Friday, July 21, 2006

The Golden Age of DVD....

One of the reasons this is the golden age of DVD is that studios are finally getting the fact that you can make a pretty good profit from assembling obscurities that might not have much appeal individually, but at one aggregate low price attract an audience. Horror and sci-fi fans in particular are reaping the fruit of this, because we tend to be obsessive and hence vote with our wallets. The great thing is that this means that every terrifically obscure material is being made available.

Take for example the recent The Lon Chaney Collection, which actually features works of Lon Chaney Jr. Horror fans, and I count myself in this number, do indeed tend to be obsessive. Although he doesn’t have the cachet of a Lugosi or Karloff, Chaney is well known to horror buffs, who in turn would in many cases be interested in seeing Chaney’s less known, even non-genre, work, if we’re not expected to overpay for the privilege.

So the fine folks at Image scooped up the comparatively well-known Chaney junk classic The Indestructible Man and used it to anchor the set. (It helps that, although the film is available in a zillion crappy public domain editions, this offers the best, if not pristine, presentation of the movie.)

The rest of the features aren’t even horror films, but horror buffs tend to want to see everything, and many of us are interested enough to spend a few hours watching someone like Chaney even in non-genre material. Thus along with Indestructible Man, the set collects the adventure movie Manfish, along with some TV work. One is an episode of an old show called Lock Up, in which Chaney plays a malign sheriff. Another is a TV episode entitled The Golden Junkman, in Chaney’s plays a symphatetic immigrant junkman who returns to school to try to win the respect of his Americanized and apparently snotty sons.

Now, that’s some narrowly tailored material. One ‘well-known’ genre film, one unknown adventure movie, and two stand along TV appearances. I have to admit, even I would not be interested enough to buy this set, even with it selling for under $15. However, I was interested enough to rent it from Netflix, and I cheer it’s existence. Even if this isn’t my personal exact brand of obscure material, if this is available, maybe stuff I’d be more interested in (say, the poverty row horror films of Lionel Atwill or George Zucco) will be similarly released.

And that’s on the low end of the spectrum, along with stuff like the harmless but marginally interesting (even to me) collection of ‘30s murder melodramas Image released recently under the title Forgotten Horrors. However, the bigger studios are jumping in with bigger guns, but again in collections offering terrific bang for our consumer buck.

Warner Brothers is the giant of film collections, offering top-notch presentations of everything from musicals to gangster movies, boxed into sets of numerous films for little money and offering tons of extras to boot. This Halloween will see the release of the “Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection.” In the bad old day of VHS, even if these films had been available (and most never were), you got one short film with bad presentation and on a clunky format for $20. The six films Warners are offering in this set would have therefore run you over $120 with tax. And if you’d bought them all those years ago, chances are the tapes would by now be unwatchable.

Instead, with some vendors offering the set for as around $30, you get six horror films of the classic era, titles ranging from pretty good to at least one outright brilliant feature. The six titles offered here include Doctor X (Lionel Atwill), The Return of Dr. X (Humphrey Bogart as a vampire!), Mad Love (starring Peter Lorre, and the best film in the set, worth the price of the entire collection by itself), Mask of Fu Manchu (Karloff), The Devil Doll (Atwill) and Mark of the Vampire (Lugosi). Moreover, Doctor X will be presented in its original two-strip Technicolor, and all the transfers have been remastered. Finally, genre experts will provide commentaries for at least five of the films! Damn!

I’m especially exited by this set because a) I’ve never even seen Devil Doll, and we fans love to notch off another title, b) I haven’t seen Doctor X nor Mask of Fu Manchu since I was a very wee tyke, c) because Mad Love is a classic film that demands to be on DVD. And now it will be.

Then, as if that’s not enough, just today word came out that Sony has announced an "Icons of Horror Collection" of Boris Karloff movies the actor made for Columbia, including The Black Room (Karloff as twins!), The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang, and The Boogie Man Will Get You. The latter isn’t that great, but it’s a woefully hard to find horror comedy with both Karloff and Lorre. And you won’t have to pay for it separately now, but as part of a set. They haven’t announced a price yet, but I’m assuming we’re talking well south of $30, and even $30 would be a pretty great bargain.

