The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940)

THE DRUMS OF FU MANCHU (1940)
Serial
Article 2489 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-27-2008
Posting Date: 6-5-2008
Directed by John English and William Witney
Featuring Henry Brandon, William Royle, Robert Kellard
Country: USA

Fu Manchu has a plot to acquire the scepter of Genghis Khan, which will give him the power to conquer Asia as a result of a prophecy. Dr. Nayland Smith and his youthful associate Allan Parker do battle with him.

Let’s face it; most serials were churned out on fairly low budgets with little effort expended on a decent story and with largely recycled cliffhangers. Unless you’re particularly partial to the form, only a small handful of them are really worth the effort to watch them. This is one of them. Fu Manchu is one of the great villains, and this serial manages to do him justice, thanks primarily to an engrossing plot and a fine performance by Henry Brandon in the role. He’s one of the most effective serial villains; he has some great lines, refuses to confine his villainy to sitting behind a chair and barking commands to henchmen, and is even allowed to win a bit of our sympathy on occasion. There’s also a real sense of atmosphere, a rarity in serials. The story matters this time around; each episode advances the plot, and the sense that the whole plot largely exists in the first and last episodes does not exist here. This is not only a great serial, it’s one of the very best cinematic versions of Fu Manchu; only THE MASK OF FU MANCHU gives it any competition, and it’s far better than any of the movies in the late-sixties resurrection of the character. Amazingly enough, Fu Manchu is allowed to survive at the end of the movie, in defiance of the Motion Picture code that would ordinarily require his death. It seems to promise a sequel that never appeared. There’s plenty of fantastic content, what with all of the horror atmosphere, the legion of Fu Manchu’s minions (rendered that way by an operation on the brain), and Fu Manchu’s mystical hypnotic powers. Highly recommended.

 

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The Ape Creature (1968)

THE APE CREATURE (1968)
aka Der Gorilla von Soho
Article 2488 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-26-2008
Posting Date: 6-4-2008
Directed by Alfred Vohrer
Featuring Horst Tappert, Uschi Glas, Uwe Friedrichsen
Country: West Germany

Foreign millionaires are turning up drowned in London. Witnesses believe that a gorilla may be responsible for the murders, and authorities begin to suspect a charitable institute and a criminal organization known as “The Gorilla Gang”.

It’s hard to know what to make of this frenetic, rather twitchy comic Edgar Wallace krimi, especially since my print runs only 67 minutes; from what I gather, my copy is missing a lot of the sleaziness. The whole trend must have been pretty close to running its course by this time, and director Alfred Vohrer had already adapted this particular story once before in DEAD EYES OF LONDON. Its fast pace keeps things rather entertaining, though, and the fact that I’ve seen two other versions of the story (the earlier Vohrer version and THE HUMAN MONSTER) means that I can navigate the confusing plot with a minimum of effort. It’s the odd comic approach that is the most disconcerting; the (badly dubbed) dialogue is almost a non-stop barrage of clipped, snippy humor, and the character names include a Dr. Jeckyll and a Sgt. Pepper. No, it’s not very good (in fact, it may be pretty bad), but it’s more entertaining than I would have guessed.

 

The Skeleton Dance (1929)

THE SKELETON DANCE (1929)
Animated Short
Article 2487 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-25-2008
Posting Date: 6-3-2008
Directed by Walt Disney
No cast
Country: USA

Skeletons dance in a graveyard.

How about that – this is the fourth movie in a row in which not a word of English is spoken. All right, this one doesn’t count – it has no dialogue at all. It’s one of Disney’s Silly Symphonies and features animation from Ub Iwerks. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard that it was the very first one of the series. There’s no plot to speak of; it’s just a series of dancing skeleton gags. It’s very amusing, though; I’m especially fond of the strange creature the four skeletons merge into at the end of the movie. This makes a fine addition as an opening short to any night of classic horror viewing.

 

Toto all’inferno (1954)

TOTO ALL’INFERNO (1954)
aka Toto in Hell
Article 2486 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-24-2008
Posting Date: 6-2-2008
Directed by Camillo Mastrocinque
Featuring Toto, Maria Frau, Fulvia Franco
Country: Italy

Toto has an accident while trying to commit suicide, goes to hell, visits beatniks, marries a Siamese twin, and has other misadventures.

