Monday, October 31, 2011

BLACK SUNDAY (1960) (shown November, 1993)

     Of all the films from my youth, this is the one that has the most unforgettable opening. If you've ever seen it, you know instantly what I'm talking about; if not, allow me to elaborate. BLACK SUNDAY (or LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO {THE MASK OF SATAN}), as it was originally known), starred the lovely and hypnotic Barbara Steele in a dual role. It is also her most famous film, even though she made others with such high-caliber directors as Federico Fellini and Volker Schlondorff. She also starred with Vincent Price in one of the best of the AIP Poe adaptations, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM. (Please note: All character names in the review below are taken from the American AIP edition of the film; the version most readers of this blog will be familiar with).

     But let's get back to that infamous opening scene, shall we? The movie opens in Russia in the 1600's. Princess Asa Vajda of Moldavia (Steele) has been accused and found guilty of practicing witchcraft by the Grand Inquisitor, who also happens to be her brother, Prince Vajda. She, along with her accomplice/lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici), are to be burned at the stake for their abominations, but first they are to be subjected to the wearing of the Mask of Satan, so that all who gaze upon their remains throughout eternity will know their crimes. The mask (see poster to the left) is a heavy iron representation of a beast from Hell with spikes on the inside and, with Asa shouting curses on her brother and all his descendents, promising revenge, it is slowly lowered over her face ... then bashed into her skull, full force, by a giant mallet. Unlike most American horror films of the time (who probably would never have even ATTEMPTED such an audacious scene), director Mario Bava goes full-on with the death blow, keeping the camera locked in place for the full horrific effect of the crunching blow to the skull, the agonized scream and the spouting blood - thus making the audience by extension participants and witnesses to the execution. It is a STUNNING opening ... and this all takes place before the opening credits! Asa's curse immediately begins as Satan shows his displeasure of the murder of one of his favorites by bringing forth a downpour to douse the flames that were to burn her and Javuto at the stake.

     Asa's body is taken to the family crypt and laid to rest (mask firmly in place) in a special coffin: one with a glass window over her face showing the Russian Orthodox Cross - the rationale being that even with her witch powers, if she tried to come back from the dead, she would be pinned to the coffin for eternity by the holy power of the Lord's symbol. Javuto receives no such consideration - his body is dumped in an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground, left to rot (with his mask intact) for all eternity.

     Fast forward 200 years to the 1800's - the wheels of time roll on like the wheels of the carriage bringing two doctors through Moldavia en route to a medical conference in Moscow: Doctor Thomas Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young protege', Doctor Andre Gorobec (John Richardson), who is eagerly looking forward to his first convention. The older, world-weary physician is bemused by his companion's eagerness. All goes well until their coach loses a wheel on the grounds of the Vajda estate.

     Kruvajan tells Gorobec to assist the nervous driver in fixing the wheel while he stretches his legs, eventually coming to the old family crypt. Entering, he sees the niche containing Asa's coffin and goes to take a better look. A bat swoops down and attacks Kruvajan, who defends himself with his walking stick, slashing every which way to kill the rodent. He inadvertently smashes the top of Asa's coffin destroying the cross and breaking the glass window. Looking inside, he see Asa's mask and reaches in to get a better look, cutting himself on a glass shard. Andre calls to him that the carriage wheel is fixed and they should be on their way, but Kruvajan asks his young friend to come down and witness his discovery. They lift the coffin lid and examine the mask, with  Kruvajan (stupidly) removing it (which makes an awful sucking noise - even 200 years later) from Asa's hole-ridden face (see left), so he can examine the handiwork. While doing this, the blood from the cut on his hand drips into the empty eye socket of the long-dead witch ... which is the final ingredient she needs to slowly come back to life. Cross destroyed, check. Mask removed, check. Blood dripped in empty eye socket, check and mate.

      The driver calls down the stairs to them, begging them to hurry so he can be on his way. As they come out of the crypt, they are stopped in their tracks by the appearance of a beautiful young lady and her large canine companions: the Princess Katia Vajda (Steele again), the exact image of her infamous ancestor. Begging her pardon for the intrusion, they continue on their way. Andre's anticipation for the medical conference has all but gone now, as he daydreams about the beautiful Katia.

      The current Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani), Katia's father, is not having daydreams - his thoughts are more of the nightmare variety, as he knows exactly what day it is ... the exact day that Asa was executed two centuries ago. The thought of her curse weighs heavily upon him, as he worries for his son Constantine (Enrico Olivieri) and especially for Katia. Voicing his concerns to the old family butler, he is reminded to put his faith in the Lord, who will look over the Vajda family. Sadly, the old retainer could not be more wrong ...

     The blood from Professor Kruvajan's wound continues to bring Asa back to life, as we see in a truly horrifying sequence: the skin starts to recompose on the corpse's face and the eyeballs start to fill in, first as pulsing liquid rising in the sockets, then ever-so-slowly assuming shape with a pupil and iris, etc. It's a nauseating (but memorable) effect. Once her rebirth is complete, she calls Javuto to rise from his grave and do her bidding. Kruvajan's blood started her transformation but there wasn't enough of it to make her whole ... a setback she intends to remedy.

