House Of Mystery (1934)
Based upon the play The Ape by Adam Shirk. Under the guise of an archaeological expedition, Prendergast (Clay Clement) seeks the treasure of an Indian temple; he also outrages the followers of Kali by killing a temple monkey. A Hindu priest (Brandon Hurst) reads his fortune, telling Prendergast that he will succeed in securing the treasure, but that the curse of Kali will follow him from that day. The priest then animates a dead ape, which attacks Prendergast, but he escapes with the help of Chandra (Laya Joy aka Joyzelle Joyner), a temple dancer… Twenty years later, Hyacinth Potter (Mary Foy), wife of Professor Potter (Harry C. Bradley), one of the backers of the archaeological expedition, spots a man she is sure is Prendergast. The Potters carry their story to the attorney, Jerome Ellis (Sam Godfrey), who agrees to represent all the surviving backers or their heirs. “John Pren” is indeed Prendergast—by this time wheelchair-bound, chastened by suffering, his health shattered. He tells the others that the curse of Kali is only too real: only recently he tried to assuage his conscience by paying their share of the treasure to two English backers—who were each horribly murdered soon afterwards. When the others insist on having their shares, Prendergast agrees on one condition: that they live in his house for a week first, and discover for themselves the reality of the curse… Oh dear. This is one of those “real ape / fake ape and no-one can tell the difference” films that were so inexplicably popular in the 1930s…my “inexplicably” indicating that I found little entertainment in House Of Mystery; though those with a higher tolerance for bad gorilla suits might get a few laughs out of this alleged horror-comedy. It might also help to be unbothered by the conjunction of Hindu temples and gorillas, or by the film’s pronunciation of Kali as “Kay-Lye”. This is an insanely overcrowded film, which gathers together in its old dark house Prendergast; Chandra; the former’s nurse, Ella Browning (Verna Hillie); Ellis; the Potters; hypochrondriacal Geraldine Carfax (Dale Fuller) and her psychic companion, Stella Walker (Fritzi Ridgeway); professional gambler, David Fells (George ‘Gabby’ Hayes); and insurance salesman, Jack Armstrong (Ed Lowry); with a snooping plumber (John Sheehan) already on the scene; and a crass American detective (Irving Bacon) showing up soon enough. Frankly, we’re grateful when the gorilla – or “gorilla” – starts thinning out the cast. There isn’t much surprise about the identity of the film’s bad guy; but the bad guy himself is in for a surprise or two, when his own monkey-suit activities are suddenly supplemented by the real thing…
Five Came Back (1939)
A commercial flight begins to board at Los Angeles International Airport, bound for Panama City. Wealthy playboy Judson Ellis (Patric Knowles) and Alice Melhorne (Wendy Barrie), posing as a businessman and his secretary, are secretly eloping. Co-pilot Joe (Kent Taylor) is attracted to the latter; though pilot Bill (Chester Morris) roughly rebuffs discarded B-girl Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball). Mob boss Mike Mulvaney (Pat O’Malley) places his young son, Tommy (Casey Johnson), in the care of his right-hand man, Pete (Allen Jenkins), promising to join them as soon as he can; though both men know that may not happen. The elderly Professor Henry Spengler (C. Aubrey Smith) is accompanied by his bossy, snappish wife, Martha (Elisabeth Risdon); while last to board is Crimp (John Carradine), a detective who is delivering an extradited prisoner, Vasquez (Joseph Calleia), to be executed. The first leg of the journey, via Mexico, is largely without incident except for various tensions amongst the passengers; but as the plane turns for Panama it is hit by a violent storm. It loses an engine, and the pilots are forced to crash land in the jungle. All on board survive but Professor Spengler, a botanist, recognises from the surrounding fauna that they are in the Amazon, far off their flight course—making their chances of rescue very slim… Five Came Back was originally planned as a prestigious production with a name cast led by Cary Grant; though by the time it hit the screen, it was an overt B-film featuring actors of a lower stature, pretty much every one of whom was a last-minute replacement for someone else. I don’t know that the film isn’t the better for it, though, as its story requires an ensemble cast rather than a collection of “stars”; and everyone here is effective—though Lucille Ball in particular caught the critics’ eye, in what proved an important early role for her. (Her character occupies pretty much the same space here as Claire Trevor does in the same year’s Stagecoach…a weirdly comparable film, if you think about it.) Five Came Back isn’t really a disaster movie, in spite of its plane-crash, but rather a character study—with each of the passengers showing their true colours under the increasing dangers and pressures of the situation. We can probably thank co-screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for Judson Ellis revealing himself as a selfish, snivelling coward and Crimp turning into an alcoholic nuisance, even while convicted anarchist Vasquez, gun-man Pete and the ambiguous Peggy become valuable members of the little society; but the script isn’t black-and-white, with one of its nicest touches being Martha Spengler’s reversion into the hard-working, generous-hearted woman she was in her younger days. When it becomes clear to the survivors that if they are to be rescued, they will have to do it themselves, Bill and Joe begin working on the plane, while the rest – most of them – try to prepare a makeshift runway. Time is running short, however, with the native population – who have a reputation as head-hunters – drawing ever nearer. At last the plane is ready for what can be the one and only attempt at a takeoff—but first Bill must break the news that even unladen it will not take the weight of all of them, and that some must stay behind…
The House Of The Seven Gables (1940)
