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Stroke of Midnight

Is it Scary?

The Last Man on Earth

November 13th, 2008 by phil-bailey

Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend has officially been made into three movies. 2007’s I Am Legend being the most recent, 1971’s The Omega Man being the most famous, and 1964’s The Last Man on Earth being the best of the three. This isn’t to say it is a great film, but it is quite entertaining and very influential.

The Italian made film The Last Man on Earth stars Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan, a solitary man who lives his life alone, following a worldwide plague that has some how missed him and killed the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are turned into vampires. Morgan spends his days searching vainly for other survivors and killing vampires. He spends his nights barricaded in his house, drinking, while the vampires attack his house and taunt Morgan. This goes on and on until one day he sees a woman walking about in broad daylight. Morgan eventually finds her again, thrilled to no longer be alone, but all is not as it appears!

The Last Man on Earth, directed by Ubaldo Ragona, is quite visually striking, especially considering the miniscule budget the film was shot on.  There are gaping plot holes, but Ragona keeps the action moving at a brisk pace so you don’t have a lot of time to dwell on them.

Vincent Price gives one of his better performances as the determined and desperately lonely Robert Morgan.  Just going through his daily routine you can feel the despair, boredom, and loneliness.  The widescreen compositions aid tremendously in showing the emptiness of Morgan’s existence.  The film when cropped to 4:3 becomes nothing but VIncent Price closeups.

The film has had a lasting influence on the world of horror and science fiction cinema as George Romero was heavily influenced by the scenes of Morgan waiting out the Vampires in his boarded up house when making Night of the Living Dead.

Legend Films has a new DVD of Last Man on Earth.  Despite a misprint on the DVD cast the film is presented in anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  If you’ve only seen this on TV or public domain video, then you really haven’t seen it.  I was really taken by how much was truly missing off the screen in the dark, cropped transfers that are floating around out there.  The disc has both colorized and black and white versions of the movie, but I recommend the original black and white version.

As far as extras on the disc, there are some trailers for other Legend DVD releases and a half hour TV show called It Happened in Hollywood.  The show appears to be a look at the making of different genres of film.  The show is hosted by Vincent Price, and the episode is about westerns.  There are lots of clips from unnamed, ancient, westerns, and really rudimentary inside information about back lots and stunt work, but the real treat is to see Vincent Price dressed as a cowboy!

Pieces

October 31st, 2008 by phil-bailey

How I managed to make it to 2008 without seeing Pieces is really beyond me. I’m a huge fan of early 80’s slasher films, and a fan of Pieces director Juan Piquer Simon. But there it is, I let one get by me but I can now start to make up for lost time.

The film opens with a prologue set in Boston, 1942. A young boy is studiously doing a jigsaw puzzle in his room as his mother comes in. She see that the puzzle is of a nude woman and freaks out beating the child and cursing his dead father. The boy kills her with an axe, rather than have her get rid of his porno stash. The film then jumps forty years into the future to a supposedly large college campus. The characters keep talking about how large the school is, but there only appears to be about a dozen students and five teachers. Co-eds begin meeting grisly ends and the police are called in to investigate. Detective Bracken (Christopher George) and his sidekick played by Frank Brana start the investigation. Their investigation basically consists of having faculty and students investigate for them. One of their main helpers is Kendall, who looks like a cross between Screech and Horshack and has every girl on campus hot for him. Detective Bracken has Kendall looking for suspects, helping his partner go through faculty files, even asking his to protect undercover cop/pro tennis player Mary Riggs (Lynda Day George). This stuff gets laughably bad as they do everything but give the kid a gun. The grisly murders continue. Body parts are being taken from the victims, and the police have no leads. Mary Riggs goes to interview the dean of the college as Kendall and the detectives realize he may be the killer and rush to save Mary from being the final piece of the homicidal puzzle as they discover the dean is the boy from the prologue and he is assembling a new “mother” out of various body parts.

