October 2015


THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK Universal, 1946. Gale Sondergaard, Benda Joyce, Kirby Grant, Rondo Hatton. Written by Eric Taylor. Directed by Arthur Lubin.

   A relic from the declining days of Universal’s Horror cycle, when they seemed to be making monster movies more from force of habit than anything else, this combines elements from their Sherlock Holmes series to little effect.

   The Spider Woman first appeared, fittingly enough, in The Spider Woman (Universal, 1944), pitted against Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in a rather convoluted scheme whereby she gets men to sign over insurance policies to her cohorts, then drives them to suicide by having a pygmy (Angelo Rossito in blackface!) plant a poisonous spider in their bedrooms, and if that sounds a bit byzantine to you, just wait and see what she hatched for Strikes Back.

   Her minion here is played by Rondo Hatton, the legendary non-actor who first came to prominence in another Holmes film from ’44, The Pearl of Death, and in those days when Universal was crowding its monsters into things like House of Frankenstein/Dracula, it probably seemed like a sure bet to team him up with Sondergaard; too bad they couldn’t come up with some suitable deviltry for them to get into.

   Okay, so the story here is that Sondergaard lives in a creepy old house outside a farming community and she pretends to be blind so she can hire young girls as nurse/companions (the latest being Brenda Joyce, as the film opens) and slowly drain the blood out of them to feed to a poisonous plant, then have Rondo sneak out at night and feed some of the deadly vegetable to the livestock on nearby farms — you with me so far? Well the idea is that when the cattle die, the farmers will abandon their farms and then she can buy up the land at bargain prices.

   Oh, how the mighty are fallen. I mean back in the old days, Im-Ho-Tep was trying to revive his centuries-old beloved; Victor Frankenstein strove to create life, and the Invisible Man dreamed of World Domination. But all the Spider Woman can come up with is a Real Estate deal. The discerning critic can only say “Big Whoop,” and weep by the waters of Babylon.

   It doesn’t help either that this picayune plot unfolds at a near-imperceptible pace in a film remarkable only for the fact that no one really dies in it except (SPOILER ALERT!) the bad guys. The only casualties are cattle, leading me to wonder if this was in fact intended as a scary movie for cows.

   It certainly won’t do much for humans.

CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN. Columbia, 1955. Richard Denning, Angela Stevens, S. John Launer, Michael Granger, Gregory Gay, Linda Bennett, Tristram Coffin. Story & screenplay: Curt Siodmak. Director: Edward L. Cahn.

   This one starts right out in third gear as soon as the credits have been shown, with an obvious gangster being killed in his office — shown in silhouette his spine is being snapped by what’s apparently a dead man who has climbed through his window — and the story and the action never let up for the full run of the movie, some 70 minutes long.

   The next to die at the hands of one of these radio-controlled atomic-powered zombies (for that is what they are) is the District Attorney. What do the two victims, most definitely on opposite sides of the law, have in common? Will there be more? That’s the question that the head of the police laboratory, Dr. Chet Walker (Richard Denning), must answer, with the use of good logic and handy Geiger counters.

   One can easily forget that Denning did make a few movies of this type after being Mr. North for a while then becoming Mike Shayne for a while after that, finally ending up in the governor’s office on Hawaii Five-O. His youthful earnestness stood him in good stead in these 50s monster thrillers, I think, for those very reasons.

   This one was a lot of fun to watch, crisply filmed with solid plotting and lots of snappy action. A week later now, most of what I saw has started to disappear, noticeably so. Chinese food for the mind, I think.

EDWARD RONNS – State Department Murders. Gold Medal #117, paperback original, 1950. Reprinted several times including as by Edward S. Aarons, Gold Medal, paperback, 1970. Film: National Film Studios/United Artists, 1961, as Dead to the World.

