Black Oxen (1923)
Attending an opening-night, the elderly Charles Dinwiddie (Tom Ricketts) is almost overcome when he sees, in effect, a ghost from his past: a beautiful young woman (Corinne Griffith) who is the living image of Mary Ogden, a flame from his youth. Others are struck by the resemblance, including society matriarch, Mrs Oglethorpe (Kate Lester); while theatre critic and aspiring playwright, Lee Clavering (Conway Tearle), is strongly attracted to the mysterious stranger. As the two begin a romance, Mrs Oglethorpe, knowing that the woman cannot be Mary Ogden’s niece, as has been suggested, confronts her—and is shocked to learn that she is, instead, Mary’s illegitimate daughter. But even this is not the truth; and when Clavering proposes marriage, the woman steels herself to reveal her secret, not just to him but to society at large: that she is Mary Ogden… Gertrude Atherton’s peculiar, almost-science-fiction novel, Black Oxen, was America’s best-selling book in 1923, and rushed to the screen the same year. I say “almost science fiction” because the secret of Mary’s rejuvenation, the so-called “Steinach treatment”, was a real thing, irradiation of the ovaries that was supposed to re-stimulate hormone production in post-menopausal woman and so “rejuvenate” them. It did not, however, claim to be able to restore youth per se; and Black Oxen goes to some pains to explain why Mary’s circumstances made her a perfect candidate for the most extreme response to the treatment—leaving her a woman in her sixties who looks thirty. Unfortunately, existing prints of Black Oxen are incomplete: the final two reels are missing, leaving only sixty of its original eighty minutes; and cutting out just when the complications of Mary’s situation are making themselves felt. In the first place, though she looks young, she has the experience and thoughts of a much older woman; and in the second, she has undergone the treatment not for reasons of personal vanity, but so that she has the health and strength to devote herself to the reconstruction of post-WWI Austria. When the film cuts out, Mary is faced with an irreconcilable conflict between her loyalty to her adopted country and her feelings for Lee Clavering. Black Oxen does a reasonable job of transferring Atherton’s novel to the screen, albeit without much depth, and certainly without the vacillating, feminist-but-not-really tone of the book, wherein Atherton zig-zags between sympathy for the situation of women and exasperation with her sex’s (perceived) limitations. However, Corinne Griffith isn’t really beautiful enough to be convincing as Mary, nor does she project the necessary depth; while Conway Tearle, at forty-four ten years older than his character, is completely miscast as the “dashing” Lee Clavering. (With his wrinkled forehead and baggy eyes, Tearle could have done with some rejuvenation himself!) Historically, the chief importance of Black Oxen is that it offers a supporting performance from an on-the-brink-of-stardom Clara Bow as Janet Oglethorpe, a hell-raising flapper inexplicably in love with Clavering (and who, in the book, is the target of much of Atherton’s wrath at her own sex). At this point she isn’t quite the “It Girl” we would soon know and love: the eyes and the attitude are there, though the hair and figure are not; but Bow’s performance as Janet is so free and energetic, while the rest of the cast is so stilted, that she effectively steals the film. While we lose this, too, in the incomplete film, the book – which is written from Clavering’s perspective, further diluting its feminist credentials – dwells with a certain horror on the prospect a young(-ish) man becoming physically involved with a woman who, whatever age she looks, is actually many years older than he. In its complete incarnation, Black Oxen took this one step further – and, nota bene, apparently without any ironic intent – by manufacturing an end-of-film romance between Clavering and Janet—who is half his age in the book; while Conway Tearle was twenty-six years older than Clara Bow: almost exactly the age-gap between Clavering and Mary…
Beggars Of Life (1928)
When a drifter (Richard Arlen) enters a farmhouse to beg for food in exchange for work, he discovers the body of a man slumped over at the table, shot dead. In his shock, he knocks something over; the noise is matched by one from upstairs. The man finds himself confronted by a girl wearing boy’s clothes (Louise Brooks), who admits calmly that she killed the man. She explains that the farmer took her from an orphanage two years earlier; that from the start he pawed and mauled her; and that that morning he attacked her, forcing her to shoot him in self-defence. The drifter offers to help the girl make a run for it by hopping a freight-train; however, she mistimes her jump and suffers a fall. The two then catch a train in the opposite direction, but they are found by a guard and thrown off almost immediately, leaving them in the middle of nowhere. As they continue their journey on foot, the man discovers via a ‘wanted’ poster that there is a price on the girl’s head, though he does not tell her. Finally, driven by hunger, the two take refuge in a ‘jungle’, a hobos’ camp—where to the threat of the law is added another, when the other men discover she is a girl… The first film in William Wellman’s “road” triptych – along with Wild Boys Of The Road and Heroes For Sale – Beggars Of Life is best known these days as Louise Brooks’ most important American film. Fully justifying Wellman’s penchant for girls in drag (seen also in Wild Boys Of The Road), Brooks is stunning here – and so appealing that, hell, even if she’d shot her old man in cold blood, we’d still want her to get away with it – but what is most striking to modern eyes is the subtlety of her acting. Her character (unnamed in-film) is in extreme danger for almost the entire film – from the law, from the bounty on her head, and simply because of her sex: the reaction of the hobos to a woman in their midst is immediate and terrifying – and Brooks plays her like a coiled spring, motionless but on high alert, and with only her shifting expressions conveying her fear. The most imminent danger to her is posed by a big, blustering hobo called Oklahoma Red, played by Wallace Beery—so it is both bewildering and exasperating when Beggars From Life from this point somehow morphs into “a Wallace Beery film”. Though it may seem wholly incredible now, obviously it was felt at the time that cinema-goers would rather look at Beery than at Louise Brooks—and indeed, much of the pre-release publicity for Beggars Of Life, which was filmed in both sound and silent versions (only the latter survives), revolved around audiences hearing Beery for the first time. In any event, Beery simply moves in and takes over. The shift in the film’s focus, away from the girl’s situation to Oklahoma Red’s, and his evolution from unabashed aspiring rapist to self-sacrificing hero – complete with an epitaph from his potential rape-victim: “He wasn’t such a bad guy” – is disconcerting, to say the least. Meanwhile, though he struggles to hold his own against his co-stars, Richard Arlen is effective as the young man, who undergoes his own journey as he grows into the girl’s fiercely devoted protector.
