Saturday, September 16, 2006
THE MAN WITH NINE LIVES
aka BEHIND THE DOOR (UK)
1940, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $14.98, 74m 2s, DVD R1-4
Dr. Tim Mason (Roger Pryor), a pencil-mustached staffer at King Hospital, has been experimenting with cryogenics since becoming inspired by the book FROZEN THERAPY, written by the controversial theorist Dr. Leon Kravaal, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. After he gives a public demonstration -- successfully freezing a woman patient for five days, then reviving her with thermal blankets and lots of hot coffee! -- his pompous supervisor (THE MUMMY'S HAND's Charles Trowbridge) orders Mason to take a leave of absence till the furor dies down. Mason and fiancée/nurse Judy Blair (Jo Ann Sayers, who calls him "Steve" at one point) decide to visit Kravaal's home in Silver Lake, Canada, in hope of discovering papers relevant to his research. They find much more after stumbling upon a subterranean laboratory with a special refrigerated chamber in which Kravaal himself (Boris Karloff) lies frozen. Ordering Judy to make coffee, Mason succeeds in reviving Kravaal, who embarks on the story of how he came to be put on ice ten years before, along with a group of other men (including B-movie favorite Byron Foulger) who meant to arrest him, yet to be thawed. Once revived, these men create additional problems, and one of them -- realizing that his status as legally dead has robbed him of a million dollar inheritance -- destroys Kravaal's secret formula for using frozen therapy to cure cancer, angering the doctor to the point of shooting him. Kravaal then imprisons the others, intent upon using them as guinea pigs until he can recreate the formula, whose basic ingredients he remembers, though not their measurements.
Of the four "Mad Doctor" films that Karloff made for Columbia -- the others being THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG (1939), BEFORE I HANG (1940), and THE DEVIL COMMANDS (1941) -- this taut Nick Grindé-directed effort has long been the hardest to see, and it's also the most satisfying of the bunch, despite some chuckle-raising aspects. Scripted by Karl Brown (who wrote three of the four) from a story by Harold Schumate, this is a rare B-thriller that ratchets its suspense by guiding its characters through more moral minefields than straightforward action, and it sustains its ambivalence so well that the viewer remains uncertain throughout of which group to side with, and equally uncertain of whether Kravaal really is a genius or a madman. (Even when battle lines are seemingly clearly drawn, as when Kravaal shoots a man in cold blood, the script presents the action with additional angles of gray; the victim was not only the aggressor -- but already legally dead, as well.) Karloff, goateed and briefly donning Mr. Moto spectacles to mix phials of smoking chemicals, gives a surprisingly humane performance that fairly glows from the midst of so much other ham. The atmospheric photography is the work of Benjamin Kline, who also shot the two "HANG" pictures; he would later photograph 28 THRILLER episodes hosted by Karloff, including the great Karloff-starring "Mad Doctor" episode, "The Incredible Doctor Markesan."
Sony's no-frills 1.33:1 DVD features only the original English soundtrack and English, French and Japanese subtitles (what, no Spanish?); though the disc is identified as Region 1, it is also playable in Regions 2-4. Evidently the original negative materials for this title no longer exist; the source material used here is a digitally cleaned, somewhat darkish Famous Film Corporation re-release print hailing from 1947, but even this source appears to have been incomplete. The disc looks fine until 64:12, whereafter the last ten minutes look noticeably softer and grayer, and slightly more zoomed-in, with cloudy signs of digitally repaired water damage. The "after and before" impression is hard to miss, and acceptable only given the rarity of the title. The otherwise classy, sepia-toned packaging refers to the film's protagonist as "Dr. Tim Morgan."
Friday, September 15, 2006
Or "The Art of the European Horror Film Poster #1."
This, of course, is a striking stone lithograph affiche for Robert Wise's THE HAUNTING (1963), known in France as "The Devil's House." I can't make out the artist's signature in the upper right corner, but it's interesting to discover that the film was forbidden to small fry (petite frites?) in France.
This poster commemorates a decision I've made, to start compiling the best of my articles and essays in book form. I've got a huge backlog of material and it's time I started doing something with it. I'm going to call the first collection IN THE NIGHT, IN THE DARK.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Monday, September 11, 2006
1969 was an important year in the logline of my television viewing. It was in 1969 that Cincinnati got its first independent station, WXIX-TV, Channel 19, and with its arrival came an assortment of oddities I could never have seen on the city's three network affiliates. Much of my pleasure with Channel 19 came from its American International Television movie packages, which included quite a few Euro horror curiosities like PORTRAIT IN TERROR, STRANGLER OF THE TOWER, and HORROR CASTLE... but also included in one of the AIP-TV packages was a British import called POP GEAR, which was given the chronologically-skewed but more US-friendly retitling GO GO MANIA.
Running a mere 70 minutes and change, POP GEAR is essentially a collection of Scopitone-like lip-synch performances of various British musical acts from the Mersey Beat era: The Animals, Herman's Hermits, Peter & Gordon, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, The Honeycombs, The Spencer Davis Group, Sounds Unlimited, The Nashville Teens, The Fourmost, Tommy Quickly, The Four Pennies, Matt Monro, Billie Davis, and others. The movie is hosted by long-haired impresario Jimmy Savile, whose silly banter ("Pop gear! Wait, that's the name of this picture!") connects the dots with the dotty. Several of the groups on hand were managed by Brian Epstein, whose behind the scenes involvement opened the door to the film's producers being able to include The Beatles in the movie's list of stars, courtesy of some amazing color-and-scope footage from a newsreel entitled "The Beatles Come To Town."
