King of the Underworld (1952)

King of the Underworld (1952)‘I am particularly anxious to fumigate the air, and I see no point in doing that if you are still here.’

An ex-Scotland Yard police inspector tussles with the criminal arch-enemy he’s been trying to put behind bars for more than 20 years…

Minor British black and white crime thriller of the early 1950s, hamstrung by a shoestring budget but boasting one of the last big-screen appearances by Tod Slaughter, the nation’s first horror star. He may have been in his sixties by this point, but he was still plying his trade as an utter cad and total bounder, even if lusting after young maidens seems to be off the table at last.

Lady Sylvia Gray (Katharine Blake) is desperate; some compromising letters of hers are in the hands of blackmailer Terence Rigby (Slaughter), and he’s turning the screw. Her husband is about to be named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list (a somewhat dubious distinction in this writer’s opinion), and a scandal now will finish his diplomatic career. The only solution? The river. Ex-Inspector Morley of Scotland Yard (Patrick Barr) reads about it in the newspaper and tells his girl Friday Elane Trotter (Tucker McGuire) all abut the time Blake came to see him and asked for his help. This flashback is so poorly handled that it takes a minute to realise that it is a flashback. After all, his office at the Yard looks almost identical and director Victor M Gower fails to present anything visually different.

King of the Underworld (1952)

‘How warm would you like your acid bath, m’lady?’

Blake wants to keep the whole business quiet and wants Barr to obtain the letters by burgling Slaughter’s office. He refuses, naturally, and that’s that. As she doesn’t want to prosecute, he’s not going to lift a finger. Was that really how being a policeman in the 1950s worked? Anyway, now he’s no longer on the force, he’s free to investigate, and this brings us to one of the drama’s main problems. What is Morley’s official status? Presumably, he’s a private detective, but he never takes any money from his clients, or even discusses payment. Also, he seems to have all his old official police files in his office. There’s also a wonderful moment where he hails a passing police car like a taxi and speeds off in pursuit of a suspect.

After Barr foils Slaughter’s nefarious extortion scheme, he runs across the villain again, this time as the result of a kidnapping. Barr breaks up the plot, of course, aided by a fake beard and a sailor’s cap, a disguise so brilliant that Slaughter is completely fooled. This turns out to be the criminal mastermind’s Achilles Heel as Barr tricks him again later on with another beard and hat combo. The best example of this, though, is when Slaughter hands over all the blackmail letters to Barr’s assistant, McGuire. Apparently, a stripey t-shirt, big round glasses, a flowery hat and the strangest mixture of a Cockney and a Brooklyn accent you’ve ever heard make for a very convincing career criminal. Especially one who Slaughter thought was going to be a man!

King of the Underworld (1952)

‘Gor Blimey, Guv’nor, youse dead ass getting me tight, Bro.’

When the kidnapping scheme bites the dust, Slaughter falls in with enemy spies who are after some kind of secret weapon/formula called XYQ. It’s the brainchild of old boffin Professor Harrison, who has been working independently, of course, so no government agencies are involved. His assistant has disappeared after ‘being approached by enemy agents’, and he wants Barr to investigate. Not surprisingly, the ex-Scotland Yard man suggests the police of MI5 might be a better bet, but the old geezer insists that Barr is the only man for the job. Why I have no idea. The uncredited actor also gives an interesting performance. He stumbles through his lines, which may have been intentional, but he spends an awful lot of time staring down into his hat. As the scene has few edits and the hamfisted script gives him an awful lot of exposition to get through, it’s not unreasonable to suppose he had a few prompts hidden there.

Now if you think that this all sounds a bit episodic, well, there’s an excellent reason for that. Ambassador Pictures and producer Gilbert Church had rescued Slaughter from the big screen wilderness with ‘The Curse of the Wraydons’ (1946) and ‘The Greed of William Hart’ (1948), but now they were moving into television. This film is actually the first three episodes of a small screen show called ‘Inspector Morley, Late of Scotland Yard, Investigates.’ Unfortunately, Church had failed to pre-sell it to the BBC, which was the only domestic market at the time. Not surprisingly, the Corporation passed, and so it was sold to a regional channel in America, and half a dozen episodes cut into two films, of which this was the first.

King of the Underworld (1952)

‘I’m sorry, Mr Morley, I’d do anything for love, but I won’t do that.’

It’s quite clear that the main inspiration for the show was the famous battle of wits between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, but that doesn’t really work in the format of a television show with a self-contained story every week. Screenwriter John Gilling can’t overcome the cut-price production budget, which forces him to base each story on the same sets. Indeed, the film is often little more than a series of conversations between men in grey suits in small rooms. There is some location filming, but it’s limited to a few street scenes and a short chase across some wasteground between bombed outbuildings. There’s little action, just the occasional bout of laboured fisticuffs and various parties waving guns about a little.

We do get a strong hint as to why Slaughter’s been able to evade Barr for so long, though. After killing off the Professor while he is on the phone to Barr, Slaughter pulls on some gloves to search for an incriminating photograph and puts the telephone receiver back. Later on, when Barr discovers the body, he just picks up the phone to call Scotland Yard and leaves his fingerprints all over it! Perhaps that’s why he’s an ex-Inspector. His detective skills also somewhat questionable, relying an awful lot on coincidence. At one point, he follows a known criminal he randomly sees on the street and, of course, it turns out the villain is involved in Barr’s current investigation. How convenient!

King of the Underworld (1952)

‘By Jove! We’re not on BBC tonight. Again.’

The two ‘Inspector Morley’ adventures were Slaughter’s final appearances in feature films on the big screen, although his last that was specifically made for the cinema was ‘The Greed of William Hart’ (1948). He is showing his age a little, looking rather tired and slightly overweight. The old energy is mostly absent, although there are flashes of it from time to to time and he does throw himself into the few physical confrontations that the script demands.

Of course, as a film, this is mighty poor stuff with the structure all too obviously compromised by the original format. Barr delivers a brave turn as ‘Voiceover Man’ to try and paper over some of the cracks, but it’s a painfully contrived device. Of course, the film has no real climax either, just the ending of the third show when Slaughter escapes justice…again. But, not to worry, Barr pops up with a quick direct to camera bit before the credits roll to tell us that Slaughter was caught and is due to be hanged because crime doesn’t pay. Not on the big screen in 1952 anyway!

King of the Underworld (1952)

‘I don’t remember this dip in rehearsals.’

Barr began his acting career on the big screen with uncredited bits in films like the H.G. Wells science-fiction epic ‘Things To Come’ (1936), but progressed to supporting roles in more notable productions. These included appearances in ‘The Dambusters’ (1955), Otto Preminger’s ‘St Joan’ (1957), ‘The Longest Day’ (1962), ‘Billy Liar’ (1963) and ‘Octopussy’ (1983). He also played Lord Carradine in ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’ (1973). But it was on television that he found his groove with many notable credits; everything from ‘Dr Who’ and ‘The Avengers’ to ‘The Wednesday Play’ and ‘Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)’.

Surprisingly, two of the men behind the camera went onto many notable projects. Gilling may have directed the infamous ‘Old Mother Riley Meets The Vampire’ (1952), which paid for star Bela Lugosi’s ticket home after his disastrous U.K. tour of the provinces as ‘Dracula’, but the quality of his work improved considerably after that. Twin writing and directing duties on several minor second features followed, including science-fiction conspiracy picture ‘The Gamma People’ (1955), but he struck gold with ‘The Flesh and the Fiends’ (1960). It’s arguably still the definitive film version of the ‘Burke and Hare’ story and boasts excellent performances from Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance. After that, Gilling went to Hammer and delivered a trio of noteworthy pictures; the atmospheric chills of ‘The Plague of the Zombies’ (1965), the distinctly creepy encounter with ‘The Reptile’ (1966) and the somewhat less distinguished Egyptian horror ‘The Mummy’s Shroud’ (1967).

