Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

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John Carpenter had always wanted to make a western.  He’d loved them since he was a child, growing up watching the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks.  In fact, it was his love of westerns that made him want to be a filmmaker.  The first film that he had worked on that received a theatrical release, the short film “The Resurrection of Broncho Billy,” was a sort of modern-day fantasy western.  But by the mid-‘70s, he knew that westerns had lost most of their box-office appeal, and he also knew that making westerns entailed dealing with the inherent problems (such as cleaning up after horses) that went with them.  No, making a western in the classic style wasn’t an option for John Carpenter.

After the cult success of his student-film-turned-feature Dark Star, Carpenter decided to do a budget-friendly modern update of one of his favorite films, Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, as his next project.  He wrote the film quickly, titling the script The Anderson Alamo.  In the script, Anderson is a Los Angeles ghetto that has a gang problem.  After the police kill some of the Street Thunder gang’s members, the gang’s leaders decide to declare war on the police.  At the same time, one of the police precincts in Anderson is in the process of moving to a new building and is operating with a skeleton crew for its last night in its current location.  There’s also a bus ferrying some inmates from one prison to another, but when one of the inmates gets ill, they have to make a stop at the nearest precinct, which just happens to be the one closing down.  And in one more plot strand, a father and his young daughter get lost in Anderson while on an errand. After the father ends up killing one of the gang leaders, he heads to the nearest police station for protection, and, of course, it’s that very same precinct. 

These plot machinations may sound terribly contrived, but Carpenter pulls them off beautifully in the film, keeping things moving at a rapid clip so that the audience doesn’t have time to question the plot details.  By the midway point of the movie, all of the main characters are inside the police building, the gang shows up, and the siege of the precinct begins. 

One of the strongest aspects of Assault on Precinct 13 is its cast.  Darwin Joston, who plays Napoleon Wilson, one of the inmates on the bus which had to stop at the police station, was a neighbor of John Carpenter.  In fact, Carpenter wrote the role with Joston in mind for it.  Joston didn’t make many features, but most of them are psychotronic in nature.  If I’m remembering the story correctly, Joston was in an acting workshop with Austin Stoker, who plays Lt. Ethan Bishop, and he was responsible for introducing Stoker to John Carpenter.  Austin Stoker is also no stranger to the Psychotronic Encyclopedia, having starred or been featured in Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Horror High, and Abby before appearing in Assault on Precinct 13.  He and Joston later went on to be in 1982’s Time Walker together.  Nancy Loomis and Charles Cyphers show up in the cast (as they did in Carpenter’s next film), and Henry Brandon, Scar in John Ford’s The Searchers, puts in a cameo appearance as a police station desk clerk.

If you’re looking for them, the Howard Hawks influences can be seen everywhere in the film, from Napoleon Wilson’s asking everyone he meets for a cigarette, to one of the characters being named Leigh after one of Hawks’s favorite writers, Leigh Brackett (Carpenter took this one step further in Halloween, when he named Charles Cypher’s character Sherriff Leigh Bracket.), to Carpenter crediting the editing of the film (which he did himself) to “John T. Chance,” which was John Wayne’s character’s name in Rio Bravo.  However, the film also shows other influences, recalling films as disparate as Night of the Living Dead and Once Upon a Time in the West.

Carpenter also composed and performed the score for Assault on Precinct 13, something that he’s done on the majority of his films.  It’s another one of his minimalist scores, with a very distinctive synthesizer riff that was based on both the score to Dirty Harry and Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”  It WILL get stuck in your head, so be prepared for the earworminess of it.  Check it out:

Assault on Precinct 13 was released to an indifferent American public in 1976, playing inner-city grindhouses and drive-ins.  It made practically no splash at all here in the States; however, it fared much better in England.  Carpenter was so thankful to its British distributor, Michael Myers, for making the film a success there that he named the killer in Halloween after him.  Another happy coincidence that occurred due to the film’s British release is that Donald Pleasance, who played the iconic Dr. Loomis role in Halloween, took that job because his daughter had seen Assault on Precinct 13 in London and had loved it. 

If you’ve seen the film, you may have noticed that I’ve not discussed what is perhaps the film’s most infamous scene.  I’ve done this on purpose; if you’ve never seen Assault on Precinct 13, do yourself a favor and avoid searching for info about the film until after you’ve seen it.  If you HAVE seen the film, however, know that the film was going to be given an X rating if that scene wasn’t taken out; however, the film’s distributor took the scene out of the rating board’s print to secure its R rating, but kept it in all of the release prints.  It’s still pretty shocking, all these years and thousands of movies later.  

Oh, just one more thing.  If you watch the film closely, you’ll discover that the building that’s under siege has signage that refers to it as Precinct 14, not Precinct 13.  However, the film’s distributor thought that thirteen was a much more dangerous-sounding number than fourteen, and so the title was changed.  No matter what it’s called or where it’s actually set, Assault on Precinct 13 is classic John Carpenter, and it’s worth seeing whether you’re familiar with his work or not.  If you’ve never seen a John Carpenter film (I realize that it’s unlikely, but these are strange times that we live in), this is a great place to start.  Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite to see it, again or for the first time:

Up next: Terror awaits…in the murky mists of outer space!

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The Asphyx (1972)

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In the mid-1870s, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens) spends his free time dabbling in the new-ish art of photography and meeting with the fellow members of the Psychical Research Society.  His two interests meet in some photographs that he and other members of the Psychical Research Society have taken of people at the moments of their deaths that show a dark smudge near each of their heads.  The conclusion that they reach is that these smudges are the souls of the people leaving their bodies. 

One day while Sir Hugo is taking movies of his bride-to-be and his adult children, an accident occurs that kills his fiancée and his eldest son.  While watching the film of the accident, he and his adopted son Giles (Robert Powell) notice the black smudge again…yet, in motion, it appears to be moving toward the victim, not away from him.  As luck would have it, a public hanging is announced, and Sir Hugo is asked to take photographs of it to help the efforts of a reform group dedicated to ending capital punishment.  As the condemned man is just about to be hung, Sir Hugo turns on his spotlight to light the scene, and a creature shows up in the circle of light.  The man is hung, but he doesn’t appear to die until Sir Hugo turns off his spotlight a few seconds later.   