Behind The Mask (1932)
A prisoner, Quinn (Jack Holt), confides to his cell-mate, Jim Henderson (Boris Karloff), his plans for a break-out. Henderson tells Quinn that if he gets clear, he should go to the house of a man called Arnold (Claude King), where he will be helped. However, he also tries to dissuade Quinn from breaking out, telling him that there are other ways, and that he, Henderson, expects to be sprung very shortly. Quinn is sceptical, but Henderson insists that the head of the gang for which he works is a very powerful man—though he admits he does not know who he is… Quinn succeeds in breaking out, and ultimately meets a man called Gorman (Clarence Burton)—who happens, like Quinn himself, to be a Federal agent. Quinn is really Jack Hart, and his time in prison and his break-out are part of an elaborate operation to discover the unknown head of the dangerous narcotics ring. Hart shoots and slightly wounds himself before making his way to the Arnold house, where he forces his way into the room of Julie Arnold (Constance Cummings). She is frightened at first, but Hart’s urbane manner calms her, and she bandages his wound. When Arnold himself appears, Hart mentions Henderson’s name, and tells him coolly that he expects to be taken care of. Meanwhile, as he anticipated, Henderson is soon released from prison. He is followed by another agent, Burke (Thomas Jackson), as he makes his way to the office of Dr August Steiner (Edward Van Sloan), who is his contact. Burke believes this is the break they’ve been chasing, and excitedly telephones to his superior, Hawkes (Willard Robertson), that he will have the information they need by the following day—but Henderson has spotted his tail… Despite the presence of Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan and a number of bizarre and creepy touches, Behind The Mask is a crime drama, not a horror film (as is sometimes implied)—and an entertaining, if not wholly credible, one. Like so many thrillers of this era, it is built around the secret identity of the head of a criminal gang, and the lengths to which law enforcement must go to discover and expose him. It is also a pre-Code film, which shows itself both in the casualties suffered during the pursuit of “X” – Burke is the fourth G-man to lose his life in the chase – and the amount of detail given about the drug-smuggling. There’s no sex, however; though Jack Hart and Julie Arnold do fall in love. Hart’s undercover operation, which sees him taken on as chauffeur in the household of Arnold goes well until Dr Steiner catches a glimpse of him, and recognises him as a Federal agent. Steiner sees in a moment how Henderson has been used—but also comes up with a plan to dispose of Hart using the very talents that made him valuable to the gang in the first place, including his ability to fly. A sea-plane is used to collect and deliver the drugs brought in by boat from Europe, and it amuses Steiner and Henderson to make a Fed do the job—but, needless to say, they intend that his first outing as their mule will also be his last… Both the cast and the script of Behind The Mask are solid, but this is a film whose real pleasures are in its minutiae: the hilariously ominous performance of Bertha Mann as Edwards, the housekeeper / nurse / spy in the Arnold household; the world’s most frightening hospital, and what goes on there; the midnight raid on a cemetery; and the role-reversal rescue at its climax. Best of all, though, is the sideline of Dr Steiner, who is supposed to be a throat specialist, but has a lab behind his office where he fiddles with all sorts of weird, wildly-arcing electrical equipment! No wonder Boris smirks when he sees it…
(If you haven’t seen this film, be aware that its IMDb listing tells you who Mr X is! Not that it’s really much of a mystery, but still…)
Below The Sea (1933)
During WWI, a German submarine carrying gold bullion is torpedoed. Two survivors make it to a nearby island—and soon, Captain von Boulton (Frederick Vogeding) takes steps to ensure that he is the only one to know the location of the sunken gold. Years later, now calling himself “Karl Schlemmer”, von Boulton enters into partnership with Lily (Esther Howard), the owner of a waterfront dive, and deep-sea diver, McCreary (Ralph Bellamy). The latter sees that Schlemmer intends to double-cross Lily, but has no intention of being cheated himself. However, a violent storm wrecks the attempted salvage and leaves the two men broke. Another opportunity eventually presents itself when heiress Diana Templeton (Fay Wray) funds a scientific expedition to explore the ocean near to where the gold was sunk: Schlemmer manages to secure the position of ship’s captain, and McCreary is taken on as the expedition’s diver. Diana is intrigued by the brusque McCreary, and pursues him against his will—until he begins to think that there are more important things in life than gold. But there is still the scheming Schlemmer to deal with… While the different elements of Below The Sea do not blend particularly well, overall this is an enjoyable adventure-romance with any number of surprising touches. Some of these seem to be unintentional: I’ve commented before about Ralph Bellamy’s failed early-career attempts to play a tough guy, and he outdoes himself here—to the extent that we might be tempted to wonder whether he was actually trying to be funny. Either way—if you can imagine Bellamy in a role that might have been written for James Cagney (though evidently they first thought of casting Bogart), and delivering all his lines in a snarl that sounds like a cross between Wallace Beery and Edward G. Robinson, you’ll have some idea at least of the perversely entertaining nature of this film’s leading man. At the same time, Fay Wray is a delight as Diana: one of the era’s numerous spoiled heiresses, but also intelligent and genuinely interested in the scientific work she is backing. What she sees in the brutish McCreary is puzzling; but her dogged pursuit of him is good fun, particularly spiced up as it is with lots of racy pre-Code innuendo. When, much against his will, McCreary finds himself falling for Diana, he is caught between his attraction to her, his desire for the gold that he has chased for so many years, and his knowledge that Schlemmer will stop at nothing in his determination to salvage the bullion—and has it in his power, moreover, to give him, McCreary, away to Diana… When it was originally released, Below The Sea included a four-minute insert of footage shot beneath the ocean, which was filmed in two-tone Technicolor; alas, this material no longer exists (and there’s an obvious gap where it used to be). There are still numerous underwater scenes in the film, however, involving diving-suits and a diving-bell. The latter is the setting for a cinematic landmark: Below The Sea may well be the very first film ever to include a scene in which someone is menaced by A HONKING BIG OCTOPUS…
Night Flight (1933)
Based upon the novel Vol de Nuit, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. When a clinic in Rio de Janeiro that is battling a bad outbreak of polio runs out of serum, the doctor in charge arranges for more to be sent from Santiago, on the cross-country mail-plane flown by Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery). A second plane, piloted by Jules Fabian (Clark Gable), flies northwards from Argentina, to rendezvous with the first in Buenos Aires and consolidate the European mail. These will be the first night-flights under the new policy of managing director Riviere (John Barrymore), instituted to increase speed and efficiency of the mail delivery despite the doubts of owner Daudet (C. Henry Gordon), and the warnings of operations manager Robineau (Lionel Barrymore), that he is demanding too much of his employees. As he crosses the Andes, Pellerin encounters both fog and high winds which almost result in a crash; he recovers, but radios in that he must detour, and may be delayed. Riviere reacts badly to the news, refusing to accept any excuse and messaging Pellerin he will be fined if he is late. He also insists upon a third flight, out of Buenos Aires, taking off on time regardless of the adverse prevailing conditions. In spite of the dangers he must fight through, Pellerin lands safely by floodlight in Buenos Aires—and laughs when he hears he is to be fined for his ten-minute delay. Fabian, meanwhile, is engulfed by a violent storm… The novel upon which Night Flight was based was a best-seller, but cinema-goers seem to have shunned its screen adaptation despite a fabulous cast. Perhaps the grim subject matter was to blame, or the uncompromising ending—or perhaps it was the counterintuitiveness of the casting that bothered them, with (for instance) John Barrymore playing a steel-hard executive coldly sending his pilots into danger and rejecting all thought of “emotion” and “sentiment”, and Clark Gable a self-sacrificing pilot who is also a devoted husband. The film makes very clear the insane degree of danger involved, not only in night flying, but doing so over mountains, and in unpredictable weather conditions, in tiny planes with inadequate navigation and limited fuel. The viewer, indeed, may be inclined to agree with one pilot’s hysterical wife (played by Myrna Loy in one of her first good-girl roles), when she protests her husband risking his life so that, “Someone in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Wednesday.” However, the film itself – whose events play out within a twenty-four-hour period – offers a rebuttal in its framing device, opening with a frantic mother hanging over her polio-stricken child, and closing with the arrival of the life-saving serum. In addition to those already mentioned, Night Flight stars Helen Hayes as Simone Fabian, and features supporting performances from William Gargan as the third pilot sent out into the night, Harry Beresford as the airport communications officer, Irving Pichel as the head of the polio clinic, and Leslie Fenton in an odd, almost silent role as Fabian’s radio-man.
