Friday 29 January 2016

The Capture of Grizzly Adams (1982)

Director: Don Keeslar
Stars: Dan Haggerty, Kim Darby, Noah Beery, Keenan Wynn, Sydney Penny, June Lockhart and Chuck Connors
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
If Dan Haggerty’s first pick was a surprising one, a recent slasher flick conjured out of a tall tale, then his second was a more expected choice: a TV movie in which he stars as his most famous character, James ‘Grizzly’ Adams, who I watched avidly as a kid on television. Back in the late ’70s, of course, it was just a show to me; I had no clue that the character I watched every week was real. He was John Adams, though he went by the James Capen Adams that was given to the man on TV, and he was a zoological collector, someone who captured and trained wild animals, such as grizzly bears, for menageries and circuses. He retired after being mauled by a Bengal tiger, but then embarked on a life that was even more worthy of being fictionalised, as it was by Charles Sellier, who wrote a novel, The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. This was adapted into a feature in 1974 and then a TV show in 1978, both carrying the same title as the book. Eventually, this 1982 TV movie wrapped up the saga neatly, with the entire run a single story.

I believe that Haggerty was perfectly cast as Grizzly Adams. He grew up around animals, with his family owning and operating a wild animal attraction. I’ve seen some of his other work and have to admit that he wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he had a lot of characteristics that translated easily to this role. At 6’ 1”, he wasn’t as tall as I imagined him, but he was a big, burly and barrel chested man, easily cast as bikers or villains. However, he seems to have been a nice guy, something very much underlined on the occasions I met him at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale, AZ, and he always did better as nice guys on screen. Adams is a simple man who speaks simple dialogue but means it. He’s big enough and tough enough, not only to bring up a bear as his friend but also to tell the truth, even when it’s the hard thing to do. He cares about his daughter, of course, but he also cares about all of humanity, intrinsically not through choice, and all of animalkind too. So Haggerty was a easy casting decision.
In The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, the feature of 1974, he’s falsely accused of murder and he runs to the mountains, leaving his daughter behind with his sister. While he struggles to survive, he saves a grizzly cub whom he names Ben and raises as a friend. This was an independent movie, made for a mere $140,000, but it grossed $65m in theatres, $45m of which was domestic, making it the eighth highest grossing film of the year, ahead of The Longest Yard and Benji and only $2m behind The Godfather Part II. When it aired on NBC in 1976, drawing a 43% market share, the network eagerly greenlighted a show, which was produced quickly, launching in early 1977 and running through to March 1978. This followed Adams and his bear, along with a trader called Mad Jack and Nakoma, a native American, as they helped wildlife and anyone else on the mountain. The two hour finalé in December 1978 was Once Upon a Starry Night, but it didn’t wrap things up as it should have done, prompting this TV movie to do that properly.

And it does, as much as it’s clearly a TV movie in most regards. The story is predictable and the direction is dire but it plays well anyway because of the locations and the cast of respected television actors. Many of these show up right at the outset, as Cora Adams, Grizzly’s sister, is buried. It’s believable small town stuff, with this talented cast grounding proceedings without even trying. The town doesn’t have a priest, so Sheriff Hawkins, played by Noah Beery Jr, leads the service. The son of Noah Beery Sr and the nephew of Wallace Beery, he’s surely best known today as James Garner’s father in The Rockford Files. Young Peg Adams, Grizzly’s daughter, wants to stay with Kate Brady, played by Kim Darby, the little girl in True Grit. Instead the sheriff’s wife, Liz Hawkins, in the aging form of June Lockhart from Lost in Space, takes her in, until the orphan’s home can come and pick her up. Given that this will surely bring Adams down from the mountains, Frank Briggs, played by the Rifleman himself, Chuck Connors, wants him promptly caught.
I never met Connors, who died in 1992, but I get the feeling that he was also a nice guy. As Lucas McCain, the title character of The Rifleman, he was a widowed father trying to bring up his son in the best way he could, even against the odds. It ran for 168 episodes over five seasons and typecast Connors for life. The odd thing is that he was a fascinating individual far beyond that groundbreaking role. During the Second World War, he taught tank warfare at West Point, then became a professional sportsman, who was signed for the NBA, MLB and NFL. He played basketball for the Boston Celtics, for whom he became the very first player to shatter a backboard, and baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. While he joined the Chicago Bears, he never played for them. Of course, we know him as an actor, whose commanding 6’ 6” frame meant that he was always the tallest man on set. Typecast as the good guy, he took the role of Mr Slausen in Tourist Trap because he wanted to ‘become the Boris Karloff of the ’80s’.

This performance is very much in that vein, but he’s wooden for the first half of the film, just throwing an evil look at the camera, or anyone who mentions Grizzly Adams, and hoping that’s enough. ‘He killed my partner,’ he tells his men after Cora’s funeral. ‘I want him to pay, trial or no trial.’ As the title suggests, of course, Adams is captured alive. He sneaks into town under the noses of Briggs’s men to grab Peg, but is noticed heading for the woods and takes a shot to the leg. He soon collapses, about to get caught easily by the pursuing posse right after the first commercial break. It’s easy to see where the breaks are, as the direction seems to care about nothing more than how to pace things so that they can break every fifteen minutes. Only one section runs a little long, prompting the following one to run short to get it all back on track. It’s scary when this is the most accomplished aspect of Don Keeslar’s direction. I truly hope that he was hamstrung by static television cameras, because otherwise his work is painfully unimaginative.
It’s easy to see why Haggerty chose this film for me to review. Not only does it wrap up his celebrated run as Grizzly Adams, but it plays in a whole bunch of genres as it does so. It’s a drama, but one phrased as a period piece and then a western. After the burial, we watch Adams be the stereotypical good guy. First, he helps one neighbour by setting a trap in the river for her to catch fish, then, when he’s told about a forest fire (that mysteriously vanishes as quickly as it arose), he hightails it over on horseback to save old Bert and his burro, Stanley, even leaping into the river to fish him out after he idiotically tries to put out a fire on a powder keg by waving his hat at it and the whole thing explodes. It’s only the clothes that date this to being a period piece, but the posse that goes out to catch him firms it up as a western. Once he’s back in town, of course, it turns into a legal thriller, with Adams finally standing trial for the murder he’d been accused of eight years earlier. Briggs is the accuser. Adams, ‘doin’ his own lawyerin’’, pleads innocent.

The trial is well staged, full of simple words delivered by simple men who sit on simple wooden benches. For all the dismal direction of Keeslar, who rarely moves the camera and has his editor cut back and forth in conversation without any apparent realisation that there’s more to cinematic art, it plays well because his direction is as simple as everything we’re watching on screen. Of course, the jury finds Adams guilty because the evidence says so, even if the key witness is clearly lying; we’ve watched enough legal shows to see that the hypothesis Adams comes up with is obviously true. I was more engrossed in Tom Quigley, the prosecution’s star witness, a new man in town at the time who was promptly employed by Briggs in the aftermath of the murder and is doing well as the foreman on his ranch. He’s played by G W Bailey, a good actor who looks a lot younger here than he would as Lt Harris in the Police Academy series, starting only two years later. He does a good job too, another simple man struggling because he has to lie.
You could write much of this plot yourself, because it’s the feature that had to be made to wrap things up for Grizzly Adams in the fairest way possible. The only real surprise comes when he walks out of the town jail to be hanged from the neck until he is dead and, no, I don’t mean the bevy of ladies who lock arms to block passage to the hanging tree. I’d conjured up possibilities in my mind as to how Quigley could come clean in a believable way, but I never expected a real act of God. The tornado that rips through town isn’t badly handled. This period western turned legal thriller promptly becomes a disaster movie with a strong set of effects as houses collapse, wagons fly and people are whisked along the ground, through windows and off balconies. I guess Arthur Heinemann, who wrote the script, wanted to make absolutely sure that we had no doubt that Grizzly Adams was innocent all along. Not only do the town ladies underline it with their protest, but even God is on the mountain man’s side!

