Directed by Peter Yates
Written by Stanford Sherman
Starring Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Francesca Annis, Alun Armstrong, David Battley, Bernard Bresslaw, Liam Neeson, John Welsh, and Robbie Coltrane
When I think of swashbuckling, I picture fantastic adventure and daring heroes, such as Sinbad and Robin Hood. The Buck Rogers comic strips and serials brought the sensibilities of the style into the realm of science fiction, and Star Wars launched a powerful franchise out of the mixture of fantasy, adventure, and technology. There have been quite a lot of imitators, but few ever approached the delightful world-building or production values achieved by Krull.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Directed by John S. Robertson
Written by Clara Beranger, based on the play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane, Cecil Clovelly, and Nita Naldi
The story of Jekyll and Hyde is one of the foundations on which modern horror is built. Not only does it have the scientist experimenting on himself, but it lays out the format for internal crises of morality and identity being played out in physical manifestations. Certainly werewolves existed in folklore and fiction beforehand, but they were evil and corrupted in human form as well. Larry Talbot’s struggle against the beast inside of him has more to do with Henry Jekyll than with legend. In one of the most fascinating adaptations of the book, however, Jekyll isn’t initially trying to exorcise evil from the human condition but to let himself enjoy it.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Directed by Terence Fisher
Written by Richard Matheson, from a novel by Dennis Wheatley
Hammer Films dominated horror in the 1960s, with their stylish Gothic approach and stable of charismatic actors. Their Dracula and Frankenstein franchises were particularly lucrative, and while it would be stretching things to say that they could do no wrong during this period, it’s reasonable to expect a certain high degree of quality. The stakes get raised when considering the creative team behind The Devil Rides Out.
Terence Fisher had directed several of Hammer’s hits, including The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Richard Matheson had helped turn his own book I Am Legend into the famed movie The Last Man on Earth, starring Vincent Price. He’d written the screenplays for Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations The Raven, The Pit and the Pendulum, and Tales of Terror. Between them, Fisher and Matheson brought an impressive resume to the table.
Then there’s Dennis Wheatley, an English author whose writing influenced Ian Fleming. His first published novel, The Forbidden Territory (1933) featured the Duke de Richleau. The following year saw the release of both a movie version and the second in what would be an 11 book series of the Duke’s occult adventures, The Devil Rides Out. Still a best-selling author in the 1960s, it could be assumed that Wheatley’s works would have been familiar to British audiences for this adaptation.
It’s clear that Matheson relied on this familiarity. Characters have relationships that are glossed over, as though unnecessary to explain. The Duke just happens to know everything about the occult, and his knowledge is explained with a terse comment about his studies. It feels like several scenes are missing, and in fact there are — an entire book’s worth! The result is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s kind of realistic that we don’t get a lot of context. People are busy fighting Satan and don’t have the time to re-establish their relationships. Yet it distances the viewer a bit as well. There’s a tight central group of characters, and we’re on the outside. It’s frankly a little off-putting.
Fortunately, the film stars Christopher Lee in the crucial role, here very slightly renamed as Duc de Richleau. Lee’s authoritative manner makes de Richleau seem more than capable of besting Lucifer at anything from magic to snooker, which somewhat mitigates the absence of back story. On the downside, he frequently leaves to conduct research, and nobody he knows can follow simple instructions. This allows the dastardly Mocata (played by the deliciously fiendish Charles Gray) to do pretty much anything he wants.
What Mocata wants is to add two members to his coven to bring their number up to the requisite 13. He’s accidentally selected Simon Aron (Patrick Mower), who de Richleau and his close friend Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene) have sworn to watch over. The other recruit turns out to be the fetching Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), with whom Van Ryn falls madly in love. Aron and Carlisle’s minds are already under Mocata’s control, so there’s nothing for it but that de Richleau and Mocata battle for their souls. It’s all very much like a serial, with the villains and heroes dashing after each other fruitlessly until the climax.
So how does a giant spider figure into this movie? Simon is placed under the protection of de Richleau and the Eatons (a nice couple, related to somebody) inside of a magic circle. If they can prevent Mocata from claiming Simon overnight, he’ll be safe. The first gambit Mocata tries is to send a giant tarantula to prowl the edge of the circle. When that somehow fails to make anyone leave the protection of the circle, young Peggy Eaton enters the room for the spider to menace.
