Category Archives: 2.5 stars

Tales of Terror (1962)

2.5 stars out of 4.

When you have such a diverse and astounding canon as that of Edgar Allan Poe, it becomes a challenge to select which of the masterpieces to adapt to film. Roger Corman had established a formula of taking a singular Poe short story and adapting it into a full narrative framework, but was in need of a different approach for the fourth film. This time he decided to make an anthology film of multiple shorter Poe adaptations.

Tales of Terror is that result, a film made up of three adaptations: Morella, The Black Cat and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Unfortunately for some of my personal favorite Poe stories, the resulting film feels more at times like a contractual obligation or money grab than a fully realized film.

The film is introduced and linked by some brief but well written narrated passages read by Vincent Price, who appears in all three segments. If the resulting film had been as interesting as these brief passages then this review would not be necessary. As it stands the film reduces three Poe stories to weakened pastiche of the previous films, a smart and funny take on Poe, and a great Poe tale buried in staple melodrama respectively.

Morella opens the film, or to put it more correctly, an adaptation of Morella in the traditional Corman Poe framework. A young girl arrives at the same house set found in all the previous films, in order to find her father. All she finds is a house in disrepair and a drunken brooding Vincent Price with some bad makeup demanding that she leave. Price blames her for his beloved wife’s death and has shut her out of his depressed existence ever since. She has now returned in a vain attempt to reconcile with her estranged father due to a terminal illness. This reveal of course softens some of Vincent’s brooding and there is a hinting of building a father-child relationship anew. Of course, the discovery of Morella’s corpse on Vincent’s bed hardly raises an eyebrow which should set up the final conclusion. Wifey cannot stand for their daughter’s return and her vengeful spirit suddenly rises up in a pitiful process shot to swoop through the house and kill her. Then her body rises restored and begins to strangle Vincent in the burning mansion, in the manner by which Vincent is destined to die in virtually every film he appears. This adaptation virtually disregards Poe’s central conceit of the newborn child’s gift of life being taken directly form the wicked Morella and directly causing her instantaneous death. It also drops the possible insanity of the narrator. Along with dropping Poe’s idea it loses all credibility as an interesting short film and becomes merely a microcosm of the first two Corman Poe films reduced a to a 25 minute exercise in dull boredom.

The Black Cat thankfully picks up from this disappointment and provides the only real satisfying point of the film. the story is really a combination of the titular story and The Cask of Amontillado, with some elements from The Tell-Tale Heart of course. Peter Lorre has a ball playing Montresor, a town drunk who lives only to reach each night where he can drown himself in more drink. He has a pretty wife at home who is tormented by his drunken protests for their meager funds to drink away. Montresor is reaching the end of his fortunes, and returns home to drunken hallucinations and his hatred for his wife’s black cat. One night he is thrown out aof a tavern and stumbles onto an extremely convenient wine merchants convention. Here the foremost tasting expert is giving a demonstration which Montresor scoffs at. Of course the expert is Fortunato Luchresi played to the ultimate hammiest by Vincent Price. Then begins a wine tasting off between the two and much is made of Montresor matching Luchresi’s extremely overdone fastidiousness by downing wine with abandon.  Of course Luchresi is stuck with taking the drunkard home and there meets Mrs. Montresor, which begins their budding romance. And of course Montresor will find out about their little romantic dalliance and exact his revenge. Lorre is excellent in maintaining a comedic bent in his walling up of the two in the cellar. The requisite Corman nightmare sequence is quite weird, even for one of these films, for Montresor is tormented by his wife and friend whom he has killed and at one point they remove his head an begin to play ball with it.

All in all, The Black Cat alone is the reason for sitting through this film and paved the way to the later films along a similar serious-comedic bent: The Raven (1963) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964). Price and Lorre are a joy to watch playing off one another and for a brief time the film picks up an energy not seen anywhere in the first section.

Lastly comes Tales‘s version of M. Valdemar. Here the idea of a man on his deathbed being placed into a state of hypnosis to escape the pains of death is placed in a setting of melodrama featuring a evil hypnotist. This of course in and of itself would be silly in any normal context, but the film plays it perfectly straight which is a major help. the other strength is the hypnotist being played by Basil Rathbone who lends an incredible believably to the small role which is essential in telling this adaptation. One can seriously believe his evil intent simply due to the performance which is pointed, clipped and quite cold. Thankfully the segment is not allowed to last long enough to wear out its welcome and the film hits the end credits which leave the audience wondering why they chose to sit through the exercise in the first place.

