PEARL (2022) – Horror Prequel Decent Follow-up to X (2022); Another Showcase for Mia Goth

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PEARL (2022), the new horror movie by director/writer Ti West, is a prequel to his earlier horror movie from this year, X (2022), which so far is among my favorite horror movies of the year.

X told the story of a group of people setting out to make a porn movie on a farm, but their plans were thwarted by the elderly couple who owned the farm, who seemingly took offense to an X-rated movie being made on their property. The story took place in the 1970s, and the main character was a young woman named Maxine (Mia Goth), who was making the porn movie because she wanted to become a famous movie star. Goth also played the elderly farm owner Pearl (under heavy prosthetics and make-up), who in the words of PSYCHO’s Norman Bates, just “goes a little crazy” at times. Pearl, seemingly upset that these young people were having sex, while she and her elderly husband were not, flipped out and went on a brutal murder spree in the film’s final reel.

PEARL is her story, explaining a little bit of her history and how she became the person we saw in X.

PEARL takes place in 1918, during World War I, amid the pandemic of the Spanish flu, and when we meet Pearl (Mia Goth) she is living on her farm in Texas with her parents, her excruciatingly strict mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) and her ailing father (Matthew Sunderland) who is now a mute invalid. Pearl’s husband Howard is away fighting in the war.

Life is hard. Money is tight, and Ruth believes they must make it on their own. She doesn’t trust other people, and she fears that their German ancestry will be held against them. However, making it “on their own” mostly involves making Pearl do all the difficult jobs, like feeding her invalid father and cleaning him after bowel movements. Pearl just wants to escape. She loves the movies and wants to become a dancer like she sees in the movies.

She befriends the local projectionist (David Corenswet) who encourages her to follow her dreams. He also introduces her to black market sex movies, which he says will become legal one day. When there’s a dance try-out at the local church, Pearl sees this as her chance to escape from the farmhouse. But her mother will have none of it, and she tells Pearl she’s a failure and she won’t succeed in her dreams. She also adds that she knows how Pearl really is, and that she sees the things Pearl does when she thinks no one is watching, and she pretty much tells Pearl that she’s not normal and that because of this she will frighten people and will never succeed.

Wow. Can someone say, Mommie Dearest?

Well, she’s not wrong, and when Pearl snaps later in the movie, we see just exactly how it is that Pearl frightens people.

PEARL is a decent follow-up to X, although I liked X better, as that film paid homage to the 1970s horror flicks as well as 1970s porn movies and captured the flavor of both. PEARL doesn’t have this added element. It takes place in 1918, but it’s not shot as an homage to that time period or to silent movies. It’s filmed in bright vibrant colors, which seem to embody Pearl’s wide-eyed hopes and dreams. At the end of the day, this one is about exactly what its title says it’s about, Pearl.

It’s all about Pearl. And to that end, it’s mildly interesting. Strangely, it almost feels like it’s a back story for the other character Mia Goth played in X, Maxine, as Maxine wanted to be a star more than anything. Here in PEARL, we see that Pearl too wants to be a star more than anything. It’s what drives her throughout this movie. When I saw X, I believed that the elderly Pearl flipped out over the characters making a porn movie because she and her husband could no longer have sex, and she wanted to have sex. That’s what the movie implied. I mean, we saw scenes of Pearl crawling into bed with Maxine. We didn’t see scenes of Pearl yearning to be a dancer.

Yet here in PEARL, that’s all Pearl wants, to be a dancer and to become famous, both in the hopes of getting off her farm. The sex angle is here, but it’s downplayed. There is one scene where Pearl has a romantic fantasy with a scarecrow, but when the projectionist shows Pearl the silent sex movie, she’s hardly aroused. Pearl behaves like any normal woman who’s longing for her husband to return would behave. While she displays various abnormalities, all of which lead to murder, her sex drive isn’t one of them. Yet, this is the side of her personality which seemed to be driving her to kill in X. But the events in PEARL say otherwise.

On the other hand, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I just find it odd that Pearl in X didn’t speak of wanting to become a star or react to Maxine’s wanting to be a star, and that when we do see the beginnings of Pearl’s violent side here in PEARL, none of it has to do with sex, which was the prevalent theme in X.

The best and darkest scenes in PEARL are between Pearl and her mother, and these are the most disturbing and painful sequences in the movie. The sequence at the dinner table where the two characters eventually come to blows is the most powerful scene in the movie. The subsequent murders are well-staged and elaborate, but they’re not all that scary. The murders worked better in X.

PSYCHO was mentioned in X, and there were hints in that movie linking Pearl’s behavior to Norman Bates’, and so I was happy to see some more PSYCHO references here in PEARL. In PSYCHO, Bates hides his mother’s body in the fruit cellar. Here, Pearl hides her mother’s body in the root cellar.

The alligator is back and swimming in the waters around the farm, and Pearl seems to be its best friend, as she feeds it regularly. Technically, it could be the same alligator from X, but with 50 years between the two stories, it would be plenty old. It’s probably a different alligator. Either way, the alligators sequences in X were scarier.

X also had stronger characters.

Both films have Mia Goth though, and she’s terrific in both movies. I’ve been a fan of Goth’s since I first saw her in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a horror movie I liked a lot. Goth is perfect as Pearl. At times, she seems so wide-eyed and innocent, and at others, she seems so very, very bad. Her expression during the last shot of the film, as the end credits begin, which is not a freeze frame, says it all, as we see the full gamut of emotions: surprise, happiness, tears, fear, and finally vulnerability and steadfastness. It’s a terrific performance. She’s the best part of the movie.

Goth also co-wrote the screenplay with Ti West, and it’s her first screenwriting credit. The script does a decent job explaining Pearl’s backstory, even if at times it seems as if it’s trying to tell Maxine’s backstory. The point I guess is that in X, Pearl would have seen a lot of herself in Maxine. But the overall composition of the film isn’t quite as solid as X, which had better characters and also served as an homage to two film types, 1970s horror and porn.

Tandi Wright is icy cold as Pearl’s mother Ruth, and I’m tempted to say the audience won’t feel much sympathy for her when she gets her comeuppance, but in that aforementioned sequence at the dinner table, when tempers flare, Ruth unleashes and lets out how unhappy she is now, and that she is supposed to be a wife not a mother to her husband. Wright allows the audience to see how she became the heartless woman she is in the movie.

David Corenswet is dashing as the confident young projectionist. He’s also one of the more underutilized characters in the story, as for a time it seemed as if he was going to have more of an impact with Pearl, but that’s not the case.

Ti West films PEARL with big bold bright swipes, embodying Pearl’s hopes and dreams, and so this one doesn’t look like a horror film. The violence and murders don’t come until late in the game, and they grow more gruesome as they go along, although none here are quite as powerful as the sequences found in X.

PEARL is a decent prequel, and although it’s not as good as X, it’s still a showcase for Mia Goth, and she’s the reason to see this movie, as her performance brings Pearl and all her madness to insane painful life.

I give it two and a half stars.

—END—

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL (2022) – Horror Prequel Offers Pick-Me-Up Plot Twist but Little More

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ORPHAN: FIRST KILL (2022) is the sequel to the horror movie ORPHAN (2009), a film I enjoyed quite a bit.

