The Witches (1966)

THE WITCHES (1966)
Article 2922 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 5-8-2009
Posting Date: 8-13-2009
Directed by Cyril Frankel
Featuring Joan Fontaine, Kay Walsh, Alec McCowen
Country: UK

A schoolteacher, haunted by memories of an attack by voodoo worshipers in Africa, ends up taking a job in a small English town. However, she discovers that the town has a mysterious secret and that witchcraft may be at work.

According to IMDB, it was Joan Fontaine who acquired the rights of the Norah Lofts novel and brought it to Hammer for production; its commercial failure prompted her retirement from acting. It’s an odd, but often interesting movie; it reminds me on occasion of THE WICKER MAN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, and any of several movies where an unbalanced woman is terrorized, though it really remains its own movie. It’s graced by a script from Nigel Kneale, and this helps somewhat. Most of the movie is quite talky, but the talk is interesting enough, and certain other scenes (like the one where Fontaine’s character finds herself caught in a sheep stampede that destroys evidence of foul play in the death of a local man) are very striking. Still, you won’t be surprised by the identity of the head witch, and when we hit the witches’ ritual at the end of the movie, it stumbles badly. Though I admire that the movie tries to do something different with the idea of the meeting of a coven, the spastic dancing by the worshipers is more comic than horrific; it looks like something out of a really bad avant-garde musical. Ultimately, it’s one of those movies that works better when it’s mining its sense of mystery and dread, but loses its way when it shows its hand.

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The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962)

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962)
Article 2819 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-25-2009
Posting Date: 5-2-2009
Directed by Henry Levin and George Pal
Featuring Laurence Harvey, Karlheinz Bohm, Claire Bloom
Country: USA

Two brothers try to make ends meet while collecting fairy tales. In the process, three tales are presented. In the first, a woodsman seeks to find out how a princess is wearing out her shoes. In the second, a cobbler, unable to complete his work on time, gets help from an unexpected source. In the third, a knight and his squire seek to kill a dragon.

My comments about yesterday’s movie (WEB OF THE SPIDER) and this one dovetail nicely. For the former, I complained both about the overuse of close-ups and the dreadful pan-and-scan used in the presentation of the movie. My copy of this fares much better than the latter in this regard; it is letterboxed (though, from what I just read, it appears that it is not complete, due to water damage to the original negatives). It is also a movie with some historical interest in this regard; it was the first major motion picture to be released in the Cinerama format (though not the first filmed). Knowing that the movie was filmed for the Cinerama process helped me to understand some of the artistic decisions that were made, and gave me a grasp of why I felt the movie was very uneven.

The Cinerama process was basically about spectacle, and many of the decisions were made to make use of this aspect. I’m sure that’s the reason it opens with a war scene when the war has precious little to do with the story. It’s also the reason for the protracted carriage ride in the second story, in which we get many POV shots of the horse carriage barreling down the road. It also made me fully aware that, though I was seeing a letterboxed print, that I simply wasn’t experiencing the movie in the way that it was intended. This may well be true for any theatrical movie shown on television that I’ve seen, but this may be the movie I’ve seen where I’ve most felt the loss. Alas, the opportunity to see it as it was originally intended will most likely never come, so I may have to make do with this.

Since the fairy tales themselves are matters of spectacle, they come across the strongest; each one of them is a delight, and each one is delightful in its own special way. From the dancing in the first story to the puppetoon animation in the second to the stop-motion work in the third, all augmented by fun performances from familiar faces, these are the highlights of the film. Incidentally, the tales are directed by George Pal.

My problems arise with the biography section of the story. That they would choose a more light-hearted Hollywood-style version of the lives of the Brothers Grimm is perhaps no surprise, but even this type of approach requires that we gain a little intimacy with the characters. One good way to get that intimacy is the use of close-ups. Unfortunately, as good as Cinerama may be for spectacle, it’s less effective for intimacy, and it’s hard to get involved with the characters when the movie is too busy trying to impress you with the set for the village; a few close-ups, especially in the early sections of the movie, would have helped. At any rate, I never get interested in the biographical section of the movie; only when it veers into fantasy by having one of the brothers be visited by characters from his fairy tales during a fever dream does it hold my attention. I somehow think it would have been more satisfying to jettison this section of the movie and just show several fairy tales.

I do wonder, though, whether it might not have worked better if George Pal had been given his first choices for the actors portraying the brother; he wanted Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. That would have been something to see.

Web of the Spider (1971)

WEB OF THE SPIDER (1971)
Nella stretta morsa del ragno
Article 2818 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-24-2009
Posting Date: 5-1-2009
Directed by Antonio Margheriti
Featuring Anthony Franciosa, Michele Mercier, Klaus Kinski
Country: France / Italy / West Germany

An American reporter takes a bet that he can spend the night in a haunted castle without dying.

If I had to choose what I considered Antonio Margheriti’s best movie, I would unhesitatingly choose CASTLE OF BLOOD; though made of familiar elements, there’s something innovative and genuinely spooky in the way he combines them for that film, and the ending is indelible. Margheriti must have sensed there was something special about the movie, too; seven years later he remade it, and this is the result. In some ways, I feel I should have to go easy on this one, because my copy of the movie is quite bad; the colors seem badly faded, and the use of pan-and-scan is truly awful. It’s one of those pan-and-scan jobs where the picture will jerk from one end of the frame to another in a distracting way, a technique that always reminds you that you’re watching a movie that should be seen in widescreen. However, there are other aspects that I don’t care for that don’t seem to be the result of a bad copy of the movie. I was not impressed with either Anthony Franciosa’s performance (if often feels forced and unconvincing) or Klaus Kinski’s performance as Edgar Allan Poe; though Poe did indeed have a drinking problem, seeing him recite the story of “Berenice” as a slovenly drunk feels more like you’re watching an actor showing off than a carefully considered artistic decision. I also think the the movie overuses closeups; in a movie about a haunted castle, you want to see the actors and actresses amidst the surroundings rather than having constant close-ups of their faces. Ultimately, there’s the simple fact that the remake was unnecessary; the most memorable scenes here were better done in the original, and it all has the air of a futile attempt to relive a past glory.