Based upon the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Pyncheon family occupies a house built during the 17th century, on land acquired after its previous owner, Matthew Maule, was accused of witchcraft. Before he died, Maule placed his curse upon the Pyncheons… Two hundred years later, poor investments mean that the family may have to sell their house. This is good news for the younger son, Clifford (Vincent Price), a musician who desires nothing more than marriage to Hephzibah (Margaret Lindsay), a distant cousin, and life in New York. However, eldest son Jaffrey (George Sanders) fights furiously to prevent the sale—partly for family tradition, chiefly because of his passionate belief in a fortune hidden somewhere on the premises. Jaffrey persuades his father, Gerald (Gilbert Emery), out of the sale. This leads to a furious argument between Gerald and Clifford, during which the former is stricken: he collapses, hitting his head, and dies, Jaffrey seizes his chance and accuses Clifford of murder… After Clifford is convicted on his brother’s testimony, Gerald’s will is read—and it is discovered that, during the family’s financial troubles, he signed the house over to Hephzibah. In a righteous rage, Hephzibah throws Jaffrey out, telling him that the house will never be his… This 1940 Universal production is an extensively rewritten but classy and effective adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel—offering, among other rewards, a young Vincent Price in an important early role (a good guy one at that!) and conversely George Sanders as the selfish, acquisitive Jaffrey. But despite this delicious piece of co-casting, The House Of The Seven Gables really belongs to Margaret Lyndsay, whose Hephzibah changes from a vivacious young girl in love into a hard and bitter recluse—only to have her armour melt away under the twin influences of her adoption of a poor relation, Phoebe Pyncheon (Nan Grey), and Clifford’s eventual release from prison and return home. Hephzibah is, however, still quite capable of taking revenge upon Jaffrey, should the opportunity arise… While it was apparently first conceived as a horror movie, in its final form The House Of The Seven Gables downplays the novel’s hints of witchcraft and the supernatural; though it does retain the back-story of the curse of Matthew Maule. It also introduces a subplot about a prison-friend of Clifford’s, Holgrave (Dick Foran), who is one of a group of passionate abolitionists, and sports a generally anti-authoritarian attitude: details that place this film in the ranks of those defying Hollywood’s isolationist directives. These touches do not undermine it, but are woven successfully into a narrative that pits generous humanism against callous greed. (The screenplay was written by Lester Cole, later one of the Hollywood Ten.) The House Of The Seven Gables was directed by Austrian émigré Joe May, and features exquisite black-and-white cinematography by Milton Krasner.
(Evidently Vinnie was only a last-minute replacement for Robert Cummings, which to my mind would have been a disastrous bit of casting.)
I Killed That Man (1941)
Reporters and other interested parties gather for the execution of convicted murderer Nick Ross (Ralf Harolde). When asked if he has any last words, Ross surprises everyone by confessing to the murder—but adds that it was a murder for hire; that his unknown partner promised to get him off; and that, having been betrayed, he now intends to reveal the identity of that “respectable” individual…only to drop dead before he can say the name. The doctor declares that Ross has been murdered, pointing out a dart in his neck. Assistant District Attorney Roger Phillips (Ricardo Cortez) orders the doors sealed and everyone present searched—as the killer must be in the room… You’d think after a start like that you’d be in for a decent, or at least different, thriller; but in the long run you’d be wrong. I Killed That Man goes off the rails soon enough, with Phillips suspecting – and arresting – two of those present before landing (with a lot of help) on the real guilty party, and Phillips’ girlfriend, reporter Geri Reynolds (Joan Woodbury), doing most of the leg-work. Furthermore, the film loses its “thriller” status pretty quickly, going instead for comedy that occasionally works – some of the scenes with Tommy (George P. Breakston), Phillips’ switchboard operator / watchdog – but more often doesn’t, including a ten-minute scene – in a 70-minute film! – in which Geri and her dinner companion and colleague, Bates (Pat Gleason), discover their mutual skintness. Another problem is the need to accept Ricardo Cortex as one of the good guys, when he was always more convincing as a sleaze (if you start out suspecting him, you’re not the only one!). Nor do I think much of an ADA who doesn’t know what curare is! Joan Woodbury is better here than she was in the same year’s King Of The Zombies (which isn’t saying much); while Iris Adrian has some good moments as Ross’s girlfriend, who Knows Too Much. Director Phil Rosen was remaking his own The Devil’s Mate, from 1933.
House Of Darkness (1948)
At the turn of the 20th century, the Merriman family gathers unhappily under a single roof: autocratic John (Alexander Archdale), nervous Noel (John Teed), their much-younger half-brother, Francis (Laurence Harvey), and the latter’s bride, Elaine (Lesley Ormond). John and Francis have long been at loggerheads over John’s control of the family money; now, he confronts Francis about a forged cheque, telling him that he must leave the house immediately, or he will be prosecuted. Francis lashes out, warning John that everything – the house and the money – will be his… The Merriman house has a reputation for being haunted, and John begins to experience strange events. These play upon his mind and his weak heart—until one night, he collapses. As he begs for his medication, Francis looks on coldly… With John gone, Francis sets to work on Noel; and at last, he and Elaine are the sole tenants of the house—although it soon seems that they are not alone… House Of Darkness is a low-budget, independent British film that almost wilfully works against its own success, spending too long on an unlikable cast of characters and not enough upon its increasingly ambiguous scenario. And finally, that ambiguity is its one great strength: the “haunting” of John might be Francis’ work, and Francis’ subsequent paranoia might account for the rest; but the film’s screenplay (by John Gilling) never entirely takes away the possibility of a supernatural explanation. Moreover, this interpretation is the one offered by the film’s odd framing device, which finds real-life conductor-composer George Melachrino explaining the inspiration behind his latest composition: his visit to an abandoned house in Dorset, where he swears he heard strange music… House Of Darkness was the film debut of Laurence Harvey, who sets the tone here for much of what was to follow by being thoroughly unlikable. He also overacts badly—but he’s not alone in that, and the rest of the cast weren’t twenty years old and still working on their accents, so him we can forgive. Grace Arnold finally comes off best as the inaptly named Merrimans’ Irish housekeeper, who sums up her employers for us early on while talking to Elaine: “I’d shoot the lot of them! – except for Mr Francis. I’d poison him.”
