Tuesday 24 January 2017

Emperor of the North Pole (1973)

Director: Robert Aldrich
Writer: Christopher Knopf
Stars: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Keith Carradine

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Thus far, every one of the film luminaries whose lives and careers I’ve been celebrating on what would have been their hundredth birthdays is someone I discovered through watching movies. Some I first saw when I was a kid but others not until later. However, 24th January marks the centennial of an actor I grew up watching on television. It’s Ernest Borgnine, an Academy Award-winning actor whom I initially discovered playing Dominic Santini in the mid-eighties action show, Airwolf (hilariously, my grandkids may have first encountered him on television too, in the even cheesier part of Mermaid Man in SpongeBob SquarePants). Of course, as time went on, I realised that he had a little bit more of a resume than backing up Jan-Michael Vincent on primetime TV. His Oscar was for Marty in 1955, but I caught later films first, pictures like The Black Hole, The Dirty Dozen and Escape from New York. Over time, I’d see him over and over, in films as varied as Johnny Guitar, The Catered Affair and The Devil’s Rain. He was certainly versatile!

To remember his work, I selected Emperor of the North Pole, later released as simply Emperor of the North, for a few reasons. One was that he plays the villain of the piece, the sadistic conductor of a depression-era steam train, who uses brutal means to kick off any hoboes who think they can ride it for free. Another is that his co-star, playing one such hobo, is Lee Marvin, another favourite of mine and another Academy Award-winner (for Cat Ballou); Borgnine and Marvin made six pictures together; the others being The Stranger Wore a Gun, Violent Saturday, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Dirty Dozen and its made for TV sequel, The Dirty Dozen: Next Mission. The setting was a bonus too, because subcultures are one of my favourite subjects and this film promised to delve a little into the world of hoboes, of which I’ve read a little. And the cast includes such favourites as Simon Oakland, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sid Haig and, in an uncredited role so deep that I couldn’t find him anywhere in the movie, a young Lance Henriksen.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

The Baron Against the Demons (2006)

Director: Ricardo Ribelles
Writer: Ricardo Ribelles
Stars: Juan Carlos Romeu, Helena Lecumberri, Alejandro Ribelles, Xavier Bertran, Irene Belza, Gerardo Arenas, Eva Barceló, Susana Palma and Paulina Gálvez

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Much of the joy of my Weird Wednesdays project is in finding movies, watching them and trying to figure out who the filmmakers thought their audiences might be. I really have no idea about this one, because it mixes a few very deliberate approaches that I’m pretty sure I never expected to coincide in a movie. For instance, as the usual English language title, The Baron Against the Demons, suggests, this feels like a tokusatsu picture at heart, with foam latex suits, imaginative monsters and bizarre tale about a futuristic organisation dedicated to fighting evil. That it was made with Spaniards rather than the Japanese is one reason why that doesn’t quite ring true, but there’s also the BDSM comic book aesthetic and the gratuitous gore effects, which suggest that this was never meant for kids, and the most important aspect is the overriding Catholic dogma which drives the whole thing so fundamentally that this can only be a Christian metaphor dressed up for sexual deviants who like the Power Rangers. You know, that sort of film!

Oddly, for a movie so overtly about good and evil, we’re never quite sold on the good and evil bit. Sure, the villain is Satan himself, visiting from the Ninth Planet to witness the birth of the Antichrist, which here means a man in a rubber suit, conceived from seed stolen from a chained hero by a leather clad dominatrix with gigantic knockers, who’s birthed by a hermaphroditic stick monster. We may be relatively safe in assuming that they’re the bad guys! But who represents the side of good? Initially, we might presume that it’s Exorcio Deus Machine, a late 21st century band of Spanish Inquisition commandos sharing their steampunk space satellite with an alien race of muppets, from which lair they combat evil. After all, that’s who our hero, the titular Baron, works for. Yet, if he’s clearly on their side, they’re not quite so clearly on his, as the man in charge, Coronel Doménico, dreams of dropping an atom bomb on his head. What’s wrong with the usual Triumph of the Will inspired awards ceremony for heroes? No, atom bomb it is.

