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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Tarzan in Manhattan (1989) – Review

By the late 1960s, while Tarzan’s adventures may have faded from the big screen he was far from ready to hang up his loin cloth, Ron Ely had made him a staple of Thursday night viewings and he had quite the splash during the Saturday morning cartoon line-up in the 1970s, but today we will be looking at a late 80s live-action offering called Tarzan in Manhattan.

Released on CBS in 1989, Tarzan in Manhattan brought the iconic jungle hero into the heart of the urban landscape in this made-for-television movie, one that has pretty much been forgotten. This adaptation took the bold step of transplanting the legendary character from his natural habitat into the bustling streets of New York City in a typical “Fish out of Water” premise. This outing begins with Tarzan (Joe Lara) having a typical jungle day, which consists of swinging on a vine and saving his chimpanzee pal Cheetah from a crocodile, but paradise is shattered by the sound of a bullet and the murder of his ape mother Kala as well as the abduction of Cheetah. This leads to the classic hero cry of “Noooooo!” over his dead mom and a vow of vengeance.

 

“Tarzan, going to kick some serious ass.”

Tarzan seeks out his friend Joseph (Joe Seneca), a local storekeeper, to get the required paperwork for this journey out of Africa and into the concrete jungles of Manhattan, but the man warns Tarzan that “You’re going to be up against something stronger than poison darts, more cunning than killer snakes, and fiercer than Simba the Lion…New Yorkers.” With that piece of sage advice, Tarzan is off and running on his way to the big city where he will encounter various trials and tribulations, starting with his passport being flagged for some reason and him ending up behind bars at a detention centre. Of course, no mere bars can hold back the Lord of the Jungle, so after stripping off his jeans and muscle shirt – revealing that he never goes anywhere without his trusty loincloth – he rips out the bars and dives into the river below. He then spends most of the night sightseeing via a ride on the roof of a bus, in moments of less than stellar green screen.

 

“I couldn’t find my transit pass.”

Tarzan fails to mimic the “New York Hailing Cab Whistle” so he must resort to his classic jungle call, which leads to him meeting local cab driver Jane Porter (Kim Crosby) who, strangely enough, doesn’t seem to be put off by a man standing in the street mostly naked. He hands her the matchbook cover that he found at the “scene of the crime” and requests that she take him to the club it advertises – he can pay for her service with the various jewels he brought from home that he carries around in a bag hanging from his loin cloth – and after she sees him leap from her cab to stop a runaway carriage, as well as seeing his marvellous abs, she is more than willing to help this strange hunky man, even if states that he is “Tarzan of the Apes.” This scene also has one of my favourite exchanges between Jane and Tarzan.

Jane: “My name is Jane Porter, I’m twenty-six years old, single, the closest relationship I had lasted two months, I’m always the one who calls it off, I have a master’s in computer science from NYU and my shrink thinks I’m wasting my life driving a cab. So, who in the world are you?”
Tarzan: “I’m Tarzan of the Apes.”
Jane: “You did tell me that, didn’t you.”

After getting a fashion make-over they visit the night club from that matchbook clue, but while that visit is a dead-end Jane points out that the phone number written on the inside of the matchbook is an even bigger clue, which they later discover is to The Brightmore Foundation, a philanthropic organization run by millionaire B. B. Brightmore (Jan-Michael Vincent), and while Jane is dubious that such a benevolent and charitable institution could be behind ape-knapping Tarzan is not one to leave any stone unturned, even if the stones are that of a big city mansion. Lucky for Tarzan, Jane’s father Archimedes “Archie” Porter (Tony Curtis) is a retired cop who now runs a security agency and is a little more jaded when it comes to rich philanthropists. At first, he’s a little hesitant about Jane’s loin clothing-wearing friend but after Tarzan saves her from a gang of local street toughs he agrees to join the investigation. The three then crash a costume party at Brightmore’s mansion and discover that not only is he a Big Game Hunter, which is not in keeping with the man’s benevolent image, and they also discover that he has a secret lab where they are conducting illegal tests on animal brains, apparently, they can transfer the thoughts and knowledge of one creature into that of another.

 

Is this the secret home of Doctor Moreau?