Bella Donna (1934)
Based upon the novel by Robert Hichens, and the play by James B. Fagan. Lady Harwich (Jeanne Stuart) calls upon Dr Meyer Isaacson (Cedris Hardwicke) to tell him that she is worried about her brother-in-law, Nigel Armine (John Stuart)—who is also Isaacson’s best friend. Nigel, who has spent most of his life in Egypt immersed in archaeological pursuits and is unused to English society, has become involved with a beautiful but rather notorious widow, Mona Chepstow (Mary Ellis). Before Isaacson can see his friend, Mrs Chepstow makes an appointment to see him: her pretence of ill-health gives her an opportunity to sum up the doctor, who she has recognised as a potential stumbling-block. Isaacson sees immediately that, given Nigel’s naivety and idealism, Mrs Chepstow poses a threat—but he also sees that it is too late to intervene; and indeed, Nigel and Mona are soon married. On their journey back to Egypt, the two encounter a local plantation-owner called Mahmoud Baroudi (Conrad Veidt), by whom Mona is both repelled and fascinated. Once settled in Luxor, Nigel leaves Mona to return to his field-work. Mona soon discovers that the servant, Ibrahim (Rodney Millington), is a spy in the household, paid to arrange meetings between herself and Baroudi, which lead to an affair… The 1934 version of Robert Hichens’ famous melodrama was long thought a lost film, until a copy was finally discovered in the Czech Film Archive. Unfortunately the print was incomplete, being some ten minutes shorter than the original version and full of glitches and jumps, as well as carrying burned-in Czech subtitles. However, it does allow us to assess this sound version of a story better known for its stage incarnation, with Alla Nazimova in the lead, and the silent film version starring Pola Negri. The results are somewhat disappointing—perhaps not surprisingly, given that this is “the Mysterious East” done on a quota-quickie budget. However, the main issue with Bella Donna is its screenplay, which is curiously oblique about Mona and her motives with respect to Nigel—particularly in light of its simultaneous frankness about her relationship with Baroudi. Despite of the concerns of Dr Isaacson and Lady Harwich, it is not until the latter gives birth to twins and cuts Nigel out of the succession that there is really any suggestion that Mona has married him for mercenary reasons; and even then, her desire to be free of him seems to be less about that than it is her growing obsession with Baroudi. English opera-singer and occasional actress Mary Ellis underplays as Mona, which in a way is part of the problem—although it makes a refreshing change from the histrionics of her predecessors in the role. Conrad Veidt’s Baroudi is also problematic, although this is not entirely his own fault: he was made to wear brown-face and, whether it is the makeup itself or just the lighting, his complexion changes from scene to scene, even moment to moment, which is very off-putting. Then, too, his is only a supporting role, which is a let-down; although his completely amoral Baroudi – who has, the film’s advertising assures us, “Left a trail of ruined women behind him”; he can ruin me any time, sigh… – is certainly the best thing about the film. Though this is not, of course, a pre-Code film as such, being British, it offers some startling touches—in particular a scene in which Baroudi and Mona lie, not actually in, but at least on a bed together. Baroudi’s tousling of Mona’s carefully coiffed hair becomes a motif, a symbol of their affair; and the first time he does it, as they share a first kiss, is a moment of genuine eroticism. John Stuart fails to win much sympathy as Nigel, but Cedric Hardwicke is effective as Mona’s nemesis…although there, too, we are distracted by questionable makeup choices: for his role, Hardwicke’s hair was dyed black and slicked down, with a distinct Dracula-esque widow’s peak—presumably because his character is meant to be Jewish.
Když Burian Prášil (1940)
This is one of our more complicated titlings / retitlings, so bear with me. This Czechoslovakian film was one in a series featuring the popular comedian, Vlasta Burian, who, although his character is called Baron von Fibberg, is essentially playing himself, or at least his persona—as evidenced by the direct translation of the title, Burian The Liar. However, the film is more commonly known as Baron Prášil—this being the Czech term for the character generally known as “Baron Munchhausen”. The film actually has nothing to do with that character as such, however; and while it is often classified as a genre film, in fact it is a screwball comedy of misunderstanding and mistaken identity—with its supernatural elements confined to a single room in the castle occupied by the aristocratic von Fibbergs. Legend has it that an ancestor of the present Baron once told a lie of such magnitude, the force of it cracked a large decorative bowl mounted on the wall—the pieces of which fell and killed him. Now, if anyone tells a lie in the same room, a plate or bowl will likewise fall and smash: an arrangement which occasionally proves—awkward. Baron Archibald von Fribberg (Vlasta Burian) has a reputation as a man of impeachable honour, who despises deceit and immorality. Consequently, his second wife, Olga (Meda Valentová), lives in fear that he will discover her dark secret: that, when she was young and long before their marriage, she bore an illegitimate baby fathered by the Count Kocharowski (Cenek Slégl). The now-elderly Count has no legal heir and wishes to adopt the young man, an intention which threatens to reveal Olga’s secret. But unbeknownst to his wife, the Baron too has his secrets—namely, a whole clutch of illegitimate children, so many that he must have his trusted manservant, Ronald (Frantisek Roland), keep records of them all. Meanwhile, the Baron’s daughter from his first marriage, Charlotte (Zorka Janu), has not only contracted a secret marriage to Ernest Benda (Oldrich Nový), but has arranged for him to assume the position of the Baron’s new secretary. The two plan to break the news gently to her parents. Indeed, Ernest tried but failed to confess to the Baroness while they were both in Prague but instead, by following her around while he sought the courage to speak, he persuaded her that he was infatuated with her. When Ernest arrives, Olga believes that he is still pursuing her—until, prompted by Charlotte, Ernest tells her a false sob-story about his unhappy childhood, to “soften her up”—and accidentally convinces her that he is her son. Encouraged by her insistence that he call her “Mamma”, Ernest then tries to bond with the Baron—and convinces him that he is one who missed being entered into Ronald’s records. And now the Count Kocharowski is on his way to the castle, determined to claim his son… Ironically, the least successful parts of Když Burian Prášil are those where the film stops dead so that Vlasta Burian (with and without his frequent straight-man, Frantisek Roland) can go into the lengthy comedy routines on which his popularity was built. While these scenes don’t really work any more, once the central plot builds up a head of steam, its spiralling absurdity makes this a genuinely enjoyable and rather racy comedy—one far franker than its British and American counterparts were allowed to be.
