Monday, February 27, 2017

A Quick Look: FRANKENSTEIN (1931)


   Not sure what I can say about FRANKENSTEIN that hasn't already been said. The film really kicked off the monster cycle in Hollywood, and continues to be copied to this day (and even more copies copy the copies, anymore). FRANKENSTEIN told the story of the obsessed Dr. Frankenstein, and his experiments to create life from dead tissue. Frankenstein pieces together a man from the parts of dead bodies and then revives the creature by lightning shocks. The real trouble is that Frankenstein's assistant Fritz (Igor was actually a character introduced much later in the series) didn't get the brain Frankenstein wanted, so his monster has the brain of a lunatic. There's some interesting stuff here in terms of contemporary scientific discoveries and experimentation. A team of scientists would later (reportedly) revive a puppy from the dead, that the subject of the film LIFE RETURNS. The brain, in particular, was still being studied when FRANKENSTEIN emerged as a massive hit at the box office. Of course, the story had been filmed earlier (by Thomas Edison, in fact), but Universal's version was the one to really take it's place as King of thrillers. Following his success in DRACULA, Universal intended the film to star Bela Lugosi as the monster. Bela thought the part all wrong for him, since it would be done minus his brooding voice, and Boris Karloff got the part instead. The two actors would reign as the joint monarchs of horror for the next two decades. FRANKENSTEIN was such a hit that Universal demanded a sequel. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is considered by many to be the single finest horror movie of the era.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A quick Look at TV: F-TROOP


   I only recently discovered the teleseries F-Troop, but I'm so glad I did! Ken Berry is the accident-prone, but by-the-book, unlikely war hero to emerge from the last days of the Civil War. Youngest of a family of illustrious military heroes, Wilton Parmenter is given the rank of Captain and sent to man the frontier fort, Fort Courage. Once there, Parmenter tries to run things as military as possible, unaware that he's constantly being taken advantage of by his chief officer Sgt. O'Rourke -as played by Forrest Tucker. O'Rourke's sidekick and partner-in-business is the slow-witted Corp. Agarn, as played by Larry Stroch, who really steals the show. O'Rourke and Agarn have a thriving business arrangement with the near-by Heckawi Indians, who among other things supply whiskey for O'Rourke's saloon! Former cowboy star Bob Steele plays old timer Trooper Duffy. Frank DeKova is Heckawi chief Screaming Eagle, the chicken of the redskins ("Heckawi lovers, not fighters!"). And of course, every red-blooded male will take notice of Melody Patterson's feisty trader "Wrangler" Jane, who's sweet on Parmenter and will do or die to be his bride. The show was absolutely crazy. 1965 was superimposed over 1865 and from that came much of the humor. The writing was constantly strong, with hysterical scripts packed with fun characters. Of course, a show like this works mainly due to casting, and F-Troop boasts the near perfect cast. Larry Storch combines the physical comedy of a silent movie star with the elastic facial expressions of a living cartoon, his character given some of the best lines on any sitcom. Tucker was an actual Cavalry officer, and so brings an authenticity to Sgt. O'Rourke one seldom sees even on dramatic shows. Miss Paterson was only 16 when she began the series, and overnight became a G.I. dreamgirl. In the second season, the show went full color, one of the very last shows to do so after starting in black and white. Unfortunately, the second season was to be the last, and a great show left the air.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Quick Look: THE CREEPING FLESH


   THE CREEPING FLESH was an interesting, if not overly successful, British offering. In the film, Peter Cushing discovers the skeleton of an ancient man-like creature that from all appearances was quite advanced yet extremely savage. While cleaning the bones, he discovers that application of water restores flesh to the ancient bones, complete with living blood. There's some interesting bits from there, but the film's twist ending is somewhat underwhelming. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are the main highlights, as is usually the case when they are cast. Perhaps the main hindrance is that the concept isn't fully exploited, and the film plays more to psychological thriller than monster-on-the-loose. That might work well in another picture, but this one just feels unfulfilling.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Quick Look: THE BIRDS (1962-color)

   THE BIRDS is the closest thing the screen's Master of Suspense ever came to making a "monster movie." It's key scenes continue to be copied by "zombie movies" to this day. Although the second half is very strong, the first half is woefully meandering, as we follow Tippi Hedren in her bizarre pestering of Rod Taylor, basically a random guy she meets in a pet shop. She stalks him back to his home on the tiny island of Bodega Bay and then even rents a room with Taylor's old flame Suzanne Pleshette! Eventually, things begin moving as unexplained and seemingly random bird attacks begin happening. Soon, a full-scale war between bird and man has Bodega Bay crippled. What begins as Hitchcock's weakest work (apparently done to showcase Hedren) grows into some of Hitch's best. Ub Iwerks' amazing composite effects remain some of the best you'll ever see. The film forecast the dire nature-strikes-back genre of the 70's, and large swathes of the film were basically re-created for 1968's NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and nearly every rip-off of that one to follow. 31 years later, a TV movie tried to sell itself as a sequel, though from what minimal -and very hazy- memories I have of it, it was really more of a remake. You could argue AIP's 1972 release FROGS was basically a remake with different animals. Of course, if you were going to say that, you could say it of dozens of 70's killer animal movies. "THE BIRDS is coming!"

