Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964)

Friends, I come before you to discuss the vampire; a minority element if ever there was one, and there was one....Really, now, search your soul, lovey -- is the vampire so bad? All he does is drink blood. Why, then, this unkind prejudice, this thoughtless bias? Why cannot the vampire live where he chooses? Why must he seek out hiding places where none can find him out? Why do you wish him destroyed? Ah, see, you have turned the poor, guileless innocent into a hunted animal. He has no means of support, no measures for proper education, he has not the voting franchise. No wonder he is compelled to seek out a predatory nocturnal existence.

Robert Neville grunted a surly grunt. Sure, sure, he thought, but would you let your sister marry one?

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is a product of its time -- it was published in 1954 -- that has been perpetually reinterpreted ever since. It has been adapted for film three times -- add a fraction if you count the short film that Jean-Luc Godard claims to have based on the novel. It's a curious thing, though, that in our age of pop vampires the most recent movie version of the story, the one that uses the original title, took pains to make Robert Neville's enemies something other than vampires, or nothing we recognize readily as vampires. Did it lose something by doing without the creatures' aversion to garlic, crosses and mirrors? How important is vampirism to the story?

My friend Wendigo reminds me that Matheson's novel makes a lot of its hero's struggle to comprehend a mass outbreak of old-school vampirism. Neville teaches himself science in order to formulate a theory of vampirism's origins in bacteria, and part of its amusement comes from Neville's struggle to make it all make sense. When I read it, I thought it might be a transparent account of Matheson's own struggle to conceive a science-fiction vampire. To make the infected humans something other than traditional supernatural creatures sacrifices that psychological struggle to make sense (or science) out of the stuff of superstition. You sympathize with Neville's struggle in the book even while you question whether science can comprehend it all.

At the same time, Matheson's vampires, which are fairly well represented in Sidney Salkow's film (co-directed by Ubaldo Ragona), aren't parading around in opera capes and gesturing hypnotically at one another. Wendigo notes that George Romero has cited the novel as a major influence on Night of the Living Dead, and Salkow's film looks like it had to be a visual influence. These are pale, slow, staggering, somewhat spastic vampires, no match for a man one-on-one but strong in numbers. They may not be dead, but they're all messed up. We're as far away from Hammer as we are from Universal. Wendigo thinks this may be the first movie to imagine a world overrun (if not ruled) by vampires, though it lacks the exotic or erotic imagination of later variations on the theme. But if Matheson's or Salkow's vampires don't remind you of Lugosi or Lee, Wendigo says that their shabby appearance and uncouth manners fit many a folkloric profile of the vampire.

Walk slowly, and carry a big stick: Giacomo Rossi-Stuart as The Last Man on Earth's neighbor-turned nemesis Ben Cortman.

But the vampires themselves are less important to the overall mood of the story than Neville's attempt to understand or resist them. Wendigo sees a generation-gap subtext in it, with Neville as a flustered suburban parent who can't figure out those kids today, whose values are no longer his. The core story isn't so much about the extinction of mankind, as Salkow's title implies, but the obsolescence of a certain kind of man who may not like what's come to replace him but really doesn't have the power or the right to stop them. You can also read anxiety about Communist ascendancy into it; the era's paranoia was partly founded on the fear that Communism was going to win. As the excerpt above shows, you can also read some racial anxiety into it as well. I Am Legend was written at a time when many people saw the world changing out of control and couldn't see themselves in the future. The Last Man On Earth was filmed around that same time, but seems to miss the point a lot.

Above, Franca Bettoia as Ruth holds Vincent Price at bay. Below, the next generation of vampires makes its presence known.

According to Wendigo, Matheson was set to adapt his own novel under the impression that an A-list cast would work alongside Vincent Price in a big-budget movie, but bailed when he discovered the limitations of the production. Matheson shares screenplay credit under the pseudonym of Logan Swanson, but the finished product loses a lot of Neville's character. For starters, in one of those infuriatingly arbitrary decisions, Neville's name is changed to Robert Morgan. Second, this film makes him a scientist from the beginning struggling to find a cure for the pandemic, so we don't get those great (though maybe uncinematic) scenes when he teaches himself science. Third, Neville's alcoholism is underplayed. In the novel he frequently drinks himself into a stupor to drown out the yelling outside his door or forget his sorrows. In Last Man there's one scene when Morgan grabs a bottle of booze, but tosses it aside to go to sleep.

Maybe Matheson's co-writers thought a drunk who didn't know much about science was unworthy of Vincent Price. I have to say that when I read the novel, I heard Charlton Heston's voice in my head whenever Neville ranted or raved, even though it's been decades since I last saw The Omega Man. The Neville of the novel has that sardonic, cynical, self-pitying attitude that Heston could convey, but I don't think that was beyond Price's powers. Wendigo feels that Price was further undercut by the writers' heavy reliance on voiceover narration early in the film. That narration announces too early what the film will be about, and it denies Price the chance to reveal his character through his actions and his acting. He's better when he can show a range of emotion, laughing then crying while watching home movies, pathetically trying to reassure a dying dog, and desperately trying to keep the young woman he finds outside from running away from him. The main thing I miss from his performance is the rage that so often rises to the surface in the novel. Wendigo feels confident that Price could have pulled it off, but we'll never know.

No exploding vampires here: in this picture they stay where you staked them.

In an obvious sense, Last Man is more a vampire-hunter movie than a vampire film, though an especially bleak one compared to Hammer's Van Helsing vehicle Brides of Dracula. Vampire hunting for Neville/Morgan isn't a cool or glamorous calling, and there's little point to his stakings apart from payback. In that sense, The Last Man on Earth has had a greater influence on horror films outside the vampire sub-genre, particularly the "survival horror" category founded by Night of the Living Dead. Salkow's film has more historic than aesthetic significance. The script wastes too many of the novel's opportunities, from smothering the opening with voiceovers to dealing all too briefly with the hero's adoption of the dog. Like all the movie adaptations of I Am Legend, this film misses the point of Matheson's ending, the passing of a man who knows his time is past. Wendigo doesn't think it a waste of time, and he recommends it to anyone who wants to know what vampires looked like to most people in the distant past. He thinks Matheson fans should give it a look, if only because it'll give them a better appreciation of what Matheson accomplished and how movies have fallen short of it. Vincent Price's fans should enjoy this without reservation since it's the nearest thing to a one-man show he pulled off in a feature film. But the definitive film version of I Am Legend remains to be made.

