Zoltan, Hound of Dracula (1978, Albert Band)

Zoltan

An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Note: This film’s original title when released in the US was the more prosaic Dracula’s Dog.

Setting: In this slice of trash cinema, we begin in a land that goes unnamed (‘the old country’), though it’s fair to assume it’s Romania. Then after a voyage across fogbound seas, events play out in Los Angeles and near a lake in San Bernardino County, California. The bulk of the story takes place in the modern day, though we also see brief flashbacks to a few centuries earlier.

Faithful to the novel? No, not at all. This film is set many years after the events of the book. (Stoker’s novel is not mentioned, but one character refers to ‘all those Dracula pictures’ made by Hollywood.) As we get underway, an army bomb-clearance team accidentally uncovers the Dracula family tomb. We see stones for Count Igor Dracula and Countessa Eva Dracula among others. A dopey soldier then pulls a stake from a long-decayed corpse and resurrects… not Dracula, but Dracula’s dog! The vampiric pooch – a Doberman pinscher called Zoltan – then removes the stake from another coffin’s inhabitant and reawakens his owner, Veidt Smit (the craggy-faced Reggie Nalder). Together the pair set off in search of the last surviving descendant of Count Dracula… That turns out to be an American called Michael Drake (Michael Pataki), who’s currently on a camping holiday with his wife, two kids and their brood of dogs. (That’s right: the ‘last surviving descendant of Count Dracula’ has children. Think that one through, movie!) Meanwhile, a Van Helsing-type investigator called Vaclav Branco (played by a slumming-it José Ferrer) is on the case and follows Smit’s trail to America, where he locates Michael and imparts lots of vague exposition.

Best performance: Michael is played by Michael Pataki, a kind of cut-price Darren McGavin who later appeared in slasher films such as Graduation Day, Sweet Sixteen and Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. His character comes across as a decent, affable family man.

Best bit: When awoken from his coffin, Zoltan has a flashback to when he was mortal, a soft-focus sequence that brings to mind that time Bouncer the dog had a dream in Australian soap opera Neighbours. Count Igor Dracula is angry when Zoltan gets in the way of him attacking a sexy woman, so he morphs into a bat and bites the hound – turning him into a vampire dog. The movie doesn’t seem to have any clue how ridiculous any of this is.

Review: The B-movie producer Albert Band had a CV that includes such tantalisingly hopeless titles as Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, TerrorVision, and Zarkorr! The Invader. For Zoltan, Hound of Dracula he also slid into the director’s chair and the result is predictably sloppy, crass and forgettable. Made by a team with a greater sense of irony, this could have been campy fun. Instead, it’s a straight-ahead horror flick that’s not ‘about’ anything in the slightest. The rotten-to-the-core storytelling soon gets muddled up in its own absurdity, the flat line-readings become tiresome, and despite a cute trick of reflecting light into Zoltan’s eyes the film is never scary or even unsettling. (Even when snarling, in fact, you can see the dog looking off-camera for approval from his trainer.)

Four berets out of 10

Dark Prince: The True Story of Dracula (2000, Joe Chappelle)

DarkPrince

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The ‘present’ scenes are set in 1476 in Turk-occupied Romania. (The name Romania is used on screen but is an anachronism.) We then see lengthy flashbacks, beginning with Vlad Tepes’s birth in 1431. The story also drifts across the border into Hungary.

Faithful to the novel? This made-for-television movie was first broadcast in America on Halloween night 2000. It’s yet another Drac-drama that posits that Stoker’s fictional Count is really the historical dictator Vlad Tepes (1431-1477), aka Vlad Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. The fact that this connection was never Bram Stoker’s intention – the author simply borrowed the real-life figure’s name and it’s doubtful he knew much more about him – has not stopped dozens of films and TV shows running with the idea. As the story begins, the powerful 15th-century warlord Vlad Tepes has been combating Ottoman Turks who have invaded his country. But after he allies himself with a Catholic king of Hungary (played, rather oddly, by Roger Daltrey of The Who), he’s questioned by a panel of Orthodox churchmen. The bulk of the film is then told in flashback as Vlad explains his actions over the years.

Best performance: Vlad is played by German actor Rudolph Martin, who coincidentally played a fully formed Dracula in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer shown just a month before The Dark Prince. When the character is born, a nearby religious statue begins to cry blood – so rumours spread that he’s the antichrist. The adult Vlad denies this, but in flashback he suffers hardships as he grows older: his father is killed by his enemies; his brother is kidnapped and brainwashed. As he leads a fightback against the invading Turks, Vlad uses all this angst to justify turning into a barbaric ruler. As Prince of Romania, he kills his own countrymen, drinks their blood and impales them on spikes. Charming. Some fear him (including his wife, who goes insane when she realises what he’s capable of); some rally behind him. He’s eventually murdered by his brother, but – perhaps because he’s been excommunicated by the church – he then rises from the grave as a godless soul, condemned to walk the earth forever… (The unsaid implication: he’s now Dracula the vampire.)

Best bit: Attempts are made here and there to imbue this film with some new ideas. For example, it uses its framing-device-and-flashback structure to suggest that some of the ideas surrounding Vlad are simply myths. He’s badly hurt in battle and seems to die, so his aide begins to construct a coffin; but then Vlad recovers, leading some watching soldiers to assume he’s been resurrected.

Review: Despite some decent production values, this is humourless drivel played out by a cast stuck in second gear. The lack of a central sympathetic character means it drifts along and fails to grab your attention.

Four loafs of bread out of 10

Every Alfred Hitchcock film – ranked

AlfredHitchcock

Over the last couple of years I’ve been watching and reviewing every surviving Alfred Hitchcock movie. So as today (Tuesday 13 August 2019) marks 120 years since the director’s birth, here are all those films in order of preference…

53. Number Seventeen (1932)
An underwhelming, muddled mess that sees various ill-defined characters doing boring things in an abandoned house. Read the full review here.

