Film Review: The Black Cat (1934)

Also known as: The Vanishing Body
Release Date: May 7th, 1934
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Peter Ruric, Edgar G. Ulmer
Based on: The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: Heinz Eric Roemheld
Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, John Carradine (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 65 Minutes

Review:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Verdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats.” – Hjalmar Poelzig

The Black Cat is a film that fits under the Universal Monsters banner, even if it was a one-off and not apart of their bigger series like Dracula and Frankenstein. But it does feature the stars of both those franchises: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

The film was also directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, a guy who wouldn’t reach superstardom in Hollywood but would direct some pretty notable pictures and make a few worthwhile film-noirs.

The best part about this film is it puts Lugosi and Karloff together and not as creatures or men in heavy makeup or prosthetics. They actually get to play off of each other as humans, Karloff being the mad man and Lugosi being a heroic doctor that still exudes his Count Dracula vibe.

The name of the film comes from an Edgar Allan Poe short story. Within the film, it is a reference to Lugosi’s character and his abnormal fear of cats.

Karloff plays Hjalmar Poelzig, a difficult name to pronounce. He is an Austrian architect. Once our heroes, a newlywed couple and Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast meet on a train, they are stuck together for the rest of the film, most of which takes place at Poelzig’s lavish and futuristic looking home. In fact, the interiors resemble a film-noir set from the late 1940s. The cinematography is also similar and maybe this is what led to Ulmer directing film-noir a decade later.

The Black Cat isn’t a great film but it is a better than decent 1930s horror flick that stars the two biggest horror icons of the time. It is a pretty significant picture for films of the genre and the era.

TV Review: American Horror Story (2011- )

Original Run: October 5th, 2011 – current
Created by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk
Directed by: various
Written by: various
Music by: Cesar Davila-Irizarry, Charlie Clouser, James S. Levine, Mac Quayle
Cast: Evan Peters, Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O’Hare, Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, Joseph Fiennes, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Lizzie Brocheré, James Cromwell, Frances Conroy, Emma Roberts, Kathy Bates, Michael Chiklis, Finn Wittrock, Angela Bassett, Wes Bentley, Matt Bomer, Chloë Sevigny, Cheyenne Jackson, Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding Jr., André Holland, Billie Lourd, Alison Pill, Alexandra Daddario, Grace Gummer

Ryan Murphy Productions, Brad Falchuk Teley-Vision, 20th Century Fox, 78 Episodes (so far), 37-73 Minutes (per episode)

Review:

*written in 2015.

I just binge watched the first three seasons of American Horror Story, as I was running out of things to watch on Netflix and this was in my queue for a few years. I have yet to see season 4, as it isn’t available yet.

I have a few friends who obsess over this show, which is probably why I put it off for so long. Usually, when a bunch of people build something up really high, I am left disappointed. I think the only time I wasn’t was when I finally sat down to watch Breaking Bad.

I wouldn’t call American Horror Story a disappointment though. It was pretty enjoyable and I’ll watch future seasons, albeit at my own leisure. But I wouldn’t call the show special or hype it up to everyone I know.

The premise of the show is horror, which is obvious by the title, but other than tapping into supernatural elements and showing something scary every now and then, it plays more like a teen drama. But that is the way of Hollywood these days. Sure, most of the characters are older than teens but this is definitely a show written for them.

The show just isn’t scary and that is why I have reservations about horror being used in a television format. Sure, you can churn up a few frights and provide creepy visuals and a dark tone but over the course of a 13 episode season, the monsters you are selling get less and less scary. When the reveals have to happen early because modern audiences can’t tolerate suspense, there is nowhere else to go other than adding in more teen drama and stretching out a resolution.

I guess the one thing that irks me about the show, is how the payoffs seem rushed, the resolution happens almost too early and the final few episodes of each season play like an epilogue that is too fleshed out. The grand evil each season is conquered around episode 11. So what you get is two more episodes that really aren’t necessary. I don’t care about any of these characters that much. It’s like the ending to the extended edition of The Return of the King – you just want it to be over.

Highlights of the show include the acting talents of Jessica Lange and Evan Peters (who was Quicksilver in X-Men: Days of Future Past). The rest of the cast, at least the actors who appear over multiple seasons are all pretty good. Although, Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau was horrible. I don’t blame her, as the character of Laveau was horribly written. The writers really tarnished the well respected legacy of the New Orleans Voodoo Queen and turned her into an evil vengeful idiot. Kathy Bates was fantastic though, I do want to point that out.

I like the show more than I dislike it but it hasn’t solidified me as a fan and it is a moderately enjoyable way to waste a weekend.

Update:

After the third season, I watched two more. Each year gets worse and worse, to the point that I’ve completely stopped caring about the show. The last season I watched was Hotel and I have no more interest in the future of this anthology franchise. I think there are two more seasons after Hotel with the possibility of this going on forever… but I’m done.

Film Review: Detour (1945)

Release Date: November 15th, 1945 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Martin Goldsmith
Based on: Detour: An Extraordinary Tale by Martin Goldsmith
Music by: Leo Erdody
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage

Producers Releasing Corporation, 68 Minutes

Review:

“Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.” – Al Roberts

Historically speaking, this is mostly an unknown film. To fans of film-noir, however, it holds a special place among the great noir pictures of the 1940s.

