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Month: May 2011

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935)

“He’s the most trying man ever put on this Earth!”

Synopsis:
A henpecked memory expert (W.C. Fields) living with his shrewish wife (Kathleen Howard), cranky mother-in-law (Vera Lewis), lazy brother-in-law (Grady Sutton), and loyal daughter (Mary Brian) finds himself in hot water after lying to his boss (Oscar Apfel) in order to attend a wrestling match.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this as a “near-perfect W.C. Fields comedy”, noting that Fields (as henpecked Ambrose Wolfinger) is “hilarious, taking one abuse after the other in his cruel, absurd world without every losing his patience or trying to reform”. There are numerous comedic highlights throughout — including, as Peary notes, Fields “sharing a jail cell with a crazy scissors murderer; driving [his wife] crazy by taking forever to go down and see about the burglars in the basement…; getting a series of traffic and parking tickets in succession”. Fields is in fine form (Peary votes him Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars!), and his supporting cast members are all convincing (I’m particularly fond of Howard here; her operatic background comes through loud and clear in the hilarious opening scene). While it could certainly be argued that Peary includes far too many W.C. Fields films in his book (he lists or reviews no less than 16 titles), this one is consistently humorous enough that I believe most film fanatics will be glad to have seen it — so I’m voting it a “must see” at least once. Watch for Walter Brennan, Carlotta Monti (Fields’s real-life lover), and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson in small roles.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • W.C. Fields and Kathleen Howard’s acrimonious “rapport”
  • Numerous humorous scenes


  • An often clever script (with much ad-libbing):

    Wolfinger: My poor mother-in-law died three days ago. I’m attending her funeral this afternoon.
    Wolfinger’s Secretary: Isn’t that terrible, Mr. Wolfinger!
    Wolfinger: Yes, it’s terrible. It’s awful. Horrible tragedy.
    Wolfinger’s Secretary: It must be hard to lose your mother-in-law.
    Wolfinger: Yes it is, very hard. It’s almost impossible.

Must See?
Yes, as one of Fields’s mid-career classics. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

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Girl Can’t Help It, The (1956)

Girl Can’t Help It, The (1956)

“I’m telling you I stink, stink, stink!”

Synopsis:
An ex-gangster (Edmond O’Brien) orders a musical agent (Tom Ewell) to turn his voluptuous girlfriend (Jayne Mansfield) into a singing phenomenon — but complications arise when Ewell discovers that Jerri (Mansfield) can’t carry a tune, and he starts to feel romantically attracted to her.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Frank Tashlin’s “rock-music version of Born Yesterday” is, as Peary notes, “a highly inventive picture, briskly paced and extremely colorful”, and likely “the nearest he ever came to a masterpiece”. It’s chock-a-block full of “off-color jokes, double entendres, and sexual innuendos” — all “staples of Tashlin’s humor” which “will cause you either to smile or to walk up the aisle cursing about adolescent humor” (and he bets “you’ll stay seated”). Peary spends the bulk of his review analyzing Mansfield in what was likely her best (and certainly her most iconic) role. He notes that, given Mansfield’s truly outlandish bodily proportions, it’s “not surprising that breast-obsessed Tashlin would use her body as a major source of the film’s humor”, and argues that, “like it or not, when Mansfield’s on-screen, your eyes gravitate towards her bosom” — thanks in part to Tashlin’s helpful visual gags, such as the “film’s most famous moment” in which she holds “a milk bottle over each breast”, then later leans “over with her half-exposed breasts close to Ewell’s eyes and ask[s] if he thinks she’s ‘equipped’ to be a mother”.

Indeed, Tashlin — a former animator — “uses” Mansfield’s body so strategically (she’s “barely able to walk” in her “tight sweaters and tight skirts”) that “she looks more like a caricature of the ‘fantasy blonde bosom-beauty of the fifties’ than a real woman”. However, as Peary notes, “Mansfield is so spirited, lively, and funny that she emerges unscathed”, and somehow manages to “blunt the sexist humor and make it harmless, [so] we don’t feel guilt”. Mansfield and her bosoms aren’t the only fetish exploited and explored by Tashlin, however: as DVD Savant has hinted, the entire film could be viewed as an extended satirical deconstruction of the fifties, given Mansfield’s not-so-secret desire to simply be a housewife rather than pursuing a career (“I’m a domestic”, she guiltily admits), and the strategic inclusion of rock-n-roll throughout the entire narrative. To that end, Peary points out that the “picture has a strong cult today because of the many great rock acts who appear, including Little Richard at his peak” (singing the title song), “Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran”, among others. (My favorite musical act, however, is that given by the apparition of Julie London, in which she sings the haunting “Cry Me a River” in various locations of Ewell’s apartment while he tries in vain to get her out of his mind; it’s a classic, cleverly conceived comedic sequence.)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jayne Mansfield as Jerri
  • Numerous amusing visual gags
  • The inspired “Julie London” sequence
  • Several classic rock acts

Must See?
Yes, as one of Tashlin’s acknowledged classics — and to see Mansfield in her best role.