King of the Underworld (1952)

‘At the third stroke, it will be time for tea precisely.’

Art director Don Chaffey also took his place behind the megaphone in the early 1950s, although mostly on television. Almost a decade later, he finally hit the jackpot on the big screen with the family-friendly ‘Greyfriars Bobby: The Story of A Dog’ (1961) and, after that, with Disney’s big-budget version of ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ (1962). But better work was to come. Cult cinema fans still rightly celebrate the classic mythological epic ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1962) and Hammer’s prehistoric adventure ‘One Million Years B.C.’ (1966) with Raquel Welch. Chaffey also directed episodes of classic T.V. shows such as ‘Danger Man’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ before moving to America. Stateside, he took repeat gigs on many network T.V. shows like ‘Charlie’s Angels’, ‘Fantasy Island’, ‘Vega$’,’ T J Hooker’ and the late 1980s reboot of ‘Mission: Impossible.’

A dreary, low-grade example of a British crime thriller from the early 1950s. It is enlivened by a few moments of Slaughter doing what he did best, but it’s certainly not recommended.

Tod Slaughter would return in ‘Murder At Scotland Yard’ (1954).

Haunted Harbor/Pirates’ Harbor (1944)

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)‘Sea serpent off the port bow!’

A young sea captain finds himself in dire financial straits after his second ship disappears carrying a cargo of gold bullion. When he finds his main creditor murdered, the authorities arrest him for the crime. Escaping with the help of friends who believe in his innocence, he begins a search for the real killer. It doesn’t take long before he suspects a connection to the mysterious happenings at an isolated harbour…

Wonderfully old-fashioned rock ’em, sock ’em movie serial from Republic studios. Thie efficient 15-part chapterplay comes courtesy of co-directors Wallace Grissell and Spencer Gordon Bennet, who was the undisputed master of the genre. There’s the usual procession of last-minute escapes, exploding vehicles, crashing aeroplanes and energetic bouts of fisticuffs, delivered with the breathless pace and ruthless efficiency which was the studio’s trademark. If it’s not a particularly well-known and celebrated title, that’s probably down to choices made with the overall story, rather than a lack of thrills and action.

Captain Jim Marsden (Kane Richmond) is still upbeat despite his recent troubles. A storm seems to have wrecked his second ship and its valuable cargo, which has put him in dutch with businessman Fredrick (not Jason) Vorhees (Edward Keane). But he can still rely on shipmates Yank (Clancy Cooper) and Tommy (Marshall Reed) and has the backing of local trader, Galbraith (Oscar O’Shea). However, Keane has his other vessel impounded, and an angry Richmond rushes off to see the man, only to find him dead at the hands of villainous associate, Carter (Roy Barcroft). Richmond is discovered standing over the body and is banged up as a result.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

The Fleet’s In.

Things are looking grim for our square-jawed hero, but his friends organise a jailbreak and O’Shea offers him a job running the trading post on a nearby island. Conveniently, this place has no extradition treaty with the mainland (and seemingly no police force!) and, even better, it turns out to be Barcroft’s centre of operations where he is running a gold mine under the name of Kane. On his way there, Barcroft rescues local sawbones Dr Harding and his pretty daughter, Patricia (Kay Aldridge) from their yacht during a storm, and they are happy to pitch in and help prove Richmond is an innocent man. Their investigations lead to weekly run-ins with Barcroft’s men, led by his callous foreman, Gregg (Keene Duncan).

Richmond has a special set of skills to deal with the bad guys, of course, by my, he’s such a butterfingers! His gun is knocked out of his hand at least once in every chapter when he’s covering Barcroft’s goons, although, to be fair, they return the compliment often enough. What’s perhaps most curious is his choice of attire. Yes, he’s a sea captain, so the peaked cap is understandable. However, some of the time, he’s wearing what looks suspiciously like a Naval uniform, although he’s a private citizen. Rather brilliantly, he’s also allowed to wear it in his jail cell early on! Disappointingly, he only reaches Haunted Harbor once in the first twelve chapters, and then he is quickly scared off by a rather mechanical looking sea serpent.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

‘You know, she’ll kick your ass, right?’

In all these endeavours, he assisted by crewmembers Cooper and Reed, but also, far more notably considering when the serial was made, by Aldridge, who proves to be no shrinking violet but quite the badass, at least by 1940s standards. She saves Richmond’s life twice, once with an exhibition of sharpshooting to rival Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ and once by throwing some dynamite overboard just before it explodes. She shoots at both the bad guys and the sea serpent and doesn’t always need rescuing by Richmond. When trapped in a burning truck about to explode, she bashes a hole in the back of the cab and gets out herself. And it’s not only the character that’s a badass either as that is quite plainly Aldridge doing her own high-speed horse riding during a chase sequence. Of course, the character’s efforts to get involved in the fisticuffs always end with her getting knocked out at the earliest opportunity, even twice during one fight! Seriously, she hits her head so often (with no apparent ill-effects!) that a trip to the hospital to get checked out for long-term concussion injuries is a must. Perhaps she should have worn a hard hat.

Although it seems at one stage that proceedings won’t end up making a lot of sense, to the credit of the screenwriting team (all 5 of ’em!), events do tie up satisfactorily in the end. Of course, the story has plenty of contrivances to get our heroes into life or death situations at the end of each chapter, but it flows better than many of its kind. The reason that the serial isn’t remembered in the same breath as some of its more famous contemporaries is probably down to some flaws with the overall story.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

‘This is some righteous shit, man.’

The problem is that it shows some of its biggest cards far too early. We’re clued in from the get-go that villains are operating at Haunted Harbor and so it’s immediately evident that the alleged ‘demons, sea serpents and monsters’ are fake (and it turns out there’s only one of them anyway). Furthermore, Barcroft is not a supervillain with a hidden identity; he’s just a run of the mill crook and, again, we know that from Chapter One. He doesn’t make for a useless bad guy by any means, but how much more fun would everyone have had if he’d been a mysterious, masked figure with a flamboyant costume and ridiculous name? It’s these kinds of outlandish touches that are cherished by fans of the movie serial to this day.

Richmond began with small supporting roles in minor studio productions before getting his big break as the lead in bizarre, low-budget serial ‘The Lost City’ (1935). He played mostly in b-movie thrillers, although did snag the occasional supporting gig in a major studio production, such as ‘Knute Rockne, All American’ (1950). He also played Lamont Cranston in Monogram’s brief (and threadbare) series based around the exploits of comic-book crimefighter, ‘The Shadow.’ But he never really escaped the serials and is probably best remembered today in the title roles of ‘Brick Bradford’ (1947) and ‘Spy Smasher’ (1942), one of the best of the genre.

Haunted Harbor/Pirates' Harbor (1944)

‘Come on, you pussies, go for it!’

Aldridge got her start as a photographer’s model and her success at the job led to a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1939. Despite being tested for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939) (but then, wasn’t everyone?), she was cast in a brief series of minor pictures in nondescript roles. When her contract expired, she accepted the title role in Republic’s ‘Perils of Nyoka’ (1942), which was to be her most famous role. The success of that serial led to other parts in the studio’s better chapterplays before she retired in 1945. Duncan was a veteran of many b-grade Westerns, but is, of course, celebrated in cult movie circles for his late career appearance as fake medium Dr Acula in Ed Wood’s notorious ‘Night of the Ghouls’ (1959).

A thoroughly entertaining experience for fans of the movie serial, elevated by the easy camaraderie and underrated charisma of its two stars.

Psychout For Murder/Salvare la faccia (1969)

Psychout For Murder/Salvare la faccia (1969)‘All must die…but daddy’s got to go by inches.’

A rich industrialist’s daughter has an affair with a gold digging photographer. Concerned with her somewhat erratic behaviour, her father has her placed in an asylum. When she is released back into his custody, she begins tp hatch a campaign of deadly revenge…

Late 1960s Giallo from writer-director Rosano Btazzi, who is far better known as an actor, particularly for his starring role in famous musical ‘South Pacific’ (1958). Here he delivers a competent thriller despite alleged interference from the film’s producers that left him deeply unhappy with the finished product and may account for a few of the rough spots in the final article.

