Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Corpse Vanishes (1942) - MST3K Review

Time for another dose of Commander Cody (George Wallace) and his battle against The Radar Men from the Moon. When we last left Cody and his buddies they were on the moon and in some serious peril as molten rock oozed toward them. Luckily the heroes are able to escape to their rocket and return to earth. Once there Cody and his pals put their heads together to determine how to stop the radar men from completing their earthbound plans. This all climaxes to a scene where Cody drives his car over a booby-trapped bridge that explodes under him. Hence the title of this episode – The Bridge of Death.

In the feature film, Doctor George Lorenz is evil because he is portrayed by Bela Lugosi. He lives in a isolated house with a group of demented henchman (including a dwarf!). He and his wife, the Countess (Elizabeth Russell) sleep in coffins. See, it doesn’t get any more evil than that. Well actually it does.

Nosy reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) is looking into a series of dead brides who all collapse at the alter. She is convinced that it is not a coincidence. She starts to put together the pieces and they point to Dr. Lorenz and his laboratory. With some pointless help from the Countess’ medical doctor, Foster (Tristram Coffin) Patricia finds herself about to crack the biggest new story of her carrier. But can she be certain that the next corpse that vanishes won’t be her own?

Movie Review:
Pumpkin boy and lantern head in peril!
So Radar Men from the Moon hurtles forward with more crazy escapes, fisticuffs and gangsters working with moon men in a secret cave. In this episode the lunar action only takes up about the first third. The rest of the story takes place on earth, so some of the creativity we got from the previous episodes drops a bit. The gangsters take center stage and their explosive plan reminded me of something you’d see in the old Superman series from the 1950s. Which isn’t too far from the fact since this was created in 1952.

As far as serials go, this one has some entertaining moments, some silly moments and all in all meets the basic entertainment needs. The reused footage of Cody flying around in his rocket suit is good for some chuckles, and I love some of the oh-so-ripe dialogue that permeates the series. This also contains the scene which had to inspire the rant about serials in the film and book Misery. When I saw the car fall off the cliff I had to mumble, “He didn’t get out of the caca-doody car!”  The Bridge of Death episode isn’t something special, but it makes for a good appetizer for the film to follow.

Bela looms alarmingly.
I’ve got to be honest and say most of my exposure to Bela Lugosi is limited to his work with infamous director Ed Wood Jr. You know films like Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. I have seen Dracula but found it very dull and slow moving (especially compared to Frankenstein and The Mummy from the same era). But Lugosi did a lot of work in 30s and 40s that folks seem to like, so I’m willing to ignore stuff like ThePhantom Creeps (although he wasn’t bad in that serial). Truth be told, Lugosi may be playing the same sinister role in The Corpse Vanishes but he does it pretty well.

I think the thing that works with this film is that the character of Dr. Lorenz is driven by his love for his wife, the Countess. From the start of the film, it is pretty darn obvious he is at the heart of the plot to kill young women and abduct them. His goal is to suck the vitality from their body and place it into his ill wife. The treatment works of course, and both become driven to keep her young and alive. The Countess is a shrill disturbing woman, but we can sympathize a bit with Lorenz. A good deal of that comes from Lugosi’s performance.

Wait, what am I doing in this movie again?
In an interesting twist, our hero is the dogged reporter Patricia Hunter. Luana Walters takes the stereotype of the cub reporter and makes it work. She’s clever enough that you hope she puts the pieces together. But she’s also annoying enough that you kinda hope Lorenz scares her pretty good.

Of course The Corpse Vanishes was made in the 1940s, so you can’t have a female lead get in and out of peril on her own. Enter Dr. Foster played by Tris Coffin. The part is underwritten, and really feels like it was added at the last minute because someone realized they needed a man to save Patricia. Coffin does what he can with the flat character, but he doesn’t seem too invested in the role (can’t say I blame him). There isn’t much chemistry between the two. So when the two start spouting lines about how deeply in love they are and how they can’t wait for their marriage in the last 10 minutes of the film… well you’ll do a spit take if you’re drinking anything. You have been warned. Don’t blame me for wet floors on this one.

