Film Review: The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)

Also known as: The Water Witch (working title)
Release Date: June 27th, 1958 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Will Cowan
Written by: David Duncan
Music by: Henry Mancini (uncredited)
Cast: William Reynolds, Andra Martin, Jeffrey Stone, Carolyn Kearney

Universal Pictures, 69 Minutes

Review:

“[explaining why the branch fell on Linda] It must have been a evil wind!” – Gordon Hawthorne

The poster for this ’50s horror picture is much cooler than the film itself. But yes, there is indeed a severed head that gets carried around. Eventually, the head, that of an evil sorcerer, is reunited with a body. But even though the evil head’s evil plot is about getting put back onto a body, not much comes of it, as the sorcerer is then knocked off pretty easily.

While I watch a lot of schlock pictures, a lot of them have things that make them fun. This one doesn’t though. There is nothing endearing or charming and had this not been in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I doubt it’d be remembered today in any capacity.

Strangely, this was paired with the infinitely superior Hammer Films classic, Horror of Dracula. Now that’s a double bill with a massive contrast in quality.

The general premise for the movie sounds cool but the execution made me want to execute myself for sitting through it. But apparently, there is a Spanish film from 1972 that has a very similar plot and looks to be better based off of what I’ve read about it online. That film is called Horror Rises From the Tomb a.k.a. El espanto surge de la tumba. I can’t yet vouch for it, as I haven’t seen it.

But getting back to this film, it’s worth missing. Unless you’re an MST3K junkie like myself and feel the need to sit through hours of schlock just for a few laughs.

Rating: 2.25/10
Pairs well with: other ’50s and ’60s horror schlock that was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Film Review: Pickup On South Street (1953)

Also known as: Pickpocket, Blaze of Glory (working titles)
Release Date: May 27th, 1953 (Boston and Philadelphia)
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller, Dwight Taylor
Music by: Leigh Harline
Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter

20th Century Fox, 80 Minutes

Review:

“I know you pinched me three times and got me convicted three times and made me a three time loser. And I know you took an oath to put me away for life. Well you’re trying awful hard with all this patriotic eye-wash, but get this: I didn’t grift that film and you can’t prove I did! And if I said I did, you’d slap that fourth rap across my teeth no matter what promises you made!” – Skip McCoy

For those that don’t know, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had an interesting working relationship with 20th Century Fox. Hoover allowed the studio access to investigations and files and thought that allowing some “transparency” through a Hollywood lens would make the public more supportive of the FBI under Hoover.

However, this film is what ended that relationship, as Hoover wanted it changed due to what he felt wasn’t a complete condemnation of communism. The studio stuck by writer/director Samuel Fuller and this film was released, unaltered.

Hoover was upset because this has a plot that involves Richard Widmark’s character being involved with passing off a piece of secret film to those bastard Reds. Widmark’s character, regardless of the communist involvement in the plot, seemed unfazed as to who his employer was. And he never really shows any remorse for the communists’ plot that he was a part of and certainly doesn’t have a moment of reflection where he turns over a new leaf. Apparently, this infuriated Hoover but it does seem more genuine and leaving the story as is, was probably for the better, regardless of the political climate of the time. Plus, it makes for an interesting tale that is larger than the movie itself and has thus, elevated this motion picture’s importance in a time when film-noir movies were a dime a dozen and most have been forgotten.

But regardless of all that, this is still a superb noir, carried by the solid perfromance by Widmark, as well as Jean Peters, his gal, and the always stupendous Thelma Ritter.

For the time, Ritter has a death scene here that is really damn dark and makes your heart sink. While I’m a fan of just about everything in this picture, it’s this scene where you really see the great talent of Ritter, as well as the greatness of Samuel Fuller, who picked the music and shot the scene, using fabulous camera work, lighting and cinematography. Granted, he had help in the cinematography department by Joseph MacDonald, who also worked on Panic In the Streets, Niagara, Hell and High Water, The Young Lions, Pepe and The Sand Pebbles.

