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Featured Post - Mystery Movie Marathon

I thought I'd kick the new year off with another movie marathon. I thought it was time to check out a few old school mystery flicks. Som...

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Doctor Hackenstein (1988)

The eighties had a lot of attempts at horror comedy. Some of them like Return of the Living Dead or Frankenhooker worked really well. Others not so much. Horror movies can be hard but nothing is harder then making an audience laugh so trying to jam them both together isn’t an easy task to take on. How well did Doctor Hackenstein handle this? Lets take a look.

The movie opens with Hackenstein hosting Dean Slesinger, his boss at University, for supper. They talk a bit about him returning to campus and moving his lab and experiments there. There is talk about his research involving reanimation of dead tissue and bringing things back to life. Yeah, this is another comedic take on Frankenstein if you haven’t figured it out yet. The good doctor wants to return the love of his life back to the land of the living. All he has is her head though so he will have to make her a body. Though due to the incompetence of his body snatchers he is all out of spare parts to make that happen.

Luckily, a car full of young ladies gets stranded and have to spend the night at his house. Shenanigans ensue as the doctor picks the ladies off one at a time to rebuild his wife. There is also a subplot with a local police detective who is looking for the girls after arresting the body snatchers. Eventually things wrap up with some Animal House type updates on what happened to our characters after the events of the movie. The end.

I had some hope for Doctor Hackenstein but for me the movie failed as both a comedy and a horror story. They lean heavily into the jokes and while I found some of it okay like the mute housekeeper and some of the slapstick physical gags it at most elicited a snicker from me. If the point of your movie is to make the audience laugh, then you have to do much better than that. Since so much effort was spent on the attempted humor the horror elements fall flat. Other than some blood splatter there is zero gore. And while I suppose this may be a spoiler, we find out in the end that no one died! Again, I understand that they weren’t trying to be a gory and/or nasty flick but you can do both. The previously mentioned Frankenhooker walks that line perfectly combining laughs as well as horror tropes/gags.

Before anyone sits down to compose an angry email to me about how it isn’t fair that I compare this movie to others like this please stop. While I won’t debate the legitimacy of using similar flicks as a baseline, I do want to point out that this movie is referencing and lifting gags from other comedies. From the Animal House like updates to the mute housekeeper which is very similar to the Ruth Buzzi character from Murder by Death the filmmakers keep reminding us of much better movies. Hell, they even use the name pronunciation joke from the very similar and far better Young Frankenstein. This reminds me of watching independent zombie movies that insist on showing characters watching Night of the Living Dead. Stop showing me something in your movie that I would much rather be watching!

Now it isn’t all bad. There are some familiar faces including married couple Logan Ramsey (Walking Tall, Scrooged) and Anne Ramsey (Throw Momma from the Train, The Goonies) so the filmmakers had some money to hire talent. I had forgotten how funny that Anne Ramsey was. Her dialogue and delivery are top notch. Legendary Phyllis Diller shows up for a hot minute, though she is wasted here. I also wanted to mention actress Cathy Cahn who played the mute housekeeper Yolanda. Her scenes involve a lot of physical comedy and are over the top. When she is on camera there is a different energy, and the movie is simply better. Unfortunately, all of their efforts are wasted with the uninspired script and direction.

Is Doctor Hackenstein a terrible movie? Not really. I’ve seen much worse but that doesn’t mean I’d recommend spending any time on this forgettable attempt at a horror comedy. There are much better options to scratch that itch.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Specters (1987)

Time for some Italian eighties horror that I’ve not seen before. The movie opens with some workers using a large boring machine to extend a subway tunnel. The vibration disturbs a nearby archaeological site which uncovers a hidden tomb beneath the ruins. This excites the leader of the expedition, Professor Lasky, who declares it as the mysterious pagan site they have been looking for. It predates even the Christian catacombs nearby. This all seems fine… right?

Well after meeting Alice, an actress working on a horror movie nearby, and her boyfriend Marcus, who works for Lasky, we then see something is wrong. There is some evil force that rises from beneath the ground terrorizing the locals. What is it and why does it start to kill? In a bit of a dialogue dump from Lasky we find out that the pagan site was a place where sacrifices were made to an ancient god of evil. So I’m figuring it is that guy getting up to bad stuff now that he has been released/disturbed. More bodies pile up, Alice is kidnapped by the god of evil, and Marcus saves the day by blowing up the site and rescuing Alice. Though it may not come as a surprise when someone tags along on their honeymoon… oh yeah I forgot to mention after saving her Marcus proposes to Alice because that is what you do in a horror flick.

Okay that sounded snarky, but I actually had fun with Specters. I mean the plot doesn’t make a ton of sense as this is your typical Italian horror movie leaning into stylistic visuals and sound design rather than a cohesive plot. Think Argento’s non Gialli efforts and some of Bava’s more esoteric movies, though I’d never say Specters is on that level. Those are the gold standard, but I’d say this one is a solid second tier example beneath them. I only mention those filmmakers as an easy comparison to let you know what you are in for if you sit down with this one. And to circle back around to the beginning there is a basic plot to follow. Dig a hole, let evil out, blow up the hole to seal it back in. There are just some hoops that you have to jump thru along the way for it to work and some of those can stretch the audience’s imagination to the breaking point. Hopefully that makes sense.

