Category Archives: DVD/Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-Ray Review: A Life At Stake (1955).

Directed by Paul Guilfoyle
Produced by Hank McCune
Screenplay by Russ Bender
From a story ideas by Hank McCune
Director Of Photography: Ted Allan
Film Editor: Frank Sullivan
Music by Les Baxter

Cast: Angela Lansbury (Doris Hillman), Keith Andes (Edward Shaw), Douglass Dumbrille (Gus Hillman), Claudia Barrett (Madge Neilan), Jane Darwell (Landlady), Gavin Gordon (Sam Pearson), Charles Maxwell Lt. Hoff), William Henry (Myles Norman)

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Between my two blogs, I’ve said this about a thousand times (and I’m sure you’re all sick of hearing it) — it makes my heart feel good to see low-budget movies get the high-end treatment on DVD and (especially) Blu-Ray. One of the companies making these happen is The Film Detective, and their new Blu-Ray of A Life At Stake (1955) joins their growing (and very interesting) list of great-looking pictures.

A Life At Stake (1955) is an independent mini-noir starring Angela Lansbury, Keith Andes and Douglass Dumbrille. It was shot in about a week in 1954, then it sat for nine months or so before finally making it to theaters. This delay explains why a 1955 release is still in the 1.37 aspect ratio.

Andes is a down-on-his-luck architect who ends up part of a life insurance caper cooked up by a wealthy couple (Lansbury and Dumbrille). They take out a hefty policy on Andes as part of a large development project, then plan his lucrative demise. (Her first husband croaked off under kinda shifty circumstances and with a nice insurance payoff.) As you’d expect, once Andes finds out about all this, he’s not in favor of it.

Of course, life insurance thing may sound like a riff on Double Indemnity (1944), which I’m sure it is, but writer Russ Bender steers clear of obvious imitation and his ending is a bit of a surprise.

Angela Lansbury is lovely and diabolical as the femme fatale. Her career was in a bit of a lull here, not too long after she left MGM. After years of making movies there, the budget and schedule for A Life At Stake must’ve been quite a shock. She did A Lawless Street (1955) at Columbia not long after this. 

Keith Andes is pretty good as the sap who gets involved with people he shouldn’t, namely Lansbury. He was a stage, radio and movie actor. He appeared in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952) at RKO, then like a lot of others at that studio, went a long time between pictures, which might’ve hurt his career’s momentum. He wound up at Universal International where he was in pictures like Pillars Of The Sky and Away All Boats (both 1956).

Douglass Dumbrille is, of course, Douglass Dumbrille, and that’s about as good as it gets. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of screen time here. The great Jane Darwell — from Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath (1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), Wagon Master (1950) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953) — plays Andes’s landlady. She’s always a treat.

The picture’s director was character actor Paul Guilfoyle. He only directed three features, but did quite a few TV shows. As an actor, he’s the guy in the trunk in White Heat (1949).

By the way, Lansbury’s crazy-looking convertible is a 1954 Kaiser Darrin. They had fiberglass bodies and pocket doors. Only 435 production cars were built.

The Film Detective has done a terrific job with A Life At Stake. It looks and sounds quite nice, with a few blemishes (and perhaps some warping) that happily remind us we’re watching an old movie. With something like this, you have to work with what you can track. In this case, they gave it a 4K restoration. Les Baxter’s score has a nice range.

You can always count on The Film Detective for an extra or two (or three). There’s a commentary and essay from “film noir scholar and critic” Jason Ney, along with a short documentary on The Filmmakers, Ida Lupino’s production company that had a hand in A Life At Stake. All are top notch.

There was a film at stake, a pretty good one, and The Film Detective came through. Recommended.

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Filed under 1955, Douglass Dumbrille, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, The Film Detective

Blu-Ray Review: Flight To Mars (1951).

Directed by Lesley Selander
Screenplay by Arthur Strawn
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Film Editor: Richard V. Heermance
Music by Marlin Skiles

Cast: Marguerite Chapman (Alita), Cameron Mitchell (Steve Abbott), Arthur Franz (Dr. Jim Barker), Virginia Huston (Carol Stafford), John Litel (Dr. Lane), Morris Ankrum (Ikron)

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If there’s a recipe for cooking up a perfect 50s B movie, you can bet it was used to whip up Flight To Mars (1951). Let’s see. You’ve got the great B director Lesley Selander. There’s Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz and Morris Ankrum in the cast. There’s the lovely Martian maiden (Marguerite Chapman) in her interstellar miniskirt. And it’s all in Cinecolor from the fine folks at Monogram Pictures.