This is one of two new Karloff sets out for Halloween, by the way, as Universal is releasing "The Boris Karloff Collection" featuring Night Key, Tower of London, The Climax, The Strange Door and The Black Castle. This should retail for around $20, as will another collection featuring the “Inner Sanctum” suspense series Lon Chaney Jr. made for the studio., which announces sets like these, has news of zillions of other obscurities due to be released soon either as stand along movies, including the upcoming Paul Naschy Collection DVDS to be released by BCI Eclipse; the same company’s new line of genre and drive-in movie double features; CasaNegra’s essential new line of Mexican horror films, featuring both the original language tracks and the comical K. Gordon Murray dubs; Classic Media’s new editions of several early Godzilla movies, including the original Japanese version of the first film, and the first DVD release of Ghidrah the Three Headed Monster; a set of Peter Lorre’s Mr. Moto films, and much, much more.

Indeed, the only problem with this embarrassment of riches is finding the time to watch it all.

Blackenstein (1973)

A few weekends* ago I was down in Texas hanging out with Sandy “Call of Cthulhu” Petersen and Chris Holland of Stomp Tokyo and some of the Jabootu message board crowd, watching movies and stuff. Before the general get-together on Saturday, Sandy (who was kind enough to put me up at his house, which aside from nocturnal raids by roving ferrets is a very nice place) went through his vast video holdings, and produced 1972’s proto-blaxploitation horror flick Blackenstein.

[*This report is late because I returned with a cold, which turned into a bad cold, which turned into one of my regular bouts of bronchitis, so I’m only now with the help of anti-biotics really back on my feet.]

Inspired, no doubt, by the success of 1972’s far superior Blacula, Blackenstein (which on the fairly lame DVD print is actually entitled Blackenstein The Black Frankenstein, lest we don’t ‘get’ it) revolves around young doctor and with-it sistah Winifrid. We meet her as she accepts a research position at the mansion/private experimental clinic of elderly and surprising-good-white-guy medico Dr. Stein. (I don’t think they implied that he was descended from the Frankensteins, as Steins usually are in these things, but I may have missed that part.) Stein kind of looks like the older Dick Van Dyke, but sadly a show called Diagnosis: Mad Science apparently wasn't in the cards.

Stein is experimenting with…some damn thing or other. This allows for limb replacements, and one guy who looks like a Turkish Kojack has had his lost legs replaced with zebra legs. (!!) Why? Uh, again, I wasn’t paying that much attention. I mean, could there be a good reason for that? Also, for no real reason other than to set up an obvious shock effect later in the movie, there’s an old woman kept young by a secret formula she must have a shot of every 24 hours. Three guesses where that goes.

Winifrid just happens to be in love with bitter Viet Nam vet Eddie, who just happened to have had his limbs blown off in the war. Stein brings Eddie to his house and they start work on replacing his lost arms and legs. To keep his trunk from rejecting these new limbs, they develop a formula based on Eddie’s own DNA.

Unfortunately, Stein’s assistant Malcolm (also black; this film didn’t really have the blaxploitation race politcs down) falls for Winifrid. When she rejects him, he seeks revenge by screwing around with Eddie’s DNA formula. The result, naturally, is that Eddie periodically turns into a black version of the old Frankenstein monster. The funniest part of the movie isn’t that he develops the standard ridge brow (nor is it even the guy with zebra legs). It’s that when Eddie transforms he also seems to spontaneously manifest a standard Frankenstein outfit, including tight black sweater, ill-fitting suit coat and built-up platform Frankenstein boots. That’s a hell of a DNA formula, I must say.

So Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) staggers out periodically into the night and gruesomely murders people, along with (I think) a dog. At first his prey is restricted to folks who have wronged him, but eventually he just moves on to the standard whoever is around sort of thing. He tends to disembowel his victims (gee, thanks), and then holds the entrails up in front of his face. Maybe he’s supposed to be eating them; I couldn’t really tell.

