When The Earth Trembled (1913)
Also known as: The Strength Of Love; or, When The Earth Trembled. This sort-of-proto-disaster movie offers a very early example of the bait-and-switch. Advertised as a graphic representation of the San Francisco earthquake, in fact its disaster occupies less than a minute of its 20-minute running-time, and is curiously positioned about halfway through the film. Nevertheless, this sequence is still of great interest inasmuch as it clearly includes some stock footage of the actual earthquake. The rest of this short film deals with the travails of a young couple in love, as per its alternative title. Girard (Bartley McCullum), head of a Philadelphia-based ship-broking firm, learns that his partner has injured their business through unwise speculation; he demands that the partnership be dissolved. Girard’s son, Paul (Harry Myers), is engaged to Dora Sims (Ethel Clayton), daughter of the disgraced partner. Defiantly, they marry. When Girard repudiates them, the head west; Paul takes over, and in time makes a great success of, the company’s South Pacific office. Hearing of this, Girard calls his son home; he departs by ship, leaving behind Dora and their two young children. Soon, word is received that Paul’s ship has been wrecked, with no news of survivors. A desperate Dora travels back to America, reaching San Francisco just as the earthquake strikes…
The Power God (1925, 15 chapters)
Pre-dating Officer 444 by a year, The Power God uses exactly the same template—with a scientist being murdered over his miraculous invention, and the good guys and bad guys struggling for possession of the object. In this case, the McGuffin is a “power engine”, a “miracle of the radio-electric age”, which “draws power from the very atoms of the air”. The good guys are Jim Thorpe (Ben Wilson), the scientist’s assistant, and Aileen Sturgess (Neva Gerber), his daughter. And the bad guys—well, I’ll let one of this serial’s intertitles speak for itself:
The use of coal – gasoline – oil – or any of the established fuel sources of power will be entirely eliminated if the startling invention of Prof. Daniel Sturgess is commercialised.
…and we couldn’t have that, could we? Alas, that’s as much humour (intentional or otherwise) as we get in The Power God, a numbingly tedious example of the “realistic” silent serial, which even by the undemanding standards of this sort of entertainment is unforgivably repetitious. Most of what little “action” it offers consists of endless scenes of Thorpe beating up (or being beaten up by) the same three goons, and protracted boat and car chases that literally lead nowhere. That this thing is stretched out to 15 chapters rather than the more usual 10 or 12 is just sadistic. The serial’s overarching bad guys disappear after the first chapter, handing off the task of securing the power engine to one Weston Dore (Allan Garcia, aka Al Ernest Garcia), the head of a “notorious criminal gang”, who promptly sells out his employers, deciding to obtain the power engine for himself and thus become the world’s “power god”. After that, it’s a contest to see whether the good guys or the bad guys can commit the most senselessly self-defeating actions. (Jim and Aileen win because, halfway through any given scene, they tend to forget why they’re doing what they’re doing and start doing something else.) The lack of decent action in The Power God leaves the audience far too much time to contemplate the thespian inadequacies of both Ben Wilson and Neva Gerber. Meanwhile, the Native American actor, Grover Eagle Wing, wanders in and out sporting a turban that evidently reflects someone’s conviction that one sort of Indian was basically the same as another. One tiny bright spot here is the appearance of Ruth Royce as Carrie Dore, Weston’s wife—who (as she was in Officer 444) is referred to as her husband’s “subtle aide”…though trust me, there’s nothing remotely subtle going on here.
Things I Learned From Watching This SerialTM: Amnesia makes you really, really stupid.
Storm Over Asia (1928)
Original title: Potomok Chingis-Khana (The Heir To Genghis Khan). When his father falls ill, it is up to Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff) to carry their accumulated pelts to the bazaar where the Mongolian people gather to trade, buy and sell. In particular, the father is confident that one spectacular silver fox pelt will keep the family in food for many months. At this, a lama (Fyodor Ivanov) who has been praying for the recovery of the father becomes aggrieved over the size of the gift to the temple offered to him. When he tries to take the fox pelt, there is a scuffle in which he unknowingly loses an amulet. Finding it, Bair’s grandmother tucks it into her icon and gives both to the young man as protection for his journey. At the bazaar, a fur-buyer (Viktor Tsoppi) who is under the protection of occupying army forces is able to exploit the Mongolian traders, paying them far less than their goods are worth. However, when the buyer tries these tactics on Bair, he rejects the offered payment and struggles to regain possession of his pelt. In the confrontation that follows, Bair must defend himself against a violent assault by the buyer’s associate, wounding the man in the process. When the soldiers come to the aide of the buyers, Bair flees into the surrounding mountains—where he stumbles into a grim conflict between the occupying army and a small group of rebel partisans… Storm Over Asia is the third entry in director Vsevolod Pudovkin’s “revolutionary trilogy”, following 1925’s Mother and 1927’s The End Of St. Petersburg. Though it deals overarchingly with real historical events, Storm Over Asia is, rather, an allegorical examination of the forces loose in the world post-WWI, and any attempt to read it “straight” will only end in confusion. Thus, while the partisans whom Bair encounters are clearly pro-Soviet, the fur-buyer, with his over-large coat and the cigar clenched perpetually between his teeth, is a stereotype of “American capitalism”; while the occupying army that protects him in his misdeeds, which represents the worst of “Empire” and colonialism and the exploitation of indigenous populations, is tacitly British. (When Storm Over Asia was originally screened internationally, its subtitles explicitly identified the soldiers as British; most copies these days leave it to the viewer’s own interpretation.) There is undoubtedly a fairly radical gear-change halfway through the film, however. The first section of Storm Over Asia is very much about the way of life that is coming under threat, with Pudovkin and his cinematographer, Anatoly Golovnia, taking their time over the depiction of Bair’s home-life, and capturing many extraordinary images of the vastness, isolation and harsh conditions of the steppe. The shift occurs when Bair, having fallen in with the partisans after instinctively intervening to save one from a soldier, is captured by the occupying army. Unable to understand his interrogators, Bair is dismissed as “an animal” by the General (I. Dedintsev); although it is his grasp of the one word he has picked up from the partisans, “Moscow”, that wins him a death sentence. As a reluctant soldier (Boris Barnet) marches the uncomprehending Bair away to “the sandpits”, an examination of his meagre possessions brings to light the amulet—the ancient document within identifying its wearer as a descendant of Genghis Khan… Though apparently based upon a real incident (one which inspired this film in the first place), the subsequent efforts of the British to install the hastily reprieved Bair as the head of a puppet government in Mongolia is handled in a viciously satirical manner, with Bair dressed and redressed and manipulated by his new “allies” as they work out how best to exploit him and his people, all the while laughing contemptuously over his simplicity. But Bair understands very well what is happening, and his anger builds; though it will be the reappearance of the silver fox pelt that finally triggers his explosion… Reaction to Storm Over Asia is necessarily coloured by its politics; though that said, the film is anti-imperialist rather than pro-Communist; and in spite of the exaggeration with which the conduct of the British forces is presented, there is depressingly little here that strikes us as unlikely in essence. But these matters aside, Storm Over Asia is a gripping drama, and also a work of extraordinary visual power. Shot on location in Siberia, in and around what is now the city of Ulan-Ude on the shores of Lake Baikal, the film contains any number of stunning physical compositions—but also pauses repeatedly to dwell upon the marvellous faces of its cast of amateur Mongolian extras. Most famously of all, the film-makers won permission to shoot inside the lamasery of Tomchinsk, and captured real footage of Buddhist rituals which forms an important set-piece within the production.