The cub reporter and the grumpy editor? Two
more cliches checked off the list.
Atmosphere and pacing are the name of the game here. For the most part the film moves along pretty well. The creepy mansion where Lorenz lives is filled with shadowy hallways and macabre lighting. His minions are sufficiently odd and disturbing. I especially like his unsettling housekeeper played by Minerva Urecal. Her anger bubbles up higher and higher and drives her to commit the final act murder. Also worth noting is the ranting and raving newspaper editor Keenan played with gusto by Kenneth Harlan. I’m telling you now that this performance inspired John Mahoney to rant and rave in his role as editor and Chief in The Hudsucker Proxy. Hell, Patricia Hunter could have been the inspiration for Amy Archer in that film as well.

But if you want to see a film that really took inspiration from The Corpse Vanishes then you really don’t need to look any further than the Ed Wood masterpiece Bride of the Monster. No, seriously they are almost the same film, but with a different driving force behind them. Ed Wood had Lugosi’s mad man attempting to “create a race of atomic supermen who would conquer the world”, instead of attempting to keep his wife alive. But the story beats are the same. Mysterious events lead a cub reporter to a creepy mansion. She meets Lugosi and interviews him. She’s convinced he is involved but has no proof. So she joins forces with a dull man, and together they kinda sorta put it all together.

At least he isn't welcoming you to Fantasy
, right?
The later film has that outrageous Ed Wood touch that can’t be beat when it comes to bad movies. I think Bride of the Monster is one of his most entertaining films (not a good film by any means, but entertaining as hell). The Corpse Vanishes is less crazy, but I liked the angle of using the orchid to knock out the brides. And director Wallace Fox does a better job of creating some building dread in his film. So for creepy value The Corpse Vanishes wins. Not to say it’s a scary movie, it’s not. But spooky atmosphere was never something Wood really got right.

Eventually Joel and bots would come face to face with Wood’s opus. But before that, they would face Lugosi in their first season with The Corpse Vanishes.

Episode Review:
He's only mostly dead.
So we are, still in the early portion of the first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and it kinda shows. It was going to take another couple episodes for the crew to really hit their Season One stride. So what you get with The Corpse Vanishes is an episode with some laughs, but not nearly as many as what you’ll find next season, or hell even in any episode from Robot Monster forward.

But lets take a look at what we do have. First up is part three of Radar Men from the Moon. Joel and the bots are still having a bit of fun with the serial (although the writing crew admitted that the whole thing was starting to wear thin for them at this point). But the level of energy in the riffing of this serial is still pretty high, and it gives some of the best riffing the episode.

Would you take orders from a guy dressed like that?
Some of funniest riffs occur when Cody and his pals make their escape from the moon and head toward earth. Crow asks them to “mind the space cushion” as the rocket hurtles into the void. Tom is puzzled by the remark and Crow replies, “It’s what they are sitting on.” In a later shot Tom wants to know why earth has a shadow and Crow is concerned that there are clouds just floating around in space. But I also like when Crow and Tom give a full fashion commentary of Commando Cody’s outfit. And when Joel asks if Cody ever lands on his head, to which Tom replies, “He’d stick like a lawn dart!”

As is typical of Season One episodes, the riffing during The Corpse Vanishes is laid back and meandering. There are a lot of quiet moments where the boys just watch the film and maybe chuckle a bit at what is going on. But there are some funny quips to enjoy.

Essence of bride... with a twist of lime.
When a concerned father of the bride is confiding in his fears to the newspaper editor, he says, “My daughter needs protection.” To which Tom replies, “Shouldn’t you have discussed that before the wedding?” Later when Bela is extracting the vital essence of the girl in his laboratory, Joel says in his best Lugosi imitation, “Now we can have the rich taste of bride any time we need it.” To which Crow adds, “It’s not just for breakfast any more.”

