Monday, May 31, 2021

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960)

Doctor Mabuse began life in a novel by Luxembourgish author Norbert Jacques, created hand-in-hand with the lauded silent adaption by Fritz Lang. More than a decade followed before its first sequel, a gripping commentary on the rise of the nazis, and 30 more years would follow before the final film in the trilogy would be made-The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse...

The Lux Hotel is a ritzy establishment, but one that has attracted the attention of the authorities due to a high number of suicides, all rich clients. Not only are the police investigating, with the help of blind psychic Cornelius, but a visiting businessman finds himself embroiled in the plight of a distraught young lady. Soon all parties converge, unwittingly the pawns of a man thought dead long ago-Dr. Mabuse...

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse marks the return of a long dormant franchise, with its original director still at the helm, for his final movie! While the decade long gaps between movies is ridiculous, they do serve to help the series in one major way. The first Mabuse entry came during the Weimar period in Germany's history, Testament came out during the height of the nazi's power, and now we have The Thousand Eyes, which comes during Communist held Berlin, when personal freedoms were low, and it seemed like every movement in the city was monitored by the state.

How the movie handles these messages is more metaphorical than literal, since it's a hotel doing the surveilling, and the authorities here are actually good guys. But while it doesn't necessarily provide as much rich or deep social commentary as it could've, it's still an interesting scenario.

What is a big drawback though is how the character Mabuse is handled. The movie barely even mentions him, really. It does a couple of times to build up anticipation, but then it just turns out at the last minute that the villain is just some random dude who read his notes. It'd be like watching a Dracula movie that builds him up constantly, but he he never actually appears, then the villain was just some random asshole all along.

The identity of the film's mysterious villain is a secret. He's in disguise, and could be any of these suspects. Could it be the hotel doctor? The insurance man? The millionaire? Or the creepy blind man who foresees every calamity that happens in the movie? It's obvious as punch that Cornelius is Dr. Mabuse. From his convenient predicting of every event, to his little observations, and the general fact that he looks terrifying, it makes for a pretty obvious mystery. So much so I thought he had to be a red herring, but nope.

The story is a pretty good one, with a few twists and turns. Where it falters is in feeling like just another krimi film. Which would be perfectly fine if this was just another krimi film, but when it's a Mabuse entry directed by impressionist whizz Fritz Lang himself, you expect something more.

I also feel that it being a sequel impedes it in a way, as you spend the whole film wondering how the super dead Dr. Mabuse is going to be involved, 30 years later. The answer we finally got was disappointing to me, feeling very arbitrary, and it seemed like this villain had precious little to do with Mabuse at all. Compare that with Testament, where the Doctor dies early on, and the bad guy turns out to also be some guy who read his notes. But there it works, because we know the character, he has a big presence throughout, and said notes are important (and also destroyed at the end, so I'm not sure how this guy got ahold of 'em!).

We don't get as much of a criminal network here. Besides the first murder, we see exactly no crimes committed, and a gang comprised of only two hoods, one of whom is killed pretty quickly. It's good to not reiterate what we'd already seen in Testament, but it's still good to show us the workings of his organisation. It's an effective tool, as well as a staple in previous films.

A related observation, Mabuse's organisation seems a lot more leaky this time. Perhaps that was an intentional decision. There was already one in the past, then it happens again at the beginning. Then another henchman bites the dust. Another running theme/link with all these people is that they had all served their purpose and were now considered expendable.

Getting back to the positives, there are many memorable moments here. One of the film's big setpieces is a psychic reading halfway though. It's a great scene, and while I feel it undermines the big reveal when Mabuse's name is casually mentioned 10 minutes in, it doesn't dampen what a great moment it is. I also really enjoyed the climax! There's a lot of great action and suspense, and the reveal that sets everything off is great. It's a moment you can see coming once all the pieces sort into place, and you sit forward and grin, like "Ohhh, I know what's gonna happen! Bring it on!"

