Saturday, July 29, 2017

Horror Hotel: You Might Check In......

College student Nan Barlow needs to complete a paper on the history of witchcraft. Her professor, Alan Driscoll, gives her some advice regarding places where she can go to complete some research. She heads off to the New England town of Whitewood, where a notorious witch named Elizabeth Selwyn was supposedly burned at the stake 250 years ago. She arrives and checks into a local inn, figuring she'll do a little onsite fact-finding. Nan (played by Venetia Stevenson) is warned by Reverend Russell, the local priest (who acts very strangely) not to dig too deep into the town’s past. She ignores his pleas to leave the area, which turns out to be a mistake. Nan ends up getting a very up close and personal look at witchcraft, and learns a lot more than she ever bargained for at the start of her journey. That’s the setup of City of the Dead (US title: Horror Hotel), a memorable 1960 chiller directed by John Llewellynn Moxey. It’s a well-produced British horror film that features genre icon Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Lord of the Rings) in a supporting role as Professor Driscoll.

Venetia Stevenson & Christopher Lee
Nan disappears, and her brother Richard, along with her boyfriend Bill, come to Whitewood to find out what's happened to her. The reverend's daughter, Patricia, tries to help them with their investigation. It seems there's a lot of unusual things happening in this quiet little town. But our heroes don’t understand the evil that surrounds them until it's almost too late. As in films such as Curse of the Demon (1957) and Burn Witch Burn (1962), those who are skeptical about the existence of the supernatural soon learn the truth, with horrifying results. What's really going on in this eerie, fog bound place? Can Richard, Bill and Patricia escape the terrifying forces at work in Whitewood? 

Spoiler alert: skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don’t want a major plot point revealed. Some writers and reviewers have compared the film’s structure to Psycho, which came out around the same time. Like that Hitchcock classic, this movie features a heroine (who appears to be the main character) that checks into an inn early in the film, and ends up dead. Others follow in an attempt to locate her, and discover some deadly and terrifying secrets. It’s likely a coincidence, as City of the Dead began filming over a month before Psycho did, but the two films do make for an interesting comparison. The movie seems much more like an attempt to capture the feel of Hammer's successful horror output than a copycat of Hitchcock's adaptation of the Robert Bloch novel. In fact, the film was released by producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who went on to form Amicus Productions, one of Hammer's main competitors in the 1960s and 1970s, with movies like Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965) and The House That Dripped Blood (1971).

Director Moxey (who also helmed the classic 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker) and his crew give the film an eerie, atmospheric look, despite its modest budget. He gets good performances out of a mostly British cast; Lee, Valentine Dyall (as a sinister denizen of Whitewood) and Patricia Jessel (in a dual role) are particularly effective. City of the Dead (aka Horror Hotel) is an entertaining chiller with some truly creepy moments, including an opening sequence that is reminiscent of the one in Mario Bava's Black Sunday. The movie is firmly lodged in Creature Features territory (for those of us old enough to remember those days) which is where I first saw, and got spooked by, this spine-tingling tale. This "hotel" is definitely worth a visit for those looking for some old fashioned fright film fun. The film is available on video from VCI Entertainment. This edition features the British cut of the film, which has a few minutes of footage cut from the US version. Both the Blu-ray and DVD releases have some solid bonus content, including an interview with Lee and a commentary from director Moxey. Here's a link to the film's trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF8PaKcJNWQ.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Solomon's Marvelous "Godzilla FAQ"

One of my fondest memories of growing up in the tri-state area was watching The 4:30 Movie, which aired every weekday on our local ABC affiliate. The awesome thing about it was the programming would include week-long marathons, such as “Planet of The Apes” week, “Beach Party” week, or “Vincent Price” week. But one of the most eagerly anticipated (for me, at least) of them all would be “Godzilla Week” or “Giant Monster Week.” Between those showings on The 4:30 Movie, and Saturday night broadcasts on programs like Chiller Theater, it was easy to indulge my interest in seeing the adventures of Godzilla and other giant monsters such as Rodan and Mothra on a regular basis. Author Brian Solomon has brought back a lot of great memories of those times with his excellent new book, Godzilla FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The King Of The Monsters. It’s a fascinating look at the history of Godzilla, starting with the original Japanese film, 1954's Gojira, right up through the most recent entry in the franchise, Shin Godzilla, which was released last year.

Godzilla FAQ covers the entire saga of the The Big G, and the innovative people who brought him to life, including director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, special effects icon Eiji Tsuburaya and composer Akira Ifukube. In addition to biographies of the talent behind the camera, there are also profiles of the actors and actresses who appeared regularly in the films, including Kenji Sahara and Kumi Mizuno. The book features comprehensive coverage of every movie featuring Godzilla, and Solomon adeptly shows how the character changed and was re-defined over the years in his various incarnations. There’s also a look at 1998's disastrous American version of Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich and starring Matthew Broderick, and the more successful 2014 relaunch, directed by Gareth Edwards and featuring Bryan Cranston. That film helped kick off a new series of movies in the US, which will culminate in 2020 with Godzilla facing off once again with his old rival, King Kong. The two monsters first battled in the classic King Kong vs. Godzilla. That iconic 1962 showdown gets its own delightful chapter here. Solomon also takes time to detail the changes made to the initial films in the series for American audiences, including the footage of Raymond Burr that was inserted into Gojira, which was re-worked and released here in 1956 as Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The book also covers Godzilla's appearances in other media, including comic books and animated series, and provides a peek at the Big G's fan community, as well as his lasting impact on pop culture. 

