(On Cable TV, November 2019) There have been a lot of adaptations of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers over the years, so the only way to talk about them is to highlight how they differ from one another. In the case of 1948’s version, the answer is simpler than we think: Gene Kelly. That’s it: Gene Kelly as d’Artagnan, meeting the three musketeers and fighting valiantly against Milady, Countess de Winter (Lana Turner!) for the honour of France. The casting highlights doesn’t stop there, what with Vincent Price as Richelieu and Angela Lansbury as Queen Anne. The swashbuckling is strong in this late-1940s MGM spectacle, and while director George Sidney said he drew inspiration from westerns in staging the sword-fighting cinematography, the presence of Kelly suggests that there’s quite a bit of dancing inspiration in there as well—and Kelly’s skills were uniquely well suited for a non-singing sword-fighting hero. The colour cinematography still pops out today, and the rest of the adventure is handled competently, although perhaps too sedately when not busy with action scenes. Remove the cast and the sword-fighting and the film becomes far more ordinary, but that’s the nature of all versions of The Three Musketeers: we’re there for the swords, the rest is just fancy wrapping. If you want the story, read the book.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) I suspect that most people who approach the original 1958 version of The Fly will do so with a good working knowledge of the 1986 Cronenberg remake, which will probably set a very different set of expectations. Clearly, the 1950s film won’t be as gut-churningly gory as the 1980s one, but it does have its own sense of eeriness and dark comedy. All of this is helped along with Vincent Price in colour, sweet-talking his way through a mad-scientist role. The experience is so different that it certainly has its attraction. Even from the start (which features a mild-mannered murder mystery as we try to figure out why a wife says she has killed her husband with a hydraulic press, despite a complete absence of evidence to the matter), it takes us somewhere different. (As a bonus, this version is “set” in Montréal.) While The Fly can be silly at times (I’m thinking of the much-criticized audio comedy of the final spiderweb, for instance), it’s still a horror film, and it still carries a punch such as the revelation of the fly head (despite the unconvincing makeup). It even gets tense and disturbing at times. That’s pretty much the best-case scenario for looking at a film with a famous remake: Perhaps not quite as striking, but distinctive and effective in its own way.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) Considering that no less than three well-remembered films (1964’s The Last Man on Earth, 1971’s The Omega Man and 2007’s I am Legend) all came from the same 1954 Richard Matheson novel I am Legend, it’s tempting to keep comparing all three adaptations to each other. While my favourite is probably The Omega Man, it’s not by a wide margin and you can certainly argue that The Last Man on Earth is fast acquiring a patina of almost quaint charm, so artificial does it now feel compared to modern standards or later adaptations. This is clearly Vincent Price’s movie, so central is he to the action and how thoroughly comfortable he seems to be in the role. It’s a bit cheap and shot in Italy to save further costs, but the ideas are there and developed relatively well—despite the familiarity with the story, I still found the finale a bit surprising. Of course, much of The Last Man on Earth will feel humdrum to modern viewers considering that its premise has been mined and remade left and right. Still, it’s not a bad beginning for the novel’s string of adaptations, and it’s definitely worth more than a historical look.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) By design, I programmed myself a haunted house double bill going immediately from the very respectable The Haunting to the rather far less serious House on Haunted Hill. The contrast was refreshing, and probably worked to both films’ advantage. From the very first moments, we’re clearly not meant to take this William Castle production very seriously: the opening sets the tone of an over-the-top horror film with ponderous narration and overdone characters. There is, for modern viewers, a deliciously comfortable feeling in watching this granddaddy of all “spend a night in a haunted house IF YOU DARE” plots: we think we know where it’s going, and the well-worn mechanics of that kind of story are great good fun. (The real fun of the movie begins when you realize that the stated plot of the film really isn’t its real plot—the other one is hidden and only revealed late after both collide.) Vincent Price has seldom been so deliciously overacting as he is here, and that only adds to the fun of it. The infamous skeleton sequence late in the film doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when everything is revealed and laid bare … but who cares? Some horror films have earned a legacy because they were utterly serious about what they’re doing (The Haunting being one of them) but House on Haunted Hill chose to go another way and improbably ended up being something of a classic in another vein. I know there’s been a remake already, but how about another good remake one of these days? On second thought, never mind: This film is good enough as it is, and no one will ever recapture its delicate campiness.
(On Cable TV, November 2018) I wasn’t expecting much from Pit and the Pendulum: horror movies of the early 1960s can be undistinguishable from one another, especially given how many of them were made with small budgets and indifferent actors. But from the first few minutes, there’s something remarkable about the film’s use of colour (in an early-sixties horror film!), its confidence in using a flashback structure and, of course, in Vincent Price’s performance. Director/Producer Roger Corman became a legend for a reason, and Pit and the Pendulum remains surprisingly effective. Great sets help, as does the unusually stylish flashback cinematography. The titular pendulum and pit set is also quite good. This being said, my favourite moment in the film is the stinger at the very end, which takes barely a second to remind us that something horrible is still happening to one of the antagonists—and will keep happening for a while. It’s an amazingly good jump-conclusion to a decent horror film.
(On TV, June 2018) There’s a weird, weird quality to Laura—a film noir with a dead protagonist overpowering all other characters, a hilariously unprofessional investigation and a literal ticking-clock denouement. And yet director Otto Preminger keeps all the elements in good balance, delivering a film noir that works almost better as a study of obsession than a straight-up murder story. Having actors such a Gene Tierney (suitably entrancing as Laura), Dane Andrews, Clifton Webb and Vincent Price (well before he became the prince of horror) also helps. The result is actually kind of delicious, what with the good dialogue, unusual structure (so that you’re not watching the same darn thing) and stylistic touches. Laura amounts to a surprisingly good film, perhaps not a core film noir but certainly adjacent to it.