Monday, November 30, 2009

First British talkie was Hitchcock movie ahead of its time

Blackmail (1929)
Starring: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, and John Longden
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

In "Blackmail", Alice (Ondra) kills a man as he attempts to rape her. A unscrupulous witness (Paton) tries to blackmail her, as she wants to keep the incident secret for the obvious reasons. Matters are complicated even further by the fact that she is in a relationship with a police detective (Longden).

"Blackmail" is recognized as Britain's first "talkie." It started as a silent flick, but director Alfred Hitchcock reworked it in midshoot to take advantage of the new technological advancements. What's truly remarkable about "Blackmail" is that it seems more modern in nature that some films that started as talkies yet still seemed stuck in the silent movie era (such as the Lugosi-starring "Murders in the Rue Morgue" from Universal, which I review here).

The acting in the film is excellent, and actually rather unusual for the time. Further, the use of sound is fantastic. Hitchcock does far more than simply add voices to his actors... he uses sound to advance the story and the mood of the film. (There's a particularly impressive breakfast scene where the traumatized Anna hears only incoherent babble--except the words that remind her of the murder she committed standing out with crystal clarity).

Visually, the film is also worth seeing for its climax. There's a chase scene in a library that is so stylistically impressive that I'm surprised it hasn't been mimicked more. It's on par with the famous "steps scene" from "Battleship Potemkin".

"Blackmail" is a thrilling movie that was well ahead of its time. I think it's worth seeing for any movie buff.

The aliens just wanna rock all night (and steal our wimmen!)

Bad Channels (1992)
Starring: Paul Hipp, Martha Quinn, Michael Huddleston, Aaron Lustig, Roumel Reaux and Victor Rogers
Director: Ted Nicolaou
Producers: Charles Band and Keith Payson
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A disk jockey known for crazy on-air stunts (Hipp) becomes the unwitting partner of an alien who has come to Earth to abduct beautiful women via otherworldly technology, radiowaves, and rock music.

"Bad Channels" is a very silly sci-fi comedy that makes fun of all the conventions of a 1950s sci-fi films but does so with a 1980s attitude. The film is driven almost entirely by a fun script, as pretty much every actor featured in the film reported for work but doesn't appear to have done much more than that. No one's particularly bad, but everyone is what you'd expect in a B-movie like this.

The film's biggest weakness is the fact that it includes three full length rock videos in it. They're all pretty decent--and the rock band performing with cheerleaders in a gym predicts a more famous effort--but they in the context of the film they go on for too long. The audience isn't looking for classic MTV-type material, but for alien abduction action.

If you've enjoyed other comedies from Full Moon (like "Hideous!"), I think you'll like this movie. You'll also like it if you enjoyed offerings from the Sci-Fi Channel like "The Man With the Loud Brain". This kind of movie making apparently hasn't evolved since the 1980s.

"Bad Channels" is one of the five films included in "Full Moon Classics Vol. 1". Click below to learn more about the set, or to purchase it at a discount from

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Excellent thriller from the Britain's Premiere House of Horror

Scream of Fear (aka "Taste of Fear") (1961)
Starring: Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd and Christopher Lee
Director: Seth Holt

Wheelchair-bound Penny (Strasberg) returns to her wealthy father's house for the first time in ten years, only to be told by his new wife Jane (Todd) that he has gone away suddenly on a business trip. When her father's corpse starts to appear and disappear around the property, Penny enlists the help of hunky chauffeur Robert (Lewis) to help her prove her sanity.

"Scream of Fear" is a plot any fan of suspense and horror movies has encountered at least twice--a vulnerable woman seems to be losing her mind but in truth someone is trying to drive her insane--but it's rarely been done as well as it is here. This is truly one Hammer Films' great films and it's a crime that it took so long to get it on DVD.

Extremely well acted and brilliantly cast, every performer and every line they deliver in the film plays into the fact that no one in the household is quite who they seem and everyone is keeping at least one secret. Take Christopher Lee for example. He plays a French doctor who is a very insensitive cold fish, but is he cohoots with the bad guys or is he just a jerk? Or is there something going on under the surface that has yet to be revealed? With Lee, who split his screen time evenly between playing heroes and villains, it's impossible to guess until the Big Reveal at the end.

The film is also very well constructed and finely paced from a story perspective. From the opening scene to the twist-laden climactic final few minutes, "Scream of Fear" builds the tension and terror not with the "gotcha!" scares that are so popular with filmmakers these days, but through storytelling methods that are almost entirely relegated to the written medium these days; it builds its tension through character development and by continuially deeping the film's mysteries and by reversing, double-reversing and triple reversing the audience's expectations about exactly what is going on in the film. (I've seen a dozen or so movies built around the same formula as this one, so I thought I had the story figured out fairly early on, but then a twist made me doubt my conclusing... the a little seemingly throwaway detail made me think I'd been right... and another twist showed I was completely wrong... but then a third twist got me thinking I had been right from the outset... and so on, right up to the point where various plots, schemes and deceptions of the film's characters are revealed. (Although even after that, the film has one more twist to deliver....)

Too many writers these days are turning out suspense and horror scripts with "twist endings" that they think show how clever they are. Instead, all they end up showing is how little talent or how lazy they are, because their twist endings are hardly ever based in the story and their stories are weak and badly structured. Perhaps, if these hacks would use "Scream of Fear" instead of simply "Scream" as the film to emulate, they might be able to turn out decent work.

"Scream of Fear" is only available on DVD as part of the "Icons of Horror: Hammer Films" four movie pack, a collection of excellent movies that is well-worth the asking price.

'Dead and Rotting' was a film in need of a bigger budget

Dead and Rotting (2002)
Starring: Stephen O'Mahony, Trent Haaga, Tom Hoover, Debbie Rochon, Jeff Dylan Graham and Barbara Katz-Norrod
Director: David P. Barton
Producers: Charles Band, JR Bookwalter and Trent Haaga
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Three practical jokers (O'Mahony, Haaga and Hoover) inadvertently cause the death of a witch's familiar while feuding with her. Using dark magic, the witch (Katz-Norrod and Rochon) sets about to gain revenge.

"Dead and Rotting" is one of those movies that deserves a remake with a bigger budget. It has an interesting story with some unexpected twists and good pacing. Most of the actors also do decent jobs in their roles.

Unfortunately, cheapness wafts from every frame of "Dead and Rotting". While a noble attempt was made in post-production to make the film appear as if it WASN'T shot in digital video, there is still a flat quality to the films and a softness to the shadows that still give the sense that it was shot with a couple of camcorders. The special effects and make-up are also barely half a step above Halloween spook-house stuff... not so bad that anyone needs to feel embarrassed but barely passable for a commercial production. This is also one Full Moon movie where they should have skipped the almost-obligatory tiny terror creature; the "homonculus" featured during the film's climax can't even really be called a puppet, and I also doubt that someone shaking it like a ragdoll from just off camera counts as puppeteering. ("Ghoulies" this isn't... it isn't even "Blood Dolls".)

Things aren't all bad, though. The scene where the vengeful witch transforms from an old crone (Barbara Katz-Norrod who does a fine job at playing a lonely, brokenhearted old woman) to a young hottie (Debbie Rochon, who does a fine job playing sexy temptress) is very well staged considering the only effects used are edits and puffs from a smoke machine. Similarly, the revenge of the witch and the slow method by which she takes it is very creepy and the related make-up effects are decently done.