What follows is your typical 80s action-adventure comedy with Tarzan, Jane and Archie trying to uncover the nefarious schemes of B.B. Brightmore.  We’ll get them sneaking around looking for clues, Brightmore will send a goon to kill Archie but only results in putting him in a come – they use the old gas line rigged to a light switch gag – and our heroes will not only have to evade the machinations of the villain but the New York City Police Department as well, in other words, hijinks ensue. There are some solid moments in this story, with the villain’s plan being at least a little unique, and the chemistry between Kim Crosby’s Jane and Joe Lara’s Tarzan is excellent, unfortunately, we also have to suffer through Tony Curtis and his horrible attempts at giving a comedic performance, as well as Cheetah stealing a police car. Let’s just say that not all of the events in this movie are all that realistic.

 

“Cheetah, watch the road!”

Stray Observations:

• In the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, Kala was not killed by white game hunters but by a local tribe of cannibals, who felt the wrath of Tarzan in a most horrific fashion.
• In a flashback we see that Tarzan wasn’t born in Africa after his parents were shipwrecked, instead, their plane crashed while he was a small boy. This is closer to the origins of Boy in Tarzan Finds a Son.
• If the ape suit used for Kala isn’t the one made by Bob Burns for the 1975 television show The Ghost Busters it’s a dead ringer.
• This wasn’t Tarzan’s first cinematic journey to the Big Apple as we had Tarzan’s New York Adventure back in 1942, which was also Johnny Weissmuller’s last outing as the Ape Man.
• In this series we don’t get the classic Johnny Weissmuller “Me Tarzan, you Jane” speech pattern because, like the Ron Ely series, this is a more erudite Tarzan who speaks “perfect” English.
• Tarzan doesn’t use his jungle-tracking skills to hunt down the poachers but relies on finding a matchbook cover with the name of a New York City nightclub on it. This clue is brought to you by five hundred detective novels and television shows.
• Despite this being an updated Tarzan story, we still hear the classic “Tarzan Jungle Call” made famous by Johnny Weissmuller and Carol Burnett.
• Actor Jan-Michael Vincent once played a Tarzan-type character in the Disney movie The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973).
• Brightmore tells Jane “I’ve been a hunter for a long time, long enough to get bored” and as he later hunts Tarzan and Jane, this film checks off “The Most Dangerous Game” bingo card.

 

“I’ll also explain my entire plan like a classic Bond villain.”

Directed by Michael Schultz, this isn’t so much as an updating of Tarzan as it is a re-imagining of the characters found in the books – he’s still the Earl of Greystoke but Jane Porter isn’t a New York socialite and they don’t meet up in the jungles of Africa – and with its New York setting taking up the bulk of the film’s running time it doesn’t contain much in the way of your standard Tarzan jungle tropes that fans have become used to. There is certainly a far less chance of Tarzan calling for an elephant stampede as a less minute rescue in this outing, though to be fair, Johnny Weissmuller managed to pull that off on his New York Adventure.

 

“Jane, do you know where we can find a herd of elephants?”

Despite its fantastical premise, Tarzan in Manhattan does remain fairly grounded, with the relationship between Tarzan and Jane fairly believable, and the clash between nature, civilization and billionaires with thier evil plots somehow works. While some may find the film to be rather clichéd and silly at times this was the 80s after all, and it nonetheless offers a fun adventure with a Bond type villain and good dose of action.  The aforementioned chemistry between the two leads makes up for some of the film’s less than plausible plot elements. What is obvious is that film’s conclusion, with Tarzan agreeing to join the Porter Security Agency, makes it clear that this was a backdoor pilot and that they’d hoped it would become an ongoing series. Sadly, that never happened and further stories now rest in the area of fan fiction.

 

“How about another wacky adventure after breakfast?”

Overall, Tarzan in Manhattan is a charming and enjoyable television movie that offers a unique twist on the classic Tarzan mythos. With its blend of action, adventure, and humour it’s sure to entertain both fans of the original character and newcomers alike. However, your level of enjoyment may depend on your ability to handle Tony Curtis and his flamboyant comedy stylings and Jan-Michael Vincent’s cartoonishly evil villain. So, grab some popcorn and join Tarzan as he swings through the skyscrapers of Manhattan in this nostalgic adventure. Also, there nothing is cuter than two chimpanzees hugging.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Piranha (1978) – Review

A lot of Jaws rip-offs flooded cinemas during the late ’70s and earlier ’80s but Joe Dante’s aquatic gem stands as one of the best, in fact, it was so good that when Universal wanted to sue Corman’s studio it was Steven Spielberg who convinced them not to. If that doesn’t equal a good recommendation I don’t know what does. But great rip-off or not, how does Joe Dante’s Piranha hold up after all these years?