So at first Eddie has no memory of his crimes, and nobody else knows what’s going on. Luckily I guess all the blood and body parts disappear when his Frankenstein suit turns back into Eddie’s pajamas. Yet whenever there’s a full moon (I think, maybe he changes every night), Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) staggers forth and commits mayhem. Of course, he moves incredibly slowly, waving his arms around in front of him like the old Frankenstein Monster (although that was only during the period when the Monster was supposed to be blind). However, via the miracle of offscreen teleportation—not to mention victims who naturally refuse to just run away when they have the chance—he kills any number of folks, including two middle-aged white people whose sex scene is easily the most unsettling thing in the movie.

There’s also a long stretch of a horribly unfunny black comic doing standup at a nightclub. For what it’s worth, the clothes of his inexplicably convulsed audience do provide some genuine laughs. Then the film teases us when the comic goes outside for a smoke. Sadly, though, he isn’t killed by Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) but merely witnesses his latest rampage.

Finally there’s a big climatic murder spree, as Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) sloooowly meanders around up and down staircases and kills pretty much everybody in Stein’s house except Winifrid. For some reason he’s bullet proof (Malcolm unloads a revolver into his chest at point blank range, to no apparent effect), but not canine proof, and in the end Blackenstein (The Black Frankenstein) is literally torn apart by a team of police Dobermans. I’m sure that resonated with lots of viewers, especially given the then recent images of Southern cops setting vicious dogs on black protesters.

Blackenstein (also known as Return of Blackenstein—huh?) is in no way good, but it does provide a fair amount of amusement. Probably the funniest single moment in the film is when Eddie arrives at Stein’s house on a gurney. Despite purportedly being legless, his legs and feet are clearly visible thrusting up under the sheet covering him.

You can also add this to the list of horrible movies (Dracula vs. Frankenstein, etc.) to which prop guy Kenneth Strickfaden lent the mad scientist laboratory equipment he created for the original Universal Frankenstein back in 1931. I’m not sure why Strickfaden’s baroque electrical arc generators would aid in limb graft operations, but then, I’m not a scientist.

Just as a warning, some may be turned off by the explicit (if poorly realized) gore and, naturally, some gratuitous boobage.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

This week on DVD...

The top TV set of the week is the fondly remembered sci-fi/comedy/Western series The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. The set includes the first (and last) season of the show, which starred Bruce Campbell. Brisco County played on Fox on Friday nights at 7:00 CST. Critics and media prognosticators pegged it in advance as a likely smash hit, although probably not enough to help out the new show slated to play right after it. This program, starring two unknowns, was deemed by almost all as not likely to last more than a month or two. It was a little thing called The X-Files.

Meanwhile, Campbell fans will also get the chance this week to pick up Jack of All Trades: The Complete Series, a syndicated comedy/action piece with Campbell as an inept Zorro type.

Other television sets out this week include Amazing Stories S1; Carnivale S2; Bill Bixby’s The Incredible Hulk S1 (this includes the previously and separately available pilot movie); Masters of Horror (various episodes); the cartoon show The New Adventures of Flash Gordon: The Complete Series, Pretender S4; and, yay!, the first season of the original Ultraman series.

My movie suggestion of the week is, unfortunately, only available as part of Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection 3. Perhaps at some point in the future it will be available on its own, but for you to see it you have to buy the entire set ($35 at Amazon for five movies and a feature length documentary on six discs, with audio commentaries for each movie and a short subject collection, etc.). Either that, or you can rent the film separately at Netflix. You got to hand it to Warner’s, they continue to put out terrific box sets that give you a mighty big bang for your buck.

The exact movie of which I speak is producer Howard Hughes’ His Kind of Woman. To be clear, this is one of those pictures that isn’t really a great film, but which you just might fall in love with, warts and all. I did, years ago. In sum, its one of those movies where all the parts might fail to gel together, but it doesn’t matter, because some of the parts are so damn cool. It’s a goofy mélange of film noir, bad nightclub singing (courtesy of star Jane Russell), hipster slang, bucco violence, homoerotic S/M imagery, some genuinely hilarious comic relief, and even some light sci-fi elements.

To know if this is a movie you might be interested in, here are the two most important facts about it. First, it stars Robert Mitchum, who has never been cooler than he is here. You could probably chill a beer just by placing it next to him for a couple of minutes. (Moreover, he and Russell seem to be engaging in a titanic battle of massive torsos.)

