Danger!! Death Ray (1968)

Article #1116 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-4-2004
Posting Date: 9-1-2001
Directed by Gianfranco Baldanello
Featuring Gordon Scott, Maureen Denphy, Nello Pazzafini

Superspy Bart Fargo is sent out to rescue a kidnapped scientist.

The more things change, the more things remain the same. During the twenties and thirties, death rays were all the rage and served as gimmicks in all sorts of action movies and serials. Now here we are in the sixties with the advent of the James Bond-type of action thriller, and what’s all the fuss over? A death ray.

This is, of course, another of those Italian takes on the superspy movie. It opens with a kidnapping sequence that takes nearly twenty minutes; your typical James Bond movie could have done the whole thing in a five minute pre-credits sequence, so we can throw efficient story-telling out the window. The dubbing is bad (as usual), and I hope you like the two musical themes, which get recycled ad nauseum before the movie ends. Even by Italian spy movie standards, this one is pretty cheesy.

Perils of the Darkest Jungle (1944)

Article #1115 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-3-2004
Posting Date: 8-31-2004
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Wallace Grissell
Featuring Allan Lane, Linda Stirling, Duncan Renaldo

Criminals perform acts of sabotage on an oil company which is already having trouble with hostile natives.

Here is a fun game to play with this movie; try to figure out when and where it’s taking place.

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Time: Obviously the present. The motor vehicles and the machine guns give it away.

Place is a little more difficult.

1) The movie was originally called THE TIGER WOMAN. Tigers being native to India, one might think that that is the location of the action. Unfortunately, when you see the Tiger Woman, she is actually wearing the skins of a leopard rather than a tiger. Also, there are no natives of India to be found.

2) The other title is PERILS OF THE DARKEST JUNGLE. This implies a jungle setting, so you might think from this that it takes place in Africa. However, the tribe led by the Tiger Woman looks singularly un-African; in fact, they look more like American Indians than anything else. Furthermore, the “jungle” looks fairly sparse; in fact, there are probably more trees in my neck of the woods, and I live in Nebraska. Maybe they should have called it PERILS OF THE DARKEST PRAIRIE?

3) Does it take place in the United States? Well, since the movie takes place in the present (which is to say, 1944, the year the serial was made), and since there were not a lot of dangerous tribes of Indians at this time in history, I would say this is unlikely. Furthermore, the Indians in question worship in a great stone temple that is singularly unlike anything built by the Indians of this region. Also, the last episode of the serial has someone talking about returning to the United States.

4) Maybe it takes place in Mexico, or some place in Central or South America. This may well be the case; after all, they do have a character named Jose (Duncan “The Cisco Kid” Renaldo), and the temple looks more the work of the South American Indians rather than the North American ones. However, since all the “jungle” action seems to take place just five minutes away from a town named “Belleville” (a town name which sounds distinctly un-Mexican) which is mostly populated by English-speaking Americans, I draw a blank here as well.

Conclusion: It takes place in that fantasy-land that exists only in the mind of the makers of Hollywood serials and B-westerns.

All right, I’ve had my fun with the movie, so I’ll lay off of it and admit that this serial is very good indeed. It moves along at a nice clip, it’s always entertaining, and the fight scenes are well-choreographed. The Tiger Woman herself proves to be pretty feisty and just doesn’t stand around waiting to be captured by the men; she’s in there fighting with them. The body count is surprisingly high in this one; lots of characters get killed on both sides of the fence, and I found myself a little bit amused at times when the law (which acts only passively on the situations that develop) actually holds someone for murder. Of course, the character is released again once it becomes convenient for the plot. I also had to laugh a little at how many times the bad guys end up shooting their own men in this one; good thugs must be hard to find.

Nonetheless, this is perhaps one of the most entertaining serials I’ve seen to date, and is safely nestled in my top ten list for the form.

The Witching Hour (1934)

Article #1114 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-2-2004
Posting Date: 8-30-2001
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Featuring Guy Standing, John Halliday, William Frawley

A young man commits murder after accidentally being placed under hypnosis, and must find someone to defend him at his trial.

There’s nothing particularly novel about the central gimmick of this story (murder under hypnotism); it’s popped up many a time in other movies. Nonetheless, even a fairly hackneyed concept can work well if handled in a novel way, and that is just what this movie does. First of all, the fact that the murder was committed under hypnosis is not the big final revelation (as it is in several other movies); rather, the emphasis is on finding someone who is willing to defend them with this explanation rather than having the man plead insanity, and then to try and convince a skeptical jury. The backstory is novel and interesting, involving an illegal gambling den, a cat’s-eye ring, and two concepts that also cause the movie to fall into the realm of the fantastic; namely, telepathy and ghostly apparitions. The characters are also well-drawn, and the story solidly constructed. In fact, I consider this movie to be one of those forgotten gems that I occasionally encounter, and this goes a long way to make up for the fact that my print of the movie is in very poor condition. This is definitely one I will upgrade when the opportunity presents itself.

