Monday, December 29, 2014

Classic Movie Tourist: The Ernest Hemingway Home in Key West

I spent the week of Christmas this year in the Florida Keys, where the warm weather and bright blue water worked hard to dispel my usual holiday malaise, despite a particularly wretched end of the year at home. As usual, I kept an eye out for classic movie connections during my travels. I didn't make it over to see the African Queen in Key Largo, but I did manage a visit to the Hemingway House in Key West, which bursts with its own significance for fans of golden age Hollywood.

As most cinephiles know, Ernest Hemingway wrote numerous works that were adapted for the big screen, including A Farewell to Arms (1932 and 1957), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), and The Old Man and the Sea (1958). The Hemingway House features nods to the movie adaptations with walls of posters in various rooms, while bookcases display copies of the novels themselves. For an English professor turned classic movie blogger, places like this are pure catnip.

Speaking of cats, the Hemingway House is also famous for its plethora of polydactyl felines, whose extra toes make them oddball celebrities in their own right. 52 cats currently make their home at the house, according to Rusty, our tour guide. Given Hemingway's importance to classic Hollywood, it's no surprise that many of the resident cats have been named in honor of iconic stars. My perusal of the cat cemetery turned up Kim Novak, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Errol Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Joan Crawford, and Charlie Chaplin, just to name a few.

While a visit to the Hemingway House encouraged me to rewatch some of my favorite classic adaptations of Hemingway's work, it also made me curious about other classic movies with connections to the Florida Keys. There's Key Largo (1948), of course, but less familiar are pictures like The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), Mercy Island (1941), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). I'm especially interested now in seeing The Prisoner of Shark Island, since we spent a day out at Dry Tortugas National Park, where Fort Jefferson once housed Dr. Samuel Mudd, who is played in the movie by Warner Baxter. The John Ford picture also stars Gloria Stuart, Harry Carey, and John Carradine. I have just added it to my Netflix queue, and of course I will write a review here on the blog once I finish watching it!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (1932)

Lee Tracy was a popular star during the Pre-Code era; his fast talking banter made him a hit with audiences during the early days of sound, and he had a waggish quality that perfectly suited the looser moral attitude of the times. In The Half-Naked Truth (1932), Tracy plays the kind of role for which he was made, that of a scheming carnival barker whose ambitions are as boundless as his imagination. With Lupe Velez, Eugene Pallette, and Frank Morgan along for the ride, this corker of a comedy has plenty to offer fans of the Pre-Code period, and Gregory La Cava's direction keeps the action rolling from one ridiculous publicity stunt to the next. Slightly naughty, very silly, and bursting with Tracy's frenetic energy, The Half-Naked Truth aims only to entertain, but it succeeds admirably; it also makes a perfectly good introduction to Tracy and Velez for those who are new to the Pre-Code pantheon of stars.

Tracy plays Jimmy Bates, who starts out hawking the sideshow charms of hoochie coochie dancer Teresita (Lupe Velez) at a second-rate carnival. When one of Jimmy's schemes for publicity causes trouble, the pair head for the greener pastures of New York City with their pal, Achilles (Eugene Pallette), in tow. There they pass Teresita off as a Turkish princess until Jimmy manipulates a famous Broadway show director (Frank Morgan) into making Teresita one of his stars.

As the title suggests, the characters rely mostly on sex appeal and lies to get what they want. Lupe Velez shows quite a lot of skin in her skimpy harem costumes, and Tracy's protagonist couldn't tell the truth to save his own life. Neither one of them is a model of morality, but we like them in spite of that because they have a lot of spunk. Depression era Pre-Code characters need not be exemplars of righteousness to appeal to their audience; they just need to do whatever it takes to get by and have a little fun, and both Jimmy and Teresita embody that unsinkable can-do spirit. If one is a liar and the other a tart, well, who are we to judge?The movie encourages us to see Jimmy as a trickster in the same vein as Bugs Bunny; he's sometimes too smart for his own good, but he has his better nature, too, as the third act reveals. The cartoon sensibility of the picture might not be coincidental, since Gregory La Cava had started his career as a cartoonist.

The supporting players are probably more familiar to modern viewers than the stars, since Eugene Pallette and Frank Morgan both had memorable roles in later films. Pallette, who played the father of just about every leading lady in Hollywood at some point or other, is just as grumpy and rotund as we expect him to be; his character, Achilles, gets saddled with the stigma of being the Princess Exotica's castrated guard. Jimmy tells the staff at the Savoy, "You know, they have them in all Turkish harems. He's very sensitive about it." Poor Achilles doesn't even realize what Jimmy has done until the rumor undermines his romantic overtures toward a hotel maid. Jimmy also bamboozles and frustrates Frank Morgan's overwrought Merle Farrell, giving Morgan plenty of opportunities to bluster and react with his usual comic flair. Farrell is such a self-important big shot that we enjoy watching Jimmy outfox him, and the picture scene near the end really stands out.

For Gregory La Cava's best remembered work, see My Man Godfrey (1936), which features Eugene Pallette as Carole Lombard's father. Lee Tracy also stars in Blessed Event (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Bombshell (1933). Lupe Velez starred in a series of Mexican Spitfire films beginning in 1940, but for more of her early roles see The Gaucho (1927), Where East is East (1929), and Kongo (1932). Frank Morgan is best known today as the bombastic Wizard (and several other characters) in The Wizard of Oz (1939), but he earned Oscar nominations for The Affairs of Cellini (1934) and Tortilla Flat (1942). Eugene Pallette, with more than 250 screen appearances, is everywhere in classic film. Look for him in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and Heaven Can Wait (1943) for starters.

The Half-Naked Truth is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLOB (1958)

Science fiction movies of the 1950s offer plenty of strange alien menaces, but The Blob (1958) features one of the very strangest. You wouldn't think an oozy sphere would provide much of a threat, but the title monster of this cult classic is as mindless and unrelenting as death itself, an utterly inhuman being with which there can be no discussion or rapport. Given that it looks a lot like a ball of strawberry jam, the blob might not evoke much terror in an audience, but the movie delights nonetheless, for its weird creature, its imaginative effects, its Burt Bacharach title song, and, last but not least, the odd attraction of Steve McQueen as the blob's chief opponent.

McQueen plays teenaged Steve Andrews, who is enjoying a date with Jane (Aneta Corsaut) when the pair spot some kind of shooting star that lands nearby. They search for the object but instead find an old man (Olin Howland) whose hand is covered in bizarre goo, and their efforts to help him unwittingly provide the blob with more victims. Every time the blob consumes another person, it grows, until it becomes big enough to threaten the entire town. Steve and Jane enlist the aid of their friends as well as local cop Dave (Earl Rowe) to warn the citizens and combat the oozing horror, but nobody knows how to fight such a strange, unstoppable foe.

The Blob has a lot in common with dozens of low-budget science fiction productions of its era, and in many ways it is indistinguishable from them. Its director, Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., made a handful of other B movies, but only The Blob enjoys much notoriety today. The acting is decent but not outstanding, and the plot depends on all of the usual genre cliches, which by 1958 were already well established as such. Why, then, is The Blob such a perpetual favorite? The answer begins with Bacharach's groovy title song, which tells the audience that the ensuing carnage is just silly fun. Then we get Steve McQueen, doing his best to act like a teenager even though he was 28 at the time. He's obviously much too old for the part but manages to be likable nonetheless. Aneta Corsaut, best remembered as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is also more mature than her character but pretty and gentle enough that we let it pass.

As the title implies, however, the monster itself is the real star of this show, and it's primarily the blob that delights audiences decade after decade. Rather than put a guy in a rubber suit, the movie presents us with a creature that never reveals its zippers or strings. Stop-motion work and other tricks bring the creature to life, although the picture wisely avoids most of the actual death scenes for the victims. We know enough to guess at their fates and squirm, especially during the middle segment when the blob consumes the old man, the local doctor, his nurse, an auto mechanic, and a handful of other unlucky folks. The highpoint of the picture comes when the blob invades a movie theater packed with patrons for a midnight horror show. The screaming mob fleeing the theater has become one of B horror's most iconic moments; the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where the segment was filmed, has re-enacted the scene many times and even hosts a Blobfest to commemorate the movie. There's an uncanny thrill in watching a movie in which people watching a movie are attacked by a hideous thing; we laugh even as we glance over our shoulders to see what might be sneaking up from behind. The Blob understands this and capitalizes on it, which makes it a much smarter picture than one might at first expect.

