Friday, 29 March 2019

Larry Cohen

I’ve been a fan of Larry Cohen’s work for about as long as I can remember.

Ok, perhaps not quite that long, but certainly since I first acquired a DVD player at some point in the early 2000s, and made the then newly reissued ‘Q: The Winged Serpent’ (1982) one of my inaugural impulsive purchases in this exciting new format.

I mean, who wouldn’t? Just look at the damn thing.

Long story short, I fucking loved it. I still do. It’s one of my absolute favourite movies. To this day, I’ve rarely seen a film that dared to be so much better, so much more original, than the constraints of its genre, budgetary status and marketing materials lead the audience to expect. I mean, most filmmakers would probably have been content just to have created a down-on-the-street New York crime story so compelling that it could made for a respectable addition to the ‘Mean Streets’ / ‘Serpico’ canon in its own right; but to then amp it up with decapitated sunbathers, sinister Aztec cultists skinning people alive and David Carradine blasting a tommy gun in the face of stop motion god-monster on top of the Chrysler Building..? Good grief.

Whoever this Larry Cohen guy was (and his “WRITTEN, DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY..” credit leaves little room for authorial ambiguity), I immediately knew he was on my wave length (or rather, I aspired to be on HIS wave length, I suppose).

Learning more about ‘Q’s production circumstances over the years, my admiration for what Cohen managed to achieve with it has only increased. Like all of his films, it basically just began with a good idea and a throw of the dice. (He always claimed that he launched the production in a fit of pique after being fired from an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s ‘I, The Jury’, making initial calls to cast, crew and financial backers from his studio-booked hotel room and shooting the first footage for ‘Q’ the very next day.)

Looking back over Cohen’s filmography, it’s fair to say that this impulsive approach to movie-making – zero pre-production planning, total faith in on-set improvisation – was both his greatest strength and his Achilles’ heel. Sometimes he rolled a five, sometimes an eight, but on ‘Q’, he ended up with a double six staring back at him. Everything just comes together beautifully. Though fans of the equally extraordinary ‘God Told Me To’ (1976) could make a strong argument to the contrary, I still think it’s his masterpiece.

Cohen also claimed – in his characteristically entertaining audio commentary - that he met Michael Moriarty randomly, in a restaurant ferchristsake, immediately offered him a part in the film and began rewriting the script around him, resulting in what is almost certainly the best performance in either man’s career.

He also very nearly ended up in jail (surely only the intervention of friends in high places can possibly have kept him out of the cells) after causing a major security incident in New York City when – asking no one’s permission, as per usual – he had his people climb to the top of the Chrysler Building, hi-jack the hanging baskets used by steeplejacks carrying out renovation work, and start blasting away at an invisible monster with prop machine guns… whilst simultaneously stealing footage of the people on the streets below fleeing in panic!

Though Cohen perhaps never pulled off anything else quite so audacious / insane [delete as applicable], his best films of the ‘70s are full of similarly electrifying moments, in which the violent drama of the fictional narrative crashes headfirst into the real world, capturing the reactions of unsuspecting bystanders (see Andy Kaufman going crazy in the midst of the St Patrick’s Day parade in ‘God Told Me To’, or Fred Williamson staggering across Times Square with a bullet wound in ‘Black Caesar’(1973)). Although he seems to have largely curtailed these shenanigans from the mid ‘80s onward (perhaps considerations of safety and sanity began to win out), these outbursts of chaos are emblematic off the off kilter, anything-could-happen-next energy that defines the entirety of Cohen’s career.

Though he was still a young man when the ‘60s hit, Cohen never really seems to have embraced that decade’s counter-culture. In spite of the gonzo antics outlined above, he was never exactly what you’d call a rock n’ roll kinda guy. In fact, his aspirations early in life involved becoming a borsch-belt comedian or nightclub crooner, before unsolicited script submissions led him toward a career in network TV and, subsequently, independent filmmaking.

(All this is outlined, by the way, in Steve Mitchell’s 2017 documentary ‘King Cohen’, which I watched this week in preparation for writing this post; an excellent doc, and solid gold for anyone who enjoys listening to movie people talking – recommended.)

Despite this however, Cohen’s films and scripts are united by a rebellious spirit, and almost always manage to sneak in an element of pointed social criticism, hidden in plain sight beneath a thin veneer of commercial ballyhoo. Dealing candidly (sometimes furiously) with issues of societal inequality, race / gender / age discrimination and institutional corruption, his writing exhibits a near-obsessive distrust of authority, counselling profound suspicion of the motives of police and government, and frequently pitting unpredictable, potentially dangerous, outsiders against a hierarchy of ineffectual, morally tainted patriarchal figures.

These concerns are perhaps most immediately evident in Cohen’s directorial debut, ‘Bone’ (1970), an extraordinary and uncategorisable social satire which proved impossible to market at the time, and that remains sadly underappreciated to this day. (I reviewed it here as part of a Yaphet Kotto blogathon way back in 2010, though I can’t really vouch for the veracity of my writing or opinions at that time.)

Even more transgressive in their own way though are Cohen’s 1974 hit ‘It’s Alive’ and it’s two sequels – films whose outrageous, envelope-pushing subject matter allowed goofy, bad taste monster attack scenes to exist side by side with harrowing, elemental human drama, whilst also asking their audience to reflect on such startling sights as (in ‘It Lives Again’, 1978) an army of heavily armed riot police surrounding a hospital specifically for the purpose of killing a new born child, whilst a small band of dissidents try to smuggle the expectant mother into a mobile delivery room hidden in the back of a furniture truck. (Although, this being a Larry Cohen film of course, those dissidents prove to be pretty far from heroic themselves.)

