Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
November 2010

Monday, November 1, 2010
There's something odd going on here that doesn't meet the eye. And it seems to involve foreheads.

At the end of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra it was announced that idiosyncratic writer/director Larry Blamire's next project would be one called Trail of the Screaming Forehead (not to be confused with Bruce Campbell's Man with the Screaming Brain). Well, just as Kevin Smith had to make Mallrats and Chasing Amy before he could get to Dogma (which was first promised at the end of Clerks), so Blamire had to take a brief detour into mafia comedy territory (with 2005's little-seen Meet the Mobsters) before Trail could be illuminated in 2007. And thanks to IFC, which aired it this past weekend, I have now seen where that Trail leads -- to an invasion by alien forehead parasites.

It's tempting to put Blamire's recent output in its own category, for what came off as spoofery in The Lost Skeleton -- the stilted, overwritten dialogue, the wooden acting, the charmingly handmade special effects -- simply seems like the house style the more I see of it. Blamire also has quite the repertory company going -- all the better to deliver his stilted, overwritten dialogue as amusingly woodenly as possible. (Basically, if an actor was in either of the Lost Skeleton movies, you can bet Blamire found a role for them in this one, too.) And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the neat supporting roles he gives to genre vets Dick Miller (as a gravel-voiced bartender) and Kevin McCarthy (who's apparently gotten over his fears of being assimilated).

As for the lo-fi special effects, the parasites look like they were made by applying Silly Putty to the foreheads of those infected, although that description may sell the Chiodo Brothers' work a little short. After all, they're responsible for the hideous transformation scientist Andrew Parks (Kro-Bar from the Lost Skeleton films) undergoes, as well as the nifty stop-motion animation on the unattached alien creatures. (It's not for nothing that this film was a presentation of Ray Harryhausen's production company.) I don't know how long Blamire is planning on pumping out these low-budget epics, but as long as he does he'll find a ready audience in this guy. As one of his characters quips, "Oh, the imaginings of the fertile human mind."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010
I might have a little piece of your brain, but the rest of me is me.

Once upon a time, the words "Sci Fi Pictures Presents" at the beginning of a movie didn't automatically mean it was going to be a cheap-looking piece of second-hand tripe. Of course, this was back when the channel still went by the name "Sci Fi," which is why I was actually watching the first time Man with the Screaming Brain was aired in 2005. (The fact that it was Bruce Campbell's feature debut as both a writer and director didn't hurt, either.)

Based on a story by Campbell, David Goodman and Sam Raimi (who's credited as R.O.C. Sandstorm), the Man with the Screaming Brain is the jerky CEO of the largest drug company in the world (Campbell) who's in Bulgaria to diversify his business interests and hopefully smooth over his rocky marriage with wife Antoinette Byron. Unfortunately, during an ill-advised detour through Gypsy Town (which their cab driver, ex-KGB man Vladimir Kolev, warns them against), they cross the path of vindictive gypsy woman Tamara Gorski, who doesn't have to put a curse on them to spell bad news. Meanwhile, we're introduced to disgraced Russian research scientist Stacy Keach, who's working on an anti-rejection drug that will facilitate partial brain transplants, and his goofball assistant Ted Raimi, who gets to play both Burke and Hare -- that is, when he isn't playing around with his own robotic creation.

As fate (and medical science) would have it, Campbell winds up with half of Kolev's brain in his skull, which leads to several slapstick variations on the battle of wills between Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin in All of Me. (And that's not the only Martin vehicle that comes to mind since the brain transplants also evoke The Man with Two Brains.) About the only thing the two of them can agree on is their desire to get revenge on Gorski, which is shared by Byron, who also dies at the gypsy's hands, only her brain winds up in the body of Raimi's robot. (That's probably not what she meant when she idly asked, "Ever wish you could get a new body and start all over again?") No matter how silly the story gets, though, Campbell never directs his actors to wink at the audience. After all, it's not like every quirky science fiction/comedy hybrid needs that ironic distance to work.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010
I sense this is a night of foreboding and danger, somehow, at Cavender House.

Along with The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, Larry Blamire's most recent project to come to light is 2009's Dark and Stormy Night, an "old, dark house" movie pastiche that gathers the usual assortment of character types (played by his usual assortment of character actors) for the reading of a will and then strands them at the dead man's estate while a mysterious robed figure roams the hallways and secret passages knocking them off one by one. Actually, the nervous guests -- many of whom are of the unexpected variety -- have numerous things to worry about since there are multiple threats, including not one but two vengeful ancestors, an escaped mental patient on the loose, the aforementioned Phantom of Cavender and the Cavender Strangler. There's even a wandering gorilla who shows up from time to time, but he proves to be rather harmless.

Working in a completely different genre with its own set of ground rules must have been freeing in a way for Blamire since he downplays the stilted, repetitive dialogue that has been his calling card since The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Instead he gives his actors (save for Andrew Parks, whose upper-class twit utters a string of sub-Wildean witticisms) the kind of patter that was also on display in House of the Wolf Man, which makes me wonder what would happen if he and Eben McGarr ever joined forces. I expect the results would be most entertaining.

Thursday, November 4, 2010
You know, you ladies are lunatics. You're damn crazy!

For his second New World Picture in the director's chair, Jonathan Demme was assigned Crazy Mama, which came equipped with a script by Robert Thom (who also wrote Roger Corman's Bloody Mama and co-wrote Death Race 2000) and a starring role for Academy Award-winner Cloris Leachman. Not bad for a relative newbie, but Corman always was the sort to reward success (and Caged Heat was nothing if not successful) by moving his proteges up the ladder, relatively speaking.

The film opens in 1932 with an Arkansas farmer being shot dead when he fights back while he and his family are being evicted from their property. Twenty-six years later, his widow (Ann Sothern) and daughter (Leachman), having moved to California, are in similar dire straits when their beauty shop is foreclosed on by an impatient creditor (Jim Backus, whose role is somewhat more dignified than his buffoonish militia leader in Mitchell, which was also made in 1975). Meanwhile, Leachman's daughter (Linda Purl) informs her surfer dude boyfriend (Donny Most from Happy Days) that she's pregnant with his child and he insists on following them when they set out for Arkansas with the goal of getting the family farm back.

Their first stop, naturally, is Las Vegas, where Sothern finds a kindred spirit in an 82-year-old nursing home escapee (the scene-stealing Merie Earle), Leachman lands herself a high-rolling Texas sheriff (Stuart Whitman), and Purl falls for a greaser with a Harley (Bryan Englund). That they form a makeshift family unit that steals its way across the country is pretty much a given. What's surprising is how far these amateur criminals get before they start attracting the attention of the authorities (including Dick Miller as Whitman's deputy). Of course, that doesn't happen until they start going after bigger fish by robbing banks and staging a fake kidnapping. When a quarter of a million dollars is a stake, the cops are bound to take notice.

Throughout the film, Demme plays up the '50s setting by peppering the soundtrack with some golden oldies (which are supplanted by bouncy banjo music whenever there's a chase scene). Some of the dialogue also helps in that regard, as when Earle cries "I like Ike!" just before pulling the lever on the nickel slot machine she's playing. And Demme gets a rare crane shot (for a New World Picture, that is) for the reveal of a theater marquee that's showing Hitchcock's Vertigo and Mann's Man of the West on a double bill. I wonder how he managed to convince Corman to go for that. Maybe the fact that this film was produced by Julie Corman and not Roger is what made the difference.

Friday, November 5, 2010
We, frail humans, we are like animals. We suffer the laws of nature.

Ever since I first learned of its existence, I've had a perverse fascination with Walerian Borowczyk's 1975 film The Beast, but never made any effort to see it until now. A highly erotic take on the story of Beauty and the Beast, it grew out of an unused segment from Borowczyk's previous film, the appropriately titled Immoral Tales, depicting a woman in period dress being ravaged by a hairy (and decidedly horny) beast. No doubt Borowczyk felt there was more that could be done with the concept and so concocted a framing story set in modern day about an American heiress (Lisbeth Hummel) who is to be married to a French aristocrat's son (Pierre Benedetti) and the night before the wedding (to a man she's only just met) she has a series of erotic dreams about, well, you can probably guess.

Anybody going into The Beast looking for subtlety is bound to be disappointed since Borowczyk kicks the film off with a graphic scene of two horses copulating -- with a great many close-ups of their genitalia. He must have been quite fond of this motif because he returns to it twice more in the early going -- all the better to contrast the male horse's member with the sizable, ever-erect phallus on the title creature, I guess. But I get ahead of myself. There's much ado about the fact that Benedetti isn't baptized, which prompts his father (Guy Tréjan) to bribe a pedophile priest (Roland Armontel) into saying he is. Then there's Tréjan's eccentric, wheelchair-bound uncle (Marcel Dalio) who goes on about some sort of curse that the family is living under, but it's never quite clear just what it entails. Meanwhile, Hummel's aunt/traveling companion (Elisabeth Kaza) finds reason to become suspicious about the family her niece is marrying into, and Tréjan's daughter (Pascale Rivault) is having it off with their black manservant (Hassane Fall) every chance she gets. Too bad he keeps getting called away before they can finish.

