Friday, October 13, 2006

It Came from Netflix! Mutant (1983)

Mutant, a.k.a. Night Shadows, is a film that efficiently synthesizes a number of horror movie tropes popular in the 1970s; the American Southland as a place of menace (not too surprising a notion, as that’s where Jimmy Carter came from), evil corporatism, cover-ups by the Powers that Be, contagion and fatalism.

Indeed, the whole feel of the film is so of the ‘70s that it was only the use of air bladder effects during the monster transformation scenes—popularized by 1981’s The Howling and ubiquitous for several years thereafter—that made me think this might have been made at a later date. The ‘70s-ishness of the film is probably due to the fact that the ‘star’ members of the cast (Wings Hauser and Bo Hopkins), and more importantly the director (John “Bud” Cardos), had cut their B-movie teeth in the previous decade.

We open with a classic stalk ‘n’ kill sequence, signally immediately that folks are being killed by something or someone that leaves the victims’ flesh smoking. That established, we cut to our main characters, Josh (Hauser) and Mike. Two brothers from up north, they are taking a driving vacation in order to spend some time together.

Josh is kind of wild, Mike is the opposite. To get Mike’s goat, Josh starts driving like an idiot and attracts the attention of—what else—a crew of violent Southern rednecks led by one Albert Pogue. A chase commences, and Josh’s car is driven off the road. Their car disabled, the brothers hike into a small nearby town to seek a tow truck. There they run into Pogue and company again, and only escape severe physical harm via the intercession of Sheriff Stewart (Hopkins). Stewart is not very sympathetic, however, and orders them to get out of town the next day.

Interestingly, both brothers attract trouble, but in manners according to their personalities. Josh takes stupid risks (as long as he is in charge, as when he’s driving), while the more naïve Mike is the one who persists in—to Josh’s mind—baiting the locals. Having found one of the bodies earlier, Mike keeps attempting to convince Stewart of this. Josh, aware of just how tenuous their situation is, and frankly not really caring about the corpse, wants him to shut up until they are safely out of the vicinity.

After bunking down for the night at a local B&B, Josh heads back into town to seek a mechanic. Instead, he meets pretty young school teacher Holly. The town itself is increasingly deserted, meanwhile, due to a rapidly spreading illness. The unwitting Stewart and his one-time lover Dr. Tate (Jennifer Warren) end up closing in on the truth from one end, while Josh and Holly do so from another angle.

Things are progressing quickly, however, Before they much have time to figure out what is happening, the majority of the town’s population has been killed or zombified. Come nightfall, the town’s few remaining humans find themselves fighting for their lives against a horde of mindless killers.

Cardos ably captures an evocative sense of place, along with a nice, ‘70s-esque naturalism. Hauser, for his part, is a weird dude, both in looks and demeanor, sort of a younger Bruce Dern-type. Given this, he generally played villains rather than heroes. Here, however, his non-movie star looks add a further feel of reality to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is solid, too, and looking at a lot of the DTV junk churned out today makes you wonder when it became so hard to get a bunch of decent actors together for a low-budget movie. Perhaps it’s just not a priority any longer.

As with Cardos’ earlier Kingdom of the Spiders, things soon take on an apocalyptic turn, albeit not on quite so broad a scale. Sadly, it’s at this point the movie starts to stumble. They quite evidently didn’t have the time or the budget to really capture what they were going after here. This manifests itself in, for instance, some blatantly phony-looking action scenes. At one point Hauser fends some zombies off with a wiggling rubber ‘tire iron’. It also becomes all too clear during the film’s extended climax that fight choreography was not much of a priority.

More damaging is the ridiculously exaggerated look of the zombies. These sport the sort of heavy gray greasepaint and fright wigs that wouldn’t be out of place in kid’s somewhat ambitious 8mm monster movie. The level of the aforementioned air bladder effects, meanwhile, quickly establishes that Rob Bottin had nothing to do with this movie. In both these matter, less would have been significantly more.

Still, most of the things a film can provide on a limited budget—good direction and acting; a tight, at least serviceable script; decent characterization—this one delivers. Moreover, I can honestly say the movie caught me off honestly guard more than once, and that’s not something that happens overmuch.