Second, the comic relief is provided by Vincent Price, who loved doing pure comedy and rarely got the chance. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone who more obviously was having an outright blast being in a movie. If you are at all a fan of Price, this is a simply essential watch.

As noted, His Kind of Woman is only available via Netflix or other rental agencies, or as part of the Film Noir Classic Collection 3, along with Lady in the Lake (the weird Philip Marlowe movie where the entire film is shot from Marlowe’s POV!), Border Incident (directed by Anthony Mann and starring Ricardo Montalban), The Racket (a fun and tough early Mitchum police melodrama) and On Dangerous Ground, along with the other stuff mentioned above.

7 Mummies: DTV horror junk starring Billy Drago and Danny Trejo.

Amazing Mr. X Turhan Bey is a fake medium in this well regarded 1948 thriller.

The Cavern Another of the recent ‘monster in a cave’ movies. If you’re going to see only one, wait until The Descent hits theaters later this summer.

Lucha Libre Double Feature: Features the Blue Demon and four other wrestlers vs. evil super-midgets flick The Champions of Justice, along with Blue Demon and Santo in Mystery in Bermuda. Spanish with English subtitles.

Dr. Mabuse The Gambler Any fan of early cinema should check out this 270 minute (!) silent German expressionistic classic by director Fritz Lang, which introduced one of the cinema’s greatest supervillains. A nice package put out by the fine folks at Kino. This replaces an earlier incomplete version of the film previously released by Image. (Which is still worth owning for the David Kalat commentary track. Still, if you get only one, get the Kino edition.)

My Chauffer/My Tutor Two lame but fondly remembered ‘80s sexploitation flicks.

Roadhouse A new special edition (!) DVD. Still, only one disc? I thought it would be bigger.

Roadhouse 2 The recent, Swayze-less update.

Some Like it Hot Two-disc special edition of the all time comedy classic, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.

Sybil: Famous TV movie with Sally Fields as the titular schizophrenic.

Tough Guys Collection: Another wonderful Warner Bros collection. Features Bullets or Ballots (cop Edward G. Robinson vs. gangster Humphrey Bogart), City for Conquest (boxer noir with James Cagney), Each Dawn I Die (prison flick with Cagney and George Raft), G-Men (Cagney as lawman), San Quentin (Pat O’Brien, Bogart) and A Slight Case of Murder (gangster comedy with Edward G. Robinson*). 6 discs, with commentaries, featurettes, shorts, cartoons and more.

[Hopefully Larceny Inc. will be featured in a future set. In that comedy, gangster Robinson and two associates open a luggage store next to a bank to commit a robbery, but unintentionally find the store a great success.]

It Came from Netflix! Track of the Cat (1954)

It’s hard to overstate how popular Westerns were back in the ‘50s. The film studios churned them out like crazy, from prestige, star-driven fare to zillions of low-budget, generic oaters. Moreover, the genre dominated the primetime schedules of the nearly monopolistic Big Three networks more than crime shows do now.

Filmmakers were finally starting to feel their artistic oats by then, and the ‘50s saw the first examples of the ‘adult’ (what we would call revisionist) Westerns. The first and some of the best of these resulted from a partnership between director Anthony Mann, then best known for his tough Noir crime films, and war veteran actor James Stewart. The first of these was 1950’s Winchester ’73, followed by several other such films.

An offshoot of these were the art or psychological Westerns, which were more than revisionist, and generally hostile to the values of the mainstream Western. Way ahead of the trend was 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident, a film decrying mob violence and lynching. (Such an unusual film was probably only possible because of the support of star Henry Fonda, who made liberal films like The Grapes of Wrath back in the day when liberal films actually had something useful to say and artists took authentic risks in making them.)

The Ox-Bow Incident was directed by William Wellman from a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Eleven years later, Wellman returned to Clark’s work as the basis for Track of the Cat. Sadly, I must admit, I found the film a little too ‘psychological’ and too little ‘Western.’

Shot on obvious, even purposely theatrical sets, Track of the Cat revolves around the Bridges Family. It’s winter, and resentments abound. Father is a drunken letch (a rather lame running gag involves all the places he’s hid the bottles of booze his wife seeks to deny him), Mom is a bitter old Bible-Thumper, and spinsterish daughter Grace despairs of the fact that she didn’t flee the suffocating family embrace back when she had the chance.

