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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Edition): “The Walking Dead” (1936)


At this point in time, I suppose it’s virtually obligatory to point out that Michael Curtiz’s 1936 Warner Brothers horror picture The Walking Dead starring Boris Karloff has nothing whatsoever to do with the AMC television series about the zombie apocalypse that premiered in 2010 and recently began its seventh season. Rather, it’s a low-key mood piece greatly admired by connoisseurs of the horror genre.

The Walking Dead is also an example of a movie that was actually improved by the Hays Office, the arbitrator of the newly strengthened Production Code. (The Hays Office had always looked down on the horror genre, but in the mid-1930s, there was even stronger pressure coming from the British censors who were also cracking down on the genre. Since Britain had always been one of Hollywood’s biggest markets, the studios took any objections from the British censors very seriously.) There was one other major influence that saved the picture from being the unsubtle penny dreadful shocker that the writers originally envisioned, the movie’s star, Boris Karloff. (Most of the information I have about the differences between the original script and the finished film come from The Walking Dead DVD commentary track recorded by horror film historian Greg Mank, who had access to Karloff’s personal copy of the script with the actor’s in-the-margins notations and suggestions.)

The Walking Dead was Karloff’s first picture for Warner Brothers after becoming a major Hollywood star with his tour-de-force as the monster in James Whale’s 1931 Universal film version of Frankenstein. Karloff had been briefly under contract at Warners in 1931, appearing in four pictures before making the film that would change his life and career forever. The first one was a gangster comedy-drama directed by Alfred E. Green called Smart Money, best remembered as the only time Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney appeared in the same picture together. Karloff had a bit part as a coke-headed gambler.

Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final, Karloff’s next film for Warners, was not only a great movie in itself (it was the first in WB’s series of social protest melodramas[1]), but it provided Karloff with his best pre-Frankenstein role. (Karloff always credited his friend George E. Stone, who also had a supporting role in the film, as influencing LeRoy to cast Karloff in the picture.) In Five Star Final, a blistering expose of yellow journalism, Karloff played a particularly slimy newspaper reporter with the Dickensian name of Isopod. A lecherous, alcoholic, and malignantly unctuous scandalmonger (who was drummed out of divinity school for sexual degeneracy), Isopod specializes in dressing up as a minister to gain the trust of the victims he plans to ruin in print. It was not only a splendidly meaty role for Karloff, but it gave him a rare opportunity to demonstrate his flair for comedy. That was followed by a bit part as a butler in William McGann’s breezy Douglas Fairbanks Jr. comedy I Like Your Nerve.

The Mad Genius, Karloff’s last film during his 1931 sojourn at Warners, was rather prophetic in that it was the studio’s second attempt at making a horror picture to compete with Universal’s sensational box office smash, Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. The first one was Archie Mayo’s Svengali, based on George Du Maurier’s novel Trilby, starring the great actor John Barrymore as the sinister music coach and hypnotist. Warners assigned the direction of The Mad Genius, which was also to star Barrymore in the title role, to their best all-around contract filmmaker Michael Curtiz. (As film historian Carlos Clarens explained in his seminal 1967 book An Illustrated History of the Horror Film[2], “The studio heads probably regarded Curtiz as another Browning or new Whale, for they entrusted him with two ambitious horror projects.” The two films Clarens was referring to were Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), the first two horror pictures made in Technicolor.)

Karloff often told the story about how Curtiz had summoned him to his office after seeing his name on a list of contract players. Curtiz had assumed from Karloff’s name that he was an actual Russian (Karloff was the mother’s maiden name of the young actor born as William Henry Pratt), and was surprised to see this mild-mannered soft-spoken Englishman show up instead. Nevertheless, Karloff’s eagerness for the job convinced Curtiz to cast him as Frankie Darro’s abusive Russian father anyway. The Mad Genius was Barrymore’s last horror movie (unless you count the abysmally unfunny 1940 Universal “comedy” The Invisible Woman) and his last film for Warner Brothers. After that, he followed his brother Lionel’s advice and went over to MGM. (It’s not unreasonable to assume that the idea of becoming Warners’ answer to Bela Lugosi played a major role in Barrymore’s decision to change studios.) Ironically, Karloff, whose role in The Mad Genius was just a one-scene bit part, soon became Hollywood’s biggest horror star.

Speaking of which, another story Karloff loved to relate in interviews was the time during the silent era, when his career was still confined to minor bit parts, he was hitchhiking his way home and the person who stopped to give him that lift was none other than Lon Chaney Sr. (best remembered for the title roles in Universal’s silent versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera). After spending a few minutes conversing with Karloff, Chaney gave him a piece of advise he never forgot: Find something you can do that nobody else in Hollywood can do, and you’ll be a star. And it was as Dr. Frankenstein’s inarticulate monster that Karloff found that “something nobody else in Hollywood could do,” the ability to simultaneously scare audiences and make them sympathize with him. With the exception of Whale’s first two Frankenstein films, Karloff’s unique ability to cause audiences to be both sorry for and frightened by him was never better demonstrated than it was in Curtiz’s The Walking Dead.


The Walking Dead pulls one of the movies’ cleverest turnarounds in that the first half of the 65-minute film is pretty much a typical Warners gangster picture. The opening scene is the last day of a trial taking place in a major American city (presumably New York). The defendant is Stephan Martin (Kenneth Harlen), a city official caught embezzling from the treasury. Martin’s defense lawyer is Nolan (Ricardo Cortez), who is actually the head of a major crime syndicate. Despite Nolan’s considerable skill as an attorney, it looks as though incorruptible Judge Shaw (Joseph King) is going to throw the book at his client. When Shaw hits Martin with a ten-year sentence, Nolan and his partner-in-crime Loder (Barton MacLane) decide it’s time to rub Shaw out. But they need a fall guy to take the suspicion off of them.

Enter Karloff as John Ellman, a gentle unemployed musician who’s unable to find work after serving a prison term for manslaughter he was sentenced to by Judge Shaw. (It seems that Ellman had struck another man while defending his wife from the other man’s harassment, accidentally killing the man.) Loder has invited Ellman over to his house one evening by holding out the hope of possible employment. When Ellman arrives, Loder and Nolan are enjoying a game of pool with two other gang associates Blackstone (Paul Harvey) and Merritt (Robert Strange) as well as a torpedo nicknamed “Trigger” (Joseph Sawyer), who has been imported from out-of-town to carry out the hit on Shaw. Loder callously dashes Ellman’s hope of a job and then, as prearranged, sends Trigger out to follow Ellman and make his acquaintance.


Boris Karloff, Joseph Sawyer

Trigger pretends to recognize Ellman on the street and offers to buy him a cup of coffee, which Ellman gratefully accepts. Trigger tells Ellman that he’s a private detective and asks Ellman if he’d like a little sidework keeping taps on the man he’s been hired to investigate. Ellman initially balks when he learns that the man whose house he’ll be spying on is none other than Judge Shaw, but his desperate need for money (his wife is ill) finally convinces him to reluctantly take the job.

The next night, while Ellman’s car is parked near Shaw’s house, Trigger kills the judge and, after Ellman wanders away from the car to get a closer look at the house, ditches the corpse in the back seat. But as fate would have it, a young couple, Jimmy (Warren Hull) and Nancy (Marguerite Churchill), whose car was clipped by Trigger’s car on his way to the job, have followed him and become eyewitnesses to Trigger placing the body in Ellman’s car. The couple is warned not to say a word about what they’ve seen or else. As a result of Trigger’s threat, Jimmy and Nancy are too scared to come to Ellman’s defense when he goes on trial for Shaw’s murder. (In the original script, the couple was kidnapped by the gang to prevent them from talking, which, as Mank opined, would’ve made them a lot more sympathetic than they come off as in the film.)


Boris Karloff

At the trial, Nolan, Ellman’s defense counsel, deliberately provides such a lame defense for his client that even DA Werner (Henry O’Neill), who is prosecuting the case, recognizes that he seems to be doing his damndest to shove Ellman into the electric chair. And, sure enough, Ellman is convicted of Shaw’s murder and sentenced to death. At this point, Curtiz cuts back and forth between Ellman’s last days on death row and Jimmy and Nancy’s agonizing over whether to speak up and save Ellman from execution. (As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his program notes for a 1970 screening of Lloyd Bacon’s 1933 black comedy Picture Snatcher, “Warners always had a morbid obsession with death house themes and sequences (always electrocution for some reason!), and used the motif for comedy in Blessed Event, Front Page Woman and others, and for raw melodrama in Two Seconds, The Mouthpiece, Angels with Dirty Faces and countless others.”) Of course, when the couple does find the courage to tell what really happened, the governor’s phone call to the prison is answered just as Ellman is being given the fatal jolt.


Boris Karloff, Addison Richards

And here’s where The Walking Dead flips from one genre to another. As it just so happens, both Jimmy and Nancy work for Dr. Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn, best remembered for his Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street), a distinguished scientist who’s been experimenting with the Lindbergh heart.[3] Upon being informed that Ellman has already been executed, Beaumont demands that he have access to Ellman’s body ASAP in the hopes of resurrecting him. (It should be noted that, deviating from the genre cliché, Beaumont is no “mad scientist.” Rather, he is a kindly, charitable soul who, at worse, could be accused of being slightly overenthusiastic.)

THE WALKING DEAD, Boris Karloff, Marguerite Churchill, Edmund Gwenn, 1936

Boris Karloff, Edmund Gwenn

The next scene, the resurrection, is when The Walking Dead officially becomes an out-and-out horror movie. It’s obvious that Curtiz deliberately designed the scene to have more than a passing resemblance to Whale’s creation scenes in his two Frankenstein films, with the aid of much of the same electronic equipment. Bernhard Kaun’s background music for the scene even has overtones of Franz Waxman’s score for the creation of the female monster in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein. Taking the resemblance even further, when Ellman is successfully brought back to life, Beaumont says, “He’s alive. He will live.” (Although, as Mank points out, Gwenn’s reading of the line is far more underplayed than Colin Clive’s hysterical over-the-top rendition of “It’s alive!” in Frankenstein.)

In the original script, the resurrection was supposed to transform Ellman into a seven-foot-tall half-man half-animal monstrosity who could climb buildings a la King Kong and break the backs of his enemies. The Hays Office objected to this idea and Karloff was downright—shall we say?—horrified by it. He made it clear in his notes that he did not want to be transformed into such a creature[4] and was particularly dismayed by climbing buildings like an ape. In one of his notes, the actor asked of the writers, “Couldn’t I play a sympathetic character for a change?” Karloff’s contract with Warners gave them the option of picking him up for four more pictures and, from publicity releases, it was obvious that the studio hoped to add Karloff to their already impressive stock company of character actors. So it’s possible that the desire to please both Karloff and the censors played a part in convincing the writers[5] to change the script accordingly.


Edmund Gwenn, Boris Karloff

In the finished film, the newly resurrected Ellman simply looks rather emaciated with a white streak through his hair.[6] (Strangely, there are no further references to Ellman’s wife. Perhaps she passed away from her illness while her husband was on death row?) He also has no memory of his previous life, but he has developed a psychic instinct allowing him to distinguish between those who mean him well and those who intend to harm him. When Beaumont tries to revive Ellman’s memory by reintroducing him to Nolan, Ellman immediately recognizes the lawyer as an enemy. (Thus throwing a monkey wrench into Nolan’s plans to cash in on Ellman’s newly proved innocence by suing the state and pocketing the settlement. But that doesn’t stop him from successfully filing the suit anyway.)


Boris Karloff, Marguerite Churchill

The only thing Ellman can remember of his previous existence is his love of music. When he overhears Nancy playing Anton Rubinstein’s piano composition “Kamminiy-Ostrov,” he recognizes the tune as the one he played a few bars of at Loder’s house. When it becomes clear to Beaumont that music seems to be the only thing that brings Ellman any comfort, he decides that the perfect way to introduce his patient to society is to hold a piano recital. The invitations are sent out, with Nolan, Loder, Blackstone, and Merritt being on the guest list. (Nolan is supposed to be a high-profile attorney, but why those other hoods were invited to the affair is anybody’s guess.) And so, before a selection of distinguished and influential guests, Ellman performs the same Rubinstein piece. But as Ellman plays, his gaze becomes fixed on the four men present who sent him to his death. (Per horror movie tradition, this is the moment when the audience realizes which characters are officially dead meat.)


Boris Karloff

As mentioned before, the original script had Ellman getting his revenge on his tormentors by breaking their backs. Thankfully, the writers came up with an alternate idea that elevated The Walking Dead from being just a good horror picture to becoming a great horror picture. After the recital, Ellman appears before the men who wronged him, one by one, and asks them questions like, “Why did you kill me?” The result is that the gangsters’ fear and guilt spook them into bringing about their own self-destruction without Ellman even laying a finger on them. (Example: Ellman confronts Blackstone at a train depot as the crook prepares to leave town. Blackstone is so frightened by Ellman that he runs away… and straight into the path of an oncoming train.)


Barton MacLane, Ricardo Cortez, Boris Karloff

There are several possible explanations what is causing these poetic justice deaths. One is that fate has doomed the evildoers. But given the film’s heavy emphasis on religion (among Ellman’s last words before his second—and final—death are, ”Leave the dead to their maker. The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God.”), the more logical explanation is that the Lord Himself (or Herself) is bumping off the bad guys in this picture. And this sure isn’t the I’m OK, you’re OK, peace and love and crunchy Granola God of the New Testament. No siree, Bob, this is the angry, vengeful, fire and thunder, plagues and locusts, “Thou Dasn’t Mess with Me” God of the Old Testament!

