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The Invisible Ghost (1941) Blu-Ray Review

March 14th, 2017

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Stars – Bela Lugosi, Polly Ann Young, Betty Compson, John McGuire, Clarence Muse
Director – Joseph H. Lewis

Released by Kino Studio Classics

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

If you have a taste for Poverty Row films this is a classic with much to recommend about it. The first major draw is Lugosi’s performance. He plays a delightful man whose wife has cheated on him and disappeared. Whether she is dead or gone we do not really know. It has broken his heart. Though she has been gone for three years he still has a fancy dinner on their anniversary. Her plate is set and he engages in imaginary conversation with the empty chair. Later on he is visited by a ghostly image of her. She puts the whammy on him. Director Lewis has a light placed underneath the frame just in front of Lugosi. As he moves closer his face gets brighter. The excessive glare accentuates his features. He extends his hand in a classic chocking posture and affects a limp as he goes after someone to do away with. He seems to settle for anyone who is available in the house. It’s a good thing his daughter and boyfriend came over because Lugosi was running out of people to kill. There is no devious plot behind the killings. We know who done it from the start. The why seems to be just bonkers if you think about it at all. Even though Lugosi is the killer we can see it is not his fault. He is so nice to the butler. At one point he reassures the new cook who is about to quit. It is a tender moment. So while Bela is still the mysterious strangler he gets to play a good guy in a rare sympathetic role.

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Early on we see that the gardener has Lugosi’s wife hidden away in a secret room down in the basement. He took her down there after a car accident. She’s not quite herself so rather than trouble anyone upstairs he figures he’ll let her regain her composure before returning her. But it’s been three years! That’s a long time to smuggle turkey legs and scraps from the dinner table downstairs to this lady. She’s got a small bed and a nightstand and that’s about it. This gardener could well be the father of the creepy kidnapping guy in The Vanishing (1988).

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With all these murders why do people keep staying in this house? While the plot and mystery are just nuts, director Joseph H. Lewis elevates this film with his considerable talents. His frequent use of interesting shadows enhanes the look of many sequences. He’ll often put something in the foreground with his actors in the middle area to give his shots an amazing amount of depth. When Lugosi sits down at his favorite chair by the fireplace he has the camera shoot from behind the flames looking up at Lugosi. It’s a great shot. He uses the gimmick of having Bela put his hands inside his coat when he strangles his victims. It eliminates fingerprints but also allows for some close ups of Bela’s eyes burning out over the collar of the coat as he holds it up. It is a bit reminiscent of Dracula peering over his cape. There are a few times when the camera trucks slowly toward an actor. It makes a strong impact as the camera doesn’t move around much in this soundstage. Any fan of horror films will appreciate the beauty shot he gives Lugosi’s wife as she peers in from the rain soaked window. When talented directors worked at this level they may have had low budgets but their innovation and creativity had full reign. There were no Darryl F. Zanucks or Harry Warners checking in on them. Lewis went on to make Gun Crazy, The Big Combo and other great films but his style is easily recognized here.

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This is an old dark house style mystery-thriller-horror picture. There is Lugosi, his daughter, the boyfriend, the cook, the gardener and the butler. We also get a visits from two detectives. It’s a small cast and one location to keep the budget down. When the boyfriend is killed his twin brother arrives. Now that’s getting two roles out of one actor Poverty Row style. It is worth noting that Clarence Muse’s butler is a very likeable character. There is none of the exaggerated frightened antics that were usually the norm for black actors then. The film runs 64 minutes which was normal for a B film like this.  Between Bela’s performance and the style of director Joseph Lewis The Invisible Ghost is one of the better Poverty Row films out there.