More central to things are the three Bridges son. The leader of the family is bullying alpha male Curt (Robert Mitchum). He’s so dominating both physically and in his drive and personality — remember, we’re talking Robert Mitchum here — that even would-be rebeller Grace can’t really stand up to him. He’s the apple of his parents’ eye, moreover, leading to even more estrangement amongst the other siblings.

Arthur is the kind brother, and sporadically attempts to run interference between Curt and Grace and younger brother Harold (Tab Hunter). However, Arthur is also sort of a ‘head in the clouds’ sort, and thus ultimately an ineffectual counterweight for the more driven Curt. Harold, meanwhile, is the youngest son, and crippled by indecision. This is brought to a head by his coming marriage to Gwen, which is opposed by Mom — bitter Bible Thumper, remember? — and Curt, who refuses to cede part of the family’s holdings to Harold and dilute his own power.

Meanwhile, a panther is stalking the livestock. (Annoyingly, everyone in the film calls the panther a ‘painter.’ Even is this bit of pronunciation is accurate to the time period and setting, it’s highly obnoxious to hear throughout the film, and its seemingly employed dozens of times.) The family’s ancient Indian servant Joe Sam warns that it’s a devil cat, but naturally Curt strides forward to kill it. Three guesses how that ends up.

Sadly, the cat plot is afforded little screentime. Instead, we are mostly stuck in the claustrophobic house watching the family rip into each other. This is a film I wanted and expected to like, but frankly I found it ‘arty’ in the bad sense. What it has to say isn’t nearly as interesting or daring as the filmmakers think it to be (and I think this would have been largely true even at the time), and the effect is of watching a bad stage play that’s entirely too in love with itself.

The end ‘meaning,’ that one brother was too hot to survive, and another too cold, but the last brother was just right, seems way too little to hang an entire movie on. Moreover, modern audiences will probably find Gwen’s attempts to get the indecisive Harold to Act Like a Man (she secretly smiles with satisfaction when he starts bossing her around) either comically out of date or downright offensive.

Meanwhile, after the opening scenes top-billed Mitchum all but disappears for most of the movie. I’d be surprised is he has ten minutes of sceentime in the final three-fourths of the film. Even worse, in the end we never actually see the cat, an attempted artistic flourish that even director Wellman apparently regretted. (This according to his son, who participated in the DVD’s extras.)

There is, in fact, supposed to be a real cat. However, since we never see it, and given the rest of the film’s arty tone, some confused viewers thought it was meant to be an imaginary manifestation of Curt’s Id or some damn thing.

Aside from the artistic problems with not showing the panther, I also wonder if maybe Wellman regretted the financial impact on the film. I don’t know that this film didn’t do well at the box office, but having seen it, I’m assuming so. One can imagine a disappointed viewer telling his friends, “Well, Mitchum’s barely in the movie, and 90% of it involves people yakking at one another, and, oh, yeah, you never even see the damn panther mentioned in the title.” I can’t imagine such word of mouth had people running to buy tickets.

To be fair, many people still seem highly impressed with this film, and some even consider it a minor classic. All I can say is that it didn’t do much for me. It was the kind of movie that I grew increasingly impatient with, waiting for it to do something.

The art design is pretty interesting, and that’s not meant as a back-handed compliment. The film is shot in color but the design palette intentionally makes the movie look nearly black and white; to emphasize the dreariness of the characters’ lives, presumably. The one notable exception is Curt’s blazing red jacket, a mark of his unavoidably overbearing presence. (Is this where Spielberg got the idea for the girl’s red coat in Schindler’s List?)

However, but that’s really about the best I can say for this. If you’re a student of experiment cinematography, and maybe you our, the film is probably worth a look just on that front.

On an odd trivia note, ancient Joe Sam, under so much make-up that his face is immobile, was played by 27 year-old Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer. Yes, that ‘Alfalfa.’ He died in a bar shooting over a $50 debt just a few years after this.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Ring of Fear (1954)

Plot: A psychotic war veteran seeks murderous revenge at the Clyde Beatty Circus.

