Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Skinny dipping is hazardous to your health on 'Voodoo Island'

Voodoo Island (aka "Silent Death") (1957)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Beverly Tyler, Jean Engstron, Murvyn Vye, Rhoades Reason and Elisha Cook Jr.
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a professional hoax-buster (Karloff) is hired to investigate a supposedly cursed island where a hotel magnate wants to develop a resort, he and his party find their journey there disrupted by a string of strange occurances. The most unexpected horrors await on the island, however.

"Voodoo Island" is a film populated by fascinating, well-acted characters. Karloff's devout skeptic Philip Knight; Tyler as Adams, his Girl Friday with the photographic memory and endless suite of skills; Cook Martin Schyler, the greedy plantation owner who knows more than he tells; and Reason as Matthew Gunn, the boatsman with a troubled past. Unfortunately, these fascinating, well-acted characters are in a script that spends too much time getting to the island, gives us too much romantic subplot and not enough monsters once the characters are there, and then ends when we finally get to the sort of stuff we'd be watching the movie for in the first place.

The film is at its high point when architect Clair Winters (Engstrom) decides to go skinny-dipping in a particular idyllic looking lake, and gives us the first indication that there really is a grave threat on the island (aside from the natives who have the power to lurk unseen in really thin brush cover)... and this is a pretty weak highpoint. The voodoo build-up of the first half of the movie doesn't seem to go anywhere, and the hoax-busting Philip Knight doesn't really get to bust a hoax, nor does he get his come-uppance through the supernatural. I'm not entirely sure what sort of movie the filmmakers were trying to make, but whatever it was, they failed. It's too bad that a good cast and a collection of interesting characters were wasted in such a crappy script.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

'The Complete Geisha' explores nature of human heart and soul

The Complete Geisha (Oni Press, 2003)
Story and Art: Andi Watson
Rating: Nine of Ten Tomatoes

"Geisha" was the second comic book series from Andi Watson (perhaps best known as the writer of Dark Horse's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" comics. In a future where life-like androids are used as sextoys/prostitutes and servants, the operator of a successful security company "adopted" a sex 'droid, wiped her initial programming, and raised like his own children. The result was Jomi, who, although human in every way except for her android body, is now struggling to find her place in a world that sees her as something less than human.

Jomi is a talented artist, and she dreams of making her living doing art, but critics denegrate her work, saying it is soulless and crude because she's an android, which in turn makes it hard for her to sell her paintings. When a crimelord approaches her with an offer of an obcene amount of cash to produce a forgery for him, she has to choose between the satisfaction of knowing the critics who hate her will be fawning over a forgery she created, or being true to her art and soul and turning down the offer. Along the way, she befriends a neurotic supermodel and defends her against her battlebot-driving ex-husband, and learns the ins-and-outs of her adopted family's security business.

Aside from the main story of Jomi vs. The Art Forger and the Battlebot, "The Complete Geisha" also contains the various short stort stories featuring Jomi and the rest of the "Geisha" cast. Like the main story, these are very well-done. These short stories also give the reader some insight into how Watson's style developed as he worked on the series.

"The Complete Geisha" presents excellent comic book stories that have action, humor, and lots of heart. It's the sort of comic book work that one wishes more creators were able to produce.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

'The Chase' is an interesting, if incomplete, experiment

The Chase (1946)
Starring: Robert Cummings, Peter Lorre, Michele Moran, and Steve Cochran
Director: Arthur Ripley
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Chuck (Cummings), a down-on-his-luck WW2 vet, is hired as a driver for a psychopathic gangster (Cochran) and his morose, penny-pinching sidekick (Lorre). When Chuck takes pity on the gangster's wife (Moran) and helps her flee to Cuba, he finds himself framed for her murder. Or does he?

