Archive for July, 2014


Welcome to a new section on NITRATE FROM THE GRAVE called SILVER BULLETS. These will be shorter, rapid fire reviews of items that would otherwise get ignored (some for good reason) or mixed in to a longer article. They are still enjoyable for a watch or as a curiosity. You usually get to see some major stars late in their careers; people that never made another film or others who started and moved on. Clint Eastwood, for example, was in both REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and TARANTULA in 1955.

First up, it’s THE INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN or THE INVASION OF THE HELL CREATURES from American International Pictures in 1957.

The picture offers the teenage story of a ‘make out’ spot invaded one evening by aliens. Segue to some of today’s horror films and you have the goalie masked behemoth invading a cabin or a resort to do exactly the same thing without the charm. The picture features one of my favourite stars, Frank Gorshin as Joe Gruen, a ‘drifter’ with Lynn Osboure as Artie Burns, who are bent on having a good time. Gorshin is a brilliant, frenetic performer who seems always on the edge as he became famous for as an impressionist on the Las Vegas club circuit. Audiences today know him as The Riddler in the 1966 series BATMAN. I have had an opportunity to see a short live performance at a club and can say it was showmanship the classic way. Gorshin owned the room with his ever present cigarette and black tux. You don’t see that in comedy clubs today.

The picture begins with Johnny Carter (Steve Terrill) and Joan Hayden (Gloria Castillo) planning to elope- you can’t have teenager being amorous in cars without the proper intentions. They turn off their lights to exit causing them to hit what they think is a little boy in the dark, which turns out to be an alien who has exited a nearby ship. The place they go in their cars is a dairy farm. Subsequently, you have the irate farmer – literally. Farmer Larkin is played by screen veteran Raymond Hatton, who supplies human menace with his shot gun and rock salt threats to trespassers. Made at the height of the UFO craze, you have numerous references to ‘crazy people’ sighting flying saucers and ‘little green men’ by the authority figures.
The police, parents and doctors in the film ridicule the kids as they try to seek help yet never believe what they say till the end. Defeat happens when the teens get their vehicles together and organise an attack with headlights. The menace is gone with no help from the authority figures.

INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN is in black and white with running time a little over an hour so things move at a fast pace. You get to see good creatures, in spite of the status of the picture in later years becoming a cult of their own. The saucer man figures and likenesses are all over the net along with the lurid poster design. It’s a bit naïve the way the teenagers react to people but that is part of the charm of the time as you also had the rise of the ‘beach’ movie and the ‘delinquent’ movie. Still, you have cars with enough steel in them to make four of today’s vehicles. Enjoyable creatures with dripping sharp fingers that are still unpleasant to me when you see what they do to skin in an attack are also there. The end credits have an ending that raised the hackles of the younger me when I first saw it.

One cannot help saying without giving too much away that there was also a lesson against alcohol consumption in this picture. It’s a fun film if you don’t mind a drunk dairy cow as a comic relief vehicle. INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957) is available. Sit back with a can of your favourite brew and enjoy. Then toss it away in disgust as you have been warned.

The altering of the human form has been an omnipresent theme of Horror pictures. Whether that is being tossed into something or off something, made into something, or having something removed, the result is a change that does not make us or those that love us the same. The face is a key to human identity, a door to human love so if that changes, sometimes we change. Two examples of this are the Hammer films adaptation of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962,) directed by Terance Fisher, and the little known 1959 picture FACE OF FIRE (1959), directed by Albert Band.

Gaston Leroux’s novel has been the subject of many adaptations as we all know; much like Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I recently viewed it again and found parts to be some of the best subtle acting and directing that Hammer Studios has done.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962), which moves the story from the streets and sewers of Paris to London in the 1900s, is a showcase for Michael Gough as the morally bankrupt Lord Ambrose d’Arcy who wants to give every pretty ingénue who auditions for him ‘lessons’ in his apartment. Gough is wonderfully snarly if not slightly ‘one note” as he does anything and everything to get his opera on the boards including stealing music from an unknown composer- Professor Petrie- played by a young Herbert Lom.

Lord Ambrose prints Professor Petrie’s music with his name not the Professor’s. Petrie breaks into the printer’s shop at night and there is a resulting fire and acid blow back that sends him running out into the street when he find solace in the sewers where he lives for years plotting revenge.

Like the best Horror pictures and stories, the action is what is done by those who fall under the influence of the absent monster, in this case The Phantom Professor Petrie becomes a tragic figure, pleading for a chance to work with Christine for, ‘a week, a month,’ just so he can hear his music before he dies. Lom and Terence Fisher work subtle action with a single eye – either a malevolent stare or at one point a close up of a tear.

FACE OF FIRE (1959), directed by Albert Band is not really a Horror film, more a narrative of our prejudice against deformity and the fear of it. It was based on a story by American Stephen Crane called “The Monster”. Crane was considered to be one of the most influential writers of his generation who wrote in the naturalist mode. Crane’s other major work that is more familiar is the Civil War story THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1895), which he wrote without having battlefield experience yet went on to become an American classic. Crane’s hallmark was to show small town life as neither good nor evil.