The Sea Bat (1930)
As the motley crew of a sponge-diving ship assembles, Nina (Raquel Torres) tries to press upon her brother, Carl (Nils Asther), a voodoo charm for protection. She is horrified when he throws it away, afraid that he will now be vulnerable to attack by the “devil fish” that inhabits the local waters. Carl points to the cross which he wears around his wrist, assuring Nina that it has been blessed and there is therefore nothing to worry about. Nina’s worst fears are justified when a giant manta ray looms up while Carl is cutting sponges at the bottom of the bay. His retrieval rope gets caught around a rock and, before his crewmates can retrieve him, he is attacked… In her grief and rage, Nina goes to desperate lengths to get the devil fish killed, until her despairing father, Antone (George F. Marion), turns to the island’s new minister, the Reverend Sims (Charles Bickford), for help. Sims is an unusual man of the cloth, with a hot temper and rough-and-ready methods—and a dangerous secret… As this synopsis makes clear, The Sea Bat is an exotic drama rather than any kind of killer animal film. Most of its focus is upon the effect that Sims and Nina have upon one another, and how their relationship will impact the minister’s secret (to which the viewer is made privy). This is a pre-Code film, of course, and shows it via the tactics to which Nina resorts in order to, uh, get Sims’ attention. Meanwhile, the film takes on a rather queasy tone with respect to Nina’s quest for revenge: it doesn’t seem bothered that she offers to sell herself to whichever of the other divers will kill the devil fish for her, but is properly horrified that a “white girl” is participating in native voodoo rituals in order to achieve the same purpose. However—none of this is why we’re here. If I find the attitude of most films towards sharks exasperating, you can imagine how I feel about one that tries to sell the gentle and inoffensive manta ray as a “devil fish”. Moreover, the example in The Sea Bat (which the animal is generally called here) is played by a rather inflexible model, and is in consequence even less threatening than its real-life counterpart. (In fact, it’s not clear how it’s supposed to have killed Carl: on the visual evidence, it sat on him and squashed him!) The film’s climax offers a very nice surprise, though, when instead of being killed, the manta is allowed to function as the plot’s Deus ex machina! As an early talkie (a silent version was also made), The Sea Bat is surprisingly fluid in both cinematography and dialogue, and has an interesting cast which includes Boris Karloff in a small role as “the Corsican”. It also wins points for casting the Mexican actress, Raquel Torres, as Nina…and loses them again for casting the Danish Nils Asther as her brother!
Air Mail (1932)
Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) is in charge of the squad of pilots stationed at Desert Airport in California, an important cog in ensuring the delivery of the air mail, but one surrounded by mountains and frequently beset by storms. The dangers of the job are underscored when pilot Joe Barnes crashes and burns while attempting a difficult landing; nothing can be done for Joe, but the mail must be rescued… The tragic accident compounds the difficulties faced by Miller, who is engaged to the dead pilot’s sister, Ruth (Gloria Stuart). Miller reluctantly attends the physical required to retain his license, hearing what he already knows, that his eyesight has deteriorated. The doctor revokes his passenger license but allows him to continue mail deliveries. Meanwhile, Miller’s demand for an experienced replacement pilot produces Duke Talbot (Pat O’Brien), an excellent flyer but a selfish, reckless individual who causes trouble wherever he goes… I had never heard of this film before it turned up in one of my bouts of researching the roots of the disaster movie, which is surprising for two reasons: (i) it was directed by John Ford; and (ii) it’s full of plane-related disaster. After a brutal opening sequence and some pungent dialogue (a combination that made me exclaim out loud, “Oh, yeah…pre-Code.”), Air Mail seems to be an early iteration of that plot they must have filmed a hundred times in the 30s, i.e. steady commander vs brash newcomer, butting heads over procedure and the same girl, one saves the other, lessons are learned. And so it is, up to a point, after which it takes some much more interesting turns; not least in that, whereas the standard plot too often gave us Pat O’Brien vs Jimmy Cagney, here we have O’Brien in the Cagney role—sort of. Duke Talbot isn’t just a brash know-it-all, though, he’s a genuine skunk whose only redeeming feature is his skill as a pilot, and even there he’s a reckless showboater who won’t follow the rules. The body of the film involves the various dangers faced by the pilots as they try to maintain the mail service credo (“Neither snow, nor rain, nor, heat”, etc.), with a variety of subplots emerging: one pilot, Tony Dressel (Leslie Fenton), has a terrible secret in his past; another, ‘Dizzy’ Wilkins (Russell Hopton), has a flighty wife, Irene (Lilian Bond), who he punishes for an earlier transgression by keeping her at the remote air-base—and who, as it turns out, is “acquainted” with Talbot. When Wilkins is killed, hitting power-lines while trying to fly beneath a storm, Talbot and Irene promptly depart together, leaving Miller to complete the delivery of the retrieved mail in spite of the storm and his struggles with his vision… Based (of course) on a story by Frank Wead, Air Mail is an effective drama—even if we are left to wonder, given the way it churns through pilots here, how it was ever possible for the mail service to keep its promise. The acting is low-key and the tone stoic, with only occasional touches of humour, mostly from Slim Summerville as the the air-base’s head mechanic, to leaven the prevailing grimness. The film is full of contemporary footage of planes and flying, and includes some insanely dangerous stunt-work. Oddly, the cast’s two female members, Gloria Stuart and Lilian Bond, had just appeared together in James Whale’s The Old Dark House.
