Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Out Of Primordial Depths To Destroy The World!

It Came From Beneath The Sea(1955)
Director: Robert Gordon
Cast: Kenneth Tobey, Faith Domergue, Donald Curtis

Here we go again. Another monster is disturbed by our peskt atomic testing and awakens from the depths of the ocean in a pissed off quest to destroy the world! Never before has the screen seen a more angry octopus. He just attacks whomever he wants, whenever he wants, leaving wanton destruction in it's path. Even though the protagonists claim that he is searching for food, the smug expression on his pus(pun intended) makes one wonder. Just watch as he levels the Golden Gate bridge and slams his tentacles all through the Bay Area of San Francisco. Credit has to be given to Ray Harryhausen for his super duper special effects, which can make even the most modest and cliche of monster movies, indelible.

The film follows a submarine commander, Pete Matthews(Kenneth Tobey) who is commanding a new atomic powered sub, when he encounters something strange. Capturing a piece of whatever it was that tugged his sub(that didn't sound right) he takes it to some scientists, Prof. Lesley Joyce(Faith Domergue) and Dr. John Carter(not of Mars), played by Doanld Curtis. They reason that it came from a giant octopus, which the military scoff at. Matthews does not and takes interest in the project, partly propelled by his interest in Lesley, who brings an interesting feminist angle to the picture. Between romancing, they soon discover that a ship has been sunk by the octopus(in a nightmarish sequence) and the survivors all claim it to be what was initially percieved to be. Soon the military are patrolling the waters, dropping charges and mines, but to no avail. Instead, the octopus gets irritated and attacks the Golden Gate bridge, especially when some dolt leaves on a high current of electricity which burns the octopus and makes him practically bring the bridge down! Not finished with destruction, he attacks the bay area, while an evacuation is under way and it's one of the great monster movie sequences of the 1950s. The tentacles destroy everything in their path, smashing through shop windows, toppling towers and crushing civilians(in very gruesome fashion) until the military show up with practically any monster's worst enemy: flamethrowers.
Chases back into the sea, Matthews and Carter go into a sub with a new weapon designed to pierce and explode within the creature. Matthews takes the initiative and goes in first, but is knocked unconscious by an underwater explosion, leaving the scientist to go it alone, shooting It in the eye and swimming away with Matthews as the sub rigs the explosion and It gets blown to pieces.

Like many monster movies from the 1950s, this borrows heavily from Them!(1954) in it's depiction of a coalition between military and scientific forces and it's structure as a mystery. The octopus does not make an appearance until nearly a half an hour in, much like in the earlier film and it's a mark left by the monster(in this case a tentacle mark on the beach, rather than an ant print) that makes the heroes aware of the monster's appearance.
Despite a low budget, which was so low that Harryhausen only animated six tentacles on the octopus, the effects are phenomenal and it's always an entertaining picture to enjoy. The standout sequences, including the famous attack on Golden Gate and It's destuction of a ship at sea, are among the best moments in any monster movie. Harryhausen shows his mastery and hints at better things to come, particularly with his mythological pictures in the latter part of the decade and into the 60s.
The picture's main problem lies in the obtrusive Dragnet-like narration, which detracts from the suspense and seems jarring and out of place. This problem was apparent in a few 50s flicks, including Earth vs. the Flying Saucers(1956), which insisted on the boring narration for whatever reason. It dosen't cripple the picture, but it dosen't help much either.

The cast perform well, particularly Kenneth Tobey, who was the 1950s science fiction film's best leading man. Despite some hilariously sexist dialouge(God bless the 50s) Tobey rises above the material to create a likeable and dimensional character, depicting the intelligence and dedication that was missing from too many similarly written characters. Nothing beats his Captain Hendry from The Thing(1951), but this is a good part, nonetheless. Likewise, Domergue is typically beautiful and handles her part well, and the added feminist angle is refreshing, providing a nice contrast to Tobey's more old-fashioned character, though both develop respect and admiration for each other by film's end. Domergue was another staple in 50s sci-fi, probably best known for being fondled by the Metaluna mutant in This Island Earth(1955) or her seductive performance in Cult of the Cobra(1955).

It Came From Beneath The Sea is not one of the great monster movies of the 50s, but it's an entertaining and pleasant enough diversion that should cause a splash with b-movie buffs and Harryhausen devotees, to which i'm sure, are all of you that frequent this blog. It was recently colorized, along with Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers(1956) and 20,000,000 Miles to Earth(1957), for those that are curious. This reviewer still prefers it in glorious black and white.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Never Met A Ghost I Didn't Liked

The Headless Horseman(1922)
Director: Edward D. Venturini
Cast: Will Rogers, Lois Meredith, Ben Hendricks Jr.

