Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Five Men in the Circus

A brass band plays off-key, parading lazily through rural towns. Against the open night sky, acrobats dangle perilously without nets. “People will laugh if you fall,” the ringmaster tells them. Two sisters, halfway between ballerinas and clowns, struggle to define their lives.

The film is 1935’s Sakasu Gonin-Gumi, or Five Men in the Circus, and this post is for the At the Circus Blogathon hosted by SerendipitousAnachronisms and Crítica Retro.

I know it’s been a hell of a November so far – incidentally, if you want to marry a Canadian girl for immigration purposes, I’d probably do it for a working Hulu account – and I picked a total downer of a movie for this blogathon. So… maybe read about this movie now and then watch it at a later time? Or read about it at a later time. Blog posts don’t expire or anything. They’re not cream.

Also, before I really get going, I’m going to shamelessly plug Serendipitous Anachronisms and Crítica Retro. Both of them have amazing content, perceptive writing, and truckloads of historical information, so they’re definitely worth visiting repeatedly and subscribing to. Love to them for hosting this event, and love to them in general for being Summer and Lê. (Embarrassingly, I’ve always thought of Crítica Retro as my blog’s “cousin” because of our similar titles.)

Okay! Let’s take a trip to pre-war Japan, and the lyrical melancholy of Mikio Naruse!

It’s often bemoaned by fans of 20th century Japanese cinema that Naruse isn’t better known in the west. Despite the retrospectives and festivals that spotlight his work, he remains largely undiscussed, especially when compared to his contemporaries Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

Part of this has to do with what used to be considered marketable internationally and what didn’t. Men’s films, like Kurosawa’s famous samurai epics and gritty crime dramas, were considered bankable while women’s films and low-key dramas were considered “too Japanese” for export. This second category is, of course, what Naruse specialized in. (Fun fact: Kurosawa apprenticed with Naruse, but a lot of people ignore this because no samurai = no lasting influence.)

Though his films were very popular in Japan during his lifetime, his company man attitude and lack of interest in auteur theory made him a figure of little appeal to contemporary western critics. He was sort of like a Howard Hawks or Douglas Sirk in that respect.

Interestingly, Naruse’s 1935 breakthrough Wife! Be Like a Rose! was the first Japanese talkie to receive an American theatrical release. It didn’t do well at all. Probably because it’s about the unfairness of Geisha culture and the pressure children put on their parents to maintain family reputations, and America was more into screwball comedies at that time. It was the 30’s. People didn’t need to go to the movies to get depressed, they could just stay home and think about their lives.

Five Men in the Circus was the immediate follow-up to Wife! Be Like a Rose! and never got an international release.

It tells the story of a dismally untalented five-man brass band, a group that’s been picking up work here and there advertising for hot springs and local festivals and the like. In between gigs, they steal hotel toiletries and wish they were back in Tokyo. Their next paycheck is supposed to come from playing the fanfare for a rural athletic meet, but when the meet is postponed, they find themselves in a bind.

Word comes to them of a circus set up in a nearby town, and they decide to head over and see if the big top needs some really terrible musicians. (Spoiler: They do not.)

At the circus, we’re introduced to the ringmaster’s two daughters, and it’s here that the Naruse touch is most evident.

Naruse’s films have very few technical signatures, in terms of what we recognize as directorial artistic flourish. He was obsessed with making the camera feel invisible, so there’s none of that Citizen Kane cameraman-in-the-trees style of innovation in his work. There are a few shots at wide, vertiginous angles in order to capture the sensation of looking upwards at acrobats, but even that’s crafted to feel as organic to the audience as possible. His whole technical aim was to create the illusion of one, continuous shot throughout the story. Kind of like a book with no chapters.

Where you can really see his thumbprint – again more like Howard Hawks than anyone else I can think of – is in recurring narrative themes. For Naruse, that meant women. His female characters weren’t accessories to a masculine narrative, nor were they prizes for deeds well done; they were dynamic and human, and more often than not, torn between two conflicting expectations within Japanese society. These characters don’t win, because they can’t win, and this inevitable loss forms the heart of the Mikio Naruse tragedy, but there’s always a flicker of optimism.

For a Naruse character, dignity is the hardest thing to hold on to, but the only thing worth keeping.