Aside from anything else, the first ‘Alive’ film stands as a clear precursor to the work of both David Cronenberg and Frank Henenlotter, and its key scene - in which John Ryan sits in a hospital waiting room nervously anticipating the birth of his first child, only to instead see a nurse staggering through the door to the maternity ward with her throat torn out - remains one of the most jaw-dropping moments in all of ‘70s horror, created with little more than one good actor, one TV soap opera set and a few squirts of fake blood.

In all of the aforementioned films, there is something dangerous; something new and uncomfortable, giving voice to ideas not normally encountered in commercial genre cinema. Cohen’s persistent refusal to tow the usual line when it comes to deciding which characters are ‘good’, which are ‘bad’, and what should be done about whatever the status quo-upsetting threat under consideration happens to be, allows his work to remain provocative and unnerving to this day.

First and foremost I think, Cohen was a great writer. (This seems a good point at which to drop in mention of his voluminous screenwriting work, which included the creation of the ‘Maniac Cop’ franchise and the 2002 high concept thriller ‘Phone Booth’, amongst many others.)

One of the all-time great ‘high concept’ guys, most of Cohen’s scripts seem tailor made for a “give it to us in one sentence” pitch meeting, but he never failed to wring maximum dramatic value from his latest Crazy Idea, foregrounding character and consequence to give added weight to movies that could easily have become goofy timewasters. In an alternate universe – if he’d had lunch with Rod Sterling, or if he’d got to grips with prose - he could easily have slotted into the pantheon next to Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury.

When the films Cohen directed did fall down or emerge as merely average, it was the vagaries of the execution (variable performances, uninspired camera work, botched effects, wonky pacing or simply a lack of time/resources) that let them down. His ideas and his instincts were always on-point, and, given the seat-of-his-pants circumstances under which he worked, it’s remarkable that he rarely, if ever, came up snake eyes.

To date, I’ve never seen a Larry Cohen film that wasn’t worth watching at least once, but, having said that, his extended catalogue is pretty damn vast, considering his preference for outré subject matter and his constant battles with studios and distributers. I’ve been gradually trying to fill in the gaps for myself over the past few years, but, watching the aforementioned documentary served to remind me just how many titles I still have to go.

In ‘King Cohen’, you will hear Martin Scorsese speak eloquently about the importance of Cohen’s near forgotten 1977 FBI biopic ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’. You will learn that his 1987 Stephen King sequel ‘Return to Salem’s Lot’ featured an elderly Sam Fuller teaming up with Michael Moriarty to battle vampires (now THAT I’ve got to see), or that he gave Bette Davis her final movie role in an ill-fated comedy named ‘Wicked Stepmother’ (1989), introducing a ‘body swap’ element into the script in order to allow him to finish the film after health problems and bad feeling led Davis to bail before the completion of shooting.

And, that’s before we even mention his 1980 horror-comedy ‘Full Moon High’ (four years before ‘Teen Wolf’, folks), or ‘Original Gangstas’ (1996), the post-‘Boyz N The Hood’ gang warfare movie he made in collaboration with Fred Williamson, casting genuine gang members in Gary, Indiana.

One suspects that Cohen’s dice hand may finally have failed him on some of these lesser known oddities, but you know, he who dares etc… I look forward to catching up with them at some point.

What a wild rampage of a career. Though Cohen effectively retired from directing in the 21st century (his 2006 ‘Masters of Horror’ episode ‘Pick Me Up’ – a final collaboration with Moriarty - was the only exception), he continued to keep the wolf from the door by writing prolifically for films and TV (in particular, the success of ‘Phone Booth’ seems to have made him the go-to guy for phone-related DTV horror flicks, strangely enough) – but I’m really glad that Mitchell’s aforementioned documentary came through in time to top off his filmography with an appropriately heartfelt tribute to his achievements.

Of course, the summary I’ve banged out above barely begins to scratch the surface of a full life of creative endeavour. How many spec scripts did he sell over the years, only to see them disappear into the ether? And I’m sure that a devotee of ‘60s American TV could probably write an even longer obit post, running down his successes and innovations in that field.

However you approach his career though, Larry Cohen stands as a pioneering figure in the realm of self-sufficient, independent American cinema, a persistent thorn in the side of slick, studio conformity, and a relentless champion of a wilder, weirder, angrier voices within popular entertainment. He will be much missed.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Blood Island Journal # 2:
Brides of Blood
(Gerardo de Leon
& Eddie Romero, 1968)

OBLIGATORY SCREENSHOT DISCLAIMER: As usual, I need to make clear that the screenshots above are sourced from an old DVD edition of this film, and NOT from the recent Severin blu-ray referred to in the text, which I can confirm looks a lot better.

I should also note that the footnotes in this review deal exclusively with background on the cast members, so please let this inform your decision re: whether or not you wish to scroll down to read ‘em.


Coming to 1968’s ‘Brides of Blood’ straight off the back of Eddie Romero & Gerardo de Leon’s initial excursion into the realms of South Seas monsterism, 1959’s highly accomplished Terror is a Man, is a transition guaranteed to provoke a bad case a cinematic whiplash.