All but fogotten early adaption of the Washington Irving classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, perhaps the finest American ghost story. This obscurity is not mentioned in most film guides i've ever seen and in fact, was used as a bonus feature on Alpha DVD's The Mechanical Man DVD! It's a wonderful curio piece, with a handful of creepy images and an excellent feel for the period, evoking Washington's imagery better than most other versions. It's easily the most faithful(practically to the letter) of the original story and is most notable for the truly bizarre casting of Will Rogers as Ichabod Crane, the unlikeable schoolmaster with the wonderful name!

The plot is virtually identical to the story, following Ichabod's journey to Sleepy Hollow, a dutch hamlet with a very clannish and close-minded society. The arrogant and pompous Crane is not recieved well and it's no surprise, as he regularly disciplines the children and mooches off of the village. Plus, he upsets the town bully, Brom Bones(Ben Hendricks Jr.) by hitting on his sweetheart, Katrina Van Tassel(Lois Meredith). Ichabod is very superstitious, so the crafty Brom uses this to his advantage and frightens the schoolmaster with tales of the Headless horseman, a ghost who returns to ride nightly in a single area, searching for his lost head. One evening, while returning home, Ichabod is confronted by the specter, which proceeds to chase him right out of Sleepy Hollow! It turns out to be Brom, but it's a nicely atmospheric segment, nonetheless, even if for some viewers, it probably felt like awhile to get there.

Far from a great silent, this works best as a curio-piece for the classic horror fan and is important as being so faithful to it's original source. It's fascinating to watch, considering most of it was actually shot not far from the real locations described in the short story. For some peculiar reason, this is one of the only live-action versions made during Hollywood's classic period, which is a shame, considering the number of beautifully made supernatural pictures that would emerge within the next few decades.
The direction is at times, remarkable, particularly the flashback depicting the ghost of the headless horseman stalking a graveyard and the exciting ending. However, there's far too little horror and scares, when there should have been much more. The age and the attention to period detail help create a nice sense for atmosphere, but it's not as memorable as it could have been. A big part of the problem lies with the miscasting of Will Rogers, known for his loveable and folksy characterizations in the early 30s. Will certainly looks the part, but it's an odd choice, and hard to take. None of the other actors are really that memorable and while some fault probably lies within the original story, it's difficult to warm up to such a prejudiced people. At one point, they even try to tar and feather Ichabod, who depsite being a bit of an ass, does not deserve that! That was provoked by Brom Bones, the perennial meathead, who makes up a lie about Ichabod, so he can get Katrina all to himself, and because of Ichabod's arrogant nature, there's not much to find sympathy with here.

This is not entirely without merit however, and deserves at least some mention among the early American horror films, and makes a nice filler for a Halloween marathon. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of the great classic tales of the supernatural and because of this film's relative accuracy, that's enough to reccomend it.

Below is Ub Iwerks' 1934 cartoon version of the story. It's a cute adaption and another great view for Halloween, though not nearly as creepy as the same animator's Jack Frost, which always serves to remind me why I hate winter. Brrrrrrr!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

He Can Be Destroyed, But Not Killed

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness(1965)
Director: Terence Fisher
Cast: Christopher Lee, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews

Christopher Lee returns as the Count in this 1965 sequel to the 1958 classic, Horror of Dracula. The last film in the series to be directed by Terence Fisher, is probably also the final one to be considered a classic. Lee has no dialouge in this film, not that his Dracula was ever much of a conversationlist, but he is effective and worthy of the title, "Prince of Darkness."

The film opens with the ending of the original picture, with Van Helsing defeating Dracula in the sunlight. Ten years later, the local populace are still fearful of the castle and it's master. Father Sandor(Andrew Keir) is disgusted by their fear, especially when they attempt to stake a recently deceased young woman in front of her screaming mother. Keir is an impressive force in this picture, proving a worthy foe for Lee's Count and an excellent replacement for the much missed, Peter Cushing.
The gun-packing(!) Father goes to a local inne and discovers two sets of couples on their way to Carlstad, which the Father attempts to dissuade them from going and because this is a horror movie, they don't listen. The four english vacationers are stranded at a crossroads by a frightened coach driver and are met by another coach that takes them to Dracula's castle. There they are met by Dracula's servant, Klove(Philip Latham) who says they have been expected. The most conservative of the group, Helen(Barbara Shelley) protests and demands that they leave, but her complaints are not taken to heart(including an unintentionally hilarious scene where Klove visits her and her husband, Alan(Charles Tingwell) and asks them if anything is needed and as soon as she leaves, she flips out and says "everything about this house is evil!" For whatever reason, everything about this segment makes me laugh.)
Klove lures Alan away and kills him and hangs up his body to provide the lifeforce to ressurect Dracula. The Count awakes and proceeds to victimize Helen, and thus a new reign of terror has begun.

