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DIE, MONSTER, DIE!

"Corbin was invoking the dark powers when he died. Now – his call is being answered...."





  Director:
 
Daniel Haller

  Starring: 
Boris Karloff, Nick Adams, Suzan Farmer, Freda Jackson, Terence de Marney, Patrick Magee, Harold Goodwin, Sheila Raynor

  Screenplay: 
Jerry Sohl, based upon a story by H.P. Lovecraft

Synopsis:  Stephen Reinhart (Nick Adams) travels from America to the small English village of Arkham. At the train station, he tries to arrange transport to his ultimate destination, the house of the Witley family, only for the villagers to display open hostility towards him, refusing even to give him directions. Angry and frustrated, Stephen sets out on foot. On the way, he crosses a strange, blasted heath, where all the plant life is not merely dead, but has been reduced to ashes; and where the earth opens up in a gigantic crater. Arriving finally at the Witley mansion, Stephen finds himself no more welcome than he was in the village: huge signs warn off trespassers, and the only way in is guarded by a man-trap. He persists, however, making his way up to the house – but not noticing that his approach is being watched by a figure swathed in black. Entering the cavernous entrance hall and looking around what seems to be a deserted house, Stephen is abruptly confronted by an elderly man in a wheelchair. Nahum Witley (Boris Karloff) demands furiously to know why Stephen has intruded, and orders him from the house without waiting for an answer. Stephen finally manages to explain that he is a friend of Witley’s daughter, Susan (Suzan Farmer), and that he was invited – by Mrs Witley (Freda Jackson). Even so, Witley tries again to send Stephen away, but is thwarted when Susan rushes downstairs to greet him excitedly. Waving aside her father’s objections, Susan takes Stephen upstairs to meet her mother, Letitia, who is ill. On the way, she shows him some family portraits: that of Elias Witley, who built the house, and of her grandfather, Corbin Witley – who went insane. Stephen finds Mrs Witley confined to bed, hidden from direct light by veils of curtains. Mrs Witley asks Susan to left her and Stephen alone. She then tells Stephen that he is in a house of mystery; that her maid, Helga, first contracted an inexplicable disease, then took to wearing a veil – and then disappeared. Mrs Witley begs Stephen to take Susan away. As she speaks she reaches out from behind her curtains with an imploring hand; a hand scarred and misshapen.... Meanwhile, the butler, Merwyn (Terence de Marney) helps Nahum Witley down into the cellar, where there is an altar, surrounded by mysterious artefacts, and a barred pit containing something that glows with a strange light.... Later, Witley and Merwyn padlock the greenhouse door before, re-entering the house, Witley sees Stephen and Susan kissing. He reproaches Letitia for inviting the young man, but she is unrepentant, telling him frankly that she is afraid. Witley scoffs at the idea that their family is cursed by “the sins of the fathers”, and that no evil perpetrated by Corbin Witley can touch them. Letitia retorts that Witley is becoming just like Corbin – who died invoking the dark powers.... Unmoved, Witley speaks of his dream for the future, a future filled with richness; while Letitia moans that she sees only horror to come.... Witley, Susan and Stephen sit down to an uncomfortable dinner, during which Stephen tries to question Witley about the blasted heath. Witley says only that there was a fire. Susan, however, remarks that after the fir, several villagers disappeared, with no explanation. Suddenly, Merwyn collapses. Stephen tries to help, but Witley orders him away, insisting that he has seen this before and there is nothing to worry about, and they do as they are told. Later that night, after retiring to bed, Stephen and Susan are startled by an unearthly cry from somewhere in the house....

Comments:  One good thing about Did, Monster, Die! is that it makes you appreciate The Haunted Palace. This adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out Of Space is even less respectful of the man than was the film that tried to disguise the fact that he had anything to do with it in the first place; and in place of the anachronistic yet somehow appropriate atmospherics of the earlier film, which at least capture something of the spirit of Lovecraft, here we have Lovecraft dragged reluctantly into the 1960s, with one of his most famous stories reduced merely to the film’s Macguffin. Of the two, I’m sure Lovecraft would rather have not had his name associated with this one – although that said, the actual appearance of his name in the credits, which play over some nicely eerie swirling colours, is one of the film’s better moments. Sadly enough.

If you say so.