The Blob was remade in 1988 to celebrate the original movie's 30th anniversary, with all the added gore one might expect. Irvin Yeaworth's other cinematic efforts include 4D Man (1959) and Dinosaurus! (1960), while Steve McQueen is best remembered today for The Great Escape (1963), Bullitt (1968), and Papillon (1973). For more science fiction horror from the 1950s, try The Thing from Another World (1951), Donovan's Brain (1953), Them! (1954), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: A STOLEN LIFE (1946)

Bette Davis stars as a pair of identical twins, one good and one bad, in A Stolen Life (1946), but the title grossly oversimplifies the circumstances that lead one twin to usurp the identity of the other. What we get is really a romantic drama, not a mystery or a thriller, but it's a very compelling story, nonetheless, with Davis giving her usual top-notch performance in both roles. Curtis Bernhardt directs the action with an excellent eye for the staging of this unusual set-up, which puts double the Davis onscreen a lot for a 1946 picture, and the effects still look good almost seventy years later. While Davis naturally dominates A Stolen Life with her dual role, Glenn Ford, Dane Clark, and Charlie Ruggles all make memorable appearances, and Max Steiner's music perfectly sets the tone for a story of love, loss, and unexpected second chances.

Davis first appears as Kate Bosworth, an aspiring artist who cleverly convinces a crusty old lighthouse keeper (Walter Brennan) to let her paint his portrait. The man she really wants to spend time with, however, is handsome Bill (Glenn Ford), who works at the lighthouse, as well. Despite Kate's best efforts, Bill eventually meets her more flirtatious twin sister, Pat, who pursues Bill mostly because she knows that Kate wants him. When Bill marries Pat, Kate is heartbroken, but a tragic accident gives her the chance to enjoy the life her sister had stolen.

It's hard not to imagine the dual casting of Davis as a gimmick of the Patty Duke and Hayley Mills variety, but it never feels that way onscreen. Davis plays both parts for their full melodramatic value, with introverted Kate and extroverted Pat as clearly defined, well-developed individuals. The split screen scenes give us ample opportunity to contrast the body language, tone, and expression of the two sisters. In one especially striking bit, we even see them touch, but the special effect is secondary to the moment's emotional import. Kate sincerely loves her sister, but Pat's selfish actions wound her deeply; at the wedding Kate deftly sidesteps the bouquet that Pat throws toward her, a quiet but pointed way of demonstrating her unhappiness with her thoughtless sibling. When Pat conveniently drowns, Kate assumes her identity because everyone around her believes that she is the other sister, and the deception proves a terrible strain, especially because Pat has made such a mess of the marriage that Bill wants to be divorced and done with it. Of course, Bill's unhappiness is his own fault for picking the wrong sister in the first place, but the movie suggests that Kate should have fought harder to keep man she loved. Kate has bought into Pat's selfishness and enabled it to a dangerous degree. "Must you always let that sister of yours get ahead of you?" asks her cousin, Freddie (Charlie Ruggles). Even after Pat's death Kate still lets her be the dominant sister, sacrificing "Kate" as the victim to make "Pat" the survivor. It takes Kate the whole narrative to step out from behind her sister's shadow and assert her own identity.

The men in the sisters' lives contribute to the story's effect, with particularly strong performances from Charlie Ruggles as Freddie and Dane Clark as the temperamental artist Karnock. Ruggles exudes charm and sympathy as the genial older cousin, rightly aligning himself with Kate from the very start. Clark proves a scene-stealer as the caustic, passionate Karnock, so much so that we wonder why Kate doesn't gravitate toward him and get on with her life after Bill drops her for Pat. Like Kate herself, Karnock lacks style but bursts with substance, and he's unfailingly true to himself and his art. Moreover, it's clear that he harbors some intense emotions regarding Kate, even if he's too rough to articulate them in a conventionally romantic fashion. His portrait of her, done after her supposed death, speaks volumes about his real feelings. He's quite the foil to leading man Glenn Ford, who has a less rewarding role since we understand that Bill is a dope who prefers style over substance. The early scenes, in which we watch him fall for Pat and cool toward Kate, are especially irritating. Ford has his best moments when Bill gets angry, especially after Kate takes Pat's place and learns the truth about her sister's marriage. In those scenes the hard edged intensity that Ford embodies gets some vent, and we realize that Pat was a fool to imagine a man like that would put up with her bedroom games. The ending is neat and conventional, perhaps too much so, but it's exactly what one expects from a 1940s romantic drama. Running off with Karnock is not, unfortunately, ever presented as a real option.

Be sure to note Clara Blandick and Bruce Bennett in small supporting roles. A Stolen Life earned an Oscar nomination for its special effects but lost to Blithe Spirit (1945). For more films directed by Curtis Bernhardt, see My Reputation (1946), Possessed (1947), and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953). Bette Davis also plays twins in Dead Ringer (1964); for other Davis pictures from the mid-1940s try Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Deception (1946). Look for Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946), The Big Heat (1953), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Dane Clark and Bette Davis both appear in Hollywood Canteen (1944), while Charlie Ruggles and Glenn Ford can be found in Gallant Journey (1946). For a double feature of dual roles, try pairing A Stolen Life with The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), That Night in Rio (1941), or The Dark Mirror (1946), in which Olivia de Havilland also plays identical twins.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

Humphrey Bogart successfully steps into the gumshoes of detective Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks' adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946), but in 1945 the top brass at Warner Brothers were far more concerned about Lauren Bacall, as the extensive revisions that preceded the film's release prove. It's not that the original 1945 cut of the picture and the final version are all that different; it's just that the tinkering labors to put Bacall in the best possible light, both literally and figuratively. The studio's effort paid off; Bacall, by then Mrs. Humphrey Bogart, got her career back on track after bad reviews in Confidential Agent (1945), and noir fans got a picture for the ages, with the perfectly paired leads trading zippy quips and stepping around corpses as coolly as they pour themselves drinks. As obvious as The Big Sleep is when it comes to top noir picks, the movie deserves its elevated spot in the genre pantheon, not only because of Bogart and Bacall but because of writers like Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and Leigh Brackett, as well as a seriously deranged Martha Vickers as one of the worst kid sisters in cinematic history.

The story opens when Bogart's Marlowe is hired by the elderly General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to shake off a blackmailer targeting his wild younger daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Marlowe immediately suspects that some other funny business is afoot when the older daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), pumps him for information but acts coy about her own interest in the blackmailer job, and she clearly knows a lot more than she's willing to say. Marlowe soon finds himself and Carmen tangled up in a murder scene, and more corpses follow, but the mystery keeps coming back to a missing man named Regan and casino owner Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).

The revisions play up the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall by giving them more lines and scenes together, although some of the changes are purely cosmetic in terms of making Bacall look as alluring as possible. More of the pair is certainly a plus, even if the cuts obscure important elements of the murder mystery plot. Bogart and Bacall fit with noir - and with each other - the way a bullet fits into the chamber of a gun. His Marlowe is smart and unsentimental, a guy who has been around the block enough to know when he's being had. Her Vivian is no debutante, either, with her gambling debts and her husky, come-on voice. Nobody ever declared her affection with such sullen resignation as Bacall's Vivian when she tells Marlowe, "I guess I'm in love with you." Marlowe falls for her even as he realizes that he can't trust her, but he correctly guesses that she's no femme fatale. If they never reach quite the level of smart-mouthed irresistible attraction that they share in To Have and Have Not (1944), they do smolder very enjoyably, especially during their conversational cat-and-mouse games.