Happily, The Walking Dead did well enough at the box office to justify Warner Brothers picking up Karloff’s option. (And, strangely enough, as Everson pointed out in his 1974 book Classics of the Horror Film, The Walking Dead was the only horror picture among the five films he did for Warners in that 1936-1940 period.) Of the subsequent four movies Karloff did for the studio, the only real stand out was the next one, John Farrow’s West of Shanghai (1937). A notorious cheapskate, Jack L. Warner firmly believed that the piece of source material that couldn’t yield at least two or three movies hadn’t been written, so the studio was constantly remaking its own pictures over and over again. (George S. Kaufman’s play The Butter-and-Egg Man became a record for Warners when they made six movies based on it!) West of Shanghai was based on Porter Emerson Browne’s comedy western The Bad Man, in which the play’s Mexican bandit protagonist was a caricature of Poncho Villa. Warners had already filmed Browne’s play in 1930 with Walter Huston in the lead. In an attempt to emulate Paramount’s hit Chinese espionage thrillers, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1933) and Lewis Milestone’s The General Died at Dawn (1936), Warners reset the story in modern day China and changed the leading character from a Mexican bandit to a Chinese warlord. West of Shanghai wasn’t a great film, but the brief 64-minute ‘B’ picture was a lot of fun, and Karloff gave what is probably his funniest film performance as the murderous but lovably egotistical General Fu Wen Fang.[7] (Fang’s perennial catch phrase whenever he is told he can’t cross the lines of morality is a defensive “I am Fang!” as if that excuses any and all wrongs.)

His next Warners film, The Invisible Menace (1938, also directed by Farrow), was an ordinary murder mystery set on an army base featuring Karloff as a red herring, with some references to voodoo and a deliberately misleading title to fool Karloff’s fans into thinking it was a horror flick. William Clemens’ Devil Island (1939), in which Karloff had a rare heroic role, might have been a hard-hitting social protest film in the tradition of Five Star Final and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but any real criticism of the French penal colony was nipped in the bud when the Warners suits caved in to the demands of the French government. Karloff’s final WB picture, Terry Morse’s British Intelligence (1940) was a remake of the studio’s 1930 World War I thriller Three Faces East, with Karloff cast in the villainous leading role that Erich von Stroheim played in the original.

Thankfully for film buffs, all of the Warner Brothers films mentioned in this article (with the exception of I Like Your Nerve) are currently available on DVD. The good news is The Walking Dead is included on a DVD set called Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics. The bad news is that the other three films in the set, Howard W. Koch’s Frankenstein 1970 (1958), David Butler’s You’ll Find Out (1940), and Gordon Douglas’ Zombies on Broadway (1945) are all time-wasting turkeys, which is so often the problem with DVD movie sets. But for dyed-in-the-wool horror fans, it’s still worth the $15 to own The Walking Dead, one of Boris Karloff’s finest pictures.


[1] The next year, LeRoy would helm what turned out to be Hollywood’s greatest social protest expose I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, based on Robert E. Burns’ autobiographical book, which was actually titled I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. The film, which was a surprising box office sensation despite the downbeat story, was so shocking and effective that it virtually shamed the state of Georgia into abolishing its chain gang system.

[2] An Illustrated History of the Horror Film was the first (but, Lord knows, not the last) serious study of the genre.

[3] The “Lindbergh heart” was an actual device co-invented by the famed aviator that was designed to keep tissues and organs alive outside the body. Unfortunately, the device ultimately proved to be impractical.

[4] After playing the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy, Karloff could be understandably forgiven if he was fed up with sitting through three-to-five hour sessions in the make-up chair.

[5] The final screenplay was credited to five writers, Ewart Adamson, Peter Milne, Robert Hardy Andrews, Lillie Hayward, and Joseph Fields.

[6] Warner Brothers recycled the living-corpse-with-a-white-streak-in-his-hair motif three years later for Humphrey Bogart in his only horror picture, Vincent Sherman’s The Return of Doctor X, a low-budget potboiler than had nothing whatsoever to do with Curtiz’s Doctor X.

[7] Alas, filmgoers were robbed of an opportunity to see Karloff in his greatest comedy stage role when Frank Capra made the monumental blunder of casting Raymond Massey in Karloff’s part in his 1944 Warner Brothers film version of Joseph Kesselring’s hit Broadway black comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.


3-D Film Archive’s Robert Furmanek Discusses ‘September Storm’ and ‘It Came from Outer Space’


When I suggested doing an interview with Robert Furmanek of the 3-D Film Archive in conjunction with their Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the restoration of September Storm (1960), little did either of us realize that such promotion was virtually unnecessary. Despite the picture’s obscurity, the campaign is proving an overwhelming success, and may exceed its goal even as I write this:

World Cinema Paradise: September Storm is a real oddity in that the vogue for studio-produced 3-D features had completely dried up by 1955. How did it come to be made in 3-D?

Robert Furmanek:  There were some successful 3-D reissues in late 1957/1958 (Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space, plus House of Wax with Phantom of the Rue Morgue), and producer Edward L. Alperson felt there was still some interest in the process. Alperson had an interest in 3-D going back to 1952 with Bwana Devil. September Storm was produced independently and test screenings went very well so it was eventually picked up for release by Fox.

WCP: I imagine it must have been much more difficult shooting in dual anamorphic than spherical widescreen, or was it shot flat and converted to CinemaScope, via the SuperScope system (and like Super 35 in more recent years)?

Furmanek: It was shot full-aperture with the Natural Vision rig and the anamorphic negatives were extracted optically by special effects wizard Ray Mercer and Deluxe labs.


WCP: What were some of the unique challenges for the filmmakers, and for you in restoring it? Could you theoretically, created alternate widescreen versions while you’re at it?

Furmanek: If the original open-matte camera negatives survived, we could create a widescreen version in various aspect ratios but the only existing 35mm left/right elements are the conformed anamorphic CinemaScope version.The usual color fading plus various levels of vinegar syndrome in different reels presented some major technical obstacles. But Archive Technical Director Greg Kintz doesn’t give up easily (check out Gog) and literally works miracles in creating a flawless 3-D master!

WCP: The color restoration on Gog truly is amazing. I’ve read that. at least 20-odd years ago, the only known 3-D elements were held by the Library of Congress. Is that were you’re sourcing your materials?

Furmanek:  No, the Library of Congress does not have 3-D elements. We acquired the 35mm anamorphic negatives from the copyright holder.

WCP: Was it stereophonic as well? Do those elements exist?

Furmanek: No, it was released mono optical only.


WCP: How extensive was its 3-D theatrical release versus theaters showing it “flat?”

Furmanek: Most major cities played the 3-D version and it went flat for sub-run and smaller towns.

WCP: Was the film ever broadcast on commercial television, or syndicated in its 2-D version? I don’t ever recall seeing it anywhere.

Furmanek: It was syndicated for many years in a flat, murky 16mm pan and scan print. From the havoc that created on the compositions, you would never know they spent ten weeks filming on location in Majorca! It has not been seen anywhere in 3-D since 1960.

WCP: Did you acquire the rights from Fox, or are they held elsewhere?

Furmanek: Fox only distributed the film in 1960. The rights belonged to producer Alperson and have changed hands many, many times over the past five decades. We tracked down the current owner and they didn’t even know it was a 3-D film. Thankfully, they still had both left/right 35mm elements. It’s extremely fortunate that one side wasn’t junked over the past 50 years.

WCP: It seems like you have your work cut out for you in this sense: technically and historically: it’s a very significant film, yet it’s also a movie very few people today have seen or are even aware of. How do you sell a title like this, which requires such special handling?

Furmanek: Just like our 3-D Blu-ray release of Dragonfly Squadron, it will sell based on the pure rarity. Many people have expressed interest simply because they’ve never seen or even heard of the film.

WCP: Kickstarter seems ideally suited to projects like yours. How’s it going so far? Does that look like the future for the remaining classic 3-D titles still unreleased on 3-D Blu-ray?

Furmanek: Incredibly well. We’re halfway through the campaign and have raised 90% of our goal. That’s pretty remarkable considering just a few years ago, I couldn’t interest anyone in releasing our titles. You should see some of the rejection letters. My favorite is from Criterion where they casually dismissed 3-D Rarities as “not interesting.” Flicker Alley has done very well with the Blu-ray and that’s been our biggest seller!


WCP: What can you tell us about It Came from Outer Space? This is a Universal Home Video release, or is it being sub-licensed? And what does this suggest for a possible release of Revenge of the Creature as well?

Furmanek: I’m not at liberty to discuss those details. We did get the go ahead last week to announce that it was coming soon and there’s a preview page on our website. It Came from Outer Space – 3dfilmarchive

WCP: Like a lot of people, I first saw It Came from Outer Space at a college campus screening in the 1970s, via a 16mm anaglyphic non-theatrical print. Needless to say, this is going to look a whole lot better than that….

Furmanek: That’s an understatement!

WCP: Over on the Classic Horror Film Board, you’ve discussed how impressive the film’s stereophonic sound presentation was back in 1953, and how great it’s going to sound on Blu-ray. Could you tell us a little bit about how that sound was originally presented, how it’s different from past television and home video versions, and what it will be like on Blu-ray?

Furmanek:  In theaters, it was played back in sync with the picture on a separate full-coat 35mm magnetic dubber. Previous home video releases have used a modified and very compromised two-channel mix that was created in the 1990s. This is the first time people will experience at home what audiences first heard in 1953 and it’s going to knock you out. It was only the sixth feature released in stereo (First Year of Stereophonic Motion Pictures – 3dfilmarchive) and the sound is very directional. The score is amazing in discrete three-channel and the explosions will shake your house!


WCP: General audiences today would probably find It Came from Outer Space rather campy, but I regard it as one of the very best ‘50s sci-fi films, unlike anything that came before and after it. From the 3-D standpoint, which few have been able to see properly presented in more than 60 years, what’s particularly interesting and innovative about its staging?

Furmanek: Both Greg and I feel this is one of the strongest 3-D features with terrific performances and a top-notch script that holds up amazingly well today. Jack Arnold had a great eye for stereoscopic compositions and his use of layering is quite impressive.

WCP: Have the 3-D elements been kept in good condition? Are there any special challenges for you? And will you be adjusting misaligned shots on either of these titles?

Furmanek: This was Universal’s first 3-D production and they were rushing to try and beat House of Wax into theaters. They didn’t succeed, and there were quite a few editing mistakes in the film (with reversed images) that we have fixed. Also, the vertical alignment was all over the map from shot to shot and we’ve fixed those issues as well. You’ll be seeing the film looking better now than it did in 1953.

WCP: Of the remaining classic 3-D still unreleased on Blu-ray 3-D, what’s your Holy Grail? Which ones would you most like to see restored, and are the studios involved cooperating? I guess it would be fair to say Wade Williams (of Robot Monster and Cat-Women of the Moon) lies at one extreme; who’s been the most helpful?

Furmanek: Because of my 35-year friendship with Jerry Lewis, I would love to fully restore Money from Home. We came very close last year and even did a 15 minute 3-D demo which played to a very receptive audience at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jerry was on board with the project but unfortunately, we encountered some extremely frustrating obstacles from one individual who had the power to kill it. But I don’t give up easily, so never say never! I can’t disclose specific titles at this time but I have to say that Richard Lorber, Frank Tarzi, Bret Wood and the entire team at Kino-Lorber have been fantastic in securing licenses for some amazing titles. Get ready for some reel stereoscopic gems coming to 3-D Blu-ray in the next few years!


WCP: How can fans of classic 3-D best support your efforts? And would you care to hint at other titles we might see this year or during the first half of 2017?

Furmanek: We’re currently preparing two Silver Age titles for release, A*P*E (not to be confused with King Kong) and The Stewardesses. Honestly, the best way to get more vintage 3-D onto Blu-ray is to support the new releases. If a title doesn’t sell enough to at least break even, it will make it that much more difficult to pursue additional licenses. Even if it’s a movie you’ve never seen or a genre that doesn’t normally interest you, give it a shot. I believe that more often than not, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised. The Golden Age 3-D titles are far better than their reputation.

You can read more about September Storm and the campaign to save it HERE.

Annex - Hope, Bob (Cat and the Canary, The)_02

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of (Special Halloween Edition): “The Cat and the Canary” (1939) or “How Horror Movies Saved Bob Hope’s Hollywood Career”


1. Catcanaryposter

“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

Betcha didn’t know that Bob Hope was in a horror movie, didja? And unlike its companion piece The Ghost Breakers, which was a comedy with horror content, The Cat and the Canary was a serious horror picture with Hope playing the comedy relief. Yes, it was made before Hope was a big enough name to be able to pick and choose which films he would make, but he was glad to do the picture because it was a major step up that convinced the Paramount suits that he had the makings of a star. In fact, Paramount’s decision to make The Cat and the Canary happened only because Universal Pictures defiantly ignored the demands of the Hays Office, the censors charged with enforcing the Production Code. But, first, a little backstory…

One of the main goals of the 1934 Production Code was to eliminate two popular genres the professional scolds found particularly objectionable: horror movies and gangster pictures. To the bluenoses, both genres lacked any redeeming values because they “glorified” protagonists who specialized in killing people. Leave it to Warner Brothers, the studio that didn’t invent the gangster genre but was responsible for making it box office gold, to find a way to do an end run around the Hays Office by making pictures where former gangster stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson played officers of the law who fought the mob in pictures like “G” Men and Bullets or Ballots. (The joke was that these more “respectable” gangster pictures were far more violent than their earlier counterparts. Seems the censors didn’t mind the bad guys being blown away graphically.)

A few horror pictures managed to get past the Hays Office, such as Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which had been in the pipeline too long (under the title The Return of Frankenstein) to be canceled. But Universal’s plans for an elaborate sequel to Dracula (1931) were revised, and the resulting film Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was done on a much smaller scale than originally planned. (Although it was still a first-rate atmospheric little horror tale.) Warner Brothers’ The Walking Dead (1936) was a rare case of a horror film benefiting from the Code’s restraints, resulting in a much more subtle and haunting mood piece than had been previously planned and featuring one of Boris Karloff’s finest performances.

