Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955)

The Gill Man returns for a second shot at interspecies romance in Revenge of the Creature (1955), a direct sequel to the 1954 Universal horror, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Jack Arnold also comes back to the fish man out of water story as the director, but this time the action moves from the Amazon to coastal Florida, where the Gill Man becomes a captive tourist attraction and the unwilling subject of scientific experiments. Although it lacks the novelty and eerie atmosphere of the original picture, Revenge of the Creature is nonetheless an entertaining follow-up, especially for fans of 1950s sci-fi horror. Genre regular John Agar is on hand as the scientist hero, with Lori Nelson as the lovely lady icthyologist who attracts the Gill Man's unrequited affection.

Agar stars as animal psychologist Clete Ferguson, who travels to Florida to run tests on the Gill Man after a hunting party captures the creature in his Amazon lagoon. Graduate student Helen (Lori Nelson) becomes the professor's assistant as well as his love interest, despite some competition from Joe (John Bromfield), the macho hunter who trapped the Gill Man and brought him to the United States. Chained in a tank at a marine park, the Gill Man endures shock training and captivity until his inevitable escape. He then terrorizes Jacksonville as he attempts to make off with Helen, while Clete leads a massive search to save the girl and kill the marauding creature.

Like much sci-fi horror of its era, Revenge of the Creature is as much about human hubris as anything. The Gill Man lives quietly in his lagoon, eating birds and leaving the human world alone, until the hunters show up and enslave him. Dragged to Florida and put on display, the creature tries to fight back, but his scenes of violence are less unnerving than the way he sits mournfully on an anchor in his tank, clearly pining for his freedom and his peaceful Amazonian home. The film makes a point of telling us that the Gill Man is almost human, and certainly human enough to regard Helen as an object of desire, but the scientists never confront the burden of responsibility that places on them for their mistreatment of him. When Helen visits the tank, the creature regards her intently, staring through the glass with an alien face but a human sense of loneliness and longing. If the film has a single dominant flaw, it lies in the human characters' refusal to admit the wrong that they have done by forcing the creature to be their guinea pig and spectacle; the Gill Man lacks an advocate to articulate his side of this story, although the camera tries hard to make the audience imagine what he must feel.

In other aspects, too, the picture relies on familiar tropes and figures to carry the action along. There's plenty of scientific talk, mingled with casual sexist assumptions, in the dialogue between Clete and Helen. Numerous set piece scenes display panic and pandemonium when the creature breaks loose, including the obligatory child left in peril. Like King Kong before him, the Gill Man carries off his lady and leaves havoc in his wake, but his need to be close to water keeps him from straying too far ashore. Luckily for him, the coast of Florida offers water in abundance, although the movie doesn't explain how a freshwater river creature survives in a salt water marine tank or the Atlantic Ocean. The performances of John Agar and Lori Nelson as the primary human characters are solid if not brilliant, but the movie really belongs to the lovelorn Gill Man, played in the water by Ricou Browning and on land by Tom Hennesy, both uncredited in spite of their excellent work in the awkward costume.

The Gill Man makes a third appearance in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and you'll also find him in Fred Dekker's 1987 love letter to Universal monsters, The Monster Squad. Jack Arnold's other directorial efforts include It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), and The Mouse That Roared (1959). John Agar was still getting started as a sci-fi B movie star in 1955, but fans know that he went on to become a staple of the genre in pictures like Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), and Attack of the Puppet People (1958). Look for Lori Nelson in Bend of the River (1952) and Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955); she and John Agar were reunited for the low-budget horror sci-fi spoof, The Naked Monster (2005), in which Nelson also plays Helen Dobson and Agar appears again as Clete Ferguson. For a different, and more articulate, take on the Gill Man type, check out Abe Sapien in Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008).

