All posts by jdp

Mill of the Stone Women: 31 Days of Horror

mill of the stone women 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature of Mill of the Stone Women Shame:
Unwatched Double Dip! Mondo DVD & Subkultur Blu-ray

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1960’s
Country of Origin: Italy



 

#4. Mill of the Stone Women

mill of the stone women japanese poster

So far my picks for this year’s Shame-a-thon have been top notch entertainment. Four movies. Four keepers. I hope I’m not frontloading this marathon because that would make for a grueling final few weeks of horror movie viewing.

I purchased a DVD copy of Mill of the Stone Women from Mondo Macabro during one of their sales. Shortly thereafter, Mondo offered a great deal on the then OOP Subkultur Blu-ray. In addition to the improved transfer, the Subkultur disc offered a few different features to *totally* justify that unwatched double dip. Totally.

The Italian gothic shocker Mill of the Stone Women keeps the trend of top notch horror flicks going strong with a Hammer-style dose of brooding restraint and Grand Guignol. Allow me to pause one second here for a word from our sponsor.

stop hammer time

Released the same year as Black Sunday, Mill of the Stone Women actually outgrossed Mario Bava’s classic in Italy. In the years since, Black Sunday has become an essential genre staple and Giorgio Ferroni’s film slipped into relative obscurity.

Released on August 30th, 1960, Mill of the Stone women became the first color film released in Italy, which is a useful anecdote for pub trivia and the offhand dropping of impressive film nuggets. But Mill offers even more fun oddities for posterity. In the opening credits, the film gives story credit to a book called Flemish Tales by Pieter van Weigen. As far as anyone knows, no such book exists.

mill of the stone women 31 days of summer

The Story

Borrowing themes from House of Wax (1953), Mill of the Stone Women amplifies the horrific mental imagery of corpses imprisoned in a museum-like setting. A Dutch professor of fine arts and self-proclaimed “doctor” uses the blood from ill-fated women to repeatedly revive his terminally ill daughter. The victims become the centerpieces of his macabre, moving art installation.

In House of Wax, Vincent Price’s madman revives his corpses through painstaking recreation of lifelike detail. Attendees are meant to see a proximity of humanity in the wax figures. Professor Val on the other hand, turns his corpses into a legitimate, representational horror show, like Peter Pan’s Flight at Disney World gone horribly horribly wrong. The bodies are formed into horrific vignettes, rather than a reconstitution of their former selves or famous historical figures.

The haunting visages of the women create a prolonged, underlying sense of unease. The dead-eyes of dolls, the smoky complexions of burned or disfigured women. These images linger and fester just beneath the surface even when they’re not on screen. The psychological horror of Mill of the Stone Women isn’t easily put into words — but it is effective, often more so than the Hammer films which it is clearly emulating.

mill of the stone women 31 days of horror

Though the film relies heavily on seasoned tropes of the genre — coffins, corpses, screaming vixens, mad science — the elements are woven and integrated so that they don’t play like a “how to do horror on a budget” playbook. It’s not that you don’t see the seams of Mill of the Stone Women, it’s that they don’t amount to anything that feels traditional. The film casts a certain enveloping spell. It’s not terror, per se, but an investment in the face-value quality of the horrific imagery.

It’s a skill the great horror filmmakers of the 1950’s and 1960’s had to have in their bag of tricks in order to convey more horror than they were necessarily able to show on screen. That which was felt became more potent than that which was seen. Watch The Innocents, Black Sunday or Carnival of Souls if you need to revisit some concrete examples. Mill of the Stone Women is unique because none of its magic was lost when color shed some light on the darker corners of the film. Less was often more in terms of graphic content and color, but Ferroni’s film plays with the texture of a black and white film — and I mean this in the best possible sense.

mill of the stone women 31 days of summer

Audio/Visual notes:

After a quick comparison of the Mondo DVD and the German Subkultur Blu-ray, there’s not a huge amount of gain in the crispness of the image — but rather the vibrancy of color on a largely grey palette. Note the above image. That yellow really pops on the Subkultur, but doesn’t have the same visual impact on the DVD. If you love Mill of the Stone Women, seek out the Subkultur, but you won’t be disappointed with the Mondo DVD. But good luck tracking down a reasonably priced copy of either.

Final Thoughts:

I’m going to stop just short of saying that I loved Mill of the Stone Women, but I am compelled to watch it again no more than 24 hours after my first viewing. That’s saying something as I’m always inclined to move on to the next new unwatched conquest. It’s just got a quality that belongs to a certain era of horror filmmaking. It’s called effective restraint and patience. Ferroni stared down “plodding” and “pedantic” and weathered poor contemporary reviews to produce a brand timeless terror that likely plays better for classic film fans in 2017 than it did to contemporary audiences in 1960.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 

 


Availability:  

The OOP Mondo Macabro DVD can still be purchased for a hefty price at Amazon. The German Subkultur Blu-ray also seems to be OOP. Your best solution for watching Mill of the Stone Women right now seems to be Youtube.

mill of the stone women subkultur
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2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971) / #4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Velvet Vampire: 31 Days of Horror

velvet vampire 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature of The Velvet Vampire Shame:
Unwatched Scream Factory LE Blu-ray

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1970’s



 

#3. The Velvet Vampire

velvet vampire poster

Euro-trash vampirism makes me weak in my horror-loving knees. Stylized photography. Vibrant colors (usually red, obviously) foregrounded against a muted color palette. Heightened vampiric subtexts. Nudity and sexuality depicted as power, domination over mortal weakness.

Directed by Roger Corman disciple Stephanie Rothman, The Velvet Vampire, only emulated the Euro-styled vampire film. Rothman had written a follow-up to her successful film Student Nurses called Student Teachers, but the producer shifted the focus of the film to capitalize on the success of the European vampire film Daughters of Darkness.

1971 turned out to be a banner year for films of this particular model. In addition to The Velvet Vampire and Daughters of Darkness, Jess Franco released his masterpiece of erotic vampirism, Vampyros Lesbos. Rothman’s film, however, flopped at the box office. She believes this was due to the American audience’s inability to compartmentalize the film as either a traditional horror film or a full-on piece of exploitation.

the velvet vampire 31 days of horror

 

The Story

Doe-eyed Lee Ritter (Michael Blodgett) and his vapid (“vapid” is really putting it quite nicely) wife, Susan (Sherry Miles) join the beautiful and mysterious Diane LeFanu (Celeste Yarnall) at her desert estate. Diane, meanwhile, begins to put the moves on both of them. The couple begins having shared, foreboding psychedelic visions. Diane’s emotional sorcery leads them both to transgression.

Sidenote: The name Diane LeFanu is a reference to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, author of the vampire novella Carmilla that pre-dated Bram Stoker’s novel by 26 years.

The non-existent narrative benefits the more European aspects of the production. The story provides the blank canvas for striking imagery and hypnotic dream sequences. Celeste Yarnall makes the most of this space and all but consummates her love affair with the entranced viewer.

the velvet vampire

That the American audience failed to embrace The Velvet Vampire is not surprising. While Yarnall’s vamp dominates the film with stoic sexuality, the ultimate motivations for her actions serve to diminish her menace and strengthen the character as flesh and blood rather than a self-serving monster. By adding grey to the black and white relationship between the vampire and its prey, Rothman complicated the emotional balance of the film — a development that undermined standard audience expectations.

The film’s sexuality also likely contributed to misapprehensions about Rothman’s intent. European sensibilities would have been far more accustomed to casual nudity as an aesthetic choice. Diane LeFanu uses sex to torment and control her unwilling guests. They are both repelled and obsessed by their host. The lack of graphic sex — despite the rampant sexuality — might have further confused an audience signed up for traditional Corman-brand low-budget trash.