Starting as an actor and stuntman, John ‘Bud’ Cardos remains a name to conjure with for B-movie fans of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Aside from directing one of Bill Shatner’s better turns in the demi-classic King of the Spiders, Cardos helmed incredibly fun crap like Outlaw of Gor, and sheparded as best he could the legendarily troubled production of (1979’s) The Dark. For whatever reason, he basically dropped out of the movie business altogether in the early ‘90s.

Wings Hauser is a busy character actor, best known for playing scary psychopaths in such films as Vice Squad. Unsurprisingly, he has also done a ton of episodic TV work. He continues to do such work, as recent appearances on Monk and House, M.D. attest.

Bo Hopkin was another reliable and busy actor trolling the B-movie and TV show waters (he has over a 120 credits listed on the IMDB), specializing in tight-lipped violent types. Like Hauser, his face rather than his name would be familiar to TV and drive-in movie buffs of a certain age. He appears to have retired as of 2003.

Although not quite as prolific as Hauser or Hopkins, Jennifer Warren was also a busy actress through the ‘70s and ‘80s. She appeared in a mix of low-budget theatricals, TV shows and TV movies. Several of the latter were genre oriented, such as the 1976 Jaws knock-off Shark Kill, and 1981’s Alien knock-off The Intruder Within.

Watching B-movies of the ‘60s through ‘80s always make me wonder. At what point did low-budget fare stop being often pretty good movies with a few obvious limitations, and become just lazy, nearly unwatchable junk?

Sigh.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sitcom(mon)...

Although, as I’ve noted on this blog before, I’m not really much of a TV watcher anymore (The Amazing Race is currently the only show I watch every week), I gave a look to 30 Rock last night. That’s because it’s a sitcom with three funny people from SNL; Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan, doing a show about a fictionalized SNL. The reviews haven’t been great, and sadly, I have to concur. I’d call the first episode intermittingly funny.

The main problem was tone. 30 Rock is a ‘one camera’ show, meaning it’s shot with the now dominant format of the roving camera, and usually sans laughtrack (Arrested Development, The Office, Scrubs, Malcolm in the Middle, My Name is Earl, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.), rather than the traditional ‘two camera’ set-up, where shows are mostly shot on sets, with the action cutting from two or three more or less standard camera positions. These shows are more likely to feature laughtracks (Everyone Loves Raymond, Two and a Half Men, etc.)

In essence, the show doesn’t yet seem to have a firm idea of how ‘wacky’ it wants to be. The opening establishes what seems to be one of the Tina Fey character’s ‘comic’ traits, which is that she hates cheaters. When a guy cuts in front of a long line for a street hot dog vender, she’s the only one to complain. (In New York?!)

In the end, rather than let the guy ‘win’, she buys the guy’s entire supply of hot dogs* and passes them out for free to everyone but the cheater guy. As she walks through the streets handing out hot dogs to weirded-out pedestrians, a parody “Mary Tyler Moore Show”-type theme plays behind her. To ‘justify’ this, it turns out the song is being sung at the rehearsal of a sketch for her latest show. By the way, part of the problem with the show’s premise is that it’s SNL-knock off show supposedly runs in primetime. Er, no.

[*By the way, how much does a hot dog cost from a New York street vender? Fey says she spent $150 on the wieners, but even after passing out a passel of them walks into work with a box load of at least 50 more hot dogs.]

Fey is, as she actually was on SNL, the show’s head writer. The writing staff includes the Slob Proletariat White Guy and the Effete Intellectual Black Guy. Meanwhile, Fey learns that Alec Baldwin, in reward for creating a hot selling convection oven (NBC is owned by GE, and to prove their independence the show features a lot of Letterman-like jabs at the company), has been promoted to the position of President of East Coast Programming and Ovens, or something along those lines.

Blah blah. Long story short, Fey seems to be looking for her footing as the straight woman to the reliably hilarious Baldwin (easily the best thing about the show so far) and the perhaps literally crazy but popular black comic played by Tracy Morgan who joins the cast of her show.

30 Rock has a lot of room for improvement, but it's capable of it, I think. If the show never gets better than its first episode, it will be quickly forgotten. However, it’s often the case that, when you go back and look at the first episodes of a long-running show, you end up thinking, “How did they start like that and end up like this?” I’m hoping that’s what’s in store for this program.