Post Script Trivia - Oddly enough, Revenge of the Creature marks the screen debut of Clint Eastwood, who has an uncredited role as one of the lab scientists.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My Favorite Bond

Roger Moore was my first Bond, and, decades later, he remains my favorite version of the iconic British spy. The first 007 movie I ever saw was a cable television edit of Live and Let Die (1973); I remember being delightfully terrified by Geoffrey Holder's Baron Samedi, and I was young enough that the exploitation aspects of the film went right over my head, along with most of the sexual innuendo. To me (I was about nine years old at the time), James Bond was exciting, funny, and fun. I still prefer that version of Bond today, even though most hardcore 007 fans seem to like the darker, more brutal incarnations of the character. Watching the Moore films again in 2015, thanks to a collection of Bond pictures currently streaming on Hulu, I'm reminded why I like Moore's tenure in the role so much.

Moore's Bond movies never take themselves very seriously; they might as well come with a disclaimer up front that says, "The following movie is just for larks." Everything that already existed in the Connery films - the megalomaniac villains, the naughtily named nymphs, the non-stop action - gets turned up to eleven in the Moore pictures. They are unabashedly over the top, and they know that we know it. Call that camp, if you like, but it makes the movies like a roller coaster ride, with the audience laughing and whooping through every twist and loop. Is fun the highest aim of cinema? No, but the Bond movies never set out to win Oscars. Roger Moore's Bond is fun to watch, and that's all he means to be. If things get rather silly at times - and they do, indeed, get very silly - that's part of the appeal.

Moore himself plays Bond as a charming cad, not at all the "blunt instrument" that Ian Fleming originally imagined in his books. He has real feelings, too, and he isn't afraid to acknowledge them. He delivers his endless double entendres with a knowing smirk, and he certainly has an eye for the ladies, but he can also be quite sentimental. We find him visiting his wife's grave at the beginning of For Your Eyes Only (1981), showing that he hasn't forgotten her in the arms of other women. The scene also sets up his empathy with the film's heroine, Melina Havelock, in her quest for revenge against the villains who murdered her family. He might be a cad, but he has his limits; in one very amusing scene, Bond finds the tables turned on him as the teenage Bibi Dahl tries to seduce him.

There are other delights in the Moore Bond outings, including outrageous settings and serendipitous reversals. In Moonraker (1979), Bond becomes a sci-fi hero, cashing in on the popularity of Star Wars (1977) and other late seventies hits in the genre. Of course, what everyone remembers about that film today is Jaws, the oversized, metal-mouthed henchman played by Richard Kiel. He's a crazy example of the Bond bad guy type, but even better, he's not all that bad. He actually changes sides and helps Bond after he falls for a pig-tailed blonde. It's ridiculous, yes, but it's awfully heartening to think that even scary bad guys can have a change of heart. Grace Jones does the same turnaround in A View to a Kill (1985) when she realizes that Christopher Walken's evil psychopath doesn't care what happens to her. Along with Baron Samedi, those characters help to make the Roger Moore run stranger but also more fun. They're kooky, weird figures, and cartoonish in a Dick Tracy way, but the movies wouldn't be the same without them.

Everyone is entitled to like the Bond that works for them; I really enjoy Timothy Dalton in The Living Daylights (1987) and Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye (1995), but I haven't been a fan of the Daniel Craig films. They're too dark for my taste, and not nearly as much fun. (I wanted Judi Dench and Albert Finney to run away together at the end of Skyfall. Hey, I like happy endings for older women characters.) So, instead of seeing Spectre in the theater this month, I think I'll stick with my Roger Moore marathon on Hulu. At least that way I know I'll have fun.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: TWICE-TOLD TALES (1963)

Borrowing both the star and the literary atmosphere of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations, Twice-Told Tales (1963) offers a trilogy of stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne, with Vincent Price taking the lead in all three segments of the film. Like the Corman pictures, this anthology of horror drips with Gothic period atmosphere and relies heavily on Price's irresistible appeal, but for Price devotees the actor's presence more than justifies the movie's existence. Given the genteel 19th-century quality of the tales, there aren't really any shocks on offer, but the Hawthorne stories do present abundant examples of irony and even a little of the supernatural. The third piece, "The House of the Seven Gables," is the most truly Gothic of the three, but both "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" have their charms.