Released in 1978, amidst the wake of “Jaws Mania,” Dante’s film boldly swims into its own territory, delivering a schlocky yet immensely entertaining experience that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Set in the idyllic riverside town of Lost River Lake, the story follows a determined skiptracer, Maggie McKeown (Heather Menzies) and a local reclusive alcoholic, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman), as they unravel a sinister government conspiracy involving a top-secret experiment gone awry. The plot is kicked off when Maggie empties a pool containing a swarm of genetically altered piranhas into the local waterways – she believed that a pair of teens she was looking for may have drowned in the pool – and this sets off a chain reaction of chaos and bloody carnage.

Science Note: Despite their razor-sharp teeth and fearsome looks piranha do not eat humans, they eat fish and other life in the water.

Turns out that a scientist by the name of Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy) was the lead scientist on a project called Operation: Razorteeth, which had been designed to create mutated piranha that could withstand the cold waters of North Vietnamese rivers and thus be able to munch on the Viet Cong movement, but despite the project being scrapped some of these aquatic monsters survived. Their release into the Lost Lake River system results in our heroes having to make a mad dash to prevent these eating machines from making it to the local summer camp, where Grogan’s aquaphobic daughter (Shannon Collins) is located, needless to say, things don’t quite our hero’s way. Not helped by the summer camp being operated by an incompetent buffoon (Paul Bartel) and adult bully.

 

Spielberg killed one kid in Jaws while Dante wipes out an entire summer camp.

Director Joe Dante masterfully infuses his film with a blend of B-movie charm and genuine suspense and the practical effects by Rob Botin, though showing signs of age, still hold up remarkably well. The underwater attacks are shot with a suspenseful eye and the piranha puppets are surprisingly effective in creating moments of genuine fear and the use of miniatures for some of the underwater sequences adds a quaint charm to the film, reminiscent of classic creature features. These sequences are surprisingly tense, showcasing Dante’s skill in building suspense even in the murky depths. The script by John Sayles is rife with clichés, such as business man Buck Gardner (Dick Miller) who refuses to shut down his water park despite the dangers, and then there is your standard evil government cover-up  which in this film comes in the form of Colonel Waxman (Bruce Gordon) and former Razorteeth scientist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) – and they are about as cartoony stupid as one could imagine, but that is all part of Piranha’s attraction.

 

“We’re not evil so much as incompetent.”

Stray Observations:

• If you break into a place that has a posted sign stating “Military Test Sit * Restricted Area * No Trespassing” you are either going to be eaten by piranhas or possibly turned into a gamma-irradiated monster, basically, whatever happens it’s on you.
• In a nod to the film this entry is ripping off, Maggie is introduced playing a Jaws stand-up arcade game.
• This film contains one of my least favourite clichés, where a character will refuse to do something, vehemently declaring “No I’m not” but then this is followed by a smash cut of them do exactly that.
• I know piranha are notoriously fast eaters but at one point a man is unable to pull his legs out of the water before the flesh is eaten off them and this is a bit ridiculous.
• We see a television showing the 1957 science-fiction/monster movie The Monster That Challenged the World, a film that also featured an aquatic menace.
• We get the classic “We can’t close the beaches, it’s the Fourth of July” cliché in the form of a water park being secretly funded by Colonel Waxman and run by charlatan Buck Gardner.

 

It’s not a proper Joe Dante film without Dick Miller.

Rip-off or not, Piranha isn’t your typical creature feature as its sly wit and biting satire brings it up a level, with Dante cleverly skewering government bureaucracy and corporate greed through the characters of Dr. Robert Hoak and Buck Gardner, one a scientist responsible for the disastrous experiment and the other a grifter whose drive to make money is put ahead of public safety. This isn’t exactly new ground but Dante delivers it all with a nice wink and a smile. It’s the film’s self-aware humour that adds an extra layer of enjoyment, inviting us to revel in its campy delights. Despite its modest budget and occasional rough edges, Piranha swims with confidence, propelled by Dante’s energetic direction and a cast committed to the madness. Menzies and Dillman share a dynamic chemistry, anchoring the film with their likable performances amidst the chaos unfolding around them, and while the characters may be somewhat archetypal, they serve the film’s purpose, making it an engaging and enjoyable experience.