"Can a zombie woman hunger for love?" That's the question asked by this trailer, uploaded to YouTube by fraserw2

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lost Keaton: THE GOLD GHOST (1934)

Last weekend I had money to spend, a DVD store to spend it in and some films I was thinking of spending it on. Those thoughts went out the proverbial window when I saw Kino's Lost Keaton collection in the New Arrivals section. This is a collection of the sixteen short subjects Buster Keaton made for Educational Studios from 1934 through 1937 after leaving M-G-M and falling from the ranks of A-class stars. They were the major piece of Keaton's career missing from official DVD status until now, except for the two shorts Kino included in its 2003 Keaton Plus collection. I liked those two enough to want to see the rest.

The Educationals had a bad reputation in Keaton biographies, signifying the depths to which the star had sunk due to alcoholism and mishandling by M-G-M. David McLeod's book The Sound of Buster Keaton signalled a still-critical reappraisal of films that had largely been condemned sight unseen, whose sole saving grace seemed to have been that the shorts Keaton made for Columbia later in the 1930s and into the early 1940s were even worse. A collection of Columbia Keatons already exists with commentary tracks for each short, but Kino would only spring for liner notes by McLeod to accompany the Educationals. With minimal guidance, we're left to judge them for ourselves.

The Gold Ghost, directed by Charles Lamont, is a promising start to the Educational run. It has a little of the feel of Keaton's classic silent shorts. Buster plays one of his stock roles, the insipid young man of wealth. Fearing rejection by his intended bride despite their parents' efforts to arrange a marriage, and resenting the encroachment of a rival suitor, Wally gets into his luxury car, tells his chauffeur "I want to be alone," and drives off. He gets almost all the way across the country before ending up in a Nevada ghost town, a gold-rush settlement abandoned when the vein ran out. It takes him a while to realize the place has been abandoned, but before long he's joined by a friendly gangster on the lam, and before too long the gold rush is back after prospectors make a fresh strike. His girlfriend's father owns one of the mines and brings her to Nevada to reassert their claim, while claim jumpers try to shut out everyone else. It's up to Wally and his gangster pal (after a crisis of conscience) to beat up the bad men and prove our hero's worth to his girl.

The film's low budget becomes a virtue because it leaves Lamont for much of the picture with just Buster and a ghost town. There's an uncanny quiet to these scenes that suits Keaton as he putters about and discovers just how flimsy the furniture and architecture are. The ghost town set is sizable enough that Lamont can stage sequences of sight gags in single long takes, as when Buster stumbles out of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, only to have the door nearly fall on him. In what might be a homage to Steamboat Bill Jr., he looks up toward the roof only to run away from potential falling objects, almost catching his foot in a loose sidewalk plank. The climactic battle with the claim jumpers is also done in long takes. As Buster and the gangster finish off their enemies, all seems well until a fresh group of attackers jump them. Buster crawls out of the dogpile and saves his beleaguered pal by using some conveniently sized barrels as bowling balls in another long take. The film's best gags work architecturally rather than as choreography. Buster doesn't do anything very spectacular physically, but retains his distinctive presence compared to his M-G-M features. His impassivity in ridiculous circumstances feels right, as when he and the gangster doggedly play gin on a dust-covered table, slamming their cards down and generating little dust storms every time, without comment.

Don't mistake The Gold Ghost for a neglected classic, however. The action often lacks the kinetic elegance of Keaton's best silents, and this 21-minute film feels padded at times, as when Buster encounters some ghosts for no good reason except perhaps to justify the title. Nevertheless, there's something refreshing about this first Educational effort. If Keaton did not have creative control over these shorts, whoever did seemed to appreciate Keaton's genuine style and tried to reproduce it in sound. I don't plan to review every short in the set, but I'll let you know when I find a really good one, and when I'm done I'll attempt to rank them. Films like these arouse a biographical interest as well as an aesthetic interest. The Educational series is supposed to be a sad chapter in a career still on a downhill slide, with Keaton's redemption still nearly a generation away. In the realm of silent comedy, Buster is the Lugosi to Chaplin's (or Harold Lloyd's) Karloff, except that Keaton had the comeback Bela couldn't manage, finally becoming Karloff-like as a beloved icon embodying a whole genre of film. Even Keaton's lesser work can be compelling as an episode in the larger drama of his career -- and if we're lucky, these films will prove to be funny, too.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

NORTH FACE (Nordwand, 2008)

The mountain film is a German film genre whose heyday was in the late Weimar Republic era -- the late 1920s and early 1930s. If any person symbolizes the genre it would probably be Leni Riefenstahl, who starred in several directed (or co-directed) by Dr. Arnold Fanck before directing her own mountain film, The Blue Light prior to her career as a documentarian. The mountain films aspired mostly to express something romantic about the German character, but Philipp Stoelzl's film, though set around the right period, feels more like an American film of the 1930s in many ways, and to the extent that it is a mountain film it aspires to be an antithesis of the old films.

Nordwand is based on a 1936 attempt to ascend the north face of the Eiger, the Swiss mountain heretofore identified cinematically with Clint Eastwood. A prior German attempt, a newsreel tells us, ended in the deaths of the two climbers. The government is encouraging climbers to conquer "the last problem of the Alps" (thus achieving the "final solution" to the Alps problem?) during the year when Germany hosts the Winter and Summer Olympics, as further proof of Aryan athletic superiority and overall national character. The Nazi regime in Nordwand plays pretty much the role of an aggressive newspaper publisher or editor in an American film -- somewhere between Walter Burns and D. B. Norton. The film focuses initially on a newspaper that's just received the directive from Berlin to promote the conquest of the Nordwand, and on Luise, a go-getting young photojournalist (Johanna Wokalek), who thinks she has two likely candidates for the climb: her hometown pals from Berchtesgarden, Toni Kurz (Benno Furmann) and Andi Hinterstoitter (Florian Lukas), whom we first see assigned to toilet detail at their military barracks. They win our sympathy instantly because they suck as soldiers, preferring to goof off on the nearby mountains. As extreme sportsmen of their time they know their stuff, and Toni knows their limitations enough to initially turn down Luise's suggestion that he and Andi try the Nordwand. They don't call it "the death wall" for nothing, he thinks. On top of that, he doesn't like the idea of climbing as a publicity stunt, even with a patriotic spin. "I climb for myself," he says, but when he sees that Andi wants to give it a go, he allows that friendship is also a sufficient motive. Without fanfare, our heroes quit the service and join rival teams from Germany and elsewhere at the foot of the Eiger, eventually falling in with a hapless pair of Austrian Nazis who prove more hindrance than help on their quest.

To tell much more is to spoil the film. It's enough to say that most expectations inspired by North Face's affinities with both German mountain films and U.S. newspaper or "Cinderella Man" movies will be dealt with harshly. I don't know if it was Stoelzl's conscious strategy, but the screenplay he co-wrote with three other scribes seems determined to use genre conventions to refute generic thinking. For Toni, Andi and finally for Luise, the climb has no meaning other than suceeding or surviving the experience. Patriotism doesn't come into it -- and not because our heroes are any kind of dissidents; this is a surprisingly apolitical film given the era in which it's set. While our climbers don't want to be heroes, Luise grapples with the temptation, embodied by her editor (Ulrich Tukur), to turn the climb into a career-making news story. There's a feeling that this film could turn into Ace in the Hole at any moment but for Luise's hardening integrity. She takes heroic risks over the course of the story, but as a friend concerned with people's lives, not as the archetypal intrepid reporter. When she quits Germany at the end of the movie, it's once again not an explicit rejection of Nazism but a rebellion against any system that exploits individual endeavor by imposing political, cultural or commercial meaning on it.

Her decision clarifies the nature of the film she appears in. Stoelzl found an interesting subject that happened to be embedded in a controversial setting to which the essential story is nearly irrelevant. If his challenge was to make a meaningful movie about that story without turning it into a commentary on Nazi Germany, he met it and succeeded. While watching it, I wondered whether it was going to amount to more than a suspenseful film about a mountain climb. It didn't -- and in a way it did.

Here's the U.S. trailer, uploaded to YouTube by the distributor, Music Box Films:

Friday, June 25, 2010


Quentin Lawrence's film, based on a play by Jacques Gillies, is a Christman Carol for the mid-20th century. The idea is not to subject a mean boss to three spiritual visitations, or even one, but to put him through an ordeal that makes him regret his miserable ways. For this film's purposes the ideal instrument of the boss's reform is not a spirit, but a classic taunting villain: Colonel Gore-Hepburn (Andre Morell), as he calls himself, who blusters his way into a bank office by identifying (but not verifying) himself as a security inspector from the bank's insurer. Once inside, he informs the manager, Mr. Fordyce (Peter Cushing), that his accomplices have Fordyce's wife and son under their power, and that unless the colonel regularly signals Fordyce's continued cooperation with his robbery of over 90,000 pounds, Mrs. Fordyce will have her brain fried by an electrical current. For all that this disrupts Fordyce's usual glacial composure, the colonel obliges him to act normally with his employees. His act may not fully convince the audience, since Cushing gets all jittery and anxious, but the employees are none the wiser, though they do decide to finally check with Gore-Hepburn's presumed employer to verify his position with the company. Long-distance phone service in Great Britain was apparently so much shite in 1961, so the delay in restoring a connection with the insurance firm adds to the suspense of the situation. Meanwhile, the colonel takes advantage of his power over Fordyce to chide him for his coldness toward his workers (and his family) and his lack of Christmas spirit, the manager having failed to contribute to the holiday party fund. The money taken, the colonel requires Fordyce to keep quiet for another hour for his family's sake, but within the hour the call from the insurance firm gets through and, unknown to Fordyce, his head clerk Pearson has called the police to intercept the colonel's car. To save his family, Fordyce must behave in a manner that only tends to incriminate himself, especially once Gore-Hepburn is nabbed. But since the colonel's accomplices are still out there (or are they?), Fordyce must continue to damn himself to save his family, but there are a couple of mindfux still to come before our real-time eighty minutes are up.

Peter Cushing makes a nebulous entrance in Cash On Demand (above), only to be driven to drink by a master criminal (Andre Morell, seated) who may be less than meets the eye.

The film retains its inherent theatrical nature, the action being restricted to the bank, but in Hammer's hands it becomes a star vehicle for Cushing, who gets ample opportunity to define his character through fussy actions and manners before the taunting villain begins to break down his reserve. This Christmas story (set on December 23) becomes perhaps most Dickensian when Fordyce's fate is resolved by an act of grace and his lesson appears to be learned. Whether you see it that way or not, it's fun to see Cushing go through his paces in a mildly satirical thriller rather than the usual horror film. Cash On Demand is one of six films in Sony's Icons of Suspense set, its latest collection of Hammer releases, which I have out of the library for a long weekend. I probably won't watch all six this time out, but expect to see more reviews from this promising set in the future.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


This late film in Kinji Fukasaku's cycle of yakuza films for Toei is regarded as a companion piece to the 1975 film Graveyard of Honor, which also stars Tetsuya Watari. I haven't seen that film yet, but Yakuza Graveyard stands out from the Fukasakus I've seen for a more romantic (or Romantic) sensibility befitting its doggedly doomed hero. Unlike Graveyard of Honor, this one's written by frequent Fukasaku collaborator Kazuo Kasahara, the scripter for the Yakuza Papers/Battles Without Honor or Humanity series and the police tragedy Cops Vs. Thugs. Watari, the star, is less known in America than the female lead, the formidable Meiko Kaji of Scorpion and Lady Snowblood fame. This isn't the sort of film where she can set things right by grabbing a sword or gun. Given a more fragile character to play, Kaji still invests it with authority -- her character, the wife of a jailed yakuza boss, is said to control the gang's purse strings -- and she does get to at least carry a gun at one point. But Fukasaku is as far away here from fantasies of invincible vengeance as he could probably get.

