The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Madhouse (dir by Jim Clark)


In this 1974 film, Vincent Price plays Paul Toombes, a talented actor who, despite his formal training and his distinguished background, is best-known for giving hammy performances in low-budget horror films.

Hmmm …. do you think Vincent Price possibly could have related to this character?  I mean, one thing that people often forget is that Vincent Price did not start his career in horror movies.  Price started his career as a romantic lead and then he eventually moved into character parts.  He was tested and apparently quite seriously considered for the role of Ashely Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.  Price was also considered for the role of Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life and rumor has it that he would have gotten the role of Addison DeWitt if George Sanders had turned down All About Eve.  Before he became an icon of horror, Price had roles in big-budget Oscar nominees like The Song of Bernadette and Wilson.  He even appeared in the classic film noir, Laura.

It wasn’t until the 50s that Price started to regularly appear in horror films and soon, that was what he was best known for.  Price’s naturally theatrical style made him a perfect fit for the genre and it won him a legion of adoring fans.  The same can be said of Paul Toombes.

Paul Toombes is best-known for playing the role of Dr. Death.  He appeared in five Dr. Death films, the majority of which were written by his friend, Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing).  Unfortunately, the murder of his fiancée put a temporary end to Toombes’s acting career.  Even though Toombes was acquitted of the crime, everyone seems to assume that he did it.  Apparently, having a nickname like Dr. Death doesn’t do much to convince people of your benevolence.

However, Toombes finally has a chance to rebuild his career!  The BBC wants to produce a Dr. Death TV series and they want Toombes to once again play his most famous role.  The only problem?  People involved with the production are getting murdered, one-by-one.  Is Dr. Death responsible or is he being set up?

Madhouse is kind of an early slasher film, though, with its gloved killer and its whodunit plot, it has more in common with an Italian giallo than an installment of Friday the 13th.  The deaths are bloody but not too bloody.  In fact, for a film that’s full of murder and betrayal, Madhouse is surprisingly good natured.  The main appeal of the film, of course, is to see Vincent Price and Peter Cushing acting opposite of each other.  Though they were both known for appearing in horror films, Price and Cushing were two very different actors and each brought his own individual approach to Madhouse.  Price is his usual flamboyant self while Cushing is considerably more reserved and the contrast of their styles actually creates an interesting dynamic between Toombes and Flay.

Madhouse is also full of footage from previous films that Vincent Price had made for AIP.  (Of course, these movies are presented as being Dr. Death films.)  Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff both appear in archival footage, acting opposite Price.  It’s nice to see them, even if neither one of them was actually alive when Madhouse was filmed.  Paul Toombes actually gets a scene where he praises Bail Rathbone’s performance and one gets the feeling that the sentiments were being expresses as much by Price as by the character he was playing.

Madhouse is okay.  The plot’s not particularly challenging and the tone tends to go all over the place, as if the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a horror movie or a Hollywood satire.  However, the film works whenever Vincent Price is on-screen, which is often.  Price is just fun to watch, especially when he’s teamed up with an old pro like Peter Cushing.  For fans of Price and Cushing, Madhouse is an entertaining chance to watch two icons of horror go at it.

 

Spring Breakdown: The Ghost In the Invisible Bikini (dir by Don Weis)


The 1966 film, The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini, asks the question, “What can you do if you want to have a beach party but you don’t have a beach?”

The answer: “Find a pool!”

Seriously, a pool is just as good as a beach and fortunately, Chuck (Tommy Kirk) has a pool where his friends can hang out and listen as Vicki (Nancy Sinatra) sings a song.  It’s in a big old mansion and hey, it might be haunted.  It used to belong to Hiram Stokeley (Boris Karloff) and he’s dead now so he certainly won’t mind, right?

Well, what if he’s not dead!?

