Wuchakk

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The Tomb of Ligeia
(1964)

The black cat from hell at a manor in Victorian Britain
Amidst a crumbling castle in 19th century England, a widowed aristocrat (Vincent Price) mourns his wife, but quickly develops a new romantic relationship after meeting the forceful Rowena (Elizabeth Shepherd). Yet the soul of Ligeia seems to be haunting the estate and the apparently mesmerized Baron is hiding something.

"The Tomb of Ligeia" (late 1964) is Gothic horror based on the Edgar Allan Poe story from 1838 (which was revised in 1845 with the addition of his 1843 poem "The Conqueror Worm," written by the character Ligeia). This was the last of Roger Corman's eight Poe films from 1960-1964, which all made money but this one made the least, possibly because the quasi-series had run its course and the story was overly complicated. Nevertheless, Corman considered it one of the best of the lot.

Since the original tale was so short, scriptwriter Robert Towne incorporated elements from other Poe stories, such as the black cat, mesmerism and a hint of necrophilia. The talky story isn't as compelling as Corman's "The Terror" (1963) or even "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964). It's rather boring for the first hour, but there's an effectively creepy payoff in the last act, which ties everything together. Like those previous two films, the sumptuous Gothic ambiance is worth the price of admission and the inclusion of Stonehenge is a highlight. You just have to acclimate to the dated drama-focused goings-on.

The movie runs 1 hour, 22 minutes and was shot at Shepperton Studios, just west of London, and Castle Acre Priory north of Swaffham, as well as other spots in England, such as Stonehenge, Polesden Lacey and Polzeath, Cornwall, at the southwest tip of Britain (the beach scene).

GRADE: B-/C+

The Oblong Box
(1969)

Vincent Price, Hilary Dwyer, Gothic horror and Voodoo in 19th century London
In 1865 England, an aristocrat (Vincent Price) locks his brother (Alister Williamson) in the attic because he was hideously scarred by a Voodoo revenge ritual in Africa. While the Lord woos nubile Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer) the caged sibling is able to escape with the assistance of his lawyer and a witchdoctor, eventually hiding out with an unscrupulous doctor (Christopher Lee). When the hooded man ventures out of the house horror ensues.

While "The Oblong Box" (1969) utilizes several Edgar Allan Poe themes, it is nothing like Poe's East Coast sea voyage story from 1844 and simply borrows the title for a tale of Gothic horror in 19th century London. Producers at AIP thought linking Poe to a film would sell more tickets, which is why they dubiously renamed "Witchfinder General" "The Conqueror Worm" for American audiences a year earlier.

Since "Witchfinder" was a surprise hit (for such a low-budget flick) producers hired the same director, Michael Reeves, and three members of the cast for this project (Price, Dwyer and Rupert Davies). Unfortunately, Reeves fell ill during pre-production and was replaced by Gordon Hessler. The young, promising director was found dead of an accidental overdose less than three months later at the age of 25.

The cast is fine, the ambiance of Gothic horror is superlative and the females are appealing (Dwyer, Sally Geeson and Uta Levka). Regrettably, the script is filled with nonsensical bits and vagueness. For instance, how is it that no one at the aged brother's funeral knew what he actually looked like? If Edward's disfigurement is the result of a Voodoo ceremony, how does it morph into a contagious disease at the end? Sorry, but weak writing like this doesn't make for great movies.

Yet I suppose you can sorta put the pieces of the puzzle together if you use your imagination and it's still worth checking out if you like movies such as Corman & Coppola's "The Terror" (1963) and the aforementioned "Witchfinder General." But this is the least of these IMHO.

The movie runs 1 hour, 36 minutes and was shot at Shepperton Studios, just west of London.

GRADE: B-/C+

Scream and Scream Again
(1970)

Odd and bewildering mixed-genre flick with Price, Lee & Cushing at least entertains
A so-called "vampire serial killer" is on the loose in London (Michael Gothard) and a loose connection is made to the mysterious clinic of Dr. Browning (Vincent Price). A curious young doctor eventually pursues this lead for answers (Christopher Matthews). The impressive cast also includes the likes of Christopher Lee, Marshall Jones, Alfred Marks and Peter Cushing in a glorified cameo.

"Scream and Scream Again" (1970) is a London-based crime/drama and political thriller with a bit o' sci-fi/horror. It meshes superhuman vampiric killers with Nazi-like militarists and Frankenstein-ian doctors. It's a mix of the contemporaneous "The Tormentors" (with a WAY bigger budget) and the later "The Formula" (1980) with the Frankenstein element of "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" (2008). (I realize the latter two came much later; I'm just giving potential viewers an idea of what to expect with this oddity).

The female cast is decent with Judy Huxtable (Sylvia), Judy Bloom (cop), Yutte Stensgaard (Erika) and Uta Levka (nurse).

