DILLINGER (1973)

 

From the moment that Warren Oates swings open the bank teller’s window and greets the audience on the other side with a grin equal parts sleaze and charm, DILLINGER (1973) appears to be another production mining the gangster-as-folk-hero vein ala BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967). A wealthy pigeon of a woman has just turned her nose up at the unseen teller, and the impression seems to be that she, standing right in front of the infamous criminal who will shortly make off with her precious cash, is going to get what’s coming to her. Clearly, the pompous woman is in the social minority–the opening credits wryly play a jaunty version of “We’re in the Money” over a photo montage mainly composed of poverty-stricken families of the Depression–and Dillinger’s theft aligns him with the conception of the criminal as a modern-day Robin Hood, but one who though adamantly opposed to killing any bystanders takes no visible issue with riddling cops and bank guards with hot lead, leaving them to bloodily convulse in the dust.

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SEASON OF THE WITCH (1973)

 

Like the malcontent MARTIN (1977) who sought answers and an alternative nightside to the dull, crushing poverty of his daylit hours, Joan Mitchell (Jan White) plunges into the world of all-the-rage witchcraft to distract from the role of compliant housewife that has been both pressed upon her and eased into without much personal pushback. (Not only is Joan’s input constantly interrupted in conversation, but the film’s alternate title in Britain, JACK’S WIFE, further classifies her as a non-entity in the possession of another.) Seeing perpetually smashed, older friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) shatter at the thought of her advanced age–an aching scene–kindles similar fears in Joan, and it’s tempting to view her black magic experimentations as the pagan inverse to the materialistic mid-life crisis of the rougher sex.

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THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (1958)

Back in January I stopped over in Tampa to check out Grindhouse Video, a new movie store that had just set up shop. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more towards dustier and Gothic fare than sweaty exploitation, but GV had some pretty tempting titles in stock and I was just very pleased to see a specialty store of this order in an area (relatively) close to my home base. Chief among my purchases were three Casa Negra titles, one of which, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (El hombre y el monstruo, 1958) is the subject of today’s review.

Along with the supernatural whackery of THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Misterios de ultratumba, 1959) and the gloriously trashy monster of THE BRAINIAC (El barón del terror, 1962), THE MAN AND THE MONSTER had been on my shortlist of south-of-the-border horror films to check out by virtue of its narrative involving a pithy piano player (Enrique Rambal), a self-admitted “sublime mediocrity,” who sells his soul to El Diablo to possess the musical prowess of his idol (Martha Roth) whom he kills and keeps shuttered in a closet as a captive audience only to have a hex placed on his head that forces him to transform into a bushy-faced fiend with a lust for the blood of senoritas whenever he fulfills the urge to tickle the ivories.

Helmed by Mexican journeyman director Rafael Baledón, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER fluctuates between spritely flights of the macabre and interlocking procedural scenes that are drier than an old tortilla. It hits the ground running with its clever prologue: when a woman crashes her car outside a foreboding hacienda, she goes seeking help but comes to a locked door where a man fervently whispers for release. Spotting a clutch of keys and wanting to do right as a Samaritan in her own plight, she opens the door… and the camera zooms in on her screaming face, the title card revealing to those not yet in the know that the occupant she has just loosed is decidedly inhuman.

The film has technical merit through the use of some impressive photographic effects (a flashback explaining Rambal’s curse plays the events over an image of the actor’s leering face with flames underlining the montage) and a few expressionistic settings. The script by star Abel Salazar’s brother Alfredo–scribe behind several Aztec Mummy and luchadore films–lacks focus and logic at times but is bolstered by strong thematic touches (Rambal’s devotion to his mother reaches an apotheosis when the beastly pianist is cooed back to human form like a child getting brought down from a particularly monstrous tantrum) that makes it a cut-above its modest pedigree. It’s in the rote scenes involving Salazar’s heroic Ricardo snooping around and trying to piece it all together that the melody loses its drive.