Friday 13 January 2017

Black Friday (1940)

Director: Arthur Lubin
Writers: Kurt Siodmak and Eric Taylor
Stars: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

It’s 1940 and Boris and Bela face the worst horror of their careers: camping outside Walmart the day after Thanksgiving to bag one of them there big screen TVs! Well, not quite. This isn’t that Black Friday, it’s just another Friday the 13th which looms heavy on a calendar behind the opening credits. Once they’re done, we visit Boris Karloff in his prison cell as he readies to start his procession to the electric chair. He’s Dr. Ernest Sovac, though most of the characters seem to call him Ernst, and he appears to be a pleasant old man. It’s surely telling that he’s dressed in white and everyone else is in black. Even the guards seem to respect him and allow him to hand his notes to one of the journalists present; the only one who was fair to him, he explains. And, as he walks off screen to his death, that journalist opens them to read and we launch into a feature length flashback to explain why the good doctor is about to be executed. And, whether it’s Friday the 13th in the prison or not, it certainly is when we leap into the flashback.

Dr. Sovac’s notes are titled Notes on the Case of George Kingsley and it’s Prof. Kingsley teaching poetry at the University of Newcastle. It happens to be the end of the semester and he explains to his avid students that he may not return the next year, though that has precisely nothing to do with the doggerel he quotes from Sir Joshua Peachtree, who I believe was invented for this film. ‘Thou who breakest glass will find Fate can be, oh, most unkind: under ladder walkest thee, most unlucky thou wilt be; each dread Friday do take care, else thou fallest down the stair.’ It’s supposed to be because a ‘very large university in the east’ is interested in him, but we can’t ignore all these superstitions, right? It’s Friday the 13th and Kingsley is tempting fate with poetry in a movie called Black Friday. We shouldn’t forget that it’s Karloff the Uncanny who’s going to drop him at the train station because he doesn’t drive; the Sovacs are family friends; Dr. Sovac’s daughter, Jean, is even one of Kingsley’s students.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

Edge of Eternity (1959)

Director: Donald Siegel
Writers: Knut Swenson and Richard Collins, from a story by Ben Markson and Knut Swenson
Stars: Cornel Wilde, Victoria Shaw and Mickey Shaughnessy

Index: Dry Heat Obscurities.

I’ve been wanting to get my teeth into a project I call Dry Heat Obscurities for quite some time now and here’s where I get going with it. I’ll be alternating it going forward with my Weird Wednesdays project, so expect one review from each of those projects every other Wednesday. This one grew out of a conversation with local Arizona film critic Bill Pierce at the Haunted Hamburger, during the first year of the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival, and it revolves around all those other films that were shot here in Arizona over the decades, that weren’t the westerns that everyone expects. The spark for the conversation was my viewing of an obscure 1968 thriller called The Name of the Game is Kill!, which had been shot in Jerome, Clarkdale and Sedona, with Jack Lord and Susan Strasberg. I knew there were others, as I’d already reviewed Violent Saturday, a Richard Fleischer picture shot in Bisbee in 1955 with Victor Mature and Lee Marvin, but how many? Well, Bill threw out some intriguing titles and research led to more.

This picture is a great example of what I was hoping to discover through this project. For a start, I’d never heard of the film, even though it was a big deal. It was released by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, in 1959. It had a famous director, Don Siegel of Dirty Harry fame, credited here as Donald Siegel. It starred actors I knew, though I’m talking less about Cornel Wilde, Victoria Shaw and Mickey Shaughnessy in the lead roles and more about character actors like Edgar Buchanan and Jack Elam; the latter is a local boy, born in Miami, a small town near Globe that’s been getting smaller since the thirties (it’s the location of the short film, Black Gulch). It’s an interesting, though flawed, thriller which becomes all the more interesting because of a strong use of Arizona scenery. The opening credits highlight that it was, ‘filmed at one of the Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon, in CinemaScope’. It puts the towns of Kingman and Oatman to good use too, in which Clark Gable and Carole Lombard married and honeymooned respectively.

Thursday 5 January 2017

The Blue Veil (1951)

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Writer: Norwan Corwin, based on a story by François Campaux
Stars: Jane Wyman, Charles Laughton, Joan Blondell, Richard Carlson, Agnes Moorehead, Don Taylor, Audrey Totter, Cyril Cusack, Everett Sloane and Natalie Wood

Index: 2017 Centennials.

