Et Al. Nov22

Fear (1917)

Original title: Furcht. There is ongoing debate about the correct running-time of this film, which is often listed around at 72 minutes but exists generally in prints running between 45 and 55 minutes; some people believe the last was always the correct time. It was thought a lost film for many years, but finally resurfaced in various forms. Supposedly the one good quality print in existence is now held by the Swedish Film Institute—who have done nothing with it, frustratingly enough, given that Fear is both the earliest surviving film to feature Conrad Veidt, and that it represents the first collaboration between Veidt and Robert Weine, three years before their landmark work in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Meanwhile, the soundtrack was also lost from the longest-running accessible print, and has been replaced by a one constructed from library music which isn’t bad, as such things often are, but misjudged—too often loud and dramatic, when it should be quiet and creepy. Caveat emptor.

Count Greven (Bruno Decarli) returns home from his travels a changed man: once cheerful and gregarious, he now hides behind locked doors, shunning visitors and fearful of strangers. Sleepless, the Count divides his nights between watching for intruders, and gloating over an artefact which he keeps in a glass-fronted cabinet, hidden behind curtains… After a time, the Count’s manservant (Bernhard Goetzke) asks the local minister (Hermann Picha) to intervene. The Count is brought to confess that, on his travels, he heard about a certain statuette of Buddha in an Indian temple. He became obsessed with seeing it—and having seen it, stole it. He now fears the vengeance of the temple’s High Priest (Conrad Veidt). Sure enough, one night the Count finds himself confronted by the priest: by this time his terror and sleeplessness have driven him to the point where he begs for death. The priest, however, tells him that vengeance will not come until he has learned to love life again; that in seven years’ time, he will fall by the hand of someone who loves him… Fear is an unbalanced film, but those aspects of it which work mark an important stepping-stone in the development of the horror movie. In particular, it is uncertain whether the appearances of the High Priest are real, or a supernatural visitation, or just the product of a fevered imagination—whether, that is, the Count condemns himself. The early sequences depicting the Count’s terror and paranoia are effective, but then too much of the film is given over to the intervening seven years, in which he decides that he may as well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, and goes out to experience as much “life” as possible. Thus we follow him while he pursues a course of wine, women and song, dabbles in SCIENCE!! (no, really), and then – rather stupidly, we might feel, under the circumstances – falls in love. But always the clock is ticking… Bruno Decarli necessarily dominates Fear: his performance lacks subtlety, though it is not ineffective. On the other hand, we do not see nearly enough of Conrad Veidt – but then, do we ever? (note to self: find a print of Nazi Agent) – and we want more of him even though this was made during that weird phase of his career when he kept getting cast as Indians

Seven Keys To Baldpate (1917)

Based upon the novel by Earl Derr Biggers and the play by George M. Cohan. Author George Washington Magee (George M. Cohan) celebrates another best-seller, unperturbed by newspaper criticism or the strictures of his friend, businessman Hall Bentley (Frank Losee), who likewise thinks that Magee should be using his talent to write serious fiction, not thrillers. An argument between the two ends in a bet: that Magee can write a novel in the space of twenty-four hours. Bentley offers the Baldpate Inn as an isolated retreat for Magee: a summer resort, it is currently closed and deserted. Magee travels to the nearest railway station, where he is met by Bentley’s caretaker, Quimby (Russell Bassett), who has received instructions to prepare the inn for its single guest. As they walk along, Quimby points out the cottage of a woman-hating recluse (Eric Hudson) who sometimes likes to dress as a ghost and “haunt” the locals. At the inn, Quimby gets Magee settled before agreeing to return at the following midnight, the end of the twenty-four hour period, to check his manuscript. He then hands Magee a key to the inn, which he tells him is the only one in existence, and assures him that he will not be disturbed—but as it turns out, neither of these things is true… Though much-filmed since, Earl Derr Bigger’s 1913 novel, Seven Keys To Baldpate, was first turned into a stage-play by George M. Cohan as a vehicle for himself; he then appeared in this, its oldest-surviving screen adaptation. At the time, Cohan’s participation dominated all discussion, but at this distance he does not bring enough to the central role of the beleaguered author to compensate for the film’s shortcomings. Part of the problem is that the story – which involves all sorts of people, with a variety of identities and agendas, some hidden, some not, descending upon the “deserted” inn – relies on its dialogue; and what you can imagine working brilliantly on stage struggles to make an impact in this silent version—which is, furthermore, lacking adequate intertitles (probably because everyone at the time was familiar with its details). A comparison between this and the 1929 talkie version – which was based on Cohan’s play, not the novel – only underscores the point. Be all that as it may, Magee soon finds himself beset by a gang of crooks attempting to bribe a politician; the politician himself, Mayor Cargan (Joseph W. Smiley); the latter’s fiancée, Mrs Rhodes (Corene Uzzell), who is determined to save him from himself; her friend, newspaperwoman Mary Norton (Anna Q. Nilsson); Mrs Hayden (Elda Furry aka Hedda Hopper), the wife of the official behind the bribe; and the local “ghost”…most of whom let themselves in with a key… George M. Cohan does a fair job as Magee, but ultimately this version of Seven Keys To Baldpate is best served by its female cast-members—a particular highlight being Mary Norton’s reaction to a dramatic “faint” executed by the supposed Mrs Hayden, who turns out to be someone else entirely…

(The first filming of Seven Keys To Baldpate was an Australian version made the year before, based on the play which an American company had toured with in 1914. Only three reels of this film now survive: they are held by the National Film and Sound Archive, and are not publicly accessible.)

