The Thrill Killers (1964)

Article 1949 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-16-2006
Posting Date: 12-13-2006
Directed by Ray Dennis Steckler
Featuring Ray Dennis Steckler, Liz Renay, Joseph Bardo

Three escapees from a mental institution are on the loose and terrorizing and killing people. There’s also a homicidal maniac on the loose terrorizing and killing people. As a result, many people are terrorized and killed.

I think Ray Dennis Steckler had some real talent, both as an actor and a director. There are moments in this movie where his handling of the attack scenes makes them genuinely creepy and quite unnerving. He also had some interesting ideas; having the final chase take place between a psycho-on-a-horse and a cop-on-a-motocycle shows a certain amount of creativity. Unfortunately, the better moments here are undercut by a weak story, the lack of convincing characters, and a propensity for campiness. It seems to want you to take itself seriously, but it’s very difficult to take the movie that way when it opens with The Amazing Ormond hypnotizing you so that you would see the maniacs in the audience, and most of the attack scenes feature the swirling hypnotic footage that’s supposed to allow you to see them. All in all, it’s a mixed bag with a split personality, which is rather fitting for a movie about psychos on the loose, I suppose.


The Testament of Orpheus, or Don’t Ask Me Why! (1960)

Article 1948 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-15-2006
Posting Date: 12-12-2006
Directed by Jean Cocteau
Featuring Jean Cocteau, Edouard Demithe, Francois Perier

A poet, floating through time, is shot with faster-than-light bullets so he can be resurrected and undertake his journey through a world where he is haunted by his own creations.

This is the fourth movie I’ve seen from Jean Cocteau. The earliest of his movies I’ve seen was BLOOD OF A POET, which I found fascinating if near impenetrable. Since then I’ve watched the relatively straighforward movies BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and ORPHEUS. I bought this movie as part of set of Cocteau movies referred to as the Orphic trilogy, which included both ORPHEUS and BLOOD OF A POET. Classifying ORPHEUS and BLOOD OF A POET as two parts of trilogy did have me scratching my head; they didn’t seem to be separate chapters of a trilogy. It was only after having seen this one that I stopped scratching my head.

THE TESTAMENT OF ORPHEUS was Cocteau’s last movie, and in it he returned to the symbol-filled approach to movie-making that he had used for BLOOD OF A POET. He spends much of his time musing on how his own creations take on a life of their own and search for the meaning of their existence; at least two of the characters from ORPHEUS reappear here. He also muses on the nature of celebrity, the ability of cinema to give the poet the ability to allow a large group of people to dream the same dream at the same time, and to engage in some of those fascinating special effects that mark his work. I find it fitting that the filmmaker most interested in the poetic use of special effects would come from the same country as Melies, who pioneered cinematic special effects. IMDB classifies the movie as a biography, but that word is singularly useless in conjuring up the almost giddy fantasy of this movie, in which Cocteau, playing himself, dies twice and then asks the viewer to only pretend to cry, since he himself is only pretending to die. And, like many deaths in Cocteau films, he dies only to be resurrected; in fact, he is referred to as an expert on Phoenixology at one point in the proceedings. The movie is fascinating for one willing to delve into Cocteau’s world, and it has certainly piqued my interest into rewatching his earlier films, particularly BLOOD OF A POET, which, armed with what I’ve learned of his work, may not prove to be not quite so impenetrable. On top of that, the movie is witty; I laughed out loud at some of the revelations. The movie is loaded with cameos of well-known people, including Brigitte Bardot, Yul Brynner, Jean Marais, Roger Vadim and Pablo Picasso.

At the end of the movie, Cocteau announces that this is his last movie, and hopes that we enjoyed it. I can assure him that, for myself at least, I did. Very much so.


The Torpedo of Doom (1966)

Feature version of the serial FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS
Article 1934 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 7-1-2006
Posting Date: 11-28-2006
Directed by John English and William Witney
Featuring Lee Powell, Bruce Bennett, Eleanor Stewart

Two marines pit themselves against a villain known as the Lightning, who has developed guided air torpedoes to destroy his enemies.

Among the batch of feature versions of serials that I’ve done recently, this one turns out the best. At least part of that reason is that it was from a serial from the thirties rather than a later one; the earlier serials were less frenetic and less episodic. There is a definite plot thread that runs through the serial, and this feature version does a very good job of keeping focused on that plot and pruning away only what is unnecessary. As a result, this feels a lot more like a feature film than some of the others of its ilk.

I do sometimes wonder if these feature versions of serials will vanish from the face of the earth at some time. Given that DVDs are an excellent format for certain forms that worked a little clumsily on VHS, I suspect that the serials themselves will be given a lot of attention, while these feature versions will be considered redundant and unnecessary. Though I do think that to some extent this is true, I still wish that they were more available than they are. But then, I wish everything was available.


