Friday, January 13, 2006

NAH-HA-HA-HA-HA!!

Dark Sky Films is a new DVD company that is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the schlock film department, with recent releases like The College Girl Murders, Flesh Eaters and Werewolves on Wheels. (I'm waiting with baited breath for their double feature disc featuring The Horror of Party Beach--with a director's commentary!)

Today, the invaluable website DVDDrive-in.com (check it out, it's great) reports the following:

"On April 25, Dark Sky Films commences its “Drive-In Double Feature” series with a double disc of two Japanese fantasy favorites. PRINCE OF SPACE aka "Yusei Oji" aka "Starman": When aliens from the barren rock planet Krankor attack Earth, only the curiously-costumed Prince of Space (aka Wally the shoeshine boy in disguise) and his trusty exhaust-spewing rocketship can save the world-- or at least Japan-- from total conquest by the evil Phantom and his beak-nosed minions. Since conventional space weapons cannot harm the spry Prince of Space, the Phantom engages in a kidnapping scheme involving a cadre of international scientists. INVASION OF THE NEPTUNE MEN aka "Uchu Kaisoku-sen": In another case of galactic conquest, clunky metallic aliens from the planet Neptune invade Earth-- or at least a quaint field in rural Japan-- only to have their efforts thwarted by caffeinated superhero Space Chief (venerable action hero Sonny Chiba of KILL BILL and THE STREETFIGHTER fame), who travels from situation to head-scratching situation in a boxy space car when not befriending a group of geeky boys. More Drive-In Double Features to follow!"


Prince of Space is well known to MST3K fans, but I myself haven't seen Invasion of the Neptune Men since Channel 32 used to show it in Chicago back in the '60s and early '70s.

You rock, Dark Films. Also, check out DVDDrive-in's new review of the upcoming Werewolf on Wheels disc. And info on the Horror of Party Beach DVD can be found further down on the right hand side where the news blurbs are posted.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

BloodRayne: The Rest of the story....

[Review below]

Here's something I forgot. Joe got me in for free, because he works for the theater chain.

He uses a paycheck to prove that he works for them, and he handed it to the cashier and asked for two tickets to BloodRayne. Well, she proceeds to put the paper right up to her face and scrutinize his paycheck info for literally like half a minute straight--a long time, when you think about it--and pretty soon I'm thinking, "Man, if somebody actually asks for tickets to BloodRayne, shouldn't they be free anyway?"

Sure enough, when we went to the theater there was a grand total of two other guys there. (Meaning Joe and I doubled the number of viewers.) Eventually, well after the movie started, a boy and girl came in. They went out in the lobby after a while, though, and stayed out for maybe twenty minutes, so they probably saw half the movie tops.

Lucky them.

At the movies! BloodRayne

Learning of the truly dismal box office of BloodRayne on it’s opening weekend (opening at #19 [!], on 985 screens, making a bit more than $1.5 million for a truly pathetic under $1,600 screen average), Joe Bannerman suggested we run out and see Bloodrayne quickly, while it was still in theaters. While I pretty much can’t stand the vampires-in-leather-mixed-with-Matrix-style-kung-fu thing—well, OK, I generally liked the Blade films—I am generally more than disinclined to see stuff like this or the Underworld films, which look similarly dreadful. However, I’d yet to see a film by the legendary Uwe Boll, so I said sure.

Well, it was awful, but generally not in an interesting way. (And thus is the way of the bad film these days. Sigh.) Picking the film’s worst aspect is like choosing the wettest part of the Atlantic Ocean, but I’d have to say it’s most annoying quality was that there wasn’t a single original idea, performance or even solitary moment in the entire film. As well, it was tedious enough that perhaps an hour into its comparatively slender hour and a half length, I was wondering if we weren’t viewing some three-hour director’s cut.