Naturally, my earliest viewings of the picture were pan&scanned, and when I finally scored a copy of GO GO MANIA on videotape, early in my collecting days, it was not only pan&scanned but in black-and-white. I assumed I would never see it properly, but who knew in those days how widely available nearly everything would become? Some years ago, before they went south with incessant commercial interruption, American Movie Classics included the film during a week of rock 'n' roll movies, not only in color and scope but under its original title POP GEAR! It was a treat to finally see intact and in its original form. And now you too can have the pleasure of seeing it, if you have the Showtime cable package, because the premium cable channel Flix is showing POP GEAR -- in Technicolor and Techniscope -- throughout the month of September in a handsome, newly remastered version preceded by a Studio Canal logo.
What's astounding about POP GEAR is not only that it preserves so many classic (and some offbeat) groups in their prime, but that these acts were photographed in color and scope by none other than Geoffrey Unsworth, who would later photograph such important features as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SUPERMAN THE MOVIE. Some of the acts are preposterous, like Tommy Quickly (a grinny fellow who embarrassingly mugs his way through a "song" reprising nursery rhymes) and the heavy-handed Big Band novelty act Sounds Incorporated (how to describe their sound? like a vocal-less Dave Clark Five on steroids and goofballs), and some are misplaced like suave "From Russia With Love" vocalist Matt Monro, who closes out the program with a "Pop Gear" song that pays lip service to all the movie's participants!
The movie also pads out its running time to feature length with a couple of absurd, pre-HULLABALOO choreography sequences.
POP GEAR's kitschy qualities are part of its appeal, but what saves it from being a purely guilty pleasure are the performances it preserves by people like The Honeycombs (Joe Meek's bedroom studio group with rock's first woman drummer, Honey Lantree, who perform their worldwide hit "Have I The Right"), The Nashville Teens (who scowl and lurch their way through "Tobacco Road"), and the original lineup of The Animals (I'd love this movie if only for the close shots of Alan Price's hands kangarooing all over the keyboard during his "House of the Rising Sun" solo). The Four Pennies, a largely-forgotten group who never cracked the US charts, are introduced performing their glimmering tremelo ballad "Juliet," a UK radio hit, but their second number is a disarming cover of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" -- a blues standard that had its next moment in the sun when Nirvana covered it as part of their historic MTV UNPLUGGED performance.
This film was made before rock music acquired an imagery of its own, and there's a certain preposterousness about the sets where the bands are shown performing, the props they're given (The Animals play under dangling Christmas-like ornaments, while The Nashville Teens establish their blues funk cred amidst bales of hay), and the choreography they are sometimes subjected to. One of my favorite moments finds Eric Burdon asked to lead his fellow Animals in a kind of conga line toward Unsworth's camera as "House of the Rising Sun" charges toward its crescendic finale; as a straight-faced Burdon relates his story of a man brought low, guitarist Hilton Valentine, visible just behind him, can't resist cracking up at the absurdity of what they're doing to promote their record. Incidentally, the director of POP GEAR, Frederic Goode, later ventured into the horror genre with the vampire film HAND OF NIGHT aka BEAST OF MOROCCO (1966).
Eric Burdon spins a cautionary tale, but Hilton Valentine's pickin' and grinnin'.
Set your TiVos and timers for POP GEAR, tomorrow (September 12) at 6:30 am and 2:50 pm, September 18 at 5:50 am, or September 26 at 6:00 am and 3:00 pm -- all times given are Eastern time zone. Flix is clearly booking the film into low traffic timeslots, but this is one of those movies that acquires a special flavor when viewed in the middle of the night.
If you find yourself loving POP GEAR as I do, I can steer you in the direction of the perfect chaser: SWINGING U.K., a budget-priced DVD that collects two short films very much in the POP GEAR mold: SWINGING U.K. and U.K. SWINGS AGAIN, dating from 1965. Here you'll find similarly sublimely silly lip-synchs by such artists as Lulu and the Luvvers, Little Millie Small (who sings one of her songs to a bewildered puppy), The Tornados (how could such an ungainly bunch of lads have recorded "Telstar," one of my favorite records of all time?), The Hollies (see Graham Nash clean-shaven and dressed like a banker!), The Merseybeats, The Applejacks (who play two songs that sound dead alike), the hilariously-named The Wackers, and the post-Alan Price lineup of The Animals. These two shorts (which were later combined with another short called MODS AND ROCKERS to manufacture a feature called GO GO BIG BEAT) are hosted by Alan Freeman, Brian Matthew, and Kent Walton, all of them much straighter-looking than Jimmy Savile and therefore exponentially funnier. The lucky kids who saw this on the big screen must have had a hoot.
I wasn't aware of this 2004 DVD release till a friend sent me a copy in the mail a couple of weeks ago, which just goes to show that -- even now, at this late date -- there continue to be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my flotsam and jetsam.