Jour de Fête (1949)
Jacques Tati made his directorial debut and introduced the largely dialogueless form of humour that would become his trademark in this 1949 comedy. Unfolding within a single day, the framework of Jour de Fête is life in a French rural village (Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, where Tati lived during the Occupation), in particular the preparations for the annual fete and the arrival of a travelling carnival. Enter François (Jacques Tati), the lackadaisical, easily distracted local postman, whose rural route finds him dependent upon his bicycle, and who is frequently the butt of the villagers’ jokes. With the fete in progress, François finds even more reasons than usual to take his time over his delivery; but one of the attractions is a film tent, featuring a documentary about the super-efficient American postal service—and François is fired with the spirit of emulation… One of Tati’s main aims in Jour de Fête was to capture on film a way of life that, even so soon after the end of the war, was being overtaken by modernity and mechanisation: there is sadness and some criticism here, here as well as humour. Tati takes his time over his set-up, delineating the relationships and rivalries within the village, and the disruptions caused by the newcomers, in a predominantly visual way; but also provides, in the form of an elderly lady with a pet goat, a Greek chorus on the various interactions. Once François has seen the documentary, however, the film literally shifts gears: its final twenty minutes are a single, brilliantly executed slapstick joke, as the chronically inefficient François vows to incorporate “American methods” into his previously haphazard postal delivery (“Rapidité! Rapidité!”). That said, the best joke in Jour de Fête may be the “documentary” itself, of which we are granted glimpses—and which seems to be taking one or two liberties with the truth…
(Tati originally shot Jour de Fête simultaneously in black and white and in an experimental colour system which, as it turned out, could not be processed. The latter has recently been revived and restored, and the film may now be seen in colour.)
Sanshō The Bailiff (1954)
Original title: Sanshō Dayū. During the late Heian period, the compassionate governor of a province tries to protect his people from being forced into military service and from punitive taxes, but is dismissed and exiled as punishment. He sends his wife, Tamaki (Tanaka Kinuyo), and his children to live with her family. Before they part, the governor impresses upon his son, Zushiō, the need to be merciful: he gives the boy a small statuette of the goddess Kwannon as a remembrance. Some years later, Tamaki and the children set out to rejoin their husband and father, but during the journey they are ambushed: Tamaki is sold into prostitution, and the children become slaves of the Minister of the Right, whose bailiff, Sanshō (Shindō Eitarō), runs his estate by brutal measures, and with impunity. Tarō (Kōno Akitake), the bailiff’s son, is sickened by his father’s cruelty; befriending the children, he urges them to endure, no matter what. As they grow into adulthood, Anju (Kagawa Kyōko) clings to her father’s precepts, but Zushiō (Hanayagi Yoshiaki) becomes hardened and unfeelingly follows the bailiff’s orders; rejecting Anju’s pleas that they try to escape and find their mother. When Zushiō is ordered to leave an elderly slave exposed to die, the incident has a profound impact upon him. He does escape, but Anju stays behind—she says, to cover for him; in reality, to kill herself, so that she cannot betray him… Mizoguchi Kenji’s Sanshō The Bailiff – or as I like to call it, the other Japanese movie of 1954* – is a film of contradictions: exquisitely beautiful in its compositions and cinematography, but unrelentingly bleak in its narrative. Based upon a story by Mori Ōgai, which in turn drew upon an ancient folktale, the film is essentially a treatise upon man’s inhumanity to man—a story of cruelty and injustice, and of suffering and endurance. The few glimmerings of hope offered here, in the children clinging to the memory of their parents, in Tarō’s rebellion against his father’s precepts, in Zushiō’s struggle to free the slaves, are muted and even feeble; while the very fact that the film is named for the cruel Sanshō seems to underscore the futility of the main characters’ quest for justice and mercy. There is, perhaps, an intended consideration of – or confronting of – Japan’s recent as well as is ancient history, in the depiction of the slave-camp, Sanshō’s treatment of those in his power, and his protection by his military masters. As often in the films of Mizoguchi, there is a tacit division between the sexes’ approach to life: the men may suffer, but it is the women who sacrifice. The director makes his female characters, Tamaki and Anju, almost mythic beings by repeatedly associating them with bodies of water. This, along with Tarō’s reappearance as a Buddhist monk, lends spiritual overtones to the story, which mourns the human capacity for selfishness and cruelty even as it illustrates the desperate need for human interconnectedness. Along with its predecessors, Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu and Ugetsu, Sanshō The Bailiff was one of the films responsible for the rising international popularity of Japanese cinema during the post-war era, and won its director the Silver Lion at the 1954 Venice Film Festival.
(*Yes, yes: and The Seven Samurai!)