     Javuto goes to the castle and appears before the Prince, but fails to kill him because of the crucifix the Prince is wearing. Katia and Constantine find their father in a state of near-comatose shock from the encounter and, remembering the doctors who passed through, send their servant to the inn to get help. Javuto kills the butler and takes his place, then arrives at the inn in a carriage, asking for a doctor and saying the Prince is ill. Unsuspecting, Kruvajan returns to the castle, but instead of being led to the Prince is led (via a secret passage behind the fireplace) to Asa's coffin and locked in with her. Asa calls Kruvejan to her and he hypnotically obeys. "Look into my eyes", she intones. "Embrace me. You will die, but I can bring you pleasures mortals cannot know".

     This is a good place to mention the wonderful trailer for the AIP American release of the film. It was very well cut, giving a excellent idea of what you were getting yourself into. It also has one of the (unintentionally) funniest pieces of narration for a horror movie that still makes me smile whenever I hear it. The trailer has convinced you that you need to see this example of sheer horror, to see if your nerves can stand it, when it comes out with this gem, "Satan ... wearing strange robes ... and fighting with all the furies of Hades ... arouses the countryside to a frenzy of black terror!" Maybe it's just me, but I LOVE the "strange robes" part! :) See for yourself!

       Doctor Kruvajan has paid with his life for his night of bliss with Asa and is now her vampiric servant. She sends him to finish the job Javuto started. He tells the family that he will treat the Prince, ordering them to remove the crucifix so the Prince will 'sleep better' and sends them to bed, promising to stay up all night with their father. Instead, the next morning Katia and Constantine find him dead (in a horrible state) and Katia swoons into a faint. Constantine sends for Gorobec, who is confused as to where his colleague disappeared to. News arrives from the village of another dead body, and Andre goes to consult with the village priest, who tells them of the villager's concern regarding the return of Princess Asa from the grave. Andre scoffs at this, until they go in search of Javuto's grave and find the body of Kruvajan, bloated with blood. The priest puts an end to the vampiric doctor the old-fashioned way: no stake to the heart for this fellow - instead, the priest brands him on the forehead with his cross ... and then proceeds to jam a stake through his right eye, pinning him to the casket for eternity.   

     Realizing the horror is real (FINALLY!) and fearing for the safety of the lovely Katia, who is alone at the castle, Andre hurries back. Unfortunately for him, he has been gone too long and events are rapidly building to their awful climax. Javuto has killed off both the butler and Constantine, the latter being tossed into a pit of wooden spikes in the cellar of the castle. Katia, the dutiful daughter praying by her father's coffin, is terrified when his revivified, vampiric corpse arises and comes after her. Begging him to stop, he replies, "I am no longer your father. My blood is no longer your blood. Spirits of evil have rendered that tie between us forever ... and an accursed poison flows in your veins!" Javuto intercedes, as Katia's blood is meant for Asa, not the Prince, and kills her father by throwing him into the roaring fireplace, setting him aflame.

     Javuto brings Katia down the secret passage to her final confrontation with her evil ancestor - she is no match for Asa's hypnotic powers and the witch begins to drain Katia's blood and life energy to make her transformation complete. When the process is finished, Asa will murder Katia and take her place as the new Princess of Moldavia, spreading her evil anew.

     Andre arrives back and races through the castle, frantically searching and calling out for Katia. Seeing the charred corpse of the Prince in the fireplace, he spies the secret passage to the crypt and rushes down it, only to be confronted by Javuto, who slowly strangles him on the edge of the pit of spikes where Constantine met his doom. Just as all seems lost for Andre, Constantine's bloody hands reach out of the pit and drag Javuto to HIS death - the last sacrifice of the young Prince before he dies.  

     Andre arrives at the crypt, and mistakenly taking in the near-complete transformation before him, almost succumbs to Asa's entreaties to kill the witch before them. The priest has roused to villagers to the outside of the crypt, where they have prepared a bonfire to finish the job that was started 200 years ago. Asa tells Andre to drive a stake through the unconscious creature's heart and drag it away to the stake to be burned, so they can be together forever. He is about to do so when he stops at the last second, realizing the 'witch' is wearing a crucifix necklace - something the evil being should not be able to do. As the priest and villagers enter the crypt, Andre whips around and confronts Asa, tearing off her robe and revealing her rotting, skeletal body with it's foully beating, fully exposed heart (yet ANOTHER jolting moment for one not expecting it)! The villagers grab the shrieking fiend and send her to Hell via the stake. Katia comes back from the brink of death and relaxes in Andre's arms, with the Curse of Vajda finally lifted ... at a very high price.

     This is a perennial Halloween favorite at my place, readily available on DVD and a film that holds up extremely well today. However, know your audience before showing them BLACK SUNDAY - it's too easy to fall into the trap of, "oh, it's an old black and white film, how scary can it be?" - it is still a masterfully done, creepy piece of horror cinema. BLACK SUNDAY was Mario Bava's first (and many, myself included, say his best) directorial effort. Before he turned to directing, he was a famous cameraman and used his vast knowledge of the cinematographer's style to make his debut feature a thing of dark beauty.

