Apocalypse Later Empire



I also write books, for sale at Amazon and the other usual online stores.
Click the images to go to the Amazon pages or check out Apocalypse Later Press.



Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
Filmmakers, submissions for horror and sci-fi shorts are open through Film Freeway.

Please feel free to contact me by e-mail.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Pool of London (1951)


Director: Basil Dearden
Writers: Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge
Stars: Bonar Colleano, Susan Shaw, Renée Asherson, Earl Cameron and Moira Lister


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Last year, I celebrated the centennial of Willie Best with a review of The Ghost Breakers, in which I looked beyond the general lack of roles of substance for actors of colour in Hollywood to highlight how horrendous the roles given to coloured talents actually were. Best’s first six roles were credited to ‘Sleep ’n’ Eat’, a name to fit the image the studio was crafting for him of someone whose only needs were ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’ Of course, institutional racism was hardly a problem restricted to the United States. I’m British and it’s not that long ago, historically speaking, that we exercised a habit of waltzing in to countries and taking them over because, well, clearly the savages couldn’t govern themselves. However, there were brighter moments that are worth highlighting and this film, a thriller from Ealing Studios in 1951 is a worthy example, as it features an actor of colour in a major role of substance, as a sailor of well defined character for whom a young white lady falls very hard indeed.

This actor is Earl Cameron and he’s celebrating his one hundredth birthday today. He was born Earlston Cameron in Bermuda and this could almost have been called typecasting for him. He had once been a merchant seaman, just like Johnny Lambert, whom he plays here, and he found himself stranded in London when he got involved with a girl and his ship sailed without him. Within the decade, he would marry a white British lady, Audrey Godowski, whom he met while touring with a play entitled Deep are the Roots; they were married from 1959 until her death in 1994. Theatre found him before film, letting him fill a vacated spot on the chorus line in a revival of Chu Chin Chow and he found that this life was surprisingly easy. ‘In theatre, there was no particular colour bar,’ he told The Guardian, perhaps partly because his graceful Caribbean accent allowed him to play believable Americans. It was here in 1951 that cinema tasked him and Susan Shaw to create the first mixed-race relationship on the UK’s big screen.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Blood on the Moon (1948)


Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Lillie Hayward, from the adaptation by Harold Shumate and Luke Short, in turn from the novel by Luke Short
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Preston


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Robert Mitchum was an unlikely movie star. He freely admitted that he didn’t have much respect for the art of acting, infamously interrupting critic Barry Norman with a comment, ‘Look, I have two kinds of acting. One on a horse and one off a horse. That’s it.’ He didn’t take interviews seriously and tended to refuse to speak to biographers. He looked down with disdain at method actors, suggesting that the ‘Rin Tin Tin method is good enough for me. That dog never worried about motivation or concepts and all that junk.’ Katherine Hepburn once told him that he’d never have been cast in a picture if he hadn’t been good looking. Critics had the same sort of response, panning his work for decades as monotonous, dispassionate or lethargic. Yet his stardom rose, because he fit a growing need, a talent for playing characters who could be good, bad or somewhere enticingly in between fuelled by a tough background; as one of the ‘wild boys of the road’ during the Depression, he spent time on a chain gang for vagrancy at fourteen.

He got into the business by accident, having left a job as a machine operator at Lockheed after a nervous breakdown that left him temporarily blind. He had previously spent time as a stagehand, a bit player and playwright in productions of the Players Guild of Long Beach, where his sister Julie performed, so he looked for work as an extra in movies, quickly being hired as a villain in seven Hopalong Cassidy westerns. The studios must have liked him, because he made twenty films in his debut year, 1943, most of them uncredited. RKO certainly liked his performance in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, as they signed him to a seven year contract, with the goal of making him a star in Zane Grey movies. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, he was Oscar nominated for The Story of G.I. Joe, a war film made on loan to United Artists, and he returned from eight months of wartime service just in time for the film noir era which was tailor made for him. His films Undercurrent, Crossfire and Out of the Past are all outstanding examples of the genre.

Friday, 28 July 2017

C.C. & Company (1970)


Director: Seymour Robbie
Writer: Roger Smith
Stars: Joe Namath and Ann-Margret


Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

I’m exploring genre movies that were shot in Arizona because I live here, but I wasn’t born here like my better half. I’m English, so my cultural background is very different to hers and I find that especially fascinating when watching movies that exist for cultural reasons. This one exists mostly to grant Joe Namath a leading role in a motion picture. To me, Joe Namath is someone who used to play American football and, given that I can only name half a dozen players, mostly those who became blaxploitation legends, that must make him important. To my wife, though, he’s ‘Broadway’ Joe, the player who changed the sport by opening it up to a female audience. He did that because he was hot, he was charismatic and he was confident enough in his masculinity to put on pantyhose for a TV commercial. This was my first experience of ‘Broadway’ Joe and he’s clearly an easy-going character, the sort of man who always does his own thing, regardless what anyone else might think, and makes it cool in the process.

Reading up on his achievements, he was hardly the greatest player who ever put on pads, his statistics notably weaker than those of Jim Brown, who I read up on for Riot, an earlier Dry Heat Obscurity. In fact, Namath lost more games than he won, but some of the winning games were really important ones, like Superbowl III. He was the quarterback for the underdog New York Jets, who took on ‘the greatest football team in history’, the Baltimore Colts, in January 1969. This was right before the two leagues merged for the 1970 season and critics were relatively agreed that the AFL teams would struggle to cope with their NFL competition. The Jets were the face of the AFL in Superbowl III and everyone expected them to get creamed but, only three days before the game, Namath ‘guaranteed’ a heckler that they would win. They did, 16 to 7, and Namath was the MVP. Following up by saying that the toughest defence he’d ever faced was that of the AFL’s worst team, the Buffalo Bills, he gave the AFL instant legitimacy.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

O, My Darling Clementine (1943)


Director: Frank McDonald
Writers: Dorrell & Stuart E. McGowan
Stars: Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys & Girls, The Radio Rogues, Isabel Randolph, Harry ‘Pappy’ Cheshire and The Tennessee Ramblers


Index: 2017 Centennials

No, not My Darling Clementine, John Ford’s version of the gunfight at the O.K. corral, with Henry Fonda playing Wyatt Earp; that was made three years later in 1946. This is O, My Darling Clementine, a country musical released on the very last day of 1943 by Republic, perhaps to capitalise on the resurgence of the old folk tune, which Bing Crosby had brought into the Top 20 a couple of years prior. It’s a cheap and cheerful picture, corny as all get out, but a whole bundle of fun nonetheless, and it features a host of names we’ve either forgotten or never known, many of whom were most famous for their work on radio. In fact, the film actors were relegated to the second card in the opening credits; the first was reserved for ‘Radio’s Popular Entertainers’, people as forgotten today as the Radio Rogues and the Tennessee Ramblers or Isabel Randolph and Harry ‘Pappy’ Cheshire. Even the film’s star is less remembered today than he used to be. That’s Roy Acuff, still singing and fiddling with his Smoky Mountain Boys and Girls.

He was surely the most famous name at the time and he’s top billed, even though he’s hardly playing the lead. Acuff was one of the pioneers of country music, at a time when that was niche regional music. When he made this film, he’d just co-founded Acuff-Rose Music, the first major country music publishing company in Nashville, and the industry was already changing because of his style and charisma. His importance is perhaps best summed up in a quote from Hank Williams, who said in 1952: ‘He's the biggest singer this music ever knew. You booked him and you didn't worry about crowds. For drawing power in the South, it was Roy Acuff, then God.’ A decade later, in 1962, he became the first living artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ironically, that’s the point at which he was no longer the most famous name in this picture, having been surpassed by Irene Ryan, newly famous as Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies. This is less than two decades earlier but she’s almost unrecognisable.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968)


Director: Don Weis
Writer: John Fenton Murray, from a story by James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum
Stars: Phyllis Diller, Bob Denver, Joe Flynn, Eileen Wesson, Jeanette Nolan, Paul Reed, Bob Hastings and David Hartman


Index: 2017 Centennials.

One hundred years ago today, Phyllis Ada Driver was born in Lima, OH. Under her married name of Phyllis Diller, this unique and groundbreaking talent would change the business of stand-up comedy which, before her, was a male only domain. Virtually every American female comedian since has cited her as an influence, including Joan Rivers who wrote for her before she found her own fame. Surprisingly, for someone with such a long career, it began late: she was already in her late thirties, married with five kids but a two week booking at the Purple Onion in San Francisco was extended to a year and a half and, just like that, she had a career. Of course, she eventually found her way to television and onto film but, like so many other comedians, she is still confined by her nationality. Humour is a fickle creature; it doesn’t travel the way that action, horror or romance do. As an Englishman, I never saw Diller on TV or in films and would have had difficulty understanding what made her so popular because of the cultural disconnect.

