Saturday, February 25, 2012

"You Scared The Health Out Of Me!"

Spooks Run Wild(1941)
Director: Phil Rosen
Cast: Bela Lugosi, The East Side Kids, Dennis Moore

I originally saw a trailer for this as a kid on Ted Newsom's Dracula: A Cinematic Scrapbook(1991) and instantly knew that this was something I wanted to see. Now mind you, I was only six years old, but the concept of Dracula(Bela Lugosi), ghosts, a haunted house, Angelo Rossito and the East Side Kids, appealed to me. Despite it's public domain status, it was actually several years until I was able to track down this low budgeter, and it was a happy experience.
Spooks Run Wild is one of Bela's "Monogram Nine" a series of film she starred in from 1941-1945, that effectively ended his career in Hollywood. They were low budget, tacky and oftentimes, ineptly filmed, yet they maintain a certain level of fascination today. Bela was often able to overcome the haphazard direction and poor writing, and these films became yet another piece in the puzzle of the Lugosi enigma. Films such as these, only endeared the actor's fans more to the man, and have helped in keeping the mystique alive, due to the wide availability of these titles.

This was the second of Lugosi's second films for Monogram pictures and one of the more enjoyable of the bunch. The premise is fun as the East Side Kids are sent from the city to the country for "rehabilitation" Meanwhile, a mad killer is on the loose called the "monster killer" and Bela Lugosi arrives in town, en route to a mysterious old mansion that is supposedly haunted!
Of course, the kids decide to break out of their confines and go exploring...ending up at the haunted house and running into the worst cemetary caretaker of all time. After shooting at Lugosi and Angelo Rossito simply for walking in the graveyard at night(!), he actually shoots one of the boys with a shotgun!(Later on in the film, he defends himself to the police by saying, "ah, it was only buckshot!")

The kids worry about their friend, so they take him to the spooky mansion on the hill, where Lugosi takes care of the wounded teen. Meanwhile, the boys' nurse(Dorothy Short) goes looking for them with the aid of Dr. Von Grosch(Dennis Moore) who claims that he is out to hunt the "Monster." The remainder of the film involves alot of haunted house shenanigans, as the boys try to find their wounded friend, who ends up sleepwalking throughout the mansion, and inevitably, Lugosi is suspected of being the monster. The best part of the picture is when the gang get back at Lugosi, by dressing up as a skull-faced ghost and trying to frighten him. Lugosi's acting in this scene is priceless and worth the price of admission!
Well, it turns out that Lugosi is not the monster, but that Von Grosch fellow is, so he's sought out and after a brief scuffle, brought to justice. The film concludes with a magic show performed by Lugosi, all too briefly.
Oh, and the kid who got shot was okay. Apparently, buckshot isn't so bad?

Spooks Run Wild is one of the more entertaining of the Monogram features that Lugosi made in the 40s, and probably the East Side Kids film that best stands up today. The comedy of the gang was always an acquired taste, but they are fairly likeable here, particularly Sunshine Sammy Morrsion, a former silent Our Gang star, who is really very funny as the only black kid in the group, managing to overcome stereotypes and such. It's interesting to see how these characters developed over the course of the series, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall already honing in on they're characterizations.
It's a fast-paced film, too, complete with all manner of old dark house cliches, from sliding panels, secret passageways, skeletons, a sinister actor, a stormy night etc.
Lugosi seems to be having a good time here, and has way more to do than he would in the follow-up film, the lamentable, Ghosts on the Loose(1943), where he barely interacts with the gang at all. Lugosi's scared bit was always one of my favorite of his, and is still one of the funniest scenes he has ever been part of.(Lugosi was actually very skilled in comedy, believe it or not. Check out Broadminded(1931) and International House(1933) for proof to this claim, as he steals many scenes in these two classics.)
Spooks Run Wild is far from being a classic film, but also not quite up to the level of moron picture, that producer Sam Katzman described his films. It's enjoyable and a mild diversion for a Saturday afternoon and still a blast today.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

It Preys On Human Fear. It Feeds On Human Flesh.

Without Warning(1980)
Director: Greydon Clark
Cast: Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Tarah Nutter

For years I read about this early 80s oddity in my horror and sci-fi guides as a lead inspiration for the cheezeball classic of my youth, Predator(1987). The film certainly sounded interesting, with it's hunter alien(played by the same man who played the Predator, the late Kevin Peter Hall), it's veteran cast(Jack Palance and Martin Landau) and goofy premise. It languished in obscurity and I was never able to quite track this one down, until recently. It was then that I discovered why it was so obscure!

This film begins as nonsensically as possible, with a duo of "hunters" that include "macho man" Cameron Mitchell, who appeared in far too many of this disasters, and his wimpy mustached son. Cameron is so disgusted by his son's lack of enthusiasm for hunting that he actually contemplates shooting his own son! This made me think that this was going to be a tongue in cheek affair, until Cameron and mustache are dispatched by some disgusting flying parasitic pizzas(i'm not making this up!) and one realizes this is a serious movie.

Meanwhile, the typical group of annoying, horny teens arrive to campout for the weekend(including a young David Caruso!) and they also typically ignore the warnings of the town crazy(Martin Landau), a former soldier who believes that aliens are out to get him. Well, the kids learn that out the hard way, as the alien takes out two of the four(including a young David Caruso!) and house the dead in an old shack, along with the "hunters" and a misplaced scout leader. The remaining couple run for help and find no one(this was low budget, so I guess they couldn't afford any police), and instead Martin Landau goes crazy and shoots the Sheriff, which causes him to get locked up in a police car(they coudl afford that) and Jack Palance, who is a big hunter, decides to help the kids.

Well, the alien is pretty tough, so Jack Palance realizes he's in for a fight and has to cut off those damn parasitic pizza pies with his own knife as he engages the alien with his trusty rifle(a rare World War Two Johnson rifle!) and the boy(Christopher Nelson) gets killed, leaving only the girl(Tarah Nutter) and crazy Landau(who escaped) and Jack to fight the freakishly tall alien. Landau bites it pretty fast, but Jack is able to shoot the alien and rig enough dynamite in his shack to blow him to pieces. In one of the finest moments of his stellar career, Palance runs into the shack, screaming, as the girl drops the plunger and Jack and the alien go up in smoke.

Without Warning is a bad movie, no question. The potential of the plot, detailing an alien hunting human quarry for sport, is just squandered. None of the tension and "cat and mouse games" that are required to make this a first class thriller are apparent. The design of the alien is effective and interesting, but is shown far too little. The make-up is gruesome, but after awhile, the flying pizza-thing gets kind of old. The film also feels a tad more tame than it should have been and never really seems to come to life.
Part of the problem is poor writing, particularly in the case of Landau, who gets to chew the scenery as a standard crazy shell-shocked nutcase, who does very little to move the plot forward. Palance has a potentially interesting part as a big game hunter, but little of the symbolism inherent in his character, is lost on the filmmakers. Similarily, the young actors are not very interesting(a problem found in most 80s horror films), while other actors are just wasted(like Cameron Mitchell and Ralph Meeker, who appears in his last and most thankless role, as a man at the bar!)

For those expecting Predator-like thrills, prepare to be disapointed. It's unbelievable that the makers of this picture actually tried to sue the filmmakers of the latter, considering very little of this film has any resemblance to Predator! Even for those mildly interested, there are better low budget baddies out there from this period(paging Scared to Death(1981)...) and outside of the hamfisted acting of a few veterans and the cool monster make-up, there is just very little reason to explore this film. You've been warned.