Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, November 30, 2012

Director Report Card: The Wachowskis (2012)

6. Cloud Atlas
“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult film to summarize. It is, perhaps, the most ambitious film I have ever seen. The Wachowskis have never been one for small ideas. Even in a career defined by arch ambitions, these two took on a project that actually required a third director to bring it fully to the screen. Tom Tykwer, formally of “Run Lola Run” and “Perfume,” another filmmaker well known for films that others wouldn’t dare tackling, was brought in to film half of the movie. The final result is a beautiful film.

In order to talk about “Cloud Atlas,” you’ve really got to compartmentalize its stories and themes. The word “ambitious” comes to mind again when you realize this is practically six very different films woven together. While each of the stories are vastly different to the point of belonging to different genres, themes, ideas, visuals, characters, and actors recur throughout all of them like musical motifs, elegantly appearing over the course of decades. The clopping of horse hooves transitions into the rumbling of the train tracks. A rush of water cuts to another character, separated by years and miles, submerged in water. The title comes from a piece of music presented in the film and, appropriately, the transition from moment to moment are poetic and natural.

1849: A costume drama set on a slave ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. After inspecting a plantation for his father-in-law, Jim Sturgess finds himself suffering from ill health and headaches. His doctor tells him a parasitic worm has dug into his brain. This merely provides a set-up for the segment’s primary premise. A run-away slave, David Gyasi, hides on the boat, Sturgess being his only confidant and friend. Over the course of his journey, he finds himself challenging his assumptions and beliefs, handling impending death and racism.

The first of the Wachowski directed sequences, this one prospers from both high production values and strong performances. While it’s very easy to misuse voice-over narration, “Cloud Atlas” uses it’s nicely throughout. Sturgess’ voice reinforces the segment’s themes without being too obvious about it. Sturgess gives a good performance, jumping back and forth between extremely ill and contemplative. Tom Hanks does a surprising turn as the piece’s villain. Hanks has no problem ugling up and downplaying his natural likability in favor of sleazy villainy. David Gyasi, as the escaped slave, is probably the stand-out player. It would have been easy to fall into the Magical Black Man cliché, and you might be able to make the case it still does, but Gyasi creates a full character with personality and flaws. Without going too far into spoiler territory, Hugo Weaving shows up at the end to deliver a theme-defining monologue in his usual tyrannical hiss. It’s amazing how much sinister intent that actor can sum up with a single line-reading. The direction is strong in some moments, like a sail roping scene that is highly intense, but in other moments the Wachowski’s usually strong action direction actually falters some. A late period struggle is shaky and unfocused. It’s the only really distracting moment.

1936: England on the brink of World War II breaking out, a drama of character. A gay would-be composer runs away from Cambridge, leaving his lover behind, in order to apprentice under a famous composer whom he greatly admires. In letters to his lover, he relates his experiences there. Though the composer is prickly at first, the two eventually become close and collaborate on a piece together, the title-lending Cloud Atlas Sextet. Themes of class relation and racism bubble to the surface again, especially when the composer’s Jewish wife is forced to interact with a Nazi. About at the mid-point, there’s a serious plot point and this segment changes tones quite a bit. The main character is forced on the run from the law again.

The ’36 sequences, the first Tykwer-directed piece, are probably my least favorite. Most of my issues come out of the late period event that forces the latter half of the story in a different direction. It’s the film’s only dishonest moment. A few characters act differently then you’d expect them too. Even then, there are some extraordinary moments. Someone describes a dream of the film’s future events. The main creative break through, when the sextet first comes together, works well. My favorite bit is near the very end, another dream sequence, when two characters destroy a shop full of fine china in slow-motion. Ben Whishaw, as the on-the-run kid, gives a very good performance, showing off a lot of roguish charm. Jim Broadbent gets his first very meaty role in the film as the grouchy composer. Broadbent is a highly versatile actor and he certainly gets to show his chops here. James D’Arcy, playing the lover, does most of his acting with his face. He has little dialogue. I also take a bit of issue with this segment’s ending, which is actually spoiled at the very beginning. It comes a bit out of nowhere and, once again, seems like a dishonest move for the characters.

1973, San Francisco: A journalist, the daughter of a deceased war veteran, is working hard to break out of her mold and find a great, political story. She gets more then she asked for when investigating the murder of a nuclear physicist. (The same character D’Arcy played in ’36, now as an old man.) Very soon, she’s finds herself the target of a hitman, attempting to cover up a conspiracy, an engineered attempt to cause a nuclear disaster.