The Glass Key (1942)
Based upon the novel by Dashiell Hammett. When corrupt political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) falls for Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), he decides to clean up his act—even going into political partnership with Janet’s father, Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), who has been opposing Madvig on a reform platform. Madvig’s new stance brings him into conflict with Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who runs the city’s gambling-houses and other illegal operations. Varna warns Madvig that he is riding for a fall. Another complication for Madvig is that his young sister, Opal (Bonita Granville), is involved with Ralph Henry’s wastrel son, Taylor (Richard Deming). When Taylor Henry is found dead, apparently murdered, Varna goes on the attack, using his hold over Clyde Matthews (Arthur Loft), the publisher of an important local newspaper, to accuse Madvig and ruin his campaign. It is up to Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Madvig’s loyal right-hand hand, to discover the truth… This second filming of Dashiell Hammett’s famous story of corruption and redemption is an effective noir thriller with almost as many twists and turns as the later The Big Sleep—although in this case the pieces of the puzzle do eventually fit together. The story turns on the unbreakable bond of loyalty between Paul Madvig and Ed Beaumont, which is the one honest relationship found anywhere in the narrative. Even Ralph Henry, for all of his promises to “clean up” the city, is only using Madvig’s connections for his own ends; while Janet furthers this aim by getting engaged to the besotted Madvig, even as she falls for Beaumont. Of course, in Hammett’s twisted world, it is the very strength of Beaumont’s loyalty to Madvig that drives him to cruelty, deceit and violence: his efforts to clear Madvig’s name leave ruined lives and dead bodies in his wake. Remarkably, this filming of The Glass Key retains the novel’s most notorious scene, in which Beaumont is beaten almost into oblivion by Varna’s psychotic goon, Jeff (William Bendix); and even more remarkably, this scene of frankly sadistic violence also retains most of its source’s blatantly homo-erotic overtones—which in turn throw their shadow over the relationship between Beaumont and Madvig, so much more intense than that of either with Janet Henry. Indeed, Veronica Lake hasn’t much to do as Janet; nor has Bonita Granville as Opal: this is a very male world. Alan Ladd was always a peculiar choice for a noir tough-guy, but The Glass Key offers him as much support as it can; while Brian Donlevy gives an odd but effective performance as Madvig, toggling between two-fisted political boss and buffoon.
A Dangerous Profession (1949)
Bail bondsman and ex-cop Vincent Kane (George Raft) accompanies his former partner, Lt Nick Ferrone (Jim Backus), on the search of the rooms of a man just arrested, who was long wanted over a securities robbery in which a police officer was killed. Kane is disturbed by what he finds there, and leaves his card behind. The next day, as he anticipates, he is contacted by Lucy Brackett (Ella Raines), the wife of the suspect, Claude Brackett (Bill Williams), and Kane’s former flame. Still hurt and angry over Lucy’s break from him two years earlier, Kane listens to neither her pleas of Claude’s innocence, nor that the two of them were on the verge of divorce when he came to her in the wake of the robbery, begging for her help. However, neither does Kane obey when his business partner, Joe Farley (Pat O’Brien), warns him not to issue a bond for Brackett; even though, at Ferrone’s behest, the judge has set it at a prohibitively high figure. Lucy, through her attorney, lets Kane know that she has only been able to scrape together about a quarter of the bail; yet Kane does not blink when a second attorney, also claiming to represent Mrs Brackett, comes to him with half of the needed sum… A gritty and enjoyable if over-talky noir-ish thriller, A Dangerous Profession is notable chiefly for the central performance of George Raft, who (as was not always the case at this stage of his career) seems fully engaged with his material and carries the film through some of its murkier and/or weaker aspects. One of these, in context, would be the character of Lucy, who is positioned as potentially duplicitous, but ultimately isn’t ambiguous enough. Her position is clear enough to the viewer, even if Kane is determined to keep the chip he carries on his shoulder over being “Casablanca-ed” two years before. More interesting is the film’s depiction of the shadowy world of bail-bondsmen, rubbing shoulders with crooks and cops alike, but needing for their livelihood to maintain their loyalty to the former. When Kane allows his feelings to intrude in the matter of Claude Brackett, he draws fire from both Farley and Ferrone—and even finds himself a suspect, when Brackett turns up dead. Ferrone, in particular, is enraged over the loss of their best chance of solving the murder of the police officer, even apart from the original matter of the securities robbery. In his eyes, Kane has gone rotten—and, whatever his motives, there is no doubt he is playing a dangerous double-game. A chance encounter at the office of Dawson (David Wolfe), the attorney who Lucy swears is not representing her, puts Kane on the trail of Roy Collins (Robert Gist), who in turn leads him to nightclub owner and gambling magnate, Jerry McKay (Roland Winters), the brains behind the securities robbery. Threatening to bring the law down upon him, Kane offers McKay a choice: either the betrayal of Collins, who murdered both Brackett and the police officer, to the law—or a fat pay-off to keep his mouth shut…
Sudden Fear (1952)
Based upon the novel by Edna Sherry. Successful playwright Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) exercises her veto right over the casting of Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), arguing that while he is a good actor, he is physically wrong for the lead in her new play. When the play opens, it is a smash hit. Exhausted after months of hard work, Myra decides to take the train home from New York to San Francisco, to rest and recuperate on her own. However, she sees Lester Blaine on the same train, and impulsively invites him to have a drink with her. Blaine is standoffish and cool at first, but Myra persists, and the two end up spending time together. By Chicago, Blaine’s original destination, he has changed his ticket; by San Francisco, he and Myra are making plans… Once he and Myra are married, Lester must adjust to the life Myra leads not only as a successful playwright, but as the heiress to her late father’s wealth. He is welcomed by her friends, who include her lawyer, Steve Kearney (Bruce Bennett), his brother and partner, known as ‘Junior’ (Mike Connors), and Junior’s new girlfriend, Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). Myra’s marriage creates the need for various legal steps, including the making of a new will; while on her birthday, she will inherit the last of her father’s estate, which she intends to give up to the creation of a charity foundation. As she reviews the paperwork she records the changes she wants on the dictating-machine in her study, which she uses while working…and it is via this machine, accidentally left on, that she learns the horrifying truth: that her marriage is a sham; that Lester and Irene have long been involved; and that they plan to murder her before she can sign over her inheritance—which is due to happen in three days’ time… Though she took no credit for it, Joan Crawford both acted as executive producer on Sudden Fear and collaborated on the screenplay—and it paid off when the film brought her the third and last of her Oscar nominations. The role of Myra was certainly an actress’s gift, allowing Crawford to run the emotional gauntlet; though it also required her, at the outset, to walk a tricky line: to be coldly professional enough to dismiss a talented actor on pragmatic grounds, yet still sympathetic as she embarks on her whirlwind romance with Blaine: there is not meant to be any sense here of Myra getting what she asked for. Meanwhile, though inevitably he plays second fiddle, this was not only one of the most significant roles of Jack Palance’s career, but perhaps the only one to make full use of his unexpectedly mellifluous speaking voice (in fact, it’s a plot-point). The abrupt shattering of Myra’s fool’s paradise, particularly when she hears from Lester’s own lips how he feels about their intimacy, is all the more devastating for the film’s unusual frankness about the physical side of their relationship. Myra has her dark night of the soul after the revelation, when she is overcome with misery and terror…but after all, this is Joan Crawford we’re talking about: do you really think she’s going to take the situation lying down? Not hardly—and instead, Myra comes up with a plan of her own: to murder Lester, and frame Irene for it… While the first half of Sudden Fear suffers somewhat from the familiarity of the material, the second half – particularly the double cat-and-mouse game, with Myra, all wide-eyed innocence, repeatedly thwarting the plots of Lester and Irene, even as she she takes steps to put her own plot in motion – is tremendously enjoyable. The film is basically a double-act, but Gloria Grahame lends strong support as the duplicitous Irene. (From the first moment she looks sideways at Lester from under her eyelashes, we know what to think of her.) Sudden Fear was also the first great “San Francisco movie” – pre-dating Vertigo by four years – and makes excellent use of its locations; while the black-and-white cinematography by Charles Lang is just spectacular.
