Miracle on 34th Street (1973)

Article 5056 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-21-2016
Directed by Fielder Cook
Featuring Sebastian Cabot, Jane Alexander, David Hartman
Country: USA
What it is: TV-Movie remake of a classic

The new Santa for Macy’s turns out to believe he’s the real thing, and complications ensue.

The direction is not particularly inspired, the touches designed to make it seem more contemporary are unnecessary, and I can live without the songs, but fortunately, there’s only a very few of those. Beyond that, I mostly don’t have a problem with this remake of the perennial Christmas classic. For one thing, it’s well cast and there’s a lot of familiar faces in appropriate roles; on top of those listed above, the movie also features Jim Backus, Roddy McDowall, Tom Bosley and James Gregory. It also sticks fairly closely to the original story, and the story is sturdy enough so that I do find myself smiling and laughing at the right places. The most striking difference to my eyes is one I can understand; Kringle’s attack on the psychiatrist uses a different and gentler weapon than the one used in the original movie. Yet, when all is said and done, the movie suffers because it is a remake that doesn’t really have anything strong of its own to add to the mix, and the movie feels rather unnecessary. This is probably why this version has largely been forgotten while the original is still revived regularly.

The Shining (1980)

Article 5055 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-20-2016
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Featuring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
Country: USA / UK
What it is: Horror, Kubrick style

A man agrees to be caretaker of an isolated hotel in the Rockies during the off season, and he moves there with his family. However, the man has issues that the isolation of the place worsens… and the hotel seems to have a few issues of its own…

When this movie first came out, I remember the critical reception to be less than glowing. Many people felt that Kubrick didn’t understand horror, and Stephen King fans objected to the many changes made to the original novel. In fact, I came away with the general feel that it was considered a misfire from Kubrick. Over the years, though, I noticed that the movie’s reputation shifted considerably, both as a horror movie and as a Kubrick movie. On IMDB, the movie is the third highest-rated horror movie of all time (only losing out to PSYCHO and ALIEN), and it’s Kubrick’s third highest as well (behind PATHS OF GLORY and DR. STRANGELOVE). My own guess for the reason for this shift is that the movie is so indelible; various scenes are realized so exquisitely that they remain with you long after you’ve seen the movie, and with each re-viewing they plant themselves even deeper. I like all the performances, though Nicholson’s is the one that really dominates here. Yes, it doesn’t do justice to King’s novel (which I have read), but it does take on a life of its own; I’m always amazed how this two-and-a-half hour movie can leave me hypnotized. I have several favorite scenes, such as the one where Nicholson looks over a model of the hedge maze, and we see what we think is initially his point of view until we see the characters moving inside of it. For me, though, the high point of the movie is when Duvall finally gets a chance to read the manuscript Nicholson has been writing.

The Shaggy D.A. (1976)

THE SHAGGY D.A. (1976)
Article 5054 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-19-2016
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Featuring Dean Jones, Tim Conway, Suzanne Pleshette
Country: USA
What it is: Shopping Cart Movie

A man (who fell under the spell of a magic ring that turned him into a dog as a teenager) decides to run for district attorney to clean up the town and bring out the corruption of the current D.A. However, the magic ring is stolen from a museum, and when the inscription is read, the spell returns and the man becomes a dog again.

It took Disney seventeen years to return to their first shopping cart movie and make a sequel; this is the result. It’s wilder, messier, not as inspired, and the story is very contrived. The most impressive thing about this one is the wealth of familiar faces; Dean Jones, Tim Conway, Suzanne Pleshette, Keenan Wynn, Dick Van Patten, Jo Anne Worley, Vic Tayback, Richard Bakalyan, John Fiedler and Hans Conried all pop up. Most of the humor comes from the antics of the dog or from Conway; most of the shtick the latter is saddled with is pretty weak, but he makes the most of his good moments. For me, the cutest idea here is that all of the dogs in the dog pound are given the voices of various famous actors; there are imitations of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Mae West and Peter Lorre, and it would have been a bit more fun if the vocal imitations had been better. The shopping cart movies were running out of steam by this point, and overall the movie is pretty tepid.