   The year 1950 was a turning point in Ronns-Aarons’ career. In the 40s he wrote mysteries in hardcover for second- and third-rate publishing houses (McKay and Phoenix, respectively) but in 1950 he wrote five paperback originals, three for Gold Medal and two for Handi-Books, giving him a new start in life as far as his writing was concerned.

   This one is the second of three he did for Gold Medal that year. First was Million Dollar Murder (Gold Medal #110), which from the numbering must have come out only months before. Either he wrote very fast, or one or both (or all three) must have been finished or in the works when he found out about Gold Medal’s new line of paperback originals.

   This one is about Barney Cornell, a security officer assigned to the State Department who’s just faced a tough day of grilling before a congressional hearing and who’s about to be accused of being a traitor for selling secrets to the Russians.

   He’s innocent, of course, and as a last resort, he decides to confront the man who’s behind it all, one of those people in Washington who knows things about everyone who’d rather keep it hushed up. He’s ruined many lives in his career, and it’s no surprise that when Cornell reaches his mansion on the Maryland shore, he finds him dead.

   There’s no shortage of suspects, including Cornell, of course. As it happens, he’s been having an affair with the dead man’s wife. The affair is pretty much over, and to his surprise, it’s another young woman who comes to his assistance when he needs to make his escape from the house where the dead man lived.

   The end result is a fast-paced and well-described action thriller, but what it is, is a detective story, too — not one that will ever be remembered as one, though, since if you think about it all, I doubt that you’ll be surprised at all when the killer is revealed.

   And all the way through, I kept thinking that what I was reading might make for a pretty good movie as well. Come to find out, a movie was made of the book: one called Dead to the World. Copies of the film probably don’t exist any more, but I did find a photo of the poster. This was the only film made by National Film Studios, and with the totally unknown Reedy Talton playing Barney Cornell, I can imagine not a lot of money was spent in making it.

   Since the names of the characters were changed very little, though, it leads me to wonder if perhaps the story might not have been changed all that much from the book. It is hard to tell from the synopsis on the AFI page. They mistake the two women in Cornell’s life with the other, and they give away the name of killer, so viewer beware.

I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF. American International Pictures, 1957. Michael Landon, Yvonne Lime, Whit Bissell, Barney Phillips, Guy Williams. Director: Gene Fowler Jr.

   I watched this movie last week — available only on collector-to-collector DVD — and I deliberately put off writing this review until now. I might have seen this movie back when I was in high school, but if I did, I found only the first five or ten minutes to be even remotely familiar. After that I remembered only nothing.

   And I was disappointed. The movie made its makers millions of dollar on only pocket change, and it’s a cult classic right up there with the best of them. And I was disappointed. What’s all the fuss about, I wondered. The acting is straight out of high school drama productions, and the story is stalled in first gear for most of the first half.

   The special effects are OK — i.e., the werewolf costume — but no better than that, and the story simply that of high school rebellion, if not incipient juvenile delinquency, both themes that were very common in second-rung movie theaters and drive-in’s of the day.

   Maybe you had to have seen it back then, I thought, and there’s probably some truth to that.

   But here it is a week later, and many of the scenes are still with me, vividly so — flashes of the movie here and there, even the parts that I thought were slow and unwieldy. The sudden outbursts of anger on the part Michael Landon as Tony Rivers, the teenager of the title. The smugness of Whit Bissell, as the town psychiatrist who thinks that Tony will make a good subject for his experiments in regressing patients to the past by means of a serum he has developed. The innocence and unwavering crush on Tony by Yvonne Lime as his high school sweetheart. The matter of factness of Barney Phillips as the police detective who handles the case in solid nuts-and-bolts Dragnet-style.

   Filmed for peanuts and against all of the odds, the men and women who made this movie somehow managed to trap lightning in a jar. It took me a while, but now I’m convinced. This one’s a classic.

Bipolar is a small jazz ensemble consisting of Jed Feuer on trumpet and flugelhorn, Craig Swanson on piano, Stephanie Long on saxophones, flute and piccolo, David Ostrem on bass, and James Windsor-Wells on drums. “Euphrates, Me Jane” is the title track of what I believe is their only CD (2009). To me the group seems to have the knack of sounding as though twice as many people are playing at any one time than there really are.

Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

BLOODSUCKERS. Titan Film Distribution Ltd., UK, 1970, as Incense for the Damned. Chevron Pictures, US, 1971. Patrick MacNee, Peter Cushing, Alexander Davion, Patrick Mower, Johnny Sekka, Madeline Hinde, Edward Woodward, and Imogen Hassall as Chriseis. Screenplay by Julian Hoare, based on the novel Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven. Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis as Michael Burrowes.

   Before you get excited about that cast and the bona fides of this film know going in, it is, by any definition, a bomb.

   Brilliant Oxford don Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) is missing in Greece, upsetting his friends back at Oxford including the man who expects him to fill his chair, Peter Cushing. Tony Seymour (Alexander Davion), a fellow friend and former student has arrived asked by the Foreign Office to look into Fountain’s case since there are hints of some trouble in Greece. Along with Penelope (Madeline Hinde) Richard’s fiance and friend and student Bob (Johnny Sekka) Seymour sets out for Greece where he enlists Major Longbow (Patrick MacNee) in the search.

   It soon turns out Fountain has gotten in with a fast and nasty set, in particular a silent beauty named Chriseis (Imogen Hinde) and there are a string of bodies in their wake — victims of a vampire. His friends rescue Fountain and return him to England but after consulting an expert on vampire cults (Edward Woodward) realize too late that Fountain himself is infected.

   This troubled film was rejected by everyone involved with it, not the least Simon Raven, the brilliant gadfly of low behavior among the upperclasses who wrote the novel it was based on. Raven, best known for the Alms for Oblivion and First Born of Egypt sequences of novels (and a co-author credit on one of the Bond films) following a group of less than noble nobility and upper class types across British society in the post war 20th Century, often wrote borderline genre fiction including the thriller Brother Cain, and the mystery novel Feathers of Death. Doctors Wear Scarlet (the title refers to the robes worn by those at Oxford with a doctorate), a psychosexual vampire novel, was his most successful blend of his subject and genre fiction, a genuine classic among admirers of vampire fiction (chosen one of the 100 Best), and well worth reading for lovers of the form.

   Raven’s brand of razor wit, bitchiness, suggested perversion (and actual perversion), the ruthless immorality of the upperclasses, suspense, intrigue, low humor, and gossip is never even suggested here, the best the film manages being a vague suggestion of bi-sexuality which at least was true to the novel. What Raven’s novels brilliantly serve cold and bitter this film doles out in overheated attempts at perversion that, for all the nudity, look like a Mid-Western high school drama class attempt at a production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer.

   Cushing and MacNee do the best they can with guest star roles, but you have to wonder if MacNee was relieved mid-picture when his character plunges to his death at the end of the Greek segment. Woodward has the ungrateful role of explaining Raven’s very sexual take on vampirism (a metaphor for sex to begin with, or at least venereal disease in Stoker) in some attempt to bring reason to this mess of a film.

   The title has it half right. This film sucks.


D. SCOTT-MONCRIEFF – Not for the Squeamish. Story collection. Background Book Ltd., UK, paperback, 1948.

   I can’t find out much about D. Scott-Moncrieff except that it was a pen name for one William Hardy, and not the Scott Moncrieff who translated Proust. Nor can I discover the origin of the stories that appear in this book. They have the look of having appeared in the British equivalent of pulp magazines, but I can find no reference to them.

   Whatever their origin, the nine stories in Not for the Squeamish are in the classic Weird Tales style, tight and chilling narratives of “cannibalism, vampires, a leper island… robots and a twentieth century auto da fé” to quote the blurb, with sundry demons and voodoo curses thrown in for gratuitous thrills.

