Archive for the 'Miscellaneous' Category

5 Blu-rays I’d Take To The Moon

It’s still what I’d consider to be fairly early stages for Blu-ray given a slower than desirable mass uptake of the format, however some of us are already addicted to watching films in High Definition. I think there are several reasons it’s very much worth upgrading for: the increased resolution of a Blu-ray image brings what you see closer to how it might be seen projected from film. Often films are released with ‘lossless’ audio, meaning that the codec used does not dispose of any information that is perceivable through the human ear - therefore theoretically giving us the same quality (depending on your AV equipment obviously) that might be heard when the film is originally sound-mastered. There is of course the supremely enhanced storage capacity of Blu-ray, usually meaning that disc swapping is not as prevalent as it was/is for DVD. Added to that is the development of genuine 3D functionality meaning that distinctly different 1080p images (i.e. Full HD) can be delivered to each eye with the help of suitably equipped AV gear and specs - this is a feature that‘s up and coming but could herald a new era in home cinema/gaming.

I think the resolution of the format grants us with the most perfect balance between source detail and unnecessary noise: any less (e.g. standard definition) and we lose out on valuable picture information, whereas any more (whatever comes further down the line, if anything) would only give us more grain and/or visual flaws. Therefore, more extras notwithstanding, I think most films (at least those shot on 16/35mm film itself) transferred to Blu-ray should never really have to be bought again unless there’s some sort of fundamental flaw in the A/V department or with completeness of material.

Only owning about 50 Blu-ray Discs so far I thought it would be more appropriate to whittle it down to 5 rather than effectively listing 20% of my collection. So, with great difficulty I’ve chosen the following that represent my current favourites (again in no particular order), something I may update as time goes on…

Blade Runner

Blade Runner (Warner, US)

After years of uncertainty over whether we’d ever see the definitive edition - in any format - dust settled and Warner bestowed us with the definitive edition in spades. The film had been revisited and many corrections were made (for example, replacing the face of the obvious stuntwoman/replicant falling through glass with that of the actress), it was remastered in excess of HD resolution for best image quality, granted with a superlative surround mix, and placed on the first disc of this set as ‘The Final Cut’. Just in case, however, you preferred the ‘Director’s Cut’ of the early 90s (which is not really the director’s cut in truest sense) that’s on the third disc, along with the original theatrical version… and the more violent European version… furthermore even the rarely seen Workprint edition is included on the fifth disc. Therefore, just about nobody has room for complaint. The mammoth Dangerous Days documentary takes up the second disc and the fourth is filled with other extras. This is the only version of Blade Runner you ever need to buy, although why Warner chose to only let the UK have the first two discs for Blu-ray owners is beyond me, and a little underhanded. Rest assured that the US release plays on UK players without regional coding issues.

Psycho

Psycho (Universal, UK)

I’ve heard it said that older films don’t benefit so much from the HD upgrade… well check this one out. It wasn’t an especially big-budgeted film, it was shot it B&W, and looks fantastic. Audio options are provided in either lossless surround or original mono, plus there are plenty of extras. The disc is also available in either standard blue box or limited tin - I went for, and would recommend, the latter as it’s more appealing as a physical product and there’s an additional booklet inside over the standard edition.

Dark City

Dark City (EIV, UK)

I believe it’s been mentioned here and there online that the film suffers from excess Digital Noise Reduction - maybe, maybe not; personally I’m thrilled to have this HD edition and it thrashes my old Region 1 DVD in every respect. Firstly, and most importantly, the disc contains both the theatrical cut and the preferred untainted vision of Alex Proyas, restoring the ideas that were diluted somewhat by studio nervousness. Image quality is way superior to that of DVD, as is the audio, plus there’s a wealth of extras. Complain if you wish about this example of the modern film buyer getting too fussy for their boots, but this is a fantastic disc of one of the best philosophical science fiction films to come out of the US since, well, ever!

Institute Benjamena

Institute Benjamenta (British Film Institute, UK)

Back in my university days I picked up a video cassette of this live action movie in the library, interested mainly because of the better known (though still obscure in mainstream terms) animation work of its directors. Immediately I recognised that it would be something unique and lost in its own strange world. Having a vibe that makes me think of David Lynch shooting a Grimm fairytale the story tells of a man who visits an academy in the middle of oppressive woods where he’s confronted by the weirdly conformist behaviour of its pupils. Shot in grainy B&W with a disturbing sound mix this Brothers Quay film is perfectly represented on the Blu-ray Disc. There’s a fantastic documentary containing interviews with the brothers and some of the cast/crew, plus some short Quay films for added value. There’s a nice booklet containing essays/notes, plus a DVD containing pretty much the same content is included in the package, meaning that almost anybody who likes the look of this film can pick it up. Overall a tremendous collector’s item from BFI.

Night of the Creeps

Night of the Creeps (Sony, US)

God, after so long waiting for Fred Dekkar’s careful analysis of… zombies, creepy crawlies, and exploding heads, Sony saves us having to double dip by releasing it on Blu-ray as well as DVD! Of course I picked up the former (it plays without a hitch on UK BD machines), and no longer do I have to sit through the fullscreen stereo video cassette that I’ve had for nigh on twenty years - glorious widescreen Full HD presentation of the director’s cut (which ends slightly differently and still can’t make my mind up whether I prefer it), lossless DTS surround (i.e. it should sound as good here as it did in the mixing studio), plus commentaries and quite a lot of documentary material. Not a demo disc mind you (comparing this to the likes of Cars or Speed Racer) but the definitive home cinema release of a cool 80s comedy horror that has deservedly built itself a cult reputation.

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Having been a Blu-ray movie buyer for a while, I now consider myself ‘avid’, and rather than people sitting around complaining about ‘DNR’ (unless it’s really taking the pi*s), grain (i.e. the inherent structure of the source product), absent mono tracks (a factor that can be compensated for with pretty much any AV equipment, though I always favour the original option if possible), a missing two minute EPK featurette that was once on the DVD (which would have added to the thousands of hours worth of extras we still haven‘t got time to watch), or the design of the bloody cover artwork, perhaps people who claim to love films should acknowledge the blessing that we’ve been bestowed with in this new format and get on with what originally got them interested in the first place: loving films, and enjoying them in better quality than we’ve ever had before (and, worryingly, than we might ever get again).