The plot, such as it is, zips along at a fast pace but without much mystery. It’s pretty obvious to everyone that the dean is the killer. There are a number of red herrings, including a camera mugging Paul Smith (Dune, Return of the Tiger) but none of them are dangled with much conviction. The film is quite gory, but really pretty tame by contemporary standards. The real joy of the film is how damn goofy it is. The whole thing is just silly by any standards. It starts with the absurd anachronisms in the 1942 prologue including an obviously early 80’s nude model on the puzzle, a push button telephone, and a New England Patriots pennant (the Patriots didn’t become a team until the 1960’s). The unnamed college has virtually no students or staff, and in fact was filmed in a villa and it’s grounds. Of course the most absurd is the geeky ladies man Kendall and the supreme faith the police have in him. Pieces boasts some laugh out loud dialogue. One amazing scene involves the killer sneaking onto an elevator with his victim by hiding his chain saw behind his back. The end of the film really grabs your…attention as well. Through it all the film is very likeable and infinately watchable, a near perfect midnight movie.

The film has had a pretty bad time of it on home video with this being the first authorized release on DVD. The disc from Grindhouse Releasing looks amazing with a hi-def transfer and anamorphic widescreen. The DVD contains three very different viewing experiences with the different audio tracks available. There is the standard English dub, the Spanish language track with subtitles with less laughable subtitles and a better musical score by Librado Pastor, and finally the Vine Theatre track which was recorded live and includes a large audience and all of their laughing, screaming, and cat calls.

I wish the disc had a good commentary, but the extras are all superb including a long interview with director Juan Piquar Simon and another with Paul Smith. There is also a short bit with Piquar showing off bits of memorabilia from the film including the infamous puzzle and the test shots of the model the puzzle was made of. It is a bit surprising to see such an odd little film get the super deluxe treatment, but really cult films benefit the most from such packages as they are so important to the people who love the films.

www.grindhousereleasing.com

Paging Doctor Lugosi

October 30th, 2008 by phil-bailey

Poor Bela Lugosi. His entire career was and always will be linked with Boris Karloff. He was forever in Boris’ shadow and could never quite measure up. Even when it came to playing vampires, Karloff’s turn as The Wurdalak in Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath bested Lugosi as Dracula. In fairness Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula is one of film history’s great icon yet Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster is even more iconic.

The one place where Lugosi may have had the upper hand on Karloff was playing mad scientists. Karloff played many a mad scientists, but they were never that mad, more misguided. Lugosi’s mad scientists were wild eyed, English butchering, lunatics. He could pump life into any poverty row quickie. He could be creating an army of supermen, or scaring the Dead End Kids, Lugosi did it with flair and gusto.

Two new DVDs are out that showcase two of Lugosi’s best deranged docs. Dr. Paul Carruthers in The Devil Bat and Dr. Eric Vornoff in Bride of the Monster.

Jean Yarbrough’s The Devil Bat (1940) made by Producers Releasing Corporation was nowhere near the low point of Lugosi’s career but was quite a come down in quality from the films he was making at Universal. Lugosi plays Dr. Paul Carruthers, a chemist for a cosmetics company who feels slighted after his work makes the company’s owners wealthy and he is given a pitance in return. In his secret labratory he is experimenting with raising giant bats that will attack on command by honing in on a special scent he has formulated into an after shave lotion. The after shave makes certain that the bat will attack the wearer’s scent. People keep coming to the labratory to see if the good doctor has any information on the mysterious deaths and he keeps having them try his after-shave. Typical of films of this time a hot shot reporter and his wise acre photographer are out to solve the mystery and by the end of the tidy 68 minute running time Lugosi gets the after shave on him and is bat attacked to death.

Lugosi is classic in this otherwise routine B-Grade thriller as he stares through small windows at his giant bats and rants about how he has been done wrong. “That’s your money doctor they gave you doctor. Like a bone thrown to a faithful dog!” Lugosi fumes after being given a $5,000. bonus.

A decade later, this performace would seem restrained as he would don the lab coat to play Dr. Eric Vornoff in Edward D. Wood Jr.’s dubious classic, Bride of the Monster.  Lugosi’s Dr. Vornoff uses his hulking, mute assistant, Lobo to abduct men for experiment on in order to create a race of supermen.  He also has a giant octopus that makes a dandy watch dog.  Bela is given free reign to over-act and he does so with glee.  He anguishes each scientific failure, he laugh maniacally at helpless victims, he goes on long tirades about those who “do not understand” his vision of atomic powered supermen.  He even gets to mercilessly beat Lobo with a whip!  By the time he falls prey to his giant octopus, one realizes we may never see a scientist this mad ever again.

Of course this is an Ed Wood film so there is a school play cheapness to the whole affair.  All of the elements are right, but there are just so clumsily executed, but in a fascinating and charming manner.  It is a terrible film, but totally enjoyable, and worthy of repeated viewings so you are able to catch more silliness.  The making of the film was well documented in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994).