     I have barely touched on the plot and settings of the film and of Mario Bava himself. There are more detailed and better tellings of the film out there, but none more so than a book by Tim Lucas (editor of the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED monthly magazine Video Watchdog) called MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. You will not BELIEVE the detail Lucas goes into in this book - while I unabashedly recommend it (just look at that smiling fellow to your left proudly holding up HIS copy!), I should also warn you it is primarily for hard-core film purists and Bava fanatics, like your humble Conjure Cinema Curator. This is not to put you off the book, but there are two things you should consider: 1) it is 1,128 pages long (!) and 2) it costs $250.00 (!!) - however, if you are serious about these kinds of films, it is a true work of art (and love) by Mr. Lucas. It also weighs 12 pounds (!!!) and will come in handy during the Zombie Apocalypse! :) Here is the link for all the gory details:   - just click on the 'Mario Bava Book' link to the left of the page.

     This brings us, rather fittingly, to a close on this Halloween. Time for me to catch my breath and rest my fingers up for what's coming ... for you long-term Conjure Cinema readers, you know what I mean ... and if you don't, then look though my past year's blog entries from around this time. Here's a hint: the weather forecaster for Boston has called for SNOW this weekend ... and looking at my CALENDAR, I see we're only two weeks away from November 11th ... what's the significance, you ask? Oh, yes, it is indeed Veteran's Day, but in the rush to bombard the masses with All Things Holiday, it is also the day when two local radio stations start playing their holiday/Christmas music 24/7 ... and THAT releases the Fruity Floodgates known as the K.A.C.!!! Yep, by request, the Kitschmas Advent Calendar will be back for a THIRD YEAR RUNNING ... and I've got the usual lineup of jaw-dropping Santa shenanigans ready for you ... so bookmark the C.C. home page between now and Christmas Day, and check back every day, as I'll be putting up Daily Doses of Delirium! Naughty, nice, doesn't matter ... the Big Man's comin' to town with a whole lot of weirdness loaded in his sleigh! See you soon!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

THE GOLDEN ARROW (1962) (shown October, 1993)

     Each of us has something in their lives that affects them profoundly at a young age. For some, it is a musical ability or an aptitude at a particular sport. For others, it may be a skill that was handed down to them from their parents or grandparents. For me, all it took was going to the movies for the first time ... this movie, in particular.

     I was seven years old  and living in Boston with my mother ... occasionally my aunt Carolyn would take me out to give my Mom a break for a few hours. She had taken me to events such as the Ice Capades at the Boston Garden and other kid-friendly events, and thought I would enjoy going to the movies - she had NO idea what she was about to unleash. If I had to guess, in retrospect I think her reasoning was more that SHE wanted to see the film with "dreamboat" Tab Hunter and thought that taking her nephew along would be a perfect excuse to go see it. Both of us left the theatre surprised - her because she was probably expecting something along the lines of the Steve Reeves 'sword and sandal' films which were popular at the time, and me ... because I had never seen ANYTHING like that!

     Before you ask, yes, I HAD seen shows (and possibly movies) on our old black-and-white television set, but that was small and in the living room ... and safe (i.e., something familiar and just the right size). THIS was a WHOLE Different Animal: in TECHNICOLOR, in STEREOPHONIC SOUND and on a GIGANTIC SCREEN ... I was almost catatonic by the sensory overload of it all. By the time the film ended, Carolyn asked me if I had liked it and I just numbly nodded yes. When we got home, my mother asked my aunt if I had enjoyed the movie, and she answered (rather dubiously), "I ... think so ..." 

     I soon became a film junkie, even at that young age, watching any and all movies I could see, of all kinds. I would pore through the weekly TV Guide to see what was on in the upcoming week, circling anything that sounded good, especially fantasy or science fiction or horror. It helped ENORMOUSLY that this was the early 1960s and I was one of the original 'latchkey' kids, living in an apartment complex in Boston with a Mom who was a nurse who usually worked a 3:30 - midnight shift. I knew everyone in the building and was the only kid there, so everyone watched out for me and I knew whose doorbell to ring if I ran into trouble. My Mom would call me at 9PM to make sure everything was all right and tell me to go to bed. I would let her know the status of things, say goodnight and head right to the living room to watch movies, half the time passing out in front of the TV, where she would find me in a completely dark apartment, wrapped in a blanket in front of a snowy screen (this was before the all-night programming, so most TV stations went off the air around midnight. Mom would get home around 1AM to this scenario, night after night).

     Imagine my surprise a couple of years later to see the listing in the TV Guide for THE GOLDEN ARROW! For some reason, I thought at the time that there were TWO types of film: those they showed on television and the "special" films you went to the movie theatres to see! Once I understood the idea of selling movies to TV after their theatrical release, I shifted into high gear: like a number of other "Monster Kids" of the time, I had expanded my repertoire of film knowledge through the (forbidden in my house) WONDERFUL magazine FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, published by James Warren and edited by Forrest J Ackerman. Warren also published the seminal horror comics of the '60s, CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA, but that's an entry for another time. Thanks to my beloved Grandma Ruby, who would buy the issues of FM at the corner drugstore for me, I would stare slack-jawed at the pictures of films I HAD to see! All the Universal Monsters, the films from other countries and the sword and sandal/beefcake films with their monsters, dragons, cyclops, etc. were calling my name. I started making lists and comparing them to the TV Guide, checking them off when I would see one, getting the next issue of FM and adding to my 'must-see' list, hiding the issues, having my mother FIND the issues where I'd hidden them and throw out "that trash", while telling Ruby not to buy me anymore of them ... and Ruby and I starting the whole cycle up again the following month. My Mom finally gave up and grudgingly relented, knowing on some level that it was a losing battle (especially with an enabling grandmother) and let it slide.