Oh wait, actually, he is dead.  But he’s still hanging around.  It turns out that he needs to do at least one good deed in order to get into Heaven.  (Isn’t starring in Frankenstein enough?  I mean, c’mon…..)  It also turns that Hiram only has 24 hours to do that good deed or it’s off to Hell for him.  Maybe he could figure out a way to help Chuck and his family win his fortune!  Hiram enlists the help of his long-dead girlfriend, Cecily (Susan Hart).  Cecily, we are told, is wearing an invisible bikini but we just have to take the film’s word on that because it’s invisible and, seeing as how Cecily’s a ghost, it’s always possible that only reason she’s transparent is because she’s a spirit.  I mean, seriously, who knows how ghosts work?

Anyway, it’s not going to be easy for Hiram and Cecily to ensure that Chuck inherits that fortune, largely because Chuck and all of his friends are idiots.  The other problem is that Reginald Ripper (Basil Rathbone), Hiram’s lawyer, is determined to win that money for himself and, if you have any doubt that he’s a bad dude, just check out his name.  GOOD PEOPLE ARE NOT NAMED REGINALD RIPPER!  Fortunately, even though Reginald graduated from law school and is played by Basil freaking Rathbone, he’s still an idiot and he comes up with the stupidest plan possible to get Chuck and friends out of the house.

He’s going to make them think that it’s haunted!

(But it is haunted….)

Reginald’s plan is to have his evil associates, J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White), Chicken Feather (Benny Rubin), and Princess Yolanda (Bobbi Shaw), pretend to be monsters and ghosts in order to scare all of the teens out of the house.  He also enlists his daughter, Sinistra (Quinn O’Hara), to help but Sinistra isn’t really bad.  She’s just extremely near-sighted and someone thought it would be a good idea to name her Sinistra.

And then the bikers show up!  This is one of AIP’s beach party films so, of course, there are bikers.  Eric von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) shows up and pretends to be Marlon Brando in The Wild One.  Of course, at the time this film was made, the real Marlon Brando was filming Arthur Penn’s The Chase so I’m going to guess that Harvey Lembeck probably had more fun pretending to be Brando than Brando was having being himself….

Anyway, this is a stupid movie even by the standards of the AIP beach party films.  It’s also notably disjointed.  That probably has something to do with the fact that Karloff and Susan Hart weren’t actually added to the film until after the movie had already been shot.  Apparently, AIP felt that the first cut of the movie was missing something so they said, “Let’s toss in a little Karloff!”  Of course, Boris Karloff was such an old charmer that it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t ever really interact with anyone other than Susan Hart over the course of the film.  You’re just happy to see him.

So yeah, technically, this is not a good film but, at the same time, you kind of know what you’re getting into when you watch a movie called The Ghost In The Invisible Bikini.  The jokes fall flat.  The songs are forgettable.  But the whole thing is such a product of its time that it’s always watchable from an anthropological perspective.  Add to that, you get Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, doing what they had to do to pay the bills and somehow surviving with their dignity intact.  Good for them.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Romeo and Juliet (dir by George Cukor)


You know the story that’s told in this 1936 film already, don’t you?

In the city of Verona, Romeo Montague (Leslie Howard) has fallen in love with Juliet Capulet (Norma Shearer).  Normally, this would be cause for celebration because, as we all know, love is a wonderful thing.  However, the House of Capulet and the House of Montague have long been rivals.  When we first meet them all, they’re in the process of having a brawl in the middle of the street.  There’s no way that Lord Capulet (C. Aubrey Smith) will ever accept the idea of Juliet marrying a Montague, especially when he’s already decided that she is to marry Paris (Ralph Forbes).  Things get even more complicated with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Basil Rathbone), kills Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (John Barrymore).  Romeo then kills Tybalt and things only grow more tragic from there.

It’s hard to keep track of the number of films that have been made out of William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers and tragedy.  The plot is so universally known that “Romeo and Juliet” has become shorthand for any story of lovers who come from different social sects.  Personally, I’ve always felt that Romeo and Juliet was less about love and more about how the rivalry between the Montagues and the Capulets forces the young lovers into making hasty decisions.  If not for Lord Capulet throwing a fit over his daughter’s new boyfriend, she and Romeo probably would have split up after a month or two.  Seriously, I’ve lost track of how many losers I went out with in high school just because my family told me that I shouldn’t.

