The Eyes Of The Mummy (1918)
Original title: Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes Of Mummy Ma). Arranging his sightseeing during a visit to Egypt, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) is strongly discouraged from visiting the tomb of Queen Ma. Overhearing, Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke) is curious enough to question a supposed victim of the curse, who is now under the care of a nurse: the man shrieks, “The eyes are alive!” before collapsing. Undeterred, Wendlend tries to find a guide to Queen Ma’s tomb; no-one will accompany him, though a bribe eventually elicits directions. As he rides through the desert, a man at the tomb observes his approach—and forces into its dark depths a young woman… The man, Radu (Emil Jannings), offers to show the tomb to Wendlend. In the first chamber, the young man is startled by what appears to be living eyes in a stone carving—but then recognises this for what it is, a trick to frighten visitors away. After a violent struggle with Radu, Wendlend forces his way into an inner chamber, where he discovers a girl called Ma (Pola Negri). She tells him than Radu abducted her two years before, and has held her captive ever since. Smitten, Wendlend promises to take her to safety; more, that they will never separate again. But Radu has other ideas… Unfortunately, this is not an early mummy film, in spite of its Egyptian trappings; it’s not even a horror movie, though it does have a few supernatural touches—most of them cribbed from Trilby. Rather, once all its distractions are stripped away, The Eyes Of The Mummy is a depressingly familiar tale of a woman fleeing an abusive relationship and being hunted down and stalked by her former partner, who has violent revenge on his mind. Those “distractions” include Wendlend’s efforts to Pygmalion-ise the unsophisticated Ma, and Ma’s subsequent, highly successful career as a professional dancer—and what this film serves up as “Egyptian dance” has to be seen to be disbelieved. Meanwhile, having wormed his way into the service of Prince Hohenfels, Radu is transported to Europe and begins to track Ma down… Word is that Ernst Lubitsch was forced into making this absurd melodrama against his will by his bosses at Ufa, and we can well believe it. He and Pola Negri went on to a successful artistic collaboration, but you wouldn’t guess it from this, their first joint-effort. Negri is far too old for the role of Ma (something not uncommon in this transition-from-stage era), and despite her reputation lacks the necessary innate seductiveness. However, even these defects are overshadowed by Emil Jannings’ dreadful brown-face makeup as Radu—which entirely matches the subtlety of his performance.
(More on The Eyes Of The Mummy at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
The King Of The Kongo (10 chapters, 1929)
While this serial was famous in its day for being the first to include “sound sequences”, time and attrition have left behind them prints in various visual conditions and with differing amounts of dialogue; and while restoration efforts are underway, the print that has come into my hands is entirely silent. Under normal conditions, a serial could probably stand up to that sort of thing better than most productions. However, The King Of The Kongo was made in 1929, when all most cinema-goers wanted, apparently, was lengthy scenes of people standing around talking; so instead of the usual padding sequences involving chases, captures, escapes and fights, that’s exactly what we get here…leaving us to deduce the plot, the characters’ motivations and even their identities over the course of ten rather haphazard chapters. So— In Plot A, Secret Service operative Larry Trent (Walter Miller) learns that his colleague-brother is one of three agents to vanish while tracking a gang of ivory thieves in Darkest Africa; also, that before he disappeared, he sent to headquarters a map identifying where a great treasure was concealed within an ancient, ruined temple known as Nuhalla. (I’m not sure why either of those things is any business of the American Secret Service, but anyhoo.) In Plot B, Diana Martin (Jacqueline Logan) who, as a small child, was left at a monastery in Darkest Africa, gains reason to believe that the father she has never known may be found at Nuhalla, and determines to seek him there. In Plot C, a criminal gang led by ‘Scarface’ Macklin (Boris Karloff) and his partner, Drake (Larry Steers), is hunting for the legendary lost treasure in the ruins of Nuhalla (played, inevitably, by stock footage of Angkor Wat). They hope to force information out of a prisoner kept in an underground dungeon, but the situation is complicated by the presence of something the locals call a “dinosaurus”, by a roving gorilla with peculiar habits, and then by the arrival of Larry and Diana… Except for those aurally dazzled by its soundtrack, it is likely The King Of The Kongo would always have been considered a bit dull; but in a silent print it has very little going for it—at least in its main plots. There is some amusement to be had in the marginalia: a single short clip of the “dinosaurus” – a juvenile alligator wandering over a set – is used over and over; and after presenting us with lions, leopards and (sigh) a tiger, the serial suddenly offers up a cheetah as the most savage of “savage beasts”. I don’t know if my print is missing some footage, but after its impressive introduction the cheetah just disappears without doing anything. (Just as well: unless my eyes were deceiving me, this particular “savage beast” had a ribbon-bow around its neck.) Meanwhile, entertainment of a rather more meta- kind may be found in the always mind-bending question of whether what is clearly a man in a gorilla-suit is meant to be a man in a gorilla-suit, or whether we are meant to accept it as “a real gorilla”…a question which, unusually enough, eventually becomes a significant point in-film as well as out.
The Drums Of Jeopardy (1931)
Don’t be fooled by the title of this pre-Code thriller, which makes it sound like an African adventure story; nor by online references to its villain as “a mad scientist”: he is a scientist, and he does employ science in the cause of revenge, but there’s nothing particularly mad about it; albeit that he is introduced surrounded by both flashing electronics and Conical Flasks filled with Mysterious Coloured Fluids, in one of this production’s best touches. Nor should you be distracted by the villain’s name – “Boris Karlov” – which emanates from the source novel by Harold McGrath, first published in 1920; its use in a film made in 1931, concurrent with a certain star-making monster-movie, is amusing but entirely coincidental.
Now you know.
