Friday, April 29, 2011

Favorites :: Cameos : There Goes the Neighborhood : Always: Sunset on Third Street 2 (2007)

Always: Sunset on Third Street [Ōruweizu: San-chōme no Yūhi], was a Japanese film by Takashi Yamazaki based on a popular and long running manga by Ryōhei Saigan of the same name. This endearing, slice-of-life family drama set in post-war Tokyo was a huge hit both financially and critically and nearly swept through its native Academy Awards, winning 14 of 15 categories, making a sequel a no-brainer to the execs at Toho. Almost all of the cast and characters returned for Always: Sunset on Third Street 2, which also included this fantastic dream sequence:

Greatest. Cameo. Ever.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Netflix'd :: Clearing Out the Instant Que :: 13 Episodes. 25 Suspects. One Killer : Ari Schlossberg's Harper's Island (2009)

"My name is Abby Mills, and I've come home to Harper's Island. My best friend is getting married to the girl of his dreams. But not everything about this trip is a celebration. Seven year's ago I left this place after John Wakefield murdered six people. My mother was one of them. Everyone else has moved on, believes the killings are in the past, but I can't help feel there's more to come."

OK, folks ... What large rock was I living under back in 2009 that caused me to completely miss the boat on, let's just call it what it is, a 13 hour-long slasher movie? Make no mistake: that's what Harper's Island is, and, apparently, exactly what the creators of the 13 episode mini-series wanted it to be: Wes Craven's Scream by way of Agatha Christie's And then There Were None. Hardly original, true, but definitely intriguing in this expanded but still self-contained format. And being the slasher junkie that I am I'd say it was more like Fred Walton's April Fool's Day, plot wise, but only this time there is no "just kidding" denouement to make the viewer the fool. Granted, the ending of Harper's Island does have some problems, but we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit.

The prologue provided by our cute-as-a-button protagonist, Abby Mills (Cassiday), pretty much sets things up quick and neat and it doesn't take long before we get our first kill of the series as the blissfully unaware wedding party ferries over to the (if it wasn't apparent enough already) cursed Island, where, after seven years, the killing spree picks up where Wakefield left off. And as we slowly work through the guest list we're given some wonderfully deliberate hints that there are closets full of skeletons, malicious secrets, and plenty of shady shenanigans going on to cast a well-deserved stink-eye on all, making everyone involved a possible or probable suspect. And as the cast is picked off, one by one, there are even hints that Wakefield, allegedly killed by the local sheriff (also Abby's estranged father), might not be so dead after all.

And to [series creator] Schlossberg's credit he is able to maintain this juggling act by piling up all kinds of twists, misdirections, or [too] damning evidence, making it harder for the audience to sniff out the true culprit amidst the overwhelming stench of herring gone red. Apparently, no one in the cast new when or if they were gonna die until the current episode was filmed. Even the person playing the killer didn't know theydunit until that episode was filmed as well. (And that very first water-themed kill is a pretty big clue. Not to the who the killer is but the high probability that there is more than one nutcase running loose, making things even more interesting to suss out.) Most of the characters are rote, glorified caricatures, really, but thanks to the format we get more familiar with them than normal, more invested, and thanks to an enthusiastic cast, as a result, I wasn't openly rooting for any of them to get killed, which also gave each passing death a bit more punch, some of them even teeter toward devastating. And for being something filmed for network TV, all of the deaths are so deliciously gruesome one has to wonder how in the hell they managed to get the majority of them passed the censors.

Again, this hardly original and those well versed in slasher lore could easily name the source of all the separate ingredients for this recipe, and you will either enjoy all the familiar peas and carrots thrown in the pot or turn a self-righteous nose elsewhere. Frankly, I found the resultant stew to be quite tasty and after 13 servings I was quite full, thank you. Sure, the series was more fun and worked better when the audience didn't know whodunit yet and loses most of it's bite once the killer is revealed; and if I have one complaint, this happens way too early, leaving things to flounder a bit as the killer basically mops up for the last four or five installments before, yeah, falling completely on its face in the last episode. But, after such a great build up, I'm even willing to let that slide.

