The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959)

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959)
Article 2784 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-21-2008
Posting Date: 3-28-2009
Directed by Terence Fisher
Featuring Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, Christopher Lee
Country: UK

A doctor who also is a sculptor has a secret; he’s more than a hundred years old thanks to operations on his glands. Unfortunately, he has to kill others to get the glands. However, he’s due for another operation, and the surgeon who performed has suffered from a stroke and can no longer operate. He must find another doctor to operate or face certain death…

It seems an odd choice on Hammer’s part to do a remake of THE MAN ON HALF MOON STREET, but you can rest assured of one thing; they were quite willing to take this talky story and give it the the horror elements they wanted for their movies. Therefore, we get a new twist involving a fluid that can extend his life for four weeks but also turns him into a homicidal maniac, and the subplot about the missing women and the art pieces. I suppose it passes muster all right, but when I found out that Peter Cushing was originally slated for the title role, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at Anton Diffring’s performance; his Teutonic intensity gets tiresome, and causes him to emphasize phrases and situations that would be best underplayed, and I would just love to see how Cushing would have handled the cliched scene in which the doctor/sculptor has a final confrontation with his former surgeon (it’s one of those doctor-talks-to-another-character-that-serves-as-his-conscience scenes). Hazel Court is lovely as always, and Christopher Lee somehow makes the best job he can with a rather thankless role. Hammer did better before, and they would do better again.

The Survivor (1981)

THE SURVIVOR (1981)
Article 2783 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-20-2008
Posting Date: 3-27-2009
Directed by David Hemmings
Featuring Robert Powell, Jenny Agutter, Joseph Cotten
County: Australia

The only survivor of the crash of a 747 is a pilot who can’t remember what happened. He ends up meeting a psychic who says she can help him sort out what happened. Meanwhile, those investigating the crash are being killed off.

This movie’s at its best at the very beginning with the crash of the plane, an effective and memorable scene. It also has some interesting touches here and there, including a vision of young girls playing a game (one of those where you sneak up on someone but stop when they turn around). It also makes some good use of a wrecked 747 as an atmospheric location. Unfortunately, the movie quickly loses steam, spending less time investigating the mystery of the crash and more time just being mysterious, with the scenes in which various people are killed off seeming rather out of place. It’s not until the last twenty minutes of the movie that it begins to investigate what happened, and the revelation is… well, disappointing, given what went on before, with a final twist that I saw coming halfway through the movie. The performances by Robert Powell (as the pilot) and Jenny Agutter (as the psychic) are good, but Joseph Cotten is given little more to do than give the pilot a Bible at one point. Still, the movie did win several awards from the Australian Film Institute, but I suspect that’s for its sense of style, which is much stronger than any story it tells.

The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)

THE HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN (1970)
Article 2782 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-19-2008
Posting Date: 3-26-2009
Directed by Jimmy Sangster
Featuring Ralph Bates, Kate O’Mara, Veronica Carlson
Country: UK

Baron Frankenstein leaves the university in order to pursue his own research, in which he plans to assemble a man from body parts and bring him to life.

This completes my coverage of the Hammer Frankenstein movies, and I definitely did not save the best for last. This is the only one in the series that did not feature Peter Cushing, but that’s perfectly understandable, as it concentrates on his early years. Actually, I didn’t quite know what to make of this one until I read in one of my sources that the movie was a comic rendering of the tale. Knowing that now, I can see it; Frankenstein’s habit of making light of everything in his path, his use of a chart with numbered body parts to keep track of what he has and what he needs, the extreme stupidity of all of those he ends up killing, etc. – they all hint that this movie isn’t something that should be taken too seriously. Unfortunately, only one actor in the cast seems to know it’s a comedy, and he (Dennis Price) steals the show as the grave robber who is overly ambitious in supplying Frankenstein with his bodies. Ralph Bates seems to grasp the idea, but he never really fully commits to a comic performance, and everyone else in the cast seems to be performing as if it’s anything but a comedy. That’s a major problem; comedy requires a certain clearness of purpose, an awareness that one is doing a comedy, and good timing to work, and, for the most part, those qualities are not present here. Even the score thinks it’s a straightforward horror movie. It’s a pity, because as a straightforward horror movie, it’s a washout; the story doesn’t really go anywhere new, the monster is a nonentity (David Prowse would do much better in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL), and the ending is just plain bad. This is far and away the weakest of the Hammer Frankenstein movies.

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974)

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974)
Article 2781 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-18-2008
Posting Date: 3-25-2009
Directed by Terence Fisher
Featuring Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, Madeline Smith
Country: UK

A young doctor is committed to an insane asylum for his experiments with corpses. There he encounters Baron Frankenstein, who enlists him as an assistant in his latest project; creating a new man from parts taken from the inmates.

