The Inside Baseball of Film Versions of “A Christmas Carol” – Part 1

Anyone who has been reading my posts on this site for more than a year knows that I am a Christmas Carol fanatic.  So as a fair warning I’ll just say that this post is only for true Christmas Carol devotees.  Every word of it is subjective and dedicated to minutiae.  I have four versions of the film that I like and each has an aspect in which it excels the other three.  Every year I re-evaluate the films and debate with myself on trivial points that would have exactly zero importance to the overwhelming majority of the human inhabitants of planet earth.  Here goes.

Material that wasn’t in the book

A Christmas Carol was a novella.  It is brief and in places lacks details about the characters and events.

For instance, the book never says why Scrooge’s father treated him so poorly.  In the 1951 version it is stated that his father held it against him that his mother died in his childbirth.  And in the same version a similar grudge exists as the reason why Scrooge dislikes his nephew Fred.  It is shown that his sister Fan died giving birth to Fred.  In the 1984 version the same reason for his father’s dislike for Scrooge is presented.  But the death of Fan during Fred’s birth is not added.  What is interesting about these additions is that based on the original story they would be impossible.  In the book Fan is quite a bit younger than her brother Ebenezer.  Therefore, their mother couldn’t have died at the birth of her older child.  I suppose Fan could have been Ebenezer’s half-sister but I don’t imagine that a twice married man would still be holding his first wife’s death as a grudge against his son.  So, this addition is spurious.  But it is extremely dramatic and provides a timely reason for both father’s and son’s misanthropic behavior that could be somewhat excused and so leave room for deserved forgiveness.  And it has a highly effective scene where the older Scrooge hears his dying sister ask for his promise to take care of her infant son Fred.  We see that the younger Scrooge never heard the dying plea and the older Scrooge gets to belatedly beg his beloved deceased sister’s forgiveness for his heartless treatment of her only child.

And notice that the 1984 version borrows both the discrepancy of Fan’s age and the spurious grudge of Scrooge’s father but neglects the equally spurious grudge of Scrooge for his nephew.  I guess they thought those additions gave resonance to the story.

In both the 1951 and 1984 versions Scrooge’s fiancée is introduced during the Fezziwig party scene and give a name (Alice in the earlier version, Belle in the later).  Neither this early link to Scrooge’s life or the name show up in the book.  In addition, in the 1951 version it skips the scene introducing this woman’s later life with husband and large family but instead substitutes a scene during the Ghost of Christmas Present section where Belle is volunteering at a shelter for the poor.  Now whereas tying Scrooge’s love to the Fezziwig era of his life is fine and in fact better than the way the book presents it, I do not particularly favor the poor shelter addition.  It seems unwarranted.  I think the scene where she is surrounded by her family is dramatic enough in that it illustrates what happiness Scrooge has lost.

In the book the Ghost of Christmas Present visits the house of Scrooge’s nephew Fred.  The dinner guests are presented enjoying games such as blindman buff and forfeits which I take to be word games such as twenty questions.  One of the rounds determined that it was a disagreeable animal that growled and lived in London.  And, of course, it turns out to be Uncle Scrooge.  In the 1984 version the story is adapted so the dinner guests are playing a game called similes where they need to guess the end of a simile.  When Fred asks his wife to complete “as tight as,” she replies “your Uncle Scrooge’s purse strings.”  Scrooge hears this while in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  After his repentance and on the actual Christmas Day he meets his niece and discussing the game of similes he advises her that the simile, in case it came up, was “as tight as a drum.”  Nicely played.