If you want a horror movie with a slightly different twist and don't mind watching a film that was plainly made with very little money, you will probably find "Dead and Rotting" worth the 71 minutes it will consume of your time. This is particularly true if you enjoy that special brand of weirdness that's present in the best movies from Full Moon. This is by no means a good, movie--it's at the absolute low end of a 5 rating--but there's enough raw energy here and Full Moon-style magic to make it worth watching.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

'My Man Godfrey' has social commentary relevant today

My Man Godfrey (1934)
Starring: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Mischa Auer, Jean Dixon, Eugene Pallette and Alan Mobray
Director: Gregory La Cava
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a down-and-out man with a secret past (Powell) is hired as the butler for the most dysfunctional family of New York City's wealthy elite, what starts as a cruel joke ultimately ends up transforming the lives of everyone involved.

"My Man Godfrey" is one of the great comedies of the 1930s. Its fast-paced script, hilarious gags, and the top-notch cast that performs them with impeccable comic timing, makes it a movie that should still entertain all but the most brain-damaged members of Generation XBox. If you've seen William Powell in the more famous "Thin Man" series and you liked him there, you definitely need to see this movie as he gives an even better performance as the mysterious Godfrey Smith--a man retrieved from the city dump by a pair of flighty and drunken socialites, yet who has more class, polish and social grace in his left hand than they have in their entire family.

Another reason to watch the film is that the social commentary within it remains as relevant today as it was in 1936. It's particularly worth watching if you're a filmmaker or writer who wants to create a "message movie", as this film shows how to do it the RIGHT way.

Michael Moore, David Zucker and any number of other modern filmmakers who think they have important messages worth listening to should be forced to watch and write a 5,000 essay on "My Man Godfrey" before they are let anywhere near a film production again.

(And on a different note, I am hereby offering a public admission of being wrong. I told a fellow film enthusiast that I didn't think it mattered if comedies were colorized--dramas were ruined by the colorization process because it leaches the blackness from the shadows and dampens the brightness of the lit areas--and he told me that I was mistaken. Naturally, I disagreed. But the version of "My Man Godfrey" that I saw had both the original and a very well done colorized version on the same disk. However, despite the fact that the colorization job was excellent, the end result was still one that was flat and visually uninteresting. So, I have to admit that colorization hurts any kind of film that was originally filmed in black-and-white.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Killer robots and global warming equal threats in 'Crash and Burn'

Crash and Burn (1990)
Starring: Paul Ganus, Megan Ward, Bill Moseley, Eva LaRue Callahan, Jack McGee and Ralph Waite
Director: Charles Band
Producers: Charles Band, Debra Dion and David DeCoteau
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The staff of and visitors to an isolated television station in the wastelands of a global-warming ravaged, heatstorm-swept American Southwest must survive the assault of a Synthoid, a human-like robot, programmed to kill all who oppose the tyrannical autocracy of world government Unicom.

"Crash and Burn" is a fast-paced, light-weight sci-fi yarn that combines a whole host of pulp-fiction/comic-booky/cyberpunky futuristic tropes--killer robots passing for humans, giant robots, a decaying society with a questionable moral fiber that is ruled by an oligarchical global government, and plucky rebels embodied by a cranky old man and a tough young girl--to great effect and moves swiftly through its action-packed story.

The characters in the film are all as shallow and cliched as can be expected--movies of this kind are usually more about the action and plot than the characters--but the actors all do decent jobs in their parts, with Megan Ward as the cute teenaged tech genius, Paul Ganus as the dashing hero, and Bill Moseley as the handyman sidekick with a secret doing particularly well in their respective parts.

The special effects are about par for a low-budget sci-fi film of this vintage--it's got decent matte shots, make-up, and stop-motion model effects sequences--and the violence is also standard action movie fare. Everything here is pleasantly average, which puts it well above the usual fare for a direct-to-video film from the early 1990s. (I continue to be surprised by how good these old Full Moon films are.)

Another thing that surprised me about this film is that it hasn't been reissued with fanfare and a marketing push or that Charles Band & Company hasn't thrown together a sequel for it.

The film's backdrop--a world ravaged by global warming and struggling under the thumb of an eeeeevil megacorp that wraps itself in right-wing and religious rhetoric to control the masses--seems like just the sort of thing that the modern environmental movement would lap up. It seems to me that a DVD containing this film, a newly made sequel and a marketing campaign with slogans along the lines of "They didn't listen to the warnings, nor pay heed to the inconvenient truth... now the world is paying the price!" would sell plenty of DVDs.

Then again, maybe that's why I'm not in product development or marketing.

"Crash and Burn" is currently available on DVD as part of the "Charles Band Collection, Vol. 1" boxed set, which includes three other of Band's best movies from the early 1990s.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Decadent Evil' is neither decadent nor evil enough to be interesting

Decadent Evil (2005)
Starring: Debra Mayer, Phil Fondacaro, Daniel Lennox, Jill Michelle and Raelyn Hennessee
Director: Charles Band
Producer: Charles Band
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A master vampire (Mayer) on the verge of becoming a demi-god finds her life complicated by a defiant fledgelings (Hennessee and Michelle), a love-struck mortal (Lennox) and a midget vampire hunter (Fondacaro).

That summary makes "Decadent Evil" sound like it might be a lot of fun if you're into Charles Band-style movies. Don't be misled... this is a film you can safely skip.

It seems to me that the quality of Charles Band's films reached a lowpoint in the first part of this decade. While recent films have been better, "Decadent Evil" is a craptacular film that isn't even a pale shadow of Band's earlier directorial efforts... it's shocking to think that this film is even from the same guy who brought us "The Creeps" and "Blood Dolls", let alone "Head of the Family" or "Hideous!".

That's not to say there aren't some halfway decent ideas here, it's just that they're badly implemented.

Everything about the script says half-baked. From a lame attempt to tie the film to previous Full Moon vampire films with an overlong prologue, through a a wavering sense as to the vampire queen being ancient or not, and to a fuzzy sense of how much time passes between various scenes in the film, it's clear that either the script needed more work or the production had issues. This sense is strengthened by the fact that this film feels heavily padded--with the aforementioned prologue and a drawn-out strip club scene/seduction scene that ends up having very little to do with anything that follows adding 10-15 minutes of pointless running time--despite barely being over an hour long.

And then there is the neigh-obligatory Charles Band puppet creature/toy tie-in, here embodied by Marvin the Horny Homunculus. I think Marvin was supposed to be the source of comic relief in the film, but the jokes are unfunny and the puppet is so badly made that it's almost sad that it was even included. Marvin is a superfluous element in the film and since there clearly wasn't enough in the budget to make him properly animated it would have been better to simply leave him out. As it stands, Marvin serves primarily to make the experienced Charles Band viewer remark, "Well... I guess the puppets in 'Blood Dolls' weren't so bad after all." (The one positive thing about Marvin is the eyes... the sculptor did a great job on the eyes, and they help bring a little life to the creature but nowhere near enough.)

The film is saved from a 2-rating, however, by a cast of talented actors who do their best with the material they're given. Debra Mayer is a little miscast as the haughty, bitchy vampire queen (she does bitchy quite well, as we saw in the Band's far superior effort "Blood Dolls", but haughty not so much) and Phil Fondacaro wasn't particularly believable as a vampire hunter, but they weren't bad. The rest of the cast of small-time, young newcomers accounted nicely for themselves, although they really didn't have much to do; this film is virtually free of anything resembling character development.

Happy Thanksgiving to Americans Everywhere!

Jean Arthur and Lillian Roth are out hunting down a turkey for you to enjoy!

This Picture Perfect Wednesday image was appropriated from Matthew Coniam's excellent MovieTone News blog. Click here to check it out.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Hell hath no fury like an evil witch scorned

Bride of the Gorilla (1951)
Starring: Raymond Burr, Barbara Payton, Lon Chaney Jr, Tom Conway, and Carol Varga
Director: Curt Siodmak
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Brutish plantation foreman Barney Chavez (Burr) rejects his Indian lover Larina (Varga) after starting an affair with his boss’s wife, Dina (Payton). After dispatching his boss in a staged accident, Barney gets both the wife and the plantation. Although Police Commissioner Taro (Chaney) suspects from the beginning that the accident was staged, he can’t get enough solid evidence to prove Chavez’s guilt. However, Chavez soon faces justice more severe than the law, as a twist in the plot proves that hell hath no fury like the mother of a woman scorned… particularly a mother who has access to deadly folk-magic.