The approach chosen was a mixture of filming a tarantula on a miniature set and matting it in when it needed to be seen with the actors. This is a difficult trick for color film, and the complicating factors of the lighting in the room do not work in the effect’s favor. Nonetheless, it’s largely effective. In most of the sequences, it works well. The worst lighting problems occur when interacting with Peggy, when suddenly the tarantula is too bright. It could have come off as a game attempt if not for the inclusion of footage of the spider “rearing”. While tarantulas will rear up, it’s generally because they feel threatened. This one seems to be merely testing the glass wall in front of it. Much like the ants climbing into the air in Empire of the Ants, it re-engages disbelief with a quickness.
Also quick is Mocata’s escalation of attacks, but that’s getting into spoiler territory. Let’s just say he jumps straight from “dare” to “triple-dog dare” in direct violation of the Queensbury rules. He’s sort of a jerk that way.
It’s a pretty neat movie. I understand why many people consider it to be one of Hammer’s best. Lee and Gray, though sharing only a few scenes, ground the film with the power of their palpably clashing wills. Although the effects are sometimes less than spectacular, the menace they serve to reflect is stronger than in most plots about Satanism. Partly, this is due to Mocata’s mental dominance over all but de Richleau, but really it’s how far Mocata is able and prepared to go for victory. I refer to the aforementioned untoward escalation. This isn’t your garden-variety cultist.
The biggest problem I think the movie has is its ending. Without revealing anything, I’ll just say that it doesn’t make immediate sense. Just as with his script for the excellent The Legend of Hell House (based on his own novel Hell House), Matheson underplays the critical part of the reveal. One or two more sentences from the Duc de Richleau would put it all together, but while the explanation we get is reasonable, it isn’t until ruminating over it much later that I came to accept it as more than a flimsy cheat. Maybe I’m inordinately dense, but while the conclusion makes perfect in a 1930s adventure sort of way, it just doesn’t seem direct enough for the style of story it is.
The film as a whole is enjoyable, and I recommend it particularly to fans of Hammer or of old-fashioned adventure films. Just stay on your toes and repeat to yourself “it all makes sense” until you understand why. Or, you know, understand it the first time. Whatever works.
Have Rocket — Will Travel (1959)
Written by Raphael Hayes
Directed by David Lowell Rich
Writing a review of The Three Stooges is an interesting challenge. Narrative coherence is irrelevant when the story only exists to provide an excuse for eye-gouging and set-wrecking. Dialogue doesn’t need to be more eloquent than an angry “Why you!” I’m not even certain that normal standards of acting apply. But, since there’s a giant spider in their film “Have Rocket — Will Travel”, I’m prepared to work through all that.
Let’s start with the title. If it doesn’t sound familiar, it should. Stooge titles tend to be plays on expressions or titles of other works. In this case, it’s a reference to the popular western show “Have Gun — Will Travel” that began airing in 1957 — two years before the release of this film. There’s no other connection to the show, but the reference is reinforced with a title song that is sung by the Stooges over the opening credits.
Speaking of credits, the Stooge line-up for this outing is Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Joe DeRita (Curly-Joe). Curly-Joe gets some guff for being the second substitute Curly, who himself replaced Shemp. (Being the third Stooge was seemingly as fatal as drumming for Spinal Tap1.) Curly-Joe does a decent enough reproduction of Curly’s routines, and he provides some genuinely entertaining moments, so I’m not going to dump on the guy. I think he just suffered from being cast at a time when the Stooges were just re-enacting stale clones of their previous routines.
Speaking of clones, I should give a quick rundown of how the set pieces stitch together.
We start with a rocket test by the National Space Foundation (NSF). This is their 4th launch, and there’s a monkey on board — because I guess in the 1950s it was mandatory to put a monkey in space movies. The test fails, and the rocket crashes. The Stooges, who are the maintenance men on the base, are put in charge of guarding the fallen rocket. This leads to the Stooges chasing the monkey all over the rocket until it accidentally rights itself.
Here’s where things get unnecessarily complicated. Dr. Ingrid Naarveg, lead (and apparently only) scientist at the NSF, is nice to the Stooges. They see her as a daughter and want to help her keep the project alive. In order to do that she needs to find a better fuel. Stooges to the rescue! In the course of a night they brew up a more powerful fuel (the secret is sugar!) and load it into the rocket.
The head of the NSF, angered by the Stooge’s nocturnal activities (and the inevitable ancillary destruction), manages to chase them into the rocket and launch it into space. Our promised space travel is under way at last!
Once on Venus, the Stooges encounter a talking unicorn, a giant spider, and a tyrannical robot (that makes clones of them because it likes their form). They also sing more of the title song. On their return, the Stooges are hailed as heroes. They leave the clones in their place and run off with the talking unicorn to sing more of that infernal song.