Armed with photographic evidence of a what the ancient Greeks called an asphyx, or spirit of death, Sir Hugo and Giles embark upon a series of experiments to try to capture an asphyx.  They succeed in capturing the asphyx of a guinea pig and then realize that, if its spirit of death can’t get to it, the guinea pig can never die.  Of course, on the heels of that finding comes Sir Hugo’s realization that if he were able to capture his own asphyx, he could gain immortality. 

The Asphyx came out right at the end of the British gothic horror cycle that Hammer Films had kicked off fifteen years earlier.  Unfortunately, audience tastes had changed a lot by 1972, and there really wasn’t much of an audience for this type of picture.  It’s too bad that this film fell through the cracks, because it has a wonderful cast and looks sumptuous.  It was shot by Freddie Young in Todd-AO 35; Young had shot (and won Academy Awards for) David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter.  The lighting in the film, especially in Sir Hugo’s laboratory/darkroom, is especially gorgeous.  The David Lean connections don’t end with Young, however; director Peter Newbrook had been the second-unit director on Lawrence of Arabia (and camera operator on The Bridge on the River Kwai), and production designer John Stoll had been the art director on Lawrence of Arabia.  I cite all of this to show that The Asphyx wasn’t a backyard production made by what Stephen King refers to as “morons with cameras,” but was a well-mounted production populated with professionals of the highest caliber both in front of and behind the camera.

Of course, the only question that really matters is, “Is The Asphyx any good?”  I happen to like the film a lot, but then again, I’m awfully forgiving of a film’s errors if I feel that its creators were trying their best to make a quality product.  For instance, I can forgive the plot device of Sir Hugo having invented a movie camera a full twenty years before one actually appeared.  I can also forgive (but have a little more trouble doing it) that, in the footage of the accident that kills his son, Sir Hugo goes from a long shot to a close-up without moving the camera.  For the plot to work, for the film to show evidence of an asphyx approaching the doomed man, he HAD to be in close-up.  That slip-up bothers me much more than the movie camera being there to begin with, but, again, I can understand the rationale behind it.  Since I’ve wandered into things about the film that I don’t particularly cotton to, however, I should mention Robert Stephens’s old-age makeup at the very end of the film.  It’s atrocious.  There’s no other adjective for it; it looks more like a paper mâché mask than an actual person’s face.  But, again, as it’s only in the film for a brief sequence, I can let it slide. 

These quibbles aside, I think that The Asphyx is an exemplary horror film, if one that’s decidedly on the more cerebral end of the spectrum.  If you don’t have to have a murder by power tool every ten minutes in the horror films that you watch, you should check it out.  Here’s the trailer, courtesy of YouTube, to pique your interest:

If you want to watch the entire film, you’ve got two choices: the film was originally released in the US with a running time of 99 minutes, but in the UK it was released in a truncated version with a running time of 86 minutes.  All of the VHS releases in the US were the full, uncut feature, as was the first DVD release way back in 1997.  However, when the film came out on Blu-ray via Redemption/Kino Lorber, only the shorter version was offered in HD; the longer version was recreated using the shorter HD version with SD inserts from what looks like the 1997 DVD version.  I guess that the disc’s producers either couldn’t find a decent US release print to scan in HD to use to rebuild the longer version, or they didn’t have the money to do a proper HD scan and used the DVD as an easy way out.  Hopefully, one day we’ll get a fully-restored copy of the longer version of the film, but until then we have no choice but to make do with the compromised hybrid version of it on the Blu-ray.  If you’re not bothered by watching the shorter version, it’s on YouTube at the moment:

As always, I have to issue my warning about watching it as soon as possible on the chance that it’s forced to be taken down due to copyright infringement. 

Up next:  A white-hot night of hate!

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Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has just gotten married.  This fact, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so surprising, except that Mortimer is a bit of a New York City celebrity due to his being a popular drama critic and, in his words, a “symbol of bachelorhood.”  Not only is Mortimer a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor, he’s even written books (as in, more than one) decrying the practice of marriage, including one called Marriage, A Fraud and a Failure

Before they can go on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, he and his new bride Elaine (a quite-fetching Priscilla Lane) take a taxi to get her luggage from the house she shares with her father, the Reverend Dr. Harper.  A small cemetery separates her house from Mortimer’s family home, so while she retrieves her luggage, he goes inside to tell his elderly aunts Abby and Martha, who raised him, and his older brother Teddy, who thinks that he’s Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of the United States, that he’s just gotten married.  While there, he discovers the dead body of a man hidden in a window seat, and he further finds out that his dear, gentle aunts are responsible for poisoning the man.  (He tells them at one point, “You can’t do things like that…it’s not only against the law, but it’s wrong!”)  Of course, he comes unglued, thinking that they’ll all go to prison once the police find out, so he hatches a plan to have Teddy committed to the Happy Dale Sanitarium and then pinning the murders on him once he’s already been committed so that he won’t have to go to jail.  After Mortimer leaves the house to start the process of having Teddy committed, Mortimer’s other brother, Jonathan (who “used to cut worms in two—with his teeth”), shows up, with his cohort Dr. Einstein in tow.  And then everything spirals way, way out of control.

Arsenic and Old Lace started life as a Broadway play written by Joseph Kesselring.  It opened in 1941 and was an immediate hit.  Director Frank Capra, who had only a few years earlier directed the film version of another Broadway hit, You Can’t Take It with You (which won the 1938 “Best Picture” Oscar™), was brought on board to direct.  The play was adapted by Philip and Julius Epstein, who, along with Howard Koch, won an Academy Award for adapting another play, this one unproduced, that eventually became the film Casablanca

Since the play was doing boffo business, the producers of it put a clause in the contract with Warner Brothers that stated that the studio couldn’t release the film of the play until after the play had ended its Broadway run, due to fears that the film version would hurt their box office receipts.  Because of this, the film was held up after shooting for over two years until the play finally ended its run in 1944.