I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes that follow, even if they were predictable. Once the last commercials are over, everything is so obvious that you might think that you’re writing the script from your armchair and the screen is merely reacting to your ideas through the magic of telepathy. Fortunately Connors is able to move now and add some body language to his pursuit of Adams, his tall, thin body standing out against even the gorgeous mountainous landscape of Utah. The predictability takes the edge off but the dialogue and acting brings it back a little. Even Sydney Penny, a ten year old girl who couldn’t dream of the future soap opera career she’d carve out with runs in Santa Barbara, The Bold and the Beautiful, All My Children and Days of Our Lives, gives a strong showing as Peg Adams, hauled along in her fugitive father’s wake. It’s sentimentality up the wazoo, but she does it very capably indeed, adding emotion to scenes even as her more experienced co-stars play it a little calmer.
I have to admit that I got a real kick out of The Capture of Grizzly Adams, as obviously flawed as it is in a whole host of ways. It’s a simple story for simple characters, but the cast, led by Haggerty, endow it with sincerity. I felt that we could have done with more screen time for a few of the supporting actors, such as June Lockhart, who only gets a couple of scenes here to highlight why she was cast, and also Ben, a bear who had become beloved by millions during the TV show but is rarely used here and oddly uncredited to boot. The bear in the show was really Bozo, but I don’t know if it was Bozo as Ben here. Also missing and never mentioned are the co-stars of the show, Don Shanks as Nakoma and Denver Pyle as Mad Jack, the latter vaguely replaced by Keenan Wynn in a coonskin cap and white beard as Bert Woolman, who shows up early and late but spends the majority of the film recuperating off screen. I wonder if their absence is down to the standard contract negotiations or just the goal of focusing on the star as he ends his story.

Fortunately Haggerty was on strong form here. He was so closely tied to Grizzly Adams that it’s strange to discover that a couple of other actors took on that role in later years, including Gene Edwards, who was a stunt double in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Haggerty owned the role and, four years after the TV show was oddly cancelled, given its spectacular ratings, he fell right back into it without appearing to even try. No wonder he made so many other films that were clearly Grizzly Adams knockoffs, even one in between the original feature and the show, named The Adventures of Frontier Fremont; much later on, in 1997, he’d make Grizzly Mountain, with his son Dylan, and its sequel, Escape to Grizzly Mountain. It’s been many years since I’ve seen the Grizzly Adams show but I felt right at home watching this. It may be of lesser quality than the original film and perhaps the series but it’s half a dozen films in one and it ends things neatly. Haggerty wasn’t yet diagnosed with cancer when he picked this, but it’s a fitting epitaph.

Monday 25 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

Director: J Charles Haydon
Star: Sheldon Lewis
While the Famous Players-Lasky feature adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with John Barrymore was the most prominent silent film version of the story by far, it was far from the only one. In fact, it wasn’t even the only one released in 1920. In Germany, F W Murnau made an unlicensed take on the story called Der Januskopf or The Two-Faced Man, which is sadly lost today. Like his unlicensed adaptation of Dracula two years later, Nosferatu, the names were changed to protect from legal action, so Conrad Veidt was tasked with playing Dr Warren and Mr O’Connor instead. This version also featured Béla Lugosi, in the role of Dr Warren’s servant, three years before his first film in the United States. Unfortunately the other version to survive is this one, a forty minute version from Pioneer Film Corporation that’s too long to be interesting and too short to have any substance. Then again, it doesn’t need to be any longer. I’m not sure if I could take much more of Sheldon Lewis’s Edward Hyde.

The most interesting thing that can be said about this version is that it was produced by Louis Meyer. No, I didn’t say it was interesting, just that it was the most interesting. And no, that’s not Louis B Mayer. That one formed MGM and co-founded the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. This one presented a 1919 western called Impossible Catherine and then produced this. End of career. Amazingly, Hyde was not the end of Sheldon Lewis’s career, but it feels like it should have been. He’s not too bad as Dr Henry Jekyll, the usual dapper and dedicated saviour of the poor and needy. Sure, his idea of thinking is to look directly at us through the camera and do nothing, but I’ve seen worse. He’s also a little old at 52 to woo the 31 year old Gladys Field, the inappropriate boundary of half your age plus seven years explains that she’s two years too young. She amazingly came out of retirement to portray his fiancée, Bernice Lanyon; she had made 42 films in 1910 and 1911, four more by 1915, then nothing until this. End of career.
By the time we meet Edward Hyde, we’ve found that Sheldon Lewis is far from the worst thing about the film. During the early scenes we’re bombarded by intertitles, introducing what seems like everybody in a five mile radius of the characters we’re watching. Many are utterly redundant; do we really need cards to tell us ‘In the afternoon’ or ‘At the country club’? Perhaps the intention of the filmmakers is to distract us from the fact that it fails on every comparison to the Barrymore version, released only a month earlier in New York, but the very same month in California. The sets are notably sparser and also fewer in quantity; the costumes don’t fit as well, mocking the suggestion that these are well to do folk we’re watching; and the cast is so thin on the ground that Jekyll’s non-appearance at dinner at Danvers Carew’s is especially obvious. Mrs Lanyon and her daughter are the only ladies there; Bernice can’t gossip with her friends as the gentleman drink wine in this version. She’s left out to dry.

But then we do meet Edward Hyde, after Jekyll drinks his potion and changes. The transformations in this version are simplistic, being handled by editing rather than careful placement or double exposure. Hyde is somewhat like a combination of every one of the prior portrayals that I’ve seen. He has James Cruze’s hunch, King Baggot’s spastic lack of control and, well, Barrymore’s hat. That’s about all there is from the Barrymore version because there’s no subtlety here at all, at least not that I could tell in a relatively poor print that blurs facial details into white. I really do wish that I could see his face, but as it is, he’s like the stereotypical paedophile menace. He wears a hat, a raincoat and a mad grin to lie in wait to seize young ladies in the street. I was honestly surprised when he grabs an adult woman rather than a pre-pubescent girl. ‘An Apostle of Hell,’ suggests the intertitle, but I got nothing of evil here. I saw more of a Mike Myers playing a kangaroo with the DTs sort of thing.
The best bits are the intertitles, once they calm down a little, not only because Hyde looks more demonic in chalk than in Lewis’s ill-advised portrayal but because the painted images to illustrate the point aren’t badly done at all. By the time the film ended, I could see every scene shot for the picture being removed and replaced by a progression of intertitles, to make this a sort of motion picture picture book. Alas, that isn’t what happened, so we’re forced to watch Lewis as Dr Evil, I mean Dr Jekyll, gurn like a madman and waggle his fingers like they’re tentacles. Jazz hands, baby, jazz hands! He must be auditioning for a very early version of Reefer Madness, just in case King Baggot’s spastic chimpanzee routine doesn’t land the job first. The more silent versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that I see, the more I respect John Barrymore’s performance, though I would love to see what Conrad Veidt conjured up for Murnau. While that film itself is no longer believed to exist, scripts and production notes do. I should seek those out.

The intertitles also highlight how this version carries a religious message. In Barrymore’s, science clearly trumped religion as the focus of the script, even during discussions about good and evil or the ability to split the soul. Here, science is almost never mentioned, because it’s all about religion. The point at which this is hammered home is when Jekyll explains to Bernice that he’s puzzled by an odd case of a child who is currently in his care. ‘The child is dead and yet alive,’ he says. ‘It almost proves my theory that there is no soul.’ Quite how he got there, I have no idea, and quite how that progresses on to ‘my theory that man has two natures - good and evil’, I have no idea either. However, it does, and the religious angle is driven home by the intertitles. ‘Oh God, help me!’ Jekyll cries. ‘Save me from the penalty of my disbelief.’ These get more verbose. ‘Surrendering himself to his evil genius,’ he becomes, ‘Convulsed with remorse for the crimes of his demon nature,’ I’d certainly read a novel by whoever wrote these cards!
The other angle that’s new here shows up when we think the film is about to end. Mostly this progresses as we expect, though with the surely unintended comedic element of having Hyde be chased by a bunch of what seem to be Keystone Kops. Jekyll sends Bernice a note to have her come to his lab. He wants the opportunity to explain, now that he’s lost her and she’s marrying another and he’s all pouty, but he turns into Hyde first and kills her, so we expect him to take poison and the film to end, but no! Hyde is actually arrested and locked up. We’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy! ‘Hours of fruitless anguish,’ suggest the increasingly desperate intertitles. One even reads simply, ‘Despair.’ By the time the cops decide to work the old third degree on Hyde, he’s turned back to Jekyll. An old woman identifies him, before he changes right in front of the cops and confesses. Into the electric chair he goes and... and... it’s all a dream. They have to get moving or he and Bernice will be late for the opera.