This was Hammer’s final movie in the Frankenstein series, as well as Terence Fisher’s last movie. It’s generally considered one of the weakest of the series, but I quite liked it, at least partially because Peter Cushing is in top form; he makes full use of every bit of dialogue and is fascinating to watch. It is a bit disappointing in some ways; I thought it was a little lazy scriptwise to have him going back to the monster-creating business after the variety of tasks he undertook in the other sequels of the series, and the movie is sometimes unnecessarily lurid, especially at the disappointing climax. I also can’t help but give a little credit to David Prowse as the monster; despite the elaborate makeup and costume, he manages to use his body language to give a marked change to the monster after his brain transplant. The movie also successfully engenders our sympathy for him; when the two doctors and the mute female assistant celebrate the success of the operation, we are painfully aware that the monster (the fruit of their labors) is not to partake of the celebration. The story rehashes certain elements of other movies from the series, but Cushing keeps us interested. The movie has an odd ending, with Frankenstein still alive and looking with hope towards the future, whereas most of the other movies in the series at least gave the semblance of him being punished for his crimes, and it’s ironic that despite his looking forward into the future, this was the end of the line for the series.

First Men in the Moon (1964)

FIRST MEN IN THE MOON (1964)
Article 2780 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-17-2008
Posting Date: 3-24-2009
Directed by Nathan Juran
Featuring Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries
Country: UK

At the end of the nineteenth century, a scientist creates a substance which can cut off the force of gravity. He decides to use the substance to hurtle himself in a sphere he has built to the moon.

I have distinct memories of seeing parts of this movie when I was a kid, with the sequence in which Dr. Cavor speaks to the head Selenite the one that remained most distinctly in my memory. For some reason, I never took the opportunity to see it again until now some forty years later, and I was really curious to see the movie as a whole and see how it stood up.

I was initially impressed to see Nigel Kneale’s name in the credits, but was wary when I saw that he shared the screenplay credit with another writer. After having watched the movie, I would love to know just how much of it was Kneale’s work, though I suspect that the scene with the Head Selenite above is his. I’m not happy with many aspects of this movie. I don’t mind the framing device of the modern-day moon landing leading us to the main part of the story as a flashback; I think it’s a clever touch. However, I’m really annoyed with the portrayal of Cavor during the first half of the movie; he belabors the dotty eccentricity to the point that I think I’m watching something like THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS. Things settle down once they get to the moon. Ray Harryhausen’s animation here is mostly intent on giving a sense of life to some of the bizarre moon creatures; only the battle with the giant moon caterpillar comes across as a typical Harryhausen centerpiece. The story itself is a little unfocused, much of the action is too obvious, but I still love the scene with the head Selenite, and I suspect a much better movie is lurking around in here somewhere. All in all, I found this one a disappointment, though only a mild one.

The Queen’s Swordsman (1961)

THE QUEEN’S SWORDSMAN (1961)
aka Los Espadachines de la reina
Article 2779 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-16-2008
Posting Date: 3-23-2009
Directed by Roberto Rodriguez
Featuring Ofelio Guilmain, Xavier Loya, Miguel Manzano
Country: Mexico

A wolf and a skunk find a human child lost in the woods, and raise her as their own. They soon decide that the woods are too dangerous for her, so they decide to take her to human civilization, and so they leave their cave and become swordsmen. They become involved with a princess who has become the target of an evil queen.

I went into this one blind, knowing only that it was a foreign movie. Just from the title, I suspected it was going to be an Italian swashbuckler with slight fantastic elements (and if I had known that the movie features a scene of a beautiful woman being tortured, my suspicion that it was an Italian movie would have only been stronger). But instead, I found out it was Mexican; furthermore, it came to us via K. Gordon Murray and features two characters I remember from LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD; namely, the Wolf and the Skunk (the closest I can come to a Mexican equivalent to Franco and Ciccio). I knew there was a series of sequels to LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, but I didn’t know these two characters went on to anything else. So, given that it’s a Mexican children’s fantasy, I fully expected high weirdness, and the beginning of the movie (in which we discover that little girl has a pet alligator she likes to sleep with and has a fondness for amphibians and reptiles of all kinds) certainly delivers. Oddly enough, it settles down after that; it actually seems like a fairly straightforward swashbuckler, with the only the gimmick that the heroic swordsmen are animals to give it that weirdness. Oh, yes, the Wolf and the Skunk sing (and they’re no better at it than they were in LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD), and there’s plenty of slapstick silliness, but I have to admit to being slightly disappointed at this one; after all, most Mexican children’s fantasies I’ve seen go way off the deep end. The oddest touch is that the ending is even a little downbeat.

Marooned (1969)

MAROONED (1969)
Article 2778 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-15-2008
Posting Date: 3-22-2009
Directed by John Sturges
Featuring Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen
Country: USA

Three astronauts find themselves stranded in their spacecraft when the retro rockets fail. NASA must engage in a race against time in order to rescue them.

The cast is impressive (Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, James Franciscus and Gene Hackman) and the special effects are indeed special. But unless you find NASA engineers speaking endless jargon through microphones hypnotically compelling, or are fascinated by the space technology the camera lovingly caresses, you will probably find this overlong science fiction thriller to be really tough going. Though the lack of music (other than a kind of ambient outer space hum) does give the movie an interesting texture, it also leaves the viewer on his own to try to pick up any emotional resonances and to find the excitement therein. It also doesn’t help that the three astronauts, to save oxygen, must try their best to keep calm, a situation not conducive the building excitement. Hackman, as the astronaut who has trouble keeping calm, has the only really interesting role here; Peck plays a standard authority figure, Janssen plays Janssen, and Crenna and Franciscus are stalwart, stoic and little else. It gets more interesting towards the end, but it’s all too low-key, and many of the scenes go on way too long. A better script, livelier direction, and more merciless editing would have helped immensely here.