Hercules Against The Mongols (1963)
Original title: Maciste contro i Mongoli (Maciste Against The Mongols). While on his travels, Hercules (Mark Forest) assists a Chinese woman and her children to cross a river. In return, the woman tells his fortune—warning him of a great dragon that he is fated to fight… When Genghis Khan dies, he leaves instructions for his sons, Keehan (Nadir Baltimore aka Nadir Moretti), Sayan (Ken Clark) and Susdal (Renato Rossini), to make peace with the West. Instead, the sons seek an excuse to make war; and, during their father’s funeral, they assassinate his closest advisor with what they declare to be an arrow of “the white men”. The Mongol army sweeps west, burning and pillaging, and finally attacks Tuleda. The king is killed and his daughter, Bianca (José Greci), captured along with her waiting-women; but the young Prince Alexander (Loris Loddi) escapes with a small band of refugees that heads towards Bratislava. Along the way, Alexander strays from his guardian: he is found by Hercules, who befriends him. At this moment, a Mongol patrol comes searching for the boy; Hercules drives them away, impressing everyone with his amazing strength. Afterwards, Alexander proves his gratitude to Hercules by confiding in him a great secret… Well. Okay. Mongols aside, it turns out that this film has nothing at all to do with the following year’s Hercules Against The Barbarians—which appears rather to have been made under the Corman-esque philosophy of, “We’ve got the sets, the costumes and the actors, let’s make another movie!” This is a fair sword-and-sandal effort, but the readily available English-language prints do it no favours at all: the dubbing is awful, and various plot-points gets lost along the way—making an already confusing storyline full of promises and alliances made and broken very hard to follow. Bianca is a completely useless “heroine”, while we don’t see nearly enough of Lijuan (Maria Grazia Spina), Sayan’s slinky concubine; and the boy Alexander (aka Alessio) is made intolerable by his dubbing. On the other hand, Hercules – actually “Maciste”, of course – is almost absurdly strong here, which does at least set up some amusing action scenes, particularly his first encounter with the Mongols in which he uses a tree as a weapon. This film put me offside at the outset by positing a Mark Forest character as some kind of animal lover; but we were back on familiar ground later with Hercules fighting and killing a lion: a very upsetting scene, as the lion involved clearly wanted nothing to do with it. There is also a climactic sequence in which the Mongol cavalry falls into a watery trap that is distressing because of the horses. Meanwhile, all sorts of plots and doublecrosses are playing out, with the traitorous Adolphus (aka Osvaldo; Tullio Altamura) conspiring with Sayan to discover the late king’s treasure-hoard, and Susdal forming a partnership with Hercules in order to defeat his brothers. Hercules wins Bianca’s freedom in a tournament, defeating all three brothers in combat – so much for the partnership – but her mind has been poisoned against him by Adolphus. Nevertheless, Hercules submits to slavery, which was his part of the agreement; but even as the vengeful brothers are amusing themselves at his expense, an army is forming in Bratislava…
Flight From Ashiya (1964)
Based upon the novel Rescue! (aka Flight From Ashiya) by Elliott Arnold. A Japanese ship sinks during a violent storm, with a handful of survivors escaping in a rubber raft. The USAF Air Rescue Service at Ashiya Air Base in Japan is alerted, and a rescue mission mounted. The lead flight is under the command of Captain Jerry Cooper (William Ross); while the main crew of the cover flight consists of Lieutenant-Colonel Glenn Stevenson (Richard Widmark), 2nd Lieutenant John Gregg (George Chakiris) and Master Sergeant Mike Takashima (Yul Brynner). The men have worked together before; and the situation is difficult for all three. When Cooper tries to land his rescue plane near the raft, it crashes in the dangerous conditions with all lives lost. Stevenson must then decide how – or if – to proceed with the rescue… An air rescue service tries to save the survivors of a shipwreck during a typhoon, said my TV guide synopsis. I was highly sceptical that any film could live up to that promise, and alas, I was right. We’re used to soap intruding into our disaster movies, but Flight From Ashiya is nearly all soap and very little disaster. The bulk of the film consists of the three main characters flashing back to a personal trauma that has since shaped their lives; at one point, we even find Richard Widmark having a flashback inside George Chakiris’ flashback! The co-assignment of Gregg and Stevenson brings back painful memories for the former of the first time they worked together, when Gregg was an over-eager young helicopter pilot stationed in Germany. Sent out to succour a handful of avalanche survivors, the men carry away a woman who has had a baby but must leave the rest behind—even though they have little chance of surviving the night. Gregg argues passionately that they should at least try to save some of them, and finally convinces Stevenson in spite of the dangerous conditions—but the mission ends in tragedy… In the present, the men argue about how best to proceed. Mike Takashima volunteers to parachute down to the Japanese survivors: his doing so triggers memories of his time as a paratrooper stationed in Algeria, and his tragic love affair with the beautiful Arab girl, Leila (Danièle Gaubert)… As he contemplates the Japanese survivors of the shipwreck, Stevenson remembers his own life in the Philippines at the outbreak of the war, and his affair with reporter Caroline Gordon (Shirley Knight); their brief marriage; and her death in a prison camp, which left him with a violent hatred of the Japanese… Flight From Ashiya is well-made, was shot on location in Japan, and is full of military hardware for those who like that sort of thing; but ultimately it just overdoes—and I say that as a big fan of disaster movies, the most overdone genre of all. The film is best summed up by Yul Brynner’s flashback, which finds an English-speaking Polish-Japanese-American having an affair with a French-speaking Arab who toggles from burqa to bikini and back again with astonishing rapidity. Flight From Ashiya was directed by Michael Anderson, and also features Suzy Parker and Taki Eiko in small thankless roles as “the women they left behind”.
Based upon the novel Hurricane Hunters by William C. Anderson. As Hurricane Hilda builds in the Gulf of Mexico, those in its path must decide how to respond. An Air Force crew led by Major Hymie Stoddard (Martin Milner) brave the developing storm to collect data for transmission to the National Hurricane Warning Service in Coral Gables, Florida, where Dr McCutcheon (Will Geer) and his colleague, Dr Lee Jackson (Michael Learned), must try to predict the storm’s path and determine which communities to warn. In the Gulf, a small boat finds a temporary refuge in the eye of the hurricane; but, out of fuel and stranded, Paul Damon (Larry Hagman) and his wife, Louise (Jessica Walter), can only hope desperately for rescue. Meanwhile, in Cassier, Mississippi, the National Guard works to evacuate the residents of what is rapidly becoming the focus of the storm. Some people leave—and some people do not… Hurricane is a slightly dreary made-for-TV disaster movie, with huge chunks of its short running-time made up of actual footage of 1969’s Hurricane Camille, which was the inspiration for William Anderson’s novel; there is also padding in the form of ticker-tape updates that run slowly across the screen, rather than appearing in a single shot. The rest of the film consists of actors on limited sets pretending to interact with the stock footage, with too much happening offscreen. There are four main plot-threads: the Damons on their stranded boat; the Air Force jet that becomes involved in their rescue; the scientists fretting over their responsibilities in Florida; and, in Cassier, a drunken house-party that lies directly in the path of the storm (the latter based upon what I gather is an apocryphal incident associated with Camille). This is one for the aficionados only, with some mild amusement to be derived from the cast – Will Geer and Michael Learned taking a weekend off from The Waltons to frown at computer print-outs; Larry Hagman and a baby-faced Patrick Duffy turning up in the same film; Frank Sutton as the obnoxious party host – and plenty of genuinely scary footage of Camille: though its vastly different visual quality undermines its effectiveness. Hurricane was directed by Jerry Jameson, who later gifted the world Airport ’77; and also features Barry Sullivan as Hank Stoddard, Major Stoddard’s father, who stubbornly refuses to evacuate until it’s too late. (Which is all very well for him, but what about his dog!?)