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Quick Look at TV: I DREAM OF JEANNIE


   Typical of 60's sitcoms, I Dream of Jeannie was also one of the most delightful. Larry Hagman played astronaut Tony Nelson, who experienced trouble on re-entry and became stranded on a tiny island well away from the area being searched for his capsule. On the beach he found an old bottle, out of which materialized the beauteous Jeannie -a genie played by the stunning Barbara Eden. Jeannie makes possible Tony's rescue and he responds by giving her her freedom, but the free Jeannie wants only to stick close to Tony and follows him back to Cocoa Beach, Florida. There, Tony must keep her existence a secret, which proves challenging as Jeannie flexes her magical powers in a frustrated attempt to please her new master. The eager-to-please Jeannie finds her dreamy master the kind of man who would rather do things himself, and from there much comedy ensues. Bill Daily plays the skirt-chasing Roger Healy, Tony's close friend and the only one in on Jeannie's secret. Roger constantly yo-yo's between loyal friend and greedy opportunist, more than willing to take full advantage of Jeannie's amazing powers. Tony's main obstacle was his CO, Dr. Bellows, played by character actor Hayden Rourke. The show was massively successful for several reasons, not the least of which was the stunning beauty of Miss Eden. Hagman and Daily made for one of the best comedy teams in television, and Larry had the funniest scream to boot. NASA's space program served as the background of the series. Though the rules regarding Jeannie's powers and backstory were in constant flux, each episode was sharply written. Eventually, Tony came to reciprocate Jeannie's affections and the characters married. Despite this giving the show it's true stride, this was about the time the ratings began to slide. The show was one of the earliest victims of the "rural purge" television experienced in the early 70's. Still, the show continued to grow in popularity through re-runs. Eventually, a pair of TV movies would emerge. I DREAM OF JEANNIE: 15 YEARS LATER caught up with the gang at a time when Jeannie was now the mother of an unpredictable teenager. Popular replacement actor Wayne Rogers filled in for absent Larry Hagman. I STILL DREAM OF JEANNIE saw Tony missing on a space mission and Jeannie desperately trying to find a new master. It was, like most such films, a defacto pilot for a series that never took off. Seems there was also an unrelated Saturday morning cartoon version of the Jeannie character.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A Quick Look: FLIGHT TO MARS (1952-color)


   The early 50's saw a number of space operas in production. Some were science fiction, while others leaned toward pulp. Out of this magic period arrived FLIGHT TO MARS, a semi George Pal-ish space opera in which man lands on the red planet to discover a functioning civilization on the brink of exhausting itself. The Martians are split on how to handle the knowledge of Earth's new space capabilities. Some feel Earth may be their salvation by peaceful trade, others that Earth must be taken with force. Fine cast headlines the sort of space opera that tries to be both serious and fun, in a story where space-suits are functional but women wear miniskirts in the Martian city. A lot of elements here would be used over and over within the genre, but FLIGHT TO MARS maintains some originality in it's being the first film to play with these themes. Most previous space operas of the decade featured either barren worlds or civilizations too savage to menace our own world. After this, though, such films were less space-bound safaris and more cosmic intrigue. Although the film had some TV play, it's become fairly rare since it's original release. The Wade Williams DVD print is pretty worn, for example. Still, it's great to see pictures like this being preserved and enjoyed.

RODAN lobby cards



Friday, February 10, 2017

A Quick Look: THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982-color)


   I sometimes forget just how cool the 80's were. In the previous decade, Don Bluth and some other Disney animators formed their own company. Success was slow in coming, and the studio's major claim to fame at the start of the 80's was a segment for the bizarre musical XANADU. In 1982, the long-in-production THE SECRET OF NIMH hit theaters. THE SECRET OF NIMH was a unique and beautifully animated science fiction epic owing much to Disney, Harryhausen, and older costume dramas. Widowed field mouse Mrs. Brisby is in a desperate situation. Her home is about to be destroyed, but she can't leave because her bedridden son is ill. Mrs. Brisby seeks help from the (terrifying, but wise) old owl of the forest, who tells her to seek the aid of "the rats of NIMH." Said rats are escaped test animals who have developed full intelligence and technological abilities. Turns out it was Mrs. Brisby's late husband who, among them as another test animal, made possible their escape. Wonderfully entertaining adventure tries for a more somber tone than the Disney stuff, and employs and amazing voice cast (John Carradine, for example, is the owl). Paul Williams provides an end title song. Though it didn't do Disney business, it was a success that secured the studio and paved the way for other hits such as AN AMERICAN TAIL, THE LAND BEFORE TIME, and ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. The film even revolutionized the young arcade video game market, when Bluth's team was hired by producers who saw the film to create cel animated graphics for Dragon's Lair. The game was so successful that it stabilized the video game industry, and a sequel game followed, as well as a space opera game titled Space Ace. Disney even tried to produce a Bluth-like epic in the form of THE BLACK CAULDRON, which quickly bombed at the box office and slid into obscurity. Unfortunately, the 90's wouldn't be as kind. Sequels were produced by other studios, and Bluth's fun-but-quirky ROCK-A-DOODLE was the first in a string of failures that eventually brought the studio to it's knees.