A team of American scientists, accompanied by a newspaperman (Cameron Mitchell), take a rocket ride to Mars. (Mitchell smokes through much of the flight.) Once they crash on the Red Planet, the seemingly-friendly people of Mars start plotting to imprison the Earthlings and use their damaged rocket to plan the Martian migration to Earth. You see, Mars is running low on the crucial element Corium…

There’s an element of hope in 50s science fiction that find very attractive, and Flight To Mars has it in spades. In movies like this, you can “trust the science” (and scientists) without a trace of irony or sarcasm. 

Note that they had to do some retouching to Marguerite Chapman’s outfit.

Flight To Mars, with its “Mars N Miniskirts” theme (Marguerite Chapman looks great in her Martian attire), is part of a rich cinema heritage. There’s also Abbott & Costello Go To Mars (1953), Cat-Women Of The Moon (1953, with Marie Windsor), Devil Girl From Mars (1954), World Without End (1955),  Fire Maidens From Outer Space (1956), Queen Of Outer Space (1957) and Invasion Of The Star Creatures (1962). That’d make a helluva weekend retrospective, wouldn’t it?

There’s a strong tie between Flight To Mars and both World Without End and Queen Of Outer Space — both use rocket footage from this one, severely cropped for CinemaScope. All three were released by Monogram or Allied Artisits — same company, different names.

Producer Walter Mirisch was trying to take things up a notch at Monogram, and it’s obvious they splurged a bit (relatively speaking) on Flight To Mars.

A Martian clock, made in Zeeland, Michigan.

There are the effects and Cinecolor, of course. A cast with a few name actors in it. Some interesting sets for the underground Martian city, complete with a Herman Miller ball clock (designed by George Nelson). And a handful of nice matte paintings (certainly inspired by 1936’s Things To Come).

But you’ll still see some of the usual Poverty Row tricks — the cast is tiny, the sets are often reconfigured to create new spaces, and for a movie about space flight, there’s very little space actually seen. And it was all shot in just five days!

The Film Detective treated Flight To Mars to a 4K restoration from the picture’s original 35mm Cinecolor separation negatives. On the whole, it looks wonderful. The Cinecolor is terrific, given the process’s odd, limited color palette. Some scenes are sharper than others, with the Mars portion of the movie looking best. The grain’s a bit clunky in some scenes, but I’m so glad nobody tried to process it away. Never thought I’d see it look like this. The sound is quite nice, with more range than you’d expect. There are a couple of nice documentaries from Ballyhoo, a commentary from Justin Humphreys and an essay by Don Stradley. 

I adore Monogram Pictures Corporation and have a real soft spot for many of their movies, no matter how good they actually are. I love Flight To Mars — and what The Film Detective has done with it. Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under 1951, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Lesley Selander, Monogram/Allied Artists, Morris Ankrum, The Film Detective

Blu-Ray Review: I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes! (1948).

Directed by William Nigh
Screenplay by Steve Fisher
From a novel by Cornell Woolrich
Cinematography: Mack Stengler
Film Editor: Roy V. Livingston
Music by Edward J. Kay

Cast: Don Castle (Tom J. Quinn), Elyse Knox (Ann Quinn), Regis Toomey (Inspector Clint Judd), Charles D. Brown (Inspector Stevens), Rory Mallinson (Harry), Robert Lowell (John L. Kosloff), Steve Darrell (D.A.), Bill Kennedy (Detective), Bill Walker (Prisoner), John Doucette (Prisoner), Ray Teal (Guard)

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There are times when a cheap old movie actually seems to benefit from how cheap it is. Maybe the lack of money demands a more stylized approach to the sets and art direction. Or perhaps the tight schedule calls for long takes, reducing the number of setups to get a scene in the can. Or it could be the opportunity for character actors to get rare lead roles. Or somehow they lucked out and got a really good script. It’s most likely some combination of these. But the takeaway is this: when time and money are tight, moviemakers rely on their creativity and problem-solving skills to get something good on the screen. In other words, with a lack of budget can come a surplus of inspiration and innovation.

When it all comes together, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes (1948), a once hard-to-see Monogram mini-noir, is one of those those times. It’s a wealth of riches from Hollywood’s Poverty Row. And its release on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive really illustrates just how well it rises above its humble origins.

Don Castle and Elyse Knox play a young couple, dancers, whose lives fall apart when he’s wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to await his turn in the electric chair. Lucky for him, he’s got a wife who’s not willing to give up on him too easily. She keeps working to track down the real killer, with the help of a sympathetic detective (Regis Toomey).