The kills in the movie are a bit tame but are creatively staged. We get a man falling thru stained glass with a throat cutting, a few folks getting ripped up by a claw appearing out of nowhere, another gets his heart ripped out, but my favorite has to be the dude in the wall. We see something grab him and later he is merged or hanging halfway out of a wall skinned. That is the best effect of the movie by far and will stick with me. We don’t see much of the evil god on screen other than the random clawed arm, but there is one reveal in backlight that hides much of the costume but gives enough for it to be satisfying. If you don’t have the budget for a creature be creative and let the audience fill in the blanks. They do that really well here.

Speaking of creative much of the tension is created with liberal use of industrial fans to create a creepy wind effect to let you know evil is present as well as some nifty sound design. The musical stingers as well as the odd sounds create an atmosphere that supports the ideas the story is attempting to sell to the audience. I like it when all the parts of a production work together like this. We also have some fun visuals including a nifty bit with the moon reflecting on the surface of water, the glowing yellow eyes to signify someone has seen something horrifying, as well as the way the tunnels and caverns are lit. Though the best is a Nightmare on Elm Street style bed attack on Alice. Yeah, I’ve seen it before but done this well it still works.

If I’m being honest the reason that I grabbed this VHS, and yes like all eighties oddities this was best watched on VHS, was the one recognizable name in the cast. Starring as Professor Lasky is the late great Donald Pleasence. I love the guy and mean no offense, but he did occasionally phone it is for a paycheck. Here in his limited screentime he is the highlight. Using his dialogue to help along the muddled plot makes a huge difference and the movie is way better when he is on screen. Unfortunately, he isn’t in much of the movie, which was a disappointment. But since I found myself on the fence with Specters his presence alone pushed it into the positives for me.

In conclusion if you dig Italian horror that leans into style (visuals, sound design) over substance (plot, narrative) then you might enjoy this movie. It certainly has that vibe and is worth a chance. On the other hand, if this sort of thing bugs you, I’d anticipate you hating Specters. Armed with this information I figure you can make your own decision. Personally, I’m glad to have watched it. Probably won’t need to ever revisit it, but still not a bad way to kill an hour and a half.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Evil Below (1989)

I’ve been in the mood for some oddball eighties movies so I’ve started digging thru my stacks of tapes to see if I can unearth any gems. I had a VHS copy of The Evil Below, which I have no idea where I acquired it, and thought I’d give it a chance. Though I’ve not had much success with South African lensed flicks other than maybe Hardware and even that wasn’t a favorite of mine I was willing to give this one a chance. Was that a mistake? Let us find out.

The movie opens with a sailing vessel, or rather a decent looking model of one, being tossed in some rough seas. Thanks to a helpful bit of text on the screen we know this is the past, specifically the sixteen hundreds. Then the action moves to a man and woman diving. They find the wreck of the ship and are killed by a giant fish. Not a shark but a toothy barracuda looking scaley bastard! I’m guessing those aren’t our main characters otherwise this was a short movie.

Now we meet our main characters. Max is a fishing boat captain that is having difficulty paying the bills. He meets a lady in a bar named Sarah in a bar and they head to her room for some groping and brief nudity before she starts to cry, and he leaves. The next day she comes to the docks to hire a boat to go looking for a treasure ship named The El Diablo. Guess who has the only available boat? Now do we get some explanation as to why she cried when they started to hook up? Hell no. This sadly will become a familiar theme.

"Thrilling" bar scene 27...
Be warned spoilers follow. As they look for the treasure they visit Max’s Dad, who is murdered. By whom and why? I can only guess that it was the bad guy a local expert on antiques named Calhoun, who also has a random henchman named Barlow. Both of whom are basically immortal supernatural creatures. Wait… why and how? It must not matter because the movie makes zero effort to explain what the hell is going on. Eventually Max and Sarah blow up the wreck which ends the curse… I think… and the movie ends.

This one is a mess. I’m not sure if the script was poorly written or if the editor didn’t know what they were doing but the results are the same. The characters jump from scene to scene without any connective narrative between them. We literally get people talking in a bar, then suddenly underwater in scuba gear, to being back on the boat talking about going to the bar. The action jumps around like this not once but throughout the entire runtime. It makes for a jumbled mess and kills any momentum that the movie might have created. Then again that was an unlikely hope for a movie that is filled with unnecessary characters. I mean what is up with the priest characters who apparently are there to die and not add anything to the story. And that is plural as in the first one dies and then his replacement also dies in the same basic way. Toss in some underwater footage that is nothing more than padding for a miserable way to spend ninety minutes.

"Thrilling" SCUBA scene 14.
The Evil Below also tries to sell itself as horror in addition to mystery and adventure. Other than the immortal bad guys and hints at a curse there is very little horror to be had here. That might explain why the kills are all offscreen and lame. There is also zero mystery here… other than me asking myself why I was watching this that is. I suppose the best way to describe the movie is as an adventure flick with little to no adventure.

I’m still struggling to find a South African produced genre flick that I dig. And yes I’ve seen Dust Devil in addition to Hardware. The Evil Below is one of the slowest and most pointless exercises in cinema that I’ve seen in a quite a while. I can’t recommend anyone spending their time and/or god forbid their money on it. This is a VHS that I should have left on the shelf collecting dust.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Monday, February 19, 2024

What Waits Below (1984)

Nothing makes me happier then finding an oddball eighties science fiction or horror flick that I missed growing up. I watched a lot but with the boom of VHS there were so many movies getting made it isn’t shocking that I’ve not seen them all. That is one of the reasons I love the hobby of tracking down and reviewing so much. What Waits Below is one of those flicks that I could have eagerly grabbed off the shelf as it’s cave exploring mutant underground albino tribe story was and is right in my wheelhouse. So, what did I think? First let’s talk about the plot.