“Bride of the Gorilla” occupies a space somewhere between an overblown melodrama and a horror film. Unfortunately, its story is a bit too thin and the characters way to stock to allow it to rise above the quality of the most feeble of “Tales from the Crypt”-type chillers. (The ending is also very remincent of those types of stories.)

Given the material they have to work with, the actors all do a respectable job, but the reason one would have for watching “Bride of the Gorilla” would be to admire the classic starlet beauty of Payton and Varga. There really isn’t anything else to recommend the film to modern audiences.

'Return of the Vampire' is mostly feeble

Return of the Vampire (1944)
Starring: Matt Willis, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch and Bela Lugosi
Director: Lew Landers
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

At the height of WWI, Lady Jane (Inescort) joined with an occult expert to slay a vampire (Lugosi) that was preying on his daughter. More than two decades later, as WWII rages, the vampire is restored to life during Nazi bombing raid on London. He sets about executing revenge and to claim the victim he was once denied (Foch).

According to some sources, "Return of the Vampire" started as Columbia's plan to make a direct sequel to Universal's classic "Dracula"... until Universal threatened to sue. In response, Columbia then had some minor script changes done, including changing all the names of the characters, but otherwise proceeded with their project as planned. Although he was called "Armand Tesla," Bela Lugosi was once again playing the role that made him a movie star.

Unfortunately, "Return of the Vampire" isn't as good as "Dracula." The story is weaker here, not to mention even more predictable even than one based on a famous stage play and novel, and the sets and camera-work aren't even close to as evocative as those featured in Lugosi's previous outing as a vampire. Even the film where he played a fake vampire ("Mark of the Vampire") had more horror atmosphere and surprises than this film, which has a slap-dash, quickie feel to it from beginning to end. (A minor source of distraction while watching is that also seems obvious that many of the scenes featuring "Bela Lugosi" are actually a body double. It's slightly less obvious than the doubling Edward D. Wood Jr would do a decade later when Lugosi passed away during production of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," but it's still plain.)

Despite mostly tepid direction, an almost entirely predictable script, and one of the most drab collections of vampire film characters since the original "Dracula" film, there are some highlights here that makes it interesting to watch.

Firstly, the film is the first to feature both a vampire and a werewolf, beating "House of Frankenstein" to the screens by a matter of months.

Secondly, the film draws upon a more truthfully folklore oriented background for its featured werewolf than the made-up-of-whole-cloth lycanthrope legend from "The Wolf Man" which has become the pop cultural standard. In the universe of "Return of the Vampire," a werewolf is a person dominated and controlled by evil forces and the cycles of the moon have nothing to do with anything except the tides.

Thirdly, it is one of the few monster movies of this vintage that places itself firmly in the everyday world, with its references to the German bombings on London and the overall war effort. I think only Val Lewton's films for RKO were more successful in highlighting supernatural horror by placing it squarely in the middle of the recognizable modern world. (This approach would, of course, swiftly become the norm.)

Finally, while the film's director and cinematographer both mostly seem to have been on vacation while this film was being made, they did manage to create some classic fright moments on the film's cemetery set--the vampire moving through the fogbound graveyard are the films most visually interesting moments--and the final confrontation in the tomb actually manages to bring some real excitement and tension to the film. It's the one point while watching it where I found myself unsure of how the scene would play out, and after roughly an hour of lameness, the film finally became worthwhile and ended on a strong note.

"Return of the Vampire" is really only of interest for those Lugosi completists out there, or if you are the world's biggest admirer of Nina Foch. There is is really not enough entertainment here for the average fan of old movies to make it worth seeking out.

'The Old Dark House' is a classic that failed at the box office

Many great masterpieces started out as commercial product, made by all involved as part of the everyday grind of making a living, just like a carpenter makes a table. They were also rarely seen as little different than the carpenter making the table. It therefore is not surprising that no matter how good the end product, if it doesn't catch on in the marketplace, it will be tossed aside for items that will bring in more money and pay those ever-voracious creditors.

One such product is "The Old Dark House," one of a number of nearly forgotten early horror films from Universal. Like other obscure films, it didn't do well at the box office... in fact, this one bombed so badly both on its initial release and re-release that it left craters. (While it broke box-office records in the UK, the film was a financial disaster in the US. It was also slammed by most American film critics when it was first released, with only the New York City critics seeming to like it.)

It's only natural that Universal Pictures and all those involved with the film tossed it aside and instead focused on things that put helped them keep up with the bills. The film was considered so worthless that it was believed to have been destroyed until it was rediscovered and restored in the late 1960s. At that time, Boris Karloff is reported to have seemed bemused when the man who saved the film from oblivion told him of the restoration effort; I imagine Karloff couldn't conceive of why anyone would spend money and time to preserve a failed movie.

Truth is, "The Dark Old House" was only a failure in a commercial sense. Anyone with a taste for classic movies who watches it now will recognize it as a film that should be held in equal regard to the other landmark Karloff features like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy." Like those, it's a true classic that is exciting to watch even today.

It was, ironically, the invoking of Karloff that probably helped doom this movie during both its initial 1932 release and its 1939 re-released in the United States. Universal's marketing material so emphasized the fact that Karloff of "Frankenstein" fame was in it that one is left with the impression that he is not only the star but that this is another monster-driven fright fest.

Both of those impressions are false, so it's no surprise that negative word-of-mouth killed the box office even in New York where the papers were praising the film.

Truth is, "The Dark Old House" is more of a mystery/comedy film than a horror movie. It's also a far more "British" film than "American" as far as the humor and characters go, so it's no surprise it was better received in the UK.

I assume most of you reading this have already seen "The Dark Old House," so you know what a treasure it is--as for me, the DVD was in my "To Watch" pile for about a year, until this Blogaton gave me the perfect opportunity to watch and write about it. Now I wish I'd seen it the very moment it arrived in the post!

If you haven't seen "The Old Dark House," you absolutely must check it out. It's available on an excellent DVD from Kino Video. Read on for my review of the film, and then use the link to get yourself a copy; it'll cost you about the same as a movie ticket these days, but it's a film far superior to most of the garbage polluting the cinema now.

The Old Dark House (1932)
Starring: Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Bremer Wills and Boris Karloff
Director: James Whale
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A violent storm forces five travelers to take shelter in an isolated house in the Welsh mountains. Before the night is over, love will come to some of the inhabitants of the house while death will come for others.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House
"The Old Dark House" is a quirky horror film from the days when the genre was still taking shape. It features an even mix of romance, dark comedy and melodramatic horror action in a household so riddled with insanity that even the House of Usher looks like the Cleavers by comparison. It's a tone and mixture of elements that has only rarely been achieved, with films like "Drag Me to Hell" and "Dead Alive" coming closest in the past decade.

When it was first released, it failed to appeal to the public nor to most critics, due in a large part to a marketing campaign that centered on Boris Karloff, who had just been featured in the mega-hit "Frankenstein." Karloff's role in this film is actually very minor, and he is more red herring than monster. He was also, strangely, more easy to recognize in the monster make-up than he is under the beard and facial scars of Morgan, the alcoholic and mute butler he portrays in this film.