Still and all, just when you’re beating on the faults of this show, you see something as dreadful as 20 Good Years, the show that premiered following 30 Rock, to remind you how bad a sitcom can be. I didn’t watch the whole thing—who could?—but it’s the sort of show so soullessly bad that it literally depresses you to watch it.

Apparently all the thought about the show went dead after they had hired John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor to star. Once you have stars like that, I guess, why bother actually make even a halfway decent show. (On the other hand, I always thought Lithgow’s 3rd Rock from the Sun sucked too, and that ran for years.) Lithgow is a madcap, over the top surgeon who decides at 60 that its time to live every day to the fullest, while Tambor is his Judge best friend, a timid fellow afraid to make even the smallest decision. They’re the original odd couple!

I’m not kidding about getting depressed watching this show. Am I the only one who gets a queasy feeling when you can actually see every rote punch line coming in advance?

Lithgow (I’m paraphrasing): “We’ve only got 20 good years* left! We must live life to the fullest!”
Tambor: “Right!” Quaffs the drink in his hand. He is racked by coughs and ends up ‘comically’ doubled over.
Tambor, recovering: “What was in that [drink]?”
Lithgow: “Alcohol.”
Tambor: “Wow!”

Sigh. Tambor, really? From Arrested Development to this?!

[*Wow, he said the title!]

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

It Came from the DVD Shelves! Return of the Vampire (1944)

Bela Lugosi played Dracula thousands of times on stage, but only twice onscreen. The first time was in 1931’s Dracula, the film that kicked off Universal Studio’s famous series of classic horror movies. After that, though, Universal handed the role off to John Carradine (pretty good) and Lon Chaney Jr. (woefully miscast). Lugosi was 66 years-old by the time he was allowed to assay the role on film again, in 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

During the interim, however, Lugosi played Dracula-like vampires and pseudo-vampires in many other films. Return of the Vampire, made by rival studio Columbia, was the film that most heavily resembled Universal’s (and Lugosi’s) take on Dracula, to the point where a lawsuit must have at least been contemplated.

As with Universal’s The Mummy’s Tomb, Return of the Vampire was one of the few movies from this period to play with the idea that these monsters were immortal. The film opens in the London of 1918, and for the first fifteen minutes events very closely follow the events of Universal’s Dracula. Only minor details have been changed to keep Universal’s lawyers off their, er, necks.

A girl (basically Mina Harker) is in the sanitarium of Dr. Jane Ainsley (a female Dr. Seward), suffering from a mysterious case of anemia. Ainsley calls in an older colleague, Dr. Saunders (the Van Helsing analogue), who declares the situation the work of a vampire. This is Armand Telsa, a Romanian investigator of the occult who centuries earlier had become one of the undead. He’s in London now, and using mind-controlled underling Andreas (i.e., his Renfield) to serve him.

When Tesla’s original victim dies, he turns his attention to Saunder’s eight-year old granddaughter, Nicki. (Nicki is also a playmate of Ainsley’s slightly older son, John.) Saunders convinces Ainsley of Tesla’s existence, and they track down Tesla’s coffin and drive a metal spike through his heart. They are almost stopped by Andreas, but Tesla’s destruction frees him.

As you can see, only minor changes have been made from the events in Dracula. Dr. Ainsley is a woman instead of a man. The vampire is dispatched with a metal spike rather than a wooden stake. Most noticeably, Andreas is, for no real reason, a talking, non-feral werewolf. (!!) Only with Tesla’s destruction does he become a normal man again.

Twenty-three years later, the Blitz hits London, and Tesla’s body is disinterred. Two woefully unfunny comic relief cockneys remove the spike before reburying him (thinking it a piece of bomb shrapnel), with obvious results. Tesla stalks the land once more, and tragically, the weak-willed Andreas is again brought under his spell. Meanwhile, the vampire seeks vengeance against Jane, and also to claim the now adult Vicki as his undead bride.

The film moves along steadily as is necessitated by its 70-minute running time, albiet often via a series of plot-advancing, if credulity-straining, coincidences. Even so, the action is often torpidly paced, although not as much as the London scenes in the 1931 Dracula. What it comes down to is that a majority of the film's characters are pretty dull. When they are holding the screen, viewer interest tends to flag.

The film has its share of outright goofiness, too, especially the pointlessness of Andreas being a werewolf who never really acts like a werewolf. (Of course, the real reason he’s a lycanthrope is so that his furry visage could be featured on the film’s poster art.) Even when he’s jumped by a pair of cops, Werewolf Andreas escapes by pasting one of them with a haymaker (!). Even funnier is that in nearly every scene featuring Werewolf Andreas, he is carrying a neatly-tied bundle of Tesla’s laundry. (!!!) So much for a vampire’s clothes being supernaturally clean.

Despite all that, though, the sub-plot featuring the tragically ensnared Andreas sub-plot is quite affecting, and easily the best part of the movie. Much of the credit for this must go to the fine, understated performance by actor Matt Willis.

The adult Nicki, meanwhile, is played by Nina Foch (who played a werewolf—an actual four-legged one—in the same year’s Cry of the Werewolf, another film I’d like to see hit DVD). Foch is OK, being about as good as one can expect given the slightness of the writing, but she is at least highly beautiful. (The woman playing Jane Ainsley must have thought so too. She has a disconcerting habit of putting her hand upon Foch’s, er, chest.)

The rest of the cast is pretty lame, though. The comic relief is generally painful, and several of the characters, including Jane, Saunders and a Scotland Yard Inspector, are played with several helpings of British reserve too many. Given the nature of what we’re dealing with here, their placid demeanors become increasingly comical.

The film belongs to Lugosi, naturally, although he doesn’t have a huge amount of screentime. Still, his presence here, playing Dracula in all but name, definitely earns the movie a place in horror film history.

Several plot devices here, meanwhile, were to be recycled in later Dracula pictures. The Count killing a man and then assuming his identify occurred also in The Return of Dracula (1958) and the hideously bad but hilarious Billy the Kid Meets Dracula (1966). Dracula seeking revenge by striking at his target(s) through their children was the plot of Hammer’s Taste the Blood of Dracula. Meanwhile, Dracula reestablishing control of a former Renfieldian servant to advance his agenda happens again in Dracula, Prince of Darkness.

Tech credits are decent, with heavy use of the fog machine to help obscure some obvious, if suitably gothic, sets. The film was directed by Lew Landers, a journeyman director who helmed over 150 films (!) in his career. Notably, he had earlier directed Lugosi (and Karloff) in Universal’s The Raven (1935). Landers brings an occasional touch of flair to the proceedings, but mostly is merely efficient.

Return of the Vampire is available on a bare boned DVD. The presentation is solid, if not sparkling, although it’s good to have the film available after decades of relative obscurity.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Still viewers out there, if they are interested...

As we all know, TV viewership is way down, especially for the broadcast Networks. However, the recent ratings reveal that there are viewers still out there, if only there's something on they want to watch.

Admittedly, the numbers for even the top shows only equal mediocre ratings from the heydey of the Big Three Networks, but it's notable that the top two shows of the last two weeks run directly opposite each other. Since the beginning of the new season, Grey's Anatomy has beat CSI, then CSI (barely, but still) beat Grey's Anatomy. But the point is, the two largest audiences last week were watching two different shows running in the same timeslot. Not even counting ABC and Fox, an aggregate 47 million viewers were watching TV at this time on Sep 28th.

Thursday nights continue to hold good news for the networks. The number seven show that same night was Survivor, which ran against the week's number nine show, Ugly Betty. Together, the programs were watched by a combined 33 million people.

ABC must be pretty pleased. It's top ten shows that week, unlike CBS's mostly aging line-up (Survivor, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York) are all either pretty new or brand spanking new (Grey's Anatomy, Desparate Housewives, Dancing with the Stars [editions of which help both the number four and eleven spots that week], Ugly Betty). CBS, meanwhile, is still strong. Aside from basically splitting the top ten shows, it was more dominent in the top 11-20 slots. However, I do notice that Lost isn't mentioned, so presumably that show hasn't started its new season yet, giving ABC yet another big, and newish, gun.

One-time ratings king NBC, meanwhile, only has Sunday Night Football in the top ten, along with two shows tied for number eighteen among the top twenty programs.

