Monday 24 December 2018

P2 (2007)

Director: Franck Khalfoun
Writers: Alexandra Aja, Grégory Levasseur and Franck Khalfoun
Stars: Wes Bentley and Rachel Nichols

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Sometimes the simplest stories are the best and P2 really doesn't have much more plot than an elevator pitch. IMDb suggests that, "A businesswoman is pursued by a psychopath after being locked in a parking garage on Christmas Eve" and, really, that's about it, but it kept me paying attention for an hour and a half and, crucially, it didn't piss me off. It had plenty of opportunity for stupidity and cliché, but it successfully avoided the former and mostly avoided the latter. It didn't go with the obvious cheap ending, partly because it had no interest in setting up P3 for a 2008 release. It set up its story, it told it with some style, it wrapped it all up and it went on home to spend Christmas with family, just like our businesswoman wants to do from moment one. Even though it spends almost its entire running time in a parking garage (hence P2 and why there wasn't a P1), it has as much claim, if not more, than Die Hard to be a Christmas movie. How's that for a controversial statement to start this review? Friendships have been lost over less!

The businesswoman in that description is Angela Bridges, who works in downtown Manhattan, where she finds herself stuck in the office late into Christmas Eve, and the season is completely obvious. The first thing we hear is Santa Baby played over the PA system down in the parking levels. Upstairs, Carl the security guard tells Angela that the building will be closed for the next three days; we hear subdued carols floating around the big Christmas tree in the empty lobby; and Angela has a bunch of presents with her to give to her sister's kids. If a future version cuts the scene later on when she explains to police on the phone that she's being held captive in the Arcadia Building on Park Avenue, we might believe that she works at the Nakatomi Tower where it will be Christmas forever. By the way, that isn't a spoiler. While Santa Baby plays over the opening credits, we follow a roaming camera through that almost empty parking level to a BMW just in time for a distraught young lady to burst out of its boot. Oh, we know where we're going!

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Bates Motel (1987)

Bates Motel (1987)
Director: Richard Rothstein
Writer: Richard Rothstein
Stars: Bud Cort, Lori Petty, Moses Gunn, Gregg Henry, Khrystyne Haje, Jason Bateman and Kerrie Keane

Social media has been abuzz (well, a little bit) with the fact that interim Phoenix mayor Thelda Williams has issued a proclamation that 11th December, 2018 will be known as 'Psycho' Day. It's an odd thing, of course, for a public official to celebrate psychos in any form, but this is a little different from what many might expect. While most of Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Psycho, was shot at Revue Studios in Universal City, CA, including all the scenes at the 'Psycho House', which is located on the Universal backlot even though Psycho was a Paramount picture, it famously opens with a long shot of the downtown Phoenix skyline. For a full thirty seconds, the camera pans across my city until it zooms in through a hotel window to show Sam Loomis and Marion Crane getting dressed. Hitch sets the scene with text: "Phoenix, Arizona" on "Friday, December the Eleventh" at "Two Forty-Three P.M." The mayor wants us to "remember and celebrate the inclusion of our city's skyline in this culturally significant film," which seems appropriate enough.

Thursday 29 November 2018

The Limejuice Mystery (1930)

Director: Jack Harrison

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

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

Thursday 22 November 2018

Home Sweet Home (1981)

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

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

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

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

Friday 20 April 2018

4/20 Massacre (2018)

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

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

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

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

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Golden Boy (1939)

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

Index: 2018 Centennials.

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

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

Friday 6 April 2018

All Through the Night (1942)

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

Index: 2018 Centennials.

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

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

Saturday 31 March 2018

The Baby (1973)

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

Index: 2018 Centennials.

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

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

Saturday 17 March 2018

Death Collector (1988)

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

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

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

Friday 9 March 2018

The Girl Hunters (1963)

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

Index: 2018 Centennials.

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

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

The Last Page (1952)

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

Index: 2018 Centennials.

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

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

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Home of the Brave (1949)

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

Index: 2018 Centennials.

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

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

Sunday 4 February 2018

The Bigamist (1953)

Director: Ida Lupino
Writer: Collier Young, from an original story by Larry Marcus and Lou Schor
Stars: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn and Edmond O’Brien

Index: 2018 Centennials.

To suggest that Ida Lupino was one of a kind is a spectacular understatement. She did a great deal at a time when the system didn’t think she should be able to do anything, except stand in front of the camera and look cute. To celebrate her career on what would have been her one hundredth birthday, I selected a feature on which she wore a number of hats. She was a co-star, alongside Joan Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien, which was odd for reasons I’ll get into later. She also directed. And she ran, with her husband, the independent production company, The Filmakers, which self-financed it. And she did all this in 1953, which sits at the heart of the era when women had two jobs to do, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom. Then again, she had done what wasn’t expected from the beginning of her career, taking the role in 1932’s Her First Affaire that her mother wanted. The Bigamist is one of the issue films in which The Filmakers specialised and it has great resonance to her own life at the time.

As with many issue films, it’s not about the what but the why. For instance, we know who the bigamist of the title is, because he’s identified on the very second title card. It explains that the picture stars Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund Gwenn ‘and Edmond O’Brien as the Bigamist’. Given those names, it’s pretty clear which two women he’ll marry and, sure enough, we open the movie with him and Fontaine trying to adopt a child. He’s Harry Graham and she’s his wife Eve, who’s eager to adopt, because she has a medical issue, we presume, that prevents her from having a child naturally. They’re working with the thorough Mr. Jordan, who immediately flags up Harry’s reluctance to sign the form authorising him to check into ‘every detail’ of their private lives. Now, I wonder why that could be! Well, we watch Mr. Jordan, superbly played by Edmund Gwenn, follow the trail to Harrison Graham’s house in Los Angeles, where he lives with his other wife, Phyllis, in the lovely form of Ida Lupino, and their baby boy, Danny.

Monday 29 January 2018

The Glass Web (1953)

Director: Jack Arnold
Writers: Robert Blees and Leonard Lee, from the novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, John Forsythe, Kathleen Hughes and Marcia Henderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Kathleen Freeman was a busy girl in 1953. She began it with The Magnetic Monster, which was my last centennial review and, after seven other movies, ended it with The Glass Web, which is my new one. I’m not watching for her this time out though, because her centennial isn’t due until next year; I’m watching for John Forsythe. My American better half knows him well as Blake Carrington on Dynasty and as the disembodied voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels, but I know him from movies, from Destination Tokyo in 1943 to Scrooged in 1988, via such fundamentally different films as Kitten with a Whip, Marooned and The Trouble with Harry. It was as Blake Carrington that he’s best remembered, of course, largely for being the role that landed him six consecutive Golden Globe nods (he won two) and his three consecutive Primetime Emmy nominations (he didn’t win any). However, the latter were far from his first flirtation with the Emmys; he had been previously nominated three decades earlier in 1953, as Best Actor.

And it’s 1953 to which I’m going to turn back time, to a drama/thriller from the ever-reliable director, Jack Arnold, he of Creature of the Black Lagoon, High School Confidential! and The Mouse That Roared fame, to name but three of his admirably varied movies. This one’s based on a novel, Spin the Glass Web, by Max Simon Ehrlich, published the previous year. I know some of Ehrlich’s later books, but his best known novel was The Reincarnation of Peter Proud in 1973, also quickly filmed. Ehrlich is important here as he didn’t just write books; he wrote for newspapers, the stage, for radio and, most importantly, for television, scripting episodes of Suspense, The Defenders and Star Trek, among others. We discover why that’s pertinent one scene into the movie. A young lady is driven up to an open mineshaft in the desert. When she isn’t impressed, her companion shoots her dead, carries her over to the shaft and dumps her body unceremoniously in. And then we pan back to discover that they’re actors on the set of a television show.

Thursday 25 January 2018

The Magnetic Monster (1953)

Director: Curt Siodmak
Writers: Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors
Stars: Richard Carlson, King Donovan and Jean Byron

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Back in the fifties, the planet Earth was threatened by a new monster each time a new sci-fi B-movie hit the drive-ins. Some of the most iconic monsters we might conjure up today are sourced from that era, from Rodan to the Blob, from the Thing from Another World to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, from the Mole People to the Brain Eaters. Many of these were completely ridiculous, whether they be the gorilla in a diving helmet in Robot Monster, the giant flying turkey in The Giant Claw, or even the budget-saving creatures we couldn’t see in Invisible Invaders. Sometimes, however, they struck a nerve so well that they grew into the bedrock of pop culture: characters like Gort, the invulnerable robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet or Godzilla, who’s appearing in his thirtysomething feature this year. Of course, those last three challenge our idea of what a monster is and perhaps are all the more memorable for that. They can be good, bad or, in the case of Godzilla, maybe chaotic neutral.

All of these monsters, of course, were outward representations of the fear that was consuming the world in the wake of the use of atomic weapons to end World War II in 1945, the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 and the start of the nuclear arms race in 1949. We began estimating how close we were to mutually assured destruction in 1947, when the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board introduced the Doomsday Clock. According to them, the closest we’ve been is two minutes to midnight, which has been the case twice: in 2018, because of Trump and his bigger red button, and in 1953, after the US and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear devices for the first time. That realisation is truly scary, because our collective reaction to this is wildly different. In 1953, we were building fallout shelters and practicing duck and cover routines. In 2018, we’re delegitimising science and trying to stop our teens from eating Tide Pods. I really don’t know which is worse.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

The Lineup (1958)

Director: Don Siegel
Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Stars: Eli Wallach, Robert Keith and Warner Anderson

Index: 2018 Centennials.

It would be difficult to make films without actors, but the people behind the screen are just as important. My centennial reviews in 2016 began with a director, Masaki Kobayashi, and the first notable centennial of 2018 is of a writer, Stirling Silliphant. It would be easy to pluck out famous titles from his career because it’s hardly lacking them. The most obvious would be 1968’s In the Heat of the Night, which won him an Oscar and the first of two back-to-back Golden Globes; the second was for Charly, his adaptation of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. He was often nominated for awards: The Slender Thread and The Towering Inferno also received Golden Globe nods, Telefon was nominated for an Edgar and Village of the Damned was up for a Hugo, not just once but twice. However, each of those worthy screenplays was an adaptation of someone else’s material: usually novels but, in the case of The Slender Thread, an article in Life magazine. His script for The Towering Inferno was based on two entirely unrelated novels, blurred together.

So Silliphant was very good at adapting existing works into new ones, but that wasn’t all that he did. Hilariously, given that he had a consistently strong career, full of quality films, I first wrote about him in my review of perhaps the worst feature ever made. No, he didn’t write Manos: The Hands of Fate, but he did directly prompt its creation by betting an El Paso fertiliser salesman, Harold P. Warren, that he couldn’t make and exhibit a feature film. Warren did and so Silliphant lost that bet, but the results were not good, to say the least. Even the execrable contributions to film of Robert Silliphant, Stirling’s brother, were better than that and he was the writer behind The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Oh, and he wrote the story that became The Creeping Terror too. I wonder what it must have been like over at the Silliphants at Thanksgiving, with Stirling talking about his award nominations and Robert talking about what he’d just done for Ray Dennis Steckler.