Monday, January 15, 2018

Mark of the Vampire -- A remake of London After Midnight

By Doug Gibson

MGM's 1935 thriller, Mark of the Vampire, directed by Tod Browning, is such a marvelous film for 50 minutes that you just want to scream at what Browning did to cheat viewers in the final 9 minutes. Yeah, I know it's a sort of remake of the 1927 London After Midnight, (now lost) and Browning stubbornly refused to mess with that plot. But nevertheless, it was a big mistake to turn this supernatural fantasy into a murder mystery. There's a reason Mark of the Vampire is not discussed in the same revered tones today as Dracula, Frankenstein, or even White Zombie ... it's because that cheat of an ending.

First, the plot: Sir Karell Borotyn, master of an estate in central Europe, is found dead, bloodless, one night in his reclusive castle. The villagers are sure it's the work of a vampire, but Inspector Neumann (Lionel Atwill) scoffs at such a theory. And inquest declares the death from causes unknown. A planned wedding between the Sir Karrell's daughter, Irena, and a young man named Fedor Vicente, has been postponed. Baron Otto Von Zinden (Jean Hersholt) is handling the late man's estate.

Move forward nearly a year. The murder is unsolved. The castle is decaying, full of vermin and insects. Suddenly, two vampires are seen by villagers and other. They are described as the undead bodies of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter, Luna (Carroll Borland). Fedor and Irina are both attacked, presumably by the vampires. The villages are in an uproar. The skeptical Inspector Neumann is joined by eccentric Professor Zelen, played by Lionel Barrymore in an outstanding performance of a very chewy, Van Helsing-like role. Zelen supports the vampire theory. Through further investigation, it is revealed that a personage who resembles the dead Borotyn has been seen roaming the castle and heard playing the organ. A visit to his crypt reveals an empty coffin. Baron Otto Von Zinden is getting very nervous.

The gothic, horror atmosphere in this film is superb. Lugosi is at his best. His vampire performance, short though it is, rivals his Dracula performance. The beautiful Borland radiates screen presence as Luna. Inexplicably, she had a very small film career but her image became iconic because of this role. A scene where she swoops down, in batlike fashion, to the castle's floor, is one of the finest scenes I have seen. The ghostly, filthy decay of the castle is better than Browning's depictions in Dracula. As mentioned, Barrymore is great with his dedicated persistence as the "vampire seeker."

The final 10 minutes reveal the whole affair to be an elaborate practical joke to enable the actual killer, Baron Otto Von Zindon, to recreate the murder on the actor playing Sir Karell. That's bad enough, but Browning also turns Lugosi and Borland into actors and provides silly dialogue at the end. One reason the film maintains such effective mood and atmosphere for so long is because Browning only revealed the trick ending near the end of shooting. Legend has it that most of the cast was furious. In his biography, "The Immortal Count," Lugosi's biographer, Arthur Lennig, mentions Lugosi suggested that the real actors for Mora and Luna arrive at the very end, apologizing for arriving late. That sounds like a great idea that would have retained more fame for this otherwise excellent film, but Browning, and MGM, said no.

The short running time, 59 minutes, was trimmed from an original 75-minute film (the excess is lost). Some say that village humor scenes were cut, Others claim that a subplot, where it's mentioned that Mora committed incest with his daughter Luna, and later killed her and himself, was taken out.It is ironic that Lugosi's Mora has a clear bullet wound on the left side of his forehead/temple. As mentioned, Mark of the Vampire is a remake of Browning's London After Midnight, in which the faux monster is played, with truly horrifying makeup, by Lon Chaney Sr. A 45-minute version of that lost film has been gathered into a movie comprised entirely of still shots. It has played on TCM and turns out to be much better than it would seem to be.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Pistol Packin' Nitwits -- Harry Langdon's last film

Review by Doug Gibson

I've probably seen "Pistol Packin' Nitwits" (watch above) about 40 times; even though its circulation days are long over. With a YouTube dupe and my own duped DVD, courtesy of a kind fellow Harry Langdon fan, I have easy access to this Columbia comedy short.

