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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Dorian Gray (1970)

...aka: Bildnis des Dorian Gray, Das
...aka: Dio chiamoto Dorian, Il
...aka: Evils of Dorian Gray, The
...aka: Portrait of Dorian Gray, The
...aka: Secret of Dorian Gray, The

Directed by:
Massimo Dallamano

Oscar Wilde's famous allegorical novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray," which was first published in 1890, was a key adapted literary piece of the silent film era. There were versions of it made in 1910, 1913, 1915 (one filmed in the US, the other in Russia), 1916, 1917 and 1918 (which featured a young Bela Lugosi). Of those, only the the 1916 version (directed by Fred W. Durrant and starring Henry Victor) remains. What most rightfully consider the definitive screen version of the tale came in 1945. Directed by Albert Lewin for MGM, it starred Hurd Hattfield as Dorian, featured scene-stealing work from George Sanders and Angela Lansbury and was gorgeously photographed by Harry Stradling Sr., who received a well-deserved Academy Award for his work. The tale then layed dormant for about twenty-five years until it was resurrected once again by producers Harry Alan Towers and Samuel Z. Arkoff, two pioneering forces in the exploitation business. They tapped Italian-born Massimo Dallamano (who'd go on to make the popular giallo WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO SOLANGE? a year later) to direct and co-write the film, and brought along a cast of familiar faces for a version so over-the-top trashy that it was critically annihilated upon release.

Aesthetically speaking, Helmut Berger was an ideal casting choice as Dorian, the man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed Berger is about as non-threateningly pretty as any man can be, which is crucial here because his allure is supposed to captivate men and women alike. His Dorian begins as a naive, well-meaning sort who has simplistic views on everything but quickly becomes victim to his own ego. Herbert Lom, surprisingly great in his off-beat role, co-stars as Henry Wotton; here an intelligent, gay, wealthy, worldly art collecter who cleverly manipulates those around him to get exactly what he wants. He has his eye on Dorian; slowly and methodically chipping away at his flimsy, half-formed ideals about life and love, and ensuring Dorian's budding relationship with virginal young actress Sybil Vane (Marie Liljedahl) stops before it really has a chance to begin.

Henry scares Dorian with his comments about aging ("One day you'll be old, wrinkled and ugly... We degenerate into hideous puppets."), encourages Dorian to be sexually experimental, not tie himself down, accompany him to parties where he can hobnob with filthy rich swingers and use his good looks to get whatever he wants. Henry's comments have also prompted Dorian to swear away his soul for eternal youth by a portrait his painter friend Basil Hallward (Richard Todd) has just made of him. Sybil is hit and killed by a car and once Dorian is exposed to the new jetset lifestyle and its kinky players, he's hooked and things begin spiralling out of control. Just as in most of the other adaptations of the story, Dorian remains his youthful self throughout the years as his painting tells of his true age.

Some have brushed this off as a silly piece of soft-core Euro-porn and I'm not going to argue with that sentiment. However, I have to say that I quite enjoyed the amped-up sexual compotent of this film and the places the director goes. The set-ups for the skin scenes, which range from innocent and sexy to seedy and discomforting, are sometimes so gloriously campy that you can't help but laugh. During one scene, Berger bends a wealthy old bat (Isa Miranda) over in a stable and has anal sex with her right next to a horse! My favorite bit though has to be when Berger (immediately after having sex with two different women) hops in the shower, drops the soap and a hand is shown grabbing it off the floor, only to reveal it's a heavily rouged/ mascara-wearing Lom using the opportunity to hop into the shower with him! And yes, Dorian does reciprocate.

One of Dorian's other lovers is Henry's equally predatory sister Gwendolyn (Maragaret Lee), who is bisexual and likes to be smacked around with a belt. Dorian also becomes an adult film star (!), has sex with a muscular black dude in a public toilet and attends a candlelit orgy at "The House of Pleasure," among other things. There's a cabaret musical number with a drag queen stripper, a nightclub called "The Black Cock" and sex scenes on a theater stage, in a field, on a yacht and on a beach. The porno director who Dorian works for is, interestingly enough, played by a black actress (Beryl Cunningham). While there is plenty of nudity, some of the sex is done subtlely or implied, and many of the scenes are strangely obscured when the camera dips behind tree branches, potted plants and curtains. The slapdash sexuality in this movie was unexpected (certainly pretty risque for the time) and actually kind of wonderful.

Visually, there are some very nice touches here. The film opens with an intriguing shot of bloody hands stretched out in front of the camera as it travels down stairs up to a kitchen sink followed by another elaborate camera shot tracking through a house with swank 70s decor. Dallamano also seems to have a way of making certain colors literally jump out of the screen at you, such as when Dorian takes his very red car on a drive through the lush green countryside. The settings are nice, the costuming is really interesting and they even throw in several disco scenes for us to snicker at.

