CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

“Chandu the Magician” (1932)

"Chandu the Magician" poster

 

As Marvel continues expanding its cinematic universe by adapting more offbeat properties for the screen, so has the studio begun encroaching upon a minefield of cultural sensitivity. In bringing to life the impending Doctor Strange film and “Iron Fist” Netflix show, steps were taken to tone down some of the more stereotypical aspects of their source material, only for certain fans to respond with charges of silencing diversity. It’s a classic “damned if you do” scenario, wherein Marvel is stuck choosing between either appearing to whitewash their own characters or feeding into the old “Caucasian hero masters weird foreign customs” motif that informed the original comics, as well as flicks like 1932’s Chandu the Magician. You won’t hear me excuse the wild misconceptions such media would eventually help spread, nor can you truly blame those who find the tropes contained therein in poor taste these days. On the other hand, a fun movie is still a fun movie, and for all about it that modern eyes may find out of touch, Chandu the Magician remains a dazzling vintage fantasy all the same.

The far east holds many strange secrets to which few souls are privy. Outsiders aren’t known to penetrate its world of wizardry and mysticism, but Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) is different. Committing himself to righting society’s injustices, Frank’s years of study with the best yogis  has at last paid off, achieving unparalleled skills in the arts of mesmerism and being granted the new title of “Chandu.” But as it turns out, he’s completed his training just in time, for the forces of evil have recently targeted those nearest to his heart. A madman named Roxor (Bela Lugosi) has kidnapped Frank’s brother-in-law Robert (Henry B. Walthall), seeking to use his latest invention to destroy the cities of the globe and declare himself emperor. However, the fiend didn’t count on the newly-minted Chandu to jump into action and call upon his powers of illusion to save not only his loved ones from certain doom but the very earth, as well.

Based upon a then-current radio series, Chandu the Magician is an entity that definitely benefits from its promotion to a visual medium. One can imagine our protagonist’s feats only feeling so magical when we’re being told what he’s up to, but when just about every top-notch special effects trick in the book is used to give them life on film, the results are especially snazzy. Throughout the movie, Frank/Chandu summons phantom doppelgangers, makes henchmen see their guns as deadly snakes, and maintains a close watch on danger by gazing into his handy crystal ball. These sights and others like them all look pretty spectacular for their time, adding up to a visual feast so varied and teeming with energy, you almost forget about the plot’s more quirky details altogether. I’m not quite sure how so many characters are aware of Chandu or his reputation when he’s apparently spent years honing his craft in seclusion, and don’t be surprised if you’re thrown for a loop when others casually refer to Robert’s invention as a “death ray” even before Roxor announces his plan to reduce the likes of London and Paris to rubble. The picture does experience the occasional, culturally-dicey patch (as in one scene that has Roxor offering up Frank’s niece in a slave auction), to which all that can be said is that they’re thankfully infrequent, as the production is more concerned with entertaining the eyes than with engaging in harsh generalizations.

There’s such a playful enthusiasm to the way that Chandu the Magician explores its title hero’s abilities and presents them on screen, one wishes that more was done with the characters so as to really tie everything together. Not that flicks centered around crimefighters and various proto-superfolk were big on detailed origins at the time, but Frank’s ascension to mind-bender extraordinaire is virtually nonexistent. He hasn’t time to tidy his burnoose before he’s off to rescue his brother-in-law from Roxor’s clutches, without imparting so much as a hint as to what sent him on his spiritual quest to begin with. Lowe proves such a good sport in his performance, helping Chandu’s hypnotic stares and hand gestures feel more mysterious than silly, so filling in just a few of the mystic’s background blanks would have made him pop even more. Lugosi is essentially in the same boat, what with playing your standard-issue exotic villain with the vaguest motivations for seeking world domination, yet one can’t deny the impassioned show he puts on; long story short, this guy knows how to deliver one dilly of a bad guy monologue. The remaining roles are likewise very basic in nature, though the supporting cast members elevate them nicely with their appeal. Irene Ware (in her first prominent studio part) makes for a suitably alluring love interest opposite Lowe, Herbert Mundin scores some smirks as the resident cowardly comic relief, and Weldon Heyburn glowers up a storm as Roxor’s right-hand thug.

For what’s basically a superhero tale that came out before the notion of superheroes had become so deeply ingrained within the public consciousness, Chandu the Magician exhibits a tremendous deal of confidence. Bolstered by its wonderful visual effects and spirited acting, the film hasn’t a doubt in its mind that viewers will fall briskly under its spell. Dated though some of its finer details might be, Chandu the Magician makes up for it by being an exhilarating joy to watch.

“Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” (1952)

"Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" poster

 

Boy, Bela Lugosi could never catch a break, could he? Even in a project reportedly rushed into production after he expressed a desire to do more comedies (one that went on to use his name in the title, no less), the horror star ultimately found his role in a diminished state and his talents laid to waste. This was the fate that befell 1952’s Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, a low-rent farce doubling as a vehicle for two dudes more famous for their lounge act being a nearly lawsuit-worthy rip-off of the Martin & Lewis routine than for said schtick actually being any good. Just one glance at that preposterous moniker should clue you in that high art isn’t imminent, but that doesn’t mean an appealingly zany hunk of retro cheese along the lines of all those ’60s beach musicals is out of the question. Unfortunately, while such fondly-remembered flicks had actual jokes to make and humorous set-ups to execute, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla hasn’t an inspired zinger to its name, depending almost solely on the energy of actors who barely want to be there in the first place to instill the barren screenplay with a case of the giggles.

