Sunday, October 27, 2013

one frightened night - 1935

one frightened night
based on a story by stuart palmer

wait a minute, philo vance. i'm going with you.
(the great luvalle, to sheriff jenks)

it was a dark and stormy night. really. more about that in a moment.

i still haven't gotten around to reading any of stuart palmer's fiction but i've reviewed a number of the films adapted from that fiction, specifically the ones starring the spinster detective, hildegarde withers. further research shows that palmer had his hand in a number of other film projects over the years, either adaptions of his stories or direct contributions to screenplays.

palmer is credited with providing the story for one frightened night, but whether it's an original story penned for the movie or an adaptation of something else he wrote is unclear. the movie came out in 1935, the same year that saw the release of murder on a honeymoon, the third of the withers adaptations.

it is upon a dark and stormy night that the wealthy mr. jasper whyte gathers a gang of relatives and others to his creaky old mansion. never mind that the storm seems only to show itself at very random intervals and usually only between scenes. let's not nitpick. in the absence of his estranged and long-lost granddaughter, whyte has decided to give away his millions to all of those assembled, just in time to beat out a new inheritance tax that goes into effect at midnight. so much for planning ahead.

well, wouldn't you know it, just about the time that whyte is breaking the good news to the group, a young woman turns up, claiming to be said granddaughter. if that wasn't coincidence enough for you, here comes yet another young woman (and her magician companion) who also claims to be the granddaughter.

i won't say too much more about the plot, except to say that not everyone survives the night. the whodunit elements here are nothing spectacular but i found this one to be quite entertaining nonetheless. it's as much "old dark house" as whodunit, with all of the action taking place in and around the mansion. and while a number of the characters are quite bland, whyte and the great luvalle (the magician) are interesting enough to save the day. fans of the lone wolf movies, of which i've reviewed quite a few, will recognize fred kelsey (sheriff jenks), who played a detective in a number of installments of that series.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

house of mystery - 1934

house of mystery
from a play by adam shirk

yeah i'm up to my neck in apes. (inspector pickens)

"an ancient curse and a killer ape are contained inside an old dark mansion." thus goes imdb's nice and tidy elevator pitch for house of mystery. well, to paraphrase a certain popular cinematic catchphrase - you had me at killer ape. as a long-time three stooges fan it never really occurred to me until recently to question the preponderance of killer apes in certain old works of cinema. it just seemed perfectly natural, but the more you think about it i guess it's not.

in any event, house of mystery gets underway in asia, in 1913, where an arrogant archaeologist named john prendergast is doing such a lousy job of winning friends and influencing people that a group of hindu priests proceed to unleash their killer ape in residence and then put a curse on him when he kills the ape. as we move to the current day, a diverse and mostly loopy group of backers of his expedition are working with an attorney to get their money back.

prendergast, who has changed his name to john pren, is now confined to a wheelchair and is also quite wealthy. he agrees to cough up some dough if the backers will agree to spend a week in his old dark house (for no apparent reason that i could discern). a few murders ensue, each of them preceded by an ominous jungle drumbeat and there may or may not be another killer ape involved. a trio of dimwitted cops turn up and the matter is solved, though not necessarily as a result of their bumbling efforts.

i've watched quite a few movies lately that straddle that nebulous barrier between mystery and old dark house and this is another one of them. as i've said before i've got a weakness for this sort of thing, no matter how slapdash and silly it might be. house of mystery is hardly a great work of cinema but i found it quite entertaining nonetheless.

Polaris, by Jack Mcdevitt

By Jack McDevitt

I don't keep close tabs on the hard science fiction sub-genre of mystery - or is that the mystery sub-genre of hard science fiction? In any event, we'll leave that debate for another time and simply note that it's probably not a very crowded field of endeavor.

Polaris is the second of a series in which Alex Benedict, a successful antiquities dealer to the stars, is called upon to solve assorted and sundry mysteries. This time around he and his assistant Chase Kolpath are trying to find out what happened to the crew of the Polaris, a craft that carried a gang of celebrity thrill seekers and scientific types to view a once on a lifetime spectacle of stellar destruction.

Toss in the fact that it all took place some decades ago, mix in a good bit of rough stuff from a party or parties who prefer not to see the mystery solved and things proceed at a lively pace until it's all wrapped up. While I thought the solution left perhaps just a bit to be desired, all in all this was not a bad piece of work.

Friday, October 25, 2013

God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert

God Emperor of Dune
By Frank Herbert

I don't recall how long it's been since I last read Frank Herbert's dune books and that suggests that it's been a while. Since the last read-through I'd formed the notion that God Emperor of Dune was the best of the bunch. Now that I've read it again I'd like to revise that notion and suggest the Children of Dune is the best of them.

God Emperor of Dune finds Leto, son of Paul Atreides, about 3,000 years into his reign as the God Emperor, a creature who is a combination of man and sandworm. Which is an interesting enough concept but what it means in this volume is that the all-knowing, all-seeing Leto is basically rather bored with existence. The downside for the reader is that he tends to pontificate at rather great length, perhaps in an attempt to transmit that boredom to us. It worked.

Actually, that comes off as a little more harsh of a critique than circumstances warrant. There are some fairly interesting plot threads that find the usual Dune factions scheming and conniving and hoping that they'll be able to knock of the old worm. Which is no small feat and I won't say how it turns out except to say that things pick up quite a bit at the end and Herbert winds things up in a fairly interesting manner.

