The Mechanical Man (1921, incomplete)
Original title: L’uomo meccanico. This important early science-fiction film was written and produced by André Deed (real name: Henri André Chapais), an important figure at the dawn of cinema who, after performing on the stage, began acting for Georges Méliès before relocating to Italy to work with pioneering director, Giovanni Pastrone. After WWI, Deed began making his own films, planning a trilogy of fantasy / action films built around a female criminal, “Mado”. The second of these (the third, alas, was never made) was The Mechanical Man, which involves a scientist creating a remote-controlled robot of great size and strength. In attempting to force the scientist to reveal his secrets, the criminal gang led by Mado kills him; the gang is then captured but Mado escapes, obtaining the robot’s blueprints by kidnapping the scientist’s niece. She then gains control of the robot and uses it to commit a series of crimes, while the scientist’s brother responds by building a second robot and pitting it against the first… So much we can say (and all existing prints of The Mechanical Man carry an opening title card that tells you that and more), but unfortunately only 27 of the film’s original 80 minutes now survive: indeed, it was considered a lost film until footage from a Portuguese print was discovered at the Cinemateca Brasileira. Most of what survives comes from the final third of the film, and even this indicates that it must have been a mixed bag. André Deed made his name as a comic actor, and he appears here as “Saltarello”: the surviving footage indicates that in addition to being engaged to the scientist’s niece, Elena (Mathilde Lambert), Saltarello was the comic relief; and he is seen here executing some slapstick humour. This emphasis on comedy seems odd in the context of descriptions of the serious crimes committed by Mado through the robot; though that said, the scene in which one of the robots invades a ball at the opera house, with the other guests uncertain whether it is real or someone in an elaborate costume, is nicely executed. However, the subsequent confrontation between the two robots is played straight, and can probably be considered the first “monster rumble” in film history. The robots, if not exactly convincing, are quite intimidating; while the special effects scenes, particularly one of a robot chasing a car, are primitive but rather delightful. There are suggestions that Fritz Lang was influenced by some of the scenes here in making Metropolis, and that doesn’t seem unreasonable. Conversely, the film itself – or rather, the trilogy initially conceived by André Deed – sounds as if it were influenced by the French serials, with the recurring Mado occupying the same space as anti-heroes like Fantomas.
(More on The Mechanical Man at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Midnight Faces (1926)
Lynn Claymore (Francis X. Bushman, JR aka Ralph Bushman) travels into the Florida bayou to take possession of the isolated property that he has inherited from his uncle, who he never knew. He is accompanied by Richard Mason (Jack Perrin), the lawyer who drew up the will, and by his manservant, Trohelius Snapp (Martin Turner). As they approach the house, Lynn is startled by what looks like smoke coming from a chimney, though Mason insists the house is empty; however, none of the three sees the shadowy figure lurking near an upstairs window… The late Peter Marlen’s servants, the butler, Otis (Al Hallett), and the housekeeper, Mrs Hart (Nora Cecil), arrive accompanied by a former colleague, Samuel Lund (Charles Belcher), who is now paralysed after an accident: Lynn promises he will be cared for. As the household settles in, a young woman arrives by boat, accompanied by a Chinese man. They walk together into the grounds of the house—before the woman, Mary Bronson (Kathryn McGuire), rushes into the house crying out for help, and dramatically collapses. Meanwhile, Trohelius gets increasingly spooked by strange knocking noises coming from deep within the house… Midnight Faces is another example of the “old dark house” horror-comedies of the silent era, and one with little to recommend it. The film is less than an hour long but feels interminable, thanks to a plot that makes no sense (there’s no real attempt to explain what the villains are up to, and we certainly can’t work it out for ourselves), and to a distinct absence of either horror or comedy. As to the former, there’s some nice shadowy cinematography by King D. Gray, but that’s about it; while the latter, sigh, rests almost entirely upon some “cowardly darkie” schtick from Martin Turner. The “secret” chief villain is immediately obvious; while the film also inflicts upon us a more than usually awful bit of racial impersonation, with Suie Chang played by Edward Peil Sr in a robe. Still, it’s a nice touch that the “sinister Chinese” turns out to be on the side of the angels. Otherwise, only one of the villains’ abrupt capitulation at the end, when an act of injustice seems in the works, is at all of note. Most of the readily available prints of Midnight Faces carry an imposed music-library soundtrack which is both inappropriate and relentless, so have your mute button ready.
