Monday, July 30, 2012

Movie Monday: Master of the World

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1961 fantasy adventure Master of the World!

Vincent Price. Charles Bronson. Jules Verne. Let's go!
After a comical, black and white intro about the history of air flight, the film proper opens above a small Pennsylvania town, where a hot-air balloon that was exploring a volcanic crater and carrying three men (Henry Hull, David Frankham, Charles Bronson) and one woman (Mary Webster) is shot down by the brilliant-but-possibly-mad Captain Robur (Vincent Price).

Robur is piloting his advanced airship, The Albatross, and is traveling the world forcing various nations to forgo war, lest they be destroyed by Robur's advanced weaponry and firepower. Price gets a wonderful entrance, as the camera pans across the ground and then up the length of his body, revealing him for the first time:
Robur takes the four captive on his ship, where he teaches them of his plan. Prudent (Hull), his daughter, and her fiance want to escape, but they are distrustful of government agent Strock (Bronson), who at times seems to be convinced of the righteousness of Robur's plan. Strock had hired the three to investigate the volcano, which turned out to be Robur experimenting with his airship's armory.

There are, of course, a lot of similarities here to Verne's more famous 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and because this was an AIP film, not Disney, the effects are not nearly as sumptuous. Still, The Albatross is cool-looking ship, even if it is paired with mostly unconvincing blue screen backgrounds:
The fiance, Evans, tries to escape down one of the ship's water hoses, and is disgusted when Strock tells Robur about the escape attempt. Both men are punished by having to dangle from ropes below the ship, where they engage in a fist-fight:
Evans is knocked out, and Strock saves him. Prudent's daughter starts to gravitate towards Strock, enraging Evans even further. Finally Evans snaps, sabotaging Strock in a way that will probably lead to his death!

There's a lot of talk during this movie, with the hothead Evans fighting against Robur and Strock, with Strock refusing to fully concede what side he's on. There's a lot--a lot--of stock footage, cribbed from other movies--pretty much any time Robur drops a bomb, we see it land on another movie.

But despite all this, Master of the World does have a fairly tense ending, which I won't give away here, suffice it to say it features an element seen in no less than two films this summer, Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises. In some ways, MOTW does at least one of those movies better, and at probably 1,000th the, ahem, price.

Master of the World is pretty look to at, though because of its low budget the spectacle is kept mostly to the shots of The Albatross, inside and out. Price is, as usual, great as Robur, with Charles Bronson in a change-of-pace role as a thoughtful, mostly internal man. The rest of the cast is pretty good, save for some strained "comic relief" by Vito Scotti as the ship's chef.

The film's screenplay was by none other than the legendary Richard Matheson, who seemed more interested in bouncing the characters off one another, arguing their particular philosophies, in this confined space rather than big action spectacle, something AIP probably couldn't pull off anyway. The sets at times are candy colored, and Robur's crew wear striped sailor outfits that make them look either like Arthur Treacher counter workers or henchmen from the Batman TV show (it doesn't help that Bronson and the others have to wear the same outfits once they come aboard).

Overall, I enjoyed Master of the World, though it's certainly no classic. The low budget really hampers the film's grand ambitions, and the Evans character is such a dolt that at times I wished that Strock would just push him over the side and go off with Robur for more adventures. Maybe a remake?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Movie Monday: Don't Torture A Duckling

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1972 giallo thriller Don't Torture A Ducking. Yes, that's the real title!

DTAD is directed by horror maestro Lucio Fulci, more famous for gorefests Zombie (1979) and The Beyond (1981), two films I've seen and enjoyed, if that word can be applied in this context. I had never even heard of this one, and how could I--how could anyone--pass up a film with that title?
Don't Torture A Duckling takes place entirely in the small Italian village known as Accendura. It opens with a grisly image of a woman desperately clawing at the dirt, digging something up. She retrieves what is clearly the skeleton of a small child, buried there without a casket or headstone.

We then follow three young boys, galavanting around the town. They catch the proverbial Village Idiot named Giuseppe playing peeping tom with two men and some prostitutes. The three boys taunt the man so much he runs away in shame. Meanwhile, we catch up with the woman, who is clearly some sort of gypsy dealing in the black arts, as she crafts three small voodoo dolls. Hmm.

To this point, DTAD feels like a fairly conventional (by giallo standards) thriller, with the horror no doubt to come. Then things take a hard left turn for the weird, as we follow one of the boys home, and he is directed to bring some orange juice to his housekeeper mother's employer, a beautiful woman named Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet). Patrizia is waiting for the young boy, in a manner most inappropriate:
Patrizia just doesn't just try and make the boy uncomfortable--which she succeeds at--but she asks him about his sex life, and then even offers to take him to bed. The boy, being all of thirteen or so, holds his own as best he can then departs.

