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The Story of Mankind (1957)
What a joy! What a perversely perfect two hours of "entertainment"!!! It happened that I requested this cinematic phantasmagoria when visiting a friend the other evening, and now it's going to be broadcast. Because it was rarely on TV when I was a kid, it became a semi-holy grail for me as a Marx Brothers fan, since it was cited again and again in properly desultory fashion in books about the team as an unsatisfactory end. It was the last feature film the Marxes did together,and given the blithering idiocy and boneheaded pseudo-dramatics of the picture overall, it's a wonder any one of the cast members' careers survived. It was also the final movie of Ronald Colman, who comes off suave, sympathetic and dignified, if incredibly boring. The same can be said of Vinnie Price, except that his arguments make more sense than Colman's. Price is the Devil, "Mr. Scratch" (a name lifted from DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER), arguing that Mankind is a write-off and should be allowed to destroy itself by the "Super-H-bomb" (presumably a cousin to the Q-Bomb in MOUSE THAT ROARED). Colman is the voice of "Yes, but--" -- pointing out the nicey-nice things an occasional human being has done for the species.
In his third feature, Irwin Allen completes his magnificent "trilogy" of the History of Everything. A P.R. hack whose great talent was promotion rather than production, Allen began his career with THE SEA AROUND US, which bizarrely won an Oscar and so appalled author Rachel Carson so much she never allowed any other book to be adapted by Hollywood. Allen followed this by the equally dumb THE ANIMAL WORLD, a substandard and witless�riff on the Disney sort of documentaries whose only redeeming sequence was the Harryhausen/O'Brian dinosaur segment.
The misbegotten set-up is a swipe from the marvelous fantasy A QUESTION OF LIFE & DEATH from the Archers, with its stylized, fog-bound "Heaven," where Cedric Hardwicke presides from an over-sized judge's bench which appears to be a leftover from a William Cameron Menzies nightmare. A motley crowd of heavenly extras-- which apparently includes Fu Manchu-- sit on a semi-circle trying not to choke from the overwhelming dry-ice fog, listening to Price and Colman talk-- and talk--- and talk some more. Charles Bennett's "adaptation" of Henrik van Loon's chatty and long-forgotten history book is so verbose, it's akin to the nonsensical soliloquies given to John Carradine in WIZARD OF MARS or HALF-HUMAN. I'd forgotten just how much like a soporific college lecture this extravaganza was. Okay, if you HAVE to listen to someone talk, it's wonderful that those voices are the mellifluous Colman and Price. But man, they just never shut up.
As jaw-droppingly pedantic as their verbal tennis match is, the multiple historical vignettes are even more delicious. The "comedic" bits are utterly drained of humor and pacing; the "dramatic" bits are so potted and abbreviated, they offer all the emotional depth of a ten-second bit from a coming attractions trailer, and are often more perversely funny than the intentional humor: Virginia Mayo's Cleopatra scenes, for instance, where she plays the Queen of the Nile as a simpering Valley Girl.
Then there's the stock footage, a feast for the eyes: bits from ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, CRIMSON PIRATE, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, and any other Warners picture Allen could lay his paws upon, as long as it was Technicolor. Rather than add production value, this material shows how crummy and cheap the rest of the movie is in comparison, with its cramped sets, painted "stone" walls straight out of BRIDE OF THE MONSTER, and a dearth of extras.
Screenwriter Charles Bennett knew full well Allen was a tasteless and untalented schmuck, and apparently continued his professional relationship with him for several years simply for the money. The result here, one can only hope, represents more Allen than Bennett, who certainly has some good scripts in his resume. Given the crappy screenplay and Allen as "director," it's no wonder the performance levels vary so wildly. Agnes Moorhead's turn as Queen Elizabeth is the epitome of camp: a shrieking, over-the-top barnstorming declamation, bouncing off the underplayed Cesar Romero (as a suave representative of the King of Spain) and a subdued Reginald Gardner as a middle-aged Shakespeare. The Napoleon vignette, with Dennis Hopper (reportedly wearing Brando's hand-me-down costume from DESIREE) opposite Marie Windsor's Josephine is interesting because the two performers actually appear to be acting in the same movie. Likewise Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, who I happen to adore. Yes, she's too old for the role of the teen aged Maid of Orleans, but she's taking it seriously, and is given a role unique in her oeuvre. Her interaction with inquisitor Henry Daniell actually manages some brief moments of drama. Daniell, with only about four lines of dialog, manages to wrest both sympathy and sternness from the script.
My friend Kathryn pointed out rightly that the attitude of the back-and-forth fate-of-mankind arguments is very, very 1950s. It's amazing how many ways Bennett (and Irwin Allen, let's not forget the talented Master of Disaster) can say exactly the same thing in so many ways. Over, and over. And over.
