Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ode To the Bitter Tears of a Lycanthrope :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Henry Levin's Cry of the Werewolf (1944)

Rumors have long circulated in the city of New Orleans about the most infamous resident of the LaTour mansion, namely Marie LaTour, who, as the legend goes, was of royal gypsy blood and, wait for it, also a werewolf. [Insert stock wolf-howl here. You know the one I’m talking about.] This revelation comes in the form of a flashback, where her god-fearing husband decides to confront his wife with these rumors, which are confirmed when the lady of the house transforms into an unearthly beast (well, sort of,) and mauls him to death. After, Marie LaTour was said to have escaped into the bayous and swamps surrounding the crescent city, never to be heard from again.

Now, some twenty years later, the LaTour mansion has been transformed into an ersatz museum of the macabre by a Dr. Charles Morris (Leiber), only one part of his obsession over the mystery of Marie, her alleged lycanthropy, and her ultimate fate. And the movie proper gets up to speed with the last guided tour of the day, that starts in the eastern European vampire exhibit, then a mock-up of an ancient Egyptian tomb (complete with mummy), before moving on to a crash-course on voodoo and zombies, and then ending in the preserved bedroom of Marie LaTour, herself, which we recognize as the same room where she murdered her husband. And as the tour wraps up, Morris' assistant, Ilsa Chauvet (Massen), checks in with the boss, who is about to reveal a startling breakthrough in his research. In fact, he believes he has found the final resting place of Marie, but wants to wait until his son arrives before spilling the beans. Thus, Ilsa heads to the airport to pick him up, leaving Dr. Morris behind to cross a few last Ts in his journal.

However, unbeknownst to Morris and his senior staff, the real reason one of the janitors, Spavero (Triesault), asked to cut out earlier that day, was so he could make a beeline to a large gypsy camp somewhere outside the city limits, where he seeks out their leader, Princess Celeste (Foch), who also just happens to be Marie's equally long-lost daughter. Here, Spavero confides that Morris has most assuredly found the secret crypt which holds the remains of her mother hidden somewhere inside the mansion. And that's why Celeste was part of that last tour, who quietly remained behind in the bedroom as the rest of the group moved on. Once alone, she trips open a hidden entrance to a secret chamber behind the fireplace and enters, laying a trap for Dr. Morris, who is about to find out that Celeste inherited more than just her mother's features and title -- something far more sinister, and deadly...

While Carl Laemmle Jr. and Universal drained the blood out of the box-office with their monsters, horror, and Gothic melodramas of the 1930s, strangely, their rival studios only made token efforts to cash in as they franchised out. The Brothers Warner drummed up Dr. X (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Paramount took us on a tour of The Island of Lost Souls (1932) and unfolded the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), and while RKO seemed content with King Kong (1933), MGM tried and died with Freaks (1932), and Fox, well, they essentially washed their hands of the whole gruesome business.

Meantime, after a lot of digging, the only real "horror" entry I could find for Columbia in that initial pre-code wave was Roy William Neill's Black Moon (1934). Coming on the heels of White Zombie (1932) and setting the template for Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943), this Caribbean island tale tells of a New York socialite (Dorothy Burgess), who is plagued by dreams of her time spent on Haiti, where she was raised by a voodoo priestess after her parents were killed under dubious (sacrificial) circumstances. Encouraged by her husband (Jack Holt) to meet these fears head on, the wife returns to the island where she suddenly finds herself once more under the influence and promoted to voodoo queen, with her husband, daughter, and most likely the nanny (Fay Wray) meeting the same fate as her parents, a blood sacrifice, during the next full moon.

But that was about it for Columbia until they snatched Karloff from Universal (after a layover at Monogram) for a series of science gone awry programmers, which all basically followed the same plot with Karloff's character exacting some form of preternatural revenge on those who wronged him, starting with The Man they Could Not Hang (1939) and ending with The Devil Commands (1941) with three more films jammed in-between. Beyond that, the studio seemed content to rely on their serials or the serialized adventures of The Crime Doctor and Boston Blackie for their thrills and chills and bottom bills; that is they were until the release of The Return of the Vampire (1943) and Cry of the Werewolf (1944).