Christopher Wicking's script eliminates a key revelation of Peter Saxon's book ("The Disorientated Man"), which makes the story more mundane and political, which I favor. But the conflicting subplot involving the fictional Eastern European Communistic country could've easily been removed altogether, making the story less confusing and more streamlined. It's like trying to cram a war story into a crime thriller/horror flick.

The movie runs 1 hour, 35 minutes, and was shot in London and Surrey County, which is just south of the city.

GRADE: B-/C+

The Damned
(1962)

Maybe not great, but an inspired, if downbeat, early 60's curiosity from Hammer
On the southern coast of England, a gang of hooligans led by a man named King (Oliver Reed) harass an American yachtsman (Macdonald Carey) and a sculptor living on the shoreline (Viveca Lindfors). Shirley Anne Field plays the gang leader's sister who attracts the yachtsman. All of them are about to learn the secret of the mysterious government installation on the rocky coastline, headed by the character played by Alexander Knox.

"The Damned," aka "These are the Damned" (1962), is a B&W Hammer flick that mixes drama, mystery and sci-fi with a bit o' horror. Yet don't expect a creature feature; this is way more realistic.

It was no doubt influenced a little by "Village of the Damned" (1960), but accusations that it's an inferior rendition of "Children of the Damned" are unwarranted since it debuted two years earlier, not to mention the story is very different from either. I would say it's a mixture of those movies along with the later "The Shuttered Room" (1967) and "Messiah of Evil" (1973). Reed's ruffians are reminiscent of the former and the creepy coastal mysteriousness is akin to both. Another one is "The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea" (1976).

Carey brings to mind Robert Mitchum in his older age while Shirley Anne is easy on the eyes. Meanwhile the quirky song in the opening act, "Black Leather Rock," is evocative of the swinging early 60s. From there on the movie gets increasingly melancholy.

Speaking of which, why is it called "The damned"? Because everyone in the story is damned in one way or another: The artist creates sculptures resembling carbonized cadavers after mass nuclear warfare. The alienation of King's gang is echoed by the physical isolation of the innocent children. The matter-of-fact bureaucrats leading the secret program are so sure of imminent atomic ruin that they're essentially craving it; they've misplaced their humanity to the point that they are more the walking dead than the kids. It's a sad society locked into destruction with practically everything a cancelation of life.

The film runs 1 hour, 27 minutes, and was shot at Bray Studios, just west of London (interiors) with exteriors done in Weymouth, Portland Bill and Chesil Beach, all on the southern coast of England in Dorset.

GRADE: B+

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll
(1960)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Handsome Hedonist
In wild London of 1874, a reclusive scientist obsessively studies human nature (Paul Massie) while his alluring wife (Dawn Addams) is having a questionable relationship with a smooth gambler (Christopher Lee). The sudden appearance of suave Edward Hyde shakes everything up.

Released in 1960-1961, "The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" (also known as "Jekyll's Inferno" and "House of Fright") is the second of three Hammer films inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's famous story "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It was preceded by the horror comedy "The Ugly Duckling" (1959) and followed by "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde" (1971). (Please notice I said they're "inspired by" and not "based on" Stevenson's novella). The twist in this one is reflected in director Terence Fisher's belief that the charm of evil is more interesting than a brutish monster, at least to adults.

Hence this is more of a psychological horror film as opposed to a creature feature. The theme of the movie, corresponding to Dr. Jekyll's theories (in this version anyway), is that a person's superior self is caged within the individual, shackled by the constraints of societal rules and conventions. He believed the caged person within is the more progressive. Thus Jekyll basically looks like a Neanderthal whereas Hyde looks and behaves like a progressive libertine. The question is: Is the freed hedonist really "progressive" if he/she is morally degenerate?

Whilst the flick failed at the box office when released, I found its exploration of human nature fascinating. It helps that the film doesn't forget to throw in numerous entertaining bits, like a snake-dance by the athletic Norma Marla, a long can-can sequence and Dawn Addams' witty verbiage, as well as her jaw-dropping scenes in the last act. Interestingly, Marla has only appeared in two movies and they were both Hammer flicks inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's novella.

LOOK OUT for a young Oliver Reed as a nightclub bouncer in the first act.

The movie runs 1 hour, 28 minutes and was shot at Bray Studios, just west of London.

GRADE: B.

The Revenge of Frankenstein
(1958)

Thinking man's Hammer horror
Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) is able to escape execution and set up shop in a new city under the pseudonym of Dr. Victor Stein. The Medical Council is jealous of his success and seeks to shut him down as Victor continues his macabre experiments with fresh new associate Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews). The Baron's dwarf helper is given a new body, but things go awry, as usual.

"The Revenge of Frankenstein" (1958) is the sequel to the original hit from the prior year, "The Curse of Frankenstein," but without Christopher Lee as the monster (since he was annihilated in a vat of acid). Head-turning Eunice Gayson is a highlight on the feminine front (she went on the play the sorta-iconic Sylvia Trench in the first two Bond flicks from 1962-1963).

