Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Last Man on Earth - Omega Man - I Am Legend

Three movies have been made based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel “I Am Legend.”
Watching all three is an interesting study in contrasts and I would suggest watching them in chronological order, starting with the first, “The Last Man on Earth” from 1964, starring a somewhat miscast Vincent Price as Dr. Robert Morgan.
A plague has wiped out most of the world’s population, and bodies not burned morph into zombie-like vampires. They’re slow and dull, and speak just a little when calling out to Morgan at night: “Morgan, come o--u--t. Come out of the h--o--use.” In a flashback we that Morgan/Price doesn't believe the proposed theory of metamorphosis until his recently buried dead wife turns up at his door.
Mirrors, garlic, and a flimsily boarded up home keep the vampires at bay at night. By day, Morgan drags dead bodies to a huge burning pit and searches for vampire lairs to drive stakes through their hearts. He’s been at it three years. “Another day to live through. Better get started.”
Almost all of his story is told through voice-overs and flashbacks but when he suddenly encounters a woman during the day, we find out why the plague didn’t take him.  He was bitten long ago by a bat in Panama. The bat had a vampire germ but by the time it entered Morgan’s blood, it has been strained and weakened by the bat system and he now has immunity. Plausible.

The woman is from a group, who exist somewhere between human and vampire (“we’re infected but alive”). They’ve found their own solution to the situation and they take umbrage at Morgan’s activities, in spite of the too late revealed fact that Morgan’s blood can permanently prevent them from going vampire. Although there’s too much sacrificial lamb in it, this movie ending is my favorite of the three films. 

The 1971 Omega Man stars an over-the-top Charlton Heston as scientist Robert Neville, and he’s holed up in a penthouse in Los Angeles, complete with a wine cellar and is well-stocked with Scotch. The movie opens stylishly with Heston driving around an abandoned LA with the theme from “A Summer Place” playing.

Instead of vampires, Heston has to contend with hooded mutants that cannot tolerate light, speak just fine, although a little archaically, and have retained more brain power than the previous vampires. They also move faster. Their goal seems to be destroying any remnants of the previous civilization, which includes Heston, “that creature of the wheel.” And we can understand their anger. It was civilization’s actions that made them what they are today. 
The mutant-causing fault this time lies with biological warfare between China and Russia. Symptom are as follows: choking, unconsciousness, death, mutant. Fortunately for Heston, he developed a trial vaccine that he administered to himself in the nick of time. Too late for the rest of the world, however.

Heston’s place is the Taj Mahal compared to Price’s abode. He has outdoor cameras and is comfortable enough with his handling and knowledge of the mutants to watch them at night through an open window. He plays chess with a bust of Caesar.

His days are spent “shopping”, and searching for the mutants and their leader, Mathias.  Like Price, he suddenly encounters a woman, whom he chases after to catch (Heston performing a little more effectively than Price). The “others” inevitably surface, dramatically saving Heston from a burning crucifixion death and rescue him via a crazy motorcycle chase/escape scene.
Again, Heston/Robert Neville’s blood holds the key to humanity’s survival and instead of the sacrificial lamb we get an actual crucifixion pose. Hokey. 

Will Smith’s “I Am Legend” modernizes the story which is now set in New York City. The scenes are great and include a from-the-top view ala “Side Street.” The cheesy 1970s music is gone and replaced by a mostly Bob Marley soundtrack. Smith doesn’t take his shirt off as much as Heston and does quote movie lines better (Heston - Woodstock; Smith - Shrek). 

His residence, again as scientist Robert Neville, is a veritable fortress and his “dark-seekers” are much more formidable. They do not speak, but only roar or scream. They cannot tolerate light of any kind, they climb and jump like monkeys, and move at lightning speed. You won’t see one until about 30 minutes into the movie, and they are angry and smart enough to strategize.
Flashbacks help to fill in the story and the movie opens with Dr. Alice Krippen (Emma Thompson) announcing a cure for cancer that was created with a genetically modified measles virus. Naturally, things go horribly wrong and the virus mutates. These creatures are the result. Smith spends his time working on a cure and testing it on infected animals and dark-seekers but so far to no avail. “The Krippen virus is ... elegant.”

Like Heston, Smith has conversations with mannequins as both men attempt to retain sanity. Also like Heston, Smith charts out the city and where he’s been.  