Danger Voyage (1954)
Also known as Terror Ship. While holidaying in England, Peter Duncan (William Lundigan) looks into buying a small sloop: an activity that brings him to the attention of the local police. Inspector Neal (Kenneth Henry) explains that the boat was involved in a mysterious disappearance. Peter having been cleared, he calls upon John Drew (Vincent Ball) and his sister, Joan (Naomi Chance), who salvaged the sloop. They explain that they found it foundering in the Channel, its mast broken by a storm; working with the two men then on board, they gave the boat a tow back into harbour. The journey was completed at night and, by the time they had docked themselves, the two men had disappeared… John further tells Peter that he found no papers or charts on the sloop to indicate who owned it or where it had been travelling. However, when Peter searches the vessel, he finds that a clock has been mounted over a plate declaring its builder and ship-yard. He hires the yacht owned by the Drews, inviting them to join him in tracking down the sloop’s history… Yet another “sea mystery” in the resume of Vernon Sewell, who hardly directed anything else. Danger Voyage is only a mild thriller, unfolding in the sedate manner typical of Sewell’s films; however, it does improve as it goes along, ultimately offering an interesting (and very 1950s) twist. The “mystery” associated with Peter himself is easily cleared up: though Joan briefly suspects him of being a smuggler, he is quickly revealed as the author of detective novels, dissatisfied with his recent work and looking for fresh material. For this reason he embraces both the immediate mystery of the men’s disappearance, and the surrounding one of the sloop’s origins. He and the Drews sail for France, tracking down the vessel’s builder, M. Fourneau (Armand Guinle), in Tourville; he is able to set them on the trail of its various owners, which finally leads them to English sculptress, Vivian Bolton (Jean Lodge). Her odd reaction to their questions raises their suspicions—and, as they are leaving her studio, someone nearby nearby takes a shot at them… Meanwhile, in England, a body washes up: it is identified as that of Michael Bolton, a research chemist, who has been missing for some weeks… At only 72 minutes, Danger Voyage is in no, ahem, danger of wearing out its welcome. Its strength is in its story, with its cast only adequate; it gets points, though, for not overdoing its “token American in a British film” aspects. Apart from its actual climax, the best bit of the film is its punchline conclusion, which finds Peter Duncan at a railway-station bookstall (presumably a W. H. Smith’s), admiring a copy of Danger Voyage by Peter Duncan…which sits next to a real one one of Agatha Christie’s They Came To Baghdad. I’m guessing that the latter sold a few more copies…
Beyond A Reasonable Doubt (1956)
When novelist Tom Garrett (Dana Andrews) rekindles his relationship with Susan Spencer (Joan Fontaine), it also brings him back into contact with her father, newspaper publisher Austin Spencer (Sidney Blackmer), for whom he once worked. Struggling to find an idea for a second book, Garrett is intrigued by an outrageous suggestion from Spencer. An active opponent of the death-penalty, Spencer proposes to Garrett that they show up the flaws in the legal system by, in effect, framing Garrett for murder: choosing a killing with no suspects, and planting some circumstantial evidence; carefully documenting each step, so that Garrett may eventually be cleared—even if he is convicted. When a burlesque dancer called Patty Grey is found strangled, her body dumped in a ravine, an opportunity presents itself; and Garrett sets to work to make himself the prime suspect… Suspension of disbelief is the first requirement for enjoyment of this Fritz Lang-directed suspense film: a twisting thriller that ultimately undermines itself by taking one twist too many. Still, if you can swallow its premise, Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt is an intriguing drama—one that makes its point more strongly than a more overtly political film would have done. Austin Spencer objects to the death-penalty in itself, but fights his battle on two specific grounds: conviction in a capital case on circumstantial evidence alone, and the American system of building political careers on legal success: that is, on convictions—and executions. He and Garrett tackle both sides of this, with Garrett placing himself deliberately in the path of the police by altering his appearance to match that of the briefly-seen suspected murderer, planting suggestive evidence, and pursuing another burlesque dancer, Dolly Moore (Barbara Nichols), who worked with the dead woman. When Garrett is arrested and charged, he is prosecuted by District Attorney Roy Thompson (Philip Bourneuf), who Spencer has been attacking in his paper for many years—and who does indeed intend parlaying his career as a prosecutor into politics. All is going to plan when Spencer is killed in a fiery auto-accident—one which occurred while he was carrying with him the proof of Garrett’s innocence… The plot-flaws in Beyond A Reasonable Doubt are self-evident; but it also has some issues in terms of its cast. Sidney Blackmer is effective as the crusading Spencer, and the film puts Dana Andrews’ rather slippery persona to good use; but Joan Fontaine gives a cold, unsympathetic performance, leaving us unconvinced by the relationship between Susan and Garrett, which should be the film’s emotional centre. Conversely, one of the better offerings comes from Arthur Franz in the supporting role of Bob Hale, a police detective who has long carried a torch for Susan, and who – with Garrett’s execution looming – ends up fighting desperately to prove his innocence…
Cry Terror! (1958)
An airline is contacted by someone who warns that a bomb has been planted on one of their planes, and revealing where to find it; the same person adds that another such bomb is on another plane—and will be detonated unless a payment of half a million dollars is made. Television news reports of the matter stun electronics-store manager Jim Molnar (James Mason): believing that he was working for the government, he designed the bomb’s trigger mechanism… As Joan Molnar (Inger Stevens) tries to get a calm explanation from Jim, their home is invaded is Paul Hoplin (Rod Steiger), who was in Jim’s army demolitions unit, and who tricked him into making the bomb. Hoplin keeps the Molnars at gunpoint, informing them coolly that they are going to help him with the rest of his plan—and that he will be holding their young daughter, Patty (Terry Ann Ross), to make sure they cooperate. The terrified Molnars defy Hoplin, refusing at leave Patty with him even at the cost of all three of their lives, and forcing him to adjust his plan: Jim and Patty will be taken away where they can be guarded by two more of the gang, Vince (Jack Klugman) and Kelly (Angie Dickinson); while Joan collects the ransom—with Patty’s life at stake should she deviate from instructions… Feh! – more false advertising! Try finding a synopsis of Cry Terror! that doesn’t make it sound like a bomb-on-a-plane film. But the bomb is merely the McGuffin in a taut and uncomfortable crime thriller: one whose levels of actual and threatened violence hark forward to the rougher films of the 1960s, which emerged with the breaking down of the Production Code. In fact, the film that Cry Terror most put me in mind of was Cape Fear, particularly given the constant threat of sexual violence directed against Joan Molnar, and the explicitness of the language used (the film says “rape”outright, instead of using a euphemism like “attacked” or “assaulted”). While Hoplin is out taking care of business, Joan is guarded by knife-wielding, drug-addicted convicted rapist, Steve (Neville Brand); the scenes between them are skin-crawling. Meanwhile, relief of a sort comes with cutaways to the FBI investigation