Thursday, 29 November 2018

The Limejuice Mystery (1930)

Director: Jack Harrison

Here's a real curiosity for fans of Sherlockiana: a nine minute British Holmes spoof told entirely through the use of marionettes. It must be absolutely unique, right? Well, I'd have to add that there actually appear to be two separate but almost identical films from the same year of 1930 that were even made by the same company, Associated Sound Film Industries. There's this film, The Limejuice Mystery, starring Herlock Sholmes—a spoonerism, of course, for Sherlock Holmes—and Anna Went Wrong—a parody of the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong. Then there's Herlock Sholmes in Be-a-Live Crook, starring the title character, of course, and, well, Anna Went Wrong too! What are the odds? I'd suggest that they aren't good and these two films are surely one and the same, even if they happen to have different IMDb pages which list different two directors who went on to two different careers. The more I dig into the records, the more the two seem to become one, part of a set of short novelties featuring the Gorno Italian Marionettes.

But let's delve into that history later; let's delve into some other history first, because context is particularly important here; there are user reviews at IMDb that ably demonstrate that a lack of that context renders this film incomprehensibly strange. For a start, don't expect to find any lime juice anywhere; that's a reference to Limehouse, a district of London that's particularly known for its Chinese population and, a hundred years ago, was seen as a particularly dangerous place to go. This film unfolds, for instance, in an opium den, complete with drugged marionettes reclining in bays from which their opium smoke drifts. It's populated, of course, by orientals wearing the queue hairstyle which you'll probably recognise from period martial arts movies; the hair on top of the head is grown long and usually braided, while the front part of the head is shaved. Historically, it was imposed upon the Han population of China by the Qing dynasty as cultural imperialism, also allowing them to easily tell at a glance who was resisting their rule.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Home Sweet Home (1981)

Director: Nettie Peña
Writer: Thomas Bush
Stars: Jake Steinfeld and Vinessa Shaw

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Ah, Thanksgiving, that bizarre American holiday in which people are so thankful for everything they have that they feel the need to murder people the very next day just to get more of it. I've never quite understood Thanksgiving, but then I'm not American. I didn't grow up learning all the little rituals: not just eating turkey but watching Snoopy in the Macy's Day Parade on the television and listening to all eighteen and a half minutes of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant on the radio. Being English, I always found it odd that the descendants of immigrants would take a day to thank the Native Americans for saving the lives of their ancestors without apologising for everything that followed, especially when it remembers a specific event that nobody can actually place in history. I was surprised to discover that it didn't even have a firm date until the early 19th century, varying from state to state until settling on the final Thursday in November to replace a prior holiday, Evacuation Day, which remembered finally leaving the country.

Nowadays, I live in Arizona and I celebrate Thanksgiving with my American family on the fourth Thursday in November, to which Congress moved it as late as 1941. We stuff ourselves with food, misbehave with the grandkids and come home early because some family members work retail so have to go to work to prepare for the onslaught of Black Friday, the year's busiest shopping day. As a holiday that didn't even exist on a national level until Abraham Lincoln decreed it in 1863, it imposed itself quickly on the calendar and almost the entire country celebrates, regardless of colour, creed or religion. Given such blanket adherence, I'm rather shocked that more horror movies, or more movies of any genre, come to think of it, haven't been set on Thanksgiving. There isn't even an unofficial Thanksgiving movie, in the way that Die Hard has become an unofficial Christmas movie. If it isn't Christmas until Hans Gruber falls off the Nakatomi Plaza, then what has to happen on screen for it to be truly Thanksgiving? I have no idea.

