Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shock (1946)

Director: Alfred Werker
Writers: Eugene Ling (screenplay); Albert deMond (story); Martin Berkeley (additional dialogue)
Producer: Aubrey Schenck
Cinematographers: Joe MacDonald, Glen MacWilliams
Music: David Buttolph
20th Century Fox; 70 min; B&W

Vincent Price (Dr. Richard Cross), Lynn Bari (Nurse Elaine Jordan), Frank Latimore (Lt. Paul Stewart), Anabel Shaw (Mrs. Janet Stewart), Michael Dunne (Dr. Stevens), Reed Hadley (District Attorney O'Neill), Renee Carson (Miss Hatfield - Head Nurse), Charles Trowbridge (Dr. H.J. Harvey)

While under contract for 20th Century Fox, Vincent Price was receiving good notices for his supporting work in historical pictures, as well as for his "cads" in Laura and Leave Her To Heaven. Aubrey Schenck thus decided to give the actor a leading role in this modest picture, which, despite the appearance of Price and the psychoanalysis theme, isn't a horror film, but a noir with psychological overtones. (Screenwriter Eugene Ling would also pen the classic noirs, Scandal Sheet for Phil Karlson, and Behind Locked Doors for Budd Boetticher.)

In his first top-billed role, Price plays Dr. Richard Cross, who kills his wife during an argument over an impending divorce. His deed is witnessed from a neighbouring hotel window by Mrs. Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw). Already in a weakened mental state, she is discovered by her husband the following morning in a catatonic state. As coincidences in film noir would have it, she is treated by Cross himself, who has her committed to his own sanitarium in an effort to convince her that she is truly insane, having only imagined the murder scene.

According to the highly enjoyable but typographically challenged book Vincent Price Unmasked (by James Robert Parish and Steven Whitney), Shock received some bad notices upon its initial release for its negative portrayal of psychiatrists! Well, such controversy has receded over the years, but time hasn't been kind to this little film due an early, laughably bad dream sequence early where Janet is hearing the voice of her long-lost husband, and dashes to a giant doorknob (how Freudian): she is clearly seen running on one spot!

ABOVE: Vincent Price, Lynn Bari

More interesting is the relationship between Cross and his lover, Nurse Elaine. After five decades of roles in which Vincent Price commits many ghastly, vengeful acts onscreen, it is refreshing to see that this lead role features him not as a monster, but rather a remorseful man who nonetheless attempts to cover up his fatal mistake. However, he still has a moral center dictating to what measures he will carry out his deeds: "There is a limit beyond which even I can't go". It quickly becomes clear that Elaine is pulling his strings, convincing him to perform even more insidious things like shock therapy to drive Janet beyond the brink.

ABOVE: Vincent Price, Anabel Shaw
This modest programmer is also helped along by some moody photography (which I'd perhaps attribute to Joe MacDonald, as the deep blacks are similar to those in My Darling Clementine, released the same year), and some effective mise-en-scene (where it conveniently rains and storms during suspenseful moments). The supporting performances by some familiar players are decent if unspectacular. Anabel Shaw's smallish frame captures the essence of the victimized Janet, although the actress is largely given little to do but hyperventilate and stare slack jawed. Still, it is Vincent Price's movie all the way: his solid performance carries this inoffensive second-feature. While Shock is a minor time killer, it is however an interesting footnote in his developing screen career- it would be among the few lead roles where he plays a human monster that still has a heart.

Rating: 3 mosquito coils out of five.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Yvette Vickers (1928 - 2010?)

B-movie starlets seldom have long filmographies: their enduring fame often rests on a mere handful of performances. And so it was with Yvette Vickers. Her place in Drive-In Movie Hall Of Fame is assured merely on the basis of two titles in her decade-long career as an actress.