Topper Takes a Trip (1939)

Article #1113 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-1-2004
Posting Date: 8-29-2004
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Featuring Roland Young, Constance Bennett, Billie Burke

Topper must go to France to prevent his wife from getting a divorce and marrying a man who is after her money. He is accompanied by the ghost of Marion Kerby.

If this movie labors under one burden, it is that Cary Grant, who played George Kerby in TOPPER, does not appear in this sequel except in footage from the original movie. Fortunately, this isn’t a particularly heavy burden; the appeal of the Topper movies was in the variety of eccentric comic characters rather than any one in particular, and when all is said and done, Roland Young was probably the actor whose presence was most necessary. My print suffers under another burden; it is one of those colorized prints that makes everything a dullish pastel color, and as usually the case of colorization, it merely adds unnecessary distraction. The movie itself is for all practical reasons a repeat of the previous movie; outside of giving a little more for Billie Burke to do, it really doesn’t add anything really new to the mix. It’s amusing and well-done (as was the original) but also a bit unnecessary. Cosmo Topper would return in one more movie, TOPPER RETURNS, which, unlike the other two movies, was not directly based on a novel by Thorne Smith.

Phantom Raiders (1940)

Article #1112 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-31-2004
Posting Date: 8-28-2004
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Featuring Walter Pidgeon, Donald Meek, Joseph Schildkraut

Nick Carter is hired to investigate a series of mysterious ship explosions that are tied to an insurance racket.

The character of Nick Carter has had a long literary heritage, but he’s never really taken off on the silver screen. This movie was part of a short-lived series featuring Walter Pidgeon as Carter, and this is the only one I’ve seen of the bunch so far. If this one is representative, then it was an energetic, fun and witty series, with Donald Meek stealing the movie as Carter’s strange partner, Mr. ‘Beeswax’ Bartholomew, who not only goes out of his way to make sure that Carter takes the case, but helps him in the oddest of ways throughout the movie. There is a zany humor that runs through this movie, including a woman who knows no English but constantly repeats English phrases that she’s learned from sailors and a well-meaning but rather dim bodyguard (who else but Nat Pendleton) who has to be sent out for walks by the villain to keep him from knowing about his schemes. It’s light but entertaining, and the scene in which Carter uses ‘Beeswax’ in a diversionary tactic to get the villain out of the way so he can search his office is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie like this. The movie also features Cecil Kellaway and Dwight Frye as a hood sent out to kill Carter. The fantastic content consists of a device that can explode bombs from a distance.

The Cat Creeps (1946)

Article #1111 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-30-2004
Posting Date: 8-27-2004
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Featuring Lois Collier, Fred Brady, Paul Kelly

The attempt to solve a fifteen-year-old murder and the possibility of finding a hidden treasure of two hundred thousand dollars lead several people to an old house on an isolated island.

By the time this movie made it to theatres, the “old dark house” genre had been done to death and had largely vanished from theatres. In fact, the opening few minutes of the movie made me wonder if it was going to be an “old dark house” film at all, being concerned as it was with a politician coming under suspicion for an old murder and possibly losing an election as a result. It also never feels like an “old dark house” movie; the characters all speak in hushed tones and take it all very seriously. Even Noah Beery Jr.’s comic relief photographer underplays everything. It’s almost like the movie is trying to take on the mood of a Val Lewton film or a film noir. This might have actually worked if the movie had had more substance than it does; unfortunately, it really is nothing more than an “old dark house” film, only gloomy, somber, and not much fun at all. As such, it almost seems a death knell for this subgenre, and one of Universal’s weakest horror entries. Even the Paula Dupree series looks pretty good compared to this one.

Captain Sindbad (1963)

Article #1110 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-29-2004
Posting Date: 8-26-2004
Directed by Byron Haskins
Featuring Guy Williams, Heidi Bruhl, Pedro Armendariz

Sindbad finds himself trying to save a princess from a cruel tyrant who is seemingly impervious to being killed.

I don’t want to be too hard on this Arabian Nights fantasy; it’s spirited, energetic, and really trying its best to entertain. Unfortunately, it’s constantly straining against the limitations of a budget that is obviously too small for its ambitions, and the movie suffers for it. As a result, the exteriors look like interiors, the models and miniatures look like models and miniatures, and one never gets a real sense that the sets extend to a real world beyond the range of the cameras. Consequently, the movie is infected with a cheesiness that is so inescapable that when it is announced that Sindbad must do battle with a truly terrifying beastie in the arena, it comes as no real surprise that the primary visual attribute of said beastie is invisibility. We also get some pathetic-looking crocodiles, a puppet hydra, and a beating disembodied heart that looks more like a Valentines day gift than a real bodily organ. The movie still can be enjoyed, but it does require that you to give it the benefit of the doubt and play along with the illusions. The most notable acting performance is Abraham Sofaer’s as the eccentric magician, Galgo; I can’t quite decide whether it’s good or bad, but I will go so far as to say that it is entertainingly strange.