The setting is also utilised very well. The majority of the movie is set there, and it never overstays its welcome. I feel as far as plans go it has pretty limited appeal, since the police have figured out already that something shady's going on. But for a little while at least it's a great scheme.

The visiting businessman is a good guy, and has some nice heroic moments. You're a bit unsure at first if he is who he says he is, but we soon find he's the real deal. His romance with mysterious Marion is well written, and keeps you guessing.

Inspector Kras is the most proactive lead in the film, directly investigating things from the get-go. Unsuspicious, noble, and grumpy, he sacrifices a long-awaited holiday to stay and fight this threat, despite many attempts on his life. He ends up being

Perhaps the films best character is insurance agent Hieronymus B. Mistelzweig. I really enjoyed him. As a kooky and somewhat girthy insurance man, he's against type for the role he ends up filling, and I felt he was one of the movie's most heroic characters. That's probably spoiling that he's not Dr. Mabuse, but hey, don't worry, there are still like three other suspects to keep tabs on.

Like any good mystery, there are plenty of red herrings here, and quirky elements. Although why a dog would growl and bark with friends, but be quiet with strangers is anyone's guess. Maybe Lang just wanted to shake up the expected norms? He was also being a cheeky bastard, because one of the red herrings here doesn't actually make any sense!

The cast all do good jobs. Gert Fröbe is a barrel of fun as the gruff Inspector Kras, as is Werner Peters, while the actor playing Cornelius looks like a scary German version of William Hartnell. Wolfgang Preiss has a neat role, if a bit small in places. Peter van Eyck looks like Lex Barker and Howard Vernon got combined in a teleporter. He does well as the good looking hero, as does Dawn Addams as the love interest and possible femme fatale. Speaking of, Vernon himself has a decent role as a henchman! Overall, no disappointments here.

The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse isn't really a patch on the previous two films as far as I'm concerned, and even in its own right it drags a little, but it's not a bad film, nor one worth avoiding. It's also a decent enough swansong for Fritz Lang...

Back to School (1986)

Rodney Dangerfield is still fondly remembered as one of America's greatest comic talents, from his successful stand-up circuits, to his numerous film appearances, including his star-making turn in Caddyshack. Out of all of his solo features though, the most known and well-loved has got to be 1986's Back to School...

Thornton Melon is a successful older man, who dropped out of high school to start a clothes business and has never looked back. Now a millionaire, he can buy anything he wants, but is interested more in the little things, and in having fun. Eager to see how his son Jason is doing in college, he's dismayed to see he's thinking about dropping out. Determined to see his son not repeat his own past, Thornton re-enrolls,    college along with him...

Back to School is your quintessential 80s college comedy. Simple, engaging, and has got a great lead, with some good stakes. The driving concept is an amusing one, and always handled well. Even though the idea of an older man attending college is commonplace nowadays, the movie's presentation never feels old or dated, but is still just as fresh and original as it was back in the day.

The comedy always lands, with lots of witty dialogue and one-liners, and many funny scenes, like when successful business owner Thornton gives his economics class some unorthodox tips, only to be chastised by the teacher for 'not being realistic'.

Thornton is a great lead, with lots of spirit and humour, but also irresponsible and lazy in some ways, making him flawed enough to not be superhuman, and to need to do some hard work himself to make it through to the movie's end. Something I liked about his character is how he throws about his money. It's not in a = sense, but more that he genuinely doesn't need it. He comes across as an incredibly thrifty guy who just so happens to have millions of dollars, so he doesn't mind tipping a waiter $100 bucks, or giving fancy pens to his classmates, as long as it's helping someone. His whole philosophy is nice too. Despite not having a finished education, he still holds his father's ideals on the subject in high esteem, and intends to make sure his son lives up to them.

His son Jason is the polar opposite, and while he can have his whiney moments, and whether or not you side with him in these moments is up for debate, but he is always a good supporting lead. His friend Derek is a total weirdo in the best way, while Thornton's chauffeur Lou is a great foil, always a fun presence, low-key but distinct.