Even today, I believe I’ve only seen her once, in a highly unusual performance as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, You Bet Your Life, in 1958. It was her television debut and she hadn’t yet adopted the outrageous persona that would make her famous. I found her funny, if a little nervous, and it was obvious that Groucho was impressed. So this was a real discovery for me and I’m not sure that I’ve fully recovered yet; what works on the stage of a comedy club doesn’t always translate into a narrative story and it’s not unfair to state that Diller’s schtick is hard to take as the lead character in a feature film. And I chose this one precisely because she was the lead, for the first time in a straight comedy feature, and I wanted to see how that worked. It was her seventh picture, following a tiny role in Splendor in the Grass; the lead in a musical, The Fat Spy; a voice acting slot in Mad Monster Party?; and a trio of supporting roles in Bob Hope movies: Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, Eight on the Lam and The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Angel Unchained (1970)


Director: Lee Madden
Writer: Jeffrey Alladin Fiskin, based on a story by Leo Madden and Jeffrey Alladin Fiskin
Stars: Don Stroud, Luke Askew, Larry Bishop, Tyne Daly and Aldo Ray


Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

Angel Unchained is a real product of its time. It’s the standard story, dating back at least as far as Seven Samurai, of a battle with three sides: one defending a second against the third. Here, however, the sides aren’t samurai, peasants and bandits; they’re all grabbed from the counterculture revolution of the American late sixties. Taking the place of the samurai are the Exiles Motorcycle Club, an odd good guy role for bikers at the time. Then again, these are a bit more restrained than the usual bikers you’d expect to be in an American International picture, though they never entirely shed their bad boy image; they’re just on better behaviour. Instead of peasants, they’re called in to fight on behalf of a hippie commune, of all things, which is clearly unable to defend itself because all its members are pacifists. More appropriately for the end of the counterculture, the bikers are tasked with defending the hippies against the normal people, here represented by fist fighting cowboys in dune buggies. Yeah, it’s that sort of movie!

Actually, they may have conjured up the cowboys because the town these townsfolk want to keep the filthy hippies out of is Lehi, Arizona, carved out of the desert because Brigham Young wanted a Mormon settlement in the Salt River Valley and tasked Daniel W. Jones to found one. Fist fighting Mormons in dune buggies is even more far fetched than cowboys, but such intolerance would have a little more historical accuracy; when Jones invited Native Americans to live with them in Lehi, half the colony promptly left to found their own Indian-free settlement instead: St. David in Cochise County. Lehi is now north Mesa and it’s in Lehi, outside the Lehi Market, that these sides first meet. The Angel of the title, which is a role as much as a name, stops to fill up his bike at the gas station/barber shop. Before he leaves, a truck shows up to do likewise and the cowboys tell the hippies that the pump is suddenly closed. Angel picks his side and, next thing we know, he’s on his way to the commune with Merilee the hippie seated behind him.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Hotel Berlin (1945)


Director: Peter Godfrey
Writer: Jo Pagano and Alvah Bessie, from the novel by Vicki Baum
Stars: Faye Emerson, Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Andrea King and Peter Lorre


Index: 2017 Centennials.

There’s a scene towards the end of Hotel Berlin where Faye Emerson ignores a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, delivered in the magnificent voice of Peter Lorre’s character, because, well, she’s finally got the new pair of shoes that she’s been dreaming about for the entire film. You know, priorities. This was a cinematic in-joke, because at the time the movie was released, in March 1945, Emerson was married to Col. Elliott Roosevelt, son of the president and the favourite child of the first lady. They wed at the rim of the Grand Canyon in 1944, having flown there in planes provided by Howard Hughes, who had introduced them; Col. Elliott died in Scottsdale in 1990 in another Arizona connection. Their marriage didn’t last long; it was her second of three and his third of five. It also didn’t go well, given that she slit her wrists in December 1948 and was hospitalised during the recovery; she finally obtained a divorce in Mexico in 1950. By that point, she’d ended her screen career: 30 of her 33 films were released in the forties.

