The Virgin Spring (1960)

Article #1074 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-22-2004
Posting Date: 7-21-2004
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Featuring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom

A farmer discovers that vagrants who have turned up at his farm are the men who raped and murdered his daughter.

The basic story from this movie was borrowed by Wes Craven for his notorious horror film THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which to date I have not seen. That movie is usually considered without question to be a horror movie, while this one is never considered one; its inclusion here is due to the final moment of the movie (which inspires its title), and the hint at one point that the events that play out were the result of a prayer to Odin. What marks the difference between a movie being a horror movie and one being a drama is the reason the story is being told. In horror movies, the story exists as an excuse for the violence, whereas in a movie like this, the violence is essential to telling the story. In other words, it is not the violent revenge exacted here that is the point of the story; it is how the events effect everyone and alter their lives. This movie is intensely moving, and Max von Sydow’s silent reaction at one point of the proceedings when he realizes what he’s done is simply one of the finest single moments of acting I have ever seen. This is a sad and powerful movie indeed.

Ugetsu (1953)

UGETSU (1953)
Article #1073 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-21-2004
Posting Date: 7-20-2004
Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi
Featuring Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyo, Kinuyo Tanaka

Two ambitious men, one a potter hoping to make his fortune, the other his partner hoping to become a samurai, find themselves in a position to realize their ambitions, but they end up deserting their wives in the process.

At heart this Japanese drama about greed and ambition has a very simple moral lesson about how trying to attain your ambitions can cause you to lose what you already have, and you can pretty much see the lesson coming early on. It’s the attention to detail, the emotional resonance, and the skill of the actors and the director that bring this story to life, and make it a truly wonderful movie. The fantastic aspects don’t pop up until the halfway point, and I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that certain characters turn out to be ghosts. There is also an eerie sequence during a boat ride where the occupants discover what they think is a ghost boat, an event that spurs the potter into making one of his major mistakes. This is definitely a moving and memorable film.

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929)

Article #1072 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-20-2004
Posting Date: 7-19-2004
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Featuring Warner Oland, Neil Hamilton, Jean Arthur

Dr. Fu Manchu swears revenge on the British regiment that fired upon his home during the Boxer rebellion and killed his wife and child.

This was the first of a series of Fu Manchu movies with Warner (Charlie Chan) Oland playing the evil genius. I’ve seen several Fu Manchu movies over the years, but this is the first one I’ve seen that gives us some of the backstory of Fu Manchu’s life, and explains why he wishes revenge. As you might expect from the year of release, this is an early talkie, and consequently fairly creaky with bad sound, but it’s well written, and fairly engaging throughout. Jean Arthur plays a white woman who was left under Fu Manchu’s care as a child, and which he uses as an instrument of his revenge. Nayland Smith is played by O.P. Heggie, who is best known for playing the blind hermit in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Noble Johnson is also on hand playing a Chinaman; I, for one, would love to see a list of all the various nationalities this man played during his long career. The comic relief is provided by William Austin, whose prissy, effeminate butler is definitely a matter of taste, though I will have to admit at giggling a little at his plaintive pondering as to whether he would live long enough to taste tomorrow’s marmalade.

The Hole in the Wall (1929)

Article #1071 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-19-2004
Posting Date: 7-18-2004
Directed by Robert Florey
Featuring Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson, David Newell

A woman joins a phony medium racket and plots to take revenge on the woman who falsely sent her to prison.

This movie is well-directed by Robert Florey and features two performers who were both on their way to stardom; Claudette Colbert and Edward G. Robinson. Colbert does a fine job, but it’s Robinson’s performance that sucks me into the movie; he was a great actor even at this stage of the game, and he had the ability to imbue some very ordinary lines with an emotional depth that adds immensely to the proceedings. It’s a good thing this movie has some strengths going for it, because the story is sometimes howlingly bad; at least one major plot contrivance has one character performing an act that is so supremely stupid that you’ll find it hard to believe. As for Donald Meek and Barry Macollum, I can’t decide which actor is saddled with the more degrading nickname, Goofy or Dogface. The fantastic aspects are minor initially; the phony spiritualism racket is one and the character of Dogface is a subhuman character that could have been considered a monster if they had given him something to do. As it is, I do like the talk about returning him to the carnival from which he came because it would save them money on raw meat. However, the movie does momentarily move clearly into the realm of fantastic cinema late in the game via a plot twist that I can’t give away here.