     Getting back to the film at hand,  I was delighted to see it again, even on the small screen and in black and white. To my mind, it was like revisiting an old friend. In later years, I would ask people about it and was surprised to find many (most, actually) had never heard of the film at all! Wondering how that could be, I started my investigation behind it. It turned out that even though MGM had released it, it was actually an Italian film (originally entitled LA FRECCIA D'ORO) made by Titanus Studios. Tab Hunter was brought over for the "American" appeal to give the film a better chance at playing the international markets.

     His co-star was the GORGEOUS Rossana Podesta, a stunning redhead with a string of admirers all her own. The studio thought (rightly, as it turned out) that Dad would take the kids along so he could ogle Rossana for an hour-and-a-half while this kiddie flick played out. While my word may be a bit biased on her beauty, no less a director than Robert Wise chose her from a worldwide beauty contest when he made his 1956 movie and cast her in the title role (dying her hair blonde) of HELEN OF TROY. She worked in film for four decades, finally retiring in the early '80s, with one of her last roles as Hera in the Lou Ferrigno version of HERCULES.

But what about the film itself, you ask? Happy to oblige! Damascus,in the time of the Arabian Nights. A contest has been announced to suitors far and wide to see who is worthy of wedding the beautiful Jamila (Rossana Podesta) and becoming the next Sultan. This contest takes place before the entire assembled populace of the city and consists of proving one's worth by mastering Allah's gift to the Sultan: an ebony bow and a magical golden arrow, which when shot, always returns to its master. Only one who is chosen by Allah himself as the rightful heir may pull back the bow and shoot the arrow. Three Princes arrive to partake in the contest, and all three fail. Just as well, as Jamila has no interest in any of the three.
    Disguised in the crowd is the bandit leader Hassan (Tab Hunter ... I TOLD you this was a fantasy film!) - he and his crew have arranged themselves among the crowd for some quick thievery, but not before he plays out his most daring scheme. Doffing their nondescript robes,  they follow Hassan as he presents himself to the Sultan, begging forgiveness for his late arrival and calling himself the Prince of the Island of Fire. Jamila is instantly smitten with him, and the Sultan graciously allows him to compete. Of course, the first three Princes have no luck even bending the bow: when Hassan steps up, the bow bends (to his astonishment) and the arrow flies true to the target. As the crowd watches in awe, the arrow disappears from the target and flies back to Hassan's outstretched hand!   
     His bandits see this as a sign to attack and begin an all-out rout of the Princes and the populace, stealing everything not nailed down ... including the Princess. During this time, the Golden Arrow (with a mind of it's own) shoots out of the bow and flies off into the distance, refusing to return. Off the bandits ride to their oasis to discuss if the Princess is pretty and how much ransom she will be worth. Hassan replies that looks do not matter - the Sultan will pay any cost to have her back, just for her title alone. He goes into her tent and confronts the furious Princess, who has slapped a thief who has taken her veil. All thoughts of ransom go out the tent flap as he is awed by her beauty. He forbids any more talk of ransom from his confused men, and in the cover of night, sneaks away with Jamila by horseback to take her back to the city.

     His men awaken and pursue, but are thwarted by a party of soldiers out looking for the Princess. She has seen the kind of man Hassan could be and falls in love with him. As they near the city, Hassan escorts Jamila to the gate, buying her water and a rose to remember him by ... and using her own ring as payment! Re-watching this as an adult, I could not help but notice that after the bandit steals Jamila's veil, she NEVER goes veiled again for the rest of the film, walking through the city of Damascus without ANY head covering ... and showing some cleavage, as well! Dramatic licence to show off Rossana Podesta's charms, to be sure ... but still rather jarring, especially as this film was shot on location in a number of places (more on that later) and EVERY OTHER FEMALE is covered up! Princess or no Princess, she would not have gotten away with such brazenness without punishment. But back to the film ... A guard recognizes the ring and sounds the alarm - the soldiers rush to the market and Hassan, the love-stricken dope, walks right into their trap and is promptly taken to the dungeon. Jamila, now hopelessly smitten, doesn't care that he's not a Prince or anything else about his past ...she just knows she's in love with him and prays that night to Allah with all her heart to spare her beloved.

     Allah responds by sending her three genies - they go to the dungeon and save Hassan from his demise (a watery pit that fills to the floor level where he is chained, bringing up with the water hungry crocodiles). They also inform him that he is the TRUE Prince of Damascus, which is why Allah alowed him to pull the bow and release the arrow. We find out that Hassan's father, the earlier Sultan, had been murdered and the infant Hassan placed with the bandits to hide him and save his life. The genies agree to help Hassan regain his throne, but he MUST forego all his previous thieving ways and lead a good life to get their assistance.  They also explain that when Hassan tried to rob the people at the beginning of the film, the Golden Arrow rebelled at this base act and fled "to the top of the mountain where the Sun is born". So on top of all his other trials and tribulations, he must now retrieve the Arrow, as well.

