Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 30

Island of Lost Souls (1932)
This is pretty much the DVD release of the year for me. As you know, I’m a classic horror aficionado, particularly of the Universal cycle. While “Island of Lost Souls” was actually a Paramount production, Universal owns it and it was released as a part of the Universal Monsters video series in the early nineties. The film is widely regarded as a classic of the genre but its been unavailable for a long time. It’s never gotten a DVD release and TV airings are rare. I had hoped for a long time that “Island of Lost Souls” would be shuffled onto one of the classic horror sets Universal was releasing almost ever year there for a while and figured that would be the best release we’d ever get. So when Criterion announced that the film was coming out, I got pretty excited. I was eagerly counting down the days for its release. So much so that when Amazon said it wouldn’t be at my house until November 2, after the end of my Halloween viewing, I was pretty disappointed. Luckily it arrived in time.

So, anyway, this movie’s a masterpiece. Have you ever seen a film so good that it makes you kind of mad that you haven’t seen it before? There are a couple big differences between golden age Paramount horror and Universal that I’ve noticed. As I pointed out earlier, Paramount’s cinematography is generally more expressive then the stagey, silent film style Universal had. The movie has a lot more dollying and some very creative staging, including a fantastic shot seen entirely in the reflection of a lake. But the movie stands besides the Universal films because of its wonderful use of shadows. In at least two scenes, fleeing characters shadows are cast on the wall behind them, looming large. Early fog filled boat sequences also recall the Universal films of the same era. Over all, the titular island is a deeply atmospheric place. The print restoration is incredible. On DVD, the film practically looks brand new.

Secondly, Paramount’s pre-code output was very daring, pushing the envelope on sex and especially violence. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” featured sexuality and sexual sadism as a major theme and “Island of Lost Souls” follows suit. A major subplot involves Dr. Moreau’s intention to mate Parker with the seductive Lota the Panther Woman, his most perfect creation. Parker nearly goes through with it too, charmed by Lota's raw animal sensuality, before realizing that this attractive young lady isn’t exactly human. As soon as Parker’s fiancé Ruth arrives on the island, the Beast-Men eye her hungrily and it’s not long, with a little prodding from Dr. Moreau, before one of the animal men attempts to have his way with her. And the movie’s hideously violent. As in the book, there's a preoccupation with vivisection here. A scene where Dr. Moreau calmly uncovers a recently performed-on animal man, still bloody and screaming, is particularly unflinching. It’s not really the level of violence that makes the movie unsettling so much as it’s the stifling mood of cruelty that hangs over the entire film. “Island of Lost Souls” is a movie practically about the politics of cruelty, of control, and oppression. When Dr. Moreau’s creations inevitably revolt and destroy him, it’s not shown so much as evil being overthrown, as the cycle of violence starting over again. The movie ends in flames and deafening screams of agony. “Island of the Lost Souls” is one of the most oppressively nihilistic horror films of the 1930s.

Charles Loughton is unsettlingly good as Dr. Moreau. He rules over his island with an iron fist. He considers himself a god to his animal-men creations. Though relatively soft-spoken, Loughton’s Moreau is always plotting. You can see the evil wheels turning in his head. But what’s really frightening about the character and the performance is that Moreau is completely self-justified in his sadism. When our shipwrecked sailor claims his vivisection of live creatures is cruel, he waves him off. “Don’t bother me with such petty horrors.” This is a man that can justify anything in the name of science. As portrayed here, Dr. Moreau might be the most devious and sadistic of any of the golden age horror villains. (Rivaled perhaps only by Lionel Atwill in the similarly grisly “Murders in the Zoo.”) Kathleen Burke, though naturalistic and untrained, suits her role of the Panther Woman extremely well. Bela Lugosi, as the Sayer of the Law and the eventual leader of the Animal-Men, gives a tortured, passionate performance. I’ll say it’s a better performance then his Dracula.