Castle and Knox are fine as the couple. They’re likable and have pretty good chemistry. Elyse Knox had a pretty brief, but interesting, movie career — Sheriff Of Tombstone (1941) with Roy Rogers, The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) starring Lon Chaney and Hit The Ice (1943) with Abbott & Costello. Don Castle made a number of pictures in the 40s, interrupted by Word War II. His last film was a small part in Gunfight At The OK Corral (1957). 

Regis Toomey is terrific here, as always. He was an insanely busy character actor, juggling big pictures like The Big Sleep (1946) and The High And The Mighty (1954) with B movies like this one and The Nebraskan (1953). He was really good in the 1953 John Wayne movie Island In The Sky. In I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes, he somehow manages to be slimy and sympathetic at the same time. That’s quite a trick.

Years and years ago, I went nuts over Columbia’s Whistler movies, mainly because of my infatuation with William Castle. Those movies introduced me to the great crime writer Cornell Woolrich. Two of the Whistler pictures were based on his stories; so were The Leopard Man (1943), Fall Guy (1947), The Window (1949) and Rear Window (1954). His story for I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes is pretty solid.

William Nigh started out in silent movies as an actor, then made the transition to director. He was really prolific, spending a lot of time working on Poverty Row for Monogram and PRC — though he’d do a picture at Republic, RKO or Universal ever once in a while. I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes was one of his last films. 

The picture’s cinematographer, Mack Stengler, started out in the silents and shot a few hundred movies and TV shows during his 30-plus years behind the camera. Stengler spent most of the 40s shooting at Monogram — everything from Kid Dynamite to The Ape Man (both 1943) to Fall Guy (1947) — and a number of Hopalong Cassidy pictures. He made to the move to TV in the 50s, shooting more than 75 episodes of The Lone Ranger and almost 150 episodes of Leave It To Beaver, along with plenty of other shows. He retired in 1962.

Stengler’s solid work on I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes gets a big boost on the Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. This is a rare Monogram picture that doesn’t scream at you how cheap it is. The Blu-Ray is sharp as a tack, with the contrast dialed-in just right. It looks like film, which it should. The sound is clean and clear. 

I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes is a terrific little picture. It, and its treatment on Blu-Ray, are really easy to recommend.

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Monogram/Allied Artists, Regis Toomey, Warner Archive, William Nigh

Blu-Ray Review: Doctor X (1932).

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Robert Tasker & Earl Baldwin
Based on The Terror 1931 play by Howard W. Comstock Allen C. Miller
Photography by Ray Rennahan
Art Director: Anton Grot
Film Editor: George Amy
Music by Vitaphone Orchestra conducted by Leo F. Forbstein

Cast: Lionel Atwill (Dr. Jerry Xavier), Fay Wray (Joanne Xavier), Lee Tracy (Lee Taylor), Preston Foster (Dr. Wells), John Wray (Dr. Haines), Harry Beresford (Dr. Duke), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Dr. Rowitz), Leila Bennett (Mamie), Robert Warwick (Police Commissioner Stevens), George Rosener (Otto)

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Warner Archive has done monster movie fans a huge service with their miraculous restoration of Michael Curtiz’s Doctor X (1932).

The horror movies of the early 30s are a weird, wicked, wonderful lot — with the Pre-Code ones having the added benefit of being able to go a bit further with what we see and what’s hinted at. Doctor X, for instance, has cannibalism as one of its tasteless themes — and while we don’t see any actual people-munching, just a year later, merely mentioning it would’ve given the censors fits.

That’s what makes these old movies appeal to me so. Since they can mention, or allude to, just about anything, that’s exactly what they do. When it comes to the lurid, everything goes, and let the very skanky chips fall where they may. Doctor X touches on all kinds of dreadful things: cannibalism, mutilation, rape, a heart in a jar, prostitution. They just pile ’em all on, and if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, well, that’s OK. Ah, the joys of Pre-Code Horror.

There’s a cannibalistic serial killer working nights in New York City. About all witnesses can offer up is that he’s hideous-looking. The cops turn to Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) when they see a connection between these nasty killings and his medical academy. The fact that some of the researchers there are studying things like cannibalism and the effects of the moon on the human psyche only adds to their suspicion.

Dr. Xavier gathers these doctors and researchers, along with his daughter (Fay Wray) at his beachside home to try to sort out the killings. A reporter (Lee Tracy) makes his way there, too. This sets up a murder mystery with a little haunted house picture nailed to it, spiced up with as much out-and-out weirdness as they could get away with.