English professor Diane and student Valerie are both sweet ladies. As love interests though they can be real pains! Diane spends a good chunk of the movie dating the crotchety Business dean, clearly one inch away from ditching him, and always having the hots for Thornton, but still carries her man around. Then when she takes her boyfriend to one of Thornton's party's, she sees him in a hot-tub with some scantily clad ladies, and has the nerve to be offended! Are you forgetting you came here with your boyfriend, honey? I don't think you have any call judging Thornton! Jason's beau Valerie is similar, spending over half of the movie technically dating his meathead rival, despite knowing from their first scene that he's a dickhead, and liking Jason the whole time.

The villains are a suitably dastardly bunch. You've got the asshole jock, who ticks all the expected boxes, and is a love to hate him type baddie. The professor meanwhile is your typical crusty effete dean, who can't stand anything that isn't strictly by the book.

The cast assembled for Back to School is great. Dangerfield is a naturally charismatic lead, always making you smile, while the more down-to-earth Keith Gordon makes for a good counterbalance. Sally Kellerman is a nice addition, and an adorably young Terry Farrell is lovely! Robert Downey Jr. has a funny supporting role, really getting some crazy material to chew on. 'Angry' comedian Sam Kinion has a small but hilariously memorable part. Then you've got actors like Billy Zabka, Burt Young, Ned Beatty, etc, all bringing their usual archetypical performances to the table. There are also a few unexpected cameos to enjoy.

The music here is like a great 80s playlist, and has neat college tracks too, feeling nice and authentic. There's also a fun appearance by Oingo Boingo, a tolerable cover of Twist and Shout with a hilarious twist by the end, and the groovy title song.

Back to School really is the perfect comfort food movie. If you're feeling down, or just wanna watch a comedy or 80s classic, this'll tick all the boxes and then some!...

Pyjama Party (1964)

Gogo is a young martian sent to Earth as reconnaissance/a scout for an upcoming invasion. He lands at the house of Aunt Wendy, a charmingly dotty older lady who takes an immediate liking to who she considers to be a strapping young man. While  Daisy's neighbour J. Sinister Hulk is plotting  scheme to steal her vast fortune, and between him, bikie Eric von Zipper, and all the rowdy teens on the beach, the Martians will be left wondering if they ever stood a chance...

Pyjama Party represents the first real confusion in the Beach Party chronology. The AIP teen series had a main cast and setting in each film, but every now and then you'd get a diversion. Sergeant Deadhead for example shares the tone and much of the cast, but none of the characters. Ski Party had the naming the same, but was otherwise unconnected. While Pyjama Party (yes, I said pyjama, not pajama! Take note]!) is the same, barring some notable exceptions. This kind of thing does muddy up the waters a little, and make it unclear which movies you can really count as part of the series or not. Pyjama Party is one of the more clearer cut examples of a side entry, yet also just as confusing, if not moreso. But this is probably all thinking way harder about the subject than the folks at AIP ever intended.

Pyjama Party is a film I used to have very different thoughts on. Back when I first got into the series, I caught this on tv, and had very strong, negative opinions on it. I wrote a brief post outlining my general thoughts. I was annoyed by the main character, I didn't like the plot, which was outlandish even for a Bikini film, and a lot of little things bugged me. Though even then I did recognise there were really good qualities, I switched off halfway through. It's been a few years now, and I've always intended to give it a full watch-through, especially curious how I'll see it now. Would I think the same, or would my opinion have changed? Well now I can say that yes, it actually has!

Pyjama Party contains everything you'd expect from the series. As the 4th (or 5th, it's hard to keep straight at this point!) entry in the series it makes for a fresh enough diversion, featuring enough new elements, but also enough of the old.

