Friday, November 10, 2017

Dead Reckoning (1947)

This one's a real hidden gem of deceit and twists and Humphrey Bogart turning in a solid performance in a lesser-known noir from 1947. It's Dead Reckoning.

Bogey plays Rip Murdock, former army captain and war hero. He's in a place named Gulf City looking for his wartime pal Johnny, who mysteriously hopped off a train in Philadelphia rather than receive a Medal of Honor from Uncle Sam. The two are supposed to meet, but one fiery car crash later, that's not going to happen, and Murdock runs afoul of a local mobster named Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky) and the woman Johnny was involved with. And what a woman Coral “Dusty” Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) turns out to be. A husky-voiced blonde who was a former singer at Martinelli's nightclub and is central to everything.

Directed by John Cromwell, the movie with a very solid look. Some scenes really stand out, like the one near the beginning where Rip chases Johnny in vain around some train cars at night, the final showdown and a couple others. Its solid, but there’s not a whole lot there that really pops out in terms of camera tricks and so on.

So, story by Gerald Adams & Sidney Biddell, adaptation by Allen Rivkin & screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett & Steve Fisher. That’s quite a few names for a 100 minute picture. Character dialogue is actually really solid, especially between Bogart and Scott. The best scenes are the ones in cars where Rip & Dusty are talking. I’d say the downside is that the plot is fairly easy to figure out at a certain point, though the film doesn’t try and cop out on the ending at least.

one of the most interesting traits that Rip has in comparison to other characters I’ve seen him play is that there’s a surprising level of misogyny in our hero. Not just like a “typical for the times” way, but the character’s got some real bitterness buried in there. And then of course he ends up falling in love with the femme fatale of the film and the relationship goes to some REALLY interesting places.

Dead Reckoning might not bring a whole lot of innovation to the table, but it is great seeing Bogart and the severely underrated Scott (who made quite a few noirs in her day) really get into things. Its a hidden gem of the genre. Totally recommended.

Friday, November 03, 2017

Panic in the Streets (1950)

I'm unrolling something I've wanted to do for some time now: Noirvember. I've loved film noir ever since I discovered the Maltese Falcon (the book) in high school, and have wanted to do a month specifically dedicated to it for a while, especially as an excuse to discuss lesser-known noir. So here we are.

Does an outbreak of plague belong in film noir? Offhand, I'd say no, but Elia Kazan proved me wrong with 1950's Panic in the Streets.

Dockside New Orleans. A poker game turns sour when one of the players, a recently arrived illegal immigrant, starts acting sick and leaves suddenly. His cousin tries to calm him down, but Blackie (Jack Palance in his first movie role) and his toadie Raymond Fitch (Zero Mostel in his second movie role) take issue with that and try to get their money back. One dead john doe later, they do, and dump his body into the harbor, where it washes up the next day for the police to find.

Except the autopsy reveals he was carrying pneumonic plague (a real version of the plague that infects the lungs rather than the lymph nodes). With no identity, no leads and a big port city to incubate it, Lt. Commander Clint Reed of the US Public Health Service (Richard Widmark), has three days to prevent an outbreak that could ravage the country. Along the way he butts heads with Police Captain Tom Warren (Paul Douglas) and strains his relationship with his wife, Nancy (Barbara Bel Geddes).

This was Kazan's last film noir before moving onto bigger pictures (his next movie would be A Streetcar Named Desire) and it shows a confident, technically adept hand behind the camera. The action sequences are few, but the ones that are there are excellently executed in prime noir style.

The middle bogs down a little bit, but there's a constant tension as the stress takes its toll on Dr. Reed as he tries to convince both government officials and simple dockworkers of the seriousness of the threat.

Panic in the Streets is a good film well executed. I'm not sure I'd put it in my film noir top ten, but I definitely enjoyed it more than Streetcar.


Monday, October 30, 2017

Legends Never Die: Han Solo and the Lost Legacy

Han Solo and the Lost Legacy caps off Brian Daley's Han Solo trilogy, and was published four months after The Empire Strikes Back was released.

