Monday, November 26, 2012

The Unknown (1927)

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) is an armless knife thrower in a travelling gypsy circus. He is in love with the owner's daughter, the hot Nanon (Joan Crawford). Lucky for Alonzo, Nanon has a terrible fear of being embraced by men, and therefore feels safe around him. But he has a competitor: Malabar the strong man (Norman Kerry). Surely she would never fall for him.

Here is where we learn some secrets. Alonzo is not who, and what, he appears. The cops are searching for a man with two thumbs on one hand who has been committing thefts wherever the circus goes. And as Alonzo's obsession for Nanon grows we learn more of what he is willing to do to get her.

Here is the best silent movie I've ever seen.

Sound, I feel, is essential to telling a story. Silent cinema is a serious handicap that is almost impossible to overcome. But Lon Chaney was it's master. Dialog is unnecessary when looking at his expression. There is no doubt what is going through his mind. I wish I hadn't deleted it from my DVR.

Apart from Chaney's uncanny acting talent, what else is interesting? Until 1973 the only copies that existed were very poor quality bootleg versions, when it was revealed that a quality copy was found five years earlier but was hard to find because it was marked "Unknown". There are a couple scripted scenes that I'm unsure were ever filmed. If they were, I would love to see them. The movie is barely an hour long. Crawford long said that watching Chaney is where she truly learned to act.

There is not much more to say. Had Lon been born ten years later, and lived twenty years older, he would have been the undisputed king of Hollywood, but his lifestyle would be the end of him. Lon Chaney died of lung cancer three years after the movie's release. Director Tod Browning intended on using him in the title role of Dracula. The 6'2" Creighton wasn't a shadow of his 5'9" father. AMRU 4.5.
"Hands! Men's hands! How I hate them!"

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Obsessed London wax artist Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is going broke and doesn't seem to care. Business partner certainly does and has a solution. Burn the house down for the insurance money. They fight but the poor artist is knocked unconscious.

Years later in New York, Igor reappears with a new museum, but because of injuries sustained in the fire, he cannot walk or use his hands. He trains young artists to do his sculpting for him. A young socialite dies and the reporter covering the story (Glenda Farrell), also the roommate of the fiancee (Fay Wray) of one of Igor's young artists, happens to notice that the Joan of Arc sculpture resembles the dead socialite, and that her body was stolen from the morgue ... well, you get the picture.

After seeing Vincent Price's House of Wax, I wanted to see this version for comparison. Apart from a couple character constructs, there is little difference in the stories. The biggest difference was the tone. As the main character is a 30's reporter, there was lots of that quick witted, wise-crackie, Front Page-esque dialog. The tone, in fact, was very similar to Doctor X, also starring Atwill and Wray and released the year before. Another similarity was that both were filmed in the two-strip technicolor process, which I happen to like.

Mystery of the Wax Museum is listed as a pre-code film, that is, released prior to the full enforcement of the MPAA production code, but I'm not sure what rule it violated. There is a reference to a bootlegger, but who cares. Only thing I can think is that some of Igor's sculptures were (horrors!) topless. Got that sexy clay going on.

Atwill excelled, as he frequently does, in his role. Wray got second billing, but didn't get much screen time or any good dialog to speak of. Her job was to scream when Igor tries to turn her into Marie Antoinette. This was really Farrell's movie, being in the lion's share of the frames and getting almost all the clever dialog.

So, how does it stack up to the 1953 remake? I'd match Atwill's performance up against Price, which is high praise, but overall the silly tone and mystery focus of the former has it falling short. Still a worthwhile watch, but doesn't offer much that the remake doesn't do better. AMRU 3.
"I offer you immortality, my child. Think of it: in a thousand years you shall be as lovely as you are now!"

Monday, November 12, 2012

Black Sunday (1960)

or "La Maschera del Demonio" (The Mask of Satan).

Two doctors travelling to a medical conference take a shortcut through a forest and come upon the tomb of the evil witch Ava (Barbara Steele), put to death by her brother two hundred years before. She cursed the descendants of her brother prior to having a spikey mask nailed to her face then burned. Ouch.

One bumbling doctor breaks the cross that was keeping her in her coffin then bleeds on her causing her to come back to life. Duh, people! Evil Asa then raises her boy-toy from the grave (using a mystical technique called "telling him to"). The doctors meet Princess Katia (also Barbara Steele), a cursed descendant of Asa's brother, then they part company until hot living princess' dad is attacked by the boy-toy of the evil dead princess. Is there a bumbling doctor in the house? I mean, haunted castle?

Great sets, moody and atmospheric, and well paced, Black Sunday was Mario Bava's masterpiece. The cinematography was excellent. I should have seen it prior to the other three I watched, but there was a problem with the Netflix copy. They were hashing to the 1977 movie which at almost two and a half hours, was not going to be budgeted on my calendar any time soon (an hour and a half was doable - I'm a busy little boy). Once corrected, this became the last movie I saw before Halloween.

If any Bava fans I did offend with my prior lukewarm reviews, note this is not the glowingist of reviews. Dubbing muddles the acting and partially spoils my viewing experience. Still, it's a wonderfully looking movie with a decent story, and Barbara Steele was hot. AMRU 3.5.
"You will never escape my vengeance, or of Satan's! My revenge will seek you out, and with the blood of your sons, and of their sons, and their sons, I will continue to live forever! They will restore me to life you now rob from me!"

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Crimson Cult (1968)

or Curse of the Crimson Alter. Have I mentioned that I hate it when they pointlessly change movie names?

Randy antique dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is looking for his missing brother so he visits is last known location, a spooky mansion that appears to have an orgy going on. Lord Morley (Christopher Lee) never heard of him but he was welcome to stay and have a look around. He spends half his time looking for his brother and the other half trying to nail Morley's hot niece Eve (Virginia Wetherell), even though she's fifteen years younger than him.

So there's this legend of the blue witch Lavinia (Barbara Steele), Karloff as a witchcraft expert (along with his trusty man servant Kato), Alfred as a weirdo butler, and strange cut sequences to some bizarre S&M cult. At first the movie makes little sense, but it all works out, I suppose. As unremarkable as this Lovecrafty story is, it did hold my interest. Maybe it was the teaming of legends Karloff and Lee, maybe the supporting cast (underused Steele and Michael Gough), or maybe it was the chick in pasties with the whip. Who can say? Not a quality flick by any stretch, but I'm certainly glad I saw it. AMRU 3.
"It's like Boris Karloff is going to pop up at any moment."