Soon after, one of the three boys goes missing, sending the town into a panic. Local reporters show up, and one of them seems so dogged to solve the case he seems to be brought on board by the local police, who seem ineffectual at best, probably even clownish. All evidence points toward Giuseppe, and he is arrested, despite his pleas of innocence. A second boy goes missing, then turns up dead, proving that Giuseppe is innocent. Following that, the third boy is also murdered.

The local reporter befriends Patrizia (who wouldn't?), who is--naturally--considered a bit of an outcast in the village. More suspects pile up, like the local priest (Marc Poreli) who runs a boys group that all three victims were a part of, and the priest's strange, dour mother Aurelia (legendary actress Irene Papas).

The townsfolk becomes a mob, and starts directing blame at everyone. The local gypsy--who everyone knows is a witch--is arrested and then cleared, but that hardly matters: some of the men from the town follow her, and beat her to death with a chain, in a slow, grueling scene. The witch manages to crawl away, and spends several uncut minutes crawling to a nearby superhighway--which cuts through the countryside like a knife--where she dies as cars zoom by, indifferent:

There's more, a lot more, but I don't want to give too much more away about the plot. Having seen a number of Fulci films (thanks to the fine folks at Exhumed Films), I was expecting a real gory time, since Fulci seemed to revel in reducing bodies to pulp, and showing his audience every grisly detail, but Don't Torture A Duckling is, by most measures, pretty restrained. Sure, the chain whip scene is tough to watch, but mostly because Fulci, for once, takes the violence fairly seriously, as opposed to trying to just make his audiences scream and/or laugh in revulsion. In fact, the most uncomfortable scene in the movie is right at the top, with Patrizia and the boy.

After the three young boys are killed--itself a topic most filmmakers wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole--the film changes main characters and begins to focus on the reporter and Patrizia, as well as the priest and his mother. The final scene is a pitched battle on a cliff, which is about as straight an "action" scene as I think Fulci ever filmed:
In fact, the only thing that mars DTAD is the final series of shots, where the in-your-face gore that was Fulci's trademark returns, but in such a head-scratching, goofy way that it almost breaks the movie's spell.

I had never really seen much Italian horror until I started going to the Exhumed Film shows back in the late 90s, and I admit the first few films I saw (one of which was Fulci's Zombie) were bewildering to me--nothing was ever explained! Zombies just started coming to life and killing people, just because. Having been reared on American horror and American movies in general, watching films that explained nothing took a little getting used to. Eventually, I grew to appreciate and then enjoy the "WTF" nature of Italian horror, because of course the hows and the whys weren't important. Fulci wasn't interested in explaining why a building full of people suddenly became zombies and started eating each other, he just wanted to show what it might be like if it happened.

So it was interesting to see the man take a different route with DTAD, which still has some really bizarro moments (see: Patrizia au natural), but for the most part sticks to the story and themes inherent. It may be modern day (hence the superhighway), but this town is still locked in a time warp of religious superstition, and how that kind of thinking can lead to horrible violence. No authority of any kind can be trusted, whether it be the church, the police, or the media; and one of the film's heroes turns out to be, essentially, a potential pedophile.

The film was not received warmly at the time; Fulci was openly attacking the Roman Catholic Church which I understand has just a wee bit of influence over there. The film remained mostly unseen and unavailable for years, until hitting DVD a few years ago. He also supposedly got into some legal trouble concerning the scene with the young boy and Patrizia, until he proved--in court--that the young actor and the naked Bouchet were never actually in the same room at the same time (much to the young boy's regret, I bet).

Fun Fact: The original title of this movie was something to the effect of "Don't Kill Donald Duck", a name that the spoilsports over at Disney (who make the Catholic Church look like a bunch of pikers when it comes to getting their way) found offensive for some reason. After leaning on Fulci, he changed it to the equally ungainly--but thematically more precise--Don't Torture A Duckling. But he still got his shot in at the Mouse, or more accurately the Duck; one of the young victims carries around a headless Donald Duck doll through a number of scenes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Movie Monday: Around The World Under The Sea

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1966 underwater sci-fi adventure Around The World Under The Sea!

