson produced and directed since 1910 (and after this he was still turning up in things as an actor and, not just in his son’s pictures, presumably because he was so well respected in the business). It’s written and co-produced by Al Adamson and, like I said, stars the younger Adamson as the lead villain.

And... it’s kinda terrible but also amazingly interesting.

Shot in black and white but in a widescreen aspect ratio, the films plays like a typical 1940s Monogram or Republic Western but, perhaps, with not quite the same high energy. Still, it has fairly fast plotting, the odd fist fight and a little intrigue on board. It also, I think, seems to be making a political point with its pro-Mexican uprising stance which, I suspect, was an unusual thing for some of the Westerns being made at the time.

The story is of a Mexican lady called Maria, played by Caroll Montour (the film is narrated by her as a voice-over as well) and her friend Joanne (played by Shirley Tegge, the final role in a very short career). They are trying to get across the border and out of Mexico to flea Maria’s former boyfriend Escobar (played by Lyle Felice), the leader of the group of outlaws who are orchestrating a revolution and fighting for the freedom of Mexico (as they see it). She wants nothing more to do with him and so they, with their armed escort, are getting out while the getting’s good. They pick up a hitchhiking prospector on the way, Jeff played by David Lloyd, who is right away set up as the hero of the tale, with Escobar firmly highlighted, at this stage of the game at least, as the villain.

Unfortunately, Lloyd is left for dead along with all the others that Al Adamson as Slade (billed as Rick Adams) guns down with his gang, on orders to take the girls back to Escobar. However, in the words of a famous villain from a well known space fantasy franchise, Slade and the gang want to ‘alter the deal’ and change the terms of their agreement by ransoming the women back to Escobar instead.

Slade and another gang member go to make some unsuccessful negotiations with the Mexican leader while, back from the dead, Jeff (the hero of the piece) returns and guns down, with the help of Maria’s new romantic interest gang turncoat, the remaining outlaws. About this time Slade catches up to them but then they are all caught and taken back to Escobar. There’s a whip fight between Escobar and Maria’s new guy, then another between Escobar and Jeff. Then Escobar sees the error of his ways and releases them all but Slade catches up with them after they leave so he can steal Jeff’s gold.

Yeah, it gets twisty and turny and there’s not a lot of great acting going on. Maria’s narrative seems to be striving to capture the hearts of a sympathetic Mexican audience but I don’t know if this film had much effect as a political bullet. However, a couple of really interesting things happen that  quite surprised me. The first and main one being that, in a fight with Slade, ten minutes before the narrative’s conclusion, Jeff the hero (who has literally just become romantically entangled with Maria’s friend Joanne) is punched off a cliff by Slade and falls to his death. David Lloyd seems to be one of those actors who has the uncanny power to let his bones turn to jelly and do a fair imitation of a flopsy dummy that has been dropped off the cliff instead. There seem to be a lot of those ‘actors’ in Adamson movies so far, I’ve noticed. ;-) End of the hero character and, yeah, wasn’t expecting that so it was a nice rug pull moment, far from the formulaic movie which houses it.

The other thing is that, by the end, Maria dumps her new boyfriend, decides that Escobar is okay after all and goes off to help fight in the revolution with him. Now you'll know, if you read this blog regularly, that I’m completely clueless about political issues but this seems to me to be, I dunno, some kind of bold statement and, again, not the kind of ending I would associate with those old oaters, to be honest. So, while it’s all humdrum but fairly watchable stuff for the most part, I found it to be a lot more interesting than I had at first expected it to be.

The framing in some of the shots is okay too and there are some high points. The film starts off with a really nice, speedy shot of the Mexican band of ‘revolutionaries’ riding their horses with a dog running at high speed between them and the camera and, well... cute dog. I like dogs. This was the absolute best thing in the movie for me. More shots of dogs running please studios!

Other than that, there are some really bad things about the film too. There’s a scene towards the end where it looks like Al Adamson’s character has been added in insert shots to maybe clarify some of the action or possibly to pad the time (the film runs for an hour and six minutes). So in the master shots, Slade has a nice bit of stubble under his chin. However, some of the closer shots of him in one scene have him looking almost unrecognisable as the character... with either too much fuzzy stubble of almost bear-like proportions or, even, clean shaven in another shot a few seconds later. So, yeah, definitely reshoots of insert scenes on different days I would guess. Also, in one scene where the romantic relationship between Jeff and Joanne is being superfluously developed, I’m pretty sure I can hear an aeroplane or possibly a car engine in the background sound for a few seconds so, yeah, I suppose not much, if any, re-dubbing was done in this one and the ‘wild sound’ tracks were relied on pretty much throughout. I guess that’s cheaper, right?