Note: We see a small two-legged humanoid lizard scurrying around Hoak’s lab, a wonderful homage to the works of Ray Harryhausen that was created by Phil Tippet.

This film is great because it doesn’t shy away from its B-movie roots, with Dante embracing the genre’s low-budget origins and turning those limitations into strengths. The result is a film that has gained a dedicated fan base over the years, celebrated for its creativity and the genuine fun it provides. In the end, while Piranha may not reach the cinematic heights of its shark-infested predecessor it stands as a cult classic in its own right, a gleefully absurd thrill ride that knows exactly what it is and embraces it wholeheartedly. So, dive in if you dare as the waters of Lost River Lake run red with blood, and the piranhas are always hungry for more.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Fiend Without a Face (1958) – Review

The blending of science fiction and horror has led to some truly great moments in cinema – from Universal’s Frankenstein to the giant ants in Them! the genre has had some amazing offerings – but in 1958 director Arthur Crabtree unleashed on the world a particularly remarkable entry, a film that dealt with an invisible threat that was unlike anything we’d seen before.

The plot of the movie revolves around a series of strange and gruesome murders taking place near an American air force base in Canada, which is testing a top-secret nuclear-powered radar system. As the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that the murders are being committed by an unseen force and the mystery only deepens from there, as strange brain-like creatures begin to become an even bigger nuisance. The film’s ostensible hero is Air Force Major Jeff Cummings (Marshall Thompson) who is tasked by his commanding officer Colonel Butler (Stanley Maxted) to find out what is killing the locals as the whole thing is bad for international moral, unsurprisingly, the locals lay the blame on the American base, citing either nuclear radiation as the culprit or an insane G.I. running loose and committing these murders. As the plot moves along it becomes clear that the murders are not being committed an irradiated serial killer but by some unseen force.  This leads to one of the genre’s oldest and greatest tropes, that of the mad scientist.

 

He’s not so much mad as he is an incredibly careless one.

Turns out that retired scientist Professor R. E. Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) had been writing a book about his ongoing experiments with telekinesis and when a chance thunderstorm provides a boost of energy to his experiments he was able to create a “living being” of thought projection, unfortunately, the professor can’t rely on lightning to continue his work. Of course, the logical step to take would be to divert some of the nuclear energy from the nuclear power radar experiments at the nearby U.S. airbase. What could go wrong?  While this did enhance Walgate’s mental abilities it also made the creatures stronger, and for unknown reasons, these thought projections became malevolent and escaped the laboratory.  These roving thought projections then had to sustain themselves by sucking out the brains and spinal cords of the nearby townsfolk.

 

“They totally ate my brain.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Fiend Without a Face is its use of special effects. The creatures in the movie are created using a combination of stop-motion animation and practical effects and they are truly terrifying, realized by Florenz Von Nordoff and special effects artist K. L. Ruppel, as these creatures are one the most original looking cinematic monsters.  The climax of the movie is particularly memorable with murderous brains attacking our cast of characters in a flurry of flying brains and spinal cords. Special shout-out to the sound designers who created the pulsating, crunchy, slurping thumping sounds of the film’s title monster.  With them being invisible for the bulk of the picture this is what really sold the threat and menace of these brain-eating creatures. When these little beasties do finally make their appearance, inching along the ground or leaping through the air, they are a sight to behold and arguably one of the more horrifying-looking monsters of the era.

 

Clearly more terrifying than a giant radioactive ant.

The movie does have some pacing problems, not helped by a rather forced budding romance between Major Cummings and Barbara Griselle (Kim Parker), who is the transcribing the professor’s work into book form, and this painful romance exacerbates the long wait for the big reveal of the creatures, and we have nothing but a handful of underdeveloped supporting characters to keep us “interested” during the film’s meagre 75-minute running time.  That’s a bit much to overcome when an audience is expecting cool monster action. Now to be fair, those issues are all put aside when the third act finally kicks things into gear, with our protagonist blasting away at the now visible “Mental Vampires” in a surprisingly gory battle, and I was only left with one final question “Why do creatures made of nuclear energy bleed raspberry jam?”

 

Their deaths are both disgusting and delicious looking.

