Last Update 6/30/07
The Saint in London (1939)
George Sanders reprises his role as the Saint in this film based on the Charteris short story, “The Million Dollar Day”. It has a great opening in which a pickpocket steals the Saint’s watch, and has his own stolen by the Saint. This time the Saint is battling Bruno Lang, a mysterious and sinister figure. On his initial foray, he is nearly caught, his escape aided by Penny Baker, who has figured out who he is. Sally Gray, who plays Baker, is quite good; she played a different character in a later Saint movie but stopped acting during the 1950s.
They rescue a man and knock out his pursuer, who works for Lang, and discover that they have picked up a foreign diplomat and that there may be a link to embezzlement. With a clever and cooperative police detective (alas, not Jonathan Hale), helping him along, the Saint is captured, rescued, arrested, chased, and shot at in a surprisingly complex mystery. More proof that you don’t need elaborate special effects or sets to tell a good story. 6/30/07
The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940)
George Sanders’ third outing as the Saint has Jonathan Hale back, and also features Bela Lugosi among the supporting cast. Unfortunately, the story isn’t great and involves a criminal mastermind who just happens to be the Saint’s double (also played by Sanders). Even though Inspector Fernach is back, the screenwriter apparently didn’t check to see what their relationship was in the previous movies because he’s considerably more antagonistic in this one.
The action starts when a man is found dead with a note purporting to be from the Saint, taking credit for the murder. As you might expect, there is considerable confusion over identities, with the Saint and the crook posing as one another. The Saint makes a couple of odd errors of judgment this time and succeeds more through luck than wits. 6/30/07
The Saint Strikes Back (1939)
George Sanders took over the role of the Saint in this, one of my favorites in the series, with Barry Fitzgerald heading an excellent supporting cast. Excellent dialogue sound even better when delivered by actors with Sanders’ screen presence. These have slipped into obscurity but frankly there’s as good or better than most of the movies that appear in our theaters today. A murder is committed during a New Years’ party and a notorious woman trying to flee the scene finds herself accompanied by Simon Templar, the Saint. Jonathan Hale is back, and the interplay between him and Sanders is nearly as good as when Louis Hayward had the part.
The Saint has a complex relationship this time with a woman whose father may have not have been a crooked cop. For whatever reason, she has hired a couple of thugs to protect her interests. Although not as good a mystery, it has some of the best dialogue in the series, and Fitzgerald elevates everything he appears in. 6/29/07
The Saint in New York (1938)
Louis Hayward takes the title role in the first of nine Saint movies, followed after a long gap by the unsatisfactory addition starring Val Kilmer. This one is actually based on one of the novels; in fact most of them claimed to be. A policeman who was investigating organized crime is murdered and the result is an uproar. The citizens’ committee suggests that the police commissioner employ the Saint, since the known criminals cannot be successfully prosecuted due to corruption, legal tricks, and intimidation of witnesses. I haven’t read the Saint books since I was a kid, but I don’t remember him being entirely the selfless vigilante writing wrongs, although his illegalities were generally on the side of the angels.
The authorities track Simon Templar (the Saint) to a South American country where he is involved in a revolution. He promptly shoots down one of the crooks, admittedly in the act of preparing to kill a police officer. Shortly thereafter he rescues a kidnapped child and outwits a gang of crooks. His relationship with the crusty police inspector (the very underrated Jonathan Hale) is particularly well done, but some of the humorous asides fall flat. The action scenes work very well; the romance is stilted, artificial, and convenient. The melodramatic end is a bit corny and the identity of the master criminal was obvious early on, but despite that this is overall pretty good despite the murky ethics. 6/28/07
The Relic (1997)
The novel, The Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, was the first of several to feature FBI agent Pendergast, a bizarre character whose best adventure comes in the immediate sequel, Reliquary. The movie isn’t as good as the novel, not surprisingly, but it’s still pretty good, even though through some really strange process they’ve edited Pendergast completely out of the story, assigning his leading role to Detective D’Agosta, who is a subsidiary character in the book.
The opening sequence seems to me unnecessary. The information contained in it (an expedition to South America and an experience with a strange drug) would have been better revealed during the course of the main story and seems to serve mostly as a shortcut and backdrop to the opening credits. We know that a mysterious crate is being shipped to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago (it was New York City in the novel). To make certain we know that this is a bad thing, when the ship reaches Chicago, it is full of corpses.
Once past that, there is a considerable improvement, and at least for a while close conformity to the novel. Tom Sizemore is perfect as the unpolished but definitely intelligent D’Agosta. Two young boys plot to hide out in the museum. Penelope Ann Green plays Dr. Margo Green, a staff scientist, and Linda Hunt is the museum director. Green is battling an ambitious colleague, Dr. Lee, for Grant money. She is being helped by her superior, Dr. Frock. Green is also opposed to the financing of Dr. Whitney (the man with the drug) who specializes in research into superstitions. The museum is in fact on the verge of opening a major new exhibition with superstition as the theme. Whitney has shipped crates to the museum containing odd leaves and little else, but he has gone missing.
That night, one of the museum guards is killed by a monster while smoking a joint. “Pot is a misdemeanor. Decapitation seems rather severe.” There are some good shots establishing the size of the museum (the vast majority of most museums is closed to the public). The link to Whitney is established early and somewhat awkwardly. The autopsy scene is excellent. “This brain’s light, even for a man.” The pituitary gland is missing. Elsewhere Green is studying samples of the vegetation from the crates, but doesn’t notice when an insect crawls into the box.
Policemen checking the sublevels come across and kill a man who is a fugitive murderer and who has physical evidence linking him to the dead guard. Most are convinced he is the killer, but D’Agosta is skeptical because of the odd mutilations noted on the dead man’s brain. There is also a link to the dead men aboard the cargo ship. Although D’Agosta wants to keep the museum closed to the public, the mayor overrules him and the opening night gala is to go ahead as planned. Bad idea, obviously.
Meanwhile the bug in Dr. Green’s sample emerges, oversized and distorted, and she immediately kills it. She consults with Frock, and they determine that there is a hormone present in the leaves and, through some mildly baroque reasoning, that it’s possible that someone is infected with a virus and requires doses of this hormone. The two of them are subsequently locked into one portion of the museum thanks to the machinations of Dr. Lee, and in the sub-basement, D’Agosta and a team of police dogs are still searching the lower levels.
Much of the rest of the film is more or less predictable. The creature wreaks havoc at the gala when many of the guests are trapped by the security system. Escape attempts, isolated attacks, and general mayhem follow. Green and D’Agosta are instrumental to the climax, which is pretty well done. The cast is excellent, there’s a reasonably good screenplay, decent special effects, and the source material is great. Intelligently made horror films are few and far between, and this is definitely a peak and not a valley. Lots of snappy dialogue. “Are we still evolving?” “Some of us.” I think dropping Pendergast was a missed opportunity, because he could have been a compelling character, but even worse from my point of view was the plot variation that killed two of the main characters who would prove central to the sequel, The Reliquary, which would, I believe, had made an even more impressive film if not properly. 6/27/07
Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973)
I had never before seen this supposedly Lovecraft inspired vampire film. Cheryl Smith plays Lila Lee, the uncorrupted daughter of a gangster who murdered her mother, among others. The fugitive is captured by the denizens of a small town who are apparently immune to bullets. They send a message to Lila that she needs to see her dying father, an obvious lure. Despite her reluctance to deceive the minister who has been watching over her, the girl sneaks away and undertakes a perilous journey (accompanied by cutesy music) to fulfill her family obligations, unaware that it is a trick. Much of the acting in the early part of the movie is pretty dreadful, particularly the minister, but Smith does a creditable job of appearing completely naïve. It’s not surprising that the rest of the main cast, with one exception, never made another movie.
Lila survives various lecherous advances, nearly dies when the bus she is riding in is attacked by a horde of undead creatures, a cross between vampires and zombies, but is rescued by the mysterious Lemora and her servants. Lemora lives in a remote house with a group of gypsy children she has apparently adopted, and has an old crone for a servant, and it’s immediately apparent that something is not right here. If we had any doubts, Lila is locked up during the day and doesn’t see anyone until night falls. She manages to escape the following night, but it doesn’t do her much good. She does overhear her father talking about changing, and Lemora apparently drinking his blood. Lemora doesn’t show up in mirrors either.
Lila is pressured to drink blood, then sing a hymn while the children cackle (most of their lines are dubbed for some reason, including their laughter). She is subsequently faced with other temptations, dancing, vanity, exhibitionism. Her now transformed father attacks her but is driven off by Lemora. Lila runs off after seeing Lemora drink blood from a child’s neck and the subsequent chase sequence is probably the best part of the movie. At the same time, it appears that the mindless vampires may be getting the upper hand over Lemora’s black cloaked servants, and elsewhere the minister finds a town full of corpses. Unfortunately, we return to dialogue, as Lila has to decide between submitting to Lemora or fighting, accompanied by seemingly endless flashbacks and slow motion shots. With some better acting, improved dialogue, and different editing, this might have been a neat little horror film. As it stands, the first half is too slow, and the higher quality of the second half is marred by the clumsy ending. 6/26/07
The Glass House (2001)
Someone recommended this to me a while back and I just got around to watching it. It’s not a bad thriller, well cast and filmed, though more than mildly predictable. Two teenagers, brother and sister, are orphaned when their parents are killed in an odd automobile accident. They are sent to live with family friends, the Glasses, but it isn’t long before odd incidents begin to trouble the sister, who wonders if the very large inheritance coming to her is more of a curse than a blessing, and even casts doubts on the nature of the fatal accident.
At first she keeps in touch with her old friends, but things begin to change. Her email account is cancelled, her phone calls are monitored, and the friendly attitude of her guardians begins to fade. The drug cabinet is surprisingly well stocked. Mr. & Mrs. Glass have loud arguments in the night. He makes a veiled pass and exhibits occasional bizarre behavior. The girl, Ruby, is smart enough to talk to the family lawyer who appears sympathetic. She also discovers that her parents were not driving their own car when they were killed, a discrepancy which apparently never occurred to the police, an oversight I didn’t find entirely convincing.
A social agency inspects the house, but it appears that they’ve been tipped off because the sleeping arrangements have been altered and the drugs are missing. Eventually she grabs her brother and steals the family car, but their luck is bad – unbelievably bad in fact. They nearly have an accident, run into a police roadblock, the cop is suspicious, and Mr. Glass is right on their tail with a plausible story. There’s a fight and they drug her. Glass is involved with something shady and the bad guys are pressing him for money, precipitating a crisis. At the same time his wife, a doctor, has been caught stealing drugs, and she dies of an overdose.
The climax comes when Glass, distraught, locks them in the basement. The window is small enough for the brother to escape, steal the keys, and let his sister out. It’s a set up though, because the car keys they take are for a car whose brakes have been tampered with. Before they can escape, the lawyer finally shows up and we discover that he has been cooperating, though perhaps unaware of the true state of affairs. Then the thugs arrive, making it a full house. The lawyer gets killed, but the thugs take Glass away in the doctored car. Great ending, with a nice twist, to a pretty good movie. Leelee Sobieski, whom I last saw running from a tidal wave in some disaster movie, is a surprisingly strong and effective protagonist.
Minor quibbles. The girl’s friends complain because she isn’t answering her emails, but if her account was closed, they’d be bouncing, not disappearing. At one point the kids hide from the killer under a bed. Isn’t that the first place people look? 6/25/07
This is the original Japanese horror film that was remade starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as The Grudge. There is another Japanese horror film called Ju-On: The Curse, but it’s not related. Like many horror films, not everything is explained and there don’t seem to be any clear rules about how the supernatural is supposed to work. Although this is in form a ghost story, I suspect that the ghosts really aren’t, that they are just manifestations of the evil force left over from a violent death.
The plot involves a social worker who visits the home of an elderly woman, and finds a young boy locked in a closet. Except there’s some question whether he is really there. The owners of the house are absent and may have been missing for some considerable period of time. A ghostly figure appears and the visitor faints, and she either has a vision of the past or we’re just seeing a flashback. The old woman’s son and his wife own the house. The wife is the first to encounter Toshio, the young boy, or rather the spirit manifesting itself in his form. As with typical horror movie heroines, she chooses to investigate by herself rather than call for help.
The husband returns to find his wife in shock and dying, after which he is apparently possessed. The man’s sister shows up, is unceremoniously ushered out, but she begins to have visions even away from the house. Much of this is extremely well done, positively creepy in a way that most American horror films avoid, preferring blood and gore instead. The subtle horrors are at times positively unsettling, and the scene where an elevator passes Toshio on every floor is particularly effective.
Back to the original timeline, the case worker’s supervisor comes to make his next visit and finds his assistant comatose and the old woman dead. The police are summoned but can make little sense of the situation. A ringing cell phone leads them to the attic, where they find the young couple, both dead. The social worker comes around, but has little memory of what happened to her. One of the police detectives learns of an earlier murder and the disappearance of a young boy, named Toshio. He approaches the detective who handled that case, who doesn’t wish to discuss it. There are more deaths, and it’s not always clear what the connection is, and an entirely new set of characters gets introduced, though it all connects eventually. Lots of great images that could almost support a film themselves, like the old man playing peekaboo with a child no one else can see, or the altered reflections in mirrors. I thought the US remake was pretty good but not great. The original is better, even subtitled. 6/24/07
Torchy Blane Playing with Dynamite (1939)
The final Torchy Blane replaced Glenda Farrell with Jane Wyman, who was an excellent actress but lacked the abrasiveness that Farrell brought to the role. It opens with a string of bank robberies by a crook named Denver Eddie. Torchy gets herself thrown into jail in order to get close to the robber’s girlfriend. The occasionally disturbing subtext is back in this one. Torchy has no compunction about sending in multiple false fire alarms in order to get into jail, just as earlier she had no problem with preferential treatment to get her out of confinement. Once inside, she saves the life of her target and accompanies her on an escape rigged with police cooperation.
The police get out of their jurisdiction and attract the unwanted attention of the local authorities. Double crosses and exposed secrets intersect for a reasonably exciting ending, but the high point is the chitchat between two wrestlers. Wyman plays the part a bit too sweet and perky and the new actor playing her boyfriend is just as wrong for his role. There’s more than a few holes in the plot but it’s generally fun. 6/24/07
The Producers (1968)
Two of my favorite comics, Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, teamed up for this Mel Brooks spoof of the theater business. Mostel is Max, an unscrupulous producer who romances elderly women to get sponsorship for his productions. Wilder is his accountant, Leo, who hatches a scheme for making money by backing losers rather than hits. To accomplish this they take on the worst play they’ve ever seen, “Springtime for Hitler”, and add a totally untalented cast. Sounds like the beginning of a complete but financially rewarding disaster. But something goes wrong. If the play is a success, all of the backers will need to be paid, and the fraud would be impossible to conceal.
The scene with the demented playwright is the low point in the film. The humor just doesn’t work, and the entire sequence is unnecessary to the plot. Anyway, they raise money by selling 25,000 percent of the profits. You don’t have to be an accountant to know that doesn’t add up, although in this case, it adds up to plenty. They hire a crossdressing director who vows to change act 3 because losing the war is so depressing. The auditions for the role of Hitler are great, after which Dick Shawn wins the part.
Opening night arrives. The initial reaction is so bad that Max and Leo adjourn to the bar across the street, unaware of the fact that the unintentional humor has caught on and the audience is enthralled. Desperate, they try to blow up the theater. Mostel and Wilder play wonderfully against one another in one of the classic films of all time. I hadn't watched it in many years but it holds up very well indeed. 6/23/07
Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939)
Torchy has it in for a crooked mayor who’s in league with the mob in this one. Despite lack of support even from her own paper, Torchy presses her efforts (committing illegal wiretapping and burglary in the process). She tries to get a different paper to run her story, but no one is willing to run the risks until she finds a minor, one man operation. The publisher gets killed and blame is diverted to an innocent party, but as usual Torchy doesn’t fall for it. Fired from her paper, she tries to organize a recall election, but can’t find anyone to run for mayor so, as the title suggests, she decides to run herself.
Predictably, the villains kidnap her, but she’s rescued in time to win the election. This was probably meant to be the final film in the series. Torchy has lost her job, and at the end she decides not to serve as mayor but to marry her long suffering fiancé instead and become a housewife. 6/23/07
White Noise (2005)
The title refers to recordings of the dead, a possibility mentioned by Thomas Edison and brought to the screen dramatically in an earlier film, Poltergeist. This one stars Michael Keaton as a man driven to desperation when his wife is killed in an accident. He decides to communicate with her through the Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the theory that this is a vehicle for communication between realities. But he soon discovers that opening a door doesn’t mean you can close it when you want to. Any casual horror reader could have told him that. He ignores the man who tells him that the dead still exist somewhere, but he remembers his claims later when he starts getting calls that claim to be from her cell phone. I always have to take a deep breath at this point in ghost stories and tell myself to ignore the fact that if ghosts could do this, they’d be doing it all the time. What is so special about this case that he can get multiple calls from her spirit?
The first third or so of the movie is drawn out for too long. Keaton stares at radios, talks to the man who first approached him, and broods a lot. Everyone talks in a low voice and generally moves slowly and deliberately. I imagine it was to lure us into a false sense of security, but instead it just made me inattentive. Keaton nearly kills himself trying to tune her voice in on his car radio, and that’s the first lively scene in a while. With high priced equipment, he gets closer, but also encounters an angry, inarticulate spirit, one of the “bad people”. The death of his newfound friend suggests that the situation is becoming dangerous. He ignores that, and warnings from a medium that he is in over his head.
Hints that something is wrong abound. He receives what purport to be messages from another dead woman, but some of them arrived while she was still alive. That’s when he realizes he’s getting messages from the future, that time doesn’t work the same way in the world of the dead. He rescues a baby, then runs afoul of a serial killer and some supernatural minions that are visually impressive but make little sense in the context of the story. Even the sequence in which he and a friend see a vision of her death – which stretches coincidence pretty thin – there is little emotional resonance. There’s some really nice camera work in this one, but there is little suspense, little logic, and Keaton’s character’s obsession doesn’t fit his character. Not awful, but very disappointing. 6/22/07
Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939)
The seventh in this series surprised me before the opening scene. It lists the writers as Murray Leinster and Will Jenkins, both the same person, and a little research suggests it was based on his story, “The Purple Hieroglyph”, which I haven’t read. The police are trying to protect an explorer who has received death threats from Chinese cultists, and safeguard some recently discovered artifacts. The comic relief is back as Torchy tries to find out what’s going on despite her police detective fiance’s determination that she not.