Btazzi is businessman Marco Brignoli, rich and successful, but burdened with flighty young daughter, Licia (Adrienne Larussa). She’s head over heels for paparazzi Mario (Nino Castelnuovo) but he’s more interested in her father’s money than a long term relationship. Her infatuation with him is shown in an early scene of quick cuts and somewhat hyperactive behaviour. This was probably designed to display her unbalanced psyche but, being a late 1960s film, it can just as easily be interpreted as an affectations of the era’s signature style. The scenes in the asylum which follow were apparently the ones inserted at the insistence of the producers (probably to provide Larussa with clearer motivation for her later actions) but she’s only confined, rather than mistreated in any way, so their presence seems pointless at best.

Psychout For Murder/Salvare la faccia (1969)

‘You didn’t say anything about another guy.’

The action really begins when Larussa gets back home, and begins to plot her revenge. This is mostly low key at first but rapidly escalates, focusing partly on Brazzi’s long term daliance with politician’s wife, Giovanna (Paola Pitagora). Her husband Nestor Garay is right on the verge of important public office, his campaign bankrolled by a willing Brazzi. The adulterous couple are planning to make a killing when their puppet approves a new motorway project, but Larussa overhears their plans.

Larussa is also flirting outrageously with good guy Francesco (Alberto de Mendoza)  who is happily married to Brazzi’s sister, Giovanna (Paola Pitagora). There is no real mystery to all this; it’s clear that Larussa’s machinations are the film’s focus, and it’s just a question of how far she’s prepared to go and how the principals will be affected by the outcomes of her schemes. 

Psychout For Murder/Salvare la faccia (1969)

‘I do not like your Happy Talk.’

Given the nature of the story, an awful lot of the burden of the drama rests on Larussa’s young shoulders. She was only 21 at time of filming and very inexperienced, especially for a role of this prominence, but it’s pleasing to report that she’s rather good here. It’s a difficult and, to some extent, contradictory character, but she convinces as someone potentially unbalanced and the audience is never entirely sure what she is going to do next. Unfortunately, the script does not provide her with a great deal of assistance. Without any examination of her personal history, beyond Brazzi breaking up her fling with Castelnuovo, there’s little context to inform her behaviour and no significant insight into her psychological makeup.

There’s also some rather dated filmmaking technique from Brazzi, with some cutting within scenes that is so fast, it’s hard to be sure which character is speaking. It doesn’t serve the story in any way and quickly becomes rather tiresome. There are a few other good points, apart from Larussa’s performance, though. Pitagora and de Mendoza are given a refreshingly happy and positive relationship, which is rather unusual in the film about the idle rich from this period. Of course, de Mandoza starts thinking with an organ other than his brain when Laruzza starts playing Lolita, but this has far more impact than usual because we know the significance of what he’s throwing away.

Psychout For Murder/Salvare la faccia (1969)

HIs facial cream was just not up to the job.

A significant career might reasonably have been expected for Laussa on this evidence but, after taking the title role in Lucio Fulci’s historical drama ‘Beatrice Cenci’ (1969), she took a four year break. Then she turns up in obscure Canadian comedy ‘Keep It In The Family’ (1973) before the first of a couple of dozen guest slots on US network TV shows, gigs that became steadily more sporadic until her last appearance in 1991. These included ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘Project UFO.’ A rare big screen outing saw her in a minor supporting role in Nicolas Roeg’s science fiction epic ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (1976) with David Bowie. She was briefly married to action star Steven Seagal in the 1980s and later became a real estate agent.

A little more plot would have helped but, when the camera calms down and the story is allowed to develop its own pace, at times this is a well played and quietly effective little thriller if nothing very special. 

Planet of the Vampires/Terrore nello spazio (1965)

Planet of the Vampires (1965)‘Apply neuro-vascular tension, suppress cortical areas X, Y Zee.’

Two spaceships answer a strange signal from the unexplored world of Aura and are forced down by sudden gravitational power. As soon as they make planetfall, crew members go berserk and attack each other with murderous intent. Surviving the madness, the Captain of the Argos and his team attempt to make repairs, reach their sister ship and find out what’s going on…

Highly influential science-fiction horror from Italian director Mario Bava, who has gained a significant cult following in recent years. Throughout his career, he worked mostly in lower budgeted genre pictures, so his talents went unacknowledged by the mainstream critics of the time, but his mastery of the visual image has led to a positive reappraisal of his impressive body of work.

Approaching the planet Aura, all looks to be going according to plan for twin spaceships the Argos and the Galliot. Then, without warning, communication between them is interrupted, and a rapidly increasing gravitational force seizes the Argos. Disaster looms but, fortunately, in the grand tradition of movie spaceship commanders, Captain Mark Markary (Barry Sullivan) manages to ‘switch to manual’ and bring the ship to ground safely. Almost as soon as his crew recover, however, they begin to attack each other in a psychotic frenzy. The seizure passes with his colleagues having no memories of their actions, leaving Sullivan with a pretty big mystery to solve.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘Who goes there?’

Receiving a mayday from the Galliiot, they locate their sister ship but find the crew dead, apparently victims of the same strange madness that they experienced. They bury the dead on the planet’s surface but find the corpses they saw in the locked control room have mysteriously vanished. Another mystery is the damage to their own ship that prevents them from leaving. Sullivan assigns Wess (Ángel Aranda) to supervise repairs, but later finds the technician attempting to sabotage a vital piece of equipment. When questioned, Aranda remembers nothing about what he was trying to do. If that wasn’t enough, outside the ship, the dead astronauts of the Galliot are rising from their tombs.

What sets this film apart and has ensured its celebration as a cult favourite over the years is the rich visual quality and style that director Bava brings to the story. A master of optical FX, framing, colour and lighting, he is able to evoke a truly alien landscape with little more than a hyperactive fog machine and some fake rocks. It’s staggering that the production cost only around $200,000 and Sullivan, who also hated the script, was almost at a loss for words when he saw the quality of the finished film.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I’m ready for my closeup, Mr Romero.’

The model work by Carlo Rambaldi is somewhat less successful, though, and looks rather dated. However, the takeoff and landing sequences are still impressive when you consider they were accomplished using resources such as cotton wool, tissue paper and an aquarium. Bava’s skill with trick shots also comes to the fore with some of the ship interiors, although it does have to be acknowledged that no cinematic spacecraft will ever rival the Argos for the most wasted space on a flight deck.

The script, mostly written by Ib Melchoir was adapted from a short-story by Renato Pestriniero entitled ‘One Night of 21 Hours’ and, although the basic concept remained, significant changes were made from the source material. The central idea of alien possession of human bodies harkens back to Don Siegel’s masterful ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956) and its source novel by Jack Finney. However, Pestriniero’s story does not depict the aliens as any kind of threat. Instead, once possessed, the human ego is suppressed, allowing the id to take control, in effect turning the hosts into joyful children with no purpose but to dance and play. Sensibly, this was dropped for the film with the Aurans being given a definite, and far more sinister, purpose.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess he had the eggs for breakfast.’

The electronic score by Gino Maranuzzi Jr takes a nod toward the electronic soundscapes of ‘Forbidden Planet’ (1956) and helps to enhance the mood of dread evoked by Bava’s stunning visuals. The sequence where the dead rise from their shallow graves, tearing their way through their plastic shrouds is a perfect combination of Bava’s visual genius and Maranuzzi Jr’s minimalist approach. Also worthy of note are the black leather and high-collars of the crew’s uniforms designed by Gabriele Mayer. They are striking, unique and impossibly cool.