The main trouble with Die, Monster, Die! is that it just can’t make up its mind what kind of movie it is: whether it is an eek!-radiation! movie, or a horrors-from-beyond movie. It doesn’t even seem internally sure; that is, whether first Letitia, and then Nahum, are in fact right when they blame their woes upon Corbin Witley’s curse, or whether they are simply imposing their guilt and fear upon a natural, albeit disastrous, phenomenon. Mysteriousness is fine, and so is misdirection; but you like to feel confident that at least the director and the writer were clear on what was going on, and here you never are.

But there are other problems, too, chiefly the screenplay, and the fact that Susan Witley is a completely vacuous nonentity, whose character could be dropped from the film without loss, provided they could come up with an alternative reason for Stephen to visit the Witleys. These issues are not unrelated: Susan is endlessly irritating, even for the useless heroine of a horror (science fiction?) movie. Stephen’s contention that he and Susan met “in science class” made me utter a bark of derisive laughter. You’ll forgive me if I decline to believe that this airhead ever went anywhere near science class, least of all at university level. Note if you will the completely blank way she replies, “I don’t know”, when Stephen asks her why her father forbade her to go onto the heath: it’s obviously never crossed her mind to wonder. Or her puzzled reaction to Stephen’s questions after his conversation with Letitia – “Helga?” – as if the illness and disappearance of a woman she has, presumably, known all her life is nothing to be concerned about – or even thought about.

Then there’s the fact that she is, apparently, incapable of addressing Stephen without calling him by name. I swear that 90% of all Susan’s dialogue in this film consists of either, “Steve!”, “Oh, Steve!”, “Steve, what is it?” or, “Oh, Steve, be careful!” You could make a wonderfully incapacitating drinking game out of it.

GO, KILLER PLANTS! GO!!

But this isn’t the only shortcoming of the screenplay, which has a wearisome way of dragging out every dialogue scene to annoying length. For example, Stephen and Nahum bark at each other for about five minutes before Stephen thinks to explain he was invited to the house; while Letitia just goes on and on and on about Helga’s dropped earring, which really has nothing to do with anything. I complained in The Haunted Palace of too much to-ing and fro-ing, and Die, Monster, Die! suffers from the same sort of thing, in this case too much time spent going up and down the staircase. There are some good moments and some effective scenes here, but it takes a lot of patience to get to them.

And of course, what’s best about Die, Monster, Die! is Boris; dear Boris; elderly and frail and in a wheelchair, but as game and hardworking as ever, and acting everyone else off the screen. You have to feel sorry for poor Nick Adams, who never stood a chance in that particular contest....even as you have to feel sorry for Stephen Reinhart, alighting from a train in the village of Arkham (mysteriously transplanted to the English countryside) to find himself confronted by the unfriendliest bunch of locals this side of Transylvania. Or, perhaps, outside of Wakely: some of those locals, particularly the ones drinking at the pub, definitely have an unnerving, Straw Dogs quality about them.

These opening scenes do manage an amusing inversion of the usual “ugly American” situation, with the villagers being as rude as humanly possible, and Stephen, although justifiably angry, somehow managing to keep his temper despite being rebuffed, having his bags removed from a taxi, and being bluntly refused either the hire of a bike or simple directions. (The genuine Raleigh ads in this scene are a nice touch.) Exasperated, he finally storms off on foot, luckily for him choosing the right direction out of town. His path leads him across a heath where all the plant life is dead, blackened, turned to ashes; and where, (although Stephen doesn’t seem to notice it, there is a gaping crater in the ground.... (The crater itself is realised here via some nice matte-work.)

"Of course I can out-act Boris Karloff. He's a sick old man in a wheelchair, for--- What's so funny?"

The Witley estate proves no more welcoming than either the village or the heath. Ignoring the various threatening signs, and the man-trap, Stephen presses on to the house. The doors are open, but it appears deserted. As he gazes around (and if you’re familiar with the Shepperton Studios productions of this era, you’ll recognise most of the decor), Stephen is suddenly confronted by Nahum Witley – who, I must say, moves fast and silent for an old man in a wheelchair. The two snarl at one another for some time before Stephen belatedly produces Letitia Witley’s letter of invitation – and before Susan’s arrival on the scene renders the conversation redundant. Having greeted her boyfriend ecstatically – “Steve!” – Susan stops to preen in front of the mirror on the landing, giving Nahum the opportunity to drop both his voice and his attitude, and beg Stephen to go away.

