Category Archives: US

Batman (1966)

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

SBS recently announced that they’ve purchased the 1960s Batman TV series, which announcement comes… unfortunately timed to coincide with the death a few days earlier of series star Adam West. Not SBS’ fault, I’m sure, cos I’ve no doubt the negotiations to buy the series would’ve begun some time before West’s passing (I don’t think you just casually do that sort of thing even these days), but still. Anyway, to warm us up for the series ahead of it starting next month, they gave us the movie tonight, which I may not have seen since, well, the 1980s, which was probably also the last time I saw the series (I have the latter on DVD but haven’t watched it yet)… Basically the film was produced as a sort of introduction to the series (filmed after the first series had completed shooting), but then the series launch date got moved way ahead of its original schedule so the film had to be held back, rendering it a bit useless for its intended purpose. Still, on its own terms it’s a huge lot of fun… I know the series copped flak for years for being an exercise in camp rather than evincing the pulp grittiness of the original comics, but let’s face it: the comics by that time were hardly masterpieces of noir, even before the CCA neutered comics generally in the 50s, DC were taking their own initiatives to tone Batman down within months of his first appearance and wouldn’t toughen him up again until the 70s. So the film is really just of its time in that respect, and it knows the basic strangeness of the whole superhero/supervillian narrative and it runs joyously with its own ridiculousness; everyone involved hits the right comedic pitch (the bomb scene is an outstanding setpiece), and West’s ability to keep a straight face is genuinely admirable at times. Much fun, and though I’ve got the series on DVD like I said, I’ll probably watch it on TV anyway…

The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (1979)

Directors: Chuck Jones & Phil Monroe

Look, I know there isn’t much point in me watching this. I’ve got the big DVD box set with all the original cartoons on it (barring, notably, Hare-Way to the Stars, incomprehensibly excluded from the Golden Collection series) remastered and uncut (the editing performed here on Long-Haired Hare damages one of the best gags in it). It’s kind of outlived its usefulness in some respects, and there’s not a lot of point to watching it now, unless you really want to be faintly disgusted by the absence of Bob Clampett and Ben Hardaway among the list of Bugs’ “fathers” (the latter—who only gave the bunny his name, after all—seems to have been an honest mistake on Jones’ part, but the former was a deliberate act of spite by Jones, who had a notable grudge against him). And yet, when I was looking through the TV guide to see what was on today and I saw TBB/RRM listed there… how could I not watch it? Cos it’s great. The component parts are all great, some of them among the very best things to come from Warners’ animation department (and I’ve said for a long time now that the best of the Warner cartoons are among the best films made by anyone anywhere at any time), and it’s still a pretty amazing highlights package, markedly better than the other recycled compilations that followed it in the 80s, cos Jones and Monroe were careful to (mostly) leave the originals alone and limit the new material to essentially introductory links rather than trying to embed the old stuff as stock footage into a new story (cf. 1001 Rabbit Tales). I’ve loved this since I was little, and it still works for me now. It’s a joy to watch, basically, and I suppose that’s really all the reason you need to do so.

Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott

So I previously mentioned the ongoing challenge at ICM forum for films of this decade, and now there’s one for films of the oughts, so I’m doing both in conjunction with that vague plan I have of finishing off the 1001 Movies list now I’ve got almost all the films on that… As such, I’ve finally got around to this, and OY do I have problems with it. I mean, it’s an OK film, albeit one that is vastly and unnecessarily overlong—nothing really justifies it being nearly three hours in length—and technically adequate, that sort of thing. It’s just… the history. And historical subjects almost always have some sort of problem with historical fact… you know, there’ll be anachronisms of some sort (which Gladiator is apparently full of), or else characters have been invented or maybe even created out of more than one actual person (which Shakespeare himself did), or events have been invented or otherwise distorted (cf. Matthew Hopkins getting killed in Witchfinder General as opposed to the actual Hopkins dying of TB at home). I’m not usually bothered by that sort of thing. A problem arises, though, when something like this film wants to sell itself as history but is basically predicated on something that never happened…

