April 22, 2012

Mr Movie Fiend: Tempting Providence

The Asphyx (1973)

Poster for The Asphyx (1973)
Death is scary. Despite being inextricably bound with life, it has vexed and mystified humanity for as long as we’ve had the capacity to reflect and to wonder. One almost ubiquitous constant in all this grappling with Death through the ages has been a belief in some form of afterlife. (Of course, the afterlife isn’t always reassuring. The ancient Greeks believed that the “shades” of all those who had died dwelled in Hades, which was not a nice place at all.  Today, belief in a literal hell is still very high in the U.S. Interestingly, according to one survey, percentages of responders who absolutely did not believe in hell rose steadily the older — and closer to death — they got. [Baylor Religion Survey, 2007]

Perhaps because of the uncertainties of the afterlife, the concept of physical immortality has similarly captured the human imagination, at least since the Epic of Gilgamesh. In an earlier post on Count Yorga: Vampire, I speculated that at least some (if not most) of the staying power of the vampire in popular culture is due to the innate fascination with being young, sexy and powerful forever. Lately, science has titillated the public with research suggesting that the aging process can be slowed or even halted, or that we might someday be able to upload our consciousness into machines.

The Asphyx (1973) takes both the spiritual and material aspects of fascination with eternal life and combines them into a very interesting, quirky and horrific morality play. The film is set in the late 19th / early 20th century, a period marked by the industrial revolution and an explosion of inventions and scientific discoveries that upended traditional lifestyles and man’s conception of his place in the universe. Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) is a man of contradictions: as a patrician country squire, he represents the past and a declining aristocracy; on the other hand, he is a relentlessly curious scientist who’s invented his own movie camera and “light booster” (a fancy name for a spotlight). He’s also devoted himself to psychical research, and possibly proving, through scientific means, the existence of life after death.

See the full post at Mr Movie Fiend. 

"The Asphyx: More than a myth... more than a maybe..."

April 15, 2012

My Movie Year: 1958

My Movie Year organized by Fandango Groovers Movie Blog
Organized by Fandango Groovers
This post is one of dozens put up today by movie bloggers who were asked to pick their favorite movie year and back it up with five outstanding examples. To see what years and titles other bloggers have picked, click on over to Fandango Groovers Movie Blog.

1958: Dwight Eisenhower is well into his second term as president; America's first successful satellite, Explorer I, is launched into orbit; Elvis Presley is inducted into the army; Pan Am is the first airline to fly a Boeing 707 jetliner across the Atlantic; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is born; The Beatles (then called the Quarrymen), have their first recording session; the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Nautilus becomes the first vessel to cross the North Pole underwater; the newly formed NASA launches its first spacecraft, Pioneer I; television gets its own patron saint, Saint Clare, courtesy of Pope Pius XII; Michael Jackson and Bruce Campbell are born.

1958 was not a great year for movie ticket sales. Throughout the '50s, Hollywood tried to compete with that nasty new kid on the block -- television -- with innovations and gimmicks designed to lure people out of their living rooms and back into theaters: 3D, widescreen formats such as Cinerama and CinemaScope, and even cheap carnival sideshow-type stunts like William Castle's "Emergo" (for House on Haunted Hill, 1959). In spite of all these efforts, U.S. domestic box office receipts declined from $1,376 million in 1950 to a comparatively paltry $958 million in 1959. Over the same period, TV ownership exploded from 20% of all American households in 1950 to over 90% in 1959.

One bright spot for the movie industry was the youth market. The decade saw teenagers come into their own as a potent consumer force. And one place they loved to hang out was the local "passion pit," i.e., the drive-in theater. While traditional movie theaters and ticket sales were declining, drive-in theaters mushroomed from under 1,000 nationwide in 1948 to over 5,000 in 1958. The industry responded with a seemingly endless of stream of drive-in, double-bill fare aimed at non-discriminating teens with some extra change in their pockets. While their parents stayed home and watched Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Gunsmoke, and an almost endless array of Westerns on their console TVs (7 out of the top 10 TV shows in 1958 were westerns), the kids were piling into Fords and Chevys and motoring down to the local drive-in to see cheap, entertaining stuff like The Blob, The Fly, Fiend Without a Face, Monster on the Campus, I Married a Monster From Outer Space, Frankenstein's Daughter, War of the Colossal Beast, and many, many others.