In that film, parents Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John (Pete Sarsgaard) adopt a sweet little 9-year-old girl from Estonia named Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), only it turns out Esther isn’t so sweet! Yes, ORPHAN was one of those “evil children” movies, made better by a knockout plot twist that turned out to be the best part of the movie! As far as plot twists go, it was one of the better ones.

ORPHAN came out in 2009, so it’s been a while. ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is actually a prequel, as it sets out to explain how Esther first arrived here in the United States from Estonia, and since ORPHAN is famous for its plot twist, you can rest assured that there is yet another major twist in this movie, and on that front, it doesn’t disappoint. Even so, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL pales in comparison to the first movie.

Isabelle Fuhrman returns as Esther, the only cast member from the first movie to return, and it’s interesting because she’s no longer 9 years old, and so the filmmakers had to use lots of creative methods to make Fuhrman, now 25, look 9, including make-up, forced perspective, and a body double in some scenes. Of course, what makes things even more intriguing is the plot twist from the original film involved Esther’s age, making this role for Fuhrman here in 2022 even more of a kick.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL opens in Estonia with a pretty standard sequence that shows Esther, whose real name is Leena, escaping from a mental institution and making her way to the United States, where after some research on her part, she pretends to be young girl named Esther who had been missing for four years, her story being that she had been abducted and taken to Russia, before ultimately escaping. She is reunited with her “family,” a very wealthy set of parents, Tricia (Julia Stiles) and Allen Albright (Rossif Sutherland) and a teenage brother Gunnar (Matthew Finlan) in a luxurious home in Connecticut.

Allen is the most overjoyed of the three to have his daughter back, as her disappearance had pretty much ruined his life, and he hadn’t been able to cope with the loss. But now Esther is back, and all is well. Sort of. In the original film, sweet little Esther wasn’t as she seemed. In this prequel, it’s not only Esther, but someone else who isn’t as they seem.

As plot twists go, the one here in ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is pretty good. It certainly saves the movie, because before the twist, which happens about halfway through this one, the plot was in trouble. The family accepted Esther just a little too easily for my tastes, and I wasn’t buying it. Of course, the twist arrives and suddenly it all makes sense.

It was fun to see Isabelle Fuhrman return as Esther, but that being said, both her performance and the character lack the same edge they had in the first movie. And even with portraying Esther in a more sympathetic light this time around, she’s certainly not a character I’m interested in seeing a movie series built around.

Julia Stiles is okay as the colder mommy Tricia, but where that character ultimately goes is nothing more than a standard exercise in movie villainy. Rossif Sutherland, the son of actor Donald Sutherland, fares better as the dad who is overjoyed to have his daughter back. And Matthew Finlan is so very annoying as big brother Gunnar.

David Coggeshall’s screenplay while including a notable twist doesn’t really take it far enough. I liked the plot twist, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t do enough to affect Esther’s character. In other words, while the tables are turned on her, we don’t really get to see what that is really like for her. It’s all rather superficial. It also doesn’t help that this is a prequel, and so the audience knows that regardless of what happens, Esther is still going to make it to the family in the original film.

ORPHAN: FIRST KILL was directed by William Brent Bell, who also directed THE BOY (2016), a halfway decent horror movie, and its inferior sequel BRAHMS: THE BOY II (2020). While Bell does a good job with making Fuhrman look 9 years old again, the rest of the film is all rather average. It’s not scary, nor was I on the edge of my seat all that much. There was one decent sequence at a train station, but even that ended on a negative note. The print was also exceedingly dark, and even watching this on the big screen, there were many times where it was difficult to see what was going on.

I did like the subtext here, summed up by Gunnar’s line to Esther that this is America, and only his kind of people matter, and she doesn’t. So, watching Esther fight back and give these folks their comeuppance was mildly satisfying, but as I said, nothing that happens here is anywhere near as on point or as agonizing as it should have been.

While I really liked the first ORPHAN, this prequel, ORPHAN: FIRST KILL is merely okay. It’s a standard chiller with a pick-me-up twist in the middle, but it never rises above the material. Instead, it just moves towards a rather unexciting climax.

Here’s hoping FIRST KILL will also be the last.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942)

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This is a reprint from 2013:

 With apologies to Michael Myers, Kharis the Mummy just might be the scariest monster who can’t outrun a turtle ever to lumber across a movie screen!  And he’s never been more frightening than in today’s SPOOKLIGHT feature, THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942).

THE MUMMY’S TOMB has always been my favorite Kharis MUMMY movie.  The make-up here on Kharis by Jack Pierce, the man who created most of the iconic Universal monsters, including Boris Karloff’s Monster in FRANKENSTEIN (1931), is by far the best MUMMY make-up of the Kharis series.  

It’s also my favorite due to nostalgic reasons, as I owned an 8mm Castle Films copy of it when I was a kid.  The film also boasts the most exciting ending of any MUMMY movie, period.

Kharis the Mummy was featured in four Universal Mummy movies, and in the Hammer Films remake THE MUMMY (1959) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as Kharis, but it was Lon Chaney Jr. who played the definitive Kharis, appearing in three Universal Mummy movies, the first being THE MUMMY’S TOMB.

THE MUMMY’S TOMB opens with a comprehensive synopsis of the previous film in the series, THE MUMMY’S HAND (1940), so if you’ve missed this first movie, no need to worry!  The initial ten minutes of THE MUMMY’S TOMB brings you up to speed on previous events quite nicely.  You can almost hear the voice-over narration, “Previously on THE MUMMY’S HAND.”

Stephen Banning (Dick Foran) the main character from THE MUMMY’S HAND recounts his adventures in that first movie to his son John (John Hubbard) and his future daughter-in-law Isobel (Elyse Knox), and his story is shown via flashbacks.  Little does Stephen know that over in Egypt the high priest he thought he killed, Andoheb (George Zucco) still lives, albeit he’s now an old man, as thirty years have passed since the events of THE MUMMY’S HAND.  Hmm.  With this timeline, shouldn’t THE MUMMY’S TOMB be taking place in 1970?  Where are all the hippies?

Andoheb now turns over the Mummy-caring duties to his young protégé, Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey) because Kharis the Mummy didn’t die either.  Not only is Kharis still alive, but he’s put on some weight!   Has he been eating too many tanna leaves?  No, he’s just being played here by the husky Lon Chaney Jr. rather than Tom Tyler, who played him in THE MUMMY’S HAND.

Chaney has been criticized over the years for being too big and thick to look like an authentic Mummy, but I’ve always liked this look, as it made him scarier.  I mean, Chaney isn’t flabby and overweight.  He’s solid and huge, like he could crush a man with his fists.

Mehemet Bey brings Kharis to the United States, to Massachusetts to be exact, to hunt down and kill the members of the Banning family.  

And that’s pretty much it in terms of plot.  The screenplay by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher is pretty standard.

The strength of THE MUMMY’S TOMB is not its plot but its visuals.  The movie contains some really neat scenes, and Kharis has never looked creepier.  Shots of Kharis closing in on his victims still make me shudder, and some of the murder scenes in this one are downright brutal.  Director Harold Young, not known for his genre work, really deserves a lot of credit for making a very chilling monster movie.

Young also makes good use of shadows here.  Many times we see Kharis only through his shadow.  In fact, when Kharis creeps across the countryside at night, he is unseen except for his shadow which falls upon several unsuspecting townsfolk.  The shadow is used so frequently I’ve often wondered if the shooting script was entitled THE SHADOW OF THE MUMMY.