This is a unique entry in the series as it surprisingly eschews formula in preference to focusing on Dr. Frankenstein's genius and fascination in creating life from assembled body parts with concentration on brain transplanting. His positive and negative traits are emphasized: He's brilliant and attracts success and envy, yes, but his obsession drives him to unethical practices.

It's similar to "The Curse of the Werewolf" (1961) in that there's a broodingly flat hour-long set up before amping up the thrills in the last act. Moreover, the film's hindered by ambiguity concerning the fragile results of the surgery and retrogression of the patient. The series would get increasingly better with the next three entries: "The Evil of Frankenstein" (1964), "Frankenstein Created Woman" (1967) and "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed "(1969).

The movie runs 1 hour, 30 minutes, and was shot at Bray Studios and nearby Down Place & Oakley Green, just west of London.

GRADE: B-

The Brides of Dracula
(1960)

Actually "The Brides of Baron Meinster"
A beautiful French schoolteacher (Yvonne Monlaur) travels to Transylvania for a position at a school, but is forced to spend the night at the grand mansion of Baroness Meinster (Martita Hunt) where she meets the Baroness' handsome son, who is curiously kept captive in one part of the manor (David Peel). When vampirism breaks out Dr. Van Helsing offers his skills to save the locals (Peter Cushing).

"The Brides of Dracula" (1960) is the sequel to Hammer's "Horror of Dracula" (1958). It was originally supposed to be called "Disciples of Dracula" since Dracula doesn't actually appear in the story. Instead there's the unknown David Peel as Baron Meinster, who does a fine job, but he's very different from Christopher Lee and more akin to Frank Langella's take on Dracula in his 1979 film.

The set-up of the story is similar to most Dracula yarns: Sophisticates from Western Europe travel to Transylvania and end up spending the night at a diabolical chateau where vampiric horror ensues. As usual with Hammer, the atmosphere is Gothic, the colors lush and the women beautiful (particularly Yvonne Monlaur). The mother is an interesting character and formidable woman; her reasons for doing what she does are understandable.

For those interested, the nine Dracula-themed films Hammer did are: "Horror of Dracula" (1958), "The Brides of Dracula" (1960), "Dracula: Prince of Darkness" (1966), "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave" (1968), "Taste the Blood of Dracula" (1970), "Scars of Dracula" (1970), "Dracula A. D. 1972" (1972), "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" (1973) and "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires." Dracula (Christopher Lee) appears in every one of these except "The Brides of Dracula" and "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires." Meanwhile Peter Cushing plays Van Helsing in five of them (although not always the same Van Helsing, since two of the installments take place in the modern day).

The film runs 1 hour, 25 minutes, and was shot at Bray Studios, just west of London (interiors), and nearby Black Park and Oakley Court (exteriors).

GRADE: B.

The Evil of Frankenstein
(1964)

Hammer borrows from Universal to reboot the series
Hammer did seven Frankenstein films from 1957-1973: "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957), "The Revenge of Frankenstein" (1958), "The Evil of Frankenstein" (1964), "Frankenstein Created Woman" (1967), "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" (1969), "The Horror of Frankenstein" (1970) and "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell" (1973). Peter Cushing plays Baron Frankenstein in every one of these except "The Horror of Frankenstein" because it was a remake of the original story and they needed a much younger actor for the role

With "The Evil of Frankenstein" it had been six years since the previous installment and it reboots the series after a distribution deal made with Universal. Before this, Hammer went out of its way to make their version different from Universal (for legal reasons); here, the monster has the iconic Universal look and Dr. Frankenstein's lab is similar to the classic one, albeit everything's in color.

While Terence Fisher directed five of the installments, Freddie Francis does the honors here (his only directing job for Frankenstein) and I found it superior to the previous "The Revenge of Frankenstein." Yet it's not great like the next two entries, "Frankenstein Created Woman" and, especially, "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed."

The basic Frankenstein story is intact: a mad scientist from Western Europe in the late 1700s/early 1800s is obsessed with creating life from an assortment of body parts and so sets up shop in a secret lair and is successful, but the confused, grotesque creature ends up going on a killing spree. Thankfully, this one adds the entertaining village carnival element as well as the interesting involvement of a selfish hypnotist from the fair (Peter Woodthorpe). Sandor Elès plays the Baron's assistant while Katy Wild and Caron Gardner are on hand on the feminine front.

Although people gripe about the lack of continuity with the two previous installments from 6-7 years earlier, it can be resolved with a little imagination and filling in blanks: The Baron secretly built an alternative lab at his chateau outside Karlstaad which, if you think about it, he would've HAD to do during the events of "Curse." He simply omitted these clandestine undertakings from his explanation to the cleric. The flashback in this movie, told by Frankenstein to new helper Hans (Sandor Elès), is the doctor's fixed-up version of events in Karlstaad wherein he leaves out most of the details and lies about being exiled rather than condemned to execution. Since Hans isn't Hans Kleve from "Revenge," he knows only what Victor wants him to know about what went down.