On its surface, it is a b-movie. It wasn’t made by a major studio and was one of countless noir style pictures that were being churned out like ice cream cones at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

However, with so many of these movies being made, one of these b-pictures had to stand out. Granted, it isn’t the only b-movie noir to make some sort of impact but it is one of the most beloved by noir experts.

I never saw this picture. Reading about it in several places made me want to check it out and I’m glad that I did. Detour is an exceptional movie and a lot better than it should have been but the studios on “Poverty Row” had to fight hard to compete with the big studio system in Hollywood.

The script was really good but it was also adapted by the guy who wrote the novel that the film was based on. It’s an interesting story, well executed and a lot of the credit also has to go to the performances of Tom Neal and Ann Savage. They weren’t Oscar caliber performances but the two leads had a chemistry and Savage was dedicated in her commitment to the role of the unlikable and brutal Vera.

The film also makes the most out of very little and shows that ingenuity and heart can go a long way. I’m not sure if Edgar G. Ulmer, the director, intended to make something this good with the limitations of the production but he succeeded. He had experience in producing quality pictures though, as he did a pretty good job eleven years earlier at Universal with The Black Cat, a horror film starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and an uncredited John Carradine.

This is a relatively short movie but it tells its story and is quickly paced. The only real negative, is that you don’t seem to have enough invested in Tom Neal’s Al Roberts to care too much about his fate, even though he is an innocent guy that just stumbled into a bad situation.

Detour is still impressive. For fans of film-noir, it should be seen, as it is quite possibly the best of the b-movie noirs of the era and it stands above a lot of the films the major studios were putting out.

Film Review: Bottle Rocket (1996)

Release Date: February 21st, 1996
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Owen Wilson, Wes Anderson
Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh
Cast: Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, Robert Musgrave, James Caan, Andrew Wilson, Lumi Cavazos, Donny Caicedo, Jim Ponds, Tak Kubota, Kumar Pallana

Gracie Films, Columbia Pictures, 91 Minutes

Review:

“Here are just a few of the key ingredients: dynamite, pole vaulting, laughing gas, choppers – can you see how incredible this is going to be? – hang gliding, come on!” – Dignan

A commercial failure upon release, Bottle Rocket would go on to wow a lot of the top critics and still became a launching pad for the careers of Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers.

While not my favorite Anderson picture, I still love Bottle Rocket and the fact that it shows that Anderson wit and style yet is still pretty straightforward and not as stylized as his films would become after this one, starting with 1998’s RushmoreBottle Rocket feels like a Wes Anderson movie in spirit and substance but greatly differs in how it feels more grounded in reality.

At its core, this is a comedic heist picture. While that is a major plot point, the film is more about relationships and self discovery. While you get the feeling that this trio of bandits are going to fail miserably with the big heist, you can’t not be taken in by Owen Wilson’s goofy plan and charisma. His antics are hilarious and his schemes are even more amusing. The carelessness of how he handles his business and openly talks about his schemes in public make you wonder how these guys didn’t get arrested before the big job. But it all just adds to the brilliant absurdity of this entertaining movie.

The vast majority of the film was shot around Hillsboro, Texas – a small town midway between Dallas and Waco. The landscapes and environment have a really simplistic yet majestic feel to them. All the outdoor bits are shot really well and it is a real contrast to Anderson’s work after this picture, where he shoots a lot within the confines of very opulent and stylized interiors.

This is a 90s indie comedy of the best kind. It feels very indie and very 90s but still has an original appeal that very much makes it its own thing. Both Wilson’s are great, as is their buddy Bob, played by Robert Musgrave, a guy who should be in more movies. He pairs well with the Wilsons and matches their comedic timing and delivery quite well.

Bottle Rocket is a fun and amusing picture. It has a visual allure and is kind of sweet. It is a hard film not to like.

Film Review: The Girl In Lovers’ Lane (1960)

Release Date: January 1st, 1960
Directed by: Charles R. Rondeau
Written by: Jo Heims
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Brett Halsey, Joyce Meadows, Lowell Brown, Jack Elam

Filmgroup, 78 Minutes

Review:

“Pa doesn’t know much about girls’ clothes.” – Carrie Anders

This movie is pretty damn horrible. However, it provided good fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 in season five, as Joel Hodgson’s long run as the show’s host was winding down.

The Girl In Lovers’ Lane is a crime film that makes b-movie crime pictures look like big budget affairs. Even the worst of b-movie film-noir is a step up compared to this picture. Truthfully, if this was more of a noir than a low rent crime picture, it might be better.

The directing is nonexistent and the acting is about as bad as it gets. There is no real cinematography and no shots worth writing home about. It is a picture that is so basic and bland that it makes manila folders look like a trip to Six Flags.

The plot sees two drifters roll into the small town of Sherman. A girl is murdered and then a bunch of boring uneventful shit happens. It is the type of film that makes you want to smack yourself in the face with nunchucks. It is only remotely watchable as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Honestly, Joel and the ‘Bots are at least there to provide you with some good laughs, as they suffer through this dreck with you.