You don’t have to be a Stooge fan to find their rise to fame predictable. It’s a given in American comedy that experts are fools and fools are experts. Opposites attract, experts are unmasked, the simple are rewarded, and there’s probably a wedding.
In this case, the wedding is between Dr. Naarveg and the base psychiatrist. Barely in the movie, their roles consisted primarily of 1) Dr. Naarveg providing unnecessary motivation to the Stooges and 2) the psychiatrist repeatedly telling her that she’ll only find happiness by marrying him and abandoning her career. He finally convinces her with a sudden agarring2. It was, after all, 1959, and while a comedy could make a woman the lead scientist in a space program it would also make certain to put her back in her place by the end.
Additionally, while the pompous head of the NSF gets a humiliating take-down, remember that three bumbling clods managed in one night to produce the breakthrough in fuel that eluded Dr. Naarveg. That’s got to hurt.
Some of the Stooge routines were painful, too. Interestingly, it wasn’t due to the performances. A classic routine is a classic routine, and old and fat as they are the Stooges are skilled physical comedians. I place the blame on the director, David Lowell Rich. Rich was a workman director, the bulk of whose career was spent in TV. B-Movie fans may have seen the TV movie “Satan’s School for Girls” (an Aaron Spelling production), but his most remembered work is possibly “The Concorde — Airport ’79”, the final nail in the coffin for the Airport franchise.
It’s clear that Rich and cinematographer Ray Cory had no idea how to film the Stooges. These are guys who mastered their craft on the stage, and when they went to film they largely kept that full view ethos. They fill the screen with broad movements and large messes. Here, the camera often slows things down, breaking the frenzy of action into careful and discrete pieces. It just doesn’t work well, and (as in “Yellowbeard” and “The Villain”) the humor doesn’t survive filming.
That isn’t to say that nothing works. A few scenes work very well, mostly because the close shots are mixed well with larger fields of chaos. Two of these are standard Stooge set pieces: the bedroom and the ballroom. The first shows the unusual morning routine of the Stooges, and everyone wrestles with appliances, clothing, and furniture. The second, of course, winds up in a pie fight.
The society ball is where Curly-Joe shines. While the others are dancing enthusiastically with their new admirers, Curly-Joe just wants a piece of cake. His doomed effort sends the soirée flying face-first into its pie-filled fate, while he calmly accepts what is left for him. It’s a sequence that’s both entertaining and oddly reassuring.
The other fun scene was the invention of the rocket fuel. Dr. Naarveg’s lab becomes a kitchen as the Stooges start mixing ingredients in a large vat. Much of the ensuing business is familiar, but it’s less pat than the other scenes. There’s something delightful about Larry intently brewing coffee over a bunsen burner, like the Walter White of caffeinated beverages. Of course, not even Larry tried to cook with the flame-throwing giant spider.
That’s right: flame-throwing giant spider.
Almost immediately after disembarking on Venus, the Stooges are threatened by a giant tarantula (courtesy of forced perspective shots and editing). Then the film stops, and a light beam is drawn in, emanating from the tarantula. Flame pursues the Stooges as they run away.
I’d like to tell you that there’s no real reason for there to be a flame-throwing giant spider on Venus. The crazy part is that there is a terribly convoluted reason.
You see, despite all the nonsense about making fuel, the rocket is launched by igniting a lengthy fuse. It’s a strange plot point, requiring the base commander to accidentally (and angrily) light the fuse to send the Stooges on their voyage. Mysteriously, there is some fuse left for the return trip, and it’s up to the flame-throwing giant spider to reignite it.
I fault screenwriter Raphael Hayes for the clumsy movement of the script, but I have to admire his fierce devotion to the fuse gag — a device that backed him so far into a narrative corner that only a flame-throwing giant spider could get him out of it.
- While rocketing to Venus, the Stooges turn on the communication console and get a TV Western. They change the channel and tune in the NSF lab, where Dr. Naarveg and her suitor are engaged in a dramatic scene in the style of a soap opera. I really liked the thought of the console having been installed so the monkey could watch his favorite shows.
- The robot is delightfully ill-constructed. It looks like the prop guy just stuck a bunch of crap on a box until he ran out.
- The Stooge snore gag works every time.
- There’s a keyhole at the base of the rocket. I find that charming, for some reason.
1. To be fair, Joe Besser didn’t die “in office”, as it were.
2. agar, v.t. to kiss the bejeesus out of a co-star. Named for John Agar, the grand master of the technique.