The movie opens with our hero Wolf spying on some soldiers scuba diving in what appears to be a small pond or stream. They spot him when an old friend, George, shows up to talk. This leads to a high speed chase, lots of shooting, and a crash. No worries though as our adventurous mercenaries are fine. George then tells Wolf of a high paying job with the U.S. Military. Seems they need help setting up a communication device in a cave system but need their expertise to pull it off. Why? Something about nuclear submarines and secret Cold War stuff.

None of the above really matters to the story other than to get the characters in the cave. Along the way Wolf and George pick up a couple of army guys and some anthropologists interested in the artifacts found in the cave system. When the gear is stolen and taken deeper into the cave system this group goes after it. They find some cave monster, glowing moss that is perfect for lighting a scene, and albino humans who have been isolated from the surface for thousands of years. Some folks die, lessons are learned, and the end credits roll.

The tribe
What Waits Below isn’t a good movie. The pacing is off as they meander to set up the story and when they do set off in the cave we get way too much wandering around in the “dark”. In reality this is about the brightest cave I’ve ever seen on film. Now they actually shot in a cave and not sets which you would think was a good thing. Instead it had the odd effect of them having to choose locations where they could fit their gear rather than have a flexible artificial setup. All the scenes are in the more open sections where stuff could fit and be lit. The end result is a movie set underground that doesn’t feel claustrophobic, which was a disappointment.

I also was a bit bummed that they spoil the albino underground tribe by showing them in the first attack. A little bit of mystery before a big reveal later on would have likely helped hold my interest in what I was watching. On a positive note, I did dig the rubber monsters that they encounter. They are small dog sized worm creatures but I’m always down for some latex monster mayhem.

I appreciate a good rubber monster!
The best part about the movie is some of the supporting cast. We get Timothy Bottoms as the army major who has a beef with Wolf and is going to accomplish his mission at all costs. I was also completely unaware of the fact that legendary genre actor Richard Johnson (The Haunting, Zombie) appears as one of the scientists. I was also pleased to see Lisa Blount (Prince of Darkness, Blind Fury) in a smaller role as a scientist. There was some talent involved in this one, at least in front of the camera.

Here is where things are difficult for me. Objectively What Waits Below isn’t a good movie, but I sort of liked it. It is just the sort of bad flick that I remember renting all the time when I was in high school. I don’t know if that will translate to anyone else so I can’t recommend it. That said if you like oddball eighties movies that probably lived on the VHS aisles of your local Mom and Pop rental store then maybe you will dig this one like I did. The good news is that there is a VHS rip of this currently on YouTube, so it isn’t hard to find and won’t cost you anything other than your time.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, February 16, 2024

Gangnam Zombie (2023)

The movie opens with a man and woman, who we later find out are Hyeon-seok and Min-jeong, fighting a running battle with some zombies. He tosses her into a car before kicking some zombie ass. Though it doesn’t take long for him to be overwhelmed so it doesn’t seem to end well. The action then jumps back twenty four hours. Here we see that the outbreak starts when some criminals are breaking into a shipping container to steal some jewelry. There is a cat that scratches one of them and he turns. So, I guess it was a zombie cat?

Here we meet Hyeon-seok and Min-jeong as they both work for the same YouTube company. Is that a thing? Basically, they make prank videos, although not well since the boss hasn’t paid them or the rent in a while. We also meet the landlord who is obsessed with her building. So much so when the zombies attack, she has security lock the building down and refuses to allow anyone to call the police. You know because it will hurt the property values and stuff… The rest of the movie are the zombies killing folks until we catch up to the opening scene. After that the zombies kill folks until the survivors make their escape. That is pretty much all we got.

This is clearly a very low budget Korean zombie movie. The filmmakers do a few things correctly. They hired actors that can deliver dialogue and our leads have some chemistry. They also understand that they don’t have a large budget so other than a few scenes at the beginning the majority of the movie takes place in a single office building which I’m assuming they had during off hours. They kept the zombie makeup basic with black or bloodshot eyes with a bit of blood around the mouth. These are all good things.

Though the lack of a memorable kill or two is a hindrance. Despite a lot of people being attacked all of the bits are offscreen and what we do see is the zombie or zombies looking up with blood coming out of their mouth. When I sit down to watch a zombie movie I’m expecting some gore and here we get nothing much in that area. But the biggest issue that I have with Gangnam Zombie is the dreadful pacing. This movie is only an hour and twenty minutes long. Other than the one brief post cat zombie attack nothing much happens for over half an hour. Well, I mean we get some drama about Hyeon-seok having a thing for his co-worker Min-jeong which seems unrequited. We also find out that it is hard for a woman to work in their field as there is some inappropriate touching of her by the boss. There is even a bit of class warfare in the way that the lady landlord treats the “poor” people. All of this is set to a Christmas background that feels right out of a Hallmark movie… a bad one.

Notice what is missing? Zombies! I signed up to watch a zombie movie not some lame ass Korean drama about modern society and the challenges of those living in it! Now you might be saying “well at least things get better when the zombies attack” and you wouldn’t be totally wrong. But between scenes of Hyeon-seok karate kicking the crap out of the shuffling dead we get periods where the characters talk to each other. These “getting to know you” bits of dialogue slam the brakes on what was already not a fast paced zombie story. This seems like a movie that decided to shoot itself in the foot whenever the chance to do something entertaining came up.