The Girl In Lovers’ Lane is completely forgettable. If it wasn’t for MST3K, no one today would even be aware of its sad and pathetic existence. It offers nothing worthwhile and has no redeeming qualities, whatsoever.

All that being said, it does deserve to be put through the Cinespiria Shitometer. So what we have here is a “Type 7 Stool: Watery, no solid pieces. Entirely Liquid.”

Film Review: They Live by Night (1948)

Release Date: August, 1948 (London)
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Charles Schnee, Nicholas Ray
Based on: Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

RKO Radio Pictures, 95 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll take steps a block long. Anyone gets in my way, I’ll stomp ’em!” – Chickamaw

While They Live by Night isn’t my favorite Nicholas Ray picture, it was the start of his career and was a much better film than most director’s first efforts.

The film is also a sort of prototype to Bonnie and Clyde, not officially, but it shares a very similar narrative about two lovers on the run from the law. However, the original novel could have been inspired by the real life Bonnie and Clyde, who met their demise in 1934, just three years before the novel Thieves Like Us was published.

The story starts with some prison escapees fleeing towards freedom in 1930s Mississippi. The men decided to rob a bank. One of them, a young man named Bowie, was wrongfully convicted of murder and feels that he can use the money from the bank heist to pay for a lawyer that can prove his innocence.

Things go sideways, Bowie is hurt and finds refuge with the daughter of a gas station owner. The two fall in love and plan to live an honest life away from all the crime and violence. Keechie, the girl, gets pregnant but at the same time, the two men from Bowie’s gang return, demanding his help. Of course, things go sideways again.

The film was well shot and very well directed and it even featured some innovations. For instance, the helicopter shot during the opening credits was pretty unique for 1948 and it kicked this film off with a lot of energy. Also, being a mostly noir picture, it leaves behind the genre’s typical tight interior sets and spends a good amount of time in the wide open spaces of the rural Mid-South, the same geographical region where Bonnie and Clyde committed their robbery spree. They Live by Night is a wide open picture compared to most of the films like it.

The starring duo of Cathy O’Donnell and Farley Granger were pretty much newcomers to the big screen but they held their own and their love for one another seemed genuine. O’Donnell was especially good and you feel nothing but sadness for her, as she is thrown into a heartbreaking and perilous situation.

They Live by Night is a very well made motion picture. There isn’t a whole lot that you can say about it that could be negative. It has a good director, nice cinematography, treads some original ground and has good acting. If you like Bonnie and Clyde, you’ll probably enjoy this too. Nicholas Ray would go on to make some better movies but this one still holds a special place.

Film Review: To Catch A Thief (1955)

Release Date: August 5th, 1955
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes
Based on: To Catch A Thief by David Dodge
Music by: Lyn Murray
Cast: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jessie Royce Landis, John Williams, Charles Vanel, Brigitte Auber

Paramount Pictures, 106 Minutes

Review:

“For what it’s worth, I never stole from anybody who would go hungry.” – John Robie

This is a Hitchcock film that I had never seen and the best part is that I got to check it out on the big screen. It’s also no secret that I love Hitchcock, especially his films from this era. While this is a magnificent movie, it isn’t quite on the level of Rear Window, which came out a year earlier and also starred Grace Kelly. Still, it is a fine movie in every regard.

To Catch A Thief teams up Grace Kelly with Hitchcock favorite Cary Grant. Grant plays a famous retired jewel thief. As he pounces around the French Riviera, a new jewel thief appears and draws the ire of the law and the rich citizens of this old Mediterranean beach community. Grant wants to solve the mystery, as he is the prime suspect, and wants to continue on the straight and narrow path. Grace Kelly figures out who he is and we get a big mix up and a real whodunit mystery, as Grant races to uncover the truth behind the robberies.

While Hitchcock was a master of mise-en-scène, especially in his use of color, this is one of his more vivid looking pictures. The use of greens and the colorful flair was well executed. Hitchcock and his cinematographer Robert Burks outdid themselves in creating and capturing the majestic allure of the French Riviera. The fireworks scene is especially captivating.

The chemistry between Grant and Kelly was uncanny. Kelly is always pretty close to perfect in her work with Hitchcock and Grant was always a top notch Hollywood star that brought his charm, wit and gravitas to every role he played. The rest of the cast was also a lot of fun and had a good camaraderie with Grant and Kelly, especially Kelly’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis. I absolutely loved Landis in this picture.

The pace of the film is a bit shaky though. It moves along swiftly for the most part but there are a few areas in the film where it feels like the narrative is put on hold or stagnates. When you get to the end however, you realize the importance of some of these scenes. But the film does employ a lot of misdirection, which was done pretty effectively.

Compared to Hitchcock’s other work from this era, To Catch A Thief is a lightweight. It doesn’t cast a heavy and ominous shadow over the proceedings but that’s kind of what’s cool about it. The film is certainly one of Hitchcock’s funnest outings. At its core, it is a quirky romantic adventure filled with mystery and the geographical beauty of a James Bond picture. Ultimately, it is a fun and exciting movie with a lot of attractive things to be swept away by.