Archive for For the Love of Film The Film Preservation Blogathon

The Sunday Intertitle: Not Even Eternity

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2015 by dcairns

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Harry Houdini co-wrote and produced and starred in THE MAN FROM BEYOND in 1922. It uses the same frozen-alive plot idea as CAPTAIN AMERICA and BUCK ROGERS, with Houdini frozen at sea after being abandoned by unsympathetic skipper Luis Alberni (Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis from EASY LIVING). Fortunately for him, the first woman he meets strongly resembles his lost love, and may in fact be her reincarnation. HH drops in a bit of product placement for his sparring partner at the time, Arthur Conan Doyle ~

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This exploration of mystical hooey is played straight-faced by Houdini, though he never really credited the supernatural and would set up shop as a professional debunker. Elsewhere in the plot he gets to perform some escapes, though not particularly gripping ones to look at (serial THE MASTER MYSTERY has his best screen getaway). Still, it’s exciting to be able to see the escapologist in action, even if he’s just squirming free from wet bedsheets via a display of scientific wriggling, or stopping a boat going over Niagara by the simple expedient of climbing out and keeping one foot on the bottom.

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Oddly, Houdini’s acting seems to have regressed slightly since THE MASTER MYSTERY, in which he’s quite credible. Maybe because the plot this time requires him to display instability, uncertainty and pathos, a certain self-consciousness has set in. Disappointingly too, Nita “tits out” Naldi as the film’s resident femme fatale, doesn’t get to vamp him — that might have shaken him loose. I guess Naldi is the only woman to have worked opposite both Houdini and Barrymore, and under Hitchcock (twice). It’s always fun to see her, and to think of her getting them out at parties, as was her custom.

BEYOND has been described as “generally intact”, and it’s certainly in better shape than THE MASTER MYSTERY (missing whole episodes), TERROR ISLAND (minus two vital reels) and THE GRIM GAME (completely lost apart from one tantalising fragment). Houdini’s film oeuvre was not treated kindly by time. In fact, despite his movie activities being all washed up years before his death, Houdini’s brother and fellow magician Theodore Hardeen had preserved prints and negatives faithfully. But a fire inspection alerted him to the dangers of keeping nitrate stick in his home and he was forced to surrender everything to the garbage collectors. So we’re lucky anything has survived — what’s left of THE MAN FROM BEYOND comes from 16mm reduction prints, which make the night scenes impenetrably dark, and the story jumps around owing to what appear to be at least a few lost scenes.

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So this seemed a fitting film to close out Shadowplay’s participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon — a naive early science fiction fantasy, and a film which has survived the ravages of time (just barely), like Houdini’s protagonist, to stand shakily before us in a new century.

Coelacanth Buy Me Love

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 16, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-16-10h00m54s183So, they just found a warm-blooded fish, huh?

This is an entry for For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon, a very worthy cause. Click for more entries, and PLEASE use the Gort button at bottom to donate.

MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS may be dumb — and it is dumb, dumber than a continent of hammers — but at least it nips along at an agreeably peppy pace. When a prehistoric fish is delivered to the college’s top scientist, water leaks from the ice it’s packed in, and anything absorbing that water regresses back along its evolutionary pathway — a friendly Alsatian becomes a ravening sabre-tooth dog, and the chummy sexist scientist mutates into a Neanderthal brute — all within the first fifteen minutes. The movie’s over an hour later, and quite a lot more bad craziness has transpired.

Director Jack Arnold, who made lots of “classic” fifties sci-fi (TARANTULA, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and one authentic masterpiece (THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN), doesn’t try to dignify this malarkey more than it deserves, and can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but at least turns in a shapely sow’s ear with perfect hearing.

It turns out that the plasma of gamma-irradiated coelacanths only has temporary effects, so our hero mutates back from his simian rampage with nothing worse than a hangover. The college floozy who was pursuing him isn’t so lucky ~

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She’s apparently died of fright — I think the filmmakers wanted to be clear that there hadn’t been any Neanderthal funny business, after so much talk about man’s lower instincts. But for some reason she’s been hung from a tree by her hair, which leaves her corpse floating uncannily, like a ghost. I think this is inspired the popular idea (originating God knows where) of cavemen dragging their brides about by the hair. Indeed, later the ape-man does a bit of hair-tugging.

The movie now has a problem. It can throw in random shit like a giant de-evolved dragonfly it’s just invented (hmm, the page in my biology schoolbook dealing with giant prehistoric dragonflies appears to have been GLUED IN) but to keep the action going it has to have the hero accidentally does himself again, which it achieves by letting the dragonfly bleed into his pipe. The hero SMOKES DRAGONFLY BLOOD and this causes him to regress once more. Now he starts to suspect he’s the one who’s been terrorizing the campus and killing people, so to make sure he doses himself again — and again!