Producer Irving Thalberg spent five years trying to get MGM’s Louis B. Mayer to agree to greenlight a film version of Romeo and Juliet.  Mayer thought that most audiences felt that Shakespeare was above them and that they wouldn’t spend money to see an adaptation of one of his plays.  Thalberg, on the other hand, thought that the story would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the talents of his wife, Norma Shearer.  It was only after Warner Bros. produced a financially successful version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Mayer gave Romeo and Juliet the go ahead.

Of course, by the time the film went into production, Norma Shearer was 34 years old and a little bit too mature to be playing one of the most famous teenagers in literary history.  Perhaps seeking to make Shearer seem younger, Thalberg cast 43 year-old Leslie Howard as Romeo, 44 year-old Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, and 54 year-old John Barrymore as Mercutio,  (In Barrymore’s defense, to me, Mercutio always has come across as being Verona’s equivalent of the guy who goes to college for ten years and then keeps hanging out on the campus even after dropping out.)

In short, this is the middle-aged Romeo and Juliet and, despite all of the good actors in the cast, it’s impossible not to notice.  There were few Golden Age actors who fell in love with the authenticity of Leslie Howard and Basil Rathbone is a wonderfully arrogant and sinister Tybalt.  Norma Shearer occasionally struggles with some of the Shakespearean dialogue but, for the most part, she does a good job of making Juliet’s emotions feel credible.  As for Barrymore — well, he’s John Barrymore.  He’s flamboyant, theatrical, and a lot of fun to watch if not always totally convincing as anything other than a veteran stage actor hamming it up.  The film is gorgeous to look at and George Cukor embraces the melodrama without going overboard.  But, everyone in the movie is just too old and it does prove to be a bit distracting.  A heart-broken teenager screaming out, “I am fortune’s fool!” is emotionally powerful.  A 43 year-old man doing the same thing is just not as effective.

Despite being a box office failure (it turned out that Mayer was right about Depression-era audiences considering Shakespeare to be too “arty”), Romeo and Juliet was nominated for Best Picture of the year, the second Shakespearean adaptation to be so honored.  However, the award that year went to another big production, The Great Ziegfeld.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars


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I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire…

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Film Review: The Last Days of Pompeii (dir by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper)


The summer after I graduated high school, I took a trip to Italy.

I absolutely loved it.  There’s nothing more wonderful than being 18 and irresponsible in one of the most beautiful and romantic countries in Europe.  I also loved it because everywhere I looked in Italy, I saw the remains of history.  When I was in Rome, I visited the Colosseum.  When I was in Southern Italy, I visited Comune di Melissa, the village where some of my ancestors once lived.  When I visited Florence, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty of it all that I nearly fainted.

And then there was Pompeii.  I spent a day visiting the ruins of Pompeii and it was an amazing experience.  The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD may have been horrific for the Romans but it’s also gave history nerds like me a chance to step right into the past.  Beyond just the thrill of seeing how the world once was, I have two main memories of Pompeii:

First, there was the visit to Pompeii’s brothel.  An Australian tourist lay down on one of the stone slabs so that his family could take pictures of him.

Secondly, there was the fact that I wore a really pretty red dress for my visit but I failed to take into account that 1) the area around Pompeii is very hilly and 2) it was a very windy day.  So, I can say that I’ve not only visited but I’ve flashed Pompeii as well.

The destruction of Pompeii has inspired several books and more than a few films, as well.  One of the earliest was the 1935 film, The Last Days of Pompeii.

The Last Days of Pompeii opens with Marcus (Preston Foster), an extremely bitter blacksmith who lives in the bustling city of Pompeii.  Marcus is bitter because he’s not rich and his family has been just been run down by some jackass in a chariot.  Marcus does find brief fame as a gladiator but he’s stricken with guilt after he kills a man and then discovers that he’s made an orphan out of the man’s son.  Marcus adopts young Flavius, just to then discover that the boy is seriously ill.  A fortune teller informs Marcus that Flavius will be healed by “the greatest man in Judea.”  Marcus naturally assumes that this is a reference to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Basil Rathbone).  However, upon traveling to Judea, Marcus meets a different great man and then watches as his adopted son is healed.

