The Reluctant Astronaut (1967)

THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT (1967)
Article #1268 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-3-2004
Posting Date: 1-31-2005
Directed by Edward Montagne
Featuring Don Knotts, Leslie Nielsen, Joan Freeman

A carnival worker with a fear of heights is given a job at NASA as a janitor. However, his father is convinced that his son is an astronaut.

Back when I was a child, I really enjoyed the comedies of Don Knotts, but I haven’t seen anything of his in years. Several of his movies fall into the realm of fantastic cinema, so I knew I’d be watching some of them again, and I have to admit feeling a bit of trepidation at watching him again for fear that I might find his shtick unwatchable. Fortunately, that isn’t the case; he’s actually weathered the years fairly well. His worst problem is his mugging, but he keeps it to a minimum, and to some extent (given his pop-eyed face and persona), the mugging is a bit unavoidable. At his best, he exhibits a sure sense of comic movement, he has a way of expressing himself that lets you know just how he’s feeling, and there are times that he even reminds me a bit of Buster Keaton. He also knew how to nail the pathos in certain scenes. The most effective scene here is one where his father reveals the secret truth about his war years, and both Arthur O’Connell and Knotts are excellent in it; in fact, it fleshes out O’Connell’s character so well that it makes you fully understand why he was so annoying during the first half of the movie. The movie itself is fairly weak; the direction is uninspired, it’s fairly slow, and it really doesn’t have that many laughs to it. However, it emphasizes character over slapstick shenanigans (which plays to Knotts’ strengths), and it is fun to catch perennial Maytag repairman Jesse White as well as Leslie Nielsen in his pre-comic days.

Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966)

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966)
Article #1267 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-2-2004
Posting Date: 1-30-2005
Directed by Don Sharp
Featuring Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Richard Pasco

Rasputin uses his healing powers and his mastery of hypnotism to gain prestige with the czarina in Moscow.

One problem I often have with Hammer films is that I often find the actual scripts and stories to be somewhat perfunctory and weak, and this one is no exception. It pretty much does what you’d expect they would do with the Rasputin story; they forego any of the epic sense that could underlie the story and play up the horror aspects. I think their strengths consisted in their ability to make their movies look much classier than they might have done otherwise, and they used the best actors they could afford. In this case, the casting of Christopher Lee in the title role was inspired, and you can tell that Lee knew he had a great role in this one; he gives one of his finest performances, and he looks like he’s having a lot of fun as well. As far as I’m concerned, it is his performance that makes this movie work, and the movie is worth catching simply for him.

Race With the Devil (1975)

RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975)
Article #1266 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-1-2004
Posting Date: 1-29-2005
Directed by Jack Starrett
Featuring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit

After witnessing the murder of a young girl by a Satanic cult, four vacationers in a recreational vehicle find themselves being pursued by members of the cult.

In some ways, I can appreciate what this movie is trying to do; it’s trying to build a sense of dread by hinting at a vast intricate conspiracy, thereby compensating for the fact that it keeps the identities of the actual Satanists vague, shadowy and unsubstantiated. Unfortunately, in order to pull this off, you really have to know how to turn the screws of suspense, and that’s what this movie fails to do. Not only is there too much empty time and too many pointless scenes here, the tense sequences are shrill and confusing rather than scary. Consequently, the sense of conspiracy comes across as improbable rather than ominous, and when you consider that their attacks on the vacationers put themselves in a great deal of unnecessary danger, you’re not too impressed with their intelligence. Maybe that’s why the big scene of the movie is an extended chase sequence with lots of car crashes; I sense that the makers of this movie felt a lot more comfortable with the action aspects of the plot than with the horror aspects. As it is, the scariest thing in this movie is the opening credits, and that’s not a good thing. A decent cast tries hard, but a weak script lets them down.

The Headless Eyes (1971)

THE HEADLESS EYES (1971)
Article #1265 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-31-2004
Posting Date: 1-28-2005
Directed by Kent Bateman
Featuring Bo Brundin, Gordon Ramon, Kelley Swartz

An artist has an eye gouged out while trying to rob a girlfriend. He becomes an insane murderer who kills and gouges the eyes out of his victim’s heads.

Here are ten reasons not to bother with this movie.

1) The artists shrill, pained howl “My EYE!” gets repeated on the soundtrack about three hundred times during the length of the movie. (Yes, that is an exaggeration, but not by much.) Another thing I noticed is that….

2) …the mad artist keeps attacking the cameraman. Actually, I never saw this, but it’s the best explanation I can think of for the constant shakiness of the photography. Still, the shaky photography goes hand in hand with…

3) ..the sound, which is so bad that it’s hard to hear….

4) …the artist’s pretentious internal monologues, which together with the….

5) …arty attempts at surreal psychological sequences combined with the…

6)…annoying soundtrack which sounds like the instrumental sections of really bad psychedelic songs. This soundtrack drones on and on and on and on and on except in scenes where….

