LON CHANEY, JR.

Why no one has ever produced a cinematic biopic treatment of the Chaney boys ( Lon Sr. and Lon Jr.) is baffling. Bela Lugosi was given quite a spotlight in Ed Wood (1994), and Boris Karloff was a supporting character in Gods and Monsters (1998). Off-screen, Karloff might have made for a nice neighbor, but being the workaholic he was, his biography is dull going. Of course, Lugosi had elements of drug addiction, pathos, and parody late in life working for him. While the Chaneys lacked the European mystery of Karloff and Lugosi, there’s an aptness in these American-bred father and son icons because, as the past year has revealed, Europe has doodly-squat on ‘Murica when it comes to the banality of authentic horror.

From the slivers of information that we have received over the years through peer recollections and various articles, the Chaneys would make for one helluva psycho drama, preferably directed by someone with the sensibilities of a David Cronenberg. No definitive biography has been written about either, and cinematically there’s only a ludicrously whitewashed biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) starring James Cagney as daddy Chaney. Part of the reason for lack of a substantial biography could be the almost obsessive protectiveness of the Chaney estate, who seem to have made things consistently difficult for potential biographers. However, it is also telling that the estate has, as far I know, never disputed the more colorful biographical tidbits that have been given about their silver screen patriarchs.

There must have been something of the masochist in the elder Chaney, who went though much self-inflicted suffering for his art, including looping wires around his eye sockets and wearing false teeth so tight that shots had to be completed quickly before he started bleeding. For Quasimodo, he wore a back prosthetic so heavy that (coupled with instructions to an extra to not spare the whip in the famous beating scene) it sent Lon Sr. to the hospital for an extended stay. Apparently, he was also quite a sadist, and would lock Creighton (Lon Jr.’s birth name) in a closet after razor strap beatings for punishment. (Senior was also psychologically abusive, as when he told Junior that mommy was dead, when in fact she was quite alive).

Such heredity and abuse certainly was instrumental in composing Lon Chaney Jr. as something of a real life lycanthrope with horrific daddy issues. In assessing Jr. as a pale copy of his father, the popular and critical consensus is spot on (for once). In addition to obsessively (and vainly) trying to outdo daddy, Jr. was also a raging alcoholic, had drug problems, and was prone to a violent temper; which, according to some (including writer Curt Siodmak) sprang from guilt over latent homosexuality. However, when actually being directed, instead of just being told to do Lennie from Of Mice and Men again, Chaney, Jr., if not a great actor per se, was memorable in numerous character parts (few of which are in the horror genre).

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DIRECTOR RETROSPECTIVE: MARIO BAVA

mario-bava

An eclectic study of cinema should include the oeuvre of Mario Bava. He was overlooked by serious critics for decades. It was genre fans who kept whispering Bava’s name until it reached an echo and reverberated in critical circles. Called The Father of Italian Giallo Cinema, he influenced the likes of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Quentin Tarantino (among others). Predictably, Bava’s fan base is given to religious zeal, but his body of work merits immersion in spite of his fanatical cult.

mario-bava

It should come as no surprise that Mario Bava’s original ambition was to become a painter. The son of sculptor and cinematographer Eugenio Bava, Mario found painting a less-than-profitable life goal and followed his father’s footsteps. Landing a job in Mussolini’s film factory, Bava’s apprentice work included lensing numerous films, beginning in 1939. It wasn’t until 1957 that Bava (uncredited) co-directed his first feature with Riccardo Freda: Lust of the Vampire (I Vampiri).