Midnight Warning (1932)

Based upon the story Eyes Of Mystery by Norman Battle. Just before midnight, special investigator William Cornish (William ‘Stage’ Boyd) calls upon his old friend, nerve specialist Dr Steven Walcott, at the Clarenden Arms hotel. Walcott shows to Cornish something he found in the fireplace of his suite: a human ear-bone. The two men are debating the significance of the find when Walcott, with a cry, collapses. Cornish summons help, which arrives in the form of hotel manager, Mr Gordon (Huntley Gordon), and Dr Bronson (Phillips Smalley): the latter concludes that Walcott merely fainted, and that the blood on his forehead is from hitting his head. Meanwhile, the desk-clerk, Rankin (Lloyd Whitlock), who accompanied the other two, moves discreetly to close the window and pull down the blind; though Cornish sees him in a mirror. Cornish says nothing, but when they are gone he tells Walcott that the wound in his forehead was made by a bullet, and that Bronson at least must know it… Well, well, well. I can only suppose that the mystery plot at the heart of this low-budget, independent production can be traced to Norman Battle’s story…which raises questions about Terence Fisher’s 1950 film, So Long At The Fair, which uses exactly the same plot (though in a different setting) but was supposedly based upon a novel by Anthony Thorne. Hmm. This background makes it hard to discuss Midnight Warning, as you can’t really do so without ruining its surprises (and those of the later film; and I have an idea there’s another version of it out there somewhere). Since the plot is all this film has, I’ll try to be indirect. Cornish and Walcott set out to determine, first, where the shot must have been fired from, and consequently by whom, and become involved in the strange situation of Enid van Buren (Claudia Dell) and her fiancé (John Harron), who are waging a campaign of terror against the Clarenden Arms for reasons of their own. Meanwhile, Gordon, Dr Bronson and their co-conspirator, an undertaker called Adolph Klein (Lloyd Ingraham), take desperate measures to keep a secret that, once told, will ruin the hotel and them along with it… Midnight Warning is finally too silly to be effective, particularly the climactic scene in which the bad guys insist – at length – that they haven’t done anything legally wrong (I beg to differ!). The acting is poor, with Boyd hardly convincing as a “brilliant” detective, and there are various low-budget-y glitches along the way (at one point, Claudia Dell calls her co-star “John” instead of his character’s name, “Erich”). Only the central idea is worth watching the film for—so if anyone did rip this off, shame on them.

Midnight Phantom (1935)

James Sullivan (Jim Farley), newly appointed Chief of Police, is determined to clean corruption out of his department and wage war against organised crime in his city—and his hard-line methods make him many enemies in the process, in and out of the police force. When Lt Dan Burke (Lloyd Hughes) asks Sullivan’s consent to his engagement to his daughter, Diana (Claudia Dell), he gives it, though he is disappointed in her choice. Sullivan breaks the news to his friend, the criminologist Professor David Graham (Reginald Denny), who takes it on the chin. Sullivan himself is confronted by the furious mother (Mary Foy) of his secretary, Kathleen Ryan (Barbara Bedford), who refuses to believe there is nothing wrong between them. Meanwhile, Burke is involved in a high-speed chase, in which a car carrying armed robbers who killed a teller crashes. To his horror, Burke discovers his young brother among the gang; he dies in Dan’s arms. On impulse, Dan tries to hide the dead boy’s identity but the truth leaks out. When Sullivan insists that the engagement be broken off, Dan angrily refuses. David Graham gives a demonstration attended by Sullivan, some of his men, and other interested parties; and at the end of it, Sullivan is found murdered… I have no idea why this film is called “Midnight Phantom” – I seem to be saying that a lot lately – a title that implies something other than a low-budget crime drama. (Yes, I was disappointed.) This is a strange, unbalanced little film that takes way too long over its set-up, with James Sullivan going to great lengths to make enemies of various kinds, but then rushes through the rest of its plot to its rather absurd conclusion (plus a tacky coda). Along the way we get the bizarre touch of Sullivan not having an affair with his secretary (we learn that this sort of indirect blackmail was used previously to ruin an inconvenient District Attorney); while the subplot about Dan’s brother comes out of nowhere and is weirdly handled, as the actual hiding of the kid’s identity only emerges after the event—so Diana’s rather impatient attempt to “cheer up” her unhappy fiancé makes her seem like a bit of an ass. (In any event, I’ve had a surfeit of Claudia Dell lately!) David Graham’s ridiculous Lombroso-ian seminar, in which he demonstrates how various criminal types can be spotted just by looking, helpfully brings together in one room Sullivan and everyone with motive to kill him, so we are hardly surprised at the outcome. Initial suspicion falls on Dan Burke, and he must fight back with some rapid detection to expose the real guilty party…

Mystery House (1938)

Based upon The Mystery Of Hunting’s End by Mignon G. Eberhart. Businessman Hubert Kingery (Eric Stanley) hosts a weekend party at his isolated hunting-lodge. However, his real purpose is to reveal to the officers of his company that funds have been embezzled via forgery, and that he knows one of them is guilty… Later that night, Kingery retires to his room after settling his dog outside his door—but as soon as he closes and bolts that door, a shot is fired… When her father’s death is ruled suicide, Gwen Kingery (Anne Nagel) is outraged, and determines to hire a private investigator over the objections of her irascible, wheelchair-bound Aunt Lucy (Elspeth Dudgeon). Sarah Keate (Ann Sheridan), who is nursing Miss Kingery, mentions that she knows a detective, Lance O’Leary (Dick Purcell), who Gwen hires. She also invites all the previous guests back under the guise of a hunting-party, and they are all out of the house when the detective arrives—and someone takes a shot at him. When the guests return, it is with the news that another of the party, Helen Page (Jean Benedict), has apparently killed herself… All my complaints regarding The Patient In Room 18 apply to this sequel, only more so, with the importance to the story of Sarah Keate – her creator’s series protagonist – reduced even further, to a standing-around-admiring-the-hero role: it’s painful seeing Ann Sheridan wasted like this. And this time we don’t even have any alarming contemporary medical practice to keep us occupied; why bother to pretend you’re filming the books at all? But even in its own right, Mystery House hasn’t much to recommend it. This is a slapdash little B-film full of characters who are never introduced properly and who barely react when the people around them start dying; and murder victims – three: count ’em, three – who all like to announce that they know something incriminating but aren’t going to tell anyone just yet… We’re not given any reason to care whodunnit, so it hardly matters that the solution pulled out of O’Leary’s hat doesn’t make much sense, or at least doesn’t answer half the questions raised. But then, this is the kind of film in which strangulation-by-wire can be mistaken for suicide-by-gunshot, so obviously we’re not supposed to be sweating the details. Eric Stanley and Jean Benedict, two of the murder victims here, were both in The Patient In Room 18 as well; otherwise, Trevor Bardette is the only familiar face in an undistinguished supporting cast.

(More on this film in Spinning Newspaper Injures Printer – we have another Repeat Offender!)