52. Juno and the Paycock (1930)
A plainly filmed drama based on a dull stage play set during the Irish Civil War. Read the full review here.

51. The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
Soppy and forgettable melodrama. Read the full review here, where I go off-topic and discuss where Hitchcock got his ideas from.

50. The Skin Game (1931)
Badly made, run-of-the-mill drama about landowners. Read the full review here.

49. Easy Virtue (1928)
A meandering romantic potboiler. Read the full review here.

48. Champagne (1928)
Frivolous and lightweight, this silent comedy sees an heirless lose her money. Read the full review here.

47. Elstree Calling (1930)
Hitchcock directed some linking scenes for this diverting if up-and-down sketch film. Read the full review here.

46. Jamaica Inn (1939)
A well staged, but ultimately lacklustre, adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Charles Laughton hams it up something rotten. Read the full review here.

45. Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)
An attempt at a screwball comedy, with one of the genre’s leading lights – Carole Lombard. It doesn’t really come off, but is still reasonably enjoyable. Read the full review here.

44. I Confess (1953)
A po-faced Montgomery Clift plays a priest wrongly accused of murder in a drama that misfires. Read the full review here.

43. Topaz (1969)
The spy plot is often clunky and the cast is one of Hitchcock’s weakest, but there’s a certain European glamour to proceedings. Roscoe Lee Browne has an enjoyable minor role as an undercover agent. Read the full review here.

42. The Paradine Case (1947)
Good turns from Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan make this illogical courtroom drama worth seeing. Read the full review here.

41. Rich and Strange (1931)
A married couple splurge some newfound cash on an around-the-world holiday. Throwaway but fun. Read the full review here.

40. Suspicion (1941)
Cary Grant excels – did he ever do anything else? – as a flashy cad whose marriage to Joan Fontaine doesn’t go well. Read the full review here.

39. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The first of two Hitchcock films using the same storyline about a couple’s child being kidnapped by terrorists. This version suffers a bit from stiff-upper-lipedness but is enlivened by Peter Lorre turning up as the villain. Read the full review here.

38. The Birds (1963)
Not as wonderful as its reputation suggests, but still excellently made and genuinely terrifying at times. Read the full review here.

37. Under Capricorn (1949)
A rare Hitchcock period film, this 19th-century drama set in an Australian colony town is fun to watch because most scenes are shot in long, unedited, theatrical takes. Read the full review here.

36. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Far from Hitch’s best movie about international espionage, this loses steam after a fun opening act. But the director was so adapt at this genre that it’s still entertaining. Read the full review here.

35. The Ring (1927)
An engaging silent film about boxing and romance. Read the full review here.

34. The Manxman (1929)
Before he became the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock directed in a variety of different styles; here, for example, is a likeable melodrama about a love triangle on the Isle of Man. Read the full review here.

33. Murder! (1930)
This early talkie has a lot of vibrant visuals and an interesting plot about an actress accused of killing a colleague. Read the full review here.

32. Secret Agent (1936)
An entertaining spy film that eerily pre-empts the tropes of the James Bond stories – 16 years before Ian Fleming wrote his first novel. Read the full review here.

31. Torn Curtain (1966)
Another espionage thriller, this time with Paul Newman’s scientist defecting to East Germany and being followed by his concerned girlfriend (Julie Andrews). The plot is see-through but there are some great moments, including a macabre death scene for one of the bad guys. Read the full review here.

30. Saboteur (1942)
It lacks star power and is episodic, but this is one of several entertaining Hitchcock films about a man wrongly accused of a crime. Read the full review here, in which I discuss the context of making a war film during the war.

29. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
A pleasingly quirky black comedy about a dead body being found in the woods. John Forsythe, Hitchcock regular Edmund Gwenn and Shirley MacLaine (in her first film) lead the cast, while the autumnal colours of New England are gorgeously presented in VistaVision. Read the full review here.

28. Spellbound (1945)
Ingrid Bergman is the star attraction in this torrid, psychology-based thriller about a man (Gregory Peck) with amnesia posing as a doctor. Ignore the naïve character work; enjoy the stellar cast and the way Hitch ekes out the mysteries for all their worth. Salvador Dalí helped create the film’s oddball dream sequence. Read the full review here.

27. Downhill (1927)
Impressive silent movie starring Ivor Novello as a student whose life suffers when he makes an honourable choice. Read the full review here.

26. Young and Innocent (1937)
A lively and fun man-on-the-run story that features one of Hitchcock’s most audacious shots as a camera swoops across a ballroom full of people to focus in on a murderer. Read the full review here.

25. Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
Hitch’s only music-based film, the story charts Johann Strauss’s composition of The Blue Danube (with a rather loose sense of historical accuracy). It’s made with a sense of humour. Read the full review here.

24. Sabotage (1936)
A tense thriller set in and around a London cinema. The sequence where a boy makes a cross-city trip on a bus – while unknowingly carrying a bomb – is justly revered. Read the full review here.

23. The Pleasure Garden (1925)
Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film is a little gem: a visually inventive and never-boring story about two West End dancers and their conflicting romantic experiences. Read the full review here, in which I set off to explore Hitchcock’s childhood and early career.

22. Strangers on a Train (1951)
A devilish thriller, based on the macabre premise of a man committing a murder on someone else’s behalf and then expecting the same in return. The tension mounts throughout. Read the full review here, where I look at the imagery of the film.

21. Family Plot (1976)
Hitchcock’s final film – released over half a century after his first – is a comedy thriller about a pair of con artists trying to track down a rich heir. The cast is terrific, with fun turns from Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, William Devane, Katherine Helmond and Coach from Cheers, while the movie never takes itself too seriously. Read the full review here.

20. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The one instance of Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own work. This 1950s, colour, Hollywood redo betters the original 1930s, black-and-white, British version by virtue of having a better lead cast (James Stewart and Doris Day) and a deeper sense of emotion. Read the full review here.

19. Stage Fright (1950)
A complex crime thriller set around the world of the theatre. Some critics have taken issue with what they see as a storytelling cheat, but we revel in the cat-and-mouse plotting, the suspenseful action, the eclectic cast (Richard Todd, Marlene Dietrich, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, the Major from Fawlty Towers) and the themes of lying, pretending and acting. Read the full review here.

18. Blackmail (1929)
Planned as a silent movie, then retooled during production as a talkie (Britain’s first), Blackmail is simply terrific. Starring Czech actress Anny Ondra – the first in a long line of troubled blondes in Hitchcock’s filmography – it sees a woman fight back during a rape and kill her attacker. She fears being accused of murder, then an anonymous witness attempts to extort money from her. Stunningly inventive, both visually and aurally, it also features one of Hitch’s most prominent cameos: he plays a man being irritated by a child on a tube train. Read the full review here.

17. Marnie (1964)
Tippi Hedren’s lead character is a troubled drifter, a woman who takes jobs so she can steal the company’s cash and then move on to a new town. But when she encounters Sean Connery’s wily businessman, he catches her out and develops an obsession. The movie is excellently put-together, very watchable and fascinatingly complex. But it does need to be viewed in context. Behind the scenes, Alfred Hitchcock had a reprehensible attitude to an infamous rape scene, while the story arc sees a psychologically damaged woman ‘cured’ by domineering misogyny and a forced catharsis. Read the full review here.

16. To Catch a Thief (1955)
As delightfully sun-kissed and elegant as its French Riviera setting, this stylish, witty and romantic caper film sees an effortlessly debonair Cary Grant attempting to prove that he’s not responsible for a spate of thefts. Grace Kelly is the scintillatingly sexy love interest; John Williams and Jessie Royce Landis provide entertaining support. Read the full review here.

15. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This train-based spy caper often has its tongue in its cheek, but is still suspenseful in the classic Hitchcock way. While commuting across Europe, Margaret Lockwood’s Iris meets a friendly old woman – but after the woman goes missing no other passenger remembers seeing her. As well as the mystery plot to enjoy, there are comedic minor characters, charming model shots and dialogue worthy of a screwball comedy. Read the full review here, in which I directly compare the movie with its 1979 remake.

14. The Wrong Man (1956)
The straightest and least flamboyant film the director ever made sees Henry Fonda’s jazz musician and family man tagged for a crime he didn’t commit. But rather than the equivalent characters in the many other Hitchcock films that use this idea, Manny doesn’t flee across country to prove his innocence. He instead surrenders himself to the justice system, which is dramatised in cold, harsh detail. Largely shot in real locations, the movie has a vérité feel and a terrific cast (including an impressive Vera Miles as Manny’s anxious wife). Read the full review here.

13. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Alfred’s finest silent film is a dark and dangerous tale, a gorgeous mixture of tension, menace, romance, visual audacity and German Expressionism. Ivor Novello plays a mysterious man who is suspected to be a Jack the Ripper-alike killer. Read the full review here.

12. Rebecca (1940)
A ghost story where the ghost never appears, this Gothic-tinged movie mixes high emotions with effective psychology. Joan Fontaine’s unnamed heroine falls for a rich man played by Laurence Olivier. But after she moves into his Cornish country house, Manderley, she can’t escape the shadow cast by his late first wife. Hitchcock shows an amazing command of the material, artfully shifting the tone from romance to mystery, from melodrama to horror. Read the full review here.

11. Lifeboat (1944)
The first in a subset of Hitchcock films that tell their stories in a single setting, this entire movie takes place in a small craft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after a passenger ship is torpedoed by the Germans. (The film was made during the Second World War.) A ragtag collection of survivors must work together, keep each other’s spirits up, marshal supplies, perform emergency medical aid and try to find a way out of the situation. The ante is then raised exponentially when a German from the U-boat that caused the disaster is found floating in the water. An endlessly impressive, claustrophobic and never-dull film. Read the full review here.

10. Frenzy (1972)
A brilliantly seedy and grubby movie, set in a down-and-dirty, working-class London. A serial killer is on the loose around Covent Garden and an innocent man (Jon Finch) finds himself accused after his ex-wife is raped and murdered. The terrific supporting cast includes Anna Massey, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Billie Whitelaw and Bernard Cribbins, while the genuine locations and lack of any Hollywood glamour give the story a sinister, sleazy edge. (Being a Hitchcock film, there are also flashes of black comedy.) Read the full review here.

9. Psycho (1960)
A sensationally twisted horror film – the granddaddy of the slasher genre – which is enlivened by the very smart central performances from Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. The famously famous shower scene is still shocking and effective when you view it in context, but the storytelling that leads up to that moment might be even more impressive. Read the full review here – which, to be honest, doesn’t really talk about Psycho very much and instead looks at the connections between Hitchcock and James Bond.

8. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Joseph Cotten plays a mysterious man from Philadelphia who needs to lie low, so he goes to stay with his apple-pie relatives in a small, quiet town. However, his relationship with his doting niece (a wonderful Teresa Wright) is tested when she begins to believe he’s a serial killer. Complexity, ambiguity and film-noir style abound. Read the full review here.

7. The 39 Steps (1935)
A rip-roaring romp that sees Robert Donat flee to Scotland to find out why a woman was killed in his London flat. Madeleine Carroll is the spunky dame he hooks up with along the way, while John Laurie of Dad’s Army fame plays a grumpy crofter. Packed full of excitement, humour, action and panache, this is an endlessly influential movie that essentially serves as the blueprint for all the road-movie caper films that have followed. Read the full review here, where I talk about remakes of and sequels to Hitchcock’s work.

6. Notorious (1946)
One of Hitchcock’s most sophisticated works, this grown-up spy thriller sees Cary Grant’s US intelligence agent recruit Ingrid Bergman to go undercover with some Nazis hiding in Brazil. The two leads are simply sensational – their sexual chemistry is unrivalled – while there’s strong support from the likes of Claude Rains. Hitchcock directs with precision, keeping things focused and textured at all times. Sublime beyond belief. Read the full review here.

5. Rope (1948)
A dazzling example of filmmaking rhetoric, this one-set thriller plays out in real time and is shot in a succession of loooooong takes. Two young men murder a friend as an intellectual exercise then invite his loved ones round for a soirée with the corpse hidden in a nearby chest. Playful and macabre in equal measure, with a terrific cast headlined by John Dall, Farley Grainger and James Stewart. Read the full review here – see if you can spot the incredibly funny conceptual gag I employed while writing it.

4. Rear Window (1954)
Another high-concept film. James Stewart plays a housebound photographer who becomes vicariously curious about the neighbours he spies on from his apartment window. When he believes he sees evidence of murder, his broken leg prevents him from investigating directly so he recruits girlfriend Grace Kelly and housekeeper Thelma Ritter to act as his proxy. The camera never once leaves Stewart’s side, so we experience the story solely from his perspective: we see what he sees, feels what he feels. A sumptuous piece of cinematic storytelling. Read the full review here, in which – like every review of Rear Window ever published – I discuss Hitchcock’s use of point of view.

3. North by Northwest (1959)
A foot-to-the-floor adventure movie that sees Cary Grant’s oblivious businessman get caught up in international espionage. The plot is probably the least important aspect (in Hitchcock’s terms, it’s a MacGuffin – something trivial to motivate the characters). Instead, the storyline acts as a gallery space on whose walls hang a myriad of pleasures: mysteries, action sequences, comedy, sex, danger, tension, absurdity, style, panache, excitement, interesting characters, theatrical production design, thrilling incidental music and an enormous amount of fun… Read the full review here.

2. Vertigo (1958)
A profound meditation on the dangers of obsession, this beautiful and deeply meaningful movie – once voted the greatest ever made by a leading film magazine – follows James Stewart’s retired cop as he falls for a psychologically unsound woman played by Kim Novak. The craft on display in the filmmaking is stunning; the way Hitchcock reveals information, paces scenes and stokes emotions is utter perfection. The effect is close to hypnotism, so complete is the grip of the storytelling. Read the full review here, during which I go off on a tangent about how I love cinema.

1. Dial M for Murder (1954)
Beating the magisterial Vertigo to the top spot based on a decision made by the heart rather than the head, Dial M is the director’s take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. We’re in an upper-middle-class world of a moneyed couple who seem at first to be happy, but there are dark secrets within the marriage. The Hitchcockian twist comes from the fact that we viewers are privy to the killer’s plan from the start… Ray Milland’s ex-tennis pro decides to bump off his wealthy wife in revenge for her having an affair. (She’s played by Grace Kelly, one of the most beautiful women ever filmed, so personally I’d have forgiven and forgotten.) We follow Tony as he meticulously plans the crime and blackmails an old acquaintance into doing the deed while he creates an alibi, but then on the night it all goes wrong… Stylish, brilliantly cast, and – as I can attest – endlessly rewatchable entertainment. Read the full review here, in which I argue my favourite Hitchcock movie is essentially an episode of Colombo.

Vertigo and the Obsession of Cinema

Vertigo

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A retired policeman is hired to tail a troubled woman but fails to prevent her from dying. Then soon afterwards, he spots her doppelganger…

Displaying a masterful command of both form and feeling, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is measurelessly wonderful. It’s one of the most exemplary films ever made – a profound piece of work that thrillingly encapsulates what the medium of cinema can achieve. However, there’s been such a wealth of material written about the film since its release in 1958 that a blog like this has no hope of adding anything new. So instead of a straight review, I propose to use the space for something else. It’ll be a personal – some might say self-indulgent – discussion of falling in love with cinema. But we’ll not be going totally off-topic, because above all else Vertigo is about obsession.

Vertigo2

A whirling, swirling matrix of high emotions and dark, dizzying undercurrents, the movie tells the story of former San Francisco police detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart, giving the best performance in a career dominated by excellence). When he’s hired to spy on a disturbed woman called Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak, sensational), he soon becomes enthralled. She’s clearly troubled, and seems at times to be possessed by the ghostly spirit of her own great-grandmother, but Scottie is fascinated and enamoured in equal measure. He saves her from killing herself and they fall in love, but his acrophobia prevents him from stopping a second – and successful – suicide attempt. Weeks after her tragic death, he then spots a lookalike woman on the street and begins to purposefully manipulate her into being a replacement for his lost love…

Early in the film, Hitchcock presents us with lengthy, dialogue-free sequences: we watch Scottie as he watches Madeleine, and we’re sucked into the same kind of enchantment that he’s experiencing. The mood of the filmmaking – slow but graceful and enormously powerful, like an ocean liner – draws you in, seduces you, entraps you, and doesn’t let go. The effect is close to hypnotism. The actors’ performances, Bernard Herrmann’s never-betted incidental music and Hitchcock’s scintillating control of time and space create a trance state – both on screen and inside each viewer’s mind.

The film is addictive while you’re watching it and that sense doesn’t go away afterwards either. It demands attention and cultivates affection, just like Madeleine. The academic Charles Barr discusses this in his book-length analysis of Vertigo written for the BFI (highly recommended: seek it out if you want to explore the movie’s abundant subtexts). In the opening chapter, aptly called Obsession, he recounts several instances of people being drawn to the movie again and again over several years. It’s such a rich film that it not only stands up to being seen more than once, it grows with meaning exponentially. You appreciate so much more with each viewing: the symbolic use of reds and greens; the telling references to San Francisco’s heritage; the subtly of Scottie’s platonic friend Midge; the intricacies of the mystery plot (ie, what’s *really* happening); the way the cutting creates rhythms and conveys narrative information… The more you look the more you see.

Vertigo1

But that’s true of cinema as a whole. If you become hooked, you become obsessed. There are, no doubt, many people who are quite content to watch a film once, take in the surface details, and then move on, never giving it much thought again. (Poor sods.) But some of us – and if you’ve read this far, that probably includes you – realise something deeper. We know that movies are not disposable or ephemeral. (Well, admittedly some of them are: I’m talking the good, the great and the interesting here.) They’re more like the people in your life: each one has a unique personality; they have characteristics and psychology and moods.

Many are like lifelong friends you relish hanging out with again and again, nostalgically riffing the same old jokes and simply enjoying each other’s company. Some are extrovert and brash and shout their glories for all to hear; others are introverts who only reveal their secrets after several encounters. There can be challenging films that require patience and understanding, but you sense they’ll ultimately be worth the effort, while some are objectionable little shits you catch sight of once and then avoid forever. Vertigo is that one-in-a-million soul that evokes love at first sight and total devotion.

VertigoScreenGrab2

In the kind of coincidence that makes life worth living, I was considering writing a blog about how Vertigo could stand as a metaphor for my love of cinema when I stumbled across an astonishingly relevant book in an Oxfam charity shop. Written by a retired insurance broker called Norman Olden, Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan was published in 1991. It’s an incredible example of cinematic obsession in action.

In the mid-1920s, Olden was a teenager living in London who spent much of his spare time in cinemas. Partly as an aide-mémoire, he began methodically keeping track of not only which films he’d seen, but in which venues he saw them, and who accompanied him, and who the leading actors had been, and which studio had produced the film. Before he knew it, he had comprehensive records and anal statistical lists charting *years* of cinema-going. Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan is based on those copious notebooks, cataloguing a habit involving thousands of trips to hundreds of cinemas from 1927 until 1989.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan book cover

Reading the book now is a thing of wonder, especially if you adore this kind of trivial minutia – it’s one part history of cinema, one part social snapshot, one part trainspotter’s ledger. The story is told year by year, beginning before the introduction of talkies, passing through in the Golden Age of Hollywood, taking in the blockbuster era of the 1970s and 80s, and ending with the release of films such as When Harry Met Sally and Dead Poet’s Society. Because he was going to the pictures so often, the number of films he saw seriously began to mount up. Olden was occasionally featured in the press (‘Has Seen 1,890 Films’ ran a small item in the Daily Mirror of 2 February 1934) and he eventually developed an ambition to see 10,000.

This was a tough task, especially as he grew older. British cinemas began to eschew double-features of new releases and, instead, showed the same films for longer. Olden’s free time was taken up by getting married and watching more and more cricket. And, perhaps inevitably, he found that fewer films each year were to his tastes. In one of the book’s more oddball moments, he records a bizarre tactic to reach his self-imposed quota: ‘I was forced to the sad conclusion that if I were to reach my goal of 10,000, I had better attend some double features of sex or porno films. To be truthful, they are not as bad as all that.’ He found German porn films ‘funny rather than vulgar’ but found British equivalents ‘quite pathetic’. He’s quick to mention that he stopped this habit once he’d crossed the 10,000 threshold.

Norman Olden

As well as the relentless recitations of – and opinions given on – films seen across more than six decades, Olden (pictured above) also peppers his book with details of his personal life. We learn about his parents, his jobs, his girlfriends, his wife, his experiences during the war, his holidays, and his love of theatre. He comes across as gentlemanly, old-school and politically conservative (he admits to being thrilled by films like Death Wish because they depict criminals getting what they deserve!). The overwhelming impression, however, is one of enthusiasm. He’s just generally wowed and thrilled by cinema of all forms, of all genres, from all countries; he’s willing to give anything a go, and his enjoyment is infectious.

That doesn’t mean that Norman loves everything he sees, however, and he holds some unorthodox opinions along the way. The rare movies he doesn’t like, for example, include Citizen Kane (‘tedious and pretentious’), The Maltese Falcon (‘my number-one disappointment in all my film-going’), Some Like It Hot (‘another Monroe failure…  I have never thought men in drag the least bit funny’) and All the President’s Men (‘it left a nasty taste in my mouth, maybe because I believe Nixon will go down in history as a good American president’). As he passes through middle age he’s also nonplussed by violent or provocative films, disliking fare such as A Clockwork Orange, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Omen.

Sixty Three Years a Movie Fan page

Given the era his book covers, it’s no surprise that he mentions seeing several Alfred Hitchcock films. His movie-going odyssey, after all, begins in the year that Hitchcock’s debut was released in the UK and ends a decade or so after Hitch’s death. He was generally a fan, and from an early age. Impressed in 1929 by Blackmail (‘England’s first talking picture’), he made a mental note to keep an eye out for its director’s future work. He records seeing Rebecca in 1940; four years later he thought Lifeboat was marvellous: ‘Who can wonder that Hitchcock became a name with which to conjure; he had an unerring flair for filmmaking.’ He says he would have guessed Strangers on a Train was a Hitchcock film and was charmed by the innovative Rear Window. Cary Grant ‘played out an improbable story with immense panache’ in To Catch a Thief, while The Trouble With Harry was delightful and Dial M for Murder ‘an intellectual treat’. Olden was ‘duly shocked out of my seat by the bloody murder in the shower’ in Psycho and found The Birds startlingly realistic.

Sadly for the purposes of this blog post, if he did see Vertigo he failed to mention it in Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan.

One of the reasons Olden’s book struck such a chiming chord with me was that I have my own equivalent record of cinema visits. I assembled it a few years ago, basing it initially on annual lists I’d been keeping in appointment diaries since I was 18 years old. For films seen before I was 18, I’ve had to rely on my memory so those years may not be complete. There won’t be many missing entries, though. I fell in love with films on VHS in the 1980s and trips to the cinema were rare treats indeed. It was only once I went to university in 1997 that I started going more often – hence the habit of keeping records. I now update the list after each trip.

ET poster

If I look over the list now, it brings back so many great memories. I can vaguely recall, as a three-year-old, starring up at the huge vastness of a cinema screen when my parents took me to see E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial during a rainy Lake District holiday in 1982. (I’ve always been very proud that my ‘first’ was such a wonderful movie.) A few years later and 1989 was a sensational time to be a young film fan. Seeing a sequel to Back to the Future was almost unbearably exciting (to this day I have an enormous soft spot for Part II), while I can clearly remember the hearty laughter that the gags in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade got from a packed house in Southport.

The film doesn’t need to have been a classic for my memories to flood back. For some unfathomable reason, I can remember seeing comedy Nuns on the Run with my mother in 1990. I enjoyed it more than she did; I imagine the same would be true if we both watched it again. We used to go to the cinema together quite often, me being an only child and she being a single parent. I owe her a great deal – just generally of course, but certainly in terms of my love of film. As a young child I saw violent and sweary movies such as Aliens and Commando and Die Hard at home on video and my mum never objected because she knew I could handle it. She even occasionally sneaked me into cinemas with her to see 15-certificate films when I was underage. We went to Oliver Stone’s JFK twice because we both adored it so much. We watched Schindler’s List together and were blown away. When I’m on my deathbed and asked to cite the greatest things that have ever happened to me, very near the top of the list will be the fact I saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day on a big screen when I was 12 years old.

The cinema wasn’t always a wonderful experience, of course. I remember being confused by the Michael Jackson vehicle Moonwalker because it had no real storyline. Ghostbusters 2 was vaguely disappointing. My friends and I all thought Drop Dead Fred was dreadful. White Fang was incredibly boring. But the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Sneakers

A year before I entered into my teens, my mother and I moved from Lancashire to Derbyshire. At my new school I soon became pals with two boys called Stuart Oultram and Andy Fisher – the three of us are still friends today – and we began to hang out together, including occasional cinema visits. We adored the caper film Sneakers (pictured above) so much that we went back to see it again the following week. (It’s still one of my favourite movies – easily in my top five.) Three years later, I caught a Bond flick at the cinema for the first time: the amazing GoldenEye, seen with Stuart. I’ve not missed a 007 film since. In 1996, he and I also tried an obscure, low-budget, black-and-white horror called Nadja, which became one of his favourites. It was on at the Metro Cinema, an independent housed in a building on Green Lane in Derby that dates from 1876 – and a place that would soon come back into my life…

In 1997, I moved away to university in Leicester and had a fairly miserable year. Homesick, lonely and not keen on the new friends I’d made, I took to going to the cinema on my own as a way of escaping the darkness. With a National Union of Students card, I could get into the local UCI multiplex for just £3 so ended up seeing some films more than once. I watched As Good as It Gets and The Devil’s Advocate at least twice, Tomorrow Never Dies and Alien: Resurrection about three times each.

LAConfidential

I also saw what instantly became my single favourite film of all time: LA Confidential (pictured above). I was so enraptured by this sassy, stylish, sinister, film-noir masterpiece that I raved about it to my old school friends – so much so that Andy, Stuart and I then went to see it together. Thankfully, they loved it too. I even tried seeing it a third time, again on my own, but two elderly women sat near me kept talking so I left after half an hour. (Oh, the irony: the only time I’ve ever walked out of a cinema and it was during what I consider to be the best movie ever made.)

After a year of unhappiness in Leicester, something had to change. So in the summer of 1998 I switched universities to the University of Derby, an institution based in a city I knew well from living close by as a teenager. My new degree course was Film & Television Studies and – thrillingly for me – it was based in the same Gothic building on Green Lane that housed the independent Metro Cinema. We actually used its screening room during the day for our lectures; then in the evenings it became a public cinema. There were instances of me, essentially, spending all day in the same room.

Green Lane, Derby

As you get older, however, a lot of experiences feel less vital simply because of familiarity. So while I continued to go to the cinema in my 20s, fewer visits have lodged specifically in my memory. There are exceptions, of course. In 1999, my mate Will Haywood and I went to a weekday morning screening of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Unless rose-tinted specs are at play, I recall us both enjoying it. It only sunk in later that the film was drivel. (You can see my cinema ticket below, Sellotaped into my 1999/2000 appointment diary.) The following year, I saw a revival of one of my all-time favourites, Back to the Future, at the Metro and this opened my eyes to the joy of seeing a classic film on a huge screen. I now love seeing old movies at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s West End. It allows you to reappraise, as well as wallow in shameless nostalgia.

PhantonMenacecinematicket

In 2002, at the age of 23, I moved to London and rather fell out of the habit of going to the cinema. There were just too many other things demanding my attention – an exciting job, new friends, being young and having energy, that kind of thing. I made sure to see Bond films when they came around, but otherwise only went occasionally. That fallow period came to an end, appropriately, when Back to the Future was rereleased to mark its 25th anniversary in 2010. I went twice and caught the bug again. Since then, I’ve gone to the cinema every couple of months or so. Nothing to compare with Norman Olden’s multiple-times-a-week strike rate, and I’ve always seen far more films at home than in a cinema, but it’s still a very important part of my life.

Even with middle age approaching fast and going to the cinema no longer being a novelty, I can still be utterly captivated. In my 30s I fell into my current habit of going to see the big sci-fi and superhero movies with my friend and colleague Fraser Dickson. And it was with Fraser that I had the most scintillating cinema experience of my adult life. Just before Christmas 2015, we saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the Everyman Baker Street in London. It was a movie we’d waited a very long time to see and we were both nervous and excited. No spoilers, but the final scene made such an overpowering impression on me – in effect, for a minute or so I forgot I was watching something fictional – that I walked out afterwards in a daze. Fraser did too. We stood on the busy pavement agog. We’re both Star Wars nerds, and had hoped this new one would be enjoyable, but we simply couldn’t believe the movie had been *that* good.

That’s what cinema can do. It can enthral and fascinate, just like Vertigo’s Madeleine. Good and great films rattle around inside your brain long after the end credits have rolled; they can provide enjoyment, entertainment, emotional fulfilment, intellectual stimuli, catharsis, joy or simply a carefree couple of hours.

In the introduction to his book, Norman Olden attempts to explain this. ‘Above it all,’ he says, ‘was the knowledge that for three and a half hours, I was going to escape to an enchanted place where I would be richly entertained, enjoy the comfort and luxury in so many of the cinemas I visited and the good manners of the audiences. I must bless whatever gods may be for my good fortune in having had all these joys at my disposal just at the very time they were necessary to me.’

Isn’t that fantastic? Doesn’t that just cut through to the core of why so many of us love movies? I think it’s his use of the word ‘escape’ that gets me. First and foremost I want films to be essentially trivial. I don’t mean unimportant or not worthy of discussion or lightweight. But the way cinema can distract you from the pressures and problems of real life – give you a respite and some fantasy – has been a regular solace for me during difficult times, and I imagine the same is true for lots of other people. As for Vertigo, let’s ignore this blog’s usual scoring conventions so we can emphasis just what a majestic movie it is.

A thousand men walking past the offices of Gavin Elster out of 10VertigoCast.png

Notes:

Charles Barr’s wonderful analysis of Vertigo is part of the BFI Film Classics series. It was first published in 2002.

Sixty-Three Years a Movie Fan by Norman Olden was published by The Book Guild in 1991, when its recommended retail price was £12.50. I bought a secondhand copy in a branch of Oxfam in Rochester on 6 July 2019. I doubt I’ve ever spent a better £2.99.

You can see my pedantic list of cinema visits by clicking on this link.

Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr)

Creed II

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Adonis Creed climbs to the top of the boxing world, but then is challenged by the son of the man who killed his father…

What does Stallone do? He co-wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa for an eighth time. Sly was 29 years old when he wrote the original Rocky and he’s now in his early 70s: this character has been a lifelong project… When we rejoin the story a few years after the events of the previous movie, Rocky – grey-haired after his cancer battle – is still the trainer of boxer Adonis Creed. The two men part ways, however, when Adonis is offered the chance to fight Viktor Drago – the son of the boxer who killed Adonis’s father during an exhibition fight in 1985. Rocky advises against it, saying Adonis has everything to lose while Viktor has nothing to lose, but Adonis ignores him and promptly comes off second best in the bout. Lonely Rocky is reduced to watching the fight on television in the restaurant he’s been running for the last three films, then is shunned when he tries to visit Adonis in the hospital. Later, after a rapprochement, Rocky takes the younger man into the desert to train for a second bout with Drago…

Other main characters:
* Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has had a bad 33 years since he was defeated by Rocky (as seen in Rocky IV). His wife left him to raise their son alone, and the Russian people sneer at him because he lost a fight that was intended as Soviet propaganda. When he sees that the son of his former foe Apollo Creed is now a champion boxer himself, Ivan flies to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky. He wants Adonis to fight his son, Viktor… Lundgren barely speaks in the film, which is probably for the best.
* Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) is a bruiser of a heavyweight. When not beating people to a pulp in the ring, he works in a loading yard. He has the upper hand during his first fight with Adonis, but is disqualified for hitting his opponent when down.
* Adonis’s girlfriend, Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson, very good), is now suffering from hearing loss and wears a hearing aid. She says her time is running out; she knows she will eventually become fully deaf. After Adonis proposes and they get engaged, the pair leave Philly for LA and have a daughter together, who has to undergo tests to see if she’s inherited her mother’s heading issues.
* Early in the film, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) becomes world heavyweight boxing champion and can hardly believe it. Then he learns that Russian boxer Viktor Drago – the son of the man who killed Adonis’s father during a fight in Moscow in 1985 – wants a shot at the title. Adonis can’t resist the temptation, seeing it as a way of exorcising some ghosts: ‘I can’t let that slide,’ he tells Rocky, who refuses to train him for the event. However, during the resulting fight, Adonis is badly beaten up and knocked unconscious; he only retains his belt on a technicality. He then faces a long recovery period – and pressure to fight Viktor again. At least he makes amends with Rocky, just in time for Rocky to accompany Adonis to the hospital to attend the birth of his daughter. He then gears up for a rematch with Viktor Drago, which takes place in Moscow and is a brutal brawl with both men struggling to stay upright.
* Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) is the promoter who puts on the first Drago/Creed showdown. He goes public with the challenge before speaking to Adonis, then later offers a hollow apology for the theatrical tactic: ‘That’s just what the sport has become.’
* Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) – Adonis’s stepmother, in effect – is pleased to see him and Bianca when they arrive in LA. She even correctly guesses that Bianca is pregnant. But she’s furious that Adonis has decided to fight Drago. She fears he’ll end up like his father.
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen) is Viktor’s mother. She appears at a posh dinner Ivan and Viktor attend, but the latter is angry with her because she abandoned him and his father years previously. It’s a rather pointless cameo.

Key scene: When they arrive in America, Ivan and Viktor visit the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art – a key location that has featured in several Rocky movies. It’s always been a symbol of Rocky Balboa’s success: he ran up the steps while training for title fights in the 1970s, then a statue was put there to commemorate him winning the championship. Now, however, these two outsiders have come to scope the place out: they’re ready to invade Rocky’s world, to knock him and his protégé off their perch.

Review: One of the successes of Creed II is the way the backstory (ie, the events of Rocky IV) feels like backstory rather than fan-pleasing continuity. We only glimpse occasional clips of the 1985 footage, so the events are mostly talked about, and in that context they’re always meaningful for the characters. For example, the fact Rocky could have – indeed, should have – thrown in the towel during Apollo Creed’s fight with Ivan Drago creates conflict 33 years later between Adonis and Rocky. There’s a weight to what’s going on and that makes the film engaging. It’s generally well directed, in fact: drama scenes sock home; there’s a good central cast; it’s occasionally funny and often tender. All this helps distract us from how stunningly predictable the storyline is and how the middle third grows so slow it begins to test your patience.

Seven broken ribs out of 10

 

Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed asks for Rocky’s help in training to be a professional boxer…

What does Stallone do? For the first time with a movie featuring the character of Rocky Balboa, its star didn’t work on the script. He didn’t direct either, but takes a producing credit. Playing the Italian Stallion for a seventh time, Stallone is pretty impressive in this film; the performance reminds you that, for all the clichés about his slurring and mumbling, he’s not talentless. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Creed, and it’s easy to see why… Rocky is now the same age his mentor Mickey was in the first movie and is still running the restaurant he had in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. One day, a young man comes to visit him and reveals he’s the son of Rocky’s old foe/friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is an aspiring boxer and wants Rocky to train him. Rock resists, but is then swayed by the younger man’s hunger and spirit. He trains Adonis at Mickey’s old gym from the previous movies and the sequences neatly echo Rocky’s old regimes. But then Rocky collapses suddenly, and the doctors discover he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, he refuses treatment because he doesn’t have much to live for – his wife has died, his best friend Paulie has died, his son has moved to Canada – but Adonis manages to talk him round. The bond between the two men grows stronger: it’s father/surrogate son, mentor/pupil, friend/friend. The two then prepare for Adonis’s big shot: a fight against the world champion…

Other main characters:
* We first meet Adonis Johnson as an 11-year-old in a juvenile detention centre. Having recently lost his mother, he’s angry and fights with the other boys a lot. He then learns that his biological father was champion boxer Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eighteen years later, and now played by Michael B Jordan, he’s got a boring office job in LA but is also earning cash from boxing in Mexico. Unable to ignore his paternal heritage, he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old pal Rocky Balboa. Rocky agrees to train him, and even becomes his landlord. After Rocky falls ill, their relationship becomes moving: Adonis looks after the older man; Rocky encourages and supports him. They then fly to England for a title fight with champion boxer ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan, which takes place at football stadium Goodison Park in Liverpool… Jordan is terrific as Adonis, taking a character with anger issues and daddy issues and either too much or too little confidence and making him someone real and sympathetic.
* In 1998, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) seeks out Adonis and tells him he’s the son of her late husband – the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She offers the troubled lad a home, and – in an 18-year period skipped over by the movie – they begin to see each other as mother and son.
* ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew) is an Everton-supporting fighter from Merseyside and is the current world light heavyweight champion. His reign is due to come to an end because of an upcoming prison sentence. So when he reads in the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, that an American upstart called Adonis Johnson is actually the son of the revered Apollo Creed, he wants him to be his final challenger.
* Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is Adonis’s neighbour when he moves into an apartment in Philly. She’s a reasonably successful singer and musician – in fact, Adonis only meets her because he bangs on her door to complain about the loud music. They soon become involved romantically. She’s not happy, however, when the news breaks that Adonis is Apollo’s son. He’d been keeping it under wraps, wanting to prove himself rather than rely on a surname, but she feels betrayed. Thankfully she gets over it.
* Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish, who Stallone had worked with on 2008’s Rambo) is Conlan’s manager. He flies to Pennsylvania to pitch a Conlan/Adonis fight to Rocky, which would no doubt earn everyone involved a huge amount of cash. His one big condition? Adonis needs to adopt the Creed surname. Adonis reluctantly agrees.

Key scene: Adonis’s first bout under Rocky’s tutelage is against a Philly brawler called Leo Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Before he enters the ring, there’s the comedy beat of Adonis having to have his taped-up gloves cut off because he needs to take a last-minute shit. Then the entire fight is filmed in one, fluid Steadicam shot that lasts for an astonishing 260 seconds. Beautifully choregraphed, lit and played, it’s the kind of baroque cinema that would have us all swooning if Scorsese or Tarantino had made it. (The next scene has an exhausted Adonis falling asleep on the sofa while watching Skyfall.)

Review: There’s a lovely clash going on here, between Adonis (young, gifted and black, full of attitude and hunger) and Rocky (in his 60s, white, sedate, whimsical and a rather lonely older man who doesn’t understand how the Cloud works). On the face of it, the two characters have nothing in common save for their connections to a man who’s been dead since 1987. And yet, thanks to good, solid writing and two really good performances, there’s a largely unspoken yet intensely strong bond between them. Rather than the kind of schmaltz sloshed all over the similar storyline in Rocky V, Creed makes you care about the characters. The storyline doesn’t rewrite the Marquess of Queensberry rulebook – it’s not far off a remake of the original Rocky from 1976 – but the film punches above its weight. A fine continuation of the Rocky series.

Eight toughest opponents you’re ever going to have to face out of 10

Next: Creed II