There was also another deal that was made that affected the film much more than pushing back its release date: the producers wanted to cast the play’s four main actors in the film version.  The play’s producers eventually relented and loaned Warner Brothers three of the four actors from the play for the eight weeks that the film was scheduled to shoot: Josephine Hull (who played Aunt Abby), Jean Adair (Aunt Martha), and John Alexander (Teddy).  The one cast member who was requested that didn’t join the film’s cast was Boris Karloff.  In both the play and the film, the character of Jonathan keeps getting upset that people say that he looks like Boris Karloff.  The play’s coup was getting Boris Karloff himself to play that part on stage.  Because he was a popular movie star, he was the big draw for audiences to go see the play.  Now, depending on which source of the story you believe, either the producers refused to let Karloff out of his contract for the eight weeks that filming would take because it would destroy their box-office receipts (and upsetting Karloff mightily with their decision in the process), OR Karloff declined to make the film because he was an investor in the play and didn’t want to harm the play’s profits.  Whichever version of the story is true, Karloff didn’t join the film’s cast; he was replaced by Raymond Massey.  The film wasn’t without a horror film star, however, as Peter Lorre, then under contract to Warner Brothers, played the role of Dr. Einstein. 

Reviews were great for the film when it was eventually released, but Cary Grant apparently never liked the film.  He felt that his performance was one of the worst that he’d ever given, and he put most of the blame on director Frank Capra, who he said kept urging him to play his reaction shots bigger.  I find Cary Grant’s mugging to be, for the most part, hysterically funny, but I understand that it may have the opposite effect on a lot of people.  If you don’t usually like Cary Grant, then this isn’t the film that’s going to change your mind. 

There are still plenty of things to like about the film, even if you’re not a Grant fan.  He gets perhaps the film’s best line (“Insanity runs in my family…it practically gallops!”), but, for me, the funniest moment in the film is the childhood picture of Jonathan that’s briefly shown.  It’s a pause button-worthy moment.

You can get a pretty good idea of exactly how over the top Grant is in the film by watching the trailer, courtesy of Warner Brothers and YouTube:

The entire film isn’t available to stream for free (as far as I can tell), but it can be rented or bought from the usual suspects—iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, etc.  If you’re curious to see how Boris Karloff played the role of Jonathan, there’s a 1962 TV adaptation of the play starring Karloff, Tony Randall, Mildred Natwick, and Tom Bosley that’s available on Amazon Prime for free if you’re a subscriber.  Here’s the link:

Up next: More than a myth…more than a maybe!

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Around the World Under the Sea (1966)

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The world is being rocked by ever-more-frequent earthquakes, so a bunch of scientists get together and design an early warning system for earthquakes which will give authorities time to evacuate damage zones before the earthquakes actually strike.  The early warning system is comprised of a series of interconnected deep-sea monitors that have to be anchored into the ocean floor at the deepest parts of the sea, which means that only a highly-skilled team of scientists will be able to go about the business of setting up the monitors.  Enter Drs. Doug Standish and Craig Mosby, who are hand-chosen by the Vice-President of the United States to lead the team to rig up the network.  Once they’ve added an additional three scientists and an engineer to their team, they set off to plant the monitors in a whirlwind thirty days of danger and excitement, including encounters with deadly giant moray eels, jealousy, underwater volcanos, chess games, treasure, and guinea pigs…all taking place around the world, under the sea.

Sheer escapist entertainment, Around the World Under the Sea is a good-looking film, even if it’s as shallow as a wading pool.  The colorful widescreen photography looks just dandy, and the film moves at such a pace that there’s little time to be bored before the next possible catastrophe looms.  So what if the science isn’t exactly accurate?  Most of the kids in the audience didn’t care—they were there for the underwater thrills.

The cast of the film is serviceable, if not exactly noteworthy, with several of them either starring in or just coming off fairly popular TV shows.  This is the third film featuring Lloyd Bridges that’s been discussed so far on this blog (after Airplane! and Apache Woman); he was no stranger to the ocean, having been the star of Sea Hunt (also produced by this film’s producer, Ivan Tors) several years earlier.  Brian Kelly was in the midst of starring in Flipper, another Ivan Tors television production, and had most recently been seen on the big screen in Flipper’s New Adventure.  Shirley Eaton, who had achieved icon status in Goldfinger a few years before, had also starred in Ivan Tors’s Rhino! that same year.  David McCallum, right smack in the middle of a four-year run as Illya Kuryakin, the Russian secret agent on the enormously popular TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., plays a German scientist who has a running chess game with Keenan Wynn, who was pretty much everywhere in the ‘60s (including his turn as Alonzo P. Hawk in The Absent Minded Professor).  Marshall Thompson, who was just starting his run in Ivan Tor’s series Daktari, is in there as well.

So you may be asking yourself…who IS this Ivan Tors?  Ivan Tors was a producer who started out in the early 1950s by making low-budget sci-fi films (such as The Magnetic Monster, Gog, and Riders to the Stars) before turning to producing a low-budget sci-fi TV show (Science Fiction Theater). He then set up shop in Florida and started making movies and (mostly) TV shows that were usually set on, in, or around the ocean, like the aforementioned Sea Hunt and Flipper.  He actually had a pretty fascinating career; if you’re so inclined, take a gander at this documentary about him from YouTube:

To further whet your appetite to see Around the World Under the Sea, here’s the trailer (or is it a sixty-second TV spot?) from YouTube:

There was also a soundtrack album released, for those of you who keep track of these things:

And, although I can’t embed it, here’s a pretty cool promotional film made by the Ivan Tors Studio around the time that Around the World Under the Sea was shooting to try to drum up outside business:

Alas, once again there’s no upload of the full feature anywhere that I can find on the Internet, although a DVD of the film can be purchased from the Warner Archive here.  I DID find this really cool silent footage of the effects house Projects Unlimited shooting some of the miniature submarine footage for Around the World Under the Sea, however, so maybe that’ll help make up for the lack of a full feature:

Up next: A Halloween tale of Brooklyn!