It’s a simple but powerful underlying theme, particularly in his later, more self-assured stories like 1959’s When a Woman Ascends the Stairs.

Five Men in the Circus sets itself apart from his usual films by being ensemble led, and by weaving its tragi-comic outlook through a variety of seemingly unresolved subplots. (I’ve mentioned before that I really enjoy unresolved stories; but if they drive you nuts, opt for a later Naruse comedy called Travelling Actors. It’s about two guys in a Kabuki troupe who dress up in a horse costume re-evaluating their lives after learning they’re being replaced with a real horse. It’s unexpectedly poignant and also very, very silly.) Most notable is the violinist who gets his dreams crushed because he won’t listen to circus wisdom about demographics. Rural audiences don’t like European classic music, they like tunes with some pep.

The story is based on a novel that had a lot of then-popular crude humour, especially in regard to periphery female characters. It makes for a vivid contrast between what films were expected to do in 1930’s Japan and what filmmakers like Naruse wanted them to be able to say.

"None of us play this music because we like it," one of the band members sulks as he drinks at an inn.

"None of us are bar hostesses because we like it," his server replies, pouring his next sake with her job-required simpering smile.

So, yeah. Five Men in the Circus might not be the best movie to watch while you’re feeling cruddy, but I hope this post has inspired you to check out the work of Mikio Naruse! And if you already knew him from his films of the 1950’s, or the collection of his silent films released by Criterion, then I hope this has encouraged you to check out some stuff from his middle-period!

And go look at everyone else’s circus posts! They’ll cheer you up!

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Night Beat: A World All His Own

Night Beat is one of the best radio dramas of the 1950’s, an era when most radio was slowly marching into obsolescence thanks to our beloved friend television. (Television, how could you?! Radio gave you some of your best ideas!) Broadcast on NBC, it was sponsored by hipster’s choice Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, and later the breakfast of champions itself, Wheaties.

Frank Lovejoy played Chicago Star reporter Randy Stone, a strangely endearing character who looked at the world through a pair of metaphorical glasses that seemed to have one rose coloured lens and one jade one.

Stone’s column highlighted “strange stories waiting for him in the darkness.” While that makes it sound like he went out hunting vampires Kolchak-style, he was actually after something else: noir human interest stories. It’s a weird category, but he managed to find somebody who fit the bill every week. Astounding luck that man had.

The show was concerned with the city of Chicago, and how it affected the people who lived there. Of course, it could’ve been any city, and of course the people are the night people. The forgotten people. The people who get themselves into trouble so deep, they’ll take any kind of help, even if it’s a newspaper reporter with a hide as thick as a rhino’s and a heart made of glass.

This episode is from 1950, and it’s called “A World All His Own.”

There are many more good episodes, some even better than this one, and most available on the Internet Archive, so I hope this inspires you to investigate the series. Download some MP3s. Listen on the bus after dark. Particularly noirish tales include "The Girl from Kansas," "The City at Your Fingertips," and "Fear."

A couple of extra interesting tidbits:

In 1953, about six months after Night Beat went off the air, Dick Powell – TV noir’s kindly uncle – produced a backdoor pilot for a television adaptation of the series for his Four Star Playhouse. Lovejoy reprised his role, but it didn’t get a series. The episode was called "Search in the Night" and it's okay. Neither the best of Nightbeat nor of Four Star Playhouse. Something just doesn't click in the translation to screen. Maybe it's the lack of timpani drums.

The original pilot for the radio show starred Edmond O’Brien, who sponsors found too cold for the role. Apart from being in one of my favourite weird noirs, 1950’s D.O.A., he also starred alongside his replacement Lovejoy in 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker, in which the District Attorney from Perry Mason tries to kill them. Good times. Good times.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Boris Karloff’s Thriller 01x34: The Prisoner in the Mirror

I mentioned this episode in passing during the Mummy overview, and then I was like: “Hey me, you should recap that thing. Get back on the horse and so forth.”

Also, as I write this, my internet connection is once again down (I’m pretty sure that every single tree that could fall on a service line has fallen on a service line this year, and there was an actual blizzard last week, and I’m just furious about it), so if there are mistakes, I’m very sorry, I live in the woods and a bear stole my Google.

Thriller is a horror anthology series that’s seen something of a revival in recent years, and rightly so. It’s damn good television. Hosted by an elderly Boris Karloff, it was actually Karloff’s second attempt at getting a show like this off the ground. He did half a season of a “true paranormal” series called The Veil in 1958. Because of production troubles, The Veil was never picked up by a network. It’s not bad, but it’s not Thriller. Even the terrible episodes of Thriller are worth watching.

Today’s story is about notorious magician Cagliostro, played by Henry Daniell, a classic guy-who-was-in-everything of the 30’s and 40’s. He’ll be joined by a guy-who-was-in-everything of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Lloyd Bochner, along with Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross, and Patricia Michon.

We begin in Paris, 1910, where a lovely young couple in evening clothes are toasting one another with champagne. The girl is a glittering, smiling blonde who makes you think she’s used to getting diamond bracelets as presents, but there’s no use being angry at her for it. Her date is… off somehow. His face is open and young, and he’s got the look of the earnest sidekick in a teen beach comedy, but his manner is slick, hungry, and crackling at the edges with something sinister. He tries to impress her with magic tricks, first producing a silver coin to her great delight, and then wowing her with a small bouquet of live flowers he seemingly plucks from thin air.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Donald Duck: Trick or Treat and The Gorilla

Trick or Treat is a Halloween classic. Released in 1952 and featuring a very memorable title song by Paul J. Smith (who also composed the Leave it to Beaver theme song), it's the best example of Donald Duck being a complete toolbox for no reason.

Usually, there's some building up of tempers on both sides when Donald faces off with his nephews, and the humour comes from how much everything escalates. In this one, there's no build up. It's go from word one with this duck. No mercy on Halloween.

Whatever, Donald. Next year, just give the children candy.


Donald Duck and the Gorilla was released in 1944, and it's exactly what you'd expect from the title, but maybe a little scarier. Often featured in Halloween-themed Disney compilations, you could probably watch it any time of year. 

I always really enjoy that lollipop gag. Can't help it.

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Halloween Tree (1993)

How many kids, pumpkin-shaped buckets in hand, are going to dress up like a Lego Knight or Rey from Star Wars, knock on the doors of strangers, and expect a handful of candy this October 31st?  And how many kids are going to know why they actually get candy? Why do people carve faces into pumpkins and stick candles inside, why do firecrackers get set off, why is there that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis where the children have a bonfire and throw flour in people’s faces?

What exactly does all of this Halloween stuff mean?

Chances are good that the pint-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow man on your doorstep has no clue what makes these traditions tick. He just knows you’re trying to give him a mini-toothbrush and sugar-free gum, and that makes you a wash out. Dude down the street has full size Snickers, FYI.

Back in 1972, author Ray Bradbury noticed this trend of people not explaining Halloween to their kids, and thought it would be a good idea to write a juvenile novel about the holiday’s origins. His research for The Halloween Tree wasn’t necessarily comprehensive, and it isn’t his strongest prose by a long shot, but it gets the job done. It’s kind of like if Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe got fused in a transporter accident, and less what I would call “Classic Bradbury.”

Then, in 1993, an award-winning made-for-TV animated was adapted from Bradbury’s book.

Rod Serling once famously complained that Ray Bradbury stories lost their charm when adapted for television. Bradbury himself took great offense at this notion, but it’s true. Most of his stories sing because of his prose, narration that can’t make it onto the screen without seeming intrusive. Radio adaptations served him well in the 50’s, but there’s never been a film or TV version of one of his books or stories that was better than the original book or story.

Except for The Halloween Tree.

It probably helps that Bradbury wrote the adaptation himself.

He also provides the narration, which is… um… well… it’s always cool to hear an author read their own stuff, and always kind of puzzling when they’re not very good at it.

This narration handily sets the stage of a sleepy Anywhere, USA kind of town, where front doors are left unlocked, the preferred method of travel is hand-me-down bicycles, and people leave pies in windows to cool. Orange leaves fall to gather or breezes that swirl around ankles and rattle loose fence boards, and a mixture of nostalgia and dread fills the evening sky as it darkens in anticipation of Halloween.

A group of young friends prepare themselves and their costumes for a night of unexamined symbolism and free candy.

Tom Skelton, the perspective character of the original story, is the level-headed sort-of-leader of the group. He’s dressing as a skeleton, because puns. His friends are Jenny, dressed as a witch but with very sensible red Keds; Ralph, an Egyptian mummy that we won’t be discussing at length because I’m all mummied out; and Wally, dressed as some kind of monster. Good old Wally is an amalgamation of a bunch of boys from the original story, and for the most part it’s an improvement, but I kind of miss the kid who rolled around in mud for a cheap costume and declared himself a gargoyle.

And then there’s Joe Pipkin. Pip is the reason Tom only gets to be the sort-of-leader, because it’s Pipkin’s adventures that everyone always goes on. It’s Pipkin who has the best ideas of where to find fun or mischief, and it’s Pipkin who holds the group together like glue. He’s – as they used to say – all boy. Frogs in his pockets, grass stains on his knees, freckles on his cheeks, and who-knows-what tangled in his hair. Accordingly, it’s Pipkin who reaches out his hand on All Hallow’s Eve and grabs the biggest chunk of shadow.

When the gang shows up at his door, candy route planned, expecting him to burst onto the front porch in a costume so masterful, they never could’ve dreamed it until they saw it themselves, a bucket of cold water is thrown onto the festivities.

Pip is being loaded onto an ambulance, his house dimmed and undecorated. A note on the door tells his friends to go on and have their fun without him, and a life-or-death appendectomy is hinted at.

But how can there be a Halloween without Pipkin? That’s like a spring without flowers, a summer without lemonade, a Valentine’s Day without rampant speculation about other people’s love lives. It simply won’t do.

The gang decides to follow him to the hospital, and the quickest way to do that is by cutting through the ravine.

Ah, the ravine.

It’s a staple of Bradbury stories that bring natural and unnatural darkness into nameless Midwestern towns. Sometimes, older brothers go to get ice cream and cut through the ravine at night, then take an awful long time coming back; sometimes stubborn spinsters walk through it alone after country visits, knowing that a serial killer is about. The ravine is a deep, shadowy crack in the earth that a Bradbury character can slip through at any moment.

It’s down in the ravine that the children see a gossamer, eerie vision of Pipkin. Blue and white and airy. He urges them on, racing further into the trees and darkness.

Tom, at first, thinks it’s all one grand prank. Pipkin was never sick at all, and this is all part of some Halloween scheme. The others aren’t so sure.

They follow Pip’s ghost to an old, Victorian-style house decked out with a ruby-eyed weather vane that watches them climb a set of wooden steps that sound like organ keys. And there they meet an old man with skin so sunken and weathered, you can see the shape of his skull. He calls himself Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, and he’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy.

Mr. Moundshroud is the guardian of the titular Halloween Tree. A massive, leafless, blackened skeleton of a tree, decked out with thousands of jack-o-lanterns, each with a difference face and expression. The tree is what Pip’s ghost is after – more specifically, his pumpkin off of the tree.

The ghost steals the Pip pumpkin, the Pip soul, and disappears into “the undiscovered country” of Halloweens of yore.

Moundshroud turns out to be the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all rolled into one. Except he has no interest in any times but the past. There’s no examination of modern Halloweens or glimpses of the future, just a trip down the ages chasing Pip and his pumpkin.

Why Moundshroud brings the children along, whether he wants his pumpkin returned, or to claim Pip’s soul, indeed whether he’s friend or foe, is all left up for grabs. Halloween is a mysterious holiday, and its ambassador equally so.

Ancient Egypt is visited, where Mummy Ralph learns all about what his costume represents. Then Witch Jenny gets a very tame, child appropriate view of the heyday of witches and witch hysteria, and constantly pronounces the word “broom” as “brum” to my great annoyance. Monster Wally has the best sequence of the movie and the book, when Pip leads them to the half-built cathedral of Notre Dame, and Wally brings the building to life with his daring jumps and bounds, every landing calling up stones beneath his feet, and summoning the gargoyles. Lastly, Tom’s costume leads us to Mexico and the Day of the Dead, where a sugar skull and a dark bargain hold the key to Pip’s fate.