(A tiny bonus for this viewer: most of the action takes place on the 18th August 1974, which happens to have been my *coughcough* birthday.)
We Of The Never Never (1982)
Based upon the autobiographical novel by Jeannie Gunn (Mrs Aeneas Gunn). In the New Year of 1902, newlyweds Jeannie (Angela Punch McGregor) and Aeneas Gunn (Arthur Dignam) leave Melbourne for the Northern Territory, where Aeneas is to take up his position as manager of the remote and isolated Elsey cattle station, which is situated on the Roper River nearly 500 km south of Darwin. Jeannie has received plenty of discouragement from accompanying her husband; and when the station’s head stockman, John Joseph “Mac” McClellan (Tony Barry) hears of it, he threatens to quit. However, Jeannie’s courage and endurance during the journey from Darwin to the station engenders a reluctant feeling of respect in the stockman. But once at Elsey, Jeannie finds herself excluded from the day-to-day running of the station and left with little to do; even the renovations to the main house, undertaken by the men, are done with a view to keeping her there. Bored and lonely, Jeannie begins to take an increasing interest in the aboriginal people who live on the fringes of the station, particularly the women… While we are much more inclined around here to talk about the “Australian New Wave” and specifically the genre known as “Ozploitation”, We Of The Never Never is far more the kind of thing the Australian government had in mind when it finally began supporting the local film industry during the 1970s—with the idea of “selling Australia to the world” through respectable cinema. This is exactly where the film falls down, too, in that it puts more effort into its mise-en-scène and its cinematography than it does into its screenplay and characterisations—though this may not have been what was originally intended. We Of The Never Never was shot on location at the Elsey Station and in Mataranka, the nearest town; and the production was soon over budget and behind schedule, which led to some drastic cutting of the screenplay. Credit where it’s due, though, the things this film does well, it does really well; though the human conflicts are simplistic and over-obvious (albeit not unbelievable), with Aeneas drawn more and more away from his wife and into the previously all-male station life, and the stockmen keeping an even stricter divide between white and black. Jeannie’s increasing interest in the aboriginal people, with whom she begins to identify, and her attempts to better their living conditions, particularly those of the women, provokes both scorn and anger from the stockmen and indirectly brings about a tragedy… We Of The Never Never is a film that, these days, tends to be criticised for its depiction of its aboriginal people, with Jeannie likewise condemned as “patronising”: was so, in fact, even at the time of its first release, and perhaps not without justification. However, it is worth keeping in mind that at the time Jeannie Gunn was finding herself drawn to the station’s fringe-dwellers, the new Commonwealth government was instituting its “White Australia” policy—which called, more or less explicitly, for the genocide of the indigenous population. Placed in that context, Jeannie’s views may even be considered radical.
Cellar Dweller (1988)
Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs), creator of the comic book Cellar Dweller, uses an ancient book of curses to inspire his work, and accidentally brings into being a flesh-eating monster. Childress succeeds in banishing the beast, but kills himself in the process… Thirty years later, Childress’ isolated house has been converted into the Throckmorton Institute for the Arts. Whitney Taylor (Deborah Farentino), the latest arrival, explains to the Institute’s supervisor, Mrs Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo), her dream of creating a horror comic book that will follow on from and pay tribute to Childress’ work. Mrs Briggs tells her frostily that she has no opinion of her so-called “art” and that she is there only because the Throckmorton board insisted. Whitney is further dismayed to discover her long-time rival, video artist Amanda (Pamela Bellwood), is also at the Institute; however, she makes friends with abstract painter Phillip Lemley (Brian Robbins), performance artist Lisa (Cheryl Ann Wilson aka Miranda Wilson) and PI-turned-crime-novelist Norman Meshelski (Vince Edwards). Whitney persuades Mrs Briggs to let her have the cellar, where Childress worked, as her room; and while she is cleaning it up she discovers some of the comic-book artist’s effects—including the book of curses… Woe unto he who gives the beast form / To contemplate evil is to ask evil home… Funny, it’s been a lot of years since I last saw Cellar Dweller, but I remembered that perfectly. This direct-to-video release from Empire Pictures has a minimalist charm that, if anything, probably works better now than it did when the film was first released. The film is certainly the accidental beneficiary of the increasing popularity and respectability of graphic novels, which gives weight to Whitney’s much-criticised form of art. Running only 75 minutes, Cellar Dweller is mercifully free of padding and subplots; its effects, by John Carl Buechler – who also directed – are all blessedly practical, including a rather gnarly decapitation; and the screenplay by Kit du Bois (aka Don Mancini, who went from this to Child’s Play), though it fires a few pot-shots at the pretensions of the “art world” via its unlikely “students”, rarely lets its jokey note get in the way of the horror. The film also gives us, in Whitney, a central character we can get behind; although, keeping the ironic world of EC Comics firmly in mind, Cellar Dweller also makes its protagonist the source of all its horror: protagonists, we may say, after a cameoing Jeffrey Combs summons up the film’s monster in the first place. Whitney, meanwhile, suffering at the hands of Mrs Briggs and Amanda, channels her anger and resentment into her art—only to have it blow up in her face; in everyone’s face…
Bloodlust: Subspecies III (1994)