The killers succeed, having somehow altered the time on everyone’s wristwatch. They also leave a note naming their next victim. Torchy continues her investigation, even after receiving a threatening note herself. Victim #2 succumbs to a poisoned cigarette right under the eyes of his protectors. This time the body disappears, which immediately made me suspicious that he wasn’t really dead, was actually the mastermind behind the plot for reasons as yet unknown, although another set of similar notes demands a cash payoff. The fake Chinese gangsters are neatly if rather implausibly captured. The crimes are cleverly done, or would be if we ever learned how they were done other than a reference to one of the crooks as a pickpocket. There’s some mildly racist content as well involving the Chinese. Oh, and Torchy never goes to Chinatown. In fact, no one does. 6/22/07
Dirty Deeds (2005)
This teen comedy is loosely based on the legend of Hercules, sort of. It doesn’t have a very promising opening. In addition to restating various stereotypes – the hulking but not very bright bully, the sex crazed couple, the too straight, up tight young overachiever, the slightly out of sync, brooding boy, and the handsome and popular athlete – there is so little time to see any of the characters that it’s not clear who is actually significant and who isn’t. Of course, when one of them parks his truck on top of another car, crushing it, we know that none of what follows is meant to be taken seriously.
The basic conflict, unfortunately, takes the usual antiestablishment tilt. The principal is a jerk, and the hero is a wiseass. I don’t have anything against making fun of the establishment, but I’d like at least a little innovation, and as a matter of fact, the kid is such an asshole that the principal is probably on firmer ground than he is. Anyway, a pretty girl is upset that her younger brother has fallen under the bad kid’s influence. Just in case this seems too serious, it’s immediately followed by fart jokes. When we reached the stealing-the-nerds’-lunchtray scene, my eyes began to roll.
The plot, such as it is, involves a tradition at the school. There is a list of ten deeds (hence the title, see?) which legend says only one person has ever managed to accomplish. The kid brother, who is the target for numerous pranks by the evil jocks, is about to volunteer, but our hero does so first because he’s sweet on the sister. His first task, to drink a beer in front of a policeman, is neatly resolved, although I anticipated the solution. The next is silly, and the third is absurd. Someone should tell the screenwriter that grocery stories do not have cameras watching what people do in rest room stalls.
Gross out jokes and a long, unfunny variation of the wild party hosted by an unwilling freshman follow, interspersed with gratuitous nudity and the completion of more tasks, some bordering on clever, some just stupid. He successfully moves an advertising balloon and steals a dead body. On the verge of completing the last, he decides the whole thing is a waste of time and gets involved with a mobster in a weird, and frankly pretty stupid change of direction. Serious doesn’t mix with farce unless you’re very, very skillful, and the people responsible for this one aren’t. It is possible to make a genuinely funny and interesting teen comedy. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, for one, or Just One of the Guys. Too bad the people responsible for this one were content to produce dreck. 6/21/07
Pirate Treasure (1934)
This is one of the lesser cliffhanger serials, though it has its moments, including a nice theme song. The hero is a young man who plans to track down the pirate treasure buried by a scurrilous ancestor. A faux friend commands a group of thieves who intend to steal or, preferably, the treasure itself. Early on, our hero has a dream of pirate days that is embarrassingly silly, but he wakes in time to foil an early attempt at theft, with the help of his love interest. Badly choreographed fist fights ensue, along with at least one muffed line that they didn’t bother to edit out. The stunts are a bit better than average but the dialogue and acting are both sub par. The chase across the rooftops is particularly well done, a kind of precursor to Jackie Chan.
He refuses to call in the police because “it really isn’t a police matter”. Kidnapping, breaking and entering, theft, assault, and attempted murder were all illegal in 1934 as far as I know. Slowly but surely the plot moves forward. They secure a ship for the voyage to the island off the coast of Panama (known to be an area frequented by cannibals!) and beat off a succession of fresh attacks by the bad guys, avoiding the police now because it would “attract too much publicity”. It probably wouldn’t help to call them, since at one point a police officer sees the gang throw our hero off a roof, helps him to his feet, but doesn’t ask any questions. All in good fun, no doubt.
Eventually the bad guys steal the map again, but only temporarily. It never occurs to the good guys to memorize it, or better yet, make a copy. Doesn’t occur to the bad guys either. There’s a bit of a variation from form here. In most serials, we discover in the next chapter that the hero really wasn’t in the car that plunged off the cliff. In this one, he was in the car; he survived miraculously, usually uninjured, including a fall off a cliff that certainly would have killed him. Action moves to a ship, with one of the bad guys hired as captain and several minions stowing away in the hold. They’re still after the chart, of course, but fortunately for the hero, they’re disobedient as well as stupid and give away their presence.
The final chapters take place on the treasure island, which is inhabited by generic primitive natives. The natives side with our hero and eventually they are able to turn the tables on the thug, expose the spy within their own ranks, find the treasure, and sail away happy. The uniquely terrible fistfights are the single image I’ll be taking away from this one. 6/21/07
Wedding Slashers (2006)
The title of this one should tell you considerable about the plot. It opens with a married couple having car trouble “forty years ago”. The man who stops to help them acts strangely, but he ends up decapitated and the killer takes them prisoner, gives them a dumb lecture, then kills them both. Now we moved forward to “five years ago”, prom night. A young couple trade clichés, and the girl urges her date to advance to third base, then gets nervous at the last minute. “I have protection.” “Not enough!” She’s right; he gets cut up with a chainsaw, but she lives and there are hints that she might have known more than she’s letting on.
Now it’s the “present” and she’s talking to a priest about her desire to get married despite a feeling that she’s cursed. Every body who has ever earned her affection has died. The effect is spoiled by the bad acting and the ineffective humor. Apparently she has decided to marry her boyfriend despite her unhappy history. We jump to a bachelor party for some gratuitous nudity and sex. One of the male guests gets murdered in the rest room with the usual cheap special effects. We do see the killer’s face quite clearly this time, which seems like a tactical error this early. Next to go is the priest, followed by the mandatory menaced-in-the-shower and something-under-the-bed scenes.
The bride to be sees someone outside the church and announces that the wedding is off, providing some background. Apparently she was part of a “family” whose members are not allowed to leave the fold, and her claim that her family is dead is a lie. She puts up a note canceling the wedding (with a misspelled word), but that doesn’t stop the carnage. The mutilated priest shows up, still alive, in one of the stupidest scenes I’ve seen in a film, and proves that you should never say, “at least it can’t get any worse”. The killers wear masks that vaguely suggest the Texas Chainsaw Massacre with no budget, the frightened soon-to-be-victims are too stupid to live – with a cell phone in hand, one of them fails to call 911.
Machetes and meat cleavers follow. The bridesmaid actually has to slow down and wait for the killer to catch up to her. The bride gets progressively more dimwitted and the groom was never the brightest light in the room to start with. It goes from daylight to full night and then back to dusk within a very few minutes. Then the plot starts to get really bad, with the groom bloodily murdering one of his friends after a badly contrived different of opinion. After that, the writers stopped even trying. The inbred family grabs the girl and indulge in endless, pointless conversations while the groom starts killing them off. At the end, the loving couple stab, slash, and pickaxe the rest of her family to death. “This is your mother?” “Yeah, she’s also my sister.” This is bad, even for a bad movie, and so it’s only appropriate that I made it a double feature with…
Night of the Dead (2006)
It’s totally unfair, but when the preview that accompanied this film misspelled “venomous” as “venomous”, I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to be a great viewing experience. What followed was about what I expected. There’s an inadvertently funny scene in which the mad scientist brings a frog briefly back from the dead, after which his wife and daughter are accidentally killed. Jump forward a year to a bloody young woman being brought to his clinic while he is lecturing about reanimation. He and another surgeon are operating, without surgical masks, but I guess that’s okay since it’s a corpse they’re working on. But they don’t wear them when working on the injured woman either, so I suppose that’s SOP. The blood transfusion sequence is so ridiculous that I’m astonished the actors were able to keep from laughing. The father, who was donating blood, appears to have died, but the doctor assures the wife that “he’s not dead, not completely”.
Elsewhere in the clinic the wife of the scientist’s assistant is pregnant, and the scientist’s zombie wife and child are hidden from public view. Why am I not surprised when everyone treated starts claiming to feel hungry all the time, with a particular craving for raw meat. Some of the gore that follows is probably meant to be funny, but if so, it falls short. . “I believe that even the simplest hunk of flesh has every right in the world to be alive.” The basement is full of the living dead as well. Most of the cast speak with German accents, but none of them appear to be European. Eventually wife and child are set loose by still normal patient who is inexplicably ignored by the first three zombies she meets.
Difficult as it might be to imagine, the story gets worse after that. The assistant gets bitten – and we’ve discovered that you the affliction is contagious. The characters act stupidly, inconsistently, and most of them come to a bad end. They also like to talk out loud so that we know what’s going on. Eventually all the prisoners are released and staggering around looking for their next meal. The three survivors, including the bitten man, try to escape. He sublimates his growing hunger for human flesh by eating the scenery, then has a moment of recurrent humanity after becoming zombified, motivated to rescue his wife. They escape using the shotgun with infinite ammunition. But why did shooting the sprinkler head cause an explosion? The nurse and the pregnant woman are the only members of the cast who might consider quitting their day jobs, and even they should give it plenty of thought. The final plot twist, which comes as no surprise, is that the pregnant woman is also dead, has been all along, and is one of the successful experiments. I wouldn’t want this one on my resume.
Included on the DVD is a short student film, “It Took Guts”, which apparently enjoyed some popularity. A teenager partially dismembers and eats himself. Superior to the full length film only that it is over with much more quickly. 6/20/07
Space Rangers (1993)
I had to buy this from Australia because it’s not available in the US. This very short lived SF show (cancelled after one episode) wasn’t around enough to gain a following, and it’s pretty crude in any case, but I enjoyed it when it was on and have been looking for a copy for a while. It’s set on the borders of colonized space and involves a kind of military force/police authority. The cast – other than Linda Park who sends them out on their missions – is pretty much as unknown now as it was then, although most have worked steadily. Marjorie Monaghan did end up appearing on Babylon 5, Star Trek, and Andromeda, so she must have an affinity for SF.
In the pilot, Captain Boon leads a mission to a sequestered planet without official sanction to rescue some stranded space travelers. Among his crew is an alien who makes his debut in a scene clearly copied from Alien, after which they visit a Star Wars style spaceport bar, complete with bar fight. The others include the martial arts trained female pilot, a wet behind the ears military type, the crusty old man, and so forth. They’re grittier and less well tailored and shaven than a Star Trek crew, and Boon even has an unhappy wife and a young daughter back at base, though they are more of a distraction than a contribution. Passable special effects, barely passable dialogue. The star gate almost certainly influenced the ones on Babylon 5. The recurring bad guys are the banshees, apparently aliens who attack randomly, and who travel through space without ships. There’s a battle sequence right out of Star Wars, with less impressive special effects. On the planet they encounter man-eating vines before being double crossed by the stranded party who are actually trying to steal alien technology.
“Banshees” borrows/steals from Aliens, a space colony ravaged by a monster that looks an awful lot like Giger’s. That’s not surprising since producer Pen Densham was also involved with Creature, an even more obvious ripoff. Boon is separated from his wife now and brooding a lot, at least until a new romantic interest appears. The back story involves the illegal smuggling of would-be colonists by shady entrepreneurs. Their mission is to rescue a young boy from a derelict ship, which is also home to a monstrous alien, apparently a banshee, although it doesn’t look a lot like the one we saw in the pilot. Then come orders to bring back the banshee and forget about the boy, but they rescue him anyway and barely escape when the banshees try to take the entire ship into their extra-dimensional hive.
They’re sent to free a hijacked ship in “The Replacements”, but one of the thieves is able to pass through solid objects. Under equipped and under staffed, Boon accepts a robot (which they call a droid) as a crew member. This one is less derivative, though not by a whole lot, and it’s clear the writers don’t know the distance between a star system and a galaxy. Corny villains this time but the smuggling plot is reasonably clever. The robot, designed to replace them eventually, proves incapable in a crisis. “Death Before Dishonor” has another Babylon 5 connection, Claudia Christian as a diplomat. Boone gets into a fight with an alien diplomat under ambiguous circumstances that jeopardizes a touchy trade agreement. When he tries to make amends, he only worsens the situation.
Ironically, the fifth episode, “To Be or Not to Be”, is about a star traveling comedian (Buddy Hackett) whose latest performance is cancelled. He finds out just as he encounters a storm of meteors, which forces him to land on a prison planet (named Catraz!). The irony thickens because the plot also involves the possible shutdown of the Rangers’ base, Fort Hope. Anyway, the Rangers find the comic, but are besieged by a gang of convicts who want to escape the planet. A comic book general spouts nonsense in the background. The final episode was “The Trial”. A recurring villain hatches a plot to frame one of the Rangers for a murder, but he’s outsmarted at the end. This is probably the weakest episode, which does not suggest that the ratings would have improved if it had lasted this long.
The scripts, special effects, and acting are all inferior to those of Babylon 5, but in many ways it anticipated the basic set up and some other aspects of that series, so I suppose you could say it was ahead of its time. It might have developed into something better as time passed, or it might have just been content to regurgitate ideas stolen from other sources. We’ll never know because it died so quickly. 6/19/07
Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers (1988)
Angela is back, a girl now, played by Pamela Springsteen (sister of Bruce) in an even cheaper than the original sequel. Even the young actors (who aren’t nearly young enough for the parts they are playing) act badly, with the exception of Renee Estevez, daughter of Martin Sheen. There’s a new girl to be picked on, but we know up front this time that Angela is a psychopath because she kills her first victim almost during the opening credits. She’s a counselor at another camp, imposing her strange hyper-morality on the other campers, particularly the girls, who spend a lot of time walking around with their shirts off. Clearly this was a classy production.
Angela proceeds to barbecue two people, drill another to death, drown another in a cess pit, and hack and slash a few more. There are hints that the writer is either trying to do a spoof of horror films – in which case it flopped dramatically, or just doesn’t care if anyone takes the film seriously. Even the internal logic of the story falls apart when Angela starts killing people who haven’t broken her rules, but by then it’s not likely anyone watching cared either way. And as was true in the first film, no one at the camp seems to pay much attention when the campers all begin disappearing. There is one good line. A bunch of campers are going through the old kids trick of being blindfolded and forced to touch disgusting things that are supposed to be intestines and eyeballs. Angela has a bucket of “dead teenager’s brains”, and when asked what’s really in the bucket, she answers truthfully – dead teenager’s brains. This apparently did pretty well despite how bad it is because the next year there was a third in the series. 6/18/07
Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland (1989)
Pamela Springsteen reprises her role as the homicidal psychopath in this pretty much worthless slasher film. This time there’s no pretense at being a serious movie. We open with some nudity, then watch as Angela runs down her first victim with a garbage truck in order to impersonate her at a camp, run by Michael Pollard, where rich and poor teens are supposed to learn to understand one another. We meet the campers, all absurd parodies. Most of the guys like to fight and most of the girls walk around topless.
Pollard doesn’t last long. She beats him to death for screwing one of the campers. The rationale of punishment for sin doesn’t last much longer, and she’s soon killing for no reason at all. And it goes on and on, with attempts at witty dialogue that fall flat, and variations of horrible deaths that are generally offstage, one of the few saving graces.
The fourth in the series was never completed and what brief footage was shot is only available in the DVD boxed set. A third actress was to have played Angela in that one, and a fourth took over the role for part 5 this year, with another planned for 2008. There’s no accounting for taste. 6/18/07
Millennium Season 1 (1996)
This is another show I never watched on television, which is kind of surprising since I’ve always liked Lance Henriksen. The pilot introduces him as Frank Black, a retired profiler who moves to Seattle with his family, searching for a new life. He unretires himself when a woman is brutally murdered, using what is clearly a psychic ability to glean details of the murder. Nice editing as the story progresses through a second murder, an empty coffin, and introduction of the Millennium Group, for whom Black works. Watching this I was a bit concerned that the on again, off again ability would be too easily manipulated for plot purposes. There’s also a bit too much coincidence in the opener, another worrisome problem. The closing scene establishes a back story, a mysterious party who is sending Black photographs of his family, implying that they are vulnerable.
“Gehenna” is an even more powerful episode. The ashes of several victims are found in a public park. One of the dead sent a letter to his family disowning them and making allusions to a brotherhood he has joined, which appears to be some kind of apocalyptic cult linked to telephone sales. Black rescues the next victim, who spouts some really creepy end of the world dogma and then drops dead. “Dead Letters” has some excellent touches. Black is partnered with a police officer who is beginning to crack up under the pressure, and who begins to experience hallucinations. Black’s talent has begun to become something of a plot problem, however, because his insights make the solutions appear a bit too easy. The troubled police officer goes postal on the killer, jeopardizing the case. The tight editing and excellent dialogue masks the problem but don’t erase it.
The killer in “The Judge” likes to mail body parts to people. This time it’s not a single killer, although they’re all just as crazy as the previous villains. It’s a man trying to redress past miscarriages of justice, though in a bizarre fashion. Black’s leap of intuition this time really undercuts the mystery as he identifies an apparent random body as linked to the serial killer based on no physical evidence.
“522666” opens with a bomb going off in a bar frequented by British diplomats in Washington. Frank has his bag packed even before he gets the call this time. Black feels that the bomber will be monitoring police communications with sophisticated electronics, so all information is kept off the air except what they want the killer to hear. Eventually he calls Black and tells him that another bomb is going to go off within three hours, kicking off a desperate search. He is caught in one of the explosions and rescued by the killer, who uses the opportunity to receive public acclaim. Black’s near psychic talents don’t intrude this time in a nice, taut, well constructed thriller. The killer in “Kingdom Come” specifically targets clergyman. It opens with a particularly gruesome murder and moves forward crisply. It’s the first time Black actively puts himself at risk, trying to negotiate with the killer when he takes hostages, and it’s also one of the best shows in the first season.