Stray Observations:

• Early in the film we get a nice shot of the snow-capped mountains of Manitoba, wait a minute, the snow-capped mountains of where?
• When the radar test starts to fail, Major Jeff Cummings demands that they increase the output of their nuclear reactor, well beyond its design limits thus risking a nuclear meltdown, and this is our supposed hero?
• After performing an autopsy on two dead locals, the base doctor calls in an associate for a second opinion that the brains and spinal cords are missing. But is that something you’d actually need a second opinion for? I’m not a doctor but this doesn’t seem like something that would need outside verification.
• The brain boost developed by Professor R. E. Walgate, which created murderous living thought projections, is quite similar to what Dr. Edward Morbius did in Forbidden Planet with his Krell-enhanced monster of the id.
• Jeff’s plan to deprive the creatures of the energy source involves placing a bundle of dynamite on the control panel of a nuclear reactor, which seems to be both stupid and insanely dangerous and I’m assuming a radioactive cloud following that explosion will make for a poor neighbour.
• This malevolent and invisible new life form destroys Walgate’s equipment and any notes that could be used against them but, for some reason, they don’t kill Walgate who is probably the greatest threat to them. Do these murderous creatures have feelings for their creator?

 

Nope, he ends up being eaten by his own creation.

Overall, this is a classic horror film that deserves to be remembered as a landmark of the genre and proof of what can be accomplished on a low budget. Fiend Without a Face is a wonderful combination of suspense and scares that is all wrapped up in a lovely absurd premise.  You can’t help but enjoy the sheer lunacy of it all. It’s simply a fun and wild ride that despite some pacing issues and stilted acting is the best killer brain movie ever made and is an entertaining example of the mad science genre at its best.  This is an entry that will likely result in a goofy smile on your face when the end credits finally roll and what’s wrong with that?

Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) – Review

This era in cinema saw many threats against mankind from a rampaging atomic awoken dinosaur in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to rampaging atomic dinosaur in Gojira  – you may detect a theme –we’ve seen numerous attacks on “civilization” by irradiated monsters but with the movie we are looking at today, not so much, let’s just say this film should have been called “The Monster That Challenged Catalina Island.

Directed by Arnold Laven, the film opens with a mysterious seismic disturbance in local body of water, setting the stage for an ancient menace to resurface. The plot kicks off when some Navy personnel go missing on a routine exercise out on the Salton Sea, a shallow landlocked body of water, and when one body is recovered that is blackened and drained of bodily fluids and a strange slime-like residue is found on the boat it’s quickly apparent that something not at all routine is going on. Well, it turns out those seismic disturbances had released prehistoric giant molluscs, resembling oversized caterpillars, to terrorize the unsuspecting local populace by attacking swimmers and boaters – as giant marine monsters tend to do – and soon panic grips the area and so a team of dedicated scientists and military personnel must join forces to confront the aquatic threat and prevent further devastation.

 

This guy only had three days left before retirement.

Led by the humourless and “by the book” Lieutenant Commander John ‘Twill’ Twillinger (Tim Holt), who is a dick to everyone around him and is one I’d vote “Most likely to be eaten by a marine monster” but to counter this, we have the beautiful and compassionate scientist Gail MacKenzie, (Audrey Dalton) who types reports and provides a bit of love interest, that the love interest is Twillinger is less believable than the idea of prehistoric molluscs rising from the deep. Our plucky heroes face the challenge of containing the monsters and unravelling the mystery behind their sudden appearance, and as they race against time to devise a strategy to stop the creatures before they multiply and pose an even greater danger to humanity, we must ask the question “Would these creatures taste good if soaked in butter?” As the monsters wreak havoc, the townsfolk react with a level of panic that can only be described as “mild inconvenience.” Forget screaming and running – these folks just complain about not being able to swim.

 

“Sure, it ate my daughter, but it’s the Fourth of July Celebration.”

The scientific explanation for the monster’s existence was so convoluted that I’m pretty sure even the characters in the movie didn’t quite understand it — something about an earthquake, prehistoric eggs, radiation and a malfunctioning coffee maker — okay, I might have made that last part up but you get the idea. As is required in these types of films, we are offered up an “expert” to fill our heroes in on the threat of the day and in this movie that came in the form of Dr. Jess Rogers (Hans Conried) who should get an Academy Award for delivering insightful comments such as “I find that people are always jumping to conclusions about nuclear reaction. Science fact and science fiction are not the same thing, not the same thing at all” and really, who can argue with that?