High Voltage (1929)
A bus travelling through the Sierra Nevadas pulls over for gas. The attendant tries to dissuade the driver from going on through the snow, but the eternally optimistic Gus (Billy Bevan) is sure that they can get through. The four passengers consist of a young woman (Diane Ellis) going to Chicago to meet with her fiancé; J. Milton Hendrickson (Phillips Smalley), a self-satisfied banker; Dan Egan (Owen Moore), a detective; and Billie Davis (Carole Lombard), who he is escorting to prison. Hendrickson is appalled to find himself in company with a criminal, but The Kid, as the others call her, treats Billie with a kindness that causes her to drop her own sneering manner and respond. Despite Gus’s assurances, the bus founders in the falling snow and leaves the party dangerously stranded. Their only hope is an isolated, one-room church, to which they force their way. When they arrive, they find the church already occupied by a young man called Bill (William Boyd), who points out a few unwelcome truths—including that they are likely to be there for days, and that while he is willing to share, the food supply will not last… High Voltage is a pre-Code drama notable for several things, including that it marked the talkie debut of a radiant young Carole Lombard (billed as ‘Carol’); and that it was a talkie: in fact, this is a rare early film that understands how to handle dialogue, and just as well, given its scenario: the characters have little to do but talk. The date of the film’s production means that it can be quite comfortable about making a heroine out of a wanted criminal; and it goes one step further when Bill reveals that he, too, is on the run. The screenplay then raises the possibility of these two becoming one another’s redemption—only to place a terrible temptation in their way. The days pass slowly with no hope of rescue and with the supplies, both of food and fuel, dwindling, until The Kid finally collapses from cold and hunger. Driven to desperation, Bill and Billie plan to make a run for it, and finally slip away into the night—only to see a plane circling nearby, evidently in search of the party. Do they continue on regardless? – or do they turn back to alert the others, knowing what it will mean to each of them if they are found…? With a running-time of just under an hour, High Voltage doesn’t really have time to exploit all its possibilities—in particular the character of Egan, who does indeed (as Bill sees and sneeringly throws at him) have a thing for the young woman in his custody. Egan, too, finally has a big decision to make—because as it turns out, he recognised Bill from the outset…
Also known as: Marihuana: The Weed With Roots In Hell. With her mother’s entire focus upon her older daughter, Elaine (Dorothy Dehn), who is on the verge of a “society” marriage, neglected high-schooler Burma Roberts (Harley Wood) begins acting out, including going to bars with her boyfriend, Dick Collier (Hugh McArthur). One night, Burma and her friends attract the attention of Tony Santello (Pat Carlyle) and Nicky Romero (Paul Ellis), who buy their way into the kids’ acquaintance with free drinks and invite them to a party at Tony’s beach-house. There, the alcohol flows freely—and then the hosts bring out a tray of strange cigarettes… Produced and directed by exploitation-circuit mainstay, Dwaine Esper, and written by his wife, Hildegarde Stadie (who has a bit-part at the beginning), Marihuana lacks the goofy charm of Reefer Madness, but compensates with an amusingly cynical take on its own subject matter that its naive competitor entirely lacks. The most striking thing about this film is the gap between what it says and what it does: though it opens with the usual hand-wringing over the “scourge” of marij(h)uana, it shows clearly enough that the real problem amongst the kids is alcohol, then served up to much younger patrons; and while it chalks up all of the horrors suffered by its beleaguered protagonist to her use of drugs, in fact her path to hell begins when her boyfriend – who did not partake of weed – takes advantage of her while she’s under the influence and knocks her up. From that, all else stems. Marihuana is also much more clear-sighted about drug-pushing as a business: there’s only one round of free samples here, before we start dwelling on desperate customers and their hard-bitten suppliers. And this last is where the film fails somewhat, as it moves away from the deliberate (if now rather gigglesome) shocks of its earlier scenes to become a rather turgid crime-drama. However, the film’ disconnect extends to the gap between its declared concern about crime and its tacit emphasis on s-e-x; and in that respect, it has one thing that kept it on the exploitation-circuit for years: a scene in which, having partaken of the free samples supplied, a gaggle of female party-goers feel compelled to throw off their clothes and go skinny-dipping… We should note that one of the cops at the end of Marihuana is played by an unbilled William C. Thompson, who soon gave up acting for cinematography and shot, among other things, the immortal Plan 9 From Outer Space.
(More on Marihuana at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1936)
In the Pool of London, barber Sweeney Todd (Tod Slaughter) looks on as ship-owner’s daughter Johanna Oakley (Eve Lister) and sailor Mark Ingerstreet (Bruce Seton) say farewell before his departure: Mark is mate on Mr Oakley’s ship, the Golden Hope, and knows that unless his fortunes miraculously improve, he and Johanna can never marry. Indeed, arriving unexpectedly at the scene, Mr Oakley angrily orders Mark onboard and sends Johanna home in his carriage. Oakley then thanks Todd for alerting him to the assignation, and reacts eagerly when the barber tells him that he has money to invest in the shipbuilding project that is Oakley’s obsession—and which is running over budget. Returning to his shop, Todd finds waiting for him his new apprentice, Tobias (John Singer), and the beadle (Ben Souten aka Graham Soutten), who warns him that he will get no more boys from “the city”, Todd’s seven previous apprentices all having disappeared—at a cost to the city of a guinea a boy. Left alone with Tobias, Todd warns him that his first duty is silence…or he might meet an unpleasant fate… When a ship docks from India, Todd is waiting—encouraging into his shop a new customer who speaks unwarily to him of the fortune he made, and how no-one is waiting for him in England. Unseen, Todd crosses the room and pulls a lever—and the barber-chair tips back, dropping the unfortunate man into the darkness below… At last! After trawling through nearly the collected works of Tod Slaughter, we finally get to his most famous role, on both stage and screen; and he overacts here even more hugely than expected, rubbing his hands and chortling and uttering eulogies to “beautiful throats”, as the notorious Sweeney Todd. Though the original penny-dreadful, A String Of Pearls, was set in the 1780s, Sweeney Todd is shifted some fifty years to a faux-Dickensian London, and otherwise keeps only the bare outlines of the story—“the good bit”, as it were. Interestingly, though the matter is overtly one of money, Todd is clearly a psychopath who enjoys the practical side of his work immensely. The film doesn’t really show anything, but the script is full of speeches about throats and razors and how much Todd would like to “polish off” this person or that; while there is little disguise about what he and his partner, Mrs Lovatt (Stella Rho), are up to. And hilariously enough, where the censors clearly did intervene, in the matter of Mrs Lovatt’s pies, the film – rightly assuming that the audience knows the story anyway – plays along by never making the link explicit—but then dwelling to blackly humorous lengths upon those pies, and making nearly every character (most frequently the unfortunate Tobias) eat one. As almost always in Slaughter’s films, Sweeney Todd finally comes to grief not because of his criminal activities, but because of his pursuit of Johanna Oakley. This is also where the film itself outstays its welcome: did they think we’d really care how Mark Ingerstreet gained a fortune, or if the young lovers got together? – but this foot-dragging pays off at the climax, when Mrs Lovatt, furious with the use being made of her share of their proceeds, starts to work against Todd, and his murderous scheme unravels… Stella Rho manages to hold her own here, and John Singer can’t help but win sympathy as Tobias, but no-one else really has a chance to make an impact beside the grinning, cackling, razor-wielding Tod Slaughter.
