Return to Oz (1964)

Article 2169 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-22-2007
Posting Date: 7-21-2007
Directed by F. R. Craley, Thomas Glynn and Larry Roemer
Featuring the voices of Larry D. Mann, Alfie Scopp, Carl Banas

Dorothy is whisked back to Oz where she must contend with the revived Wicked Witch of the West and help her friends once again regain the prizes they got from the wizard.

One of the problems I had with PINOCCHIO IN OUTER SPACE was its attempt to clone as much of the plot of the original movie version as it could for a sequel; in general, if a sequel can do little more than repeat the original, it seems unnecessary. This one is even worse; Dorothy is whisked to Oz on a tornado, meets the munchkins and Glenda the Good Witch, and embarks on a quest to find her friends and take them to the emerald city to get a heart, a brain, and courage. From the emerald city they are sent to face the witch, etc. etc. Despite the fact that this is an early Rankin/Bass feature, I find it pretty charmless in comparison to their more famous holiday movies, and the extremely limited animation and the bad songs (when was the last time you hummed “I Wanna Go Back”?) really make this one a chore to watch. The most amusing variation it adds to the story is having the witch send flying crocodiles rather than flying monkeys to capture Dorothy. Fortunately, since it was made for TV, it is fairly short.


Journey Back to Oz (1972)

Article 5033 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-29-2015
Directed by Hal Sutherland
Featuring the voices of Liza Minnelli, Milton Berle, Margaret Hamilton
Country: USA
What it is: Animated sequel to a classic

Another cyclone whisks Dorothy back to Oz, where she discovers a plot by the wicked witch Mombi to dethrone the Scarecrow at the Emerald City.

No, I didn’t expect this animated sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ to match the quality of the original. It does, however, surpass the other musical animated sequel to the original that I’ve encountered, RETURN TO OZ from 1964, which serves as a better yardstick for comparison. For one thing, it chooses to base its story on another of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books (“The Marvelous Land of Oz”) rather than jury-rigging a plot that does little more than rehash the original. It also has better songs than that one does; in fact, a few of these songs recall the spirit and jauntiness of those of the original movie, which means they got much closer than I thought they would. The movie does have a few direct associations with the original movie. Dorothy is voiced by Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, and former wicked witch Margaret Hamilton provides a voice as well, cast against type as Aunt Em here. The movie is not great, but it’s not too bad overall, and it even achieves a memorable sense of weirdness with a scene involve ambulatory trees in a haunted forest chopping at each other with a golden axe, which for some reason transforms them into giggling tree matrons. There’s quite a bit of star power in the voices here; along with those listed above, we have Mickey Rooney, Danny Thomas, Herschel Bernardi, Paul Lynde, Ethel Merman, and (to round out things a bit) Mel Blanc and Larry Storch.

The Return of the Ape Man (1944)

Article #116 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing date: 7-10-2001
Posting date: 11-23-2001

While experimenting with suspended animation, a scientist revives an ape man found in the polar regions, and decides to give it half a new brain in order for him to communicate with it.

For me, this was by far the goofiest of the Monogram horrors Bela Lugosi made during the forties. Despite the title, it has nothing to do with the earlier Monogram movie THE APE MAN. The fun starts with the opening newspaper headline, which talks about the disappearance of a “noted wino” (those may not be the exact words, but you get the gist), which makes me wonder just how slow a news day this was.

This also backs up my earlier claim that in the Monogram horrors, Bela Lugosi was apt to do things the hard way. In order to prove the effectiveness of his suspended animation process, he decides that he needs to find an ape man frozen in a block of ice for thousands of years; what is amazing is that he actually manages to find one. He replaces half the brain of the ape man with half the brain of John Carradine, and ends up with an ape man who not only murders, but can play the piano.

George Zucco was originally supposed to play the ape man, but Frank Moran took over when Zucco backed out; this was a wise decision for Zucco, because this is the movie with the infamous scene where, when the ape man exits the lab through a high window, you get a clear view of…uh…well, whatever is under his animal skin. There are some who believe he’s not wearing anything underneath (which would most likely have been historically accurate), but my print isn’t clear enough to verify this; let us hope, in this case, that historical accuracy was not in force here, and we’re seeing nothing more than the ape man’s BVDs.