Whereas in ‘Terror..’, character beats and plot situations were simple, clearly outlined and anchored by a set of solid performances, the opening scene of ‘Brides..’ instead finds us thrown into a cramped ship’s cabin, where a bunch of guys – and one token ‘blonde bombshell’ (‘Miss Beverly Hills’, later known as Beverly Powers) – sit around a table, midway through a conversation that doesn’t really seem to make a whole lot of sense (the poor sound recording doesn’t help matters).

Who are they? What are they up to? With no proper introductions, the amount of time it takes us to figure out the answers to these questions is frankly pretty annoying. I know that we movie reviewers are traditionally supposed to be dismissive of “exposition”, but can I have some please?

There seems to be some kind of innuendo going on concerning the sexual inadequacy of the blonde’s husband, and her implied attraction to a husky, shirtless sailor who stands behind her. In a scene that has absolutely no connection to anything else that happens in the film, this sailor proceeds to take matters into his own hands by pushing the woman into a cabin and violently forcing himself upon her. Pretty rough stuff for any movie’s opening minutes, but don’t worry readers - it’s one of those movie rapes where she seems to be quite into it. Because she’s a slut, I suppose? That’s what we in the business call “characterisation”, folks! (1)

Welcome to the choppy waters of Blood Island. “Here comes the local rotary club,” sneers Beverley, apparently none the worse for her recent assault, as the “natives” parade from their huts to welcome our protagonists (whoever they are) as they disembark upon the golden shores of this torrid tropical paradise.

Welcoming the new arrivals to his hut, the village’s dignified headman (played by Andres Centenera, who has a great face for horror movies) tells his guests that he is happy to see them, but wishes they could have visited a few months earlier, because unspecified events have recently caused his people to “return to primitive ways”, for which he feels great shame. (Speaking as someone with a spare bedroom, I know how he feels.)

The headman does not expand upon this unsettling line of chat, but he does introduce us to his comely granddaughter Alam (Eva Darren), who speaks perfect English and, like all the women on Blood Island, wears a fetching full length skirt and strapless bra ensemble made from floral patterned fabric. In all seriousness, it’s a great look. (2)

By this point, I think we’ve more or less got the drop of who our ‘heroes’ are. Beverly’s character name is Carla Henderson, and her husband is Dr Paul Henderson, a scientist who has returned to the island to do some unspecified tests that later turn out to have something to do with nearby atomic testing. As played by aging b-movie stalwart Kent Taylor, Dr Henderson resembles Vincent Price after a five-day drinking binge, and proves similarly ineffectual. His wife meanwhile seems determined to continue crowbarring crude sexual innuendoes into every conversation, no matter how inappropriate. (3)

Accompanying this happy couple is a happy-go-lucky young matinee idol type played by John Ashley. This turns out to be Jim, a “Peace Corps man”, apparently. I confess ignorance re: the operations of the Peace Corps, but I can only imagine Jim must have pissed off someone pretty important to find himself shipped out to Blood Island to teach the locals how to dig irrigation ditches. Still, he seems happy enough, especially once he sets eyes on Alam. (4)

So I’ll be honest with you – the first half an hour of ‘Brides of Blood’ is pretty hard going. So much so that I began to seriously question the wisdom of my decision to spend a not inconsiderable amount of money on a blu-ray box set of these films. Though there are some artfully composed, low angle shots here and there (a Gerry de Leon speciality, it seems), the majority of the direction is pure “point & shoot” kind of stuff, whilst performances are hesitant and unconvincing, and the plot rambles on uneventfully like the very worst kind of clock-watching ‘40s b-movie.

As I mentioned in my review of ‘Terror is a Man’, what we are essentially looking at here I think is a pair of talented and creative filmmakers delivering product “on spec” for an American distributor (Hemisphere Films), fully aware that their paymasters only priorities were to keep things cheap and provide enough exploitable material for the U.S. drive-in market. Back in ’59, de Leon and Romero were still making an effort, but by this stage, their disinterest in the material is clear.

The introduction of a colonial plantation owner type (Mario Montenegro) seems a potentially interesting development, and I liked the fact that none of the American visitors seem to bat an eyelid at the fact that his household comprises a hulking, whip-wielding major domo named Goro (Eddie Romero regular Bruno Punzalan) and a coterie of capering dwarfs in loincloths. (I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’d at least have some concerns about who cooked the soup.)

Later scenes shot in the (studio?) interior of this guy’s mansion are composed with a greater degree of care than the island location stuff, lending them a nice, over-heated Italian gothic feel, but the initial sequences involving him drag terribly, especially as the run-time is painfully padded out with footage of people tramping back and forth through jungle clearings as they move between the ‘village’ and ‘mansion’ locations.

The only thing that this opening stretch of ‘Brides..’ really has going for it in fact is the uniquely weird atmosphere shared by all of these Filipino / Hemisphere horror films. In part, this is created by the outrageously lurid colour photography (apparently DP Justo Polino never saw a white shirt he didn’t want to make a little bit green, or a sky that couldn’t be improved by a bit of blazing, radioactive pink), and the cacophonous assemblage of sub-Les Baxter ‘exotica’ on the soundtrack (I hope you dig that “wah-la wala-wala wah-la” chant, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot), but beyond that, a kind of queasy, subliminal strangeness seems to permeate everything on Blood Island.

It’s as if the humid climate and cross-cultural confusion of the shooting location has seeped into the DNA of the film itself. Things have a dazed, unreal quality to them, as reminders of the poverty stricken living conditions of the local extras (scrappy-looking fishing boats and nets hung out to dry, disconcertingly authentic looking mud huts, and hungry looking dogs and pigs snuffling around in the background) find themselves existing side by side with the wildest of movie-making contrivances, such as the goofy totem poles and big ceremonial heads prominently inserted into just about every shot, or the ‘aloha’-style floral necklaces hung around the necks of the modelling agency-sourced female villagers.