Lionel Atwill is a lot of fun as Dr. X. He’d make a career out of mining the mad doctor vein he created here. Fay Wray is charming, and really lovely in this early Technicolor. Of course, she’s one of cinema’s all-time great screamers. As the spunky reporter, Lee Tracy gets old pretty quickly. And I don’t buy it for a second that Fay Wray would fall for him. 

Art director Anton Grot and cinematographer Ray Rennahan use the two-strip Technicolor’s limited color palette for all it’s worth, creating plenty of mood and some downright weird images — with a decided emphasis on green. These otherworldly hues, coupled with the picture’s sinister, suggestive subject matter, come together to create something truly weird and downright creepy.

Almost a year ago, Warner Archive treated us to a restored Blu-Ray of Warner’s later color horror picture, The Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933). (The success of Doctor X spawned Wax Museum, which was created by many of the same folks.) A couple of well-worn 35mm prints were all they had to work with, and the results were eye-poppingly beautiful. With Doctor X, they faced a similar task, and the results are just as startling. If you can, dig out the old laserdisc (which we all used to oooh and ahhh over), and you’ll see just how much work was done here. It’s easy to focus on the visuals, which are so rich and moody, but the soundtrack has been given a thorough cleaning as well. 

Doctor X was restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in association with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Funding was provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. A big thanks to all those associated with this. It’s incredible.

Warner Archive has put together another impressive package for this one. There are two commentaries, a couple documentaries — along with the alternate black and white version, which was shot alongside the color version. There are subtle differences, but most of the takes are the same. 

It’s amazing to think that us movie nuts used to travel sizable distances to see Doctor X in color — any kind of color. And now, for about the price of a pizza, we can have it in our homes looking as good, if not even better, than it did in theaters back in 1932. This one’s as essential as it gets.

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill, Michael Curtiz, Pre-Code, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: Hercules And The Captive Women (1963).

Directed by Vittorio Cottafavi
Produced by Achille Piazzi
Executive Supervision: Hugo Grimaldi
Cinematography: Carlo Carlini
Music Supervision (US Version): Gordon Zahler, General Music Corp.
Title Design (US Version): Filmation Associates

Cast: Reg Park (Hercules), Fay Spain (Queen Antinea), Ettore Manni (Androclo, Re di Tebe), Luciano Marin (Illo), Laura Efrikian (Ismene), Maurizio Coffarelli (Proteus, The Monster), Leon Selznick (Narrator, US Version)

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Let’s not take for granted the fact that Blu-Ray technology has become prevalent enough that niche genre films like Hercules And The Captive Women (1963) are getting the kind of deluxe treatment usually given to pictures widely acknowledged as “classics.” As someone who seems to only watch movies that fall into some kind of goofy niche, I’m so thankful to the companies putting these things out.

That makes reviewing something like The Film Detective’s new Blu-Ray of Hercules And The Captive Women a bit odd, since I’m overjoyed by the thing before I even know what it looks like. With that out of the way, lets get to it.

Hercules And The Captive Women was released in Italy in 1961 as Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, which translates to “Hercules At The Conquest Of Atlantis.” Shot in Technicolor and Technirama, it was Reg Park’s first time as Hercules. The picture played in the UK as Hercules Conquers Atlantis.

In 1963, The Woolner Bros. brought it to the States. They re-cut it, re-dubbed it, replaced the score, gave it the title Hercules And The Captive Women and opened it with new animated credits from Filmation. This is the version The Film Detective has brought to Blu-Ray, and it’s beautiful.

This time around, Hercules takes on Antinea, the Queen of Atlantis (Fay Spain), who’s planning on taking over the world with an army of odd-looking blond warriors. Along the way, there are all kinds of fights, plenty of posing and posturing and lots of crazy dialogue — you know, the stuff that makes these peplum movies what they are.

Hercules And The Captive Women one was one of my favorite peplums as a kid, thanks largely to the lizard monster Hercules (Reg Park) takes on. Fay Spain appeared in everything from Dragstrip Girl (1957) to The Godfather Part II (1974). I liked Park’s next one, Mario Bava’s Hercules In The Haunted World (1961), even better. This was probably the peak for peplum.

Thanks to the Technicolor and Technirama, Hercules And The Captive Women has a bigger, lusher feel than the rest of these things, which is where The Film Detective’s really pays off. The transfer — a 4K Restoration from the original 35mm camera negative — is as sharp as a tack. Sharpness and deep focus were the key benefits of Technirama, surely one of the best of the many film processes to turn up in the 50s. The audio here is, well, it is what it is. The dubbing and effects are as wonky as you remember, but quite a bit cleaner and clearer. You might recognize a music cue from Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) — it’s also in Bend Of The River (1952) and King Kong Vs. Godzilla (1962).

