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Rancid Popcorn

Euro Stairs Of Horror! #9

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The Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay
(Bruno Gantillon, 1971)

Rummaging Through Life #5

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“Actor Boris Karloff pictured above birthday cake full of candles re the 150th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein.”

Date taken: 1968
Photographer: Dmitri Kessel

MIA On R1 DVD #9

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Herbert Ross, 1976)

An ugly fullscreen version of this, no doubt recycled from the similarly ugly laserdisc transer, was released about a decade ago by Image. It fairly quickly went out of print and has remained there these many years since. Used copies routinely go for at or near $100 (I think I got $80-something for mine). The British market came to the rescue about a year ago with a proper 1.85×1 ratio, much-improved transfer. Yet another reason to be multi-standard. It’s available now at Amazon UK, or any number of other international-shipping UK-based reatailers, and can be had for something like ten bucks.

The film itself is lots of fun for even a passing Sherlock fan, and rather star-studded once you get past Nicol Williamson in the lead. Laurence Olivier is his typical hammy self in the smallish part of Moriarty, Vanessa Redgrave is the distressed damsel whose red hair turns even Holmes’ head, and Alan Arkin makes an estimable showing as Sigmund Freud. Robert Duvall’s Watson is the memory most folks seem to walk away with – his strange accent is both annoying and unforgettable, sounding like a 45 RPM recording of someone with a head cold played at 33 1/3. Williamson’s drug-addled Holmes is convincing enough, but his post-withdrawal characterization isn’t as alarmingly sedate as in Nicholas Meyer’s original novel.

It’s also unique as a big-budget Holmes film that mostly eschews London and indeed England – most of the action takes place in Vienna. It makes a nice change seen at three decades removed, but I can’t help but wonder if the studio (Universal) fretted over that at the time. Several nice set-pieces – I’m especially fond of Freud’s tennis duel with the nasty anti-Semitic Baron. Recommended, Meyer’s novel even moreso.

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Ghost Of Dragstrip Hollow, Daddy-O!

Ghost Of Dragstrip Hollow (William J. Hole Jr., 1959)

If you’re one of those people who hates on Frankie and Annette beach movies, just remember they were actually an improvement on the teen comedies that came before:

Also, Boo.

The Bit I Like More Than Maybe I Should #5: Record, Meet Match

Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964)

The William Castle Collection has been recently released on DVD by Sony, reminding me of a bit in Strait-Jacket that I enjoy to an indefensible level.

Joan Crawford – our Joan, All-American Joan, self-debasing as a first instinct Joan – plays Lucy Harbin, a woman released from the nut house twenty years after chopping her philandering husband to death. The film chronicles Lucy’s perilous attempts to reintegrate with her family and reclaim a normal life, free of axe murders. She’s still at least a little nutters, chipper and zestful one moment, nervous and depressed the next.

Any resemblance between this film and Psycho 2 is completely predictable.

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Joan happily taps in time to a dance record.

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She sashays over for a cigarette, bopping to the beat.

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She manages to fumble out a cancer stick, but fails to get a match to light on the cup in front of her. No matter, she slides back over to the record player…

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…and strikes it on the spinning record, knocking the needle off and stopping the music. She scarcely notices.

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Sixty-something year old Joan flashes a lot of leg at her visitor.

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Why not some knitting? While holding the cigarette? What don’t I love about this?

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Records, matches, ciggies, knitting. Joan’s a national treasure, and I don’t want to hear any more about it.

Just Five Shots #7

Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart, 1971)

The efficacy of Willy Wonka as a Halloween movie is underrated. It fits nicely with the season.

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Mock With Me #3: A Computer? Seriously?

Horrors Of The Black Museum (Arthur Crabtree, 1959)

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For the most part, Horrors of the Black Museum is not so bad. It’s not so good, either. It mostly manages to be rather tamer than it promises, and not a little boring. I’ve heard it said that declaring a film “boring” says more about you than the film, but I’m going to risk it.

It takes only a few ventures outside of Tediousville, usually for a short jaunt over to Awfulburg. These bits invariably revolve around lead Michael Gough hamming it up like Dan Aykroyd playing a drunk Santa trying to eat salmon through his beard in Trading Places. Obscure reference? Maybe. Fine, then David Caruso in every single moment of CSI Miami.

But it doesn’t start in Tediousville, oh no! It starts foursquare in the High Street of Central Funopolis! In the first scene, a young woman receives a gift in the mail from a secret admirer. She opens it to find a pair of binoculars. She tries them out, and this happens:

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Great stuff!

Then Gough rears his head, and it’s all downhill from there.

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He plays Edmond Bancroft, a hugely successful writer of True Crime books, and owes many of his paydays to pointing out the failings of Scotland Yard. He also curates his own personal Black Museum in the cellar of his mansion, a collection of crime artifacts that puts the Yard’s own museum to shame.

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With his assistant Rick in tow, Bancroft descends into the Black Museum.

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The camera pans and drifts through the room, showing us an impressive (or maybe just weird) collection of waxworks, torture devices, and antique weapons.

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Okay…

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Okay…

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Well, good. I guess this really is a nice collection. Say, what’s that they’re coming to on the right side? Must be fuse boxes or part of the furnace for the house or something…

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Oh, it’s just a wall-length ENIAC-esque computer. What the what the WHAT THE???

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Bancroft: You know Rick, the Black Museum at Scotland Yard is not really selective. A great deal of clutter. A meager little collection of guns and knives. Trunks in which hacked-up bodies were shipped. Death masks, ropes and neckties in strangulations. All in all, a dead collection that belongs to the past. But mine is alive. It not only pays tribute to the past, but it’s part of the present. And with the new electronic equipment, the future too.

Rick: Yes, I know.

And that’s it. That’s all the explanation we get. Later on, Bancroft and Rick are seen staring at the machines, reading dials and oscilloscopes as if it means a good goddamn thing:

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This is a great example of 50s/60s film and television writers not having the slightest little clue what computers do or how they might work. I can only imagine the characters think the computer is inventing new ways to murder. It masquerades as science, but the understanding of the creators is so inadequate they are forced to treat it as magic. Rather than ouija boards and crystal balls, they consult meters and such. Either way, it’s visual gobbledegook.

As they stare seriously at their machinery (one can only boggle trying to guess what Gough thinks he’s portraying), they are interrupted by Bancroft’s M.D., who has figured out that he’s the murderer and is going to make a citizen’s arrest or some silly thing. Bancroft maneuvers him in between two banks of the equipment:

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Hooray, it electrocutes people! Now that’s the crime of the future!

Look, I stand second to no one in my appreciation of truly awful Michael Gough performances, and I say that almost totally irony-free. But it’s enough. We can get all the guilty pleasure we need from his almost Shatner-esque adventures in cadence and punctuation – adding this giant electronic prop that not one person involved in the production understands is just gilding the lily.

Let the artist work his bad acting magic. Don’t crowd him out with bad props!

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Mouse On Cat Violence #6

The Two Mouseketeers (1951)

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The Tim Burtonization Of Ralph Lauren

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My wife Lori’s contribution to the Ralph Lauren/Fillipa Hamilton controversy.

Chandu The Magician

Chandu The Magician (Marcel Varnel and William Cameron Menzies, 1932)

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This was released last year on DVD in the “Fox Horror Classics vol 2” box. Fox knows that slapping “Horror” on the cover sells pretty well, which must be why they think they can get away with two out of three titles in that box having no particular horror elements at all. Dragonwyck, with Gene Tierney, is also in the box and no sort of horror movie. Yes, Vincent Price is in it, but that doesn’t make it a horror movie – he was in Song of Bernadette ferchrissakes, and that’s no horror movie unless the entire idea of organized religion gives you the shakes.

In the same manner, Chandu The Magician is not a horror movie, it just has Bela Lugosi as a villain. I guess for some folks that’s close enough. What we actually have here is an adventure movie, a proto-superhero movie. This is a link in the chain that leads to Spider-Man and Iron Man and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Chandu is Frank Chandler, an American trained as a yogi, whose skills are mostly (but evidently not entirely) based on powerful and immediate hypnotism. There is a long line of these swami-like mystic/magician characters emerging from the pulps, mostly taking up pages in the comics – Mandrake the Magician, Sargon the Sorcerer, Ibis, The Green Lama, culminating for practical purposes with Marvel’s Doctor Strange. I can’t quite figure out who Chandu’s antecedents are, however – he predates all of these. He arrives on radio a couple years after The Shadow appears in print, but The Shadow’s “power to cloud men’s minds” didn’t become part of the character until several years later – in ’32, he was an unpowered do-gooder using bad guy techniques. Thirties and forties adventure fiction all seems like a ripoff of one thing or another – I’d be curious to know who Chandu’s creator was ripping from.

The film is a triumph for co-director/art director William Cameron Menzies, who employs every special effect technique of the time, one after the other – mattes to suggest space, double exposures, cunning miniatures, opticals – everything. He frequently makes a relatively cheap film look like it cost a fortune. Menzies is one of the great figures of pre-war film technique, and his genius gets a nice showcase in these snappy 72 minutes.

Bela Lugosi, also, is on top of his game. Bela’s time as a true movie star was short, but this is right in his glory days – he’s still physically fit, he sells his megalomania character Roxor unashamedly, he preens and spins and oils and rages and gasps and gives the whole thing a great thrust that Edmund Lowe as Chandu simply can’t.

Lowe’s not at all a bad actor of the time, he’s just clearly better suited to drawing room theater or character parts – adventure heroics are not for him or his paunch.

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A mysterious eastern monastery, a.k.a. a Menzies miniature.

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Within these walls a ceremony is held, conferring upon Frank Chandler the rank of Yogi. He is now to be known as Chandu.

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Edmund Lowe.

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The hypnotic eyes of Chandu!

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Chandu celebrates his graduation with a few parlor tricks. First up, the ol’ rising rope gimmick…

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Followed by some astral projection…

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And finishing up with some good solid firewalking.

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Following this, Chandu’s master fires up the crystal ball and shows Chandu a great evil brewing, and gives him an assignment. Think the scene near the top of most Bond films where M briefs Bond on the villain du jour and sends him off with license to kill.

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The ball clears to reveal Roxor, Egyptian madman! With Hungarian accept app installed!

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The crystal continues, showing Chandu’s brother in law, Robert Regent, at work in a laboratory. It’s mad scientist stuff, filled with inserts of flashing, whirring equipment pretty clearly of the Frankenstein art direction school.

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And what is Regent inventing? Why it’s a Death Ray! Capable of obliterating cities at a stroke around the globe.

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Success! I have to confess I was not understanding the film as I was meant to at this point. Regent is totally vibing evil mad scientist, what with the secret Egyptian lab, the gleeful exultatation at inventing a Death Ray, and then having the idea to actually call it a Death Ray. Bad dude, right? Nope. Turns out he had no idea that investing years in researching and perfecting a Death Ray (Death Ray!) might be a good news/bad news thing.

These science nerds. I tell ya what.

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No sooner is the Death Ray (Death Ray! Jeez!) successfully tested than Roxor’s minions bust in and make off with Regent and his invention. Roxor, you see wants to visit devastation to all and sundry who do not kneel down before him and worship him as their God. He’s not real flexible on this.

So, this is all awful and must be stopped, and kharma has picked Chandu to be the agent to deal with it, because his family is both partly responsible and also threatened. He must get to Egypt before the rest of his sister’s family is endangered by Roxor.

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Too late.

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“Hi Uncle Frank! What are you doing here in Egypt? Golly, are you really a full-fledged Yogi now? Can we go to Baskin Robbins to celebrate?”

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Enter Princess Nadji. She’s come to parley with Roxor for him to, y’know, not visit a holocaust upon them. She’s Chandu’s love interest in this thing. I had assumed it was just for this story, since it takes place in her principality, but the most casual of research shows she’s in pretty much the entire run of radio adventures as well, no matter where they’re set.

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Just your everyday humdrum Egyptian den of iniquity. Naturally Roxor operates out of here. Think Tony Soprano in the back room at the Bing

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Lugosi works his charm. Nadji is played by Irene Ware in her first screen credit. She’d also experience Bela’s charm playing opposite him in The Raven a couple years later.

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Herbert Mundin plays a drunk named Miggles, Frank Chandler’s orderly in the military, and who just wonder of wonders is kicking around the desert with nothing much to do. Chandu hires him to handle the light comedy, on the condition that he not drink. Chandu hypnotizes him so that every time he drinks, he will see this mini-version of himself who will take him to task for it. Mundin did plenty of character work but I recognize him as Much the (middleaged) Miller’s Son in the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood.

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There are a bunch of these scenes where Chandu plights his eternal troth to the Princess. He gets all gooey and swoony and his accent threatens to go all mid-atlantic on us. I don’t buy it any more than I would buy his protestation of love for the wicker chair over his shoulder. These scenes are timekilling drama suckers. They make the Baby Jesus cry.

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This may not look like much of anything as a still, but I wanted to call attention to this sequence all the same. This is the interior of Roxor’s mountain lair (one thing’s for sure, Roxor’s got lairs coming out his ears – city lairs, desert lairs, timeshare by the lake lairs, etc). This begins a shot, that I assume is miniature, of the camera careening down the hall at breakneck speed, nearly crashing into dead ends before taking a series of violent 90 degree turns. It’s sort of like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, culminating with a tip-down overhead of Roxor’s lab where the Death Ray has been set up. Kudos to Menzies.

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Chandu n’ pals scale the mountain and try and find their way in. Nothing happens in the scenes that immediately follow that I don’t totally love.

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Chandu finds the trick entrance, swinging Miggles out over certain death. “Put…The Candle…Back!”

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Miggles’ POV of what lies beneath – the bones of those who have fallen or been tossed overboard before. Y’know, when we think of Precodes, we mostly think of all the banned moments of naughtiness, like Warner Brothers contriving to get Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck into their underwear at every turn, or characters talking about reefer. Sure the code knocked out those things, but it also did a number on a lot of offhand violence in adventure films. This makes me think of things like King Kong eating the native, or Tarzan And His Mate, with the gorillas throwing boulders down the mountain onto a line of coolies.

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Having gained entrance, Miggles takes a break in the passageway while Chandu and Nadji go on ahead. He rests his hat on the staff of one of a line of statues. If you can’t guess exactly what’s coming, you haven’t seen many movies, or at least hate Abbott and Costello. And if you hate Abbott and Costello, I can only conclude that you hate America.

Why do you hate America?

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“Zoiks!!”

There now, wasn’t that predictable? But the predictability is part of why it works.

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Reunited, the trio get tricked into a locked room with three sarcophagi. They open to reveal…
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…three armed Amway salesmen. Chandu breaks out the gestures and piercing stare:

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Rifles turn to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones, they hate snakes.

Okay, remember back at the beginning, how Roxor stole the Death Ray and kidnapped Regent, Chandu’s brother in law? The thing that made Chandu go to Egypt in the first place? All this time since, Roxor has been torturing Regent trying to get the secret to make the ray work, because it’s just not happening. Despite torture, Regent hasn’t told. Roxor may have all the dialog and slavering stares of an evil mastermind, but as a torturer he’s world class fail.

Not for lack of trying though, and now he’s on to another tactic – he’s not even in the mountain fortress Chandu is searching, he’s moved on to another town. He has kidnapped Regent’s teenage daughter and has her put up for sale to attempt to force him to talk.

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Remember a minute ago, when I was talking about Precodes and Joan Blondell in her bloomers and whatnot? Yeah, sort of like this.

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Dear old dad, forced to watch the auction.

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This guy is representative of series of crowd shots showing the sort of dirty, horrible street Arab bidding on her blonde virginal goodness. Or else it’s Eddie Constantine, I’m not sure.

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Chandu arrives just in time to win the bidding, disguised as a bearded old Arab.

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As he escapes with his niece, Roxor uncovers the deception and sets the crowd on them.

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Chandu creates a double image of himself to hold off the crowd while they escape. One man sneaks up behind the illusion…

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The empty burnoose hangs in the air. Priceless.

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Safe at Nadji’s boat, the reliably alcoholic Miggles goes in search of the liquor cabinet, only to find his imaginary friend and personal Jiminy Cricket waiting to hector him.

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Finally Roxor hits on a winning plan! Wisely surmising that Chandu’s strength is in his eyes, he has him attacked from all sides with teargas. Teargas is to Chandu as Kryptonite is to Superman

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All these screengrabs, and I haven’t done remotely enough demonstration of Lugosi’s totally in-character mugging. Here’s one.

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Because Roxor is an ultimate villain, he of course cannot simply kill Chandu, no no. The captured magician is shackled, sealed in a sarcophagus, and tossed into the Nile. If this sounds like the setup for a Houdini trick, you would probably be right.

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Meanwhile, Chandu cuts to the chase with Regent. Unless he fixes the Death Ray right now, his entire family will die. Trapped in a cell, the floor slowly drops open beneath them to expose a gaping pit. Regent finally gives in.

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Oh look. The magician escaped. What a…surprise. Chandu “swims” back to the surface, in one of the worst dry-for-wet, fakey paper seaweed shots of all time.

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“Me? You want me to possess the Death Ray and rule the world with nothing but the worst of intentions? You like me! You really like me!”

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Roxor has orgiastic visions of the violence he’s about to perpetrate. First Paris will be incinerated! Ooh la la!
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Next, London. How dare you Brits take over the Suez Canal! Oh, yeah, after this, I’m blowing up Suez!

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Down the barrel of a Death Ray.

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Just as Roxor is about to fire the weapon, Chandu returns, and is finally able to turn his hypnotic gaze on the villain directly. “My will is greater than your will.”

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Roxor stands motionless, aware but unable to act as the machine begins to tear itself apart. Our heroes run as sparks and flames pop all around Roxor.

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The handy explosion that neatly wraps up your standard adventure narrative.

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So that’s it. No doubt Fox expected to get a series out of this, but although not unpopular, it just didn’t go over big enough to try again. It’s hard not to blame the casting of Edmund Lowe. A few years later Chandu was done as a serial, this time with Lugosi moving over to take the lead role. Yes, that’s Bela Lugosi as American Frank Chandler. No problems there!

A Gallery of Chandu’s Fellow Travelers — Mandrake, Sargon, Ibis, The Green Lama, The Shadow, and Doctor Strange:

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Sargon

Ibis

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Shadow

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