Categories
Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense

Seven Days to Noon

I make no secret of my disdain for flabby filmmaking. Many modern movies (e.g., almost every superhero movie of recent years) would be significantly better with a merciless edit of tiresome exposition, distracting subplots, saggy scenes, wordy dialogue, soulless CGI, and other forms of artistic bloat. I can hear the whines already “But I need that 30 minutes to show how the hero’s motivation goes back to his childhood trauma, to explain that his energy blaster works on the principle of microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and to have the authority figure character explain what the film is really about in his closing speech”. Stuff and nonsense. When films had smaller budgets and shorter shooting schedules, their makers were more economical in their storytelling by necessity, but the result was better rather than worse cinema. If you want a demonstration of that principle as well as an utterly gripping cinematic experience, check out the 94 thrilling minutes of fat-free brilliance in Seven Days to Noon.

Based on an Oscar-winning story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard, this 1950 film has a simple and terrifyingly realistic premise: a once-reliable military scientist could lose his head and decide to steal a powerful weapon. Said scientist, Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones, offering a compelling mix of threat and vulnerability), believes he can promote world peace by threatening to set off a powerful bomb in the heart of London in seven days if the government doesn’t renounce weapon building. A dedicated member of Special Branch (the ever sturdy Andre Morell) recruits Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) to aid him as he coordinates a national manhunt. But Willingdon is a crafty adversary, and hides in plain sight by taking rooms under an assumed name with a brassy London actress (a terrific Olive Sloane). Nail biting suspense and existential themes follow.

Seven Days to Noon (1950) - Cinema Cats

Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey’s tight script combined with the Brothers’ Hitchcock-level use of pure cinema, make this a truly breathless thriller, one of many that would channel post-war nuclear anxieties. The hero has no backstory because he doesn’t need one. The precise mechanics of the McGuffin are never laid out – it’s a bomb and we all know what a bomb is, so why bother? Willingdon doesn’t really explicit his motives until 75 minutes in, and even then there’s not an excess word in them. And many plot developments unfold entirely through a series of images or through effective quoting of superstar composer-to-be John Addison’s first score. At times it feels like watching the best of the silents, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

The Boultings avoided casting big stars, used some real locations, included colorful snippets of Londoners, and did not tart up the sets to look like anything more than battered, post-war London (Similar to what Sir Carol Reed had done the year before in Vienna while making The Third Man). This at times gives the movie, particularly the daytime scenes, the feel of Italian neorealism or an American police docudrama. But with its air of impending doom and Gilbert Taylor’s night time cinematography, it at other times has a more stylized, film noir feel. Of Taylor’s many arresting visuals, I will not forget any time soon the shots of Willingdon praying alone on his knees in a bomb-shattered cathedral. The realistic and stylized elements work together beautifully, recalling another brilliant “dangerous man on the run” movie from this period, He Walked by Night (recommended here).

I have recommended the Boulting Brothers’ tough film noir Brighton Rock and their sidesplitting I’m All Right Jack, but for me, their most remarkable achievement remains Seven Days to Noon. This film riveted me and at other times made me say “Wow” out loud. That the Boultings could make such different movies so skillfully is why they, while less famous than the legendary Powell and Pressburger, rank among the best British filmmaking partnerships of the 20th century.

Seven Days to Noon Blu-ray Release Date November 5, 2019

p.s. Gilbert Taylor lived to be nearly 100 and nearly three decades after this, was the cinematographer for Star Wars.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Tightrope

Tightrope (1984) - Moria

Long before Louisiana started offering massive tax credits to attract Hollywood productions, the state was a popular setting for crime dramas. Some played off the haunting atmosphere of the bayous (e.g., the mediocre adaptations of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, Heaven’s Prisoners and In the Electric Mist) whereas others were built around New Orleans’ pervasive corruption (e.g., The pretty good Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin romance/thriller, The Big Easy). The underappreciated 1984 Clint Eastwood vehicle Tightrope effectively exploits (in every sense) a different local cultural feature, namely the sleazier side of the sex trade that has existed in New Orleans long before Storyville because a synonym for a red light district.