Instead, she moved from the big screen to the small one, where she soon became known as the ‘Best-Dressed Woman on TV’ and, somewhat inevitably, the ‘First Lady of Television’, though the latter has been reapplied to others every half decade or so. She was important enough early on to generate a rumour that the Emmy Award (for which she was twice nominated) was named for her; it wasn’t, being named for the Immy, the ‘image orthicon tube’ used in early television cameras, which was feminised to Emmy to go with the female image on the statuette. She hosted her own shows, such as The Faye Emerson Show in 1950 and 1951; she co-hosted Faye and Skitch in 1953, with her third husband, a bandleader called Lyle ‘Skitch’ Henderson; and she became a frequent panelist on game shows such as To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line? and and I’ve Got a Secret. Her last screen performance was as a team captain on The Match Game in 1963. After that, she lived a private life in Europe, dying in Spain in 1983. She would have been a hundred today.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Leopard Man (1943)


Director: Jacques Tourneur
Writer: Ardel Wray, based on the novel, Black Alibi, by Cornell Woolrich, with additional dialogue by Edward Dein
Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo and Jean Brooks


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Putting my mere four names to shame, María Marguerita Guadalupe Teresa Estela Bolado Castilla y O'Donnell was born in Mexico City one hundred years ago today, though she shrank that name down about as far as possible for her screen career. However, as Margo, she didn’t make as many movies as she should have done, as she was blacklisted just as her star was rising. Even her more famous second husband, Eddie Albert, was caught up in that debacle too, and only found abiding fame after his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. That’s a shame, because Margo showed great potential even as a child. At a mere nine years of age, she performed in nightclubs as a specialty dancer for Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra; that bandleader would marry her aunt, Carmen Castillo, when Margo was twelve. At seventeen, she was plucked off the dancefloor to play Claude Rains’s ex-lover in Crime without Passion. It ensured a screen career, which built steadily until her blacklisting, after which her roles became few and far between.

Even with only fourteen feature films to her name, I had a choice for this project. She was well regarded in Winterset in 1936, in a role which she’d originated on stage, in both instances playing the screen girlfriend of Burgess Meredith. She was also notable in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon a year later, as the beautiful young lady who ages and dies rapidly after leaving Shangri-La. However, I went with this one as it’s a personal favourite of mine, even among the works of producer Val Lewton, whose fourteen pictures at RKO during the forties included nine horror movies which revolutionised the genre. At a time when Universal were the only real player in the genre left and their work after The Wolf Man had become a string of sequels, Lewton’s films really filled the gap, with a set of quality pictures that were written well, with deep thematic substance; shot well, with incredible use of light and shadows, as befitted the beginnings of the film noir era; and directed well, by a string of names who would go on to serious fame.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Helter Skelter (1949)


Director: Ralph Thomas
Writer: Patrick Campbell, with additional dialogue by Jan Read and Gerard Bryant
Stars: Carol Marsh and David Tomlinson


Index: 2017 Centennials.

It’s amazing what the passage of time can do to simple words. Nowadays, we might think of 'Helter Skelter' as a Beatles song or as the racial war prophesied by Charles Manson after obsessing over it. Some might think of the manga by Kyoko Okazaki or the live action film it spawned. Some may look much further backwards: Christina Rossetti’s poem, Goblin Market, published in 1862, over a century before The White Album, includes the phrase, ‘helter skelter, hurry skurry’; Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a poem called Helter Skelter in 1731; and Thomas Nashe beat him by a century and a half by employing the phrase in his Four Letters Confuted, back in 1592. Apparently, it’s an Old English phrase dating back to the middle of the twelfth century, so we should feel no qualms about reappropriating it from the likes of Charles Manson. Sadly, however, when confronted with the phrase, few will think of this surreal comedy, produced by Gainsborough Pictures in 1949.

Of course, words are not the only things to change over time. They change much slower than fame and that’s never more obvious than when looking at comedians. I was born in England and lived there until I was 33, but this film, only a couple of decades older than I am, is like a glimpse into a different century, rather appropriate given that some of these comedians do exactly that at one point in the movie. It’s a Who’s Who of British comedy of the time, with names that I recognise, such as Terry-Thomas and Jimmy Edwards, prominent in the opening credits and a whole slew of others popping in briefly. Reading through the film’s IMDb page, I realise that I even missed a couple, presumably because I blinked, and others never appear on screen. For instance, the script was by Patrick Campbell, the third Baron Glenavy, an Irish humorist who later served as a long-running team captain on Call My Bluff, opposite Frank Muir, one of the few comedians of his day who apparently didn’t appear in this movie.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Cinco de Mayo (2013)


