Tuesday, October 08, 2013

“Tell her she smooches good!”

The Manster. Man, that’s a hell of a title right there. Specifically the title of a 1959 American/Japanese co-production. Also known as The Split, Doktor Satan, The Two-Headed Monster, and Sôtô no Satsujinki.

Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley, who would later do voice work for the Thunderbirds show) is an American reporter who’s been on a long-term assignment in Japan. His last job before going home to his wife Linda (Jane Hylton, Dyneley’s real-life wife) is to interview a prominent Japanese scientist. This scientist, Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura credited as Satoshi Nakamura) is a full-fledged crackpot, having a lab on a volcanic mountain, a beautiful assistant, a lab/dungeon with a few giant plants and his mutated wife Emiko in a cage. Before Larry arrived, Dr. Suzuki just finished shooting his mutated brother Genji, who had gone into a village and killed some people, and then dumping the body into the volcano.

After chatting vaguely about the nature of his experiments, Dr. Suzuki slips Stanford a mickey and injects him with a serum. For Science! Larry wakes up from his nap none the wiser and Doc invites him to hang out later, catch some authentic Japanese culture, and forget about going home to his wife. Larry thinks it’s a great idea, and goes on a week long bender wherein he goes to geisha parties, bath houses, and starts going out with Tara (Terri Zimmern), the doctor’s attractive and vaguely-foreign assistant.

So naturally his wife Linda arrives in Japan. She and Larry’s boss, Ian Matthews (Norman Van Hawley) are worried about him, prompting a lot of yelling from Larry. Larry also starts undergoing physical changes. His right shoulder keeps hurting, and his right hand gets all hairy and monstrous.

Oh yeah, and he tends to fly into rages where he kills people. Doc makes notes about the progress of the mutation, Tara begins falling in love with Larry, and before you know it, Larry’s a hairy, two-headed monster in a trench coat being chased by the police.

Directed by George Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane, the movie is competently shot, though several of the sets, like the exterior of the mountain cottage/lab look pretty cheap. This being a co-production between American and Japanese filmmakers, it’s quite interesting seeing what amounts to a tourist’s look at late 50’s Japan. It’s also nice seeing the movie avoid the “Hey! Look at them foreigners!” trap.

Now, as to the manster makeup, it starts off fairly simple with a hairy hand before building up to the money shot of Larry discovering the eye on his shoulder. Sure Dyneley’s overacting the hell out of the scene, but the simple grotesqueness of a new eyeball staring out of a shoulder sells it. So much so that the way Evil Ash in Army of Darkness is “born” is a direct nod to The Manster. The second head Larry eventually sprouts is not great, but better than some of the other monster costumes in the movie.

There are two other scenes of note. One is where Dr. Suzuki has a heartfelt and touching goodbye with his mutated wife that hits with a level of gravitas the rest of the movie lacks. The second, and earlier, is where Stanford, feeling surly and desperate, wanders the city at night and comes across a Buddhist temple. There’s a priest wearing a cheap bald skullcap and Stanford talks at him for a moment. The priest looks at him briefly, the goes back to his prayers, probably because of the language barrier. Stanford starts to leave, then passes some statues, focusing on a monstrous looking one. Stanford has another freak out and goes back to the priest, then it cuts away as we hear the priest scream. It’s really suspenseful, well shot, set up, and effective.

Story by George P. Breakston and Walt Sheldon. The script is fairly pedestrian, borrowing themes from Jekyll & Hyde quite liberally with a few doses of Frankenstein. Dialogue is mostly forgettable, and Dr. Suzuki’s entire motivation for conducting experiments is never, ever made clear. I have no idea what kind if scientist he is, or why he’s researching mutation by injecting people with vague stuff. How does that kind of project get funded? Oh yes, and the ending is dumb

You know what’s great though? The title. THE MANSTER. It is amazingly stupid and stupidly amazing.

Music by Hirooki Ogawa, the soundtrack features Japanese musical touches and that old B movie staple, the Theremin.

The Manster is an odd 50’s B movie. It’s got an atypical setting, a curious setting, and a great money shot ¾ of the way through the movie. It’s not great, by any means, but unconventional enough that it sticks with you more than some other sci-fi cheapies.

