Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Review: 'War Eagles: An Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters'

King Kong was the Star Wars of its day, a nutso detonation of imagination and futuristic special effects that could have been a massive folly but ended up a massive blockbuster and pop-cultural milestone. The obvious follow-up to such a success is a sequel, and RKO Pictures certainly cooked one up with the well-meaning but slight Son of Kong. No matter, though. Kong producer and co-director Merian C. Cooper had heftier game in mind. He intended his film’s true successor to be a picture that combined the King Kong structure with a bit of chest-pounding patriotism.

Like Kong, War Eagles was to be divided into three major acts moving from the planning of a harrowing trek in the U.S. to a prehistoric jungle island, then climaxing in New York City for an explosive showdown set near an iconic landmark. Only this time the trek was to be an globe-circling air flight to promote a brand of antacid, the jungle was to be populated by giant eagles rather than a giant ape, and the final battle was to be fought between eagle-riding Vikings and an unidentified foreign air force near the Statue of Liberty, rather than U.S. fighters and Kong exchanging blows atop the Empire State Building.

By 1940, War Eagles was basically ready to go. A ream of production art had been drafted, Ray Harryhausen was on board to handle the stop-motion eagles, and Cyril Hume (who later penned Forbidden Planet) had completed the script. But as World War II reached a boil, RKO got cold feet regarding the film’s themes of invasion by zeppelin, and Cooper decided he’d be of more use as fighter than filmmaker and reenlisted in the air force. War Eagles was shelved and died the death of the neglected.

Very little information about this film has been available since its inception aside from a brief piece in a 1977 issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland that sparked the enduring fascination of 13-year old David Conover. Decades later, Conover has unearthed a staggering wealth of pre-production War Eagles material, including Cooper’s original treatment, a great deal of art, photos of the stop-motion eagle skeletons, a wacky article from Flying Aces magazine that inspired the film’s climax, a slew of production notes, and most significantly, the final draft of Hume’s script. All of this is gathered in the latest installment of Philip J. Riley’s Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters series (Riley essentially takes a back seat as editor for this volume, while Conover supplies the text).

No previous book in this fantastic series has offered so many juicy rarities or provided so much illumination on such a little-known project. Along with all of the vintage archival material, Conover offers a very detailed narration linking the various artifacts (which is something previous volumes lacked) and a fine interview with Harryhausen. The one unfortunate aspect of the book is that all of its rare artwork is presented in low-quality, black and white reproductions. It would have been nice to see this stuff in its sharp, full-color glory (unlike Kong, War Eagles was supposed to get the Technicolor treatment), but such is the nature of publishing with a small press. This quibble aside, classic monster movie fans will be most grateful to Conover, Riley, and Bear Mountain Media for finally making all of this fascinating and highly valuable material available.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Farewell, Michael Gough

I just noticed that my five-month-old post Assembling the Dracula Bad-Dream Team received an exceptional number of hits today. Unfortunately, the reason is not a happy one. Michael Gough, the actor I chose as the ultimate on-screen Arthur Holmwood, died today at the age of 94. Although Gough was not the Hammer Horror mainstay that, say, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Michael Ripper were, he made major impressions in the studio's superb 1958 adaptation of Dracula and its 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera, in which he played Lord Ambrose d'Arcy. Gough also starred in a segment of Amicus's pioneer portmanteau, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, but is probably best known to more contemporary audiences for playing Alfred the Butler in the '90s Batman franchise and his roles in several Tim Burton movies.

Review: 'Day of Wrath'

Day of Wrath (1943) is an odd duck; powerful for sure, but eliciting ambivalence because of its ideological haziness. Indeed, director Carl Theodor Dreyer was a conservative, which becomes apparent by the film’s conclusion. Yet, Dreyer was also a staunch opponent of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, a matter alluded to in this film, and despite the film’s seemingly Christian conclusion, the director was not religious. How all this information is digested is up to the viewer.

