The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963)

THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH (1963)
Episodes of Disney’s “The Wonderful World of Color”
Article 2907 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-23-2009
Posting Date: 7-29-2009
Directed by James Neilson
Featuring Patrick McGoohan, George Cole, Tony Britton
Country: UK

A vicar of the village of Dymchurch has an alter ego; he is also a notorious masked smuggler known as the Scarecrow. He matches his wits against the king’s.

I may be stretching the rules here, but my source does indeed list this series of three episodes from Disney’s “The Wonderful World of Color” as a movie, so here I am covering it. Oh, it was released overseas as a movie, too (under the title DR. SYN ALIAS THE SCARECROW), but that’s not the title my source lists. At any rate, if I am breaking my rules, it was far from an unpleasant experience; this adaptation of the Dr. Syn stories is fun, effective and truly entertaining, without an ounce of the cuteness that I was afraid might infect the production, considering it was a product of Disney. Taken as a whole, it is episodic, given that the three episodes each work as a single story. In the first, the Scarecrow and his men have to outwit a press gang intent on forcing the young men of the village to serve in the royal navy. In the second, the Scarecrow must deal with a traitor who has been pressured into revealing the names of companions in crime. In the third (my favorite), he must rescue some prisoners in Dover castle before they are forced to reveal that it was the vicar that was helping them to hide from the law. All three stories are solid, and Patrick McGoohan’s performance as Syn / the Scarecrow is outstanding; he sharply differentiates the characters so there is little chance of his being recognized as his alter ego. I also love the designs of the masks used by the Scarecrow as well as his cohorts, Hellspite and Curlew; they are scary and effective. It’s only on the borderline as far as fantastic content goes; rumors abound that the Scarecrow is a demon or a ghost, and those masks are certainly scary enough. Quite frankly, this is far and away the most effective version of these stories, and I can see how it would have a great impact on those who saw it when they were kids. Furthermore, the theme song is truly memorable. Recommended.

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Santo the Silver Mask vs the Martian Invasion (1967)

SANTO THE SILVER MASK VS THE MARTIAN INVASION (1967)
aka Santo el enmascarado de plata vs la invasion de los marcianos
Article 2879 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-26-2009
Posting Date: 7-1-2009
Directed by Alfredo B. Crevenna
Featuring Santo, Wolf Ruvinskis, El Nazi
Country: Mexico

Santo must do battle with Martians who are intent on saving the Earth from itself… by taking over the planet and forcing them to live in peace.

Maybe I’ve gone off the deep end here, but I would have to nominate this as the best of the Mexican wrestler movies. Granted, this judgment is clouded somewhat by the fact that this is one of the few movies of the bunch that I’ve had English subtitles to help me understand what’s going on. It’s a movie with a message, and though it’s somewhat ham-fisted about it, it does add a touch of seriousness to the silliness that abounds. It also seems like more care was given to the story than is usually the case for these movies. Here’s a quick list of some of the more remarkable touches I found.

1) I’m amused by the opening sequence, in which the Martians take over the TV signals to announce their impending invasion of the Earth. This fails to frighten the Earthlings because they mistake the transmission as a comedy skit. Oddly enough, I found this concept rather convincing.

2) Quite a few people die by disintegration in this one, including huge crowds at sporting events. The Martians even disintegrate defenseless children.

3) There are several moments where Santo finds himself surveying a deserted location after a Martian attack. These scenes are unexpectedly poignant, especially since there is no music underlying these scenes, only silence.

4) There’s a rather surreal sequence where Santo holds a wrestling match in a deserted arena, insisting to his opponents that they must continue the match even though there is no audience.

5) On top of disintegrating humans and trying to kidnap Santo (so they can take him to Mars and study him), the Martians also kidnap a strange group of people. They kidnap a small family, a pair of government officials, a science fiction writer, a nuclear scientist, and a priest. Why? No explanation is tendered.

Oh, there’s plenty of silliness as well, including a musical number by the Martian women, the Martian costumes and names borrowed from mythology, and the all-too-convenient lever that blows everything to atoms. But the movie is surprisingly focused; the only wrestling scenes are relevant to the plot, for example. No, it’s not a great movie, but it’s one of the most ambitious Santo movies as well as the most enjoyable. If you were only to see one of them, this is the one I’d recommend.

The Strangler (1964)

THE STRANGLER (1964)
Article 2872 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-19-2009
Posting Date: 6-24-2009
Directed by Burt Topper
Featuring Victor Buono, David McLean, Diane Sayer
Country: USA

Police are searching for a serial strangler who specializes in nurses. The killer is a seemingly mild-mannered man with an overbearing and manipulative mother.

This movie has one big plus; Victor Buono was a great actor who was wonderful at playing sinister characters who outwardly don’t seem so at first, and that’s just what is called for here. He is fascinating to watch, and when he’s on the screen, he holds your attention. This helps to make up for the fact that the script falls a little bit short. I’m particularly disappointed that the movie doesn’t really give us an understanding of what drives the killer to commit the murders of nurses in the first place; instead, it concentrates on the murders that only have a direct bearing on his relationship with his mother, which are departures from his usual pattern. This means we never really get the insight into what makes him tick, as we only see the murders that are logically motivated. I suppose the lack of insight was to be expected; after all, the minute the psychologist confuses schizophrenia with split personality, I knew the movie wasn’t going to be psychologically incisive. Still, for a low budget movie, it’s efficient and mostly well-acted, though I wasn’t impressed with the acting from Davey Davison, despite the fact that she’s given a prominent credit during the opening. In short, it’s good, but not great.

Spy in the Sky! (1958)

SPY IN THE SKY! (1958)
Article 2869 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-16-2009
Posting Date: 6-21-2009
Directed by W. Lee Wilder
Featuring Steve Brodie, Andrea Domburg, George Coulouris
Country: UK / USA

Spies are searching for a Soviet rocket scientist to learn his secrets.