You could do worse.


Thursday, October 03, 2013

“Its not considered good medical practice to perform autopsies in the middle of swamps surrounded by howling dogs and scratching rustics.”

Who’s up for a 1972 werewolf movie made for TV?

Set in the Deep South!

Wait! Where are you going? Come back!

Moon of the Wolf starts with a mumbly old redneck and his son finding a dead woman in the swamp outside of Marsh Island, Louisiana. A swarm of people, including the sheriff, town doctor, and the woman’s brother arrive and make a fuss and initially wild dogs are suspected as the cause of death. After an autopsy, the doc informs the sheriff that a strong blow to the right side of her head is what actually killed her, before being dragged out into the swamp to chewed on by wild dogs. The sheriff suspects murder, the dead girl’s crazy old cajun father keeps ranting about loogaroo, some deputies and a suspect get mauled by a “Wildman,” and an old crush of the sheriff’s returns to town.

Sheriff Aaron Whitaker: David Janssen is our main character. Interesting that a gruff, grumpy, middle-aged man is the protagonist of a movie, but it’s a nice change of pace. Sheriff Whitaker is a fundamentally decent guy, who tries to keep order in his town and doesn’t like that people are getting killed by what is ultimately a werewolf. He’s also shy and awkward around his old crush at first when she come back to town, which is a good touch of characterization.

Louise Rodanthe: Barbara Rush plays the sheriff’s love interest. She’s Old Money and her great-grand daddy established the town. Louise was away in New York living with a “socially unacceptable” man until he left her and she came back home. She’s a nice enough character and has some decent chemistry with the Sheriff.

Andrew Rodanthe: Bradford Dillman plays Louise’s brother. He’s lived in town all along, and like all good movie Old Money, doesn’t like talking about his family’s problems in public because certain things are not discussed in public. He’s also a bit possessive about his sister. And he drives a Rolls because he’s RICH. Outside of that, he’s not a terrible person, and once people start getting murder-mauled, he’s the only one who volunteers to become a deputy for the Sheriff when nobody else wants to.

Dr. Druten: John Beradino plays the town doctor and is an old friend of the Sheriff’s. He discovers the cause of the girl’s death was murder, and then becomes a suspect, because he’s left-handed and was having an affair with the dead girl.

Lawrence: Geoffrey Lewis plays the brother of the dead girl (Ellie). He’s a sweaty, scruffy swamp-dweller with a mean temper and doesn’t take his sister’s death well at all. He’s also left-handed and did hit her at least once in the past, which makes him a suspect, right up until he gets mauled to death in his prison cell while he’s supposed to be cooling off for the night.

Directed by Daniel Petrie, it’s a 70’s made-for-TV movie and looks as such. The Louisiana setting is a nice change of pace and fortunately the mystery keeps the pacing moving forward without dragging too many scenes out. The werewolf is only seen at the film’s climax, and it’s a wolfman in a button down shirt and slacks. It looks cheap and goofy, but at least the poor lighting works in his favor.

Teleplay by Alvin Sapinsley, based on the novel by Leslie H. Whitten. The script was surprisingly competent, even good in places. Given the title and description, I knew going in that it was a werewolf movie, so the big reveal isn’t a surprise (nor is who the werewolf actually is). What the script really does well is build the mystery of Ellie’s death and presenting suspects and possible motivations for it. It does this for the first half of the movie until the town learns a monster stalks the streets on a full moon, but it makes sense for the Sheriff to be investigating all these leads.

Original Music by Bernardo Segall. It’s not very memorable, but gets the job done in a made-for-TV 70’s way.

The Verdict
Moon of the Wolf is a surprisingly decent early 70’s made-for-TV movie. I know that isn’t saying much to recommend it, but it recycles your werewolf plot elements well enough and makes the Deep South setting work. I’m not giving it a wholehearted recommendation, but you could do a lot worse than a Southern Sheriff investigating werewolf killings.

…And now I want a police procedural with a werewolf who’s a loose cannon but a damn good cop.


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

“I feel sorry for you, and your lack of soul.”

What? Is it the tenth month already?