In pre-Revolutionary Russia, Dr Boris Karlov (Warner Oland) is summoned to the bedside of his dying daughter, Anya (Florence Lake), who has poisoned herself. Anya will not give away her lover, but her father finds in her possession a famous ruby necklace known as ‘the Drums of Jeopardy’, and swears a terrible revenge against the aristocratic Petroff family. Meanwhile, the necklace is a topic of conversation during an elaborate dinner-party: patriarch General Petroff (George Fawcett) explains that the necklace, which features four natives playing upon drums made of rubies, was brought home from India by his great-grandfather; legend has it that if one of the drummers is detached and sent to an individual, that person will be dead within 24 hours. The necklace has just been discovered missing from its safe when an hysterical Anya Karlov staggers in, gasping out a warning to Gregor Petroff (Wallace MacDonald) before collapsing. Her father soon follows, threatening the Petroffs and demanding to know which of them is responsible for his daughter’s ruin and death. Karlov is arrested and sent to Siberia, only to escape and become a leader amongst the Bolsheviks. The Petroffs flee to America with the help of Martin Kent (Hale Hamilton) of the Secret Service; though too late for the General, who is found dead shortly after receiving one of the ruby drums. But Karlov has agents everywhere, even in America… The main problem with The Drums Of Jeopardy is that in remaking it in 1931 (a silent 1923 version is a lost film), they didn’t bother to fiddle with the dates, making both Karlov’s revenge and the Petroffs’ escape seem weirdly dilatory. Otherwise, this is a brisk and rather fun thriller, in which the viewer is invited to get a kick out of Boris Karlov’s persecution of the Petroffs while still sympathising with young Nicholas (Lloyd Hughes), if not his cowardly cousin Gregor. Nevertheless, once the action shifts to New York – and from New York to an isolated house – there is a certain over-familiarity about it all, specifically a resemblance to the thrillers of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who was fond of stranding her characters in the country, and placing at the centre of her narrative a tart-tongued spinster. That role is filled by Abbie Krantz (Clara Blandick), who becomes entangled in the Petroffs’ woes after a wounded Nicholas staggers into the apartment occupied by herself and her niece, Kitty Conover (June Collyer). Nicholas manages to contact Martin Kent, who in combination with Kitty persuades Miss Krantz to allow Nicholas and Gregor – by this time it is too late for their uncle, Prince Ivan (Ernest Hilliard) – to take refuge at her country house. From that point the film is all people sneaking around, lights going out periodically, plots and betrayals, and poison gases and death-traps (aka SCIENCE!!), as Karlov pursues his obsessive revenge…
(More on The Drums Of Jeopardy at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Tangled Destinies (1932)
Also known as: Who Killed Harvey Forbes? With a dangerous storm looming, pilot Randy Gordon is forced to make a rough landing some 300 miles east of Los Angeles. Some of his passengers are angry about not being taken to their destination; others are just grateful to be safe. The admiration shown by stewardess Ruth (Vera Reynolds) for the skill displayed by Randy during the difficult landing provokes an angry, jealous outburst from co-pilot Tommy Preston (Glenn Tryon). With the storm breaking, the passengers and crew – thirteen people in total – take refuge in the only house nearby. No-one is at home, and though some of the group are uncomfortable about their actions, they have little choice but to settle in for the night. As some of the men get the generator going and the lights on, Doris (Doris Hill) begins to prepare food, with the clumsy assistance of Randy. He is very much attracted to the vivacious girl, only to learn to his dismay that she is eloping with Floyd Martin (Lloyd Whitlock). Meanwhile, Martin receives a secret note from showgirl Monica van Buren (Monaei Lindley) which makes ominous reference to another woman. The evening passes in relative peace despite the storm outside until, shockingly, Harvey Forbes (William P. Burt) staggers into the sitting-room and collapses, having been viciously struck from behind and, as is soon revealed, robbed of diamonds worth half a million… Meh! – not enough aeroplane. I was disappointed to discover that Tangled Destinies is, in effect, an old-dark-house comedy / thriller, rather than another of this era’s numerous flight-based dramas (which, I may say, is how it is sold). That out of the way, this is a fairly entertaining little film, though it suffers from some of the same issues as A Face In The Fog (see below): too many characters – though we understand the desire for thirteen – who are not properly introduced before the inevitable revelations of secret identities begin to occur. In addition, the film’s pacing is off, with too many scenes that lead nowhere and others unnecessarily dragged out. It is also remarkable how much mileage one short film can get out of the lights going out. However, there are a few compensations too. Miss Agatha Daggott (Ethel Wales) is set up as the comic relief – and to an extent is so – but plays a secondary role as one of the film’s detectives…and does a better job than the professionals. Monica van Buren starts out looking like a “bad girl”, but instead selflessly intervenes to save Doris from a man she knows is a skunk. And best of all, the film itself repudiates the racist attitudes of some of the characters, particularly obnoxious ex-prize-fighter Buchanan (Sid Saylor), towards Ling (James B. Leong), who they conclude must be the thief and murderer on the grounds that he is “a slant-eyed chink”. The cast of Tangled Destinies is rounded out by Sidney Bracey as McGinnis, a (rather incompetent) secret-serviceman; William Humphrey as the sardonic Professor Hartley; and Henry Hall as the minister, Dr Wingate.
Double Door (1934)
Based upon the play by Elizabeth McFadden. Victoria Van Brett (Mary Morris) rules her family’s estate and her siblings with an iron hand. The first act of rebellion against her comes when her much younger half-brother, Rip (Kent Taylor), falls in love with Anne Darrow (Evelyn Venable), who nursed him through a dangerous illness, and marries her in the teeth of Victoria’s disapproval. Victoria does not take this lying down: she not only appropriates all the wedding-presents, telling Anne bitterly that they were sent by friends of the Van Brett family for the Van Bretts, but intercepts Rip’s attempt to bestow upon his bride the famous Van Brett pearls. All of these items Victoria has carried into her “treasure-room”, once her father’s sleeping-chamber, made soundproof by an inner vault-like door and a second outer door—the latter concealed in the woodwork of Victoria’s sitting-room. Though Anne and Rip begin their married life determined to break away, Rip’s long habit of submission and obedience allows Victoria to hold him in the old family house, while she sets to work destroying the marriage. Her efforts fail – just – but so does the couple’s attempt to leave the house once and for all, when Anne mysteriously disappears… Mary Morris was only thirty-eight when she was cast as Victoria Van Brett in the stage version of Double Door; but she convinces as the increasingly deranged matriarch even under the scrutiny of the cameras in what would prove to be her only film role. Subtle her performance is not—but it is nevertheless a great deal of evil fun, even if we are left in some doubt about Victoria’s motivations: whether she is merely the control-freak to end all control-freaks, or whether her domination of her sister and half-brother has sexual underpinnings despite her position of de facto parent to both. These points may have been clearer in the play; although that said, Double Door was a pre-Code film by the skin of its teeth, and makes the most of its relative freedom. (After bluntly accusing Anne of “having an affair” with Rip’s friend and her former colleague, Victoria adds: “Do you want me to put it more plainly?”) Looked at objectively, the entire story of Double Door is quite absurd—but it is easy enough to go with the flow while you’re watching it; while the film’s abrupt ending is genuinely shocking. There isn’t much that either Evelyn Venable or Kent Taylor can do against Mary Morris’s scene-stealing, but Anne Revere, in her film debut, is pathetically appealing as middle-child Caroline, whose one romance was ruthlessly killed off by Victoria some twenty years before, and who was once “punished for disobedience” by being locked up in the treasure-room—an experience that has left her traumatised and helplessly timid. Yet it is an unexpected act of courage from Caroline that finally brings Victoria’s cruel empire crashing down…
A Face In The Fog (1936)
Based upon a novel by Peter B. Kyne. A city is terrorised by a mysterious killer known as “the Fiend”, whose victims are poisoned in a way that leaves no clue upon the body. Reporter Jean Monroe (June Collyer) tries to flush the Fiend out by claiming in her paper that she has seen his face; but she gets more than she bargained for when the killer breaks into her house. Jean flees, eventually being rescued by her colleague, Frank Gordon (Lloyd Hughes), but a taxi-driver who stops for her becomes another of the Fiend’s victims. Jean receives a message that Ted Wallington (George Ball), the star of an upcoming stage-show, has agreed to be interviewed. The show itself is already news, as two of its cast members have fallen victim to the Fiend. When Jean and Frank arrive at the theatre, they learn that the message was a fake. Suddenly, the stage is plunged into darkness; and when the lights go on again, Ted Wallington is dead… A Face In The Fog has its moments, but in the end it is over-familiar and rather irritating. The “mysterious” killer is exactly the same figure we’ve already seen in too many serials, a black-swathed, slouching hunchback – I don’t know who decided that was the uniform – who is clearly someone’s alter-ego. Meanwhile, the film is overstuffed with detectives: two nosy reporters, one police chief (John Elliott), and one playwright-turned-amateur-sleuth, Peter Fortune (Laurence Gray), whose latest work seems the killer’s main target. There is also – *shudder* – an Odious Comic Relief in the form of cowardly, stammering photographer Elmer (Al St. John): an example of that weirdest subset of OCR, the kind that everyone in-film hates too; yet the screenplay has the gall to turn him into the quasi-hero! Add to all this an equal number of suspects and red herrings, and you can easily see the problem with A Face In The Fog: it has far too many characters for so brief a film—and to add insult to injury, most of them are never properly introduced. Suspicion initially falls upon Rearden (Jack Mulhall), an actor whose strange behaviour and resentment of his employers lead to his arrest. An attempt is made to force a confession from him by re-enacting Ted Wallington’s murder; but as Rearden begins to crack, he too is struck down. Can any of our detectives succeed in unmasking the Fiend…?