From the book we know that Jacob Marley died seven years earlier on Christmas Eve.  And we are informed that Scrooge inherited his house.  What the 1951 version does is tie these facts together in a scene.  We have Jacob Marley’s charwoman come to the office and interact with Bob Cratchit and Scrooge.  Then we have Scrooge being warned by a dying Marley that their misanthropy would endanger their immortal souls.  And this then links both the charwoman’s stealing of his bed curtains and bed clothing and her later spurious appearance after the last of the spirits depart and Scrooge wakes up on actual Christmas morning.  In this scene the charwoman (identified incorrectly as Mrs. Dilber) is bringing in Scrooge’s breakfast and witnesses his reformation into a caring human being.  His manic happiness frightens her and when he gives her a gold sovereign coin as a present, she assumes it’s a bribe to keep her quiet about his strange behavior.  When he tells her it’s a Christmas present and he is quintupling her salary she is overcome with happiness and rushes off with her own characteristic version of a Merry Christmas greeting.  I find this addition to the story especially apt.  In the story the charwoman selling Scrooge’s bed curtains comes off very negatively.  But humanizing her by including her positively in the scene about Marley’s death and allowing a rapprochement with a penitent Scrooge on Christmas morning improves the story and ties these aspects of the story together in a way that gives the story more depth.  It reinforces that Scrooge’s repentance touches every aspect of the world we have been shown in a positive way.

Overall I’d say that the film additions to the plot have been acceptable and true to the spirit of the story.

Miller’s Crossing – A Movie Review

The Coen Brothers make a lot of interesting movies.  Some I like more than others.  Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites.  It’s a gangster story in an unidentified southern city during the 1930s.  Albert Finney is Leo O’Bannon, an Irish gangster who runs the city.  Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, Leo’s right-hand man and best friend.  Verna is Leo’s girl.  But she’s also sleeping with Tom.  Verna’s brother, Bernie (played by John Turturro) and  Mink Larouie (played by Steve Buscemi) are small-time bookies who have crossed another gangster, Johnny Caspar.  Caspar wants Bernie dead and Leo won’t let it happen because of Verna.  Tom knows that Bernie and Verna spell disaster for Leo and advises him to give up Bernie.  So, this is the complicated basis of the story.

But that’s not the reason to watch the movie.  It’s a comic book version of a 30s gangster movie.  A gangster can be bounced down three flights of marble stairs and walk away from it all in one piece. The cops and the city administration will switch back and forth between mob allegiances on an hour’s notice and bring to bear against their former allies all the force of military grade weaponry.

The movie has a fine soundtrack that includes popular music of the era, Irish folk music and even a little Italian opera.  My favorite scene is an attempted mob rubout at Leo’s house.  It’s a bullet riddled ballet to the accompaniment of Danny Boy.  It’s in this scene that Albert Finney proves that a Thompson machine gun will never run out of ammunition.  It’s a thing of nihilistic beauty.

Finney, Turturro and Buscemi are all extremely entertaining but Gabriel Byrne is the center of the movie.  His character Tom is a hardened bitter man who nevertheless lives by a code that requires loyalty to a friend.  In fact, his loyalty to Leo is the only admirable behavior displayed in the whole movie.  And even this is wholly doomed by their relationships with Verna.  Basically, everyone is corrupt.  The good guys are mobsters.  The bad guys are mobsters.  There’s even a scene where a little kid sees a dead mobster on the street and steals his toupee.

And because this is a Coen Brothers movie it is suffused with black humor.  Every mob rubout and brutal beating is chock full of jokes and wisecracks.  The mobsters and cops in the movie are prone to witticisms and philosophical musings that probably rarely occur in real mobsters and cops.  The best example is when Johnny Gaspar explains to Leo that Bernie’s selling of Johnny’s fixed fight information demonstrates Bernie’s lack of moral character.

Miller’s Crossing is a typical Coen Brothers movie.  All the characters are morally compromised and happy endings are extremely scarce and never unmitigated.  If you have enjoyed any of their other movies then I highly recommend Miller’s Crossing.  Otherwise, read my description and decide for yourself if this type of film is for you.

To Have and Have Not – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I think it’s a pretty remarkable fact, that of the seven films Humphrey Bogart was in that I consider worth owning my least favorite is Casablanca.  It’s possible I’ve just seen it too many times already.  But I’ve watched the Maltese Falcon many times more and I keep putting it back on.  It’s probably just individual preference.  But for whatever the reason, it tells me that Bogart was in a relatively large number of excellent films.

Next up is “To Have and Have Not.”  This movie is based on the Hemingway story.  Several of the story elements seem to be repeated in Casablanca.  A French colony is the locale.  There are Nazis and their local collaborators as the heavies.  Resistance fighters including a husband and wife team are looking for help from Bogart’s character.  There is a damsel in distress as the love interest.  And there’s a singer at a piano that entertains us here and there.  Honestly, I actually prefer this earlier film to Casablanca.  It seems less strained.