The Patient In Room 18 (1938)
Based upon the novel by Mignon G. Eberhart. When his obsession with a particular case drives private investigator, Lance O’Leary (Patric Knowles), to the edge of a nervous breakdown, his doctor insists upon him being admitted to the private Thatcher Hospital, where his on-again / off-again girlfriend, Sarah Keate (Ann Sheridan), is head nurse. Soon after his admission Lance is forced out of the hospital’s best suite, Room 18, to make way for board member, Mr Warren (Edward McWade), who has recently purchased for the hospital a valuable supply of medicinal radium—shortly to be used upon himself. Pathologist Dr Bahman (Charles Trowbridge) berates the head of the hospital, Dr Lethany (Harland Tucker), accusing him frightening Warren over his health to force the donation, and deploring the thought of the public patients deprived of therapy as a consequence. Meanwhile, Jim Warren (John Ridgely) is scornfully turned away by his uncle, when he pleads for help in settling his debts. That night, a violent storm breaks, and the hospital is plunged into darkness; though later it is discovered that the lights were cut deliberately. When they come on again, Mr Warren is dead, the radium is missing, and Dr Lethany has disappeared… The bare outlines of Mignon Eberhart’s plot remain in The Patient In Room 18 – so too the novel’s hair-raising (though no doubt accurate at the time) view of the handling and uses of radium – but the characters have been altered beyond recognition, turning Eberhart’s wry middle-aged nurse-detective into Ann Sheridan, making Lance O’Leary (here a PI instead of a cop) the lead detective instead of her, and offering in place of what is effectively a sibling relationship a tiresome sparring-romance—in short, eliminating everything that makes the novels unique and substituting the same old formula, right down to Lance’s antagonistic working relationship with Inspector Foley (Cliff Clark), who just wants to arrest someone, anyone… Still, those unfamiliar with the source might get some entertainment out of this rather slapdash adaptation, which at least retains the web of (mostly) red-herring subplots surrounding the central mystery: Mrs Lethany (Jean Benedict) is fooling around with intern, Freddie Harker (Edward Raquello), under the nose of her husband, who is himself pursuing nurse Maida Day (Rosella Towne), who is secretly engaged to Jim Warren, who is feuding with his uncle… Lance O’Leary’s “rest cure” lasts only so long as it takes for murder to be committed down the corridor, with Warren’s cause of death confirmed as an overdose of morphine: something that puts suspicion squarely on the staff, Sarah included. On the other hand, Lance’s manservant, Bentley (Eric Stanley), a reformed criminal, is found to have a longstanding grudge against Warren, for whom he once worked. It then turns out that Higgins (Frank Orth), the hospital’s tipsy maintenance man, may be able to identify the murderer—but Higgins makes the mistake of revealing this fact on the hospital’s party-line…
Robot Pilot (1941)
Also known as: Emergency Landing. Desperate to get George Lambert (William Halligan), head of the aviation company he works for, to see the remote-control flight system developed by himself and his partner, “Doc” Williams (Emmett Vogan), test pilot Jerry Barton (Forrest Tucker) resorts to ambushing Lambert on the golf course and buzzing him with their scale model. Lambert is impressed, and finally agrees to back their project to build a remote-control plane. When the day for its test arrives, however, scepticism from the air force observers provokes Jerry into grandstanding by parachuting out of the plane; so when the glitch that has hampered development of the system recurs, the test plane crashes—much to the satisfaction of the industrial spies who have infiltrated Lambert’s company. A chastened Jerry quits and retreats to Arizona with Doc, where they continue to work on their project while acting as FAA officials for an isolated air-strip—until a chance encounter with Lambert’s daughter, Betty (Carol Hughes), and her aunt, Maude Marshall (Evelyn Brent), turns everything on its head… There ends up being precious little aviation in this alleged aviation film, which instead morphs into a “romantic comedy” of the most skin-crawling kind. Betty Lambert is one of the most unappealing “heroines” I’ve ever come across, a nasty, tantrum-throwing spoilt brat; until Jerry gets to “teach her a lesson” and they fall into each other’s arms for no discernible reason. Meanwhile, Robot Pilot also gives more screentime to a comic-relief Mexican (*shudder*) than to its plane. This is an example of the “preparedness” film which by 1941 the American censors were allowing, so there’s some early stuff about defence contracts and military hardware; and while I say “industrial spies”, the bad guys are probably meant to be enemy agents: they eventually steal a newly designed bomber from Lambert’s. Most of the non-action, however, takes place at the lonely retreat of Jerry and Doc where Betty and Maude end up under arrest for stealing petrol from a government installation. Much “comical” fighting ensues, until an opportunity arises for the remote-control plane to prove itself… Robot Pilot was Forrest Tucker’s first leading role, and he’s not good: he seems to be going for an aw-shucks quality, but comes across as a little “slow”. It occurs to me that he was trying to mimic Gary Cooper, opposite whom he made his film debut the year before. It also occurs to me that the film’s “fight until you fall in love” scenario, spoilt-brat heroine and desert setting were pinched from the same year’s The Bride Came C.O.D. Trust me, you don’t know what suffering is until you’re offered Carol Hughes in place of Bette Davis…
Omoo-Omoo, The Shark God (1949)
Based upon the novel Omoo by Herman Melville. In 1874, a ship under the command of Captain Roger Guy (Trevor Bardette) sets out from San Francisco for Tahiti. The ship carries no cargo and the crew is strangely mixed, including the alcoholic Dr Long (George Meeker), the brutal mate, Richards (Richard Benedict), and a stowaway called Tembo (Rudy Robles) who, after gaining the protection of Dr Long and crewman Jeff Garland (Ron Randell), is allowed to work his passage. Richards learns from “Chips” (Michael Whalen) of a previous voyage to Tahiti, during which the captain apparently stole and concealed some valuable pearls; Chips believes that this voyage is to retrieve them. However, the captain falls seriously ill, and Dr Long cannot help him. Garland persuades Guy’s daughter, Julie (Devera Burton), to let Tembo try: the native gives Guy some medicine, but precedes it with a ritual in which he speaks of “tabu” and his people’s shark-god, Omoo-Omoo… First things first: there are no sharks in this film, godly or otherwise; and just as well, perhaps, given its treatment of a stock-footage octopus, ugh. Second things second—Omoo-Omoo, The Shark God bears little if any resemblance to the novel it is supposedly based upon, being instead a dull, low-budget adventure film full of bad acting, inappropriate stock-footage animals and a condescending attitude to the natives that is both infuriating and stupid, considering that at the same time the white characters are forced to accept the “reality” of curses and the tabu. We learn that Guy did indeed steal and hide two perfect black pearls from the idol of Omoo-Omoo, and has returned in hopes of retrieving them. The scheming of Richards and Chips to gain possession of the pearls crosses paths with Guy falling victim to the tabu—which then descends to Julie, who becomes both dangerously ill, and dangerously obsessed with possessing the pearls… There is nothing much to enjoy about Omoo-Omoo, The Shark God beyond, perhaps, some of its minutiae—including its bizarre presentation of Tahiti as a dangerous island full of ravening wildlife and “savages”. (Though I note that it sounds as if the actors are saying “Taviti”: contemporary pronunciation or disclaimer?) Otherwise, I can only offer you Devara Burton’s performance as Julie, which is almost bad enough to make this film worth watching…almost.
Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Original title: Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot. Jacques Tati’s follow-up to Jour de Fête moved the setting for his comedy from the French countryside to a beach-side resort town, and introduced his alter-ego, M. Hulot, as one of the numerous holiday-makers. However, while M. Hulot himself progressively becomes the focus of the film’s humour, Tati finds other targets here, both general and specific. Many of them are universally recognisable – the enthusiastic wife dragging her unenthused husband from activity to activity; the obsessive photo-taker; the businessman on “holiday” who is never off the phone; the ex-military man who won’t stop rehashing his past glories – while others are very much of their time and place: in particular, Tati pokes fun at the elaborate rituals of greeting and parting required for even the most casual of encounters amongst the bourgeoisie, even when they’re supposed to be relaxing. The film’s cynical attitude to contemporary politics is also interesting. M. Hulot’s Holiday takes its time over its set-up, introducing its characters and the daily rituals of communal living at the hotel at which they stay or work; but once it builds up a head of steam, the sight gags start coming thick and fast—until it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. (I think I have to go with the folding canoe…) Interestingly enough, what we see here from Tati is an example of the dictum later spelled out by John Cleese re: Fawlty Towers: that humour isn’t watching someone doing something funny—it’s watching someone else watching someone doing something funny. That role falls chiefly to The Girl, as she is usually called, though we find out along the way that her name is Martine (Nathalie Pascaud); who, if she isn’t attracted to M. Hulot, exactly, at the very least learns to appreciate him. Which, by the way, sets up my second-favourite joke, when the two of them are dancing, and M. Hulot – being a gentleman – can’t work out where to put his hand…
Based upon The Gold Bug and The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe; also known as : Calypso. Inspector Warren (Jack Lewis) of Scotland Yard arrives in Montego Bay to seek the extradition of a criminal, Warner, better known as “The Professor” (Victor Jory). To his surprise, Inspector Chavez (Eric Coverley) refuses his request—and goes on to tell a story, to explain why… After winning the Manfish in a card game, Captain Brannigan (John Bromfield) uses it as a base for turtle-hunting with his three-man crew: “Swede” (Lon Chaney Jr), to whom the boat is home; and locals “Big Boy” (Theodore Purcell) and Domingo (Vincent Chang). Brannigan is involved with singer Mimi (Barbara Nichols), but this does not stop him putting the moves on Alita (Tessa Prendergast), a local who is being “kept” by an older man known as the Professor. The latter angrily intervenes and drags Alita away, forcing her back to the island where he keeps her isolated; but not before the ornate ring he wears catches Brannigan’s eye. On a hunting trip, Big Boy and Domingo are terrified when they come across a skeleton underwater. Brannigan, however, is only interested in the bottle found with it, which contains part of an aged parchment that hints at hidden treasure, and a ring like the Professor’s… Directed by W. Lee Wilder and written, as always, by his brother Myles, Manfish is a dreary would-be adventure film filled with hateful people doing hateful things, which gives us no reason to care about anything they do—except that someone is self-evidently going to kill someone else, and we just wish they’d get on with it. They don’t, though, before a partnership is forged between the nasty Professor and the even nastier Brannigan, who go searching together for the hidden treasure of Jean Lafitte: the former has the other half of the parchment and the ability to interpret it, while Brannigan has the ship and equipment. The two find what they seek, but hatred and greed ruin everything… Manfish was filmed on location in Jamaica, and that and its music (by “Clyde Hoyte and the Calypsos”) are the only reasons to watch. The film has precisely one good idea, namely how it executes the “tell-tale heart” aspect of its story. Lon Chaney Jr was in the sweaty-and-half-drunk phase of his career at this point, and though Swede is the only vaguely sympathetic character, really he only adds to the discomfort.
(Fun fact: Tessa Prendergast, who plays Alita, later became a designer and was responsible for Ursula Andress’s bikini in Dr No.)
Lake Of The Dead (1958)
Based upon the novel by André Bjerke. Original title: De dødes tjern; also known as: Lake Of The Damned. Six friends travel towards the isolated cabin owned by Bjørn Werner (Per Lillo-Stenberg). Bjørn’s twin sister, Liljan (Henny Moan), admits to being worried about her brother: she tells the others that she has always been able to tell when something is wrong with Bjørn, and has felt uneasy for the past few days. Arriving at the nearest station, the group is met by Bråten (Øyvind Øyen), a local policeman, who is a friend of Liljan’s fiancé, lawyer Harald Gran (George Richter). Bråten guides the others to the cabin, where there is no sign of Bjørn; however, since his gun and his dog are also missing, the others try to convince Liljan that he has strayed too far while hunting and is spending the night in a hut. Bråten stays for dinner, and afterwards tells the others – including writer Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad) and his wife, Sonja (Bjørg Engh); psychiatrist Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl); and editor and critic Gabriel Mørk (André Bjerke) – that the cabin has a bad reputation. The man who built it a century before, Tore Gruvik, was obsessed with his own sister and, when she became engaged, killed the couple and disposed of their bodies in the lake nearby. Driven to despair, he then drowned himself; and his ghost, so it is said, exerts an evil influence on anyone living in the cabin, driving them also to suicide… This Norwegian ghost story – or is it? – begins powerfully, building a low-key but creepy atmosphere over its opening phase, as the friends learn the dark history of the cabin and the lake and, the next day, discover terrible signs that the missing Bjørn may have fallen victim to the curse of Tore Gruvik, and drowned himself. But not everyone is prepared to believe in ghosts—and the mood of Lake Of The Dead shifts as the friends disagree amongst themselves over the significance of what they have found. While Mørk believes that Bjørn may well have fallen victim to the curse of the lake, Gran argues staunchly that while Bjørn is dead, the signs at the lake were faked and they should be looking for a human killer, not a ghost. Bugge, meanwhile, tries to elicit the truth from Bjørn’s diary, and from Liljan’s increasingly strange behaviour. There will, however, be another death before the mystery is solved… In the 1940s, author André Bjerke wrote several novels which featured psychiatrist Kai Bugge playing amateur detective in opposition to the police. This background is put to slightly odd use in Lake Of The Dead: Bjerke himself appears in the film, but as Gabriel Mørk, who embraces a supernatural reading of the events; while the screenplay, co-written by Bjerke and director Kåre Bergstrøm, shifts the film’s emphasis to its in-story author, Bernhard Borge—which is, in my opinion, its main failing, as Borge is effectively the comic relief: not in too obtrusive a way, but still too obtrusively, in a story so dependent on atmosphere and mood. Still, Lake Of The Dead has the latter in spades, thanks to the seriousness with which its subject matter is handled, and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Ragnar Sørensen; and if it is never quite the film its opening seems to promise, it is still a very effective thriller.
