Friday, 30 September 2011


In the late 30's three young men became lifelong friends in Los Angeles. They were future writer Ray Bradbury, collector, writer and future literary agent Forrest J. Ackerman and the young Ray Harryhausen. The three had in common a love of fantasy, science fiction, the great fantasy films - particularly the 1933 KING KONG. What was so important about that friendship was that in the years that followed these three young men dreamed wonderful dreams that few had dreamed before and whatsmore they shared these dreams with the generations that came after them. Bradbury was the man who wrote THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN and FAHRENHEIT 451 and brought poetry to science fiction. Forry Ackerman inspired a generation of fans with his magazines FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, SPACEMEN and MONSTER WORLD, instilling in kids like me a love of the fantastic cinema. It is hard to think of anybody who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies who are making horror or sci-fi (an abbreviation invented by ackerman) films today who do not regard themselves a "Children of Ackerman". Ray Harryhausen put his dreams on film with a whole series of monster, sci-fi and fantasy films such as THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS and CLASH OF THE TITANS in which his magic brought to life aliens, mythological monsters, Greek Gods in thrilling ways. I consider myself lucky to have seen most of these films when they were first released. In 1962 I went to work at Columbia Pictures London office and it was not long after I encountered Ray himself in one of the corridors. I, naturally took the opportunity to exchange a few words with my hero - all too briefly the moment was over. Ten years later I was asked if I could suggest a subject to interview for the French magazine L'ECRAN FANTASTIQUE and I suggested Ray would be a good subject. I rang Ray and, despite a busy schedule he was kind enough to agree. Ray suggested his London home as the venue. Need I say that it was a mind-boggling experience! After all those years of watching his wonderful films I was spending the day sitting in Ray Harryhausen's lounge with GWANGI (a tyrannosaurus if you need to ask) on the rug between us, talking about Ray's films. I count Ray Harryhausen an one of the nicest people I've ever met. To show the measure of the man, when I sent Ray the transcript of the interview he felt that his answers to my questions had not been complete or interesting enough so, although he was preparing his latest SINBAD film, he took the time to retype all his answers and elaborate on them. L'ECRAN FANTASTIQUE published the interview without paying me for it so I felt fully justified in passing it on for publication to the American fanzine publisher Gary Svehla and later in England to THE HORROR ELITE fanzine.

This wonderful 2 Disc DVD brings together Ray's early stop-motion MOTHER GOOSE STORIES, his more ambitious FAIRY TALE series (incuding an abandoned TORTOISE AND THE HARE recently completed by two of Ray's admirers). There is much, much more like animated army training films, tests and drawings for projects like MUNCHAUSEN, FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE ELEMENTALS and EVOLUTION, even a couple of advertising films.

Disc 2 contains masses of interesting stuff including a reunion between Ray, Ackerman and Bradbury, tributes from other film makers and even a piece on Ray's wonderful bronze statues which include a twice lifesize depiction of explorer David Livingstone (his wife Diane's great grandfather) being attacked by a lion which now stands at the Livingstone museum near Edinburgh and several interviews and trailers. This is an important release and a wonderful one which is a fitting tribute to a great film-maker and a very nice guy. Rating *****

Sunday, 25 September 2011


A very low budget yet worthy H.P.Lovecraft adaption that manages to keep the main elements of the original intact. When this started I really didn't expect much but was pleasantly surprised and it was obvious that the makers had their heart in the project and respect for the source material. Besides the feature the disc includes a German short called MARIA'S HUBRIS which seems to be another adaption of the same story distilled down to fifteen minutes. There's also an excellent puppet film based on HPL's FROM BEYOND and a funny Lovecraft inspired cartoon called DON'T FEED THE BOOK. Add to this a couple of trailers and an interview with John Carpenter and you've got a nice DVD from The Lovecraft Film Festival crew. Rating ***