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Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)

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Along with Casablanca, Around the World in Eighty Days is one of only two Oscar ®-winners for Best Picture to garner a write-up in the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you should know that when an entry sticks out from the usual exploitation fare and seems to be an oddball choice for discussion, it’s usually because there’s a star involved with it who’s known primarily for his or her work in genre films.  That’s certainly the case with today’s film, as it features a cameo by…Peter Lorre.  As far as I can figure it, that’s why Around the World in Eighty Days is included in Weldon’s book.  I guess that one could also make a case for its inclusion because the source novel was written by Jules Verne, but if that were the case, In Search of the Castaways, Michael Strogoff, and a few others would also be included in the book…but they’re not.  So I’m sticking with my Peter Lorre assertion, which would be a great name for a band—The Peter Lorre Assertion—don’t you think?  But I digress.

I can’t believe that anyone reading this blog could be totally unaware of the plot of today’s film under discussion, especially since the whole plot, really, is right there in the title.  But for those of you who may have missed this film, or the version with Jackie Chan, or one of the animated adaptations, or even Michael Palin’s hugely entertaining BBC series in which he tried to duplicate the feat using only the types of transportation available in 1872, here’s the plot in fifty words or fewer:  In 1872, Mr. Phileas Fogg makes a £20,000 wager with some members of his gentlemen’s club that he can circumnavigate the globe in eighty days, and he and his manservant Passepartout spend the rest of the film attempting to win the bet.  Of course, they run into difficulties along the way; it wouldn’t be much fun if they just breezed through the trip, now would it?  The bet comes down to a race against the clock for Fogg to make it back to the gentlemen’s club exactly, to the minute, eighty days from when he left. 

You may be asking yourself, especially if you’re on the left side of The Pond, how much money IS £20,000, exactly?  Well, at the time that I’m writing this, it’s over $27,000, which is nothing to sneeze at.  Adjusted for inflation, however, it’s a good bit over half a million dollars.  Now THAT’s a wager. 

The film seems to be fairly faithful to the novel (which I’ll freely admit to never having read) if the online synopses of it that I checked are accurate.  And what a cast!  David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg, Cantinflas (we’ll get to him in a minute) plays Passepartout, Shirley MacLaine plays an Indian princess, and Robert Newton is the detective who’s following Fogg, as he believes that Fogg robbed a bank right before he set out on his trip.  I’m assuming that you know who David Niven and Shirley MacLaine are, but the other two names might be throwing you a bit. 

Cantinflas was, at the time of filming, one of the biggest comedy stars in the world, if not THE biggest.  Unless you were of Hispanic heritage, though, you may not have known who he was when the film came out.  Around the World in Eighty Days was his first American film, and almost his last.  He made one more English-language film, Pepe, a few years later, which tanked at the box office in spite of having almost as many cameo appearances by big Hollywood stars as Around the World in Eighty Days.  It was probably disappointing to him, but he went back to Mexico where he continued to be the country’s biggest star. 

Robert Newton was an English actor who had been a mainstay in British films for twenty years.  He played Long John Silver in Walt Disney’s Treasure Island in 1950, and Silver became a recurring character for him, as he also played the character in 1954’s Long John Silver and in a television series that was broadcast in 1956 and 1957, The Adventures of Long John Silver.  Newton died before Around the World in Eighty Days was released.

What many people who have seen the film tend to remember about Around the World in Eighty Days is the extensive list of actors who appear in cameo roles in the film.  According to the film’s promotional materials, there were forty-four stars who had cameos; without looking at the cast list, here are some of the actors that I recognized in the film: Peter Lorre, John Carradine, Marlene Dietrich, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, and Frank Sinatra.  There are lots more, obviously, and seeing if you can find them all is sort of like a really, really nerdy variation of Pokemon GO for old movie addicts. 

Michael Todd, the producer of Around the World in Eighty Days, was a Broadway producer who got the movie itch.  He was one of the founders of Cinerama, the curved-screen three-camera, three-projector process that was one of the earliest technical innovations to try to lure people away from their television sets in the 1950s.  He was never quite happy with the process, however, so he started a new company with American Optical, Todd-AO, which did essentially the same thing as Cinerama except with only one camera and one projector.  Some of the most popular “big” movies in Hollywood history were shot in Todd-AO, including Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music.  Speaking of Cleopatra, Michael Todd married that movie’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, in 1957, becoming her third husband (and she his third wife).  He is the only one of Taylor’s husbands that she didn’t divorce, as he died in a plane crash in 1958. 

As the late Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic movies, mentioned on the DVD release of the film, Michael Todd has the absolute best record as a producer in Hollywood.  Todd produced one film, which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  You just can’t get any better than that.  Around the World in Eighty Days is a hugely enjoyable film that seems much shorter than its three-hour running time, and I recommend it whole-heartedly. 

If you’d like to get a taste of what the film’s like before you spend three hours watching it, here’s the 1983 reissue trailer from YouTube:

Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem to be streaming for free anywhere on the Interwebs, but you can rent it from iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and the other usual places starting at $4 or so, and the digital file can be bought for $6 at most vendors.  Those aren’t bad prices for a three-hour trip around the world. 

Up next: A new height of adventure!

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Arnold (1973)

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At the start of today’s film up for discussion, a casket carried by four pallbearers is taken into the crypt of the Dwellyn family’s private cemetery.  Immediately afterwards, a woman dressed in a bridal gown and accompanied by two bridesmaids and two flower girls also goes into the crypt.  We soon learn that the woman, Karen, is there to marry Lord Arnold Dwellyn, the guy in the casket—the  DEAD guy in the casket.  There are several others in attendance at this bizarre wedding, including Arnold’s widow, Lady Jocelyn, his brother, Robbie, his lawyer and cousin, Douglas, and Douglas’s associate, Evan.  You see, Karen had been Arnold’s mistress, and his final wishes were to marry her after his death, since he couldn’t marry her during his life due to Jocelyn not granting him a divorce.  Understandably, Jocelyn is a bit put out at this bizarre turn of events, and she’s planning on suing to invalidate the marriage as soon as the will is read.  After the wedding, the family members and the lawyers gather for the reading of the will, and they’re joined by Arnold’s sister Hester, who couldn’t make it down from the manor house to the wedding. 