Most of the funnier moments in The Corpse Vanishes occur in the spooky mansion. A “secret” door allows the mad doctor’s hearse to enter undetected. This door is opened by the hunchback servant, who the boys dub Stanley after the garage door opener. Another secret door in a closet allows Bela to sneak into a bedroom and stare menacingly at Luana. Tom tries his Lugosi accent and says, “This is much better than my old door in the sock drawer.”

One thing the boys avoid here is any jokes based on Lugosi's drug problems. They do hammer on those a bit in their riff of Bride of the Monster, and the gents at Rifftrax go even further in their riff on Plan 9 From Outer Space. It is rare that I feel they go too far, but Lugosi's drug issues were tragic and to use them in the riffing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially after seeing Ed Wood and how Tim Burton handled the issue. Anyway...

As the movie wraps with our two protagonists tying the knot without a fear of mad doctors, Joel tells the bots “Don’t cry guys, its not a real wedding. “ Crow replies with “It’s the script that is upsetting us.”

Sorry Joel, but I wouldn't trust Crow with sharp
Like most of the early host segments you get some funny moments and some just plain oddball ones. The invention exchange starts with Joel showing off his chiro-gyro, a device to twist your head around for some at home chiropractic action. The mad scientists show off their flame thrower boutonniere. The first break has the bots chatting about the latest issue of the magazine Tigerbot, which features a full schematic of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. The next break has Joel and the bots playing tag. It’s pretty silly. When we next join them, Joel is letting Crow give him a haircut, while Tom peruses Tigerbot some more. Crow’s banter gets stranger and stranger, ending up with a clown car crash. When the movie ends, Joel challenges the bots to think of one good thing and one bad thing from the movie. Tom tries to think of one good thing… but his head explodes (and not for the last time).

All in all, The Corpse Vanishes isn’t a horrible film, and it offers enough for the boys to riff on. But the slow pace of the riffing is the detriment here. The frantic pacing of Radar Men From the Moon helps the riffing there move a lot faster. As a result the episode starts out fairly strong, but peters out before the end. Like all my season one reviews, I’ll rate this as compared to other episodes this season, but I’d deduct one point when compared to any other episode from season 2 forward.

Either he's been stabbed or just heard he's playing
Karloff's sidekick.

I give it 3 poisonous orchids out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XVI.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Score Sample: Avatar - The Last Airbender

Well, I posted my review for the M. Night Shyamalan film, The Village and I had to mention the wonderful score by James Newton Howard. That reminded me that Shyamalan and JNH have been working together since The Sixth Sense back in 1999. Shyamalan's films bring out some of the best work from this composer, and nearly all their collaborations are worth seeking out and enjoying. 

Avatar - The Last Airbender is considered one of Shyamalan's biggest flops. It was a big budget fantasy adventure that didn't grab many viewers (and enraged fans of the animated series that the film was based on). But no one complained about the amazing adventure score that JNH crafted. It's got big themes, amazing action music, powerful moments of musical wonder. It's easily one of his most exciting and accessible works. So here is his climactic cue from the final battle sequence of the film entitled Flow Like Water

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Village (2004)

I remember when this film’s trailers came out, I was pretty eager to see it. It looked like an interesting film. However, it was around this time that Shyamalan started rubbing folks the wrong way. I heard some really negative things about the film and ended up missing it. But it popped up on Netflix download and I figured, what the hell, why not give it a shot.

In a small, secluded village in Pennsylvania a community struggles to survive, not just against the powers of nature and fact that they are using 19th century technology – but there is something in the forest that holds them in terror. The elders of the village lead by Edward Walker (William Hurt) have a set of rituals and rules that the village must follow if they are to survive. This includes never using the color red.

In this village Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) discovers secrets buried in the hearts of these rituals. He begins to suspect that the elders aren’t telling the people the whole story. His friend, the lovely but blind Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) cares for him a great deal, even if he is the black sheep of the village. Her kindness has won the heart of a mentally disturbed man named Noah (Adrien Brody) who appears to have encountered the creatures in the forest, and lived to tell the tale (in his own unique way). These three will find themselves forced to face the darkness beyond The Village and either bring hope to their community or destroy it forever.

