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Archive for December, 2015

Mysterious Island (1961) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, December 31st, 2015


Stars – Gary Merrill, Joan Greenwood, Herbert Lom, Beth Rogan, Percy Herbert, Michael Craig, Michael Callan
Director – Cy Endfield

Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 Units
Available at Screenarchives.com

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Ray Harryhausen’s films are an absolute delight. This one does not center around a title monster or a quest by Jason or Sinbad. Mysterious Islansd is a marvelous adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel about civil war era prison escapees whose balloon gets carried away to a fantastic island. While Ray is known for creating an array of articulated creatures and giants his work with that initial balloon sequence is remarkable. We see a balloon in a Union prison camp. I can’t remember any reason why it’s there but it looks so neat tied to the ground. A group of Confederates and one Union man hijack it to make an heroic escape.  They soar into the skies where we get to spend a while with them as they try to cope with the winds and establish their own navigation. It makes for a thrilling start. After loosing control of the balloon the group is deposited into the ocean and swept up onto the beach of an island. Harryhausen fans will spot that the beach in this film is the same one used for parts of Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. You’ll recognize the place where Sinbad’s crew stopped to fill up their canteens.

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In short order they fashion a Swiss Family Robinson style series of huts. The interaction between the men who have to work together is handled nicely. Each gets their own distinct character. Most amusing is Gary Merrill who plays Gideon a journalist who covers the war. He gets drafted into being the cook for the crew. The attack on the beach by a giant crab is a set piece for the film. The large crustacean looks perfect right down to every detail. We learn in the accompanying documentary that Harryhausen had a real crab hollowed out and fitted with armatures that he could manipulate with his stop motion photography process. His technique makes the crab move realistically and he incorporates an animated man held by one of its claws. The next scene features Gideon serving a crab meat delicacy to everyone. Director Cy Enfield (Zulu) keeps a light adventure tone to everything. Two women, one young and one older join the proceedings.  While leaving the island is a priority there is plenty of action.

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Harryhausen’s sequences are woven into the film well by Enfield. The youngest of the crew, Elena played by model Beth Rogan and Herbert wander off together. We can all spot the budding romance between the young soldier and the fetching Elena. Michael Callen who is Herbert would soon have terrific role in Cat Ballou (1965). They climb up a trail following honey only to find themselves sealed into a chamber in the honey comb by a huge bee. Another stand out bit features something like a giant bird without flying wings. As the guys fight it off and try to take it down we are treated to a very nice interplay between Bernard’s Herrmann’s playful score and the comical action.

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The performances of the cast push things along while always retaining that Classic Illustrated style of adventure. Things may get tense and challenging but no one is being eaten by any of these beasts. The third portion of the film involves Nemo. Herbert Lom (Phantom of the Opera) playz him more seriously. He’s a brilliant scientist who has developed these super sized plants to help feed the world. Like other characters of Jules Verne he detests war and is dedicated to vanquishing the activity on a world level. The underwater scenes with the men walking on the ocean floor with sea shell-like aqualungs are gorgeous to look at. This is a first class adventure fantasy. Ray Harryhuasen’s style is good fit with Jules Verne; just as good as he would match up with H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964) a few years later.


Twilight Time is calling this an Encore Edition for those who missed the initial release.  I was absolutely satisfied with the transfer. Though I have not seen the previous edition there were several sequences that sported excellent color that stood out as eye candy. Bernard Herrman’s score also sounds full and robust in the 5.1 DTS mix. Ray Harryhuasen in Blu-ray that looks this good is a treat. It transcends any nostalgia by leaps and bounds as these films still retain large amounts of magic. The trade off is that in return for that luscious color, sharp detail and exuberant soundtrack you may occasionally see a slight tipping of Ray Harryhausen’s hand here and there. But there is nothing to see. It really is magic.

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Video – 1.66:1
Very nice detail. Strong robust colors. The transfer looks like an adventure of this kind should. No complaints at all. Again I can not compare it to the previous Twilight Time release but there were several sections that definitely stood out in every area.