Il monello della strada (1950)

aka Street Urchin
Article 5284 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 10-28-2016
Directed by Carlo Borghesio
Featuring Erminio Macario, Ciccio Jacono, Luisa Rossi
Country: Italy
What it is: Italian comedy

An Italian working as a miner in Argentina marries a woman by proxy. When he returns to Italy, he discovers the woman he married is dead and that he has become the legal father of the woman’s son. He tries to get rid of the boy, but there’s a mysterious woman who won’t let him do it…

To some extent, I must withhold judgment on this one because the copy I found was in Italian without English subtitles. All I initially had to go on was the fantastic content as listed in the Walt Lee guide, which mentions that the plot involves a mother’s ghost making sure that her son finds a good father. Fortunately, this tidbit of information did make it possible for me to more or less follow the plot, and the fact that it was a comedy which occasionally relies on visuals for its humor means that I wasn’t left completely out of the loop. In short, despite the language barrier and the fact that certain plot points and jokes escaped me, I did rather enjoy this one. There’s a fun sequence in which the main character pretends to be a western hero character in a comic book, and the final sequence of the movie has our hero moving through an entire world frozen in time, and the fact that it’s all done by having people trying (not always successfully) to stand really still doesn’t really interfere with the fun of the moment. I always find it a nice experience when I can somehow appreciate a foreign movie when I can’t understand the language, and it happens often enough that I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time by making the effort.

Rana: The Secret of Shadow Lake (1981)

aka Croaked: Frog Monster from Hell
Article 5042 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-7-2016
Directed by Bill Rebane
Featuring Paul Callaway, Richard Lange, Glenn Scherer
Country: USA
What it is: Monster on the loose

A man returns to an island he visited in his youth and recounts the story of his encounter with a strange beast who lived in the lake.

I will give the primary title of the movie a bit of credit; it’s actually a bit moody and evocative. However, that secondary title is so silly that I find myself crediting the folks at exploitation-happy Troma for coming up with that one. However, once I saw the directorial credit of Bill Rebane, I got the sense that the movie wasn’t going to live up (or down) to either of these two titles. Sure enough, most of the movie is a talky snoozefest with little to hold the attention. They keep us from getting a clear look at the monster for most of the movie, but I’m not sure why they bothered; when you see it in its full glory, it certainly wasn’t worth the wait. The special effects were by the ironically-named company Spectacular Effects. The only thing that saves this one from being Rebane’s worst movie is that MONSTER A-GO GO is still out there.

Full Moon High (1981)

Article 4986 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-12-2015
Directed by Larry Cohen
Featuring Adam Arkin, Roz Kelly, Ed McMahon
Country: USA
What it is: Werewolf comedy

When a high school football player contracts lycanthropy on a trip to Romania, he drops out of school and travels around the world right before the big game. Twenty years later he returns and goes back to school, hoping to break the curse by making a touchdown in the big game.

Larry Cohen is a very interesting writer and director, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has a flair for comedy. I will admit there are some fun lines and entertaining moments in this werewolf comedy, and the movie actually starts strongly enough that I thought I was going to enjoy this one. Alas, when it doesn’t work (which sadly is most of the time), it feels forced and awkward, and occasionally even desperate. I gather that Cohen was also intending to make some observations about how times and people change, and I can see some attempts being made in that direction, but the movie is a little too silly to make it stick and it gets lost. It’s also rather disappointing that the werewolf makeup is extremely lame. For me, the best thing about the movie was a surprise appearance by Adam Arkin’s father Alan as a psychiatrist that treats his patients by insulting them; he’s the only thing in the movie that is consistently funny. The movie may also have the single weirdest variation I’ve seen on the shower attack scene from PSYCHO, and though it feels out of place, it’s far from the only thing in the movie that does. All in all, I thought this one was a bit of a mess.

The Wiz (1978)

THE WIZ (1978)
Article 4538 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-19-2014
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Featuring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell
Country: USA
What it is: Soul version of THE WIZARD OF OZ

A 24-year-old schoolteacher finds herself swept up by a winter tornado into the land of Oz, where she comes into the possession of silver slippers. She seeks a great wizard to help her return home.

I think three things were important in the shaping of this musical. The first was to make a soul all-black version of the Oz story. I have no problem with this idea, and since Motown produced the movie, at least there were some authentic soul music roots involved in the making of this (though if I’d had my druthers, I would have been much more interested in what George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic would have made of the story). The second was to use authentic New York locations to portray Oz; I suspect this would be most satisfying for those who either live in or are enamored of New York City, but I’m neither. The third is something I read in the trivia section of IMDB, and I think it may be the thing that is most responsible for how the movie turned out; apparently the scriptwriter was into est (Erhard Seminars Training), and the philosophies of that movement were incorporated into much of the story. I suspect this explains the preponderance of songs in the movie about “believing in yourself” that bring the story to a screeching halt. And therein lies my biggest problem with this movie. The 1939 version of THE WIZARD OF OZ is a model of how to incorporate musical numbers into a story; the songs are short, catchy, and advance the story. The musical numbers here are long-winded and stop the story short; I could easily jettison all of Diana Ross’s ballads, Lena Horne’s number, and the big dance numbers (when they get to Oz and when the Winkies are freed) because they are all unnecessary and boring. As for the rest of the movie, I’m afraid I found the manifestation of the ideas more cute than interesting, with an occasional foray into the totally bizarre (the whole subway sequence, for example). But I often found myself utterly bored, and that’s something I’ve never been by the 1939 version of the movie.