Throw in the inexplicably odd plastic vampire teeth on the zombies (think Sprit Halloween level costume here my friends) and the non-ending conclusion to the story where they escape the building full of zombies and leave the giant garage door behind them dooming the city to the fate they narrowly escaped and you have a movie that made me feel like I wasted my time. I don’t recommend that you also waste your time on this one.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Thursday, February 15, 2024

Throwback Thursday - Horns by Joe Hill

note: This review was written over twelve years ago for another project I was working on. After rereading it and doing a bit of clean up before posting it here I have to say that I still really enjoyed it. Joe Hill has gone on to become one of my favorite authors and has certainly carved out his own path separate from his famous father. I should also get around to covering the movie adaptation as well since I also very much enjoyed it. Now onto the review.

This is the second book that I’ve read from Joe Hill and I have enjoyed the heck out of both of them. In this one we follow three main characters, Ig, Merrin, and Lee. Ig and Merrin are a couple and when the book opens up it is a year after Merrin’s body has been found. In that year everyone believes that Ig killed her. He wakes up on the one year anniversary of her death with a set of horns on his head. These horns make anyone that he talks to admit their deepest secrets, no matter how terrible. Quite by accident this leads Ig to the surprising truth about her death (just a hint he didn’t kill her…). So who killed Merrin? What will Ig do with this information? And just what the heck are up with the horns growing out of his head? All this unravels in a satisfying and enjoyable way.

And I do mean that. This is one of those books that had me hooked right away. Hill tells the story in a series of flashbacks wrapped around what is presently happening to Ig. Not only do we get some of the story from those telling Ig terrible secrets, but he also discovers that when he touches someone he can experience their memories. This is a neat narrative trick for Hill to use because it allows us to see the story unfold thru the eyes of several different characters. In the case of one of them it becomes quite obvious that while they are delusional, we the reader can see how they twisted things around in their head. I found that this made the characters all the more interesting.

Since I’m on the subject of the characters I have to say that Hill does a great job of making them feel real. They jump right off of the page and I as a reader felt invested in their fates. There were times when I was actually worried about what was going to happen to Ig. I’m not easily taken in by characters, even when I like a book, so I was obviously hooked. This was one of the reasons that I was glued to the book and unable to put it down. I cared and wanted to see what happened to them next. Even the supposed “bad guy” had a backstory where it was not forgivable but sad to see what life had done to put him or her in that situation. 

At first, I didn’t like the story jumping around from past to present back to past, but without giving anything away there is a good reason that this happens. There is a point where the action very cleverly wraps back around on itself as a couple points in time intersect. Between this, the identity of the killer, and a twist that I should have seen coming but didn’t had me smiling and satisfied when the last word was read. 

I don’t know what else I can say about Horns without spoiling what makes the books so much fun to read. Joe Hill is quickly becoming a must read author for me and I look forward to checking out his collection of short stories which I have on my eReader already. If you get the chance to check out either Horns or Heart Shaped Box, I encourage you to do so. He is a talent that we all will be hearing about for years to come so get in on the ground floor! 

© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Monday, February 12, 2024

Charley Varrick (1973)

The movie opens with a small gang of thieves being led by the titular Charley Varrick. As we meet them they are about to knock over a small town bank to score a few bucks. Along with Charley is his wife Nadine, Harman, and another man who doesn’t really matter much. Spoilers he gets shot right away. See their plan goes sideways on them when a deputy checks the plates on the getaway car only to discover it is stolen. This means when they leave with the bags of cash the cops are there and a gunfight/car chase breaks out. The gang gets away but like I said one of them is dead in the bank and unfortunately Nadine is fatally wounded as well.

Here is where things get really interesting. First, we see that Charley might be sentimental as he takes the wedding ring from his wife but doesn’t seem that broken up when they leave her in the getaway car with a bomb to cover their tracks. Second, they tear open the bags to find a cool seven hundred and fifty thousand when they expected maybe twenty grand. Turns out the bank was mobbed up and not only are the cops hunting them, but a nasty hit man named Molly is on their trail as well. The rest of the movie is Charley dealing with the surviving gang member, the cops, and the mob in his efforts to get away with his life and maybe the cash.

I’m a huge movie nerd and have spent my entire life tracking down and watching all sorts of genres. Being a child of the seventies one of those genres that I’ve always loved is the crime drama. I like nothing better than watching plans being made and going awry with sometimes terrible results. The more twists and turns the better. So it was sort of a shock for me when I stumbled over Charley Varrick streaming on Netflix. This is just the sort of thing that I would have expected to have caught on HBO back in the day. Hell it stars Walter Matthau who I know better for his comedies and am a huge fan of.

The story is solid and stays on track unfolding the twists and turns as Charlie does his best to not get killed or caught. There are a lot of characters that get introduced like the mobster from Reno (played by John “Go Fuck an Iceberg” Vernon!), the crooked bank manager, and a bank examiner played by Norman Fell. This is all in addition to the surviving gang member Harmon (Andrew Robinson) and the hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker). You would think that would be too many characters muddling up the story but in reality they all serve a purpose to move the plot along nicely. Each of them has their part to play and the action quickly connects back to the primary plotline of Charley and the money.

How do they manage this? Well, it is a nice bit of storytelling thanks to a screenplay that is balanced and well thought out. The story knows exactly where it wants to go and keeps things on track. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie has a legendary director in Don Siegel. You may not recognize the name, but the man was responsible for some amazing movies. From the classic fifties science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers to later efforts with Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz, and my personal favorite The Beguiled) as well as John Wayne (The Shootist). When you are the preferred director for actors like this then you have to be great. Hell he even worked with Charles Bronson on Telefon.