This faintly oneiric atmosphere allows the movie to pick up a real crazy head of steam as it goes along, finally boiling over into full scale delirium during the infinitely more entertaining second half.

The first real showstopper comes when some of our Caucasian intruders spy upon the villagers’ ceremony of appeasement for their resident monster-god. Yes, these are those “primitive ways” that the headman was going on about earlier, and it must be said that whichever of his ancestors came up with them back in the time of the ancients sure wasn’t messing around.

Pungent red gel lighting illuminates the night-for-night photography as braziers burn, clouds of purple smoke waft by, and a pair of nubile, writhing virgins are tied to some of those good ol’ X-shaped cross-beams. Our previously dignified headman takes it upon himself to yank off their strapless floral bras (face it, it was going to happen at some point), before he retreats into the bushes to await the approach of “the evil one”.

And, holy mackerel, what a monster it is! I’ve honestly never seen anything quite like this thing. It looks as if someone dropped a load of toxic blue paint over the head of the Ghostbusters Marshmallow Man and stuck googly eyes and a big, toothy mouth onto the remains of its semi-melted face. I love it! Stomping into view like he owns the joint (SPOILER ALERT: he does), the monster descends upon the helpless females with a mass of echoed groaning, panting noises, giving them a frankly indecent pawing before the camera cuts in close on their screaming faces, and the scene – perhaps mercifully – cuts.

Pretty freaky stuff for ’68, but, in case all this wasn’t sleazy enough for you, a subsequent dialogue exchange between Alam and Jim leaves us in no doubt whatsoever so to what this extraordinary beast was actually getting up to just out of shot;

“The men will survive this, because it needs only women. He does not devour his victims, he merely satisfies himself on them.”

“But they were torn to pieces!”

“This is his way of satisfying himself.”


The flimsy rationale for this monstrous activity turns out to involve side effects from the Bikini Atoll bomb tests (Blood Island must have been just downwind, presumably). In addition to causing one of the island’s most prominent citizens to transform into an amorous sludge monster whenever the moon is high, this pesky radiation has also played havoc with the island’s eco-system, causing trees to sprout aggressive, independently mobile vines, which writhe around like bulbous tentacles, fatally ensnaring anyone who veers too close to them. What fun!

Basically, where the first half of ‘Brides..’ saw a lot of people walking interminably through the jungle for no particularly compelling reason, the second half finds them running through it for no particularly compelling reason, shouting and screaming, hacking away at murderous vine-tentacles, and perhaps even being chased by the monster and/or Goro. All of which proves a hell of a lot more entertaining, needless to say.

Whilst all this is going on meanwhile, the dynamic Dr Henderson seems primarily concerned by the unusual behaviour exhibited by a cockroach he has trapped in a jar; “you should have seen this little beast - it had horns and fangs, and even tried to attack a lizard”. For Chrissakes, look out the window, doc – your wife’s about to get eaten by an independently mobile mutant tree! Bloody scientists, I don’t know.

This apparent disdain for the scientific method also extends to the movie’s conclusion. Whereas b-movie convention would normally dictate that Henderson should come up with some ingenious means of combatting the monster and returning the island’s foliage to its natural state, de Leon & Romero instead posit a simpler solution, as John Ashley simply hands out flaming torches to the villagers and suggests that the time has come to just find this goddamn monster and fuck it up. Which they then proceed to do. God bless the Peace Corps!

After the beast has been dispatched in the requisite fiery conflagration, the movie, wonderfully, continues to play out for a further seven minutes of joyous celebration. Maximum tiki bar vibes are in effect here, as the remaining villagers use the same clearing they had previously employed for their ritual sacrifices to stage a rip-roaring party. The blues and purples of the colour scheme become almost overwhelming, as the island’s more attractive young people writhe and grind against each other to the hypnotic sound of the pipes and drums (we’ll be seeing a lot more of this in the following year’s ‘Mad Doctor of Blood Island’), with things eventually reaching their climax as Alam performs a smokin’ hot erotic dance for the enjoyment of of Hero Jim. Oh yeah!

The head-man, who a few minutes of screen-time earlier had been ready to feed his granddaughter to the ancestral god-monster, is now seen happily groovin’ it up, swigging from a mug of the local home brew and casting approving looks in the direction of his potential new grandson-in-law. Other couples meanwhile sneak off into the undergrowth to get busy with their own “primitive ways”, having apparently decided to overlook the fact that their island has been irreparably ravaged by H-bomb radiation, and that the trees are liable to spring into life and strangle them at any moment. Good times! I forget what happened to Carla and the good doctor, but frankly, who cares.

This was my first proper visit to Blood Island, and I must say, whilst it took me a while to settle in, I ended up having a great time. I really got a kick out of the dancing, and the totem poles, and the sunsets… but most of all it was the PEOPLE who really made it worthwhile. So friendly! And the sludge monster. He was pretty cool too. I give it four stars on Trip Advisor, and I’m looking forward to heading back soon.

Posters sourced via Wrong Side of the Art.


(1) This whole business must have been a bit of a baptism of fire for Miss Hills/Powers, who a few months earlier was twistin’ with The King himself in the 1968 Elvis movie ‘Speedway’. A prolific Hollywood bit player and TV actress with a wealth of ‘stripper’, ‘blonde’ and ‘dancer’ roles on her CV, she seems to have retired from the screen in the mid-‘70s, shortly after appearing as ‘Topless Swimmer [Uncredited]’ in ‘Jaws’.

