I Escaped From Devil’s Island (1973, directed by William Whitney)


The year is 1918 and the French penal colony, Devil’s Island, is renowned as the world’s most brutal prison.  Hidden away from mainland Europe, it is populated by the worst of the worst.  The prisoners have been sentenced to either spend their life on the island or to die at the blade of guillotine and the guards are all sadists.  Le Bras (Jim Brown) has been sentenced to die but he impresses his fellow inmates by putting up a fight on his way to have his head chopped off.  He doesn’t succeed in escaping but, fortunately for him, the death penalty is abolished mere moments before the blade falls.

Le Bras is alive but he’s still been condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island, under the sadistic eye of the head guard, Maj. Marteau (Paul Richards).  However, Le Bras has no intention of being anyone’s prisoner.  He teams up with two other prisoners, a pacifist named Davert (Christopher George) and Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), who, because he is gay, is abused by both the guards and the other prisoners.  The three of them manage to escape from the prison but they still have to make their way through the jungle.  Along the way, they visit a leper colony and Le Bras takes some time to get busy with a native woman.  Meanwhile, Marteau remains hot behind them, determined to capture them and send them back to the prison.

If I Escaped From Devil’s Island sounds familiar, that may be because you’ve seen Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon.  Papillon was a major studio production with big stars, a huge budget, and an epic running time.  I Escaped From Devil’s Island was a low-budget film starring B-movie stars and with a 90-minute running time that was the exact opposite of epic.  Roger Corman produced I Escaped From Devil’s Island to capitalize on the expected success of Papillon and he started production early enough that I Escaped From Devil’s Island actually beat Papillon to theaters by a matter of weeks.  Corman originally tried to hire Martin Scorsese to direct I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  When Scorsese decided to follow John Cassavetes’s advice and do a personal film instead, Corman ended up hiring William Whitney to direct.  (Scorsese’s personal film turned out to be Mean Streets, so he probably made the right decision.)

I Escaped From Devil’s Island is an entertaining B-movie.  It doesn’t have the epic sweep of Papillon but it does have a fun cast and all the action that you would expect from a 70s Corman production.  Jim Brown was never a great actor but he never claimed to be.  What Brown had was a tremendous physical presence and a confident movie star charisma and both of those are put to good use in I Escaped From Devil’s Island.  Whether he was playing football or beating up bad guys, Jim Brown was always the epitome of cool and that’s especially true in this film.  Christopher George has some good scenes as a pacifist who believes in non-violent resistance and Paul Richards is a great villain but this is a movie that you watch for Jim Brown and he doesn’t disappoint.

As of today, Jim Brown is 84 years old.  As anyone who has seen him interviewed recently can tell you, Jim Brown is still the epitome of cool.  When Jim Brown speaks, whether people agree with him or not, they still shut up and listen.  Happy birthday, Jim Brown!

Film Review: She Gods of Shark Reef (dir by Roger Corman)


Ah, Hawaii!

There is no state more beautiful than Hawaii and there are no people friendlier.  When I was 17 years old, my family spent a summer in Hawaii and it was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.  I can’t swim to save my life and I have a morbid fear of drowning but, when I was in Hawaii, I happily walked into the ocean.  Not far into the ocean, of course.  But still, everyone in my family was amazed.  Of course, eventually I saw a jelly fish floating towards me and I screamed and ran back to the beach.  (After reaching the safety of the beach, I realized that the jelly fish was actually just seaweed but still, it was scary-looking!)  Hawaii is just the type of state that makes you appreciate life and take risks.

For instance, consider the two main characters in Roger Corman’s 1958 film, She Gods of Shark Reef.  Chris (Bill Cord) and Lee (Don Durant) are brothers who live in Hawaii.  Chris has blonde hair and a good attitude towards life.  Lee has dark hair and a criminal nature.  Chris loves the ocean.  Lee loves to run guns.  After Lee kills two men, he stows away on Chris’s boat.  When the boat then hits a storm, Chris and Lee wash up on the shores of an isolated beach.  It’s a beautiful island but all Lee can think about is how he can make money off of his current predicament.  Bad Lee, bad!

Anyway, it turns out that the island is inhabited by an all-female village of pearl divers.  Everyone is excited by the arrival of two handsome, shirtless men.  Everyone except for Queen Pua (Jeanne Gerson), who doesn’t trust either one of them and who doesn’t appear to want anyone in the world to be happy.  She’s especially upset when Chris interrupts a plan to sacrifice a villager to the shark gods of the sea.  Chris not only rescues but also falls in love with Mahia (Lisa Montell).

While Chris is busy falling in love, Lee is trying to figure out a way to escape from the island before a rescue boat arrives.  Lee, after all, is a wanted criminal and the last thing that he wants is to go from being shipwrecked to imprisoned.  Lee comes up with a plan for himself, his brother, and Mahia to escape the island.  However, Lee being Lee, he just can’t overcome his greedy nature.  As quickly becomes obvious, Karma is not only a bitch but it’s a shark as well.

She Gods of Shark Reef was directed by Roger Corman.  Though the film’s low budget is obvious in every frame, Corman wisely decided to concentrate on the island’s beauty as opposed to the movie’s somewhat haphazard story.  This is one of those films where the action stops for nearly five minutes so that Corman can film a hula dancer.  But you know what?  That’s okay!  The beauty of Hawaii and the surrounding ocean carry the film.  You don’t watch for the plot.  Instead, you watch for the blue water and the green grass and the vibrant skies.  This is a film that you watch for the island scenery and the sharks.  Both of them are quite nice.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: The Silence of the Lambs (dir by Jonathan Demme)


Oh, The Silence of the Lambs, I have such mixed feelings about you.

On the one hand, I’m a horror fan and Silence of the Lambs is a very important film in the history of horror.  Back in 1992, it was the first horror film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture!  It even made history by winning all of the big “five” awards — Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay!  It was the first film since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and It Happened One Night to pull that off!

Beyond that, it’s one of the most influential films ever made.  Every erudite serial killer owes a debt to Anthony Hopkins’s performance as Hannibal Lecter.  Every competent but untested and unappreciated female FBI agent owes a debt to Jodie Foster’s performance as Clarice Starling.  Even though the whole criminal profiler craze probably owes more to Manhunter (a film to which Silence of the Lambs is a sequel, though that often seems to go unacknowledged) than to anything else, this Oscar winner still definitely played a part.  I mean, how many people watched Manhunter for the first time, specifically because Lecter mentioned the events in that earlier film in Silence of the Lambs?

Plus, this won an Oscar for Jonathan Demme, one of my favorite directors!  And while I’m sure Jodie Foster would have gone on to have a strong career regardless of whether she had played Clarice Starling or not, it’s generally acknowledged that Silence of the Lambs revitalized the career of Anthony Hopkins.  So for that, we should all be thankful.

And yet, it can be strange to watch Silence of the Lambs today.  All of the imitations (not to mention some ill-thought sequels and prequels) have lessened its bite.  I can only imagine how it must have freaked out audiences when it was first released but I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed the first time that I watched the film.  Looking back, I can see that disappointment was due to having been told that it were one of the scariest movies of all time but, because, I had seen a countless number of imitations, parodies, and homages, I felt as if I had already watched the film.  So, I wasn’t shocked when Lecter turned out to be ruthlessly manipulative and dangerously charismatic.  Nor was I shocked when he managed to escape and poor Charles Napier ended up strung up in that cage.  I’m sure that audiences in 1991 were freaked out, though.

Actually, as good as Foster and Hopkins and Scott Glenn are, I think the best performance in the film comes from Ted Levine, playing Buffalo Bill.  Seriously, Levine’s performance still freaks me out.  It’s the voice and the way he says, “Precious.”  Levine’s performance, I found to be a hundred times more frightening than Anthony Hopkins’s and I think it’s due to the fact that Hannibal Lecter was clearly an author’s invention while Levin’s Buffalo Bill came across like he might very will be hiding in an alley somewhere, waiting for one of your friends to walk by. (Interestingly enough, I had the same reaction when I first saw Manhunter.  Brian Cox did a good job as Lecter but he still came across as a bit cartoonish.  Meanwhile, Tom Noonan was absolutely terrifying.)  Levine has subsequently gone on to play a lot of nice guy roles.  He was a detective on Monk, for instance.  Good for him.  I’m glad to see he was able to escape being typecast.  Admittedly, I do kinda wonder how many serial killer roles he had to turn down immediately after the release of The Silence Of The Lambs.

Still, it’s a good film.  Time may have lessened it’s power but The Silence of the Lambs is still an effective and well-directed thriller.  It’s impossible not to cheer for Clarice.  It’s impossible not to smile at the fun that Anthony Hopkins seems to be having in the role of Lecter.  Jonathan Demme creates a world of shadows and darkness and still adds enough little quirks to keep things interesting.  (I especially liked Lecter watching a stand-up special in his cell.)  It’s the little details that makes the world of The Silence of the Lambs feel lived in, like Clarice’s nervous laugh as she gives a civilian instructions on what to do in case she accidentally gets trapped in a storage locker.  Even the film’s final one liner will make you smile, even though it’s the type of thing that every film seemed to feel the need to do nowadays.  It’s still a good movie, even if it no longer feels as fresh as it once may have.

Horror on the Lens: Not of this Earth (dir by Roger Corman)


Today’s horror on the lens is the 1957 Roger Corman-directed, sci-fi “epic,” Not of this Earth.

Paul Johnson (Paul Birch) may seems like a strange character, with his stilted way of speaking and his sunglasses and his overdramatic reaction to any and all loud noises.  Paul could us be an eccentric.  Or, he could be …. NOT OF THIS EARTH!  Actually, his habit of draining people of their blood and sending weird, umbrella-like creatures out to attack his enemies would seem to suggest that the latter is probably true.