There was a lot of talent both in front of as well as behind the camera. When that happens you normally get excellent results and that is what happened here. Charley Varrick is a movie that wasn’t on my radar until recently, but I can guarantee you that I will be revisiting it in the future. This is a nifty crime drama/thriller that has me looking at Walter Matthau and what he could do as an actor in a totally different way. I highly recommend everyone check this one out.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, February 9, 2024

Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938)

Before I start I wanted to direct you to my thoughts about a white actor playing an Asian character. Here is the link. It has been a couple of years now that I’ve been covering these movies and while I understand and agree with many of the issues I still think they have value and shouldn’t be dismissed. But I don’t need to rehash things again. Check out the link if you are interested. Now onto the review.

Since this is set in Hawaii we get to see Charlie at home with his large family. The action starts off at a chaotic breakfast. Jimmy is asking his father to teach him to be a detective while his younger brother Tommy cracks wise at him. Charlie’s son in law enters to let them know that his wife is in labor with Chan’s first grandchild. They all head to the hospital but the phone rings and Tommy answers. There is a freighter in the harbor where a murder has taken place. Tommy convinces Jimmy this is his chance so off they go.

Eventually Charlie finds out about the crime and ends up on the ship where he finds his boys making a mess of things. Taking charge, he interviews suspects, finds out about a large pile of cash, meets up with a sketchy detective from California, finds a hold filled with exotic animals, and sure enough is there when another body drops. Who is the killer? What happened to the money? Why is there a lion roaming around? These are all questions that will be answered before the end credits roll.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu is notable for a couple of things. First off this is the first movie with Sidney Toler in the role as he was replacing Warner Oland who had gotten sick and would soon pass away. I may have already mentioned this but he is my favorite actor to play the character and is great in his first outing. There was also a change in his son with Victor Sen Yung playing son Jimmy taking over from Keye Luke’s Lee. It is also interesting that the attempts at humor are present here but without Mantan Mooreland they lean heavily into Jimmy and Tommy. Honestly this doesn’t work all that well and I can see why they eventually changed things up.

The strength of the movie is in the story. We don’t get the clues so the audience can’t play along and try to solve the crime which is a bummer. But the pacing is good moving along briskly setting up the characters quickly and then getting to the murders. Yeah, there is another killing which is fun because they set up on character to look guilty only for them to end up a victim. There is also a fun subplot that I won’t spoil as it serves as a bit of a red herring but itself is satisfying. There is a lot going on in the movie’s sixty seven minute long runtime which makes it a fun watch. As you would expect Charlie sets a clever plan to trap the criminal and wraps things up in a neat bow. Oh, and it was a boy… his grandchild that is.

These Chan movies are the gold standard for quick, inexpensive, and fun mystery flicks with some comedy mixed in. As much as I liked Warner Oland in the role his last few movies were a bit off as you could see his illness was sapping his energy. With Toler in the role things pick up and he also brings more of a mischievous vibe to the role. He is the smartest man in the room and knows this despite how much others might underestimate him. This one is worth a watch for sure.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)

Back to another classic Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce movie where they star as Holmes and Watson. The action kicks of in Switzerland where a disguised Holmes is trying to smuggle a scientist and his new bombsite back to England before the Nazis can take them both to Germany. Yep, this is another one set during World War II. The scientist, Dr. Tobel, is successfully brought back to London, but the Germans haven’t given up yet. The good doctor also seems to be up to no good as he sneaks out of 221 B. Baker Street to visit a beautiful woman named Charlotte.

When he disappears she gives Holmes a strange cipher/code involving a bunch of dancing men. This is how they connect this movie to the classic story The Dancing Men. There are some clues to decipher that eventually lead our hero to his arch enemy Moriarty, who is working with the spies to recover Tobel and his bombsite for Berlin. Though that doesn’t work out too well as the movie ends with British bombers headed there with the sights installed and ready to drop their payloads.

I do really like these movies, but this is yet another that leans more into the adventure and has almost no mystery. In fact the only thing that needs to be solved is the code of the dancing men, which the audience has zero chance of guessing at as we are given no clues. There is no mystery to the identity of the… well I guess the bad guys. I mean there isn’t any killing until the very end where the bad guys get what is coming to them. This is less a Sherlock Holmes mystery and more so just an opportunity to beat up and out smart the Nazis. Don’t get me wrong as they do that very well and this movie is a great example of wartime Hollywood’s efforts. There just isn’t any mystery to solve here.

What we do get is a car chase, an escape by airplane, some creeping around dark streets, and some bad guys doing bad things. Holmes doesn’t solve his issues with fisticuffs, which most of the detective movies from the forties have the protagonist doing, but instead outsmarts his opponents at every step of the way. Here is where having Moriarty as the main antagonist is a bad idea. Holmesian lore has him as an intellectual equal to the great consulting detective so seeing him fall for obvious manipulation is a bit too far for me.

Rathbone and Bruce are good as always. Though I feel as if Bruce’s Dr. Watson isn’t given much to do and goes MIA for much of the movie. Lionel Atwill is back as Moriarty and is solid as well, though again isn’t given much to sink his acting chops into. Honestly the writing here is a bit lacking and unlike other entries this feels tossed together in a rush without much thought. Look out for a very young Whit Bissel (Creature from the Black Lagoon, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein) in an early and uncredited role.