Anyway, a highly embarrassed looking—and for good reason—Sir Ben Kingsley (thus the British Empire these days) is, like, The King of the Vampire or something, and he has a sword-slinging half-human/half-vampire daughter named Rayne, which apparently makes her a “damphir” or some such. She is out for revenge upon her father, who raped and killed Mama. Kingsley is after three body parts of a saint or whatnot that will grant the owner some vaguely defined powers which will allow him to, what else, rule the world. The search for these, I assume, was a goodly part of the video game the movie was based upon.

Rayne ends up teaming up with members of the Brimstone something or other, who are out to kill all the vampires and particularly Kingsley. The leader of this band is an epically bored-looking Michael Madsen, who appears pretty embarrassed to be here, despite the fact that he’s Michael Madsen. There’s also a pretty boy guy for Rayne to have sex with, and Michelle Rodriguez as, in a real stretch, a perpetually angry Hispanic woman. She fills the role of the One Who Doesn’t Trust Rayne.

Imagine a really cheap syndicated show, like perhaps the old Mortal Kombat TV series, that basically was a really bad rip-off of (primarily) those oldie-tyme flashback episodes of Angel. I assume this is meant to be an alternate universe, since despite it being set in Medieval Europe, nobody bats an eye at women walking around in skintight, midriff-baring leather bustiers and pants.

The script is awful, but the performances are worse. Boll obviously didn’t spend a minute working with any of the actors, which makes his at best pedestrian handling of the movie’s look and flow even more damning. The fight scenes, for instance, of which I believe there were several hundred, are all extremely dull and edited in that “none of our actors can remotely really look like they are fighting, so we’ll shake the camera a lot and cut to a new angle every half second” technique which is employed way the hell too much these days.

The vampires themselves are of the increasingly tiresome Buffy-type, who look normal until they go all demonic when attacking, and are not in any real way very super-powered, thus allowing for normal humans to grapple with and off kill of half a dozen of them in any given brawl. There are also so many of them around that I wondered there were any humans left.

About the only new wrinkle is that they not only can’t cross running water (a venerable piece of authentic folklore), or can die in water as a natural element, but in fact react to normal water like it were holy water; i.e., it burns them like acid. That would seem a pretty major drawback, since theoretically you could scald one to death by, say, pissing on them, much less make yourself pretty invincible by owning a kiddie pool and a turkey baster. Moreover, it made me wonder why the heroes later stock up on actual holy water, since the regular stuff seems just as deadly.

In any case, watching the various manners in which the actors choose how to be bad is about the only source of interest here. The worst performance is provided by veteran schlock actor and DTV star Michael Madsen, who again appeared so bored that he mumbled even worse than usual. He may have just been embarrassed by his horribly trite and anachronism-laden dialogue, but I’m sticking with the boredom thing. It’s like he couldn’t be bothered to inflate his lungs to more than 25% capacity before issuing his lines.

Pretty Boy Guy was utterly generic. Rodriguez can play the Perpetually Angry Hispanic Woman in her sleep, as she proves here. Kingsley looks like he’s praying that no one will ever see this movie (apparently Heaven owed him one), and I can only imagine he returned home at night and wept and wailed while clutching his Gandhi Oscar to his tear-sodden bosum.

Guest star players Meatloaf (!), appearing under his more refined stage name of Meatloaf Aday (really), elects to ham it up mercilessly. His Marquis de Sade-esque vampire character dies because he has a lot of stain-glassed windows in his bedchamber, which the heroes break to let in fatal beams of sunlight. Having seen several hundred vampire movies, let me offer the Undead some advice: Brick up your windows, you morons.

Billy Zane gets a “special appearance” credit, as in “special Olympics,” apparently. At this point in his career, Zane reminds me a committed stoner conducting a snarky experiment to learn how long he can keep his job while going to work totally high and ignoring his customers all day. To my eye, Zane long ago gave up even trying to act, and currently does everything but stick out his tongue and wink at the camera while doing his increasingly outrageous schtick. Even so, no doubt to his vast amusement, he keeps getting work. Pretty soon he’ll just be doing outright Charlie Callas impressions, interrupting his lines with nonsense sound effects. “You may tell the Dark Lord of the Vampires—Himph! Bzzzt!—that I foreswear his rule!”