Forced Landing (1941)

As a plane flies over the country of Mosaque, it catches fire. The pilot makes a forced landing in the jungle and crawls away alive—only to be immediately shot dead… Needing work, American pilot Dan Kendall (Richard Arlen) joins the Air Corps of Mosaque, but then gets frustrated by the lack of action and the absence of his friend, Petchnikoff (Harold Goodwin), who talked him into it. One day, the capital of Mosaque is attacked by bandits led by Andros Banshek (J. Carrol Naish), a former general who lost his position during a recent coup. During the uproar, Dan rescues Johanna (Eva Gabor), the daughter of Professor Van Deuren (Victor Varconi), who has a position at the remote country mines. Dan’s attentions to Johanna earn him the enmity of Colonel Golas (Nils Asther), one of the architects of the coup, and Johanna’s fiancé. Dan ends up in prison, but agrees to a deal with Golas: he will resign from the Air Corps and instead take a civilian position ferrying supplies to the mines. He does not know that Golas and his superior, the General (John Miljian), are systematically bringing down those planes on which the payroll gold is being carried… Forced Landing is the second of the three Pine-Thomas Productions aviation films starring Richard Arlen, following Power Dive. It is actually frustratingly short on aviation until its climactic scene, which finds Johanna twice taking control of a plane while Dan has to deal hands-on with other crises; but while this is a nice surprise, it can’t quite compensate for the rest of the film, which is marked by annoying characters and inexplicable racial casting—though that said, it is never clear where “Mosaque” is supposed to be. Dan and Johanna end up caught between Golas and the General, who are ruthlessly pillaging the country, and Banshek and his bandits, who are trying to re-seize control and not too fussed about disposing of anyone who gets in their way. Their situation is further complicated by an uprising of unpaid workers at the mines, where the Professor has fallen ill; and by the serious wounding of Banshek’s young son, Nando (Bobby Dillon), who is shot in an exchange between the bandits and Golas’s men. Meanwhile, Dan has spotted the downed plane of his friend, Petchnikoff, and learns of his grim fate; he also finds himself facing the same fate, when he volunteers to fly the payroll to the mines in hopes of stopping the riot…

The Root Of All Evil (1947)

Based upon the novel by J. S. Fletcher. Farmer’s daughter Jeckie Farnish (Phyllis Calvert) becomes engaged to rising young businessman, Albert Grice (Hubert Gregg); however, he tells her that they cannot be married until his father takes him into partnership. While Grice is away on business, the bailiffs take possession of the farm owned by James Farnish (Brefni O’Rorke). Desperate, Jeckie calls upon George Grice (Arthur Young), trying to negotiate a loan; but not only does he reject her request, speaking scornfully of “failures”, he tells her angrily that Albert will never marry her—and he is right… With the farm gone and all their possessions sold, the Farnishes must start again. The weight of it falls on Jeckie—and she is left to support her father after her rebellious young sister, Rushie (Hazel Court), runs away to get married. Determined to raise some money by whatever means she can, Jeckie consults a solicitor about bringing a breach of promise action against Albert, and wins a significant settlement from the infuriated George Grice. Money in hand, Jeckie then sets herself up in business in competition with the Grices—determined to bring them to ruin… The Root Of All Evil is an exasperating film whose entire purpose is to judge and criticise its protagonist for – and let’s be quite clear about this – not sitting on her hands when life serves her lemons, and not taking it lying down when other people do dirt to her. The film is genuinely horrified by Jeckie’s professional and financial acuity, and wrings its hands in the most aggravating way as she founds a successful business, makes enough money so that her feckless father doesn’t have to work, builds another business, and finally reaches the point of being the main employer of people in her local community—a point you might want to keep in mind as the film sets about, inevitably, punishing her for all this unfeminine competence by destroying what she has created. Before this, however, Jeckie has to suffer a series of lectures from her complete failure of a father, her smugly domestic sister, and the properly manly Joe Bartle (John McCallum), who of course assumes that one day she’ll come to her senses, give up all her ridiculous “succeeding at whatever she turns her hand to” proceedings, and realise that she’s loved him all along. (And leave with him for Canada, because he’s a failure in England too.) Meanwhile, Jeckie gets screwed over by her business partner, Charles Mortimer (Michael Rennie), who romances her without bothering to mention that he’s married—and is then allowed to assume the moral high ground when she punishes him for it. (Albert at least has the grace to be ashamed of himself.) I  can only suppose that the film’s drum-banging over settling for less, and how money is a nasty, dirty thing that no nice person could possibly want anything to do with, was aimed at Austerity Britain audiences – or, more likely, the women being forced back into the home, post-war – but my goodness, it gets tiresome.

Killer Shark (1950)

Many years after giving up the rat-race, Jeffrey White (Roland Winters) captains a shark-fishing boat that operates out of Manzanilla, Mexico. As a result of his separation from his wife, he has not seen his son in many years; but now he has arranged for college-aged Ted (Roddy McDowall) to join him on the boat for a fishing expedition. The other members of the crew, particularly Ramon (Edward Norris), get impatient when Ted is late and holds up the boat’s departure at a time when the price for shark liver is so high; but Jeff insists upon waiting. When Ted does arrive, he is dismayed to discover that his father’s boat is not at all what he expected; Jeff, too, realises that he and his son have little in common, though he tries to interest Ted in his work. After a rough start, Ted tries to pitch in around the boat, but his efforts lead to disaster when the boat finds its first good fishing territory. Trying to help Ramon lace buoys, Ted falls overboard and must be rescued, with both Ramon and Jeff mauled by sharks before the three are pulled back aboard. The rest of the crew, knowing that otherwise they will not be paid, wants to complete the fishing but Ted insists on returning to shore for proper medical care. It is only then that he learns that his father is in debt over a new refrigeration unit, and may now lose his boat: a discovery that drives Ted to desperate action… Two things: (i) thank you so much to whoever convinced the world at this time that shark-liver oil was a cure-all; and (ii) don’t you love a film called “Killer Shark” in which no humans are killed but sharks are slaughtered and butchered in countless numbers? But even without this – rendered via stock footage but none the less repugnant for that – this is an over-obvious and rather unpleasant coming-of-age film, in which all sympathies are tacitly with Jeff White, and the woman-raised, college-softened Ted has to take his licks in the school of hard knocks. (Jeff running out on his wife and son goes unremarked.) Ted’s initial reaction to discovering his father in the company of Mexicans…in Mexico…aside, my sympathies were all with him, since Jeff obviously just invited him for “a fishing holiday” without telling him anything about his boat or the nature of the work. The script (by Charles Lang, who appears as Jeff’s friend, McCann) then puts Ted through the usual making-a-fool-of-himself wringer, until genuine tragedy strikes. Determined to save his father’s boat by way of recompense, and with the usual crew having departed on another hunt, Ted rounds up some rough replacements and sets out after a new consignment of shark liver—but soon finds he may be in over his head… This was one of Roddy McDowall’s transition-to-adult-acting films (and as others have remarked: MGM to Monogram, ouch), and there’s not much to enjoy about it. Edward Norris and Laurette Luez appear as the brother and sister, Ramon and Maria: both start out attempting an accent and then stop bothering; Douglas Fowley is Ted’s duplicitous replacement captain, Bracado; and Nacho Galindo is Maestro, ship’s cook and Odious Comic Relief, whose schtick consists of laughing uproariously at everything, and I mean everything. Killer Shark was directed by another person transitioning to lead roles, as it were, and at that time still known by his given name of Oscar—but who soon found greener pastures as Budd Boetticher.