I’ve only encountered the Italian comedian Toto once before, and that was in TOTO NELLA LUNA. I had trouble appreciating that one because it was in unsubtitled Italian; this one has the same obstacle. I’ve heard tell that he’s a fine comic actor, and I have no reason to doubt it; the scenes here that don’t rely on dialogue for humor (especially the opening sequence, during which not a single word is spoken) are very amusing. Nevertheless, I really wish I could follow the plot; I’d love to see how the movie ties together the various threads. The scenes in hell are a lot of visual fun, and they’re in color while the rest of the movie is in black and white, much like THE WIZARD OF OZ (which also features a Toto; in fact, I wonder if that may not be a coincidence). I look forward to seeing a subtitled version some day; this one looks very entertaining.

 

Santo vs. Baron Brakola (1967)

SANTO VS. BARON BRAKOLA (1967)
aka El Baron Brakola
Article 2485 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-23-2008
Posting Date: 6-1-2008
Directed by Jose Diaz Morales
Featuring Santo, Fernando Oses, Mercedes Carreno
Country: Mexico

Santo has to do battle with an evil vampire named Baron Brakola.

Brakola? Brakola? Hmm… the name sounds vaguely like that of one of the most famous horror characters of all time. Once you make the connection, you’ll know in advance that Santo is battling a vampire this time out before the movie even starts, and, considering that my copy is in unsubtitled Spanish, any hint helps. Nevertheless, I would have been able to figure out he was a vampire from square one, as his pointed teeth and penchant for biting women on the neck gives it away. All in all, this one is fairly easy to understand even in its unsubtitled form, and has an amusing backstory in which one of Santo’s ancestors also does battle with Baron Brakola. It’s the basic “Dracula” story with Santo in the Van Helsing role, or, if you prefer, imagine Van Helsing as a Mexican wrestler. Hey, here’s some scenarios to imagine – a bare-chested Edward Van Sloan in tights, mask, and cape wrestling Bela Lugosi. Or, even better, bare-chested Peter Cushing in mask, tights and cape wrestling with Christopher Lee!

Wait a second… I really didn’t want to conjure up those visions. Now I WILL have nightmares tonight.

 

El fantasma del convento (1934)

EL FANTASMA DEL CONVENTO (1934)
aka Phantom of the Convent
Article 2484 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-22-2008
Posting Date: 5-31-2008
Directed by Fernando de Fuentes
Featuring Enrique del Campo, Marta Roel, Carlos Villatoro
Country: Mexico

Two men and a woman lost in the woods are taken to a convent by a monk with his dog. There they encounter a group of mysterious monks and eerie happenings.

If it hasn’t already happened, I hope someday someone gets it into their head to restore some of the older Mexican horror films and give them subtitles. When they do, I hope this one is at the top of their list. Yes, I have trouble figuring out what’s going on because of the language problem, but the movie is full of so many interesting and strange touches (including a room with a large cross nailed across the door, a bat’s shadow on the wall, and a tilted cabinet) that I found myself intrigued and caught up in it anyway. It makes excellent use of silence and sound throughout, and I think this one may be one of the best of the Mexican horror movies. However, a lot hinges on the dialogue and explanations, which I can’t follow. One of these days, I may just set out to learn Spanish…

 

Francis in the Navy (1955)

FRANCIS IN THE NAVY (1955)
Article 2483 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-21-2008
Posting Date: 5-30-2008
Directed by Arthur Lubin
Featuring Donald O’Connor, Martha Hyer, Richard Erdman
Country: USA

Peter Stirling has to rescue Francis the Talking Mule from being sold as surplus by the Navy. Unfortunately, he looks exactly like a sailor who steals his identity. The Navy mistakes Stirling for his lookalike, and he has to convince them they have the wrong man.

Once more into the breach! To its credit, this movie tries to avoid regurgitating the same Francis plot that most of the other movies followed. However, the creation of an identical lookalike doesn’t really give us a lot of variety to the humor; just how many laughs can you get having one person mistaken for another? Once again, it’s the actors who show up in the supporting cast that are the real novelty; there’s Jim Backus, Martin Milner, David Janssen and (hold onto your hats) Clint Eastwood. Somehow, I have visions of one of the movie companies putting out a Clint Eastwood DVD set and including this one. Make no mistake; if the movie was in public domain, we’d be seeing copies of this all over the place with Eastwood’s face on the cover.

This was almost the end of the line for the series. By the time the next one rolled around, Arthur Lubin, Donold O’Connor and Chill Wills had departed.