The Phantom (1931)

The Phantom (1931)‘l was deeply engrossed in this treatise on the transplanting of the human brain.’

A killer awaiting execution breaks jail and seemingly targets the local District Attorney. The lawman’s daughter writes a society page for the local newspaper, and soon her reporter boyfriend and the editor get involved…

Painfully thin and laboured early talkie that regurgitates almost every ‘old dark house’ cliché you can imagine and throws in a half-baked horror subplot to justify its title. It’s this apparently infamous villain who kicks the story into gear, escaping the chair by jumping from the prison wall onto a passing train and getting picked up from there by a circling bi-plane! Soon afterwards D.A. Willford Lucas gets a sinister telegram, asking for a late night meeting at his house and signed by the killer. When fast-talking Guinn Williams turns up at the appointed time, Lucas assumes that he’s the Phantom, as do the police. From there, it’s a complex and very ingenious…only, hang on for a dang minute!  No, it’s not! Let’s get this straight. Lucas and the police both think Williams is the Phantom? Don’t they know what the Phantom looks like?! Wasn’t he on death row five minutes ago at the start of the film? I know they didn’t have the internet back then, but they did have newspapers – after all, several of the main characters apparently work for one!

Yes, Williams isn’t the Phantom at all; he’s actually a reporter looking for a story while he secretly romances the D.A.’s pretty daughter (Arlene Ray). She’s also the target of the amorous intentions of the tabloid’s smarmy editor Niles Welch (ooh, suspicious!) Other possible suspects (because no one knows what the Phantom looks like, remember!) include the sinister butler (yawn) and the head of a nearby lunatic asylum (that only seems to have one patient). Unfortunately, the ‘comedy’ servants are also in attendance; housemaid Violet Knights (actually the director’s real-life sister) and chauffeur Bobby Dunn. What we don’t get is any kind of musical soundtrack, the action (if you can call it that!) being accompanied by the endless thumping of the cast’s feet on the hollow floor of the set.

The Phantom (1931)

Their first date was a roaring success.

Such limitations could be forgiven if the mystery was remotely engaging or if it made any sense! Motivations of key characters remain vague throughout and logic takes a back seat early on. There’s also the usual array of secret passages, clutching hands, revolving bookcases, a stupid flat-foot (Tom O’Brien) and a killer who walks around with a cloak held over the lower part of his face cackling manically. Why does he do that? Search me. I have no idea.

The credit (or blame!) for all this rests firmly on the shoulders of writer Alan James, who also directed under his regular pseudonym of Alvin J. Neitz. His career mostly comprised dozens of Westerns but he was also involved with a couple of notable serials: ‘Dick Tracy’ (1937) with Ralph Byrd and ‘S.O.S. Coastguard’ (1937) with horror icon Bela Lugosi. Arlene Ray grew up busting broncos on a ranch outside San Antonio and starred in several silent serials, often doing her own stunts. Unfortunately, her career couldn’t survive the transition to talkies. Further down the cast list (and billed as ‘The Thing’!) is Sheldon Lewis, an actor who took both title roles in cheap quickie ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1920), a film made entirely to cash in one the far more lavish production of the same year that starred screen legend John Barrymore.

But the big success story here was Williams. Beginning as a rodeo rider and pro-baseball player, his started out in silent comedies with Will Rogers, who dubbed him ‘Big Boy’. ln the 1940’s he adopted that moniker as part of his official ‘stage’ name, and embarked on a series of Westerns, mostly playing grizzled old sidekicks to major stars like Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Robert Mitchum.

A highly stilted and tiresome mystery that will try the patience of all but the most hard core enthusiast of the genre.


Code 7 Victim 5! (1964)

Code 7 Victim 5! (1964)‘He’s gone off to a marauding lion over at Moto.’

A private detective arrives in South Africa after being hired by a wealthy industrialist to look into the murder of his butler. The local police inspector shares the only clue; an old photograph left by the body, which depicts the victim, his employer and two other men.

Looking at the marketing for this film, audience members could be forgiven for expecting to see ex-Tarzan Lex Barker wrestling with guns, gadgets and girls as this week’s ‘Bond On A Budget’. After all, there’s plenty of bikini-clad babes on the poster, Barker with a pistol and a tag line that reads ‘A very special agent with a code that means he can go all the way!’ Unfortunately, this is not another entry in the somewhat over-crowded Eurospy arena, instead being a very pedestrian mystery-thriller, which isn’t all that mysterious and certainly not very thrilling.

