Cold War Creatures: Four Films from Sam Katzman

cold war creatures

You know that I love horror movies and film noir, but I also have a soft spot for really low-budget science fiction flicks, especially those made in the 1950s. I love alien invasions from space and giant creatures made from atomic radiation. Way back in October of last year I reviewed a three-film boxed set from Arrow Video. It is filled with giant birds, atomic brains and crazy zombies. Check it out.

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema IX

film noir

Kino Lorber released two of their film noir sets in October which seemed weird to me since Noirvember was just a month later. But maybe they wanted to get them on the shelves a few weeks before the holiday so that fans would be ready to watch once November rolled around.

I watched these so long ago I had to read my own review just to remember if I liked this one (I did). You can do the same here.

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema X

film noir

I’ve fallen behind in posting links to my reviews over at Cinema Sentries. I wrote this one for Kino Lorber’s latest film noir boxed sets back in October, but what better time to share it than the tail end of Noirvember? To be honest this set was probably my least favorite one they’ve done. Mostly because the three films are boxing movies and not really noir. But whatever, you can read my review here.

Noirvember #11: The Dark Corner (1946)

the dark corner

I love me some William Bendix. He’s one of those great character actors that you don’t necessarily notice at first but then he keeps showing up in small parts in all sorts of films and you go, “oh there’s that guy again.” And he’s always good. I probably first noticed him in The Glass Key (1942) where he played a jovial gangster who rather enjoyed beating up on Alan Ladd.

He’s a heavy in The Dark Corner as well, but he’s smarter and more crafty, but not nearly as fun to watch. He’s been hired by the film’s true villain to spy on the hero of our picture, Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). He intentionally does a bad job of it so that Bradford will know someone’s keeping an eye on him. And then later trying to kill him.

Lucille Ball plays Galt’s secretary, but she doesn’t quite fit. Obviously, she was a gifted comedienne and a true treasure, I just wish they’d done something different with her character. They could have used her comedic talents and made something like The Thin Man where she wisecracks her way through the film. Or they could have made her the smartest person in the room. That’s what all the descriptions indicate she’ll be. I was expecting the Galt character to be rather dim-witted and she’s the smart secretary secretly solving all the crimes. Instead, she’s just a regular secretary and the love interest but is given very little of interest to do.

The story is fine, there are some good twists and it has the look of a good noir. But it never quite did it for me.

This makes yet another Noirvember film this month put into the just OK category. I fully expected this to happen as I intentionally picked relatively obscure films to watch instead of the well-known classics, but I have to admit I’m ready for something really good.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The House of the Devil (2009)

the house of the devil

I’ve been hearing good things about Pearl and X, both films that were directed by Ti West and came out this year, and so when I saw that his 2009 film House of the Devil was on The Criterion Channel I decided to give it a shot.

I mostly loved it and I’m gonna try not to spoil anything as this is definitely a film that’s best if you go into it not knowing very much. It is also a film that clearly takes its influences from late 1970s/early 1980s horror. It is definitely a slow burn, that only gets “exciting” in the last twenty minutes. I put exciting in quotes because I found the rest of the film exhilarating, but not a whole lot happens in that build-up.

Joceline Donahue plays Samantha, a college student in need of help. Her roommate is terrible and she desperately wants to move. She’s found a place to rent, but she’s got to come up with the first month’s deposit, and she’s unemployed and broke. When she sees a flyer for someone needing a babysitter she immediately gives it a call. Despite the guy who answers the phone sounding like a creep and standing her up on their first meeting, she takes the job.

She gets her friend (Greta Gerwig) to drive her out to the isolated (and close to a cemetery) house where she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan). He is strange, and kind of creepy. The house is big, old, and creepy as well. He tells her he lied, that this isn’t a babysitting job, but rather a looking after his elderly mother-in-law job. She is healthy and gets around just fine, so really all Sam has to do is make sure no emergencies happen and it will be smooth sailing. Especially since the mom is a private person and will likely stay in her room.

Despite the creepiness, and the warnings from her friend Sam stays. It should be easy, and besides the guy is offering $400 for one night’s work.

This is a horror movie called The Devil’s House so we are primed for Mr. Ulman to be a serial killer, or the mother-in-law to be a holy terror, or for devil worshipers to try to get into the house. Ti West knows this expectation and plays with it. For most of the film’s run-time literally, nothing happens. Sam sits in the house alone and bored. She watches TV. She orders a pizza. She plays pool while listening to her Walkman. She explores the house. But the way the film is shot. The way the camera lingers in certain places. The way it was shot in 16mm giving it a grainy look. The way the music acts like a creepy horror movie score. The way the house looks with its weird rooms, and deep shadows. The way Sam is perpetually scared. All of these things build up unrelenting tension.