Posted on 19th September 2010
Under: Miscellaneous | 5 Comments »

10 DVDs I’d Take To An Island…

Whilst DVD may be in its twilight years it’s a long way off dead yet, despite Blu-ray’s superiority over the format. I personally buy most of my films on Blu-ray nowadays but there are a high percentage of people out there happy to cling on to Standard Definition viewing for the foreseeable future. I kind of lament this in some ways because it’s holding back the newer format a little in terms of how many films are being released (although there is a pretty big choice now) and whereas I love collecting Euro horror from the 60s through to the 80s for example, it’s a fact that currently there is nowhere near enough of such niche products arriving in High Definition. This situation is slowly correcting itself, however, and it’s surprising to see a British company such as Arrow leading the way with the likes of the City of the Living Dead Blu-ray (the UK release actually tipping the scales in favour of its US cousin in terms of extras, and equalling it in image/sound departments), and world firsts such as Inferno as well as what looks suspiciously like an HD release of The Beyond next year - count me in! For such minority acquired tastes Blue Underground seems to be leading the way stateside with Shout Factory coming a close second (who the hell would have expected the gory, crazy, trashy - but downright fun - Forbidden World on Blu-ray at this stage?!?), though regional coding is once again rearing its pig-ugly head in some cases…

Seeing as I consider my bulk DVD buying days to be pretty much over (although I still do pick up the odd disc - for example, Fulci’s Perversion Story recently, which would surprise me if a Blu-ray materialised any time soon) I thought it would be a nice ‘epitaph’ to consider my top ten favourite DVD releases since the format’s revolutionary inception. There will inevitably be things absent from here in the opinion of others, and there may be discs here that others would like to stamp on/discard down the nearest toilet, but there’s no accounting for taste as somebody better than I once said… The following are in no particular order:

The Universal Monster Legacy Collection (Universal, UK)

This is a magnificent item to take centre position on the shelves - a pretty large box with a transparent frontage visibly containing busts of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster, and Lon Chaney Jnr.’s Wolf Man. The box contained good-looking transfers of pretty much all the relevant classics featuring the aforementioned prowling creatures, plus The Invisible Man and The Mummy amongst others. Plentiful extras rounded out the collection. It didn’t contain the Mummy sequels unfortunately (I understand the US equivalent did) but I was kindly granted with a boxed set containing these other movies to complete (as much as I’d like) my collection. There were a couple of turds in the set (She-Wolf of London - snooze…) plus of course Universal were responsible for many more semi-classics in the golden age (a nice case in point is The Old Dark House) but the avid viewer of creaky B&W chillers would have to seek these out elsewhere. Regardless of this, the Legacy box is a cool presence in one’s movie room.

Re-Animator (Elite,US)

Stuart Gordon has directed a number of really fine (loose) adaptations of H.P.Lovecraft’s work over the last 25 years, but his first is still probably the best. Not dealing with the author’s typical detailing of ancient monsters, this story depicts a man who experiments with bringing dead things back to life - Gordon wisely injected a dose of very black humour and 80s prosthetics/gore, plus cast the perfect actor for the role (Jeff Combs). This resulted in an instant classic that justifies this “Millennium Edition” that Elite graced with extras, a DTS surround track, and a thick double disc case that remains distinctively green (the colour of West’s re-animation serum…).

Carnival of Souls (Criterion, US)

One of the low-budget greats has been out on so many substandard discs due to its apparent ‘public domain’ status it’s a wonder anybody could be bothered doing it justice considering that market saturation would undoubtedly leave a dent in sales of any legitimate effort. Huge gratitude to Criterion then for putting such a great effort into Herk Harvey’s 1962 spook-fest. Conceptually predating the likes of Jacob’s Ladder and Sixth Sense Harvey’s film holds up very well today as a dream-like quest of discovery for the woman who feels unnaturally drawn to a deserted carnival and periodically drifts in and out of physical reality. Featuring both the conventional and extended cuts of the film with superb transfers, the set is rounded out by a load of deleted/unused footage, documentary, commentary, etc, making Criterion’s jewel the definitive edition to this day.

The Blind Dead Collection (Blue Underground, US)

Wow, this was a too-good-to-be-true announcement at the time! Redemption put out the first couple of films in Amando de’Ossorio’s cult zombie series back in the 90s on videotape, and I got my money’s worth out of those, but the third and fourth instalments were strangely elusive. Truly fantastic it was then when BU remastered all four films with both English and original Spanish audio options, plus a choice of cuts with the first couple of films. There was also a booklet and a fifth disc of further extras, probably unwarranted to be honest, given the fact that the material could have been fitted elsewhere in the set. All of this was contained in a grim coffin-shaped box to adorn the shelves of proud horror collectors everywhere.

Vampyr (Criterion, US)

My first experience of Carl Dreyer’s near silent exercise in surreal horror was inside a cinema in Amsterdam - German soundtrack with Dutch subtitles! Didn’t understand much but I recognised the film’s many strengths. One or two discs had appeared here and there which didn’t really do the film sufficient justice, so I was mega pleased when Criterion blew everything out of the water with this 2 disc set. To be fair, British company Eureka released the same film in a very good edition that’s the next best thing, but the aspect that won it over for me (aside from a marginally better image due to a higher level of natural grain) is the fact that Criterion’s set is such a beauty to behold. The two discs are housed in a fold-out digipack, and next to that is a book containing the screenplay in addition to the Sheridan Le Fanu story (Carmilla) on which the film was very loosely based, all contained within a highly attractive outer case that hints at the mysteries contained within. Truly lovely job!

Zombi 2 (Media Blasters, US)

The Shriek Show arm of Media Blasters did a great service to horror fans over the years and I have many of their discs in my collection, though to represent their highest achievement I chose to include their 2 discer of Lucio Fulci’s walking dead classic - better known as Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK, or simply Zombie in the US. The fact that MB chose to use the film’s Italian title on its beautifully designed embossed slipcase cover makes this an extra cool one. Following an old, now inadequate DVD by Anchor Bay US, this special edition was a long time in the waiting due to legal wrangles (the likes of which eventually saw a joint venture whereby Blue Underground also released a single disc version under the film’s American title) but well worth waiting for. With multiple soundtrack options in English and Italian, a second disc with a couple of hours of extras, and gorgeous design all round, this is Shriek Show’s crowning achievement.

La Casa Dalle Finestre Che Ridono (Fox, Italy)

AKA House With Windows That Laugh this is one of two Pupi Avati genre films that were surprisingly released by Fox over in Giallo Land. Adorned with an excellent transfer and strong surround remix this is the definitive presentation of an atmospheric rural chiller. Avati’s Zeder was put out around the same time, but his movie Arcane Enchanter is sadly still unavailable. La Casa… has since been unleashed in UK and US territories but the Italian DVD came with a cool slipcase cover with a hole/window in the front revealing part of the main amaray design. Plus some extras that I couldn’t understand…

Dawn of the Dead Ultimate Edition (Anchor Bay, US)

This monolithic four disc set from Anchor Bay is a highly desirable product amongst fans of Romero’s 1978 ground-breaker. Infamously, there are several official cuts of the movie - the theatrical cut, the European cut (overseen by Argento, and my least favourite), and a longer edit used for promotional purposes at the likes of Cannes at the time. Of course the theatrical version is really the so-called ‘Director’s Cut’ being the most polished in terms of pacing, music editing, balance of terror and drama, etc., but the fact that all three version were contained in the AB package made it very attractive. There was also a fourth disc housing documentaries such as the excellent Roy Frumkes feature Document of the Dead, commentaries all over the place, and just about anything else a fan could cherish, all archived together in a fold-out digi-pack within a minimalist, mostly black and red outer case. I’m in no rush to remove this one from my shelf.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (EIV, UK)

How could anybody not include the monumental extended editions boxed set of these three films? Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy adventure redefined the word ‘epic’, both as far as the movies are concerned and extending to the utterly exhaustive collection of extras spread across the 12 discs in this set. The packaging is also sumptuously designed throughout, really capturing the feel of the story across the whole set. I also consider the visual/audio quality of the films, especially Return of the King, to be the pinnacle that the format has to offer, but the whole package is exemplary in every respect.