Saturday, 24 September 2011


 Seeing NOBODY'S FOOL, AMERICAN SPLENDOUR and THE BIG LEBOWSKI so closely together is an interesting experience as all three centre around rather different "outsiders" from society. The Coen's THE BIG LEBOWSKI is for me the weakest of the three for many reasons. I came to the film with little knowledge of it - none of the story it tells - and only a slight awareness of the cult that surrounds it and its central character "the dude" played by Jeff Bridges. I've enjoyed several films by the Coen Brothers, most recently their version of TRUE GRIT, although I've been rather surprised at most of adulation heaped upon them by their fans. For me THE BIG LEBOWSKI is yet another case of the slight of hand that passes for originality in Hollywood today. There is a lot to enjoy in the film but it contains absolutely nothing in terms of originality (unlike AMERICAN SPLENDOUR) and comes over as contrived in the extreme. The plot is an amalgamation of film noir/private eye cliches - smart mouthed loner hired by millionaire to investigate a kidnapping that may or may not be genuine, the sexy blonde by the pool, the femme fatale, the beatings by hired thugs working for a local crime kingpin - the over used plot element of the detective character (a role fulfilled here by "the dude") being followed by a mysterious figure who turns out to be another Private Eye is rolled out yet again. Okay, okay, it may be a homage to Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald but these days "homage" tends to mean laziness. If you are going to take the classic PI plot and stand it on its head you need to look to films like Frear's GUMSHOE or Altman's THE LONG GOODBYE to see what can be achieved. To fill the film with entertaining (and they are entertaining to be sure) eccentric characters is simply not enough. Having said that the film has some very funny moments and while I never warmed to any of the characters they are, without exception, superbly played by Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Elliott. Rating ***

Friday, 16 September 2011


Robert Benton's NOBODY'S FOOL is the sort of movie that improves with age. By that I do not mean the age of the film but rather that of the viewer (Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES is one of several other examples). It's not a flashy film, it doesn't blow its trumpet loud and it seems to meander a bit but within this unassuming framework it says an awful lot about how we live our lives, how we atone for our sins, about friendships, relationships, memories etc, etc. This is not to say that somebody of, say, thirty, could not appreciate NOBODY'S FOOL both for its technical and acting qualities (and both are considerable) as well as what it is saying, but I assure you that the film will look even better when the viewer is sixty-five. There'a a lot of talent at work here but the film is Newman's from start to finish and what might at first seem like a rather cliched character provides some of the finest acting moments of his career. The final shot in the movie is sheer brilliance and for me it will always be the closing scene of Newman's career - all that came after, good as it may have been, was a curtain call. Well done. ****

Monday, 12 September 2011


RIGHTEOUS KILL is what passes for competent mainstream entertainment these days - I was just musing on that and mentally comparing it with another film I recently felt suffered from a similar delusion, BLACK SWAN, when I discovered (with an ironic laugh, I assure you) that Jon Avnet - the director of RIGHTEOUS KILL - was also the producer of BLACK SWAN. The films both take a plot idea - a very cliched one - and then develop it into a script without worrying too much about a plot. The film starts with one of the two stars (De Niro and Pacino) confessing to a series of vigilante murders. Then we flashback to find that the two central characters are the cops investigating the murders. Everything points to one of the cops being the killer - everybody except his buddy thinks he is the killer. So, call me dumb if you want, but given film cliches and given the two stars on board and being 100% certain that the guy we see confessing isn't going to be the culprit I was sure who the killer would be....and this is meant to be a mystery? If it ain't Pacino its going to be De Niro - or vice versa. I'm a huge Pacino fan and I certainly like De Niro despite his long string of poor film choices but this second outing together (if we discount the second GODFATHER movie) is not worthy of either star. Of the two De Niro comes off best here and poor Al seems to be having another bad hair day. The plot might have worked thirty or forty years ago but today a mystery plot that reveals the answer to the mystery in the first scene just won't do. Rating **

Saturday, 10 September 2011

LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE/The Second Wind (2007)