lust-of-the-vampie-mario-bava

Although neither a great horror film nor a great film, Lust of the Vampire (not to be confused with the later Hammer film, which makes this one look like a masterpiece) is historically important for being the first Italian horror film. There are no vampires to speak of. The victims are the result of surgical horrors, and there’s little doubt that this film was a considerable influence on Georges Franjou’s Eyes Without A Face. Although crisply paced in its 78 minute running time, it’s saddled with dull, verbose characters. Lust of the Vampire teeters toward full-blown Goth cinema, but it also has scenes that hearken back to the mad scientist films of the 1940s; one has to look twice to make sure we’re not witnessing Boris Karloff and Lionel Atwill up to no good in their labs. Visually, it has wonderful set pieces and almost surreal matte-work standing in for Paris. A portentous spiraling stairwell, shadow-doused laboratories, decaying beds, skulls falling to the floor, nooses inexplicably dangling from the ceiling, a mist-laden forest, an ornamental tomb façade, secret chambers, and beautiful women injected with serum transforming into withered drama queens all add up to an evocative early Italian horror. Gianna Maria Canale has the standout performance as Giselle du Grand, smoking cigarettes in front of mirrors. There’s a lot of debate as to how much Bava directed. The film has elements that could be attributed to the styles of both artists. Although Bava is clearly the superior director, Freda (who co-wrote the script) went on to make the effective Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (1962) and it’s sequel The Ghost(1963), both with Barbara Steele. Freda walked out mid-production (for unclear reasons), leaving cinematographer Bava to finish the directorial duties for the remaining shooting schedule. Reportedly, the film was heavily censored by Italian “moralists,” which resulted in scant showings and rendered it a financial loss. Image Entertainment released a superlative DVD of I Vampiri, but it’s currently out of print.

caltiki-the-immortal-monstermario-bava

Freda and Bava re-teamed as co-directors for 1959’s Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, which lays claim to being one of the earliest Italian science fiction films (Bava had served as a cinematographer for the very first Italian sci-fi, The Day The Sky Exploded, in 1958 and, according to some sources, co-directed it as well).

caltiki-the-immortal-monstermario-bava

Apparently inspired by The Blob(1958), Caltiki far surpasses its source material (which isn’t hard to do). Set in Mexico City, the opening narration gives a brief synopsis of the ancient Mayan civilization, the mystery of its demise, and warns of an evil Mayan deity, known as Caltiki, the Immortal Monster. The opening is unabashed Bava: an archeologist runs, terrified, through an eerily lit jungle as a volcano erupts in the distance. He makes it to his campsite and leads the group back to the Mayan ruins he had stumbled upon. Finding a long-lost temple, the archeologists succumb to avarice, which leads to the unearthing of Caltiki; a Blob of a god who melts away skin and mental faculties. The FX are grisly for the time period, but shock value always dates, and it’s the Bava touches (excellent matte work and cinematography) that still seem fresh. Although well-paced, the writing is a pastiche filled with cardboard characters.

the-giant-of-marathon-mario-bava

Bava co-directed 1959 The Giant of Marathon with Jacques Tourneur (!), which would be a typical Steve Reeves sword and sandal opus, were it not for Bava’s camera work on some of the elaborate (and bloody) battle scenes (including an underwater confrontation). Of course, it has lots of cleavage—from both sexes. It’s hokey as hell, and while it hardly represents the directing craftsmanship of Tourneur, it does highlight Bava’s superb camera work.

black-sunday-mario-bava

With the box office success of Marathon, Bava was finally given his own film to direct solo, and the result was Black Sunday. This horror classic remains Bava’s most famous film and is covered here in greater detail.

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Our Short Film: “9” (2009)

This was made for the 2009 48 Hr film contest. It was written by myself, using the poerty of John M. Bennett. I co-directed with Robin Panet and co-acted with frequent collaborator James Mannan.

After the premiere, one of the judges took me aside and said: “I dig your film and really wanted you guys to win, but you just broke too many rules.”

We did indeed.

RUDOLPH MATE’S BRANDED (1950)

Branded (1950) lobby card

Rudolph Maté’s Branded emerged at the dawn of the 1950′s. It stars Alan Ladd and is little remembered today, due in part to Ladd’s being cast in George Stevens’ phenomenally popular Shane a mere three years later. I do not side with the consensus of contemporary criticism in the reassessment that says Stevens’ classic is overrated, just as I will not concede to revisionist opinions regarding High Noon (1952), although I do believe there were, and still are, better westerns: Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Budd Boetticher’s‘ The Tall T, or Anthony Mann’s Naked Spur. However,Branded is as almost as good as the film which sealed the surprising superstardom of Ladd.

