Saturday, November 25, 2017

MANIAC (Michael Carreras, 1963)

A young girl is sexually assaulted by a stranger and her father tortures the perpetrator, losing his mind in the emotional conflagration. Years later, an unlucky American finds a place in this broken home and suffers the fiery consequences. Michael Carreras’ proficient thriller may be lacking in internal logic but burns like an acetylene torch.

Paul is a young American, exiled to a small French village after settling affairs with his girlfriend, where a stiff drink leads to his dropping a stiff in the drink, so to speak. He flirts with Annette, the beautiful waitress whose dark eyes mirror her troubled past but Paul is seduced by her Mother-in-law Eve, who owns the bar. This ménage a trios is a triple threat and Paul soon follows his heart instead of his morals. After discovering the dark family secret (Eve’s husband is sentenced to an Asylum for murdering the rapist who molested Annette), Paul decides to help Eve with a plan to help her husband escape and start a new life. Paul even balks at the idea since he’s sleeping with a married woman, and he knows Eve's husband doesn’t take to having his family ‘spoiled”, but Eve convinces him that the marriage is mutually ended. Why Eve doesn’t just legally divorce her husband is never explained, but Paul’s good intentions pave the road to hell and brimstone.

The black and white cinematography is exceptional adding to the gritty realism with Cinemascope compositions shot on location, and chiaroscuro effects that deepen the suspense. The film slows considerably when the inspector appears and spouts exposition like a narrator, insulting the audience’s temperament. Carreras smartly cuts away at the film’s explosive nexus of events though the surprise is properly foreshadowed, and the last scene utilizes oblique angles and dizzying heights that bring the thrilling climax crashing to the ground.

Final Grade: (B)

Thursday, November 9, 2017

FANATIC (Silvio Narizzano, 1965)

A cat and mouse game played in the confines of an Victorian mansion, as a young femme feline is hounded by religious dogma. Richard Matheson adapts Anne Blaisdell’s novel NIGHTMARE but embellishes the story with his palsied humor ripe with pre-marital strife, a union falling to pieces before it even joins in holy matrimony.

Patricia decides to visit to her ex-fiancé’s mother-in-law, to pay her final respects to the memory of the man she once loved, to ease the suffering of a woman who has lost both a son and potential daughter. Pat is a fiery American Girl, raised on promises and the spirit of independence, whose vexing relationship with her new lover is apparent from the outset: Patricia takes accelerates towards her fateful destination. She soon learns that Mrs. Trefoile (a wonderfully zany and overwrought performance from Tallulah Bankhead) is a religious nut who has finally cracked, surrounding herself with servants who exploit her madness in hopes of an inheritance, with a minor appearance of Donald Sutherland as Joseph, a mentally challenged handyman.

The film can be read as a treatise on religion when scripture supersedes law and human rights, whether screeched by the extremist or preached by the conservative. Mrs. Trefoile condemns the wicked Patricia because she isn’t pure and has tainted her son’s everlasting soul, and locks her up until she can be spiritually cleansed. The story also becomes a conflict between beauty and the beast: in other words, youth and old age. Patricia is forbidden from wearing makeup and wearing red (the Devil’s color) so she can be a sexless form of clay and mud. But Mrs. Trefoile was once a refined beauty, revealed in her secret room dominated by a painting of her deceased son, painted shortly before his death.

Patricia attempts escape after escape and is never willing to compromise her life, and spends most of the film in bondage, slapped around, and verbally abused. Mrs. Trefoile does god’s work and punishes her perverted servant, and suffers the consequences of trusting a backstabbing maid.

Final Grade: (B)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

THESE ARE THE DAMNED (Joseph Losey, 1963)

Our future contained in a stone prison, the progeny not of dividing cells but splitting atoms. Director Joseph Losey’s science fiction film is anathema of a future age, where black leather is no protection from deadly radiation. Losey’s bipolar narrative begins like contemptuous proclamation against the wicked and bored youth before splicing into a cautionary tale about cold war ethics.

