Review of THE BAT (1959) (Special Edition Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Not rated (would be PG)

Another release timed for Halloween is The Bat (1959), which is in the public domain and widely available for free . . . in blurred versions that are no better than VHS tapes (remember those?). The way to watch, if you’re a fan, is on hi-def Blu-ray from The Film Detective, which becomes available on October 25. Transfer purists might wince at a few compression artifacts, but this print is still plenty sharp and a major improvement over the free stuff.

Don’t let the title, tagline (“When it flies . . . Someone Dies”) or star fool you. The Bat isn’t a horror film. With Vincent Price onboard and cover art reminiscent of The Pit and the Pendulum, you’d certainly think as much, but when I watched this film for the first time a single thought kept popping into my head:  the old “Shadow” radio serials.

With a radio mystery feel to it, The Bat has more in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories than it does his tales of the macabre. And while Price gets top billing, Agnes Moorehead (Samantha’s mom on the old Bewitched TV series) has the most screen time and is also more engaging. She plays a mystery writer who rents a mansion that has a sketchy past and rumors of hauntings and crazy people, just so she can get ideas for her next book.

Men in Plaid

Sleeping in a haunted house all alone except for a terrified female assistant (Lanita Lane)? No problem. Cornelia van Gorder is more like her sleuth heroes than the typical writer immersed in a real-life adventure that we encounter in movies. Nothing seems to faze her, this creation of Mary Roberts Rinehart, who in 1920 based her three-act play The Bat on her 1908 novel, The Circular Staircase, and lived long enough to see two Hollywood adaptations. She died a year before this faithful adaptation was released on a B-movie twin bill with the 1959 Hammer version of The Mummy. But based on a play, it feels like a play.



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Grade:  C+
Rated PG-13

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and its sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), are cult films—but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re not suitable for family viewing. In the case of this double feature—available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber—there’s far less violence, sex, and jump-scares than in contemporary horror films (see the trailer). But these are definitely cult classics, which is to say that they’re not mainstream popular.

For me, a cult classic is defined by a string of “usuallys”:  Usually it’s a low-budget B-movie, one that courts in-your-face difference and has an air of scandal or controversy about it, often with acting and a script that make you wonder if it’s unintentionally bad or bad for the purpose of being campy. Rarely is a cult film deadly serious, but most of the time there’s a “weird” factor. In part they’re also defined by their audiences, who celebrate “getting” the film when others don’t, and whose embrace can be exuberant, if not obsessive.

When it was first released, Dr. Phibes nudged viewers toward a cult film mindset just by featuring Vincent Price, who had built up a following as the star of campy director Roger Corman’s B-movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe horror stories. Price’s silky villainous voice and stage-actor mannerisms in those films had already earned him cult status—something that would continue throughout his career, whether he was featured in The Brady Bunch Hawaii episodes and the beach-party film Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, embraced by Tim Burton for two films (Vincent and Edward Scissorhands), enlisted by Michael Jackson (“Thriller” song/video) and Alice Cooper for musical gigs, celebrated in song by Deep Purple and ZZ Top,or parodied on The Simpsons and SNL.


Review of THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)

If your family enjoyed Knives Out, you also might be entertained by an early entry in the self-conscious light mystery genre.

In The Cat and the Canary (1939)—based on a 1921 stage play by the same name—comedian Bob Hope plays it mostly straight, an actor without the ham in this tongue-in-cheek whodunit with a dash of horror. A year later, hitting the road with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, Hope would develop his famous persona as a bumbling coward of a second banana to Crosby’s straight man, but in this one he’s less goofy and more believable as a love interest for Paulette Goddard. Hope is a considerably more suave and in control than later characters he’ll play, and as a result viewers find themselves focused more on the atmosphere and plot.

The Cat and the Canary was so popular that Hope and Goddard would team up for a second haunted house picture in 1940—The Ghost Breakers, which isn’t recommended for family viewing because of offensive outdated cultural stereotypes. The sets and gimmicks from both films would provide the inspiration for Disney’s popular Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.

There are revolving bookcases, secret panels, and a Louisiana bayou mansion that wasn’t exactly prime real estate even before it fell into decrepit disrepair. Why would anyone visit now, especially when you have to be paddled there by various canoeists? As it turns out, all are relatives and named parties to attend the ceremonial reading of the will, according to instructions left by a reclusive millionaire who died 10 years ago. The deceased specified that his will must be read exactly at midnight, of course. One more thing: worried that insanity might run in the family, the eccentric recluse specified that the one bearing his surname (Norman) will inherit everything. But there’s a catch. If the named heir, Joyce Norman (Goddard), goes crazy before 30 days have passed, then a second replacement heir will be read from a second sealed envelope.

