Horror Express (1973)

Article #1700 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-9-2005
Posting Date: 4-8-2006
Directed by Eugenio Martin
Featuring Chrisopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Alberto de Mendoza

A fossil of an ape-man discovered in Manchuria is being shipped across Siberia in a crate on a train. Concern rises when strange deaths begin occurring in the vicinity of the crate.

I really like the use of the train in this movie. The very image of this monstrous metal machine barreling forward through the wilderness along with the thundering sound of the locomotive and the blast of the horn is enough to put you on edge. It’s a very appropriate image to go with the movie, as the story itself is very well-paced, moves forward with an inexorable speed, and is never dull. It’s also peopled with interesting characters (especially the monk played by Alberto de Mendoza whose obsession with the creature is distinctly unhealthy), and features fine performances from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. There are a few problems; the movie can’t really decide if the threat is supernatural or extraterrestrial (if the latter, why all the stuff about the cross?), it’s not consistent in how possession affects people physically, and the performance by Telly Savalas (who only appears during the last twenty minutes of the movie) is more strange than effective. Still, it looks wonderful, and the sets and exteriors (purchased cheaply after they were built for NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRIA) give the movie a real sense of atmosphere. It’s definitely worth catching.


Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon (1964)

Article #1699 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-8-2005
Posting Date: 4-7-2006
Directed by Domenico Paolella
Featuring Peter Lupus, Helga Line, Mario Petri

Hercules rescues slaves from the clutches of the tyrants of Babylon.

His name is Rock Stevens in the credits, but we all know him from “Mission Impossible” as Peter Lupus. So why do they call him Rock Stevens? Maybe it’s because of all the rocks he throws in his first scene in the movie. Nevertheless, members of his fan club should recognize him, especially when he attacks villains with his club which he fans in the air. All right, someone should be lynched for those puns, but the presence of Lupus does give this movie a novelty value it might not have otherwise; for the first half of this movie, it’s the usual compendium of sword-and-sandal cliches, with an overly large amount of political intrigue and (surprisingly) not a single dance scene. Things pick up a bit in the second half, with an effective moment when someone tries to assassinate Hercules with a spiked club, and the scene in which Hercules destroys Babylon with the help of a giant chained wheel (it really can’t be described) is worth catching. Other than that, it’s pretty standard fare of this sort.

The Unknown (1946)

Article #1698 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-7-2005
Posting Date: 4-6-2006
Directed by Henry Levin
Featuring Karen Morley, Jim Bannon, Jeff Donnell

Two detectives accompany a young woman to the reading of a will. They discover that there is a streak of madness in the family and that someone is plotting to murder them all.

This was the last of the short-lived “I Love a Mystery” movie series based on the popular radio drama. I’ve covered the other two of the series, and like them, I found this one quite enjoyable. On the surface, it looks like your basic Old Dark House movie (creepy mansion, shadowy figures, secret passages, murders), but it actually is playing a slightly different game. I would say this movie is actually a bit closer to gothic melodrama than Old Dark House style mystery; the southern setting, the generally serious tone, the characters that are somewhat more complex than the usual Old Dark House standbys – most Old Dark House movies don’t bother with this kind of thing. It’s closer to JANE EYRE or WUTHERING HEIGHTS than THE CAT AND THE CANARY, and it points toward later developments of the form, such as SUNSET BLVD, and though it seems odd to compare this movie with that last one, bear in mind that this movie also opens with narration by a dead person. Also take into account that the black servant who appears in this movie is not intended nor used as comic relief; in fact, the story takes him seriously enough that he is a legitimate suspect in the story; this sort of thing never happened with Willie Best or Mantan Moreland playing the role. The movie is far from perfect; the beginning flashback is drawn out too long, for example. But it’s one of those movies where the characters of the individuals matter, and that is rare for this type of movie. It’s a shame that this whole series only lasted for three movies, and is now mostly forgotten; movie for movie, it was a highly entertaining series.

The Strange Mr. Gregory (1946)

Article #1697 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-6-2005
Posting Date: 4-5-2006
Directed by Phil Rosen
Featuring Edmund Lowe, Jean Rogers, Frank Reicher

A hypnotist-magician experimenting with suspended animation falls in love with a married woman. When she rejects him, he plots to fake his own death in order to frame her husband for murder.

This starts out pretty good; Edmund Lowe (who has played magician-hypnotists before in CHANDU THE MAGICIAN and THE SPIDER) is a lot of fun to watch in the title role. Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite as good as it could have been, and the movie loses steam in the second half. Part of the problem is that some of the story elements just don’t make much sense; in particular, I’m not sure what Gregory’s motivation is for his testimony at the murder trial (disguised as his own brother), or why he found it necessary to murder the one person he does. I’m also unsure of the extent of Gregory’s power; he apparently has a little ability with black magic, but he doesn’t appear to be using it in any consistent fashion. It’s at its best when Lowe is on the screen, but we see less and less of him as the story progresses.

Spook Busters (1946)

Article #1696 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-5-2005
Posting Date: 4-4-2006
Directed by William Beaudine
Featuring Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Douglass Dumbrille

The Bowery Boys go into the pest extermination business, and are hired to clear out a haunted house.

When I mentioned the title of this movie to my wife, she guessed without looking that it was going to be a Bowery Boys movie. Then, out of curiosity, I looked it up in Leonard Maltin’s classic movie guide, and found it cradled right next to the entries SPOOK CHASERS (another Bowery Boys movie along the same lines) and SPOOKS RUN WILD (the East Side Kids (for all practical reasons an earlier version of the Bowery Boys). If you throw in GHOST CHASERS, THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, you get the definite impression that these guys just never got their fill of movies about haunted mansions and old dark houses. Usually, most comedy groups visited this territory only once or twice.

Nevertheless, this is a good one. It’s one of the earlier Bowery Boys movies, which means a) that Huntz Hall hasn’t developed the bad habit of incessant mugging that plagues the later episodes, and b) the Bowery Boys that are not Huntz or Leo Gorcey are given comic moments as well. Gorcey is still churning out the malaprops, of course, and I still love those. The narration that ties the movie together contributes to the fun, and the climactic fight in slow motion is pretty clever indeed. As I continue to watch the Bowery Boys, I’ve come to understand that I like them much better this way then when they were the East Side Kids; at least by deciding to clearly go the comedy route, their movies ended up being much more focused. Besides, I have a great deal of affection for Leo’s father Bernard in the continuing role of Louis Dumbrowski. The movie also features Charles Middleton and Maurice Cass, who played Professor Newton in the Rocky Jones movies.

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929)

Article #1695 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-4-2005
Posting Date: 4-3-2006
Directed by Reginald Barker
Featuring Richard Dix, Miriam Seegar, Arthur Hoyt

A writer takes a bet that he can write a novel in 24 hours in a solitary, deserted, and supposedly haunted inn on top of a mountain in the middle of the winter. He is given the only key to the building and begins work, only to find that he doesn’t have the only key….

A guy trying to write a novel in an empty inn in the middle of winter? It almost sounds like an early version of THE SHINING. Still, the movies are utterly different. For one thing, this one is only marginal; it’s not really haunted, and though a couple of the people are mistaken for ghosts at one point, there are none to be found. It’s something of a variation on the Old Dark House genre, though that doesn’t really capture it; in spirit, it’s a lot closer to SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, though nowhere near as wild as that one. It’s based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers (the creator of Charlie Chan) which had been adapted into a play by George M. Cohan. It must have been incredibly popular; there were at least two earlier silent versions and four later talkie versions. It’s fun, but trying to figure out the central story about corruption and bankroll of money is enough to make your head swim. Still, figuring it out isn’t really necessary, and you’ll find out why near the end. Since the movie is an early talkie, it does suffer a little from the problems that plagued movies from that era, but much less so than others; in fact, it feels like it actually might have been made a few years later, and you don’t have to struggle with it. Marginal, but enjoyable.

The Return of Peter Grimm (1935)

Article #1694 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-3-2005
Posting Date: 4-2-2006
Directed by George Nichols Jr. and Victor Schertzinger
Featuring Lionel Barrymore, Helen Mack, Edward Ellis

After his death, the patriarch of a family, unhappy with the state of affairs he left at the time of his death, comes back to try to make things right. However, nobody can see or hear him.

Lionel Barrymore was an actor who was able to project character so effortlessly that sometimes I wish he’d held back a little bit; there are moments here where he’s a little hard to take. Still, I’m glad he’s playing the role of the ghostly patriarch here; his ability to hit just the right emotional notes makes this movie work far better than it might have otherwise, due to an old-fashioned script (it had been filmed before in 1926) and some rather stiff and lifeless direction. A good supporting cast helps as well, with Helen Mack and James Bush as the young lovers, Allen Vincent as the villain, and George P. Breakston as the orphan whose history plays an important role in the action. Donald Meek, Ethel Griffies and Edward Ellis are also on hand to add some more character acting to the proceedings. The concept of a dead man trying to communicate with the living has popped up several times over the years; it was used in THE COCKEYED MIRACLE and serves as one of the central themes of GHOST as well. Playwright David Belasco (upon whose work this movie was based) also wrote the play that was the source of Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH.