I wonder if anyone’s done a scholarly study of ‘but it was all a dream’ movies, perhaps in the wake of the furore over the ninth season of Dallas in 1986. Robot Monster almost got away with the concept because of the consistent childish innocence and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans of that movie, but I’m not sure that anything else ever has. Certainly this one makes us feel cheated, but it was probably explained as a way to give Dr Jekyll a second shot at a life doing God’s works after the Tempter visited him in his dreams and demonstrated in no uncertain terms what his ‘theories’ would lead to. He only had to start thinking about the two natures of man and he was out there raping and murdering like an animal. I guess this is a happy ending. Jekyll looks at his beloved and states, ‘I believe in God - I have a soul - and - I still have you.’ All’s right with the world, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Dr Jekyll, for this hilarious lesson in morality. Elvis has left the building. Goodnight, John Boy. That’s all, folks.

Sunday 24 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

Director: John S Robertson
Star: John Barrymore
After two lost films and two more which I’ve reviewed, other versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were made that are either lost or unavailable to watch today. Herbert Brenon’s take for IMP wasn’t the only one from 1913, for instance; there was a second one directed by Frank E Woods with Murdock MacQuarrie playing the title roles. This is a particularly important version as it was made both in Britain and in colour by the Kinemacolor Company. Joseph A Golden of the Crystal Film Company directed a comedy version in 1914 called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Done to a Frazzle. That year, the Germans produced Ein Seltsamer Fall too (or A Strange Case), directed by Max Mack and with Alwin Neuß back in a role he had played for August Blom four years earlier. In 1915, the year of Horrible Hyde, directed by Howard Hansell with Jerold Hevener, there was even a genderbent approach to the story, courtesy of the Vitagraph Company of America, with stage actress Helen Gardner playing both Miss Jekyll and Madame Hyde. All seem lost.

All were also shorts, though running times varied from the split reel of Horrible Hyde to the fifty minutes of Ein Seltsamer Fall. The first feature length adaptation wouldn’t show up until 1920 and that’s the one most people remember from the silent era. It was a Famous Players-Lasky picture, a company formed by the merger of eight independent companies and which would acquire its best known name, Paramount, in 1927. It was directed by John S Robertson, a Canadian who apparently never did better, though he did go on to make films like Tess of the Storm Country and The Phantom of Paris. The star was a major one, John Barrymore, but he was best known at this point for his stage work. This role cemented his fame on film and he became one of the biggest names of the decade, playing the title roles in Sherlock Holmes, Beau Brummel and Don Juan. He didn’t pick up his nickname of ‘The Great Profile’ until around 1924, so it’s surprising to see him almost always from the side here, as if to live up to that future name.
With the running time of a feature, this version is able to relax and build the story slowly but surely, not ditch whatever seems least important to fit onto however many reels. Barrymore is vastly superior as Dr Henry Jekyll than anyone earlier whose work has survived to this day. He looks precisely like an ‘idealist and philanthropist’ should, as a gentleman with a cape and a top hat. He’s always the tallest man in the scene, as if he’s just a little closer to godliness than anyone around him. He runs a ‘human repair shop’, as if to highlight how routine such work has become for him but which his dedication has him continue. However, he still experiments and that’s what prompts objections from colleagues. Dr Richard Lanyon, ‘as conservative as Jekyll was progressive,’ doesn’t like his use of a microscope, through which we even get certain interesting shots. ‘You’re tampering with the supernatural,’ he suggests. Science has clearly moved on in the last century and change.

All this is keeping Jekyll busy, so he has precious little time for social engagements like the dinner at Sir George Carew’s, to which he arrives late. Except for his equally gentlemanly bearing, Carew, supposedly Jekyll’s mentor and certainly the father of Millicent, the young lady whom he is vaguely wooing, is close to being his opposite. He reads the gossip pages and The Sporting Life and, while he has brought up his daughter ‘in sheltered innocence’, is clearly no innocent himself. ‘There isn’t much in life Sir George has overlooked,’ his servant tells Jekyll. Carew raises the dual nature of man over wine, claiming that Jekyll is neglecting himself by being so devoted to others. He taunts him with the suggestion that his strong self is fearless but his weak self is afraid of experience. ‘A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying his impulses,’ he proclaims. ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’ And off they all go to the music hall, where Carew can have an Italian dancer, Miss Gina, embrace Jekyll to tempt his dark side.
And so is wakened ‘a sense of his baser nature’ for the first time. By the point that the argument reaches its logical conclusion, we’ve passed a leisurely 25 minutes. ‘Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated,’ suggests Jekyll, ‘housed in different bodies.’ Carew claims that as impossible and Jekyll accepts the challenge, even offending his mentor in the process. He works days and nights in his lab to find a way ‘to yield to every evil impulse - yet leave the soul untouched’ until at last he figures it out and he changes in the moment that everyone had been waiting for in 1920. Barrymore hesitates a little, like his predecessors, but with much more power, then reacts violently, contorts, hides his face and emerges as Hyde, all done without make-up to aid the transformation. That concept makes sense to John Barrymore, the noted stage actor, where make-up could only be used in a way that could be highlighted by light filters. Scenes like this on stage required acting, facial manipulation and clever trickery.

Enhancements are clearly added for the next shot, after a cut, as his frame becomes more skeletal and his fingers elongate. He hunches but with more control than Cruze had. He leers, his eyes remaining his most prominent feature until he takes off his hat to display a conical cranium. His pristine hair falls wildly. Unlike the spastic chimpanzee take of King Baggot, Barrymore becomes like the stereotypical Jew, surely taking Fagin as an influence. He’s controlled, very knowing, always planning. He’s much closer to an evil character than the previous adaptations had attempted, at least to our modern way of thinking. We don’t generally think of evil as an animalistic urge nowadays, instead seeing it as a deliberate choice to not do what we know is good. Prior takes on Mr Hyde had been of monsters who aren’t able to understand what they’re doing, characters who we might even categorise as victims. Barrymore’s Hyde refuses to follow suit; he’s an evil soul through and through, a creature with the good in him deliberately removed.
And so ‘Hyde set forth upon a sea of license - to do what he, as Jekyll, could not do.’ We know the rest of the story by now, and it proceeds according to Sullivan’s stage adaptation that earlier versions had also used as primary source, but to degrees as never before. Hyde frequents bars and opium dens. The child in the street scene is much better handled and it leads to plot details not attempted before, namely the cheque being signed by Jekyll rather than Hyde. When Carew questions him on it, he replies vigorously, ‘What right do you have to question me? You who first tempted me!’ Then he changes in front of him, with the aid of a double exposure, literally leaps onto him, beats him with his cane and bludgeons him to death. It’s brutal stuff and, in the print I saw, his eyes are entirely white. That may be the first time ever that I’ve benefitted from a lesser quality print of a silent movie. There’s even a freakish double exposure of a spider climbing into his four poster bed to attack his conscience. It’s a ghostly thing but still scary.