Amusingly enough, not only did I enjoy the first half a lot more this time round, it's actually the unseen second half I didn't like as much! Although it's not the fault of those acts, but the movie as a whole. This leads me into Pyjama Party's big issue-The structure. We've got at least 3 different plots here vying for screentime, along with a plethora of little subplots to boot. They're all good, but none get as much time to really  breath as they could've. The fact that Martians are plotting an invasion of Earth almost feels like an afterthought at times!

The film stars Annette Funicello  but not as Deedee, and her love interest here is Tommy Kirk. No other familiar characters feature among the beach teens either. With all these differences, is there anything familiar here? Why yes, there sure is-Eric von Zipper and his Rat Pack!

They're always a hoot, especially in the therapy scene, where they act like parents to a toddler after Eric's near death scrape during the chase sequence. Some of their best scenes in the series are here! Their reasons for being invovled in the plot are pretty flimsy at first, but they gradually get more of a connection, leading to a brawl in the climax, and some hilariously old-fashioned PJ's!

The acting  is pretty neat all round. The best performance by far comes from Elsa Lanchester, who is such an old dear! She breathes full life into her character, and delivers each line in hilarious and = ways.   Tommy Kirk is a serviceable enough lead here. Nothing remarkable, but not as bad or grating as I first thought. Annette Funicello can do these kinds of roles in her sleep, and has a great level of sass.

Jesse White is fun as the wonderfully named villain, with Ben Lessy doing well as his long suffering assistant. Buster Keaton and Bobbi Shaw make for a great pair too, with Keaton especially doing a funny job as a Native American goofball/=. Jody McCrea is amusing, and feels different enough from his other Beach Party character, while still filling the role of a simple minded dope. Harbey Lembeck and his crew are on perfect form as the Rat Pack, with special mention going to the lovely Alberta Nelson.

The songs in Pyjama party are all fun, typical songs of the 1960s pop scene. First is the intro theme, which is an enjoyable teen anthem. That's the Way it's Done Among the Young feels less like an organic song and more like a random pop charter = in (performed by Donna Loren and the = named Nooney Rickett 4). It's a good song though, barring the annoying end.

There Has to be a Reason is a nice romantic number (which itself is amusing considering these two have only just met!), though the [sound sounds] off, like the song was recorded on a different = than everything else.   Where Did I Go Wrong has an amusing presentation and dynamic ring to it, even if it is a bit hurried and repetitive. It also gives Dorothy Lamour her final musical performance in a film! It may annoy some (like me several years ago), but others may like it (like me now).

Stuffed Animal is a cute and melancholy tune that Annette sings with her cuddly bedside friends, much to the = of her roommates. And lastly, Pyjama Party Tonight is a peppy final number, really getting you in the mood for a party. Overall I don't have any problems with the songs, though there are a few gaps here and there. The movie isn't that long, but it still feels like a little too much time passes between some numbers.

I have zero complaints with the direction here. It's all perfectly competent, and everything from the chases, to the songs, and the frequent dancing, are all shot well. Also, this is a random observation, but this is the second Beach Party film I've seen to feature someone coming out of a grandfather clock, which makes me wonder if Jean Rollin really was a fan!

Unlike last time, I do recommend Pyjama Party. If you're not a fan of the goofy antics this series had to offer, this is not likely to impress you, but it's a harmless and amusing film, and fits well into the series...

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Vampire Bat (1933)

A mysterious plague of deaths has struck the sleepy village of Kleinschloss, and the superstitious townsfolk immediately jump to the conclusion of vampires, suspecting the bat-fancying simpleton Herman. The local inspector Karl Breettschneider has other ideas though, determined that a more human murderer is at work here. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Ruth works for a mild-mannered local scientist, who is conducting innocuous experiments in his castle home.  However, unbeknownst to the rest of the village, Dr. von Niemann has other more sinister motives at play...

The Vampire Bat is everything great about 1930s horror! There's murder, mystery, and mayhem, all in a classic time and place. A somewhat creative mix of old and new, it's a fairly simple tale. That way it focuses on what's important and pays enough attention to that for everything to be sufficiently fleshed out.