Frozen in carbonite, book trilogy ended. 1980 was a rough year to be Han Solo.

After making haste out of the Corporate Sector, Han, Chewie, Bollux and Blue Max are bumming around a backwater sector called the Tion Hegemony doing odd jobs like working for a flying circus.

Adventure comes calling in the form of one of Han's old academy instructors turned treasure hunter: Trooper Badure. Badure's recruits Han to get to the planet Dellalt to find a long-lost treasure ship, The Queen of Ranroon. The ship belonged to a fabled pre-Old Republic conqueror, Xim the Despot, and is said to be guarded by a legion of his deadly war robots. The ship has been the stuff of spacer legends for generations.

After a high-speed chase across a university, Han agrees and meets the rest of Badure's team: Hasti, a miner who's sister discovered the clue to the treasure's location and was killed for it, and Skynx, an eager Ruurian historian who's just about the most adorable fuzzy caterpillar person in the galaxy.

Dellalt proves to be a dangerous world, with a criminal mining operation, a reclusive group of deadly cultists in the mountains, and centuries-old war robots that are just as deadly as their reputation.

And then Gallandro shows up with a grudge against Solo for being humiliated in Han Solo's Revenge.

Considering Raiders of the Lost Ark came out a year later in 1981, the comparisons are inescapable. A character played by Harrison Ford goes on a hunt for ancient treasure and has to deal with angry natives and hostile armies. Probably coincidental, but the pulp element convergence here is striking.

Gallandro himself works as a stand-in for the sinister Setenza from The Good, The Band and the Ugly. His moustache is a little more flamboyant, but there's a lot of Lee Van Cleef in the character. He is one of the few people in the galaxy that Han is legitimately frightened of.

Like the rest of the trilogy, Daley's action sequences are fast-paced and exciting. The aforementioned university chase (which itself has a lot of similarities to one of the few bright spots in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), then there's a mountain chase on a giant metal disc, and a large-scale battle at the climax where everyone's fighting everyone as the war robots advance.

This time, though, there's a tinge of melancholy throughout. Its been a fun ride, but the party's coming to a close. Han makes more mistakes. Hasti, the potential love interest, rejects his advances, saying she wants something real and not a love-em-and-leave-em type. The ancient labor droid Bollux has a touching conversation about obsolescence and free will with the war robot commander. Skynx the academic is rushing to get as much adventure and knowledge into his life before he matures to a full adult and turns into a near-mindless butterfly. Bollux and Blue max have to leave Han by the end because they're not in the movies.

The passage of time undercuts everything in this book, and by the end, Han & Chewie have managed to piss off everyone important in the Corporate Sector and Tion Hegemony, so they bounce around the idea of doing a simple spice run for Jabba the Hutt.

The Han Solo Adventures are a blast to read and can be found individually or in omnibus formats. If you're of a tabletop persuasion, its essential reading for a Scum & Villainy type of game. Highly recommended and essential Expanded Universe reading.

Brian Daley would continue on with a few Star Wars projects, but not more novels. He wrote the script adaptations for the Star Wars Radio dramas (1981, 1983 and 1996, respectively). The audio dramas are really quite good, by the way, and expanded on a few themes that weren't in the movies.

Daley himself died in 1996 of pancreatic cancer shortly after recording of the Return of the Jedi radio drama wrapped. According to his official website, which is still up as a memorial to him, some of his ashes were to be scattered at the Little Big Horn Spirit Gate memorial to help defend it from inter-dimensional threats. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Octoverride '17: Blacula (1972)

Blacula. This little 1972 Blaxploitation horror movie has quite a reputation for its name alone. Black Dracula, essentially. Directed by William Crain, a black director with a few other Blaxploitation movies to his credit, along with several tv shows, including some episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard, and with a screenplay written by Joan Torres and Raymond Koenig, the movie starts out strong.

Campy, but strong.

In 1780, Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall, the Future King of Cartoons on Pee-Wee's Playhouse) and his wife Luva (Vonetta McGee) are on a diplomatic tour of Europe and end up in Transylvania. Count Dracula (Charles Macaulay) patronizes them and constantly needles the prince about race until Mamuwalde tries to leave, and Dracula captures him, turns him into a vampire, and buries him in a coffin in his castle because Dracula is an asshole. Oh yeah, and Dracula dubs Mamuwalde “Blacula.”