I guess you know which version I’m going to watch the next time I want to see this story.

The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983)

THE WITCHES AND THE GRINNYGOG (1983)
TV-Movie
Article 2730 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-27-2008
Posting Date: 2-2-2009
Directed by Diarmuid Lawrence
Featuring Paul Curtis, Hilda Fenemore, Eva Griffiths
Country: UK

In a small English town, a gargoyle-like statue falls off of a truck hauling debris from an old church, and ends up in an old man’s garden as an ornament. It turns out the appearance of the statue (known as a Grinnygog) causes the appearance of several mysterious characters who were involved with a witch-burning that occurred as part of the town’s history.

This is a six-episode British TV series adapted from a novel by Dorothy Edwards. At one point, one of the children who is helping to organize a museum for the town asks the mysterious Mr. Alabaster whether there’s going to be any danger, and is told that it depends on what he means by danger. In some ways, this story is driven by this ambiguity; you’re not sure for a good length of the time whether what appears to be a gentle fantasy will turn into something more sinister. As a matter of fact, I hesitate to speak in terms of story, as I think it’s not really story-driven; it mostly recounts the various magical experiences of the various people most directly involved with the strange goings-on in the town. The series is full of little touches; without giving away too much, there’s a bell that doesn’t ring, a trip back in time, an animated ceiling, the magical creation of a hat, and the scene where we hear the Grinnygog talk to two separate people. There’s a definite charm here, but it never quite becomes compelling; despite its charms, it gets a little dull on occasion. Still, it’s a unique fantasy and worth catching.

The Woman Hunt (1973)

THE WOMAN HUNT (1973)
Article 2698 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-20-2008
Posting Date: 1-1-2009
Directed by Eddie Romero
Featuring John Ashley, Pat Woodell, Charlene Jones
Country: USA / Philippines

Women are being kidnapped by a man who lives in a secluded mansion in the middle of the jungle. He plans to organize a hunting party with the women as prey.

When I see Eddie Romero at the directorial helm with John Ashley as the star, I think of the “Blood Island” movies made during the late sixties/early seventies. This isn’t part of that series; in fact, I’m not sure it’s even really a horror movie. It’s modeled off of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, which I’ve always considered only marginal horror in the first place, and this one contains even less overt horror content. Instead, it’s more action thriller in the drive-in exploitation style, a style that I would describe as “giving the people what they want at a lowest-common-denominator level while refusing to be distracted by such things as good taste”. Therefore, we get lots of bloody violence and bare breasts, dumb and obvious dialogue, lesbianism, and Sid Haig, who is a master a this sort of thing; he shows a knack for making his character the type of person who would say the dumb dialogue. IMDB says this one was shot in English, but it certainly feels like a dubbed movie at times. If you’re looking for subtlety and intelligence, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for typical drive-in thrills, this’ll do.

 

The Worm Turns (1937)

THE WORM TURNS (1937)
Animated Short
Article 2663 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 8-4-2008
Posting Date: 11-27-2008
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen
Featuring the voice of Walt Disney
Country: USA

Mickey Mouse develops a potion that can make weak and timid creatures brave and strong.

So far, I’ve barely scratched the cartoon surface; after all, most cartoons are fantasies of one sort or another. However, very few of my sources have bothered to classify them as such, and if it weren’t for the science fiction aspects of this one, I probably wouldn’t be covering it for some time. Disney was putting out some of their best shorts during the thirties, with Fleischer being their biggest competitor at the time. The animation is excellent, as I would expect, though I never find the Disney shorts quite as funny as the Warner Brothers ones when they were at their best. One odd piece of note; at one point, Mickey Mouse gives the potion to a mouse being threatened by a cat. The curious thing here is that Mickey is already a mouse, and it points out the phenomenon I occasional notice in the cartoon universe whereby some animals are anthropomorphized and others remain animals. My favorite occurrence of this is in a Warner Brothers cartoon (whose title I can’t remember at the moment) in which it is revealed that farmer Porky Pig raises pigs on his farm.

 

The Woman in White (1948)

THE WOMAN IN WHITE (1948)
Article 2631 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 6-18-2008
Posting Date: 10-26-2008
Directed by Peter Godfrey
Featuring Alexis Smith, Eleanor Parker, Sydney Greenstreet
Country: USA

An artist meets the strange characters at an English estate. He begins to suspect that a visiting count has sinister designs on the family fortune. He also encounters a strange woman in white who bears an uncanny resemblance to the daughter at the manor.

“The Motion Picture Guide” classifies this movie as a horror/mystery, but most of my other guides omit this one. I can see why. The horror elements are very slight; there’s certainly a mysterious element to the appearance of the woman in white, but outside of that, the only fantastic genre touches are the presence of the common horror elements of madness and hypnotism, and these are used only slightly if effectively. The movie is also quite entertaining, but, for me, the best thing about watching this one was being able to encounter the great Sydney Greenstreet; the only other movie I’ve seen him in for this series is BETWEEN TWO WORLDS. He’s great here as the menacing and scheming Count Fosco, and, for those who love character actors, he’s married to the character played by Agnes Moorehead, who gives one of her most restrained performances, and is also excellent. John Abbott’s character is similar to Vincent Price’s in HOUSE OF USHER, except he’s played more for comic effect. The story is complex enough that I have a hankering to read the original Wilkie Collins novel on which this is based.