Film Review: Spartacus (1960)

Also known as: Spartacus: Rebel Against Rome (US poster title)
Release Date: October 6th, 1960 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Dalton Trumbo
Based on: Spartacus by Howard Fast
Music by: Alex North
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, John Gavin, Tony Curtis

Bryna Productions, Universal International, 197 Minutes

Review:

“If you looked into a magic crystal, you saw your army destroyed and yourself dead. If you saw that in the future, as I’m sure you’re seeing it now, would you continue to fight?” – Tigranes Levantus, “Yes.” – Spartacus, “Knowing that you must lose?” – Tigranes Levantus, “Knowing we can. All men lose when they die and all men die. But a slave and a free man lose different things.” – Spartacus, “They both lose life.” – Tigranes Levantus, “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” – Spartacus

Spartacus is another one of those classic epic films that I had seen in segments, dozens of times, on television at my granmum’s house as a kid. I don’t think that I had ever seen it in its entirety from beginning to end and with that, it’s the only Stanley Kubrick feature film that I hadn’t watched properly.

As a kid, this and Lawrence of Arabia were very similar to me. I also found this to be similar to the old sword and sandal movies of the same era, mainly the Hercules ones. However, Lawrence of Arabia takes place in a very different time and those Hercules movies can’t compete with Spartacus‘ greatness.

To start, this is directed by Stanley Kubrick, a real auteur who is on my Mount Rushmore of film directors. However, this was the one film where he wasn’t fully in control of the production and had to work within the big studio system, as he was brought in to replace a fired director. Kubrick was brought in at the request of his friend Kirk Douglas, who had worked with him previously on Paths of Glory.

Kubrick still utilized his skill set to great effect, however. While I don’t find this movie to be as stylistic as his other work, some of the shots in this are simply spectacular. For instance, watching the soldiers move into position on the battlefield is incredibly impressive and almost otherworldly while also slowly building up a real sense of dread just before the first attack.

The action in general is fantastic in this from the war scenes to the personal gladiatorial battles and every other skirmish in-between.

Beyond just Kubrick’s incredible artistic abilities, the film is loaded with some of the best acting talent that the motion picture industry has ever seen between Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Not to mention Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis. And to be honest, this is some of the best work all these actors have done individually.

I guess it also helps that the director and his actors had a great script to work with from the legendary Dalton Trumbo, who did a stupendous job in adapting Howard Fast’s Spartacus novel, which I read in middle school and loved.

This is a movie that is pretty close to perfect for being what it is, which is a historical war drama with high stakes, a massive battle, action, romance and a good balance of humor and camaraderie between its stars.

Rating: 9.5/10

Film Review: Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Also known as: The Passionate People Eater (working title)
Release Date: August 5th, 1960
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles B. Griffith
Music by: Fred Katz, Ronald Stein (uncredited)
Cast: Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, Dick Miller, Myrtle Vail, Jack Nicholson

Santa Clara Productions, The Filmgroup, American International Pictures, 72 Minutes

Review:

“It’s a finger of speech!” – Mushnick

I often times come across people who don’t realize that there was an “original” version of The Little Shop of Horrors that existed before the ’80s movie and the stage interpretations. And since it was made by the great B-movie king, Roger Corman, it’s always something worth pointing out.

The origin of this movie is kind of cool, as Roger Corman was challenged to beat his previous record of filming a movie quickly and with that, set out to film this entire picture in two days. A big part of that two-day window was that he wanted to re-use sets from his movie Bucket of Blood before they were torn down. He succeeded.

The film features a few Corman regulars, most notably Jonathan Haze, as the film’s lead, as well as Dick Miller and Jack Nicholson, in what was his most bonkers role, early in his career. Nicholson actually plays a dental patient that loves pain, which was the same role that Bill Murray played in the ’80s musical remake.

Now this version isn’t a musical like the ’80s film and the stage productions. However, it features a cool musical score by Fred Katz and an uncredited Ronald Stein. I like the odd score so much that I actually own it on vinyl.

I think that the most impressive thing about the movie is the special effects. The fact that they were able to create Audrey, the giant, man-eating plant and utilize it so well for this quick shoot is pretty astounding. But then, Roger Corman continually astounded with how quickly he shot his films, the sheer volume of them and how he pinched his pennies while getting the most out of them.

The Little Shop of Horrors is really no different than Corman’s other horror and sci-fi productions of this era in his career. And the end result is an enjoyable, quirky picture that is fun to watch or revisit every couple of years.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: its ’80s musical remake, as well as other early Roger Corman pictures.

Film Review: Never Take Candy from A Stranger (1960)

Also known as: Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (UK)
Release Date: March 4th, 1960 (London premiere)
Directed by: Cyril Frankel
Written by: John Hunter
Based on: The Pony Trap (play) by Roger Garis
Music by: Elisabeth Lutyens
Cast: Patrick Allen, Gwen Watford, Felix Aylmer, Janina Faye, Michael Gwynn

Hammer Films, 81 Minutes

Review:

“This isn’t an ordinary crime like burglary or a holdup.” – Martha

Similar to a lot of the other Hammer films I’ve been watching and reviewing lately, courtesy of a sweet, beefy box set I bought, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie.

I was pretty shocked and impressed with this, however. So much so, I’m surprised that I never knew about this picture and that it’s seemingly been lost to time.

The film is about a small town with a pedophile that is the old, senile patriarch of the town’s richest family. With that, no one really wants to do anything about this predator, as they don’t want to draw the ire of the family, who have lots of money and connections and essentially own everyone and everything in the region.

This is pretty heavy, serious subject matter for a movie that was made in 1959 but I thought that the material was well handled and even if the film feels like it’s leaning into exploitation, it classily reels itself in just enough to be respectable.

Additionally, this is well crafted, well shot, well acted and the picture’s climax of the elderly pedo chasing two young girls through the woods had similar, creepy vibes to some of the best moments from the exceptional film, The Night of the Hunter. In fact, this movie kept making me think of that classic, Robert Mitchum starring film.

I have to say that the main girl in the movie acted great and handled so many tough scenes like a seasoned pro. Gwen Watford, who played the girl’s mother was also really exceptional in this.

Also, Hammer regular Michael Gwynn had a role in this as the young victim’s lawyer. He was also solid and convincing and really shined in the courtroom scenes.

This is a dark, tragic film that most people will find upsetting. However, it’s also a great piece of work and one of the best things that Hammer Films has ever made outside of their more famous monster movies.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer horror films that are more grounded in reality.

Film Review: Stop Me Before I Kill! (1960)

Also known as: The Full Treatment (original title)
Release Date: October, 1960 (UK)
Directed by: Val Guest
Written by: Val Guest, Ronald Scott Thorn
Based on: The Full Treatment by Ronald Scott Thorn
Music by: Stanley Black
Cast: Claude Dauphin, Diane Cilento, Ronald Lewis

Falcon, Hilary, Hammer Films, 108 Minutes, 93 Minutes (cut), 107 Minutes (Screen Gems print)

Review:

“Tesoro, I’ve lied for you but never to you.” – Denise Colby

This is a very noir-esque horror flick from Hammer, who were mostly known for their colorful, opulent adaptations of classic literary monsters.

Films like this weren’t outside of Hammer’s area of expertise, however, as I’ve discovered multiple films like this over the years and most recently, in a beefy Blu-ray box set I purchased a few months back.

So the story follows a married couple that had just survived a car accident. The husband, at one point, loses control and tries to strangle the wife. He then decides to get help from a psychiatrist to figure out why he has this impulse to murder her.

After some time, it’s revealed that there was a moment during the car crash where the husband believed he had killed his wife and since then, he’s subconsciously had this urge to fulfill what he thought was reality for a brief moment in time.

The doctor then visits the home of the couple the next day. The wife is missing and it appears that the husband murdered her even though the doctor considered him cured. However, the doctor is a total bastard that is in love with the wife and is now using the husband’s greatest fear about himself to make him actually go insane, so the doctor can swoop in and take the man’s wife.

It’s a complicated plot with many layers and some solid twists but I wouldn’t call it unpredictable or anything. Still, it’s entertaining and engaging.

Additionally, the performances are pretty good and the film has a good atmosphere. I also found the climax to be pretty satisfying.

