Sunday, December 30, 2012

Der Zinker (1963)

... aka: Edgar Wallace a Scotland Yard
... aka: L'énigme du serpent noir
... aka: Secret of the Black Serpent, The
... aka: Squeaker, The

Directed by:
Alfred Vohrer

The novels of prolific mystery writer Edgar Wallace were the basis for dozens of krimi (crime flicks / murder-mysteries) produced in West Germany throughout the 1960s. The vast majority were detective stories and many also included pronounced horror elements. These stylish and well-shot productions are now frequently seen as precursors to the Italian giallo movement, though they just as often recall the spirit of the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films. The Squeaker falls smack in the middle of these two trends; it has the well-structured plotline indicative of the Holmes films, as well as some of the violence and visual style of the gialli. Of course krimi were much milder than their later cousins. With time, these things got bloodier and sexier thanks to crumbling censorship laws and the demands of a changing audience. However, gialli usually spent so much time orchestrating the murder sequences that the screenplays really took a hit and logic rarely ever reared its ugly head. Though the horror elements are somewhat subdued in this particular Wallace entry, The Squeaker finds a comfortable place where the visuals enhance the story instead of attempt to entirely make up for a lack of one.

A black-gloved killer nicknamed "The Snake" (who signs his letters with an "S") is going around London poisoning people. And he or she has a really ingenious weapon at their disposal: a slim steel rod which they load up with frozen pellets of mamba poison and shoot into victims. The murders center around a company called Mulford Ltd., which specializes in both the importing and breeding of rare exotic animals, and it's up to Scotland Yard Inspector Bill Elford (Heinz Drache) to crack the case. Elderly Nancy Mulford (Agnes Windeck), whose husband had committed suicide years earlier and left the business to her, owns Mulford Ltd., but has dished out most of the responsibilities to manager Frankie Sutton (Günter Pfitzmann), who also happens to be dating her niece Beryl (Barbara Rütting), a mystery novelist. Several other people work in the warehouse tending to the animals, including Krishna (Klaus Kinski), an oddball who barely ever talks and, as the film opens, is seen stealing a black mamba from his work. He's clearly in on things, but is he "The Snake?"

Several other characters are thrown into the mix. Feeling charitable, Nancy decides to hire convicted criminal Thomas Leslie (Jan Hendriks), who's just spent two years behind bars, to work in her warehouse. He and Frankie's secretary Millie (Inge Langen) are both seen at various points trying to crack into the company safe. One of the first victims is tied into a crime ring which specializes in jewel robberies where one member fakes having a heart attack to distract police while the others hold up the stores. For some comedy, Eddi Arent's "Telegraph" newspaper reporter Mr. Harras, is injected into the proceedings. His subplot involves him trying to please his crotchety boss Gerald Fielding (Siegfried Schürenberg) by getting the scoop on the murders before a rival reporter for another newspaper can.

Things start out a little overwhelmingly. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and some odd and seemingly random things that happen, but this manages to tie everything together nicely by the end. It's both well-structured and well-written, managing to entertain and keep you guessing as the mystery unfolds. The actors all do a fine job and the characters are enjoyable and adequately fleshed-out. Kinski has a particularly fun role. He gets to crawl around on the floor, fondles and kisses snakes, locks a woman inside a cage with a tiger, has a shipping crate with a corpse and python inside dropped hundreds of feet from a crane and goes crazy with a machine gun at the very end. A man is run over, a mamba is snuck into someone's bedroom and there are some other good suspense set pieces in here. In addition, there are a few amusingly bizarre camera shots, including one inside someone's mouth as they eat a carrot!