   Scott-Moncrieff deals all this out with a certain amount of style as well. For example, when recounting the excesses of a zealous Nazi SS officer, he mentions, “…a long love poem, written on a large piece of human skin, removed from a prisoner’s back for that purpose. One of our corporals whose German is perfect says that it was very bad poetry and a lot of it was lifted bodily from Schiller.”

   I should perhaps fess up to a certain cruelty of my own because a little more research has shown that Squeamish is not an easy book to find, nor a cheap one to acquire. I picked up mine in a grubby used-book store / porno shoppe back in the 1970s, when they were still selling things like this on the cheap-o table, and only after I’d passed it up for several visits.

   Whatever the case, I’m glad I got it, happier still that I finally read it, and urge you to do the same should you be so lucky or so rich.

JOHN PENN – Mortal Term. Bantam, US, paperback, September 1986. First published in the US by Charles Scribner’s Sons, hardcover, April 1985. Previously published in the UK by Collins Crime Club, hardcover, 1984.

    “John Penn” was the joint pen name of Paula Harcourt and John H. Trotman. Under this byline they wrote some 20 mysteries: two stand-alones, then six with Inspector George Thorne before they switched to 12 with Chief Inspector Dick Tansey. This one is second of the Thorne books.

    This one barely passed the 50 page test (some don’t pass the 10 pages test), but although the crime seemed very minor, Penn seemed to have a good grasp of the characters they were writing about, so I kept reading, thinking that with characters that had kept me reading this far would eventually work themselves into a more serious situation — murder, presumably — in which character would be as important to the solution as the clues.

    It’s hard to say whether that’s true or not, and I shall attempt to explain why. It’s the headmaster of a British coed boarding school who’s in trouble throughout this one. In Part One, he’s caught (seemingly) trying to molest a young girl he picked up hitchhiking along the road. Part Two consists of all kinds of things that had gone wrong during the previous school term: his new wife accidentally kills a young boy in a motor accident; two older boys apparently give a younger one some pot that made him very ill; and a young girl tries to rid herself of a pregnancy she doesn’t want anyone to know about.

    Part Three is where Inspector Thorne finally makes an appearance, 96 pages into the book, just over half way through. Strangely enough it’s the case of child molestation he’s been given, but eventually murder is indeed done. Aha, at last, I thought.

    Alas, there is neither good detective work done, nor even fair play. All the good characterization in the world will not make up for Thorne stating as fact on page 175 something that was never even hinted at before. Pfui. Not a complete waste of time but almost.

HEAT OF ANGER. CBS-TV, 3 March 1972; 90m. Pilot for a proposed series to be called Fitzgerald and Pride. Susan Hayward (Jessie Fitzgerald), James Stacy (Gus Pride), Lee J. Cobb, Fritz Weaver, Bettye Ackerman, Jennifer Penny, Tyne Daly. Teleplay: Fay Kanin. Director: Don Taylor.

   In this better than average made-for-TV movie, Susan Hayward, her movie career well behind her, plays a high-powered defense attorney who is paired up with James Stacy, whose role is that of a young struggling former public prosecutor now trying to make a go of it on his own in small office on the lower levels of the building Jessie Fitzgerald owns.

   Their client is the owner of a large construction company who is accused of pushing a worker off the top of a tall work in progress. Motive? The young man (married) was having a fling with his estranged daughter.

   From what I’m told, Barbara Stanwyck was intended to have the leading role, but when she came down with kidney problems, Susan Hayward was given the part instead. There doesn’t seem to be any real chemistry between her and her co-star James Stacy, however, and there really was never any real reason the two of them should be working the same case together.

   Nor is this a case where detective work comes to play. It’s more of pop psychology sort of case: the dead man had spent his life pushing himself to every kind of limit he could find, and this is time that he kept the cherry bomb in his hand too long.

   But most of the cast have names you will recognize, and they surely didn’t get their reputation for turning in bad performances, nor do they here. While totally forgotten, I’m sure, it’s an entertaining movie, and if given the go-ahead, it might have lasted a season, probably not more.

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