Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Oddball Film Report: A Dr. Mabuse double feature

Note: These reviews were originally written for Mr. Ken Begg's www.jabootu.net as part of Video Cheese, and have been published here by his kind permission.


DR. MABUSE VS SCOTLAND YARD (1963)
   "Criminal mastermind Dr. Mabuse is back from the dead, and he has a mind control ray hidden in a camera!"

   This film serves as my introduction to Dr. Mabuse, the criminal genius who tried to rule the world across six 1960s German films (and a number of 30's films as well, although as far as I know the two slates of pictures are as unrelated as SOME GIRLS DO is from BULLDOG DRUMMOND'S SECRET POLICE). 

   I believe this to be the fifth episode of the series, and as we open.... Dr. Mabuse's previous criminal activities have gotten him iced. There's no way he could have survived whatever fate he met in the last chapter. That doesn't mean he's out of the game, though. In this one, his ghost or psychic will or something has taken over the body of the doctor who pronounced him dead! Apart from this, however, the film is straight science fiction.

   Making me happy right off the bat is a jazzy score that wouldn't be out of place in a super-duper spy film. If I can compare it to anything, it would be the brassy cues following Anthony Eisley's checkbook-happy secret agent Harry Sennate in 1966's Lightning Bolt

   Like any sinister super-agent of evil a cinematic spy would battle, Mabuse is back in action, building an army, and making plans to restore the British Empire to its former glory -with himself in charge this time. To facilitate this, he arranges for the freedom of a convicted doctor, alters his face, and sends him into the employ of a kindly scientist who is developing a brain control machine. Why is a 'good' scientist developing something that has "super-weapon" written all over it? Got me. The device itself looks like a circuit board from a modern computer, so you can't argue the man's genius!

   Maubuse naturally steals the device, duplicates it, and houses the ray-guns in the shells of cameras. This means his men can get close to anyone they wish, take their picture, and make them slaves. One such slave is the royal princess, Diana! Needless to say, Scotland Yard is on the case and a few important inspectors get the ray. (Klaus Kinski plays one of the cops, in a rare turn as a good guy.) There is one thing that can combat the ray, however.....

   I enjoyed this entry. For a dubbed German movie, it was one of the best I've sat through. The pace is swift, the action good, and the performances a bit more restrained than one usually finds (Kinski plays his part remarkably straight, for example). I can only hope the next Mabuse film I see holds up (when I wrote this, I had no idea how well it would!).

   As one might expect, there are some quirky elements here, such as how Mabuse avoids the effects of his own ray by means of small devices hidden in the heels of his shoes! That the hero sneaks in and finds Mabuse's shoes unattended long enough to discover these items and transfer them to another victim's shoes is a bit off-kilter. The moment Mabuse discovers his shoes have been compromised, however, is a pretty good one. 

   I'm looking forward to see what happens to Mabuse's disembodied spirit, or whatever that is, next. By chance, the other Dr. Mabuse film I have is the sixth and final entry to this particular series.


THE DEATH RAY MIRROR OF DR. MABUSE (1964)
   "A secret agent must stop the world's greatest criminal mind from stealing the titular object."

   If I liked Dr. Mabuse vs Scotland Yard, I loved The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse. That's chiefly because the final entry in the 60s cycle of Mabuse films is no longer the Wallace-type crime picture, but an all-out spy film!

   Goldfinger had been released earlier in 1964, bringing the official spy craze with it. If Dr. No and From Russia With Love were successful adventure movies, Goldfinger was a phenomenon, and became the spearhead of a new genre of colorful and exotic espionage epics. (Although, I should note, 007's producers at EON were already spoofing the kind of adventures the super spy engaged in as early as 1963 with Call Me Bwana, starring Bob Hope as a writer who claims to be an adventurer. Uncle Sam sends Hope to Africa to recover a fallen spy probe and he tangles with the required thugs and assassins. Its great fun if you get a chance to see it.) Bondmania had not just the nation, but the entire world in a tizzy. The Europeans latched onto the formula and cranked out countless mock-007's in films like Password: Kill Agent Gordon, Code Name: Jaguar, and Lighting Bolt.

   The Death Ray Mirror of Dr. Mabuse (which I thought was a typo when I saw it listed in the Sinister Cinema catalog) is amazingly ahead of the game in how it uses the various elements of 'the spy film' before they became so templated. Dr. Mabuse even manages to get the jump on Thunderball, by having a climax involving an underwater battle between two schools of frogmen, a full year before such a scene became one of the most famous and memorable climaxes in the Bond cannon! 