Now this isn’t Hammer’s best film in this style but it’s still a cool movie that is worth a watch if you’re into these sort of stories.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer horror films that are more grounded in reality.

Film Review: The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)

Also known as: House of Fright, Jekyll’s Inferno (US alternative titles)
Release Date: August 18th, 1960 (Germany)
Directed by: Terence Fisher
Written by: Wolf Mankowitz
Based on: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Music by: David Heneker, John Hollingsworth, Monty Norman
Cast: Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee, David Kossoff, Francis de Wolff, Oliver Reed (uncredited)

Hammer Films, 88 Minutes

Review:

“London and I are virgins to one another.” – Dr. Henry Jekyll

This is another rare Hammer gem that I hadn’t seen until now, as it was never streaming anywhere or on an affordable DVD. It came in a Blu-ray box set I recently picked up, so I was glad to finally see it. With that, I also got to see Christopher Lee’s most eloquent use of facial hair.

What’s interesting about this movie is that it takes the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story and does its own thing with it. That’s kind of Hammer’s modus operandi, anyway, and it usually leads to good, fresh results because frankly, there really isn’t a Hammer movie I haven’t liked.

I really enjoy this film’s lead, Paul Massie, as he was able to play both versions of himself very well and differently. He’s able to do this incredible thing with his eyes when the crazy starts taking over. He almost plays the role like a solid actor from the silent era, where focusing on the physicality of performance has to take center stage over anything else.

However, this isn’t a silent film and Massie is good with his line delivery and overall acting. But his ability to sort of call back to silent era techniques, even though it’s not specifically necessary here, was kind of cool. I feel like he was probably a fan of the work of Lon Chaney Sr. or Conrad Veidt.

Strangely, Massie had a short career. He did eight films in his first five years and then only did three more between 1962 and 1995. I’m not sure why he didn’t work after being pretty prolific in British cinema but based off of his performance in this picture, he could’ve easily made a dozen or more movies for Hammer and Amicus. That is, unless he didn’t want to be trapped in horror pictures.

I also love that Christopher Lee looks like an absolute boss in this. He’s a total high society bastard in this movie and it’s just fun to watch him let loose in this.

Additionally, we get a scene with a very young Oliver Reed where he gets to interact with Lee. Both men are Hammer legends and it’s just cool seeing them come to fisticuffs.

This was directed by Hammer’s top guy, Terence Fisher. It feels very much like a Fisher movie, as it encompasses his style, uses some of his tropes and hits some of the same beats one would expect from his work. I wouldn’t say that it’s derivative or anything but if you can imagine a Fisher Jekyll & Hyde picture, you wouldn’t be too far off from what the final product is.

I liked this motion picture. It’s nowhere near Hammer’s or Fisher’s best but it would certainly play well in a marathon featuring Fisher’s takes on classic literary horror.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: other Hammer horror pictures of the late ’50s through early ’70s.

Film Review: 13 Ghosts (1960)

Also known as: Thirteen Ghosts (German English title), 13 Fantasmas (Brazil, Mexico, Portugal)
Release Date: July, 1960
Directed by: William Castle
Written by: Robb White
Music by: Von Dexter
Cast: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Rosemary DeCamp, Margaret Hamilton, Donald Woods, Martin Milner, John van Dreelen

William Castle Productions, Columbia Pictures, 85 Minutes, 82 Minutes (black and white version)

Review:

“[making a birthday wish] I wish we owned our own house, and all our furniture that nobody could take away. [wind blows through the windows and blows out the candles, somebody knocks at the door]” – Buck Zorba

From memory, 13 Ghosts was a movie I wasn’t too incredibly fond of. I mean, I liked it. It just didn’t make much of an impact and I always thought it was kind of cheesy, even when I was a kid.

However, this is the first time I’ve seen the film in at least twenty years. I’ve got to say, I have more appreciation for it now and I enjoyed it quite a bit. That could also be due to recently revisiting the 2001 remake, which was a total turd.

This was just a lot of fun and for the subject matter, kind of wholesome. Even if there is a supernatural death at the end of the movie.

I thought that the cast was actually good and the kid wasn’t even that annoying, especially for a child actor circa 1960. You actually kind of feel for the kid when you know he is being taken advantage of by the villain of the story.