Throughout Barrymore dominates, but he’s given some great assistance from the crew. There are more and better sets. There are actual costumes. There’s thought given to how the shots were made. We see people from three distances: framed within a set, framed together in a group and up close as individuals. There’s some real art in how those groupings are put together too, with composition of frame very much in mind. We might take such concepts for granted today, but the two prior versions that survive are from an era when the camera was a static creature, in front of which actors did their jobs. It recorded what it saw rather than played a part in telling a story. The gap between 1913 and 1920 might have been only seven years but it marked a couple of generations of technological improvements and a century in the understanding of cinematic art. Comparing this version with those from 1912 or 1913 is like comparing apples and oranges, but it was still a pretty decent apple even for 1920.
As dominant as Barrymore is, he was far from the only actor on screen and others do deserve credit. The most recognisable face today, at least to silent film buffs, surely belongs to an uncredited Louis Wolheim, whose unmistakable features were given to the proprietor of the dance hall in which Carew introduces Dr Jekyll to Miss Gina. Wolheim looked like the stereotypical thug and his intertitles play that up by providing him with a broad Cockney accent, but he was nothing like it in person, speaking four languages, teaching mathematics and earning a degree in engineering. His introduction to acting was by Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, who told him, ‘With that face, you could make a fortune in the theater.’ He acted alongside Lionel, John and their sister, Ethel, on numerous occasions. He’s mostly known for his silent pictures because he died in 1931, but his few films with sound show that he would have easily survived the transition. He was great in All Quiet on the Western Front and Adolphe Menjou won an Oscar for the role which Wolheim was to play in The Front Page.

The ladies are notable too, though it focuses much more on the men. Martha Mansfield looks much more like a suitable prize for Dr Jekyll than the ladies in earlier versions, believable as a beautiful society lady. She gets some opportunity while awaiting his arrival at her father’s party, neatly demonstrating a strong disappointment to us while trying not to show it to those around her. She also gets to play a decent part in the ending, in which she’s menaced by Hyde, who, from the front, looks bizarrely like Iggy Pop playing Nosferatu, but is released by Jekyll seizing enough control to take poison. Nita Naldi, Rudolph Valentino’s most frequent co-star, gets some opportunity too as Miss Gina, even in this, her screen debut. I enjoyed an odd bar scene more, though, where not one but two uncredited ladies (presumably of the evening) try to come on to Hyde and he manipulates them both magnificently. It’s great choreography, from him and them both, but as he leaves that scene triumphant, so does he leave the film. A new star was born.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)

Director: Gary Jones
Stars: Amber Connor, Joe Estevez, Tom Downey, Tim Lovelace and Dan Haggerty
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
Like many of the stars who pick a couple of films from their careers for me to review as part of my Make It a Double project, Dan Haggerty picked one quickly: this one. Given that he’s hardly in it, perhaps it was a fresh memory. After all, he picked his two at the Wild Western Festival in Glendale in October 2014 when this was his most recent feature, having been released in June 2013. Like those others, he took a little bit of time to think up his second pick, going back to his most famous role of James ‘Grizzly’ Adams, but in a less well known title that he felt was particularly worthwhile, the 1982 TV movie, The Capture of Grizzly Adams. It’s oddly synchronistic that he would pick Axe Giant as it was made by a company founded by a couple of men who had been introduced by Gunnar Hansen, the last actor whose Make It a Double picks that I reviewed for this project because, like Haggerty, he also died before I got round to watching them. Hopefully that isn’t a continuing trend and I can share future reviews with the actors who set them up.

The idea behind this one is to take one of the great American tall tales from the nineteenth century and mix it up for the modern day. Those two founders, Gary Jones and Jeff Miller, thought of Paul Bunyan and how legend had the Great Lakes form from his footsteps and the Grand Canyon from the dragging of his axe, and spun that idea into a slasher movie. With Jason Ancona, they turned it into a script which Jones directed. I liked this idea and it made this slasher more American than most, which is a good thing in my book because, even though most slasher flicks are American, I still think of the genre as Italian because nothing I’ve seen has compared to Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood or Twitch of the Death Nerve, which had arguably started the whole thing. I liked this film too, at least for the first half to two thirds. Up until that point, it had walked a fine line just this side of cliché, but then it got sloppy and ended cheaply. That’s a shame because a little more effort to wrap things up properly would have made a big difference.
Haggerty appears in the opening story which unfolds in the Minnesota of 1894. He’s in charge of a crew of lumberjacks who call him Foreman Bill. After a long day of working in the snow, they return to camp to carve off a chunk of the huge beast that the cook has on an ambitious spit over a fire. Bill wanders off to presumably relieve himself in the woods before dinner, prompting a memorable description of him as ‘a great big bear of a man with the itty bitty bowels of a squirrel.’ I love that line and wish I’d have another opportunity to meet Haggerty to ask him about it. When I first met him, I gave him a signed copy of my debut book and mentioned that I’d reviewed one of his films in it. He asked which one and I said that he didn’t look the same without pink ribbons in his hair. Remembering Pink Angels as an odd anomaly in his filmography, he jokingly asked security to kick me out of the building before kindly signing that chapter in my own copy. He did make some odd movies though, and his death here is both odd and memorable.

He’s killed by a routine looking maniac in a lumberjack shirt and a latex mask, after returning to find the camp the scene of a massacre. Given how many slasher movies have been set in camps, I’d wonder why nobody’s made Lumberjack Camp Massacre yet but then there wouldn’t be any quality boobs. Of course, anyone remotely familiar with the Paul Bunyan legends has probably figured out what’s going on by now but the rest of the world has to wait until the explanation halfway through, from the token mountain man after the fit has already hit the shan. That provides a neat opportunity for a little more exposition in 1894 and thus a little more screen time for Haggerty and his lumberjack crew, but it’s still not much. I’ve found a lot of Make It a Double choices fascinating for a lot of reasons, but one is the odd discovery that actors sometimes choose films that they’re hardly in, this following in the footsteps of Gunnar Hansen’s choices and Dee Wallace’s Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder.
Given that we don’t spend the movie in 1894, we quickly move forward to a familiar framework. Sgt Hoke is a drill sergeant of a police officer who speaks with the precise tones of a RoboCop and Ms K is a smiling social worker and counsellor. They meet for the first time mere seconds before they’re about to take on a set of five varied juveniles who have fallen afoul of the law. He calls them STUMPs, an acronym for Stupid Teenagers Under My Protection. Their job is to drive them out to the inevitable cabin in the woods and try to transform those STUMPs into trees, upstanding members of the community. Of course, both are blatant stereotypes, almost the epitome of the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ epithets that the media is currently so fond of. He’s a cigar smoking, gun-toting, vitriol hurling outdoorsman who takes no crap from nobody and she’s a lily livered Social Justice Warrior with a liberal arts degree who lives in an office. Of course, neither remains quite that stereotypical because there is some substance here, if not a heck of a lot.

The five juvies are also roughly what you might expect, even if their presence here doesn’t actually make much sense. There’s a thin nerdy kid with glasses called Martin who hacked into the IRS and stole twelve million dollars. Well, eleven and a half. The skeletal white trash girl in a skimpy top is Trish, whose sassy attitude led to three counts of assault on a police officer after she punched a cop who looked at her ass. Zack is an upper middle class drug dealer whose friends needed things. Rosa is the token black chick in distressed jeans and a bitchy attitude; she went down for contempt of court. And Claire, or CB, is the odd one out, a normal girl who was merely ‘a little buzzed’ after a party when she hit a drunk driver who had run a red light in front of her after crashing into three other cars on the way. She’s the one that everyone else gets to sympathise with because justice is a bitch who cares nothing about perspective. She’s also the one with a back story that comes in useful later in the film after things have gone pear shaped.
‘You never know who you might run into in the deep dark woods,’ Sgt Hoke quips to Claire’s father, after he drops her off. Well, we do because he’s in the title of the movie and, sure enough, there’s a giant Paul Bunyan breaking the neck of a fully grown bear just to show us how massive he is. He does look pretty cool as a giant, even if he’s clumsily added into scenes with people in them. He’s much more effective in his cave, because he’s just a big guy there with latex muscles. Things go roughly as we expect. The kids don’t like camping outdoors in gender separated tents while Sgt Hoke stays indoors. Trish surreptitiously sneaks into the guys’ tent so she can take her top off and get caught by Ms K. Just half a day of hiking in the woods is enough for some of them to want to quit and sneak away, even if it means they’ll go to jail, forcing us to start rooting for Sgt Hoke. And, of course, one of them triggers the rest of the story through a surreptitious action that he’s told not to do by the authority figures present.

