Sunday, November 29, 2020

November Quick Picks and Pans


Scarlet Street poster

Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang’s cynical noir drama is as bleak as they come, taking us to the darkest corners of human nature. Edward G. Robinson stars as Christopher Cross, a meek, middle-aged bank teller stuck in a loveless marriage to a domineering widow (Rosalind Ivan). His life takes a turn for the worse when he falls for a scheming young woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett). With the urging of her abusive grifter boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea), Kitty takes credit for Christopher’s artwork, garnering the success he could never attain. The film is anchored by Robinson’s heartbreaking performance as a man who only wants to be loved and desired by a beautiful woman. It’s a Faustian bargain with no upside, as he sinks into a ruinous abyss, trading away his reputation at work and talent as an artist.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy

Death of a Cyclist Poster

Death of a Cyclist (aka: Muerte de un Ciclista) (1955) This Spanish noir from writer/director Juan Antonio Bardem ponders the futility of running away from one’s guilt. Juan (Alberto Closas) is a college professor, having an affair with the dean’s wife, Maria (played with icy conviction by Lucia Bosè). When they hit and run a bicyclist (who subsequently dies from his injuries), they conspire to keep things quiet. Juan’s personal and professional life goes downhill, as the incident gnaws away at his conscience. But while Juan wrestles with the ramifications, Maria remains determined to suppress the truth. Bardem’s morality tale painfully illustrates how one terrible event can change someone’s life forever, and how culpability isn’t necessarily an inherent human trait.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Crystal Eyes Poster

Crystal Eyes (aka: Mirada de Cristal) (2017) This Argentinian pseudo-giallo from writer/directors Ezequiel Endelman and Leandro Montejano is a fun ’80s retro-tinged throwback, replete with big hair and neon colors. After the accidental death of a top model, several of her cohorts vie for her coveted spot. Unfortunately for them, they don’t realize that a psychopath (wearing a disturbing mannequin mask) lurks in the wings to pick them off, one by one. The filmmakers accomplish a lot on what appears to be a microscopic budget (as long as you don’t scrutinize the sketchy makeup and old creepy mansion that looks suspiciously like a dollhouse), with some nice visuals and splashes of color (recalling Argento’s Suspiria). Sure, it’s nothing you haven’t already seen before, but it’s easy to appreciate the affection for the genre in every scene.

Rating: ***. Available on Tubi

The Killer Reserved Nine Seats Poster

 The Killer Reserved Nine Seats (1974) Nine self-absorbed people are invited to an old theater and subsequently locked inside for the night with a homicidal madman. I think you can guess where it goes from there. Director/co-writer Giuseppe Bennati’s giallo is moderately entertaining with the requisite kills and sexual hijinks, as long as you don’t spend much time questioning the logic of the characters. Instead of banding together against a common antagonist, they continue to bicker and split up. Although the performances are nothing special, the true star of this thriller is the Teatro Gentile da Fabriano, built in 1884, which provides some visual flair to the proceedings.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (PAL region 0) and Amazon Prime

The Pyjama Girl Case Poster

The Pyjama Girl Case (1978) This not-quite-a-giallo Italian murder mystery (shot in Australia) starts on a promising note, with a body discovered on the beach. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. Ray Milland, whose agent obviously wasn’t turning down any offers at this point, is good as a retired police detective volunteering on the case, but he's not in the film nearly enough. The story chronicles the events leading up to the murder, and director/writer Flavio Mogherini doesn’t spare any of the sleazy details in the process. His movie favors wallowing in exploitive and voyeuristic sequences (a scene where a group of people ogle a nude corpse is especially off-putting), when it would have benefitted from tension and pathos.

Rating: *½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, November 18, 2020


(1944) Directed by Otto Preminger; Written by Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt; Based on the novel by Vera Caspary; Starring: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson and Dorothy Adams; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

 Rating: ****

 “You'd better watch out, McPherson, or you'll finish up in a psychiatric ward. I doubt they've ever had a patient who fell in love with a corpse.” – Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) to Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews)

“…I feel certain that the reason people responded as they do to that melody in the picture and on its own is that it’s about love, specifically about that yearning particular to unrequited love.” – Composer David Raksin, regarding Laura’s theme (from DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer)

All of us have probably met someone at some point who has an intoxicating effect on everyone he or she encounters. Their influence is so strong they can drive people to do things that would otherwise be considered unconscionable. One case in point is the title character from Otto Preminger’s noir classic, Laura, played by Gene Tierney. The film illustrates how such unbridled infatuation can become deadly. 