Despite defeating the vampire Radu (Anders Hove), Rebecca Morgan (Melanie Shatner) is forced to leave her sister, Michelle (Denise Duff), behind in Castle Vladislas when the sun rises before they can make their escape. Unknown to Rebecca, Michelle is then carried into the catacombs by Radu’s ancient mother (Pamela Gordon), who uses her blood and an enchanted dagger to resurrect Radu. Radu is obsessed with Michelle and promises to teach her how to use her new powers: she agrees to stay with him upon condition of being taught everything. When his mother continues to warn him against Michelle, Radu lashes out and kills her. He then takes Michelle out hunting… This third entry in the Subspecies franchise is a surprisingly good little film—following on without contradiction from Bloodstone and expanding upon that film’s story in an effective way. At the heart of its story is Michelle, who is caught between her lingering human feelings – her love for her sister, her hatred for Radu – and her new vampire cravings. Bloodlust is interesting for its insistence that being bitten is terrifying and painful, rather than a sexual experience; though it tacitly offers vampirism between vampires in place of sex. (There’s some brief gratuitous nudity here, but in generally unappealing circumstances.) Around this central conflict is built Rebecca’s ongoing battle to save her sister, which means finding away into the castle. Rebecca reunites with her friend, Mel (Kevin Blair), who in turn recruits his friend, Bob (Michael Della Femina) – the film’s notion of how a CIA agent might behave is its weakest touch, though not unamusing – while the vampire-hunters are both helped and hindered by the efforts of police detective Marin (Ion Haiduc), who remains stubbornly deaf to their stories of vampires, but is determined to solve the wave of murders and disappearances plaguing Bucharest… Bloodlust finally builds to an effective conclusion, though it does do one mean-spirited thing along the way; off-setting this with a climax that is both gruesome and satisfying. All this said, the film basically forgets about the ‘subspecies’ of its franchise title…but I guess that’s what kicker endings are for…
Based upon Rattlers by Joseph Gilmore. Paul Donohue (William Katt), his new wife, Krista (Shanna Reed), and the latter’s children from her first marriage, teenage Michelle (Monica Lacey) and young Adam (Michael Galeota), have moved into a house on the edge of the development project which Paul is overseeing. The work requires some demolition of a ridge overlooking the valley—which disturbs a large nest of rattlesnakes within… Paul must deal with the resentment that Adam feels towards him, particularly after he and Krista break the news that they are expecting a baby. Meanwhile, strange accidents begin to plague the development; though it is not until Adam executes a practical joke using a dead snake that Paul realises that the residents of the valley are in deadly peril… Rattled is a made-for-TV killer-animal film with a few virtues but also a dreary amount of, sigh, “human interest”. Its source novel was adapted by Ken and Jim Wheat, and that, unfortunately, tells us everything we need to know about it, namely that far too much of its running-time will be devoted to Paul’s efforts to win over Adam, and that its climax will inevitably feature him risking his life to save the boy—who really is such an obnoxious brat, you wouldn’t blame his step-father for just looking the other way… (“After all, honey, we are having another baby…”) In this respect, the film has a touch of dishonesty about it, in that it keeps imperilling children but only kills and injures adults. The best thing about Rattled is that is features a hoard of real rattlers (three years before Silent Predators, which conspicuously does not), and that the snakes get a good amount of time on camera—though this has its downside too, as the film’s dead snakes also appear to be real; while (though I can’t really complain about this) rather too many prey animals suffer along the way. Rattled also features Ed Lauter and Bibi Besch as the owners of the land being developed, and offers a brief appearance by Clint Howard…who meets a real Clint Howard fate. However, my favourite character is the unnamed toddler who finds a huge rattler in the bushes and just wants to play with it…and when hauled away in the nick of time by his oblivious mother, departs with a sad, “Bye, snake! Bye, snake!”
Blood Work (2002)
Based upon the novel by Michael Connelly. Veteran FBI agent Terry McCaleb (Clint Eastwood) is pursuing a serial killer known as the ‘Code Killer’ for the mysterious numbers left at the scene of his crimes; he has also begun to taunt McCaleb by name. As he addresses the media, McCaleb spots someone at the back of the crowd with blood on their shoes. He gives chase, following the killer into a dark alleyway where he almost catches him—only to suffer a heart attack. As he sinks to the ground, McCaleb gets off a shot… Two years after his retirement, McCaleb undergoes a heart transplant. His surgeon, Dr Bonnie Fox (Anjelica Huston), is pleased with his recovery but insists upon regular blood work. McCaleb now lives on a boat at Long Beach, where he is approached by a woman called Graciella Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), who wants him to investigate the murder of her sister, Gloria. When McCaleb tries to put her off, Graciella argues that McCaleb owes her: he received Gloria’s heart… As he looks into the case, McCaleb begins to regain his old passion for his work. However, it is soon clear that his return has also brought back the Code Killer… Despite its cast and some effective use of locations around Long Beach, Blood Work is a disappointingly generic thriller. The film never recovers from its opening scene: I don’t know how old McCaleb is supposed to be, but Clint was seventy-two; and the straight-faced way the foot-chase is presented gets embarrassing. No-one bothers to back McCaleb up, which is typical of the way this film depicts law enforcement—with the former fed placed in opposition to some eye-rollingly ineffective cops in order, I suppose, to make his fairly obvious deductions seem “brilliant”. As it proceeds, Blood Work trots out any number of familiar conventions: Clint, to his credit, plays them straight, but the whole thing is so obvious that the film’s rather lethargic pacing becomes frustrating. There’s one “twist” I’d very much like to complain about, though I can’t for spoiler purposes; but I am going to complain about the insistence of films like this upon writing their leading man into a sexual relationship no matter how old he is. And even aside from Graciella being young enough to be McCaleb’s daughter, we have the fact that she’s hooking up with the man who has her dead sister’s heart! Even the killer finds that creepy… Blood Work also features Jeff Daniels as McCaleb’s marina neighbour, Tina Lifford as a rare competent cop, Paul Rodriguez as the other kind, Alex Koromzay as a victim’s widow, and Mason Lucero as Gloria’s young son, who gives us the film’s inevitable “out of the mouths of babes” moment.