Suspiria (Anchor Bay, UK)

This was a tough one to pick, partly because it was my last choice and partly because it’s a slightly flawed transfer (in terms of incomplete audio in a couple of places). Aside from that this is a now-acknowledged amazing piece of work from Dario Argento, a supernatural ride into witchcraft and cinematic insanity. I’d previously bought Suspiria a couple of times on VHS - the first tape (EIV) being fullscreen, censored and in mono, the second (Nouveaux) being a superior widescreen stereo uncut presentation - so this was a revelatory experience in terms of image quality and bombastic surround sound, really the way it was meant to be experienced. Anchor Bay’s 2 discer is special because it contains, amongst other bits, the feature length World of Horror documentary focusing on the director’s work, in addition to the charming booklet that gives the pack a bit of weight.

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That’s it then, better or worse. There are many other DVDs that I struggled over including but somehow felt the urge to get it down to a round 10 (some sort of pointless tradition?) - for example, Criterion’s wonderful Videodrome or their very early Robocop spinner (this latter disc possibly out of sentimentality as it was the first DVD I ever put on, though I do think it still holds up well today). Also I wouldn’t have minded something to represent the appreciable contributions of the now defunct BCI/Eclipse but couldn’t decide on one defining moment, though it was most likely going to be down to either Horror Rises From The Tomb or Night of the Werewolf. This wasn’t supposed to be a horror-exclusive list (hopefully Lord of the Rings testifies to that) but these choices happen to be amongst my favourites and that’s the way it is. There has been so much great stuff on DVD over the last 12 years or so, genre or otherwise, it really has been a film-collectors wet dream, but I think the baton is now in the hands of Blu-ray - once you’ve tasted HD you want more…

Posted on 10th September 2010
Under: Miscellaneous | 4 Comments »

Paul Naschy 1934 - 2009

The great Spanish horror movie icon Paul Naschy unfortunately passed away just a few days ago from that dreaded illness, cancer. This brief article isn’t even closely going to be a complete biographical history of the man who’s real name was Jacinto Molina (there are books and websites out there far better equipped, knowledge-wise, to do so), rather my own tiny tribute to someone who has provided more than his fair share of viewing pleasure to myself and many other genre fans over the last forty years or so.

Snap from Japanese Naschy book

Born in Madrid in 1934 the versatile actor, director, producer and writer successfully traversed from designing to weight lifting before managing to manifest his childhood love of movies with his own celluloid interpretation of Lon Chaney’s doomed Larry Talbot/Wolfman character, launching a series of films that would span several decades. Famously most inspired by Universal’s lovely clash of titans Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman these movies depicted the somewhat discontinuous exploits and sufferings of Waldemar Daninsky, a man eternally cursed with monthly transformations into a lamented werewolf. Highlights of this series have included El Retorno del Hombre-Lobo (Night of the Werewolf), Dr. Jekyll y el Hombre Lobo (Dr Jekyll versus The Werewolf) and the first entry in the series La Marca del Hombre Lobo (The Mark of the Wolfman, or more crudely known as Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror). Quality might have varied from film to film but there was something fascinating about this character, as Naschy injected his own spin on lycanthropic lore. These projects almost seem to be a deliberate mix of the old-fashioned B&W classics that inspired them, and a rebellious dash of blood and gore given birth by Spain’s religious and political constraints.

One of the pinnacles of his career was undoubtedly the bloody and sexy El Espanto Surge de la Tumba (Horror Rises From The Tomb) though it remains quite sad that much of his output has remained absent in home video. Some DVD companies have executed stellar jobs remastering and releasing his material to scare-hungry fans, notably BCI Eclipse/Deimos, Anchor Bay, Media Blasters/Shriek Show and Mondo Macabro, plus Euro-specialists Mya Communication are soon to be gracing us with Hunchback of the Morgue. However, one title I’d really like to see is the mid-seventies apocalypse chiller The People Who Own The Dark, one of those elusive and mysterious titles that I‘ve only read about hitherto.

Evident from his DVD introductions and many interviews, Naschy remained enthusiastic about his cinematic fright-fests right up to his dying day, and this enthusiasm is one of the qualities that I find most endearing about him - a man who dearly loved his art despite it continuing to be a fairly underground phenomenon. Let’s face it, flicks like Curse of the Devil are never going to appeal to today’s mainstream audiences, but that’s not something that I’m concerned with. Whilst not always a participant in polished products (er, Vengeance of the Zombies?), he nevertheless left behind him a legacy of terror in the best possible way. And whilst we may have uncovered many of his gems in digital glory already, there are still more to be exhumed no doubt. I’m sure his cult popularity will continue indefinitely and, thanks to the companies out there who do his work respect, for years may we enjoy the entertainment that he always fought so hard to deliver.

Posted on 6th December 2009
Under: Miscellaneous | No Comments »

The Universal Mummy Series

Universal were almost responsible for initiating the first real horror boom at the beginning of the thirties with the infamous movies already elsewhere discussed at Grim Cellar. Perhaps the arrival of sound had a direct impact on the effectiveness of films to embellish a disturbing emotional manipulation of audience responses, and new possibilities were perceived. In their search for new ideas they turned to Egyptian history/mythology and to assist brought in their established master of terror at the time, Boris Karloff. The Mummy (1932) briefly recounted an age more than three millennia prior to the discovery of an ancient scroll, where priest Im-Ho-Tep is consumed by love and mourning to a point where he commits sacrilege by exercising a hex to raise his woman from the dead. For his sins he is forced to suffer one of the most tortuous deaths imaginable - burial alive. In the early part of the twentieth century his tomb is opened and the bandaged corpse discovered, but a foolishly optimistic young archaeologist reads aloud the ancient scroll, releasing a curse that revives the mummified priest. The young explorer goes insane and the priest departs into the night. Later on a strangely benevolent Egyptian - the priest without his bandages - appears on the scene and helps the explorers locate another tomb, something which leads to his realisation that one of the women, Helen, is actually the reincarnation of the lover that he died for centuries ago. His objective is to reunite their souls but the girl whose body is inhabited by the princess’s soul must die to allow this.