Twilight For The Gods (1958)

Based upon the novel by Ernest K. Gann. A lack of other transport options means that those people wishing to leave a small Polynesian island must do so on the Cannibal, a rickety brigantine captained by its owner, David Bell (Rock Hudson). Onboard, there is tension between Bell and his first officer, Ramsay (Arthur Kennedy), who resents where circumstances have landed him and takes it out by stirring up trouble with the crew. The passengers board: they include Reverend Butterfield (Ernest Truex), a missionary who has begun to doubt; Feodor (Vladimir Sokoloff) and Ida Morris (Celia Lovsky), refugees; Ethel Peacock (Judith Evelyn), a failing singer, and Harry Hutton (Leif Erickson), her blustering manager; Oliver Wiggins (Richard Haydn), a British aristocrat turned beachcomber; and Mrs Charlotte King (Cyd Charisse), who questions the booking agent closely over whether or not the Cannibal will stop anywhere before reaching Mexico. The journey starts well, though the close quarters throw the passengers together more than some of them like; but the ship’s condition, including a leak that requires constant pumping, increases the tension between Bell and Ramsay. Charlotte is smitten by the handsome captain, though he fails to respond to her overtures; while Ramsay recognises her: that she is not “Charlotte King” at all, and that she is running from the law… I’m somewhat uncomfortable not categorising Twilight For The Gods as a disaster movie but, in the wash-up, it just didn’t feel quite right. Most of the components are in place, though: broad-strokes characterisations, a plethora of soap, and a plot that eventually finds the Cannibal hit by a storm and in danger of sinking; not to mention the name of Ernest K. Gann in the credits. But I can only offer the old pornography definition and say I know one when I see one—or not. While the rest go through their familiar motions, the plot focuses on the tentative relationship developing between the romantically inexperienced Bell and the only-too-experienced Charlotte—and while the film turns coy over just how experienced that is, we do learn that she was an “escort” of some sort or another, unwittingly (it is suggested) drawn into a scam in which men were isolated and robbed and left too embarrassed to press charges. She is now on the run, having jumped bail, after being charged in the unintended death of one of her “clients”. Presumably to demonstrate that in spite of everything, Charlotte is at heart a good girl who just wants to get married, she institutes a teeth-clenchingly obvious pursuit of Bell, as she questions him repeatedly over what his WIFE thinks of his career, where he leaves his WIFE, how his WIFE copes with being alone, yada-yada. However, this does set up the film’s most audacious touch when Ramsay uses his knowledge of her to blackmail Charlotte into “coming to his cabin”—only to recoil from her in shock when she starts disrobing before she’s even through the door. (“This is what I’m here for, isn’t it?”) Eventually Bell finds out the truth, and great is the angst thereof; though as it turns out, he has a dark past of his own… As the Cannibal presses on and conditions worsen, Ramsay begins to insist upon the journey being cut short, and the ship turned towards Hawaii; accusing Bell of endangering everyone’s life for Charlotte’s benefit when he refuses. But when a storm hits, Bell is left with no choice—assuming that even the combined efforts of crew and passengers are enough to keep the ship afloat until they reach the islands… Ultimately I think the problem with Twilight For The Gods is too much soap and not enough disaster; though the film has its moments, if you like this sort of thing. In addition to those named, the cast includes Charles McGraw and Wallace Ford, while Morris Ankrum also turns up briefly – in uniform, of course! – and Bess Flowers has another of her countless tiny bit parts.

(Trigger warning: we know that in spite of his brusque, antisocial attitude, David Bell is a nice guy, because he has a cute little dog. However—don’t get too attached…)

The Flight That Disappeared (1961)

As passengers board a flight from Los Angeles to Washington D. C., both Captain Hank Norton (John Bryant) and stewardess Joan Agnew (Bernadette Hale) tease their colleagues, co-pilot Jack Peters (Brad Trumbull) and stewardess Barbara Nielsen (Nancy Hale), about their upcoming marriage. Dr Carl Morris (Dayton Lummis) is recognised by both his mouthy seat-mate, Jameson (Roy Engel), who insists upon giving the scientist his views on America’s weapons program, and nervous passenger Walter Cooper (Harvey Stephens) who, to the dismay of his wife, Helen (Meg Wyllie), immediately becomes agitated. She tries to remind him that they are taking a trip to “rest and forget”, but Cooper ignores her—saying darkly that he knows Morris will listen to him; he must… Meanwhile, Tom Endicott (Craig Hill) tries to flirt with Marcia Paxton (Paula Raymond), but finds her strangely bitter on the subject of marriage and the future. As the plane crosses over the mountains, the pilots request clearance to climb, in order to avoid a storm cell—and having begun, the plane keeps right on climbing, no matter what the pilots do… I contemplated giving The Flight That Disappeared the full treatment, but the fact is, that synopsis is misleading, and so is the film’s poster. This isn’t a disaster movie; it isn’t even a plane film, really; rather it is, and most unexpectedly, a science-fiction / fantasy-ish rumination upon the Cold War and the arms race, which – daringly for its time – evinces a blunt and unqualified anti-nukes stance. We know who Dr Morris is; it is later revealed that Marcia Paxton is a brilliant mathematician, and Tom Endicott the developer of a new rocket system: together, they have the ability to create, in effect, a Doomsday Weapon—if they’re allowed to go ahead… Though never less than interesting, given its premise, The Flight That Disappeared is anything but subtle, and occasionally becomes outright absurd—though less with respect to its plot, which finds the plane disappearing into the stratosphere and the three scientists aboard kidnapped by mysterious beings and forced (à la A Matter Of Life And Death) to answer for their crimes against humanity, actual and potential, than the naivety which presumes that the people collectively responsible for such a weapon would be allowed to wander around without any security, and to travel on the same plane—and that they would ultimately have a choice about proceeding with their work or not. Me being me, however—I was less absorbed by the metaphysical / political aspects of this film than I was by the supporting plot which finds the airline executives and airport crews on the ground trying to figure out where the hell their plane went…and while for a few dismaying moments near the end we fear that the screenplay is going to cop out, I’m pleased to report that it finally holds its nerve.