In the two-year period of 1937-38, however, Hollywood made no horror pictures whatsoever. (Unless you count Warner Brothers’ 1937 comedy-mystery Sh! The Octopus as a horror picture.) As film historian William K. Everson pointed out in his 1986 book More Classics of the Horror Film, the censors in the UK, one of Hollywood’s most profitable foreign markets, were also demanding a crackdown on American horror movies, yet another inducement to curtail the genre. The ban on horror films might’ve lasted even longer but for the fact that, in 1938, Universal Pictures was on the verge of bankruptcy. They desperately needed a surefire hit in order to stay in business, and seeing as the two biggest box office successes in their history were Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, it was a no-brainer to make a third Frankenstein picture, the Hays Office and British censors be damned. Released in mid-January 1939, Son of Frankenstein proved to be (pardon the expression) a monster hit. Predictably, all of the Hollywood studios started scrambling to cash in on the horror “revival.”

Which brings us back to Paramount Pictures, who’d had Bob Hope[1] under contract since 1937. Why they signed Hope isn’t clear because the Paramount suits didn’t have much faith in Hope’s box office potential. To them, he was a just second-string version of a radio comedian they already had under contract, Jack Benny. In fact, it was Benny turning down a role in the all-star musical extravaganza The Big Broadcast of 1938 that led to Hope being cast in his first Paramount film. Despite Hope and Shirley Ross’ rendition of the Leo Robin-Ralph Rainger number “Thanks for the Memory” (soon to become Hope’s theme song) getting the best reviews in the picture, the front office still didn’t see a future for Hope. They demoted Hope to producer Harold Hurvey’s low-budget unit at Paramount (“Hurley’s B-hive,” Hope called it), where he made two more pictures with Ross and three pictures where he played second-banana to Martha Raye, who was the one the suits were convinced would be the next big comedy star. The only reason the studio didn’t drop Hope’s option altogether was his increasing popularity on radio.


When Son of Frankenstein revived the horror genre, Paramount decided to produce a new remake of John Willard’s 1922 stage thriller The Cat and the Canary, which had been filmed twice before, first as a visually stylish and highly-acclaimed 1927 silent picture directed by German emigrate Paul Leni and then as a 1930 early talkie (retitled The Cat Creeps) which was less well-received.[2] (Both of these versions were produced by Universal Pictures.) The hero of the play is a comic coward named Paul Jones, a “horse doctor” who’d had a crush on the story’s damsel in distress since childhood. He appoints himself her protector even though he’s scared stiff of the mysterious going-ons in the play’s creepy old mansion setting. (Unlikely as it seems, Henry Hull, perhaps best remembered for his dramatic performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, played the role in the Broadway premiere.) In Leni’s silent version, the character was played by Creighton Hale, but as Everson put it, “Leni was hardly a comedy director, nor was Hale much of a comedian.”

Someone at Paramount, probably producer Arthur Hornblow Jr., had the inspiration of casting Hope in the film’s equivalent of the Paul Jones role. Renamed Wally Campbell (coincidentally Paul Jones was also the name of a Paramount producer who worked on several of Hope’s pictures), the character became a radio actor who’s done his share of mystery plays on the air. Thus, anticipating Scream and The Cabin in the Woods, Wally is well aware of the clichés of the mystery and horror genres and is able to anticipate or comment on the tropes as they unfold in the film’s course. Hope remained grateful for the opportunity for the rest of his life and referred to The Cat and the Canary as “the turning point for my movie career.” Significantly, although he was given top billing, Hope’s name doesn’t appear in the credits until after the title, making it clear that this was an ensemble effort, not a starring vehicle for Hope. Although he had ample opportunities to take center stage, the entire picture doesn’t completely revolve around his character. (Richard Zoglin, author of last year’s biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century, described The Cat and the Canary as having “a mise-en-scene and narrative coherence that sets it apart from any of Hope’s previous films.”)

The direction was assigned to writer, director, and sometimes actor Elliott Nugent and the screenplay to Walter DeLeon and Lynn Starling. (Nugent’s most notable credit was starring in and co-writing with celebrated humorist James Thurber the 1940 play The Male Animal, a satire on red-baiting in American academia.) Nugent had previously directed Hope in two of the pictures he did with Martha Raye, Give Me a Sailor (1938) and Never Say Die (1939), and would go on to direct two more Hope vehicles Nothing But the Truth (1941) and My Favorite Blonde (1947). Nugent was a good if not terribly inspired director so undoubtedly the credit for the movie’s considerable visual creativity belongs far more to Charles Lang’s chiaroscuro black and white cinematography (with some uncredited assistance from Ted Tetzlaff) and the atmospheric sets by Hans Dreier (Paramount’s foremost art director) and Robert Usher. (Some of the sets, like the exterior and grounds of the decrepit old estate and the dark foreboding labyrinth that runs through and under the house, were obviously influenced by the German Expressionist silent films of the 1920s.) Dr. Ernst Toch’s haunting music score, with its ghostly chorus in key scenes, also counted as a major contribution to the movie’s spooky feel.

After the main credits (which are superimposed over a pair of shutters eerily opening and closing in the wind), we are given our first glimpse of the movie’s gloomy setting with the following introduction text: 

“… not far from New Orleans there still exist in strange solitude the bayous of Louisiana…”

(The play was set in a remote area of upstate New York.) In separate parties, guests are being transported via either canoe or motorboat to an old dark dilapidated mansion isolated on an island in the swamp that once belonged to the late Cyrus Normand. The deserted estate has been entrusted to the care of a mysterious Creole housekeeper named Miss Lu (Gale Sondergaard, who would soon be typed in mysteries and horror films). (In the play, the housekeeper was Mammy Pleasant, described by Willard as an “old negress.”) The occasion is the midnight reading of Normand’s will ten years after his demise.

Cat and the Canary, Hope, Goddard, and cast

The first to arrive is Normand’s lawyer and executor Mr. Crosby[3] (George Zucco, who would also become a mainstay in horror pictures). After he extracts the will from the wall safe, Crosby notices that the envelope has been obviously been opened and resealed, indicating that one of the potential heirs has already seen the contents of the will, the first indication that foul play is in the works. The next group to arrive include Aunt Susan (Elizabeth Patterson, who’d played the same role in The Cat Creeps), a caustic shrewish spinster; Aunt Cicily (Nydia Westman), a rather flighty, scatterbrained type; Charlie Wilder (Douglass Montgomery), a charismatic scoundrel who’s the “black sheep” of the family; and Fred Blythe (John Beal), a sour, sullen young cynic who’s the antithesis of Charlie’s carefree playboy. Finally, about eight minutes into the movie, as the film cuts back to the swamp, Wally appears in a canoe rowed by an Indian native (Chief Thundercloud). Wally tries to strike up a conversation with his guide, but to no avail. Then he tosses the cigar he’s smoking out of the canoe, only to do a double-take when an alligator snatches up the stogie in its jaws. He again attempts to lighten the mood.

Wally: (nervously) “You seem like the jolly type, Clarence. Do you like jokes?” (no answer) “You don’t mind if I ramble on, do you? It keeps my mind off the malaria germs.” (gulps) “Anyway, here’s one. A farmer had a cow. He couldn’t afford to feed it alfalfa, so he fed it sawdust. He saved a lot of money all right, but he sure wasted a lot of time getting the splinters out of the milk!” (laughs) “Doesn’t that just—“ (no response) “—uh, splinters, milk, don’t you get it?”

Indian: (deadpan, taciturn) “Heard it last year. Jack Benny program.”

After reaching the mansion and going through the introductions to the others, Wally looks around.

Wally: “Well, where’s the leading lady?”

Crosby: “Leading lady?”

Susan: “Young man, did you inherit the streak of insanity that’s runs through this family?”

Fred: (sourly) “What was that ‘leading lady’ crack?”

Wally: “Oh, nothing really, but all this, midnight, the alligators—I mean, the heirs—and the family lawyer all gathered to hear the reading of the will. It reminds me of a lot of melodramas and mysteries I’ve played in.”

Cicily: (giggles nervously)

Wally: “Uh… thanks. And in every one of those plays there was a leading lady, young, beautiful… a modern, charming—“

Joyce: (off-stage) “Thanks. Will you take this for me please?”

Right on cue, Joyce Normand (Paulette Goddard, looking most fetching) makes her entrance. (“Well, I got here. Oh, I’m terribly sorry to be so late.”) The party now complete and the stroke of midnight chiming on a grandfather clock, the reading of the will commences. As Crosby takes the document out of its envelope, a mysterious gong sounds seven times. Eyes closed and hands folded as in prayer, Miss Lu begs her “master” to tell her “the name.” Questioned by Crosby what those sounds mean, she explains, “They mean seven will live. There are eight people in this room. One will die before morning.” As Crosby tries to resume reading the will, Wally snaps his fingers and says to Charlie, “I’ll bet you two to one Joyce is the heir.”

Crosby: “What’s that?”

Wally: “Oh, did I speak out of turn?”

Crosby: “What was back of your remark?”

Wally: “Oh, nothing.”

Fred: (accusingly) “Come on, you meant something!”

Wally: “Oh, nothing, really. Well, it’s just that in practically every mystery play I’ve been in the leading lady turns out to be the heir.”

Miss Lu: (reverently) “You have the power.”

Wally: “Yeah, uh… me?!”

Miss Lu: “There’s spirits all around you.”

Wally: (nervously) “Well, could you put some in a glass with a little ice? I need it badly.”

Fred: (threateningly) “Don’t you ever stop babbling?!”


Douglass Montgomery, Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, John Beal

As indicated by the dialogue exchanges quoted above, Hope had already started what would become a career-long habit of letting his personal gag writers see his movie scripts in advance to provide him with additional one-liners. The two most memorable (and oft-quoted) of these lines find Cicily playing straight man to Wally.

Cicily: “Don’t big empty houses scare you?”

Wally: “Not me. I used to be in Vaudeville.”

And later in the film when Wally and Cicily explore the house’s basement:

Cicily “It’s awfully spooky down here. Do you believe in reincarnation?”

Wally: “Huh?”

Cicily “You know, that dead people come back?”

Wally: “You mean like the Republicans?”

And then there’s Wally’s line that would be stolen by just about every comedian in Hollywood: “I’m so scared even my goose pimples have goose pimples.”

the-cat-and-the-canary-bob-hope-paulette-goddard-1939Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard

As it turns out, once the will is finally read, Wally’s prediction was accurate; Joyce is indeed the sole heir to Cyrus’ fortune and estate. But there’s a codicil: if the heir should die or be proven to be insane within one month of the will being read, an alternate heir named in a second will receives the inheritance. Fred is particularly outraged and rightly points out that the will “is practically an invitation to commit murder!” Miss Lu also presents Joyce with a letter that proves to be a clue to the story’s second MacGuffin, a priceless diamond necklace secreted somewhere on the estate. And there’s one more joker in the deck: an armed guard named Hendricks (John Wray) from an asylum for the criminally insane is prowling the island in search of an escaped homicidal maniac known as “The Cat.”  

6a00e5523026f58834013480b8a4f3970cPaulette Goddard

At this point, sinister events begin happening within the house. Crosby is seized and kidnapped by a grotesque hand that emerges from a hidden panel in the library. Wally and Joyce figure out where the necklace is hidden, but while Joyce lies in bed, the same hand reaches out from a panel above her and takes the necklace, leaving her in hysterics. When Wally ties to find the tripwire that opens the panel, yet another secret panel opens and the body of the first murder victim tumbles out from it. (Leni filmed this moment in the silent version from a low angel so that the corpse fell toward the camera. In addition to becoming one of the movies’ most oft-repeated clichés, it also became obligatory to use this low angle for the exact same scene in all the subsequent film versions of The Cat and the Canary.) And then there’s another particularly frightening moment in the library when Joyce thinks she’s alone, but I’m not about to spoil that one. (The moment in question was taken directly from the stage version.)

cat9Paulette Goddard in the film’s climax

It’s in the last ten of the movie’s brief 75-minute running time that the terror quotient gets kicked up to full blast. Wally makes his way into the house’s series of hidden corridors through the panel in the bedroom. Joyce, once again seemingly alone in the library, sees the panel that Crosby disappeared into opening. She steps up to the entrance as Wally calls her name from the bedroom. Thinking that Wally’s voice is coming from inside the hidden passage, she enters and is locked in by the killer. A chase begins through a series of dark underground tunnels with the maniac in close pursuit of Joyce. Yet two more people will be violently killed before the film’s end. (You’ll have to watch the movie for yourself to learn the outcome, including the final reveal of the story’s villain.)


Released in early November of 1939, The Cat and the Canary was a resounding success at the box office. Hope’s stardom was cemented in his next film when he co-starred with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in the first entry of what would become Hollywood’s most successful film franchise to date, Road to Singapore (1940). The popularity of The Cat and the Canary made a follow-up effort with Hope and Goddard a foregone conclusion. Paramount dusted off another old stage thriller, Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard’s The Ghost Breaker (1914), and retitled it The Ghost Breakers. This time Hope got first-billing above the title for the first time in his film career, indicating that this was a star vehicle designed especially for Hope. The Ghost Breakers was more of an out-and-out comedy than a horror picture, with comedian Willie Best added to the mix as Hope’s houseboy.[4] Although it had some spooky moments to rival the best of serious horror movies, The Ghost Breakers fell short of the overall quality of The Cat and the Canary. It didn’t help that the film was clumsily constructed and that the characters didn’t arrive at the story’s haunted Cuban castle setting until the movie was two-thirds over. Also, frankly, the director George Marshall was a pedestrian filmmaker. (Acclaimed mystery author Raymond Chandler, whose original screenplay The Blue Dahlia was filmed by Marshall, described the director as “a stale old hack who had been directing for thirty years without once having achieved any real distinction.”) 

In 1978, The Cat and the Canary was filmed for a fourth (and, so far, last) time in Britain, with Americans Michael Callan and Carol Lynley in the leading roles. Director Radley Metzger (who got his start in softcore porno films) added some kinky touches to the story, but, despite a stellar cast (including Edward Fox, Wendy Hiller, and Wilfred Hyde-White), this remake had absolutely none of the haunting atmosphere of the 1927 and 1939 versions.

