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Posts Tagged ‘Boris Karloff’

If you have any experience of the work of the director Daniel Haller – which, if you are of a certain vintage, may not be unlikely – it is most likely to have something to do with his association with Glen A Larson, the TV impressario responsible for Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Knight Rider, amongst others. Haller did a handful of episodes of all these shows, but sci-fi appears to have not been his thing – he appears to have enjoyed working on the more down-to-earth pleasures of The Fall Guy far more, directing dozens of episodes.

I find this a bit surprising, as it is certainly not what one would expect from a man who started his movie career as the art director and production designer on a whole range of baroque and generally good-looking American International movies: he did one or other of these jobs on virtually all of the Roger Corman-directed Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Whatever else you want to say about these films, they do look good, and you could see why the company decided to give Haller a go at directing a movie himself. The fact that Haller spent the last few years of his career directing episodes of The Fall Guy may lead you to suspect that his career as a movie director did not really work out – and this suspicion would not be unfounded, certainly not based on the evidence of his debut.

This is Die, Monster, Die!, released in 1965. I know – that’s a hell of a title for a movie, isn’t it? If perhaps not one that promises the utmost level of subtlety and refinement. There are a number of other hellacious things about this movie, which we shall come to in the fullness of time, but just bear in mind – lurking in the director’s future is the refrain ‘I’m the unknown stunt-man that makes Eastwood look so fine‘.

The movie opens with one of those not-quite-psychedelic title sequences of swirly colours which were briefly fashionable for budget-conscious genre movies in the 1960s (cf. Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD). Is that the name of legendary horror author H. P. Lovecraft we espy in the credits? It is! No wonder this film came out in a double bill with The Haunted Palace, likewise based on one of his short stories.

Hang on, though: rather than being set in Lovecraft’s traditional New England milieu, Die, Monster, Die! is just set in – well, England. A train pulls into the quiet village of Arkham (which must have amused punters at the double bill: The Haunted Palace is set in Arkham, too, just an entirely different one) and disgorges our first imported American star, Nick Adams. Unlike Haller, Adams did his TV work at the start of his career, before switching to playing the American lead in genre films – in the same year as this movie, he went over to Japan, where (billed as Nikku Adamsu) he co-starred in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro-Monster.

Here, Adams is playing Steve Reinhart, who has come to Arkham to see his love-interest, a young lady named Susan Witley. Reinhart wants to get out to the old Witley place (as most people seem to refer to it), but there is a problem. None of the surly local yokels will go anywhere near the place. The taxi driver gets positively aggressive at the suggestion. The owner of the local bicycle shop refuses to even contemplate renting him a bike. Subtle stuff this is not – and, to be honest, there is something slightly awkward about this whole sequence, which is set in the present day (the mid 60s) but plays like something that should really be taking place the best part of a century earlier. But that’s low budgets for you.

But where did all the budget go? Well, when Reinhart yomps out to the old Witley place, he meets his girlfriend’s father, Nahum Witley (there’s a typical English name for you), who is played by Boris Karloff. I never really know what to make of Boris Karloff, to be honest: he’s not obviously a brilliant actor who somehow ended up typed in horror movies in the same way as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee or Vincent Price. I mean, he’s very good in the Frankenstein movies he made, obviously, but he just seems to have traded on that fact for the next three decades or so: I always find him just a bit hammy, and this film is no exception.

All is obviously not well at the old Witley place: Mrs Witley (Freda Jackson) appears to have become bedridden and very light-sensitive, and the servants aren’t looking well either. Still making an effort, however, is the girl Reinhart has come to see: Susan Witley, played by Suzan Farmer in her film debut (Farmer is perhaps best known for the films she made for Hammer the following year). But what is afoot? Why is everyone so scared of the place? What odd affliction has befallen the Witleys? And what’s making all those weird noises that are coming out of the greenhouse…?

Well, if you’re anything like me, you may be scratching your head and wondering which H. P. Lovecraft story this film is actually based on, because so far it sounds like any one of half a dozen of them. A fair point, and I should probably make it clear at this point that this film is based on a Lovecraft story in the sense that it really bears very little relation to it. In theory, and I only really say this because it’s what’s in the credits, Die, Monster, Die! is based on The Colour Out of Space (the same story recently brought to the screen by Richard Stanley, with Nicolas Cage). The story is about the ghastly fate suffered by a decent family of farming folk, after a strange meteorite falls on their land. You can just about make out the vestiges of that tale here, but it has had all manner of other story elements piled on top of it until it is almost unrecognisable: a romance, the spooky old mansion, a family with a history of trafficking with the powers of darkness, and so on.

Even so, there is still probably potential here for something engaging and vivid, and certainly meeting the usual criteria for being Lovecraftian: there is the terrible influence of heritage and pedigree, not to mention some reasonably well-realised octopus-monsters at one point (can’t be proper Lovecraft without tentacles, or so the consensus would have you believe). The octopus-monsters are certainly better than the jug-eared mannequin that Karloff transforms into at the climax.

The problem is that the film is just too slow: there are differing reports as to what the exact duration is (the US version seems to have been 10% shorter than the UK release), but none of the suggestions are that long, and the film plods along in all of them. There’s a lot of atmospheric walking about with not much else going on: if only the cycle shop had rented Reinhart a bike, the whole business could have been finished in under an hour. Even when things are happening, they’re often just re-stressing points that have already been made – filler, basically.

It’s a shame, because as I have alluded, the film has an interesting cast and is based on a classic short story, to say nothing of being directed by a man with an intriguing visual sense. But none of these things make it into the film wholly intact, somehow. If you’re a serious fan of Lovecraft you will probably find this film of interest, but for everyone else, AIP were making better films in the UK around this time, to say nothing of outfits like Hammer and Amicus. Die, Monster Die! is a fascinating curiosity, but just not a very good film.