Well, this is the most weird-ass movie I’ve seen in a while. An asylum inmate with a weird manner of speaking (I eventually figured out he was supposed to have a thick Irish accent) is appearing before a psychiatric review board. His appeal is denied, albeit not for any apparent good reason. However, this was 1954, so if three stuffy white guys say the patient is nuts, he must be. And sure enough, they’re right. He quickly escapes and knocks out a guy, dressing the fellow in his clothes and throwing him under a train. This, naturally, leads the authorities to believe that the escapee is dead.

Our antagonist is subsequently revealed to be one Dublin O’Malley. (Just to let you know, he’s the Irish guy I referred to earlier.) He’s soon skulking about the Clyde Beatty Circus, where he once worked. O’Malley—did I mention he was Irish?—has a beef against Beatty. Dublin—a Son of the Auld Sod, you know—is also obsessed with his old girlfriend, a trapeze artist now married another man, and mother of a cute young daughter.

Using a blackmailable old drunk named Twitchy (!) as a surrogate, O’Malley arranges for a death or two, and a couple of near misses. Beatty himself narrowly escapes a grisly demise when a doctored training rope parts and a tiger nearly gets him.

Beatty calls on his old friend, Mickey Spillane (!), playing ‘himself’ (!!). (Mr. Spillane passed away this week, so let's tip our porkpie hats to him.) Spillane, of course, was the author of the amazingly popular, not to mention lurid, Mike Hammer detective series. Indeed, Spillane’s next film role, nine years after this, was playing Hammer in The Girl Hunters. Given the porkpie hat and other affectations he employs here, it won’t surprise many to learn that there’s not much variance between the two performances.

O’Malley now officially appears at the circus, after the aforementioned incidents and thus removed from suspicion for them. He reclaims his old job—the current guy has an accident, presumably also O’Malley’s work—and Dublin continues to plot his revenge. Then we get a lot of…stuff. Lots of circus performance footage, Mike and a detective pal casting suspicious glances about, O’Malley freaking out his old girlfriend, etc.

I don’t want to blow the ending, but let’s just say that O’Malley is seen throughout the movie tormenting this one ill-natured tiger …oh. I guess that kind of blows the ending. Sorry.

What a bizarre movie. It pretty patently only exists because somebody thought, “Hey, it would be exciting, not to mention economical, to shoot a movie with Clyde Beatty’s circus as the backdrop!” That’s clearly where things started, and everything that followed was apparently considered a mere bunch of details. Just a bit over 90 minutes, the film is all over the map.

There’s at least a full half hour of circus stuff, including of course long segments of Beatty's admittedly amazing big cat act; occasional bits of O’Malley’s deviltry; some (comparatively restrained) ethnic buffoonery provided by Pedro Gonzolez, here playing the same sort of Lovable Mexican Comic Relief figure he assayed in the classic John Wayne movie Rio Bravo. (Ring of Fear, actually, was made by Batjac Productions, Wayne’s independent film company.)

The cast has quirks too. Aside from the “playing themselves” Beatty (stiff) and Spillane (eh, OK), Pat O’Brien shows up. O’Brien is best known for appearing opposite Jimmy Cagney in a bunch of classic gangster movies, and was last seen on these pages in Billy Jack Goes to Washington.

Since this was made in the ‘50s, lots of folks that appeared in ‘50s sci-fi movies are on hand. (This in the same way that seemingly every young actor or actress in the early ‘80s appeared in a slasher movie.)

· Sean McClory, who plays O’Malley, was Col. Kibbee in the giant ant epic Them!

· Marian Carr, who plays the object of O’Malley’s perverse affections, was the female lead of the dismal Lon Chaney Jr. flick The Indestructible Man.

· Her husband in the film is played by the beefy John Bromfield, star of Revenge of the Creature and Curucu, Beast of the Amazon.

· ‘50s sci-fi mainstay Kenneth Tobey (who, hey, also was in Billy Jack), sadly appears for but a minute or two. Mr. Tobey starred in The Thing from Another World (he was the Air Force officer hero), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came from Beneath the Sea and The Vampire.

Things I Learned: If you run an asylum for the criminally insane, you shouldn’t let trucks park under open patient walkways.