Friday, 20 April 2018

4/20 Massacre (2018)

Director: Dylan Reynolds
Writer: Dylan Reynolds
Stars: Stars: Jamie Bernadette, Vanessa Reynolds, Stacey Danger, Justine Wachsberger, Marissa Pistone and James Storm

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Holidays come in all shapes and sizes and, as marijuana takes over from nicotine as the go to drug for Americans, 4/20 is becoming an important one. With stoners a traditional element of slasher movies, I’m rather surprised that nobody’s shot a horror flick set on this date before. I’m happy that the first turns out to be Dylan Reynolds, director of Nipples & Palm Trees, as he’s not the usual candidate for this sort of picture and he brings something a little different to the table. In many ways, this isn’t a horror film at all, even if it does feature such a quintessential slasher story as a bunch of young adults going camping in the woods, where they’re picked off one by one by a silent maniac who’s credited as the Shape, in a nod to John Carpenter’s Halloween. At heart, it’s more of a character-driven drama that merely happens to have a gruesome death scene every quarter of an hour. Only as the count of living people in the woods drops to three (c’mon, you were expecting everyone to live?) does it really become a traditional horror movie.

Reynolds, who wrote and directed, clearly understands the conventions of slasher movies and is happy, at points, to cater to time-honoured traditions. Mostly, however, he’s happy to avoid them. For instance, the folk whom he has traipse up four miles of trails to get to their remote campsite are odd in number, meaning that not everyone is going to pair up for the inevitable fooling around. I hope I don’t put potential viewers off by saying that he gives us precisely zero scenes of people having sex in tents. We don’t even see any boobs, even though all five of these campers are female, thus avoiding a few more clichés. They’re here to celebrate Jess’s birthday, which is on 4/20 (or, for my fellow Brits, 20/4, which just doesn’t sound as catchy), but Jess isn’t particularly fond of the weed; she tells her friends that it makes her paranoid. It’s Donna that’s the traditional stoner and she’s more than happy when the plot almost literally runs into them on the way up the hill to the campsite.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Golden Boy (1939)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Lewis Meltzer, Daniel Taradash, Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, from the play by Clifford Odets
Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, William Holden, Lee J Cobb, Joseph Calleia and Sam Levene

Index: 2018 Centennials.

I’ve long felt that William Holden is unjustly overlooked by the general public. It’s not that he’s forgotten; any classic film fan can reel off their five favourite Holden performances and probably add a few more to boot. It’s not that he didn’t make great movies; he arguably made a lot more of those than many of the golden age actors who are still household names today, like Clark Gable or Joan Crawford. It’s not that he didn’t have a lot of talent; he won an Oscar for Stalag 17 and was nominated on two other occasions. I think his biggest problem is that he’s not what people remember from those films. Those other two nominations were for Sunset Boulevard and Network, which are now playing in your head without him in attendance. It wasn’t Holden’s character who said, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.” Neither was it he who said, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” He was good enough in each of those films to be Oscar-nominated but we remember Gloria Swanson and Peter Finch.

To a lesser degree, the same goes for much of the rest of his career, which was a stellar one in which he invariably picked the right movies and did a great job in them, but he’s not who we remember. When I think of The Country Girl, it’s Grace Kelly who comes to mind. When I think of The Bridge on the River Kwai, it’s Sir Alec Guinness or perhaps Sessue Hayakawa. When I think of Sabrina, it’s Audrey Hepburn. And that’s just a start. The Horse Soldiers? John Wayne. Born Yesterday? Judy Holliday. The Towering Inferno or The Wild Bunch? Take your pick from those incredible ensemble casts. Now, I am missing out a number of other movies where Holden is emphatically the actor we remember most, but who in the general public has seen The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Picnic or even Stalag 17 nowadays? I know folk who teach visual effects in college and they have trouble finding students who have even seen the original Star Wars. I wrote a book because a college film class couldn’t identify Charlie Chaplin. What chance has William Holden got?

Friday, 6 April 2018

All Through the Night (1942)

Director: Vincent Sherman
Writers: Leonard Spigelgass and Edwin Gilbert, from a story by Leonard Q. Ross and Leonard Spigelgass
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Conrad Veidt, Kaaren Verne, Jane Darwell, Frank McHugh, Peter Lorre, Judith Anderson, William Demarest, Jackie C. Gleason, Phil Silvers, Wally Ford, Barton MacLane and Edward Brophy

Index: 2018 Centennials.