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For younger viewers more familiar with the Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser action adventure yarns the original Universal film may be considered something of a whopping great bandaged borefest. It is quite slow and very old fashioned in terms of cinema, while gore didn’t really exist in this era and scares were of the atmospheric variety (i.e. there wasn’t a 100 decibel soundtrack jab designed to make you leap involuntarily every time something frightening was supposed to happen). It crafts a story that mixes the tragedy of impractical love with mythology and history, and the highlighting of cultural issues preventing two people from being together is just as relevant today. After establishing himself as a classic cinematographer on many German silents Karl Freund was rushed into directing, ultimately proving himself here to be methodical and considered, sometimes imaginative at the helm. There are inspired moments, such as Karloff’s foreboding narrative recollection of his former life, and the glowing eyes of course, though these do become a tad overused by the conclusion. There’s also the inclusion of a beautiful clip of a wolf in medium shot howling against the moon - probably stock footage but a phenomenon to witness nonetheless. Zita Johann is an alluringly naïve Helen, wearing amazingly low-cut dresses but not quite having the upper body physique for raincoat viewers (like me) to salivate over. The Motion Picture Production Code became a serious entity in 1934, something established in the USA to essentially force film-makers to abide by a series of rules that precluded sexual references, imagery, etc. Therefore films made prior to this often contained elements that were slightly more risqué than their post-1934 counterparts, and the wardrobe of Johann I believe was a product of this. The undisputed star of Universal’s early make-up era, Jack Pierce, provided groundbreaking processes for the mummy itself/himself. Both bandaged and ‘unclothed’, Karloff’s make-up is stupendous even to this day. One final surprise for those who only have vague recollections of these films is the mummy itself - in his stereotype form he is barely used here: we see he awaken at the film’s beginning, we see his feet stagger from the room, and that’s it. Afterwards Karloff returns only as the Egyptian Ardath Bey, an old but very human-looking man. The Mummy achieves its goal well enough and, while not quite a classic film, it possesses its fair share of eeriness combined with good storytelling.

It took the studio some time to follow up this moderately successful outing but it was inevitable at some point. The Mummy’s Hand (1940) recreated the history set up in the earlier movie. Taking elements of the filmed flashback featuring Boris Karloff (who’s not participating in this one or any of the subsequent sequels in the conventional sense) we learn that Kharis was condemned to the same mummification and death for similar reasons. Some time around the thirties or forties a couple of losers have their final chance at making a buck in Cairo before having to head back to the USA bankrupt. They learn of a hidden tomb which is sure to be filled with concealed treasure and persuade an erratic magician to lend them $2000 to fund an expedition. Along with some workers and the magician’s feisty young daughter they head out to uncover the tomb, but get more than they expected when the desecration of the Kharis resting place brings about his resurrection, something that’s welcomed by a local priest who enslaves Kharis to perform homicidal bidding.

M2

It’s immediately obvious in the first sequel that the tone is lightened somewhat, mostly through the implementation of two wannabe comedians in the principal roles. Whilst their tomfoolery is generally incompetent, their comic timing being inadequate to some extent, the story and dialogue manage to keep your attention while you’re perfectly aware of what the film is building up to. It takes some time to get there too, with about half the film passing before some action appears on the horizon, however I think this contributes towards the formulation of a reasonable helping of atmosphere. This is where we see the mummy in all his traditional horror glory for the first time - a staggering, bandaged corpse intent on avenging the curse that has brought about his reanimated misery. His eyes appear to be blacked out by a possible manipulation of the negative (an effect not completed for the trailer itself) and his presence, courtesy of highly prolific actor Tom Tyler, is ominous - Pierce once again graced the creature with his skills. The flashback is quite a strange phenomenon: clearly they’ve used footage from the first film as they retell the story and Karloff is right there in many shots, but for close-ups it switches to new footage of Tyler, creating an oddly jarring effect. It could be said, consequently, that Karloff is actually present in this film, though his participation is nonexistent. While the budget for …Hand was approximately half that of its predecessor some of the production design may seem pretty outstanding, though that’s simply a result of economical set regurgitation - some of them were actually built for James Whale’s adventure story Green Hell. Finally, the sole female of note this time is Peggy Moran and whilst not quite as revealingly dressed as Zita Johann she is visually appealing and her initially dominating approach is unwittingly sexy. The Mummy’s Hand, directed by quickie specialist Christy Cabanne, is no doubt inferior in many respects to the original film, but it is entertaining and the pace is perceptively executed.

The story of …Hand is recounted at the beginning of The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) where the two guys responsible for the expedition that kicked everything off have returned to the USA and grown older. Still holding a grudge, however, the wizard who knows when it comes to mummified corpses (George Zucco) sends his servant across to the land of the free with the body of Kharis to reap vengeance on those who’ve caused all the trouble. The servant sets up as a graveyard caretaker while sending the mummy out to kill off the two clowns and anyone genetically associated with them, one by one.

This one really is a quickie: not only does it only run for an hour but the first ten minutes of that are taken up with a recap of the previous story, via flashbacks and the narration of Dick Foran’s returning character Steve Banning. Universal also managed to bring in Lon Chaney Junior (no doubt a consequence of his success in The Wolf Man) this time to play the monster, something he would do in the following two films also. They also managed to annoy the star in the process by dropping the ‘Jr.’ from the actor’s screen credit, something which favourably distinguished him from his famous father in his eyes. Chaney does a good job but there’s little real challenge with this creature, while the make-up, though not as proficient as the first movie, is suitably putrescent. Some of the stunt work is quite rough on the actors, particularly when it comes to fire. Several people are dangerously close to the flames at the end and one actor (who visibly falls against his torch) was reportedly burnt during filming. Neil Varnick’s story is quite feeble and lacking a certain amount of imagination, resorting to Universal’s obligatory mob of angry villagers for the film’s climax - quite strange because they’re carrying burning torches and clubs despite the time period somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century by my calculations based on the men’s ages, etc. The early sightings of the creature bring about a number of amusing situations when he manages to avoid being seen in almost every instance with the exception of his shadow, consequently this giving rise to several reports of ‘a shadow’ in the area! Imagine West Midlands police responding to reports like that… The entertainment factor here is diminished compared to the preceding chapters but the flick does retain a certain charm in its madness.

M3

Some time after the events of …Tomb a group of hip students are learning history in The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) when the teacher decides to tell them about the mysterious mummy attacks that once allegedly took place in their very town. Whilst it all seems a little difficult to digest they don’t realise that the mummy inexplicably survived (indeed, it just wanders out of the forest near the beginning) and is soon on the move when the college professor experiments with the leaves that grant it strength and life - he is drawn to the leaves instinctively but kills the professor in the process. The servant (John Carradine) of Andoheb (George Zucco again) has been sent on a mission to track down the body of Kharis’s ancient lover, which has been shipped to a museum in the USA, but realises when the body crumbles that her spirit has reawakened in the shell of one of the young student girls. The servant decides that she must be ‘reacquired’ by Kharis. I’m sure they were making this stuff up as they went along at this point!

By about half way through …Ghost I’d pretty much resigned it to being a worthless pile of camel waste. Carradine’s acting is serious to the point of being about as active as a plank of wood, the mummy make-up seems to have been substantially cheapened (though Pierce was still involved, perhaps rushed), the story pedestrian and generally uninspiring. There are even clumsy errors such as Chaney’s useless arm suddenly becoming functional when he needs to carry an unconscious woman. However the damn film almost won me over by its conclusion: why? Because of that bloody dog! This thing outshines Lassie when it comes to intelligence. It’s only one of those small Jack Russell type of canines but, boy, is it smarter than the humans in this film. It actually responds to their statements and even goes to fetch the mob of angry villagers when the two heroes are in trouble - I couldn’t help by laugh. Also, the denouement of the story is quite grim compared to virtually all other Universal monster bashes, and the outcome surprised me. It’s not a good film by any stretch but the dog provided a few smiles (though whether those were intentional is another matter) and the climax is the most effective of the whole series.