Barker arrives in Cape Town at the behest of copper magnate Walter Rilla to investigate the murder in question. Local (and very British) Police Inspector Ronald Fraser is keen to co-operate, as he believes that Rilla knows far more than he’s telling. When another man in the photo is killed, suspicion falls on members of Rilla’s household, including his promiscuous adopted daughter Veronique Vendell. From there it’s a slow trudge through lots of scenes of Barker driving around the countryside, teaming up with pretty blonde Ann Smyrner, and dealing with some cursory action scenes that are thrown his way every now and again.

By the far the most interesting aspect of this dull and soggy enterprise are the locations and the photography. Some of the landscapes are truly gorgeous and it’s no wonder when you realise that the cinematographer was Nicolas Roeg, working on this in the same year that he shot the sumptuous visuals for Vincent Price-Edgar Allan Poe classic ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1964). Roeg first took the director’s chair six years later on Mick Jagger’s starring vehicle ‘Performance’ (1970) and followed that with nightmarish horror classic ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973) and an alien David Bowie as ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ (1975). Sadly, Roeg’s career lost steam in the 1980s, and eventually culminated in shooting feature length editions of ‘The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles’!

Aside from the scenery (the movie was shot in Mozambique), there’s simply not much on offer. There’s only about enough plot for a 50-minute TV episode, which becomes especially noticeable during the long, endlessly drawn-out climax; a sequence weakened all the more by the emotional unravelling of our main villain. This lacks any credibility at all, given the meticulous planning of their scheme over a great many years. However, there is some interesting information on ostrich farming if you’re interested in that.

Code 7 Victim 5! (1964)

‘Don’t worry, it’s only an empty old car being pushed off a cliff…’

The musical soundtrack is also very clumsy, punctuating every ‘big’ moment with a blaring of horns and a crash of instruments. Barker and Smyrner are ok as the leads, but they have little chemistry and the idea of them as lovebirds is very hard to swallow. Acting honours are grabbed by Fraser, who seems to be channelling Claude Rains from ‘Casablanca’ (1943).

Barker had quite the European career due to a facility with languages, particularly in Germany where he appeared in a couple of the 1960’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ pictures (as did Rilla, but not in the same ones!) Smyrner tangled with ‘ReptiIicus’ (1962) in her native Denmark, took a ‘Journey To The Seventh Planet’ (1962) with b-movie legend John Agar and visited with Vincent Price in ‘The House of A Thousand Dolls’ (1967). Vendell was briefly touted as ‘the new Bardot’ but her career fizzled after a featured supporting role in ‘Barbarella’ (1967). Director Robert Lynn did 2nd Unit duty on Christopher Reeve’s first two Superman films, but is best known for UK TV work, including episodes of ‘The Saint’, ‘Space: 1999’ and ‘Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons.’

But the real ‘star’ of the piece is probably producer Harry Alan Towers. This was only his second movie project (albeit uncredited) but he went onto a career of more than 100 features over an incredible 40 years. These included the Fu Manchu series with Christopher Lee, terrible ‘Star Wars’ knock-off ‘H G Wells’ The Shape of Things To Come’ (1979), appalling sword and sorcery flick ‘Gor’ (1987), ‘Howling IV: The Original Nightmare’ (1988), and many, many others.
Perhaps unfortunately, he wrote most of them as well under his pen name of Peter Welbeck. He provides the story here, and it’s hard to imagine anything more generic, uninspired and formulaic.

A nice travelogue spoilt by having a movie attached.

His Majesty The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914)

His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914)‘My name is Button Bright. I’m lost. I don’t know where I come from, and I don’t care.

The Princess of Oz falls in love with a gardener’s boy. Her father is incensed, and hires the old witch Mombi to freeze her heart. Kansas girl Dorothy is already a prisoner of the old crone and enlists a scarecrow to help her escape and foil the King’s dastardly schemes.

Children’s author L. Frank Baum enjoyed global success with his books set in the Land of Oz, but early films based on his work were made without his control, as he’d sold the rights for financial reasons. All those films are now lost, with the exception of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1910). When Baum reacquired the rights, he formed his own film company and released three silent features set in Oz, of which this was the last.

Inevitably, the plot is a simple one and has no shades of grey. We have lovely, innocent Princess Gloria (Vivian Reed) being forced into a loveless marriage by her dastardly father King Krewl (the clue’s in the name!) played by Raymond Russell. She’d much rather knock boots with Googly-Goo (Arthur Smollet) but he’s just a lowly serf and has a very silly name. Luckily, Dorothy (Violet MacMillan) and her friends, Scarecrow (Frank Moore), Cowardly Lion (Fred Woodward) and Tin Woodsman (Pierre Couderc) are on hand to make sure the course of true love runs smooth.