7)…the movie pretends it has a plot. We meet the artist’s girlfriend who wants to help him. We also meet a student artist who wants to learn from him. These scenes set up potential story arcs and then never pursues them. The reason for this is….

8)… that the movie is really about nothing but a psycho going around killing people. That’s it. Oh, they touch a little bit upon the policemen trying to track him down, but….

9)…the police haven’t a clue as to who it is or how to catch him, despite the fact that after he kills someone, he chatters constantly and loudly for all to hear while prying out their eyes. Oh, there’s one cop who’s clever enough to set a trap for him, but…

10) … this cop is stupid enough to try to take him alone in an isolated place and gives the artist ample opportunity to make a surprise attack on him.

In short, this one is pointless, pretentious, annoying, and no fun at all. Don’t bother.

Man Alive (1945)

MAN ALIVE (1945)
Article #1264 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-30-2004
Posting Date: 1-27-2005
Directed by Ray Enright
Featuring Pat O’Brien, Adolphe Menjou, Ellen Drew

Due to a series of circumstances brought on by a night of drunkenness, a car salesman is believed dead after the body of a con-man is found wearing his ring and his clothes. The salesman uses this oppotunity to pose as his own ghost in order to prevent his wife from running off with an old flame of hers.

Back when I covered RAINBOW ISLAND, I questioned that whether a man posing as a native god might be enough to throw a movie into the realm of fantastic cinema. The question arises again here in a slightly different form; we know from the beginning there is no real ghost, but we do have a character posing as one and certain other characters believing the pose. We also have two other aspects of the movie that skirt the fantastic genres; when the salesman first recovers from his accident, he looks through a window and sees a throng of singing angels. Thinking he is in heaven, he walks through a door, and is then dismayed to find the devil shoveling coal into a furnace; they are all actors aboard a showboat. We also have a sequence with a phony medium who gets his comeuppance when he thinks he’s found a real ghost. I’d say there’s enough here for this movie to qualify as marginalia. On it’s own terms, it starts off a little slow, but it picks up speed as it progresses as the salesman has to contend with the complications that arise from his actions. One major problem I have with this one is the Adolphe Menjou character; I’m never quite satisfied as to the explanation he tenders for attaching himself to the salesman and screwing up his life. Still, this is a rather amusing comedy.

The Boy and the Pirates (1960)

THE BOY AND THE PIRATES (1960)
Article #1263 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-29-2004
Posting Date: 1-26-2005
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Featuring Charles Herbert, Susan Gordon, Murvyn Vye

A boy who dreams of the days of pirates finds himself spirited there as a result of his finding a genie in a bottle. Unfortunately, there’s a catch. Unless he returns the bottle to the place where he found it in three days, the genie will go free and the boy will be forced to take his place in the bottle.

There are some nice things about this movie. The special effects are quite good, and the movie manages to achieve the right balance between cuteness (the pirates dealing with bubblegum having gotten in their stew; Blackbeard discovers safety matches) and brutality (the boy is threatened with a red-hot metal rod at one point; Blackbeard has the habit of spontaneously offing those who defy him). It also has a fun sense of irony that could have been played up; the boy doesn’t care much for having to mop the floor at home or having to eat vegetables (which pirates never eat, he believes), but once on the pirate ship his first job is swabbing the deck, and he also has to serve in the galley by peeling vegetables.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers because of a rather glum air over the proceedings. The reason for this is Charles Herbert’s performance as the boy; his main reaction to his situation is one of dour grumpiness, and it saps a great deal of fun from the proceedings. The adults fare somewhat better, particularly Murvyn Vye as the rather unpredictable Blackbeard, and Paul Guilfoyle as Snipe, the pirate most sympathetic to the plight of the children. All in all, it’s not bad, but it never quite acquires the sense of fun that it should have.

Twisted Nerve (1968)

TWISTED NERVE (1968)
Article #1262 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-28-2004
Posting Date: 1-25-2005
Directed by Roy Boulting
Featuring Hayley Mills, Hywel Bennett, Billie Whitelaw

A disturbed young man (suffering from a possible chromosomal problem) becomes attached to a woman who feels sorrow for him and pays for a toy he stole. He then works his way into her life through the use of subterfuge.

This movie opens with a spoken disclaimer meant to deal with the controversial central issue of the movie. The disclaimer says there has been no scientific evidence linking mongolism and psychotic/criminal behavior. Still, I would imagine that even with the disclaimer, this movie would probably upset anyone who has had to personally deal with mongolism. It’s very well acted, especially by Hywel Bennett, and he leaves you wondering whether his childlike Georgie character (as opposed to his scheming and manipulative adult character) is real or merely an act. At any rate, those who come into this one expecting primarily a psycho thriller may go away disappointed; on that level, it’s overlong (almost two hours) and slow-moving. However, it held my interest throughout, largely because the various characters are so well-developed that I found myself caught up in each of their lives; in fact, much of the running time is dedicated to defining these characters. The movie also features a score by Bernard Herrmann, the highlight of which is the most disconcerting whistled tune since the one in M. If you go in expecting a character-driven story, this one will be much more effective.