Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Devil-Doll (1936)

Two convicts escape together. One wants to exact revenge on his business partners who conspired to get him falsely imprisoned. The other wants to continue his work trying to make people little so that they eat less. When convict number 2 dies abruptly, convict 1 uses the talent of his creepy wife to complete his plan.

Wow, what crappy acting. I'm starting to think Lionel Barrymore wasn't the actor I thought he was. Seems the only part he can play is Lionel Barrymore. Still, he wasn't the worst offender in this one. Young hottie Maureen O'Sullivan did a good job playing a young hottie.

Allegedly classified as horror, it comes off more like a melodrama. The title makes it sound like an early version of Child's Play, but it's more of an early (and better) version of Attack of the Puppet People.

You see, shrinking people to six inches tall is fairly easy (obviously) but it seems their brain shrinks as well, making them incapable of free will. Lucky for convict 2, they can be controlled by staring at them with a constipated look on your face. Let's pack up the meth lab and head to Paris for some good old-fashioned revenge! Wait, how does an escaped convict and an off the grid swamp-scientist afford that? Best not to ask such questions.

Here is Tod Browning's penultimate (that's fancy-talk for second to last) directorial effort. I've seen a fair number of them and still not sure what to make of him. Seems he does well with good talent around him, and not so much otherwise. Freaks supposedly ruined his career, but he was pushing 60 by the time he did his last seven years later. Maybe TCM will run a bio on him sometime.

It's a fair, very watchable movie, that's not terribly crafted. The oversized sets for the little people to climb on were well done. And the special effects, while not amazing, were good for the day. Not Tod Browning's worst work. AMRU 3.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

London After Midnight (1927)

Five years after the suicide of a wealthy man, strange people lease his mansion. Maybe they're vampires!

Lon Chaney and Tod Browning made ten movies together and London After Midnight was their most successful, if not the highest praised. Come the sound era, it fell into obscurity, and was remade by Browning as Mark of the Vampire in 1935. The only known print was destroyed when an MGM vault caught fire, making it the most sought after lost film. Imagine my excitement when TCM put it on their Halloween schedule! Imagine my disappointment when I learned that I was to watch forty-five minutes of production stills and title cards.

There are a large number of high quality photos of the production and the producers did a fair job of combining them with new title cards and a better than fair score. However, the stills were frequently reused causing the story to became muddled. A noble effort for the materials at hand, but it came off as cheesy at times.

Interesting to film historians and recovering philistines like myself, but fairly hard to watch by any measure. If you have difficulty with movies that don't talk, movies that don't move is a non-starter. Glad I watched it, I suppose, and will wait for a copy to be rediscovered. Check your attics! AMRU 3.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Monster (1925)

Local milquetoast aspires to be a detective. He investigates the case of a missing millionaire at an abandoned sanitarium.

This mediocre horror-themed comedy appears inspired by, but not nearly as good as, Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. Lon Chaney doesn't appear until a half hour into the movie and isn't given much interesting to do. There's fair atmosphere and some amusing haunted house gags, and did hold my attention for the duration, but it's simply not horror nor is it an exceptional comedy.

A Watchable, early, haunted house/mad scientist film, but otherwise unremarkable. Ben Mankewitz totally oversold this sucker. AMRU 3, mostly because Lon Chaney.
"Use your ingenuity"

Monday, November 3, 2014

Village of the Damned (1960)

Without warning, all of the citizens of a small English village mysteriously pass out. When they awake, many of the women find themselves pregnant. Months later, they all give birth to blond haired, creepy eyed, gifted children.

Village of the Damned proves that money is not required to make a quality movie. Not even a quality science fiction movie. Devoid of big name actors or special effects, Village of the Damned cost either $200k or $320k to make depending on the source, a pittance even for 1960. They relied on quality actors, an excellent story, and a solid script.

Science fiction films are sometimes very bad with the science. No so here. When something is left unexplained, they at least analyze it intelligently. Also, mysterious pregnancies like these would raise serious societal questions. Infidelity? Virgin births? Promiscuity? While these angles never become the focus of the story, they are not ignored. Items for us to consider are exactly how were the woman impregnated? Invisible magic or molested by an unseen beast? That was left to our imagination.