In "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment," Price stars as Alex, an old friend of  Carl Heidegger (Sebastian Cabot), whose lifetime of mourning his lost love takes a strange turn when the pair discover water with the power to restore youth and life. Price then plays the sinister father in "Rappaccini's Daughter," using his botanical science to transform his child (Joyce Taylor) into a poisonous vessel of death. "The House of the Seven Gables" features Price as prodigal son Gerald Pyncheon, who brings his wife (Beverly Garland) back to his family's haunted estate to search for the wealth in a hidden vault.

Hawthorne's favorite themes are very much on display throughout the trilogy; he has a finer, less macabre sense of horror than Poe, and his works often hinge on moral considerations. Each of the anthology segments makes significant changes to Hawthorne's original texts, but they still retain the spirit in which the stories were conceived. The first two are basically weird tales wrapped in the crushed crimson velvet of American Romanticism; they are almost, but not quite, science fiction, but both concern themselves more with questions of irony and ethics than scientific speculation. Price, of course, is a master at registering a character's dawning sense of the tragically ironic, although he's far less campy in all three segments than in many of his most iconic horror roles. Each of his characters fails Hawthorne's moral tests and richly deserves his fate, but Price also invests the first two with sincerity and regret; the third, Gerald Pyncheon, is a fully realized Gothic heavy, a scheming wastrel who defies a vengeful ghost in spite of the danger to himself and his innocent wife. Price's performance in that part harks back to his role as Nicholas Van Ryn in Dragonwyck (1946), although Price had actually played a very different Pyncheon character in the 1940 feature length adaptation of The House of the Seven Gables.

Price's costars in each segment benefit from his screen presence, with the women in particular standing out in their performances. Mari Blanchard is lovely if less than innocent as Sylvia, Dr. Heidegger's long lost bride, while Joyce Taylor conveys the anguish of Beatrice Rappaccini, a Rapunzel trapped in her garden by her father's poisonous love. Beverly Garland and Jacqueline deWit provide foils for one another, as well as obstacles to Price's Gerald Pyncheon, as Gerald's wife, Alice, and formidable sister, Hannah. Garland appears as the heroine and deWit as a variation on the sinister Gothic housekeeper, the person who knows the family's darkest secrets. The other men are generally less memorable, although Sebastian Cabot gives a very fine performance as the heartbroken Heidegger. Brett Halsey and Richard Denning, both playing straight romantic leads, are mostly there to pine after the ladies and get in Price's way, but their characters suffer from the usual flatness of their type.

For a double bill of Vincent Price horror anthologies, pair Twice-Told Tales with Corman's Tales of Terror (1962). The actor had a busy year in 1963, which also saw the release of The Raven, The Haunted Palace, and The Comedy of Terrors. Sebastian Cabot is best remembered today for the TV series, A Family Affair, and for his voice acting roles in Disney films, including The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977). Be sure to catch Beverly Garland in The Alligator People (1959), and see Richard Denning in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Sidney Salkow, who directed Twice-Told Tales, mostly worked on television episodes and Westerns, but his career stretched all the way back to the 1930s. He also directed Bulldog Drummond at Bay (1947), Sitting Bull (1954), and four episodes of The Addams Family.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962)

A low-budget cult classic, The Brain that Wouldn't Die (1962) offers all the twisted delights one could ask for in a science fiction horror movie of this type. It's sleazy, gruesome, and short, with a parade of scantily clad women and a mad surgeon hellbent on attaching his girlfriend's severed head to the best body he can find. Although its cut corners and abrupt ending keep it solidly in the realm of the B movie, The Brain that Wouldn't Die benefits from some surprisingly effective acting and several creative, if ghoulish, approaches to its material. Fans of drive-in horror won't need the popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment of this particular picture to appreciate its many macabre charms.

