Archive for January, 2010

The Great Unwatched #2: The Terror

Posted in Ramblings, The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Another week, another Boris Karloff movie! Until now, The Terror has been one of those films I have seen bits of, an opening here, an action sequence there, a trailer over in the corner. Perhaps not the best way to see a movie, but this scattered viewing approach somehow seems appropriate in this one case; in more ways than one, Roger Corman’s 1963 film, is a patchwork film. Famously produced in order to make use of a number of standing sets from Corman’s last production The Raven and to captilalise of a deal that allowed him to use veteran horror icon Boris Karloff for another day, the resulting film makes little sense, betrays its hastily assembled roots but in the end still ends up providing a fun viewing experience.

The story of The Terror‘s construction has been told before but it is probably worth telling again as it must be unique in the history of film production. Always eager to save a buck in making his films, Roger Corman was keen to take advantage of the fact that actor Boris Karloff still owed him a number of shooting days as a result of the filming of a previously contracted film coming in early. To make his star, crew and some impressive standing sets the director had to act quickly and so had some hasty scenes drafted up and got to work for two days shooting sequences involving the veteran horror star without a clear idea of how the whole thing would fit together. A lot of coverage was shot with Karlof and his main co-stars, Dick Miller and Jack Nicholon. When time ran out, the rest of the script was pieced together and because Corman had other commitments, other directors including rookie Nicholson, veterans Monte Hellman and Jack Hill, as well as an aspiring young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola, were drafted in to complete the picture. Although Karloff’s scenes may have been completed in two days, the rest of the film was assembled over the course of nine months!

I’ll attempt what they eventually ended up with the best I can. The year is 1806, and on a secluded beach, Andre (Jack Nicholson), a lost and dehydrated French soldier, is rescued by a beautiful young mystery woman named Helene who may or may not be a ghost/falcon. Soon after meeting him, she walks into the sea and vanishes. After trying to rescue her, Andre himself is rescued by the powerful, raspy throated Gustaf and an old woman who appears to be his guardian/keeper and who may or may not be a witch. Both deny all knowledge of any girl, even when she continues to reappear to lure Andre into ever more certain danger. Gustaf tells the soldier that the answers he seeks may be found at the castle of a man who may or may not be the Baron Von Leppe (Karloff). Making his way to the castle, Andre discovers that Helene happens to be the spitting double for the Baron’s dead wife, who was murdered at the hands of her husband some twenty years ago when she was discovered to be having an affair. Despite the protestations of the Baron and his faithful servant Stefan (Dick Miller!), Andre intends to get to the bottom of the matter and win the heart of the beautiful Helene. Phew, and that isn’t even half way!

At one point near the end of the film, Jack Nicholson grabs Dick Miller by the collar, pins him against the wall and demands, “Where’s the Baron!?” On cue, Miller spills his guts and explains the whole plot to the protagonist which is incredibly cathartic to any audience who has been sitting open mouthed throughout this tangled mess of a storyline!

Somehow, though, The Terror still manages to entertain. For starters it retains the general mise en scene of Corman’s recognised classic Poe adaptations, taking advantage of stock effects shots, sets and an imaginative behind the scenes team. In fact the script reads like the writers, asked for something similar in a hurry, randomly tore pages from the author’s complete works, threw them in the air, and kept what landed on the table. We have, haunted women, lovers driven mad with guilt and remorse, villainous birds and decaying corpses. This all combines for a rather hokey effect, in no way truly comparable to great works like Richard Matherson’s adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher or Charles Beaumont‘s version of  The Masque of Red Death. Still, despite it’s ad-hoc production, the film is watch-able and even includes some genuinely eerie moments and an ending that I certainly didn’t see coming.

I have a huge amount of respect for what Roger Corman was able to achieve with the frequently limited recourses available to him and one truely great thing to come out of The Terror was the director/producer’s ability to get even more work out of his star. Seeing that Karloff still owed him a couple more days shooting, Corman charged a young Peter Bogdanovich with the task of assembling a film out of:

a) Twenty minutes of Karloff outtakes from The Terror.

b) Twenty minutes of new footage shot on the days Karloff owed Corman.

c) Thirty minutes of footage shot over three days without Karloff.

