Monday, April 9, 2018


MYTHICITY: (1) *good,* (2) *fair*

I confess that I haven't watched MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM for some time, but it seems to me that scripter Crane Wilbur and director Andre de Toth revamped the 1932 film substantially, albeit more in terms of style than content. For instance, the plot is essentially the same, aside from eliding all the newspaper-investigator characters (or replacing them with unusually competent cops). But I'd be surprised if there's anywhere in MYSTERY that the crazy waxmaker speaks a line like this one:

"There is a pain beyond pain, an agony so intense it shocks the mind into insane beauty."

It's a fine line, since it encapsulates the script's fascination with the double-sided nature of human entertainment: craving both the serenity of beauty and the kinetic impact of "shocks."

HOUSE begins with an immediate opposition of the two tendencies. In turn-of-the-century New York, sculptor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) maintains a wax museum devoted to the theme of beautiful historical figures like Joan of Arc and Marie Antoinette, with only one or two concessions to what Jarrod calls "the macabre," like a wax replica of John Wilkes Boothe. He lives a monastic existence, thoroughly absorbed in his art, but to launch his museum he was obliged to become partners with a crass investor, Burke. The latter wants Jarrod to devote the museum to "shocks" in order to bring in more customers. Jarrod refuses, and though he offers Burke the chance to recoup his investment, the impatient investor suggests that they could both recoup their expenses by burning down the museum for the insurance. Jarrod refuses, since his sculptures are like his children to him.

This opening is easily the weakest part of the film. When Burke first appears at the museum, his dialogue makes it clear that he knows how besotted Jarrod is with his creations. So why does he advance the possibility of burning down the museum so blithely? And when he gets into a fight with Jarrod, he immediately starts setting fire to everything, forgetting that he can't claim the insurance if Jarrod testifies against Burke. When Burke knocks Jarrod down so that he's trapped by the fire, it almost seems an afterthought rather than a deliberate attempt at murder.

Ten years pass, during which Burke collects his insurance and Jarrod is believed dead. But Jarrod, though disfigured, has merely been biding his time, gathering assistants and constructing a new wax museum. But because Jarrod is too afflicted to sculpt statues any more, he saves time by finding human bodies-- some of whom, like Burke, he himself kills-- and encasing them in wax for his museum. One of his victims is also Burke's girlfriend, but the woman's best friend Sue becomes Jarrod's next target when he conceives that she's perfect to be his new Marie Antoinette.

There's never any real mystery as to what Jarrod is doing, in part because in place of the 1932 film's atmospheric mood, HOUSE is full of brilliant color and blatant, literally "in your face" imagery, designed to take advantage of the 3-D craze. Though the mad sculptor is devoted to his classical image of beauty-- even if it's supplemented by real dead bodies-- the film is aesthetically aligned to the aesthetic of the villainous Burke; that of giving viewers constant shocks. For later viewers, one shock not intended by the filmmakers is that of seeing an up-and-coming Charles Buchinsky-- later Bronson-- playing a deaf-mute with the Frankensteinian name of Igor.

In addition to many interesting ruminations about the nature of art and beauty, HOUSE also probably boasts the greatest number of fistfights ever seen in a horror-film up to that time.

THE MAD MAGICIAN was apparently rushed into production by the studio, since it's both black-and-white and repeats many of the tropes from HOUSE.

This time the director's chair is occupied by John Brahm, but there's nothing in MAGICIAN that's as moving as his earlier work on THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, and he even burns up a certain amount of screen-time having the villain dispose of a body as Laird Cregar did in HANGOVER. Crane Wilbur's script is far weaker than HOUSE, except that, oddly enough, MAGICIAN has a much stronger opening.

This time, Price plays Gallico, a magician manque. He's been a maker of magicians' illusion-props for years, under the thumb of his capitalistic boss Ormond, but he's finally designed some tricks that he hopes will propel him into the big time. Price's performance in the film's first hour is actually more impressive than anything he does in HOUSE, for he successfully puts across the image of Gallico as a genius crippled by his lack of self-confidence. He's also even more put-upon than Jarrod, for before he can perform his new tricks on stage, Ormond legally blocks the performance, claiming that everything Gallico makes is legally Ormond's property. Oh, and for good measure Ormond has in past stolen Gallico's spendthrift wife (Eva Gabor), so that Ormond is the very picture of a pernicious profiteer.