It Came from Netflix! Dead Birds (2004)

During the Civil War, some Confederate soldiers bring a gold shipment to a town bank for safekeeping. However, a gang of outlaws shows up and kills everyone in sight and absconds with the gold. The group includes leader William (Henry Thomas, for those who still follow his career), his younger brother Sam, former slave (I guess) Todd, William’s squeeze Annabelle, and the scruffier and less trustworthy Clyde and Joseph.

They flee to an abandoned plantation house William learned of whilst recuperating from a battle injury (in, it must be said, an all too realistically grungy medical tent). The man who gave him the information later died, and William hooked with the man’s (maybe) fiancée Annabelle, who had been nursing the two. The plan is to stay in the house overnight and then flee to Mexico the next day.

However, the house and surrounding farm is a Bad Place, as was indicated when the group was apparently attacked by something that resembled a skinned albino mystery animal. There are other omens, including a dead bird (which was the only such one I noticed, anyway, despite the title). Meanwhile, Clyde and Joseph are planning a double cross.

Needless to say, the rest of the movie involves the characters getting picked off one by on by the ghosts / demons / whatevers. There’s also a backstory explaining why the place is haunted, although frankly it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Also, I think there turns out to be a revenge plot in there somewhere, if I was following things.

Obviously one problem is that a gang of murderous bank robbers is not the most sympathetic of protagonists. They try to separate the ‘good’ bad guys (loyal, loving among themselves, progressive on racial issues, guilt ridden from killing a kid amidst their general bloody slaughter) from the ‘bad’ one (bigoted, treacherous), but really, I couldn’t get that aroused concerning their fates. There’s also a whole Treasure of Sierra Madre thing that I didn’t really felt went anywhere.

Despite the overall narrative confusion and shaky characterization, however, the fact remains that the film is pretty creepy. That went a long way for me, although ‘creepy’ is to some another word for boring, since by its nature it includes a lot of build-up. I also admired the fact that the pace of the film is fairly stately, as befits something set in the past. The world just didn’t move that fast a hundred (or even fifty) years ago, which is why films like Pearl Harbor and Fly Boys give me gas. Here the time period is evoked pretty effectively, and that goes a long way.

In the end, this proved a better than average rental. Unlike a lot of the DTV stuff that floods the horror shelves these days, Dead Birds is actually a real movie, with actual acting and good dialogue and decent direction and all that sort of thing. I could probably have done with a little less CGI, and the ghostly kids who suddenly manifest monster faces is not exactly fresh by this point, but all it all it’s solid stuff. It might have worked better at an hour’s length, but considering the sheer crap out there, you could certainly do a lot worse. And I should note that while I considered the film basically a ‘three star’ picture, others revere it a lot more.

The director, Alex Turner (who sadly has not made another film in the two years since this one) provides a commentary, and there’s a cast commentary too. I didn’t have time or, frankly, the interest to really give them a listen, but it’s nice to have them for people who like the film more than I did.

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

Sadly, no TV horror program offerings this week. Hey, did you ever check out that American Gothic set that came out earlier this year? That’s definitely worth a look.

In lieu of a horror show, my spotlight TV set of the week is Scrubs S4. This is a very, very good sitcom that just never caught on the way it should have, although at least it’s stayed on the air.

Animation fans, meanwhile, will want to check out the goofy nostalgia snarkfest Harvey Birdman Attorney at Law S2, as well as the rather less ironic Defenders of Earth Vol. 1, a Filmation series that brought together a number of their licensed characters, including the comic strip hero the Phantom, Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician.

Other television offerings this week include The A-Team S5; CSI S6; Everyone Hates Chris S1; Magnum PI S5; Numbers S2; Simon & Simon S1; and Three’s Company S8.


Film wise, the horror pickings are rather more profuse.

The big Kahuna this week is definitely Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection, a set of six essential but rarely seen horror films of the classic era. These include Doctor X (Lionel Atwill)/The Return of Dr. X on disc one, The Mark of the Vampire (Lugosi) /The Mask of Fu Manchu (Karloff) on the second, and Mad Love (Peter Lorre, and the set’s clear highlight) and The Devil Doll on the final one. Even Humphrey Bogart makes an appearance, and as a monster! All but one of the films feature commentary tracks from well-known horror buffs. To say this set is worth the $30 asking price is to damn it with faint praise. This is one of the year’s essential buys, along with Brainiac, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare and Gojira.

