Monday, January 20, 2014

Saturday, January 15, 1972: Night Creatures (1962) / Bury Me Dead (1947)

Synopsis: In 18th-century Dover, the British navy is trying to shut down a  smuggling ring that is illegally importing and distributing French wine. Captain Collier (Patrick Allen) believes the ring is centered in the small seaside village of Dymchurch.  His search of the town turns up nothing, but he begins to suspect that the local vicar, the Reverend Doctor Blyss (Peter Cushing), knows more than he is letting on. One reason he suspects this is that despite Blyss' assurances of cooperation, every villager claims they have no room to accomodate Collier's men. Furthermore, Blyss had arranged for a Christian burial for the notorious pirate Captain Clegg, who died while imprisoned in Dymchurch; Collier doesn't believe Clegg deserved any sort of burial, but Blyss says that Clegg had confessed his sins on his deathbed and therefore was awarded a proper burial.

One of Collier's men had once been a member of Clegg's pirate crew. He had attacked Clegg's wife and paid a terrible penalty: his tongue was cut out, his ears were cut off, and he was tied to a tree on an island, left to die.  This crewman is now something of a dogsbody / mascot to Collier's crew, but he has a tendency to get drunk and attack people.  Upon seeing Dr. Blyss, he leaps upon him and tries to kill him.

 Stories abound in the village of the "Marsh Phantoms" -- ghostly horses and spectral riders who look like scarecrows, who sometimes kill people who wander too far into the marshes.  One of Collier's men is killed, allegedly by the phantoms. Collier, who doesn't believe such nonsense, is determined to find out just who or what is lurking out in the marshes.

Meanwhile, it becomes clear that the smuggling ring is indeed centered in the town of Dymchurch, and that virtually everyone in town is part of it; Dr. Blyss is the mastermind behind the entire organization, the local coffin-maker keeps the liquor hidden and arranges transport, and the squires' son Harry Cobtree (Oliver Reed) is Blyss' right hand man.  Cobtree is engaged to young Imogene (Yvonne Romain) who doesn't know that she is the daughter of the late Captain Clegg. We also learn that Blyss, wearing scarecrow garb, is the leader of the Marsh Phantoms. But when one of Blyss' men is captured by Collier he is forced, under threat of torture, to take Collier and his men to the secret hideout hidden in the marshes....

Comments: Hammer is best remembered, obviously, for its horror output but it actually toiled in a number of genres over the years and produced several ripping pirate yarns. Night Creatures was one of them.  Its British title was Captain Clegg, and it was based on the popular Russell Thorndike swashbuckler Dr. Syn: A Tale of Romney Marsh

So why was it called Night Creatures in the U.S.?  This was the title chosen for Hammer's planned adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend.  When that film was scrapped, American theaters (having already been promised a Hammer film with that title) got this one instead.

Being an American, I can't really talk about this movie without bringing up The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, which premiered (in serial format) on the anthology program Disney's Wonderful World of Color in 1964.  That adaptation of Thorndike's novel starred Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Syn, pious vicar by day and leader of a band of masked outlaws by night.  I remember being enthralled with the serial as a kid (Disney brought it back to TV regularly) though as an adult I was surprised to find I had misunderstood the entire story.  No doubt due to the numerous tricorn hats in evidence, I'd assumed that Dr. Syn led a band of rebels against the British in the American Colonies.  In fact, while the British navy is the antagonist, all the action takes place on the southern coast of England.

The whole production has that sumptuous look that Hammer  pulled off so effortlessly in spite of modest budgets, and we have some familiar actors from the Hammer repertory company on hand.  Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Michael Ripper, Yvonne Romain and Oliver Reed were all veterans of the studio's horror yarns and they do quite well here, and Cushing in particular is splendid as the Scarlet Pimpernel-esque character, peering out from behind his spectacles as the fussy, querulous vicar, then pivoting as the film progresses to Concerned Father, Reformed Crook, Steely-Eyed Action Man and even Fantastically Persuasive Extemporaneous Speaker. It's great fun. 

Bury Me Dead

Synopsis: A funeral is being held for Barbara Carlin (June Lockhart), a woman killed in a stable fire on her family's estate.  But almost as soon as this fact is established, we learn that Barbara isn't dead at all.  She attends the funeral hiding behind a black veil, musing that her husband Rod Carlin (Mark Daniels) doesn't seem very broken up about her death.  When the graveside service has concluded, Barbara approaches the family attorney, Michael Dunn (Hugh Beaumont) and reveals to him that she's still alive.  She tells him that she believes someone started the fire in an attempt to kill her, but got the wrong person; the body recovered from the horse barn was burned beyond recognition and identified only by a diamond necklace that belonged to Barbara.