There’s a curious moment in the movie in the scene where Kharis attacks Babe (Wallace Ford), another character from THE MUMMY’S HAND.  After Babe shouts out Kharis’ name, Kharis’ lips move as if he’s saying something in response.  It looks almost as if a scene of dialogue has been cut from the film.  I’ve never read anything to support such a cut, and it wouldn’t make sense in terms of the story anyway, since Kharis had his tongue cut from his mouth in the previous film, and is mute.  But if you watch this scene, you definitely will see Kharis’ mouth move, and a cut does appear to have taken place right at this moment.  Interesting.

The ending is exceedingly memorable.  The torch-wielding villagers, in a chase scene reminiscent of the ending to FRANKENSTEIN (1931)- in fact, some of the footage from FRANKENSTEIN is used here— chase Kharis, who’s carrying an unconscious Isobel, and trap him inside a large house.  John Banning, the sheriff, and another man run inside the house to rescue Isobel.  The climactic battle on the second story porch between John, the sheriff and Kharis, while the villagers fling burning torches from below, is pretty exciting.  I can’t think of another MUMMY movie that has a better ending than this one.

The cast is standard, and other than Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis, no one really jumps out at you.  However the beautiful Elyse Knox who plays Isobel is notable because she’s Mark Harmon’s mother.  Ms. Knox only recently passed away, in 2012 at age 94.

Lon Chaney Jr. actually does a stand up job as Kharis the Mummy.  Chaney played all four main movie monsters:  The Wolf Man, the Mummy, Dracula, and the Frankenstein Monster.  While he’s most famous for his portrayal of Larry Talbot aka the Wolf Man, and rightly so, his three performances as Kharis the Mummy are more effective than his work as either Dracula or the Frankenstein monster.

He makes Kharis damned scary.  His look is such that when he enters a room, he almost paralyzes his victims with fear, which is a good thing for him, because with his limp, he’s not going to catch anybody.  You can outrun Kharis running backwards.  But Kharis always seems to corner his victims, and once he’s blocked the exit, his prey is as good as dead.

Very few of the old Universal monster movies are frightening.  I would argue that THE MUMMY’S TOMB featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as Kharis the Mummy is one of the scariest.  

I dare you to watch it alone this summer without having nightmares of Kharis the Mummy breaking into your bedroom in the middle of the night.  

Over there, by the wall!  Is that the Mummy’s shadow I see?  

—END—

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: NICHELLE NICHOLS – STAR TREK

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Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes from the movies. Today we’re doing something a little different. Rather than look at quotes from one movie, we’re going to look at quotes from one character, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, in the six original STAR TREK movies, in honor of the actor who played her, Nichelle Nichols, who passed away this past weekend on July 30, 2022.

Nichols played the character Lieutenant Uhura in the original STAR TREK TV series (1966-1969), and that’s really where she had her best moments. But she also played the character in the six STAR TREK movies which featured the original cast.

In honor of Nichelle Nichols, here’s a look now at some of her lines of dialogue from those movies;

STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979)

The first time the STAR TREK cast appeared on the big screen was in this thought-provoking special effects-laden film directed by Robert Wise which was considered somewhat of a misfire in 1979 but has stood the test of time and has only gotten better with age. Part of the fun during the first third of the movie was seeing all the show’s characters make their big screen debuts. This next conversation between Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura was the set-up for Dr. McCoy’s (DeForest Kelley) first big screen appearance. Let’s listen:

UHURA: Captain, our final six replacements are ready to beam aboard, but one of them is refusing to step into the transporter.

KIRK: Oh! I’ll make sure he beams up!

And of course, Dr. McCoy would beam up shortly thereafter, complaining about having to have his molecules disassembled and reassembled.

When Kirk is given full command of the Enterprise again, it’s Uhura who puts it all in perspective:

SULU: He wanted her back. He got her.

ENSIGN: And Captain Decker? He’s been with this ship every minute of her refitting.

UHURA: Ensign, the possibilities of our returning from this mission in one piece may… have just doubled.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982)

Unlike STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, its sequel STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN was both a critical and commercial success, and more importantly, a huge hit with fans, who felt at the time that it retained the flavor the original show, something that had been lacking in the first movie. It certainly set the stage for the remaining films in the series, as they all borrowed heavily from the look and feel of this one, rather than the first film.

In STAR TREK II, it’s Uhura who brings Kirk the news of a pending reunion with a former love.

UHURA: Bridge to Admiral Kirk.

KIRK: Kirk here.

UHURA: Sir, there’s a message coming in for you from station Regula One. Doctor Carol Marcus.

KIRK: I’ll take it in my quarters, Uhura.

MCCOY: Never rains, but it pours.

One of the themes in STAR TREK II is aging, as getting older and feeling older are in the forefront of Kirk’s mind, as seen here in this scene in which Uhura gets to ponder the situation.

MCCOY: Admiral, wouldn’t it be easier to put an experienced crew back on the ship?

KIRK: Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor. (Exits)

UHURA: Now what is that supposed to mean?

STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1983)

Uhura gets to enjoy some of her finer STAR TREK movie moments here in STAR TREK III, like in this scene where she completely overwhelms a young Star Fleet officer as she helps Kirk, McCoy and Sulu (George Takei) escape to search for Spock.

OFFICER: Look at you. You’re a twenty-year space veteran, yet you pick the worst duty station in town. I mean, look at this place. This is the hind end of space.

UHURA: Peace and quiet appeals to me, Lieutenant.

OFFICER; Well, maybe that’s okay for someone like you, whose career is winding down. But me, I need some excitement, some adventure… maybe even just a surprise or two.

UHURA: Well, you know what they say, Lieutenant. Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.

(KIRK, MCCOY and SULU enter the transporter room)

KIRK: Uhura, is everything ready?

UHURA: Step into my parlor, gentlemen.

OFFICER: That’s Admiral Kirk, my God!

UHURA: Very good for you, Lieutenant.

OFFICER: But it’s damned irregular. No destination points, no encoded IDs.

UHURA: All true.

OFFICER: So what are we gonna do about it?

UHURA: I’m not gonna do anything about it. You’re gonna sit in the closet.

OFFICER: The closet? Have you lost your sense of reality?

UHURA: This isn’t reality. (Aims phaser at him) This is fantasy. You wanted adventure, how’s this? The old adrenaline going, huh? Good boy. Now get in the closet.

OFFICER: All right…

UHURA: Go on.

OFFICER: I’ll just get in the closet. All right! Damn! (Enters closet and shuts door)

MCCOY: I’m glad you’re on our side!

KIRK: (points to closet): Are you sure you can handle…?

UHURA: Oh, I’ll have “Mr. Adventure” eating out of my hand, sir. And I’ll see all of you at the rendezvous.

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)

Clearly the most humorous of the STAR TREK movies, featuring a plot which saw the crew time travel back to 1986 San Francisco, STAR TREK IV featured comical bits with most of the characters, and Uhura was no exception, as in this scene when she, Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Sulu are on the streets of San Francisco trying to get directions to the Alameda naval base.

CHEKOV: Please, please – We’re looking for the naval base in Alameda. Can you tell us where the nuclear wessels are?

PASSERBY: Oh, I don’t know if I know the answer to that. I think it’s across the Bay. In Alameda!