It takes tremendous screen presence to distract our attention from such a couple, but the supporting cast is full of actors who give it their best shot. Martha Vickers plays Carmen as a crazy Lolita, so hopped up on drugs and booze she can't even walk, but dangerous nonetheless. An infantile femme fatale with her thumb in her mouth, Carmen puts the moves on every man she meets, including Marlowe. "You're cute," she tells him, but the way she says it makes the listener's blood run cold. Charles Waldron has one really wonderful scene up front that makes us wish we could see more of his character; his General Sternwood has no pity for himself and only wants a real man to sit with him a while and drink his liquor for him. Even the bit players go for broke; Elisha Cook, Jr. makes the most of his brief appearance as Harry Jones, and Sonia Darrin provides a marvelously nasty foil to Bacall as the heartless, calculating Agnes. Dorothy Malone is so good as the book shop girl that we wonder how Marlowe can resist, especially after she takes off her glasses, but Marlowe's wartime Los Angeles seems to be full of self-possessed, available girls, from Vivian Rutledge all the way down to the eager cab driver who trades innuendos with the amused detective. It's as if Raymond Chandler and Howard Hawks both long to raid a jar stuffed with tough cookies, with Marlowe as the unlikely embodiment of their shared masculine fantasy. At least it gives the young actresses plenty of material, and each of them contributes to the overall appeal of the film.

For more screen versions of Raymond Chandler's detective, see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Lady in the Lake (1947), and The Long Goodbye (1973). Bogart and Bacall went on to star together in Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948), while Howard Hawks moved into Western territory with Red River (1948). Martha Vickers, sadly, did not become a great star, although she did become Mickey Rooney's third wife from 1949 to 1951. You can see more of her in The Man I Love (1947), Ruthless (1948), and Alimony (1949). Dorothy Malone, on the other hand, ended up winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Written on the Wind (1956), and she later appeared in Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), Warlock (1959), and even Basic Instinct (1992).


Friday, November 14, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: GILDA (1946)

Gilda (1946) would prove both the high point of Rita Hayworth's career and the bane of her personal life, since it created an enduring image of the actress as sex symbol, temptress, and femme fatale. Hayworth would later lament, "Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda... and woke up with me." Even in her own lifetime, the fictional character outshone the person, who had started out as a dancer named Margarita Cansino. Hayworth certainly provides the fuel that sets Charles Vidor's noir film on fire; she's impossibly alluring from the first moment we see her, flipping that fabulous hair to reveal a perfect face and eyes lit up with mischief. Gilda's dazzling sexuality helps to make up for a frankly bewildering plot, but it also acts as cover for the movie's more daring depiction of the passionate attraction between its two male protagonists, played with smoldering intensity by Glenn Ford and George Macready.

Ford turns up first as Johnny Farrell, a drifter who blows into Buenos Aires and strikes up a strangely intense friendship with urbane casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). They make a happy pair until Mundson brings Gilda (Hayworth) home as his wife. Johnny and Gilda have a past together, but Johnny dedicates himself to watching Gilda for Mundson's benefit, even though she seems determined to throw herself at every man in town. When Mundson's illicit business affairs end in his apparent death, Johnny takes his loyalty to extremes by marrying Gilda as a way to ensure her fidelity to the dead man.

The business end of the plot, which involves Germans, the tungsten market, and a mysterious pile of patents, merely muddies the narrative and gives Mundson a reason to act shifty and then disappear. Gilda never pays any attention to it, Johnny never understands it, and the viewer might as well ignore it, too. Mostly it makes Mundson a more sinister figure by giving him Nazi associations, but he already looks the part with his blond hair, refined features, and long facial scar. All of the really interesting scenes focus on the bizarre love triangle between the three leads; Johnny's eyes burn with a kind of crazed devotion to Mundson even as they ignite with equal hatred for the faithless Gilda. "Hate can be a very exciting emotion," Mundson observes, and that confusion of love and hate drives the picture. Johnny loves Mundson and hates Gilda, especially when Mundson gives Gilda the place that Johnny wishes to occupy himself, even though neither man would ever admit to the true nature of their mutual attraction. Gilda hates Johnny and punishes him through her marriage to Mundson; she hurts him more by pretending to cuckold the man Johnny loves. Mundson might not really love anyone except himself, but he certainly has strong feelings of some kind about both Johnny and Gilda, especially when he returns to find them married to each other and living off of his money.

Through it all, Hayworth is resplendent, a gorgeous bundle of utterly irrational femininity. Gilda's actions never make much sense except in her own mind, but the film doesn't present her as an intellect, merely an id. Mundson accurately describes her as "a beautiful, greedy child," although he doesn't add that she is the kind of child who would gleefully pull the wings off of flies. It's a sexist characterization, to be sure, but the film works because the camera loves Hayworth just as devotedly as Johnny loves Mundson. She blazes like a fiery idol; even her dubbed song numbers have a jaw-dropping effect, especially the famous "Put the Blame on Mame" segment, which ends with her threatening to strip in front of an eagerly leering audience. Her shocking behavior is all part of her scheme to hurt Johnny, but she really drives each nail in, delivering an endless stream of barbed lines. "If I'd been a ranch," she says, "they would have named me the bar nothing." The worse Gilda behaves, the more we adore her; even Johnny can't resist her electric appeal, though he might be the last person to figure that out. It's little wonder that the role became the signature moment of Hayworth's career; after all these years it's still so easy to fall under Gilda's provocative spell.

Be sure to appreciate Joseph Calleia and Steven Geray in supporting roles as Detective Obregon and Uncle Pio. For more of Rita Hayworth, see Cover Girl (1944), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Pal Joey (1957). Glenn Ford also stars in The Big Heat (1953), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and 3:10 to Yuma (1957). You'll find George Macready in The Big Clock (1948), Detective Story (1951), and Paths of Glory (1957). Charles Vidor directed Hayworth in both Cover Girl and The Loves of Carmen (1948); his other films include Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Love Me or Leave Me (1955), and the 1957 adaptation of A Farewell to Arms.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: TALES OF TERROR (1962)

Most of Roger Corman's Poe movies stretch the author's short stories into feature length plots, but in Tales of Terror (1962) the director opts for an anthology approach, presenting a handful of tales in three distinct segments. Vincent Price, naturally, stars in all three, but his costars change with each story; Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone make particularly memorable appearances, along with leading ladies Debra Paget, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, and Joyce Jameson. The segments vary in tone and quality, but overall Tales of Terror offers a good time for fans of Corman's unique take on the horror genre, and those who admire Vincent Price get the special pleasure of seeing him play three very different Poe characters in rapid succession.

The anthology opens with "Morella," in which Price plays a lonely widower haunted by the premature death of his beautiful wife (Leona Gage). The return of his dying daughter (Maggie Pierce) stirs him to long repressed emotion, but her presence also awakens the malevolent spirit of Morella. In "The Black Cat," Peter Lorre stars as the drunken Montresor, whom Price antagonizes in the guise of the wine critic Fortunato. When Fortunato has an affair with Montresor's wife (Joyce Jameson), Montresor decides to murder both of them, but his wife's pet cat thwarts his attempts to hide the crime. Price returns as the title character in the final segment, "The Case of M. Valdemar," in which Basil Rathbone plays a sinister mesmerist who seeks to control a dead man's will.

"Morella," the weakest of the three acts, makes for an awkward start to the collection, since it is neither seriously uncanny nor amusingly campy. Morella's grudge against her husband and daughter is never entirely clear, although the final conflagration does present an interesting spectacle. Both of the other segments, though wildly different from one another, succeed better and reward the viewer's perseverance. "The Black Cat" combines the plot of Poe's original version with that of "The Cask of Amontillado," twisting both tales into a single narrative that exploits its stars' talent for pitch black comedy. Lorre's Montresor is a drunkard and a buffoon, while Price's character is a supercilious fop, but both excel at this kind of work, and Lorre milks the part for every bit of dry, dark humor. The last story breaks in the other direction, toward the truly horrific, with Valdemar's soul held hostage in his corpse by the diabolical Carmichael. Basil Rathbone gives a chilling performance, especially toward the end, when Carmichael uses his power over the dead man to claim Valdemar's widow and fortune for himself.