Hercules And The Tyrants Of Babylon (1964)

Original title: Ercole contro i tiranni di Babilonia. In Babylon, the throne has been divided amongst three siblings: warlike Salmanassar (Livio Lorenzon), scheming Azzur (Tullio Altamura) and the beautiful Taneal (Helga Liné), who publicly holds her brothers to their father’s intentions, but secretly has plans of her own. Salmanassar is furious at the defeat of his army, and incredulous when his surviving officers speak of a single man of great strength, who joined with their enemies and helped overthrow the attack. The rulers receive King Phaleg (Mario Petri) of the Assyrians, who showers them with rich gifts before offering to buy all the slaves currently held by Babylon. Suspecting that Phaleg is raising an army to turn against them, the three temporise until Taneal, plying Phaleg with drugged wine, extracts from him the truth: that somewhere amongst those slaves is Asparia (Anna-Maria Polani), Queen of the Hellenes, who he plans to force into marriage. Determined to stop the alliance, the Babylonians send their troops to attack the Assyrians… Meanwhile, the loyal Hercules (Rock Stevens aka Peter Lupus) is searching for his queen and, having learned of her fate, approaching Babylon. Hercules intervenes in the Babylonian attack, saving Phaleg, who in turn reveals to him Asparia’s whereabouts—but not his plans for her… Hercules And The Tyrants Of Babylon is an interesting peplum—somewhat overlong, perhaps, but so filled with conspiracies, and with double- and triple-crosses, that this can hardly be avoided. The film balances its action and its palace-plotting quite well, and manages some genuinely effective scenes—such as when, in response to efforts to find Aspasia amongst the crowd, her fellow slaves pull an “I’m Spartacus”…and suffer the consequences. Rock Stevens gives a fair performance as Hercules, who here is just some strong guy, rather than a demi-god; and being human, is amusingly less bound by “the rules”—for example, when he discovers Phaleg’s plans for Aspasia, the loyalty oath that Phaleg tricked him into swearing goes right out the window. And while the screenplay (by Luciano Martino and Domenico Paolella, the latter also directing) is a bit fuzzy on the point, it seems that Hercules is merely Aspasia’s devoted servant—which makes this the rare peplum – the rare film – without a romantic subplot; yay! Bad Girl Taneal is unsurprisingly more interesting than either Aspasia or her own brothers, if only because she is compelled to come up with something more imaginative than just a forced alliance with Hellas, with Salmanassar and Azzur at each other’s throats over who gets to marry Aspasia. As Babylon’s fortunes begin to shift, Taneal makes plans to plunder all the wealth she can, before – through her secret knowledge of its construction – literally bringing the city down upon the heads of anyone unfortunate enough to be inside…

Laser Mission (1989)

At a function to celebrate the finding of the world’s biggest diamond, a team of mercenaries breaks in, overpowers the guests, and steals the gem… Michael Gold (Brandon Lee) is sent to Cuba to make contact with German scientist, Professor Braun (Ernest Borgnine), an expert in lasers. Gold persuades Braun to consider defecting, but the two are attacked and rendered unconscious. When Gold wakes up, he learns that he has in the meantime been sentenced to death, and must fight his way out of prison… When Gold reports to his CIA handlers, he learns that Braun is being held in the African nation of Kavango, and of a KGB plot to use the scientist’s laser expertise and the stolen diamond to build a new and deadly weapon that could shift the balance of world power. Discovering that his good faith is doubted, Gold swears to rescue Braun out of KGB hands. His handlers advise him to make contact with Braun’s daughter, Alissa (Debi A. Monahan), already in Africa. Gold follows this advice, with the initially sceptical Alissa left with no choice but to join forces with him when the two find themselves under attack by forces commanded by Colonel Kalishnakov (Graham Clark), who holds Braun… I wasn’t surprised to find extreme opinions of Laser Mission out there in Internet Land: this is an almost textbook Dumb 80s Action Movie, with all that that entails: fights and chases and car crashes and stuff blowing up – and fruit carts getting run over – foregrounded, a plot that makes little to no sense, bad jokes, heroic Americans, an almost unkillable main villain, and subsidiary villains ranging from a psychotic mercenary, Eckhardt (Werner Pochath), to Comic Relief Cubans (Maureen Lahoud, Pierre Knoesen). Brandon Lee, in his second starring role, hits more or less the right cheesy note for the extremely cheesy film that contains him; but other things are harder to take, including some out-of-place mean-spirited violence (weirdly played in conjunction with a lot of bloodless shootings), and the film’s exploitation of the contemporary situation in Angola, sorry Kavango, which is really tacky. What broke me, however, was Debi A. Monahan’s performance as Alissa, in which she repeatedly toggles between Tough Action-Girl and Screaming Side-Chick without much consideration for the actual circumstances. (Her character is supposed to be one posing as the other, but Monahan is not – to put it mildly – a good enough actress to pull it off.) Moreover, the second half of the film finds Gold and Alissa walking across the Namibian desert – she in a skimpy dress and high heels – and emerging without so much as a sunburn, let alone a blister. Sigh. Anyway, say what you like about the human actors in Laser Mission, it’s almost worth watching for the heroic contribution of a Volkswagen bus, which is commandeered by our heroes and subsequently made the centrepiece of the film’s most extended action sequence. Would you be astonished to learn that this was a German production…?