"The Chase" is an interesting experiment in filmmaking and storytelling that will draw you in with its moody lighting, quirky characters, and good acting. The film will then confuse you when it takes a sudden turn, revealing that part or all of what you've just witnessed was a fantasy had by someone in the throws of a psychotic break. Finally, it will frustrate you by muddling the lines between the film's reality and the dream sequence, and completely blowing the ending with one cop-out piled upon another.

The end result is a film that's worth seeing, even if the experience will be somewhat dissapointing. It teeters on the brink between a 5 and 4 rating, mostly because of the botched ending. If a stronger finale than a car crash and a stronger resolution of Chuck's mental situation had been offered, this could have been a 6 or perhaps even a 7, because everything leading up to the end is pretty good. Lorre's performance is particularly noteworthy. Watch him closely during the scenes in the car for a demonstration of how little a good actor needs to do to establish a character's feelings.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'A Life at Stake' stars a miscast Angela Lansbury

A Life at Stake (aka "The Key Man") (1954)
Starring: Keith Anders, Angela Lansbury, Claudia Barrett, and Douglass Dumbrille
Director: Paul Guilfoyle
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

An architect (Anders) attempting to come back from a business failure is approached by a wealthy couple (Lansbury and Dumbrille) who claim they want to help him get back on his feet so he can build houses for them. The husband insists the architect takes out a large insurance policy so their investment can be recovered if something should go wrong. When the architect starts having unexplained accidents, he starts to fear that he is the investment, and that his death is the pay-off.

"A Life at Stake" is a slow-moving, completely predictable (despite the far-fetched, convoluted nature of its plotline) film with a fairly dull main character and a pair of villians who aren't much better. In fact, the only performer here who displays any charisma whatsoever is Claudia Barrett, who is featured as the innocent younger sister of Lansbury's character.

"But what about Angela Lansbury?" some of you ask.

Well, I think she is horribly miscast here. She simply isn't the slinky, femme fatale type. This part required either a Lauren Bacall-type, or, at the opposite end of the scale, a Heather Angel-type. Lansbury is neither, and she is terribly miscast.

That said, she was more convincing in a similar role in "Please Murder Me", because she wasn't playing a straight-up "scheming trophy wife" as she is here. In the other film, Lansbury WASN'T playing an evil hussy... or so it seemed....

"A Life at Stake" is deserving of its obscurity. It can be found with 49 other black-and-white film noir/crime dramas, or on a double-feature DVD with the above-mentioned "Please Murder Me". As such, it's harmless filler. It's not a film worth seeking out, unless you're the president of the Angela Lansbury Fan Club.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The film that rightfully made a star of Barbara Steele (and her eyes)

Black Sunday (aka "The Demon's Mask", "The Mask of Satan" and "House of Fright" and "Revenge of the Vampire") (1960)
Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Enrico Olivieri, and Arturo Dominici
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A devil-worshipping witch and her consort (Steele and Dominici), executed 200 years ago return from the dead as a strange breed of vampires after a traveler exploring her tomb (Checchi) callously damages the specially built sarcophagus that was supposed to keep them interred forever. The witch sets about claiming revenge against the descendants of those who executed her, as well as trading the body of her last living female relative (also Steele) for her own time-ravaged one.

"Black Sunday", Mario Bava's directorial debut and the film that established Barbara Steele as a horror movie icon on par with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, has been hailed as a masterpiece in many quarters, and I have finally gotten around to seeing it.

I feel a litle bit like I did when I saw Universal's original "Frankenstein"--I don't think the film is quite worthy of the reputation it has. It's a decent horror flick in the gory-gothic mode that Hammer Films and director Terence Fisher brought to the fore with "Horror of Dracula" and "Curse of Frankenstein", but I did not find this film to be the masterpiece I'd been promised. (I'd even argue that Bava's "Hercules in the Haunted World" and "Diabolik" are both superior to this effort.)