Originality really isn’t the point here, outside of that initial idea of updating tall tales to a contemporary framework. Then again, how many slasher movies have you seen that have even a trace of originality. I thought as much. Slasher movies tend to be rated on the number of boobs shown and the quality of the death scenes. On those counts, this one does poorly on the former but rather well on the latter, because we only get one pair of boobs and those not for long but as much imagination in the deaths as is possible given that Paul Bunyan really only has one weapon. The effects work is surprisingly good, given how bad the greenscreen work is throughout, and it’s the deaths where they’re put to the best and most frequent use. I was especially impressed with Haggerty’s death scene, where the younger Bunyan forces his head backwards into a circular saw that’s used for cutting trees in half. The scenery is also good throughout; it isn’t Minnesota, but forests in California and Ohio work just as well.
And the acting is surprisingly capable. I wouldn’t call anyone out for Academy Awards, but each of those juveniles is given a little more depth than the script warranted by the actors who brought them life. Tom Downey is easily the best actor of those who have actual screen time; he sells Sgt Hoke very well and it’s telling that such an abrasive character can become sympathetic in his hands. He’s made a lot of movies that look like cheap genre fare that would screen on the Syfy Channel, as indeed this did. I own a few of them and, on the basis of this performance, may well shift them a little further up my priority list for his participation. The other notable presence is Joe Estevez, who wanders into the film as a ‘harmless local’ with a screw loose. He lives on the mountain, knows the truth and gets to tell it like he’s sitting around a campfire at Halloween. He’s Clint Howard meets Walter Huston from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a performance he delivers with wide eyes and relish. It’s overblown, of course, but it’s fun.

And, of course, that’s what Jones and Miller were going for. For the most part they succeed, even if Bruce Campbell’s memorable quote overplays it a little. ‘Cheesier than a Roquefort sandwich,’ he quipped, ‘but I enjoyed the hell out of it.’ He’s presumably being generous because he has history with Jones, who had started out doing effects work for a whole slew of Bruce Campbell movies, beginning with Stryker’s War, which Campbell co-wrote, and Evil Dead II but moving on to more prominent fare such as Moontrap and Army of Darkness. In fact, most of the crew members have long strings of credits behind them of movies we’ve heard of and have often seen. This may well be a Roquefort sandwich, but it’s a tasty one for most of its running time. With the exception of the cheap and unworthy ending, it bodes rather well for Kinetic Filmworks LLC. I love trying to figure out why people picked the films they did for Make It a Double and I think that, beyond this being the most recent film Haggerty made, it was also a fun experience for him.

Friday 22 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)

Director: Herbert Brenon
Star: King Baggot
The 1912 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde featured James Cruze in the lead, a former snake oil salesman from Utah who appeared in over a hundred films between 1911 and 1919. However, he’s remembered a lot more today for being a director, making 72 films between 1919 and 1938, plus a couple more earlier. This seemed to be an odd trend for early Jekyll and Hyde films, as Hobart Bosworth, who played the role first, directed almost sixty films himself, and King Baggot, who succeeded Cruze in this film, is also best known as a director today, even though he was more prolific as an actor and had carved out a name for himself. He was especially fond of playing roles in disguise and even played all ten parts in Shadows, an innovative 1914 short. Six of them appeared in the same scene at one point, thus requiring the camera to be exposed six separate times, a full decade before Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. As a director, though, he made films as important as the 1925 Raffles and especially Tumbleweeds, a William S Hart western.

Watching immediately after the 1912 version, it’s obvious that this 1913 one, from IMP, the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, has the benefit of length and it uses that well early on, with a few scenes that involve much character development, surprising but welcome. This was a two reeler, which at 26 minutes ran over twice as long as its predecessor. A bunch of characters appear on screen from the outset and Dr Henry Jekyll is underlined as a good man because he devotes a great deal of his attentions to charity patients. Absolutely none of this was in the previous version which began with Jekyll drinking a potion and turning into Hyde. We’re not given much reason why he turns here, though, just one intertitle suggesting that he plans to set free his evil self in ‘the dead silence of the night’. I should add that this is suffering magnificently from delusions of poetic grandeur, which sadly fails to extend to the performance of Baggot, who consistently overdoes it as Jekyll, compared to Cruze, and goes truly wild as Hyde.
While Stevenson did describe Hyde as a ‘shrunken man’, Baggot takes that to ridiculous extremes here. I really don’t know what he was going for, but his take on Hyde suggests not evil but a spastic who has lost the control of his limbs. He doesn’t merely hunch, he waddles, somewhat like a demented duck, or, given that he has a cane that’s almost as tall as he is in such an extreme crouch, maybe he’s more like Yoda on acid. He grimaces too, outrageously. I can only imagine that he went for the sinister look of a yellow peril Chinaman and the motion of a chimpanzee. Whatever he did, it failed utterly in my book. Wikipedia says that he used ‘a variety of different greasepaints and a tangled mass of crepe hair’, but that’s not obvious in the print I saw, especially as Hyde wears a hat throughout. No wonder those who see him, such as club patrons and a new landlady, recoil from his presence. They’re less scared as bewildered. What could this creature be that’s leaping down the stairs at them?

So I hated Hyde. What I liked here was the rapid loss of control. Unlike most versions, including the prior one from 1912, Jekyll is in control of his transformations for a while until Hyde gradually takes over. Here, we take a while to get to the first change but, once we’re there, Hyde’s dominant from then on. He does change back into Jekyll, who promptly gestures toward the heavens and swears that, ‘Never again shall I tempt fate!’ Then he sits down to rest, watches his twitching hand tell him that he’s still not himself and changes right back into Hyde again. I liked this, but felt that it provided a different message to the usual standard of the era. Usually, Victorian horror tales or scientific romances warn us that we shouldn’t step into God’s shoes. Here, it’s more like the hysterical drug films that suggest that just a whiff of marijuana will give us jazz hands and prompt us to murder people. Baggot’s Hyde has much in common with films like Reefer Madness. ‘Dr Jekyll is a martyr to science,’ an intertitle suggests and we think Timothy Leary.
I realised a few other things watching this film. Had I played it first tonight, I might well have cut it some slack for its overacting, which is quintessential 1913. However, watching after the James Cruze version, I realise that I can’t do that. Cruze was far superior to Baggot as Jekyll and, as bad as he was as Hyde, he was far superior there too. While the first reel laughed at how it had time to build character, the second struggled to cram in the story before it ran out of time, meaning that the pace is wildly inconsistent; it’s leisurely for half its running time, almost as if that first reel was of a feature, then frenetic for the other half, as if it was a one reeler all along, just with a long prologue. Characters don’t play right either. One scene features Hyde attacking a crippled boy in the street, which, of course, prompts a mob to form on the fly. However, even though they have the perpetrator right there in their grasp, that mob is so polite that it lets him leave to write a cheque to the boy’s father instead of simply beating him to a pulp.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this film could be regarded as the first Universal monster movie. IMP was founded by Carl Laemmle in New York in 1909. Over three years he battled Thomas Edison’s patent infringement thugs, defending against no less than 289 legal actions filed by the Motion Picture Patents Company, while his fellow independents moved across country to Hollywood, where they could use fists and guns instead. He eventually emerged victorious in 1912, then relaunched IMP as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company and, after two final pictures in New York, moved to Hollywood. Laemmle’s son, Carl Laemmle Jr, was the real driving force behind the Universal monster movies, which began with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but really found their niche with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Junior famously had to convince Senior to green light Dracula but, eighteen years earlier, it was Senior who produced Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the real beginning of the Universal monsters.

The 1913 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be watched for free online at YouTube (here’s another version with an interesting modern score) and the Internet Archive.