Devil And The Deep (1932)
In the society gathered around a submarine base in North Africa, there is much sympathy with the jovial Commander Charles Sturm (Charles Laughton), and much hostility towards his wife, Diana (Tallulah Bankhead), for her perceived misbehaviour. Yet in private, the Commander is sadistic and controlling, insanely jealous and convinced that Diana is having an affair with every man she meets. The latest to suffer is the young Lieutenant Jaeckel (Cary Grant), whom Sturm has had transferred off his submarine under charges of inefficiency; to Diana he gloats that this will ruin Jaeckel’s career, and perhaps his life. A desperate Diana agrees to meet with Jaeckel where Sturm can eavesdrop on them; but though their conversation is in every way platonic, Sturm comes away convinced that somehow Diana instructed the young man in what to say. His jealousy explodes into violence… Diana flees the house, being swept up into the crowds of a local festival and almost overcome. She is rescued by a stranger, who carries her away from the town to an oasis on the edge of the desert, where their instant attraction becomes a night of passion… The following morning, Diana separates herself from her lover, refusing to tell him her name or where she lives. Later that day, however, she is appalled to discover in her husband’s new crewman, Lieutenant Sempter (Gary Cooper), her stranger of the night before; and at their involuntary exchanges of looks, Sturm’s worst suspicions are aroused… Devil And The Deep is a rather absurd yet thoroughly enjoyable pre-Code melodrama, notable (among other things) for its cast—which includes Charles Laughton in his first American film. This is one of Laughton’s vicious, self-loathing characterisations, and he is horribly convincing as the tormented and tormenting Commander Sturm; though the script gives him an “out” of sorts, in making him literally insane. (As society knows to its cost, many men have no such excuse for exactly this behaviour.) Particularly distasteful is that Sturm himself is the source of Diana’s tainted reputation, even as he poses as the most meek and forgiving of husbands. The key irony here is that Diana has actually been an immaculate wife—until Sturm’s violence drives her out of the house and into the arms of a handsome stranger. Devil And The Deep is also notable for being the few films of this (or, alas, any other) era to tacitly call a man out for his double standard: Sempter repudiates Diana when he finds out who she is, without listening to a word she has to say in her own defence; so sure he knows all about “what kind of woman” she is, so sure that Sturm is the injured party. He also refuses to listen when a frantic Diana boards the men’s submarine prior to its departure on manoeuvres, in an attempt to warn him against Sturm. She is still onboard when Sturm abruptly orders the submarine’s departure…and thus she and Sempter find themselves trapped underwater with a man both suicidal and homicidal… The submarine scenes in Devil And The Deep are well-executed, with all the horrible claustrophobicness (is that a word?) of such a setting; while during Sturm’s final meltdown, we are offered what may be cinema’s earliest example of the wrecking of a ship’s single radio! In addition to the central trio, Devil And The Deep is of course notable for the presence of a young Cary Grant in a supporting role—with Jaeckel’s platonic championing of Diana much more attractive than Sempter’s peculiarly masculine ideas about “honour”.
Devil’s Island (1939)
Gustav LeBrun (Stuart Holmes), convicted of treason, is shot and wounded while escaping. Dr Charles Gaudet (Boris Karloff), a respected brain specialist and surgeon, is brought to the wounded man by one of his co-conspirators. However, when the police arrive, the others flee; only Gaudet will not leave the wounded man. Accused of being a part of the same radical group, Gaudet protests vigorously that he was only doing his duty as a doctor. Nevertheless, he is convicted and sentenced to hard labour on Devil’s Island. The brutal conditions in the notorious penal colony are made worse by its commandant, Colonel Lucien (James Stephenson), who is growing rich off convict labour and graft. One day, a guard’s treatment of a sick prisoner sparks a riot, which in turn causes the horses drawing the carriage of Madame Lucien (Nedda Harrigan) to bolt. The Luciens’ young daughter, Collette (Rolla Gourvitch), is thrown out and seriously injured. The prison doctor, Duval (Edward Keane), tells Lucien that only Gaudet has the skill to save the child’s life. When Lucien offers him a remission of his death sentence for being involved in the riot in exchange for operating, Gaudet demands that the others involved be pardoned too. Lucien agrees—but has no intention of keeping his word… Devil’s Island was an important film for Boris Karloff, allowing him to break away from the low-budget mad doctor roles that had become his stock-in-trade; and it was a critical and commercial success, too. Nevertheless, overall the film is rather lacking, with a perfunctory air about the treatment of the convicts and the inevitable prison break. The one really interesting thing here is Madame Lucien’s rebellion against her husband, when he reneges on his promises to Gaudet (she doesn’t know about Lucien’s other transgressions): she not only bankrolls the convicts’ escape, but conspires with her black servant (Billy McCain, typically but annoyingly unbilled) to get the job done. Boris is his usual effective self here, and Gaudet’s fairly rapid descent into violence and conspiracy is unexpected; but the rest of the cast is undistinguished and, indeed, when it comes to the convicts, almost impossible to tell apart. Made to mark the end of prisoners being sent to Devil’s Island (although it would be another fifteen years before the prison was entirely closed down), this Warners production nevertheless aggrieved the French government—prompting the hasty addition of an introductory scrawl emphasising that these were “the bad old days”, and a happy ending entirely out of step with the rest of the film.