The title creates a false expectation that the motorcycle gang, led by the charismatic King (an exemplary performance by Oliver Reed, perhaps a future echo of Kubrick’s bratchny protagonist), are the generation cursed. Contrasted with a girl on the cusp of womanhood coupled to an older man, and her incestuous brother dressed in cruel black leather, the roaring engines become the scream of predators looking for their next victim. Losey’s art house style is a cross between Godard and Brando, allowing the camera to linger upon sculptures, twisted like bodies pulverized by radiation, while Reed ruptures with hipster rebellion.

Suddenly, the story takes a turn for the surreal as the characters inadvertently stumble into a secret government compound and discover a terrible secret: children, isolated from the world since birth, are part of some mysterious experiment. These children thirst for physical contact, never having known their parents, their only contact with adults through closed circuit TV. But their love kills the very ones who desire to save them, their touch venomous, their fate unkind.

The group attempts to escape and lead the children from their prison, but these mutants are bred to survive a nuclear holocaust, to carry on the English Way through an irradiated winter…and beyond. This secret devours all who become tainted with the knowledge, gunshots the epitaph for the unlucky. And as the film fades to black, a child begs for help from within stone, screaming for release, but their time will come when the world is dead.

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

SCARS OF DRACULA (Roy Ward Baker, 1970)

A young woman suffers impingement of her exterior jugular vein, ragged scars an evil testament to the awakening of the Baron of Blood. A giant rubber bat vomits forth a clotted prayer and resurrects its master, who haunts an ominous castle and preys upon the supple buffet of women who inhabit the nearby village. Roy Ward Baker’s tale is both deadly serious and darkly humorous, walking that nebulous boundary between camp and convention.

The Count rises from the ashes and soon terrorizes the local village. After the murder of a young woman, the locals set fire to the castle but Dracula survives…because stone castles don’t burn so well. Some time later (time is a mystery here, could be weeks or years) Paul, a womanizer on the run from the cops, has the unfortunate luck to escape the town elder and meet the elder undead. His brother Simon and Simon’s fiancée Sarah soon discover his fate and must destroy the evil that now lurks in the darkness.

The story seems to refute the basic vampire mythology since every person bitten by Dracula dies instead of rising as a minion. A female vampire is briefly introduced and seduced by Paul but is actually murdered by being stabbed to death…with a knife. Dracula still retains an aversion to the Christian cross but fortunately has a slow but tenacious bat that not only murders a church full of women, but is dexterous enough to chew a necklace from between bulging cleavage. The story is London in the raw set in the 19th century, with swinging singles and free love facing the consequences of impulsive behavior.

Religion falls victim to the carnivorous Chiroptera, since it leaves its doors open to all who enter. Hint: when hiding from a giant bat…close the fucking doors! Simon has the final word with shocking results proving that vampires are inflammable, after all.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY (Patrick Jenkins & Sam Newfield, 1953)

Now this is film noir! The opening sequence shows a man bleeding from a gunshot wound stumbling down a dark alley. As he steps out into the street a pair of headlights speeds towards him and he’s run down. As the title splashes across the screen and the music reaches a crescendo we are utterly on the edge of our seats wanting to learn about this man and why someone wanted to kill him! Co-Director Sam Newfield is a veteran of the American B-movies and it’s most likely his influence that infuses this story with it gritty noir style.
The plot is rather interesting especially for a Film Noir: it’s about American gangster Jim Forrester seeking to quit his life of crime and be accepted in British High-Society. Of course, this will lead to his downfall when he sells his small gambling empire and is himself defrauded by a rich man’s racket. One of the underlying themes of the story is that the wealthy are as crooked (maybe more so) than the hard working gangsters who pulled themselves out of the gutter.
Forrester is dating the dancer in one of his nightclubs who becomes jealous when he falls for a Socialite. Lady Susan Wells turns out to be a decent loving person and is the one who rescues Forrester at the end while it’s the dancer who runs him down in a rage! But the plot turns on a fired henchman who is hired by the competition after Forrester loses his temper and beats him up because he didn’t follow orders. This guy’s vendetta leads to a nasty shootout in the final act. This causes Forrester’s wounds and his trek down a dark alley which brings the story full circle.
Once again, the British perspective transforms the genre into something unique: Forrester, though a man who operates outside of the law is the protagonist and is presented as a flawed but honest and loyal boss. One scene shows him being tutored in British table manners and dinner etiquette and his clumsiness and American accent makes it both funny and a bit embarrassing. Another scene at his nightclub shows Forrester trying to “speak the language” of the Socialites who are celebrating a birthday and it’s uncomfortable to watch him struggle to fit in and be patronized by these elitists. Lady Susan admonishes her friends and brother for their condescending behavior and she soon becomes the love interest. The entire cast is excellent from American actor Dane Clark to the sniveling henchman who betrays his boss (focusing Peter Lorre). The final scene of Forrester’s loyal friend carrying his unconscious body carries some emotional weight.  
Shootouts and barroom brawls to learning which is the proper glass to pour champagne, THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY is an entertaining marriage of British mores and American morbidities.