Audio – 5.1 DTS-HD MA, 2.0 DTS-HD MA, 1.0 DTS-HD MA with subtitles offered in English SDH
If you like Bernard Herrman’s work the sound track is a joy. The way he combines different instruments and brings things to a crescendo is just a delight. The bit with the giant bird is another one of his fun pieces. Though he is know for so much and mostly identified with Hitchcock his style was a perfect match for Harryhausen. That they worked together four times is a tribute to the producers who made that happen.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score and effects track, Commentary with film historians Randall William Cook, C. Courtney Joyner and Steven Smith, Ray Harryhausen on Mysterious Island, Islands of Mystery, TV Spots, Theatrical Trailers

The making of documentary is fascinating. It appears to be the same one that was on the old Sony DVD. The commentary is new to this edition.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Captive City (1952) Blu-Ray Review

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015


Stars – John Forsythe, Joan Camden, Martin Milner, Victor Sutherland
Director – Robert Wise

Released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Robert Wise delivers a solid Film Noir about a reporter who uncovers corruption and illegal doings in his small city. The film starts out with a prologue from senator Kefauver whose anti crime committee was gaining lots of traction in the press and on television. There is a bit of that , “This could happen right in your own town” warning to his words. To add gasoline to the fire director Wise opens with John Forsythe and his wife being followed on a road. The chase is on and they barely make it to a police station. Forsythe asks for a tape recorder and just like Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944) he gets the facts down in somber tones, in case anything happens to him. The story of real life reporter  Alvin Josephy Jr. who wrote for Time Magazine propels the expose style narrative. He had an active hand in the story and script. Forsythe plays Jim Austin based on him.

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What drives this story is how well Wise slowly tightens the net around Jim. At first he follows the story like a good reporter. There is bookmaking, illegal gambling going on in his town. All of this is connected to the big guy in town, Murray Sirak (Victor Sutherland ). Jim has a junior reporter played my Martin Milner (Adam-12, Route 66) with broad Jimmy Olson enthusiasm pretend to fix his car in the bad part of town to keep an eye out. He photographs a couple of out of town thugs. They follow him and just as he develops the films they beat him up and steal it. Milner’s mother lays into Jim for risking her son’s neck. Then the businesses in town start dropping their ads out of the paper. His partner and best friend ask him to back off. It is hurting business too much.

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Though this is only gambling people are getting killed. What’s worse is that the friendly townspeople have more than a few who are connected to this scheme and they are not above ratting him out. There’s a telling scene where Jim gets a ticket for no reason. The cop offers no explanation but tells him he was told to. The increasing level of paranoia begins to cook Jim. Director Wise adds some nicely composed shots to amp up the level of tension. Threatening images loom in the foreground. He makes a normal parking meter seem to encroach poor Jim right out of the frame.

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This film never gets into the more realistic rough and tumble style that Phil Karlson would employ in his trouble comes to town films like The Phoenix City Story (1955) a few years later. However right from the start you know you are in good hands. The film has a very quick pace and a disturbing way of putting characters into jeopardy. It is downright uneasy when some of the folks who are so friendly turn wicked when their bookmaking operation is threatened. At a few points though you think that this is only sports betting. What’s the big deal? We are informed that it brings in all the wrong kind of people like those out of town thugs that beat up young Martin Milner. It is all connected like a spider web of crime and corruption. That part is a bit preachy but there is no denying how it escalates to danger level so easily. Robert Wise did quite a few Film Noirs like Born to Kill(1947) and The Set-up (1949). They are all worth catching.

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Video – 1.33:1
Images looks fine in this presentation. There is the occasional bit of very light hazing or slight imaging softening but not enough to get in the way. All the exteriors look good. Black levels in the darker interiors hold up well. There are some nice compositions where you can see the bucolic city outside of windows in the early part of the film. As things get tighter for John Forsythe that frame gets a little tighter too.

Audio – Mono
All dialogue is clear and easy to follow.

Extras – Trailers

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray- Excellent

Movie – Good/ Excellent

Count Dracula (1970) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, December 24th, 2015


Stars – Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda
Director – Jess Franco

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

“ Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!” How fitting it is to hear Christopher Lee say those words. That phrase is closely identified with Bela Lugosi who said it in 1931’s Dracula. These are the two men who defined this character for most of the world. In 1970 cult director Jess Franco set out to make the definitive version. This one would be the most loyal to the original novel by Bram Stoker. Lee looked fierce behind blood red eyes with his threatening stature in all those wonderful Hammer films. But their Dracula did not say much. Here we see Lee with gray and white hair. He has a long mustache much as the one described in Stoker’s book. At once he appears educated and eloquent. Lee delivers long passages of dialogue as if here we commanding our attention from a stage. He is in great form and a perfect match for the part. He feels reborn for it. The question,  when you see this, is does the production fulfill its promise. Lee’s performance is one any fan of Dracula, vampires, Hammer or any other kind of horror must see. The production ultimately lets him down though.