In thinly-veiled riffs on their own stage personas, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo play entertainers who end up stranded on a jungle isle, en route to putting on a show for the boys overseas. Luckily, it’s not long before the two are found and taken in by a native tribe, whose fetching princess Nona (Charlita) takes an instant shine to the dashing Duke. Even better for the pair, there also lives and works on the island one Dr. Zabor (Lugosi), a scientist running experiments on the local wildlife. He agrees to let the guys stay at his place until a boat can swing by and haul them back to civilization, but his gears change after Nona spurns his affections and instead gravitates towards Duke’s arms. Suddenly, the crooner finds himself Dr. Zabor’s latest guinea pig, the unwilling recipient of a heinous potion that transforms him into a huge gorilla. In the midst of dodging the gaze of Nona’s man-hungry sister (Muriel Landers), can Sammy pull himself together in time to save his pal from going ape for good and return to his beloved Big Apple in one piece?

Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla is as antiquated as B-pictures can get, yet its insensitive aspects would do more damage, were their presence not so inherently puzzling. Among the most cringe-worthy material is, obviously, the cornucopia of jungle stereotypes forever spilling out onscreen, with the “native” tribesmen consisting mostly of white guys with tans and loincloths muttering abject gibberish for the whole ride. You’d think that the movies would’ve gotten amusing themselves with “ooga-booga” nonsense out of their systems a long time before Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla came around, yet here we have a flick feasting on about the lowest-hanging fruit possible, because that’s all it strives to harvest. The film was released at a time when audiences were well-versed in horror tropes, leading productions like Abbott & Costello’s Universal Monster crossovers to have fun with the formulas and turn them on their heads. That this thing mainly ignores such calls for self-aware deconstruction is no great surprise, but that it forsakes passing any clever dialogue or creatively comic scenarios onto viewers is virtually unforgivable. God forbid the writers be bothered to put something resembling a personal stamp on the script, as their involvement extends to establishing a situation and leaving it up to the actors to scream, mug, or pratfall their way through it.

Alright, so Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla‘s jokes connect about as successfully as a pile of King Kong’s scat, but a solid cast has been known to elevate crummy material in the past. At the forefront of this caper are Mitchell and Petrillo, whose act enjoyed a fair deal of popularity for a spell, until Jerry Lewis saw to it that the men were essentially blackballed out of show business. It’s sort of sad that their careers never really took off respectively or as a team, because even in this ill-conceived mash of monkey business, it’s obvious that they weren’t devoid of talent. Mitchell (who’d later achieve cult prominence as the director/star of 1974’s Massacre Mafia Style) has a good singing voice, and the inhumanly-lanky Petrillo — despite his hollering grinding one’s nerves to a fine powder within seconds — possesses an energy and physical presence that might have serviced him better, had the script actually been up to snuff. But as for the guy the entire picture was named after, opportunities for Lugosi to flex his comedic muscles as he’d wished are few and far between. Dr. Zabor is often positioned as the straight man against Petrillo and his frantic shenanigans, but Lugosi is given next to no reactions or lines to keep the funny flow going, basically trapping him in yet another generic retread of the tired mad scientist archetype.

Its title alone has secured Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla‘s spot on many a “worst movies ever” list until the end times, but actually watching it is another story. While it set out to be little more than a dopey comedy cobbled together to cash in on a fading horror icon’s reputation, it’s still a dreadfully laughless progenitor of the Friedberg/Seltzer philosophy of just rattling off clichés and pop culture references counting as crafting a quality gag. Even for the extremely modest goals it set for itself, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla fails to rise to the occasion, giving us neither a flick amusing on its own merits or one teeming with ironic charm.

“Phantom Ship” (1935)

"Phantom Ship" poster

 

The draw of a maritime mystery isn’t hard to comprehend. It’s a textbook “rock and a hard place” scenario, forcing the poor souls on board some doomed vessel to either confront the evil among them or take their chances on the cold, open seas alone. A film’s frightful potential is further raised when it bases itself on an infamous real-life puzzler, as was the decision made by 1935’s oceanic chiller Phantom Ship. Of course, when a story is inspired by an incident that left so many unanswered questions, some gap-filling conjecture is to be expected, but with information as cryptic as that which this picture has to work with, little effort is needed to jump to spine-tingling conclusions. However, while Phantom Ship fares admirably in stocking its bowels with intrigue aplenty on the outset, a fatal leak is sprung soon into the second act, one that unravels all the suspenseful good will the movie had accumulated up to that point and sends our interest sinking swiftly to the briny deep.

On December 5th, 1872, one of the strangest tales in seafaring history presented itself to the world. The cargo ship Mary Celeste, bound for Italy with scores of alcohol in its belly, was discovered adrift and devoid of life, with no sign of its crew in sight. What could have possibly prompted those aboard to abandon ship and instead choose to face the Atlantic’s brutal waters? The makers of this film have a few ideas, painting a most deadly portrait of the events that might have led to the Mary Celeste‘s ultimate fate. What follows is the story of one Captain Benjamin Briggs (Arthur Margetson), a young lad who brought his new bride Sarah (Shirley Grey) on what at first seemed to be a typical voyage. But little do the lovers know of the danger surrounding them on all sides, from a spy assigned to sabotage the trip by Briggs’s jealous best friend (Clifford McLaglen) to an unstable sailor (Bela Lugosi) who wants revenge for being shanghaied years before. However, when more and more bodies start stacking up, it becomes clear that the Mary Celeste is dealing with no ordinary murderer but a veritable madman, one with the mother of all grudges against the vessel and all it stands for.