Thursday 21 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912)

Director: Lucius Henderson
Star: James Cruze
This month marks the 130th birthday of one of the pivotal stories of horror literature, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, which was first published on 5th January, 1886. Of course, it’s seen many adaptations to film, averaging almost one per year even though the first didn’t arrive until 1908, but the earliest are sadly lost today. That first version was a one reeler from Selig Polyscope, which was probably directed by Otis Turner, who also directed the earliest surviving version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, made two years later. It wasn’t an adaptation of the novella per se but of the stage version first mounted at the Boston Museum in 1887 when the original was only a year old. This adaptation was written by Thomas Russell Sullivan, who added the romantic angle which continued on in most versions that would be made over the succeeding century, thus blurring this with the original in popular culture and especially in the minds of those who haven’t read the novella.

The stage version starred Mr Richard Mansfield, who continued in the role almost until his death in 1907, so a new actor was needed for this film. Hobart Bosworth was new to the screen in 1908 but he would go on to make almost three hundred movies as an actor and sixty more as a director. His career successfully survived the transition to sound but decreased in prominence until his last picture, Sin Town, in 1942. Of course, being 1908, it was a one reel film which compressed the four act play to a mere sixteen minutes. The next version ran seventeen and was made in Denmark in 1910 by August Blom for the Nordisk Film Kompangni, with Alwin Neuß in the lead. The former is known today primarily for Atlantis, his pioneering feature from 1912 and the latter for playing Sherlock Holmes in a string of movies in the 1910s. I don’t know if Blom’s version was closer to the original novella or the succeeding play, but it wouldn’t be much of a shock to find that it, along with most later versions, was based more on the latter.
The first version still extant today is the 1912 version from the Thanhouser Company, directed by Lucius Henderson and starring James Cruze in the double roles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In an interview in 1963, an actor by the name of Harry Benham, who had played many lead roles for Thanhouser, claimed that it was actually him in some scenes as Hyde. If you wonder why he didn’t own up sooner, it’s probably that the role is historically important but artistically pretty awful. Cruze impresses as Dr Jekyll, endowing the character with a surprising amount of natural emotion for the time and letting him flow well through the film. Neither he nor Benham impress as Mr Hyde, who is an overblown clutching hunchback with horrible teeth. We see both quickly, as this attempts to recount the story in a mere twelve minutes! They could fit more than that onto a single reel in 1912 and the biggest problem the film has is that it’s condensed too far; it could have done with a few more minutes to allow for a little progression between scenes.

Given the restrictions inherent in the running time, it gets right down to business with Jekyll preparing to test a theory expounded in Graham on Drugs that ‘the taking of certain drugs can separate man into two beings - one representing EVIL, the other GOOD.’ He does so by mixing a formula, steeling himself to the task and then quaffing it down. He changes almost instantaneously, waiting only to sit down, and there’s no doubt that the effect was achieved by having Cruze change costume and make-up and try his best to replicate his prior position so the editor could splice effectively. It’s surprisingly effective, mostly because Cruze found almost exactly the right position. Unfortunately, the subtleties that he shows throughout the film as Jekyll, which include his initial hesitation to drink the formula, his polite wooing of ‘the minister’s daughter’ and even a sad acceptance later in the movie that he can’t keep from changing any more, are threatened by his activities as Hyde, who chews up every piece of scenery he can find.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Stevenson’s novella, but it was never really about good and evil and had depths and analogies to the change. The many plays and movies which adapted it gradually skewed the piece, though, into a horrific morality tale and we’ve lost sight of the original. Back in 1912, apparently, evil wasn’t a subtly creeping thing but a flamboyant raging creature. We hardly recognise this caricature as evil today, and we might easily wonder instead if the wild rampaging fits are due to mental illness or too much drink. Given how unusually natural Cruze plays Jekyll for most of the film, I wonder if his lapse into traditional silent era gesturing towards the end was a deliberate attempt to depict how Dr Jekyll was aware that he was losing control. If so, I’m even more impressed by his performance, but if not, it’s still a surprisingly effective one, especially given the time. Hyde, of course, is a lost cause, so outrageous that the portrayal could only have been accepted in the early silent era.

There’s little else to comment on, because this version is so condensed that it really comes down to the story and Cruze’s performance. The script has Jekyll announced as the ‘accepted suitor of the minister’s daughter’, but only so that an uncontrolled change turns him into Hyde, who scares the poor young lady and then murders her father in cold blood, setting the stage for the final act. It’s notable that this scene contains little but ‘a park, a policeman and a pretty girl,’ as Chaplin described his base requirements for making a comedy at Keystone two years later. This is far from a comedy, even if Hyde’s actions are a bit close to one to today’s eyes, but the formula held (pun not intended) for a thriller too. What’s surprising is that, after the inevitable end, when Jekyll can’t keep Hyde from dominating and takes poison, he dies but doesn’t change back in front of the arriving throng. I can’t remember another version that does that, as it leaves an odd ending. With Hyde agreeably dead, where’s Jekyll? They’ll be searching for years.

The 1912 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be watched for free online at YouTube and the Internet Archive.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)

Director: Philip Rosen
Stars: Maria Montez, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, John Litel, Edward Norris, Lloyd Corrigan and Nell O’Day
When we sang Happy Birthday to my youngest grandson today, we were also singing Happy Birthday to one of the most important figures in early horror fiction, Edgar Allan Poe. I felt it might be appropriate to review a Poe movie, as after all there are hundreds of them to choose from, and this seemed to fit the bill for a few reasons. I haven’t seen it, for one, as far as I can remember, and it was a pretty tough picture to track down until it finally saw a DVD release in 2014. It’s a Universal horror so it’ll be worth a watch, even if was made in 1942, a year after The Wolf Man, their last undeniable classic until perhaps Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 and at least until Abbott and Costello started meeting monsters in 1948. And it features two talented ladies, both named Maria but otherwise very different: Maria Ouspenskaya remains the best old gypsy woman the movies ever found, even if she died 66 years ago and Maria Montez was a camp icon who became very influential to underground gay cinema in the sixties.

As it turns out, Montez, who plays the title character of Marie Roget, isn’t actually in the film that much, a supporting actor given prominence when it was re-released because she’d found fame in another picture, The Phantom of Paris. Marie is a popular musical comedy star in the Paris of 1899 who vanishes without a trace and prompts a city-wide manhunt. It’s been ten days already when we meet Gobelin, the Prefect of Police, to watch his command be threatened by Henri Beauvais, the Minister of Naval Affairs and a friend of the family, if he doesn’t find her in 24 hours. When Paul Dupin, who had solved the murders in the Rue Morgue, walks in, he threatens him too. They all go to the docks to look at a corpse that’s washed up and Beauvais tentatively identifies the young lady as Marie, even though her face is completely missing, ‘torn to a pulp by the claws of an animal,’ as Dupin phrases it. So they bear the bad news to the family, Cecile the grandmother, Camille the stepsister and their unnamed pet leopard, only for Marie Roget to waltz in.

It’s easy to see why Montez was such an icon to the gay community. She was obviously far from the best actor in the room, whichever room she happened to be in at the time, but she had an exotic look and an exotic accent and she moved with an exotic grace that makes her very watchable. She’s somewhat like a cute and cuddly Bela Lugosi and she almost sings her lines, even when she’s speaking. What’s more, she could turn on the bitchiness like a switch. One moment she’s sweetness and light, the next she’s ready to rip you a new one. We watch this when Camille announces that she plans to marry Marcel Vigneaux, who Marie apparently loves too. This is no chick flick though. Camille is kicked out of the room to give Marcel the opportunity to explain to Marie that he has no intention to marry her sister and it’s all a subterfuge to take them through the next night, when they plan to murder Camille at the De Luc’s party, right after, as we soon discover, she comes into an inheritance of a million and a half francs.
This was based on the Edgar Allan Poe story, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, which had been serialised back in 1842 and 1843. He extrapolated it from a real crime, the murder of Mary Rogers in New Jersey in 1841, but phrased it as a sequel to his earlier story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring C Auguste Dupin, who returned to solve this one too. Why Universal changed C Auguste Dupin into Pierre Dupin when they adapted that story into Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1932, I have no idea at all, and I have even less as to why he then became Paul Dupin a decade later for this film. Then again, they didn’t keep a lot of Poe’s original story, actually getting closer to the murder he based it on. Mary Rogers was a noted beauty with many prominent admirers, including the writers James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, but three years before her corpse was found floating in the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ, she had disappeared in a hoax that may or may not have involved the newspapers which reported on it.