All this is prelude, of course, to when Hummel finally beds down for the night. What follows is a sequence of five dreams -- broken up by cutaways to other characters and of Hummel waking up for no apparent reason -- that wind up taking up about 16 minutes of screen time. In them we watch as a dream woman (Sirpa Lane) -- supposedly Benedetti's ancestor -- flees through the woods from a ravenous Beast, losing her clothing in the process and, when she can flee no more, submitting to its carnal desires. Suffice it to say, Borowczyk doesn't hold anything back and neither does the Beast, which finally dies of exhaustion. Somehow this also spells the end for Benedetti, who is revealed in death to be quite hairy himself, with a claw and vestigial tail to boot. Proof that there are some things that are definitely worth learning about your husband-to-be before the wedding night.

Saturday, November 6, 2010
Scientific research often takes us into uncharted territory.

Before Battle Beyond the Stars was even a glimmer in Roger Corman's eye he acquired the distribution rights to an Italian space opera from 1978 called Starcrash, which was co-written and directed by Luigi Cozzi (using the pseudonym Lewis Coates). Having seen a number of contemporary Star Wars ripoffs (Alfonso Brescia's chief among them), I can report that Starcrash has a number things going for it that the others lacked, namely a half-decent budget for sets, costumes and special effects and some actual star power. Just check out this roll call: Marjoe Gortner! Caroline Munro! David Hasselhoff! Joe Spinell! Original score by John Barry! And Christopher Plummer as the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe! Sure, the results are campy as hell, but there's nothing wrong with camp when it's done right.

The script, which Cozzi wrote with producer Nat Wachsberger, is chock full of inane dialogue, some of which is lifted directly from its inspiration. (A prime example: "Let's hope this star-buggy stays together.") The main characters also have their rough equivalents. Notorious smuggler Munro is a distaff Han Solo and her navigator Gortner is a weird amalgam of Chewbacca and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Elle, the nervous robot policeman who's after them (and who's voiced by Hamilton Camp with a distinctly Southern twang), is an obvious C-3PO simulacrum and Spinell's evil count from the League of Dark Worlds is meant to fill Darth Vader's boots. That just leaves Hasselhoff, who fills the Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker roles almost by default, and Plummer, who lends a real sense of gravity to lines like "Imperial battleship! Halt the flow of time!" that they otherwise might have lacked. (For his part, Spinell chews scenery like there's no tomorrow, as when he declares, "By sunset I'll be the new emperor, and I will be the master of the whole universe!")

The ludicrousness on display in Starcrash piles up pretty fast, with Munro and Gortner being captured and imprisoned for their crimes, then almost immediately freed and recruited for a top secret mission to save the universe. (It seems Munro's services are needed because she's the "best pilot in the galaxy," not because she runs around the whole time in a skinny leather bikini.) As luck would have it, the three planets they land on have breathable atmospheres, which saves on having to stuff Munro into an unflattering space suit. The first is a planet of Amazons who ride around on horseback, the second is an ice planet (and a dead end), and the third is one that's populated by primitive troglodytes who promptly smash Elle to pieces and capture Munro, who is rescued by Hasselhoff and, when he is overwhelmed, by a lightsaber-wielding Gortner. But not to worry, kids. Elle is put back together (because "You cain't keep a good robot down.") in time for the climactic battle between good and evil, which is so chaotically edited that it's impossible to tell what's going on most of the time. Evil is vanquished, though, as it must be. And you gotta give Spinell credit: he goes down laughing.

By the time Roger Corman greenlit Forbidden World in 1982, space sagas had turned decidedly grittier, as evidenced by his 1981 Alien rip-off Galaxy of Terror. Co-edited and directed by Allan Holzman, who proposed that he be allowed to shoot something on one of Galaxy's still-standing sets (an offer that obviously appealed to the cost-conscious Corman), Forbidden World lacks Starcrash's star power (the only actor I recognized was a pre-Spinal Tap June Chadwick) but who needs stars when you've got an ever-evolving mutant prowling around a high-security space laboratory, picking off characters one by one in increasingly brutal fashions?

The film gets off to a rousing start, throwing us headlong into a space battle without any context (and without any payoff, either) before our lead, galactic troubleshooter Jesse Vint, and his robot pal SAM-104 are redirected to the research station on Planet Xarbia, where an "accident" has occurred. Almost immediately he's butting heads with the head of research (Linden Chiles), who keeps the full extent of their problem from him for as long as possible, and jumping into the bed of Chadwick's genetic engineer, who sashays around the station in a form-fitting outfit and high heels when she's not showering with fellow assistant Dawn Dunlap, who's somewhat distraught when her boyfriend (Michael Bowen) is the mutant's first victim. The balance of the lab's staff is made up of bacteriologist Fox Harris (a smoker with a hacking cough who is the key to defeating the mutant), security guy Scott Paulin (who, as Chadwick's ex, is quick to show his jealous -- and voyeuristic -- side) and token black guy Raymond Oliver (who dies pointlessly because the mutant needs to spit acid on somebody before it gets killed itself).

Even if the film is far from the most original one out there, it still gets by thanks to some creative editing (Holzman uses flash cuts at various points and even crosscuts between one of the mutant's attacks and Vint and Chadwick's sex scene). And despite Corman's insistence that he cut out the humorous moments, Holzman still managed to smuggle in a few funny lines of dialogue. My favorite is probably the one Harris tosses off after Bowen's mangled corpse has been discovered: "Let me know if you find the rest of him, will you?" And Vint is called "the best troubleshooter in the Federation," which makes you question the wisdom of sending him to a genetic research station since he claims he "wouldn't know a gene from a jelly bean." But the passage that probably got the biggest laughs when this film played in theaters was this one:
CHADWICK: If it is intelligent, have you thought about trying to communicate with it?
VINT: That's about the stupidest damn idea I've heard all day. No offense, Barb.
CHADWICK: Sorry I asked.
Translation: You're not getting any seconds, mister.

It's the strangest damned thing I ever saw.

A couple weeks back, TCM Underground showed The Boogens, a horror film from 1981 about strange, tentacle-armed, reptilian monsters that are unleashed upon a small mountain town when a sealed-off mine is reopened 70 years after the mining disaster that caused it to be closed down in 1912. Filmed on location in Utah, The Boogens was directed by James L. Conway (a television vet who also made the 1976 pseudodocumentary In Search of Noah's Ark and 1980's Hangar 18, which was among the earliest movies to be lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000) and features a quartet of fresh-scrubbed college graduates (sex maniac Jeff Harlan, his extremely forgiving girlfriend -- and future Sledge Hammer! star -- Anne-Marie Martin, electrical engineer Fred McCarren, and aspiring newspaper reporter Rebecca Balding) and a pair of mining experts (John Crawford and Med Flory) who are on the front lines when the title creatures do their thing.

Of course, their activities are largely kept off-screen, as are the creatures themselves, which is a good thing because they're not particularly scary-looking when we do get to see them. The tentacle attacks are pretty effective, though, and Conway uses point-of-view shots to milk the scenes of people going down into the basement for all they're worth. That said, he's not above a few cheap scares, most of which involve Martin's poodle Tiger, which is hated by pretty much all of the characters. (It's rather telling that nobody really grieves when it turns up missing.) So, not as risible as it might have been (after all, TCM did pair it up with the giant rabbit movie Night of the Lepus), but I doubt I'll lose any sleep over it, either.

Sunday, November 7, 2010
This thing is more than an illusion. It really works.

Have quite a few leftovers from TCM's Halloween horror movie marathon, so I'm going to get to work on them starting with 1954's The Mad Magician, starring Vincent Price and directed by John Brahm. Originally shown in 3-D to capitalize on the success of House of Wax the year before (this is why things like yo-yos, water, sawdust, souvenir programs and playing cards are periodically thrust at the camera), The Mad Magician stars Price as a talented maker of illusions for other magicians who decides to tread the stage himself ("I'm like the playwright who wants to get in there and read his own lines," he says. "I guess I'm just a ham at heart."), but is prevented from unveiling his latest creation, The Lady and the Buzzsaw, by his possessive employer (Donald Randolph). This is quite a blow to his fledgling career as Gallico the Great, but he gets his revenge by murdering Randolph in a fit of pique and, with the use of a latex mask of his own design, impersonating the greedy bastard. Things gets complicated, though, when the dead man's wife (Eva Gabor, who is also Gallico's ex-wife) comes sniffing around and Price has to start making additions to the body count.

Also gumming up the works are Price's faithful assistant (Mary Murphy) and her police lieutenant boyfriend (Patrick O'Neal), an early proponent of fingerprint identification, which is the key to cracking the case; rival magician The Great Rinaldi (John Emery, who takes on a most Satanic countenance), who claims the buzzsaw trick and also has designs on Price's next one, The Crematorium; and Lenita Lane and Jay Novello as a murder mystery writer and her husband who rent a room to Price while he's in disguise as Randolph (whose body has been eliminated in a sequence Brahm lifted from his 1945 film Hangover Square). Gallico posing as one of his own victims is the kind of idea that must have seemed clever at the time but turns out not to be so great in retrospect. (Kind of like 3-D.) Then again, as the title intimates, after a certain point the guy really is mad (and I don't just mean angry).

It's no longer sufficient to bring the dead back to life. We must create from the beginning.

