Prince of Darkness, Review by Case Wright


Speilberg had 1941, Lucas had Howard the Duck, and John Carpenter had Prince of Darkness. I’m not going to spend a whole review impugning the Master of Horror, BUT….this was really really really bad. When I was young, several months ago Pre-COVID (more on my COVID experience tomorrow- you’ll love it: there’s sweat, fever, explosive things, and I couldn’t smell any of it!) , I reviewed the Dracula mini-series and now Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter). You’re going to start thinking that I have a vampire fetish, but don’t worry Prince of Darkness not only does not have a Dracula figure; it’s unclear if it has much of anything going on at all. Imagine watching a movie called A Man Named John and John appeared briefly at the very end of the movie with no lines. You’d think that was really weird because you are a smart and discerning film consumer.

It starts out in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which looks like the LA of today, but it had MUCH less poop everywhere than today. Ahhh, progress. After the first 10 minutes of the film, I can tell you that: the Prince of Darkness is infact and evil alien who lives inside of a swirling Vitamix that looks alot the green juice they try sell me at the gym

– This is what the POD looked like for most of the film :

I always knew that the green juice smoothie was pure evil!!!

Jesus was also an alien and trapped the POD in the Vitamix above; furthermore, the Church was aware of it and kept it quiet in LA because they were Angels fans, a professor of physics at the local community college forced his physicist students to become Ghost Facers in exchange for a higher grade, and homeless people are murderers now.  I know these things because I got an expositioning that I shall never ever forget.  The students go to see the Eeeeeeevil Vitamix and get sprayed with evil juice and become really lazy zombies. This goes on for a LONG LONG time.  You’d think they’d just use tomato juice to get out the evil or some Shout, but maybe Shout wasn’t invented yet?

One of the physicists becomes possessed with POD and tries to reach into a mirror to release her more evil dad. Ok, why not? It’s a family affair, it’s a family affaaaaiiiirr.  Just as the evil is about to enter our world one of the physicists pushes the POD into the other dimension through the mirror taking her along with it. This was really dumb. Why not just shove the POD? She didn’t look very big. You’re also physicist; you could’ve made a lever or something. LAZY PHYSICIST!!! You never really got to know the POD or the physicists for that matter. It was like John Carpenter was willed an abandoned building and just wrote a script around that location because why waste a perfectly good abandoned building?! 

The biggest puzzle of all was why the main physicist quasi-hero couldn’t get his mustache to line up properly?  It’s like the left side of his mustache was trying to escape his face and was willing to leave the right side of the mustache behind- such a cowardly left-side mustache! 

 

Hmmm, I wonder if anyone will notice that I trim my mustache while tilting my head?

Thank you all! You get to learn about COVID tomorrow; it’s pretty pretty…. pretty… gross.

Horror Film Review: Eye of the Devil (dir by J. Lee Thompson)


If you thought Bohemian Rhapsody was overedited, you wait until you see the 1966 British horror flick, Eye of the Devil.

Seriously, I lost track of average number of of cuts that were used in each scene.  It was like, “There’s Deborah Kerr!  There’s Deborah Kerr from another angle!  There’s Donald Pleasence staring at something!  There’s David Hemmings in a corner.  There’s Deborah Kerr again!  There’s an overhead shot of the entire room!  Hemmings again, staring off to the left.  Now, a different shot of Hemmings staring off to the right.  Pleasence!  Kerr!  Hemmings!  There’s Sharon Tate, was she there the whole time?  Another overhead shot.”  All in five minutes.

Now, I will admit that the frantic editing style was a bit more effective in Eye of the Devil than in Bohemian Rhapsody, if just because Eye of the Devil was meant to be a bit of a filmed dream.  The whole movie was set up to be a surreal journey into the heart of French darkness so the disorientating visual style was effective, even if it did kind of give me a headache while I was watching it.