The opening of “Blood Relatives” is particularly unsettling, a young man who attends the funerals of strangers in order to ingratiate himself with grieving relatives. Shortly thereafter, one of the mourners is murdered. This one appears to be a relatively easy case, although it takes a while to run the killer down, and there’s a nice twist toward the end. Black’s wife gets a bigger part as a worker for Victims’ Assistance, as well as the next, “The Well Worn Lock”, which deals with child abuse. A woman in her thirties finally decides to bring charges against her father, a prominent businessman, despite legal difficulties because she waited for so long. There’s a really nasty villain in this one and Black has only a peripheral role. There is a problem with the script, because even when there’s sufficient evidence to merit a deeper look, the authorities threaten to fire her for pursuing it.
“Wide Open” is reminiscent of “Blood Relatives”. This time the killer hides during open houses, then kills the residents later. The trend to have Black more physically involved continues, another violent confrontation with the killer this time. “The Wild and the Innocent” has an odd set up. Two young people trap and kidnap a rapist and murderer, but for reasons not apparent, the male kills a police officer during a routine traffic stop. There’s another religiously inspired killer in “Weeds”, a man who kills the children of men he believes are unconfessed sinners. This theme of a killer using murder as compensation for something missing from his life had become a standard by now and was repeated again in “Lion Like a Hunting Flame”, wherein the killer films young couples having sex, then kills them, because of his own sexless past. This one surprised me when Barbara Howard appeared as the killer’s wife; the last time I saw her she was a teenager being chased by Jason in a Friday the 13th movie. This time the local police are uncooperative at first but learn the error of their ways.
“Force Majeure” takes a decided turn to the weird. Two young girls commit suicide, and they are found to have been identical twins, even though they’re not the same age. This leads to the discovery of almost two dozen more scattered around the country, and a madman who believes that the world will be destroyed in another great flood within a few years. This was the best single episode so far. “The Thin White Line” returns to more mundane crimes, a serial killer who is copying murders from the past. It’s another strong episode even though there’s very little mystery involved in what is happening. In “Sacrament”, Black worries that his daughter may have inherited his psychic ability to see through the eyes of criminals when she remotely observes her aunt’s abduction. The police insistence that he not involve himself in the case seems a bit forced in this one, which is otherwise pretty good. Complications arise when the distraught brother threatens the chief suspect with a gun. It’s also the first one in which they identify but cannot prosecute the killer.
“Covenant” continues the mild religious undercurrent. A man is so horrified by the murders of his family that he confesses to the crime. Black is convinced of his innocence. This one didn’t work for me at all. Although I could believe a general confession under the circumstances, the accused man’s confession is too organized and detailed for me to believe it was the product of nervous shock. It’s unfortunate that they used overkill on this aspect of the story because otherwise it’s a very good story until the end, which is left hanging in the air. Black is a victim himself in “Walkabout”, recovering from a lengthy blackout to discover a hospital bracelet on his wrist but with no recollection of what happened. We, however, have had a glimpse of him locked up in what appears to be some kind of facility for the mentally ill, in the midst of a riot by the patients. He finds a doctor who says Black approached him about an experimental drug to dispel hallucinations. The solution involves a rogue scientist trying to reform society.
When a bogus nurse helps a serial killer to escape in “Lamentation”, Black is concerned that his family has been targeted because of his earlier involvement in the man’s incarceration. One of the creepier episodes, with a genuinely puzzling mystery. They also kill off one of the regular characters in this one, after a sequence that suggests supernatural evil is about to be introduced into the series. That death figures prominently in the next, “Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions”, wherein Black begins to doubt himself and his vocation. The supernatural becomes a foregone conclusion, with a young man appearing and disappearing magically. During the investigation of a Satanic murder, another brutal and even more senseless murder takes place nearby. The killer is captured almost immediately and the same murder weapon was used for both crimes. Black has a vision, or dream, in which his dead friend tries to convey some kind of warning. All of the evidence mysteriously – even magically – disappears, including bloodstains from a jacket. The arrested man claims responsibility for the unsolved death of Black’s friend in the previous episode. The plot gets even stranger with a weird lawyer who wants to hire Black and whom Black thinks is responsible, even though the man died of a cerebral hemorrhage. There’s also some foreshadowing that Black’s family will not survive intact, which would be consummated when the wife is killed off during Season 2. An excellent, though ultimately unsatisfying episode.
“Broken World” takes a slightly different direction. The villain is a serial killer who only attacks horses, but who must be stopped before he upgrades to human prey. Unfortunately, he’s not quick enough. Appropriately enough, he gets killed by a horse. “Maranatha” involves a cooperative effort with Russian police to track down a man believed by some to be the antichrist. The supernatural takes center stage again, as the man recovers from a mortal head wound, fulfilling the prophecy of the antichrist. The season ended with “Paper Dove”. While on vacation, Black gets pulled into an old murder investigation, convinced the convicted man is innocent. At the same time, a very deranged killer is lurking in the area, directed toward Frank’s wife by a mysterious, barely seen character. The killer is ultimately caught, but the puppet master remains at large and the episode ends with a cliffhanger. The psychosexual murder theme is mixed increasingly with religious and supernatural imagery as the season progresses. To find out whether this continues, I’ll guess I have to watch season 2. 6/15/07
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
This cheaply made Friday the 13th clone was also the first in a series. It opens with the usual forewarning of insanity to come, a boating accident that kills a father and one of his two children. The surviving one, Angela, is sent off to camp years later by her over the top dotty aunt, and shortly after she arrives, she manages to quietly make a host of enemies because of her obvious vulnerability and inability to blend in. The acting by the adult cast is, for the most part, embarrassing. The kids do better, but that’s not much of a compliment and Angela herself has very few lines.
The head chef attempts to molest her early on, so we know he’s marked for death. A short time later, someone pours a tub of boiling water on him. Victim the first is off to the hospital in a coma. She attracts the attention of the “nice boy”, which pisses off the “bad girl”, who then enlists the “bad boys” in her plan to get even. One of the last dies next, drowned, and the camp leader insists it was an accident after an exchange of particularly inane dialogue. Then the “bad counselor” picks on her, until the “good counselor” intervenes.
As the plot thickens, we learn that Angela doesn’t shower with the other girls, and won’t go into the water, both of which will prove significant. The body count rises, death by bees, after which the majority of campers are taken home. The camp leader suspects Angela’s cousin, who has been very protective of her, and is driven to a frenzy by the prospect of bankruptcy. There’s some effort to make her look innocent, but it’s obvious almost from the outset that Angela is the killer. Angela rejects the “good boy”, who is driven into the arms of the “bad girl”, which marks them both for death. A stabbing in a shower stall follows. Now there’s an original idea for you!
The camp leader goes nuts when he finds the latest victim, still convinced that the cousin is responsible. Meanwhile, Angela is finishing off the rest of her enemies, then kills him after he nearly beats her cousin to death. The police finally show up. Her last victim is the good boy who succumbed to temptation; she is promptly caught by the police and we discover that Angela is actually her brother, raised as a girl by her mentally ill guardian. 6/14/07
Hawk of the Wilderness (1938)
One of the best of the Republic cliffhanger serials, this was based on the novel by William Chester, also knows as Kioga of the Wilderness. It’s a kind of Tarzan story. Kioga (played by Herman Brix who was also an early Tarzan) survives the death of his parents at sea and is raised on an unknown island somewhere near Alaska, home to a lost race that pre-dates the first human settlements in North America. He grows to adulthood, opposed by the local shaman, Yellow Weasel, but more challenges than that are in store for him.
A crook named Salermo learns of the existence of the island and dupes a planned expedition into searching for it. Conveniently, of course, at least some of the natives speak English. Kioga outwits a war party by means of various nicely done stunts, then discovers a chest of gold bars, which he conceals in a cave. The expedition arrives, Salermo betrays and maroons them, and we have the set up complete for everything that follows. Oh, did I mention the active volcano rumbling in the background? And the pretty girl who happens to be with the expedition?
The four way fight commences, soon becoming threeway, with Kioga reluctantly protecting the good outsiders from the bad natives (mostly to save the girl). Captures, escapes, and chases follow with better than average stuntwork enlivening the mediocre dialogue. Kioga comes close to being burned at the stake, but fortunately one of the warriors is secretly his ally. He later helps the girl escape a tiger (tigers in North America?) while the natives try once again to capture them both. Then Kioga trades his treasure when the girl is held hostage by Salermo. When the pirate reneges, he rescues her and steals the treasure back to boot.
The tides of fortune go back and forth. The expedition leaders plan to divert a river into the volcano to quench it and impress the natives, but you know as well as I how that sort of thing invariably goes. The volcano doesn’t actually erupt until the final chapter, but its self destruction is actually pretty well staged. Our heroes attempt to get rescued by attaching a message to the leg of a migrating bird, but then they just happen to find an intact airplane that landed on the island some time in the past and is still ready to go. Happens all the time. The bad guys, including a cowardly expedition member, all meet an appropriate end. With very few changes, this could have been a typical Tarzan story. 6/13/07
Doctor Who: Logopolis (1981)
Doctor Who: Castrovalva (1982)
These two linked adventures are the last to feature Tom Baker and the first to star Peter Davison in the title role. In the first, the Doctor returns to Earth to measure a real police box in order to effect repairs on the Tardis’ chameleon circuit. The Master has anticipated him, however, and lays an amusing trap, a Tardis inside a Tardis inside an etc. This is where they cross paths with a new companion, Tegan, a would-be stewardess who stumbles into the middle of things when her car breaks down.
There’s a bump in the plot logic early on. Two of the Master’s victims are replaced by statues in a car, but the police threaten to arrest the Doctor, who happens to be in the vicinity, even though there’s no evidence that a crime has been committed. Nevertheless, they avoid the police and set out to figure out what the Doctor’s nemesis is up to this time. This takes them to the planet Logopolis, which has some kind of mystical, magical power over the entire universe. The Master plans to neutralize its effect, unaware of the potential consequences. The Doctor stops him from ending the universe, but only after Logopolis is devastated, and he has to work as the Master’s ally in order to succeed.
Fatally wounded at the end, the Doctor is revived as Peter Davison for the second title. When I first saw this back in the 1980s, I thought Davison was a bit too prep schoolish for the part and it took me a while to warm to him. The regenerated Doctor is confused, and the Master is back in time to affect Adric in some way that isn’t immediately apparent. The sabotaged Tardis is almost destroyed, but his companions manage to divert it from disaster to the city of Castrovalva, famous for its medical properties.
Not much happens in the first three of the four episodes, but once the Doctor is up and about again, there’s an interesting and amusing problem with a city that’s been twisted dimensionally, altering the perceptions of its inhabitants. Both of the female companions are competent, for a change, and Tegan is a particularly likeable character. The Master is defeated in the end, but overall this was an inauspicious launch for the fifth Doctor. 6/12/07
A Scanner Darkly (2006)
Another film based on work by Philip K. Dick, this time animated with a well known cast supplying the voices. It’s one of his more paranoid works, set in a near future in which the latest drug of choice is Substance D. Keanu Reeves is an undercover police officer who wears a “scramble suit”, which makes his appearance vary constantly. The loss of identity is reflected throughout the movie as he attempts to infiltrate a drug ring which, apparently, is actually run with at least the consent of the federal government. There are layers within layers. His boss might also be a drug dealer, and his own perceptions are no longer trustworthy. He is even ordered to investigate himself. The animation is similar to that of Sin City (drawn over the live film in most cases) but much more colorful. Like the book, the film portrays a depressing, decadent future world peopled with characters who have lost their moral compass. I’m not sure I can truthfully say I enjoyed watching this one, but it was certainly a memorable experience. 6/11/07
Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 3 (1972)
I missed the first two seasons of this show when it first appeared because I was in Vietnam and then Oklahoma finishing my military service. Season 3 was the first one I actually saw as it was broadcast, although I’ve recently watched the first two seasons. I’ve always thought this was one of the first shows to have a really excellent ensemble cast, Edward Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Valerie Harper, and Cloris Leachman leading the way, with Betty White and others coming later. The opening episode of season 3 is one I remembered. Mary discovers that she is paid substantially less than her predecessor, a man, just as the management insists that the news program try to be more entertaining. One of Knight’s best performances as the incompetent, insecure Ted Baxter. Episode #2 sees her unwisely agreeing to an interview with a journalist who hates television.
Episode #3 is okay but not one of the better ones. Lou gets promoted and Mary gripes about not getting his job, but not for long. The next one, however, is one of my favorites. Nancy Walker is fabulous as Rhoda’s mother, who is convinced that her husband doesn’t love her any more. Great stuff. Next is an okay but predictable one in which Ted is invited to a poker game and wins despite his ignorance of the rules. Rhoda is featured next when she participates in a beauty contest despite her negative self image, a good episode, as is the seventh, featuring a visit from Mary’s parents and the drawbacks of having them live in close proximity. “But Seriously Folks” ends the first disc, a routine story about an incompetent stand up comic.
One of the better episodes has Ted Baxter renegotiating his contract and outsmarting Lou Grant for a change. He gets involved in embarrassing commercials beneath the dignity of an anchor person. Also good is Mary’s difficulties when two of her closest friends decide to get divorced and the male half asks her out. “You’ve Got a Friend” is one of my favorites. Mary decides to make an effort to forge a stronger bond with her father. Her encounter with a young boy who has a crush on her is pretty good, as is the episode where Lou Grant has to undergo surgery. Rhoda’s aborted move to New York City is less interesting, and Mary’s refusal of a marriage proposal in the next is only marginally better.
“Lou’s Place” is a considerable upturn. Lou buys a bar that promptly flops. Even better is “My Brother’s Keeper”. Phyllis tries to match Mary with her brother, who apparently prefers Rhoda. Most of the last few episodes are excellent, including stories about Georgette, Ted’s girlfriend, a new manager at the station who falls in love with Lou, and particularly “Put on a Happy Face”, in which Mary is nominated for an award and everything promptly begins to go wrong. The ones involving Murray’s career crisis and the reappearance of Mary’s old flame are okay but less memorable. The season concludes with Mary loaning Rhoda money to start her own business, with nearly disastrous effects on their friendship. A solid season throughout, with a handful of excellent episodes and only a couple that fell below average. 6/10/07
Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment (1975)
Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (1981)
In the first of these, the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah arrive on a far future and pretty much deserted Earth, although their ecological sense has atrophied since they seem to believe that a viable ecosystem could have survived with no animal or insect life. As it happens, they’ve also materialized near a small band of marooned astronauts. Before long, Harry falls into a trap, Sarah is kidnapped by one of the astronauts, and another of them has been killed by a mysterious but rather impractical looking robot. Sarah ends up in the lair of an alien soldier, a Sontaran, who has come to Earth to conduct an experiment. This is a short adventure, only two episodes, with the Doctor outsmarting the Sontaran in short order, killing him and averting the invasion of Earth. Again.
The Keeper of Traken is close to the end of Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor. He and Adric are visited by the ruler of Traken, the Keeper, who is dying after a thousand years in office. Traken is a peaceful planet that has been troubled by mysterious invaders who arrive singly but calcify and turn into statues before they can do any harm. One of the statues has life remaining and has some influence with a young woman who fears for the future of her marriage. A mysterious murder leads to a crisis just as the Doctor arrives, and we viewers know that the invader is still alive. The locals, however, don’t believe the Doctor’s story and one of them is under the invader’s power.
The secret puppetmaster behind the plot turns out to be the Master, an evil Timelord believed killed in an earlier episode. I always liked the Master, but he wasn’t the same after Roger Delgado died. The Doctor’s interplanetary adventures generally interest me less than those set on Earth, which is probably why my favorite Doctor is still Jon Pertwee, who was marooned there by a defective Tardis for most of his time in the role. This one has the usual low production standards, but a reasonably good plot. 6/9/07
Crucible of Horror (1970)
Michael Gough stars in this low key, atmospheric suspense thriller that suffers primarily from a lack of sympathetic characters. Even the son is appallingly rude and chauvinistic. Gough is the domineering head of a family of three. His daughter is a thief and his wife may or may not be insane. In any case, he rules with an iron hand, physically punishing his daughter when he discovers her latest bit of thievery. In response, mother and daughter plot his murder. They wait until he goes to their vacation cottage and follow, unbeknownst to everyone, bringing along one of his guns. We already know, however, that he’s suspicious, that he knows they’ve been plotting against him.
They’ve put poison in the liquor he’s drinking and put him to bed, believing him dead, but they’re wrong. The wife experiences some dream hallucinations that add nothing at all to the movie, and little mistakes in their plans begin to surface. When he doesn’t come home, they go to the cottage, supposedly to find out what happened, and find the body gone and the bed made up. Not that any of this was a particular surprise. What is a surprise is that they find his body crated up in the yard. Their behavior from that point on is not very logical, although I supposed under the circumstances, logic wouldn’t be high on their agenda.
After dealing with a mysteriously inquisitive neighbor, they decide to dispose of the body by throwing it into what appears to be a quarry. They return home, terrified, and a broken window adds to their woes. The son, meanwhile, has only communicated with them by telephone. It’s obvious that someone is terrorizing them, either the father, the son, or both. He’s back for the final scene, where the status quo ante appears to have been restored, except that the mother is now apparently insane.
Gough lends some class to an otherwise minor film. He’s a master of the sly look, the picture of smug self-satisfaction. The other actors spend a lot of time looking thoughtful, bored, or annoyed, with less success, and the lengthy shots of their faces don’t do anything to contribute to the pace of the story. With some editing and a bit livelier performances, this could have been quite nice. As it stands, it’s an interesting mediocrity. The film has also appeared as The Velvet House and The Corpse. 6/8/07
At World's End (2007)
Spoilers. I broke a long streak and went to the movies to see the final installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Like the previous installments, it's visually impressive, fast moving, and full of treachery, double crosses, and plot twists. That said, it was disappointing. The story opens with the quest to rescue Jack Sparrow from Davey Jones' Locker, where he is undergoing some mildly interesting surreal experiences. They find him at last, bring him back to the world of the living, and square off against the evil British lord who has managed to enslave Davey Jones by kidnapping his heart.
