Film Review: Phantom Lady (1944)

Also known as: Condemned to Hang (working title)
Release Date: January 28th, 1944
Directed by: Robert Siodmak
Written by: Bernard C. Schoenfeld
Based on: Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich
Music by: Lester Horton, Hans J. Salter
Cast: Franchot Tone, Ella Raines, Alan Curtis, Aurora Miranda, Thomas Gomez, Fay Helm, Elisha Cook Jr.

Universal Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“[to Carol, as he is led back to his prison cell] Oh, if you feel like a train ride, visit me sometime. I’m getting a new address tomorrow. A big country estate on the Hudson. On a clear day you can see New Jersey.” – Scott Henderson

I am a pretty big fan of Robert Siodmak’s film-noir pictures like Criss Cross, The Killers and Conflict. But up until this point, I hadn’t seen Phantom Lady, which I must say is his best noir picture of the bunch.

This was a breathtaking movie in several aspects.

To start, the cinematography was incredible and I don’t want to say that lightly. The sequence in the film where Kansas is following the bribed bartender through the dark city streets is mesmerizing and gritty. It’s frankly enchanting, especially to those who appreciate the noir visual style or what came before it in German Expressionist movies.

While Siodmak has a great eye, this may be his best looking and most visually refined motion picture. From a cinematography, lighting and shot framing standpoint, this stands above most other noir films, which is pretty impressive, as the genre’s look is typically well crafted and executed superbly, regardless of directors, cinematographers or studios.

Another way that this film is breathtaking is in its building of tension and suspense. Even though you find out who the real killer is well before the film’s conclusion, it’s the knowing who he is that makes you fear for the heroine’s life. Franchot Tone and Ella Raines really kill it in their scenes together and once you get to the point where Raines’ Kansas realizes the mortal danger she’s in, it’s almost soul crushing.

Additionally, Ella Raines, herself, was breathtaking. She isn’t the top billed star in the movie but she was absolutely the star of this picture. She carried the film on her back, showed how great her acting chops were and made you care for her and her objective.

She’s not a femme fatale, in fact, she was the polar opposite and that kind of made this movie work in a way that isn’t the noir standard. She’s a heroic but gentle character that only wants justice for the man she cares about and for the victims of the killer. Plus, she’s simply stunning. Ella Raines’ Kansas is what rappers call a “dime piece”.

This is a wonderful movie. It’s what I wish most film-noir pictures could live up to. It’s head and shoulders above the standard and being that it came out pretty early in the genre’s run, it helped set the stage for all the films after it. And while it doesn’t check off all the film-noir boxes, it represents the style well, especially in regards to the look of the picture and the visual flourish that Robert Siodmak employed.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Killers, This Gun for Hire, Criss Cross and Suspect.

Film Review: House On Haunted Hill (1959)

Release Date: January 14th, 1959 (San Francisco premiere)
Directed by: William Castle
Written by: Robb White
Music by: Richard Kayne, Richard Loring, Von Dexter
Cast: Vincent Price, Carol Ohmart, Elisha Cook Jr., Carolyn Craig, Alan Marshal, Julie Mitchum, Richard Long

William Castle Productions, Allied Artists, 75 Minutes

Review:

“If I were gonna haunt somebody, this would certainly be the house I’d do it in.” – Lance Schroeder

House On Haunted Hill is one of Vincent Price’s most highly regarded films. Granted, it’s not my favorite and barely cracks my top twenty (see here) but it’s still an entertaining affair that’s full of the great gimmickry that director William Castle was known for.

I also love the fact that the exterior of the mansion was actually the Ennis House, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and was also used in Blade Runner, The Karate Kid Part III, Black Rain and a slew of other films due to it’s odd and iconic look.

The majority of the film takes place indoors and was shot on a sound stage made to look like an opulent mansion but it didn’t feel like it had a cohesive look with the exterior shots, even though the set designers sprinkled in replicas of the Ennis House’s famous building blocks.

The story is kind of hokey, even for 1959 and so are the frights. Still, this movie is kind of cool because of its hokiness and charm.

Overall, the acting is pretty over the top in a lot of scenes but Vincent Price and character actor Elisha Cook Jr. keep things fairly grounded for the most part.

It’s probably a controversial take but even though I enjoy this and love Price in it, I actually prefer the 1999 remake, as it took this concept and gave us something far more frightening and more complex.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other William Castle pictures, as well as the 1953 version of House of Wax.

Film Review: Salem’s Lot (1979)

Also known as: Salem’s Lot: The Movie (cable TV title), Blood Thirst (video title), Phantasma 2 (Spain), Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (Netherlands), Salem’s Lot: The Miniseries (Germany)
Release Dates: November 17th, 1979, November 24th, 1979
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Written by: Paul Monash
Based on: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Music by: Harry Sukman
Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Fred Willard, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor

Warner Bros. Television, CBS, 184 Minutes (uncut), 183 Minutes (DVD), 200 Minutes (TV), 112 Minutes (theatrical version)

Review:

“You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he’ll enjoy you.” – Straker

The last time I watched this wonderful film/TV miniseries was just before the 2004 remake came out. So it’s been a really long time and because of that, I guess I forgot how incredibly fantastic this was.

While I’ve never read the book, I know about what changes they made in this adaptation and frankly, I’m fine with all the major tweaks.

For one, the vampire is not some Eastern European dandy of the Bela Lugosi variety. Instead, Tobe Hooper gave us a vampire that is more reminiscent of Count Orlok from the 1922 film Nosferatu. And the late ’70s were a great time for vampire movies, especially lovers of F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu between this picture and the Nosferatu remake by Werner Herzog.

Another change that was made is that the final confrontation with the heroes and the vampire took place in the creepy basement of the vampire’s house, as opposed to one of the heroes’ homes. The vampire house was truly a character all its own in this film and it made this movie a mixture of classic vampire fiction and a traditional haunted house story.

What’s really great about the finale, is that the house that was created for the film is absolutely terrifying and enchanting all at the same time. The set designers created an incredibly creepy mansion for the final showdown and it truly brought the dread onscreen to a whole other level. A level that this film couldn’t have reached had they kept the story true to Stephen King’s novel.

The vampire mansion is just one part of this movie’s mesmerizing atmosphere, though.

All the scenes that feature some sort of supernatural element take on a strange life of their own. The scenes where the vampire children come to the windows and float into the rooms at night with fog billowing in are f’n incredible!

Honestly, for its time and maybe all-time, Salem’s Lot takes the cake for creating a perfect ambiance for a horror picture on the small screen. Honestly, I’d love to see this on the big screen, if it is ever showing somewhere near me.

The vampire kids at the window was so well done that it became a bit of a trope following this film. It was used in other movies like The Lost Boys and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Plus, this film has a moment where a character is impaled by deer antlers mounted on the wall. This would go on to be seen in other movies as well.

Additionally, this would inspire vampire movies in other regards. Fright Night borrows from Salem’s Lot in different ways. That film even has a big finale in the vampire’s home and while it isn’t as incredible as the finale of Salem’s Lot, it is still a great sequence that is a nice homage to it. Fright Night is a classic in its own right, which also spawned a sequel, a remake and sequel to the remake. I even heard a rumor that it may be turned into a television show in the future.

But while this film would go on to inspire countless others, Tobe Hooper, the director, also had his own homages to other films in this, primarily the work of Alfred Hitchcock and his masterpiece Psycho. The vampire mansion has a very similar appearance to the house on the hill above Bates Motel. Hooper also employed similar shots.

For a TV movie, this also has some pretty good acting but no one else quite kills it like James Mason. He absolutely owns every frame of celluloid in which he appears. I’ve always loved Mason but seeing him truly get to ham it up while being terrifying was so damn cool. And honestly, Mason looked like he was loving this film, as he was so committed to the role that he breathed life into it that no other actor probably could have.

Salem’s Lot is a bonafide classic and pretty close to perfect. My only complaint about it is the running time. The film does feel a bit slow in parts but it was a two-part miniseries and had a lot of characters and subplots. In fact, those were all greatly trimmed down from the original novel and some characters were combined to simplify the story. But honestly, I’m still okay with the final result and I wouldn’t trim much, as almost every scene featuring the main characters feels necessary.

In the end, I love this movie; more so than I remembered. I’m glad that I revisited it after all these years and I feel like it’s a film that I will go back to fairly often now that I’ve been reminded as to just how damn good it is.

Rating: 9.25/10
Pairs well with: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake, as well as other vampire films of the ’70s and 2000s Shadow of the Vampire.

Film Review: The Gangster (1947)

Also known as: Low Company (reissue title)
Release Date: November 25th, 1947
Directed by: Gordon Wiles
Written by: Daniel Fuchs
Based on: Low Company by Daniel Fuchs
Music by: Louis Gruenberg
Cast: Barry Sullivan, Belita, Joan Lorring, Akim Tamiroff, John Ireland, Sheldon Leonard, Elisha Cook Jr., Charles McGraw, Shelley Winters

King Brothers Productions, Allied Artists Pictures, 84 Minutes

Review:

“Your wife called. What should I tell her?” – Shorty, “Tell her I dropped dead.” – Nick Jammey

The Gangster came out at a time when Hollywood was over gangster pictures. Even though it defied the big studio trends and was also put out by a studio on Poverty Row, it was still a pretty solid success and very much taps into the film-noir style.