Bogdanovich didn’t quite stick to these rules, he retained hardly any footage from The Terror, but the film he made, Targets, remains one of my all time favourites. It features an elderly horror actor, played by Karloff, who tires of making pap for low budget producers (represented by clips from The Terror!) as he comes to realise that his brand of gothic horror can’t hope to compete with the truly horrific events unfolding on the streets of modern America. A parallel story stand features a series of seemingly unmotivated killings perpetrated by the very picture of wholesome America and by the end of the picture the two worlds violently collide.

Targets is one I’m sure I will get around to writing about some day. To tide you eager beavers over until then, here is one of my favourite sequences.

The Great Unwatched #1: Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Posted in Ramblings, The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

The funds in my DVD buying pot may be slightly lower this year than I’m used to, but when you’re given lemons you should make lemonade. I have a pile of discs from the past few years that is easily twice as tall as me that have yet to be watched so why not tackle the backlog now while I have nothing better to do?

First up is Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, released in 1953 and included as part of the Region 2 Abbott and Costello: The Collection Box Set. I’ve had this on the shelf for about two years now and must have seen only about a quarter of the twenty or so films contained within. I’ll confess now that this is probably due to the fact that, unlike Laurel and Hardy or The Marx Brothers, I have no real affection for this comedy team. Whereas I find the former can get by on charm or coast on their comic personas I find that Abbott and Costello really need a strong script of unique gimmick to be really funny. Sadly, unlike Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or Abbott and Costello Go To Mars, this film has neither. In some ways, the writing reminded me a little of Laurel and Hardy’s weaker 1940s efforts, where the screenwriters couldn’t quite get a handle on the established characters and in some cases couldn’t even manage basic story structure.

The monster too, usually a highlight of any spooky Abbott and Costello feature, is a little lacklustre here. Boris Karloff is around to play Doctor Jekyll with his usual greatness, but when the (admittedly impressive) transformation scenes take place, stuntman Eddie Parker takes over the role of Mr. Hyde. Parker seems to be an expert climber, scaling walls with impressive animalistic ease, but in most of respects his monster is lacking and too often reduced to standing bolt upright like a Victorian gentleman with a facial hair problem. The closing scene, which I won’t give away, also involved monsters and commits two offences. One; it isn’t funny. And two; it doesn’t even make sense!

The film isn’t a total write off, well delivered performances, good special effects and a handful of funny gags stop it from being boring and it’s always fun to watch Lou Costello in particular going through his usual shtick. Worth a watch once perhaps, but there are better offerings from this team to find time for first.

Burned Up

Posted in Uncategorized on January 19, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

January seems to have been tough on quite a few people of my acquaintance this year. I myself often get a dose of the January blues, even though I know full well that I have next to no reason to. Perhaps its to do with the come down from Christmas. The return to work and the dark mornings that go with it abruptly become monotonous and gloomy, replacing the pre-festival excitement and wonder.

Then there’s the house, which gets far too easily squalid. Somehow, despite having six times the room I seem to have far less space to function than I did when living in one room at my parents.

Money troubles too, contribute to my current, less that merry, state of mind. Nothing serious, I must add – and you mustn’t confuse my public winges as genuine cry’s for aid! Still, things are a bit lean at the moment and this, bizarrley,  plays havoc with my work ethic. I’m paying through the nose to get a Masters degree yet have felt no great inspirational urge to dash off my last two essays. Personal side projects, too, have been put on hold as I re-embark upon the seemingly never-ending quest of procrastination – of which this blog entry is a part.

Well, never mind all this. Things will get back on track soon enough I’m sure and I promise the next post shall be some rubbish about model boats with crap theme tunes.

Beau

Posted in Ramblings, Sites of Interest with tags , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

I’ve posted this elsewhere but never tire of seeing it. I don’t think anyone other than James Stewart could have sustained interest like this during such a slow moving spot on a prime time television show. This isn’t to suggest I think he is being manipulative in any way, with Stewart I have no doubt that every ounce of sentiment is genuine.