Jason Evers (billed as Herb) stars as transplant surgeon Dr. Bill Cortner, who attempts strange experiments to advance his science in spite of the warnings of his mentor father. When Bill's girlfriend, Jan (Virginia Leith), is conveniently decapitated in a car wreck caused by Bill, the obsessed surgeon grabs the head and revives it in his secret lab. Jan doesn't appreciate being kept alive in this state, but she finds she has gained telepathic powers from the serum Bill uses to sustain her, and she forms a bond with a hideous failed experiment that Bill keeps locked in the lab's closet. Bill, meanwhile, roams the town looking for an attractive body to go with Jan's head. He finds disfigured body model Peggy (Marilyn Hanold), whose scarred face and perfect figure make her a seemingly perfect fit for Bill's insane plans.

The film packs a wealth of provocative material into its 82 minute package, and its science fiction elements reflect both its era and its cinematic roots. Brain movies proved popular in the 1950s and 1960s, with pictures like Donovan's Brain (1953) and Fiend without a Face (1958) exploring different aspects of the theme. The Brain that Wouldn't Die definitely cashes in on that trend, but it also borrows heavily from the 1930s Frankenstein films. Bill's first creation is very like Frankenstein's creature, a menagerie of stolen parts grafted together and condemned to a tortured mockery of life, while Jan becomes the Bride, intended not for the monster but for Bill himself. The quickie B movie lacks the class of James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, but, given that director's very morbid sense of humor, it's not hard to imagine Whale loving the bizarre spectacle of "Jan in the Pan." The 1962 feature also has the freedom to go a lot farther with its gore, although later TV and video versions often cut the bloodiest scenes. The death of Bill's assistant, Kurt (played by Anthony La Penna under the name Leslie Daniel), revels in macabre irony, even if its effects elements seem simplistic by modern horror standards. The movie also reveals a prurient interest in women's bodies, with Bill cruising strip joints and city streets for potential donors to Jan's reconstruction. He looks them over carefully, the camera following his gaze as he assesses all the key parts of each woman's figure. Luckily, the plot also adopts a female revenge angle that justly punishes Bill for his lecherous hubris.

There are many glaring flaws in The Brain that Wouldn't Die, including a car accident that doesn't actually show a car, a head that can laugh without lungs, and an ending that leaves one particularly obvious thread dangling, but the performances themselves are much more energetic than one often finds in movies of this kind. Evers has just the right obsessive conviction as the crazed surgeon; we only wonder why Jan likes him in the first place, since he seems pretty far gone from the start. Even in the slower opening scenes, which lay out the medical explanations and ethical questions for the transplant experiments to follow, Evers gives Bill an intense, driven quality that also reveals his deep-rooted psychological need to rebel against and surpass his more cautious father. The creepy appeal of the picture, however, really depends on Virginia Leith's bodiless vengeance as Jan. When we first see her, she glows with adoration for Bill, but her conventional personality vanishes along with her limbs. As a head, she becomes something unnatural, powerful, and filled with seething hatred for the egomaniac who forces her to live. Leith's husky whispers and piercing laughter dominate every scene in the lab, and they're what the viewer will remember after the final shot ends.

For a freakish triple feature, follow up with The Man with Two Brains (1983) and Re-Animator (1985). Joseph Green, who directed The Brain that Wouldn't Die, was primarily a distributor of low-budget pictures rather than a filmmaker, but his one hit cult wonder has ensured his place in horror history. Jason Evers was primarily a television actor, but he turns up in The Green Berets (1968), The Illustrated Man (1969), and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Look for Virginia Leith in Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire (1953), Violent Saturday (1955), and A Kiss Before Dying (1956).

In February of 2015, Wired ran this interesting article about the reanimation genre of horror and The Lazarus Effect (2015); The Brain that Wouldn't Die gets plenty of credit for its influence on subsequent films.