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Sun, Nov. 4th, 2012, 11:50 am

Murders in the Rue Morgue - I always thought this was a pretty highly regarded early Universal horror, but I found it to be exceedingly hard work. The only interesting parts are when Lugosi's around, and even they are more of an exercise in wooden scenery chewing than anything else. The rest is pure dullness, except for the close-ups on the 'gorilla's' face when it suddenly becomes a chimp. The ending on the impressionistic rooftops isn't bad, but not worth the interminable 'what language was the killer speaking' scene. Still, interesting in that a pre-code film could make explicit references to the heroine shagging a monkey and get away with it.

Another film I'd never seen, until last night, was Alligator. It was great, from the gloriously fakey special FX (MODEL TOWN!!!) to the awesomeness of Robert Forster to the sheer woodenness of everybody else - with the exception of Henry Silva's batsh!t-crazy great white hunter. Apparently being wrong about a giant mutant alligator in the sewers eating people is the best excuse ever for the 'you're off the force!' scene. Also, it's nice that for once in a film, the hero acknowledges his real reason for interest in the female lead; that she has a nice rack. John Sayles, you rock.

Penny and the Pownall Case - British B quickie loosely based on (or more accurately, completely ripped off of) the famous Daily Mail comic strip Jane. Artist's model Penny (Peggy Evans) becomes embroiled in a fiendish plot by some Johnny foreigners to smuggle Nazi war criminals out of Europe. After the most tenuous reason for going to the continent imaginable - needing a Spanish-looking background for an upcoming newspaper strip - bubble-headed halfwit Penny strips down to the 1948 version of racy underwear a lot, wears a series of disastrous outfits, and somehow helps Scotland Yard stop the dreaded Hun. This was Harry 'Slim' Hand's one and only directing job, and his failure to make any more films was no real lost to the cinematic firmament. The film also stars a couple of graduates from the Rank Charm School in early roles, Diana Dors and a rather fresh-faced Christopher Lee. Lee considers this one of his worst performances, and he's right.

The Third Alibi - Fun 1960s thriller directed by Montgomery Tully (Battle Beneath the Earth, The Terrornauts). Nasty composer Laurence Payne knocks up his promiscuous sister-in-law (Jane Griffiths), and schemes with her to get rid of Payne's wife (Patricia Dainton). Sadly he doesn't consider that his wife might be even more devious than he is. Predictable but in an enjoyable way, the film is based on a play by future Doctor Who writers Pip & Jane Baker, and features an actor with the marvellous name of Edward Underdown.

Raging Phoenix - the sophomore film from Jija (as she's now spelling it) Yanin, star of Chocolate. The plot involves a group of drunken hip-hop muay thai experts who are hunting for the gang who kidnapped and presumably killed their girlfriends. The script really needed another pass, and the film's visual style is ludicrously over the top. The colour scheme is cranked up to 11, the action is centred around a beach and abandoned churches... it looks like Baz Luhrmann made a kung fu movie (and that's not a compliment). The action is inventive but there's a tad too much wire work, and there's nothing here to rival the insanity of Chocolate's wince-inducing climax. Jija is still awesome, though.

Afghan Star - fascinating and infuriating documentary about the Afghanistan version of American Idol/X Factor. It's rather more significant than the western versions, even though the production comes from a tatty Kabul wedding venue, is produced by a guy who looks about 12 and redefines the term 'low budget.' See, singing and dancing were illegal in Afghanistan until 2004, and texting in votes by SMS is the closest most Afghanis have ever got to actual democracy. The show is under pressure from the religious hardliners, especially after one of the more liberal female contestants dares to dance and uncover her head onstage, the filthy hussy. This leads to her getting kicked out of her apartment and death threats. But then the much more conservative female finalist also gets death threats, just for having the temerity to appear in public. Still, many of the fans at the final show up with heads uncovered, publicly defiant of the Taliban. So that's progress, I guess.

Love the Beast - Eric Bana directs and narrates this documentary about his love affair with his car (the titular beast), a 70s Ford Falcon he's rebuilt 4 times. It's interesting stuff, Bana coming off as a down-to-earth bloke who uses his love of cars to get away from the insanity of Hollywood. There are interviews with his car mates, and other motoring aficionados Jay Leno and Jeremy Clarkson (including the great moment when Bana looks like he'd like nothing better than to punch Clarkson in the face).

