The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) movie poster

director Charles Brabin
viewed: 10/28/2014

The B-side to the DVD of Mark of the Vampire (1935) was the 1932 piece of political incorrectness called The Mask of Fu Manchu.  It stars the inimitable Boris Karloff as the fiendish Chinese supervillain.  The “Mask” in question is the death mask of Genghis Khan, of whom Fu Manchu believes himself the living reincarnation.  Oh yeah, and he was to start a race war to bring down the white man.

Dr. Fu Manchu is a character created by Sax Rohmer in 1913.  He holds numerous doctorate degrees and speaks a multitude of different languages.  He’s of course the most over-the-top Chinese super-stereotype villain of all time but it’s rather imaginable that he could be reclaimed by someone in modern times to capitalize on utter reinvention.  You just take the “evil” out of “evil genius” and maybe you don’t have a Chinese Hitler but rather a superhero who fights against oppressive Imperialism.

But, you know.  This movie is pretty “wow”.  The kind of wow of racial stereotyping that was very commonplace up until a certain point in time.

Now, that said, Karloff played Fu Manchu once.   Werner Oland, the man who would go on to play Charlie Chan in dozens of movies, played Fu Manchu three times before Karloff.  But more amazingly, Christopher Lee played him five times in the 1960’s!  So, so much for cultural evolution over decades.

My “research” such as it is for writing this, my thoughts on The Mask of Fu Manchu isn’t going to reach far enough to even satisfy my piqued curiosity.  I can easily speculate on film studies or cultural studies that have delved deeply into the topic of Dr. Fu Manchu, and frankly, I’m quite curious to delve more deeply.

I recall, as a kid, when I first encountered Charlie Chan, that I was interested, even liked it.  And I’ll be honest, I appreciate outdated, un-PC things from the more untamed cultural Id of pop culture before the righting of political correctness.  Still, this is some pretty amazingly out-there pre-code stuff.

Mark of the Vampire (1935)

Mark of the Vampire

director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/28/2014

For Bela Lugosi and Tod Browning, the distance from vamp to camp was a mere four years.  In 1931, they made movie history with Dracula, which for all his life was Lugosi’s image and character forever combined.  By 1935, we’ve got this “talkie” re-make of Browning’s famed “lost film” London After Midnight (1927), this time with Lugosi as the vampire in question, with a straight-up goth-tacular daughter.  But the icons evoked in Dracula are already played for evocative thrills but also a certain level of parody.

It starts like a vampire movie, and it’s got some lovely campy effects and the vampire’s daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), a spook that could have launched a thousand goths.  The real star of the film is Lionel Barrymore, who is swimmingly fun as the doctor of the occult, Professor Zelen.

Only the film turns out to not really be a vampire movie.  Apparently, like London After Midnight the vampire turns out to be a ruse by the police to catch a killer.  In this case, the very last scene shows Lugosi and Borland hanging up their capes and announcing their schtick.  Ironically, this fact seems to suggest that maybe London After Midnight might also not be the lost “classic” as suggested, but rather iconic and interesting because of Lon Chaney’s amazing make-up crafted for it.  An image is worth a thousand speculations and projections?

Still, it has its charms.

Candyman (1992)

Candyman (1992) movie poster

director Bernard Rose
viewed: 10/27/2014

I saw Candyman (1992) back in the day in the theater, even, I believe.  I recall not thinking too much of it at the time.  But I’m in reassessment mode, open-minded, especially with content available for streaming from one of my resources, this case Netflix.  Of course, what precipitated this viewing was a combination of soon-to-be-removed from Netlfix (an issue that I’ve noticed some fluctuation in, meaning sometimes they come back a couple of months later).  But it’s also Halloween month and horror films are horror films.  It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Starring Virginia Madsen, Candyman trades off of the then hot and pretty new area of “urban legend”.  I don’t recall when I first head the term “urban legend” but I think it was around the late 1980’s/early 1990’s.  In this case, Madsen is a graduate student working on a co-thesis with her buddy Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) and they get turned onto the local legend of Candyman, a stalker with a hook hand who was at one time a turn-of-the-century artist and African-American freeman that took up with wrong rich man’s daughter and was gruesomely killed, having his hand hacked off and then stung to death by bees.

He now hunts Cabrini-Green, the then very notorious public housing bloc on Chicago’s North Side, a nice slice of time and place that the film has to offer.  Madsen is blond and white, sticking out like a sore thumb in the mostly black slum.  Her buddy Bernadette is I guess a very white black woman who also sticks out.

Their research leads them to some dark truths about murders in the tough housing project, and to a low level “gang banger” who trades off the Candyman legend.  Only the legend doesn’t like his legend being debunked, and when called forth (say his name five times in front of a mirror), he’s going to make sure that people still fear him as he lives on in infamy and supernatural terror.