Final Grade: (B-) 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

STOLEN FACE (Terence Fisher, 1952)

Dr. Ritter falls in love with a beautiful blonde concert pianist and when she leaves to marry another man his morals take a vertiginous turn for the worse. Terence Fisher’s film is a starting point for VERTIGO, filmed years before Hitchcock; after seeing this, you’ll appreciate the Master of Suspense even more!
Once again, the British prove that they don’t quite have the hang of the Film Noir genre. The film begins with a romantic score that seems more adapted to a sappy melodrama or serial than a bleak world of cynicism and despair. The first two acts set up the third but drag on too long. In the first act, we learn that Dr. Ritter performs plastic surgery on criminals because he believes it’s their deformity which can cause a person to resort to a life of crime and recidivism. He is scheduled to rebuild Lily’s face, a once beautiful young girl whose horrible facial scarring causes her to be a social pariah and kleptomaniac. But the good Dr. is overworked and goes on vacation where he falls in love with Alice a beautiful professional pianist. Of course, she fails to mention that she is engaged and the week ends in broken hearts and promises. Dr. Ritter returns sullen and hurt and rebuilds Lily’s face into an exact replica of Alice!
The second act shows an obsessive Dr. Ritter taking Lily out to be fitted for new gowns and having her hair cut and dyed, reminiscent of Judy Barton from VERTIGO. The actress who plays both parts (Alice & Lily after the surgery) is strikingly similar to Kim Novak too. A different actress played Lily before the surgery so we need to stretch our disbelief a bit to accept the complete transformation into another visage including Alice’s throaty and seductive voice. But at least Lily still retains her Cockney accent. Hammer regular Andre Morell has a small role as Alice’s fiancée who is kind enough to break off the engagement when he suspects she is still in love with Dr. Ritter. It’s a breakup that is way too kind and gentle for a seedy film noir! But this leads to confrontation in the third and final act.
The story finally gets around to becoming interesting and generating some suspense and emotional friction. Alice returns to proclaim her love for Ritter and discovers his strange marriage. Unperturbed, she’s soon convinced that Lily wants to murder him and inherit his fortune. Lily may have a new face (more borrowed than stolen, really) but she still retains the same criminal mind…and criminal friends. The film ends aboard a train as a drunken Lily attacks Alice and accidently falls to her death from the moving train. To be clear, there is no mistake that her fall is accidental. Fisher fails to grasp the ambiguities inherent in the genre and the complex moralities often at play. But here Dr. Ritter and Alice are saddened by the death and walk away together into a brighter future.

STOLEN FACE has a very interesting premise (Hitchcock made it the best film ever made!) but Terence Fisher fails to explore the secret depth of Ritter’s character. The story is written blandly and the characters perform as an upright audience would expect. It’s not a terrible film by any means but could have been so much more subtle and devastating.

Final Grade: (C-)  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

MAN BAIT (Terence Fisher, 1952)

Terence Fisher's Hammer debut is a melodrama that masquerades as film noir. The existential moral landscape of the American crime genre is replaced by forthright British mores, as even the Femme Fatale is re-written as the Homicidal Homme. The film's poster shows a seductively stacked Diana Dors in a pink bra and proclaims Blonde Blackmail! Alas, the poster is much more titillating than the film itself.  

