Monday, November 30, 2009

The Ghost Walks (1934)

A playwright wants to present his latest play to a producer and somehow convinces him to drive to his remote mansion on a dark and stormy night to read it. His man-secretary is along for the ride. They get stuck in the road and have to walk to a nearby spooky mansion. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Strange things are a-foot. Writer Prescott Ames has a history in the house and at dinner, we learn a murder happened there ten years earlier, that very night. The lights go out, a ghost makes an appearance, and the widow disappears! Guess what. Mr. Ames is putting his producer friend (and his closeted secretary) on. This is HIS house, and they were all actors treating them to act 1 of his play. Oh, wait. Spoiler Alert! Was I too late on that?

Producer and secretary find a room ... I mean find the script and realize they were played. No longer frightfully fearful, they go back downstairs to enjoy the show. The actors fess up to the deception, but when they find the poor widow, she actually is dead! Producer and BFF don't believe them.

A guard from a sanitarium (of course) arrives saying a homicidal maniac is on the loose. Then we learn the house has a history of murder, and the eyes in the painting come alive and look at people and, well, they pull out just about every cliche in the book. The actors run around like mad and the producer and his guy-pal snicker, thinking it's all a gag.

This movie is old enough that the scare devices were fairly new, if not original. And for the title, well, there was kinda a ghost. I suppose he was walking. Other people totally walked. Had to. The car was stuck.

I'm torn on what to give it. Clearly it wasn't "great". The audio and video quality ranged from poor to pitiful. I hate to condemn it for that reason, but I simply cannot enjoy a movie I can't hear and barely see. Right now I give it a 2.5. Watch it for yourself.

The Living Ghost (1942)

I stopped into the library to pay my fines (totally worth it) and I saw a "vintage double feature" (Translation: two old, crappy movies with a similar theme). The titles were "A Walking Nightmare" and The Ghost Walks". Never heard of them. Or of anybody who was in them. Can't resist.

The first one, called A Walking Nightmare, is actually named The Living Ghost. But of course the name of the movie is called Haddocks' Eyes, but that's another story entirely.

Marketed as a horror story (at least by Alpha Video), this is a comic (maybe screwball) mystery along the lines of The Thin Man series (which are GOOD movies). Maybe a little too closely. Released twelve months after Shadow of the Thin Man, the reluctant, smart alec detective is named Nick. Nick Traynor, played by James Dunn. Retired from the detective business, he is badgered into taking the case by his light haired Nora, Billie Hilton played by Joan Woodbury. She was a kinda hottie who's career dwindled as 30 got further in her rear view window. Two big differences with The Thin Man is that Living Ghost takes itself far less seriously and the lack of conspicuous drinking.

The story surrounds the mysterious disappearance, and later reappearance, of the wealthy Walter Craig. When he returns he is in a catatonic state. The actual doctor's description of what happened to him is rather stupid. The peculiar family hosts many suspects. Nick does his sleuthing in the scary mansion while doing vaudeville shtick and dodging verbal barbs from Billie.

Now, let me make fun of the titles. Living Ghost? Craig was indeed living, and he was sorda like a ghost in the sense ... no, he wasn't anything like a ghost. More like a zombie. But he was living! (Although the actor would be dead in four years.) Walking Nightmare? Maybe Craig was having nightmares while he was walking? I swear they made up movie titles based on what word was popular that month.

Clever, witty, short, all good traits of a B movie. Not horror by any stretch, but mildly thrilling if one is willing to be so. Don't confuse it with a quality film and you'll be happier. AMRU 3.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Seven Samurai (1954) - part 2

The new copy came in an I watched the last of disk one and about half an hour of disk 2. Daily life disallowed me to watch the last hour and change until last night.

So, we take up the story of a village under oppression. Their crops were robbed by bandits, and when they return, they realize the village has nothing. So they decide to return when the barley ripens. A villager hears this and know that if this crop is taken, they are doomed. Give up the crop without a fight and beg the bandits to leave them something?

