Friday, October 31, 2008

The Raven (1963) review


Vincent Price (Craven), Boris Karloff (Scarabus), Peter Lorre (Dr. Bedlow), Jack Nicholson (Rexford), Hazel Court (Lenore)

Directed by Roger Corman

Dr. Eurasmus Craven, a magician, is visited one night by a mysterious raven tapping outside his chamber window. Upon letting the bird inside, he discovers the creature can talk! It is soon revealed that the raven is really Dr. Bedlo, another magician belonging to an order of wizards lorded over by the sinister Dr. Scarabus; a group that Dr. Craven used to be a member of. Seeing a picture of Craven's dead wife, Lenore, Bedlo tells Craven that this woman is alive and living in Scarabus's castle. Believing the evil Scarabus to have possession of his wife's soul, Craven and company head for Scarabus's domain. There, a final duel of the wizards takes place.

Roger Corman directs this lively, funny and hugely entertaining entry, the fifth in his Edgar Allan Poe series of films. This one has little to do with Poe's original work save for the passages read over the opening of the film and a line or two spoken by Price. Comedy is the order of the day here. According to Corman, everybody had a great time participating in this production. However, Boris Karloff was slightly annoyed during his time on the film working with Peter Lorre who ad libbed much of his dialog. Karloff, a classically trained actor, preferred to recite his lines exactly as they were written and this on-the-fly style wrecked havoc with his method.

Hyped as the biggest budgeted of the Poe adaptations, the $350,000 production still utilized sets and shots from all previous films in Corman's Poe series. The set designer, Daniel Haller (who later became a director himself), created some vivid, elaborate sets with limited means. Some of the effects work are uneven and the magician duel at the end is done with animation for some shots. Considering the tone, these cartoon effects fit the playful atmosphere just fine. The magician duel is easily the major highlight of THE RAVEN (1963) and a joy to see two titans of terror going head to head in a sequence not too far removed from a Warner Brothers cartoon.

With the release of TALES OF TERROR the previous year, a slight decrease in profits was noticed. However, audiences were receptive to the 'Black Cat' episode in that film so it was decided by writer, Richard Matheson, that THE RAVEN (1963) would be a light-hearted affair. According to Hazel Court, though, she didn't think the film was initially supposed to be a comedy, that being decided on-set. From the opening moments, the viewer assumes this will be a straight horror picture.

Once Price lets the raven into his home, he begs the creature to divulge its purpose. The comedic aura is revealed when Price asks this winged messenger if he shall ever hold his wife in his arms again prompting the bird to crudely respond with, "How the hell should I know? What am I, a fortune teller?!" The bird then spouts, "Why don't you give me some wine?"

Vincent Price is wonderful here as Eurasmus Craven, a wizard formerly of the Brotherhood of Magicians. A somewhat timid man who still mourns the death of his wife, Lenore. Upon his fateful encounter with the talking raven, Craven learns it's really Dr. Bedlo, another magician; an intemperate one at that. Demanding that Craven restore him to his former self, Bedlo says he needs a number of ingredients for the spell-- dried (or evaporated) bat's blood, chain links from a gallows bird, Jellied spiders, rabbit's lard and dead man's hair among the prime components. Of course, this requires Eurasmus to venture down into his dad's old and dusty laboratory to check for the unusual ingredients. The potion prepared, the result is only partially successful leaving Bedlo with feathered arms!

Once the excitable Dr. Bedlo is finally returned to normal, Price asks how he came to be in such a predicament. Bedlo spins a story about Dr. Scarabus, the grandmaster of the Brotherhood. He states that he had become critical of his sorcerous abilities and challenged him to a duel. Had he been sober, "...which I admit, isn't very often...", the outcome would have been different. Bedlo then sees a picture of Craven's wife, Lenore and says she lives in the castle with Dr. Scarabus.

Craven shows Bedlo the moldy corpse of Lenore but comes to the conclusion that Scarabus has possibly seized her spirit. Later on it's revealed that Lenore was never dead, but grew tired of her husband's leadenly paced lifestyle, preferring the more adventurous frivolities of Scarabus. Bedlo was in with the devious duo to lure Craven there so Scarabus could learn the secrets of his magic. Even still, Bedlo somewhat redeems himself by the conclusion prior to the battle of the wizards.

Peter Lorre is the supreme cartoonish caricature of lewd and outrageous behavior. He steals away so many scenes in THE RAVEN (1963). One of the funniest bits is when the group have entered into Scarabus's castle. Once Scarabus has eased Craven's mind on his supposed intentions, he invites them all to a feast. Of course, this prompts Bedlo to drink himself into a drunken fit again challenging Scarabus to a duel of magic. One of his tricks is the use of a small wand. When Scarabus uses his power of hand gesture to make the wand go limp, Bedlo utters disappointingly, "Oh, you dirty old man...!"