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Video – 1.33:1
After a bit of a rocky start with the credits the picture looks exceptional for the next twenty five minutes or so. Detail is quite strong. Black levels all behave with no noise chatter. The close ups of Lugosi reveal texture in the skin. Shadows have nice contrast. The shot of the wife through the rain soaked window is a classic horror portrait. However about a half hour in we get a shift in quality as if other elements were then used. There are scratches. Some of the lighter scenes feel a bit too bright with a few facial shots bordering on washing out. But then we’ll see strong detail in the background and people.  The enhancing benefits of the transfer seem to hold their own throughout. The varying quality has to be down to condition of the film materials that were available. What is good about this picture remains fabulous. Yes it is not consistent but more than enough of this looks great. Much is good and the rest is always entirely viewable despite the scratches and lines.

Audio – Mono track with subtitles offered in English
All dialogue is easy to follow. The music has plenty of recognizable cues that fans may have heard in many films before.

Extras – Commentary with Tom Weaver, Gary Rhodes, and Dr. Robert Kiss, Trailers
The inside cover sports a very nice two sided spread of promotional art from the film.

Tom Weaver and his pals bring a Steamer trunk full of information to this fun commentary track. Gary Rhodes gives a nice infatuated tribute to the old Dark House sub genre. Weaver doles out plenty of background on the film and the stars. We learn that Polly Ann Young is Loretta Young’s older sister. Despite admitting that the film’s plotline is Looney Tunes all three bring a real appreciation of the film to the table.

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

Blu-Ray – Good / Excellent

Movie – Good / Excellent

Kiss Of Death (1947) Blu-Ray Review

March 11th, 2017

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Stars – Victor Mature, Brian Donlevy, Karl Malden, Richard Widmark, Coleen Gray
Director – Henry Hathaway

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

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

Kiss of Death is a good Film Noir that gets catapulted into greatness by way of Richard Widmark’s stand out performance as sadistic hit man Tommy Udo. The nature of the lead character played by Victor Mature also represents a departure for the kind of heroes that would be acceptable. The film starts off with the robbery of a jewelry store. Mature is one of the guys knocking the place over. One of the robbers kills someone. So he is a crook, right? No doubt about it. Now he did not kill the guy but he was part of the crew that did. Later on when he is forced to choose between being sent off on a lengthy prison term or become a snitch and rat out his friends he sings like a canary. There are extenuating circumstances. His wife became involved in a tawdry affair while he was away. Things got so tough for her that she stuck her head in an over and committed suicide. Mature’s little boy is left all alone. However the kid’s old babysitter has eyes for his dad. Forget that he is too old for her, and that he is in jail. So this is the hero of the picture. This is the guy we are rooting for. When he has to testify in court against one of his old crew word gets around and Tommy Udo is called in to take care of him. Now Mature is still definitely a bad guy but when you compare him to Udo, maybe he’s not so bad.

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That kind of character is one of the things that is so compelling about a good Noir. People can have shades to them. The gray scale of human morality gets as much attention as the fascinating photography by Nobert Brodine. Brodine shot over 100 films starting in the silent era. In this one we frequently see a reflection of Mature in a nearby window or on a highly polished piece of furniture or door. That gleam in the reflections is so strong that you suspect they had a guy in the crew whose sole job was to take a shammy cloth to any shiny surface the camera pointed at. But it works. There are two sides to this guy and maybe he’s leaning more toward the good side of life now. Meanwhile Richard Widmark makes a film debut that just rocks the house. He has a maniacal high pitched laugh. You can trace that laugh from the Batman comics by way of Widmark being a fan to Frank Gorshin’s laugh as The Riddler in the Batman TV show. Widmark also sports a world class smirk throughout most of the picture. His dialogue is full of these hipster put downs. He calls squealers and people not up to his liking, squirts. He says it like squints at times, too. He oozes evil and looks ready to pop at any moment. The costumer did a great job with his look. He dresses like a stylish gangster with just a touch of a comic book villain.