(2) Happily, Eva Darren appears to have enjoyed a long and rewarding acting career subsequent to her appearance in ‘Brides..’, working in Filipino film and TV right up to the present day. Incidentally, IMDB lists her character name here as ‘Alma’, but I’m pretty sure the people in the movie are saying ‘Alam’, so will go with that.

(3) Described by IMDB as “..a modestly popular “B” actor of the 1930s and 1940s”, Kent Taylor retired from acting in 1975 – perhaps wisely, given the questionable immortality he had acquired in the preceding decade for his rather doddering appearances in such Al Adamson atrocities as ‘Satan’s Sadists’ and ‘Brain of Blood’. (BEST CREDIT: he appeared as a character named “Tonga Jack Adams” in the Florida-shot jungle movie ‘The Mighty Gorga’ in 1969.)

(4)Apparently Ashley was so taken with The Philippines that he more or less relocated to Manila after shooting ‘Brides..’, appearing in just about all of the subsequent Hemisphere horror films, and acting as a producer/fixer for numerous U.S.-Filipino co-productions in the following decade. Gossip  suggests that Ashley was undergoing a messy divorce from fellow AIP Beach Party alumnus Deborah Walley when he agreed to appear in ‘Brides of Blood’ (perhaps the title appealed?), and that his off-screen adventures with the local female population had much to do with his enthusiasm for Filipino life.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Noir Diary # 2:
Dark Passage
(Delmer Davies, 1947)

Ah, Bogart and Bacall. Need I say more? ‘To Have and Have Not’. ‘Key Largo’. ‘The Big Sleep’. ‘Dark Passage’. Wait a minute, what was that last one again…?

Yes, no one ever talks about ‘Dark Passage’, do they? I wonder if there might be a reason for that? Only one way to find out…

Adapted by director Delmer Davies from the David Goodis novel of the same name (after Bogart himself apparently took a shine to it), ‘Dark Passage’ gets straight down to business with Bogie (or at least, an unseen man with Bogie’s voice – see below) escaping from San Quentin, hidden inside a barrel on the back of a truck.

Taking a dive into the undergrowth at the side of the road, he proceeds to hitch a lift from sneering Warner Bros stock player Clifton Young, essaying the kind of motorist who apparently doesn’t think twice about picking up shabby looking guys in overalls who are mysteriously marooned just down the road from California’s largest prison. An inconvenient radio announcement however alerts the driver (and indeed, us viewers) to the fact that one Vincent Parry – imprisoned for the murder of his wife – has escaped and is on the run, forcing Parry (as we can now identify our protagonist) to lamp Young on the jaw and flee back the questionable safety of the roadside shrubbery.

Just as he is trying the unconscious man’s shoes on for size, he is interrupted by the more promising appearance of Lauren Bacall, who tells him to get in her car pronto before the cops pick him up. For a few seconds, we assume that the pair must know each other, but, as they make the tense run back toward San Francisco, passing through a roadblock on the Golden Gate Bridge with Parry hunkered down under canvas in the back seat, it becomes clear that they have never previously met.

Explaining her actions, Bacall’s character (Irene Jansen to the likes of us) claims that, due to the fact that her own father died in prison after being framed for murder, she has taken a sympathetic interest in Parry’s case after reading about it in the papers, and… well, she just happened to be in the area painting some landscapes when she heard about his escape on the radio, so what the heck, right?

And if you believe THAT, well… perhaps you’ll also be able overlook the question of exactly she managed to pinpoint Parry’s exact location before the cops did. If such unlikely events are liable to pose a problem for you, you should probably be warned that you’re in for a long, hard road with this movie, and it only gets worse from hereon-in. But, for those of us willing to simply accept all this as an intriguing and exciting set-up for a crime story, well… I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I thought the first half of ‘Dark Passage’ was pretty damn great.

We should probably pause at this point to address what, for many, will be the film’s most noteworthy element – namely the fact that our protagonist’s face remains entirely invisible to us for the first hour, with Davies instead relying extensively upon the use of handheld, subjective POV shots.

The director and his collaborators deserve credit here I think for ensuring that this technique never becomes merely a distracting gimmick. The “first person shooter” type material is carefully balanced out by more traditional back of head / long shot footage (not to mention a great taxi ride in which Parry’s face is shrouded in shadow), and the reason for this unusual conceit eventually becomes clear when we see a photograph of Vincent Parry in a newspaper, and realise that he looks absolutely nothing like Humphrey Bogart.

(At which point, legend has it, old Jack Warner nearly suffered a heart attack upon viewing the dailies and realising that he was financing a movie in which his biggest star pointedly did not appear… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.)

After laying low in Irene’s beautifully decorated pad for long enough to take a shower and acquire a new set of duds (like a true early 20th century bad-ass, he knows his inner leg measurement and hat size right off the bat), Parry is soon on the run once again, after the apartment is besieged by Irene’s busy-body frenemy Madge (Agnes Moorehead), who – cue outrageous coincidence number two – turns out to be the same woman whose testimony led to Parry conviction for his wife’s murder in the first place! At this point, even the most credulous of viewers will likely start to suspect an ulterior motive behind Irene’s impulsive decision to act as Parry’s guardian angel, but… best not hold that thought for too long, because the script for ‘Dark Passage’ certainly doesn’t.