The movie runs 1 hour, 24 minutes and was shot at Bray Studios, just west of London.

GRADE: B.

The Island
(1980)

"Ahoy there, matey" horror in the remote Caribbean
A British-born American journalist (Michael Caine) is assigned to the region of the Bermuda Triangle to find out why so many crafts and people have gone missing. He ventures there with his son where they discover the secret lair of... (watch the movie and find out). David Warner co-stars.

"The Island" (1980) was written by "Jaws" author Peter Benchley and based on his novel. He wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for "Jaws" (1975), "The Deep" (1977) and this one, but its failure at the box office sunk his screenwriting career, although he kept writing novels.

Neither "The Deep" nor this one is great like "Jaws," but they're worth checking out if you're in the mood for an ocean-oriented adventure/thriller that's generally realistic. The film is basically the story of a father & son and their survival during an unbelievable experience in the secluded West Indies. It's a commentary on isolation, retrogression and inbreeding, yet could've been more compelling if a little more time/money was spent fleshing out the potential. But the kick axx last act makes it worth the investment.

Australian actress Angela Punch McGregor is effective as Beth.

The movie runs 1 hour, 49 minutes, and was shot mostly on the islands of Antigua, which is 250 miles east of Puerto Rico, and Abaco in the Bahamas.

GRADE: B-

Irresistible
(2006)

Fatal attraction in Melbourne; not really, but sort of
A family in Melbourne (Sam Neill & Susan Sarandon) is threatened when a young woman attracts the husband at work (Emily Blunt). But is she really a threat or is the wife just paranoid?

"Irresistible" (2006) is a drama/mystery/thriller that throws in bits of "Fatal Attraction" (1987), "Rosemary's Baby" (1968), "Poison Ivy" (1992), "Single White Female" (1992) and "What Lies Beneath" (2000), but is unique enough to stand on its own.

The style of the filmmaking took me a little bit of time to acclimate to. I suppose you could criticize it as a Lifetime movie with a bigger budget. But there are several things to appreciate, including some well-done visuals and the inevitable revelations.

Neill is always effective as the male protagonist. Sarandon is past her physical prime, but still in shape and dramatically effective. As for Blunt, this is one of her earlier roles. So she's attractively youthful, but too thin; she'd fill out better for "Wind Chill" (2007).

The film runs 1 hour, 43 minutes, and was shot in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.

GRADE: B-

Halloween: Resurrection
(2002)

Serviceable, but pedestrian and comic booky entry
Several college youths agree to be part of a reality TV show where they stay in the dilapidated Myers' residence in Haddonfield, Illinois. Unbeknownst to them, Michael is still alive and has returned to his home town after stopping by the asylum to visit Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis).

"Halloween Resurrection" (2002) is the seventh installment of the Michael Myers saga (not counting the unrelated "Season of the Witch") and is the final film in the series until the remakes. It gets a lot of hate because of what happens in the opening act and the inclusion of Busta Rhymes, but it's serviceable and definitely superior to the lousy "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers" (1995). It's just kinda unimaginative and cartoonish with several bits being hackneyed or predictable by this point.

The feminine department includes Daisy McCrackin (Donna), Katee Sackhoff (Jen), Bianca Kajlich (Sara), and Tyra Banks (Nora). The beautiful women wandering around a rundown domicile and dying one-by-one is reminiscent of "Death Tunnel" (2005) but without the amazing cinematic artistry (even though it cost $11.5 million MORE), not to mention "Death Tunnel" has better women.

"Halloween 4" (1988) is easily the most entertaining of the original series, followed by "Halloween 5" (1989) and "H20" (1998).

The movie runs 1 hour, 34 minutes and was shot mostly in the Vancouver, British Columbia, area with the Hillcrest Academy sequence done at Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

GRADE: C.

Solomon and Sheba
(1959)

Hollywood's account of wise King Solomon's reign in Israel, including his folly
In the 10th Century BC, elderly King David's reign is ending and there's a dispute between siblings Adonijah (George Sanders) and Solomon (Yul Brynner) about who will take over the kingdom. Once this is settled, the Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobrigida) visits Israel for dubious reasons and Solomon becomes entranced.

"Solomon and Sheba" (1959) is a biblical epic covering the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings with bits & pieces of other scriptural characters/stories thrown in, plus the fabrication that Solomon had an affair with the Queen of Sheba. In truth, the Queen visited Israel because she heard of Solomon's great wisdom and wanted to test it for herself, plus witness the splendor of the renowned kingdom. While the movie shows Solomon's harem of hundreds of wives & concubines, the scriptwriters decided to make the Queen of Sheba a microcosm of these women for dramatic purposes. So it's true that Solomon's foreign wives led him astray into idolatry and disfavor with the LORD, it just wasn't the Queen of Sheba who did it.