As in HOUSE, the madman's first victim is the money-man, and it's Ormond's head that complicates things for Gallico after getting separated from its body. However, once Gallico goes mad the script loses all interest in his psychology. There's one moment in which Gallico seems overly fascinated with a young female model, who plays the role of the Sue-character in HOUSE, but he's far less interested in women-- even the ex-wife he murders-- than in displaying his talent. But his magicians' tricks aren't nearly as resonant as the wax statues of Jarrod, and so the film winds down to a conclusion that's less than "magical."



Newton Arnold spent most of his film-career as a second-unit director, but did manage to both write and direct one flick, HANDS OF A STRANGER. Admittedly it's not a totally original work, in that the basic plot was borrowed, without credit, from the novel THE HANDS OF ORLAC, which had been adapted to film three times previously.

Like most versions of ORLAC, the main character of STRANGER is a concert pianist-- named "Vernon Paris" this time-- who loses both hands in an accident. In most iterations, a surgeon successfully transplants the hands of a dead man onto the wrists of the pianist; however, the hands were those of a murderer, and the pianist becomes increasingly distressed about the potential of his once cultivated hands to commit acts of violence.

STRANGER does depart from the template, though, for no one in the film ever knows the identity of the hands' owner. The audience sees how the unnamed man meets his demise. He's first seen walking along a dark street with a briefcase. A car with two men rolls into view, and the man flees from it, clearly expecting trouble. The men in the car shoot him down, get out, search him and take something from his pockets, and leave. The last thing the stranger does is to clutch at a lamp-post before he dies, and it's later said that the citizens who find him must pry his hands from the post. This is all the audience ever knows about the stranger: that he's somehow involved in criminal activity and that he has strong hands.

Cut to surgeon Gil Harding. He's an idealist who hates to see death claim its due, in that he fulminates angrily about the loss of a patient. (He also waxes very poetic, as do almost all of Arnold's main characters do, which makes STRANGER an odd experience, more like watching a stage play than a movie.) That same night, Gil also gets to perform an autopsy on The Stranger, and reports his findings to police lieutenant Syms, who makes odd comments like calling fingerprints "pictures that tell me all I want to know." Syms, a weary cynic, is impressed with Gil's idealism, though neither of them expect to have further contact.

That same night, Vernon Paris finishes a concert performance to great acclaim. Vernon's character is initially introduced by his sister Dina in conversation with his manager George. Both of them admire Vernon, and George makes a remark about Dina finding a new relationship, to which she asks him if George is "implying a scandalous relationship between me and my brother." In later scenes the script expands by saying that Dina and Vernon bonded strongly after the death of their parents, and though I've not read the original Renard novel. I suspect that this aspect of the script is original to STRANGER.

Vernon is an idealist about aesthetics the way Gil is an idealist about medicine, but the pianist is also somewhat more narcissistic, enjoying the adulation of his sister, his manager, and of many women with whom he's casually romantic. He takes a taxi alone, but the cabbie recognizes Vernon. The driver regales Vernon with stories about the guy's piano-playing son, and because he's distracted, the cabbie crashes the car. Unconscious, Vernon is taken to the same hospital where Gil works. Manager George pleads with Gil to save the pianist's hands, but they've been utterly ruined by the car-crash. And it's at that point that Gil Harding puts his Frankenstein-hat on, removing the hands of the stranger and transplanting them to Vernon. (Since this operation is unsanctioned by the hospital, it gives Lt. Syms an excuse to keep tabs on the results of the operation.)