The plot: Police detective Wes Block (Clint) has been unmoored since his wife abandoned him and his daughters (Jenny Beck and Clint’s real life daughter, Alison). Loving and attentive with his daughters by day, at night Block has for reasons that he can’t fully understand begun visiting prostitutes that he can sexually dominate. Block’s psychological turmoil takes on new dimensions when he is assigned to catch a serial killer who takes his fetish to deadly extremes. Meanwhile, a strong, intelligent, women’s rights advocate (Geneviève Bujold) pressures Block to respond more effectively to the threat the killer poses, and unnerves him in other ways as well. A brutal crime story and descent into emotional darkness follow.

The “cop in crisis” has been done a million times before, and is usually short-handed in a fashion that will not alienate the audience, most commonly by showing him drinking too much. “We are not so very different, you and I” is another movie staple, for example showing that both the lead police investigator and the master criminal are both smart, obsessive people. If that’s all this film had done, it would have been a serviceable but unremarkable crime drama. What makes Tightrope special is Clint Eastwood’s willingness to challenge his millions of fans by having his character wallow in muck: He’s not just drinking too much, he’s handcuffing prostitutes so that he can control them during sex. And he’s not similar to the killer only because both are smart and obsessive, but because both of their heads are psychosexual snake pits. The only parallel level of risk taking by a major international star I know of along these lines is Sean Connery’s stellar work in another of my recommendations, The Offence.

The legendary William Goldman said that a basic rule of screenwriting was that “stars will not play weak and they will not play blemished.” But every rule has exceptions. Going as far back as the flawed but intriguing 1971 film The Beguiled continuing through the multi-Oscar winning Unforgiven and up to the present day (e.g., Gran Torino, The Mule) Eastwood has never been afraid to “play blemished.” That’s a key reason why his career has been so much more artistically varied and impressive than all those Hollywood actors who only portrayed strong-jawed paladins.

Tightrope (1984) – 80's Movie Guide

The other thing that raises this film about countless other police thrillers are the female characters and the high level at which they are written and performed. Alison Eastwood isn’t just the star’s kid, she’s a fine actress and her scenes with her father have authentic emotional power. They also fill out the character of Wes Block by showing that while he’s not different from the killer in having hostile feelings towards women, he is quite different in also experiencing more tender emotions towards them. Bujold, who appeared in too few films for an actress of her talent, is also excellent here. Because she is strong enough to vulnerable with Block, and sees his own fear of being hurt, she gets under his skin in a way nothing else does. I also love that rather than portraying her as a damsel in distress, the script makes her heroic in her direct confrontation with the killer.

Richard Tuggle’s script has a few missteps here and there but is generally first-rate, putting a fresh spin on the tropes of the genre. He also got the screen credit for director, but this sure looks and feels like an Eastwood film. According to Richard Shickel’s biography of Eastwood, Tuggle had never directed a movie before and was extremely tentative on set, leading Tuggle and Eastwood to amicably work out a co-directing arrangement. Whatever precisely happened in that regard, the result is compelling.

Reaction to Tightrope was mixed when it played in theaters, with some people finding it too seedy and dark (literally and figuratively) but others appreciating the strong acting and neo-noir tone. I am very much in the latter camp, and would put Tightrope up there with Bronco Billy as Eastwood’s best work of the 1980s.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

The Devil Rides Out

If you have a chance to make a deal with Satan, you might consider asking for Dennis Wheatley’s book sales and film royalties. Among Wheatley’s many best sellers were a series of thrillers featuring the Duke de Richleau and his three loyal friends Simon Aaron, Rex Van Ryn, and Richard Eaton (Wheatley loosely modelled them on Dumas’ Musketeers). In a number of their adventures, the Duke employed his knowledge of the occult to battle diabolical supernatural forces. Fortunately, Hammer Films smelled an opportunity and in 1968 brought together some of its best talent to adapt Wheatley’s chilling and exciting tale The Devil Rides Out.

As I’ve mentioned in many of my recommendations, I like films that get right down to story telling without a lot of needless expository set up and context setting. The Devil Rides Out is a model of the form, opening with The Duke (Christopher Lee) and Rex (Leon Greene, though dubbed by Patrick Allen) dropping by unannounced at the home of their friend Simon (Patrick Mower) and discovering to their alarm that he’s fallen in with a group of Satanists! Investigation soon reveals that the sinister cultists are led by a hypnotic menace named Mocata (Charles Gray) and have designs not only on Simon, but also on a young woman named Tanith (Niké Arrighi) with whom Rex is enamored. The brave heroes seek help from The Eatons (Rosalyn Landor and Paul Eddington) and this redoubtable foursome commit to saving Simon and Tanith in the face of mounting threats summoned from Hell itself. Chills, suspense, and excitement follow.