 

“I can’t talk now, I have to deliver scientific mumbo-jumbo to the military.”

Stray Observations:

• The Salton Sea is a lake where the waves never get more than a few inches high, even in a high wind, but we have numerous scenes with breaking waves.
• The coroner at the local morgue deduces that the sailor found dead in a boat must have died of fright because a heart attack in someone so young can only be caused by “anger or fear” so he must have died of fright. I’d like someone to check that guy’s medical degree.
• Because some tropes cannot be stopped, the coroner pulls his lunch out of one of the morgue drawers and offers some to Twillinger and the Deputy Sheriff.
• The trailer for this film showed one of the monsters towering over a city, as if were larger than Godzilla, but these “giant mollusks” are only slightly larger than humans.

 

And as threatening as this may look, it is defeated by a poke in the eye.

Released in 1957, The Monster That Challenged the World is a quintessential example of a creature feature from the golden era of B-movies, a film that combined elements of science fiction and horror to create a suspenseful and entertaining experience for fans of classic monster flicks, an entry in the genre that is nothing more than a bunch of fun. As a product of its time, it successfully tapped into the fears of the era, utilizing the prevalent nuclear paranoia and the fascination with the unknown depths of the ocean, and while it may not have the sophisticated storytelling of higher-budget productions it stands out as a fun and memorable entry in the 1950s creature feature genre and its pacing is brisk. With a run time just shy of 75 minutes, ensuring that it didn’t overstay its welcome, but that’s not to say there aren’t scenes that should have remained on the cutting room floor.

 

“We interrupt this movie for dinner and a Mexican stereotype.”

The cast, led by Tim Holt and Audrey Dalton, delivers solid performances that anchor the film. Holt’s portrayal of the film’s stalwart man-of-action adds a nice touch of heroic determination, while Dalton’s character, Gail MacKenzie, provides a necessary human element to the story. These characters are typical for the genre, with a mix of military personnel, scientists, and civilians facing the monstrous threat. While all of the performances may not be award-worthy, and the chemistry between Holt and Dalton never rises above lukewarm, the cast still managed to deliver the necessary earnestness and urgency required for this type of narrative to succeed, even if it gets a bit silly at times.

 

This is why “Bring Your Kid to Work Day” is a bad idea.

The creature designs may appear somewhat cheesy by today’s standards and by that, I mean the monster looks like it’s made out of rubber and paper-mâché and I half-expected it to stop mid-chase to ask for directions to the nearest salad bar, but this type of monsters possess a certain charm that adds to film’s nostalgic appeal and it’s always nice to take a break from all the CGI monstrosities populated cinemas today. In the case of this outing, the filmmakers made up for the movie’s lacking budget by effectively using shadows and lighting to create a sense of foreboding, enhancing the overall atmosphere of the film. But here’s the thing – despite all the unintentional laughs and rubbery monster goodness, The Monster That Challenged the World is a true classic in its own peculiar way. It’s a reminder that sometimes, the best monsters are the ones that challenge our expectations and make us appreciate the lighter side of life.

 

“I told you, Life magazine does not have a centrefold.”

In summary, The Monster That Challenged the World is a fun if somewhat goofy journey into the world of 1950s monster movies, blending suspense, creature thrills and a touch of atomic-age anxiety. The entry may have a less-than stellar aquatic menace but it still delivers a nostalgic and entertaining experience for fans of classic science fiction cinema. If you’re a fan of classic B-movies, this is a delightful trip down memory lane. Its goofy charm, coupled with its earnest attempt at suspense and thrills, makes it a worthwhile watch for enthusiasts of vintage science fiction and creature features.

Monday, May 6, 2024

House of Horrors (1946) – Reviews

During the 1940s Universal Pictures decided to launch a new series of low-budget films featuring actor Rondo Hatton as “The Creeper” and the best of those films would be House of Horrors. Produced by Ben Pivar and directed by Jean Yarbrough, this film starred the original “Monster Without Make-up” as The Creeper!

Set in the dark and mysterious atmosphere of 1940s New York City, House of Horrors follows the story of a struggling sculptor named Marcel De Lange (Martin Kosleck) who after losing a rich patron due to an unscrupulous art critic named F. Holmes Harmon (Alan Napier), a man who holds significant influence over the city’s art scene and delights in spewing his cruel vitriol in print. This is the last straw poor Marcel who decides to end his life by jumping into the East River, but in a weird twist of fate, his suicide is interrupted by the discovery of a nearly drowned disfigured man. This individual turns out to be the notorious serial killer known as The Creeper (Rondo Hatton) but instead of informing the police, he decides to not only make him the subject of his next work of art but to also use him to murder those critics who have ridiculed him.

 

“I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”

Also on the art scene is Joan Medford (Virginia Grey), an art critic herself but one who actually likes Marcel, unfortunately not as much as she likes hunky commercial artist Steven Morrow (Robert Lowery) who becomes suspect number one when Harmon is found murdered and their well documented public altercation at an uptown art gallery is brought to the attention of the police. What follows is pretty much your standard police procedural, with Homicide Lieutenant Larry Brooks (Bill Goodwin) popping in to interrogate our protagonists in-between murders and a few back-breaking killings by The Creeper, with the movie eventually concluding in a final confrontation between our oblivious heroine, the lunatic artist and his murdering associate.

 

“You can’t kill me, I have a contract for three more pictures.”

Stray Observations:

• Despite being called House of Horrors this movie takes place within a series of New York City apartments and flats, not a house to be seen. Clearly, the studio was trying to lump this entry in with such films as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.
• Artists turning into crazed murderers is a bit of a reoccurring theme in horror films, back in 1933 we had wax museum sculptor Lionel Atwill murdering models for his work in The Mystery of the Wax Museum.
• The deputy coroner has the magical ability to determine if a spine has been snapped just by looking at the victim while they’re still laying where he fell.
• Rondo Hatton’s The Creeper would inspire a famous villain in the original run of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! In the episode “Jeepers, it’s the Creeper.”
• Alan Napier would later earn greater fame playing Alfred in the Adam West Batman series, where he would encounter even more bizarre-looking villains.

 

“Holy homicide, Batman!”

Rondo Hatton’s portrayal of The Creeper is without a doubt the best part of this movie, Hatton’s physical appearance, which was caused by a rare medical condition known as acromegaly, lends an unsettling authenticity to his characters and this adds to the terror he creates. His imposing presence and the subtleties of his performance make him a somewhat sympathetic villain – that is when he’s not murdering women for screaming at the mere sight of him – and this he makes a rather unique in the annals of Universal Horror. Along with the murderous Creeper we aslo have Martin Kosleck delivering a solid performance as a bitter and insane artist, adding another touch of villainy to this narrative. As much as The Creeper is a murdering monster it’s the unsettling creepiness of Marcel that unnerved me, at least more than the lumbering serial killer who is basically a tool of destruction and only gets agency of his own when Marcel finally gets his karmic comeuppance.

 

Who knew having a serial killer for a roommate could end badly?

While House of Horrors is considered primarily a horror film it also explores deeper themes such as beauty, acceptance and the lengths one may go to achieve recognition in the art world. To quote Jack Nicholson “I make art until someone dies.” The film does a decent job delving into the psychological motivations of its characters, showcasing the dark consequences of society’s rejection and the potential darkness that lies within every individual. Despite it being considered one of the Universal Horror Movies this entry is clearly more a crime drama than it is a horror picture and Rondo Hatton’s Creeper could easily be compared to the brute Moose Malloy from the Chandler classic Farewell, My Lovely. It also has a very Film Noire look to it that was expertly created by cinematographer Maury Gertsman and along with Hatton’s performance is one the best parts of this film.

 

“Which one of you guys is Dashiell Hammett?”

In conclusion, House of Horrors is a compelling and atmospheric horror film that may not be as well remembered as other Universal films, but with its excellent performances, haunting visuals and thought-provoking themes, it remains a notable entry in the genre. Fans of classic horror movies will appreciate its chilling atmosphere and the appearance of the unforgettable Rondo Hatton is an added bonus. If you enjoy suspenseful tales that explore the darker side of humanity, one that also has a dash of Film Noire, then this film is definitely worth tracking down.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Body Snatcher (1945) – Review

Working for RKO, producer Val Lewton brought to screen some startling moments of cinematic horror with such offerings as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie to his credit, but in the case of The Body Snatcher, he and director Robert Wise were given the keys to the horror kingdom with Boris Karloff in the titular role of this horror classic.