As most of you who read this column know by now, I'm a sucker for A)any movie with a really cool poster (check) and B)any old movie that features heroic Men of Action using candy-colored sci-fi gadgets (double check). So let's put on our scuba suits and dive dive dive!
Around The World Under The Sea opens with this eye-opening quote (from actual astronaut M. Scott Carpenter) about the world we're about to enter. You think space is intimidating? Try the seven seas, bub!
Following a series of earthquakes that have struck the world, a crack team of scientists and biologists are assembled to go on a dangerous mission under the sea and plant a series of sensor devices that will work as an early warning system, potentially saving millions of lives.

The team, led by Dr. Doug Standish (Lloyd Bridges) inspects the ship they will be using, the ultra-high-tech sub The Hydronaut. Meanwhile, two other members of team, Drs. Boren (Gary Merrill) and Mosby (Brian Kelly), discuss who should also be part of the team. Realizing they have limited space, they recruit someone who is both a doctor and a marine biologist--Dr. M.E. Hanford (Shirley Eaton) who is--*gasp!*--a woman!

It's here that
Around The World Under The Sea starts wasting a lot of its time, with it's Mad Men-esque attitude about women. When we're first introduced to Hanford, her debut is preceded by a bunch of screaming secretaries, acting like cartoon characters when they see a guinea-pig running around:
Dr. Hanford crawls out from under a desk, having retrieved one of her guinea-pigs, and introduces herself to her erstwhile teammates. Then she goes back down to retrieve another one, and we see just how qualified she is for this mission, at least in the eyes of the filmmakers:
Two other members of the team, played by Man from U.N.C.L.E. star (and Sally Draper heartthrob) David Macallum and Marshall Thompson, are also brought aboard. After inspecting the ship, Standish does some team-building of his own: he goes to visit the elusive oddball Hank Stahl (Keenan Wynn), who is so disgusted with humanity he has decided to live at the bottom of the sea in his own underwater domicile:
Standish convinces Stahl to join the mission, and soon they all aboard The Hydronaut, headed for their first destination. Unfortunately, right at the point where the film (which has spent a considerable amount of its running time just assembling the crew) should be ratcheting up its tension, it goes slack--the installing of the first sensor goes fairly smoothly, and then we have scenes of the crew killing time, like playing a game of chess (which is magnetically attached to a nearby wall).

The one scene that has any sort of that Jules Verne-esque feel to it is when Stahl is nearly eaten (or whatever) by a giant moray eel, which then turns its attention towards the whole ship:
Even here though, the scene is shot in a kind of flat way; other than one or two close-ups of the eel (from the POV of the crew inside) we don't really get a sense of impending danger all that much.

More time is wasted with the problems some of the crew have with Dr. Hanford on board. Mosby seems to be in serious infatuation mode with her, even though Hanford is in a relationship with Dr. Hillyard, and was a former flame of MaCallum's Dr. Volker (whew!). At one point Volker, now trying to restart his relationship with Hanford, gets distracted and crashes The Hydronaut into a cliff. This is a crack team of brilliant professionals?

I have to admit, around the halfway mark of A
round The World Under The Sea I really lost interest in what was going on; the silly squabbling between the men over Hanford just got so ridiculous I kind of wished that Standish and Stahl would just drop them all off on an island somewhere and continue the mission on their own.

The film ends with The Hydronaut having to plant a sensor near an active volcano; as you might imagine it doesn't go smoothly. But I don't think I'll be shocking anyone by revealing that the crew makes it out, heads to the surface, ready to continue their mission in the inevitable(?) sequel.

Around The World Under The Sea makes a dubious companion to 1966's Destination Inner Space--it features a "crack" team of scientists and explorers on a mission under the sea, and then it all gets bogged down with retrograde sexual politics; bringing in a woman character just to treat her poorly. Both films seem to be saying: yes, women are qualified to be in these situations now, but wouldn't it be better for all concerned if they just stayed out of the way? That way men could go about their business of saving the world, dammit!

Maybe Hank Stahl was right.

Fun Fact: The director of the diving sequences was none other than the Creature From The Black Lagoon himself, Ricou Browning!

For Further Reading: If, for some reason, you want to learn more--a lot more--about Around The World and Under the Sea, check out this post, which is so long and detailed I think more thought was put into it than the script for the film itself.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Movie Monday: Mr. Sardonicus

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1961 horror thriller Mr. Sardonicus!

I had never seen Mr. Sardonicus, but the one-sheet, with that ominous, shadowy figure, was always one of my favorites when I would see it in various movie poster books. So I figured it was long past due to finally give it a look!
Mr. Sardonicus was produced by William Castle, a schlockmeister who prided himself on his gimmicks--rigging seats with electrical charges for The Tingler, flying a glow-in-the-dark skeleton over the audience during The House on Haunted Hill, a "Fright Break" for the timid during Homicidal. I guess he saw himself as another Alfred Hitchcock, establishing an identity with an audience, something still pretty rare today but almost unheard of back then.