Terence Fisher was Hammer’s best director, and he’s on his usual crisp and intelligent form here. Some horror directors accentuate supernatural goings on with melodrama and splatter. Fisher had an opposing, more British style: his characters are thoughtful, their relationships nuanced, and the demeanor remarkably restrained given the proceedings around them (down to all of them wearing suits and ties in virtually every scene even as they battle Satanists with fist and cross). Fisher had a fine script with which to work, by the great Richard Matheson, whose work I have touted in a half dozen other movie recommendations. He paces the story masterfully, doling out action sequences and character development at just the right rate. Matheson throws together Druidic, Pagan, Egyptian, Christian, and Masonic traditions fairly haphazardly along the way, but this is entertainment, not a theology course.

Image for post

This movie gave Christopher Lee a rare chance to anchor a picture in a thoroughly heroic role. Hammer Studios would normally have cast his friend Peter Cushing in role like the Duke. Cushing was always good, but Lee surely deserved this role after being wrapped in mummy bandages, sucking blood, shambling around with bolts in his neck, and all the rest of it in all those Hammer monster movies. He’s appropriately commanding as an aristocratic do-gooder, while also conveying enough humanity to make his character likable and the core relationships in the movie believable.

In a sturdy cast, Charles Gray makes a strong, frightening, impression as Mocata (which allegedly landed him the subsequent role of James Bond’s enemy, Ernst Bloefeld, in Diamonds are Forever). Patrick Mower, who had a recurring part in the Callan series (my recommendation here) is solid in his debut role, and Paul Eddington shows the developing talent that would later make him such a joy in Yes, Minister. Rosalyn Landor also registers as the brave Peggy Eaton, including through some unusual character developments that I won’t spoil.

Modern viewers may find the special effects cheap and unconvincing by today’s standards, which they are. I found the dated effects kind of charming (much as I do the sets in classic Universal monster pictures), and their limitations in no way reduced the tension during the heroes’ extended face off with the enemy in a Satanic circle. Overall, The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer’s best movies in the horror/thriller vein, and that’s definitely saying something.

p.s. I suppose one could say this about many British films, but I couldn’t help noticing how many people associated with this film ended up in Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Christopher Lee played Sherlock Holmes multiple times, including under Fisher’s direction, and played Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s magnificent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Charles Gray played Mycroft both in The Seven Percent Solution and Granada’s television series starring Jeremy Brett. The Granada series also featured Patrick Allen as Professor Moriarty’s right-hand man, Rosalyn Landor as the heroine of The Speckled Band, and, at the age I believe of 100, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, who has a small part as a Satanist here.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Night Stalker and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde **Double Feature**

The Night Stalker: A tribute to the 1972 TV movie that influenced The  X-Files

I’m a fan of the horror and science fiction work of writer Richard Matheson and Producer/Director Dan Curtis, including films on which they collaborated, like the electrifying Amelia segment of Trilogy of Terror (My recommendation here) Their admirers could argue forever about which of their films were the most entertaining, but purely in terms of enduring impact, the obvious choice is their 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker.

Working from an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, Matheson brilliantly met the two challenges of modern vampire movies, namely doing something new, and, having characters behave in sensible ways given that the characters would themselves have all seen vampire movies. The fresh angle to the story is provided by centering the narrative on a crusty yet charming journalist on a downward career slope: Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, who’s damn near perfect). When bodies of young women drained of blood start littering the streets of Las Vegas, Kolchak and the cops (e.g., a gruff sheriff played by Claude Akins) initially make the assumption that works for modern audiences, namely that a mentally unstable killer thinks he is a vampire. But as the cynical Kolchak investigates the ghoulish crimes and follows the police manhunt, he finds himself believing the seemingly impossible.

There’s much to cherish in the movie, which drew a massive audience and launched a cult TV series whose descendants include The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With seasoned television director John Llewellyn Moxley at the helm, the story unfolds with the right mix of suspense leavened with humor (black humor and horror are cousins, but it still takes artistry to mix them in a fashion that isn’t jarring). Although Kolchak is in a romantic relationship (with a prostitute played by Carol Lynley, because it’s a 1970s film set in Las Vegas) the most dynamic interaction comes between McGaven and Simon Oakland as editor Tony Vincenzo. Together they have the chemistry of an old married couple, with amusing bickering leavened with underlying respect. Film noir fans will also be glad to see Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr again in supporting parts as friends of Kolchak. And props to Barry Atwater, for being suitably unnerving in a part that gave him no lines.