At the reading of the will, the lawyers don’t end up doing the talking; Arnold does.  He had the forethought to have a cassette player and speakers installed into his casket, so the lawyers pop in a cassette and out booms Arnold’s voice.  Arnold leaves most everything to Karen (including a small mountain of cash which has been squirreled away in a soon-to-be-disclosed location)…with one important caveat: she must keep Arnold with her, just as he is now, for as long as she lives.  Karen, however, along with Robbie, with whom she’s been having an affair behind Arnold’s back, immediately starts planning ways to get Arnold out of her life yet still keep the inheritance. 

What follows is a Ten Little Indians-inspired plot in which the people named in the will start dying off, one by one.  After each death, a new cassette with admonitions from Arnold arrives, explaining that the last death was deserved and urging that Karen keep up her end of the bargain.  But who’s doing the killing?  Has Arnold come back from the dead to avenge himself upon his greedy relatives?  And who’s looking out through the eyeholes of the paintings of Arnold that hang in almost every room of the manor?

Arnold sports a much-better cast than films of its type usually were able to pull together, including Stella Stevens as Karen, Roddy McDowell as Robbie, Elsa Lanchester as Hester, and Farley Granger, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Strangers on a Train, as Evan.  Even Jamie Farr, M*A*S*H’s cross-dressing Corporal Klinger, is on hand as the hook-handed, mute servant Dybbi.  Shani Wallis from Oliver! shows up as well as Jocelyn, and she sings the film’s annoyingly catchy theme song in a somewhat off-putting style, sounding rather like a Cockney Ethel Merman. 

Director Georg Fenady made only two theatrical films, this one and Terror in the Wax Museum, which came out earlier the same year that this one did.  The two films were shot back-to-back and shared several actors, and they were produced by the director’s brother, Andrew.  Andrew later went on to become a successful novelist; if you read a lot of westerns, you might have read one of his books.  Both Arnold and Terror in the Wax Museum were produced for Bing Crosby Productions (BCP), which had, a couple of years earlier, found great success in the horror genre with the killer rats movie Willard and its sequel, Ben.  Perhaps BCP was hoping for a repeat of the success of those films with the Fenady brothers’ films, but they came nowhere near rivaling the success of the rat pictures. 

I think that Arnold’s main weakness (which was even more pronounced in Terror in the Wax Museum) is that it’s a film that’s caught between two horror cycles.  Horror had been inching incrementally toward becoming more adult-oriented, with even mainstays like Hammer Films leaning increasingly on sex and violence to sell tickets.  Arnold seems to be dipping a toe into those waters, with Stella Stevens in various states of undress and some of the murders being a bit grisly, but it also traffics in the tired tropes of the “old dark house” movies and stars a geriatric-skewing cast.  At the time, Arnold was probably seen as neither fish nor fowl, and that probably contributed more than anything else to its tepid box office performance.  In 2020, it’s a moderately entertaining film, but its low budget and lack of more overt scares may put off some viewers.

The film does bear a slight resemblance to a later film, however; in 1981, Columbia released Happy Birthday to Me, an entry into the burgeoning slasher subgenre.  Its poster boasted of having “Six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see.”  Arnold’s murders are no less bizarre; perhaps it influenced the writer of the later film?  I can see it happening, on a subconscious level at least.

Instead of showing you the trailer (which gives away a major plot point), I thought that, for Arnold, I’d show you its 60-second TV spot, which isn’t a whole lot shorter than the theatrical trailer.  Also, it gives you a longish excerpt from the film’s theme song, which will undoubtedly stick in your head for the next few hours:

Since Arnold hasn’t been released on DVD or Blu-ray (in fact, its lone release was through Lightning Video thirty-five years ago), pickings are slim when it comes to finding the full feature online.  YouTube, however, does have two uploads of the film at the time of this post, both ripped from different VHS releases.  The one that I’ve linked to below has an annoying tape crease that lasts for about the first twenty minutes of the movie; however, the overall look of the transfer is much better than the other upload:

Up next: The most fantastic entertainment event in the history of the motion picture industry!

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The Arena (1974)

One Sheet Poster

In the seaport city of Brundisium, a part of the Roman Empire, four women are sold as slaves to Timarchus, who is in charge of running the city’s gladiatorial arena.  These women were bought to help sell refreshments to the citizens attending the gladiatorial matches, but when the audiences get bored of watching male gladiators fight, it’s suggested to Timarchus to let them start fighting instead.  The women gladiators are a big hit with the crowds, but they’re not too fond of killing each other, so they hatch a plan to escape.

The Women’s Liberation Movement, or “women’s lib” as it was often called, was at the height of its popularity at the dawn of the 1970s when Roger Corman started New World Pictures.  With one finger always on the pulse of American culture, Corman made sure to add a feminist slant to many of New World’s films.  Even those that seemed irredeemably misogynistic, such as those films in his run of “women in prison” pictures, usually had strong female characters and plot points that emphasized female empowerment to counterbalance the gratuitous nudity that the mostly male audiences for these types of films expected.   The shot-in-Italy The Arena, although one of New World’s later woman-themed films, continued that trend. 

Margaret Markov and Pam Grier star as the slaves Bodecia and Mamawi, and they’re pretty much the whole show.  They had appeared together a year previously in AIP’s Black Mama, White Mama, a riff on The Defiant Ones, and I guess that someone, perhaps producer Mark Damon, thought that they made a good onscreen team, so they’re back together in The Arena.  Speaking of Mark Damon, he had been an actor in the ‘50s and ‘60s, starring in such Psychotronic classics as Roger Corman’s House of Usher and Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath.  He wound up moving to Italy right around the time that he made Black Sabbath, and he stayed there for a long while as an actor.  While there, he got a producing job on this film, and since then he’s pretty much stuck to producing, acting as the producer or executive producer on such disparate films as 9 ½ Weeks, The NeverEnding Story, Orgazmo, and Monster (the one with Charlize Theron).  Apparently, he and Margaret Markov hit it off on the set of The Arena, as they got married two years later and are still married as of the time that I’m posting this.  Sara Bay (real name: Rosalba Neri) makes an appearance as well; you may remember her from films such as Lady Frankenstein and The Devil’s Wedding Night…and then again, you may not.  Pretty much everybody else in the cast is Italian; you may be familiar with some of their faces, but none of them are household names in North America by any stretch of the imagination. 