Mirror Mirror (1990)

After the death of their husband and father, Susan Gordon (Karen Black) and her teenage daughter, Megan (Rainbow Harvest), relocate from California to Iowa. They move into a house once owned by Mary Weatherford (Traci Lee Gold), who became a recluse after her sister, Elizabeth (Michelle Gold), mysteriously disappeared during the 1950s. The house is prepared by real-estate agent, Mrs Perlili (Ann Hearn), and antiques dealer, Emelin (Yvonne De Carlo), with the latter discovering a hidden cache of books and journals. Left behind, however, is a full-length mirror to which Megan takes a liking; with Susan, glad that anything can please the sullen teen, agreeing to buy it. Already alienated from her self-absorbed mother, when she starts school Megan becomes the target of bullying by a clique led by Charleen Kane (Charlie Spradling); though she is also befriended by Nikki Chandler (Kristin Dattilo) who, in addition to just being kind, discovers that she likes the quirky Megan. Emelin, via Mary Weatherford’s journals, learns of her belief that her sister was in thrall to a demonic entity trapped within the mirror, and that she murdered Elizabeth in an attempt to break the cycle—but failed. Meanwhile, strange disasters begin to befall anyone who angers Megan… Directed by Marina Sargenti, and written by the sisters, Annette and Gina Cascone (later the authors of the Deadtime Stories series), Mirror Mirror lives up to its background by offering a worthwhile example of female-centric horror. The film certainly doesn’t try to deny influences, with Beetlejuice sliding into Heathers, and from there into Carrie—but it also creates its own identity via a believably escalating scenario, with the lonely, unhappy Megan tasting power for the first time, and her flashes of understandable ill-will growing into acts of deliberate cruelty. Mirror Mirror is admittedly a flawed film – it takes too long over its set-up, it over-indulges Karen Black, and was the dog subplot really necessary? (for that matter, was Mr Veze?); while as so often, the ending is problematic – but it compensates for this with some interesting and unexpected touches. The presence of Karen Black, Yvonne De Carlo, Stephen Tobolowsky and William Sanderson notwithstanding, this film belongs to its younger cast members, who give us a believable rendering of the often painful teen dynamic, without the hateful extremes more common in American horror movies. Thus, though the comparison with Carrie is unavoidable, there’s nothing here of that magnitude, with Charleen’s targeting of Megan, though still unacceptable, never going beyond mockery, and coming across as more stupid than vicious (making Charleen’s fate horrifying rather than deserved). Meanwhile, the script’s handling of its two main male characters, Nikki’s boyfriend, Ron (Ricky Paull Goldin), and Charleen’s boyfriend, Jeff (Tom Bresnahan), is refreshingly different; “good girl” Nikki is quite as mean to Charleen as Charleen is to Megan; and though Megan’s crush on Jeff drives a portion of the action, it is her friendship with Nikki that is the true heart of the matter—and when that is threatened, all hell breaks loose…

Nautilus (2000)

In the late 21st century, Captain Noah Brin (Christopher Kriesa) and his daughter, Ariel (Miranda Wolfe), activate the time-travel device in their submarine, the Nautilus, intending to prevent the events of one hundred years before which plunged the world into chaos and ruin… Security expert Jack Harris (Richard Norton) is hired by Hammad Basim (Victor Eschbach) to oversee “Prometheus”, an experimental offshore drilling project by which Basim believes the core of the Earth can be tapped as a power source. If successful, this will provide infinite clean energy to replace fossil fuels. However, Basim has no intention of giving his discovery away; and on the Prometheus are representatives of nations from all over the world, there to observe the project in action and bid for its use. At the same time, Prometheus has been threatened by an eco-terrorist organisation, which believes the project is a danger to the planet. As the project moves towards the beginning of operations, it suffers from a series of failures that its head scientist, Dr Eric Levine (Hannes Jaenicke), and his assistant, Dr Michele Ang (Gloria Perez), are afraid may be the result of sabotage. But another, and far more startling, interruption comes in the form of a threat from people claiming to be from the future, determined to stop Prometheus no matter what the cost… I seem to be in the minority with respect to Nautilus, which I enjoyed a lot more than I was expecting to; as I’ve said before, low expectations sometimes pay off. There’s certainly nothing here that we haven’t seen before – many times, in fact – but the way that the individual elements are put together is rather interesting; while the screenplay by C. Courtney Joiner is more complex than you might expect in a film of this kind—with reasonable weight given to its opposing arguments, characters shifting position as the situation and their knowledge alters, and a number of people turning out to be someone other than they appear. There’s also a welcome note of realism – if not cynicism – with the good guys capable of being wrong, and such touches as Basim’s plan to milk his “clean energy” project for every dollar he can grab. (Speaking of which— Worried about eco-terrorists? Just wait until the fossil fuel industry shows up!) The acting in Nautilus is nothing to write home about, as evidenced by the fact that Richard Norton gives the best performance; as you’d expect, the action scenes in which he is involved are well-executed. There are also some nice touches in the characterisations, particularly Hannes Jaenicke’s Dr Levine, with the scientist caught between the warring factions and having to decide whether starting up Prometheus will save the world, or destroy it…

Shark Attack 2 (2000)

I must not ever have watched this before. I have watched the third one, which I think was the first killer shark film to feature a megalodon. This must be the overlooked middle child of the trio, because I certainly wouldn’t have forgotten it. This is a film of two halves in the most bizarre way. On one hand it inflicts upon us an “Australian” TV celebrity who at the time must have been a shot at Steve Irwin, except that his thing is killing animals for the camera, which doesn’t make a lot of sense…and oh dear sweet merciful God, THE ACCENT. It’s one of the most brutal endurance tests I’ve ever sat through…but I did sit through it, because the other half of this film is a gobsmacking blending of Jaws 3:D with The Last Shark—and it isn’t shy about it! And even more hilariously, it seems to be demonstrating how both of those films could have been a lot more sensible than they are, while basically keeping the same plots. Add to this a combination of good stock-footage and extremely silly rubber models, plus a dash of mad science, with the characters fighting the offspring of the hormonally tampered-with sharks of the original Shark Attack, and I found myself wondering whether I wasn’t obliged to give this thing a full review…and whether that didn’t mean I was obliged to give the first one a full review first. I haven’t decided yet; but the fact this is all I’m going to write for now hints at which way I’m tending…

Spirit (2001)