Village of the Damned is a very well crafted movie. Better horror films were released the same year, but few low budget movies of the era can compare. It has a smart script and creepy story and delivers on all promises. AMRU 3.5.
"You have to be taught to leave us alone."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Uninvited (1944)

Brother and Sisters (Ray Miland and Ruth Hussey) purchase a beautiful mansion on the seacoast for great price. It's cheap because it's haunted.

What follows is a mystery punctuated with some genuinely spooky scenes. The former owner's granddaughter desperately wants to visit the house even though grandpa says it's dangerous. The history of the house, slowly pieced together, helps explain the occurrences and direct the course of action.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz pointed out that the golden age of Hollywood produced few quality Ghost/Haunted House movies. Most that they did were comedies. The Uninvited stands alone as a quality, serious ghost movie.

Batman's Alfred has a key role. Remember him from The Mole People? The IMDB entry includes the keywords closeted and suspected Lesbian. I presume they are referring to the Ruth Hussey character, but I think they are reading too much into the unmarried sister angle.

What does come off as odd is when 40ish Miland starts hitting on 20ish granddaughter. Pretty-pretty Gail Russell battled a few ghosts of her own. Alcoholism gripped her life and she succumbed to a heart attack at age 36.

Atmospheric, well acted, and a complex story, The Uninvited is a very well crafted film. The story creeps without relying on jump-scares or feeling manipulative. It has the feel of a costume drama-period piece, without actually being one, but I don't hold that against it. I wouldn't object to a second viewing, but I'll settle on AMRU 3.5
"We will do nothing tonight that the priest wouldn't approve of."

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

A young Salvation Army worker is dying on New Year's eve and requests to see the first man to visit the shelter. That man lies drunk in a graveyard. He tells his drinking buddies that whomever dies at the stroke of midnight is fated to drive Death's carriage to collect the souls of the departed. When he is killed in a fight, the carriage arrives and David Holm is then shown the wickedness of his ways.

Slightly Christmas Carol in theme, and very temperance in tone, The Phantom Carriage is a landmark of early Swedish cinema, and of the horror genre. The special effects (mostly double exposure to show the translucent carriage) was groundbreaking for the day.

The story is not easily summed up and the storytelling is quite nonlinear. But the meaning of the glances and the sequence of events is never in doubt. Director Victor Sjostrom was wonderful in the lead role. Ingmar Bergman was strongly influenced by the film, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Victor appeared in Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957).

There is much to say about this film, but I hate to stray too far from the irreverent. Apparently a homeless shelter in Sweden is called a "Slumstation", and "The End" is written as "Slut". Insert Bevis style giggling here. The Phantom Carriage transcends such nonsense, but sometimes I can't help myself.

An excellent film that isn't diminished by silent cinema, but I do recommend finding a copy with a good score. Great atmosphere, excellent acting, and a rewarding viewing experience. AMRU 4.
"Captive, come forth from thy prison!"

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Peeping Tom (1960)

Would-be film maker works the less glamorous side of cinema while exploring his personal project: filming women's dying expression of terror. Spoiler Alert! He's the killer!

Ok, not much of a spoiler. There isn't any question starting from the opening moments. Peeping Top is a complex, layered film. The script, acting, and dialog are exceptional. Director Michael Powell crafts a wonderful film. We follow Mark Lewis through his career, his attempt of a social life, and his extra curricular activities.

Released the same year as Hitchcock's Psycho, it's hard not to draw comparisons. Both movies follow a socially awkward antagonist (with parent issues). But while Psycho was heralded as Hitchcock's masterpiece, Peeping Tom ruined Powell's career.

The film's reception was harsh in the extreme, and it was a commercial failure. Exactly why mystifies me. Was it more graphic, more sexually explicit, more upsetting than Psycho? Maybe marginally. There are elements of pornography, voyeurism, and prostitution. Maybe Norman Bates was more palatable villain than Mark Lewis. Maybe we liked Lewis, sympathised with him just a little too much. It took a decade for critics to reevaluate the film.

Peeping Tom is a well crafted, innovative film, that would hold up to a second viewing. It is not to be skipped. AMRU 4.
"I don't trust a man who walks quietly."