Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “An Affair to Remember” (1957)

 

There’s a strange concept to many “forbidden love” stories from the 1950s that often has me rolling my eyes – the tragic twist.

Years ago, I remember watching the Douglas Sirk movie, “All That Heaven Allows,” which is about a middle-aged woman in small town falling for a much younger man. It was competently handled, if a bit uncomfortable to watch at times, but the only thing I remember is the tragic twist that comes near the end and how out of nowhere and infuriating it made me. I watched the film with a large group and I recall a few people walking of the movie with their arms thrown up in frustration at how absurd and unnecessary the ending felt.

I now realize that “All That Heaven Allows” was not the only one to do this, as “An Affair to Remember” has a similar scene that makes everything that came before this moment feel wasted and everything that comes after hard to watch.

To be fair, I went into “An Affair to Remember” expecting a much different movie – Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the later years of their careers. I went in thinking this would be more of a screwball comedy, with lots of wordplay and sarcasm from Cary Grant, similar to his suave jerk persona in “North by Northwest” with some light romance with lost souls looking for another chance to love again.

And for about the first hour that is close to what we get. Grant plays a painter and well-known playboy, who is about to be married, and Kerr plays an aging nightclub singer, who is in an unhappy marriage, and the two meet on an ocean liner on its way from Europe to New York. They develop a friendship that quickly turns into a romance when Kerr sees there is more to Grant than just the party boy. As the cruise ends, they profess their feeling for one another, but are concerned about their committed relationships. So they make a promise – They will meet at the top of the Empire State Building in six months. If they are both up there, they will get married that day, but if one does not make it, then they will know it wasn’t meant to be.

 

 

I will not give away the tragic twist ending, but let’s just say it causes a drastic shift in the movie that was completely avoidable. This change occurs about two-thirds of the way through the film, and suddenly the film changes from a forbidden love story to one of acceptance. This works at times, but other times it comes across as the filmmakers not having enough material to work with so they insert at least two scenes of children singing instead.

These two stories are so drastically different that I lost interest the moment this tragic twist occurred. It also doesn’t help that all the drama of this situation could have been avoided if either of them picked up the telephone and told the other exactly what happened. Instead, we get a third act where both characters think the other is a terrible person and needs to constantly be reminded of that.

At its best, “An Affair to Remember” is “North by Northwest”-lite – Funny, over-the-top banter from Cary Grant while he takes the opportunity to put the moves on a woman. It its worst, the film is groan-inducing and hard to get through without screaming at your TV screen. It’s like watching two long lost lovers waiting for the other all night long, talking about how the other is a terrible human being, when all along they just got the addresses mixed up – You’re invested in their struggle, but appalled at how stubborn and stupid they can be.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “A Face in the Crowd” (1957)

 

 

Imagine if Charles Foster Kane was a country singer instead of a newspaper man, and you’ll get “A Face in the Crowd.”

Actually, that is not an enitrely fair description. “Citizen Kane” painted the good and the bad of its protagonist and showed him for who he really was – a flawed man who had wants and desires that could never be fully achieved, like all of us. “A Face in the Crowd” takes a similar angle, by showing a man rising from nothing to position of power and ultimately being corrupted by that same power and greed.

“Citizen Kane” does its best to mantain Charlie Kane’s humanity, despite his growing need for love and affection. But in this movie, its main character Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) embraces the megalomania and shows just how deep his lust for power can go.

Lonesome is found by a local Arkansas radio persona, Marcia Jefferies (Patricia Neal) in the town’s prison for drunk-and-disorderly conduct but has a knack for singing and playing his guitar. Marcia decides to bring in Lonesome to play on the radio in the morning, and he quickly uses his airtime to say a few things about the people in this town, like the sherriff running for mayor and the owner of the radio stations’ massive pool on a hot summer day. At first, Lonesome feels he is using his voice of the “common people” and putting it to good use, making sure they vote for the right person and helping out kids during a scortching day.