After Marjorie O’Connor (Valerie Wildman) dies in a car accident, her husband, Jesse (Greg Evigan), and teenage daughter, Kelly (Elisabeth Moss), move to New Orleans hoping for a fresh start. Kelly in particular is struggling, being convinced that she distracted her mother and caused the fatal accident. Not long after moving in, Kelly becomes aware of two things: the boy next door, Cole Barton (Austin O’Brien); and that something strange is happening in the house… Confronting Cole with an accusation that he is watching her, Kelly is startled when he comments cryptically that, “It’s started, hasn’t it?” He further tells her that over the years he has watched eleven other families move into her house—and move out again. Believing that Kelly is acting out, and worried about the apparent bad influence of Cole as she begins to get into trouble at school, Jesse takes his daughter’s claims of the supernatural as just one more symptom of her problems—forcing Kelly to take action on her own… Spirit is a mild but not ineffective spook film, in which human beings with unresolved issues cross paths with a similarly beleaguered ghost. The film bites off a bit more than it can chew with respect to Kelly’s battle with depression and self-loathing, which takes the form of a passive-aggressive determination to provoke her father into saying that he, too, blames her for her mother’s death. He doesn’t—but he does begin to feel that Kelly needs more help than he can give her, and contemplates sending her away… Though a young Elisabeth Moss works hard at conveying Kelly’s complicated emotional situation, ultimately the screenplay of Spirit backs away somewhat from its own implications—content to put this framework to use by having Kelly exorcise her personal demons by trying to exorcise the house. With Cole’s help, she discovers that the house was once occupied by a couple called the Hardestys; that Virginia (Lara Grice) died under mysterious circumstances; and that her husband was legally absolved of blame. Dissatisfied with these incomplete reports, Kelly and Cole track down the now elderly Jacob Hardesty (Ralph Waite), who carries with him a lifetime of guilt… Spirit suffers from several obvious shortcomings, including Kelly being handed information via “visions” and ghosts that show themselves with ridiculous clarity, and almost on demand; while the paralleling of Kelly’s guilt and Jacob’s is a bit heavy-handedly done. The film’s main strength is the relationship that develops between Kelly and Cole (who has problems of his own) as they work on their “project”, and Jesse’s eventual realisation that “bad influence” Cole is actually the one person both able and willing to help his daughter.

Piñata (2002)

Also known as: Survival Island, Demon Island, Piñata: Survival Island. A group of college students travel by boat to an island, where they are to compete in a fundraising scavenger hunt. Paul (Garrett Wang), one of the organisers, explains that stashes of underwear have been hidden all over the island; that, via a random draw, pairs of competitors will be handcuffed together; and that whichever pair collects the most panties will take home the prize. This arrangement causes considerably awkwardness for Kyle (Nicholas Brendon) and Tina (Jaime Pressly), who are drawn to compete together—and who have just broken up. While they sort out their issues, the others set out—treating the competition with greater or lesser degrees of seriousness. Good girl Lisa (Lara Boyd Rhodes aka Lara Wickes) allows herself first to be un-cuffed via a stolen key, and then persuaded to share a joint with Bob (Robert Tena); so that both of them are the worse for wear when they discover a strange clay object caught in the mud: an almost human-sized piñata. Using a rock, Bob cracks it open; wind, and a strange wailing sound, sweep across the island; and Lisa can only scream in terror as Bob is savagely attacked… There are a few signs in this much-retitled film that its makers had ambitions beyond what ended up on the screen—not least its set-up sequence describing the creation of the piñata by a shaman in order to rid his people of their sin and evil, which is both overlong and over-detailed for what devolves into an “idiots on an island get killed by a monster” film. This lengthy opening sequence forms – intentionally? – an ironic contrast with the stupid excuse for the modern characters to be on the island in the first place; likewise, maybe the film’s setting on Cinco de Mayo is supposed to mean something, but it’s hard to know what. Piñata gets points for an interesting cast, and for mixing up its character pairings beyond our usual racial / stereotype expectations; also for a couple of thoughtful touches in the script. No-one believes Lisa’s story of a killer piñata, but they accept that something has probably happened to Bob and quickly call off the scavenger-hunt. Later, too, there is a philosophical stand-off between those who want to hunker down for the night with safety in numbers, and those whose consciences insist on a hunt for their missing companions, though they know in their hearts it’s likely futile. On the other hand—well, people get killed by a monster while hunting for panties. Once you’ve said that, you’ve said everything. Originally, the monster in this film was supposed to be just Ed Gale in a suit. Evidently, however, that tested badly—so that the suit-scenes ended up supplemented – certainly not fixed – by some shonky CGI, including too much monster-vision. So we can’t even just enjoy the idiots getting killed by a monster…

(NB: Just in case you were thinking of watching it for that, Jaime Pressly does not wear the bikini outfit on the poster anywhere in the film.)

Stinger (2005)

Disaster strikes on the submarine Newark, when experimental creatures being transported escape from the laboratory and attack the crew… Three months later, a meeting is convened at Camp Pendleton to discuss the finding of the sunk and grounded Newark. Scientists from the company GenuTech, led by Dr Carly Ryan (Michelle Meadows), are put in charge of retrieving the Newark‘s cargo, with the support and assistance of a team of marines. Having travelled to the Newark‘s resting-site, the second submarine docks with it. When the hatch is opened, the newcomers are greeted by the stench of decomposition… While the scientists hold back, the marines begin a search of the Newark. Before long they find the dismembered remains of the submarine’s crew; while their lieutenant disappears, leaving only a blood trail behind. Dr Ryan evades questions, ordering the marines to get the power and lights back on. Meanwhile, she extracts a large arachnid stinger from inside one of the many bodies, commenting that their “project” has exceeded expectations; while her colleague, Paterno (Richard Froelich), discovers that the object is highly radioactive… I don’t know why I’m being so coy about the identity of this film’s killer critters, given that the makers of Stinger chose to show them to us DURING THE OPENING MINUTE OF THE FILM…and we all know what that means, right? This is an awful example of a genre of which, honestly, I don’t demand that much; but this film gives nothing: it’s far too long, given that it brings absolutely nothing new to the table, and it fills those extra minutes with terrible acting and dialogue, on top of painfully familiar and seemingly endless “wandering along dark corridors”scenes. Truly, the only entertainment value here is trying to decide who gives the worst performance—and in a stacked field, I’m going to have to go with Daniella Kimber for her outrageously gratuitous “I’m just here to show my boobs” supporting role. (Seriously, I have no idea who her character is or why she’s in the film, other than the obvious.) As for Michelle Meadows, we can add her to the list of Least Convincing Female Scientists, proudly rubbing shoulders with the likes of Tara Reid and Denise Richards. Only Casey Clark manages to be even remotely convincing as the hard-bitten sergeant who takes command when his lieutenant gets scragged by, yup, giant scorpions (about a metre long, anyway), created as, yup, an eeee-vil guv’mint weapons project. During their endless wanderings, the marines are astonished to come across a survivor of the original massacre: Dr Sam Harmon (Christopher Persson), who also happens to be Carly Ryan’s ex, and whose mental state is exactly what we might expect. The question of how he survived three months alone, surrounded by giant scorpions, in a sunken submarine, is never overtly answered—but if you think this film might have a kicker ending (and take forever to get to it), give yourself a gold star…

