Monday, April 9, 2018

Trog a sad feature finale for Joan Crawford

By Doug Gibson

Late in her film career, Joan Crawford chewed up the screen with good, over-the-top performances in thrillers such as "Strait-jacket," "I Saw What You Did," "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane," and "Beserk." Those who has seen Jessica Lange have fun in the TV series "American Haunting" and seen the late Crawford in her 1960s features can easily see Joan doing Jessica's role today.
Unfortunately, Crawford made one more feature in 1970, "Trog," for director Freddie Francis. A low-budget "major release," it features an outlandish plot that generates little energy from the 65-year-old Crawford, who for the first time looks old, and tired. Joan stars as Dr. Brockton, who gets really excited as a half-man, half-beast (played badly by Joe Cornelius) is discovered in the British countryside by two unfortunate underground explorers; one dies.

Once Trog is discovered, Crawford's character makes several impassioned pleas to allow science to study him. She also engages in long, boring diatribes about the missing link and evolution. (One of the problems with this film is that Trog is never allowed to really go crazy and act like a missing link. In fact, he too often resembles a repulsive baby monster who accepts treats from Dr. Brockton. There are a few murders by Trog, but not nearly enough to justify the price of a movie ticket.

Another veteran of horror films, Michael Gough, who starred with Crawford in the better 1967 circus thriller, "Beserk," outshines Crawford as a town resident who desperately wants Trog killed by authorities. In fact, Gough is almost psychotic in his hatred of the missing link, and he does chew up the scenery and provide a little life to the muddling film. Unfortunately, he's killed off by Trog in a ludicrous scene.

Despite the discovery of something that would have shocked the world, the whole Trog saga appears to be small potatoes in the the world that Francis film world. There isn't much media covering Trog, and ridiculously, there's only one mild security man guarding Trog! Perhaps the budget wouldn't allow more extras to serve as media?

Crawford looks frumpy and unattractive in the film. Just three years ago, at 62, she's still been quite attractive in "Beserk." But in "Trog," she's dressed in unattractive pantsuits. Some reviewers have claimed that Crawford was suffering from a drinking problem during the making of this film. That may explain her overly earnest, low-key performance and hangdog demeanor that she presents. She can't carry this slow-paced low-budget offering with bad FX anywhere. There's too much talking, little enthusiasm and minor action.

In the final scene, when (spoiler alert) Trog is killed, reporters ask Dr. Brockton for a quote. Actress Crawford stares bleakly at the reporters, shakes her head in despair, and walks heavily away. It's a fitting metaphor to her last feature, a mediocre offering. Joan would star in three more TV movies before dying in 1977 at age 72. Watch the trailer to "Trog" above. And watch John Waters (below) explain why he's a fan of "Trog."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Lugosi's Broadminded, Invisible Ray and other films