Like a 50s horror comic brought to life, Baledón’s film contains just enough patented silliness and pulpishness to make it memorable, at least for the titular creature that resembles nothing so much as a Mr. Hyde muppet given to chuckling with gusto and the occasional obscenity (“Open the door, God damn it!”) and for the poor gatto that is repeatedly yanked off-screen by wires to simulate cheap jump scares. The finale with the monster running wild at his symphony of Tchaikovsky’s ROMEO AND JULIET makes for a boisterous albeit short romp.

THE GOLEM (1920)

THE GOLEM (1920), originally titled THE GOLEM: HOW HE CAME INTO THE WORLD (Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam), has an interesting cultural lineage, at least in regards to the lovely DVD put out by Kino Lorber. Introductory texts to the film report that the majority of the footage in Kino’s release was provided by a print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, originally sent to the U.S. from the film’s German production company, UFA. Additional footage and intertitles were preserved in Moscow. The tinted frames that Kino retains are based on the coloring of an Italian copy from Milan. The fact that a film such as THE GOLEM should even be made in the time and place that it was–Germany, at the dawn of the Twenties when the country’s fascism and anti-Semitism was gaining prominence–is interesting alone, but that the present, official release of the film should sew together remnants from countries that would play such vital roles in the Second World War can’t help but make this picture, co-directed by star Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, strike a wider, global chord with its folkloric charm and truth, further cementing the notion that though our politics may divide us, our art will always bind us.

The story, co-scripted by Wegener and Henrik Galeen (author of other revered classics of German Expressionism NOSFERATU and WAXWORKS), retells the legend of Rabbi Löw (Albert Steinrück), a revered man within the Jewish ghetto that he and the rest of his people are ordained to occupy under the hard rule of Emperor Luhois (Otto Gebühr). When the Emperor decrees that all of the Jews must vacate their humble premises for committing that most odious of historical mistakes–practicing the wrong religion–Löw realizes that reasoning will not be able to convince the royal head of their worth and decides to use a little strong-arming in the form of an imposing man of clay, the Golem (Wegener), to protect the Chosen People from their persecutors. In a showcase of flaming rings and dancing fireballs, Löw calls forth the ghastly visage of the god Astaroth to provide the life-giving word for his creation. The clay man is given animation and is soon performing menial tasks for the rabbi under the guise of a house servant. Löw and his creation are able to sway the Emperor to lift the edict after the ruler and his royal subjects are nearly crushed under the weight of their own prosperity when they are divinely punished for laughing at Löw’s conjured vision of the Wandering Jew. But when Löw’s fellow Rabbi Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) uses the golem to punish Löw’s daughter for copulating with a cocky knight, the clay creation becomes maddened by his evil influence.

These “Pictures Based on Events in an Old Chronicle” are wonderfully framed by cameraman Karl Freund, later to lens some of Universal Studios’ most famous chillers (DRACULA, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) and helm his own classics (MAD LOVE, THE MUMMY) after his move to America. The heads of the rabbis bent in prayer under the welcoming arms of the temple menorah is an especially harmonious visual. Fans of Hollywood’s first “House of Horrors” will recognize another familiar name in the credits in the listing of Hans Poelzig, the noted German architect who designed the twisting sets for this film. His name was later to resurface as the moniker of Boris Karloff’s feline-evil Hjalmar Poelzig in THE BLACK CAT (1934). BLACK CAT director Edgar G. Ulmer reportedly worked in the art department for THE GOLEM as a “silhouette cutter,” thus providing the final link in this dark heritage. (As a matter of fact, a black kitty can be seen slinking along a rooftop fairly early in the film, acting as both omen for the Hebrews’ turmoil within the film and prophecy for the creative artists without.) Poelzig’s sets are justifiably lauded; the building-tops in the ghetto look like the fungusy crags of some far-flung planet set against the glowing night stars.