I had a blast last year remembering those born in 1916 who contributed much to the cinematic arts by reviewing interesting films from each of their careers on what would have been (or what actually were) their hundredth birthdays. I recently collated these in book form as A Hundred in 2016, now available in print from Amazon. Only a short while into that project, I knew that I’d continue it on in 2017 and this will be the first of many reviews this year, given that even more cinematic notables were born in 1917 than in 1916. It’s 5th January, which would have been the centennial of Jane Wyman, the only U.S. President’s wife to win an Academy Award, even if she’d been divorced from Ronald Reagan for over thirty years when he was elected to the White House. In fact, he was her third husband and she’d marry and divorce Fred Karger twice after that. I mention her five marriages only because she seemed to play a lot of characters who got married a lot (or almost got married a lot) and this film is a great example.

While she won her Oscar for Johnny Belinda in 1948, she landed her third of four nominations for this picture and a number of her obituaries suggest that it was her personal favourite. I wonder if she ever got to see it again, after its initial release in theatres, as it’s one of those major films that has never seen a release on home video: not on DVD, BluRay, LaserDisc, you name it. Only 16mm film copies are out there and nobody has yet ripped one to digital format, so all we have to go on is a copy recorded on video from an apparently illegal television broadcast on KNXT Los Angeles during The Late Show. The only clip most people today have seen of the film is as footage used as a flashback in Falcon Crest, one of Wyman’s big successes later on in life; she’d retired from films after 1969’s How to Commit Marriage. There are reports online of people asking her about The Blue Veil and her replying that she would be very happy to see it again. I hope she managed to watch one of those 16mm prints at some point before she died in 2007.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

Marquis (1989)

Director: Henri Xhonneux
Writers: Roland Topor and Henri Xhonneux, based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade
Stars: Bien de Moor, Gabrielle van Damme, Philippe Bizot, Bernard Cogniaux, Olivier Decheveau and Pierre Decuypere

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a Weird Wednesdays review but, if Apocalypse Later has become a place of discovery for films you may not know about, it’s the purest Apocalypse Later project there is because these are movies that you may not even believe exist! For instance, would you believe that someone would dare to make a movie about the French revolution with a key focus on the Marquis de Sade, who’s locked up in the Bastille writing pornographic novels? That’s weird but perhaps not weird enough for Weird Wednesdays. How about if all the human actors appear as anthropomorphic animals, aided by freakish masks that journey deep into the Uncanny Valley? Yeah, that’s a little more like Weird Wednesdays territory, but we need something more to seal the deal. I know! What if the most prominent character is Colin, the Marquis’s gigantic penis, with whom he chats at length and depth, their relationship being the most important one in the picture? Yes, now we have Weird Wednesdays material!

I should mention quickly that this is not the outrageous comedy you may expect. There are comedic elements, of course, most of them utterly surreal, but it doesn’t reach for laughs and there’s as much history and tragedy as there is comedy. It’s nothing like we might remember from Spitting Image or Meet the Feebles, to name but two easy comparisons. Also, those are both puppet shows, whereas this is really acted by human beings, merely in masks that completely cover their heads and often parts of their bodies, a sort of un-furry version of the furry community. The story is also full of outrageous topics, but they’re not played exploitatively. If anything, most are underplayed, especially rape, a core plot element that affects a few of the characters. One was raped before the movie begins and is pregnant because of it; for political reasons, scenes are staged to suggest a more palatable rapist to the public. Circumstances prompt the same character to be raped again, during the film, but that isn’t shown on camera.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

Director: Tom Schiller
Writers: Tom Schiller
Stars: Zach Galligan, Apollonia van Ravenstein, Lauren Tom, Dan Aykroyd, Imogene Coca, Anita Ellis, Eddie Fisher, Sam Jaffe, Bill Murray, Paul Rogers and Mort Sahl

Over the years, Apocalypse Later became a place for me to review the sort of films that most people don’t. I figure that there are a multitude of sites that serve as guides to what’s worth watching at the multiplex, so folk don’t need me for that purpose. Instead, I hope I serve more as a means of discovery, to highlight films that you may not know exist or even believe exist, subjects that may have passed you by and filmmakers, on both sides of the camera, who deserve their turn in the spotlight. Nothing Lasts Forever falls into every single one of those categories. It was made by a man, Tom Schiller, who missed the film career he deserved. It starred a variety of actors, some big at the time and others whose heydays had passed or had yet to arrive. It was a major studio film, made as recently as 1982, that was shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, predominantly in black and white and with mono sound. It has never been released theatrically, let alone on home video, though it has screened occasionally at festivals, retrospectives and on TV.