Branded (1950) Alan Ladd. theatrical poster

There is something quintessentially cinematic and mythic in the image of a man on a horse under an expansive sky. Branded fills that bill to the Technicolor brim, contradicting an often held opinion that Westerns simply look better in black and white. Sydney Boehm’s unpredictable screenplay comes from a Max Brand novel and meshes well with Maté’s sense of pacing.

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RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) BLU-RAY CRITERION

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) posterRIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) German movie poster

Monte Hellman’s‘s two 1966 Westerns, The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind, have finally received due recognition in a Criterion edition. For years, Hellman’s “existentialist” Westerns (as they are often termed) have languished in execrable transfers on Z-grade DVD labels. Even these have usually been out of print, and only available at mortgage payment-level prices.

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND criterion

Both were produced by Roger Corman(uncredited), Jack Nicholson, and Hellman, with Hellman directing both simultaneously. The Shooting was written by Carole Eastman, Ride In The Whirlwind by Nicholson. The writing proves to make the difference; Nicholson lacks Eastman’s sense of pacing and aptitude for coherent nonsense. Still, each film is sharply focused and securely grounded amongfilms for the bourgeoisie to walk out on (a quick glance at the deluge of prosaic comments from banal IMDB users serves as a verification of Hellman’s provocative reputation).

RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (1966) advertisement

Ride In The Whirlwind opens as a traditional Western, with a stagecoach robbery. Tradition soon gets thrown out with yesterday’s bathwater. The robbery goes askew, as do concepts of righteousness, virtue, honor, and frontier justice. The ensuing shootout between rival gangs lays waste to our inherent ideologies of heroes and villains.

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BETWEEN MEN (1935)

BETWEEN MEN (1935) JOHNNY MACK BROWN, BETH MARION.BETWEEN MEN (1935) JOHNNY MACK BROWN

Between Men is a strongly composed “B” directed by Robert North Bradbury (Courageous Avenger and several of John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns).  Bradbury was also the father of B-Western star Bob Steele, and his expertise in the genre is delightfully natural.  Between Men has a strong cast in Johnny Mack Brown as the stalwart hero, and this may well be his best role.  Beth Marion excels as the love interest, as does William Farnum in his scene-stealing role as Brown’s tormented father and Earl Dwire as the standard slimy villain.

BETWEEN MEN (1935) JOHNNY MACK BROWN, BETH MARIONBETWEEN MEN (1935) Johnny Mack Brown

Between Men has a richly melodramatic plot. Farnum (great wide- eyed acting) believes he has killed his young son (Brown) and flees west.  Actually, the boy was only injured and is adopted by Lloyd Ingram.  Twenty years pass and the visuals shift from the upper-scale Virginia countryside to the stark New Mexico desert as Brown embarks on a journey to find his adopted father’s long lost granddaughter (Marion).  Farnum has assumed a new name and is now Marion’s guardian after his hired hand (Dwire) rustles her cattle, kills her father, and attempts to raper her.  Marion is saved by a “drifter” whom Farnum hires for protection, not realizing that Brown is his son, whom he believes to be dead.

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BIG CALIBRE (1935)

BIG CALIBRE (1935) BOB STEELE. Lobby card

Robert North Bradbury often seemed to add a pinch of the offbeat into his westerns, but when it came to directing his son, star Bob Steele, there was a downright oedipal underpinning because, quite often, Bob was thrust into an onscreen situation in which he lost his father.

The Big Calibre (1935) lobby card. Bob SteeleBob Steele comic

Big Calibre utilizes this plot situation yet again, but regardless what Sigmund would have to say about it, it is of little consequence to this enjoyably odd oater. Bob’s father is killed and robbed of his cattle cash by a local chemist, played by screenwriter and Steele friend Perry Murdock. Bob pursues him, but the chemist escapes. Some time later, Bob, still in pursuit of his father’s murderer, is accused of holding up a stagecoach and murdering Peggy Campbell’s father, who also was robbed and killed with corrosive gas while en route to save his ranch from foreclosure.