Devil’s Partner (1958 / 1961)
In a shack outside the isolated desert town of Furnace Flats, an old man performs a ritual involving goat’s blood before he dies… A young man called Nick Richards (Ed Nelson) arrives to visit his uncle who, feeling his health failing, sent for him. Sheriff Fuller (Spencer Carlisle) must tell Nick that his uncle, Pete Jensen, is dead, and under suspicious circumstances: that although the old man had only a slight cut on his wrist, a great deal of blood was found at the scene, which is currently being analysed. The sheriff gives Nick a box of his uncle’s meagre possessions, including a goat-skin parchment upon which – to Nick’s eyes only – some writing briefly appears. Nick moves into his uncle’s shack, which brings him into contact with Nell Lucas (Jean Allison), who had an arrangement for goat’s milk with Pete. Nell is engaged to David Simpson (Richard Crane), who owns the local gas station, and whose life is turned upside-down when he is savaged by his own dog: the first of several tragedies to strike around the small town… This independently-produced, low-budget horror movie is ambitious and has some interesting touches, but in the long run doesn’t amount to much. On the plus side, Devil’s Partner makes excellent use of its setting via some moody black-and-white cinematography, and really makes the viewer feel the relentless heat of the small New Mexico town—setting up its neatest little touch: as everyone observes to their bemusement, Nick doesn’t sweat. There are some atmospheric scenes here, and it is interesting to see a film of this time put so much emphasis upon the psychological damage done to a man by his facial disfigurement; but ultimately the film fails for the same reason that many of this sort do—namely, if Nick has all these gnarly powers, why is he wasting them on penny-ante stuff in a penny-ante town? The implication is that it is all about Nell, but if so we needed a better set-up in the first place: the horse before the cart, as it were. And speaking of horses, that brings me to another, entirely personal reason for my rejection of Devil’s Partner: the film is full of violence against animals, from the opening-scene goat sacrifice to the climactic killing of a horse…or is it a centaur? None of this is explicit, thankfully, and all of it was certainly faked; but it deflects attention and emotion from what the film thinks are its “real” horrors, which frankly pale in comparison. However, if you can cope with all that better than me, you might enjoy this little film. Devil’s Partner also stars Edgar Buchanan as Doc Lucas, Nell’s father, and Byron Foulger as “Papers”, the town drunk.
The Carpet Of Horror (1962)
Based upon the novel by Louis Weinert-Wilton; original title: Der Teppich des Grauens. As a man studies a set of secret documents, a shadowy figure throws a small pellet through a balcony window into his study: it begins to give off fumes, by which he is overcome. Dr Shipley (Antonio Casas), arriving for a meeting, cries out to the housekeeper to call the police, and rushes outside for his medical bag, only to find that his car has been stolen. Pursuing it, Shipley is attacked by two men in black, who are chased off by the arrival of the police. The doctor then tries to save the dying man with an experimental serum, but he is too late. The case falls to Inspector Burns (Julio Infiesta) and his subordinate, Inspector Webster (Marco Guglielmi): they discuss with Shipley the series of poison-murders linked to a crime-gang that once operated across India, but which is now based in London. Meanwhile, Harry Raffold (Joachim Fuchsberger) scrapes an acquaintance with Ann Learner (Karin Dor), and is allowed to escort her to the gate of the isolated country house where she lives with her uncle, John Millner (Roberto Rey). Harry presses on Ann a card with his phone-number, “in case of trouble”. Millner meets with a man called Crayton (Werner Peters), to whom he is to deliver some decoded documents pertaining to the criminal histories of their gang. When Crayton offers him his own cut of their last big robbery, Millner takes the bribe and reveals to him the identity of the gang’s secret boss. Later that night, Ann is woken by the sound of a fight below her window, and catches a glimpse of Harry as he flees. Going downstairs, she then finds her uncle dead—poisoned… You’ll probably start out thinking that “Carpet Of Terror” is a silly name for a would-be thriller; but before you’re ten minutes into it, you’ll probably have shifted to thinking it’s exactly right for this rather silly film…even though the carpet doesn’t have much to do with anything. A German-Italian-Spanish co-production – but set in London, of course – Carpet Of Terror was one of several krimis made to compete with the popular Edgar Wallace-based films being produced by Rialto; however, it managed only to capture the overarching absurdity of those films and none of their genuine fun and suspense. The scenario of a gang taking orders from someone whose identity they don’t know is Wallace-like, all right, and the film throws around a few red herrings in that regard; but it gives us no reason to be interested the gang’s activities, not even its series of murders by poison-pellet (which leave a pale spot on the carpet; eek!). Other subplots – most of which just feel like time-wasting, frankly – involve the police, or at least the extremely rude Inspector Webster, genuinely suspecting Harry and Ann of John Millner’s murder; Harry being mysteriously led to a hotel owned by one Mabel Hughes (Eleonora Rossi Drago), with whom he has, ahem, history; and even Mabel’s romantic indecision. Harry Raffold is an eye-rolling “hero”, a sort of domesticated Bond-figure, if I can put it that way, and don’t they pile it on? – he’s a secret agent! – and the heir to a title! – and women find him irresistible! (Some women…) Ann Learner is a typically useless “heroine”, just there to get abducted; Karin Dor was married to director Harald Reinl, which I guess explains that. Much more interesting is Bob, Harry’s servant / chauffeur / two-fisted sidekick, played by the black actor, Pierre Besari (though alas, he ends up more servant-y than his initial scenes suggest). The English-language version of the film does it no favours, with a riotous assembly of regional and class accents (points for trying, I guess). The Spanish-language version, meanwhile, was overseen by Eugenio Martin.