For a quickie formula flick it works just fine. Though had it been any longer than the sixty eight minutes I feel as if this would have been a drag. But it didn’t’ and isn’t. While far from the best of this version of Holmes and nowhere near as fun as other adaptations closer to the original stories Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon isn’t a horrible way to kill an hour. It is available online for free so is just a Google search away


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

The Shanghai Cobra (1945)

Big surprise that I covered yet another Charlie Chan flick in this mystery movie marathon. But I do love these, and they fit the theme so what can I do? As always if you haven’t already read my thoughts on a white actor playing a Chinese character, please click this link. With that out of the way lets talk about The Shanghai Cobra. 

The movie kicks off with some folks lurking around a dark street in a rainstorm. Three of them, including Mr. Black, end up going into a diner to get a cup of coffee. The only woman in the group, Paula, is followed outside by Mr. Black who starts to talk to her before dropping dead on the street. When the police arrive they discover he is the most recent victim of the cobra killings. It seems that someone is using cobra venom to murder people and the police are stumped. Lucky for them they have access to Charlie Chan. Doubly so when he lets them know this is the same method used in a previous crime he investigated in Shanghai. The remainder of the movie is Chan interviewing suspects while protecting a valuable government resource kept in a nearby bank. When he figures out that all of the murder victims were connected to the bank, he starts to connect some dots. Eventually the murderer is exposed and all is well before the end credits roll. 

This might be one of the few later entries into the franchise that I really don’t like. I mean the movie isn’t horrible it is just that the tried and true formula isn’t followed successfully. The mystery is almost nonexistent as we know the mysterious killer is there for a bank heist. We even get to see the gang planning the robbery. So, the motives behind the murders are obvious. They try to give the story a last minute twist, but it is obvious that who we are supposed to think is the killer is in fact innocent. There isn’t much meat on the bone here if you are looking for a solid mystery to follow along with and try to solve. 

I’ve had this same observation with other Chan movies, but they normally can hang their hat on some fun comedy. Especially when Mantan Mooreland and Benson Fong are along for the ride. I was shocked at how little screentime is given to the pair in this one. When they are on screen it is just them creeping around in the dark, mostly in a sewer, with little to no gags. Moreland is normally always good for a few laughs but here none of his normal quips hit the mark. It almost feels like the director, Phil Karlson, didn’t know how to use the comedy. But then again, he did Dark Alibi which has some really good Mooreland moments in it. I was also shocked to see that he directed both Ben as well as Walking Tall towards the end of his career. Those are some good flicks! 

The Shanghai Cobra is at best mediocre with neither the mystery nor comedy elements working for me. I’d say this is for the completist only and should be skipped by casual fans. There are much better Chan movies to watch. 

© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, February 2, 2024

A Haunting in Venice (2023)

I’ve been loving these Kenneth Branagh adaptations of my favorite Belgian Detective. I’ve already covered Death on the Nile and need to get around to covering his first crack at Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Though this time around things are a bit different since A Haunting in Venice is a bit spookier with ghosts and a haunted house. Should be a good time. 

Set not long after the end of World War II we find the detective retired and living in Venice. He has a former police detective as a bodyguard who spends most of his time keeping potential clients away. After establishing his routine, we then see an old friend, author Ariadne Oliver, show up. She wants his help in disproving a medium who she hasn’t been able to debunk. This leads them to being invited to a Halloween party to be followed by a séance. The place is cursed and the current owner, Rowena Drake, lost her daughter to the supposed ghosts. She threw herself off of the balcony and into the canal below. 

After some spooky fun with children attending a Halloween party which allows us to meet all of the characters and establish their history with one another. The medium arrives, played by the always awesome Michelle Yeoh, and things get rolling. I suppose this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but Poirot quickly exposes her as a phony but not before something very weird happens. She speaks in the dead girl’s voice and says something that makes one of the other guests nervous. How do we know that? Well, she ends up dead, skewered on a statue in the Piazza’s courtyard. The rest of the movie is another murder, interviewing suspects, collecting clues, and trying to figure out what is going bump in the night. 

This is my second time watching this movie. My wife and I were able to catch it in the theater while on vacation a few months ago and right from the start I knew it was deserving of another watch. The story is solid and moves along quickly introducing characters and setting up the mystery right away. On this second viewing I was able to see the subtle clues that are provided to the audience to help them solve the case before Poirot does. I’ll not lie and say that I picked them up in the theater as I was surprised by the solution. I’ve even read the book this is based on, Hallowe’en Party, though to be fair this is a very loose adaptation. In fact, it is barely recognizable. But that isn’t a bad thing here as the story we do get is clever and keeps the audience guessing. 

Excellent Cast
If you haven’t figured it out yet from the title as well as the setting of the party but this movie leans into the spooky stuff. I was wondering how they were going to manage this as the character of Poirot is normally grounded in logic and reality so how does one introduce supernatural killers to that world without is seeming forced. I’ll not spoil it here. What I can say is that there is a logical explanation for everything that Poirot sees as well as a supernatural one. It is left up to the audience to decide and that was neatly done. 

The cast is wonderful. I’ve already mentioned Michelle Yeoh but there is also a surprising performance from Tina Fey as Ariadne Oliver. She is excellent in the role, and I think that the writing and direction (from star Kenneth Branagh) leans into her skills and personality. Branagh is great again in his third outing portraying the mercurial character with just the right amount of anger bubbling under the surface with some sadness as well. He doesn’t suffer fools but will forgive quickly and we see both here. Though I still consider the great David Suchet my favorite in the role Branagh is growing on me. 

Murder on the Orient Express had some amazing visuals while Death on the Nile not so much. This time around the filmmakers outdo themselves. From a digital camera following Poirot around while he runs thru the halls trying to discover the cause for a loud disturbing noise to some excellently framed shows that are tilted at a slightly off-putting angles this is a visually interesting watch. The lighting as well as the setting of the old house in the middle of a thunderstorm makes for a creepy vibe. What is so clever though is that the story plays into both possible explanations for the supposed supernatural happenings. Are there ghosts or is there another more mundane explanation for the goings on? I love it when the production and screenplay work together like this. 

Not sure I can say much more without giving away spoilers. I loved A Haunting in Venice, so I don’t want to do that. This is a wonderful mystery that will engage the audience. Be warned this is the sort of movie that is going to make you pay attention if you want to get the full enjoyment out of it. So put down your phone and keep both your eyes as well as ears open. I highly recommend this one. 

© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Dangerous Money (1946)

note: I always start off these reviews with a link to my thoughts on the issue of a white actor playing an Asian role. If you are interested in what I think about that please check this link out. 

I’m back with another old Charlie Chan flick. This time around the famous detective is traveling aboard a ship in the Pacific. He is approached by a treasury officer named Pearson. He is on the trail of some counterfeit money but has had his life threatened so asks Chan for some help. Before much can be done Pearson is murdered by a thrown knife. But who threw it and does it have anything to do with the investigation or is it a coincidence? 

From here we are introduced to the other nefarious characters traveling on the ship. The suspect pool is further muddied when they stop off at an island which leads to talk of stolen art, crooked dice games, and other such shenanigans. We even get a bit of blackmail mixed in for some added fun! In the end Chan figures out who done it and why. But not before more bodies are found and attempts are made on the detective’s life. 

This might be one of my least favorite of the later Chan movies. While the movie gets right to the point with an early murder and the counterfeit ring we get way too many suspects. This isn’t my first watch of this one (I’ve seen all these movies many times over the years) and even I got a bit overwhelmed with the sheer volume of suspects. Plus there are subplots piled upon subplots to further confuse the proceedings. The mystery gets lost in the mix and honestly that is one of the main reasons you sit down to watch a Charlie Chan flick. The other, at least by the time we get to this stage of the franchise, is the comedy. I have an issue with that as well. 

The always reliable Mantan Mooreland is replaced this time around with another Hollywood staple Willie Best playing Chattanooga Brown. I’ll admit that I’m a big fan of Mooreland and never liked Best all that much, though he was excellent in Ghostbreakers. I really do need to get around to covering that one for the site. His performance here isn’t terrible, but it lacks the chemistry that the former had with Victor Sen Yung has as Jimmy Chan. The pair end up with a lot of screentime as again Sidney Toler in the role of Chan was very ill and frail. While Mooreland and Yung can carry parts of the movie, I don’t think that the pairing of Best and Yung can. 

Now I don’t think that Dangerous Money is a terrible movie. I’ve seen much worse attempts at these murder mystery with a dash of comedy movies. Really check out some of my other reviews. But when it comes to this franchise, I’ve got some higher standards and judged against the other movies come before and after this one just doesn’t measure up. As much as it pains me to say unless you are a completist I’d recommend skipping this one. 

© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Friday, January 26, 2024

The Monster of Blackwood Castle (1968)

If you haven’t figured it out yet I’m a huge fan of mystery movies. I mean you are here for my third annual review marathon so it should be obvious by now. That said I’ve never understood the appeal of these West German productions of Edgar Wallace novels. Something about them just doesn’t connect. That said I’ve been told that The Monster of Blackwood Castle is the best of the series, so I figured it was worth a shot.

The movie opens with a guy walking in the fog thru what looks like a marsh or perhaps a forest. There is some howling and then the groovy sixties chase music kicks in. He is cornered by a “beast” (actually just a Doberman) who attacks him. Later we see a man with an eye patch dumping the body in the water, which turns out to be the moat of Blackwood Castle. This is all witnessed by another man who doesn’t intervene but seems interested in what is happening. That is all before the main story even kicks in!

Jane arrives at Blackwood Castle to make her inheritance official. Her father had just passed so the whole place is hers know. Though the solicitor tries to get her to sell the place right away for a tidy sum. Then another man shows up and offers twice that tidy sum to buy the castle immediately. Sensing something might be up Jane refuses to sell and is immediately set upon by all sorts of shenanigans. Plastic skeletons, impromptu power outages, snakes slithering between the sheets. Someone really wants her to sell the place! More people come to town and many more die to the “monster”, which is again just a Doberman, before the big mystery is revealed.

This next bit is a spoiler so be warned. Her dead father was the leader of a gang that stole a pile of gems and jewelry. He is dead, the other members of the gang is looking for it, and someone is killing them off. Toss in a couple more twists that I’m not going to share here and you have yourself a movie.

So, what did I think? Well first off someone has read A. Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles as this movie clearly took some inspiration from that novel. The setting of the spooky estate, the nearby moors aka. marsh, and of course the canine killer all are lifted directly from that. The pacing isn’t great. It kicks off with a murder but then bogs down as characters are introduced and then killed off without a great deal of explanation as to what is going on. There is zero chance of following along or figuring out what the hell is going on. That was annoying and I found myself bored with what I was watching.

There are also a couple gags that didn’t work. Did I forget to mention that there are attempts at comedy? This is one of those flicks that tries to mix genres and fails to successfully pull it off. The lead investigator, Sir John of Scotland Yard, eventually shows up and bumbles around before accidentally stumbling onto what is happening due to the efforts of his helpful assistant Miss Finley. Before Sir John the movie isn’t serious but also doesn’t try to be slapstick. We also get the comic relief from the local Innkeeper who was formerly lady of the castle before selling it. Again, none of these attempts at humor worked for me and didn’t feel like they fit with the rest of the flick.

