Off-Brand Spaghetti: MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE (United Artists 1969)


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It’s hanging day at a remote Arizona prison outpost, and four men are scheduled to swing from the gallows. After they’re executed, the four pine boxes pop open, and outlaw Luke Santee and his gang commence firing, their six-guns blazing, as they try to free Luke’s baby brother. The escape attempt is an epic fail as ‘Killer’ Cain, a prisoner for 18 years now up for parole, stops the brother from leaving his cell and getting slaughtered, with Luke vowing revenge…

That opening scene, a violent, gory bloodbath, makes one think MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE is going to be a Sergio Leone-inspired American Spaghetti Western. It even stars a former TV Western hero named Clint – big Clint (CHEYENNE) Walker ! But the episodic nature of George Schenck’s script kills that idea, as the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Spaghetti or Traditional Western? Character study, comedy…

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Horror on the Lens: Haunts of the Very Rich (dir by Paul Wendkos)


Today’s horror on the lens is a 1972 made-for-TV movie, Haunts of the Very Rich!

What happens when a bunch of rich people find themselves on an airplane with no memory of how they got there?  Well, first off, they land at a luxury resort!  But what happens when the resort suddenly turns out to be deserted and the guests discover that there’s no apparent way out!?

You can probably already guess the film’s “surprise” ending but Haunts of the Very Rich is still an entertaining little film.  You can check out my more in-depth review here!

Enjoy!

Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)


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Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

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For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she…

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Horror On TV: Twilight Zone 1.34 “The After Hours”


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In this episode of The Twilight Zone, Marsha White (played by Anne Francis) discovers some strange things happening in a department store. If you’re like me and you find mannequins to be super creepy, this episode is for you!

This episode originally aired on June 10th, 1960.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #68: Mazes and Monsters (dir Steven Hilliard Stern)


M_M_DVDIt’s amazing the things that you find when you randomly search the DVD section of Half-Price Books.  For instance, I found a very cheap DVD of the 1982 made-for-TV film Mazes and Monsters and I simply had to buy it.

Why?

Well, just look at the cover above.  Look at the ominous castle.  Look at the shadowy dragons flying around it.  Look at that Shining-style maze.  Look at the ominous tag line: “Danger lurks between fantasy and reality.”  And especially be sure to look at Tom Hanks gazing serenely over it all.

“Wow,” I thought, “Tom Hanks fights a dragon?  This is something that I’ve got to see!”

Well, there are no dragons in Mazes and Monsters.  There are a few monsters but they’re only briefly seen figments of Tom Hanks’s imagination.  The film is about a group of college students who obsessively play an RPG called Mazes and Monsters.  When one of the students (an annoying genius who wears wacky hats and is played by an actor with the surprisingly poetic name of Chris Makepeace) suggests that they play Mazes and Monsters “for real” in some caverns near the college, it leads to Robbie (Tom Hanks) have a mental breakdown.  Soon, Robbie is convinced that he’s actually a monk.  He breaks up with his girlfriend because he doesn’t want to violate his vow of celibacy.  (Of course, the real fantasy is that a college student obsessed with playing Mazes and Monsters would have a girlfriend in the first place but anyway…)  He keeps seeing imaginary minotaurs lurking in the shadows.  Finally, he runs off to New York on a quest to find “the great Hall.”  It’s up to his friends to find him and hopefully impart an important lesson about the dangerous reality of RPG addiction.

Or something.

Listen, to be honest, if not for Tom Hanks, there would be no reason to watch Mazes and Monsters.  It’s poorly acted.  It’s written and directed with a heavy hand.  There’s some nice shots of downtown New York City but otherwise, it’s visually drab.

But, because Tom Hanks is in it and he’s playing a role that demands that he go totally over-the-top in his performance, Mazes and Monsters is totally worth watching.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Hanks wander around New York City while dressed like a monk, this is the film for you.  If you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Hanks start to tremble while explaining that, as a monk, he’s not allowed to kill minotaurs, this is the movie for you.  Most of all, if you’ve ever wanted to see Tom Hanks shrieking, “THERE’S BLOOD ON MY KNIFE!” while standing in an old school phone booth, this is definitely the movie for you!

Seriously.

Considering that Tom Hanks is currently viewed as being some sort of elder statesman of American film (and, even more importantly, Hanks seems to view himself as being some sort of national treasure), there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing him before he became THE Tom Hanks.  It’s good to be reminded that, at one time, he was just another young actor doing his best in a crappy made-for-TV movie.

Back to School #3: Blackboard Jungle (dir by Richard Brooks)


You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.

Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school.  As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers.  Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future.  As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.

At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class.  The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school.  Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair.  It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos.  (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)

It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today.  We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here.  In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film.  And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise.  The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example.  It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today.  (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)

That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well.  Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple.  Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader.  However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.

As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain.  In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him.  He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost.  He was merely damaged.  However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior.  His parents go unmentioned.  When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records.  Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached.  He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.

Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.

Artie Turner Acting Out

Artie Turner Acting Out