And sure enough, that’s what happens here. Marie Roget disappears, the town is all aflutter and then she reappears without a scratch or even an explanation. However, the next night, at the De Luc’s party, when she and Marcel plan to kill her stepsister, it’s Marie who vanishes and whose corpse is apparently brought up from the river, though yet again the body is missing a face making firm identification difficult. Thus far the film has kept up a frenetic pace. Sure, the piece is only 61 minutes long but it’s lean, mean and ready for anything. The rapid fire editing of Milton Carruth is to be praised because there isn’t a down moment as we leap from location to location, scene to scene and revelation to revelation. It slows down somewhat in the aftermath of Marie’s second disappearance, but soon ratchets back up to speed again, with what is as much a dry comedy as it is a mystery. I laughed aloud on a number of occasions as Dupin outstrips his friend, the Prefect of Police, who flusters gloriously. This double act was a joy to behold.

Dupin is played by Patric Knowles, a regular in the pictures of his friend and vague lookalike, Errol Flynn; he is perhaps best known for playing Will Scarlet in Flynn’s version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. As Gobelin, the Prefect of Police, Universal cast Lloyd Corrigan, who had a long and distinguished career but is surely best known in this household at least for playing Arthur Manleder in the Boston Blackie movies. They wouldn’t seem to be the most obvious screen pairing, but Michael Jacoby’s script throws no end of sparkling dialogue their way. ‘I have an idea,’ says Gobelin at one point, having finally figured out what Dupin has known all along. ‘It’s about time,’ replies Dupin. Corrigan also gets a number of great scenes with Maria Ouspenskaya, who had appeared with Knowles in The Wolf Man only a year earlier. While she treats Dupin with respect, she orders the Prefect around, deflating him every time he puffs out his chest. ‘Don’t ask fool questions!’ she snaps at him, considering him nothing but a petty gendarme.
Knowles is solid throughout as Dupin, though he doesn’t dominate the way detectives generally did back in forties movies. While he’s ahead of everyone else throughout, he keeps to the background and doesn’t stand out for particular attention. Just compare the performance to Basil Rathbone’s as Sherlock Holmes and you’ll see how less prominent Knowles seems. Corrigan is prominent throughout, but he was always great at remaining in a kerfuffle, trying to enforce his presence constantly but failing almost as much. As the male suspects, John Litel and Edward Norris, playing Beauvais and Vigneaux respectively, are decent but hardly emphatic. The lady suspects are a little more obvious, especially Ouspenskaya, who is spot on the mark for most of the picture. She’s a little blah on a few of the calmer lines but, whenever emotion is required, she’s blistering and an absolute joy to watch in action. Nell O’Day mostly settles for being the calm and elegant stepsister, but she does get a few moments in which to actually act.

Really though, we’re watching for the story and people like Knowles, Corrigan and Ouspenskaya are just the icing on that cake. It’s been far too long since I’ve read the Poe original, so I can’t remember what is authentic and what isn’t; I presume most of it was ignored and created afresh for Jacoby’s script. Except for a few minutes in the very middle of the film, it’s a fast-paced set of twists and turns, all of which stir the blood and keep us guessing. We’re generally ahead of Grobelin all the way but things unfold at such a pace that it’s hard for us to keep up with Dupin. I’m sure that, if we write down all the little details and analyse them at our leisure, we’ll find plotholes galore, but we aren’t given that luxury as Jacoby speeds us along at a rate of knots. I lost track of how many twists we have, but I had a blast following them. My favourite was when Dupin has Grobelin withdraw a case, only to find that the man he’s effectively freed from a charge of murder promptly challenges him to a duel.

Mystery fans won’t be disappointed with the script. Horror fans, because Murders in the Rue Morgue was as much a horror movie as a detective yarn, won’t be disappointed with the ending, in which our hatted and caped murderer attempts to escape across the rooftops of Paris; it’s not the shadowy expressionistic delight that earlier Universal horrors were but it does give it a shot and the very weakest of the Universal horrors are at least capable on this front. Maria Montez fans will enjoy her brief performance, which also includes a song, which she performs mostly in French, if I’m not very much mistaken. I really do need to follow up with some of her most influential films, such as Cobra Woman. Other titles, like White Savage, Gypsy Wildcat and Siren of Atlantis ably highlight what she was best known for. Maria Ouspenskaya fans, of which I’m very much one, won’t be disappointed either, especially for her scenes with Corrigan. So all of us ought to be happy. It’s not the best Universal, but it’s a delightful hour. Happy birthday, Mr Poe.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

The Groper Train: Search for the Black Pearl (1984)

Director: Yojiro Takita
Stars: Kaoru Kaze and Yuka Takemura, Naoto Takenaka and Yukijiro Hotaru

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

When I found out about this Japanese pinku film, I had to see it for my Weird Wednesday series because it refuses to play by any of the rules we’ve come to expect for cinema. For a start, this is the 23rd movie in a series, something almost unprecedented in the west where we believe the Friday the 13th franchise has gone on way too long after ten original features, one crossover with A Nightmare on Elm Street and one reboot. Have you ever seen the 23rd movie in any series? I’ve seen a couple, like The Lone Wolf in London, which in 1947 was the 23rd and penultimate outing for Michael Lanyard, the jewel thief turned private detective of the title, but that was hardly a consistent series with Gerald Mohr the ninth actor to play the part in thirty years. I’ve seen all thirty Carry On movies, so 1972’s Carry On Matron was another 23rd movie for me, but those films were a thematic series rather than a real one. Perhaps this one is too, but I doubt I’ll check out the rest as there are at least 120 movies in this series! That’s truly insane.

What’s even more insane is that it’s a series called The Groper Train or, according to other translations, Molester Train. You know all those stories you’ve heard about the Japanese having weird sexual fetishes? Well, I’ve never been to Japan, so I really shouldn’t say, but when used panty vending machines do exist on Tokyo streets, tentacle porn goes back to 19th century woodblock prints and there are a hundred and frickin’ twenty Molester Train movies, it’s rather hard to argue against the idea. The Groper Train concept is based on the fact that men, often older men, grope women, often sailor suited schoolgirls, on Japanese trains so often that some transit companies now reserve some carriages for women only. A 2001 survey suggested that 70% of female students at two high schools had been groped. It’s illegal, of course, but a chikan-minded soul can always go to a girls’ club instead and pay $130 to legally grope his choice of girl on a full size reproduction of a train. What a surreal way to make a living!
Another weird aspect to this concept is that, unlike in the west, where major actors or directors are often embarrassed by the movies they started out in and try to pretend they don’t exist, the Japanese have no problem with genre material that extends to pinku or soft porn films. I noticed when I was devouring the Japanese films of the fifties and sixties that actors would often alternate arthouse films with kaiju movies. Takashi Shimura, for instance, made nineteen pictures for Akira Kurosawa, for whom he gave one of the best performances of all time in Ikiru. In 1954 he was the leader of The Seven Samurai and the doctor in Godzilla; in 1955 he made I Live in Fear and Gigantis: The Fire Monster; in 1956 Throne of Blood and The Mysterians. No stigma was attached to the latter half of each pairing. I mention that here because Yojiro Takita, who directed eleven Groper Train movies, including this one, would in 2008 accept the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his picture, Departures.