Meanwhile, there’s The Exorcist, the Complete Anthology, which for around $30 rounds up an impressive array of material, including, of course, a legitimate contender as the Worst Movie Ever Made, and pretty much hands down the Worst Sequel Ever Made. Includes The Exorcist (original theatrical version and the longer “Version You've Never Seen” reissue); The Exorcist 2: The Heretic and The Exorcist 3, along with the two prequel stories, by two different directors, of Dominion and The Beginning. Several commentaries and documentaries, etc., add to the value. Sadly, Exorcist II is bereft of such notice. Boooo!


Another noteworthy offering of the week is The Aztec Mummy Collection from Brentwood, featuring The Attack of the Aztec Mummy, The Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy. Meanwhile, The Wrestling Woman vs. the Aztec Mummy was put out by Something Weird/Image a few years ago, so you should grab that to complete your collection.

Brentwood also continues its bargain Crypt of Terror double feature line with three more offerings:

Crypt of Terror: Don’t Panic / The Demon Rat Dubbed Spanish movies featuring, respectively, a ouiji board and giant killer rats.

Crypt of Terror: Lord Shango / Embryo Voodoo movie and the ‘70s sci-fier starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Carrara.

Crypt of Terror: Prime Evil / Brain Twister Immortal devil worshippers and mind control gone awry.

The proto-slasher Black Christmas gets a Special Edition. Which is good (although it’s not a film I am especially interested in), as the previous “25th Anniversary” release offered nothing in the way of extras. This version, in contrast, lards on a documentary, trailers and two commentaries, including one by director Bob Clark, and another with stars John Saxon (cool!) and Keir Dullea. Also included is a horror TV episode starring Saxon. Hmm, I guess I’ll have to give this a look after all. Both discs offer the movie in ‘standard,’ though, so I guess that’s how it was intended.

Speaking of slashers, Don’t Answer the Phone (from Rhino, so don’t expect much in the way of extras or great presentation) gets a disc today. Being afforded a much more lavish treatment is Don’t Go Into the Woods, with a documentary and two director commentaries.

Those with a taste for the exotic, meanwhile, might want to check out Eastern Horror Four Movie Set, featuring Vampire Resurrection, Devil Shadow, Calamity Of Snakes & The Devil's Box. Pretty good for $15.


Several more DTV horror entries this week. I’ll have to put Scott Foy into my dead pool for next year, because surely this stuff must kill him sooner or later.

5ive Girls: Hot Catholic school girls fight a demon, or something. Supposedly disappointingly short on T&A (another reason the ‘70s ruled), and sure to embarrass fans of Ron Perlman, who appears here.

8th Plague: An ancient Evil is set free in an abandoned prison and threatens the world. Has gotten some good (if not great) reviews from fans who like some gore and such.

Other horror entries include Skeeter (embiggened mosquitos), Superstition (1982; evil witch) and Horror Rises from the Tomb. Meanwhile, the really not bad Charles Band Subspecies films are collected in Subspecies: The Epic Collection. Then there’s Tiki: “A Hawaiian girl gets revenge on evil schoolmates with the help of a killer tiki.” Take that, Bradys! Meanwhile, check out Witchery: “David Hasselhoff, Catherine Hickland and Linda Blair investigate an evil witch in a haunted hotel.



Non-horror offerings this week include:

Bikini Girls from the Lost Planet. Directed by Fred Olen Ray, ‘nuff said.

Cinderella 2000 is a futuristic sexploitation flick made by Al Adamson back in 1977. Is it sexy? Again, it was made by Al Adamson.

The Bing Crosby / Fred Astaire Christmas classic Holiday Inn (in which Astaire amusingly plays a cad) gets a well-deserved special edition. This is the movie that introduced the song White Christmas, and is in my opinion a much superior film to the movie that bears that song’s name. Two documentaries and a commentary are included in what looks to be a pretty good package.

Too Cool for School: The John Hughes Collection bunches together Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Some Kind Of Wonderful. (Where the hell is The Breakfast Club?!)

The five films in the Trancers series starring Tim Thomerson and (for a while) Helen Hunt are collected in the Trancers Box Set.

Meanwhile, long after the Pirates of the Caribbean films have seen the release of every lame little pirate movie from the days of yore, the genre’s one authentic classic, the Wallace Beery version of Treasure Island, is finally hitting DVD. About frickin’ time.