Because Dracula's an asshole.

Fast forward to the 70s and an interracial gay couple of interior decorators buy up a bunch of stuff in Dracula's castle, including Mamuwalde's coffin. They're goofy, and definitely campy, but they're also innocent of what's about to happen, so there's definitely sympathy for them when they inadvertently ship Blacula to Los Angeles and awaken him and get killed.

After that, it slows down pretty hard. A doctor, Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) begins investigating the deaths and turns into this movie's Abraham Van Helsing. Meanwhile, Mamuwalde runs into Tina (Vonetta McGee again) who's a dead ringer for his long-lost love and he chases her, getting run over by a taxi, and exsanguinating the sassy black cabbie lady as consolation.

Then it turns into a slow build of Dr. Thomas figuring out Mamuwalde is Blacula, and his allies trying to save Tina and stop a vampire outbreak across the city. There's a fun scene of a photographer developing a photo of Mamuwalde that he doesn't show up in (before she gets eaten by Blacula, of course), the vampire Cabbie waking up in the hospital and charging down character actor Elisha Cook Jr (from The Maltese Falcon) that's actually kind of spooky, some vampires in cheap capes get thrown into cardboard boxes, and a bunch of extras dressed like motorcycle cops get killed.

There's really not a whole lot to the movie, actually. It borrows heavily from the classic Bela Lugosi Dracula plot while throwing in the love story angle from Boris Karloff's The Mummy. That's fine, its just very pedestrian. The cast is fine, the effects are low budget, and it would be rather forgettable if not for one thing: William Marshall.

Marshall anchors and elevates the movie above its shortcomings by bringing a sense of tragic gravitas to the character. His rumbling bass voice helps too, along with his Shakespearean background. He's more sympathetic than Dracula traditionally is, and despite running rampant across LA for several nights, his death at the end of the movie is handled with a lot of dignity. After he is denied love one last time, he chooses to walk out into the morning sunlight. Marshall makes a scene where he walks up a flight of stairs and falls over dead into something not goofy. That's some real talent there.

Blacula occupies a kind of middle ground of averageness in the Blaxploitation genre. Its inoffensive, competent enough and mostly forgettable. I do, however, recommend it for William Marshall's performance as Mamuwalde. That's worth seeing.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Octoverride '17: The Thirsty Dead (1974)

The Thirsty Dead AKA Blood Hunt AKA The Blood Cult of Shangri-La is a 1974 American-Filipino co-production shot on location in the Philippines. It was directed by Terry Becker, an actor with a few TV episode directing credits. This was the only movie he directed. The story was written by Becker and Lou Whitehill (another actor) with the screenplay by Charles Dennis (another actor, who's done a lot of voice-over work in recent years).

It begins with a long establishing shot of a harbor, then a dancer entertains a bunch of sailors in a sleazy dive bar before her set ends and she goes back to her dressing room to listen to exposition radio discuss a rash of women being kidnapped and because this is 70s schlock, she fantasizes about being taken as a white slave to Hong Kong. This is Claire (Judith McConnell) and sure enough, she herself is soon captured by mysterious people in dark robes. After the credits, another woman, Laura (Jennifer Billingsley) turns down a marriage proposal and goes home alone so she can be kidnapped by the same monk-lookin guys. She wakes up half-drugged in a sewer and tries to get away, doesn't, and is taken by boat into the jungle with another girl, Ann (Fredricka Myers). They get dropped off with Claire and a local girl, Bonnie (Chiqui da Rosa) and are then escorted through the jungle by some bored-looking men in loincloths to a hidden cult.

The cult is led by Ranu (Tani Guthrie) with religious services by Baru (John Considine) and his giant silly collar. They worship a head in a red plastic box called Raul. At least, I think its Raul. The audio of the version I watched was terribly muddy and difficult to understand. Doesn't matter. Raul's only in one scene anyway.

