Monday, February 28, 2011

The Battle of Midway (1942)

Back in WWII, Director John Ford was just like any raw recruit who took to arms to defend his nation. That's right, just like any 50 year old recruit. His job: Shoot the enemy. That is to say, film the enemy shooting us. He got that opportunity during the famous battle of Midway. The result is an 18 minute documentary short.

In said documentary, Ford filmed service men, sea birds, enemy aircraft, more soldiers, while liberal Hollywood types like Henry Fonda narrate, pretending to be red-blooded real Americans. For this, Ford won the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Currently I'm at risk of spending more time typing this than I did watching it, so let me sum up like this: Ford was in the right place at the right time (maybe too right - he was wounded while filming) and this struck a nerve. Adding actor voices was an interesting technique. I wonder if the stories and names were accurate. Still, the Jingoistic hoopla was a little bit much. It came off tasting a bit of corn. I'll forgive the amateurish look because the technology of the day and the extreme difficulty of the circumstance. A little surprising that it won an Oscar, but an interesting piece none the less. AMRU 3.

Apparently Tojo is a reference to a Japanese soldier. I am told it's derogative, but who gives terms of endearment to enemy soldiers?

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Body Snatcher (1945)

No, not one of the Invasion Of movies. 1945's The Body Snatcher is based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story. I should see if I have a copy of it to see how close it comes. Here, the body snatcher is a man who steals dead bodies and sells them to medical students. His name is Cabman John Gray, but folks round town call him Boris.

Young hot-shot medical student has second thoughts about his chosen profession, but the cold hearted head doctor takes him under his wing and makes him his apprentice. Here he learns that not all cadavers the college uses are obtained in a strictly legal manner.

Young good doctor feels a little better about it when he decides to champion the case of a young girl who lost the use of her legs in the same accident that made her hot momma a widow. Hubba hubba. When young good doctor finally convinces old heartless doctor to actually touch a patient, he once again needs the service of even older, evil cabman.

But the body Boris brings back is a little fresher than most. If it weren't for the poor little girl, and her hot momma, he would have some serious misgivings about this arrangement. Besides, you can't turn in the guy who you buy dead bodies from.

Anyhow, we find out more of Cold Old Doctor and Evil Older Cabman's history together. Seems that the cabman did some serious time for protecting the identity of the old doctor, and he uses that fact to his advantage. How does it end? You'll just have to rent it. Bela Lugosi plays Ygor to the Old Doctor.

This came on the same DVD as I Walked with a Zombie and was something of a surprise. While I liked the former better, this had the same quality production. It was directed by Robert Wise, who has his name on films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, and West Side Story. Sadly, he also has his name attached with stinkers like Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Now, everybody know the Bela Lugosi voice. I Vant to Bite your Neck! There is also a Boris Karloff voice, an over-the-top English accent parodied in the song, The Monster Mash. Here is the first film where I heard that voice. Boris was a bit over the top, but it worked. Each film I see him in I am impressed anew. AMRU 4.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944)

Netflix recently made suggestions based on my interest in Charlie Chan in the Secret Service. Oh, yea, I thought. I saw that. I forgot to blog about it. Talking about staying power ...

Sidney Toler is back as America's favorite Asian stereotype. I've already covered the racism aspect of these films so let's take that as read. Thanks for building our railroads. We really appreciate it. As it turns out my criticism of the lack of clues leading to the conclusion from the first one holds true for this as well. Toler, in his annoying Chan cadence, points out clues he could not possibly have known. Everyone is a suspect until the very end. You have no chance of figuring it out yourself, except maybe to suspect the one person they don't highlight very much.

Here's how the story goes: scientist murdered, secret government plans stolen, dinner party guests suspects, Chan solves. Yawn.

This one was made earlier than Scarlet Clue and as it turns out, the first to feature my old friend, Mantan Moreland. Benson Fong also lends his uselessness to the mix. Chan niece Iris also tags along. Played by Marianne Quon, she was ... kinda cute. She didn't do a whole lot of acting in her life, and not that much here as it turns out.

Now I've seen two of these things and one thing is clear. A comedy/mystery that is neither funny nor a good mystery doesn't make for much of a movie. I liked Scarlet better because Mantan's bits were better. Having seen it first may have helped as well. AMRU 2.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

Francis Dee is hot nurse Betsy Connell. She's been hired to take care of the wife of a sugar plantation owner in the Caribbean. Seems the brain of said wife was burnt out by fever. Brains ....

Morose Husband Paul lives with flippant half brother Wesley and their mum. Wife's condition is strange and frightening, husband's demeanor is dark and brooding, while half-brother is drunk and disorderly. Slowly we piece together the family story. Did the good husband do this to her? Was it black magic? What secret is good-for-nothing Wesley hiding? And how come mum isn't around that much?

Well, Betsy falls for Paul and decides she will cure his wife for him. Not sure how that's going to help. But how can she do this when the doctor says it's hopeless? Well, hear them drum beats? The natives, they have BETTER doctors! No harm in bringing a comatose patient for a look-see.