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I like his busts. You got a prehistoric John Randolph on the left, then a George Arliss, a cro-magnon James Coburn, and finally a very collectible George Kennedy. Probably the last two were built for Universal’s stone-age remake of CHARADE, a project cancelled when it was pointed out that postage stamps hadn’t been invented in the neolithic era, and that the original CHARADE hadn’t been made yet anyway.

What’s in a name? Our scientist is called Blake, the same as Christopher Lee’s fiendish alter ego in I, MONSTER, the film which pointlessly changes the names of the leads from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde while retaining the plot and all the supporting characters’ names. When Dr. Blake calls Madagascar to learn more about his fish’s provenance, he speaks to a Dr. Moreau. Well, that explains everything.

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There’s a pretty accomplished lap dissolve transformation when we finally see it, and Arnold comes up with a couple of other nice gimmicks to avoid expensive trick work (and repetition), but the ape-man is more of a rubber mask, hairy gloves and a ripped lumberjack shirt than a fully evolved makeup (and why do lycanthropic types always seem to wear checked shirts?).

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This was a lot better than the similarly-plotted THE NEANDERTHAL MAN (1953), which I thought was awful. But since being impressed by the same director’s THE SCARF (1951), I’ve kind of wanted to see THE NEANDERTHAL MAN again. EA Dupont couldn’t have regressed that far in two years, could he? You bet he could — the hero of MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS regresses millions of years in seconds.

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Magnetic Corps

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by dcairns

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I thought Curt Siodmak’s THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was going to be good corny fun, the way BRIDE OF THE GORILLA certainly is — the title promises much. But it’s false advertising, as the film contains no monster, magnetic or otherwise, unless, like THE INVISIBLE MENACE it’s one that doesn’t register on film and stays well away from the main action.

Still, Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother deserves credit for attempting something with a bit more natural dignity than his previous Raymond Burr were-gorilla romp. This one concerns the activities of America’s A-Men, the Atom Men who police crimes of a scientific nature. The premise has potential and the name “A-Men” is amusing in a good way. The stylistic approach is borrowed from all those pseudo-documentaries like G-MEN, which I tend to find stodgy and unappealing, even with the added lift of Anthony Mann directing and/or John Alton lighting. This movie has neither: it has Curt Siodmak directing and steady workhorse Charles Van Enger lighting.

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The ending, filmed in an impressive location — IMDb mentions the McCulloch Plant at Los Angeles International Airport — manages to look properly epic and science-fictional, even with stock-footage explosions spliced in,  but what impressed me most was an appearance by Kathleen Freeman as the A-Men’s switchboard operator. Completely uncredited, the great comedienne has plenty of scenes and lots of dialogue, even if she’s basically only there to make a fat joke about herself. I realized, watching her, that a major problem of 50s sci-fi is the lack of people like Kathleen Freeman in them. I quite LIKE Richard Carlson, but he stepped out of a cookie-cutter at Central Casting, and so did most of the other players. Freeman is both more realistic and more extraordinary — one of those people who makes you smile with every appearance.vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h24m59s133

REDS UNDER THE BEDROCK

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH suffers similarly from a lumpen, authoritarian and plodding sensibility — but it’s actually a British film from the untalented Irish hack Montgomery Tully — some of its interest comes from a deft use of stock footage and bit players to pull off an American setting fairly convincingly. But it’s best trait is the very opening, where a deranged scientist is discovered with his ear to the sidewalk in Las Vegas, raving about some unidentified other moving about beneath the ground “just like ants.” In a phildickian twist, the scientist is both crazy and correct, but Dick would never have settled for a storyline about a rogue Chinese general deploying digging machines to plant nukes under the USA.

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The portrayal of the Chinese baddies isn’t as bad as you might expect — it’s worse, and far crazier. The lead villains are played by Caucasians in yellowface, not because the production wanted to cast movie stars — they’re unknowns — but presumably on the assumption that the Chinese can’t act. Tell that to Chow Yun-Fat, but then retreat rapidly before he punches your face in. Here, Martin Benson tries to suggest foreignness with a clipped delivery that makes him sound like Noel Coward. There are lots of lines about “the gods,” suggesting that screenwriter Chares F. Vetter didn’t know as much about Maoism as he should have.

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The production design is hilarious — papier maché cave walls decorated with Chinese restaurant trimmings, set dressing from a Fu Manchu pic, orientalist nonsense. I like the tacky little calendar fixed to the wall, though — surely the art director was having a laugh. But if you’re a Chinese troglodyte on the wrong side of the world, you probably do want to keep track of the passing of time.

This has been a science fiction double feature for The Film preservation Blogathon, hosted by This Island Rod.

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