The studio system was an evil creature in many ways but it did allow the studios to cultivate talent and put together casts like this film can boast. It’s a Warner Bros. picture, starring Humphrey Bogart at a key point in his career. It was in a Warner Bros. picture, The Petrified Forest, that he found his first success, but they weren’t sure how to capitalise on that so put him in some truly bizarre movies. For instance, when you think Humphrey Bogart, do you immediately conjure up ideas of hillbilly wrestling comedies and mad doctor horror movies? Well, just check out Swing Your Lady and The Return of Doctor X to see how badly he did in them. Of course, they figured it out eventually or you’d be asking me who he was right now. High Sierra made him a leading man, The Maltese Falcon made him a star and Casablanca made him a legend. That’s two films from 1941 and one from 1943; All Through the Night came right in the middle of those in 1942 and it’s a fascinating piece of work. It’s not as good as I remember it but it’s still a bundle of fun.

And just look at the names backing him up! His nemesis is played by Conrad Veidt, who had been a star in Germany, in important silent films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Man Who Laughs; he escaped the Nazis and become a star in the English language too, most notably opposite Bogart again in Casablanca. One of Veidt’s key men here is played by another escapee from the rise of the Nazis, Peter Lorre, an Austro-Hungarian who had started out in one of the greatest films ever made, Fritz Lang’s M, and made his way to Hollywood via England, where he starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much for Alfred Hitchcock, even though he couldn’t speak English; he learned his lines phonetically. By this point, he was a star in the States too, not only from eight Mr. Moto movies but also for Mad Love and The Maltese Falcon. Of course, he would be back for Casablanca as well, which makes this start to sound like a dry run, especially given that the subject matter revolves around regular folks and their interactions with the Nazis.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post
Writer: Abe Polsky
Stars: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill, Suzanne Zenor and David Manzy

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Ted Post, who would have been a hundred years old today, had a stellar career, gradually moving from the stage to television and eventually to film, where his fourteen features as director constitute a highly varied set of underrated gems. Choosing just one to remember him by is a difficult task indeed, as almost all of them would be perfect for this project, except perhaps the two in which he directed Clint Eastwood, Hang ’em High and Magnum Force, which are notably well known. The latter wasn’t his only sequel, as he also made Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the rest are all standalones, often emphatically so. There’s The Legend of Tom Dooley, the old folk music standard turned into a film; The Harrad Experiment, a controversial comedy about sex in college; and Nightkill, a dark crime picture shot here in Phoenix. There’s Whiffs, a comedy about chemical warfare techniques being used to rob banks; 4 Faces, a compilation of four stories starring the same actor; and especially Go Tell the Spartans, a highly underrated Vietnam War picture.

I simply couldn’t resist The Baby though, which is as unlikely a feature as could be imagined for a director best known for hundreds of episodes of television westerns. Post was almost destined to find a career in the industry, having begun as an usher at the Pitkin Theater in Brooklyn, so caught up in what was on screen that some reports suggest that he would often forget to actually seat any of his customers. He tried acting, but it didn’t work out, so he shifted into directing plays, including a 1948 production of Dracula in Connecticut that starred Bela Lugosi. He kept this up during wartime, staging shows for the troops, but, by the fifties, he had found his way both into teaching, at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and television, where the bulk of his credits are to be found. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1955 for one episode of Waterfront, a crime show set in the LA harbour, and a DGA Award in the same year for a different episode of the same show. A year later, he’d get another nod for an episode of Medic.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Death Collector (1988)

Director: Tom Garrett
Writer: John J. McLaughlin
Stars: Daniel Chapman, Ruth Collins, Loren Blackwell, Karen Rizzo and Philip Nutman

