A Christmas Carol (1910)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1910)
Article 2691 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-1-2008
Posting Date: 12-25-2008
Directed by J. Searle Dawley, Charles Kent and Ashley Miller
Featuring Marc McDermott, Charles Ogle, William Bechtel
Country: USA

Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve who teach him the meaning of Christmas.

Usually I judge versions of Dickens’s classic by gauging how well they tell the story of Ebenezer’s life, for much of the real heart and soul of the story comes out here. But what if you’ve only got ten minutes to tell the story? Well, you’re going to have to settle for story highlights, but at least this version does a good job of supplying those. I quite like the way that the visits of the the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future manage to tell their respective stories without leaving Scrooge’s bedroom, thanks to some clever use of double exposure. Of course, one of the appeals of this movie to horror fans is that it contains one of the few other extant performances of Charles Ogle, who is best known for having played the Frankenstein monster in the Edison version of the story; here he plays Bob Cratchit, and you can easily recognize him, as his face is quite distinctive. Granted, this version is no substitute for a full-length version of the story, but it does its job well enough.

 

Blondie Has Servant Trouble (1940)

BLONDIE HAS SERVANT TROUBLE (1940)
Article 2690 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-8-2008
Posting Date: 12-24-2008
Directed by Frank R. Strayer
Featuring Penny Singleton, Arthur Lake, Larry Simms
Country: USA

Blondie’s desire for a maid ends up causing Dagwood to accept a proposal to stay at a house with servants. However, what he doesn’t know is that the house is believed to be haunted…

The “Blondie” comic strip has been something of a mainstay for me all my life; I remember it being the first comic strip in that section of the Sunday newspaper, and as I grew older, I grew to appreciate how the strict 12-panel format of the strip was effectively used to convey a sort of “comic timing”. When cartoonist Chic Young died, new writers took over, the 12-panel format was jettisoned, and the strip went downhill. Since then, the writing has improved a little, and it still remains the first strip in the Sunday paper, but I’ll always miss the Chic Young years.

However, I’m not familiar with the early years of the strip, though I hear that it was one of the first strips that allowed its characters to age as time went on; the character of Baby Dumpling was allowed to grow up. However, I think this aging was eventually abandoned; currently, the Bumsteads still have two teenage children, one of whom I assume is an older Baby Dumpling with a less embarrassing name.
If this entry in the movie series based on the comic strip is at all indicative of what the comic strip was like at the time, then Dagwood’s collisions with the mailman is one of the longest running jokes in history. So I do wonder just how different the strip was in its earlier years to how it was when I first encountered it.

Apparently the strip was popular enough to have a whole series of movies based on it; this was the sixth of 28 movies made in the series, so I’m assuming the movies were quite popular as well. I suppose one challenge in making these movies was that the “Blondie” comic strip (at least during the period I remember it) didn’t really have storylines; consequently, the writers probably had to pull out a lot of standard-issue comedy plots for the series. In this case, it should be no surprise that there is a “haunted house” episode to the series, and that’s what this is. It’s also the only movie I’ve seen in the series.

So how good is it? To its credit, it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been, though an extended comic sequence involving Dagwood getting a flashlight stuck in his mouth gets my award as one of the worst gags in movie history. The characters are more or less close enough to the characters in the comic strip as I remember them; Dagwood is a bit more of a doofus, Blondie is a little more scatterbrained, and Mr. Dithers isn’t quite as cranky. For me, the biggest saving grace in the movie is Daisy the dog; the animal has some great comic moments. Outside of that, it’s pretty familiar territory for horror fans; most of the humor involves people being scared (with Ray Turner as the stereotyped scared black man providing most of the gags in this regard). The bad guy is a mad magician; if the movie had been made a few years later, it would most likely have been a Nazi. All in all, a fairly ordinary viewing experience.

 

Superzan y el nino del espacio (1973)

SUPERZAN Y EL NINO DEL ESPACIO (1973)
aka Superzan and the Space Boy
Article 2689 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-7-2008
Posting Date: 12-23-2008
Directed by Rafael Lanuza
Featuring Superzan, Caro Laniesti, Claudio Lanuza
Country: Mexico

A boy from space comes to Earth to share his knowledge, but he meets an evil scientist who plans to use the knowledge to his own ends. Only Mexican superhero Superzan can save the day.

Here’s more Mexican wrestling madness for your enjoyment. Unfortunately, Superzan was not a successful wrestler, and, as a result, there is no wrestling footage here to pad out the movie. The name is a cross between Superman and Tarzan, and the character is something of a low-rent version of the former; he has the ability to fly and to survive being run over by a car. My copy of this is in undubbed unsubtitled Spanish, but it should have been easy to dub; the boy from space (and any of the other characters from space) are able to communicate telepathically, so you get lots of voices with no lips moving, and it would have been a cinch to dub. I’m just curious about just what the machine does to humans; they gain the ability to use telepathy, but have to wear the same type of silly outfit as the boy does. According to IMDB, this movie runs more than two hours long, and my copy is only 77 minutes; however, I suspect that IMDB is wrong, as I know of no other Mexican wrestling movies that ran that long. Superzan also has one of the flashiest costumes of any of the Mexican wrestlers. Still, this is the usual type of stuff you expect from the form.

