Category Archives: 3 stars

House of Usher (1960)

Look at it. Doesn’t this poster just scream elegance?

3 stars out of 4. Recommended. Essential for Vincent Price and horror fans.

Roger Corman’s House of Usher is the first in the American International series and stars Vincent Price in the role that would firmly cement him in the mind as a horror star. Persuading the producers to adapt a work by Poe must have been some undertaking. While the resulting film is obviously made on a shoestring budget, Corman doesn’t allow this to effect his direction nor the atmosphere. The house does indeed come alive as another character as the story details.

If you can allow your imagination to fill in the gaps made by the budgetary constraints, House of Usher adequately recreates the essence of Poe and actually gives a relative close approximation of the original story.

The film follows the original Poe story. An interloper arrives at the House of Usher which is surrounded by an area of extreme decay. The film gives the interloper a purpose. Phillip Winthrop has arrived to find his fiancee, Madeline Usher. Her brother Roderick, absolutely refuses their happy union, claiming that the Usher bloodline is cursed for eternity. Madeline has become ill and is essentially confined to the house. Roderick himself is unable to endure any assault to his senses and looks half dead already. Phillip refuses to leave without Madeline and repeatedly tries to take her away. Finally, Madeline dies and is interred in the family crypt below…

The photography is in CinemaScope and color, which for AIP was far beyond their limited means. Corman attempts to give the film an air of prestige with these two pricier (no pun intended) elements but the widescreen photography alienates more than it impacts. There is a certain awkward feel to the film as if at certain moments everything gets switched off and we are stuck with mere static elements. (Plus the CinemaScope process didn’t help. I’ve never seen a single film made in CinemaScope that didn’t look wrong in some way. It loses focus, places odd emphasis in composition and just looks like the early variant it was. Pit and the Pendulum was filmed only a few months later, and it’s Panavision image looks brilliant.) The use of color is well done, not overbearing but not faint like so many films produced by companies jumping to color.

With Price’s brilliant performance (as always! Did the man ever give a bad performance?) one wishes that there could be a stronger film surrounding his Roderick Usher. What happens is that Corman gets lost between faithfully following Poe and entertaining a 1960 AIP audience. This initial stumbling isn’t too detracting, and Corman fully realized his intent in later films of the Poe cycle. The difference between the AIP film and the masterful 1928 French silent version is that the earlier film runs on atmosphere alone. Either one must follow the story material exactly in order to heighten the tale visually or one must elaborate on it to such a degree that the film is free to create its own impact. House of Usher tries to have it both ways as a crowd pleaser, and a prestige film adaptation of Poe.

In any case the success of this film finally made an American competitor for Hammer films in the horror market. The lasting appeal of House of Usher led to it being selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 2005.

MGM’s DVD is an early one. It is 2.35:1 anamorphic with a decent Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack. Also included is a rambling but informative commentary from Corman. It has been repackaged numerous times, but usually as a double feature with the next Poe film, Pit and the Pendulum. The print source is relatively free of damage, though there are still quite a few of marks, spots, pops, hairs, and other damage. It is also a single layer transfer from the early days of the format, so it is certainly in need of a new transfer as are all of the other films of Corman, Price and the others that were later released under the MGM “Midnite Movies” banner. I don’t think a Blu-ray of such an important film is all-that unreasonable. Since MGM has shown no real interest in ever revisiting any of these films, (and some of the transfers are very poor) imagine a Criterion Blu-ray edition of  all the Corman Poe cycle and the prestige Price films; Abominable Doctor Phibes, Doctor Phibes Rises Again, Theater of Blood, Witchfinder General. That’s a thought for sore eyes.

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Filed under 3 stars, Corman Poe series, Roger Corman, Vincent Price

The Brides of Dracula (1960)

It so evil because there's no Dracula and you'll want your money back afterwards!! Haha!

3 stars out of 4.

 

Don’t be looking for the Count. Even though the second film in the Hammer cycle bears his name, Dracula is nowhere to be found. Instead we are left with an odd substitute that works somewhat, but no sign of the man himself. So why bother? Several reasons:

1. This is Hammer still at its prime.

2. Terence Fisher directed.

3. Peter Cushing. (This is the main reason.) The only other Dracula film of this series that features Van Helsing, unless you count the awful A.D. 1972 (1972 of course) which I do not.

4. A really terrible fake bat flying around. Well they’re not as bad as the one in Scars of Dracula (1970).

Brides is an entertaining 86 minutes that will pass your time. This despite a mess of a plot. The Dracula substitute is the Baron Meinster, a man who is kept inside his castle. You may ask, how can a vampire be stuck inside his own home? Why he’s chained up by his mother of course. (That got your attention didn’t it?) And of course he’d have to be fed and cared for. So he’d need a creepy old woman to take care of him and his mother to bring him some nice occasional female snacks…

It is this latest “conquest” that foolishly gives him the key to unlock the chain binding him to his prison. Of course, I’m not quite sure what kind of a chain one would need to keep a vampire locked up but I digress. The new girl runs away after seeing the Baron “kill” his mother and flees off into the night, eventually cracking her head on a rock in the roadway. The next morning her unconscious form is found by an arriving coach carrying none other than Professor Van Helsing.

This may seem like a magical coincidence, but Van Helsing has been called to the area by the local priest who is knowledgeable enough in the  occult to know when outside help is needed. (Wonder what a vampire removal fee might run?) Van Helsing than begins to connect the dots between the oddness of the Baron’s actions with the increasing amounts of vampirism. This occurs after seeing a new vampire have to be coaxed out of her grave by the Baron’s old woman “You’ve just go to reach a bit farther.” (a brilliantly conceived scene) and encountering the Baroness who was not killed, but made like her son.