The first and biggest problem the romantic subplot between Our Hero, the dashing Dr. Gorobec (played with perfect blandness by John Richardson) and Damsel-in-Distress Katia (Barbara Steele) falls completely flat because of a near-complete lack of chemistry between the two performers and because it's one of those Insta-Romances that even less believeable than average.

The film also suffers from number of unintentionally silly moments where Bava goes overboard to drive home a dramatic point or to make something clear to the denser members of the audience. The worst (or best, if you're watching the movie for its badness) is when a vampire is sneaking invisibly through the castle halls. Apparently, Bava wanted to make sure we knew the vampire was sneaking invisibly and he didn't feel some ruffled wallhangings or shifted chairs was enough to show it, so he has the vampire knock down everything he passes, including several suits of armor that go clattering loudly to the floor. I found myself wondering what the point of being invisible is if you're so drunk you can't walk straight... and moments later I was laughing when members of the household were claiming they'd been awakened by a terrible scream, but none had apparently heard all overturning of furniture and knocking down of armor that the drunken, blind and/or spastic vampire had been engaging in moments before.

There's also a hilarious bat attack that has got to be among the worst creature effects ever put on film.

That's not to say the film doesn't have some truly scary or cool moments. The opening sequence of the witch's brutal execution is fabulously done, with the hammering of a spike-lined mask onto the woman's face being especially squirm-worthy. The ressurrection sequence of the witch is also very creepy, with lighting, camera angles, and sound effects all being deployed with perfect precision to make it a great scene. Finally, the film's ending is perfectly done (and I can't say much more without spoiling one of the movie's most shocking moments), so, while there are flaws, Bava does get the movie's finale exactly right, a rare feat. Bava's ending is also more modern in nature than many films of this vintage, with a denouement after the main action has concluded.

And, of course, there is Barbara Steele's dual performance as the evil witch and the innocent young woman whose body she is intent on possessing. Steele does a fine job of portraying both characters, undergoing a transformation that almost rivals that the great Boris Karloff did in his great dual role in "The Black Room" (review here.)

While "Black Sunday" may not be the masterpiece some claim it is, it's worth checking out, particularly if you're a fan of Hammer Films-style horror or an admirer of the exotic beauty that is Barbara Steele.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Beware: Politically Incorrect Content!

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy, Lewis Stone, Charles Starrett, Jean Hersholt, and Karen Morley
Directors: Charles Brabin and Charles Vidor
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sir Nayland Smith (Stone) and an international group of archeologists led by Professor Von Berg (Hersholt) sqaure off against evil genius Fu Manchu (Karloff) and his diabolical daughter Fah Lo See (Loy), as both factions race to gain control of the regelia of Genghis Khan as they are the keys to the evil mastermind's latest scheme to conquer the world.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" is perhaps one of the greatest "yellow peril" films, and it's the best use of the Fu Manchu character I've seen outside of Rohmer's original stories and the Marvel Comics series "Master of Kung Fu".

First off, the film has a great adventure story, with an even mix of weird science, bizarre torture-traps, supernatural hokum, savage natives lusting for a white girl to be sacrificed to dark gods, and, of course, Fu Manchu being thwarted with his own invention on the edge of victory. Secondly, its got a great cast that all give top-notch performances, even if Karloff is hidden beneath some ofthe very worst "China-man" make-up I've ever seen; yeah, the Orient may be alien, but that still doesn't mean Fu Manchu should look like a Martian. Finally, it's got some gorgeous sets that are augmented by some nice lighting work (and an even nicer use of Tesla coils and buzzing electrial devices).

Will some people in this overly sensitive age be offended by the film's racist undertones? Sure. But if they are going to fein outrage, I hope they'll notice that the British characters don't exactly come off as saints, either. Given their behavior, Fu Manchu isn't completely in the wrong.

"The Mask of Fu Manchu" is avaiable in the "Legends of Horror" DVD collection. It's the only one of the five included movies that features Boris Karloff, but the other films are excellent, rarely seen examples of the high quality films being made at the dawn of the horror movie biz.