No, says grandpa. Hire Samurai to defend the village. It is a tall order to find Samurai to fight for nothing more than rice. In all seven agree. One is young and untested. One's Samurai credentials are in question. Others are not great warriors but posses other skills. They fortify the village and train the farmers.

There are a few side stories. The villagers fear the Samurai. One forces his daughter to dress as a boy. Another villager has a secret. Some of the houses are outside the protection perimeter and that causes concern. Add to it the idea of Ronin staying loyal not to a lord, but to a noble cause, and the Samurai who isn't a Samurai. All of this works together.

Partly the way I watched the film, I could readily identify with only four of the seven. The leader was distinct, being older and having cut his hair early in the film. The young Katsushiro was timid and unsure. Kikochiyo moved unlike the others. You did not have to see his face to know who which one he was. Unlikable at first, he becomes very endearing. The others kinda blended in. A second, uninterrupted viewing would be in order.

A few things to mention. For a movie with such a high body count, there was no gore. The Samurai slices his sword near an opponent and the cut is implied. I didn't feel it was missing. A three and (almost) a half hour movie is quite daunting, but it didn't drag. The pacing was perfect.
There are many elements in this movie. Action fight scenes, a love story, a noble cause, youth proving one's self, and it's all done expertly. Maybe technically perfect. Far be it for me to make such a declaration, but put this much stuff into a 207 minute, subtitled, black and white film, and if you get an eight year old video game junkie glued to the screen, and you have something special. I returned the disks two days late at $2 a day. It was worth it.

AMRU 4.5. Now maybe I can get the boys to watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

William Powell is still a witty drunk. Myrna Loy is still a hottie. Baby Nickie is a little older. Same kind of story, different details. Nick keeps walking into a murder investigation, and tries as hard as possible to avoid getting involved, but it's no use. First, a jockey is shot while in the shower. Then there's this binder that everybody is trying to get their hands on. Another murder and way more characters than I am able to keep track of.

Maybe I started the movie when I was just too tired. Maybe I'm growing tired of the series, but the charm factor was gone. About an hour into the film I shut it off and went to bed.

More awake after work, I watched the end. Guess what? Detective stories are way more entertaining when you have enough brainpower to actually follow the story. The characters and format are basically identical to the first three movies, but here are my observations:

A 20 year old Donna Reed was basically forgettable in the second role of her career. Asta again provided comic relief. The joke here being that he was afraid of everything. To illustrate the point there were sequences of sped up film of Asta running and hiding. Funny stuff. The cops are incompetent, of course.

Maybe I will watch it again. I really enjoyed the last twenty or so minutes. I have a busy weekend, we'll see. I'm curious to see the mystery when you know who the murderer is. And it'll be nice to see it while awake. AMRU 3.5.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Seven Samurai (1954) - part 1

Seven Samurai (Shinchinin no samurai) is the story of a farming village in 16th century Japan. Roaming bandits rule the landscape. When one farmer overhears bandits say they will plunder the village when their barley crop ripens, the community is thrown into despair.

After a long discussion, the decision is made to try and hire Samurai to defend the village. The problem is that all they have to pay them with is rice. They must find hungry Samurai. A motley band of seven arrive to a village of people who both desperately need and fear them.

Seven Samurai is a movie of great reputation. IMDB voters have ranked this foreign language film as the 15th greatest all time. Entertainment Weekly placed it twelfth. It is called the first modern action movie, with many of the cinematic elements either invented or refined here. The Magnificent Seven (1960) was based on it.

At first I was apprehensive to start this movie. It's over three hours long and I didn't know if I had the stamina. Imagine my surprise that not only did I totally get into the movie, but so did my 8 and 13 year old sons. This, a black and white movie with subtitles and surprisingly little action.

Now, imagine my frustration when the DVD flaked out on me at the end of chapter 10 (of 12) on disk one! On close inspection I found that the disk had been cleaned with what looks like find grit sandpaper. Disk two looked slightly better, but I wasn't going to play it without seeing the rest of disk one. I've tried it in the Playstation to see if I got better results, but no dice.