Candyman isn’t as bad as I remember it.  I can’t say what I was looking for in a horror film in 1992, but it was it at the time.  Madsen and the other cast are good, especially the wily young DeJuan Guy, the tough little tyke Jake.  And the use of Cabrini-Green and Chicago are interesting too (Cabrini-Green was torn down in the early part of this century).  But I’d also say it’s not great yet either, just good.  Which is fine.

There were a couple of sequels made, though I never did see them.  And the material got its cachet in the day as the content was adapted from a Clive Barker story.  It’s still of the time where Clive Barker was still the hot next big thing in horror.  When did that finally end anyway?

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968) movie poster

director Michael Reeves
viewed: 10/27/2014

Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm is another of that tight list of Britain’s best horror films.  Interestingly, it’s not so much a horror film really in the least, but rather a pretty gory historical tale with some basis in fact and some in fiction.

The “Witchfinder General” was a real man, a Matthew Hopkins, who during the English Civil war (1642-1651), was  “believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 women”, in the name of purging the country of witchcraft. Reeves’ Witchfinder General was based on Roland Bassett’s novel of the same title from 1966.  While it’s a fiction, there is aspects of fact beneath the story.

The film stars Vincent Price, who was in his late 50’s at the time, playing a role of a much younger man.  Apparently Reeves wasn’t happy with the studio selection, originally planning to have Donald Pleasance in the role.  Who knows how that would have turned out.  Who knows as well about Reeves, who died the following year from an accidental overdose at the age of 27.

Price plays the corrupt and powerful Hopkins, who with his sidekick John Stearne (Robert Russell), traipses around the eastern part of England, collecting money from villages with accused witches, testing them by various brutal tortures, and then hanging them or burning them alive.  He’s dirty from his hair to his toenails and Stearne is just the man for the doling out of sadistic cruelty.

It’s horror, but real life horror, not a thing supernatural about it.

Much has been made of Reeves’ approach to the English countryside, shooting the bucolic scenes rather lovingly in stark contrast to the tortures being exercised against the innocent.  And it is a fine film, very dark and pessimistic, but apt to its subject matter.

I’d never really “enjoyed” the movie when I’d seen it as a kid.  It’s kind of a downer.  And while Price does play murderous brutes and monsters in other films, Hopkins is such a callow and beastly character without any charms or redemptions (probably accurately enough).  But it’s not a “monster” movie, and in some ways, like I said, it’s not really a horror film either.

I’d seen it again back about 20 years ago, but it’s been a while.  It’s another of those “quick, it’s about to be dropped from Netflix streaming!” movies, but it dovetailed with my Halloween Horror Fest too.  And it’s Vincent Price.

The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited (1944) movie poster

director Lewis Allen
viewed: 10/25/2014

Cited by many as one of the original and true “scary” ghost movies, 1944’s The Uninvited is a solid eerie thriller.  Ray Milland (love that guy) and Ruth Hussey play a brother and sister who stumble on a seaside mansion on the Cornish coast of England and become utterly smitten with the place.  They quickly buy the property from the rather curmudgeonly owner, who seems to be hiding some secrets about the house.

It’s actually a quite convoluted story, so convoluted in its final pay-out that I wasn’t sure exactly who was who and what was what but what we do know: the house is haunted, presumably by the former owner’s daughter, mother of his beautiful grand-daughter, played by Gail Russell, who becomes Milland’s love interest.  Only she seems to be under some awful spell at the place and the haunting and possession of the spirits is all dark and very real.

That is the big upshot about the film.  It’s one of the first horror films in which the ghosts are actual ghosts and not some strange other explanation.  In fact, there are some eerie if simple effects to create the ghosts which are also nicely executed.  And this, plus the fact that this is a semi-classical haunted house story with human drama at the heart, it plays pretty well.  It’s easy to see how this would appeal as a stand-out in the genre.

It’s also a bit of a romance, with some sprinklings of comedy.  All in all a fine affair.

But for me, this being my first viewing of the film ever, the thing that struck me was Gail Russell herself.  A very pretty woman, she has a presence and something that just stands out.  She would go on to make The Angel and the Badman (1947) with John Wayne and Calcutta (1947), showing she had an up and coming career (I clearly wasn’t the only one taken with her here in The Uninvited.)  She even appears in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), but this is the truly sad part of the story.

Apparently a severe alcoholic from a very young age, Russell became unhirable in Hollywood, she needed booze to get through everything.  She died of alcoholism-related symptoms at the young age of 36.

So, there is yet something utterly different that haunts the film, the sad, short life of its beautiful ingenue, Ms. Gail Russell.