The Beast Men are fantastic creations. Though the make-ups, composed mostly of hair glued to face, is primitive, it’s incredibly effective. The low-key make-up is actually one of the things that work very well for the film, since it makes it seem plausible. Unlike the Universal monster movies that featured supernatural, fantastical creatures, “Island of the Lost Souls” has creatures that seem oddly possible. So not only is the film grisly, disturbing, and actively concerned with hot button concepts of bestially, evolution, misintegration, racism, fascism, torture, sadism, and cruelty, but it seems like it can actually happen too. Now that the film’s finally been released on DVD, perhaps this classic can be rediscovered by a new generation of classic horror fans and film watchers. (9/10)

Slither (2006)
Pretty much the closest thing we have to a modern “Evil Dead 2.” This is a horror-comedy that is just massively entertaining. It’s a shame the film bombed. It should have transformed Nathan Fillian into a modern matinee idol. At the very least, he could have so easily been the new Bruce Campbell. Instead, he’s doing some cop show… Sigh. The movie seemed to have stunted James Gunn’s career some as well, since it took the admittedly excellent “Super” a long time to get made. In an alternate time line, “Slither” was a big hit and James Gunn has since pleased us all with many more funny, twisted, endlessly entertaining pictures.

The movie has got crazy worm things, acid-spitting space zombies, great gore effects, a woman growing up into a giant ball of flesh and then exploding, and mixes body horror, sci-fi, redneck, zombie, and eighties creature feature tropes extremely well. The creature effects are phenomenal and Grant Grant, in his slug form, is one of the best monster designs in recent memory. And there’s some fantastically quotable dialogue here. (Even the DVD special features are highly quotable. “I’m Bill Pardy,” indeed.) But there’s more here then just all that and Nathan Fillian mugging it up. The central love story(?) between Starla and Grant Grant provides the movie with a heart. Despite being a marriage of convenience for her, Grant is crazy about her and she really does feel something for him. Michael Rooker really does give a good performance. I especially like the scene where he has to pull himself away from her, holding back his evil alien tentacles' need to impregnate her with his space seed.

I don’t really have a lot to say about “Slither.” The movie more or less speaks for itself. It’s a great flick for horror fans. (9/10)
Them! (1954)
Ah, the movie that kicked off the giant bug craze of the fifties. And I’d argue that’s its more or less the only really good one, at least out of the stuff I’ve seen. (“Tarantula” isn’t bad though.) I’ve always dug this film since I was a little kid. While the giant ants may very well be scientific impossibilities, they are honestly pretty real looking. They’re pretty effective special effects. I think, in a weird way, the film predicted the sci-fi special effects action extravaganza that flood the theaters every summer. The scene of a cop taking a machine gun to one of the giant ants feels a lot like the 1954 equivalent of Michael Bay. Despite lying more over to the sci-fi/action side of the horror scale, the film still has it’s effective horror moments. The little girl screaming out the film’s title is a pretty memorable scene, as is the ants attack on the police outpost. Good stuff.

The movie plays a lot like a mystery throughout its run time. James Arness, Joan Weldon, and Edmund “Santa Claus” Gwenn form kind of a central power trio, as they follow leads and clues, trying to find the latest ant colony. I especially like the scene of three spelunking down into the ant colony, stepping over the dead giant ants. Weldon ordering everyone to get out of the colony immediately is a good moment. The final military invasion of the new ant colony, formed in the city sewer systems, is an intense sequence and nicely plays up the cramp quarters.

What has really made the movie endure and elevates it above the copy-cats that would follow are the numerous quirky elements in the film. Edmund Gwenn plays his scientist as a knowledgeable but somewhat absent minded man. The scene of him fumbling CB terminology is cute and funny. Future Davey Crocket Fess Parker has a memorable small role as a fighter pilot claiming adamantly he’s not insane. Even more entertaining is the very active, and very funny, drunk that provides the final clue needed to find the ants. Overall, the film is intelligent, witty, funny, and also a bit scary. (8/10)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 29

Return of the Fly (1959)
A pretty routine sequel. Twenty years after the events of the first film, history repeats itself when Philippe, the son of the original fly, decides to continue his father’s research into teleportation technology, despite the warnings of his uncle, played by a very somber Vincent Price. Philippe is a bad judge of character, so his lab assistant turns out to be a real asshole, planning on stealing the teleporter blue prints so he can pay off his gambling debts, I think. (His partner in crime is a neurotic mortician, one of the few interesting parts of the film.) After beating him up, the asshole intentionally sends Philippe through the transporter with a fly, creating another fly-headed monster. This proves to be a bad move and backfires spectacularly for our villains. Fly-Monster Philippe, after awkwardly wandering around the woods for a while, tracks both guys down and murders them. Luckily, his girlfriend and his uncle find the fly with the human head, sends both through the teleporter, leading us to a happy ending.

Despite the short running time, the movie drags a lot. None of the fly stuff happens until well pass the halfway point, so the first half revolves mostly around Philippe worrying about flies (His phobia is one of the film’s few clever bits) and Vincent Price warning him not to mess around with that teleporter shit, man. (“I told you about teleporters, bro. I told you.”) The film starts with a funeral and the overly somber tone continues throughout. There’s none of the humor here of the first film… At least not of the intentional value. The film’s special effects are big step down from the first one. There’s some gigantism thrown in with the teleporting for some reason, so our inevitable fly-monster has a giant head. This is incredibly awkward for the stuntman playing him, who stumbles a lot, and you can tell the prop head almost falls over a few times. The human-head fly is created through cheesy photography tricks, as is the human-handed rat critter that shows up too. If the creations in the first film where absurd in an unsettling way, these are absurd in a strictly hilarious way. In the first film, the teleportations sequences was a series of flashing lights and phasing, while here people in the glass box just vanish abruptly.

There’s also some pretty big logic holes. If a guy went through a teleporter with a fly again, whose to say it would pop out exactly like what happened in the first film? Why doesn’t Philippe just have a giant fly ass or something? And why would sending the two hybrids back through together fix things? Wouldn’t that just lead to more gene-splicing? One of the things they talk about in this movie is teleporting somebody and then leaving their atoms just floating around in the air overnight, which seems dangerous and a wild abuse of science. Fox went to the expense of shooting this flick in Cinemascope, but not in color. Of course, I love black and white, but it’s not use all that well here. The direction is pretty bland. The scenes of a body jumping out of a casket is pretty much the only effective moment in the whole film. “Return of the Fly” is a blatant retrend of the first film with none of the energy, character, humor, or suspense. (5/10)

Community: “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps”
I don’t watch a lot of TV. I’m pretty squarely a movie guy. So it’s not often that a TV show really grabs my attention and gets me to tune in every week. But I love “Community.” I really do. After the shaky season two, season three has been excellent so far. Every episode has been a winner.

The last two Halloween episodes have been total classics. The season one Halloween episode is got me into the show in the first place and last year’s “Epidemiolgy” is, not only pretty much the best zombie movie I’ve seen in years and such an improvement over the handful of zombie homages we’ve seen in the past decade, but it’s also probably my favorite episode of the whole series. “Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps” isn’t as good as either and, in particular, doesn’t really live up to its horror anthology premise, but it’s still a solid B+ in my book. The show is very character oriented so each variation of the story really tells us more about the character telling them then anything else.

The episode is still full of very funny moments. Britta’s retelling of the Hook story includes the character’s all talking in her mumbled, awkwardly paced style of speaking. Abed’s story features characters that follow the rules of the genre strictly, relying on a hilarious super-logic. Annie’s “Twilight” spin gets especially funny when she has to stop and teach the vampire how to read. (It also features some fantastic Allison Brie cleavage, something this episode is full of.) But my favorite segment is Troy’s story, which is a bro-tastic, silly spin on the mad scientist concept, recasting himself and Abed as super-awesome jet fighters who get super-awesome psychic powers.