Kind of makes you want to run the other direction, right? Except that the canoe paddlers don’t operate late at night (they must have a strong union). But how else can you ensure that everyone has to spend the night in this spooky place? More

Review of MURDER BY DEATH (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Entire family: No (13 and up?)
1976, 94 min., Color
Shout! Factory
Rated PG for some language and crude/sexual references
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C
Amazon link

It’s not often that you hear of a TV comedy writer who goes on to become one of his generation’s most successful playwrights, but that’s what happened with Neil Simon, who started by writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and became the toast of Broadway for two decades, during which he produced such long-running plays as Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park, and, most famously, The Odd Couple.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Murder by Death has a very staged feel to it, with many of the scenes performed in a single dining room at a neogothic mansion. Typical of Simon, the humor is also the gentle kind, with plenty of verbal and conceptual jokes that make you smile . . . and occasionally laugh out loud. But this murder-mystery comedy was produced in 1976, two years after fellow Sid Caesar writer Mel Brooks amused audiences with the irreverent Blazing Saddles. You could do things like that back in the ‘70s, when Archie Bunker was TV’s undisputed king of non-political correctness. Now? Not so much.

Simon’s clever Murder by Death pokes fun of the mystery genre and also lampoons the great detectives in pop literature and movies. The premise is simple: an eccentric named Lionel Twain who lives at 22 Twain, invites the world’s best detectives to “dinner and a murder.” Once they get past the blind butler (Alec Guinness) and deaf-and-dumb cook (Nancy Walker) and are seated in the dining room, Twain announces that at midnight there will be a murder—someone in this very room will die, and he challenges them to crack this case. His motive? Twain wants to prove that he’s more brilliant than the world’s most brilliant detectives.

James Coco is Milo Perrier, a character obviously that’s based on and pokes fun of Hercule Poirot, while Peter Falk plays hardboiled Sam Spade clone Sam Diamond, Elsa Lanchester is Jessica Marbles (Miss Marple), David Niven and a very young Maggie Smith are Dick and Dora Charleston (The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles), and Peter Sellers plays Sidney Wang (Charlie Chan), who’s accompanied this time by an adopted Number 3 son from Japan. It’s the Chan character—with a Caucasian playing an Asian speaking in pidgin English and offering up fortune cookie advice—that contemporary audiences might find cringe-worthy, as are the original Charlie Chan B-movies in which European-Americans always played the Chinese detective. But like a good satirist or caricaturist, Simon identifies the prominent traits of each detective and plays them for laughs—including stereotypes. More


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Grade: B
Entire family: No
2017, 105 min., Color
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, language, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B (includes short film “Death for a Unicorn”)
Amazon link

A reviewer for The Guardian called Jasper Jones “Australia’s Stand by Me,” but that doesn’t strike me as a very apt comparison. Yes, a dead body of a teen is central to the narrative, and a couple of young friends argue the merits of one superhero over another, but that’s the extent of the similarities.

Jasper Jones isn’t your typical coming-of-age story, either. There’s not much of a sexual awakening in 14-year-old Charlie Buctin (Levi Miller), and there’s less sleuthing in this dead-body mystery than one usually finds in a story of this type.

So what’s here? A pretty engaging tale set in conservative Western Australia that has plenty of small-town tropes that viewers who live in ultra-small-town America will recognize. Everybody knows everybody, and there are outcasts, bad reputations, rumors, all-community events, and a law officer who is more one of them than an authority figure far removed. There’s also a polite reluctance to shake up the community, though the Vietnam War is responsible for a racist backlash against the only Asians who live in this tiny town. But it all feels quite believable and engaging . . . once you get past an abrupt opening. More


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Lucifer1coverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2015-16, 566 min. (13 episodes), Color
Warner Bros.
Not rated (would be TV-14 for violence, adult situations, sexual innuendo, and language)
Aspect ratio: Letterboxed widescreen “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: C-
Amazon link

In the ‘60s, novelty sitcoms like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched proved that shows with positively ridiculous supernatural premises could still be popular if the situations were interesting enough, the cast likeable enough, and the writing clever enough.

That lesson was not lost on the creators of Lucifer: Season 1, a series that’s based on a character from the DC Sandman comics by Neil Gaiman and Sam Kieth. Could there be a crazier premise for a male-female police procedural than to pair the real Lucifer (aka Satan, who’s taking a vacation from hell by running a nightclub in L.A.) with a detective who was a former actress known primarily for posing topless in Hot Tub High School?