The opportunity that silent cinema offers the willing and attentive viewer is one of complete concentration and focus. We need not worry about the distracting noise of spoken dialogue and incidental noise. Our eyes become more engaged with the moving images, and thus allow us to become more attuned to their artistry. The music, though at times prominent, is more like a delicate augmentation, guiding our feelings and impressions of the film rather than being used as just another sound effect. The tinting used in silent films is also paramount. Though some cineastes may pine for the purity of monochrome photography, color tinting offers more emotional impact; at times it literally colors our perception of a scene. The Frankenstein-green shades give Löw’s chambers a more arcane luster, and the changing of the ghetto’s streets from pale-copper to a fierce scarlet when the Golem sets fire to his master’s house is an inspired touch.

I could really go on for some length more about this film, but I would prefer to pass it along into the hands of the next eager viewer to mold with their own impressions and find whatever knowledge and beauty that they may.

THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1973)

Producer Dan Curtis resurrects another literary classic for the small screen in this stately—if slightly dry—adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel.

After having his portrait painted by famed artist Basil Hallward (Charles Aidman), the young and beautiful Dorian Gray (Shane Briant, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL) comes under the wing of hedonistic aristocrat Sir Harry Wotton (Nigel Davenport). It is through the older man’s influence that Gray begins to give in to his vices and become increasingly aware—and frightened for—the eventual loss of his youth. Gray makes a spoken wish for his portrait to carry the weight of all his accumulated years while he remain the perfect specimen of a Victorian gentleman. The request comes true, but with some unforeseen side effects: in addition to its subject’s true age, the portrait also reflects all of Dorian’s sins through the deterioration of its painted flesh. With the load taken off his ever-dwindling conscience, Dorian submerges himself in London’s seedy underbelly and has his way with women, drink, drugs, and other forms of debauchery. But even with the painting shuttered away in the attic, Dorian finds out that his past transgressions will not be able to remain hidden forever.

Thanks to a literate script provided by John Tomerlin (author of THE TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” another tale of beauty and social conformity), this version of the famous story is able to retain a classy atmosphere in spite of the limiting resources of television and explores Wilde’s ideas with a considerable amount of depth given the medium. Status and public presence is held in the highest regard by the elite (“If there’s any one thing worse than being talked about is not to be talked about.”), and even “sensitive” souls like Basil can’t help but sneer at Dorian when he proposes marrying a woman clearly below his station. Scenes discussing the nature of evil’s influence and the passage of time are bolstered by poetic dialogue (“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face”) and are particularly effective anytime steely-eyed Davenport is on hand as Sir Harry, the Mephistopheles to Briant’s fresh-faced Faustus. The veteran actor manages to steal every moment he’s on screen with the crook of his feline smile. Briant is the only other performer that manages to enliven their role, and his cherubic features and deceptively soft voice are a perfect match for the part of an ignorant pretty boy tampering with forces beyond his control. The rest of the cast is mildly adequate, generally phasing out of memory as soon as they walk off camera.

For all of the cerebral treats, the movie is surprisingly mannered and a little too tame for a story dealing so explicitly with human transgressions. Perhaps due to censorship restriction, the creative team might have feared making any of the violence and depravity too explicit, but even the insinuation of dark deeds taking place (a suicide by drowning is represented by a splashing from off-screen) are handled so timidly that many of the grotesque set pieces lose all impact. The TV movie is more adept at coded messages; Davenport’s plucking of a flower’s petals as he regales Dorian with his philosophy is especially potent. There’s a humorously mismanaged “ominous” commercial cut that has Gray’s butler presenting him with a cup of coffee as the score blasts a cartoonish DUN DUN DUN and the screen fades to black. The most we get in the way of style are some scattered Dutch angles leading up to Dorian’s crimes. If the musical track coupled with Dorian’s voiceover narration seems reminiscent of Curtis’ DARK SHADOWS, it’s no accident: Bob Corbet provides the orchestrations here, though at times they feel recycled from some of his other pieces.

At almost two hours long, the TV production feels padded and could have done with some editing to tighten the action. The eponymous oil’s transformation is handled well enough, and the final decayed state of our antihero is a pleasing last-minute grisly touch. Trivia buffs should listen closely for a reference made to an unseen character named “Sir William Nolan,” the same name of author, screenwriter, and Curtis collaborator William F. Nolan (TRILOGY OF TERROR, BURNT OFFERINGS).

