Category Archives: ★½

The Black Cat (1934, Edgar G. Ulmer)

The Black Cat has a lot going on. It’s the story of two American honeymooners–David Manners and Julie Bishop–who, for whatever reason, decide Hungary is better than Niagara Falls. It’s also the story of a recently freed Hungarian soldier Bela Lugosi, who went into the war a happily married psychiatrist, only to lose his family after being imprisioned for fifteen years. Finally, it’s the story of Boris Karloff’s Austrian “architect,” who used to command Lugosi’s regiment, but sold them out to the Russians so he could escape to run off with Lugosi’s wife. Oh, and Karloff’s a big Satanic priest. Because the Austrians are Satanists and the Hungarians are either cute or loyal.

Aside from Karloff’s satanism? He kills women and keeps them hung up, preserved, in his dungeon. He built his giant, Art Deco house atop the fortress he betrayed to the Russians.

Through coincidence, Manners and Bishop find themselves in Lugosi’s questionable–but generally benevolent–company. Through bad luck, they find themselves part of Lugosi’s quest to avenge himself upon Karloff. Only Lugosi doesn’t even know how much avenging he’s going to need to do upon Karloff. He’s only got a rough idea.

Most of Ulmer’s direction is excellent. The first act has this shaky camerawork–“courtesy” cameraman John J. Mescall–but eventually those hiccups stop. He does pretty well with the actors. Bishop doesn’t have much to do except scream and pass out from fear, but she’s effective. Manners is in the awkward spot of not being the lead, but looking like he ought to be the lead. Meanwhile, actual lead Lugosi gets a character arc he chaffs against; while Peter Ruric’s script doesn’t favor anyone, Lugosi gets the harshest treatment.

The script’s rather xenophobic–look at these strange Eastern Europeans with their Satanism and so on–and Lugosi gets caught in a lot of it. Otherwise, he’s beyond sympathetic. His nemesis isn’t just a traitor, he’s a traitor who stole his family, murders random women to embalm, and is a Satanic priest.

In that part, Karloff’s okay, not much more. He looks the part–though the height difference between him and Lugosi (Lugosi’s much taller) is disconcerting. Lugosi does better. He doesn’t do great–he suffers from intense ailurophobia (fear of cats) and Karloff has apparently an endless supply of black cats around to creep Lugosi out.

The set design is a big deal, with the Art Deco house overpowering the boring dungeon. Maybe because the dungeon seems too cramped and its geography is confusing, but not in a good way. The third act takes place almost entirely in the dungeon, which doesn’t help things; it’s also when all the character problems and incongruities come to a head.

Solid editing from Ray Curtiss, especially during the first act and then the Satanic ritual. Great music from Heinz Roemheld.

The Black Cat runs just over an hour. Its present action is a day and a half or so. It shouldn’t slog but it does. The setup of the characters then of Karloff and his nightmare house (despite it being bright and Art Deco) all goes well. But Manners and Bishop’s parts get reduced a little too much in the second half; Karloff getting more to do isn’t better. He’s effective at being threatening but there’s not a lot of danger in the script. It’s too spare. There are only four real characters. It can’t spare them.

The film’s pre-Code, so the Hays Code can’t be blamed for the finish, just common morality. Still, The Black Cat’s a reasonable success, with some excellent moments for Lugosi in particular. And Ulmer’s direction can carry it. Most of the time.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay by Peter Ruric, based on a story by Ulmer and Ruric; edited by Ray Curtiss; music by Heinz Roemheld; produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bela Lugosi (Dr. Vitus Werdegast), Julie Bishop (Joan Alison), David Manners (Peter Alison), Egon Brecher (The Majordomo), Harry Cording (Thamal), and Boris Karloff (Hjalmar Poelzig).


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TerrorVision (1986, Ted Nicolaou)

TerrorVision is a masterpiece of pragmatism. Writer-director Nicolaou works the low budget to the film’s advantage–whether it’s the fifties sitcom nuclear family only with Mom and Dad swinging or how the monster from outer space is cute, even though it’s a disgusting space mutant, with the cuteness makes up for the limited special effects. Or the sound stage “exterior” backyard scenes, which just adds to the sitcom feel. But Nicolaou keeps it in line–TerrorVision never looks cheap, it just looks absurd. If things get too silly on screen, Nicolauo and editor Thomas Meshelski bring in some almost comically gross and ominous space monster noises.

The performances take a similiar, exagerrated approach. The first act quickly introduces the family–Gerrit Graham is the TV-obsessed dad, Mary Woronov is the fitness freak mom, Bert Remsen is the annoying, paranoid grandfather, Chad Allen is the all-American kid, Diane Franklin is the punk rock daughter. Graham’s gesticulation is hilarious. Woronov works great with the other actors. Remsen is fine. He’s all much, but he’s fine. Allen’s a decent kid lead. Franklin’s fine.

All the performances are fine. Whether or not they’re good is immaterial; when Allen’s solid in his scenes with an M–16 pointed at a giant slimy space monster, the importance is the effectiveness. TerrorVision very clearly delineates its limitations in the first act–being effective, within the budget, is more important than being ambitious.

Jon Gries is fun as Franklin’s metalhead boyfriend (with a lot of Ted Logan’s intonations and catchphrases). Jennifer Richards riffs well on the Vampira/Elvira monster movie host. Both Graham and Woronov are good, especially after they work up some rapport. Remsen’s nowhere near as funny as he needs to be as the survivalist gun nut.

The leads–Franklin and Allen–are uneven, both in script and performance. Franklin’s fine but not fun. Gries’s character gets all the personality, Franklin’s functional; she’s around to get him in the door. Literally. She brings him back to her house after the monster has been unleashed. But Nicolaou doesn’t write Franklin any personality outside the caricature (with one exception). It’s similar but different for Allen. He never gets to reflect on the events going on around, which turns out to be a smart scripting move. It lets Nicolauo use avoidance to ratchet up the absurdity.

Nicolauo aims for a fun spoof of a spoof and delivers. It’s silly, it’s gross, it’s fun. Maybe the strangest thing is how good William Paulson’s alien makeup is compared to the rest of the effects; in the midst of goofy alien gore, the mask for Paulson’s alien cop looks phenomenal.

It’s another one of TerrorVision’s many, often pleasant surprises. Nicolauo knows the film’s limits and he does a lot within the constraints.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ted Nicolaou; director of photography, Romano Albani; edited by Thomas Meshelski; music by Richard Band; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; produced by Albert Band; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Chad Allen (Sherman), Diane Franklin (Suzy), Gerrit Graham (Stan), Mary Woronov (Raquel), Bert Remsen (Grampa), Jon Gries (O.D.), William Paulson (Pluthar), Sonny Carl Davis (Norton), Alejandro Rey (Spiro), Randi Brooks (Cherry), and Jennifer Richards (Medusa).


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Bluebeard (2017, Lee Soo-youn)

Bluebeard runs just under two hours. The last forty-five minutes of it basically undo–or seem to undo–everything in the first seventy-five minutes. Writer and director Lee doesn’t want to answer the questions the film’s mysteries raise, but reveal entirely new mysteries with entirely new answers. With some exception.

It’s a shame, because until that point–and there’s a very definite point when Bluebeard jumps off the track–it’s a rather outstanding thriller.

Down on his luck, recently divorced doctor Jo Jin-woong moves into a crummy little apartment and discovers his landlords might be infamous serial killers. He’s not entirely sure about it, but more and more evidence comes to light, whether he pokes around or not.

Lee composes these wide shots, with fantastic photography by Uhm Hye-jung, where Jo finds himself reluctantly finding out more and more. Especially when one of the landlords, Kim Dae-myung, starts buddying up with him. There’s this palable danger, which Kim Sun-min’s editing helps with immensely.

It’s just a shame Lee’s script is, after that seventy-five minute mark, nothing but a combination of trite, predictable, and manipulative. Not even Kim Sun-min’s editing withstands the film’s plummet in quality. Uhm’s photography weathers it, though Lee’s composition quickly fails. There’s the first directing approach, the second directing approach, then an even more narratively ill-advised third approach. Stylistically, the second approach is bad. The composition, even Lee’s direction of the actors, which had previously been fine, everything goes. All of the newly introduced script elements, which simultaneously try to surprise and reveal, are a mess. Had Lee paced out reveals better, it might have helped. Probably not, just because all the reveals are inane, but at least Bluebeard wouldn’t immediately lose it’s momentum.

The script failures even drag down Jo, who’s excellent when Bluebeard is actually suspenseful and not a trite thriller. Similarly, the narrative eventually trashes everyone else’s performance, though Kim Dae-myung’s okay enough throughout. Lee Chung-ah suffers the most (besides Jo, of course).

It’s a shame Bluebeard doesn’t deliver on any of its many promises, though it could be a lot worse. Lee has many worse instincts and impulses, she forecasts them throughout the picture. After almost forty minutes of the film hemorrhaging goodwill and good ideas, Lee throws on an epilogue sequence in way of a bandage. It does slow the bleeding, but it can’t stop it, much less seal any of Lee’s later incisions.

Bluebeard shouldn’t just be better, it should be good. For more than half its runtime, it’s good; then Lee decides to flush it all for some manipulative, ostentatious reveals. She can’t direct them or write them, the actors can’t act her script, and Kim Sun-min can’t cut them into good scenes.

The film ends up a race to end before completely imploding.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Soo-yeon; director of photography, Uhm Hye-jung; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Jeong Yong-jin; production designer, Lee Soon-sung; produced by Cho Jeong-jun; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Jo Jin-woong (Seung-hoon), Kim Dae-Myung (Sung-geun), Lee Chung-ah (Mi-yeon), Yoon Se-ah (Soo-jung), Shin Goo (Sung-geun’s Father), and Song Young-chang (Jo Kyung-hwan).


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Quartet (1948, Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin)

Quartet opens with what turns out to be a questionable introduction from source story author W. Somerset Maugham. In the rather stodgy introduction to the film–featuring adaptations of four personal favorites from Maugham’s extensive bibliography–Maugham indentifies adjectives critics have given his work over the years.

Those adjectives prove useful during some of the film’s more labored sections.

While there are four different stories with four different directors and four different casts, screenwriter R.C. Sherriff handles the whole adaptation. The script doesn’t really affect the segments, since Sherriff sticks way too close to the source material for each of them. The cast and the directors make and break the segments, though the detached narratives–flashbacks in flashbacks in flashbacks–which might work fine in prose, clunk repeatedly on film.

The first story, boringly directed by Ralph Smart, has gentleman Basil Radford complaining to some of his chums about his son’s misbehaviors abroad. The flashback starts with Radford but then switches over to the son, the amiable if not particularly effective Jack Watling. The first segment gets the least effort in terms of production values–it’s set in Monte Carlo, where everything is inside save one hotel exterior (at night)–and it doesn’t help things.

Watling, ignoring Radford’s advice, tries his hands at gambling and womanizing. The woman in question is Mai Zetterling, who’s got a little more energy than Watling, but not much. The segment does move pretty, mostly because of their amiability, but it doesn’t amount to anything. It doesn’t amount to anything for Watling or for Radford.

The presupplied adjectives start coming into use as it winds down, though not the complimentary ones. Smart’s lack of direction doesn’t help at all.

The second story, featuring Dirk Bogarde as an heir to a country estate who just wants to be a professional pianist, has similarly unimpressive direction from Harold French. Quartet never takes the time to be stagy, though that approach might actually help given the reliance on interiors.

Bogarde’s parents, Raymond Lovell and Irene Browne, don’t approve of his career choices. Meanwhile cousin (Honor Blackman) ostensibly supports him, but really just wants to marry him.

The script and Bogarde’s performance get this one through, along with Blackman’s uneven performance being a lot better in the first half than the second. She doesn’t get any help from French, who ruins her best possible moment during Bogarde’s big piano recital by superimposing previous dramatic events on the frame. A few minutes later, Bogarde gets a similar opportunity and French (and editor Ray Elton) use medium shots instead of close-ups, sapping his expressions.

A clunky epilogue doesn’t help either. It’s back to those adjectives Maugham supplied in the opening bookend.

The third segment, directed by Arthur Crabtree, is a flashback in a flashback in a flashback. A narrator, who seems like it should be Maugham but doesn’t sound like him (and is uncredited), explains it’s a story his friend Bernard Lee told him. Lee is a prison visitor, someone who helps out incarcerted chaps and provides an ear or shoulder as needed. Lee meets prisoner George Cole, who’s in jail for a peculiar reason. Crabtree, Sherriff, and Maugham drag out the revelation of why way too long before getting into Cole’s story. Oh, wait, there’s actually a flashback in a flashback in a flashback in a flashback at one point.

Anyway, Cole’s in jail because he doesn’t want to support his wife (Susan Shaw) because she broke his kite. Why does Cole care about kites? Why would Shaw want to break one? A lot of it has to do with Cole’s overbearing, protective mother Hermione Baddeley, who thinks Shaw is a harpy. And Shaw is a harpy. And Baddeley is awful. It’s a story without any sympathetic characters, much less any one would want to identify with; it drags on and on, easily the lowpoint of Quartet, even if it’s better directed than the first two segments. It’s just grating. Intentionally so.

And its conclusion, presumambly straight from the source story, is downright asinine, which wasn’t one of Maugham’s supplied adjectives, but definitely should have been. None of the performances are bad, they’re all as good as the poorly drawn caricatures deserve.

However, Quartet doesn’t just save the best for last, it saves the good one for last. Not only is Ken Annakin’s direction immediately superior, there’s no silly frame for the fourth segment and it’s got the pacing, plotting, and production values appropriate for a film.

Cecil Parker is an obnoxious, anti-intellectual upper-middle classman with various responsibilities around country and in London, though he mostly just likes London because mistress Linden Travers is there. Unbeknownst to him, wife Nora Swinburne has literary ambitions. She publishes a steamy book of verse and it becomes a huge hit. Parker doesn’t have any interest in reading it until he finds out it’s about a middle-aged woman and her love affair with a younger man.

The segment is a delight and about the only time Quartet approaches its promised insight into the human condition. Parker is fantastic as the bewildered, stogdy boob thrown into arty conversations and–dreadfully–book stores. No one addresses the obvious contradiction–he’s complaining to mistress Travers about Swinburne’s possible adultery–but it still comes through.

Annakin’s direction, focusing on Parker’s subdued but increasing outrage, is great. Travers is good, if underutilized. There’s a fun Ernest Thesiger cameo. And Swinburne, while she has the tale more worth telling, is good.

It almost saves Quartet, at least, as much as it could be saved after three lackluster–though reasonably well-paced–segments. But then there’s Maugham again, offering a parting thought or two to the viewer. Maybe if he had any insight into the film and its adaptations, but it doesn’t even seem like he’s seen them.

Maybe he got bored during the Crabtree directed one and gave up.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin; screenplay by R.C. Sherriff, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham; directors of photography, Reginald H. Wyer and Ray Elton; edited by Jean Barker and A. Charles Knott; music by John Greenwood; produced by Antony Darnborough; released by General Film Distributors.

Starring Jack Watling (Nicky), Mai Zetterling (Jeanne), Basil Radford (Henry Garnet), Dirk Bogarde (George Bland), Honor Blackman (Paula), Raymond Lovell (Sir Frederick Bland), Irene Browne (Lady Bland), Françoise Rosay (Lea Makart), George Cole (Herbert Sunbury), Hermione Baddeley (Beatrice Sunbury), Mervyn Johns (Samuel Sunbury), Susan Shaw (Betty Baker), Bernard Lee (Prison Visitor), Cecil Parker (Colonel Peregrine), Nora Swinburne (Mrs. Peregrine), Linden Travers (Daphne), and Ernest Thesiger (Henry Dashwood).


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