Perhaps the greatest distinction that Phantom Ship can claim is being among the first productions from some teensy British movie outfit called Hammer. The ensuing decades would help cement the studio’s prominence within the horror genre, but before their gothic goings-on could get underway, the powers that be had to cut their teeth on a series of low-budget, no-frills thrillers. Phantom Ship (released as The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in its native England) was a part of this initial wave, closely adhering to the routine of the era’s average pulse-pounder by introducing a touch of romance into the mix and filling out the suspect pool with every shady-looking character actor it could get its mits on. Although his approach can come across as a little stiff on occasion, director Denison Clift does a fine job of establishing the story’s many pieces. Not only does he supply the viewer with multiple parties who board the Mary Celeste with murder in mind, he also subverts expectations by painting Briggs — the sort of dashing romantic lead who’s often depicted as a hopeless goody two-shoes — in dark shades himself. Add in the usual perils that come with being stuck on a scuzzy boat with a decidedly disgruntled crew (some of whom didn’t sign up willingly), and one can’t help but get excited thinking about the possibilities of how a cold-blooded killer might use these conditions to his or her advantage.

But once Phantom Ship starts getting down to the meat of the mystery at its core, that’s when its borderline incompetent grasp on the “whodunit” concept makes itself known. Part of this could be attributed to the fact that about twenty minutes were cut from the picture’s original version for its stateside release, a sizable chunk of celluloid now unfortunately lost to time. We can only surmise what those frames contained, but it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to learn that most of the film’s character arcs, red herrings, and stabs at misdirection were chucked in the trash. Even if they weren’t, however, Phantom Ship‘s go at leaving the audience guessing as to what’s really happening is inexcusably poor, for not even the script can apparently be bothered to keep most of its players straight or muster much concern for the figures on whom it does manage to focus. Whether it’s a sailor whose name we’re never told or one of the protagonists, character development is constantly getting the shaft here, and when the unceremonious off-screen deaths begin piling up in both departments, caring how anyone turns out is nigh impossible. In all fairness, though, the shiftless screenplay’s sting is eased some by the acting (with Lugosi turning in a particularly pained performance), as well as the movie’s art and sound design, which turns the titular craft into a high seas haunted house with ghostly gales ominously bellowing across the bow.

Admittedly, ganging up on Phantom Ship seems a bit mean, considering how stacked the deck is against it. In addition to its virtually incomplete present condition, the film’s decades spent in the public domain means toughing out sub-par sound and degraded prints, should one get the itch to give it a whirl. Bearing in mind the horrifying heights to which Hammer would eventually ascend, there’s no use in sweating Phantom Ship, but were it to make its way onto your to-watch list, then prepare for a one-hour tour that feels thrice as long.

“The Return of the Vampire” (1943)

"The Return of the Vampire" poster

 

When we’re confronted with something frightening, one of our first instincts is to stifle its power through means of mockery. This could apply to virtually any facet of our lives, but it’s especially true when it comes to horror cinema. Whereas certain aspects of 1931’s Frankenstein were viewed as blasphemous upon its release, its sequels made talk of brain-swapping and graveyard-raiding as casually-acknowledged as cobwebs in a matter of years. Having arrived in 1943 and laden with so much classic genre imagery, one could scarcely be blamed for initially sizing up Columbia Pictures’ The Return of the Vampire as a cynical riff on the old Universal Horror style. However, these misgivings are soon laid to rest when the flick’s affection for the stories from whence it came makes itself known, crafting a love letter to the fright films of yore that nonetheless recognizes how it has nothing on the real-life terrors of its time.

In 1918, Armand Tesla (Bela Lugosi) held court in the crypts of London’s outskirts. A former intellectual who studied various vampire legends, he eventually became a creature of the night himself, stalking the streets whilst aided by his werewolf servant, Andreas (Matt Willis). Fortunately, Lady Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) put an end to Tesla’s feeding frenzy, driving a stake through his black heart and ushering in an era of peace…or so they thought. Over twenty years later, a German bombing raid manages to unearth Tesla’s grave, allowing the ghoul to rise once more and resume his fearsome reign. This time, though, it’s personal, as the fiend impersonates a doctor fleeing the Nazis and integrates himself into Lady Ainsley’s social circles, with aims on seducing the professor’s grown granddaughter Nicki (Nina Foch) over to the dark side. Ready to do whatever it takes to save Nicki’s soul, Lady Ainsley prepares herself for a showdown with the master of monsters, determined to prevent anyone she loves from joining the ranks of the living dead at all costs.

