Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ghost Story (1981)

Four old rich men, friends since college, get together to tell each other ghost stories. When one of their sons dies mysteriously in a horrible green-screen effect, his brother tries to unravel the mystery. Spoiler alert: ghosts are involved.

This film is famous for bringing together four stars of classic Hollywood in what was the final film appearance of three of them. Fred Astaire was a Hollywood legend who revived the musical genre in the 1930’s, Melvyn Douglas has a huge and diverse body of work, John Houseman was famous for being John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, was famous for being the son of Douglas Fairbanks.

Legend more to my liking Patricia Neal had a supporting role. Old friends will remember her from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She didn’t appear in many feature films but I will see her again. Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from First Contact, plays the spoiler alert role. Over the decades she has appeared in a whole pile of stuff that I’m utterly unfamiliar with.

During the climax, with four minutes left on the film, just before the big reveal, the public library DVD failed. Amazon Prime to the rescue. It was free with membership all along.

Ghost Story is a peculiar film. Every scene is a mystery for the viewer to figure out. Awkward dialog, overt sexuality, oppressive score, oddly expressive lighting, and an overall style that had an early-80’s artsy-trippy feel. I found it somewhat reminiscent of the much worse Cat People (1982). Both were films that would make a little more sense on a second viewing, but neither will get that opportunity. AMRU 2.5.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Cape Fear (1962)

After eight years, Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is released from prison. His first order of business, well his only order of business, is to punish the man responsible for his conviction, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), an attorney who testified against him.

Peck and Mitchum make for an interesting contrast of styles. About the same age (Peck was 16 months older), started in acting about the same time (1944 and 1943 respectively), both ruggedly handsome leading men. Peck, however, was a more traditional leading man with a slightly more illustrious body of work, if quite a bit shorter. Mitchum, on the other hand, played more morally ambiguous characters in more unconventional films. To me, Peck seemed to be from an earlier era. Maybe because of style, or maybe because Peck’s major film roles ended in the 1970’s while Mitchum continued into the 90’s.

Old friend Martin Balsam is the police chief. There is a scene where cops ascend a staircase that resembles quite closely the one in the Bates’ homestead, but Marty isn’t with them. Kojack himself Telly Savalas has a sizable role. I know he’s been in a fair number of notable movies, but I had never seen him in anything except his TV series. No, who loves YOU, baby.

A couple things annoyed me here. First is how much the cops harassed poor Max. Sam and family are appropriately alarmed by Max’s behavior, but he doesn’t break any laws. So the cops interrogate him at every opportunity and try to run him out of town. Total civil rights violations by the protagonists. Another thing was that nobody closes the goddamn doors. I think a lot of problems could have been easily avoided.

Cape Fear is a better than fair horror film. Max is a smart and unrelenting monster. But maybe because of its reputation I was a little disappointed. Also some of the acting performances were painfully terrible (I’m looking at you, Barrie Chase!) and little about how the story plays out will surprise anyone. Still, it's a good watch. And Mitchum's performance is quite impressive. AMRU 3.5.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Zombies on Broadway (1945)

Two men hired to promote a new nightclub owned by a gangster promise a zombie for opening night. Gangster forces them to produce a real one so that he is not embarrassed. Gangsters can be so sensitive. So, our comedic duo journey forth to the Caribbean island of San Sebastian. Tropical hijinks and sad stereotypes ensue.

The comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney were a poor man’s Abbott and Costello act. They did eleven films together, about half using the same character names as here. Afterwords they both went on to do television, but not together as far as I can tell.

Bela Lugosi played the evil scientist character in the spooky mansion. Past sixty, he still displayed a fair level of physicality. With his Universal features behind him, he took just about every acting job offered. Becoming a parody of himself, he effectively weakened his brand and hurt his reputation in Hollywood. Please take note Nic Cage. Old friend Ian Wolfe appears as a museum curator. I believe this makes eight films. Our ingenue this evening was pretty Anne Jeffreys, who has fairly little to do in the film. She performs a musical number, catches Wally’s eye, and gets captured. She appeared to have some acting chops, not that this was the venue to display them. She had played Tess Trueheart in Dick Tracy. Her movie career never approached A list level and went on to do a steaming pile of television. She passed away just this past September.

Zombies had a few more things in common with I Walked With a Zombie (1943). Both are set on the same fictitious Caribbean island. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot and head zombie Darby Jones all but recreated their earlier roles. Darby (and others turned zombie) wore prosthetic bugged out eyes. The effect was actually quite effective.

Zombies on Broadway wasn’t even as amusing and entertaining as the title suggests. At no moment did I giggle, even the slightest. The frady Abbott and Costello bits were tedious at best and insulting at worst. 1945 was far too late in the game for blackface to be either clever or funny, but there we have it. I also felt sorry for the black extras who had to dress as “natives” and jump around. At least they had work. AMRU 2.
“A great scientist. Yes, some people say he is crazy. I don't think he is crazy... well, ah, not very crazy, anyway.”

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Radio big mouth Lawrence Lawrence (Bob Hope) angers a mobster who asks to meet him at his hotel. When Larry visits, he witnesses an unrelated mob hit and mistakenly believes he killed the guy. He hides in the apartment of pretty Mary (Paulette Goddard) who inherited a spooky mansion on an island off of Cuba. Hiding in her luggage, they set sail.

Pretty Mary also has a back story. Spooky mansion is haunted and people say her life is in danger if she goes there. A man tried to warn her but was killed outside her apartment in a related mob hit. Larry likes pretty Mary so he decides to help her.