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The intense scene that starts with Udo asking an old lady in a wheelchair where her son is has become legendary. Everything about it just builds beautifully. The old lady lies about her son not being there. Udo sees an open window that the squirt had make his escape through. Who would tie an elderly mother into her wheelchair with an electric cord he just rips off of a lamp. Udo takes her out on the landing and heaves her down the stairway. His laughter over the scene seals the deal. You could line up the people offended by that scene several times around the city of Philadelphia. After seeing this guy at work rooting for Mature’s bad guy who now may be more of a good guy just got a whole lot easier.

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Coleen Gray, the baby sitter who marries Victor Mature has a voice over that opens and closes the picture. With so many hardnosed guys doing voice overs in Noirs this has a very different and gentle quality to it. Much of the film was shot on the streets of the city which lends it an air of toughness . There is a bordello hidden in a town house in a nice neighborhood that Udo takes Mature to. The incongruity of the house of ill repute carrying on in such a nice part of town fits with Mature’s duality nicely. Kiss of Death has some melodrama to it that gets balanced well with the brutality of Widmark‘s role of Tommy Udo. The darkness of the location shoot also levels the scales. The shots inside the Chrysler building are terrific. Kiss Of Death is a stand out Film Noir that gets a great looking treatment here.

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Video – 1.33:1
This is a very satisfying presentation. Black levels are strong. There is no distortion at all. There is plenty of detail to be found in clothing, faces and backgrounds. The gleam in the frequent reflections is easily seen.

Audio – DTS HD MA 2.0 and 1.0 in English with subtitles offered in English SDH
All dialogue is easily understandable. Music and effects fit well in the track.

Extras – Twilight Time’s signature isolated score track, Commentary by film historians  Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, Commentary with film historians James Ursini and Alain Silver, Original theatrical trailer, Essay by Julie Kirgo

Ursini and Silver are well know for their books on Film Noir. They bring in a great deal of information in their commentary. The other new commentary is more fun and gives another take on the film.

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

Blu-Ray – Excellent

Movie – Excellent

Return of Kung Fu Trailers Of (2017) Blu-Ray Review

March 11th, 2017

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Stars – Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung, Don Wong, Chang Yi, Chuck Norris

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

This is the sequel to the popular trailer collection Kung Fu Trailers of Fury just as the title tells you. Many of these may not be familiar and that is part off the kick in this fun trailer compendium. This is not the expected cascade of Shaw Brothers releases that were popular on TV screens on weekend afternoons in the eighties. Every city and town seemed to have its own home grown program or a syndicated version of Kung Fu Theater on TV. There are a few that you’ll recognize such as the Chuck Norris film and some with Angela Mao Ying but for the most part these are lesser known titles. Quite a few are not from Hong Kong. Several are made in Taiwan. All of them are full of explosive fight scenes and the requisite over the top sound effects.

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For me it was more fun to watch them with the commentary by Ric Meyers, Frank Djeng, Greg Schiller and Ric Stelow. 134 minutes of trailers is a lot to get through on your own.  Right at the start Meyers states that rather than try to give you every fun fact about everyone on screen like he attempted in the last one he wanted this to be more of a free for all. He asks the others guy to interrupt him whenever they wish. There is a lot of talk about which stars had real Kung Fu skills on display. We get to hear who made a career out of these films. Ric Meyers tells a fun story about running into a guy he recognized from these pictures as a waiter in a restaurant. H said he worked there now because it paid better. One of the guys gives us an easy way to see if a film was actually shot in Hong Kong by checking the license plates on the cars. Hong Kong plates all have two letters followed by four numbers. At one point there is a cartoon trailer that gets the treatment from these fellows. While it is not the rowdy free for all Meyers called for it is still a lot of fun. The trailers are a hoot and these guys really know their stuff.