Bogey is a charter boat captain named Harry Morgan and Walter Brennan is his first mate Eddie.  Eddie is a garrulous alcoholic and Harry’s best friend.  They’re on a two-week charter out of Florida to the French island of Martinique.  Martinique is part of “Free France” but under the thumb of the Nazis.  Harry meets Marie Browning, played by a very young Lauren Bacall, as she is stealing the wallet of Harry’s charter client.  He takes the wallet from her and discovers from the contents that the client was about to skip out without paying him.  Grateful for her unwitting help he strikes up a friendship with her.  Of course, under the circumstances, their relationship is always awkward and tentative.  He calls her Slim which rankles her so she calls him Steve probably from spite.  But for all their verbal jousting the sparks begin to fly and it’s easy to see that their relationship will be at least one of the major plot lines.

The hotel where Harry, Marie and apparently anyone involved in the resistance ends up staying is owned by, of course, Frenchy, or so he is called by Harry.  He is the clandestine leader of the resistance.  Several of his friends get into a gun battle with the local police and this leads to Harry and Marie falling under the suspicious eye of the local police chief.  He seizes their passports and money and grills them for information on the resistance.

Being strapped for cash Harry accepts a job ferrying some resistance fighters onto the island, Paul and Hellene de Bursac.  Paul gets shot during a sea voyage while evading the harbor patrol.  Harry acts as a cut-rate trauma surgeon and removes the bullet.  The police finally decide to put the squeeze on Harry by grilling Eddie this triggers a confrontation that Harry controls with the help of a few well aimed bullets.  Throughout Marie is at Harry’s side, for the most part, trading wisecracks and supporting the cause.  Eddie supplies the comic relief and Hoagy Carmichael as Cricket plays the piano and employs Marie as an ersatz lounge singer.

Bit of well-known classic Hollywood trivia, the sparks flying between Harry and Marie were mirrored in real life between Bogart and Bacall and they shortly afterward became man and wife in real life.  And the chemistry they had translated excellently to film.  Their sparring courtship is fun to watch and although stylized in the manner of director Howard Hawkes’ staccato bantering dialog it comes off as interesting and of its time.  Highly recommended.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – An OCF Classic Movie Review

There is a school of thought that says Bogart became a big star because of the Maltese Falcon.  It was his first role that extended his acting range beyond the gangster parts he had been doing up to that point.  And the story was a popular book and John Huston’s script was a pip.

So, I’m sure Bogart was more than anxious when he had a second chance to work with Huston.  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was once again based on a popular book.  And once again Huston’s script is a pip.  Bogart is an American named Dobbs in Tampico, Mexico who is broke and looking for an opportunity to make some money.  After some difficulty collecting back-wages he teams up with two other Americans.  Walter Huston, John Huston’s actual father, plays an old gold prospector Howard and Tim Holt is Curtin who hopes to make a stake before returning to the United States.  The three men discuss what it would take to make a prospecting expedition to the Sierra Madre.  By an amazing coincidence Bogart wins the amount they need off of a lottery ticket and donates it to the expedition.  On the train ride at the outset of the journey to the Sierra Madre, the partners encounter bandits.  This is followed by a long trek through jungles and desert and mountains.  And just as Dobbs and Curtin have become discouraged and want to give up the search Howard mocks them with the news that they’ve been surrounded by gold for the last day but they were too ignorant to see it.  The partners get to work and start a mining operation that rewards their hard work with generous amounts of gold.  And at this point we begin to see the destructive effect of greed and mistrust.  Pretty quickly Dobbs becomes dangerously suspicious of his partners and all remnants of amicable relations evaporate and all that is left is the business of harvesting the gold.  During this time there are episodes involving a claim jumper and later the bandits return.  A very well-known exchange occurs between the head bandit and the partners.  The bandit is pretending to be a policeman and when asked to show his badge he sputters, “Badges?  Badges?  We don’t need no stinking badges!”  The return journey also contains some interesting episodes that eventually split up the partners and leads to open warfare between Dobbs and Curtin.  For the better part of the movie we’ve been watching as Fred C. Dobbs slowly descends into gold madness.  Now he reaches the point of attempting murder.  The end of the movie follows the last scenes where we learn the fate of the partners, the bandits and the gold.

For me this movie is an almost perfect gem of a tale.  It has an interesting blend of humor, adventure and a study of human nature.  Toward the end, Bogart is almost over the top in his manic portrayal of Dobbs but he is an interesting character.  Tim Holt plays the most sympathetic character as Curtin but without a doubt, Walter Huston steals the show from everyone else as the old prospector Howard.  His character is colorful, glib, humorous and just plain engaging.

I highly recommend this movie for everyone.  It’s a classic and timelessly entertaining.

Them! – A Science Fiction Movie Review

You may be asking yourself, is photog becoming demented?  Didn’t he already write a review of Them!?  The answers to those questions are yes and no.  I have referenced Them in several posts about cheesy 1950s science fiction movies.  But it has never gotten its own exclusive treatment.  Well, I mean to remedy that situation, pronto.

Them! is the grand-daddy of all atomic energy fear films.  Instead of fearing cancer and radiation sickness we are provided with a much more rational fear, giant ants.  It is 1954 and nine years after the first atomic bomb was tested at White Sands, New Mexico.  During those nine years ants have been traipsing around the New Mexico desert ignorant of their future as future contenders for mankind’s crown as King of the Earth.  But the wait is over.  A small prop plane is inexplicably cruising over the desert and spots a little girl holding a doll aimlessly walking in the hot sun.  The pilot alerts a nearby police cruiser which intercepts the little girl and finds that she’s catatonic.  With the help of the pilot they trace her point of origin to a recreational vehicle parked in the desert.  On closer inspection the officers discover that one side of the RV has been ripped to shreds.  But being crack forensic experts and logical linguists, they proclaim that the RV wall, “wasn’t caved in, it was caved out.”  Whoever wrote the deathless prose of this dialog is partly responsible for the sad position we currently find ourselves in, vis-à-vis cultural and actual illiteracy.  Later on, the policeman redeems himself when at a general store that has been similarly destroyed, he declares, “this wasn’t pushed in, it was pulled out.”  Okay, stupid rant over.

Based on blood found in the RV the officers determine that the girl is the only survivor of an attack.  On the way back from finding the girl and the trailer they stop off at a local general store and find it similarly damaged and the store owner brutally killed.  One of the police officers, Ed Blackburn is left at the store to guard the remains.  His partner, Sgt. Ben Peterson played by James Whitmore, drives off and shortly afterward, Blackburn is heard off camera firing his revolver at some thing and then screaming as he suffers horrible death.

Evidence found at the site of the RV, a foot print, is sent to the FBI for identification and so the story moves on to its next logical step, Santa Claus is called in.  Or more precisely Edmund Gwenn who played Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street.  Gwenn plays Dr. Harold Medford a world-renowned myrmecologist who with his myrmecologist daughter have come to lead the effort to save the world from the giant ants.  Representing the government is FBI agent Robert Graham played by James Arness.  Arness who later found fame as Marshall Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke is the brave, competent hero of the movie and the love interest for the myrmecologist daughter.  And to provide local color Ben Peterson is always on hand to provide the comic relief.

With the help of the scientists, the army locates the giant ant nest and destroy it with cyanide gas.  But after inspecting the inside of the nest the scientists break the bad news.  New queen ants have escaped the nest and will be forming new nests elsewhere.  Now a war room is set up and armed forces from all the services mobilize to battle the giant ants on land, on sea and in the air.  Dunt, dunt, daaaah!!!

The final showdown takes place where it must, in the storm drains of Los Angeles.  And in fitting fashion, the ants capture two little boys who wander into their nest and are rescued by the US Army.  Unfortunately, Ben Peterson dies saving the boys but dies the good death of a hero.  And when the ants are finally finished off Dr. Medford gives a speech and tells us that the atomic age is fraught with danger and giant insects.