Both films were a deliberate cash-in on rival studios' product. The Return of the Vampire was a shameless grope at Universal's current monster rallies, and is rightfully noted for the rare occasion where Bela Lugosi actually played a vampire on screen. By no means great, I do dig the film quite a bit, mostly for its wartime setting (-- the graveyard where the once vanquished vampire was buried took a hit during the blitz, dislodging the stake from his heart, resurrecting him), the wildcard werewolf, and its female take on Professor Van Helsing (Frieda Inescort). Meanwhile, Cry of the Werewolf, was more of a clumsy collage of several elements cribbed from the series of suggestive "psychological" horror films Lewton and Tourneur were mass-producing at RKO, essentially taking The Cat People (1942 -- with Massen ably subbing in as a Teutonic Simone Simon) and The Leopard Man (1943) and putting them in a blender. And while all the familiar elements may be present and identifiable, director Henry Levin's final concoction doesn't quite taste the same -- like it was filtered through a used gym sock.

Speaking honestly, Cry of the Werewolf's biggest problem lies with the cast. Well, one cast member, and the film might have really had something here if Stephen Crane wasn't such a drip as the younger Bob Morris, who, alas, turns out to be the designated hero of our piece as he takes up the case when he and Isla return home to find his father missing, what's left of his journal smoldering in the fireplace, and then hear some strange gibbering coming from Marie LaTour's bedroom. This, turns out to be the tour guide, who heard the elder Morris screaming and came to his aid in the opened secret chamber, where he witnessed a wolf murder his boss and then change back into Celeste, leaving him a few cans short of a six-pack.

The poor guide is quickly ruled out as a suspect when his fingerprints fail to match those found near Morris’ body in the otherwise empty chamber. But, police Lieutenant Lane (MacLane) says the prints belong to a female, making Ilsa the new prime suspect since she was also the last person to see Dr. Morris alive. But her prints don’t match either, sending Lane back to square one, leading us to the film’s second biggest flaw, with the police investigation providing the comedy relief, which borrows heavily from another Columbia staple, The Three Stooges, as all that was missing was for Lane to start poking his trio of underlings in the eye or bopping them on the noggin’ before ordering them all to spread out, nearly turning this whole thing into Cry of the Woob-Woob-Woob-Woobwolf *n’yuck-n’yuck-n’yuck* ... 

"I said spread out!"
*ahem* Anyhoo …Adding more confusion to this forensic pile are some strange paw prints and traces of fur that the lab identifies as coming from a wolf. But despite Bob’s pleas about his father’s research into lycanthropy, and his and Ilsa’s efforts to salvage what they can of the immolated journal, and the fact that the medical examiner lists the cause of death as an animal attack, Lane will hear none of it and focuses, instead, on his latest prime suspect, Spavero, who seems to have disappeared -- that is, until he turns up dead, too, butchered in the same fashion.

Seems Celeste felt the janitor was a loose end that needed to be tied up. Unfortunately for her, Bob and Ilsa are able to salvage enough pages of the journal to make a connection between Latour and a tribe of gypsies from Transylvania, who migrated to the States. Turns out those gypsies are from the same area where Dr. Harris found Ilsa, making her a fount of information on Carpathian folklore and assorted oogie-boogies. But this does little to protect Bob when his investigation leads him to a funeral parlor frequented by the gypsies, where he bumps into Celeste, who sneaks a totem into his pocket, placing him under a love spell, in an effort to derail his investigation. Luckily for Bob, Ilsa recognizes a fetish doll when she sees one.

Cut to the gypsy camp, where we discover Celeste is a reluctant monster, forced to bear the weight of her mother’s curse. Turns out her feelings for Bob were more than strategic, but when that all falls apart thanks to Ilsa, with the encouragement of her second in command, Celeste is determined to keep her mother’s hidden crypt within the secret chamber undisturbed forever. And if that takes the death of Bob, and if, say, Ilsa gets hypno-whammied into thinking she’s the werewolf and framed for the whole string of murders, then, so be it.