Spooky how that happens. SPOOKY, I say!

Oh man, so I've been sitting on this one for a little bit, putting my thoughts about it together and…ah who cares about that, let’s talk about why Carnival of Souls is regarded as such a cult classic, shall we?

Naturally, I mean the 1962 version and not the remake.

We start with a car crash. Some ladies in an automobile drag race with some guys in another car, and the ladies’ car goes off a bridge and into a river. Quite some time later, one female survivor emerges from the water. It's not sexy. She recovers and leaves her Kansas town for a job as a church organist in Utah. Though along the way she starts seeing a pale, sinister man, and then things get weirder.

Mary Henry: Candace Hilligoss plays a character who is…well, liminal is the best word to describe her. Attractive, she’s also antisocial and doesn't fit in with anyone around her after the accident. Curiously, she walks a fine line between being sympathetic and unlikable: She doesn't seem to like anything. She doesn't like people, she doesn't trust anyone, she doesn't drink, and she doesn't have much interest in religion, despite being a church organist (she views it as just another job). But it works, largely because the other people she meets are also weirdly unlikable.

John Linden: Sidney Berger plays the one guy who tries to get close to her. He’s a neighbor in the boarding house Mary rents, and he’s a lech. He peeps on her, tries to get her drunk, and so on. He’s oddly sympathetic, since despite being completely skeevy, he’s also the only living person who has any persistent interest in Mary as a person. He can’t actually help her though. He can't even help being skeevy.

The Man: Herk Harvey (also the director) plays the entity that haunts Mary. He doesn't say a word, and despite being a man in greasepaint with raccoon eyes and a receding hairline, he’s thoroughly creepy. Part of it’s in how he’s always got this serene smile on his face but a hunger in his eyes, and part of it’s in the timing of his appearances. He literally does come out of nowhere and approaches Mary before going away until the next time.

Directed by Herk Harvey, who directed a large number of educational/documentary shorts, but this was his only movie. Despite that, he gets a ton of mileage out of this one movie with the help of Director of Photography Maurice Prather. Many of the shots are mundane and ordinary. There are some awkward edits. The makeup for the souls is, as I've said, a matter of black and white face paint. But it works because of atmosphere. The visual style of the movie is just as standoffish as Mary herself, and works to isolate her character, even in busy street scenes. The visual linchpin that ties the atmosphere together is the abandoned Saltair pavilion at Salt Lake City, where Mary has her final encounter with the souls, which is makes exceptional use of undercranking to unnaturally speed up the unearthly characters.

Story (uncredited) by Herk Harvey and Written by John Clifford. The script is not particularly noteworthy. Dialogue is largely unremarkable with a few nice moments of banter here and there. Characterization is mostly vague and undefined, though I think that works in its favor.

One thing I think the script wisely does it not explain any of the supernatural to the audience. The ghostly characters chasing Mary are presumably the souls of the dead coming to claim her, but that’s merely an inference. The movie never tells you this. The Man could be Death, or the Devil (he is certainly sinister), or just the leader of the souls. Mary goes into occasional fugue states where she can interact with the world, but nobody else can interact with her and all sounds stop. Is this her passing into the spirit world physically? Dunno, but probably. The movie leaves it up to the audience to determine. I like that, because it lays out this mysterious situation and challenges the viewer to make sense of it.

The Sounds
Original Music by Gene Moore. It’s organ music, and lots of it. Which makes sense, as Mary’s an organist. It being a CHURCH organ adds to the supernatural/spiritual themes at play, and can quickly transition from beautiful and comforting to dissonant and unsettling. That last part is very important, as it is the hammer that nails the eerie atmosphere together in the most critical scenes. At other times the organ music can grate on the ears, but that’s a small price to pay for the atmospheric payoffs.

The Verdict
Carnival of Souls is a cheaply made B-movie with fair acting. Its individual elements are nothing spectacular and yet when those same elements are put together, it’s a master class in atmosphere that feels like a long form Twilight Zone episode. The movie builds tension extremely well and has legitimately creepy moments. Absolutely recommended, and easily viewable since it’s lapsed into the public domain (though Criterion also put out one of its deluxe sets for it as well).