Geraldine Chaplin, a veteran actress and ballet dancer who back in the day appeared in real movies, gives a not very convincing perf as a fortune teller, tongue firmly planted in cheek. Michael Paré (!) was in the movie for a short bit, but I didn’t even recognize him (despite his name being in the opening credits), although Joe did. Of the ‘stars,’ veteran nutbag actor Udo Kier probably does the best, mainly by sticking with playing Udo Kier, and because his role is so brief.

Titular star (in more ways than one) Kristanna Loken’s Cleavage plays the lead, and not very well, standing out as a non-entity even amongst this lot. Her casting as a robot in Terminator 3 proves to have been apt, and as Joe pointed out, her willingness to bare her boobs for an extended (and patently ridiculous) ‘love’ scene this early in her career indicates a quickly forthcoming detour into the sort of films one sees playing late nights on Cinemax.

Before the film we saw a preview for Boll’s upcoming Lord of the Rings knock-off In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, which astoundingly looked much worse than even this film proved to be. Even the font used for the expository crawl looked cheap, like it had been done on a home PC. Given the incredibly low sums BloodRayne is pulling, I suspect the twin Dungeon Siege movies will be outright dumped directly to home video, barring some sort of contractual obligation ensuring a now doubt minimal theatrical release. In any case, don’t expect any future Boll offerings past that to actually hit theaters.

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy...

After taking December off for the holidays, Steve and Pam over at Gangrene Widescreen are due to post their next, monthly review tomorrow. And we don't know what the movie is! The anticipation is killing me!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New on DVD (01/10/06)...

Some good stuff this week.

The TV set of the week is The Flash Complete Series, all $22 episodes of what was a surprisingly good superhero series.

Meanwhile, Chicagoans might want to check out the Lou Rawls Show with Duke Ellington. While only encompassing a single episode, the release is timely, as Mr. Rawls passed away this last weekend. Good keep you, sir.

Other sets this week include Boy Meets World S4; House of Elliot S2; Men Behaving Badly S3 and (separately) S4; Once & Again S3; Red Dwarf S7; Rising Damp S1; Strong Medicine S1; Urban Gothic S1



Several DVDs worthy of spotlighting this week.


The classic AIP films sci-fi films of the ‘50s famously suffer from rights issues. However, at least some of them are coming out this week. Hopefully, more will follow. Replicating the format of the MGM Midnight movie double bills, the discs feature two movies each, and cost around $10 a shot. The titles are Earth vs. the Spider / War of the Colossal Beast (kind of odd, since The Amazing Colossal Man isn’t out), and How to Make a Monster / Blood of Dracula. Essential purchases, despite being (sadly) full framed presentations.

The awesome Toho sci-fi submarine flick Atrogan comes out this week too, courtesy of the fine folks at Media Blasters, who have really been doing a bang up job with Toho’s non-Godzilla titles. Yog, Monster from Space (under the title Space Amoeba) is due out also on the 17th of this month. $12.



Also in time, presumably, for Black History month, we see several classic movies with black casts or racial themes.

The cream of the crop are the musicals Cabin in the Sky (dircted by Vincent Minnelli) and Stormy Weather. Both feature Lena Horne, and the latter sports Cab Calloway and Fats Waller among others.

Green Pastures is modern (as of 1936, anyway) retelling of Bible incidents recast in the black community. Hallelujah is perhaps the earlier studio film featuring a black cast, being a very early musical made in 1929.

Also released in a new special edition is the documentary A Great Day in Harlem, a well regarded piece about jazz musicians


Several Sam Peckinpah Westerns come out today. The Ballad of Cable Hogue is more comedic in tone (although with dramatic elements too), and features a terrific cast: Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner, Strother Martin, Slim Pickins and other familiar faces. $13

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid ($20). Largely considered a misfire, this stars James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson (not exactly a match for the real Billy), Bob Dylan (!), Jason Robards and others.

Ride the High Country ($13) This highly regarded tale of aging gunfighters prefigures Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch. Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea star, along with a young Mariette Hartley.