For the time, the special effects are really good and they work. I like that there is a bit of a comedic tone with a lot of the ghosts’ antics.

The thing with William Castle movies is that they were interactive experiences when seen in theaters. I think that the whole experience would have been pretty cool to be a part of. That being said, I think it makes the movies suffer a bit on their own but this one was still lighthearted, fun and fairly jovial.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other gimmicky William Castle horror movies.

Film Review: 12 to the Moon (1960)

Also known as: Twelve to the Moon (alternative spelling)
Release Date: June, 1960
Directed by: David Bradley
Written by: Fred Gebhardt, DeWitt Bodeen
Music by: Michael Andersen
Cast: Ken Clark, Michi Kobi, Tom Conway, Anna-Lisa

Luna Productions Inc., Columbia Pictures, 74 Minutes

Review:

“I should have known, what… what a stupid unthinking fool. I deserve this.” – Dr. Feodor Orloff

12 to the Moon is a pretty dreadful and boring sci-fi picture from an era where most sci-fi pictures were pretty terrible. It’s actually hard to believe that 2001: A Space Odyssey came out just eight years after this.

To be fair, this came out in a time when this genre still didn’t have respect and the vast majority of these pictures were made by cheap studios without a lot of money to help make these film’s better.

Now Columbia Pictures isn’t small but this was obviously made to be thrown on B-movie double bills to attract the youth of the day and drive-in theater crowds that just wanted to make out and eat popcorn. I don’t recommend trying those two things simultaneously, for the record.

This would probably be a long forgotten dud had it not been featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Because of that, it will always have some sort of relevance, as long as MST3K fans are still alive and still going back to watch old homemade video tapes of the episode. Honestly, you can find most of the episodes on YouTube; so you don’t need to dust off the VCR or your VHS library.

At first glance, this is a movie about the space race, as it focuses on a team of twelve scientists who go to the moon to claim it as international territory before those Soviet Reds gets there and claim it for themselves. They even bring a couple of cats with them.

Anyway, this evolves into a movie where the environment is out to kill these scientists at every turn and the scientists even display a level of stupidity that can only be matched by the scientists in 2012’s Prometheus. One idiot discovers some bubbling liquid and excitedly runs over to put his hand in it, burning himself. Somewhere in the galaxy, Picard is facepalming hard.

There are alien hieroglyphics, plots about freezing America, French communists, Nazis being forgiven for horrible crimes, more alien shit and a bunch of clunky sets, bad actors and production crew members that were seemingly asleep at the wheel.

As bad as this is though, I don’t hate it. I can’t recommend it but if you want to subject yourself to this picture, at least watch the MST3K version.

Rating: 2.5/10
Pairs well with: other schlock-y outer space movies that were on MST3K.

Film Review: Tormented (1960)

Also known as: Eye of the Dead (TV title)
Release Date: September 22nd, 1960
Directed by: Bert I. Gordon
Written by: Bert I. Gordon, George Worthington Yates
Music by: Albert Glasser, Calvin Jackson
Cast: Richard Carlson, Susan Gordon, Lugene Sanders, Joe Turkel

Cheviot Productions, Allied Artists, 75 Minutes

Review:

“Tom Stewart killed me! Tom Stewart killed me!” – Vi Mason

How many Bert I. Gordon movies were riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000? I’ve already watched and reviewed a half dozen yet here’s one more.

This one is kind of cool. Well, I guess most of his movies are cool but this one has a bit of an extra edge, simply because I love the scenes with the disembodied head yelling at her killer.

Tormented is a ghost story and one of revenge but that’s not to say that the ghost is an innocent victim, as the film starts with her trying to blackmail her ex-lover before he is set to marry another woman. Now the blackmailer falls off of a lighthouse and while there is a chance for the blackmailed ex to save her, he doesn’t and the woman falls to her death, only to haunt him for the rest of the film.

As the plot develops and time rolls on, the man does turn out to be evil and so, I guess you’re rooting for the ghost, even though she’s a shitty person too. But this is a Bert I. Gordon movie, which means you’re supposed to turn off your brain and just let this thing roll on and try to entertain you.

And it is entertaining, even if it is a bad movie and pretty drab at points.