In the film, Deborah Kerr play Catherine, who is the wife of Philippe (David Niven), who owns a vineyard and who is perfectly charming and David Niven-like until he returns to the vineyard.  Then he suddenly becomes withdrawn and cold.  It turns out that the vineyard is struggling a bit.  It’s the dry season, which I guess is a bad thing when you’re making wine.  While Philippe tries to keep morale up among the peasants, two siblings — Christian (David Hemmings) and Odile (Sharon Tate) — wander around the castle.  Christian carries a bow and arrow and seems to be kind of arrogant.  Odile smiles enigmatically and turns frogs into doves.  Meanwhile, Donald Pleasence plays the vineyard priest, who appears to believe that something drastic needs to be done to reverse the dry season.

Soon, Catherine is stumbling across strange ceremonies and discovering that no one seems to care about her concerns that Christian and Odile are going to be a bad influence on the children.  She’s especially upset when Christian points an arrow at her.  Philippe, meanwhile, just laughs off her concerns.  Obviously, it was just a joke! he says.

Eye of the Devil is about as enjoyably pretentious as a British film from 1966 can be.  It’s not just that the movie is edited to the point of chaos.  It’s also that characters have a bad habit of going off on discussions about relationship between magic and reality.  And yet, it’s so pretentious and so silly and so overdirected that you can’t help but love it.  It’s just such a film of its era that it’s impossible not to get something out of it.  Add to that, Sharon Tate and David Hemmings share an otherworldly beauty as the two siblings.  Deborah Kerr shows that she could make even the silliest of situations of compelling.  David Niven is surprisingly effective as a non-charming character.  And then you’ve got Donald Pleasence, making enigmatic statements and showing off the intense stare that would later make Dr. Sam Loomis an icon of horror.

Eye of the Devil may be a mess but it’s a beautiful mess.

International Horror Film Review: Nothing Underneath (dir by Carlo Vanzina)


The 1985 Italian film, Nothing Underneath, is a giallo that’s achieved some notoriety based on the fact that it’s not a very easy film to find.

Seriously, I’ve spent years looking for this film.  I had read enough good things about it to make me believe that it was a film that I, as an unapologetic fan of Italian horror, simply had to see.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it’s never gotten a proper DVD or Blu-ray release in the United States.  It’s not so much that the film is controversial or even particularly graphic.  Apparently, the main problem is that the film takes place in the world of high fashion and that means that there are several scenes that take place at fashion shows and most of those scenes feature songs that were very popular in 1985.  Nothing Underneath has never gotten a proper video release because of all the music.  It’s kind of unfortunate, really.  There are so many good movies that are currently in limbo because of disputes over the rights to the music on the film’s soundtrack.

Anyway, the good news is that last night, I was able to find Nothing Underneath on YouTube!  So, I finally got to watch it.

The bad news is that I watched it in Italian with no subtitles.

Now, that’s not quite as big of an issue as you might think.  The thing with Italian horror films is that the story is often less important than how it’s told.  The best Italian horror films are all about style and suspense and less about keeping track of who did what to whom.  That’s certainly appears to be the case with Nothing Underneath.  Film is a visual medium, after all.

The film is about a brother and a sister.  Bob (Tom Schanley) is a park ranger who works at Yellowstone and is very happy with his simple and honest life.  Jessica (Nicole Peering) is a fashion model who currently lives in Milan and who spends all of her days modeling lingerie and fighting off sleazy coke addicts.  Bob and Jessica have such an extremely strong bond that, occasionally, Bob has visions of Jessica’s life in Milan.  Whenever Jessica is in danger, Bob knows it.  When Bob has a vision of someone stalking Jessica while carrying scissors and wearing black gloves, he rushes back to his ranger station and calls Italy to warn her.  Unfortunately, he’s too late.  By the time he convinces the surly desk clerk as Jessica’s apartment building to give Jessica the message, Jessica has disappeared.

Bob flies to Milan, determined to find his sister.  He teams up with Commissioner Danesi (Donald Pleasence) to investigate Jessica’s disappearance.  As soon as I saw Donald Pleasence, I automatically assumed that he would eventually turn out to be involved in Jessica’s disappearance but no.  Pleasence actually plays a good guy in the film, one who appears to harbor no dark secrets.  That was kind of a nice change of pace and, even though he was dubbed into Italian, I could tell that Pleasence gave a likable and sympathetic performance in this film.