Nevertheless, I thought there were enough historical truths to roll with the film and appreciate it despite its fabrications and bloated talky-ness. For instance, Adonijah really did seek to usurp the throne, but the way the story evolves in the movie is false. Yet I liked the inclusion of several real-life characters beyond those already mentioned, like Bathsheba, Abishag, Joab, Nathan, Zadok and Pharaoh.

Meanwhile Brynner is stately as the protagonist and Gina is ravishing, not to mention the costumes, sets, action pieces and score are all well done. Speaking of the score, power rock/metal bands of the 70s-90s were obviously influenced by parts of it (e.g. Rainbow, Savatage, Manowar, Crimson Glory, Bathory, Jag Panzer and so on). Rock 'n' roll bands of the late 50s-early 60s certainly weren't playing this kind of dramatic stuff with their pop ditties!

Interesting trivia: Tyrone Power originally played Solomon and two-thirds of the film was shot with him when he suddenly died after the sword duel with George Sanders (Adonijah), which is when Brynner was brought in for the starring role and the movie was completed in ten more weeks. Director King Vidor preferred Power because he depicted Solomon's conflicted spirit better whereas he believed Yul played him with too much self-assurance. While the troubled film turned out to be a box office success, it would be Vidor's final feature film.

It's worth checking out if the topic and actors interest you, but it's not as compelling as "Samson and Delilah" (1949), "The Ten Commandments" (1956) and "Ben-Hur" (1959). Still, it's not far off; you just have to be willing to swing with the alterations to history.

The movie runs 2 hours, 21 minutes, and was shot entirely in Spain.

GRADE: B-

The Black Stallion Returns
(1983)

Not as aesthetically pleasing as the first film, but more adventurous
Berbers come to New York to get their prize stallion back and Alec (Kelly Reno) pursues them to the desert wilderness of Morocco and possibly Algeria. Vincent Spano plays his Moroccan companion.

I like "The Black Stallion Returns" (1983) slightly more than the first one. It's not as artistic, but it's dramatically compelling and definitely more adventurous. It's like "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), but with a boy & his horse and faster-paced.

No, it's not epic or refined like "Lawrence" but, if you're in the mood for a youth-oriented Saharan adventure, it fills the bill. The stowaway part is well done and I appreciated the inclusion of raven-haired beauty Jodi Thelen.

Some viewers complain about the ending, but it fits. Think about it.

The film runs 1 hour, 43 minutes, and was shot in New York City, Djanet, Morocco, Algeria, Abiquiu, New Mexico, Italy, Santa Clarita & Los Angeles.

GRADE: B-

The Black Stallion
(1979)

Aesthetically pleasing, but dramatically dull
A boy befriends a fiery Arabian stallion in the Mediterranean in 1946 and ends up hooking up with an ex-horse racing trainer (Mickey Rooney) back home in the northeast USA. Teri Garr plays the mother.

"The Black Stallion" (1979) starts out like Tarzan's origin, just substituting the horse for the apes, before switching to the typical sports formula (young underdog's talent is recognized and trained by an over-the-hill mentor). Thankfully, this is not a Disney kiddie flick; the tone is artistic and mature with the same visual/audio wonder of "The Secret Garden" (1993), both movies produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

While it's as aesthetically awesome as "The Secret Garden," it's not as dramatically engaging. Teri Garr's role is negligible and Rooney's character isn't interesting like, say, Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid" (1984) or even Nick Nolte's 'Socrates' in "Peaceful Warrior" (2006). Either Garr's part needed beefed up or the scriptwriters should've added another character to the mix, like a girl who befriends the boy, but SOMETHING to keep things compelling.

As it is, the story is too dull to maintain the interest of most people over 7 years-old. But the stallion is magnificent and I appreciated the relationship between boy & beast, not to mention the excellent post-war era décor and the afore-noted artistic exquisiteness.

The film runs 1 hour, 57 minutes, and was shot in Sardinia, Italy (island sequences), and the Toronto area of Canada, with some stuff done in northwest Oregon (Astoria, Gearhart and Nehalem).

GRADE: C+

Shotgun
(1955)

Psychological explorations in the magnificent wilds of the Southwest
A Deputy Marshal in Arizona (Sterling Hayden) goes after a ruthless killer (Guy Prescott) in the sunny wasteland, where he meets a spitfire (Yvonne De Carlo) and a suave bounty hunter (Zachary Scott).

"Shotgun" (1955) is an obscure 50's Western so my expectations weren't exactly great, but it's actually pretty unique and commendable. At first, I thought it was going to be a town-bound Western, but the movie was shot primarily in the spectacular desert wilderness of the heart of Arizona. Hayden is laconic and determined while De Carlo is spirited and beautiful; meanwhile Scott is smooth and Prescott shady.