There’s nothing special here but for fans of special effects, especially early, primitive effects that have a certain level of cheesiness to them, Tormented is worth checking out.

This is a mostly decent, late night C-movie that no one should expect to be good but some should still find palatable enough to watch in the dark with some lukewarm beer and room temperature pizza left over from dinner.

Rating: 4.25/10
Pairs well with: other Bert I. Gordon movies featured on MST3K.

Film Review: Pollyanna (1960)

Release Date: May 19th, 1960
Directed by: David Swift
Written by: David Swift
Based on: Pollyanna by Eleanor Porter
Music by: Paul Smith
Cast: Hayley Mills, Jane Wyman, Karl Malden, Richard Egan, Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorehead

Walt Disney Productions, 134 Minutes

Review:

“We looked for the good in them, and we found it, didn’t we?” – Reverend Paul Ford

There are few motion pictures as sweet and heartwarming as this one.

It’s been at least three decades since I’ve seen this film but just about everything that Disney put out with Hayley Mills as the star was a classic in my book. Well, except maybe those ’80s Parent Trap sequels but I guess I’ll revisit those in the future to see how they measure up.

But this is a pretty good film that showcases Mills’ natural talent and displays just how charismatic she was and how infectious her charm could be.

I didn’t really love this movie as a kid. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t something I wanted to watch more than a few times because I would’ve rather spent my time watching action, adventure, monsters and spaceships.

As an adult, I was really impressed with this film and I kind of felt like I bonded with it in a way that I never had before. Sure, it’s more of a girls’ movie if you take it at face value but it has a message for all humans and it’s a great message: always look for the positives even in the worst situations.

While that may sound cliche and cheesy, this film presents it in a really lighthearted, digestible and pleasant way. And I don’t think that the film’s message and impact would have been nearly as strong without Pollyanna being played by someone as capable as Mills.

The film is actually an ensemble piece that Mills is the center of. She comes to town to live with her rich aunt after the death of her missionary parents. Pollyanna then touches everyone in town in a pretty profound way that brings people together and helps to unite a community that really needs it.

But there are so many colorful and unique characters that every interaction that Pollyanna has with someone is pretty entertaining and serves a real purpose in progressing the plot towards its emotional conclusion.

Pollyanna might feel dated and slow in parts but it’s a movie with a good message that is timeless. It’s also a well made and beautiful film with equal parts drama, comedy and charm.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other Hayley Mills Disney movies.

 

Film Review: Take Aim at the Police Van (1960)

Release Date: January 27th, 1960 (Japan)
Directed by: Seijun Suzuki
Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa, Kazuo Shimada
Music by: Koichi Kawabe
Cast: Michitaro Mizushima, Mari Shiraki, Misako Watanabe, Shinsuke Ashida

Nikkatsu, 79 Minutes

Review:

Take Aim at the Police Van is a pretty early film in Seijun Suzuki’s long and storied career. In fact, it is the oldest of his pictures that I’ve seen.

Like many of his other films, it borrows heavily from the classic film-noir style in its look and narrative.

I wouldn’t say that this is as stylized as his films from a few years later, 1966’s Tokyo Drifter and 1967’s Branded to Kill, but it definitely has a certain panache to it that is very much Suzuki.

The story starts with a sniper killing two men on a police bus transport. One of the cops on board, a friend of one of the criminals who was set to be released, takes it upon himself to figure out why the bus was attacked and why these men were murdered.

Suzuki with a script by Shinichi Sekizawa, a guy who wrote a lot of kaiju movies for Toho, tells this tale very visually in a style similar to the two decades of American crime films before this. He uses a lot of high contrast shots and the movie, overall, is mostly pretty dark with a big emphasis on shadows.

This is pretty straightforward for Suzuki. He gets in, tells the story and leaves his imprint behind fairly strongly.

For an early foreign neo-noir, this has the right look, the right tone and it perfectly emulates the pictures that visually inspired it.

Now Suzuki would go on to make some real arthouse neo-noir gems with his style turned up to eleven but it’s kind of nice seeing this, a movie that exists before he started taking a lot more creative liberties with his work.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other Seijun Suzuki neo-noir and Yakuza pictures.