There's pathos involved in my interest and fascination. It's sad but compelling. Harry died after completing the film. Although not the last released, this was the final film Harry made. According to his wife, Mabel Langdon, he came home feeling very ill after a day of shooting, citing in particular a soft shoe dance routine he did with co-star El Brendel. (The dance, by the way, is one of the highlights of the short). Watching the dance, you realize it's more or less the last work this comedy genius ever did.

Harry was 60 and there seemed to be a history in his family of dying relatively young. His doctor diagnosed a cerebral hemorrhage, and Harry unfortunately quickly declined, dying on Dec. 22, 1944. Besides Mabel, he was survived by his son, Harry Jr., who still lives and has enjoyed an excellent career as a photographer.

There's another reason I enjoy "Pistol Packin' Nitwits," even though it's far from Harry's best sound short, or even his best Columbia short. It's a wildly free-ranging film, a blunt spoof that's 90 percent western and 10 percent "old-time serial superhero with amazing powers."

The plot: In Hangman's Gulch, Nevada, the beautiful Queenie Lynch (Christine McIntyre) owns Queenie's Place," a saloon. Her future is threatened by thuggish and buffoonish Rawhide Pete (Dick Curtis) who owns the mortgage on the saloon and will foreclose if Queenie won't marry him by midnight. Queenie appeals to the handsome cowboy Jack (Brad King) to help her and he promises to have $2,500 by midnight.

Harry and "Professor" Brendel are grifter salesmen peddling fake cleaning fluid. With Pete as a volunteer, they mistakenly put real axle grease on his clothes and make a huge mess. This so amuses Queenie that she hires the hapless duo to "help run the place." Inside the saloon, Pete, when he isn't falling over and threatening Harry and El Brendel, tries to kill Jack with a gun. In the "superhero" spoof portion of the film, the bullets bounce of the chest of a smiling Jack. Harry and El Brendel think Pete was firing blanks but almost lose their lives learning that he is using real bullets.

The middle portion of the film has two shining moments; the aforementioned soft shoe dance of the comedy duo (see screen shot above) and a solo song, "Father, Dear Father," by McIntyre. She has a beautiful singing voice, as anyone who has seen the Three Stooges short, "Micro-phonies," already knows.

In between are the gag scenes, with El Brendel hitting the jackpot on a machine, Harry avoiding an unfunny stereotypical old cowboy, the duo trying to use a test-your-punching-strength machine to steal the mortgage from Pete, and Pete being generally buffoonish, at one time having a bumblebee fly into his collar.

IMDB incorrectly lists Edward Bernds as the director. It's actually Harry Edwards, a one-time major talent who had sunk to mediocrity by this time. While this is better than a host of Langdon 1940s Columbia efforts, it still suffers from poorly presented gags and editing is poor. An example is inclusion shots of Jack racing on his horse to get back to the saloon. They play to The William Tell Overture but the inserts last about one second and are place clumsily in the film. (Bernds has co-credit with Langdon for the story).

There's a showdown at the end with Jack, Pete, Harry, El Brendel and Queenie. I'll let readers watch the film and be surprised.

As mentioned, I have a fondness for the film. It's quirky and has some good song and dance routines. Harry is funny; El Brendel is less funny but some of the gags work, including the cleaning fluid demonstration and the efforts to rid Pete of the mortgage.

Langdon enjoyed the security of working at Columbia (he called them "O-Ouch-O" comedies). He was looking his age, though, and starting to get overshadowed in shorts by lesser talents, such as El Brendel and even Elsie Ames. On the other hand, he was working in B movies, as well as sometimes on the stage and writing. This was the happiest time of his life, with a comfortable home, a loving wife and a son growing up.

Both Edwards and El Brendel only lasted about a year with Columbia after "Pistol Packin' Nitwits." Although Curtis died at 49 in 1952 of pneumonia, he made about 250 films, and was active in Columbia shorts as well as early television. McIntyre (see below) had a long association with Columbia shorts, particularly with the Three Stooges. In fact, today she is iconic for her association with the trio as their co-star.