If you’re thinking that The Return of the Vampire sounds an awful lot like the Dracula sequel that never was, then you’re actually kind of right. By some accounts, Columbia intended this picture to be a direct follow-up to the fright fest that put Lugosi on the map, but when Universal threatened legal retribution, the most obvious connections were Etch-a-Sketched away and replaced. This is particularly telling in certain areas (most glaringly so in the rushed detailing of Tesla’s origins), but one gets the gist of things pretty quickly. The Return of the Vampire makes old-school horror nuts feel right at home before the opening credits have fully dissipated, bombarding them with images of fog-drenched cemeteries, wolf men on the prowl, and imposing shadows bearing down on unsuspecting victims. Even by the ’40s, such sights had since grown hopelessly cliché, but because director Lew Landers (reunited with Lugosi after helming The Raven eight years prior) plays them so straight, we become less encouraged to greet them with eyes rolled back. There’s no winking or nodding afoot in this production, just a straightforward story about an unspeakable evil encroaching upon the forces of good, one that clicks in spite of all the on- and off-screen horrors with which its audiences were more greatly concerned.

For all of the familiar genre iconography it heaps onto our plates, that The Return of the Vampire realizes such content’s cultural relevance has nearly expired is part of what makes it the wise endeavor it is. Setting the action during World War II — with the characters having gotten accustomed to blackouts and blitzes — is a master stroke, giving the story a forlorn quality that cries out for simpler days when mankind had only the silver screen’s supernatural threats to fear and not flesh-and-blood dictators. Thus, the script’s frequent assurances that goodness shall prevail no matter what, which would seem hokey as hell under virtually any other circumstances, take on more profound and unexpectedly touching connotations. Whether the actors were on a similar wavelength or just saw this as a silly horror show from the start, they all remain committed to selling the premise with a straight face regardless. Though he could do this schtick in his sleep by this point, Lugosi’s presence is creepily captivating all the same, especially as Tesla beckons Nicki to his side and taunts Lady Ainsley’s efforts to protect her. Inescort turns in a resolute performance as our heroine, and that our protagonist is a woman (when the part could have easily been rewritten for a guy) is a most welcome treat for such an early chapter in horror cinema history. Foch’s Nicki effectively evokes our concern, and while there’s nothing that requires Andreas to be a werewolf (seeing as how the character retains his intellect anyway), Willis successfully transforms him into a sympathetic figure all the same.

The Return of the Vampire is replete with narrative inconsistencies over which one could quibble for hours, but the film as a whole is no worse for the wear because of them. In an era when scenarios like those reverently recreated within its frames were losing their touch, this flick makes them work, exhibiting the same firm grasp on visual and thematic storytelling that gave Universal’s greatest monster mashes their impact. Earnest and atmospheric in equal doses, The Return of the Vampire is a genre gem that’s ripe for rediscovering.

“Invisible Ghost” (1941)

"Invisible Ghost" poster

 

Boris Karloff played many a misunderstood monster in his time. Sadsacks were Lon Chaney Jr.’s specialty. But out of all the classic horror icons, Bela Lugosi was the one whose roles were the least likely to be sympathetic. Nine times out of ten, poor Bela would be typecast as a predatory madman, his signature accent used to give said parts a touch of exoticism but not an abundance of dimension. But on the rare occasion when he was called upon to portray a character meant to invoke our compassion, the guy made a meal out of it, even in what were otherwise unassuming Poverty Row productions like 1941’s Invisible Ghost. Thanks to the unconventional order in which the pieces of its plot are unveiled, this flick already has a leg up on many of the other cheapie chillers of its era, so the addition of Lugosi as a truly tragic figure only sweetens the pot. Unfortunately, Invisible Ghost encounters a frustrating amount of difficulty as it tries keeping its own twists in check, as some cool and creepy developments lose their luster once you start wondering what in the world is really going on.

The Kessler estate would give the House on Haunted Hill a run for its spooky money. In addition to being the site of a string of unsolved murders, it’s also the home of Charles Kessler (Lugosi), a man still rattled from the disappearance of his wife (Betty Compson). Every night, he hopes and prays for the moment she’ll return to him…until the one time she actually does. As it turns out, Mrs. Kessler has been for some time a guest of the family groundskeeper (Ernie Adams), having sequestered her in the wake of a terrible car accident. But on the odd instance when she wanders back to her old home in a daze, her sight causes Charles to black out and plunge into a homicidal spell. He’s not aware of it in the slightest, but Kessler is the very killer who’s plagued his mansion for months, the unknowing mastermind of a string of gruesome deaths…the latest of which might result in a horrible fate for the innocent man (John McGuire) accused of engineering it.

Whereas several of its dirt-poor contemporaries would run themselves ragged trying to pad their stories out to the sixty-minute mark, Invisible Ghost is shockingly dense with goings-on. Subplots and suspicious characters abound from the word go, so when the picture makes the bold choice of announcing quite early on that Lugosi is the maniac, one initially can’t help but sit there beguiled and ponder what possible directions in which the narrative might take this revelation and others like it. Invisible Ghost has stacked its deck with a number of intriguing cards, but throughout its running time, it deals them out in a bizarrely erratic fashion, leaving a four-lane freeway’s worth of plot holes in its wake. What did happen the night Mrs. Kessler abandoned her husband? Did Charles experience his murderous urges before she took off? Where was she prior to the accident, and why was the groundskeeper so adamant on keeping her locked up afterwards? The answers to these questions — which could very well have boosted the moody tinge of the proceedings — are all addressed the most lackadaisical manner fathomable. Nothing about the screenplay’s explanations are even close to being serviceable (let alone wholly satisfying), creating a directionless atmosphere in which the twists shed their luster as expediently as the audience’s interest in the story plummets.