Director J. Farell MacDonald was behind the camera for all three of Baum’s ‘Oz’ movies, and it’s obviously he was learning all the time, as this is the most technically accomplished of the trilogy. There’s more location filming, different camera angles, and a better grip of narrative thanks to far more fluid editing. There’s even some primitive wire work with the flying witches, which might be easy to spot but was probably quite ambitious at the time. There’s also a surprisingly effective sequence where the Tin Woodsman decapitates Mombi (Mai Wells) only for her to put her head back on. This is shot against a darkk doorway, which allows for the actress to play ‘headless’ in a black bag. Pleasingly, it’s basically the same principle as was developed by SFX wizard Jack P Fulton for filming the ‘missing’ parts of Claude Rains in Universal’s ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933), although obviously that was a tad more sophisticated.

His Majesty, The Scarecrow Of Oz (1914)

The restraining order hadn’t worked.

Performances are as you would expect, and we still get actors dressed as pantomime animals, although there is less of that than might be expected. Some of the cast drop props on a couple of occasions, and there’s a strange continuity gaff with the Scarecrow’s head, but l’m guessing that reshoots were not a priority and some of the footage may have been lost over time. It’s actually quite remarkable that all three of Baum’s films have survived mostly intact.

MacMillan was 29 years old when she played Dorothy, graduating from other roles in the previous two films in the series: ‘The Patchwork Girl of Oz’ (1914) and ‘The Magic Cloak of Oz’ (1914) in which she played a Munchkin Boy and the King of Noland respectively! Judy Garland was only 17 when she tackled the role and had no previous experience in Oz at all, so it’s obvious who was better qualified for the role. Predictably, many of the other cast members had parts in the other Baum films; although it seems that no-one ever played the same part twice. Director MacDonald quit the canvas chair in 1917 to concentrate on his acting career, which saw him play small parts in F W Murnau’s classic ‘Sunrise’ (1927), ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1931), ‘Show Boat’ (1936) and finish his career with ‘Superman and the Mole Men’ (1951)!

As you’ve probably gathered, this is pretty basic stuff, but certain aspects do have more sophistication and better technique than you might expect. Having said that, the films were not successful and the characters remained off-screen for ten years until Larry Semon’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1925).

Worth a look if you’re interested in the development of cinema and the early days of fantasy film.


Dogs On The Highway


Dogs On The Highway


The Living Skeleton / Kyùketsu dokoro-Sen (1968)

The Living Skeleton (1968)‘…dead flesh, phosphorus and putrid blood. I had plenty of ingredients for my experiments!’

A ship’s crew mutinies when they discover they are carrying gold bullion and slaughter all the passengers. The vessel is presumed lost in a typhoon but the dead won’t stay dead and everyone connected to the events are haunted by them, particularly the twin sister of one of the victims…

Creepy and effective Japanese ghost story that mixes a contemporary setting with a subtle sensibility and the occasional flash of violence. The film opens with the shipboard massacre; there’s no build-up or establishment of characters, just the passengers being herded together and machine-gunned by our rogues gallery of villains. Flash forward three years and we find Kikko Matsouka serving as assistant to local pastor Masumi Okada, while being romanced by handsome Yasunori lrikawa. She still feels that her twin sister is alive, due to the psychic bond between them.

The killers, meanwhile, at least appear to have moved on with their lives; most successfully Nobuo Kaneko investing his ill-gotten gains in a popular local nightclub. However, others gang members have squandered their money on gambling and alcohol as they lack the emotional detachment to escape their bloody deeds. When a mysterious ship appears offshore in the fog, Matsouka ropes lrikawa into investigating, feeling certain it’s the lost vessel. She apparently drowns when their boat capsizes, but reappears later at the local church seemingly unharmed. Kaneko’s sometime girlfriend is then found murdered on the beach, and the gang begins to fear that the ghostly hand of vengeance is reaching out for them.

This black and white film is the only directorial work of Hiroki (Kuki) Matsuno. With no points of comparison, it’s unclear whether the dream-like narrative with its ambiguities and sudden changes of emphasis was an intentional choice on his part, or simply the result of inexperience. Certainly, the story meanders and lacks focus, with characters suddenly taking prominence whilst others are relegated to the background, having previously seemed to be the principals. The discovery of the passengers’ skeletons still chained together underwater is a powerful sequence but, in terms of the story, leads nowhere. Additionally, the twist that the audience expects is being saved for a fairly banal and obvious dénouement is actually revealed after the second act. That’s excellent, of course, but it’s almost immediately trumped by a far more extreme turn of events that lead the film in a different direction and are so implausible they sacrifice a good deal of the story’s credibility. In short, it’s a film that’s a little difficult to get a handle on, which is refreshing in a way, but not always completely satisfying.