There’s a mighty batch of extras: a commentary by Tim Lucas, a nice booklet with notes from C. Courtney Joyner, a documentary on peplums, Hercules And The Conquest Of Cinema, and MST3K’s take on the film. This is a really nice package. The Film Detective is a company to keep an eye on — they’re really on a roll these days. Highly recommended.

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Filed under 1963, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Fay Spain, Mario Bava, Peplum, Reg Park, The Film Detective, Woolner Brothers

DVD Review: Jungle Man-Eaters (1954).

Directed by Lee Sholem
Produced by Sam Katzman
Story & Screen Play by Samuel Newman
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Film Editor: Gene Havlick

Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Jungle Jim), Karin Booth (Dr. Bonnie Crandall), Richard Wyler (Inspector Jeffrey Bernard), Bernie Hamilton (Zuwaba), Gregory Gaye (Leroux), Lester Matthews (Commissioner Kingston), Paul Thompson (Zulu), Vince Townsend, Jr. (Chief Boganda), Louise Franklin (N’Gala), Tamba

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Critics’ Choice and Mill Creek have released a six-movie set of Jungle Jim movies (there are 16 of ’em, 1948 – 1955), pulled from the middle to the end of series (’50-’55). The next-to-last picture in the set is Jungle Man-Eaters (1954).

The later Jungle Jim movies look even cheaper than the early ones, with a very heavy reliance on stock footage. Even some of the Johnny Weissmuller shots look like footage from previous entries, given away by the new 1.85 framing. In this one, Jungle Jim (Weissmuller) gets involved in a war between tribes largely orchestrated by Leroux, a French diamond smuggler. Pretty Kari Booth (I’ve always liked her) is a doctor along for the ride, and she gets caught up in the birth of the son of one of the warring tribes’ leader. Tamba dresses up like a doctor, torments Karin Booth, does plenty of flips and eats a lot of bananas.

Despite the title and ads, there are cannibals, no man is eaten (“human banquet”) and Karin Booth’s legs are never threatened by fire.

While there are three more pictures in the series, this is the last one where Weissmuller is actually called Jungle Jim. Producer Sam Katzman has Weissmuller use his own name for the rest of the run, probably because Screen Gems had signed with King Features to use the character in a TV series, again with Weissmuller. It debuted about the time the last feature, Devil Goddess, hit theaters in October 1955.

Jungle Man-Eaters features the work of the couple of guys who toiled quite a bit on Katzman pictures: director Lee Sholem and cinematographer Henry Freulich.

Sholem was known as “Roll ‘Em Sholem” for how quickly he worked. He directed over 1,300 features and TV shows over the course of four decades. They say he never went over schedule. One of his masterworks is Superman And The Mole Men (1951).

Henry Freulich had been behind the camera since the Silents. He was a cameraman on The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1922). He was at Columbia for years and years, shooting everything from It Happened One Night (1934) to over a hundred Three Stooges shorts to all sorts of wonderful things in the 50s — pictures like William Castle’s Masterson Of Kansas (1954), It Came From Beneath The Sea (1955), Fred F. Sears’s Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955) and George Sherman’s Reprisal! (1956).

Freulich’s work on Jungle Man-Eaters looks terrific on DVD in this set. In fact, all six boast the gorgeous transfers we’ve come to expect of cheap Columbia movies from this period. A lot of us have been waiting quite a while for Jungle Jim to make his way out of the jungle and onto DVD. This collection is worth the wait — and hopefully the first of several volumes. Recommened.

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Filed under 1954, Columbia, Critics' Choice Collection, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Johnny Weissmuller, Jungle Jim, Karin Booth, Lee Sholem, Mill Creek, Sam Katzman

Blu-Ray Review: Isle Of The Dead (1945).

Directed by Mark Robson
Produced by Val Lewton
Written by Ardel Wray
Director Of Photography: Jack MacKenzie
Film Editor: Lyle Boyer
Music by Leigh Harline

Cast: Boris Karloff (Gen. Nikolas Pherides), Ellen Drew (Thea), Marc Cramer (Oliver Davis), Katherine Emery (Mrs. Mary St. Aubyn), Helene Thimig (Madame Kyra), Alan Napier (St. Aubyn), Jason Robards, Sr. (Albrecht), Ernst Deutsch (Dr. Drossos), Sherry Hall (Col. Kobestes), Erick Hanson (Officer), Skelton Knaggs (Andrew Robbins)

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Producer Val Lewton made a number of artful horror movies at RKO, a string of creepy, wonderful classics that includes Cat People (1942), The Ghost Ship (1943) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943).