The story is also engaging and the threats in this feel genuine and real. Despite Hoover’s concerns, this certainly doesn’t paint the Reds in a positive light.

I also have to give props to Jean Peters for how physical she had to get with this role. I’m not sure if they used a double or not and I don’t think that they did, but when she literally gets the crap kicked out of her in her own apartment, it’s absolutely brutal for 1953 standards. Hell, it’s hard to watch for 2019 standards where movie audiences see some pretty violent stuff on a regular basis.

Pickup On South Street will probably always be a footnote in Hollywood history. However, it deserves its recognition in spite of its controversy. It’s a solid picture, lifted up by its players, its director and its cinematographer.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other film-noirs: Night and the City, Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly, Where the Sidewalk Ends and Naked City.

Film Review: Nightfall (1956)

Release Date: November 9th, 1956 (UK)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Stirling Silliphant
Based on: Nightfall by David Goodis
Music by: George Duning, Morris Stoloff
Cast: Aldo Ray, Brian Keith, Anne Bancroft, Jocelyn Brando

A Copa Production, Columbia Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“Anyway, I’m scared. You don’t know what it is to live with your back against the wall, Marie. Inside you change. You really change.” – James Vanning

Jacques Tourneur was always a solid director, so I definitely wanted to check out this film-noir picture of his, as I hadn’t yet seen it. Plus, it was part of the Criterion Channel’s Columbia Noir featured category and I’m trying to work through all of the films on that list that I haven’t yet seen.

I jumped on this one because I like Tourneur and I also wanted to see something with Anne Bancroft that came out much earlier than her most famous role as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate.

Tourneur had a great eye and a real understanding of cinematography, lighting and shot framing. He was a maestro of mise en scène, which is very apparent in his earlier horror films: Cat People, I Walk With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and his most famous noir: the Robert Mitchum starring Out of the Past.

Nightfall is no different and frankly, it’s a fabulous looking picture with a meticulous attention to detail in a visual sense. It looks crisp, pristine and the silvery hues are greatly accented by a mostly subdued but pretty apparent chiaroscuro presentation. The film uses contrast greatly, which is mostly done fairly subtly except for the wilderness scenes where the snowy landscape sort of works as a blank backdrop and pushes the characters to the forefront. The big fight at the end is the greatest example of this, as the two men fight in the snow, ending with the villain getting eaten alive by a snowplow truck. I kind of expected some black blood splatter but that was too graphic for 1956. Tourneur probably would’ve given it to us if this was one of his horror pictures though.

The film also benefits from the good chemistry between its leads: Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. Their relationship seemed natural and organic and in the early moment in the film where you feel that she set him up, your heart sinks a little bit.

Aldo Ray, who I haven’t seen in much, made me a fan with his performance here. He is a rugged man but he is able to convey a sort of gentle softness without sacrificing his masculinity. You feel for the guy and want to see him come away from this story unscathed but this is a noir picture and that’s something that rarely happens.

While you may feel a bit of frustration with Bancroft after her first encounter with Ray, she wins you back over rather quickly and even if you are waiting for that standard femme fatale double cross later in the film, she’s very easy to like. But does she turn against our hero? And does he have a happy ending? I’d rather not spoil it.

Nightfall is a much better film than I anticipated it being, even as a Tourneur fan. It’s a solid film-noir even if it doesn’t go as dark as the genre typically does. I’m kind of baffled that it isn’t more widely known and held up as one of the top noir pictures alongside Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Columbia Pictures noir films: Pushover, My Name Is Julia Ross and Drive a Crooked Road.