This version offers some visual strokes of genius: the evacuation of Manhattan; Smith sitting alone at South Street Seaport looking at the destroyed bridges; Smith hitting golf balls into NYC off an aircraft carrier; and stunning images of an abandoned, post-apocalyptic Manhattan. 
The bridges are destroyed but a woman and child show up and save Smith in his moment of distress. No reason is given to explain the immunity of Smith and the others to the virus. At one point Smith states that he is immune to both the airborne and contact strains, and canines are immune to airborne only. Reasons unknown. 

“I Am Legend” is much closer to “The Omega Man” than to “The Last Man on Earth.” In addition to the story line, both have great art on the walls of their homes. But both Smith and Price have to put down a dog that turns. Smith’s version is much more emotional and dramatic but the scene leading up to meeting the first dark-seeker is very long and drawn out. And although beautifully photographed, there’s a bit too much sentimentality thrown in.

And should I even talk about the alternate ending that completely ruins “I am Legend”? Moving from “typical human behavior is now entirely absent” to alpha male zombie exhibiting human characteristics by loving his zombie woman and the entire group sparing the lives of the humans when said woman is retrieved suspends zombie movie belief. Butterfly motif? Hugely expanded. Both endings result in people driving out of Manhattan (via what bridge?) so that logic stream is lost either way. 
Although all three movies are worth watching, “Legend” is the most visually satisfying, “Last Man” is the grittiest in black & white and interesting with its lame zombie-vampire combination, and “Omega” is notable for its intelligent and devious monkish-mutants. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Bad Seed (1956) Mervyn LeRoy

John Waters refers to this movie as being one of his early, artistic, negative influences and mentions these three characters as being his holy trinity: the Wicked Witch of the East, Captain Hook, and Rhoda Penmark.
If you don’t know or remember Rhoda, it’s time to watch this film. Considered a shocker in its day, the movie is an early entry in the creepy-kids-in-movies genre (followed by “Village of the Damned,” “The Omen,” “Children of the Corn,” etc., right up to 2011's “We Need to Talk About Kevin”).
Little Rhoda (Patty McCormack) is a picture perfect, adorable girl with doting parents. Her teacher and school chums don’t feel quite the same way, and the mentally-challenged and somewhat sinister handyman (Henry Jones as Leroy Jessup) thinks he’s onto her real personality.
The story slowly unfolds and we’re following along with Rhoda’s mother, Christine (Nancy Kelly) as various clues are dropped. Kelly’s acting is over the top and histrionic; at one point she pommels her abdomen when she suspects her heredity and increasingly fears her progeny. (Interestingly, she won a Tony for her Broadway performance and was nominated for an Oscar for the movie role.)
The landlady (Evelyn Varden as Monica Breedlove) is an affectionate, over-bearing woman, devoted to psychology, and to Rhoda. She heaps advice on Christine ("you need vitamins and sleeping pills") (“I know I shouldn’t take things into my own two capable hands but...”) and gifts on Rhoda while indulging her every whim. When Rhoda is chastised by her mother for being not just a little rude and greedy, Monica responds with “she knows what she wants and asks for it.” 
Monica’s conversations are laced with psycho-babble, and the encounter of Monica, Christine, and Rhoda with Leroy on the sidewalk is a classic:

“I’ve thought of you as emotionally immature, torn by irrational rages and a bit on the psychopathic side. But after this demonstration (he sprayed Rhoda’s shoes with the hose - remember those shoes), I think my diagnosis was entirely too mild. You’re definitely a schizophrenic with paranoid overtones.”
Monica hosts a dinner party that includes Christine (whose military husband has been called out of town), Monica’s brother (Jesse White), and noted criminologist, Reggie Tasker (Gage Clarke). Earlier, when reminded of the dinner Christine asks: “What do you feed a criminologist?” Monica responds:

“Prussic acid, blue vitriol, and ground glass; hot weather things...; he thrives on buckets of blood and sudden death.” This response holds great promise for the upcoming dinner but it, and the later cocktail party, which brings back Reggie and introduces Christine’s father, an ex-crime reporter, serves up rather stilted discussions of child criminals, nature vs. nurture, and also some surprising plot twists. 
Christine and her father (Paul Fix) are a little too weirdly affectionate and we sense there’s something unknown with that relationship; not sordid, just a little off. Rhoda is permitted to greet her grandfather but is then sent up to dine with Monica (when she leaves the room she flips her braid to her back and is in essence flipping off her mother and grandfather). Christine has an awkward talk with her father about her dreams/nightmares, which end up being her father’s secrets.