Monday, October 09, 2006

It Came from the DVD Shelves! Terror is a Man (1959)

Producer / director Eddie (credited here as “Edgar”) Romero was born in the Philippines in 1924, and is fondly remembered by horror and B-movie buffs for a series of sleazy horror films he produced and often co-directed in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Terror Is a Man was his first such effort. As a neophyte, it’s perhaps natural that Romero cribbed from one of the most famous horror tales set on a remote, verdant island; H. G. Wells’ oft-adapted novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Shot in typically atmospheric black and white, and in an era that wasn’t conducive for the gore and tits he was later known for, it’s yet obvious that Romero’s exploitation instincts were already firmly in place. The film thus opens with a William Castle-esque text card. This warns that one scene is so shocking that it will be signaled with a bell—shades of the more famous ‘Horror Horn’ from Chamber of Horrors—and helpfully suggests that “the squeamish and faint-hearted close their eyes” at this juncture.

As usual with the period, the film doesn’t waste much time. The opening shot (under a bad superimposed ‘fog’ effect’) shows a dingy floating towards an island shore. Two men pause from combing the beach, and discover an unconscious man in the boat. They carry him off, but pause first as an ominous animal howl sounds elsewhere on the island.

From there we meet our limited cast. The marooned sailor is one William Fitzgerald, the man who saved him is Dr. Charles Girard. Girald has a statuesque blonde wife, Frances; a violence-prone henchman, Walter; and a few servants, sexy island girl Selene and her young brother Tiago.

Fitzgerald recovers, and of course gradually uncovers the Awful Truth: Girard is conducting surgical and chemical experiments in accelerated evolution. His subject is a panther that years of work have gradually transformed into a quasi-man. However, the beast, unsurprisingly terrified and bewildered by what is happening to it (and, in the best tradition of deranged henchmen, regularly tormented by Walter), periodically escapes and uses its still be-clawed hands to wreak murderous havoc.*

[*The make-up is minimal, and the film is smart enough to swath the creature in mummy-like bandages in order to disguise this. Even so, one evident marker of the beast’s origin, along with the clawed hands and cat-like whiskers pushing out from its bandaged face, are a pair of pointy little cat ears. Had Gerard made a cat-woman instead of a cat-man, and kept not only the ears but the tail, he presumably could have gotten himself a lot more funding, from Japan if nowhere else.]

Terror is a Man (the title refers more to Girard, presumably, than his piteous if murderous creation) is a quite good example of how solid execution is more important than a novel concept or characters. The dialogue is consistently efficient and interesting, which is especially helpful in that the movie can be a bit talky in-between the monster bits.

Meanwhile, a cast of talented actors (ah, the days in which the casts of horror movies were made up of, you know, adults), along with a script that ably limns the characters, avoids plaguing us with what could easily have been a tiresome parade of the usual stereotypes; the mad scientist, his neglected, frightened but sympathetic (to the ‘monster’) wife, the stolid hero, etc.

One element that clearly marks this as one of Romero’s films is the air of open sensuality. Westerners, especially sailors, have for centuries been enraptured by island populations of handsome people who were quite casual about sex. This sexuality marks Romero’s oeuvre, with naturally greater explicitness as the years went on. Even here, however, Selene is portrayed as Walter’s mistress with a frankness that is a little surprising, given the production date.

Moreover, Frances’ wishes to get off the island are motivated not only her fear, but by the lack of attentions she’s been getting from her work-obsessed husband. Fitzgerald, naturally, is instantly smitten with her, and (again for the time) is surprisingly quick to make a clearly sexual move on her. “I’m not lonely,” she replies, rebuking his overtures. “I’m frightened.”

However, we know that this is not entirely true, given an earlier scene where she—unknowingly watched by the then at-large monster—writhes alone in her bed in erotic frustration. Later, though, after spurning his advances, she watches Selene go off with Walter one night, whereupon she finally breaks down and seeks out Fitzgerald for a little release.

The end of the film is especially interesting. (SPOILERS!)

The monster, badly wounded, is aided by Tiago (which is kind of weird, given events, although it plays into the idea of the creature as an innocent victim.) The kid apparently—I’m not sure why this isn’t directly shown, perhaps they shot it and the film didn’t come out—ships the seemingly dying beast out in the small boat the similarly incapacitated Fitzgerald arrived in. It’s a nicely bookend to the beginning of the film.