House Of Dreams (1963)
As he struggles to complete his new novel, Lee Hansen (Robert Berry) begins to be plagued by headaches and to suffer from strange dreams connected to an abandoned house with a bad reputation, which he and his brother used to play around as children: a house that forms the setting for his uncompleted story. Over time, the dreams become more explicit, being filled with images of death and scenes which begin to play out in the real world… Robert Berry was a student at Indiana University when he wrote, produced, directed and starred in the micro-budgeted House Of Dreams, a very early example of home-grown, hand-made regional film-making. Shot in and around the tiny town of Decker, this is a work of admirable ambition that seems to have been influenced by Carnival Of Souls. Its use of its limited settings is intelligent, and the cinematography atmospheric; while this must surely be one of the first horror movies to find a basis for its horror in a case of writer’s block. Ultimately, however, the film cannot overcome its own limitations. The dream sequences as such are well-executed, but the musical score that accompanies them, and occasionally signifies the intrusion of the dreams into reality, is repetitive and annoying and undermines their effectiveness. Meanwhile, the scenes of the Hansens’ crumbling marriage lack substance, even in a film this short, and also suffer from repetitiveness (though I guess you could argue that two people having the same conversations over and over isn’t an entirely unfair depiction of marriage!). Individual reaction to House Of Dreams will certainly depend upon the willingness of the viewer to get past these significant stumbling-blocks to the core ideas beyond. The emergence of a better quality print might help this process: this film was originally rescued from obscurity by Sinister Cinema, before being released by Alpha Video; but a restored copy has now been made available online through Indiana University.
Hercules And the Princess Of Troy (1965)
In order to propitiate the gods, the city of Troy is condemned to performing a virgin sacrifice each month: a young woman, chosen by ritual, is chained to a rocky outcrop off the shore, and left there for a sea-monster. In the face of the desperate pleas of the mother of the latest girl chosen, a soldier called Ortag (Roger Browne) attempts to defend her from the monster, but both fall victim… Though it is against the law, as defying the will of the gods, many families attempt to flee Troy with their daughters, only to fall foul of pirates lurking off the coast. However, one pirate ship attracts the attention of a vessel carrying Hercules (Gordon Scott), the young Ulysses (Mart Hulswit) and the doctor-philosopher, Diogenes (Paul Stevens). After a battle, the forces of Hercules are victorious, and the latest captives and slaves freed. Although grateful, the people of Troy are dismayed by Hercules’ plan to carry them home—where, as they anticipate, they are condemned by King Petra (Steve Garrett), the uncle and regent of Diana (Diana Hyland), who is to ascend the throne as soon as she comes of age. However, Hercules intervenes—offering to slay the monster himself… Directed by Albert Band, Hercules And The Princess Of Troy was produced as the pilot episode for a potential series, then released as a TV movie when the option wasn’t picked up. We can regret the latter, as there was potential here; and as it stands, its very briskness is part of the appeal of this “film”, which lacks the longeurs of its made-for-cinema rivals. The palace machinations, of necessity kept to a minimum, reveal Petra as the film’s “secret” villain: that he had Diana’s father killed, and is planning to dispose of her too before she can be crowned, by rigging the next selection of the sacrifice and murdering the High Priest involved before a suspicious Hercules can make him talk. Hercules and his people join forces with Diana’s jealous though devoted fiancé, Leander (Giorgio Ardisson aka George Ardisson), and with Ortag, who survived his encounter with the monster at the cost of severe injuries and disfigurement. He is able to tell Hercules that the monster’s underside is vulnerable. Hercules concocts a plan to lure the monster out of the water, so it can be killed; while Petra retaliates with a scheme of his own… Hercules And The Princess Of Troy is an enjoyable peplum—its highlight being its monster, a delightful giant lobster-thing, which is indeed lured out of the water at the climax (and meets a nasty fate, *sniff*). Gordon Scott, made up to look as much like Steve Reeves as possible, is a fair Hercules, though his “god-like” strength alters considerably from scene to scene, according to the demands of the plot. Gordon Mitchell appears briefly as the pirate captain.