Both Return of the Vampire and Cry of the Werewolf were written by Griffin Jay, the latter with an assist from Charles O’Neal, who had scripted The Seventh Victim (1943), explaining the Lewton influence. Jay’s first credited work was a Three Stooges short, Three Little Pigskins (1934), and from there he penned some two-fisted Don Winslow movies and unraveled Universal’s mummy franchise with The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Tomb (1942) and Ghost (1944), which would explain ah-lot of the tonal inconsistencies found here as the writer tried to jam too much into the narrative. So much so that, by the end, the wheels were already long gone and this thing was off the track and pretzeling itself, which kinda short-changes an otherwise fairly gruesome climax.

The efforts of director Levin, making his debut, doesn’t help all that much. There are a few effective sequences, especially a scene where Celeste stalks Bob through the basement of the mortuary, where the echoing clack of her high heels keep getting closer and closer and then abruptly shifts to the sound of padded feet as she closes in for the kill. 

Speaking of feet, fair warning, Levin likes him some low angle shots of gams and feet moving around. I mean, LIKE, like.

As for the werewolf itself, perhaps in an effort to save costs all transformations are done with morphing shadows or take place off-screen; and the “monster” was played by an actual wolf. Well, except for the final fight between Celeste and Bob, when a stunt-German Shepherd was brought in for the hand-to-paw combat. The use of an actual wolf is actually kinda cool in my book, which wouldn’t be used again until, what? The Company of Wolves (1984)? However, one should note the application of what I think is a rubber band wrapped around the wolf’s upper snout, causing it to snarl involuntarily. At least I hope that was a rubber band and not piano wire. *sheesh*

On the acting side, again, Crane is a complete waste of time. Checking out his IMDB credits, he was destined to wash out of filmmaking just three films later. No surprise there. Pulling double-duty, Nina Foch played the victim in Return of the Vampire and shows some range in Cry of the Werewolf when she breaks down under the weight of her heritage, never having asked to be born into it. Now, I loved Barton MacClane in those old Torchy Blane movies, as he was the perfect foil for motor-mouth Glenda Farrell. Here, he doesn’t fare nearly as well. Osa Massen was another one of those European imports made by studios looking for their own version of Greta Garbo. Her career never took off, perhaps hampered a bit by an accent that never went away, but she paid her dues in a couple of outstanding film noir [A Woman’s Face (1941) and Deadline at Dawn (1946)] before becoming a pioneering astronautix in Kurt Neumann’s Rocketship X-M (1950), part of the first wave of science fiction films of the 1950s.

Columbia Pictures would fare better in genre films in the 1950s and ‘60s with their share of Hammer imports [Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Gorgon (1964)], most notably a string of mini-Hitchcocks shot in glorious black and white [Scream of Fear (1961) Cash on Demand (1961)], the gonzo films of William Castle [The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960)], and the completely whackadoodle sci-fi horror hybrids of Sam Katzman [Creature with the Atom Brain (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Werewolf (1956), The Giant Claw (1957)].

But there wasn’t a whole lot there in the 1940s between that boom and Cry of the Werewolf. No, where Columbia would really leave its mark in this era would be on the small screen with the formation of Screen Gems, their TV subsidiary, which eventually acquired the broadcast rights to 52 horror films from Universal and packaged them off as part of a syndicated Shock Theater package, which conjured hundreds of local TV horror hosts and spawned a whole new generation of fans, and for that alone we monster movie fanatics should be eternally grateful.

As for Cry of the Werewolf, eh, it ain’t that terrible but it does gets worse and more convoluted as it goes along; and by the climax we breach some sort of Stooges Hyper-Overdrive as the comedy relief of the police investigation crashes head-on with the melodrama of the leads, leaving no survivors. A sterling example of “if only they’d done this” or “focused on that” and then “it might’ve been more memorable.” Maybe even great. Well, make that "not half bad."