Barbara is particularly troubled  by the question of who was actually killed in the fire, because she thinks it might be her younger sister Rusty (Cathy O'Donnell).  Rusty has a history of mental illness and often disappears for extended lengths of time. But she finds Rusty safe and sound, though still embittered that she was cut out of her father's will because she was adopted. With Rusty eliminated as a possible victim, she goes to confront Rod, who claims to be delighted that Barbara is still alive -- even though he has been carrying on with goodtime girl Helen Lawrence (Sonia Darren), who had previously told Rod that she'd like to be the next Mrs. Carling. 

Barbara had had a dalliance of her own with dim-witted palooka George (Greg McClure), who'd previously been seen around with Helen. Rusty still harbors a grudge against Barbara for stealing the big lug away from her, but it might be that Barbara was trying to save Rusty from a bad situation. 

Barbara finds there are plenty of people who might have wanted her dead. But not only does she not know who committed the murder, she still doesn't know who the victim was....

Comments: Bury Me Dead is a a remarkably threadbare effort from PRC, a studio that routinely produced threadbare efforts.  This one looks worse than a Monogram programmer, and that's saying something.  This film is so dreadfully chintzy that when the Carling family butler opens the front door it nearly bumps into the grand staircase. Barbara's funeral scene is unintentionally humorous because the number of mourners was apparently limited to the principal members of the cast; there was clearly no money in the budget for extras. This greatly undercuts Barbara's impish desire to see her own funeral.  Considering the turnout, it probably would have been better for her to have stayed home.

But of course Barbara has to attend her own funeral, because this is the man-bites-dog gimmick upon which the whole movie is based. It is, quite frankly, all downhill from here, because once the gimmick is deployed, a story has to be built around it, and one plot contrivance is piled atop another.

Bury Me Dead is usually categorized as a noir, but it clearly isn't one; apart from the post-war release date and the fact that it's a story about murder it really doesn't have any trappings of the genre.  It also has an odd, uneven sense of humor, at times making us think it's veering toward farce.  But it keeps moving grimly back to the task at hand, with pointless flashback scenes padding out its (68 minute) running time.

This movie probably wouldn't have been released on DVD at all were it not for the fact that its two leads, June Lockhart  and Hugh Beaumont, are both remembered for their television careers.  Both do just fine here -- Lockhart was 22 years old when she made this picture and she carries the movie as gracefully as the script will allow.  Beaumont is quite convincing as the sober attorney and family friend. The rest of the cast is pretty solid: Cathy O'Donnell is actually quite good as the tormented sister Rusty, and I found myself liking Sonia Darrin's performance as Helen Lawrence as well.  

This release came on a two-movie disc from VCI Entertainment (the other film being The Chase). It's an interesting disc because rather than a bare-bones release, this one comes with a commentary track for each film by Jay Fenton (credited as a "film restoration consultant"), as well as bios, image galleries and even a Superman cartoon! A nice job all around, and clearly a labor of love.

Saturday, January 8, 1972: Cat People (1942)


Synopsis: Nautical engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) meets a young Serbian woman, Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) one afternoon at the zoo.  Irena is sketching a black panther as it paces in its cage.  The two hit it off in a meet-cute sort of way, and Irena allows Oliver to walk her home.

Irena, it turns out, lives alone in a large and tastefully-furnished apartment nearby, and seems grateful for Oliver's company.  She tells him that she hasn't made any friends since moving to the city.  Oliver ends up staying well past dark, and as he leaves he asks to see her again the next day and she agrees.

Feeling she needs a companion, Oliver buys a kitten for her at a local pet shop, but when he gives it to her the kitten spits and backs away fearfully.  Irena tells him that cats don't like her.  He trades the kitten in for  a bird, and this seems to please her, but when she reaches inside the cage the bird panics and quickly dies.

Before long, Oliver and Irena are engaged. On their wedding day they have dinner at a local restaurant with Oliver's co-workers, including Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) who acts like one of the guys in spite of being young, pretty and apparently available. The general mood is quite jovial, but a strange woman approaches their table and speaks to Irena briefly  in Serbian, calling her "sister".  Irena is shaken by this encounter.

Returning home that night, she confides to Oliver that she isn't able to consummate the marriage right away -- she speaks vaguely of being frightened by an old family curse and asks him to be patient.  Oliver, who has  "nice guy" written all over him, agrees.

