A Page of Madness (1926)

A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)
aka Kurutta ippeji
Article 4227 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-12-2013
Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa
Featuring Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa, Ayako Iijima
Country: Japan
What it is: An encounter with madness

A man takes a job at an insane asylum in the hopes that he can free his wife from it.

From what I gather, very little Japanese silent film is extant, and now I’ve seen two from the era in the same week. Furthermore, they’re both by the same director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and if these movies are any indication, he was a definite cinematic genius; this one is even more breathtaking stylistically than JUJIRO. According to IMDB, this was made on an extremely low budget; if so, it shows just how much can be done on a tiny budget with creative editing and innovative camerawork. The plot itself is a bit obscure at times, partially due to the fact that there are no subtitles, and partially because the style of the piece (which occasionally puts us in the position of seeing the world through the eyes of the madmen) often leaves us unsure of what is real. From a story perspective, I’m not sure it can be called a horror film, but because of the way madness pervades the film, it becomes one anyway. At any rate, this is one genuinely unsettling cinematic experience.

Pas question le Samedi (1966)

PAS QUESTION LE SAMEDI (1966)
aka Impossible on Saturday
Article 4179 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-16-2013
Directed by Alex Joffe
Featuring Robert Hirsch, Dalia Friedland, Misha Asherov
Country: Italy / Israel / France
What it is: Comedy

A Jewish conductor, after having lived a sinful life, is visited by the ghost of his father on his deathbed, and told that he can only redeem himself if his six sons (only one of whom is legitimate) all marry Israeli wives and get together for a memorial prayer in one month’s time.

For a while, I thought this was going to end up on my “ones that got away” list despite my best intentions; I knew the movie existed and that it was on DVD in France, but for the longest time I couldn’t find a dealer who was willing to ship a copy to me here in the USA. However, I finally found one, and here it is. I knew at the outset that it wouldn’t have English subtitles, so I armed myself with a short plot description and sat down and watched. Fortunately, that was enough; though a number of details certainly eluded me, much of the humor and plot is conveyed through visual terms, and I did find myself caught up in the movie and rather than having been left scratching my head. In particular, I like the scenes involving the conductor and his father (both of whom are ghosts throughout most of the length of the movie), and I especially like that the ghost of the father (who is dressed in white to indicate his purity) is talked into interfering with situations in the real world to save his son’s soul, only to find pieces of his clothing turn black as he does so. Robert Hirsch does an excellent job in thirteen roles (I wish I could spot them all); I especially like his performance as a German woman dressed as a man in hopes of getting herself a share of the fortune. Again, it would have been better if I had seen it with English subtitles, but at least this was one of the cases where making the effort paid off.

Passion and Death of Christ (1903)

PASSION AND DEATH OF CHRIST (1903)
aka La vie et la passion de Jesus Christ, Life and Passion of Christ
Article 4177 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-13-2013
Directed by Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca
Featuring Madame Moreau and Monsieur Moreau
Country: France
What it is: The life of Christ

The story of Christ is told from the Annunciation to the Ascension.

Adventures in Movie-Hunting: This movie was listed in the Walt Lee guide as “Life and Passion of Christ”, but when I couldn’t find a match under that title on IMDB, I did a search on director Ferdinand Zecca’s name. At first I stumbled across a 1907 version of the same story with his name and director and thought that was the match, but by doing a search on the other director’s name, I saw I was mistaken. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the mistake because it led me to a copy of the movie. The copy exists on Amazon Instant Video, but it’s attached to the listing for the 1907 version of the movie instead of the 1903 version. To further confuse the issue, it lists actors who actually appeared in FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS from 1912. Nevertheless, I had a hunch that I had the correct movie, and I rented it. And, based on the final credits from the people who restored the film, I now believe I have the right film. I mention this merely to illustrate how maddening it is sometimes to find these early silents, especially when those providing them don’t do the proper research.

Now, I’m not particularly devout or reverent, and despite the fact that I accept that the Christ story (and indeed, the whole Bible) are at the very least important touchstones of Western culture, the thought of watching all of these early adaptations of the story (many of which are extant) doesn’t really excite me, at least partly because they are geared for the devout and reverent. I will say that this one is one of the more entertaining that I’ve encountered. It’s heavy on the special effects (though there are just too many magical appearances of angels), it uses effective if subdued hand tinting, and some of the scenes are very well staged (particularly in its use of depth and the creative use of backdrops). It’s also efficient and doesn’t let its various scenes run on too long. All in all, I think this is a very good adaptation, and if you get a bit bored with the very familiar story, you can have some fun spotting how many times the Pathe rooster is incorporated into the scenery. Once again, the presence of angels and miracles place the movie in the realms of fantastic cinema.