Listen, it’s not easy being a blood-sucking alien.  I mean, sure, there’s always seems to be people stupid enough to show up at your mansion so that you can drain their bodies.  Paul is lucky that he doesn’t exactly seem to be surrounded by brain surgeons.  But sometimes, things happen.  For instance, someone might show up from your home planet and demand an immediate transfusion!  What is an alien to do?

Watch this low-budget but undeniably entertaining film to find out!  And be sure to especially keep an eye out for the great Dick Miller, who reportedly improvised his role as a vacuum cleaner salesman.  (Before going into acting, Miller actually did sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door.)

Enjoy!

Horror on the Lens: The Terror (dir by Roger Corman)


Have you ever woken up and thought to yourself, “I’d love to see a movie where a youngish Jack Nicholson played a French soldier who, while searching for a mysterious woman, comes across a castle that’s inhabited by both Dick Miller and Boris Karloff?”

Of course you have!  Who hasn’t?

Well, fortunately, it’s YouTube to the rescue.  In Roger Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, Jack Nicholson is the least believable 19th century French soldier ever.  However, it’s still interesting to watch him before he became a cinematic icon.  (Judging from his performance here and in Cry Baby Killer, Jack was not a natural-born actor.)  Boris Karloff is, as usual, great and familiar Corman actor Dick Miller gets a much larger role than usual.  Pay attention to the actress playing the mysterious woman.  That’s Sandra Knight who, at the time of filming, was married to Jack Nicholson.

Reportedly, The Terror was one of those films that Corman made because he still had the sets from his much more acclaimed film version of The Raven.  The script was never finished, the story was made up as filming moved alone, and no less than five directors shot different parts of this 81 minute movie.  Among the directors: Roger Corman, Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, and even Jack Nicholson himself!  Perhaps not surprisingly, the final film is a total mess but it does have some historical value.

(In typical Corman fashion, scenes from The Terror were later used in the 1968 film, Targets.)

Check out The Terror below!

Horror on the Lens: Dementia 13 (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


(I originally shared this film back in 2011 — can you believe we’ve been doing this for that long? — but the YouTube vid was taken down.  So, I’m resharing it today!)

For today’s excursion into the world of public domain horror, I offer up the film debut of Francis Ford Coppola.  Before Coppola directed the Godfathers and Apocalypse Now, he directed a low-budget, black-and-white thriller that was called Dementia 13.  (Though, in a sign of things to come, producer Roger Corman and Coppola ended up disagreeing on the film’s final cut and Corman reportedly brought in director Jack Hill to film and, in some cases, re-film additional scenes.)

Regardless of whether the credit should go to Coppola, Corman, or Hill, Dementia 13 is a brutally effective little film that is full of moody photography and which clearly served as an influence on the slasher films that would follow it in the future.  Speaking of influence,Dementia 13 itself is obviously influenced by the Italian giallo films that, in 1963, were just now starting to make their way into the drive-ins and grindhouses of America.

In the cast, keep an eye out for Patrick Magee, who later appeared as Mr. Alexander in A Clockwork Orange as well as giving a memorable performance in Lucio Fulci’s The Black Cat.  Luana Anders, who plays the duplicitous wife in this film, showed up in just about every other exploitation film made in the 60s and yes, the scene where she’s swimming freaks me out to no end.

(One final note: I just love the title Dementia 13.  Seriously, is that a great one or what?)

Horror on the Lens: The Little Shop of Horrors (dir by Roger Corman)


(It’s tradition here at the Lens that, every October, we watch the original Little Shop of Horrors.  And always, I start things off by telling this story…)

Enter singing.

Little Shop…Little Shop of Horrors…Little Shop…Little Shop of Terrors…

Hi!  Good morning and Happy October the 2nd!  For today’s plunge into the world of public domain horror films, I’d like to present you with a true classic.  From 1960, it’s the original Little Shop of Horrors!

When I was 19 years old, I was in a community theater production of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.  Though I think I would have made the perfect Audrey, everybody always snickered whenever I sang so I ended up as a part of “the ensemble.”  Being in the ensemble basically meant that I spent a lot of time dancing and showing off lots of cleavage.  And you know what?  The girl who did play Audrey was screechy, off-key, and annoying and after every show, all the old people in the audience always came back stage and ignored her and went straight over to me.  So there.

Anyway, during rehearsals, our director thought it would be so funny if we all watched the original film.  Now, I’m sorry to say, much like just about everyone else in the cast, this was my first exposure to the original and I even had to be told that the masochistic dentist patient was being played by Jack Nicholson.  However, I’m also very proud to say that — out of that entire cast — I’m the only one who understood that the zero-budget film I was watching was actually better than the big spectacle we were attempting to perform on stage.  Certainly, I understood the film better than that screechy little thing that was playing Audrey.

The first Little Shop of Horrors certainly isn’t scary and there’s nobody singing about somewhere that’s green (I always tear up when I hear that song, by the way).  However, it is a very, very funny film with the just the right amount of a dark streak to make it perfect Halloween viewing.

So, if you have 72 minutes to kill, check out the original and the best Little Shop of Horrors