Watari plays Detective Kuroiwa, a cop who isn't above planting evidence on people, though the thug we see so treated probably deserved it. He starts out undercover in a pachinko parlor, contested territory for the established local gang and a larger, richer organization that's starting to muscle in. The local cops have an arrangement with the local gang, but the higher-ups seem to feel how the wind's blowing and urge the local yaks to come to terms -- except for Kuroiwa, who dares them to settle things the traditional, violent way. He has a conflicted relationship with the gang, feuding violently with an underboss while falling for Kaji's quasi-regent. In Keiko he recognizes another damaged soul. He hasn't shaken off the effects of killing a man in the line of duty years ago. He's shacked up with the victim's girl and has been scraping together money in order to buy her her own business, a bar; the girl alternates between open contempt for him and suicidal demands on his attention. He seems happiest alone in his desolate high-rise apartment listening to loud music. Keiko is half Korean and her imprisoned husband, her onetime pimp, despises her for it. "Why aren't you dead already?" he demands when Kuroiwa takes her for a visit to his prison. Afterward, Keiko wants to throw herself into the ocean. A drunken Kuroiwa stops her and then goes From Here to Eternity on her on the moonlit beach.

Meanwhile, Kuroiwa bonds with his erstwhile enemy the underboss, going from a brawl with him at a yakuza ceremony to a night on the town with two American hookers. When the gangster points a gun at his face in the morning, Kuroiwa's indifference cements their new friendship, which results in a sworn brotherhood that threatens our hero's position in the force. With Kuroiwa's encouragement, he goes to war with the rival gang, but by now the cops are openly on the other group's side. They convince a gang subordinate to capitulate once Kuroiwa's friend is out of the way, and when that happens everyone, including Keiko, assumes that Kuroiwa is a rat. Can our hero turn the tide in his favor? Don't bet on it....

I'm still a long way from seeing even a majority of Fukasaku's work, so I don't know how exceptional Yakuza Graveyard is stylistically, but there did seem to be more moments designed for pure pictorial effect than in his other films. There's a breathtaking long shot of a drab, geometric apartment complex that zooms in slowly to catch the insect-like Kuroiwa walking a path alone. When he takes Keiko to his apartment, he opens a window and lets in the wind. It blows a wintry note through the curtains and his open shirt as if he were a gothic antihero living in a tower. The scene with Keiko on the beach is another unusually romantic moment, though its the romanticism of desperation and pure need on display here.

Welcome to Kuroiwa's world

At the same time there are more typical Fukasaku effects all over the place. The fight scenes are done in his incomparable hand-held camera style, the violence of the camera's spasmodic movement accentuating the brawling, beating and shooting in each shot. Stills or screen captures can't really do justice to these scenes, which have the realistic effect of obscuring the action rather than choreographing them for maximum clarity. This particular film gets a little psychedelic, too, in illustrating the effects of truth serum on an already disoriented Kuroiwa.

Graveyard of Honor inevitably lacks the sweep of the five-film Battles series, and it doesn't pack the full punch of Cops vs. Thugs, but it has enough distinctive virtues, including the urgent performances of Watari and Kaji, to earn its own recommendation. The filmography of Kinji Fukasaku is an ongoing revelation of bitter little treasures, from the antiwar invective of Under the Flag of the Rising Sun to the cynical samurai epic Yagyu Clan Conspiracy to the apocalyptic misanthropy of Battle Royale. Not everything is a masterpiece, but Fukasaku hasn't disappointed me yet.

The Japanese-language unsubtitled trailer is three minutes of mayhem and Meiko Kaji on smack, uploaded to YouTube by asianwack.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wendigo Meets THE BLOODY VAMPIRE (1962)

"It's clear that your mind is completely destroyed!"

What's so bloody about this particular vampire? Isn't using that title sort of like making a film called The Hairy Werewolf? As my friend Wendigo and I learned, however, in the universe of Miguel Morayta's film, Count Siegfried von Frankenhausen is the only game in town. As vampire hunter, pedant and all-around windbag Count Cagliostro explains, the Frankenhausens are the only vampires on earth -- living vampires, that is, but we'll get to that later -- and have been since the 12th century. Vampirism in El Vampiro Sangriento is really a hereditary disease. It doesn't confer immortality; the Frankenhausens must reproduce, and the eldest son acquires the "infirmity" when he comes of age. He becomes "the Vampire of Moonlit Night," killing victims by drinking their blood while injecting "vampirina" into their bloodstreams. "These dead vampires are waiting," Cagliostro's assistant explains, "They remain quietly in their caskets and do nothing at all." But if the current Count Frankenhausen should die, the dead ones will rise from their caskets with an insatiable lust for blood. The Count himself, therefore, must be handled with care until Cagliostro can perfect his device for injecting a special acid into the dead vampires' bloodstream to neutralize the vampirina and keep them dormant.

The Vampire's Bedroom: Count Frankenhausen (Carlos Agosti) in repose (above)and rampant (below).

How's that for backstory? As we learned, The Bloody Vampire is a film that loves to explain things, including matters of dubious relevance to the actual plot. This Mexican film from that country's golden age of horror comes to American audiences via the questionable agency of K. Gordon Murray, the man who mutilated many a Mexican movie to fit a TV time slot. IMDB gives a 110 minute running time for the original Mexican version. The print available in Mill Creek Entertainment's Undead collection falls about fifteen minutes short of that time. Yet no one who's seen the American version, I suspect, would want it any longer.

