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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Katzman’

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen’s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm’s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.

Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) was arguably Ray Harryhausen’s breakthrough as a stop motion special effects artist; he had worked on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and other films as an assistant under Willis O’ Brien, the creator of King Kong (1933), but with this film, he stepped out in front with a dazzling display of special effects wizardry which was, at the time of the film’s production, state of the art. What’s even more amazing is that the entire film, except for Harryhausen’s special effects, which took months to complete, was shot in just six days – a stunning feat, made possible only by director Fred F. Sears‘ expertise and grace under pressure. Indeed, while much of the film was shot on the Columbia back lot, Sears dispatched a second unit to Washington DC to shoot process plates for the special effects, and also footage of the film’s stars, Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor, dodging laser blast rays on the steps of the capitol building.

Another thing that’s remarkable is how much of the film was shot on location, and how quickly, without all the security that would make such an enterprise impossible today. Although Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is manifestly a union film, Sears and producer Sam Katzman pushed both the crew and the actors to the limits of their endurance to get the film in the can, while Sears worked feverishly with Harryhausen’s production designs to make sure that the live action material dovetailed perfectly with Harryhausen’s miniature work. Such a pace would be impossible today, when everything takes forever to shoot — Sears moved fast, and his co-workers moved with him, to make a convincing film on a minuscule budget.

In this age of CGI, anything is possible, but in the 1950s, the only way you could get something convincing on the screen was through the use of stop-motion animation, painstakingly moving the saucers frame, by frame, by frame, by frame, shooting one frame after another, with 24 changes of position per second, to achieve what then passed for realism. This isn’t a film which revels in plot, or in any degree of subtlety, complete with a stentorian narrator providing a “voice of doom” commentary throughout the film; the invaders simply show up and start blasting everyone in sight with a disintegrator ray, with but one objective; to take over the earth and colonize it for the members of their dying race. It’s one of the 1950s’ best, and most compact, science fiction films, moving along swiftly to its suitably violent conclusion. There’s a colorized DVD available, actually supervised by Harryhausen himself, but don’t fall for it; get the black and white original. The film looks and plays like a brutal newsreel of an alien invasion, and once seen, is never forgotten.

If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for?

Get Yourself A College Girl (1964)

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief clip from Get Yourself A College Girl.

And while we’re on the subject of 60s California pop, here’s a truly amazing film which has just been released on archival DVD — no masterpiece, this, but a wildly disparate cast in a completely nonsensical plot — featuring a truly amazing group of recording artists of the period, all shot in 6 days in glorious Metrocolor.

Get Yourself A College Girl was produced by the legendary “speed artist” Sam Katzman, who had an iron clad rule that no film he produced would take longer than six days to get in the can — until he lengthened his schedules in the late 60s to a lavish 15 days for some of Elvis Presley’s later films — and directed by former child actor Sidney Miller, whose other credits include directing episodes of Get Smart, The Addams Family, The Smothers Brothers Show, My Favorite Martian and even The Mickey Mouse Club.

Mixed into this cinematic stew are Nancy Sinatra, Chad Everett, Hortense Petra (Katzman’s wife, a “good luck” charm in all of his later films), plus musical guests The Standells, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, jazz organist Jimmy Smith, jazz sax player Stan Getz with vocalist Astrud Gilberto, and a whole lot more, none of it making any sense at all, but featuring that slick, candy-colored sheen that typified California pop music of the era.

As critic Mel Neuhaus noted on the TCM Website, “A curious 1964 hybrid of teen movie musical with pre-feminist overtones as well as a parody of moralistic anti-rock message films, Get Yourself a College Girl is a must-see due to its strange guest-star cast, who help elevate the formula narrative into a near-surreal ’60s happening. The basic plot follows Mary Ann Mobley’s transition from songwriter to a controversial figure in the music industry who’s wooed by a song publisher (Chad Everett) and a politician seeking the youth vote [. . .]

The choice of music guest stars is one of the most freakish conglomerations in any movie musical. Let’s face it – any picture featuring rockers The Dave Clark 5 (Thinking of You Baby, Whenever You’re Around), The Animals (Blue Feeling, Around and Around), and The Standells (Bony Moronie, The Swim) alongside the Jimmy Smith Trio (The Sermon, Comin’ Home Johnny), plus jazz greats Stan Getz and velvet-throated vocalist Astrud Gilberto (doing their cornerstone of ’60s cool, The Girl from Ipanema) has got to be seen (and heard) to be believed.”

It’s a fascinating time capsule of a time long vanished, and worth savoring for the sheer explosion of musical talent on the screen. And, of course, everyone looks like they’re having a lot of fun.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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