I didn’t know about the 1988 film Death Collector until last year, but I’m a big fan of genre hopping and this one is a post apocalyptic western with wild credits. The first half dozen characters include ‘Molested Woman’ and ‘Hood with Whip’, before progressing all the way to ‘Fearless Turbo Sluts’. Splatterpunks John Skipp and Craig Spector play, no surprise here, ‘Splatter Punk 1 and 2’. I got a kick out of the assistant editor and sound editor being credited as a pair, given that the former was Donald Johnson and the latter John Donaldson. Keep watching, though, and you’ll reach Francisca Vanderweerdt. Thirty years ago today, she showed up on set to do make up and hairstyling. Then, as she wrote on Facebook last year, ‘The assistant director came over and introduced himself. When I shook his hand, the loudest voice I have ever heard said, ‘This is the man you’ll spend the rest of your life with.’’ That was Brian Pulido, the Evil Ernie to her Lady Death and they married in 1991. Congratulations on thirty years together, folks!

Back then, this was called Tin Star Void and I wonder what writer John J. McLaughlin wanted it to be. It’s really a western at heart, but it seems more like a post-apocalyptic action flick, nothing like the pictures that would make his name, many years later. This was his debut as a scriptwriter and it was clearly going to spend its days being rented from Blockbuster, the sort of tape with ‘cult movie’ written all over it. McLaughlin only wrote one more film in the entire twentieth century but eventually hit the big time in the 2010s. Yes, the scriptwriter of Death Collector, as definitive a straight to video title as anything starring Rutger Hauer or Dolph Lundgren, went on to be a big shot, writing or co-writing Black Swan, Hitchcock and Parker within only four years. That ambition is perhaps why Death Collector, for all its many faults, still feels interesting and, in its low budget way, stylish. It’s not as wacky as Six-String Samurai, made a decade later, but it does bear some similarities in approach and would play well to the same audience.

Friday, 9 March 2018

The Girl Hunters (1963)

Director: Roy Rowland
Writer: Mickey Spillane, Roy Rowland and Robert Fellows
Stars: Mickey Spillane, Shirley Eaton, Scott Peters, Guy Kingsley Poynter, James Dyernforth, Charles Farrell, Kim Tracy, Hy Gardner and Lloyd Nolan

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It’s a rare literary detective who didn’t make it to the cinema screen both early and often. The Guinness Book of Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the ‘most portrayed movie character’of them all, with his first appearance on film arriving as early as 1900, so early that author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hadn’t even written The Hound of the Baskervilles yet. This was Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a thirty second piece that was exhibited in Mutoscope machines in arcades. Most of the longest running film series in the western world feature a detective, such as Charlie Chan, who has now appeared in over fifty movies, or the Lone Wolf, who’s racked up half as many. While I grew up in the UK in the eighties, watching Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes and Joan Hickson play Miss Marple on television, both still arguably the most authentic versions of those characters, my go to detective was Mike Hammer. I adored Stacy Keach’s performance on Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and devoured the original novels. In rural Yorkshire, this was akin to exotica.

Keach was far from the first actor to play Mike Hammer, though the hardboiled detective first saw life in print, back in 1947 in the novel I, the Jury. Spillane published five sequels in the three years between 1950 and 1952 and, naturally, the media paid attention. Ted DeCorsia was the first actor to take on the role, on radio in 1952’s That Hammer Guy, but Biff Elliot played him on film the next year in I, the Jury, in 3-D no less. Ralph Meeker took over in 1955 for Robert Aldrich’s fantastic Kiss Me Deadly. Robert Bray was next in line, in 1957’s My Gun is Quick, before the character moved to TV, with Darren McGavin portraying the title role in 78 episodes of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. What came next, though, was something unique. I don’t know if The Girl Hunters, an indie production in the UK, marks the only time in which the author of a beloved character played it himself, but I can’t come up with another one. ‘Mickey Spillane is Mike Hammer’ proclaim the opening credits, while the closing ones add ‘Mike Hammer is Mickey Spillane’.