Film Review: The Undead (1957)

Also known as: The Trance of Diana Love (working title)
Release Date: February 14th, 1957 (San Francisco premiere)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles B. Griffith, Mark Hanna
Music by: Ponald Stein
Cast: Pamela Duncan, Richard Garland, Allison Hayes, Val Dufour, Mel Welles, Richard Devon, Billy Barty, Dick Miller

American International Pictures, 75 Minutes

Review:

“Hickory dickory dorse / My guest is dead, of course / The clock struck two / He’s turning blue / With little or no remorse.” – Smolkin, the Gravedigger

Man, Roger Corman certainly had a lot of films appear on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But it was all for a good reason and it’s a lot of fun seeing the master of schlock dominate the way he did.

Fans of Corman will probably enjoy this film, even though it’s what I would consider to be below Corman’s normal quality. Normies out there will probably be bored shitless and wonder why anyone would watch this but it takes a special someone to have a real love affair with Corman’s great and uniquely impressive work.

The reason why it is impressive is because Corman can create so much with almost nothing. Now this specific film isn’t the best example of that but for a movie that was made for less than a dime, he’s able to pull this off better than any other director in a similar situation would be able to.

Although bizarre, the story is kind of interesting. A psychic researcher sends the mind of a prostitute back in time in an effort to study her past-life experiences. So the film takes place in the Middle Ages and we soon discover that the prostitute’s older self is going to be killed over suspicions that she’s a witch. The psychic sends himself back in time to convince the prostitute to avoid death but in doing so, her future incarnations can never exist. Ultimately, the psychic ends up stranded in the past.

I wouldn’t call the plot wholly original or anything but it is kind of ambitious for a cheap-o ’50s motion picture.

While the acting isn’t good, it also isn’t atrocious. We also get to see a very young Billy Barty and Dick Miller.

Overall, this is far from Corman’s best but I think that this is a notable picture in his oeuvre, as it almost feels like a spiritual predecessor to his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations of the 1960s, which would primarily star Vincent Price and were some of his absolute best pictures.

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: Roger Corman’s other late ’50s/early ’60s films, as well as his Poe adaptations.

Film Review: The Day the Earth Froze (1959)

Also known as: Sampo (original title)
Release Date: August 24th, 1959 (Soviet Union)
Directed by: Aleksandr Ptushko, Risto Orko
Written by: Väinö Kaukonen, Viktor Vitkovich, Grigori Yagdfeld
Music by: Igor Morozov
Cast: Urho Somersalmi, Ivan Voronov, Anna Orochko, Andris Ošiņš, Eve Kivi

Suomi-Filmi, Mosfilm, 91 Minutes (original cut), 67 Minutes (US version)

Review:

“[Ilmarinen hammers a viking ship out of molten iron, greatly distressing Louhi’s trolls] What is to become of us?” – Troll

Cold War fears were real. I think that a lot of them were compounded by the terror and weight brought on by this motion picture, which is the Soviet Union’s worst and most widespread form of torture.

While this made it to America and eventually found itself as a victim to the riffing greatness of Joel and the ‘Bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it was still a boring, dreadful dud.

Although, that episode became one of the more memorable ones from its season, as it gave us the whole “sampo” gag. I still don’t know what the hell sampo is, by the way.

This is a Soviet fantasy film and the Soviet’s have actually done some good ones. But this is a film I’ve seen a few times now and my brain just can’t stay awake enough to try and follow the plot. I think the real reason is because there isn’t much of a plot. There’s just this witch that steals your loved ones and demands “sampo” for their safe return.

This is an ugly film to look at whether you watch the black and white or colorized version. That could be due to this being a 1950s Soviet film and because of that there aren’t any good prints of the picture left… or any that don’t look like relics that have been pissed on by vodka chugging Bolsheviks.

Unless you are an MST3K completist, you should give this film a hard pass.

Rating: 1.5/10
Pairs well with: other Soviet tortures of the Cold War era.