She turned on the heat in the camp favourite Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) as the other woman who draws the wrath of the title femme fatale. When you have a stunning lead actress like Allison Hayes (and at fifty feet tall, no less) who has a philandering husband, one would ensure that the female antagonist would still be able to turn the man's head, and she succeeded in spades as the good-time girl named Honey. And in the creepy Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959), she was the adulterous Liz Walker, who is caught cheating by her husband (Bruno VeSota), who decides to punish her and her hapless lover by forcing at gunpoint into the swamp inhabited by the title creatures! Yikes!

ABOVE: Yvette Vickers with William Hudson in Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, to jazz musicians Charles and Iola Vedder, and growing up on the road, the young Yvette Vickers initially pursued a career in journalism until getting the acting bug. She began the 1950's with an uncredited minor role in the classic Sunset Boulevard, and after several supporting roles in various films and TV episodes, she ended the decade with her two hallmark roles above, and another big for lasting fame as the Playmate of the Month for July 1959 (her photos taken by none other than Russ Meyer!).

ABOVE: Bruno Ve Sota and Yvette Vickers in Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Her movie roles would soon be fewer, smaller and further between, however later in her career she worked with Paul Newman in the classic Hud (1963) and for director Curtis Harrington in What's The Matter With Helen? (1971).  Her final screen credit was a role in Gary Graver's Evil Spirits (1990).  Nonetheless, her fame endured thanks to her sultry portrayals in those two monster movies, and in later years she was known for her vivacity and friendliness towards her fans. She gave a fun interview for Fangoria magazine in 1989, and recorded a lively and informative commentary track with cult film writer Tom Weaver for the 2007 Warners DVD of Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman, which preserves her oft-reported generosity.

ABOVE: Paul Newman (left) and Yvette Vickers (center) in Hud (1963)

Sadly, it has been reported that Ms. Vickers' body had been found in her home by her neighbour, and apparently had been dead for almost a year. (Tom Weaver first broke the story on a message board, but now the news is official.) Such a ghastly and sad fate is unbecoming for anyone, especially for someone as full of life as Yvette Vickers.  Her enduring fame is assured thanks to her appearances in these entertaining genre films.

Trailer for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman: 

Trailer for Attack of the Giant Leeches: 

Drive-In Credits:
Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Try and Get Me (1950)
Reform School Girl (1957)
Short Cut to Hell (1957)
The Sad Sack (1957)
I Mobster (1958)
Juvenile Jungle (1958)
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
The Saga of Hemp Brown (1958)
Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)
Pressure Point (1962)
Hud (1963)
Beach Party (1963)
What's the Matter with Helen? (1971)
Evil Spirits (1990)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Peter Yates (1929 - 2011)

Juan Piquer Simon (1935 - 2011)

Monday, March 8, 2010

Charles B. Pierce (1938 - 2010)

During the drive-in's heyday, many enterprising independent filmmakers could rely on the screens in the fields to showcase their works, thus bypassing the Hollywood machine entirely. Among the many regional movie makers who proliferated in the 1960s and 70s, one of the most interesting was director-producer Charles B. Pierce. Also, if one person's works deserves to be seen on a screen outdoors, than it would surely be his. Not only were his films drive-in staples, which spawned and capitalized on the regional horror or outdoor adventure markets of their day, but his movies gave a unique "you are there" feeling- so much did his work communicate the feel of the murky, uncivilized locations in his stories. It is rather fitting, then, that he had spent his first few years in Hollywood as a set decorator. Once he began directing his own movies, it was only natural that his work favoured atmosphere above all other ingredients.

His first work behind the camera, The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), was a huge success on rural drive-in screens, and became one of the most important independently-produced regional films, since it received good play even outside the Texarkana area in which it was produced. This film, based on the true story of the "Fouke Monster", a Sasquatch-typed creature that terrorized the Arkansas town which gave its namesake, had an interesting docu-drama approach, with voiceover, subtitles and many locals playing themselves, mixed with dramatic re-enactments, and was undoubtedly an influence on The Blair Witch Project over a quarter-century later. But in its own decade, it spawned the plethora of Bigfoot-themed films, which likewise blended documentary footage with staged sequences. In fact, Pierce's subsequent horror pictures, The Town That Dreaded Sundown and The Evictors, also had a documentary feel, which complimented their being "based on a true stories". But even so, Pierce's films had a disarmingly old-fashioned quality about them-- it is not surprising that he would also make outdoor western adventures such as Winterhawk or Sacred Ground, which would appeal to all family members. These films could rank beside the plethora of such G-rated outdoor family films of its day as The Adventures of the Wilderness Family. His low-key narratives and folksy approach made his films seem out of the time in which they were produced, and even when he hired such recognizable talent as Jack Elam or Ben Johnson, his work still felt un-Hollywood, with his feel for atmosphere and local colour that one wouldn't find in more mainstream product.

It is perhaps unsurprising that his feature filmmaking career began to wane in tandem with the drive-ins. Any ozoners still standing after the advent of home video would soon by absorbed by the Hollywood money machine that had no time or patience for the independent films that would travel the rural circuits, instead favouring generic product that would appeal to the broadest demographic. In the 1980's and beyond, Charles B. Pierce would continue to pay the bills as a set decorator for television, directing only sporadically. In the latter part of his career, one surprising credit is that his original story was the basis for the Clint Eastwood mega-hit Sudden Impact.

Charles B. Pierce was truly a pioneer of his generation. Upon hearing of his passing, we chose to elect Mr. Pierce as our "See You At The Drive-In" star of the month. Throughout the next week or two, we will be posting reviews of some of his key films. (Whenever a review is added to the blog, we will adding a hyperlink below in the corresponding title of his filmography.)

Drive-In Credits
Waco (1966) [Set Decorator]
An Eye for an Eye (1966) [Set Decorator]
The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) [Set Decorator]
80 Steps to Jonah (1969) [Set Decorator]
The Strawberry Statement (1970) [Set Decorator]
The Phantom Tollbooth (1970) [Set Decorator]
Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) [Set Decorator]
Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) [Set Decorator]
Skyjacked (1972) [Set Decorator]
The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) [Director, Producer, Cinematographer]
Shadow of Fear (1973) [Set Decorator]
Coffy (1973) [Set Decorator]
Wicked, Wicked (1973) [Set Decorator]
Dillinger (1973) [Set Decorator]
Black Belt Jones (1974) [Set Decorator]
Our Time (1974) [Set Decorator]
Black Eye (1974) [Set Decorator]
Bootleggers (1974) [Director, Executive Producer, Story, Actor, Additional Photography]
Act of Vengeance (1974) [Set Decorator]
Hearts of the West (1975) [Set Decorator]
Winterhawk (1975) [Director, Producer, Writer]
The Winds of Autumn (1976) [Director, Producer, Actor]
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) [Set Decorator]
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1977) [Director, Producer, Actor]
Grayeagle (1977) [Director, Producer, Writer, Actor]
Casey's Shadow (1978) [Set Decorator]
The Cheap Detective (1978) [Set Decorator]
The Norseman (1978) [Director, Producer, Writer]
The Evictors (1979) [Director, Producer, Writer]
Carny (1980) [Set Decorator]
Sacred Ground (1983) [Director, Writer, Cinematographer]
Sudden Impact (1983) [Story]
The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II (1985) [Director, Producer, Writer, Actor]
The Aurora Encounter (1986) [Actor]
Hawken's Breed (1987) [Director, Producer, Writer, Actor, Voice]
Chasing the Wind (1998) [Director]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Any contemporary viewers who want to understand the appeal of the late Claudia Jennings, former Playmate of the Year (1970), who would spend her remaining nine years in drive-in fare, need look no further than this terrific southern-fried crooks-on-the-lam romp. As Candy Morgan, the actress plays her archetypal role of a young woman who is aggressive both in life and love. Having just escaped from prison, Candy performs a unique bank robbery by holding a stick of dynamite, and then uses the cash to provide for her family before she skips town. Meanwhile, bank teller Ellie Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) gets fired from her job just before the robbery, and gladly helps Candy collect the money. Guess who picks Ellie Jo up when she's hitching a ride? Small town! Anyway, Ellie Jo convinces Candy that they'd have a good thing going as a duo robbing on the road, and their crime spree with sticks of dynamite begins. Later, in a supermarket holdup they kidnap a customer named Slim (Johnny Crawford, the kid from "The Rifleman"), who's hardly an unwilling hostage.

