Tag Archives: Christopher Lee

CAPSULE: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Freddie Highmore, David Kelly,  Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, ,

PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…

Still from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.

COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?

Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The wondrous surfaces have a weird undercurrent that won’t go away… Before the trip is over, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ has gone from delectable to curdled, and Depp’s performance has shrunk from bizarrely riveting to one-note and vaguely creepy, turning Willy Wonka into yet another of Burton’s antisocial weirdoes. But then this is scarcely the first time a Burton film has started out great only to lose its way with fanciful doodlings and lack of secure moorings.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

Check out driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.

Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”

"Elm Road Drive-In Theatre" by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA
Elm Road Drive-In Theatre” by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA – Elm Road Drive-In Theatre. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kicking nachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.

We now think of cheesy horror and sci-fi films as ruling the drive-in roost. However, I recall seeing the mediocre  western, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) on a double bill with the much more fun Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) at Westlake Drive-In Theater. We stayed through both features and even got to see the closing fireworks. The oddest memories I have of that night begin with mother’s very vocal fretting over how much of Caroline Munro’s cleavage my siblings and I were taking in. If Mom hadn’t made such an ado about it, I might not have even noticed. Curiously, she wasn’t at all worried about the western bloodshed, but Ms. Munro’s breasts sent her into an evangelical panic. (To be fair, however, I just lied when I speculated that I probably would not have noticed the cult star’s ample chest. I would have).

The other, perhaps even stranger memory is the sight of a fox, a few yards away, rummaging through the trash cans by the swing-set under the screen. Of course, one could never witness such magical nature at work, or a parental outburst, in the polite comfort of an air conditioned indoor theater.

The 1950s were the heyday of the drive-in cinema. Even when our family started going, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, outdoor cinemas were Continue reading CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A billionaire adopts a bum, then uses his fortune to pull outrageous pranks designed to show how far people will debase themselves for money.

Still from The Magic Christian (1969)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The spirit of 1969 lives on in this wild and wicked kitchen sink satire that owes a lot to easy access to fine Moroccan hashish. While it’s uneven and at times repetitive, when it’s at its best it’s got a reckless, swinging psychedelic sensibility that’s intoxicating.

COMMENTS: You may notice that there are five different writers listed in the credits of The Magic Christian, including director McGrath,  (who write the original novel), star Peter Sellers, and and  of (which was just kicking off its first year on television in 1969—both actors also play small roles in the film). This may help explain why the ramshackle satire on display here has a little bit of a “too-many-cooks”/revue show feel. The story arc is flat; it’s a series of pranks/sketches that don’t build on each other. They could be reshuffled in almost any order. In the first segment, billionaire Guy Grand (Sellers) adopts a hobo hippie (Starr), but Starr has no real character; he’s only there to lend an ear so that Sellers doesn’t have to explain his bizarre behavior via monologues. The sketches are sometimes satirical, but just as often, they’re plain goofy, as when Grand takes a tank brigade with him on a pheasant hunt. It’s not clear whether we should admire Grand for exposing the hypocrisy of money-grubbing society, or revile him for exploiting people’s weaknesses for his own amusement. “Some days it’s not enough merely to teach,” he muses, “you must punish as well.” That sounds fine when he’s trolling the upper-crust, using a suitcase full of money to fix the Oxford/Cambridge rowing race, but when he abuses a hotdog vendor or bribes a lowly beat cop to eat a parking ticket, he’s acting like a bully. And when he destroys a Rembrandt, he’s a straight-up sadistic Philistine. The first hour is uneven, but things get manic in the last half hour, when Grand pitches a cruise aboard the “Magic Christian” as the event of the season for the stiff-upper-lip crowd. Once aboard, the dandies find the trip a bourgeois nightmare populated by male exotic dancers, pot-puffing ship physicians, transvestites, a galley full of slave girls, a guy running around in a monkey suit, and a vampire. The Badfinger soundtrack, featuring the Beatlesesque hit “Come and Get It” (composed by Paul McCartney), is a major asset, and cameos by Raquel Welch, , and Yul Brynner (among others) liven things up considerably. Christian arrives as a little bit of a disappointment, partially because this prodigious an assembly of talent—seriously, Terry Southern, Peter Sellers, and a third of Monty Python working together on one project?—promises more comedy goodness than any single movie could possibly deliver. But it’s still a time capsule of psychedelic gags from an age in which satirists viewed restraint and good taste as the enemy, but without making stupidity and vulgarity their allies.