Classic Movie Hub on Twitter: "Born Today, Aug 28, in 1915, Character Actor Simon  Oakland - 145+ roles; lots of TV; I Want to Live, Psycho, Bullitt, West  Side Story... https://t.co/tvpFsloqDl… https://t.co/OPrCcVBPWu"

You have probably heard of The Night Stalker, but you will probably not have heard of another Dan Curtis film which I suggested as a second feature on this double bill: his 1968 adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-filmed tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Curtis produced this version for ABC television, which was directed by Charles Jarrott.

The plot is too familiar to be worth summarizing, so I will concentrate on the unique aspect, which is how the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde is handled. As with the 1973 Curtis/Matheson Dracula I have recommended, the star here is Jack Palance, and he carries the whole film (no disrespect to Denholm Elliott, who is sturdy as his friend, but that part just isn’t as intriguing). Only modest changes in the makeup of literature’s most famous split personality were employed, with the film relying instead on Palance’s acting talent to differentiate the shy, bookish, respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll from the lusty and violent Mr. Hyde. Palance is up to the challenge, including given the audience at least some sympathy with the generally awful Hyde; at least he’s a lot more fun than his stuffy alter ego. The other thing that Curtis fans will appreciate is that the style, settings, tone, and music come straight out of his long-running television series Dark Shadows.

March Hyde Madness: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) |  Monster Movie Kid

The film has some weaknesses. The adapted screenplay was written by Ian McKellan Hunter, perhaps most famous for fronting Dalton Trumbo’s Oscar-winning script of Roman Holiday (If you want to know more about fronting, see my recommendation of, well, The Front). Hunter’s script is okay, but you have to imagine Matheson would have done a better job bringing Stevenson to the screen. Also, the television sized budget shows at times. It’s a bit too obvious that some scenes are shot with a single stationary camera and in the medical school scenes there’s also what looks like not entirely successful rear-screen projection, though it could be a not entirely successful matte work (either way, it’s distracting). All of that puts the film in the good category rather than the all time TV horror classic category in which The Night Stalker belongs.

If you want to learn more about how Dan Curtis made these films, including how his relationship with Matheson evolved, this interview is really worth watching.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir Science Fiction / Fantasy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 Version)

BLACK HOLE REVIEWS: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) - creepy,  paranoid, body horror

When I recommend multiple adaptations of the same story, I typically package them as double or triple features. But in this case, the remake of a classic film I have recommended is so well-made and so distinctly its own work of art that I grant it an essay of its own: the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Like the 1956 classic original, Philip Kaufman’s remake is based on Jack Finney’s popular novel The Body Snatchers, in which seed pods from another planet drift to earth and begin replacing humanity with soulless replicas. But Kaufman added his own twist, which was to move the story from a California backwater to modern day San Francisco, a city he knows very well. In doing so, he preserved the suspense and chills of the original story while also getting to show off the gorgeous City by the Bay while also gently parodying some of its self-consciously hip and alternative residents.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Movie Review on MHM

Our likable and believable heroes this time around are Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as dedicated public health department employees (Back when such people could afford lovely homes in San Francisco). W.D. Richter’s screenplay wisely never explains if they once were lovers, but the actors convey the romantic undertone of their relationship, even though she is, awkwardly, living with a guy who doesn’t quite seem to be himself lately.

There’s always a character in paranoia films who explains to the anxious protagonist why nothing is really amiss, it’s all in your head, and why not lie down and get some rest? Here that part is a San Francisco archetype, a psychological growth-touting guru, played perfectly by Leonard Nimoy. If you are going to be typecast, Spock is a fabulous role to have, but Nimoy didn’t get as much chance as he deserved to try other things.

As for the extraterrestrial nasties, kudos to the special effects and makeup teams for creating some unnerving aliens with gut churning reproductive habits. One wonders if the makers of the Alien films were inspired by this movie’s parasitic menaces. Combined with terrific pacing (something lacking in some of Kaufman’s other movies), the heroes’ battle to resist the invaders is edge of your seat stuff.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Another thing I cherish about this movie is that while it’s mainly in the sci-fi/horror genre, it has noir elements and cinematographer Michael Chapman shot it as such. As has been shown in many classic noirs, San Francisco was made for shadowy lighting, unusual camera angles, and lonely compositions, all of which Chapman artfully employs here.