Director Alfred Vohrer, the busiest director of these kinds of films, left behind an impressive number of krimi. In addition to this one, he also made DEAD EYES OF LONDON (1961), THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS (1962), THE INN ON THE RIVER (1962), THE INDIAN SCARF (1963), THE MYSTERIOUS MAGICIAN (1964), HUNCHBACK OF SOHO (1966), THE BLOODY DEAD (1967), COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS (1967), THE HORROR OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (1967), THE APE CREATURE (1968), THE ZOMBIE WALKS (1968), SCHOOL OF FEAR (1969) and TERROR ON HALF MOON STREET (1969) and probably a few more I'm forgetting. Damn, I have a lot of catching up to do. The Squeaker is the first of these I've seen and I hope the others stack up. This was quite enjoyable.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Galaxy Invader, The (1985)

Directed by:
Don Dohler

Dohler's fourth feature is pretty much just like his previous efforts THE ALIEN FACTOR (1978), FIEND (1980) and NIGHT BEAST (1982); it's very low-budget, was shot around Baltimore, has horribly acting and dialogue, long dull stretches where nothing much happens and involves an alien visitor 'terrorizing' the countryside. A glowing, meteor-like object falls out of the sky and lands in the backwoods of Harleyville. Teenager David Harmon (Greg Dohler) happens to spot it and immediately calls up his father's friend, professor and UFO enthusiast Dr. William Tracy (Richard Dyszel) to make a five hour trip to check things out. Meanwhile, we meet the Montague's; a family of rednecks. Pa Joe (Richard Ruxton) is an abusive, obnoxious, crazy drunk who has a reputation around town for being a liar and a cheat. He's also having problems keeping his sassy and disobedient 25-year-old daughter Carol (Faye Tilles) in check. After she calls him a "drunken bum" and Pa slaps her in the face, Carol runs off into the woods towards her boyfriend's house. Joe grabs his rifle and chases after her. And eldest son J.J. (George Stover, also an associate producer), who I think is supposed to be a little "slow" (though it's hard to tell), chases after him to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid.

Joe and J.J. end up bumping into a green, scaly alien that wears suspenders. They shoot at it and it drops a softball-sized glowing orb before fleeing. Thinking he can make money off the object, Joe takes it back to his house. He calls up his beer-drinkin', cigar-smokin' friend Frank Custer (Don Leifert), who also has a shady reputation around town, and his girl Vickie (Theresa Harold) to come over. When J.J. lets slip that they also saw a "green man," Frank comes up with the idea to capture the alien because it would probably be worth even more money. They go into town to a local bar to draft some local yokels to help, but the alien shows up at Joe's farm, knocks J.J. out and takes its orb back. The posse of men set out that night armed with rifles and get into a gun / laser fight with the alien. A bunch of men are killed before the alien is finally apprehended. They tie it up and put it in Joe's barn. David and Dr. Tracy get wind of what's going on and decide to sneak over to the farm themselves.

Dr. Tracy believes the alien isn't actually hostile and is just reacting violently to protect itself, and he turns out to be right. But greed over the discovery of the alien and its high powered laser weapon (Joe thinks "The Russians would pay a million dollars for this!") results in more fighting and more unnecessary deaths. Joe even uses the gun to kill Frank's girlfriend after he tries to unsuccessfully rape her. Eventually, the entire Montague family; Carol, J.J., Ma Ethel (Anne Frith, also the assistant director, associate producer and production coordinator) and youngest daughter Annie (Kim Dohler), Carol's boyfriend Michael (Cliff Lambert) and David decide to band to together and get the orb and laser back from Joe, believing if they just give it back to the extraterrestrial visitor all of this will stop.

Despite being poorly made in nearly every regard, it's difficult to flat out hate Dohler's work. I appreciate what he attempts to do, even though he never quite pulls it off. The down home regional filming has a certain charm to it, as well. This one attempts to tell a more old-fashioned, well-intentioned story about a mother and her children fighting back against their brutal patriarch, but it takes too many detours and lacks focus. Combine that with mostly bad acting and dialogue, inadequate character development and poor pacing, and the effect is cardboard schmaltz. There's also not enough man-in-a-rubber-suit alien action in here either.

John Cosentino - who'd previously worked on fx for the other Dohler films - designed and created the alien. Dohler not only directed, but also wrote, edited, did special sound effects and shot some of this (on 16mm). His next filmed-in-Baltimore opus was BLOOD MASSACRE (1988).