Indeed, the performances of houseguests Blodgett and Miles belong in the realm of moldy and forgotten exploitation. Both turn in off-putting performances that nearly sink the film entirely during the first thirty minutes. Miles, especially, shrieks and recoils with a purposeful commitment akin to reading the TV Guide for enjoyment. The actress reacts the same to every scenario. Getting bitten by a snake? Walking in on her husband having sex with a vampire? Burnt toast? The emotion is called “open-mouthed dullard.”

the velvet vampire 31 days of horror

Audio/Visual notes:

The Scream Factory Blu-ray looks quite good. Colors seem to have been pumped up relative to the DVD and the grain seems entirely consistent with most low-budget films of the era. A few minor blemishes remain — it’s clear that Shout! cared enough to release this cult favorite, but expected only minor returns (if any) on its investment. An ever-present low-volume static rumble mars the soundtrack as a testament to this half-finished restoration job. Fans of the film should not complain, however, as The Velvet Vampire looks as good as it ever will, and a minor hum on the soundtrack won’t deter anyone’s overall enjoyment.

Final Thoughts:

Keep in mind my weakness for this style of horror and gauge the film accordingly. Like my prior Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober review of The Devil Doll, I enjoyed the film’s twists on the formula. While much of Rothman’s film follows the guidebook to Euro-trash vampirism, it’s clear she made this movie with a certain amount of sympathy for her vampiric anti-heroine. Celeste Yarnall’s Diane lives and breathes in ways that the on-screen humans do not. Some artificial art-house transgressions and unfortunate performances detract from the overall package, but The Velvet Vampire has earned a place as a rough and underseen gem of cult cinema.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 

 


Availability:  

Shout Factory released a limited run of The Velvet Vampire on Blu-ray. It appears the Blu-ray is now OOP and selling for upwards of $40. The film can still be found on a Shout Factory 4-film DVD called Vampires, Mummies, and Monsters.


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shout factory logo

 

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2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936) / #3. The Velvet Vampire (1971)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

The Devil Doll: 31 Days of Horror

devil doll 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature of The Devil Doll Shame:
Unwatched Tod Browning

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1930’s
Before 1970’s
Directors 6: Tod Browning



 

#2. The Devil Doll

 

devil doll 31 days of horror

 

Finding an unseen Browning wasn’t much of a chore. Finding an unseen Browning in the watchpile proved to be a little more difficult. I stumbled across The Devil Doll in this Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection. I’d watched the other films in the set, but apparently skipped The Devil Doll. It’s on the same disc as Mad Love starring Peter Lorre, a film to which I’d also give a high recommendation. TCM often plays it during October, so keep your eyes spicy peeled on the calendar. (It’s playing on October 31st, by the way, and The Devil Doll makes an appearance on October 28th.)

Based on the book Burn Witch Burn! by Abraham Merritt, Browning’s The Devil Doll concerns a convict by the name of Paul Lavond (Lionel Barrymore) wrongly accused of robbing a bank and murdering a night watchman. 17 years after his conviction, he escapes with a mad scientist whose work entails creating a formula to reduce people to 1/6th their original size. No one ever calls him “mad” — but trust me, he’s a traditional lunatic. Likewise, most everyone else in this picture. The scientist dies shortly after their escape and his assistant (the scene-stealing Rafaela Ottiano) urges Lavond to continue his work. After some consideration, Lavond agrees, but with the intention of using the formula to exact revenge on the men and former business partners who’d framed him for the original crime.

Lavond’s plan is thus: Dress as an old woman who makes dolls. The She-Barrymore sends these little 1/6th doll people out to kill his enemies and ultimately clear his name. Of course once he clears his name, he’s got that whole weird crossdressing dollmaker thing to explain, but maybe we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Or maybe not.

Tod Browning’s commercial career peaked with Dracula (1931) and he went on to direct the notorious Freaks (1932) a year later. Freaks nearly ruined his career. His post-Freaks career consists of contrition and studio projects of varying value and ambition. I would suggest, having now seen The Devil Doll, that this film represents perhaps his most ambitious and most interesting studio film.