Much of what follows was easy to anticipate. The pirate leaders convene to consider what to do and the fleet rallies behind The Flying Dutchman to destroy them all. The introduction of the imprisoned goddess Calypso is potentially interesting, but then is completely wasted. The relationship between her and Jones is never satisfactorily explained, and the final comeuppance of the chief villain is oddly understated. The fight scenes have their moments, but they're not as brilliant choreographed as in the previous two. The surprise ending was foreshadowed and the resolution didn't work for me either. Depp is good as always, and Keira Knightley and Geoffrey Rush also do an excellent job, but the rest of the characters are either relegated to very minor parts or seem lethargic, particularly Orlando Bloom. I'd say I got my money's worth, but it's not in the same league as the first two. 6/7/07
Doctor Who: The Invasion (1968)
Two of the eight episodes in this series have been lost forever, so they’ve been replaced with an animated version using the original soundtrack, which did survive. In keeping with the original, the animation is also in black and white. The DVD comes with lots of extras, if you’re interested in such things, This was the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, whose Tardis materializes in space just in time to be shot down by a missile from the moon. He lands in a compound operated by a mysterious company whose security forces murder the first person who tries to help them. After an unsatisfactory interview with the manager, he and his companion encounter one of my favorite ongoing characters in the series, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, now working for UNIT.
The businessman reveals himself to be the Earth agent of an alien power, who are represented by a weird looking computer/communicator. As usual, the Doctor and his companions are in and out of captivity, separately and together, while the Brigadier tries to monitor developments from a distance. There are also warnings of an imminent invasion of Earth by the aliens, who admit that they’ve encounter the Doctor before and want him destroyed. Eventually there’s a helicopter rescue, but I did wonder why UNIT or the authorities was disinclined to intervene directly given the obvious criminality of the operation, although later the Brigadier’s commander orders him not to intervene.
Halfway through we discover who is behind the plot, the Doctor’s old enemies the Cybermen. They betray their agent on Earth when he is no longer useful, to no one’s surprise. Their advance forces are hiding in the sewers and emerge as an invasion fleet approaches the atmosphere, but they hadn’t counted on the Doctor. These early versions were a bit talky without being witty, but they helped establish the characters of the various villains who would recur in the later, better episodes. 6/7/07
Eaten Alive (1977)
Tobe Hooper’s redneck horror film has also been released as Death Trap, Horror Hotel, Horror Hotel Massacre, Legend of the Bayou, Murder on the Bayou, and Starlight Slaughter. None of the title changes helped much. Nor does the strong supporting cast that included Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Stuart Whitman, Robert Englund, and Marilyn Burns, who previously screamed a lot in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Nor does the absolutely dreadful and inappropriate soundtrack. A young woman working in a brothel gets fired goes looking for a place to stay. The opening scenes are so badly acted that my attention was wandering even before I knew what the plot was about. She wanders a bit, then rents a room in a broken down hotel. The manager keeps a pet crocodile just outside. You can bet we’ll see more of the pet, given the title.
She gets attacked before she even makes it to her room, and ends up being pet food, which pretty much sets the tone for the balance of the movie. The next couple of guests show up with a yapping dog and a kid. Robert Englund shows up as a local hayseed, eats some of the scenery, and leaves. The dog, mercifully, gets swallowed quickly, and the ensuing hysteria gobbles up most of the remaining scenery. The family is so uniformly repulsive that I began hoping for their early demise. Then the father and sister of the dead girl arrive, looking for her. Much chomping and screaming and running around ensues, resulting in a thoroughly repulsive mess. Avoid this one. 6/6/07
Sea Raiders (1941)
This cliffhanger serial featured the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys, groups of younger actors who made a number of features during this period. Unsurprisingly, there’s considerable slapstick humor in this one. Two of the kids stow away aboard a ship to avoid the police after a minor dust-up, only to discover that their ship is the target of the Sea Raiders, a mysterious gang sinking allied shipping off the coast. The gang uses clandestine radio signals and bombs dropped from small boats. There’s also a subplot about the inventor of a revolutionary kind of torpedo boat who is pretending to sell it to the US government but actually plans to steal it and contact a foreign power.
The running battle with the bumbling cop is more in the style of the Dead End Kids than the usual serial, and while it’s distracting at times, it does make this stand out from most of the others, with a whole different selection of implausible situations and occasions of imminent death and destruction. The kids are suspected of stealing the torpedo boat prototype, and the criminals want them dead because they witnessed the real theft, so they’re on the run from everybody from that point onward. The squabbling among the various kids gets a bit tiresome after a while, but there’s plenty of action, explosions, fires, gunfights, and such. Halfway through, the villains are unmasked, which is another unusual development in serials. Lots of boat chases, plane crashes, and the like. The great classical soundtrack is a bonus. 6/5/07
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Despite my fondness for Samuel L. Jackson’s work, I skipped this in the theaters and put off watching it for a while even after I picked up the DVD. I’m not sure why, maybe because it looked like it wouldn’t hold any surprises. The set-up is quick and obvious. Jackson rescues the sole witness to a gangland killing and is escorting him to the mainland from Hawaii. We get introduced to several of the other passengers in short order, and get to guess early on who will live and who will die. Some of them are rather more eccentric than is totally believable. Jackson tries a double fakeout with the airplanes, but the bad guys are a step ahead of them and plant a crate of irritated snakes aboard.
The pot smoking couple screwing in the lavatory was significantly over the top for me, even though it provided a dramatic way to introduce the snakes into the mix, following their release in the cargo bay. One of the characters has her dog with her, which I don’t think is allowed on any commercial airliner. The snakes manage to get through the airplane’s infrastructure, including the pilots’ cabin, but are then blocked by a pile of luggage. There are so many things wrong with the snakes’ behavior that even for a cheesy horror film this was a bit much to swallow. (Snakes don’t hang on when they bite, for one thing.) And why do the snakes invade the entire plane if the pheromones that are supposed to be driving them into a fury are all in the cargo hold? Why are the snakebites always nearly instantly fatal, except for the little boy? The snakes are particularly drawn to the female passengers because of the pheromones???? Some of the bits are absurd enough to be amusing, but the story is too implausible to be particularly suspenseful. I did enjoy Jackson giving almost the same speech here that he gives in Deep Blue Sea. And the boa constrictor was actively funny, but unintentionally. 6/4/07
Funny About Love (1990)
When Gene Wilder has a good script, he’s hilarious. When he has a bad one, he still usually manages to be okay. In this minor comedy, he’s a cartoonist who realizes one day that he’s not getting any younger and still doesn’t have any children. He and his wife separate after they are unsuccessful conceiving, and Wilder meets a new, younger woman whom he gets pregnant. Which direction will he go? The story opens with their original courtship, establishing the lightly humorous, determinedly romantic atmosphere. They seem perfect for one another, and it is only their childlessness that causes them to separate. The scene with the fertility doctor is probably the funniest sequence in the movie. On the other hand, the sequence involving their attempt at artificial insemination seems to go on endlessly and pointlessly.
Things progress very slowly. Wilder’s wife’s career takes off and she is less interested in trying to have a child. The story isn’t serious enough to be serious, and not funny enough to be funny, although Wilder has most of the good lines. Unfortunately, both he and his wife (Christine Lahti) come off as crappy, unkind people from time to time, which ruins the viewer’s sympathy for their plight. The ending goes on for a scene too long. Not awful, but I regret to say it’s not very good. 6/3/07
The Phynx (1970)
This movie was judged by the studio to be so awful that they never actually released it, and they were right. It’s a comedy that anticipates the much more successful Top Secret, with jokes so unfunny that it’s hard to believe they weren’t deliberately trying to make a bad movie. The plot, such as it is, involves sending spies disguised as a rock group into Albania where a local military strongman has imprisoned a large number of American icons including Edgar Bergman and Colonel Sanders. They get this plan from a computer named Motha (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans), who physically resembles a woman.
The cast of cameo notables includes Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark, Ed Sullivan, Andy Devine, Dorothy Lamour, George Jessel, Sally Struthers, Clint Walker, and many others. I doubt that any of them would have listed this on their resume. You might watch this for curiosity value, but certainly not for entertainment. I’ve seen better written and performed skits on Saturday Night Live. Hell, I’ve seen better as high school productions. 6/3/07
The Invisible Monster (1950)
This Republic serial uses a bit of hyperbole. The monster of the title is just another villain plotting to seize control of the country. His gimmick is that he has developed a chemical which, when spread over one’s clothing, renders the wearer invisible under a particular light. This seems rather unwieldy and the film makers haven’t even bothered to rig any interesting invisibility effects. The villain has to have one of his cohorts train a spotlight on him in order to become invisible, but nevertheless he plots to obtain the supplies that will enable him to create an army no one can see. His opposition is a pair of insurance investigators, one male and one female.
The usual plot devices follow. There’s a reasonably impressive scene in which an automobile smashes through the wall of a building, several stories in the air. There’s also a fairly clever scheme for getting extorted money without getting caught, a mountain trained dog with a harness which can cover ground quickly and indetectibly. Richard Webb, who went on to become Captain Midnight, is the star. He’s actually pretty good, as is his sidekick, Aline Towne, who actually gets to be competent, smart, and engage in gunfights. She even gets to rescue the guy. Higher on the implausibility scale than most of these serials, but better acted and with a decent effort to develop some of the characters. 6/2/07
Animal House (1978)
It has been thirty years since I first (and last) saw this and I couldn’t remember much of anything about it other than the toga party, so it was time to see how well it held up. I was watching for Neidermeyer (who later became the Master on Buffy) and the nerdish Stephen Furst, who shone as Vir Cotto on Babylon 5. The cast is excellent overall, with John Belushi as the ultimate slob and Donald Sutherland as an equivocating instructor. A vindictive college official puts Belushi’s fraternity on double secret probation, and enlists the aid of the preppy fraternity where Neidermeyer hangs his hat.
Several of the scenes are a bit dated but still just as funny, the first encounter with pot, the lecherous professor, the horse dying of a heart attack, and Belushi on the ladder at the sorority house, to name a few. Most of the humor is intentionally gross; some is funny, some isn’t. The plot is actually rather jumpy and uneven, although the high points occur frequently enough to smooth over the gaps. On balance though, it wasn’t as funny as it might have been. 6/1/07
Flying Disc Man from Mars (1950)
This is another cliffhanger serial featuring chases, fistfights, narrow escapes, and the usual simpleminded plot, actually almost a remake of The Purple Monster Strikes. It opens with a cheesy spaceship orbiting the Earth, obviously carrying you-know-who. Earth scientists are in the process of testing a new interceptor system and radar and our hero is invited to watch, then hired to mount it in his plane and shoot down the intruder, believed to be a spy. He shoots it down, but the head scientist confronts the pilot, who speaks English (of course), knows the scientists by name, and announces he is from Mars.
The Martian describes his vessel as a flying disc, which is amusing since it isn’t remotely disc shaped. He has come to Earth to impose the government of the “supreme ruler of the universe”, and he knows that the scientist was a secret Nazi sympathizer, thereby recruiting him to the cause of conquest. The Martian has a secret hideout and a plane that takes off vertically, so we have an aerial dogfight in short order, which our hero loses, but survives. He gets the drop on the bad guys a couple of times, but they always get away. Maybe if he tried calling the police for a change that wouldn’t happen. On the other hand, when the bad guys have the upper hand, they always manage to bungle it as well. At least one of the escapes made me chuckle – the pilot jumps out of a crashing plane without a chute, waiting until just before it hits the ground so that he won’t have far to fall! And how do they have all this prolonged, violent fist fights without losing their hats?
Using the airship, the Martian and his allies launch bombing attacks against various targets, hoping to cow the governments of Earth into surrendering. They’re supposedly atomic bombs, even though they are only powerful enough to take out one building. Our hero and his friends have begun to suspect the scientist, but they still don’t call in the authorities even though the world is, presumably, in peril. They do get a warrant to search his property, which is nonsensical since they’re private citizens, and that provokes the secret bad guy into revealing his real loyalties. Despite the occasional silliness, this was one of the more enjoyable thrillers, and the implausibilities really didn’t bother me that much. I also wondered if it was significant that some of the markings on the Martian’s aircraft resemble the rising sun of imperial Japan. 5/31/07
Mike Hammer, Private Eye (1997)
There are times when a television show can be so consistently badly written that I watch just to see what absurd mistakes they’ll make next. That was the incentive that kept me going through this set. Stacy Keach played Mike Hammer during the 1980s, and came back after a ten year gap for this new series. As it happens, I never saw a single episode of either version, and I haven’t read any of the books by Mickey Spillane either, so this was virgin territory for me. Almost every episode is atrociously written, with inane dialogue, obvious villains, and implausible situations. There is an obvious formula to most of them. Hammer gets beat up and warned off almost every case, feuds with the deputy mayor, mutters bland aphorisms, and solves the crimes. There’s usually someone killed about halfway through, most often a witness. The opening episode, “Prodigal Son”, involves his investigation of the death of a policeman friend who apparently stumbled upon a Russian Mafia operation. The plot’s not bad but the dialogue needed some serious reworking. It’s awkward and choppy and they try to get so much into the story that it’s sometimes hard to follow, and the identity of the mysterious Russian drug lord is obvious from the outset. The gunfight over the body of the dead prostitute is close to self parody.
In episode 2, “Beat Street”, Hammer is hired by a man who claims he was unjustly accused as a polluter by a television show host. When the host is murdered that same evening, Hammer isn’t sure who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. He tracks down the whistleblower, who is murdered right in front of him. Once again, the villain is obvious, primarily because there are no other living candidates. The basis of the whole crime – the fraudulent news story – is completely implausible.
“www .murder” is about internet porn and snuff films. It’s annoyingly moralistic in tone as well as naïve about the law and the internet. A girl goes missing and a clip of her murder shows up on line, so Hammer and his associates investigate a porn producer. They get mixed up in a federal sting operation, plots within plots, and a lot of computer lingo that makes no sense. Another really obvious villain. The final confrontation is dreadful. Unarmed, Hammer twice knocks the armed bad guy sprawling, having somehow approached close enough in an open space without being seen. In both cases he fails to follow up on his advantage. “Hoop Nightmares” opens with a sports agent being murdered by an unknown client. It’s a better story, but the writing is still sloppy. Even real radio sportscasters don’t broadcast such blatantly actionable slander as occurs in this one. Guessed the killer again, but it took a little longer this time.
“False Truths” is a little better and the dialogue is better. An actress is accused of murdering an unpopular film executive and Hammer has to prove her innocent. This time he gets up by two uniformed officers who want him off the case. This shtick was already getting pretty old. They did fool me this time, although the bad guy’s identity wasn’t a complete surprise. “Halloween” breaks the usual pattern somewhat. A mysterious killer is targeting people close to Hammer and who is apparently working as the agent of an imprisoned Satanist whom Hammer helped capture. The acting (particularly the Satanist) is particularly bad this time. And when Hammer discovers that his two associates are the next two targets, he doesn’t bother to warn them right away? Sloppy, sloppy writing, and the killer’s identity is painfully obvious.
Hammer’s priest gets murdered in “Sins of the Fathers” (it doesn’t pay to be one of Hammer’s friends, obviously) after asking him to help protect prostitutes from a serial killer. Obviously the killer confessed and the priest knew who he was. More bad writing. A police official wants Hammer arrested simply because the priest had one of his business cards in his pocket. Yeah, right. The story gets worse, the actions of the new priest incomprehensible (he wants prostitutes, juvenile delinquents, and the homeless out of the church), and the actor playing the carpenter ate all the scenery. Hammer gets beat up and warned off – again – and as usual doesn’t pay attention, and the narrative monologue is even more inane than usual. There’s also a reference to Mary Magadene as being a prostitute, even though this had been disproved and disavowed by the Church well before 1997. And once the prostitute finds the killer, why does Hammer plan to follow instead of just capturing him? Another obvious villain.
“Body Odor” opens with an absurd set up. During surgery, a man’s body releases a poisonous vapor that kills three members of the operating team plus himself. The man’s daughter (and her obnoxious fiancé) come to Hammer. She wants him to prove negligence because no one seems interested in pursuing the matter further!!! The head doctor lies and says the CDC is investigating, and the hospital’s public relations head tries to bribe him in another relentlessly inane conversation. A nurse tips them off that a mysterious needle was found under the dead man’s bed, and that the surgeon prepared the anesthesia, but her story has holes and she ends up dead anyway. This obvious malpractice was done in front of a good sized audience, of course, although most of them are dead now. Hammer solves it because he suspects a Defense Department connection, whose only antecedent is that there was an elderly soldier at the hospital.
A stockbroker is murdered in “A Penny Saved” and a janitor who touched the corpse and then inexplicably ran off with the murder weapon and a fortune in negotiable bonds is the obvious suspect. Enter the predictably obnoxious brokerage client and his bodyguard. Can we see where this one is going? Hammer gets beat up and warned off…again. “The Life You Save” is the closest to a coherent script to date. After witnessing a suspicious arrest, someone threatens Hammer’s life and he has to figure out who’s after him, the mob, or a crooked cop. It even has a couple of good lines. “This was the last straw. From now on, some other guy is going to jump in the dumpster.” And later, from a stripper: “I have to get undressed for work.”
“The Long Road to Nowhere” has a good premise. Another of Hammer’s friends dies, this time a mystery writer stuck for the ending of his latest novel. He asked Hammer to read the incomplete manuscript and suggest an ending, but now the unfinished novel suggests a solution to his own murder. The only real blunder is the unexplained attack on Hammer’s assistant by one of the minor characters. Hammer gets beaten up and warned off. What a surprise! But persists. This one also has a good line. After throwing a bowl of soup into a bad guy’s lap Hammer calls the waiter. “I this guy has a soup in his fly.” Unfortunately, the only connection between the book and the murder is peripheral. And when we find out that the non-grieving widow is the real author of the novels, her explanation is that publishers wouldn’t take a chance on a female mystery writer. Apparently the screenwriter hadn’t heard of Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, etc. “The Art of Murder” is actually a pretty good episode, with Hammer tracking down the murderer of his secretary’s boyfriend, a well respected though not very respectable artist.