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Things start out promising enough. Harker takes a train to a town where people turn away whenever he mentions Dracula’s name. The horse drawn carriage ride through heavy fog that clings to the ground sets just the right atmosphere. Those first scenes with Harker and Dracula play out wonderfully. It feels damn close to the book. The performances are strong. There is a scene that was missing from some editions that features a mother banging on the castle door. She cries out for the return of her baby. No one answers. Later when Dracula’s brides want to descend on Harker he waves them off. He tosses a large bag at their feet. As they claw at it and drag it off we can hear the baby’s cries from inside. That’s so well done. However when we get to Renfield things begin to change. Not even the extremely thick white padded cell can hope to contain Klaus Kinski. When he gets served his dinner he flings it all over the white walls and finger paints with it. It’s just bizarre. This man is making his own movie. Then we start to notice the plastic spiders stuck in webs like a cheap Halloween display.

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There apparently was not enough budget for any kind of special effects. Franco does an interesting double image of Dracula’s brides rising from their caskets in see through exposure the first time we see them. But that’s about it. Every time we see the fake bats it takes us out of the film’s reality. There are no transformation scenes with Lee either. Franco has a reputation for excessive blood. There is none of that here. There are some lovely women in the cast but Franco does not indulge his penchant for nudity here either. This is a very tame Franco film. Is this the same man who would go on to give us his much more personal take on the genre with Vampyros Lesbos in 1971? The one trademark of his that we get plenty of is his love of the Zoom Lens. However he has assembled a good cast for the film. Herbert Lom gives us a strong Van Helsing.

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Unfortunately the pacing gets pretty sluggish. There seems to be no urgency to get from one scene to the other. The sound hurts the film, too. The dubbed voices, though done by the actual actors does not fair all that well. The mix is thin with few effects and no sense of location. Once in awhile things swing back. There is a bit with the now undead Lucy drawing a young girl to come with her into the dark woods that is chilling.  Watching those opening scenes with Lee sinking his well worn fangs into the dialogue is a kick. Anyone who has seen him play the role before can sense how he relishes those lines. This is clearly a must see for Christopher fans. Lee’s performance as good as it is is not met with a production done with the same dedication.

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Video – 1.33:1
The 1.33:1 ratio seems an odd choice for a film made in 1970. The early exteriors and that journey to the castle look very nice. However once inside the lighting, to my taste looks rather flat. The transfer delivers what is there well enough. Those who are looking for lurid colors and lots of artfully lit dark interiors are apt to be disappointed. The look here is much different than the kind of horror films that Lee made at Hammer. It feels a bit on the pale side. Again that was the way it was chosen to be shot.

Audio – English 2.0
The good thing is that the actors all appear to have done their own voices in the post production dubbing. Actors whose voices you recognize are all there. However the mix is thin. Sound effects lack presence. We do not get a real feel for the locations we are in. Granted that style of shooting without sync sound was common for Franco. Still the lack of a dynamic range or any kind of sound staging serves to remove us from the actors’ performances. Fans of Franco who are used to this may appreciate its charm but those coming to Count Dracula from the more well produced films that Lee made elsewhere will likely feel disappointed.

Extras – Uncut Feature in HD (Includes Controversial Previously Deleted Baby Scene) at Franco’s Approved Aspect Ratio 1.33:1, CUADECUC, VAMPIR (1970): Experimental ‘Making Of’ Feature By Pere Portabella, Commentary with horror historian David Del Valle and Actress Maria Rohm, Beloved Count Interview with Director Jess Franco, An Interview With Actor Jack Taylor, ‘Handsome Harker’ Interview With Actor Fred Williams, ’Stake Holders’ An Appreciation By Filmmaker Christophe Gans
German Trailer

Christopher Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) offers a very interesting take on the film.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray- Excellent

Movie – Fair/ Good

Axe (1975) / Kidnapped Coed (1976) Blu-Ray Review

Sunday, December 20th, 2015


Stars – Jack Cannon, Leslie Lee, Leslie Rivers
Director, Writer, Producer – Frederick Freidel

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you just see Axe you may be tempted to dismiss it as a rather dull film and you might be right. However if you watch the one hour documentary At Last …Total Terror – The Amazing True Story of the Making of Axe & Kidnapped Coed next and then see the second feature you will have quite a different and rewarding experience. Fred Freidel wanted to make a movie. He did not have any background in the film industry. He did not have a story he wanted to tell or an idea he had to express. Freidel corralled a few people with some connection to the industry, hustled some folks into acting and just pushed this feature through. Axe played a few regional theaters but he yearned for a film to be released on a national level. His next film was budgeted thanks to a quick bit of fundraising by a relative. Kidnapped Coed looked a lot better. Fred fell under the spell of a distributor who promised so much and then took everything. The man left in a cloud of bankruptcy and Fred left the business entirely.

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Almost thirty years later when British author Stephen Thrower tracked him down for an interview for his book, “Nightmare USA – The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents ( 2007)” Freidel opened up about his experiences. It’s a tough tale and one that is similar to a lot of regional filmmakers. The documentary goes into great detail about how the films were and made how the distribution deal took them away. In another included extra author Thrower says that Friedel’s complete lack of experience led him to try things in a uniquely fresh way on Axe. He regards both films as examples of artistic merit. For my part I strongly disagree with Thrower’s conclusions. However getting to know Friedel and some members of his crew lets you in on the films in such a familiar way that they can been seen and appreciated on a very different level. Fans of independent cinema, particularly those who like the regional side of things will find the combination of the film along with Friedel’s story to be very compelling.

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Axe follows four hoods on the lam after they execute some guy. The poor man is beaten to death with a doll while his friend leaps out the window. Eventually the hoods hide out in a farmhouse where a young girl takes care of her wheelchair bound father. She seems to like cutting the heads of chickens a lot. She takes the axe to a few of them. One of the bad guys has second thoughts about all of this but his plans to make good get unraveled in a typical seventies downer ending. It should be noted that the camera goes to great lengths to avoid showing anyone actually speaking as if the crew was not trained in how to record sync sound. Much of the violence happens off screen. There is very little action, no nudity and aside from the treatment of a lady in a convenience store very little that you’d actually call exploitation. One of the actors Jack Cannon has some style but the rest are ineffectual.

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When you start watching Kidnapped Coed you will notice a dramatic improvement in the way the entire film looks. Colors are well presented. The shots are lined up properly. The same guy gets credit for shooting both films but it really seems as if a completely different person, camera, film stock and processing lab were used. There is evidence of lighting being set up for shots in this one that was absent in the first. In this story Jack Cannon from the last film is back. He kidnaps a girl to ransom to her rich father. They bond and get to like each other when he shoots the creeps who break into their hotel room and try to rape her. This is kind of a road trip film. Everyone they meet is mean or impolite to them including a cute little kid who gives them the finger when they drive into town. This one has another “surprise” ending bit that is easily recognizable to fans of seventies films. The two leads are better but the film is not much in the story department. Again aside from that would be rape scene you’d be very hard pressed to call this any kind of exploitation picture. However having gotten to meet the folks behind the scenes you almost want to cheer for them when there is an artful shot of the kidnapped girl in the barn. She looks like she is posing for a shampoo commercial.

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While neither film offers much in the way of exploitive thrills the documentary is excellent and will give you a much better experience with them. The best bit of editing in the entire set occurs during the documentary. We learn that Fred collects classic movie posters. We see some of them beautifully framed in his house. He points out the sad irony that he has these films made by other people on display in his house but he has nothing to show for the two film that he made. No posters, no artwork, not even the films themselves. After we hear this man’s story and the truly wonderful things that happen toward the end there is a final shot. It is very brief right before the credits. There is Fred Freidel standing up looking at the two posters of his films framed and leaning against a few chairs. It is a truly beautiful moment and a editing choice to make that the last shot we see of Fred.

Video – 1.85:1
Axe looks bad. The transfer may be the best that could be done with the elements at hand. I though I saw a changeover dot or two which indicates the source material may not be made entirely from an original negative. Kidnapped Coed on the other hand looks terrific. These films are night and day different from each other. When we get a look at the way these films were treated it’s a wonder this one looks this good at all.

Audio – English and German mono tracks with no subtitles offered.
The sound on the Axe is pretty poor although you can follow along ok. The second feature sounds much better though I would not call it particularly good. Both films have a very creative musical soundtrack that goes from county pop to jazz. While some of the cues are shoe horned into a few scenes the musicianship and playfulness on hand are almost always interesting.

Extras – AXE feature, new 2k transfer from Original Negative, Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Frederick R. Friedel, Production Manager Philip Smoot, Makeup Artist Worth Keeter & PA Richard W. Helms
KIDNAPPED COED feature, new 2k transfer from Original Negative, Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Frederick R. Friedel, Production Manager Philip Smoot & Makeup Artist Worth Keeter
BLOODY BROTHERS feature, conformed from new transfers, Audio Commentary with “Nightmare USA” Author Stephen Thrower
At Last… Total Terror! – The Incredible True Story of AXE & KIDNAPPED COED (61 mins.) , Moose Magic – The George Newman Shaw & John Willhelm Story (38 mins)
Stephen Thrower on AXE & KIDNAPPED COED (10 mins) , Trailers, TV Spots & Radio Spots
Audio CD of AXE & KIDNAPPED COED Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Plus Bonus Tracks By Soundtrack Composers George Newman Shaw & John Willhelm

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic :

Blu-Ray- Excellent

Movies – Fair, Documentary – Excellent