Aside from Poe, whose work Corman always adapts very loosely, Vincent Price serves as the unifying element for the three vignettes, and his different roles give viewers a chance to survey his varying approaches to horror. He plays it straight in both "Morella" and "The Case of M. Valdemar," first as the haunted victim of horrors and then as the monstrous being who haunts others. In "Morella" he also displays signs of nervous decay, and Price is always reliable as a character who is rapidly coming unglued. His Valdemar does not become a ghoul willingly, but Price makes for a very unnerving animated corpse, and his climactic scene might be one of the scariest bits of the actor's career. In "The Black Cat" he indulges in the gallows humor for which he is well remembered by cult horror-comedy fans, romping through gruesome gags and hamming it up enthusiastically, especially during the wine tasting contest. Lorre makes an excellent partner in crime for this sort of macabre merriment; his short, rotund figure and dour expressions contrast Price's elegant height and overly refined manner perfectly. Price gets to work through all of these modes at greater length in the other Corman productions and in his later work during the 1970s, but the anthology of shorts provides a chance to compare and contrast his methods in each segment. Even when the material is not as good as it might be, as in the case of "Morella," Price gives it his best, and he's always fun to watch.

To see Price, Lorre, and Rathbone together again, move on to The Comedy of Terrors (1963), which also features Joyce Jameson and Boris Karloff. Corman reunites Lorre and Price for The Raven (1963), as well, and you can catch Price and Rathbone together in the much earlier Tower of London (1939). For a survey of Price's roles in other Corman Poe pictures, see House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). Twice Told Tales (1963) offers a similar anthology of stories, this time from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Price again starring in every segment. Basil Rathbone is best remembered for playing Sherlock Holmes, but if you like the idea of him as a horror star, check out The Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Black Cat (1941), and The Black Sleep (1956).

Friday, November 7, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HEIRESS (1949)

Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar for Best Actress for The Heiress (1949), William Wyler's dramatic adaptation of the Henry James novel, Washington Square. The awkward, naive protagonist de Havilland plays is a far cry from the unshakably sweet Melanie Wilkes, the role for which de Havilland is best known, but Catherine Sloper is a far more complicated and dynamic character, which gives de Havilland the opportunity to prove that she is every bit as talented an actress as any leading lady of her era. Romantics and sentimental types beware: The Heiress offers no salve for wounded hearts except the cold, cruel comfort of revenge, which de Havilland's heroine metes out to the men in her life with all the fury of a woman scorned. Despite its decidedly cynical perspective on love, The Heiress is a winner for classic film fans, with excellent performances from Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, and Montgomery Clift, as well as Oscar-winning work from Edith Head and Aaron Copland.

The heiress of the title is de Havilland's character, Catherine, a shy, simple girl who falls woefully short of her father's expectations in a daughter. Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson) constantly compares Catherine to his beautiful, accomplished wife, who died in childbirth; to Catherine he is cool and condescending, but to others he more openly complains of her faults and his own disappointment. When the penniless but handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) courts the lovestruck Catherine, Dr. Sloper assumes that he only wants her money and tries to break the match, but his heartless tactics have unintended consequences. His widowed sister, Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), encourages the young couple, but even she underestimates the extent of Catherine's resentment against those who have conspired to break her heart.

Catherine's climactic disillusionment gives de Havilland very different emotional states to play in the first and second halves of the film. When we first meet Catherine, she is not exactly plain, for de Havilland's natural beauty shines through no matter what, but she is very shy and introverted, never sure what to do with her hands or where to look during a conversation. She always leans away from the person who addresses her, shrinking with self-consciousness, but she can be clever when she speaks to her aunt, and if she is awkward it is partly because she possesses keen feelings that are easily overwhelmed. Catherine feels happiest when left alone with her embroidery, but as a young woman of the nineteenth century she is expected to be decorative, graceful, and, above all, marriageable. Dr. Sloper and Morris both make assumptions about her because of her perceived vulnerability, but cold iron waits beneath the softness that they manage to tear away. The moment of transformation is marked; everything about Catherine changes forever, even her voice, which drops from a tremulous whisper to a clear, hard snarl. In the later Catherine de Havilland gives us a fierce, sharp-edged fury of great beauty and burning eyes, feeding a bonfire of resentment beneath a calm exterior. She is absolutely terrifying, especially in the final scenes, when Morris returns after many years of separation.

The supporting players lend their characters subtlety and nuance that keep us from easily guessing their motives or their true natures. Miriam Hopkins is the most transparent and sympathetic as Aunt Lavinia, who enjoys life and the prospect of young love enough to hope for the best for Catherine, even if she also suspects that Morris is chiefly attracted to the girl's fortune. Ralph Richardson's Dr. Sloper, a bit devilish in his neat goatee, might actually love his daughter in some capacity but doesn't realize how deeply he wounds her until he has gone too far. He is certainly a selfish, insensitive father, who describes his only child as "an entirely mediocre and defenseless creature without a shred of poise." He never realizes how important Catherine's love for him is until he loses it forever. Montgomery Clift gives the most inscrutable performance as Morris; we never know how he really feels about Catherine. He, too, might love her, as he perpetually claims, even if he sees her wealth as necessary for his own comfort. His face never betrays him, but he does demonstrate quite a taste for the finer things in life, as well as a complete inability to work for them himself. Because the audience never knows for sure, we never know if Catherine's wrath is warranted. Is the ending terrible justice, or is it only tragedy?

The Heiress earned eight Oscar nominations in all, including a nod for Best Picture, with four wins. For de Havilland's other Oscar-nominated performances, see Gone with the Wind (1939), Hold Back the Dawn (1941), To Each His Own (1946), and The Snake Pit (1948). William Wyler also directed Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Ben-Hur (1959). See more of the handsome, tragic Montgomery Clift in Red River (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), and From Here to Eternity (1953). You'll find Ralph Richardson in The Four Feathers (1939), Anna Karenina (1948), and Richard III (1955). Miriam Hopkins takes leading roles in earlier films like The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Becky Sharp (1935), and The Old Maid (1939). For the sake of comparison, you might try the 1997 version of Washington Square, which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine and Albert Finney as her father, but the most famous adaptation of a Henry James story is certainly the 1961 horror classic, The Innocents.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

10 Classic Science Fiction Movies Every Geek Should Know

Recently I gave a talk at Rocket City NerdCon about classic science fiction movies, with an emphasis on some of the essential classics that every fan should see. Here, for those of you who didn't make it to the panel, is the list from the talk. Getting it down to just ten movies proved more or less impossible, as you'll see from the way I cheated on #3 and #6! I also talked about some bonus picks that might not be the best sci-fi movies ever made, but they certainly are memorable and fun. Have you seen all of these movies? What classic sci-fi films are your favorites?

1) A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902) – Georges Melies, France

The silent that helped to start it all; you can't escape the influence of Melies, especially that grimacing moon with the rocket in his eye.

2) METROPOLIS (1927) – Fritz Lang, Germany

Lang eventually made his way to Hollywood, where he made several excellent noir films, but his sci-fi silent gave us an early taste of dystopia and robotic doppelgangers. Among the modern artists influenced by Lang's film are musician Janelle Monae, whose debut album was called Metropolis and focused on the adventures of an android heroine named Cindi Mayweather. Her later albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, have continued to explore the themes set forth by Lang's work and related sci-fi classics like Blade Runner.

3) FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – James Whale, US

Mary Shelley helped to establish one of the enduring themes of science fiction, that of the scientist who goes too far, with her 1818 novel, and James Whale provided the iconic cinematic adaptation with Boris Karloff as the shuffling monster. The sequel also offers us the iconic image of the Bride, played with hissing perfection by Elsa Lanchester (who also plays Mary Shelley herself in the film's framing scenes).

4) THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) – Robert Wise, US

Not all aliens come to conquer us, as Klaatu (Michael Rennie) proves in this important picture from the beginning of the 1950s golden age of sci-fi. While his robot underling strikes fear, Klaatu himself is a gentle visitor who even attracts the romantic interest of a lovely earthling woman (Patricia Neal).

5) THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) – Christian Nyby, US (uncredited help from producer Howard Hawks)

There have been numerous Thing remakes, but the original started it all, with James Arness weirdly cast as the menacing monster.

6) THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) РEugene Lourié, US and GOJIRA (1954) РIshiro Honda, Japan

Kaiju movies made their debut in the 1950s; Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion work brought the prehistoric Beast to life a year before Ishiro Honda unleashed Godzilla, but both helped to usher in a new age of rampaging monsters meting out some karmic payback on mankind. 


The last of the great Universal monsters to arrive on the scene, the Creature is a distinctly sci-fi being, basically a kaiju on a much smaller scale (and with an eye for the ladies). Can we blame him for fancying Julie Adams? Of course not. 

8) FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) – Fred M. Wilcox, US

Shakespeare goes sci-fi in this influential tale of a lone scientist and his daughter living on an alien world, where a mysterious creature kills everyone else. Leslie Nielsen plays the straight romantic lead, while Robby the Robot makes his first appearance. 


Communist paranoia gets freaky when alien doubles start taking over a town. Like The Thing, Invasion spawned numerous remakes, including the 1978 version with Donald Sutherland, but it's hard to beat Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter in the original.

10) THE FLY (1958) – Kurt Neumann, US

Another classic with a significant remake, the original version of The Fly has a fabulously wild ending, but most of the story is really about the doomed love of a married couple and the way in which scientific ambition destroys their lives. Vincent Price, so often the monster, this time plays the scientist's brother, who has to figure out why his sister-in-law killed the man she loved.


20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) - Richard Fleischer, US
For steampunk fans, this Disney live-action adventure is a must. Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre add to the fun.

THEM! (1954) - Gordon Douglas, US
Giant ants once again prove that atomic testing is bad news. Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness, and Fess Parker all make memorable appearances, but the ants are really the stars.

THE BLOB (1958) - Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., and Russell S. Doughten, Jr., US
Stranger even than middle-aged Steve McQueen as a high school student is the Blob itself, but Burt Bacharach's swinging theme makes a weird B-picture a priceless delight.

ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES (1959) - Bernard L. Kowalski, US
Atomic era horror so bad it’s great! This one is just for fans of bad 50s sci-fi. Get the popcorn and settle in for some truly awful cliches and bad monster costumes.

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920, 1931, and 1941) - Various directors
Multiple takes on Robert Louis Stevenson's story show more of the dark side of science. One of the great lessons of the sci-fi movie is: Never use yourself as a guinea pig. Sadly, neither Dr. Jekyll nor any of his fellow scientists ever seem to learn.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) - Erle C. Kenton, US
H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau gets a stylish horror treatment in this gem starring Charles Laughton as the inhumane scientist who wants to transform animals into men. 

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (1964) - Byron Haskin, US
The title pretty much says it all, right? Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin star, but the star you'll remember is Adam West. This is a great example of the "astronaut in peril" genre most recently embodied by Gravity (2013).

Classic Films in Focus: DEAD RINGER (1964)

Despite its gruesome title, Dead Ringer (1964) provides a sharp contrast to the better known hagsploitation movies Bette Davis made during the same period. In both Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Davis plays aging women well beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown, but in Dead Ringer the actress returns to more glamorous territory as a wealthy widow and the vengeful twin who assumes her identity. Between the two characters, Davis plays callous, resentful, homicidal, and deceptive, but neither Margaret nor Edith ever comes across as crazy. Paul Henreid, one of Davis' most important leading men from the old days, directs the action with an eye for its melodramatic sensibilities more than its thrills, while Davis' costars Karl Malden and Peter Lawford also emphasize the romantic angles as each of the twins' love interests. Thriller fans looking for high tension might find Dead Ringer a bit of a letdown, but Davis admirers will get twice the gratification from this story of thwarted love and deeply ironic justice.

Davis opens the film as Edith Phillips, a middle-aged spinster with a failing Los Angeles cocktail bar and a cop boyfriend, Jim (Karl Malden). When Edith attends the funeral of her brother-in-law, the lover her sister, Margaret, stole from her years ago, the twin sisters meet again for the first time in nearly two decades. Angry about the old betrayal and desperate to escape her bleak life, Edith murders Margaret, stages the body as her own suicide, and takes the rich sister's place in a lavish mansion. Unfortunately for Edith, Jim proves more dedicated to her memory than she expects, while Margaret's lover, Tony (Peter Lawford), has dangerous secrets of his own to protect.

We actually see very little of the real Margaret in the movie; a double stands in for Davis, conveniently wearing a mourning veil, in most of the early scenes, and Edith kills Margaret in the first act. When we do see both sisters in the same frame, the effects work looks convincing, and Davis does an excellent job acting opposite herself. She had played twins before, in the 1946 film, A Stolen Life, so she had experience with the trick of seeming to be two different people in the same shot, although the older film actually employs the technique more frequently and to more startling effect. Davis spends most of Dead Ringer playing Edith pretending to be Margaret, a challenging task made more difficult by the constant presence of servants, family members, friends, and, worst of all, Margaret's suspicious lover. Not having seen her sister in so many years, Edith naturally has no idea who Margaret's friends are or how to behave around them, and her suddenly cooled ardor toward Tony quickly tips him off that a changeling has taken Margaret's place. In the third act, however, Davis has some truly triumphant moments as Edith finally realizes the extent of Margaret's crimes and makes a fateful decision to protect the integrity of her old identity from the person she has become. There the picture plunges into the melodramatic territory that Davis knows so well, and her final moments as the bravely masquerading "Margaret" are quite as good as any of the climactic scenes she played in her younger days.

A strong supporting cast helps to elevate the material, as well, particularly Karl Malden as Edith's rather prosaic beau. Edith doesn't understand how much Jim cares about her until she has already gone too far to reclaim him, and Malden is especially good in the later acts, when Jim doggedly hangs around the DeLorca mansion because "Margaret" reminds him so much of Edith. Malden doesn't play Jim as a dope, but he has to be thick enough not to see through Edith's disguise. Peter Lawford, on the other hand, is every bit the wolf; his Tony is as sharp-eyed and callous and Jim is gullible and sentimental. Fifteen years younger than Davis, Lawford has the air of a gigolo, handsome but opportunistic and calculating. Since Margaret is only in the movie for the first act, Tony becomes the real villain of the piece, and he's marvelously awful, so much so that the viewer will cheer his much-deserved doom. Jean Hagen has a small role as Margaret's socialite friend, Dede, and Paul Henreid's daughter, Monika, plays Margaret's maid, but Estelle Winwood is the most memorable of the bit players as the elderly Dona Anna.

Davis' other pictures from the early 1960s include A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and The Nanny (1965), but A Stolen Life makes an especially good double feature for a double dose of Davis twins. See Paul Henreid in front of the camera with Davis in Now, Voyager (1942) and Deception (1946); he is best remembered today for his performance in Casablanca (1942), but he directed a number of films and television series, including 28 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Karl Malden won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); catch more of him in On the Waterfront (1954), Baby Doll (1956), and Gypsy (1962). Peter Lawford also stars in Easter Parade (1948), Royal Wedding (1951), and Ocean's Eleven (1960). For more actors in dual roles, try Lady of the Night (1925), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 or 1952), That Night in Rio (1941), and Cat Ballou (1965).

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: MACABRE (1958)

Macabre is less gimmick-driven than some of William Castle's later, more infamous shockers, despite the opening warning that audience members should alert the theater management if patrons suffer fear-induced medical emergencies. The title makes a similar overstatement of the thrills on offer, since most of the movie follows a weirdly subdued search for a child who has been abducted and buried alive. While Macabre comes up short on genuine scares, it does have that B-movie drive-in appeal that entertains the right kind of viewer in the right kind of mood, and it offers the additional attraction of familiar TV stars William Prince, Jim Backus, and Ellen Corby in very different roles.