In this case, Russell Crowe and his variable accent play Roman general Maximus Meridius, fighting under the emperor Marcus Aurelius at Vienna in 180 AD; the venerable Marcus wants to appoint him his successor rather than his son Commodus, who he thinks is unworthy, and he wants Maximus to restore the old Rome. Commodus takes this… badly and kills the old boy, taking the purple before Maximus can; the latter escapes execution but gets captured into slavery, being trained as a gladiator and readying himself for revenge. In other words, it’s basically a modern knock-off of Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, and that’s fair enough… except, like I said, it’s predicated on something that didn’t happen. Commodus was, well, a bit of a commode as emperor; I don’t know if he was the weaselly git with daddy (and sister) issues who just wanted people to love him that Joaquin Phoenix presents him as, but he wasn’t one of the great emperors. But he was already emperor before Marcus Aurelius’ death, co-emperor with his old man in fact, who he didn’t actually kill either. And that’s a bit of bad history that hangs over the entire film and made it difficult at best to fully get into it. Unfortunate, cos, apart from the sluggish first hour or so, it’s not too bad for the sort of thing it is; Crowe and Phoenix are outshone vastly as performers by some of the secondary cast (most notably Oliver Reed), but on the whole it’s OK, and by the end I think I liked it more than I’d initially expected. It’s just… the “history”.

Dark Intruder (1965)

Director: Harvey Hart

And so, to officially end this year’s month of horror, we turn to the small screen. Kind of. This was actually the pilot for a proposed TV series called The Black Cloak, which none of the American TV networks wanted to touch cos they considered it a bit… heavy or something. An occult detective chasing a sort of Jack the Ripper but with more demonic tendencies in fin-de-siècle San Francisco? That was too much for TV audiences to deal with. So Universal, somewhat grudgingly, put it out in cinemas as a supporting feature since they couldn’t do much else with it, and the networks were smug until, a few years later, The Night Stalker demonstrated TV audiences were actually perfectly fine watching that sort of thing… Anyway, I first heard about this years ago, read about it in a book about film adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft; this isn’t actually one, but the passing reference to Azathoth (and, more obscurely, Nyogtha) demonstrates that author Barré Lyndon had at least a passing acquaintance with the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Sumerian business is kind of fascinating in light of the infamous “Simonomicon” over a decade later. (Wonder if this was an influence at all?) Basically, the plot is as I briefly described above, Leslie Nielsen plays Brett Kingsland, a bon vivant playboy in 1890 San Fran where a series of strange murders is taking place, which he finds have something to do with Sumerian demonology in some way; while the “film” is kind of evidently an episode of a TV show in its execution, the story’s actually pretty good and there are some decent things here. It’s hard to entirely disagree with this piece that calls Nielsen the weak link in the chain, though, even if only because of hindsight; this predates his “official” comedic coming-out in Flying High, but he rather notably plays Brett in a flippant, foppish style that kind of looks a bit weird. “Frank Drebin without the jokes” isn’t actually that far off. Still, this was just the pilot for the show, and I imagine certain things would’ve been fiddled with had a series been commissioned (remember how different Star Trek was in pilot form?). That one wasn’t is, I think, a great disappointment; Dark Intruder certainly looks like the potential was there.

The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis

So that’s one of the more substantial holes in my acquaintance with horror cinema filled at last… I can’t think of any good reason why AAWiL has eluded me until tonight, cos it’s not like it’s an obscure thing; I’ve always known about it, it’s one of the more famous horrors of the early 80s, it’s never been exactly hard to get, I’ve recorded the fucking thing off SBS twice… but no, until tonight, it was just one of those films I’d never got around to seeing for no real reason. My loss, cos it’s an awful lot of fun. At heart there’s actually something kind of old-fashioned about the story, and I don’t think that’s just because Landis wrote it over a decade before he actually filmed it, I think it might’ve seemed that way had he made it in 1971 rather than 1981… there are a few explicit references to the 1941 Wolf Man, so the film does kind of overtly look back to the Universal films. It’s things like the somewhat bizarre sense of humour (like that Muppet Show excerpt) and the surprising amount of time star David Naughton spends naked (the film’s IMDB trivia page has a delightful detail about why Landis had to be careful about getting Naughton’s tackle in shot) that mark it out as something more modern, but I think it’s the film’s focus on character that’s most notable; I was actually surprised by how comparatively minimal the werewolf action is… it’s nearly an hour before we get to the groundbreaking transformation scene (still pretty stunning), and though the climactic havoc at Piccadilly Circus is terrifically pulled off, it’s also relatively brief. The time spent building the characters up, though, is well spent; Naughton is great as this sort of everyman guy in a pretty fucked situation, which is worse than usual cos Landis adds a neat twist whereby Naughton has to face the spirits of the people he killed on his first rampage and listen to them debate about how he should kill himself (cos his death is the only thing that will let them rest in peace). It’s almost like the werewolf isn’t a tragic enough figure as it is. Great stuff that I really should’ve seen years ago.