Tom Ellis stars as the suave ladies man Lucifer Morningstar, who runs a trendy nightclub called Lux. He had grown bored and restless in hell and often did a deliberately poor job of punishing the people who were sent there because his Father assigned him to that as a punishment for his rebellion. All these Lucifer1screen1millennia later he wanted out, so much so that his L.A. vacation turns into a permanent abdication. When he witnesses a murder outside his club, he finds himself becoming curiously involved and decides to help Det. Chloe Decker (Lauren German) by using some of his powers. In Touched by an Angel Michael Landon gave people warm fuzzies; Lucifer has the power to get people to speak the truth about their deepest, most secret desires, and to admit their sinful urges—including, in an opening scene, a cop who decides to take the bribe after Lucifer exposes his loose relationship with the law. He’s like truth serum, and in extreme situations he shows his real satanic form to those he wants to shock.

Now, why would a good, dedicated cop pair up with Satan? Good question, since one would guess the LAPD would have certain rules about a non-force partnership. Though Lucifer Morningstar comes right out and tells her who he is, she thinks he’s speaking metaphorically, until his character and his immortality is gradually revealed to her. His fascination with her is more believable: she’s the only human who is impervious to his powers—which, by mid-season, like Samantha’s nose-twitch and Jeannie’s head-blink, start to get a little old. But the situations and clever writing are enough to compensate.

This first season Chloe and Lucifer investigate the slaying of a movie star’s son, a girl that turns up dead in a football star’s pool, a woman who’s killed at a fashion show, a biker gang that’s into nasty stuff, a murdered therapist, an underground drug ring, the murder of a prominent restauranteur, a philanthropist that was found dead, and a girl who may have been murdered by a group of Satanists.

Rounding out the cast are Scarlett Estevez as Chloe’s precocious daughter, Trixie (“You do know that’s a hooker’s name, don’t you?” Lucifer says upon first meeting her); Lesley-Ann Brandt as Mazikeen (aka Maze), an assistant of sorts who accompanied Lucifer to L.A.; DB Woodside as Amenadiel, Lucifer’s “brother” who is intent on getting him to return to hell; and Rachael Harris as Dr. Linda Martin, whose sessions and relationship with Lucifer will remind viewers of Tony Soprano and his therapist, especially since both men run clubs that are highly sexualized.

Lucifer1screen2Fans of forensic shows won’t be impressed that no attention is paid to that aspect of criminal investigations. Even when we see a body with bruises we just get a coroner’s pronouncement of  “strangulation,” and it’s left to Chloe and Lucifer to find out whether the attacker was male or female, how tall or heavy, etc. And though the writers try to make sense of why and how Chloe is working on her own, it’s not totally clear why, after she clashed with the LAPD over a cop shooting, she’s still able to work on her own while ostracized by her homicide detective ex-husband Dan Espinoza (Kevin Alejandro) and the rest of the detectives. But the show’s writing is clever enough, with laugh-out-loud moments, where you tend to shrug and overlook such things.

Any positive messages that the show might offer (Lucifer’s gradual enlightenment, for example, or anti-bullying, or the always available possibility of reinventing oneself) get lost among the Satanic elements that the writers clearly favored. It’s like a Satanic version of Touched by an Angel meets Remington Steele, with a little Dexter and The Sopranos thrown in for good measure. No wonder the website One Million Moms launched a petition drive to keep the show from airing—though far short of a million signed it by the time the show first aired (165,643). The irony? The show airs on Fox, the network most identified with the GOP and their emphasis on “family values.” Lucifer is a stylish and entertaining show, but it won’t be for many church-going families. It’s also every bit a TV-14 series. Given the soundtrack and special effects, you might want to pick this up on Blu-ray instead. The 5.1 Surround and standard definition, while strong, do have their limitations—especially, with the visuals, in low-light situations.

Language: A bunch of it, mostly male-female slurs like “bitch” or “dick”
Sex: Lots of innuendo, some scantily clad females, implied sexual coupling
Violence: Jerry Bruckheimer produced this, so you’ll see a bunch of crashes and explosions and high-concept stylized violence, some of it bloody
Adult situations: Drug-use, smoking, drinking
Takeaway: Despite the ridiculous premise, Lucifer is surprisingly entertaining

THE BAT (Blu-ray)

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BatcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1959, 80 min., Black-and-white
Not rated (would be PG for some violence)
The Film Detective
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link

The Bat (1959) is billed as horror-thriller-mystery, but the way those genres have evolved over time it’s now mostly a straight-up mystery, noir style.

Vincent Price stars as a doctor doing bat research and Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched) as a mystery writer looking for new material. She finds plenty at an old country estate she’s rented—a quintessential dark-and-stormy-night Victorian mansion that comes with servants . . . at least until they’ve abandoned her because they’re convinced a murderer called The Bat might be returning to the scene of his crimes. A local detective (Gavin Gordon) plods around and a complicating factor is that bank securities were recently stolen and may be stashed somewhere inside that same creepy old house. A lot happens, but the spotlight is on Price and Moorehead, two iconic actors.

The Bat won’t be for everyone, but if your children aren’t averse to old black-and-white movies, this one is family-friendly. The violence is mostly bloodless or mostly off-screen, and the focus is on the mystery.