The true star of the film is actually Gloria Stuart. Although it is a definite ensemble piece, Stuart appears in all the key scenes and hers is the character that is threatened in turn by each of the menacing figures in the old dark house. She gives an excellent performance throughout the film, It's a shame that this would be the only truly good part she would play in her film career, and the only decent role the casting directors at Universal chose to give her. (Interestingly, Universal executives wanted Stuart for the part of a "female Tarzan," and it was possibly her adamant refusal to even consider it that doomed her chances of ever playing a decent role at the studio again.)

Aside from Stuart, the two other standout performers are Melvyn Douglas, whose roguish war veteran character is the heroic and romantic center of the film; and Bremer Wills, whose character arrives late in the picture, but whose chilling performance is nonetheless one of the most memorable things about the film.

Also of particular note are Lillian Bond, who is perhaps better here than in any other film she would make; Charles Laughton, who actually sympathetic for once; and Ernest Thesiger, who manages to be funny and scary at the same time.

The staging of each shot is also remarkable, as is the attention paid both to the visual composition of each scene, as well as the careful deployment of sound throughout. There is no music score for the film, but the sounds generated by the storm raging outside the house provide far more drama than any orchestra could do.

Because the film was a commercial disaster both in 1932 and during its re-release in 1939, Universal Pictures considered it a worthless property. They eventually let all rights revert to estate of the novelist whose work the film had been based on and the negatives were left to rot in storage in New York City. If not for a concerted effort on the part of filmmaker Curtis Harrington--a fan of the film and friend of director James Whale--it might have been lost forever by the late 1960s. Even the best available print shows some damage, despite the restoration efforts.

"The Old Dark House" is a film worth seeing again and again for the excellent performances and careful staging; you are guaranteed to notice something new each time you watch it. It's particularly worth watching for Gloria Stuart's performance. Karloff is, as usual, excellent, doing what he can with a part that doesn't give him very much to do.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'Arcade' is a fun, if visually dated, kids-oriented sci-fi

Arcade (1993)
Starring: Megan Ward, Peter Billingsley, Norbert Weisser, John de Lancie, Seth Green, A.J. Langer, Sharon Farrell, Brian Dattilo, and Humberto Ortiz
Director: Albert Pyun
Producers: Charles Band and Cathy Gesualdo
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Alex (Ward), a teenager who is still reeling from the suicide of her mother, discovers that the hot new computer game, Arcade, is sucking her friends into its virtual reality world, bodies and souls. As if she didn't already have enough problems in her life, she, along with her computer game wizard friend Nick (Billingsley) are the only ones able to save their friends and stop Arcade before it abducts kids all around the world. Worst of all, the only way Megan can save them is to enter the game herself, battling the evil entity on its terms.

"Arcade" is a fun low-budget fusion of sci-fi and horror that's suitable for Mom and Dad to sit down and watch with the early teenaged fans of the genre, especially the girls. It's nudity-, sex-, and gore-free, with only one or two curse words uttered during the running time. (The film was rated R when it was first released, although I'm not sure why. It's also a rating that must have hurt the flick--although that R would certainly have been magical for the age group this seems to be directed at, even if their parents shouldn't have been thrilled to see if on a film they were watching.)

The film is decently enough acted and the script is okay. The effects have an outdated feel to them in this day-and-age where even my first generation XBox is able to put better computer graphics on my TV screen, but I think anyone who has an affection for the sci-fi and horror genre won't mind.

The film has some significant flaws, however. The worst of these is a botched ending where the filmmakers attempt to get one last scare in, but end up presenting something that even the most generous viewer will consider as lame and stupid. They would have been far better off if they had taken an approach similar to the scene where Alex wakes up to find everything has only been a dream (which quickly turns out to be part of her virtual reality nightmare).

I also would have liked to see more about the company that developed the virtual reality game and the how and why of the very dark and twisted secret hiding at the center of every one manufactured. It's touched upon briefly, but more time really needed to be devoted to it. This is one of those rare films that I wish had been longer than it is.

Actually, this commonly the case with Full Moon pictures... many of them feel halfbaked because no enough time is spent developing themes and characters within their usually brief running-times. Although, there are signs that this film was at one time longer; there is a point where Alex enters a new level of the game, a little scuffed but generally okay. Then, between scenes, she suddenly develops bloody gashes on her body and bloody nose. SOMETHING happened and whatever it was ultimately ended up on the proverbial cutting room floor with Band & Company probably saying, "Eh. They'll never notice!"

Watch the preview, courtesy of Full Moon and YouTube...

"Arcade" is available on DVD in the "Full Moon Classics Vol. 1" set, which contains "Arcade" and four other films from Full Moon's Golden Age from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. It's a nice set--the only featured stinker is "Netherworld"--and the price is right if you order it from, where it costs $65 as opposed to the $129 price elsewere, particularly if you order it at a discount from

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I think someone lost the second half of the movie....

Huntress: Spirit of the Night (1994)
Starring: Jenna Bodnar, Constantin Cotimanis, Charles Cooper, Blair Valk and Alek Devane
Director: Mark S. Manos
Producers: Charles Band, Oana Paunescu and Vlad Paunescu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

In "Huntress: Spirit of the Night," Tara (the very attractive and well-cast Jenna Bodnar) is falling victim to a gypsy curse. We get to see the beginning of her transformation/possession. We also get to see the first phase of a very treacherous friend screwing her over for her inheritance. But, just as things look like they're getting REALLY interesting storywise, the film ends.

"Huntress: Spirit of the Night" ends without a single of its plot threads properly resolved. It ends, literally, in mid-story, at a point where there should be at least another hour or so of material. I guess while they were busy conceiving of sexy sequences that go on for so long they become boring, someone forgot that a movie needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

The end result is that this is movie that you should not waste your time on. It's a shame that interesting ideas and an attractive cast got wasted on such a badly done film. It's no wonder Charles Band and Full Moon initial released it at arm's length--it's an awful effort even by the worst of their standards. It didn't have to be though... some trimming of the soft-core porn material and an actual ending might have elevated it to mediocre status.

(Snark aside, I think I know what happened here. Around this time this film was made, Full Moon was increasingly breaking what should have been one movie into two and filming them back-to-back. They did it with "Mandroid" and they did it with the "Subspecies" 2 and 3. Perhaps there was supposed to be a Part Two, but it never happened due to Band's falling out with Paramount and the subsequent loss in funding.)

Ed Wood and the Criminal Mind

Edward D. Wood Jr. is remembered by history as a cinematic sad-sack. He was a dreamer who never put in the effort to learn the craft of writing or filmmaking, and all his excitement and hopes couldn't replace craftsmanship. His films are universally shoddy to say the least.

Wood's most famous pictures are the ones he made with Bela Lugosi (including his best work, the very heartfelt and bizarre "Glen or Glenda?"). You can read my reviews of those films here, at a blog closely related to this one, The Bela Lugosi Collection.

In this article, however, I discuss Wood's two attempts at the film noir genre, one which was a solo effort and another where he simpl wrote the script for another (equally inept) filmmaker.

Jail Bait (aka "Hidden Face") (1954)
Steve's Rating: Four of Ten Stars
Starring: Herbert Rawlinson, Lyle Talbot, Dolores Fuller, Timothy Farrell, Clancy Malone, Steve Reeves, and Theodora Thurman
Dirrector: Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Hoping to save his son, a kindly old plastic surgeon (Rawlinson) is forced to give a gangster (Farrell) a new face.

"Jail Bait" is average Ed Wood, which means it's pretty bad.

The acting is universally awful, although in the case of Rawlinson and Talbot, I think the performance is more a result of what they had to work with and WHO they had to work with than a lack of talent; both men have been much better in other films. Talbot was never particularly amazing, but he was far better in "Trapped By Television," for example. (Although, it might speak volumes of Rawlinson's professionalism that he was willing to deliver a classic Ed Wood lines like "This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation earlier in the day." Although, why no one on the set didn't say, "Hey, Ed... should this line be 'We had a long telephone coversation earlier this day' or 'This afternoon we had a long telephone conversation'?" I can't possibly imagine.)