Director: Paul Ragsdale
Writer: Paul Ragsdale
Stars: Anthony Iava To’omata, Angelica de Alba, Joshua Palafox, Tiawny Ferreira, Christopher Beatty, Lindsay Amaral, Kyle Duval, Tommy Fourre, Ryan Holley, Robert Holloway, Steven Pettit Jr., Pete Magazinovic, Delawna McKinney, Don Gonzalez and Spencer Reza


Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Not all holidays are English language, even if half the people getting drunk on Cinco de Mayo have never spent a day in Mexico in their lives and whose command of the Spanish language doesn’t extend past ‘uno mas’ and ‘por favor’. This feature, made because director Paul Ragsdale wanted to shoot a slasher movie, looked at holidays on the calendar and saw that there was a glaring gap on the 5th May just waiting for a Mexican horror feature, can’t hide its tiny budget but it does manage to do far more than I expected it might, especially as it progresses from a cheap beginning to a surprisingly poetic ending. It also veered quickly away from paths that I expected it to follow: while it did start out as a slasher, and it follows some rules from that genre, it feels far more seventies than eighties with a social awareness angle that feels completely out of place in a world epitomised by Freddy and Jason. It’s also predominantly in English, though with a heavy Hispanic focus and a little Spanish dotted here and there for flavour.

I have to say that the beginning is pretty awful, though I must also acknowledge that part of that is by design. Ragsdale decided to present Cinco de Mayo as the first half of a double bill showing on cable TV in a recurring segment called All Nite Long. This is truly embarrassing to my generation but only because it’s so accurate. Eden Trevino does a great job of parodying Rhonda Shear from the Friday edition of USA Up All Night, though in acknowledging that she clearly out-eighties her inspiration, I was shocked to find that Shear didn’t take over the show from Caroline Schlitt until 1991, making this a seventies film in an eighties segment sourced from a nineties show. The rest of the awful is less easy to explain away. Everyone in the cast makes it into the opening credits, in a font bad enough for L to look like I and actors to look like typos. Tlawny Ferrelra? Maybe not. Then, when the movie proper starts, with a brief prologue from a year earlier, it’s really dark and it’s difficult to see what’s going on. Not a good beginning.

Monday, 1 May 2017

5 Fingers (1952)


Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Michael Wilson, from the book by L. C. Moyzisch
Stars: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux and Michael Rennie


Index: 2017 Centennials.

At what point, I wonder, do spoilers come into play when covering a film based on historical fact? Well, my mindset these days was forged by a theatrical viewing of Public Enemies, at which I was shocked at the audible shock of one audience member when Johnny Depp’s character was killed. Yes, that’s public enemy number one John Dillinger, who was shot and killed by special agents in 1934. If American audience members can be blissfully unaware of such a historic American event, are they likely to know much about, say, espionage in Turkey during World War II? Probably not, so I’ll be careful here, though I have to highlight that this film, while based on a memoir, isn’t remotely as true as the ballsy opening scene might suggest. Rather than merely plaster the usual ‘this is a true story’ onto the screen, we’re also placed inside the House of Commons, as an MP asks if the book, Operation Cicero, is factual. The reply? ‘It must be regretfully admitted that, in substance, the story to which the honourable member refers is a true one.’

In a nutshell, this story involved a man selling a substantial amount of British secrets to the Nazis for cash. In reality, his name was Elyesa Bazna, a Turkish man of Albanian descent, who worked as valet to Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to Turkey. The latter had a habit of taking secret documents home, in a dispatch box, and Bazna’s locksmithing skills allowed him to open this and photograph them. In late 1943, he contacted L. C. Moyzisch at the German Embassy in Ankara, and sold him a first batch of pictures. Given the codename of Cicero, he continued to do this for some months. Eventually the British discovered the leak and investigated, even mounting a sting operation that failed. However, the pressure was mounting and Cicero decided that it was time to quit. He stopped selling information in February 1944 and left the embassy in April. What’s wild is that the Nazis failed to act on any of this important information, not trusting it, and the British failed to catch Bazna.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Chicken Every Sunday (1949)


Director: George Seaton
Writers: George Seaton and Valentine Davies, from the stage play by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein, in turn based on the memoir by Rosemary Taylor
Stars: Dan Dailey and Celeste Holm


