Ratings Key



★★★★
= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
★★★
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

L'amante del vampiro (1960)

... aka: Dancer and the Vampire, The
... aka: Die Geliebte des Vampirs (The Beloved Vampire)
... aka: La maitresse du vampire (Mistress of the Vampire)
... aka: Vampire and the Ballerina, The
... aka: Vampire's Lover, The

Directed by:
Renato Polselli

The first Italian genre film of the sound era was a pretty good Gothic horror called I VAMPIRI (1957), which was co-directed by Riccardo Freda and an uncredited Mario Bava and finally made it to the U.S. under the new title The Devil's Commandment in 1963. It took a few years after I vampiri's release for Gothic horror to really catch on in Italy but, once it did, it really took off and by the end of the 60s over three dozen Gothic horrors had been produced there. 1960 alone saw the release of no less than five. The most famous was Bava's international hit BLACK SUNDAY (1960), which became the benchmark for this cycle and was the first to get a U.S. release in 1961. Actually filmed before Sunday and also before ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, The Playgirls and the Vampire and the French / Italian co-production Mill of the Stone Women (all 1960), was The Vampire and the Ballerina (originally L'amante del vampiro / “The Vampire's Lover”), which was in Italian theaters three months before any of the others.



In a small village, young women are being attacked and drained of blood by an ugly-looking vampire; leading to an anemic illness and then death. Near where the attacks have all taken place, a group of ballerinas are training for an upcoming show. Lead dancers Luisa (the sexy Hélène Rémy) and Francesca (Tina Gloriani), along with Francesca's fiance Luca (Isarco Ravaioli), end up getting lost out in the woods. With a thunderstorm fast approach they stumble upon the thought-to-be-abandoned Damian Castle and duck inside. Much to their surprise, they're greeted by mysterious Countess Alda (María Luisa Rolando), who's dressed in gowns from another century and claims she has no use for the outside world or the people in it. Still, she offers up her visitors some tea, served up by her equally strange butler Herman (Walter Brandi), and a place to stay until the rain stops. The Countess makes a seductive aside to Luca that she'd really like him to visit her again later on without the girls, while Luisa finds herself getting snatched up and bitten by the vampire. Not remembering what had happened to her, Luisa eventually joins her two friends and heads back home.








The bite from this particular vampire releases some kind of substance into a victim's bloodstream that makes them uncontrollably drawn to the bloodsucker. Now under its spell, Luisa becomes cold and distant to her friends and leaves her bedroom window open for nocturnal visits from the vampire; getting weaker and weaker with each feeding. Meanwhile, Luca finds the voluptuous Countess' offer too hard to pass up and sneaks back over to the castle. There, she tells him that she's being held prisoner by Herman, who only poses as a servant around guests but is actually really in charge of things. It turns out that she and Herman have had a strange symbiotic relationship the past 400 years. She needs to feed off of him to retain her youth and beauty, turning him into a monster every time she does. He then has to turn around and feed off of beautiful young female victims to not only return human form but also provide the Countess with the blood she needs.








This is pretty silly at times but fun all the same and surprisingly well done from a visual standpoint. There's excellent cinematography from Angelo Baistrocchi, some wonderful shooting locations and impressive expressionistic sets and lighting. One of the best moments is when our heroine explores the castle on her own with doors closing behind her as she makes her way down into catacombs; finally discovering the vampire's hidden crypt. The film also provides a few interesting spins on standard vampire mythology, including the master vampire hunting down and staking his own undead victims when they return as vampires because he wants all the power. Another sequence shot from the POV of a living “corpse” inside a coffin looking up at the trees during her own funeral procession rips off a famous bit from Dreyer's Vampyr (1932).








You may be asking yourself: Why ballerinas of all things? Pretty simple. It's just a convenient excuse to film lots of pretty young women frolicking around in one piece leotards as they show off their pantyhose-covered legs and asses cavorting around, doing stretches and performing their routines. Evening apparel seems to consist almost entirely of sheer, short, flimsy little nighties. The director seems especially fond of turning this into one big leg show. The troupe's musical director Giorgio (“John Turner” / Gino Turini) even gets the idea to turn the production into a vampire-themed ballet, which results in a hilarious dance sequence with strong lesbian undertones. These undertones are also pretty prevalent between the two lead female “friends” in other scenes.








This was the very first screenplay credit for the extremely prolific Ernesto Gastaldi, who co-wrote with director Polselli and Giuseppe Pellegrini and also served as assistant director. Polselli made numerous other genre films including the extremely obscure The Monster of the Opera (1964), Delirium (1972), The Reincarnation of Isabel (1972), The Truth According to Satan (1972) and Mania (1974).





While an English-dubbed version was prepped by United Artists to play theaters in the US, that version has never been made commercially available here. In fact, this has never seen the light of day on VHS or DVD here period, though MGM offers an English-subtitled version on Amazon Prime.