Here's a real surprise, a remake of a classic Jean-Pierre Melville gangster film that can stand honourable comparison with the original. The French have always shown a flair for this type of film and there are many fine examples of what might be termed Gallic noir - and Jean-Pierre Melville was indisputably its greatest exponent. Melville made his version of LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE in 1966. Based on the novel "Un Reglement de comples" by Jose Giovanni, it starred the great Lino Ventura and was released in England as THE SECOND BREATH. I have a real soft spot for the film as not only was it the first Melville film I saw I also worked on the English publicity for it. Alain Corneau's version goes back to the original novel rather than Melville's script but both films are faithful to their source material so are very similar. Corneau has resisted any temptation to update the story and it remains firmly set in the 1960's with Denis Auteuil an excellent choice to replace Ventura as the ageing gangster Gu Minda who breaks out of jail to find that the criminal underworld has changed and there is no honour among thieves of the new generation. Auteuil (who impresses me more with every film I see) perfectly captures the growing realisation of Minda that the rules by which he lived no longer apply. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent : Monica Bellucci goes blonde to play Minda's girlfriend Manouche and ex-footballer Eric Cantona is impressive as the loyal Alban. Michel Blanc and Jacques Dutronic also contribute excellent performances. THE SECOND WIND proves that the French have not forgotten how to make classic gangster films. I still have a preference for the b/w original but this is very good indeed. Rating ****

Thursday, 8 September 2011


Director H.Bruce Humberstone had a respectable career working with the likes of Boris Karloff, Danny Kaye and Glenn Miller. My favourite among his films is the film noir I WAKE UP SCREAMING with Laird Cregar. Thanks to friend Cerpts I welcome the chance to see this early example of his work. It certainly has a busy plot with masked criminals, amateur sleuths, an old dark house, a sinister swami, skeletons and trap doors etc. I share with Cerpts a fascination for the "Old Dark House" genre and while some examples can be a bit on the slow side THE CROOKED CIRCLE could never be accused of that. It fairly bubbles along with never a dull patch - in fact one gets the feeling that the film has too much plot for its running time. The films biggest stars are actually regulated to supporting roles as comedy relief but as they are wisecracking James Gleason ("It's Moider!") and Zasu Pitts the fun never sinks to the irritating level seen in so many films. Interesting to see Ben Lyon as the hero because although he famously appeared in Howard Hughes' HELL'S ANGELS he is best known to my generation in England as the star of the long running BBC radio show of the 50's, LIFE WITH THE LYONS - his voice alone conjures up part of my childhood. Rating ***

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Turhan Bey gets top billing here although his role is definitely that of a support to the other stars of this minor Universal horror film. The real star of the piece is George Zucco who must have been the real reason people paid to see the film (although I'm sure the title was the film's main box-office draw in 1943). What a trooper Zucco was! Not only did he never turn in a bad performance he often seems to have a twinkle in his eye indicating that he found his on screen villany both enjoyable and amusing. Whether this was really the case I have no idea but it comes over that was and has kept him a popular figure among horror fans. Here Zucco is pretty restrained as the doctor engaged in outre experiments but his performance is just as entertaining as ever. Evelyn Ankers is always a welcome addition to these old thrillers and although he is a little on the bland side David Bruce adequate as the unlucky title character. Both Robert Armstrong and Milburn Stone have amusing supporting roles and look out for Charles McGraw in one of his earliest appearances. James Hogan's direction is pretty much by the numbers and the film moves as slowly and as predictably as the script dictates. If, like me, you are a dedicated fan of Universal horrors or Hollywood B-movies in general then you'll probably overlook the slow patches and relish the cast. Rating ***


This is the second film to be based on Stuart N. Lake's biography of Wyatt Earp, an earlier version having appeared in 1934. The film plays fast and loose with historical fact with Earp played by Randolph Scott as an ex-army scout who arrives in Tombstone without any sign of his famous brothers and single handedly goes to the O.K. Corral for a rather anti-climatic shootout with the bad guys (led by Joe Sawyer as Curly Bill Brocious in the complete absence of the Clantons and McLaurys). The film, directed by Allan Dwan, is a perfectly servicable Western, the main interest of which is in the performances. Randolph Scott plays Wyatt Earp as if he was Randolph Scott and there are nice performances from Nancy and English actress Binnie Barnes (whom I met in London in the early 60s). Oddly, the film gives Earp no romantic involvement - leaving that department solely to Cesar Romero. It is Romero who gives the best performance as Doc Holliday (here called Halliday and being shot down before the O.K.Corral). In a supporting role is Ward Bond who had appeared in the 1934 verion and who would go on to play Virgil Earp in John Ford's 1946 version, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Rating ***