Summation: If you ever wanted to see Clyde Beatty and Mickey Spillane hunting down a psycho-killer at the circus, this is the movie for you!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Truer Words Dept.

"I know there are some people who love cinema who don't get [Jess] Franco's work..." Tim Lucas, Video WatchBlog.

It Came from Netflix! Emperor of the North Pole

One of the last great ‘70s action films has finally hit DVD in Emperor of the North Pole. Like many of that decade’s ‘car’ movies (The Driver, Vanishing Point), Emperor basically concerns a man who uses a mechanized vehicle as a tool to escape Society’s insistence on control and order. In those movies the vehicles were cars, in this, a train.

Although not quite as abstract and on-the-sleeve metaphorical as The Driver—in which the anarchy figure is known simply as the Driver and his antagonist the Detective—the Great Depression-set Emperor again features a markedly skilled anarchy figure in the character of A Number 1 (the always great Lee Marvin), sort of a legendary super-hobo. He ends up taking on the murderous order figure Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a railroad captain well known for killing any bums who try to ride his train. Indeed, when we first meet Shack he ambushes a tramp who had the temerity to jump his train. Shack smashes him in the head with a heavy metal hammer and causes the guy to slide under the moving train, cutting him in half.

Chances are that in the end these two were bound to face off, if only to prove who is king of the hill. Here, however, their meeting is forced by Cigarette (Keith Carradine), a young punk hobo who challenges A Number One’s prominence amongst their set. Cigarette follows A#1 onto Shack’s train for a short run, and almost gets them killed. They escape with their lives, but Cigarette boasts of riding Shack’s train, leaving out A#1’s part in things. This enrages Shack, and gets A#1’s dander up. The stage is set for the two men to finally directly contest each other.

One nice thing about the movie is that there really aren’t any good guys in it. A#1 is, when all is said and done, a bum and a thief. If he looks like a good guy, it’s only because Shack is such an outright evil figure. Borgnine goes to town in the role, and it’s a perfect fit for him. Aside from maybe Joe Don Baker, nobody does pure mean as good as Borgnine. He not only kills the tramps who try him, but does so with glee.

As you’d expect, the cast is enough reason to watch this film alone. Marvin is worth watching in anything, Borgnine is terrific here, Carradine is pretty good himself, and there’s a raft of familiar character actors on hand, including Vic Tayback, Charles Tyner (if you hired Lee Van Cleef when you needed a human rat, you hired Tyner when you needed a human weasel), Simon Oakland, Sid Haig, Elisha Cook Jr., Matt Clark and more. Sometimes it’s not even the face you recognize. Hearing one guy, I was like, “Ah, it’s the Narrator of The Wacky Races.” (Actor Dave Willock, in case you’re interested.)

None of these guys gets much screen time, though. That’s reserved for the three leads. You might not think you could wring enough suspense out of a small train to last two hours, but they go a good job. This is at least partly because they actually pace and pause inbetween the action scenes. Sometimes Shack succeeds in driving them off, but A#1 and Cigarette keep coming back for me.

This despite Shack vicious and inventive cruelty. At one point the bums secrete themselves in the metal struts under the movie train. In response, Shack lowers a metal plumb weight he's tied onto a line. The heavy object smacks around as it comes into contact with the ground, jumping up and threatening to pulp the trapped hobos. This is a wince-inducing scene.

For all the exploding buildings and worldwide disasters we get these days, they just don’t make ‘em as exciting as this anymore. Anyone looking for a good double bill might want to go with the similarly Depression-set Hard Times, with an absolutely terrific Charles Bronson as a bare knuckle boxer.

The newly released disc features a nice print of the film in widescreen (yay!), although the accompanying commentary by some boring academic is pretty worthless, as he even gets facts wrong and stuff like that, and spends way too much time yakking about his ill-formed theories on what the film 'means.' Seriously, they couldn't have gotten Borgnine or Carradine to do a commentary?

Now if they would just put The Naked Prey out on DVD…

Monday, July 17, 2006

It Came from Netflix! The Witch's Mirror

CasaNegra is a new DVD imprint dedicated to releasing Mexican horror movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s, featuring high quality transfers and the original Spanish language tracks. While films in the Santo wrestling series have gotten such presentations in the past, this is the first attempt to deal fairly with films that have amused American drive-in audiences and B-movie junkies for decades, via the comically dubbed versions seen here from producer K. Gordon Murray.