Cry of the Werewolf (1944) Columbia Pictures Corporation / P: Henry Levin / D: Henry Levin / W: Griffin Jay, Charles O'Neal / C: L. William O'Connell / E: Reg Browne / M: Mischa Bakaleinikoff / S: Nina Foch, Stephen Crane, Osa Massen, Barton MacLane, Ivan Triesault, Fritz Leiber

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Favorite Scenes :: Frank King Spells it Out, Rather Simply, in Jay Roach's Trumbo (2015)

Finally watched Trumbo (2015) last night and, wow. In a movie full of great characters, characterizations and scenes, I think my favorite is when John Goodman (as schlockmeister, Frank King,) loses his shit and takes a bat to some Red-baiting bureaucratic weasel, officially turning the tide against The Blacklist, and it's a thing of pure beauty:

"I don't think you and me are gonna be pals. Wanna keep me from hiring union? I'll go downtown, hire a bunch of winos and hookers. It doesn't matter. I make garbage!"

"You wanna call me a pinko in the papers? Do it! None of the people that go to my f*cking movies can read!"

"I'm in this for the money and the pussy and they're both falling off the trees! Take it away from me. Go ahead. I won't sue you."

"But this will be the last f*cking thing you see before I beat you to death with it."

Also, also, Bryan Cranston isn't getting nearly enough love for his performance as Donald Trumbo. I was pulling for Damon (The Martian) over DeCraprio (The Revenant), but now I'm embracing the true underdog. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Recommendations :: The Revenge of the Son of the Curse of the Ghost of the Tomb of the What I've Been Watching and So Should You Walks Among Us.

Lets kick this off by catching up some films I saw in the theater last year, starting with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), which I felt was a ton of fun. Not spectacular, but solid and satisfying. It's also a fantastic period piece with a firm sense of time and place, with plenty of memorable action set-pieces that remind you why we fell in love with these kind of spy shenanigans in the first place. And with all of this told through Guy Ritchie's non-linear, montage heavy filter, the film is a visual delight. The leads have great chemistry together (Cavill, Hammer and Vikander, with a huge fourth quarter boost from Hugh Grant), and the villains are sufficiently diabolical and worthy opponents. All told, I think the best endorsement I can give this is I hope they make a whole lot more of these. Alas, judging by the box-office that isn't going to happen. Too bad, all involved deserved better.

And a funny thing happened while I sat alone in the theater and took in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015), the latest offering of this found-footage fright-fest franchise. As I watched, lamenting the fact that this is what cinematic horror has been reduced to -- an audience watching a tape of another person watching another tape -- the film kinda dug in its heels and I found myself kinda digging it. Full confession, I've only seen the first Paranormal Activity (2007) and enjoyed it enough and so I have no idea how this last one relates to what came in-between that led us here, but, I liked how they linked the present to the past in the multiple levels of found footage. Beyond that, same old jump-scares executed well enough wrapped around a family trying to save their youngest daughter from a malevolent entity looking to cross-over into this dimension. And as it ended (just as predictably as you'd imagine), and I was gathering up my coat, I thought this would've/could've been a much better, re-imagined remake of Poltergeist (1984) than the tepid remake we actually got. Might have done better with one less voyeuristic layer but color me pleasantly surprised -- with the friendly caveat that my exceptions were hovering at rock bottom going in.

Speaking of low expectations; it wasn't great by any stretch, but I did find Sinister (2012) interesting enough with a nice intriguing twist on the tired found footage genre, despite the completely bonkers ending, to merit checking out the sequel, Sinister 2 (2015). Unfortunately, one of the things I really liked about the first one was the tangled web 'o' mystery the protagonist was unraveling about the demon that was possessing children and turning them into family annihilators. And without that mystery, the sequel is nothing but a series of Junior Faces of Death snippets as another young family member comes under the influence. Nice quirky method performance by James Ransone as the ex-deputy from the first film, returning as the resident authority and Bughoul-Buster. Not that terrible as far as these things go. I did laugh more than I jumped, but that might say more about me than the film.

And then there's The Gallows (2015), which had a few moments but was generally pretty terrible. Still, it was worth the matinee ticket price for the theatrical experience, which began before the movie even started. See, as I sat there waiting for the trailers, the manager came in asked for the IDs of the two girls sitting behind me. (The only other people in the theater, 'natch.) They didn't have any, and so, he escorted them out, saying this movie was R-Rated. (Having now seen it, I have no idea why. No blood. No gore. No nudity. No foul language. No scares. No characters. No plot etc. etc. etc.) A little bit later, when the lights went down and the second trailer started, the same gals came back in, and I'm thinking, 'good luck', believing they're trying to sneak back in. But as they rush to their seats, in putters this old lady, who turned out to be one of their grandmas, serving as their parental guidance. To this, I giggled, remembering how my own grammy took me to see Police Academy 2 (1985). Anyhoo, when the film ended, and they filed out, Granny was flying with opinions, loudly exclaiming the only person who had to die was the jerk with the camera and his snooty girlfriend, while her charges just couldn't believe the movie didn't scare her as much as it scared them. Oh, poo, she says. I love you, Granny escort.

Meanwhile, back in the basement on the smaller screen, imagine, if you will, an alternate universe where Timmy Lupus blew the catch and cost the Chico’s Bail Bonds Bears the little league championship, and then the other Bears go all Guantanamo on him with a revenge prank that goes too far. Cut ahead to some twenty years later, and now, someone decked out in catcher’s gear and a tricked out bat embedded with nails and a retractable blade starts systematically murdering all of their former teammates to avenge this misbegotten deed. That’s right, Billy Club (2013) is, essentially, The Bad News Bears the 13th. Points to a script that portrays these adult versions of the players as the forgotten verse of Springsteen’s “Glory Days”, all never-weres gone to seed, and for the Tales from the Crypt twist as to what the killer does with all the bodies, which when combined with a couple of hilariously memorable kills helps make up for a slow start and an extremely confusing back-story that goes to motive that is metered out very judiciously via a multitude of flashbacks. And when the killer is finally revealed, I fear I missed something as to who that character was all along or the other characters were even more stupid than I thought. So, rock stupid, yes, but enjoyable enough for what it is.

Entertaining and gruesome enough, Howl (2016) is a creature feature that finds a small group of British train passengers on the red-eye, who get stranded in the forest when something blocks the tracks and damages the engine. But the real problems start when what blocked the tracks essentially springs the rest of the trap. So, as the full moon shines above, we got spam in a train below with a pack of werewolves wrapped around a fairly generic tempest without, crisis within plot. Characters aren't anything you haven't seen before but are fleshed out enough that you want some of them not to get eaten and others to be devoured ASAP. My only real beef with the flick is the design of the creatures, which were pretty good from the neck down but the neck up didn't really work for me. Tried to be different, but the critters come off more a combo were-orks and Zuni fetish doll that garnered a reaction the filmmakers p'rolly weren't shooting for. Definitely worth a spin, just keep your expectations where the conductor can see them.

Who knew the world needed a Dom DeLuise, Jimmy Walker and a talking monkey movie? I do believe Going Bananas (1987) was my first venture into what passes for Cannon Films' attempt at a child-friendly comedy; and just like everything else the Go-Go Boys did your only salvation comes in clinging onto the blundering, gung-ho manner of the execution of some extremely incompetent material. Always the trooper, and genuinely funny, DeLuise salvages a lot of this mess. And spare a moment for poor Herbert Lom as the villain, who bears the brunt of the full frontal komedy. Apparently, the film was supposed to star Clyde the Orangutan from Every Which Way But Loose (1978), but he kept biting his co-star, and so, a midget in a monkey suit quickly replaced him. (His voice is like nails on a chalkboard.) Pretty terrible, and not in a good way, and the final indictment is when after I felt the film had been going on for forever and had reached a logical end point, I checked to see how much time was left and found there was still 45 minutes, half the film, yet to come. I conquered this turd mountain of a movie because it was there and you would be foolish to follow.

It's kinda like The Warriors (1979), if the Warriors were transgendered crack-addicted prostitutes looking for a pimp instead of getting back home, with sun-drenched LA subbing in for the neon night of NYC as scripted by Jim Jarmusch for David Lynch only he backed out and Robert Altman took over, making Tangerine (2015) highly recommended.

Blondie's New York (2014) is a totally immersive documentary on the making of Blondie's breakout album, Parallel Lines, in 1978, spawned out of the punk scene and demilitarized zone that was New York City in the late 1970s. A lot more nuts and bolts than you'd think, all the band members are present and accounted for along with producer Mike Chapman, who are all full of recollections and anecdotes on the strange alchemy of mixed genres (punk, jazz, ska, disco) that went into the album. Good stuff, even if you're not a fan of the band.

Another documentary, Back in Time (2015), concerns the origins of Back to the Future (1985), which is kind of false advertising as about only 1/3rd of the film is about the actual production while the rest is one giant, fan-boy circle-jerk about restoring Deloreans. Not terrible, just disappointing because what little we do get about the 'making of' -- like firing Eric Stoltz and replacing him with Michael J. Fox several weeks into shooting -- hints there are a lot more stories to be told.

This was also a lot of fun. Not quite what I expected it to be -- no, wait, The Final Girls (2015) totally was, just not quite executed as expected which is not really a complaint. Loved the realization of the film within a film moments. Also liked the conundrum of being locked in a slasher movie so someone has to make a sacrifice so there is a final Final Girl so the movie can end. Cute isn't a usual word when describing a bloodbath like this, but that's exactly what this was. Can't wait for the sequel.

Next, is it a well acted take on a cloying mash-up of Indie film clichés put in a blender? Or is it a cleverly disguised satire on the very same Indie film clichés put in a blender and then set on fire? You be the judge! If The Skeleton Twins (2014) is the former, it's horrifically predictable and I kinda hated it. If its the latter, it's still horrifically predictable but it's f@cking brilliant.

If you have to watch one movie where Ryan Reynolds plays a psycho who listens to his (good) dog and (evil) cat and has the dismembered heads of Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Ella Smith in his fridge, who also talk to him, then The Voices (2014) is the movie for you. Here, Reynolds plays a nebbish factory worker on a sort-of-a work-release program from a mental institution. From there, the movie kinda goes off its meds and homicidally writes itself as one well-meaning date after another ends horrifically with a comedic twist. What I loved best about the film was how it showed the two different perceptions of reality between our lovable, murdering schlub's point of view and what is really going on, epitomized by the condition of his apartment, currently stacked to the walls with containers filled with the remains of his discombobulated victims. Final coda was a bit of a buzzkill, but everything else was pretty entertaining.  

I think the best word to describe this sci-fi farce would be 'juvenile" -- and I mean that in the best way possible. Seems while the main Martian fleet is being pulverized along the galactic frontier, a lone Martian patrol ship on asteroid duty hears an S.O.S. call but efforts to zero in on the signal inadvertently has them tuning in to a re-broadcast of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, playing at some hayseed radio station in rural Illinois to celebrate Halloween. And before you can say "Die! Earth Scum!" the Martians crash into a barn and start terrorizing the locals, hoping to cause a little mayhem. From there, things go terribly awry both terrestrially and extraterrestrially in Spaced Invaders (1990). Now, I remember seeing this in theater -- and remember when lo-rent sci-fi flicks like this and Critters (1986) actually garnered a theatrical release? Anyhoo, it is all unrepentantly silly, and goofy, and kinda hilarious. The F/X work by Criswell and Johnson Effects and Perpetual Motion Pictures is both endearing and top-notch, and the voice-work done to bring the inept Martians (Bipto, Blaznee , Giggywig, Pez, Ziplock) to life had me in giggling from the get-go. My BluRay player failed to recognize my ancient DVD but there is a beautiful print streaming on YouTube right now for those willing to meet the Martian threat head on.

Also finished up The UFO Incident (1975), a Made for TV movie based on a *ahem* 'true story' starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons as Barney and Betty Hill, an interracial couple who were one of the first people to claim repressed memories of multiple alien abductions, implants and experimentation back in 1961. Great acting, riveting reenactments, and all once more proving the 1970s spawned a whole different breed of film on the small screen. 

And we'll polish of this batch of recs with an after action report on Dark Side of the Rainbow, where, for the first time ever, I synced up The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon completely sober. Now, of course, one of the inherent problems of engaging in this endeavor is how you kinda run out of album when the movie is only half over. The version I watched just started the record over again when the last track finished. And while that worked well enough, it doesn't quite have the brain-bending synchronicity of that first 40 minutes and 38 seconds. I mean, "Brain Damage" queuing up right when we meet the Scarecrow? This doubling down also has me convinced that you could play Dark Side of the Moon with just about anything to trip some balls. Poppies! Poppies! Poppies!

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