The Face At The Window (1939)
Based upon the play by F. Brooke Warren. Paris is terrorised by a maniac known as “the Wolf”, whose crimes are accompanied by wild howling; at the same time, a series of daring robberies is committed. The two come together when, late one night, the watchman at the bank owned by M. de Brisson (Aubrey Mallalieu) is attacked on the premises: he dies in the arms of clerk Lucien Cortier (John Warwick), gasping in horror about, “The face at the window!” The discovery that the bank has been robbed is a catastrophe for de Brisson, who fears it will now collapse. His last hope is a large investment by the Chevalier del Gardo (Tod Slaughter) who, contrary to expectation, agrees to go ahead with the arrangement—becoming in effect de Brisson’s partner. In the relief of the moment, de Brisson gives the Chevalier permission to address his daughter, Cecile (Marjorie Taylor); he is, however, concerned about the age disparity, and insists that Cecile must make up her own mind. Unbeknownst to her father, Cecile is in love with Lucien; though the latter’s lowly position makes their marriage unlikely. However, she firmly rejects the Chevalier’s advances. When the Chevalier realises who his rival is, he takes steps in the matter—nothing less than framing Lucien for the robbery, and then for the murder of M. de Brisson… Though there were three earlier film adaptations of Brooke Warren’s play – including an Australian one from 1919 – in many ways The Face At The Window is the definitive Tod Slaughter vehicle: it is absurdly over-plotted, places a damsel in distress at the centre of the story, has its good guys and bad guys alike bouncing from one stupid action to another, and features a villain with a moustache and a cape, who punctuates all his villainy with evil laughter: “MWUH-HA-HA-HA-HA!”—we can readily imagine how all this might have worked as a Victorian stage melodrama. (Hissss…) But while the ridiculous plot is familiar enough – familiar enough if you know the work of Tod Slaughter, anyway – what sets The Face At The Window apart is the unexpected eruption into the narrative of—well, either mad or genius science, depending on who you ask. Lucien is friends with Professor LeBlanc (Wallace Evennett), who conducts radical experiments with electricity (all the while surrounded by bubbling flasks of, well, you know), and whose prevailing belief is – as opposed to the eyeball retaining its last image before death – that if the muscles of the dead are stimulated with electricity, they will complete whatever action they were performing at the moment of death. The idea of revealing the identity of the Wolf via one of his victims has already occurred to the Professor; and when Lucien is accused of M. de Brisson’s murder, a proposal is made to experiment upon the banker’s body. The Chevalier takes drastic steps to prevent this—so that the experiment, when made, with Lucien in charge, is upon the body of the Professor himself…
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Mr Wong In Chinatown (1939)
A Chinese woman (Lotus Long) calls upon Mr Wong (Boris Karloff), seeking his help; but even as she waits for him to come to her from his laboratory, she is struck down by a poison dart fired through a window. She lives just long enough to scrawl upon a piece of paper ‘Captain J…’ Mr Wong summons police detective Inspector Street (Grant Withers), who is followed to the scene by reporter Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Logan (Marjorie Reynolds). The latter is able to inform the detectives that the victim is Lin Hwa, the sister of a powerful warlord, who arrived in San Francisco on a small ship captained by a man called Jaime (William Royle). From the leader of a local tong (Richard Loo), Mr Wong learns that Lin Hwa was in the country to purchase aeroplanes for her brother, and was in negotiation with Captain Guy Jackson (George Lynn), the head of an aviation firm. Following the money, Mr Wong and Inspector Street interview Davidson (Huntley Gordon), the head of the bank in which Lin Hwa deposited her funds, and learn that most of the money was subsequently withdrawn, via cheques that may be forgeries… In terms of its narrative, this third entry in Monogram’s James Lee Wong series is probably the least interesting so far: the suspects are colourless, and it is hard to get engaged in the paper-trail that eventually leads to Lin Hwa’s killer. This is also a very Street / Logan-heavy series entry, so YMMV: the two are officially a couple by now, despite the antagonistic nature of their professional relationship. Though she goes through all of the tiresome “spunky girl reporter” moves, right down to an exclamation of, “Oh, boy! – what a story!”, Mr Wong In Chinatown comes down heavily on Bobbie’s side. She is able to provide the detectives with lots of useful information, and outright saves Wong’s life with a combination of reporterly knowledge and quick action. As usual, enjoyment of this film requires dealing with Boris Karloff playing “the Chinese detective”…but if that piece of racial impersonation makes you uncomfortable, prepare to feel your hair rising up on your head in horror at the casting of Angelo Rossitto in brown-face as a mute Chinese servant. Street is certain that “the little guy”, as everyone insists upon calling him, is the guilty party on pretty much the same grounds that the characters in Tangled Destinies (see above) were certain of Ling’s guilt. The good news is, he’s eventually exonerated; the bad news, well…
Quote: “Must I tell you that I exhumed the body of the dwarf from the pet cemetery?”