Tales of Terror is a failed experiment that never really works, except in The Black Cat segment, where as with the best of these films, the script deviates from Poe enough to make things seem fresh without losing the original spirit. One story is a flat out rehashing of previous films, one is a darkly funny little gem and the last is merely okay. All in all one must ask what happened to all the creativity and effort that made the first three so remarkably interesting? This question would sadly again be asked in the end of the next film in the cycle: The Haunted Palace (1963). And that one wasn’t even based on Poe at all despite the advertising. It’s actually based on H.P. Lovecraft.

What disappoints me most about the film is the lack of regard to Poe’s work, which is so visually oriented that it almost cries out to be faithfully adapted to film. The anthology format allows for multiple stories to be adapted, thus providing a broader portrait of the great legend’s canon but in Tales of Terror the focus is more on wringing the most out of the drive-in crowd instead. There is a constant feeling throughout of doing the film by-the-numbers as if to fulfill contractual obligation. The previous three films had vitality and the work’s spirit despite deviating heavily from Poe in details. Corman’s heart really isn’t really in the film, except perhaps in The Black Cat.

EDITIONS: MGM’s transfer is one of the older ones in the cycle, but the anamorphically enhanced image is quite clear of print defects. Dupes and transitions are dirty, then click into the homogenized feature. Overall pleasing to an extent but not representative of film. Colors are fine as with all of these releases, if a bit muted. Sound is clear with very occasional defects. These films were released in HD on broadcast HDTV channels a few years ago, and have begun to leak out on Blu-ray in Europe.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Corman Poe series, Film Review, Roger Corman, Vincent Price

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

2.5 stars out of 4. Forgettable with a vengeance.

This film simply does not work.

This is a film where the script was tweaked to milk a franchise a third time. It lacks the drive of the first two films and often gets bogged down in scenes that are only present as plot exposition.

A mad bomber has stuck New York, and requested for John McClane to play his little game of Simon Says. Of course, Lieutenant McClane is currently suspended (Haven’t seen that before) and is obviously not in the greatest shape.

He gets stuck with a Harlem shopkeeper with a low opinion of white people, who intercedes on what will likely be McClane’s death warrant. this leads Simon the mad bomber to force Zeus (Samuel L. Jackson) to accompany McClane and the police all around the city looking for more bombs.

Why does McClane need a sidekick? McClane is a lone wolf who relies primarily on his wits to overcome insurmountable odds. It is a completely unnecessary move then, to add in another secondary character except as an attempt for comic relief. That said, Jackson does provide some great moments of exasperation at McClane’s seemingly inane  rhetoric.

Of course, Simon does not really care about blowing up the city.That is merely a diversion so that he may achieve his true goal: robbing the Federal Reserve of billions in gold bullion. Now, just who does that remind you of? Yes this is brother Gruber and he wants revenge.

Sort of. Action films are typically made or broken by their primary antagonist, and Jeremy Irons jsut isn’t given anything to really so as Simon Gruber. He has this wonderful dark dramatic flair for violence that is highly entertaining but the plot has him do nothing! This wasted opportunity is multiplied by the pointless lifeless henchmen who serve no actual purpose.

Even with another Gruber the plot seems like an afterthought.

All of the major problems stem from the fact that a script entitled Simon Says was retrofitted into a Die Hard property. Change the character’s names and it’s another movie again. (Although the point where this script was the next Lethal Weapon 4 should be obvious.)

This film notably has some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in the water pipe sequence. It’s just plain bad and quite obvious.

What ultimately hurts the film is its overall reliance on drabness. There is no drive, no spark, no real creativity, and the switch to New York might have seemed like a good idea on paper but it never really translates to anything onscreen. McClane on his home turf should have been something special, but then again when has a Die Hard film been about wide open spaces? When will they learn to isolate and confine our favorite Energizer Bunny again?

Bringing back the original director was an inspired choice. But for a John McTiernan helmed Die Hard sequel, I quite honestly expected a lot more than what this  film is. DH3 never overcomes its debilitating drabness and this even begins to affect the action sequences. The ending is clearly hastily tacked on, and even McClane’s signature line is thrown away. That adequately reflects on the staying power for this romp.