Finally, The Wild Bunch ($20) itself is back out, this time in a two-disc special edition.



Other Titles:

The Bad Sleep Well Any Kurosawa is must see stuff, and not just his samurai films. This gritty crime flick will please any film lover, especially as the disc is from the good people at Criterion. It also features another terrific performance by Toshiro Mifune. $22

Cold Sweat $5 Typical Charles Bronson action stuff from the ‘70s.

Eraserhead $18 Still David Lynch’s best and most disturbing film.

Funeral Home $6 1980 horror film about people disappearing from a bed and breakfast. Has a fairly good rep.

Another classic Western is re-released today in a special edition, The Magnificent Seven Collector’s Edition. $18

Mirrormask Recent fantasy tale from the Jim Hensen studio.

Night of the Skull is more Jesse Franco stuff.

One Armed Swordsman 2-Pack features, well, the One Armed Swordsman. I know he fought Zatoichi once, I’ve got that movie.

Prime Target David Heavener stars as Jake Bloodstone (really), with both the Mob and the FBI after him. Co-stars Tony Curtis, Isaac Hayes, Robert Reed (!!) and Andrew Robinson. $6

Project: Kill Humorously inane spy flick with Leslie Nielsen, and directed by William Girdler. $6

Roger Corman Puerto Rico Trilogy The Last Woman on Earth, Creature from the Haunted Sea and Blood Island. All in widescreen, and with an impressive set of extras, including commentaries (not featuring Corman) on each film. $13

Sisters of Death Oft-released public domain title that’s a combo slasher/Ten Little Indians sort of deal. Pretty amusing. Stars Claudia Jennings (oh la la). $6

Trouble Man Blaxploitation flick featured in the Medved’s 50 Worst Films of All Time. $10

Valachi Papers Mob drama with Chuck Bronson. It’s an actual movie, though. $14

Young Mister Lincoln Henry Fonda in the venerable classic, directed by John Ford, from the Criterion people. $22

Zorro Cliffhanger Collection Three highly amusing serials featuring the Mexican Robin Hood. $19

It Came from Netflix! Prison-A-Go-Go

There seems to be a rush of small movies lately made by fans of genre films for fans of genre films, generally spoofs (Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, Destination Mars) or pastiches(Frankenstein vs. the Creature of Blood Cove).

On the whole, these have proved more entertaining than similar fare of the past
often have, and that’s because they are made by people who actually know the films they are parodying/recreating. When it comes to spoofs, I think there’s one rule by which you can’t go wrong: Know what it is that audiences like about that genre; don’t fail to provide the same in your movie (i.e., don’t make a slasher movie parody without gobs of onscreen violence), and have some fun with those very elements.

Prison-a-Go-Go, a recent very low budget parody of WIP—‘Women in Prison’—films, knows the above formula, and follows it to the letter. Thus we have lots of (goofy) violence and lots more (even goofier) nudity. The latter is mostly provided via several reiterations of the genre’s hallmark element, the Shower Scene.

However, the success of the film transcends just providing what the fans want (although many films oddly fail to accomplish this). What sets the film apart is the sly sense of humor which they do it with. Throughout the film, there’s a Shower Scene Clock that lets the viewer know how long it is until the next shower scene. That’s funny, but they also manage to wring a lot of variations out of the gag, making it work a lot longer than you’d think.

However, while that gag is hilarious, it’s also kind of obvious, the sort of thing that non-WIP fans will get. For the aficionado, much funnier is the way the shower scenes are handled. Each time, the same small group of (thankfully attractive and non-siliconed) woman flash their talents, while the film’s stars remain shot from the, er, collarbone up. That’s entirely true to the WIP genre (except in the Corman heyday of the ‘70s, when the stars provided as much or more of the nudity quota), and something that you have to be a fan to appreciate. That’s the mark of a good spoof, too. Entertain viewers who aren’t hardcore fans, but also serve up extra gags for the devotees. A cameo by Mary Woronov certainly doesn’t hurt.