Love the idea. Love the format. And I would love to see more of the same, but I doubt that will ever happen. See, apparently,
I wasn't the only one living under that rock back in '09 either as the ratings for Harper's Island were so abysmal it found itself moved from an initial Thursday night time-slot to Saturday, a virtual death-sentence when you consider its target audience. The mini-series seems to be gaining some traction with horror aficionados since its DVD release, however, and it's currently available for streaming on Netflix, where I happily stumbled upon it when the service recommended it to me because, I know you'll be shocked to hear it, but, I like "Violent and Gory" movies. Heh. Sometimes Netflix is so smart it scares me.

Harper's Island (2009) Junction Entertainment-CBS Paramount Network Television / D: Sanford Bookstaver, Rick Bota, Steve Boyum / W: Ari Schlossberg / C: Robert McLachlan / E: Jonathan Chibnall, Monty DeGraff, David Handman / P: Jeffrey Bell, Jon Turteltaub / S: Elaine Cassidy, Christopher Gorham, Katie Cassidy, Matt Barr, Gina Holden, Jim Beaver

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Memoriam :: Goodbye, Dear, Sweet Sarah Jane.

"Really, Sarah, I take you in the TARDIS to Outer Space,
to another time in the History of the Universe, and what
excites you? -- Woolworth's!"xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

-- The Doctor xxxxxxx
Dr. Who and the Dinosaur Invasion * xxxxxx

(* Yeah, I know that was a Pertwee but that pic is just too darn cute.)

Elisabeth Sladen


Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Monkey Did It (Maybe) :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Frank Strayer's The Monster Walks (1932)

Back in the late 1920's, Ralph Like was an engineer for the New York based Biltmore Productions. By 1927 he decided to expand his role to producer, purchasing the Charles Ray Studios, so he could provide starring vehicles for his wife, Blanche Mehaffey. And for the next five years or so, Like's Action Pictures Inc. churned out about dozen programmers that ran the gambit from westerns, to melodramas, to adventure yarns. The 1930's saw a switch to sound and a company name change to Mayfair Pictures, which strung things along for a couple more years and about two-dozen more features, before a lack of substantial distribution [-- this was back in the State's rights era, where a film had to be sold by region if the creators couldn't afford a tour of their own, leaving the film in the hands of whoever controlled said regions --] caused Like to pull the plug, with Mehaffey soon following suit by pulling the plug on their marriage before the decade closed out.

Robert Savani, meanwhile, founded Astor Pictures in 1930 for the sole purpose of acquiring and re-releasing films, mostly from the likes of United Artists [Hell's Angels, Scarface] and Monogram [Black Dragons, Bowery at Midnight], but he also pillaged Like's back catalog, including The Monster Walks, shot in 1932, and sent it out nationally in 1938, which is probably why the film still exists today.

The film itself is nothing special, really; a no-frills rehash of The Cat and the Canary by way of the Rue Morgue, with a little medical mad-science peppered in to punch things up a bit, when another crackpot patriarch bites the dust, leading to the usual round-up of possible heirs to hear the reading of the will. There's the doe-eyed daughter, Ruth (Reynolds), and her square-jawed fiance, Ted (Lease), an invalid uncle (Lewis), and the family maid/governess, Emma (Mattox), and her dimwitted son, Hans (Auer), who all listen with baited-breath until the lawyer reveals all of the Earlton estate goes to the girl -- the money, the ancestral mansion, and the mad-laboratory complete with spazoid-monkey locked in cage in the basement. Of course, if anything should happen to Ruth, like, say, she gets murdered in the next few hours, everything would then go to Uncle Robert. Staying right on course, during the night, while she sleeps, an inhuman hand emerges from a secret panel and tries to strangle Ruth!

