There’s a Lesson to be Learned Here

When we think of message movies, we tend to think of the Stanley Kramer variety where a serious social issue is dealt with heavy-handedly by an all-star cast letting us know it’s time for a lesson in civics that sorely needs to be learned.   They aren’t all like that, of course.  Sometimes the message is interwoven into a movie that deals with its characters and story first and puts the message in service of the plot and not the other way around.  Crossfire, for instance, which airs today on TCM, is a thriller first, a message movie second.  But what about all those movies that so subtly hide their message they’re not considered message movies at all?  They still have lessons for us, if you know where to look.

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Jack Palance: Horror Star

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Jack Palance & his infamous bowler hat on the set of Torture Garden (1968)

Everyone seems to have their own Jack Palance. The Oscar-winning actor, who would be celebrating his birthday today if he was still with us, is typically remembered as the star of popular westerns including Shane (1953) and City Slickers (1991). Others might remember him as a familiar face in Film Noir and numerous crime films made in America as well as Europe. While some may be fond of his roles in war movies and historical epics but for me, Jack Palance will always be the star of some great horror films.

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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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Men Among Monsters: Remembering Christopher Lee & Richard Johnson

leejohnsonChristopher Lee & Richard Johnson

Horror fans received a double blow this week. It started with the news that Richard Johnson (1927-2015) had died and today we woke up to the news that Christopher Lee (1922-2015), arguably the last of the great classic horror film icons, had shuffled off this mortal coil to join his old pal Peter Cushing in repose.

Both Lee and Johnson worked in a variety of film genres and played remarkably similar roles throughout their careers including soldiers, kings, adventure seekers, fortune hunters, cops, criminals, doctors, professors, investigators, government spies and spy villains. But for myself and many others, it is their distinct body of work in horror films that has made the most impact and will undoubtedly survive them for many decades to come.

Before learning about Lee’s passing I was preparing a written tribute to Richard Johnson, which you’ll find below, but I couldn’t possibly let Lee’s death go unmentioned. He remains one of my favorite performers and a giant among men both figuratively and literally. The tall, dark and strikingly handsome actor will undoubtedly receive many well-deserved accolades today and in the weeks to come but I hope you’ll make time to watch TCM’s touching video tribute.

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This week on TCM Underground: The Hunger (1983)

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Vampires smoke cigarettes in New York City.

Cast: Catherine Deneuve (Miriam Blaylock), David Bowie (John Blaylock), Susan Sarandon (Dr. Sarah Roberts), Cliff DeYoung (Tom Haver), Beth Ehlers (Alice Cavender), Dan Hedaya (Lt. Allegrezza), Suzanne Bertish (Phyllis), James Aubrey (Ron), Rufus Collins (Charlie Humphries), Ann Magnuson (Club Girl), John Stephen Hill (Club Boy), Shane Rimmer (Arthur Jelinek), Bessie Love (Lillybelle), John Pankow (First Youth at Phone Booth), Willem Dafoe (Second Youth at Phone Booth), Sophie Ward (Girl in London House). Director: Tony Scott. Producer: Richard Shepherd. Screenplay: Ivan Davis, Michael Thomas. Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt. Music: Denyy Yaeger, Michel Rubini. Make-up Illusions: Dick Smith.

Color – 97 min.

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Beware! Louis Jourdan is Here

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Louis Jourdan in COUNT DRACULA (1977)

We lost Louis Jourdan on Valentine’s Day and since then there has been an abundance of considerate obituaries and tributes to the debonair French actor who stole film fan’s hearts and swept many of his leading ladies off their feet. Jourdan was strikingly handsome but I’ve always found him a bit intimidating on screen. In real life Jourdan had fought Nazis as an active member of the French resistance and by most accounts was a loyal husband to his wife (Berthe Frédérique “Quique”) for 68 years until her death in 2014 but something about his smoldering intensity and somber eyes made me uneasy. The characters he played were often hard to read and I found myself constantly questioning their motives. This is undoubtedly due to his exceptional performances in films such as LETTER FROM AN UKNOWN WOMAN (1948) where he plays a self-absorbed pianist who breaks Joan Fontaine’s heart and THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1959) where he drives the gorgeous Suzy Parker mad with jealousy or JULIE (1956) where he stalks and terrorizes poor Doris Day. In retrospect Jourdan was incredibly apt at portraying men with questionable motives and he had a viper-like way of honing in on naive young women who became easy prey. It doesn’t surprise me that he eventually ended up playing a comic-book villain in SWAMPTHING (1982) and a James Bond baddie in OCTOPUSSY (1983). But if I had to select his most fearsome role I’d single out Jourdan’s outstanding turn as the infamous bloodsucking Count in COUNT DRACULA (1977).