So, yeah, once again I’m left with a film which I didn’t think I was going to get much out of but which turned out to be entertaining enough and had some unexpected moments which I’m not going to forget in a hurry. For some reason, this Severin box set is rekindling my enthusiasm with film somewhat and, although Half Way To Hell is certainly not a great movie, or even a good one, I liked it fine and I appreciate Severin’s great efforts to get this one in a half way watchable state for people. It’s a good time to enjoy films. I suspect, when physical media finally dies, that options like seeing films of this nature just won’t be there for an audience so, yeah, make hay while the sun still shines, is my advice.

Tuesday 13 April 2021

Satan's Slave

Slave Regina

Satan's Slave
UK 1976
Directed by Norman J. Warren
Indicator Ray Zone B

You know, I’d only seen one Norman J. Warren film before this first time watch.* However, since that other film, Inseminoid, holds a special place in my heart due to circumstances surrounding its release (I’ll get to that when I review it for this blog), I thought pursuing the recent Indicator Blu Ray boxed edition of five of this director’s films (including Inseminoid), was a good idea. Indeed, it turns out that in the case of this film, Satan’s Slave, it’s good that this is my first experience of it because it seems that the previous UK releases of it were cut down to something approximating the original ‘X’ certificate theatrical release. Somehow (and good on them), Indicator have been allowed to include a full on ‘director’s cut’ with the sex, nudity and violence enhanced even more than what the film-makers were allowed to get away with back in the day.

The film starts off strongly with a nice, strong graphic line drawing of a face which goes through a few transformations before it’s a skull with bulging eyeballs... then a cross and then various cards from a Tarot deck before returning to the bloodshot eyeball skull thingy (as is the technical term for this), all accompanied by composer John Scott’s wonderful score. Then we have a preliminary opening where a naked girl, played by one of the producers as the actress didn’t show up on set, is sacrificed in some kind of satanic ritual (including a nice ‘bloody eye’ effect reminiscent of some of those Hammer films where Christopher Lee played Dracula). Since Satan doesn’t actually appear in the film and I don’t remember the devil getting much of a shout out, I’m assuming the robes, blood and general nakedness are the only real reference to which the film’s title can allude. The main masked/robed priest doing the deed is, you can totally hear from his voice, played by Michael Gough so, when he comes into the main body of the story a little later, it’s no real surprise that he is just as much a threat as the character of his son Martin, payed by Stephen Yorke. And we also get a scene where Martin murders one of his lovers (he seems to have a few on the go at the same time) in a protracted sequence where he non-consensually smothers her to unconsciousness, ties and undresses her on his bed, then threatens the young lady with scissors before letting her go... only to change his mind by splitting her head in between a door and its frame before stabbing her.

The plot involves main protagonist Catherine, played by Candace Glendenning, who is accompanying her parents to visit her previously anonymous uncle, a day or two before her birthday. The car crashes (well it’s just a little bump, really) a few yards from their destination, a big country house. After Catherine gets out of the car to get help from her uncle for her parents in the front of the vehicle, the car inexplicably explodes. The uncle, his son Martin and Martin’s lover, Frances, played by Barbara Kellerman , take her in to recuperate for a few days. However, Catherine is prone to premonitions and visions, which makes sense since it turns out she is a direct descendent of some kind of witch from hundreds of years before. Michael Gough’s character has already sacrificed his wife to have said witch reborn and, although she doesn’t know it yet, Catherine is earmarked to be the next 'stab' at resurrection fodder unless she can escape.

It’s also nice to see former Doctor Who companion to William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, Michael Craze, as Catherine’s boyfriend. Alas, he only has two scenes because his second appearance has him taken over psychically by the long distance but, apparently mesmerising, mind powers of Michael Gough’s character, compelling him to throw himself from the roof of a block of flats with a rather grisly aftermath.