Another of the best scenes occurs earlier in the film when the group are preparing to leave. As Craven opens the door, Bedlo's son Rexford (played by Jack Nicholson) is standing ready to knock. Bedlo is noticeably annoyed that his son has followed him there. Rexford says his mother has sent him to fetch his dad. While he explains, he begins touching and grabbing at Bedlo's coat. Bedlo smacks his hand away but Rexford continues. Bedlo has finally had enough and yells, "If you do that once more Rexford, I shall smash you right in the face!!" Lorre's bugged out eyes and agitated demeanor add lots of hilarity to Corman's film.

Boris Karloff has a grand time mixing it up with Price and Lorre as he essays the role of the nasty Dr. Scarabus; the sorcerer with designs on Craven's skills. Karloff could barely walk while shooting the picture but he shows what a trouper he could be by trudging along never showing the real pain he was in. The following year, Price, Lorre and Karloff would re-team for THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, another humorous entry albeit with a more darkly comical tone than the child-like, cartoon indulgence of THE RAVEN (1963). In that film, Karloff was relegated to a wheelchair for all his scenes. After THE RAVEN finished, Corman retained the services of Karloff and Nicholson for the odd little film, THE TERROR (1963), a film which Nicholson handled some of the directing.

The score by Les Baxter is a perfect balance between the light horror elements and the drollness of the film accompanied by the witty exchanges from Lorre. The finale featuring the duel of the sorcerer's is possibly the biggest highlight of THE RAVEN (1963). A sequence that literally brings the house down. From beams of light, to animated knives and axes, to levitation and turning an array of stone lions into a passel of puppies, this contest of magic wit is one of the best moments in all of Corman's Poe ventures.

Previously available in a terribly washed out VHS tape from Warner Brothers, MGM brought THE RAVEN (1963) to dvd a couple of years ago paired with the similar in tone, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (1964) as part of the Midnite Movies double feature line. It looks even better and just as colorful as when I first saw it on the Late Show in the early 1980's, a time when monster movies dominated the weekend airwaves.

One of Roger Corman's favorites of his films, all the stars were aligned for this one. One of the best examples of the horror comedy, the film contains all the best elements that made Corman's prior Poe outings such a success-- musty dungeons and dank crypts, a big, spooky castle, moldy corpses and three of the greatest stars of horror ever to grace the screen. Adding to this recipe, a light-hearted flavor and colorful set decoration for a film that, despite not having any real monsters, is a sure-fire attraction for monster movie lovers both young and old.

This review is representative of the MGM Midnite Movies Double Feature DVD.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Romulus & Remus (1961) review


Steve Reeves (Romulus), Gordon Scott (Remus), Franco Volpi (Amulias), Virna Lisi (Julia), Andrea Bosic (Faustalus), Laura Solari (Rea Silvia), Massimo Girroti (Tasius Nemulias), Jacques Sernas (Cursias), Ornella Vanoni (Tarpea), Piero Lulli (Sulpicius), Giovanni Cianfriglia

Contributing Writers: Sergio Corbucci, Luciano Martino, Sergio Leone, Duccio Tessari; Cinematography by Enzo Barboni; Music by Piero Piccioni

Directed by Sergio Corbucci

Born of a God and a mortal, two babies are abandoned to a river. Nurtured by a wolf, they are later recovered by a sheperd. They grow up to lead a band of thieves in an effort to eliminate two cruel Kings-- Amulias and Nemulias, the King of the Sabines. After 20 years, the two twins are briefly reunited with their mother. Before she dies, she tells her sons that they are destined to be the founders of a great city.

Later after having fallen in love with the daughter of Nemulias, Romulus is unaware of his brothers ambitions as Remus steadily succumbs to the temptations of power and greed. King Tasius pursues the brothers and their followers both to retrieve his daughter as well as avenge the destruction of his city of Abalonga. Soon, a rift develops between the two siblings leading to a death duel between both sons of the Gods to determine the true founder of Rome.

Gordon Scott, Andrea Bosic, Steve Reeves

A fine directorial effort by spaghetti western master filmmaker Sergio Corbucci. A great number of Italian technicians worked on this picture including Sergio Leone. Both Sergio's careers parallel each other (in Italy anyway). Both Sergio's worked as AD's on THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (1959) which led to Leone directing THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES (1961) and Corbucci handling ROMULUS & REMUS (1961). Corbucci also had a hand in MACISTE AGAINST THE VAMPIRES (1961; aka GOLIATH & THE VAMPIRES) co-directed with Giacomo Gentilomo.

While it's one of the finest sword & sandal movies, ROMULUS & REMUS (1961) bears none of the marks of Corbucci's later career (although the extreme violence inherent in his westerns is foreshadowed here), but the film is directed with great care along with a fine script and memorable performances by everyone.

Steve Reeves puts in possibly his best acting gig as the gentle and kind hearted Romulus. He chooses to think his way out of a fight and save those around him as opposed to his brother, who cares only for his own personal gain and glory. Reeves doesn't do any superhuman feats but flexes his acting muscle as does Gordon Scott as the supercilious Remus.

Corbucci carefully builds these two characters to the breaking point till avarice and sovereignty totally consumes Remus. Even at this point, Romulus doesn't want to fight his brother only when it is obvious that the two must duel does he take up arms against him. In death, Remus realizes his mistake but finds content in the notion that it was destined from the beginning.

Destiny and fate play an important role in this movie. After Remus defies the Gods by crossing the shorter route to the prophesized city of glory, he and his followers must traverse an unstable volcano. Inevitably, the volcano erupts splitting the mountain in two sending everyone to their doom save for a badly injured Remus and Tarpea, the woman who loves him. As she prays for the Gods to save him, the Sabines arrive with the intentions of killing both of them. Tarpea gives the information to Tasius as to the location of his daughter.

He gives his word to spare them should she speak where Romulus and the others are. When she does, the easily riled Cursias adamantly disapproves of letting them go free. King Tasius responds, "That man has his have all of us." The Sabines are, surprisingly, not the real villains here, but Remus, who eventually becomes overpowered by his ambitions to rule a city; a city by which he is willing to sacrifice all for his own gain. At the end, the Sabines join forces with Romulus and it is here that Remus appears and attempts to kill his brother to rule what is to become Rome.

Piero Lulli (right)

Frequent Spaghetti Western villain Piero Lulli plays a rare good guy role and gets more screen time than another heroic peplum role in THE TRIUMPH OF HERCULES (1964). Steve Reeve's stunt double, Giovanni Cianfriglia also plays a small role in the film attempting to have his way with the beautiful Julia until Romulus intervenes and let's his fist explain that the lady isn't interested.

In what is essentially a chase movie in a Roman setting, Corbucci keeps the action moving at a smooth pace perfectly balancing the plot, characterization and the action sequences never allowing the film time to become tiresome. It would be interesting to learn if there were any conflicts on set between both Reeves and Scott but they work well together and both play vastly more interesting personalities than their usual brawny types. The character of Remus being the more interesting and complex of the two, Reeves (of course) gets top billing as the kinder, more cautious Romulus. However, both get equal screen time. Gordon Scott was a better actor than Reeves and would appear to have been more agile in his action scenes.

With such an awesome pedigree both behind and in front of the camera, Corbucci's famous entry in the Sword & Sandal sweepstakes is one of the greatest the genre has to offer. I'd definitely rate this as one of Corbucci's best films and worthy of a wider audience. Fans familiar with his more well known Italian westerns should seek out this film to see what Sergio Corbucci was capable of outside of the habitual western setting he was most commonly associated with.

This review is representative of the German DVD which has English options.

DVD Availability: Koch Media (R2)

Goliath & the Barbarians (1959) review


Steve Reeves (Emiliano/Goliath), Chelo Alonso (Landa), Livio Lorenzon (Igor), Arturo Dominici (Seyvo), Andrea Checci (Delfo), Bruce Cabot (Arboina)

Directed by Carlo Campogalliani

In 568 AD, bloodthirsty barbarians invade Barona slaughtering everyone in their path. A band of survivors, led by Emiliano, flee into the nearby forests. There, Emiliano swears vengeance for the brutal death of his father at the hands of the barbarians. Proving himself to be an almost invincible adversary, the barbarian hordes name him the 'Goliath'. A brutal struggle ensues to drive the invaders from the lands of Barona and the surrounding provinces. Eventually, Emiliano learns that Igor, the leader of the brutes, is the man responsible for murdering his father. The 'Goliath' dispenses merciless retribution to all those who would harm him and his people.

One of the best peplum/fusto movies as well as being the best Steve Reeves picture I've yet seen. A stunning adventure filled with action, intrigue, blood, violence and gorgeous women. Reeves name here is Emiliano but is called Goliath on occasion as well as THE Goliath by the brutes. He does perform a number of super human feats of strength throughout that are probably symbolic of his burning desire to kill the barbarians as opposed to portraying a God or demi-god of some kind. Possibly the Italian dub would reveal more.

Reeves isn't the best actor obviously, but he's intimidating and possesses a lot of charisma and this is the best film performance I've seen him in aside from his wonderful portrayal of the pirate, Sandokan, in the first two SANDOKAN movies. When Reeves swears to kill the invaders, he carries out his vengeance initially dressed up wearing some fur claws and a sort of furry tiger mask. He watches the neighboring villages and when the savages come, he attacks them saving the innocent people.