Jack Frost (1965)

aka Morozko
Article 3908 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-16-2012
Posting Date: 4-26-2012
Directed by Aleksandr Rou
Featuring Aleksandr Khvylya, Natalya Sedykh, Eduard Izotov
Country: Soviet Union
What it is: Fairy tale

A young man meets and falls in love with a young woman, but the path of true love does not run smooth. The young man is given the head of a bear by a mushroom, and must learn humility to return to normal, while the girl is tormented by an evil stepmother and then abandoned in a forest in the middle of winter. Can the two lovers find happiness?

This is one bizarre fairy tale. The plot involves a magic mushroom man, a grandfatherly personification of winter, a witch that lives in a hut with chicken legs, a gang of bandits, a pig that turns into a sled, and ambulatory trees, to start with. It’s all thrown together with a manic energy that leaves your head swimming. The music is equally bizarre, but I can actually say it didn’t annoy me, and I think leaving the lyrics in some of the songs in Russian rather than translating them into English was a good idea. As a result of the movie’s strangeness (and also because the movie was featured on MST3K), the movie is often dismissed in this country as merely bad, but I prefer to not look at it that way. I myself get the feeling that the movie is steeped in fairy tales of another culture; for one thing, I DO recognize the character of Baba Yaga, who I recognized as a common folklore character in certain cultures. In the end, there’s an air of authenticity to this movie that makes it an interesting watch, and I suspect that it relies on archetypes from another culture that can’t be easily translated.

The Strangers Gundown (1969)

aka Django il bastardo
Article 3885 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-25-2012
Posting Date: 4-3-2012
Directed by Sergio Garrone
Featuring Anthony Steffen, Paolo Gozlino, Luciano Rossi
Country: Italy
What it is: Spooky spaghetti western

A man is gunning down three former confederate officers who betrayed their regiment. He is recognized as one of the soldiers of the regiment who was believed to be dead. Has he returned from the grave…?

One of these days, I’m going to go through all of my Mill Creek fifty movie sets to see just how many of them contain movies that I’ve covered in my series. I expect quite a few from those with fantastic themes, but there are a few that seem less likely to yield any. However, thanks to this entry, I was able to dip into my Spaghetti Western set. The fantastic content of this one centers around the possibility of the avenger (named Django) being a vengeful spirit from the grave. Is he? The movie does more or less answer the question before it’s all over, though I think the fact that this is the only Django movie I’ve covered so far should give you a bit of hint as to that. The movie certainly plays up the supernatural angle, especially with his ability to seemingly appear out of nowhere. Still, this seems to be pretty standard spaghetti western fare; it’s moody enough, but it gets fairly confusing in the middle of the movie, and of course, there’s plenty of gunplay. You wouldn’t think so, what with only three officers as targets, but there’s more henchmen than you can shake a stick at, and they’re always good for upping the body count. By the way, I didn’t forget the apostrophe; the people who came up with the opening credits did.

Night of the Death Cult (1975)

aka La noche de las gaviatos, The Night of the Seagulls

Article 3648 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-26-2011
Posting Date: 8-10-2011
Directed by Amando de Ossorio
Featuring Victor Petit, Maria Kosty, Sandra Mozarowsky
Country: Spain
What it is: Blind Dead movie

A doctor and his wife move their practice to a small coastal village whose residents treat them with open hostility. It is soon discovered they have a secret; they have been leaving young women of the village to be sacrificed by a cult of the undead.

When I saw THE RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD, I took issue with the way Amando de Ossorio had changed the rules that dictated the actions of his undead minions from the first movie in the series. Now, having just seen the fourth (I have yet to see the third), I’ve come to the conclusion that he actually did something very interesting with this series; rather than having each movie follow the other in a logical succession, he seemed more interested in varying those rules and putting the blind dead in different environments. It ends up feeling more like “variations on a theme”, which keeps the movies in the series from becoming increasingly stagnant repeats of each other; each one feels different. I quite like this take on it; though it’s made of very familiar elements (the hostile village with a secret is hardly an original concept), it’s interesting to see the changes made to the blind dead to make it work in this context. Furthermore, the movie is quite well dubbed, and as always, there is something genuinely eerie in seeing those zombies trotting around in slow motion on their horses. My favorite scene has one of the zombies set on fire, but who then attempts to make one more attack before being consumed. I have to admit I’m looking forward to seeing the third in the series.