Thankfully, such lackadaisical plotting becomes easier to overlook through the next few sequences, which see the film lurching toward what I can only describe as a kind of hard-boiled surrealism, temporarily casting our faceless hero into a weird, urban netherworld that could almost have been pulled from a William S. Burroughs novel.

As Parry drifts aimlessly through the Mission District in the back of a cab, contemplating his sorry situation, the amiable driver – clearly one of Burroughs’ “good Johnsons” – soon wises up to his passenger’s identity. After expressing his opinion that Parry got a raw deal from the law (“I figure you slugged her with that ashtray because she made life difficult for you. I know how it is.”). The cabbie suggests they pay a visit to “a friend of mine - knows his stuff”, who might be able to help him out. Hey, why not?

Now, clearly, the idea that Parry has providentially stumbled upon some genius back street doctor willing to perform miraculous feats of plastic surgery for a couple of hundred bucks - in ninety minutes, at 3 o’clock in the morning, in 1947 - is so utterly fantastic that we’re forced to do more or less what our exhausted protagonist does, and just go along with it in a state of dazed disbelief.

“I perfected my own special technique twelve years ago, before I was kicked out of the Medical Association,” explains the doctor (Houseley Stevenson) as he sharpens his straight razor. “My method is based partly on calling a spade a spade. I don't monkey around. Have you got the money?”

Well I don’t know about you, but I’d probably hand it over. Stevenson has one hell of a bedside manner, and, as sloppy as this movie’s scripting may be elsewhere, the dialogue assigned to both he and Tom D’Andrea’s good samaritan cabbie is absolutely fantastic. Both actors deliver splendid character turns that, along with Davies’s bold, expressionistic direction (including a classic long-plunge-to-oblivion nightmare bit when the doc administers the anaesthetic), help to sell these potentially ridiculous events to us quite brilliantly.(1)

After curtly advising him that his bandages can be removed in twelve days, and that, until then, he needs to stay on a liquid diet, can’t speak and must sleep on his back with his arms tied to the bed (“you can smoke, but - use a holder”), the doc bids farewell to Parry – his face now a recognisably Bogart-shaped mass of bandages – as the sun rises over the bay.

For a while after the operation sequence, the film retains a sense of jittery, off-kilter adrenalin, presumably reflecting Parry’s frantic state of mind as he sets off in search of a safe place to recuperate. In a scene almost worthy of a ‘Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid’ style parody, our hero returns first to the home of his best pal – a down-on-his-luck jazz musician – only to discover that the poor guy has been beaten to death with his own horn!

“The only thing he ever wanted was to go to South America with me, and to play that trumpet,” Bogart’s voiceover deadpans, as he raises the bent instrument into shot. “That's all he wanted out of life. Go to Peru, play a trumpet. Now he's dead.”

It is at moments like this that I wonder why I waste my time watching films that are not late ‘40s noirs.

This is closely followed by another great moment, when, returning in exhausted desperation to Irene’s place, Parry staggers, barely conscious, up one of those vertiginous San Francisco hills, only to find an open-topped car parked outside the apartment building… with the same highly distinctive seat covers he had previously noted on the one belonging to the by now long-forgotten motorist whom he slugged at the side of road! The plot thickens…

Unfortunately however, it never really thickens into anything terribly interesting, and it is a sad irony that, from the moment Bacall eventually removes Bogart’s bandages following a fortnight of caring ministrations, finally revealing the iconic face of the film’s star, ‘Dark Passage’s momentum sags fatally and never really recovers.

I’ve not had the opportunity to read the Goodis source novel, but, knowing that author’s gift for exploring the inner life of his doomed and desperate characters, I can well imagine him pulling something worthwhile out of this story. Rendered as a flat Hollywood thriller however, the resolution of the film’s central murder mystery plotline achieves the rare distinction of being both unfeasible and boring, despite the admirable efforts of Agnes Moorehead, chomping her way through the scenery like a thespian pit-bull.

Also off-putting, from my point of view at least, was the sense of schizophrenia that seems to afflict Bogart’s characterisation throughout the movie. Although we never get much background on Vincent Parry, all available evidence seems to suggest that, prior to the misfortune of being framed for his wife’s murder, he was, well… a bit of a chump, to not put too fine a point on it.

We build an impression of him as a bland, middle-aged guy, stuck in a loveless marriage, who presumably hoofed it into the city each day to do some sedate desk job, before spending his leisure time drinking cocktails with a group of insular, bitchy friends who didn’t even seem to like him very much. So - not exactly your average Humphrey Bogart character, in other words.

It’s surely no accident that, prior to the surgery, the doctor tells Parry, “I’ll make you look as if you’ve lived” – that of course being the essential quality Bogart brought to all his roles - but unfortunately the disjuncture between actor and character here extends beyond the kind of cognitive dissonance you’d reasonably expect from this kind of face-swap story.

Armed with that voice even before he goes under the knife, Parry sometimes seems as panicked and clueless as we’d expect of an average joe in his situation, but elsewhere in the film, he suddenly becomes proficient in slugging guys in the face, handling guns and talking turkey with small-time hoodlums… not to mention having a loyal best friend who’s a down-on-his-luck jazz musician. So, who exactly are we watching here? Vincent Parry, the mild-mannered suburban fall guy, or Humphrey Bogart, the movie star, roaming free in his usual hard-boiled persona? Like so much in ‘Dark Passage’, the whole thing never really gels.

Likewise, I find it difficult to believe that Goodis’s novel gave this story’s central couple as easy a ride together as they get here. Bacall is excellent here, projecting a mixture of menace, mystery, practicality and vulnerability that pretty much nails exactly what’s needed for a female lead in a film noir, but, as I’ve mentioned above, the character's behaviour is also profoundly suspicious from the outset. In any other noir, she’d have made for such an obvious femme fatale they might as well have decorated her apartment with a giant spider’s web.

But, as an early example perhaps of the kind of “star driven” scripting that has blighted so much Hollywood product in the 21st century, ‘Dark Passage’ was clearly built around the famed on-screen chemistry of its real-life star couple, and nothing so silly as “telling a good story” was going to be allowed to upset the thoroughly wholesome nature of their characters’ burgeoning relationship.

This leads us, inevitably, to a deeply unconvincing South of the Border happy ending, complete with a faux-exotic night club setting, which feels very much like a limp attempt to reignite the romanticism of ‘Casablanca’. This seems especially ironic, given that that film’s entire emotional arc was predicated on the idea of a couple who don’t get together at the end, but whatcha gonna do?

Though a deeply flawed movie, and an understandable box office failure upon its initial release, I don’t want readers to feel as if I’m coming down too hard on ‘Dark Passage’. At the very least, it remains a prime slice of film noir style from what was arguably the genre’s peak era. Davies’ direction is energetic and accomplished, the San Francisco location shooting is absolutely beautiful, and the stand-out sequences during the first half are total classics. Even after that, you’ve still got a cast that can legitimately be termed “legendary” firing on all cylinders.

With all that in the ‘plus’ column, who am I to sit here giving it the “script problems from day one” treatment? If you’re a noir fan, or a Bogart fan, or a Bacall fan (or hell, even a Houseley Stevenson fan) and you’ve previously overlooked this one – give it a try, it’s well worth your time.


(1)TRIVIA ALERT: Houseley Stevenson was the father of Onslow Stevens(on), who enjoyed a parallel Hollywood career, also seemingly specialising in doctors. He played the doctor in Universal’s ‘House of Dracula’ two years prior to this film, and went on to wield a stethoscope in ‘Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ (1948) and ‘The Creeper’ (1948) amongst many others, before expanding his range to play a general in ‘Them!’ (1954). Suffice to say, despite his best efforts, his Dad beat him hands-down when it came to movie doctors, if his performance in ‘Dark Passage’ is anything to go by.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Blood Island Journal # 1:
Terror is a Man
(Gerardo de Leon
& Eddie Romero, 1959)

 One of the ideas that has long been on my list of “things to do” on this blog is to start a series writing about what I tend to mentally categorise as “East Meets West” genre cinema. By this, I mean the seemingly endless number of movies that resulted from filmmakers with an eye toward the American (or occasionally European) grindhouse/drive-in circuit suddenly deciding to take advantage of the possibilities offered by East Asian culture, shooting locations or personnel – with wildly varied results, needless to say, although these productions can usually be loosely united by the fact that they’re almost always uproariously entertaining.

Naturally, the vast majority of this globe-trotting activity took place in the aftermath of Bruce Lee’s breakout success in the early 1970s and the subsequent explosion of interest in martial arts, but the foundations of the trend were actually in place long before that, and Ground Zero, of course, was The Philippines.

Now, I’m not sufficiently schooled in the history to Filipino cinema to really go into any detail about how the nation’s nascent commercial film industry was kick-started by the influx of American culture and equipment that followed in the wake of the Korean War in (and, subsequently, by the Marcos regime’s enthusiastic encouragement of international co-productions), but I DO know that the earliest film I’ve seen that fits this “East Meets West” category is ‘Terror is a Man’, an ambitious and well-realised 1959 horror film directed and produced by Filipino nationals Gerardo de Leon and Eddie Romero.

Although ‘Terror is a Man’ was technically a 100% Filipino production, the audience that Romero and de Leon were aiming their film at is as clear as the Pan Am baggage ticket that presumably took their film canisters across the Pacific. Shot in English with a Caucasian central cast, the film purports to be set on an island “…one thousand miles off the coast of Peru”, and relegates Filipino performers exclusively to servant / villager roles. In just about every respect in fact, it follows the pattern set by American b-horror films of the ‘40s and ‘50s to a tee.

The big surprise here however is that ‘Terror is a Man’ is actually a really good faux-American b-movie, drawing as much from the storied Lewton / Tourneur legacy is it does from the kind of lurid creature features that it was destined to share bills with in middle-American drive-ins.

On the face of it of course, there is no reason why we should be surprised at the film’s quality. Operating outside of anyone’s stereotypical assumptions about ‘third world’ movie making, Romero and de Leon both seem to have been cosmopolitan, internationally-minded gentlemen who had been working as film industry professionals for many years before they embarked on their first horror film.What makes ‘Terror..’ surprising in retrospect rather is the knowledge that, during the decade that followed, the two men returned to the fray with a fistful of the most shamelessly stupid, cheeseball trash-horror films that the late 1960s had to offer, produced on-spec at the behest of haemoglobin-fixated New York-based distributors Hemisphere Pictures.

Hopefully we’ll  return to those little wonders at some point in the future, but when it comes to trying to account for the drastic change of approach that separates them from this relatively sombre and seriously intended first foray into the genre, perhaps we’re best to simply conclude that ‘Terror is a Man’ taught our dynamic duo an important lesson re: subtlety rarely paying anyone’s bills at this level of the industry. (“Bring your own tranquilisers!” thundered the posters when Hemisphere belatedly re-released the film as ‘Blood Creature’ in 1965.)