Co-stars include Renato Romano as Dorian's former college friend, Maria Rohm (who is pitifully wasted here) as his wife, Eleonora Rossi Drago as a swinger and Stewart Black as Sybil's over-protective brother, who likely has incestuous designs on her and blames Dorian for her death. Liljedahl also gets to return after her death playing a woman named Gladys, who's a dead ringer for Sybil. It was filmed in London with Italian and West German backing. A cut VHS version was released here in America through Republic Pictures, but there's no official DVD for this one. The version I saw ran 98 minutes and uses the alt. title THE SECRET OF DORIAN GRAY (though it was packaged as the title I have listed here).

"Today, beauty is more important than genius." Indeed.

★★1/2

La casa del terror (1960)

... aka: House of Terror, The
... aka: Tin Tan in the House of Terror

Directed by:
Gilberto Martínez Solares

Never released north-of-the-border in its original form, this blends horror and comedy fairly well on a low-budget while also affectionately paying tribute to several Universal genre classics, most obviously King Kong (1933) and The Wolf Man (1941). It had the misfortune of getting "The Jerry Warren Treatment;" Warren took scenes from this and scenes from the schlocky The Aztec Mummy (1957-58) films, blended them together with new footage and released it to the unsuspecting public as Face of the Screaming Werewolf back in 1964. That mess naturally is widely available on VHS and DVD, while this one isn't. And that's a shame because this is actually a pretty fun film. The Spanish-language version is still worth a look even if you don't speak the language. It's easy enough to follow and was released by both Sinister Cinema and Something Weird Video on VHS.

Ne'er do well Casimiro (Germán Valdés aka 'Tin Tan') works as night watchman and caretaker of a museum of horrors exhibit. His boss, known only as the Professor (Yerye Beirut), keeps busy in the back room of the establishment in his lab, where he experiments with corpses he and his two assistants (who refer to him as "maestro") swipe from a local cemetery. Whenever the mad doc needs some fresh blood, he simply goes up to Casimiro with his Pringles can-sized syringe and takes it, causing Casimiro to be lazy and constantly drowsy, and pissing off his girl Paquita (Yolanda Varela), who is holding down two jobs. Failed "experiments" are passed off as wax dummies in the museum. A mummy display comes to town, so the Professor and his henchmen attend, steal the mummy (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and decide to try to revive it. They redress it and stick it in some huge spinning contraption. During the next full moon, the mummy comes to life... as a werewolf. When he returns to human form, he's put in a cage, transforms back to the wolf, manages to escape, runs alongside a busy highway, attacks a woman and a policeman at a a park, kills another woman and scales up the side of a building to the roof! It eventually gets its paws on Paquita and Casimiro must save the day.

While the mummy make-up is awful (it looks basically like Chaney smeared with mud), the wolf design, as well as the black wardrobe, is actually fairly faithful to the original wolf man design. In fact, it looks almost identical to the design the actor wore for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Chaney didn't speak Spanish and only gets to utter one word ("No!") but he's actually better used here than he was in the majority of his other 50s and 60s films and even gets an opportunity to play his role for sympathy during one scene. The other actors are fairly good. Beirut is a great Karloff-like presence as the mad scientist. Valdés (a famous comic actor on his home turf) has to yawn, sleep, fake cry, stutter and bumble his way through the film in sometimes annoying fashion, but he has his moments. The end sequence of him pursuing the were-mummy, who has his girl draped over his shoulder, up a tall building in the city has that pleasing silent era slapstick feel to it. He also gets to sing (or lip sync?) a strange musical number that comes out of nowhere, along with his female co-star (who was married to the film's producer, Fernando de Fuentes hijo).

Alfredo Wally Barrón (a veteran of Blue Demon and Santo flicks) and Agustín Fernández co-star as the doctor's assistants. Director Solares, whose career lasted from the late 30s until the late 90s, made many other films (including quite a few others with Valdés) but is probably best known here in America for the horror-exploitation film Satanico Pandemonium (1975).

★★1/2

Échenme al vampiro (1963)

...aka: Bring Me the Vampire

Directed by:
Alfredo B. Crevenna

Insanely wealthy businessman Henry McDermott (Carlos Riquelme) has just died under mysterious circumstances. In fact, a painting of him over the fireplace clearly shows a knife stuck in his stomach! Henry's son Harold (Héctor Godoy) is in charge of rounding up a series of potential heirs and getting them to stay in Henry's creepy old mansion, which has supposedly been built atop an ancient cemetery. The catch is that they have to stay there for an entire month to collect a million dollars apiece. Among those mentioned in the will are Harold's girlfriend Martha (María Eugenia San Martín), inventor Thomas Alva Madison ("Arriolita"/ Armando Arriola), budding actress Lulu (Lulú Parga), starving artist Oscar (Pascual García Peña), pickpocket Joe Benjamin (Pompín Iglesias), pianist Anastasio Superstein (José Jasso), wanna-be ladies man Aldos ("Borolas"/ Joaquín García Vargas) and singer and dancer Albert Lambert ("Calambres"/ Roberto Cobo), who performs a funny musical number called "Chicago Mambo" with a handkerchief in his back pocket. Too many central characters? Yep, and there's more. Throw in a stern housekeeper, a hypnotized maid named Amy (Celia Viveros), an inept police inspector named Bobby ("Mantequilla/ Fernando Soto), an attorney (Ramón Bugarini) and Henry's mentally imbalanced brother into the mix. Said characters basically run around the mansion for an hour and a half while being killed off one-by-one. A man is hung, another is drowned, a head is served on a platter, one guy disintigrates because of poison milk, etc. Each time someone dies, a note is left behind stating the inheritance has increased by a million dollars.