False alarm, everyone. This is just another Gizmo Maguffin, and the Gizmo is just cashing in on the fears surrounding Sputnik; the closest we get to anything remotely in the realm of science fiction is seeing a light move across the sky during the opening title. From then on, it’s static Spy vs. Spy stuff, barely competent at best, aggressively snooze-inducing at worst. You’ll recognize the static style of Billy Wilder’s brother W. Lee Wilder here; he’s the same man who gave us PHANTOM FROM SPACE, KILLERS FROM SPACE and THE SNOW CREATURE.

The Sorceress (1956)

THE SORCERESS (1956)
aka La Sorciere, Blonde Witch
Article 2863 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-20-2009
Posting Date: 6-15-2009
Directed by Andre Michel
Featuring Marina Vlady, Nicole Courcel, Maurice Ronet
Country: France / Italy / Sweden

A French engineer comes to a remote village in Northern Sweden to help build a road. He encounters and falls in love with a local girl believed to be a witch by the villagers, and this creates a rift between him and the villagers and places the girl’s life in danger.

The witch in question does appear to have magical powers; she is able to magically heal wounds, cause people to trip, and, at one point, fixes a car by magic. However, the magic seems almost beside the point, and the movie could well exist without these touches. It’s essentially a tragedy, one that is brought about by the engineer’s selfishness and his inability to respect the superstitions and beliefs of the people with whom he must interact. In some ways, it’s the psychological equivalent of many a horror movie in which a man defies the superstitions of the natives only to fall victim to it; many a mummy movie is of this variety. The primary difference is that in this one, it’s not the reality of the superstition that defeats him; it’s the fact that the psychological need for people to believe in their superstitions is not something that can be callously dismissed, especially when they are willing to act on them. It’s a good movie, if a little slow to get started and a bit predictable at times, but I suspect that those drawn to it primarily for its fantastic content will be disappointed.

The Siege of Syracuse (1960)

THE SIEGE OF SYRACUSE (1960)
aka L’Assedio di Siracusa
Article 2861 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-8-2009
Posting Date: 6-13-2009
Directed by Pietro Francisci
Featuring Rossano Brazzi, Tina Louise, Sylva Koscina
Country: Italy / France

Syracuse lies between the warring nations of Rome and Carthage; as long as the balance of power between the nations remains intact, both nations are willing to preserve the neutrality of Syracuse. However, Rome has now gotten the upper hand in its struggle for power. The fate of Syracuse lies in the hands of its leader, the famed inventor and scientist Archimedes.

My print runs some eight minutes short of the original running time. I wouldn’t bother to report this detail usually; after all, most sword-and-sandal movies have been so damaged by bad dubbing and ill treatment by the time they hit our shores that I’d be more surprised if the running time did match. However, this isn’t your ordinary sword-and-sandal movie, at least for this series of reviews I’m writing. For one thing, it’s letterboxed and subtitled, which leaves its dignity intact, though, unfortunately, it also makes the abrupt jump cuts especially noticeable, hence my comment about the running length. It’s also different in that the central character isn’t the muscleman variety; as a king and a scientist, it’s more involved in politics and science and less with action. The first half of the movie is, unfortunately, a bloody bore; it’s mostly obsessed with the love life of Archimedes. It’s not until his love life becomes ensnarled with his politics and the impending war with Rome that the movie becomes interesting. From this point on, the movie is rather engaging, if far-fetched; it relies on certain plot devices (can you say “amnesia”?) that seem very contrived. However, given the dearth of superstrong musclemen, the movie can’t rely on the usual elements that qualify a movie as belonging to the fantastic genres. This one gets in as science fiction, as I suspect that the the mirror reflecting device that is used to set fire to the Roman fleet during the battle scenes (the world’s first death-ray?) never existed in real life. All in all, it’s uneven, but it has its moments.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
aka Det Sjunde inseglet
Article 2859 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 3-6-2009
Posting Date: 6-11-2009
Directed by Ingmar Bergman
Featuring Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bengt Ekerot, Nils Poppe
Country: Sweden

A knight returns from the crusades to find his land beset by the black plague. He also finds Death personified waiting for him, and he challenges him to a game of chess in the hope that, in the interim, he can find the proof he craves of the existence of God.

I’d heard about this movie for years, and I’ve been eagerly waiting to see it. I’ve actually had a copy now for a few years, but I knew it was destined to come up in my hunt list, so I was holding off until then. I fully expected to be fascinated by the film (as I was by the other Bergman movies I’ve seen), but I did’t expect to be quite so moved as I was.

The Knight is played by Max von Sydow, who is only fourth-billed in the credits (hence his omission in the cast list above, as I only include the three top-billed performers). It is his conflict that gives the movie its emotional center, and, in von Sydow’s hands, the inner conflict that drives his search is so real that its palpability makes the movie extraordinarily powerful. The movie uses him a bit sparingly, but gives us a plethora of other characters who play into the conflict; his squire feels at peace with his disbelief and has found a way to live life that gives it a meaning for him. Other characters play symbolic roles in the conflict; there’s a group of actors, two of which are married, named Joseph and Mary, and have a young child (how’s that for symbolism?), a butcher and his flirty wife, and a witch who, having had commerce with the devil, is of special interest to the knight. The direction is moody and powerful; Bergman was (among other things) a skillful fantasist, and could have made great horror movies. I’ve heard that Bergman’s work is so somber as to be humorless, but I find him to have just the right touch with humor; there were several times in this movie where I laughed out loud at the observations and he situations of the various characters. This is one revered classic that didn’t disappoint me in the least, and I fully believe it is worthy of its status as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.