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

Article #1109 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-28-2004
Posting Date: 8-25-2004
Directed by Terence Fisher
Featuring Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur

A woman on her way to a situation as a schoolteacher finds herself staying in a strange castle with a lonely baroness, and discovers a man chained up in a separate part of the castle.

This entry in the Hammer Dracula series seems to split the fans. There are those that consider it one of the very best of the series, while others consider it one of the weakest. The non-presence of Christopher Lee may have something to do with it, and certainly David Peel doesn’t have Lee’s imposing presence, but since Peel isn’t supposed to be Dracula himself but a lesser vampire, I have no problem with this. Others dislike what they perceive as logic errors; why couldn’t Baron Meinster escape his silver shackles by transforming himself into a bat? This one also doesn’t bother me, as I’ve always felt that there was an implication that these shackles confined and restricted his powers, rendering him unable to make that transformation. Myself, I really enjoy this Hammer entry; I think it looks better than HORROR OF DRACULA, and I find it more interesting on a scene-by-scene basis than DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. It’s the little touches I like; the vampire who is so embarassed by her transformation that her first impulse is to hide her fangs, the minion calling on the budding vampire to dig herself out of the grave, and Peter Cushing’s method of burning the vampire poison out of his system are all clever and powerful variations on the vampire theme, and this is what makes a movie like this interesting for me. It does have certain flaws; some of the acting is a little over-the-top at times, and Hammer had a way of overplaying its hand on occasions (I think people start acting too consistently scared too early in the movie for it to be really effective), but overall, I find this one of the more enjoyable Hammer outings.

Zoo in Budapest (1933)

Article #1108 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-27-2004
Posting Date: 8-24-2004
Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Featuring Loretta Young, Gene Raymond, O.P. Heggie

Three refugees find themselves trapped in a zoo overnight. One is an orphan girl trying to escape the orphanage before she is bonded out to someone, the second an employee whose habit of stealing and burning fur coats from the visitors has gotten him in trouble with the law, and the third a young boy who escapes from his mother so he can ride the elephant at the zoo.

The title certainly doesn’t make this sound like a movie with fantastic elements; for that matter, neither does the plot description. Having seen it, I myself am not so sure whether it has or not; other than the fact that the zoo employee has an unusually high rapport with animals, I don’t think it does, and I’m not so sure that the rapport is enough to make it qualify. It is charming, however, with Gene Raymond’s athletic and spirited performance a particular highlight. And if the movie doesn’t really have fantastic elements, nonetheless it has certain spectacular elements; in particular, the last twenty minutes of the movie involves the escape of several wild animals (tigers, lions, leopards, elephants and the anomalous porcupines) and a daring rescue operation. In summary, if the slight fantastic elements don’t appeal to you, you still might find this one a good watch, particularly if you’re an animal lover or a fan of love stories.

Terror Aboard (1933)

Article #1107 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-26-2004
Posting Date: 8-23-2004
Directed by Paul Sloane
Featuring John Halliday, Charles Ruggles, Shirley Grey

When the owner of a luxury yacht discovers that his fraudulent business schemes have made him an outlaw who will be arrested the second he comes to port, he decides to dispose of the crew and guests aboard the yacht and escape to a deserted island with the woman he loves.

This movie starts out with a very intriguing sequence in which the crew of a boat discover a yacht cruising in circles in the middle of the ocean. When they board the boat, one member of the crew is attacked, and the others find several corpses, including a woman lying on the deck who has frozen to death in the middle of the tropical climates. The movie then switches to the flashback that marks the main story, and by that time your curiosity is so piqued that you are already caught up in the nightmarish scenario that unfolds. In some ways, it’s like one of those old dark house movies where people are killed off one by one (except in this case, we know who the murderer is beforehand) or like one of those revenge movies where somebody kills off a group of people who have wronged him (except in this case, it is not revenge but the desire to cover his tracks that is the motive). At any rate, it is fascinating to watch the man’s schemes unfold, as he uses every means imaginable; though most of the murders are just that, in other cases he uses emotional manipulation to get certain people to kill each other or themselves. It’s only marginally a horror movie, but it makes for gripping viewing nonetheless. Unfortunately, because the movie is so effective in presenting its succession of murders, the comic relief character (Charles Ruggles as a superstitious steward) comes off as intrusive; it’s not a bad performance by any means, but every time he appears he brings the story to a dead halt, and that hampers the momentum and the suspense somewhat. Nevertheless, this is one impressive little thriller.