Luckily, her screams scares the thing off and brings everyone else running. Poo-pooed at first as just a latent nightmare over her late father's devious and dubious experiments, it soon becomes apparent to Ted that someone or some thing is after his bride-to-be. Fingers are pointed, and the motley collection of characters head to separate corners of the mansion to sulk. Leaving the trusted Emma to look after his girl, Ted strikes out to try and sniff out what really goes on here. Too bad for Emma, who is killed by the hairy assailant while sleeping in Ruth's bed. [Oops. Yeah, I think the location, there, is a clue, too. Anyways ...] Will our hero be able to suss out the tightening web of conspiracy against our heroine before she's snuffed out, too?


OK ... all poo-flinging aside, but, it's pretty obvious from the get go that Cheetah is a red-butted herring, and one of The Monster Walks biggest handicaps is that once the monkey is eliminated, with the cast being so small, and steadily whittled away with each reel, the true culprit couldn't be any more obvious.

The film also gets a lot of grief over the odious comedy relief provided by Willie Best -- here billed as Sleep-n-Eat. It's hard to defend this kind of racial humor, but amidst all the cringing and groaners are some truly hilarious isolated moments if we can keep things in context. Sadly, Best had a solid career going before a drug-bust derailed things. He was a pretty funny guy, who could hold his own against Bob Hope, but never got his due, unable to shake the stigma of these early roles. The only other familiar faces in the cast are Mischa Auer, the surly caretaker, who would go on to play loud Europeans (mostly mad Russians) for the likes of Frank Capra and George Marshall, and Martha Mattox, who turned these roles as morose and taciturn hausmädchens into a solid career.

To their credit, director Frank Strayer and screenwriter Robert Ellis try to twist things up with a little baiting and switching, some locked-room antics, and a few last minute siring revelations to give the final dot-connecting a more satisfying jolt, elevating The Monster Walks into that nebulous gray area somewheres between Moldy-Oldie and Classic Creaker status. It also helps that the film barely breaks an hour, as Strayer had wrung out everything he was gonna get by then and no amount of flogging was going to get anymore.

The Monster Walks (1932) Ralph M. Like Productions-Astor Pictures / D: Frank Strayer / W: Robert Ellis / C: Jules Cronjager / P: Ralph M. Like, Cliff P. Broughton / S: Rex Lease, Vera Reynolds, Sheldon Lewis, Mischa Auer, Martha Mattox, Willie Best

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Favorites :: Inks and Paints : Battlestar Frazetta


"Count Iblis"


"In Pharoah's Tomb"

Artist :: Frank Frazetta

These fabulous (if over-exaggerated and a tad bit anachronistic) commissions for the 1970's version of Battlestar Galactica wound up on novel covers, album covers and several print ads.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Behind the Scenes :: The Midnight Premiere of Warner Bros. House of Wax (April 16, 1953)

Aside from the flip-side inclusion of The Mystery of the Wax Museum, the old two-strip technicolor thriller on which it was based, Warners' House of Wax DVD is a little sparse in the Special Features department.
__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

* And if you'll allow a brief aside I will loudly trumpet the
need to give this flick The Red Shoes restoration treatment.
The print included is rather appalling in spots but in the all too
brief moments when it pops those colors pop most beautifully.

__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __

But, aside from that and the trailer, we are given one fascinating little nugget from the studio's Pathe Newsreel department, Camera on the World -- specifically the Midnight showing of the Round the Clock Premiere of House of Wax at the Paramount Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

The true highlight among all those famous faces, though, is when we spy one Bela Lugosi, his Raybans, and his pet gorilla (George Barrows, perhaps?) entering the theater. As for who was leading who, here, well, I'll leave that for you all to decide (and is that Richard Denning and Evelyn Ankers lurking in the background?):

Alas, the soundtrack to the short appears to have been lost, so specifics are a bit shaky, but, after a little digging, turns out this was a stunt cooked up by Alex Gordon for his dear friend, Bela. Apparently, the yuks continued inside with Lugosi stationed at the Red-Cross booth, where he playfully sucked on some 2% and put the bite on some unsuspecting nurse, causing most of the milk to wind up on the floor.