Pencil sheets for a potential graphic novel



Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Quick Look: THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956)



   Unlike in the 30's and 40's, Universal in the 50's had but one franchise monster, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US was the third and last of these films. In the previous film, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, the Gillman was shot down at the edge of a Florida tributary and sank into the waters. Some time has passed and it has become evident that the Gillman is still alive and stirring up trouble for native fishermen down south. An expedition sets out to capture the beast, but in the process the Creature is badly burned by a thrown oil lamp. The scientists rush the Creature into an operating room and soon discover that the Gillman has a layer of humanoid skin underneath his scales, and a reserve set of lungs they open to replace the creature's badly damaged gills. Robbed of the sea, the creature now submits to study by the scientists. In their number is Jeff Morrow, who thinks he can more or less impose his will on anything -save his estranged wife Leigh Snowden. Rex Reason is more sympathetic to the Creature, and formulates a theory that the Creature is only violent when provoked, and that if treated kindly the Creature will respond in kind. Unfortunately, Rex doesn't get the chance to really substantiate his theory, as the Creature is used to cover a murder. In the process of this, the monster breaks loose and heads for the beach, where the ultimate fate of the Creature is left unresolved. THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US has seldom been praised by critics, and the physical change of one of the best monster designs in movie history has rankled many. Still, the film sports a fine cast and features the usual Universal International production values. Photography, music, editing, acting, all in fine form in a story intriguing if not spectacular.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Quick Look: GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953 - color)


   Believe it or not, it was only the other night that I finally saw GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES! Based on the hit play, GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES tells the story of Lorelei, a gold-digging showgirl and her more grounded best pal Dorothy, as they take an ocean voyage to Paris. Lorelei is eager to marry a young millionaire who has been going to her shows, but his family isn't for the union. Dorothy seeks a man who doesn't flaunt his bankroll in order to attract a mate, and she thinks she's found the perfect man aboard ship -before discovering that he's actually a private dick hired to dig up some dirt against Lorelei! Breezy Technicolor musical is fun, but the real point here is that the film stars two of the biggest glamor symbols of the era, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. One of the last major 20th Century Fox films to be shot in academy ratio, it was soon overshadowed by the Cinemascope release HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, which teamed Monroe with fellow sex kittens Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall. The film regained popularity on television, and remains one of Monroe's best known pictures. Among the songs featured one finds the signature "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" which is shockingly racy for 1953! Then again, there's nothing subtle here. This is pure, undiluted entertainment. Comedy, music, Technicolor, and the two most beautiful stars in Hollywood. Very enjoyable.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Quick Look: A THIEF IN THE NIGHT (1972-color)



   Before LEFT BEHIND and THE OMEGA CODE, before the films of companies like Cloud Ten and Affirm Films, there was A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, the first film about the Rapture. Every independent film director/writer/producer/technician should see and study this film. Shot in Iowa in 1972, the low-budget feature was and is a gripping drama and masterpiece of horror film-making. Things start slowly, as we follow a group of young people and their various reactions to teaching on the Rapture, or catching away of Christ's elect in the end time. (The Rapture itself has been the subject of continual debate by theological scholars, as to if it happens before the Tribulation, during the middle of it, or after it. A THIEF IN THE NIGHT, as most cinematic depictions do, places the Rapture prior to the Tribulation, and does a strong job of supporting it's placement.) There's much theological discussion as we look into the lives of assorted younger adults, ranging from a totally atheistic outlook to that of a new Christian. Knowing it's audience, the film doesn't pass judgement, but presents the facts and natural reactions to them, particularly in the midst of the confusing counter-messages prevalent in the 70's. Eventually, the Rapture occurs and from there the film builds to a fever pitch. As haunting as any Twilight Zone episode, made all the more scary for it's reality. The film left a huge impact, and even secular critics have praised the film's effectiveness. The film was followed by a higher-budgeted sequel, A DISTANT THUNDER in 1978. IMAGE OF THE BEAST and THE PRODIGAL PLANET followed in 1980 and 1983, respectively. Collectively known as "the Tribulation movies" the films paved the way for Christian-produced feature films. All four used to be sold at Christian book stores across the country (they may still be, I don't think my town has one anymore), and were for a long time staples of church screenings. Even if you disagree with the theological content of the film, I'd still recommend a viewing. Even with it's budgetary limitations, A THIEF IN THE NIGHT is beautifully shot and masterfully edited.