Shot around the same time The Mummy’s Curse (1944) took Universal’s tendency towards temporal distortion one step further, with some pub-dwelling gypsy-types retelling some of the last movie’s events as being about twenty five years prior. Adding that up with the bodily aging of some of the previous characters, etc., this should place the time around the 1980s by my calculations, however it seems more like the turn of the twentieth century at the beginning before strangely shifting to 1940s America. I don’t suppose chronological logic was at the front of the minds of Universal’s writers… Anyway, there are plans to completely renovate the marsh near Mapleton, where the events of previous films took place, but a couple of museum archaeological buffs turn up wanting to dig out the mummy and his bride Princess Ananka (after having been left there at the end of …Ghost) to return them to the museum. Some of the locals are concerned that this interfering with the mummy’s current resting place will arouse the curse again, fears which aren’t without good cause it seems. After dredging half the swamp they soon find an empty space in the mud where ‘a large man’ would have lay, and of course a dead villager nearby. Oh yes, and the giveaway, there’s a bit of bandage left on the murdered person (I shit you not). While Kharis is roped in by one of the Egyptian servants to kill more people, this time Ananka also reawakens to wander around in a state of perpetual confusion regarding her origins or purpose.

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The problem primarily by this point was the fact that the stories really had nowhere to go and very much continually rehashed ideas from earlier films. Quite literally too, as we were very often treated to flashbacks of footage from the other movies despite meagre running times. The mummy, again played by Lon Chaney Jr., was a creature of limited potential and was lucky to have his lifespan stretched out over this number of movies. The Mummy’s Curse begins more in the vein of many of Universal’s other films of the period, almost a timeless entity in a dimension undiscovered. The murders themselves are quite feeble - one guy stumbles in on a ritual during the awakening of the mummy and sort of asks what they’re up to, like one would, before the mummy, which would have been plainly in his sight, staggers right up to him without him noticing until he‘s actually being strangled. There is one standout sequence in this film, and indeed one of the best of the whole series; the revival of Ananka: she squirms awkwardly out of her grave, her eyes covered in mud and barely able to open, then staggers off in a manner that the TV girl in Ring would have been proud of. It’s possibly the creepiest scene in the whole mummy series and director Leslie Goodwins must have realised he was on to something because he gets his mileage out of it. Other than that it’s a derivative and uninspired finale to the series.

There was of course one more appearance for the monster to come: Abbott And Costello Meet The Mummy (1955), but this would offer little other than the two comedians making fools of themselves as the creature proves ineffective as a killing machine, though at least it would return the series to its Egyptian beginnings. The mummy films provide some fun overall, but were clearly not greatly respected by its studio - this is apparent by the haphazard manner in which the stories were rushed together and the running times as meagre as the films’ respective budgets. The mummy (actually Im-Ho-Tep in the first one, Kharis in the following four, and Klaris in the A&B entry) had minimal development as a character beyond the first film though at least there was some narrative progression and continuation from film to film, but within each context there was little to do for the monster other than stagger around and kill. In that sense he is almost a precursor to Michael Myers of Halloween or the homicidal lunatic of almost any other long-running slasher series - this is possibly the slasher movie in its embryonic infancy here, formulating many of the staples that would much later on become clichés in slasher cinema. Compared to Universal’s other series of the time the creature is less charismatic and quite a lonely entity. The fact that his arm and leg are virtually unusable (unless he needed to carry a helpless woman) did irritate me a little throughout - he’s rendered practically impotent and the explanation for this was briefly iterated early on in the series but afterwards employed simply as a tool for having him walk in a (then) tension-building fashion. The aforementioned temporal distortion is something that stands out if the viewer is to watch them in sequence, but there is some inadvertent bewilderment to be had with this. In fact the series as a whole works at its best if you simply switch off the logical side of your brain and accept the crazy rules on their own terms but, though idiosyncratic in the extreme, it can never quite match up to the studio’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man cycles. It’s a pity that the gradually diminishing quality of the series detracts from its achievements but it is nevertheless something that will provide a reasonable degree of entertainment, and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.

 

(P.S. Extra special thanks to Colin at Riding The High Country for making this article possible)

Posted on 7th August 2008
Under: Horror, Miscellaneous | 9 Comments »

Hammer House of Horror

Following the gradual decline of Hammer’s film output during the seventies it was time to devote their attentions to something less expensive but lucrative enough to permit them to maintain business: television. The potential of the medium had clearly already been recognised by the company because Hammer themselves had previously adapted one or two popular series for the big screen in the shape of, for example, On The Buses. While most of Hammer’s more macabre cinematic outings were essentially gothic period pieces, the television work of the eighties took a much more contemporary stance by rooting scenarios in modern times, this probably being a smart move because it enabled a wider audience the chance to identify with the characters and material despite the fantastical but horrific nature of many of the situations. Spanning across (appropriately enough) only thirteen episodes there is a variable quality at times (as with any television series) but the overall impression of Hammer House of Horror is surprisingly upmarket, this aided by the fact that it was shot on film rather than video. Aside from a generally average to good standard of acting these episodes don’t feel as cheap as one might expect, exhibiting the consistently well crafted work of skilled technicians in their field, plus the location work was really nice and will make older (30+) UK viewers feel at home with realistic depictions of a picturesque span of English backdrops from the era. A couple of years later they produced another series called Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense but these were padded to feature length in order to meet the US broadcast criteria dictated by a movie of the week slot. The later series suffered as a result but HHOH itself was kept to a sensible fifty minutes per episode, thus giving the stories enough space to breathe without too much risk of boring the viewer. The opening/closing music score was a suitably melancholic and dark piece, reminding me of the score that came soon after for Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery. The stories themselves revolved around concepts of fear and the macabre, it goes without saying, but what may be less expected is that sometimes the feeling of unease projected from a story actually worked and there are a number of moments throughout the run that can still induce a chill through the body. It is, therefore, a sporadically successful piece of work in my opinion. Don’t look for something to cheer you up too much either - whereas the studio’s movie output tended to find good triumphing over evil, conversely there were rarely happy endings in Hammer’s TV House of Horror.

Carlton blessed us with a 4 disc set containing the entire series of HHOH, an average of three episodes per disc and, though not sequenced in their original broadcast order this is no great problem considering the unrelated nature of the stories. They’re presented in their original academy aspect ratios with DD2.0 audio, and each looks very sharp, detailed and naturally coloured. Extras are minimal but the set is the best way to view and own this sometimes overlooked series. During the following synopses and opinions I’ve attempted to refrain from using spoilers.

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Episode guide

The House That Bled To Death; Directed by Tom Clegg; UK Transmission 11th October 1980

A couple of new homeowners and child move into a house that was previously the place where a husband poisoned his wife before cutting up the body and burying her under the patio (and just about anywhere else he could find a place to dig a hole). Their arrival is followed by bouts of unexplained activity: the wife is nearly gassed, blood pours from various structural orifices, knives disappear and reappear, etc. While there are illogical details that only really materialise upon the film’s denouement, there is a sense of unease that develops as tale progresses, a constant feeling that something frightening is about to happen. Regardless of the final act the film works quite well, at least partly because we’re not aware if there are actual ghosts in the house, if the house itself is possessed, or the occupants are mad - it remains unexplained for the large part and this is an aid to the dread that is conjured up.