If the intent was to make a film that accurately reflected McClane’s hangover, then they sure nailed it.

For that’s what this is: Die Hard with a Hangover.

EDITIONS: The “THX mastered” Special Edition is, short of the GOUT (George’s Official Unaltered Trilogy) 2006 non-anamorphic Laserdisc master of the Star Wars Trilogy, one of the absolute worst DVD transfers I’ve ever seen. In fact it is so bad that I initially wanted to turn off the film. The big issue is the extreme over reliance on edge enhancement. There is no depth, no detail and everyone looks like a plastic doll. Just an awful disc.

The Blu-ray fixes all of this. Simple transfer, detailed, has actual film grain and a port of the original 5.1 to a DTS HD-ma 5.1 mix that is quite punchy.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Die Hard, Film Review

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

2.5 stars out of 4. One cannot deny its charm.

Here is the first of the oft-maligned 40’s Universal films featuring the Mummy. And there is a reason why they are so maligned. All are just over one hour in length with drastically reduced budgets. These are double bill fillers, the kind of B-movie that was cranked out at such a speed that little care or thought was ever put into them. Remember time = money!

The first of four, The Mummy’s Hand is probably the only one actually worth watching. It blends the mystical resurrected Mummy with a cheapy serial film effectively to become a nice throwback to the fantasies of childhood. It doesn’t ever claim to be anything greater and we wouldn’t want it to.

The Mummy itself doesn’t appear until late in the film and this allows for our characters to be built up from scratch. The audience is allowed to form attachments instead of  not worrying when they are picked off later on. The story is actually well constructed, holds interest and moves at a astonishingly quick pace because there’s only 70 minutes to work with!

Our journey begins with new priest Andoheb journeying to the dying old high Priest of Karnak in order to become the next high priest. The old man tells Andoheb of the story of Kharis the living mummy whom they have controlled for centuries in the event that anyone should disturb the tomb of Ananka. Fans of the original film may notice that the names are different here. Some subtle and not so subtle alterations were made to the original story line to fit this new sequencing. We are then treated to a flashback while the priest narrates over the footage from the original film. Inserted badly are shots of the new actor Tom Tyler, while Boris Karloff is still visible in others. Kharis now steals tana leaves to revive his love instead of the unbelievably superior mac guffin the Scroll of Thoth.

Andoheb is sworn to uphold the ways of the priesthood and becomes the new man in charge. He is entrusted with Kharis and instructed on how to use him as the instrument of the priest’s will. During the full moon, the brew of three tana leaves will keep his heart beating. Nine leaves will give him movement and motivation. But if Kharis were to obtain any more he would become an uncontrollable monster. (This last bit is never utilized in any of the films.)

Two down on their luck American archaeologists in Egypt stumble upon a broken vase in a Cairo street vendor’s stall that shows the way to the legendary lost tomb of Ananka. They take it to another archaeologist friend who works in the museum which just happens to be headed by Andoheb. He claims the vase as imitation and then “accidentally” breaks it.

The three continue with their plans to find the tomb unknowing that Andoheb is secretly out to stop them. They end up securing finances from a traveling magician and his daughter but inadvertently take every cent the man had. Ater gathering supplies they travel to the site but find the tomb of Kharis instead of Ananka. All of the men are frightened away and Kharis is brought back to life by Andoheb to destroy all those who would violate the ancient tombs…

This is a 70 minute serial that happens to feature a Mummy as a henchman. Said mummy is revealed well and in post-production, its eyes were blacked out actually making the ridiculous seem quite creepy.

Unfortunately after this, the other films transplanted the action to an American location and dropped any of these wonderful serial adventure elements. Gone were also the relatively developed human characters and the actor who played Kharis.  Tom Tyler was replaced by Lon Chaney Jr., and while this seems like a wise decision in both performance and billing, Chaney spends his time merely stumbling about and not really seeming threatening to anyone. These three other sequels are exactly 1 hour and 1 minute celluloid filler.

Many of the elements from these Kharis sequels were combined and rearranged to form the basis for Hammer’s superior The Mummy (1959).

The film was originally released on a double sided disc with other Mummy films, and these were repackaged into the Legacy Collection. The print source is very clean and the DVD is well done from the best available print. Affordably packaged here with the masterful Karloff original and the other three vastly inferior sequels.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Film, Universal Horror

Dracula-Spanish Language Version (1931)

2.5 stars out of 4.