into the extortion, led by agents Frank Cole (Kenneth Tobey) and Charles Pope (Jack Kruschen), whose only solid piece of evidence is a discarded wad of chewing-gum with the imprints of teeth in it… While I’m a fan of the films of Andrew and Virginia Stone, ultimately Cry Terror! doesn’t quite work. The early forensic-investigation subplot is interesting; but the location filming which is usually such a strength in the Stones’ work is less effective here, not least because despite the film’s setting, chunks of it were shot in Los Angeles instead of New York. The film also suffers from that constant Stone-production shortcoming, the Unnecessary Voiceover. Perhaps the film’s biggest disappointment, however, is the manner in which Paul Hoplin is finally dealt with, which is almost absurdly perfunctory. James Mason gives a subdued performance as Jim Molnar, although he does finally get a lengthy suspense sequence that plays out in an elevator shaft (beware, if you have a fear of heights). It is Inger Stevens who dominates the film, in her scenes with Rod Steiger and Neville Brand—and who, by the way, dishes out most of the actual violence! As Eileen Kelly, a still-brunette Angie Dickinson is a chilly treat—not wanting to murder a child, of course, but quite prepared to do so if it’s necessary…
Beau Geste (1966)
A relief detachment arrives at an isolated fort in the Sahara to discover only one soldier still alive. When he recovers sufficiently, he is is asked to tell his version of what happened… An American calling himself Graves (Guy Stockwell) is assigned to a battalion in the French Foreign Legion under the command of Lt De Ruse (Lesley Nielsen), and finds himself subjected to the harsh training methods of the brutal Sergeant-Major Dagineau (Telly Savalas). As he inspects his new troops, Dagineau reads aloud an anonymous letter he has received, threatening his life—and, as it was written by an educated man, he zeroes in on the evidently cultured Graves, making him the target of an escalating campaign of abuse. De Ruse reveals to Graves that, via a newspaper article, he is aware of his real identity, and his reason for joining the Legion: that, for the sake of the woman he loved, he took the blame when her husband, his business partner, embezzled company funds; a gesture now rendered futile, as the guilty man has killed himself and left behind a confession. Dubbing him with the wry nickname, “Beau Geste”, De Ruse warns Graves of the lengths to which Dagineau will go, revealing his own self-loathing in the process. The stakes are raised for Graves when his brother, John (Doug McClure), arrives under the name of Johnson, having used his special understanding of Beau to track him down. Graves warns John that they must not reveal their relationship; but this is discovered by Dagineau’s spy, Boldini (David Maro), and puts a weapon in the sergeant’s hands… This alleged adaptation of P. C. Wren’s famous novel succeeds in missing the point at pretty much every turn; and though the film manages a few decent action sequences, its pacing and emphasis are all over the place, so that it finally feels like much ado about nothing. Stripping away the British social constructs that form the basis for the novel, and replacing its aristocratic Geste brothers with a couple of random Americans, Beau Geste is basically just a western shifted to the Sahara: a point rather embarrassingly underscored when one of the swarms of attacking Arabs makes whoo-whoo “Injun” noises as they pour over a sand dune. Much damage is also done by the eternal issue of non-standardised dialogue: while the supporting cast speaks English with a range of accents – Italian, Russian, German, as the case may be – the main characters all speak broad American whether they be (supposedly) American or French. Most of the casting is “off”, too, although Telly Savalas does a convincing job as the sadistic Dagineau. Leslie Nielsen has a few strong moments as the gentlemanly, borderline alcoholic De Ruse, who depends upon the sergeant and despises himself accordingly; while AIP regular and Corman alum Leo Gordon turns up in a supporting role. The film’s extras were played by real former members of the French Foreign Legion, who we gather were not also asked to act as technical advisors.
Detective Takabe (Yakusho Kōji) is called to the scene of a gruesome murder, one in a series in which an ‘X’ is carved into the flesh of the victim, slashing the throat and crossing at the base of the throat. Despite this signature, each of the murders has been committed by a different person, and there does not seem to any connection between the perpetrators or their victims. Working with psychiatrist Dr Sakuma (Ujiki Tsuyoshi), Takabe tries to discover a motive for the crimes, but none of the killers seems to have a clear idea of why they did it. Takabe speculates that perhaps they are copying something from a movie or a book; or that, perhaps, they have somehow been hynotised into committing murder. As the case continues to consume him at work, at home Takabe struggles to care for his wife, Fumie (Nakagawa Anna), who is mentally ill and suffers from intermittent loss of memory. When Dr Miyajima (Dōguchi Yoriko) is found kneeling in a dazed state over the body of yet another victim, it is discovered that her last patient was a young man brought in for examination by a policeman called Oida (Denden)—who subsequently shot and mutilated a colleague. After the young man is apprehended, Takabe learns that he was also in contact with another of the killers, immediately before he murdered his wife. Certain that he has found the link in the crimes, Takabe interrogates the young man, a former psychology student called Mamiya (Hagiwara Masato), only to discover that he is suffering amnesia and is apparently unable to form short-term memories: a condition which drives him to ask the same questions over and over—particularly, “Who are you?”… Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s breakthrough film is a disturbing psychological thriller which exploits the serial killer / police procedural tropes established by films like The Silence Of The Lambs and Se7en, and which like them can be fairly classified as a horror movie. However, it could also reasonably be argued that Cure occupies an even darker space, offering no sense of closure or the re-establishment of normality, but only violent death and the promise of more. Cure is less visually confronting than its predecessors but, perversely, in this lies part of its power to disturb: this is a chilly, detached film, with a mise-en-scène rendered in shades of grey and blue, murder presented at a distance as the camera looks on unmoved, and with horrifying details tucked into the corner of the frame or in the background of the main action—as in the film’s famous final shot. This is, consequently, a film that demands repeat viewings, as it is literally possible to blink and miss it… “it” being any one of a dozen moments shattering in their implications. That said, Cure is sometimes too enigmatic for its own good. Kurosawa’s refusal to join any dots is a deliberate part of his schema, but too often it creates confusion rather than ambiguity; particularly so when Takabe begins having visions—or hallucinations. Uncertainty over the reality of what we are seeing undermines some of the power of the film’s final sequences. This was the first collaboration between Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Yakusho Kōji, and the latter gives a powerful performance that uses the well-worn cop-on-the-edge construct as the basis for a far darker exploration of the human soul; while Hagiwara Masato likewise turns Mamiya into a villain all the more threatening for his seeming passivity and helplessness. The verbal battles between Takabe and Mamiya are riveting despite – or because of – the latter’s limited vocabulary; with a growing ominousness attached to every reiteration of, “Who are you?”