Le temple de l’elephant blanc (1964)

aka Temple of the White Elephant, Sandok, il Maciste della giungla
Article 5053 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-17-2016
Directed by Umberto Lenzi
Featuring Sean Flynn, Marie Versini, Alessandro Panaro
Country: Italy / France
What it is: Historical action movie

When the daughter of a Viceroy is captured by a dangerous Indian sect that worships a white elephant, a lancer concocts a plan to infiltrate the cult’s temple and free the daughter.

Is that Maciste’s name I see in the Italian title? Yes, it is, but in this case, it’s a descriptive word; I’ve seen the title translated as SANDOK, GIANT OF THE JUNGLE. Furthermore, Sandok, though having a great deal the strength and wearing a loincloth, isn’t quite a sword-and-sandal hero; furthermore, he’s a secondary character in the action. The copy I found of this one was in French without English subtitles, but the plot description I found on IMDB gave me enough info to scope out the plot. There are a few fantastic touches here and there; one of the characters is under hypnosis, Sandok does demonstrate a certain amount of “super-strength” in one scene (he breaks some chains and bends the bars back), and the action makes me wonder whether the white elephant being worshipped might actually have greater than average powers, though that is fairly ambiguous since I couldn’t understand the dialogue. The movie itself seems to be pretty standard action fare; I didn’t see anything that really stood out or made it special.

Knights of Terror (1963)

aka Il terrore dei mantelli rossi
Article 5052 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-17-2016
Directed by Mario Costa
Featuring Tony Russel, Scilla Gabel, Yves Vincent
Country: Italy / France / Spain
What it is: Costume swashbuckler

A small duchy is terrorized by a group of horsemen known as the Knights of Terror; they are believed to be the ghosts of an ambushed group of men seeking vengeance. The duke seeks the help of Captain Mirko to fight the terror, but Mirko refuses unless the duke’s daughter will take his hand in marriage. Much swordplay, intrigue and horse-riding follows.

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while there pops up a movie in the realm of costume adventure that has enough fantastic content to be covered here. In this case, there is the rumor that the riders are ghosts, a scene involving a creepy secret passage, and even a touch of science fiction towards the end when an inventor pops up. If you watch this, you’ll probably figure out the true identity of the Knights of Terror early on, and the biggest mystery of the piece will be to wonder why the hero appears to be on the side of the villains. Beyond that, this is a pretty tepid affair, with the story coming to a halt so we can have lots of scenes of people riding around on horses, unnecessary sword-fighting scenes, and lots of footage of peasants carrying around what must be the standard peasant possession of the time, a two-pronged stick. All in all, this is uninspired action fare.

Scream of the Wolf (1974)

Article 5051 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-16-2016
Directed by Dan Curtis
Featuring Peter Graves, Clint Walker, Jo Ann Pflug
Country: USA
What it is: TV-Movie horror mystery

A wild beast is killing people in a small town. Could it be a werewolf?

Dan Curtis and screenwriter Richard Matheson had both worked together in THE NIGHT STALKER, in which no one but the hero believes that a real vampire is on the loose. In some ways, this movie is the opposite; most people in this one believe the killer is a werewolf, but the hero isn’t so sure. To its credit, the movie works up to an interesting climax; it has a solid, memorable ending. It’s the long stretch leading up to the climax that is less than enchanting; quite frankly, most of the movie comes across as tired and predictable, and there’s a shortage of interesting characters. The one exception is a major one; Clint Walker’s hunter character easily steals the movie and if the movie works at all, it’s to his credit. Graves’ performance isn’t bad, but for the most part it’s business as usual with him, though the ending does give him a nice character moment as well. This is one of Dan Curtis’s lesser TV-movies, but the patient viewer won’t walk away empty-handed.

L’isola degli uomini pesce (1979)

aka Island of the Fishmen, Screamers
Article 5050 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-14-2016
Directed by Sergio Martino
Featuring Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson
Country: Italy
What it is: Horror/adventure movie

Survivors of a shipwreck end up on an island run by a mysterious man and plagued by strange fish monsters.

