Ghost Patrol

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(1/10) In a nutshell: Tim McCoy’s really big hat delivers the best performance in this awfully derivative and amateurishly made sci-fi-tinged modern western. Ghost Patrol marks the beginning of the surge of American death ray films, and fortunately the demise of the first wave of sci-fi westerns.

Ghost Patrol. USA, 1936. Directed by Sam Newfield. Written by Wyndham Gittens. Starring: Tim McCoy, Tim McCoy’s really big hat, Claudia Dell, Walter Miller, Wheeler Oakman, James P. Burtis, Lloyd Ingraham, Dick Curtis. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld & Leslie Simmons for Excelcior Pictures Corp. IMDb score: 4.8

Tim McCoy with the fastest draw and the biggest hat in the West.

Tim McCoy with the fastest draw and the biggest hat in the West.

The second half of the thirties saw a brief upturn in the interest of science fiction with the rising popularity of pulp magazines, long-running comics in newspapers, and of course cinema serials like Flash Gordon (1936, review). The mad scientist theme had also taken hold, starting with Frankenstein in 1931 (review). Although the serials The Voice from the Sky (1930) and The Whispering Shadow (1933, review) had toyed with the concept, the classic serial concept of the megalomaniac villain threatening the world with outlandish weapons had not yet taken root fully in 1936. In Ghost Patrol we therefore get a perfectly sane scientist, who nonetheless has created a ray that can shoot planes from the sky, who gets kidnapped by a band of bandits. Oh, should I say western bandits. We also get western star Tim McCoy with a big hat (it is really, really big). Oh, and there are no ghosts in the film. Nor really any patrols, either. It is slightly unclear where the name comes from. Continue reading

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Flash Gordon

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(7/10) In a nutshell: This hugely influential 1936 film serial was more or less the first American outer space adventure brought to the screen. It is high camp, silly and loads of fun, and boasts high production values for a serial, as well as an unusually imaginative and original script, derived straight from the pages of Alex Raymond’s comic strips. That the spaceships are obviously held by strings and the dragons look just like men in rubber and cardboard suits just adds to the fun.

Flash Gordon. 1936, USA. Serial film. Directed by Frederick Stephani, Ray Taylor. Written by Basil Dickey, Ella O’Niell, George H. Plympton, Frederick Stephani. Based on the comic strip by Alex Raymond and Don Moore. Starring: Buster Crabbe, Jean Rogers, Frank Shannon, Charles Middleton, Priscilla Lawson, Richard Alexander, Jack ”Tiny” Lipson, James Pierce, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 7.3

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless on the cult classic serial Flash Gordon frpm 1936.

Buster Crabbe (middle) and Charles Middleton (right) as Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless in the cult classic serial Flash Gordon from 1936.

The story of one of the most influential science fiction adventures of all time – Flash Gordon – starts in 1928 with the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. In particular the short stories Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han, which featured a central character called Anthony Rogers. In 1929 Philip Nowlan and Dick Calkins adapted the character, renamed Buck Rogers, as a comic strip, that soon featured in many of the prominent newspapers in the US, quickly becoming one of the most successful comic strips of all times. The futuristic world of the 25th century with its strange space crafts, jet packs, weapons, robots and designs, the outlandish and quite politically incorrect Mongolian villains, and of course the handsome, brave hero Buck Rogers instantly inspired a whole range of similar science fiction comics. Some failed, others, like Brick Bradford, became highly successful. But few were able to touch the popularity of Buck Rogers – save one, which came hurtling along like a runaway planet Mongo on a collision course with Earth in 1934. Flash Gordon quickly surpassed the popularity of Buck Rogers, and stands to this day as one of the most highly regarded and influential comic strips of all time. Note: I will not be reviewing the 1938 Buck Rogers serial, as it is basically just another Flash Gordon season under a different name – it even starred Buster Crabbe. Continue reading

The Bride of Frankenstein

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(9/10) In a nutshell: With Bride of Frankenstein James Whale created the greatest of all Universal horror films. Superb acting, great casting, a script that balances between drama, horror and campy humour, all rounded up with fluid, expressionistic filmmaking and Soviet-styled montage editing. All this, plus the marvellous Elsa Lanchester as the Bride, Boris Karloff in high form, and a chilly, funny, scary Ernest Thesiger. Greatness abounds, but thematically the film is a bit sloppy. 

The Bride of Frankenstein. 1935, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by John L. Balderston, Edmund Pearson, William Hurlbut. Based on the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Ernest Thesiger, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’Connor, Dwight Frye, John Carradine.  Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.9

The superb Elsa Lanchester in her most iconic role as the Bride of Frankenstein.

The superb Elsa Lanchester in her most iconic role as the Bride of Frankenstein.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is one of those films that has been analysed into shreds, so that the legacy of the film somehow overshadows the film itself, very much like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is one of those rare horror films that even reviewers not generally infatuated with genre films like to promote to the same status as groundbreaking works like Battleship Potemkin (1925) or Citizen Kane (1941) – or at least that is the sense that one sometimes gets from people who are adamant that Bride is one of the most important films in American cinematic history (an interesting notion as most of the key personnel were British). Although it is true that along with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933, review) this Universal classic is the finest of the American horror films of the thirties, some of its reputation stems from the fact that people like to read topics between the lines that simply aren’t there. Continue reading

The Vanishing Shadow

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Mature direction and script, quality effects, a good lead actor and a whole heap of Strickfadens make this early sci-fi serial a relatively entertaining outing – but it is nonetheless a pretty cheap exploitation of The Invisible Man and earlier crime dramas.