The Day of the Triffids (1962)

Day of the Triffids (1962) movie poster

director Steve Sekely
viewed: 10/24/2014

I’ve read about the movie The Day of the Triffids probably since I’ve been reading.  I’ve read some references to the film as being one of “the great British horror films” and conversely, I’ve read that it was camp silliness.  Either way, it was just one of those movies that I’ve always wanted to see but the fates had yet to allow the planets to align just so that such a thing could happen.

Along comes Fandor.  And oddly enough, probably out of some personal kismet, this was one of the tipping point films for me to sign up for Fandor.  From what I’d read, this would seem like a good movie for kids’ night Halloween horror fest and so…that’s what we (I) chose.

It begins with a voice-over, telling us that the story is a flashback of sorts, about these strange plants, these “triffids” (like orchids, I suppose) that came to Earth on meteors and who manage to get “activated” by a later meteor shower, one of the most significant meteor showers ever, which people all over the planet watch.

The meteor shower’s wake is two-fold.  The triffids pull themselves up by their roots, and these weird giant plants start going around, zapping people with poison and then consuming them.  The other side effect of the shower is that anyone who watched it is suddenly blind.  So the only people who can see are the random people who failed to take interest in mother nature’s light show, the sick, imprisoned, infirm.  Of course, if you’re blind, it makes it that much harder to escape a triffid.

Certainly, the idea of killer plants from outer space has some inherent camp value.  That said, the film-makers get some solid menace from these crawling, looming, faceless terrors.  Whether trapped in a lighthouse, an isolated farm, or wherever you may be, the triffids’ll get ya.  It’s pretty sprightly good fun.

Felix zonked out on us really early (as he is often wont to do), but Clara and I both really enjoyed the movie.  I guess, from what I’ve read, that the film deviated from the novel from which it was taken, causing a typical rift with fans of the original material (later versions of the film were made for television).  I don’t know.  I haven’t read it.  But I liked the movie.  I even liked (vaguely knew this was coming) how the downfall of the triffids is salt water.  They melt pretty cool too.

This film adds to my growing appreciation for 1960’s British science fiction/horror.  The 1950’s were the heyday of American sci-fi, but the British films of the 1960’s offer slightly more intelligent narratives, but hanging from some similar motifs. It’s cool stuff so far.  Kudos to ye olde triffids.

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 10/23/2014

If you’re going to watch the documentary Edgar G. Ulmer – The Man Off-screen (2004), which you should, you should squeeze in an Ulmer feature with the film.  Now TCM played a number of Ulmer films when they aired this recently but on demand they only had The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) and Detour (1945) to go with it.  I’ve seen Detour even fairly recently.  The Amazing Transparent Man has been available on Netflix and Hulu Plus, too.  The public domain owns most of his films.

But at least on TCM The Amazing Transparent Man is a good print turned electronic copy.  So, it was my chosen accompaniment.

Apparently, Ulmer shot The Amazing Transparent Man consecutively with Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) in Texas as a double deal.  Ulmer went from production to production through his career, taking what he could get and making each film better than its budget could hope for.

The film opens with a jail break.  Major criminal Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy) is sprung by crafty mastermind Maj. Paul Krenner (James Griffith), who has immigrant scientist Dr. Peter Ulof (Ivan Triesault) under his thumb and a mad plan to create an army of invisible zombies to take over the world.  Only first he needs Joey Faust to be his first invisible goon and steal more radioactive materials to get him set in his plan.

It’s a mash-up of crime film and science fiction and clocks in at 59 minutes.  Ulmer gets some pretty cool cheap effects for a guinea pig turning invisible and Faust fluctuating back and forth between visibility.  He gets good performances from his cast and adds depth to the story about the immigrant scientist whose daughter Krenner has captive, blackmailing the doctor into crimes he would otherwise not commit.  Still, it’s not Ulmer’s magnum opus.

It is interesting to see Ulmer’s films in greater quantity and in closer proximity.  In the documentary some argued that he never really had an opportunity to develop a “style” working on the cheap, job-to-job, but there are themes and ideas that reach beyond.   It’s pretty cool stuff.

Edgar G. Ulmer – The Man Off-screen (2004)

Edgar G. Ulmer - The Man Off-screen (2004) DVD cover

director Michael Palm
viewed: 10/23/2014

I’m not sure where I first heard of Edgar G. Ulmer.  It might have been after seeing his amazing “Poverty Row” noir masterpiece Detour (1945) for the first te in the 1990’s.  It may have been somewhere before then.

When I first started queuing up movies on Netflix (around 2001), I went through all available films by directors of note that I had somehow assembled in my consciousness.  This included big names like Nicholas Ray, John Ford, or Howard Hawks but also directors like Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer.  Back then what I knew about particular directors wasn’t necessarily all that much.  Though this was already the era or the internet, could be variable and wikipedia hadn’t come to prominence yet.

It’s funny but I guess that I’ve only really started going through Ulmer’s films since 2010, when I watched Strange Illusion (1945).  But it wasn’t until I stumbled on The Man from Planet X (1951) that I actually had seen more than two of his movies (I had seen The Black Cat (1934) as a kid but didn’t recall it well)).  Still, somehow, I felt like I knew more than I did.

Michael Palm’s Edgar G. Ulmer – The Man Off-screen had been in my queue a long time too.  But TCM just played a bunch of Ulmer films alongside the documentary and made them available on demand for a week afterwards, so the opportunity arose again.

Made in 2004, Palm’s film is very good documentary. He speaks with Peter Bogdanovich,  who actually interviewed Ulmer three times back in the 1960’s/1970’s as well as with Ulmer’s daughter who has the fondest memories of the man.  John Landis and Joe Dante riff a lot on him, as does Roger Corman.  Palm also interviews Wim Wenders and other historians and filmmakers from Austria and Germany, Ulmer’s country of origin.

Ulmer has become the patron saint of low-budget film-making.  His film’s were all made on the cheap, the cheapest of cheap, and yet aspired higher, far higher than their budgets and not fruitlessly.  Not all of his films were truly great but he achieved things on a low budget, the craftiness of innovation, the mother of invention, that proved out for film-makers with low means that their budget’s limitations could push them into creative tracks that money would never have discovered.

Some of Ulmer’s claims to have worked on almost every important German Expressionist film are debated, which is interesting.  Much other material on the subject seems to accept claims at face value.

Palm shoots a number of interviews in a studio-set car with a back-projected background as was common in Ulmer’s films.  He digs up several actors like William Schallert, Peter Marshall, and Ann Savage and puts them into sets not unlike those they would have worked in with Ulmer while he has them recount their experiences on their films.  It’s an interesting approach and it works.

It’s an above-average documentary on an obscure subject.  Good stuff.

Blood Feast (1963)

Blood Feast (1963) movie poster

director Herschell Gordon Lewis
viewed: 10/22/2014

The ultimate proof that you really ought to research the caterers you hire.

Considered the first “splatter” film, this is the movie that innovated on the front of gore.  And if you want to know, it was localgore (a la localvore), as the sheep’s tongue and other animal viscera (no FX like natural, organic FX) used to gross-out the world were all apparently from local Florida businesses.

Actually, I’ve stumbled on something I’m quite curious about: exploitation/horror filmmaking in the state of Florida in the 1960’s (Blood FeastI Eat Your Skin (1964),  Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)).   Note to self, something to research.

This is the story of a mom who hires a caterer to do some Egyptian-style feast at her daughter’s debutante party (her daughter studies Egyptian culture), only to hire a nutty caterer who has been living for the moment for such a request, because he wants to do a “Blood Feast” to the goddess Ishtar that is made up largely of human elements.  Human elements acquired by his dastardly, bloody deeds.

This is Herschell Gordon Lewis, the “godfather of gore”, working in partnership with David F. Friedman, a partnership that flowered and flowed with bathtubs of blood.  Blood Feast is considered the first of Lewis’ “Blood Trilogy”, followed by Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) and Color Me Blood Red (1965).  These films are part of Something Weird’s line on the Full Moon Streaming.  So, more to come….

The Driller Killer (1979)

The Driller Killer (1979) movie poster

director Abel Ferrara
viewed: 10/22/2014

Believe it or not, I’d never seen Abel Ferrara’s punk splatter debut film The Driller Killer.  The writer/director of Ms. 45 (1981) and The Bad Lieutenant (1992), I always kind of assumed that The Driller Killer was a sort of Roger Corman-ish opportunity for a slasher film, maybe not so much of the purity of Ferrara’s style.  How wrong I was.

Really, it’s an amazingly personal film, I would guess.  Ferrara stars as Reno, a painter living in late 1970’s Manhattan’s gritty, pretentious art scene at the crux of the punk scene as well.  The problem is that he’s losing his grip or reality and fantasizing about going on random sprees of murder with a motorized but portable hand drill.

It’s far less Halloween (1978) and a little bit more Maniac (1980), and by this I mean it has gore and violence but it follows its psychopathic murderer more from the inside, a psychological sort of study.  But Ferrara’s killer is a reflection of New York City of its time, a critique of art culture and punk culture, hipster culture.  It also feels like a vision of a real sense of an individual’s response to the universe.

It earned a serious rep from its discredit in a British film ban.  A “video nasty” that is certainly perverse but is nowhere as nasty as some.

This was also yet another new tipping point for me.  Like I needed another outlet for content, I signed up for Full Moon Streaming (in large part because of a contract they have recently signed with Something Weird Video).  Their Grindhouse selection, from which The Driller Killer stemmed from has some goodly stuff on it as well.