It’s not a perfect film by any means. Melchoir’s script makes almost no effort to give our principals any distinguishing personality traits beyond a half-hearted attempt to provide Sullivan with some moments of self-doubt. This shortfall would not be so noticeable if there were a little more going on with the story. Apparently, in earlier drafts of the script crew member Tiona (Evi Marandi) developed a telepathic link with the Aurans and that subplot might have gone some way to giving the drama the extra content that it needs. So there’s not a lot for the cast to work with, although Sullivan delivers a robust and authoritative performance that helps to ground the drama. The kind of on-screen chemistry necessary t to convey the inter-relationships and camaraderie of a tight-knit crew of characters may not have been possible because of language barriers. Sullivan was American, Marandi was Greek, Aranda was a Spaniard, leading lady Norma Bengell was Brazilian and the rest of the cast Italian, language barriers may have prevented the creation of

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

The temperatures with a little high for the time of year…

Production seems to have been a smooth affair, although it is curious that part-way through the picture the unidentified actor playing Commander Sallis of the Galliot is replaced in the role by Massimo Righi. This substitution does suggest that some reshoots may have been necessary. However, there is no record of this or any other such indicators in the finished film. There does seem to have been some issues with casting the lead female role, though. Studio starlet Susan Hart was apparently cast, but this seems to have caused some friction with AIP studio head Sam Arkoff, perhaps because she had just married his business partner James H Nicholson. Shooting began without an actress in the role before Bengell was eventually cast.

Many commentators have made hay with the similarities between the film and the Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ (1979), and it’s fair to say that one influenced the other to some extent. One of the shots of the exterior of the downed Argos shows the ship to be a kissing cousin to the sinister space vehicle discovered by the crew of the ‘Nostromo’. More notably, when Sullivan and Bengell explore the wreck of an extraterrestrial craft on the surface of Aura, they find two giant, calcified, alien skeletons. These are not nearly as impressive as Scott’s ‘Space Jockey’ of course, but the similarity of their find is undeniable. The film’s downbeat, ironical climax was also faintly echoed almost two decades later by the ending of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ (1982).

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

‘I guess the orgy is off then…’

Sullivan was a Hollywood veteran who contributed fine work in many big studio productions, particularly in the Noir arena, and was a regular on Network TV in the 1970s. His credits include ‘And Now Tomorrow’ (1944), ‘Suspense’ (1946), ‘Payment On Demand’ (1951), Vincente Minnelli’s multiple-Oscar winner ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ (1952), ‘Loophole’ (1954), Samuel Fuller’s ‘Forty Guns’ (1957) and ‘A Gathering of Eagles’ (1963). He was also terrific as the title character of the unjustly neglected ‘The Gangster’ (1947). Bengell was an award-winning actress and singer in her native Brazil who achieved worldwide notoriety and the displeasure of the Catholic church for her full-frontal nude scenes in Ruy Guerra’s ‘The Unscrupulous Ones/Os Cafajestes’ (1962).

Model-maker Rambaldi went on to work with John Huston, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento before relocating to America and winning Oscars for his visual effects on ‘Alien’ (1979) and ‘ET the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982). Melchior is fondly remembered for screenwriting on science-fiction projects such as fan-favourite ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964), ‘Reptilicus (1961), ‘Journey to the Seventh Planet’ (1962), ‘The Time Travellers’ (1964) and ‘The Angry Red Planet’ (1959), also directing the last two. Roger Corman based his cult classic ‘Death Race 2000’ (1975) on a short story by Melchior. 

An important work in both the history of big-screen science-fiction and the career of director Mario Bava. An essential watch for lovers of cult cinema.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun/Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)‘My mother is dying. A big rock fell on her.’

The legendary hero Hercules is shipwrecked on a strange shore after a terrific storm out at sea. His crew are all dead, and he’s met by a guard of hostile soldiers. Assistance arrives from a group of Inca warriors, and he learns that their land has fallen under the rule of a usurper whose followers practice human sacrifice…

In a sense, this was the last of the ‘stand-alone’ official Hercules series that had been kicked off by the international success of the 1958 film of the same name starring Steve Reeves. Yes, there were three subsequent films, but the first found the demi-god sharing the spotlight with fellow musclemen Samson, Maciste and Ursus. The next was primarily a re-edit of two previous films in the series starring Reg Park and the last was produced initially as a pilot for a television show. And, yes, this project does betray the telltale signs of a dwindling budget and dipping production values.

We join Hercules (Mark Forest) on the coast of South America, washed ashore after an apparent storm out at sea. All his men have drowned, but the bad news doesn’t end there. He’s barely had time to catch his breath before he’s under attack. Some Inca warriors come to his aid (I guess everyone was just hanging at the beach that day) and the bad guys are quickly dispatched. Getting the lowdown on local politics doesn’t take long and, within minutes, Forest has pledged his allegiance to his rescuer: Prince Maytha (Giuliano Gemma), son of the deposed King Houscar (José Riesgo).

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Stop slacking you lazy bastards!’

First on the agenda is preventing the sacrifice of Gemma’s sister, the Princess Hamara (Anna-Marie Pace). She’s due to go under the knife of the High Priest (Giulio Donnini) of villainous despot King Atah Ualpa (Franco Fantasia). Gemma is happy to entrust the task to Forest because he’s known him for an hour or two. By the time Forest and his warrior crew arrive in the city of Tiahuanaca, the shindig is in full swing. For once, the dancing girls on their endless tour of the world’s lost civilisations haven’t got the gig. Instead, there’s a troupe of male dancers in blue feathers and skull masks shaking their thing.

Luckily for Forest, high priest Donnini loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice and takes so long about the ceremony that Forest has plenty of time to snatch Pace from her pink feathered table and make a clean getaway. He covers their escape by bringing down a column in the secret tunnel. This could have backfired and buried everyone, of course, but I guess the big man understands all about load-bearing walls and architectural stuff.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Tell you what. I’ll be Doug McClure if you’ll be Caroline Munro.’

Back at the rebel village, Forest gets nearly all the credit for the rescue (I guess the other guys fighting were pretty superfluous) but, despite this victory, Gemma isn’t keen on taking the fight to Fantasia. His forces are badly outnumbered, even with some of Fantasia’s army fighting in another part of the kingdom. This isn’t good enough for Forest, however, who completely undermines the Prince’s authority in front of the whole village by suggesting an attack. Intelligence will make their warriors worth five of Fantasia’s men, he promises. He doesn’t explain how, but he does invent the wheel, so that’s ok. It’s possible that this was an in-joke by the scriptwriters, who may have been referencing earlier series entry ‘Hercules In The Vale of Woe’ (1961), which was a time-travelling spoof that used the same plot device for comic effect.

Forest has the villagers building siege towers, but his contribution to the work consists of offering the odd bit of helpful advice and hanging around with Pace instead. She’s looking after a shoulder injury he’s sustained, but it’s clear that she’d rather be looking after another part of his anatomy. The drippy romance between Forest and Pace may get consummated offscreen as director and co-writer Osvaldo Civirani cuts from their first kiss to a herd of stampeding llamas. Well, it makes a change from a burning fireplace, I suppose.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Can you hear the llamas starting to gallop?’

But it’s at this point that we start to get a hint of trouble. Financial trouble. The villagers hold a party to celebrate the upcoming battle. The entertainment is a solo dance performed by a woman with a few men as her back-up. What’s wrong with that, you may ask. Well, for a start, it lasts for about six and a half minutes, and the cutaways to Gemme and Pace are tight close-ups. Forest attends courtesy of what looks like shaky b-roll footage, and he seems to be looking the wrong way! There have been a few strange editing choices up to this point, but many European films are recut for American release and sometimes with little care or attention. It’s worth mentioning the English language dub, as well. Quite obviously, no-one was in possession of the original script as the dialogue is often clunky and has characters repeating the same information to the extent that sometimes verges on the comic.