   Fittingly, our focus for this adventure is shifted away from Mabuse and onto the singular agent out to find him. The previous film focused more on the good guys as a team, although there was a designated hero for us to support. This time, despite still showing an entire organization at work, we are focused on the personal adventure of Major Andrews of British Intelligence. (Actually, his name could be Anders, its hard to tell sometimes.)

   When we last left Dr. Mabuse, he was a disembodied spirit (or something) that had taken over the body of another man. When it seemed the man was close to death, Mabuse's ghost evacuated and Scotland Yard took the confused man into custody. As we open here, we see the same fella being interrogated by the authorities in a hospital. Electroshock therapy is tried to restore his senses. It works, and the guy fights his way to escape. 

   I think the idea is that the jolt returned Mabuse to mental power, that the doctor who last saw the body of Mabuse had his will conquered by Mabuse and Mabuse's influence receded when the host body almost died. With a shock to clear mental blocks, Mabuse is back in charge. Admittedly, I had to piece all this together. All we know for sure is that the guy is a babbling fool, then becomes a commando when the shock is applied, and Mabuse is once again at large. I'm not sure how any of that could work if Mabuse's ghost had moved on as we saw last time. As unclear as all this is, it could be that we're not dealing with Mabuse at all, but a man who thinks himself to be Mabuse!

   Still, this is all just to set up the adventure for Major Andrews, who is sent to the island nation of Malta to help protect a powerful new death ray from falling into enemy hands. Obviously, Mabuse could control the world with this device, which shoots a powerful laser beam at the moon, which then reflects it back to any desired point on the globe! 

   To cover as a harmless, fun-loving vacationer, Andrews is ordered to bring along his over-sexed girlfriend Judy. For the rest of the picture, Andrews will be shot at, trapped, administer beatings, shoot some guys, snoop around to uncover the true identities of mysterious figures, save Judy, listen in on private conversations, uncover secret codes, and ultimately come face to face with Dr. Mabuse (or his latest host) and his underwater army.

Spy movie elements, some remarkably ahead of their time:
- The bad guys get their orders from a shadowed figure over a television monitor (in this case a cut-out of a man's head and shoulders is used, rather than an actual back-lit actor).

- The bad guys meet in an underground lair whilst clad in their wetsuits.

- The death ray mirror itself. While this would become a frequently employed device for would-be world conquerors, the use of such a device this early in the game is pretty impressive. Perhaps because this is so early in the game, they avoid building a big cannon-like device to mirror Goldfinger's cutting laser which almost splices James Bond in half.

- Andrews' chief in the field is a man who has seen rough times. He wear an eye-patch, has a burned face, and one of his hands is metal.

- Heavy use of underwater action. Again, this pre-dates Thunderball by a year. After Thunderball, such themes would become standard in the genre.

- One character can read minds, possibly in a mystical way. Supernatural elements wouldn't become common until later in the cycle, when writers began getting desperate for fresh ideas.

- Andrews tires to seduce multiple women to learn what they know. One is a fairly innocent relative of the man Andrews is assigned to protect. One is a ruthless assassin posing as one of the good guys. She invites Andrews to her place, shoots him (but he's wearing a bullet-proof vest), he threatens to beat her up, and she gets shot by the main villain before she can say anything useful. For bonus points, she's Oriental.

- The gadgets. Andrews not only wears a bullet-proof vest to an encounter he knows is a trap, but also carries a sound amplifier with an earpiece that allows him to overhear the key to a combination needed to open the vault to the death ray.

- A harmless gift is really an explosive device. In this case, flowers are sent to a girl for her birthday celebration on the island housing the death ray and its inventor. Lucky for her, Andrews is on hand to notice how heavy the flowers are. Flowers, by the way, are the most popular gambit in spy movies to either murder someone, or sneak in a listening device.

- The bad guys get close to their target by posing as a harmless fishing boat. That's the oldest trick in the book.

- The car chase.

- A local business is a front for Intelligence. In this case, a brothel, which is actually a pretty good place to collect information.

- Bad guys disguised as clergy.

- Jazzy music. Our score is made from a stock soundtrack, and I'm pretty sure I heard it in an American exploitation picture a couple years earlier than its use here. It vaguely resembles the end theme to Panic in Year Zero, so if fits this type of thing perfectly.