The lead is Zach Galligan, a high school student in 1982 who actually earned class credit for making this picture. His career at that point was this film and an hour-long educational piece screened on ABC Afterschool Specials about gonorrhea. Two years later, he’d appear on many walls belonging to teenage girls as the lead in Gremlins, his first released picture, before going back to college. He appeared on a few television shows during that time, but returned to theatre screens with Waxwork in 1988. He’s done good work in his time, but this is early on and he was cast to seem lost, not least because of who he was tasked to act with. His leading ladies were as inexperienced as him: a Dutch actress with the glorious name of Apollonia van Ravenstein, had a single film behind her, Seraphita’s Diary, though it was a one-woman feature; and Lauren Tom, who was nobody at the time but is now well known as an actress and voice actress. However, most of the rest of the cast were names before the leads were even born.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Life Blood (2009)

Director: Ron Carlson
Writer: Ron Carlson
Stars: Sophie Monk and Anya Lahiri

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Every time mankind conjures up a day of celebration, a horror filmmaker introduces a massacre to make it memorable. That trend has held true for a long time, especially at Christmas, which I’ve never quite understood. Why are we so drawn to make Christmas horror movies? Are all horror filmmakers traumatised by elves as much as they’ve persuaded us to be traumatised by clowns? I’m not sure, but we seem to get a dozen new Christmas horror movies each and every year. However, while Christmas does dominate the horror calendar, many other holidays are represented too and I’ve felt like exploring them for quite some time. So, during the coming year, I’m going to celebrate holidays by reviewing the horror movies that are set on them. I’m going to attempt to avoid the obvious choices (though that’s not entirely possible, of course) and include some surprising holidays too. If only Eben McGarr would finish his film, Hanukkah, about the son of the 1983 Hannukiller, before we actually get there.

So here’s the first picture in this new project, because what better way is there to celebrate New Year’s Day than with a couple of lesbian vampires? In this instance, they’re also both models and members of girl groups, which suggests the level of acting that’s going to be on offer. One is Sophie Monk, born in London but raised in Australia, where she made two albums with Bardot, which was created out of the Popstars reality TV show. She won The Celebrity Apprentice Australia in 2015 and served as a judge in 2016 on Australia’s Got Talent. The other is Anya Lahiri, also born in London but of Indian and Finnish heritage. She represented the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, singing with the band Precious, who also recorded two top ten singles. More recently, she’s worked as a fitness instructor, working at Barry’s Boot Camp to train celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Natalie Imbruglia. Both are well known as models, Monk being a mainstay in various lists of sexy women in Australia for over a decade.

Love Happy (1949)

Director: David Miller
Writers: Frank Tashlin and Mac Benoff, based on a story by Harpo Marx
Stars: The Marx Brothers, Ilona Massey, Vera-Ellen and Marion Hutton

Ten years ago today, I decided that I’d enjoyed the previous year of writing about movies on my own website and so it was time to set up a real blog on the subject. Those ten years have been an absolute blast and they’ve led to much more than I ever expected. I thought I’d just be writing about movies on the web, but Apocalypse Later Press just published my fifth book today and I founded a film festival last year, the Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival, which will be back for a second year in October as a two full day event. I’ve programmed Mini-Film Festivals at a couple of dozen conventions across the American southwest, helping great short films to find new eyeballs, and I’ve even appeared in a few movies; in bit parts, of course. It’s been a great decade! Oh, and I’ve also written 2,305 reviews too, here at Apocalypse Later, and a few elsewhere as well: movie reviews at Apocalypse Later Now! and book reviews at The Nameless Zine. And it all started ten years ago to the day with a review of a Marx Brothers movie.

That was A Night at Casablanca, released by United Artists in 1946, and it was the twelfth of the thirteen films they made together. I had already seen the first eleven, so that just left one to go, this one, and, while I have no idea why it took me ten years to find, it’s the logical choice to kick off my second decade at Apocalypse Later. I should add here, before completists take umbrage, that these are not quite all. Their first film wasn’t actually The Cocoanuts in 1929, it was a two reel short called Humor Risk, shot in 1921, shown once and never released theatrically; it’s thought to be a lost film today. In 1931, they contributed an original skit to The House That Shadows Built, a 47 minute promotional history of Paramount Pictures, made to celebrate the studio's twentieth anniversary. Finally, The Story of Mankind in 1959 features Groucho, Chico and Harpo, but in separate cameos rather than all together. Outside of film, these same three also appeared on television together in The Incredible Jewel Robbery, an episode of General Electric Theater.