And now some notes about the crew: The Arena was written by John and Joyce Corrington, a married couple who were responsible for penning several Psychotronic films, such as The Omega Man and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. The Arena was the first feature of director Steve Carver (who died last week), who went on to direct Angie Dickenson in Big Bad Mama and Chuck Norris in a few of his films, and it was edited by future director Joe Dante, who made Piranha, The Howling, Gremlins, and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, among others.  Oddly enough, The Arena doesn’t show up as a credit on Dante’s IMDB page.  Hmmm.

The Arena is a fun film; it’s got a little of everything that drive-in audiences were looking for in 1974—blood, boobs, gladiator action, a food fight, a socially-conscious message, and more boobs.  Markov and Grier take their roles seriously, and their performances keep the film grounded enough to work as a straight action piece.  The same can’t be said for most of the rest of the cast, many of whom seem to be unapologetically mugging for the camera.  Still, the leads are good enough to keep the film afloat, and the film’s relatively short running time never lets things sit still for too long.  It’s definitely a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon if you’ve got nothing better planned.

And now the trailer starts!  Here’s the best-looking version of the trailer that I could find on YouTube.  Be warned, however—it’s the red-band trailer, which was made to be shown only in front of R- and X-rated (at the time) films because it contains nudity and violence. Needless to say, that makes it NSFW:

Although I’m not able to embed it, Shout Factory TV has the full movie up for viewing at their website!  Yay for Shout Factory!  And to make things that much mo’ better, their print is somewhat beat-up looking, as if it just got brought over from showing (forty-five years ago) at a drive-in near you!  Here’s the link (and the NSFW warning goes double for the full feature):

And just in case you find that you need it, The Arena is also available for streaming for free at Tubi!  Here’s the link to that:

Up next: Arnold is a scream!

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Arabian Adventure (1979)

One Sheet Poster

Our pal Christopher Lee stars as the evil Caliph Alquazar, ruler of Jadur.  He’s got everything that most evil rulers need— an immense and ornate palace, a gang of thugs to carry out his evil bidding, a stylish all-black wardrobe with goofy headwear, and scantily-clad harem girls to keep him amused.  He is lacking one thing, though; he needs the fabled Rose of Elil for some ill-defined nefarious activities.  For whatever reason (my guess is laziness), he doesn’t go after it himself, waiting instead for a patsy to go get it for him.  Said patsy turns out to be Prince Hasan, a visitor to Jadur who breaks into the palace to get a gander at Alquazar’s stepdaughter Princess Zuleira.  When Hasan is caught, Alquazar offers him the princess’s hand in exchange for retrieving the Rose of Elil.  Taking him up on the offer, Hasan sets off on a flying carpet with Alquazar’s chief snitch Khasim, and they’re later joined by the beggar kid Majeed and his monkey.  They all crowd onto the carpet and fly to the island of Elil, where they battle an evil djinn, a deadly swamp, and Mickey Rooney.  They obtain the rose, take it back, and all ends well for everyone except Alquazar, just as we knew that it would before we even started watching this mess.

If you’re not able to discern it from the synopsis above, I’ll spill the beans and say it:  I’m not a big fan of this movie.  I can’t bring myself to totally dislike it, however, because it does have a few things going for it.  First and foremost, the cast is great.  Besides the previously-mentioned Christopher Lee (in perhaps the worst wardrobe that he ever had to wear) and Mickey Rooney, there’s also Psychotronic favorites Milo O’Shea (Barbarella) as Khasim and Peter Cushing, star of dozens of horror films.  Capucine shows up for a cameo, and it was the first film of then-18-years-old Emma Samms, who later went on to fame as a soap opera (both daytime and prime time) star.  The most surprising cast member is John Ratzenberger, of Cheers and Toy Story fame.  He had been in director Kevin Conner’s previous film, Warlords of Atlantis, and became one of his stock players, with the two eventually working together five times. 

Another of the things that I like about the film is its production design.  The city of Jadur seems to be fairly expansive (with establishing shots achieved via a large, very detailed model), and the palace sets are about as sumptuous as you could reasonably expect on a low budget.  There are a lot of matte paintings in the film, and most of them are gorgeous and fairly seamless.  The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England, and, according to the director, was the only film shooting there at the time.  Because the production had the whole complex at its disposal, the sets were built on multiple stages, which allowed for more expansiveness than could ordinarily have been achieved.  I’m also really fond of the fire-breathing monsters sequence set on the island of Elil.  Even though the monsters are miniatures, they’re well-integrated into the film, and the underground space where they’re stored (and where Mickey Rooney’s character hangs out) feels genuine to me.

But all of the positive aspects of the film are counterbalanced by some questionable choices in bringing about the film’s special effects.  The worst offender for me is the rampant use of rear-screen projection.  Rear-screen projection is a process in which, while the actors are being filmed, footage is being projected on a screen behind them to make it look like the actors are a part of that footage.  It’s sort of like a precursor to today’s green screen technology, and it goes all the way back to silent cinema.  Hitchcock used it a lot whenever he had characters traveling in cars; the actors would be in a mock-up of a car positioned in front of a screen upon which footage showing the scenery outside of the car would be projected.  Even when it’s done well, it still looks pretty cheap…and in Arabian Adventure, it isn’t done well. 

Arabian Adventure also uses miniature models a great deal to pull off its special effects.  Some of it, like the aforementioned fire-breathing monsters, works great.  At most other times, though, the models look exactly like, um, models.  This is especially noticeable during the flying carpet battles near the end of the film, which are just…dumb. 

Speaking of the flying carpet battles, Variety noted in its review of the film that it was like “Star Wars with flying carpets.”  This was, obviously, intentional on the filmmakers’ part; Star Wars came out right before Arabian Adventure started production, and, because it made a quadrillion dollars, everybody wanted a piece of that action.  So in addition to the flying carpets making like TIE fighters, Christopher Lee bears more than a passing resemblance to Darth Vader, and the film’s main theme sounds suspiciously like “Princess Leia’s Theme” from the Star Wars soundtrack. 

Arabian Adventure might have delighted kids back when it was first released, but today’s kids are savvy enough to pick up on its shortcomings and would probably choose not to watch it if given any other, more recent alternatives.  However, if you’re not a kid, you may find enough in it to keep you mildly entertained for a while.