Good Points:
  • A visually gorgeous film with excellent cinematography by Roger Deakins
  • The score by James Netwon Howard is haunting and effective
  • A solid premise and interesting take on the hero’s journey

Bad Points:
  • Stilted dialogue ends up hurting performances and deliveries
  • The twist ending will land with a thud for some viewers
  • The slow pace will not work for some folks

An interesting movie that nearly works, but ends up stumbling a bit by the end. Shyamalan is one of those directors who does great work with visuals, but needs to work with a screenwriter to get dialogue and flow hammered out. Performances seem stiff and stilted at times, but I believe it is the odd dialogue and phrasing. I understand that is supposed to be archaic sounding, but it just doesn’t work. If you can get past that, you’ll find film with wonderful visuals, a lovely score (with excellent violin work by Hilary Hahn) and one of the few times in a Hollywood film of the era where a woman takes on the classic hero’s journey.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Nostalgia Nugget: Looking at 2014

Feeling nostalgic or just a bit confused? Maybe both.
Are you ready for a nostalgic look back at 2014? Is that even possible? Of course not, but I felt like doing a recap of the year and Nostalgia Nugget seemed like a great place to put it. So lets begin with my big goal. I wanted to hit 100 posts for the year. It seemed possible especially considering I nearly hit it last year. Well, I did it. Not bad for a guy with a day job and who spends way too much time watching movies. 2015 is going to be a bit lighter, I’m going to start working on my fiction writing this year, and that means the movie blog will be closer to 2012 numbers.

I tried to provide a nice spread of mini reviews and full-length reviews this year. Each month featured at least one of each, and in most cases you got two minis and one full-length review. The big exception was October. I went all mini-reviews for the horror flicks. But that balanced out with November where I packed in four MST3K reviews (full length) and a top ten list.

Hey, the MCP kinda looks like the Kool-Aid
Man from this angle!
It was a bit tricky determining when I wanted to write a full-length review versus a mini. In some cases it was just a whim, like when I wrote about Tron, which was not planned as a review at all. My review of Zeffirelli’s Hamlet also came out of nowhere, but after viewing it, I felt the need to defend the film a bit (since I see reviewers coming down kinda hard on it).

Most of the time, I had a readymade source for full-length reviews. I ran two series in 2014 and I covered them both pretty well.

I don't think the Connery fans are going
to like my review.
First up was my continued exploration of the James Bond series. I revisited a couple reviews giving them better content and more images: Goldeneye and Casino Royale. But I also offered reviews of three of my favorite James Bond films: Thunderball, The Spy WhoLoved Me and On Her Majesty’s SecretService. In 2015 I may be able to finish off the Bond reviews, but we’ll see. We’re heading into some really poor ones. Not sure if could handle a back-to-back viewing of Diamonds are Forever and Octopussy, but we’ll see.

Previously I explored the work of Japanese animator Satoshi Kon, and had a lot of fun delving into his films and television series. In 2014 I attempted something similar for Mamoru Oshii. I covered his work on UruseiYatsura, Patlabor OAVs, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and Avalon. I had already tackled his films Ghost in the Shell and Jin-Roh back in 2013. But I wasn’t able to review a few other items he’s worked on such as Sky Crawlers, Assault Girls and the Patlabor movies. Being a fan of Oshii, I’ll make sure to give them a go, if and when I can get my hands on them.

Eagerly awaiting my review of Spirited Away.
In 2015 I’m going to switch gears and go with Hayao Miyazaki. This will be a real treat, because I haven’t revisited some of his films in a number of years, and I’ll be able to go into more detail on some of my favorites that I keep mentioning (Spirited Away I’m looking at you).