Like most histories made for kids, The Halloween Tree leaves out some of the rough stuff and glosses over the details, but it’s also a great way to get little ones more interested in why holidays are holidays. But, unlike something like Voyage of the Mimi where it’s so educational it stops being entertaining, The Halloween Tree manages to be gripping and suspenseful in a way that’s not too overwhelming for the animal crackers set.

Because of its made-for-TV status and being released during the heart of the Disney Renaissance, it wasn’t a big hit, but it’s had a very loyal following despite sporadic availability.  The animation isn’t as smooth as a lot of its contemporaries, and the character models apart from Moundshroud are all fairly bland, but that has more to do with budget than anything else.

The Halloween Tree is a well-told, interesting holiday special, and I highly recommend it for kids who love history or trick-or-treating, and for grown-ups who like Halloween as much as I do.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Mummy Movie Mayhem!

To keep a long story short, due to several factors my television recap plans are currently being rejigged. I’ll be looking at some more spooky October-themed movies than originally planned, maybe a couple bonus episodes of OTR, or vintage Donald Duck. I’ll do my best to make it work and try to keep a good balance.

But enough about scheduling hiccups! Let’s talk about something fun, like mummies!

Perhaps you’ve heard the announcement that Tom Cruise will be joining the Universal Horror revival sparked by Dracula Untold? If not, here’s a press release.

Regardless of your feelings about Tom Cruise, how disappointed you were in Dracula Untold, or your general skepticism about anyone ever capturing the glory days of Universal Monsters or early Hammer Horror again, it’s probably going to be a solid showcase for Sofia Boutella as the Mummy Queen, and she was pretty delightful in Star Trek Beyond. Silver linings, I guess.

So, to get everyone warmed up and ready for the next ill-advised excavation…

The Mummy (1932)

In the 1930’s, Boris Karloff’s career was hotter than a Scotch bonnet pepper on the surface of the sun. Eager to cast him in follow-up to The Old Dark House, Universal hired magazine writer/flapper gal Nina Wilcox Putnam and paired her with screenwriting pro Richard Schayer to come up with a story. They produced a nine-page treatment about the infamous court magician Cagliostro, with absolutely no elements of Egypt or mummies. In order to live through the centuries, Putnam’s version of Cagliostro injected himself with nitrate, and from what I gather the whole story sounds awesome and weird and more appropriate for a 1980’s audience than a 1930’s one.

(As a quick aside, Orson Welles played a horror-movie version of Cagliostro in 1949’s Black Magic, with Raymond Burr in a weird framing story about Alexandre Dumas fighting with his son. A version of Cagliostro also appeared in an episode of Boris Karloff’s 60’s TV show Thriller, “The Prisoner in the Mirror.” The historical Cagliostro is much less exciting than either depiction.)

Universal didn’t like a lot of the monster angles in the Cagliostro treatment, so they brought in John L. Balderson – who at that time was best known for his adaptation of Frankenstein, but would later go on to earn Academy Award noms for Gaslight and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – to change things up. Back when he’d been working as a journalist, Balderson had covered the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, and the curse that seemed to befall those who opened it. The real-life story of ominous warnings on tablets and the possible reawakening of dormant, ancient evil was widely known. Balderson decided to use it as his jumping off point, scrapping the Italian magician angle altogether.

When everything was ironed out, the film became the tale of Imhotep, a man buried alive over 3000 years ago for daring to challenge the gods of death. When his mummy is discovered by gentleman archaeologists, he’s brought back to life by the reading aloud of the Scroll of Thoth by the youngest and least superstitious of the group. After regaining his strength, he reappears as a contemporary Egyptian using the name Ardath Bey, and begins leaving mysterious clues to new archaeologists about where certain tombs might be found.

Imhotep is easily my favourite of the Karloff creature roles. Back before Christopher Lee politely seized the crown, Karloff was the most versatile of the horror legends. Imhotep showcases that range as the Mummy gradually regains his strength and human form. You have everything from the mute shambling body language that Karloff invented and is still used as monster shorthand today, to his romantic side in the ancient Egypt sequence, and his remarkable gift for intensity in the stillest moments.

Zita Johann plays the object of Imhotep’s obsession, Helen Grovsner, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his tragically deceased ancient lover Ankh-es-en-Amon (spellings on that one vary, but the character was named after King Tut’s wife). Johann was a fascinating actress of the period, often referred to as “The White Flame of the American Theater,” which was apparently some kind of compliment? Jazz Age lingo is weird. Anyway, she greatly disliked the process of making movies, and Mummy director Karl Freund didn’t do anything to help things along. He was a gigantic jerk to all of his actors, Johann especially.

Despite the difficult work circumstances, her performance is one of the most nuanced and interesting of all Universal horror leading ladies. Interestingly, she was heavily involved in the spiritualism movement of the time, and believed in reincarnation and a person’s ability to “carry” different souls. In the scenes where her large, glittering dark eyes seem to look thousands of years into the past, it’s easy to believe that’s what she’s doing.

The success of The Mummy was slow to spawn sequels, something unusual for Universal at the time, but it was rebooted a decade later, bringing us to…

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

Spiderman films aren’t the only things to get started and restarted over and over again. The Mummy franchise has always been in a similar boat. Cast off all notions of the Mummy Imhotep being an elegant, tragic and obsessive figure. Those traits belong to Dracula. Mummies are prototypes for zombies now.

Imhotep is gone. The new Mummy is called Kharis and is played by Tom Tyler, who doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do since all the flashback scenes to Ancient Egypt are lifted directly from 1932’s The Mummy and have an uncredited Boris Karloff in them, and for some reason most of the story is about not trusting magicians.

(It’s weird, because the 1932 Mummy has no evil magicians in it, despite being rooted in the Cagliostro treatment, yet The Mummy’s Hand is loaded with modern day evil magicians. Not even corrupt ancient magicians. Evil 1940’s magicians. I don’t know why.)

But let’s back up a little and explain how we got here.

In the early 1930’s, Universal’s horror films were finely crafted works of art helmed by the likes of James Whale. Pioneers. Experimenters. Meticulous artists. And, jerkiness aside, Karl Freund’s direction in the original film is stunning. The use of atmosphere and the composition of shadow is hypnotic, particularly in the sequence when the mummy first awakes, and a later scene when Ardath Bey brings Helen to a fountain pond to hypnotize her.  

Then Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein managed to be a critical and cinematic hit, and the sequel train left the station. Everyone got a sequel. It didn’t matter if all your characters were dead at the end, it would just be about those character’s sons or something. No big deal.

Gradually, Universal’s interests and artistic levels slid into B-movie territory. Then everybody met Abbott and Costello, and while that is itself an awesomely fun movie, it also signals a change in the public perception of horror films. They weren’t art anymore, they were now schlock.

In 1940, The Mummy got a reboot. Not even a sequel, just a terrible rehashing of its plot, updated to be able to create a more profitable franchise. (What’s kind of funny about this is Nina Wilcox Putnam’s original Cagliostro idea was way better suited to having a series. In it, instead of having one reincarnated love, the monster would’ve been hunting the women of modern cities out of a spiteful need for revenge against the lover who had once spurned him.)

The Mummy’s Hand is bad.

It strips away all subtlety and ices the cake by foisting a “funny” sidekick upon us.

Crucially, though, it’s the actual starting point of Universal’s Mummy Movie Cycle. Also, fun fact: Tom Tyler only appeared as Kharis is this one film. Ever after, Lon Chaney Jr. was the mummy, except when Kharis met Abbott and Costello. That was Eddie Parker in a whole bunch of bandages.

So, after The Mummy’s Hand we got The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost (I like that title best because it’s so ridiculously unclear about what the monster is, like wouldn’t it just be the Ghost of Kharis?), and The Mummy’s Curse. None of them winners until Hammer got the rights to The Mummy’s Hand and…

The Mummy (1959)

You would think that the second best Mummy movie of all time would’ve been a remake of the 1932 version and not of the craptacular 1940 film, but no. Due to rights issues, when Hammer finally added the Mummy to its own stable of monsters, it was with the express understanding that they would be remaking The Mummy’s Hand, and any sequels thereafter would be unrelated to the Universal Mummy franchise. That last part suited Hammer just fine, they weren’t big on sequential franchises. Films were linked more by monster type and theme than anything else.

Despite the inelegant pedigree, not only is 1959’s The Mummy a serious contender for the best Mummy movie, it’s a serious contender for the best Hammer Horror. (If you ask me, the best Hammer Horror is The Gorgon, but that’s 90% because of the fake moustaches and the part where… something ridiculous happens. It’s a huge spoiler. My point is that “best” is a subjective label.)

Christopher Lee plays Kharis, revived when archaeologists read from the Scroll of Life, a made-up artifact that acts as the opposite of the Book of the Dead. The cleverest and most likeable of the archaeologists, and the one that happens to be married to Kharis’s dead princess, is played by Peter Cushing. He calls everyone idiots for being murdered, and unnecessarily leaps over a desk while wearing a smoking jacket, proving yet again why you should always open-hand slap people who leave him off their lists of horror icons. 

1959's Mummy a fantastically moody film, full of shimmering golden treasures and plush Victorian furnishings. Plot-wise, it’s thin, but the photography and performances elevate it enormously. The only downside is the swamp at the end. I like my mummies to age rapidly and turn into dust. It’s a personal preference.

If you haven’t seen this one, most reliable movie channels play it at this time of year, so make it your business to check it out. It works especially well on those rainy autumn afternoons where the sky is a muddled grey turning into early twilight, and you happen to have a cozy blanket and some pumpkin spice popcorn.

Hammer being Hammer, there were a few sequels. The Curse of The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Shroud, and lastly Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, which is the most quintessentially Hammer-sounding of the titles. We never got to “Seven Golden Mummies” or “Kiss of the Mummy Swingers” which is sad. People give up on their mummy franchises too soon.

They do run away with the trophy for quality-of-sequels, all jokes aside. The Mummy’s Shroud is a winner, and none of the series are as bad as the Brendan Fraser one in China. Yeesh.

Speaking of the Brendan Fraser series…

The Mummy (1999)

You know what doesn’t suck as much as people say? The 1999 version of The Mummy. (It’s barely eligible for discussion, but 1999 does count as 20th Century, and that’s what’s in my tagline.)

Ostensibly, it stars Brendan “George of the Jungle” Fraser as an American adventurer in 1920’s Cairo, where he meets a very likeable librarian with cinema’s worst eyebrows. Rachel Weisz plays Evelyn Carnahan, whose name is a combination of the names of the people involved in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. She takes command of the storyline in a way so far unseen since the 1932 version of the story, and becomes the heart of the film and the driving force of the plotline.

There are plenty of fun nods to the Karloff Mummy, many of them more referential than practical, and the flashback sequences borrow heavily from the Hammer films. Ultimately, though, it feels more like adventure than horror. There are elements that echo Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as well as several Humphrey Bogart films, but that’s not necessarily to its detriment. It knows what it is, and it expands on the idea and embraces it.

Like its predecessors, it spawned a series of sequels. One of them has pygmy mummies, which is the kind of thing you wonder about when you’re drunk but don’t ever expect to actually see in a real film, and another one has a magic pond that turns people into dragons.

Maybe stick with the first one?

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Quiet, Please E60: The Thing on the Fourble Board

Horror and sci-fi were probably the two genres best served by the golden age of radio.

Other types of plays were successful, but TV and movies could do them better. A romance is more poignant when you see the kiss. But horror, sci-fi, fantasy, things that ask for a collaboration between your imagination and the story itself, those were the types of stories radio really excelled at. It helped that there wasn't much of a need to worry about the special effects budget.

One of my absolute favourite horror series (in any medium) is Wyllis Cooper's Quiet, Please. It's subtle and weird and very much in the tone of The Twilight Zone, which is another of my absolute faves.

The show has an unusual format in that the host, identified in the credits as "The Man Who Spoke to You" and voiced by Orson Welles collaborator Ernest Chappell, just tells you the story. It's a framing device with sound effects and other characters appearing as needed, but it's very bare-bones.

Stripping down the production helps to control the narrative perspective, and that control allowed for more effective twist endings and scares, as I hope you'll notice in this episode.

It's called "The Thing on the Fourble Board" and I'm not going to tell you anything else about it except that it frequently makes it onto Top Five Scariest Radio Episodes Ever lists, and those lists ain't for the faint of heart.

Hope you weren't planning to sleep any time soon!