Last but certainly not least, this film breaks away from its classic predecessor in many respects, but at the same time stays reverent to it. Most notably, both the star (Kevin McCarthy) and director (Don Siegel) of the 1956 version have cameo roles that are both fun and scary. Put it all together and you have in my opinion both the best movie in Kaufman’s impressive ouevre and one of Hollywood’s freshest remakes ever.

p.s. Look fast in the opening scenes for a creepy looking priest on a swing played by Robert Duvall! As Kaufman tells it, he thought every horror movie should have priest in it so he asked his friend Duvall to do the wordless cameo.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Taste of Fear

London-based Hammer Films had a fertile and fiscally rewarding period in the 1950s and 1960s styling itself as the British second coming of the old Universal Studios Monster Movies. They gave Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy quite a workout, relying on generally solid and scary scripts, a stable of dependable stage-trained actors, not-bad special effects, atmospheric locations (e.g., Highgate Cemetery) and an abundance of aspiring starlets with daring décolletage. Many viewers remember Hammer monster movies in their nightmares, but few recall that the studio also turned out some high-quality psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. This week I recommend my favorite of these films: 1961’s Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear).

The story centers on a frequently-invoked but still effective thriller trope: The central character who has some physical limitation that makes them unusually vulnerable. In this case, it’s Penny Appleby, who has needed a wheelchair since suffering a tragic accident. She has traveled far to visit the wealthy father whom she has not seen since her parents’ divorce over a decade ago. Her father’s new wife and a family friend named Dr. Gerrard greet her warmly, but inform her that her father is away on business. Yet as the days go by, a series of peculiar and shocking events make her start to think her father has in fact been murdered! Has she come across the world’s wickedest stepmother, or is she losing her mind? Nerve-shredding suspense and some inventive plot twists follow.

Taste of Fear is often referred to as Hitchcockian, and while I can see why, it recalls for me much more the French classic Diabolique, which Sangster almost certainly must have seen. Both films create a sense of dread and continually lead the viewer to think “Ah, that’s what’s really going on” to be immediately followed by “I was wrong again – I have no idea what’s really going on”.

Hammer made the film in partnership with Columbia Pictures, which accounts for them landing American Susan Strasberg for the role of Penny. She brings across very well a young woman who is understandably fearful but at the same time determined and smart enough to keep pressing the question. The rest of the cast are British talents of the type that Hammer more typically favored, including Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as an effectively creepy Dr. Gerrard.

The other undeniable strength of the film is Douglas Slocombe’s pristine, gorgeous black and white cinematography. Both he and director Seth Holt have refined visual instincts regarding the balance of light and shadow that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. They also create a stunningly horrifying shot underwater that I will not detail because it would spoil a plot point, but you’ll appreciate it when you see it. Credit former film editor Holt also for a tightly constructed movie – flabbiness is the enemy of suspense and everything in this movie is lean and tight.

Hammer devotees argue which of the studio’s films was the most creative and well-made, with Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter at the top of many fans’ list. That’s a fun movie, but I find Taste of Fear more tightly constructed and better acted as well. This shamefully-forgotten thriller is available on Daily Motion, which I believe has the legal right to rebroadcast old movies on line, so you can enjoy it free of guilt right here.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

In my transatlantic existence, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the differences between British and American culture. One of the smaller ones: only the former have a broadly-shared tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is of course the touchstone of this British pleasure, but it apparently started centuries before Dickens’ classic.

BBC responded to and nurtured this tradition for a number of years by adapting a ghost story for television each yuletide season during the 1970s, reviving the practice a little over a decade ago. Most of them have featured the stories of M.R. James, though Mr. Dickens has also had his turn (An effective adaptation of The Signalman). James was a respected British academic and medieval studies scholar who famously had a sideline in writing chilling tales of the supernatural, most of which featured a central character from James’ world (e.g., a writer, professor, bishop, museum curator) who gets in over his head when encountering malevolent forces he cannot understand.