This is where it all begins. With The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Hammer Films came into its own as a producer of horror films that touched a nerve with audiences. It was directed by Terence Fisher, who had made a couple dozen films -- many of them for Hammer -- before being assigned the task of helming the studio's first color film, and written by Jimmy Sangster, who only had one other feature credit to his name, the previous year's X: The Unknown. That was enough to convince the powers that be to give Sangster a crack at Frankenstein, and although his conception bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley's story, that's somewhat appropriate since, to avoid an injunction, Hammer's version of the creature (which is played by Hammer first-timer Christopher Lee) could not look anything like Universal's.

That's all well and good because the focus of Hammer's film is on the character of Baron Frankenstein, who is memorably played by Peter Cushing as a cold, calculating pragmatist with little use for social niceties, even when it comes to his impending marriage to his cousin Elizabeth (Hazel Court). He's on better terms with his mentor and colleague, Dr. Krempe (Robert Urquhart), but that's only as long as Krempe helps with his experiments. Even before his creature is complete, Frankenstein's mania drives the older man away, and once it's ambulatory all Krempe thinks about is putting it down again. After all, it's one thing to bring a cute puppy back from the dead. Giving life to a terrible monstrosity is something else entirely. Of course, having done so itself, Hammer was eager to keep the series going, even if the first entry ended with Frankenstein being sent to the guillotine for his crimes.

When it came time for Terence Fisher to make The Revenge of Frankenstein in 1958, Hammer could afford to build an actual guillotine (the one at the end of Curse having been only an animated silhouette), which Peter Cushing's Baron Frankenstein easily evades. With the world believing him dead, the Baron relocates to Carlsbrück and within three years has established a thriving medical practice that is very popular with the ladies (who know him as Dr. Stein) and a thorn in the side of the local medical council. One of its members is a young Dr. Kleve (Francis Matthews), who recognizes Frankenstein and blackmails his way into being his pupil, even if it means assisting Frankenstein at the hospital for the poor where he volunteers so he can have a steady supply of fresh body parts.

Their first order of business is taking the brain of Frankenstein's deformed assistant Karl (Oscar Quitak) and placing it in his new, much more pleasant-looking creation (Michael Gwynn). What seems like a successful operation at first, though, goes wrong when Karl's brain is damaged in a fight and he turns cannibalistic (a new wrinkle provided by returning screenwriter Jimmy Sangster). Of course, none of that would have happened if Margaret the do-gooder (Eunice Gayson) hadn't stuck her nose in where it didn't belong and undone the straps keeping Karl in place while he recuperates. This prompts Frankenstein's misogynistic side to rear its ugly head as he complains of "interfering women" (Elizabeth clearly dodged a bullet there), and when his true identity comes out his impoverished patients rise up and beat the crap out of him. Good thing he has another body ready and waiting to receive his brain -- and an able assistant to make the transfer. Hammer wouldn't return to the saga for another six years, though (and Fisher wouldn’t for another eight). Time enough for the scars to completely heal, I guess.

Monday, November 8, 2010
This is some kind of organized conspiracy. I know it and I'll find it out.

1960 was an exceedingly busy year for Terence Fisher as it was one in which he made four films for Hammer including The Brides of Dracula, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll and Sword of Sherwood Forest (the last one obviously a bit of a change of pace). Before all of those, however, came The Stranglers of Bombay, which was Hammer's take on the insidious activities of the Thuggee cult during the British occupation of India. The film stars Guy Rolfe as a soft-spoken officer who has been looking into the many mysterious disappearances in his province but has been unable to persuade his superior (Andrew Cruickshank) to launch a formal investigation. That changes when the British East India Company's caravans start going missing, but Rolfe is dismayed to be passed over in favor of a dismissive new arrival from London (Allan Cuthbertson) who's better at putting on airs than actually getting to the bottom of anything.

Fisher piles on the atmosphere to such a degree that you'd swear the film had been shot on location in the subcontinent, but that only goes to show how good his regular production designer Bernard Robinson was at his job. He also had a perceptive script (by first-time screenwriter David Zelag Goodman) to work with, and an excellent supporting cast including Jan Holden as Rolfe's concerned wife, George Pastell as the unforgiving High Priest of Kali (very likely the inspiration for the malevolent Mola Ram in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), and Marne Maitland (so effective later in the decade in The Reptile) as an overly obsequious Indian (which means he should be watched very, very closely). As if that's not enough, the film also finds time for a deadly standoff between a mongoose and a cobra. The most shocking thing about it is it doesn't look like it was faked. I'll bet the RSPCA was thrilled by that.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010
It's a bit quiet here after the hijinks at sea, but it has its points.

The Hammer Horror Series rolls on with 1962's Night Creatures, which was known as Captain Clegg in its native England. Written by Anthony Hinds and directed by Peter Graham Scott, the film stars Peter Cushing as the parson in a small coastal village that is thought to be a haven for smugglers and Patrick Allen as the captain sent there to investigate. The film opens in 1776 on the pirate ship of the merciless Captain Clegg, who deals very harshly with one of his crew members for attacking his wife. The action then jumps forward 16 years, long after Clegg has apparently been hanged and buried, and follows Allen as he attempts to ferret out the smugglers among Cushing's parishioners. That Cushing is their ringleader shouldn't be much of a surprise, but how the men clandestinely conduct their business is most clever indeed.

In addition to Cushing and Allen, the cast includes Oliver Reed (just coming off playing the title role in The Curse of the Werewolf as the indolent squire's son who has sights on barmaid Yvonne Romain, Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper as a cheerful coffin maker, and Sydney Bromley as an informant who doesn't get the chance to do much informing after the Marsh Phantoms get him. Naturally the most striking sequences in the film are the ones involving the Phantoms, who appear as skeleton figures on horseback. Apart from that, the horror elements are rather minimal, but the action is so well-handled that this isn't an issue. Of course, now I'm sufficiently curious about The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, an adaptation of the same story produced by Disney in 1963 with Patrick McGoohan in the leading role. Like Cushing, McGoohan is the sort of actor who's worth seeing in just about anything.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Who could have done this evil thing?

Chronologically, the last film in The Hammer Horror Series is 1964's The Evil of Frankenstein, which saw Peter Cushing return to the title role for the first time in six years, but this time directing duties were turned over to Hammer second-stringer Freddie Francis. (Not to sell Francis short, but this was only his third film for Hammer and his fifth in the director's chair, period.) Perhaps that's why it has almost no continuity -- despite the fact that it was written by Anthony Hinds -- with the earlier films in the series. The Baron still has an assistant named Hans (Sandor Eles) but it's an entirely different character (not to mention actor) and there's no mention at all of the thriving London medical practice of Dr. Franck, which was where he was set up at the end of The Revenge of Frankenstein. There's even a point where Frankenstein sits Hans down and goes into an extended flashback about the creation of his first creature, which looks a lot like Karloff's monster this time around. (Hooray for licensing deals!) As to how that all worked out, he says, "I was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer and working against God." Fair enough.

Anyway, Frankenstein returns to his hometown to set up shop in his abandoned chateau, which has been ransacked in his absence, and through circumstances too involved to get into finds his creation (Kiwi Kingston) frozen in ice in a cave when he and Hans take shelter from a storm. Accompanied by a red-haired deaf-mute (Katy Wild), they lug the lifeless creature back to the chateau and revive it, but its brain is unresponsive. Refusing to give up on it, Frankenstein employs a carnival hypnotist named Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe), which turns out to be a bad idea when the perpetually drunk Zoltan starts sending the creature into town -- and I don't mean for bread and eggs. Naturally Frankenstein is less than pleased when he learns about these nocturnal outings and even less so when Zoltan sics the creature on its own creator. I'm pretty sure there's something Oedipal about that. No wonder the Baron decided that next time he'd rather have a girl.

Thursday, November 11, 2010
Klytus, I'm bored. What plaything can you offer me today?

When I heard the news that legendary Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis had died yesterday at the age of 91, I knew which film I would be watching tonight in his memory: 1980's Flash Gordon. Sure, there may be more prestigious films in the De Laurentiis library (including two by Fellini), but this is the one I grew up on, catching it seemingly every time it played on cable. (It helped that my mother was a huge fan of the Buster Crabbe serials of the '30s, which the film attempts to emulate with some success.) And Queen's driving theme song (the version with all the quotes from the movie) was also in frequent rotation on the Clark family turntable since my mother had Queen's Greatest Hits. In a way, I had no choice but to be a Flash Gordon fan. It was practically hardwired into me.

Written for the screen by Lorenzo Semple Jr., who brought to the film the same camp sensibility that informed his work on the '60s Batman series, and directed by Mike Hodges, who needed to redeem himself after being removed as director of 1978's Damien: Omen II, Flash Gordon features lavish sets (built on the enormous stages of Rome's sprawling Cinecittà film studio), jaw-dropping costumes, and flashy special effects. What it lacks is a charismatic leading man, which is a shame because Sam J. Jones is certainly easy on the eyes. He just never seems to have a whole lot going on upstairs. Melody Anderson fares somewhat better as perpetual damsel-in-distress Dale Arden, but the film really belongs to the supporting characters, in particular Topol as the half-mad Dr. Hans Zarkov, Max von Sydow as the definitive Ming the Merciless, and Timothy Dalton and Brian Blessed as rival princes of two of his kingdoms. As malevolently decadent villains go, though, it's hard to top Peter Wyngarde's General Klytus, whose perverse relationship with Mariangela Melato's General Kala is only hinted at in the film, but the hints are enough. The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Richard O'Brien even nabs a nice cameo as one of Dalton's loyal subjects. Too bad he's not around for the climactic battle, but that's probably chaotic enough as it is.