For decades, the 1939 version of The Cat and the Canary was unavailable due to being one of the films excluded from the Paramount library when it was purchased by MCA (Universal Pictures’ parent company) in the 1950s because of being tied up in copyright conflicts. W.C. Fields’ You’re Telling Me (1934) and the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930) were also among the films stuck in this copyright limbo. You’re Telling Me was bailed out by Universal in the early 70s after William K. Everson made a big deal out of its unavailability in his 1967 book The Art of W.C. Fields. It wasn’t until 1974, when UCLA student (and future television writer) Steve Stoliar collected several thousand signatures on a petition, that the Universal suits finally gave in to settling the pending copyright issues and rereleased Animal Crackers to the theaters.[5] Amazingly, it wasn’t until 2010, over 70 years after its release, that Universal finally made The Cat and the Canary available to the public on DVD. At least now, it can be appreciated as the superlative thriller it is as well as a real treat for Bob Hope fans.


[1] Hope’s only previous film appearances had been in a single two-reeler for Educational Films and handful of short subjects made at Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone studios in New York.

[2] In the 1920s, stage thrillers set in creepy old houses were especially popular on Broadway. In addition to Willard’s The Cat and the Canary, other examples include Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s The Bat and Ralph Spense’s The Gorilla. All of these plays were filmed as silent pictures and remade as early talkies. I covered this subgenre extensively in my article about Roland West’s 1930 remake of The Bat, The Bat Whispers.

[3] Crosby was the lawyer’s name in the original play and the previous film versions, so it’s not an in-joke reference to the Road pictures series Hope would go on to do with Bing Crosby.

[4] An extremely talented black comedian who was invariably cast in stereotyped roles, Willie Best (earlier known as Sleep ‘n’ Eat) has been a problem for modern-day (usually white) film critics who feel obligated to disparage or apologize for Best’s scared “feets don’t fail me now” shtick. (Hope, however, went on record as saying that Best had the best comic timing he’d ever seen.) Another equally talented black comedian Mantan Moreland who also played perpetually scared stereotypes has also been the target of this same patronizing attitude, leaving it to the genuine movie connoisseurs to enjoy their comic mastery. (Moreland went on to enjoy a newfound popularity in supporting roles on 1970s and 80s television sitcoms.)

[5] Stoliar was rewarded for his efforts with a job as Groucho Marx’s secretary and archivist in the last three years of the comedian’s life, an experience documented in Stoliar’s excellent book Raised Eyebrows: My Years in Groucho’s House.


DVD Savant Review

Savant UK Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD Limited Edition Review


Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD
Arrow Video (UK)
1983 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 89 min. / Street Date August 17, 2015 / £28.17
Starring James Woods, Sonja Smits, Deborah Harry, Peter Dvorsky,
Leslie Carlson, Jack Creley, Lynne Gorman, Julie Khaner, Reiner Schwartz, David Bolt.
Cinematography Mark Irwin
Art Direction Carol Spier
Film Editor Ronald Sanders
Original Music Howard Shore
Written by David Cronenberg
Produced by Pierre David, Claude Héroux, Victor Solnicki
Directed by David Cronenberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Long live the New Flesh!

When certain movies get re-issued with perhaps one extra feature added to the mix, web reviewers will start complaining about ‘double dipping.’ But the custom selection of extras offered by a number of disc companies are sometimes so good that a reissue becomes irresistible. Many Criterion releases qualify for this, of course. Over in England, Arrow Video has been putting out Region B discs of American movies that frequently better the available domestic versions. This David Cronenberg shocker was thoroughly covered in an expansive Criterion disc from 2010, yet Arrow has put together a highly desirable collection of new extras.

Movies have gotten far rougher and tougher in the last 32 years, yet 1983′s Videodrome still has what it takes to creep people out: genuine dangerous ideas. Its McLuhanesque, Ballardesque merging of man and media still provides real food for thought — it remains dangerously radical on the intellectual plane. Videodrome is also core science fiction. Writer-director David Cronenberg pioneered queasy body-horror Sci-fi, and with this effort he scores even higher as a purveyor of bizarre intellectual concepts. He introduces the first fully realized virtual reality world in a movie (forget Tron). Cronenberg ladles out more disturbing ideas than had ever seen the light of a movie granted major distribution: insidious technology, underground video, porn, violence, sado-masochism and snuff movies.

They’re all in the service of a concept that in maturity was light-years ahead of the competition. Readers of fare like Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch possibly felt right at home, but much of the mainstream 1983 audience was lost, lost, lost.

Cronenberg’s script begins with a man looking for new experiences, new sensations. Soft-core cable entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is hot for edgy material. His tech assistant Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) succeeds in tapping into an illegal satellite transmission of an all-torture, all-murder TV signal called Videodrome. Max dispatches porn agent Masha (Lynne Gorman) to find it for his cable channel, and personally follows the trail to Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits), the daughter of video cult visionary Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). Techno-guru Brian seemingly exists only on videotape. Through the medium of TV he dispenses weird wisdom about a new age in which people will physically merge with the virtual video world. Max also becomes attracted to radio psychologist Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), a masochistic sensationalist who introduces him to mild S&M. When Nicki discovers Videodrome, her response is to immediately seek out the video horror show — because she wants to become a ‘contestant.’

David Cronenberg’s erratic string of exploitative shockers before Videodrome always had strong core ideas. Shivers and Rabid’s grandiose concepts overshadow their grindhouse content, going far beyond mere nudity and gore. Shivers is a gloss on Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Scanners hit the commercial jackpot with a hybrid of Philip K. Dick’s expanded-consciousness worldview. Super-powered minds can invade other minds to control and destroy, but finer implications give way to chase scenes and exploding heads, surefire audience-pleasing material.  1

Videodrome recycles a sampling of Cronenberg-favored motifs: strange new body orifices, exploding bodies, technological conspiracies to transform mankind. This time around he adds the Dickian idea of altered reality. The Videodrome video signal is like Palmer Eldritch’s drug “Chew-Z”: we experience Max Renn’s disconcerting hallucinations as his mind is altered. Exploring new conceptual territory with his eyes wide open, Max becomes a classic surreal hero, much like Buñuel’s Archibaldo de La Cruz or Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. Cronenberg’s later revisionist re-think of the 1958 classic The Fly has the same transgressive hero. A transformation into a monster becomes a voyage of grotesque but miraculous possibilities. As he outgrows his human form Seth Brundle is forced to confront both mortality and the alien-ness of his own body. In Videodrome, a similar Quatermass-like process is changing Max Renn from the inside out. He too must learn to embrace an unknown future, that he calls ‘the New Flesh.’ Scientific progress blends with spirituality when the ultimate escape from ‘the old flesh’ becomes all too literal.

After a slow start in his earlier thrillers, Cronenberg hits his directing stride with Videodrome. For the first time his actors are all top-rank and optimally cast. The effects don’t overpower the story, which doesn’t rely on a chase to sustain a commercial thriller framework. The revelations are well paced, helping us to absorb some truly weird happenings. A television is transformed into a veined and pulsing sexual organ; Max Renn pulls an organic pistol from a vagina-like slit in his stomach.  2 In essence, Cronenberg shows man using medical and media technology to explore a new world. But in every case taking the voyage means being transformed, mentally, physically and spiritually. Only the initial steps are voluntary. Max Renn is on a slippery slope from the moment he takes those first few steps — there’s no going back. He’s an explorer in an unknown world, like the Shrinking Man.

James Woods proves perfectly suited to playing a sympathetic character who nevertheless is a voyeur and smut peddler. Ordinary soft-core attractions don’t do anything for him. The little touches he gives the role become funnier on repeated viewings. Deborah Harry’s Nicki Brand makes a convincing masochist and generates the erotic connection Cronenberg needs. A surreal heroine, Nicki goes straight to the center of her obsession and never looks back. Her early exit to become a virtual presence probably sparked resentment among the fan-base that wanted a flesh & blood Blondie to stick around longer, and indeed, a perfect Videodrome would want to chart her ‘explorations,’ too.

Among the excellent supporting players is Lynne Gorman, who Cronenberg manages to make intriguing just by allowing a woman older than fifty to have a sexual appetite without being humiliated for it. Cronenberg plays with light comic irony as well. At one point Max Renn tries on a pair of dark-framed glasses and for a second ‘transforms’ into a substitute David Cronenberg. During an escape through an alley, Renn passes workers moving a series of doors. Are they a visual pun for the ‘doors’ of consciousness?

But what we most remember are the bizarre instances where erotic and technological taboos merge. Max Renn is able to have physical sex with a pair of lips on a television screen. His ‘stomach vagina’ can hide a weapon. Cronenberg’s illusions go a step beyond classical film surrealism, as we share the subjective sensations of the surrealist adventurer. Some concepts aren’t as well established. In one scene Renn’s obscene gun-arm (shades of The Quatermass Xperiment) is meant to shoot not bullets but instant-growing cancerous tumors.

There’s also the gross ending where a virtual Deborah Harry shows Max Renn the next step in his personal evolution. Nikki might as well be speaking to Max from within The Matrix. His crossover is accomplished by imitating something he sees on television. Cronenberg’s ideas in these early films were ‘way, way out there’ in the best possible meaning of the term. They’re always driven by a coherent interior logic.

Arrow Video’s Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD of Videodrome has a clean transfer of a truly brilliant movie — and brilliant not merely because intelligent and challenging sci-fi has become so rare. Cronenberg makes the horror exploitation genre communicate ideas difficult to get across in doctoral papers about the media-scape. The movie is billed as a ‘restored HD unrated version,’ which as far as I can tell is identical to earlier video versions. Bits were added back in almost as soon as the movie hit home video, long ago.

A comparison with the earlier Criterion disc sees several of its extras ported over. Director and actor commentaries have not been retained; they’re probably Criterion-specific. Arrow did find an interesting 20-minute piece on Cronenberrg for Brit TV called David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme. Cronenberg gives concise descriptions of his theories, while directors George Romero and (a very animated) Alex Cox actually talk about the need for some form of rating system. The always refreshing Cox energetically slams the movie Se7en as reprehensible trash, a surprise that had me jumping up in approval. I’m probably a prude, but there’s a difference between compellingly disturbing ideas, and empty exploitation.

Most of the other extras are familiar — a Cronenberg short subject from 2000, Michael Lennick’s clever and impressive features about the special effects. Videodrome seems to have had an unlimited number of un-filmed but fully-worked out visual effect hallucinations, some of which we see in BTS footage, as temp video displays or make-ups under construction. Alternate scenes for TV are here, along with Samurai Dreams, etc.. I still like the 1981 roundtable interview with Cronenberg and fellow directors John Carpenter and John Landis. At the time all were making fantastic films. The least demonstrative of the three, Cronenberg seems the only one with “something to say.” The host is a young, bright Mick Garris of the Masters of Horror cable series.

I was especially curious to listen to Arrow’s featured exclusive extra, the promised Tim Lucas commentary. It doesn’t disappoint. Cronenberg synthesized a lot of radical thought into a consistently coherent series of film fantasies; that he tapped Lucas to report from the set convinces me that he deemed the young fan writer capable of grasping what was going on. There are a lot of edgy abstract ideas to consider, many of them unsuited for discussion in People magazine. The show is an invitation to ponder the convergence of humans and technology, and how we use ‘media gratification delivery systems’ to gratify our sex fantasies.

I usually listen to the first twenty minutes of a commentary, skip around a bit and then listen to the end. Just as with the recent Blood and Black Lace, this commentary was too illuminating to set aside. Lucas spends only a little time on his on-set experience and instead gives us even more detailed analysis and insight of every thing and everybody we see on screen. His thoughts are well organized and the connections he makes to possible influences deepen our interest rather than dissipate it. His personal extrapolations are also engaging. I think Videodrome will persist as a great work of futurism. I know for certain that I haven’t grasped its full importance. Lucas’s comments ring true, especially his observation that contemporary culture is in a Cronenberg-predicted transformation: we are indeed being absorbed by our technology. Heck, all the evidence suggests that Mr. Lucas is a real person, but his many social media communications he has also become an eerie disembodied virtual person. All hail the new Facebook Flesh.

A second pair of Blu-ray and DVD discs contains four early Cronenberg films, all beautifully restored. The medical student-turned filmmaker has an awkward beginning distinguished from ‘normal’ film students only in that the philosophical speeches indicate he has ‘something to say,’ even if he hasn’t found the ways to express himself in film. Considering the depth of his later feature work, this should be an encouragement to all aspiring filmmakers that haven’t yet reached a command of camera grammar. The third and fourth pictures are more professional efforts that make use of a few actors, and modernistic buildings to impart a futuristic look. Stereo is the one really accomplished work here; I gave my thoughts on it in a review for Criterion’s 2014 release of Scanners. The color Crimes of the Future is more of the same but less compelling overall. Ronald Mlodzik (Adrian Tripod) returns as the main character, who still dresses like Peter Cook’s devil from Bedazzled. A final scene becomes really queasy, with just a suggestion that Cronenberg is adding child molestation to his themes of sex and death.

The second disc’s added films are accompanied by a welcome essay-featurette with Kim Newman, who has plenty of bright comments to offer about the direction of horror in the ’70s and Cronenberg’s individualized approach. In these early films he was an eccentric ‘with something to say.’ When his thoughts found full expression in films like Videodrome, it turned out to be well worth the wait.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Videodrome Region B Blu-ray + PAL DVD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, David Cronenberg & the Cinema of the Extreme with Cronenberg, George A. Romero and Alex Cox; Forging the New Flesh — Michael Lennick effects docu; featurette Videoblivion, new piece with Mark Irwin; new interview with producer Pierre David; featurette AKA Jack Martin with author of novelizations; complete uncensored Samurai Dreams with commentary by Michael Lennick; Helmet Test and Betamax effects featurettes; short film Camera by Cronenberg; Fear on Film 1982 round table discussion with Cronenberg, John Carpenter, John Landis and Mick Garris; TV version deleted scenes; promotional featuretes, trailer. DISC 2: David Cronenberg’s earlier works. Shorts Transfer and From the Drain; features Stereo and Crimes of the Future; Kim Newman featurette interpreting earlier films. 100-page illustrated collector booklet (not submitted for review) with essays by Justin Humphreys, Brad Stevens, Caelum Vatnsdal’ plus extracts from Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-ray and two DVD discs with book in (box?)
Reviewed: August 19, 2015


1. Reading Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch was for Savant a necessary prerequisite to fully understanding this film. Videodrome throws so many verbal and visual concepts at us that without some sort of preconditioning, it’s too easy to reject them. I saw the film three times when new, and this was the first time that I was receptive to its central fact: Spectacular Optics plans to use Videodrome’s signal to destroy “bad” citizens who want to see taboo visual content. Don’t they realize that that really means all of us?


