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The Avengers do Benny Hill
"Look -- (Stop me...)" is the most polarizing "Avengers" episode of all, with some people (including Patrick Macnee) rating it the series' peak and others thinking it represents the show's having gone entirely too far. I lean toward the latter opinion because it is literally a live-action cartoon. "The Avengers" was always about putting two cunning, rational professionals into a mad world, but this time out the madness should be institutionalized. In other episodes, notably "The Winged Avenger," which is truly, outrageously bizarre, Steed and (in that case) Emma still act within the confines of reality. "Look -- (Stop...)" however is played as though all the characters, including Steed and Tara King, realize they are characters in a television show, and are there just for the laugh. This is fine for a Benny Hill or Morcambe and Wise sketch, but jarring for "The Avengers." Still, there's the spectacle of Linda Thorson briefly singing and dancing in a clown-nose, which counts for something, and John Cleese in a pre-Python appearance as an unbalanced government grunt in charge of cataloguing clown-makeup painted on eggs. (One guess what happens to the office.) Several of the Tara King episodes are short on humor (if not totally devoid of it), but it's like this show was designed to make up for that all in one swoop, and it's simply too much.
What was the point of making this movie at all? They producers must have gotten money from the Philippines, because there is NO other reason for this atrocity to exist. It is a ripoff of "The Island of Dr. Moreau," but is excruciatingly slow and dull, with unbelievably bad performances, except for Harry Lauter, who at least is in there punching, despite the hideous dialogue. Antoinette Bower shows no vital signs...none. She can't even walk convincingly, and instead looks like she was photographed underwater. There is more expression on the face of CPR resuscitation dummies. Craig Littler, meanwhile, is almost as zonked and wooden, but occasionally shows that he has a pulse. The photography is not bad, but all that means is the scenery chews up the actors. The only professional thing in the movie is the music score, which is quite good. Hopefully it was recycled for a real film.
Ye Olde Minstrels (1941)
Didn't anyone have a normal uncle?
In its heyday MGM was the Tiffany of studios, and the place where film comedy went to die. In the 1920s it took Buster Keaton, robbed him of control, and made him do musicals and use stuntmen. In the 1930s it took the Marx Brothers and, after a good start, made them the zany hosts of increasingly shoddy musicals. in the 1940s it took Laurel and Hardy and simply told them what to do, removing any creative comic spark, sanded Abbott and Costello until they were smooth and shiny, and made Red Skelton a utility comic relief player. In between all that it took over Our Gang and turned them into minstrels, forcing what once had been a group of real kids into a road company Mickey-and-Judy act obsessed with putting on a show. "Ye Olde Minstrels" is the classic example of that. Even as a kid, watching this on TV, I realized how awful it was. If you really must see a white performer in blackface singing "Lazy Moon," watch Oliver Hardy's rendition in 1931's "Pardon Us," where the blackface at least has story motivation. And Ollie could sing.
The Devil Commands (1941)
Eerie in its own way
"The Devil Commands" is a very strange film. Made by the Columbia Pictures B-unit -- and featuring a lot of Columbia B-unit contractees, such as Kenneth McDonald, Richard Fiske, and Cy Schindell, all of whom were regulars in Three Stooge shorts -- it more closely resembles a Monogram opus of the era. Boris Karloff, in kindly-professor mode, plays a scientist investigating the recording of thoughts who becomes a bit unhinged after his wife dies, and begins obsessing on communicating with her from beyond the grave. Helping him is phony medium Anne Revere, who has an unnaturally high tolerance to electricity (ala Universal's "Man-Made Monster," which began development as a Karloff vehicle), and a brain-dead assistant named Carl, played by Schindell, here inexplicable billed as "Ralph Penney". McDonald, meanwhile, is miscast as the tough, no-nonsense sheriff, and Fiske is Karloff's former assistant, who is now worried about his mental health, as is Karloff's daughter, played by someone named Amanda Duff. There is also a classic Universal-inspired torch-carrying mob, which threatens Karloff because they believe he's responsible for several grave robberies in the small village. The dialogue creaks like an old boat, but Karloff is very good in a role that would also have been good for Bela Lugosi (in fact, Lugosi's role in "The Invisible Ghost" is somewhat similar). There is also the spectacle of Kenneth McDonald, whose voice was reminiscent of Karloff's, sharing scenes with the real thing. Anne Revere nearly steals the show with a performance that would make "Mrs. Danvers" shudder, and Richard Fiske shows that he could have developed into a legitimate leading man, had he not tragically been killed in combat in WWII a few years after filming this. The film's most intriguing performance, though, is Schindell's; if you've ever wondered what it would be like to see Lou Costello play "Lennie" in "Of Mice and Men," this will show you. In the final accounting, though, it is Karloff's show. He plays the scientist with quiet conviction and sympathy, and allows the audience to see into the cause of his madness." Karloff could, of course, be great in great films, but he could be wonderful in lesser pictures. The Devil Commands" is not a great film, or even a great B-movie, but it is played with conviction and is an entertaining stew of tropes and cliches.