I like the psychological examination of the characters. Although the villain is wholly corrupt, most of the others function somewhere in the grey area, which makes for interesting social dynamics. The depiction of the Apaches is thankfully believable with many of them being of Amer-Indian stock. Lastly, the showdown in the last act is well done and inventive.

The film runs 1 hour, 20 minutes, and was shot at Vasquez Rocks in the high country north of Los Angeles (the opening) but mostly in the Sedona, Arizona, area (Red Rock Crossing & Oil Creek) with town scenes done at Universal City, California.

GRADE: B.

Strike the Tent
(2005)

Love story between North and South
In 1860 Captain Robert Adams of South Carolina (Julian Adams) falls in love with Eveline McCord from Pennsylvania (Gwendolyn Edwards). Their challenges during the Civil War are chronicled. Eveline's brother and his wife are peripheral characters (Joshua Lindsey & Amy Redford), as is the comrade played by Eric Holloway.

Based on a true story, "The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams" (2005), originally titled "Strike the Tent," is a Civil War story produced, written, and directed by the descendants of Robert and Eveline, which compelled critics to write it off as a 'vanity project.' The low budget (about $1 million) is comparable to "The Colt" (2005) and "Pharaoh's Army" (1995), but with a story akin to "Cold Mountain" (2003).

This is basically a Western transplanted to the Eastern Front of the Civil War. The tone is lyrical in a pleasant way that entrances the viewer, but the brutalities of combat are also depicted. Gwendolyn and Amy Redford (Robert's daughter) are beautiful and Adams makes for a convincing protagonist. The ironies of war are shown, e.g. The hero mercilessly mows down four Union soldiers and then is spared for unknown reasons by a Federalist.

The film runs 1 hour, 36 minutes, and was shot in South Carolina (Columbia & lower Richland County), North Carolina (Wilmington & another area), Georgia (Conyers) and Maryland (Hagerstown). Mickey Rooney and Tippi Hedren have small parts.

GRADE: B-

The Tall T
(1957)

Well done 50's Western with Randolph Scott, Richard Boone and Maureen O'Sullivan
A former ranch ramrod (Randolph Scott) and members of a stagecoach in the Southwest (e.g. Maureen O'Sullivan) are threatened by a trio of ruthless killers (Richard Boone, Henry Silva and Skip Homeier).

"The Tall T" (1957) is a quality 50's Western with likable Randolph Scott in the heroic role. It has achieved a sort of cult status as the prime example of a classic Boetticher-Scott Western. The original story was written by Elmore Leonard, which explains the movie's similarities to the later "Hombre" (1967), not to mention Boone appears in both as the chief outlaw. There are also parallels to Scott's "Hangman's Knot" (1952), which was shot in the same area and shares some story elements.

I didn't recognize Maureen O'Sullivan of Tarzan fame, 23 years after her physical prime in "Tarzan and His Mate" (1934). While the script keeps having the male characters refer to her as a "plain" or "old maid," she's obviously fit and still alluring in the second half with her hair down. In truth, most men in the Old West would kill to gain the attentions of such a woman.

The film is taut at 1 hour, 18 minutes, and was shot at Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California.

GRADE: B+/A-

Dog Jack
(2010)

A runaway slave joins the Union Army during the Civil War
Accompanied by his dog, Jack, a teen slave in Virginia (Benjamin Gardner) escapes his plantation at the outset of the Civil War and goes to Pittsburgh to see a struggling minister (Frank Kasy). They join the 102nd Pennsylvania Regiment and see lots of action. Louis Gossett Jr. Narrates as the elderly version of the protagonist while Eddie Huchro is on hand as a seasoned corporal.

Based by the book by Florence W. Biros, "Dog Jack" (2010) is a Civil War movie in the mold of "The Colt" (2005) and "Pharaoh's Army" (1995), but without the funds of those low-budget flicks. In other words, if you can't handle really low-budget movies I suggest staying away. I was able to acclimate to its limitations and enter into the world of the characters and enjoy it. Inspired by true events, I liked how the film showed the challenges of a black soldier being accepted by members of a white platoon and the camaraderie that slowly develops. Furthermore, the music is a highlight and there are some moving dramatic scenes.

Most of the story takes place in the woods/fields or at a farmhouse while everything else was obviously shot at historic sites. For the most part, the forest/camp/action scenes are surprisingly well done considering the budget. Some acting by the peripherals is questionable with a few lines sounding too eye-rolling quaint, which could've been better written/executed. Nevertheless, I think it's interesting how you can make a worthwhile little movie with very little funds if you're efficient and know what you're doing.

If you liked "Glory" (1989) and don't mind micro-budget flicks, give it a try.

The film runs 1 hour, 53 minutes, and was shot mostly in Darlington, Pennsylvania, but also Pittsburgh (Soldiers and Sailors National Military Museum and Memorial), Wisconsin (North Freedom), Illinois (suburbs of Chicago) and Iowa (Mt. Pleasant).