It turns out that the black-gloved killer is murdering models all over Milan.  Can Bob discover the killer’s identity?  Will he be able to protect Barbara (Renee Simonsen), the killer’s latest target?  And will he discover all of the sordid details about Jessica’s life in Milan?

Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed Nothing Underneath.  It’s an old school giallo, right down to the whodunit mystery and the point-of-view shots of the black-gloved killer.  Visually, the film is impressive.  The opening sequence neatly contrasted the simplicity of Yellowstone with the decadence of Milan and the scenes of the killer stalking their latest victim were nicely done and very suspenseful.  It was a bit hard to judge the actors (as usual, some of the dubbing was very poorly done) but Donald Pleasence was a delight as always and Tom Schanley come across as being very sincere and likable as the park ranger.

I’m glad to have seen Nothing Underneath.  I hope it gets a decent video release at some point in the future.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Circus of Horrors (dir by Sidney Hayers)


About 15 minutes into this film from 1960, Donald Pleasence gets mauled to death by a dancing beer.

Pleasence plays a character named Vanet.  Vanet is an alcoholic who, circa 1947, owns a circus.  He also has a daughter named Nicole (Yvonne Monlaur), whose face is scarred as a result of wounds that she received during Germany’s bombing of London.  When a plastic surgeon named Dr. Bernard Schuler (Anton Diffring) operates on Nicole and manages to “take away” her scars, Vanet is so thankful that he signs over ownership of the circus to Schuler.  Vanet then promptly tries to dance with a bear and gets killed.  Poor Vanet.

It turns out that Schuler is a brilliant plastic surgeon but he’s also kind of insane.  He and his associates (played by Kenneth Griffith and Jane Hylton) are on the run from the police.  However, even with the cops after him, Schuler has to experiment.  His plan is to use the circus as a front.  He’ll recruit scarred criminals, operate on them, and then require them to perform in his circus.  That plan doesn’t really make much sense but I guess a fugitive plastic surgeon has to do what he has to do.  Still, it’s hard not to be amused by Schuler describing his plans for the circus as if he’s just come up with the most brilliant plan ever as opposed to just a bunch of gobbledygook.  At no point do any of his assistants point out that his plan makes no sense so I guess he must pay well.

Anyway. the film jumps forward twelve years and what do you know!  The plan worked!  The circus is a hit!  People from all over Europe come to Schuler’s circus.  The circus is famous for featuring the most beautiful women in the world.  The circus is also famous for several mysterious and fatal accidents.  INTERPOL thinks that it’s possible that Schuler is intentionally killing his performers for the free publicity.  When Schuler makes plans to take his circus back to the UK, Scotland Yard is given a call and a heads up about what Schuler’s been doing.  A nosy reporter investigates while the murders continue unabated….

Circus of Horrors is odd.  It’s as if someone reached into a bag and pulled out random cards that read, “Circus,” “plastic surgery,” and “Word War II subtext” and then did what they had to do to construct a plot out of those three elements.  Of those three elements, the World War II subtext is probably the most interesting.  The majority of Schuler’s patients were scarred as a result of the war (which Europe was still recovering from in 1960) and Schuler is played by German actor Anton Diffring.  It’s easy to see Schuler, with his German name and his love for medical experimentation, as a stand-in for Nazi fugitives like Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie. Schuler and his circus move across Europe and, in the end, it’s going to take Europeans working together to stop him.  The shadow of World War II hangs over every scene.

Beyond that, Circus of Horrors is a flamboyant mix of horror and soap opera.  The colors are bright, the blood flows freely, and the melodrama is definitely embraced.  It’s like a Hammer film, just without a Hammer cast.  Unfortunately, Anton Diffring is a bit bland in the role of Schuler.  One could imagine an actor like Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing working wonders with the role but Diffring often seems to be bored with the whole thing.  As well, the film sometimes get bogged down with footage of the circus performers doing their thing.  For instance, do we need to see the clowns and the acrobats when what we really want to see is the murderous knife thrower?  Circus of Horrors has its moments but, while watching it, it’s hard not to think about how much more fun it would have been if it had been a Hammer film.

