Blu-ray: James Whale’s ‘The Old Dark House’

James Whale followed up his iconic horror classic Frankenstein (1931) with the strange, sly, and sardonic The Old Dark House (1932), part haunted house terror and part spoof executed with baroque style.

Cohen Film Collection

Boris Karloff (fresh from his star-making turn in Frankenstein) takes top billing in the supporting role of Morgan, the scarred, mute butler with a penchant for drink and a vicious mean streak, but the film is really an ensemble piece. Melvin Douglas is the wisecracking romantic lead caught in a raging thunderstorm in the Welsh mountains with bickering couple and traveling companions Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart. They take refuge in the creepy old manor of the title, lorded over by the gloriously flamboyant Ernest Thesiger and his dotty, fanatical sister Eva Moore, when a landslide wipes out the goat-trail of a mountain road, and are later joined by more stranded passengers: a hearty Charles Laughton, whose Lancashire working class accent and blunt manners sets him apart from the social graces of his companions, and his “friend” Lillian Bond, a chorus girl with a chirpy sunniness in the gloomy situation.

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‘The Criminal Code’ on TCM

The Criminal Code (1931) refers to the unwritten law of prison: a convict never rats out a fellow convict. They have their own rules of justice behind bars. It’s both the title and the defining premise of a 1929 Broadway drama, a socially-relevant play that makes a case of prison reform, and it became an accepted convention for all subsequent prison films.

Harry Cohn bought the play for Columbia, a small studio that competed with the major Hollywood players with its relatively meager resources. Columbia didn’t have a stable of bankable stars under contract or the money for a big slate of expensive pictures but Cohn had big ambitions and he produced a couple of major pictures every year, usually with talent hired from other studios on a per-picture basis. He signed up-and-coming Howard Hawks for a picture and he offered him the project. “It had a great first two acts, then a bad third act,” explained Hawks to Peter Bogdanovich, and he brought in screenwriter Seton I. Miller (who had scripted the 1928 A Girl in Every Port and Hawks’ 1930 sound debut The Dawn Patrol) to rework the drafts penned by the original playwright, Martin Flavin. Hawks didn’t like sentiment in his films and had Miller play against the overtly sentimental scenes with brusque dialogue, a kind of tough-guy shorthand that acknowledges the emotion without making a show of it.

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Plays on TCM on Thursday, July 17

This One is a Thriller

Thriller: The Complete Series (Image)

“As sure as my name is Boris Karloff, this is a thriller.” Hosted by Boris Karloff (who plays it straight with theatrical flourish grounded in easy-going dignity and knowing humor), this television horror anthology of the early 1960s began as an awkward mix of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Naked City, favoring psychological dramas and crime stories over tales of terror.

"As sure as my name is Boris Karloff..."

“The Twisted Image,” the first episode of the series, is in fact a pretty interesting (if a little outré) piece of genre TV, with Leslie Nielsen bringing a touch of smarmy arrogance to his role as a business executive and family man picked out by an obsessive young woman (Natalie Trundy) with piercing eyes and delusions of a relationship. As she transforms from nuisance to would-be homewrecker hounding his wife with phone call confessions, the tale gets tangled in the parallel story of a mailroom employee (George Grizzard) who is equally disconnected from reality as he passes himself off as Nielsen’s character. As a thriller it’s a bit clumsy and overworked and the climax can’t really sell the concept, but as a portrait of early sixties social culture twisted up by suspicion and psychosis it’s downright fascinating.

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DVDs for 10-13-09 – Macaroni Combat, Rollercoaster Horror and Ozsploitation

Look on the back of the case of Eagles Over London (Severin) and you’ll see this Italian World War II action adventure identified as a “Macaroni Combat.” This rather clumsy moniker is a recently coined phrase in the “spaghetti western” vein but hardly expressive of this military caper thriller from Italian genre specialist Enzo Castellari (of the original The Inglorious Bastards fame). The plot is quite clever: a squad of Germans don British uniforms and identities and infiltrate Britain through the chaos of the evacuation of Dunkirk, while a British Lt. (a colorless Frederick Stafford with a thick European accent) stumbles upon the plot and tries to track them through London before they can execute their missions. Castellari is not an elegant director, but then that’s not what makes a World War II adventure like this work. Made in the shadow of The Dirty Dozen and The Battle of Britain, this film straddles both genres, delivering impressive spectacle—from the evacuation of Dunkirk (shot on the coast of Spain) to the air combat of the Battle of Britain (largely shot on soundstage in Rome)—and espionage action. There’s a lot  of dubbing (most of the Italians are replaced on the soundtrack) and a cacophony of unlikely accents (the aforementioned Stafford, whose accent is justified by his Hungarian origins, and Van Johnson as a British Air Marshall right out of middle America), but it’s still quite entertaining, like an energetic B-movie with a lavish budget (you can see the money poured into the Dunkirk scenes, with its epic vistas filled with extras and a strafing run by a German fighter) and energetic direction.

Eagles Over London
The Germans in London in "Eagles Over London"

Originally titled La battaglia d’Inghilterra (“The Battle of Britain”) and also known as Battle Squadron, this film never received an official American release according to Quentin Tarantino (a big fan of the film and of Castellari’s oeuvre). Severin took a cue from QT to give the film its American DVD and Blu-ray debut and they got Tarantino to participate in the extras: a 14-minute interview with director Enzo G. Castellari (the discuss the film and the oddities of the Italian movie industry of the time) and an appearance hosting a rare film screening in L.A. with Castellari, gushing on stage while a woozy handheld video camera records the occasion. Also features a brief deleted scene with the German High Command discussing the invastion (in German with English subtitles).

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