By Craig Leask
On an overcast, gloomy Sunday afternoon, when you want to order in some comfort food, wrap yourself up in a blanket and waste away the day watching a film which brings you comfort, there are those trusted flicks which I always return to. These films are my comfort food, my meatloaf and my gloomy Sunday afternoon indulgences:
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (1961-65)
There have been many movie and television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Mysteries with multiple women playing the lead character (Angela Lansbury, Helen Hayes, Joan Hickson, Geraldine McEwan and Julia McKenzie) but my favourite in the role by far is Margaret Rutherford as she brings her own lovable personality to the role.
It is a well-known fact that author Agatha Christie was not a fan of how Rutherford portrayed her heroine, or of her looks. Christie had based Miss Marple on her favorite aunt, both in stature and personality, and Rutherford was no match for either of these qualities. However, Rutherford was loved in England and MGM needed her to ensure the first Miss Marple movie, Murder She Said (1961), (based on the 1957 novel “4:50 From Paddington”) was a success, giving her the freedom to make the character her own. To do so, Rutherford insisted upon wearing her own clothes and ensuring her beloved husband, Stringer Davis, was included in the script. For this, writers created the supportive librarian and sidekick character, “Jim Stringer”.
The theme song, by Ron Goodwin is an energetic melody with a tinny harpsichord sound which sets an upbeat tempo for this first movie and the three that follow; Murder at the Gallop (1963); Murder Most Foul (1964) and Murder Ahoy (1964). To maintain continuity of the series, each movie was directed by George Pollock with scripts developed by David Pursall and Jack Seddon.
Unfortunately the series was limited to only 4 installments, yet these maintain a beautiful flow of consistent elements: atmospheric black and white filming aptly depicting the era; an early murder in a unique setting; a cast of suspicious characters and the spunk-filled and fearless Rutherford, swinging her cape over her shoulders, ready to charge into any situation armed only with knowledge acquired from her insatiable appetite for mystery novels.
Creepy Old House Movies
If you know me you know I am a sucker for big old houses. Throw a creepy mansion in a black and white movie and I’m hooked. So much so, in fact, that I often get so entranced by the setting that I completely overlook acting, scripts and directing. To be honest, it doesn’t matter to me if the movie is a horror or a comedy just so long as it just contains a big old creepy house!
There are all of the original standard classics of course: Nosferatu (1922), Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) and these are all great films and did pave the way for many to follow. The movies that really get me going, however, exploit the haunting and suspenseful atmosphere of a creepy old house and the stress experienced by those unfortunates who happen by.
A few of my favorites:
The Undying Monster (1942) is a relatively unknown horror film from 20th Century Fox studios, made to capitalize on the success of Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man (1941). Although the film lacked strong performances and a clear plot (the viewer doesn’t ever really get a clear idea of what’s going on), the film keeps me coming back due to the fantastic atmosphere created by cinematographer Lucien Ballard. Ballard, with director James Brahm, took a basic werewolf story (where you never actually see the werewolf) and turned it into a visual banquet of gothic architecture, deep shadows and great camerawork.
The Changeling (1980) is a Canadian film based upon mysterious “true” events which surrounded a Denver, Colorado mansion, rented in the 1960’s by playwright Russell Hunter. While living in the home, Hunter experienced and documented many of the alleged occurrences which formed the basis of the movie’s screenplay, including the finding of the antique diary of a child kept locked away by his parents in a hidden attic room. The child’s tale revealed to Hunter though a psychic medium. How perfect is this for a back story!
Headlining the strong cast are George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere and Melvyn Douglas, who deliver and tell a great ghost story centred on the mysterious locked attic room, the séance and the spirit of mischievous forgotten child. The star of the movie as far as I’m concerned is the isolated creepy old mansion at the end of an overgrown lane.
Bob Hope also provided a few good comedy/ghost stories. The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) being two of my favorites. Both have their similarities, including Hope’s partnering with Paulette Goddard in both films, but my preference of the two is The Cat and the Canary. The movie centres on the gathering of heirs for the reading of a will in a New Orleans mansion ten years after a millionaire relative’s passing. The mansion, of course, is tucked away in a foggy bayou and near an asylum where a homicidal maniac has recently escaped. This all leads to a night filled with murder, suspense and comedy.