(A rare laugh while watching this film came when a desperate Takabe started asking the killers whether they were copying “a movie or a book”: I was already thinking in terms of Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To; somewhat ironically, given Takabe and Sakuma’s gloomy contemplation of whether “the devil made them do it”. And as Mamiya’s role became clearer, I started thinking in terms of a book, too: of all things, Agatha Christie’s final novel, Curtain. I can only wonder whether Kurosawa Kiyoshi had anything specific in mind…)
In a darkened apartment, a strange young man cares for something that he keeps in a small square box… In the apartment above, art student Izumisawa Tsukiko (Nakamura Mami) lives with her boyfriend, restaurant hand Saiga Yuuichi (Kusano Kôta). Having survived a terrible car accident, but having no memory of the incident beyond a series of nightmares in which she sees herself covered in blood, Tsukiko is undergoing hypnotherapy with Dr Hosono (Dōguchi Yoriko). As she takes notes from her recordings, Dr Hosono notices Tsukiko’s repetition of the name “Tomie”… Dr Hosono is approached by Detective Harada (Taguchi Tomorowo), who tells her that he is investigating the recent murder of a girl called Kawakami Tomie (Kanno Miho). He adds that this was also the name of a girl murdered three years earlier; that the incident in which Tsukiko was traumatised was not a car accident at all, as her mother told her, but a love-triangle turned bloody murder-suicide, of which she was the only survivor. Moreover, the name is not merely a strange coincidence: Harada insists that he has traced back over decades a series of murders, all of them involving a girl called Tomie. Detective Harada shows the sceptical Dr Hosono a school photograph from three years before, pointing out both Tsukiko and Tomie – the latter of whom has had her face scratched out – and further indicating the other students and teachers who, over the past few years, have either committed suicide or gone insane… The first directorial effort by Oikawa Ataru, Tomie is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory adaptation of Itō Junji’s manga of the same name. Oikawa’s decision radically to tone done the violence of the manga is a matter of individual taste; a more serious issue is that film assumes too much knowledge of the original story in the viewer, turning ambiguity into confusion. (That said, Tomie functions, I gather, more or less as a sequel to the manga.) In particular, we are left without any sense of the extent to which Tomie is in control of her apparently eternal role as victim / victimiser: we see only the literally vicious circle, in which she deliberately creates the very situation which will inevitably end in her bloody demise—and then returns to revenge herself upon those manipulated into doing her bidding. The film’s various frustrations can best be summed up, however, by the fact that an overlong confrontation between Tomie and Tsukiko, in which Tomie “explains” the relationship between the two girls, still leaves us in a state of uncertainty! But with all its flaws, Tomie is worth watching. Tomie herself is a marvellously disturbing creation—and she is wonderfully interpreted by Kanno Miho, who was selected by Itō Junji to fill the role: her subtly shifting expressions and moods give us a Tomie who is exactly as described, “beautiful and terrifying”. The surrounding cast (perhaps understandably) makes less of an impact; but Taguchi Tomorowo is effective as the eccentric detective, compelled to pursue Tomie yet knowing that he is destined always to “just miss her”. The film is visually engaging – and does eventually delve into the realm of body-horror – while it also succeeds in reproducing a number of the creepy manga moments involving the pieces of Tomie from which she will recreate herself—including the iconic glimpse of her obviously living eye through a hole in a plastic bag.
When a series of deaths occurs involving bleeding from the eyes, New York detective Mike Reilly (Stephen Dorff) calls in Terry Huston (Natascha McElhone) from the Department of Health—who is personally affected when one of her colleagues, Turnbull (Nigel Terry), becomes another victim; although his immediate cause of death is a car crash. No biological factor is identified in the bodies, however. Mike and Terry search the apartment of two of the victims, young German students, and discover some camcorder footage showing both undergoing some sort of breakdown. The last thing they did before being affected was use the internet… When Mike realises that each of the victims suffered a computer crash immediately before being stricken, he enlists the help of forensic technician, Denise Stone (Amelia Curtis). She establishes that all of the victims logged onto a site called FearDotCom. Denise then logs on herself—and is assaulted with graphic images of women being tortured. Afterwards, she suffers terrifying hallucinations, which finally drive her to jump from her balcony—exactly forty-eight hours after she logged on… Not so much a blending of genres as what you get when an enraged toddler tries to force incompatible toy parts to join together, Feardotcom is a failure in itself, but interesting as a sort of flag-bearer for two quite distinct branches of modern horror movie-making: the “torture porn” subgenre, and the social media cautionary tale. The latter is evident from the film’s title: this is indeed an “Oooooooooh, TEH INTERWEBZ!!1?” film, which tries to say various profound things about social disconnection and the distancing effect of electronic communication, but falls down where such films always do—i.e. it has to create and show us the very images it is criticising, in order to make its point. Consequently we (like the characters) are shown the activities of a serial killer, Alistair Pratt (Stephen Rea), aka “The Doctor”, who tortures and murders young women live on the net. At the time of its production, Feardotcom was threatened with the dreaded NC-17 rating, and forced to tone things down. It still manages some disturbing imagery, however; though unfortunately (and somewhat ironically), it never succeeds in being frightening. Moreover, the film is terribly derivative, with echoes of everything from Videodrome to My Little Eye, and a striving for the detective story / grunge feel of films like Se7en; plus less explicable cross-references such as its reworking of the basement-diving sequence from Dario Argento’s Inferno, and an outright hijacking of the little ghost-girl from Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (Kill, Baby…Kill!). However, the most obvious point of reference is Ringu…although not only does the film carry an “original story” credit for Moshe Diament, director William Malone also denied even knowing about the Japanese film, or that it was being remade in America (which I believe every bit as much as I believe that the makers of Friday The 13th Part 2 never saw Bay Of Blood…speaking of Bava). After various bits of techno- and psycho-babble, Feardotcom takes a lurch into the outright supernatural with the revelation that the deadly website is the work of the ghost of Pratt’s first victim, Jeannine Richardson (Gesine Cukrowski)—although I must admit I’m not altogether clear on whether she took over one of Pratt’s sites, or built her own. Either way, she managed to create the dumbest domain name ever: in-film, it’s http://www.feardotcom.com! (Which prompts me to wonder whether the film’s promotional website was http://www.feardotcom.com.com …?) Here, too, the film lurches around: at first Jeannine seems to be punishing those who watched her torture, but later it is revealed she is seeking various forms of help—in which case, she might want to stop killing the very people who are trying to give it! Apart from its confusing plot, Feardotcom features some truly asinine dialogue, as well as suffering extensively from one of my pet movie bugbears, No-One Ever Turns The Lights On; though its most grievous sin may be wasting Udo Keir and Jeffrey Combs (and, debatably, Stephen Rea). Stephen Dorff wanders around looking suitably grim and stubbly, while Natascha McElrone seems to have turned up on the wrong set. That said, I can’t hate any film that gives us as its main protagonist, not the expected hard-bitten homicide cop, but a plucky health inspector—and a female one at that! And even more importantly, said plucky health inspector has a cat—and that cat is still hale and hearty in the very last scene—which automatically wins Feardotcom an extra star.