Not that it should color your opinion of the film in any way, but Arabian Adventure popped up as Gene Siskel (of “Siskel & Ebert” fame)’s pick for “Dog of the Week” on an episode of  Sneak Previews in December of 1979.  You can watch that segment of the show here (if the video doesn’t automatically take you to it, go to 6:42 in the video for his brief comments on Arabian Adventure):

I think that Mr. Siskel was a bit harsh on the film, but you should probably decide for yourself.  Here’s the British trailer from YouTube to help you decide if you want to watch the full film:

As for watching the complete film, I can’t find a free version streaming anywhere, but it’s available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber

Up next: See wild women fight to the death!

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La Donna Scimmia (1964)

Italian Poster

(Originally released in the U.S. as The Ape Woman)

Before launching into discussing today’s film, I want to point out (because it’s in my nature, and I can’t help but to point out things like this) that Michael Weldon in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film gives the film’s release date as 1963.  Normally, I use whatever date that Michael uses, but after doing a wee bit of research on this film, I’m pretty sure that the film had its primary release in 1964.  The IMDB page lists it as first showing in Italy in January of 1964, and it also lists its Cannes showing and its New York City debut as taking place in 1964…so I’m going against Weldon’s 1963 date and putting 1964 in the title heading above.  And, yeah, I know that it’s not a big thing, but I wanted to mention it anyway.

Now, on to the film at hand.  Antonio is a two-bit hustler who, while shirking his responsibilities of being a projectionist at a slide show about missionaries, wanders into the kitchen at the convent where the slide show is happening to con his way into a free meal.  While there, he meets Maria, an orphan that the nuns have taken in.  Maria is ashamed to show her face to him, but when he presses, he finds out that she’s got a beard.  Well, actually, she’s got a full-body beard, in that she’s covered from head to toe with hair.  Being the scummy sort of guy that he is, he immediately sees hair-covered dollar signs, and he strikes a deal with her to exhibit her to the public as an “ape woman” that he purportedly found while in the jungles of Africa.  He teaches her how to act like an ape, even taking her to the zoo to study a chimpanzee.

And the public responds—but not in the numbers that he wants to see.  He decides that he needs a scientific expert to verify that she is, indeed, a half-human/half-ape creature, but that falls through when the expert that he chooses turns out to have a non-scientific interest in Maria’s sexual history.  Maria’s getting tired of pretending to be an ape woman, and she ends up back at the convent.  When Antonio goes to fetch her, the nuns don’t allow it, saying that it isn’t proper for Maria, as an unmarried young woman, to live with an unmarried man.  After the Mother Superior puts the kibosh on Antonio’s suggestion that he adopt Maria, Antonio decides that the only other option that he has is to marry her.  And so he does.

Of course, things don’t work out happily ever after, and in case you get the chance to see this film, I don’t want to spoil what happens.  I will say that the film reminded me a lot of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, except that it’s a lot less maudlin and a lot more cynical.  La Donna Scimmia has to be one of the most cynical movies that I’ve ever seen, with an ending that’s right up there with Blow Out’s in terms of making the viewer feel awful to be a human being.  For me, the worst part of all of this is that La Donna Scimmia is loosely based on the true story of Julia Pastrana, who lived from 1834 to 1860.  Here’s a link to the story of Pastrana, but if you’re easily upset, you might want to skip it…as it just might ruin your day. 

From a technical standpoint, the film is quite good.  The jaunty score that plays under the main credits is markedly at odds with the somewhat grim happenings to follow, but it’s fitting as well, evoking circuses and their sideshows.  The cinematographer, Aldo Tonti, was one of the leading architects of the neo-realist movement in Italian cinema that sprang up after World War II.  Ugo Tognazzi plays Antonio, and it’s only his skill as an actor that keeps his character from being completely and utterly reprehensible.  Mr. Tognazzi was best known as one of the stars of the original La Cage aux Folles, before it became a musical and was remade as The Birdcage.  Annie Girardot, who played Maria, was actually a very nice-looking actress under all that hairy makeup.  (You can get a pretty good idea of exactly how nice-looking  she was in the strip tease scene in Paris in La Donna Scimmia.)  Ms. Girardot had a long career in movies, including roles in a couple of films directed by Michael Haneke (Amour), but she never really made any inroads, either by choice or by circumstance, into English-language cinema.  Much like Haneke, the director of La Donna Scimmia, Marco Ferreri, came to be known as a cinematic provocateur.  He was often called out by critics for having an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of mankind, as he evidenced in films such as La Grande Bouffe and Bye Bye Monkey.  I’ll leave it to you to investigate those titles further, if you’re so inclined.

Still, for all the misery and misanthropy on display in the film, it has its charms, and if you can find a copy of it to watch, I recommend the film.  There are, according to Weldon and several other sources, two distinct cuts of the film floating around.  There’s the version that I watched to write this post that is subtitled and uses the international edit of the film, and there’s also a version that was done for the United States and Great Britain that changes the ending to make it less downbeat.  I’ve heard conflicting reports as to whether that cut of the film is dubbed or whether it has subtitles; my guess is that it was released in both forms.  Both versions of the film are missing in action these days, with the “happy ending” version especially difficult to track down.  (If anyone reading this knows where I can obtain a copy of the version released in America, please leave me a comment below—I’d love to be able to see exactly what changes were made to make the film more palatable for our delicate Yank sensibilities.)  To be honest, I don’t even remember how I ended up with my copy of the international version of the film—my best guess is that I found it on YouTube (or Vimeo or Daily Motion) and downloaded the file to watch later, but now that I can’t find it anywhere online,  I have no way of verifying that.  It’s also possible that a friend of mine who has a massive movie collection gave me a copy of the digital file, but I checked with him and he’d never heard of the film.  No matter—what’s pertinent is that the film isn’t available commercially in North America, as far as I can tell.