However, assuming Romero was already thinking in terms of sequels, this climax also calls to mind his later Beast of Blood, the second of two films centered on the creature who became known as the Chlorophyll Monster. The Monster is apparently destroyed at the end of his first outing, but the sequel begins with the creature springing from a lifeboat and gruesomely slaughtering the crew of a freighter. It certainly seems possible that Romero was already thinking of a sequence like that with the end of this movie, and merely filed it away until he had a chance to use it.

(SPOILERS OVER.)

As noted, things are definitely helped by a good cast, who in underplaying their parts manage to ground them with a nice sense of reality. The budget for the film was obviously small, but the interior sets are pretty good (if obviously still sets), and the authentic jungle / island exteriors lend the film an expansiveness not often found in films of this nature.

I watched the film on the old Image DVD. Much of it is quite sharp (as only black and white is on DVD), although some of the exterior night scenes are noticeably washed out. Moreover, the sound is pretty poor. These faults probably are inherent to the film itself, although it would have been nice if Image had provided subtitles, given the weakness of the soundtrack. Wellspring later put out another DVD version, utilizing the same print and featuring supposedly better sound. That disc is cheaper, as well, and features a couple of extras, so anyone seeking to pick up the film should probably go with that version.

Fitzgerald is portrayed with quiet conviction by genre veteran Richard Dix, who has a sort of William Holden thing going. He invests his character with a natural intelligence and curiosity, so that his obstinate investigation of Girard’s work seems motivated more by his nature than the necessities of the plot.

Dix is best remembered as the star of When Worlds Collide, and played Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, in The Invisible Avenger. He also appeared in a lot of genre TV shows spanning several decades, including Lights Out (several episodes), Tales of Tomorrow, the original The Outer Limits, Project UFO and Automan. He played Adm. Fitzgerald—no relation, presumably—in "The Mark of Gideon" episode of the original Star Trek, and appeared in another episode, "The Alternative Factor", as well.

Girard, meanwhile, is equally well assayed by the suave Austrian actor Francis Lederer. Lederer had, presumably unknown to himself, achieved a low-grade immortality the year before this by playing the Count in 1958’s Return of Dracula, a similarly efficient low-budget film that was one of the first to bring Stoker’s character to then modern America.

Lederer apparently actively resented being in movie, thinking it beneath him as a classical actor, although again it’s the one that he’ll always be remembered for. (And, indeed, he would play the Count again in The Night Gallery segment “The Devil is Not Mocked.”) Thus is the passion of the horror movie community, who never forget a credit. Happily, Return of Dracula itself is scheduled to hit DVD in December.

Lederer’s work here is equally good. Girard is clearly nuts, but it’s a quiet nuts and all the more credible for it. We all like a guy who just goes for it and chews up the scenery, but Lederer’s performance here matches the understated tone of the rest of the movie, and helps to sell it in a surprisingly credible manner.

Director Gerardo de Leon was a mentor to Eddie Romero, and directed and co-directed (with Romero) many of Romero’s horror films, including Blood Drinkers (1966), The Mad Doctor of Blood Island (1968), Brides of Blood (1968) and Curse of the Vampires (1971). Mr. de Leon passed away in 1981.

Eddie Romero found his commercial niche, as noted, in a series of increasingly lurid horror films. His most memorable creation by far was the green-blooded and grotesque “Chlorophyll Monster,” a beast that gained notoriety from drive-in fans for his tendency to dispatch his victims in what was for the time an extremely gory fashion.

In the course of making his films, Romero worked with several work-seeking American actors (Patrick Wayne, Sig Haig, Angelique Pettyjohn), much as genre filmmakers in Japan and Europe did. One-time teen idol John Ashley was his regular star, and the two made eight pictures together. Ashley apparently prepared for such assignments with roles in earlier works such as Frankenstein’s Daughter and Larry Buchanan’s The Eye Creatures.

It’s too bad, really (although many others will obviously disagree), that Romero’s later films went so enthusiastically in the blood ‘n’ babes direction. Terror is a Man proves that he could easily have emulated Val Lewton instead of Al Adamson.