I realize I'm barely scratching the surface here, but with a film like Flash Gordon it's practically all surface anyway (and those surfaces are all glittery and shiny). Anybody going into it looking for more than just a fun, campy ride is simply doing it wrong.

Friday, November 12, 2010
I'd always dreamed of being a superhero, but this was a nightmare.

I purposely skipped Kick-Ass when it was released in theaters back in the spring. I did not regret this decision then and I still don't regret it now that I've caught up with it on DVD. Based on the comic book created by Mark Millar, Kick-Ass was brought to the screen by director Matthew Vaughn, whose adaptation (co-written with Jane Goodman) doesn't shy away from the hyperviolent source material. For a while Vaughn even manages to keep the story (about a comic book geek who spontaneously decides to start dressing up as a hero and fighting criminals) somewhat grounded in reality, but that falls by the wayside as the title character (Aaron Johnson) progressively finds that he's in way over his head.

At the time of the film's release, there was a certain amount of controversy surrounding the character of Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), a pint-sized, foul-mouthed vigilante trained by her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), to help him take down a gang of vicious drug dealers. One thing I'll say is that the film noticeably picks up whenever they're onscreen (it probably helps that Big Daddy has a legitimate reason for wanting to fight the bad guys, even if his methods are decidedly more lethal than Kick-Ass's). And I guess I'm not all that bothered by Hit-Girl's profanity-laden dialogue because little kids cursing has been a staple of comedy since time immemorial. What troubles me is the extreme violence in her fight scenes. No matter how well-trained she is, I find it hard to believe that she can kill so many people so nonchalantly.

Anyway, the film also features Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the introverted rich kid who's eager to please his mob boss father (Mark Strong) and invents the superhero alter ego the Red Mist as a way of getting close to Kick-Ass. And Lyndsy Fonseca plays Johnson's major crush, a classmate who only hangs out with him because she thinks he's gay, little realizing that he puts on a green and yellow wet suit and goes out at night looking for trouble. (Now that's gay.) I'd say the film's biggest flaw is the fact that its central character is such a whiny ass, but then again, he is still in high school. One can only hope he'll grow out of it, but I doubt that will happen on the big screen anytime soon.

Saturday, November 13, 2010
We're looking for a mad and highly dangerous medical adventurer.

I'm eager to move on to other things, so today I polished off the back half of Hammer's Frankenstein series starring Peter Cushing. (They made one film without him -- 1970's The Horror of Frankenstein -- but it wasn't very well received so I expect I can make do without seeing it.) Up first was 1967's Frankenstein Created Woman, which was directed by Terence Fisher and written by Anthony Hinds and saw Baron Frankenstein going by his own name once again. This time, however, he's most interested in the transference of souls from one body to another, a process that he has to explain to his assistant (a provincial doctor played by Thorley Walters) in great detail. He's also aided by yet another Hans (Robert Morris), who saw his father go to the guillotine when he was a small child and has to live down his reputation as the son of a murderer.

As for the woman Frankenstein "creates," she's an unsightly lass (Playboy Playmate Susan Denberg) who is teased mercilessly by a trio of indolent rich twits who richly deserve what they get after Frankenstein brings her back from the dead (she drowns herself after Hans is put to death for a murder he didn't commit) and imbues her with Hans's soul. He also reconstructs her face, cures her deformity and even changes her hair color, which rather makes one wonder why he's mucking about with the secrets of life when he could be making a killing in private practice. I guess that sort of thing just wouldn't be in character for him.

The Baron gets off kind of light at the end of Frankenstein Created Woman, which stands as one of the most genteel in the series (there's hardly any blood in it at all), so it's inevitable that the pendulum would swing back in the other direction for the follow-up, 1969's Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Again directed by Terence Fisher, only this time with a script by Bert Batt (based on an original story by Batt and producer Anthony Nelson Keys), the film sees Peter Cushing playing the character with a much harder edge, imposing himself on a junior asylum doctor (Simon Ward) and his fiancée (Veronica Carlson), who runs the boarding house where the Baron takes up residence (posing as a "Mr. Fenner") after having to flee from yet another city. It seems in his mad quest to create life he doesn't care how many other people's lives he destroys in the process. (No wonder the title asserts that he must be destroyed himself.)

The film also features Freddie Jones as a professor who becomes the Baron's latest unwitting hybrid creature when a body is needed to house the brain of one of Frankenstein's colleagues, Thorley Walters as a blustery police inspector on his trail, and Maxine Audley as the distraught wife of Frankenstein's erstwhile collaborator, who is understandably quite shocked when her husband pays her a visit in another man's body. As for the Baron, he outdoes himself in this film, even turning sexual predator at one point, which is extremely out of character for him. If he was capable of making new life the old-fashioned way, he wouldn't have spent his entire adulthood stitching bodies together and performing brain transplants.

For its final Frankenstein feature, Hammer conjured up Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell in 1974. It was also the last film directed by Terence Fisher and once again saw him working from a script by Anthony Hinds, who set up Peter Cushing's "Dr. Victor" as the resident medical practitioner at an insane asylum where a haughty young medical adventurer (Shane Briant) is committed after attempting to follow in the Baron's footsteps. ("What were you intending to do with all these bits and pieces, sir?" asks the nosy policeman who, following a tip from body snatcher Patrick Troughton, pays him a visit.) The young man proves to be an able (and, at first, eager) disciple, but he begins to doubt his mentor's sanity when his latest project turns out to be a hairy, brutish Neanderthal (David Prowse, who previously appeared as the monster in The Horror of Frankenstein). Still, I suppose his selection was somewhat limited.

The supporting cast includes Madeline Smith as a mute servant nicknamed "the Angel," who is beloved by all at the asylum, Sydney Bromley as an inmate who believes he's God, and Bernard Lee (best known as M from the James Bond films) as a sculptor whose hands find new homes at the end of the monster's arms. We don't actually get to see that operation, but many things that were kept out of the frame just a few years earlier are shown in all their gory glory. (The brain transplant scene is particularly gruesome, yet strangely comical at the same time.) In a way, it's a good thing Hammer packed it in soon after this film's release. Any attempt to top it would have been pure folly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010
Looks as though he died in some sensationally unpleasant manner.

The Kryptic Army Mission for November deals with mummy movies, so I'm starting the day off with the grandmummy of them all, Universal's The Mummy from 1932. I've seen it once before, but since I'm planning on watching a couple of its follow-ups this afternoon, I figured it was high time I reacquainted myself with the original. The film was directed by Karl Freund, a noted cinematographer who had worked on such classics of German cinema as 1920's The Golem and Fritz Lang's Metropolis and had distinguished himself in Universal's eyes by photographing Dracula the year before. No wonder they saw fit to entrust him with Boris Karloff's first major monster movie since Frankenstein.

Karloff doesn't spend a great deal of time wrapped up in bandages as Imhotep, a mummy which is discovered by a field expedition from the British Museum in 1921, but when the action picks up 11 years later and he reappears as Ardath Bey he shows himself to be a formidable and powerful adversary. He's also very single-minded, seeking to recover the sacred Scroll of Thoth, with which he hopes to revive an Egyptian princess, and then pursuing her half-Egyptian reincarnation (Zita Johann). Standing in his way is her love interest David Manners, his archaeologist father Arthur Byron (who was present when Imhotep's tomb was uncovered and hasn't set foot in Egypt since), and Viennese occult expert Edward Van Sloan (who essentially reprises his Van Helsing role from Dracula). The result may not be the most energetic mummy movie around, but it set the standard for all that came after...

The moon rides high in the sky again, Kharis. There is death in the night air.

Universal took its sweet time producing a follow-up to 1932's The Mummy and when it did in 1940 it was not strictly speaking a sequel to the earlier film (even if it does feature a fair amount of footage from it in the opening flashback). Rather, The Mummy's Hand is about a completely different mummy named Kharis (Tom Tyler) whose tongue is cut out before he's wrapped up and buried alive to save on having to write dialogue for him. Rather, the villain of the piece is high priest George Zucco, who uses Kharis to protect the tomb of Ananka. He also knows the secret of the tana leaves that keep Kharis well-oiled and ambulatory when he needs to be. (As to why the mummy's activities are tied to the cycle of the full moon, I couldn't tell you.)

At any rate, Dick Foran stars as a determined young archaeologist, with Wallace Ford as his comic-relief sidekick, who seeks Ananka's tomb in the Hill of the Seven Jackals but can get no funding out of the Cairo Museum because Zucco, in his day job as a professor, blocks his request. That's where love interest Peggy Moran comes in since she's the daughter of stage magician Cecil Kellaway, who ultimately agrees to finance the expedition. It probably goes without saying that it runs into a few problems along the way, but director Christy Cabanne keeps things chugging along fairly briskly. This is a good thing since the film is barely over an hour, but it's an epic compared to the sequel...