Initially, sympathy lies with Anne (Lisbeth Movin), the pretty young wife of Absalon, a creepy old pastor, who essentially purchased Anne to spare her mother from being burned as a witch. When Martin, Absalon’s attractive son from a previous marriage, arrives, the extramarital writing is on the wall. Anne’s disgust with Absalon reaches a head when she tells him that she has wished his death hundreds of times, and if we are to believe her mother really was of the witchly persuasion, the events that follow take on a supernatural air.

Once Anne begins to betray Absalon and execute some well-deserved vengeance against the crusty bastard, Dreyer shifts empathy to the old coot. Absalon displays genuine remorse for what he did to Anne’s mother, and Anne is constantly shot in deep shadow, grinning nefariously, peering through beady eyes. The film’s denouement finds her confessing to playing footsy with Satan and Dreyer laying some pretty heavy-handed martyr symbolism on Absalon’s doorstep. The idea that a “witch hunter” responsible for however many women’s deaths is some kind of Christ figure is pretty hard to stomach.

Lisbeth Movin looking shady.
At the same time, Dreyer seems to draw a correlation between Absalon’s witch hunting and the Nazi’s search for Jews, particularly in a scene in which Anne secrets a fellow accused-witch in her attic. So are we supposed to side with Anne after all? I’m all for ambiguity, but Dreyer’s wooly treatment of this particular material is disconcerting, and a potentially powerful pro-resistance allegory falls flaccid. Granted, the film would have been quashed by the Nazis had that allegory been made more explicit, assuming Dreyer even intended such an allegory (some sources claim he always denied he was making a political point of any kind with Day of Wrath). In any event, there is no justification for the film’s victim-blaming conclusion, and the final image of a crucifix might require some serious suppression of the gag reflexes.

All this being said, Day of Wrath is a beautifully shot film full of the eerie atmosphere and expressionist shadow design that was Dreyer’s forte. Lisbeth Movin is fabulous as Anne, flawlessly sliding from meek innocence to heroic selflessness to seductiveness to righteous anger to remorse without sacrificing consistency. The sound design is also exceptional; particularly on the windy night Anne extracts her revenge. Too bad that all this aesthetic splendor might support an ugly defense of witch hunts.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: 'Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural' (1975)

Certain well-done B-horror movies deliver an infectious grotesqueness that couldn’t be captured in a big budget picture. Films such as The Blair Witch Project, Carnival of Souls, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Paranormal Activity bear an ingratiating queasiness that compliments their cardboard cheapness powerfully. Not as well-remembered as any of those films, and not necessarily as good, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1975) is still an effectively unsettling creepshow. Writer/director Richard Blackburn (who’d make a bigger cult splash in 1982 when he co-wrote Eating Raoul with Paul Bartel) recycles plot elements from Dracula and The Night of the Hunter and re-imagines them as a loopy psycho-sexual coming-of-age tale indebted to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Lila (Cheryl Smith) is the daughter of a gangster in Prohibition America. Her dad calls her to join him in Astaroth, a monster-menaced fairyland likely inspired by Vasaria in the old Universal monster pictures. There she is attacked by some Moreau-esque monsters, imprisoned in a dungeon, terrorized by a creepy hag (Maxine Ballantyne), and subjected to some heavy come-ons from the title character (Lesley Gilb), who looks like Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter.

No one is going to accuse Lemora of being well written, well acted, or well shot. It looks like a vintage porno with the sex scenes excised. Yet it spins a definite spell. The plot drifts along with the mercurial logic and foreboding air of a nightmare. The climactic slow-mo monster battle royal is goofy, but it is preceded by scenes that are haunting or frightening in spite of themselves, particularly Lila’s encounters with the singing hag and a gaggle of giggling vampire kids. Had I come across this movie on TV when I was a kid I’m sure it would have cost me as many nights of sleep as a similar looking ad for The Haunted Mansion in Long Branch, New Jersey, did. Catching the film on TV in the ‘70s was unlikely, though, considering its distribution was severely hindered by the officious prigs at the Catholic League of Decency, who denounced its suggestions of pedophilia and homosexuality. Fortunately, Lemora has been back in circulation since the late ‘90s (and as of this writing, it’s available to watch instantly on Netflix), and though it isn’t quite a lost classic, horror geeks should find it well worth watching for its numerous monster-movie in-jokes and unrelenting air of unease.
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