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The Movies That Never Stood a Chance

TCM wraps up 31 Days of Oscar tomorrow night, one day after the Oscars themselves run tonight.  Soon the newest Best Picture Oscar will be handed out and already there are plenty of critics and bloggers making lists ranking the best and worst Best Pictures in history.  But this year’s crop of nominees got me to thinking about something else.  With a science fiction movie among the front runners for Best Picture (Gravity), something that rarely happens, I began thinking of all the science fiction, action-adventure, fantasy, horror movies that I love that could have taken Best Picture except for the pesky little fact that almost none were ever nominated in the first place.  I shall restrict myself, as I often do on these lists, to movies from the thirties (starting with 1931), the decade when, had the Academy nominated or awarded these movies, a quite different precedent would have been set allowing for richer competition in the years to come.  But they didn’t.  From the start, they made it clear that Best Picture pretty much meant “Genre Pictures Need Not Apply.”

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When The Exotic Became Commonplace

Late tonight on TCM, in the early morning hours of tomorrow, three movies back to back to back, Trader Horn, Malaya and Macao, feature what were once exotic, unknown locales.   Trader Horn is the most famous of the three but still has no official release on DVD, possibly due to the story elements of the time that make for some seriously uncomfortable viewing today.  That is to say, the African tribes are portrayed as primitive savages and the white girl they kidnapped as a child is now worshiped as a white goddess.   But wait, it gets better (by which I mean, worse).  Animals like lions were mistreated, starved to make them attack hyenas and members of the cast and crew got sick and two of them even died.  So, yeah, the whole thing feels kind of dirty at this point but it’s a record of those attitudes and methods and, frankly, I always recommend watching things like that because it’s an undeniably important artifact for the very reason it’s also rather distasteful.   But here’s what you don’t need to see it for: The exotic locations.  Why?  They’re not exotic anymore.

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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]

The Sinister Charm of Simon Ward

One of the strangest aspects of today’s Internet film culture is being bombarded by death notices week after week. No one’s life is unworthy of celebration and onetime television TV actors with a single role under the belt often compete with Oscar winning movie stars for attention after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.

In the flood of online wakes that seem to accumulate around every actor’s death it has become nearly impossible to overlook anyone’s passing so you can imagine my surprise when I recently discovered that one of my favorite British actors, the talented Simon Ward, had passed away in July following a long illness and I had managed to overlook it. Even more depressing were some of the obituaries I read that glossed over much of his career and seemed to suggest that Ward hadn’t lived up to his potential while completely ignoring his outstanding contributions to horror cinema.

Naturally I felt the urge to rectify this since I had grown up admiring the actor in a bundle of praiseworthy thrillers so October seemed like the perfect month to spotlight Simon Ward’s contribution to a genre that continues to divide critics and audiences.

Simon Ward was born on October 16, 1941. At age 13 he joined London’s National Youth Theater and continued to study at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts,). He started acting in British television productions in the mid-1960s and after taking an unaccredited role in Lindsay Anderson’s IF…. (1967), Ward was offered his first major film role in David Greene’s exceptional British thriller, I START COUNTING (1969). Ward’s boyish good looks and edgy screen presence allowed him to effortlessly transform himself into seductive villains as well as romantic heroes but his chameleon-like abilities may have confused producers who couldn’t easily pigeonhole him and didn’t seem to know how to harness his talent.

The actor went on to appear in many popular and critically acclaimed films including YOUNG CHURCHILL (1972), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1973), THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1974) and ZULU DAWN (1979) but throughout his career Ward returned again and again to the horror genre. Here’s a brief rundown of some of the best horror films and thrillers he appeared in.

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