(All things considered, King Of The Damned is a much better example of this sort of film.)
The Mystery Of Mr Wong (1939)
The detective, James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff), who is also an expert in Chinese artefacts, is invited to a party given by Brendan Edwards (Morgan Wallace), a collector, who shows him a fabulous jewel known as ‘The Daughter of the Eye of the Moon’, which he has acquired by dubious means. When Wong warns him that this might place him in danger, Edwards admits he has already received a threatening note—which arrived before he acquired the jewel. He also tells Wong that he has left a letter in his safe, to be opened in the event of his death. Edwards and Wong join the other guests below, where the latter meets the criminologist, Professor Janney (Holmes Herbert), a friend and colleague. Edwards then joins his wife, Valerie (Dorothy Tree), her secretary, Peter Harrison (Craig Reynolds), and their house-guest, musician Michael Strogonoff (Ivan Lebedeff), in taking part in a sketch in which he, Edwards, is “shot” by his wife’s jealous husband: ironic, given the Edwards’ well-known marital problems. And after the sketch, Edwards does not get up… The second in Monogram’s series featuring Boris Karloff as “the Chinese detective”, James Lee Wong, is probably a better film that its predecessor, Mr Wong, Detective, but isn’t as much fun. Its parallel plots are overly familiar, with various Chinese agents trying to recover the jewel on one hand, and the fallout from Edwards’ unreasonable – and reasonable – jealousy of his wife playing out on the other. The two-fisted police detective, Sgt Sam Street (Grant Withers), is on the scene to bluster and threaten, but of course it is Wong who picks apart the threads of the mystery surrounding Edwards’ murder. Edwards himself is a more complex character than is usually found in this sort of film, all jovial bonhomie with his male friends, but a bully with his wife and servants. Also, for a Monogram film, production values here are reasonably high. The discomfort around the central piece of racial impersonation is unavoidable, but Boris is his usual urbane and likeable self, and the screenplay goes out of its way to stress all of Wong’s admirable qualities and accomplishments; the detective is received warmly, indeed eagerly, by the Caucasian characters. Furthermore, there are several Chinese actors in this film who are billed where they should be and not automatically dropped to the bottom of the cast list, so points to Monogram for that too.
Jungle Man (1941)
Also known as: Drums Of Africa. Bored with the usual social round, Betty Graham (Sheila Darcy) persuades her father (Paul Scott) that they should join her fiancé, Bruce Kellogg (Weldon Hayburn), and his friend, Andy (Robert Carson), on their expedition to Africa. Andy is interested in hunting, but Bruce wants to seek the legendary ‘City of the Dead’. Mr Graham agrees to go chiefly because he has a brother, Jim (Charles Middleton), who he has not seen for years, since he became a missionary. When word of his relatives’ approach reaches Father Jim at his mission, he is delighted; less so is his friend, doctor and researcher Robert Hammond (Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe), who is worried about the prevalence of a deadly fever in the area. Hammond has spent five years seeking a cure, and is even now waiting for the ship which is carrying the serum on which so much is riding… There’s nothing remotely original here, yet on the whole Jungle Man is one of the better examples of this sort of low-budget, stock-footage adventure film. For one thing, there is pleasingly little animal violence—if not none, alas; and though we get the usual absurdly crowded collection of wildlife, the only errors in this respect are brief clips of a pair of young orangutans and a couple of stray alligators. (There is a tiger, but it turns out to be Father Jim’s imported pet!) Conversely there is some genuinely remarkable snake footage, though unfortunately the snake is one of the humans’ victims. (I don’t think for real, but…) Otherwise, the main downside here is that of course Bruce and Andy hire the most incompetent and cowardly guide they can find (Vince Barnett); heaven forfend we shouldn’t have an Odious Comic Relief. Soon after their arrival at the mission, the party separates—with Bruce, Andy and Buck the guide setting out in search of the legendary lost city (“played”, when they find it, by stock footage of Angkor Wat); though the main point of the separation is to give Betty time to start falling for Dr Hammond—or “Junga”, as the natives call him. An amusing amount of cheese- and beefcake ensues, with Buster Crabbe going without his shirt for chunks of the film, and Sheila Darcy starting out in the skimpiest shorts permissible in 1941, then swapping them for an equally skimpy dress. Things get serious again when word comes that the ship carrying Hammond’s serum has been torpedoed just off the coast, and the explorers return from the City of the Dead with Bruce in a burning fever…
Devil Monster (1946)
Pay attention: this one’s a bit tricky. In 1935, work began on one of those parallel American and Mexican film productions (a process best known today with respect to Dracula), resulting in English- and Spanish-language releases with the same base-casts but different leading actors and directors. In 1936, the two films were released as The Sea Fiend and as El Diablo del Mar, respectively: adventure stories that cast the manta ray as a savage “devil fish” and featured extensive stock footage cannibalised from various wildlife and hunting documentaries, including some of the work of the Williamson brothers, George and Ernest (the latter known around here for his contribution to The Mysterious Island). Then, a decade later, the film’s producers, the Weiss Brothers, resurrected the English-language version of their low-budget effort, and either replaced some of its existing stock footage or added to it—splicing into their film numerous shots of topless female islanders. In this guise, it was re-released on the exploitation circuit in 1946 as Devil Monster. So— Robert Jackson (Barry Norton) is approached by Señora Francisco (Mary Carr), whose son, José (Jack del Rio), has been missing at sea for six years. She shows him a newspaper article that mentions possible shipwreck survivors in the Galapagos Islands, and begs him to undertake a search. Though he promises to speak to his father, Captain Jackson (Jack Barty, sporting some astonishing eyebrows), the skipper of a tuna-fishing vessel, Robert is ambivalent about the search: he is in love with Louise (Blanche Mehaffey), José’s sweetheart, who like his mother clings to the hope that José is still alive. After much searching, the Jacksons do indeed locate the missing José—who, now known as “Harlo”, is destined to marry the daughter of the chief of one small island, after slaying one of the two “devil fish” that had long terrorised his people… Even at just over an hour in length, Devil Monster quickly wears out its welcome, with more than half of its brief running-time made up of stock footage that is supposed to illustrate the Jacksons’ “adventures”, including an uninterrupted, 13-minute-long block during the first half of the film. Lowlights abound; each lower than the other. There is a staged fight between an octopus and a moray eel that was clearly filmed in a tank; a lengthy tuna-fishing insert, with much gaffing and posing; and while one “man-eating shark” escapes the film unharmed, a number of others are not so fortunate. (At least one of the latter is a perfectly harmless leopard shark.) The film’s climax uses footage of real manta rays…and of real harpoons, too. The killing-for-fun vibe throughout Devil Monster positions it very much as a forerunner to “mondo” films such as Tintorera—its only positive touch being that, even as one of the characters in Tintorera finally gets pretty much what he deserves, so too the man behind the harpoon here. But neither this, nor the inadvertent hilarity of the appalling superimposition work through which this sequence is realised, begins to make up for the rest.
(I suppose I shouldn’t close this paragraph without mentioning the astonishing contribution to The Sea Fiend / Devil Monster of the “actor” playing the island chief, William Lemuels, who was apparently Bela Lugosi’s non-union South Pacific equivalent…)
(More on Devil Monster at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
The Devil’s Sleep (1949)
With juvenile delinquency on the rise, Judge Rosalind Ballintine (Lita Grey Chaplin) assigns Detective Dave Kerrigan (William Thomason) to break the drug ring she is sure is behind it. Kerrigan believes he may be able to get some leads from Bob Winter (Jim Tyde), the teenage brother of his fiancée, Jerri (Laura Travers). Unbeknownst to the others, Bob has already experimented with “bennies” supplied by a young man who uses a variety of names, but is known to the police as “Fred Smith” (Tony Donardi). Smith lures in his young targets by holding pool-parties at a house supposedly belonging to his uncle, but which has actually been provided for the purpose by local drug lord, Umberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell)… I hardly know how to address this dopesploitationer…nor express my giddy delight at discovering that there is such a thing as “Timothy Farrell’s ‘Umberto Scalli trilogy'”. The latter is best exemplified by Racket Girls, rightly pilloried on MST3K. The Devil’s Sleep takes place in the same universe: it offers some of the same cast, the same non-acting and the same threadbare production values; its padding scenes go on forever; and it is certainly not without its gigglesome side. Yet I was surprised to note that, in contrast with better known films of this ilk such as Reefer Madness, we have here a reasonably levelheaded take on drug-pushing and drug use. The use of a gym as a front for pushing “diet pills” makes sense; people using drugs actually pay for them (sometimes via burglaries); and the screenplay is refreshingly matter-of-fact over how and why “nice kids” might use drugs. The Devil’s Sleep also takes a convincingly nasty turn when the bad guys conspire to blackmail the crusading judge via a photograph of her drugged, naked, underage daughter. Offsetting these mild virtues, however, the film also features a number of the bizarre obsessions that mark the other works of producer George Weiss and director Merle Connell—in particular, lengthy scenes in a gymnasium frequented by long-in-the-tooth women in unflatteringly skimpy clothing, and a body-builder in a supporting role: this time George Eiferman , “Mr America of 1948”, who makes Steve Reeves look like Laurence Olivier.
Duel Of Champions (1961)
Original title: Orazi e Curiazi (The Orazis And The Curiazis). During a desperate battle, the celebrated Roman soldier, Horatius (Alan Ladd), attempts to get behind the Alban line in order to stage a new assault, but is wounded and taken prisoner. After surviving a forced fight in a wolf-pit, Horatius manages to escape and finds a refuge with the peaceful hill people, where he recovers from his injuries. Meanwhile, Horatius’ manoeuvre, observed and misinterpreted by the conflict’s one other survivor, is reported in Rome as him fleeing the battle. As he is believed dead, the king of Rome (Robert Keith), who has no son, declares Horatius’ younger brother, Marcus (Jacques Sernas), his heir, and betrothes him to his daughter, Marcia (Franca Bettoia). Though she loves Horatius, Marcia believes the false report against him and and goes through with the marriage. As the Romans and Albans struggle to find a way of resolving their bloody stalemate conflict, Marcia suggests consulting the Oracle, who decrees that three brothers of each faction must fight against each other to the death… Duel Of Champions is based upon the legend of the Horatii, triplet warriors of Rome who battled their Alban counterparts, the Curiatii, to decide the fate of their countries—and in effect, to establish the Roman Empire. However, the climactic fight makes up only the final sequence of this lengthy and ultimately rather dull peplum, which can’t get past the black hole at its heart. Far too old for his role, Alan Ladd looks tired and depressed throughout, which impacts every other aspect of the production. Most of the time, his Horatius comes across as a sulky grouch, which is hardly the correct response to the enormous double betrayal that he finds waiting for him when he does eventually return to Rome. This inappropriate pitch-note undermines the film’s attempt to present its story as high tragedy. None of the rest of the cast makes much of an impact, although there are a few bright moments from Violette Marceau as the young woman who takes in and heals Horatius; while Alan Ladd’s lookalike daughter, Alana, has a small role as a slave-girl who helps Horatius to escape from the Albans.
The Devil Of The Desert Against The Son Of Hercules (1964)
Original title: Anthar l’invincibile (Anthar The Invincible); also known as: Soraya, Queen Of The Desert and The Slave Merchants. Ganor (Mario Feliciani) – known as “the Devil of the Desert” – takes advantage of the betrothal ceremony of the Princess Soraya (Michèle Girardon) to overthrow her father, slaying him and Soraya’s fiancé, and capturing her brother, Prince Daikor (Manuel Gallardo). Soraya defies Ganor, refusing to agree to be his wife and, when he tries to force himself upon her, throwing herself out of a window into the crocodile-infested river below… While fishing with his mute companion (Roberto Dell’Acqua), Anthar (Kirk Morris) rescues an unconscious woman from the water. He has barely had time to recognise the significance of the royal insignia about her neck than the three are set upon by slave-traders, who overpower Anthar and the boy and carry Soraya away to be sold into slavery… The title of this Oriental fantasy is somewhat misleading: Ganor is hardly a “devil”, rather your common or garden usurper; while Anthar is the “son of Hercules” only inasmuch as this film was part of the pepla package that played TV under that name (and comes complete with theme song). The Devil Of The Desert Against The Son Of Hercules is a rather tedious peplum of the “plots in the palace” variety, offering little we haven’t seen dozens of times before (begging the question of why this thing needed six writers!). It also has some real pacing issues, so that nearly every sequence takes much longer to play out than it really needs to—particularly the slave-market scene, where I can only assume we’re not supposed to notice because we’re busy ogling the girls. (Sorry.) There’s the usual machinations, and much back-and-forthing across the desert, and finally the inevitable overthrow of the usurper; the non-action enlivened only by one scene in which, rather than the usual lions and tigers and bears (oh, my!), Anthar is pitted in the arena against a rhinoceros! – and another featuring an amusing if entirely anachronistic showdown in a hall of mirrors; though the latter is undermined by the most unnecessarily insistent evil laughter I’ve ever heard. The cast, headed by Kirk Morris, is adequate if unmemorable. It should be noted, however, that only the American version of the film is tacky enough to call Anthar’s companion “Mute”: in the original Italian, his name is “Aimu”. The Devil Of The Desert Against The Son Of Hercules was shot on location in Algeria by “Anthony Dawson” (Antonio Margheriti); his assistant director was Ruggero Deodato.
Madison McBride (Sarah Roemer) tries to confront some of her demons by attending the same university where her brother committed suicide a year before. Having, as a child, been present when her unstable father, too, committed suicide, Madison has understandable fears about her own mental health—which seem as if they may be valid, when she begins having frightening visions soon after moving into her dormitory. Madison is one of a small group of students accommodated in what is called a new building, but which is a refurbished section of an old one kept from demolition by preservationists. The youngest of the group of Madison’s new friends, known as “String” (Cody Kasch), tells the others that the building was once part of a notorious mental hospital, where disturbed teenagers were subjected to brutal treatment by a Dr Magnus Burke (Mark Rolston); and that the surviving patients eventually turned on the doctor and killed him. Now, String adds, the doctor is supposed to haunt the unrenovated wing of the building that they have been warned is off-limits. String’s hacking skills give him the security code to the locked-off wing, and the friends explore there, finding grim evidence of the past—and awakening the vengeful spirit of Magnus Burke… Ugh. Asylum is a film that manages to be deeply distasteful and terribly boring at the same time. It’s a slasher movie posing as a ghost story, focused upon a group of “friends” who hook up the first day of term despite having nothing whatsoever in common, and with each of them being more thoroughly obnoxious than the last. The first half of the film is a brutal endurance test, as we are subjected to the non-stop yammering of arrogant dorm overseer “Rez” (Randall Sims), self-appointed sex-god Tommy (Travis Van Winkle), and the geeky String. The other girls, Ivy (Ellen Hollman) and Maya (Carolina Garcia), come off better just because they pretty much have to; in the same way, Holt (Jake Muxworthy) is the Designated Hero. Eventually it turns out that the kids all do have something in common: each of them has suffered a dreadful trauma in the past, everything from an involuntary appearance in kiddie-porn to the torments dished out by a mother who seems to have read It one too many times. One by one, the kids find themselves reliving their primal tragedies—and then being confronted by Magnus Burke, who croons, “Give me your suffering…”
Also known as Goth Kill and Goth Kill: The Soul Collector. Self-styled cult leader, Nicholas Dread (Flambeaux! aka Christopher Riley) leads his followers into an isolated corner of Central Park—and then guns them all down. He is arrested, convicted and sentenced to death; but this is merely part of his plan. Centuries ago, when he was “Father Nicholas”, Dread realised that the Inquisition was a fraud, murdering young women by burning them as witches so that their property could be confiscated by the church. Denounced as a heretic, Dread was also burned at the stake—but not before making a deal with the devil, in which he would be reincarnated over and over until he had delivered to Satan the souls of 100,000 sinners… Under the guise of a “religious visit”, Dread is able to pass to the priestess of his cult (Julie Saad), who was one of the young women burned as a witch centuries before, the grimoire containing his secrets. However, as she leaves the prison, the priestess is hit by a car and killed… Annie (Erica Giovinazzo) and Kate (Eve Blackwater) are thrilled to be invited to one of the Goth parties hosted by “the Scorpion Sect”, a vampire cult. They are unaware that the leader of the Sect, Lord Walechia (Michael Day), has obtained possession of the grimoire and is looking for victims to try it out on… Gothkill is one of those friends-and-family, micro-budgeted efforts that looks like it was a lot more fun to make than it is to watch. It suffers from most of the expected shortcomings, including an unjustified air of self-satisfaction, painfully wooden acting – except from star Christopher Riley, who errs in the other direction – and a screenplay that takes forever to get where it’s going, and which never feels like it was properly thought through at all—which is a pity, because if you can find them there are a few interesting ideas here; not, evidently, that the film-makers themselves ever realised it. In particular, there seems to be a suggestion that in harvesting the souls of sinners, Dread is doing God’s work as well as Satan’s (which may be why he ultimately gets his chosen reward of his own kingdom to rule in hell, even after Satan reneges on their deal; or perhaps I’m putting way too much thought into it). Similarly, the film’s best moment comes when Walechia inadvertently brings Dread back after his execution via the incantations in the grimoire: when Dread discovers that Walechia has sacrificed the innocent Annie, instead of a sinner, he is furious. But to find these intriguing bits and pieces, you have to be willing to sit through endless blather from Dread himself, and scenes of posturing Goths that seem to go on forever. On the other hand, if you like that sort of thing, Gothkill offers a bit of gratuitous nudity and a cameo from dominatrix turned cable hostess, “Mistress Juliya” (Juliya Chernetsky).