That would be 1942's The Mummy's Tomb, which was directed by Harold Young and opens with a full ten minutes of flashbacks to The Mummy's Hand. When that's subtracted from the scant 61-minute running time there's only about 50 minutes of new footage to be had. Can you say "total gyp"? I knew you could. Audiences probably also felt cheated by Lon Chaney, Jr.'s star billing since he plays Kharis and there could literally be anybody in the mummy's rotting bandages and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Chaney was the studio's horror star of the moment, though, so he got the job.

Returning from The Mummy's Hand are Dick Foran, Wallace Ford and George Zucco, all of whom are made up to be 30 years older. Zucco only sticks around long enough to pass on his secrets to the new high priest (Turhan Bey) who is set up as the caretaker of a cemetery in the States so Kharis can carry out his revenge on those who violated his tomb. (Why this had to wait so long is not explained.) In the meantime, Foran and Moran (whose only presence in the film is in a framed photograph) have produced a son who's grown up to a doctor (John Hubbard) and is one of the mummy's potential victims by sheer dint of his parentage. And filling the role of the requisite damsel in distress is his fiancée (Elyse Knox), who fills Bey's head with bad ideas. (What is it about Egyptian high priests and their weakness for Western women?)

One has to wonder what Universal was thinking by shifting the setting to America. I expect it was meant to be a cost-cutting measure, but the sight of Kharis casually strolling through a small New England town only serves to make him look doubly ridiculous. Chaney couldn't have felt too mortified by the whole thing, though, since he donned the wrappings two more times in The Mummy's Ghost and The Mummy's Curse (both 1944). When the time came for Abbott and Costello to meet the Mummy a decade later, though, the role went to stuntman Eddie Parker. I'm sure audiences didn't even notice.

What reason is there to build a pyramid to hold a tomb if the tomb may be violated?

In 1955, the same year that Abbott and Costello met the Mummy, Howard Hawks had his first commercial failure with Land of the Pharaohs, a film that can be admired for its epic scale but is best appreciated on the level of camp. Co-written by novelist William Faulkner (who had previously worked on Hawks's adaptations of The Big Sleep and To Have a Have Not), the film stars Jack Hawkins as a pharaoh who loves gold above all else and is obsessed with the security of his tomb so he can be assured that he'll get to keep the treasure that is buried with him when he dies. To that end he charges a brilliant architect (James Robertson Justice) who has been captured in battle with designing his pyramid, with the promise that his people will go free when the work is completed. This is a massive undertaking, though, taking 15 years and employing a cast of thousands (one of the few times in film history that claim has been true).

Meanwhile, the pharaoh is besotted with a Cyprian princess (Joan Collins) who becomes his second wife and, once she's had a look at his treasury, desires it for herself. This, of course, requires her to do away with his first wife, an act that does not endear her to the high priest (Alexis Minotis), whose loyalty to the pharaoh knows no bounds. Suffice it to say, the way he makes sure she gets her just desserts is most satisfying. It's not quite on the level as, say, Imhotep or Kharis, but the punishment definitely fits the crime.

Monday, November 15, 2010
When you believe in something strong enough that you're ready to die for it, that's when you get it.

In light of the recent mining accident in Chile, it's only fitting that TCM would show Barbara Kopple's 1976 film Harlan County U.S.A., which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film covers the key events surrounding a 13-month strike by Kentucky coal miners who want to join the United Mine Workers of America so they can get higher pay and safer working conditions. To be sure, the workers eventually prevail against Duke Power, but it's a long, hard struggle and Kopple's camera is there every step of the way, even after the strikebreakers turn to violence and start shooting at those on the picket lines (who, it must be said, eventually take to packing heat themselves). That's what's known as putting yourself on the front line for something you believe in.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The band in heaven, they play my favorite song. Play it one more time, play it all night long.

This is what I would call a study in contrasts. Doubled up on the '80s concert films this evening, starting with the Rolling Stones in Let's Spend the Night Together, which I taped off TCM a few months and which just came out on DVD for anyone who didn't. Filmed at three concerts during the band's 1981 North American tour and released theatrically in early 1983, Let's Spend the Night Together finds the Stones filling an outdoor stadium in Arizona and an indoor arena in New Jersey (over two consecutive nights) and running through two dozen of their big hits and fazed cookies. The Arizona show sees them performing on a huge, pink stage where the band members seem lost at times (for some reason director Hal Ashby favors long shots over close-ups) and the Jersey shows place them at the center of the arena with a mobile drum riser, but even when the hydraulics are in motion they seem to be on much surer footing during the indoor numbers.

This was before the era of the Jumbotron, so Mick Jagger does everything he personally can to keep the teeming crowds enthralled, including wearing tight pants and frequently taking his shirt off. Ashby employs some bizarre editorial choices, though, shuttling between different performances of the same song and even cutting in completely incongruous footage (some of which was shot backstage, but there's plenty of other material that appears to have been shoehorned in at random, possibly to give the band members who aren't Mick or Keith Richards more screen time). This is especially noticeable during the closing number ("Satisfaction," naturally) since the main performance saw the stage and audience awash with balloons (which guitarist Ronnie Wood pops with a cigarette) that are conspicuously absent during some cutaways. I'm guessing maybe Ashby thought people wouldn't notice? Then there's the matter of camera placement, which appears to have been haphazard at best. I lost count of how many shots there are of people's backs in the film. I guess what I'm saying is some pre-planning may have been in order.

In contrast, nearly everything in Stop Making Sense, which Talking Heads released the year after Let's Spend the Night Together, seems like it was meticulously worked out months in advance, but this doesn't stop it from simultaneously feeling completely spontaneous. In fact, the joy in the performances is so apparent that everybody onstage seems to be having the time of their lives. I suspect this is probably because they were, and director Jonathan Demme and his crew were there (for a three-night stand at an intimate concert hall) to capture every note, look and gesture.

Stop Making Sense famously opens with David Byrne on a bare stage performing a solo acoustic version of "Psycho Killer" to a prerecorded drum machine track. From there the other members of the band (Tina Weymouth, Chris Franz, Jerry Harrison) are added one at a time and the stage is pieced together in full view of the audience while they run through some of their early material. Once everything (and everyone) is in place, the nine-piece band (that's only one more than what the Stones had -- and two of them are backup singers) concentrates on the polyrhythmic songs from the Speaking in Tongues and Remain in Light albums, accompanied by some incredibly striking visuals. (Every song has its own "look.") The end result is one of the best concert films ever made, if not the best. Anybody who's seen it knows I'm not exaggerating.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

It seems strange that it's taken me 26 years to get around to seeing Prince's film debut Purple Rain, but when it first came out in 1984 I was hardly in a position to see an R-rated movie. In fact, the closest I ever came to it was the music video for "When Does Cry," which aired on MTV with some regularity that summer. Unsurprisingly, I found that it appears almost intact in the film, which isn't quite wall-to-wall musical numbers but it comes damn close. And considering how overwrought the dramatic scenes are and how primitive the intermittent stabs at comedy ("The Password Is What" is in no danger of replacing "Who's on First" in the cultural lexicon), that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Co-written, directed and edited by Albert Magnoli, Purple Rain stars Prince as Prince-like musician The Kid, who fronts a band called The Revolution and is in direct competition with Morris Day, lead singer for The Time, for supremacy in the Minneapolis music scene. They also come into conflict over aspiring singer/dancer Apollonia Kotero, who hooks up with The Kid first but is actively wooed by Day to be in his new girl group. Meanwhile, The Kid has an almost comically fucked-up home life and a strained relationship with his abusive father (Clarence Williams III), who is nevertheless a brilliant pianist/composer. How much of this correlates to Prince's actual biography I couldn't tell you, but I doubt he ever confronted his father by saying, "I saw Mom up the street. She looked pretty bad. Any idea how she got that way?" That's the sort of line that only rings true to a screenwriter with a tin ear for dialogue.

If the film has a saving grace it is, of course, the soundtrack and it opens strong with the one-two punch of "Let's Go Crazy" and The Time's "Jungle Love" (later appropriated by Kevin Smith for Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). Other impassioned performances include "The Beautiful Ones," which Prince sings directly to Apollonia; "Darling Nikki," which makes her cry for some reason; and the closing trilogy of the title song, "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm a Star." Somehow I doubt the last one was ever really in question.

Thursday, November 18, 2010
Sometimes I wish we were a little more irresponsible.

My introduction to the comedic sensibility of Albert Brooks was his 1985 film Lost in America, which I didn't get to see until it came on television but that didn't blunt its impact one iota. As with many movies I saw on television, though, I somehow never managed to catch it from the beginning (this was well before I was a stickler about that sort of thing). As far as I knew, the film started with Brooks's advertising man getting passed over for a promotion and getting into such a snit about it that he gets fired, whereupon he convinces his wife (the wonderfully radiant Julie Hagerty) to quit her human resources job so the two of them can drop out of society, buy a Winnebago and see the country together. What I've been missing all these years is the great opening scene where Brooks wakes Hagerty up in the middle of the night to share his anxieties, not just about the promotion but also about the new house they're moving into. ("We sold our house," she tells him. "We should have asked these questions before.") I also have a better understanding of the scene at the end between Brooks and the man in the Mercedez-Benz now that I know Brooks was on the verge of buying one himself before his meltdown. As for everything that comes in the middle, well...