Despite how thoroughly I’ve mocked this movie, I actually enjoy it immensely.  Other than the laughably fake animatronic ants the production values for the movie are quite good and the actors are actually very effective for the most part, including the character actors performing the bit parts as police, military and civilian participants.  My favorite scenes are where the scientific expertise of the Medfords is showcased for the benefit of the poor ignorant soldiers and police.  While under attack from their first giant ant Dr. Medford makes sure he uses the Latin singular and plural versions of the word antenna when instructing the police to shoot at the ant. “Shoot the antennae, shoot the antennae,” he yells and once one of these has been shot off he continues “now shoot the other antenna.”  In another scene Dr. Medford is attempting to convince the Pentagon that the giant ants are an existential threat to humanity and he uses an ant film clip that looks like it could have been made by my high school biology teacher.

Them! is a wonderful time capsule of the 1950s.  Americans are the good guys and giant ants are definitely bad.  What could be simpler?

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – A Movie Review

Terry Gilliam is best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  But he also had a second career as a motion picture writer/director.  His best-known movie was Brazil, about a dystopic future where the all-powerful security state reaches an absurdist level of control.

But the movie that I am interested in here is a less well known but sunnier exercise.  The movie opens up within a walled town besieged by the Turks at a time that is identified as being in the 18th Century, The Age of Reason, Wednesday.  A small acting company is putting on a comical play of the legendary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when in the middle of the first act the real Baron Munchausen interrupts the play to refute the slanders, he claims are being made against himself.  The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson who is in attendance in the audience and is the military governor of the town and a staunch proponent of the Age of Reason, takes offense at the Baron’s aspersions against reason and logic and threatens to throw the Baron and the whole acting troupe over the wall to the Turk.  The Baron claims he is the cause of the Turkish assault on the town and spends the rest of the movie assembling his legendary comrades to save the town from both the Turk and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson.  The Sultan and Jackson, behind the scenes are actually on excellent terms and take turns winning battles in order to keep the war going on forever.

Some very excellent actors are included in the cast including Jonathan Pryce as Horatio Jackson, Robin Williams as the King of the Moon and Eric Idle as Desmond and Berthold.  The reason Idle has two characters to play is another conceit of the movie.  The play actors of which Idle is one look exactly like the Baron’s actual comrades and so the movie actors play both parts.  Robin Williams as mentioned, is King of the Moon and his characterization has a split personality.  When the King’s head is detached from his body, he has a light, zany, Italian-accented voice an impish personality.  But when the head and body are joined Williams takes on the voice and personality of what could most easily be described as an angrier version of Benito Mussolini.

The English actor John Neville plays the Baron and smaller parts are distributed to well-known actors like Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman who portray the gods Vulcan and Venus respectively.  Even Sting (of Police singing fame) has a cameo as the “Heroic Officer.”

The plot, such as it is, has the Baron sailing to the Moon, falling into Mount Vesuvius to meet Vulcan and Venus and being swallowed by a giant sea monster, all performed as part of his search for his servants.  Along the way he flirts with Queens, goddesses and even a few commoners.  At all times he somehow has long stem roses to hand out and he invariably compares the beauty of each women to Catherine the Great “whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.”  On one occasion he makes the remark to three women at once.  When an auditor of this exchange challenges him that they couldn’t all remind him of Catherine the Great, the Baron petulantly replied, “Why not? Bits here and bits there!”

The movie is obviously a hymn to fantasy and whimsy and the final showdown has the Baron conquer not only reason and reality but even old age and death itself.  It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that is full of fantastic visual effects and fairy tale imagery.  It probably will not appeal to all tastes.  I highly recommend it to those who can enjoy elaborate nonsense.

I Robot – A Science Fiction Movie Review

My regular readers will know that my estimation of Isaac Asimov’s work is not uniformly positive.  I read the “I Robot” stories as a kid and enjoyed them a good deal.  I think what I found entertaining was the cleverness of the interplay of the Three Laws of Robotics with the plot lines.  Re-reading them many years later I saw that aside from the cleverness, the stories were not particularly rich in characterization or description.  And for short stories of that era that wasn’t unusual.  So, let’s say I Robot is a worthy example of its time and type.

