Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Death Race 2000 (1975)

It’s the futuristic year 2000 and America is obsessed with a violent cross country race. The rules are clear, not really. The first team to get across the country, or racks up the most points, wins. Something. Oh, and you get points by running people down.

Our hero is the mysterious Frankenstein (David Carradine) and his biggest rival is Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone). There are five contestants in all and each have a navigator/mechanic/prostitute. Oh, and there’s a group of revolutionaries trying to sabotage the race. I hope they don’t insert a spy/saboteur into one of the cars.

Death Race 2000 is a fun, stupid, sometimes raunchy party of a movie. The race announcers sound right out of MTV or TMZ. The question isn’t are the performances over the top. It’s are they over the top enough. Looking for social commentary? You’ll be beaten over the head with it. Think Hunger Games but less subtly and more boobies.

That all said, it’s a pleasure to watch, ridiculous dialog and all. AMRU 4.
“A hand grenade”.

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Day at the Races (1937)

Pretty Judy (Maureen O’Sullivan) runs a Sanitarium that is short on cash. The bad guys are trying to buy her out so they can open a casino to go with the horse track next door. Her singer boyfriend blew all his cash on a racehorse, so he’s no help. Tony (Chico) tries to convince rich inmate (Margaret Dumont) to invest but she is obsessed with a doctor Hackenbush (Groucho) she saw in Florida. So Tony (Chico) sends a telegram inviting Hackenbush (Groucho) to visit. He does but unbeknownst to everyone, he’s a horse doctor. Harpo (Stuffy) is also there but he doesn’t have much to say.

Much of the manic tone and unconventional style of their earlier work is toned down for A Day at the Races. Groucho behaved less like a psychotic disconnected with what’s going on around him and more like a real person. He knows he’s a fraud and cares what happens to Judy. The end result is more importance felt for the situation Judy finds herself in and the comedic bits feel that much funnier. I can’t be sure if this tonal shift is due to Hollywood slowly reining the brothers in or if maturity was creeping in. Either way, it is a welcome change.

The most manic scene is where Hackenbush (Groucho) is forced to examine Mrs. Upjohn (Dumont) by an actual physician and he stalls with the help of Tony (Chico) and Stuffy (Harpo). It’s absolute insanity and it wouldn’t have had the same impact had the stakes not been high.

For me, this is the best Marx Brothers film so far. Producer Irving Thalberg died tragically at age 37 before filming wrapped and Groucho stated that he lost interest in making movies. I hope this doesn't bode ominously for the remaining films, but I already know a couple are stinkers. AMRU 4.
"If you're looking for my fingerprints, you're a little early!"

Friday, November 9, 2018

Strangler of the Swamp (1946)

The ghost of the bayou ferryman, executed for a murder he did not commit, haunts the swamp. Before he died he cursed everyone responsible and their descendants. When people turn up strangled, the old wives know who is responsible. Pretty and strong willed Maria, grand daughter of a strangled, returns to her old town to take the now vacant job of ferry-person. She doesn’t buy into any of this superstitious nonsense. Know who else doesn’t? Young Chris (Blake Edwards - Yes, THAT Blake Edwards) who also returns to town and strikes up a fancy for pretty and strong willed Maria.

The entirety of this no-budget thriller takes place in three locations: The ferryman’s cabin, the ferry itself, and rich Chris’ rich dad’s fancy house. They spoke of other places, but we don’t get to see them. Sets cost cash, you know. Blake Edwards used to be an actor, apparently. He did a lot of uncredited background work before becoming one of the best writers in history. Charles the Merciless Middleton played the haunted ferryman.

Short and atmospheric, Strangler of the Swamp isn’t bad for what it is. What it is, however, is somewhat dull and predictable. AMRU 2.5.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Walking Dead (1936)

A judge who convicted a gangster is murdered, and a simple ex-con (Boris Karloff) is framed for it. Testimony from two young lab assistance could exonerate him, but they come forward seconds too late. So their scientist-boss (Edmund Gwenn) gets custody of the body (all you need to do is ask, apparently) and brings him back to life. Seems revived Boris knows things that pre-dead Boris didn’t. Santa is anxious to learn how.

This Warner Brothers gangster/horror film was directed by Michael Curtiz who directed a dozen films a year from the early teens until he dropped dead, of exhaustion I presume. Karloff is fantastic as the understated simpleton raised from the dead. Santa was Santa as always.

The studio was clearly banking on the Frankenstein associations. Karloff Frankensteined his way after the gangsters and Gwenn even gave a “He’s Alive” upon his revival. The gothic trappings were not present (well, there is that one graveyard scene) but studios know how to sacrifice originality for ticket sales. But don't judge them too harshly. Karloff was something of a phenomenon at the time and money is money.

All in all, The Walking Dead is a plus horror film. There is a bit more going on than risen-monster-seeks-revenge. There are a few elements at play and Karloff showed some unexpected range. Make no mistake, it's still a B picture, but a well done one. AMRU 3.5.
“The Lord thy God is a jealous God!”