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Hey look, it’s Tucson! And this isn’t one of my Dry Heat Obscurities reviews, because Tucson here is merely a setting not a location; the film was shot instead in a variety of towns in Nevada with frontier names like Carson City, Silver City or Virginia City. Another more appropriate location was Gardnerville, named for John M. Gardner, on whose land it was founded. Apparently he sold seven acres in 1879 to Lawrence Gilman, who had bought a house ten miles away and wanted to move it, possibly because it was haunted by a ghost highwayman. So the Kent House in Genoa became the Gardnerville Hotel in Gardnerville and the town was born. This is appropriate because this comedy really revolves around a struggle to define accomplishment and it suggests that its leading male character, James C. Hefferan, accomplished much because he gave his name to pretty much everything in Tucson, even if it rarely brought a decent income. The rest has to do with how his family survives this lack of money, which boils down to his wife, Emily.

That’s Emily Hefferan, in the lovely form of Celeste Holm, who owns this film. Dan Dailey isn’t bad as Jim and this came only a year after his Oscar-nomination for When My Baby Smiles at Me, but he’s an odd cross between Jimmy Stewart and Danny Kaye and he’s a lot more of a supporting character, flitting in and out of the story as needed, rather than driving it forward. He certainly drives the town of Tucson forward but not our story. Holm drives that from her standpoint as the grounding of the family, the film and what may well be the entire community as a sort of collective surrogate mother. Holm would have been a hundred years old today and she came pretty close, succumbing to a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 95. Her career wasn’t as prolific as some, but it ran long, the gap between Three Little Girls in Blue in 1946 and College Debts in 2015 being almost seven decades. In fact, many fans remember her for the TV show Promised Land, which ran from 1996 to 1999 as a spin-off from Touched by an Angel. She was 79 as that began.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939)


Director: Norman Foster
Writers: Philip MacDonald and Norman Foster, based on the character created by John P. Marquand
Stars: Peter Lorre, Joseph Schildkraut, Lionel Atwill, Virginia Field, john King and Iva Stewart

This review is part of the Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy.
The Great Villain Blogathon is in its fourth year, appropriately hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows & Satin and Speakeasy, given that all those S’s sound rather like a hiss. It has covered villains from silent era Lon Chaney to modern day Pixar with all the usual suspects in between, so I chose a slightly different approach for my entry into year four: a rapid-paced black and white film which paints San Francisco rather like Ben Kenobi’s famous description of Mos Eisley. It’s a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ in which an assassin hovers outside every window, a ne’erdowell skulks in every shadow and the script racks up so many candidates for the role of master thief that we end up sitting back and letting Mr. Moto solve this one for us. This isn’t a film with a single villain, nor even a pair, but three distinct bands of them. Most dangerous among them is Metaxa, a legendary jewel thief believed to be dead. Mr. Moto is not so sure, so he’s taking a fake vacation under the firm expectation that our MacGuffin will draw him out.

That MacGuffin is the crown of Balkis, the Queen of Sheba, which is of such importance that there’s a radio journalist reporting on its excavation live from the back of a truck parked under the ‘pitiless Arabian sun’. It’s utterly priceless, of course, and is promptly whisked out of the country on its vulnerable journey to San Francisco’s Fremont Museum. You won’t be surprised to find that ‘the young and brilliant archaeologist, Howard Stevens’ is a Hollywood leading man take on the real archaeologist, Howard Carter, who, in 1922, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun and, through the effusive prose of journalist H. V. Morton, kickstarted Egyptomania across the western hemisphere. Actor John King gives off a self-effacing Jimmy Stewart sort of vibe as Stevens, a rare character to not rank on the Metaxa possibility chart, so he tends to fade into the background when the villainy commences in earnest. He’s a mild fish out of water here but he found his feet within a year as ‘Dusty’ King in a series of westerns that wrapped up his career.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Resurrection (1999)


Director: Russell Mulcahy
Writers: Brad Mirman and Christopher Lambert, from a story by Brad Mirman
Stars: Christopher Lambert, Robert Joy, Barbara Tyson, Rick Fox and Leland Orser


Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

In our modern consumerist culture, it’s easy to see the holiday of Easter like Bill Hicks described it: ‘commemorating the death and resurrection of Jesus by telling our children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.’ However, to Christians, it’s one of the cornerstones of the liturgical year, the end of one season and the beginning of another, and it’s serious stuff indeed. It follows the season of Lent, during the six weeks of which many Christians prepare for Easter by fasting or giving up something to symbolise sacrifice. Lent ends with Holy Week, which is rich with key events: Palm Sunday marks the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, Maundy Thursday remembers the Last Supper and Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus. This all ends with Easter Sunday, which begins Eastertide with a great celebration, because it’s when Jesus rose from the dead after three days in the tomb. After Jesus’s birth, marked at Christmas, his resurrection is the most important event in the Christian year.

