Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fall of the House of Usher, The (1950)

Directed by:
Ivan Barnett

When I think of classic British horror made prior to mid-50s Hammer Studio dominance, two films immediately come to mind: the highly influential anthology Dead of Night (1945) and The Queen of Spades (1948), a fantastic adaptation of the Alexander Pushkin short story of the same name. While those two efforts were each made with top talent and decent budgets for major studios (Ealing Studios for Night and Associated British Picture Corporation for Queen), this rough-around-the-edges early Poe adaptation has none of that luxury. Instead, this is an extremely rare example of a truly independent genre film made completely outside of the studio system by amateurs at a time when this seldom ever happened. Very few of the people involved in this particular production went on to do much of anything else in film. The director, for instance, has a few other credits (mostly industrial films and shorts) but none seem to be available anywhere, while only one person in the cast was ever seen again. As such, that turns this into a real curio item regardless of its shortcomings.

The film's freestanding status also likely explains both its obscurity and its patchy distribution history. According to the Turner Classic Movies website, this was shot back in 1947 and registered for copyright in 1948 yet would not be released until two years later. Supposedly, it ran for just one week at a single theater in London in 1950 before being pulled. Originally rated H (a 16+ rating standing for "Horrific"), it would later be cut for theatrical showings in 1955 and 1961. These must have been very limited reissues because I could not find a single theatrical poster for the film.

Perhaps the last thing you expect to see in a adaptation of a story first published in 1839 is the sight of a car driving down a road, but this is the first of many deviations from Poe's original story. The modern opening - with an elder gentleman at a club plucking the Tales of Mystery and Imagination compilation off a shelf and reading the Usher story to some of his pals - is merely used as a bookend. We're then off to the mid-19th Century period setting, with the unnamed narrator character from the story, here called Jonathan (Irving Steen), taking a long horse ride through the country toward the gloomy, remote Usher mansion. Jonathan has received a letter from his former childhood best friend, Roderick Usher (Kaye Tendeter), asking for both his assistance and his companionship.

Upon arriving, Jonathan is greeted by the family physician, Dr. Cordwell (Vernon Charles), who immediately tells him he's just entered into a miserable home and to turn around and leave while he still has the chance. Ignoring him, Jonathan moves on to the study where Roderick awaits with a neurotic, sad sack tale that would have most sane people running for the nearest exit. Depressed Roderick speaks of an inherited "family evil," a nervous affliction of the senses that includes only being able to stomach the blandest food, eyes feeling tortured by even the faintest of light and all sounds, aside from stringed musical instruments, being horrible to the ears.

Madeline (Gwen Watford), Roderick's sister and sole companion for many years, also suffers from a mysterious ailment, though hers is cataleptic in nature and finds her slowly wasting away in her bedroom. That may, or may not, have something to do with her being regularly served some mysterious fizzy cocktail that may, or may not, actually be poison and may, or may not, be the doing of the brother or the doctor or the butler, Charles (Gavin Lee), or perhaps some combination of the three. As for what's going on there, the filmmakers never even bother to tell us! Dr. Cordwell eventually comes clean and tells Roderick the sordid history of the home, which takes a major turn away from the original Usher story.

After finding out his wife was having an affair, Roderick and Madeline's father confronted them in a temple hidden past some marshland on the estate grounds. He chained up the lover, beat his wife and then decapitated the lover, but not before he was able to first place a curse upon the family. As a result of seeing her lover killed, the Usher family matriarch went mute and insane... but she's still alive and living in the temple, which also happens to house an ancestral torture chamber with a rack, chains, hangman's noose and other torture essentials. There, the ghoulish-looking mother (Lucy Pavey) keeps her deceased beloved's head on an alter and, though usually "harmless enough," will go into a murderous rampage if anyone attempts to touch the head.

Seeing how the curse is likely also responsible for the ill health of the surviving Usher children as well as the rapid deterioration of their home, Dr. Cordwell comes to the conclusion that the only way to end it is to incinerate the lover's head. Yet, actually getting to it is another story! When he, Roderick and gardener Richard (Antony Powell-Bristow) attempt to restrain the mad Lady Usher, she comes at them with a knife and then kills Richard after he steps on a bear trap (!) Afterward, she escapes the temple, makes her way to the house, sneaks inside via some catacombs and scares the hell out of Madeline, who expires shortly thereafter. This then goes the Premature Burial route as Madeline rises from her grave (we're unsure whether she's a ghost or has been driven mad by being buried alive) and heads out after her sibling.

Incredibly stiff acting, dull characters, terrible editing, a confusing plot structure (I'm pretty sure this went into flashback mode at some point but I could never quite tell where!) and a director who doesn't appear to have a clue how to generate suspense or set up a shock scene would seem like the death knell for something like this. Then again, there's this film's wonderfully dreary atmosphere, which is only enhanced by its more primitive technical aspects. The photography (by the director himself), art direction, lighting schemes and use of shadow and silhouette are really the saving graces here and help to create a palpably gloomy aura that does justice to Poe even if the newly-added subplots do not. This also has a few genuinely spooky moments, most of which center around the creepy mother character.

IMDb claims this was released on VHS by Sinister Cinema but they actually only carried the 1966 version starring Denholm Elliott made for the British TV series Mystery and Imagination, not this version. Though I don't believe this has ever been given a legitimate home video release, it's available for streaming on the BFI website (which is blocked to U.S. users unfortunately) and was occasionally run on TCM. A better quality print exists than what my screen caps would indicate, but I watched the version currently up on YouTube.

