Halloween Havoc!: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (Paramount 1932)


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Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.

Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued…

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Happy Birthday Boris Karloff: THE OLD DARK HOUSE (Universal 1932)


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William Henry Pratt was born on November 23, 1887, but horror movie icon Boris Karloff was “born” when he teamed with director James Whale for 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN. The scary saga of a man and his monster became a big hit, and Universal Studios boss Carl Laemmle Jr. struck while the horror trend was hot, quickly teaming the pair in an adaptation of J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel THE OLD DARK HOUSE. This film was considered lost for many years until filmmaker and Whale friend Curtis Harrington discovered a print in the Universal vaults. Recently, a 4K restoration has been released courtesy of the Cohen Film Collection, and a showing aired on TCM this past Halloween. I of course, having never seen the film, hit the DVR button for a later viewing.

THE OLD DARK HOUSE has not only been restored to its former glory, but is a delightful black comedy showcasing…

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Happy 100th Birthday Robert Mitchum!: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (United Artists 1955)


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Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.

Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to…

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Horror Film Review: Island of Lost Souls (dir by Erle C. Kenton)


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In the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) has reason to be concerned.  She’s on the island of Samoa, awaiting the arrival of her fiancée, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen).  When Parker’s boat doesn’t show up, it can only mean one thing.  He’s been shipwrecked!  Did he survive or was he lost at sea?

Well, Ruth need not worry.  Parker did survive being shipwrecked.  He was picked up by a freighter carrying a wide selection of animals to an isolated island.  Unfortunately, when Parker complained about the way that Parker was abusing some of his admittedly odd-looking passengers, the captain responded by dumping Parker on that island as well.

On the island, Parker becomes the guest of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) and his assistant, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl).  Parker also meets and finds himself becoming attractive to the seemingly naive Lota (Kathleen Burke).  Though Moreau seems to be a good host, Parker grows suspicious of him.  It turns out that there’s a room in Moreau’s compound, a room that Lota calls “the house of pain.”  At night, Parker can hear horrifying screams coming from the room.

Initially believing the Moreau is torturing the island’s natives, Parker soon discovers an even more disturbing truth.  Moreau has been experimenting with trying to transform animals into humans.  Lota, it turns out, was once a panther and the woods surrounding the compound are full of other Moreau creations.  Though Moreau claims that his intentions are benevolent, he rules his island like a dictator.  The animal-men are kept in line by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) and any transgressions are punished in the House of Pain…

The Island of Lost Souls was the first cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau.  (Perhaps the most famous adaptation came out in 1996 and is the subject of Lost Souls, a fascinating documentary that, I believe, can still be found on Netflix.)  I watched it last night on TCM and I have to admit that I had a mixed reaction to it.  On the one hand, the film’s atmosphere of mystery and danger is palpable and Charles Laughton’s performance definitely set a standard for all misguided scientists to follow.  The human-animals are fantastic creations and  the film’s ending still has some power.  Bela Lugosi’s performance of the Sayer of the Law was superior to his work as Dracula.  (As shown by both this film and Ninotchka, Lugosi was an outstanding character actor.)  Kathleen Burke also does a great job as Lota, which makes it all the more interesting that she was apparently cast as a result of winning a contest that was sponsored by Paramount Pictures.

(On a personal note, I always find it amusing that pre-code films always feature at least one scene of an actress removing her stockings, even if the scene itself has next to nothing to do with the rest of the film.  In this case, the legs belong to Leila Hyams.)

On the negative side, Richard Arlen is not a particularly interesting hero and, from a contemporary point of view, Island of Lost Souls is a rather slow-moving film.  Watching it today requires modern audiences to make a bit of an adjustment to their expectations.

With all that in mind, I still recommend Island of Lost Souls.  Watch it for Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.  Watch it as a valuable piece of cinematic history.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux


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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an…

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Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Ruggles of Red Gap (dir by Leo McCarey)


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After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.

First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty.  Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton.  In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh.  In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.

It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations.  To a certain extent, it’s understandable.  Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture.  As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny.  (At that time, there were no supporting categories.  Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.)  The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.