BatscreenMy son is a teen who appreciates good plotting, and he and I both marveled how a relatively simple concept could be complicated by believable twists and enhanced by cinematography that showcases all the shadows and angles we’ve come to associate with film noir. There are only a few melodramatic moments, with otherwise straight dramatic acting—decent acting, too. Director Crane Wilbur had written the script for the Price horror classic House of Wax, so it’s not surprising that with Price in the starring role he’d slip in a few Gothic elements here too.

Old films like this are often campy, but while The Bat has its unintentionally funny or tongue-in-cheek moments, it really is a mystery that unapologetically goes about it’s business of planting clues and red herrings. There are a few slasher moments, and The Bat’s hat and distorted face and claws will suggest to horror-slasher fans that this film may have had a direct influence on the Freddy Krueger character design from the popular A Nightmare on Elm Street series. That’s kind of cool for film buffs, who might also find it fun that Darla from the original Our Gang/Little Rascals short films turns up as one of the adult female characters. And it’s certainly enjoyable seeing Moorehead in a serious role before she turned into one of TV’s most famous witches.

The Bat is now in the public domain, and while The Film Detective’s restored version looks good, for the most part, there are vertical white lines in spots and other flaws that are obviously a part of whatever print was used for the master. I haven’t seen the DVD version so I can’t offer a comparison, but I have no complaints other than what I just mentioned.

I asked my son what grade he’d give this, and he said a B+ or A-, since he really liked it. That’s almost ironic, because Price went on record as saying he thought the script wasn’t very good. I lean toward a B for this B-movie because mystery fans will recognize a formula and certain other conventions. That’s part of the genre, but the bottom line is always how well were those conventions and plot points integrated and developed? With The Bat, I’d have to say it does a fairly decent job on both counts, and still holds up today. If you grab a copy for a family home movie night, you might as well go all out and for the warm-up also show a “Thriller” video featuring iconic horror actor Price—maybe even dance a bit. Those are the kind of things your kids will remember years from now!

Language: Not much
Sex: n/a
Violence: Several murders, not very bloody or graphic (see trailer)
Adult situations: Nothing besides the murders
Takeaway: Vincent Price was always fun to watch onscreen


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WithoutaCluecoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes . . . but
1988, 107 min., Color
Rated PG for some violence, smoking, and drinking
Olive Films
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1 (says the box, but it looks more like 1.85:1)
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0
Bonus features: D (trailer only)
Trailer/Amazon link

From 1982-1987 Stephanie Zimbalist starred as the assistant to private detective Remington Steele, whom she had invented because no client would trust a female detective. He got the credit, but she was the sleuth. TV writers Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther took that concept and applied it to the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. And TV veteran Thom Eberhardt made the leap with them to direct the 1988 PG-rated crime comedy-mystery Without a Clue.

It’s a PG-rated light comedy that tries for slapstick at times and satire other times and often gets caught in-between. The result is a kind of tongue in cheek (or maybe bubble-pipe in mouth) parody that has a warm, tea cozy feel to it.

Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine make a good pair as Dr. Watson and the third-rate actor he hired to play the part of Sherlock Holmes so that he could be free to practice medicine and deduce all he wanted, without criticism or scrutiny. Of course, when you hire a bad actor it should come as no surprise that he turns out to be a ham who hogs the spotlight and has any number of habits that annoy the real detective—including drinking too much and clumsy attempts at womanizing.

By film’s end, of course, they’ll end up becoming a real team, but the fun comes from watching them get there. Without a Clue is a light mystery that features famed Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman, who played Indiana Jones’ nemesis René Belloq) masterminding a plot to flood the market with counterfeit British money and cause the collapse of the British economy. The £5 printing plates have disappeared, and so has the printing supervisor. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones, who was the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) is jealous of Holmes and competes with him to solve the case, standing in the wings every time adoring reporters surround Holmes.

WithoutaCluescreenThere’s a kidnapping and several skirmishes, all of which are handled with the same light touch as elsewhere in the film. Any potential trauma from the kidnapping, for example, is muted by a comic sequence that has Holmes pinned behind the door so that all we can see is his scrunched face as he threatens to pounce on the ruffians and urges a woman to keep a stiff upper lip. A few gunfights and an explosion are the only exceptions. Otherwise, moments of tension are defused by similar humorous devices, so that there’s never much in the way of serious peril—only comic danger. There’s no language, and the only sexuality comes from the unmasking of a transvestite and a little keyhole peeping in which a woman is seen taking off stockings. Overall, it’s a relatively wholesome film that relies on some familiar, but softened elements from private detective mysteries—including a woman in distress (Lysette Anthony) and a housekeeper (Pat Keen) who sees more than anyone thinks.   More