Otherwise, the film is wacky, in a good, Airplane! sort of way. Characters don’t even try to make sense, such as the slacker warden who seemingly can barely rouse himself from his desk. Meanwhile, several cross-genre elements are introduced, including a mad scientist, ninjas, a killer snake and zombies. It’s hard not to laugh at the way the latter are handled, penned inside the mad scientist’s lab in a chicken wire cage with an unsecured swinging doggie door. Whenever someone in the lab is distracted, they always seem to enter the cage without thinking, only to have a Wyle E. Coyote ‘Oops, I’m-Standing-on-Air’ moment right before their doom.

Following tradition, a hot woman’s hot sister goes missing (usually they end up in prison, and are sometimes killed there—here the sister becomes a comically laid-back subject of the mad scientist’s latest experiment), and the sister determines to get herself thrown in prison to learn her sibling’s fate. There she meets the usual characters, including the Bull Dyke Guard, the sexually voracious Queen Bee prisoner (star Rhonda Shear), the prisoner driven mad by prison life, etc. One character, who smuggles an unlikely assortment of goods into the joint up her, er, behind, was a bit crass for my tastes, but mileage various.

The director, Barak Epstein, knows the genre well and there are specific homages to several of the classic WIP pics. Also, as noted above, there are more general jokes, such as a scene where women are tortured by…well, why blow the gag? I laughed out loud, though. The budget is appalling low, but this is the sort of film that proves that money really doesn’t matter much one way or the other, as long as you know what to put up on the screen.

I think I know what to give the Warden for his birthday this year.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

It Came from Netflix! The Mad Bomber (1973)

Not your usual Bert I. Gordon movie, The Mad Bomber is a gritty ‘70s exploitation meller with artistic and social pretensions, featuring Chuck Connors (!) as the titular menace. Aside from the hulking Connors—who wears a perpetual pinched expression that matched with his close-cropped sandy hair has him looking alarmingly like an industrial-sized Willem DaFoe—the film boasts a solid B-movie cast featuring Vince Edwards as the violence prone cop protagonist and veteran heavy Neville Brand as a skuzzy serial rapist.

A series of bombings is plaguing L.A. (I think; some burg, anyway.) The case is assigned to loose cannon Detective Minneli, who in his barely repressed violence and disgust at social decay (at one point he pauses his investigation to bust the chops of a porn theater owner) turns out to be a mirror reflection of bomber Connors. The latter, meanwhile, is a guy who’s only source of joy in life was his daughter. She died—we eventually learn the details of this, but there’s no reason for me to expose them—and now he’s mad at the world.

This is an aggressively seedy film (although many will find some of its social concerns—regarding porn especially—a little bizarre at this remove). A bombing and a rape occur at the same place at about the same time, but Minneli deduces that the crimes are not related, and that moreover the rapist probably saw the bomber. Thus much of the movie is spent on his attempts to arrest the rapist, who turns out to be family man Brand.

A sense of the palpable middle class fear of social decay prevalent back then (a reactionary counterpoint to the violence-advocating revolutionary zeal exhibited in the Roger Corman-produced movies of the same period) is readily evoked when Minneli arranges for a troop of undercover police women to walk the streets, whereupon they are instantly set upon by dozens of sleazebags out for some casual rapine. I will say that one such scene, in which a guy tries to rape a woman and then angrily calls the cops who leap out to arrest him “pigs,” did make me wonder how it is that cops don’t end up beating up a lot more people than they do.

In the end this is a pretty decent movie, in a modest B-movie fashion, and certainly better than your average Bert I. Gordon film. However, it’s seldom more than a serviceable, sort of a sub-Larry Cohen kind of thing. Few people in the film are pleasant, and you don’t exactly cheer Minneli on. However, his frustration is pretty believable, especially given how easy it is for Brand, who is obviously dirty, to ooze his way through the system.

Connor is the film’s focus, though, and he gives a workable enough performance as a very unlikable psychopath, one that no doubt surprised many people who had grown up watching him play the stalwart hero on TV’s The Rifleman. He’s not Oscar worthy here by any means, but he does project a barely repressed rage that along with his towing 6’ 5” frame does manage to make his character authentically scary.