Anyway, the film opens with Castle "on the streets" of London, circa 1860. He tells us what we're about to see, warning us of the shocks and horror to come. We then meet the eminent physician Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), who we see is a talented and kind man. He receives a message from a former flame named Maude (Audrey Dalton), asking him to come to Gorslava (good luck finding that on a map) to examine her husband, Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe).
Everything seems to suggest that something is very, very wrong with Sardonicus. Everyone he asks about the Baron seems to be stricken with terror at the very mention of his name; nevertheless, Cargrave forges ahead.

The first person he meets at the Baron's castle is the Igor-like Krull (Oskar Homolka), who is busy applying leeches to one of the other servants--not a good first impression. Cargrave is of course horrified, and defies Krull by yanking them off the poor girl. Krull himself has suffered from Sardonicus' cruelty; he's missing an eye, with the empty socket hastily and sloppily patched up.

That night, Cargrave gets to meet the man himself, who unusual host, to say the least:
Sardonicus explains, via extended flashback, how he got this way: he lived a humble life with his father, a farmer, and his wife Elenka (Erika Peters). The father, dreaming of a better life like his daughter-in-law, buys a lottery ticket. A few days later, the father dies in his sleep, and is summarily buried. Elenka realizes that the lottery ticket was a winner, and that it was buried with the father!

Elenka strong-arms Sardonicus into digging up the body to retrieve it. He does, but it horrified when he sees the dessicated face of his dead father (the film's first real shock moment). But Sardonicus trudges on, retrieving the ticket. When he returns home, he starts feeling odd, then he realizes he can't speak. Hours pass, and Elenka shrieks in terror when she sees that her husband's face has morphed into the same horrible rictus that his father had!

Elenka commits suicide, leaving Sardonicus with the riches to build himself a castle, hire servants, and spend a lifetime pursuing different cures for his condition, all to no avail. When Maude mentioned that Cargrave is an expert surgeon specializing in paralysis, he had her ask Cargrave to come and try and cure him.

Cargrave tries his best, but it doesn't work. When Sardonicus demands he try more experimental procedures, Cargrave refuses. Sardonicus ups the ante by threatening to turn Maude's face into the same nightmarish visage he has:
Cargrave relents, and sends away for an extract that comes from a rare plant. Using the corpse of Sardonicus' father(!) to replicate the events, Cargrave injects Sardonicus with the extract.

I won't say any more about what happens, lest I spoil the "twist ending" that Castle was so proud of. It's at around this point that the man re-enters the movie, withis is latest gimmick: a "punishment poll":
Castle asks the audience to vote with the punishment cards they were handed when they entered the theater: should Sardonicus be spared a horrible fate, or punished more? The count, of course, went for the latter (indeed, most film historians believe Castle never even shot the alternate, since the footage has never been found), and we see what happened to Sardonicus. It's not pretty, in more ways than one.

Mr. Sardonicus suffers from the same affliction I feel most of Castle's films do: great set-up, great concept, weak follow-through. There's basically two or three moments of genuine shock or horror in this movie, spread out over a 90-minute running time. In between its a lot of talk talk talk, with none of the actors ever really achieving anything other than being adequate in their roles (Audrey Dalton's Maude is so dull and passionless I can't see how she inspires such devotion in Cargrave, who takes enormous risks for her).

While it's the gimmicks of course that made Castle as famous as he was (Joe Dante paid homage to him in his great, underrated film Matinee), they always seem like an unwanted interruption; just at the point where the movie should be building up a head of steam, here's William Castle again reminding us all this is pretty much just one big gag: he's undercutting his own stories. (On a side note: Castle clearly loved how masks looked in movies; he used a similar gag in 1964's Strait-Jacket) At the same time, maybe without the gimmicks all of Castle's films would be completely forgotten, along with the hundreds (thousands?) of other B anc C-level genre cheapies that played in drive-ins across America.

Aside from the Punishment Poll, Mr. Sardonicus isn't all that bad; yeah, it's too talky, too long, and doesn't have enough scares, but the actual look of the man (which we get to see, but I'm not spoiling here) is pretty icky, and the ending has healthy dose of dark, dark humor that I enjoyed. This movie is actually a great choice for a remake; take the good parts, tighten everything up a bit, and there you go!

Fun Fact: This movie was the basis for a story arc of the TV series Wiseguy, of all things, where a rich factory owner, stuck with the same type of emotional problems, becomes obsessed with the film. Who knew?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Movie Monday?