There’s also a strange subplot concerning a young boy that’s adopted by the tribe after Hercules lifts a big rock from where it has fallen on the lad’s dying mother. At the time, this seems important, and later we see him following Forest around the village as if they’re joined that the hip. But he never appears again, furthering the impression that some scenes are missing or were never filmed. Events culminate with the storming of the city, of course, and it’s pleasing to report that this is carried out on quite an impressive scale with plenty of extras and action. Unfortunately, the stunt work is uninspired, and some of the combat looks more than a little lethargic.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

The Mardi Gras was in full swing.

Where the film really scores, though, is with the costume design by Mario Giorsi. Fantasia and his Queen (Angela Rhu) wear magnificent, tall headdresses with a skull motif and lots of colourful feathers, and even the despot’s guards are decked out with feathered helmets that reach for the ceiling. The sacrificial ceremony is a riot of bright, vibrant colours thanks to Giorsi’s work, lending the scene a real style and echoing the work of horror maestro Mario Bava on ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961). Perhaps it’s a condemnation of the rest of the film’s technicians to highlight this one area to such an extent, but the work is head and shoulders above what else is on offer. Literally!

The film was producer, director and co-writer Osvaldo Civirani’s debut in those roles and, given that, he delivers a respectable picture. There are problems and signs of possible budgetary issues, but it’s still serviceable enough. He teamed with Forest again on ‘Kindar The Invulnerable’ (1965) and delivered acceptable Eurospys ‘Operation Poker’ (1965) with Roger Browne and ‘The Beckett Affair’ (1966). Later projects included several Spaghetti Westerns, a series of comedies with popular double act Franco and Ciccio and crime thriller ‘The Devil with Seven Faces’ (1971) with Giallo mainstays Carrol Baker and George Hilton.

Hercules Against The Sons of the Sun:Ercole contro i figli del sole (1964)

‘Sorry, kid, who are you again?’

Incidentally, Italian cult favourite Rosalba Neri is listed by some sources with an uncredited appearance as ‘The Queen.’ Well, there’s only one role that fits that description in the finished film and that most assuredly is played by Rhu and not Neri. It’s possible she may have been initially on the picture and left for some reason and still appears in long shots but that’s unconfirmed. However, her list of credits is always going to be open to some interpretation. Reportedly, sometimes she would send her cousin along to play small roles she had been contracted to do when she couldn’t be bothered!

An acceptable enough muscleman outing that leaves the viewer with the impression that some of its flaws were probably down to adverse circumstances.

The Road To Fort Alamo (1964)

The Road To Fort Alamo/La Strada per Fort Alamo (1964)‘Over there are bewildered horses.’

A drifter who has lost everything in the American Civil War falls in with a band of outlaws. He has a plan to rob a bank, but the gang double-cross him after the successful heist and leave him for dead. Found by an Army patrol still wearing the uniform he used as a disguise in the robbery, he joins their outfit who are escorting officer’s wives through Indian country to Fort Alamo…

Italian Western adventure directed by John Old that follows the familiar story of a disparate group’s dangerous journey through hostile territory. Sergio Leone’s redefinition of the genre ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964) had only hit Italian screens a month earlier, so this film follows the standard American template, both in plot and style, rather than displaying any of the flourishes that came to characterise the Spaghetti Western. Why is it of interest here? Because John Old was none other than the Maestro of Horror himself, Mario Bava.

It’s been a rough few months for farmer Bud Cassidy (Ken Clark). Not only have Yankee troops burnt his farm to the ground and requisitioned is livestock, all he is left with is a worthless promise of reimbursement. A bitter, disillusioned drifter, he has wandered West and fetches up in a one-horse town in the land of the Osage Indians. On the way there, he finds a slaughtered Yankee patrol. The dying Sergeant hands him an important paper ordering a hefty payment to the army from a bank. Later, in town, he helps out young gun Slim Kincaid (Alberto Cevenini) who is being hustled at cards and two flee with the local Sherrif on their heels.

The Road To Fort Alamo/La Strada per Fort Alamo (1964)

‘It’s a sign! I should know I’ve followed a few.’

Cevenini introduces Clark to some friends of his, an outlaw gang run by loose cannon, Kid Carson (Michel Lemoine) and Clark realises that the opportunity for the perfect crime has fallen right into his lap. Dressed in the uniforms of the dead patrol, they present the letter at the local bank. All goes well until the violent and unstable Lemoine guns down one of the customers, but the gang escape back to their hideout. Clark advocates an immediate split, but Lemoine disagrees, with the result that Clark and Cevenini are knocked out and left for the Indians. Staked out to die, a genuine army patrol led by blowhard Captian Hollis (Antonio Gradoli) rescue the duo and, believing Clark to be a Lieutenant because of his uniform, they are added to his command.

Gradoli’s mission is to ferry a group of officer’s wives to Fort Alamo, but the way leads through the Osage territory. In a foreshadowing of the kind of military incompetence highlighted by Sergio Leone in ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’ (1968), Gradoli is a ‘by the book’ officer who won’t accept any advice, least of all from Clark, despite his comprehensive knowledge of the enemy. Old hand Sergeant Carter (Gustavo De Nardo) immediately suspects that Clark is an imposter, but lets it go because he realises that the outlaw is a much better option when it comes to the troop surviving the journey. Of the ladies, Clark finds himself drawn to outcast firebrand Janet (Jenny Clair) who is being taken to the Fort for trial after killing an officer. The fact that he was attempting to rape her at the time is apparently not likely to be a factor in the upcoming judgement. Then they come across the stolen money, courtesy of the slaughtered outlaws, survivor Lemoine turns up looking for it, and the Indians start to close in…

The Road To Fort Alamo/La Strada per Fort Alamo (1964)

‘No, Mr Bava, you can’t have any money for reshoots.’

Although it might be surprising to encounter the Maestro of Horror behind the megaphone for such a project, the fact is that his films were never successful enough in his own country to allow him artistic autonomy. For much of his career, he was a ‘gun for hire’ and returned to the Western twice more over the next few years. Given his expertise with Visual Effects, mood and lighting, opportunities to showcase his skills were obviously limited here and yet there are some signs of his genius. The opening conflict in the cheap saloon is shot and cut with impressive rhythm and invention, and the later scenes of the army camp at night are exquisitely lit and photographed. Yes, they are fairly obviously filmed in a studio, but there’s a depth and quality to the image that resonates far more than the way contemporary American films would have presented such material.

Those looking for echoes of Sergio Leone’s work are likely to be disappointed. The locations are far too lush and green to bear comparison with the now-familiar desert-scapes of the Spaghetti Western, or even Hollywood backdrops such as Monument Valley and the somewhat less spectacular Californian foothills. There is a similarity in the notion of an anti-hero as the main protagonist, though, and the depiction of the town where most of the early action takes place is pleasingly run-down, underpopulated and dirty. However, that was likely down to budgetary limitations.

The Road To Fort Alamo/La Strada per Fort Alamo (1964)

‘I’m sorry, Ken, but we’re not supposed to fall in love for at least another ten minutes.’

In terms of the story and performances, it’s generally unremarkable. The principal cast members aren’t given a lot to work with, but Clark does make for a stoic lead, and his interactions with Clair and De Nardo are appealing. Lemoine also provides good value as the slightly unhinged villain, and the action is lean and well-paced, even if the fight choreography leaves a little to be desired at times. The low-budget does show through on occasion, though it’s to Bava’s credit that the audience may only notice how few wagons and combatants there are toward the finale and not before.

Clark began his career on American television in the 1950s and even played supporting roles in a couple of major studio pictures, ‘South Pacific’ (1958) and ‘The Shaggy Dog’ (1959). However, his only leads were in micro-budgeted affairs such as Roger Corman’s ‘Attack of the Giant Leeches’ (1959), and dire science-fiction bore ’12 To The Moon’ (1960). Relocating to Italy, his impressive physique and handsome features brought him success in Peplum such as ‘The Defeat of the Barbarians’ (1962) before he transitioned to playing secret agents in several Eurospys as the fad for muscleman movies waned. In between, he worked with Bava again on the Maestro’s second Western ‘Savage Gringo’ (1966). He acted only sporadically after the 1960s and remained in Italy, although he did take a couple of small bit parts on US TV in the 1990s before his death in 2009.