The Cagliostros -- the Count and his daughter Anna -- are vampire hunters, but only gradually does it dawn on them, through the casual acquaintance of family servants, that one of their neighbors is their mortal enemy, the scion of the evil bloodline that cursed our hero's grandmother and caused her to be burned at the stake. The film's tone is set by its opening scene. It shows a coach travelling very slowly across a gothic Mexican landscape en route to "The Haunted Hacienda." We're told later that no vehicle can go as fast as this, but the coach makes Tombs of the Blind Dead look like drag racing. The slo-mo, it turns out, represents how quietly the thing travels, the wheels and hooves not even touching the road. And the coach has a very excellent driver: Death Herself.

Your Driver: Safe -- Reliable -- Courteous

Wendigo appreciates that Morayta tried for an eerie effect here, but to be eerie we have to see something normal to compare it with first. Otherwise you're not sure what you're seeing -- a sensation we often felt this time out. Morayta has a lot of time on his hands and seeks out every possible way to waste it: redundant arguments between Frankenhausen and his mortal, javelin-wielding wife, whom he accuses of being insane for thinking he's a vampire; interminable exposition translated by K. Gordon Murray's team into that always-charming Z-movie arrogance ("Surely someone of your intelligence should be able to understand," etc.) that makes every scientist sound like an ass; detailed recipes for sleep potions assembled on the spot by a treacherous crone; a visit to a torture chamber and a bald torturer we didn't know Frankenhausen possessed until nearly 80 minutes into the movie.

Vampin' aint easy: Frankenhausen's life is full of wife and servant troubles, but nothing that torture can't tidy up.

But nothing compares to an epic digression on the subject of coffee that occupies Frankenhausen and Anna's boyfriend the local physician for what feels like the length of another feature film, sponsored by the Mexican coffee industry. In the interest of your mental health I'll give only a sample here:

Doctor: Your Excellency, I am curious now that they are about to serve coffee. Do they refer to the drink that is so popular in Arabia?

Exactly, my dear sir.

You never did drink it?

No, to tell you the truth. Coffee I understand is from Asiatic lands. It is obtained through infusion. I know that. The fruit is from a tree originally Ethiopian. Its name is coffee.

You're obviously very well informed.

Well, I've studied much alchemy as well as chemistry. In my work we prepare all the organic solutions that we know today, sir. I know about coffee only in theory, you see. I must admit that I haven't seen the bean yet. I can only guess what it's like.

...And on and on they go. This is one occasion when people must regret that Murray didn't cut a film enough. The Bloody Vampire is digressive to the point of delirium, but it has a surprise at the very end, after Frankenhausen has fallen for Anna Cagliostro, who has infiltrated his household as the new maid, the others having been turned into dead vampires during the Moonlit Night cycle; and after Frankenhausen has learned from his unfaithful servant Lazaro under torture that Anna is his enemy; and after his attempt to dead-vampirize her at The Haunted Hacienda is thwarted by the doctor and Cagliostro's scarfaced minion Justice (!?!) despite Frankenhausen's transformation into one of the biggest, ugliest and sort of cutest fake bats ever shown on film. The surprise: it isn't the end! The bunny-eared bat makes his escape to make plans for the sequel (The Invasion of the Vampires) while Cagliostro offers his sublime summation: "It's all over, except for the threat to mankind."

I'll be back!

I can tolerate some pretty bad movies, and Wendigo can tolerate some really eccentric vampire cinema. Both of us had a hard time tolerating The Bloody Vampire. Wendigo found it entirely lacking in pace or momentum, and pointlessly convoluted and digressive. He found its dialogue deadly, the dubbers being determined to fit a syllable into every lip movement until the characters end up speaking the pompous, protracted way no one does in life. Its vampires and hunters seem equally ineffectual, and there seems little point to any of their activities -- or none that we'll see in this episode. Plot elements are introduced (like Cagliostro's vampire-killing machine and his need for mandragora roots) but never utilized, while Anna's infiltration of Frankenhausen's castle results in no actual investigation that we saw. On it's own, this film is just a jumble of stuff that doesn't reward the superhuman patience it requires to sit through it.

Wendigo will concede that in Begonia Palacios as Anna Cagliostro The Bloody Vampire has a comely heroine who is, for once, the most attractive female character in the film.

The film does have some decent production values, including reasonably authentic period costumes (the vampire looks cool except for his fangs) and some impressively deep sets (or location interiors). It has the right gothic look a lot of the time, and a respectable amount of sadism but the dialogue and tangled plot threads leave it looking goofy. It left Wendigo with no interest whatsoever in seeing The Invasion of the Vampires. Another round with the Frankenhausens and the Cagliostros is more than he can stand, though I might take a chance if I'm in the right mood. It's been a long time since he's seen a Mexican vampire film (on the old Commander USA show) but he knows that the country produces better bloodsuckers than this one.

Judge for yourself with this clip en espanol original, uploaded to YouTube by Ottolumiere:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the Big Screen: TOY STORY 3 (2010)

Let's be reasonable. The new Toy Story film doesn't surpass its predecessors, but there's no shame in being just about as good as they were. The first film got the whole Pixar feature film thing going, while the first sequel remains my favorite Pixar feature. The third film, appearing 11 years after Toy Story 2, doesn't really expand the Toy mythos the way the 1999 film did. Toy Story 3 consists mostly of variations on themes from the earlier movie, and while it's being treated as the conclusion of a trilogy, it almost accidentally left me with less sense of closure than the second film did.