Adapted to the screen by Erich von Stroheim (!) and Guy Endore, The Devil Doll displays a remarkable amount of personal melancholy on behalf of the beleaguered director. MGM only made The Devil Doll because they needed to honor the contract signed by Browning in the wake of Dracula‘s success. As Freaks was the first film made under this contract, it goes without saying that MGM immediately regretted the investment.

devil doll 31 days of horror
She-Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan in The Devil Doll (1936).

Visually, the film’s a bit of a marvel for 1936. The matte effects used to place the “dolls” within the scene and action appear rather seamless. Critics at the time likened the achievement of these effects to that of King Kong and The Invisible Man.

The element that elevates the film beyond standard 30’s horror fare is the relationship between Barrymore’s Lavond and his estranged daughter, played by the always radiant Maureen O’Sullivan. Lionel often had a tendency to overplay these emotional scenes in lesser films, but in The Devil Doll he’s restrained, acting as an extension of the director’s vision for the film as a familial melodrama wrapped in commercial horror. And he’s doing this under a bad wig and old lady rags.

 

Audio/Visual notes:

The DVD image could definitely use some clean-up, and its a shame that his film hasn’t been treated with more kindness throughout the years. Warner Archive has re-released this set in recent years, but I haven’t seen the new discs to know if anything’s been done to improve this original.

Final Thoughts:

I’ve read that filmmaker Guy Maddin considers this a highly influential film, and I can see the relevance to Maddin’s experimental oeuvre that presents an off-kiler narrative with earnest emotion beneath the apparent madness. After my first watch of The Devil Doll, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d just watched. The film mingles so many disparate genre elements that it all seemed, well confused. I let the film roll, starting over again at the beginning. The Devil Doll points us in certain genre-defined directions. I settled in for a routine experience throughout the second half of the film, but witnessed anything but routine. After re-watching the opening twenty minutes or so, I came to appreciate how Browning manipulated his audience and then unleashed something curiously sentimental. In a movie about little people running amuck.

30Hz Movie Rating:

 

 


Availability:  

Warner Archive re-released the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection late last year.


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warner archive logo

 

 

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2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) / #2. The Devil Doll (1936)

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

Caltiki the Immortal Monster: 31 Days of Horror

caltiki 31 days of horror

31+ Days of Horror. 33 Horror Movies. 33 Reviews. Hooptober Challenges and Bonus Tasks.
View my 2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-thon Statement here.

Nature of Caltiki the Immortal Monster Shame:
Unwatched Arrow Blu-ray

Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist:
Decade: 1950’s
Before 1970’s



 

#1. Caltiki the Immortal Monster

 

caltiki 31 days of horror

 

So I’m creeping off the starting gates in the 2017. One might suggest I’m creeping into this Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober challenge like a slightly animated infinity scarf permeating a 1/10th scale model Italian chateau.

caltiki 31 days of horror

I blind bought the Arrow Blu-ray package for Caltiki the Immortal Monster because I couldn’t resist the allure of a 1959 sci-fi monster movie with special effects by a young Mario Bava in a spiffy Arrow package. (Bava shares directorial credit with Riccardo Freda.) Mostly I wondered “Why exactly?” But those “why exactly” wonders often provide more than enough impetus for a viewing.

I snuck this one in on the first day of viewing (September 16th) while the wife indulged in a documentary on ballet dancers — which was oddly, based on the few minutes I watched, more horrific that Caltiki the Immortal Monster. (And she’s the one that says she doesn’t watch horror!) The expedient runtime, therefore, made Caltiki the ideal opening volley in the Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon 2017. Consider the cannons fired.

caltiki 31 days of horror

As special effects coordinator, Mario Bava does remarkable work in transforming a limp rag into an all consuming monster millions of in the offing. Caltiki reportedly offed the Mayans so it’s good at the offing business. This reworking of 1958’s The Blob via Universal’s The Mummy, transports the viewer to Mexico/Central America where scientists have travelled to study reasons for the demise of the Mayan civilization. (So the Blob with a sombrero, mostly. I kid.)