The Phantom Light (1935)

THE PHANTOM LIGHT (1935)
Article 4128 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-10-2013
Directed by Michael Powell
Featuring Binnie Hale, Gordon Harker, Donald Calthrop
Country: UK
What it is: Mystery thriller

A lighthouse keeper comes to Wales to take over the management of a lighthouse that is supposedly haunted; its last two keepers have vanished mysteriously, and one of the men in the lighthouse has gone mad. Is the lighthouse really haunted, or is there another explanation…?

Even great directors sometimes have to serve apprenticeships, and Michael Powell (who directed such movies as THE RED SHOES, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN and TALES OF HOFFMANN) spent most of the thirties serving one. This movie is largely a variation of THE GHOST TRAIN, and I’m quite surprised that so many genre guides reject this one; even though the threat turns out to not be supernatural at all, I’ve covered plenty of movies listed in those other guides which have even less fantastic content than this one. At the very least, there’s a lot of talk about the lighthouse being haunted. It’s pretty standard fare, but there’s some nice visual moments here and there, and the editing during some of the climactic scenes is sharply done. The Welsh setting also adds a little color to the proceedings. This one is pretty minor, but not bad.

The Possessed (1977)

THE POSSESSED (1977)
TV-Movie

Article 4126 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-8-2013
Directed by Jerry Thorpe
Featuring James Farentino, Claudette Nevins, Eugene Roche
Country: USA
What it is: Evil incarnate thriller

A girls’ school is beset with incidents of spontaneous combustion and other strange events. A defrocked priest who underwent a near-death experience comes in to investigate.

There’s some nice ambiance on hand at times in this movie, as well as some effective music, a few striking performances (including one from a pre-STAR WARS Harrison Ford and a weird one by Joan Hackett), and a somewhat offbeat feel. But it’s sometimes trying to be too mysterious for its own good, and the movie often comes across as being annoyingly vague. A torpid pace and too many talky scenes mar the movie as well. It’s a bit of a shame; the movie has a unique vibe, and I wished it worked better than it did. As it is, it comes across as a missed opportunity.

Prime Risk (1985)

PRIME RISK (1985)
Article 4121 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-31-2012
Directed by Michael L. Farkas
Featuring Lee Montgomery, Toni Hudson, Sam Bottoms
Country: USA
What it is: Thriller

A female hacker and her aspiring pilot boyfriend concoct a scheme to rip off money from ATMs. However, they stumble across a plot by spies to destroy the economy of the United States.

To point out that this movie is basically a rip off of WARGAMES is a no-brainer; the blurbs on the VHS packet hint so persistently at the identity of its model that it could justly be accused of wearing its Xeroxed heart on its sleeve. The main differences are in the details, especially in choosing economic disaster over nuclear destruction as its Armageddon. That being said, the movie is passable; not great, not awful, it serves as an acceptable time-killer when nothing better is on, and can easily be forgotten in time for the next movie that comes along. The biggest names in the cast are Keenan Wynn and Clu Gulager; the former seems a bit bored by the whole thing, while the other is fussy and cranky. All in all, this is another movie that I can now take off the hunt list.

Phantoms, Inc. (1945)

PHANTOMS, INC. (1945)
Article 4105 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-13-2012
Directed by Harold Young
Featuring Arthur Shields, Ann Shoemaker, Frank Reicher
Country: USA
What it is: Short in the “Crime Does Not Pay” series

A couple is bilked by a fake medium who claims to be in contact with their son, missing in the war.

This short was part of MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” series, which illustrated the various types of criminal rackets and the way we can get caught up in them. Most of the shorts in the series probably do not fall within the genre limitations of this project, but this one, as it deals with spiritualism (albeit faked), does. It’s the only one I’ve seen from the series, so I can’t really compare it with the others. However, I will say this much; it’s effective in making us understand how we can be suckered into the machinations of these con men, how they obtain the necessary information to make the con work, and in getting us to feel the tragedy of the innocent victims who get caught up in the schemes. It is less effective in convincing us that the phony spiritualists will be caught, at least partially because it points out that some of these rackets do operate within the bounds of the law; in order for the criminals to be caught in this one, we have a melodramatic series of events that forces the con man to commit murder, and it is for this act, and not the racket in question, that he is arrested. As for the fantastic elements, those drawn to the short for a full-blown seance will be somewhat disappointed, as the spiritualist does little more than tell the victims what they want to here; no fake voices, ghostly figures, crystal balls, or other paraphernalia come into play.