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I know, I know: you go seven years without a single review of an AIP Vincent Price movie, and then three come along in as many months. Blame the lucky dip nature of my DVD rental service (still waiting for Tiptoes, alas) – still, these are AIP Vincent Price movies, so there’s only so disappointed you can legitimately be. This week they sent me The Raven, a 1963 movie directed by (but of course!) Roger Corman, from AIP’s series of Poe movies.

This time around, the movie is based on a poem rather than a work of fiction, but otherwise the formula is wholly intact. Here is a screenplay from the great Richard Matheson. Here is Vincent Price, brooding over his dead wife’s picture. Here is a supporting cast featuring some unexpectedly big names, given the kind of movie that this is. Here are some pretty decent production values. It’s basically rather like an American Hammer movie, except slightly more genteel and with fewer hard edges.

The Raven is set in a rather fantasticalised version of the 16th century (historical accuracy is extremely low on the movie’s list of priorities), with Price playing Erasmus Craven, gentleman, scholar, and magician. Erasmus has withdrawn from the society of his peers and has become a bit of a recluse, partly because he objects to the plotting and scheming of his fellow adepts, and also because it gives him more time to brood over the portrait of his dead wife Lenore (Hazel Court, which may tip you off to the fact that Lenore is not as dead as originally advertised), somewhat to the concern of his lovely daughter Estelle (Olive Sturgess).

Then, one dreary midnight, as Erasmus sits, weak and weary, pondering over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore (oh yes, I know a thing or two about Poe, and also how to Google the text of a poem), a raven turns up, knocking at his window. Erasmus lets the bird in, and, as he is played by Vincent Price in a Roger Corman movie, beseeches the bird thusly – ‘Shall I ever hold again the radiant maiden whom the angels call Lenore?’ The raven departs from Poe by responding ‘How the hell should I know?’, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows. (Apparently this was a departure from the script, as well as Poe, as Peter Lorre (who voices the bird) was much given to ad libbing on the set.)

It turns out that the raven is actually Erasmus’ fellow magician Adolphus Bedlo (Lorre), who has been magically transformed into a bird following a magical duel with the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Magicians, Scarabus (Boris Karloff), the arch-rival of Erasmus’ dead father. Erasmus is happy to help Bedlo return to human form, but doesn’t want to get mixed up in the squabble between Bedlo and Scarabus – until he mentions that he has seen a woman resembling the supposedly dead Lenore in Scarabus’s castle. Erasmus pooh-poohs this idea, and offers to show Bedlo Lenore’s body, which he keeps in a box in his hallway (‘Where else?’ deadpans Lorre), but he is shocked to see she has been replaced by that of someone else. Desperate to learn the truth, Erasmus agrees to go to Scarabus’s castle with Bedlo, accompanied by his daughter and Bedlo’s son Rexford (John J Nicholson, who could have had a pretty good career if he’d just stuck with low-budget horror movies). Perhaps another clash of magics is on the cards…

The immediately previous movie in the Poe cycle, Tales of Terror, had as its centrepiece The Black Cat, a darkly comic, more than slightly outrageous tale co-starring Price and Lorre, and Corman and Matheson apparently enjoyed making it so much that they decided to have a go at making a full-length movie in a similar vein. Most of The Raven was invented whole-cloth by Richard Matheson, there not being quite enough material in a 108-line poem to sustain a movie even of only 86 minutes. I think it’s really stretching to describe The Raven as an actual horror film, even by the standards of the early 1960s – it’s more of a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy adventure, impossible to take seriously.

It does make full use of Price’s ability as a comic actor, of course, and also – I’m tempted to say – his generosity as a performer, as he tends to be outrageously upstaged by Peter Lorre in every scene the two of them share, with Price very much the straight man of the duo (‘I think you need something for the cold,’ Erasmus declares to Bedlo, as the two of them prepare to depart, which prompts his guest to head straight for the drinks cabinet). Boris Karloff’s performance is less showy, but then the sheer understatedness of it is much of the fun. He’s up against it when competing with the other senior members of the cast.

If the overall quality of The Raven‘s cast isn’t quite clear yet, let me put it this way: one of the actors in this movie has received more Oscar nominations for his work than any other man in history. Yes, really. It’s not Price, Lorre, or Karloff, though – playing Lorre’s son, in case you haven’t worked it out, is Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), who turns up in a lot of AIP movies from this period, partly because his father James H Nicholson is the executive producer on them. It’s fair to say that there is not much sign here of the movie legend Nicholson would eventually become – although there’s a sequence where he is briefly possessed by evil magic, and does the same face made famous by The Shining – but he does give a very game performance, dashing about the set in tights, cape, and feathery hat. I doubt this movie was ever very prominent on his showreel, though.

The silliness of much of The Raven doesn’t prevent it from having a more intricate plot than you might expect, nor indeed an unexpectedly sound narrative structure, with a proper character arc for Vincent Price to work his way through. It may be a disposable comedy, but Matheson has clearly taken the writing of it very seriously, which is probably why it still stands up so well today. Corman directs with his usual efficiency, and comes up with at least one outstanding sequence, the final magician’s duel between Erasmus and Scarabus, which in addition to being witty and inventive, even has some pretty decent animated special effects.

I still think The Masque of the Red Death is the zenith of the Corman-Poe series of movies, but it’s a very different kind of film to The Raven, and very definitely a genuine horror-fantasy. The Raven is much more knockabout entertainment, but the strength of the script and particularly the comic performances means there is still a huge amount to enjoy about this movie even today.

 

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