By Doug Gibson
I have a conundrum; I watch lots of great cult films but have no time -- at least now -- to review them in depth. So, in the spirit of Leonard Maltin, here are four capsule reviews of some films!
Broad minded, First National, 1931, starring Joe E. Lewis, Bela Lugosi, Ona Munson, William Collier Jr. and Thelma Todd. 3 stars - This semi-forgotten Joe E. Brown comedy (buy it here on Amazon) is a treat for cult movie fans who want to watch a pre-Dracula Lugosi. As Pancho Arango, a hot-tempered Latin lover, Lugosi shows his comic skills in dueling with the clownish, wide-mouthed Brown, who pesters him. Plot involves Brown and Collier as playboys traveling across the country and meeting girls. In California the leads fall in love with various blondes, including Munson, who played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind. Film has funny moments and Lugosi shows his versatile, comedic character acting skills. I caught this long-awaited viewing courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. Opening scene is of a "baby party" for adults that is prurient when one looks at the women, and creepy when looking at the males, especially Brown!
The Invisible Ray, Universal, 1936, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton. 3 stars - One of the classic 1930s Universal pairings of Karloff and Lugosi. This film is unique in that it is a science fiction film, rather than a horror film. Karloff and Lugosi are scientists who travel to Africa to find "Radium X," who Karloff has proven crashed into earth millions of years ago. "Radium X" is discovered, but contact with it turns Karloff radioactive, and deadly to the touch. Lugosi prepares medicine that counters the poison, but when Karloff's wife, (Drake) leaves him for an adventurer, Lawton, Karloff, going slowly insane, shirks the medicine and goes on a killing spree. Violet Kemble Cooper is creepy as Karloff's mother. Easy to buy and usually on TCM once a year.
Blood of the Man Devil, 1965, Jerry Warren productions, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Dolores Faith. 1 star - This is a so bad it's good film. Trash film producer Jerry Warren took an uncompleted film, finished it with mainly lots of bad bikini dancing, advertised horror legends Carradine and Chaney Jr., and produced an incomprehensible yet compelling mess. Film involves a town of devil worshipers locked in a power struggle between dueling warlocks Carradine and Chaney Jr., who never appear on screen together. How could they? They were making different films! The whole mess is populated with actors who, besides the leads, look nothing like devil worshipers. The plot sort of resembles a dark arts version of Peyton Place with the screen's cheapest werewolf mask. This barely released film, which amazingly has atmosphere, must be seen to be believed. Sinister Cinema sells it. 
Gun Crazy: 1950, King Brothers Productions, Peggy Cummins and John Nall. 4 stars - This low-budget gem is a film noir classic of the lovesick male with a reform school past who falls for the bad girl and follows her to both of their dooms. Cummins and Nall, little-known actors, generate real sparks as greedy sharp shooters who don't have the patience to live a normal life. When she kills in a robbery and the law closes in on them, the claustrophobic atmosphere director Joseph H. Lewis creates is outstanding and final love to the death moments between these two losers is moving. There's a reason Gun Crazy is taught in many film schools. Don't miss it. It's easy to buy and pops up on TV often.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Red Zone Cuba, Coleman Francis, John Carradine sings!

By Doug Gibson

I sat through Coleman’s Francis’s 1966 mess, “Red Zone Cuba,” AKA “Night Train to Mundo Fine.” It’s 89 minutes that even with Mystery Science Theater 3000’s gags thrown in, feels like a three-hour movie. I believe if I ever dared watch this film sans the comedy thrown in, it would feel like 890 hours and I would suffer some of horrible, reverse “Infinite Jest” coma-induced death with feces abounding.

There is one reason to see this film. With his sole bit of sense, Francis had John Carradine come in for a day and shoot an opening for the $30,000 film. His acting is ho hum, but then Carradine, I kid you not, sings the film’s theme song. The camp value of Carradine belting out the vocals to “Night Train to Mundo Fine” is a hoot. He sings well, with his hoarse voice. That’s not a surprise since he was a Shakespearian actor. And he compares almost as well as Lon Chaney Jr. did when the aging, alcoholism-ravaged thespian sang the title tune to the camp/horror classic “Spider Baby” earlier in the 1960s.

But the remaining 85 or so minutes, eh, it’s just awful. The film is boring, the characters colorless, the plot incredibly confusing and meandering. The editing is terrible; there are cutaways that leave the viewer bewildered as to what is happening and what has happened. The characters mumble, and that’s just when they are actually speaking. Much of the film was shot mute with no soundtrack synchronized. You hear mumbled words sans the speakers mouths being shown.

The plot involves three crooks on the lam from the cops. Their leader is played by Francis, and a Curly of the Three Stooges lookalike without an ounce of charisma. He tries to affect a tough, Broderick Crawford type of toughness but fails. His cohorts are played listlessly by Anthony Cardoza and Harold Saunders. On the lam, the trio is recruited as mercenaries for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. This portion offers a tad bit of hilarity with Cardoza, one of the producers, putting on a beard and makeup and playing Fidel Castro. (I know this sounds camp/hilarious but in the hands of director/writer/producer Francis, it isn’t. ) The “training” and “battle” scenes are so low budget that it appears that no more than a dozen or so people actually participated in the Bay of Pigs.

Somehow the guys escape from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. They return to the USA, commit a few crimes. In one scene Coleman throws an old storekeeper down a well. The scene is badly shot and fools no one. Eventually, Coleman and his cohorts are shot dead around a train station and the film ends. The last line, delivered in Francis’s overly solemn narration: “Griffin ran all the way to hell, with a penny and a broken cigarette.”