CONGO (1995)

The wife and I decided to celebrate the birthday of our mutual idol/love interest Tim Curry by viewing CONGO (1995) on Netflix Instant, a film I had never seen before but was cautiously intrigued by mostly due to my wife’s go-to impression of tapping her chest and chiming “I’m Amy!” whenever the subject of the movie came up. This isn’t a star vehicle for Curry by far, but an actor of the British baddie’s status doesn’t need a terrible amount of room to leave an impression on the viewer with those piercing, saucer-sized eyes and rich baritone that sounds like the personified voice of black leather sex. It’s Stan Winston’s impressive mechanical gorillas that are the star attraction here, but it’s a credit to him, director Frank Marshall, and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (adapting Michael Crichton’s novel) that it doesn’t ever feel like the simians are trying to hog the whole spotlight or that they’re the only reason the film was made in the first place… like with, say, JURASSIC PARK.

After an expedition in the African jungle meets with a mysterious end, diamond magnate Joe Don Baker orders one of his top experts (Laura Linney) to find out what happened to the team, one of their number being Baker’s son and Linney’s fiancee Bruce Campbell. She teams up with two mop-headed college students (Dylan Walsh and Grant Heslov) who have successfully trained a wild gorilla to use American Sign Language with a mechanical armband that gives her spoken expression through an electronic voicebox. Walsh and Heslov have determined that Amy longs to be home again and take her back to Tanzania with the help of a Romanian philanthropist (Curry) and Linney’s resources. Once they’ve touched down in hostile Zaire–a bordering country in governmental upset that’s just as dangerous as the wilds of the jungle–they meet their charismatic guide (Ernie Hudson, who had his brains eaten by a tutu-wearing ape in the TALES FROM THE CRYPT episode “Food for Thought”). Barely escaping the gunpower of the Zaire militants, the team comes to the site of the first group’s disappearance, a stone’s throw away from the legendary city of Zinj, the site of King Solomon’s bountiful diamond mines. Trouble is, the treasure is jealously guarded by a troop of rabid, ghostly white apes who don’t take kindly to visitors one bit.

Marshall shows that his time as producer for the INDIANA JONES films wasn’t all for naught, giving the jungle scenes and especially the finale in the crumbling temple of Solomon a sense of the steamy, thrilling adventure that made those pictures such a success. CONGO isn’t quite as slick as those A-productions, but it’s surprisingly adept at suspense and the script by Shanley (MOONSTRUCK, DOUBT) is much more than filler linking action-packed set-pieces as is so often the case with these types of stories. (There’s even a pretty good joke about Kafka in the first third.) For the most part, the script is especially good in how it introduces certain themes and inverts conventions without feeling the need to point them out for us. (The exception to this being Hudson’s comments on how his skin color and his status as expedition leader make for an “ironic” mix.)

Chief among these is Linney’s status as the team’s true leader. Her dominance is frequently demonstrated throughout the story, such as when she cannily detracts heat-seeking missiles from striking the team’s plane by shooting flares out of the vessel. And in the end it is she who gets to tote the heavy artillery like the typical macho hero, quipping to Hudson “Put ’em on the endangered species list!” in true tough guy fashion as she takes aim at the white gorillas with her diamond-fitted laser gun to save the Dylan-in-distress. Thankfully, Shanley is never compelled to have the male characters comment on Linney’s strength and resourcefulness with condescending astonishment (“You’re pretty smart… for a woman!”). Linney simply kicks ass and no one says differently, as it should be.

The film is not without its faults (one character mentions sulfur fumes in the air as he holds a lit flare aloft), but it’s unexpectedly well done and really not deserving of the critical damnation that it continues to receive. At its heart CONGO is a Lost World tale in the Haggard tradition fitted with Crichton’s technological gizmos and corrupt corporations, with some small nods to KING KONG like the attacking of the raft that swaps out the hungry Apatosaurus for a pissed-off hippo. The killer apes, a mixture of Winston’s robotics and good old fashioned men-in-suits, are convincing in both their appearances, their ravaging of the party capped off by an erupting volcano that ends the monsters’ reign in raging hellfire, as it should be.

HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE (1988)

Back in October, I spoke at some length on how HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS served as a low point in the already-risible-by-the-first-sequel series, citing its cheekiness and utterly bizarre creative choices as indicative of its poor quality. Since that time, I’ve come to understand that unorthodox artistic decisions do not go hand-in-hand with badness. There were other elements that were closer to the heart of its problems–namely the frenetic speed it took in depicting its briefly-seen oddities–but if that film and its writer/director Phillipe Mora can be commended for anything, it should be for the willingness to go beyond the “normal” conventions of horror cinema and werewolf mythology to depict something that, though mishandled, is hardly forgettable.

HOWLING IV, on the other hand, is not only blundered even more than its predecessor but also imaginatively bankrupt and bereft of the series’ rampant goofiness. As far as truth in advertising is concerned, HOWLING IV only gets it half-right: this is by no stretch an original film, but it certainly feels like an endless nightmare. Virtually a remake of Joe Dante’s 1981 picture and reportedly more “faithful” to Gary Brandner’s novel (the credits list all three of Brandner’s HOWLING books as source material, pointing to a picking-and-choosing cannibalization of the series by screenwriters Freddie Rowe and Clive Turner), the film is terribly slapdash in its depiction of a famous novelist (Romy Windsor, credited as Romy Walthall) seeking the foresty solitude of a lone cabin with her hairy hubby (Michael T. Weiss) after she begins suffering from disturbing visions due to the stress of impending deadlines. Quist the rapist is exonerated in this adaptation, but we still have the commune of friendly weirdos and the sexy homewrecker (Lamya Derval, whose makeup, hair, and excessive jewelry make her look older than she is, like a bingo hall vamp) who inducts the heroine’s husband into the furry fold. Also on hand is a ghostly nun who vanishes like Amanda Krueger and a buttload of denim clothing.

HOWLING IV suffers from lazy (probably closer to hasty) editing that makes a mess of the handful of various action and establishing shots that the second unit squeezes in to suggest a modicum of competency. Reactions appear abrupt or not at all, transitions between scenes are arbitrary at best, and other moments begin in media res; it all makes for a discombobulating affair. It’s a shame that an entry in the series helmed by a genre veteran like John Hough (THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, TWINS OF EVIL, AMERICAN GOTHIC) should be so slipshod, entirely deserving of its destiny as straight-to-video head cheese. The leaden dialogue Rowe and Turner (who shows up in the film as a mulleted tow truck driver/werewolf) provide scream of a particularly bad first draft; at one point Windsor regales the local law officer with “Hello, sheriff. My dog is a missing. It’s a white poodle.”

Like THE BEAST WITHIN (1982), which was directed by Mora, HOWLING IV waits until the final ten minutes to roll out its special makeup effects in a liquefying finale that tries its best to convince the viewer that the rest of the film was just as interesting. But even with the admittedly interesting touch of having a werewolf form anew from the soupy puddle of its formerly human flesh, it can’t make us forget the dishwater we had to slog through to get there, a description that applies both to its level of excitement and its cinematography. Justin Hayward, lead singer of the Moody Blues, provides the movie’s theme song, “Something Evil, Something Dangerous.”

Thank You For Your Service: DEATHDREAM (1972)

 

“Andy. Andy. You can’t die, Andy… You promised you’d come back.”

The power of the human wish is perhaps no stronger than when it is made in regards to the absence of another soul. Distance in the earthly and unearthly planes can make the heart skip a beat, grow fonder, break, and ache in remembrance for what once was and what can be no longer. The reason that stories like W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” are so endlessly retold by our societies is because they reveal the truth of all our errant dreams and desires and how we can be so foolish as to think that time answers to the beck and call of our ideal imaginings.

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