The new picture fulfills the implicit prophecy of Toy Story 2 that a time would come when Andy Davis would leave behind Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their pals the same way Woody's thematic partner Jessie had been abandoned by her original owner. Andy's a sentimental kid, even at college age, and can't bring himself to throw out his last remaining toys (our core cast from the previous movies, including Jessie and Bullseye the horse); he plans to take Woody away with him while relegating the rest to the limbo of his mom's attic, where they have at least the hope of redemption in another generation. But through the usual happenstance most of the gang find themselves in danger of being taken away as garbage to the city dump, only to end up as a mass donation to the Sunnyside daycare center. The prospect of perpetual playtime with waves of children appeals to most of them, but Woody insists that they are all still Andy's to dispose of as he pleases. Convinced that Andy meant to dump them, the other toys are happy to remain at Sunnyside while Woody attempts a breakout. They soon learn that not all play is good play; as low toys in the pecking order dictated by Lots O'Huggin Bear (a tremendous voice performance by Ned Beatty), they're at the mercy of toddlers who mindlessly abuse them. Their resistance to Lotso's hierarchy turns them into prisoners plotting a mass escape while Woody plans to break back in to rescue them....

Once I read that the new movie would involve toy abuse at a daycare center I started wondering what point John Lasseter, director Lee Unkrich and writers Michael Arndt and Andrew Stanton wanted to make. On the simplest level Sunnyside is an ideal setting for a prison break storyline, but the place reminded me less of a prison than of a refugee camp. That's the sort of place where a faction of inmates could take over by force or intimidation and take control over the distribution of necessities and privileges. Our heroes are clearly displaced "persons," and if you see them that way you begin to think that a daycare center, no matter how benignly operated (as Sunnyside will be, eventually) is a proper final destination for them. Lotso upholds Sunnyside as an ideal alternative to the perpetual heartbreak of toy life; there will always be more children to play with the daycare toys. "No owners, no heartbreak," he says, in a way we suspect is meant to be proven wrong.

The first two Toy Story films were fables about the social construction of identity, if I can be pretentious for a moment. The meaning of "You are a toy!" one one level, is that you aren't just what you think you are. Buzz is not simply the space ranger he's programmed to think he is; Woody and Jessie are not simply the privileged collectibles Stinky Pete tempts them to think they are. Their true identities are defined by play (and their interactions with each other in toy society) and belonging. For a toy, not to be owned is to not fully live. Lotso, like Jessie, had an owner in the distant past, but suffered an even more traumatic break -- the sort you can imagine some of the other toys suffering, especially Buzz. Unlike Jessie, Lotso found an alternative society in the institutional life of Sunnyside. He rejects the idea of ownership, of his own belonging, and we learn that behind that rejection and his benign exterior is an all-encompassing hatred that makes him one of the most vicious of Disney villains. That extends to self-loathing: "We're all just trash!" is his angry comment during a confrontation with Woody's crew, and that sentiment makes him willing to condemn our heroes to death: absolute physical destruction in the hellish furnace of the city dump. Lotso is an extreme case of a malign institutional mentality; others in his clique will prove more amenable to rehabilitation. The film lets you conclude that Lotso's bitterness predated his institutionalization, which only hardened it, while the privileged toys in the Butterfly room with the older children probably don't find the institutional life oppressive. Objectively speaking (as far as possible when discussing a cartoon about living toys) it's a good thing that toys are there for the daycare kids, while it's a better thing in story terms if the toys share toddler detail in the Caterpillar Room more equitably. But in the end Pixar tells us it's better for toys to be owned by individuals. You can read that as a "family" value (Andy's toys identify themselves as a family in one scene) or read some political point into it, but if any of the creators have an axe to grind, they do it subtly enough not to bother anyone.

Lotso's failing is his refusal to let his hurts heal in the only way available to toys; by going through another generation of play. It's never been stated explicitly to my knowledge, but ever since Toy Story 2 I've assumed that toys must forget their pasts at some point, including past owners. When he was first unwrapped, after all, Woody must have thought of himself as the hero of that old TV puppet show, just as Buzz thought of himself exclusively in terms of his manufactured mythos. Yet he has no memory of any of it when he meets the rest of the Roundup Gang, and despite being as much as fifty or sixty years old, he has no memory (that he speaks of, at least) of any owner besides Andy. If any of Andy's other toys are hand-me-downs, they don't let on. Jessie's tormented history and relatively recent re-immersion into the world of play leaves her with still-fresh memories of her past, but if I'm right about Woody we should expect him and the others to forget Andy eventually. Will they forget the mortal peril they experienced in this film? Will they experience it for the first time again next time? I hope I don't spoil anything by stating that Toy Story 3 has a happy ending, however bittersweet it may also be, but everything we've seen over the three films leads us to assume that this ending is only temporary. So is it that happy? How do we know that they won't end up in the dump fifteen years from now? Will that be time for Toy Story 4? Or will virtue be rewarded from generation to generation until WALL-E finds our playful friends?...

In my book, the fact that a cartoon can raise such questions is a point in its favor. The Toy Story films are broad enough to be seen or read from many different angles. At different moments I thought that the toys could represent either parents or children, or even an adolescent's first break-up. That flexibility's another good thing. This film in particular has a lot of good things going on. It has a bravura opening with the core cast in a necessarily freakish Wild West setting that I suspect shows up Jonah Hex in all of a minute -- though it may also leave you wondering whether Andy grew up to write Jonah Hex. Ned Beatty I've already praised; he brings some Seventies redneck gravitas to this venture that gives it an extra edge. Kudos also to Michael Keaton as Lotso's lieutenant, a Ken doll who partly confirms my theory of toy forgetting by not recognizing Barbie and also proves the bad toys' potential for redemption. Overall, this film worked better for me as a drama as a comedy. There's plenty of good humor, but the creative team goes yet again to the well of "demo-mode" Buzz, while his later transformation into a stereotypical Latin Lover through the wonder of a Spanish-language option is just stupid. The film's climax is a little too much deus ex machina, though it does pay off a three-film old running gag, while Lotso's comeuppance didn't seem sufficient for his villainy. The early reviews had led me to expect a more violent film, and there is a moment when you probably will believe that some familiar characters have been destroyed. That moment keeps you in suspense through a harrowing sequence that seems to offer no way out for our heroes, but the resolution, including Lotso's fate, seems anticlimactic. The same goes for Pixar's usual end-credit gag reel, which on this occasion undercuts the emotional power of the story's actual finale.