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Here is the full listing of original trailers :
Thunderbolt, Tellow Faced Tiger, Kung fu Master Named Drunk Cat
Invincible Super Guy, Invisible Terrorist, Shaolin Invincible Sticks
Bruce and the Iron Finger, Snuff Bottle Connection, Story of Chinese gods
Along Come the Tiger, The Owl, Two in Black Belt, The Young Avenger
The White Hair Devil Lady, The Super Kung Fu Fighter, Killer from Above
Kung Fu Killers, Guy with Secret Kung Fu, Bloody Mission
Revenge of the Shaolin Kid, The Thundering Mantis, Shaolin Hero Chang San Feng
The Bomb-shell, Black Guide, One Way Only, The Old Master
The Big Leap Forward, Gambling for Head, Silent Romance
Itchy Fingers, Crazy Horse and Intelligent Monkey, The Legendary Strike
The Instant Kung Fu Man, Dragon and the Tiger Kids, Avenging Boxer

The trailers are drawn from films released between 1973 and 1984.

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Video – 2.35:1
A collection of trailers like this has the varied degrees of quality you’d expect. Any blemishes are entirely forgivable.

Audio – Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
The garish sounds of the trailers come across fine. The classic fighting effect blare jarringly from the screen just like you want. The commentary track frequently turns off the volume of the trailers as they talk so you can follow the conversation more easily.

Extras – Commentary with writer Ric Meyers (FILMS OF FURY), Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival), Martial Arts Instructor Greg Schiller and Ric Stelow of Drunken Master Video

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good / Excellent

Drive – In Massacre (1976) Blu-Ray Review

March 4th, 2017

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Stars – Jake Barnes, Adam Lawrence, Douglas Gudbye
Director – Stu Segall

Released by Severin

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

When this film started I saw The Duke of Disguise listed for Make up. The film was based on an original idea by Godfrey Daniels. That’s an old phrase that W.C Fields used instead of cursing on screen. Clearly the people behind this film had a good time getting this quickie slasher ready for the theaters. The two behemoths of the genre Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) had yet to make their mark but there was already an almost insatiable need for any film with a knife wielding maniac and the promise of bloodshed.. Some of those films showed a lot of style. Others were B style films made by an experienced dedicated crew who did not take it all that seriously. This one had a crew with a fun attitude but not very much in terms of experience. The film is poorly made and the acting leaves much to be desired. The director Stu Segall comes across wonderfully in his included interview. He went one to have a very successful career working mainly in television. He admits that the person they hired to make the all important fake arms and heads to be loped off was a no show. After a quick trip to the local supermarket we see all kinds of melons and such worked into the scenes of bloody mayhem. I wish more of that sense of fun showed up on screen.

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One night at the drive in a man on a date reaches outside his car to grab the speaker. He gets his arm loped off by a sword. The killer finishes him off and kills his date, too. The next day two schlubby looking detectives come by and question an odd assortment of ex carnival workers who now operate the drive in. Each night another couple gets done in. The detectives keep up their inquisitive conversations. Through all of this the customers keep coming back to the drive in. This is done on a very cheap budget. There are a few sets and the camera tends to sit in one position until a scene is over and it has to be moved to the next location. There are plenty of killings and a good amount of stage blood but nothing on the level of Tom Savini’s work that would set the standard for the genre.  All of that is forgivable. What is missed most is a sense of fun or a willingness to take this any further than the perfunctory level at hand. One scene with a lady who tumbles out of her car and hangs upside down does make for a terrific image that is utilized in all of the posters and ad art.

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Video – 1.78:1
The beginning of the film is not in great shape. Things improve later on. There is decent detail to be found in many of the later scenes though.

Audio – No subtitles are offered.
The sound has a flat quality to it but dialogue is easy enough to follow.

Extras – Commentary with Director Stu Segall, Drive-In Days: Interview with Star/Co-Writer John F. Goff, Norm Sheridan Recalls Drive-In Massacre, Making the Massacre: Interview with Director Stu Segall, Theatrical Trailer, Reverse Cover Art

Stu Segall gives is very interesting interview. He covers all this mishaps and fun experiences he had making the film. He’s a very friendly man. He readily admits this was the beginning of his career and everyone was flying by the seats of their pants.

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

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Fair