“Countdown to Murder” moves to the theater world for another reasonable good story. The humorous content doesn’t really work but it’s over quickly. “The Cutting Edge” is moderately good except that the basic premise, that stealing one microchip from a high tech company means they have lost the technology to make it, is ludicrous. They also insist that it all the software for the computer is also loaded into the microchip. Another of Hammer’s friends is in trouble in “Dead Men Talk”, supposedly eaten by a lion but alive and anxious that Hammer find out who tried to kill him. “I guess I’m a soft touch for old friends.” Probably because so few of them manage to stay alive. A political candidate is the prime suspect for his mistress’ murder in “A Candidate for Murder”, but we know he’s innocent right from the outset. This time it’s the sidekick who gets beaten up and warned off, but otherwise it’s the standard story, though better done than most. Minor quibble: I don’t believe men and women are held in the same cells while in custody.
Hammer is the prime suspect in “Dump the Creep” when a radio talk show host advises his girlfriend to dump him and then ends up dead. This one was rather less than serious. Hammer goes to his psychiatrist (Dr. Joyce Brothers) who wants him to concentrate on not physicalizing things. Keach’s real son plays the young Hammer in a brief flashback. “Big Brother’s Secret” returns to the usual format. Another friend of Hammer gets murdered, and that leads to the discovery of stolen satellite photographs. The general improvement in quality continues with this one, and the solution was even mildly surprising.
In “Lucky in Love”, one of Hammer’s friends is murdered. What a surprise! After a contentious poker game, Hammer gets rolled and one of the other players is beaten to death with our hero as suspect number one. To his surprise, the dead man owned a race horse, which shows up unexpectedly in Hammer’s apartment with Mickey Rooney in tow. Entertaining twists and turns follow, including murder and horsenapping. The latter half of the series was definitely an improvement over the first half. “The Maya Connection” is basically a spy story, and unevenly mixes humor and violence.
“Songbird”, a two parter, made a good opening impression because Hammer quotes Kurt Vonnegut, but it’s uneven after that. A popular singer’s relationship to a notorious mobster gets her into trouble when he’s busted for drugs and she’s left holding his gun. The police convince him to wear a wire and rat on his boss, but he gets caught. The police then initiate a deadly gunfight in a crowded restaurant (!!!) and he gets away, sought by both sides. There’s a ridiculously absurd grilling of the head mobster’s son. Hammer gets arrested by the district attorney, who makes arrests personally but apparently doesn’t understand the law, since he knows there’s no basis for the arrest. Hammer is protecting the singer, whom the mobsters are looking for. There’s a good line. One of the lawyers is so bad “ambulances chase him”. Meanwhile, the diva has been framed for multiple murders, but she continues to appear at jazz clubs around the city. Neither the police nor the mobsters appear to be aware of this. Similarly, the script writer isn’t aware that wives CAN testify against their husbands. They just can’t be compelled to. The first part is okay, but the second half dissolves into stupidity.
“Chop Shop” really breaks the mold. Hammer is off to Texas to attend a friend’s birthday, but we know it’s dangerous to be one of his friends. The bride is kidnapped by a gang who want to harvest her organs for sale on the black market. Inappropriate humor and a plot that works a bit too conveniently for Hammer (though he does get beat up and warned off again). “Gone Fishing” is really bad. Hammer and his cop friend are held hostage at another friend’s bar (not surprisingly the latter gets shot) by a band of incredibly stupid bank robbers led by Edward Arnold, who devours rather than just eats the scenery. To balance things, the police arbitrator is equally idiotic. Embarrassingly bad. Another two part episode concludes the set, “A New Leaf”, which doesn’t turn one. A scientist about to testify in a cigarette related lawsuit is killed right in front of Hammer. The secret he was about to reveal was the development of a new tobacco with more than twice the nicotine than normal. Even in 1998, this was a ridiculous premise. Add in some more inappropriate humor, like a mugging by a guy in a rabbit costume, and you have the recipe for another awful episode. How could this show have lasted two seasons and Firefly, Surface, Max Headroom, and Invasion lasted only one? And the second half, involving a dysfunctional family and child abduction, is even worse.
The series occasionally rises to mediocrity, but for the most part it repeats the same formula, with below par acting, well below par dialogue, and terrible plots. And what’s the point of the Face, a woman who appears briefly in most episodes, never says a word, disappears as soon as Hammer sees her? I assume this must be something from the books but I don’t care enough to read them to find out. 5/30/07
Masters of Venus (1952)
This eight chapter British serial adventure for children opens at the “Inter-Planetary Rocket Base”, where a mission to Venus is about to get underway. A brother and sister whose father is head of the project seem to have a free hand at the base and enter and exit the rocket at will. Two men in black with rayguns show up, apparently to sabotage the project, and the two kids take refuge in the spaceship, which takes off carrying them, and two unconscious technicians, to Venus. Efforts to turn the ship around end when they run into the obligatory meteor shower.
The government decides they should continue on to Venus to beat the Chinese, but there’s an attempt to abort when evidence indicates the men in black came from that planet. The landing takes place and they find themselves in a lifeless, volcanic landscape. The two adults, now conscious, go out first but fall prey to some mysterious trap. As usual, they’ve landed within walking distance of the Venusian supreme command. Other than having six fingers, the Venusians are completely human. It’s pretty routine from this point on, not that the first half was all that original. The Venusians breathe our air, naturally, and speak English. They’re descended from humans driven from the Earth during the age of Atlantis. They also have a latex robot that is alternately clumsy and agile, depending on the scene. Lots of running around but not much interesting stuff. They do wear oxygen masks when they’re on the surface, which is one point in their favor. Interesting and rare, but minor. 5/29/07
Voodoo Moon (2005)
I picked this up only because I’m still having Buffy withdrawal symptoms and Charisma Carpenter was in it. A young man and his psychic sister (Carpenter) are pitted against a demonic creature that already wiped out an entire town. Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, and John Amos are all in the cast, but they don’t provide much help to an ailing story. The brother is obsessed and has been following the demon all over the world, battling it in different guises.
One of the problems with the movie is that there are too many story lines and characters, in flashbacks and scene switches, and some of the scenes that are supposed to be scary are either flat or ultimately funny, particularly the bit about the possessed priest. Our hero’s surviving friends gather in a farmhouse where they are prey to several supernatural events, but everything that happens is relatively lifeless (no pun intended) and my attention was constantly wandering. There seem to be no clear rules about the demon (who manifests himself as a perfectly normal looking human) which robs the story of tension because it is clear that he can do whatever he wants. Unless you’re really desperately bored, you’ll want to choose another movie to rent. 5/28/07
The Heroes Collection
This is a collection of amateur films involving comic book heroes. Best of the lot is Grayson, trailer for a supposed movie in which Batman dies and Dick Grayson seeks revenge in a plot that involves Superman, Wonder Woman, and various super villains. A close second in technical quality is Dead End. Batman is searching for the Joker, who has escaped from a lunatic asylum, but instead he runs first into one of the Aliens, then a band of Predators. The costumes aren’t at all bad and the fight isn’t badly choreographed. World’s Finest teams Superman and Batman in another fake trailer, also reasonably well done.
The others are less thrilling. Wolverine vs Punisher is another battle story, with a few good moments but it’s mostly so underlit that it’s hard to see what’s going on. Batman Year One and The Death of Batman are much more amateurish and badly shot, particularly the latter, which feels like it goes on forever. The rest are minor, although the two “Making Of” features are mildly interesting. An interesting collection of oddities. 5/28/07
70,000 Witnesses (1932)
This old timer is based on a novel by Cortland Fitzgibbons, whoever he was, and features two of my favorite actors from this era, Johnny Mack Brown and Charlie Ruggles. The setting, as you might have guessed from the title, is a college football game between State and University (although none of the players look young enough to be in college). A gangster has a lot of money riding on the game and decides to pressure his brother, who is a close friend of one of the star players, to drug the man so that he can’t play. The brother refuses, but the threat remains, and during the game, the player in question drops collapses on the field and subsequently dies. The uniforms have certainly changed a lot in seventy years.
The autopsy report shows an “explosion of the brain” from unknown causes, but clearly murder. The detective decides to unravel the mess by recreating the game with both teams, play by play. During the critical play, the same thing happens again, a player collapses, and by now the viewer knows that it was something in the rubbing alcohol administered by the team doctor. Not great, but pretty good. 5/27/07
Dangerous to Know (1938)
Anthony Quinn, Akim Tamiroff, Lloyd Nolan, and Hedda Hopper all appear in this surprisingly sophisticated story of murder and treachery. Tamiroff is a powerful, supposedly reformed crook who becomes infatuated with a society woman (Gail Patrick). He murders an unfaithful associate, but unwisely takes the pen used to write a bogus suicide note with him. Lloyd Nolan is the detective who smells a rat. The by play between him and Tamiroff is probably the high point of the movie, two old adversaries who have no secrets from one another.
Anna May Wong is Tamiroff’s housekeeper and hostess, who warns him that his interest in the woman is misplaced and will get him into trouble. Her advice is ignored, of course, and he arranges to frame the man engaged to Patrick, but she sees through him immediately. On the other hand, she gives in to his blackmail with surprising alacrity. The joker in the deck is Wong, who is in love with Tamiroff but has scruples and kills herself when she realizes what a monster he has become, framing him for what appears to be murder. Nolan knows he’s innocent, this time, but figures justice is served this way. An unspectacular but entertaining psychological thriller. 5/27/07
It Waits (2005)
I was given a copy of this so I figured it was probably going to be worth what I paid for it, particularly since I hadn’t heard of any of the cast members. Then I noticed that the screenplay was by Richard Christian Matheson It actually has a pretty cute opening, a pair of obvious Native Americans wandering through the woods, who then pull out a GPS unit to orient themselves. Then a brief bit of creepy noises in a cave and off to introduce our protagonist, a female park ranger with a drinking problem who is trying to deal with her guilt about her best friend’s accidental death.
Something is prowling around the station, but she (and we) don’t get as much as a glimpse, just some shaking bushes. Morning arrives as does a male park ranger, soon to be lover of our heroine. There are also some missing campers although neither ranger seems particularly concerned about finding them, and a defective dam that she’s supposed to be watching. Something very big destroys their radio antenna and rolls their jeep off a cliff, so they know they’re in trouble. So does her annoying talking parrot, but nothing else happens that first night.
Meanwhile the missing campers are still alive, at least for the moment. They’re just lost, but they meet the rangers. Alas for them, they refuse to stay, insisting on hiking back to civilization. The rangers go to the dam, which shows evidence of having been visited, while the hikers find out they should have listened. We get only glimpses of the creature, which appears to resemble Pumpkinhead, but the campers die, and the rangers find their mutilated bodies when they return to the station.
I would have liked this better if I’d had a higher opinion of the two protagonists. They’re not awful people, but they’re crass and flippant at the wrong times, and one does have to wonder why this powerful, malevolent creature didn’t just kill them the first time when it had the chance. The guy decides to go for help while the gal barricades herself in. He doesn’t make it. The parrot continues his running commentary. “Uh oh! This sucks!” Our heroine hears noises in the night but is not bothered, and in the morning she finds her dead (dismembered) lover – in a couple of places. I did begin to wonder at this point why no one had come to investigate the fact that she was not relieving pressure on the dam like she was supposed to, and had no communicated for nearly 48 hours.
After a night attack in which she shoots wildly into the darkness, she finds a trail of goo and follows the creature to its lair the next morning, where she meets a man whom we’ve never seen before and who says he has been watching the creature. He’s a professor of Native American studies. Their conversation is the low point of the movie, implausible, cornball, and a deus ex machine. The creature is “drawn to negative energy” and is demonic in nature. “Caves exist as our mortal connection to the spirit world”. A faltering movie goes into a steady decline. The academic type says it would be best if they split up. Why? He also concludes that it doesn’t like water, but doesn’t explain why.
When she returns to the station, she finds that the creature has dug up the three bodies and arranged them at her table, so she reburies them. Fortunately, it starts to rain that night, so she decides to take advantage of that fact and boogey out. So naturally it stops raining, and she’s out in the forest with her rifle but no parrot to warn her that it’s coming. It catches her, and she pleads with it to go away, which it accountably does, at least for the moment. She finds the campers’ cell phone and calls for help, and is told that they’ll come up in the morning, even though she has just reported three murders. Her boss does drive up, alone, but not until daylight. He and the academic type both die planning to reseal the creature’s cave. And the rest you can pretty much figure out for yourself.
Although it’s not badly acted, and the camera work is fine, the screenplay tends to be downright corny at times, and the creature’s inconsistent behavior is too obviously designed to be convenient to the script rather than realistic. The special effects are minimal and unimpressive. The soundtrack is so muted that it doesn’t contribute anything to the atmosphere, and the parrot becomes unintentional comic relief by late in the story. We also have the usual clichés, the stalled car that won’t start until the last possible moment, running the creature down with the jeep and finding no trace of it under the vehicle, dropping the cigarette lighter when lighting the dynamite, etc. With a little effort, this could have been an okay "B" film, but the effort just wasn't there. 5/26/07
The Cat Creeps (1946)
This is one of the least well known of the Universal horror films, and deservedly show despite a few good moments. A group of reporters and others travel to a remote island in search of a juicy story and a missing bundle of money. On the island we have an old dark house occupied by a woman and a sinister cat. The set up isn’t bad but it takes a long time to get going and by the time the old woman is attacked, our attention has wandered considerably. An attempt to go for help is cut short when their boat is burned to the water line.
While some search for the money and others for answers, a mysterious shadow appears and the old woman is killed. A mysterious woman appears from nowhere, insisting that the old woman’s spirit is now in the cat, and that the cat called her there. The thrills and chills are pretty low key from that point on. There’s another murder and lots of running back and forth and slinking in the shadows. “Oh Terry, it was horrible!” The mystery woman tells them that “At the proper time, the cat will reveal everything”, but that doesn’t reassure anyone. We find out the truth, and locate the money, in due course, but there’s really nothing supernatural and frankly, not really much reason to watch this one. 5/25/07
I knew this was a Full Moon movie, so I wasn’t expecting much. I did get more than I expected, but not necessarily good stuff. It probably should win some minor award for shoveling so many horror movie tropes into one package, but they don’t rest easy together. The opening scene is a crooked antiques deal gone bad, with murder and mayhem. The murder victim’s blood rejuvenates a mummy, which also turns out to be an alien, and the alien can turn people to stone by projecting red rays from his eyes.
Next we have a stranded motorist who takes refuge in a private facility that apparently caters exclusively to sexually obsessed young women. Two of the inmates sneak off into the night for some private sex and end up swapping horror stories instead, although the gratuitous but not very convincing physical component shows up eventually. So does the grumbling alien mummy, who’s not very convincing either. Zap, and we have a pair of semi-nude statues. There is a good line when one of the cops finds two petrified killers. “A couple of hardened criminals.” Most of the lines aren’t that good. In fact, most of them are dreadful. The rest of the plot makes even less sense, and the occasional attempts at humor don’t work any better than the attempts at suspense. If you saw this one for free, you were overcharged. 5/24/07
The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
Lionel Atwill is a mad scientist who is forced to flee the US and ends up on a primitive island. He is working on a kind of suspended animation that borders on the work of Dr. Frankenstein. When the ocean liner carrying him catches fire, he and a few of the passengers make it ashore where he manages to restore life to a recently dead woman. That redeems him in the eyes of the local chief, who is otherwise ill disposed toward intruders. Unfortunately, he accomplished that with adrenaline to restart a stopped heart; when later ordered to restore a drowned man to life, he fails and is executed by the natives. The other survivors get rescued in the nick of time.
This is not one of the more memorable Universal horrors. It’s surprisingly slow moving and with minimal plot development, and the comic relief gets tiring very quickly. Lionel Atwill is adequately over the edge but there’s just not enough story to make him stand out as a villain. 5/24/07
Murder by the Clock (1931)
This cleverly plotted mystery owes a lot to silent films, short lines of dialogue, exaggerated facial expressions, long meaningful looks, and stationary camera shots. A rich, domineering woman named Endicott visits her husband's grave, accompanied by her powerful but retarded son Philip and a family retainer who accuses her, rightly, of being obsessively afraid of being buried alive. The family mausoleum has a siren that can be activated from inside. Shades of The Premature Burial. More stereotypes show up in due course, the friendly Irish beat cop and the pretty Irish servant girl. The wastrel nephew and his conniving wife are coming to visit, and to ask for money, and the old woman is initially determined not to let them into the house, although she eventually agrees to see, and pay, her nephew. Meanwhile, Philip is talking about killing people and displays a fascination for knives and the nephew's wife Laura is fooling around with another man, her husband's best friend, Hollander.
This poisonous brew gets established pretty quickly. The nephew agrees to live in the house following his aunt's death in return for becoming her primary heir. That gives him and his wife an incentive to want her dead, and the family retainer is outraged that the son has been disinherited. That gives everybody a motive. Screams in the night and shadows on the wall and Mrs. Endicott is found lying dead. No surprise there. The police arrive and determine that the victim was strangled, picking Philip as the most likely culprit, but one of the detectives has his doubts.
The new owners move in directly following the funeral and and attempt to get rid of the housekeeper, but the will stops them. The nephew then confesses to his wife that he committed the murder at her instigation. The wife promptly plots to get rid of her husband, preferably by having Philip escape jail and perform the job for her. She manipulates everyone she encounters - Philip, her husband, and her lover - but fails to impress the still skeptical police officer.
Another scream in the night, and the husband turns up dead. No surprise there either. Strangled, but by whom - Philip, the lover, or someone else entirely? Good line from the detective when the new widow claims him as her alibi. "It's a poor murderer who has to be present when the crime is committed." But when the medical examiner arrives, he announces that the nephew isn't dead yet. Meanwhile, the lover confesses to Laura that he killed her husband. He proves harder to get rid of than she expected, and when she returns to find her husband still alive, her plans seem to be falling apart.
Laura pretends to take a sleeping draught so that she can sneak out later and kill her husband, but unbeknownst to her, Philip has sneaked into the house. Then the police ask Hollander to come over to help and his hesitance makes them suspicious. Our shrewd detective visits Hollander's studio - he's a sculptor - and notices that much of his work bears a striking resemblance to Laura. Unfortunately, Hollander's man servant attacks the detective in order to protect his master.