This is a 1930s-style b/w old dark house horror-comedy full of annoying overacting, bad physical comedy, lame sight gags, constant mugging, double takes, over-the-top hysterics and comic sound effects. Yes, we're talkin' kazoo and "Boi-i-ing!" here, folks. The cast boasts having eight comedians, but strangely what there is to steal here is stolen by two actors who have to play their roles mostly straight. The first is Yerye Beirut as Julius, Henry's brother, who fancies himself a vampire but is actually just insane and sleeps downstairs in a coffin. The second is Hortensia Santoveña, who's perfect as the Danvers-like witch/housekeeper Eloise. Henry's ghost plays frequent visits to the cast, there are some black-robed bad spirits running around, a talking skeleton, a mummy and a surprise ending. Elsa Cárdenas appears in one scene as a "decoy," and there are lots of "witty" lines such as "If we gotta die in order to get money, after your death instead of spending money you'd be spending bones!"

K. Gordon Murray brought this to America, had it horribly English-dubbed at his Coral Gables, Florida studio for TV and matinee showings (which changes the character names) and added a new title sequence featuring a drawing of a vampire standing on a hill looking at a stagecoach. The English-language version is credited to director "Manuel San Fernando," and it's very poorly done ("George McDermott" in the first scene becomes "Henry McDermott" from then on out; they keep saying there are "seven heirs" when there are clearly more, etc.). The sequel LA CASA DE LOS ESPANTOS (1963; aka HOUSE OF THE FRIGHTS) was never officially released in the United States.

★1/2

La casa de los espantos (1963)

... aka: House of the Frights
... aka: Spook House

Directed by:
Alfredo B. Crevenna

At the end of BRING ME THE VAMPIRE (1963), all of the haunted house shenanigans turned out to be a hoax as the "dead" man - Marcos Méndez aka Henry McDermott in the first dubbed film (Carlos Riquelme) - only wanted his "heirs" to perfect their talents before deciding to finance their careers. In this immediate follow-up (filmed the same year), everyone from the first movie - the kooky inventor, the painter, the thief, the budding actress, the dancer, etc. - are called back to the creepy mansion home for a revision of the will and it seems most of them have been unsuccessful in their endeavors. After everyone packs into one room, the lights flash off and someone kills Marcos (for really this time) by stabbing him in the stomach. The body promptly disappears and the gate outside becomes electrified, trapping everyone inside. The two maids (Hortensia Santoveña and Celia Viveros) have a seance in the cellar and call up the dead man's spirit, who shows up on occasion to warn people. A doctor is shot, Marcos' nutty "vampire" brother Sergio aka Julius (Yerye Beirut) is still lurking around causing trouble, there are three dance sequences (Roberto Cobo does some crazy dance, María Eugenia San Martín does the hula and they do the mambo together) and during the stirring (not!) finale, someone goes around bonking people over the head with a mallet (complete with a cartoon sound effect). Everyone's eventually tied up to some spiked contraption as our hero Carlos aka Harold (Héctor Godoy) battles it out with a mystery killer whose identity won't be surprising anyone.

Just like the original, this is little more than a bunch of people frantically running around making goofy faces. It's talkier than the first and almost completely deemphasizes the dime store horror props. A few moments, such as when the policemen sees the same crew gathering together and starts to dust off his gun and magnifying glass in preparation, are mildly amusing. During one scene, a dog gets fried on the fence and there's a weird hallucination scene where Aldo (Fernando Soto) is drugged and envisions an angel strumming a harp and a demon poking him with a pitchfork while he's dressed in a flesh-colored suit and bent over fire (!) I did get to see a great quality version in its original language with fan-made subs (meaning the cast don't sound nearly as annoying), but it still isn't very funny. Or as Sergio so eloquently puts it "Todos idiotas!"

There's no official U.S. release for this one, but you're not missing out on anything. Though Crevenna is given sole credit for his dirección in the credits, Alberto Mariscal is listed as co-director (which may be more like "assistant director" here). Ramón Bugarini, Lulú Parga, Joaquín García Vargas, Armando Arriola, Pompín Iglesias, José Jasso, Pascual García Peña and Elsa Cárdenas all return from the first film in the same roles.

★1/2
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