Hard to watch, boring and nonsensical, it’s still worth a MST3K watch for Carradine, Castro and a few jokes. But stay away from the director’s cut! Actually, if you have the courage, watch the MST3K-less "Red Zone Cuba" above!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Creature Chronicles: The Black Lagoon Trilogy, a review

The Creature Chronicles – Exploring The Black Lagoon Trilogy - By Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg. (McFarland, 2018) McFarland's website is here. Order line: 800-253-2187. (Amazon link is here.)

Review by Steve D. Stones
Any die hard fan of The Creature From The Black Lagoon and its two sequels will find The Creature Chronicles, by Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg, to be a book of exhaustive reference and research to all things related to the trilogy of films. Lots of photographs, interviews, and biographies of actors and production crew fill the 394-page book. Everything you could ever what to know about the Gill Man can be found in this treasure trove of a book. The information contained in this book is absolutely overwhelming and detailed.

A wonderful introduction to the book was written by actress Julie Adams, who plays the shapely Kay Lawrence in the film. Adams mentions her love of classic horror films as a child, such as the time she saw Frankenstein (1931) in her home state of Arkansas. Adams saw her role in The Creature From The Black Lagoon as just another paying acting job and didn't think the film would go on to be regarded as a great classic some sixty-plus years later. Many of Adams' experiences of starring in The Creature From The Black Lagoon are documented in this book and her autobiography – The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From The Black Lagoon (2009).

Producer William Alland attended a party at Orson Welles' home in 1940, where he revealed his idea for “The Sea Monster,” which was an early treatment for The Creature From The Black Lagoon. The story was obviously borrowed from King Kong (1933) and the silent classic – The Lost World (1925).

Creature Chronicles shows the many treatments the story and script went through before it was filmed and delivered to the screen. While producer Alland and director Jack Arnold were making It Came From Outer Space (1953), the script for The Creature From The Black Lagoon was being adapted and refined. In the first treatment by Maurice Zimm, the creature is referred to as “Pisces Man.” By the time the film was made, the creature is referred to as “Gill Man.”

Several writers wrote their own treatment of the story, as the book points out. Harry Essex was one of the writers who contributed a treatment. Both he and Arthur Ross contributed to the final script that made its way to the screen. Director Jack Arnold tried to take a lot of credit for the script, but Ross and Essex claim he contributed nothing to the final draft used in the film.

Plans to shoot The Creature From The Black Lagoon in color were being considered, but never came to fruition. Producer William Alland admitted many years later that The Creature From The Black Lagoon, along with other Jack Arnold-directed films such as Tarantula (1955), would have looked better in color. I happen to disagree with this analysis. The black and white treatment of Arnold's films, particularly The Creature From The Black Lagoon, give a look and feel that is unique for the time in which they were filmed in the 1950s.

It's interesting to note that the book points out that buxom brunette beauty Allison Hayes did a test screening for the role of Helen Dobson in the sequel - Revenge of The Creature (1955). The role was given to blonde actress Lori Nelson, who was barely out of her teens at the time she took the role.

Being a big fan of Hayes, I would have liked to see her in the Helen role, although I'm not sure the chemistry between her and actor John Agar as Professor Clete Ferguson, the animal trainer, would be very convincing. In my opinion, Hayes is a much better actress than Nelson. Although I have to admit that I do like Nelson in Hot Rod Girl (1956).

A critic of Agar once said: “I have to confess that John Agar was never one of my favorites. He always seemed . . . well, a little goofy. The awkward, stiff smile looked forced.” Revenge of The Creature was Agar's first science-fiction film. Agar also appeared in many other 1950s cult classics, such as Tarantula (1955), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) and Invisible Invaders (1959).

I've always considered the third film, The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), to be the weakest of the three entries. This is usually the case in any trilogy of films. I've always found it a bit silly and bizarre that the creature at one point in the film walks around in what appears to be prison clothes or pajamas. It just doesn't seem to work. The design of the gill man in this film greatly deviates from the original design by sculptor Millicent Patrick used in the first film. The earliest design of the gill man was jokingly referred to as “The Pollywag,” and was later rejected for the Patrick design that we see on screen.

If you're a fan of The Creature From The Black Lagoon and its sequels, I highly recommend the book Creature Chronicles – Exploring The Black Lagoon Trilogy. The photographs in this book alone are worth the price of the book. Happy Reading.