Muppet Christmas Carol - this is surprisingly faithful to the book, and even a bit scary in places (the graveyard at the end is pure Hammer). Caine could be hamming it up but gives a really fine, nuanced performance as Scrooge. Plus, the muppets are just damn funny. Even the groaners are funny, such as Statler and Waldorf being the brothers Jacob Marley and... Robert Marley (badum and indeed, tish). Some cute in-jokes too, like the shop called Micklewhite's Candy. The only downside is the songs, which with the possible exception of "One More Sleep Til' Christmas," are just awful. Like, Barbara Streisand awful.

Sun, Nov. 4th, 2012, 10:10 am

Dick Barton, Special Agent - 1940s Hammer/Exclusive programmer based on the incredibly popular BBC radio serial, about a daring British agent fighting nefarious foreign villains trying to take over the world. In this first one from 1948, Dick (Don Stannard) and his faithful companions Jock (Jack Shaw), 'Snowy' White (George Ford) and platonic possibly-girlfriend Jean (Gillian Maude) go on holiday to a sleepy fishing village. It turns out there's a den of escaped Nazis all set to unleash germ warfare on the British Isles. Naturally Dick, who is the most famous secret agent in the world and even has his own fan club, the Barton Boys, and friends save the day. Sadly not without a lot of unfunny slapstick shenanigans from Jock (the kind of movie Scotsman who wears a kilt and annoys everyone with his bagpipe playing) and Snowy. The first ever Hammer film to get a sequel, trivia fans.

Dick Barton At Bay - The second film to be shot, which was released third for some reason, in 1950. When another agent (a very young Patrick Macnee) is killed, it leads Dick into a plot by some Commies to create a death ray that can make any combustible material explode. Thankfully this and the third (or second, it's quite confusing) film are a little more serious in tone, with Jean and Jock abandoned and Snowy making himself slightly more useful, though he remains the odious comic relief.

Dick Barton Strikes Back - in shooting order the last film to be made. This time Dick must foil a bunch of bad guys from an unspecified European country, with a sonic weapon that could destroy the whole of Britain. The villains and their flamboyant leader Alfonso Delmonte Fourcada (Sebastian Cabot) pose as fairground barkers to get their deadly equipment from town to town. This one is the best of the three, with what seems to be a budget that stretched to more location work, a fairly tense climax atop Blackpool Tower, and a new actor as Snowy (Bruce Walker).

What's interesting about the Barton films is how much of an influence they seem to have been on the Bond series. From the elaborate but easily-escaped death traps (and the one at the end of Strikes Back is hilarious), to the M-like boss, to the swish sports car, to his own theme tune (the Devil's Gallop), to the fact that everyone knows who Barton is, there are a lot of proto-Bondisms on display. Barton even throws his hat stylishly onto a peg in the Bond fashion. The main difference comes in the series' attitude to women. Jean is dropped after the first film - and was also removed from the radio series - because fraternising with even the most devoted female simply wasn't a good example for a secret agent to be setting!

Despite their cheapness the films were very successful, and more were planned. However Don Stannard was killed in a car accident - ironically driving back from a party celebrating the success of the Dick Barton series. The other passengers, including Stannard's wife and Sebastian Cabot, suffered only minor injuries. A great shame, as he's terrific. He would have made a good Bond, in fact.

The Mummy (1932) - never seen this until now. It's pretty good, with a bit more zip in the pacing than either Frankenstein or the dreary Dracula. Amazing the difference even a bit of score makes to a film. Karloff is delightfully sinister and stoney faced, though about as convincing an Egyptian as he was a Chinese detective. Zita Johann is also good as his reincarnated lost love (despite her problems with director Karl Freund, now the stuff of Hollywood legend). The rest of the cast is forgettable, even original Van Helsing Edward Van Sloan, and far too much of the dialogue takes the form of large chunks of exposition. The plot is also a fairly straight lift from Dracula, only with added sand. Still, most enjoyable (and just the right length to watch while doing a bunch of ironing).

The Mummy's Hand - The mummy movie that dares to not have a mummy in it. Well, at least until it's almost over. Instead we get some footage from the first film, and the un-hilarious comic stylings of Brooklyn Guy. monkeywrench you, Brooklyn Guy. The mummy is played by B-western actor Tom Tyler, who is no Boris Karloff.

