Monday, February 20, 2012

Ash Tree, The (1975) (TV)

... aka: Ash Tree by M.R. James, The
... aka: Ghost Story for Christmas: The Ash Tree

Directed by:
Lawrence Gordon Clark

As good fortune would have it (or so he thinks), Sir Richard (Edward Petherbridge) has just inherited a sprawling country manor and all of its possessions. Almost immediately upon arriving, strange things begin to happen. Members of the staff repeatedly refer to him as Sir Matthew, he keeps having visions of things that happened there years earlier and animals in the area have been mysteriously turning up dead. As it turns out, Richard has inherited the home from legendary witch hunter Matthew Hopkins (also played by Petherbridge), who himself had died there under very mysterious circumstances. Dr. Croome (Preston Lockwood) explains that Matthew's body was unexplainably toxic and anyone who touched it had swollen arms and hands for weeks afterward. On the same property not long ago, many witches were tortured and killed. When Richard unwisely decides to move a grave belonging to falsely accused "witch" Anne Mothersole (Barbara Ewing) - who was hung along with two others - things take a turn for the creepier, especially in regards to a huge ash tree where strange noises that sound just like babies crying can be heard...

This 32-minute period ghost tale was a BBC TV presentation and part of their popular, long-running annual "Ghost Story for Christmas" series, which were fairly faithful adaptations of M.R. James stories (this one adapted by David Rudkin) shown around the holidays. Director Lawrence Gordon Clark had previously made the excellent and chilling A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS (1972) entry, which is perhaps the best of the bunch, as well as THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER (1971), LOST HEARTS (1973), THE TREASURE OF ABBOT THOMAS (1974), THE SIGNALMAN (1976) and STIGMA (1977). While The Ash Tree carries on the series' reputation for quality and is competently made, it isn't quite as creepy as some of the other tales. The film blends the present with the past, with Matthews' life bleeding over into Richard's; causing him to periodically zone out from reality. The final revelation, which explains both the animal mutilations and why Dr. Croome is insistent the tree be cut down (which - of course - it isn't), seems almost random, though I'm sure it's faithful to the original story.

Witch hunter Hopkins was also the subject of the classic Vincent Price vehicle WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968; aka The Conqueror Worm). All of the Ghost Story tales have been issued on both VHS and DVD by BBC.


Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons (1960)

... aka: Bluebeard's 10 Honeymoons
... aka: Woman Killer, The

Directed by:
W. Lee Wilder

Considering the fame of its Oscar-winning lead actor and that it's based on a factual case (there's always a market for true crime), it's strange that this attempt to recount the crimes of infamous French serial murderer / "wife-killer" Henri-Désiré Landru has slipped between the cracks over the years. Then again, maybe there's just not that much interest in Landru. Renowned director Claude Chabrol tackled the same subject matter with a much higher budget and a more professional cast just two years after this one (1962's LANDRU) and no one has seen that film either. Bluebeard's Ten Honeymoons currently has fewer than 50 votes on IMDb and I don't think it's ever officially been released on a home viewing format, though it used to pop up on TV every once in awhile. Good luck finding a copy in either case. It was made by W. Lee Wilder, the brother of famous director Billy Wilder. While Billy was making his classics in Hollywood, W. Lee was on the outskirts trying to cash in on the 50s sci-fi horror craze with such efforts as PHANTOM FROM SPACE (1953), KILLERS FROM SPACE (1954) and THE SNOW CREATURE (1954). This attempt at a more sober horror is - just as all his other films - a mixed bag of the entertaining and inept. George Sanders - admittedly not giving one of his finer performances here; though fine nonetheless - is the film's real drawing card.

Parisian furniture and antiques dealer Henri Landru (Sanders) is a man in love... and he's found the wrong hussy to fall for! The object of his lust is voluptuous blonde Odette (Corinne Calvet), a hard-drinking cabaret singer who's only interested in money. Odette devises a scheme with her shady boyfriend to bilk Henri of 5 thousand franks, claiming her ill mother needs an operation. After sleeping with him, she gets angry when he only gives her half of what she wants and takes no time in informing him she'll soon be looking for "someone who can really afford to have me!" Henri tries everything to get the rest of what she wants, including selling a prized piece of family jewelry. Spotting an ad in the newspaper, Henri goes to meet Madame Vivienne Dureaux (Patricia Roc), a widow who wants to sell three rooms full of furniture before she moves out of town with her sister, Giselle (Ingrid Hafner). Henri meets her, the two go to dinner and Henri ends up accidentally pushing her over a balcony to her death during a struggle. He decides to lay her out on the train tracks to make it look like a suicide and goes ahead and sells her furniture for a tidy profit. Afterward, he's able to shower Odette with the money and gifts, including a ring he removed from Mme. Dureaux posthumously!

Discovering that murder is more profitable than dealing in tables and chairs, Landru starts targeting other lonely women for their money. Using a new identity and claiming to be either a writer or a diplomat, he rents out a secluded villa on the outskirts of Paris, where he romances his victims, gets them to fall in love with him and eventually give him access to their bank accounts. He then poisons them, dismembers their bodies with a hacksaw and burns the pieces in a stove. His next victim is Madame Guillin (Jean Kent), whom he overhears placing a lonely hearts ad in the newspaper for a husband who can match her financial means (40,000 franks). Many others follow. Away from his villa, Henri drowns one of his lady friends in the bathtub of her hotel room. Another is stabbed and her body is buried at a construction site. After claiming many victims and once his wealth is established (he's also able to fleece nearly 200 thousand from a wealthy widow whose husband disappeared while on safari), he's finally able to impress Odette. She finally agrees to marry him but, unfortunately for her, Henri finds out about her other lover on the side and decides to terminate those plans. And her. While all of this is going on, the first victim's sister is busy at work piecing the clues together and trying to locate her missing sibling.

I need to immediately point out that this American-shot film fails hard at its attempt to recreate Paris. The sense of both time and place are incredibly screwy. It doesn't help that the cast consists of a British lead actor, a French lead actress and mostly Americans in the other roles. Most (including Mr. Sanders) don't even bother with attempting an accent. Not much of the art direction recalls Paris either and stock footage of the Eiffel Tower and Moulin Rouge are a poor substitute. While the original crimes took place from 1914 to 1918, this film also doesn't bother with period detail and simply updates the story to 1960. A surprising number of details from the real Landru case make their way into this film. Landru was a furniture seller, did use multiple identities, lured some victims with personal ads and disposed of bodies the same way they are here (one of the reasons it took so long to catch him is because their were no bodies). A sister of one of his victims did indeed hunt him down and her independent research did help convict him... though here, Landru is ultimately brought down by one of his victims' Siamese cat!

Skimpy production values aside, one huge plus here is the amount of dark humor to be found. Landru is very business-like about his murders. He's also very cheap! Immediately upon killing a victim, the first thing he does is raid their pockets and purses. Landru also keeps tabs on all of his expenses in a little black book. In one column he keeps tabs on his out of pocket expenses (dinner, etc.) in ensnaring victims and then deducts it from what his net gross will be upon killing them! He also steals tip money off a table at a restaurant and, when ordering train tickets to his villa, always makes sure to order one a round trip and the other a one-way as not to waste any extra money!

Maxine Audley (the killer's blind downstairs neighbor in the same-years PEEPING TOM) and Greta Gynt (from the 1939 Edgar Wallace adaptation THE HUMAN MONSTER starring Bela Lugosi) play victims and George Coulouris and Sheldon Lawrence (from the director's very fun THE MAN WITHOUT A BODY in 1957) have small roles as well.


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