Jump forward about two decades.  Marcus is now a rich man and is in charge of Pompeii’s gladiatorial games.  Flavius (now played by John Wood) has grown up to be an idealistic young man who barely remembers the day that he was healed. What Marcus doesn’t know is that Flavius has been helping slaves escape from Pompeii.  When Flavius is arrested, it appears that Marcus is doomed to watch his own son be killed in the arena.

But wait a minute — what’s that coming down the mountain?  It’s kinda smoky and red and it looks like it might be really hot and …. oh damn.

Now, there’s two problems here.  First off, from a historical point of view, the film’s timeline doesn’t work out.  Jesus was crucified in 33 AD.  Pompeii was destroyed 46 yeas later, in 79 AD.  Therefore, there’s no way that Flavius should only be in his early 20s.  Secondly, just the fact that the film takes place in Pompeii pretty much gives away the ending before the story even begins.  Since you know that the volcano is eventually going to kill everyone, it’s hard to get too caught up in any of the drama.  You just find yourself sitting there and going, “When isssssssssss the volcano going to eeeeeeeeeeeeerupt!?”

On the plus side, Preston Foster is one of the more underrated of the Golden Age stars and he does a pretty good job here.  Plus, you have to love any film that features Basil Rathbone as a semi-decadent Roman.  Rathbone plays Pilate as both a bored libertine and a guilt-stricken convert and, both times, he’s impressive.

Despite being directed by the team behind the original King Kong, The Last Days of Pompeii is a bit slow but, if you’re specifically a fan of old sword-and-sandal epics, it’s entertaining enough.  See it for Foster, Rathbone, and the ghosts of old Pompeii.

Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)


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This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the…

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Horror on the Lens: The Hound of the Baskervilles (dir by Sidney Lanfield)


For today’s horror on the lens, we have 1939’s The Hound of the Baskervilles!

Based, of course, on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, The House of the Baskervilles is well-remembered for being the first of many Sherlock Holmes films to star Basil Rathbone as the detective and Nigel Bruce as his loyal sidekick, Dr. Watson.  Interestingly enough, Holmes is absent for a good deal of the film, leaving it up to Watson to do the majority of the investigating.  That said, you can still see why Rathbone’s interpretation of the character proved to be so popular that he would go on to play Holmes in a total of 14 movies and one radio series.

Enjoy!

Halloween Havoc!: TOWER OF LONDON (Universal 1939)


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Rowland V. Lee followed up his successful SON OF FRANKENSTEIN with TOWER OF LONDON, reuniting with stars Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff in a take on the story of Richard III that mixes historical drama with horror. This “Game of Thrones” is filled with political machinations, royal court intrigue, and murder most foul as the crook backed Richard kills his way to the top of England’s heap, aided by his chief executioner Mord.

You won’t find any Shakespeare here or historical accuracy, but Lee and his screenwriter brother Richard N. Lee craft a tale of bad intentions to capitalize on the renewed interest in the horror genre. Rathbone exudes evil from every pore as Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, who along with his brother King Edward VI, has seized power by imprisoning the feeble-minded Henry IV. But there are six heirs standing in Richard’s way to succession, and he keeps…

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Halloween Havoc: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1939)


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Horror films took a hiatus from Hollywood from 1937 to 1939. The British Horror Ban forbid monster movies from being screened without an X rating, curtailing the export of terror-inducing tales. The Production Code was in full effect, with Joseph Breen and his censorship minions clamping down on what they considered wasn’t suitable for the public. Lastly, Carl Laemmle Sr. (and his son) were ousted from Universal Studios, the company he founded, with J. Cheever Cowdin taking over as Chairman. Cowdin was a money man with a tight hold on the bottom line for the cash-strapped Universal.

Then in 1938, a Los Angeles theater desperate for business featured a triple-bill consisting of FRANKENSTEIN , DRACULA , and KING KONG , playing to sold-out crowds, and a nationwide rerelease saw similar box-office success. The Universal Monsters were back in business, and a third sequel to their profitable series based on Mary…

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