William Prince stars as troubled doctor Rodney Barrett, whose practice has suffered after the deaths of his wife, Alice (Dorothy Morris), and her blind sister, Nancy (Christine White). Police chief Jim Tyloe (Jim Backus) and other townspeople blame Barrett in both cases, and someone apparently hates him enough to kidnap his young daughter and bury her alive. With the help of his lovestruck nurse, Polly (Jacqueline Scott), and his frail father-in-law (Philip Tonge), Barrett searches for the little girl in the hours before Nancy's funeral, but the situation is even more twisted and macabre than anyone suspects.

The closing credits beg viewers not to give away the surprise ending, which certainly does come as a shock, but the lead-in to that conclusion mostly falls flat, with Barrett and Polly wandering around town and poking half-heartedly at various sites where the missing child might be interred. They barely pick up their shovels before giving up each successive spot as a dead end, and their efforts lack any sense of urgency. The flashback sequences, which shed light on the lives and deaths of the Wetherby sisters, prove more interesting, especially the ones that reveal the love affair between Tyloe and the reckless Nancy. The closing credits indicate that Nancy and Tyloe were married, although the movie itself contradicts that, especially given Nancy's reaction to her pregnancy. Tyloe, Nancy, and Barrett himself are all depicted as fairly unlikable characters, with Barrett absent during his pregnant wife's fatal delivery because of his dalliance with an attractive friend. Polly and the dead Alice are more sympathetic, although both waste their affection on a man who clearly has issues with fidelity.

Those interested in classic film and television stars will find the casting of Macabre more interesting than the movie itself. Jim Backus, best remembered for Gilligan's Island and his voice work on Mister Magoo, is the most palpable presence as the hostile, threatening police chief. He's surprisingly convincing as a dominant male antagonist, throwing his weight around to bully Barrett and lusting after blind, bewitching Nancy. Ellen Corby, who has a supporting role as Barrett's childcare provider, is familiar to a generation of TV viewers as Grandma Walton, but she was also an Oscar-nominated film actress with roles in I Remember Mama (1948), Caged (1950), and dozens of other productions. William Prince worked mostly in television after an unremarkable film career; although less familiar to modern viewers, he did brief stints on many popular series and soap operas.

For Castle's most iconic efforts, see House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960). Catch Jim Backus making other big screen appearances in His Kind of Woman (1951), Don't Bother to Knock (1952), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Macabre is currently available for streaming on Warner Archive Instant.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: FREAKS (1932)

Tod Browning made a lasting mark on the horror genre with Dracula (1931), but Freaks (1932) is by far the stranger and more inventive of the two films. The director had explored the circus before with Lon Chaney silents like The Unholy Three (1925) and The Unknown (1927), as well The Show (1927) with John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore, but Freaks goes beyond those earlier efforts by casting actual sideshow performers along with more typical stars. The result remains controversial more than eighty years later; Freaks proved shocking in its own time but may smack too much of exploitation for some modern viewers, even though it works hard to show that its good characters treat the title attractions with humanity and kindness, while its villains mock and reject them. Whatever we make of it, Freaks remains an essential film, one that every cinephile interested in Pre-Codes and classic horror must see at least once.

The story follows various romantic entanglements in the tents of the circus folk. Hans (Harry Earles), a little person, is engaged to the equally tiny Frieda (Daisy Earles) but becomes smitten with seductive trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). She and her strongman lover, Hercules (Henry Victor), delude Hans in order to get his money, with Cleopatra even marrying her small admirer, whom she then plans to poison. Meanwhile, circus clown Phroso (Wallace Ford) and pretty Venus (Leila Hyams) strike up their own romance; they both look out for the sideshow crowd and consider them friends. When Venus threatens to tell the cops about Hercules and Cleopatra, she, Hans, and Phroso all end up in mortal danger, but the circus freaks have their own plans for the cruel, murderous pair.

With their costumes, physical traits, and exotic accents, the career actors in Freaks can be hard to tell apart from the actual circus performers, and perhaps that is intentional on Browning's part. The most ordinary of the bunch are Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, whose generosity and kindness mark them as kindred spirits despite their hard scrabble lives. The Russian Olga Baclanova puts her foreign appeal to good use as the cold-hearted Cleopatra; her character stands apart from the freaks, literally above them, but the actress fits perfectly in the circus setting. Her dalliance with the German Henry Victor feels like a symbolic union of Eastern menace, especially since Victor went on to play a long string of Nazi roles. Hiding in plain sight is stuttering comedian Roscoe Ates as a circus clown married, awkwardly enough, to a conjoined twin. He, too, fits in with the circus, even though he was an important enough actor to get fourth billing on the film. Despite being under three feet tall, Angelo Rossitto is also one of the movie's professional actors; he racked up 90 screen credits in a career that lasted sixty years. Other, smaller roles are quietly filled by professionals, with Rose Dione as Madame Tetrallini and Edward Brophy as one of the Rollo brothers.

Browning's special cast of actual circus performers begins with Harry Earles, who had made his movie debut in The Unholy Three. He and his real life sister, Daisy, act surprisingly well, and the story depends on them to sell their characters' hopes and heartbreak. They can't pretend they aren't German, but they use that to their advantage; unlike Hercules and Cleopatra, Hans and Frieda seem more vulnerable and lonely because of their foreignness. Their small stature makes them look very young, but Harry was thirty in 1932, and Daisy was twenty-five; both continued circus work for many years and eventually retired. Also acquitting themselves well are the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and "half boy" Johnny Eck, although they are overshadowed in the public memory by Schlitze, the Snow sisters, and the limbless Prince Randian. Other sideshow veterans include armless girls, a bearded lady, a human skeleton, and Josephine Joseph, but the film shows us the very ordinary human lives of these people, who chat and have feelings and raise families just like anyone else. If the picture's gruesome climax paints a different image, with its small, grim figures creeping through the mud, Browning at least tries to suggest that they are really just an oppressed and unfairly treated group of people looking out for their own and dishing out some thoroughly warranted poetic justice.

Freaks was banned, recut, denounced, and relegated to vaults for decades; the version you'll find today is not the original work that Browning intended, and the more upbeat ending was a late addition. Modern viewers are unlikely to have the same response that audiences did in 1932; we are too accustomed to a constant diet of visual spectacles, but still Freaks stands out as something unique in the history of film. For more from Tod Browning, try West of Zanzibar (1928), Mark of the Vampire (1935), and the weirdly wonderful The Devil-Doll (1936). Olga Baclanova plays another cruel temptress in The Man Who Laughs (1928), while Leila Hyams faces bestial threats in Island of Lost Souls (1932). Violet and Daisy Hilton made one other screen appearance in Chained for Life (1952), which capitalizes on their experiences as conjoined twins and adds a murder plot twist. Look for Angelo Rossitto in The Beloved Rogue (1927), Spooks Run Wild (1941), and, decades later, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PREMATURE BURIAL (1962)

Ray Milland takes over from Vincent Price as Roger Corman's lead actor in The Premature Burial (1962), which builds a feature-length story of obsession and betrayal around a much simpler tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Price's absence makes this entry into Corman's Poe canon less of a favorite among classic horror fans, but those who appreciate Milland on his own merits will find him capable and even quite chilling in the picture's third act. Horror queen Hazel Court also gives a memorable performance, but those who like to see familiar stars in unusual roles will particularly enjoy the presence of Alan Napier and Heather Angel as supporting characters with their own motives for watching Milland's morbid protagonist succumb to his fears. Less deliriously Gothic than some of the best Poe pictures, The Premature Burial is nonetheless an entertaining contribution to the Corman collection and a good example of the horror director's distinctive style.

Milland plays Guy Carrell, a middle-aged gentleman gripped by his fear of being buried alive. Despite the objections of his sister, Kate (Heather Angel), Guy marries the lovely Emily (Hazel Court) and tries to be happy, but events around his home constantly remind him of his phobia. He builds an elaborate mausoleum for himself equipped with numerous escape routes, but when he suffers a bout of catalepsy and is mistaken for dead he is, of course, confronted with the realization of his worst nightmare.