The BFI has a boxed set available with every BBC ghost story. Here, I am going to recommend the story that kicked it all off: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

Many people incorrectly recall the first BBC ghost story as being a Christmas special like all those that followed, but it was actually a springtime entry in the long-running series Omnibus, which more typically carried art-focused documentaries. But in 1968, legendary director Jonathan Miller gave Omnibus audiences a giant scare instead. The story centers on Professor Parkins, vividly portrayed by Michael Hordern as a near-autistic Cambridge Don who talks to himself more than the people around him. In a remote English seaside town, he checks into a bed and breakfast with a plan to do some reading and some “trudging” along the desolate beaches. His social awkwardness is extreme, positioning him apart from the other guests both figuratively and literally. But in this pivotal scene in which the hyper-rational Parkins puts a fellow guest who believes in ghosts in his place (“There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth”) we learn that it’s fundamentally smugness and not a sense of inferiority that separates Parkins from the rest of humanity. This is the classic M.R. James set up for a haughty intellectual to get his comeuppance via the world beyond.

And so it comes to pass. Professor Parkins comes across a grave that has been eroded by the sea and wind. Unwisely, he sorts through the bones to find a whistle with a Latin inscription meaning “Who is this who is coming?”. Of course the poor sod can’t resist blowing the whistle. Something awakens, glimpsed first as a distant, shrouded, figure silhouetted by the fading sun, then taking more form in pursuit during the Professor’s nightmares, and far too closer for comfort soon after that.

Like all of M.R. James’ stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is not a blood-spattered terror ride, but an eerie tale of foreboding, in which evil is often only glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. This is the artiest of BBC’s many adaptations of James’ stories, probably because of Miller’s presence and because the Omnibus audience would have expected nothing less (This also may account for the opening documentary-like narration by Miller, which might better have been dropped). Dick Bush does a tremendous job with single black and white camera set ups and long takes, including some effective low-angle and deep focus shots. He uses very few mid-range shots, mainly relying on distant, lonely, camera placement interspersed with a few well-chosen extreme closeups. The whole effect is admirably unnerving.

Were this constructed as a pure suspenser, the 40 minute running time would have been too long, but that’s why Hordern is such a treasure here. About half the story is a character study of an odd and indeed not particularly likable man, and Sir Michael carries that off in a compelling way until we get to the truly scary bits.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a worthy start to what became a beloved Christmas tradition in the UK (of the ones that followed, A View from the Hill is my favorite). Although the same story was re-adapted in 2010 by BBC with a bigger budget, the original is still I think the stronger piece of television and very much worth your attention this wintry season.

Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

Three Adaptations of I Am Legend

One of the best books I read in 2018 was the sci-fi/horror classic I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Matheson wrote it in 1954, years before he became famous as one of the creative forces behind The Twilight Zone. It’s a grim, powerful, novel about isolation and trauma, centering on Robert Neville, the last surviving human being. A global pandemic has turned the rest of humanity into vampire-like creatures who persecute Neville by night whereas he slaughters them by day. As the years go by, Neville is increasingly consumed by loneliness, sexual frustration, grief at the loss of his family, suicidal urges, and an ongoing angry dialogue in his own head, which he tries to extinguish with a river of alcohol. The book concludes with a psychically weighty twist worthy of the best Twilight Zone episodes.

Many of Matheson’s works were successfully adapted for the big and small screen. I have recommended a number of the excellent results, including Night of the Eagle, Tales of Terror, Dracula, and the Amelia segment from Trilogy of Terror. Given that track record, it’s not surprising that movie makers thought that I am Legend could be spun into cinematic gold. This week I examine three of these adaptations.

Producer Robert Lippert was the first to have a go at Matheson’s novel and managed to land the man himself to work on the screenplay. Initial plans were for Hammer Studios to make the film under the title The Last Man on Earth, with the legendary Fritz Lang being mentioned as a possible director. Unfortunately, financial problems and British censors got in the way, turning it into a low budget 1964 Italian production directed by Stanley Salkow. For Matheson and for many viewers as well, the resulting cheap production values and bad dubbing of Italian actors were enough to sink it, but I feel more kindly toward the film than that.

Vincent Price got to me as a glum Robert Neville, proceeding through a regime of staking vampires and burning bodies by day, and getting drunk and moody at night. Price often hammed it up on screen, but to the extent he does that here it fits with how Neville is portrayed in the novel. The vampires in the film (who are more reminiscent of the zombies that George Romero later made famous after being inspired by this movie) are simply not scary enough to make the suspenseful part of Neville’s dilemma sufficiently frightening, but the alienating and agonizing parts come through very well. Also, The Last Man on Earth deserves praise for being the only adaptation to keep the morally complex twist ending of the novel. Warts and all, I give thumb’s up to this version of Matheson’s book even though it’s certainly not at a level to make one stand up and cheer.