Bob Steele western comic #1

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RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL (1937)

RIDERS OF THE WHISTLING SKULL (1937) The Three Mesquiteers

This odd hybrid could only have been produced in an era which gave no credence to genre labels.  Riders of the Whistling Skull is the kind of movie which is so delightfully in love with its period that one could easily imagine a true genre geek like Tarantino falling in love with it today.  Director Mack V. Wright is completely comfortable throwing horror, western, jungle, mystery and comic relief into a seamless mix.

%22The Three Mesquiteers%22 Bob Livingston, Max Turhune and Ray %22Crash%22 Corrigan.

The Three Mesquiteers (Bob Livingston, Ray Corrigan, and Max Terhune), for those not in the know, were the starring trio of a number of “B” westerns.  The well-photographed, well-paced Riders of the Whistling Skull is, by far, the best of these.  Pretty girl Betty Marsh (Mary Russell) is searching for her lost father, Professor Marsh (John Van Pelt), who, along with Professor Flaxton (C. Montague Shaw), has been kidnapped by a diabolical Indian cult.

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COURAGEOUS AVENGER (1935)

COURAGEOUS AVENGER (1935) JOHNNY MACK BROWN. LOBBY CARDJohnny Mack Brown comic (Dell)

Time to dust off this collection of B-Westerns from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun Collection.  The packaging is ultra-cool, starting off with those priceless trailers:

Gentleman From Texas Johnny Mack Brown

Trailer # 1: “Ride at Full Gallop into a Thundering Texas Romance to the rescue of a girl haunted by killers!  Johnny Mack Brown as the fist-flashing GENTLEMAN FROM TEXAS” blazes across the screen as Johnny shoots and punches his way across bar tables.  Add in beer bottles over the head, a pretty dame named Claudia Drake and the TrailsMen singing “Texas Jubilee” on banjos.   It’s a “Violent Drama of Valorous Love and Texan Vengeance” from Monogram Pictures.

Outlaw Deputy Tim McCoyJohnny Mack Brown comic

Trailer # 2 screams “It’s the Real McCoy” (as in Tim McCoy) “heading this way to tame the town that defied the law!”  More fisticuffs, six-guns blazing, horses, good guys in white hats, and fallen bad guys in black hats (who never bleed) are all promised.  “The Outlaw Deputy Tim McCoy made bad men check their guns while he checked up on romance!  Cow-Town became a mad-house of Thundering Action when the nerviest outlaw East of the Rockies turns OUTLAW DEPUTY!”  A Puritan Picture.

Mystery Mountain Ken Maynard

Trailer #3: ” Come Along Boys and Girls on a Thrilling Trip to MYSTERY MOUNTAIN where KEN MAYNARD the screen’s most popular Cowboy Actor and his famous horse TARZAN will ENTHRALL you!  will THRILL you!  will STARTLE you!  in their 1st SUPER SERIAL!  ACTION!  ROMANCE!  All the THRILLS of THE OLD WEST!  Don’t miss seeing Ken Maynard and his horse Tarzan in MASCOT’S MIGHTY EPIC  SERIAL MYSTERY MOUNTAIN! WATCH FOR IT!”  This one has all the elements of the previous two, but throws in locomotives and a star horse.

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THE MIRACLE RIDER (1935)

THE MIRACLE RIDER (1935) starring Tom Mix. lobby card

The Miracle Rider was the last film of Tom Mix and his horse Tony, Jr. (Tony Sr. had departed this earthly realm). It is a sound serial from Mascot with twice the normal Mascot budget. Mix was 55 when he made this and showing it. Although his voice was deep and suitable for sound, and he was still in good shape, Mix looked his age and was now using a stunt double for complicated stunts. Mix had made several sound films for Universal, but they fared only moderately well. Mix had officially retired and was promoting his Tom Mix circus when he was talked back to the silver screen for one last go round. It is fortunate he did. The Miracle Rider was an astounding success, making both Mix and Mascot over ten times its investment. The serial is one of the better serials of the period, too, and so Mix went out on top, dying five years later in an automobile accident. Even though Mix had been out of the public eye for five years following Miracle Rider, his death caused a large outpouring of grief. Mix’s enigmatic life, career and tragic demise are the stuff of legend.

Tom Mix comics %22The Witch of Shallow Gulch%22

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