CHEKOV: That’s what I said – Alameda, I know that.

UHURA (frustrated): But where is Alameda?

STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989)

The weakest of the STAR TREK movies tried to recapture the playful humor from the previous installment but largely failed. In this sequence, Sulu and Chekov embarrassingly pretend they can’t hear Uhura on their communicators.

UHURA: Is there a problem, gentlemen?

(Sulu and Chekov are lost in the woods)

SULU: Uh, yes. We’ve been caught in a… we’ve been caught in a blizzard.

(Chekov blows on the communicator, pretending that it’s wind)

CHEKOV: And we can’t see a thing. Request you direct us to the coordinates.

UHURA: My visual says sunny skies and seventy degrees.

CHEKOV: Sulu, look. The sun’s come out. It’s a miracle.

UHURA: Don’t worry, fellas. Your secret’s safe with me. I’ll send a shuttlecraft to pick you up.

Uhura also arrives in person to summon Kirk, Spock, and McCoy from shore leave back to the Enterprise.

UHURA: Captain, we’ve received important orders from Starfleet Command.

KIRK: Why didn’t you just beep my communicator?

UHURA: You “forgot” to take it with you.

KIRK: Oh… I wonder why I did that?

STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991)

The final film in the original film series is one of the better ones, as it’s exciting, humorous, and provides a poignant send-off for all the characters.

In a humorous moment, Uhura speaks with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) about the whereabouts of Kirk and McCoy.

UHURA: You understand, we have lost all contact with the Captain and Dr. McCoy.

SPOCK: Yes, at the moment, they are surrounded by a magnetic shield. However, if I know the Captain, by this time, he is deep into planning his escape.

(Cut to Kirk fighting and losing to an alien twice his size.)

Uhura also gets a key moment in the film’s conclusion, as the Enterprise crew is battling a cloaked Klingon vessel.

SPOCK: Gas. Gas, Captain. Under impulse power, she expends fuel like any other vessel. We call it plasma, but whatever the Klingon designation, it is merely ionized gas.

UHURA: Well, what about all that equipment we’re carrying to catalog gaseous anomalies? Well, the thing’s gotta have a tailpipe.

And Uhura is there on the bridge for the crew’s final ,moments on the big screen.

UHURA: Captain, I have orders from Starfleet Command. We’re to put back to space dock immediately to be decommissioned.

SPOCK: If I were human, I believe my response would be… “go to hell.” If I were human.

CHEKOV: Course heading, Captain?

KIRK: Second star to the right and straight on till morning.

I hope you enjoyed this MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES column where we looked at quotes spoken by Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura in the six STAR TREK movies, and I hope you will join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another classic movie.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Nichelle Nichols

December 28, 1932 – July 30, 2022

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982)

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Let’s talk about HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982), the sole movie in the HALLOWEEN franchise not to feature masked killer Michael Myers.

The story goes that John Carpenter was never interested in making a series of movies about Michael Myers. His original plan was to make a series of HALLOWEEN movies with different plots, each having something to do with Halloween. In retrospect, that seems like an idea that was ahead of its time and would be more at home today as a TV series on one of the streaming networks.

Anyway, after the phenomenal success of HALLOWEEN (1978), there was demand for a sequel that did indeed feature Myers. Carpenter wrote the screenplay, but he killed off both Myers and hero Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence), paving the way for him to return to his original vision of another Halloween-themed horror movie, and that film was HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH, the subject of today’s IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column.

Because fans couldn’t get enough of Michael Myers, they were cool to HALLOWEEN III, and the film did not perform well at the box office. It also didn’t do well because it was largely panned by critics. I still remember watching Siskel and Ebert tear the film apart, and one of their biggest criticisms was that the plot about Halloween masks which would be used to murder children worldwide was far too ugly to warrant a positive review. After the box office failure of HALLOWEEN III, John Carpenter sold the rights of the franchise, and eventually Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis were inexplicably resurrected and brought back to the big screen in HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS (1988). That film was a box office success and was also well-received by critics. The rest is history, as the series continues to this day with numerous remakes and re-imaginings, all featuring the unstoppable and apparently immortal Michael Myers.

But back to HALLOWEEN III.

Over the years, not only has the film aged well, but among many horror fans, HALLOWEEN III is now considered to be the best in the series. I don’t agree with this assessment. The original HALLOWEEN is still the best of the lot. However, HALLOWEEN III has indeed aged well, and since it is the only film in the series not to be about Michael Myers, it’s certainly the most intriguing of the HALLOWEEN movies.

Also, the plot about the deadly Halloween masks is far less ugly today than it first seemed back in 1982.

The story is basically about a doctor, Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) who treats a patient at the hospital who is raving about mass murder and doom, sounding an awful lot like he walked off the set of an INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS movie, and Challis thinks he’s delusional and simply sedates him. But later that night, the man is murdered under mysterious circumstances, and when Challis meets the man’s daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin) and she wants to investigate her father’s death, he decides to help her.

Their investigation leads them to the Silver Shamrock company, which produces the most popular Halloween masks on the planet, and also keeps running an annoying television commercial that seems to play every time someone turns on the TV. They also meet the owner of the company, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), who in spite of his reputation of being the nicest guy in the world, is really up to no good. Yup, he really does have a plan for mass sacrifice on Halloween night, to be carried out by his masks which will be worn by children all over the world.

Gulp!

Well, this is a horror movie after all.

One of the reasons HALLOWEEN III has aged so well is because, simply put, it’s not about Michael Myers! The countless sequels and re-imaginings have become exhaustingly redundant. HALLOWEEN III does not suffer from any of this.

Tom Atkins has starred in a lot of horror movies, from Carpenter’s THE FOG (1980) to CREEPSHOW (1982), and over the years he became a fan favorite. He’s excellent here in the lead role in HALLOWEEN III, the down to earth doctor who suddenly finds himself trying to stop a supernatural plot to mass murder children. Atkins continues to make movies today.

Stacey Nelkin is an effective heroine, and Dan O’Herlihy makes for a very sinister Conal Cochran.

HALLOWEEN III was written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace, and while Wallace is no John Carpenter, there are some chilling and cool scenes in this movie.

There are also some fun nods to the first HALLOWEEN. A scene from that movie featuring Michael Myers is shown on TV at one point. Jamie Lee Curtis provides the voice of a telephone operator, and Nancy Kyes, who played Annie in the original HALLOWEEN, under the name Nancy Loomis, has a small role here.

Is HALLOWEEN III the best of the Halloween movies?

Nope.

But it is one of the more entertaining films in the series, mostly because it stands on its own and as such tells a compelling and disturbing horror story in its own right.

—END—

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) – Fourth Thor Movie A Misfire From Start to Finish

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So, THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens and in the first scene we see a thin bald humanoid on a barren desert landscape, and for a split-second my mind flashes back some thirty some odd years to the opening of STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) which opened in a similar way. I chuckle and quickly dismiss the memory, but then a funny thing happened over the course of the next two hours.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, the latest Marvel superhero movie and the fourth Thor movie, goes full throttle with the humor, most of it silly, and sadly, most of it misfiring, which once more reminded me of that STAR TREK movie of old, STAR TREK V, which is generally considered to be the weakest in the original STAR TREK movie series. STAR TREK V followed the immensely popular and successful STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986) which had a superior script and at times was laugh out loud funny. STAR TREK V tried to recapture this formula, but with a far lesser script, its humor didn’t really work, and the film suffered from a bad case of the sillies which sadly didn’t translate into laughter.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER also suffers from a bad case of the sillies.

The bald humanoid in the opening scene is Gorr (Christian Bale) who, after watching his young daughter die, gets to meet their god, only to be disappointed when he learns from this god that his and his daughter’s life means nothing to the gods. When Gorr denounces the god, the deity tries to kill him, but an all-powerful dark sword reaches out to Gorr, and he uses it to slay the god. Not only this, but Gorr decides to make it his life’s goal to kill all the gods in the universe.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is still hanging out with the Guardians of the Galaxy, busily saving different planets and civilizations from disaster, but when he receives a distress call from Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who’s running the new Asgard on Earth, he leaves his guardian friends and returns to Earth with his rock buddy Korg (Taika Waititi). There they learn that Gorr is in town, and he’s taking no prisoners.

Thor also learns that the love of his life, the woman who he has not been able to forget, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has changed her look a bit: she’s now wielding his old hammer and dressed in fighting garb, and she calls herself The Mighty Thor. While he’s impressed, he’s also confused, but it turns out that Jane has cancer, and she doesn’t have much time left, and so when she felt the hammer reaching out to her, she accepted it, hoping that perhaps it could restore her to health. And while it does give her great strength and the ability to fly, it’s not doing anything to rid her of the cancer.

Gorr wants Thor’s new hammer, Stormbreaker, to use it to access unlimited power in the universe to destroy all the gods, and when he manages to steal it away from Thor, it’s up to our heroes, Thor, Jane, and Valkyrie to chase Gorr to the ends of the universe to get it back and save the gods.

I’ve said this before, but I’m just not a big fan of fantasy plots in superhero movies, and the Marvel films have increasingly gone this route, being more about witches, evil spells, gods, and a whole host of other things that are so far outside any sense of reality. So, the plot here in THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER did nothing for me. In fact, I was quite bored. I did like the theme of the uselessness of gods, of how they really don’t help humanity all that much, and much of what Gorr has to say in this movie makes a lot of sense, but the film downplays this theme.

The rule of the day in THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER is silly humor, and unfortunately, it just isn’t all that sharp. I saw this is in a fairly crowded theater, and it was a fairly quiet theater. No loud laughter, cheers, groans, just silence. Even after the two post-credit scenes, the audience departed quietly. No chatter, no buzz, no excitement.

It’s no surprise that humor is a huge part of this movie, since it was written and directed by Taika Waititi, a very funny guy who wrote and directed one of my favorite movies from 2019, JOJO RABBIT (2019). Waititi also directed the previous Thor movie, THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), a film I enjoyed more than THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER, mostly because the humor in that movie worked better.

Here, it’s one misfire after another, from Jane’s constant search for a catch phrase, which was more sad than funny, to Thor’s banter with the Guardians of the Galaxy, which for the most part fell flat. Speaking of whom, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and friends are completely wasted in a glorified group cameo that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie. Unlike the appearance of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) in THOR: RAGNAROK, who was integral to the plot of that movie, the Guardians of the Galaxy here in this movie have no importance whatsoever other than to exchange some quips with Thor before they disappear for the rest of the proceedings.

Then there’s the screaming goats— yes, you heard that right. Screaming goats—, two animals which Thor receives as gifts early in the film. For some reason, they can’t stop screaming, this horrendous high-pitched wail. They do this nonstop throughout the movie whenever they show up. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s not.

The humor reaches its lowest point when Russell Crowe shows up as Zeus, in one of the most unfunny tries-too-hard-to-be-funny scenes in the history of the MCU.

So, the humor is a complete disaster. The screenplay which Waititi co-wrote with Jennifer Kaytin-Robinson struggles to get laughs, and also doesn’t really have much of a story to tell. The whole thing just felt muddled from beginning to end.

The other theme that is prevalent in the movie is love, as the love story between Thor and Jane makes up a huge chunk of the film, and for the most part, I like these two characters and their story is interesting, but sadly, it’s not much of a love story. We have barely seen them on screen together, and when he have, it’s not like they were steaming up the theater. And the overall theme, that love is the reason for everything, as Thor tells Gorr at the end of the movie, and that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, largely falls flat. It all just seemed superficial.

Chris Hemsworth has never looked better as Thor. He’s in super shape, and he looks like he’s as powerful as the character he is playing. But the forced humor in the script doesn’t do him any favors, and gone are the days when his awkwardness with humanity would be funny, simply because he’s no longer awkward and that source of humor no longer exists.

Natalie Portman largely hams it up as The Mighty Thor, and while she may have been having a good time in the movie, it doesn’t translate all that well to her character. Her best scenes are when she is Jane, dealing with her cancer.

Tessa Thompson fares better as Valkyrie. She has a more natural story arc throughout the movie, and Thompson makes her formidable, and she’s very comfortable playing this exceedingly strong female superhero.

But the most intriguing performance and perhaps the best in the movie belongs to Christian Bale as Gorr. Yes, the Dark Knight is now a dark villain! Bale is now the second movie Batman to play a villain in a Marvel movie, as Michael Keaton played the villainous Adrian Toomes in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). Playing Batman must be good practice because both these actors, Keaton and Bale, have been some of the best Marvel villains yet!

In Bale’s case, he doesn’t fare quite as well as Keaton did in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING for the simple reason that unfortunately his Gorr isn’t in the movie very much. But when he is, Bale is very, very good. He looks as if his character from THE FIGHTER (2010), boxer Dicky Eklund, donned some silver make-up and gained some superpowers! Gorr’s story is certainly the most intriguing in the movie, how he felt slighted by the gods, how they didn’t save his daughter, and so he has decided to take them all down, in the interest of making the universe a better place to live. There are times when it’s difficult to argue with that logic.

But like I said, as good as Bale was as Gorr, he’s not in the movie much. Instead, there’s plenty of Thor and Jane/aka The Mighty Thor, and gods, and silliness, and more silliness, and a pair of screaming goats.

I saw THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER in IMAX, and I can’t say that it added a whole lot to the movie experience. It was a bit louder, yes, the screen a bit larger, but the film did not have any element in its story which IMAX enhanced, unlike another Christian Bale movie from a few years back, FORD V FERRARI (2019), in which he co-starred with Matt Damon (who has a cameo here too by the way playing an actor who plays Loki on stage) in which IMAX made the racing car scenes even more authentic, and I really felt as if I were in those cars with the actors.

Marvel is officially in a slump. Since AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), they have really struggled to reclaim their mojo, and other than SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021) haven’t made a film that I’ve truly enjoyed since.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER means well but is a misfire from start to finish. Whatever seriousness its story wants to project is lost in humor that doesn’t work and in a plot that suffers from a very bad case of the sillies.

It simply tries too hard to be funny, so much so, that for the most part, the audience forgot to laugh.

—END–

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) – Underwhelming Doctor Strange Sequel Keeps Marvel Slumping

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The title says it all.

Multiverse of madness, indeed. That’s how I felt watching this one. As if I were stuck in a multiverse of bad Marvel adventures which after two hours eventually led me to madness.

I don’t know. Maybe, like a lot of you, I’m finally growing tired of the Marvel formula. Or maybe DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (2022) just isn’t that great a movie.

Anyway, I finally sat down to watch the second DOCTOR STRANGE movie, which premiered in theaters in May and is now streaming on Disney Plus.

The movie opens with a long and not terribly exciting battle sequence with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a teenage girl (Xochitl Gomez) fighting a giant monster which ends with Strange waking up— ah, it was just a dream! Actually, it wasn’t. Because later, the girl, whose name is America Chavez, shows up in real life and tells Strange that it wasn’t a dream– that it was real but in a different universe. See, America possesses the ability to travel through the various multiverses, but the trouble is she doesn’t know how she does it. It only happens when she’s scared, which is a lot, since she is being chased by some unknown villain who wants her powers. She also tells Strange that dreams are real. They are just things that are happening in other universes.

Wait, what? Stop. Stop right there. Dreams… are real? Dreams… are events from other universes? Hmm. There are some pretty weird universes out there, that’s all I can say.

Anyway, back to our movie. Doctor Strange and his buddy Wong (Benedict Wong) decide they have to protect America— that’s the character, not the country— from this unknown villain, but since doing so involves witchcraft and evil spells, Strange decides he needs the help of an old friend, and so he seeks out Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) aka The Scarlett Witch. But it turns out good friend Wanda isn’t over her “WandaVision” trauma, and much to Strange’s horror, he discovers that she’s the villain who is after America’s power, which she wants in order to travel to other universes to find her sons who do not exist in this universe.

The battle lines are drawn, and the battles takes our heroes and villains through all sorts of multiverses and multiple versions of characters, which sounds like much more fun than it actually is in the movie.

Yeah, at the end of the day, I just wasn’t all that impressed with DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. I had much more fun with the most recent SPIDER-MAN move, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (2021). That film also involved the multiverse, but it had a much more playful attitude, and what it did with the various universes in that movie, like bringing back previous versions of Spider-Man and previous villains, was much more fun than what happens here in this second DOCTOR STRANGE movie.

Speaking of previous Spider-Man movies, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS was directed by Sam Raimi, who directed the three Tobey Maguire SPIDER-MAN movies. Of course, Raimi is mostly known for helming the EVIL DEAD horror movie trilogy. There are some neat Raimi touches here, like Doctor Strange having to resurrect himself as a corpse, which later has a key scene in the movie. And with evil spells and some violent ends to some of the heroes, along with some well-timed humor, there were plenty of moments that had me thinking more of the EVIL DEAD movies than a Marvel film.

But it wasn’t enough for me, largely because the screenplay by Michael Waldron I found to be a snooze. Granted, I’m a bit biased, because I’m just not a fan of magic, fantasy, or supernatural when it shows up as the main plot point in a superhero movie. These stories ultimately don’t work for me. So, there’s that. But I also didn’t find the dialogue very effective, and it certainly wasn’t the snappy kind of dialogue one has become accustomed to in a Marvel movie.

Yes, I appreciated the story arc of Doctor Strange having to learn how not to do everything himself and at the end defer to America, but at the end of the day it wasn’t terribly exciting. I actually preferred Wanda’s story arc, where she is driven to find her children, who in reality don’t exist because she invented them in a fantasy, but as she tells Strange, they do exist, in other universes, and she knows this to be true because she’s dreamt about them.

On the other hand, none of the other characters, including teen America, did much for me. And the storyline following Strange’s failed relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) was disappointing in that it didn’t really go anywhere.

You know things are bad when even Benedict Cumberbatch is boring. The guy is a tremendous actor, and I believe I have enjoyed every performance I’ve seen him play, but this time around as Doctor Strange he plays second fiddle to the special effects, which of course, are first-rate. But effects alone are not enough to carry a movie.

As I said, I enjoyed Wanda’s storyline more here than Doctor Strange’s, and as such I really enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda/The Scarlet Witch. Not only was her story the most compelling in the movie, but she also makes for a heck of a villain! Part of her effectiveness is because she was an Avenger, after she wasn’t, and so there’s the whole back and forth element for the character, and we’ve seen her enough to understand that she wants to do well by others, but life keeps knocking her down and giving her sh*t, and finally she snaps and says she’s not taking it anymore. As I said, I really enjoyed Olsen here.

But the rest of the cast not so much.

Xochitl Gomez was fine as America, the teenage superhero, but the character was pretty boring. Benedict Wong adds nothing new to his Wong shtick, and Rachel McAdams, another terrific actor, is stuck in a bunch of redundant dull scenes as Strange’s former love interest Christine Palmer. Chiwetel Ejiofor reprises his role as Baron Mordo from the first DOCTOR STRANGE movie but does nothing terribly exciting here.

A bunch of other folks show up in bit scenes and cameos, to little avail, including Haley Atwell as Captain Carter, Lashana Lynch as Captain Marvel, John Krasinski as Reed Richards, Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, Charlize Theron as Clea, and Bruce Campbell as Pizza Poppa, to name just a few. But none of these portrayals and reprisals do much for the movie.

The whole tone of the movie is underwhelming. The DC movie, THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) is a film that also featured a ton of superheroes and crazy shenanigans, but that film had a script that rocked, and the movie just took off. DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS just sort of runs in place as it jumps around from one multiverse to another, with nothing particularly memorable happening in any of them.

I remember liking the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie well enough, but I didn’t love it. Similarly, I liked DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERS OF MADNESS less, but I didn’t hate it.

And yes, I’m still a Marvel superhero movie fan, and I’m looking forward to the next release in two weeks, of THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022), but there’s no denying that these folks have been in a slump lately. With the exception of SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, they have really struggled to get the ball rolling after they wrapped up their initial story arc with AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019).

With DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, that struggle continues.

—END—

IN THE SHADOWS: RALPH BELLAMY

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Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies.

Up today, it’s Ralph Bellamy, who during his long and prolific career often flirted with leading man roles but most of the time played supporting roles and developed into one of the most respected character actors of his time. Bellamy is known for so much more than his appearances in some horror movies, but for purposes of this column, we will focus on those horror movie roles, especially since one of those roles was a prominent one in one of the greatest horror movies of all time, Universal’s THE WOLF MAN (1941).

Bellamy was also known for his tireless advocacy for actors behind the scenes, as he helped create the Screen Actors Guild and served as President of Actors’ Equity from 1952-1964, leading the charge against McCarthyism and its baseless accusations against actors of the time.

Here now is a partial look at Bellamy’s career, in which he amassed 194 screen credits, with special emphasis on his horror movie roles:

THE SECRET 6 (1931) – Johnny Franks – Bellamy’s first screen credit, in a gangster movie which also featured Clark Gable in the cast.

THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) – Daniel Leeson- comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunn in which Bellamy eventually loses Dunn to Grant. Bellamy would become known for playing roles in which his character would not end up with the girl.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, and Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940).

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) – Bruce Baldwin – one of my favorite Ralph Bellamy roles as the honest but dull Bruce Baldwin who once again loses out to Cary Grant for the affections of the leading lady.