Playing Larry’s man servant is veteran racial stereotype Willie Best. I have seen him (and barely remember him) in the abomination General Spanky (1936) and the eminently forgettable The Monster Walks (1932). Speaking of minorities being allowed minor roles, Zorba the Mexican himself Anthony Quinn makes two brief appearances.

Somewhat similar to its predecessor The Cat and the Canary (1939), which I rewatched just prior, it pales somewhat in comparison in a couple ways. Primarily there were too many characters. It is not uncommon to introduce many possible suspects early in a film but they became hard to track. Also, red herring suspects are not a substitute for a good story. There are many story elements at play here, but the actual story is rather simple. The elements at best are a distraction.

But this is not to say The Ghost Breakers is a bad movie. It’s ok. Hope is as amusing as he was prior and Goddard just as charming. The pointless running around the haunted mansion seemed gratuitous, but in the end the film served its purpose. Bob and Paulette didn’t do any more films together probably because Hope already started his Road Movies with Bing. I like The Can and Canary better, but I liked this better than Road to Singapore. AMRU 3.
“Oh, you look like a black out in a blackout. This keeps up, I'm gonna have to paint you white.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Penalty (1920)

A young doctor makes the fateful decision to amputate the legs of an injured boy. His mentor sees that the younger doctor has made a rash decision but covers for him to the parents. But the boy knows the truth and grows up to be an evil criminal mastermind, bent on revenge.

Lon Chaney had his lower legs bound to achieve the illusion of being an amputee. Although he could not have them bound for more than ten minutes at a time, the illusion was quite successful. And his character was quite evil.

I waffle on calling The Penalty horror. I have a clear definition that grows muddier as time passes. An element of the supernatural is needed and regular old evil just won’t do. Chaney’s evil, however, is something special. Normally one can identify with his characters, even if just a little. Compassionate, flawed, and tragic. Here, not so much. Maybe as a boy who just lost his legs, but not during in the story proper. He bad.

Ethel Grey Terry played an agent sent undercover to get close to Chaney’s Blizzard, and there are strange parallels in the two actors real lives. Ethel was born six months before Lon and about four months after he passed she died from “an illness she'd suffered for over a year”, whatever that means. Both were veterans of silent cinema with one talkie credit each. Chaney’s a lackluster remake of a film he had done five years earlier, and Terry’s was a short done with her husband. Crime stories both. Terry’s Husband, it’s worth noting, retired from acting very shortly after her death, never remarried, and would commit suicide on the 35th anniversary of her passing. Chaney’s widow would die three years after him, on Halloween.

The Penalty strikes the right horror tone and Chaney’s performance is among his best. Overall, not among his best movies, but effective. AMRU 3.5.
“He’s gathered up his dance hall girls and he’s put them to work in his house - making hats - thousand of hats.”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Red Shoes (1948)

A talented young ballerina (Moira Shearer) and a 40ish college student composer (Marius Goring) are given career breaks by the difficult head (Anton Walbrook) of a great ballet company. Soon young Victoria must choose between the man she loves and becoming a great ballerina. Can’t do both. That’s all explained in detail.

Despite the film’s initial lack of success, Moira Shearer became a sensation and parlayed that success into six more movies. One of which, fans may remember, was director Michael Powell’s other masterpiece flop: Peeping Tom. You remember, the film that ruined his career. All he did here was almost bankrupt the studio with a film that would take forever to break even. Had it not been for film nerd Martin Scorsese, The Red Shoes may have been forgotten.

Fans may remember Anton Walbrook as the husband in the 1940 version of Gaslight. Born in Germany, he high-tailed it out when the Nazis moved in. It seems he was 50% Jewish is 100% gayish. Nazis weren’t his crowd. Many of the ballet company members were actual dancers and not actors. This lent a certain air of authenticity.

The Red Shoes is a fantastic looking film. Still very early in the Technicolor era, it was heralded as its best example. The photography, the cinematography, and the performances were spot on and dazzling to look at. The story parallels that of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the same name, that was also performed on screen near the end of the second act. It is clear why audiences of the day did not take to it. It is unconventional in tone especially for 1948. But it is a wonderful film to watch and I will again. AMRU 4.
“You cannot have it both ways. A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.”

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The House of Fear (1945)

Members of a rich mans club that meet in a spooky mansion in the Scottish country one by one receive an anonymous letter that contain only orange seeds. Shortly thereafter, they die tragically. Also, they have a spooky housekeeper. Holmes and Watson investigate.

It seems that each member had their life insurance policies changed so that the rest of the club is the beneficiary. Holmes recognizes one as a Doctor who was acquitted for killing his wife, so he becomes the all-too-obvious suspect. The House of Fear is based on but does not at all resemble Doyle’s “The Five Orange Pips”, which is a story and not the name of the world's most caucasian R&B band.

Other than our heroic duo the only recurring character in these films is the incompetent cockney Inspector Lestrade (Dennis Hoey). Why a London cop is investigating a Scottish crime is the real mystery. In all he appears in six episodes. Doctor Suspect is played by Paul Cavanaugh, who made a career of playing dapper Englishman with a questionable past. He’ll be in a couple more of these.

Better than some and sure not to disappoint, but Boy-Howdy am I tired of these films. Time to move on for a while. With six more left, my self-imposed end of year deadline is in question. I shan’t lose sleep over it. October is for Horror and that will begin shortly. But for now, AMRU 3.5. I want a spooky mansion in the Scottish country.