You may or may not have noticed the "Donate" button I've added to the sidebar. I've put it on there for two reasons:

1)Movie Monday! has gotten more popular, in terms of how many hits it gets every week--thank you all very much!

2)I've run across several really fun, really obscure movies that I'd love to tackle for MM. But, try as I might, I just can't find them anywhere online, either above board or below it. So the only way to obtain these movies is to buy them outright on DVD--which I'm perfectly happy to do, but it's a little hard for me to justify spending money on movies that I will probably watch only once, just for the sake of a single MM installment.

So I thought I'd open it up to all of you--if you like the Movie Monday! column, and would like to see me tackle some of these, ahem, gems, then consider donating, any amount you'd like. Every $15 or so raised will be spent on one of the movies (which I want to keep secret, that's part of the fun!). And who knows? Maybe we'll even have a contest where you could possibly win the DVD for yourself once I've reviewed it!

If we don't raise any donations, don't worry--there's still tons of movies I want to get to that don't cost a cent to find. But if you're dying for me to review, say, Viva Knievel!, then you know what to do!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Movie Monday: House By The River

This week's Movie Monday selection is the 1950 film noir House By The River!

I had never even heard of this movie, but for whatever reason Netflix WI has a fairly decent selection of obscure film noirs, so when I saw it pop up on the menu, and that it was directed by Fritz Lang, I knew that was enough for me to give it a whirl...
House By The River concerns middlingly-successful author Stephen Byrne (Louis Hayward) who lives in an absurdly huge mansion with his wife Marjorie (Jane Wyatt) and their housekeeper Emily (Dorothy Gaunt). The mansion sits by right the titular river, next to another mansion, in a neighborhood--if you can call it that--that seems to exist in some alternate universe that features no other people or homes. Right from the get-go, there's a closed-off creepiness that reminded me a bit of the films of Val Lewton.

Anyway, not too long into the film we see Byrne make a move on the housekeeper. She rejects his advances, panics, and begins to scream. Afraid the old bitty of a neighbor will overhear the screams, he grabs Emily by the throat, hissing at her to be quiet. Alas, he succeeds a little too well at quieting her, ending up with her choked to death at his feet. Now what?
Instead of immediately going to the police like a normal person would, Byrne instead turns to his brother John (Lee Bowman), who Stephen knows has always harbored a crush on his sister-in-law. Insisting that her life would be ruined as well if the story came out, Stephen convinces John to help him carry the body away, and they take it out in a boat and dump it in the river. Of course, the river--which the neighbor accuses of always bringing up smelly filth on the shore--will not allow such sin to be hidden, and acts like the hand of God itself, reminding Stephen of his crime. Or is it all in his imagination?
Eventually, the missing maid is noticed, and it becomes a big news story. John is considered the main suspect, because his name is stamped inside the wood crate they used as a makeshift coffin. Instead of being concerned for his brother's welfare, Stephen seems pleased that he, at least, will get away with it. Not only that, but he sees this whole thing as a passport to even greater literary fame...

I won't say any more about the plot of House By The River, because while no masterpiece, it's well worth seeking out, especially via Netflix WI, where it won't cost anything. While the performances by the low-wattage stars are nothing especially great (Hayward is always playing to the back rows of the theater, Wyatt is earnestly dull, and Bowman is not quite credible as someone so easily swayed by the pop-eyed, subtle-as-a-brick Stephen), Lang creates a truly creepy, unreal world--again, something akin to what you'd see in a Val Lewton film.

There's nothing outwardly fantastic or even horror-ish in House By The River, but at times it feels like a horror film, not a thriller--it seems like, at any moment, Emily herself is going to rise from the river, pointing a zombie-like finger at her murderer. Byrne's mansion is always deep in shadow, and even during the daylight scenes the wind always seems to be blowing, dead leaves flying about in all directions. One of the final scenes is shot like a horror film, ending the whole shebang with a real, er, bang, visually and dramatically.
At barely 85 minutes, House By The River moves along at a good pace (although I still think it could have used a couple of talky scenes trimmed--I would have made a merciless film editor) and keeps throwing twists at the viewer that leave you wondering just how the hell this is all going to turn out--and what it might do to all that lakefront property value!

Fun Fact: According to IMDB (which is sometimes insane, so caveat emptor), Fritz Lang originally wanted to cast a black actress as the maid, which would have been a really transgressive little detail to throw in. But the spoilsport producers wouldn't let it happen--after all, what the hell did Fritz Lang know about making a good movie?

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