"Pistol Packin' Nitwits" was remade as "Out West," in 1947, with the Three Stooges as the stars. McIntyre reprises the role of the damsel in distress. "Out West" is directed by Bernds. The probable reason Bernds is listed as director in IMDB is because Columbia goofed in their release posters for "... Nitwits," listing Bernds as director. I must confess, of the pair, I prefer "Pistol Packin' Nitwits." Give it 17 minutes of your time, and watch Harry Langdon gamely finish the scenes and wrap his final film.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Invisible Agent mixes World War II, Nazis and patriotism

By Doug Gibson

How many of you have heard of "The Invisible Man," the one starring Claude Rains from Universal in 1933? Probably a healthy percentage. It's a legitimate classic, with Rains, then an unknown, giving an intense, unforgettable performance as scientist Jack Griffin, turned insane by his invisibility formula.

Precious few likely recall "The Invisible Agent," one of four sequels to the Rains' original, which was also directed by James Whale, by far Universal's best horror director. However, the 1942 "Invisible Agent" was Universal's top-grossing sequel in the Invisible Man series. It was part of a long series of World War II-era patriotic, propaganda films that cast the Axis, mostly Germany and Japan, as the baddies to be defeated by tough Allies.

Playing a Nazi and a Japanese follower of Toho are respectively, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre, and both are very good in their roles, particularly Lorre. The veteran actor is very sinister and menacing. In a particularly strong horror scene, he disembowels Hardwicke with a knife and then kills himself with the knife, because both men failed in their duty.

The hero of the movie is two-fisted everyman Jon Hall, playing the grandson of Raines' character. Although working as a printer in the USA, Hardwicke and Lorre try to grab his invisibility formula. They fail. Hall goes straight to the U.S. military, eventually allowing the USA to use his formula if he can be the spy. He embarks on a very dangerous into Nazi Germany, battling Hardwicke, Lorre and others to grab a list of Axis spies in the U.S. 

While there, he matches wits with a beautiful double-agent spy, the truly gorgeous starlet Ilona Massey. Both are attracted to each other but Hall's character is never sure if Massey can be trusted.

All ends well in this pro-war effort film, which is quite exciting. Directed by Edwin L. Marin, it plays often as a tightly directed, higher quality "daredevil" serial-like movie, as Hall and the other good guys escape death on several occasions. Supporting cast includes veteran character actors J. Edward Bromberg, as a pompous Nazi officer, and Keye Luke as a Japanese surgeon.

There is one twist to this Invisible Man series film. Hall, particularly in scenes with Massey, swaths himself in cold cream, and shades and head covering, to present a very lifelike outline of himself. It's a bit too lifelike, though, as we can see his teeth and inside of his mouth. In one scene designed to show the cruelty of the Axis, actor Albert Bassermann, an Allied spy in Germany, is tortured by Nazis. When Hardwicke's character demands he sign a "release" form stating he was not mistreated, he displays his mangled, broken fingers, explaining he can't write due to the torture.

At 81 minutes, "Invisible Agent" is well worth the asking price. Amazon sells it as part of the Universal Invisible Man series. Watch the trailer below.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

New Year's Evil; Roz Kelly greets the new year

By Steve D. Stones

Happy Days star Roz Kelly stars in this early 1980s slasher film directed by Emmett Alston. Like so many horror films of the 1980s, this one is an attempt to cash in on the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween franchise.

Kelly is a punk rock mother hosting a New Year’s Eve party at a hip New Wave music club in downtown Los Angeles. Her teenage son comes to see her at the club with flowers, but she completely ignores him. A maniac killer, played by Kip Niven, calls Kelly at the club hotline to inform her that he will commit a murder every hour until 12 midnight as part of his New Year’s resolution. A club worker named Yvonne is the first victim to be killed in a bathtub in a club dressing room.