Scatterbrained and replete with chasms though its script might be, Invisible Ghost‘s cast manages to put on a dignified show nevertheless. While there’s no denying how silly he looks while stumbling about with arms outstretched in “killer mode,” Lugosi takes to Kessler’s more charming aspects very nicely. He does a commendable job of selling the man’s friendly disposition, coming across as genuinely amiable and helping make it easier to accept that none of the other characters would even remotely suspect him of murder once corpses start piling up around the place. The supporting cast also carries on with relatively few hiccups, with fine performances from Polly Ann Young as Kessler’s inquisitive daughter and, as the family butler, Clarence Muse, who’s fortunately spared the cringing comic relief the likes of which Mantan Moreland and Willie Best were saddled with in similar servant parts at the time. Though the majority of the action is confined to inside the Kessler house, director Joseph H. Lewis (The Mad Doctor of Market Street) still sneaks in an effective shot here and there, particularly whenever Compson plants her mug in the living room window. The eerie ambience holds up well for the most part, although the ridiculously bombastic score does a doozy of a job of bringing what tension it can to a screeching halt.

Because of its novel set-up, Invisible Ghost has achieved a certain prominence amongst Poverty Row’s throngs of murder mysteries and drawing-room thrillers. There are those who even gladly forgive its lapses in storytelling logic, much in the same way narrative flaws in countless vintage puzzlers made on the quick are largely ignored. The old-fashioned appeal of Invisible Ghost isn’t lost on yours truly, but it falls asleep at the wheel far too often for the bumps incurred during its journey into suspense to be easily looked past.

“The Raven” (1935)

"The Raven" poster

 

It’s strange how Universal didn’t crank out more Edgar Allan Poe adaptations than it did during its golden age of horror. The studio’s few such productions were so loosely connected to the original stories as is, one would assume the powers that be would be content to clean up on name recognition and the presence of famous genre icons alone. That’s exactly what happened with 1934’s smash thriller The Black Cat, and the following year, Universal reunited stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for another Poe-inspired collaboration, The Raven. Given the former’s expressionist style and ghoulish insinuations of violence, it was a tough act to follow, setting a precedent for cinematic nightmares to which measuring up would be no small feat. Unfortunately, The Raven falls considerably short of this mark, but even taking its creepy cousin out of the picture, it remains an uneven opus of the macabre, thanks to an emaciated screenplay that nearly knocks the wind out of an otherwise tremendous leading performance’s sails.

Once upon a time, Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) was a most respected surgeon. Few were more skilled with a scalpel, and his collection of Poe paraphernalia is the envy of the academic community. But when Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) beckons the doc out of retirement to save the life of his daughter Jean (Irene Ware), little does he know that he’s played into the hands of a madman. After sparing the girl a grisly fate, Vollin soon develops an obsession with her, resolving to make her his bride some day — or else. The judge picks up on this unsettling fixation and forbids the two from seeing each other again, which only fuels the doctor’s vengeful fire. With the reluctant help of escaped convict Edmond Bateman (Karloff), Vollin hatches a plot to gather all who’ve wronged him and subject them to his collection of gruesome torture devices, in a night of horror none will ever forget.

The Raven isn’t a remake or blatant rip-off by any stretch, but the specter of The Black Cat hangs over it regardless. We have the Poe connection, the elements of torture, and a rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff’s characters that drives certain aspects of the plot. However, The Raven is nowhere near as effective in going about its business, and why all boils down to a matter of build-up. Saying this sounds odd, considering Vollin does take his sweet time in getting revenge on Judge Thatcher (plus Jean and her fiancé, but they’re not at the top of his to-punish list). But during that period leading up to the doc going full Pit and the Pendulum on his enemies, Vollin’s back story is granted no deeper exploration, his lust for Jean and eventual urge to inflict unspeakable pain upon others attributed to no other motivation than, “He’s just crazy.” Even the contentious partnership between the doctor and Bateman feels like a rush job, as the latter is coerced into servitude by having his face horribly disfigured. Compared to the history and seething hatred their characters in The Black Cat shared with each other, Lugosi and Karloff’s clash here is built upon the flimsiest of foundations, with Vollin’s mocking of Bateman’s newfound ugliness as a means of stoking his murderous flames falling flat.

All of this is unfortunate, because at the center of The Raven is one of the most twisted and commanding performances of Lugosi’s career. The script may not always serve him as well as it might, but the man himself is firing on all cylinders, cackling up a storm and having a total blast giving life to Vollin’s demented persona. Afforded few leading man opportunities by Universal (even after Dracula‘s astounding success), Lugosi seizes his rare shot at being the center of attention and pulls through with a crazed, menacing performance from which it’s hard to glance away. Simultaneously, Karloff’s portrayal of Bateman is more of the understated variety, as the legendary horror star uses his weathered looks (pre-mutilation, too) and anguished attitude to hint at the lifetime of chips this guy’s had to lug on his shoulders. Outside of these two titans of terror, however, The Raven‘s remaining cast members range from the fine, but unremarkable to the utterly disposable. Ware is pleasant, and Hinds is appropriately stern, but as Jean’s fiancé, Lester Matthews is a complete drip, and the various actors on hand to provide forced comic relief only make us wish they’d meet the business end of one of Vollin’s contraptions even sooner. On that note, though, the set design is rather intimidating, with the doctor’s swanky pad gradually revealing itself to house all manner of swinging blades, moving falls, and entire rooms than can be summoned below ground on a moment’s notice.