The Living Skeleton (1968)

Being photobombed was quite annoying…

Performances are decent throughout; with particular kudos to Matsouka. It’s not so much her portrayal of twins that’s impressive, as the way she conveys a sense of someone strangely disconnected from the everyday world around her. Alienation seems to be quite the underlying theme here, with nearly all the character relationships either resolutely superficial or actively toxic. lrikawa might have true romantic feelings for our troubled heroine, but she finds it difficult to reciprocate in a meaningful way and his efforts to carve out a future for them together are seemingly doomed from the start. She does have a connection with her parish priest, but, like everything else here, that isn’t quite what it seems either.

The unsettling and unusual feel of the film is helped by the director’s subtle approach to the material. He stubbornly resists the temptation to dress things up with obvious clichés, horror tropes or jump scares, instead working on an understated atmosphere that makes the few shocking moments all the more striking when they arrive. Some of the model work is very dodgy by today’s standards, but, given the overall results on display, you can give it a pass.

It’s been suggested that this film directly influenced cult director John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ (1980), but I think that’s been overstated. Yes, there’s a ship; yes, there’s a supernatural presence and yes the action does take place in a coastal community and features a church. But those really are the only similarities between the two films and they are general at best. ln fact, this film bares more of a resemblance to low-budget classic ‘Carnival of Souls’ (1962) and that’s more a matter of its strange feel than anything else.

lt’s a great shame that Matsuno never made another film. This one does have some issues, but it’s still a fresh, interesting and individual piece of work. Well worth seeking out.


Ghost Crazy/Crazy Knights (1944)

Ghost Crazy (1944)‘Not only do you look like a gorilla, you’re starting to smell like one!’

A trio of carneys on their way to their next booking run across some stranded motorists by the side of the road. They help them out by giving them a lift, but their destination turns out to be a spooky mansion, and mystery and murder follows…

Painfully predictable old dark house shenanigans from low-budget Monogram studios and produced by legendary tightwad Sam Katzman. Screenwriter Tim Ryan serves up all the usual clichés we’ve come to expect from this sort of project, with the disembodied spook voice, a ‘haunted’ portrait, squeaking doors, double-takes, and characters returning with sceptical friends to the scene of their supernatural experiences, only to find that everything is normal now so that no-one believes them.

Our jolly japesters here are fat, moustachioed Billy Gilbert, ugly punching bag Shemp Howard and handsome Bernard Sell. The latter is the act’s manager, and the other two share performing duties with a real-life gorilla, which they cart around in a truck. Their act involves the old ‘gypsy switch’ with Howard standing in for the real deal in an ape costume and wowing the gullible rubes with his apparent intelligence. So, straight away, we know the ape’s going to get loose at some point and there will be plenty of hilarious cases of mistaken identity.

But it’s Sell’s insistence of playing good Samaritan that kicks off the plot, and it obviously has nothing to do with fetching blonde Jayne Hazard being one of the travellers stuck at the side of the road. Turns out she’s an heiress travelling with her uncle, his secretary and chauffeur Maxie Rosenbloom. When they arrive at the old homestead, they’re greeted by sinister housekeeper Minerva Urechal and things start to go bump in the night almost at once. Could the uncle’s shifty secretary be responsible, or is the culprit of a supernatural origin? There’s secret passages, clutching hands, a spook under a sheet and the gorilla escapes (oh, but you knew that already, didn’t you?)

This production marked the first of three pairings of Gilbert, Rosenbloom and Howard. Hard on its heels came ‘Three of a Kind’ (1944), followed by gangster comedy ‘Trouble Chasers’ (1944). Gilbert was an ex-vaudeville performer whose well-known ‘sneezing’ act led him to the appropriate voice work on Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). This was followed by featured supporting roles in the classic ‘His Girl Friday’ (1940) and Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940). Rosenbloom was an ex-boxing champion who bartered his celebrity into a long and successful Hollywood career as ‘Slapsie Maxie’, mostly in comedies but occasionally in dramas such as the James Cagney/George Raft prison classic ‘Each Dawn I Die’ (1939). Of course, the most famous of the trio is Howard, who re-joined brothers Moe and Larry in the Three Stooges just two years later as a replacement for the ailing Curly. He had previously been part of the act in its earlier incarnation in the 1920s and 1930s, when they backed Ted Healy.