As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to.  The film’s best moments occur at the start.  Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game.  Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles).  The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American.  Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system.  Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal.  Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name.  Egbert gets Ruggles drunk.  The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.

The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington.  The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension.  (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.)  They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero.  It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.

And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers.  Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man.  And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what?  Charles Laughton pulled it off.  As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together.  He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.

How proud of an American does Ruggles become?  He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address!  Watch below!

Lisa Watches an Oscar Nominee: Witness for the Prosecution (dir by Billy Wilder)


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Earlier today, I DVRed the 1957 best picture nominee, Witness for the Prosecution, off of TCM.  I watched the film as soon as I finished dinner and, having now seen Witness for the Prosecution, I am prepared to give you my professional and erudite review.

Okay, are you ready for it?  Here we go:

🙂 Oh my God, I freaking love this movie!!!!!!!!! 🙂

Witness for the Prosecution is many things.  It’s a courtroom drama.  It’s a domestic comedy.  It’s a twisty murder mystery.  It’s a showcase for three great performers.  It’s crowd pleaser that will make you think and, even if it does involve people killing each other, it will probably make you smile as well.  Don’t let that 1957 date fool you.  Witness For the Prosecution is a lot of fun.

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is a somewhat sleazy man who has two claims to fame.  One is that he claims to be responsible for inventing the egg beater.  The other is that he’s been accused of murdering Mrs. French (Norma Varden), a wealthy widow who had recently named Leonard as the beneficiary of her will.  Everyone assumes that Leonard must have been having an affair with Mrs. French but Leonard claims that he’s innocent.

Suspecting that he is soon going to be arrested, Leonard hires Sir Wilfred Robarts (Charles Laughton) to serve as his attorney.  Though Sir Wilfred is recovering from a heart attack and has been ordered to not take on any more stressful criminal cases, he agrees to defend Leonard.  He proceeds to do just that, under the watchful eye of his nurse, the protective Mrs. Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester).

(The testy relationship between Sir Wilfred and Mrs. Plimsoll provides the film with its comedic relief.  Laughton and Lanchester were married in real life and, watching the film, you can tell that they had a lot of fun acting opposite each other.)

Sir Wilfred is convinced that he can win acquittal for Leonard, especially since Leonard’s German wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich), is willing to provide an alibi for him.  (In one of the film’s best moments, Sir Wilfred talks about how distraught Christine will be to discover that Leonard has been arrested just to then have the very calm and self-possessed Christine step into the room.)  However, to everyone’s shock, Christine is called as a witness for the prosecution.  She testifies that Leonard confessed the murder to her and that she only provided an alibi out of fear and love.

Things aren’t looking good for Leonard but then, a mysterious woman with a cockney accent contacts Sir Wilfred and reveals that Christine may have had reasons of her own for not giving Leonard an alibi…

Witness For The Prosecution ends with a voice over that says, “The management of this theater suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.”  And I have to say that, when I heard that, it just made me love the film even more.  I had enjoyed the film so much and had so much fun following all the twists and the turns of the mystery that I found myself nodding in agreement.

“Sure, 58 year-old voice over,” I said, “I will not divulge the secret ending of Witness For The Prosecution.”

And I’m not going to!  Though, to be honest, you’ll probably guess the secret before it’s revealed.  It’s a plot twist that has been imitated by so many other courtroom dramas that it’s probably not as much of a mind-blower today as it may have been back in 1957.

But no matter!  Witness For The Prosecution is still a lot of fun.  Even if you figure out the mystery early, you can still watch the film and enjoy Laughton’s wonderfully theatrical performance.

Witness for the Prosecution was nominated for best picture and, interestingly enough, another theatrical courtroom drama — 12 Angry Men — was also nominated that year.  It’s interesting to compare the low-key drama of 12 Angry Men to the cheerful flamboyance of Witness For The Prosecution.  They are both great films about the law but each is told from a very different perspective.

Of course, in the end, both of these great films ended up losing to The Bridge On The River Kwai.