One was so artful, in fact, it was actually inspired by a painting, Arnold Böcklin’s Isle Of The Dead. The painting is pretty much recreated early in the 1945 Lewton film of the same name.

It’s the story of a group of people quarantined on a small island during the Balkan Wars of 1912 — Gen. Pherides (Boris Karloff) and Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) rowing to the island is where art imitates art (above). The plot, which gets a little complicated at time, touches on the plague, grave robbing, premature burial, madness and the dreaded vorvolaka. Like most of the Lewton pictures, it’s relentlessly creepy — with more overt horror/scary stuff towards the end, and the screens seems to drip atmosphere onto the floor.

Val Lewton was a novelist who wound up a producer. In the early 40s, he found himself in charge of a small unit at RKO, making horror films for $150,000 each. His psychological approach, preying upon our fear of the dark and the unknown, was both effective (the first, Cat People, grossed  millions and helped save the studio) and cost-effective (little light, minimal sets and no monster makeup). Lewton believed it was better to suggest horror than to show it. Leaving RKO in 1946, he made films for Paramount and MGM, and considered starting an independent production company with two of his directors from RKO, Robert Wise and Mark Robson. It fell through. There was talk of an association with Stanley Kramer at Columbia. And there was a producing gig at Universal-International — which resulted in Apache Drums (1951), which turned out to be his last film.

Mark Robson started out as an editor, assisting Robert Wise on Citizen Kane (1941). It’s hard to believe that the Mark Robson who directed The Seventh Victim (1943) and Isle Of The Dead, tight little movies brimming with atmosphere and suspense, is the same Mark Robson responsible for the big, bloated Earthquake (1974), which is almost totally devoid of atmosphere and suspense. In between this film and the wretched Earthquake, he made some good stuff: Champion (1949),  Roughshod (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956) and Von Ryan’s Express (1965), to name a few.

Boris Karloff is terrific in this. Production was interrupted by his back surgery, which might explain some of the plot confusion, but his performance is dead on. His curly hair gives him a really odd appearance, which along with the uniform, puts a new spin on the kind of tortured soul thing he does so well. The more time that goes by, and the more of his films I see again and again, just how great an actor Karloff was becomes more and more apparent. 

Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray of Isle Of The Dead is really incredible. Coming from a 4K scan of original nitrate camera negative, it’s flawless. I can’t imagine it looking any better when it opened in 1945, and it’s a real pleasure to see Jack MacKenzie’s beautiful black and white look like this. We’re also treated to some nice extras — a commentary and an original trailer (with Spanish subtitles). The Lewton horror films are essential viewing, and since so much of their power comes from atmosphere, a high-def presentation like this is a huge leap forward. Essential.

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Filed under Boris Karloff, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Mark Robson, RKO, Val Lewton, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray Review: Giant From The Unknown (1958).

Directed by Richard E. Cunha
Produced by Marc Frederic & Arthur A. Jacobs
Written by Ralph Brooke
Frank Hart Taussig
Music by Albert Glasser
Cinematography: Richard E. Cunha

Cast: Ed Kemmer (Wayne Brooks), Sally Fraser (Janet Cleveland), Buddy Baer (Vargas the Giant), Bob Steele (Sheriff Parker), Morris Ankrum (Dr. Frederick Cleveland), Oliver Blake (Cafe Proprietor), Jolene Brand (Anne Brown), Billy Dix (Indian Joe), Gary Crutcher (Charlie Brown), Ned Davenport (Townsman), Ewing Miles Brown (Townsman)

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1957-58 was an interesting time for the Horror Film. For starters, Hammer kicked off their rethink (I hate the word “reboot”) of the classic monsters with Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula. Jacques Tourneur gave us the masterful Night Of The Demon. And William Castle launched his string of gimmick-y horror pictures with Macabre. But there was something else brewing, with a bunch of unknowns, independents and upstarts cooking up their own scrappy little monster movies. Pictures like Attack Of The Crab Monsters, Earth Vs. The Spider, Curse Of The Faceless Man — and Giant From The Unknown. And while they’re lacking in what we normally think of when it comes to Good Movies, they’ve been beloved by fans since they first played drive-ins and turned up on the late show.

Giant From The Unknown works from a pretty kooky premise. After 500 years in the dirt, a Spanish Conquistador, Vargas the “Diablo Giant” (Buddy Baer), is resurrected by lightning and goes on a killing spree. The sheriff (Bob Steele), a geologist (Edward Kemmer) and a group on citizens from Pine Ridge, California, eventually take him down.