★★1/2

Friday, May 6, 2016

Invaders from Mars (1953)

... aka: Gli invasori spaziali (The Space Invaders)
... aka: Invasion vom Mars (Invasion from Mars)
... aka: L'attaque des martiens (Attack of the Martians)
... aka: Les envahisseurs de la planète rouge (Invaders from the Red Planet)

Directed by:
William Cameron Menzies

13-year-old David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) has a great interest is science and astronomy, something he's picked up from his scientist father George (Leif Erickson), who works as an engineer at a rocket manufacturing plant. David's so dedicated to studying the stars that he sets his alarm for 4am just so he doesn't miss the chance to get a clear look at the Great Nebula. Afterward, he's awoken by a loud humming noise and bright lights and spots what he thinks is a spaceship landing beyond the sand dunes near his home. He wakes up his father and tells him about what he'd just seen, which has George heading out to the dunes on his own. By morning, he hasn't returned. Concerned, his wife Mary (Hillary Brooke) phones the cops. Two officers show up and go to the dunes, only to be swallowed up by something under the sand. Both George and the officers eventually turn up, though when they do they're not quite the same. The once kind and loving George is now extremely irritable, cold and short-tempered, even going so far as to slap his son to the ground for no reason. He also seems to be in some kind of strange plot with the two policemen. David notices that both his pops and the officers have small, needle-like puncture wounds on the back of their necks.







More people in town are tricked into going to the sand pit and return not quite the same as before. A little girl named Kathy (Janine Perreau) falls in and returns home only to set the basement on fire with gasoline. After George takes Mary up to the dunes, poor David finds he really has no one to turn to. That is until the taken-over police chief throws the boy in the slammer and another officer calls in psychologist Dr. Pat Blake (Helena Carter), who becomes an unlikely ally and saves David from having to go home to his parents when his mother tries to insinuate he got his alien invasion ideas from “reading those trashy science fiction magazines.” Pat is friends with astronomer Dr. Stuart Kelston (Arthur Franz) and takes the boy to the observatory where he works. After David recounts his story and the astronomer and Pat get some solid evidence of what's going down at the sand pit, Kelston calls up the military and troops are soon on their way led by the surprisingly open-minded Colonel Fielding (Morris Ankrum).







After young Kathy is found dead, an autopsy reveals not only that she'd suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage but also that she's had a small crystalline gadget attached to the base of her brain, which the subterranean aliens use to control their victims. They not only give out orders using the device but also can terminate their slaves in a second's notice. Anyone who'd disappeared down the sand pit thus far, including David's parents, the police chief, two officers and an army general, have undergone the procedure and now must be found and taken to a brain surgeon to have them removed. The military then descend into a series of dark caves the malicious space visitors have carved underground in an effort to stop them.







Invaders is one of the most famous low-budget sci-fi flicks from its decade and it's easy to see why this one scared the hell out of the Baby Boomer generation. This is not only told from the viewpoint of a child but it's fashioned specifically to both capture the feel of a child's nightmare (and a child's vivid imagination) and deal with common childhood fears (like not being able to trust adults), which is precisely why it struck a particular chord with the youth of the 50s and 60s. The first 20 minutes or so brilliantly capture the feeling of being trapped in a bad dream, which is brought full circle at the end with a bookmarking scene that brings us right back to where we started. This feel is further accentuated by expressionistic, vacant sets, taller-than-normal doorways, exaggeratedly long halls and other off-kilter touches to give the film the feeling of unreality.  All of this was clearly by design for Menzies, who was also the production designer and had previously won several art direction Academy Awards.







The creature design is also memorable. The “Invaders” of the title are led by just one master alien; a silver, pint-sized being with tentacles that's kept in a glass globe. Though small, it looks very serious like it really means business and, since it doesn't speak, its intentions for Earth and its denizens are left ambiguous. This alien design clearly went on to influence the look of Belial in the Basket Case series. Doing most of the alien's dirty work and hard labor are a bunch of tall mutant (amusingly pronounced “mu-taunt” by the cast) slaves, which are basically tall men in baggy suits with giant plastic cups over their eyes. The spaceship they've traveled in is just like many of the other sets and almost a blank canvas colorfully lit up with green and blue and with the walls casting large, ominous shadows.






This isn't without some major flaws, though. After a really strong start the dull mid-section drags and it's downright sloppy at times in regards to how it incorporates stock footage and recycles shots. Some sequences manage to be poorly directed, poorly shot and poorly edited, including a bit where a couple of alien-possessed humans attempt to assassinate a scientist. That said, this is still a minor classic of its day (with all of the expected cold war themes) and still worth seeing, particularly for its odd and unique visual presentation.

Filmed on a budget of less than 300,000 dollars, this was rushed into production to beat the upcoming 2-million-budgeted THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) to theaters. That it did, by three whole months, and it became the first color alien invasion film as a result. This also deserves a lot of credit for helping to develop the popular concept of aliens taking over human bodies. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) usually gets credit for that, but this film did it first and also did it several years before Jack Finney's Body Snatchers novel was published in 1955.






There are some noteworthy differences between the 78-minute U.S. and 83-minute British releases of this film, most importantly the latter attempting to dress up the sets and altering the ending, which essentially ruins the director's entire vision in the process! This was done because British censors found the original ending not upbeat and positive enough for their liking. Some of the original actors were even called back to shoot new footage specifically for the British release (including a longer and talkier scene at the observatory where they discuss UFO cases) months after production had wrapped. Stick with the U.S. version if possible, though the 50th Anniversary "Special Edition" DVD from Image contains both prints.



The cast also includes William Phipps and Milbur Stone, plus uncredited appearances by a pre-Leave It to Beaver Barbara Billingsley as a secretary, Bert Freed, Peter Brocco, Robert Shayne and Richard Deacon in his film debut. In theaters, it played both as a standalone feature and (later) as part of a double bill with This Island Earth (1955). Tobe Hooper offered up a big budget remake in 1986, which was both critically panned and a financial flop.

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