Saturday, May 12, 2018

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb is a skillful and enjoyable hour-and-a-half of creepy, atmospheric fun from Hammer Films, despite the cast and crew having to overcome two tragic events behind the scenes, one at the beginning of the film's production, the other at the end. Peter Cushing was originally cast in the role of Prof. Julian Fuchs, but he left after only one day of shooting when the health of his wife, who was suffering from emphysema, took a turn for the worse. She died shortly thereafter, and Andrew Keir stepped in to play Cushing's part. With only one week left in the shoot, director Seth Holt died of a heart attack, aged only 47. Filmmaker and Hammer executive Michael Carreras took over direction for the final week. Behind-the-scenes turmoil can often make for an inconsistent film, but not in this case.
Based on the Bram Stoker novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (also the basis for Mike Newell's 1980 horror film The Awakening, reviewed here back in 2015), Blood from the Mummy's Tomb is about a group of British archaeologists who discover the unmarked tomb of evil Egyptian queen Tera. The title is fantastic but a bit of a misnomer, though Blood from the Evil Queen's Sarcophagus Inside Her Tomb would have been a little wordy. Instead of doing the professional thing, the archaeologists raid the tomb, each one taking a different artifact home.
Prof. Fuchs (Andrew Keir) takes it even further than the others by bringing the queen's body home and placing it in his basement, which he has remodeled to resemble an Egyptian tomb. Talk about taking your work home with you, am I right? He has his reasons, however misguided. At the very moment he and his team were discovering Tera's tomb, his poor wife was giving birth to a baby daughter back in London. She died during childbirth, and his daughter, unbeknownst to her, became the reincarnated spitting image of Tera.
The daughter, Margaret (Valerie Leon), is an adult now, struggling with nightmares in which she remembers the life and death and revenge curses of Queen Tera. Meanwhile, a strange man named Corbeck (James Villiers) is spying on her, her father, and her patronizing bearded boyfriend Tod (Mark Edwards). Several more eccentrics are introduced, played by a rogues' gallery of great British character actors, including Hugh Burden, George Coulouris, Rosalie Crutchley, and Aubrey Morris. Matt Berry was definitely taking notes from Morris' performance in this film, which is more than alright with me.
Straddling the line between seriousness and camp without ever falling too hard on either side, the film is assured and confident and looks fantastic. The studio sets are a marvel of expressive horror movie architecture, the blood flows like paint, the humor and scares land where they're supposed to without getting in each other's way, and the cast delivers the goods. It's a classic Hammer movie good time and a fitting tribute to Seth Holt's talent. I really liked this one.   

  

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

A rare early color film shot with the two-color Technicolor process, Doctor X is a pre-Code horror/mystery/comedy/sci-fi good time. It doesn't take itself seriously but has plenty of atmosphere and dread and weirdness, and it's a wilder, rougher, and goofier film than most of what jack-of-all-trades director Michael Curtiz would make for the rest of his massively successful Hollywood career, which included Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas, We're No Angels, King Creole (my favorite Elvis movie), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and more than 100 others stretching from 1912 to 1961, the year before his death.
Doctor X is about a series of murders plaguing the New York City area. Called the "Moon Killer Murders" by the press, this series of grisly slayings happens once each month on a full moon. The victims have very little in common with each other, but they are all strangled, mutilated with a medical scalpel, and partially cannibalized. Tough stuff for a 1932 film, but this is pre-Code, baby. Meanwhile, a wisecracking, prank-loving reporter named Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy, one of the first of the hard-partying Hollywood bad boys according to IMDB) is tracking the case for his newspaper, and he discovers that the police strongly suspect a medical researcher from Dr. Xavier's academy since the scalpel used in the slayings is only available there. (What? They have their own trademarked scalpel? Is this a real thing?) Dr. X (Lionel Atwill), wanting to avoid negative publicity about his academy, convinces the police to give him 48 hours to conduct his own research and catch the killer from his staff of four weirdos. He takes the esteemed researchers/lunatics to his rural Long Island home/lab to find the guilty party, also taking along his eccentric servants and his lovely daughter Joanne (Fay Wray, giving a couple of her trademarked super-screams and looking fabulous the whole time). Lee is snooping around the premises, and he and Joanne begin a love/hate romance with plenty of snappy, sassy back-and-forth dialogue in the great '30s tradition. They both have great screwball comedy timing and chemistry.
All this wacky business is first-class entertainment and the early Technicolor looks great, but the fun is far from over. The film takes a deeply bizarre turn in its final third, which I will only spoil a tiny bit by telling you that a character ecstatically shouts the phrase "Synthetic skin!" repeatedly. There's almost a proto-Eraserhead vibe to some of these shots. No wonder the studio was less than enamored with Doctor X and had some cold feet about releasing it. Things worked out great for everybody, though, and the film was a big box office hit and a critical success, with a few exceptions. I especially love this line from Time magazine's mixed review: "[Doctor X] is intended for avid patrons of synthetic horror rather than for normal cinemaddicts." Gettin' weird, Time.
In a close call, the color print of the film was considered lost for many years. The studios ditched the expensive two-color Technicolor process as the Great Depression dragged on, and they discarded most of the negative color prints in the late '40s, keeping only the black-and-white versions in a stupidly shortsighted move. The black-and-white print was the only one circulating in television airings and revival screenings for years until a print was found in the personal home collection of Warner Brothers executive Jack Warner upon his death in 1978. The UCLA film archive got the nitrate print and transferred it to safety film for exhibition and home video. I recommend Doctor X for any fans of classic horror and '30s cinema in general. It's a hell of a lot of fun.