 

Vanishing Point (1971)

VANISHING POINT (1971)
Article 2688 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-6-2008
Posting Date: 12-22-2008
Directed by Richard C. Sarafian
Featuring Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Dean Jagger
Country: USA

A professional driver known as Kawalski attempts to drive a souped-up 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours. He becomes a target of the police and gets help from various strangers enroute.

First of all, I’m not rightly sure that this 1970s cult item is really within my chosen genres; a lot depends on how much you make of the psychic link between the driver (Barry Newman) and a blind, black DJ named Super Soul (Cleavon Little). This link is not made explicit, but is implied in some of the comments made by the latter character. We’re in hazy territory here, and most of my sources don’t include this title, but John Stanley’s guide does, so I’m covering it.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of car chase movies, but for the first half of this movie, it’s something special. Rather than trying for a thrill-a-minute action spectacular, it actually manages to achieve a certain zen-like transcendence; the scenes where we see him speeding down the road while soothing guitar music plays on the soundtrack gives the movie a mystic edge, and the superb photography and location footage gives the it a haunting feel quite unlike any other movie. Unfortunately, the movie falters; as it goes along, it starts to get rather self-conscious and it gets too mired in its late sixties/early seventies “counterculture vs. the establishment” theme to really stand the test of time as well as it could have. I think it would have been better had it fully embraced some of the mythic power it taps into, and jettisoned some of its unnecessary baggage. When it works, it works beautifully; I just wish it worked all the way through.

 

Lust for a Vampire (1971)

LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971)
Article 2687 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-5-2008
Posting Date: 12-21-2008
Directed by Jimmy Sangster
Featuring Ralph Bates, Barbara Jefford, Suzanna Leigh
Country: UK

A girls’ school is terrorized by the reincarnation of Carmilla Karnstein the vampiress.

I’m not a big Hammer fan, and whenever I compare them to the Universal horror canon, I feel quite disappointed with them. However, if I keep in mind that the Hammer horrors had budgets that were more in line with the poverty row studios like Monogram, and if I make myself sympathetic to the modest ambition of recycling classic cliches while taking advantage of the growing permissiveness of cinema (back then, you couldn’t even get away with the title of this one), then I’m quite impressed with how well they’re done. This one has some very good scenes (the resurrection of Carmilla is very effective), some silly scenes (I’ll admit that the theme song “Strange Love” isn’t bad, but I just don’t think this is one of those movies that should have a theme song), and some overly-familiar cliches (hey, let’s have the villagers storm the castle!), but it’s entertaining enough for all that. And let’s face it; classic-style horror was starting to become a rare commodity at this time, so sometimes you just have to appreciate the cliches for what they are.

 

Puss ‘n’ Boots (1961)

PUSS ‘N’ BOOTS (1961)
aka El Gato con botas
Article 2686 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-4-2008
Posting Date: 12-20-2008
Directed by Roberto Rodriguez and Manuel San Fernando
Featuring Sananton, Antonio Raxel, Humberto Dupeyron
Country: Mexico

A lowly shepherd seeks a way to defeat an ogre that is terrorizing the kingdom in the hopes that by doing so, he will be allowed to marry the princess. When he encounters Mother Time, he is given several pieces of clothing to be worn by the hero who will save the land. They’re too small for him, but they fit his cat, who magically transforms into Puss ‘n’ Boots. And then…

It’s Mexican Moppet Movie Madness time once again. We’ve been there before with SANTA CLAUS and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, and, like those, what we have here is a frantic fever dream with songs, overly dosed with caffeine and sugar, replete with talking trees, a whip-wielding henchman, wicked stepbrothers, evil ogres and their stupid sons, giant talking roosters, and sheep. One rule in these movies – whenever the non-human characters start singing, run for the hills. Puss ‘n’ Boots seems deliriously incompetent; he makes three disastrous attempts to find food for the starving royal family, and he only manages to defeat the ogre by thinking of his own appetite. Throw in a scene where the cat decides to solve the hunger problem by having a newly made (non-human) friend volunteer to be butchered by the king’s cooks, a subplot that leads to a plot point about cannibalism, and you’ll get an idea of what to expect. Proceed at your own risk.

 

The Three Faces of Eve (1957)

THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1957)
Article 2685 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-3-2008
Posting Date: 12-19-2008
Directed by Nunnally Johnson
Featuring Joanne Woodward, David Wayne, Lee J. Cobb
Country: USA

A doctor discovers that a patient of his suffers from multiple personality disorder.