Both The Devil Bat and Bride of the Monster have been newly restored and released on DVD by Legend FIlms.  Bride would have seemed a great choice for a MIchael Nelson commentary, but even without that for under ten bucks a piece you can get really nice version of these films that have too long suffered through shamefully poor public domain video releases.

www.legendfilms.net

Happy Birthday Elsa Lanchester

October 28th, 2008 by phil-bailey

Although she appeared in films in six decades, starting in the silent era, Elsa Lanchester will always be remembered for a few brief minutes at the end of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, as the “Creature’s Mate”.

Phantom from Space

October 27th, 2008 by phil-bailey

Phantom from Space has nothing to do with ghosts, but does involve an invisible extra terrestrial.  According the the very helpful and nearly constant voice over narrator a meteor has fallen off radar tracking and presumably crashed south of Santa Monica, California.  Special agents driving Packards with televison antennas mounted on the roof are in hot pursuit and soon they are on the trail of the alien throughout the afternoon, I mean night, i mean…geez, the day for night photography is Ed Wood bad.  If the characters didn’t keep saying it was night, who would know.  I mean even the colorization artists put blue skies in certain scenes.  Anyway, the alien soon ditches with space suit rendering him invisible.  One problem he can’t survive long on Earth without his suit and helmet.  The invisible E.T. decides to lock himself in a room at an observatory with a beautiful lab assistant (Noreen Nash) to try to tell her what he needs through code.  She can’t decipher the code, but does determine that the alien can be seen under ultra violet light.  More scientists try to help but the code goes un-decoded as the alien dies and briefly becomes fully visible before disintegrating.  Huh?  That’s it?  Actually that is probably closer to what would actually happen with an E.T./human contact.  I mean Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese have nearly insurmountable communication difficulties, I don’t think that creatures from Saturn are going to quickly pick up English.  Still it isn’t quite satisfying dramatically.  If maybe we knew the alien had the key to world peace or the cure for cancer the ending might have had poignancy but as written the film just stops and feel terribly amateurish.  The film is not a total waste and up until the end it was pretty entertaining in a people talking in wood paneled room sort of way.  Not a classic, but fun in a Saturday afternoon monster movie sort of way.

Phantom from Space is available in nicely priced edition from Legend Films.  The disc boasts a restored black and white print and a newly colorized version.  No extras beyond some Legend Films trailers, but with a price point under ten bucks, who needs extras?

www.legendfilms.net

Happy Birthday Sam Raimi

October 23rd, 2008 by phil-bailey

Happy Birthday to the creator of the last great American Horror film, The Evil Dead, and thank you for bringing Bruce Campbell into the world!

Happy Birthday Una O’Connor

October 23rd, 2008 by phil-bailey

Who?

Una O’Connor was a minor Irish character actress that was made immortal as hysterical comic relief in two classic James Whale Universal monster films; The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Joyeux Anniversaire Catherine Deneuve!

October 22nd, 2008 by phil-bailey

Happy Birthday Catherine Deneuve.

She is not only one of the most beautiful women in the world, she created two of the most memorable women in horror movie history; the sexually repressed psychotic Carole Ledoux in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Miriam Blaylock, the icy lesbian vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger.

I Walked with a Brain Eating Zombie!

October 21st, 2008 by phil-bailey

I had to check the date, make certain it wasn’t April Fools Day.  It wasn’t.  Apparently some of the brain trust behind the Saw movies and the teen gender bening comedy She’s the Man (which was a blatant rip off of the Japanese manga Hana-Kimi) have teamed up to destroy the reputation of three horror classics and two horror masters.  The Val Lewton films I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatcher (1945) and Beldlam (1946) are all going to be remade.

The Lewton films are classics of subtlety, restraint, atmosphere, and imagined horror.  Fine acting and beautiful camera work and lighting raise these films far out of their low budget status.  None of these adjectives come to mind when one thinks of Saw.

Bedlam and The Body Snatcher were two of Boris Karloff’s best and personal favorite films.  The characters were a far cry from the run of mad scientists he was relegated to playing in the mid forties.

Again Hollywood seems to have run out of any fresh ideas and continues to mine classic titles for a quick buck!  Shameful.

Happy Birthday Carrie Fisher

October 21st, 2008 by phil-bailey

I think she was in some other movies, wrote some books, had famous parents…but her legacy will be that metal bikini!