Jesse White’s role as Monica’s brother and as one inhabitant of the apartment building is very small but he has the honor of spewing out one of the weirdest lines of the movie: “Well, I’ll be a middle-aged mongoloid from Memphis.” We don’t see him again until someone is being burned up in the basement.

Eileen Heckart, playing the mother of a son who drowned at a school picnic, has two scenes, and she steals them both, earning her a nomination for Best Supporting actress. “I’m drunk and unfortunate.” She also introduces the theme of underclass vs. upperclass, and calls out the snobbery of the school teacher, “Miss-butter-wouldn’t-melt-Fern.”
The aforementioned handyman, Leroy, has been kept on by Monica because he has a family and although everyone mistrusts him, only he and Rhoda eventually see each other’s true identities. At one point, Leroy is watching Rhoda, and muttering about her, repeating the butter-wouldn’t-melt-theme. ”Lookin’ cute and innocent; lookin’ like she wouldn’t melt better; she’s that cool.” 
Leroy later tries to scare Rhoda with the threat of the electric chair: “They got a little blue chair for little boys and a little pink chair for little girls.” That leads into the Rhoda’s true colors scene: “Give me those shoes! Give me back my shoes!”
Just when you think you’ve arrived at the ending, there’s a surprise twist at a hospital and justice is subsequently meted out by the heavens (changing the plot of the novel and play). The players then appear for their credits (as they would on the stage), and a ridiculous spanking scene finally ensues that dissipates all of the drama. The film ends with this statement: 
One can’t leave this movie without mentioning the musical theme of “Au claire de la lune” by Jean-Baptiste Lully. It’s played on the piano by Rhoda, whistled by handyman Leroy, and featured prominently in the musical score by Alex North. 

The scene at the end by the water nicely dovetails with the opening credits, and the cinematography by Harold Rosson was Oscar-nominated. The entire film feels like a stage play but I love a movie that uses the word “specious,” twice, and made me look up “excelsior.” While the studio could have made the ending so much better, Patty McCormack rules in the child-horror movie genre, and if she asks you for her shoes, you'd be well-advised to give them to her.
“Now and then we get a twisted brain chemistry born to healthy, enlightened parents, but that’s one in a million.”


Sunday, June 10, 2012

From Hell It Came (1957) Dan Milner

This is an hour and ten minutes of stilted, idiotic dialogue and very poor acting that together end up hilariously funny, although not by intent.

We have scientists/doctors on a South seas island checking radiation fallout from an atom bomb and treating the native population for plague (“Let’s try Formula X37.”).  The scientists/doctors are very boring and talkative, and spend a lot of time explaining plot points.

The natives have just killed off one of their own, who vowed his revenge. “I shall come back from Hell and make you pay for your crimes!”  The very Caucasian-looking chief (nice conch shell ornaments) and medicine man (bear claw headband) have wrongly accused the murdered man of killing his father, the previous chief. (The current chief speaks with a New York accent and most of the natives speak in fractured English.)
The ex-chief’s son is buried in a stand-up wooden coffin, knife still in his heart, with a voodoo doll, 2 large bones, and some seeds thrown in on top. Then these words are spoken portentously, “breethee pooro capu, zumu clova negatoro.” No translation provided.

Soon enough we hear from Hell as a stump starts growing out of the grave site and turns into a tree, containing the same plunged in knife - and a heartbeat. The natives recall a previous Tabanga (Creature of Revenge) that grew out of a murdered man’s grave and was released from the ground by a bolt of lightning and went on a killing spree until it disappeared (probably in the quicksand).
The scientists are advised that the Tabanga should be destroyed before it gets loose and starts killing. But the medicine man has more sinister designs and creates a concoction that when applied to the roots will allow him to control the Tabanga and its killing. He’s too late, however.
The scientists are intrigued by the heartbeat and want to study this creature, so they cut it free from its roots and bring it back to the lab where it’s chained onto a table. The move doesn’t go well and the pulse weakens and suddenly death is imminent (“The pulse is weak! It’s dying!”). Tina Carver wants to save it while Tod Andrews wants to throw it in quicksand.  “Couldn’t we try to energize the adrenal gland with an electro-resister?” Classic cure.
Instead, the doctors set up an IV that pumps Formula 447 into the creature for 8 hours to revive it. One of my favorite small scenes in this movie is the brief camera panning of the laboratory after the scientists have left, with the IV in place. It scans the room as it is and moves to the clock which is at 10pm. The clock is then fast forwarded to 6am and the camera scans back over the laboratory revealing the results of the last 8 hours. Complete with a monkey on the loose and a snake on the overhead lamp, the room shows the effects of the IV drip.