One of the grisliest for a surprising reason
"A Question of Fear" has the time-honored premise of a boastfully fearless man dared to spend a night in a haunted house, though there is a lot more to it than that (I won't spoil). It is a long, measured horror/ghost story that is genuinely unsettling, but not for its special effects or gruesome makeups. While some of the effects are indeed startling, the makeup is shockingly amateurish. Fritz Weaver's spraycan white hair (which ostensibly turned white from shock) is downright embarrassing, and the makeup on a recurring apparition wouldn't pass the muster in a community theatre. What makes the story so scary is its implication and the performance of Weaver who describes a series of horrors in so chillingly that it doesn't need jumpcut scares and horrible faces. Leslie Nielsen is good as the ultra-macho "hero," but it is Weaver who really smacks this one out of the park.
"The Devil is Not Mocked" about a group of Nazis arriving at a Balkan castle to take it over during World War II is competently done, but anyone who cannot see the punchline coming a kilometer away should stop watching horror films. Particularly unnecessary is a wraparound sequence about a doting grandpa telling his grandson what he did in the great war.
This episode is worth watching largely for "A Question of Fear."
City That Never Sleeps (1953)
Fine noir with a bizarre angle
Think of "City That Never Sleeps" as a combination of "The Naked City" and "It's A Wonderful Life." Narrated (ala "Naked City") by the city of Chicago itself (!), it tells one story of a disillusioned police officer (Gig Young) who is threatening to walk out on both his job and his wife, and how one night forces him to reevaluate his decision and his life. Crisply written, acted (particularly by William Talman, who steals the film as an in-over-his-head con man turned killer), directed, and shot (by noir master John Alton), it qualifies as a great example of the genre. It would have been just fine without the bizarre angle of having the spirit of the city appear, angel-like, in the form of police officer (Chill Wills, also the narrator), who acts as the conscience of hero Gig Young and guides him through the night that will decide his destiny. Why this was included is something of a puzzle, since it gives a supernatural aura to the otherwise gritty, realistic drama. The fine supporting cast includes Edward Arnold (at his slimiest), Marie Windsor (at her shiftiest), Paula Raymond (at her purest), Mala Powers (not quite seasoned enough for her role), and Wally Cassell, who is very affecting as a down-on-his-luck actor reduced to playing a mechanical man in a store window. That character, who turns out to be vitally important to the plot, may have inspired a 1960 "June Allyson Show" in which Harpo Marx played a very similar part. Over all, very worthwhile, even with the odd metaphysical overlay.
The Dead Don't Die (1975)
Has its moments
Made in the heyday of the TV movie-of-the-week, "The Dead Don't Die" can be best thought of as "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" meets "Night of the Living Dead" meets "Chinatown." Written by Robert Bloch and directed by Curtis Harrington, who a couple years earlier had made a truly strange, old-fashioned horror MOW called "The Cat Creature," this film features a host of reliable Golden Age Hollywood actors in cameos, including Joan Blondell, Ralph Meeker, Milton Parsons and William Benedict. It also gives creepy Reggie Nalder a good role, and he's almost as frightening here as he was in "Salem's Lot," but without the extreme makeup. Some eerie zombie scenes and an effective score add to the film's pluses. The minuses, however, start from the top. George Hamilton is badly miscast as the hero who seeks to find out who really murdered the wife of his brother, who was tried and executed for it, but was, of course innocent. The character is supposed to be a tough sailor, but Hamilton gives more of an imitation of a hungover Bruce Dern, saying his lines with the conviction of a script girl. Ray Milland as a sleezy dance-marathon promoter, whom Hamilton manages to convince that he's sees dead people, including his brother, also phones it in. Linda Cristal as a French femme fatale with a Spanish accent at least tries. The period detail is superficial, with the men's hair styles and costumes straight out of the 1970s (as are Billy Benedict's modern eyeglasses). Given the particpation of Bloch and Harrington, the plodding, talky script and flat TV-style direction is particularly disappointing. This seems to have scared a lot of people in 1975, but now, even at 72-minutes, it seems to go on forever. And anyone who can't figure out who the villain of the piece really is must be a genuine zombie.