Monday, February 27, 2012

Seddok, l'erede di Satana (1960)

... aka: Atom Age Vampire
... aka: Le monstre au masque

Directed by:
Anton Giulio Majano

Immediately after her boyfriend breaks up with her because she refuses to quit her job as a dancer, Jeanette Moreneau (Susanne Loret) speeds away in her car and gets into a terrible fiery accident. Hideously scarred in the crash, Jeanette ends up in a hospital where doctors inform her there's no hope in restoring her face. Hearing of the incident, Professor Alberto Levin (Alberto Lupo) - a well-known scientist who'd previously spent months in Japan perfecting his skills by experimenting on Hiroshima bomb victims ("poor wretched people") - decides that he wants to help. And by help, I mean he needs a guinea pig for his new Derma 28 formula, which promises "spontaneous reproduction of living cells." In other words, he thinks he's discovered the secret to life itself. Levin's dedicated assistant (and lover) Monique (Franca Parisi) talks Jeanette into coming to their home / laboratory for treatment. Once there, the hysterical "beautiful human specimen" passes out. One injection of the formula manages to restore both Jeanette's face and her faith that she'll be turned back to normal one day. The doctor quickly becomes infatuated with her. Monique, who's in love with doctor himself, isn't too thrilled by this new development.

Naturally, the treatment only proves to be a temporary fix as new scar tissue begins to develop and spread along her face and neck. Levin decides a skin transplant is in order. Already claiming that he'd "kill a thousand times before admitting defeat," he murders Monique to get her out of the way. Oh yeah, and he's not just a monster in the moral sense, but in the literal sense as well. During time lapse transformations, Levin turns into a disfigured, clawed monster who goes out late at night killing women and can transform back into his normal self by stepping into his patented radiation chamber. Though it's never shown, we're to assume he's killing women for their skin to transplant onto Jeanette (the transplants are also never shown). Getting fed up with the numerous operations and the doctor forcing himself on her, Jeanette sneaks out and reunites with her boyfriend Pierre (Sergio Fantoni). Levin and his sad-looking mute servant Sacha (Roberto Bertea) capture her again and drag her back to the lab to complete the experiments. Meanwhile, the obligatory investigators; Commissioner Brouchard (Ivo Garrani), his chain-smoking assistant Inspector Murray and others, try to get to the bottom of things.

This OK but overly-familiar tale is English-dubbed and has pretty good make-up work for the time but is otherwise pretty forgettable. The producer was Mario Fava, who has often been incorrectly listed in reference books as being Mario Bava. A public domain title, it's an easy one to find online and in various DVD sets. The one I viewed was part of the collection "The Dead Walk" distributed by Brentwood Entertainment, which contains 10 films and promises the bonus "All 10 episodes of "The Veil" starring Vincent Price." (which Boris Karloff hosts and Price isn't even in). It's a very soft-looking print with weird letterboxing.

So yeah, here comes a big "DOH!" from yours truly. After the damage was already done, I discovered that I'd watched the most reduced cut of this film, which clocks in at just 69 minutes. Since the film is also available in 72, 87 and 107 minute versions, I might not being giving this its fair shakes in the review (and it might also explain why I never got to see any of the skin grafting stuff). I suppose one day I'll view one of the more complete cuts, but as I always say, "So many movies, so little time!" Moving on...


Sunday, February 26, 2012

It Conquered the World (1956)

... aka: It Conquered the Earth

Directed by:
Roger Corman

Often dismissed as a cheap knock-off of the same year's hit INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, this one's main claim to fame for many is its incredibly silly-looking, Paul Blaisdell-designed alien creation, which many viewers compare to a giant vegetable. But if you can look past the creepy carrot, planet-hopping pickle, evil eggplant or whatever else you'd like to call it, and forgive some wooden performances and a clumsy final denouement delivered with stone-faced perfection by star Peter Graves, you'll find a good little film with heart and soul underneath. Like Snatchers, it's set in the contained environment of an ordinary small town, which works as an efficiently small scale reminder of what will happen to the rest of the world if the alien invader isn't stopped and stopped soon. It contains the same Cold War paranoia themes prevalent in so many other 50s sci-fi favorites and, like Snatchers, features a creature capable of possessing humans, who are then stripped of all of those pesky feelings that make us who we are. Conquered is, above all else, about the importance of human emotion - something else touched upon in Snatchers - but nicely expanded upon here. Screenwriter Lou Rusoff's message is not subtle, but it's given a sense of importance and urgency thanks to the firebrand performance of co-star Beverly Garland; playing the impassioned wife of a brilliant, though misguided, man who all but lays out the red carpet for the alien takeover.