The Road To Fort Alamo/La Strada per Fort Alamo (1964)

‘Do you know the way to Amarillo?’

Frenchman Lemoine acted in various Italian and French productions from the late 1940s but only came to prominence in the lead of ‘The Planets Against Us/I pianeti contro di noi’ (1962). Major supporting roles in early Gialli such as ‘Death On The Fourposter/Delitto allo Specchio’ (1964) and ‘Run Psycho Run’ (1968) followed, as well as Eurospys ‘Agent 3S3, Massacre in the Sun (1966) and ‘Mission spéciale à Caracas’ (1965). He also had a role in Jess Franco’s controversial ‘Succubus’ (1968). If all this seems a little underwhelming, Lemoine was more interested in working behind the camera, delivering the censor-baiting ‘Marianne Bouquet’ (1972) which he wrote and directed as well as taking the male lead. Indeed, later project ‘Seven Women for Satan’ (1976) was banned in his homeland outright, and he later transitioned into the adult film industry.

Clair does not have extensive credits but also appeared with Lemoine in ‘The Prisoner In The Iron Mask’ (1961), ‘The Planets Against Us/I pianeti contro di noi’ (1962), historical drama ‘Arms of the Avenger’ (1963), and ‘Hercules Against Moloch/Ercole contro Moloch’ (1963). Without him, she appeared as the female lead in two Eurospys featuring secret agent Francis Coplan: ‘FX18/Agent Secret FX 18’ (1964) where Clark played the title role, and ‘Coplan FX 18 casse tout’ (1965) opposite Richard Wyler. She was also memorable as the sexy evil Queen in ‘Hercules Against The Moon Men/Maciste e la Regina di Samar’ (1964) opposite Sergio Ciani, billed as Alan Steel. Although, it’s worth noting that he was actually playing strongman Maciste, not Hercules.

This is not an excellent picture by any means, and it lacks the impact made by Sergio Leone’s work of the same period, but it is still an efficient, pacy Western with a real mark of quality in certain areas.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

The Wicked Darling (1919)‘My hat’s off to you, old top! You’re some bird.’

A young woman, who is down on her luck, snatches a string of pearls from the street after a socialite drops them. Chased by the police, she takes refuge in the house of a rich man who has lost all his money. After they talk, she determines to turn her life around and go straight…

Sentimental crime romance that marked the first collaboration between director Tod Browning and horror icon-to-be Lon Chaney. It was a partnership that birthed more than half a dozen of the star’s best-known films, including ‘The Unknown’ (1927) and arguably the world’s most famous ‘lost’ film, ‘London After Midnight’ (1927). This is a very different kind of project, however, with a pre-stardom Chaney only billed third, although in an important role.

We meet our heroine Mary Stevens (Priscilla Dean) out on the street. The intertitles name her as ‘The Gutter Rose’; a good girl who has retained her virtue and a kind, if mischievous, heart, despite a life of petty crime. Unfortunately, she’s fallen in with a couple of hard cases; bad apple Stoop Conners (Chaney) and his pawnbroker associate, Fadem (Spottiswoode Allen). It seems that she’s working as a pickpocket for the duo, although it’s pretty apparent that Chaney wants to pimp her out. She’s having none of that, of course, because she’s still a ‘good girl.’

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘She was like that when we got here.’

Meantime, businessman Kent Mortimer (Wellington A Playter) has lost all his money. He’s about to lose his big house too, and fiancee Adele Hoyt (Gertrude Astor) breaks off their engagement. She returns his ring because she can’t marry a pauper (obviously!) but keeps the string of pearls he gave her which she accidentally drops in the street instead. Dean seizes her chance and takes off with them, a crowd in hot pursuit. Of all the places to hide, she happens to chose Playter’s house and the mismatched couple meet when he discovers her lying behind the sofa. Dean’s quickly wise to the poor man’s circumstances and is stunned when he displays understanding and forgiveness towards his ex-bride-to-be. She keeps the necklace but passes up the chance to rob the premises later in the evening, inspired to go straight instead.

Sometime later, the two meet again when a jobless Playter is living in a cheap boarding house, and Dean is working as a waitress. An unlikely romance develops, but Dean keeps her criminal past a secret because she’s fallen for the meathead and knows he could never accept the truth. Worse still, Chaney and Allen are still hanging around, wondering whatever happened to the sparklers. So the stage is set for secrets to come tumbling out and the forces of good and evil to have a final showdown.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘I can pull a sillier face than you.’

Considered more than a century later, this is a confection of the purest Hollywood moonshine, undeniably entertaining to some extent, but completely removed from a credible reality. Although the film’s main asset is Dean’s sparking ‘little ray of sunshine’ charisma, it’s not easy to believe that a character in her circumstances could retain such a positive, carefree outlook on life. Sure, we can accept that she hasn’t taken up prostitution, but we never see any evidence of her criminal activities either, apart from lifting a silver button from a policeman’s coat for a lark. Of course, we don’t need a minute examination of her financial arrangements and circumstances, but it doesn’t help ground the drama when the main character has no visible means of support.

Similarly, the plot doesn’t bear too close an examination. Yes, Playter might conceivably turn up at the cafe where Dean works; it’s a coincidence but not beyond the realms of possibility. However, the idea that she just happens to take refuge in a house several streets away that belongs to the owner of the necklace she has just grabbed off the sidewalk pushes suspension of disbelief a little too far. Outside of the story, there are some other problems, too. Obviously, this was intended as a solo vehicle for Dean, but does Playter have to be so stolid and lifeless as her leading man? Perhaps the actor was going for a quiet nobility in his performance, but it often seems like he is barely awake.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘Never mind, Wellington. You can always be a stockbroker,,,or something?’

There’s also a problem with Allen’s moneylender. Although it’s not explicitly mentioned that he’s Jewish, there’s the familiar black clothes, long grizzled hair and hand-wringing. Allowances have to be made for when the film was made, of course, but these tired old stereotypes are bound to sit uneasily with a modern audience. Also, Allen has the worst’ poker face’ imaginable. How the character has made a living as a pawnbroker for years, I can’t imagine!

Criticism, in general, must be a little qualified, however. The remaining print of the film was discovered in a museum in the Netherlands, and it’s likely an abridged version released for foreign markets. The footage runs just under an hour and, although the story makes sense, it’s thought probable that about 15 minutes of the original film are missing. These sections may have ironed out some of the story’s contrivances, inconsistencies and other issues.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘Why can’t I do a romantic comedy?’

But it’s Chaney we’re here for, of course, and he doesn’t disappoint. His character is very much a small-time hood, rather than the head of a large criminal enterprise, only able to exert himself over the weak and powerless at the bottom of the ladder. The role of the bully was old, familiar ground by this point in his career but, as always, he’s excellent at conveying villainy with just a smirk or a look. It’s not a subtle turn by any means, but in terms of the times, it’s remarkably understated and effective. At the time, it was probably just another gig, with stardom still waiting in the wings in the form of ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919).

Dean was a big star in the silent days, scoring big in Universal serial ‘The Grey Ghost’ (1917), and it’s not hard to see why audiences would respond to the mixture of perkiness and self-sacrifice that she embodies here. She re-teamed with Browning on several occasions as his leading lady until the mid-1920s, and with Chaney for ‘Paid In Advance’ (1919) and ‘Outside the Law’ (1921), again directed by Browning. In 1927, her name was above the title for ‘Slipping Wives’ (1927), a 23-minute short where she was supported by an up and coming comedy double act called Laurel & Hardy. She stopped working for a couple of years with the coming of sound pictures, eventually taking the plunge with ‘Trapped’ (1931). This was a low-budget, independent crime drama from a small studio and passed unnoticed. She made just four more obscure pictures after that, the last in a supporting role, before retiring in 1932.