There is one scene, relatively early on, that happens to someone who is not Sam, that lets you know all this tension building isn’t for naught, but mostly it’s just playing with your expectations. I loved it. So much so that I was actually kind of disappointed when things actually started to happen.

I’ll stop myself there. I have a few reservations about the ending, but mostly I really liked this one.

Noirvember #10: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956)

beyond a reasonable doubt

I’m generally not the type of person who complains about plot holes in a movie. I’m a firm believer that cinema is much more than the plot. I can easily overlook holes in a plot or problematic bits of a story when the acting, direction, cinematography, music, etc, are doing it for me.

Fritz Lang is a fantastic director. He came up making silent films in Germany so he knows how to tell a story visually, without a lot of audible or written language. But I almost turned Beyond a Reasonable Doubt off because the story was so ridiculously dumb.

Dana Andrews plays a guy who, along with his soon-to-be father-in-law hatch a plan to expose the inadequacies of the district attorney and the death penalty. The idea is to find a murder case that the police can’t solve, then plant a bunch of evidence making it look like Dana Andrew’s character is guilty. At the same time, they’ll take some photos and stuff proving they planted it. The police will catch him, the DA will prosecute him, and the jury will convict but just before he’s executed the father-in-law will reveal the plan and all will be saved. Also, they’ll expose how easy it is to convict and execute an innocent plan.

Anyone with half a brain can see how terrible this plan is. Nobody in their right mind would intentionally get convicted of a crime they didn’t commit expecting the justice system to correct itself when proof of innocence is procured. Anybody who has ever seen a film before will know that something will inevitably go wrong leading to a panic that our hero will actually face the gas chamber. Everyone will guess he gets saved at the last minute.

What I’m saying is this movie is dumb. Dana Andrews does his best to carry the plot on his shoulders. Fritz Lang does a decent job of adding what tension he can to the story. But I could not get past how stupid it all is.

Did I mention that the two men decide not to tell Andrews’s character’s fiance about this stupid, stupid, plan because they don’t want to worry her? Because apparently letting her believe her fiance is going to be wrongfully executed is no big deal. That’s how dumb this plot is.

Noirvember #9: The Dark Mirror (1946)

the dark mirror

I’ve been slacking in my film noir reviews. I’d apologize, but I can’t imagine any of you actually care.

The first fifteen minutes or so of The Dark Mirror are terrific. A man is stabbed to death in his apartment. Several witnesses put the man’s girlfriend Terry Collins (Olivia De Havilland) at the scene. But when Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) questions her, she provides several witnesses that can prove she was nowhere near the murdered man at the time of his death.

What the…? How can that be? Twins, that’s how. Terry has an identical twin sister named Ruth (also De Havilland). So, one of them did kill the man but the other has an airtight alibi. Trouble is no one can tell which one did what except the two sisters, and they aren’t saying.

The film has a lot of fun playing with that situation, befuddling the lieutenant at every turn. But then it introduces a psychologist, Dr. Scott (Lew Ayres) who has made a career out of studying twins. He begins seeing the girls individually, running them through a series of tests. Naturally, he also falls in love with one of them.

One of the twins is insane and has been gaslighting the other their entire lives. Naturally, there is a bit of a switcheroo with the twins, because you can’t have a movie about twins without having them pretend to be each other at some point. Once the doctor is introduced I started losing interest. He all but pushes the lieutenant out of the way and the story becomes less about a cop trying to solve a murder and more about a doctor analyzing patients. Boring is the word.

De Haviland is great. She creates two distinct characters out of the sisters while still making them fully believable as twins. Michell is very enjoyable as the lieutenant as well. I wish the film had stuck with him instead of getting all psychobabble with the doctor.

Noirvember #8: Johnny Allegro (1949)

johnny allegro

George Raft plays the titular Johnny Allegro, a florist with a secret past. When he starts playing nice with Glenda (Nina Foch) a federal agent takes an interest. It turns out she has a past too and a present. She’s married to Morgan Vallin (George Macready) a shady gangster that the feds are interested in, but have yet to be able to pin anything to. They figure Johnny can use his new connection to Glenda to get to Morgan.

He gets cozier with her and she invites him to meet Morgan on his private island. There is some discussion of Johnny being of service to Morgan’s counterfeiting scheme, but things turn sour pretty quickly. Morgan is a guy who eschews guns but loves playing with his big bow and arrow. Naturally, he uses it a few times and it all winds up a The Most Dangerous Game type situation.

George Raft was not a spectacular actor in the best of situations and here age has crept up on him. He plays Johnny like he’s bored most of the time. Big reveals in the plot barely get a raised eyebrow. George Macready matches his lackadaisical stance and between the two of them the film has a hard time creating any sort of tension.

It is, however, a ton of fun watching Macready fire off his bow and arrow. The actual story and the direction are all pretty good. Good enough to keep me watching anyway.