Crash Site (2011)
Also known as Crash Site: A Family In Danger. With their marriage falling apart, Rita (Charisma Carpenter) and Daniel Saunders (Sebastien Spence) plan to spend some time together in the wilderness, accompanied by their college-aged daughter, Frances (Katie Findlay). However, just as they are due to depart, Daniel’s high-tech data-security firm is hacked. The worst is averted, and Daniel puts one of his team onto tracing the hack to its source. This crisis delays his arrival home, and he is unable to put it out of his mind—exasperating Rita, for whom Daniel’s focus on work rather than family is the root of much of their trouble. Daniel, meanwhile, is not pleased to learn that Frances has invited her boyfriend, Matthew (Steven Grayhm), to accompany them on their trip. The four drive to a wilderness retreat owned by their long-time friend, Nick (Keith MacKechnie), where Rita puts her foot down about computers and mobile phones; she even goes so far as to hide Daniel’s laptop. Nick reveals that he has made plans for Daniel and Rita to have some ‘alone time’: he has prepared everything they will need for a day or two camping in the wild. The two set out as planned, but as they drive they are soon fighting again. However, their dispute is terrifying interrupted when the brakes on their jeep fail. The car plunges off the side of the road and rolls down the slope, crashing and leaving both Rita and Daniel injured… Dear me. I’ve watched plenty of dubious films lately on the good ol’ Midday Movie, but this is the worst of the lot, thanks to a dreadful screenplay by Joseph Nasser, featuring two of the most unappealing lead characters I’ve suffered through for some time. I’m also upset about the false advertising that promised me “snakebite”: there’s no snake, though Rita is bitten by a spider; while she and Daniel are ongoingly menaced – or “menaced” – by a bunch of wolves (I can’t in conscience call them a pack) so non-threatening, they make the ones in Wolf Blood look like ravening monsters. (And you better believe I spent their screentime going, “Aww…puppies!”) As for our supposed identification figures, Rita and Daniel spend the entire film locked in a desperate contest to see who can do the MOST stupid thing in ninety minutes of non-stop STUPID. Individually I’m torn between Rita choosing to wait until she and Daniel are lost, injured, without any food, and dependent upon each other for survival, to tell him that she’s “seeing someone else”; and Daniel’s reaction to this, which is to throw a childish tantrum that includes taunting the wolves. The joint-stupid-award, however, goes to their decision to set off through the wilderness instead of just climbing back up the slope to the road. Of course all this is meant to “fix their marriage” (we were so worried about that); although truthfully, you never saw a better justification for the institution of divorce. Meanwhile, the back-plot to all this is the hack-attempt on Daniel’s company, which holds security information for banks; with the car-crash caused by a cut brake-line. That being the case, it isn’t hard to spot the movie’s Super-Secret-Bad-Guy…and in that respect, the best thing about Crash Site is the message it carries for all parents in these Lifetime-y movies: namely, that it isn’t when your daughter has an idiot slacker boyfriend that you really need to worry; it’s when she has one who is well-groomed and well-mannered and who always calls you, “Sir.”
Stranger Within (2013)
After being confronted with a reminder of the suicide of her best friend, actress Emily Moore (Estella Warren) is abducted, imprisoned and raped by a hooded stranger; during her ordeal she suffers a miscarriage. Six months later, as she is still struggling, Emily’s husband, psychiatrist Dr Robert Moore (William Baldwin), suggests that the two of them get right away from everything. Travelling to Europe, they stay at an isolated house on the rocky shores of a Mediterranean island. But even there, Emily is pursued by dreams and visions that seem terrifyingly real… One night, during a violent storm, Emily thinks she sees someone outside the windows. This time she is right: the hysterical, terrified girl is Sarah (Sarah Butler), an American back-packer whose boyfriend fell to his death while they were hiking in the area. Robert persuades Emily to let Sarah stay, so that he can help her work through her traumatic experience. At first she is glad to do so, but soon grows jealous of the amount of time Robert and Sarah are spending together; and then, as her dreams and visions continue to escalate, Emily becomes uncertain about what is real and what is not… A Danish production filmed on location in New York and Mallorca with a predominantly American cast, Stranger Within is a tiresome and rather nasty psycho-thriller. Certainly the opening sequence is gratuitous: the film could have opened with Emily’s rescue without impacting what follows. Once the action shifts to Spain, the film unfolds in a manner that is simultaneously completely predictable and completely confusing—which is to say, it’s obvious where it’s headed, but the steps it takes to get there don’t make any sense. Estella Watson is the victim of a script (by Adam Neutzsky-Wulff, who also directed) that can’t quite make up its mind whether she’s a long-suffering victim or a bitch who’s asking for it – though tending to the latter – while the casting of William Baldwin as a “world-renowned psychiatrist” scuppers any claim to credibility. Sarah Butler gets naked for no reason, for those of you who like that sort of thing; and Jeffrey Pierce pops in and out as Emily’s agent / the film’s red herring. Stranger Within employs a few horror-movie effects to realise Emily’s dreams / visions, but like everything else they’re overly familiar; plus the film goes to the well too often (even pulling the old wake-up-out-of-a-dream-in-another-dream stunt). Ultimately, the only real positive here is the setting, which is very beautiful. Pity about the people who keep getting in the way of it…
High School Possession (2014)
Also known as High School Exorcism and Teen Exorcism. After her parents’ marriage falls apart, Chloe Mitchell (Jennifer Stone) begins acting out via explosions of rage, heavy drinking and casual sex at a party with someone else’s boyfriend. Lauren Brady (Janel Parrish), Chloe’s best friend, does everything she can to help, but begins to worry about Chloe’s mental health. Lauren’s work for the school newspaper sees her assigned to sit in on a meeting of “The Chosen”, a Christian youth group headed by Olivia Marks (Shanley Caswell), which meets regularly under the guidance of Reverend Young (William McNamara). Lauren, who was once close to Olivia but gave up church after her father died, is impressed with the group’s positivity and active community service. After the meeting, Lauren realises she has left her phone behind, and goes to retrieve it. Hearing cries, she follows the sounds to the church basement, where to her astonishment she sees Reverend Young and the others performing what appears to be an exorcism. As Chloe’s condition continues to deteriorate, including self-harm and hearing voices, her mother, Bonnie (Ione Skye), tries to get her medical help; while Lauren begins to wonder if it is another form of help she needs… Wow. I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that seemed to have so little idea of what it was actually trying to say. High School Possession starts out looking every inch like a heavy-handed piece of Christian propaganda, one heading solemnly for the casting out of Chloe’s demons, Lauren’s return to the church, and the putting in their places of all the sneering sceptics. There’s even a Scientology-esque, Psychiatrists are quacks and charlatans who just want to pump you full of drugs! scene…neatly balanced by the straight-faced revelation that the neighbourhood exorcist lets high-school students assist him with his exorcisms! Then, about halfway through, the movie slams on the brakes and does a complete 180o—so that all of a sudden we have said exorcist rejecting the idea of possession and advocating care by a mental health professional, and the local Christian youth group indulging in torture-cum-ritual murder—under the leadership of someone who turns out to be not so all-fire Christian-forgiving when her boyfriend cheats on her… The acting in High School Possession is generally serviceable, although Ione Skye is after-school-special terrible as Bonnie. Jennifer Stone does a pretty good job depicting Chloe’s descent into what the movie finally concludes is probably paranoid schizophrenia, and Shanley Caswell seems to enjoy her own 180o volte-face, as Olivia morphs from sweetness-and-light Bible-basher into dagger-wielding psycho-bitch. This is never the movie its cheating title(s) declare(s) it to be, but it is at least studded with enough moments of absurdity to make it watchable; and while it’s hard to go past either the literal “high school exorcism” or Lauren accessing Reverend Young’s highly confidential exorcism records by finding his password on a sticky-note as the most absurd, even these details pale into insignificance beside holy-water waterboarding…