Now, I’m used to seeing British horror films by the likes of Hammer, Amicus and Tigon studios but this really is a proper piece of trashy exploitation with a UK flavour to it and it’s a very strong and entertaining work, to be honest. In fact, I’d say it’s a lot better than much of the US stuff I’ve seen in a similar vein, to tell the truth. It’s got lashings of nudity, sex and gore as part of its genetic make up and Warren seems to have no trouble capitalising on all these factors to make the film really work. Indeed, I was somewhat taken aback when the heroine of the film stabs an antagonist directly in the eyeball and we see it go in and then we get a few aftermath shots of the nail file she used still lodged in the guy’s eyeball. Something which the majority of directors mostly cut away from and it’s rare to see something this strong since Dali and Bunuel dissected a lady’s eyeball at the opening of their silent masterpiece Un Chien Andalou in 1929.

In a similar vein, although not as impactful and probably not the first time this was done, the moment when a door swings back to reveal a young lady hanging from the door and held there by the big carving knife which has gone through the front of her mouth and out the back of her head before being embedded into the wooden panel, must have been a few years early, at the time, before this kind of reveal became a more common factor in various American slasher films of the late 1970s and early 1980s (not a genre I get on with particularly... I prefer a well shot Italian giallo to those kinds of movies).

What also really works about the film, though, is the way some of the shots are designed. The colours are quite a bit more muted or greyer than you might see in a Hammer film of around the same time but the director more than makes up for it by getting creative with some of his framing, especially since his modus operandi seems to be to just start off with a static screen in which a character is seen and then moving the camera with that character in whichever direction they are going. So, sure, standard stuff in that respect but he manages to do some nice things visually which lift the sequences and it’s exactly the kind of stuff I like...

For example, one scene shows Catherine sitting alone in a room on a chair. She gets up and starts walking to the left of shot with the camera moving on her to keep her in the centre of the frame until she comes to a stop in front of a mirror. A she moves in front of the mirror, Stephen walks into the reflection of the mirror and comes to a stop opposite her (his real self out of frame entirely, of course) to start a conversation up. Another sequence has Frances wearing a nice purple and blue hotch potch of a garment but she’s standing in front of a painting of a lady wearing the exact same kind of purple tones. It’s all nice stuff and it’s this kind of thing which really contributes to the overall entertainment value of the film... for me at least.

One slight cliché is when composer Scott uses a kind of rip off of Bernard Herrmann’s classic ‘stab music’ from Psycho, when ever somebody crosses paths with a knife or, indeed, nail file or similarly pointy object. It’s a bit of a steal in terms of the way it borrows from Herrmann’s masterpiece but heck, even the great Jerry Goldsmith did a similar thing once (in Coma) so I can certainly cut this composer some slack here.

Satan’s Slave is packaged as part of the Indicator box set Bloody Terror: The Shocking Cinema of Norman J Warren 1976-1987 and, as you would expect from such a great boutique label, they’ve not only given us a proper, uncut version of the film for the first time ever in the UK but also put some great extras with it, which include a couple of commentary tracks (one with the composer), outtakes and deleted scenes, a making of featurette, a chat with the composer (who actually plays a part of the main theme on a piano for us) and an interesting comparison featurette on the censorship issues of the film. I was really impressed with this set and, I have to say, I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the movies in this collection sometime soon. 

*Since reviewing the movies in this boxed edition, I also saw his earlier film
Her Private Hell, which explains why that review beat these to the site.

Monday 12 April 2021

Tales Of The Shadowmen 16 - Voire Dire



If I Were A Richleau

Tales Of The Shadowmen
Volume 16 - Voire Dire

Edited by Jean-Marc Lofficier and Randy Lofficier
Black Coat Press ISBN: 978-1612279107

For this very short look at the sixteenth volume in the Tales Of The Shadowmen collections, Voire Dire, I am once again about 16 months late in reviewing it. This is because of the December publication dates which leave me a year behind on these (I like to read them over the Christmas season). And, like all of them, this latest selection of short tales of famous fictional characters teaming up or crossing paths with one another is a bit of a hit and miss affair. For me, this year, it’s rather more of a miss but, well... we all have our favourites.

Of the fourteen stories that make up this year’s anthology, I will single out a few of which I was somewhat entertained by. The Peculiar Cats Of The Sea Of Dreams by Mathew Baugh is something which I would have found dull had it not been for my re-reading of the complete fiction of H. P. Lovecraft last year (reviewed here). I was quite up for it now, though, as a variety of characters are assisted by Randolph Carter in the dream kingdom in which he is known to be found... along with yet another incident with those powerful, battling cats which often come to the aid of their friend.