The story is also padded and drawn out, first by a pointless bit of older footage of a boring burlesque dancer and then by a handful of overwrought scenes of questionable value. Basically, Wood crams 45 minutes of excitement into a 70-minute running time.

There are some interesting ideas plot-wise, though. I think that with a more competent director, a better cast, a script that had been revised by someone who could read, and a budget of more than $32 for sets and make-up--even the most generous and most imaginative of viewers couldn't possibly consider the shabby set that is the home of gangster Vic Brady's kept woman "fancy", no matter how much the characters insist that it is--this could have been a decent crime drama. It might even have been touching at times, with its message about supportive fathers and love between family members.

But, none of that is the case, and this ends up being a weak effort, even by Edward D. Wood, Jr. standards.

Still, there's enough quirky charm here to make "Jail Bait" worthy of adding to the line-up for a "Bad Movie Night." Just know that the title is misleading--its taken from a line delivered by Fuller's character, where she refers to her brother's unregistered handgun as "jail bait"... the phrase must have meant something different in 1953, or at least something different to Ed Wood.

The Violent Years (aka "Female," "Girl Gang Terrorists" and "Teenage Girl Gang") (1956)
Starring: Jean Moorhead, Barbara Weeks, Joanne Cangi, Gloria Farr, Therea Hancock, Timothy Farrell, Arthur Millan, I. Stanford Jolley, and Lee Constant
Director: William Morgan
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The neglected daughter of a socialite and a workaholic newspaper editor forms a gang of other girls who receive everything but attention from their parents. Together, they go on an ever-escalating crime-spree that involves gas station robberies, the rape of young men, and even the desecration of the American flag!

"The Violent Years" is a film written by the infamous Edward Wood, a screenwrite and director whose flims only redeeming qualities were that the passion he had for filmmaking managed to show through the cheap sets, bad acting, and incompetent direction, and the quirky sort of poetic cadence that was present in his dialogue. (Of course, also present were awful lines like, "It's hard for an old friend to sit in judgement of an old friend.") Although one might think that another director at the helm of this movie might elevate above Ed Wood's usual low standards, but it happens that William Morgan is about as skilled a craftsman as Wood.

That said, this film still has has its decent points. First off, it has a message that is equally valid today. Parents need to do more parenting--as in, they need to set aside their own interests and desires for the years when they should be focusing on guiding and nurturing the young lives they've brought into this world--if we're to pull American society out of the tailspin it's been in for the past 50 years. It's delivered in so hamfisted a fashion that it makes "Reefer Madness" seem subtle, but it's a message that I wish would reach reach the appropriate ears and one that I wish would be heeded. It also features a nice reversal of the oft-featured gang-rape scene in these sorts of youth crime films, and perhaps one of the most creative executions of a car crash in a film where the budget didn't allow for a car crash. Oh... and just about every female character who you might want to see in tight clothes is indeed wearing tight clothes. If only real life had so many firm bosoms in tight sweaters!

On the downside, we've got some pretty horrible acting that's matched only by the film's horrible casting. The teenage wild things, who are around 15 or 16 years old according to the film's story, are played by actresses who are obviously in their late 20s or early 30s, something which lends an air of rediculousnesses to the story. Further, we once again are treated to some of the cheapest looking homes of rich people that have ever been put on film. (Ed Wood kept writing about fancy homes, but the sets in his movies never rose to even being close to believable on that count.)

Of course, there's also plenty of "so bad they're good" moments in the film, such as the pajama party, the shoot-out, and the aforementioned rape scene which is on one hand as creepy and disturbing as it needs to be, but undermined by an illogical simultaneous escape scene.

Like Ed Wood's other message picture, "Glen or Glenda?", "The Violent Years" delivers a point that is worth taking to heart--while the previous film asked for tolerance of those who are different, this film calls for parents to live up to their responsibilities and presents us with an over-the-top example of the consequences of parental neglect. And it has the added benefit of delivering its message wrapped in tight sweaters.

'Beat the Devil' is quirky fun

Beat the Devil (1954)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Robert Morley, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, and Ivor Barnard
Director: John Huston
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A down-and-out, formerly wealthy couple (Bogart and Lollobrigida) hook up with a group of international criminals who wish to use their reputation in order to facilitate a scam in British East Africa involving the acquisition of land rich in uranium. They befriend an English couple (Jones and Underdown) who will be traveling with them on the same tramp freighter to Africa, but their new friends aren't quite what they seem.

"Beat the Devil" is a low-key comedy that spoofs the crime dramas so popular in the '40s and '50s and that holds your attention with its fast-moving plot and witty dialogue. The characters featured are all seemingly stock characters from those movies--and the lead actors playing them have done exactly these types of characters in other films--but as the movie progresses, we discover they've all been given slight twists that turn them into mildly comic versions of their stock counterparts. (The exception is Bogart, who remains the straight man throughout, as the other characters have their ludicrous sides exposed and he tries to keep his ticket back to wealth from collapsing.)

Particuarly fun are Morley, who portrays a gullible and inept criminal mastermind; Lorre, who plays an escaped Nazi who now goes by the name of O'Hara, despite his accent marking him as anything but Irish; Barnard, who portrays the homicidal British ex-Army officer who thinks the defeat of Hitler has sent the world into a downward spiral; and Jones, who plays the wide-eyed British subject abroad but whose unending pathelogical lying (and her inability to keep her stories straight or even tell the same lie twice) serves as the catalyst that sows distrust and chaos among the story's characters. And things are all the more hilarious, because everyone is playing their parts straight and taking things as seriously as you'd expect them to in any other crime drama.

With an all-star cast giving fine performances, powered by John Huston's skilled direction and Truman Capote's sharp and witty script, "Beat the Devil" is another one of those classics that is seen too rarely.

If you decide to check this movie out, I want to warn you away from the version released by Passion Productions--it's got an orange cover with black-and-white images of Bogart, Jones, and Lollobrigida on the cover. The dialogue is out of sync for a good portion of the film, and it's very distracting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

One of the finest thrillers ever made

The Amazing Mr. X (aka "The Spiritualist") (1948)
Starring: Turhan Bey, Lynn Bari, and Cathy O'Donnell
Director: Bernard Verhaus
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Greiving widow Christine Faber (Bari) finds herself haunted by her husband's ghost. In a fortuitous coincidence, Christine meets Alexis (Bey), a psychic who offers to help her contact her husband's spirit put it to rest. But Christine's younger sister (Cathy O'Donnell) and Christine's would-be new paramour thinks that the meeting with Alexis was too fortuitous, and they suspect that perhaps he is part of a scam to defraud the emotionally frail Christine of her inheritance. Meanwhile, the haunting grows more intense, and the ghost seems to want to drag Christine to a watery grave....

A scene from The Spiritualist
This 1948 B-movie is an excellently made thriller. It is well acted, well filmed, moves briskly, and keeps the viewer engaged with clever plot-twists and a couple of nicely done double-reversals of expectations. There are films with perhaps twenty times the budget of "The Amazing Mr. X" that aren't half as successful at telling the kind of story that this film features--which, I admit, was pretty well-worn even in 1948. Modern filmmakers trying their hands at thrillers with supernatural overtones would do well to study this film, as it shows exactly how that kind of film is made.