This is a silent melodrama rooted deeply in the storytelling conventions of its time, and most notable as the first collaboration between director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1979)

The Fall of the House of Usher (1979)‘Any obtrusive sound deeply affects the tranquillity of this house.’

When he visits an old friend, a young engineer is shocked to find the man seriously ill and his house on the verge of imminent collapse. Dark family secrets emerge as it becomes clear that the building is cursed and the bloodline doomed…

A film version of the famous Edgar Allan Poe tale made for television by producer-director by James L Conway. Martin Landau stars as Roderick Usher; the role made famous by Vincent Price almost twenty years before in Roger Corman’s ‘House of Usher’ (1960). Although this effort can’t match the quality of that film, it displays some surprisingly good production values and a smattering of interesting ideas.

Jonathan Cresswell (Robert Hays) is just settling into married life with new bride, Jennifer (Charlene Tilton) when he receives a strange letter from boyhood pal, Roderick Usher (Landau). It’s a strange cry for help that mentions the dangerous illness of his sister. Answering the call, the couple suffer a carriage mishap on their way to the house. This is convenient for budgetary purposes, but not so good for the audience as we don’t get to see see the dark lake or the dead forest from the story. The atmosphere on their midnight stroll is provided instead by a vicious Rottweiler which mysteriously drops dead after starting to tangle with Hays. The fact that it looks identical to the dog that Hays remembers as the family pet over 20 years earlier should be a red flag, but the couple carries on regardless.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1979)

‘This doesn’t look anything like an Oscar…’

When they reach the house, they are met at the door by faithful old retainer, Thaddeus (Ray Walston) who warns them against making any sudden noises. It’s here we get our first information about the strange malady which affects the Usher family. Hypersensitivity of all the senses leading to insanity. Apparently, Madeline (Dimitra Arliss) has already succumbed. She is confined to her chamber, although, in practice, she wanders around with an axe. Of course, the house is honeycombed with secret passages, and, of course, one of them is hidden behind a bookcase.

Landau has brought Hays to the house to try and save it because he’s an engineer, which is a nice touch, and the structure needs all the help it can get. The house is over 800 years old, having been brought over from Marseille and rebuilt, stone by stone, more than 200 years earlier. Now, it’s falling apart due to frequent earth tremors. The furniture is bolted to the floor to prevent it from flying about, although there’s a seemingly ever-present danger from falling chandeliers. These interiors are fairly well realised, and it’s nice to get a little of the building’s history, which is not usually addressed, although it was mentioned briefly in Corman’s film. It’s also nice to see that the relocation of the house included provision for the rest of the Usher line, the basement doubling as the family crypt!

The Fall of the House of Usher (1979)

‘Oh, no! The Secretary has disavowed my performance!’

There are some good points to this production, but it also has some flaws. On the credit side, there are some interesting ideas. The inclusion of Tilton’s character, not present in the original story, does provide an opportunity to open the story out, but her character is totally passive until the final moments. Interactions between her and Arliss’ doomed Madeline could have been interesting, but the latter is already batshit crazy before the young couple make the scene. There is a pleasing scene where Tilton visits the library, though, for some appropriate bedtime reading. Unfortunately, volumes on the history of Satanism and the folklore of Germany aren’t to her taste!

There’s also some nice business where Hays tries to shore up the fabric of the building with some dead trees, even if this does seem a big ask for just one man, even if the aged Walton is prepared to give a hand! The old servant also hangs the cooking knives on chains in the kitchen and secures them with padlocks, which is a striking little detail. On the debit side, the climax is very repetitive and over-stretched, and the television budget means there’s little of the lush design and visuals possible with a big-screen production.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1979)

‘I guess the foot’s on the other hand now, isn’t it, Kramer?’

The main issue is that the filmmakers felt the need to justify the horrors that occur, rather than leave things ambiguous as the original story did. Their explanation is not a bad one, but nor is it particularly original and it is provided at too much length. The flashbacks, which include a mob with flaming torches, seem unnecessary and there’s a suspicion that they exist just to pad the running time. It’s perfectly understandable why Stephen Lord’s script features this extra material; Poe’s story being long on atmosphere but short on events. However, it’s a pity that he couldn’t have come up with something a little more creative.

Predictably, the film suffers in comparison with both the classic French 1928 silent version directed by Jean Epstein and the 1960 film with Price. Performances are generally adequate, although Landau swings wildly between being quietly effective and chewing the scenery. It’s Wals
ton who comes out best, his family servant hinting at the horrors that plague the house without being too explicit. In retrospect, both Hays and Tilton might seem miscast, but neither looks out of place. Both were on the verge of brief stardom, Hays for comedy classic ‘Airplane!’ (1980) and Tilton for her role as Lucy Ewing on TV soap mega-hit ‘Dallas.’

Nothing special but, considering the almost complete absence of decent Poe adaptations in the 40 years since, quite a pleasant surprise.

No Man’s Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L’isola delle svedesi (1969)

No Man's Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L'isola delle svedesi (1969)‘What do you want me to do? Show you my Chinese stamps or my butterfly collection?’

Fleeing from an abusive boyfriend, a beautiful young woman joins on an old friend on a remote island. She is also on her own after ditching her social-climbing husband. The two enjoy an idyllic life until the boyfriend arrives, determined to win back his former lover…

Obscure Giallo thriller from co-writer and director Silvio Amadio that boasts little to recommend it beyond a beautiful location. A paper-thin plot, unsympathetic characters and some dubious gender politics don’t help, but it’s mostly the snail’s pace and absence of drama that results in a dull and lifeless experience.

Manuela (Ewa Green) has had enough of the controlling behaviour of boyfriend, Maurizio (Nino Segurini) and walks out. Fearing reprisals, she also leaves town, joining old friend Eleonora (Catherine Diamant) on her small, private island. The two bond over shipping trips to the mainland and days on the beach. They have plenty in common too, with Diamant having also suffered at the hands of men, specifically the husband who only married her for her money. Their mutual appreciation starts to unravel, however, when Segurini arrives and attempts to patch things up with Green. By this time, the girls are more than friends and passions erupt into violence.

No Man's Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L'isola delle svedesi (1969)

There wasn’t a lot to do in the afternoons.

There isn’t a lot more to Amadio’s story than that, and there is an awful lot of padding in the first half. Many of these early scenes are devoted to the friendship of the two beautiful young women, and it is refreshing to see that kind of supportive relationship on the screen. However, it’s a long time before anything else happens. And, of course, being an Italian genre film of the 1960s, you can probably guess what that next development is: Diamant begins to have a different kind of feeling for Green, which the younger girl eventually reciprocates.

But this does bring up some issues. Diamant seems initially confused and even repelled, by her new feelings, even hooking up with local stud Franco (Wolfgang Hillinger) to try to reassert her heterosexuality. Of course, she may be having a late sexual awakening, but this stretches credibility when we are supposed to believe precisely the same about Green. It might be stretching a point a little, but it is possible to draw a ‘Garden of Eden’ parallel here, with Segurini as the serpent in paradise, tempting Green with forbidden fruit. However, given that this is a borderline exploitation flick made by Italian men in the late 1960s, that’s probably giving the filmmakers way too much credit.

No Man's Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L'isola delle svedesi (1969)

‘He’s really not very good at picking up signals, is he?’

The film’s most significant problem, though, is with its three main protagonists. Segurini is a one-note character: a repulsive and exasperating boor who cannot accept the concept of ‘no means no.’ But, just at the point where you have him pegged as the villain of the piece, Green suddenly reveals that she can’t choose between him and Diamant. This development comes entirely out of left-field and, with no foreshadowing whatsoever, looks incredibly forced and has no credibility. Up to that point, Green was giggling her way through the film (presumably in an effort to look cute), but the character now appears to be really, really stupid. Diamant reacts to the problem by assuming the cliched role of ‘predatory lesbian with a firearm’. Most of the audience probably lost sympathy with her anyway, realising that she’d fallen for such a vacuous airhead as Green.