When it came to Mystery Science Theater 3000 I had two goals. To provide at least one review a month and to tackle at least one per season. I almost made it, but was unable to update a Season Ten episode (I covered nearly all the season ten episodes back in 2010). But I did tackle each and every single Gamera episode the crew watched. That was quite a bit of fun to write about, even if some of the episodes meandered more than I remembered. It was certainly less of a chore than my insane attempt to watch and review all three Coleman Francis films back in 2013. For 2015, I’m thinking of tackling the three Russian fantasy films for November.

I had some fun with top ten lists in 2014. The James Bond Pre-CreditSequences was a spontaneous one and was a lot of fun to put together. I also enjoyed putting together a list of TheStrangest Movies Watched on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The toughest one was probably my top ten Favorite Anime. I'm still not sure I'm happy with all my picks. Maybe I'll revisit that one next year.

Not nearly enough Jerry Goldsmith related blogs
on this site. I will rectify that.
A couple lists focused on film music (from the 1980s and electronic specifically). But I also wrote a bit on the subject of film music in my Movie Music Musings. I shared the amazing work of Charles Gerhardt and his work on classic film scores. After writing that blog post, I picked up his album covering the work of Franz Waxman, and it was excellent. If you are interested in classic film music, seek out Gerhardt’s rerecordings. They are a perfect place to start. I delved into the complete Matrix Soundtrack Trilogy. I also focused on specific scores to specific films including: 2001: A Space Odyessey, TotalRecall and On Her Majesty’s SecretService. I also kept sharing my favorite tracks with the Score Samples and Anime Jukebox posts.

Blogging on the brain? I've
been there.
Not too many Nostalgia Nuggets this year. But I did share my experiences with James Bond and Planet of the Apes. I also participated in a fun October Blog-a-thon that featured cosmic horror. These posts tend to be spontaneous so I can’t predict when they’ll pop up.

So all in all it was a fun year of watching and writing about movies. I hope you enjoyed taking the ride with me. As usual, feel free to send me suggestions on topics, movies or anything else you want me to write about or explore. 2015 may be a lighter year for this blog, but that won’t stop me from having some fun with it.

Finally, thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. Even if we don’t always agree on some of the posts, I appreciate the fact that you are reading my random musings about the film, animation and music.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Oculus (2013)

Since my wife and I enjoy a good horror movie, we keep our ears open for positive reviews. Well this film got quite a few, and when we discovered that Amy Pond of Doctor Who fame was in the film that just pushed it up the list. Does the film serve up scares and live up to the accolades, or is it all fish sticks without the custard.

Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) has come to grips with the gruesome events that destroyed his family. As a child he witnessed his mother and father lose their minds and turn murderous without any rhyme or reason. Years of therapy have helped him cope and now he’s free to leave the sanitarium. But his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has made up her mind that supernatural forces were at work, and now with her brother’s help, she’s going to face her past.

You see, she is convinced a cursed mirror unleashed dark spirits into the home, spirits she saw as a child (and is convinced her brother saw as well). She’s managed to obtain the mirror, and has set up a series of experiments in their old home. Her goal is to capture the supernatural events on camera and then destroy the mirror. Once this is complete, she’ll be free of her past. Tim is less then convinced, and even begins to wonder if his sister has already lost her mind and he is the only one dealing with reality. But what is reality when staring into the Oculus of the haunted mirror.

Good Points:
  • Some good jump scares and a disturbing moment with an apple
  • Thwaites and Gillan do a fine job as siblings
  • Manages to twist reality and keep the viewer guessing

Bad Points:
  • Never really manages to build its creepy premise to a satisfying conclusion
  • The foreshadowed outcome hurts the film
  • The score ends up grating rather than helping 

Perhaps my expectations were a bit too high on this one. But I think this is a case where the total doesn’t equal the sum of the parts. I usually like reality-shifting films, but about half way through, I saw very clearly where this one was going. Because I was so confident in the ending, I felt no tension for the characters. I knew how it would play out. However, there are some interesting thematic elements dealing with abuse and trust. Not a bad film, but one that could have done a bit more with the premise and done a better job not telegraphing its conclusion so much.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 2
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.