It is fascinating for its collection of genre-related performers: Price, certainly, but also Lorre, Carradine, Hardwicke, Daniell, Rossitto (who waddles through Lorre's Nero/orgy segment). It's also fascinating as a cinematic train wreck not topped until the likes of CASINO ROYALE and SKIDDO, where every directorial and artistic choice is mind-bogglingly cheap, wrong and astounding. As for the three Marx Brothers-- god, what a waste. You actually get all three of these guys, one last time for posterity, and you put them in separate segments? Damn you, Irwin Allen.
Black Zoo (1963)
Minor Gorilla Correction
This was actually the first time George Barrow himself worked for Herman Cohen. The first time out, KONGA, Barrows sent his ape suit over to London. When it returned the worse for wear, he decided he'd never do it again.
BLACK ZOO was shot in Hollywood. For producer Cohen to have arranged for a foreign actor to come to Hollywood and take a job that could have been done by any number if US actors must've been quite an argument to both SAG and the Imigration Department. "Sirs, you must understand, my script calls for the zoo keeper to be the maddest, most outlandish, least subtle character ever to grace the movie screen. We just don't have an actor anywhere in the country who can do this. There is no one n the world who can out-mug Mr. Gough. I know, I've used him twice, and every time he gets bigger and badder."
The Death of Poe (2006)
Visual and emotional feast
Fascnating and compelling, THE DEATH OF POE not only gives the author his due and creates a remarkable evocation of its era, it echoes Poe's themes unobtrusively within its dramatic construct. The "sorrows of the lost Lenore" (the loss of his teenage wife) are apparent in Poe's subjective hallucinations; the duality of "William Wilson" is an influence in the scene noted above with Redfield and fellow Baltimorian George Stover; the panic and confusion of the protagonist in "Pit and the Pendulum" crops up in Poe's jail scene and his "missing days," and maybe I'm wrong, but I see a whiff of M. Valdemar in the last, near-comatose days of Poe in hospital. But the evocations are not blatant, they are suggestive.
The screenwriters know not to overload their actors with too much period dialogue. Like GANGS OF NEW YORK, there is enough to give the feel of period without making everyone sound like a walking cinematic cliché. Poe himself is almost taciturn on screen, though well-represented in voice-over: a good choice, since the sparseness of dialogue makes a leading character more intriguing.
Costumes, sets and photography are superb, just what is needed. Additional material on the DVD, with appropriate new accompanying music by Jennifer Rouse, is uniformly excellent.
Kreating Karloff (2006)
A labor of love, but does that mean we have to love it?
Ostensibly a promotional film to interest producers in a genuine feature biography of Karloff, but feeling more like an extended electronic press kit, KREATING KARLOFF (with its baffling spelling) is essentially a little movie about someone who wants to make a movie, an oddly circular concept. Timmis strikes me as enthusiastic, determined and talented, and probably better served in roles like one referenced in one of the interviews, as the naive young guy in COME BLOW YOUR HORN; his good looks and youthful face really are not suitable for the gaunt, mid-40s Karloff, despite the yeoman monster faces by Bryn, a veteran of Saturday Night Live and assorted soap operas. Scenes from FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY and TARGETS within the show will probably prevent KREATING KARLOFF from being available commercially because of the exorbitant cost of clearing the clip rights, so catch it at festivals or conventions if possible. It seems spiritually akin to American Movie and Trekkies, though without the self-awareness of either of those two documentaries. One man's obsession is another man's bargain-bin DVD. Everyone involved clearly gave everything they had.
Slings and Barrows
George Barrows did not appear in KONGA-- his gorilla suit appeared in it. Barrows shipped the suit over to England on a rental basis; it was worn by an as-yet-unidentified English stuntman and returned the worse for wear. Barrows never rented the suit out again without HIM being in it.
Cohen's first choice for the "role" was apparently Steve Calvert, who was a friend and frequent "actor" in Cohen films. Calvert and his gorilla suit had appeared in BRIDE OF THE GORILLA and BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, and he played the entire Venusian robot army in TARGET EARTH, all early Herman Cohen films. Clavert retired from gorilla-impersonation by about 1960 and gave his suit to Western Costume, where it (naturally) was left to disintegrate. The metal frame of one of the gorilla heads is in Forry Ackerman's prop collection.
I spoke to Cohen several times and knew Steve Calvert very well; they were friends, but I don't know that Cohen and Barrows were close at all.
As for KONGA-- how can a movie be any more perfect!
To Dance with Death (2000)
The best movie ever!
