July 8th, 2008

HOUDINI (1953) ***

The husband and wife team of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh star as the famed magician Harry Houdini and his loyal wife Bess in this winning biopic from director George (The Ghost Breakers) Marshall.  


The film begins with Houdini and Bess’s first meeting and their subsequent whirlwind courtship.  We also see Houdini travel abroad to Europe where he first gains fame as a master illusionist and showman.  After the death of his mother, Houdini takes time off from performing to focus his attention on debunking phony mystics who claim they can communicate with the dead.  When Houdini returns to the stage, he has a close call when he narrowly escapes from an icy river.  Bess begs Harry to scale down his act, but he refuses and winds up dead after performing his infamous Chinese Water Torture Escape.


The film is at its best when showcasing the romance between Harry and Bess.  (The scene where he saws his wife in half on their wedding night is especially memorable.)  The two stars have considerable chemistry together and their splendid performances are easily the best thing about the movie. 


Seeing Curtis perform Houdini’s most famous tricks is also a lot of fun, but more often than not you can see how the filmmakers staged everything (the jump cuts that hide the tricks’ seams are sometimes painfully obvious).  While screenwriter Phillip Yordan fudges a lot of facts in favor of telling a more romanticized story (Houdini died from appendicitis in a hospital and not onstage), it’s okay because the film actually works better as a love story than a straight up biopic. 


Yordan (who worked as a front for many blacklisted screenwriters during the 50’s) went on to pen the immortal horror classic, Night Train to Terror. 


Houdini is on DVD for the first time ever, courtesy of the diligent people at Legend Films who have been churning out several previously unreleased films from the Paramount Pictures vaults.  To order your copy today, go straight to Legend’s website at www.legendfilms.net.  



If you’re like me, then you will pay to see Camille Keaton in ANYTHING, so you will want to check this flick out pronto, Squanto.  This was one of FOUR movies Camille made in Italy in 1972.  She hung around Italy long enough to make a couple more until she came back home to America to make the immortal classic I Spit on Your Grave. 


When a bunch of dumb ass Bohemian types’ dune buggy breaks down in a storm, they seek refuge in an old castle.  


Since they are dirty hippies slinking around a remote castle on a rainy night in a horror movie, you know things can’t end up good. 


Luciana (The Green Slime) Paluzzi and Luigi (Twitch of the Death Nerve) Pistilli are the only inhabitants of said castle and they welcome the badly dressed freeloaders into their home with welcome arms.  Little do the morons know that they’ve landed square in Satanist City and there’s a horde of Satan worshippers living in the basement.  When all the Satanists wig out and murder each other, the hippies bolt, only to implicate themselves in the crime.  Slowly but surely, the hippies get picked off one by one by an unseen killer.  


Then things start getting WEIRD.     


The shitty thing about this movie is that the early scenes of hippies hanging around and not doing much of nothing is pretty grating on the nerves.  Yeah, this is a horror movie and every horror movie has to have the Get On With It portion (also known as GOWIes) in which we the audience get to know the characters before they get offed.  The GOWIes aside, the first half of the movie is especially hard to get through considering that one of the hippies feels the need to whip out his guitar every three minutes and sing insipid Italian love songs!  


Since one of the hippies is portrayed by Keaton, I’m willing to give this segment of Tragic Ceremony a Mulligan.  To me, the first 25 minutes of endless hippies wandering around is totally worth it just for the scene where Camille gets naked and takes a bubble bath. 


The film’s standout scene is the Satanist massacre in which heads get split in two, people get decapitated, and Satanists get tossed out the window.  The excellent special effects (throat slitting, faces being ripped off, etc.) were done by Carlo Rambaldi, the man who would later go on to create Alien.  These great effects are repeated often during the last ten minutes in order to keep the audience awake once the film takes a turn for the HUH?!? 


Yeah, I could’ve done without the annoying hippies who resembled The Bee Gees if they borrowed The Hardy Boys’ wardrobe.  Sure, I scratched my head when this thing started to make ZERO sense.  Okay, I could’ve lived my entire life without seeing another movie in which a psychiatrist tried in vain to explain the killer’s motive a la Psycho.  BUT… if I DIDN’T sit through all that rigmarole, I would’ve gone without seeing lots of heads being split down the middle, jugular veins gushing blood and the sight of  Camille Keaton running around a decrepit Italian castle without a stitch of clothing on.  For that, I’m willing to make SOME concessions. 


Director Ricardo (The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock) Freda brings a modicum of atmosphere to the table.  The castle is crawling with atmosphere and Satanist killing spree is one for the books, but most importantly, the man just knows how to film Camille Keaton walking around dark hallways holding a candle while wearing absolutely nothing except a string of pearls around her neck. 


Special Note:  This film is purportedly based on the Manson killings but there is really little here that is like the actual case, but I guess if The Strangers can be “based” on the same murders, then this flick surely can too. 


AKA:  From the Secret Police Files of a European Capital.