Normally, this is the part of the discussion where I’ll post a link to a trailer, usually from YouTube, and a full version of the film if I can find it online.  Unfortunately, the only things that I can find for La Donna Scimmia are some untranslated clips in Italian on YouTube, which you can find fairly easily if you so desire.  The clips come from a new restoration that was done in Italy, and that restoration was shown about a year-and-a-half ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Usually, the exhibition of a recently-restored film is seen as a precursor to releasing it on home video, yet no accompanying release has shown up in the U.S. for La Donna Scimmia, which is a shame.  Hopefully, it’ll show up on disc in the near future. 

Up next: See the battle of flying carpets!

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The Ape Man (1943)

The Ape Man One Sheet

One Sheet Poster

Bela Lugosi plays Dr. James Brewster, a scientist who has inadvertently turned himself into the titular character, in this bizarre thriller from Monogram.  When the film starts, Dr. Brewster is already an ape man, which to me seems like the screenwriter missed about half the fun.  Apparently, he’s gone and injected himself with some ape spinal fluid (and, really, what’s the deal with apes and spinal fluid?  First Karloff in the previous entry, now Lugosi in this one…and why was spinal fluid such a hot topic in the early ‘40s anyway?  And why does it seem to be so inextricably linked with apes?), and now he needs human spinal fluid to inject to get rid of the AMS (ape man syndrome) that he’s come down with.

His best friend, Dr. Randall (played by Henry Hall, who was in The Ape, our previous entry, as the sheriff) has planted the story that he’s disappeared in order to keep the press from finding out that Brewster has now gone simian.  When he meets Brewster’s ghost-hunting sister after her ship arrives and spirits (hehe) her back to the ape man’s house, it arouses the suspicions of Jeff Carter, a newspaper guy.  He teams up with a new female photographer for his paper, Billie Mason, and they go to do a story on the sister, Agatha, while keeping an eye out to see if they can figure out what’s happened to Dr. Brewster.

Meanwhile, after moping, pouting, and complaining about being a half-ape and beating the gorilla he keeps in his laboratory with a whip handle for no good reason, Dr. Brewster asks Dr. Randall to acquire some spinal fluid for him.  Balking at the idea of killing someone, Dr. Randall essentially tells Dr. Brewster to do it himself.  So he does, taking the suddenly conveniently-friendly ape along with him.

Plot complications ensue, as they are wont to do, and in the end, the gorilla decides that, you know, actually, he doesn’t like Dr. Brewster after all, and he goes amuck.  Luckily, the photographer and reporter get out safely.

There’s a lot to mention about this film, because it’s just so, so strange.  First and foremost, there’s a guy who acts as an ersatz Greek chorus, giving characters hints as to what to do next to keep the plot moving.  He sees Jeff Carter at the docks while he’s waiting for someone else to arrive and tells him that Agatha Brewster is on that ship and that it’s “a great story—a pip!”  He sees Dr. Randall and asks if he’s there to pick up Agatha.  Later, he’s seen standing outside the Brewster house, peering through windows.  He shows up again at the end of the film, and when Jeff Carter asks him who he is, he says, “Me? Oh, I’m the author of the story.  Screwy idea, wasn’t it?”

I’m sorry, but what kind of weirdo meta crap is that?!  I can’t decide whether the screenwriter (the actual one, Barney Sarecky) was unduly influenced by the wiseacre persona of Bugs Bunny, who was the animated embodiment of the country’s wartime sass, or if he just hated the audience so much that it was a big middle finger to anybody watching.  Whatever the case, it’s a perplexing narrative device.

Louise Curry, who plays photographer Billie Mason, doesn’t seem to be having a very good time being in the film.  She’s usually seen scowling and/or barking her lines, and there’s no chemistry at all between her and the guy who plays Jeff Carter, Wallace Ford.  At one point, he hits her with the film’s best line: “Cocky little wench, aren’t you?”

The director of The Ape Man, William Beaudine, was one of the most (if not THE most) prolific directors in Hollywood in a career that spanned over fifty years.  During that time, he made hundreds of films; he made eighty in the 1940s alone.  Most of his post-silent films were made for the Poverty Row studios–the studios such as Monogram, PRC, and Republic which cranked out low-budget fare.  He’s responsible for a dozen or so Psychotronic films, so his name should come up again pretty soon here on the blog.

Star Bela Lugosi was also relegated to Poverty Row during most of the 1940s.  Sure, he still made the occasional film at Universal or Columbia, but those were just that—occasional.  He worked steadily at Monogram on a series of films produced by Sam Katzman which are now referred to as the “Monogram Nine.”  I plan to get to all of them here on the blog eventually.  Katzman later went on to more mainstream success with the Jungle Jim films (featuring Johnny Weissmuller) and a series of low-budget horror films at Columbia, then he made a few Elvis movies in the ‘60s before retiring.  In fact, Sam Katzman produced a film we discussed several entries back—Angel, Angel, Down We Go.

Another thing of note: Minerva Urecal, as Dr. Brewster’s sister Agatha, looks as if she could actually be related to Bela Lugosi.  I love this shot in the film that shows their resemblance:

Bela and Minerva

Here’s a question that I can’t answer: why did mad scientists in the mid-twentieth century always have gorillas in cages in their labs?  The upkeep of a gorilla has GOT to be a financial strain, especially when it’s compared to having a couple of white mice or some guinea pigs around.  Plus, the stench in the lab from gorilla funk was bound to be eye-watering.  Of course, in this movie’s case, if Dr. Brewster had injected himself with, say, white mouse spinal fluid, it would have been called The Rodent Man…which, now that I think about it, might have made for a more interesting movie.

I feel like there’s much, much more to say about The Ape Man, but I’ve gone long as it is, so I’ll wrap it up.  One last note, though: there’s a primitive version of the Ring™ doorbell on display at Dr. Brewster’s house; he can see who’s at the door via his “televisor.”  Maybe this film was ahead of its time after all; has anybody noticed an uptick in spinal fluid research lately?

Here’s a reissue trailer for The Ape Man from YouTube that contains far fewer spoilers than I just threw out:

As The Ape Man is in the public domain (as was The Ape in our previous entry), there is no end to the options that you have for watching it online.  However, because it IS in the public domain, the quality of the copies of the film that are available vary wildly.  Here’s one of the better-looking copies of the film from YouTube—have at it!

Up next:  No other woman looked like her, felt like her, loved like her!

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