Based upon the novel by Anya Seton. Connecticut, 1844: Abigail Wells (Anne Revere) receives a letter from her distant cousin, Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price), the hereditary “patroon” of an estate upon the banks of the upper Hudson River, offering to take one of her daughters into his household as companion to his only child. Miranda (Gene Tierney) is thrilled by the prospect, but must overcome the objections of her stern, God-fearing father, Ephraim (Walter Huston). Miranda is escorted to Dragonwyck by Nicholas; and though she is dazzled by the sprawling, centuries’-old mansion-house and the luxury of her new life, she soon realises that all is not well in the family. There is little sympathy between Nicholas and his wife, Johanna (Vivienne Osborne), and the child Katrine (Connie Marshall) is unhappy and withdrawn. Moreover, the housekeeper, Magda (Spring Byington), tells Miranda that the Van Ryns are under a curse placed by an unhappy ancestral bride, and that harpsichord music – heard only by those of Van Ryn blood – presages disaster. The local doctor, Jeff Turner (Glenn Langdon), who is at odds with Nicholas due to his sympathy with the tenant-farmers’ anti-rent struggle, falls in love with Miranda. She, however, only has eyes for Nicholas—who, when Johanna dies suddenly, makes her an impassioned declaration… Dragonwyck is an enjoyable but deeply flawed Gothic thriller; though to be fair, most of its issues stem from its source novel by Anya Seton, in which the characters of both Miranda and Nicholas are frustratingly underdeveloped. As things stand, their separate motivations – and when those motivations begin to act – remain unclear, to the extent that we cannot even be sure whether or not we are to believe that the two are genuinely in love. The film seems reluctant to admit the extent to which Miranda is influenced by her surroundings, or that she is constructing a false image of Nicholas; though it finally allows her to dismiss her experiences in terms of dreams and nightmares. Furthermore, Miranda’s religious faith is reduced to a plot-convenience, kicking in after her marriage to Nicholas and creating a barrier between them, but not intruding inconveniently when (we suppose) she finds herself falling in love with a married man. The screenplay does better in placing the events of Dragonwyck in their correct historical framework, with Nicholas’s position as traditional lord of the manor under threat from the “rent wars” of the 1840s and eventually new laws favouring the farmer over the landowner. In addition, the film’s genuine touch of the supernatural is creepy and unexpected; and there is an unusual frankness about the handling of Nicholas’s secret (or anyway, one of his secrets). The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, as are the costume and production design—though the latter, it must be said, go perilously close to overwhelming the cast. Vincent Price and Gene Tierney are beautiful to behold here, though both have given better performances; it’s still interesting to watch Price walk the line between hero and villain. Glenn Langdon is colourless as the conventional male lead; but Jessica Tandy and Spring Byington both make their mark as, respectively, Miranda’s extremely Irish maid and the Van Ryns’ line-crossing housekeeper; while the film’s best offerings are those from Anne Revere and Walter Huston.
(More on Dragonwyck at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Bitter Springs (1950)
As the competition for land near the coast becomes severe, sheep rancher Wally King (Chips Rafferty) takes the risk of accepting a parcel of government land deep within South Australia—requiring him to transport his family, his stock and his possessions some six hundred miles inland. Knowing that the work will be too much for just himself, his wife (Jean Blue), his son, John (Charles Tingwell), his daughter, Emma (Nonnie Peifer), and their aboriginal stock-hand, “Blackjack” (Henry Murdoch), King tries to hire more men. However, the distance involved and the uncertainty of the outcome dissuade all the professional hands, and finally King must accept the unskilled services of stranded English stage-performer, Tommy (Tommy Trainer), his young son, Charlie (Nicky Yardley), and Mac (Gordon Jackson), a young Scot only recently arrived in the country. As they strive to overcome the obstacles in their path, the group becomes tightly bonded; Mac begins to fall for Emma, even though he disapproves of her forthright ways. Arriving at last at their remote destination, the party begins work on the building of a house, the clearing of grazing-land, and the erection of fences: what will be the Kings’ new homestead. They are dismayed but not dissuaded by the discovery that the land they consider “theirs” is already occupied by aboriginal tribespeople—and when the natives make their objections to the newcomers plain, the Kings decide that the natives will have to go… Bitter Springs is in many ways an extraordinary film, and an extraordinarily uncomfortable one too. It was one of a number of productions from Ealing’s Australian-based production arm—and, as it turned out, the last of them. Directed by Ralph Smart, based on a screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb and Monja Danischewsky from a story by Smart, the film gets its effect by pulling a brutal bait-and-switch. The first lengthy stretch of the story is devoted to drawing the viewer into identification with the Kings, who seem the perfect example of the stoic-yet-cheerful crowd so often found in stories of this ilk, defying the Australian wilderness with their courage and tenacity. Yet confronted with what they view as squatters upon their land, these “nice” people respond with an unhesitating ruthlessness. They don’t care that the natives have occupied that land for thousands of years (and the screenplay significantly underestimates just how many thousands), any more than the government that issued their lease does; nor that their actions are forcing these people away from the area’s only reliable source of drinking water. When a confrontation ends in John’s panicky shooting of a native, it initiates an escalating war that climaxes with the aboriginals staging a siege around the billabong, to see how the white people like being forced to do without water… There is a rare, uncompromising quality about Bitter Springs which, though a product of its time in its view of the aboriginals as “primitive” and probably doomed by the coming of “civilisation”, pulls no punches and makes no excuses for the behaviour of its white characters. The film makes unnerving use of Chips Rafferty, whose air of good-natured larrikinism gives way in a flash to a cold determination to hold his ground at any cost. There are also strong supporting performances from Michael Pate as the local trooper who, with the best will in the world to do the right thing, is under orders from his headquarters to do the wrong thing; and Gordon Jackson as outsider / onlooker Mac, who is more or less set up as the film’s moral centre—only to sell out his principles to his feelings for Emma. In its original cut, Bitter Springs ended in a manner as bleak as can well be imagined. Appalled, Ealing Studios demanded that this sequence be removed and the ending re-shot and toned done, which it duly was—but it didn’t matter. The subject matter was too provocative for its time, and angry audiences rejected the film outright—thus bringing about the end of Ealing’s sojourn in Australia.