The Phynx (1970)

THE PHYNX (1970)
Article #1693 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-2-2005
Posting Date: 4-1-2006
Directed by Lee H. Katzin
Featuring Michael A. Miller, Ray Chippeway, Dennis Larden

When the army can’t rescue several great leaders (George Jessel, Johnny Weissmuller, Butterfly McQueen, etc) that have been kidnapped and are being held hostage in Albania (the army can’t get past this big tank guarding the gates), they consult a computer called MOTHA which tells them to form a rock group which will then be invited to Albania.

If the title of this one has you scratching your head, wait till you see the movie. Which is not to say that the movie is required viewing; this is not a recommendation by any means. It’s merely that the movie is jaw-droppingly weird. It starts out hit-or-miss, but then evens out to a certain consistency; unfortunately, by consistency, I mean it consistently misses. Since it’s at least partially a parody of the super-spy genre, the fantastic elements consist of occasional gadgets; the computer MOTHA is one of them, X-Ray glasses that allow our heroes to see through clothing is another one. Still, the movie’s main source of interest is the bewildering array of guest stars, most of which are playing themselves as kidnap victims. Just a smattering of ones not listed above – Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Colonel Sanders, Dick Clark, Andy Devine, Jay Silverheels (as Tonto, or course), Trini Lopez, Joe Louis, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy – there are more, but this gives you an idea of how strange it is. The music by Lieber and Stoller isn’t bad (after all, they were legitimate pioneers of rock and roll), but it was a bit dated at the time this movie was made. So there’s no doubt that the movie has a strong curiosity value. Now if only it were funny as well…

The Hidden Hand (1942)

Article #1692 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-1-2005
Posting Date: 3-31-2006
Directed by Benjamin Stoloff
Featuring Craig Stevens, Elisabeth Fraser, Julie Bishop

A rich woman decides to fake her own death so she can have the joy of watching the heirs bicker over her fortune. Towards that end, she brings in her brother to help her, who has just escaped from an insane asylum.

Did I say yesterday that the Old Dark House genre had run out of steam in the forties? I take it all back; this one is a hoot! At least part of the reason I really enjoyed this one was the crisp pace. Another was that it largely jettisoned the mystery angle; we pretty much know who the two homicidal loonies are, and the fun is watching how they go about their dirty deeds. It also helps that one of them (the insane brother) is played by none other than that perennial undertaker, Milton Parsons, and he makes for one of the most gleefully over-the-top psychos I’ve ever seen; it’s easily the best role I’ve seen of his. The movie also contains one of the funniest booby traps I’ve ever seen (the one involving the ship’s wheel), and it comes up with the cleverest murder frame-up I’ve witnessed in a movie. In fact, the only thing this movie really shares with THE GIRL WHO DARED is the presence of Willie Best as (once again) a comic-relief chauffeur, and even here the difference is remarkable. Whereas TGWD merely tried to mine laughs from him by having him be scared at everything, this one actually bothers to give him specific comic bits and situations that provide a real context for his actions, and he rises to the challenge and gives one of his best comic performances as well. For Old Dark House movie fans, this one is irresistible.

The Girl Who Dared (1944)

Article #1691 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-31-2005
Posting Date: 3-30-2006
Directed by Howard Bretherton
Featuring Lorna Gray, Peter Cookson, Grant Withers

A group of people are invited to a party on an island to see a ghost appear. Then people start dropping dead…

By the time the forties rolled around, the old dark house genre had pretty much run its course; most of the movies of that ilk that were made during the forties were pretty lethargic, and despite an efficient running time of about fifty-five minutes for this one, it’s no exception. Even the title makes it sound more like a soap opera than what it is. It has a little bit of novelty value; several serial actors appear (Kirk Alyn, Roy Barcroft and Kenne Duncan) among them, and the plot involves radium, which must have been a pretty topical subject in the mid forties. Still, the movie lacks atmosphere, despite the fact that Willie Best is acting scared by everything. And as can be expected in this sort of movie, the ghost isn’t real. The ending is rather odd, though – it almost seems a parody of the usual “hero and heroine falling in love” cliche that is pretty common to these movies, but nevertheless, the lackadaisical handling makes it fall as flat as does the rest of the movie.