But weeks pass and nothing changes.  Oliver gently suggests that Irena see a psychiatrist, and she agrees; but after only one session with the oily Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway) she stops going. When Oliver finds out that she's abandoned her sessions he is angry.  Irena is angry in turn at all the time Oliver is spending with Alice, and angrier still when she learns that Oliver has revealed to her Irena's reluctance to consummate the marriage.  What she doesn't know is that Alice has also confessed to Oliver that she has always carried a torch for him.

Irena reluctantly goes back to see Dr. Judd, and the nature of her affliction becomes clear: she believes that if she becomes sexually aroused, she will turn into a deadly panther. Judd decides he's going to dissuade the beautiful Irena of this notion by seducing her, not knowing that the curse is real....

Comments: Cat People was producer Val Lewton's first horror film, and it was a huge hit when it was released in 1942. It spawned any number of imitators, some of which we've already seen on Horror Incorporated.

The Lewton style emphasized spooky atmospherics over out-and-out shocks.  There were no wolf men jumping out of the trees, no Frankenstein's monster lumbering around in graveyards. Instead, the menace is always creeping somewhere off-screen, just as psychological and spiritual as it is physical.  It is fascinating to watch how much suspense Lewton wrings out of scenes that end in nothing much happening at all: Alice scared and vulnerable in the swimming pool, first panicking and then feeling foolish when everyone rushes in to her rescue; and the scene in which she is stalked by Irena on along a nighttime street, finding refuge on a city bus.

The film is quite unusual for its time, with a very heavy dose of pop psychology overlaying it. Early in the film Irena's malady is realistically depicted as a delusion built up around her own sexual anxieties,  and the relationship between Irena and Oliver is also quite convincing; in spite of Oliver's best intentions his patience with Irena wears thin and he begins to pivot toward Alice; as a result, fearing she will lose him, Irena returns to Dr. Judd against her better judgment, setting the stage for the mayhem that follows.

While the Freudian tropes seem a little obvious by today's standards,  there is still a certain elegance in the panther at the zoo being the symbol of Irena's repressed libido.  It paces ceaselessly in its cage, while Irena spends much of the day sketching it.  From her apartment she can hear the panther's screams and growls.  At night she has dreams of stealing the key from the zookeeper and releasing the animal from its cage.  All the Victorian fears of female sexuality are on display here, and it's handled quite deftly.  These themes are helped rather than hindered by the censorship rules at the time, because Irena's malady operates largely on the subconscious level and Lewton is an unusually subtle and intelligent filmmaker.  By contrast, the 1982 remake was loud and lurid and about as subtle as you'd expect a Paul Schrader film to be. The nudity and blunt dialogue ultimately wound up sinking that picture, though it does have its defenders -- mostly people who have never seen the original.

Simone Simon projects both a playful sexiness and a touching vulnerability as Irena, and Jane Randolph is quite winning as Alice; this is a rare movie of the time where the female leads get a little more to do than look pretty and get rescued.  Kent Smith is quite convincing as the decent but somewhat unimaginative Oliver.  But the most interesting performance might be from Tom Conway as the unprincipled Dr. Judd.  Conway starred as debonair crime-fighter The Falcon in a series of programmers from RKO, taking over the role from his real-life brother George Sanders (the two were depicted on-screen as brothers as well, appearing together in The Falcon's Brother (1942)). Conway reprised his role of Dr. Louis Judd  -- oddly without explanation -- in a later Lewton film, The 7th Victim (1943).

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Saturday, January 1, 1972: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) / The Island Monster (1954)

Synopsis: Called home early from a medical conference, small-town physician Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) meets his nurse Sally Withers (Jean Willes) at the Santa Mira train station.  Sally tells him that there are an unusual number of patients waiting at his office.  All of them urgently insist on seeing Bennell personally, and none of them want to see the doctors who have agreed to take Miles' patients in his absence.

As Miles and Sally drive into town they narrowly avoid hitting a local boy named Jimmy Grimaldi, who charges into the road, fleeing from his own mother.  Jimmy is distraught and takes off into the woods. His mother says the boy doesn't want to go to school.  Miles notices that the Grimaldi family vegetable stand, usually thriving at this time of the year, is shuttered.

At the office, Miles discovers that all of the patients who had been so insistent on seeing him have cancelled their appointments.  But one person does come to visit him: Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), a high school sweetheart who, like Miles, has been recently divorced.  Becky asks Miles to talk to her cousin Wilma Lentz (Virginia Christine), who seems to be suffering under the strange delusion that her uncle Ira is an imposter.