When a boat drifting in the Mediterranean is boarded, a man and a woman are found dead on board, holding hands… When his sister, Sarah (Luciana Paluzzi), gets engaged, a drunken Jeffrey Hendel (George Hamilton) crashes the party and must finally be removed. Later, Jeffrey slips away to complete an illegal deal, carrying the money received to Angelo (Cameron Mitchell), who reminds him that he still owes a great deal more—and that he’d better get it quickly. Sarah goes to the airport to try and talk to David Edwards (Paris Dimoleon), a lawyer who has just flown in. He declines the conversation and leaves with a police escort. Despite the precaution, Edwards’ car is ambushed on a deserted road by a gang of thugs led by Angelo. The car and the driver are forced over a cliff, while Edwards is tortured until he reveals that the document Angelo wants is being carried by a man called Wells (Piero Aversa). Afterwards, Edwards is found dead, apparently the victim of an accidental drowning, but the police inspector (Takis Kavouras) isn’t so sure, especially not when Wells, too, is found dead in what looks like a suicide. The body is discovered by Sarah’s fiance, Nikos (Thodoros Roubanis), who leaves his prints on a carry-case owned by Edwards but entrusted to Wells. However, as he explains to the inspector, Nikos didn’t find what he was looking for: the last will made by Jeff and Sarah’s father, disinheriting them both… Medusa was apparently made chiefly because George Hamilton thought a Greek honeymoon might be nice, after marrying Alana Stewart: I’m glad someone got something out of it. Written by Christopher Wicking and directed by Gordon Hessler, this is a would-be arty crime thriller that borders on the giallo, with touches of aberrant psychology, a killer on the loose who may or may not be Jeffrey Hendel, and all sorts of people getting mixed up in the hunt for the missing will. This is one of those exasperating films where you can only work out what is supposed to be happening in any given scene from what happens later, and there are chunks of the plot that don’t make sense even then; but given that the film never gets around to explaining why broadly American Jeff has a sister with an Italian accent – in Greece – obviously we’re not supposed to be sweating the details. George Hamilton also produced Medusa, which goes a long way towards explaining his performance: “self-indulgent” doesn’t begin to describe it; though mind you, he’s not the only one. Thodoros Roubanis was another producer, and also arranged the film’s music, with the immediate result that the film begins with five minutes of him singing, then moves on to him dancing for five more. Cameron Mitchell also hams it up, but given that at one point Angelo beats the shit out of Jeff, we don’t hate him quite so much. Meanwhile, the new Mrs Hamilton also shows up for a few scenes. The film’s only good performance comes from Takis Kavouras as the police inspector, and his character isn’t even dignified with a name. Prints of this seem to vary between 90, 100 and 110 minutes: I watched the middle one and that was a surfeit. I have no idea why the film is called “Medusa” and am yet to discover anyone who does.
Shark Attack (1999)
In South Africa, marine biologist Marc Desantis (Cordell McQueen) returns to his boat from a night dive and attempts to email data to a friend. Suddenly, Desantis is attacked by two men in police uniform, who confiscate his computer and violently force him onto their boat. There, they slash his arm with a machete and throw him into the water—laughing when the sharks come… At a Florida university, Steven McKray (Casper Van Dien) receives both a voicemail and an email from Marc Desantis, hinting at something badly wrong with the shark population in his area; however; the data file is corrupted. Steven does his own research and discovers a terrifying escalation in shark attacks over the past few months. Travelling to Port Amanzi, Steven is met by local businessman, Lawrence Rhodes (Ernie Hudson), who also funds the Amanzi Marine Research Centre. It is obvious that the town of Port Amanzi is is terrible financial shape: Rhodes explains that the disappearance of the local fish population and the wave of shark attacks have destroyed both the fishing and tourist industries. Welcoming Steven’s help, Rhodes arranges a driver for him, Mani (Tony Capari). Their first stop is the research centre, where from former colleague, Dr Walter Craven (Bentley Mitchum), Steven learns that Marc is dead—his forearm found in a blacktip shark dissected for Craven’s own research. Steven meets up with Marc’s angry, grieving sister, Corinne (Jennifer McShane): they inspect Marc’s boat, where they find evidence that his death was not an accident… Whatever else it achieved (or not), Deep Blue Sea was certainly responsible for the initial outbreak 0f low-budget, direct-to-DVD or cable killer-animal films that has since reached almost plague proportions…I am happy to say. Nu Image’s Shark Attack seems to have been the first of this kudzu-like crop, and it benefits from this inasmuch as, knowing just how bad and stupid many of the later killer shark films would get, some of us are able to take a tolerant view of its increasingly silly plot. To its credit, the film does offer a fresh setting, with location filming in South Africa; some hissable villains; a dash of mad science (as per its model); lots of absurd action scenes featuring chases and car crashes and bad guys who can’t shoot straight (and magic non-ricocheting bullets); and a decent amount of shark stock footage, albeit not always the right species: indeed, this must have been amongst the last of the stock-footage killer-animal films, so we should enjoy that while we can. On the other hand, this also paves the way for a couple of on-screen dissections of real sharks (real dead animals still being cheaper than faking it at this point, sigh); though I don’t doubt the film’s disclaimer. The major problem with Shark Attack is that Casper van Dien is even less convincing as an action hero than he is as a scientist…which doesn’t stop the screenplay serving up scenes in which he beats up people bigger than himself and fights off sharks with his bare hands (take that, Franco Nero!). Furthermore, unfair as it is, it is impossible not to laugh at what now strikes us as the film’s charmingly primitive technology—with Marc’s attempt to let Steven know what he has discovered failing because his 120 kB data-file takes forever to download… Be that as it may— Though harassed by both the corrupt cops (Chris Olley, Jacob Makgoka) and the local fishermen, who blame the coming of the research centre for the loss of their livelihood, Steven and Corinne set out to solve the twin mysteries of Marc’s death and the bizarre behaviour of the local sharks. They make two critical discoveries: that Marc’s electronic “thumpers”, used to draw sharks to certain bodies of water, have been stolen and moved to bring the animals close to shore; and that the sharks have been treated with a synthetic hormone that has driven them into permanent feeding mode. However, someone is determined that the two won’t live to share what they know…
Steven McKray: “You call yourself a scientist! – a doctor!”
(More on Shark Attack at 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.)
Infernal Affairs III (2003)
Senior Inspector Lau Kin-ming (Andy Lau) is restricted to administrative duties while an investigation into the death of undercover cop, Chan Wing-yan (Tony Leung), is conducted. Eventually cleared, Lau is reinstated in Internal Affairs, where he discovers that, in addition to himself, Triad boss Hon Sam (Eric Tsiang) had succeeded in planting another five moles within the police force. Lau begins working to uncover them, with his suspicions falling upon Security Division Inspector Yeung Kam-wing (Leon Lai); even as he must struggle to conceal his true identity and his lies about the circumstances of Yan’s death from the equally suspicious Yeung. Over time, however, Lau’s identification with Yan and his feelings of guilt over his death increase to the point where he begins to lose touch with reality… While I’ve tried here to give a coherent summary of this film’s backbone, Infernal Affairs III offers no such coherency. Operating simultaneously as prequel and sequel, this film is almost maddening fragmented, beginning in the lead up to the events of the first film, and from there jumping backwards and forwards in the timeline – sometimes years, sometimes weeks – and demanding that the viewer remember not only every detail of both preceding films (including half the characters’ multiple identities) but when everything happened. There’s a solid base idea here, with Lau’s double life and his guilt finally becoming too much for him (his marriage, in traditional cop film style, is also crumbling); but the constant cross-cutting finally becomes annoying; and in addition to that, this film just doesn’t know when to quit. However, for better or worse, its structure allows Tong Leung to return as Yan, with almost as much time given to the last months and weeks of his life as to Lau’s increasingly erratic mental state as he works to expose Yeung. Anthony Wong, Eric Tsiang, Kelly Chen and Chapman Ho also get a return gig here; Shawn Yue and Edison Chen show up as the younger versions of the series’ protagonists; while, as the ambiguous Yeung, Leon Lai seems to be modelling his performance upon that of Francis Ng in the preceding film.