(More on Gothkill at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Storm Cell (2008)
As children, April Saunders (Kristy Dawn Dinsmore) and her younger brother, Sean (Ryan Grantham), can only watch helplessly as their parents are killed by a tornado. As an adult, April (Mimi Rogers) teaches at an Oklahoma university, in addition to a career as a “storm chaser” and author. She is tracking a tornado when it takes an abrupt turn, heading for the town where Dana (Elyse Levesque), her teenage daughter, attends high school… Though her school is severely damaged, Dana herself is unhurt; but she is nevertheless furious with her mother for being out in the field during the crisis. To try and make up with Dana, April proposes a visit to her Uncle Sean (Robert Moloney), who is the sheriff of a small town in Washington State; suggesting that they can also visit a college in the area with a famous drama program, which Dana is considering attending. April promises Dana that their trip will be all holiday and no work—but barely have they arrived than the northwest is struck by freak, violent storms… As with several recent DVD rentals, Storm Cell turned out to be a re-watch for me—only this time, there was a good reason I had mostly blocked it out. Despite being, overtly, a twelve-years-after-the-fact rip-off of Twister, Storm Cell is more correctly a dysfunctional-family drama posing as a disaster movie; you imagine how much I enjoyed that. The bait-and-switch is annoying enough, but added to that is the fact that Dana is a whiny, petulant little brat, who resents her single-parent mother working at all, it seems, even if she is out there trying to save people’s lives: “How do think that made ME feel!?” is her perpetual cry in reaction to April’s failure to helicopter-parent. (Trust me, kid: if your mother acquiring the nickname “The Tornado Lady” is the worst thing that happens to you…) This is bad enough; but then we get to know April better, and—well, let’s just say the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. But all is not lost! – up in Washington State, April gets handed her brother and his pregnant, domestically-inclined wife, Molly (Tracy Trueman), as role models just before being reunited with TV meteorologist, Travis George (Andrew Airlie), with whom she was involved in her college days… “Hey, wasn’t there supposed to be A STORM in this?” you might be asking by now; goodness knows I was. The storms in Storm Cell are the usual crappy CGI mess, enlivened only by (i) the fact that they roar (no, really); (ii) the scientifically dubious way they manifest; and (iii) the film’s suggestion that “Tornado Alley” has literally packed up and moved to the Pacific Northwest…presumably to allow filming in Vancouver. The only other tiny bright spot here is a supporting appearance by Michael Ironside.
The Watch (2008)
As a child, Cassie Molloy (Steffi Hagel) is abducted and imprisoned in a basement for two days. Though rescued unharmed by police, her experience results in various psychological issues including a persistent fear of the dark. Nearly twenty years later, Cassie (Clea DuVall) is struggling to complete her graduate thesis on PTSD in children. Warned by her advisor that if her thesis is not submitted on time he will fail her, Cassie takes drastic action—seeing an opportunity to fight some of her demons at the same time. She accepts a one-month position as a fire-watcher for a national park, a job which will require her to live in isolation in the woods with limited, very basic facilities. With no distractions, Cassie hopes that she will be able to get her thesis written. When she arrives at the cabin for her orientation from head-ranger, Rhett (James A. Woods), Cassie is dismayed by how primitive the arrangements are but decides to make the best of it and declines her last chance to back out. Initially things go as planned, but then Cassie is beset by strange incidents. Is she imaging things, or is someone stalking her? – or is it something even more disturbing…? The Watch is a film that I find myself inclined to overrate. Objectively I’m aware it has some serious shortcomings – chiefly its ending, where we find it stealing moves from a rather notorious bad movie – but not only is it by far the best of this Et Al. update’s “recent” genre films (not a difficult task), but where it does work, I found that it works very well indeed. There are some genuinely eerie moments as Cassie begins to experience what may be supernatural forces, and the film makes excellent use of its locations, emphasising again and again just how alone she is. However, The Watch’s main virtue is its strong central performances from Clea DuVall and Elizabeth Whitmere as her roommate, Andrea: the film evokes the often tiresome “diametrically opposite best friends” trope and not only makes it work, but pivotal to the resolution of the plot. I found myself genuinely invested in Andrea’s race to the rescue, a subplot which offsets some of the film’s third-act failures. Otherwise, the only significant player here is James A. Woods as Rhett—and, taking my cue from all the Lifetime movies watched this past month or so (see below), I was immediately suspicious of him on the grounds of his good-looking-in-made-for-TV-terms appearance. The Watch actually did premiere on the Lifetime Network, so viewers shouldn’t expect anything graphic.
The Wrong Roommate (2016)
Having broken her engagement to lawyer Mark Dupree (William McNamara) after catching him cheating, Laurie Valentine (Jessica Morris) must pick up the pieces of her life. Securing a teaching job at the local college, she moves into her sister’s house for the summer, in order to look after her teenage niece, Frederica (Brianna Joy Chomer) – or “Ricki”, as she prefers – while her mother is away on business. Almost immediately, Mark begins making unannounced and unwelcome visits, insisting that he wants Laurie back—but she wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile, Laurie learns that before leaving, her sister sublet the attic apartment of her house to Alan Cypher (Jason-Shane Scott), an artist. She is soon grateful to have him around, when a display of angry jealousy from Mark is followed by the discovery that someone has broken in and ransacked her room. Turning more and more to Alan, Laurie begins to contemplate a new relationship—unaware that he has a dangerous secret… I had higher hopes of The Wrong Roommate, given that it reunites Eric Roberts and Brianna Joy Chomer after Stalked By My Doctor, and also features William McNamara, the friendly neighbourhood exorcist from High School Possession. It is, alas, lacking the giddy wackiness of those two made-for-TV epics, if not entirely without a few amusing moments of its own. The first half of The Wrong Roommate is slow going, hitting all the expected notes as the thoroughly uninteresting Laurie ping-pongs between defiant showdowns with the controlling Mark and not-quite-flirtation encounters with the hunky Alan. In addition to possessing six-pack abs which he flaunts on every occasion (thank you, David DeCoteau; although to be fair, he leers at Laurie’s breasts just as much), Alan is an aspiring artist, a good listener, a sensitive guy happy to “take things slow” and who likes candlelight dinners and dancing, and is given to spontaneous offers of doing the washing-up…so naturally he turns out to be a criminal psychopath. The viewer is privy to The Awful Truth, which is that Mark has hired Alan to romance Laurie and then break her heart, so that he can catch her on the re-rebound. Mark’s plan implodes when Alan finds himself falling for Laurie for real; but in order to have her, he will first have to remove a few obstacles from his path—starting with Mark… The final stretch of The Wrong Roommate is absurd but entertaining, with Alan leaving a trail of the dead and injured in his wake as he tries – and fails – to cover his tracks, and Girl Power finally uniting to take him down. Meanwhile, we are amused by such details as The World’s Most Obvious Hidden Camera; Laurie’s five-minute literature classes, in which she and her students knock off a classic a day, apparently (“For tomorrow’s class, finish Jude The Obscure…and remember, he’s obscure for a reason!”); and Eric Roberts cast as a good guy!?…in fact, as The Concerned Friend Who Discovers The Truth But Is Struck Down Before He Can Speak. Viveca A. Fox is disadvantaged by being cast as The Cop On The Case in a genre that always requires the threatened party to take matters into her – always her – own hands; and former NFL player Jerrell Pippens has a small role as a security-system installer.