Unlike most spy films:
- The girls close to Andrews are absent from the climax. Both are spying on each other, and thus neither is placed in a situation of peril for Andrews to save them from. In fact, they're not seen again in the film!

- Despite having a huge death ray in an underground chamber on hand, they avoid blowing it all up for a big finish. Nor do we see the bad guys headquarters destroyed in a huge explosion.

- The title sequence plays up the action and science fiction aspects, but we are never shown a girl, even in silhouette.

- Our subject is black and white, as were the previous Mabuse entries. Most spy epics would be filmed in eye-jolting color.

   Again, for a German film like this, the pace is very swift. I'm used to sitting through dry spots during this kind of import movie, but this one kept moving! The shame here is that this was the last Mabuse film. Also, it may have been a bad move for me to start with the last two films in the cycle. When I eventually get around to seeing the earlier films, they're almost certain to be less lively.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Video Cheese/Oddball Film Report: COVERGIRL (1982)

Note: This review was originally written for www.jabootu.net, and has been published here by the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg.

Couldn't find art for this film, so this poster art comes from a 70's porno about cover girl models!

COVERGIRL (1982 - color)

   "A rich jerk falls for a fashion model and vows to make her the most famous name in the industry."



   The box top for Covergirl shows a half dozen exaggeratedly sexy models on a bare set. None of them are in the film's cast. Based on this, I figured the film would be a TV movie that was being pushed as a skin flick by the video distributor. Well, its not a TV movie. Nor is it a skin flick. I have no idea who this picture was aimed at!



   It resembles a chick flick at times, but its not really that. Its an exploitation movie, but not overly exploitative (while there is some nudity here, all of it is pretty much peripheral, of the "why did they even bother" variety). 

   Its not a comedy. 

   Its not a romance. 

   Its not really a drama. 

   Its not an industry documentary. 

   It might be considered a buddy picture of sorts, except those relationships are rarely on screen. 

   What is this and who was it made for? The film feels like filler, like the whole thing is padding. Was it assembled to flesh out a double bill? Probably not specifically, not in 1982.



  Adding to the problem is the film's digest-like nature. We don't follow a story as much as jump from scene to scene. We see plenty of bits unrelated to anything else, and major events occur off screen. The time frame in which all this occurs is likewise problematic because we're given no clue. The events seen here would seem to play out over several months, but the way this stuff is cut, it could be within a week! 

   For instance, our leading lady's hair changes in every scene, and I can't tell if this is to indicate passage of time or just happens because she's a model and has to change her look all the time. One minute she has a perm, the next her hair is straight, but not for any effect. It just happens. 

   Further kneecapping any solidity the film may've had is that our leads are so boring.



   Our male star is Jeff Conaway, Bobby Wheeler of Taxi. Maybe the director didn't give him enough to work with or something, but Conaway displays a complete lack of charisma as T. C. Sloane, the supposedly charismatic leader of big business gadget-making company Leisure 80. 

   Its not a good sign when every single supporting player is more interesting to watch than our star. Oh, and being a rich guy in an 80s movie, he has a little robot roaming around acting as his manservant, just like the one from Rocky IV

   Conaway can't take all the blame, however, the script is working against him. Sloane is supposed to be a charming rogue of sorts, but he's just an arrogant jerk. Granted, being a jerk snags him the leading lady, but I can't imagine his approach to women would ever work in real life.



   Irena Ferris plays Kit Paget, the fashion model Sloane intends to make an international icon. Ferris was a regular on Dallas before leaving acting, and she now does charity work providing medical care to inner city kids. She's better than Conaway here, but not by much. During the opening credits, she's told to eye the camera and look sexy, and she strikes a brain-dead expression that caused me to laugh out loud (I may have laughed harder at this than the episode of Get Smart I watched afterward)! 

   She's pretty bland, and again isn't aided by the script. She keeps making wild leaps in her character, as the film glosses over important developments that play like missing scenes. One minute, Kit and Sloane are in love, the next she's throwing a tantrum on live television. Trying to calm her down, Sloane accidentally slaps the show's hostess. This is played as something that will have a major impact on both their lives, but is never spoken of again!



   This must be a rare film, because the IMDB has almost nothing on it. A title search turned up nothing, then I found it in Conaway's filmography, but the date was listed as 1984. I was sure the copyright on the tape was 82, so I don't know who to believe. I suppose it could have been shot in 82 and released in 84, but that's just a guess on my part.



   Our plot, such as it is, has rookie (but published) model Kit Paget taking a taxi to an important gig. Meanwhile, Sloane is also in a hurry and the two collide in a parking lot. In a potentially funny bit (but I didn't think of it as a comedy scene until the day after I'd watched it), Sloane, his driver (who Sloane had traded places with because Sloane felt he was driving too slow), Kit, and a beat cop are all stuffed into a taxi so the report can be made out while Sloane makes his meeting. 

   See what I mean? In a Bob Hope movie, that set up by itself would have been funny. In Covergirl, it just sits there like everything else, confusing the viewer as to what reaction he should have. 

   Anyway, after ruining her day, Sloane decides he's smitten with Kit. Kit, smartly, ignores him.



   We're just getting started, though. Sloane sees Kit's picture while flipping through a magazine and tells his friends/stooges to find out who she is. Later, he shows up at a fur show in which Kit is a model. He loudly states that he will buy the fur Kit is wearing and demands that she model the other furs. Embarrassed, Kit models the other furs, all of which are purchased by Sloane. In this sequence, we also get a bit of rivalry between Kit and a Nordic woman who was last year's hot stuff. She'll weave in and out of the movie, but her contributions to the film are minimal. In fact, I don't remember the rivalry ever coming to a head or being resolved.



   Sloane eventually pesters Kit into going out with him. She falls for his charm pretty quickly (or else she loves hanging out with a huge jerk). Then again, maybe its his money she finds attractive, its the only hope he'd have in real life. 

   Sloane tells her he intends to make her the most famous model in the industry (and during '82 there weren't that many famous fashion models, particularly if they never got into acting. There were some, but people couldn't identify catalog models then like they can today). 

   Kit decides to take Sloane's deal, which at this point is still business. Sloane starts by having Leisure 80 buy into the company that represents Kit and helps manage her contract. After that, its onto publicity.



   In the film's one really clever moment, a story has been planted that claims Kit is in love with a famous fashion designer and is going to have his child. Everyone within the industry knows this is just talk because the man is openly homosexual. Kit is horrified of the story and meets with the guy to help square things. The guy turns out to be a flaming heterosexual, he just poses as a guy who rides side-saddle to get close to executives' wives. That, sadly, would exhaust the film's reserve of wit. 

   Among other minor misadventures are the aforementioned television show, an attempted rape by a top photographer, one of Kit's friends ends up in the hospital, another one is secretly a prostitute, and other things happen that go nowhere.



   When we finally get around to an actual plot, it involves the business end of the show. Sloane has his ownership over Kit's contract -and stake in his company- underhandedly swiped by an underling who takes control (he even somehow gets T.C. Sloane's robot and renames it T. C.). 

   Kit threatens to terminate her contract with the new regime, and they promptly tell her not to let the door hit her on the way out. Kit then forms a complicated scheme for her secretly-a-prostitute friend to seduce the new guy and get it on tape. He turns out to be a get-me-drunk-and-I'll-tell-you-anything-you-want-to-know-and-even-more type. 

   Kit later plays the tape at a board meeting where we hear him expose all sorts of dirty dealing while tearing down his wife -who is sitting right next to him at the table! She's just as annoying as everybody else here, but the actress plays her emotional pain so well that the scene comes off a tad sadistic.



    The right people back in charge, Kit has a big show somewhere and we're free to leave. In the final insult, we see that this film was made using the Canadian funding practice of granting taxpayer dollars to fund feature film production! I can only hope our friends in the Great White North sent the director and producer of Covergirl into permanent exile.



   I'll stick with backissues of Millie the Model.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

R.I.P. Richard Kiel


   This, September 11th, is already a solemn date. We will never forget.

   Today also brings terrible news for film fans, as jolly giant Richard Kiel has passed on. Mr. Kiel built a career from his menacing physical presence, despite his well-documented teddy bear personality. Coming up the ranks in B monster movies and television appearances, he was almost always cast as a monster of some sort. Prime examples include the giant alien ambassador in the classic "To Serve Man" episode of The Twilight Zone, and his star role as a prehistoric cave-man living into the 20th Century in the successful drive-in epic EEGAH!

   In the long run, however, despite all his various performances, Kiel will always be remembered as Jaws, the hulking assassin who menaced secret agent James Bond in two back-to-back features. Introduced in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, the character was so popular that audiences demanded his return in MOONRAKER












   Mr. Kiel was by all reports one of the nicest men to ever play a monster. Here's to you, Mr. Kiel. God bless, and Rest In Peace.
With Jackie Chan in THE CANNONBALL RUN