Though Lugosi’s dominating turn and the morbid machinery he lords over help out a good deal, The Raven‘s shocks only work so well without strong writing or characters to support them. The film’s underperformance at the box office played a part in informing Universal’s decision to lay off the horror stories for a while, only to return years later with what can be arguably considered Lugosi’s best role ever in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. The Raven is no black mark on the studio’s genre record, but given the talent involved with its creation, that it turned out as anything but a dark little gem is a letdown among letdowns.

“These Final Hours” (2013)

"These Final Hours" poster

 

The majority of apocalypse-centric cinema contains at least some element of hope. The leather-clad bikers and rampant lawlessness depicted therein might signify otherwise, but the world — no matter how battered its condition may be — is usually still there, with the potential to rebuild on the table in one way or another. But there’s that rare sub-section of flicks whose circumstances are decidedly more concrete, wherein our planet is thoroughly doomed, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Writer/director Zak Hilditch took this mindset to heart in crafting his 2013 Aussie thriller These Final Hours, and considering how risky it is to hold a viewer’s interest with such an oppressive narrative, that he even attempted it at all is commendable to a degree. But while he arranges many a bleak tableau in the picture’s eighty-something minutes, his storytelling skills aren’t the most consistent, leaving us with a film that’s stirring in spots but whose emotional resonance never quite catches up to its own stakes.

The end of the world as we know it is less than a day away. The crashing of some unknown object in the North Atlantic has resulted in a wave of fire decimating the globe bit by bit — and Perth’s number is coming up next. Some lose their minds in the face of such a fate, and others turn to faith to give them comfort, but Jimmy (Nathan Phillips) doesn’t want to feel a thing. Before everything he knows turns into ash, he resolves to drink himself numb and drown in pure debauchery at the mother of all parties. But the road to these final festivities leads Jimmy to Rose (Angourie Rice), a young girl whom he saves from an unspeakable assault. Reluctantly agreeing to reunite the kid with her folks in time for the end, our man hits the road, fighting the urge to give up and spend Armageddon curled up at the bottom of a bottle. But as he shields Rose from sight after ghastly sight throughout their journey, Jimmy finds his sense of purpose gradually returning, inspiring him to change his ways even as Doomsday waits just hours around the corner.

Visually, These Final Hours trades in familiar apocalypse motifs, but its own ideas are incorporated effectively enough to enthrall audiences regardless. We see the abandoned streets, burning buildings, and errant corpses that one is wont to stumble across in stories like this, yet Hilditch opts to bathe this haunting imagery in a searing brightness. Even as ominous clouds roll in and signal the inferno’s forthcoming arrival, a hazy, near-blinding light permeates nearly every frame, virtually making us sweat bullets in the comfort of our La-Z-Boys. It’s a great way to get us in an uncomfortable frame of mind very fast, and Hilditch further instills dread within our guts by keeping the action on a personal level. Given the film’s low budget, there’s only so much he could’ve gotten away with in the first place, but sparing viewers from any bombastic outbursts of mass chaos to artificially create tension is a big help in getting the story across in a more genuine light. That said, Hilditch does kneecap himself a little in the movie’s first and third acts, both of which include lengthy stretches that feel as though they were cut like a trailer, with fast-paced editing and swelling music that mostly keeps out of sight otherwise. These sections have a bit of a cloying quality to them, driven not by the desire to foster an intimate narrative but to swing for emotional high notes that they haven’t properly prepared to reach.

For the lion’s share of its midsection, however, These Final Hours can be some well-crafted — if a touch by-the-numbers — doomsday fare. Phillips (Snakes on a Plane) doesn’t strain too many acting muscles, but one can imagine his role as a party bro type reconciling with the possibility of redemption easily being more insufferable. Even if there isn’t much weight to his character’s transformation (which is more of the script’s fault than the actor’s), he does his job just fine, adopting a lost, boozy visage and getting you to sympathize enough with Jimmy to want to see him make the most of what time is left. Rice, on the other hand, delivers an almost completely authentic performance from beginning to end, wholly convincing in the bulk of her scenes and effortlessly transcending the sort of contrived dialogue that would sink other, less committed child performers. She holds her own against Phillips pretty easily, and the two complement one another nicely, with each character having to step up and offer encouragement to the other at crucial points in the plot. They’re people you don’t mind spending a lot of time with, which is exactly what happens, as the rest of the cast is essentially divided amongst random crazies, strung-out partygoers, and ancillary loved ones who don’t stick around for very long.

Though impressive in presentation considering its limited resources, These Final Hours is only passable when weighing its narrative accomplishments as a whole. It’s suspenseful, it’s dramatic, and it’s even darkly funny on occasion, but the simplicity of its “no need to abandon emotions in the face of futility” message receives only a partially profound payoff. All in all, These Final Hours won’t relieve you of your socks, though enough of its potential is realized to make it a mostly engaging watch.

“La Jetée” (1962)

"La Jetée" poster

 

Our minds can be both our greatest allies and fiercest foes. They house those treasured snippets of days past, yet they’re oftentimes easily clouded, and without our knowledge to boot. Many are the souls who’ve become lost within the annals of their own memories, leading themselves to ruin in pursuit of resurrecting “the way things used to be,” without stopping to consider just how closely their recollections reflect the truth. Perhaps no cinematic work has better captured the maddeningly enigmatic nature of memory than La Jetée, a 1962 short from experimental director Chris Marker. At its simplest definition a cautionary time travel story (think something more in sync with Primer than Back to the Future), this half-hour film nails the viciousness of the circle we trap ourselves in once we start chasing the past and realize too late that doing so can have perilous consequences. La Jetée may spend only a fleeting chunk of time before our eyes, but its frames and the tale they tell can be more hypnotic and jarring than those of many a feature-length production.

The Man (Davos Hanich) was there when everything fell to pieces. He had front-row seats to the start of World War III, bearing witness to the bombs and bloodshed that would very soon turn the globe into a radioactive wasteland. Sequestered underground, scientists have been since been toiling over how to alleviate society’s collective sorrows, having made time travel the focus of their latest experiments. Due to his strong memories of that fateful first day — particularly those of a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) — the Man is selected as a guinea pig, and after some trial and error, contact with the past is at long last made. But the longer he treks about the peaceful days of yore and forges a relationship with the mystery woman, the more the Man allows his mission to be steered off course, coming ever closer to proving a certain adage about history repeating right in the worst of ways.

La Jetée owes a good deal of its power to its presentation. With the exception of one brief instance, the film plays out through a series of still images, representing not only the Man’s fractured memories but those of essentially everyone around him, as well. One can imagine anyone surviving in a dirty, claustrophobic, dystopian hellscape such as this short’s barely being able to think straight, racing through their minds one disjointed fragment at a time and grasping for any hint of what might help ease their ails. Such power is conveyed through what at first sounds like an insufferable storytelling device (just imagine Mad Max as a two-hour PowerPoint presentation), yet Marker displays his total mastery of it early on. What with mere pictures of bombed-out buildings and crude scientific paraphernalia so effectively communicating just how nightmarish the film’s post-apocalyptic world truly is, one soon abandons any potential desires for more elaborate and bombastic visual flourishes they might have brought with them. Because he succeeds so well in establishing a harrowing vision of the future, Marker makes why the Man would feel so overwhelmed and intoxicated by such simple pre-war sights as sunny days and laughing children during his journeys into the past all the more understandable.

It’s easy to watch a character’s mistakes gradually blow up in their face over the course of a story and assure ourselves that we’d have taken better precautions, but La Jetée ensures us viewers always empathize with the Man’s actions, even if it’s a dumb move. After being poked, prodded, and coldly studied in filthy underground bunkers for who knows how long, it’s no wonder that his first trip back to yesteryear floors him like it does and inspires him to grab onto that feeling for as long as he can. But as William Klein’s melancholy narration (the English version, that is) is quick to remind us, such a choice could be what condemns the human race to a tragically ironic fate. However, for as stirringly as Marker relates the events of La Jetée from this perspective, it can be limiting in certain respects. Chatelain’s function in the narrative begins and ends with serving as the Man’s object of obsession and tether to the past, and save for some minor rumblings of Big Brother-esque shenanigans afoot, there’s a vagueness to the scientists who recruited him that results in some confusion once they decide to turn on him at a certain juncture. Perhaps a few minor details could’ve used some clearing-up, but quibbles like these are nigh-insignificant when the picture’s mood strikes what haunting chords it does in spite of them.

Having gone on to inspire Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys over thirty years later, evidence that La Jetée made the most of its thirty minutes is pretty obvious. It’s abstract without feeling impenetrable to those eyes more accustomed to escapist time travel adventures, yet it isn’t so linear that you aren’t left contemplating each turn the story takes in one way or another. Declared by Time magazine years ago as the greatest film to ever traverse the hourglass and the sands contained therein, the chilling, profound, and strangely beautiful La Jetée earns every bit of that distinction.

“Time of the Wolf” (2003)

"Time of the Wolf" poster

 

I completely understand the appeal of stories set in the aftermath of apocalyptic events. Whether with movies, books, TV shows, or what have you, people jump on any opportunity to fantasize about a world without rules, to picture society stripped of all pretense and imagine how they’d survive in the wake of its collapse. The premise conjures a liberating rush that can be really something, but for yours truly, the meat of tales revolving around the end times tends to lie within the process of getting to that point, rather than when things have long since gone kablooey. Case and point, 2003’s Time of the Wolf, in which art house icon and unlikely Twitter parody target Michael Haneke shares his view of how mankind might react as decency and decorum crumble around it. By supplying the audience with the bare minimum of exposition (or, depending on how you look at it, none at all), Haneke leaves them as lost as his characters and grasping for some semblance of order while such concepts are swiftly becoming distant memories. Such ambiguity doesn’t always work in Time of the Wolf‘s favor, yet what the film does accomplish on the little it gives itself to work with is nothing to turn your nose up at, either.

In the not-too-distant future, an unknown crisis has gripped France — and quite possibly the planet, too. Livestock are dying off in droves, clean water has become increasingly scarce, and those who haven’t succumbed to some disease or another are hell-bent on protecting what little they have left. Unfortunately, Anne Laurent (Isabelle Huppert) hasn’t much to her name anymore, with her husband murdered and supplies stolen by squatters in what they’d hoped would be their sanctuary. Left alone to care for her children (Anaïs Demoustier and Lucas Biscombe), Anne has no choice but to press on and scrounge for whatever can keep her family as afloat as possible. Eventually, the group makes its way to an old railway station populated with other survivors, all of whom are waiting for something — be it rescue or death — to happen. But as the more grim of the options looms closer, Anne struggles to instill a sense of optimism within her kids and help them hang onto their humanity.

Time of the Wolf is the sort of movie more apt to chill you to the bone with instances of quiet coldness than with montages of leather-clad marauders or rioting in the streets. The first, incredibly disturbing scene sets the tone for the sort of receptions the Laurents will be largely greeted with, as most of the populace has become numb to compassion and dismiss any pleas for assistance that come their way. With an atmosphere so bleak, it’s natural for viewers to react with outrage, but the story finds a compelling edge with the understanding that Haneke brings to the proceedings. Yes, supremely unfair things happen to Time of the Wolf‘s protagonists, yet we’re always reminded that everyone is in the precise same boat. From the wounded Anne to the closest thing the film has to “villains,” Haneke sympathizes with virtually every character in this universe, acknowledging the horrible losses that have come to drive their current actions. This surfaces in both subtle and more overt ways, with the same applying to how he proposes his players deal with all of the heartache afoot. Nearly each of its frames possesses someone shedding tears, pleading for answers, or both, and yet the picture posits that as long as there’s at least one soul determined to push on regardless, it’s inspiration enough for others to follow suit. It isn’t always obvious, but Haneke feels more as if he’s studying this fragile balance with hope for the future, rather than acting as a cruel cinema god raining punishment for punishment’s sake down upon his own creations.

However, while it effectively communicates the kind of widespread shock such a cataclysm as the one depicted might bring about, there’s something a little underwhelming about how Time of the Wolf plays out. Numerous scenes seem as though they belong in an apocalypse-themed Slacker spin-off, with the Laurents serving as our guides to a host of personalities and subplots that only pop up for a few brief moments at most. Even in their fleeting amounts of screen time, a nice chunk of these tangents are fascinating and heartrending, and yet the leads never quite capture our interest as fully. This isn’t to mean that the Laurents aren’t enthralling characters in the slightest, especially when the cast (the indomitable Huppert, in particular) is so clearly crushing it and selling every ounce of their anguish. But with Haneke visibly indecisive over whether to give Anne and the kids the closest to closure the flick has or treating them as fairly as anyone else, they don’t entirely click as the audience surrogates they’re meant to be. Time of the Wolf gives the impression that it would’ve been better off had it comprised itself of little moments scattered across a greater canvas of tragedy, instead of trying to highlight a few certain figures at the same time and come across distracted in the process. Also, while there are no major issues with the plot storing so much of its background in the dark, we do run into the occasional spot where uncertainty just isn’t enough to go on, when but a hair more of clear prodding in the story department could’ve improved the narrative’s sense of progression.

Still, Time of the Wolf displays more tact and craft than those big-screen bummers content to cruise by on autopilot. Other flicks have smeared sadness across the screen and left it at that, but as downplayed as Haneke’s approach can be, he makes an effort to do something constructive with his tour of duty in the trenches of misery. Though it doesn’t entirely stick the landing, Time of the Wolf has plenty of thought-provoking ideas and powerful imagery to go around anyway.

“The Assassin” (1952)

"British Noir" cover art

 

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, wherein I’ll be taking on each of the films in Kino’s British Noir DVD collection throughout the month of November May. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)

 

"The Assassin" poster

 

Renzo Uccello is sure causing a lot of fuss for a dead fellow. It’s he whom private investigator Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) has flown all the way to Venice to seek, so that he may be rewarded for an act of heroism performed during World War II. Everyone that Mercer meets insists that Uccello perished in an air raid, but our man is inclined to disagree…especially since the first one to come to him with information on the guy ended up taking a beating from some goons. The gumshoe suspects some sort of cover-up afoot, one that involves an art restorer (Eva Bartok) and a string of bodies that conspicuously starts piling up after his snooping commences. However, the closer Mercer comes to finding out what business Uccello was involved with, the bigger a target he becomes not only for some shady underworld types but also for the police, who view his own dubious wartime past as reason enough to pin a number of heinous acts on his head.

The Assassin sort of plays out as a budget version of The Third Man, though that’s no condescending slam. As in Carol Reed’s masterwork, the specter of war is always lounging about the background of this picture, informing the premise of battle having seemingly turned an upstanding dude onto a life of crime. Our story is also set at a point when wounds between once-warring nations were still a touch fresh, giving the authorities some subtle motivation to keep a closer eye on Mercer while he tries to dig up some answers. Observant overtones like these are present throughout The Assassin, but the movie’s ultimate trouble lies with its refusal to accomplish anything of importance with them. The narrative swiftly falls into a repetitive “Where’s Renzo Uccello?” refrain, as if having the characters constantly question the mystery man’s whereabouts is enough to boost the viewer’s concern. Very little oomph has been integrated into the plot’s diversions, with the suspicion cast on Mercer’s checkered history coming off as a transparent attempt to throw us off the scent from the get-go. The film as a whole is simply neither dramatically-satisfying or particularly suspenseful, although the Venetian locations are quite nice, and Todd does a fine job as the exasperated private eye.

While the lion’s share of its frames might be doused in that inky blackness that sets every noir fan’s heart aflutter, The Assassin‘s journey down the corridors of man’s dark side is a bit of a snoozer. It spends a criminally-lengthy amount of time running in place, shirking one chance after another to make deeper connections with the story elements at hand, until the audience is too disinterested when some plot twists finally are dumped in their collective laps. The makings of a cracking continental thriller are here, but unfortunately, The Assassin ends up feeling about as generic as its title.