A few other favorite big old creepy house movies can be found in another article I penned for this site: Haunted House Movies.
There are literally dozens of spinoff Godzilla movies which followed the original 1954 Japanese movie. The original version was followed quickly by Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) which took the 1954 movie and sliced in some English speaking clips led by Raymond Burr to make the Japanese movie more attractive to American audiences. I have fond childhood memories of Saturday late-night television, staying up well past my bedtime entranced by any one of these Monster movie spinoffs, mainly Japanese based and most entitled Godzilla vs. “________” (insert monster name here). You do have to agree, there is a fun camp element to two enormous monsters wrestling WWF style in these earlier films.
For me the reintroduction of the franchise with Godzilla (1998) starring Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo and Hank Azaria, brought back great memories of those Saturday nights, a thrill I still enjoy revisiting today. Although CGI based, director Roland Emmerich presents Godzilla as what I would have thought a radioactive lizard would resemble. The cinematography by Ueli Steiger is beautiful and the action is constant and believable (for the most part). Beyond this, the story is fun too, not taking itself too seriously, punctuating the suspense with satire and one-liners.
Godzilla (1998) was trashed upon its release with many viewers using terms like “hate” and “it sucks”. I do feel though that it’s natural for people to react negatively when they see someone messing with a classic (even if that classic centres on a guy in a rubber suit crushing a model of Tokyo). The 1954/1956 classics deserve their place in history, but I also feel the 1998 version is worthy of a stand-alone assessment, especially now as additional sequels and spinoffs are introduced. Godzilla (1998) was followed by Godzilla (2014) and the soon to be released Godzilla, King of the Monsters (2019) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2020) proving that someone out there believes as I do that there is an audience of people who stayed up late on Saturday nights getting lost in a good old monster movie.
Fool’s Gold (2008)
This one has it all for me: Tropical location, crystal blue waters, brilliant blue skies, and good looking leads all bundled together in a treasure hunt reminiscent of a classic Nancy Drew/ Hardy Boys mystery. Admittedly the movie is pure candy floss disguised as a romantic comedy, but there’s no better way to beat the February blues than to slip Fools Gold into the DVD player on a cold winter night and join the cast for a campy romp around the sunny Caribbean Seas!
The plot is fairly basic: well-built shirtless man and a beautiful bikini clad woman search for a lost treasure in the Caribbean Sea. Add a stunning yacht, a few stereotypical dim-witted hoods, some breathtaking scenery, and wrap it all up in an upbeat island soundtrack and you pretty much know what you’re in for.
The film stars Matthew McCaughey (as the shirtless Finn), Kate Hudson (as the bikini clad Tess), Donald Sutherland (as Nigel Honeycutt, yacht owner), and Kevin Hart (as Bigg Bunny, leader of the dim-witted hoods)
Naturally, most critics hated Fool’s Gold, using terms like “extravagantly stupid” when discussing the movie. But hey, going into this one you know you’re not getting Shakespeare. Fool’s Gold is what it was intended to be – a silly romantic comedy beautifully filmed in a tropical location.
Woman on Top (2000)
Woman on Top is not only the name of this film; it is the basis of the plot of this little charmer. Penélope Cruz plays the main character, Isabella, who suffers from motion sickness whenever she is not in control – be it riding in a taxi (she has to drive) riding in elevators (she takes the stairs) and making love (she has to be on top). Murilo Benício plays her husband Toninho, whom she finds cheating when he acted on his desire for once to be on top in bed. The cast is completed with Harold Perrineau (Monica Jones, the drag queen) and Mark Feuerstein (Cliff Lloyd, the television producer).
The movie centres on lost love, the sensuality surrounding the Brazilian passion for food, and superstitious rituals to the goddess of the sea. The cast is all very pretty (including Monica), as are the settings – both San Francisco and Bahia, Brazil. The story is on the light side, but charming, and the soundtrack of Latin rhythms is beautiful. Despite this, Woman on Top received only mixed to negative reviews, making minimal profit on the $8,000,000 it cost to produce. Perhaps people were looking too hard for the essence of the movie which, at the end of the day, is essentially a fairy tale meant to entertain, not ne
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.