Henry Aldrich Haunts a House (1943)

Article #1070 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-18-2004
Posting Date: 7-17-2004
Directed by Hugh Bennett
Featuring Jimmy Lydon, Charles Smith, John Litel

A teen tries to impress a girl by taking a large dosage of a medicine that is supposed to give him the strength of three men. He loses consciousness from the drug while passing a haunted house. The next day, he wakes up in his bed and discovers that the principal of his school (who was in the haunted house last night) has vanished.

I didn’t expect too much from this movie; it seemed to be your basic example of the “haunted house” episode of any series comedy at the time. However, much to my surprise, I ended up enjoying this one thoroughly. Part of the reason may have to do with the fact that this was my introduction to the Aldrich characters; I’d heard about them for years, and was familiar with parodies of the characters (the comedy album by the Firesign Theatre called “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” is in part a parody of the series), but this was my first direct experience with them, and there is something rather archetypal about them . Another thing I like is that some of the gags are quite inventive, including two mirror gags; one is of course the classic one-person-imitating-the-movements-of-another (they’re wearing suits of armor), and a second in which a character talks to his reflection. It also helps that the haunted house is actually a bit scary, and gives us a real “monster” despite the fact that the ending is all too typical for this sort of movie. It also manages to fit a mummy’s curse into the mix. All in all, this is actually one of the better haunted house comedies I’ve seen.

The Lost Jungle (1934)

Article #1069 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-17-2004
Posting Date: 7-16-2004
Directed by David Howard and Armand Schaefer
Featuring Clyde Beatty, Cecilia Parker, Syd Saylor

A noted lion tamer crash-lands on a strange island with an unusual assortment of animals; there he runs into sailors threatening to mutiny over the possession of a hidden treasure.

This serial doesn’t appear to be well liked, but I have to admit to a fondness for any serial with a good gimmick. I loved the Houdini serial THE MASTER MYSTERY because they allowed him to use the cliffhangers as excuses to do his escape routines, and this one allows Beatty to use his animal-taming tactics. The fantastic aspects here are the island itself (it was supposedly part of a strip of land that connected Africa and Asia, thus explaining the existence of wildly divergent species such as lions, tigers and bears) and Beatty’s hypnotic powers that will cause tigers to lie down. Syd Saylor is the comic relief cowardly sidekick who threatens to become annoying (he has a scared reaction that involves a bobbing bowtie and rolling eyes that is more bizarre than funny), but fortunately he doesn’t overdo his bit and actually proves to be fairly useful on occasions. The movie also has a cast of characters that I can actually tell apart, which is pretty rare for a serial. All the animals are real with the exception of the gorilla (which is a man in a suit), and I couldn’t help but note the irony that this becomes the only animal that Clyde actually kills during the course of the serial. It’s not great, but for a Mascot serial, it’s better than average.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

Article #1068 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-16-2004
Posting Date: 7-15-2004
Directed by Stuart Paton
Featuring Allen Holubar, Dan Hanlon, Curtis Benton

A scientist goes on a voyage to investigate a sea monster; it turns out to be a submarine helmed by the mysterious Captain Nemo.

When I checked IMDB for some information about this movie, I discovered a rather interesting fact; the entire cast of the movie is uncredited. Jules Verne’s name is mentioned repeatedly, producer Carl Laemmle gets a credit, and most of the attention goes to George and Ernest Williamson, who developed the first underwater photography that was used in this movie; in fact, these two are featured in the opening of the movie. In some ways, this is certainly appropriate; this movie could not have been made without the work of these two, though you would think that the actor who played Nemo would at least get a credit (by the way, he’s Allen Holubar).

In a sense, the movie undertakes a daunting task; not only does it take on the Verne novel of the title, but “Mysterious Island” as well. Furthermore, it comes up with an elaborate backstory about the history of Captain Nemo (and the credits tell us that Verne didn’t tell us this part), and in some ways, that sequence is the most exciting in the movie. The structure of the movie is somewhat bizarre; in some ways, it only glosses over the two Verne novels and spends more time and energy on the characters in the backstory, plus it only tells the backstory after the most of the rest of the movie has ended. Still, it’s the spectacle that rules this one, and the underwater scenes are fascinating to watch, even if things are a little hard to see in them. In particular, the scenes of the divers walking against the undertow are very memorable. However, I do feel the need to point out that as far as squids and octopi go, you’re better off with the squid fight in the Disney version than you are with the rather lame and obviously fake octopus that pops up in this one. Incidentally, one of the many uncredited cast members is none other than Noble Johnson.