Terence Fisher sets up the story like a typical British stage drama as he introduces characters and conflicts with curt efficiency all contained within the confines of one set: the bookstore. His camera setups and lighting are too proper and conventional to reflect the bleak and gritty reality of the noir-ish underworld. Even the characters fit within typical conventions of the average sitcom where good and evil are easily discernable. Ruby is played with a seductive naiveté by Diana Dors (not in a pink bra sadly) but is ultimately revealed to be a victim too and not the temptress leading the cynical protagonist towards certain doom. Actually there is very little that is cynical or emotionally chiaroscuro in MAN BAIT where even the title lacks verisimilitude.  

The moral crux of the narrative is in Ruby's apparent blackmail of her boss John Harmon after they steal an embarrassed kiss together one night while working late. But Ruby is no seductress and is clearly being led astray by her new acquaintance Jeff Hart, who bullies her into writing a letter to John's wife which results in her death. Hell, it’s not even suggested that Ruby and Jeff have a sexual relationship just a mere fondness for one another. When John gives Ruby the money out of grief and desperation, she is accidently murdered by Jeff who then hopes to frame John. But John Hartman's secretary Stella was also his nurse during the War. She cares for him a great deal and conspires to clear his name and reputation. This is where the film fails mostly as a film noir because the characters' intentions are too clearly defined as either good or bad: John is the manager of the bookstore and War veteran; Stella his faithful servant; the wife crippled and lovingly dependent upon John; Jeff just released from prison and shady; Ruby the beautiful young lass easily manipulated and regretful. Director Terence Fisher also fails to utilize the deep shadows and skewed compositions which help to define the genre, or the lurid slang and jazzy music that can transform original sin into enchanting vice.  

Though the first two acts (thus, most of the film) are dreadfully boring; the final act displays some of the budding talent and promise that Fisher would bring to some of the later Hammer classics. He films one scene in a bombed-out cathedral as the sweeping stone arches and columns support nothing but the leaden sky, and the empty windows which once supported stained glass saints now perceives only dead gods. Since this was shot only a few years after World War II the scars of Hitler’s airstrikes and V-2 rockets have yet to heal entirely. In another scene Fisher utilizes a jump-scare to great affect with shadowy lighting and perfect timing as a face suddenly appears from behind a bookcase for a shocking reveal! The effect is more horror than noir and it’s no wonder Fisher went on to direct the most popular horror films for Hammer. The fiery climax is also well conceived as the actors must physically navigate through the conflagration for a dramatic rescue.
MAN BAIT is mostly a bore as it ends with a somber and unambiguous finale as each man gets his just rewards.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

CAPTAIN CLEGG (Peter Graham-Scott, 1962)

This is one of the best Hammer films! CAPTAIN CLEGG was re-titled NIGHT CREATURES for US distribution and this gives a false impression of it being just another horror or monster movie while in fact it is a swashbuckling adventure film. It's a shame that this was Director Peter Graham-Scott's only foray into the Hammer oeuvre because he captured the pure essence of child-like excitement balanced with very adult themes of crime and punishment. 

The story begins with a Pirate ship bobbing on a gloomy sea with an inter-title declaring the Year of the Lord as 1776. Cut to: Captain’s Quarters as a huge man (addressed to disparagingly as Mulatto) is being held down and accused of “attacking the Captain’s wife with the intent to assault and murder her”. He screams in defiance as his punishment is read: “Ears be split and tongue cut-out and left on the nearest uninhabited island with neither food nor water and left to die!” The camera pans in to extreme close-up of his eyes full of burning rage. He is then left tied to a post to slowly wither and die of either blood loss or starvation, as he grunts and screams in terror. This may be the greatest opening in the Hammer canon. Who wouldn’t want to keep watching? 

There is much left unsaid in this preamble: was the “Mulatto” given a fair trial? Did he actually attack the captain’s wife or was he falsely accused? We only see pronouncement of punishment and the sentence being carried out. He seems to want to speak and offer an explanation but his mouth is quickly covered. I believe it’s no coincidence that this biracial sailor is being judged harshly without trial at the same time as another population, a melting-pot of people, is also fighting for freedom from an unfair British Rule of Law. Also, the Pirate Captain himself flees pursuit of the British Navy for, as we later learn, freeing slaves from British ships presumably traveling to this New World. CAPTAIN CLEGG can thus be seen as a metaphor for the tyranny of British rule when the accused has no recourse to basic Rights or Rule of Law. Interestingly, the Captain is both victim and prosecutor under this reading which creates a complex and quite human characterization nobly embodied by Peter Cushing.  