THIS, IS ‘tugs’

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

We were watching a few episodes of Tugs at work today, because that’s how we roll. I’ve previously discussed my love of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, and although I don’t have quite the same level of affection for this series from the same creative team, I still have a place in my heart for Tugs.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the series is the theme music; the most inappropriate matching of audio and visuals I have ever experienced. All starts off promisingly, a gentle piano piece introduces Patrick Allen’s inspirational voiceover:

The tugboat, for its size, is the most powerful craft afloat and the Star Tugs are the power behind the docks and waterways that make up the Big City Port. This, is Tugs.

At which point the full theme tune kicks into gear, a sweeping saxophone piece that sounds more like it belongs at the end of Dallas or in the middle of an inspirational erotic movie than anywhere near a quaint British children’s television series about a grubby dockyard. What really takes the biscuit of course is that appearing during this most bombastic of openings are the least impressive on-screen titles ever committed to the small screen. Seriously, it looks as if they only just noticed at the last moment and had to thread the film through a typewriter. This must have been an oversight as, a few episodes into the short-lived series, these uninspired titles were replaced with a much more appealing and colourful logo.

To me however, Tugs will always be the little show that just couldn’t make it. Although fantastically well written, performed and produced, the series Lasted only 13 episodes – somehow the slightly cack opening credit accompanied by that most inappropriate of themes seems strangely appropriate. Anyway, judge for yourself. This, is tugs…

Snow!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Recently, Illegible Me Towers (Just off the bypass, turn right after the chippy) has found itself surrounded by snow – a lot of snow – as has the rest of the UK it would seem. The extent of the snow in my particular area has left me in a bit of an odd possition; there has been enough to close the school where I work, but not enough to put a halt to public transport. As a result I’ve been able to get out and about, taking advantage of these days off. Being the sad sap that I am, the snow strewn train tracks and white fields I see pass me by as I criss-cross along the Tyne and Wear Metro system have not reminded me of Christmas cards or Holidays of yore. Instead what has been called to mind are a handful of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends episodes that were ingrained into my impressionable brain from birth to the age of about seven.

Now, I’ve written about continuing, somewhat worrying, love for this series before so I’ll not go on another rant now. Needless to say I think it’s not only one of the finest crafted children’s television series of all time, but one of the most expertly made television programmes full stop. For some reason the brilliant model work that makes Thomas such a visual treat to watch looks all the more impressive when drenched in snow. To this end I hope you enjoy some of my favourites.

REVIEW: Laurel and Hardy – From The Forties Forward

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Unless they happen to be written by good friends, it isn’t often I review or promote books here at Illegible Me. I feel an exception must be made however, for Scott MacGillivray’s Laurel and Hardy – From the Forties Forward, the revised second edition of which made it into my 2009 Christmas stocking (thanks Auntie Hazel).

Every so often a book comes along that encourages me not just to dip in and out, but to devour it. This has certainly been the case with MacGillivray’s brilliantly researched tome. I consider myself a well read Laurel and Hardy fan, having seen 99 percent of the team’s films and being well versed in their off-screen history history, but every page of From The Forties Forward offered me revelatory information that challenged my assumptions about the duo’s time at Fox and MGM during the latter stage of their career. I’m not the type of fan to have dismissed these latter-day films before reading this book, but it has certainly enlightened me to their surprisingly complex production history.

It is pretty much universally accepted that Laurel and Hardy made their finest pictures at the Hal Roach studios from the 1920s to the 1930s and MacGillivray doesn’t really try to argue otherwise. What he does do, however, is to make a persuasive case for taking their later work just as seriously as their peak creative years. Even when working for studios who didn’t understand their comedy, the Boy’s and many of their co-workers show true craftsmanship in everyone of their films.

If I were to make one criticism it would be that the last three chapters of the book – covering home movies, home video, and fandom – would perhaps work better as appendices. As it stands the book seems to loose a bit of it’s steam towards the end. There is nothing wrong with these chapters; in fact they’re perfectly interesting. They just don’t feel like part of the main story.

Highly recommended.