No, it’s not a genre movie; it’s another case where certain horror elements (both mental illness and hypnotism are here) are used in a non-horror environment, and it’s the existence of those elements that lead certain people to include this as a genre item. I actually have a lot of admiration for the movie; it strives to be as realistic as possible, it is anchored by a standout performance by Joanne Woodward, and it chooses to avoid a sensationalistic view of the topic. I also found the movie very interesting and watchable. Its biggest problem is that it was a product of its time (where certain subjects could not be discussed), and to modern eyes, the movie comes across as naive and rather simplistic. Apparently, the book itself had some of these problems and was, in fact, premature; the woman on whom Eve was based turned out to have something on the order of 27 personalities, of which only three or so would be prominent at a time. Furthermore, the traumatic event that was the movie’s cause of the personality split seems highly unlikely; though the event itself may have occurred, I’m sure that it was just one of many events that caused the split, most of which probably couldn’t even be mentioned in a movie from the time. For a much more sophisticated movie on the subject, I recommend SYBIL, and it’s interesting to note that Joanne Woodward also appears in that movie.

 

The Turn of the Screw (1974)

THE TURN OF THE SCREW (1974)
TV-Movie
Article 2684 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-2-2008
Posting Date: 12-18-2008
Directed by Dan Curtis
Featuring Lynn Redgrave, Jasper Jacob, Eva Griffiths
Country: USA

A governess takes a position teaching two children at a country home. She begins to feel that they have been corrupted and possibly possessed by two former employees (now both deceased) of the home.

Of the various nineteenth century horror classics, I must admit that this is the one whose adaptations I’m most likely to watch only out of grudging duty than out of eagerness. My problem is with the inherent vagueness that permeates the story; though this quality is necessary to maintain that sense of unease and ambiguity that gives the story its depth, it’s also off-putting, somewhat tiresome, not much fun, and manifests itself in adaptations by giving us long scenes in which characters discuss things they either don’t want to discuss or for which they have very little concrete information. In this specific adaptation, we get lots of conversations between the governess and the housekeeper, mostly involving the governess trying to get information out of the housekeeper that she’s reluctant to give, and this gets repetitive. Combine this with the facts that the ghosts do little more than just stand around, much of the story is told via narration, the period dialogue somewhat strains the attention, and maybe you can understand why this is one story I just don’t care to revisit very often. This version of the story is far from awful, but, with THE INNOCENTS out there, it also seems distinctly unnecessary, and Dan Curtis’s direction fails to make this version special in any way. I may have to take a stab at reading the Henry James story; there’s something about the various versions I’ve seen that seems to indicate that there may be something unfilmable about the story.

 

Zotz! (1962)

ZOTZ! (1962)
Article 2683 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-1-2008
Posting Date: 12-17-2008
Directed by William Castle
Featuring Tom Poston, Julia Meade, Jim Backus
Country: USA

A professor discovers an ancient coin that gives him magical powers.

I quite like a number of William Castle’s movies, but, despite the fact that occasionally he shows some wit and humor (especially in his trailers), I don’t think he has a particular affinity for comedy. That’s what he tries for in this adaptation of the Walter Karig novel, and the result is like one of the Disney shopping-cart movies, but lacking the special-effects savvy and the pace of the Disney movies. One of the problems is that the script is not very good; except for one, the powers that the coin gives (the ability to cause pain, the ability to make things go in slow motion, and the ability to kill) don’t really lend themselves to the kind of light comedy Castle is striving for, and the one that does (the slow motion) is fairly lame. It’s not surprising that it is the ability to cause pain that is used the most for comic effect, largely because this is the only one that can be triggered inadvertently; the best moment here is when our hero asks for directions at the Pentagon. Had the movie gone for black comedy, it all might have worked better. Still, Castle does a good job of casting the movie; it features Tom Poston, Jim Backus, Fred Clark, Cecil Kellaway, Margaret Dumont and Mike Mazurki, all of whom are quite capable, but all of whom would have done better with a stronger script. Other odd touches (the professor’s health-food obsession and a patriotic ending at the Lincoln memorial) seem strangely tacked-on.

 

Zebra Force (1976)

ZEBRA FORCE (1976)
Article 2682 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-31-2008
Posting Date: 12-16-2008
Directed by Joe Tornatore
Featuring Mike Lane, Richard X. Slattery, Rockne Tarkington
Country: USA

A group of Vietnam vets decide to make their fortune by robbing the mob. However, they have a gimmick designed to throw pursuit off their trail; they disguise as blacks when they do their hits.

The John Stanley book includes this movie with the argument that the vets “inexplicably” turn into black people when they make their attacks on the mob. This would have been an intriguing idea, but I think Mr. Stanley may have missed a scene that I caught in the movie, in which it is revealed that the change is not in any way “inexplicable”; they change into black men by putting on masks, and they do it to throw the mob off their scent. This revelation turns the fantastic content I expected in this movie to a clearly non-fantastic gimmick, thereby moving this otherwise standard-issue action movie outside of the realm that I usually cover. Still, there is another marginal fantastic element; the leader of the vets is very badly mutilated, thereby giving us a little touch of horror to the proceedings, though it remains only marginal, as he is not played for horror effect at all. Unless you find the gimmick pretty interesting or are a big fan of action movies, there’s little reason to check this one out. However, I will give the movie an extra point for a fun little twist ending that adds a touch of comic irony to the proceedings.