2. In Alien it was difficult to accept a creature that appeared to be simultaneously made of organic materials and chrome steel. In Videodrome Renn’s organic melding with a steel gun is a kind of practical evolution, and the changing of a man’s hand into a hand grenade is like a gag from a Looney Tunes cartoon. In The Fly, Seth Brundle becomes partially fused with his own invention. He drags the steel door of his teleportation pod behind him, like an albatross. Cronenberg sees man fusing with his inventions, as do the morbid car wreck fetishists in Crash.


Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson


Quick! Before It Melts
DVD Savant Review

Quick! Before It Melts
The Warner Archive Collection

Quick! Before It Melts
The Warner Archive Collection
1964 / Color / 2:40 enhanced widescreen / 98 min. / Quick, Before It Melts / Street Date June 5, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 18.49
Starring George Maharis, Robert Morse, Anjanette Comer, Yvonne Craig, James Gregory, Michael Constantine, Howard St. John, Norman Fell, Janine Gray, Bernard Fox, Richard LePore, Hal Baylor, Doodles Weaver, Pat Priest.
Russell Harlan
Film Editor Fredric Steincamp
Original Music David Rose
Written by Philip Benjamin, Dale Wasserman
Produced by Douglas Laurence, Delbert Mann
Directed by Delbert Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

MGM’s Quick! Before It Melts falls into a category of studio films that were reportedly striking out left and right in 1965, even though I remember seeing them advertised in the papers and playing at packed drive-ins. All tease and no gravy, these sex comedies betrayed not a hint of relevance to people living or dead. The popular Doris Day movies were waning at this time, but Metro pushed forward with the formula. They did a string of Paula Prentiss – Jim Hutton movies, which had little to recommend them beyond the bright presences of the leading players. Hoping to combine two name actors without a filmic track record, producer-director Delbert Mann (Dear Heart) enlisted George Maharis of TV’s Route 66 and Robert Morse of Broadway fame, and came up with…. something of a mess.

Filmed entirely on MGM sound stages and using a script that could have been written in 1948, Quick! Before It Melts tries to make a wild sex comedy out of the idea of a journalist being stranded at the South Pole with dozens of other female-hungry males… it’s sort of a scientific Operation Mad Ball meets Encounters at the End of the World. Usually, bright personalities saved MGM’s youth sex comedies, like Shirley MacLaine in Ask Any Girl (where is that movie?) or Steve McQueen in The Honeymoon Machine. Even the poster for Quick! Before It Melts promises make-out action that largely doesn’t come about.

Reporter Oliver Cromwell Cannon (Robert Morse) is in hot water with his editor-publisher, Harvey Sweigert (Howard St. John). He’s engaged to Harvey’s daughter Sharon Sweigert (Yvonne Craig), and trying to be both worthy and more secure. Rescue of a sorts comes with a crazy assignment to go to the South Pole, to get the scoop’ on communist subversion that might be afoot in the internationally cooperative research station down there. In his jumping-off stay in New Zealand, Oliver meets photographer Peter Santelli (George Maharis), who is likewise not happy about the idea of sexual isolation in a polar deep freeze. They hit it off with a couple of Anzac ladies, especially half-Maori Tiara Marshall (Anjanette Comer). In the Antarctic the boys try to get accustomed to the weird living quarters — huts buried in snow – and befriend the eccentric researchers and bureaucrats living the bachelor life sans female companionship. Oliver and Peter seek out Russian scientist Mikhail Drozhensky (Michael Constantine) to find that he’s a lovable fuddy-duddy, not a spy. They have to deal with creep George Snell (Norman Fell) and the hardliner Vice Admiral (James Gregory). They’re made the object of hazing pranks and treated as outsiders, until Oliver comes up with a clever ruse to induce Drozhensky to defect — and simultaneously import some attractive women to the base!

Quick! Before It Melts has an interesting trio of actors. We just got over being sentimental about Robert Morse great exit from TV’s Mad Men. I recently had to dig into George Maharis for a commentary on an upcoming Blu-ray for The Satan Bug. Maharis is an extreme case of a TV leading man who one would think would be a shoo-in for feature stardom. He instead laid five or six eggs one after another and pretty much exited the stage. And just this weekend we bade farewell to ingenue sweetheart Yvonne Craig, who turned up numerous times in ’60s movies favored by teenage boys..

Although given 12th billing in this show, Craig does pretty well, certainly holding her own against the other women in the picture, who are on hand mostly to be make-out bait. Craig’s pushy fianceé isn’t all that pleasant of a character, but she’s a bright and lively presence. During most of the picture she’s seen only during phone calls back to civilization, usually lounging alone on a bed, in fetching nightgowns.

Robert Morse is a special case — everybody loves him, but with the exception of a couple of key movies, appropriate roles never surfaced for him. He was particularly awkward when he tried to be a pushy guy with sex on his mind, as in A Guide for the Married Man and in one of Doris Day’s last gasps of quasi-virginity, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? Yet, for a certain level of impish deviltry Morse cannot be bettered, as in Tony Richardson’s The Loved One. Here Mope morses about Morse mopes about and chases women he shouldn’t. He of course turns out to be accidentally chaste, in a way that only sexless MGM sex comedies can arrange.

And what’s wrong with George Maharis — it’s like he’s not in the movie. A great looking guy with a rep as a babe magnet (in the fan magazines anyway), Marharis seems made of unbendable plastic. It may not be his fault in the case of this movie. The terribly unfunny show begins with a comedy brawl in a New Zealand pub that may be the worst choreographed scene of its type ever put together. The picture is almost 100 minutes long; in the final analysis I fault MGM’s editorial supervisor Margaret Booth for not tightening it up, dropping some of the embarrassments and giving it some pace.

As programming filler, TCM has often cablecast MGM’s exhibitor sales reels for the 1960s. The one for ’64 has a fairly cute scene of Morse and Comer preparing to get it on while hiding in a cold room (or a snowplow? I forget) while a little penguin interrupts them and otherwise ambles about in a cute way. Setting a cute penguin to a piece of music ought to result in a can’t-lose audience-pleasing scene, like the ‘Baby Elephant Walk’ in Hatari. This movie works its trick penguins, but not enough.

In the final analysis, even though people are running around icy corridors, ducking into storerooms the way people pop into bedrooms in normal sex farces, Quick! Before It Melts doesn’t get much of a sex charge going. The script takes a wide detour around anything racy, the characters all turn out to be only pretending to be naughty and the clownish supporting faces get old in the set-bound confines. We’re released into the bright snow every once in a while, but not much happens there. It’s just a, ‘Whoo-hoo, who’s getting in trouble with the Admiral now?’ kind of story.

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Quick! Before It Melts is an okay transfer of this color and Panavision comedy; director Delbert Mann uses the wide screen mainly to spread out his actors in neat lines. The cameraman of note is veteran Russell Harlan. I guess the great comedy epic about sex in the Antarctic has yet to be made… as real science and military posts on the seventh continent are now thoroughly co-ed, I should think that the place would be torture for some and a fantastic love nest for others. Just imagine bad jokes about frigidity and ‘taking core samples.’ The only present-day irony to Quick! Before It Melts is that, for all we know, the real location at the South Pole may indeed all be melting soon.

Images were difficult to locate for Quick! Before It Melts. I stole obtained some of mine from a good page called The Classic Movie. I like it — it has breezy coverage of many Warner Archive Collection titles not reviewed elsewhere.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Quick! Before It Melts DVD-R rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 21, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson


Street Smart
DVD Savant Review

Street Smart
Olive Films Savant Blu-ray Review

Street Smart
Olive Films
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date July 7, 2015 / available at the Olive Films website
/ 29.98
Starring Christopher Reeve, Kathy Baker, Mimi Rogers, Jay Patterson, Andre Gregory, Morgan Freeman.
Adam Holender
Production Designer Dan Leigh
Art Direction Serge Jacques
Film Editor Priscilla Nedd
Original Music Robert Irving III featuring Miles Davis
Written by David Freeman
Produced by Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Who says The Cannon Group turned out only bad movies? Early in 1987 I became a promo, TV spot and trailer editor in that department, nested just two floors down from the executive suites at Cannon central near Wilshire and La Cienega Blvds.. In those few years when Golan and Globus grazed the higher strata of filmmaking, some good shows came through our department, such as Andrei Konchalovsky’s unheralded Shy People. Another was Street Smart, a snappy New York- based thriller. Clever of script and uneven in direction, the show got plenty of attention and an Oscar nomination for powerhouse actor Morgan Freeman. Also scoring solidly is Kathy Baker, who whips the thankless role of a generic Times Square hooker into a soufflé part.

It’s a hot summer in the city. To save his job, maladroit magazine journalist Jonathan Fisher (Christopher Reeve) pulls a Stephen Glass and fabricates a story about a fictional Times Square pimp he calls Tyrone. Actual pimp Leo Smalls, known on the street as ‘Fast Black’ (Morgan Freeman), happens to be on trial on a murder charge. The D.A. assumes that Smalls is the basis for Fisher’s story, and seeks to subpoena the writer’s notes. Smalls knows that Fisher’s story is baloney, and with his attorney plans to blackmail the writer into providing an alibi for the killing. Fisher is soon up to his neck in trouble. A judge threatens prison on a contempt of court charge, while the streetwise Fast Black knows how to take advantage of his position. Neither is afraid to use threats to get his way. Jonathan is also caught between his upscale girlfriend Alison (Mimi Rogers) and Fast Black’s main streetwalker Punchy (Kathy Baker), with whom he forms an unstable friendship.

If Jerry Schatzberg’s direction had a little more finesse, Street Smart might have been more than a modest hit. In 1987 Cannon was still fronting good distribution for its higher-tier product, and this sleeper had critics praising Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker to the skies. Their scenes have an immediacy and power that eluded many another ’80s tale from the sidewalks of New York. Morgan Freeman had avoided ’70s blaxploitation productions, and played a regular role on the educational program The Electric Company. Freeman dives into the role of a domineering pimp, and makes of it a breakthrough opportunity.

The toughest thing to do in a modern crime film is to put teeth into scenes of menace and jeopardy. Any crimer can invent various kinds of grisly murders, etc., to little dramatic effect. Freeman grabs every situation he’s in, fiercely intimidating his girls, his chauffeur Reggie (Erik King) and the foolish reporter Jonathan Fisher. Fast Black is in a bind for a murder he didn’t commit. He’s accustomed to getting his way through bald intimidation, and when pushed he’s capable of anything.

Street Smart is supposed to center on the Christopher Reeve character, but that’s not how it works out. Although Jonathan Fisher claims the most screen time his part is perfunctorily handled. Christopher Reeve isn’t bad but he doesn’t command the screen or make us believe Fisher in any great depth. Here’s a bigtime scribe who cheats on both his profession and his girlfriend, and his only reaction is to ruthlessly retaliate. His newfound job as a television man on the streets makes a nice point about unearned rewards for dishonesty. Fisher traps NYC scammers with his sting cameras are sub- 60 Minutes hijinks, reality programming as opportunistic and predatory as Fast Black’s prostitution setup.

Morgan Freeman’s half of the story is full of surprises. The smartest man in the film, Fast Black plays his side of the game perfectly, even when he’s dishing out the violent threats. And Kathy Baker’s Punchy is practically an ad for the Times Square hooker as official NYC greeter. Her convincing seduction of Fisher comes off as shooting fish in a barrel. Seen only intermittently in films, Baker’s first screen role was as Louise Shepard in The Right Stuff. Mimi Rogers is reasonable in a lesser role. The other various magazine execs and legal troublemakers are sketched on the broader side. Reporter Fisher’s boss Ted Avery (Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre) is a real 5th Avenue bozo, used for comedy relief. Fast Black complains of being patronized at Avery’s uptown party, but so is everybody else.

The movie has a slightly rushed pace and a few unfortunate editorial choices. Odd dissolves intrude in the party scene, and the song ‘Natural Woman’ is unnecessarily superimposed over the seduction scene. Some of the clever plotting makes things happen far too conveniently. Fisher is twice imprisoned for contempt, once for not giving up his article notes and once for saying they never existed. When he later fabricates some notes, giving Fast Black the alibi he wants, Fisher’s ethical stature really takes a dive. Not only is there no ‘investigation’ of what this dishonesty means to Fisher the hasty detail-skipping begs some important questions. Why would the judge let Fisher go after finding out he’d withheld the information that Black had an alibi? After two flagrant lies, why would the Judge believe anything Fisher said? A little honest conversation between Fisher and the prosecutor Leonard Pike (a very good Jay Patterson) might have straightened the whole thing out.

(spoilers) The end of Street Smart allows the fairly unsympathetic Fisher to resolve his problem as if it were one of his obnoxious TV sting operations. Fast Black is not a good guy, but for this particular crime he is being railroaded by the D.A.. The way things work out, he becomes an unredeemable villain. Fisher gets off scot-free, retaining his career and getting his girlfriend back, albeit with some stitches on her stomach. In reality, Fisher’s lies and prevarications are what caused all the grief. The scummy street life that the film seems so afraid of is once again made a separate, evil world. It needs to be suppressed so that yuppies like Jonathan and Alison can feel secure. This was before NYC’s ’90s clean-up campaigns, I think.