Against All Flags (1952)
A British naval officer, Brian Hawke (Errol Flynn), is flogged and broken. However, this is part of an elaborate scheme by which Hawke plans to infiltrate a colony of pirates, who fled the Caribbean for Madagascar and now threaten British trade in this new area. The pirates’ base is considered impenetrable due to its hidden fortifications and cannon; it is Hawke’s task to discover and destroy these defences. With two other sailors, Harris (John Alderson) and Jones (Phil Tully), Hawke sets out in a long-boat. Arriving at the stronghold of Diego Suarez, he poses as a deserter and announces his willingness to sail “against all flags”. The leader of the pirate coterie, Captain Roc Brasiliano (Anthony Quinn), is deeply suspicious of the newcomer, but Hawke is fortunate in catching the eye of “Spitfire” Stevens (Maureen O’Hara), who intervenes on his behalf. When a meeting of “the Captains of the Coast” convenes to decide his fate, Hawke is surprised to find Spitfire among them, and learns that in addition to running the gunsmith’s business inherited from her father, she also inherited his ship. The captains decide to pit Hawke against a pirate who has been found guilty of concealing treasure, in a fight to the death; and when he is victorious, he is accepted amongst the band. Learning that Spitfire’s father designed and built the stronghold’s fortifications, and that a map of them hangs upon her chamber wall, Hawke begins courting her in order to gain this vital information. His mission is further complicated when, while serving as Brasiliano’s navigator, he discovers that one of a number of girls taken off a plundered ship is actually Patma (Alice Kelley), the daughter of the Grand Mogul of India… Against All Flags is an enjoyable swashbuckler, though one rather late to the table. Likewise, Errol Flynn was getting a bit long in the tooth for these roles; he was also drinking heavily during production, which impacted the filming; yet for the most part he brings a good deal of his old spark to the role of Brian Hawke. The main problem with this film, as with all these sorts of undercover-agent stories, is conceptual: Hawke spends the entire film lying to and deceiving everyone, including the woman he falls in love with; while on the other hand we don’t see the pirates doing enough pirating, so that the bad guys don’t come across as sufficiently “bad” to justify his actions. Worst of all—a little thought makes it clear that all this is really being undertaken for the financial benefit of the East India Company, which makes it hard to see anything particularly heroic in Hawke’s mission. It is without any apparent sense of incongruity – still less any irony – that the pirates are declared a danger to, “Every Englishman in India.” Still— Purely as an adventure film, this is quite a lot of fun. In particular, Maureen O’Hara benefits from relaxing censorship in her characterisation of Spitfire, who is allowed a freedom of action unthinkable in earlier productions, not only in terms of her relationships with men but to the extent of playing a significant part in the film’s climactic sword battle. It’s a fair question, though: why was Maureen O’Hara – and only Maureen O’Hara – allowed to mix it with the boys like this, while still being considered a properly feminine heroine? Anthony Quinn makes an effective antagonist (albeit that his accent is all over the place), and Mildred Natwick is her usual likeable self as the Princess Patma’s Scottish governess / protector, Miss McGregor.
Elephant Walk (1954)
After a whirlwind courtship, a young Englishwoman (Elizabeth Taylor) marries tea-planter, John Wiley (Peter Finch), and is transported from post-war Britain to the wilds of Ceylon. Ruth is at first dazzled by the beauties of the country, and staggered by the enormous house known as ‘Elephant Walk’; but doubts soon creep in. Ruth is dismayed to find herself the only white woman in the district; and even more so by the constant presence of the other planters, who treat her home like a hotel—or a clubhouse. And above all, there is the overarching influence of the late Tom Riley, John’s father, who built Elephant Walk; whose household rules are still held inviolate; and whose marble tomb sits directly below Ruth’s bedroom windows… Ruth turns for help to John’s assistant, Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), who is strongly drawn to her—strongly enough to accelerate his already planned departure. However, when a broken bone incapacitates John during the picking, Dick agrees to stay and help out—meaning that he and Ruth are dangerously thrown together… Meh! – not enough elephant. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Elephant Walk is its presumably accidental resemblance to the same year’s The Naked Jungle (they were both Paramount productions, and so could hardly have been intended to compete). Both are set in “exotic” locations; both involve a woman being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a husband she barely knows, and who suffers from a particular kink (John Riley’s daddy-issues here, as opposed to Christopher Leinengen’s sexual hang-ups); and both climax in an animal attack; though of course the two sorts of attackers could hardly be more different. Elephant Walk is the inferior film, however—all boring angst, and thuddingly Freudian with regard to the late Tom Riley, who was the kind of man who would choose to build his empire in the middle of the ancient walk by which the local elephants find their way to water, and then spend forty years fighting the animals. None of the central characters are particularly appealing; Dana Andrews’ role is particularly thankless, given that Ruth is never actually going to run away with Dick, as briefly threatens; though it takes a cholera epidemic to reunite her with John, who in his handling of the crisis is able for the first time to throw off the heavy yoke of his father’s memory. However, the film’s climax, inevitably involving the local elephants finally refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer, is absurdly entertaining, with Peter Finch and Elizabeth Taylor – or more likely, their stunt-doubles – dodging elephants, falling timbers and flames, after the rampaging pachyderms knock over both a drum of kerosene and a lit lamp – the latter deliberately, if you please – as they reclaim their ancient water-route.
(Vivien Leigh was originally cast as Ruth, and this is when her affair with Peter Finch began; but health issues forced her to pull out of the production. However, that is still her in some long- and from-behind shots.)
The Silver Chalice (1954)
Based upon the novel by Thomas B. Costain. Adopted as a child for his artistic talent by a wealthy man of Antioch, who dreams of taking Greek art to the world, as a young man Basil (Paul Newman) is dispossessed and sold into slavery. However, he continues to represent a threat to his adoptive uncle, Linus (Herbert Rudley), who bribed various officials to negate Basil’s adoption, and now plots to have him killed. Basil is warned of his danger by Helena (Virginia Mayo), once a slave in his father’s household. Now, a beautiful, seductive woman, she is the partner and lover of Simon (Jack Palance), a magician working to gain a reputation as a worker of miracles. Simon is approached by Mijamin (Joseph Wiseman), who is trying raise a rebel army with which to fight the Romans. Mijamin hires Simon to convince people that the miracles of Jesus were no more than tricks, and so turn people away from the gentle new faith of Christianity. Meanwhile, Basil’s reputation as a brilliant silversmith brings to him a physician called Luke (Alexander Scourby), who buys him and carries him to the house of the wealthy merchant, Joseph of Arimathea (Walter Hampden). There, Basil learns that his new friends are all Christians, and is tasked with creating a silver chalice to hold their most precious relic: the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper… One of numerous religious (or quasi-religious) epics produced during the 1950s, The Silver Chalice is a poor film but an even worse adaptation. Rather than focus upon the geographical and spiritual journey of Basil, as he meets with the surviving disciples in order to carve their images into his chalice, the screenplay ignores all that in favour of foregrounding the romantic triangle formed by Helena, Basil and Deborra (Pier Angeli), Joseph’s granddaughter. Meanwhile, Simon is promoted from supporting character to co-star in the narrative—understandably in one respect, since he is certainly the most interesting thing in the story; yet the twisting of the novel’s plot that places Simon at the centre of all of its remaining threads was clearly done for the most pernicious of reasons: to enable the removal from this film of all but one of its Jewish characters, and the expunging of the Jews from its historical narrative. Classy. Granted a full-on starring role in his first big-screen film after making his name on television, Paul Newman seems almost crippled by embarrassment as Basil, unable to combat the combination of his poorly written role and the series of man-skirts in which the costume designer dressed him. Conversely, Jack Palance and Virginia Mayo stray perilously close to a note of burlesque as Simon and Helena—yet are the only cogent reason to watch this otherwise dull film at all. Amongst the supporting cast we find Lorne Greene as Peter; Jacques Aubuchon as Nero; E. G. Marshall as Ignatius, Basil’s adoptive father; Michael Pate as Aaron, Joseph’s resentful, unconverted son—and the film’s token Jew; and Natalie Wood as the young Helena, her hair dyed blonde accordingly. The only other attraction of The Silver Chalice is the bizarre production design by Rolf Gerard, which makes the Holy Land look like an alien world – literally – raising the question of whether he was trying to compete with the decade’s popular science-fiction films.