Essentially operating as a minimalist rewrite of ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ - perhaps with a touch of Hammer’s ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ thrown in for good measure - ‘Terror is a Man’ essentially concerns the travails of Bill Fitzgerald (Richard Derr), a shipwrecked American sailor who finds himself washed up upon the troubled shores of the aforementioned island.

Bill awakens to find himself recuperating in the home of one Dr Charles Girard (Francis Lederer), formerly a successful family doctor in New York, who has relocated to this unsurpassably remote locale along with his unfeasibly glamorous young wife Frances (Greta Thyssen), in order (of course) to obtain the privacy he needs to pursue his own private research. (Sure, whatever ya say, doc – I’ll just get the chains and tranquilizer darts ready in advance, shall I?)

It seems that Bill has arrived on the island at an inopportune moment. Moments after he has regained consciousness, the Doctor’s surly assistant Walter (Oscar Keesee) appears to announce that some ill-defined “animal” has escaped “again” from the doctor’s laboratory, prompting the island’s small native population to finally call it a day and bugger off for pastures new in their fishing boats. Only the two young orphans who serve as the Doctor’s loyal servants have chosen to remain, reducing the island’s human population to a slim six, with a rickety wooden dinghy constituting the only way off it.

Recuperating with admirable speed, our hero takes these unpromising developments in his stride. Finding Girard and Walter desperately digging a series of vast pit traps and baiting them with raw meat, he begins cheerfully bantering with them about what kind of critter they’re lookin’ to catch, failing to take the hint even when they continue to evade his questions through the strained, formal dinner that follows that evening. Meanwhile, the rain pours down, storm winds shake the shutters and, out in the distant undergrowth, the “animal” howls with disquieting desperation.

All of which may sound like business as usual for an island-set monster movie, but ‘Terror is a Man’s consummate execution nonetheless places it significantly above the norm for this kind of material.

For one thing, the film is flawlessly atmospheric, as Emmanuel I. Rojas’s classically brooding black & white photography - incorporating some surprisingly elaborate camera movement and looming shadows all over the joint - combines with the authentically primeval tropical locations to create a palpable sense of isolation. If I tell you that the directors’ pacing is ‘deliberate’ meanwhile, that’s not merely a synonym for ‘boring’. On the contrary, the movie ebbs and flows with a distinct rhythm that makes for a highly engaging slow-burn.

For another thing, the film takes a pleasantly off-beat approach to characterisation relative to the cardboard cut-out stuff common to movies like this, aided by a set of performances that, if not exactly Oscar-worthy, are at least pretty solid. I liked the way for instance that Bill is initially far cheerier and less immediately judgemental about all the sinister goings on than macho heroes generally tend to be, and Lederer for his part is actually pretty great in the role of the Doctor. (If you recognise him, b-movie fans, it might be for playing the title role in 1958’s ‘The Return of Dracula’.)

Though Dr Girard is shifty and secretive to a fault to begin with, the scene in which he is eventually forced to come clean about the nature of his experiments actually becomes one of the film’s highlights. After showing Bill a notebook full of (rather cool) sketches of idealised human/animal hybrids, the doctor seems surprised when, rather than greeting these revelations with outraged disgust, Bill expresses a tentative interest in the ideas behind his work. Sensing that he might finally have found a friend, the doc immediately changes his tune, happily inviting the crude sailor down to his previously verboten basement to take a look around and see what he thinks. In terms of mad scientist etiquette, it’s really quite sweet.

Poor Frances too gets a bit more to chew on than the token dames generally do in these things, especially when her character directly addresses the inevitable question of why a beautiful blonde always seems to end up hanging around in these inhospitable locales. Concisely explaining her circumstances to Bill, she asks - what trainee nurse wouldn’t jump at the chance to marry a handsome and wealthy doctor and move to a tropical island? Be careful what you wish for, etc.

Even the servants – a teenage brother and sister whose mother, it later transpires, was killed by the monster – are fairly likeable (the filmmakers are considerate enough to credit them with a certain amount of charm and intelligence), but really, what most people will take away from this film is the memory of that monster itself.

Essentially representing a panther that has, through hundreds of hours of gruelling exploratory surgery, been transformed into the shape of a man, this ghastly, hate and fear-driven shambler, with feline fangs jutting from its jaw and wild patches of fur bursting from its mummy-like bandages, lies somewhere between Christopher Lee’s creature in ‘Curse..’ and the hideous cellar-dweller in Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak on the fear vs sympathy scale.

Though ‘Terror is a Man’ may be subtle in some regards, the vividness with which de Leon and Romero depict the cruelty and torment suffered by this unlikely creature falls way outside the Lewton ballpark. Though there is little explicit gore, the ‘feel’ of the material probably rivals anything that had been done in the horror genre to this point for sheer nastiness.

I mean, at least Dr Moreau’s creations got to roam around in relative freedom, establishing a community and interacting with each other. This poor bastard by contrast has spent its entire waking existence in the House of Pain, leaving it crazed by the constant torment, even before the brutish Walter, resentful of the doctor’s fixation with the creature, begins delivering sadistic beatings to it, in a series of scenes more gruellingly upsetting than anything your correspondent has ever seen in a 50s / 60s monster movie.

Who can blame the misbegotten thing for going on the rampage? Certainly not I, given how comprehensively its suffering casts a pall over the ‘action’ that takes place in the second half of this curiously compelling, thoroughly down-beat attempt by two Far Eastern filmmakers to carve out a space for themselves in the Great American Grindhouse.

Posters sourced via Wrong Side of the Art.