Don't let the cheesy title fool you. This is a top-notch thriller that's well worth a look by any lover of the genre.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Claudia Dell

Claudia Dell was a chorus dancer who appeared in a string of B-pictures during the 1930s, but whose greatest claim to fame was serving as the model for the original Paramount Pictures logo (the one with the beautiful woman holding a torch).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Most impressive vomiting scene ever filmedis highlight of 'Jack the Vomiter'

Jack the Vomiter (2006)
Starring: Jon Swanstrom
Director: Derrick King, Mike Corrigan, Travis Hiibner and Gary McLeod

A killer (Swanstrom) is stalking through the shadows of a Victorian-era city, butchering prostitutes and leaving a... um... most unusual signature at each brutal slayings.

The film's title gives away part of this strange little short's punchline, but you still won't be prepared for what actually happens, and you'll be laughing despite yourself... laughing until you almost puke. But you won't puke like Jack... no one pukes like Jack!

The filmmakers shot "Jack the Vomiter" as if it was a silent movie, and they used various methods to make the film appear as if it was a ill-used silent movie, with missing frames, badly done splices, scratches, and burn- and mildew-damage. When I originally posted this review to Rotten Tomatoes, I commented that I thought they filmmakers had gone a bit far with the "aging" of the film, that the damage appeared so severe that I doubted it could even run through a projector if it had been real. At the time, I assumed the damage was computer generated.

However, Mike Corrigan contacted me with the following technical information about the film: "The 'missing frames, badly done splices, scratches, and burn- and mildew-damage" were actually the result of hand-processing the 16mm sections in a bucket without any regard for correct procedure. Hence, the film came out stuck together and half processed in spots. Then we dried it in my back yard where it picked up even more crud. We actually DID run it through a projector (amazingly) and parts of it were transferred at home. Just thought you'd be interested in our 'process.'"

"Jack the Vomiter" is a very interesting bit of film, although the inconsistent narrative tone is a weakness that bothers me. In some scenes, the filmakers do a good job of capturing the feel of a real silent movie (even if the subject matter would never have appeared in one), yet in others not even a halfhearted attempt is made. However, the effective use of an occasional sound and the strategically placed, deadpan-humours title cards go along way to make up for the inconsistent cinematic styles. And the projectile vomiting. I've never laughed so hard at vomiting in my life! It's a scene that must be seen to be believed!

As far as the vomiting goes, Corrigan added this: "The Vomit Canon? Well, that's a trade secret!"

I must admit that I don't understand the point of this film (unless it was to create the most impressive vomit scene ever displayed on screen), but it entertained me and that's ultimately what matters most when it comes to movies.

Click here to visit the official HeadJuice Production website. You can even purchase your very own DVD copy of "Jack the Vomiter" while there.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bava spoofs Hitchcock in The Girl Who Knew Too Much

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962)
Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Dante Pialo and Valentina Cortese
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Nora Davis (Roman), a young American travels to Rome to visit a relative, but she's even off the plane, she inadvertently becomes involved with a drug smuggler. Then, on the dark and stormy night of her arrival, her relative has a heart attack and dies. As she rushes to the hospital, she is mugged. While trying to recover from the blow to the head, she witnesses a woman being stabbed to death, but no one believes her because the body vanishes and the rain washes away all the blood. To top it off, she is targeted by a serial killer who has remained inactive for ten years because her last name is "Davis." At least she has the handsome and virile Dr. Bassi (Saxon) to comfort her... that is, unless he's actually the insane murderer.

As that summary should imply, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" has a plot that is more than a little ridiculous. I sat down to watch this movie not knowing anything about it, but less than five minutes in, I noted that Mario Bava was coming off like a poor man's Alfred Hitchcock... and then the movie went into the string of events mentioned in my summary and it almost lost me.

Until the scene in a hospital was so absurd that it dawned on me that I was watching one of the driest, drollest spoofs ever put on film.

"The Girl Who Knew Too Much" went so over the top because the film isn't mimicking a Hitchcock picture, it was poking good-natured fun at many of the elements that were Hitchcock cinematic mainstays. Later, once John Saxon's character of Dr. Bassi is firmly established, the fact the movie is a comedy is hard to miss--Bassi borderlines on a slapstick character--but the humor is for the most part very subtle and it helps to have watched lots of Hitchcock.

I don't know if I was just being dense or if the comedy really is that hard to pick up on, but like with other of Bava's films, there are two distinctly different versions of it--this one, which was made for the Italian audience, and "The Evil Eye", which was made for the international market and which features a number of scenes that aren't present here and which are more overtly comical. (The very informative commentary by film historian Tim Lucas on the DVD version I watched discussed the differences.)

With most of the films that Bava had a hand in writing, the script is a bit dodgy and it's obvious that he's a director who is more interested in delivering exceptional visuals than a solid story. Given that this is a spoof of a Byzantine mystery that doesn't need to make a whole lot of sense in the end, that's forgivable in this case. It's even more forgivable, because this is one of the most gorgeous, best-shot films Bava ever helmed. It takes full advantage of the black-and-white film medium, using deep shadows and highlights to their full dramatic effect. Bava's command of the film's visuals are so great that there was only one time where I rolled my eyes and wanted to reach through time and tell him and his camera man to stop calling attention to how clever and artistic they are, a reaction I usually have at least three times during a Bava film. (Cinematography-wise, this one ranks with "Danger: Diabolik!" as far as the mastery of the film medium goes.)

With "The Girl Who Knew Too Much", I'm starting to appreciate a little more why Mario Bava gets touted as a genius by many fans of B-movies. I'm still not convinced he was a genius, but this is unquestionably a gorgeously filmed movie. With a better script, it could have been a masterpiece instead of just a classic. (In fact, just as Bava provided what I am convinced was the final element that brought about the creative chemical reaction that gave birth the slasher subgenre in horror movies with "A Bay of Blood", so did he cause a genre of distinctly Italian murder mysteries to be created, the gallio. These films usually involve gruesome murders that are witnessed by the main character yet that he or she often can't prove actually happened. The main character then sets about solving the crime and catching the killer, with increasing danger and body count as the film unfold.

Whether Bava was a genius or not, "The Girl Who Knew Too Much" is a film that is a must-see for anyone who's a film student or who has an interest in film history in general. I also think it's a must-see for Hitchcock fans, because it's such a well-made spoof that it becomes a thriller that I suspect Hitchcock might have been proud of making.

The Complete Thin Man Collection

Perhaps the greatest on-screen marriage of all times is that of Nick and Nora Charles, the sleuthing partiers-turned-parents that were originally created by legendary mystery writer Dashell Hammett. The films they appeared in have been collected in a DVD boxed set that is worthy of them.

Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops for "The Thin Man Collection", a seven DVD set that presents near-flawless transfers of the "Thin Man" comedies from the 1930s and 1940s and such a huge selection of extras that most other DVD sets you buy after this one will feel overpriced.

For around $40 (if you buy the set through, you get all six classic Thin Man comedies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, excellent documentaries on Powell and Loy, and a wide selection of cartoons and short features. In fact, every disc in the set can be used to replicate an "old time night at the movies," with short films to watch before the feature presentation. Each every one of them is fascinating and great fun, with the "Tell-Tale Heart" adaptation included is particularly excellent.

If you haven't seen the Thin Man flms and have any appreciation for classic comedies or the detective films of the 1930s and 1940s, you absolutely must, at the very least, see "The Thin Man". If you need a gift for someone who loves classic movies, you can't go wrong if you get them "The Thin Man Collection". I guarentee they will love every minute of it.

As for the Thin Man movies themselves, read on for my take on each of them.

The Thin Man (1934)
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Edward Ellis, Mina Gombell and William Henry
Director: W.S. van Dyke

When the return to New York City of retired ace private detective Nick Charles (Powell) coincides with a former client (Ellis) disspearing while under a cloud of suspicion of murder, everyone from cops to crooks assumes he's on the case. Nick, however, wants nothing to do with crime-solving, preferring instead to celebrate the Christmas holiday with his loving wife Nora (Loy) in a drunken stupour. When bullets start flying in his direction, and a police detective (Pendleton) starts drawing conclusions that are obviously wrong to Nick, he takes up the case with his terrier Asta on a leash in one hand and a drink in the other.

