Tower of Terror (1941)

Article #1119 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-7-2004
Posting Date: 9-4-2001
Directed by Lawrence Huntington
Featuring Wilfrid Lawson, Michael Rennie, Movita

A mentally unstable hook-armed lighthouse keeper, an escapee from a concentration camp, and a British spy find themselves thrown together on an island just off the coast of Germany.

This British spy drama starts off with an intriguing premise, as the three central characters are such an interesting combination that one truly wonders where the story will lead. Unfortunately, the story becomes less interesting and a little far-fetched as it progresses, with certain revelations that feel unnecessary (the true fate of the lighthouse keeper’s wife would have worked better in another story), and certain events make no sense to me (in particular, I can’t really understand why the Germans find it necessary to bomb their own lighthouse). As it is, the movie is mostly notable for providing us with an early performance from Michael Rennie. For the most part, the movie is a spy melodrama, though it steers into horror in the final moments when one character goes completely mad.

A Study in Terror (1965)

Article #1118 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-6-2004
Posting Date: 9-3-2001
Directed by James Hill
Featuring John Neville, Donald Houston, John Fraser

Sherlock Holmes finds himself on the trail of Jack the Ripper.

The fact that someone would come up with a story in which Sherlock Holmes meets Jack the Ripper seems inevitable to me; both are icons of their own types inhabiting roughly the same milieu, and the appeal of the greatest fictional detective of them all matching wits with the most notorious perpetrator of a series of unsolved murders is an irresistible concept. This isn’t the only time they’ve been set against each other, but it’s a good one. The story feels legitimately Holmesian, and the casting is exquisite; John Neville makes for one of the finest Holmes I’ve ever seen, Donald Houston plays Watson with just the right amount of stuffiness without descending into the comic antics of Nigel Bruce, and it is a treat to see Robert Morley take on the role of Mycroft. In fact, the whole cast does beautifully, especially Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay. If the movie has any real weakness, i’d say it would be that it can’t resist the exploitational nature of the story; it spends a little too much of its running time dealing with prostitutes plying their trade in low cut gowns (which has its appeal, I will admit, but it does slow down the story). The movie’s executive producer was Herman Cohen, and it may be the finest movie he was ever involved with.

Genius at Work (1946)

Article #1117 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-5-2004
Posting Date: 9-2-2001
Directed by Leslie Goodwins
Featuring Wally Brown, Alan Carney, Anne Jeffreys

Two radio detectives find themselves targets of a murdering fiend when their on-the-air recreations of the murders prove to be too accurate.

The last time I saw Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi team up for a comedy was for THE GORILLA (1939). I find the sense of deja vu pretty strong here; like that one, I felt that the horror and suspense elements were a lot more successful than the comedy. I don’t find Brown and Carney to be as desperately unfunny as the Ritz Brothers were in that earlier movie, but that’s only because they were less strident; whereas the Ritzes came across as potentially funny comedians who simply didn’t have any material to work with, Brown and Carney come across as merely lukewarm imitations of Abbott and Costello. Incidentally, Brown and Carney are playing characters of the same names as the ones they played in ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (also with Bela Lugosi), though I can’t really say whether they were supposed to be the same characters. Fans of Atwill, Lugosi, or that earlier movie might like this one; me, I’d opt for the movie in which Lugosi teams up with the real Abbott and Costello than this one.

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.