One classy symbolic image involving a white dove appears late in the show. It communicates its point beautifully to most audiences. Schatzberg has not set us up for expressionist asides. It’s unexpected, and eerily effective.

Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Street Smart is a slick encoding of this fairly good-looking New York-set production. It’s not a showcase of the city, as the average images concentrate directly on the characters. Yet it doesn’t look like a TV movie of the day either. We get deep into the difficulties between Fisher, Punchy and Fast Black, and our attention never wanders.

No trailer is included, which is too bad. The older DVD from 2003 does have the trailer, an excellent example of the work of the Cannon advertising department at this time. It expresses the excitement and some of the content of the film in a freewheeling montage format, but without telling the whole plot or boring us with runs of moronic narration.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Street Smart Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson


Nightmare Castle
DVD Savant Review


Nightmare Castle
(L’Amante d’oltretomba)
+ Castle of Blood &
Terror Creatures from the Grave

Savant Blu-ray Review

Nightmare Castle
Severin Films
1965 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 104 min. / L’Amanti d’oltretomba, The Faceless Monster, Lovers from Beyond the Tomb, Night of the Doomed, Orgasmo / Street Date August 18, 2015 / 29.98
Starring Barbara Steele, Paul Müller, Helga Liné, Rik Battaglia, Laurence Clift, Giuseppe Addobbati.
Enzo Barboni
Production Designer Massimo Tavazzi
Film Editor Renato Cinquini
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Written by Mario Caiano and Fabio De Agostini
Produced by Carlo Caiano
Directed by Allan Grünewald (Mario Caiano)

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I’ve reviewed this Barbara Steele horror thriller twice before, once in 2003 as a rough DVD presentation with the title The Faceless Monster, and again in 2009 as a quality DVD with extras from Severin Films. It was promoted as Nightmare Castle but actually bore the original Italian title L’Amante d’oltretomba. For the jump to Blu-ray, Severin has gone to the original negative of Nightmare Castle — which bears yet another variant title, Night of the Doomed. We long ago concluded that an Italo horror ain’t a genuine Italo horror without six alternate titles hovering around it. If Jésus Franco made 250 movies, and each of them had eight variant titles, does that mean he’s the auteur of 2,000 separate releases?

Accessing decent copies of Euro genre films is always a problem. As was shown with earlier releases of The Long Hair of Death and An Angel for Satan, vintage Euro-horror is in a peculiar bind, distribution-wise. Instead of paying proper licensing fees to get access to original film materials, smaller disc companies often just recycle whatever copies can be found. With an inferior version already on the market, a quality release can become financially unrealistic. This new Blu-ray is a collector-worthy disc of one of Barbara Steele’s more obsessive horror mini-epics. The good extras include two more Barbara Steele pictures, in HD, Antonio Margheriti’s Castle of Blood and Massimo Pupillo’s Terror Creatures from Beyond the Grave.

Nightmare Castle’s original title is the more accurate L’Amanti d’oltretomba, which translates as Lovers from Beyond the Grave. The greedy Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Paul Miller, aka Paul Müller) surprises his unfaithful wife Muriel (Barbara Steele) in the greenhouse and finds her ardently pursuing her illicit affair with the gardener David (Rik Battaglia). Eager to inherit Muriel’s property, Stephen

tortures both of them to death, removes their hearts and cremates what’s left. But his plan stumbles when Muriel’s will leaves her estate to her identical half-sister Jenny (Steele again). Stephen must start from scratch, wooing and marrying a blonde, virtuous version of his first wife. Jenny has already been diagnosed with mental illness, so with the help of some drugs, it should be no problem for Arrowsmith and his housemaid Solange (Helga Liné) to send her over the edge. During a weird nightmare, Jenny dreams of the previous murder in the greenhouse. The plan works fine until the schemers discover that Jenny hasn’t been taking her hallucinogens. She isn’t tripping out, she’s haunted.

Classic corridor-wandering Italo horrors were never as popular as sword ‘n’ sandal epics, or the new Italo westerns. By 1965 they were nearing their end. Barbara Steele had been a solid genre icon for four years, with top English critics adding their praise to that of the continental worshippers in the French magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique. But although Steele’s horror films for Mario Bava, Antonio Margheriti and Riccardo Freda made her famous, they failed to develop her career. It’s no wonder that she dismissed these movies, and sought to define herself by clinging to her one Federico Fellini outing. Amanti d’oltretomba’s script proves Steele to be a horror sub-genre unto herself, being a bald borrowing of ideas from Black Sunday (the good and evil Barbaras), Castle of Blood (a haunted house that replays murders from the past), and especially The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (a new bride tormented by her husband and housemaid). The Arrowsmith estate is the same Roman villa seen in Dr. Hichcock, albeit much less effectively filmed.

Nightmare Castle has been singled out as the Barbara Steele movie almost completely focused on its leading lady’s star appeal. The story is weighed down with dialogue and the visuals don’t begin to approach the crepuscular delirium of Hichcock or Black Sunday, yet the show is a key film for Steele fanatics. Director Caiano keeps Steele on camera for almost every scene. Everything is staged for the privilege of filming Steele’s face in various states

of distress. Muriel’s torture in the castle’s dungeon is as close as 1965 Euro-horror could get to bondage fantasy, and Jenny’s hallucinations provide ample opportunities to film Steele in erotic-murderous situations. Steele fans that never saw Nightmare Castle know it well from a selection of salacious stills given full-page spreads in old issues of Midi-Minuit.

Barbara Steele is really less of an actress in this film than she is a fetish object.  1  It is said that she uses her own voice in the dubbed track. Co-star Helga Liné begins the show in old-age makeup and is then rejuvenated by Stephen’s experimental serums. Frequent Euro-horror star Paul Müller does reasonably well with an evil husband character who can’t decide if his motivation is jealousy or ordinary greed. If Stephen is so brilliant that he can restore his housemaid’s youthful appearance, what need has he for his wife’s money? I doubt that any of the film’s creators worried about such things. Nightmare Castle exists only to satisfy rapt Barbara Steele gazers.

Severin’s Blu-ray of Nightmare Castle is a picture-perfect encoding of what appears to be the version prepared for English-language export, Night of the Doomed. Every scene is as clear as a bell, which shows us that most of the film was flat-lit. The ‘keeper’ images are all in the dream sequences and horror finale, with Steele’s ghoulish face makeup. Hidden behind a Veronica Lake comb-down, the right side of ‘ghost Muriel’s’ kisser is a horrid mess. The dubbed English track is an appropriate choice, as the actors are definitely speaking English on the set. The moody music score, played on piano and a massive church organ, is an early effort by Ennio Morricone, yet is not all that memorable.

Severin’s extras are always interesting, and thorough. Repeated from the 2009 DVD is producer David Gregory’s excellent interview with the film’s star, Barbara Steele in Conversation. The actress tells the entire story of her career from her school days

onward, explaining her brief unhappy period as a Rank / Fox starlet and her abrupt abandonment of Hollywood, smack in the middle of an Elvis Presley movie, Flaming Star. The interview is illustrated with dozens of unfamiliar photographs.

Ms. Steele is relaxed and engaged as she explains that she was too much of a young hedonist to really apply herself to the full demands of a career aimed at stardom. She never auditioned for parts and simply took offers as they came. In that regard she has a lot in common with the legendary Louise Brooks, the silent star who turned her back on the Hollywood studios. Barbara states that she wishes she’d never left her beloved Italy … even though she might weigh 3,000 pounds by now, from eating all the rich food.

Director Mario Caiano appears in an Italian interview, talking about his films while various household pets wander in and out of the frame. He emphasizes that Amanti d’oltretomba was filmed very quickly and that he didn’t get to know his star very well. Other extras include a feature commentary with Steele interviewed by David Del Valle, who elicits plenty of conversation about other movies and facets of the actress’s career.

An English trailer is included. In perfect shape, it bears the title Night of the Doomed, the title probably chosen for export. A video remnant of the American Nightmare Castle trailer uses the same footage, adding text and a different voiceover.

The clincher for purchasers of this disc is bound to be the two extra features, encoded in HD. 1964′s Castle of Blood has a reputation as the best of Antonio Margheriti’s few forays into horror. Let me refer readers to an earlier (2002) DVD from Synapse for more detail. Severin’s transfer comes from a good-quality Woolner Bros. print, into which some truly awful English-language title cards have been inserted. Being an American release copy, a brief nude scene with actress Sylvia Sorrente is not present. But for us glamour hounds, Steele’s low-cut gown in a ballroom scene remains, and it’s plenty daring on its own.

1965′s Terror Creatures from the Grave by Massimo Pupillo is for most of its length a talky and somewhat trying murder mystery. A lawyer arrives at a mansion to straighten out some paperwork, only to find the usual assortment of odd and uncooperative relatives. The expected sequence of murders begins, until it’s revealed that the deceased owner was a medium able to bring forth the dead. There’s a lot of talk about plague victims, while the pot bogs downs in comings
and goings, ineffective investigations, and finally a ‘showdown of the living dead.’ If Mario Caiano’s direction seems perfunctory, Pupillo’s is almost nonexistent — he seems intent on showing off his handsome locations while we watch slow coverage of entrances and exits for almost every scene. All Steele pictures are worth seeing but this is one of the most haphazard. Walter Brandi (L’amante del vampiro, L’ultima preda del vampiro) is a professional presence, and Luciano Pigozzi, the ‘Euro-horror Peter Lorre,’ makes a positive impression.

All three films are English language versions, which for me deadens their exoticism. The fairly good dubbing is still klunky, whereas performances have more flavor in the original Italian. I realize that some of the pictures were performed in English, but Barbara Steele rarely dubbed her Italo pictures into English. David Del Valle tells us that when he first heard Ms. Steele on the telephone, he couldn’t relate her voice to the movies he’d seen.

Severin has provided new featurettes for each of the extra features, Vengeance from Beyond and A Dance of Ghosts. An audio interview with Barbara is used for one of them. Trailers appear for each of the extra features as well. For fans of the English language version of these films, this a great buy — the extra transfers are very good, and the one for Nightmare Castle is prime quality

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nightmare Castle Blu-ray
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent (English language version)
Supplements: New HD transfers of rare U.S. prints: Terror Creatures From The Grave and Castle of Blood; audio commentary with Barbara Steele and David Del Valle; interview featurettes Barbara Steele In Conversation and Black, White And Red (Mario Caiano); extra featurettes Vengeance From Beyond and A A Dance of Ghosts; deleted scenes from Terror Creatures From The Grave, plus trailers for Nightmare Castle (2), Terror Creatures From The Grave and Castle Of Blood.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2015


1. English critic Raymond Durgnat frequently mentioned fellow film critics who “worshipped” at the altars of stars like Kim Novak, as if drinking in a glamorous star’s performances was the same as sleeping with them. Now that’s being rather optimistic, but I guess critics need whatever happiness they can find. Several reserved special praise for the dangerous, hungry-eyed Barbara Steele, fixating on her as a perverse sex object: “She’s a corpse — but is she any less desirable?”


Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson


That Guy Dick Miller
DVD Savant Review


Savant DVD Review

That Guy Dick Miller
Indiecan Entertainment
2014 / Color & B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date May 19, 2015 / 16.99
Starring Dick Miller, Lainie Miller Allan Arkush, Belinda Balaski, Kent Beyda, Steve Carver, Julie Corman, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Jon Davison, Fred Dekker, David Del Valle, Ernest R. Dickerson, Frances Doel, Corey Feldman, Robert Forster, Zach Galligan, Mark Goldblatt, Marshall Harvey, Jonathan Haze, Jack Hill, Tina Hirsch, John Hora, Jackie Joseph, Jonathan Kaplan, Larry Karaszewski, Leonard Maltin, Paul Petersen, Robert Picardo, Fred Olen Ray, John Regis, Adam Rifkin, William Sadler, John Sayles, Michael Schlesinger, Chris Walas, Mary Woronov.
Elle Schneider
Original Music Jason Brandt
Produced by Elija Drenner, Lainie Miller
Edited and Directed by Elijah Drenner

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

“After this movie, you’ll know Dick.”

The person who came up with the blurb copy line for That Guy Dick Miller deserves an award, because he captures just the right tone for a terrific movie personality who’s largely unknown, yet beloved by veteran movie fans everywhere. Documentaries about film personalities are ubiquitous, but the subject of this show will win over viewers in a matter of minutes. He’s a genuine underdog with no industry honors, yet he has a screen presence that makes every scene he’s ever played, a keeper. We know him, we like him and we can’t keep our eyes from him; he steals a scene just by being present. Dick Miller is real and authentic, an unpretentious personality that never leaves a blank hole on the screen. That Guy Dick Miller is ninety minutes focused on an actor who perhaps best represents the historical mass of character players that we recognize and love… but often can’t remember their names. Jobbing journeymen, they wait for the phone to ring and hope that they’re remembered by agents, casting directors and filmmakers. In Dick Miller’s case, he’s been a credit to every show he’s been in for the past sixty years. He’s also at the center of vintage fringe Hollywood cult moviemaking. Roger Corman brought him back time and again, sometimes just as a good luck charm. Julie Corman remarks on camera, “I read a script and thought, where’s the Dick Miller part?” Some personalities just need to be in the movies.

Director Elijah Drenner is the latest in a group of directors that came from the ranks of disc-supplement producers. Laurent Bouzereau, Jeffrey Schwarz, Bret Wood and David Gregory have all made feature documentaries, long-form cable shows, or even dramatic features. Drenner does what film-related producers do best: find the right talking heads and get them to focus on the subject at hand. In this case it looks like everybody who has worked with Dick Miller leaped to participate. It’s like “This Is Your Life” with a long list of notables — directors, fellow actors, family members — eager to tell us what Dick’s really like.

We all know Dick Miller as the nervy ‘little guy.’ He usually plays a tough character that dishes out dialogue or story exposition with verve and style, like one of those street-wise Warner Bros. actors from the early ’30s. He’s best known as Roger Corman’s jack-of-all-trades, both in bit parts and starring roles. He’s most famous for the terrific beatnik horror comedy A Bucket of Blood. Dick plays the nebbish coffee shack bus boy Walter Paisley. An aspiring artist without an art, he finds fulfillment with an unwanted side effect, murder. The various spokespeople assure us that this was not Miller’s real personality. After playing Indians and cowboys for Corman, Miller half-improvised a perfect vacuum-cleaner salesman for Not of this Earth, making film history in the most obscure way imaginable.

The film charts Miller’s family beginnings, his on-off side career as a film writer and his splendid marriage to actress and kindred soul Lainie Miller. In photos, old home movies and her own career appearances, she also comes off as a frisky live wire. Lanie acts like a nut with Dick but is also a pro with unexpected talents — she played the tassel-tossing stripper in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate.

Although recognized and beloved, and frequently tapped by productions needing a strong actor in a key part, Dick Miller never achieved name status. There was even a lull in his career when Corman turned to hipster youth stories, leaving Miller behind to play squares and lame authority figures. That’s where the new generation comes into play, guys who got their start with Roger C. and probably loved his stock company more than he did: John Davison, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush. Miller became a fixture in their movies as well, finally coming to represent the ultimate tongue-in-cheek personality casting placement — who can play the ultimate actors’ agent in Hollywood Blvd.? Who is perfect as the local promoter whose summer camp is decimated by marauding killer Piranha? Who is guaranteed to spruce up any connecting scene, rattling off story points while keeping the audience amused?

The participants are clearly happy to be there — starting with adorable Jackie Joseph, who we once thought must have been married to Miller. Frances Doel, Belinda Belaski, Jonathan Haze, John Sayles, Paul Petersen and Robert Picardo all have Madman Miller tales to tell. Actor friends say he wouldn’t leave home, just in case the phone rang while he was gone. Former teen actor Corey Feldman admits to behaving like a jerk on the set of The ‘Burbs. Director Drenner gives us a choice outtake of Miller telling Feldman to keep his mouth shut during other actors’ dialogue.

The show often cuts back to Dick and Lainie ribbing each other at home, showing off wardrobe choices (a pink sports coat?) that Dick often wore. Dick is a true card. He impishly claims to never have blown a line, which is of course followed by a blatant blooper where he goes up on his dialogue.

We see clips from a broad assortment of Millier film and TV appearances. Some clips are montaged but we also get a clear look at a number of the actor’s scenes, often with pointed analysis. An admirer points out the way Miller played a straight leading man as a scientist-hipster in the ultra-modest space epic War of the Satellites. Director Drenner relies on clever animation to carry a few sections of the picture, enough to give the show variety without overloading the cuteness factor. At 92 minutes That Guy Dick Miller might be a little on the long side, but I only saw a couple of moments that seemed redundant. The intervewees are too animated to be called talking heads – all begin to grin as they speak and several crack up at memories of their run-ins with Miller. Producer Jon Davison is filled with glee, while producer Michael Schlesinger’s description of a manic Miller scene is such a broad performance that Drenner is able to inter-cut it with the original Miller clip. The show finds a way to effect a sentimental finish — ah, we’re gonna miss this guy — with a major Dick Miller wink ending. Perhaps That Guy Dick Miller is not for everybody — what really good movie docu is? — but film fans and the curious will love it.

Indiecan Entertainment’s DVD of That Guy Dick Miller is a fine encoding of this lively, highly polished movie docu. The show carries a great many film clips, most of which are in excellent shape; just a few have slight flaws. This is the first I’ve seen of clips from Roger Corman’s interesting early westerns, and I fear that quality copies may no longer exist. The new footage is all of excellent quality.

I’ve mentioned the superior graphics and animation — never overused – and also need to compliment the soundtrack music credited to Jason Brandt. Without resorting to kooky-ness, it nevertheless communicates the essential eccentricity of the wild life of a movie actor on the maverick fringe. That Guy Dick Miller is highly recommended. It lays out a slab of fun Hollywood history without dumbing-down anything, and we like the people we meet in it. It’s a difficult job done extremely well.

Indiecan fills the extras menu with some nice material — outtakes, a Q&A session at the L.A. premiere with the principals, Dick Miller’s home movies, a photo gallery, some Miller trailers and an interview with makeup man Rick Baker.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
That Guy Dick Miller DVD
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Los Angeles premiere Q&A; Dick Miller’s home movies, interview with Rick Baker, outtakes, photo gallery, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2015

Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson


The Hunger
DVD Savant Review


The Warner Archive Collection
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Hunger
Warner Archive Collection
1983 / Color / 2:40 enhanced widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date August 18, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon, Cliff De Young, Beth Ehlers, Dan Hedaya, Rufus Collins, Ann Magnuson, Shane Rimmer, Bessie Love, John Pankow, Willem Dafoe.
Stephen Goldblatt
Production Design Brian Morris
Special Makeup Effects Dick Smith
Art Director Clinton Cavers
Set Decorator Ann Mollo
Costume Design Milena Canonero
Film Editor Pamela Power
Original Music Denny Jaeger, Michel Rubini
Written by Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas from the novel by Whitley Streiber
Produced by Richard Shepherd
Directed byTony Scott

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Tony Scott’s The Hunger has gotten a bad rap since day one, for all the wrong reasons. Not only was Scott making the jump from directing slick TV commercials (by way of slick music videos), he was said to be riding on the coattails of his successful brother Ridley Scott. The Hunger sounds like a movie marketers’ dream. It’s a modern dress revisionist vampire movie filmed just before fashion-conscious bloodsuckers hijacked the genre, and a full generation before undead horror became grist for the teen romance mill. It’s unashamedly arty. It has the swankiest French actress around, at least in terms of American sensibilities. It’s got David Bowie in the mix to promise more kinks — Bowie’s singing career was built around flexible sexual identities. And finally there’s the promise of nude scenes with Susan Sarandon, prime heterosexual bait and an excellent actress to boot. An ice queen, a sex chameleon and the woman who titillated both sexes by massaging her breasts with lemon juice in a Louis Malle movie. Who cares that the nudity was off-screen? It was the hottest scene of the decade.

Whitley Streiber’s novel took the timely approach of de-mytholoigizing vampires, making them semi-human, functionally immortal but with limitations. Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) is the only vampire with a potentially supernatural origin, as she’s been around since Egyptian days. Obviously, being an undying, non-aging vampire queen gives one time to learn to play the piano, but it also might make one very lonely. Miriam can pass on both her sanguine addiction and enhanced longevity to any mortal she chooses. She does this to one person at a time, to serve as a trophy companion vampire through the long years. Since they both need fresh victims at the rate of one a week, Miriam resides in New York City, a place sufficiently crowded that disappearances won’t be quickly traced. Her present companion John (David Bowie) has only been ‘undead’ for 200 years, yet he suddenly begins to rapidly age, indicating that his time is up. He tries to see Dr. Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a specialist in the aging process. Miriam has seen Sarah promoting a new book. She and Roberts soon get together. The prospect couldn’t be clearer: they’re mutually attracted, and Miriam will be needing a new companion. The problem is that she can’t afford to give Sarah a choice in the matter.

Streiber’s Wolfen had recently been made into an interesting, somewhat awkward horror thriller that was mostly ignored. The Hunger became an easy critical target for cinema pundits with an axe to grind. It’s all style. It looks like a perfume ad. Scenes not taking place on ordinary streets (about two minutes of footage) have all been worked through five levels of visual and contextual stylization, from settings to costumes to makeup to the elegant cinematography of Stephen Goldblatt. Commercial directors are intent on nailing every visual with absolute precision, and Goldblatt comes across with the kind of accuracy that visually unites movies by directors as diverse as Francis Coppola and John Patrick Shanley. Tony Scott begins with a literal Bauhaus music video, intercutting the disco-punk song ‘Bela Lugosi is Dead’ with relevant image snippets of the imperious Miriam Blaylock. Lugosi, vampires, music videos … it’s all rather pat. Scott then proceeds to soak the screen in atmospheric effects, shooting through screens, nets, gratings, and especially flowing diaphanous curtains. Every composition is studied. Characters are seen in silhouette, long-shot and extreme close-up.

Miriam’s life is one long fashion shoot, all effortless grace and polished surfaces. There’s not much mystery to her — the mask-face Deneuve shows in many of her movies is so perfect that we wouldn’t know if her character was plotting bloody murder or merely pouting. Ms. Sarandon’s doctor is given a reel’s worth of perfunctory scenes in the lab, worrying about her experiments with early aging in monkeys. This material is just there to put the focus on mortality vs. immortality. We barely pay attention, even with the disturbing video footage of an afflicted monkey, and another stop-motion animation scene (Dave Allen?) of a monkey decaying in time-lapse video, like a Morlock of olde.

Susan Sarandon forms an attractive complement to Deneuve, with her healthy, frankly sexual appeal. Everybody would want to kiss her neck, not just her boyfriend Cliff De Young. The short hairstyle is terrific, too. We look guiltily forward to promised Miriam-Sarah sex scenes.

Everything we see is exquisitely designed and styled to heighten the neo-Goth glamour, and evade dull details. There’s never a problem of disposing of bodies even though enough blood is spilled to leak out onto the sidewalk. Miriam’s townhouse is immaculate, as are her clothes and a succession of spectacular hairstyles that would make Grace Kelly turn purple with envy. Yet the, Blaylocks have no servants, no support help. It’s like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, who lives in a filthy crypt yet manages to show up at the opera dressed to the nines and apparently not smelling like the corpse that he is.

Scott’s glamorous imagery works in that we don’t worry about these things, but it doesn’t connect with much of anything deeper. We get the mechanics of what’s going on, but that’s because somebody speaks up every six minutes or so and explains it to us. Or there’s a flashback to the Georgian stable where Lady Chatterly Miriam first met John. An Egyptian boudoir is the movie’s only unconvincing set. The Hunger lacks depth. We see swirling gauze curtains or another precise atmospheric effect, and it’s just a pretty picture. Paul Leni’s silent haunted house murder mystery The Cat and the Canary has similar ‘atmosphere’ shots in a hallway of slowly billowing curtains. They pull us into a ‘spooky place,’ almost subliminally. Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is almost all ‘atmosphere.’ Shots hang around too long, making us nervous because we’re not quite sure we’re understanding. We barely have a handle on the relationships, and even then people act in weirdly contradictory ways. Vampyr conveys and uncanny sense of the unknowable. Narrative concerns are barely considered.

The Hunger has some genuinely macabre things going on, such as Miriam stashing her undead, apparently conscious lovers in boxes in the attic. We ought to think of those game dames Queen Antinea and Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, both of whom displayed their ex-consorts in a hall of mummified exhibits. Poor Miriam only has a stack of boxes gathering cobwebs in the attic; there’s no glamour to be had up there at all. Instead of pondering the horror of eternal conscious entombment, we’re wondering how Miriam has managed to cart her filing system around through the ages. The same issues bog down the later glam-gothic horror reveries of Anne Rice, where vampirism is just another form of jet-set living, suitable for ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Undead.’

Where The Hunger really succeeds is with the David Bowie character. John is a robust lover and co-predator with his wife of 200 years, but in a matter of a couple of days he degenerates from full health to a shriveled bald guy. The transformation’s early stages are sensationally good, both with Bowie’s performance and the special makeup by Carl Fullerton and Dick Smith. 1   Bowie’s neck thins out, develops a wattle and his skin changes texture. His face droops and hollows in a way that does not suggest rubber appliances glued into place. Tony Scott must have listened to his experts, for the camera angles handle the decomposition perfectly. One day later Bowie’s John is deep into Dick Smith sculpted makeup territory, and it’s all still working well. Smith’s famous old-age work for Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man had big problems despite succeeding on surprise value alone. Twelve years later, Dick Smith’s skin textures on Bowie are amazingly real looking. John mentions liver spots, setting us up for the real evidence of aging. That the ‘old’ John’s skin is so pasty-pulpy isn’t a mistake, because although he’s aged 80 (or 150?) years, his body has been exposed to just a few days of ‘weathering.’

We’re told that the ending was altered to make room for a possible sequel. The predictable twist is fine by me, but I’m not sure what exactly happened to spoil Miriam’s setup at the end. Having a room full of moldy ex-husbands come to life is admittedly not an everyday scene. And the effects-meisters do great work having them crumble on camera, their bones snapping under the weight of their bodies. It’s a technical triumph… but in service of a standard horror movie clich&eacute. What exactly triggered this orgy of decomposition? Miriam must have broken some rule laid down back in Cairo 2,000 years ago … don’t get the vampires wet or feed them after midnight, or something.  2

With all its fancy imagery The Hunger is still a pedestrian piece of commercial storytelling. If I recall correctly, we were there for thrills, mainly the promised sex scenes. It’s still movie stars getting it on with each other, with the occasional cutaways to a body double for Ms. Deneuve. A woman is with a woman which technically makes it a Lesbian encounter, until the focus turns to sampling blood from the inside of each other’s elbows. The most erotic shot is a close-up of Sarandon sucking blood, but Scott makes sure it’s also placed at an artistic remove. It’s a soft-focus Clairol love scene, without long dissolves but with everybody’s hair in perfect place. Still, this is one department where The Hunger makes good on its promises. Our stars deliver like classic-era movie legends, each contributing the fantasy we want to see. Tony Scott’s arty approach may be artless, but he’s doing his best to make an upscale erotic horror picture, and who wants to complain about that? His career problem was going from this promising picture to an immensely popular Reagan-era atrocity, one that would negatively influence action filmmaking for decades.

Ann Magnuson gets mauled by Bowie in one scene, while Dan Hedaya is an investigating cop and Beth Ehlers a violin prodigy who drops in on the Blaylock’s once too often. Willem Dafoe and John Pankow have a good bit in a street scene, seemingly padded to give them more than 2.5 seconds of screen time.  3

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Hunger is the first really watchable encoding of this picture that I’ve seen. It looks and sounds really good, erasing the vague memories of pan-scan “Z-Channel” cable showings, where the mannered Panavision images were reduced to unreadable wide shots and too-tight close-ups. It is a very attractive movie, packed with trendy images.