If this is the best of the Edgar Wallace adaptations, then I’m thinking that these movies just aren’t for me. I know that they have a rabid fanbase and if you are one of those folks then more power to you. I like a lot of stuff that other people hate on, so I get it. Sadly, I can’t recommend anyone waste their time on The Monster of Blackwood Castle.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Thursday, January 25, 2024

The Trap (1946)

note: If you want to hear my thoughts on casting a white actor in an Asian role you can follow this link.

I’m back with another Charlie Chan movie review. This time it is set in his hometown of Honolulu but was shot in California so don’t expect any exotic locations. Here we see a car full of showgirls being driven to the beach by their producer and crew. They are taking a small vacation to relax and get ready for the next season. Right away we see that Marcia, one of the girls, is a real pain. By that I mean she manipulates the others to get whatever she wants by threatening to expose their secrets.

A bit of blackmail never ends well in murder mystery movies. Though it is one of the other girls, Lois, who is found strangled while Marcia just goes missing. This leads to Charlie being called and getting involved in the case. Soon after Marcia is also found murdered which leads to some wandering around in the dark, accusations, clues, and other sorts of shenanigans. Eventually the killer and their motives are revealed.

This movie is based on one of what I think are only four actual Chan novels. When I read them I was shocked at how minor of a character he is in those stories. He is basically the inscrutable plot device that shows up to solve everything while the victims and suspects are the main characters. Obviously, this isn’t what happened when they became movies and since there are almost fifty of these damn things most of the scripts are original ideas. The only reason that I mention this is that in The Trap the character of Charlie Chan comes and goes but the movie spends most of the time on other characters. This was done for practical reasons as Sidney Toler, who played Chan, was terminally ill with cancer. This was his last outing as the character. He passed away the following year.

That said the movie still has a solid mystery with plenty of clues being given to the audience. The suspects are interviewed, folks creep around up to no good, and if you pay attention, you can figure it out. Though unlike many of the other entries into the franchise this mystery has a neat twist that most folks, including myself on first watch, never guessed. I figure that is because it was based on the novel by Earl Der Biggs, which is quite good. The Trap is a very cleaver murder mystery in both book and film.

There is also a healthy dose of son Jimmy and chauffer Birmingham Brown as the comic relief. Mantan Mooreland, who plays Birmingham, gets to do several gags including his classic knocking knees as well as a fun bit with a phone ringing. I understand that much like the casting of a white actor in the Chan role that Mooreland’s performance is frowned upon today, but he was an excellent comedian who deserves to be remembered and appreciated. The rest of the cast does a fine job for being assembled by a poverty row studio like Monogram. While not stars these were working actors with some decent skills.

This is another entertaining flick in the Charlie Chan filmography. I get that these old mystery movies are not for everyone, but I love them, and this is one of the best. Give it a chance. You might just find yourself a fan as well.


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer

Monday, January 22, 2024

The Ghost that Walks Alone (1944)

This movie opens with some folks recording a radio show. So many of these mystery/comedy flicks revolve around radio shows. I guess it was a common trope that kept getting used. Anyway there is a rather handsy actor who keeps grabbing the leading lady much to the dismay of her fiancé Eddie, who is the sound effects guy. There is a fight and Eddie gets fired but then rehired by the producer. Why? The producer’s wife makes him!

With this established we then move on to Eddie and his lady leaving for their wedding and honeymoon. The producer is threatened with having the show cancelled so he tries to get Eddie and his leading lady back for more rehearsals, but they blow him off. So, the entire crew shows up at the lodge where they are honeymooning to get some practice in. When the producer ends up dead Eddie is convinced by some of his wacky co-workers that he will be blamed so they had better solve the murder before reporting it to the police. Shenanigans ensue… sort of.

I was sort of looking forward to checking this one out. The actor that plays Eddie, Arthur Lake, is best known for portraying Dagwood from the Blondie series. I’ve always liked those movies and thought he was a funny guy so the idea of a movie starring him was going to be a blast. Here is where I noticed why Lake never was able to build on his success from that series though. In the Blondie movies he was a second banana, an important one, but again not the focus. That worked because he has a very limited schtick that now that I see is solo in The Ghost that Walks Alone gets rather annoying very quickly. His sad sack persona and his whiney line delivery gets tedious and since he is the star we never get a break from it.

The movie also doesn’t help with a supporting cast that comes off flat and forgettable. I’m not even sure that they tried to develop anything beyond one wacky old lady character who exists to be the red herring (she knows who the killer is) as well as be the punchline for the final joke seen on screen. His lady friend and wacky co-workers are barely given screentime and when they are on camera, I can sort of see why. Lake needed some help here as again he can’t carry the movie on his own, but he got no help here. The story is also paper thin with no mystery and very little beyond them stumbling around in the dark. Had the story been more engaging it would have made the movie at least watchable, but it isn’t.

There are reasons why some of these old movies have been forgotten. Sometimes they were just cranked out to fill screens and cash in on what was popular at the time. The Ghost that Walks Alone is one of those and isn’t worth spending the hour or so of you time on. In the unlikely event you are an Arthur Lake fan (how many of us are there?) I’d recommend hitting up a Blondie movie and skipping this one. If you are looking for a mystery/comedy from the thirties or forties there are much better choices. Oh, and just to be clear. There is no ghost that either walks in a crowd or alone!


© Copyright 2024 John Shatzer