ELLERY QUEEN, MASTER DETECTIVE (1940) – Ellery Queen – first in a series of movies in which Bellamy played famed detective Ellery Queen.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Colonel Montford – if you’re a horror fan, this is where you know Ralph Bellamy from, and for me, this is my favorite Bellamy role. As the village law enforcement officer, it’s up to Montford to solve the mystery of just what or who is killing the villagers. Further complicating matters is he is good friends with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) who just happens to be the Wolf Man, the creature who is committing all the murders. And what makes THE WOLF MAN so great is this compelling storyline isn’t even the main one, but only one of the many compelling storylines in the film, which includes an amazing cast. In addition to Bellamy and Chaney, there’s Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Patric Knowles.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)- Erik Ernst- Bellamy teams once again with fellow WOLF MAN stars Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr. in this fourth Universal FRANKENSTEIN movie, the first and only time Lon Chaney Jr. played the Monster. Bellamy again plays the town’s top law enforcement officer, this time involved with Dr. Frankenstein’s (Sir Cedricke Hardwicke) daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers). Lugosi of course plays one of his all-time best movie characters, Ygor, the second and last time he would play the character, having created the role in the previous Frankenstein movie, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). Bellamy gets to be the hero here as he leads the charge to rescue Elsa and destroy the Monster.

ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) – Dr. Sapirstein- it took nearly 30 years for Bellamy to appear in another horror movie, but his turn here as the sinister Dr. Sapirstein in Roman Polanski’s classic thriller is one of his best and most frightening performances.

SOMETHING EVIL (1972) – Harry Lincoln- TV movie about a haunted house starring Sandy Dennis and Darren McGavin, directed by a young Steven Spielberg!

THE MISSILES OF OCTOBER (1974)- Adlai Stevenson- Bellamy won an Emmy for his portrayal of Adlai Stevenson in this TV movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis, starring William Devane as JFK and Martin Sheen as Robert Kennedy.

OH, GOD! (1977) – Sam Raven- supporting role in this very popular Carl Reiner comedy in its day starring George Burns as God who communicates to unsuspecting John Denver. Also features Teri Garr and Donald Pleasence in its cast.

THE WINDS OF WAR (1983) – Franklin Delano Roosevelt- won another Emmy for his portrayal of FDR in this TV miniseries, the second time he played Roosevelt in a movie, the first being in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO (1960).

TRADING PLACES (1983) – Randolph Duke- memorable pairing with Don Ameche in this funny John Landis comedy starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Denholm Elliott.

WAR AND REMEMBRANCE (1988-1989)- Franklin Delano Roosevelt- plays Roosevelt once again in this TV miniseries sequel.

PRETTY WOMAN (1990)- James Morse- Bellamy’s final film role in this insanely popular romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere.

Bellamy passed away on November 29, 1991 due to a lung ailment. He was 87.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, where we looked at the career of Ralph Bellamy, known to horror fans for his work in THE WOLF MAN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, and years later, in ROSEMARY’S BABY.

I hope you will join me again next time when we look at the career of another memorable character actor in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: INVISIBLE AGENT (1942)

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Recently in this column, we looked at THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944), which was the last of the serious Universal INVISIBLE MAN movies, before the invisible one went on to meet Abbott and Costello, in a film obviously played for laughs. I mentioned that the lead in that movie was Jon Hall, and that it was his second time playing an invisible man.

Hall first played the invisible fellow in INVISIBLE AGENT (1942), the subject of today’s IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, which makes Hall the only actor to play the Invisible Man as the lead role in more than one movie. Vincent Price played the Invisible Man twice as well, but one of those performances was a cameo in the final seconds of ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Price also played the lead in the first INVISIBLE MAN sequel, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940).

INVISIBLE AGENT never made the rounds on the Saturday afternoon horror movie docket when I was a kid, and so I never caught up with this one until as an adult I purchased it on DVD. It probably didn’t show up back in the day because it’s really not a horror movie. That’s right, INVISIBLE AGENT is a war movie, as the main character, Frank Griffin, who changes his name to Frank Raymond, is a descendant of the original Claude Rains’ character Jack Griffin in THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). The film takes place in 1942, the year it was made, and Frank agrees to use the invisibility formula to turn himself into an invisible agent to help thwart the Nazis!

And since this isn’t a horror movie, even though the dangers of the invisibility formula are mentioned briefly in the film, main character Frank Raymond really doesn’t have to worry all that much about going insane like his infamous ancestor. That horrific plot point isn’t really on the menu here.

In INVISIBLE AGENT, Frank Raymond (Jon Hall) agrees to work with the United States government to turn himself invisible and take on the Nazis. His contact in Germany is the beautiful Maria Sorenson (Illona Massey). Together, they work to thwart the plans of Nazi Conrad Stauffer (Sir Cedrick Hardwicke) and Japanese villain Baron Ikito (Peter Lorre). They succeed rather easily, because most of the bad guys in this one are portrayed as hapless buffoons.

Most of INVISIBLE AGENT is played for laughs, which actually works against this movie. It would have been a much more intriguing flick had the plot been taken a bit more seriously. It’s not a horror movie, and it’s not much of a wartime thriller, and that’s two strikes against it. It is, however, an amusing light “let’s beat up on the Nazis” movie which since it was released in the middle of World War II, most likely was a crowd pleaser.

The screenplay by Curt Siodmak, one of classic horror’s best writers, with screenplay credits that include THE WOLF MAN (1941), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943), to name just a few, isn’t one of his best, but it does make for a lighthearted World War II adventure with decent characters and interesting dialogue.

Jon Hall fares better as an invisible man here in INVISIBLE AGENT than he would later in THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, as his character here is likable and heroic, and he possesses a spunky sense of humor. Illona Massey makes for a strong female heroine as Maria Sorenson. She would play another effective heroine the following year in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, playing Frankenstein’s daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein.

The two best performances in the movie however belong to Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre as the two villains. A huge part of this is that in this easygoing movie, both Hardwicke and Lorre play things straight and are really quite nefarious. Lorre delivers the better performance of the two, although it’s jarring and by today’s standards disturbing to watch him play a Japanese character. It wasn’t an issue back in 1942, as Lorre even made an entire film series as the Japanese detective Mr. Moto back in the 1930s.

On the other hand, J. Edward Bromberg’s Nazi Karl Heiser is entirely played for laughs. Bromberg would go on to appear in two other Universal horror movies, as vampire expert Professor Lazlo in SON OF DRACULA (1943), and as one of the Paris Opera owners in the Claude Rains remake of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943).

Edwin L. Marin directed INVISIBLE AGENT, and there are plenty of entertaining scenes, from the silly dinner sequence where an invisible Frank sabotages Nazi Karl Heiser’s plans for a romantic evening with Maria, to Frank’s inspired escape from Conrad Stauffer and his Nazi henchman. But the film never takes itself all that seriously, and at the end of the day, its lighthearted humor didn’t really work all that well for me.

The invisible special effects by John Fulton are still pretty impressive. In fact, Fulton was nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects but lost out to the effects team on REAP THE WILD WIND (1942), which was directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Sadly, none of the impressive Invisible Man effects in any of the Universal Invisible Man movies ever won an Oscar. Ironically, Fulton would go on to win two Academy Awards for special effects, for the Daniel Kaye musical comedy WONDER MAN (1945) and for DeMille’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).

INVISIBLE AGENT is an amusing movie if you are in the mood for a playful tale about an invisible man making fools out of Nazis. You could do a lot worse, to be sure.