But there's no denying that Pixar has indeed done it again. We can debate what awards Toy Story 3 may deserve, but I'd say they may as well give John Lasseter the Thalberg Award for Pixar's incredible run of popular and critical success. And to answer the question from the start of the weekend, I'd tentatively place this movie at #4 in my list of favorite "third" films, between The Return of the King and Son of Frankenstein. I'm not sure yet where I'd rank it in the Pixar canon, except that it's not number one. It will rank fairly high, though, and that'll place it in pretty exalted company.

Friday, June 18, 2010


The early reviews on Toy Story 3 make it look like Pixar has done it again. I intend to verify that for myself later on this weekend, and I'll be curious to see how the film ranks not only among Pixar's impressive achievements but in that category of films that are third in a series. The third episode is where even the mightiest moviemakers can reach beyond their grasp, The Godfather Part 3 being the saddest example of the risks involved. But sometimes it's only on the third time around that a series really hits its stride, even if it ends there, too. The third episode of a trilogy, after all, probably ought to be the best, but sometimes it's the third film that assures a series of many more installments, or at least gives it a promise of fresh life.

The following is a tentative list of my favorite "threequels," taken from an inevitably incomplete sample. I'm sure that older viewers could cite third episodes from some of the great B-movie series of the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, though you will see one film from that period here. For my purposes, a series is a set of films that form a conscious narrative sequence or follow a consistent character through continuing if often unlinked adventures. One film on my list is arguably an exception to this rule that might bring other exceptions to mind. For the historical record, this list is as of June 17, 2010. Later, after I see Toy Story 3, I'll let you know whether it earned a place on the list.

10. King Kong vs Godzilla (1962). The third Godzilla film and the first in seven years, this dream match with the world's other favorite giant monster is a pop riot that I've never outgrown. In the American dubbed version it's a kind of idiot masterpiece, building on Ishiro Honda's own obviously intentional comedy. I love the two stooges of the Pacific Pharmaceutical Company playing Great Yellow Hunters on Faro (? - were they looking for a giant monster or Ingmar Bergman?) Island, Toho's colorful riff on Skull Island and the "Pow goes Kong?" buffoonery of their boss, not to mention our mangy hero's berry-juice addiction. Sure, the effects and especially poor Kong's suitmation have their limits, yet I wouldn't change a thing about this wonderful spectacle.

9. Army of Darkness (1993). Sam Raimi's third adventure for Bruce Campbell's Ash illustrates the threequel tendency to take a series in a wild new direction, this one largely inspired by A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. While it's no improvement on Evil Dead 2, it's a very welcome encore for arguably the greatest physical comedy character in modern American film, and the last real expression of Raimi's original cranky sensibility before he aimed and more or less achieved respectability, albeit at a price.

8. Billion Dollar Brain (1967). The third Michael Caine vehicle based on Len Deighton's Harry Palmer series of novels was entrusted to Ken Russell, who was probably just the director to do justice to its mad story of an American multi-millionaire (Ed Begley) forming a private army to invade the Soviet Union. Inevitably played less straight than its predecessors, this is worth seeing for its parody of anti-communist mania and Russell's audacious realization of Begley's insane vision as a modern replay of Aleksandr Nevskii's battle on the ice.

7. Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Proxy War (1974). Take my word on this one. It's the middle film of Kinji Fukasaku's five-part epic of yakuza war and intrigue in postwar Hiroshima, Japan's counterpart to the Godfather films. This is really just another excuse to recommend that people see all five films to learn why Fukasaku is one of my favorite directors and Bunta Sugawara one of my favorite crime-cinema actors. Consciously dedicated to deromanticizing the yakuza and their alleged codes of honor, this series attains a kind of cynical grandeur in its own right.

6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Here's what I mean by fresh life. This series already felt tired by the time Chris Columbus was done with the second film -- maybe because Richard Harris was dying before our eyes -- but the third episode brought us the theoretically incongruous Alfonso Cuaron, who gave us a richer, more moody story that signaled the series's maturation in sync with the ripening of its young stars. It also set the stage for Cuaron's personal triumph of the decade, Children of Men.

5. Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971). The previous installment ended with the end of the world, leaving the producers no choice but to strike out in some unanticipated new direction. The inspired answer to the challenge was to reverse the course of the original film and send Cornelius and Zira (plus the hapless Sal Mineo) to our world. Unafraid to be goofy or campy, the third Apes film also set the stage for the films that came after and before it before reaching its inevitable grim conclusion. The Apes movies set the standard for a sci-fi series before Star Wars came along, and this episode deserves credit for expanding the scope of the series beyond its original dystopian satire.

4. Son of Frankenstein (1939). This film's existence is one of the first triumphs of genre movie fandom. Universal had buried its signature horror genre three years earlier but was stunned to see a revival double-bill of Frankenstein and Dracula become a sleeper hit in 1938. The studio brought Boris Karloff back for an encore, albeit dumbed down (to the actor's apparent relief) from the pidgin-eloquent soul of Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff was still able to invest the Monster with emotion, though the show was nearly stolen from him by his new sidekick Ygor (Bela Lugosi), not to mention his manic new mentor (Basil Rathbone). Rowland V. Lee juggled this thing practically to the finish line, but it has a panache all its own that places it with its two mighty predecessors rather than with the B films that followed.

3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). It seems too long at times, but it could also have been longer (or, had Peter Jackson been thinking straight, "The Scouring of the Shire" could have been his fourth movie in its own right), and it has some of the greatest battle scenes ever. The series as a whole is a great ensemble piece, and in this third and final installment we still have new faces coming to the fore, particularly John Noble as the mad king Denethor. This is a third film that was consciously designed as a finale, so it could be loaded with big moments (and perhaps too many final bows), most of which work as planned. We're probably lucky it was made in those good old days when three three-hour films in three years was not seen as a waste of potential box office. Were Jackson put to work now, based on what he hopes to do with The Hobbit, we might be talking about the sixth film of the series here, or else I'd have to write about The Two Towers, Part One.