Illustrious physicist and all-around genius Dr. Tom Anderson (Lee Van Cleef), who's retired because he's sick of not being taken seriously by the "fat heads" at the top, tries in vain to warn the military and NASA that their new satellite project is going to spell doom for the Earth. And when he says that we better keep out of the skies or else and that "alien intelligence watches us constantly" he means it. After all, he's been communicating with them by bouncing radio waves off of Venus for years! Everyone, including Tom's long-suffering wife Claire (Garland), thinks he's losing it when he says that Venusians are heading toward the Earth. Meanwhile, the satellite launched three months earlier has mysteriously disappeared. Military scientist Paul Nelson (Graves) - a friend of Tom's who's the head of the satellite project - and others try to get to the bottom of things. In the meantime, the satellite crashes by some nearby caves. Guess who hitched a ride on board? Why, one of the aliens, of course! It gets word out to Tom that it's finally arrived and he's kind enough to hand out the names of all the important people in town... including his best buddy. Coinciding with the alien's arrival, there's a strange power failure in most modern conveniences. Watches, clocks, cars, radios, phones, flashlights, airplanes and everything else has mysteriously stops working. Well, for everyone except those in cahoots with the alien.

Possession is achieved by use of "control devices:" small, flying, bat-like creature which latch onto the back of the victim's neck and sting them, making them blank-minded emissaries for the alien. The chief of police (Taggart Casey) is the first to get stung and goes on to gun down an innocent man for not cooperating and organizing an evacuation; herding the town's citizens into the desert. Next up is army general James Paddock (Russ Bender), who lies and tells his officers they're in the middle of a Commie takeover, as well as several other scientists at the military base. Dr. Nelson is even forced to gun down his own wife Joan (Sally Fraser) after she becomes possessed. Tom - lashing out at a world who has laughed at and ridiculed him over the years - is in full cooperation with the alien and its plans. Claire loves her husband regardless and makes some very sensible arguments against what he's doing. It all falls on deaf ears, though, so Claire finally takes it upon herself to try and stop the alien. During one of the most memorable scenes, Claire marches into the alien's cave dwelling brandishing a rifle and promptly informs it "You think you're going to make a slave of the world? I'll see you in hell first!"

Corman regulars Dick Miller and Jonathan Haze both have (rather useless) roles as army grunts and Charles B. Griffith (who'd go on to write LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and others for Corman) also appears in a small role. The score is by Ronald Stein and Frank Zappa's song "Cheepnis" was apparently influenced by this movie. Conquered was mocked on an episode of the cable series Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and was remade for TV by director Larry Buchanan as ZONTAR, THE THING FROM VENUS in 1966. Academy and RCA/Columbia issued VHS versions but the film has yet to get an official DVD, which is insane.


El libro de piedra (1969)

... aka: Book of Stone, The
... aka: Stone Book, The

Directed by:
Carlos Enrique Taboada

Clearly inspired by Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (and no doubt the definitive 1961 film version of that story, THE INNOCENTS), you'll notice several similarities between the two right away: the new governess, the haunted or possibly mentally disturbed child, the huge remote mansion filled with whispers and secrets, the lush nearby garden, etc. Unlike the disturbed, overly emotional character of Miss Giddens in Turn (who very well may be imagining the "haunting"), the protagonist here is a kind, very sane woman who is imagining nothing. Something supernatural is definitely afoot and, because she lost a child of her own years earlier, she feels compelled to do everything she can to help the troubled child she's been hired to care for. The lady in question is Julia Septién (Marga López), who - as the film begins - shows up at the home of re-married, very wealthy widower Eugenio Ruvalcaba (Joaquín Cordero). He immediately tells her that his young daughter Sylvia (Lucy Buj) isn't just a normal girl. In fact, he believes she may be mentally ill. Ever since the family has moved to this new home, Sylvia has spent much of her time in hiding and even more time with her (presumed) imaginary friend Hugo. She finds amusement in doing cruel and perverse things and even has the strange ability to predict things before they happen. And every once in awhile, someone dies.

A tough nut to crack, Sylvia is initially rude to the governess, tells her she doesn't like her and that she's not welcome there, but through patience, kindness and an open mind, Julia is eventually able to win over the young girl's trust and affections. She learns that Sylvia pays frequent visits to the garden, where the stone statue of a little boy holding a book - her "friend" Hugo - rests. The statue - which is five centuries old and was brought to Central America from Austria decades earlier - houses the spirit of a young boy who's been dead for many years and the book he's holding is a book of (black) magic spells. We learn that the boy was the child of a witch who may one day return to life. Somehow, evil little Hugo has managed to take possession of lonely Sylvia, coercing her into helping him do evil things... or doing them herself.

Sylvia makes a six-pointed star out of salt to resurrect a dead lizard and, early on, leads the governess to an abandoned church, with intentions of making her fall to her death from the top. Julia isn't the only target, though. A former governess was scared away from the home in horror and a dog belonging to the father's painter friend Carlos (Aldo Monti) is killed after it scares the girl. Sylvia's young stepmother Mariana (Norma Lazareno) wants nothing more than to find a way to connect to the closed-off Sylvia, but Sylvia hates her so much that she decides to make her suffer with help from a voodoo doll. Eugenio and Carlos eventually go to an occult expert for advice, but can they or Julia save the bewitched young girl before it's too late?

