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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Colegio de la muerte, El (1975)

...aka: School of Death

Directed by:
Pedro Luis Ramírez

Spanish production, set in turn-of-the-century 1899 London, is fairly well-made, but too tame, slow-going and bland to hold much interest. At the Saint Elizabeth Refuge, a home for orphaned teenage girls, the young ladies are being whipped into shape by ruthless directress Miss Wilkins (Norma Kastel) and her yardstick/lash-wielding assistant Miss Colton, who want to prepare the girls for employ as loyal servants to wealthy local families. School president Mr. Granfield (Tito García) demands "silence, discipline and obedience," but they're been having trouble with a few of their more independent-minded students - Leonor Johnson (Sandra Mozarowsky) and her best friend Sylvia Smith (Victoria Vera). For talking back, Leonor gets lashed and has to spend some alone time in a sound-proof room, while Sylvia is shipped off to a home to begin work as a maid. Her first night there, Sylvia is accosted in her bedroom by a mysterious, facially-disfigured doctor, who promptly takes her downstairs, ties her to a table and jabs a scalpel into her temple. Local Dr. Edward Brown (dull Dean Selmier), who also does routine examinations at the Saint Elizabeth's, chalks the death up to heart paralysis during a brief and not-too-thorough autopsy and Sylvia is quickly buried.

Later, Leonor spots a still-living but seemingly entraced Sylvia being shipped off somewhere in a carriage. When she lets the authorities - led by Inspector Michael Coleman (Ángel Menéndez) - know, they exhume the coffin and find a very dead Sylvia still inside. So what's going on? Well, it has something to do with using brain surgery to lobotomize schoolgirls into a cataleptic states and then selling them off as high-priced hookers! Other than the evil doctor and his accomplice Miss Chambers (Elisenda Ribas), Miss Wilkins and an unseen master criminal named Bob Wilcox are all involved in the scheme. Other characters thrown into the mix include George Allen (Carlos Mendy), a reporter, Lord Ferguson ("Chris Huertas"/Cris Huerta), a wealthy, rotund "client" who ends up getting stabbed to death and Inspector Collins (Estanis González), Coleman's assistant. Not everyone is who they claim to be.

Despite the lurid premise, the film itself is very tame. There's very little blood and no nudity. I'd almost refer to it as being old-fashioned. There's some visual style present. Outdoor scenes, whether taking place in the day or night, are all shot through with large amounts of fog. The night scenes are also colorfully lit and the cinematography in general is very good. Most of the performances are decent enough, and the dubbing isn't too bad either. Unfortunately, after a good opening 20 minutes or so, the rest of the film drags and it doesn't really pick up again until the last 10 minutes or so. It's then the film offers a few twists; one of which totally caught me off guard, so I'll give it props for at least offering one surprise. Also interesting is the mad doctor character, whose face apparently was disfigured in a fire. His name? Dr. Krueger!

Sadly, pretty leading lady Mozarowsky (who also appeared in DEVIL'S POSSESSED, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS and a few other Euro-horrors) committed suicide two years after this was made. She was only 18 years old. The cast also includes Ana Farra (from LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE, THE WITCHES MOUNTAIN and others). The original American VHS release came in 1984 through All-American/Mogul Video. Sinister Cinema also offers a decent print on either VHS or DVD-R. As far as run-times go, the version I saw certainly seems complete and runs 90 minutes, though I've seen this listed elsewhere as running 110 minutes.

★★

Fright Show (1985)

...aka: Cinemagic

Directed by:
Jeffrey Baker
Frank Kerr
Jonathan Mostow
Damon Santostefano
Richard Taylor

In an attempt to cash in on the 80s/90s video boom era, several genre magazines branched out to give us horror releases on their very own video labels. Of course, there's Fangoria Films, who'd produce three rather unsuccessful original films themselves in the early 90s, starting with the vampire movie CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT (1991), before deciding they'd be better off just releasing other people's movies. Before them, the sci-fi rag Starlog tried their hand with this release and the documentary FANGORIA'S WEEKEND OF HORRORS (1986). Judging by the fact those were their only two releases, I'd say their video distribution division didn't fair too well. FRIGHT SHOW (aka CINEMAGIC) is comprised of four independent short subjects; three of which were done by people who surprisingly went on to have pretty successful careers. The combined run time of the four shorts falls well short of an hour, so unfortunately Starlog decided to pad this tape out with worthless "comic" linking segments directed by Damon Santostefano and hosted by a pair of unfunny dimwits, played by Chris Phillips and stand-up comdian Eddie Brill, who basically sit around making lame jokes, making shadow puppets on the walls and eating stale popcorn. Santostefano would go on to work for Fangoria himself, making two SCREAM GREAT documentaries and one of their ill-fated original productions (1992's SEVERED TIES), before switching to more wholesome stuff like the TV series The Adventures of Pete & Peter, and such teen-oriented drivel as BRING IT ON AGAIN (2004) and ANOTHER CINDERELLA STORY (2008).