To dismiss the sensitive and masterful Jay Lind as a mere "auteur" is the grossest form of insult. He is a god. TO DANCE WITH DEATH has to be the most well-crafted (or shall we say Lovecrafted?) cinema outing since "Man with the Motion Picture Camera" or "Dead Men Walk." Naturally, perennial beauty Brinke Stevens is the centerpiece of interest, and anything she does deserves reverence. But when surrounded by such inventive, Kubrick-esque touches such as lighting the entire film by candlelight (think THE SHINING meets BARRY LYNDON), she literally glows. Hang the critiques elsewhere which carp about stupid technical things like over-gain and pixilization. This is art, true horror art. This is very possibly the best film in the world to watch repeatedly and to study for its uses of location, subtlety of performance, and juxtaposition between image and sound (particularly the music. It rocks! Well, yeah, it's rock music.) And even the "bad" performance by Miles Coverdale fits in with the milieu of pervasive gloom, despair, and longing for a lunch break. PS. I win the bet.
The Naked Monster (2005)
Of course it's bad... geeze-louise!
It's obvious from the opening credits through the cruddy stock shots that it's intended as a spoof of no-budget monster movies. Too bad some people don't have friends to watch it with, because with a group, it's a hoot. Having seen it at conventions, screenings, and living rooms, I've heard people laughing with the gags-- not AT the film, but with it. Ken Tobey is very dry and funny, sending up his roles in The Thing, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, etc.... I think Brinke Stevens is probably at her best here (although she's fine in Teenage Exorcist-- which at least had a couple hundred thousand dollars' worth of budget, unlike this $1.98 miracle), and the cast I just love-- all the oldtimers as well as the young-timers. Yeah, I'm more than a little prejudiced, and believe me, I see and hear the flaws more than anyone else. But I know it works as a silly comedy.
(As cruddy as some people might think it is, it was good enough to get into the CascadiaCon Film Festival in Seattle, WA, the RiverRun Film Festival in Winston-Salem, NC, and the sci-fi fest in Modesto, CA. Yeah, but what do THEY know, anyway, huh? As opposed to some fnork in East Bombfook, Noo Joisey.)
Laughing It Up (1997)
I like the movie-- but, then, I'm in it.
The script seems let down by the realization, despite the good attempt at period production values. Benny Benewitz is excellent, the girls not so terrific. Most of the supporting cast are better than you could expect from an ultra-low budget movie.
There are designed echoes of Groucho Marx in the story, though the character is nowhere near as caustic as the real Groucho. The film doesn't deserve the obscurity it received.
Inner Shadow (1997)
Moody horror thriller ala The Wicker Man
Stylish if deliberate tale of Steven, a young man sent away from an Amish-like farm community for his own safety. Ten years later as an adult, he returns to find his "old girlfriend" Gaika still physically and sexually stuck in adolescence. His current flame is none too happy about this moony-eyed "teenager" claiming Steven as her own. A series of weird deaths by what appears to be a muck-covered succubus don't seem to bother the locals, who are more intent on the upcoming fertility ritual.
Fuchs intelligently evokes an otherworldly atmosphere of rural creepiness, much the same sort of milieu as CHILDREN OF THE CORN or THE OTHER. Music and photography are excellent. Some modest (although hardly gratuitous) nudity and a good-looking monster. Some of the performances don't quite reach the level of the leads, but overall this is a thoughtful and creepy film.
Cuadecuc, vampir (1971)
surreal behind the scenes glimpse of a horror movie set
Noted Catalonia surrealist Pedro Portobella shot this short subject on the set of Jess Franco's EL CONDE DRACULA.
I think there are a lot of things going for it: non-linear approach, uncomfortably dissassociative sound track, surreal juxtaposition of unexpected images, etc. Anyone expecting a linear documentary will be disappointed, even angry. This is a stand-alone work of cinema art, not a monster movie.
I think it's far more interesting and unsettling than, let's say, the 4 minute behind-the-scenes promo shot for DRACULA 72 AD, though it has a lot in common with it superficially. Both the promotional short and the Portobella film are shot silent; the only sync dialogue is a bit of Christopher Lee speaking about Dracula. Both show the practicalities of film making, the crew and cast in an "unreal" setting with lights and cameras; both place the Victorian central character in an uncomfortable contemporary location. The major difference is intent. The promotional short, "Prince of Darkness," is intended to hype a movie. Portabella's film is a ghostly work of art.
Dead Season (2002)
Best Ron Ford movie yet.
Heavy on character, a dollop of sex and violence in the right places. And the guy who plays the killer is pretty creepy. Some atmospheric camera effects by Jeff Leroy. Randall Malone is more restrained than in previous roles. Margaret O'Brian makes a guest appearance.