This breezy fare is a solid effort from Roger Corman's New World Pictures, which sums up the drive-in movie experience of the mid-1970's. In addition to the healthy doses of action and sex, there's a freewheeling sense of hedonism and anti-authoritarian stance. But it's also great fun to watch because it doesn't take itself too seriously, with amusing plot twists and a jaunty clarinet score.

Still, it's no wonder that Claudia Jennings fans love this movie. Clad in unbuttoned shirts tied at the waist (when she has clothes on, that is), this stunning honey-haired actress shows her equal adeptness at action and comedy, plus her love scene with the man who sells her dynamite is very hot. Her characters are as fiercely passionate in bed as they are in their causes. (There is also a love scene between Ellie Jo and Slim which is very sweet.)

They sure don't make them like this anymore. God bless the 1970's.

RATING: 4 mosquito coils out of five.

Sisters of Death (1977)

Sisters of Death starts off rather intriguingly, where two girls are getting initiated into a sisterhood. At first glance, this looks like an occult thriller, as the initiation takes place in this huge gothic set, with a large fireplace, and the girls are decked out in these magenta gowns and veils. Then for the coup de grace, in the final piece of initiation, they play Russian Roulette with a Derringer pistol! The gun sadly does fire into the heads of one of the girls, blood flies onto the magenta garments, roll credits.

But sadly, this flick doesn't offer much of the same fireworks after that. The movie, looking like it could've been a Friday night thriller shot for ABC television, is an easy to watch, but flyweight "Ten Little Indians" ripoff, which would become a standard plot device for such slashers as Prom Night. We flash forward to the present, "seven years later", when the girls are each given anonymous invitations to attend a reunion. They all meet in the parking lot of a hotel and then are approached by two guys who are to escort them to the actual reunion location. Sure, the guys are total strangers, and their car's windows are frosted in, but it's the 70's right? So naturally off the fun-loving gals go. Finally, they arrive at a mansion with a "Welcome Sisters" sign at the pool, bathing suits and booze laid out for everyone. But the party doesn't last long, as this reunion is part of a revenge plot hatched by the father (Arthur Franz) of the girl who was shot in the initiation years earlier.

The production history of Sisters of Death eerily resembles the structure of the film itself. It was shot in 1972, yet stayed on the shelf for several years before getting released. Therefore, drive-in fans in 1977 would be surprised to see Claudia Jennings, the Queen of the B's in a minor role, despite that she's second-billed. Perhaps her's is given the most development among the women in peril, since she's the one most haunted by the gruesome initiation gone wrong (as seen in a nifty double exposure), but largely the characterizations are two-dimensional (despite their amusing hedonistic ways) thus we don't much care what happens to them. It's apparent the scenario finds Franz the most interesting person, as we follow him dashing from secret compartments, and playing the flute! This mild good time is full of such ingredients as electric fences, spiders, and slashing, and while it's all a pleasant night at the ozoner, it's still average. As a vehicle for Claudia Jennings, her fans will be disappointed to see that she's given little to do. (Trivia note: one of the two guys who escort, and later help the girls out of danger, is recognizable character player Paul Carr, seen in dozens of television appearances. He would co-star with Ms. Jennings again in Truck Stop Women.)

RATING: 2 mosquito coils out of five.