Hollander is caught in the act of trying to murder the nephew - again - but moments later the siren from the tomb sounds and there are footsteps. "Mrs. Endicott has risen from her grave!" shouts the housekeeper, and the nephew dies of fright. Her coffin is indeed entry, and Hollander escapes in the confusion, only to be killed by Philip, again at Laura's instigation. But Philip isn't about to be put off any longer and he carries Laura off briefly, then rescued, but eventually she gets her comeuppance. This one's worth dealing with fading prints and artificial acting. 5/23/07
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre give life to this thriller based on A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, one of my favorite writers. The body of Dimitrios Makropoulis washes up on shore and the authorities are delighted and not inclined to look too deeply into the cause of his death because of his criminal history. A writer (Lorre) becomes interested in the story and decides to investigate the man’s career. We then witness his early career in the form of a series of flashbacks, murder and thievery, betrayal of his accomplices, and a life of crime and espionage. Sydney Greenstreet shows up looking for the body to confirm the dead man’s identity, but is thwarted. Their paths cross and the plot moves forward swiftly.
Greenstreet is particularly effective delivering his brief observations about human nature. He is following Lorre, who is at first unaware of his shadow. Lorre locates a woman who once befriended Dimitrios, and who lived to regret it, and we see more of his life in another extensive flashback. Eventually Greenstreet reveals himself, convinced that Lorre has ulterior motives and their interchanges are some of the best parts of the movies. Greenstreet refuses to believe that Lorre does not have an ulterior motive in tracking down information about the dead man and proposes a partnership of sorts, after which we have another flashback to Dimitrios’ career in espionage.
Lorre is no slouch and figures out part of what’s going on. He identifies Greenstreet as a former member of Dimitrios’ smuggling ring, one of several he betrayed in the past. Lorre suspects he killed Dimitrios, but that’s not the case, though he obviously has good reason to have done so. In fact, he reveals to Lorre that the corpse identified as Dimitrios is actually another man entirely, and Dimitrios is still alive. Greenstreet wants Lorre to help him outwit his former associate and Lorre, for reasons of his own, agrees to help blackmail Dimitrios. An excellent rendition of a classic suspense novel. 5/22/07
The Undying Monster (1942)
This very interesting werewolf movie (aka The Hammond Mystery) is based on the 1922 novel by Jessie Kerruish. It opens in a spooky old house with a baying dog and an aging family retainer who introduces us to the family curse, the story of a man killed and mutilated, and his fears that the current generation might fall prey to the same supernatural menace. There's another murder quite quickly and the male head of the family is found nearby, battered but alive. He and his sister are the only two remaining members of the family.
The police investigate, pursuing a variety of theories. Although this is a relatively short film, it feels longer, in part because the dialogue is delivered at an almost feverish pace, cramming a lot of content into a very short space. There is also a team of private detectives looking into the matter, who are skeptical but not closed to the possibility of a supernatural explanation. There are plenty of motives. Could the sister's fiancé be trying to ensure that he gets control of the family fortune? Why are the servants concealing vital information? This is a pretty good mystery as well as a horror film, complex, well acted, and atmospheric. A very overlooked film. The quasi-CSI techniques used by the detectives are particularly impressive for this era. 5/21/07
Night Monster (1942)
Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill star in this creepy house thriller set on a remote island. There are rumors of madness and dark secrets and the maid wants to quit after the housekeeper is found cleaning up mysterious blood. One of the residents fears for her sanity and general health and a group of doctors come to visit and solicit contributions for their research, but someone is systematically murdering them all. When the maid tries to remove her personal possessions, her ride is told that she has decided to remain, and she is sent to walk home through the misty dark by herself. And we all know what that means.
The hero is a mystery writer who is also a friend, more or less, of the family. The patriarch, Ingston, was left crippled and misshapen from unknown causes, and one of the doctors admits openly that he has grounds to hate them all. Ingston claims that he has knowledge of a new medical treatment thanks to a spiritualist who says he can help recreate destroyed tissue. "All matter is really cosmic substance in vibration...This much your science admits." He then materializes a bleeding skeleton which disappears when he loses concentration.
One of the guests points out inconsistencies in the spiritualist's story, but he has the standard riposte. "There are some details about the process which we are not allowed to divulge." Meanwhile, the police have found the footprints of a barefoot man near the estate which they think might be connected to a nearby murder. The body count continues to rise and even though it's pretty obvious who's responsible, that doesn't reduce the suspense in this surprisingly effective thriller. 5/21/07
Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974)
Peter Fonda often was cast as the outlaw or rebel, and this is probably his most famous such role after Easy Rider. He and Susan George play scofflaws; he's a professional race driver and she's the ditzy girl who hitches a ride with him. Theyo indulge themselves in a game of cat and mouse with what they assume is an ineffectual rural police force, led by Vic Morrow, who is a bit crazy himself. Fonda and his mechanic are short on cash so they rob a grocery store and during their escape find it impossible to divest themselves of George. They make use of a police scanner which gives them a heads up about police maneuvers to intercept them, although eventually Morrow realizes what's going on.
They have car trouble early on thanks to a childish squabble between George and Fonda, and have to hide the car while they make repairs. This also gives the police a chance to respond and take steps to prevent their escape, but they're not far from a rabbit warren of walnut trees and crisscrossing roads and there are too many potential escape routes from there for the police to cover them all.
The two thieves try once more to dump their unwanted passenger but she steals the map book with their escape route plans so they have to go back for her, just in time to be spotted. I’m a car chase fan and most of the remainder of the movie is just that, a series of encounters with individual police cars, with subsequent chases and crashes. Morrow directs the pursuit from a helicopter (he later died in a helicopter accident making another movie) until it runs out of fuel. The game continues and Fonda eventually wins, only to get his just desserts in one of the most effective surprise endings of all time. This one is slightly dated but still holds up pretty well. 5/20/07
Date Movie (2006)
I had heard bad things about this so I put off watching it even though I'm an Alyson Hannigan fan. It opens with her made up to be extremely overweight but determined to find true love. The early scenes are more absurd than funny, more gross than subtle as she goes to a body shop - the automobile type - for a makeover, at the end of which we have a more recognizable Alyson. She goes on a reality TV dating show and wins a dream date, during which they spoof the restaurant sex scene made famous by Meg Ryan with the guy having the orgasm, funny only because Hannigan played Ryan's part in the recent London stage play.
More spoofs ensue, starting with Legally Blonde, ending up with them going to meet her disapproving parents - who are Black, Indian, Japanese, and Jewish - in what I believe is a spoof of Meet the Fockers, which I haven't seen. The potty jokes aren't funny, nor is most of the dinner conversation. Then a segue through not so funny takeoffs on Sweet Home Alabama, The Lord of the Rings, My Best Friend's Wedding, and The Wedding Planner. The closest thing to funny is the quasi-dream sequence when Hannigan thinks she has the power to read minds and has a swordfight with her fiance's former girlfriend.
I found the Scary Movie series funny enough to hold my interest despite the cheap jokes and gross-outs but there's very little actual humor in Date Movie and the spoofs are obvious and rarely funny. Proof, if we needed it, that even a good cast can't do much with lousy material. As I mentioned, I heard a lot of bad things about this before I watched it. Now that I've actually seen it, I've said some more bad things myself. And it deserves it. 5/19/07
Torchy Blane in Panama (1938)
Although Glenda Farrell did two more Torchy Blane movies, this one was apparently released before them, so it’s either number six or number eight, depending on how you figure it. At this point she had been replaced by Lola Lane, which also has a different actor playing McBride. Lane played the part more physically and less intellectually, and the comic relief became overwhelming. A bank is robbed and a teller killed, and Torchy is on the trail of the story. Evidence suggests a member of a tourist group so McBride books a ticket on the trip to Panama. Torchy arrives by parachuting onto the ship and all of the players are in place.
We know who the killer is almost from the start, and we see where he stashes the stolen loot, so there’s not much suspense. Torchy climbs down the side of a cruise ship on a rope to follow the suspect when he leaves the ship. Eventually McBride has to rescue her when she gets trapped by the crooks, then becomes a hostage again moments later. Lane doesn’t have the stage presence of Farrell, and the change of locale doesn’t help much. Had I watched this one first, I probably wouldn’t have tried the others. 5/19/07
Blondes at Work (1938)
Torchy Blane’s fourth adventure involves a missing businessman. She locates him almost before the police do, but he’s dead as a doornail. Although McBride, her detective fiancé, refuses to leak any information to her, she uses a clever ruse to get the information elsewhere. Although it’s played for laughs, some of her methods are crass even for news reporters, like reading a friend’s private diary after making an impression of the key. Eventually her efforts to track down a missing mystery woman backfire as she is held at gunpoint by the woman’s friend.
She eventually convinces the woman to turn herself in so that she can prove that she’s not the killer. McBride finds the murder weapon, cleverly concealed and equally cleverly discovered. The case goes to trial and Torchy scores a major coup in reporting the story, ends up jailed for contempt of court, but the real killer turns up at the end. A rather atypical ending, a bit too smooth to be completely convincing but it’s still a nice installment in the series. 5/18/07
Torchy Gets Her Man (1938)
A supposed treasury agent approaches McBride for help tracking down a counterfeiting operation, but things look fishy even before we are tipped off that he’s a crook. The gang use a clever gimmick to fool the police and exchange bad money for good at a race track, but Torchy – still intent on a story – tries to follow one of them. For a change, she gets bested, at least in the short run. Bloodied but unbowed, she persists and with the aid of the comic relief policeman and a sharp nosed dog, she tracks the villains to their secret hideout. Unfortunately, they’re discovered and taken prisoner. For a change, McBride gets to solve the case. He becomes suspicious of the supposed federal agent and tracks down the hideout where Torchy is about to be blown to pieces. Not bad at all, but I preferred the mystery format to the cops and robbers plot. 5/18/07
South Park Season 9 (2005)
The ninth season kicks off with Mr. Garrison having a sex change operation in “Mr. Garrison’s Fancy New Vagina”, which opens with a graphic description of the act accompanied by what looks like genuine live action footage. What he fails to anticipate is that his gay lover will no longer be interested in him as a woman. He also concludes that he’s pregnant and decides to have an abortion. At the same time, Kyle wants to be changed surgically into a tall black boy so he can play basketball. Hippies invade South Park in “Die, Hippie, Die”, so Cartman sets out to exterminate them – literally. Two very strong episodes set the tone for the rest of the season. “Wing” has the boys running a talent agency, representing a woman who is being sought after by the Chinese mafia. They are trying to get her on American Idol, but instead end up on Sylvester Stallone’s wrestling program.
“The Losing Edge” is one of their best episodes. The South Park Little Leaguers hate baseball and look forward to the end of the season, only to discover that they have to play in the sudden death post-season. Their efforts to lose prove unavailing as all the other teams manage to play even worse, while their fathers engage in drunken fistfights in the stands. “The Death of Eric Cartman” is also excellent. After his latest bout of nastiness, the other boys refuse to acknowledge his existence and Eric concludes that he’s dead and a ghost whom only Butters – unaware of the situation – can see. The quality drops off for “Erection Day”, in which Jimmy tries to get rid of an unwanted erection.
“Two Days Before the Day After Tomorrow” spoofs politicians, the global warming scare, hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the accuracy of newscasts and sundry subjects. It’s okay but a little too diffused to be effective. The boys think the girls can see the future in “Marjorine”, another so-so story, although the Pet Semetary spoof is cute. “Follow That Egg” is a lot better. The kids are doing the parenting game with eggs when Mr. Garrison decides to oppose gay marriage and tries to skew the results to get what he wants. After Cartman makes hateful remarks about red haired kids in "Ginger Kids", the boys dye his hair while he's asleep, with disastrous consequences.
"Trapped in the Closet" is their famous spoof of Scientology. Stan takes their personality test and they decide that he's the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard. Stan offends Tom Cruise who locks himself in Stan's closet. This was supposedly the reason Isaac Hayes left the show, and purportedly Cruise threatened retaliation against the studio. Any group that can't take a joke at their own expense is beneath contempt anyway but they don't hide their judgment that Scientology is a crass scam. It also does reveal the ultimate secret of their church, the one members have to pay a small fortune to learn. It's a moderately funny episode, better known than it deserves.
The boys decide to steal a whale and take it into space in "Free Willzyx" after the park attendants fool them into thinking the whale is actually native to the moon and needs to go home. PETA shows up to kill a few people in defense of the whale when the boys try to bring it to Mexico. "Bloody Mary", which winds up the season, pokes fun at Alcoholics Anonymous. Stan's father is arrested for driving under the influence and appeals to a supposedly bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary to intercede for him. 5/17/07
McCloud Seasons 1&2 (1971-1972)
McCloud was one of the rotating mystery movies in which Dennis Weaver plays a police officer relocated from New Mexico to New York City, where his cowboy hat and pragmatic approach were in sharp contrast to the rest of the force, resulting in usually humorous friction as a counterpoint to the serious mystery. The soundtrack during the pilot, “Portrait of a Dead Girl”, is pretty bad, distracting and frequently inappropriate. The story opens with McCloud capturing and then losing a prisoner, Waldron, a material witness in a murder case, to kidnappers impersonating policemen. McCloud is soon caught between a grumpy police official, a slightly crooked lawyer, an ambitious crime writer, and others. Weaver mixes hayseed with sophistication and fortunately the dialogue is crisp and intelligent, particularly the exchange between him and the lawyer, Craig Stevens.
We get a quick summation of the murder case, a beauty queen apparently murdered by a hotel employee whose Puerto Rican background explains the group who kidnapped him, although their motives are confused since it’s not clear whether his testimony would help or hurt. Eventually we learn that the lawyer is behind the abduction, though his motives aren’t clear, and become positively opaque when his lawyer eliminates the missing witness.
“Man from Taos” was the first regular episode, and it contradicts the pilot dramatically. In this version, the New York police chief and McCloud’s love interest met him while vacationing in New Mexico and eventually convinced him to come to the big city on a kind of police exchange program. When he intervenes in an apparent domestic dispute and sees the face of the man, someone hires a professional killer to murder him, then kidnaps the police chief as bait in a trap. McCloud is forced to accompany one bad guy to Paris with a briefcase full of undeclared cash with the chief as a hostage for this good behavior.
There’s a thoroughly nasty stage director as the prospective victim in “Manhattan Manhunt”. He has been received threatening letters but hasn’t gone to the police because he figures they’d dismiss it as a publicity stunt. When someone takes a shot at him, he goes to them after all, and they assign McCloud to babysit him. Someone sabotages the brakes on his car, but it’s one of the actresses driving it at the time. McCloud’s investigation is interrupted when he answers an emergency call and gets wounded by an armed thief.
The director reverses himself and agrees to marry one of his actresses, who promptly dies, poisoned by a glass of champagne. Was it meant for him, or was he using this as a method of disposing of an inconvenient problem while he has a convenient excuse? It’s pretty transparent that he’s behind it all and the plot cheats a little because the motive isn’t revealed until just before the revelation. The balance of the episode finishes the second case. The thief is a drug addicted ex-soldier who needs help more than jail and McCloud helps find him before he gets killed. Not a very strong episode.
“Murder Arena” also involves two separate plotlines. One concerns a serial killer operating in the park whose most recent victim was a policewoman. The other involves rivalries within a visiting rodeo group. The early scenes involve McCloud’s reassignment to an all female auxiliary, a ploy by his chief to keep him out of trouble, but since they’re involved with the park murders, it doesn’t work. His romantic interest this time is a police officer, played by Susan Saint James who would soon be cast as McMillan’s wife in McMillan & Wife. The two plot format works well, notably in CSI Las Vegas, but somehow it’s not as successful with McCloud. Both stories seem relatively superficial, just as they did in the previous episode. The serial killer is apprehended with surprising ease thanks to McCloud’s intervention.
One of my old favorites, Sebastian Cabot, appears in “Encounter with Aries”. He plays an astrologer whose wife is kidnapped by a rather amusing man, who drugs her and sets a time bomb. When he shows up in person to demand the ransom, the supposedly enraged husband hits him with a lamp, making it impossible for him to reveal the wife’s location, but it’s pretty obvious that he doesn’t want her back and certainly isn’t going to pay the ransom. The kidnapper dies but McCloud finds a number of inconsistencies and eventually tracks down the missing woman before the bomb detonates. A pretty good episode. “Top of the World, Ma!” is about a broken down football player who is also working for organized crime. He steals a car while McCloud is working stolen vehicles, trying to collect money he’s owed from the crooks while entertaining his mother at the most expensive hotel in town. What he doesn’t realize is that he’s on the trail of the wrong man, and McCloud is on his trail. The end of this one should have been tragic, but that probably wouldn’t have been possible because it would have meant that McCloud wasn’t always in command of the situation.
“Somebody’s Out to Get Jennie” was an Edgar nominee. An engineer is killed when his helicopter explodes, apparently an accident, but the viewer knows that the man supposedly killed in the crash is actually a missing bookkeeper who absconded with a large sum of money. Presumably the supposed victim, Cameron Mitchell, has stolen the money himself and killed the bookkeeper to cover his own disappearance. Mitchell’s secretary, who is under psychiatric care, believes that he’s still alive and there’s a plot to drive her over the edge by the people who know she’s right. McCloud gets romantically involved with her, which I found either crass or at least unprofessional depending upon his motivation, and eventually uncovers the truth. It’s an okay episode but not award quality.
A man assaults McCloud in “The Disposal Man” in order to quietly tell him of an imminent professional killing. This was a pretty good episode, even making some effort to give an extra dimension to the professional hitman. The case is solved as much by luck as good police work, and the climax in the art gallery is well done. “A Little Plot at Tranquil Valley”, on the other hand, is awful from beginning to end. The comic book villains eliminate any possibility of genuine suspense. The story involves the theft of penicillin to be diluted and sold on the black market, and McCloud gets taken prisoner by the bad guys for a while. Very much out of character for the show and not funny enough to work as a comedy even with Vic Morrow and Burgess Meredith hamming it up.
"Fifth Man in a String Quartet" has Weaver's real life son accused of murdering a fellow musician, who had ties to organized crime. This time the humor, mostly from the remaining three violinists, is measured and works in this one. There's not much mystery involved since we witness the actual killing, but the story unfolds nicely. The final episode, and one of the best, is "Give My Regrets to Broadway". McCloud trades shifts with another officer, who is killed in the line of duty. His guilt changes when he receives an anonymous letter indicating that the dead man was the intended target. He investigates a Broadway play (directed by Milton Berle) which may have been involved in some criminal hanky panky involving the dead policeman.