For years we’ve been told that the unearthed Spanish language version of Dracula was superior to the English language film that became a classic. Filmed at night while the main production slept, the Spanish film certainly avoids the main pitfalls of the other film’s staginess. Technically it’s brilliant and much more detailed with greater Expressionist influences. (The director was a great admirer of F.W. Murnau and even referenced direct moments from Nosferatu.) Some of the secondary characters have much better performances and aren’t so devoid of emotion.

The trouble is, where there’s all this brilliance there’s really no heart. Even with thirty minutes extra screentime the Spanish language version struggles to obtain one iota of the mystical charm of the Lugosi film. Say what you will about the flaws in the English version, but you simply cannot stop watching it. The Spanish version is much more like a later 1940’s era Universal horror film. Churned out, somewhat inventive, but lacking in all of the things that made people enjoy the films to begin with.

It can be said that some elements of the Spanish version should have been in the English version. The Lugosi film is devoid of anything truly interesting cinematically. The Spanish version has this in spades. But it just drags on and refuses to stop. Where the original uses it’s 75 minutes quickly and effectively, the 104 minute Spanish version is allowed to chew the fat a bit and as a result gets lazy in its exposition.

Adding to this is the re-usage of many shots from the English version. Anyone familiar with that film can easily spot them as they weren’t hidden at all. In fact, Bela Lugosi appears so many times in the Spanish version that he probably should have been credited as an actor!

The performances are quite good, surprisingly even that of Renfield. All of the performers are much more lively than their English counterparts and you can almost feel their racing heartbeats that must be unmistakable to Dracula. Unfortunately, the Count is laughable. Carlos Villarias plays Dracula in an almost parody of Lugosi’s performance. This is completely at odds with the seriousness of the film surrounding it and so the supposed Prince of Darkness never does anything to really earn one’s horror.

Oooh. Scary.

Today, the film plays as an odd experiment that does not work in every way. It is technically superior but laughable in other elements. Those who argue its superiority over the English language version are much like those who proclaim the earlier more linear 1945 edit of The Big Sleep the better version than the eventual 1946 theatrical release version. In that film, the original edit was a well made but rather lifeless gathering of scenes. The second version added some re-shoots which transplanted mere exposition into vibrant one liners between Bogart and Bacall. This badly needed infusion of life made the film the classic that it is. The same goes for Dracula.

The English language version is Mina, cold but still with blood flowing through her veins.

ON VIDEO:

The Spanish version is contained on all three DVD releases of Dracula. (1999 single disc, 2004 Legacy Collection, 75th Anniversary 2 Disc) The 1999 and 2004 use the same interlaced transfer. The 75th Anniversary Disc is progressive and better looking but suffers from all sorts of digital manipulation just like the English transfer on the same set. Either of the first two discs are recommended, (Although you need the 1999 disc for the best version of the English language film.) The 75th Anniversary release is to be avoided for both films due to interference with the original compositions.

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Film, Film Review, Universal Horror

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

2 1/2 stars out of 4.

I wish I could say that my first ever Hammer film experience was as good as my childhood memory of it was.

(Wincing) It isn’t. Not really at all. Even with both Christopher Lee and the guiding hand of top Hammer director Terrence Fisher. The problem is one that invades all of the other sequels in this series: boredom.

Prince of Darkness opens with the conclusion of Horror of Dracula. Unfortunately this is truly the best part of the film, because not only is it a classic moment in cinema but because it is actually exciting in some way.

We are then introduced to four English travelers who just happen to be passing though nearby Dracula’s old castle some ten years later. They encounter a untypical abbot who advises them to stay clear of the castle. Of course they set out late the next day and are abandoned by their driver. A mysterious coach then appears and after climbing on, the four are kidnapped by the wild horses up to the castle.

Upon their arrival, their bags disappear and reappear already unpacked in rooms. Then they are shocked to discover the Castle’s butler, Klove, who informs them that his master informed him to always have the castle open for guests.

Well, uh, Kove, isn’t your master joining us for dinner?
No, sir. I’m afraid not.
Is he indisposed?
He’s dead.