The word spreads among the hordes that a Goliath is loose who "roars like a lion", killing many with great strength. Emiliano soon does away with this costume and is later captured in the wilderness whilst chopping up logs. Reeves gets ample opportunity to show off his muscular attributes which will please female fans of these films. It's a shame the women couldn't reveal as much skin as the men in the peplums. Reeves also has a good chemistry with his stunningly sensual co-star mentioned below.

The striking beauty, Chelo Alonso, plays the fiery Landa, the daughter of Delfo, the leader of the hordes under the command of Alboina. She is lusted after by Igor, the leader of the barbarians who wishes to eliminate Delfo and take his daughter without reprisal. Landa will have nothing to do with him, but after being thrown from her horse, Emiliano saves her, and of course, you know what happens next. He doesn't want anything to do with her because of her relation to the enemy and even threatens to kill her should she return.

Emiliano eventually falls for her, too, and this adds another element to the storyline concurrent with the revenge theme. Alonso has a dynamite body and she gets to show it off, albeit teasingly, in two VERY suggestive dance scenes. Even if you're not a peplum fan, just seeing her sexy figure promenade about is enough reason to tune in.

Aturo Dominici plays a supporting role as Seyvo, one of Igor's subordinates. He gets to display a good amount of villainy before his exit during the final moments although I would have preferred he met a more dramatic fate than the one he gets. Dominici was made for villain roles with his devilish features and put them to good use in HERCULES (1957), PERSEUS, THE INVINCIBLE (1963), HERCULES AGAINST MOLOCH (1963), HERCULES & THE MASKED RIDER (1964) and one of the most famous Italo horrors ever, Bava's MASK OF SATAN (1959).

After Emiliano is captured by Seyvo, he is accused of being the Goliath and is to be put to death. Landa intervenes and her father agrees to free him per their rules that if he can survive two torturous tests, he will be set free. Of course, releasing the threat to the barbarians success of conquest enrages Seyvo further giving weight to the notion that Delfo won't make it to the final credit crawl. The tests involve spears thrown into a wooden board. Emiliano is then pulled with ropes by other men to try and impale him onto the spearheads.

When it seems two men can't do it, about a dozen of them try at the same time. After passing this test, his arms are tied to two horses which are supposed to rip his arms from their sockets. Emiliano passes this one, too. He is freed much to the chagrin of Seyvo and Igor. This leads to an interesting plot point which isn't explored for very long.

After he earns his freedom, Emiliano's people begin to suspect him since he is in love with the daughter of their enemy. He now seems reluctant to wage war against them. One of his people points this out to him and when Landa meets him in the woods one day he tells her he doesn't want to see her anymore but this is only temporary. Perhaps if the film were longer than 83 minutes this bit could have earned some more dramatic miles.

The level of violence in this film is very high for a movie of this type in 1959. There are some brief bits of brutality throughout but the scenes of vehemence hits a high note during the last 15 minutes just after Emiliano and his men ambush an escort of the sacred crown of Arboina led by Seyvo. The good guys kill most of the barbarians and steal the crown but seyvo escapes. In retaliation, Igor orders seyvo and his brutes to burn and kill everyone in the subjugated villages until the crown is returned.

Here, you see a man trampled by a horse. It's a dummy, but you see the act. This is followed by an axe to the face, children killed, people tied to stakes and impaled with spears affixed to wagons, a guy burned in the face with a hot branding iron, a guy burned alive tied to a cross, people herded together and shot down with arrows and victims tied to the ground and passing horsemen throw spears into their bodies. It's not Fulci level violence, but it is shocking to see such things in movies like this.

After this ferocious village massacre, Emiliano goes to the barbarian fort to give conditions on the return of the sacred crown-- The release and freedom of the villagers in exchange for the crown. The plan doesn't go quite as expected and the stage is set for a huge battle inside the fort. Emiliano learns that Igor is the man who killed his father as he wears his father's necklace. The manner in which Reeves kills Igor is a bit of an eye opener as it is as savage as a number of the brutish acts committed by the barbarians.

Directed with an assured hand by Carlo Campogalliani, he also directed SON OF SAMSON (1960) starring fusto favorite Mark Forest and Chelo Alonso again. A young Terence Hill also stars. Campogalliani also directed URSUS (1961), the first film in a series of at least nine entries this one starring Ed Fury who would appear in at least two more URSUS films.

A classy peplum/fusto actioner with some very nice studio sets as well as some beautiful shots of the countryside. It's a shame that there aren't more quality releases of these movies but there's hope for the future. This is the Wild East release paired with GOLIATH AGAINST THE VAMPIRES (1961). This release is a port of the Spanish Warner Bros. release which has English options. A very good and frequently exciting Italian muscleman movie that's an awful lot of fun and is one of the best I've ever seen and is highly recommended for any Reeves fan and that gorgeous Chiquita, Chelo Alonso.

DVD availability: Warner Home Video (R2); Wild East (R1)

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