A film was made from the stories back in 2004.  It bears no resemblance to any of the stories but involves the concepts of the three laws and how they relate to a world that has adopted an almost universal use of robots in commercial, industrial and even personal service.  Will Smith is a cop in Chicago who despises robots because of a past encounter.  The plot revolves around his investigation of a murder that contrary to the requirements of the three laws has apparently been committed by a robot.  For fans of Firefly the voice of the killer robot Sonny is provided by Alan Tudyk (aka Hoban “Wash” Washburne).

I was sort of busy back in 2004 and didn’t see the movie when it came out.  But I Robot, the movie, has been in almost constant rotation on AMC for the last year or two so I’ve seen all or part of it a number of times now.  When I first viewed it I wasn’t very enthusiastic for it.  The dissimilarity from the Asimov stories probably annoyed me.  If I grasp for any other reasons, I’ll point to the presence of Shia LaBeouf in the cast in a part so insipid that it makes you shake your head wondering what the director was thinking.

Interestingly, over time I actually grew to enjoy the movie more.  It’s an action adventure movie and the scenes featuring Will Smith battling enormous numbers of robots are cleverly done and quite a lot of fun.  Tudyk does a good job making the robot character sympathetic.  And Bridget Moynahan makes the Susan Calvin character more personable than Asimov ever did.

So here we have a couple of inversions of the typical situation.  For the most part, I find that a movie made from a book almost never lives up to it.  But in this case, it surpasses it.  And here is an example of a book that has decreased in my estimation over time while the movie has done the reverse.

I Robot is not a film version of the Asimov stories and it does not break any new ground as a science fiction movie either for the special effects or for original story telling.  But it’s a pretty good Will Smith action adventure.  And he does kill a lot of robots with a big gun.  How can you go wrong with that?

House on Haunted Hill (1959) – A Horror Movie Review

Halloween has come and gone but I would like to add a few more movies to the list and maybe finish off with some kind of summation.

The date (1959) is inserted in the post title to differentiate this film from the 1999 remake.  I actually paid money to see the remake in a theater and still consider it one of the worst judgement calls of my rather checkered movie viewing career.  It’s right up there with Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.  Ah well.

The 1959 original is a masterpiece of cheesy 1950s horror film goodness.  The plot, such as it is, revolves around a millionaire, Vincent Price, and his wife who invite three men and two women who are only casually familiar with the hosts, to stay overnight locked in a haunted mansion.  That total of four men and three women matches the number of men and women murdered in the haunted house and therefore the number of ghosts haunting it.  Got it? Good.  If they stay, they each win $10,000.  If they die, they get $50,000 or at least their beneficiaries do.  The building is locked completely and until the next morning no one can leave.

Although Vincent Price stars in this gem and brings to bear all of his formidable overacting ability I would say that the star of the film is the screams produced by the two main female characters in the movie.  The piercing quality and protracted duration of the various screaming jags is remarkable.  Especially considering the low body count of the action.  These gals will start singing at the drop of a hat or at least at the drop of a severed head.

In second place in terms of importance to the atmosphere of the film is Watson Pritchard, the character played by actor Elisha Cook Jr.  You may know Cook from his notable roles in such high-profile films as the Maltese Falcon and the Big Sleep where he interacted with the likes of Humphrey Bogart.  But this is not the Maltese Falcon.  This not even the Maltese Bippy.  In House on Haunted Hill he is interacting with actors of the caliber of Vincent Price, at best.  Pritchard is a morose alcoholic survivor of a previous ghost attack whose brother is one of the ghosts haunting the house.  His main function is to drink booze and tell the participants in a droning, despondent voice, that they are all doomed and soon to be themselves ghosts in the house forever.  In this role he is truly annoying and it is sort of beyond the suspension of disbelief to think that none of the other characters would beat him into silence.  In the most egregious occurrence of Pritchard’s pessimistic prognosticating, the male romantic lead, airline pilot Lance Schroeder, runs into a room holding a mummified woman’s severed head by its long dark hair and yells to Pritchard, “where’s Nora!”  Pritchard immediately proclaims, based on no evidence we’ve been given, that not only have the ghosts already killed Nora but that she’s already actively working as one of them to kill the rest of the living occupants of the house.  Then Nora walks into the room and Pritchard doesn’t even bat an eye but goes back to his drinking.  Apparently ghost listening is far from an exact science and his radar was slightly thrown off by the straight bourbon he was pouring down his throat at the time.