At one point in the film he just walks around with one of his homemade bombs in a paper bag, looking for a place to set it off. It is nerve wracking to watch him explode into a rage over some minor perceived slight (a guy he sees littering on the street; a store cashier that doesn’t honor a sales promotion that is no longer alid), and knowing that any of these incidents could actually get people killed.

Gordon obviously was trying to stretch here, and although his attempted artistic touches are often a tad heavy-handed—especially the use of a particular song as a recurring motif—this is probably objectively the best film of his that I’ve seen. I guess it wasn’t too successful, though, because he didn’t work again for a couple of years, and when he did, he returned to his trademark giant animal fixation with The Food of the Gods (and hey, why isn’t that out on DVD yet?) and Empire of the Ants.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The sun is a little brighter, the air a little cleaner...

Corey Patterson is no longer a Cub. Thank you, God. (I know you shouldn't take the Lord's name in vain--and I'm not. I really mean it. Thank God.)

You're next, Dusty.

Hello, TV, my old friend...

I don't really watch much TV anymore. In fact, I don't even have cable. Bascially, I don't have the time, and having fallen out of the habit, I find I lack the discipline to tune in every week. The only shows I've made the effort for over the last few years have been Arrested Development--which has been cancelled--and The Amazing Race, which I watch over at Techmaster Paul and Holly Smith's house.

Other than that, I haven't found anything that has managed to sustain my interest. I was watching all three alien shows last year. Surface fell first, as I found I didn't like any of the characters. Threshold started exhibited episode template-itis, and then was cancalled anyway. Invasion--I just starting missing shows and gave up on. I couldn't even tell you if Invasion or Surface were still on the air, or are due to come back.

DVD has encouraged me in this. If a show is good, I can always catch in on disc and burn through an entire season in a weekend. (Of course, that makes the experience more like watching a movie, since the months-long time investment is what really makes TV what it is. Oh, well.)

The new (Jan 13th) issue of Entertainment Weekly covers the slate of new shows due this mid-season. A number of these are spotlighted, and of those the only one of those that excites me is The Unit, an anti-terrorist show, and that only because I learned it was being produced by Shawn Ryan of The Shield (great show!!) and David Mamet. It will be interesting to see how Ryan functions under the additional restrictions of broadcast TV, since The Shield really pushes the content stuff, but good writers are good writers and I don't think restrictions are bad in and of themselves.

Other shows mentioned include the usual generic dreck, nearly all of which will be off the air soon anyway, and other shows whose concepts I just don't find interesting. Emily's Reasons Why Not, with Heather Graham, is being pushed as the new Sex & the City. Well, I never liked Sex & the City, so that's not exactly hauling me in.

Thief on FX stars the superb Andrew Braugher as a bankrobber living a double life, so that is going to make my list. And the WB show The Bedford Diaries is basically a TV version of The Harrad Experiment: "Students at a New York university keep video logs of their randy thoughts for a sex course taught by Matthew Modine." If only the show would prove half as funny as Harrad was, I'd be there every week.

Oh, and there's a review of the returning (after being delayed) fifth season of Scrubs, also a show I will tune in to watch (except when I forget). I have to admit, though, I thought the first two episodes last week seemed to indicate the show was beginning to show its age.

It Came from Netflix! The Man Who Laughs (1928)

In 1939, following in the wake of Superman, Bob Kane (along with a still largely unacknowledged Bill Finger) created Batman. Kane’s love of movies is well known, and there’s little doubt that several of them inspired his comic work. Anyone who’s seen 1930’s The Bat Whispers (or earlier versions of the same story, such as the 1926 silent film The Bat), featuring a mysterious villain in a black, winged bat suit who lowers himself hither and yon rope lines, will instantly recognize that several of his traits were borrowed for Batman.

Batman’s arch villain is, of course, the Joker. The Bat also inspired some of his traits. The first Joker story features the police gathered around a man the Joker has threatened to kill at exactly midnight. Unsurprisingly, despite the cops all over the place, he succeeds. This exact scenario is taken from The Bat, and is in fact how The Bat Whispers (I haven’t seen the earlier film) opens. The Bat Whispers is a great film, by the way, you should check it out. There’s an extremely good DVD of it out.