The Last Page (1952)

Director: Terence Fisher
Writer: Frederick Knott, from a play by James Hadley Chase
Stars: George Brent, Marguerite Chapman and Diana Dors

Index: 2018 Centennials.

One hundred years ago today, Marguerite Chapman was born. 22 years later, she started a film career that only lasted for a decade and change but kept her busy indeed. From 1940 to 1943 alone, she appeared in twenty B-movies of varied genre and quality, that prompted Jerry Mason of the Los Angeles Times to suggest, ‘I saw none of them, and you probably didn’t either.’ I have indeed seen some of these, as they weren’t only routine wartime programmers, like Navy Blues or You’re in the Army Now, in which she appeared as a member of the Navy Blues Sextet. I saw her in detective series, like Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum or One Dangerous Night, one of the Warren William Lone Wolf pictures. Some of these certainly seem to exist as little more than opportunities for her to rise to the A list, having impressed people in the highly-regarded 1942 serial, Spy Smasher. Unfortunately, they seem to be rather hard to track down nowadays. I looked for films like Parachute Nurse and the later One Way to Love, but they’re nowhere to be found.

Her easily available movies are generally later ones in which she played a supporting role, like The Seven Year Itch, although she did actually make it to the A list by being cast as the female lead in Destroyer, alongside Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford. I prefer to find the interesting films lurking behind those major titles in a filmography, but hers are surprisingly elusive and, when they can be found, they’re not that appropriate. I did watch Spy Smasher, thinking it was about time I included a serial in this project, but as enjoyable as she is as the lead’s fiancée, she’s hardly in it. Similarly, Flight to Mars, a 1951 sci-fi romp in which her character, Alita, is named as an overt homage, might have worked, but she’s only in the second half; maybe I’ll revisit it later this year for her co-star, Cameron Mitchell. I remembered that she ended her film career with a leading role, in The Amazing Transparent Man, but that was hardly a great movie. So which picture should I choose to remember her, one that I can actually find to watch?

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Home of the Brave (1949)

Director: Mark Robson
Writer: Carl Foreman, based on the play by Arthur Laurents
Stars: Jeff Corey, James Edwards and Lloyd Bridges

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Watching the news lately, it sometimes seems like we’ve hardly progressed at all in the world of race relations. Movies like this are shocking realisations of how far we’ve really come and how quickly because they chart the passage of time. A couple of years ago, I took a look at how outrageously racist Hollywood was back in its classic era, while celebrating the career of Willie Best, a massively talented African American actor who began his career as Sleep n’ Eat and was given next to nothing to do for decades; well, except act lazy, eat watermelon and roll dice. I chose The Ghost Breakers to remember him, given that he was close to being half a comedic double act with Bob Hope in it, but he still had to deal with spook jokes and dialogue like, ‘You look like a blackout in a blackout.’ It was 1940, after all, only a year after Hattie McDaniel had become the first African American winner of an Academy Award for her performance in Gone with the Wind. Less well remembered is the fact that she was also the first African American nominee.

While that was a major step, it has to also be remembered that Georgia’s segregationist laws meant that she was barred from even attending the film’s premiere in Atlanta; Hollywood and America had a long way to go. It seems appropriate to mention here that Sidney Poitier was only thirteen at the time, because we tend to see him nowadays as the true beginning of progress, but that’s not entirely fair. He made his mark early in his career in No Way Out, playing a doctor who treats a pair of racist brothers, but that was in 1950; it was his second film and the first for which he received a credit. Yet a year earlier, another African American actor made his mark in a role that would have been perfect for Poitier; his name was James Edwards and he would have been a hundred years old today. What’s more, he does a fantastic job in a complex role and, in doing so, set the stage for Poitier and the big changes that we would see over the next couple of decades, if often through Poitier’s far more prominent performances.