Not nearly as good as McMillan & Wife. The scripts aren't as clever and while Weaver does a good job, the supporting cast is either flat or reduced to such a small role that they don't contribute significantly to the story. 5/16/07
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
This is another one of those movies that looked vaguely interesting when it first appeared, but not enough that I stirred myself into actually seeing it at the time. Evan Treborn has a troubled childhood. His father is violently insane and is inadvertently killed during an attack on the boy, who experiences blackouts and horrible visions, and bad things happen while he's in that state. Evan keeps a journal which proves crucial as he gets older, even though the spells are less frequent. Medical experts can find nothing physiologically wrong with him. His mother is afraid that he might have inherited his father's mental illness. After a mysterious incident that no one will talk about, Evan kisses the sister of one of his friends, who becomes violently antagonistic to him.
Years later, a college student now, Evan has a more settled, normal life, free of blackouts. For the moment. A fresh blackout lets him slip back into time to one of his blackout moments and see what's happening, a kind of mental time travel which suggests that each blackout was the result of another such voyage. He then discovers that my reading appropriate parts of his journals, he can almost direct the trips, and find out the terrible secrets of his past. He looks up his childhood sweetheart, who promptly kills herself. This gives him the idea of using his time voyages to change the past and prevent her death.
His first effort is to scare off her pedophilic father, but in the process he alienates the brother in an alternate way. The plan seems to work; he wakens from his trance to find himself in bed with her (Amy Smart). Much else in his life has changed as well, and he has no memories of his new reality. The story drags quite a bit at this point, recovering only when he finds his car vandalized by the brother, who turned out much worse thanks to Evan's intervention. Evan kills him during a fight and ends up in prison. More trips follow, but as in Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin, each attempt just leads to another bad path.
This is essentially a deal-with-the-devil or be-careful-what-you-wish-for story, and like most of them, the hero is doomed to fail. Ashton Kutcher does a reasonable job in a serious role and Amy Smart does her usual convincing job, although her makeup as a prostitute goes way over the top. 5/15/07
Deer Woman (2006)
Brian Benben shines in this installment of the Masters of Horror series. He's a humorous variation of the burnt out cop who is sent to investigate a dead trucker, whose almost unidentifiable body is found in his truck after he left a bar with a sexy native American woman. The victim also died in a state of arousal, as we discover during a reasonably funny morgue scene. Then we see the killer herself, the Deer Woman, who doesn't speak but manages to pick up dates in bars with surprising ease. The sequence in which Benben daydreams about possible scenarios is very funny, particularly the last one. Almost worth the price for this sequence alone.
The final minutes of the film turn deadly serious but the end is a bit muddled as though the director, John Landis, ran out of time to finish the story. Still, it's one of the best episodes in this uneven series.5/14/07
Sick Girl (2006)
Angela Bettis plays a gay entomologist in this installment of the Masters of Horror series, and she’s great as the quirky, obsessed protagonists. Recently dumped by a partner who couldn’t deal with the insects, she finds a package at her door containing a new specimen of live critter, large, exotic, and aggressive. At the same time, she’s pursuing a new relationship with an artist, Erin Brown (who has had a more active career as softcore star Misty Mundae). While she’s out on their maiden date, the bug escapes and kills a neighbor’s dog – admittedly, a small dog, but nevertheless.
They arrive at the apartment and have a promising start goes although there’s an unexpected tenant in their pillow. In the morning they discover that it has escaped and set out to track it down., even though Brown begins to feel unwell. The bug is still running around the apartment complex, but Brown’s strangeness continues, and she is tempted to eat insects. Brown kills the nasty minded landlady just as Bettis realizes the truth. It’s no big mystery what’s going on or how it’s going to end, but it doesn’t matter. The editing is exceptional and Bettis is superb. 5/13/07
Lady in the Water (2006)
I really liked The Sixth Sense and I’ve watched all of M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films, all of which have been interesting, though they’ve been progressively less successful. This one looked as though it continued the downward progression so I put off watching it repeatedly. Finally succumbing, I found that my trepidation was well founded. That’s not to say it’s an awful movie; it’s not. But it’s not very good.
The story opens with a sort of animated sequence in which we learn about the sea people who hope to help the surface world but who are menaced by a wolflike species. The protagonist is manager of a small apartment complex whose residents are in general very strange characters. One night he discovers a naked woman in the swimming pool, after which they somehow end up in his apartment. When he tries to get her to leave, a nasty creature shows up to chase them back inside. He just happens to know someone who understands the reference to an obscure legend, so he finds out that the girl is supposed to find a specific human through whose efforts she will triumph in some vaguely defined way. Of course, it never occurs to him that he is the one she’s looking for.
Despite occasional brief appearances of the monsters, the middle of the film drags along very slowly, and the last portion slows to glacial. There’s a kernel of a good story in here somewhere, particularly the bits about different people in the complex having different functions, reminiscent of Robert McCammon’s classic story, “Night Calls the Green Falcon”, but there’s so little tension that it’s hard to stay interested. And why does everyone have to whisper so much when there’s no reason for it? I had a real problem with the varying sound levels. Unless I constantly played with the volume control, some of the dialogue was inaudible or I had to wince when the sound peaked. It was so irritating I almost stopped watching. Had I seen this in a theater, I might have walked out. 5/12/07
The Adventurous Blonde (1937)
Third in the Torchy Blaine mystery series. Feisty reporter Torchy and detective McBride still aren’t married; no surprise there. The other reporters are complaining that Torchy gets preferential treatment and they decide on a practical joke to balance things. They decide to stage a fake murder, convince Torchy that it’s real, and embarrass her into covering it and being exposed as gullible. It doesn’t take much experience of mysteries to know that the fake murder is going to turn out to be a real one, that the actor is going to really die.
There’s plenty of suspects in this one, the wife he cheated on, the girlfriend he jilted, the woman he was bothering, the man who loved her. After a quite complicated plot and the mandatory humorous episodes, relatively few this time, there’s a gathering of all the suspects and witnesses for the explication, with a solution which caught me completely by surprise. The best entry so far in a surprisingly good series. 5/12/07
South Park Season 8 (2005)
I came late to South Park, because of my mild aversion to animation and general lethargy, but once exposed was thoroughly hooked. Although sometimes they strike me as gross just for the sake of grossness, which I don’t find funny, at other times they strike a nice balance of satire, seriousness, and delightfully obnoxious nonconformity. Season 8 opens with “Good Times with Weapons” in which the boys buy a collection of martial arts weapons, after which each imagines that they are transformed into anime style superheroes. Their friend Butters, spurned from their game, revives his supervillain persona from an earlier season and is promptly wounded by a ninja star. Rather than go to the hospital and risk exposure, the kids decide to remove the embedded blade themselves. When that doesn’t work, they disguise Butters as an animal and take him to a nearsighted veterinarian. More madness ensues until we find out that the parents are more concerned about Cartman’s brief public nudity than they are about the violence.
In “Up the Down Steroid”, Cartman decides to pretend to be handicapped in order to compete in the Special Olympics. At the same time, illegal steroids are circulating at the gym and Jimmy is tempted. The theme is treated more seriously than with most episodes. “The Passion of the Jew” also deals with current events, specifically The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s film. Kyle becomes convinced that Cartman is right about the Jews, but their friends feel cheated and want their money back, so they go looking for Mel Gibson. It’s a clear indictment of Gibson as a racist. “You Got F’d in the A” is about a dance competition, with dancing an analogy for fighting. Not up to their usual standard.
Cartman’s at it again in “Awsom-O”. He disguises himself as a robot as a practical joke on Butters, but gets trapped by circumstances into continuing the impersonation. He attracts the attention of movie producers and the government before being exposed. “The Jeffersons” has a incognito Michael Jackson moving into South Park, his house filled with games and toys that lure the boys there. There’s plenty of bite in this one, aimed at Michael Jackson for his irresponsibility and the way in which some prominent people are targeted by officials with ulterior motives. “Goobacks” targets illegal immigration, in this case visitors from the future who steal the low paying jobs the kids want, like shoveling driveways. The episode lambasts both conservative and liberal stances on the issue and is one of their most pointed commentaries.
“Douche and Turd” lampoons PETA. Ecoterrorists force South Park to find a new mascot to replace their traditional cow, and the two leading candidates are an oversized douche and a turd sandwich. One of the better lines is when a teacher says “Indians” and “Braves” are okay because PETA “doesn’t care about people”. Stan can’t see any point voting if the only choices are a douche and a turd and his parents and it’s a while before he learns that ALL elections are choices between douches and turds. There’s even a televised debate. Puff Daddy takes some hits in this one as well.
The target of “Something Wall Mart This Way Comes” should be obvious from the title. The new store turns the downtown into a ghost town as an evil spirit from the store seizes control of the population. “Pre-School” pokes fun at a standard horror film plot, the incident from the past, the one who took the blame returning to exact revenge on the other participants. The ratings game is dissected when the boys get their own public service television show in "Quest for Ratings" and expose cough syrup abuse in the school.
The timing was right for me to see "Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset", which picks an easy target, Paris Hilton, whose recent legal problems are almost as absurd as this episode. Wendy is the only girl in town not fascinated with being a celebrity and Paris wants to buy Butters as her new pet. The climax is a whore-off between Hilton and Mr. Slave, but it's one of those where gross outs trump wit. In "Cartman's Incredible Gift", Cartman has a head injury after which the police, mistakenly, believe that he has psychic powers. A very good episode, particularly the C.S.I. spoof. Last up is "Woodland Critter Christmas". This one opens as a cutesy Christmas story about animals, but that doesn't last long. A variety of animals ask Stan to help them build a manger and he complies, unaware of the fact that they actually serve the devil. There's a couple of cute moments but this is a pretty weak one. Overall, season 8 is entertaining without having any stand out episodes. There was a feeling of deja vu at times, however, as though some of the scripts were simply rewrites of older ideas. 5/11/07
Fly Away Baby (1937)
The second Torchy Blaine mystery, also known as Crime in the Clouds, is another conventional but interesting story. A businessman is killed in his office during a jewel theft. Torchy sneaks into the crime scene and finds the murder weapon before the police, which upsets her detective boyfriend, who proposed in the first movie but has yet to actually follow through. The prime suspect has a convincing alibi and he’s off on a round the world air race as a publicity stunt for his newspaper, so Torchy convinces her publisher to sponsor her as one of his competitors. It appears obvious up to this point that there is something fishy about his alibi, which eventually breaks down. There’s a flurry of reversals toward the end, just enough to keep the viewer guessing until the very end. A worthy follow up to the first in the series. 5/11/07
I’m guessing this one was made for the Sci-Fi Channel, but it’s a cut above most of the ones I’ve seen from there, though that’s not exactly high praise. I’m a sucker for sea monster movies though, and most of the underwater photography is quite good. In the teaser opening, a young boy sees his parents killed by an oversized tentacled thing, reasonably well done, and the fact that the boy is currently reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a nice touch. We then flash forward to the present, when a vessel conducting maritime research is attacked and one crewmember killed by a mysterious creature (a giant squid, as it happens).
The now grown witness joins the team, which unwisely sets about exploring the ocean floor in the area. Enter the sinister rival who knows that the young woman leading the expedition is actually searching for sunken treasure and wants in on it. The dialogue isn’t awful, but there are pauses just a slight bit too long to be comfortable. The male protagonist grins too much and his female counterpart giggles too often, while the villain mugs and talks in clichéd tough guy speak. The first half of the film is dismayingly absent the kraken until a late night party aboard a boat has an uninvited guest. The creature is no doubt CGI, but quite well done.
The project leader announces that the creature is probably the original from the legend of Scylla, which is more than a bit of a reach, and one does have to wonder why the creature has chosen this moment to resurface, so to speak, unless it has something to do with the mysterious mask they’ve recovered from a shipwreck. Their project comes to an apparent halt when the bad guy blows up their boat.
Although it is transparently a giant squid, “It defies all knowledge of known species” according to one character. It appears that the creature is guarding a jewel that is still in the wreck, for reasons unknown, the same jewel that the bad guy is determined to acquire to fulfill his promise to his family. Predictably, there’s a speargun fight, with the squid cleaning up the corpses. They recover the gem, which the villains then take away, obviously making them targets for squiddly retribution. Unfortunately, the CGI gets less convincing the more we see of it, not quite cartoonish but very close, and the climax is unconvincing and actually rather dull; the heroine mysterious reappears from underwater after being carried away, with no explanation for her escape. We never do find out why the creature attacked his parents years earlier, since they weren’t threatening the gem. 5/10/07
Smart Blonde (1937)
The first adventure of Torchy Blaine, a female reporter who was to provide the inspiration for the character of Lois Lane. Glenda Farrell played the part through eight of the nine films in the series. The last featured Jane Wyman in the part, who also is a minor character in this one. Torchy is no shrinking violet. She jumps onto a moving train in the opening scene and never slows down afterward. She’s interviewing a businessman named Torgenson who just bought a sports franchise and who is determined to run it legitimately. When he is fatally shot right in front of her, Torchy decides to track down the killer herself.
Torchy’s boyfriend is a police detective named McBride, a convenient plot device common to movies of this era. She accompanies him to the club owned by Fitz, the man Torgenson was buying out, recently the scene of a violent argument. McBride is afraid the man will seek vengeance for the death of his friend and prospective business colleague. There’s the usual snappy dialogue and light humor, then another murder. The second one was apparently committed by Fitz as revenge for Torgenson’s death, but Torchy doesn’t believe it. Fitz makes as break for it, but is tracked down by Torchy and McBride. Torchy figures out what’s really behind the killings, there’s a shoot out, and the good guys prevail. Very fast moving throughout; one of the better of the early detective films. 5/10/07
Dance of the Dead (2006)
The Masters of Horror series turns to Science Fiction for this episode directed by Tobe Hooper and based on the story by Richard Matheson. Following some kind of limited nuclear and terrorist war, the US has become a near chaotic place where most of the younger generation has become violent and lawless. The early portion of the story takes far too long to explain just what’s going on. Why are the punks stealing live blood? What’s wrong with one of their group and why? Why are uniformed men burning alive still living but deformed victims? What’s going on at the night club run by Robert Englund?
A teenaged girl who has been sheltered from most of this has an intriguing encounter with one of the punks, who seems to have some redeeming qualities. Impulsively, she goes off with the punks one evening and they go to the night club. That’s when we start to figure out what’s going on. Englund has a process that, temporarily at least, restores animation to dead bodies. Mom discovers the girl is missing and goes searching for her carrying a hunting knife, but it’s too late. She finds her sister among the dancing dead, and then discovers that her mother sold the sister to him years earlier.
The sets are all too dark and the soundtrack is too loud. The jumpy camera action is frequently distracting and most of the characterizations are so exaggerated that they’re caricatures. The evocation of a dissolute, disgusting world is effective but the story moves by fits and starts and the characters are so ineffectual or corrupted that I was completely distanced from them. 5/9/07
Pale Blood (1990)
Here’s an odd little horror film, not a particularly good one though it has a few interesting moments. Wings Hauser is an evil photographer whose depredations are making it difficult for a relatively benevolent vampire (George Chakiris), who plays the role quite flat, with long pauses, baleful looks, and an apparent lack of enthusiasm for the role that makes Hauser the more interesting, if less likable character. There’s a quirky, interesting performance by Pamela Ludwig as the vampire’s sort of unofficial sidekick, but she’s not on screen long enough to add any life to the plodding plot. When the actors aren’t staring at each other meaningfully, they’re uttering inane dialogue.
Vamp and killer intersect each other’s lives immediately and frequently, while Ludwig’s obsession with the undead leads her to spy on her client. A pair of airhead models find themselves in jeopardy. Vamp gets captured, girl helps him escape, he captures the bad guy, and she reveals her secret. The basic germ of an interesting plot is so completely buried in bad film making that this one didn’t need a vampire’s hypnotic powers to put the audience to sleep. 5/9/07
King of the Congo (1952)
Buster Crabbe stars in this jungle adventure serial based on the Thunda comic strip, which I’ve never heard of. After a series of mysterious unnatural disasters in the US, a suspicious plane is shot down in Africa and Crabbe is assigned to investigate. He crashes in the jungle and is rescued/captured by the Rock People, who are promptly attacked by a group of white men, agents of the conspiracy. They declare Crabbe is Thunda, a legendary hero, and try to restore his memory, shattered by the crash. The Rock People have some limited magical powers which really don’t figure much into the story. The bad guys are never identified by nationality, but since they call each other “comrade”, we can pretty much figure it out.
Crabbe pretends to be cooperating with the villains, but his plans are complicated by an attack by the Cave Men, a rival tribe. There is, of course, no explanation why there would be two tribes of white people living in central Africa. There’s the mandatory fight with a gorilla and struggle in the quicksand interspersed with various attempts to prove or disprove that Crabbe is working with the subversives. Eventually he’s exposed and after lots of running around, the next step in the plot unfolds. There’s a mineral “more radioactive than uranium” hidden somewhere in the jungle; we never find out how it got there or how the subversives found out about it. Anyway, Geiger counters won’t work because of “unusual atmospheric conditions”, so they have to physically search for it in the Valley of Magnetic Rocks. The mineral gives off paralyzing bursts of electricity when struck with a club. Why?
By their very nature cliffhanger serials tend to be repetitious, but King of the Congo seems more so than usual, and several episodes felt as though they were almost exactly the same as others. Crabbe displays even less emotion than usual and the other characters are almost universally flat. Some nice wildlife shots, but not much else to recommend this one. 5/8/07
The Return (2006)
Sarah Michelle Gellar returns to the supernatural in this thriller. As a child, Joanna Mills once heard mysterious voices while at a carnival with her father. Years later, she begins to have visions of the brutal murder of a woman she has never met. It starts with a trip to Texas during which her car radio begins to act as though it had a mind of its own, manipulating things until she reaches the scene of a very bad automobile accident. Or does she? She blacks out and wakens the following morning, lying in a field near her truck. But what happened? Her reaction is peculiarly muted considering she is either hallucinating or experiencing the supernatural.