Because no one ever knows anything about the donor, neither the aggrieved pianist or his distressed sister are concerned about Vernon having a murderer's hands. In fact, Gil is the only one who brings up the idea that the owner might have been a "psychotic," when he says that "psychotic tendencies don't transfer themselves mystically." And this seems to be author Arnold's position, too, for at no point is it suggested that the hands function as anything but transplanted organs. All the problems stem from Vernon's inability to accept the loss of his dexterous digits, and like most psychos, he begins to see other people as his victimizers: the cabbie who caused the crash (and his son), his most recent girlfriend, and eventually the doctors who performed the operation. Even inanimate objects take on sinister meaning, as when Vernon visits a carnival and becomes stressed at the sight of clowns, bumper cars, a player piano and a funhouse mirror that exaggerates Vernon's alien hands.  His excuse is another poetic rumination: "the only real enemies the world has are the enemies of beauty."

As Vernon falls, though, Dina rises, for she falls in love with Gil, the man who tried to give her brother a second chance at life. Vernon doesn't seem overly jealous of Dina's divided loyalties, which isn't surprising since any sibling fixation seems to be on her side. He only resents another volley against his ego, which leads to a final confrontation between Vernon and his perceived enemies.

It's not a great film by any means. But even Ed Wood never gave a policeman an eyebrow-raising line about having an "erotic respect for perfection."

Thursday, April 5, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

RISE OF THE LYCANS is the prequel to the two UNDERWORLD films starring Kate Beckinsale. Beckinsale's character Selene makes only a cameo appearance here, as RISE is basically a history lesson that sets up many of the long-lived characters whom Selene meets in her films, both set in the 20th century. Aside from the cameo, the rest of the film takes place in 13th-century Hungary, when the long-standing feud between vampires and werewolves (or "Lycans") takes a unique turn.

One is that for the first time werewolves begin to assume an intelligence equal to that of the more urbane vampires. Prior to that, werewolves are mere beasts in human form, whom the vampires can easily control by using their bane, silver, against them. This setup is RISE's best aspect, for though in real folklore vampires and werewolves have no real interaction, in popular culture vampires were usually pictured as the masters of both real wolves and wolf-people, at least as early as Stoker's DRACULA.

The script is co-written in part by Len Wiseman and Danny McBride, who had worked together on the previous films as well, though RISE boasts a new director, Patrick Tatapoulous. The change doesn't make a lot of difference, for like the previous films RISE is pretty short on genuine drama and long on ass-kicking action, though none of the action-scenes stack up to the best from UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION.

The aforesaid "unique turn" is that a particular Lycan, Lucian (Michael Sheen, seen as a villain in the Selene saga), is one of several who evolve intelligence. He works under the thrall of vampire lord Viktor as a house-slave, but he strays above his station when he falls in love with Viktor's willful daughter Sonja (Rhona Mitra). Their "Romeo and Juliet" arc is adequately if unexceptionally handled. but the emphasis is on Lucian as a Spartacus to his people, leading them to escape the dominion of the bloodsuckers and to form their own long-lived clan, thus resulting in the feud that lasts until the 20th century.

As with the first two films, there's so much emphasis on the two monster-clans that the existence of regular human beings is barely acknowledged. However, because of the more limited nature of the conflict, RISE doesn't suffer from nearly as much, :Now who is this overbearing overlord--?"

Wednesday, April 4, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

Once I'd settled in to the idea that the UNDERWORLD franchise wasn't going to explore any of the deeper symbolic potential of its base idea-- that of an ongoing war between vampires and werewolves, carried on under the noses of humankind-- I could enjoy it as a series of high-octane kick-ass action pictures.

In retrospect, the first film is more set-up than kick-ass. The 2003 film introduces viewers to the main character of Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a warrior on the side of the vampires. Like many of her kind she's existed as an unaging immortal for centuries, though she never displays any of the inhuman physical characteristics of the oldest vamps. Selene is a "death dealer," meaning that she hunts down enemy Lycans, intelligent werewolves who can fight her either with weapons akin to her own-- swords and firearms-- or they can transform into big furry beast-men possessed of the same super-strength Selene has.

Human beings have no idea that the war or its soldiers even exist, but one human, Michael Corwin, gets drawn into the conflict when he's bitten by a Lycan. Selene takes time out of her Lycan-killing obsession and succors the innocent man, eventually falling in love with him. Michael also turns out to be a unique type of human, for despite his humanity, he's a descendant of "Corvinus," the original progenitor of both the vampire and werewolf races. Because of his unique genetic structure, Michael doesn't just become another Lycan, as most victims would, but rather a strange vampire-werewolf hybrid. Selene believes that a hybrid can bring an end to the division between the enemy factions, but there are a lot of people on both sides who want Michael for their own purposes.