Joe Bullet (1971)
This was one of the first films to be produced in South Africa with an all-black cast and to be aimed specifically at black audiences. Evidently influenced by American blaxploitation films like Shaft and the kung-fu films of Bruce Lee – though producer Tonie van der Merwe later said he had James Bond in mind, as the hero’s initials indicate – Joe Bullet was sufficiently true to its models to earn the ire of the South African government. After only a few screenings in Sowetho, the film was banned; and while this was later overturned on appeal, the distributor got cold feet and refused to re-release it. Subsequently, prints of Joe Bullet sat in van der Merwe’s garage for more than forty years, until a restoration was undertaken by Gravel Road Entertainment, a Cape Town-based company, in 2014, paving the way for festival screenings and DVD releases. As the big
soccer football final between the Eagles and the Falcons approaches, the game attracts the interest of local crime figures, who are determined on a Falcons victory. When the Eagles’ trainer, Lucas (Richard Khumalo), is murdered, the club’s president (Dan Poho) asks an old friend, Joe Bullet (Ken Gampo), to bodyguard the team until the big game, particularly star players Flash (Cocky Tlhotlhalemaje) and Jerry (Sydney Chama). Joe agrees—only to find himself having to fight back against intimidation, kidnapping, a hitman named Spike (Matthew Molete), and a secret enemy who is closer than he realises… That synopsis makes Joe Bullet sound more entertaining than it objectively is. Not surprisingly, the film is extremely rough, with questionable acting from the supporting players, significant pacing issues and numerous plot-turns that don’t make a lot of sense. Simply as an actioner, it is far inferior to most of the films that obviously inspired it. However, Joe Bullet takes on an entirely new persona when viewed as something that got right up the nose of the apartheid regime. This is “an all-black film” in the broadest possible sense: there’s not a single white face anywhere to be seen – least of all in the form of white authority figures – just a lot of black people taking care of their own business, on their own. There is also a clear message, via the Eagles, about what people can achieve if they work together as a real team. Ken Gampo is an imposing presence, and his Joe comes accompanied – of course – by a simple but maddeningly catchy theme-song (“Joe Bullet…Joe Bullet…he’s the man…the man who fights evil…”).
(Consider this a PSA: towards the end, there is an hilarious scene – complete with hilarious villain’s speech – when Joe is threatened with a spitting cobra. Alas, it all turns nasty when the snake is killed for real. Whyyyy????)
Sunday Too Far Away (1975)
Five months after turning his back on life as a shearer, Foley (Jack Thompson) returns to outback South Australia and signs on once again. He discovers too late that his old friend and workmate, Tim King (Max Cullen), has made a start as a contractor; but, learning that King is struggling to fill his quota of shearers, he joins up himself and encourages others to do so, even though this means the men breaking their existing contracts. The shearers move into their quarters at the sheep station of the wealthy Dawson (Philip Ross), meeting old friends and new workers. Despite King’s fears, the shearers insist upon him breaking open his stock of rum and passing around some bottles. But however much they have drunk, when the bell rings the following day the men are more than ready for beginning of six weeks of exhausting physical labour. As the shearing proceeds, Foley finds his supremacy as ‘gun shearer’ threatened for the first time in a decade by a newcomer, Black (Peter Cummins); while the work begins to be overshadowed by attempts by the sheep-station owners to slash the shearers’ wages… Sunday Too Far Away was another important step in the “Australian New Wave”: it dominated the Australian Film Institute Awards in 1975, and went on to screen during the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Yet it is not the film it was intended to be, being conceived as focused upon the 1956 shearers’ strike, when the workers took on the bosses over their base pay-rate, and won—eventually. Pre-production disagreements eventually turned the film into another rumination upon the Australian male, with the strike reduced to a mere coda to the main narrative. It is impossible to watch Sunday Too Far Away without being reminded in many ways of Wake In Fright, although this later film is far less confronting—which is not to say it is not confronting. There is the same ominous use of the outback, the sense of terrifying isolation, the all-but-total male society, and the filling of long, empty hours with drinking and gambling; and though the shearing sequences cannot compete with the kangaroo hunt, they are not without a distressing quality of their own. Jack Thompson’s Foley is in all respects a more accessible protagonist, however: ready to play whenever he gets the chance, but when it is time to work, all work… There is a curious shift in tone midway through Sunday Too Far Away. The early stages of the film are all about the camaraderie amongst the shearers, both generally and in the performance of their back-breaking task. There are bursts of grim humour here, mostly with respect to the appalling food served up by the outfit’s terrible but physically intimidating cook, Quinn (Ken Weaver); and there is also a genuine appreciation of the strength and endurance of the workers, with the camera lingering upon taut, sweaty, muscular physiques. Things change when the station owner’s daughter, Sheila Dawson (Lisa Peers), either through curiosity, or boredom, or to get a closer look at the men who have invaded her outback home, insists against all tradition – which bans women from the sheds – upon watching the shearing. For the first time, the shearers and their work are shown from a different perspective: that of an outsider; that of a woman; the dirt and the violence of the shearing comes into focus, and the false aura of “romance” crumbles away. Tensions rise, and a terrible sense of futility makes its presence felt—and an equally terrible loneliness… The final stages of Sunday Too Far Away parallel Foley’s fall from grace as ‘gun shearer’ with the savage slashing of the shearers’ wages; yet finally, the film shies away from the grim realities of Foley’s likely future and of the nine-month-long strike—softening things via a terse announcement of the workers’ victory, and leaving the viewer with a wry summation of their stance: It wasn’t the money so much, insists an indignant end-title, it was the bloody insult.