Mind Games (2006)
Also known as: A Trick Of The Mind. Jamie Ellison (Alexandra Holden) survives the car crash that kills her parents, with whom she had been arguing heatedly just before the fatal collision. While she recovers physically, Jamie’s profound guilt drives her into delusions and a breakdown, and she spends three months in a facility under the care of Dr Hauser (Wanda Cannon). Though sole heir to her parents’ fortune and real-estate empire, Jamie decides she needs more time and joins a volunteer program doing rebuilding work in post-hurricane Louisiana. There, she is drawn to another volunteer, Michael Roper (Paul Johansson), who also has tragedy in his past. When Jamie returns to Chicago, she is met at the airport by her best friend, Serena (Mylène Dinh-Robic), who is dismayed to learn that, after knowing him only three weeks, Jamie has married Michael. Serena tries to talk to Jamie about her mental health and her medication, but is brushed off. Since Michael has appropriate experience, he and Jamie decide to run the Ellison business together; and for a time all seems well—until Jamie begins receiving phone-calls from her mother. She also becomes convinced that she is being followed. When Jamie catches her stalker, the woman introduces herself as Helen Delaney (Stacy Grant), a private investigator—and warns Jamie that Michael is not who she thinks… Mind Games is an almost painfully obvious Lifetime movie, in which it’s all been done before, and done better (even by Lifetime). Jamie is an unappealing protagonist, unsympathetic even when most beset, with each of her actions stupider than the last; and this makes it hard to care whether she is having a breakdown, or getting gaslighted, or something else altogether is going on. The film also tips its hand a bit too early—but though it gives away its “surprises” about halfway through, this does somewhat improve the film, with poor-little-rich-girl Jamie forced to take responsibility for herself for the first time in her life (although this being a Lifetime movie, heaven forfend there shouldn’t be another guy lurking on the sidelines). Breaking out of the mental-health facility to which she has been committed by Michael with the help of fellow patient, Chrissie (Jennifer Shirley), and company lawyer, Josh Hagen (Ben Cole), Jamie sets out to discover who her husband really is, and who, if anyone, she can trust…
Hunt For The I-5 Killer (2011)
Based upon The I-5 Killer by Ann Rule. Late one night in Roseburg, Oregon, a teenage girl working at a gas station is shot by an assailant wearing a hooded sweatshirt and tape across his nose. Two weeks later, in Salem, Beth Williams (Sara Canning) and Shari Hull (Barbara Kottmeier) head out for their night job cleaning an isolated office building. As they are finishing up, a man forces his way in: the young women are raped and shot; Shari dies but, miraculously, Beth survives. The case falls to Detective Dave Kominek (John Corbett) of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, who as Beth slowly recovers must force her to relive her ordeal, including visiting the crime scene. Beth’s comment, that the killer said he saw her and Shari through the window, sends Kominek outside to inspect the area around the building—which is situated near to an exit off the I-5 freeway. Working with this fact and the description of their assailant given by Beth and the girl in Roseburg, which are similar, Kominek begins searching for other, possibly related cases—and realises that there is a rapist and serial killer operating in the I-5 corridor… This is another of Lifetime’s “true crime” movies, this one about Randall Brent Woodfield, who in 1981 was convicted of murder and attempted murder in the case of Shari and Beth (real name: Beth Wilmot), but was suspected of 18 more murders and up to 50 rapes. Though it sticks close to the facts, this isn’t a particularly strong docudrama, for several reasons. One is that – although quite graphic for a film of this type – it shies away from dwelling on the crimes, leaving the weight of the production resting upon Dave Kominek’s investigation and Beth Williams’ efforts to recover from her trauma—and the relationship that subsequently develops between the two of them (platonic, but eyebrow-raising to others involved). My main issue with Hunt For The I-5 Killer is that it doesn’t emphasise its time-frame enough: Woodfield was committing his crimes in the late seventies and early eighties, but despite such touches as push-button landlines and appropriate vehicles – and Dave Kominek’s distinctly ill-fitting suit – the viewer is not sufficiently reminded that this is before computer databases and the forensic science revolution, and that all the police had were long hours, legwork and determination. (On the contrary, one piece of video surveillance is digital clear instead of the appropriate VHS fuzzy.) Ultimately, the film is fair but not particularly memorable. Sara Canning is fine in a difficult role, but Dave Kominek is a bit too clichéd for John Corbett to make an impact. Tygh Runyan plays Randy Woodfield, and Bo Derek shows up in one scene as an FBI agent.
Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Based upon a New York Times article by David Barstow, David Rohde, and Stephanie Saul. Workers for the Transocean company are transported via helicopter to the Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible oil platform situated in the Gulf of Mexico, to begin a three-week shift. Offshore Installation Manager James Harrell (Kurt Russell) and Chief Electronics Technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) are dismayed to discover that tests to determine the integrity of vital cement work have been cancelled at the insistence of Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and Robert Kaluza (Brad Leland), who represent BP, the company currently leasing the platform. The executives make it clear that they want their drilling project speeded up, and dismiss the arguments made by Harrell and Williams about the state of the platform, with no time allotted for necessary maintenance, and the dangers of cutting corners. Harrell does persuade Vidrine to conduct a negative pressure test, but when the results are ambiguous, Vidrine insists that the crew go ahead with the removal of the “drilling mud” from the bore, so that the rig may be moved to its next area of operation. During this procedure, the new cement work collapses, triggering a blowout and then an explosion, and leaving the rig engulfed in flames… There’s a reason that disaster movies are the way they are, and Deepwater Horizon represents the other face of that argument. Sticking close to the facts of the 2010 catastrophe that killed eleven people and poured over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, it is a film to be experienced rather than enjoyed. This perhaps accounts for its critical success but disastrous financial performance; this, along with the fact that during production, its budget spiralled out of control. That said, every dollar is up there on the screen, in an extraordinary reproduction of the original disaster. The results are both gripping and disturbing, though not flawless. The film hurries a bit too much over its early scenes on the rig, spending time instead setting up Mike Williams as a devoted family man. This haste, the cast’s accents, the technical jargon and the noise on the rig (my ears again!) means that not all information that needs to be is clearly conveyed. More time should also have been devoted to laying out the geography of the rig, as when the disaster strikes it is not always evident where the different events are unfolding, and where the characters are relative to one another. The film occasionally simplifies some aspects of the story, though it is when dealing with the people involved that it strays furthest from the truth—no particular harm being done. A little more blame laid on the BP executives hardly matters in the overall scheme of things, while the impulse to soft-pedal or heroic-up some of the actions of the Transocean employees is entirely understandable. Overall, director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand are to be commended for their handling of this difficult material. Deepwater Horizon is not an actor’s film, but Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg are fine, and John Malkovich and Brad Leland appropriately hissable. The cast also includes Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Ethan Suplee and Kate Hudson, and a cameo by Trace Adkins.
As she continues to struggle with her bipolar disorder and the trauma of losing a child, and suffering occasional nightmares and visions, Lauren Curran (Christina Ricci) and her husband, Russell (Brendan Fletcher), make the decision to give up their city apartment and move to ‘The Pinnacle’, a luxury “smart” building situated in a beautiful and isolated area. Lauren tells her therapist, Beatrice Landry (Gigi Jackson), that she knows she must overcome her fear, which is adversely affecting both her work as an artist and her marriage. Russell is hopeful that the state-of-the-art security arrangements at The Pinnacle will help to set Lauren at ease, but soon after the two move in, she begins to experience strange events: electronic hissing noises, disembodied music, and flashing images on the TV—none of which Russell sees or hears. Determined to prove that these things are not just in her mind, Lauren begins researching such experiences and makes contact with the shadowy figure behind a internet chat group, who warns her that she may be the target of an experiment in mind control… Distorted is a film that evidently believed itself to be dealing with Big Themes, and to an extent it does; but the reality is that, behind its high-art façade and its terror-of-technology scenario, this is a film that occupies pretty much the same space as too many of the Lifetime movies I deal with here—only swapping the standard version of gaslighting for a more “futuristic” variety. Setting out to demonstrate, in effect, that you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you, Distorted offers up an absurdly solemn warning against Big Government, Big Tech, and whoever else the Bad Guys are meant to be, via a Girl Power plot that allows Lauren’s bipolar disorder to become the weapon via which she is able to expose and thwart the conspiracy. However, whatever satisfaction might be derived from this is almost lost in the face of a boringly unimaginative depiction of brainwashing and mind control: the overriding message here seems to be that too many stock images are bad for your health. Christina Ricci does what she can to make Lauren a rounded individual, and to convey the nature of her struggles with her mental health, but the screenplay’s desire not to tip its hand over Russell’s possible culpability means that Brendan Fletcher has nothing to work with. Meanwhile, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry over John Cusack’s Vernon Sarsfield, who is every inch a bad movie’s idea of what a hacker / journalist / sp00k should be (actually, his being that speaks for itself), with Cusack swapping his baseball cap for a black hoodie that makes him ten times more conspicuous than would ordinary clothing, as he slinks out of the shadows to assure Lauren that it really isn’t all in her head. The cast is rounded out by Vicellous Shannon, Nicole Anthony, Oliver Rice, Maja Milkovich and Sophia Daly.
(Whatever Distorted‘s other failings, I was both charmed and amused by the unexpected re-emergence of ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ as its musical signifier.)
The Call (2020)
Willow Falls, 1987. On his first day at his new school, Chris (Chester Rushing) catches the eye of the rebellious Tonya (Erin Sanders). He is willing enough to accompany her that night to a carnival, though less than pleased when she also hooks up with Zack (Mike Manning), with whom she obviously has history, and his younger brother, Brett (Sloane Morgan Siegel). Chris finds himself being carried along to the home of Edward Cranston (Tobin Bell) and his wife, Edith (Lin Shaye). On the way he learns from the bitter Tonya that her young sister, Laura, vanished while in the care of Edith Cranston and that since, she and the others have made it their business to make Edith’s life miserable. Though Chris can’t bring himself to participate, the other three hurl rocks through the Cranstons’ windows, “for Laura”. Unexpectedly, as they turn to leave they are confronted by Edith herself, who tells them defiantly that they will never drive her away. Edith has reached her limit, however, and commits suicide… Guilt drives the four teenagers to respond to an invitation from Edward Cranston, who tells them that his wife was so forgiving as to remember them in her will. To inherit a large sum, all they have to do is make a phone-call… The Call has a few merits but it is finally a disappointment. Its main and most obvious virtue is the co-casting of Tobin Bell and Lin Shaye: stunt-casting if you like, but the presence of these veterans lends the film some ballast that it sorely needs. Of the four young actors given the uneviable task of playing opposite, only Chester Rushing makes an impact; in fact his performance is better than the screenplay by Patrick Stibbs deserves. The Crantons’ revenge upon the four young people takes the form of a summoning up of their darkest feelings of shame and guilt. These are rendered in disappointingly obvious terms, with the familiar distorted flashbacks and jump-scares strangely blended with sub-J-horror touches including distorting bodies and black mouths. (Note to film-makers: if you want us to understand your demons from hell, lose the echo effect.) The bottom line is, The Call is never scary. Nor does it succeed in creating suspension of disbelief, leaving the viewer to ponder unwelcome questions such as—if the Cranstons had these sorts of powers, how did the situation ever reach the point of Edith’s suicide? (And more prosaically, what kind of lame-ass police department must Willow Falls have had?) The film’s 80s setting is on the whole convincing, though Tonya’s foul mouth seems out of place; but it is hard to shake the suspicion that rather than nostalgia or hommage, this choice of backdrop was driven simply by the desire to build the film around the Cranstons’ rotary phone.