First, a bit of background. When this Italian movie was brought over to the United States, it was decided that it didn’t have enough gore content, so about twelve minutes of gory new footage featuring Cameron Mitchell and Mel Ferrer was edited into the movie, and other elements were shuffled around as well. This version was retitled SCREAMERS. For the record, I seem to have seen the original Italian version, though I was fortunate enough to see one that was dubbed into English.

Probably the main reason this version is pretty light on gore is that it really isn’t a horror movie; the story plays out more like an adventure story. It’s an odd hodgepodge of genres and ideas; it’s partially inspired by THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU and THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and it throws in elements of voodoo as well as the lost continent of Atlantis before it’s all through. It’s not well regarded, but I actually found the hodgepodge rather interesting, and I have to admit that it’s one of the more entertaining of Sergio Martino’s movies to me. It also features Joseph Cotten as a professor involved in some bizarre experiments. It’s a bit of mess, but overall I thought it was pretty decent.

Happy Birthday, Wanda June (1971)

Article 5049 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-13-2016
Directed by Mark Robson
Featuring Rod Steiger, Susannah York, George Grizzard
Country: USA
What it is: Comedy/drama

After having been missing in the jungle for eight years, a macho hunter/soldier of fortune returns home to his wife and son, who have to adjust to the changes in their lives.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote the screenplay for this, adapted from his own stage play. I’ve encountered Vonnegut before in this series, having seen SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE (a better movie) and SLAPSTICK (OF ANOTHER KIND) (a much worse movie). Most of Vonnegut’s work falls within the bounds of science fiction, but this is one of the exceptions. Most of it plays a like a straight comedy-drama, but a few scenes take place in heaven, a place where everyone plays shuffleboard and which apparently doesn’t exclude certain individuals for reasons of morality (Adolf Hitler and Jack the Ripper are there, for example). I’d read the play many years ago and didn’t feel it was one of Vonnegut’s best efforts, though I think it plays better once you match up actors to the characters. This one has an excellent cast, with fine performances from Steiger, York and William Hickey. It’s a meditation on life, death, heroism, cultural changes, and anything else that crosses Vonnegut’s mind. It’s an interesting movie, though I’m not sure it’s a great one; it’s one I may have to think about and revisit before I really know how I feel about it.

The Creeper (1977)

aka Rituals
Article 5048 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-13-2016
Directed by Peter Carter
Featuring Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dane, Robin Gammell
Country; Canada / USA
What it is: Thriller

Five doctors decide to rough it in the wilderness, but find themselves being stalked by a killer who may be taking revenge for a past injustice.

The John Stanley guide from which I culled this title for my hunt list describes it as something of a cross between DELIVERANCE and a slasher film, and I think that gives a good description of the movie. It’s an uneven but compelling adventure thriller, and the murder/death scenes are memorable; the killer is less apt to attack directly than he is to set traps and use scare tactics, and some of these are quite nightmarish. The movie appears to have been made very cheaply (about a sixth of the budget went towards Hal Holbrook’s salary), but it uses its money and locations well. It’s a little difficult for me to evaluate just how good it is; my print is on one of those public domain sets, and it’s in pretty ragged shape, so I can’t quite say whether the difficulty of making out what’s happening in certain scenes is the result of my print or not. Still, what I do see is pretty effective, and the movie, though deliberately paced, is quite harrowing. The final shot is quite memorable.

Twirligig (1952)

Article 5047 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-12-2016
Directed by Norman McLaren
No cast
Country: Canada
What it is: Abstract animation

A little red squiggle mutates and gyrates in front of several planes of abstract figures.

Yes, it’s more abstract animation that gets considered for this project by dint of its being non-realistic. This one was also created in 3D, but I lack the necessary equipment to watch it in such. However, even in 2D, the planes of action seems fairly cleanly delineated, so I can rather sense how it might look. This one doesn’t appear to have been drawn to fit a piece of music; rather, it appears the music was composed to complement the visuals here. There’s a light-hearted and playful spirit to this one, with the squiggle even taking on enough anthropomorphic design to tip its hat to you. At only about three and a half minutes, it doesn’t strain your patience, either. This one was rather enjoyable.