Shen jian dong shan he (1981)

... aka: 神劍動山河
... aka: Excalibur Moves Mountains and Rivers
... aka: Heaven Sword
... aka: Thrilling Bloody Sword
... aka: Thrilling Sword

Directed by:
Chang Shing-I (Hsin-Yi Chang)

You know what Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was missing? Laser fights, demonic creatures, blood, ghosts, living skeletons, fire-breathing dragons with nine heads, talking chickens encouraging mob violence, fart humor, decapitations, bisection, swords going up asses and weird biblical allusions. Thankfully, this warped Taiwanese children's fantasy is around to remedy those oversights.

At a royal palace, Queen I-mei (Fanny Fong Fang-Fang), is in the middle of delivering her first child when a flaming meteor flies down from the heavens, hits her in the stomach and forces her to push out a giant, bloody, pulsating cocoon, instantly killing her! The king, Gau-shien (Han Chin), then orders his men to put the infant in a basket and send it down river a la Baby Moses. The basket floats through the Happy Forest and right to the village of the seven dwarfs. They initially plot to eat the "flesh ball" but after stabbing it, it spits out smoke and opens to reveal a (human) baby girl. Thinking she has been sent from the heavens, they name her Yaur-gi. Seventeen years later, Yaur-gi (also Fanny Fong) has grown into a beautiful young woman. After almost falling off a cliff trying to grab a flower, she's rescued by handsome Prince Yur-juhn (Shang-Chien Liu) and it's love at first sight.

Meanwhile, a duck-lipped cyclops monster is going around slaughtering people, so the king calls for reinforcements. Female exorcist Gi-err (Elsa Yang) shows up and demonstrates her formidable powers by making an imperial minister's head do 360 degree spins and levitating a sword and impaling a warrior with it. She calls forth her friend, black magician Shiah-ker (Yi Chang), and the two are easily able to defeat the monster. Against the wishes of chief advisor Minister Gan (Shih Chin), the king then promotes the two exorcists to head up his security detail. What he doesn't realize is that his new friends actually sent the monster there to begin with just so they could kill it and then infiltrate the kingdom. The two are working in cahoots with a master demon called Ah-Du and their ultimate goal is to take over the king's empire.

Back at the dwarf village, the love-struck Yaur-gi becomes depressed because the prince, who's been busy slaying a nine-headed sea monster the evil infiltrators have conjured up, hasn't returned to see her. She saves a white bunny with an injured leg, which then transforms into a giggly white "fairy of the forest" (Ling-Ling Hsia) who then offers to grant her any wish she wants. Any guesses as to what she wishes for? In order to get close to the prince, Yaur-gi poses as a maid but her cover is quickly blown since she's a dead-ringer for her mother - the late queen - and is wearing a necklace left in the basket with her when she was sent upstream. She does manage to briefly talk with the prince, who agrees to come see her. Unfortunately, he comes in the form of a man-in-a-suit bear after the evil sorcerers cast a spell on him.

With help from the little fairy, Yaur-gi and her dwarf dads concoct a magical potion in a giant barrel and place the bear prince inside. The kicker is that he has to stay submerged for an entire week for it to work. But since this movie just loves to make stuff up as it goes along, the barrel is opened early when Shiah-ker shows up to kill him and the fairy then whips up an "elixir" to save him. Shiah-ker kidnaps the princess and takes her to hell, where she's possessed by a demon and then agrees to marry him instead of the prince. The only way to put a stop to the madness is by retrieving "the thunder sword," which is said to be hidden in an underwater cave, and a few other essentials needed to defeat the bad guys, which also requires beating a vast array of monsters.

Monsters, you say? Yes, this has them... and tons of them I might add. Aside from the aforementioned cyclops, multi-headed "siren" and demon master, there's a man in a pterodactyl suit, frog monsters played by men covered in black spandex with flippers on their hands and feet hopping around on their butts, four near-indestructible bronze muscleman statues come to life, each with a unique weapon and just one vulnerable point on their bodies (including up the ass!), a bloody corpse that can detach its arms and feet, a set of large flying dentures (!) and a giant genie with heavy eye makeup and a plastic butt (!) on its head.

Aside from all of the fx work (which is technically awful if we're to be honest with ourselves yet still fun) and the fact this is all just too weird to outright ignore, Sword also benefits a lot from nice bold colors and surprisingly good production design, sets, props, weaponry and costumes. But then we have the rest of the movie to contend with...

The story takes forever to really take shape and lurches along for the first hour or so until it finally settles into a hero's quest type of scenario. Some of the main characters are also extremely annoying, starting with the princess, who's a complete nitwit. She's always moping around, just stands there and refuses to ever help anybody, casually knocks over a protective statue that she's been told to stay away from countless times and has to be told repeatedly not to open the lid to the healing bath for the prince or else it will KILL him. I'm not sure why everyone's jumping at the bit to try to marry this chick. She'll probably end up getting whoever does killed! Hopefully no one ever gives her access to nuclear codes or allows her near a button that says "Only hit in case of emergency" in the future or we're all in trouble.

Even worse are the dwarfs. They're loud, klutzy, dumb and obnoxious, spit food into each other's mouths, fart in the talking chicken's face ("It smells bad!") and constantly smack, kick, push and punch each other accompanied by goofy Three Stooges-style sound effects. I doubt even small children would find their antics amusing. The music is all stolen from other sources. I noticed The Burning and Battlestar Galactica but there's other familiar music here that I've heard before but can't quite place.

Up until recently all that existed for this one was a cloudy full screen VHS print. That is until a 35mm print was finally located. It's been given a 2K restoration from its original camera negative for its Blu-ray release from Gold Ninja Video. There are lots of scratches and damage on this print, not necessarily a bad thing in my eyes (or perhaps yours either), but a lot of the visual effects that were added in post cause the background detail to blur. There's talk of a full restoration coming soon.

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