After the opening credits, superimposed upon an eerie scarecrow under dark stormy sky, the camera focuses upon Captain Clegg’s grave marker: hanged at Rye 1776. The camera then pans skyward upon the bell tower of a church and gives us the story’s present tense of 1792. The church is dark and foreboding. We then get an omniscient narration and text crawl stating that the Romney citizens are a proud and independent people, sparing no love for the governments Revenue Men. It ends warning of the legend of the Marsh Phantoms. We then see the skeletal steeds, ghost riders in the darkened sky, as they pursue a lost wanderer through the marsh. These phantom riders seem one with their ghostly steeds, and their glowing bones seem to radiate their own ghastly light. They chase their prey into a literal dead end, where the swamp becomes his watery grave. His last breath bubbles to the surface upon the brackish waters which transitions to the church’s stained-glass window under which a preacher sermonizes. This is Parson Blyss and his bored but dutiful flock.

Soon, the Parson must deal with the Government Revenue men who are investigating claims of these marsh phantoms but which Captain Collier (the story’s antagonist) believes is a front for smugglers. The rest of the film contrasts Blyss and Collier, two men with different goals but are much alike, both moral yet violently punitive: Blyss seems indifferent to the man at the beginning being murdered to prevent their secret from escaping and Collier allows his men to torture Harry (Oliver Reed) in order to get him to reveal the secret hideout. Both men seem to feel that the ends justify the means 

As the clash of personalities escalates and the mystery is on the verge of being solved by Collier, another very interesting plot thread develops. Note that the mystery is revealed very early on to the audience: Blyss and the townsfolk are smuggling wine to bypass the King’s taxes. The secondary plot involves the Mulatto escaping and what it inadvertently reveals about the girl Imogene (Harry’s love interest) and her and Blyss’ lineage. After a paper is uncovered stating that Imogene is the daughter of the Pirate Clegg, Harry rushes to Blyss and together they seek to suppress the information. The Mulatto attacks Blyss after earlier acting hostile towards him, and Collier suspects the Parson may not be whom he seems. When it is revealed that Blyss is indeed Clegg and Imogene his daughter (as confidant, Harry already knew) it is interesting to ponder her age. The bountiful Yvonne Romain obviously looks older than fifteen but Clegg’s harsh treatment of the Mulatto now makes sense: Imogene was the product of that vile rape in 1776. The fate of Clegg’s wife is never mentioned but one could assume her death after childbirth from injuries sustained during the assault…either physical or mental. It adds another layer to this rip-roaring adventure story that doesn’t relent for its 80 minute run time!  

Michael Ripper portrays one of the major characters and is excellent as Mipps, Clegg’s faithful cohort and friend. He actually has more than a few speaking parts (not as much as in THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) and carries on with a snarky yet honest demeanor. Oliver Reed also elevates his minor part as Harry into a powerful performance. He is able to express sarcasm and resentment with subtle expression and body language. And Peter Cushing gets to kick and fistfight with his mountainous nemesis, getting thrown around and jumping through a burning window! He’s an action hero!   

Director Peter Graham-Scott paces the film with perfect timing and precision as there’s not a moment wasted. He also takes the film out of the usual Hammer backlot and into open fields and swamps, so the locations seem fresh and daring. Graham-Scott also films in natural light giving the film a more realistic or historical texture.  

CAPTAIN CLEGG ends without addendum like most Hammer films, as Blyss/Clegg is murdered by the Mulatto and his faithful companion Mipps fires truly and kills the behemoth. Mipps carries his friend to the grave of Captain Clegg, pried open earlier by the Mulatto in his quest for vengeance, and lays him down to sleep forever. It is both sad and full of pathos as one wonders what Collier will do next: arrest Mipps and the townsfolk or consider the case closed. At least Imogene and Harry escaped to begin a new life together…perhaps under that newly created Democracy in a land far, far away.  