Shot around Big Bear Lake for about $55,000 — and going from idea to answer print in just 60 days, Giant From The Unknown is a hoot. Director Richard E. Cunha and producer Arthur A. Jacobs were making commercials before this first feature. Cunha would make three more low-budget monster pictures in the late 50s: She Demons, Missile To The Moon and Frankenstein’s Daughter. On this one, he was a cinematographer and editor, too. 

The Giant’s makeup was done by none other than Jack Pierce, the genius behind all the Universal Monsters. And it boasts a couple of terrific character actors, Bob Steele and Morris Ankrum. Buddy Baer is, of course, the father of Jethro Bodine himself, Max Baer.

The Film Detective brings Giant From The Unknown to Blu-Ray in a “Deluxe Edition” using a 4K scan of the camera negative. It’s absolutely startling, especially of you remember how it looked on TV or VHS. It looks like it was made yesterday, unbelievably sharp and clean. It comes with a terrific stable of extras — a couple commentaries, interviews, the trailer and a nice booklet.

I’ve loved this movie for decades, and I love what The Film Detective has done with it. It’s wonderful to have movies like Giant From The Unknown get this kind of treatment. Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under 1958, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Jack Pierce, Morris Ankrum, Richard E. Cunha, The Film Detective

Blu-Ray Review: The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957).

Directed by Terence Fisher
Produced by Anthony Hinds
Screenplay by Jimmy Sangster
Based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Director Of Photography: Jack Asher
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Makeup Artist: Phil Leakey
Music by James Bernard
Film Editor: James Needs

Cast: Peter Cushing (Baron Victor Frankenstein), Melvyn Hayes (Young Victor), Robert Urquhart (Paul Krempe), Hazel Court (Elizabeth), Sally Walsh (Young Elizabeth), Christopher Lee (The Creature), Valerie Gaunt (Justine), Noel Hood (Aunt Sophia), Paul Hardtmuth (Professor Bernstein)

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With its first color film, and first foray into Gothic horror, Hammer Films created a brand that would change their direction, launch the horror careers of a couple of iconic actors, and ultimately change the horror movie itself. That’s accomplishing quite a bit, especially when you’re talking about a little company in the UK with a $250,000 monster movie — and working out of a house, not a proper studio.

Of course, we’re talking about is The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. And it’s just been given an incredible restoration and Blu-Ray release by Warner Archive.

While it varies quite a bit from the Shelley novel, it’s right in line with the cinematic Frankenstein story. A brilliant, obsessed doctor (Peter Cushing) assembles a man (Christopher Lee) from parts of dead bodies and brings it to life — with less than the desired result.

Seen today, it’s still a nasty little movie. Victor Frankenstein isn’t just an overly-driven medical researcher, he’s a manipulative lech. Actresses seem to have been chosen, and costumes designed, to highlight the female form. And every gruesome opportunity to dwell upon a lopped-off head, a severed hand or an eye in a jar is taken with relish. And remember, this is the first time audiences had ever seen such gore in color!

But what’s really important, and what makes this new Blu-Ray so essential, is we get to see the level of craft that went into Curse Of Frankenstein. Bernard Robinson’s sets are incredible, especially when you consider he was working in such tight spaces. Jack Asher’s cinematography, his first time working in color, uses shadow and light to draw  the eye to exactly what he wanted us to see and making those tiny sets look as big, as opulent, as possible. His experiments with color and light would continue with each film, making watching these early Hammer horror pictures in order of release a fun exercise.

Phil Leakey touches up Christopher Lee’s hairdo.

For Christopher Lee’s Creature, the makeup had to steer clear of the classic Universal/Karloff look, and Phil Leakey went in an effective stitched-up, patchwork direction. The Blu-Ray’s restored color really aids our appreciation of the look of the Creature, and we can see that Lee’s wounds seem to “heal” as the film goes on. 

James Bernard’s score is kinetic and dynamic, creating a signature sound (with an obviously small orchestra) that instantly IDs a Hammer film. A friend and I had dinner with Mr. Bernard in the early 90s. What a nice, charming man — and so humble.

Terence Fisher, Hazel Court and Peter Cushing on the set.

Terence Fisher’s direction brings all these elements together, beginning to set the tone for what Hammer would make into the mid-60s. He gets pitch-perfect performances from his cast. His camera rarely moves, but when it does, it’s always to great effect. But what probably makes the biggest difference is that he makes sure no one, from the cast to the cameraman to the caterer, looks down on the material. That made all the difference.