Serenely ignoring her father’s rush of jumbled protests, Susan takes Stephen upstairs to meet Letitia. They pause on the way to look over the family portraits, giving us our first ominous mention of Corbin Witley, who “went insane”. Susan then obediently leaves Stephen alone with Letitia, who is confined to bed and conceals herself behind layers of gauzy curtains.

This next section of Die, Monster, Die! is frustrating. The scene of Letitia building up to begging Stephen to take Susan away is intercut with that of Nahum and Merwyn going down into the cellar, clearly Corbin’s old playground (some of which we may recognise from The Masque Of The Red Death), and poking around in a manner meant to suggest that Nahum may have picked up where Corbin left off. However, instead of building tension by this back-and-forth, the editing has the opposite effect. Letitia’s account of her maid, Helga’s, mysterious illness and disappearance is none too coherent to start with, and the constant interruptions leave us feeling as though we’ve missed something. The sense of anticlimax continues when it turns out that Nahum was only down in the cellar looking for a stout padlock, which he uses to seal up the door of the estate’s greenhouse.

"Hmph! Yokels! They wouldn't know good acting from a hole in the ground...."

Later, Nahum confronts Letitia about Stephen, but she is unrepentant. Her attitude makes it clear to Nahum that she is afraid that Corbin – who “died invoking the dark powers” – may have succeeded in doing so, and that this is behind the various mysterious events. Nahum scoffs at this, insisting that any evil must have died with Corbin. Letitia warns Nahum that he is becoming like Corbin, who she watched change from a good, kind man to one obsessed – or possessed. Nahum, however, waves this away, insisting that he is nothing like Corbin; that he never believed what Corbin did; and that a wonderful future is ahead, as long as no-one interferes....

Over dinner, the painful silence is broken when Stephen tries to make some even more painful small-talk. There is the sound of a strange cry from outside the house, and this prompts Stephen to ask about the blasted heath. He gets little joy from Nahum, who only glares; it is Susan who tells him that, according to Nahum, there was a fire. Stephen insists doggedly that no mere fire could have done to the plants what he saw. Susan here adds that after the fire, some of the villagers disappeared. An increasingly agitated Nahum tries to change the subject, but a more effective conversation-stopper is the sudden collapse of Merwyn, who takes the tablecloth, the crockery and the dinner with him. Stephen and Susan hurry to him, but Nahum orders them away, saying brusquely that he has seen this before and knows what to do; that it is nothing serious.

Later, as Stephen leafs through some books that once belonged to Corbin, Susan screams that she saw a dark figure at the window, watching her; but of course Stephen sees nothing. “It’s just your imagination,” he insists, giving Susan more credit for brain-power than, clearly, she possesses. But the agonised wail they hear later, at least, is not imaginary: an overly protracted searching scene (complete with false scare) follows, at the end of which Stephen and Susan are faced by a shaken Nahum, who tells them that Merwyn is dead. Nahum – who has a bloody patch on his forehead – pulls himself together long enough to stop Stephen seeing the body, and to angrily order him away; but once alone he collapses, shaking and frightened.

"One day, Susan, all this will be yours."  "What - the curtains?"

Stephen sees Susan back to her room, but has no intention of staying in his. He creeps back to the butler’s rooms, and from cover watches as Nahum, panting heavily, emerges pushing his own wheelchair, in which sits a wooden chest of about three feet high. As he leaves the house through a side-door, Stephen enters Merwyn’s room, which he finds in total disarray. Upon the carpet, there is a strange mark: man-sized, man-shaped, and seemingly made of ashes.... Recoiling, Stephen pursues Nahum out into the garden, where the old man is burying the chest beneath a clump of trees....

This is probably the most unnerving sequence in the film, not only because of Merwyn’s unspoken, and unspeakable, fate, but because of the obvious, extreme effort that it took for Boris Karloff to get through it. We can question the wisdom of director Daniel Haller here, putting Boris to so much physical exertion; but we certainly cannot question the commitment of Boris himself.