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post

Cult Sinema is back in Sydney! It’s been an awfully long time since the Mu-Meson crew ran films at the Annandale; now they have a new home in Petersham, and OY did they kick off the revival in style… Being part of the Drive-In Delirium collection, The Baby is a film whose trailer I’ve seen many times, and so I had some idea of what to expect, i.e. a sort of southern Gothic melodrama (albeit one set in what I presume were rather more northern suburbs) involving the titular baby… who just so happens to be a young adult who never developed beyond infancy. And one day a social worker takes on Baby and his family—mother and two sisters—as her latest client, for reasons that finally become clear at the end. So I was prepared for some strangeness… and yet I was woefully underprepared for just how strange it would get. Put bluntly, this is profoundly fucking warped; there’s an early hint that something untoward happened to a previous social worker who dealt with the Wadsworth family, and it doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that the rest of the family has even more problems than Baby, but OH MY just how problematic they are is something else. The scariest actually scary thing in the film—which I’m filing under “horror” cos that’s the best I can do with it—is Marianna Hunt’s astounding bouffant hair in the party scene, cos it looks more like 1983 than 1973, but the overall atmosphere of wrongness (enhanced by the film’s bizarre pacing and bravura scenery chewing by pretty much everyone involved, especially Ruth Roman’s matriarch) is the main thing, especially in the last third or so when the emotional temperature goes from merely superheated to positively thermonuclear. This film, basically, is fucked, and I enjoyed it immensely through all the times I had to keep picking my jaw off the floor.

The Undying Monster (1942)

Director: John Brahm

So, in 1941, Universal had a hit with The Wolf Man, and the people at 20th Century Fox decided they should do something like that as well. Except that they apparently saw no need to go the whole hog and make it an A production… but the end result still looks like one somehow. Not sure exactly what they did to save money, but The Undying Monster looks extraordinary when it comes to art direction and cinematography (an early job by Lucien Ballard); apparently a blu-ray is forthcoming and it should look amazing in HD given how good it looked in the OK online copy I watched. The film was adapted from a 1922 novel of the same name, but I suspect the aforementioned 1941 film was really more of an influence… from what I can gather, the film slims down the novel considerably though it does seem to retain the general outline. As the title may indicate, there is a monster afoot (and if, like me, you discovered this film via a reference work like Wm. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film, you’ll know exactly what it is), but the film keeps it off-screen until the last reel; I imagine that even viewers in 1942 who didn’t know what the monster was were wondering long before then when it would finally appear. But the film is so compact (something like 63 minutes—like I said, this is a 1940s B film we’re talking about) that it doesn’t matter that much, and the only foot it really puts wrong is the comic relief detective’s assistant character (Heather Thatcher has some impressive other roles to her credit, but this was not her finest hour, evidently). Otherwise, it’s a fascinating little late-Victorian Gothic tale (dressed up with some of the finest science 1900 could buy), told with fine expressionist visual flair, and it should be better known than it probably is these days.

The Mummy series (1940-1944)

Over the years I’ve watched pretty much all of Universal’s classic horrors from the Good Old Days, plus a few of the lesser ones, and most of their various sequels. One series I’ve missed until now, though, is the Mummy films of the 40s… they’re not really follow-ups to the 1932 Karloff film (indeed, when Hammer did their own Mummy in 1959, these films were their point of departure rather than the earlier one), so they’re not in the same “cinematic universe” to use that godawful term. In this second phase of “Universal Monsters”, of course, the studio didn’t care as much about their horror films as they did in the early 30s and the Mummy films in particular seem to have only ever been intended as a B programmer series. I have a feeling one entry will be sufficient to cover the four of them…

The Mummy’s Hand (Christy Cabanne, 1940): An unpromising start at best for the adventures of Kharis, sloppy enough that even I noticed errors in it (of which the use of stock footage from the 1932 Mummy visibly featuring Boris Karloff is one of the more egregious; in fact, I think I may have spotted a notable continuity error not listed on the film’s IMDB entry). It’s pulp adventure, basically, nothing inherently wrong with that, and it does actually improve somewhat once the actual expedition to uncover the tomb gets underway, but the whole thing is hamstrung by Cabanne’s evident determination to play for laughs, so when the film’s comic relief is actually a main character you’ll be seeing throughout the film rather than just a secondary walk-on… yeah, not good. I’ll give it points for interesting timing, though, being clearly set in Egypt in 1940 but making no reference (at least that I saw) to a certain war going on, and being released in the same month that the Italians invaded Egypt. Just a few months later and they could’ve been in the film…