The old aristocratic bearing that Lee brought to the role of Dracula is still readily apparent in David Peel’s Baron Meinster, but we do get the sense that the Baron actually enjoys what he does. Especially when the girl he was denied gets to her original destination of an all-girl finishing school…which must seem like a vampire’s idea of a all you can eat buffet.

Cushing is a welcome presence for those fans of Horror of Dracula. Van Helsing is just a as much of a charming super hero here as in the first film. This combined again with Fisher’s smart and simplistic direction have led some fans to claim this superior to the original film…but it isn’t sadly. It suffers a trifle from the same disease that so rampantly affected all of the other sequels: disinterest and later boredom. And the notion of a vampire having supernatural powers and being able to change forms that was so refreshingly debunked in the first film as rubbish by Van Helsing now takes the form of a rubber bat on wires. I really wish they had reconsidered that last detail because the bat does not appear once, but multiple times.

The problems arise from the fact that the original script was completely denied by the Censor board and was very hastily rewritten by multiple people who seemed to possess a greater concern for appeasing those said censors and keeping budget concerns to a minimum.

The ending is another well done and highly inventive climax that ends extremely too quickly. It takes about 84 minutes to build up the story, (what bit there is) 1 minute to end and 1 minute for credits. But one thing that can always be said for these films is that they certainly know how to off a vampire and not to mention how to bring him back…

One question remains though: where do vampires get all those perfectly sized nightgowns for the women they convert?

The DVD release is contained in the Universal boxset entitled The Hammer Horror Series Franchise collection. The set is comprised of 2 DVDs housing 8 Hammer films. (Note: these are DVD-18s that are not playable without error in most players.) All feature anamorphic transfers with mono audio and theatrical aspect ratios. Brides has easily the best transfer of any Hammer title I’ve ever seen. They should really all look this good. Strong color, anamorphic image, strong audio and the only title to be in its original 1.66:1 ratio.

http://www.amazon.com/Werewolf-Paranoiac-Nightmare-Creatures-Frankenstein/dp/B0009X770O

 

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Filed under 1960 Film, 3 stars, Film, Hammer Films

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

3 out of 4 stars. Highly recommended for Holmesians and Hammer aficionados.

For some reason this is the film I always start my October with. It isn’t very true to the original story, it isn’t the greatest Holmes adaptation or a true horror film, it has dated somewhat and it was a box office failure.

However this is one of the only films that actually gets some of the adventurous spirit of Conan Doyle on celluloid. It simply blends in elements of horror and reason in order to create a Hammer-ized version of the tale.

For this Hammer production you have the three names that were behind the initial classics that began their horror cycle,(Horror of Dracula (1958), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) ) the stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and the taut direction of Terrence Fisher. Hound has often been maligned as an inferior product more designed for the B-slot of a double bill than an “A” feature. What these critics fail to realize is that this was not originally a scheduled production.  The sets are culled from the previous Horror of Dracula. They were simply lying around unused and someone finally hit upon a possible story to use for a new film. This Hound does not dwell on the typical Holmesian touchstones primarily because there is not the time (the film only runs 86 minutes) nor the budget to do so. This develops a rapid pace that actually allows the film to get past many of the downfalls that befall the other Hounds. Chiefly among them the fact that the majority of the story only features the always less interesting Watson investigating the affairs at Baskerville Hall and almost no mention of Holmes at all.

At this point I must add my own personal observation. To me, Peter Cushing is the cinematic Sherlock Holmes. His physical stature may not be the literary character’s but only Cushing has the right balance of devious calculation, analytical coldness, societal prejudices, irritability and the energy of a live wire. Unlike both Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (who are both superb Holmes in their own right) Cushing injects a passionate energy into the character that overcomes the Hammer film’s shortcomings and makes the viewer take notice when ordering Sir Henry not to under any circumstances go “alone on the moor at night.”

The ever-charming and strong presence of Lee is for once actually the romantic leading man. He even gets a small love scene! Sadly, his only real purpose is simply to act as the simple Henry Baskerville and thus really has little to do.

Fisher’s stable camerawork at some points is reminiscent of Sidney Paget’s original illustrations for the Holmes stories in the Strand magazine. Other than this, you would be hard pressed to find anything truly notable…save for the painfully lackluster looking Hound…

This is a little gem of a film. It is still most notable for the fantastic performance of Cushing as Holmes and regrettable only in that there could not be better circumstances surrounding the performance. Still, as with most Hammer productions the quality of the production team more than makes up for the low budget. This is one of those films perfect for starting your Halloween viewing early…

MGM’s DVD is acceptable, presented in the correct 1.66:1 theatrical ratio with clear mono. An original trailer is included. There is a nice extra with Christopher Lee recalling some anecdotes about the film and his good friend Cushing in addition to reading some excerpts from the original novel. The only problem I have with this disc, is that the color is not fully represented. The early Hammer horror films are famed for their use of vivid Technicolor and none of this really comes across on the DVD versions. (especially the bare bones Warner Dracula and Frankenstein Hammer releases.) This is a film that could really benefit from a new transfer so that it might finally get away from a video look and more closely resemble the theatrical presentation.

This exact disc was later reissued in a collection with two other Holmes films. Oddly enough, these three films together are my own personal favorite Holmes films: Without a Clue, Hound and the butchered masterpiece that is Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Clue has unfortunately been presented in full frame on DVD (this may be open matte, but I’m not absolutely sure.) but the other titles are in their proper widescreen ratios. Currently this set retails for $1.20 less than the standalone film and is a bargain for a nice comedy pared with the two finest Sherlock Holmes films.

http://www.amazon.com/Sherlock-Holmes-Collection-Robert-Stephens/dp/B002OMIKV8/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1318802738&sr=1-2

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Filed under 3 stars, Hammer Films