Laura followed a rocky road to production, as Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox set out to adapt Vera Caspary’s original story.* The screenplay went through several rewrites, with an initial draft by Jay Dratler. Ring Lardner Jr. was brought in for a re-write, with Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt giving the script a final polish. The casting also went through several permutations. According to the L.A. Times, Eva Gabor was once attached to the project as Laura Hunt** Several names were reportedly considered for Waldo Lydecker, including George Saunders, George Raft, and Laird Cregar (Zanuck’s pick). John Hodiak (also a favorite of Zanuck’s) was earmarked for the role of Lieutenant Mark McPherson, before Dana Andrews petitioned to fill the detective’s shoes. Reginald Gardiner was considered for Shelby Carpenter, before the role eventually went to Vincent Price. After several individuals passed on directing the film, Rouben Mamoulian was hired to take the helm, but was replaced by producer Otto Preminger after just 18 days of shooting.***

 * Fun Fact #1: Laura started as a serialized story in 1942, Ring Twice for Laura, before being compiled into a novel. The story was subsequently developed into a Broadway play, although the film version surfaced first, in 1944. Better late than never, the play eventually made its debut in 1947.  

** Fun Fact #2: Jennifer Jones was cast in the title role, but was replaced by Tierney when she failed to show up for filming. 

*** Fun Fact #3: Various stories abound about Mamoulian’s departure from the film: Did Mamoulian quit or was he fired? Well, it depends on whose version of events you accept.  One account attests that Mamoulian resigned after Preminger’s continued interference. According to Preminger, however, producer Zanuck was unhappy with Mamoulian’s progress on the movie. But according to Dana Andrews, Mamoulian wanted his Detective McPherson to be more intellectual, rather than the everyman in the final cut. Whichever version you prefer, Zanuck seemed to be the common denominator.


In the opening scene, we learn that the title character has been found dead in her apartment from an apparent shotgun blast to her face. Lt. Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), an intrepid police detective, interviews the people who knew her best, narrowing down the list of suspects. He creates a composite of the woman at the center of the controversy, and her love triangle between wealthy newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) and younger suitor, Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). As McPherson’s investigation approaches the truth, the tensions between the characters increase, and as we soon discover, not everything is as it appears.

Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s older gentleman friend, is the paragon of sophistication. He’s pompous and erudite, with an acerbic tongue. He possesses a singular penchant for eviscerating his foes with nothing but his wits and a poison pen. Yet in his dark, seemingly impenetrable heart, he reserves a soft spot for Laura. A flashback scene, illustrates how their first meeting doesn’t go so well, when she attempts to obtain his endorsement for an advertising campaign. He soon does an about face, apologizing for his abruptness. Through all the bluster and cynicism, Waldo is a hopeless romantic, vulnerable to Laura’s formidable charms.

The prime suspect is Laura’s ne'er-do-well fiancé Shelby Carpenter, a spineless would-be playboy with more moxie than money. Although he’s engaged to Laura, he doesn’t have the same level of dedication as Lydecker. When he’s not wooing her, he’s either cavorting with a young poster model, or frequently seen in the company of Laura’s wealthy (and significantly older) aunt, Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson). As portrayed by Price, he’s an opportunist, going wherever the wind blows.

 Lt. McPherson, is all business on the outside, but it’s apparent he’s probably been hurt more than a few times before. He refers to women as “dames,” much to the chagrin of Lydecker. The more he learns about Laura, the more he’s bewitched by her presence, and drawn to the mystery that surrounds her. One of his little personality quirks is his little handheld dexterity game with tiny ball bearings. While the game helps him concentrate, it’s clear that his real game is chess, playing one individual against the other to ferret out the killer. Despite Mamoulian’s dismissal from the film, his vision of depicting the cerebral side of McPherson still remains. We can practically see the gears inside McPherson’s head turning, as he works out the puzzle of the murder case.