Later that afternoon, Jimmy Grimaldi's grandmother brings the boy to Miles' office.  Jimmy is suffering from a similar delusion; he believes that his own mother is not his mother, and he becomes hysterical whenever anyone suggests she be called.  Miles tells the grandmother to keep the boy at her house for a few days, and prescribes sedatives to keep him calm.

Bothered by the similarity between the two stories, Miles decides to go to Wilma's house directly and talk to her.  Wilma seems perfectly rational -- except for the fact that she is certain Ira isn't her uncle.  Miles tries to reason with her, pointing out that even if Ira were an imposter, there would be countless differences that friends and family could easily spot.  She concedes that the man seems like Ira in every way, and even knows things that only Ira could know.  Nevertheless, she says, this person is an imposter who possesses no emotions - -only, she says, the pretense of emotions.

Puzzled, Miles keeps a dinner date with Becky.  Arriving at the restaurant the two bump into Miles' friend Danny Kaufman, a psychiatrist.  Miles mentions that he has two patients he'd like to refer, and Kaufman immediately guesses that they are people who believe close relatives are imposters.  Over the last two weeks, Kaufman says, there has been an epidemic of such cases in Santa Mira.

Minutes later Miles' answering service tracks him down with an urgent call from Miles' friend Jack Belicec (King Donovan), asking Miles to come over right away.  Miles and Becky arrive to find there is a body lying on the Belicec's pool table; but it doesn't appear to be a dead body.  Rather, it seems to be a body that was never alive.  The face is blank and featureless, and there are no fingerprints.  Miles speculates that if he were to perform an autopsy all the internal organs would be in perfect order, as if they had never been used.

Jack's wife Teddy (Carolyn Jones) asks Miles to estimate the body's height and weight.  Miles says that the man on the table is perhaps 5 foot 9, and about 140 pounds.  Teddy replies fearfully that Jack too is 5 foot 9 and 140 pounds.

Miles tells the Belicecs to keep an eye on the body, with instructions to call the police if nothing happens by morning; if however the body changes in any way they should call him.  Miles takes Becky home, where she is surprised to find that her father has been working unusually late down in the cellar.  Meanwhile, at the Belicic house, Jack falls asleep while sitting at the bar -- just as the body on the table opens its eyes....

Comments: This was the first of four screen adaptations of Jack Finney's 1954 novel The Body Snatchers.  It is by far the best, largely because of its willingness to follow Finney's original novel, or at least the first two-thirds of it.  Most effective is the edgy paranoia that results from having all the advantages of small-town life turned against you. The comforting network of people who know you and look out for you unexpectedly becomes a sinister army of strangers who know all about you and where to find you. Everything that Miles finds secure is suddenly cut out from under him, and it's a disorienting change for us as well as for him. On that level the movie works just as well today as it did the day it was first released.

All three later versions pulled the story out of its small-town backdrop. Philip Kaufman's 1978 version set the story in San Francisco, which was appropriate to the more topical themes of the film -- personal alienation from society and cultural paranoia surrounding institutions (the police, the medical profession, the government, corporate America, etc)  that had seemed, until recently, to be solid and reassuring.The film's bleak ending was appropriate for its era as well.

Abel Ferrara's 1993 version was set on an Army base, and the spread of the pod-like duplicates mirrored that of an infectious disease. The protagonist was a young girl who couldn't convince anyone that what she suspected was true.  The 2006 version took place in Washington D.C., again because a small-town setting was apparently just too -- well, small.   That film tried to build a more conventional narrative, with the wily humans finding a way to fight back against the invaders.  But the film as a whole seemed oddly labored, lacking the narrative momentum that seemed so effortless in the Siegel production.

The ending of Finney's novel was happy enough but quite contrived, and none of the film versions have attempted to use it. A happy ending of sorts was grafted onto the Siegel version by use of a framing device.  The frame starts with psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) visiting Bennell in the psych ward, where he has been hospitalized.  Through the framing narrative Bennell is able to tell his story of the last few days in Santa Mira.  At the end of the story Hill reluctantly concludes that Bennell must be delusional, but then he happens to hear a report about a truck accident that spilled "great big seed pods" on the roadway.  Dr Hill, realizing that Bennell's story is true, quickly alerts the Army and the state government of the danger.  The institutions that had suddenly seemed unreliable are now restored to their proper place.