Forgotten Evil (2017)
A woman (Masiela Lusha) is assaulted on a boat, being forced into a sack and thrown overboard. She survives the attack, being found unconscious on the shores of a river; but while she recovers from her physical injuries, she has complete retrograde amnesia and is unable to remember, not just what happened to her, but anything to do with her previous life, even her own name. Sheriff Buck (Stephen L. Wilson) must tell her that he has failed to find out anything via fingerprints, missing persons reports, or appeals to the public. Nevertheless, things begin to improve for the woman: she chooses for herself the name “Renee”; she moves in with her nurse, Mariah McKee (Angie Teodora Dick), with whom she has become good friends, and who gets her an administration job at the hospital; and she begins a tentative relationship with Randy Dumas (Kyle McKeever), whose mother is a dementia patient at the same hospital. She also begins therapy with Dr Evan Michaels (Jeff Marchelletta), recalling under hypnosis some of what happened to her when she was attacked—but seeing her attacker only as a shadowy, black-hooded figure. In the wake of these sessions, Renee begins to catch glimpses of the same hooded figure—but is she imagining things, or has her attacker returned…? The take-home lesson of Forgotten Evil is that it is not good to watch Lifetime movies too close together; least of all when one of them is “presented” by The Asylum as “an Anthony C. Ferrante film” (are we supposed to be impressed that this was from the director of Sharknado!?). There were equal amounts of amusement and frustration involved in watching Forgotten Evil unfold within exactly the same template as The Wrong Roommate, right down to the boring first half devoted to an uninteresting woman putting her life back together and the Concerned Friend who cracks the case when the cops can’t; although of course the crowning touch here is Renee’s burgeoning relationship with Randy, who is gentle and sensitive, patient with her through her struggles with her amnesia, and protective when she comes under threat from her stalker…and who naturally turns out to be a criminal psychopath. (I find myself weirdly fascinated by Lifetime’s contradictory philosophy that while a woman must at all cost be In A Relationship, she should not under any circumstances trust a good-looking-in-made-for-TV-terms guy.) Alas, Renee starts out annoying and only gets more so as the film progresses, as she almost knowingly puts herself in danger; so its hard to care when the inevitable revelations about Randy occur. Fortunately for her – not so fortunately for him – staunch friend Mariah is on the case, finally discovering the truth about Renee’s past and her present of terrible danger…
Things I Learned From Watching This FilmTM: Amnesia makes you really, really stupid.
Nanny Killer (2018)
Needing a job in order to pay her college tuition, Kate Jordan (Morgan Obenreder) is thrilled when she is hired by widowed wine magnate, Edward Martell (David Rees Snell), as a live-in summer nanny for his two young children, Jack (Tucker Meek) and Rose (Violet Hicks), the former of whom is currently at boarding-school. Kate learns that Martell must be away from home for lengthy periods, travelling for business, and that his luxurious home amongst the wineries is run by his housekeeper, Miss Grey (Danielle Bisutti). Kate soon bonds with the artistic Rose, but is concerned by Ms Grey’s harshness towards the girl and feels compelled to intervene. She is also disturbed to discover that Jack is being sent home from school after allegedly pushing another boy down the stairs. Miss Grey is quick to speak up for Jack, suggesting that the accusation is false. When he arrives, Kate finds Jack to be an intelligent, well-spoken boy, and a gifted musician; but as she watches his interaction with his sister, she grows increasingly frightened… Yet another Lifetime thriller, but working from a very different template; templates. Nanny Killer is a bizarre hodgepodge of The Innocents, Rebecca and The Omen…although, I must stress, without any supernatural elements; and while, as these things tend to do, it piles absurdity upon absurdity as it goes along, it is not uninteresting inasmuch as it refrains from doing the tiresome “multiple twist” thing, and sticks instead with one central mystery that Kate must unravel. The riffing on those other films is blatant, but without any sense that the film-makers don’t expect us to recognise those riffs. Rather, I think, we’re supposed be engaged by what uses their borrowings are put to. Unfortunately, the performances from the two central actors aren’t up to the challenge. Danielle Biscutti glides around, glaring and murmuring ominously, and generally giving us her best “Mrs Danvers: The Early Years”; while Morgan Obereder’s awkwardness and uncertainty as Kate don’t feel entirely put on. Both of the kids, conversely, are pretty effective, particularly Tucker Meek in conveying Jack’s tendency towards sudden, explosive rages. Kate’s efforts to discipline Jack do not go well, but they inadvertently lead her to discover a set of medical test results for the boy, as well as a digital recording made by Elizabeth (Elizabeth Leiner), the children’s late mother, in which she tearfully confesses her fear of Jack, and her conviction that there is something wrong with him. Kate tracks down Dr Bartlett (Bruce Katzman), who is now retired, but he avoids her inquiries with a brusqueness that seems unnecessary. When another doctor, examining the test results, realises that the forms have been forged, Kate again contacts Bartlett, who agrees to meet with her—but after he fails to keep his appointment, she finds him dead at his house…