Final Grade: (A)       

Monday, August 4, 2014

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Terence Fisher, 1962)

Hammer’s rather dull and boorish remake of the classic Universal 1943 version invokes more violence and bloodletting but excises romance and sentimentality to bring the whole affair to a yawning conclusion.

Director Terence Fisher films in splendid saturated colors to bring this turn-of-the-century Victorian horror tale to half-life. Fisher utilizes some of the largest set-pieces ever seen in a Hammer film by filling the Opera House with hundreds of extras and hiring a full orchestra for the opera scenes. The opera within the film is SAINT JOAN (never mind that Joan of Arc wasn’t canonized in 1900) and is solidly staged and acted with grand designs and bombastic score: it is often more interesting the story we’re watching! The film does look wonderful and seems that Fisher realized the story’s innate weaknesses so he dressed each scene with rich period details as eye-candy. There are some nice transitions such as the actress (who would be replaced by our heroine) turning to see a dark figure in her room which briskly cuts to clashing symbols. Herbert Lom as the wicked and betrayed Phantom is perfectly cast; he can show maddening violence checked by his sympathy, an artist whose very heart pumps musical notation, his very lifeblood sucked dry by the despicable Ambrose D’Arcy. Unfortunately, Michael Gough’s performance as D'Arcy is so evil and spoiled that it unbalances the film because the romantic interest, Edward de Souza (Harry Hunter) is rather bland and uninteresting. Even Christine Charles in the lead role of Heather Sears is nothing more than a meek and reactive child, a one-dimensional cipher for the film’s virtually static drama. She isn’t terrible, she’s just….there.
The story itself is rather weak and leaves one with some unanswered questions. The narrative unfolds as the lead actress in SAINT JOAN quits the opera after a murder/suicide during a performance. It is never explained why this poor soul was murdered: was he somehow in league with D’Arcy? We never discover if he deserved this cruel fate. We are then introduced to Christine as she auditions. After accepting the role she begins to hear a taunting voice. As she and Edward investigate and begin to uncover the mystery, a rat-catcher is also murdered in the Opera House with a gruesome pick in the eye! There is no explanation forthcoming for this act and we are later left to forgive the Phantom and his animalistic sidekick.

Soon, Edward discovers that a writer named Petrie actually wrote the opera SAINT JOAN and D’Arcy stole it from him. This resulted in a fire at a local printers and Petrie being scarred by acid and disappearing, presumed dead by the police. But he floated into a storm drain and into the underground lair beneath the Opera House. We are then left to suspend our disbelief that Petrie/Phantom moved a giant working organ and his many peripherals to this bunker and has not been discovered in ten years! When he captures Christine he cruelly forces her to accept his tutelage as if he can train her in a few days. Though D’Arcy gets his comeuppance it’s not severe enough: he just runs screaming when he sees the Phantom’s scarred face. It’s also never explained who gets credit for the opera: is it Petrie, de Souza or still the knave D’Arcy? It’s difficult to find sympathy for Petri as we never know why he sold his lifetime’s work for such a small sum of 50pds. We also have to forget the innocents murdered (such as the hanged worker at the beginning and the rat-catcher)during his reign of terror even if his companion did the dirty work.

The denouement seems tacked-on or made up at the last moment. The Phantom is given a heroic ending that fails moral judgment. Perhaps if he were to revenge upon D’Arcy and they both perished it would have felt more justified. Finally, it happens that during the final scene of the opera, the hunchback companion is discovered watching from the rafters above. As he is chased by stagehands he accidently causes the huge chandelier to crash upon the stage. The Phantom jumps to save Christine and pushes her out of the way and is killed instead. Fade to black.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA isn’t a very good film as its slow pace and thin characterizations make for an often boring 84 minutes. The flashback in the final act brings any suspense to a complete standstill as it then finishes with a dull thud. However, the film does look beautiful and one can admire the grand set designs and brilliant colors. Herbert Lom is also wonderful though we don’t see enough of him. I recommend this film for Hammer completists only.

Final Grade: (C-)