It’s often the case that I am most entertained by the stories about characters I know nothing of and I don’t know who the main protagonists from at least three sources in Nathan Cabaniss’ story Rage Of Terror are... so perhaps that’s why I enjoyed that one so much. I was, of course, familiar with the main antagonist of that story, as Fantômas makes his first (but by no means his last) appearance in this volume. It was also nice to spot a very young Kojak as a background character rookie cop (given his first lollipop in one of his two throw away appearances here) and also how the tale turned into an alternative origin story for Batman.

There’s a nice Rouletabbille tale by Martin Gately, which serves as a sequel/finale to some others which have appeared sporadically in the Tales Of The Shadowmen series and also a nice futuristic sequel story to one in another volume by Nigel Malcolm where, in a world modelled after Ridley Scott’s movie Blade Runner, The Nyctalope and Sexton Blake hack wall street and offer an exit from under their foes for the Frankenstein monster and its wife, the replicant Rachel from the aforementioned film. There’s even a nice moment in this tale where we find out the sad, future fate of the source of Doc Savage’s gold.

Captain Nemo appears in two tales... one by Travis Hiltz opposite characters such as Captain Haddock (from the TinTin graphic albums) and the Dread Pirate Roberts (from The Princess Bride?) and another, much more interesting one which kind of breaks the rules of appearing in a volume of these specific collections in that it only features one set of characters. I’m guessing that they needed a story to make up the space for this volume because its also a tale which has been published before in a different collection. This one, by Jean-Pierre Laigle purports to be (and of course it’s not) a formerly unpublished chapter from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and it involves the good captain telling one of his new guests of the time that the Nautilus was teleported by accident out of the ruins of Atlantis and into deep space... and how the Captain managed to get himself, his crew and his vessel back to the safety of the waters of Earth.

There’s an interesting story by Joseph Gibson where The Falcon from the 1940s, set in the 1960s and fully aware of his ‘fictional’ on screen exploits, teams up with his brother, among others, to take on Fantômas but, I was somewhat confused by the whole affair because, though it was somewhat entertaining, it’s also a fact that The Falcon’s older brother met his death in one of the earliest movies and his brother took over. What the George Sanders version is doing still alive to seek the assistance of the Tom Conway version (who was also Sanders brother in real life) is anybody’s guess.

Two more I’ll mention... both somewhat problematic for different reasons.

One of these is the very short story The Replacement by Xavier Mauméjean. In it, Bruce Wayne goes to a meeting with Doc Savage and The Shadow to seek their blessing at the start of his crime fighting career. On the way out from his meeting in the Empire State Building, he bumps into Britt Reid (The Green Hornet) and Kato, who then go up to the 86th Floor for, presumably, a similar meeting and, I have to say, I really didn’t understand the implications of some of the comments made at this meeting.

The last one I’ll specifically mention is The Stone of Solomon by David L. Vineyard. This is an exciting tale of John Silence teaming up with Dennis Wheatley’s Duc de Richleau character but, alas, the regular introduction to the story tips its hat that the version of Richleau present for the majority of the story is not who he seems. Since the reveal at the end of the short is very protracted and teased out, one wonders why the writer should have bothered when we know which character the story is supposed to be about in the tale and that, since he’s not mentoned once in the narrative until the end of the story, it’s obviously him masquerading as Richleau in this one.

And that’s about it for Tales Of The Shadowmen 16 - Voire Dire. More characters abound and cross paths... some of whom I know very little such as Darkman and Gordon Gekko (I’ve not seen their respective movies) and others I am more familiar with such as Arsene Lupin or Anne Rice’s vampire character Lestat. There’s also a very entertaining and thorough version of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Jane Greystoke (formerly Jane Porter before she married Tarzan) and even a couple of relatives of famous characters, such as the sons of Professor Challenger and Robur The Conquerer.

Actually, I guess I was about 50/50 with this volume which, I guess is not a bad batting average considering the number of writers and the considerable number of character appearances and references which are scattered among the tales. Once again, I’ll look forward to receiving what would have been the December 2020 edition this coming Christmas release and hopefully, fingers crossed, get around to sharing my thoughts with you on that one in about a year from now.