Tykwer makes up for the weaknesses of the 1936’s sequences with this one, one of my favorites in the film. Once again, the genre shifts, with these moments belonging squarely to the political thriller genre. Halle Berry, an actress who I’ve never been a big fan, gives a surprisingly good performance here as Luisa Rey, an extraordinarily strong female protagonist. This is a woman who literally pulls herself out of a sinking car. There’s a moment when two characters have to fall in love over a very short period of time. This normally wouldn’t work, you’d think, but the performances pull it off. The direction of Hanks’ characters shift in this moment. Keith David, one of my favorites, has a strong supporting role, even if it doesn’t look like it at first. Hugo Weaving is once again called into play a cold, calculating villain. He’s fantastic in it, of course. In the latter half, this becomes a story about two characters being pursued by one character. Legitimate thrills as engineered in small moments, like someone lurking behind a window, and big ones, like the lights going off on a bridge, a car sailing over the edge. There’s a wry sense of humor to this one which never undermines the tension. Instead, it adds a charming quality. As with all of the elements to this film, this easily could have been a fantastic feature on its own.

2012, London: A book publisher, Jim Broadbent in his leading role, suddenly finds himself the center of attention when one of his clients tosses a snobby critic over the ledge of a building. The thuggish author’s brothers track down the publisher for money. That is not what this segment is about. Instead, Broadbent flees to the countryside, hoping to find safe harbor in his brother’s home. It doesn’t go as well as he hoped. Broadbent instead ends up locked inside a nursing home ruled over by a tyrannical nurse. A wacky comedy ensues about a ragtag group of people fighting back against restrains and almost rekindling long lost love.

Once again, I can’t help but point out the tonal shifts here. In most films, cutting back and forth between such diverging tones would be a problem. Brilliantly, “Cloud Atlas” balances it all. The 2012 moments play out with a light, romantic tone. (It’s that romantic tone that honestly ties the whole film together. More on that later.) Broadbent does great in the lead role, playing his indigent British charm to great effect. Hugh Grant, another reoccurring actor, despite being under some not-totally convincing old age make-up, does the best in his collection of roles. Voice-over is used fantastically again. My favorite moment involves a flashback to younger days, which is pays off a dirty joke in surprisingly light-hearted terms. A character who usually only repeats one phrase has a predictable, but still touching, pay-off. Once it’s confirmed that this is a story about misfits coming together for a mission, it really starts to work. The pub brawl climax is both hilarious and appropriately thrown-together.

Moving ahead to 2144, Neo Seoul, Korea: The fast food industry, instead of hiring employees, instead build genetic clones for the minimal work. The dark skylines of Seoul are appropriately dystopic and, in the traditional of “Blade Runner,” the bright colors of advertising billboards try to bloat out the industrial bleakness of the world. Following the death of another waitress, unassuming Sonmi-451 unwittingly becomes the center of a revolution. Whisked away by the revolutionary underground, the evil omniscient corporate overlords attempt to crush the rising tide. Chase scenes, shoot-outs, horrifying revelations, and emotional upheaval follows.

The Wachowskis return to familiar territory with this one, an action-heavy sci-fi story that balances big action set pieces with philosophy. Jim Sturgess, despite some not-totally convincing Asian make-up, reveals himself as a surprising action star. Obviously, the Wachowskis are great at engineering action sequences. And they certainly don’t disappoint. There’s a great close-quarters shoot-out which climaxes with a huge chase scene, over the neon blue freeways of the future. The brothers get to indulge their general love of far-out science fiction, with some of the wild visuals on display here. My favorite is the apartment walls that can be set to any climate.  Unlike the love story in “The Matrix,” the romantic subplot works extremely well. Doona Bae is obviously the center piece here. The story of someone young and naïve being pulled into an amazing destiny is a standard sci-fi premise, but Bae’s sweet, touching performance holds it all together. She has great chemistry with Sturgess, which is good since their romance is the entire emotional heart of the piece. This storyline got perhaps the biggest response out of me, with touching character work and shocking story reveals.