Gene Tierney plays it cool as the enigmatic Laura Hunt. Either by accident or design, she plays the men against each other, exposing their relative weaknesses. Like a human Rorschach test, she’s every man’s dream, fulfilling their desires and appearing to them as anything they want her to be. Laura’s portrait figures prominently in many scenes throughout the film (including the first and last), taking on a life of its own. Its ubiquitous presence signifies her mesmerizing effect on the three male characters. Likewise, Laura’s theme, composed by David Riksin,* serves in a similar capacity, creating a haunting undertone and conveying the tantalizing effect of Laura as love unobtainable, love lost and love renewed.

* Fun Fact #4: Before Riksin was hired to create the score, composers Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann were approached, but passed on the film.

Laura isn’t about labyrinthine plotting (although there’s a nifty twist midway through the film), organized crime syndicates, or fight scenes. Instead, it’s a dialogue-driven character study, as one man attempts to determine what would bring a peaceful person to commit murder. As we gradually learn about the characters, we see what makes them tick – particularly what ticks them off. Despite the behind-the-scenes friction of the production, what appears on screen is nothing short of captivating. It’s a potent piece of alchemy, illustrating where romance and treachery intersect. By the film’s conclusion, we’ve all succumbed to Laura’s spell.

Source for this article: DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer                      

Monday, November 2, 2020

October Quick Picks and Pans – Horror Month 2020

Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras) (2017) In this surprising film by Brazilian writer/director team Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a young well-to-do pregnant woman hires Clara (Isabél Zuaa) as a personal assistant/nanny. Clara soon finds that her employer has some unusual nocturnal habits, which provide some clues about her unborn child. Good Manners holds its cards close to its chest, taking time to establish the main characters before delving into the more fantastical elements of the second half. The filmmakers employ a blend of visual styles and tones (including some brief musical interludes), weaving its tale of unselfish love and personal sacrifice. As in many werewolf movies (the creature is brought to life through a skillful combination of animatronics and CGI), there’s a tragic, fatalistic streak that runs throughout, about the immutability of changing one’s nature. It’s better not to know too much about this film going in, instead allowing the melancholy story to unfold.

 Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Kanopy


Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) “Horror Times,” a YouTube-style channel exploring the most haunted places on earth, sets its sights on an abandoned mental hospital (where multiple unexplained deaths occurred), considered one of the most haunted places on Earth. In an effort to get 1 million viewers, the host/show director Ha-Joon (Ha-Joon Wi) stacks the deck by staging some paranormal occurrences. He didn’t consider, however, that the restless spirits in the place would create their own disturbances for his team of investigators. Soon, Ha-Joon and the other team members are in a desperate struggle for their sanity and their lives. Director/co-writer Beom-sik Jeong’s found footage horror movie starts out light in tone, getting progressively tense as it approaches a grim conclusion. While, the individual components of the film are nothing new, it’s an intense experience that provides some genuine scares. See it before the inevitable American remake.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Popcorn (1991) This playful, affectionate ode to B-horror flicks and William Castle-esque gimmicks prefigures Joe Dante’s Matinee (1994) by a few years.  Ray Walston appears (in a cameo role) as Dr. Mnesyne, movie memorabilia collector extraordinaire. He provides vintage props for a group of college film students staging a movie marathon fundraiser. Unfortunately for the students, a homicidal maniac has other plans, as he lurks about the old movie house, picking off people one by one. As we soon discover, the killer has a vested interest in Maggie (Jill Schoelen), one of the student organizers. Popcorn never takes itself too seriously, seemingly anticipating the many self-referential horror films that followed in its wake. Some of the most enjoyable elements in the film are the “let’s put on a show” aesthetic, as well as the clever ‘50s-style parodies within the movie (which would make great features by themselves).

 Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Veerana (1988) This energetic film from purveyors of Bollywood horror, Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay, pushed the boundaries of what Indian censors would allow (it would probably be a PG in the States). After the succubus Nakita (Roy Kamal) is destroyed, an evil sorcerer (Rajesh Vivek) attempts to resurrect her spirit, placing a curse on a local family. He plans to bring her back through the family’s daughter Jasmine (Jasmin). The possessed young woman follows in Nakita’s footsteps, luring naïve men to their doom. Of course, there’s plenty of time for song and dance numbers, which have little to do with the plot, and pad out the running time. But fear not, dear reader; you never have to wait too long before something else occurs. There’s more going on in the opening credits sequence than most other movies. Veerana has something for everyone, with action, drama, suspense, romance, horror, gore, music and (bad) comedy.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (included in The Bollywood Horror Collection, Volume 2)

Hex (aka: Xie) (1980) In this demonic horror, Shaw Brothers style, a loutish, alcoholic man conspires with his mistress (posing as a servant) to scare his ailing wife to death. All goes as planned, until his deceased wife returns to punish the two lovers. Director/co-writer Chih-Hung Kuei’s film has several jarring tonal shifts, in which the drama with the abusive husband suddenly lapses into comedy. Also, if some of the musical cues sound suspiciously familiar, your ears aren’t deceiving you (some snippets of the soundtrack appear to have been lifted from Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture). It’s difficult to have sympathy for the unscrupulous couple’s dilemma, but it sets up the film’s most memorable final sequence, when a Taoist shaman attempts to exorcise the spell. Filled with style and detailed sets, it’s well worth a look, if you can find a copy.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Region 2/3)


The Living Corpse (aka: Zinda Laash) (1967) Here’s a rarity, a Pakistani retelling of Dracula, thought lost for decades. Luckily for us, it’s been restored for future generations to enjoy. A mad scientist (Rehan) develops an elixir of life and tests it on himself. From that point onward, the movie more or less follows Bram Stoker’s story (albeit in a modern-day setting), as he becomes a bloodthirsty vampire. The filmmakers were obviously taking notes from Hammer’s version, rather than the Universal film, with Rehan’s more visceral take on the vampire. When he makes his entrance, walking down a staircase, it’s easy to imagine Christopher Lee following the same steps. On the other hand, The Living Corpse has some touches Stoker and Hammer never thought of, including several jaunty song and dance numbers (Also, the opening credits sequence inexplicably uses “La Cucaracha.”). In this version, the antagonist doesn’t transform into a bat. Instead of a ghostly carriage, he traverses point A to point B in a car. If you can accept the creaky set design and sillier aspects, it’s a fun repurposing of Stoker’s enduring character, worthy of re-discovery.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Even the Wind is Afraid (aka: Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo) (1968) In this gothic Mexican supernatural mystery from writer/director Carlos Enrique Taboada, Claudia (Alicia Bonet), a girl at an exclusive prep school is haunted by the ghost of a former student who died under mysterious circumstances. Much to her dismay, she has a tough time convincing her fellow classmates (all of whom are portrayed by actresses in their 20s) or the stern headmistress (Marga López). Only the elderly groundskeeper Diego (Rafael Llamas, with fake gray hair) seems to believe her. It’s rather slow-paced but there are some tense scenes throughout, and an impromptu strip-tease livens things up. Although it’s short on action, it’s a great looking, atmospheric thriller, worth checking out.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi

Frankenstein 1970 (1958) A film crew prepares to shoot a horror movie in the real-life Frankenstein’s castle, home of the last living heir of the infamous scientist (Boris Karloff). We soon discover that the not so good doctor has ulterior motives, as the filmmakers disappear one by one. Despite the meta-possibilities of the premise, the majority of the movie is slow and plodding, much like the titular creature. An inordinate amount of time is wasted on a pointless subplot about the director’s ex-wife/screenwriter and a new starlet. Even though the material is less than inspiring, Karloff, ever the consummate professional, gives a quality performance as the ethically challenged mad scientist, obsessed with continuing the experiments of his ancestors. It’s not as bad as some reviews would lead you to believe, but it’s not good, either. For Karloff completists only.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Vampyres (1974) Two shapely vampire women (Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska, sans fangs) lure men, via hitchhiking, to their crumbling mansion, where they seduce them and drain them of their blood. Meanwhile, a couple camping in a trailer speculate about the strange goings-on in the nearby estate. There isn’t much to justify the film, with its weak plot and paper-thin story. The main characters are naked a lot, and the male characters are uniformly unlikable and condescending (I doubt anyone would mourn their passing). Ultimately, this pointless, exploitive exercise just reminded me of a British version of a Jean Rollin film or 1971’s Daughters of Darkness (albeit with less style, and making about as much sense).

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Tubi