Sunday 11 April 2021

Phantom Of The Opera

Note Unquote

Phantom Of The Opera
USA 1943 Directed by Christy Cabanne
Universal  Blu Ray Zone B

As far as The Phantom Of The Opera in the movies goes, there’s the amazing 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney playing the titular character of Erik... and then there’s everything else. And everything else loses hands down to the Chaney version, this one included. Of the four movie versions I’ve personally seen, only the 1925 version comes close to capturing the proper tone of Gaston Leroux’s novel, originally serialised in a magazine. The pulpy, adventure elements coupled with the creeping terror of the main antagonist are best captured in that one and of those I’ve seen... which include that one, this 1943 version, the 1962 Hammer films version and, of course, the one which I will always think of, broken heartedly, as Dario Argento’s worst movie (not to be mistaken for his fantastic movie called Opera), the original will always be best.

I really don’t count The Phantom Of The Opera as a horror story... it’s more a thriller, to be fair but, I’m including it in my rewatch of the Universal Classic Monsters films because it’s always included in their basic DVD and Blu Ray starter sets and, well, I just thought I’d give it another go.

Now, Universal had been trying to remake a new version of The Phantom Of The Opera for quite a few years since their original version but this one, re-titled Phantom Of The Opera, finally came together for them in ‘43. You can tell they considered it a prestige picture because, unlike any of their other ‘classic monster’ films, this one was shot in Technicolor (please excuse the American spelling but, it’s a brand name, what can you do) as opposed to the monochromatic mayhem with which their horror pictures were usually presented in. Not sure this was the best choice but, hey ho, that’s what they did.

What they also did was spend well over half the budget of the picture resurrecting some of the old sets from the 1925 movie and soundproofing them for use in talkies. So, you know, this was something of an important project to them.

The film stars Claude Rains as Erique Claudin and, he certainly attracts the sympathy of the audience from the outset but... I’m not sure that’s really what the character is supposed to do, to be honest. The understudy opera singer whom he promotes with his murderous threats to others is played by Susanna Foster and, bizarrely, she has two love interest characters in this who are constantly competing to be in her favour, making up some of the film’s comic relief. And, yes, you have to wonder why The Phantom Of The Opera needs any comic relief but... well, they obviously thought it did.

One male lead is the main male star of the opera and, to play him, the producers chose Nelson Eddy. Yeah, that Nelson Eddy, of Jeanette MacDonald fame. The other main lead, played by Edgar Barrier, is a policeman so, yeah, the writers can get these two guys wandering the catacombs of the Opera House in an attempt to find their sweetheart when the time comes... in a far from exciting or even lengthy sequence.

Right from the outset of the film, when the titles proudly but incorrectly proclaim the film is Based on the composition Phantom Of The Opera by Gaston Leroux, leaving off the word The from the novel’s title, they start to get things wrong. Then, a rather long lead in and heavy handed ‘origin’ story for The Phantom is created and explored and, really, it’s just a little tedious. The opening of the picture starts off with a lot of fluid camera movement which is surprisingly dynamic for the period but, honestly, there are so many opera sequences which do nothing to move the story on that it just gets very boring right from the outset. I think the first five minutes has no dialogue at all other than the singing of the opera singers... it doesn’t really work, even with the very impressive camerawork thrown in.

The actors are all great and some of the dialogue is okay but, with the amount of ‘lurking’ without doing much other than as a silhouette in the background of scenes that Claude Rains does here, it never really gets even remotely creepy or chilly in terms of atmosphere and, much as I love seeing these actors working together - they have some good chemistry - it all just seems very dull and plodding and, although it’s not the worst version of The Phantom Of The Opera I’ve seen (sorry Dario), it’s really not something I could sit through as many times as the other Universal monster movies of the period.

Jack Pearce’s make-up for The Phantom’s disfigured face is pretty much just burns down the side of his face (despite having a whole tray of etching acid thrown all over him) and, while that was probably quite gruesome for a 1943 movie, this is nothing like the peeled back skull of a face that was a characteristic of the character in the original novel, made famous by Lon Chaney, The Man Of A Thousand Faces, when he made his version (his, by now famous, son was considered for this role for a while but, obviously, that didn’t happen).

And I don’t have much more to say on this one, in actual fact. If you’ve never seen a version of The Phantom Of The Opera then probably don’t start with this version (although the colours and costumes are good)... definitely bypass this and go straight for the silent one if you want a more interesting, dynamic take on the story which is a whole lot more in keeping with the source material than a good many of the adaptations of this work over the decades... including this one.