In fact, it’s so important that people have been arguing about it for millennia: what theological significance it bears, its tie to the Jewish holiday of Passover and even the date on which it should be celebrated. Controversies over when the correct date should be date back to the second century and trawl in the First Council of Nicaea and the Synod of Whitby. Things only got worse when the western world shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and they’re not even squared away yet. As recently as 1997, the World Council of Churches proposed reform, suggesting that Easter should be celebrated on the ‘first Sunday following the first astronomical full moon following the astronomical vernal equinox, as determined from the meridian of Jerusalem.’ Had that been adopted, it would have taken effect in 2001, a rare year in which the Western and Orthodox dates for Easter coincided. The fact is that it wasn’t adopted and people will continue to argue about it for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)


Director: Roy Rowland
Writers: Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott, from a story by Dr. Seuss
Stars: Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy


Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’d seen The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T before, but it’s by far the most interesting movie starring Hans Conried, so I knew I had to choose it for his centennial. What I hadn’t realised until a fresh viewing is that this bears some similarity to another cult feature released in 1953, namely Robot Monster. That film unfolds as the fever dream of a young boy, who imagines the entire world destroyed by an alien who appears as a gorilla in a diving helmet, who rules the planet from his cave which is otherwise occupied only by a bubble machine. The remaining survivors are Johnny’s family and a couple of archeologists, so he pairs them off with his mum and sister. When I reviewed Robot Monster, I highlighted how weird it was that a young boy would be dreaming about such perverted ideas as replacing his father, killing one sister and having the other kidnapped by an alien ape with a bondage fetish. This film helps me to realise that it’s just a imaginative boy dealing with his hopes and fears in a dream sequence.

Because that’s exactly what The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is, or at least without the perverted angle. Little Johnny is now Little Bart or, to use his full name, Bartholomew Collins, who we can only assume does not grow up to appear on Dark Shadows. He recently lost his father, to death rather than divorce because this is 1953, and he’s practicing as hard as he can on the piano to take part in a recital in a month’s time. Well, not really. He doesn’t like playing the piano at all and he’s only practicing for two reasons: one is that his mother, Heloise, whom he likes a lot, wants him to; and the other is because his piano teacher doesn’t acknowledge the existence of other instruments. He hates the autocratic Dr. Terwilliker with a passion and imagines him to be a racketeer. As Bart can’t be a blink over ten years old, this is all a lot of pressure for him, so when he falls asleep at the keys, his feature length dream sequence directly addresses his hopes and fears: how he can find a new dad and how he can cope with the recital.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Blanche Fury (1948)


Director: Marc Allégret
Writers: Audrey Lindop and Cecil McGivern, from the novel by Joseph Shearing, with additional dialogue by Hugh Mills
Stars: Stewart Granger and Valerie Hobson


Index: 2017 Centennials.

If there was any doubt as to what genre this picture falls under, it vanishes with the title card. A primitive painting of an isolated and foreboding mansion against a sky so dark and tortured that it seems like a tsunami ready to wash over the house. A carefully italicised font that looks like handwriting, coloured the orange of faded blood. A title that at once introduces the leading lady and subtly hints at dark emotions; ‘fury’ meaning destructive rage and ‘blanche’ meaning to turn white, often through abject fear or shock. Yes, these are quintessential components of the gothic and this is a powerful one that perhaps stands up today because of its heady atmosphere of doom. There have been better movies made in this genre, Hitchcock’s Rebecca being merely the obvious choice and Dragonwyck and The Uninvited following in its footsteps, but few contain anything close to the ache for catastrophe the doomed lovers of Blanche Fury exude like sweat. This doomed romance has an unusual emphasis on the first word not the second.