Despite a good number of sword and gun battles, none of them are exceptional, and at some times they seem to simply be filling up time as Selene and Michael get harried from pillar to post. Selene is betrayed by one of her vamp superiors, but there's no great drama in this development, because most of the other characters are sadly under-developed. Lycan villains and vamp villains prove almost indistinguishable.

UNDERWORLD EVOLUTION doesn't improve on the dramatic elements, but the script-- again by Danny McBride and director Len Wiseman-- does expand on the mythos of the monsters. It's revealed that Corvinus, fifth-century forefather of both monster-races, was the only person to survive a plague that killed all of his people, and that he did so because of the unique genetic makeup. He gives rise to two brothers, Markus and William, who are respectively the fathers of the vampire and werewolf races. There's some odd folklore thrown in about Markus being bitten by a bat and William by a wolf, but presumably this was not meant to be taken seriously, as the viral plague is the source of the monstrous mutations.

The term "evolution" signifies not only how the two races evolved in the past, but also the potential of Michael's genes to modify the power structure-- a potential explored in future films when Michael and Selene breed a hybrid child together. But the main thrust of the narrative is to oppose young to old, as the young lovers take on the still extant brothers William and Michael Corvinus.

Though the drama remains shallow, the filmmakers evidently got a lot more money behind EVOLUTION, for there's huge improvement in FX and stuntwork. For instance, Beckinsale, who largely employed only weapons earlier, does a fair amount of hand-to-hand combat, which only enhances the appeal of her leather-catsuited figure. Again, she's the main focus of the story-- perhaps not surprising, since she and director Wiseman were married during both films. EVOLUTION thus became the high-water mark for kick-ass "monster mash" films-- limited though that subgenre might be.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*


About the only thing interesting to me about this low-budget Argentinian ghost story is that its focal character is not the ghost--as is the case in 1972's THE OVAL PORTRAIT, which was written by HOUSE's scripter, Enrique Tudela. In that film, the ghost was benign while a madman caused trouble for innocents, and so it seems that Tudela mines the same basic idea here, since the focal character is a madwoman who commits several murders trying to cover up her crime, that of killing the person who became the ghost. In keeping with my spoilers, I'll just give the killer away right off: it's one of the film's two American actors, Yvonne DeCarlo, the other being John Gavin of PSYCHO fame.

In contrast to OVAL PORTRAIT, and to a lot of Ms. DeCarlo's films of the 1970s and 1980s (see PLAY DEAD, for one), HOUSE has a little potential. It takes place during the early 1900s, and the dubbed version of HOUSE broadly implies that the location is somewhere in America, since all of the surnames are English-derived, like Howard, Webster, et al. The viewpoint character is a twenty-something woman, Audrey, who became a live-in servant to the wealthy Mrs. Howard (DeCarlo) after the childless Mrs. Howard located Audrey through a placement service connected with an orphanage. Beyond the fact that Audrey is an orphan, she seems content enough performing odd jobs for the old lady. One night, she walks Mrs. Howard's dog, and ends up chasing the dog into an abandoned mansion. In the mansion Audrey sees a woman shot to death by an unseen assailant. She reports the matter to the cops, only to learn that there's no corpse in the mansion. However, there was a famous, near-identical murder committed at the locale over twenty years ago.

The murder-victim was a woman named Catherine, who's played in the movie by the same actress playing Audrey-- and soon Audrey, though not literally possessed by Catherine, finds herself fascinated with the story behind Catherine's murder. For one thing, Catherine was pregnant when she was slain, and presumably the child died as a result, too, though the dubbed version does not say so. Tudela might have thrown in some metaphysical mystery by wondering if Little Orphan Audrey was somehow a reincarnation of either Catherine or her child. Certainly using the same actress for both the murder-victim and the investigator seems to lead in that direction, but that potential goes unused.