International Horror Film Review: Paganini Horror (dir by Luigi Cozzi)


Yes, this 1989 Italian horror film does deal with the legend that violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini sold his soul the devil in return for his talent.

And yes, it does feature Paganini coming back to life and murdering people.

Listen, there’s a lot of critical things that you can say about this film but you have to love the idea of a slasher film that feature an actual historical figure coming to life and doing the slashing.  I mean, this is no ordinary, masked murderer!  No, this is a murderer whose compositions are still played in concert to this day!

Paganini Horror was written by Daria Nicolodi (who also co-starred) and directed by Luigi Cozzi, two Italian horror figures who — fairly or not — will always be associated with Dario Argento.  Nicolodi co-starred in several of Argento’s films and was his longtime girlfriend.  She’s the mother of Asia Argento.  She also provided Dario Argento with the story that would eventually become Suspiria.  Argento and Nicolodi had a notably bad breakup and, though they continue to occasionally work together, it’s rare that you ever read an interview with Nicolodi where she doesn’t have something negative to say about Argento and his later films.  Luigi Cozzi, meanwhile, is often considered to be a protégé of Argento’s.  Argento produced several of Cozzi’s films and Cozzi has directed multiple documentaries about Argento.  For several years, Cozzi was also the co-owner and manager of Argento’s movie memorabilia store, Profondo Rosso.

Considering Nicolodi and Cozzi’s well-documented relationships with him, it’s interesting that Paganini Horror features a character who appears to be, at the very least, slightly based on Dario Argento.  Mark Singer (Pietro Genuardi) is an arrogant director of bloody horror films who is hired to shoot a music video for a band.  The band, which is in desperate need of a hit, is recording a song that is based on a never before recorded (or heard) composition by Paganini himself.  The band’s drummer, Daniel (Pascal Persiano), purchased the composition from a mysterious man named Mr. Pickett (Donald Pleasence).  We later see Mr. Pickett standing on the roof of a church, grinning maniacally as he throws away Daniel’s money.  Hmmm….I wonder what that’s all about.

Though Pleasence isn’t in much of the film, his performance is definitely one of the highlights of Paganini Horror.  That he’s playing an evil character is obvious from the minute he shows but Pleasence seems to be having so much fun with the role that you can’t help but like him.  There’s something especially charming about the way he smiles while throwing away that money.

The other highpoint of the movie is Paganini himself.  As played by Roberto Giannini, Paganani wanders about wearing a mask and a black coat.  He carries a violin that has a very sharp blade sticking out of the bottom of it.  Yes, it’s totally ludicrous but that’s kind of the point of it.  Paganini was known for two things: 1) being a great musician and 2) the rumors that he sold his soul to the devil.  Paganini Horror may emphasize the rumors about the devil but it doesn’t let us forget that Paganini was a damn good violinist….

Anyway, Paganini Horror is a frequently incoherent film, where characters don’t act logically and the rules of Paganini’s curse seems to change from scene to scene.  Once you get passed the novelty of Paganini being the murderer, this really is a standard slasher film, albeit one that’s a bit more graphic than its American and British counterparts.  That said, I don’t think that it’s quite the disaster that Luigi Cozzi has described it as being.  (Cozzi has consistently cited it as one of his least favorite of the films that he’s directed.)  Donald Pleasence appears to have had a blast playing his role and there are a few memorable shots of Venice.  (Of course, it’s pretty much impossible to find an unmemorable shot of Venice.)  The scenes of the band pretending to perform are also enjoyably silly.  Paganini Horror may not be great but it’s certainly not boring.  If you appreciate Italian horror, you get it.

I watched Paganini Horror on Tubi.  It was an enjoyable 90 minutes.  I have no regrets.

 

Horror Film Review: Wake In Fright (dir by Ted Kotcheff)


To be honest, it’s probably open for debate whether or not Wake In Fright is actually a horror film.