The second victim is a pretty blonde nurse at the local hospital. The killer predictably poses as a new hospital orderly who lures the nurse into a hospital room with champagne and proceeds to stab her to death after making out with her. Another nurse at the hospital discovers her body in a closet.

The killer continues to call Kelly at the music club in a disguised voice to inform her that he is committing murders. He even plays a taped recording over the phone of him stabbing the nurse at the hospital. Kelly is now forced to take his threats seriously. She asks the local police department for police protection.

By now the viewer has been exposed to lots of really bad punk rock performances, zebra striped T-shirts, and 1980s mullet hairstyles. Where are The Ramones, The Misfits and The Sex Pistols when we need them?

Feeling rejected by his mother, Kelly’s son sees his mother performing on television at the club with a punk band. In a fit of anger, he tears apart the roses he brought for her, and stretches one of her red nylon stalkings over his face as if he is about to become a killer himself. This is a particularly confusing scene because by now we already know who the killer is and what he looks like, so any attempt to suggest that the killer could be Kelly’s son seems unnecessary. The killer now shows up at another dance club in L.A. dressed in an obviously fake moustache and three-piece suit. He tells another pretty blonde girl at the bar that he is a business agent for many Hollywood actors in town. He convinces her to leave the club to attend a business party. She refuses to go alone with him, so she takes one of her club friends with her.

This spoils the plans of the killer to get her alone. The three drive in the killer’s Mercedes to a gas station, where the killer strangles one of the girls with a bag full of marijuana. He hides in a Dumpster to attack the second girl as she comes out of the gas station with a bottle of champagne. The killer stabs her to death. As the killer flees the scene, he is harassed at a stop light by a motorcycle gang. The killer speeds away from the motorcycle gang and hides out at a local drive-in theatre.

The movie screen advertises a film entitled Blood Feast as a feature playing at the theatre, but it is not Herschel Gordon Lewis’ schlock masterpiece from 1963, unfortunately. After stealing another car from a young couple making out at the drive-in, the killer shows up at the New Wave club, manages to club a police officer in the head at a back entrance, and puts his police uniform on, which conveniently fits him perfectly. Under police protection outside her dressing room, Kelly sits in front of a mirror putting on make-up as the killer suddenly appears in her room in a jogging outfit and a Halloween mask.

She sees him in the mirror, but is not frightened. He removes the mask, and reveals himself to be Richard Sullivan, her husband. She is not frightened by his presence because she has no idea he is the killer. As the couple gets into an elevator, it becomes evident to Kelly that her husband is the killer.

He holds a knife up to her and saying:“I’m fed up . . . You’re just like all the other women in my life. Women are manipulative, deceitful, immoral and very, very selfish!”

His reasoning for killing here seems very petty and unnecessary. Wouldn’t his actions make him “manipulative, deceitful, immoral and selfish?” If he was so fed up with his wife, why didn’t he just request a divorce from her? Why go through the troubles of killing several innocent women to get to her? In the post O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson world we live in today, it seems highly unlikely that a man would go on a killing spree killing innocent victims just to prove a point with his wife.

However, I realize this film was made long before the O.J. Simpson ordeal of the1990s, and the Scott Peterson ordeal early in this decade. As the film comes to an end, Richard chains his wife to the bottom of the elevator and is chased by policemen who fire shots at him. He is chased to the top balcony of the building, where he puts the Halloween mask back on and jumps off the building, committing suicide. His son emotionally removes the mask from him.

The film ends with a shot of Kelly being wheeled into an ambulance. The driver of the ambulance is wearing Richard’s Halloween mask, and the paramedic on the passenger side lies dead on the floor of the ambulance. Could the killer now be Kelly’s son?

NEW YEAR’S EVIL follows in the long line-up of so many 1980s slasher/horror films. Like Silent Night, Deadly Night, My Bloody Valentine, Christmas Evil, Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas, April Fool’s Day, Mother’s Day, and so many others, NEW YEAR’S EVIL is an attempt to use a holiday title to cash in on the slasher craze of the 1980s. Watch it above.