Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Man Who Could Cheat Death; The Bride and the Beast

It’s Hammer Time!

From the famed British studio comes “The Man Who Could Cheat Death” (1959) a glossy horror flick about a man who has discovered the secret of eternal life. This being a horror flick, such a discovery comes with a price, in this case, killing young, beautiful women and then secreting their glands to keep him going. He looks to be in his mid-30s, but in reality he’s 104 years old.

It’s Paris in the 1880s, and Anton Diffring plays the eternal man, a sculptor who first sculpts busts of his female models before killing them. It’s a good performance from Diffring, who excelled at playing these cold, aristocratic types. His latest victim is played by the stunningly beautiful Hazel Court, whose red hair and alabaster skin made her one of the most beautiful actresses of that era. She’s a wonderful actress too; no ingénue type, but you can feel her growing love for her sculptor, not knowing what he really has in mind for her. Christopher Lee brings up the rear as a doctor who sees his sweetheart fall under the spell of the artist.

The film has a lot going for it. Good cast, great production design (Hammer always made their films look more expensive than they actually were), and evocative lighting. I particularly liked the scene where Diffring opens his safe to drink his mixture to keep from going old. A luminescent green spills over the cup and fills the screen. The mixture looks like Mountain Dew, which made me go to the refrigerator and get a Dew. See, movies can influence behavior.

On the debit side, the film is awfully talky and slow-going. Director Terence Fisher could be a marvelous director, but this is one of his weakest efforts. Horror moments are few and far between, and there’s probably one talk too many about the dangers of prolonging life. The score by the usually reliable Richard Rodney Bennett is pretty undistinguished. The film needed some good old James Bernard bombast to spice things up at the end.

“The Man Who Could Cheat Death” is based on a play by Barre Lyndon called “The Man in Half Moon Street.” (Lyndon wrote the screenplay for “The Lodger” (1944) and “Hangover Square” (1945), two of my all-time favorite Victorian melodramas.)

“The Man in Half Moon Street” was made into a movie by Paramount Pictures in 1944 with Nils Asther and Helen Walker. I haven’t seen that version in probably 30+ years and don’t remember a thing about it, but I would be interested in seeing it again and comparing it to the remake.

“The Man Who Could Cheat Death” is by no means a bad film. It’s beautiful to look at (the DVD transfer is stunning), and is very well acted. It’s just kinda dull and talky. I’m glad I saw it, but for me, its definitely one of the lesser Hammers from the period.

Rating for “The Man Who Could Cheat Death”: Two and a half stars.

Far worst, but in its own way, more watchable is “The Bride and the Beast” (1958). It’s a terrible movie, but it’s so goofy that I found myself being mildly entertained for most of its 78-minute running time.

If the following sounds like an Ed Wood movie, well, that’s because he wrote the script (but not the original story, called “The Queen of the Gorillas” from Adrian Weiss, who also directed and produced).

Laura Fuller (Charlotte Austin) and her husband Dan (Lance Fuller, there’s a male porn star name for you) spend their wedding night at Dan’s house. Dan goes into the jungle to collect specimens for zoos. In the basement is a caged gorilla named Spanky (I am so not going there).

Spanky gets the hots for Laura, breaks out of his cage and steals up to their bedroom. He rips off her nightgown before being shot by Dan. Strangely, Laura does not feel threatened by the monkey’s advances.

The next day, Laura is hypnotized by a doctor. Regressing to a past life, it is learned she was a gorilla in a previous existence; not just any gorilla, but The Queen of the Gorillas. The doctor explains to Dan this probably explains her penchant for wearing angora sweaters (yep, we’re definitely in Ed Wood territory here).

For their honeymoon Dan takes Laura into the African jungle for his next expedition. You guessed it, Laura’s presence attracts the presence of gorillas in the area, setting the stage for the nail-biting climax – will Laura stay with Dan, or will her past life take over, forcing her to stay in the jungle and reclaim her Queen of the Gorillas moniker?

Before this can be decided, we’re treated to lots and lots of stock footage of wildlife in the jungle, including ferocious scenes of tigers in action. What are tigers doing in Africa? I don’t know either, but its likely producer Weiss had the stock footage, so why let it go to waste? In the film’s defense, the tigers are explained away in a scene where Dan is told that a ship leaving Asia with a shipment of animals lost its bearings on the shoals of Africa, and all the animals got loose and were seen roaming around.

“The Bride and the Beast” is badly acted and poorly directed. Its central story idea is goofy beyond belief. It’s probably a one star movie, but because the movie has several good gorilla suits (always a big plus with me), I have to give it an extra half star. Hey, it was better than “Wanted” (2008).

Rating for “The Bride and the Beast”: One and a half stars.

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