The Vampire Bat was a low budget production, shot in the off-hours of more 'important' pictures. This is a surprise to hear, as it's a very good looking movie! The cobblestoned village looks great, feeling like a convincing Germanic location, while the castles and laboratories are all neat, filled to the brim with fancy looking doodads.

The main villain here is a neat one! Kind at first glance, he turns malevolent behind closed doors, and makes for a spooky presence, even if he is only human. The 'vampiric' manservant though was a bit confusing. I understood his role by the end, but that's a little late. Herman is a good red herring, acting very creepy, but we know he's not actually bad, just different. And he ends up suffering dearly for it!

Sadly there is not an actual vampire here, or even a giant bat, but that's ok, since it'd only validate these superstitious assholes if it turned out vampires were real (plus, it helps we already have plenty of movies that fit those bills). The actual solution ends up being surprisingly different, taking the movie into more abstract Frankenstein territory, almost to the point of mild science-fiction. It's a neat mix, coming up without you realising, and not feeling out of left field when it shows up.

The remainder of the cast are effective enough in their small but important roles. At only an hour long, The Vampire Bat doesn't want for any extra story, telling plenty to fill out the runtime, and wrapping everything up satisfactorily. The only thing I feel it lacks is punishment for the bastards who killed poor Herman! They oughta have been strung up and exsanguinated!

Melvyn Douglas is a fine lead, just your typical handsome fellow. Fay Wray is always a treat to see, and delivers a good performance, both as a lighthearted romantic plus scientist, and also as a petrified damsel. A couple of lines come off a bit over the top, but she does well. Lionel Atwill is great as the villain, polite and unassuming, until he's exposed, and he rants and raves like a quintessential mad scientist. Dwight Frye is great as the creepy yet gentle Herman, while Robert Frazer does well in his Dracula-esque role. And lastly, Maude Eburn makes for a decent comic relief.

The direction in The Vampire Bat is stellar. The shots are frequently stylish and brilliantly arranged, even in moments where they didn't need to be. This goes to show just how much the people behind the scenes cared about this production.

One drawback that does affect the movie though is the lack of soundtrack. In some scenes the silence works well (or even works wonders), but in others you wish there was a traditional atmospheric track playing, to run a shiver down your spine. Instead there's nothing. I didn't even realise until late into the film, but once I did I was able to put my finger on what felt missing the whole time.

The Vampire Bat is a nifty example of classical horror of the 30s, and like all movies of the time it has a good moral. To all scientists, it's really not sensible to bother creating life when it's only an inanimate ball of flesh that needs 10 corpses a week to survive. It's uncanny how movies like this could so perfectly understand human nature and offer us such wonderful teaching moments...

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

After a tremendous storm, a mysterious egg washes up on the local beach. The townspeople promptly sell it when the unscrupulous Happy Fun corporation come knocking, much to the frustration of a scientist, who teams up with some journalists to do a little digging. On their travels they meet the Fairy Twins of Infant Island, who implore them to retrieve their sacred egg before it hatches. Their initial plans fail, and soon a new threat looms when Godzilla awakes. It seems only the twins' spirit guardian Mothra can help, but will she save those who stole her egg?...

Mothra vs. Godzilla, not to be confused with later entry Godzilla vs. Mothra, is his first encounter with the fluttery female kaiju. And what a classic encounter it is! Almost 60 years later this still holds up brilliantly. A brisk yet eventful movie, that never slows down.

The story is a fairly simple one, but told strongly. We completely understand the positions of each party, from the desperate Infant Islanders to the conniving corporation, and the helpless humans/reporters.

Beyond the base story, there's plenty of satire and commentary here about the evils of big business, all delivered in a way that's effective, fun, and not too preachy. There's also a good message about humanity's capacity for working together for the common good, even when we don't get along.