The tree monster was not only revived but also had the strength to break out of his chains and reek havoc on the laboratory. Now they’ve done it. Tabanga is loosed upon the island. “I just wanted it to live, not to destroy!” Ah, too late.

Tabanga’s first activity is to break up the funniest cat-fight you will ever see and we watch his first revenge kill, death by quicksand. The next victim suffers death by squeezing, and the next by being branch-stabbed. All good stuff.
The movie draws to its inevitable conclusion with our damsel in distress needing rescue and falling in love with her rescuer, whom she had previously rebuffed, inconceivably not falling for his approach: “Don’t you want a husband and children, like other women?”
Tabanga is a lumbering tree stump that won’t burn, from which bullets bounce off, and has a face resembling a bull dog with the lower jaw constantly quivering. You don’t get to see him in motion until 47 minutes into the film, and it’s a thing of beauty to behold. He has suitable, eerie music to accompany his strolls. His visage and the quicksand deaths are very likely burned into the memory banks of 1950s children.
One final note is necessary regarding Linda Watkins who plays an Australian widow running a trading post. She is particularly annoying and I think all viewers wish Tabanga had thrown her into the quicksand before this 80 minutes of campy fun ended. This is a must-see for fans of 1950s-1960s "horror" films.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) Laurence Olivier

The setting is 1911 London with visiting dignitaries in town for the coronation of George V.  One of these foreign dignitaries is Laurence Olivier as a Prince. And the showgirl is, of course, the beautiful Marilyn Monroe.
This movie held no interest for me until I saw the 2011 “My Week with Marilyn,” starring the Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. The title refers to the making of this movie in England, Monroe’s only film made abroad. And the best way to enjoy the 1957 movie, is to watch “My Week” beforehand.
Olivier, who also directed, is wasted here as an actor and was so demoralized by the making of this picture that he didn’t direct another film for 14 years. (He’s brilliantly portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in “My Week.”)
As the showgirl who caught the fancy of a Prince, Monroe is gorgeous in that ridiculously tight, white dress, and is at times, incredibly funny. After being corrected several times about how to address Olivier, she finally gives a quiet throw-away line, “Oh, the hell with it.” She also charmingly imitates/mocks Olivier’s laughter while he was on the phone. In spite of a pretty bad movie, Monroe’s talent shines through.  Also watch for the scene when a passed out Monroe is carried out of the room by three men with her head lolling down - very nice comedic touch. 
Her short solo dance scene in the prince’s hotel is exquisite (and was beautifully recreated by Michelle Williams). However, there are way too many gags with Olivier pinning an over-sized medal on Monroe’s chest and far too many shots of Monroe’s ample behind. What may have been entertaining then is not so much now.
Two supporting actors deserve a mention seeing as how they helped to round out the movie and fill in the empty spaces in the chemistry between Olivier and Monroe.
Sybil Thorndike was a noted British theater actress who, here as the Queen Dowager visiting London, stands out in every scene in which she appears, and gets the biggest laughs. “Who was that creature? Was it an anarchist?”
Richard Wattis, a British comedic actor, is consistently humorous as Northbrook, a British civil servant assigned to keeping the Queen (Thorndike) and the Prince (Olivier) happy during their stay in London.
The Coronation scene in Westminster was overly long and spent too much time on Monroe gazing about in wonder with her finally shedding a tear. It’s a lesson in poor film editing.

When the movie is in comic mode, it’s amusing. When it’s in serious mode, it’s just boring. 

Written by Terence Rattigan (play and screenplay), there is some clever wordplay:

“Why do you always swear in German?”
“Because Germans have the best oaths...and machine guns.”

“It will answer those stupid American protests. I mean it will satisfy the democratic opinion.” 

So see the film if you’re a Monroe fan, but please watch “My Week with Marilyn” before you do. It will enhance your viewing pleasure.

“She is to be given carte blanche.”
“Carte quite blanche?”
“As blanche as she cares to make it.”
"Before your insults grow too great to be borne, I'm ringing for your motor."