While I dearly love '50s sci-fi movies, and 1958 may be the most prolific year of all for these types of films, true greatness was also showing up in theaters that year. Of my five picks for the best of 1958, three are enshrined in the National Film Registry, two are on my personal top 10 favorites of all time list, one is a personal top 10 horror favorite, one is a top 10 fantasy favorite, and all are outstanding, memorable representatives of their respective genres. They were not the top grossing films of the year, but they have held up far better than the more popular releases of the day, and will entertain for many more years to come.

Horror of Dracula poster
Following hard on the heels of Hammer's wildly successful Curse of Frankenstein (1957), this second Hammer pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee revived interest in period Gothic horror, propelled tiny Hammer Studios to the forefront of the horror film industry, and cemented both actors' reputations as icons of the genre. The film's impact and influence are hard to overestimate:
Christopher Lee emerged from his earlier monster make-up [Curse of Frankenstein] to take on the role which would make him eternally world-renowned; his portrayal of Count Dracula would be so definitive that whenever people thought of Dracula, they envisioned Lee. His image, darkly virile and sexually charged, lips glossed with bright blood, virtually revolutionized the global horror movie industry. Peter Cushing played the Count's perennial nemesis, the eminent vampirologist Dr. Van Helsing, armed with crucifixes, garlic flowers and other paraphernalia of his rather generalized trade. Again filmed in opulent color, the film was far more explicit than the earlier Bela Lugosi version… [The film] remains probably the finest example of the classic Hammer style and combines the talents of the leading players and key production personnel who would go on to make that style world-famous. It has often been described as the best vampire film ever made, a fitting testament to its incredible initial impact. (House of Horror: The  Complete Hammer Films Story, Jack Hunter, ed. Creation Books, 2000)

7th Voyage of Sinbad poster
I remember seeing Jurassic Park in 1993 and simply being awed by the CGI technology that could bring dinosaurs to such realistic, terrifying life. In spite of advancements in the art, CGI fails to impress anymore, and the endless parade of sci-fi, fantasy and horror films that use (and overuse) it now tend to elicit yawns instead of wonder. Today's filmmakers make the same mistake over and over -- they think technology and special effects can compensate for poor scripts and mediocre acting.

7th Voyage was my introduction to the awesome stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. It was the 4th collaboration of the visual effects master and producer Charles H. Schneer, but the first pure fantasy project that allowed Harryhausen to really show off his genius. As a kid, I was as awed by Harryhausen's wonderful creations -- the Cyclops, the giant two-headed Roc, the skeletal swordsman, and the ancient dragon -- as I was later by Star Wars' battlecruisers and Death Star, and still later by Jurassic Park's dinosaurs. With its wondrous stop-motion mythological beasts, a fast-paced, engaging story, personable characters in exotic costumes, and a rousing score by Bernard Herrmann, 7th Voyage still enchants and delights, and is simply one of the best fantasy films of all time.

Touch of Evil poster
Genius is a word that's lost much of its meaning from overuse. But I think it's safe to say that Orson Welles was an honest-to-goodness genius, at least as far as film is concerned. It's one thing to invent a whole new film grammar with something like Citizen Kane (1941), but to make Chuck Heston believable as a Mexican narcotics agent? Now that takes true genius!

To make things even more interesting, we have good ol' Chuck to thank for this extremely worthy member of the Welles canon. It seems Welles was originally slated only to act in the film, but Heston, who signed onto the project thinking that Welles would be directing too, insisted that Orson take over as director when he found out someone else was assigned. The rest, as they say, is history.

From the long, single-take opening scene in the Mexican border town, to Janet Leigh's creepy encounter with the motel clerk played by Dennis Weaver, to Welles' performance as a shambling, bloated, corrupt cop, Touch of Evil achieves a surreal, dreamlike quality that both disturbs and fascinates.

Welles was not a happy camper before, during or after the filming (he didn't like the title, and he sure didn't like Universal's final cut), but that didn't affect the critics' ultimate judgment of Touch of Evil as one of the last, great noirs of the classic era. The great man's original vision, and cut, of the film was finally released on DVD in 1999.

Man of the West poster
This western was a sort of swan song for two very important men of film: it was director Anthony Mann's last truly great film, and it was Gary Cooper's last great role. It is mature and invigorating and examines some big issues in a very entertaining way: Can we ever escape the past? Is loyalty always a noble thing? What exactly constitutes a family? In film scholar Jeanine Basinger's study of Anthony Mann (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), she quotes French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who was single-handedly responsible for plucking Man of the West out of relative obscurity and establishing it as a classic of the Western genre:
I have seen nothing so completely new since-- why not? -- Griffith. Just as the director of Birth of a Nation gave one the impression that he was inventing the cinema with every shot, each shot of Man of the West gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is redefining the Western. It is, moreover, more than an impression, He does re-invent.
Basinger herself goes on to say:
The film, however, is something more than the usual matching of landscape, narrative, and character development. It incorporates the mythology of the western genre itself, and, ultimately the mythology of the hero. As if he were the hero of a Greek myth, Cooper makes a symbolic journey into self. He leaves the real world he inhabits and enters the evil underworld to confront the forces which would destroy him, forces which are clearly of and within him. He makes a journey with ghosts back into things buried and dead in his past, from civilization to noncivilization and back to redemption.
Man of the West is simply my favorite Western of all-time, and one of my favorites in any genre.

Vertigo poster
What was it about Jimmy Stewart that brought out the very best in directors? Some actors seem to pick and choose when they're going to be very, very good, and when they're going to be awful, but Jimmy was the prototypical reliable performer, and never disappointed. And for someone often identified with light comedy (The Philadelphia Story, 1940, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940), he pops up again and again in some of the greatest westerns and suspense-thrillers of all time: Winchester '73 (1950), Broken Arrow (1950), The Naked Spur (1953), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Rear Window (1954), and of course, Vertigo.

Jimmy's portrayal of the haunted cop John "Scottie" Ferguson is arguably the best of his entire career, and Vertigo the best of Hitchcock's films. With the almost perfect casting of icy beauty Kim Novak as the living ghost (fortuitously, Kim replaced the pregnant Vera Miles almost at the last minute), Vertigo presents one of the more bizarre and disturbing "romances" in all of film. In Hitch, The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (Pantheon Books, 1978), John Russell Taylor gets to the heart of Stewart's great performance, and of the film itself:
[In] Vertigo, the whole emotional situation is invested with a nightmarish intensity because its true nature is unacknowledged and its natural course diverted. The hero's passion for the girl in the second half of the film is perverse not because he continues hopelessly to love someone he believes dead-- bereavement is not such an unnatural situation -- but because he is incapable of reacting to a real, living woman until he has dominated her completely and transformed her, completely against her will, into the image of his lost love. In other words, he has chosen the fantasy over reality, and tried to transform reality into fantasy by the sheer force of his obsession.
We can't look away, because Scottie Ferguson's obsession has become ours. Film doesn't get much better than this.

April 3, 2012

The Fine Line Between Superhero and Monster

Hand of Death (1962)

Sci-fi, Horror, Tragic Lab Accident
If myths can tell us a lot about the people and cultures that created them, and comic books are a form of myth-making, then can we better understand ourselves by reading comic books? (Okay, even if you concede that comic books themselves aren't quite as big as they used to be, you also have to concede that they are still enormously influential in our popular culture-- witness all the recent movies and video games based on comics or graphic novels.)

To me, superhero comics (and by extension, the movies based on them) are the purest form of contemporary myth. The superhero presents us with the ultimate self-revealing question:  if you had the power (super strength, super speed, you name it), what would you do with it? Who would you be then? What kinds of wrongs would you right? Would you be in the service of the 1%, or the 99%? Or would you just use your powers for your own benefit, and start down the road into supervillain territory?

Just like real life, some heroes are made (Captain America in a wartime experimental lab), some are self-made (Batman), some are born that way (the X-Men), and some stumble into it by accident (Spiderman from a radioactive spider bite; the Flash from lightning striking lab chemicals).

Movie poster
Scientist Alex Marsh's fate in Hand of Death is the stuff of superhero legend, but the decisions he makes once he acquires his power turn him into a monster instead. Right from the very start, we know that somebody's gonna get hurt. A farmer pulls up to a remote country cabin in his pick-up to investigate what looks like a couple of dead sheep. Pretty soon, he slumps over next to the animals. In long shot, a couple of men in hazmat suits come out and carry the limp body into the cabin.

We quickly find out that neither the sheep or the man are dead, but temporarily paralyzed. Alex Marsh (John Agar) and his assistant Carlos (John Alonzo) quickly revive the farmer, who seems pretty good natured considering his close call. He tells them that he was fully conscious, but couldn't move a muscle. Naturally curious, he asks Dr. Marsh what's going on. Marsh brushes him off with the standard "it's classified government work" line.

Oh well, all's well that ends well. Uh huh. I realize it's 1962 and all that, but Marsh seems pretty cavalier about security and accident precautions at his lab. Back at the Research Institute in L.A., we're introduced to the head honcho, elderly, wheelchair-bound Dr. Ramsey (Roy Gordon), and the other two members of an awkward love triangle, Ramsey's attractive assistant Carol Wilson (Paula Raymond), and researcher Tom Holland (Stephen Dunne), who is competing with Marsh for Carol's affections.

After the accident with the farmer, Carol is worried about her boyfriend (and rightly so). But like all obsessed B movie scientists, Marsh is way too involved in his work to see the warning signs. He breathlessly tells his colleagues that he's on the verge of a breakthrough that will tip the balance of world power and potentially make nuclear war obsolete. He's almost perfected combining an hypnotic agent with a paralyzing nerve gas. Even after the armies and population of the enemy country recover from the gas, they'll still be in an hypnotic state that the occupiers can take advantage of.

Carol protests that Alex's work is immoral and dangerous. She cautions him that his mentor Dr. Ramsey ended up in a wheelchair by not taking sufficient precautions in his work. "That was years ago, they weren't as careful back then," Alex responds glibly. Famous last words!

After his accident, Dr. Marsh passes out and has nightmares
Those aren't visions of sugarplums dancing
in Alex Marsh's head.
Back at the remote desert location, Marsh's assistant is worried too. The mice they work with keep ending up dead. Obsessed with creating a weapon that might put an end to war, he dismisses Carlos' concerns just as casually. The good doctor should have listened to Carol and Carlos, or at least called in OSHA to inspect his lab, because that night, tragedy strikes. Exhausted by all the long days he's put in, Marsh falls asleep at a table. As he wakes up and stretches out his arm, he accidentally knocks a beaker over, and some of the gas escapes. Choking, he tries to stop it up, but it's too late.

He collapses on a cot with images of lab equipment swirling around his head (we see this through a simple double exposure process). When he wakes up, he has a huge hangover. Carlos shows up at the lab, remarking how it looks like Marsh has been out in the sun all weekend. Marsh tells him about the accident, and speculates that he's not dead because of the immunity he's built up by being exposed to very low doses over months of work. Carlos is adamant that they report the accident. When the obsessed Alex grabs his assistant by the arm, he discovers a new "superpower" -- the ability to kill by mere touch (aka "Hand of Death").

Comparison of Alex Marsh and The Fantastic Four's Thing
Pop quiz: which is Dr. Marsh after the accident,
and which is The Thing from the Fantastic Four?
Dr. Alex Marsh stands at that crucial juncture that all potential superheroes and supervillains face-- do I use my powers for good or evil? This being a very low budget sci-fi movie from the early '60s, he takes a third path-- that of a B movie monster. The death of his assistant was clearly an accident, and there's still time to redeem himself, but Marsh's brain must have also been affected, because he proceeds to soak the lab and body with gasoline and light a match to it all. He drives off as the lab goes up in flames. (Okay, so I acknowledge that using this particular power for good might present challenges, but considering that everything that he touches blackens and dies, he might at least be fun at barbecues!)

Over the course of next 40 minutes or so, a desperate Marsh inadvertently kills some innocent bystanders, seeks an antidote from his colleagues at the Institute, swells up to hideous proportions (with his skin turning black and cracked like a man covered by cooling lava), terrorizes his girlfriend Carol, and generally makes a mess of things. (The next victim after Carlos is a gas attendant played by Joe Besser, whose biggest claim to fame was joining the Three Stooges for a number of shorts in the late '50s.)

Two scenes particularly stand out. In one scene Marsh, now bloated and hideous, stumbles along a beach just outside of Los Angeles. In the foreground we see a little boy playing, as the creature comes ever closer. Marsh topples over in a faint, and the boy (played by Butch Patrick, who would later earn notoriety as Eddie in The Munsters TV show) ambles over to see what's going on. More curious than frightened, the boy tentatively reaches out to the unconscious thing, but is called home by his mother just in the nick of time (see the clip below). (The scene is reminiscent of the innocent girl playing with Karloff's monster in the original Frankenstein, although the outcome is happier in Hand of Death.)

Carol is confronted by a monstrous thing that was once her beau
A frightened Carol (Paula Raymond) tries to calm down
the monstrous thing that her boyfriend has become.
In the other effective scene, Marsh finds the beach house of his colleague and romantic rival Tom, where Carol just happens to be staying. Terrified, she hides in a closet as the grunting, moaning monster-man pounds at the door. After a few seconds, a misshapen silhouette appears at one window, and then another.

Here's something else that's amazing-- after doing this blog for over a year and a half (and posting dozens of times), this is the first time I've mentioned the sturdy, dependable B movie actor John Agar. In my post on The Colossus of New York I wrote that it seemed like supporting actor Robert Hutton was in half of all the B sci-fi movies made in the '50s and early '60s. If Hutton was in half of all those films, Agar was in the other half. John's short marriage to Shirley Temple after WWII earned him a quick contract with David O. Selznick. He started out playing supporting roles in a number of A-list John Wayne movies, then quickly settled into B westerns and sci-fi programmers (and of course TV).

Genial and unassuming, John is the face of '50s sci-fi for many fans like me. In the '60s and '70s, he showed up again and again on TV courtesy of the various "Creature Feature"-type movie packages, and provided hours of good, cheap thrills:  Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)… and the list goes on.

John was one of those rare actors who didn't mind being associated with low-budget sci-fi:
I don't resent being identified with B science fiction movies at all. Why should I? Even though they were not considered top of the line, for those people that like sci-fi, I guess they were fun. My whole feeling about working as an actor is, if I give anybody any enjoyment, I'm doing my job, and that's what counts.  (IMDb.)
Beautiful Paula Raymond had a long and rewarding career, mainly in TV. Her biggest sci-fi role was in one of my all-time favorites, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), playing a typical role for the time, an attractive female scientist / assistant.

Director Gene Nelson enjoyed a very interesting career in front of as well as behind the camera. I cover him in more depth in my post on The Atomic Man (1955).

Once thought to be lost, Hand of Death was unavailable for decades on TV or video. It shows its ultra-low budget in more ways than one, but it's interesting for a couple of well-staged scenes, the effective monster makeup, and some "cameos" by folks like Joe Besser and Butch Patrick. It's available on DVD-R from a number of sites specializing in hard-to-find horror and sci-fi-- here's one.

Davey (Butch Patrick) has a close encounter with the thing that used to be Alex Marsh (John Agar):