Any way, anybody who’s never seen an episode of “Community” probably has no idea what I’m talking about so I’ll finish this up. In short: Good episode. Also, watch this show. (8/10)

Ghost Story (1981)
Funny story behind this one: When I was around, I don’t know, ten maybe, and right in the beginning stages of my horror movie obsession, my mother told me the plot of “Ghost Story,” detailing everything. It sounding like a fantastic film but I didn’t get to see it until many years afterward, once Netflix finally rolled around. I was immensely disappointed. The movie in my head was so much better. But, in the services of fairness, I decided to give this one another shot.

The film is notable mostly for bringing together an ensemble of some of the most respected actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In today’s youth obsessed market, I can’t imaging a horror film being sold starring nothing but elderly men, even if it’s based on a national best seller. In order to compensate, the movie throws in a lot of nudity and sex, including some male full frontal. The story revolves around the Chowder Society, a group of friends who gather to tell frightening stories and have done so since the early 1900s. And now, as these things happen in the movies, a ghost from the past has come to pick the men off one by one. The story telling format lends the film an episodic feeling. Twice, the current flow of the film halts abruptly so a character can drop some back story.

Oddly, the movie works best when it travels back to the early 1900s and replaces its old man cast with a group of younger actors. The movie seems to be of two minds. The direction is very strong during the period settings and the director seems fine with the explicit romantic scenes. But the movie falls apart during the scenes of horror. Many of the deaths involve someone being startled by the gruesome sight of the ghosts and falling to their deaths. However, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the corpse make-up, it’s never as shocking or disturbing as the movie needs it to be. A bizarre subplot features a homeless man and his little brother as servants of the ghost woman. For reasons that are never explained, the little boy roars and makes animal noises. It’s not a scary effect, for a fact it’s quite comical. (I hear these characters get more development in the novel.) It’s really not until the movie’s very end, when the camera roams the dark, abandoned house, that the movie begins to have any success as a horror film at all. The effects work in general is kind of clumsy, including a scene where a car flipping over sounds like a toy car rolling around in the snow.

When the movie does work, it’s strictly because of its prime cast. Fred Astaire is the only really likable member of the Chowder Society, though John Houseman commands a lot of authority with his deep voice and intimidating figure. I like a moment when Melvyn Douglas breaks down from the stress. But it’s really Alice Krige, future Borg queen, as the vengeful ghost who gives the best performance. While the movie oversells her beauty a bit too much, she still manages to be very sexy when she needs to and appropriately sinister at the same time. “Ghost Story” is mostly a failure though. The film seems to have no idea how to create a successful horror atmosphere. (5/10)

Halloween 2011: October 28

The Prophecy (1995)
Here’s an example of overheated schlock that would probably be completely unwatchable, or at least unlikable, if not for its cast. And what a grossly overqualified cast it is. The pay must have been phenomenal because the majority of the actors are far above the material.

“The Prophecy” details a war in heaven and the humans caught in-between the warring factions of angels. The idea of angels being jealous of God’s love for humanity and people’s possession of souls is an interesting idea, in the “Neon Genesis Evangelion” mode, as is exploring angels as morally ambiguous characters. The movie is gleefully blasphemous too, recasting Archangel Gabriel, a righteous figure by most accounts, as a ruthless cartoon supervillain and even having Satan more-or-less save the day. And God is silent in all of this too! Over all, apocryphal Christian mythology is a great place for a genre film to start.

However, the film uses these potentially daring concepts in services of a potboiler chase plot. Its clichéd story includes a Catholic cop who has lost his faith, the unstoppable horror antagonist, a prophecy about the end of the world, magical American Indians, and a possessed child who says creepy, inappropriate things. The Christian concepts are used strictly as plot points and devices, and the film doesn’t seriously explore any of the philosophical implications its plot raises. The director brings all the flash and style of a secondhand Segal flick. The straight-out-of-the-nineties-era-Skinnemax electronic score drives the film towards its puzzling narration-provided moral. (Something about not understanding God’s plan. It doesn’t really make any sense.) Worse yet, the movie is completely convinced its plot and ideas are original and ingenious, treating the material in an extremely self-serious manner. The movie is humorless…