After the title card, we see a skeletal tree and hear the wind, even though the painted clouds aren’t moving. We follow a pair of urgent riders as they exhort their horses through the woods and up the manicured paths of Clare Hall. Oh yes, I’d buy that place for a dollar! It’s a gorgeous, if rather brutal box of a mansion, the external shots being of Wootton Lodge, in Staffordshire, which dates back to 1611; it’s currently owned by the family of Joseph Cyril Bamford, who founded the company named for his initials, now the third largest manufacturer of construction equipment in the world. The internal shots are just as striking, though these were sets back at Pinewood Studios with high ceilings, ornate doorways and a plethora of paintings. As you might expect, there’s also a young lady in bed, clearly ill and those riders are the doctors doing what they can for her. She’s very weak, they say, as we shift into abstract visuals and echoed dialogue as she dies.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Stay Hungry (1976)


Director: Bob Rafelson
Writers: Charles Gaines and Bob Rafelson, from the novel by Charles Gaines
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Sally Field and Arnold Schwarzenegger


Index: 2017 Centennials.

I’m a child of the eighties, which means I grew up with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I saw every one of his eighties movies soon after release and that continued on into the nineties until I gave up and tried to avoid things like Jingle All the Way. However, I find that I never consciously went back to the seventies, which surprises me. I’d seen Hercules in New York, because it’s one of those so bad it’s good movies that I can’t resist, and I’d seen The Long Goodbye, in which he isn’t even credited, but I hadn’t seen The Villain until this project last year, watching for Kirk Douglas’s centennial, and I hadn’t seen Stay Hungry until now, watching for R. G. Armstrong’s. I wonder if I’ll find myself reviewing Scavenger Hunt next year, watching for someone else’s! In fact, the entire Stay Hungry cast looks like my childhood: Jeff Bridges from Starman, Sally Field from Smokey and the Bandit, Robert Englund from V (and, later, A Nightmare on Elm Street), Roger E. Mosley from Magnum, P.I. and Scatman Crothers from, well, Hong Kong Phooey (yeah, and The Shining).

What I found from this long overdue catchup was that my idea of what this movie was and what it actually is only just intersected and the maybe ten per cent that did includes duh facts like it’s a feature film and Arnie is a bodybuilder. I think my expectations of Stay Hungry were more like the reality of Pumping Iron, shot months later but not released until 1977, though they do play together well. That’s a docudrama narrated by Charles Gaines and based on his photo-essay about the 1975 Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions, with the Austrian Oak winning the latter. This is a comedy drama adapted by Gaines from his original novel and the title refers only in part to Arnie who, as Joe Santo, a bodybuilder preparing for Mr. Universe, is the one to speak it aloud. He says it to a rather young Jeff Bridges, playing the lead role of Craig Blake, because he’s the one who needs the advice. I’ve seen Bridges a lot younger than this, in The Last Picture Show, Fat City and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but I guess I’ve got used to him being old.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Night Walker (1964)


Director: William Castle
Writer: Robert Bloch
Stars: Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Judith Meredith


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Drop the name of Robert Bloch, who would have been one hundred years old today, in polite company and the likelihood is that you’ll hear the very same word back from everyone around you: ‘psycho’. He wrote the novel of that name in 1959 and it became famous when Alfred Hitchcock adapted it onto film a year later. Bloch wrote two sequels, called Psycho II and Psycho House, though they’re unrelated to any of the subsequent film or TV sequels, prequels and remakes. However, Bloch was nothing like a one trick pony. He was a contributor to Weird Tales magazine, one of the youngest members of H. P. Lovecraft’s literary circle, and his early short stories are great takes on his mentor’s cosmic horror themes. After Lovecraft’s death, he diversified his writing to include a range of horror, science fiction and thrillers. His novels are of consistent quality but include gems like Night-World, American Gothic and Night of the Ripper, the latter two fictionalising real people, the serial killers H. H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper respectively.

Given the success of Psycho, we might expect that film studios would have leapt at the chance to adapt his other work, especially as his bibliography was expansive by that point. However, most of his work on film was as a scriptwriter rather than a source author. Unsurprisingly, many of his scripts were for genre anthology shows like Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with his name on ten episodes of each, but he also wrote three episodes of Star Trek, among many others. His screenplays for films included no less than five features for Amicus, the ‘other’ classic U.K. horror studio, including Torture Garden, The House That Dripped Blood and Asylum; an odd couple, The Cat Creature and The Dead Don’t Die for director Curtis Harrington; and, perhaps most interesting, a pair of features for legendary exploitation filmmaker William Castle, both in 1964. The first was Strait-Jacket, which sees Joan Crawford murder a cheating Lee Majors with an axe, and the second is this unjustly neglected gem starring Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck.