Wednesday, September 10, 2014

COUNTDOWN TO HALLOWEEN IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER

I DON'T KNOW HOW THIS ALWAYS SNEAKS UP ON ME BUT IT DOES. 

There are only a few weeks before the beginning of the Countdown to Halloween; something I've participated in since around 2006 when I first saw John Rozum's blog on which he posted something Halloweeny every day of October.  Mr. Rozum has, in fact, contacted me as he does every year asking if I'd be participating again this year.  And truthfully, I was going back and forth in my mind for an answer.

As my poor, intrepid readers of this blog know there have been very few posts from me this year owing mostly to my hectic work schedule and my exhaustion stemming from working overnights on too little sleep.  Even we ghouls need SOME shut-eye!  So, while I very much want to once again participate in the Countdown to Halloween, I'm unsure whether I'm going to be able to pull off such a heavy undertaking.  One minute I'm throwing in the shroud and toying with giving it a miss this year but then my better (super)nature kicks in and pokes me in the breadcasket and screams "You CAN'T miss the Halloween Countdown, you jerk!!!"  And you know, that ghostly disembodied voice is right; I just can't.  So I've resolved myself to telling Mr. Rozum that I'm in for a penny and in for a shroud once again this year.  However, I'm also going to ask for your help . . .

Since I've done more than a handful of these Halloween Countdowns over the years, I've already run through a graveyard full of ideas and would very much welcome any thoughts you might have on something new and different I could do for the Halloween Countdown this year.  Hey, even ideas that are old and gruesome are welcome.  Don't worry; I do already have some things planned for what I want to do but I would love some extra imput from the scream-nut gallery!  If there's anything you'd like to see on this blog's Countdown to Halloween, now's your chance to make your (spirit) voices heard.  Drop your suggestions in the comment section and I'll try as many as I think I can manage to do.   And you will get full credit for the idea's suggestion, too!  Also keep in mind I also have an audio blog where I post music etc. so that too can be linked in with this blog's Countdown to Halloween.  So, gentle reader, give me your suggestions today!  You've got nothing to lose but your pumpkins!

The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1959)

"IT WAS FOOLISH, IT WAS INSANE, IT WAS FANTASTIC!" 
Quite a little seen science-fiction horror fest and quite a mystery why it's put out on DVD by Criterion!  But there you have it.  This tail-end-of-the-fabulous-fifties B&W less-than-A-production slips under the radar of most fans but has some things going for it.  Firstly, the plot . . . which has some things going for it as well.  Several nuclear submarines and other vessels have disappeared in the Arctic Circle so Washington calls a meeting.  Commander Wendover (Dick Foran) is ordered to take his own atomic submarine the "Tiger Shark" up there to see what gives.  Along for the ride are scientists Dr. Clifford Kent (Victor Varconi) and Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway) as well as young Dr. Carl Neilsen (Brett Halsey) who is the only one available who knows how to operate a new, experimental diving bell contraption.  The crew of the Tiger Shark is immediately summoned back from shore leave; among them is "lady killer" Commander "Reef" Holloway (Arthur Franz) who is interrupted while putting the moves on bombshell Julie (Joi Lansing).  None too happy about this atomicus interruptus, "Reef" is further annoyed when his old friend Dr. Neilsen turns out instead to be his pacifist son Carl . . . whom "Reef" can't stand!  Cue the testosterone posturing now.  What follows is seemingly endless scenes of people standing around talking . . . interspersed with scenes of people sitting around talking. 
Our gang eventually discovers that the submarine disappearances are caused by a flying saucer which has taken to lurking underwater near the North Pole in order to constantly refuel on its magnetic energy as well as scout for a new planet to make their home.  After about an hour of screen time where very little actually happens, the Tiger Shark encounters the "swimming UFO" and fires torpedoes which are stopped by a "mass of jelly" exuded from the saucer.  Perhaps extra cranky after spending a dull hour in this movie, Wendover orders the Tiger Shark to ram to saucer -- in which it becomes embedded.  Stuck together, the "Cyclops" (nickname the crew gives the UFO due to its single eye-like dome) and the Tiger Shark plummet to the ocean floor.  A small team (including "Reef" and Carl) take the diving bell down to the saucer and enter it. 
Inside a huge, dark chamber (filled with air), "Reef" hears a strange voice inside his head summoning him to the center of the ship where, inside a huge sphere (which looks like a psychedelic beach ball), he encounters a cyclopean, tentacly-alien who thinks Earth would make a great new home.  After a few of his colleagues get fried and/or melted by the alien, "Reef" shoots the creature in the eye with his pistol and runs back to the diving bell.  When Carl asks him where the others are, "Reef" callously growls "Fortunes of war!" and they high-fin it back to the Tiger Shark.  The "swimming UFO" surfaces to refuel at the magnetic North Pole so the Tiger Shark launches a missile which blows up the saucer rather anti-climactically.  Th'end.

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE plays like a war/submarine picture for most of it's first 50 minutes or so until, as one reviewer I read puts it, things go "batshit bonkers" for the rest of the film's running time.  Horror and sci-fi fan Alex Gordon produced this odd duck of a film and had a big say in the casting; bringing in favourites from Hollywood's past.  Skipper Wendover is played by likeable Dick Foran who appeared in such classic Universal 40's horrors as "THE MUMMY'S HAND "and "THE MUMMY'S TOMB" as well as "HORROR ISLAND".  The nominal star of the film, I suppose, would be Arthur Franz (who headlined the Sam Katzman sci-fi horror "MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS") and who, according to his co-star Brett Halsey thought himself deserving of better roles.  Speaking of Brett Halsey, after a brief scene in Universal's Black Lagoon sequel "REVENGE OF THE CREATURE" (where he gets gutted), he would go on to appear in such genre classics as "RETURN OF THE FLY" and "TWICE TOLD TALES" (alongside Vincent Price) as well as the best film ever made:  "HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS"!  Veteran cowboy actor Bob Steele plays the sub's CPO; he starred in countless B-westerns (including "BORDER PHANTOM") as well a the previous year's horror B "GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN".  Ubiquitous busty blonde Joi Lansing has only one scene here but she would be all over "HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE" a little later.  Then we have to suave, velvet-voiced Tom Conway who, apart from being George Sanders' brother, appeared in such classic Val Lewton films as "CAT PEOPLE", "I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE" and "THE SEVENTH VICTIM".  The cast here, as you can see, is pretty top-notch and they do their best with the absolutely dismal screenplay provided by Orville H. Hampton -- who fills their mouths with often-ridiculous dialogue.  The direction by Spencer Gordon Bennet is also . . . shall-we-say lackluster?  Bennet had little genre experience except for a history of directing serials such as "BATMAN AND ROBIN" (1949) and "ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN".  Used to scripts more heavily-loaded with action scenes, Bennet appears to have been flummoxed by the one Hampton provided him.  Granted, there isn't much ANYONE can do with the first 50 minutes of a talky, submarine-bound script where all the "action" is provided by the actors flapping their gums.  The film is also given a good laugh-factor by the overly-earnest narration which, for example, describes the Tiger Shark leaving the dock as "...what was to prove the strangest, most fearful voyage ever made by a submarine, atomic or otherwise!"  Perhaps if one is fearful of dozing off during the lack of on-screen action for nearly an hour!  

But having said all this, there is something oddly watchable about this film.  The direction is indeed limp but the ridiculous dialogue keeps one entertained.  Then there's the repeated shots of the submarine which looks akin to a bathtub wind-up toy.  However, when the sub finally encounters the UFO, it almost becomes worth it as the film veers sharply into bizarre territory.  The alien of the one googly eye is actually quite wonderful and one of the most memorable of all fifties monsters; it looks like a cross between the tripe-y Octomonster Richard Wordsworth turns into in "THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT", the Xenomorph from "IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE" and an eponymous plant from "DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS".  It's actually a puppet built around the arm of effects man Irving Block and looks completely fake yet somehow endearing and it somehow works. I suppose the relative dull visual of an hour filmed inside a dull grey submarine makes the appearance of this bizarre and mental image something for which to leap for joy!  There's also the visual of a frogman's face being melted/fried and another dopey frogmen getting sliced in two inside an iris-closing hatchway!  As I said before, the actors give it the old college try -- except maybe for Tom Conway who looks generally bemused every time he has to say a line.  The veteran actor seems to be attempting to suppress a smirk half the time and the other half he seems to be letting his mind wander; this, of course, may be due to the fact that he had had a stroke only a few years before so his powers of concentration may have been understandably lowered.

So, I can't for a minute say I heartily recommend "THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE"; however, if you're in the proper state of mind, it is quirky enough and paradoxically moves along briskly somehow during these long action-less sequences where people stand around.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that every couple minutes someone says something that is just so ridiculous or something happens that is just so odd that one's interest is kept on a light simmer.  And it all becomes almost worthwhile when the final 15 minutes or so of the film leaps at your eyeballs with such off-the-wall bonkers-ness!  For this crazy, lovable, one-eyed alien waiting for you at the end of the movie, "THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE" might just be worth an eyeballing.         

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

1964: SOME FAVOURITE FILMS FROM 50 YEARS AGO

IT'S TIME ONCE AGAIN FOR ME TO DIG INTO THE FILM CANS AND FIND MY DOZEN FAVOURITE FILMS FROM A HALF-CENTURY AGO.  Each year around this time I do this and I usually restrict myself to ten films -- but why deprive myself of some of my favourite films?!?  What is this, the Depression?  So therefore, I'm choosing a dozen of those films which I revisit time and time again and like to live in every once in a while.  These aren't necessarily the best films of 1964 but they're the ones I particularly hold dear.  Here they are in no particular order other than vaguely in order of release:

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT

Made on a small budget in six weeks, the Beatles' first film has buckets of charm and delivers to the viewer a snapshot of a time when the Fab Four (and their fans) were wide-eyed and incandescent.  Richard Lester directs the film on the strength of his previous "RUNNING, JUMPING & STANDING STILL" film featuring the Goons which was popular with the Fabs.  The zany, frenetic film is part comedy, part documentary and part performance piece with the Beatles playing themselves on a train trip from Liverpool to a London TV gig.  Constantly nagged by their manager, the Beatles also have their hands full not only with their screaming teenage fans but also with their grandpa (who is very clean) who is always getting into mischief.  

MARY POPPINS

P.L. Travers' mystical nanny gets the Disney treatment in possibly my favourite Disney flick ever.  The Sherman brothers deliver a perfect soundtrack to accompany Julie Andrews' Oscar-winning title role and Dick Van Dyke's dodgy accent.  Mistakenly viewed as sugary-sweet by those who don't know the film, Mary Poppins has a great deal of flint and vinegar in her nature and straightens out almost everyone's messed-up lives by the end of the film.  An exemplary cast and marvelous sets of an England which no doubt never existed moves us from one memorable set piece to another; not the least of which is the breathtakingly thrilling rooftop dance sequence.  A masterpiece.

MY FAIR LADY

Julie Andrews got screwed out of starring in this movie adaptation of her stage triumph -- so she went ahead and won the Oscar for her consolation role in MARY POPPINS.  However, despite the fact that Audrey Hepburn couldn't sing (and Marni Nixon dubs her), MY FAIR LADY is another masterpiece of a musical with the perfect Lerner & Lowe score and a dream cast helmed by Rex Harrison's Oscar-winning performance.  

ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS

With a name like that, you'd be forgiven for conjuring up images in your mind's eye of fifties B-pictures with bug-eyed aliens and lunar cat women.  However, you'd be waaaay wrong!  This very realistic (for 2/3rds of the picture, anyway) depiction of an astronaut crash-landing on the planet Mars and his struggles to survive in a landscape without practically any air to breathe, food to eat or water to drink is riveting.  However, it's not just a nuts-and-bolts equivalent of an astronaut policier film; there are some haunting images as well including lead actor Paul Mantee's occasional hallucinations of his dead co-pilot (Adam West) coming to visit him in the night.  And of course, like every good spacecraft in the early 60's, there's a little monkey along as Mantee's only companion.  Until the towering savage Vic Lundin shows up as an escaped slave from his Martian overlords.  This movie is so good that it was put out on DVD by Criterion, mateys!

BECKET
 


Two powerhouse actors face each other on screen in this historical epic depicting the early friendship and subsequent deadly rivalry between King Henry II and Thomas a Becket.  You don't get much bigger screen personalities than Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton and they're perfectly cast as the monarch and his carousing pal whom the King later invests as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Believing Becket would do his bidding, Henry is chagrined to find out that this Archbishop has a mind of his own and things go downhill fast on the way to a murder in the cathedral.

ONIBABA

Kaneto Shindo's beautifully shot film takes place in medieval Japan during an endless war.  An old woman and her daughter-in-law inhabit a shack amidst a field of waving, undulating tall grass while waiting for her son to return from the wars.  In desperate poverty, the women waylay and kill passing warriors so they can sell any valuables they have on them; their bodies unceremoniously dumped in a deep hole in the middle of the grassy expanse.  A friend of the son teams up with the women but strife isn't far behind.  And then there's the discovery of that odd mask . . . A truly haunting film.

MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

Roger Corman meets Ingmar Bergman as AIP heads to England to film another Edgar Allan Poe adaptation which looks much more sumptuous than preceding entries in the series.  Vincent Price is on hand as the decadent, Satanic Prince Prospero who gathers all the nobility into his castle to wait out the plague of "the red death" sweeping the countryside.  Vinnie gives one of the greatest speeches of his career in the "What is terror?" scene and the hallway of rooms each of a different colour is an unforgettable set piece.  Poe's short story "Hop-Frog" is added to the mix as well and the influence of Bergman's "THE SEVENTH SEAL" is very evident.  Hazel Court is marvelous and Patrick Magee is hissable!  Super-duper!

THE TOMB OF LIGEIA

Roger Corman's farewell to the AIP Poe cycle concludes with this often-overlooked but wonderful film about death and what's beyond it.  Vinnie's late wife always said she could conquer death and she just might have done it.  Also filmed in England, the movie benefits greatly from a great deal of exterior location shooting of English green grass and actual ruined abbeys.  I'll always remember the first time I saw this film was on local horror TV host Stella's "SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD" show in the early 1980s and I was captivated.  An elegiac, gothic treat!

THE GORGON

Speaking of elegiac, gothic treats . . . we have the only Hammer Horror on my list.  Admittedly let down a little in the special effects department (snakes, anyone), this film nevertheless is one of my favourite (if generally overlooked) Hammers starring the titans of terror Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee along with Shakespearean actor Richard Pasco vs one of the sisters of Medusa from Greek mythology.  Hauntingly shot in a stately manner by Terence Fisher, I can watch this one again and again. . .until I turn to stone!

SEVEN UP

Michael Apted's monumental project begins with this documentary based on the old quote that if you give me the child until the age of 7, "I'll show you the man".  A group of 7 year old British schoolchildren from different social and financial classes are interviewed.  That's it.  But it's one of the most fascinating social experiments I've ever seen because Apted went back and filmed the children every seven years since then -- and he's still doing it today.  The latest installment "56 UP" was just released in 2012.  For half a century now, we've gone back every 7 years to catch up with these children who are now 56 years old and the results each time are totally absorbing.  But "SEVEN UP" is where it all began; it sets up the project and is a vivid snapshot of a time now half a century behind us.

CASTLE OF BLOOD

Barbara Steele floating around a dilapidated old haunted castle filmed in glorious black and white over there in Italy, of course.  Oh yeah . . . and she's dead.  Can there be a better description of heaven?  Add Edgar Allan Poe to the mix?  How 'bout that, then?  The old wheeze of someone betting he can stay all night in a haunted house is the way we get inside the "castle of blood" where ghosts of all sorts relive past unjustices and seek out revenge.  Sumptuous gothic horror!

AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL!

There's a lot of horror on my list this year.  Here we have the debut of the legendary Brazilian horror icon Zé do Caixão (known as "Coffin Joe" over here) played by the demonic José Mojica Marins.  Coffin Joe blasphemes regularly, eats meat deliberately on Good Friday and searched endlessly for a woman to bear him a son.  This is the first Brazilian horror movie and it's unlike any other film I've seen.  There is an atmosphere to it which I am unable to describe other than that the film stock itself seems to be drenched in gothic horror you can almost taste while you're watching it.    

DICK AYERS (1924 - 2014)

ONE OF THE GREAT INKERS OF THE HISTORIC MARVEL SILVER AGE DIES ONE WEEK AFTER HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY. 