The story of FACE OF FIRE is a simple one, yet again like the best films, the story is about those affected by events not an actual creature. The setting is a small town in late 1800s America where a lowly handyman Monk Johnson (played by James Whitmore) whom women want to be with, children want to befriend, animals love him. Cameron Mitchell is the town doctor Ned Trescott, whom Monk works for, and also takes his son Jimmie (Miko Oscard) he takes of fishing trips. All is pastoral till one night a fire erupts at Trescott’s residence and Monk charges into the burning building to save a sleeping Jimmie. Overcome by smoke from chemicals, Monk collapses.The boy escapes through a nearby door. Monk is pulled from the building with severe burns removing his facial features, and what is later revealed as brain damage.

The townspeople that once revered him now shun him. He sits in his room slumped over, face covered by a black cloth. The farmer whose house he has moved into asks for more money. The farmer’s children do not eat, his wife refuses to go in the room and social isolation takes place as friends refuse to call. The farmer, however, does find time to try on Monk’s disused jacket and boots that he covets and eventually gets.

Direction wise the photography is very stark in black and white with effective use of foreground and background action plus light and shadows. The people move throughout the film in an almost sleep like trance along the streets. No, this is at heart a drama, and a painful and devastating one at that. It takes a long, hard look at how people would react to a man suffering such extreme deformities, and often their reactions are just as ugly as his visage. It is quite harrowing to see their reactions, especially when they think Monk is dead and begin hypocritically praising him for his bravery. What makes it most painful is its air of truth; it is quite easy to see people acting this way when you know that they (and we) are capable of it when we let fear take control of us. James Whitmore and Cameron Mitchell are both excellent as the deformed handyman and the doctor (whose son it was that was rescued from the fire) who cares for him, even when he himself becomes a pariah and has to watch his son cope with the situation.

There are strong influences of FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) as Monk is well enough to be outside, sheds his hood and tries to join in a dance with the townspeople but is shunned. He approaches the woman who once tried to get him interested in her – she runs screaming from him now. We only see his back in the sequence as again its effect on the people that is important. The one constant is a collie dog who will still give him a stick which is a repeat from earlier in the film showing that animals love unconditionally, unlike humans. There is a plot of kill Monk by the townspeople as he is not human which is stopped when the Sheriff intervenes. Monk is offered a free house away from the town by one person all in an effort to keep him away.

Character actor Royal Dano as townsman Jake Winter battles his own feelings as opposed to his families. A young Lois Maxwell (Her pre Miss Moneypenny days) as Trescott’s incipit appearance loving wife are both stand outs. The ending is a wonderful example of what a simple human touch and gesture can do to someone who has changed on the outside.

I remember FACE OF FIRE on television years ago and the one sequence that stuck with me is when Trescott’s son brings Monk his breakfast. Monk slowly turns and his face is seen in profile causing the boy to run. PHANTOM did not do well at the box office and actually caused Terence Fisher to fall out of favour as a director. Shades of later David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980) as it was also in black and white and dealt with an ‘outsider’ by appearance. It is interesting to note both these pictures were done by non- horror genre directors. FACE OF FIRE was done by Albert Band who did also produced I BURY THE LIVING (1980) and the cult classic TROLL (1986) amongst other titles, including HONEY I BLEW UP THE KIDS (1992), as Executive Producer.

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962) and FACE OF FIRE (1959) are two examples of the altering of a face causing a once sympathetic individual to be thought of as a monster. Both pictures are examples of subtle film making, all wonderfully photographed on a limited budget released by major studios.

NO CHEAP IMITATIONS

I posted on this site my views on remakes or reboots as we call them today (See The Remake and how to use it}  Filmmaking of this style requires that something new be added to a story, not just in terms of CGI, but material not previously used from a source. Better yet, bring a story forward to today’s audience without sacrificing its integrity. I recently found the 1934 version of IMITATION OF LIFE with Claudette Colbert and the 1959 version with Lana Turner to be a shining example.

The John Stahl directed 1934 version seems to be neglected these days; yet I found it to be grittier of the two perhaps because it was in(No pun) black and white.

Claudette Colbert in a different role for her played widowed single mother Bea Pullman who gets by maintaining her late husband’s business selling syrup to shops.  One morning while getting her daughter ready for the day and juggling many tasks, she hears a knock at the door. It is Delilah Johnson, who has come in reply to an ad for a housekeeper – except she has come to the wrong address. Deliah is played by the vastly underappreciated actress Louise Beavers, who helped with Hattie McDaniel to set a pattern for Black actors in Hollywood.

 

 

Delilah has no money for ‘car fare,’ as Bea refers her to the fact of the difference between streets and avenues in the city. Through some wonderful dialogue a friendship begins as Delilah offers her services as maid and housekeeper for free in exchange for room and board for herself and her daughter Peola, because it looks like Bea could use the help. In a touching moment Delilah says that she will not ‘eat much’ in spite of her size.  Peola is found to be ‘light skinned’ as her father was white when she is called to come to the door as she is waiting outside.  This is a brilliant simple short scene that establishes relationships between the people plus the audience as it sets up the identity crisis for Peola of her” Black heritage” and  the growing friendship between Bea and Delilah.