GRADE: C.

Murder in the First
(1995)

Life on Alcatraz in the 30s and early 40s
A young lawyer (Christian Slater) defends an inmate of Alcatraz (Kevin Bacon) accused of murder in 1941, but argues that the cruel treatment in the notorious prison is what drove him to it. Gary Oldman plays the heartless Warden (technically associate Warden) while R. Lee Ermey is on hand as the judge.

"Murder in the First" (1995) is a prison/courtroom drama that says its "inspired by true events," which means it's NOT a biography of the real Henri Young, but rather uses Young's basic story as a microcosm for unveiling several of Alcatraz' dubious and inhumane doings during the 30s. Look up the real history after viewing the movie, yet not just Young's story and the trial, but also the 'Dungeon' and how prisoners were treated in solitary confinement during the early years of that infamous 'Rock.'

The movie successfully brings the viewer back to the 30s and early 40s, but the filmmakers laid it on too thick in regards to how ee-vil the prison authorities are and how supposedly innocent Young is (he wasn't), which smacks of agenda.

Nevertheless, this is cut from the same cloth as "The Shawshank Redemption," the surprise hit from a year earlier (not that it was a hit at first, but it eventually became one). I'm not saying "Murder in the First" is as good but, if you liked "Shawshank," you'll probably appreciate it.

Embeth Davidtz, Kyra Sedgwick and Mia Kirshner show up on the feminine front. Davidtz really shines in the biggest role of the three.

The film runs 2 hours, 2 minutes, and was shot in San Francisco & Alcatraz Island with the courtroom scenes done at Triscenic Production Services Inc. In Los Angeles area.

GRADE: B-

Arachnid
(2001)

Stuck on a remote Pacific island with mutated arachnids
An expedition from Guam investigates a remote island in the Pacific after a man dies of a fatal spider bite. Chris Potter plays the leader of the mission and Alex Reid the pilot.

"Arachnid" (2001) is an island adventure/horror that basically mixes the setting of "Six Days Seven Nights" (1998) and the later "Welcome to the Jungle" (2013) with horror elements reminiscent of "The Fly" (1986), albeit not limited to the one-dimensional warehouse milieu of that flick. The CGI effects in the opening are too cartoony, but the practical effects throughout the rest of the movie are well done considering this isn't a blockbuster (surprisingly, it only cost $570,000).

While this is superior to the half-baked "In the Spider's Web" (2007), it's not as good as "Arachnophobia" (1990). But I like the social dynamics of the castaways and the challenges of a hot jungle locale are palpable.

Alex Reid is pretty good on the female front (I like her facial expressions). Spaniard Neus Asensi is also on hand as the attractive spitfire Susana.

The film runs 1 hour, 35 minutes, and was shot in Catemaco, Veracruz, Mexico, and Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

GRADE: B-

Santa Sangre
(1989)

Life is a colorful psychosexual circus in Mexico City
A man ends up in an asylum after a shocking experience as a boy in a traveling circus in Mexico. When he escapes he finds his maimed mother and falls under her negative influence. Guy Stockwell plays the grossly overweight circus owner.

Released in 1989-1990, "Santa Sangre" (meaning "Holy Blood") is a surreal circus fantasy made by cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who's known for "El Topo" (1970) and "The Holy Mountain" (1973). His son, Axel, plays the protagonist here, Fenix.

Surreal or not, I love circus/carnival-oriented flicks and this one works well in its bizarre way for the first half, but totally bogs down in the second. The colors are vibrant and there's a lot of deep symbolism with a Christ figure, a giant snake and so on. The various women are displayed in a creative titillating manner (Thelma Tixou as the tattooed woman, Blanca Guerra as the lithe high wire artist, Sabrina Dennison as the innocent Alma and Gloriella as Rubi) and I suspect this is a key reason why a lot of guys hail the film.

Unfortunately, the second half is dreadfully dull. Fenix doesn't develop as a character in any attention-grabbing way and the story isn't compelling, unless you find Fenix using his arms to help Mommy interesting. It's still worth catching if you appreciate eccentric cult flicks that dare to be different, just be prepared for a tedious time in the second hour.

The film runs 2 hours, 3 minutes, and was shot in Mexico City.

GRADE: C.

Speed
(1994)

Get off the bus!
A SWAT officer in Los Angeles (Keanu Reeves) tries to save the lives of people on a bus from a mad bomber (Dennis Hopper) who has the vehicle rigged to blow up if it goes under 50 MPH. Sandra Bullock plays a passenger on the bus while Jeff Daniels is on hand as another SWAT officer.

"Speed" (1994) is a disaster/action movie that delivers the goods as a thrilling popcorn flick. While it's not great like "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991) it's arguably on par with "Under Siege 2: Dark Territory" (1995).

