Beware The Blob (1958)!

2-The-Blob-1958

To view The Blob click here.

The credits are Saul Bass lite. Different red shapes, blobby outlines, move forward on the screen while one of the great movie theme songs plays behind them. The song, “Beware the Blob,” performed by The Five Blobs (lead singer Bernie Knee) and written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David, is instantly singable upon one hearing. Finally, the title of the movie, in black surrounded by a glowing red outline, appears. And so begins the 1958 classic, The Blob, starring Steve McQueen in his first major film role (often credited as his debut when in fact he had done both movies and plenty of TV before). The Blob is often pigeonholed into the same category as any other low-budget sci-fi film from the 1950s that most people would now call “cult classics” but it’s actually a lot more than that and deserves better. Better treatment and better direction. It’s a frustrating mixture of all the right ingredients producing a less than optimal outcome but still showing enough promise that it’s a fascinating journey.

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Murderous Morality Play: 21 Days (1940)

21 DAYS, (aka 21 DAYS TOGETHER), from left: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, 1940, 21days-fsct02, Pho

To view 21 Days click here.

What would you do if you killed a man, quite by accident, and then had the great fortune of someone else being arrested for it? On top of that, the person arrested for it actually doesn’t object to the arrest and is so guilt ridden about the rest of his life he wants to die. That’s the basic premise of the Basil Dean directed thriller from 1940, 21 Days (aka 21 Days Together), with a terrific script by Dean and Graham Greene. Laurence Olivier is the accidental murderer, playing the role with surprising restraint, considering this was the Olivier of the 1930s and he still hadn’t been schooled by William Wyler on screen acting in Wuthering Heights (1939). If you’re confused by the timeline, that’s because 21 Days was made in 1937 with Vivien Leigh as the love interest. Shortly after filming, the film was shelved for a year while producer Alexander Korda developed other projects. Then Leigh won the lead role in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Korda, sensing that little Civil War movie was going to hit it big (like everyone else at the time), shelved the movie until after Gone with the Wind was released, at which point 21 Days was released with Vivien Leigh getting top billing. Hey, Korda was no fool and even if Leigh was given nothing else to do for the film’s rapid fire 75 minute running time than stare at Olivier all googly-eyed (and, yes, that’s pretty much all she does), her billing was enough to get people into the theaters. Once there, I suspect they felt it was well worth the price of admission. 21 Days takes the basic trope of the wrong man and turns it into a rather satisfying study of conscience and ego, and just how far someone will go to protect their name and reputation.

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Guess Who Killed The Woman in Question (1950)

THE WOMAN IN QUESTION, from left: Jean Kent, Dirk Bogarde, 1950

To view The Woman in Question click here.

My mother loved mysteries. Loved them. It was her favorite genre (science fiction and adventure were a close second and third) and whenever I discover a new one, it makes me think of her. One of the pleasures of watching a good mystery is trying to figure out who did it – I’m sorry, I meant whodunit – before the detective, amateur or pro, reveals everything at the end. In many cases, there simply isn’t enough information because the writer is holding out so that the reader/viewer can’t figure out the ending. I’m sure there are many mystery fans that like that but I prefer being able to figure it out, if I can, and when I get it right, there’s a sense of satisfaction, not disappointment. I discovered a new mystery recently (new to me I mean, it was made in 1950), The Woman in Question (aka, Five Angles on Murder), directed by Anthony Asquith, and starring Jean Kent as the titular character, Agnes/Astra, a palm reader at the amusement park and, unfortunately for her, a murder victim. We get to know her and the situation surrounding her murder from five people who knew the victim. And, yes, I figured out whodunit. And, no, that didn’t ruin the movie for me.

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Mom, Me and Death Race 2000 (1975)

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To view Death Race 2000 click here.

When I was a kid, probably thirteen or fourteen, my mom and I would often spend Friday nights staying up late watching television. We would watch Letterman and weird infomercials. Sometimes we would catch a late-night movie—like The Birds (1963), or the utterly ridiculous made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). Then there was the romantic drama Violets Are Blue (1986), which would keep us up no matter how late it was on. Mom and I would be hooked-in because of Kevin Kline and Sissy Spacek, two of our favorite actors. But we would quickly remember the film as a godawful mess. Of course, we’d watch it anyway, and laugh at the chewed scenery and Bonnie Bedelia’s character serving gazpacho. Mom would often tell me about bizarre cult films that she saw in the 1970s, hoping that we might stumble upon them during our weekly Friday night channel surfing. There were two films that she always talked about: one was Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975), starring Joanne Nail. Mom first saw it at a drive-in when she lived (and partied) in Daytona Beach, Florida. The second was Death Race 2000 (1975), produced by the King of the B movies, the great Roger Corman, and directed by Paul Bartel (who also has a brief cameo), which she first saw on HBO in the network’s early years, in the summer of 1976. Of the two, Death Race 2000 was the most fascinating to her, and still is, and she’d joke with me about the film’s sanctioned vehicular homicide and humorous point system. “Children and old folks are worth the most points,” she’d say, as I was first learning how to drive.