There are also comments and quotes from other experts on the genre, including authors August Ragone and Stuart Galbraith IV, who provides the book’s introduction. And this wouldn’t be a proper study of Godzilla if it didn’t give us some background on his greatest battles and deadliest enemies, like Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla, and his allies (and sometime foes) like Rodan, Mothra and Anguirus, now would it? It’s all here in this wonderful book, which also features information on the history of Toho Studios (who produced the films) and their non-Godzilla monster and genre output, including The Mysterians and War of the Gargantuas. Brian Solomon is clearly a fan, and his passion for these films shines through in this thoroughly enjoyable, informative and entertaining book. Godzilla FAQ: All That’s Left To Know About The King Of The Monsters is a feast for fans of the giant monster genre. The book is now available at brick and mortar stores such as Barnes & Noble, and it can also be found online at Amazon, or over at Hal Leonard Books, the publisher's website: https://www.halleonard.comAs a force of destruction and devastation, or as a protector of the Earth (as he was in later entries) Godzilla's been a part of our lives for over 60 years, and here's hoping he'll continue to roar for a long time to come. Now I'm going to sit back, pop in my disc of Destroy All Monsters, and fire up some popcorn!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Set Sail with The Crimson Pirate!

When audiences saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean film in 2003, they were entertained by the film’s colorful mix of action and off-kilter humor. But director Gore Verbinski, star Johnny Depp and company weren’t the first filmmakers to poke fun at the genre while still providing action, thrills and excitement along the way. That template was set a half century earlier with 1952’s The Crimson Pirate. Burt Lancaster stars as the title character, who breaks the fourth wall right at the film’s start and urges viewers to “Believe only what you see. No, believe half of what you see!” What follows is a rollicking tale filled with high seas escapades, narrow escapes, swordfights, damsels in distress and vile villains. The Crimson Pirate, like Lancaster’s medieval adventure film, 1950’s The Flame & The Arrow, lovingly spoofs its genre while remaining firmly rooted in its cinematic traditions.

Burt Lancaster & Torin Thatcher in The Crimson Pirate
The setting is the 18th century: Lancaster’s Captain Vallo is happily living the pirate life with his loyal crew when he becomes embroiled in a revolution on a Caribbean island, led by a mysterious figure named El Libre. Vallo initially seeks to make a profit from the conflict, promising the King’s representative, Baron Gruda, that he’ll deliver the elusive freedom fighter to him in exchange for a large reward. But the pirate falls for El Libre’s daughter, the fiery Consuelo, and has a change of heart. Vallo decides to release her and her father. His first mate, the devious Humble Bellows, turns the crew against Vallo and sets the pirate adrift. Bellows believes he can still make a deal with Gruda, and lead the crew in Vallo’s place. Little does he know that Gruda plans to capture both El Libre and the pirates, thus eliminating all his enemies in one fell swoop. Can Vallo escape, stop Gruda, save the girl, and regain control of his ship?

Lancaster plays his role with gusto, running, jumping and leaping across the screen in the film’s dynamic action sequences. His main ally is Vallo’s loyal right hand man Ojo, played by the wonderful Nick Cravat, Lancaster’s former partner from his circus days. Their easygoing chemistry makes them seem like a pirate version of Butch & Sundance, getting into and out of scrapes and tight spots with a mixture of wit, brains and athleticism. The rest of the cast is also ideal for their roles: the lovely Eva Bartok is both good as the fiery Consuelo; Torin Thatcher (best known to genre fans as the evil wizard in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad) is appropriately slimy as the double-crossing Bellows, and Leslie Bradley is perfectly evil as the sly but overconfident Baron Gruda. There’s also an inventor named Professor Prudence, played by James Hayter, who’d give James Bond’s Q a run for his money. He contributes several gadgets to the film’s final battle. And keep an eye out for Christopher Lee in a supporting role as one of Gruda’s men.

Robert Siodmak, who had worked with Lancaster on the classic noirs The Killers and Criss Cross, directed the film. The tone is obviously much lighter here, and the film’s breezy escapism is enriched by the bright hues of Technicolor. The movie was shot in the Bay of Naples, which stood in for the Caribbean, and the lush cinematography is by Otto Heller. The sharp screenplay is by Roland Kibbee, who rewrote an initial draft from the then blacklisted scribe Waldo Salt. The rousing score by William Alwyn is firmly entrenched in the tradition of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s stirring music for previous pirate adventures, such as Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk. It’s also exciting to see to see the wonderfully choreographed stunts and action sequences in the pre-CGI days when you know you’re watching real people accomplishing these incredible feats of derring-do.