This does not warn any of the four away (although Helen, the older woman is still deathly afraid of the place) and after settling in the older couple of the four hear a mysterious noise. The man goes down to investigate and is promptly dispatched by Klove. His body is then hoisted over Dracula’s tomb and Klove slits the corpse’s throat to bleed all over Dracula’s ashes. The resurrection of Dracula is so chillingly well done, that you wish the rest of the film was up the same standard.

The 90 minute runtime is so obviously sectioned into a three act structure that it becomes absolutely beyond tedious. Basically there’s The Old Dark House (1932) segment, Dracula is resurrected, people get away from the castle, Dracula comes for them and abducts the woman, there’s a mad chase to get the woman back and ultimately Dracula is destroyed.  (yet again.) There are admittedly a few moments of interest, such as the vampire’s attempts to get into a monastery when he is uninvited. (For a vampire cannot cross the threshold unless invited by someone upon the inside.) A tidbit from Stoker’s novel appears when the Count makes a girl drink blood from his cut chest in order to bind her spirit to his will. Unfortunately none of these really add up to anything worthwhile. It becomes a bit like the later Universal horror films where you begin to ask why even keep watching?

The ending is really the reason to remain seated. Dracula is chased back to this castle. (Exactly as in Horror and nearly every other vampire film.) His coffin slides out onto the frozen moat outside the castle and he is about to be staked when the sun sets. Dracula erupts out of his coffin to attack the survivors when the thin ice begins to crack. The abbot standing nearby remembers a throwaway line he uttered earlier on about a vampire being able to be drowned by running water. (NOTE: this is entirely an invention of the screenwriter and really does not make any sense.) The abbot then shoots the ice and Dracula sinks into gaping hole into the freezing waters below his dying face drifting into the dark waters as the credits roll…

If you could simply cut together every resurrection and death scene of Dracula in these sequels, you would have a highly entertaining little anthology film. But you can’t and thus must wade through the increasingly monotonous and creaky plots to get to only a few minutes of Christopher Lee standing in a corner and occasionally biting someone. (But even Lee doing this is mesmerizing. A truly brilliant and underrated actor.)

Prince of Darkness was filmed in the 60’s mainstay Techniscope which was the poor man’s way of making an anamorphic 2.35:1 image. This was achieved by squeezing two 2.35:1 frames onto a single film frame, effectively cutting your costs in half. Many famous films from this period were photographed using this process (most notably the Sergio Leone Westerns) and they all share a unique color palette (full of earthy tones-browns, dull reds, yellows etc.) and a very heavy tight grain structure. Unfortunately, all of the downfalls of Techniscope appear in D:PoD and ultimately it never looks that impressive as a result.

The big question is the long wait between sequels? There are some six years separating D:PoD from Brides of Dracula, but no discernible reason why the studio would refrain from another film starring one of its biggest moneymakers. Judging from the general messiness and lackluster feel of this entry, it was simply because they couldn’t think of what to do with the Count.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness is ultimately not good or bad. It is merely passable. A few interesting moments, visually striking innovative climax and as always a fine performance from Lee are not enough to save a dragging story.

Collecting the Hammer films or even trying to rent them has never been easy. Different studios distributed each new title, so the sorting out the video distribution rights is a nightmare. The only US release of PoD was the Anchor Bay DVD (also re-released as a double feature with The Satanic Rites of Dracula.) It is ultimately a port of their 1997 Laserdisc release and is very unimpressive in this day and age. The source is a well preserved 35mm print but since the transfer was originally for Laserdisc, the image is not well presented. The film comes out very dark and non-detailed and adding to this already unlikable presentation, the 2.35:1 is Letterboxed non-anamorphic. There is a commentary however that is merely Lee and some of the other surviving stars reminiscing over tea. I really can’t recommend this DVD issue, seeing as there are excellent Region 2 versions of this and other Hammer films, but unfortunately those suffer from the 4% PAL speedup and you must have both a region free player and pay the import costs.

To compound this, all of the Anchor Bay releases went out of print years ago. This disc now fetches premium prices on ebay. Pick it up only if interested and available cheaply.

EDIT: It appears that the single film release is available on Amazon as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R. Unfortunately it isn’t a new transfer.

http://www.amazon.com/Dracula-Prince-Darkness-Christopher-Lee/dp/B001V5K3AA/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1319323833&sr=8-2

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Filed under 2.5 stars, Film, Film Review, Hammer Films