Vincent Price is so closely associated with the Corman Poe movies that it's strange to see Ray Milland step into his place as the haunted protagonist, and Milland certainly plays Guy differently from Price's usual style. Early on he seems much more normal and sane than we might expect, his mania about death excepted, and we wonder why such a charming, ordinary man doesn't just shake off his grim daydreams and get on with his life. Milland's intensity bursts forth in his darker moments, when he rejects flowers and his wife's intrusions, but he really transforms into a figure of madness after his premature burial takes place and he sets off to punish everyone he holds responsible for his fate. This is, after all, the actor who won an Oscar for going on an epic bender in The Lost Weekend (1945), and when he cuts loose Milland shows that he really can work his way around a Gothic fit of violent insanity.

The other players also offer more subtle performances that complement Milland's approach to the protagonist, with the third act finally seeing each character's true nature revealed by the aftermath of Guy's interment. Hazel Court has a spectacular conclusion that justifies her presence, while Alan Napier's Dr. Gault turns out to be a much more heartless old scoundrel than his paternal demeanor suggests. Gault's grave-robbing expedition is the event that first propels Guy into his ongoing fear of live burial, but Gault is the kind of man who will have the corpse of his own son-in-law dug up for medical experimentation, so poetic justice practically begs to catch up with him. Heather Angel is the most inscrutable of the lot; she plays Guy's sister with impeccable reserve, so that we never know how she really feels about her brother and his wife until the very last scene. Richard Ney has the relatively thankless job of playing Miles, a foil to Milland's character who once courted Emily and still harbors strong feelings for her.

Corman presents viewers with the Victorian atmosphere and constant swirling fog that feature in so many of his Poe films, along with copious cobwebs and a handful of dry corpses. If the themes of catalepsy and live burial seem repetitive after House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), that has as much to do with Poe's obsessions as Corman's. The influence of German Expressionism and the importance of art also recur in this outing, with Guy's dream sequence awash in blue and green light and his surreal paintings depicting the disordered state of his mind. Corman also evinces a sly, twisted sense of humor in his use of the old song, "Molly Malone," as a persistent theme. We never hear the actual lyrics sung in the film, but the refrain of the song is "Alive, alive, oh," which serves as an ironic summary of Guy's obsession.

Like many classic stars, Ray Milland made a number of horror features late in his career, but for a great example of his earlier work in the genre see The Uninvited (1944). He also gives a standout performance in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller, Dial M for Murder. Look for Hazel Court in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) as well as Corman's The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). Heather Angel appears in Suspicion (1941), The Undying Monster (1942), and Lifeboat (1944), but you might also recognize her as the voice of Mrs. Darling in Disney's Peter Pan (1953). Alan Napier is best remembered today as Alfred on the 1960s TV series, Batman, although his long career spanned more than 50 years and nearly 150 roles.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE HAUNTED STRANGLER (1958)

Directed by Robert Day, The Haunted Strangler (1958) comes from the later part of Boris Karloff's career, long after his iconic roles in Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932). Karloff churned out modest chillers for decades, and he's usually the best thing in them, but The Haunted Strangler gives him a particularly good role as a Victorian novelist trying to uncover the truth about an old murder case in which the wrong man might have been hanged. The eloquent, intelligent Karloff is on full display here, but fans of the horror star's more monstrous side will also find plenty to appreciate.

Karloff plays reform-minded writer James Rankin, who hopes to show the flaws of the legal system by proving that innocent men are executed for other people's crimes. He begins investigating the conviction of Edward Styles as a serial killer called The Haymarket Strangler, although his young assistant, Ken (Tim Turner), doubts the point of his efforts. As he digs deeper into the past, Rankin unwittingly resurrects the real killer, long hidden from view, and new murders precede the revelation of a shocking connection between the intellectual author and the bestial criminal.

The story opens like a police procedural revolving around a cold case, with Rankin and Ken mulling over files, clues, and autopsy reports. They interview witnesses and anyone else connected with the crime, including the residents of The Judas Hole, the seedy dance hall where the final murder took place. There they find Cora (Jean Kent), who was the dead woman's friend, and her pretty apprentice, Pearl (Vera Day). Cora piques Rankin's interest in the mysterious young Dr. Tenant, who frequented The Judas Hole and was involved in the original investigation but disappeared after Styles was hanged. Once The Judas Hole characters are introduced, the plot shifts into the territory of more traditional horror. The murderer returns to spill fresh blood, the search for the killer becomes urgent, and Rankin finally begins to suspect the awful truth. Even worse, his wife Barbara (Elizabeth Allan) and stepdaughter Lily (Diane Aubrey) become targets of the deranged fiend, and even the police cannot protect them.

Film still from Criterion Collection site

Along with Karloff's keen performance, thoughtful cinematography and an emphasis on psychology also elevate The Haunted Strangler above the lurid premise of its title. The opening scenes depict a Hogarthian tableau of the gathered rabble's indifference to justice and suffering, prompting us to sympathize all the more with Rankin's humanitarian quest. The can-can sequences also offer a visual contrast between the animal pleasures of the masses and the intellectual refinement of the idealistic gentleman. These images both confound and prefigure the later motif of the suppressed id breaking through to wreak havoc on a carefully ordered and civilized life. Robert Louis Stevenson provides obvious inspiration for the narrative's thrust, but The Haunted Strangler offers its own take on the well-worn tale, merging its Freudian concerns with Jack the Ripper mania and the unconscious transgressions of the involuntary monster.

While it's Karloff's movie from start to finish, be sure to note career villain Anthony Dawson playing against type as the Scotland Yard policeman. Robert Day directed The Green Man (1956), several Tarzan films, and the 1965 version of She starring Ursula Andress. Day's Corridors of Blood (1958) also stars Karloff and makes for a fine double feature with The Haunted Strangler. For more Karloff horror in a similar vein, try The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946) from the Val Lewton canon.

The Criterion release of The Haunted Strangler, which looks fantastic, is available for streaming on Hulu Plus.

Friday, October 24, 2014

ELVIRA'S HAUNTED HILLS (2001) Have Eyes for Vincent Price

Serendipity led me to watch the 2001 horror-comedy Elvira's Haunted Hills this week, immediately after several nights running of Roger Corman classics. The Elvira picture popped up on Hulu Plus; I wasn't planning to watch it but figured "Why not?"since I like Elvira's oddball style well enough that I own the Elvira: Scared Stiff pinball machine (come on over sometime and you can play, too). I hadn't seen Haunted Hills before, but imagine my delight when it turned out to be a loving parody of two movies I had just seen: House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)!

Seriously, Richard Matheson really deserves a writing credit for Elvira's Haunted Hills because whole chunks of dialogue are lifted directly from the older movies. The plot splices together the Roger Corman versions of two classic stories by Edgar Allan Poe, with much more emphasis on Corman than Poe. There's some Dracula (1931) thrown in for good measure, along with a string of other gags that mock familiar films and tropes. The result is sort of a mess, but it's a funny mess, especially if you recognize the source material and the way the Elvira film turns it to comedic purposes.

Elvira plays herself, naturally, roaming around 19th century Carpathia en route to Paris and her showbiz career. Along with her French maid, Zou Zou (Mary Jo Smith), Elvira accepts a carriage ride from randy Dr. Bradley (Scott Atkinson) and ends up at Castle Hellsubus, where she meets Vladimere Hellsubus (Richard O'Brien), his wife (Mary Scheer), and his consumptive niece (Heather Hopper). Vladimere suffers from acute sensitivity and an obsession with his dead wife, Elura, whom Elvira happens to resemble. Weird mayhem ensues, along with a fair bit of randy humor, which is just what one expects from Elvira.

This is goofy, low-budget stuff, but it's clear that Cassandra Peterson and her director, Sam Irvin, share a deep love for the Corman Poe movies. The picture is even dedicated to Vincent Price, who played the lead characters in Corman's films. Richard O'Brien, best known for The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), offers his own take on the Price characters but certainly seems to be having a lot of fun. He looks more like Nosferatu but doubles down on psychological infirmities with Roderick Usher's hypersensitivity and Nicholas Medina's morbid obsession with his deceased bride. The wan Lady Roxana, aka "Catalepsy Poster Child," wickedly skewers the Poe motif of the dying maiden, while Lady Ema takes her cues from Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein (1974) but still evokes the Gothic wives of the Corman pictures.