"The Thin Man" is one of the best comedy/mysteries ever made. It's got a strong mystery driving the plot, it's got incredibly funny dialogue of the sort that very few writers are capable of creating today and even fewer actors are capable of delivering properly, and it features one of the funniest, warmest martital relationships to ever appear on film. I think this is also probably the only movie where the detective spends the entire story--which spans several weeks--drunk as a skunk!

Although it was filmed by the low-budget division of Warner Bros., "The Thin Man" was the most popular film of 1934 and it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for William Powell). It's easy to see why. Powell and Loy's onscreen chemistry and high-energy bantering gives the impression of a very believable couple who are deeply in love and equal partners in their relationship, even if she's from a background of wealth and he's come up from the street. They're equally witty, equally adventerous, and equally hard-drinking.

Another aspect of the film that is hilarous is the spoofing of detective fiction mainstays.

Like Sherlock Holmes, it seems that every other person in Nick Charles' circle of friends and acquaintances is a crook he sent to jail at one point--most of the guests at the Christmas party held by Nick and Nora are of the criminal class--and most of the people he has chance meetings with are of the same type. (Yet, Nick is so charming and likable that even criminals he sent up the river end up being his pals.)

Even funnier is the spoofing of the typical Agatha Christie climax where the detective gathers all the suspects together to reveal who the murderer is. Here, Nick and Nora throw a very expensive dinner party and Nick has his police detective friends bring the guests wether they want to come or not. Nick playing host while unspooling his theory of the crime at the same time leads to some very funny misunderstandings at the table.

With William Powell and Myrna Loy providing the film with a solid center of charm and wit, and a cast of excellent supporting actors including Maureen O'Sullivan and Nat Pendleton orbiting around them, "The Thin Man" is a comedy classic that is as fun and entertaining today as it was when it first premiered nearly 75 years ago. It's a movie that is well deserving of the label "classic."

After the Thin Man (1936)
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Elissa Landi, Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, Polly Singleton, James Stewart and George Zucco
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy) return to San Francisco hoping to spend a quiet New Year's Eve alone at home. But they arrive to find their house full of revelers who are there for a surprise party in their honor and Nick is quickly (and reluctantly) drawn into a scandal brewing around Nora's wealthy relatives: It starts with the gold-digging husband of her cousin (Landi) vanishing and gets worse when she becomes the prime suspect in his murder.

"After the Thin Man" is a fast-paced mystery movie that lovers of classic films will enjoy quite a bit. It delivers a solid story portrayed by a talented cast and filmed with a high degree of skill. It's good, but it's nothing rises to the dizzying heights of hilarity as "The Thin Man", nor is the back and forth of loving putdowns and snappy comebacks between Nick and Nora as free-flowing.

This is still a very well done comedy mystery that captures the feel of San Francisco's high society during the Roaring Twenties, and if it wasn't the follow-up to a masterpiece, I might have felt a little less dissapointed in it. The fact is, though, that it's not until the final ten minutes of running time that the movie fully exhibits the qualities that made "The Thin Man" such an amazing film.

William Powell and Myrna Loy are as charasmatic here as they were in the first movie, even if the script isn't quite as good. They aided by a great supporting cast of talented actors who present a gallery of quirky and suspicious characters, with a young James Stewart giving a particuarly good performance. In fact, James Stewart's performance is a key element of the ending being as effective as it is. (The very cute denoument will also leave you with a smile on your face and thinking about checking out the sequel, "Another Thin Man".)

Another Thin Man (1939)
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Otto Kruger, Nat Pendleton, C. Aubrey Smith, Virginia Grey and Tom Neal
Director: W. S. Van Dyke
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

One-time party-circuit mainstays and trouble-magnets Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy), now the proud parents of a baby boy, have resolved to put their wild lives of partying and crime-solving behind them. However, when the manager of Nora's investments (Smith) is murdered under mysterious circumstances, the pair are drawn into solving a mystery where the only apparent suspects either have air-tight alibis or end up dead themselves.

It is said the couples mature once they have a child and Nick and Nora seem to be holding true to that in their third cinematic adventure, "Another Thin Man". There's no partying--with the exception of just about everyone Nick ever "sent up the river" in New York bringing babies to the Charles' residence to help celebrate Nicky Jr.'s first birthday--very little boozing (even if Nick sneaks a drink every chance he gets) and while a visit to a night-time hotspot shows that Nora can still wrap any man around her finger, it ultimately serves to give another illustration of the deep affection that she and Nick have for one another and to underscore their newly discovered maturity.

Although the tone of "Another Thin Man" is a little different than the two previous movies, it's still very funny. The humor now revolves mostly around Nick and Nora's marriage (and Nick's rough-and-tumble past) and their relationship with one another remains as playful as ever even without the free-flowing booze. The mystery featured is also very fascinating although it gets a little too tangled for its own good and comes across as just a little too far fetched, something I suspect even the writers were aware of since they had a character comment that she feared the scheme was too involved.

The cast all do an excellent job, and I think letting Nick and Nora "grow up" was a wise decision, not just because they have a child now, but because it seems believable; William Powell and Myrna Loy were starting to show the fact they were well into their middle years, so it seems right that the most beloved characters they ever portrayed should age and mature as well. The only dissapointment I felt with this second sequel to "The Thin Man" was that the now-expected round-up of all the suspects and Nick ultimately fingering the murderer was not as funny as the one in the original film, nor as dramatic as the one in "Another Thin Man". (The twist revelation of the killer's identity is undermined in part by the performer in the role not having the talent of James Stewart--the shift in personality and demeanor simply isn't as convincing or shocking.)

Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Sam Levene, Lou Lubin, Barry Nelson, Donna Reed, Henry O'Neill, Stella Adler, Loring Smith and Joseph Anthony
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a friend is accused of murdering a shady journalist, Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy) are drawn into an investigation of a large racketeering and gambling operation.

"Shadow of the Thin Man" is the fourth installment in the Thin Man series, and it is the weakest entry so far. Stars William Powell and Myrna Loy display the same on-screen chemistry they've shown since the series' beginning, and Nick and Nora's relationship is as fun and interesting to watch unfold as ever, but the script they are working with here is average fare for the comedy/mystery genre of the day. The only unusual touch is Nick and Nora's son, Nick Jr. It's rare to see a wise-cracking movie detective like Nick Charles wrapped around the finger of a four year-old kid.

Although light on plot and jokes, the film still features a fine cast, a brisk pace, and a nice mystery that unfolds mostly in the open so the attentive viewers can solve the crime along with Nick if they choose. The humor and the great chemistry and charm of William Powell and Myrna Low make this film as entertaining today as it was in 1941. The only reason I felt a little dissapointed in the film was because it follows such a trio of excellent films that it feels like it represents a severe drop-off in quality.

The Thin Man Goes Home (1944)

Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Harry Davenport, Lucile Watson, Gloria DeHaven, Edward Brophy, Lloyd Corrigan, Helen Vison and Leon Ames
Directors Richard Thorpe and Norman Taurog
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

While Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy) are vacationing in the small town where Nick grew up, a man is assassinated, literally in the doorway of the home of Nick's parents. Nora thinks this is a perfect opportunithy for Nick to show his father he isn't the drunken lout he believes him to be, and she pushes Nick to investigate the crime.

"The Thin Man Goes Home" is a change of pace and scenery for the classic "Thin Man" series of comedy-mysteries. Instead of being set in the swanky rooms of the wealthiest in America's largest cities, it takes place among the rich and powerful citizens in a picturesque small American town... and they are revealed to be every bit as vicious and self-centered and potentially evil as their supposedly more urbane counterparts.