Warner Archive has done a remarkable job bringing Curse Of Frankenstein back to life. It’s sharp, the color is a huge improvement over anything I’ve seen before. (This one was shot in Eastmancolor.) We also get the original aspect ratio(s) — from the UK’s 1.66 to the 1.85 seen in the US to the 1.33 we saw on TV and videotape. (I recommend the 1.66.) The supplemental stuff is a real home run — a casket-load of commentaries, documentaries and a trailer. I was particularly happy to see James Bernard and Jack Asher singled out, with a short video on each. They’re key to the lasting impact of these films. 

While Horror Of Dracula* (1958) may get a lot of the glory, Curse Of Frankenstein is where it all began. It’s an important film, and a really cool one. As essential as they come, both as a movie and as an upgrade to whatever format you might currently have it in. 

* Also available (and stunning) on Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

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Filed under 1957, Christopher Lee, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hammer Films, Hazel Court, Jack Asher, Terence Fisher, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: Flying Leathernecks (1951).

Directed by Nicholas Ray
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Screenplay by James Edward Grant
From a story by Kenneth Gamet
Director Of Photography: William E. Snyder
Film Editor: Sherman Todd
Music by Roy Webb

Cast: John Wayne (Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby), Robert Ryan (Capt. Carl ‘Griff’ Griffin), Don Taylor (Lt. Vern ‘Cowboy’ Blithe), Janis Carter (Joan Kirby), Jay C. Flippen (MSgt. Clancy), William Harrigan (Dr. Lt.Cdr. Joe Curran), James Bell (Colonel), John Mitchum, Hugh Sanders, Gail Davis

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Howard Hughes wanted an airplane picture in Technicolor, and he cast John Wayne in it. Nicholas Ray thought a patriotic picture might keep the HUAC off his back, even though he hated war movies (and the politics of this one), and he cast the likeminded Robert Ryan.

When you take all that into consideration, it’s amazing that Flying Leathernecks (1951) works as well as it does. (In the divided, contentious  political environment of today, it’s doubtful something like this would get past the contract phase, much less result in a completed movie.) Flying Leathernecks has a lot of the things we count on (an ensemble cast, incredible battle sequences) and dread (back-home flashbacks of soldiers) about Hollywood war pictures of this period.

But it was put together by some of the absolute best Hollywood had around at the time — Wayne, Ryan, Ray — who somehow managed to keep the meddling Howard Hughes from screwing the whole thing up. And the end result is a well-acted, technically stunning story of Marine Corps pilots in the Pacific during World War II.

Robert Ryan is the Captain who wants to bond with his men. Wayne’s the Major whose strict methods are intended to bring as many planes back to base, and to get as many solders back home, as possible. The two officers battle each other as much as the Japanese.

Maj. Daniel Xavier Kirby (John Wayne): “You just can’t bring yourself to point your finger at the guy and say ‘go get killed!'”

These kinds of conflicts have fueled war pictures since the silent days. And they provide a bit of interest in watching them — how will this one approach the conventions, and how well will it all work? What will carry this one — the writing, direction, acting, stunts, effects or something else? With Flying Leathernecks, the answer might be all of the above.

Nick Ray was a great actors’ director — many performers were never as good as they were in his films. This was Wayne’s only Ray picture; Ryan and Ray would follow this with On Dangerous Ground (1952). At the same time, Ray had an eye for composition that remains unmatched. (He’d really hit his stride when ‘Scope came along.) Flying Leathernecks was the director’s first color movie, and it looks terrific. Director Of Photography William E. Snyder does a particularly good job of matching his footage to color combat footage. The aerial sequences are really something, especially with the added allure of Technicolor. I’m sure those scenes, and that gorgeous color, made Mr. Hughes very happy indeed.

Snyder’s color camerawork is the main reason for making the leap from Flying Leathernecks on the old Warners DVD to the new, stunning Blu-Ray from Warner Archive. The film’s been given a through cleaning, from dialing in the sharpness and color to dazzling effect to tidying up the 16mm Kodachrome battle footage. You don’t expect a war movie, dominated by greens and browns, to be so vibrant. This is the kind of restoration I’d like to see every Technicolor movie receive. It’s amazing.

Flying Leathernecks is not going to make the list of Nicholas Ray’s best films. It’s job was to please Howard Hughes and make sure Ray could still work in Hollywood, and it seems to have succeeded. It also succeeds as a war movie, a good one — with John Wayne and Robert Ryan doing the good work we expect from them. All that, given a stunning Blu-Ray release, is really easy to recommend. 

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Filed under 1951, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Howard Hughes, John Wayne, Nicholas Ray, RKO, Robert Ryan, Warner Archive