But the way he speaks to people gets the attention of bigger news stations in Memphis and eventually New York, when Lonesome Rhodes gets his own television program that is watched by millions of people across the country. As Rhodes gains more fame and has women swooning over him at every event he attends, he also eventually gains power over a senator and wants to start making his way into politics.

 

 

The power of “A Face in the Crowd” comes from how small and simple Lonesome Rhodes starts out, even with his big personality. He claims at one point that he puts everything he has into everything he does, even his boisterous laugh. But as we see Rhodes using his power more and more to his own advantage, instead of for the people like he did while on the Arkansas radio, we see more of this sadistic man who is only out for himself and will do anything he pleases, losing what made him popular in the first place.

But because Lonesome started out in a place where everything comes from, we end up seeing a lot of ourselves in him. That if we were given the same opportunity where a camera or microphone is constantly forced in our faces, we might lose ourselves as well and give into the power he has. It is both freightening and relatable at the same time.

Of course, Andy Griffith’s performance is what makes this movie so powerful. It is strange having only known about his television work before watching “A Face in the Crowd,” where I had known him to be a wholesome and honest character, yet we see him playing a despicable man who drinks too much and handles more women than a brothel, but still knows how to connect to the common man. He does everything over the top and so passionately, like any moment will he his last moment of life, which makes meanical transformation so much fun to watch.

I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen during “A Face in the Crowd,” as I was always so curious how far Lonesome Rhodes would take his power trip and what would be lost in the process. It is also a great example of how the media can corrupt people with good intentions, or take people with bad intentions and give them a platform to reach other people. While the movie doesn’t outright attack all media outlets, so does show that media creates power quickly, and that power can be corrupted easily.

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “Roman Holiday” (1953)

 

 

“Roman Holiday” is one of those movies that gets better when you think about when it came out. In 1953, the world was still healing from World War II, especially in Europe, and the ideology of the “classic fairytale” was being questioned. “Roman Holiday” holds itself in a strange twilight zone where it is a fairytale in all the best places, while also challenging what a fairytale can and cannot do.

Ann (Audrey Hepburn) is the princess of a fictional country in Europe, as she makes a tour around the continent as a show of good will and faith in her fellow people. She stops in Rome and is exhausted from her duties as princess and embassador, breaking down one night after realizing she’s not having any fun. Shortly after, Ann sneaks out onto the streets of Rome and is picked up by an American reporter, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). The next day, Ann is still missing from the palace but Joe realizes he has the story of the century and convinces Ann to go on a personal tour of Rome with him.

As I look up information on “Roman Holiday” I found it odd that people consider this a “romantic comedy.” I get the comedy, which is intricately worked into Hepburn’s desire to explore the world yet has inexperience with how life operates on the street while Peck tries to be sneaky about his identity and true motives around the princess. It is the “romantic” part I don’t get. For most of the film, Peck and Hepburn share a friendship where they both feel they could benefit from the other.

 

 

Watching “Roman Holiday” is like seeing two really good friends share an afternoon together seeing the sites and enjoying each other’s company. By the end, I wasn’t convinced that the two loved each other, just that they were both looking for companionship and this was there brief yet only chance. Which is what makes the ending so bittersweet yet perfect, said with little to no words from either Hepburn or Peck.

Overall, I enjoyed “Roman Holiday” as a charming tourist comedy. This was Audrey Hepburn’s American film debut and she exudes elegance while having fun with everything that is thrown at her, making this my favorite role from her. The city of Rome has never looked better and the film captures the people and atmosphere of Rome better than any movie I’ve seen before. If you want to experience Rome without paying to go there, watch “Roman Holiday.”

Final Grade: B

 

Movie Review – “The Quiet Man” (1952)

This is the perfect movie for a laid-back, lazy Sunday afternoon. A nice glimpse at an easy-going Irish lifestyle filled with pleasant people who want nothing more than to enjoy each others’ company.