Finally, the distant future: Hawaii, in the wake of an undefined apocalyptic. Culture has splintered into separate classes and tribes. On the island, live peaceful shepherds in villages, worshiping Sonmi from the previous segment. The shepherds are at constant risk from the violent cannibals that live in the woods. In the distance, society continues in some way in a far advanced futuristic world. A nurse visits the island, looking for passage to a forbidden land. Tom Hanks plays Zachary, the seemingly schizophrenic shepherd, the only man who can lead her to where she needs to go. Hugo Weaving continues his villainous role as a spectre, with ghoulish green skin in a bizarre top hat. It’s left ambiguous what exactly Weaving is, delusions or demon.

The biggest obstacle with the far-flung conclusion is that the characters speak in a particular dialect, a degraded English. It takes a while for your ears to tune to the language. Moreso then any other part of the film, “Cloud Atlas” truly creates its own world with this one. The production design is fantastic here, with every hut having a textured, lived-in quality to it. When we climb out of the villages into the mountains, the eye for detail continues. Some spellbinding visuals result here, such as a satellite dish that opens up like a blossom. Probably the most intriguing aspect revolves around Weaving’s demon, a character that tempts, influences, Hank’s simple shepherd. Watching Hanks resist and handle this evil whispers is fascinating. It’s probably Hank’s best performance in the film. Once again, him and Berry have a surprising chemistry. Surprisingly, this story also erupts into action-movie violence near the end, which is very intense and effective. The entire film is tied together with an epilogue set even further in the future.

I can’t imagine what the editors on this film went through. The film truly would not have been as good if the six stories were told in solid blocks. Cutting them together, the main theme here is brilliantly illustrated. Acts of kindness and cruelty ripple throughout time. A brilliant moment comes near the end. In the distance future, a character describes her hope that she will be reunited with her love after death. In the past, her words are mirrored in actions. Casting the same actors in numerous parts are far more then just a gimmick. It’s integral to the movie’s entire point.

My biggest issue with “Cloud Atlas” is that the make-up is wildly inconsistent. When you have men playing women and vice-versa, it can come off as just a little distracting, especially when the character is an important one. Overall, that’s a very minor issue. It’s a real shame that “Cloud Atlas” failed to find an audience at the theater. That it’s over three hour longs certainly didn’t help its case in mall cineplexs. (The length is never an issue, not when there’s this much story to cover.) Well, I loved it. After the divisive “Speed Racer” and “Matrix” sequels, this is bound to put the Wachowskis back on track, I suspect. Though probably a much cheaper one. [Grade: A]

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bangers n' Mash 8: Ghost Stories

So here's another episode of the podcast nobody likes or listens to that was recorded back in July and I'm only now getting it out. This time JD and I discuss many different films about ghosts, hauntings, and paranormal encounters, while also recounting some personal stories of our own.

The next one definitely should not take as long, unless there's some other fucking disaster which there probably will be. Anyway, thanks for not listening or paying any attention to this shit whatsoever.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 31 - HALLOWEEN

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
Oddly, a surprising fraction of “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” almost plays like a straight horror film. The character was an odd pick for a Meet the Monsters flick, since Jekyll and Hyde have no previous heritage at Universal. Perhaps this was the studio’s attempt to put their mark on the character. As an adaptation of the frequently told tale, it takes wild liberties with the premise. For starters, Dr. Jekyll is fairly evil as well. He transforms into Mr. Hyde, not out of an attempt to remove his inner evil and temptation, but instead to provide a proper alibi to commit murder! Mr. Hyde is an unrefined monster who never speaks, only growls. Instead of being a general doctor, Dr. Jekyll is specifically a brain surgeon, fond of swapping animal’s brains around. (Producing visuals like a roaring bunny or a mooing chimp.) There is a brief subplot about both Jekyll and Hyde being in love with the female lead that doesn’t really go anywhere. The film is a Victorian period piece and the female lead is a suffragette. Her journey for woman’s right is somewhat undermined by her night job as a can-can dancer. Many moments play like a normal horror film, like the open kill or the chase across the roof tops of London. Bud and Lou don’t even show up until about ten minutes in!

As for the humor, once again, the biggest gags belong to Costello. This entry sees the guys in strictly broad slapstick mode. The funniest moment involves Lou stumbling into a wax museum and being threatened by wax models of Frankenstein’s monster and a disembodied head. The movie makes good use of Lou’s scared reactions. This is the movie’s high point and it starts to drag after this. An odd gag involves Lou drinking one of Jekyll’s potions and turning into a giant mouse. This leads to some amusing back-and-forth. Sadly, in the latter half, the movie starts to focus on the Hyde formula getting out to the general public. Random people dressed as Mr. Hyde jumping out and frightening folks isn’t funny to begin with and continues to be non-amusing when repeated over and over again. The movie trudges along in its second half to the seriously underwhelming ending.