What’s most interesting about this film is it’s production value. King Brothers didn’t believe in building expensive or elaborate sets. They also didn’t want to waste money on location shoots. Almost everything was built with light wood and cardboard on the cheap. This gives the film an otherworldly look though. It feels more like a dream sequence or a stage show production with confined sets. It’s sort of magical in this way and even with these frugal tactics, it still looks good.

One thing I like is that there is a high chiaoscuro style in a lot of scenes due to how walls and ceilings were painted. There are multiple shots of a black and white checkered or striped background, which make the actors pop off the screen in the foreground. The use of lighting is fantastic and the high contrast look with heavy shadows protects the look of the set, keeping imperfections in the dark.

For a Poverty Row production, this also has some good acting. Not only that but it has small roles for a lot of notable stars. Shelley Winters, Elisha Cook Jr., John Ireland, Charles McGraw and Akim Tamiroff all show up in some form. There are other familiar faces, as well.

The Gangster is a film that wasn’t on my radar until now, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. I was glad to see it and it’s a film that I will have to slide somewhere into my Top 100 Film-Noir list.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: DesperateScene of the Crime and White Heat.

Film Review: I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Also known as: Hot Spot (working title)
Release Date: October 31st, 1941
Directed by: H. Bruce Humberstone
Written by: Dwight Taylor, Steve Fisher
Based on: I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher
Music by: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Betty Grable, Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Laird Cregar, Elisha Cook Jr.

20th Century Fox, 82 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” – Ed Cornell

Coming out in 1941, this was a film slightly ahead of its time. Film-noir really hadn’t taken off yet but this certainly fits within the framework of the style in both the narrative and visual aspects.

There is a murder of a rising starlet. The situation pulls in her sister, her former manager and everyone else that floated within her orbit. There’s even a hulking cop that takes tremendous liberties with his job in an effort to try and pin the crime on the former manager.

This picture’s plot is well structured and it’s not an easy one to figure out. One line of dialogue tipped me off to who the killer was but I still wasn’t sure and even that was followed by a lot of twists.

The film was really carried by the acting talents of both Betty Grable and Victor Mature, a guy whose work I always want to see more of. I really loved both actors in this and Mature was superb at coming off as a bit sleazy in the beginning but slowly evolving into a lovable and romantic hero.

Carole Landis was also great as the sister who ends up murdered. While I think that Grable was definitely the show stealer, Landis held her own and to be frank, the two ladies are absolutely gorgeous in that old school Hollywood way that will just never exist again.

The film was directed by veteran H. Bruce Humberstone, who wouldn’t do much in the noir genre after this but certainly made his mark with this picture. He had a great eye for mise-en-scène and also had the help of cinematographer Edward Cronjager, who would go on to do the noir picture Desert Fury, as well as some notable westerns. But Cronjager also had dozens of pictures to his credit before this one. In fact, he was one of the more prolific directors of photography in his day with 117 credits.

The only thing that works against the film is the score, as a lot of the music is recycled from other films. There’s even different instrumental versions of “Over the Rainbow” sprinkled throughout the picture, which just felt strange and out of place. But that song predates The Wizard of Oz even.

I Wake Up Screaming definitely had an impact, even if it’s not so well known today. It was remade in 1953 as Vicki, which wasn’t as good as this but was still pretty solid.

This is an underrated film that probably should have a bigger light shown on it. Solid work by everyone working on it at every level, minus the score.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: Other noir pictures: The Glass KeyThe Blue Dahlia and This Gun for Hire.

Film Review: Stranger On the Third Floor (1940)

Release Date: August 16th, 1940
Directed by: Boris Ingster
Written by: Frank Partos, Nathanael West (uncredited)
Music by: Roy Webb
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cook Jr.

RKO Radio Pictures, 62 Minutes, 67 Minutes (longer cut)

Review:

“I want a couple of hamburgers… and I’d like them raw.” – The Stranger

Stranger On the Third Floor is a film-noir released a year before the experts say that the genre/style began. The Maltese Falcon is widely considered the first, even though it isn’t. But like that film, this one also features the remarkable Peter Lorre.

Maybe Stranger On the Third Floor isn’t considered “the first” noir because it came and went without making much of a bang. It was a low budget, short, crime drama that didn’t boast any big stars. Lorre certainly wasn’t the legend he would become and even though it did have Elisha Cook Jr., who also appeared a year later in The Maltese Falcon, he was never more than a character actor that popped up in mostly limited roles.

Stranger On the Third Floor has come to garner some respect and admiration over the years, however. Once film-noir was sort of defined and the date of its genesis was given to 1941, many film aficionados wanted to go back and look for the films that influenced the style. Sort of proto-noir pictures, if you want to call them that. Funny that Lorre was at the forefront of two of these proto-noirs: this film and 1931’s German masterpiece M. I guess his film with Hitchcock, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, also shares some similarities to the style.

There are two really strong things about this picture.

The first is Peter Lorre’s performance. Sure, it’s similar to his other early roles and almost the same as his character from M, well not the child killer part, but the killer part, along with the mannerisms, the predatory movements and his icy glare. Lorre isn’t an actor that needs to say much of anything, he conveys things through his eyes and his body language that is as expressive as the greatest silent film era stars. That moment where Lorre opens the apartment door and slithers out like a reptile is chilling to the bone, even 78 years later.

The second is the cinematography. The lighting and the camera work are both exceptional. The film uses a lot of shadow in the same vein as the look of darker German Expressionist films. Although, the rest of the visuals aren’t all that surreal. But the high contrast chiaroscuro look gives the picture a haunting quality and it seems to most come alive in the scenes surrounding Lorre’s character, as the rest of the film looks pretty standard where he isn’t present. Well, except for that execution dream sequence that is a combination of surrealism, Expressionism and minimalist set design: all used to great effect.

The finale of the film plays more like a horror picture in how Lorre carries himself, how the film builds tension and dread, as well as those final moments before the killer meets his demise and that last line he delivers. In a way, the film shows a sort of link between Expressionism, horror and noir.

Stranger On the Third Floor is a unique motion picture that was more trendsetting than its lack of initial success would have you believe. Even if it didn’t inspire most noir directors of the era, it featured a lot of people, behind the scenes, that would go on to create the worlds of more notable film-noirs.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: Other film-noir-esque movies with Peter Lorre: MThe Maltese FalconThe Man Who Knew Too MuchThree StrangersBlack Angel and Quicksand.

Film Review: Blacula (1972)

Release Date: August 25th, 1972
Directed by: William Crain
Written by: Joan Torres, Raymond Koenig
Music by: Gene Page
Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas, Gordon Pinsent, Charles Macaulay, Thalmus Rasulala, Elisha Cook Jr.

American International Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“You shall pay, black prince. I shall place a curse of suffering on you that will doom you to a living hell. I curse you with my name. You shall be… Blacula! ” – Dracula

Most people don’t seem to know that William Marshall was a damn good opera singer. However, Blacula is still what he is most known for. That’s cool though, because Blacula is an awesome mashup of blaxploitation and classic horror.

In this film, we see an African prince and his bride go to Dracula’s castle to convince him to help in stopping slavery. Dracula laughs this off and makes jokes about enslaving the prince’s wife. Eventually a scuffle breaks out and Dracula turns the prince into a vampire. A few hundred years later, the prince’s casket is sold to this gay couple from Los Angeles. They bring it home and inadvertently unleash Blacula on the city. It doesn’t take long, however, for Blacula to discover a woman that is the spitting image of his long dead wife. He falls head over heels in love with her and after some time, she feels the same way.

Other than Marshall, the film stars Vonetta McGee as the apple of his eye. McGee was in a ton of blaxploitation films and has had a pretty good career because of how prominent she was in B-movies in the 1970s. There is also Thalmus Rasulala, who plays a doctor that suspects vampiric activity. Rasulala was in other blaxploitation films Cool BreezeWillie DynamiteBucktown and Friday Foster. He also starred alongside Dean Martin in his last leading film role, Mr. Ricco. Rasulala was also in RootsAbove the LawNew Jack City and a few other notable movies.

As a horror film, this fits well within the style of a typical American International offering from the early ’70s. Sure, it’s low budget but it’s the kind of low budget that has some style and substance to it. It’s a really good B-horror film with a decent cast and some hokey fun.

As a blaxploitation picture, the film is a little light. It has some political and social commentary but it is far from heavy handed and really just serves the purpose of setting up the film. After that, it just goes on to keep the film in a setting populated by mostly black characters. There are some club scenes and a hip urban ’70s vibe but ultimately, this falls more into being a horror film in the vein of AIP’s other offerings.

I really liked William Marshall in this role and Vonetta McGee is always great to see, as she knows how to hold her own and is just as tough as the men she used to share the screen with.

Blacula is just an enjoyable, cool, fun and entertaining film for its era.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Scream Blacula Scream, of course! I also like watching these paired with those two Count Yorga movies from the same era and also put out by American International.