It's worth a look but only after you've read Dune and Children of Dune. And Dune Messiah, if you're keen to, though you wouldn't be missing much if you skipped that one.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

the ghost walks - 1934

the ghost walks
from a story by charles belden

it was a dark and stormy night. of course.

maybe somewhere along the line i've run across an old dark house movie i didn't like. but nothing comes to mind right now. director frank strayer actually made the monster walks about two years before the ghost walks and though i have yet to see that one it's apparently an old dark house flick as well, though the two don't seem to be linked in any other way.

as the ghost walks gets underway, a hotshot broadway producer, his nerdy (male) secretary and a playwright have a minor accident and are forced to take refuge at a foreboding house of the old and dark variety. there are already several people on hand and it's not long before things start to go awry, with some rather nefarious deeds taking place, but there's a pretty interesting twist early on that i won't spoil.

which colors much of what follows and before it's all said and done a number of the people who have gathered at the house have gone missing and a lunatic has escaped from a nearby asylum and there's a picture with eyes that move and a number of other gimmicks common to movies of this breed. and plenty of comic relief, not the least of it provided by the hotshot producer and the nerd, who spend a great deal of their on-screen time bickering.

alas, there is no killer ape. but life is full of disappointments and the movie doesn’t suffer too badly for it. all in all i'd rank this one a little bit higher than average as far as this sort of thing goes.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

r.l. stine's haunting hour

the r.l. stine craze came along too late for me to really appreciate, but a while back i thought i might try out r.l. stine's haunting hour. it's a horror anthology tv show that airs on a cable channel called the hub. if you guessed that it's geared toward a younger demographic you get a gold star. if you guessed that there's nothing there for adults you might need to rethink your position.

the show is into its third season now and i've caught quite a few episodes. while there were some that didn't grab me there were probably a lot more that did. production values are quite high, the acting and writing are a cut above and as a general rule episodes are not too "childish," for lack of a better word.

if you're only going to try one episode of the show then go all out and try two. grampires was the two-part opener for the third season and it's one of the best episodes i've seen. i've never been a fan of vampires and all of the vampire mania of recent decades hasn't done anything to convert me, but grampires proves that there's still a way to spin this sub-genre in a way that seems fresh. what's especially noteworthy is how the episode manages to blend humor with a few fairly decent scares.

for my money the best of the show ranks right up there with any of the horror tv anthologies of yesteryear. so if you've never heard of it or if you've steered clear because it's kid's stuff i'd encourage you to give it a look.

Monday, October 14, 2013

the phantom of crestwood - 1932

the phantom of crestwood
from a story by bartlett cormack and j. walter ruben

most of the movies from the thirties and forties that i review here contain rather strong elements of comedy and many would probably qualify as comedies first and mysteries second. not so for the phantom of crestwood, which elicited barely a snicker. i'm pretty sure it wasn't meant to but it was a nifty piece of work all the same.

this one falls firmly into the old dark house sub-genre but with a stronger element of whodunit than many of the others i've seen. the gist of things is that jenny wren, a young and not at all unattractive woman, has summoned a quartet of wealthy and powerful men whom she's had dealings with in the past to a gloomy old estate called crestwood. once they've all gathered she puts the squeeze on them for a rather sizable amount of money.

given all that, is it so hard to believe that ms. wren is soon bumped off? i'd say not. at which point gary curtis (ricardo cortez), a fellow with a shady past and a gang of thugs on hand, turns up to sort it all out. i think i missed a key plot point in all this but apparently curtis believes for some reason that he'll be fingered for the crime if he can't prove who really did it.

all of which is rather nicely executed, if you ask me, and there's plenty of that old dark house atmosphere to add spice to the proceedings. this one's definitely worth a look, if you go for that sort of thing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

sword of the rightful king, by jane yolen

sword of the rightful king:
a novel of king arthur
by jane yolen

jane yolen is one of those writers who probably gives a lot of other writers fits - even those who feel that they are relatively hard workers. the well-known author of books for young adults and children has turned out about 300 works in all in the course of her career and a few of these have tackled the arthurian legend she's so fond of.

most notable of these are probably the young merlin trilogy and this volume, which the author says began life as a short story. i'm well past the target age for this type of book but i thought i'd give it a whirl anyway. i found that though i had some reservations about the whole affair, it was actually quite a page-turner overall.

as things get rolling, morgause (morgan le fay, in many versions of the legend) is plotting to take power from arthur, who is already king. four of her five sons are dispatched to arthur's court and the story is told mostly from the perspective of gawaine, the oldest. as for merlinnus, he's no spring chicken in this version of the yarn, but he's still pretty sharp and decides to come up with a pr gimmick (essentially) involving a sword and a stone that he hopes will cement arthur's position as the big cheese.

what follows is mostly a straightforward yarn that presents these parties working toward their respective goals and that's that. yolen does throw in a pretty great twist along the way that totally blindsided me but then again i'm probably not as clever as the average young adult reader.

the biggest drawbacks for me as i read this one is that it was just one small segment clipped from the greater whole of this story and didn't really seem all that substantial. one might have expected a few books to precede it and several more to follow, but in a brief q&a at the end of the book yolen says she has no interest in continuing into the darker areas of the legend. my other minor quibble was with morgause, who is presented as a rather cartoonish villain and an incarnation of pure evil who has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.