More obviously, even, the Joker owes a debt to Paul Leni’s silent, The Man Who Laughs. (The film obviously also inspired William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus.) Permanently afflicted with a horrifying rictus grin, the character Gwynplaine, as played by Conrad Veidt, also wears his hair swept back from his face in a high pompadour. As the accompanying photo reveals, the result is a spitting image for the Joker, especially on those occasions when Gwynplaine, as a traveling performer, is wearing whiteface.

Adapted from a typically baroque novel by Victor Hugo, the film opens with the capture and secret execution by England’s King James II of Lord Chancharlie. To intensify Chancharlie’s torment, he is informed before his death that his young son, Gwynplaine, has been sold to a group of gypsies who are infamous for their technique of surgical carving a permanent grin onto a person’s face.

In the dead of winter, Gywnplaine is left behind to die as the gypsies flee the country, and the lad stumbles across a baby in the dead, frozen arms of her mother before finding refuge in the traveling wagon of performer Ursus. Ursus quickly discovers that the baby is blind, and is shocked when he learns of Gywnplaine’s condition.

We shoot forward to Gwynplaine as a young man, and his ‘sister’ Dea now a young woman. They continue to travel with Ursus, and Gwynplaine is becoming increasingly popular with the common folk as The Man Who Laughs, as his grinning visage inspires hilarity from those who behold him. For his own part, though, Gwynplaine is tormented by his affliction, and increasingly maddened by others’ reaction to it. His only consolation is his love for Dea. She loves him as well, but he fears it is only because she is blind, and that were she able to behold him, she would react as everyone else does.

Performing at a fair, Gwynplaine draws the attention of the rather slutty (suitably, she even looks a lot like Madonna) Duchess Josiana. As befits the sort of convoluted plotlines in these things, Josiana is unwittingly the holder of the estates formerly held by Chancharlie, who the world believes disappeared along with his young son. Josiana sees through Gywnplaine’s forced smile, and decided to take him to her bed. (By this time it’s been established that she has a taste for slumming.)

Gwynplaine agrees to the assignation, but only because he wishes to know if any woman could actually look upon him and still feel love (or at least desire) for him. Should such a thing prove possible, he would feel free to finally marry Dea.

The man behind Chancharlie and Gwynplaine’s respective fates, professional toady and schemer Barkliphedro, learns of Gywnplaine’s continued existence and presents the knowledge to the current ruler, Queen Anne. The insolent Josiana is a thorn in the queen’s side, and in revenge, Anne decrees that Gwynplaine we be recognized as a Lord, but will marry Josiana. This is a pretty sly and nasty piece of payback, in that Josiana will retain her position, but only at the sufferance of the queen and at the price of being married to a freak.

Many people just aren’t interested in silent film, but for those who are, this is a pretty good one. Viedt is terrific as usual, and is as memorable in the role of Gwynplaine as he was playing Cesare the Somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (Although his most famous role was as the Nazi Maj. Strasser in Casablanca.) He ably communicates Gywnplaine’s torment.

Aside from the film, the recent Kino DVD, spiffy as usual for that company, features a short but in-depth documentary on the film. This was written by John Soister, author of the exceedingly fine book Of Gods and Monsters, one of the essential examinations of the Universal horror films of the ‘30s (this ground had been so thoroughly covered that I had little hopes for the book, but was bowled over by it), as well as the more to the point Films of Conrad Viedt. Mr. Soister is an old friend of the Jabootu site, and his tomes Claude Rains and Up from the Vault, which discusses little known silent thrillers, are also highly recommended.

The most amusing extra on the disc is a translation of the final chapter of Hugo’s novel, which aside from providing an insanely downer ending, is written in some of the most florid, turgid prose I’ve ever seen. Scanning these few pages gave me a real sense of horror regarding the prospect of ever being forced to actually read the entire 600-page book.