The first story "Dr. Dobermind," is about a young girl who meets deranged, gap-toothed taxidermist Dr. Dobermind while on a school tour of a natural history museum. She's then haunted by visions of Dobermind, who squashes her ice cream cone at Häagen-Dazs and materializes in ghoulish ways in her home later that night. Directed by Jonathan Mostow, who'd go on to make the very good thriller BREAKDOWN (1997), U-571 (2000) and the upcoming Bruce Willis film DUPLICATES (2009). The cinematographer was Peter Rader, who'd go on to direct GRANDMA'S HOUSE (1989) and the 1995 made-for-TV remake of RETURN TO WITCH MOUNTAIN. Next up is Jeffrey Baker's "Illegal Alien," which is easily the best segment. It's a surprisingly successful parody of ALIEN, which squeezes in a high number of amusing and knowing gags in a short time before ending rather abruptly. The third tale is "Night Fright," a kind-of-cute short about a horror movie loving little kid who discovers there's a literal monster in his closet. Directed by Frank Kerr, who has made several low-budget films over the years, included the recent horror effort JACK IN THE BOX (2008). Finally, the comic "Thing In the Basement" involves a bald-domed alien with laser beam eyes that crash landing near the home of three poker-playing yahoos. The make-up is by John Carl Buechler, who also appears in this segment.

Overall, there ain't much to really get excited about here. Four homemade shorts; one of which is pretty good and the other three just so-so; with awful linking segments you'll probably just want to fast-forward through.

★★

Phantom from 10,000 Leagues, The (1955)

Directed by:
Dan Milner

Lots of monster movies understandably used their creature sfx as "money shots" for later in the film. They'll get either a "Hey, that's kinda cool..." or a "I waited around just to see that?!" type of response, but at least the anticipation of seeing what the monster actually looks like builds up some intrigue over the course of the film and helps viewers make it through the obligatory talky passages, which are usually centered around scientific discussions that are - more often than not - basically just jibbberish. Here, the filmmakers make the major mistake of unleashing their awkward-looking man-in-a-suit papier-mâché sea menace in the opening scene as it kills a fisherman after tipping over his rowboat. And after you see it doing its thing at such an early stage in the film, and see what a silly-looking beast it is, you might not even bother sitting through the rest of the film. And I can't say I'd blame anyone for wanting to bail out early. Or never taking the plunge at all. This one's pretty dull overall. It's woodenly-acted, slow-moving and nothing surprising or interesting ever happens. It's also a little longer than usual for a 50s B sci-fi/horror flick, clocking in at around 80 minutes.

Dead bodies charred with radiation burns are being found lying around the beach at Baker's Cove, California. Our government sends out two operatives; oceanographer Dr. Ted Stevens (Kent Taylor) and federal agent William S. Grant (Rodney Bell) to investigate. Meanwhile, Prof. King (Michael Whalen), who teaches at "The Pacific College of Oceanography," has discovered a giant, glowing uranium deposit/rock underwater and decides to see what kind of effect it may have on ocean life, which results in... Well, we already know since we saw "it" in the opening sequence. Cathy Downs co-stars as the professor's daughter Lois, who's basically around to show some 50s-style skin in a bathing suit and silhouette shower scene, plus take part in a dull, cliche romance with Ted. Other characters include George Thomas (Phillip Pine), the professor's murderous and treasonous assistant, who's in cohorts with a sexy blonde foreign spy named Wanda (Helene Stanton), and Ethel Hall (Vivi Janiss), the professor's secretary, who ends up getting shot in the back with a spear gun for being too nosy.
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The fact the monster is usually spotted clear as day from various rowboats and is always seen bobbing around in shallow water near the shore (the same location of the atomic rock), the title makes absolutely no sense. Apparently 1 league is equal to 3 miles, which would imply that the creature comes from 30,000 miles (!) under the surface! Maybe they should have called it The Phantom from 100 Inches instead. The title actually was most likely an attempt to cash in on Disney's bit hit 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, released the previous year.
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The Russian-born director (who is best known as an editor) also made FROM HELL IT CAME (1957). Screenwriter Lou Rusoff would go on to write films for Roger Corman, including DAY THE WORLD ENDED (1955) and IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), and composer Ronald Stein would also go on to work for Corman. It was "presented by" Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson.

★1/2

Dead Ringer (1963)

...aka: Dead Image
...aka: Who Is Buried in My Grave?

Directed by:
Paul Henreid

In my estimation, this isn't really a horror film (it's more of a suspenseful drama), but since it's a title included in several of my horror reference books, I'm including it here. It's also often listed as an entry in that subgenre of terror films spurned by the success of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962); which cast "over the hill" or "washed up" former female film stars in lead roles as killers of varying degrees of psychosis. I've seen this cycle of films referred to under many titles, including "Gothic moderne," "Hag Horror" or "Grand-Dame Guignol." Whatever the name, the common link are the female leads, each of whom enjoyed a career revival of sorts through these films. The subgenre as a whole is an extremely enjoyable one primarily because of these veteran actresses, who brought a stamp of professionalism, class and often overwrought, but always sincere, campy humor to some otherwise seedy films, as well as those intangibles that only come from experience. In DEAD RINGER, we get a double dose of Bette Davis, playing identical twin sisters... neither of whom is really all that right in the head.