Audrey's investigation results in a lot of people being murdered by an unseen killer. There's no knowing why the killer doesn't just knock off Audrey immediately, since she has no protector-- not even the local cop who helps her a little-- and has no self-defense capabilities. Of course, without a string of killings, the story would have no motive force.

Gavin, playing one of Catherine's suitors, seems mildly interested in courting Audrey, though no one remarks on any actual resemblance between the modern girl and the murdered woman. This too is not explored. All of the actors, even the Americans, are badly dubbed. Given the distinctive character of DeCarlo's voice, this takes away a lot of her star appeal. On top of this, she gives what must be the most low-key performance of her career, at least until she stands revealed as the mystery killer.

Given that there are probably hundreds of South American filmmakers whose works are never made available to English-speaking viewers, it's odd to think that a hack like Enrique Tudela is relatively available through this film, THE OVAL PORTRAIT, and TERROR IN THE JUNGLE.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

Both of these serials were produced near the end of the sound serial's classic period, and both show an erratic quality in the writing that suggests-- to me, at least-- that the writers knew that television was cutting in on their meal ticket, and that the serial's days were numbered.

SIR GALAHAD, for all its flaws, does try to match the event-packed gusto of the classic serials. Sir Galahad (George Reeves, still a few years away from Superman) comes to Camelot, seeking to become one of Arthur's knights. Galahad distinguishes himself in tourney-combat, so Arthur assigns him the same task by which previous knights have distinguished themselves: to remain on solitary guard-duty over the king's magical sword Excalibur. Unfortunately for the aspiring hero, a mysterious villain, the Black Knight, steals the sword, and Galahad cannot become a knight until he recovers the weapon. The hero receives some aid from comic relief Sir Bors, but he's opposed by the henchmen of the Black Knight, by Saxons who defy Arthur's reign, and, most surprisingly, by Arthur's court magician Merlin (William Fawcett).

Merlin's interference with Galahad's mission is never explained, but it's initially intriguing, just because the famed magician is usually, if not the hero of a given Arthurian tale, an ally to other heroes. One of the best cliffhangers in the serial involves Merlin trapping Galahad in a forest, where he's captured by a tree with arms (visibly a man in a tree suit)  and surrounded by "flames of darkness." Galahad is only freed by the intrusion of another sorceress, the Lady of the Lake, but her presence in the story, as well as that of Arthur's scheming half-sister Morgan Le Fay, ebbs and flows with no consistency. And to my disappointment, the script does some last-minute finagling to redeem Merlin, though the explanation of his actions really makes no sense at all.

However, even though GALAHAD lacks a strong villain, Reeves' forthright charm is on evidence throughout most of the serial, and the script is reasonably inventive in coming up with good cliffhangers, like having Galahad almost trampled by horses, or imperiling him with a moving wall of swords. The battle-scenes are well-handled, and had GALAHAD possesses a coherent script, it might now be regarded as one of the last good sound serials.

In contrast, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN AFRICA is a patchwork mess. Apparently Columbia had the very belated idea of making a sequel to their 1943 PHANTOM serial. However, the studio no longer had the rights to use the Phantom character, so they merely concocted an unreasonable facsimile. This was Captain Africa, given an outfit with a strong resemblance to the Phantom's getup, so that Columbia could save dough by interpolating old shots from the 1943 serial whenever possible. Thus the Captain, in place of the Phantom's cowl, wears an aviator's helmet, and in place of a bodysuit, a shirt and trousers reminiscent of a football player's. Africa (played by short-lived "Lone Ranger" John Hart) has no origin, but he follows some of the Phantom's patterns, in that he interacts with a local African tribe by appearing to them in a puff of smoke, as if he's posing as some sort of spiritual being. For most of the serial, though, the Captain is involved more in North rather than Central Africa, for Columbia also wished to interpolate a lot of footage from a 1944 serial about contending Arab tribes, THE DESERT HAWK. Thus the bulk of CAPTAIN AFRICA shows the aviator-masked hero fighting bad Arabs to protect a good Arab princess.

With so much re-used footage-- some of which is used twice in AFRICA, when an episode does a "recap" sequence-- it should be unsurprising that there's no strong villain with whom Africa can contend. Hart handles the original fight-sequences well enough, but his unimposing costume does him no favors, and he gets precious little help from his support-cast.

