Who Done It? (1956)

WHO DONE IT? (1956)
Article 3090 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-1-2009
Posting Date: 1-29-2010
Directed by Basil Dearden
Featuring Benny Hill, Belinda Lee, David Kossoff
Country: UK
What it is: Private detective comedy with a surprisingly large amount of fantastic content

After winning a contest in a detective magazine, a former ice show janitor decides to become a private detective. When he mistakenly gets engaged on a case investigating an unfaithful husband, he stumbles across a group of spies attempting to send the secrets of a weather-creating machine to their country.

I’m familiar enough with the work of Benny Hill to have had an idea in advance of what this movie would be like; it’s a standard albeit energetic slapstick comedy, minus the somewhat risque humor that was the earmark of his TV work. It does manage to keep the energy level fairly high, and the gags are consistently creative enough to hold your attention throughout, though it never quite achieves the non-stop hilarity that it aspires to. There’s actually quite a bit of fantastic content here; we have the aforementioned weather machine which is used during one point of the proceedings, the mythical country of Euralia, the woman with super-strength, and a sequence at a radio show in which a number of new inventions are put on display. The movie also features the stunningly attractive Belinda Lee, whose career was sadly cut short by a car accident at the age of 26. Ernest Thesiger pops up as a scientist at the weather-machine demonstration, a sequence which also features Peter Bull. Charles Hawtrey also has an amusing cameo as a disc jockey. It’s not great, but it’s amusing enough.

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Wolfman (1979)

WOLFMAN (1979)
aka Wolfman – A Lycanthrope
Article 3075 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-8-2009
Posting Date: 1-14-2010
Directed by Worth Keeter
Featuring Earl Owensby, Kristina Reynolds,Sid Rancer
Country: USA
What it is: Regional werewolf horror

A man returns to his ancestral home to discover that his father has died, and that he is the sole heir to the estate. However, the will has been forged in a bid by an evil devil worshiper to keep the son on the premises so he will inherit the family curse that will turn him into a werewolf.

This movie has a rating of 2.1 on IMDB, which means its reputation is pretty awful. It’s certainly not very good; the pacing is very slow and the acting is so low key that it practically vanishes before your eyes. Yet I have to admit to being charmed by the old-fashioned feel of the whole affair, and I also like that low-budget regional feel and obvious sincerity. Except for the added element of the curse being maintained by a devil worshiper, the plot is definitely by the numbers, but it shows more competence than your average Herschell Gordon Lewis movie, and it has a better sense of period than anything I’ve seen from Andy Milligan, and from my point of view, those are the type of filmmakers whose work this movie should be compared to. In short, I found it badly flawed and rather dull, but nowhere near as bad as its detractors maintain.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971)
Article 3074 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-7-2009
Posting Date: 1-13-2009
Directed by Mel Stuart
Featuring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum
Country: USA
What it is: Live-action children’s musical fantasy

A poor young boy desires more than anything to get a golden ticket to visit the Willy Wonka candy factory, which is a mysterious, perpetually-locked and forbidding place. When he does manage to acquire a ticket, he finds himself being tested for his honesty and goodness of heart.

I’ve not read the book by Roald Dahl, but my wife has, and she tells me that the movie doesn’t really capture the spirit of the book. Dahl himself was unhappy with this adaptation of his work (though he is credited as the writer, his screenplay was extensively rewritten) and refused the filmmakers permission to produce the sequel. I do smell the air of compromise here, and the movie does make me want to seek out the original book to get a sense of what it’s really like. Nevertheless, despite a few caveats with this production (I found only two of the songs memorable and only one pleasantly so, and the parts where the movie is obvious stand out noticeably when surrounded by the unpredictability of the rest of the movie), I discovered that I really like the movie and can understand its strong cult following. The first half is an often hilarious satire of ballyhoo, with the out-of-control media coverage of what is essentially a fluff story even more relevant today than in its time; this is definitely something that it’s easier to appreciate when you’re an adult. The second half is anchored by a brilliant performance by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, who manages to achieve his acting goal of making his character utterly unpredictable while still managing to have a clearly defined character; his half-hearted calls of admonishment to the children who break his rules show us that he is slyly aware of and even eager to see their comeuppance. Several other great actors were considered for this role, but Wilder’s performance makes me glad he was the final choice. I also like the touches of Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss that pop up, and I always wonder if the tunnel sequence was influenced a little by a similar sequence in 2OO1: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Quite frankly, this movie seems to improve with time, though I do still hope to read the original book.

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.

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.