Only a week after losing comic book legend Al Feldstein, one of the artists in on the ground floor of the "Marvel House of Ideas" supernova leaves us.  Native New Yorker "Daring" Dick Ayers wasein the first class of Burne Hogarth's "Cartoonists and Illustrators School" in 1947 (later renamed "School of Visual Arts").  SUPERMAN co-creator Joe Shuster hired Ayers to pencil some of his FUNNYMAN stories which led to Ayers being hired to draw several western comics.  It was at this time that Ayers created the character GHOST RIDER in 1949 for the TIM HOLT western comic #11.  Years later, after the rights to the character lapsed, Marvel Comics would start an almost identical western character GHOST RIDER which Dick Ayers would draw.  Speaking of Marvel, Ayers would draw horror comics for Atlas; Marvel's 1950's predecessor as well as for Charlton.  When the Marvel Age of Comics began under the aegis of such legendary luminaries as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and company, "Daring" Dick Ayers would ink Kirby's groundbreaking work on the early issues of FANTASTIC FOUR as well as many other Marvel characters.  Ayers also became the definitive penciller for Marvel's World War II-era title SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS.  Ayers would later ink Kirby's updating of Nick Fury into the present day on the NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. strip.  Into the 70's, "Daring Dick" would also pencil horror stories in such B&W magazine-size comics as Eerie Publications' TALES FROM THE TOMB.  There is no doubt that Dick Ayers was an integral part of the look and feel of the Marvel Age of Comics.












 

 
 

AL FELDSTEIN (1925 - 2014)

AS MOST EVERYONE KNOWS BY NOW, THE GREAT ARTIST, WRITER AND EDITOR OF E.C. COMICS RECENTLY DIED. 
There were perhaps more flashy, superstar artists of E.C.'s classic "New Trend" era in the 1950's but Al Feldstein was the backbone of the line and the bedrock on which it's legacy stands to this day.  Often described as spiky and difficult to work with by his comic-book colleagues, Feldstein was just the opposite when it came to his fans.  Al Feldstein first met William Gaines when the latter was taking over E.C. Comics after the death of his father.  At first, Gaines leapt onto hot trends such as teenage (a la ARCHIE) comics until Al suggested they lead with something different rather than follow the pack.  On one of their many trips to the roller derby, Feldstein mentioned how he loved the old radio horror programmes when he was a boy:  INNER SANCTUM, LIGHTS OUT and THE WITCH'S TALE among others.  Wouldn't it be a good idea to bring that to comics? 
Gaines was a little tentative at first and tried out the idea in already existing comics:  "THE CRYPT OF TERROR" began as a one-story feature in E.C.'s "CRIME PATROL", "THE VAULT OF HORROR" auditioned in "WAR AGAINST CRIME" and "THE HAUNT OF FEAR" tried out in "CRIME SUSPENSTORIES".  The horror stories became so popular that they branched out into three titles of their own (the former morphing into "TALES FROM THE CRYPT").  The "New Trend" titles also included such now-legendary titles as the sci-fi "WEIRD SCIENCE" and "WEIRD FANTASY" and the crime-thrillers "CRIME SUSPENSETORIES" and "SHOCK SUSPENSTORIES".  All of the most famous E.C. titles were co-created and usually written (or at least plotted) by Al Feldstein.  Into this mix was also added the irreverent satirical humor comics "PANIC" and "MAD"; the latter would change to a full-size B&W magazine once the Congress and the Comics Code Authority had crushed the life out of E.C.'s horror and "New Trend" line-up of titles. 
While Harvey Kurtzman for years got the sole credit for making "MAD" into the cultural icon it became, his association with the title was brief -- ending in 1956.  Al Feldstein, however, was the editor of MAD MAGAZINE for decades until his retirement in 1984.  Al retired to a life of painting western and nature art in Montana as well as becoming an elder statesman of the comic book world and appearing occasionally at conventions.  Al Feldstein writing for those classic E.C. comics is unparalleled but his superb artwork was also the equal of any of the legendary artists for which the comic book company became famous.  I thought I'd include just some of my favourite E.C. covers by the late, great Al Feldstein.