This month saw the release of their first two discs, The Witch’s Mirror and Curse of the Crying Woman. August sees The Brainiac. It’ll be interesting to see how much the original language track of the latter mitigates against the manifold goofiness of the Murray version. One suspects some, but not much. Too much of the weirdness is inherent, I’d think.

The Witch’s Mirror is a pretty typical Mexican horror movie, by which I mean it’s massively overstuffed. Actually, it’s sort of two movies spliced together, and indeed, each part takes up also precisely one half of the total film’s running time.

The first half features a middle-aged witch named Sarah, who is introduced warning her beloved godchild Elena that she (Elena) is soon to be murdered. Standing before the titular lookingglass, Elena is overcome to learn that she will be killed by her much-loved husband, Edward. Sarah, meanwhile, seeks intervention from Satan. She is warned off, however, as Elena’s death is already in the books.

Elena is (I guess) so distraught that Edward would seek her death that she goes ahead and knowingly drinks up the poisoned milk he serves her. Sarah, unable to save Elena, instead focuses on seeking revenge. When Edward brings home new wife Deborah—his passion for her being his motive for bumping off Elena—Sarah plots the woman’s doom, as the mechanism that will bring the most pain to Edward. (It should be noted that Deborah is basically entirely innocent, and thus the cruelty of her fate seems a bit much.)

Sarah soon starts orchestrating various supernatural spooky happenings. The climax of these culminates in Edward accidentally setting Deborah on fire. (Whoever the briefly-seen stuntman was, who runs past the camera literlly engulfed in flames, well, he certainly earned his pesos that day). As a result, Deborah is left with horribly scarred hands and face. Sarah crows at her success.

That’s pretty much exactly the first half of the movie. The second half is significantly weirder and goofier and much more in line of what we think of as representing Mexican horror. Edward, we learn, isn’t just a doctor, but a mad doctor. He decides to restore Deborah’s looks, with a glowering Sarah just as determined to impede him. Thus the movie quickly becomes a strange, florid mix of Eyes Without a Face and Burn, Witch, Burn.

The second half of the movie is pretty gory by the standards of the day, with Edward lopping off the hands of various females and such in his quest to restore Deborah to mint condition. The second half actually makes the first half look staid and logical, as we quickly veer from standard grave robbing antics to the rather improbable addition of a woman found buried alive.

In a way, it’s a shame Edward never becomes aware of Sarah’s antagonism. A film pitting supernatural revenge against mad science would have been pretty interesting. However, Edward remains ignorant throughout, and Sarah is able to accomplish her ends without overmuch effort.

Although obviously hindered by the low budget and vigorously fantastical plotting of all these things, the film does move quickly enough to entertain. And, to be fair, the low-grade camera tricks and so on employed by the director do occasionally lend an honestly spooky note to things. Certainly the image of Deborah moping about in her lumpy, head-covering bandages is a fairly memorable image.

Moreover, despite not mitigating much against the tendency towards overacting, the original language tracks do allow the films a bit more dignity than the generally hilarious (and presumably near verbatim) Murray dubs. Mexican horror films tended to be somewhat more surreal than American genre movies, although it could be equally argued that they were just less concerned about being constrained by logic.

Even novice fans of the genre like myself will notice décor and props used in other movies from the studio, notably The Brainiac. The musical score also is largely the same as the one employed in that film.

The full frame presentation of the film isn’t quite pristine, but is it surprisingly good, and quite possibly the movie looks better here than it looked originally in the theaters. We are also treated to the K. Gordon Murray soundtrack (which occasionally goes back to the original Spanish for scenes that Murray had cut out), and a commentary by a guy conversant with the genre.

This mostly consists of the biographies and filmographies of the actors and filmmakers, and since they tended to be involved in a lot of these, I’m not sure where future commentaries will go. Other than that, the track consists largely are a fairly lame array of comments about weird props in the background and the like.

Summation: Not a bad way to spend a dark and stormy night.