Through this movie I came to the conclusion that my wife would actually like it. It was beautifully shot. Great sets and costumes. Good dialog. Very well made. Then I learned WHY my wife would like it. Apparently the director didn't like the story, so he adapted it to Jane Eyre. Sadly, the movie was returned before she could see it, not that she was all that willing to give it a try.

I can't emphasize enough how well this movie was made. No low budget quickie-sickie here. Darby Jones was creepy as a zombie-like person. The acting was top-notch and it had great atmosphere. The complexity of the story is most striking. Not horror is the conservative sense. Sure, elements of the supernatural abound, but it's all implied. It more than stands up to a second viewing. AMRU 4.5.

"Everything seems beautiful because you don't understand. Those flying fish, they're not leaping for joy, they're jumping in terror. Bigger fish want to eat them. That luminous water, it takes it's gleam from millions of tiny dead bodies. The glitter of putrescence. There is no beauty here, only death and decay."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Freaks (1932)

Here's the story in a nutshell: Hans and Frieda are engaged, but he can't hide his infatuation for Cleo, a woman out of his reach. Cleo is dismissive and condescending towards him. Cleo is with Herc, a big strong man. When they learn that Hans has inherited a fortune, they hatch a plan to marry him, poison him, and collect the inheritance. When Hans' coworkers learn of their plot, they extract their revenge.

Not much of a story. Nothing too original or shocking. But what makes Freaks stand out is that Hans and Frieda are circus midgets, and his co-workers include a man with no lower body, a woman without arms, conjoined twins, and other circus freaks. And instead of hiring actors to play the roles, director Tod Browning hired actual circus freaks. The mere sight of pinheads and bird ladies through audiences into the kind of panic that movie makers today just dream about. Imagine someone claiming your movie caused a miscarriage! But back in '32, that was poison.

What shocked audiences most may have been that the freaks were the good guys. Cleo (Cleopatra) and Herc (Hercules) were a normal trapeze artist and strong man. People seem to need to remind themselves of their elevated status. They want someone to look down on, figuratively and literally. Can we cope with the reality that midgets deserve respect?

Ok, off the soap box, Fred. Here is some interesting stuff: conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton established that if one were touched, the other would feel it. To complicate matters, one sister was married and the other becomes engaged. How's THAT supposed to work? And they weren't bad looking, either!

Prince Randian was a man born without arms or legs. Despite this, he was fairly self sufficient. There is a scene where he lights his own cigarette. According to DVD commentary, the original scene showed him rolling it first, but it was cut. He was assisted in his career by his son, further testimony to his ability.

Not a great movie. The acting ranged from ok to terrible. Some of the dialog was unintelligible. The original script was apparently censored but what we are left with could only have been made pre-code. The cut scenes, if they were filmed at all, would be very interesting, but are likely lost forever.

Banned for thirty years, Freaks was picked up by the 60's counter culture who embraced them as heroes. Maybe too late for the performers, who after seeing the audiences reaction to them and their lives, regretted making the movie. Not great film making, but unique and memorable. And re-watchable. AMRU 4.0.
"We accept her, we accept her! One of us! One of us!"

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Ape (1940)

There was a conversation between Monogram executives I'm sure when like this: "We've got Karloff under contract and a gorilla costume. Go make a movie." One would hope that more inspiration would be needed to start filming, but if there were, it was well hid.

Boris is Doctor Bernard Adrien, the worlds least beloved country doctor. He is on a quest to cure paralyses in a young lady and has taken to stealing pets to experiment on. Schoolchildren throw rocks at his house.

The ape in a circus attacks a cruel trainer and escapes. The town is on alert and the doctor treats the trainer, who dies. Using his spinal fluid he cures the paralysis in animals. Unfortunately he drops the vial before he can treat the young lady. The ape attacks his lab (drawn there by the odor of the cruel trainer) and the elderly doctor kills it. Thinking quick, he skins and tans the hide and makes a gorilla costume. Seriously? I bet that took all afternoon. Anyhow, using the costume, he goes out at night to "harvest" more "cure".

I've asked this before: what is it with pre WWII audiences and gorillas? Did the mere presence of an ape on the poster cause people to line up at the box office? Anyhow, calling this Horror is a stretch. I suppose the ape was monster enough, but including Doctor Karloff made it a slam dunk. I bet if Karloff appeared in a polident commercial, it would be classified as horror.

But what I found most interesting is how good of an actor Boris was. He was very restrained in his role, and had a completely different look then when he did The Ghoul or The Body Snatcher (which I haven't blogged yet). Bela was always Bela, but Boris could be anybody.

The Ape did have more to offer, but don't mistake it for anything other than a low budget quickie horror flick. The movie begins with up tempo circus music and I thought it was a comedy. The fact it wasn't funny wasn't a big deal. It wasn't scary either. Principally on the strong performance of Karloff, I give it an AMRU of 2.5.