But it’s not a horror movie, nor is it an overly exciting adventure, and so at the end of the day, INVISIBLE AGENT only worked for me as a minor diversion. The best part by far are the two villainous performances by Sir Cedrick Hardwicke and Peter Lorre.

Any other attributes are all rather… invisible.

—END—

NO TIME TO DIE (2021) – It’s No Time to Miss Daniel Craig’s Last Bond Movie

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I finally caught up with NO TIME TO DIE (2021), the fifth and final Daniel Craig James Bond film.

Released in November theatrically, it then made its way to OnDemand/streaming services for a rental price of $19.99, and now you can rent it for a more welcoming price of $5.99. Anyway, one of the drawbacks of seeing a film a while after its initial release is word of mouth is out there and so you hear an awful lot, and what I was hearing about NO TIME TO DIE was how good a movie it was. So, there were some expectations here.

Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m happy to say that the word of mouth was accurate. NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. I loved it. It’s the perfect send-off for Daniel Craig’s take on the character.

NO TIME TO DIE opens with a scene right out of a horror movie, with a young girl and her mom being terrorized by a man with a mask. The action jumps ahead to events following the last movie, as we find James Bond (Daniel Craig) and the new love of his life Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) enjoying a new life together, having survived the ending of SPECTRE (2016).

Now, the Daniel Craig Bond films tell an ongoing narrative, and the movies have all been connected in terms of plot, which is something that the previous James Bond movies really did not do. I’ve always like this, as it added some freshness to the series. However, SPECTRE is my least favorite Craig Bond movie, and so I can’t say I was excited to be sitting down to watch more of the story between Bond and Madeleine.

Anyway, as you might imagine, their new life is short-lived, as the bad guys show up to put a stop to it. Worse yet, Bond suspects Madeleine of leading the bad guys to them, decides he doesn’t trust her anymore, and puts her on a train telling her she will never see him again. Then it’s time for the opening credits. Yup, nearly thirty minutes pass before we even get to those opening credits. Sometimes these James Bond movies just need an editor! Although truth be told, in spite of the overlong prologue sequence and a total running time of two hours and forty-three minutes, NO TIME TO DIE is paced rather well, has a decent story to tell, and for me passed by quickly and didn’t feel at all like it was nearly three hours.

Back to those opening credits. NO TIME TO DIE has a theme song sung by Billie Eilish, a song that hasn’t really been shown much love. But I like it, and the lyrics definitely tie into the events shown in the movie’s pre-credit sequence.

As for the rest of the plot, it all does come together and makes sense (even the bizarre opening bit with the masked killer!), bringing closure to events from all the previous movies. Even though Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is in prison, he and his SPECTRE henchmen are still trying to kill Bond, but a new bad guy is in town, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek)…. the name sounds like Lucifer Satan with a lisp….who hates Blofeld even more than Bond does. Safin has developed an incredibly dangerous biological weapon which uses people’s DNA, and he uses it to wipe out SPECTRE, but since he can also use it to wipe out anyone he wants with ease, he’s caught the attention of MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes) is personally interested because MI6 was secretly working with this biological formula, but Safin stole it from them and weaponized it. So, M sends the new 007, a female agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), and Bond himself once he returns to active service, to find and stop Safin.

Which makes for strange bedfellows. As Bond tells Blofeld, if Blofeld gives him the information he needs, he will actually have to use it to save Blofeld’s life, to which of course Blofeld shrugs him off. Madeleine is also brought back into the story because she has ties to both Blofeld and Safin, and so once more Bond has to deal with his feelings for her.

At the end of day, all of these story elements work, making for a story that remains strong throughout the movie. And there are more plot points which I have not mentioned here. Overall, it is an excellent screenplay by a bunch of people: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Where does NO TIME TO DIE rank with the other Craig Bond movies? The best remains the first, CASINO ROYALE (2006). Most folks love the third film SKYFALL (2012), but for me the first two thirds of this movie are exceptional, but the third act drops off dramatically and just doesn’t work for me. I actually prefer the second film in the series QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) over SKYFALL. The weakest of the serious was the previous installment, SPECTRE (2015) with writing and a story that didn’t make much sense.

The other reason the previous two Bond films didn’t work for me was due largely in part to Daniel Craig’s lackluster performance as Bond in both those movies. In both those films, SKYFALL and SPECTRE, it seemed as if he had mailed it in. Gone were his sharp cold killer instincts from the first two movies. In their place was indifference. He seemed bored with the role.

Here in NO TIME TO DIE, Daniel Craig is back at the top of his game, turning in his best performance as Bond since CASINO ROYALE. It also helps that the character is placed in some new situations, and Craig is more than up to the task of taking Bond in new directions. As such, getting back to ranking, I would rank NO TIME TO DIE as the second best of the Craig Bond films, coming in right behind CASINO ROYALE.

And a large part of this is Daniel Craig’s performance. He’s an older Bond here, he’s in love, he’s bitter over what he believes is a betrayal of love, and later when he takes on the villain it’s with a deep sense of understanding of the world. In short, James Bond has learned a lot over the years, and he uses this knowledge to take down a lesser experienced villain.

I enjoyed Lea Seydoux more as Madeleine this time around than I did when she played the character in SPECTRE. Again, the writing here helps. She’s in a much more interesting and compelling storyline. In SPECTRE, she just seemed too young for Bond. But here, due largely to her performance and the writing, that thought didn’t cross my mind at all.

Lashana Lynch caught some well-deserved buzz for playing Nomi, the first female 007. She’s really good here.

I’m a big fan of Ana de Armas, and she has a small role as another agent, Paloma. She’s excellent, and the brief action sequence she gets to share with Bond is one of the best in the movie. I really wish she had been in this one more.

Rami Malek is fine as main villain Safin, although he’s not in the movie a whole lot, and so he’s not really a game changer. But when he is onscreen, he’s very good. As is Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, reprising the role from SPECTRE, although he’s in the film less than Malek.

I really enjoy Ralph Fiennes as M, and he’s every bit as good here as he always is. Jeffrey Wright returns for the third time as CIA agent and Bond buddy Felix Leiter, and like Bond in this one, gets a dramatic memorable send-off.

And Naomie Harris is back as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw is back as Q. It was also good to see Rory Kinnear back as Tanner.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga does a nice job with this one, and there are plenty of exciting action sequences, as you would expect to find in a James Bond movie. Car chases, thrilling fight scenes, assaults on buildings, and a very intense conclusion all contribute to A+ action sequences from start to finish.

The music also utilized the main theme from the George Lazenby James Bond movie ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). The most memorable part of that movie, other than of course it was the first Bond film not to star Sean Connery as Bond, was that James Bond gets married, and his wife is shot dead by Blofeld in the film’s final reel. Every time that theme played here in NO TIME TO DIE, it served as deadly foreshadowing that the love story here with Bond and Madeleine was doomed to a tragic ending, and while the ending here differs greatly from the one in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, the foreshadowing is real.

And strangely for a James Bond movie, it was the love story here between Bond and Madeleine that works the best and really drives this movie along. It gives Bond motivations above and beyond what audiences are used to and shows a side of the character we rarely get to see. And it’s also realistically told from both characters’ perspectives.

NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. The action sequences are second to none, and even better, the story works on a much deeper level than most Bond films, its main love story is really good, and Daniel Craig delivers one of his best Bond performances ever.

In short, it’s no time to miss NO TIME TO DIE.

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