While exploring a cave featuring an entrance to a unique lake/reservoir, one of the scientists disappears and another returns, raving and ranting himself to death. In the 1950’s, we were certainly desensitized to scientists literally dying  from the things they’d witnessed. There just seemed to be a lot of that going around.

A return trip to the cave claims one more explorer and a piece of another but our fearless band of trespassers manages to isolate a piece of the monster to take back for study. The pulsing rag of a monster devours flesh, consumes psyches and feeds on radiation — all the qualities you need for a ripping monster movie.

Audio/Visual notes:

As I’ve never seen Caltiki the Immortal Monster before this Blu-ray release, I can’t speak to the original state of the film, but the version presented here by Arrow films shows remarkable detail and clarity for a 1950’s Italian production. If anything, the disc’s clarity calls attention to the scale models used for scenes after Caltiki grows to tidal wave size. Depending upon your viewing mentality this might prove to be a Bava-licious treat or it might take you right out of the film. However, if you’ve singled out something as relatively obscure as Caltiki for viewing, it’s my guess that you belong to the former group. You’ll also be well served to view the film with commentary because it offers some nice details about the production.

caltiki 31 days of horror
When scarves attack.

Final Thoughts:

Comparing Caltiki directly to The Blob, which predated this film by a year, you’ll notice a couple scenes of relative and surprising shock value. When Caltiki devours its first victim and then reveals a bloody, pulpy skeleton, like discarded chicken bones, it took me by surprise to see such grue in what up until that point had been a pretty run-of-the-mill 1950’s monster flick.

Definitely worth a viewing for fans of Bava and 1950’s horror. It’s interesting to view the film as a bridge directly to the 1960’s when horror films began to take more bloody liberties. Caltiki offers some wonderful old-fashioned chiaroscuro and considered composition. It’s a well-shot movie considering its genre origins. Caltiki serves up exotic variations on established horror films and tropes. Bava works SFX magic during the film’s final ten minutes.

 

30Hz Movie Rating:

30hzrating31-2

 

 


Availability:  

The recent Arrow Films Blu-ray release is widely available, an essential acquisition for classic monster fans and/or Bava completists.

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Save


2017 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Caltiki The Immortal Monster

 

2016 Cinema Shame/Hoop-Tober Watchpile Shame-a-thon

#1. Vampyros Lesbos / #2. A Chinese Ghost Story / #3. The Haunting of Morella / #4. Delirium (1972) / #5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin / #6. She-Wolf of London / #7. Son of Frankenstein / #8. Killerfish / #9. The Bride of Re-Animator / #10. A Bay of Blood / #11. The Seventh Victim / #12. The Fly (1958) / #13. The Fly (1986) / #14. Deep Red / #15. Dracula’s Daughter / #16. Day of the Animals / #17. The Unknown / #18. Kuroneko / #19. Komodo / #20. Tremors / #21. Tremors 2 / #22. A Nightmare on Elm Street / #23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge / #24. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors / #25. Tenebrae / #26. Salem’s Lot / #27. Veerana / #28. House of Wax / #29. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage / #30. Dead and Buried / #31 Ghost and Mr. Chicken

Dick Tracy (NES): Licensed to Kill

dick tracy nesDick Tracy (NES)

Game Vitals:

Released: August 1990 by Realtime Associates on the NES and Sega Genesis. Gameboy and Sega Master System in 1991.

David Warhol founded Realtime Associates in 1986 with a group of ex-Mattel Electronics employees with the intention of developing games for the Intellivision game system. Most recently they released the Intellivision Lives! compilation titles for XBox, Nintendo Gamecube and Playstation 2 consoles.

Realtime has been responsible for a large number of forgettable and memorably miserable licensed game titles. We’ll revisit their ability to “craft” “classic” video games when we get to The Rocketeer (NES) and hopefully even the spinoff from the Warlock (Genesis) films. The latter of which is news to me. These totally overlooked titles based on films completely unworthy of adaptation always intrigue me.

 

Dick Tracy’s August 1990:

  • The U.S. commits naval forces to Iraq, and Operation Desert Shield formerly begins
  • Mike Tyson charged with sexual harassment.
  • George Steinbrenner steps down as Yankee owner.
  • East and West Germany announced that they would unite on October 3rd.
  • Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” rules over the Billboard chart for the entire month.
  • Ghost reclaimed the top spot at the box office on August 5th in its 4th week in release. It would regain the top spot in its 8th week of release on September 3rd.

 

The “Original”:

dick tracy quad teaser poster
Original Cinema Quad Poster – Movie Film Posters

Since the game wasn’t sold to capitalize on the sudden success of the 1931 comic strip or 1937 serial with prepubescent boys of the late 20th century, we’ll call the 1990 film “the original” and carry on with our conversation, ignoring the cries of purists.

Dick Tracy‘s winding path to cinemas began in the early 1980’s when Top Gun scribes Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. began the adaptation of the 1930’s comic serial. Before Warren Beatty became the shepherd of the project, names such as Steven Spielberg, John Landis and even Walter Hill had been attached to direct. Let’s all take a few moments to consider a Walter Hill version of Dick Tracy.

Walter Hill's The Warriors. Imagine them, I suppose, in banana yellow leather vests.

Before Beatty’s Dick Tracy hit theaters in June of 1990, the movie’s promotional campaign suffocated us all with top-of-mind awareness. Anyone remember the following MTV “Be Dick Tracy” contest? How about the Dick Tracy Crimestopper Game at McDonald’s that turned us all into scratch-off addicts. Disney’s MGM Studios even had a musical stage show based on the character called the Diamond Double Cross. Somewhere I’m sure Al Pacino popped out of a Happy Meal having already eaten all of your fries. Insert some line about saying hello to his little friend here.

Disney foisted Dick Tracy up as the tentpole movie of the summer. This, of course, coming on the heels of the success of Tim Burton’s Batman the prior yearThe wave of cinematic comic-book adaptations in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s seems downright quaint compared to the times in which we’re currently living where every blockbuster has its roots in comics or graphic novels.

The most interesting aspect of this 1990’s comic-book takeover was that Batman‘s box office didn’t kickstart a superhero trend; it inspired a reconsideration and reconstitution of all manner of graphic idols. In addition to Dick Tracy, properties such as The Shadow, The Crow, The Mask, Tank Girl, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all made their theatrical debuts in the first half of the 1990’s.

It wasn’t until my recent rewatch of Dick Tracy for this column that I recognized how heavily the film leans on Batman. At one point our titular hero falls through a skylight, and Beatty orients the scene in such a way that recalls the Caped Crusader’s plunge into the Flugelheim Museum to rescue Vicki Vale. Tracy leaps onto lampposts and scales buildings — very Batman activities, just without any style or grace. Even Beatty’s stuntman seems to labor during long distance running shots just to make his performance, relative to the less-than-nimble Beatty, more believable.

batman skylight plunge
In case you missed it, this is not Dick Tracy.

Beatty also tabbed Danny Elfman to score his film. Elfman’s Batman score — now iconic — overlaps his work on Dick Tracy. A close listen will have you wondering if these were merely excerpts of the former score. Naturally, the close artistic proximity of the two compositions will lend echoes of similarity, but close your eyes and in the absence of Tracy‘s garish primary colors you might just visualize Michael Keaton busting Gotham goons.

All this is rather comical (pun absolutely intended) since the original Dick Tracy strip heavily influenced Batman. Batman borrowed the grotesque lineup of villains, the looming and dangerous city as central character, and the vigilante crime fighter character.

dick tracy comic

Overall, Beatty’s Dick Tracy is a weightless, but beautiful reimagining of the original comics. In many ways it feels like a lesser Batman/Who Framed Roger Rabbit hybrid. I wasn’t drawn at all to the Tracy character — Tracy by nature is a pure-as-snow, goody-two-shoes detective, and Beatty’s representation offers no further shading. I was more drawn to the grey areas of Madonna’s nightclub singer Breathless Mahoney. Sidenote: Did anyone else recall that this PG-rated film revealed Madonna’s nipples? Because I’m pretty sure 12-year-old me would have remembered that.

madonna dick tracy

Looking back on the film from 2017, you’ll spend your time admiring the gorgeous matte paintings and makeup prosthetics and less time caring about the blandly two-dimensional narrative. That said, the visual artistry and bold color palette compensate for many shortcomings, and Beatty’s movie remains a testament to the lasting potency of old-school practical filmmaking in the modern era. If only he’d allowed the character more room to breathe away from the comic-page window-frame.

Dick Tracy Gameplay:

Unlike Days of Thunder, I recall having firsthand experience with the licensed video game product known as Dick Tracy. Before I get into my contemporary experience with the game, let’s revisit my feelings from 1990.

warren beatty shampoo
Warren Beatty in Shampoo best summarizes the dead look in my eye after renting Dick Tracy for the NES.

By this point in 1990, Sega had already released its 16-bit, next generation console. (Nintendo’s 16-bit console would not arrive until 1991.) By the end of the year, I’d turned my attention away from buying new NES games because I’d begun scrimping and saving to purchase the Sega Genesis. (That was a lot of mowed lawns in 1990 dollars.) I rented rather than bought most games at this point. The late-era NES decline in overall quality began as developers turned their attention toward the 16-bit future.

So I rented Dick Tracy. I returned it before it was due back at the video store.

dick tracy NES

Dick Tracy belongs to that thankfully forgotten variety of games called “unnecessarily hard as balls,” or #UHAB for short. You begin as comic book Dick Tracy, not as Warren Beatty Dick Tracy. This happened for a couple of reasons. In order for the game to immediately capitalize on the film’s expected box office supremacy, it would have been in development long before story or script availability. Second, can you imagine a game in which you control an 8-bit Warren Beatty? This opens up a world of possibilities. 8-bit John Reed from Reds. 8-bit John McCabe from McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Bud Stamper from Splendor in the Grass.

As Dick Tracy, you must solve crimes. You receive one clue and then you must drive out into the city, avoiding rooftop snipers and other cars, in order to follow up on said clues. Now, since this is a #UHAB game, you only get one life, and each sniper bullet or contact with another car takes you down a 1/2 health star. Did I mention that there are snipers on just about every other rooftop and your car does nothing to protect you? Sure, the car shoots, but it only shoots straight ahead (where there’s — with one exception — nothing at which to shoot) and all the snipers shoot at 45-degree angles! I admire Dick’s steadfast determination to solve these crimes, but maybe his time would have been better spent ridding the city of its rampant sniper infestation.

Dick Tracy NES

If you avoid the snipers (and oncoming traffic) long enough to find the next clue (without a map screen or reasonable sense of direction), you’ll enter a building and begin the side-scrolling portion of the game. Here you’ll realize that while Dick Tracy might have a nimble mind, he’s largely incapable of avoiding oncoming fire because of his lethargic movement, which makes sense in real life, but makes a platform game intolerable. Your best tactic is to run straight at every goon, fists flailing, and hope for the best.

You have a gun. That’s nice for awhile, but of course you’ll run out of bullets. Plus, it’s far more fun to punch people so that they bounce around the screen like a pinball with the super punch power-up. And because you’re goody-two-shoes Dick Tracy if you shoot an unarmed goon, you also lose some life! Yeah! You have to wait until they shoot you to know if they’ve got a gun or not. DID I MENTION YOU ONLY HAVE 4 STARS OF LIFE?!

dick tracy nes

When you run out of stars, OOPS! No continues. No more lives. You have to get all 4 clues without dying. There are life-restoring power ups, but they’re rare and it’s not obvious how to use them. Also, apparently you can restore stars by going back to the police station. SURE! If you can get past the snipers to get there on 1/2 star!

Some games are fun by virtue of their difficulty. They reward with fair obstacles and continued progress through the game. Not so with Dick. The game mechanics — the poor driving, the awkward side-scrolling platform gameplay, the inability to continue — all contribute to my visceral and lasting memory of Dick Tracy the NES game as a complete and worthless pain in the ass.

With infinite patience you could theoretically pick off each sniper by getting out of the car and shooting them on foot. You could. They don’t respawn, but this would take ages. And keep in mind there are four more mysteries/levels to solve in order to beat this game. With another round of infinite patience, you could learn the patterns of attack in the platform segments and eventually track down all four clues and finally arrest your target suspect.

On the other hand, you could also just give it to some annoying kid that you really hate and hope they suffer as much as you did.

My Gameplay Video:

I stepped up my gameplay videography this time around and added a little commentary. I really didn’t want to do one of those angry gameplay videos, because “rage” seems to be the default setting for terrible retro game design. Since we’re dealing strictly with licensed game properties, we already know the game’s going to be terrible. There’s no surprises so let’s just play it as it lies. I needed a supplement to go along with this feature. So we’ll see how it goes and if its worth the effort.

Difficulty: 

Days of Thunder was hard, but generally mindless racetrack circling. Dick Tracy is one of the quintessential UHABs, a legendary time suck that rewards only with blinding, white-hot rage and frustration.

dick tracy nes fail

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Innovation:

It sounds pretty good to find clues and investigate crimes like a real detective! Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego with platform elements. Appearances can be deceiving, however, especially in the world of licensed games. Consider 2011’s L.A. Noire the evolution of this brand of gaming. Even that merely provided the illusion of an open-world detective procedural.

The Modern and Wisened 30Hz Judgment: 

An improved version of Dick Tracy emerged for the Sega Genesis in 1991. The 16-bit visuals certainly helped make the game’s (although lesser) difficulty tolerable. Suggesting that the Genesis iteration was much improved probably won’t sell anyone on its 2017 playability, but if you had a hankering to revisit Dick Tracy, definitely go straight for the Genesis and the ability to use the tommy gun on a bunch of thugs that had it coming.

dick tracy sega genesis

As far as the NES version goes, well… if you must play it, like someone’s quite literally got a gun to your head, holding your children hostage, you must play this to save their life… take a Xanax and settle in for lazy gameplay mechanics and impossible frustration. Enjoy!

 

Verdict:

Children of today will wonder what the hell we were all thinking when 1930’s serial detective Dick Tracy was suddenly all over the place during the summer of 1990. Were we blinded by the yellow jacket? Swayed by omnipresent marketing? Wooed by intense primary colors? Probably. And it was fun while it lasted, though it lasted little more than a few months and enthusiasm had likely already waned by the release of the NES game.

Disney flat out overestimated the market for a new iteration of Dick Tracy, which had been wholly dormant since a terrible Saturday-morning cartoon in the 1960’s. Batman, meanwhile, had remained a pop-culture icon despite his theatrical hiatus.

Looking back on that summer, the would-be Dick Tracy takeover never really happened. The Hollywood marketing machine manufactured a paper zeitgeist. The film received a mixed reception and a lower than expected box office tally. It’s $167 million fell well short of Batman‘s $250 million. And though talks of a Dick Tracy 2 simmered, Beatty claims that the sequel never happened because of a Tribune Media lawsuit.

Revisiting Beatty’s film I gained a new appreciation for the technically magnificent rendering of a live action comic-book world. I recommend giving the film another look. Leave the rest of the hype, game included, for archaeologists to study when they uncover the 1990’s archives and wonder what the hell we were all doing with our lives in the thoroughly confused year of 1990.

Based on conversations I’ve had during the last week, the movie remains a nostalgic benchmark. The film (and Disney’s marketing) imprinted on all of us. As kids of a certain age we’d quite literally never seen anything like it in 1990.

retro gaming licensed to kill

Licensed to Kill returns in a couple of weeks when I once again consider the merits of a game that should have been forgotten. For each LICENSED TO KILL column, I’ll play another licensed game and revisit the corresponding film or source material. I’ll play the game for a minimum of an hour — no matter how excruciating that experience might be. You vote on the titles I play. I suffer the consequences.

Past columns: Days of Thunder (NES)