(At one point here, the oldest of the shearers calculates that during his twenty-one year marriage, he probably spent three years at home. The film’s title is taken from the traditional lament of the shearer’s wife: Friday night too tired; Saturday night too drunk; Sunday too far away…)
From Within (2008)
In a small southern town, a teenage boy reads from a strange book before kissing his girlfriend and abruptly shooting himself… As Lindsay (Elizabeth Rice) argues with her step-mother, Trish (Laura Allen), about a new dress, a blood-soaked, hysterical Natalie (Rumer Willis) bursts into her father’s store, clutching a book and shrieking that “she” is following her. When her father, Bernard (Jared Harris), leaves Natalie in a back room while he goes to call the police, the doors of the room slam shut—and by the time the others force them open, Natalie is dead, a pair of scissors embedded in her neck… The townspeople attend church, where the local pastor (Steven Culp) delivers a sermon intended to comfort them in the wake of these events; but afterwards, the pastor’s teenage son, Dylan (Kelly Blatz), berates his father for giving his parishioners platitudes instead of what, in his opinion, they really need: fire and brimstone. As Lindsay, Trish and the latter’s boyfriend, Roy (Adam Goldberg), drive home, they find the road blocked outside the store, where Bernard has been found dead, hanged. The following day, a swarm of teenagers gathers as Dylan attacks Aiden Spindell (Thomas Dekker), the son of a woman who had a local reputation as a witch, and whose brother was the first suicide victim. Lindsay intervenes to stop the beating, then defies Dylan by driving Aiden to his remote, lake-side home. There, Aiden points out where his mother died six months earlier in a mysterious fire—something he believes was murder… From Within is a mixed-bag of a film, with some good ideas and touches but ultimately too far many frustrating weaknesses. Its main strengths are its location shooting in Maryland, which grounds the story in a reality that provides a strong framework for its narrative, and the central performance of Elizabeth Rice as Lindsay—evidently the one level-headed, open-minded person in the entire town. Also interesting is the film’s slightly off-kilter tone, the result of J-horror-ish touches being blended into an overtly “down-home” American narrative. Meanwhile, the heavy-handed deployment of evangelical religion, which finds the true believers toggling between single- / simple-mindedness and hypocrisy, is at least somewhat rescued by the twin revelations that the late Candace Spindell really was a witch – or something resembling one – and that her vengeful relatives have set in motion the suicide-curse to punish the town that killed her, and which strikes the guilty and the innocent alike. The set-piece deaths, in which each person who finds (or even goes near) a previous victim is then hunted down by their own evil doppelgänger, are gruesome fun, though shonky CGI undermines their effectiveness. However, the screenplay never bothers to consider what might be the real impact of a wave of suicides on a town full of devout believers—beyond, that is, the residents seeing it as an excuse for an outbreak of witch-hunting… From Within offers an interesting cast, though it also suffers from that perennial affliction, all of its young people looking like they stepped out of a clothing catalogue. In particular, Thomas Dekker never convinces for a moment as outsider Aiden—who after dedicating himself to an act of revenge that requires the death of his own brother, is almost immediately dissuaded from it just because Lindsay is nice to him. But can the curse be recalled…?
Dr Ted Grey (Milo Ventimiglia) is accepted into a prestigious pathology residency program, although this means living apart from his fiancée, Gwen Williamson (Alyssa Milano). Ted is welcomed by program head, Dr Quentin Morris (John de Lancie), and fellow-student, Ben Stravinsky (Keir O’Donnell), but gets a hostile reception from the highly competitive Jake Gallo (Michael Weston). As Ted displays his brilliance as a forensic pathologist, Jake’s resentment of him grows—until one night, he unexpectedly invites Ted to join himself, Juliette Bath (Lauren Lee Smith), Griffin Cavenaugh (Johnny Whitworth) and Catherine Ivy (Mei Melançon) for a night on the town. Determined to show he can take anything Jake can dish out, Ted sticks with him even when he is led to the door of a brothel catering to “exotic tastes”. Sickened by what he finds inside, Ted finally cuts and runs. The next day, in the morgue, he is shocked to find upon a table the body of the brothel-owner, who has died under mysterious circumstances. In the wake of this, Jake invites Ted to play “the game”, in which each of the group takes turns in attempting to commit the perfect murder, while the others try to discover how it has been done… It occurs to me that this synopsis makes Pathology sound better and more interesting than it is. There was potential here, but director Marc Schölermann and writers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor wasted it upon childish gross-out scenes in the morgue (nasty enough, but nothing a viewer of any forensic-based crime show hasn’t seen before), and a shallow scenario that exists only to shock—and generally fails. There is also a tiresome streak of anti-intellectualism here, with the people who are overtly society’s “best and brightest” being revealed as a group of homicidal sociopaths, something the film takes completely for granted. And they aren’t even “charming psychopaths”, but a bunch of petulant, entitled brats. The film’s greatest failure, though, is the black hole represented by Ted Grey: he barely hesitates about joining the murder-game, and then completes his creep-factor by casually cheating on his fiancée…yet this is the story’s protagonist. Of course, this is the film’s point, as far as it has one: that people are held in check not by morality, but only by fear of exposure and punishment, fears with which “superior” individuals need not trouble themselves. Quite frankly, I’m sick of watching films in which every single character is actively hateful, and even more sick of writers who think they’re being clever and insightful when they’re just being smug and patronising. There was, as I say, some potential here: a story about (for instance) two over-competitive students who push each other into crossing the line might have worked; or alternatively, one in which the newcomer had to figure out which of his brilliant, over-achieving colleagues was a psychopath; but as it stands, Pathology is a self-satisfied yet hollow effort that doesn’t have anything to say worth listening to.