The problem here is not with the actors or their performances; it’s with the writing. This is a film that leaves you with the impression that shooting may have started without a finished script. Scenes don’t appear improvised as such, but many sequences serve no dramatic purpose and lack sufficient weight to inform the character’s motivations in the final third. It’s difficult to understand why either Segurini or Diamant would want to be with the vapid Green, let alone fight over her. 

No Man's Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L'isola delle svedesi (1969)

‘Nope, he’s still not getting it.’

On the plus side, the island is a beautiful location and Amadio utilises it well in some of the climactic scenes where his actors stalk each other through some abandoned ruins. It was also probably quite a challenge to get some of the shots, given the topography of the landscape. There’s also some critique of the privileged lifestyle of our principals. This was par for the course with Italian films of this period, so we see Green leafing through a magazine while a news report about Vietnam plays on the radio. One moment, she is staring at pictures of starving children, the next she has flipped the page to the latest fashions. It’s not subtle, but it’s an effective moment. 

There are a couple of unanswered questions too. Why does Diamant light up a cigarette almost every time that she appears on screen? She does it so often that it almost gets to be funny, and would make a good (if quite dangerous!) audience drinking game. Perhaps the actor was just looking for something to do with her hands. Also, there’s the film’s original title which roughly translates as ‘Island of the Swedish Girls.’ Although there is little biographical information on either actress (this was Green’s only screen appearance), it doesn’t appear that either was Scandanavian and the Swedish nationality is never mentioned in the film. Perhaps ‘Swedish Girls’ were a box office draw in Italy at the time?

No Man's Island/Twisted Girls/Island of the Swedish Girls/L'isola delle svedesi (1969)

‘Maybe this will help him understand.’

Given the film’s lack of quality, it’s surprising to find that Amadio was a screenwriter and director with more than a decade of experience, previous projects including the dreary borderline Giallo ‘Assassination In Rome’ (1965) with Cyd Charisse. What is more surprising is that he went onto the favourably regarded Gialli ‘Amuck’ (1972) which starred Farley Granger, Barbara Bouchet and Rosalba Neri and ‘Smile Before Death’ (1972) which featured Neri again. His subsequent career mainly involved a series of sex comedies starring Gloria Guida, Miss Teenage Italy 1974. 

A thin story, unlikeable characters and a lack of story development make this a rather tedious experience, and one for Giallo completists only.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island of Lost Souls (1932)‘Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?’

A cargo ship rescues a man adrift on a raft in the sea, but the Captain arranges to put him ashore on a remote island where a scientist is carrying out secret experiments. Suspicious of his host, the young man attempts to escape, but finds the jungle filled with strange, frightening creatures, part human, part beast…

Major studio adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ which served to hammer another nail into the Hollywood science-fiction coffin, and relegate it to serials and the occasional low-budget production for almost the next 20 years. Although the production code had yet to censor Tinseltown’s output, its dark themes and content did not sit well with either critics or audiences of the time, and the film flopped. However, it’s come to be judged far more favourably in recent years and is now generally highly regarded.

Shipwreck survivor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is plucked from the sea by a freighter sailing to a small, uncharted island. It’s carrying a cargo of live animals under the supervision of a Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and crewed by the ugliest bunch of sailors who were ever shanghaied from a backstreet waterfront dive. In point of fact, they look barely human. Despite that, Arlen intervenes when the drunken Captain (Stanley Fields) strikes one of them to the deck. Later on, when Hohl and the animals are offloaded, Fields has Arlen thrown into their boat as revenge. As Fields sails away laughing, our hero is left to the dubious hospitality of Dr Moreau, played by Charles Laughton.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘No, I don’t want my drive repaved, nor do I want to buy Conservatory.’

It’s not long before Arlen realises that there’s a bad smell in paradise, of course, and that the stench is coming from Laughton’s lab, known locally as ‘The House of Pain.’ If you’re even vaguely familiar with the source material, you’ll know what Laughton is up to; turning animals into people with experiments informed by vivisection. His crowning glory is The Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), who he presents to Arlen as a native islander, hoping that the two will mate. When Arlen’s fiance (Leila Hyams) turns up later on looking for him, Laughton plans to mate her with one of his beast-men instead, the expression on his face giving the definite impression that he’ll have a ringside seat when it happens. Purely for scientific purposes, of course.

Out in the jungle, Laughton’s previous experiments are living in a loose colony, headed up by the Sayer of The Law (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, the horror icon is dreadfully under-used, even if he does get to intone the famous ‘Are We Not Men?’ dialogue. The fact is that he only joined the picture for a few days after Laughton had completed all his scenes, their appearance in the same scene courtesy of an editor’s post-production work. Lugosi does get some great close-up’s though, which showcase the intensity he brought to his performance. It’s just a crying shame he’s not given more to do. Similarly, there are some wonderful production stills of the beast-man makeups by Wally Westmore and yes, what we do see is quite impressive, but we’re don’t see nearly enough of them, with a lot of the footage of the creatures shot in semi-darkness.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘Look, I know we’re back in Lockdown, but I want to get my haircut.’

Paramount was looking to cash in on the sudden success of so-called fright pictures and had already scored big with ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1931) which brought an Academy Award for star Frederic March. However, they rather overstepped the mark with this film, which is good news for us but was bad news for the studio. The overt themes of bestiality, sadism, torture and a man trying to play god (Laughton even utters a similar line to the famous one Colin Clive shouts out in ‘Frankenstein’) pretty much ensured the film was going to run into serious censorship problems. It was banned in 14 states in America and outright in the UK until 1958 when it was only issued heavily cut. All references to Moreau having created the beast-men were removed, which must have made it a confusing experience for the audience.

Part of the problem for the censors was Laughton. He is just too damned good as Moreau, outwardly a gentleman but with every smirk and gesture suggesting a barely suppressed depravity. It’s a masterclass in performance as a man whose appetites and work are dangerously intertwined to the point of all-consuming obsession. None of the other cast members gets much of a look-in. However, it’s worth mentioning that Hohl makes a lot out of his role as Laughton’s alcoholic assistant, providing subtle, understated support.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘It’s first right past the House of Pain, you can’t miss it.’

The studio wanted a complete unknown for the Panther Woman and ran a nationwide campaign to find her that received around 60,000 entries. They picked Kathleen Burke, who was working as a dental assistant at the time, although it was less publicised that she had already acted on the stage and the radio. She does give an interesting, off-centre performance, although how much of that was intentional, and how much down to inexperience is unclear. She never escaped the shadow of the Panther Woman and her brief screen career only featured one other notable appearance, as the second female lead in the Lionel Atwill shocker ‘Murders In The Zoo’ (1933).

Apart from this film, director Erle C Kenton is best known for three of the final films in Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ saga. Although it would have been interesting to see what a more visionary director would have brought to the table with this material, he does deliver a sharp, pacy film with plenty of energy. Of course, that’s to be admired but, at a brief 70 minutes, a longer running time could have served to flesh out the characters a little and provide more story development. It would also have had been good to get more of Karl Struss’ excellent black and white photography and see more of the beast-men.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘Like careful with the threads, man.’

Still, despite a few flaws, this remains quite easily the best version of Wells’ tale. The 1976 remake with Burt Lancaster was bland, and the 1996 version was a disaster. The unprofessional behaviour of some of its cast, and original director Richard Stanley’s inexperience with handling a big studio picture making for the worst combination possible. The uncredited version ‘Terror Is A Man’ (1959) is probably the best alternative take on the material, but it’s not really in the same league as this film.

A slick, exciting picture driven by a powerhouse performance by its star, Charles Laughton. A longer running time might have taken it to the highest level, but it’s still a high-quality effort.