Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Note: Desuko Movie Spot is going on a brief Thanksgiving break. Check back next week for new reviews.

The Scoop:

The late 1940s was a bad time for monster movies. Maybe there was too much postwar optimism going around, or maybe the horror cycle had just grown tired from being around too long. Whatever the case, by this time the classic monsters of the early '30s were reduced to cheesy characatures bordering on self-parody.

Witness this movie, in which the classic Universal monsters (Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster, played for the most part by the original actors -- Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange) are nothing but straight men for Abbott and Costello's zany antics. As an Abbott and Costello film, this is worthwhile; it the duo at their peak, with some of their best gags. But as a monster movie it is abysmal. The classic creatures that once frightened and thrilled a generation are reduced to toothless caricatures -- and not by parodists, but by the very studio that created them, which was now desperate to exploit them for the sake of making a quick buck. The Universal monsters were already on their way down that slippery slope, thanks to the World War II-era "team up" films ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," "House of Dracula," etc.), but this production finally put the last nails in the coffin.

But the exploitation worked, and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" turned out being a huge box office hit when it was released. What's more, the film's popularity helped launch the comic "monster mash" craze of the '50s and early '60s, which provided great nostalgia for the kids of the era, but which also kept American horror film dead as a genre for two decades.

Horror wouldn't live again on American screens until a group of young maverick filmmakers from the indie underground came along in the late '60s and early '70s with such films as "Night of the Living Dead" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." But by then, the boogeymen of the American imagination would be very different monsters indeed. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man -- they all would just seem like distant jokes by then, thanks in no small part to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

Best Line:
"What we need tonight is young blood -- and brains!"

Side Note:
Vincent Price has an uncredited cameo as the voice of the Invisible Man at the end. Also, Mary Shelley got a writing credit on this one, ostensibly because it's based on her novel. (Um, yeah...)

Companion Viewing:
"Mad Monster Party" (1966).

Links:
IMDb.
Stomp Tokyo.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Friday, November 21, 2008

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

The Scoop:
This film from Nathan Juran (working from a script by Christopher Knopf and Robert Creighton Williams, and a story by Charlotte Knight) is basically a space age update of the familiar "King Kong" story, and it works very well.

This time, instead of an ape, the innocent, misunderstood creature is a large sulphur-eating reptile, called the Ymir. The creature unknowingly hitches a ride to Earth on the first spaceship to travel to Venus, then gets loose, grows to immense size and rampages around Rome before finally being brought down.

Ray Harryhausen's special effects work on the monster represents the peak of his career -- the viewer winds up caring more for the ill-fated creature than any of the underwritten human characters. Those human characters come from the '50s sci-fi tropes we all know so well -- square-jawed hero (William Hopper), bland love interest (Joan Taylor) and various concerned scientists and gung ho military commanders (including Frank Puglia, John Zaremba and Thomas Browne Henry). The writing and directing are solid, if unspectacular. All of these elements are merely in service of generating sympathy for the Ymir anyway, and it succeeds admirably.

While computer technology may have made stop-motion animation obsolete, the old style was by no means without charm of it's own. This movie is perhaps the best example of that lost art.

Best Line:
"Why is it always -- always -- so painful for man to move into the future?"

Side Note:
Some versions cut out the scene in which the monster kills an elephant, because it was considered too graphic. However, that battle is probably the highlight of the film.

Companion Viewing:
"King Kong" (1933) and "Mighty Joe Young" (1949).

Links:
IMDb.
BadMovies.org.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


Let's all stand around and watch the monster attack a farmer!


Ymir busts out of the makeshift science lab:


The entire film is available in installments beginning here:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bowery at Midnight (1942).

The Scoop:
More cut-rate, bargain basement shenanigans from Bela Lugosi, who apparently spent World War II hiding from the Nazis by making crappy movies no one would ever want to see.

In "Bowery at Midnight" Lugosi plays another criminal mastermind -- kindly university professor/soup kitchen proprietor Frederick Brenner, who moonlights as sadistic underworld kingpin Karl Wagner. The plot finds Brenner/Wagner and his gang committing daring robberies, usually followed by the double-cross murder of one of the accomplices. These accomplices then wind up buried in the basement of the gang's hideout (which features smudgy walls and a ridiculously huge map of Australia). There, they are eventually resurrected as zombies. Finally, there is a poorly choreographed gunfight and good triumphs over evil.

It's all pretty standard Poverty Row stuff, although the plot features a few more absurdist twists and turns than usual. As this sort of films go, this is probably a cut above the rest -- although that's not saying much.

Best Bit:
At first I though it was the fainting jeweler, immediately followed by the police chief's ridiculous pep talk to his officers. But then I saw the basement graveyard, where each grave features a little white cross with the henchman's name.

Side Note:
One of Lugosi's co-stars is the ubiquitous Tom Neal, who worked in lots of cheapies at the time, from the brilliant ("Detour") to the pathetic ("Radar Secret Service").

Companion Viewing:
"The Corpse Vanishes" (1942), "The Devil Bat" (1941) and "The Human Monster" (1939).

Links:
IMDb.
Apollo Guide.
1,000 Misspent Hours.

Take a Look:
There's plenty of soup!


The full movie:

Friday, November 14, 2008

Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

The Scoop:
It's a vampire movie! It's a kung fu flick! It's two bad '70s films in one!

What a shame it is when great movie franchises die -- and even a greater shame when the movies keep getting released after all the creative breath goes out of the franchise. This was the last film in Hammer Studios' great Dracula series (which started with "The Horror of Dracula" in 1958). In an attempt to come up with new ideas, the studio teamed up with legendary Hong Kong producers the Shaw Brothers and moved the action to China, where Dracula hooks up with an ancient band of ninjas. So, Van Helsing hires his own band of fearless kung fu fighters to oppose them.

The legendary Christopher Lee wisely opted out of playing Dracula this one last time (John Forbes-Robertson does the dishonors instead), but his long-time screen nemesis Peter Cushing wasn't so lucky.

While this may be a co-production of two legendary genre studios, the problem with "Legend of the Seven Golden Vampries" is that it doesn't even approximate the best work of either one of them. The combination of half-hearted Gothic horror and cheesy kung fu theatrics (complete with poor dubbing!) make this one of the strangest movies you'll ever see.

Best Line:
"In Europe the vampire walks in dread of the crucifix. Here it will be the image of the Lord Buddha."

Side Note:
The film was heavily re-edited and released to the American grindhouse circuit under the title "The 7 Brothers Meet Dracula." Many Hammer purists swear that this ruined the pristine artistic vision of the original, but really, this thing was doomed creatively from the start.

Companion Viewing:
"The Horror of Dracula" (1958) and just about any Hong Kong film you can find that has "Shaolin" in the title.

Links:
IMDb.
BadMovies.org.
British Horror Films.
E-Splatter.

Take a Look:
The grindhouse trailer:


Good thing the fight scene is taking place near a bunch of convenient wooden spikes!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Surf Party (1963).

The Scoop:
Maybe you like your surf movies to be set mostly indoors. Maybe you think Bobby Vinton makes a good swingin' teen surf idol. Maybe you're not a big fan of plot resolution. In that case, this is the film for you.

From director Maury Dexter and writer Harry Spalding, "Surf Party" represents 20th Century Fox's half-hearted attempt to jump on the bandwagon of AIP's success with the "Beach Party" movies.

This film is the story of three Phoenix girls -- Terry (Patricia Morrow), Junior (Jackie DeShannon) and Sylvia (Lory Patrick) -- who head to the California beaches in search of Terry's brother Skeet (Jerry Summers). They promptly get hassled by Sgt. Neal (Richard Crane), a Joe Friday-wannabe beach cop, and find out that Skeet has become the local ne'er-do-well. There's no time to worry about that, though, as the girls immediately pair up with some local boys -- Terry gets lessons from hunky surf pro Len (Vinton), Junior gets strangely clingy with pathetic gremmie Milo (Ken Miller), and Skeet sets his sights on Sylvia.

Milo wastes no time in breaking his shoulder by being stupid, while Len spends a lot of time giving Terry vague warnings about Skeet's shady activities. Meanwhile, Skeets spends his time throwing tame house parties, mooning over an old football trophy and setting the sedue-o-meter to 11 with Sylvia. Finally, Skeet's secret comes out when his sugar mama (played by Martha Stewart... no, not that Martha Stewart) shows up like a MILF ex machina to kick everyone out of the house. Skeet slinks out of town in shame (Sgt. Neal gives him a lift to the -- *gasp!* -- bus station) and then the movie just ends. What to know what happens with Len, Milo and the girls? I guess you're stuck waiting for the sequel that will never come.

And that plot seemingly takes more time to describe than it actually does to play out on screen. "Surf Party" checks in at a brisk 67 minutes, with most of that devoted to musical performances. There are two actual, real-life surf bands on hand (the Routers and the always-awesome Astronauts), but the rest of the songs consist of some of most un-surflike music you've ever heard. Vinton sings two of his signature syrupy ballads (one of them twice), DeShannon belts out a county-blues-gospel stomper called "Glory Wave," and Miller even gets in the act with some lame thing about seashells.

So, why watch all this silliness? Well, for one, because it is silliness, with more unintentional humor than most movies deserve. Also, there are those killer tunes from the Astronauts and the Routers. Just listen to those and imagine what a real surf movie looks like.

Best Bit:
Sgt. Neal visiting Len's surf shop to rant about the thin blue line separating law-abiding folks from total surf-induced anarchy.

Side Note:
This is the movie that was playing in the drive-in scene in "Brokeback Mountain."

Companion Viewing:
"Ski Party" (1964) and "Beach Party" (1963).

Links:
IMDb.
Jackie DeShannon: Music and Memories.

Take a Look:
The Astronauts rock the stodgiest house party you'll ever see, doing their song "Firewater":

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Body Snatcher (1945).

The Scoop:
Boris Karloff is at his best in this Val Lewton chiller (directed by the great Robert Wise), which also features a good performance from Bela Lugosi.

Based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, this is a loose adaptation of the Burke and Hare murders, in which a 19th century Scottish doctor (played by Henry Daniell) must turn to the unscrupulous grave robber Cabman Gray to complete his medical research. As is usually the case, things quickly get out of hand when the local graveyard runs short of corpses and bodies must be obtained by more nefarious means.

Karloff has never been more menacing, and he does more than anyone to carry the film to its exciting climax. Like all of Lewton's best work, "The Body Snatcher" is a humble masterpiece.

Best Bit:
That edge-of-your-seat ending.

Side Note:
This was the last of Karloff and Lugosi's eight screen pairings, and one of the best.

Companion Viewing:
"The Black Cat" (1934).

Links:
IMDb.
1,000 Misspent Hours.
American Film Institute.
The screenplay.

Take a Look:
The trailer (as seen on TCM):


Gray is a bad, bad man. (Warning: Not safe for dog lovers):

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Slacker Uprising (2008).

The Scoop:
Typically, new releases are outside the scope of the Movie Spot, but because today is election day in the U.S., we're making an exception.

Michael Moore's new film "Slacker Uprising" documents his national college tour in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, trying to register new voters and raise awareness off the issues at stake. To get the college kids involved, he offers a number of slacker enticements, such as free Ramen noodles, clean underwear and musical performances from the likes of Eddie Vedder, Tom Morello and Steve Earle. In his speeches, Moore offers the same viewpoints and passion we've come to expect from him, along with some stumping for John Kerry. (Of course, Kerry's campaign was ultimately futile and poorly-run, something Moore was able to admit in hindsight in the editing process.) The tour took place in the wake of the release of "Fahrenheit 9/11" so there is also plenty of reaction to that film, and to Moore's credit he includes plenty of conservative criticism as well.

But at 97 minutes, the message begins to wear thin after a while. The terrific musical performances help the time go by, but there isn't much diversity in the storyline otherwise. Still, the message is important, and there are certainly worse ways to spend 97 minutes of your life.

Now get out there and vote!

Best Bit:
Moore's promises to a group of Republican hecklers about the fair treatment they can expect from a Democratic administration.

Side Note:
Not only is the film available as a free download, Moore has also given anyone permission to stage public showings of the film, free of copyright.

Companion Viewing:
"Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004) and "The Big One" (1997).

Links:
IMDb.
The official site, where you can download it for free for a limited time, or order a DVD copy.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


The full film: