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Suspense: Black Passage
Episode 9, Season 2

Source of Episode
For the benefit of the two or three people who will ever see this episode, it is based on R.L. Stevenson's short story, "Olalla." If you'd like to read it, it can be found here (as of Nov '08):

This episode, and a dozen or so others, can be found on DVD. It is misnamed "Suspense: The Lost Episodes" (they were never really lost, just hiding). Netflix has it. It is very obvious that these segments were aired live, so the quality of direction and performance is wildly variable (technicians walk through shots time and again, and actors occasionally have to riff while someone is stuck during an off-camera costume change or cross between sets). Moreover, they tend to be a tad blurry in spots (well, all right, they're blurry, period, but that's as good as they're ever going to get) but for fans of this sort of thing this collection is a real treasure. Here's hoping more of them turn up.

The Departed

Another Serving of Scorcese's Overbaked Ham
If less is more, then more is less. That is a lesson that, in all his years as a film maker, Martin Scorcese never seems to have learned.

Never satisfied with mere excess, Scorcese continues to take original, intricate and downright terrific ideas, and bludgeon them into twisted ruins of predictable, derivative, deep-fried sleaze. Scorcese never saw a story so simple he couldn't pack a ton of gratuitous mayhem into it, or a concept so straightforward he couldn't belabor with a ton of profane verbiage, or a character so layered he couldn't redraw it as a cardboard cutout, or a plot so complex he couldn't dumb it down to the level of a five-year-old. As has become habitual with Scorcese, none of his characters can get shot just once, or break his neck instead of splattering on concrete, or get cut with a knife instead of an ax, or survive the movie at all if Scorcese thinks he can get a cheap gasp out of killing him off. Perfect fare for an audience so saturated with decades of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis garbage that no one bothers to ask for logic any more, and starts to fall asleep if denied a hemorrhage for ten minutes at a stretch.

The plot developments and time lines in The Departed are so far-fetched as to reek with implausibility. I won't repeat these; others have enumerated them. But Leonard DiCaprio -- a terrific actor, by the way -- is so ludicrously miscast that his own cat would know it. Here he is, flying into a cold rage with his baby face and beating up on gangsters with his skinny arms... If this milk-fed child were put within a hundred yards of the sort of people he so blithely cons and pistol whips in this outing, he would drop dead of fright. His nemesis, Matt Damon, is every bit as cardboard an imitation of evil as Leo is of good. And Jack Nicholson is... Jack Nicholson. Which ain't bad, or at least it wasn't bad the first fifty or so times we saw it, and we've seen him do it better.

Scorcese's female "characters" -- one supporting role to a film -- are usually given little more to do than bob their heads up and down in some guy's lap. He departs slightly from his usual crass misogyny in this film. At least this woman has a job she can perform standing up. But one must wonder how effective she can be in her chosen field -- that of psychiatrist -- being so indecisive and obtuse. A head shrinker who doesn't know her own mind, indeed. Scorcese might tell you that the choice is intentional, and ironic, and therefore somehow meaningful. Nonsense. He can't help it. He must undercut and dilute any strength his women might have. His treatment of them is consistently dismissive, stereotyped and mean-spirited. His whole body of work, in fact, is so testosterone-drenched and chauvinistic, he seems to be begging us to believe he's a heterosexual, when no one would think to doubt it if he didn't protest so much.

The only good thing about this hash is the soundtrack. But there's nothing original about it. Scorcese just hired someone to go down to a music warehouse and shuffle out what fit the picture. Not much way you can go wrong, shoving "Gimme Shelter" into just about anything. So go buy the originals. Not the soundtrack; it will only add to the profits for this overblown mess.

There is a great story buried in all the junk weighing down The Departed -- realistic, ironic, bitter and layered -- or there was a great story, until Scorcese's ham-handed execution turned it into this childish blood feast. As in "Casino," "Gangs of New York" and that preposterous trash about ambulance drivers, there is an underlying reality that could have been brought to life and memorably rendered.

The great pity is that Scorcese has real talent. He has shown it on many occasions, and throughout "Raging Bull." It comes through even as he's trampling on his own better instincts. There's a great director in him, but he doesn't trust himself, or the adolescents he is apparently making movies for, to remember that subtlety, simplicity and grace are cinematic virtues, even if employed occasionally. No, he has to ramp up the volume and the sarcasm and the adolescent rage and the bloodletting until the whole business is just annoying to anyone but a pre-teen. He loads every scene down with inhuman dialog, over-the-top action and ludicrously improbable plot developments -- and then presents it as raw realism. If he was dealing in science-fiction, that would be something else. But he isn't. Boiled down to their basic elements, most all of his films are simple, straightforward stories. Seldom does any of the excreta he piles onto them elevate them to the level of originality, and never to art. It only lowers them to run-of-the-mill cinematic pabulum.

Scorcese is bound to share billing in future textbooks on film making with Oliver Stone, another artistic quack who routinely kills his healthy patients by over-prescribing medicines they never needed in the first place, and then chopping them up on the operating table with a chainsaw to compensate. But all this makes heaps o' profits, and ensure that Scorcese will never lack for an audience or his next directing job. Lamentably, all he is really doing is contributing, in his own way, to the lowering of the national IQ. And there are far, far too many vultures — in the media, in politics and in entertainment -- already working that angle.

The Mummy's Curse

Virginia Christine, Scream Screen Queen
Say that headline fast three times. Hell, say it slowly twice. When talking Mummy movies, first there's The Mummy (1932), which has no real sequels. Then there's the Kharis-Ananka quartet – the Mummy's Hand (40), …Tomb (42), …Ghost (44) and …Curse (44). Other than being about an ancient Egyptian mummy walking the earth, these four have little to do with the original, unless one counts the promiscuous mining of archive footage, forcing Imhotep to stand in for Kharis. In fact, Tomb, Ghost and Curse are sequels to The Mummy's Hand. The Mummy in these four films, played by Tom Tyler and then Lon Chaney Jr., is the weakest of the original Universal monsters, and the films in this series perhaps the least constrained by internal logic. Performance quality and character types run the scale in these four entries, and it's good fun comparing leading men, leading ladies, high priests, George Zucco's hair, and of course, Mummies. Although there are only two of these latter, you get to compare Chaney to himself, and he turns in three rather distinct (for him) performances, a thing that perhaps only Horror Babies like me can appreciate. Which brings us to Virginia Christine.

In The Mummy's Curse, Virginia delivers what is unquestionably the best moment in this post-Karloff series, and (aside from One-Take Zucco and his hair) perhaps the best performance in the series overall. Virginia takes a slight script and actually does something with it, something better than the material deserves, and far above anyone else (Martin Kosleck excepted) in the cast of Curse.

I don't mind saying that when I first saw this film long ago I fell for Virginia pretty hard. Not because she would have given Rita Hayworth any competition in a beauty contest, but because she's a Real Actress, and brings to Ananka a vulnerability and exotic mystery that is mighty attractive to a ten-year-old. And then, there's that MOMENT — the one that appears on so many "Top Ten Moments in Horror" lists (Forrest J Ackerman, as I recollect, did not neglect to put it on some sort of list). Any Universal horror fan knows the one I mean: when Princess Ananka crawls out of her Bayou grave into the light of the sun and struggles unsteadily to her feet — the weariness of three thousand years in her bones — pulls herself erect in regal mud-caked dignity, walks life back into herself, and then gratefully sinks into the cleansing waters of the Louisiana Nile… THAT moment. In that scene, and the ones that follow, Virginia Christine joins the legendary sub-Pantheon of Scream Queens populated by the likes of Kathleen Burke, Carroll Borland, Elsa Lanchester, Simone Simon, Elena Verdugo, Barbara Steele and Marilyn Burns (match the goddess to the classic, kiddies). Memories of these ladies will bring a smile to the faces of many an aging Horror Baby until… well, until the last of us croaks, which should be any day now.

But The Mummy's Curse is Virginia's movie. Everyone else is just lurching around. Dennis Moore can't seem to find a costume that fits, Peter Coe flails painfully for an appropriate reaction and just misses every time, and Chaney… What must he have been thinking about the whole thing? Alas, it is not to be known from his on-screen behavior. But Virginia… you saved it, honey.


Noise Whimpers Out
For originality this film rates high. Lance Doty has crafted a screenplay with loads of potential, and instant appeal to anyone who has had their sleep ruined by rotten neighbors. This premise is taken to psychotic lengths, and could have been much, much better. Unfortunately, director Tony Spiridakis seems to have slept through the whole thing. The pacing and camera-work are flat and colorless. He seems to have cast his actors and then abandoned them to their own devices. The only one up to the task was Ally Sheedy, and if not for her, this film would have fallen flat on it's face. Trish Goff, a model in her first film, is supposed to show us the mental disintegration of a young woman -- by degrees -- her fragile mind under assault from her own failures and alcoholism, with her slow collapse considerably hastened by the psychic torture provided by her upstairs neighbor. But Ms. Goff delivers a performance that would barely get her cast in a high school play. She does not inhabit her character; she has no sense of her psychology, no sense of bringing her incrementally to her breakdown. Ms. Goff brings very little to her role at all except what is already built into the script. As she is the pivotal character, and appears in every scene, the whole business bogs down in her flailing search for an appropriate emotion. If a real actress had been cast in this part, the film might have lived up to its promise. As it is, it will quickly be forgotten.

Blood Feast

Bring Lots of Beer
If this movie was a dead animal, a buzzard wouldn't touch it. But there has to be a certain distinction in being the first of anything, and H.G. Lewis has the distinction of having made the first real splatter film, even if he broke ground that never should have been broken and made a mess that never should have been made.

If this sort of fare isn't up your alley, you'll know it by the title, but if you've been a willing observer of The Evil Dead, Hellraiser, Phantasm and the like, Blood Feast is the creaking granddaddy of them all. And if you think Plan 9 from Outer Space is hilarious, you can't go wrong here. If you haven't seen this one, prime yourself with some of your favorite beverage and get ready for an eye-popping laugh-fest. With a script that must have been written over lunch and shot for maybe a hundred dollars (or whatever the film stock and a dozen gallons of red paint cost) this IQ-lowering howler features a cast that couldn't act their way out of a church nativity play, god-awful cardboard sets, inappropriate blaring music, and dialog that makes Edward D. Wood look halfway professional. Don't deny yourself any longer. You know you've been planning to see it for years, but always settled for less. Long after you've forgotten all those generic splats that have followed in its wake, you'll never forget the real thing.


An Embarrassment
When Cinemafantastique interviewed Kenneth Branagh on his recently-released version of Frankenstein, the writer asked Branagh to describe his viewpoint, his thematic slant on the story. Quite a natural question for a film maker to be asked, as the notions of theme and point of view are not optional, they are mandatory. A director must decide beforehand on the ideas he wishes to set forth, and craft the means to set them forth clearly. When dealing with a classic, oft-filmed work, he must choose a new slant, and exploit themes that have not been emphasized before (at least, in quite that way), if his work is to be at all original.

Branagh's breezy response was something on the order of, "I didn't really have a theme in mind, I just wanted to tell a good story."

This is precisely why Branagh's version fails: is an unanchored, misguided mess. Herewith is a barely coherent hash of styles, a series of boneheaded choices (a snotty Helena B. Carter as the "liberated" Elizabeth Frankenstein), a tangle of hanging threads -- beautiful clothes with no one in them; beautiful sets that form a backdrop to utter nonsense.

And it is dreadfully miscast. Branagh's ego trip as Dr. Frankenstein aside, the worst performance of all is that of Robert DiNiro as his creature. In this role, DiNiro proves that Pauline Kael was right all along. For years, Ms. Kael kept telling us that this mediocre talent was considered a great actor just because everyone said he was. In other words, he had been in the right place at the right time, and had stumbled into his undeserved reputation by pure chance. (Check out the way he sleeps through his role in Casino.) The spectacle of Frankenstein's creature mumbling in that repellent, thick New Yorkese is really one of the sorriest moments in all of filmdom -- there is simply no excuse for such a thing. Did anyone bother to tell him the story is set in Switzerland? I saw this movie in New York, at an East Side theater, and the audience was giggling nervously every time DiNiro opened his mouth. Why nervously? Because they "know" DiNiro is a "great" actor... Because they were embarrassed, pure and simple.

And they should have been. Branagh's desire to "tell a good story," while arrogantly disregarding the most basic elements of storytelling, quite naturally produced the opposite effect. In short, it produced an embarrassment.


Claude Rains Forever
If not for his work in Casablanca, Claude Rains would be little remembered today, but this Londoner was one of Hollywood's finest in the 40s. If you never see another of his films, see this one. He always dignified his character roles with native sincerity and charm, and raised the caliber of anything he touched. This is perhaps his finest film performance, and he makes everything around him look like bombast and hokum. See this, and you'll always remember Claude.

Geek Maggot Bingo or The Freak from Suckweasel Mountain

A must to avoid.
This amateur film is reminiscent of erstwhile Saturday Morning Spook Show fare, only without the character some of those clinkers had. It was obviously filmed in someone's basement; the next-door neighbors are utilized as actors, and anyone else willing to put on a vinyl Halloween get-up and make a fool of himself; it uses crude line drawings painted on sheets and hung on a wall to simulate a mad doctor's laboratory; and there is nothing here that could be dignified with so grandiose a name as "plot," much less anything remotely original. All this would be well and good if it were funny, and god knows the performers mug and strain so hard to let us know it's a COMEDY we're watching, it's a wonder they don't implode. How this thing ever got general video release is one of the marvels of modern marketing. It would be difficult to imagine anything harder to sit through, and would have to be on anyone's "ten worst films" list. If you haven't seen it, let's just call it A MUST AVOID AT ALL COSTS.

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