Thursday, October 23, 2014


Challenge Totals to Date:

Movies Watched Today: 4
Total Movies Watched: 58
Total First Time Views: 13
Amount raised: $446.60

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The Raven (1963) d. Corman, Roger (USA) (7th viewing) 86 min

A childhood fave that continues to hold up half a century later, thanks to the game comic performances from screen scream veterans Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre. Concerned that they might be repeating themselves, Corman and screenwriter Richard Matheson opted to spin the dark and forlorn premise of Poe’s best-known poem into an extravagant slapstick romp involving quarreling wizards, magic spells, duplicitous wives, and warnings from beyond the grave. A young Jack Nicholson is also on hand, and his hilarious interplay with onscreen patriarch Lorre provides many of the biggest laughs. Price is clearly in his element, smirking and mugging away, but Karloff’s subtler facial expressions and gestures often manage to upstage both of his hammier co-stars. Lovely Hazel Court isn’t given as much to do as Price’s not-so-much-lost-as-loose Lenore, but she makes the most of her vain and self-serving temptress, while blonde and bland Olive Sturgess is serviceable as the requisite ingénue. The frothy blast concludes with a memorable wizards’ duel, each jousting spell more charming than the previous, and brought to vivid realization by effects man Pat Dinga.

The Comedy of Terrors (1963) d. Tourneur, Jacques (USA) (2nd viewing) 83 min

After the success of The Raven, AIP attempted to tap the comic vein a second time but with decidedly diminished returns, both artistically and financially. The premise of a funeral home recycling its one coffin and occasionally helping the town’s populace into them is an amusingly dark one, but despite its terrific veteran cast, the comedy feels much more forced and mean-spirited, with Price’s tyrannical drunken lout snarking at underling Lorre and wife Joyce Jameson (who had memorably appeared opposite the two stars in “The Black Cat” episode of that year’s Tales of Terror). Karloff is back as well, but given little opportunity to shine, relegated to “what’s that?” deaf jokes and snoozing under those distinctive bushy eyebrows. One can understand the temptation to flip the antagonistic relationship between Price and Lorre, but it just doesn’t play as well as watching the little fireplug tear into Uncle Vincent towering above him. Not to say there aren’t a few amusing moments, such as Jameson’s ear-and-glass shattering attempts at opera and Basil Rathbone’s Macbeth-spouting cataleptic that just won’t stay dead, but it’s surprising that screenwriter Richard Matheson couldn’t have come up with better zingers than simply having Price endlessly bellow “Shut up!” Great title, though.

Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm) (1968) d. Reeves, Michael (UK) (5th viewing) 86 min

Price dials it waaay down as misanthropic real-life 17th-century witch hunter Matthew Hopkins under the guiding hand of up-and-comer Reeves, and though the tension on set between the young upstart and the screen veteran, the result is one of the finest and most chilling performances of the horror icon’s career. Aided by a solid ensemble that includes Ian Oglivy, Hilary Heath, Rupert Davies, and Robert Russell, Witchfinder would prove to be the final film for Reeves who, after having achieved his masterpiece following two interesting if flawed efforts (The She Beast and The Sorcerers), died of a drug overdose in early 1969. A true horror classic, this is certainly one of the finest genre pictures distributed by the AIP umbrella (co-produced by Tigon). The slightly rejiggered American release, The Conqueror Worm, opened and closed with Price narrating passages from the Poe poem in voiceover in an attempt to tie it into their AIPoe series, which added an unfortunate bookend of hamminess to an otherwise dead serious production. (Superior poster art, however.)

Despite being shorn of some nudity from the uncut UK print, MGM’s Region 1 DVD release in 2008 was cause for rejoicing for the film’s long-overdue home video presence, with Shout! Factory’s high-def upgrade (as part of last year’s Vincent Price Collection box set) doubly so. Heath’s hysterical screams over the final credits will haunt you for days. Highly Recommended.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972) d. Fuest, Robert (USA) (3rd viewing) 89 min

After the surprise hit of the original Phibes, Fuest and Price returned for another go-round of mirthful murderous mayhem, this time with the mad doctor hoping to revive his lost love via a sacred papyrus scroll and the mythical “River of Life” in Egypt. Robert Quarry co-stars as a millionaire equally consumed with the river’s life-restoring properties, one not at all amused by Price’s propensity for knocking off his expedition members through varied outlandish means. As before, myriad elaborate murder scenes are the highlights, with victims stung by scorpions, blasted by sand, and jugged in giant gin bottles, though expectant viewers may express some chagrin at the lack of a pervasive theme – it’s simply “kill ‘em all and make it extravagant.” By the same token, the black comedy in Fuest and Robert Blees’ script is much better incorporated, with everyone seemingly in on the joke this time around. Price, allowed to smirk and waggle eyebrows as he enjoys fine champagne through his neck-port, is clearly having more fun, and the always game Quarry makes for a formidable foe. Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia (now pronounced “Vul-nay-via”, rather than “Vul-nah-via”) is played by Australian beauty Valli Kemp, while Peter Cushing and Terry-Thomas make brief appearances (with Caroline Munro again unbilled as Phibes’ beloved, despite numerous close-ups. Strange, what?) In the end, the sequel actually surpasses its predecessor for sheer entertainment, while never quite matching its intellect. (The following year’s Theatre of Blood manages to combine all of the above, and remains my personal favorite of the three.)

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