Seven years later, the book was re-adapted with a more respectable budget for Charlton Heston, who had a following among science fiction fans based on Planet of the Apes. In this version, titled The Omega Man and directed by Boris Sagal, the vampires have been replaced by an albino mutant cult who hate modern technology as personified by Army scientist Neville. Unlike in the novel, the film is packed from the first with comic book action scenes laced with explosions, stunts, and machine gun fire. Also unlike the novel, the character nuance and twist ending were removed, leaving a crusading hero versus bad guys storyline. That said, the few scenes showing Heston alone in his fortress apartment, trying to hold his sanity together as the mutants torment him each night, are really well done.

No one could mistake this for anything other than a 1970s movie, from the Manson Family-esque mutants to the painfully stereotypical African-American characters, who feel like they wandered off the set of a blaxploitation flick shooting on the next lot. Indeed, the whole thing could have lapsed into camp if not for Heston’s credible, strong-jawed performance (which at times recalls not only his role in Planet of the Apes but some of his religious movie roles as well), matched nicely by Anthony Zerbe as the leader of the mutants. It sticks less closely to the novel than does Last Man on Earth, but it’s more exciting to watch without being dumbed down.

The third adaptation of I am Legend kept the same title. This 2007 film is a mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster starring Will Smith. The film dispenses with the emotional core of the novel from the very first scene, giving Robert Neville a dog companion to give him comfort and to whom he can talk. The dog in the book shows up only halfway through and dies soon thereafter, painfully raising and then dashing Neville’s hopes of an end to his isolation. The canine companion here is used well to motivate some suspenseful encounters and also to give us one scene with real emotional power (kudos to Smith there), but its presence insulates the audience from experiencing the sense of isolation that made the book so haunting. The vampires here are bad CGI creations who act like the super zombies in World War Z, so filmgoers are protected from experiencing any complexities there as well. The filmmakers shot an ending that introduced a slight note of ambiguity about the vampires in the final scene, but when it didn’t “test well” with audiences (apparently someone reported experiencing an independent thought) the producers replaced it with an uncomplicated heroic end for Neville and a happy clappy conclusion for the audience. Naturally, this slick cop out of a movie made a mint at the box office.

So there you have it: Three films which were just not as great as the book on which they were based. Some novels are very hard to bring effectively to the big screen. Much of the power of Matheson’s book comes from Neville’s internal fulminations and struggles, and if you turned all that into first-person narration it would be an incredibly clunky film script. Because Neville is alone almost all of the novel, a screenwriter is also deprived of the usual opportunities for dramatic tension and dialogue between characters. It’s also a downbeat novel with psychic nuance, and that’s unlikely to please millions of film goers who come to the theater expecting simple up-with-people stories that they can stare at while stuffing their face with popcorn. It’s not an accident that as the adaptations got further and further away from Matheson’s book, they made more and more money at the box office.

So my strongest recommendation this week is not a film but a book: The only way to appreciate Matheson’s excellent novel is to actually read it. If I had to watch one of the three adaptations again, I would choose The Omega Man on balance. Yet I remain part of the cult following who sees significant strengths in The Last Man on Earth (which is in the public domain you can watch it here).

Categories
Foreign Language Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Les Yeux Sans Visage

In the decades immediately following the war, French film makers didn’t produce many horror movies, but when they did they took more risks than studios in other countries who simply revived classic monsters or reworked hoary ghost stories. Among the most compelling and influential of such productions shocked audiences when it was released in 1960: Les Yeux Sans Visage.

The story opens with a shot of a lone woman, played by the elegant Euro-superstar Alida Valli, driving down a dark highway in fear. The audience worry for her: Is she being pursued? Can she please get away? But then the film roils our emotions for the first of many times by showing us that in fact “our vulnerable heroine” is on her way to dump a mutilated corpse into the river. As the bizarre story unfolds, we learn that Valli’s character is the slavishly devoted partner of the brilliant Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a surgeon who is guilt-wracked over a car accident that disfigured his daughter Christiane (Edith Scob, who impressively manages to convey rich emotion while wearing a smooth mask). But if Génessier can capture a similar enough looking woman and force her to undergo a radical surgery, could a face transplant restore Christiane’s beauty? Grade A+ shocks and chills follow.