Sadly, the evening ended on sour note when a pre-scripted interview went awry, where Lugosi wound up giving the right answers to the wrong question, causing the oft-consternated actor to withdraw before the film even began; the only sore spot in what was otherwise a very successful premiere.

* And if you'll allow a brief aside I will loudly trumpet the
need to give this flick The Red Shoes restoration treatment.
The print included is rather appalling in spots but in the all too
brief moments when it pops those colors pop most beautifully.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Movie Poster Spotlight :: Wait ... Where Was that Raw Violence and Naked Fury Again? :: Eddie L. Cahn's Flesh and the Spur (1957)

Whether it be Joseph E. Levine (-- or was that Robert Lippert?) offering to buy just the promotional materials for The Beast with a Million Eyes, with every intention of scrapping the [somnolent] finished film that, at the time, didn't even have the sock-puppet monster yet and starting over, to several critics and exhibitors bemoaning a wish that their posters had sprocket holes so they could be hooked up to the projector instead of the films they represented, the boys at American International Pictures learned early that a good poster campaign and press-kit could go a long, long way toward box-office success, especially since most of their features were financed by pre-selling them to the chains based on those materials alone.

Flesh and the Spur, a simple but overall effective western, was more of the same old bait-and-switch shenanigans. On film, we have John Agar's Matt Random searching for the man who killed his brother, with the only clue to the killer's identity being a discarded gun found at the scene of the crime. Along the way he hooks up with another desperado (Connors), an Indian maid (English), and the drunken comedy relief (Hatton). And though heavy on the telling and not showing, as most of these old AIP flicks were, I still dug it quite a bit, especially a quite spectacular barroom brawl where those spurs are put to deadly use.

Garnering his nickname on the basketball court, Mike "Touch" Connors had already starred in several flicks for AIP (Day the World Ended, Swamp Diamonds) before using some family connections to raise the scratch to shoot his own western. Turning to low-budget wunderkind Alex Gordon and fast shooting Eddie L. Cahn to maximize those Armenian dollars for him, Connors, through Gordon, then struck a deal with American International to distribute Flesh and the Spur.

And as the story goes, Connors first meeting with the AIP brass included a look at Al Kallis' provocative artwork, which focused on the flesh of the ravaged female lead, Marla English, being staked out on an anthill, with her breasts about [-this-] close to being exposed for all to see, menaced by the giant, prickly spur of one of the two desperate desperadoes encircling her.

When a confused Connors mentioned there was no such scene in Chuck Griffith's script, one can almost see James Nicholson and Sam Arkoff cock their heads a bit and smile at each other, then one of them patting the poor executive producer on the head while the other said simply "Now there is..."

Thus, despite some reluctant ants and an impatient starlet lashed to an impromptu stake, the scene was shoe-horned into the climax, where Cahn and Gordon actually did the poster one better, having the hostiles strip the captive bare (mostly implied) before leaving the victim to her ghastly fate until thee eventual rescue by our hero. Hurray! And if nothing else, at least as late as 1957, we can take some comfort in that American International was at least trying to be somewhat earnest with their product.

Other Points of Interest:

Flesh and the Spur (1957) Hy Productions :: American International / EP: Mike Connors, Charles J. Lyons Jr. / P: Alex Gordon / D: Edward L. Cahn / W: Charles B. Griffith, Mark Hanna, Lou Rusoff / C: Frederick E. West / E: Robert S. Eisen / M: Ronald Stein / S: John Agar, Marla English, Mike Connors, Joyce Meadows, Raymond Hatton
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