Much of the cast and crew of The Magic Christian overlaps with that of 1967’s Casino Royale: director McGraff, writer Southern, and star Sellers all worked together on the shambolic 60s spy spoof. In a further similarity, where Frankenstein’s monster made an appearance in Royale, Dracula shows up in Christian.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This gaudy bauble from the paisley era just drips with low-gloss British Mod Pop style and a would-be Richard Lester vibe, but with no clue about how to put its abundant British talent, chiefly Peter Sellers, to any worthy purpose beyond playing at adolescent cynicism.”–Mark Bourne, DVD Journal (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kengo, who suggested it’s “not really that weird a movie by late sixties/early seventies standards, with all the disjointed dreamlike narrative, broad satire and surreal imagery that seemed to be standard at the time, but has some good bits.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

Reader review by “Count” Otto Black.

AKA Pánico en el Transiberiano/Panic on the Trans-Siberian Express

DIRECTED BY: Eugenio Martin

FEATURING: , , Alberto de Mendoza,

PLOT: In 1906, an archaeologist discovers a frozen two-million-year-old ape-man in China. While being transported on the Orient Express, it turns out to be not only still alive, but possessed by a body-swapping extraterrestrial with incredible powers that might just possibly be Satan. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from Horror Express (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the face of it, the basic plot—a frozen prehistoric creature comes back to life and causes mayhem—has been used so often that it’s not even unusual, let alone weird. But when the mix also includes an extraterrestrial energy being who may or not be the Devil, a mad monk who is Rasputin in all but name, explicit brain autopsies, Cossack zombies with boiled eyeballs, “scientific” explanations that make the ones in Plan Nine From Outer Space sound like Carl Sagan, and the overall logic of a fever-dream, weirdness definitely starts to creep in. Also, there can’t be too many films shot in Spain that are set in Siberia.

COMMENTS: After the opening credits end, the very first thing we see is stock footage of some desolate place which a caption tells us is the Szechuan Province of China. Then seconds later, Christopher Lee’s voice-over narration informs us that it’s Manchuria. If they can’t get through the first minute of the film without losing track of continuity, a special kind of talent is clearly at work!

This indeed proves to be the case. Horror Express is a blatant rip-off of Quatermass and the Pit (1967). Both films involve archaeologists digging up pre-human hominid fossils and accidentally getting an unwanted bonus in the form of a dormant extraterrestrial life-force which exhibits amazing mental powers. In both cases the evil is linked with folklore and religion across the ages, specifically with Satanic lore, and generally causes mayhem. But whereas most copies of a much more widely-known and vastly more expensive film are feeble, cheesy imitations, this one redeems itself by going all-out to make no sense whatsoever. This movie is to Quatermass and the Pit what Star Crash (1978) is to Star Wars (1977), except that it doesn’t have David Hasselhof in it.

The movie’s genesis was very muddled, in a way that  undoubtedly would have sympathized with—indeed, this is the kind of film he’d probably have made if he’d still been making anything he cared about in 1972, and had had a lot more money than ever before, though still not all that much. Benmar Productions, the Spanish studio mainly responsible for Horror Express, were in deep trouble by 1972. Their first and second features were spaghetti westerns (technically, since no Italians were involved, they were “paella westerns”); the forgettable Captain Apache, and the ultra-violent, incoherent, and magnificently titled A Town Called Bastard (both 1971). Unfortunately they jumped on that short-lived bandwagon when it was already slowing down, and when they realized that the box-office returns on second-rate examples of a dying genre weren’t too good, they Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: HORROR EXPRESS (1972)

CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

* This is the third installment in the series “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack.”

Although Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971) and Alien Terror were all released later, Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) was actually ‘s last completed film. At 82, he caught pneumonia (reportedly as a result of his work in the damp manor scenes) and succumbed to it a few weeks after filming.

Alas, Karloff’s swan song is not an ideal exit, even if he is the most redeemable element of Curse. That assessment is completely without nostalgic sentiment. Karloff heads a genre dream cast: and Michael Gough. Stills from the film suggest a potential weird movie lover’s delight, but that potential is squandered through direction and writing that is too pedestrian to even be unintentionally bizarre.

Still from Curse of the Crimson AltarThe overall failure of the film can be attributed primarily to the unimaginative direction of Vernon Sewell. Sewell made a spattering of genre films, none of which rose above or fell below the level of mediocre. The plot, inspired by Lovecraft, is well-worn. Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is searching for his missing brother, Peter. This search leads Manning to Craxton Lodge. There, Manning encounters resistance and denial from J.D. Morley (Lee). Lee is overly familiar here in the type of sinister, square mustachioed role he played repeatedly. Although his acting is by no means unprofessional, the way his role is written, coupled with lackluster direction, leaves no opportunity for surprise.