The movie’s trailer sells the sex and the sizzle, hoping to ignite curiosity about the Deneuve-Sarandon scenes. It’s sort of upscale-trashy, actually. The director commentary, apparently from 2003 or so, is a very nice listen. Tony Scott is candid and self-aware; he’s clearly proud of his movie and spends a lot of time praising the work of his technical and artistic contributors. I found him not at all pompous but a practical filmmaker who wanted to apply his commercial skills to the big screen, an approach that worked well for several directors in the 1980s. He also tells us that almost all of the New York-set film was shot in London, a trick very neatly pulled off. Susan Sarandon appears on the commentary as well (apparently not with Scott) to offer candid remarks about how she took on the movie and why. Her comments on the sex scenes are great, as are her memories of her first scene kissing a woman, the nudity (by day two everybody on the crew was bored) and how she explained these racy roles to her growing children. She’s always been a classy actress and personality.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hunger Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary with Tony Scott and Susan Sarandon
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 16, 2015


1. The artists Fullerton and Smith are given the credit, ‘Makeup Illusions,’ which may have had something to do with filming in England … ? Effects makeup wizards were already being feted and billed like stars, but not the legend Smith.


2. I immediately thought of the most successful shot of this kind I can remember, from Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula: the vampire’s hand crumbles in the act of flexing fingers, as if his flesh had suddenly turned to vacuum cleaner dust. The crumbling corpses in The Hunger seem to be changing from preserved flesh, to chalk, to flaky mulch. Those poor effects people have to study morgue shots and grisly file images to get these ‘Guanajuato Mummy’ effects. It’s superb.


3. A vaguely related movie would seem to be Roddy McDowall’s unfortunate The Ballad of Tam Lin with Ava Gardner. She’s not a vampire, but she’s definitely a supernatural being who seduces male consorts into a living death, a sort of ‘social limbo.’


Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson


House of Bamboo
DVD Savant Review


House of Bamboo
Twilight Time
Savant Blu-ray Review

House of Bamboo
Twilight Time Limited Edition
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 102 min. / Ship Date August 11, 2015 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Robert Ryan, Robert Stack, Shirley Yamaguchi, Cameron Mitchell,
Brad Dexter, Sessue Hayakawa, DeForest Kelley, Robert Quarry, Biff Elliot
Cinematography Joe MacDonald
Art Direction Addison Hehr, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Harry Kleiner, Samuel Fuller
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Samuel Fuller

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I realize that this great picture is supposed to be a straight crime story, but we best appreciate it as a storytelling concoction that could only come from the fertile imagination of Samuel Fuller. The uniquely weird House of Bamboo represents the high point of the director’s relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck. Fuller first proposed a movie set in Russia. Zanuck countered with a dream assignment, to shoot 20th-Fox’s first picture in Japan, only ten years after the end of the war. Fuller came up with an adaptation of the earlier noir crimer The Street with No Name, combining it with an idea he had for a gang of crooks that strategize their capers along military lines. Beautiful CinemaScope photography in the streets of Tokyo lends the completed film a needed air of authenticity, because in almost every other respect the story premise is wildly unlikely.

Sam Fuller’s dynamic direction made him the darling of the French Cahiers du Cinema critics. This odd gangster epic forms a far-East duo with Fuller’s Hell and High Water, a much crazier comic book movie about Cold War nuclear insanity.

Tokyo, 1954. A gang of thieves hijacks a joint U.S.-Japanese army train under Mt. Fuji, bringing Army cop Capt. Hanson (Brad Dexter) into the jurisdiction of local inspector Kito (Sessue Hayakawa). The perpetrators are Americans, ex-G.I.s led by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan) and his “Ichiban” Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Dawson plans his raids like military actions; he never leaves a wounded man behind. When one thief is killed, he’s soon replaced with Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack), a hothead loner from the States who tries to muscle in on Sandy’s Pachinko gambling parlors. Spanier becomes Dawson’s new favorite, much to the displeasure of Griff. There’s only one problem: the new man is really Eddie Kenner, a military policeman working as a mole inside Dawson’s unit.

House of Bamboo is one exciting picture, long a favorite of film students. It’s a crazy cross-cultural fantasy. In the middle fifties Americans were assured that Japan was a completely pacified nation with almost no crime and few weapons in civilian hands. American visitors felt safer on the streets of Tokyo than they might in their own hometowns. By and large that picture was true, but according to other sources Japan was giving birth to a thriving new organized crime syndicates, a Yakuza underworld that controlled gambling and vice.

House of Bamboo puts forward the amazing conceit that a gang of American criminals, most of whom do not speak the language, could operate Pachinko parlors while carrying out wild-west style armed robberies, holdups and murders right in the middle of Tokyo. Anyone familiar with a later films like Battles Without Honor and Humanity will immediately realize that Robert Ryan’s Sandy and his pushy crew would be turned into sushi the first time they tried any muscle business on Yakuza turf. Surely there were plenty of black market crimes involving servicemen and perhaps a few ex-servicemen, but the idea of Gangland USA operating on the Tokyo streets is comic-book stuff. We can imagine the Japanese authorities approving of the script, as it glosses over real post-occupation problems, denying the existence of homegrown Japanese crime.

Sam Fuller’s script is an ex-soldier’s escapist fantasy, an occupation daydream. Sandy and his men all have mistresses they call “kimonahs” (sic). When not serving formal tea, these pliant Japanese beauties do the Lindy Hop. This would seem to be the reward for victory — breakfast in bed with a smiling Japanese “kimonah.” No wonder Fuller alluded to protests following his film crews on the streets of Tokyo. He mentions the protesters scattering when he turned his cameras on them — the occupation was officially over but the fear of arrest must have been real.

Of course Sam Fuller had no intention of insulting the Japanese, quite the opposite. In its own way his film shows respect for the nation. It acknowledges that Japan’s separate culture is worth appreciating, an idea not often encountered in Hollywood pictures. Any other director would be intimidated by ridiculousness of the premise, but Sam saw a great story in an exotic locale and proceeded to make one of his most exciting and interesting pictures. If you want a little more verisimilitude, try Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza, which is exaggerated in other ways.

Robert Stack’s Spanier character stomps through Tokyo like a thorough Ugly American, yelling at people for not speaking English and roughing up Pachinko operators employed by American gangster bosses. He finally connects with cool operator Sandy, who is impressed by his tough-guy manner. Fuller’s style might be called comic book/travelogue/graphic. At one point Spanier walks a complicated path of gangplanks between some boats on a canal, ostensibly to ask some questions but really to show off the undeniably authentic location. In search of Mariko, the widow of an American gangster (Shirley Yamaguchi), he comes upon a kabuki troupe rehearsing on the roof of their theater. Fuller obviously doesn’t have any lights to shoot in the theater below; he has them up there in the cold to get the color and costumes for a dynamic trucking shot. Most of the interiors seem to have been filmed back on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. Spanier meets Sandy in a nifty reveal when Cameron Mitchell knocks him through a CinemaScope-shaped paper screen. The entire gang is waiting on the other side.

With the trip to Japan being the film’s one fiscal extravagance, Fuller cut corners where possible. Most of the actors playing Sandy’s gang probably never left Hollywood, although Cameron Mitchell is seen outside a castle moat and Robert Ryan definitely shows up for the finale. A second look at the picture is required to catch all of the Japanese locations matched (presumably) with California stage settings.

It appears that ten years later, critic-turned-director Jean-Luc Godard used Eddie Spanier as a behavior model for his take on the Lemmy Caution character in his Alphaville. Both secret agents are strangers stalking through an alien culture. They show contempt for most everything they see, at least until an attractive skirt catches their eye.

House of Bamboo traces themes through decades of crime films. Sandy hands over a wad of bills for Spanier to use to buy a new suit. “I like my boys to look sharp,” says Sandy, a line that echoes Little Caesar while also adding a homoerotic streak to Sandy’s obvious psychosis. Other scenes like the execution of a wounded comrade during a getaway, and the way a train robbery is blocked with the thieves attacking from beneath a railroad overpass, point forward to The Wild Bunch, a movie that blends western and gangster mythologies.

The movie pays off with two kinds of spectacle. Fuller stages a (for 1955) wild shootout at a fascinating kiddie playground atop a multi-story department store. According to Fuller’s autobiography the store was owned by Nikkatsu of movie studio fame. A giant ride at the very top suspends the little kids eight or ten floors above the street, which to this parent seems like insanity. But it makes a unique location for a final duel. Besides Fuller’s realistic use of bullet impacts and stereophonic sound effects, the globe-shaped ride harkens back to the “Top of the World” theme from White Heat or the various mentions of “Cook’s Tours” and “See the World” in the earliest of gangster films.

An even more sensational pre-climax is the culmination of Sandy Dawson’s mania. It may have been invisible to all the actors save Robert Ryan, as Fuller claims, but Sandy’s preferential attraction to Robert Stack couldn’t be more obvious. Sandy asks the whole gang why he broke his own rule and saved Spanier, while Griff looks hurt and jealous in the background. Sandy’s military obsession is shown to be just one facet of his psychosis, as he takes personal charge of Spanier. Sandy makes it his business to supervise Spanier’s kimono Mariko, as if she were his proxy. With Robert Stack playing most of his scenes with the same blank stare, this is Robert Ryan’s film all the way.


Finally, Sandy’s mistaken revenge against a squealer results in the kinkiest violent act ever in a film noir: he bursts into a Japanese bath and without pause empties six shots through a wooden bathtub. Then he gently lifts the head of the man he’s just killed and explains why it was necessary. Even today, the scene is so jolting it often gets an unintentional laugh, an audience defense mechanism against the outlandishness of it all. Fuller’s staging and Ryan’s performance in the one-shot scene are remarkable.

Shirley Yamaguchi is said to have been a Boston resident and accomplished actress;  3 House of Bamboo teems with other notables in roles large and small. Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace) is excellent considering that Fuller never really gives him a close-up. The same goes for DeForest Kelley’s unbilled henchman Charlie, he of the wicked grin and smart remark. Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven) is colorless as the military policeman and Sessue Hayakawa (Bridge on the River Kwai) has almost nothing to do as his opposite number in the Tokyo police. Members of Sandy’s gang without dialogue include Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), Biff Elliott (I, The Jury), John Doucette and Harry Carey Jr.. Mariko’s uncle is played by Teru Shimada, the industrialist Osato in the much later You Only Live Twice.  1

Darryl Zanuck became an independent producer at this point, which ended his interesting collaboration with Sam Fuller. Their abortive Tigrero! project fell through and for the next several years Fuller proceeded to make remarkable but only moderately successful pictures.  2 It was at this time that he says he conceived his epic war film The Big Red One, which was eventually shot on a dime-store budget 25 years later. Only with Warners’ Merrill’s Marauders would Fuller again be able to film one of his personal combat films on an appropriately grand scale.

House of Bamboo is a truly eccentric fantasy of American crooks in a Japanese milieu. For credibility it’s several few notches above the bizarre Cold War pulp of Hell and High Water but it’s a much more accomplished picture overall. And watch out for that bathtub!

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of House of Bamboo is another winner, a vintage film with a transfer to rival new releases. The DVD was okay but the colors and sharpness really ‘pop’ here, making cameraman Joe MacDonald look like a top stylist. The film was reportedly shot during a cold Tokyo winter. Fuller’s travelogue-like Tokyo scenes look great, but so do the interiors done back in West Los Angeles. The sets are especially attractive, even with Fox’s strange house style that favors blue tones. Does anybody else sensitive to that trend? The old prints we saw at UCLA were slightly faded, and the blues were the first to go.

The disc features the expected Isolated Score Track plus two commentaries. Alain Silver and Jim Ursini’s track from 2005 is a good academic piece, and Twilight Time decided to add a new one with their Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. A couple of Fox newsreel shoots are included, vault items that look as if they were never edited into a release. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes praise the picture’s visuals, calling House of Bamboo one of the most beautifully composed pictures ever. I don’t know about that, as we still get dialogue scenes with people arrayed across the frame in a flat manner. But the film’s overall dynamism keeps our interest very high. I still associate Fuller with the visuals of comic strips.

The 5.1 mix utilizes the film’s original 4-channel stereo. Fox’s audio department did good work beefing up Fuller’s brief action scenes — he was one director who knew from experience what the middle of a gunfight sounded like!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
House of Bamboo Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English 5.1 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, commentary with Alain Silver and James Ursini, Fox Movietone newsreels, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2015


1. Great Info From Dick Dinman, 5.27.05:

Hey Glenn, Loved your review of Bamboo which I agree with 100% but wanted to point out that one of my closest friends Biff Elliot did indeed have lines —- he was the dying gangster at the start. He was originally set to play the Brad Dexter role but, thanks to Dexter’s “aggressiveness” was given the other role instead. Also, did you notice anything strange about Sessue Hayakawa’s voice? He was dubbed by Richard Loo and as a result of this film nabbed Bridge on the River Kwai on which David Lean went ballistic upon finding out that he couldn’t speak English and would have to learn his lines phonetically. — Dick Dinman


2. Correction & detail from “B”, 5.27.05:

Dear Glenn: Fuller was nonexclusive to Fox even while he was making films at the studio, then went basically independent as well — while Fox financed and distributed his 1957 Forty Guns and China Gate, both were actually produced by Fuller’s Globe Enterprises. Run of the Arrow and Verboten! were produced by Globe Enterprises for RKO; The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. were Globe Enterprises productions for Columbia. While Fox controls the rights to Forty Guns, Republic seems to currently possess the rights to China Gate.

It’s a shame that the Fuller/Zanuck relationship was relatively brief; the two men evidently worked so well together. When DFZ returned to run Fox in 1962, of course, he became corporate head and was largely based in NY; his son Richard was in charge of production. It’s too bad DFZ couldn’t have done a little moonlighting back then and shepherd a few Fuller vehicles through the system; it might have stemmed the director’s long, fairly difficult spell after 1964. Best, Always. — B.


Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson