Film Festival Highlights 2013

FRIDAY

 

12:00 — Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Part One. The screenplay for Republic’s 15-chapter serial did not adapt Sax Rohmer’s book bearing the same title; instead it pilfered elements from the entire series, with a special emphasis on Mask of Fu Manchu. Reflecting the studio’s large investment in character rights, Drums was more generously budgeted, and given a longer shooting schedule, than Republic’s previous chapter plays. Added care was taken in scripting, casting, direction, and photography, resulting in what many believe to be the very best of the fabled Republic serials—an opinion shared, incidentally, by its co-director, William Witney. Henry Brandon is ideally cast as Rohmer’s Devil Doctor and character actor William Royle, while not physically suited to the role of Nayland Smith, delivers what is certainly the finest performance of his mediocre career. We are proud to offer a unique presentation of this classic Fu film: a specially prepared feature version, broken into two parts, mastered by us from the only surviving 35mm print struck from the original camera negative. As the print was incomplete, our cut necessarily interpolates some footage from lesser-quality material, and the juxtaposition of sources will prove strikingly illustrative to those who’ve only seen inferior video editions released previously. Another Windy City exclusive!

 

02:00 — Pigeons from Hell (1961). In addition to the Fu Manchu centennial, this year’s convention celebrates 90 years of Weird Tales, “the Unique Magazine,” which retains its popularity among readers and collectors of classic pulp fiction. In its heyday Weird Tales failed to attract Hollywood filmmakers, who presumably found most of its fare too outré for mainstream audiences. Only a couple yarns from the magazine made their way to the silver screen before 1960; we showed one of them, Fiend Without a Face, a few years back. Weird Tales was far better represented on the small screen, and this weekend we’ll be revisiting some of the best TV versions of popular stories that debuted in the pulp. This 1961 Thriller episode marks Hollywood’s first attempt at adapting Robert E. Howard. Originally published in the March 1938 issue of Weird Tales and called “one of the finest horror stories of the century” by Stephen King, Pigeons from Hell unfolds in and around an old mansion said to be cursed by a malevolent entity. Boris Karloff hosts the episode, which stars Brandon De Wilde and Crahan Denton.

 

03:00 — Daughter of the Dragon (1931). Having ignored his most famous character for more than a decade, Sax Rohmer was induced to revive the Devil Doctor at least partially in response to Paramount’s widely successful 1929 talkies, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, starring a pre-Charlie Chan Warner Oland. By virtue of its previous contract with the author, Paramount retained right of first refusal to the novel that followed, Daughter of Fu Manchu (1930), and promptly optioned the property. However, writer-director Lloyd Corrigan and his fellow scenarists jettisoned Rohmer’s plot and substituted one furthering the revenge scheme that animated the previous two films. Fu’s daughter, Fah Lo Suee, became Ling Moy, and the Doctor himself was killed off early in the proceedings. Nayland Smith was nowhere to be found, the cause of justice being represented by Chinese secret service agent Ah Kee. Rohmer purists are justified in denying Daughter of the Dragon admission to the canon, but the movie is quite engaging in its own right and certainly follows the melodramatic tradition of the author’s best works. Moreover, it’s a good showcase for early Hollywood’s two prominent Asian-American stars: Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa.

 

04:30 — The Phantom Farmhouse (1971). Back in the day, Seabury Quinn was the favorite author of many Weird Tales readers, and he was perhaps the most prolific as well. Strangely, his adventures of Jules de Grandin—some of which might have made dandy little “B” horror movies—were overlooked by Hollywood. The first of his yarns adapted to film was also his first published in Weird Tales (in the October 1923 issue, to be precise). The Phantom Farmhouse was broadcast early in the second season of Night Gallery, Universal’s well-regarded series of supernatural stories. David McCallum plays the psychiatrist who comes under police questioning when one of his patients is found murdered under mysterious circumstances. Orson Welles, no stranger to dramas of this type, is the narrator.

 

Immediately Following Auction — The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Most Rohmer fans believe this florid melodrama to be the best film featuring Fu Manchu. And it’s hard to make a case to the contrary. The adaptation of the similarly titled novel (already written but not yet published when M-G-M purchased screen rights) hews fairly closely to the source, and the cast is nothing if not noteworthy. Grotesque makeup notwithstanding, Boris Karloff is superbly sinister as the Devil Doctor, Myrna Loy (then typecast as Oriental temptresses) suitably alluring as Fah Lo Suee, Lewis Stone stolidly dependable as Nayland Smith, and future cowboy star Charles Starrett properly heroic as Terry Granville. For many decades after its theatrical release Mask of Fu Manchu was available only in a politically correct version that deleted numerous racially insensitive epithets uttered by the white cast members. Troublemakers that we are, our print restores the offending remarks in all their anti-Yellow Peril glory.