Boris Karloff seems a little bored, playing the two-faced villain bit he’s done many times before. He’s never actually under the Hyde make-up and the stuntman who is really playing the part is as uninspired as the rest of the movie. The film doesn’t do much with the source material, aside from a doctor changing shape and the Victorian setting. Bud and Lou were dropped into the middle of a fairly run-of-the-mill mad doctor/monster on the loose flick. “Abbott and Costello Met Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” showed the Meet the Monsters series sliding out of quality. [5/10]

It Came From Outer Space (1953)
Would you believe I’ve never seen this movie before? I probably missed it simply because it never cropped up on the Friday Night creature feature show back in the day. Considered a classic by sci-fi fans, “It Came From Outer Space” was highly influential, at least at Universal anyway. It revived interest in monster movies in the studio by steering away from the traditional gothic setting towards space aliens and other science fiction concepts. It would birth a whole new wave of sci-fi themed monster and horror films.

With a script from personal idol and science fiction master Ray Bradbury, “It Came From Outer Space” is far from your typical 1950s alien invasion flick. An amateur astrologist spots an asteroid crash into the Arizona desert, what turns out to be an alien space craft. The locals are naturally skeptical and dismiss the guy as a crackpot. The incident even costs his girlfriend her job. He is, of course, right. Instead of reaping terror among the population, the aliens instead kidnap some people and assume their identities, only shopping for supplies to fix their ship and return home.

The film, considering its pedigree, reads more like a great science fiction short story instead of a B-movie. Aliens that don’t want to blow us up or eat us was a new, exciting idea at the time. The visitors might not be evil in intent, but they are monstrous in appearance. The entire conflict of the story steams from the fact that the aliens realize humanity isn’t ready for them, recalling Arthur C. Clark’s “Childhood’s End” or even a little bit of Lovecraft. The visitors are ambiguous, regarding humans the way we regard a spider. The design, with its twitching eyeball and slimy tentacles, a plume of smoke always encircling them, is rather grotesque. I’m sure keeping the creatures off-screen throughout most of the movie was a budgetary decision but it provides an air of mystery. The POV shots, parodied just the other day in “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” in which people scream as an unseen creature barrels down on them, is the movie’s main horrific element. Aside from a death ray and a laser shooting magic wand, there’s little visceral threat here. “It Came from Outer Space” is squarely a sci-fi movie.

It’s still good. Richard Carlson does a good job as the lead character. He’s frustrated that no one believes and seems as unsure of how to react to the visitors as everyone else does. He’s surprisingly nuanced as far as leading men go in films of these types. Barbara Rush is also good as his love interest, similarly conflicted by the situation. Kathleen Hughes’ screaming face made the poster even if her part in the film is quite small. She still looks gorgeous. The climax, which involves a trip into a creepy cave, is quite suspenseful and, like much of the film, undermines your typical expectations.

The short story style carries into the movie’s pacing. It drags a little in the middle. The premise isn’t quite extensive enough to support a feature. “It Came from Outer Space” made a crap load of money at Universal, almost certainly because of its then-innovative 3-D gimmick. (Watched flat, the 3-D effects don’t register much.) Director Jack Arnold would next direct “Creature from the Black Lagoon” which would really throw the floodgates open for the next generation of Universal Monsters. This film is important for that reason alone. [7/10]

And I'm cutting my Universal Mega-thon off there. It's a good stopping place, as the Abbott and Costello team-up flicks meant the end of the classic monsters and "It Came from Outer Space" ushered in the new era of sci-fi/atomic age monster flicks. "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and the rest of the fifties output will have to wait until next year.

Cabin Fever (2002)
Most of my movie-watching time is spent taking in new films. New releases, older movies I’m just seeing for the first time, so on. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy Halloween so much. It’s a time for me to revisit stuff I haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes that’s like visiting old friends. Other times that means reassessing my opinion on films I haven’t seen a while. Thus: “Cabin Fever.” I loved it when I first saw it in the theaters and I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. With the possible exception of Rob Zombie, Eli Roth is the most divisive filmmaker to come out of the horror wave of the last decade. The tide of controversy his “Hostel” films ignited easily overshadowed his first feature.