Based on an 1884 short story by Robert Louis Steven, The Body Snatcher is set in 19th-century Edinburgh and revolves around the sinister doings of cabman John Gray (Boris Karloff) and Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (Henry Daniell), who runs an anatomy school. The two men are driven by greed and desperation as they engage in the grim practice of grave robbing to provide bodies for medical experiments, if only grave robbing was the worst of their crimes. What makes The Body Snatcher truly memorable is the palpable atmosphere of dread that permeates every scene and keeps you nailed to your seat. Wise’s adept direction and the moody cinematography by Robert De Grasse creates a foreboding sense of unease that is required for this sort of outing to work and its done expertly here. The use of shadows and dimly lit sets adds a layer of intensity, transporting us into the dark and grim world of 19th-century Edinburgh.

 

“Just put him next to Lon Chaney Jr.”

The film’s central conflict arises when young medical student Donald Fettes (Russell Wade) discovers the truth behind the fresh cadavers supplied by Gray and MacFarlane and its this revelation that sets off a series of spine-chilling events, culminating in a gripping moral dilemma that tests the characters’ humanity. Things get morally complicated when they need a new body for experimentation, MacFarlane is reluctant to operate on a sweet little paralyzed girl without a new spinal cord to study, so Fettes goes off on his own to ask Gray to procure a body as soon as possible. Needless to say, Gray doesn’t bother stalking the local graveyard, he simply goes out and murders a local street singer and quickly brings her to Fettes. The tension builds relentlessly as the characters become entangled in a nightmarish dance of guilt and desperation, and as the plot unfolds, MacFarlane finds himself trapped in a web of deceit and blackmail spun by the sinister Gray.

 

Who could have guessed this guy wasn’t on the up and up?

Stray Observations:

• While based on a fictional short story, author Robert Louis Stevenson took the idea from actual events that occurred in 19th-century England and Scotland, particularly those of grave robbers Burke and Hare.
• How evil is Boris Karloff in this film? Well, he clubs to death a small dog that was guarding the grave of its young master. That’s pretty evil in my book.
• When you accuse someone of murder and they ask you if you’ve told anyone else, for Heaven’s sake say yes!
• As typical of most Hollywood films of this era, while the story takes place in Edinburgh, only one person in the entire movie has a Scottish accent.
• This film featured the 8th and last on-screen teaming of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

 

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (1934-1939)

With this performance in The Body Snatcher, Boris Karloff proves once again what a legend he is as his performance is nothing short of exceptional, his imposing presence and eerie charisma makes him the perfect embodiment of malevolence. Adding to that great performance is that of Henry Daniell whose portrayal of Dr. MacFarlane adds depth and complexity to the movie as his internal struggle between his noble profession and the unholy alliance with Gray makes him a fascinating character to watch. As if their dark pact isn’t bad enough we also see a tragic relationship between MacFarlane and his housekeeper Meg Camden (Edith Atwater) who is actually MacFarlane’s wife but their marriage has been kept secret to keep his illustrious station untainted by being married to a woman of a lower class. Rounding out the cast of characters is Joseph the school’s custodian (Bela Lugosi) who makes the mistake of trying to blackmail a cold-blooded killer, adding layers of intrigue to the narrative.

 

“I clearly didn’t think things through.”

With this film, Robert Wise is able to masterfully explores themes of morality, greed, and the fine line between science and the supernatural. It questions the ethics of medical practices during the time, delving into the consequences of tampering with the natural order of life and death. As the film unfolds, it becomes apparent that the true horror lies not in the supernatural elements but in the darkness lurking within human hearts, and despite its age, The Body Snatcher retains its ability to captivate modern audiences. Its atmospheric horror, well-crafted plot, and outstanding performances continue to be an inspiration for many filmmakers in the genre. Whether you are a fan of classic horror or just seeking a thought-provoking and eerie tale, this film is a must-watch. The film’s climax is a spine-chilling sequence that will haunt your thoughts long after the credits roll as the film truly defies expectations, avoiding simplistic resolutions and instead delving into the darkest corners of the human psyche.

 

Check your morals at the door.

In conclusion, The Body Snatcher remains a timeless horror gem. Its powerful storytelling, haunting visuals, and remarkable performances create an unforgettable cinematic experience. So, if you dare to step into the shadows of 19th-century Edinburgh and confront the malevolence that lies beneath, this is the film to watch. But be warned, for once you enter this macabre world, you may find yourself haunted long after the credits roll.