The movie is a true showcase for Burt Lancaster. He’s at the peak of his youthful charisma here, and his unstoppable energy helps keep the movie on course. At this point in his career, he alternated fairly regularly between lighter films and more dramatic fare. While he would star in several more adventure sagas (including His Majesty O’Keefe and Vera Cruz) before settling into a pattern of doing heavyweight projects like Sweet Smell of Success, he’s rarely been more exuberant on screen than he is here. The Crimson Pirate strikes just the right balance between straight adventure and parody, and is an exhilarating, enjoyable saga that will delight adventure fans of all ages. The film is currently out of print on DVD, though used copies can be found online. The movie is available for online viewing on various sites, including Amazon. Here’s a link to the film’s appropriately bombastic trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HIfTeDVHvfQ.

This article is part of the Swash-a-thon (The Swashbuckler Movie Blogathon), hosted by Movies Silently. Thanks to Fritzi at that site for hosting, and for allowing me to take part in all the swashbuckling fun! You can view the entries at: http://moviessilently.com/2017/07/14/the-swashathon-is-here/.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Retro Movie: Battle Beyond The Stars

There have been countless re-makes and re-workings of Akira Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai (1954), including the classic western The Magnificent Seven (1960). In 1980, prolific B-movie producer Roger Corman (hoping to cash in on the success of the Star Wars films) served up a science-fiction version of the tale entitled Battle Beyond The Stars. As the film opens, Sador (John Saxon, veteran of a galaxy of genre movies, including Enter The Dragon and the original Nightmare on Elm Street) is a ruthless warlord who shows up in orbit above the planet Akir (named as an homage to Kurasowa), whose peace-loving people are farmers. He threatens to use his ultimate weapon, a “Stellar Converter” on the planet, unless the people surrender to him, and turn over their crops. He leaves a small ship in orbit of the planet to guard them, and vows to return to pick up his tribute.

What can these peaceful farmers do? Shad (Richard Thomas: that’s right, John-Boy of The Waltons) volunteers to find a group of mercenaries to help them fight. He jumps into an old ship and heads into space, where he meets up with Nanelia, the daughter of an old friend of his people. Shad then recruits an intergalactic trucker from Earth nicknamed “Space Cowboy” played by George Peppard (The A Team) and Gelt, an assassin on the run, portrayed by Robert Vaughn, best known for his role as Napoleon Solo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. A few others also join the fight. Sybil Danning (in quite the form-fitting costume) plays the lovely but deadly warrior known as St. Exmin of the Valkyrie. Then there's a group consciousness known as Nestor, and a reptilian being known as Cayman of the Lambda Zone, who has a very personal score to settle with Sador.

George Peppard & Richard Thomas
The team heads back to Akir, where they prepare for a showdown. Can Sador be defeated? Who will survive the battle? Will St. Exmin pop out of her costume, to the delight of teenage boys (and their Dads) everywhere? The film is an enjoyable, well-made B-movie. Director Jimmy T. Murakami keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and stretches the small budget to make the film look like an "A" picture. Thomas is good (if a little bland at times) in the lead, and he's got a great group of actors backing him up. The supporting cast is excellent. Vaughn is wonderful in his role, which is essentially a reprise of his character from The Magnificent Seven. Peppard has a lot of fun as "Space Cowboy" and John Saxon effectively chews the scenery as the evil Sador.

The film has some interesting talent behind the scenes. Producer Corman is well known for giving many actors, directors and other crew members their first jobs on his films, and Battle Beyond The Stars is no exception. For this project, a young model maker named James Cameron was promoted to work on the special effects and production design for the film. That’s right, the James Cameron of The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic and Avatar fame. The rousing music is by the late James Horner, who also scored Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Apollo 13 and Braveheart, among many others. The clever, witty screenplay is by Oscar nominated writer/director John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star) who used the money he made writing scripts for Corman to help fund his own first feature, Return of the Secaucus 7Trivia fans take note: look for Jeff Corey, who appeared in an episode of the original Star Trek series, “The Cloud Minders,” in a small role as Zed, Marta Kristen (Judy of Lost in Space fame) as Lux, who takes a shine to Peppard’s character, and a brief cameo by Julia Duffy (pre-Newhart) as an ill-fated woman captured by Sador’s forces.

Corman would later re-use some of the effects sequences and music from this film in some of his other productions, including Space Raiders (1983) and Sorceress (1982), so you may feel like you've seen the film before, even if you haven't actually watched it. Battle Beyond The Stars is an enjoyable popcorn film that you'll appreciate a bit more if you’re a sci-fi fan, and are familiar with its influences. I have to admit, I saw this at the local drive-in during its original release, and it remains a guilty pleasure for me. The film is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD, with a nice assortment of extras, including an audio commentary by Corman and Sayles, and an interview with Richard Thomas. Here's a link to an ad for the DVD & Blu-ray release, which features the original trailer for the film. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sySWfZ8oS3Q. And remember, as St. Exmin says "Live fast, fight well, and have a beautiful ending."