Feigning guilt for his lack of information regarding Peter, Morley hospitably invites Manning to stay at Craxton Lodge. Manning does, partly because of amorous ambitions for Manning’s Continue reading CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

THE MUMMY (1959)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

The mummy, as a character, quickly became bland. In 1932, director Karl Freund, writer John L. Balderstein, and stars Boris Karloff and Zita Johnann made a poetic film for the Universal horror cannon, re-working the story of Dracula in Egyptian guise.  The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring cowboy actor (and later Captain Marvel) Tom Tyron, was the first and only real decent of the Universal mummy sequels.  Increasingly feeble films followed Hand, all starring a rotund mummy in the form of a disinterested Lon Chaney, Jr.  Dating back to the original, the plot rarely varied throughout the series.  An Egyptian princess reincarnates in the form of a twentieth century woman, only to have her ancient lover come back, a tad lethargic, gauze and all, to reclaim her.

Oddly, Francis Ford Coppola lazily utilized the mummy’s  reincarnated dead lover plot for his version of Dracula (1992), which, otherwise, was a (mostly) well done, imaginative version of that story.  In 1999 the mummy was revived again in a dumbed down, lame, testosterone-laden joke of a movie starring Brendan Frazier.  That film also spawned numerous sequels.  True to form,the succeeding mummy entries were even worse, which, in this case, isn’t saying anything.

Still from The Mummy (1959)In between the 1932 and 1999 films, Hammer Studios predictably took a stab at the character.  They spared no expense in soliciting the talents of Terence Fisher, along with top stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  Where they did spare expense was in an original story. The Mummy (1959) liberally borrowed elements from the formulaic Universal series, and reincarnated the reincarnated princess plot.  Briskly paced direction from Fisher, along with sumptuous color from Hammer cinematographer Jack Asher, almost overcomes the paint-by-number plot, which screenwriter Jimmy Sangster tried valiantly to inject with his own sensibilities.  Of course, the medium of film is more than mere storytelling and The Mummy is a film that tries to go a long way to prove that; because, basic rehashed story aside, the film itself is no lumbering undead.  It may be Fisher’s most energetic work.

Peter Cushing, as Dr. Banning, is in enthusiastic form.  No one can get strangled like Cushing, and his near-death experience and confrontation with co-star Lee in Banning’s study  is pure red-blooded Fisher, ranking with the acting duo’s battle in Horror of Dracula.   Equally interesting is  when Cushing’s Banning antagonizes the antagonist in the most proven way imaginable; he insults the other guy’s religion.  Ironically, it is Banning, rather than the mummy, who limps here, the result of an untended accident in Egypt.  Christopher Lee is the darling among genre fans.  He is far more discussed than  his co-star.  As iconic an actor as Lee is, his favored status is something of a slight to Cushing, since the latter is, normally, the  superior actor.  However, in this film, the acting honors are a draw, with Lee giving an admirably nuanced, minimalist performance as the title character.  Lee’s Kharis cannot compete with Karloff’s masterful Imhotep, but Lee invests genuine pathos, dread, and menace into the role. Yvonne Furneaux is striking as the Kharis/Banning love interest, but not much is required of her other than letting her hair down and shouting “No!”

Kharis’  resurrection from the swamp is beautifully photographed and effectively conveys robust dread.  Another well-shot sequence is the mummy’s entrance into an asylum to exact revenge on Banning’s father.  Franz Reizenstein’s score expertly accentuates the film, matching Fisher’s bloodied full moon milieu.  The Mummy reminds me a bit of The  Guns of Navarone (1961).  You know what’s around the corner, but that hardly stops the enjoyment of getting there.

THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

This post is part of an ongoing series on Hammer horror director Terence Fisher.

Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancee is lovely.  I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word in the Horror of Dracula (1958). End to end, his footage probably runs less than fifteen minutes.

Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels.

In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the vampire is loathsome and repulsive. In Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) the vampire has far more static dialogue, and more charisma, albeit in a silent film stylized theatricality.  With Fisher’s take on the subject, the erotic quality of the antagonist is pronounced, fleshy, and unmistakable.  Yet, Fisher and Sangster also expertly balanced that sensuality with the narrative, never allowing the eroticism to become a caricature the way successors did (thus robbing the series of its freshness).

Compare Fisher’s direction of Dracula’s seduction scene to Freddie Francis’ in Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1968).   In the former, Dracula seduces Mina (Melissa Stribling).  The scene is shot in a series of extreme close-ups.  Mina expresses dread (with a quivering lip) and breathy anticipation.   Dracula enters her room and descends upon her bed-ridden form.  As he draws towards her, his lips part.  The next sight of Mina is unconsciously collapsed on her bed, violated, blood lightly splattered on her throat and gown.  It is the blood of her husband (in a transfusion) that saves her life.

Still from Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968)In Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the vampire approaches Zena (Barbara Ewing) in the forest.  Zena nearly spills out of her top and the vampire removes one extra snap for increased spillage.  The attention is so drawn to the stripping that the narrative is second thought.  Later, when Veronica Carlson is seduced by Dracula, her Victorian doll falls from her bed, awkwardly symbolizing the loss of innocence.

As superb as Christopher Lee is in his role as the Count, Peter Cushing is the quintessential Continue reading THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)