This ghost tale is well-regarded by many in its home country and it's easy to see why. The performances are good, it's faintly eerie at times, paces itself out about right by revealing layers of the interesting story a little bit at a time, makes good use of the lush outdoor surroundings and a few of the supernatural scenes, with visions of the little boy's ghost seen several times reflected in mirrors, are well-done. It's a good film, no doubt, but overall it lacks the artistry and depth that makes something like the similar and aforementioned The Innocents an *excellent* film. Still, it's well worth your time if you can find a copy (it's never been released in America, though an English-subbed copy is out there if you look for it) and would make an ideal introduction to the genre for a child.

Director / writer Taboada also made the well-regarded HASTA EL VIENTO TIENE MIEDO ("Even the Wind is Afraid") (1968), DRIFTER IN THE RAIN (1968), BLACKER THAN THE NIGHT (1975) and POISON FOR THE FAIRIES (1984). El libro de piedra was remade in 2009 by director Julio Cesar Estrada.


Saturday, February 25, 2012

Horror of Frankenstein, The (1970)

Directed by:
Jimmy Sangster

After a decade-and-a-half run of successful costume horrors usually featuring more mature protagonists, Hammer decided to start specifically catering some of their output toward a younger audience with stories centered around more youthful protagonists. So no, Peter Cushing (who headlined all of Hammer's previous Frankenstein films) wasn't invited to this particular party. Instead we get Ralph Bates in the central mad doctor role. Bates had just made an impression playing the dashing, aristocratic black magic practitioner who helped to resurrect the Count in TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1969) and, while no spring chicken here at 30 years old, adequately fills the role of an evil, unfeeling medical school student. His Victor is a brilliant, smarmy sociopath with a truly pompous attitude who always seems to be pissing someone off. He kills indiscriminately: If you get in his way, you're toast and that's that. When Victor's rich father, who's carrying on an affair with the underage housemaid, Alys (Kate O'Mara), refuses to spring for him to go to a more prestigious university, Victor simply rigs his hunting rifle to explode and kill him.

Now with the title of Baron, a huge castle and a considerable amount of money all at his disposal, Victor decides to go to Vienna to further his studies. During his time there, he manages to knock up the dean's daughter, but tells him not to worry: Now that he has medical training, he'll just give her an abortion. The dean refuses and says he'll arrange for the two to be married. Victor decides to flee for the summer instead, with no real intentions of going back, and invites his classmate Wilhelm (Graham James) to come along with him to aid in his experiments. Away from town six years, Victor is promptly reunited with several former classmates. One of them, the sweet Elizabeth Heiss (Veronica Carlson, a real stunner), is still in love with Victor after all these years and has denied many potential suitors awaiting his return. Too bad for her, but he could care less and never has really liked her, anyway. He much prefers his no-strings-attached arrangement with Alys, who's still working as housekeeper in the castle and promptly becomes his lover.

After successfully reviving a dead turtle, Victor arranges for a sleazy grave robber (Dennis Price) and his wife to provide him with fresh body parts so that he can construct a human. The grave robber is able to acquire six whole bodies after an avalanche and when Wilhelm questions the ethics of all this and threatens to report Victor to the authorities, he's promptly electrocuted to provide even more parts. Now needing a brain, Victor poisons Elizabeth's professor father (Bernard Archard). Because of his debt, Elizabeth loses her home and is forced to come stay in Castle Frankenstein, where Victor plans to make her the new maid and decides to rid himself of Alys when she attempts to blackmail him. After stitching it all together, Victor's human creation (muscleman David Prowse) is revived by thunder. It immediately escapes and chops a villager up with an axe. Victor feeds it raw meat, attempts to teach it basic skills like sitting down and obeying his orders and is eventually able to make it kill for him. The obligatory police detective (Jon Finch), another of Victor's childhood friends, is on to him, though. Much use is made of an acid pit - convenient for eliminating evidence - in the meantime.

Director Sangster, who's better known as a script writer (and co-wrote this one as well), fails to inject much life into this entry, visually or otherwise. Perhaps strangest of all is his inability to really make good use of the lavish costumes, props and sets which were clearly at the studio's disposal. Some of the more talented of Hammer's production people seemed to be on hiatus when this was made, as the photography and music score - while competent - are also a bit lackluster. As scripted, the young mad scientist in this outing seems a bit one-dimensional, as well. The main problem however lies in the pacing. Because over an hour is spent leading up to the monster's creation, the concluding scenes seem rushed, leading up to a truly pathetic and anti-climactic final scene.

On the plus side, O'Mara manages to bring some real verve to her supporting role (which is very much appreciated, especially considering how bland most of the rest of the cast is) and veteran actor Price seems to be having a ball in his small role and has the film's most amusing scene sitting in a cemetery eating sausage and crackers while making his pregnant wife dig up a grave for him! The film provides some effective black comedy here and there (as well as some rather juvenile moments), and the monster design is pretty good. Mr. Prowse would also play the creature in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL (1974); Hammer's last Frankenstein film.

Like many of the studio's other titles, this has been well-serviced over the years, enjoying frequently television airings that continue to this day, as well as wide distribution on VHS and DVD (Warner in the UK; Anchor Bay in the U.S.).


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