I've requested another copy from the library. I'll hold off giving it a rating, but as of now it's a 4, at least. Woonsocket Harris library, you're getting yours back!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Outside of the Box

When I started this blog, I was intending on watching "good" and "important" movies. But lately I've been watching a lot of crappy sci-fi and horror. Whatever, it's my blog. I'll get around to watch some good movies eventually. In the meantime I picked up two films that are sort of throwbacks, modern movies in the style of old B thrillers.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera (2001) tells the story of a scientist who goes to a remote location to study a meteor said to contain high amounts of a rare element, atmospherium. An evil scientist wants to steal the meteor and use it to resurrect a skeleton and rule the world. Into the mix are a couple space aliens who need the atmospherium to repair their ship. Also, there is the matter of an escaped space mutant.

Lost Skeleton is less an hommage and more a spoof. The filmmakers went out of their way to recreate the cheezy props, bad acting, and awkward dialog. It is a screwball comedy with a B-movie premise. What they didn't recreate is the atmosphere of the old films. It was filmed digitally then the color was removed in post production. The end result looks nothing like an old movie. It was way too sharp. Also, there is something about how it was shot that makes it hard to confuse it with anything but a modern movie. I can't put my finger on it.

That said, it did have it's funny moments. The dinner scene was hilarious. My boys still hoot about it. The redundant and terse dialog was interesting, but was taken too far. It became an annoyance after a while. It was fun loving and funny and that made it worthwhile, but I wish it took itself a little more seriously. There is a sequel and I may see it.

Alien Trespass (2009) does take itself seriously. A scientist witnesses what is assumed to be a meteor crash and goes to investigate. Turns out it was a flying saucer. In the crash a space monster escapes and threatens the world. Wait, didn't I just hear something like that?

Clearly made with a larger budget, Alien Trespass is more entertaining, more visually appealing, and faithfully recreates the feel of an old Sci-Fi movie. The color was slightly washed out like the old technicolor movies. The sets were (for the most part) accurate and attractive. Great attention to detail.

The space ship commander (sort of a space-federal marshal) borrows the body of the scientist and goes hunting for the ghota. Some teenagers have seen the monster but the cops don't believe them. A diner lady thinks the scientist has flipped his wig, and nobody seems to know what is going on.

Clearly not breaking new ground, but it wasn't meant to. What it meant to do it did exactly. Pitch perfect. An old style Sci-Fi with an interesting story and enough hidden jokes for modern ears.

Rating these two, I'll give Lost Skeleton a 3.5 and Alien Trespass a 4.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Last Man on Earth (1964)

I've seen a lot of zombie movies recently. On Halloween AMC ran The Night of the Living Dead and I ended up seeing most of it, again. Apparently the inspiration for Night was The Last Man on Earth, and the book it was based on, I Am Legend. Last Man was in my collection, so I popped it in.

Dr. Robert Morgan (Vincent Price) lives in a world where everybody else is infected by a virus. The virus kills the host, then they rise from the dead to kill the living. Delightful. Price plays a scientist who spends the last few years searching for a cure. We follow his regular routine, make coffee, run to the super market, burn corpses, look around town for zombie/vampires to drive stakes into their hearts. Regular stuff.

The monsters fear their own reflection, avoid garlic, can talk, hide in daylight, and are killed by the stake thing. Totally vampires. They are slow moving, dimwitted, and resemble rotting corpses. Sounds like zombies. I'll call them Zompires. No, wait, Vampies! Lemme work on it and I'll get back to you.

In flashback we see a little bit of Morgan's life and how the epidemic started spreading. His wife and child were taken. Three years dealing with the dead and missing his family have driven him to the brink of despair, or insanity. So sad.

Last Man is in the public domain and the quality was fairly poor. It was made in Italy and the dubbing was terrible. Worse still, this wasn't the perfect role for Price. He plays better as the smug villain, not the heroic protagonist. And what can you say about a movie where you sit and think of all sorts of ways to make it better, while you are watching it? Oh, and the poster is way sexier than the movie. Still, it boasts a legacy of Night, The Omega Man, and I am Legend, so it was interesting to see how it all began. Classic "Glad I saw it, don't need to see it again" deal. Totally AMRU 3.