Ghost Crazy (1944)

‘If only we could have got Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan…’

Screenplay writer Ryan had an unusual professional career for classic era Hollywood. As well as penning many ultra low-budget programmers, including entries in the ‘Bowery Boys’ series, he was also a successful radio and movie actor. His career in front of the camera did mostly involve dozens of bits as cops and bartenders, but he also appeared in ‘Champion’ (1949) with Kirk Douglas and had a minor, but featured, role in Oscar-winner ‘From Here To Eternity’ (1953).

Probably the most interesting aspect of this tired and cursory production line effort is its many connections with horror icon Bela Lugosi. For a start, the film was in the capable directorial hands of William ‘One Shot‘ Beaudine (he didn’t do re-takes!) who also delivered Lugosi as ‘The Ape-Man’ (1943), a film which also starred Urechal. In the ape suit here is actor Art Miles, who also donned the costume for the Ritz Brothers-Lugosi comedy ‘The Gorilla’ (1939) at 20th Century Fox. And, if all that wasn’t enough, Ryan was the guy who scripted ‘Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla’ (1952)!

A weak and formulaic bottom of the bill programmer. Totally forgettable.


The Beast From The Beginning of Time (1965)

The Beast From The Beginning Of Time (1965)‘Darwin be damned! This is the new anthropology!’

A small archaeological expedition digs up a prehistoric man out in the remote wooded wilderness. The find is so important that the Professor in charge decides to keep it a secret from their employers at the museum so he can claim independent credit later on and make a fortune. However, the discovery has ideas of its own…

Littered through cinema history are a very small, and exclusive, group of filmmakers. The Non-Professionals. Guys and gals who somehow managed to scrape up enough small change for a budget, camera and cast to bring their vision to the big screen. But once, and once only. No career (of any kind) followed in the film business. The most famous example is obviously fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren whose iconic film ‘Manos The Hands of Fate’ (1966) is so terrible that’s it’s the benchmark by which all other bad movies are judged. Other films come and go in the IMDB Bottom 100 movies of all time but Manos always remains.

Step forward writer-director Tom Leahy Jr. Scrounging $10,000 from KARD TV in Wichita, Kansas (and perhaps some camera equipment into the bargain!), he created this tale of a bad tempered 60 million year-old fossil which comes back to life and goes on a low-budget rampage in Smalltown USA. Obviously, the template is Universal’s ‘Mummy’ series from the 1940s, with lightning taking the place of mumbo-jumbo and Tana leaves, although it would be nice to think that Leahy Jr had a passing knowledge of our old friend the Aztec Mummy from south of the border.

Credits on the movie from sources other than the film itself are somewhat limited, but we do know that the irasicble, misguided Professor Maury is played by Dick Weisbacher. For a man with no social graces and seemingly obsessed with his scientific work, he’s only to happy to target the profit motive when his two-man expedition strikes archaeological gold. Things go south after a rainstorm and the foreman of the work gang is killed with a shovel. Blame falls on the Professor’s assistant who is certified as crazy after he insists that the nasty neanderthal (Leahy Jr again apparently, pulling triple-duty!) is the responisble party. The museum pick up the find, everyone goes back to town and things are all tickety-boo until the weather takes a turn for the worse…

The shock here is that the film is not that bad. Of course, if you’re only familiar with big Hollywood productions playing at your local multiplex, you will no doubt think so. On the other hand, if you’ve spent a lot of hours watching no-budget independent cult films, you will have a different perspective. Yes, the premise and story are totally unoriginal and the dialogue is laboured at times. On the other side of the coin, most of the cast are surprisingly natural with Weisbacher the pick of the bunch, although some of the supporting players are very stilted. The action is limited and, despite the brief 63 minute running time, there are too many talky scenes and proceedings drag a little.

The Beast From The Beginning Of Time (1965)

‘Has anyone got any money for petrol?’

However, Leahy Jr knows not to show too much too soon and gives us scenes with basic virtues like camera movement, cross-cutting and close-ups. Although these are things that we take for granted, they have eluded some directors in the low-budget arena, the obvious example being bad movie legend Jerry Warren. He seemed to be under the impression that just pointing the camera at his actors, turning it on and then presumably going off to lunch and leaving them to it was the way to make a movie.

The film isn’t very good, but given the obviously very limited resources and experience available, it really shouldn’t be judged too harshly.