Boris Karloff is The Body Snatcher (1945)

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To view The Body Snatcher click here.

Director Robert Wise is widely regarded as a journeyman filmmaker with no defining traits or distinct talents. In The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968 critic Andrew Sarris famously labeled Wise’s output as “strained seriousness” asserting that the director’s “stylistic signature . . . is indistinct to the point of invisibility.” David Thompson parroted these claims in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film when he stated that Wise’s “better credits are only the haphazard products of artistic aimlessness given rare guidance” and complained that his filmography was merely a “restless, dispiriting search among subject areas.” While it’s true that Wise explored a variety of genres including horror, science fiction, noir, westerns, musicals and war dramas, his best films frequently share a gloomy nihilistic worldview and he possessed the extraordinary ability to elicit career-defining performances from many of the actors he worked with.

A few of the remarkable roles Wise nurtured and defined include Lawrence Tierney’s ruthless Sam Wilde in Born to Kill (1947), Robert Ryan’s down-and-out boxer in The Set-Up (1949), Michael Rennie’s peace-pursuing alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Susan Hayward’s doomed career criminal in I Want to Live! (1958), Rita Moreno’s spirited and vengeful Anita in West Side Story (1961), Julie Harris’s meek and melancholy Eleanor “Nell” Lance in The Haunting (1963) and Steve McQueen’s solitary sailor in The Sand Pebbles (1966). But my favorite acting feat in all of Wise’s directing oeuvre can be found in The Body Snatcher (1945). Currently streaming on FilmStruck, this classic Val Lewton production directed by Wise, stars Boris Karloff in what is arguably his most accomplished performance playing John Gray, a merciless grave robber with soul-piercing eyes and a bone-chilling grin.

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William Cameron Menzies: Chandu the Magician (1932)

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On the set of Chandu the Magician in 1932 (Back Row): William Cameron Menzies, Weldon Heyburn, Edmund Lowe, Marcel Varnel & Bela Lugosi. (Front Row): Irene Ware & June Lang

In recent weeks, you might have heard about the upcoming Doctor Strange film currently scheduled for release in November of 2016. The news caught my attention because I’ve always liked the comic book character and the cast, which includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is impressive. I mention all this because tonight TCM is launching their month-long spotlight on legendary production designer and director, William Cameron Menzies. Some classic film fans might balk at the idea of mentioning the upcoming Doctor Strange movie and William Cameron Menzies in the same paragraph but there are slender threads that connect the two thanks to Menzies’s creative contributions to Chandu the Magician (1932) airing this evening at 9:45 PM EST/6:45 PST.

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Movie Book Round-Up: The Holiday Edition

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Since I began writing for the Movie Morlocks five years ago I typically compile a blog post with summer reading suggestions or a list of favorite film related books released at the end of the year. This year I’ve had access to so many great books that I decided to compile two book lists.

My first was “Midsummer Reading Suggestions” where I covered The Lives of Robert Ryan, Sex, Sadism, Spain, and Cinema: The Spanish Horror Film, Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind, So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films and Audrey (Hepburn) at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen along with other titles. What follows is my “Holiday Edition” where I share some of the best books (pictured above) that I’ve encountered since July. I hope both lists will encourage you to do some reading during the holidays or provide you with some shopping suggestions while you’re purchasing gifts for fellow film buffs.

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Double Your Pleasure with a Dracula Double Feature

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On Sunday Oct. 25th and Wednesday Oct. 28th, classic horror fans are in for a real cinematic treat. Turner Classic Movies in association with Fathom Events and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will be bringing DRACULA (1931), along with its Spanish language equivalent, back to the big screen. This Dracula double feature will be shown at selected theaters across the country and is accompanied by an introduction from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Tickets can be purchased online at the Fathom Events website.

Tod Browning’s DRACULA is rightly hailed as a horror classic while the Spanish version directed by George Melford was assumed lost and went largely unseen by modern audiences following its initial release until it was restored and distributed on home video in 1992. Both films were shot at the same time using the same sets but with different casts, which was a typical practice by studios in the early 1930s. Their goal was to appeal to international audiences eager to see new-fangled sound films in their own language. The idea quickly went out of favor due to the high cost of producing multiple movies but the Spanish language version of DRACULA is one of the best examples we have of this popular practice.

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The only think-piece THE CORPSE VANISHES is ever likely to get

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I was watching THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942) again recently and I forgot to laugh. I understand that laughter is the proper response because just about every critic — even the ones predisposed to horror, to Bela Lugosi, and to the inconsistent charms of Poverty Row cinema — tell us that the movie is no good, that Lugosi is no good in it, that the celluloid used to make it would have been better used for guitar picks, and that the only proper response is yuks. Ask most people in their 30s and 40s if they’ve ever seen THE CORPSE VANISHES and they’re likely to tell you “Yeah, that was one of the best MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000s ever!”  [...MORE]

Son of Dracula’s Daughter!

As the boxer Sonny Liston used to say, “Life a funny thing.” If you squint real hard you can see, to the right of Robert Osborne and below the goldenrod banner that reads “Movie Morlocks Bloggers,” my name and the movie title DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936). I’ll be introducing the film tonight on TCM, sitting right there in the red chair, like you see all sorts of famous people do, and talking Universal horror and vampire movies, and gesturing with my hands, like an Italian. I was one of four Movie Morlocks chosen earlier this year to represent the writers for the TCM blog as official guest programmers, each of us charged with picking a movie that means the most to us. It wasn’t a hard choice on my part. Tonight’s broadcast completes a circuit that sparked for me nearly 40 years ago, when I was a young weirdo of 12 or so, late night TV showed tons of old movies, and life still held no end of boundless mystery. [...MORE]

I like big bats (and I cannot lie)!

For my admittedly singular tastes, the vampire bat (there are other kinds?) is as essential a herald of Halloween as the old witch, the black cat, the Jack-o-lantern, and the scarecrow. As a kid, I loved the sudden appearance of a flapping vampire bat and the bigger and more leathery the beastie the better. Take this barrel-like example from Hammer’s BRIDES OF DRACULA (1961) — it’s like a rumpy Manx with wings — but I love it, I want to hug it, I want to bring it home and ask my mom if I can keep it. I miss bats in horror movies. How did we ever get it into our heads that we could live without them? [...MORE]

Summer Reading

Above: Actress Merle Oberon enjoying a book while lounging around the pool

I do a lot of reading all year long but during the summer months I tend to set aside some extra time to catch up with the books that have accumulated on my shelves. This is partially due to a habit I developed as a child. While other kids were outside playing and enjoying the bright sunshine I could often be found in my bedroom pouring over a good book. Even when my family would go on vacation I would always stick a book in my suitcase or duffel bag. For better or worse, many of my fondest childhood memories involve books that I read during the sweltering summer months while on camping trips and during long plane flights to visit grandparents. This summer I’ve started habitually reading some interesting non-fiction film related books so I thought I’d share some recent discoveries.

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The Tod Browning Version

At the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival last week I got to revisit Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) … and fall in love all over again. [...MORE]

Vampire’s Peak, or It’s Been Downhill Ever Since

The other day my 4 year-old son slapped a square of blue felt onto the top of his head and angled one corner down in line with the bridge of his nose. “Dad, look… I’m a vampire!”  He had, of course, just approximated with devastating simplicity the classic “widow’s peak” that is synonymous with vampires of a certain vintage, going all the way back to Bela Lugosi in DRACULA (1931). Hey, wait a minute… Bela Lugosi’s Dracula didn’t have a widow’s peak. So where did this style come from? [...MORE]

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