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All About Eve (1950)

All About Eve (1950)

“I’ll admit I may have seen better days, but I’m still not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut.”

Synopsis:
A deviously aspiring actress (Anne Baxter) befriends an aging theatrical legend (Bette Davis), eventually becoming her understudy and plotting to snag her next role.

Genres:

Review:
Although Peary doesn’t review All About Eve in his Guide for the Film Fanatic (it’s included in the Appendix as a title he mistakenly left out of the book’s first printing), he provides an in-depth overview of this tremendously popular “instant classic” in his first Cult Movies book. In this review, he writes that the “enormous appeal” of the film for “today’s moviegoers is quite obvious: for the curious, there’s Bette Davis and Gary Merrill, in love on-screen, falling in love off-camera…; for movie buffs, there’s Davis and Marilyn Monroe [in a bit part], one former and one future box office queen, in their only film together; for Davis cultists, there’s the great resurrected actress breathing fire into what is, arguably, her greatest role…; for connoisseurs, there are delectable supporting performances…; for the discriminating, high-brow viewers, there’s a clever, highly intelligent script… remarkably performed by an outstanding ensemble”. In addition, he notes that “most film fans, having by nature an antitheater bias, can delight in having their worst suspicions confirmed about theater people”, given that “jealousy, insecurity, and in-fighting over parts and partners reign supreme”. (Of course, none of this EVER happens in Hollywood…!)

With that said, Peary does point out that not all critics are unanimously impressed by the film. Some, for instance, “blame Anne Baxter’s lack of depth as an actress for making Eve Harrington come across as an essentially shallow character”. But Peary convincingly argues that “Eve is shallow by design”, “limited by her own superficiality” and unable to “lay down a victorious trump card because she has none”. Indeed, he astutely notes that “if Eve were the strong character that some critics wanted Anne Baxter to play her as, she could never have wound up as the kept woman of a man who only selects from the bottom of the barrel” (ouch!). Baxter, I believe, is ultimately fine and well-cast in the title role — but it’s Davis as Margo Channing who remains the film’s undeniable viewing magnet. Channing — “perhaps the most dynamic woman ever to appear on the screen” — is “intelligent, opinionated, high-strung, temperamental, and… adept at unleashing funny one-liners”, but what’s most interesting about her character is how “contradictory” she is: she’s “vain, but self-effacing”, “self-reliant one minute and dependent the next”. It’s no wonder Merrill’s character is so fascinated by this enigmatic, all-too-human diva!

(potential spoiler alert)

While I appreciate the film’s enduring central melodrama of rivalry and back-stabbing, what struck me most upon revisiting All About Eve recently is what a strong statement it makes about the power of friendship. The film’s narrator, after all, is Margo’s best friend (Celeste Holm), whose loyalty to Margo may be sorely tested by the intrusion of Eve in their lives, but is never permanently severed. During a pivotal scene later in the film, Margo, Karen (Holm), Bill (Merrill), and Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe) sit around a restaurant table together, and Margo mentions how much the couples’ friendship means to her — this, along with her romantic commitment to Bill, ultimately emerges as the most important triumph in her storied existence. Although Eve may get what she (thinks she) wants by brutally clawing her way past any obstacles that stand in her way, the film’s clever denouement provides all the proof we need that Eve’s lonely path won’t afford her nearly the satisfaction that Margo has earned in all other areas of her life. It is also interesting, as Peary points out, to note that in the “final section of the picture”, “Bill and Lloyd, with Margo’s blessing, work with Eve in a new play” — the point being that “in the theater, talented people are accepted, regardless of character”. Be duly forewarned.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Bette Davis as Eve (nominated as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
  • George Sanders as Addison DeWitt
  • Anne Baxter as Eve: “externally cool, calculating and controlled, yet empty at the core”
  • Gary Merrill as Bill
  • Celeste Holm as Karen
  • Joseph Mankiewicz’s infinitely quotable screenplay (one of the “best scripts in cinema history” — and the “first movie script to be published… as a hardcover book”): “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”

Must See?
Yes, of course. Listed as a film with Historical Importance, a Cult Movie, and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book. Nominated by Peary as one of the best movies of the year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Out of the Past (1948)

Out of the Past (1948)

“That’s one way to be clever: look like an idiot.”

Synopsis:
An ex-private eye (Robert Mitchum) tells his new girlfriend (Virginia Huston) about his previous adventures trailing the moll (Jane Greer) of a gangster (Kirk Douglas) to Mexico, and falling in love with her before being double-crossed — but soon he’s caught up in new webs of intrigue, double-crossings, and murder.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “exceptional ‘B’ movie” by director Jacques Tourneur has “come to be regarded as the picture that best exemplifies film noir,” given that it possesses “tainted characters; entangled relationships; events determined by chance; large sums of money; murder; a tough, morally ambiguous hero with a gun in his trench coat, a dark hat on his head, and a cigarette in his mouth; a lying, cheating, chameleon-like femme fatale… who leads an essentially decent guy down a wayward path; and, ultimately, betrayal, frame-ups, and fall guys”. Indeed, the pulpy, intelligent script (by Daniel Mainwaring, based on his novel Build My Gallows High) is so densely plotted that, as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times warned in his review, the film’s action “is likely to leave the napping or unmathematical customer far behind” — i.e., you need to be awake and paying attention, or risk not quite keeping up.

Yet this is a movie that truly merits one’s full attention, given that there’s so much here to enjoy and appreciate — including atmospheric direction by Tourneur, who has the film taking “place mostly at night”, with “darkness… used metaphorically to express… malignant evil spread[ing] from character to character”; Nicholas Musucara’s truly “outstanding cinematography”, which often relies on “single-source lighting to place spooky shadows on the faces of his characters and across entire sets”; and “solid performances” by Mitchum, Greer, and all members of their estimable supporting cast. In his lengthier review of the film for his Cult Movies book, Peary writes that while Humphrey Bogart was the studio’s first choice to play the lead role, Mitchum is ultimately “a better choice than Bogart”, given that his “reserved style is more in keeping with the way Tourneur directs his actors”, and the fact that he is young enough to play someone who is “unprepared for the likes of Kathie [Greer] and welcomes her with open arms”. Meanwhile, gorgeous Greer emerges here as one of cinema’s most memorable femme fatales — it’s truly a shame her career didn’t go further.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Robert Mitchum as Jeff Markham (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Jane Greer as Kathie Moffatt (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
  • Kirk Douglas as Whit Sterling
  • Fine supporting performances throughout
  • Nick Musuraca’s stunningly noir-ish cinematography
  • Good use of on-location settings
  • Daniel Mainwaring’s delightfully intelligent yet pulpy screenplay: “My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven’t been able to find them.”

Must See?
Yes, as a definitive noir classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the best pictures of the year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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Another Thin Man (1939)

Another Thin Man (1939)

“You can laugh if you want to — but I don’t laugh at my dreams!”

Synopsis:
Socialites Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) travel with their infant son (William A. Poulsen) to Long Island, where Nick — a former detective — quickly finds himself trying to determine who killed the father (C. Aubrey Smith) of a beautiful young heiress (Virginia Grey).

Genres:

Review:
The enormous success of W.S. Van Dyke’s screwball murder mystery The Thin Man (1934) spawned a near cottage industry of sequels and spin-offs — including this third entry in the feature-length series (the only additional title included in Guide For the Film Fanatic). The formula had by now been set: Nick is reluctantly drawn into helping to solve a murder mystery (thanks in part to his wife’s urging), and eventually pulls together a group of suspects, at which point he cleverly outs the culprit. Unfortunately, while fans will surely enjoy getting to see more of the Charles’s incomparably witty banter together, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s script — despite being based on another story by Dashiell Hammett — doesn’t distinguish itself as particularly noteworthy in any way, and never manages to approach the brilliance of the original. (Maybe what’s missing is all the alcohol! As new parents, Nick and Nora’s lifestyle has become fairly tame…)

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The refreshingly lighthearted “playing with baby” scene
  • The most unusual dance scene at the West Indies club

Must See?
No; while it’s an enjoyable enough way to pass the time, this one is only must-see for diehard Nick-and-Nora fans.

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Europeans, The (1979)

Europeans, The (1979)

“I’ve been pretending all this time; I’ve been dishonest. It’s pleasure that I care for.”

Synopsis:
A penniless baroness (Lee Remick) and her artistic brother (Tim Woodward) visit their cousins in America, where Woodward immediately falls for non-conformist Gertrude (Lisa Eichhorn), and Remick is pursued by a local businessman (Robin Ellis).

Genres:

Review:
Merchant-Ivory’s adaptation of Henry James’ novella is an unassuming, quietly absorbing tale of class relations and romantic maneuverings in upper-class 18th century New England. Several of the characters (i.e., Woodward’s “playboy” European, Wesley Addy’s puritanical patriarch) at first come across as mere stereotypes, but they eventually foil our expectations, turning into (mostly) likeable individuals — all of whom (like the protagonists in Jane Austen’s novels) are simply attempting to find happiness and/or security within the restricted confines of their social circles. However, despite a host of fine performances (Eichhorn is particularly appealing), typically lovely Merchant-Ivory period sets and costumes, and gorgeous cinematography, the film as a whole never quite coheres as it should — largely because the motivations of certain key characters aren’t fully explained, and their various intrigues are simply not dramatic enough to make us sit up and take notice. With that said, as DVD Savant notes in his insightful review of the film, “Those able to get down to The Europeans‘ quiet, subtle level of discourse will [likely] be charmed.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Lee Remick as the Baroness
  • Lisa Eichhorn as Gertrude
  • Tim Woodward as Felix
  • Fine period sets and costumes

  • Lush cinematography

Must See?
No, though fans of Merchant-Ivory films will certainly want to check it out, and it’s worth seeking out for one-time viewing.

Links:

Perceval (1978)

Perceval (1978)

“Make me a knight, sire!”

Synopsis:
In medieval England, a callow youth named Perceval (Fabrice Luchini) goes against the wishes of his widowed mother (Pascale de Boysson) and sets out to become a knight under King Arthur.

Genres:

  • Coming of Age
  • Eric Rohmer Films
  • French Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Literature Adaptation
  • Medieval Times
  • Royalty and Nobility

Review:
Eric Rohmer’s strategically stylized adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes’ unfinished 12th century manuscript will, once you’ve adapted to its unusual style, likely strike you as the best possible way to approach this decidedly challenging material. By never attempting to make the characters “realistic” in any sense of the word (at times, they actually speak about themselves in the third person), and by using deliberately artificial settings (reminiscent of medieval paintings and tapestries), Rohmer effectively allows viewers to relax into knowing that they’re simply watching a filmed adaptation of an epic historical poem — nothing more or less. Indeed, Rohmer is apparently so faithful to his source material that he allows the narrative to radically shift gears during the final half-hour, such that we’re suddenly following an entirely different character altogether (Sir Gauvain, played by André Dussollier). Your enjoyment of the film will depend primarily upon two factors: how easily you can handle watching the rather obnoxiously callow and arrogant young protagonist mistreat his mother and a defenseless damsel while climbing the ranks and bedding a beautiful noblewoman; and how patient you are during what ends up as a rather long (2+ hours) and slow narrative haul. However, this one is ultimately too unique to miss checking out at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Boldly artificial sets

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual outing by Rohmer. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book — and it seems to have remained so, among a sub-group of devoted fans.

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Thin Man, The (1934)

Thin Man, The (1934)

“Haven’t you heard the news? I’m a gentleman now.”

Synopsis:
A retired detective (William Powell) is pressured by his new wife (Myrna Loy) into investigating the murder of a secretary (Natalie Moorhead) whose employer (William Henry) has mysteriously disappeared.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that this “wildly successful blend of… murder mystery and… screwball comedy” (adapted from a novel by Dashiell Hammett) possesses “delectable performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles” — the most ridiculously happy married couple ever to grace the silver screen. Indeed, while it’s nominally a detective story, what people remember most about The Thin Man is the central relationship between Powell and Loy, whose chemistry together is pitch perfect. They’re a rare “sexy married couple… who enjoy each other’s company, sense of humor, [and] conversation”, and — given that they’re independently wealthy, and don’t yet have any children — are able to devote their lives to simply having fun. As Peary notes, “if you don’t get upset by Nick’s constant imbibing” (the amount of liquor poured and drunk in this post-Prohibition-era film is truly astonishing), you’ll enjoy “watching them and their dog-child”, Asta — whose breed (wire-haired terrier) immediately became all the rage in America.

Much of the credit for the success of The Thin Man belongs to its director, W.S. Van Dyke (“One-Take Woody”), who — shooting in just 12 days and working with Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s “breezy adaptation” of Hammett’s novel — managed to infuse the film with “an improvisational feel, with characters moving freely in and out of the frame”. Equally noteworthy is James Wong Howe’s atmospheric cinematography (see stills below), as well as a fine supporting cast — all of whom end up as suspects. Indeed, while the murder mystery here could almost be considered a MacGuffin (as argued by Roger Ebert in his “Great Movies” overview of the film), it’s actually a reasonably enjoyable whodunit which will certainly keep you guessing. Followed by five sequels and a television series, and selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 1997. Spoofed in Neil Simon’s Murder By Death (1976), with David Niven and Maggie Smith as Dick and Dora Charleston.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • William Powell as Nick Charles (nominated by Peary as Best Actor of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Myrna Loy as Nora Charles
  • Fine supporting performances
  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
  • Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s extremely witty, fast-paced, entertaining script

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine classic. Interestingly, while it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Picture of the Year (as well as Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Powell), Peary doesn’t include it as a contender in his own Alternate Oscars book.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961)

“I live for furs; I worship furs!”

Synopsis:
A pair of dalmatians (Rod Taylor and Cate Bauer) rely on a network of animal friends to help rescue their brood of 15 puppies from the clutches of evil Cruella De Vil (Betty Lou Gerson).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary accurately labels this classic animated feature (based on the 1956 children’s novel by Dodie Smith) a “most enjoyable, consistently clever and amusing Disney cartoon” — thanks in no small part to the inclusion of “one of the greatest of Disney’s villainesses, eccentric and mad Cruella de Vil” (animated by Marc Davis as an “exaggerated, flamboyantly garbed and made-up” evil send-up of Tallulah Bankhead). From its charming opening sequences — in which our narrator, Pongo (Rod Taylor), laments the unmarried status of his “pet”/owner, Roger (Ben Wright), and helps him pursue the beautiful, dalmatian-owning Anita (Lisa Davis) — to the “exciting escape sequence, in which [a network of] dogs use various means to elude Cruella and her cronies”, it’s easy to get caught up in this rousing tale of kidnapping and rescue, in which “good” and “evil” are so clearly delineated (who but a truly twisted individual would even think of making a coat out of puppy fur??!). As Peary notes, “many of the supporting animals” are able to “display enormous personality in very brief screen time” — though it’s slightly disappointing that the puppies themselves don’t have “more distinct personalities”, and I’ll agree that it would be better if “Perdita and Anita were as quirky as their male counterparts”. Watch for a couple of clever scenes skewering the mind-numbing quality of “modern” television — most notably the “What’s My Crime?” parody.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The charming opening “matchmaking” sequence
  • Cruella De Vil — according to James Kendrick, she’s “a truly inspired character, the kind who, if she didn’t exist, would need to be invented”
  • Amusing satire of TV
  • Impressive animation


Must See?
Yes, as one of Disney’s (many) enjoyable mid-century-ish classics.

Categories

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Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

“There is within each of us a twin destiny: the natural and the supernatural.”

Synopsis:
A mysterious man (Peter Cushing) on a train tells the supernatural fortunes of five passengers (Neil McCallum, Alan Freeman, Roy Castle, Christopher Lee, and Donald Sutherland).

Genres:

Review:
Despite its intriguingly atmospheric opening set-up — in which a group of motley train passengers reluctantly allow mysterious Dr. Schreck (a.k.a. “Dr. Terror”) to tell their fortunes via tarot cards — this disappointing horror anthology fails to live up to its potential. The first vignette — starring Neil McCallum as an architect who discovers the tomb of a werewolf in his ancient familial estate — shows some promise but never really pays off; the second — involving a man (Alan Freeman) whose home is overrun by a killer plant — is, sadly, laughable rather than terrifying; and the third — following a jazz musician (Roy Castle) who arrogantly steals a sacred song he hears in the West Indies, and is visited by a voodoo curse — is nearly unwatchable, thanks to Castle’s utterly insufferable personality.

The fourth vignette — starring the inimitable Christopher Lee as an arrogant art critic whose harsh indictment of an artist (Michael Gough) comes back to haunt him, via an increasingly gruesome disembodied hand that refuses to “die” — is the most satisfying by far, while the fifth — in which Donald Sutherland discovers he’s married a vampire (Jennifer Jayne) — at least offers an unexpected plot twist at the very end. But the film as a whole never really musters any collective tension, and remains of interest primarily for its historical importance as the first horror “portmanteau” film produced by Amicus Studios (a competitor with Hammer Studios). Click here for an interesting background article on Amicus.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The fourth vignette, in which Lee battles the disembodied hand of Michael Gough

Must See?
No — though it holds some historical value as the first of Amicus’ horror-anthology films, and thus film fanatics may be curious to check it out.

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