And Lance is the only other character played by an actor anyone has ever heard of.  He’s played with astonishing mediocrity by Richard Long whom you may or may not remember played “the Professor” in the forgettable 1970s tv series “Nanny and the Professor” with Haley Mills’ less talented but more attractive sister Juliet playing the role of “the Nanny.”  The rest of the actors on House on Haunted Hill probably ended up as extras on Gunsmoke, Bonanza and the Twilight Zone.  Some may even have lasted long enough to do a stint on “Love American Style.”  But I digress.

As host, Vincent Price distributes party favors (semi-automatic .45 caliber pistols) and a private bed room to each of his guests.  The guests form various alliances and attempt to protect themselves from harm but despite this, Vincent Price’s wife is quickly found hanged from the ceiling of the stairway.  It’s a really nice-looking braided rope.  This of course triggers an avalanche of shrieks from Nora.  Richard Long comforts her, which cements their romantic attraction and allows her to rest her tonsils for the next bout of screeching.  And that can only be a few minutes away.  Just to summarize, there are secret passageways, ceilings dripping with blood, vats below the floor filled with really, really, fast-acting acid, a blind hag that seems to slide along the floor as if being pulled along on roller skates, a ghostly apparition outside the window, a walking, talking skeleton and a self-propelled rope that can wind around women’s legs without any hand moving it.  There are another couple of characters that I haven’t described but honestly, they don’t have much to do.  There is a plot line that involves Vincent Price and his wife which actually explains a lot of the plot elements but knowing it doesn’t really add or detract much from entertainment value of the movie.  It’s a ridiculous horror movie and I enjoy it immensely on its own terms.  If you like bad 1950s horror movies then I recommend House on Haunted Hill as the pinnacle of the genre.  If you don’t like bad 1950s horror movies then I can’t help you and you’re probably a monster.

Things to Come – An OCF Classic Movie Review

It’s been a few years since I last saw this old science fiction film.  The screenplay was written by H. G. Wells based on his story of the same name.  And it has some distinguished British Shakespearean actors in the persons of Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwicke.  But it also has Raymond Massey who can chew up scenery with the best of them.

The plot is remarkably realistic at the start.  A Second World War begins in 1940 (this was made in 1935) and goes on for decades killing off most of humanity.  Then a plague finishes off the majority of the survivors and throws humanity into a virtual dark age where isolated communities battle for the meager resources that remain in what is practically a pre-industrial age.  In a section of England Ralph Richardson portrays a “Chief” who controls his villages as a rough and ready princeling battling the surrounding mini-states for control of the food and other resources.  Suddenly an advanced airplane lands and Raymond Massey reveals that a scientific community has survived the war and is re-establishing civilization and putting an end to nation-states.  He is taken prisoner by the chief but the writing is on the wall and eventually Massey’s friends show up with aircraft that looks like something out of a Buck Rogers serial.  They use the “gas of peace” to knock out the population and shepherd them into the Global Socialist Future complete with “science.”  We are then regaled with the wonderful futuristic science and engineering marvels that allow the world to be converted into a paradise on earth.

Flash forward fifty years and everyone lives underground and the world is a garden of delights where no one seems to work very hard or gets sick and everyone is happy, sort of like San Francisco but without the human feces everywhere.  The descendant of Raymond Massey, who looks remarkably like Raymond Massey, is working on the Space Gun that will shoot a space capsule around the Moon.  But Cedric Hardwicke won’t have it.  He rallies the non-scientists (actors and hair stylists) to attack the Space Gun and destroy it with their own soft and well-manicured hands.  Raymond Massey takes his helicopter and races the mob to the Space Gun and loads his daughter and her boyfriend into the bullet just in time to fire them into space and coincidentally allow the shockwave from the firing of the gun to murder all the raging doofuses attempting to stop him.

Then Massey gives a monologue that goes on and on.  It’s a panegyric to progress.  We’ll go to the Moon and colonize it and out to the planets and then onto the stars.  We’ll never stop.  It’s all or nothing.  There’s even a choir at the end.  I think they were repeating “all or nothing.”  For someone who is a big fan of the space program he managed to make it sound unhinged even to me.