Meanwhile, Alan's brother, Charles(Francis Matthews) and his wife, Diana(Suzan Farmer) are talking about Diana's old flame, Horace Peabody, one of the great nerd names of all time. The following day, Charles and Diana can't find the other couple, so they leave, but Charles can't leave his brother. Klove returns to the crossroads and picks up Diana and tries to bring her to Dracula. Charles has discovered his brother's corpse and fights Dracula, which proves foolish, as he is tossed aside and strangled. Luckliy, Diana has a crucifix and discovers that it affects them, as the cross has burned the flesh of the newly vampirized(and very sexy) Helen, who is decked out in a nightgown with lots of cleavage. In a really creative bit, Charles takes a broken sword, which he had previously used to try and strike Dracula(should have run him through) and uses it as a makeshift cross. Making their escape, the couple are found by Father Sandor, who takes them to his parrish, where he explains the truths of vampirism. Dracula has tracked them there and uses a resident Renfield-stand in, Ludwig(Thorley Walters) to carry out his deeds. Diana is forced to drink Dracula's blood and is infected, but Helen is staked and destroyed, in a scene that has to be one of the more disturbing staking scenes in a horror film.
Dracula takes Diana and they escape by carriage. Sandor and Charles go in pursuit and are able to race Dracula back to the castle, where Klove is shot by Charles and Diana is rescued. Charles takes a hammer and stake to finish off the Count, whose coffin fell off the carriage onto a frozen stream outside his castle. The sun sets and Dracula attacks and fights Charles. Diana, fearing for her husband, shoots and misses, causing the ice to break and water to come forth. Running water is deadly to the vampire and Father Sandor fires at the ice, causing it to break and the Count to sink beneath the icy waters to his death.

Dracula, Prince of Darkness is a very fun Hammer horror, and sadly, one of the last, true gothics the company was to produce before the scripts became too contemporary and silly. Fisher delivers a fast-paced picture that continues to add several little bits from the Dracula legend, including some novel ideas on how to defeat a vampire. The atmosphere is well handled and it almost feels like the bare concept(stranded travellers fall prey to a monster) would serve many a future horror film.
Keir is excellent as the vampire hunter and it's a pity that he did not return again to do battle with other creatures of the night. His authoritative presence and sly bits of humor and warmth are what make his character likeable and memorable. Little moments, like joking about his excuses that he gives the priest about his game meat that he shot, or the joys of warming one's posterior, add immeasurably to the development of his character.
Francis Matthews is very good as Charles, providing a relateable and easy going hero that was often absent from so many gothic classics. With a vocal similarity to Cary Grant(!) and some last reel determination, he makes for a solid horror hero. Barbara Shelley is liekwise fine as the distressed Helen, who goes from chief and proper complainer to hot vampire mama with a high libido. She's one of cinema's sexiest and most memorable bloodsuckers, her voice bringing a dark sensuality to her character that makes one wish she had portrayed more such femme fatales. Shelley was a fine actress and carries this role fare beyond the standard sex symbol angle that Hammer was all about.
The rest of the cast perform well enough, Thorley Walters always a delight in practically everything he has appeared in, making a real interesting turn as Renfield, er, I mean, Ludwig. His "fly tea" is both grotesque and comic and he believably straddles that line between madness and sympathy. Philip Latham is very chilling as Klove, a mysterious and frightful character that only a guy like Dracula would hang with.

Lee is silent but very menacing in the role that he made his own. Where Lugosi was mystical and mysterious, with his odd(and quotable) phrasings, Lee brings just an athletic and animalistic quality to his Dracula. He just has to hiss and you know it's game over for the intended victim. Lee is a very physical Dracula and combines an imposing stature with sex appeal that would influence scores of others to follow. I remember reading in Bob Madison's Dracula: The First 100 Years, that Lee had very little impact on the part, and the author proceeded to attack the actor mercilessly throughout what was, a very bizarre book. He was completely wrong. With all the super athletic vampires of today and all the added sex, which has all but replaced the horror, it can be safely said that Lee did indeed influence scores of cinema Draculas. It was the very physical presence that made the character more human and as a result, more dangerous. This is certainly not a knock on Lugosi, but it was a different and effective turn for the character, as this film illustrates.

I've always been very fond of this title since I discovered it as a child and would probably rank this among the ten best of the Hammer horror classics. It's alot of fun and creepy enough to please fans of the genre and the character. Of course, it's not as good as the original, or as brilliantly gothic as Brides of Dracula(1960), but it's an entertaining and frightening film with several memorable vignettes that stay with the viewer far longer than most films dealing with the king of vampires. Even with no lines, Christopher Lee owns as Count Dracula.

P.S. I decided to add the double feature trailer, because I just love the narrator in this. Listen to how he says, "Dracula, Prince of Darkness!" It's just great.