The Mummy's Tomb - Slightly more mummy in this one, in more ways than one. Lon Chaney Jr. is now the man in the bandages, which suggests that tanna leaf fluid must be incredibly high in bad cholesterol. Brooklyn Guy finally gets killed off, but it's too little too late, especially after the 10-minute opening recap of the previous movie. Both films feature a bizarre final-reel plot twist where the evil high priest decides from out of nowhere to make the leading lady into his Immortal Bride. Also it's supposed to take place 30 years after The Mummy's Hand, which means we're in a 1972 that looks exactly like 1944.

Nice to know that it wasn't just the Hammer mummy series that turned into instant suckery after the first one.

The Mummy's Ghost - yet another acolyte of the Egyptian God of something-or-other (John Carradine) brings the mummy (Lon Channey Jr) back to life with those goddamn, poxy tanna leaves. This time even the mummy looks bored, or possibly drunk (hey, it was Lon Channey Jr after all). There's a slight twist in that this time the female lead is the reincarnation of Ananka, and I swear the drippy hero's dog is named Penis. At least there's no Brooklyn Guy.

The Mummy's Curse - So some guys are draining the Louisiana swampland where Kharis and the reincarnated Ananka were lost at the end of The Mummy's Ghost... Hang on. The swamp in The Mummy's Ghost was in New England. What, did they do a Bugs Bunny and take the wrong turn at Albuquerque? Anyhow, despite this being Louisiana there's only one black guy (Napoleon Simpson), a straw hat-wearin' bug eyed, terrified stereotype who screams stuff like "Lawd a'mercy, Boss, That there Mummy's a danci' wid de debbil!" The rest of the poor locals are what one would charitably describe as "Hollywood cajun." Anyway, there's yet another high priest who revives the mummy with still more of those accursed ridiculous pigf**king tanna leaves, which despite being from a rare and apparently extinct tree clearly must be available in every local store in America. After a lengthy flashback to The Mummy's Hand, which is itself mostly composed of flashback from The Mummy, we get the usual shenanigans with the added wrinkle that Ananka (Virginia Christine) is revived also, looking remarkably healthy for being underground for 25 years. Unfortunately by having two female leads (the other is Kay Harding), it means that the dull hero and bland love interest don't get together until LITERALLY the last 30 seconds of the picture.

And, oh yes, the timeline. So The Mummy's Hand was released in 1940, and is set presumably around that time. The Mummy's Tomb is set 30 years later, so takes place in a 1970 that looks like 1942*. The Mummy's Ghost picks up a couple of years after that. Finally this film carries the story, as I said, some twenty five years later. Which puts us in a 1997 that STILL looks like 1942**. I think this is probably the lowest ebb of the Universal horrors I've seen, at least the ones without Abbot & Costello. Even House of Dracula had a couple of good bits. I never thought I'd say this but come back The Mummy's Shroud, all is forgiven. Even Curse of the Mummy's Tomb... actually no, that one still sucks.

* Is Pam Grier in a bikini fighting the mummy really too much to ask? Is it?

** What, you couldn't throw in one flying car? What the Hell, people?

Zombieland (in the right thread, this time) - No Shaun of the Dead, but enjoyable nonetheless. Jesse Eisenberg is very nearly forgiven for the Godawful Adventureland (though sooner or later he'll have to stop doing movies in theme parks with 'land' in the title). The cameo is great, but I thought the funniest part was the conversation about music in the car.

Horrors of the Black Museum - One of US exploitation legend Herman Cohen's earliest forays into Brit horror. Michael Gough leaves no scenery unmasticated as the woman-hating crime reporter/novelist who engineers grisly murders so he can write about them. Gough's methods are about as crazy as can be, and mainly seem to hinge on what implements/scenery were available to the low-budget production. Everything from the sublime (spiked binoculars, mini-guillotine) to the ridiculous (a giant bit of scientific apparatus that only kills someone if you cat get them to stand EXACTLY between the electrodes, followed by an acid bath) to the sublimely ridiculous (injecting his assistant with Jekyll and Hyde's potion to set him off on murderous rampages). Jeffrey Keen of Bond movie fame pops up as a copper who's just as unpleasant as every other character ever played by Jeffrey Keen. Arthur Crabtree (Fiend Without a Face) directs effectively. Great fun.