The Mummy’s Tomb (Harold Young, 1942): Not only were the 40s Mummy films not in the same “cinematic universe” as the 1932 film, they seem to have been in a different universe to each other. Beginning with a recap of the previous film so long I actually didn’t need to watch it after all, we find thirty years have passed, so it should be 1970… but our hero gets orders at one point to report for war service, which means that like the previous film it’s clearly set the year it was made… leaving some 28 years to be accounted for (not to mention that Wallace Ford’s character has a different name for some reason). We’re getting into Velikovsky territory here… But at least the mummy (Lon Chaney Jr) gets to do more than just lumber around like a stroke victim (indeed, he gives one of his victims a stroke), there’s revenge to be taken after the indignities of the previous film. Notwithstanding the clear padding of the opening reel, this was actually pretty good; Ford’s character is minimised and played straight, and director Young generally handles things with more care and seriousness than Cabanne did. An improvement on the first film (though wouldn’t it make more sense to swap the titles round?), much the best of the whole series indeed; and regardless of whenever it’s supposed to take place, a mob of villagers with flaming torches clearly never goes out of date…

The Mummy’s Ghost (Reginald Le Borg, 1944): Now, this was apparently finished by September 1943, but then it sat on Universal’s shelves for nearly a year. And there may be a perfectly good reason for that (cf. Arsenic & Old Lace: filmed in 1941, couldn’t be released until the Broadway production finally ended in 1944), but it usually seems to indicate a lack of faith in the product… Anyway, the cult that looked after Kharis in Egypt has changed its name as well for some reason, but otherwise we seem to be in the same time frame, whatever that was, of the previous film, maybe a couple of years after, so it could be 1943 or about 1975 or when the hell ever; Kharis’ new keeper (John Carradine, whose stick figure physique and voice are probably the film’s highlights) is tasked with returning him and the remains of Princess Ananka. But this gets tricky when it becomes evident that Ananka has finally latched onto the main plot of the 1932 Mummy and reincarnated… It’s adequately well made, I suppose, although the poor day-for-night filming is extremely distracting and the nice romantic couple kind of dull. Still, if most of the film is really only kind of average, the rather brave downbeat ending provides an unusual and dark twist, and at least there’s no stock footage from the earlier films in this one.

The Mummy’s Curse (Leslie Goodwins, 1944): And so it’s now another 25 years after whenever the Mummy’s last adventure was, and the swamp in which he submerges in the previous film has… well, moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana. Universal were clearly very hopeful that their audiences wouldn’t pick up on not insignificant details like this, weren’t they… anyway, in 1944 or 1997 or WHENEVER, an irrigation project to drain a swamp inadvertently brings Kharis back, a little ray of sunshine inadvertently brings Ananka back as well, and she’s not particularly impressed that lover boy is still pursuing her 3000 years later… Not much more than a fairly empty retread, and not much more to be said about it; probably a good thing the series stopped here, cos I can’t see where else it might’ve gone. Though it could very well have gone to California or something, given the geographic wonder of the narrative…

The Black Room (1935)

Director: Roy William Neill

“I can’t believe it’s not Universal!” Yeah, you don’t usually associate Columbia with this sort of thing; I can only assume Harry Cohn looked at the returns from Universal’s horror films of recent years (remember The Black Cat was the studio’s biggest money-spinner just the year before) and decided he should try some of that action. Director Neill and his production team would appear to have taken hints (and, apparently, some of the sets) from Universal and indeed the other studios that had dabbled in the genre, although the mission here was to come up with something less lurid than that, more a period melodrama with Gothic vibes. And Boris Karloff, in what is, effectively, actually three roles: the twin brothers, one of whom kills the other and then impersonates the latter. Basically, Gregor and Anton are the scions of an old noble family with a prophecy attached, that when twins were born, the younger would murder the elder out of spite at, you know, not inheriting anything. However, it’s actually Gregor, the elder, who grows up to be a nasty shit hated by his village folk, while the younger Anton is a kinder, gentler figure who, frankly, doesn’t seem like a murderer at all. But when he returns to the village after years of absence, the plot that unfolds is a bit more complicated than the old prophecy suggests. This is a fairly small and unassuming film in many ways (I assume it was meant primarily as a B programmer) and there’s a couple of possible plot holes if you look closely, but it’s surprisingly handsomely made, perfectly formed at 68 minutes, and of course Karloff is terrific in it; he didn’t always get much chance to demonstrate his actual acting skills in the films he made, but he rightly seizes the opportunity here.