Silent Scream; Directed by Alan Gibson; UK Transmission 25th October 1980

A frail pet shop owner (Peter Cushing) is conducting experiments in captivity without the use of prison bars, i.e. training individuals to voluntarily stay within a confined area essentially through the use of electric shocks as a means of shaping behaviour. He uses animals to hone his techniques, basically exercises in classical conditioning, until an old inmate acquaintance attempts to steal something from him. The man himself triggers a trap which contains him in an underground room against his will, this providing the slightly unhinged wannabe-scientist a chance to practise his ideas with humans. Luckily the man’s girlfriend notices that he’s missing and heads off to find out what’s happened to him, neither of the couple realising that the old man is smarter than they think. Tapping into ideas relating to academic psychology provides an interesting slant and Cushing himself creates a cold and nasty sort of character, these factors working in the episode’s favour. Brian Cox does quite a nice job as the inmate who becomes imprisoned once again; hard to believe just a few years later he would be playing Hannibal Lecktor (as spelt in the film he appeared in). It’s an otherwise average story that merely passes the time.

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The Two Faces of Evil; Directed by Alan Gibson; UK Transmission 29th November 1980

Out on a family road trip in the countryside, Janet thinks she sees a man in a raincoat standing in the bushes as they navigate a junction. Later on a storm has kicked off and they see a hitchhiker ahead - someone in a raincoat. Not entirely convinced they should be picking him up, the husband stops anyway. Minutes later the hooded man attacks the husband, sending the car off the road and causing it to crash. Janet wakes up in hospital, she and her son okay but the husband quite severely injured. None of the staff seem to be particularly concerned that he was attacked, looking at the woman as if she’s insane while she tries to explain. Then the police locate a corpse - the suspect in the attack incident - near the crash site, but he looks remarkably like Janet’s husband. Anxious to get back to normal she eventually takes her son and the injured man home to recover, but all is not necessarily as it seems and normality is something that may be further than she’d like. Opening with an incredibly atmospheric situation the scenario is set up quite beautifully as we’re drawn into what is clearly a frightening world. The transition from sunny roads to storm-driven landscape is well handled and the intended feel of the piece is identifiable. What follows is an escalating series of frightening occurrences that remind me of a particular film (what it is I won’t name in order to prevent giving anything away about the concluding act) but, despite one small gripe with an inconsistency becoming evident at the end, still manages to stand on its own feet as an extremely sinister and chilling little tale.

The Mark of Satan; Directed by Don Leaver; UK Transmission 6th December 1980

A man undergoing brain surgery at an undisclosed hospital, the use of a mere local anaesthetic appearing to be in effect. Before dying he starts screaming, begging the surgeons (or whoever he believes is listening) not to touch his soul. Later on, a trainee mortuary attendant begins to get nervous when he realises the number 9 is popping up in his life with alarming regularity (his sweepstake winnings are nine pounds - hey, this was the eighties! He’s told to put a corpse into cabin number nine, etc.) and from there on his paranoia increases to a point where he’s becoming incoherent and homicidal, thinking that Satan himself is attempting to contact him. Are the people around him out to perform some sort of sacrifice or is it all happening within his mind? While the trainee is initially someone who many of us may be able to identify with, being a seemingly nice person struggling to cope with a new vocational situation, he gradually proves to be so psychotic it almost becomes too difficult to sympathise with him. Of course that’s partly the point as we’re never supposed to be sure whether the paranoia is simply that, or well-founded acknowledgement of a genuine threat. The characters are a little better played here than what was conventional for the series and, as may be viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, they do come across as quite sinister (Georgina Hale plays one of the creepiest single mothers you‘re ever likely to meet, plus Emrys James is gloriously theatrical in the role of Dr Harris). Hints at Rosemary’s Baby aside I did find it a little difficult to truly enjoy this slightly chaotic episode but the representation of confusion and fear is commendable.

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Witching Time; Directed by Don Leaver; UK Transmission 13th September 1980

A film music composer in the throes of domestic problems encounters a woman in the barn outside one stormy night. She claims to be a witch who has just travelled through time from a point several hundred years earlier when she was about to be burnt at the stake. After mating with her she soon begins to take a supernatural control over his life, and his situation is not helped when she seems to disappear every time someone else is around - soon his sanity comes under question with those who he tells, but things start to turn really nasty as attempts are made to end his estranged wife’s life. Quite a sexy entry in the series featuring a gripping climax. Jon Finch (Frenzy) brings his usual emotionally charged performance to the proceedings though the character’s fashion statements are a little out of date now. Overall, an average episode with elements to push it upwards in the quality stakes by a couple of notches.

Visitor From The Grave; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 22nd November 1980

A neurotic American woman blows the face off an intruder as he attempts to rape her. Returning home her English husband is somewhat disturbed to find blood all over the place and his wife curled up on the bed in shock. But rather than call the police the husband convinces her that there could be legal problems considering they don’t have a licence for the gun, plus he thinks his wife would be put into an institution for her actions: they cover up the crime and he buries the body in the woods. She then begins catching glimpses of the ghost of the man she killed and seeks help from a medium who tells her that the ghost has returned for revenge. Among attractive location shooting, plus the use of a cool Jaguar XJS, the formula here is unfortunately too predictable to be enjoyable, featuring a revelation that anyone who has seen more than a handful of chillers will spot a mile off. Further to that the concluding scene is feeble to say the least, and brought to a strangely abrupt halt as if the editor suddenly realised he’d reached his fifty minute episode quotient.

Rude Awakening; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 27th September 1980

This story repeatedly follows the activities of an estate agent who seems perpetually doomed to waking up and living each day only to find that the day was in fact a dream. Each morning he wakes up next to a wife with whom he has an unsatisfactory relationship, heads off to work where he flirts with his sexually charged secretary, has a call to visit a property that turns out to be disastrous or non-existent, and is accused at some point of killing the very wife that he woke up next to earlier on. This is a really interesting premise, taking on a Twilight Zone type of narrative and utilising the charismatic talents of Denholm Elliot in the lead role. Early on the viewer suspects (once they realise he’s reliving a dream with various threads of consistency) that the tale will become boring, but it actually becomes progressively more intriguing as we attempt to piece together a very Lynchian puzzle. Lucy Gutteridge’s secretary mysteriously takes on different personas in each dream while Elliot’s character simply can’t understand why his memory continues to process information normally while all around him are oblivious to his plight, passing through stages of confusion right to a point where he simply accepts/believes that what he’s experiencing is only part of a dream. This kind of confrontation with the nature of one’s perception of reality fascinates me, while the story itself must surely have been an inspiration behind the Danny Rubin story that became Groundhog Day.

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Charlie Boy; Directed by Robert Young; UK Transmission 18th October 1980

After being the near victims of a road rage madman, a couple who’ve recently come across an authentic antique voodoo doll (affectionately named ‘Charlie Boy’) facetiously place a curse on the man. Thinking nothing more of it, they’re disturbed to find out the man has later been murdered. But then their friends begin dying one by one, seemingly in the order they’re standing in a photograph. Initially sceptical about the doll’s voodoo power they begin to believe that it is responsible for the deaths and seek a way of destroying it before they themselves fall victim - they’re next in line on the photograph. Not a completely original idea but one that could have been developed into something much more creepy given the inherently eerie nature of its central concept. What proves to be an obstacle to the episode’s success seems to be the pedestrian abilities of the director. The road rage (not a term used at the time obviously) threat is executed in such a lame manner that all possible tension is rapidly disposed of, and later on when the doll’s existence comes under threat the music that should have contributed to the impact of the scene actually turns the whole thing on its head with a completely inappropriate approach. What we’re left with is something very average and non-enticing.

Children of the Full Moon; Directed by Tom Clegg; UK Transmission 1st November 1980

A newly married couple, Tom and Sarah, are one their way to stay at an isolated rural house when their car develops a serious malfunction causing them to bring a halt to the journey. Heading off into the woods by foot they find an old mansion and ask the owner if they might use the telephone. The place is populated by an odd Hungarian woman who cultivates a group of young children, some her own, some supposedly fostered. It’s also home to her unseen husband. After having no luck finding some help they’re welcomed to stay for the night, but heading off to the car to collect some things Tom returns in a panic saying he was chased by something half human. In the middle of the night Sarah thinks she sees some creature at the window and Tom goes off to investigate. While he’s out Sarah is attacked by the creature in front of a hoard of smiling children, and Tom falls while attempting to climb back into the house, knocking himself unconscious. Waking up in hospital his wife tells him, contrary to what he thought he experienced, that he must have dreamt the whole thing, as they were actually in a car crash. Temporarily believing her he is somewhat perturbed to find, following the unexpected announcement of her pregnancy, that she’s not behaving like her normal self. Perusing forums I believe this episode is amongst the most fondly remembered of the series. It’s a fairly traditional piece that rises above the norm with a suitably sinister family and, as is fairly common for HHOH, a country location off the beaten track - these places seemingly home to all manner of nasties. The episode is also concludes in a pretty dark fashion, rounding out a fairly satisfying tale that could easily have been extended to feature length.

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The Thirteenth Reunion; Directed by Peter Sasdy; UK Transmission 20th September 1980

Writing for the woman’s page of a newspaper, Ruth Cairns is given what she feels is yet another trivial assignment when her editor asks her to investigate a harsh but revolutionary new dieting process being promoted by a small hospital. There she finds attendees are virtually humiliated into slimming by a sergeant-like motivator, but there’s some light when she meets a professional man there who takes her to dinner and subsequently arranges to see her again. On his way home he is the victim of a fatal car accident but her suspicions are aroused when one of the employees of the local funeral parlour comes to her suggesting something strange is going on there, with bodies being unofficially shuffled about and the like. Thinking she’s finally onto a decent scoop she probes further only to find the body of her newfound boyfriend is missing. What draws her attention back to the slimming club is the apparent fact that they were contrarily trying to ‘fatten’ him up just before his death. Packing a fair few ideas into its fifty minutes this one certainly doesn’t waste much time, taking the heroine through a number of locations and in confrontation with several people as she gets deeper into her quest, which is ultimately one of career advancement. A couple of the scenarios presented are hardly politically correct in today’s society, demonstrating as they do the onscreen humiliation of fat people for example, but this was made in an era when people weren’t specifically looking to become offended due to some self proclaimed understanding of what makes an ideal world. I’m rarely concerned by such material, preferring to leave that to the acutely political perceptiveness of others while I sit back and enjoy what I’m watching (that was, after all, the fundamental objective). Julia Foster plays her character amicably under the assured direction of Peter Sasdy (despite what it says on the Carlton packaging). The final act is ahead of its time and suitably morbid, ending on a rather anti-commercial note, though I’ll refrain from giving details so as not to spoil it for others. Thanks to a story that’s a little more varied than what one might expect for television of the period, as well as the irreverent nature of the outcome, this proves to be one of the better HHOH episodes.

Carpathian Eagle; Directed by Francis Megahy; UK Transmission 8th November 1980

A crazy femme fatale is loose and choosing seemingly random male victims to butcher before disappearing to leave the police with a serial killer mystery on their hands. The officer in charge of the investigation (Anthony Valentine) meets up with a female writer whose work seems to resemble the modus operandi used by the killer a little too much, quickly progressing into a relationship with the creative woman. What he doesn’t realise is that she becomes so obsessed with her own work that an apparent affliction of Dissociative Identity Disorder (split personality) is causing her to virtually become her subjects even to homicidal extremes. Don’t worry about this being a spoiler as the point is revealed fairly early on. While the story ends in a relatively mundane fashion it is kept alive by an adeptly crafted script and excellent standards of acting from Valentine (still working in TV to this day). Suzanne Danielle also makes a striking lead female but most amusing is the appearance of a young Pierce Brosnan as a hormone-driven jogger who is brutally murdered after all of about four minutes of screen time - bet this doesn’t go on his CV anymore.

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Guardian of the Abyss; Directed by Don Sharp; UK Transmission 15th November 1980

Beginning almost in the tradition of a Hammer movie we’re plunged into a world of occultist, mind control, bloody sacrifice and the resurrection of long dead gods. Coming into contact with what appears to be a nice piece of silverware it becomes obvious to Michael (Ray Lonnen) and his girlfriend that it’s something far more when another collector offers them ridiculous amounts of money for it. On his way to have the plate valued Michael nearly runs down a girl who is on the run after nearly becoming the victim of a ritualistic sacrifice in the hands of a Satanic sect. Recognising the plate she tells him that it was owned by the (real life) sixteenth century mathematician and occultist, John Dee. A struggle ensues for both the girl and the plate (revealed to be a scrying glass, something used for supernatural visualisation, fortune telling, etc.). Quite adventurous this episode showcases the talents of John Carson, the next best thing to James Mason, here almost resuming a very similar role to the one he played in Plague of the Zombies. There are nice touches of imagination occasionally punctuating, such as Carson’s hypnotic tilting of his head causing Lonnen’s character to lose balance, plus a couple of tense moments that add a little new life to a story that’s not particularly innovative. The music is also fairly conventional but appropriate for the material.

Growing Pains; Directed by Francis Megahy; UK Transmission 4th October 1980

The final segment in the set begins with what initially appears to be an almost Omen-like scenario: grieving from the strange death of their natural son Terence and Laurie Morton adopt a strange child who seems to be responsible for all manner of ghastly occurrences from cars spinning out of control to maggots on food and influence over an uncharacteristically homicidal rottweiler. Simultaneously his botanist surrogate father is working on a plant that is intended to help with third world starvation by providing an abundance of protein, a potential side effect being hallucinogenic effects - are the family imagining it or is there something more supernatural happening thanks to their newly acquired child? While the episode is not especially admired it does manage to maintain a sense of the uncanny throughout as we’re kept on our toes by the decidedly unorthodox behaviour of the Mortons’ new son. He reminds me a little of the offbeat girl from The Child and, while the actor himself seems incapable of realistically reflecting emotion in his performance, the largely apathetic role suits his range of abilities and blank face quite well. The ambiguity of the narrative may have been intentional or it could be a sign that the film-makers themselves were unsure which direction to take it, something that becomes vaguely apparent by the final quarter. Other than that, it’s not a bad way to finish off a great boxed set.