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Stranger Than Fiction: The Baron of Arizona (1949)

The Baron of Arizona (1950)  Directed by Samuel Fuller Shown: Vincent Price

“In the movie business, a good ending must sometimes hold sway over the truth.” – Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking

Before Samuel Fuller wrote and directed his own films, he was a gutsy go-getting newspaperman. Fuller first worked at the New York Journal as a copyboy and eventually graduated to the role of crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, a tabloid newspaper that naysayers nicknamed the “pornoGraphic” due to its explicit content. During the Great Depression, he took his journalism skills on the road and traveled west collecting sensational stories about America, the current crisis it was facing and the rich history that preceded it. One of the stories that captured Fuller’s imagination during his cross-country journey was the strange tale of a nineteenth-century con man named James Reavis. Reavis forged a string of false documents asserting he owned over 18,000 square miles of the Arizona Territories and went to great lengths to convince the U.S. government of his claim. The story of Reavis and his remarkable crimes became the basis of Fuller’s second film, a quasi-fictional account of the events titled The Baron of Arizona (1949).

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The Amazing, Amazing Mr. X (1948)

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As a lifelong classic film fan who has seen more movies than she cares to remember, it’s easy to become a little jaded. However, every year I manage to come across an old film that becomes a new favorite. This year that film is the amazing, Amazing Mr. X (1948), a low-budget supernatural thriller also known as The Spiritualist in Britain.

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Mistress of Menace: Barbara Steele in The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

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There was a depth to her. On the surface she was a beautiful brunette woman. Beneath that–and you could almost get poetic here looking into her eyes–you could see layer, upon layer, upon layer. I could probably best, and inadequately, describe it as a kind of exotic mystery.” – Roger Corman on Barbara Steele

There are many reasons why you should turn into TCM tonight (8 PM EST/5 PM PST) to catch The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) hosted by Roger Corman. First and foremost, it was the second film in Corman’s laudable Edgar Allan ‘Poe Cycle’ and it remains one of the director’s most frightening achievements generating a palpable sense of dread within its opening minutes with help from Les Baxter’s bone-chilling score. It is also one of American International Picture’s best looking productions displaying some sumptuous 16th century inspired set design by Daniel Haller who, with a minuscule budget, transforms a Hollywood set into a medieval castle draped in blood red and cryptic black velvet accompanied by glimmers of antique gold. Richard Matheson’s script is surprisingly innovative adapting Poe’s suspenseful tale told by a single nameless protagonist into a full-blown gothic drama with multiple characters and elements of mystery, romance and supernatural horror. In addition, Vincent Price delivers one of his greatest performances here as the ill-fated Don Nicholas Medina, a deeply troubled character who alternates between profound melancholy and all-consuming madness. Last but certainly not least, it has the distinction of being the first American horror film featuring the beguiling Mistress of Menace, Barbara Steele.

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Spotlight on AIP with Roger Corman

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Roger Corman is coming to TCM!

Every Thursday night throughout the month of May TCM will be spotlighting American International Pictures (AIP) with a block of films hosted by director and producer Roger Corman. Corman learned his trade while working with AIP, which was established in 1954 by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson. The Los Angeles based company was committed to making low-budget, independently produced B-movies aimed at the burgeoning youth market that were typically released as double features and shown at drive-ins.

During its heyday, AIP became a training ground for many future filmmakers and actors including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Nicholas Roeg, James Cameron, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Jack Hill, Paul Bartel, Stephanie Rothman, Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hooper, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda and Robert De Niro. The company was responsible for reviving the careers of older horror stars neglected by Hollywood such as Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Peter Lorre securing them a new generation of fans. AIP also established working relationships with international film distributors introducing American audiences to foreign films by Federico Fellini, Mario Bava and Ishirō Honda. And they played an important role in creating popular genres such as Blaxploitation, Biker movies and the Beach Party movies that helped make Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon household names.

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Race to the Border

Fast and Furioius vintage poster

This Thursday, May 5th, celebrate your Cinco de Mayo with The Fast and the Furious. No, not the recent franchise-spawning movie of same name directed by Rob Cohen starring Michelle Rodriguez (who has her roots in Puerto Rico, not Mexico). I refer, instead, to the 50’s version involving a prison escapee and a fast-car loving woman as they both make a mad dash to Mexico. [...MORE]

New on Blu-ray: Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)

trip1 In 1966, Roger Corman was enjoying the surprising success of The Wild Angels (1966), a trailblazing biker film that he directed and produced for American International Pictures. The studio had made the film for a mere $360,000 and it netted more than $10 million at the box office thanks to a burgeoning counterculture eager to see the world they knew depicted on screen.

The Wild Angels starred Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, children of Hollywood’s old guard, along with a cast that included genuine Hell’s Angels. The plot is based on actual stories the rowdy bikers relayed to Corman on set and the nihilistic nature of the film, as well as the extreme violence and sexual deviance depicted on screen, sparked global outrage among American diplomats as well as sanctimonious film critics.

Naturally, American International Pictures wanted to further their headline grabbing success and asked Corman to helm a second biker movie but the independent minded director had other ideas. His follow-up film was The Trip (1967), another groundbreaking depiction of bohemian youth culture but this time he explored the effects of experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Like The Wild Angeles, The Trip caused a minor uproar when it was released. Executives at American International Pictures were so concerned that the film might encourage LSD use that they decided to make some edits, including the addition of a message in the opening minutes that warned of the potential dangers of taking drugs. Nearly 50-years later the movie was finally restored and thanks to Olive Films, Roger Corman’s original psychedelic vision is now available on Blu-ray.
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