As for what happens in between, Brooks and his frequent co-writer Monica Johnson (who sadly passed away on November 1 at the age of 64) develop the situation beautifully, beginning with Brooks's ludicrous assertion that he's inspired by the movie Easy Rider (which explains why Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" kicks in on the soundtrack when he and Hagerty leave the Los Angeles city limits). The centerpiece of the film, of course, is the couple's ill-advised stop in Las Vegas, ostensibly to renew their wedding vows, but mostly so Hagerty can gamble away their $145K nest egg in a matter of hours. Brooks's subsequent blowup at the Hoover Dam is simultaneously the funniest and the angriest he's ever been on film. (His scene with casino manager Garry Marshall, where he's more controlled, is also a pip.) Suffice it to say, when the two of them reach the end of the road in an Arizona trailer park ("My legs are tired; let's live here."), it's only a matter of time before they decide to be upwardly mobile again.

Friday, November 19, 2010
Get lost and stay lost.

Spent the weekend attending the 2010 Dark Carnival Film Festival, which has been held in Bloomington for the past four years running and shows no signs of stopping. The emphasis is on shorts, with the majority of the 35 films shown running well under an hour, but there was room on the schedule for at least one full-length feature in each programming block and I made a point of catching four of them over the course of the festival.

Friday night's lone feature was the snappily titled Satan Hates You from Glass Eye Pix, the company that gave us I Sell the Dead and The House of the Devil, among many others. Released in 2009, the film was written and directed by James Felix McKenney, who based it on the Fundamentalist Christian scare films of the '70s which often used extreme (and extremely low-rent) imagery in the service of turning people on to Jesus. The film is chock full of sinners (and very few saints), but it's mostly focused on Marc (Don Wood) and Wendy (Christine Spencer), two individuals who lead extremely sinful lives and are desperately in need of saving. Marc is a homeless man who drinks himself into a stupor every day -- probably because he's a closeted homosexual who's in extreme denial -- and lashes out violently at the least provocation. Wendy, on the other hand, is a slut who does hard drugs, has sex indiscriminately which gets her pregnant, and hangs out with a bad crowd that exposes her to lesbianism, Wicca, tarot and Ouija. Oh, yes. And she also has an illegal, back-alley abortion because of course she would.

Throughout the film McKenney confronts Marc and Wendy with a cross-section of characters offering conflicting advice. Marc is actively courted by a couple of born-again types, but he always winds up at the bar next door, and about the only light in Wendy's life is a kindly televangelist (Angus Scrimm) who gives her good advice and strangely never asks for money. Then there are the cackling demons (a gleefully over-the-top Larry Fessenden and Bradford Scobie) who are always around to be a bad influence on the two of them. And Michael Berryman is also on hand as a surly, judgmental hotel manager who thinks he knows what's going on under his roof but clearly doesn't know the half of it. If Satan Hates You had been the only feature I saw all weekend I would have been more than satisfied (it's one of the funniest films I've seen all year), but it was only the beginning.

Saturday, November 20, 2010
I may be getting old, but I'm not finished.

The first feature on Saturday was another entry from 2009 called Maxwell Stein, about an aged, once-legendary film director (Juels Watzich) barely scraping by in the '40s whose last-ditch comeback project, a cheap mummy flick entitled The Tomb of Doom, is constantly on the verge of collapsing around him. His inexperienced producer (Joseph D. Durbin) is eager to help him out at every turn, but Stein has to contend with a temperamental mummy, a pompous leading actor (Chris McMinn) and a fading starlet who's a bit of a lush. (I wish I could tell you who played her, but the IMDb is rather short on info on the film.) Toss a broken movie camera into the mix and The Tomb of Doom seems doomed to oblivion until Stein goes to an antiques dealer and buys a replacement that turns out to be haunted. The catch is only Stein (who insists on operating it himself like he did in the old days) can see the frightening visions he captures on film when he turns it on -- and when he leaves it on long enough the ghostly apparition that appears has time to brutally murder whoever happens to be in frame. You'd think that would spell curtains for Stein's big comeback, but when the studio is thrilled by the rushes he resorts to drastic measures to get the film in the can. I trust co-directors Dale Jackson and Jeffrey Jones didn't have to be quite so ruthless with their cast and crew.

Perhaps we can learn from this mistake.

Next up was 2010's The Prometheus Project, which has since been re-titled The Frankenstein Syndrome, but writer/director Sean Tretta (who was in attendance) prefers the original title so that's what I'm going to call it. The film, which is loosely based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein but has much more in common with Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, is about a driven molecular biologist (Tiffany Shepis, who deservedly won Best Actress at the festival) who goes to work for a respected doctor (Ed Lauter) who's funding illegal stem cell research. Almost immediately upon arriving at the clandestine facility Shepis butts heads with the head of the project (Patti Tindall), who to put it politely is a bit of an ice queen, but it isn't long before she has a breakthrough and, presented with a golden opportunity in the form of a fresh cadaver (I won't say how they came by it for fear of spoiling some of the film's surprises), the team is able to bring it back to some semblance of life. The re-animation isn't completely successful, though, which means they have to be more careful with their next experimental subject (Scott Anthony Leet, winner for Best Actor), who just so happens to be one of the armed guards keeping watch over the scientists. Physically he might not look so hot (the unfortunate result of a few invasive surgical procedures), but once they take him off the Thorazine he turns out to have some astounding mental powers, including mind-reading, telekinesis and even the ability to heal wounds. Suffice it to say, it's not long before the scientists learn the folly of playing God.

Never seen girls like you around here.

My final film of the night (and the last feature I got to see in its entirely this weekend) was El Monstro del Mar!, a 2010 import from Australia which took home the award for Best Feature Film (or rather it will when the festival organizers pop it in the mail). Written and directed by Stuart Simpson, the opens with a scene right out of the Russ Meyer playbook (think Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) wherein a trio of deadly females (Karli Madden, Nelli Scarlet, Kate Watts) waylay a couple of hot-blooded young guys and steal their car. The difference is when the women slit their throats the black-and-white picture erupts into garish color and never looks back. Eventually the three bad girls wind up at a shack by the sea where they live it up and corrupt the innocent girl (Kyrie Capri) who lives next door with her wheelchair-bound grandfather (Norman Yemm). He also warns them against going into the water, but they ignore him at their own peril as their gyrations awaken the Kraken, which lays waste to the beach-side community. How the Kraken came to reside in the coastal waters off Australia I couldn't say, but with a film like this it's probably best not to ask too many questions. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. That's a piece of advice I'll keep in mind when I return for the fifth annual Dark Carnival Film Festival next year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010
It's not the guy. It's the beast you should fear.

Having seen how much of an improvement the director's cut of The Wolfman was, I have decided to give a second chance to another werewolf film of recent vintage that failed to impress me when I saw it in theaters. That would, of course, be Wes Craven's 2005 film Cursed, which was his third major collaboration with Scream-writer Kevin Williamson (I don't count Scream 3 because it's the only one that he didn't write), so my expectations at the time were probably somewhat unrealistic. To be sure, the version I have to watch isn't labeled the director's cut but is rather the "Unrated Version" -- which means it's essentially the cut that Dimension would have released in theaters had they not punked out and gone for PG-13 in the first place -- but I'll take what I can get.

And what we've got is a brazen, yet still somewhat successful, attempt by Craven and Williamson to apply the Scream template to a werewolf story, right on down to the multiple red herrings/suspects. There's even a compressed time-frame since the action takes place over the course of a single three-moon cycle, which certainly helps keep things moving. As for the story, it's centered around talk show producer Christina Ricci and her brother, awkward high-schooler Jesse Eisenberg, who get into a horrific car accident one night on Mulholland Drive (which may be how they lost their parents -- apparently a fairly recent tragedy) and, while trying to help the driver of the other vehicle, get attacked by a werewolf. The other driver (Shannon Elizabeth) gets ripped to shreds (prompting Ricci to ask the standard werewolf movie question, "What happened to her, what kind of an animal could do that?"), but brother and sister walk away with only minor abrasions, which means they've now been -- say it with me -- cursed.

This being a Craven/Williamson joint, the supporting cast is packed to the hilt, starting with Joshua Jackson as Ricci's love interest, a harried club owner preparing for his big opening, Judy Greer as the "psycho" publicist for Happy Days alumnus Scott Baio (whose casting recalls Henry Winkler's turn as the principal in Scream), Milo Ventimiglia as an alpha-male bully whose homophobic taunts gall Eisenberg, Kristina Anapau as the nice girl he likes, Portia de Rossi as the fortune teller who warns Elizabeth (and singer Mýa) about their dark fates, Michael Rosenbaum as a co-worker who's smitten with Ricci, and Craig Kilborn as the host they both work for. He's also a clear sign that Cursed had a troubled -- and protracted -- post-production period since Kilborn left The Late Late Show in August 2004, a full six months before the film was released. I suspect the studio-mandated reshoots may also be why Rick Baker's special make-up effects are supplemented by additional make-up and werewolf effects by Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger.

So, the question remains, is this version of Cursed better than the one I saw in theaters close to six years ago? I would say undoubtedly yes. There are some areas where it doesn't quite come together on a story level, but overall it's an enjoyable ride that I shall henceforth quit badmouthing. It's just too bad the unrated DVD doesn't include a commentary by Craven and Williamson. I'm sure between the two of them they could have explained a great deal.

Monday, November 22, 2010
When you're born into this universe, you're in it for a long, long time.

If I had to name my favorite Albert Brooks film, chances are good that I would pick 1991's Defending Your Life. It's got an unbeatable premise -- a middle-aged advertising executive dies in a car accident and is whisked away to Judgment City where he has to prove that he's ready to move on or face going back to Earth and starting all over again -- and Brooks's sly, understated wit positively shines through. It's also his most unabashedly romantic film, which helps a great deal. (As caustically funny as Real Life, Modern Romance and Lost in America are, there's still the causticity to take into account.) Or it may very well be due to the fantasy aspect of the film, which Brooks uses -- along with the comedy -- to smuggle in some cogent points about self-worth and the importance of conquering your fears.

Then, of course, there are the uniformly wonderful performances. Brooks plays his usual type -- the anxious bundle of nerves -- but he plays him beautifully, almost serenely accepting all the bewildering things that are going on around him, along with the injustices and indignities he suffers while in Judgment City. As his love interest, Meryl Streep is as loose and relaxed as I had ever seen her up to that point. (It's telling that this film is bookended by Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her, which definitively proved she wasn't going to be a slave to Oscar bait for the rest of her career.) Then there's Rip Torn's career-best performance as Brooks's defense counsel, who crows about the fact that he uses 48% of his brain but still faces stiff opposition from Lee Grant's prosecutor, whose nickname "the dragon lady" is well-earned. And about the funniest cameo -- apart from Shirley MacLaine's, which is pretty obvious once you know where she pops up -- is Buck Henry as Torn's temporary replacement, whose 51% brain capacity isn't much help to Brooks since he contributes next to nothing to the defense. (More than likely Henry calculated what Brooks's chances of moving on were and chose not to expend the mental energy.)

The engine of the film, apart from Brooks's mounting anxiety as humiliating moments from his life are trotted out one after another by Grant, is the budding romance between him and Streep. The key to that is the fact that Brooks is able to make Streep laugh so effortlessly, which admittedly isn't too difficult for him since he is Albert Brooks, but not everybody's tuned into his wavelength. I'm just happy I'm one of those people who is.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Ladies and gentlemen, you are all kindly invited to a public spectacle.

For his first feature after a decade spent making documentaries, Werner Herzog turned to the story of real-life Jewish strongman Zishe Breitbart for 2001's Invincible. Set in 1932, in the year before Hitler came to power in Germany, the film opens in Eastern Poland where brawny blacksmith Zishe (Jouko Ahola) catches the eye of a talent agent (Gustav-Peter Wöhler) who entices him to go to Berlin. There he goes to work for a phony clairvoyant (Tim Roth) who play up to the Nazi movement's abiding interest in the occult and calls himself Hitler's prophet. Roth also treats his orchestra's pianist (Anna Gourari) abominably, which doesn't sit well with Ahola, who eventually tires of portraying Teutonic hero Siegfried and instead presents himself as "the new Samson," a hero to his fellow Jews. To say this doesn't go down well with Roth's regular Nazi clientele would be an understatement, especially once Ahola (who is an actual bodybuilder) starts showing off his physical prowess.

It's clear that Herzog intends his film to be read as an allegory, particularly since the events in it take place a full seven years after the real Breitbart's death. This is driven home by the character of Benjamin (Jacob Wein), his preternaturally smart younger brother who can make up fanciful stories off the top of his head and is able to size up Wöhler's theatrical agent by saying he is "like a shopkeeper with empty shelves who has nothing to sell." Then there are Zishe's own portentous dreams, which allow Herzog to insert some of his trademark nature imagery. His eye for casting supporting roles is also impeccable, with Fassbinder regular Hark Bohm showing up as a judge when Ahola accuses Roth of being a charlatan. And nothing warms my heart more than spying a phrase like "and Udo Kier as Count Helldorf" in the opening credits of a motion picture. Frankly, I'm surprised Herzog hasn't used him more often.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010
You have to keep your eye on him. You know how he is.

Hard on the heels of The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, Werner Herzog turned his attention to a long-gestating film project entitled My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, which -- like Invincible and Rescue Dawn before it -- was inspired by a true story. This one was the basis for a screenplay by Herzog and Herbert Golder, who played a rabbi in Invincible, and stars Michael Shannon as an intense young man who returns from a trip to Peru a changed man (he follows an "inner voice," starts calling himself Farouk and claims to have seen God) and about a year later kills his mother (Grace Zabriskie) with an antique sword. There's no mystery involved, though, since this is all established in the first few scenes. From there it's up to San Diego homicide detective Willem Dafoe to figure out why he did it while the police deal with a tense hostage situation.

Since Dafoe is unable to talk to Shannon directly, he gets most of the story from the young man's bewildered fiancée (Chloë Sevigny), who was unable to get him to break away from his domineering mother, a theater director (Udo Kier) who was directing him in a production of Aeschylus's Oresteia and had to dismiss him when he started behaving erratically, and the neighbors (Loretta Devine and Irma P. Hall) who were witnesses to the matricide. The script also gives Dafoe a rookie partner (Michael Peña) who's eager to play hero and Brad Dourif a meaty role as Shannon's uncle, who owns an ostrich farm and provides him with the sword that was meant to be used as a prop in the play but ultimately becomes the murder weapon. No word on what he thinks of the whole murder business.

At times My Son can be downright bizarre (it's not for nothing that it's presented by David Lynch), particularly in the moments where Herzog pauses the action to train his camera on a tableau of sorts. These don't strike me as self-indulgent longeurs, though, but rather they're invitations to look beneath the surface of the image he's chosen to focus on, much like Dafoe's detective attempts to understand what drove Shannon to commit such a senseless act in the first place. By the end of the film, that's still very much an open question.

Thursday, November 25, 2010
I feel one loses one's rhythm here.

Have gone from Werner Herzog's most recent feature to his debut, 1968's Signs of Life, which turns out to have some interesting parallels with My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Written, produced and directed by Herzog on a shoestring budget, Signs of Life is set on a small Greek island where a wounded German soldier named Stroszek (Peter Brogle) and his Greek wife Nora (Athina Zacharopoulou) are sent to guard a fortress that is being used as an ammunition depot. They're joined by two other soldiers, a classics scholar named Becker (Wolfgang von Ungern-Sternberg) and the perpetually grouchy Meinhard (Wolfgang Reichmann), but there is little for them to do and boredom soon sets in. This is why, when Stroszek suggests that they make some fireworks, they jump at the chance to do something. What the others don't realize is they're giving Stroszek ammunition for when he holes himself up in the fortress and threatens to blow up the depot.

The standoff that ensues between Stroszek and his own army echoes the one between Michael Shannon and the police in My Son, albeit without the complication of any hostages (unless one counts the townspeople who have to be evacuated from their nearby homes). As with Shannon's character, it's difficult to tell what exactly set Stroszek off and what he believes his desperate act will achieve, although it's possible that his nascent madness is a lingering aftereffect from the injury he sustained in battle. Who knows what he saw on the battlefield? Who knows what he was ordered to do? Perhaps Herzog does, but I doubt he's telling.

This doesn't look like an ordinary crime.

Yukio Mishima's film acting career was never more than a sideline for him -- he devoted most of his time and energy to the novels and plays upon which he built his literary reputation -- but the few times he did appear onscreen the results were often quite magnetic. This is definitely the case with 1968's Black Lizard, which was based on Mishima's stage adaptation of the novel by Rampo Edogawa. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who would gain cult fame later in life with the film Battle Royale, Black Lizard stars Isao Kimura as a private detective who goes up against master criminal Akihiro Maruyama (a male actor playing a female character) who's out to steal the fabulous diamond the Star of Egypt and if she has to kidnap the daughter of the man who owns it to get it, then so be it.

That's where Kimura comes in since he's been hired to protect the young woman (Kikko Matsuoka) and always seems to be one step ahead of Maruyama, who has fallen in love with the detective pretty much against her own will. (For the record, the feeling is mutual, but as Kimura tells her, "You're attractive, but you're also a swindler and a kidnapper." I take it those are deal-breakers for him.) As for Mishima's role, it's a wordless cameo (with about a minute of screen time) as one of the human statues in Maruyama's macabre art museum, but it allows him to show off his impressive physique. Since this was his penultimate film role before he took his own life (which he did forty years ago today in an eerie echo of his 1966 short
Patriotism), I'm sure that was a high priority for him.

Saturday, November 27, 2010
Sometimes one has to choose between good taste and being a human being.

I've been falling behind on my TCM Underground viewing, so tonight I reached back to the film that was shown at the beginning of the month, 1968's Secret Ceremony. Directed by Joseph Losey the same year he made the infamous Boom! with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Secret Ceremony is an aggressively strange film about a woman (Taylor) mourning the loss of her daughter some years earlier who drifts into the orbit of an obsessive young woman (Mia Farrow) who has lost her mother (among other things) and lives all alone in a huge mansion. Naturally it isn't long before Taylor starts playing the part of the dead mother, but this charade is complicated by Farrow's aunts (Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown), who frequently pop by to steal knickknacks, and her stepfather (Robert Mitchum), who's in the habit of lurking around outside the house, always with a fresh bouquet of flowers in hand. (Apparently he didn't hear the news that his estranged wife passed on.)

The reason for all these inquisitive relations is the sizable inheritance Farrow has received from her "mummy." Whether Taylor is after the money or not is something of an open question since she didn't even know about it at first. This, of course, makes one wonder why she plays along with Farrow. The easy answer is that she's looking for a substitute for her own dead daughter, but Farrow is much older than the dead girl would have been. She just doesn't act her age. Which is hardly surprising when you consider all the adults around her are greedy and manipulative (and, in the case of Mitchum, sexually aggressive). Why would she want to emulate behavior like that?

Sunday, November 28, 2010
He's only a little boy. We have to make allowances.

I'm not sure what possessed Turner Classic Movies to show The Nanny this morning, but I'm glad they did because it's a chillingly effective and admirably low-key thriller. Produced by Hammer Films in 1965, the film was written and produced by Jimmy Sangster, who handed the reins over to Seth Holt, as he had previously done on 1961's Taste of Fear. (Sangster wouldn't take his turn in the director's chair for another five years, when he made The Horror of Frankenstein and Lust for a Vampire back-to-back.) It was the first of two Hammer films to star Bette Davis, who was enjoying being a box office draw again after the success of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and evidently didn't mind playing a frumpy old maid as long as she still got her name above the title.

Not only that, but Davis gets to play the title character, the dedicated nanny to a well-off British family that has more than its fair share of problems. Father James Villiers is often away on business and when he is around he's quite severe and unyielding, mother Wendy Craig is a nervous wreck who never really recovered from the accidental death of their young daughter two years earlier, and ten-year-old son William Dix is a holy terror who has been at a school for disturbed children ever since the accident and, upon his return home, resumes his combative relationship with Davis. The film also features Jill Bennett as Craig's sister, who has a weak heart and can't stand to be overly excited, and Pamela Franklin as the teenage girl who lives upstairs and doesn't believe Dix's stories about Davis at first, but then again no one does.

From beginning to end the film walks a fine line, allowing us to vacillate between siding with Davis (who only seems to have the best of intentions) and identifying with Dix (who seems genuinely scared of her). These alliances are undercut by the insidious way Davis works to keep Craig entirely dependent on her (she's been with the family for decades and shows no signs of wanting to leave) and the way Dix runs roughshod over his parents and is unconscionably rude to the nanny he feels he's outgrown. It's only in the homestretch that we get a pair of crucial flashbacks that clarify what happened two years earlier (which, of course, has everything to do with that's happening in the present). As for Davis, she must have liked the results because she returned a few years later for Hammer's The Anniversary, which has now been bumped up on my "to see" list. I hope TCM or Netflix will be able to accommodate me.

You can tell how a person is from the way he looks at you.

My plan for this afternoon had been to watch Rainer Werner Fassbinder's first two films back-to-back, but that was before I discovered that his debut, 1969's Love Is Colder Than Death, is no longer available to be watched instantly on Netflix. (In fact, none of his films are, which is a good argument against getting their streaming-only deal if I ever saw one.) So instead I've paired his second film, Katzelmacher, also from 1969, with Werner Herzog's sophomore effort, which I will get to in a bit. First there's the matter of Katzelmacher, which is based on a play Fassbinder had mounted the year before.

The film follows the lives of an aimless group of slackers who do little more than hang out in front of their apartment building and smoke and occasionally repair to the tavern to play cards and plan criminal schemes that never come to fruition. This goes on for a few reels, then a foreign worker (played by an oddly uncredited Fassbinder) takes a room in the building and immediately becomes the subject of gossip and absurd rumors. Not only is it assumed that he's screwing the woman he's rooming with, but he's also accused of rape, of never bathing, and of being a Communist (because apparently all Greeks are Communists). About the one thing he is guilty of is taking up with one of the women (played by future Fassbinder regular Hanna Schygulla) who prefers him to her old boyfriend (Hans Hirschmüller), who used to slap her around. (In fact, men slapping their women around appears to be a running theme throughout the film.) Eventually things come to a head when the men, led by Hirschmüller, take it upon themselves to beat the crap out of the interloper. "It had to happen," says one of the women. "He was walking around as if he belonged here." Guess it doesn't pay to be different.

The place of outsiders in society is also one of the running themes in Werner Herzog's Even Dwarfs Started Small from 1970. The main difference is everybody in Dwarfs is an outsider since Herzog cast the film exclusively with little people -- a gambit that paid off much better for him than it did for the makers of The Terror of Tiny Town. That film failed as a serious drama (which is what it was apparently intended to be) because it tried too hard to play it straight. Herzog knew right off the bat that wasn't an option, which is why his film ultimately winds up saying more about the human condition.

That said, Even Dwarfs doesn't have a whole lot in the way of plot to speak of. A group of mental patients led by cackling ringleader Helmut Döring takes over their institution, causing its nominal head (Pepi Hermine, who played the President in Putney Swope) to barricade himself inside the main building. This gives the inmates free reign to run amok on the grounds, pulling down his favorite palm tree, hot-wiring a van and making it drive around in circles, messing with a couple of blind men, instigating a food fight followed by a cockfight, setting potted flowers on fire, throwing hens into the building through a broken window and generally being a nuisance. By the time Hermine manages to get away -- ostensibly so he can go for help -- it's no wonder he's just as barmy as the rest of them.

Monday, November 29, 2010
What is wrong with you? You're acting so weird.

This week's TCM Underground movie was an odd little number from 1981 called Strange Behavior, which was the first of two films written by Bill Condon and Michael Laughlin, who also directed. (The second was 1983's Strange Invaders, which I saw many years ago and could stand to see again at some point.) It's a film with an interesting cast headed up by Michael Murphy as the chief of police of a small Illinois town that suddenly breaks out in a rash of inexplicable murders. Louise Fletcher co-stars as his infinitely patient would-be fiancée, and Dan Shor plays his son, who goes behind his back to take part in a behavioral experiment at the local college on the recommendation of fellow student Marc McClure. Naturally there's something sinister about the whole thing, but Shor doesn't find out how sinister until it's too late to back out.

The film also features Fiona Lewis as the head researcher whose late mentor (Arthur Dignam) is still able to deliver lectures from beyond the grave thanks to the miracle of videotape (which prefigures the character of Dr. Brian O'Blivion in Videodrome), Dey Young as the receptionist at the facility who is actively pursued by Shor, and Scott Brady as a gruff Chicago homicide detective who's brought in when Murphy determines he's out of his depth. And Condon himself gets in on the act as the film's first victim, who admittedly doesn't get a whole lot of screen time. Most interesting to me, though, is Tangerine Dream's score, which was one of the band's first (and curiously enough has not been released on CD). It was soon to be followed by many more.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010
What a face that guy has. Not what you'd call handsome.

One year ago today Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, so I'm watching his 1983 film Panic Beats as part of
Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies' Naschy Blogathon, to which I was alerted by Jon Kitley of Kitley's Krypt fame. A sequel of sorts to 1973's Horror Rises from the Tomb, Panic Beats features the same character -- Alaric de Marnac -- and was made during the period where Naschy was directing his own scripts (under his given name Jacinto Molina). In fact, the film fell between Night of the Werewolf and The Beast and the Magic Sword, which were his last Waldemar Daninsky films for 13 years. Perhaps he felt it was time to move on to other characters.

In addition to Alaric, who's seen in the pre-credit sequence in full plate mail running down a naked woman and then beating her to death with a mace, Naschy plays a modern-day architect named Paul who brings his rich wife Geneviève (Julia Saly) home to his ancestral estate in the country for some rest and relaxation. Seems Geneviève has something of a weak heart, which is why it's not a good thing that the family housekeeper (Lola Gaos) has regaled her pretty young orphaned niece Julie (Pat Ondiviela) with tales of Paul's bloody ancestor, whose exploits are so dastardly that they give Julie nightmares. So what chance does Geneviève have? Answer: not much chance at all.

As a matter of fact, the couple runs into problems even before they make it to the house since their car runs out of gas and Geneviève is assaulted by a couple of bandits while Paul is retrieving some. He returns in time to fight them off, but the first of the shocks to her system has been delivered. Others include a couple of snake scares and the sight of Alaric's suit of armor standing outside her door. Afterward Naschy lingers on a shot of an unidentified person removing the armor piece by piece, but it's pretty easy to figure out what's really going on when we see Paul meeting up with his mistress (Silvia Miró) in the city. The only trouble for him is he's since fallen in love (and into bed) with Julie, which means he has two lovers too many. Guess the guy's greedy for more than just Geneviève's money.

While the rest of the horror field was starting to put the emphasis on piling on the gore, it's nice to see that Naschy was able to keep pace while still maintaining the eerie atmosphere that his films were known for. His sly sense of humor also peeks through from time to time, as when Julie remarks, "If every man killed his wife because their marriage wasn't working, where would we be?" She's referring to Alaric, but she could just as easily be talking about Paul. And the way the situation escalates after the first domino has fallen quickly becomes comical, like something out of Mario Bava's A Bay of Blood. Of course, that film didn't have an evil knight rising from the grave to complete the cycle of vengeance. That's the sort of capper only one man would dream up, and for that I salute you, Mr. Naschy. You may be gone, but your body of work lives on.

Back to October 2010 -- Forward to December 2010

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