In The Dark (2013)

A night of triumph for artist Ali Lear (Elisabeth Rohm), when her new exhibition is a great success, ends in tragedy when a car crash kills her husband and their young daughter, and leaves Ali blind… As she struggles with her recovery, Ali insists upon returning home over the objections of her therapist, Dr Weinette (Elizabeth Peña); however, she does, although reluctantly, accept the help of Jeff McCauley (Sam Page), a trained caregiver who assists Ali with adjustment to day-to-day life. Though at times almost overwhelmed, Ali fights bravely and learns to cook, care for herself, and walk out alone; and her life takes a more positive turn when she meets and befriends Linda Gannon (Shannon Elizabeth), a new neighbour. But what Ali does not know is how rapidly Jeff’s care for her is turning into fixation—and how determined he is to have her entirely to himself… In The Dark is a weirdly unbalanced Lifetime production, setting Ali Lear’s fight to recover from her tragedy and embark on a new life against an increasingly creepy and distasteful stalker-plot—albeit that in this case, the stalker is generally inside Ali’s apartment. Like Lies In Plain Sight, In The Dark gets much of its effect, for better or worse, from exploiting the inescapable paranoia of blindness; but whereas the heroine of the earlier film struggles with the question of who she can trust, for Ali Lear it is a matter of not knowing until it’s too late that she has a problem. Here this film takes a nasty, exploitative turn that makes the viewer culpable: for example, when Jeff leers at Ali in the shower, or films her when she’s sleeping, it’s all from his POV. Set against this is one of the genuine strengths of In The Dark, the friendship that develops between Ali and Linda, which is warm and credible (and kudos to both actresses here); but alas, we know how things usually work out for the supportive best friend in these sorts of things. It is Linda who first realises the danger that Jeff poses to Ali; and that being the case, Linda has to go…

Zombie At 17 (2018)

Life is hard for teenage Tia Scott (Celeste Desjardins): along with her mother, Kate (Laurie Fortier), and young brother, Emory (Jack Britton), Tia is struggling to cope after the death of her sister; and in addition to this tragedy, Tia is beginning to fear that she is turning into a zombie… Not wanting to further burden her mother, Tia struggles to conceal her condition while monitoring and recording her symptoms. These include a dropping body temperature and an intolerance of heat, plus an increasing distaste for normal food; while conversely, her bodily strength has markedly increased and her hearing is almost painfully acute. The latter brings more problems for Tia when, while out with her boyfriend, Connor Foster (Carson MacCormac), she overhears an angry exchange between two other boys over a debt—and one is them is later found dead… Meanwhile, as her condition worsens, a desperate Tia seeks help from Goth outsider, Flynn Murson (Seamus Patterson), as the one person who might believe her story… Well! – this was a delightful surprise. My past experience of Lifetime horror movies gave me the lowest possible expectations for Zombie At 17—certainly not for a film both competent and interesting. I wasn’t even expecting truth-in-advertising, so you may imagine my astonishment when it turned out that Tia’s problems aren’t just teen angst, and aren’t just all in her mind – she really is turning into a zombie – her condition mostly “scientific” (that is, Haitian drugs) but mixed with a dose of old-fashioned Return Of The Living Dead-esque brain-eating—with the added wrinkle that brain-eating conveys the memories of the “donor”. Before I get carried away here, let me say this about Zombie At 17: it is certainly flawed; its ending is far too pat and easy (the most Lifetime-ish thing about it); it implies a lot more than it is willing to show (not surprisingly, I guess); and its B-plot, with Tia having to decide whether to tell the police what she knows about the boy’s death over Connor’s objections, takes up too much of the short running-time; although the latter pays off when the killer, Jason Elizey (Connor McMahon), and his girlfriend, Sammy (Alanna Bale), decide first to teach Tia a lesson, then to shut her up altogether—not knowing about her Zombie Super StrengthTM. But when it focuses on its zombie-plot, more often than not the screenplay by Christine Conradt hits the sweet spot—making the horrors of Tia’s situation clear, but allowing the viewer to enjoy the absurdity of it, too. My favourite touch here is the reaction of Kate when Tia finally confides in her: I won’t say she doesn’t blink…but she reacts as if her daughter had any other kind of life-threatening illness, throwing herself into internet research, hunting for a doctor who might help, and best of all whipping up for her a menu of, ahem, international cuisine. It is Flynn who offers the best hope for Tia, however, with his doctor-father pointing her in the direction of a certain scientific research project, and a certain scientist. The good news is, the scientist does know of a cure for Tia’s condition; the bad news, well…

Zombie:  “I am NOT going to kill you and eat your brain!”
Scientist:  “What choice do you have?”

 

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7 Responses to Et Al. Nov22

  1. formerly a bird says:

    Wikipedia re: So Long at the Fair: “The general plot derives from what appears to be a 19th-century urban legend […] which has inspired several fictional works.” A link mentioning some other similar stories is included (though Midnight Warning or the story it’s based on aren’t on the list). So it’s possible neither novel/film was ripping off the other one, they just have the same inspiration.

    Like

  2. RogerBW says:

    Forced Landing: do they make any concession to the density of gold, or is it in great big crates like other supplies? (A shipping container with a maximum load of gold would have it in a layer under 10cm thick. I admit this is a bit of an obsession of mine.)

    Piñata: not sure whether I got this recommendation from a B-Master or elsewhere, shortly after it was released, but I rather enjoy it. Yes, it’s pretty much my exemplar of “a man in a suit would have looked better” CGI, but there’s something to it that suggests some of the people involved knew what they were doing.

    Like

    • lyzmadness says:

      They absolutely do NOT. Like I said, not really an aviation film despite the trappings.

      I agree, but it never comes to fruition. Maybe the backers thought they were being too arty or serious and interfered? (Though again…panties.)

      Like

  3. GeniusLemur says:

    Zombies have super-hearing? Is that a thing?

    Like

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