The only really amusing thing about CAPTAIN AFRICA is, ironically, one of those footage-burning recap episodes. Most of the time, the recaps are handled by having one person tell other people about things that have already happened, interspersed with old footage. But at one point, Captain Africa decides to give his listeners a direct view of past events, by showing what happened-- in a crystal ball! (Naturally, what the crystal shows is more old footage.) Since neither the Captain nor anyone else in the serial displays any supernatural abilities, I choose to believe-- purely for categorization purposes-- that what he did was merely an illusionist's trick. The real reason behind the crystal-gazing is that an earlier Columbia serial, KING OF THE CONGO, had already made use of this schtick, though it was at least a little more justifiable in CONGO. The earlier serial had as one of its contributors writer George Plympton, and Plympton is the sole credited writer on AFRICA-- so we can fairly sure his only concern was in trying to put together a halfway credible story that served Columbia's cost-cutting purposes.

Monday, March 26, 2018



Though I've never read an Edgar Wallace novel-- and possibly never will-- I must admit that his numerous thrillers and detective stories of the early 20th century may have played some role in the evolution of the costumed superhero. Wallace seems to have made heavy use of both masked villains, with names like The Frog, and masked heroes like The Green Archer, best known for his serial incarnation.

SECRET OF THE BLACK WIDOW is admittedly not a good example with which to start, since it's not in any way derived from an Edgar Wallace work. It's simply a "lookalike" for the popular *krimis* of the late fifties and early sixties, many of which did use Wallace concepts. Thus WIDOW starts out with a murder by a singularly peculiar method: a poison-filled projectile to which the killer attaches a rubber "black widow" spider, fired by an air gun. Naturally, the mystery murderer becomes known as "the Black Widow."

In comparison with some of the bonafide Wallace adaptations from this period, director Franz Gottleib and his writers almost seem determined to camp things up, some time before "camp" became mainstreamed. Most of the actors, particularly hero O.W. Fischer, mug outrageously, to the extent that even the "straight" roles take on a comic tone. Only the heroine, played by Karin Dor of YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE fame, seems to take her role seriously.

It's a lively production, though one really never knows quite what's going on most of the time. But after the viewer gets past the goofiness of the villain's modus operandi and the charms of Dor, WIDOW doesn't disclose any secrets worth knowing.

CREATURE WITH THE BLUE HAND, however, is a bonafide Wallace adaptation, and provides a lot more bang for the viewer's buck, even though like WIDOW, this film sports only one actor who became internationally known: Klaus Kinski. Here Kinski plays twin brothers, the apparently respectable Richard Emerson, and the apparently insane David Emerson, who gets locked away for having committed crimes out of insanity. Then David escapes, and suddenly other members of their family start getting knocked off by a mysterious figure with a metallic clawed glove. This "blue hand" is a family heirloom that's been in the Emerson family for centuries, and so the police initially conclude that crazy Dave has dressed up as "the Blue Hand" to kill off the other members of his family.

Naturally, that would be too simple, even for a mystery that isn't much of a mystery. It turns out that not only is David innocent, he and others have been victimized by a corrupt asylum manager, one Doctor Mangrove, who bears a nodding resemblance to Edward Van Sloan's "Doctor Van Helsing" in the 1931 DRACULA. Mangrove, in fact, is almost more of a menace than the Blue Hand, for when Myrna, sister of Richard and David, begins to investigate the crimes, he finds an excuse to condemn Myrna as insane and torment her with snakes and rats. Kinski is the primary attraction here, but director Alfred Vohrer delivers the requisite thrills with a steady hand-- probably because, unlike Gottlieb prior to WIDOW, prior to BLUE HAND Vohrer had directed three or four solid Wallace adaptations, particularly a well regarded 1961 take on Wallace's DEAD EYES OF LONDON.

As long as one doesn't pay too much attention to the phony-baloney mystery elements, BLUE HAND works fine as a wild thriller. Later an American producer concocted a film, THE BLOODY DEAD, by inserting gore-scenes into BLUE HAND's original story, but fortunately I haven't had to deal with that version.