This 1971 Australian film, which tells the story of a school teacher who becomes stranded in a small town in the outback, doesn’t feature any ghosts or werewolves or vampires or zombies or anything else of a supernatural nature.  The school teacher meets a large number of people in town, the majority of whom are technically quite friendly.  They teach him how to gamble.  They take him on a hunt.  They give him shelter when he doesn’t have anywhere else to stay.  The word “mate” is tossed around so frequently that it soon becomes clear that every man — significantly, there’s only two women in the film and one of them only appears in the teacher’s memories — in the outback is considered to be one.

The people of town of Bundanyabba — or “The Yabba,” as they call it — are also very generous with their beer.  If they meet you for the first time, they expect you to have a beer with them.  If they see you for the first, second, or third time during the day, they expect you to have a beer with them.  They wake up in the morning drinking and they go to bed drunk.  When John Grant (Gary Bond) first shows up in the Yabba, he can barely handle two beers.  By the end of his stay, he’s drinking nonstop.

However, John also discovers that it dangerous to turn down those offers of beer.  Turn down a beer and you might get a strange look, if you’re lucky.  More likely, you’ll get yelled at.  Turn down a beer from the wrong person and you might even get attacked.  Everyone in the Yabba is friendly but everyone is also always on the verge of throwing the first punch.  Refuse a beer and you might be in trouble.  Refuse to enthusiastically take part in a savage and sadistic kangaroo hunt and your mates might starts to talk.  When John first arrives, he’s a bit amused by the town and what he sees as being its backwards ways.  It’s obvious that he looks down on the people around him and one can sense that they realize that.  Perhaps that’s why everyone around him seems to take such joy in watching John slowly lose his identity.

That’s horror at the heart of Wake in Fright.  It’s not the horror of the paranormal.  Instead, it’s the horror of the isolation.  There’s no way to fight the isolation and the madness it brings.  Your only choice is to either surrender to it or be destroyed by it.  The longer John spends in the Yabba, the more the bleakness of the outback gets to him.  It’s a world dominated by brutal men, none of whom are particularly impressed when they find out that John’s teacher and that he has a suitcase full of books.  They view John as being soft and, in order to prove that he’s not, John starts to sacrifice his identity.  He starts to become just as much of a brute as Dick (Jack Thompson) and Joe (Peter Whittle).

Having lost all of his money, John eventually ends up staying with Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasence).  Doc really is a doctor.  He’s also, as he cheerfully explains, an alcoholic.  When John says that he’s going to find some place else to stay, Doc makes it clear that John isn’t leaving.  The film makes good use of Pleasence’s eccentric screen presence.  Is Doc simply being friendly or does Doc have more sinister motives fueling his insistence that John stay with him?  When Doc gives John advice, is it to help him or is it to further degrade John?  Like John, Doc is an educated man and obviously smarter than those around him.  And yet, Doc seems very happy in the mad world of the Yabba, drinking, hunting, and gambling.  Is John destined to become Doc or can he escape?

John discovers that leaving the Yabba isn’t easy.  Every time he tries, he ends up back in town.  All roads seems to lead back to the Yabba.  In retrospect, perhaps the most frightening thing about Wake In Fright is that no one seems to be surprised by the sight of the increasingly disheveled and unstable John.  Even when he stumbles through town while carrying a rifle, no one gives him a second look.  He’s just another part of the scenery.

No, Wake In Fright is not a traditional horror film but it’s a horror film, nonetheless.  It’s about the horror of not only losing your identity but perhaps not being quite sure what your identity was in the first place.  As played by Gary Bond, John is an often frustrating character but you never stop caring about him.  It’s frightening to watch him lose himself, even while you wonder if he ever knew who he truly was in the first place.  Bond was a stage actor who only appeared in three films.  Wake in Fright was his final film and one of the huge reasons why it’s so effective is because Gary Bond is not an actor who we recognize from other films.  We don’t seen an actor when we look at him.  Instead, we see a person who, for the first time, is discovering just how unsettling life on the fringes can be.

It’s a powerful film and a controversial one.  When John is taken on a kangaroo hunt, footage from an actual hunt was included in the film and it’s a horrific sequence, one that’s made all the more disturbing by the fact that the hunters refuse to acknowledge just how horrific and unjust it all is.  Reportedly, when Wake In Fright was first released, someone in a Sydney theater stood up and shouted at the screen, “This is not us!”  Actor Jack Thompson, who made his film debut in Wake In Fright, was in the audience and shouted back, “It is us, mate!  Sit down!”

For a long time, it was impossible to see Wake In Fright.  Only one known print was known to exist and it was a badly damaged one.  Fortunately, in 2002, another print was found in Pittsburgh and Wake In Fright was rereleased and rediscovered.  When it was first released in 1971, the film’s violence and downbeat atmosphere were both controversial and it struggled at the Australian box office.  (Many Australians, like that theatergoer in Sydney, initially viewed the film as being a bit of a personal attack.)  Rereleased in 2003 and championed by Martin Scorsese, Wake In Fright was embraced by a new generation of critics, many of whom declared it to be one of the greatest and most important Australian films ever made.

Wake In Fright is a powerful and unsettling film, a portrait of a place that seems to be fueled by toxic masculinity and self-destruction.  It’s a disturbing film and not easy to watch.  But if you do watch it, it will stick with you and leave you thinking long after the final credits roll.

Horror Scenes That I Love: Donald Pleasence Meets Christopher Lee in Death Line


In the 1972 British horror film Death Line (released in the U.S. as Raw Meat), Donald Pleasence gives one of his best performances as Inspector Calhoun, an alcoholic, somewhat fascistic detective who discovers evidence of cannibals in the London Underground.  Since the British government would rather this information not be revealed, a mysterious man played by Christopher Lee is sent to discuss things with Calhoun.

This scene features a meeting between two icons of horror so, of course, I love it.  Pleasence is wonderfully obsessive and Lee is wonderfully menacing.  Since the film is as much about the class struggle as it is about cannibalism, it’s interesting to see the automatic conflict between the working class Calhoun and the definitely upper class character played by Christopher Lee.

4 Shots From 4 Donald Pleasence Films: Wake In Fright, The Mutations, Halloween, Phenomena


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today, we celebrate the life and career Donald Pleasence!  One of the greatest of all the horror icons, Pleasence was born 101 years ago today and that means that it’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Wake in Fright (1971, dir by Ted Kotcheff)

The Mutations (1974, dir by Jack Cardiff)

Halloween (1978, dir by John Carpenter)

Phenomena (1985, dir by Dario Argento)

Horror Scenes I Love: Dr. Loomis at Michael’s Board Review From Halloween


To go along with my review of Curtis Richards’s Halloween novelization, today’s scene that I love comes from the film Halloween …. kinda.  It wasn’t included in the theatrical release but, instead, it was later added when Halloween made it’s network television premiere.

Now, I’ve actually heard two stories about this scene.  One story is that it was shot during the filming of the original Halloween but that it was cut out of the theatrical release.  When Halloween premiered on television, the network needed some footage to pad out the running time so this scene was re-inserted.

The other version is that the scene was specifically filmed for the television version of the film.  According to this version, the scene was in an early version of the script but Carpenter didn’t film it until after Halloween had already had its theatrical release and was set to make it’s television debut.

(Personally, to me, the second version sounds more plausible.)

Regardless of when this scene was filmed, I like it quite a bit.  In this scene, Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence) attempts to get his colleagues to understand just how dangerous Michael Myers actually is.  This, of course, was a running theme for the character of Dr. Loomis and it has always amazed me that no one was ever willing to listen to him.  Loomis spent the last 30 years of his life telling people that Michael was an unstoppable killer.  Every single time, he was proven correct.  And yet no one ever listened to him!

This scene gives us a chance to see Dr. Loomis in a professional setting, as well as giving us a glance of an adolescent Michael at Smith’s Grove Sanitarium.  “You’ve fooled them, Michael …. but not me.”

As someone who has seen all of the Halloween films multiple times, I have to say that Donald Pleasence’s performance as Dr. Loomis, especially in the first 2 films, has always been underrated.  Pleasence gave a convincing portrait of a man who had spent the last ten years of his life dealing with evil on a daily basis.  Who could blame him for being a bit fanatical?  Wouldn’t you be if you had spent that much time staring into Michael’s soulless eyes?

Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.