Next she starts hearing strange voices again and the visions and blackouts start. Her vision of a seedy bar turns out to have a basis in reality, but her investigation is interrupted by one of her co-workers, who attacks her. A local comes to her rescue, but he in turn is clearly despised by the other men in town. The next morning we have the modified idiot plot. Joanna goes to the home of her mysterious rescuer and, when no one answers the door, goes inside anyway. And when she hears mysterious sounds from upstairs, she investigates. We finally begin to get useful clues after that. She’s obviously having visions of a murder that happened years earlier, but the jerky, sometimes enigmatic plot elements come one after another. And why does everyone whisper so much of the time?
It looked to me as though most of the color had been bleached out of this, a common device in horror movies to provide the air of unreality, but unless it’s in small doses, I find it counterproductive. All it accomplishes for me is to make what’s happening seem less real, which reduces my commitment to the characters and plot. Gellar’s probably deliberately flat emotional aspect during much of the movie just pushed me further out of the story. Some of the transitions between scenes are unnecessarily murky and some of the camera shots feel just a second or two longer than they should have been. Instead of building suspense in the first third of the movie, or at least developing a mystery, we have constant confusion because there’s not enough of a framework for us to understand what’s happening. I was impatient for it to be over, never a good sign. 5/7/07
Most of the Philip K. Dick stories that have been made into movies have suffered, not surprisingly, from the transition. This one is no exception. Gary Sinise plays the head of a weapons development project on a future Earth that is under siege by a vicious alien enemy. He is arrested one day by a comically overplayed government agent who believes that he is a replicant, an organic robot programmed with the original’s memories and carrying a nuclear weapon inside his body in order to assassinate the leader of Earth.
As we expect, he escapes after a violent and bloody gun battle and chase sequence, taking refuge in the ruins of a city inhabited by those people who have been ignored by the repressive human government. There he makes uncertain allies, trading the promise of valuable drugs in exchange for a chance to contact his wife. At this point, we don’t really know whether the government has made a mistake or whether he really is a replicant, but the authorities are so brutal and sadistic that it’s hard to care much either way. He’s rather handy in a fight, though, which seems a bit out of character for a scientific administrator.
Our hero wants to get into a hospital because there are tests there that will prove him completely human, if he is completely human. Through a clever ruse he gets inside, and more chasing and skulking ensues. The sets and special effects are reasonably well done, the acting isn’t bad, there’s some nice camera work, and there’s enough of the original story surviving to make it interesting. Despite all that, the movie never really came to life for me. I think the problem was too many dark sets and too much running and shooting and no one to really identify with. The surprise ending works quite well. 5/6/07
Relentless 3 (1993)
Relentless 4 (1994)
I’m a long time Leo Rossi fan but even I was surprised that this detective series lasted through four titles. All four are serial killer stories and the first two are excellent. With the third, Sam Dietz (Rossi) is roped into another investigation against his will. Almost from the moment he gets involved, he has insights into the killer that evade the others, including his opinion that the supposed first victim is not the first after all, that the killer is too skilled and experienced to be a beginner. As with the previous two, there is no attempt to conceal the murderer’s identity; we even witness the next event. This isn’t a mystery so much as a duel between him and the police, Dietz in particular.
Our clearly disturbed villain starts sending patches of skin from his victims to the police along with taunting letters addressed to Dietz. Dietz, whose wife from the first two films has divorced him, is involved with another woman, and it doesn’t require a peak at the script to know she is going to be in jeopardy sooner or later. Our bad guy is seriously unbalanced and keeps his latest victim’s dead body in his bedroom, even though he’s sharing a house with a woman and there’s some kind of bizarre sexual involvement between them.
One of Dietz’s friends is killed a short time later, and his girlfriend receives a box of dead flowers. Borrowing from Silence of the Lambs, Dietz goes to consult a confined serial killer with a similar MO to gain insight into his quarry, and discovers that the man in the institution is not the person he’s supposed to be. Elsewhere, a pair of detectives stumbles across the killer and are both eliminated in a regrettable lapse from common sense. No one calls for backup, no one knows where they were, and they’re both overcome easily, even when the second man is forewarned that something is wrong. Fortunately, Dietz recognizes a coincidence of addresses and identifies the correct house. Dietz and his partner arrive before the assault team – inexplicably – but the bad guy is gone.
Fearing for his girlfriend’s life, Dietz goes to her building, and finds her two police bodyguards dead in the elevator. He decides to use her as bait, which pretty much brings that budding relationship to an end, and in due course everything gets sorted out, though not before there’s almost another tragic death. Despite considerable implied violence, there is surprisingly little overt action. There’s also something mildly claustrophobic about the movie, probably the result of a limited budget. Most of the shots are interiors, usually a bit under-lit, and the sets are unremarkable. This could have been made for television; there’s more blood and gore on an average episode of C.S.I. There was a kernel of good story in this one, but the production values didn’t measure up.
That disappointment made me a bit anxious about Relentless 4, even though it has a more interesting cast, including Famke Janssen. As it opens, Dietz has his son living with him again following the death of his ex-wife. Someone has murdered a woman and used a stun gun on the man she was having sex with, and the evidence points toward a religiously inspired madman. He also has a new partner, a woman, whose early arguments that the stunned man is the killer are extraordinarily stupid, suggesting this wasn’t going to be a scintillating screenplay. Her behavior after that suggests she hasn’t had even elementary training in police procedures or the law.
Famke Janssen brings a little life to the role of the psychiatrist who was treating the dead woman, but even she can’t do much with the bad script. Her refusal to divulge information about the dead woman is, I believe, nonsense since her client was dead as the result of a capital crime. She is also suspicious of the killer’s identity, since she tries to call him as soon as she learns of the crime. There’s a fairly suspenseful scene in which she believes someone is lurking in her office. Dietz becomes interested in the psychologist for non-professional reasons. There’s another murder and the evidence this time suggests a different ritual was performed than on the first occasion, but Dietz is convinced there is a settled set of rules, however difficult to understand.
The fact that the psychologist obviously knows the identity of the serial killer but doesn’t do anything to expose his identity or at least protect her other clients is unconvincing, unfortunately, despite a late explanation. But whenever we start to suspend our disbelief, there’s a completely implausible scene to disrupt things again, as when Janssen comes to Dietz’s house to tell him that she suspects his assistant has stolen some of her files, even though it’s obvious that the killer who took them.
The by-play between Dietz and his son really doesn’t serve any purpose. The kid is a wise ass and I suppose it was supposed to add a human element to Dietz’s character, but it doesn’t. If anything, his blow up late in the movie just makes him less sympathetic, and his near death experience is almost laughable. It’s also surprisingly easy for people, including the killer, to discover his home address. A disappointing and merciful end to what started off as a good series. 5/5/07
I don’t normally like movies or books that have too obvious an agenda, and this one is pretty didactic, but I have to admit that the concept for this installment of the Masters of Horror series, directed by Joe Dante, is a clever one, based on the short story by Dale Bailey. It’s about zombies, but with a cute twist. The story opens with an obnoxious woman (whose license plate reads BSH BABE) having an auto accident after running down a soldier zombie, then encountering a platoon of dead soldiers who have returned from the grave to protest an unpopular war led by Republicans. She dies shooting down the “zombie dissidents”.
We then flash back to how it all started. The woman is obviously meant to be Ann Coulter and the war is clearly Iraq. One of the other characters is transparently Pat Robertson. During an interview show, her companion wishes for the dead to come back to attest to the importance of the wars they fought and died in, and obviously this is a case of needing to be careful what you wish for because when the President repeats the wish on national television, the dead start to rise. One scene appears to be a conscious imitation of the opening from Night of the Living Dead. Robert Picardo does a great job as the blasé Presidential advisor, and he gets most of the best lines, and Thea Gill is delightfully hammy as Jane Cleaver.
The zombies have come back because they want to vote, and they die again once they’ve done that, but they don’t vote for the administration, which begins putting them into internment camps. The administration fixes the election, which pisses the dead off again and they return in even greater numbers. There’s also a back story about the death of the protagonist’s brother that doesn’t serve any real purpose. The scene in which this is first revealed is extremely funny, but after a while the preachiness gets to be a bit much. Some of the peripheral bits – like the various spins put on events by the White House spokespeople – are mildly funny and strike home – but other bits are painfully trite. This is an amusing skit stuffed with padding. 5/4/07
John Carpenter directed this installment of the Masters of Horror series. Ron Perlman is a rabid anti-abortionist outraged when his teenaged daughter enters an abortion clinic, determined to destroy the child she is carrying, which she believes to be inhuman. The plausibility of the opening scenes is marred by the clinic’s inexplicable failure to notify the police when the violent Perlman threatens to intervene. Perlman believes the voice he hears is God telling him to protect the baby, but he’s wrong. He and his sons invade the clinic with guns blazing.
As the carnage continues, the pregnancy advances within minutes to labor, and then the creature – a demon that looks like a big crab – is born. Daddy shows up moments later, a reasonably well done rendition of the devil – to claim victims of his own. I always have a problem with stories like this because the devil always seems to act randomly, choosing who to rape, showing up just too late even though everything else has gone as it planned. And while some of the deaths are logical in the story’s progression, others seem to have been inserted just as filler. Nor do we ever see what actually happens to Perlman, although presumably he’s devil food. Okay, and better than most of the others in this series, but still unsatisfying. 5/4/07
McMillan & Wife Season 1 (1971)
This was one of the alternating segments of the NBC Mystery Movie series, this one patterned a bit after Nick and Nora Charles. Rock Hudson (wearing a ridiculous haircut) is a police commissioner whose wife has a penchant for stumbling into crimes, and mystery and comedy are mixed in each episode. In the opener, “Once Upon a Dead Man”, Sally is involved with the sale of very valuable antiques one of which, a sarcophagus, is stolen. Suspicion falls on the McMillans’ chauffeur, an ex-convict, and as fast as they find a lead, someone blocks their progress, usually by killing someone. In the tradition of all good private detectives, McMillan gets knocked unconscious, after which there’s a pretty good foot and bicycle chase. A well conceived mystery with a good supporting cast including a very young Rene Auberjonois.
“Murder by the Barrel” has an interesting gimmick. The McMillans are moving and an extra container shows up at their house. When Sally opens it, she finds a dead body inside, but when the police arrive the body is missing, one of the classic mystery ploys. By early in this episode, I remembered why I’d always liked this series. In a word – three worlds actually – Susan Saint James, who plays the quirky, slightly flakey Sally to perfection. The usual complications ensue, with Sally spotting someone watching the house who always disappears whenever anyone else looks. After Sally scares off an intruder, they spend the night in a motel, and the following day someone attempts to murder her. Nancy Walker makes her debut as their maid as the complications build on one another. John Schuck is also excellent as Sergeant Enright. Even better than the pilot.
“The Easy Sunday Murder Case” is not quite as good as the first two. A woman’s husband and prize dog are both kidnapped, and when the dog escapes, she refuses to pay the ransom for her husband, whom she considers a gold digger. When she is murdered, the kidnappers apparently aren’t involved, and the ransom is paid in a vain attempt to capture the perpetrators. Hubbie shows up a bit later, turned loose by the kidnappers, or at least that’s what appears to have happened. With Wally Cox as the slightly flaky veterinarian. The solution is obvious almost from the outset and the clue (the ransom envelope was not mailed but delivered) eludes the police’s notice until late in the story, which I found completely implausible. There’s a mysterious burglary in which nothing is stolen, an old friend who knows more than he is saying, and two attempts to shoot McMillan in “Husbands, Wives, and Villains”. It appears that all of the McMillans’ friends are involved somehow, including one of the maids. John Schuck continues to provide most of the comic relief and Susan Saint James shines again. One does have to wonder, however, why the police commissioner would be involved in stakeouts, shootouts, and the details of criminal investigations. There’s a shooting and a jewel theft in the midst of a costume party, with poor McMillan dressed as a pink Easter Bunny, and a nicely convoluted ending.
“Death Is a Seven Point Favorite” is about football, so it should have had an extra appeal for me, but unfortunately this is an unusually poorly written episode. It opens with the police commissioner personally tackling an escaping criminal, implausible of course but it does provide a running joke. Sally goes to the training field to pick up an autographed football for a charity event from team owner, Andrew Duggan. It’s supposed to be a professional team, but none of the players looks big enough to be the real thing. When she looks at it later, she discovers that someone has written a partly smudged note that suggests a murder is imminent. Before they can investigate, a young field hand at the field is found dead.
The dead boy is apparently a bagman for bookies and McMillan suspects that he may have heard something he shouldn’t have, perhaps information about a fixed football game. Then someone apparently tries to shoot a newscaster, the backup quarterback gives a completely unnecessary and totally stupid lie to a question from McMillan, the first string quarterback looks guilty, particularly after he gets into a contrived fight with a bookie, and the motivation for the real killer is never adequately explained. “The Face of Death” is initially about a jewel thief who strikes in the midst of society parties, without leaving any clues to his identity or method. McMillan suspects a famous, supposedly retired jewel thief known as the Dutchman, but he has to change his plan when someone takes a pot shot at a potential witness (Claude Akins) and Sally is kidnapped and the kidnappers demand the witness in exchange. Akins is shot by a policeman during the exchange, supposedly by accident. I was suspicious right from the outset that the policeman was one of the bad guys, but the truth took me by surprise.
An elusive serial killer targets the McMillans in “’Til Death Do Us Part”. They arrive home to find that everyone who might look in on them over the weekend has been called away, obviously lured out of town to isolate them. The build up is stretched a bit too far, but the byplay is almost good enough to make up for the slow plot development. They first realize something is wrong when they notice that everything sharp has bee removed from the house, knives, tools, knitting needles, etc. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of the idiot plot in this one, since they decide to stay alone in the house despite the obvious clues that they’re in danger. After various false alarms, they succumb to drugged drinks and pass out, allowing the killer to enter, seal the house, and arrange for an exterminator to fill the house with poison gas. The ending is a trifle contrived as well.
The last episode is “An Elementary Case of Murder”. One of McMillans’ old girl friends comes to him for help when she is accused of her husband’s murder, and naturally all the evidence seems to indicate that she’s guilty. Sally has managed to get herself pregnant so she’s feeling a bit needy as well, and an old flame is not exactly the development she wants, although as usual she takes it in stride. This was easily the best episode of the season, a clever mystery with a surprise ending. Although the series has a few flat episodes, most of the first season is quite good, and the supporting actors help make this one of the best mystery series of its day. 5/3/07
The Naked Jungle (1954)
Way back in junior high school, I picked up a book called Great Stories of Action and Adventure, which is where I first read “Leiningen and the Ants” by Carl Stephenson, first published in 1938, a story I’ve re-read at least a dozen times since (and I’ve watched this film almost as often. Stephenson lived in Germany all his life and as far as I know this was the only piece of fiction of his that was ever published. It served as the basis of an episode of MacGyver, but more importantly it is the basis for this movie starring Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker. Leiningen’s first name is Christopher in the film, but it is never revealed in the story.
There’s not much depth to Leiningen in the story, so the screenplay remedies that, and fixes the year as 1901. Heston is a planter in South America who has been away from “civilization” so long that his interpersonal skills have atrophied, in part because on his extensive estates he has “more power than a king”. He decides that he needs a wife so he arranges to get one via mail order, and that’s Eleanor Parker.
Their introduction doesn’t go well. He’s rough, inconsiderate, opinionated, or naïve. “You have a sense of humor. I don’t like humor in a woman.” On the other hand, she reveals that she’s been previously married, which he hadn’t realized, and Leiningen doesn’t like second hand goods. Some of his bluster is obviously designed to conceal his uncertainty about the relationship; part of it is, frankly, self centered bigotry, making him one of the less clear cut heroes of 1950s adventure films. Parker holds her own and sees the truth almost immediately. “You wanted an ornament!” Their relationship begins to improve after she witnesses a fatal tribal ceremony; Leiningen becomes more communicative and comprehensible, though still pigheaded and emotionally flat. Not that things are smooth.
“I’m trying not to irritate you.”
“I’ve noticed that. I find it irritating.”
And they get worse again. He gets drunk, they tussle, and he decides that she must leave, that they have both made a mistake. The set up continues when the local commissioner comes by with a complaint from a rival planter who believes Leiningen is stealing his workers. A clever double bluff follows in which Leiningen pretends to hang two workers who fled the inhuman conditions on the other plantation, which also redeems him considerably in the eyes of the viewer. Of course, we know that everything is going to work out in the marriage, but the slow evolution of their feelings is subtle and convincing. Even as they begin to tolerate one another, Leiningen insists she must leave, that he could never adjust to the fact that she was married previously. “I don’t know how to be second. I have to be first.”
The real conflict starts shortly thereafter. The commissioner is on his way to investigate a mysterious disturbance in the jungle, which we soon realize is Marabunta, the army ant, a swath of them twenty miles long and two miles wide, devouring everything they encounter as they move through the jungle. After finding a clean picked skeleton in a canoe, Leiningen, his wife, and the commissioner are diverted from their original trip to discover what is happening, although it is clear that the two men already know. They find the horde, and determine that the ants are headed for Leiningen’s plantation.
A moat and other preparations hold the ants off for a while, but eventually they begin using leaves as boats. When a contingent of ants overruns the dam, control of the moat is lost and the defenders have to retreat within the inner walls. A flaming barricade drives them back for a while, but there’s not enough fuel to keep it burning indefinitely. Eventually their only recourse is to flood the entire area by opening the dam, which Leiningen accomplishes after a torturous run across the insect infested grounds. The special effects are minimal even though this is a George Pal production, but the sense of imminent doom more than makes up for it. I’m kind of surprised that no one has ever done a remake, considering the possibilities, but perhaps that’s because the original is so effective. 5/2/07
The Fair Haired Child (2006)
I looked up the previous works of the writer and director of this installment of the Masters of Horror series, and since I was unimpressed with their previous work, I didn’t have high expectations. A teenager is abducted and finds herself in what claims to be a small hospital, but is actually something very different. Her abductors eventually lock her in the basement of what appears to be a well maintained estate of considerable size where she finds a boy her own age, hanging by his neck, and saves his life. She also finds written warnings from previous visitors referring to the “fair haired child”.
The interplay between the two adults holding them prisoner is less than scintillating, but the scenes in the basement are reasonably well done and certainly suspenseful until the rather corny monster appears, although I guessed the “surprise” revelation almost immediately, even before we see a flashback that suggests what is going on, during which we are quite obviously not meant to see one character’s face. The ending is so totally obvious and unimaginative that I kept expecting a different twist, but it never came. 5/1/07
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