Here’s my take.  The beginning of the movie is frighteningly prescient.  He saw the rest of the twentieth century coming.  That was right on the nose.  But Wells was a socialist.  Basically he might as well have been doing forward work for Stalin.  All that was missing was the hammer and sickle.  His belief that the socialists would build some kind of scientific utopia was laughably misguided.  And the smugness of the Massey character made me immediately think of Barack Obama.  All he needed to do to make the effect perfect would have been to say a couple of times “it’s not who we are.”  Honestly, I was solidly behind the “Chief” character and would gladly have put up with the lice and dysentery to avoid having to hear the speeches about “science.”

This really is a period piece and worth seeing just to get a flavor for what the British socialists thought the future should be.  It’s very enlightening.  And the histrionics by Massey are so over the top that they’re really quite funny to see and hear.

Psycho – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Re-Posted from October 2017 in honor of Halloween.  Boo!

In honor of Halloween I’ve gone through the Universal Classic Monster Movies.  Moving along let’s look at the first modern horror movie.  And let’s start by defining what a modern horror movie is.  Well, what it isn’t is Frankenstein or Dracula or any make-believe monster.  In fact, it isn’t even a more contemporary monster like a zombie in “Night of the Living Dead.”  The generation that had lived through World War II and the Korean War and was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation probably couldn’t pretend to be afraid of rubber-masked monsters.  What they could fear was the monster that might be living behind the eyes of the boy next door.  Insanity was a monster that they knew had broken free before and once loose inflicted real horror on all in its path.  So that’s the modern horror movie monster, a homicidal maniac.  And before there was the Red Dragon, or Hannibal Lector or Saw there was Norman Bates.

Psycho was based on a novel by Robert Bloch, who wrote genre fiction in Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Mystery categories.  It was inspired in part by a truly depraved serial killer named Ed Gein but the details of the story mostly came out of Bloch’s imagination.

But the reason Psycho is the subject of this review is that Alfred Hitchcock wanted to make that movie.  Always an innovator and aware of the need to push the boundaries of what was allowable on screen, he produced a film that fit its time.  The sexual nature of the relationship between Marion Crane and Sam Loomis is highlighted.  The murder scenes although tame by today’s standards are truly frightening.  For audiences of that time (1960) some of the scenes would have been shocking.

But Hitchcock didn’t make just a scream fest.  The movie is a complete story.  Each of the main characters and many of the smaller parts are skillfully crafted with loving detail and come to life on the screen.  And one character who has been dead for ten years and only survives inside the tortured brain of a madman gets several good lines including the closing soliloquy.

And here is one of the strangest twists of the movie.  The monster gets to tell his side of the story.  In the scene where Norman Bates brings Marion a meal, he tells his side of the story and even gives his mother’s side too.  Obviously, it’s couched in self-delusion and the confusion associated with a split personality but he describes his life as being in a self-inflicted trap that he no longer even tried to escape.  And he admitted that he depended on his mother as much as she depended on him.  And the portrait we see is personable, sympathetic and pitiable.  Of course, this just sets us up for what follows.

Norman’s sexual frustration is illustrated in the voyeurism we are shown and of course the maniacal rage is on display in each of the murders and the attempted murder.  When the psychiatrist comes on at the end as a deus-ex-machina, he not only explains the origins of Norman’s psychosis but also reveals that there have been additional women victims of “Norman’s mother.”

And finally, in the soliloquy that ends the dialog, we really get to meet the monster.  Mother tells us how sad it is that Norman must be punished and how innocent she is of all the blood.  But the dishonesty and the cruelty are on display and at the very last image of “her” we see the monster showing.  And the very last image we get is Marion’s car being winched out of the swamp (her coffin being exhumed from her grave).

What do I like about this movie?  Everything.  The actors are excellent.  The dialog is perfect.  Even the music and sound effects reinforce the action on the screen.  I don’t watch this movie often because I don’t want to wear it out.  But it’s the perfect adult horror movie.  The only thing that gives it competition is Silence of the Lambs.  I find it to be the perfect embodiment of the modern monster.  Man.