Although a top-of-the-line production, it lacks the human interest of "Terminator 2" and "Runaway Train" (1985) and the story is unbelievably contrived. But, if you can roll with it, it's a dynamic blockbuster, just kinda forgettable in the grand scheme of things.

The film runs 1 hour, 55 minutes, and was shot in the greater Los Angeles area, including Mojave Airport.

GRADE: B-

Do the Right Thing
(1989)

When someone does the wrong thing and others react the wrong way
On a hot summer day in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, one person makes the wrong decision and sets off a chain of events that results in havoc. Rosie Perez is a highlight on the feminine front.

"Do the Right Thing" was Spike Lee's breakthrough film that he made when he was 31. It's a stylish and spirited account of a mostly black community in New York City that's well-rounded with drama, humor, entertainment, honesty and tragedy.

On the one hand, this neighborhood seems like a pleasant enough place to live, if you don't mind the big city. The characters are not painted as one-dimensional, generally speaking; they have both attributes and faults. Yet it's a relatively peaceable environment with the various races/ethnicities getting along just fine with only minor (and amusing) altercations. Nevertheless, it's a tinderbox that doesn't take much to set aflame.

The last act leaves a bad taste. I can't believe Lee had the gonads to be this honest, but he shows why most people don't want to live or do business in black neighborhoods, including many blacks.

While people debate who's right and who's wrong, it's simple to figure out: Buggin Out taking offense about something immaterial at Sal's pizzeria is unjustified. If he thinks it's that big of a deal he doesn't have to dine there, plus he can start his own restaurant and decorate it however he wishes. At the same time, it could be argued that Sal should've reacted in a wiser way that turned away Buggin Out's curious anger, rather than augment it. Meanwhile Radio Raheem makes a foolish decision by allowing Buggin Out to negatively influence him. Why can't they just do the right thing? It's frustrating.

This is a well-made classic and worthy of its iconic status, it's just not exactly my cup of tea due to the exasperating last act that's too brutally honest. How about doing the right thing by making art that inspires hope, unity and healing for inner city communities? This piece points to the problem, inspires questions & debates, but offers no solutions except... move away from black neighborhoods.

The film runs 2 hours and was shot in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

GRADE: B-

Quigley Down Under
(1990)

"Maybe the dingo ate your baby"
In the late 1870s, a famous sharpshooter from Wyoming (Tom Selleck) travels to Australia for a gig with a land baron in the Outback (Alan Rickman), but things turn sour when he learns what the job really entails. Laura San Giacomo is also on hand as Crazy Cora.

"Quigley Down Under" (1990) is a Western taking place in the desert wilderness of Australia. The title suggests that Quigley was meant to be a Western character in the manner of Indiana Jones with sequels of him visiting other continents, such as "Quigley in Africa," "Quigley in South America" and so on. Unfortunately, its lack of success at the box office put the kibosh on that.

It's not as goofy as some of the Indiana Jones yarns and I appreciated the realistic vibe behind the typical hero shenanigans. For instance, we know personal hygiene wasn't the best in the late 1800s and, especially, in dry areas of the Old West and most of Australia where washing clothes was infrequent; "Quigley Down Under" shows this reality.

Selleck of course makes for a great Western protagonist, likewise Rickman as the odious antagonist. Meanwhile petite Laura San Giacomo is an amusing spitfire. She was 26 during filming.

The film runs 1 hour, 59 minutes, and was shot entirely in Australia (Warrnambool & Apollo Bay, Victoria, etc.).

GRADE: B/B-

Shaft
(2000)

A black detective in Gotham desperately wants to nail a snooty racist murderer
The nephew of the original John Shaft is a detective in New York City (Samuel L. Jackson) where he tries to apprehend an arrogant racist killer (Christian Bale) by finding a key witness (Toni Collette) while dealing with a gang lord (Jeffrey Wright) and corrupt cops. Vanessa Williams is on hand as a helpful officer.

"Shaft" (2000) is a 'hip' crime thriller that resurrects the franchise 27 years after the original trilogy from 1971-1973 that featured Richard Roundtree in the title role (he returns here as the aged uncle). The cast and filmmaking are fine; the problem is the lame story with which they're shackled.

The key crime in the opening act is glaringly weak. Bale's character is a snooty punk born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but I didn't buy his rash, racist actions at the night club. It just didn't ring true, especially since he seems to get along with black people just fine the rest of the movie. Likewise, Collette's actions aren't convincing as the doe-eyed bartender. Simply put, the scriptwriters tried too hard to concoct a racist whitey villain when subtly was in order.

If you can roll with that serious flaw, there are enough thrills to amuse, including Jackson as the bad axx protagonist and Wright's entertaining drug lord. Plus it's always good to see the charming Vanessa Williams.

The film runs 1 hour, 39 minutes, and was shot in various areas of New York City, as well as nearby Newark.

GRADE: C.

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