The movie's human leads are a pair of plucky newspaper staff and their scientist buddy. The trio have a nice dynamic, though the two men often blended together, and the = banter between reporter Ichiro and his photographer Junko is often sidelined or completely forgotten. Understandably I suppose, since one tends to forget their little feuds when giant moths hire them to find their eggs.

I felt they were underused by the last act though. The movie seemed like it was setting them up for something big, with their editor reminding them of the power of the press. They shouldn't give up hope of stopping the Happy Fun group, because the pen is STRONG...Then nothing really happens. The two evil businessmen just get randomly stomped on by Godzilla after their own scuffle and that's all solved. I would've preferred the heroes to have done something proactive in stopping them. Perhaps they could've somehow exposed the group's illicit dealings, and that's why the billionaire almost seems on the run in his last scene.

The Fairy Twins are a breath of fresh air. Usually supernatural messengers are ominous or threatening, but even when they're delivering warnings, or declining requests for help, they do so with such politeness. They even ask the villains to kindly return the egg! I also found how people react to them hilarious, especially when one of the heroes responded to their story with "I believe them" after they said the egg was theirs. He doesn't bat an eyelid at meeting these tiny women, and only believes them because their story is convincing, not because they're magical fairies. Junko also says "Let's hear their story first", as if to imply the fairies could be liars.

The bad guys have a great role here. While we don't get as much of them as I'd have liked, there's enough. The standout is the portly Kumayama, who's always got an excuse for everything (including for why he hasn't paid you yet), comes up with amusing ways of pricing giant mystery eggs, and would sell his own mother if he could.

The monsters here are handled in a mixed way. Whenever they're onscreen, it's wonderful! But that's the problem. It takes Godzilla over half an hour to appear! Before that point, he's literally never even mentioned, and you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a Mothra solo adventure. She fares a little better. Her introduction is surprisingly early and random, but nice all the same.

Godzilla is his usual angry self, going on a rampage, and expressing his distaste for Japanese architecture, old and new. This was the last entry for a while where he was exclusively the bad guy, but even here he's more of a pissed off force of nature. He causes destruction, but more because it's in his way, and he hasn't had his morning coffee yet. He even kills the human villains, so thanks Godzilla!

Mothra is a perfect counterpoint to Godzilla. Feminine, gentle, and always willing to help humanity in a pinch, even if she might knock over a building or two along the way. The whole mythology around her and the Infant Islanders is great, and they are portrayed as a very interesting culture.

The overall direction here is stellar. Ishiro Honda does a wonderful job at framing even smaller scenes, and the larger scale ones are a marvel. Locations are very believable, with the crew either making a fleet of tiny boats, or actually crafting a giant egg prop and sticking in the ocean, presumably hoping the thing would float! Infant Island is portrayed in an almost harrowing manner, showing off perfectly the scale of devastation nuclear testing can bring. The monsters look great with their surroundings, and there's never an unbelievable moment. The rampages and monster fights are shot really well.

Godzilla is designed well as always, and his tail has an interesting degree of animation this time round, almost wriggling like a snake. Mothra meanwhile is a technological wonder, flying and moving very convincingly, even in combat! Shes' also very pretty, too!

The acting here is all nice, with good leads, villains, and an inspired turn by twin singers Emi and Yumi Ito (aka The Peanuts). Something I miss about older movies is that not everything had to star a celebrity. Japanese movies would often just star regular actors. Popular, yeah, but many films nowadays feel the need to cram in a big name  just for the sake of it, leading to  In movies like this though, they feel more like real people.

Akira Ifukube delivers yet another wonderful score. The recurring tracks still hold up brilliantly, creating a perfect atmosphere as the monsters rampage. They make things feel so epic and dramatic. Then on the other side of the spectrum we have some fairy tale-esque tracks, that five those moments a serene almost fantasy feel. The songs the Fairy Twins sing are wonderful too.

Considered by many to be one of the series's best moments, Mothra vs. Godzilla is a great time. It's a nice introduction to the series, and would lay the groundwork for a lot to come in the future...