Prom Night (2008)
Three years after her parents and young brother were murdered by her former teacher, Richard Fenton (Johnathon Schaech), who had become dangerously obsessed with her, Donna Keppel (Brittany Snow) begins once more to suffer crippling nightmares. Her therapist, Dr Crowe (Ming-Na Wen), encourages her to focus upon all the progress she has made: now living with Karen (Jessalyn Gilsig) and Jeff Turner (Linden Ashby), her aunt and uncle, Donna is on the verge of graduating high school, has won a full scholarship to Brown, and is about to attend her senior prom. She tries to follow this advice, even setting aside her medication so that the memories of her prom are not dimmed. Donna attends the event with her boyfriend, Bobby (Scott Porter); the two share a limousine with their best friends, couples Lisa (Dana Davis) and Ronnie (Collins Pennie), and Claire (Jessica Stroup) and Michael (Kelly Blatz). Arriving at the luxury hotel where is the prom is being held, the friends leave their things in their rented suite before joining the party downstairs. Meanwhile, Detective Winn (Idris Elba), who handled Donna’s case three years before, learns to his horror that Richard Fenton has escaped from the institution in which he had been incarcerated… The main entertainment to be derived from this (you should excuse the expression) lifeless slasher movie is the opening title revealing that one of its production companies was the incongruously named “Original Film”. Really? Prom Night is one of a rash of remakes that seems to exist only in order to make the first version look better than it ever did before. This thing hasn’t an original thought in its entire makeup, going through its motions with thudding predictability and trotting out absolutely every one of the expected moves—up to and including someone passing directly in front of the camera while the soundtrack goes vrroooom, and a plethora of false scares accompanied by a REALLY!! LOUD!! NOISE!! Even Donna – surely one of the most beleaguered of all slasher-movie heroines, when you tote up the body count amongst those close to her – loses sympathy when she responds to the evacuation order at the hotel by returning to her suite upstairs to collect her possessions first. However, her stupidity pales beside that of Detective Winn, who paves the way for Fenton’s depredations of the supporting characters by making the wrong move at every single turn—though in that respect, the supporting characters are themselves a big help. The murders in Prom Night are ridiculously bloodless (PG-rated slasher movies, God love ’em…); Fenton shifts corpses around with absurd ease, never leaving a trace, while proving himself a master of the psycho-killer art of Offscreen Teleportation. The only flicker of life here comes via the better-than-average performances of the central six, all of whom are quite appealing; the only mild surprise, the film’s dismissive attitude towards the traditional Prom King / Queen business. (BTW— Are high-school proms really held at luxury hotels?) I was amused to note the presence here of Kelly Blatz, also in the same year’s From Within (see above), one of a number of Accidental Double-Bills in this update; while Detective Winn’s partner, Nash, is played by James Ransome, Sinister’s Deputy So-and-So.
(More on Prom Night at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Tiny House Of Terror (2017)
Life is good for Samantha Hastings (Francia Raisa): her husband, Kyle (Jesse Hutch), and his business partner, Mark Chadwick (Matt Bellefleur) – who is married to Samantha’s best friend, Lindsay (Tammy Gillis) – have found success and fame with their house-automation app, ‘HOST’; while Samantha is able to pursue a career in landscape design. However, when she suffers a second miscarriage, Samantha is reluctant to take a risk for the third time. When Kyle finds out that she has begun using contraception without discussing it with him, he is hurt and angry. Soon afterwards, Kyle disappears… Though the police conclude that Kyle fell while rock-climbing and that his body was lost in the waters below, Samantha clings to hope that he is simply missing. She is supported in her grief by Lindsay, and by her sister, Jackie (Nazneen Contractor), a nurse; though Jackie is already bearing the burden of caring for their mother, Barbara (Nimet Kanji), who is in the early stages of dementia. Harassed by the media and unable to face living alone in the home she and Kyle made together, Samantha retreats to the remote Gravity Hill area, where Kyle had designed and built an experimental “tiny house”: the prototype for an intended development meant to blend seamlessly with the natural environment. But Samantha’s hope of finding peace of mind is soon dashed, as she becomes convinced that someone is stalking her… Tiny House Of Terror is – as we rightly deduce from its title – a silly Lifetime movie; though it does have a few things going for it. One is that it sets up a proper selection of suspects / red herrings, including (in addition to those already mentioned) developer Darren Zucker (David Stuart), to whom Mark sells out after Kyle’s disappearance, and environmental activist Ben Oxley (William Vaughan)—both of whom may have their reasons for wanting the tiny house project shut down and Samantha gone. The film’s Canadian settings are attractive, and visually distinct from the usual backdrops of this sort of thing (real snow and cold!). It was also refreshing to see a film pushing back against the relentless whitebread sensibility of this genre, with actresses of colour in its leading roles (though that said, the “sisters” are of quite different backgrounds). But in the end, Tiny House Of Terror can’t overcome its own premise. Exploiting simultaneously two rather bizarre real-estate trends, the film – unwittingly, I think – shows up exactly what’s wrong with both: Samantha literally has nowhere to run when the walls of her tiny house start closing in on her (also literally); and the “brilliant” app upon which Kyle and Mark have built their company goes haywire at the slightest opportunity—and in that respect, we can only ponder Kyle’s choice of Gravity Hill – known for its “magnetic field vortex”, which does interesting things like making car engines cut out and sharp knives fly across the room by themselves – as a site for building a series of fully automated tiny houses…
Far too often the target of cosmic injustice, in 1947 Christchurch was the setting for New Zealand’s worst-ever fire, when Ballantyne’s department store was engulfed by flames on the afternoon of the 18th of November, killing forty-one people. This made-for-TV production examining the tragedy cannot be classified as a disaster movie, however, as it stays too close to the grim facts. Even so, the screenplay of Ablaze cannot entirely avoid handling its cast – the majority of whom are playing real people involved in the tragedy – in what we might consider disaster-movie terms. The focus is upon Violet May Cody (Hannah Marshall), who has continued to work at the store despite being married, but who fears that her as-yet concealed pregnancy will result in her dismissal. Meanwhile, William McKibbin (Nick Davies) of the accounts department hesitates over the choosing of an engagement ring for his long-time sweetheart; while Doreen Parsons (Manon Blackman) of dress-making is courted from a distance by a young man called Sam Newstead (Jarred Blakiston). Kind-hearted Doreen also covers for elderly dress-maker Emma Newton (Fiona Samuel), whose failing eyesight puts her employment in jeopardy. As the staff prepare the store for a promotional visit from the reigning “Miss New Zealand”, Mary Wootton (Brittany Clark), managing director Kenneth Ballantyne (Mark Mitchison) oversees an audit of his family business. Standards are high at Ballantyne’s, and staff discipline strict; yet there is one rebel in the form of salesman Cyril Fender (Daniel Watterson), who when he can slips away to the basement storage area for an illicit cigarette… Though it does not dwell upon any one aspect of the tragedy, Ablaze generally succeeds in making clear the perfect storm of procedural failures that contributed to the Ballantyne’s fire: the structure of the building, the plethora of flammable materials onsite, a lack of any emergency procedures, inadequate equipment, a delay in taking the situation seriously, communication failures – both internally and with the fire-department – and even the high standards of the store itself: in the early stages of the situation, there is a demand for business as usual, with oblivious customers still receiving the expected level of service; later, Kenneth Ballantyne insists upon the store records being secured before the accounts staff are permitted to leave (the records survived; the staff did not); while again and again, workers hesitate to evacuate without explicit managerial permission. Though the cause of the fire was never determined (the film blames it on a stray cigarette-butt, though note that its two secret smokers are fictional characters), it began in the basement area—meaning that while customers and those working on the lower floors were able to be saved, those employed in the rabbit-warren of upper departments were progressively trapped, overcome by smoke and flames. Afterwards, only one of the disaster’s forty-one victims was able to be individually identified. Though shot in black-and-white, Ablaze opens and closes with real colour footage of the fire itself, its aftermath, and the mass funeral held five days later.