The Tell-Tale Heart (1928)

Article 1927 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 6-24-2006
Posting Date: 11-21-2006
Directed by Charles F. Klein
Featuring Otto Matieson, Heurford de Feurberg, Darvas

An insane man kills an old man because he can’t stand his eye, and then hides the body. He must then contend with an investigation from the law.

I was delighted to discover that my wife had in her collection a movie that had eluded my hunting efforts for several years. This silent take on the Edgar Allan Poe story stays scrupulously close to the original story, though it understandably foregoes the elaborate dismemberment of the body. It doesn’t turn the old man into a tyrant in an attempt to make us understand why he is killed; it is clearly established that it is the protagonist’s madness that impels him. This silent short is quite audacious; the sets are done in the style of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI , it uses a jagged writing font for the title cards, and makes plentiful use of double (and sometimes triple) exposure to tell its story, and effectively uses the image of a pounding mallet to represent the beating of the heart. My favorite touch, though, is the portrayal of the two policemen, who speak and move in unison when addressing the young man, and who investigate the guilt in his eyes with a big, bizarre magnifying glass. All in all, this is the most satisfying take on the tale that I’ve seen to date.


The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)

Article 1910 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 6-7-2007
Posting Date: 11-4-2006
Directed by Jules Dassin
Featuring Joseph Schildkraut, Roman Bohnen, Oscar O’Shea

A young man kills his older guardian and attempts to hide the body, but is haunted by the sound of the old man’s heart.

I have no real problem with this adaptation of the famous Edgar Allan Poe story; in fact, it’s the best adaptation I’ve seen of it to date. Joseph Schildkraut is intense and memorable in the role of the killer, the cinematography and direction are excellent, and, being a short, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I do find myself reflecting a little, though, on the reasons for a certain change I’ve noticed in this and at least one other version of the story. In both this version and the one in LEGEND OF HORROR , the character of the old man is changed from kindly to bad-tempered and mean. I suspect this has to do with the language of film being different from the language of prose. The original story is all told from the point of view of the killer, and the thought processes that he undergoes and the obsessions that dominate him wouldn’t be easy to translate without endless voice-over narration. Other changes are more obvious; the story itself is a lot grislier than could be reflected by the cinema of the time. It’s always interesting to see how various filmmakers try to deal with the challenge of this story.

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

Article 1880 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-8-2006
Posting Date: 10-5-2006
Directed by Leslie S. Hiscott
Featuring Arthur Wontner, Lyn Harding, Leslie Perrins

Sherlock Holmes is called out of retirement after a man is murdered in a nearby estate. It turns out that the man had an association with an American secret society known as the Scowlers.

Though this doesn’t complete the list of the Wontner Holmes series, it probably will be the last one I cover; the only one left is THE MISSING REMBRANDT, and, from what I can gather at this point, it is considered lost. This one is somewhat more lively than SILVER BLAZE , and once again, it is based on a specific story (“The Valley of Fear”) with Moriarty shoehorned into the plot. I quite liked this one, because the elements that play into the solution of the mystery are quite odd; clues that lead Holmes to the solution of the mystery are an unlocked door, a candle, and a missing dumbbell. A good half of the movie is backstory about the victim’s involvement with the Scowlers, and these sections are quite exciting. At this point, I suspect that this is my favorite of the Wontner Holmes series, even if the movie doesn’t really effectively weave Moriarty into the plot.

Terror By Night (1946)

Article 1879 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-7-2006
Posting Date: 10-4-2006
Directed by Roy William Neill
Featuring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alan Mowbray

Sherlock Holmes is hired to protect a valuable diamond from theft while it is being transported by train. When an attempt is made at theft and a man is murdered, Holmes begins to suspect the involvement of a nemesis he’s never meant: Colonel Sebastian Moran.

The fantastic content is slight in this entry in the Rathbone Holmes series. We have a bit of science fiction with the special gun, and touches of horror in the fact that part of the plot revolves around a coffin, and by the presence of Skelton Knaggs (who was always rather creepy). Still, this is one of the most entertaining films of the series; I like the interesting array of characters, the fact that almost the whole story takes place on a train, and the fun series of twists and turns in the story. Unfortunately, Watson is at his most buffoonish here, especially when he decides to conduct interviews without the help of Holmes or Lestrade, though he does redeem himself in the final fight. You won’t really be surprised by the revelation of who turns out to be Moran, but it’s still pretty satisfying to watch everything unfold. Dennis Hoey has probably his most prominent performance as Inspector Lestrade here.