The mystery in this film is more multi-faceted and involved than the one Nick was confronted with in the installment of the series immediately prior to this one ("Shadow of the Thin Man", review here), making the film more interesting. The jokes and physical humor in this film are also funnier and more finely honed than they've been since the first movie in the series, making this the best sequel since "After the Thin Man", review here).

Another difference in the film is that Nick actually solves the multiple mysteries that are tangled together in this film stone cold sober! Nick doesn't touch a drop of alcohol for the entire movie, because he is trying to impress his father (and also because in 1944, liquor was being rationed due to the war effort).

What is the same, however, is the wonderful onscreen chemistry between William Powell and Myrna Loy, and the continued portrayal of the pefect married relationship shared by the Charleses. I really can't think of an on-screen married couple that are as fun as these two and the back-and-forth between these two characters are as important to these films as the mysteries. (Relationship highlights in this film include a fun exchange over Nora's failed attempt to set up a lawnchair; Nora buying a birthday present for Nick thinking it is tied to fond memories and later discovering that she didn't get the full story when it came to his childhood reminicing; and Nick stranding Nora at a charity dance with a jitterbugging sailor so he can go on an investigation. Actually, the scene at the charity dance is one of the highlights of the entire Thin Man series!)

It maybe nearly 65 years since "The Thin Man Goes Home" was made, but the humor is still fresh and story is as good, and even better, than the vast of majority of films that have been made since.

Song of the Thin Man (1947)
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy and Keenan Wynn
Dierctor: Edward Buzzell
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Socialites Nick and Nora Charles (Powell and Loy) find themselves fish-out-water as they navigate a different type of party scene--that of jazz clubs and beatniks--to clear a hood-gone-straight of a murder charge.

The second to last line that William Powell speaks as Nick Charles is, "I'm going to retire."

Almost every aspect of "Song of the Thin Man" seems to be geared toward underscoring the point that the Charles' are getting a bit long in the tooth and that it is, indeed, time to retire.

Their one-time freewheeling party life has become focused on charity dinners and similar events, Nick is no longer recognized and welcomed everywhere he goes by cops and robbers alike--they all seem to have already retired--and when they do venture into the roaring jazz scene of the late 1940s, they are confused and disconcerted by what they find. To top it off, a real threat is launched against young Nick, Jr. as the couple are off on their investigation.

More than in any other of the Thin Man films, we see Nick and Nora out of their element, and we see that they're uncomfortable. While this occured in earlier films, they usually charmed their way through any possible discomfort, but they can't quite pull that off here. They are well into middle age, and the world is starting to accelerate past them.

While Myrna Loy is as gorgeous as ever, despite clearly being about a decade-and-a-half older than when the first film was made, William Powell looks tired in this film and even older perhaps than his 58 years. He looks like someone who would be uncomfortable around weird jazz musicians, and it's a shame, because Nick Charles shouldn't be uncomfortable around anyone.

Despite the fact that Nick and Nora feel like they are past their prime, Myrna Loy and William Powell still show the tremendous on-screen chemistry that carried this series from the very beginning. In fact, because the characters seem older and calmer, the chemsistry between the actors comes through even stronger. The true love that Nick and Nora have for each other is obviously one that will last until death do them part.

Aside from being saturated with the feeling that Nick and Nora's day has come and gone, the script for "Song of the Thin Man" is one of the weaker ones in the series. It's better than the one for "Shadow of the Thin Man", but it's a long way from the one that launched the series or even the one that immediately preceeded it, "The Thin Man Goes Home". The "big reveal" is particularly weak, almost as if the writers didn't quite know how to handle the Agatha Christie-style "gathering of the suspects" climax that had become part-and-parcel with the series. I almost wish they'd broken with convention, because they do a very poor job of trying to work it in.

Despite the fact that I felt a slight melancholy while watching the film, because of the sense that these two beloved characters were over-the-hill, "Song of the Thin Man" is still a funny comedy mystery with a plot that you aren't likely to figure out all the components of until Nick forces the truth into the open in the film's last minute. It may not be as good as early entries in the series, but it's still a film that holds up extremely well and that is as enjoyable now as it was sixty years ago.

Biopic of Goebbles paints him as an 'Enemy of Women'

Enemy of Women (aka "The Mad Lover") (1944)
Starring: Paul Andor, Claudia Drake, Donald Woods, H.B. Warner, Robert Barrat Gloria Stuart and Crane Whitely
Director: Alfred Zeisler
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Failed playwright and chief Nazi propagandist Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbles (Andor) uses his power to first build then destroy the career of an actress he has desired since they first met (Drake).

"Enemy of Women" traces both the rise of the Nazi regime and one of its cheif image-makers, Joseph Goebbles. The film mixes facts--Goebbles failed literary ambitions; Goebbles spearheading the Nazi-grip on German media, culminating with the breaking of any outlet that didn't agree with Hitler and the Nazi philosophy; his power-struggles with Himmler (including the time when Goeblles himself almost fell victim to one of Himmler's purges) and snippits of speeches that Goebbles actually gave--with the fictional tale of a young actress who resists Goebbles romantic overtures. In the process, the film delivers a message about how the tyranny of dictatorial regimes and the destruction of indvidual freedoms allow unsavory characters to engage in the worst of excesses... excesses that will eventually doom the tyrant and everything he touches.

The film is well-written and decently acted, with Paul Andor giving an especially remarkable performance as Goebbles. There is absolutely nothing likable about the man--and this is also something that's based in historical fact... he was such a narssacistic egomaniac that he had his own children murdered as the Russians overran Berlin, because he couldn't stand them carrying on after he had failed--yet Andor still manages to bring some touches to his performance that make him human. A prime example of this comes in the film's closing moments when Goebbles' is sitting in the bombed-out wreckage of his home, everything he has strived for destroyed. The viewer still hates and is disgusted by him, but one also can't help but feel a little empathy for him--and sorrow for the lives we've just witnessed him destroy because of his monstrous ego.

And this is where one of the strengths of this film comes from. It treats its main subject fairly and with as much respect as someone like Goebbles deserves. He is not portrayed as a cartoonish ogre or bufoon--as is how many films portrayed the Nazi leades--but as a intelligent, manipulative and utterly evil man who like all of us had hopes and dreams.

The director was further insightful enough to eshew the put-on German accents that were so common in movies of this type. Instead, the actors speak as they normally would, with a few German words thrown into the dialogue for good measure. Only Andor speaks with a German accent, but that's because he did have a German accent. (Andor immigrated to the United States in 1933, just as the character he portrays in this film was rising to his perch of power.)

Finally, the film is beautifully shot. Cameraman John Alton really had a talent for framing a scene and for using shadows and light to emphasize mood. The film's final scenes onboard the train and in Goebbles' Berlin home would not have been as effective as they are if they hadn't been so expertly filmed.

Interestingly, while the film ends with the full story of Goebbles incomplete as it was produced and released while WW2 was still raging, there wouldn't have been much more to tell: This film was released in November of 1944, and in May of 1945, Goebbles would be dead and the Nazi regime ended for all time.

"Enemy of Women" may have been made as a wartime propaganda film, but it holds up nicely some 64 years later, thanks to an excellent cast and superior craftsmanship on the part of the director and cinematographer. It's also quick-paced and straight-to-the-point. Someone should send Oliver Stone a copy; maybe his next psuedo-biography film won't be a crushing bore if he takes some pointers from this one. (If someone still has to buy him a Christmas present, why not get him a copy of this movie? It costs less $8 at, and they'll even send it straight to his house and gift-wrapped if you ask them to.)