2. Goldfinger (1964). Guy Hamilton's film is the best example of a series hitting its stride in the third installment. More than the two previous film, Goldfinger set the tone for James Bond films to follow. It had the big song. It had the iconic antagonists, Oddjob especially. At Fort Knox it had the big set-piece battle. It unfolded a little before my time, but my impression is that this is where a promising series became a pop phenomenon. Its exuberance, fueled by John Barry's bombastic score, is still palpable today.

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Here's the exception I mentioned earlier. We talk of Sergio Leone's "Dollars trilogy," and about Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name," but the latter was really a construct of the United Artists publicity department, as far as I can tell, and people can still debate whether Eastwood was playing the same guy in all three films. The fact is, of course, that Eastwood is the same guy himself, imposing a visual equivalence on the films that Leone enhances by dressing him similarly throughout. Gian Maria Volonte appears in the two earlier films as two different characters, and Lee Van Cleef appears in the two latter films as two different characters, so it isn't automatic that Eastwood is always the same character. But the three films seem to me a thematic and aesthetic series, unified by Eastwood as a motif if not a character, while the Eastwood-less Once Upon a Time in the West does not seem like a continuation of the original trilogy. Leone's third western is a series film in the same way Road to Morocco is; the names change but an essence persists. As long as we accept it as the third in a series, it's easily the best film that I can think of right now in that position. If you want to be more strict about it, Goldfinger is definitely an honorable alternative. The way some people are talking about Toy Story 3, I may have to reconsider the top of the list, but you'll find out whether I do or not soon enough....

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


La Mano Lunga del Padrino is the one and only film directed and co-written by Nardo Bonomi. True to its title, it's a pretty sweeping film, a mean little B picture enhanced by some foreign location shooting and an amoral, ultimately bleak attitude. It opens with the ambush and robbery of a military shipment of rifles by a gang led by Don Carmelo (Adolfo Celi of Thunderball fame). The truckload of guns is almost immediately hijacked from the gangsters by rebellious underling Vincenzo (German actor Peter Lee Lawrence). He wants to make a quick killing by selling the guns so he can start a new life with his fiancee Sabina (Erika Blanc), who's sleeping around on the side. A jealous ex-girlfriend warns him of Sabina's treachery; spurned, she rats him out to Don Carmelo, who calls Vincenzo's room to taunt him. Realizing that the blonde betrayed him, Vincenzo beats the crap out of her before the Don's goons show up and beat the crap out of him. He recovers while they wait for the Don to show up, then overpowers them while using the blonde as a human shield. He shoots the goons and the blonde and goes on his way.

Vincenzo has a hard time getting someone to move his goods because of the heat Don Carmelo's put on, but when Sabina arrives he uses her jewelry to pay off a warehouse owner. The plan is to find a buyer across the Mediterranean. While Vincenzo and a reluctant Sabina go to an unnamed Arab country (Lebanon, I presume) to make the deal, the Don catches up with Vincenzo's business partner. The movie can end right here with the Don getting his guns back, but he decides he wants to keep the game going -- and find Vincenzo -- so he lets the gun shipment sail out.

The Long Arm of the Godfather pits upstart Peter Lee Lawrence (above) against Adolfo Celi (below), who somehow reminded me of Lee J. Cobb in this role.

Vincenzo finds a "prince" willing to buy the guns while Don Carmelo and crew enter the country. They track down Sabina while Vincenzo is making the sale. Torture won't make her tell where her boyfriend is; nor will the Don's claim that he's tricked Vincenzo by filling most of the gun crates with scrap metal, which will mean death when the Arabs find out. But when he tells Sabina that her boyfriend has left her in the hotel as bait, she spills the beans. Leaving a brutish, rape-happy goon behind, the Don races to the scene just as the Arabs are loading the crates on camels. Introducing himself as Vincenzo's business partner, Carmelo claims it's his job to handle his "boss's" money. Whether it's a good idea to associate himself with Vincenzo when there's still a chance for the Arabs to discover the con is open to debate, but our hero makes the point moot by deciding to grab the loot early and shoot his way out. His escape starts a picturesque chase through the exotic streets and into the open water, where a grim ending awaits the survivors....

The Arabs want guns, while Vincenzo just wants to get out of the country alive.

Nardo Bonomi is an energetic director who should have been given another chance -- that is, unless he, like his star Lawrence, met a premature end not long after making this film. He makes good use of his Arab locations and he stages fight scenes and beatings fairly well. The Long Arm has a sleazy, nasty streak that seems appropriate to the milieu it portrays, if also just plain exploitative. Lawrence, better known for spaghetti westerns, is persuasive as a cunning if not bright criminal who doesn't think his plans through as thoroughly as he should but trusts in his ability to make it by the seat of his pants. Blanc has an unflattering role as a fickle chick who hates Vincenzo at one moment for getting her into trouble, then loves him for making a big score. Her cheating raises the possibility that she'll betray Vincenzo, though I suspect that Bonomi himself may have forgotten about that possibility. In any event, Blanc struggles bravely with an arguably thankless part, and looks good in the process. Celi gives an amusing performance as a crime lord with no great sense of urgency about getting his stolen property back, leaving most of the nastiness to his minions. The music by Silvano D'Auria (his only movie score) has that Euro-lounge sound that you'd think would have been outdated when the movie first appeared, but its upbeat romanticism works in the usual Italian way as a yearning counterpoint to the brutality on screen.

Erika Blanc in love and peril

I saw The Long Arm of the Godfather in a cheap widescreen English-language edition, one of five films in the Big Guns Collection from Allegro's Pop Flix line. Given that this set also contains Sergio Martino's Violent Professionals and Duccio Tessari's Tony Arzenta (called Big Guns here), it's worth the $5.99 you'll spend if you see it in the impulse-buy aisle at your local Borders. I'll be watching the other two films soon -- Stelvio Massi's Emergency Squad and Magnum Cop -- and they may make this collection even more of a bargain for anyone seeking an economical introduction to Italian crime cinema.