For the best experience with Elvira's Haunted Hills, do watch House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum first, perhaps over the Halloween weekend. Then you can really revel in the allusions and jokes the way God and Cassandra Peterson intended.

You wanted to see the pinball machine, didn't you?

Classic Science Fiction Movies and More at NerdCon!

If you're in the Huntsville area, head on over to NerdCon at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library this weekend. I'll be there doing a joint panel on Stunt Casting in Modern Popular Culture on Friday evening and a solo talk about 10 Classic Sci-Fi Movies Every Geek Should Know on Saturday afternoon. I'll also have copies of BEYOND CASABLANCA for sale and promo postcards for my YA fantasy novel, WIERM'S EGG.

NerdCon promises to be a great event with lots of programs that are teen-friendly as well as some panels that are just for adults. You can find out more about it by visiting the library's website. I should be at the LEGO panel (of course!) as well as my own two panels, and I hope to attend some of the other fascinating programs on the schedule.

While I'm at it, let me just mention this brand new review of WIERM'S EGG on from Huntsville Book Examiner Lionel Ray Green. Go check it out!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) rambles far afield of the original story by Edgar Allan Poe, even for a Roger Corman adaptation, but that doesn't prevent it from being an entertaining horror film. With Vincent Price and Barbara Steele both giving memorable performances and a gruesome story of adultery and torture providing the narrative thrust, The Pit and the Pendulum has plenty to offer viewers who enjoy Corman's distinctive style, and Richard Matheson's screenplay delivers a sly mix of Radcliffean Gothic and psychological suspense. While it can't really be considered as an adaptation of Poe's work, the movie stands on its own creative merits well enough to warrant the attention of horror fans, especially those who appreciate the macabre charms of Vincent Price.

Price plays Nicholas Medina, whose grief over the death of his young wife is interrupted by the arrival of her brother, Francis (John Kerr), from England. Francis insists on details about the demise of Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), forcing Nicholas and his sister, Catherine (Luana Anders), to reveal family secrets they would just as soon keep hidden. When strange events cause Nicholas to believe that Catherine was buried alive, Francis and Catherine struggle to get to the truth, but sinister machinations draw all of them to a fateful encounter in the torture chambers deep beneath the house.

Only the last ten minutes of the movie have any connection to the Poe story, but the original material is lurid enough to make for a good Gothic yarn, even if it isn't Poe. The screenplay concocts an elaborate narrative of betrayal and revenge against Poe's backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition, adding romantic intrigue and a haunted house element to flesh out the brief source material. We learn that Nicholas witnessed the brutal murders of his adulterous mother and uncle at the hands of his father when he was just a child. Already psychologically fragile, he seems poised on the verge of a complete breakdown when eerie happenings suggest that his wife's angry spirit is haunting the house in order to punish Nicholas for her premature burial. His doctor (Antony Carbone) advises him to leave the house forever, but Nicholas is drawn back to his wife's tomb and the horrid torture chamber where his father carried on the bloody work of the Inquisition.

The weakest link in the picture is John Kerr as Francis, who is something of a stick and too stiff-necked for us to care much about his fate. Playing the straight man against an actor like Price is never a rewarding job, but Francis could at least react when he's about to be cut in half by a giant pendulum. Antony Carbone also plays it very low-key as the doctor, leaving Luana Anders as the most interesting member of the household after Price himself. Barbara Steele is great in her few scenes, especially in the final act, but once again Price is the main attraction, coming unglued like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight (1944) until he finally snaps. His pursuit of the ghostly Elizabeth through the cobwebbed secret passages drips with classic Gothic atmosphere, and the finale gives him a terrific mad scene in which to cut loose.

Be sure to appreciate the dreadful irony of the picture's closing shot; it's a devilish example of poetic justice at its most perverse. For more of the Corman and Price collaborations, see House of Usher (1960), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). John Kerr worked mostly in television, but you can find him in The Cobweb (1955), Tea and Sympathy (1956), and South Pacific (1958). Catch Barbara Steele in Mario Bava's horror classic, Black Sunday (1960), and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). Luana Anders appears in Night Tide (1961), Dementia 13 (1963), and Easy Rider (1969), while Antony Carbone turns up in other Corman pictures like A Bucket of Blood (1959), Last Woman on Earth (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Classic Films in Focus: HOUSE OF USHER (1960)

Roger Corman's series of Poe adaptations begins with House of Usher (1960), which sets the tone for the later films and establishes Vincent Price as Corman's ideal Gothic figure, a cultured, romantic, but fatally haunted central character entangled by strange twists of fate. Screenwriter Richard Matheson takes liberties with Poe's original tale but remains true to its essence, while Corman uses art and Price's tremendous screen presence to invest the proceedings with an air of sophistication in spite of the director's reputation for low-budget cult productions. If one doesn't insist too much on strict fidelity to the source material, the Corman Poe films are all great fun, and House of Usher makes an excellent introduction to the ghoulish thrills that follow it.

Price takes center stage as Roderick Usher, a solitary gentleman peculiarly afflicted by acute sensitivity. Roderick is not pleased when Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) intrudes on the Usher mansion looking for Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who is Roderick's sister and Philip's intended bride. Philip resolves to take Madeline away from the crumbling house and the morbid obsessions that seem to plague both siblings, but Madeline's sudden death defeats his schemes. Soon he discovers that Roderick may have buried his sister somewhat prematurely, with fatal consequences for everyone associated with the house of Usher.

There can be no spoilers in a story so well known, and House of Usher telegraphs its conclusion insistently, so that we only wait to see how the inevitable end comes and not whether it will happen. Inexorable doom descending is, after all, a favorite theme of the Poe tales. Corman and Matheson add some new wrinkles to the familiar story by making Madeline a much younger sister instead of a twin and by giving the originally anonymous narrator a more pointed identity as Madeline's love interest. The film also eschews the story's hints at incest and provides a truly sordid collection of sinners to justify the familial curse; Roderick and Madeline have quite a family tree of murderers, thieves, and madmen, and Roderick firmly believes that any future progeny will only perpetuate the crimes of their forebears. Eerie paintings by Burt Shonberg (credited as Burt Schoenberg) evoke the Ushers' perversions and add an element of nightmare to the ruined house. They also prepare us for a dream sequence straight out of German expressionist horror, in which Philip assumes the role of a Gothic heroine, fearfully searching the house only to encounter the leering ghosts of the Usher ancestors.

Damon, Fahey, and Harry Ellerbe as the old family servant all play their parts capably enough, but the movie belongs to Vincent Price from the moment he appears on screen. Price was not quite fifty when he made the picture, and he was already established as a horror star with roles in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), House of Wax (1953), and House on Haunted Hill (1959). The Corman Poe movies are perfectly tailored to Price's talents; his rich voice, aristocratic bearing, and ability to play both true horror and winking black comedy all contribute to his success as a variety of Poe protagonists, starting with the overwrought Roderick. We never know for certain if Roderick is insane or if the house really does pulse with generational evil, but Price depicts Roderick's conviction as absolute. It's a shame that we don't get to hear Price recite Roderick's poem, "The Haunted Palace," in this picture, especially since the 1963 movie of that title is actually adapted from H.P. Lovecraft and is not a Poe story at all. Luckily, we get such a bevy of great performances from Price in the later Corman films that it's ungrateful to complain too much about the small things that get left out.

For more of the best Corman collaborations with Vincent Price, see Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Masque of the Red Death (1964), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). For later Price horrors, try The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Theatre of Blood (1973), and Madhouse (1974). Mark Damon's other acting credits include Young and Dangerous (1957), Black Sabbath (1963), and a number of Italian horrors and Westerns, but he has also enjoyed a very successful career as a producer and is still working in 2014.