As Stephen looks on, there is a noise from the greenhouse nearby, which is lit with a strange, glowing light. Stephen tries to investigate, but encounters Nahum’s padlock. He rattles the chain sealing the doors while he is investigating, which instantly catches Nahum’s attention. As quickly and as stealthily as he can, Stephen weaves his way back into the house, up the stairs, into his room, and into his bed fully clothed, pausing only to extinguish his candle. Just in time, too: Nahum, with the advantages of a direct route, knowledge of the territory, and his dumb waiter-like internal elevator, is hot on Stephen’s heels. He enters the room where Stephen lies playing possum, staring at him suspiciously (the candle is still smoking when Nahum gets there, but he doesn’t look at it until after it has stopped), but finally leaves.

"Is it Helga's?"

The next morning, Stephen sets off for the village, determined to get some answers from someone who isn’t a Witley. On the way, that black-swathed figure proves it wasn’t just a figment of Susan’s lo-glo imagination in a rather dramatic way, screeching and attacking Stephen with a butcher knife. He manages to fight it off, knocking it to the ground. The veils are partially dislodged in process, allowing him to see that the figure is a woman, that her face and neck are covered with burn scars, and that she is wearing one rather familiar earring....

As Stephen stares in horror, the misshapen Helga lands an impressive upward kick directly into his solar plexus, scrambles to her feet, and disappears back into the vegetation. Stephen reacts to this by, oddly, rubbing his arm, and resumes his journey. He finds his way to the home of Dr Henderson (whose ivy-covered cottage is an even more familiar Shepperton set than the Witley house), and manages to evade the defences of Henderson’s secretary and see the man himself. The prominence of the liquor bottles in the room to which Stephen is shown bode little good (fun fact: Henderson and Nahum favour the same brand of sherry), and the dishevelled appearance and unsteady gait of the doctor seal the deal. Henderson begins discouragingly that he is, not retired, but “out of practice”.

As soon as Stephen starts to talk Henderson guesses correctly that he’s talking about the Witleys – but refuses to say any more, even shrugging off Merwyn’s mysterious death – or rather, washing it down with a couple of large sherries. Stephen grows angrier and louder, but gets nowhere: Henderson simply has Miss Bailey Show him out. Stephen gets a little further with the woman, who is obviously in distress over the direction of Henderson’s life. She does tell Stephen that Henderson was there when Corbin Witley died, and that he has never been the same since; that the official verdict was cerebral haemorrhage, but there was no autopsy – and no funeral; that Henderson was the only outsider to see the body. With that, she does show Stephen out.

So I guess the butler didn't do it?

Stephen doesn’t repeat any of this to Susan, as far as we know, but he does tell her about the glow in the greenhouse, which he compares to something he once saw in a “radiation lab” (?). Susan commits her one useful act of the whole film here by showing Stephen how she used to sneak into the greenhouse to hide when she was a child. Inside, everything is lush, abundant – huge: flowers the size of your head; tomatoes like cannonballs.

As the two look around, the strange cry heard the night before comes again, this time definitely from inside the greenhouse. Despite Susan’s deep reluctance, she and Stephen follow the noise into the potting shed – or what used to be the potting shed. Now in the darkened room sits a cage; a cage containing hideous atomic mutations---

---and OMFG, they are ADORABLE!!!!!!

Sorry, sorry. Sorry, Mr Special Effects Man. Sorry, Mr Model Maker. I know you worked very hard on them, and I know I’m supposed to be terrified and/or repulsed by these evil twisted things that SCIENCE!! hath wrought, but....they’re just so cyoooot!

Anyway – Stephen and Susan are rather more impressed by all of this than I am: 

Stephen:  “It’s like a zoo in hell!”
Susan
:  “A menagerie of horrors!”
Me
:  Squee!!”

Awww.... Mutants-ey!

Inside the potting---I mean, the Boarding Kennel From Beyond, there was a brazier-like object full of stones glowing green. Stephen then remarked – rather casually, I would have thought, under the circumstances (but perhaps he and Susan weren’t planning on having children; we can only hope) – that the whole room must have been bathed in radiation. Now, back in the greenhouse, he pursues that thought, insisting that the creatures are:

“Genetic mutations, probably caused by radiation. It’s a scientific fact that continued exposure to radioactive energy can change the characteristics of living things.”

Ahhh.... I do love me some good scientific facts. Little Miss College-Level Science Student, by the way, is quite taken aback by these unfamiliar notions.

Stephen starts poking around some more, and discovers that in the pot of each of the oversized plants there is buried a shard of a green, glowing, gem-like stone. He observes that they look like they were cut off something larger, and discovers that they give off heat.

Then the penny belatedly drops. “Mother....and Helga,” mutters Susan, backing away, “they worked in here.”

Merwyn, too, concludes Stephen, wondering where the larger stone could be? Susan suggests the cellar. Meanwhile, neither of them has noticed that the greenhouse’s occupants are now moving under their own power, and creeping up on Susan....

YES!! GO, KILLER PLANTS, GO!!!!

"We have to get this to a laboratory!"  "A laboratory? Oh, Steve, what is it?"  "It's a facility where scientific research is conducted; but that's not important now."

But as Susan shrieks and thrashes, Stephen feels compelled to interfere – rats! – grapping a small hatchet and hacking away at the strangling fronds, and then chopping a wedge out of the main stem of the plant – which oozes green. Stephen succeeds in freeing Susan and helps her out of the greenhouse, not the way they came in, but by – in what proves to be a foreshadowing of Things To Come – kicking open the padlocked door. In the house, Stephen goes to search for the “master stone”, refusing to let Susan accompany him and sending her upstairs.

But upstairs, as it turns out, is not the safest place to be....

Prior to all this, we were given a brief glimpse of Letitia, hunkered down in her trashed room, her face becoming alarmingly like Helga’s. Now, as Nahum tries unavailingly to get her to talk to him, Susan arrives, telling him not what happened, but that she and Stephen have been in the greenhouse, and that he is now in the cellar. Equally enraged and frightened, Nahum rolls off, ordering Susan to stay where she is.

Stephen, meanwhile, has survived a terrifying encounter with a Pointlessly Dangling Skeleton, and another with a Bouncing Rubber Bat; but he finds what he’s looking for in the pit in the cellar. Nahum, swift and silent as always, is on him a moment later, but Stephen has seen enough, telling Nahum angrily that unless he gets rid of the thing, all life in the house with end up like the plants on the heath; like Merwyn. But even as the two men are duking it out, Susan screams....

Stephen and Nahum rush back, one up the stairs and the other in his elevator. They find Susan just coming out of a faint, and able to utter only one word. (Ten bucks says you can’t guess what it is.) It turns out that Letitia is now on the loose. The three start a very slowww search, just as a handy storm breaks, so there’ll be lots of banging doors and flying curtains and other false scares before their quarry finally puts in an appearance, leaping out from behind a door in properly mutated form. Stephen and Susan run – sigh – back downstairs, locking themselves in another room and watching in horror as the surprisingly spry and powerful mutation kicks her way through the door.

Remember, kids: slip, slop, slap.

Mutant Letitia attacks Steve, and as he tries to evade her, she plunges through the French windows and out onto the balcony – where, you remember, it’s raining. And if the movies have taught us anything, it’s that nothing takes care of those pesky atomic mutations like a good shower of rain. Mutant Letitia collapses on the floor, and promptly dissolves in a suitably icky way.

Nahum arrived in time to witness this, and concludes that Letitia was right all along: the stone is not in fact a mysterious blessing, but Corbin’s curse incarnate. He admits this to Stephen after Letitia’s burial, which looks, if you follow me, as though it might have been purely a family affair. Nahum also tells Stephen about the morning the stone came screaming through the sky to crash and bury itself on the heath; and how the next day, the heath was covered with an impossibly lush vegetation; and how he dreamed of using the stone to turn this naturally barren region into a place of beauty, and redeem his family’s name....

Nahum asks Stephen to take Susan away (characters in this film ask for Susan to be taken away almost as often as she bleats, “Steve!” – understandably), while he stays behind to destroy the stone. Susan protests but Nahum is determined. “Go away!” he tells her. “Go away!”

Yeah, she has that effect on me, too.

But of course, they don’t really go away, because what kind of ending would that give us? They go inside so that Susan can pack. Slowly. Nahum, however, does make it down to the cellar, and has given the stone one good whack with an axe when he is interrupted by – Helga! – still wielding that butcher knife. There’s a rather geriatric struggle, in which Helga does lose the knife, but scores Nahum’s axe. He staggers back against the open pit – in which the stone all this time has been, well, sparking – and Helga lines up for a good swing. Nahum ducks, though, and Helga goes head-first into the stone – BLAMMO!!

It's not easy being green.

That takes care of her, but unfortunately for Nahum, his last desperate move left him with his face hanging over the pit, which turns out to be....not so good for the complexion. First he turns a shade of green, but by the time Stephen gets there – and has a good look into the pit, to no ill-effect; the radiation must have dispersed, as it does – Nahum has mutated into a weird, silvery-green, bug-eared kind of critter, who very properly goes on a murderous rampage. Not that he does murder anyone, of course, but the spirit is certainly willing.

Stephan manages to evade Mutant Nahum and runs out of the cellar, locking the door behind him – which gives Mutant Nahum his chance to kick through a door. He pursues his quarry upstairs to where Stephen and Susan are behind another locked door, which also gets kicked through.

(Are we detecting a pattern here?)

Silvery Surfery squares off with Stephen to start with, but he’s really after Susan, and he stalks towards her menacingly as she cringes back against a wall. (All those repressed feelings coming out at last, hey, Nahum?) Stephen yells, “No!” and pitches a small ornamental axe between the two of them, which nearly hits Susan. (All those repressed feelings coming out at last, hey, Stephen?) This at least gets the Tinfoil Terror’s attention, and he and Stephen go for Round #2. This creates a chance for Susan to make a break for it, at Stephen’s urging, which she does really badly. She only makes it as far as the landing near the staircase before the Day-Glo Demon catches up with her – probably because she keeps stopping and looking over her shoulder – but fortunately or unfortunately according to your point of view, he overshoots the mark, crashing through the astonishingly flimsy balustrade and falling to the floor below.

Eventually, Susan's vagueness began to rub off on those around her.

Susan is so very shocked by this that somehow she manages to fall off the edge of the landing – YES!! – but catches herself on the edge of the break – NO!! As Stephen hauls her up, sigh, Nahum’s body, like the stone, goes up in what is very distinctly an electrical fire – with some firecrackers thrown in (?) – just so that the house can go up in flames in the way that by this point in AIP’s Poe / Pseudo-Poe / Pseudo-Lovecraft / Lovecraft Cycle was, I’m reasonably certain, a union requirement.

Stephen and Susan do pause out on the lawn for the traditional summing-up, during which Stephen asserts that “in the correct scientific hands” [sic.] Nahum’s discovery could have been beneficial, but that Nahum’s decision to try and use it for personal reasons, to redeem the family name, brought on the tragedy.

“Come on, Susan,” he concludes. “We’re going, and we’re not going to look back.”

That’s what you think, pal: you left your passport in there.

And oddly, after wrapping up with the kind of closing speech that usually is found in a science fiction film, Die, Monster, Die! chooses to give us a final look at Corbin Witley’s portrait. Ambiguity – or just plain confusion? You be the judge.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you - a genuine Elder (Movie) God.

For all that this was the first film to give him full credit, there is precious little of The Colour Out Of Space in Die, Monster, Die!, and still less of H.P. Lovecraft himself. While the set-dressing of the cellar and the distinctly Boris-ian Witley family portraits go give the film some atmosphere, ultimately the Corbin Witley Alterna-Plot feels tacked on rather than organic, and the film generally captures very little of the essence of its originator. Die, Monster, Die! was received rather tepidly, as it deserved to be (Boris excepted), so what might have been AIP’s attempt to find a replacement for Roger Corman’s Poe series, which he had signed off with a flourish only a few months earlier with The Masque Of The Red Death, never eventuated.

Ironically, however, when AIP were finally ready to take another crack at Lovecraft, Roger himself would act as the film’s executive producer – which may be why The Dunwich Horror tends to follow the structural pattern of the Poe films, although without any of their sense of unity – or purpose. I can say that The Dunwich Horror puts more of its author on screen than Die, Monster, Die!, but as we’ve seen, that isn’t saying much. Like the Elder Gods themselves, H.P. Lovecraft would just have to wait, and wait, and wait, for the long-distant day when the right acolyte finally came along....

Want a second opinion of Die, Monster, Die!? Visit The Bad Movie Report and 1000 Misspent Hours - And Counting.

Footnote: At least we all seem to have been watching the same movie this time:

 

 

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----posted 28/02/2011