While this tinkering with the original structure of the movie has been criticized over the years, I think the framing device actually works quite well.  Siegel's original ending was clever, with Bennell frantically yelling his story to cars passing him by on the highway, as the pod people note with satisfaction that Bennell will be pegged as a lunatic and no one will ever believe him.  But it is simply too bleak an ending for the kind of story that had just been told. The framing device gives the viewer hope, but in a sneaky way. We may well conclude -- as Miles seems to --  that Hill's quick action has saved the day.  But we don't know for sure.

The Island Monster

Synopsis: Italian police detective Mario Andreani (Renato Vicario) is assigned to an interdiction effort on the island of Ischia, a fashionable tourist spot identified by the police as a hub of drug trafficking. Andreani's wife Giulia (Jole Fierro) is the jealous type, and worries that the island's surplus of wealthy and attractive women will lead her husband astray.

Despite her misgivings, Mario seems quite devoted to his wife and his young daughter Fiorella. Even so, the island's police chief tells Mario that the most promising informant on the island is the beautiful lounge singer Gloria (Franca Marzi), and that since Andreani is such a handsome galoot, he should have an easy time seducing her and gaining her confidence.

Andreani's task force carries out a number of successful raids against the local drug cartel. The cartel's head,  Don Gaetano (Boris Karloff) decides that he's been inconvenienced long enough.  Using his cover as a wealthy philanthropist who runs a free hospital for sick children, he befriends Andreani and his wife, learning their habits as well as their weaknesses.  One night, while Andreani is out on a raid, Giulia receives an anonymous phone call.  Her husband, the caller says, is at a local night club with another woman.  Alarmed,  Giulia goes to the nightclub, leaving her daughter asleep in bed.

The moment she leaves the house, Don Gaetano enters and kidnaps the child.  Giulia, finding no sign of her husband at the nightclub, returns home and is stunned to discover that Fiorella is missing.

Soon a representative from the cartel calls, demanding that Andreani resign from the task force.  If he doesn't comply, his daughter will be killed.  As Andreani struggles to do the right thing, Gaetano stays close to the family, offering them his friendship and his counsel....

Comments: The title of this Italian production fooled me completely: I figured we'd have a tropical island, a tentacled monster living in a swamp, and a glowering Karloff plotting to take over the world.  Instead, we have a  Italian crime melodrama notable only for its threadbare production values. The general cheapness of the movie is underlined by the worst English dub of a foreign film I've ever seen. Your average karate movie is a masterpiece of dubbing compared to what we have here.

The titular monster is Don Gaetano, presumably because he not only deals drugs, but kidnaps children and threatens to kill them -- though it should be noted that Fiorella isn't presented as being in any particular danger.  A real monster would have no compunction about harming the child, or even cutting pieces off her and mailing them to her parents, just to get their attention and persuade them to see things his way.

But the kidnapping plot doesn't make a lot of sense in the first place. It seems unlikely that Mario is such a critical piece of manpower that he couldn't be replaced (perhaps it's stated or implied in the Italian-language version that Mario is the only cop who Gaetano can't buy, but there's no evidence of that here). Forcing a detective to step down by threatening his family is possible, but only if the police brass is so corrupt it will look the other way. Again, there's no evidence of that in this film.  From what we can see, the Italian police is made up of loyal, honest do-gooders who doggedly stamp out criminal activity wherever it occurs. And in those circumstances, kidnapping a policeman's daughter would get you all the wrong kinds of attention from the authorities.

Dubbed movies often sport peculiar dialogue, and I often wonder whether we should blame clumsy translators or mangled line-readings by the voice talent.  Nevertheless, in The Island Monster we're presented with dialogue so eccentric it sounds as though it were written by an alien who had only been observing human behavior for a few months.  Here, for example, is a scene in Gloria's nightclub. She has just finished her song and heads over to the bar to flirt with Mario:

Don't you like our floor show?

For right now, no.

That means you did like my song.

Yes, you sing very well.

I must return your compliment. You're quite a guy.

I'm about to blush.

I don't think that you're the type.

(A WAITER approaches)

Gloria, a customer wants to see you.

In just a moment.

(she hands Mario her drink)
You might just as well take this.  A present until we meet again somewhere.

 The only actor who is well-cast is Karloff himself, who was playing criminals long before he was playing monsters, and he can switch between avuncular grandpa and steely-eyed mob boss in the wink of an eye.  Renato Vicario seems to be trying to channel David Niven, to judge by his curious mustache.  I was similarly vexed by Franca Marzi's clown-like eyebrows.  I can't say the thing about young Fiorella's performance, since her voice sounded as though it were dubbed by a 50-year-old cleaning lady.