Posted on 30th October 2007
Under: Horror, Miscellaneous | No Comments »

The Fleischer/Paramount Superman Cartoons

The Fleischer studio was founded in the 20s by brothers Max and David, two innovators in both animation technique and technology (Max was responsible for the rotoscope process, something that allows the artist to copy the photographed movements of a live subject) who were experimenting with film and sound even before it was unleashed upon the general public and producing notably distinctive artistic styles in their drawn work, this being evident in things like Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor. Gradually becoming more of a subsidiary to Paramount, who had been distributing their films and providing financing, it was a sad irony that Max and David were effectively forced to resign from their own company as the larger studio took control. However, before their departure, and at Paramount‘s request, they managed to produce a series of ten-minute cartoons based on the popular Superman comics (although it was actually Paramount who obtained permission to use the character), even managing to acquire an Academy Award nomination (“Best Short Subject“, only beaten by a Walt Disney/RKO Pluto short) for their work on the first film.

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Not seeing these animated films before I approached them with some trepidation, having recently caught some of the late 60s Spider-Man cartoons that I loved during childhood and realising as an adult that both the animation and artwork were of hopelessly bad quality (the drawings themselves were desperate; the movements seem to have been implemented at about four frames per second; the spider on his costume [during season 1] only had six legs! ‘Nuff said?) - for some reason I thought that these Fleischer films might have fallen into the same trap of being rushed due to budgetary constraints. How wrong. The first Superman animation (1941), despite only being ten minutes long, had a budget in the region of fifty thousand dollars (even the Popeye films were costing around fifteen thousand at the time). The remainder were made over the next two years, nine when the Fleischers were effectively in control, and the other eight after their dismissal and the transforming of their company into ‘Famous Studios’ by Paramount. There is a noticeable difference between the first nine and the remaining eight, the former predominantly focusing on threats of the fantastic kind while the latter featuring more down-to-earth storylines about war criminals and the like (acquiring propaganda overtones in the process) - the notable exceptions to this rule being The Mummy Strikes and The Underground World. The Fleischer narratives seem to progress at a faster pace as well as demonstrating greater intuitive creativity and, although the Famous shorts did a reasonable job of replicating the formula, I personally prefer the first nine.

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One notable difference in the Superman mythology was evident in the first episode: after landing on Earth, baby Kent is taken to an orphanage where he grows up, this completely omitting the role of the adoptive Kents from the comics where, I believe, they initially dropped him off at the orphanage to collect him for upbringing a few years later (obviously, in the Christopher Reeve films it was the orphanage that was omitted altogether). They also changed the way he moved through the air from mere jumping (which he does in the earlier episodes) to genuinely flying, a convenient aspect that was then taken on by the comic book writers and subsequent film-makers.

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The voice talents for the two leads, Bud Collyer and Joan Alexander, were carried over from the radio series (that popularised the famous line, “it‘s a bird, it‘s a plane…”), while the 1940s news-style narration (as well as Perry White) was performed by either Jackson Beck or Julian Noa. The over-the-top musical score, kicking in every time Kent transformed, was always credited to Sammy Timberg. Dave Fleischer directed the first nine, following that episodes were shared between Dan Gordon, Seymour Kneitel, and Isidore Sparber. Various writers and artists were employed during the run.

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Executed utilising Technicolor the artwork itself is almost always quite stunning, extremely colourful and extravagant, making stylish use of shadows as often as possible. The regularly used rotoscoped animation is quite a joy to watch and, taking the visual style as a whole, it’s understandable why these shorts have taken on such a historically significant and influential status. Subtle facial expressions and other oddities are fantastically implemented on occasions where laziness or lack of imagination would have reigned with most film-makers. Bearing in mind that everything was hand-painted in those days, the amount of effort that has been put into the gorgeous and plentiful backgrounds is astounding - the series is a work of art.

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The stories themselves usually move at a lightning pace, barely wasting a second as each tale unfolds so rapidly the viewer must refrain from blinking if he/she doesn’t want to miss something - fast-paced storytelling is clearly not the exclusive domain of modern children’s entertainment. Kent is not the clumsy soul he became with Christopher Reeve’s definitive interpretation, but he is usually pushed to the sidelines as Lois relentlessly chases every potential story possible, invariably landing herself in mortal danger before Superman has to bail her out. One of my favourite examples of this occurs during The Magnetic Telescope - during a meteor storm that is devastating America people are running from the building that Lois is in before it collapses, but while everybody else is making for the door she decides to turn back so she can use the telephone to call in the story to the Daily Planet! Unsurprisingly she gets caught under the rubble as another meteor hits and Supes has to rescue her yet again. Each film tends to conclude with a newspaper article that Lois receives credit for - not only would she have had little to report if it hadn’t been for the alien hero, her overly zealous career drive at the expense of everything would have got her killed long ago. She does appear to be a feisty and rather foxy (for a drawing!) individual that makes her an appealing lead, though her life-endangering absentmindedness does make you shake your head at times. Her moral stance is often unscrupulous too - in order to capture the glory of an exclusive during Volcano, Lois actually steals Clark’s press card so she can gain access to the danger site forcing him to go back to request a new card. He still ends up saving her butt too. Kent does, however, pull a similarly crafty stunt at the beginning of The Mummy Strikes.

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Failing to renew the copyright on many of the original Fleischer works, including Superman, Paramount allowed them to fall into public domain and this resulted in the seventeen Superman shorts receiving a number of substandard DVD releases by various companies. Generally these have been transferred from video archives and it has shown. DC Comics ultimately came to own the original vault elements for these cartoons and Warner Bros. in turn purchased DC, this leading to the eventual restoration of Superman for inclusion on new DVD releases of the Christopher Reeve movies. They’re available in the complete four film (9 disc) UE box, or spread over the Superman The Movie (4 disc) and Superman II (2 or 3 disc) sets. Despite being available cheaply prior to that due their public domain status, these are the versions worth owning. There are negative scratches visible, sometimes abundant, but otherwise these are stunning reproductions. The aforementioned movies are worth owning just to pick up these cartoons.

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Episode titles followed by original theatrical screening dates:

Superman (26 September 1941)

The Mechanical Monsters (28 November 1941)

Billion Dollar Limited (9 January 1942)

The Arctic Giant (27 February 1942)

The Bulleteers (27 March 1942)

The Magnetic Telescope (24 April 1942)

Electric Earthquake (15 May 1942)

Volcano (July 10 1942)

Terror on the Midway (August 28 1942)

Japoteurs (18 September 1942)

Showdown (16 October 1942)

Eleventh Hour (20 November 1942)

Destruction Inc. (25 December 1942)

The Mummy Strikes (19 February 1943)

Jungle Drums (26 March 1943)

The Underground World (18 June 1943)

Secret Agent (30 July 1943)

Posted on 15th July 2007
Under: Miscellaneous | 3 Comments »

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