     He readily agrees, then instantly scampers up the balcony to find Jamila and pick up the kissing that he left off of at the gate. The genies are having none of that foolishness and tell him to get his rear in gear or his trials will be harsh. Sending them away, he keeps making time with Jamila when the head genie, now totally cheesed off, tells him his first trial will be that of disobedience. With that, they disappear, leaving him to outwit and escape the castle guards and the city by himself.

Jamila, showing a LOT more sense than Hassan throughout the film, delays her arranged marriage by assembling the three Princes and announcing that since they all failed the Golden Arrow test, she was going to give them a second challenge ... each of them would have one month to bring back the most beautiful gift in the world as a wedding gift. The one who has the best gift is the one she will wed. We all know better, though, and it gives Hassan one month to finish his quest.

      Hassan sets off across the desert, eventually stumbling on some ruins when his water runs out. The genies watch all this atop a palm tree (on the world's first iPad ... really, that's exactly what their 'magic mirror' looks like!) - one of them drops a pineapple (don't ask) on a traveling merchant, who bemoans his fate to Allah. The genie unravels one of his carpets and turns it into a FLYING carpet, telling him to sell it only to someone who will use it to do good. By the time they get back to viewing Hassan, he has found his way beneath the ruins to a set of fiery caves. A stream of water pours into a pool, but instead of drinking from it, Hassan parts the water and steps through, to meet the Queen of Fire (Gloria Milland) who informs him the cost of his curiosity is an eternity of slavery in his realm.Not liking the sound of that, he bids the Queen farewell, ignoring her orders to stop. She sets her Fire Men on him (literally stuntmen doing a full burn), cutting off all avenues of escape. Hassan sees one of the Fire Men passing through the stream of water and rushes it, realizing they are all an illusion. The Queen, her ruse discovered, begs Hassan to stay and rule the realm with her. Another clench, another kiss ... just in time for his three guardian genies to make their entrance! They tell him it is time to move on, but he keeps kissing the Queen ... and 'liberating' her ruby necklace (see picture below). Her pleas for him to stay fall on deaf ears, for as he tells her, "I have orders to follow myself".

     The genies lead him out of the caves through a different exit, where Hassan discovers his horse and three donkeys (the genie's mode of transport). They head to the resting place of the Golden Arrow ... and the site of his next trial. The next set of ruins they come upon are strangely quiet and the lead genie thinks Hassan has something to do with it, which he denies. They are set upon by a magician who turns one of the genies to stone (see below) and demands that they move an obelisk blocking a temple entrance. Hassan makes his next mistake. Taking the ruby necklace from his belt, he tries to tempt the magician with it. It has the exact opposite reaction, with the mage screaming it was stolen from his hoard ... and the lead genie giving Hassan the hairy eyeball. "I knew it!", he yells. "Now you have to undergo the trial of theft and lying!"

     The crazed conjurer tells them they have until sundown to move the obelisk or they will ALL be turned to stone like their companion. Hassan looks hopefully at the main genie, who tells him nothing doing - it's his trial, he's the one who has to fix it. They agree to partially help him by stopping the sun (a cute effect, by switching the color film to black and white) - Hassan then looks around and sees the adjacent columns are held together by one keystone - he tricks the second genie into getting the stone for him and tells them to restart the sun! They do and the columns all fall, with one of them striking the end of the obelisk and unblocking the temple entrance. As the greedy magician rushes to the treasure, he is crushed to death by the falling blocks. After the dust has settled and the third genie returns to his normal self, they are about to head out when they are intercepted by the Queen of Rocky Valley (Dominique Boschero) and her attendants - the people who were put in suspended animation by the magician. She thanks them for freeing her and her people from the spell ... and commands a feast in their liberator's honor.

     During the feast, Hassan starts his 'smooth with the ladies' flirtatious speech to the Queen. The lead genie decides to remind him who he REALLY loves and knocks him out with the potent drink served to him. Hassan then astrally projects back to the palace at Damascus and the lonely Jamila in her courtyard. The Vizier (who is in league with Prince Bassora) (Renato Baldini) counsels her that she should marry Bassora ... and soon (the Prince is already planning to take Damascus by force, if necessary) - the Vizier would say more, but Hassan is poking at him with a feather and a knife which makes him take his leave. The reformed thief then astrally kisses Jamila, telling her he loves her and to wait for him. His memory refreshed as to why he is on the quest, he and the genies take their leave of the Queen - she is sad to see them go, but loads them down with the treasure the magician was seeking, including a bag of "the tears of my people", i.e., perfect diamonds.

     The other three Princes are now at their destinations for their one-of-a-kind gifts: Bassora and his henchman have found a hermit who has a phial of water that will restore life to anyone who has died. When he refuses to sell it to Bassora, the Prince decides to try it out by stabbing the hermit to death ... then bringing him back to life. Seeing that it works, he heads out - leaving his henchman to tie up loose ends for good.

     Prince Aleppo (Rosario Borelli), the jolly fat suitor, berates his men in the marketplace for not finding a unique gift that will make HIM the victor. Hearing his remonstrations, a certain merchant calls him over and tells him HE has exactly what the Prince needs: the flying carpet seen earlier in the film!