Film Review: Terror From the Year 5000 (1958)

Also known as: The Girl From 5000 A.D., Cage of Doom (alternative titles)
Release Date: January, 1958
Directed by: Robert J. Gurney Jr.
Written by: Robert J. Gurney Jr., Henry Slesar
Music by: Richard DuPage
Cast: Ward Costello, Joyce Holden, John Stratton, Salome Jens, Fred Herrick

La Jolla Productions, American International Pictures, 66 Minutes

Review:

“In the year nineteen hundred and fifty-eight, Man launched the first satellite and pierced the space barrier.” – Narrator

Even for 1950s American International Pictures sci-fi outings, this is a giant turd. By comparison, it makes AIP’s other sci-fi films look great. But I guess this was used for an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for a reason. But even then, this is the bottom of the barrel for the AIP movies used on that show.

The biggest problem with this flick is that it has no energy, it’s boring as hell and when you get to the big finale, it’s as if no one put any effort into it.

Now I can enjoy total schlock. In fact, most of the things reviewed on this site are just that. However, this bores me to tears, even when seen on MST3K.

However, I’m not sure how original the idea for the plot was at the time but this could have actually been ripped off for the basis of the Species film series. While the villain here isn’t an alien, it is a woman from the future who shows up to take men to breed with. There are definite similarities between the two movies besides them both being dull. Granted, Species is much, much better than this film.

The special effects are shit, the acting is boring and Mike Nelson and the ‘Bots are the only reason this motion picture didn’t put me to sleep.

But if I’m being fair, I’ve still seen many movies that are much worse than this one.

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: other ’50s schlock that was on MST3K like The Screaming Skull and I Was a Teenage Werewolf.

Film Review: Seven Samurai (1954)

Also known as: Shichinin no Samurai (Japan), The Magnificent Seven (US premiere title)
Release Date: April 26th, 1954 (Japan)
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Music by: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima, Isao Kimura, Daisuke Katō, Seiji Miyaguchi, Yoshio Inaba, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Kokuten Kōdō, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Eijirō Tōno, Jun Tatara, Atsushi Watanabe, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yukiko Shimazaki

Toho Co. Ltd., 207 Minutes, 160 Minutes (international), 202 Minutes (2002 re-release), 150 Minutes (original cut), 190 Minutes (1991 re-release), 207 Minutes (restored), 202 Minutes (DVD)

Review:

“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all!” – Kikuchiyo

Akira Kurosawa is absolutely one of the greatest film directors to ever live. Hell, he could be the best but there are other elite talents in that discussion and taste is subjective.

But for a man that is such a master of his craft, it is hard to imagine that there is one film that stands above all the others. This is that film.

Seven Samurai is at or near the top of most legit film critics all-time best lists. It is cinematic perfection, a film of the highest artistic caliber. I can’t call it my favorite of all-time but it is definitely the king of Asian cinema and boasts a story so rich and beloved that it has gone on to inspire countless other movies, television shows, novels, comics and stage plays.

I know that I am really talking the film up but what I’m saying is not an oversell. From top to bottom, everything about Seven Samurai is top notch. So good, in fact, that it is hard to break it all down and review it.

The direction is superb, the acting is captivating and convincing, the narrative and the plot’s pacing are intriguing and perfect, this boasts incredible cinematography, lighting, shot framing and employs an understanding of mise en scène that allows this film to exist on a level that most other filmmakers will never be able to achieve.

Seven Samurai is truly a perfect storm. It is one of those films that I assume that everyone claiming to be a “film aficionado” has seen.

Sure, it is very long, which is something I tend to be annoyed by with many films but there isn’t a dull moment and every scene has genuine purpose.

But I also get that a three and a half hour, subtitled, black and white movie about samurai and farmers in 1500s Japan won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s also not as action packed as action fans would hope for but the combat situations are still quite compelling.

This is a drama more than it is an action or adventure story, however. But that is also why this stands shoulders above other films in the jidaigeki genre. Seven Samurai is about life, perseverance and heroism. It is a tale that most people are familiar with and should love.

If you’ve made it this far in life and have never seen the film but fancy yourself a real film fan, you need to correct that injustice. You owe it to yourself.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: other films by Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, Throne of Blood, Ikiru, Rashomon, etc.