The Vanishing Shadow. USA, 1934. Serial. Directed by: Lew Landers. Written by: Basil Dickey, George Morgan, Ella O’Neill, Het Mannheim. Starring: Onslow Stevens, Ada Ince, Walter Miller, James Durkin, Richard Cramer, Lee J. Cobb. Music: Edward Ward. Cinematography: Richard Fryer. Editing: Saul A. Goodkind. Alvin Todd, Edward Todd. Special effects: Elmer A. Johnson, Raymond Lindsay, Kenneth Strickfaden. Produced by Henry McRae for Universal. IMDb score: 6.1

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

Original poster for the early sci-fi serial The Vanishing Shadow.

The Vanishing Shadow (1934) was one of the serials riding on the wave of newfound interest from studios in serial-making. After sound cinema bloated the budgets of filmmaking, most studios quickly dropped their serials, and only Mascot and Universal hung on – and this of course opened the door for many smaller studios to cut in on the action. Serials were again on the rise after western star Tim McCoy fronted the hugely successful The Indians Are Coming in late 1930, and after this stars like John Wayne, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi (The Whispering Shadow, 1933, review) and the dog Rin Tin Tin all helped to further drive the format forward. The Vanishing Shadow had no real big-name star, but in this serial it is Kenneth Strickfaden’s electrical sci-fi gadgets and the special effects created by director Lew Landers and cinematographer Richard Fryer, along with editor Saul A. Goodkind, that shine. Continue reading

Frankenstein

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(8/10) In a nutshell: James Whale’s seminal Frankenstein (1931) is a far cry from Mary Shelley’s novel, and it is marred by some stiff acting and a low budget. But it is still a visual work of art, and a film that in many ways became the benchmark for American horror sfi-fi pictures for years to come, and the duo of Colin Clive and Boris Karloff as the mad scientist and his monster is part of our cultural legacy.

Frankenstein. 1931, USA. Directed by James Whale. Written by Francis Edward Farragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey (uncredited), John Russell (uncredited), based on the play by Peggy Webling, John L. Balderston, in turn based on the play Presumption by Richard Brinsley Peake (uncredited), based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward van Sloan, Dwight Frye. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Make-up: Jack Pierce. Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. for Universal. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 8.0

The great Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) in chains as The Monster in Frankenstein from 1931.

The great Boris Karloff (William Henry Pratt) in chains as The Monster in Frankenstein from 1931.

Tod Browning’s Dracula, featuring a Bela Lugosi that would forever be ingrained in our minds as the dark count of the undead, was Universal’s first horror picture in sound. It was also the film that started the golden age of the studio’s horror franchise. But the ultimate film that would define the genre was Frankenstein. Both films were released in 1931, and gave birth to a torrent of horror – and science fiction – films, that has never fully ran dry. Frankenstein was the film that cemented the dark, expressionist gothic style of future American horror films, it was the film that defined the mad scientist, and of course introduced film history’s most recognizable monster in the form of the heavily made-up Boris Karloff. Today it is often overshadowed by director James Whale’s 1935 sequel Bride of Frankenstien (review), that is in many ways a superior film, and a true American classic. It is certainly true that Frankenstein is somewhat hampered by some wooden acting, an illogical and seemingly jumbled script and a fairly tight budget. But the beautiful, suspenseful and innovative visual style of Whale, and the multi-layered and ultimately sympathetic portrait that Whale and Karloff create for the Creature make up for the film’s shortcomings, and it is certainly well deserved of its place among the immortal pieces of art that make up the backbone of much of our cultural heritage. Continue reading

Just Imagine

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(3/10) In a nutshell: A visually stunning, but ultimately sloppily written, stiffly acted and boringly directed science fiction musical comedy, with unfunny comedy, bad music and bad sci-fi. This utterly strange concoction just has to be seen.

Just Imagine. 1930, USA. Directed by David Butler. Written by Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson. Starring: El Brendel. John Garrick, Maureen O’Sullivan, Marjorie White, Frank Albertson. Cinematography: Ernest Palmer. Produced by Lew Brown, G.G. DeSylva and Ray Henderson for Fox. IMDb score: 5.6

Maureen O'Sullivan and John Garrick on the streets of New York City in 1980.

Maureen O’Sullivan and John Garrick on the streets of New York City in 1980.

Just Imagine! In 1980 New York will have 250 story art deco buildings, will be built on nine different planes and be littered with suspending roads, and everyone will have their own airplane to go get the groceries with! Just Imagine! In 1980 prohibition will still be in effect, and everyone will be getting loaded on alcohol pills! Just Imagine! In 1980 the food comes in pill form, airplanes are built on conveyor belts and even babies come from slot machines! Just Imagine! In 1980 people have letters and numbers instead of names, and governments will decide on who gets to marry who! Just Imagine! In 1980 dead people from the past can be resurrected! Just Imagine if one of those dead people happened to be 1930’s vaudeville comedian El Brendel who turns out to be an alcoholic and goes off to Mars and gets cosy with a gay captain of the Martian guard! Just Imagine what kind of film that would be!  Continue reading