SATURDAY

10:00 — Drums of Fu Manchu, Part Two. The action moves to Asia as Fu Manchu races to beat Nayland Smith and his friends to the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. The second half of Republic’s 1940 serial sacrifices some of the first half’s spooky atmosphere but boasts a faster pace and outstanding action sequences, including some lifted from the studio’s 1938 feature film Storm Over Bengal. For the record, our specially prepared cut eliminates repetitive situations from the serial’s last third, which most fans agree was unnecessarily padded.

 

12:00 — Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper (1961). Few Weird Tales stories have been anthologized more than this Robert Bloch classic, first published in the Unique Magazine’s July 1943 issue. Thriller’s second-season adaptation boasts impeccable credentials: It was scripted by prestigious feature-film screenwriter Barré Lyndon, directed by well-regarded actor Ray Milland, and acted by an outstanding ensemble cast headed by John Williams and Donald Woods (with Boris Karloff on hand as host, of course). The story unfolds in New York, some 70 years after the original Ripper murders. A newly arrived British nobleman believes that Jack is still alive—eternally young as a result of some deal with the devil—and once again practicing his grisly craft in the Big Apple’s sleaziest streets.

 

01:00 — Masquerade (1961). Henry Kuttner’s blackly humorous short story from the May 1942 number of Weird Tales was the source for one of Thriller’s most memorable episodes. Years, in fact decades later, fans of the series could recall the twist ending even if they couldn’t remember the story’s title or plot details. Tom Poston and Elizabeth Montgomery play a young couple, lost while on their second honeymoon and presumably at the mercy of a family of cannibals running the ramshackle Southern hotel in which they’ve sought shelter. The couple, initially inclined to laugh off their spooky surroundings, accidentally uncover a shocking secret.

 

02:00 — The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). The first of five Fu Manchu movies produced by Harry Alan Towers and starring Christopher Lee as the Devil Doctor. Towers, who scripted the film under his nom de plume of Peter Welbeck, didn’t adapt a particular Rohmer novel but incorporated bits and pieces from several. Face of Fu Manchu takes place largely in London but was shot mostly in Dublin. As its melodramatic thrills were very much of a piece as those found in Edgar Wallace novels, Towers cleverly cast German actors Joachim Fuchsberger and Karin Dor in key supporting roles; having co-starred in several of their country’s wildly popular Wallace adaptations, they lent considerable box-office allure to Towers’ modestly budgeted film, especially throughout Europe. Although the production values are skimpy—with period detail particularly sloppy and inaccurate—Face teems with action, suspense, and atmosphere. It’s by far the best of the Towers-produced quintet starring Lee as Fu Manchu.

 

03:45 — The Whisperer in Darkness (2011). Several years ago we ran The Call of Cthulhu, a privately produced, wholly faithful adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s epochal Weird Tales story. Windy City attendees who praised that film will be delighted to see this sequel, also made under the auspices of The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society. Whisperer actually expands on Lovecraft’s original (first published in the August 1931 Weird Tales) while tale while still maintaining fidelity to it. Miskatonic University professor Albert Wilmarth tries to uncover evidence of strange creatures rumored to dwell in a mountainous region of Vermont. The investigation leads him to unimaginable horrors threaten his sanity as well as his life. Very stylish—and stylized—adaptation of a key Lovecraft tale.

 

Immediately Following Auction — Pickman’s Model (1971). Lovecraft’s terrifying short story, first published in the October 1927 issue of Weird Tales, has been adapted by filmmakers five times to date, most recently last year. This version, which originally aired in 1971 as an episode of Night Gallery, was not only the first version but also the first Lovecraft yarn made for TV. Bradford Dillman, no stranger to troubled young men, plays eccentric art teacher Richard Upton Pickman, whose private studio becomes the scene of unremitting horror when a curious student follows him home. Not as faithful to the original story as subsequent adaptations, this version of Pickman’s Model is not without merit and will make a satisfying cap to our weekend-long salute to Weird Tales on the small screen.

 

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