Roth’s biggest problem is evident through all of his movies. The dude can not write genuine, likable characters. At best, they come off as simple sketches. At worst, they are intensely unpleasant assholes. Case in point: In “Cabin Fever,” characters are separated into two types. Rider Strong and Jordan Ladd are the main characters, defined solely by their relationship to each other. Strong’s Paul is trying to transfer from childhood friend to serious romantic partner to Ladd’s Karen. That’s pretty much it. Their personalities otherwise morph in accordance to the story’s whims. The rest of the main cast is obnoxious, deeply unlikable cartoon characters. Joey Kern’s Jeff spews homoerotic dialogue, does senseless things like shop-lift or shoot animals, and never lets the audience forget for a minute he’s a jockish bonehead. As bad as Jeff is, James DeBello’s Bert is even worse. An opportunistic asshole who doesn’t seem capable of caring for another person, he spends most of his screen time screaming profanity at his friends, begging the question of why he is on this trip with these people. Despite being a massive tool, the guy has an absurdly hot girlfriend in the shape of Cerina Vincent’s Marcy.

Marcy best exemplifies the movie’s biggest issue. The characters lack any common sense. They make wildly bad decisions for no particular reason. If you accidentally shoot a guy, you take him to the hospital and apologize profusely. If a sick person comes to your door, call 9/11. Do not attempt to beat him to death with bats and crowbars. (And stop taking swings if you’re destroying your only mode of transportation.) Most definitely do not set him on fire. If a friend has contacted an aggressive flesh eating virus, locking her in a shed is not advisable. Marcy’s only defining characteristic is her overwhelming sluttiness. When it becomes obvious she has the virus, she decides random, enthusiastic fucking is the only course of action. I know Cerina Vincent is really hot but, if she’s infected with a vicious skin-eating disease, decline her sexual advances. It won’t end well. And, hey, what’s a natural thing to do when a horrible virus is drilling through your layers of dermis? “Shave your legs” is not an appropriate answer. If you see a dead body floating in a reservoir, do not climb down a rickety ladder just to poke it with a stick. Writing characters who are intentionally dumb is one thing. Having your characters do things that no human being would ever do is an entirely different faux-pas. Even the otherwise sensible humans make astonishingly bad decisions.

Roth’s strengths as a writer and director is his surreal sense of humor and an ability of craft sickening horror set-pieces. And that’s why “Cabin Fever” is worth checking out at all. The local redneck characters are bizarre enough to be humorous. Which do you prefer, the blonde hair kid who screams about pancakes and does inexplicable karate moves? The local deputy who highly moans about “parties,” in the face of all sanity? How about the kindly, folksy shop owners who engages in unexpected racist dialogue? (A gag that has a hilarious pay-off at the end.) Even Roth’s aggravating cameo gets a laugh or two. Later on, the harmonica man and a resilient deer appear, to choruses of laughter. As for the horror sequences, some of them are gleefully nasty, like the Bowling Alley Massacre or Strong turning on the trio of invading rednecks, the strong result of a mind weaned on seventies/eighties sleaze-exploitation horror films. Others are body-horror worthy of Cronenberg, like the snap of an ankle or red marks trailing down a back.

Angelo Badalamenti’s score is unnerving and gets under your skin in the same way the movie’s disease does. Roth’s direction is stylish enough. I’m not sure if his horror-nerd homages are endearing or annoying. All the songs on the soundtrack are from “The Last House on the Left.” In any other movie, a lingering shot on your actress’ plump ass would be just that. In a Roth film, it becomes a callback to “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” or “Friday the 13th Part II.” A screwdriver in the ear? “Dawn of the Dead.” Vomiting on somebody? “The Fly.” The Batcave puts in a cameo. Not to mention the entire premise owes a considerably amount to “The Evil Dead.” Roth’s homophobic dialogue is as tin-earred and hard-to-swallow here as it is in “Hostel.” Talking about a dog sticking its nose up your ass isn’t helping your case, Eli.

Still, the parts are greater then the whole. “Cabin Fever” is worth sticking around through for the wacky or sickening moments, even if Roth’s flaws as a writer are all too apparent. The “Thanksgiving” trailer is still the best thing he has ever done. [6.5/10]

So Halloween kind of kicked my ass this year. Aside from the hurricane and a falling tree dampening the festivities, it was a struggle all month to keep up with the daily updates of the blog. Still, I did, more or less, meet my goal. I watched a whopping 102 movies, 4 shorts, and 14 television episodes, dwarfing all previous records. And yet, still, there was a lot of stuff I wanted to get to that I didn't. Next year, my friend. The Jack o' lanterns, bowls of candies, ghoulish costumes and decorations are all put away for another year. Thanks for going on this journey with me, readers. As always, more stuff coming soon, as soon as I get the power turned back on.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 30

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Given that the Invisible Man series had wander into comedy once before, picking him as the next monster to team Bud and Lou with makes sense. “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man” is nowhere near as funny as the previous film. It’s still pretty amusing.

Bud and Lou are well-suited to their parts as sham detectives, ones that profit off of entrapping customers. Their business quickly puts them in contact with a boxer, on-the-run and framed for murder. A friend of his just happens to have the invisibility formula lying around, apparently willed it by Claude Rains’ original. (Jack Griffin in the original, John Griffin here.) Despite being well warned of the insanity side effects, the boxer immediately mainlines the potion. As to be expected, Bud is drafted as a boxer, while the invisible man does all the actual work, until the real murderer reveals himself.

The movie strikes a decent balance between invisibility gags, Costello’s scared reactions, and the duo’s trademark back-and-forth. Costello’s reactions get the most laughs. When taking the invisible man his clothes, amid a beautiful fog covered forest, Lou slowly becomes aware of the unseen man’s presence. Big laughs come from an early moment where a shrink attempts to hypnotize the stout one, which doesn’t go as expected. The invisibility gags take center stage, as you’d expect. A funny dinner scene involves conflicting orders and floating plates of spaghetti. When a nosy detective walks in on their poker game, the guys take an unexpected route of hiding their invisible roommate. Oddly, most of the boxing stuff falls a little flat. Training in a gym provides some decent laughs but the finale’s boxing match is played surprisingly straight.

As you’d expect, the horror aspect take a backseat. This is a decidedly non-murderous invisible man. The insanity side-effects mostly show through loud speeches about how powerful invisibility makes him. (Which is, you know, true.) The movie gets the guy in bandages and goggles once, mostly out of obligation, since it doesn’t feed into the plot any. The ending is appropriately goofy. I wish Bud had a little more to do in this one. Aside from an early threat to smack Lou around, he’s mostly relegated to a supporting role. At this point, the Meet the Monsters series was still rolling along at an amenable pace. “Meet the Invisible Man” isn’t a masterpiece but is lots of fun. [7/10]

The Black Castle (1952)
One of the purposes of the Universal Classic Horror Mega-thon was to revisit movies I had seen before. Barely. Stuff I had watched in the middle of the night while dozing or while doing homework on my laptop, the DVD playing in the background. Some of these films, like the Inner Sanctum Mysteries or “Tower of London,” I found myself actually enjoying and appreciating far more then before. Some of the movies I found as unengaging and dull as before. “The Black Castle” falls into that category.

Once again: Not a horror movie. For a fact, it’s something of a companion to “The Strange Door” in that both are period revenge melodramas that relegate horror star Boris Karloff (and, in this case, Lon Chaney Jr.) to small supporting roles, with some minor atmosphere or a macabre element here and there. The horror fake-out continues to the opening credits which recycles the overturn from “The Wolf Man” for the umpteenth time. Set in a castle in the Black Forest, a mythic setting that the film doesn’t use much, the story revolves around a sinister count (You know he’s sinister because he wears an eye-patch) plotting revenge against some people who screwed him over in a war in African or something. Our hero, Richard Greene, wanders into the castle unaware of this and subsequently has to escape several death traps. When not having passive-aggressive conversations with the count, he’s wooing Rita Corday’s beautiful countess. Karloff plays a doctor who comes off as malicious at first but eventually is revealed to be a nice guy. Chaney plays a mute, brutish servant, a character type the actor would reprise repeatedly through the end half of his career, mostly because he was slowly dying of throat cancer at this time.

There’s some fog around the castle, especially in the early moments. The Count, in his various journeys through Africa, has amassed a collection of deadly animals. A memorable moment involves a fist fight above a dungeon mote full of crocodiles. Lions and jaguars also show up. The most horrific element involves a drug that induces a death-like state. People laying in coffins, thoughts bouncing around in their still heads is actually sort of frightening. Once again, the movie never really exploits this element. Karloff and Chaney aren’t given much to do. At least “The Strange Door” had Boris kicking some ass. Stephen McNally does all right in the villainous role. Director Nathan Juran would direct numerous sci-fi/fantasy classics in the fifties, like “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “The Deadly Mantis,” “The Brain From Planet Arous,” “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman,” “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad,” and “Jack the Giant Killer.” He was better suited to that genre. [5/10]

Final Destination 2 (2003)
I never would have thought that “Final Destination” would become one of the most enduring millennial horror franchises. The original wasn’t a bad movie. It was a clever update of the slasher formula and owed more then a little to “The Omen.” (Both series dispatch their victims through convoluted Rube Goldberg-style accidental death traps.) However, it was horribly earnest and, beyond the wacky death scenes, had nothing much else to offer. I think the only reason the “Final Destination” series has had such longevity is, unlike the “Saws” and “Paranormal Activities,” the series hasn’t burnt itself out with yearly installments. The movies are elaborate enough to force a few years between each installment. The reason I say this is because none of the movies are all that good. Except for this one. (And part five but I’m not talking about that right now.)

And it’s good the same way a “Friday the 13th” sequel is good. From a writing perspective, these movies are… Dumb. The entire premise is dumb. Lots of people survive near death experiences every year and most of them aren’t brutally killed afterwards in ridiculous, contrived manners. There’s a reason that, despite five films being made, none have ever attempt to build any kind of mythology, aside from throwing out more ways to escape “Death’s design” that most certainly don’t work. It’s never been said but can certainly be assumed that the psychic visions that open each film are provided by Death. So why does Death give people these vision with the intention of then brutally murdering them afterwards? Why does Death brutally murder people anyway? It’s Death! He can off you in any way! Why make such a show of it? The only real thing we can gleam from all of this is that the Grim Reaper has an utterly brutal sense of irony and is also a passive aggressive dick hole. Tony Todd’s character shows up every couple of movies to sinisterly hiss some bit of vague misinformation, as if he really knows what’s going on.

So the story is utter nonsense. Like “Friday the 13th," each entry in the series has the same blueprint. Character has vision of horrific accident that gorily kills shitloads of people, some how manages to avoid said accident, him/herself and friend proceed to suffer horrible accidental deaths… Or deaths that seem accidental anyway. Part two is no different. The characters aren’t great. They roughly break down into stereotypes: Final girl, an initially skeptical love interest, stoner guy, snarky chick, Mom, Son, Angry Black Man. Some of the characters get a smidge of personality. Angry Black Man panics nicely. My favorite moment is when Stoner Guy knows he’s the next in line to die. He tells Final Girl to, after he dies, go into his apartment and remove all his drugs and porn, anything that will “break his mom’s heart.” It is a surprisingly touching moment in a movie that otherwise dispenses with any character moments. None of the actors are bad, with one exception: Ali Larter, the returning survivor from the first movie. Holy shit, how did this lady become a star? She’s wooden, wears one slightly constipated expression throughout, and can never make a single line sound convincing. The “Resident Evil” movies clearly deserve her.

None of that matters anyway because the entire movie is built around the death scenes. And, holy cow, they are incredible. The opening freeway pile-up is hugely intense. The motorcyclist sliding across the glass is uncomfortably realistic to anyone who has survived a bike crash. The entire sequence will make you nervous every time you pass a truck hauling logs. It’s a hell of way to open the movie. The kitchen sequence is the first sign of the movie’s darkly humorous wit. It’s an over-the-top, extended game of misdirection that has an amazingly nasty, unpleasant payoff. Characters explode into ludicrous gibs with little provocation. A battering log smears a man into splattered meat. In the best kill in the movie, a teenage kid is squashed by a falling plate of glass, dissipating into an explosion of blood and gore. Person one second, puddle the next. Even for a seasoned gore fan like myself, it’s almost too much. The dark humor shows up again when the Jaws of Life have the opposite effect. My second favorite kills involves a flying barb-wire fence dissecting a guy into four parts. The stunted look on his face is almost hilarious, even if the globs of flailing intestine aren't. The movie never quite tops those moments even if the hospital-set last act rolls along at a decent pace. The gore comedy mentality continues into the final scene, which features a severed limb falling in just the right spot.

And that’s why “Final Destination 2” is awesome. The death scenes are some of the wettest ever put to film and any mean spirit intentions are grinned away by the movie’s dark wit. That’s one of the reasons why three and four disappointed me so much. They returned to the dead serious tone of the first entry. Only five featured the same sick kills and gruesome humor. Hopefully the inevitable part six will continue that tradition. [7.5/10]