The four women arrive and Laura is singled out by Baru because Raul mentioned her name as part of a something-something prophecy and Baru painted a portrait of her thanks to a prophetic dream he had of her because he's a lonely weirdo and so they can throw in a weak romance plot.

An IMMORTAL lonely weirdo, as it turns out. This cult is kidnapping attractive young women so that they can harvest their blood and mix it with leaves from a local jungle plant with remarkable healing properties and the resulting cocktail extends their life and youth. Interestingly enough, the cult uses the leaves to heal up their wounds so they don't die. Those “rejected” by Raul eventually turn into withered and crazy old people who get locked away in a cave.

Anyway, Baru tries to woo Laura over to his side and while she has some attraction to him, she's horrified by the cult's practices. The conversation goes “What right do you have?” “We are the chosen ones.” Rinse. Repeat.

Claire, on the other hand, likes the idea of being young and immortal and not being the one who's blood is being drunk. This leads to some half-assed tension and the four girls escape into the jungle, wander aimlessly for a while, then get caught and brought back.

Laura wins Ranu over to her side, and with his help escapes again and frees the rejected ones, who predictably turn on their masters. Claire decides she wants to stay, Laura tries to force her into escaping with the group, Claire tries to run away, takes a wrong turn and falls down into a spike pit and dies. Good job missing the point of why forcing people into doing things they don't want to is bad, Laura.

Anyway, the three girls escape with Ranu, and he leads them toward the exit, only they pass the “Ring of Age” which borders the cult's territory and he rapidly starts aging because we needed fake drama introduced at the last minute. The slave revolt is put down and the three women barely escape their pursuers by reaching a road and flagging down a passing jeep.

The movie ends with police searching the jungle with helicopters while a police lieutenant who was investigating the disappearances (Vic Diaz, who I only mention because he was a prolific actor in the Philippine horror movie industry of the 70s) tells Laura that they can't find any trace of settlement on the mountain, not even with helicopters. Meanwhile, Ranu looks at the futile search through a telescope and has a good laugh.

The biggest problem is complete lack of tension in the movie. After getting captured in the beginning, most scenes revolve around “how will the girls be able to escape?” and until the finale, the answer is “they can't.” Everything reverts back to them being captured without much trouble and more scenes of them talking about escaping. Bonnie has a deadly snake crawling at her feet! Never mind, it leaves without any fuss. Ann's bloodletting wound opens up! Never mind, somebody used one of the magic healing leaves to fix it. Its dreadfully boring.

The moral conflict of “We are the chosen ones!” versus “You don't have the right to do this!” feels like a bad episode of Star Trek. The cult's silly robes, propensity for interpretive dance, and soundtrack all add to that feel.

Is there anything good? Well, its got a talking head in a box. That counts for something. The character of Claire, while being a two-dimensional turboslut, is at least entertaining to watch and McConnell has scene-chewing fun with the role, which can't be said about the rest of the cast. That's really about it.

Ultimately, its a boring movie with a paralyzing reluctance to move its own plot forward.

Absolutely not recommended.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Octoverride '17: Varan the Unbelievable (1962)

This is going to be shorter because there's not a whole lot to 1962's Varan the Unbelievable, which is a heavy re-edit of a 1958 Japanese kaiju movie, Daikaijû Baran, directed by the father of Godzilla himself, Ishirō Honda.

This version, directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz, features scenes of an American Naval officer, James Bradley (played by character actor Myron Healey) and his wife Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi) and some support staff. Its a joint US-Japan project looking into a water desalination experiment, and the saltwater lake they've chosen happens to have a giant monster lying dormant at the bottom.

The monster wakes up and if you've seen the original Godzilla or even Gamera, you know what happens. Monster wanders around destroying things, military tries and fails to stop it, some model buildings get destroyed, and then the scientists come up with a solution eventually that kills the creature.

Its all quite dull, and the editing job does it no favors, though the American cast isn't awful by any means. It just lacks all sense of weight and purpose. Its going through the motions.

I will say that the monster costume for Varan/Baran/Bara-dagi. Varan is essentially a giant Iguana who stomps around smashing nicely detailed sets.

The chop-job does it no favors though, and I would like to see Honda's original version at some point, but this version?

No. Its dull and forgettable.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Octoverride '17: Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)

After a long absence, the Octoverride is back, though I can't promise it won't be nothing but wall-to-wall schlock this year.

1969 brought us today's piece of European Horror Schlock. Fangs of the Living Dead AKA Malenka AKA Malenka, the Vampire's Niece AKA Malenka: La Nipote del Vampiro AKA Malenka: la Sobrina del Vampiro AKA The Vampire Girl. Yeah.

This one's going to have SPOILERS because there's not much else to discuss.

It was an Italian-Spanish co-production that tapped into the then-popular horror plot of “Young(ish) person inherits an old, spooky castle in a town of weirdos and travels there, encountering HORRORS” much like in Horror Rises From the Tomb.

Here, we are introduced to Sylvia Morel, played by Swedish model and actress Anita Ekberg. Sylvia has no job or background to really speak of, but she receives a letter from an uncle that she's inherited the family estate in Walbrooke (which is in some vaguely Carpathain region). She decides to go there and fill out the necessary paperwork two weeks before her wedding to Dr. Piero Luciani (played by Gianni Medici as “John Hamilton”). He's not thrilled about the idea, but their mutual friend and incredibly Italian comic relief sidekick Max (César Benet as “Guy Roberts”) sees no harm in it.

Sylvia arrives in Walbrooke, stops for a drink in a local tavern run by sisters Bertha (Diana Lorys) and Freya (the strong-jawed Rosanna Yanni, who was also a producer of the film). We get hints that Bertha is ill with anemia before the Count's coachman and goon, Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) arrives to drive her to the castle.

At the Castle, Sylvia learns that her uncle, the Count Walbrooke (Julián Ugarte), is a weird recluse with perfect hair and an obsession with Sylvia's grandmother Malenka, who looked just like Sylvia and was played by Ekberg in an overly long flashback sequence. Sylvia also meets Blinka (Adriana Ambesi as “Audrey Ambert”), who lives in the castle, dresses in lingerie, and gives off a rapey vibe when she tries to sweet talk Sylvia into leaving her room. The Count drags Blinka out of Sylvia's room and starts whipping her in the dungeon, where its revealed to Sylvia that Blinka is a vampire. And so is the Count.

The Count wants Sylvia to call off the wedding because “Something Something Family Curse,” and he starts manipulating her to try and turn her into a vampire.

Piero & Max arrive to find out what's going on and they speak with the innkeepers. Bertha is in some kind of relationship with the Count and dies the next day from bite wounds. She rises from the grave, and it all comes down to a climactic showdown in the castle's dungeon where the Count chains a shirtless Piero to a cross and explains that he's trying to drive Sylvia into thinking she's a vampire so she can be declared insane and the Count can then claim the inheritance. Then Blinka and Bertha get into a catfight, which buys Sylvia (who had been pretending to be under the Count's power) enough time to free Piero, who then does the unheroic thing of stabbing the Count with a flaming torch, which then prompts the Count to age rapidly into a papier-mâché skeleton, which then burns up in a pretty decent scene.

Its my understanding that there are two endings to the film. The first, follows the “hoax” plot to its conclusion, and the shorter one for American audiences, which features the burning vampire skeleton. Not having seen the first ending, I still prefer the idea of vampires trying to run an inheritance fraud scheme, mainly because its more original. “Supernatural Goings-On Were All A Hoax To Drive Someone Insane For Money” is a much more cliché plot twist than people realize. 

So what's good about it? Honestly, not a whole lot. There are some fantastic and atmospheric shots, usually in the castle crypt, and the twist of “inheritance fraud vampires” is wonderfully goofy. Other than that, the movie is ill-paced with frequently bad acting, especially during reactions to scares. The biggest star of the film, Anita Ekberg, was a major beauty icon in the 50s and early 60s, even having a major role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, but there's little allure in a middle-aged sex symbol playing a character that feels written like they're in their early twenties.

Not recommended.