Even with that background, I still wasn’t prepared for Search for the Black Pearl. It’s clearly a pinku film, with everything revolving around sex and a whole slew of groping scenes in which actual intercourse is almost an afterthought. Yet it’s also a mystery, a comedy and a drama, though rarely all at once. It even becomes a romance at one point, which is rather jarring. And, it begins and ends like a horror movie. Do all these genres really get mashed together into one soft porn flick over a short 64 minute running time? You may need to watch this yourself to figure out how that happens, but I’ll do my best to cover it. Never mind all those sex scenes, because anyone actually wanting to get off on the movie would do better with the visuals off at those points because there’s almost never any dialogue or accompanying score to take away from the young Japanese ladies moaning. What’s interesting about the film isn’t the sex, which is a distraction from the sheer imagination on show during the rest of the film.
In this film, the Black Pearl isn’t a pirate ship, it’s just a black pearl, mounted onto a ring worn by Zhang Zuolin, who is killed by a Japanese Army Unit 69 bomb in Manchuria in 1928. It’s promptly scavenged off his severed hand by Gohei Yamamori, a Japanese soldier who can’t believe his luck in finding the largest pearl in the world. When we leap forward to 1984 Tokyo, where he doesn’t look much older, we discover that it’s worth a cool two million dollars. Gohei soon dies though, literally shagged to death by his much younger wife, Matsuko, who displays her true feelings by asking him where he hid the thing even during sex. He won’t tell her, of course, but he does leave her a clue with his final words, which are ‘pussy print’. No, he isn’t referring to the octopi in 19th century woodblock hentai, he’s really talking about a framed work of art that’s hanging on his wall. It’s an abstract and monochrome piece, created by covering the labia of his niece, Yoko, with ink, then pressing them onto a piece of paper.

Now, why any niece would even consider doing this, I have no idea, but it’s hardly the most outrageous or unbelievable element in this picture, so perhaps we should pass it by with the note that this was the only pussy print in Gohei’s collection to survive a fire that destroyed all his others and took half of this one too. ‘What a unique hobby!’ cries Ippei Kuroda, the private detective whom Matsuko promptly hires to investigate the pussy print and he isn’t kidding. Now, I knew about chikan but I didn’t know anything about pussy prints and I don’t want to spend an hour or six filtering through animated cat gifs to figure out if they’re a major Japanese fetish or not. Watching this PI test the process on his assistant, Hamako, suggests that it does, at least, make more sense than groping schoolgirls on a train. Then again, I have trouble understanding the latter concept. When your fetish relies on the subservient nature of Japanese women to not report you for sexual assault, it’s probably not a particularly promising fetish.
Now, of course, Kuroda immediately gets to indulge in chikan, because he’s a dedicated private eye and Yoko is a mystery. Apparently she was close enough to Gohei to make a pussy print for him but not close enough to actually leave him any contact details and his wife only knows that she has two big moles on her thigh, not exactly much to go on. So, given that the population of Tokyo, the most crowded metropolis in the world, was over 11 million in 1984, how would you go about tracking down which vagina made this particular piece of art? Well, Kuroda puts on some kind of gas mask apparatus, jumps on the train, gropes every young lady he can find and gets a pussy print from each of them in the process. That’s the same idea you had, right? Well, if it’s the most ridiculous thing that you’ve ever heard in your life, it won’t help to tell you that it works pretty quickly. In only a few days of madcap comedy, accompanied by a madcap piece of music and grossout visuals, Kuroda does find Yoko, only to wonder how that even helped at all.

Now his only option is to solicit the assistance of Mr Matsuki, a ‘great mystery writer’ who appears on a show called 20th Century’s Mysteries. He’s a really strange man, a sort of hunchback pervert who floats about like a ghost with his head stuck out from his body and his bottom lip stuck out from his head. He’s a little like Columbo if Columbo was played by a Japanese Donald Duck. His method of investigation is to have Yoko strip naked and open wide so he can inspect inside her vaginal cavity with a magnifying glass and mutter things like, ‘Your pleasure center is the key to finding the Black Pearl.’ Of course, this clinical examination ends in sex, because everything ends in sex in this picture, whose moral message appears to be that, no matter who you are, where you are or what you choose to do to a young lady you’ve never previously met, she’ll always be politely happy and be turned on enough to submit to your every whim. I doubt that’s a good message to send out to a country with a chikan problem, but then I’m not Japanese.
As if to emphasise that Search for the Black Pearl isn’t remotely like anything you might have caught on Skinemax, we’re even given a couple of inside out shots here, as in pussy POV. Outside the framework of this movie, I might have suggested that looking out from inside a young lady’s vagina to see an old man looking in with a magnifying glass, might be a nightmarish experience not likely to be included in a soft porn movie, but this film does seem to revel in doing things that we don’t expect. Next up is a diversion to a locked room mystery, that old chestnut where someone is apparently murdered but in a room whose doors and windows are locked from the inside. Here, that’s Haruo, Gohei Yamamori’s son, which we’re not upset about in the slightest because his response to discovering that there’s no inheritance is to rape his stepmother. No, those aren’t spoilers, by the way, because she’s all for it and he’s not important at all. It just leads to a weird breaking of the fourth wall as maniacal Mr Matsuki challenges us to solve the riddle.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but the mystery aspect of this film is surprisingly capable. Sure, there’s no shock to whodunit, but how it was done is an intricate little manoeuvre that is more impressive than the gimmicks I’ve seen in Hollywood movies lately. We even watch it done and it’s agreeably clever. What’s more, solving the murder doesn’t end the film as the black pearl, that two million dollar MacGuffin of the piece, still has to be located and there’s a clever set of sequences left to show how that happens. Again, it feels surreal to be avoiding spoilers in a review of a 64 minute Japanese soft porn flick, but these final scenes are handled magnificently, featuring a delicious stew of irony, karma, revenge, slapstick comedy, cameraderie, horror, romance, sex and, of course, groping a young lady on a train. You try to write a film that features all that, let alone just a finalé! Search for the Black Pearl is surely intended to give perverts a safe and legal thrill, but this is a far more imaginative way to do that than it ever needed.
I have to say that, while it’s not exactly a good film, I enjoyed it immensely and not because of the sex. I’m hardly going to complain about young Japanese ladies getting naked and moaning a lot, as that sort of thing would improve most movies, but there’s way too much of it and it’s far too unimaginative, oddly given how imaginative everything else is. If it wouldn’t take all the weird fetish elements out too, I might suggest that the Mormon company that bowdlerises movies so the faithful can watch without seeing any boobs or hearing any bad language should release an edit of this that cuts out the sex scenes. Sure, the result would only be about half an hour long, but it would be a weird and wonderful half an hour without the other half hour of panty groping to slow it down. Frankly, if there weren’t so many similar sex scenes to get through, this wouldn’t even feel like a soft porn flick, just another example of Japanese weirdness. Maybe we should just walk out during the seventh inning stretch, like this was The Room.

Much of the reason is that the quality is a lot higher than we’d expect, given that soft porn movies tend to care a lot more about boobs and butts than sets and lighting and camera angles. This was never going to win Yojiro Takita any early Oscars, but it’s well put together by filmmakers who have delusions of artistry and some who may actually be artists. I was surprised to find that I’ve seen some of these actors before. While the ladies, Kaoru Kaze as Matsuko and Yuka Takemura as Hamako, were stuck in pinku movies, the former making threee Groper Train films and the latter seven, Naoto Takenaka, who made his debut here as Mr Matsuka, went on to be a regular for Takashi Miike and I’ve seen him in pictures as wildly varied as Shinjuku Incident, RoboGeisha and The Happiness of the Katakuris. I also noticed a number of pictures in their filmographies which I’ll be covering under an upcoming project about sports movies, such as Ping-Pong, Waterboys and Sumo Do, Sumo Don't, not to mention Female Gym Coach: Jump and Straddle.
Clearly, though, it’s director Yojiro Takita whose work I should be pursuing, even if the filmography of the private eye, Yukijiro Hotaru, looks more spectacular. While he’s done more mainstream genre movies like Stacy, Suicide Club and the three nineties Gamera films, he’s also appeared in much more enticing titles like Reigo, the Deep-Sea Monster vs the Battleship Yamato, Banana, Gloves and Whale Shark and, more pertinent to this film, Female Detective Molester Buster: My Ass Wins. Unsurprisingly, it was Takita’s film that won the Best Foreign Film Oscar and Departures isn’t the only highly regarded film to his name. His eighties work was prolific and pinku, but slowed down when he got serious late in that decade. I’ve only seen one of his other films, a feudal supernatural fantasy from 2001 called Onmyoji, and I loved it. Now I want to see Ashura, a theatrical adaptation about demon war, Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer, about a go master reforming the Japanese calendar, and a mind transfer drama called Secret.