 

 

In Director Douglas Sirk’s 1959 version with Lana Turner and Juanita Moore, the meeting is handled quite differently.  Lana Turner plays aspiring out of work single actress/model Lora Meredith who meets homeless Annie Johnson (Moore) and her child on a sunny beach at Coney Island.  A handsome fellow, Steve Archer, played by John Gavin is also on hand as he is taking pictures of people and trying to sell them. The Archer role is different from the 1934 version played by personal favorite, neglected today Warren William whose occupation is a ‘Doctor of Fish’.

 

William comes in much later in the 1934 version and is at his devastating best as he as well as Colbert are both shown in a different light.  Colbert was more inclined to appear in comedies while William would grow in fame as an evil scheming gad in such pictures as EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE  (1933) and THE MATCH KING  (1932).

Annie’s daughter is Sarah Jane, who immediately hits it off with Lora’s child, Susie as the two run off to play for the entire day.  Annie and her child end up coming home to live with Lora as in the previous film.

This is the point where the versions deviate for no other reason that I can think of other than box office.  Lana Turner’s Lora Meredith gets bigger roles and becomes a huge star of the stage and screen.  Robert Alda as Allan Loomis plays a sleazy producer type that tries to turn himself in to Lora’s romantic interest yet at the same time sending her to after-hours parties for his male clients.  It was the time of ‘the casting couch’ (Has it ever or will it ever go away?) so this is not surprising which is curious as this role is a ‘nod’ to the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” style of Warren William.

Steve Archer comes back in as the love interest for Lora who is shown to have ruthless ambition to get to the top of her profession.

The 1934 Colbert/Beavers version features Bea Pullman going into the pancake business on the boardwalk when she discovers one morning that Delilah has a secret handed down  hotcake recipe that people cannot resist coupled with the already available maple syrup business lays the path to fame and fortune.

 

Both versions feature some wonderful supporting characters such as in the 1934 version you find a slightly serious yet comical Allan Hale as a furniture salesman who lets himself get talked out of money by Bea Pullman as she is setting up her first restaurant.  Guelph, Ontario born Ned Sparks appears as the cigar chomping, sarcastic Elmer Smith who simply tells Bea to ‘box’ her pancake mix to sell to more people and make millions.

 

 

 

Lora’s daughter, Susie played by Sandra Dee, falls in love with her mother’s older man Steve Archer.  Jessie Pullman (Rochelle Hudson) in the 1934 version grows to womanhood at boarding school and also falls in love with Warren William’s character of the same name.  Interesting that both characters would do this in different versions showing a link between what was thought to be an older father figure treating a young girl as a woman and showing her the world.   The Steve Archer roles were both suitors for Bea and Lora suggesting it is a mini identity schism of its own. Lora had given herself to her career and Bea had given herself to the business each neglecting their children.  Susie and Jessie both don’t know if they are child or woman yet both seek independence.

The spine of both versions is the denial of Delilah’s child Peola or  and Lora’s child Sarah Jane to acknowledge that they come from Black mother and a white father. At that time, they were considered to be Black children; which each grows to resent.  Each runs away, each wants the mother to not speak to them, not to come around them as they are ashamed of their heritage. The result of this schism is heartbreaking in both versions that in spite of the money and fame achieved it is nothing.

Delilah brings Peola’s raincoat to her school during a storm because she had forgotten it only to be told that she must be mistaken as there are no ‘colored’ children in the class.  Peola visibly shrinks in her seat and hides behind a book only to be pointed out by her mother as her ‘baby”.

 

Peola later works as a cashier at a lunch counter only to have Delilah find her causing her to lose her job due to her apparent Black heritage.  Sarah Jane ends up singing is at a dive bar only to lose her job as well.  Troy Donahue appears as Sarah Jane’s boyfriend Frankie in a pivotal moment in an alley as he literally beats the truth out her.

(WARNING. The “N’ word is used in the clip.  Extremely violent even for 1959 within the context of the story and the time)

IMITATION OF LIFE (1934)  is a sensitive film that was ahead of its time in handling the subject of race.  The Lana Turner 1959 version is a remake not a reboot that does bring the story closer to the time of the early 60’s and growing civil rights movement.  This version features a young Mahalia Jackson as a choir soloist who sings a stunning spiritual at the end of the film as only she could.

 

Could these pictures be made today? The answer to that is not important other than that they were made in the first place.  Each version has its merits as you get to see actors in roles different from their normal studio output. Those that know IMITATION OF LIFE will see it again in either version.  The 1959 version was featured at the 2014 TCM film festival that I attended yet I missed it. It would have been something to seem a glorious Technicolor print on screen but that will be for another time. Both versions have been called full box hankie movies. Enjoy them if you get the chance for their own merits.