Little Girl’s Secret (2016)
Also known as: Wait Till Helen Comes, and based upon the novel of that name by Mary Downing Hahn. Baltimore, 1982. Troubled teen Molly (Sophie Nélisse), her younger brother, Michael (Liam Dickinson), their mother, Jean (Maria Bello), and Jean’s second husband, Dave (Callum Keith Rennie), leave their urban home for a rural retreat, an isolated house converted from an abandoned church. Also with them is Dave’s withdrawn young daughter, Heather (Isabelle Nélisse), who has been in care since her mother died in a house fire. Almost as soon as they arrive at their new home, Molly is gripped by a sense that something is wrong; but, full of resentment over her mother’s marriage, the move to the country and Heather’s arrival, she cannot get anyone to take seriously what they perceive as her acting out. Heather, meanwhile, is disturbed by her discovery in the neglected cemetery nearby of a commemorative plaque to a girl with the initials “H. E. H.”, her own initials. Heather begins to wander into the surrounding woods, adding to Molly’s discontent when she is tasked with looking after her. Searching for her one day, and hearing her talking, Molly can only stare in disbelief at the ghostly figure with which Heather is interacting… Little Girl’s Secret (a poor choice of retitling, suggesting something very other than a ghost story) is a fair though very low-key little horror movie, and also a very “young adult” one, with all that that implies. In particular, Jean and Dave are both awful parents—meaning that the three kids are left to take care of business on their own; or in Heather’s case, to find solace in the ghostly Helen that she’s not getting from her family. The film isn’t particularly scary, nor really tries to be, though it has some effective scenes; but its historical back-story, and the personal histories of Molly and Heather, are all unexpectedly grim. Overall, Little Girl’s Secret suffers very much from its murky cinematography (I don’t care if this is rural Maryland in the 80s, turn a damn light on!), so that too often you literally cannot see what’s happening – ironically, the film’s spook is about the easiest thing to see! – and from a similar murkiness in its handling of Molly. Her “sensitivity”, we finally gather, is an unwanted inheritance from her father, who was deemed mentally ill and finally killed himself; and it makes her alone capable of grasping what is really happening to Heather. There are some subtle details here, like Michael as the film’s voice of reason – he doesn’t believe in the ghost, but he makes a point of reassuring Molly about her own mental health – and the “missing” poster that still hangs, long neglected, around the nearest town, hinting at the fate of Helen’s previous “friend”; but too often the film has to use Molly’s improbably clear visions to fill in its details. The paralleling of Helen’s story and Heather’s is also too neat. However, the three youngest cast-members, including real-life sisters Sophie and Isabelle Nélisse, do a good job; while the adults, fittingly, are mostly negligible.
Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House (2017)
Based upon the book of the same name by Mark Felt and John O’Connor. When Mark Felt (Liam Neeson), Assistant Director of the FBI, is sounded out by the Nixon administration about the possible removal of J. Edgar Hoover, he responds with oblique references to Hoover’s “secret files”. When Hoover dies shortly afterwards, Felt and his people move immediately to destroy his papers; so that when representatives of the White House demand that Hoover’s files be turned over, they reply truthfully that no such files exist. Though Felt is the obvious choice to replace Hoover, L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas) is appointed Acting Director: it is soon obvious that this is a move to bring the FBI under government jurisdiction, and to compromise its independence. Gray appoints as his own subordinate Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), a former agent who represents the worst and dirtiest methods of the Hoover era, and who bears a savage grudge against his former colleagues. Shortly after the appointments of Gray and Sullivan, news breaks of a burglary at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, in which several of those arrested prove to have connections with the White House. The FBI begins an investigation into the burglary, only to find itself obstructed and finally shut down by the government: a move which finally drives Mark Felt to take a drastic step… Mark Felt’s personal reputation as the man who “never told a secret” is both the explicit and implicit fulcrum of this docu-drama, built around the single biggest secret of Felt’s life: that he was the whistleblower known as “Deep Throat”, whose revelations helped to bring down the Nixon administration: a fact revealed by Felt himself shortly before his death. Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down The White House is an interesting but ultimately unsatisfactory re-telling of the story known best through All The President’s Men and its film adaptation. The film absolutely assumes that the viewer knows the story, who all these people are, and what issues were at stake; and speaking as someone who more or less does, I can still say that too much is left murky—plus the whole shadowy cinematography / muttering characters thing that almost always plagues political thrillers (and I think we can classify this as that). The story itself – particularly the total reversal of the usual perspective, with Woodward and Bernstein reduced to bit-players, just one more weapon in Felt’s armoury – cannot help but be fascinating; but the film wavers between being “the Mark Felt story” and “the Deep Throat story”, and ends up being neither. Probably it needed to be a mini-series to do justice to both. As it is, pre-release cutting left those aspects of the screenplay dealing with Felt’s personal difficulties – his relationship with his troubled wife, Audrey (Diane Lane), and their anguish over their runaway daughter, Joanne (Maika Monroe) – fragmented and confusing, and they tend to work against the overarching central conflict. (Lane’s co-stars were at the time up in arms over what they considered the editorial destruction of a brilliant performance.) A focus upon Felt’s professional moral dilemma, and the myriad of ironies which his actions spawned, would have made for a stronger production. Likewise, Liam Neeson gives an effective performance here, but would have benefitted from more attention given to all the contradictions of Felt’s position.