Edith (Davis) was in love with a successful and very wealthy businessman, who ended up leaving her after succumbing to the charms of her identical twin sister Margaret (Davis again), who he'd apparently knocked up after an affair and thus felt obligated to marry. That was eighteen years earlier, but Edith has never forgiven her sister for it. In fact, she hasn't even seen or spoken to her since the incident. The man both women fought over has recently died of a heart attack and the sisters are reunited at the funeral. Margaret invites Edith back to her sprawling mansion home, bad memories come to the surface and Edith leaves enraged. After finding out through Margaret's chauffeur Henry (Cyril Delevanti) that her sister really never was pregnant and then learning she's about to lose her nightclub to a debt, Edith decides to get revenge. She lures Margaret to her home, shoots her in the head and then tries to take on her sister's appearance and demeanor and swap places with her. Margaret is now Edith - who'd just committed suicide, while Edith gets to walk in Margaret's shoes and live a lavish and worry-free lifestyle with plenty of money at her disposal. At first, things seem to be working without a hitch, but one man in each ladies life - Edith's dedicated detective boyfriend Jim Hobbson (Karl Malden) and Margaret's sleazy, materialistic playboy lover Tony Collins (Peter Lawford) - threaten to uncover what's really going on.

Based on the story "Dead Pigeon" by Rian James, the script for this one (written by Albert Beich and Oscar Millard) was actually penned way back in 1944 and had been sitting around collecting dust at Warner Brothers for around 20 years before finally being filmed. And it's definitely a good thing they finally did produce this one because it's a worthy suspense-drama with excellent acting, nicely-drawn characters and several last reel twists that really throw you for a loop. The score (by André Previn) and b/w cinematography (by Ernest Haller) are both excellent, and the mansion interiors were filmed at the amazingly ornate Greystone Park & Mansion in Beverly Hills. Davis (who also got to play twin sisters in 1946's A STOLEN LIFE) is great, as usual, and the supporting performances are all fine, with Malden and Delevanti adding especially nice touches to the film via their supporting roles. The cast also includes Philip Carey as a police sergeant, Jean Hagen (in her final role) as one of Margaret's uppity friends, George Macready, Estelle Winwood, Bert Remsen as a bartender and Monika Henreid (the director's daughter) as a maid.
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I'd like to dedicate this review to Mr. Malden, who'd just passed away a few weeks ago after a long and distinguished career. An Emmy and Oscar-winning actor best known for his performances in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1952) and ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), as well as his role as Detective Mike Stone on TV's The Streets of San Francisco (1972-1977), Malden also lent his talents to the genre films PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE (1954) and CAT O' NINE TAILS (1971).
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★★★

Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954)

...aka: It Stalked the Ocean Floor
...aka: Monster Maker

Directed by:
Wyott Ordung

A light, talky, mildly enjoyable 66-minute-long sea monster quickie that's most notable for being the very first film produced by Roger Corman, aka my hero. Filmed in California on a paltry 12,000 budget, it would become the modest hit that helped to launch the career of one of the - if not the - most important people working in the horror genre during the next fifty years. Unlike most other monster movies from this decade, the film is also notable for centering its action around a female protagonist and, as played by Anne Kimbell, she's the kind of brave, likable and assertive heroine that major studio productions seemed to frown upon using at the time and were usually relegated to independent films (note Corman's novel use of Beverly Garland in several sci-fi/ horror productions just a few years after this one). Though there are some romantic elements thrown in (including a silly beach serenade), Kimbell's character - Julie Blair; a "merchandise illustrator" vacationing in Mexico - is more interested in investigating claims of a legendary "devil" rumored to have red, glowing eyes (or is that, eye) that lurks beneath the waters and strikes fear in the hearts of the natives. Instead of letting herself get swept off her feet by the the obligatory handsome young scientist stationed nearby; Stanford marine biologist Steve Dunning (Stuart Wade), or simply tagging along with Steve and his superior Dr. Baldwin (Dick Pinner) on their boat, Julie is too busy charting her own adventure and taking solo diving expeditions to search for the creature. At one point she even courageously battles a shark with a pocket knife!

Other than Kimbell's character and performance, there's not much else to recommend here aside from some fun use of a pedal-powered mini-submarine, decent underwater photography (by Floyd Crosby) and nice Channel Islands/Catalina shooting locations. The male performances are uniformly wooden, there's next to no action and those expecting more monster or horror-oriented scenes are going to be sorely disappointed when they discover the one-eyed, tentacled monster doesn't even make an appearance until the final minutes of the picture. On the plus side, the monster design by Bob Baker really isn't too bad for its day and the creature at least gets a good death scene!

Director Ordung (who plays a supporting role here as well) had previously earned his Z-movie stripes by scripting the notoriously awful ROBOT MONSTER and would go on to write TARGET EARTH (1954) and FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959). Future LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS star Jonathan Haze (billed as "Jack Hayes") makes his film debut in a minor role, and Corman also has a brief cameo as Baldwin's "one man crew."

★★
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