Terror Is a Man (1959)

... aka: Blood Creature
... aka: Creature from Blood Island
... aka: Island of Terror

Directed by:
Gerry (Gerardo) de Leon

With Terror Is a Man came a template that would become popular in The Philippines over the next few decades; most notably in the popular sex 'n' gore "Blood Island" trilogy that began with 1968's BRIDES OF BLOOD. Terror came almost a decade before any of those and was made during a time where nudity was a no-no and graphic violence had to be limited, but it still laid down a tried-and-true foundation for the later films. The plots of many of these were almost exactly the same; a handful of characters are on an secluded tropical island that's difficult - if not impossible - to escape from and have to contend with some kind of monster or mutant that's usually the result of a scientific experiment. There was also a familiarity with the casting and characters. The producers would draft a couple of Caucasian actors to play lead roles so the film would sell internationally (American actor John Ashley would corner the market on these parts starting in the late 60s) but fill the supporting roster with unknown locals. The character archetypes here would remain the same, as well: at least one oblivious person who travels or becomes shipwrecked on the island, a sometimes well-meaning, other times evil doctor / scientist living there, his frustrated and often neglected wife (who usually is drawn into the arms of the outsider), a young native beauty, etc., etc. Terror Is a Man is certainly not very original (it's pretty much an uncredited version of The Island of Dr. Moreau), but it's still influential as far as Filipino genre cinema is concerned.

Richard Derr, who'd starred in the big budget end-of-the-world classic WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) just eight years earlier, stars as our unlucky hero William Fitzgerald. Not only did the freighter ship he was on explode, killing everyone else on board, but his little dingy has floated to an uncharted island a thousand miles from civilization. Unconscious, he's fished out of the ocean and brought back to a house, where he briefly meets the Dr. Charles Gerard (Francis Lederer), one of the only white inhabitants of the island. Others include Gerard's voluptuous blonde bombshell wife Frances (Miss Denmark 1952, Greta Thysson) and his assistant Walter Herrera (Oscar Keesee). There are around 75 native islanders there as well, but they don't stick around very long once the obligatory monster escapes one too many times and kills a few villagers each time it does. The only two stragglers are pretty island girl Selina (Lilia Duran) and her kid brother Tiago (Peyton Keesee), who both work as servants for the doctor.

Several years earlier, Dr. Gerard and his wife (who's a nurse) had traveled there so they'd have privacy and isolation to conduct their experiments on a black panther. Fifty-some experiments later, the panther has taken on almost human form. Its body is now shaped liked a humans, it walks on two legs and is getting close to actually being able to talk. Gerard has been toying around with some kind of glandular hormone that he injects directly into the animal's brain which has sped up the evolutionary process. It hasn't, however, completely tamed the being's animal instincts. Walter, who's something of a sadist, not only beats on poor Selina and forces her to have sex with him, but has also been secretly beating on the animal when the doctor isn't looking; keeping it volatile and on edge. Frances has taken a liking to the creature, pities it and has gotten to the point where she refuses to assist her husband. Because she's also being neglected by Charles, she also finds herself starting to fall for William and vice versa.

Much time is spent dealing with the heated love triangle that unfolds (which is done in a surprisingly mature way) and it's rather lightweight for a creature feature, with minimal action and violence, but I still quite enjoyed this one. The monster doesn't really get to do much of what we expect it to and spends most of its time strapped to an operating table. It's also barely ever shown and, when it is, the lighting is so dark we can't really make out much detail on its face. However, the writing insures it's an interesting enough creation and this actually does a good job making us feel sorry for the poor thing. The three lead actors are also good enough to keep us interested in the non-creature-oriented drama.

Opening the film is a warning from "the management" about "... a scene so shocking that it is necessary to forewarn you." The sound of a bell (which actually sounds like a telephone ringing) is inserted before the scene to warn squeamish viewers to shut their eyes and is then sounded again once the "shocking" scene is over so viewers can open them again. Hilariously, the big ballyhoo is over a bloodless shot of a scalpel slicing open skin! Of course, this early gory moment is nothing compared to what we're used to seeing these days.

De Leon also directed THE BLOOD DRINKERS (1964; aka The Vampire People), CREATURES OF EVIL (1966) and co-directed both the first (the aforementioned Brides of Blood) and second (1969's MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND) entries in the "Blood Island" trilogy with Eddie Romero (another key Filipino director of the 60s and 70s).

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