     The three Princes meet up to compare gifts, with the third Prince's gift being a magical jewel (read: crystal ball) that can see anywhere in the world. Bassora demands an example of the jewel and they look into it to find Jamila in a coma and dying (thanks to a drug by the Vizier). Using Prince Aleppo's flying carpet, they fly to her bedside, where Bassora gives her some drops from the phial and brings her back to life. He then claims he has won the contest, demanding Jamila be his wife. She refuses, saying that all three Princes' gifts were working in concert to save her, so the contest is a tie. Bassora has reached the end of his rope and takes the other two Princes prisoner. He tells Jamila they will marry in the morning and rouses his men to be ready to march on Damascus.

     But what of Hassan? Upon leaving the Queen of Rocky Valley and her retinue, he and the genies  travel to the nearest oasis, where they are fallen upon by his former bandit clan. Thinking the treasure they are carrying to be the ransom for Jamila, they tie Hassan and the genies up and plan to torture them. One of the genies has had enough and sends the firebrands from the campfire flying in all directions, either knocking out or lighting on fire the bandits until they beg for mercy. Quickly untied, Hassan gives his former men the treasure and they continue on their way. Making their way to the Nile, Hassan gets another tongue-lashing from the main genie. He replies he can not do ANYTHING right in their eyes - he gets yelled at if he steals, he gets yelled at if he gives the treasure away, etc. Telling them to go away, they warn him he will have to finish the quest alone, but that they will return once he has retrieved the Golden Arrow. As he turns around to reply, he finds them flying away over the Nile, leaving him alone.

     This would be a good moment to take a break and mention one of the most striking aspects of this film and one that I did not appreciate until rewatching this as an adult; namely all the locations the filmmakers were able to shoot at, from the Temple of Karnak at Luxor and shooting on the Nile to the final resting place of the Golden Arrow (the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut on the West Bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings - see photos). Filmmakers would never be allowed to film in some of these locations today, and it makes for a richer looking movie. The shot of Tab Hunter running up the steps of Hatshepsut's Temple is astonishing, especially in today's day and age when you realize this is NOT CGI or some other special effect.

     Hassan has been informed of what is going on back at Damascus and he and the genies rush to save Jamila (their mode of transport has to be seen to be believed), arriving in the proverbial nick of time, punching out Bassora and rousing the loyal troops to fight. Bassora and the Vizier escape back to the Prince's camp via the flying carpet. Hassan is ready to go after them, when the genies present him with his OWN flying carpet AND the ebony bow - so armed with this and the Golden Arrow, he flies into battle. Another (unintentional?) bit of hilarity ensues when you see these scenes - every time a flying carpet goes by, the sound of a JET in flight is heard on the soundtrack! :)  Now you finally get to see the Golden Arrow in action, severing tentpoles, horse bridles, bowstrings and anything else in sight. The genies get into the action, as well, on their own flying carpets. They levitate all the pottery and large urns from the city and use them as bombs to drop on Bassora's men. Seeing the battle lost, Bassora and the Vizier flee, with Hassan giving chase and sending the Golden Arrow after them to slice their two-man flying carpet into smaller and smaller pieces ... until they fall to their demise.

     The final scene has Hassan and Jamila on the flying carpet saying goodbye to the genies and thanking them for their help - as the genies fly back to Allah, Hassan and Jamila share a kiss and fly into the sunset. Of all the special effects shots in the film, they saved the worst for last as EVERYBODY (the genies, Hassan and Jamila) are BLUE in this, due to a very poorly-done blue-screen process shot! :)

      One final word about the making of the film. I was excited when back in 2006, Tab Hunter's biography came out (called TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL). I was in for a bit of a shock when I got to his thoughts on the making of THE GOLDEN ARROW - at the beginning of Chapter 26 he said, "Rossana Podesta draped herself against a date palm in the desert oasis. In her diaphanous gown, she oozed sex appeal. I tossed the loose end of the burnoose over my shoulder, adjusted my sword, and descended on her. She rose slightly, inviting my kiss.
     A million flies swarmed into our hair, our eyes, our mouths. They were all over everything, everywhere.
     "Cut!" screamed director Antonio Margheriti, in Italian, his native tongue.  
      We were on location in Egypt, shooting a sword-and-sandal spectacular for the Italian company Titanus Studios. Margheriti stormed around, spewing lots of vowels, gesturing wildly at the mostly Egyptian crew.
     "What's he saying?" I asked Rossana as we battled the insect invasion ... "Antonio is asking how to say shit in Arabic", Rossana explained, spitting flies.
      At times like this, I doubted the wisdom of putting everything I owned in storage ... and accepting the lead role in La Freccia d'Oro, aka The Golden Arrow."        

     Tab goes on to call it an 'enjoyable stinker', giving him a free expense-paid trip to Rome and Egypt, as well as "racing a purebred Arab horse across the desert, ala Errol Flynn". He also talks about re-working his lines, but it didn't matter in the end, as his voice was dubbed in by another actor! Finally, he mentions that the film (with it's high budget) almost sank Titanus Studios and it was years before they bounced back from the financial hit. Director Margheriti went on to many other films, in all different genres - his name was 'Americanized' on releases in the States as 'Tony Dawson'.

     So ... after this exhaustive write-up, you must be asking yourself, "Where can I get a copy of this gem?" The Warner Archive Collection has FINALLY released it in both regular DVD and a SPECTACULAR Blu-ray transfer - you can order it here!

      Regular DVD:

       Blu-Ray DVD (RECOMMENDED):

     So there you have it - the film that started the never-ending snowball that is Conjure Cinema. Just take one wide-eyed boy, add a flavorful Arabian Nights fantasy, and ... voila! See the wonders that can happen!

     Next Time: Just in time for Halloween, we take a look back at the darkest day on the calendar ... BLACK SUNDAY! Be there or be haunted forever!

Monday, October 17, 2011

THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON (aka ILYA MUROMETS) (1956) (shown September, 1993)

     Since our July show of THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE (aka SAMPO) had been so well received, I thought it would be fun to revisit the magical films of Aleksandr Ptushko and show his magnum opus, ILYA MUROMETS. Like SAMPO before it, this film was heavily truncated and changed from it's original form (again by B-movie maven Roger Corman) to become the version most American audiences are familiar with, THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON. With a garish poster design reminiscent of bug-eyed monster artist supreme Reynold Brown, and a blitzkrieg advertising campaign, every red-blooded kid wanted to see this film ... and when they did, were AMAZED at what they saw! I'll be going back and forth on names between the two versions, but will be discussing the American version for this review.

     The hero of the story is Ilya Muromets (Boris Andreyev), a great bear of a man who spends his days brooding and watching the world pass him by. Crippled since childhood, he can only watch helplessly when the savage Tugars and their leader, the Tsar Kalin (Shukur Burkhanov) raid their small Russian village and kidnap Ilya's wife, Vassilisa (Ninel Myshkova) (aka Vilya in the re-dubbed American version).

     While this is happening, a band of traveling pilgrims meet one of their demi-gods, a giant knight named Svyatogor (renamed Invincor in the American version) and his equally giant horse, who have come to the end of their travels after many battles defending Mother Russia. The knight puts down his magic sword, charging the travelers to give it to another of strong heart who can take up the fight ... then he and his steed proceed to turn to stone and become part of the mountain chain (as seen below).
The thirsty travelers arrive at Ilya's village and ask for water (thanks to some poor editing in this part, no one seems TOO broken up that they were just raided by bloodthirsty Tugars!) - Ilya invites them in, apologizing that he can not serve them himself due to his useless legs. They see in him the hero that he could be and invite him to drink deep from a flask of magic dew grass (?) ... which promptly restores his mobility. They them give him the magic sword to go forth and smite Tugar ass with, which he proceeds to do with his mother and father's blessing.

     On the way, he first encounters a wind demon (known as Nightingale the Robber in the original version) and defeats him with a well-thrown gourd to the head; never one to throw away a perfectly good goblin, Ilya ropes him up and carries him off to the Prince in Kiev, where he offers his services against the Tugars. While at the Prince's court, another noble brags that HE confronted the Wind Demon; Ilya promptly denounces him and calls him a liar. When the Prince asks what proof does he have, his response? "Because I have him outside!"

     The entire palace unloads to see this marvel, with the Prince demanding a demonstration of the creature's power. Ilya warns him to use only half-power in summoning the Wind; but even at that, the entire court and anything (and everyone) not nailed down goes flying (in a neat piece of special effects of the time; namely running the film backwards!) - before more havoc ensues, Ilya places his hand over the Demon's mouth to stop him.

     Kalin's representative arrives at the court and demands tribute; Ilya 'tributes' him in half with his sword and sends his soldiers fleeing back to the Tugars telling them there's plenty more where that came from! Unknown to Ilya, however, is Kalin's secret weapon: after Kalin had kidnapped Vassilisa, she gave birth to Ilya's son - a boy who Kalin raises as a Tugar, renaming him 'Little Falcon' and training him for the express purpose of killing his father and conquering his people. A montage shows the boy growing up and learning all the martial and fighting skills he will need for the job, until the day arrives for the showdown.

     Ilya has come upon hard times himself: from being the hero of the people, he is now a prisoner of the Prince, who has taken the false word of traitors in the realm that Ilya is plotting to take over the kingdom. They would have the Prince believe that Ilya's growing popularity is just his way of planning a coup - nothing could be further from the truth and Ilya warns the Prince that one day he will come to him in his prison cell and beg for his help. Everyone, from the Princess on down, warns the Prince he is making a terrible mistake, but he refuses to listen to them and lets Ilya stay in prison for many years, telling his jailers to feed him well. Instead they steal the food and send a secret message (a bundle including the key to the prison) to the Tugars that the time to attack has arrived.

     Kalin and his troops lay siege to Kiev and orders the Prince to send them ten wagons of tribute within three days time or prepare to die. Not a one of the Prince's nobles will go out to face the Tugars, and the Prince, finally seeing the error of his ways, goes to beg Ilya for help. When the noble who was in charge of overseeing his time in prison says he believes Ilya has died, they rush to the cell ... to find him alive and well, thanks to a magic tablecloth that Vassilisa had woven for him, which when spread upon a flat surface brings forth a feast. Ilya proves that his jailer was the traitor all along (and he is led off to be boiled in oil), and the Prince begs for forgiveness and for Ilya to save them all. Ilya agrees to do so; not for the Prince's sake, but for the sake of the land.

     He directs the bravest soldiers to accompany him and bring the ten carts, loaded with rags and papers to make them look full, and to drop a pittance of coins and jewels along the way from Kiev to Kalin's court. When Kalin demands the tribute be piled up before him, Ilya pretends amazement and tells him in the rush to meet the deadline, the bags must have ripped and all the tribute spilled out along the way. He then asks Kalin if he would like him and his men to go back and pick them all up, or if he should send his OWN trustworthy troops back. Kalin wants to take no chances and orders his men to backtrack to Kiev and bring back all the treasure (which was Ilya's plan all along, knowing they will steal and hide as much of it as they can). When they return saying they could only find a few coins and jewels, Ilya denounces them, saying they are liars and thieves and, grabbing one man, turns him upside down and shakes him, making all the hoarded treasure come out. Kalin is so mad he threatens to kill them all if they don't bring EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF TREASURE THEY HAVE before him immediately; so they have to forfeit all their personal loot from previous sackings just to stay alive.

     Ilya returns to Kiev, but he has only delayed the battle. Kalin's greed knows no bounds - he still wants the treasure in the town and orders an attack.  Ilya and his soldiers meet them on the plains before the city in battle (including the infamous three-on-one-spear impaling scene - heady stuff for a little kid in the '60s!), with Ilya having a showdown with Little Falcon. Ilya gets the best of Little Falcon (it IS his movie, after all), but before dispatching him sees the ring he is wearing - the same ring he had told Vassilisa to give his son to remember him by.  When the truth comes out, Little Falcon changes sides and vows to fight beside his true father, but first must go back to the Tugar stronghold and free his imprisoned mother.

     We FINALLY get to the payoff of the film; so far it's been a LOT of swords and NO sign of a dragon! Kalin sees his battle is going south (by building a MOUNTAIN of men that he rides his horse atop to spy on the enemy) and tells his lackeys to release the dragon (named Zmey Gorynych in the original and Zuma the Fire Dragon in the American version) from its cave - Zuma proceeds to toast everything and everyone in sight (in some impressive special effects for the time) until a well-placed spear from a giant crossbow brings him to earth (shades of 7th Voyage of Sinbad)!

     Father and son fight side by side in the climactic battle, with Little Falcon on the beast's back, plunging a spear into it, and Ilya in front, lopping off each of the three heads with a single stroke of Invincor's magic sword. Three heads ... three strokes! There's a bit of unintentional humor here as Ilya is bellowing for his men to throw buckets of water on him as he battles Zuma (to keep from being roasted alive by the dragon's flames): to say they do their job enthusiastically is an understatement! They finish that off by mopping up Kalin's troops and they proceed to Kalin himself. He begs for his life and Ilya orders him thrown into a burlap sack and taken to the Prince, for him to decide the Tugar leader's fate.

     For his service to his people and his country, the Prince offers Ilya a place at court, promising he will always live at the castle and be given every honor. Ilya, now the happy family man again, reunited with his wife and son, solemnly refuses the offer, saying that his destiny lies outside of the castle walls and that his days of serving Mother Russia are far from over. He insteads begs the Prince the boon of letting Little Falcon serve in his place, a wish the Prince gladly bestows. As he says, if he can not have Ilya Muromets at his side, then he will happily have his son instead. The film ends on an odd note: you would think that after so many years apart from the love of his life, Ilya would like some time to settle down, but no: the final shot is him hitting the road on his horse, riding into a blood-red sunset ... with a crow on a branch balefully watching him pass by.

     Aside from the Roger Corman release in the '60s, most people today are aware of this film as one that was lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Like most of their shows, it is fun to watch their riff on the film, although someone forgot to tell them the film takes place in Russia ...they go on and on cracking all sorts of FINNISH jokes about the movie, even though it has NOTHING to do with Finland! For once, the joke is on them.

     In addition to the huge publicity budget the film had, it also has a rare collectible: it was one of the few Russian transplant films to have it's own tie-in comic: part of the Dell Movie Comic series, THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON tells the story of the (American version of the) film faithfully; no better or worse drawn than any other like comic of it's time, it is a nice memento of the film if you can find it. These comics were originally sold in the lobby of the movie theatres showing the films, and to a kid like me back in that time period, they were the neatest thing on Earth; you could go and see the film and have this to take home with you to relive the scenes over and over again - they were the DVDs of their day.

     Amazingly enough (speaking of DVDs), this film is available in two formats: in it's uncut full version with English subtitles (in a gorgeous widescreen transfer, as you can see from the screen shots above) and the Americanized Roger Corman 1960's release - the MST3K version has not received an official DVD release yet, but it is just a matter of time.

     So the choice is yours: the serious, lyrical fantasy or the stilted, dubbed Americanization ... to be fair, unlike a number of these Corman remixes, this one does keep a good portion of the main plot and the dubbing tries to keep (more or less) to the original story. if you're in the right mood to see how old-school epics were done in other countires, THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON is worth a look.

Next Time: The film that started it all! The very first film I ever saw as a child ... and the one that is responsible for Conjure Cinema and everything that came after ... wait and see!