French director Georges Franju made this one of a kind horror film with a talented group of artists who implemented his vision. The legendary Boileau-Narcejac writing team adapted Jean Redon’s novel, implementing substantial changes to make the story more cinematic, and, approvable by censors (no mean feat in those days). Maurice Jarre composed the score and the famously innovative Eugen Schüfftan contributed pristine cinematography. Various film critics have placed the stunning result in the tradition of fantastique, surrealism, poetic realism, and even German-style Expressionism (even though it’s nowhere near as experimental as Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). I don’t know enough about the history of French film to arbitrate that debate, so I will use the less cultured term Art House Horror to roughly categorize this movie.

Les Yeux Sans Visage recalls Suspiria in that the visuals rather than the plot largely drive the movie and command the viewer’s attention. Dr. Génessier’s lair, to which the kidnapped young women are taken, is one of cinema’s most terrifying “second locations”, with ferocious dogs in weirdly shaped cages, tortuous passageways, and an underground surgical suite where you would never want to be a patient (roses for production design and art direction to Marie and Auguste Capelier). The horrifying, deathly, beautiful, dreamlike, series of images of this film’s last five minutes may never leave your mind.

At the time of its release, Les Yeux Sans Visage was not universally appreciated, but its reputation has deservedly soared since. Among its artistic descendants are Halloween, Face/Off, and yes, that Billy Idol song.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

Hound of the Baskervilles has a special place in The Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle’s story is substantially longer than the typical Holmes outing, allowing him to weave two distinct mystery tales together. It’s also remarkable for putting Watson at center stage for a significant part of the book, allowing the sidekick a turn as the protagonist. And last but not least, it has been adapted as a movie more than any other Holmes tale, beginning with a silent version made in Germany in 1914. One of the better adaptations, and the first to be shot in color, is the 1959 Hammer Films version.

The plot of the book concerns Holmes’ investigation of the ancient, wealthy, Baskerville family, and the curse of a demonic hound which has allegedly brought ruin upon them for generations. Holmes and Watson must solve the mystery about how the latest Baskerville has died, protect the new heir (Sir Henry Baskerville), and also cope with a mentally ill mass murderer named Selden who has broken out of prison and roams the moors near Baskerville Hall. I won’t ruin it for you in case you haven’t read it, but it’s a compelling mystery with more suspense and horror elements than most of Doyle’s shorter Holmes stories.

The 1959 version, playing to the studio’s strengths, puts the accent on the horror elements of the novel. Who better than Hammer to give us fog-shrouded moors and ruined abbeys in the English countryside? And who at Hammer better than Terence Fisher to direct? As in another of my recommendations, The Devil Rides Out, Fisher deftly moves from realistic treatment of interpersonal relationships to the more fantastic elements of the story.

Hammer also wisely cast their most reliable stars, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, in the major roles of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville, respectively. Cushing’s interpretation of Holmes is true to the book, rendering the detective as eccentric, brilliant, and not particularly warm. Lee’s performance as well as Peter Bryan’s strong script make Sir Henry a more substantial and engaging character than he is in the book. As mentioned, this particular story also needs a strong Doctor Watson, and André Morell is well up to the task. He eschews the comic elements that Nigel Bruce injected into his portrayal of Watson and instead coveys gravitas, as he also did in some other good Hammer films (e.g., The Plague of the Zombies).

Being a Hammer film, the 1959 version also throws in some décolletage and sex in the person of Maria Landi. Bryan’s script also changes her character’s role from what it was in the book, which may be objectionable to Holmes purists. But I found it a refreshing take, and one that gives the film a more jaundiced take on the aristocracy than did the book and other film adaptations of it.

You can watch this worthy adaptation of a beloved novel for free and legally on Dailymotion.

Some other adaptations which are worth your time: The handsomely produced 1939 version with Basil Rathbone as the great detective; the Livanov/Solomin adaptation from the utterly brilliant Soviet cycle of Holmes films; the little known Sy Weintraub production starring Ian Richardson; and the justly respected Granada Television version starring Jeremy Brett.

And a few to avoid: The disappointing 2002 version with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes; the yet worse Stewart Granger/William Shatner 1972 television version; and the execrable 2000 version starring the guy who played Max Headroom.