“The Quiet Man” follows Sean Thornton (John Wayne) as he moves from America to Ireland in the 1920s, and intends to buy back the land his Irish family once owned. As he does, Sean falls for young Irish girl Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) and intends to marry her. But Mary Kate is devoted to her Irish traditions and won’t marry Sean without the approval of her brother, Will (Victor McLaglen), who despises Sean for taking land that he felt belonged to him.

The title “The Quiet Man” works perfectly for John Wayne, not because he doesn’t talk much, but that all he wants is quiet and pleasant lifestyle, which he feels can be achieved in Ireland. His biggest worries here are courting Mary Kate and rebuilding his home, which everyone in town is more than willing to pitch in (or at least give him a flower to plant). He cares little about money or petty squabbles with Will, since he knows that won’t bring him peace.

 

 

“The Quiet Man” was directed by John Ford as a love-letter to Ireland, where both of his parents were born, and makes full use of its technicolor landscape, as the bright yellow-and-orange sun sets over the deep green hills that stretch for miles. Or the rippling rivers with their stony bridges contrasted by the massive blue skies. Watching this film is like spending an afternoon looking up at the clouds and making shapes or animals out of them, doing so without a care in the world.

Like any good John Ford movie, there is a wide range of colorful characters, all of whom love conversing and their pints of alcohol. From the nosey cabbie Michaeleen Flynn (Barry Fitzgerald), to the loud priest who loves to fish Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond), to the rich widow who loves controversy but hates people Sarah Tillane (Mildred Natwick), there is no shortage of wacky Irish folk here.

Overall, “The Quiet Man” is one of the most relaxing and peaceful movies I’ve seen in a while. It is an appreciation of the Irish, their culture and their landscapes, as well as how accepting they are of letting outsiders in. John Wayne offers his usual bravado, especially when he feels he has to marry Mary Kate the moment he sees her, but that just makes the cultural differences so funny and captivating. Watch this one to help you unwind after a long day or if you want one of the best looking Irish films you’ll ever see.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Adam’s Rib” (1950)

 

 

Here we have a classic comedy that only works because of its two lead stars – Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. If it were anyone other actors, who would have had to force their chemistry, “Adam’s Rib” would be difficult to get through.

 

Hepburn and Tracy each play lawyers married to each other. They spend their mornings reading about the newest crimes in the newspaper, each taking a different stance, while they make googly-eyes at one another. But one morning a story about a wife shooting and nearly killing her cheating husband comes up and Hepburn’s character believes that all the blame is on the husband, while Tracy cannot see her point of view at all. Tracy is given the case by the District Attorney and Hepburn’s character seeks out the case and vows to win it for not just the wife, but all opressed women, turning this into a battle between the sexes, as well as husband and wife.

 

Their points are made clear – Hepburn feels the husband’s continued neglagence and irritability with his wife forced her to take this drastic act to save her marriage and house, while Tracy demands that the person who fired the gun and attempted to end another life, whether that person is a man or a woman, should face justice.

 

I will admit that, as the film started, I was firmly in agreement with Spencer Tracy’s side of the argument, no one has the right to end another life. But as the film went on, Hepburn continued to make solid and convincing points about how terribly the husband treated his wife just because he wanted her to lose some weight.

 

 

 

Yet, while all of this is going on, Hepburn, and Tracy show their love for each other. They would make kissy-faces at each other under the table or give the other gifts and back massages while outside the courtroom. Even when they become irritated with one another, their love still shines through. This is just how their freaky relationship works, the need for opposition and debate is so strong that they look forward to their arguments.

 

“Adam’s Rib” is one of the few comedic courtroom dramas that pulls of analysis of the law and slapstick perfectly, and its due to the stern yet passionate speeches filled with fire and brimstone from Hepburn and Tracy that makes it work. The dual nature of their relationship and the ability to go from heated debate to passionate love is what makes this so hilarious.

 

This is a film filled with domestic battles – Man vs. woman, nature vs. nuture, conversative vs. liberal, and ego vs. the law. But like all good battles, the film lets you understand and appreciate both sides of the argument.

 

Final Grade: B+