Except for one thing: Christopher Walken. This man single-handedly makes “The Prophecy” worth watching. Dressed like a door-to-door Bible salesman, his black hair slicked back, and swaggering like a Southern Baptist televangelist, Walken sinks his teeth into every juicy, hammy line. I suspect much of his dialogue was improvised, as Walken’s humorous quipping is far more clever then anything else in the script. Great moments in Walken: The back forth he has with his undead slaves, especially during the grave digging scene; hamming it up as he sets Eric Stoltz’ face on fire and generally tortures the guy, relating how he is responsible for shushing every human at birth, sharing breath mints and his trumpet with a gaggle of school kids, his monologue about how humanity can never understand the motivation of an angel, walking into a hospital and forcing a random nurse to sleep, a hilarious scene where he selects his next zombie servant among the terminal ward, passive-aggressively badgering a waitress at a diner, flying through the windshield of a pick-up truck and becoming increasingly pissed-off, etc. Basically, if you love to watch Christopher Walken just get his Walken all over things, this movie is worth seeking out.

Like I said, the cast is incredible in this thing. The Weinsteins must have gotten this script and “Pulp Fiction” in some sort of two-for-one bargain because, aside from Walken, it also features Eric Stoltz and Amanda Plummer. Indispensable character actor Elias Koteas plays the faith-lapsed cop. It’s a hoary cliché of a part, but Koteas does his best with the material and makes for an easily watched lead. Virginia Madsen has certainly appeared in her fair share of schlock but, Christ, she’s an Oscar nominated actress. Her part as the school teacher drawn up in the chase is the flimsiest role in a film full of ‘em. I don’t know what she saw in a part as hopelessly thin as this (The paycheck, probably) but she certainly makes it go down easier. Eric Stoltz is at his best here when beating the shit out of people, but his interaction with the little girl Mary is good. Amanda Plummer is highly amusing as a dying-dead-dying-again ghoul, playing miserable in a very funny way. Steve Hytner delivers some brisk comic relief as a chatty mortician. And attempting to out-ham Walken, and almost succeeding, is a pre-“Lords of the Rings’ Viggo Mortensen as the Devil himself. Glowering, cackling, and delivering every line in a horse, sarcastic whisper, Mortensen makes a character that is essentially a walking deus-ex-machina and exposition dropper very entertaining. I love the scenes where he describes Hell as being open “even on Christmas,” mocks Koteas’ praying habits, and tries to pursue the heroes over the dark side while snacking on Walken’s recently removed heart. If Walken makes the movie worth watching, then Mortensen makes it worth watching until the end.

Bizarrely, “The Prophecy” went on to spawn four sequels, all of them direct-to-video, two of which somehow manage to snag Christopher Walken. I guess he just really liked the character? I remember two being along the same lines as the first and three being just about unwatchable. (Walken’s part in it is very small.) Considering their lack of Chris, I never bothered with four or five. During the dried-up, dead nineties, I guess horror fans took what they could get and just about anything could blossom into a franchise. Despite all of the criticism above, “The Prophecy” really is rather entertaining, in spite of itself. Dock your brain, all of it, at the door. (7/10)

Ringu (1998)
I love urban legends. I can’t exactly say why but I suspect it has a lot to do with my interest in pop culture sociology, symbolism, and archetypes. The same drive that makes me want to obsessively collect as much information as possible on horror archetypes and icons, and indeed figuring out what even constitutes an archetype or icon, probably also drives me to read up on as many urban legends as possible and to postulate just what exactly they mean. American urban legends and Japanese urban legends both feature malevolent figures that trick and destroy people for little or no reason, often with elaborate back stories of their own. The big difference is the menacing figures in American modern folklore are more likely to be escaped mental patients, murderous gang members, or phantom cars, while the frightening figures of Japanese urban legends are often ghosts, spirits, and demons, many of which with their roots in mythology. (Obviously, America lacks a centralized mythological background. Our cities worry more about violent crime so of course that’s the background our stories drawl from. The ghosts in classical American urban legends tend to be more of the Vanishing Hitchhiker variety – less likely to violently mutilate you then just to freak you out with their mere existence.) But I digress. Many Japanese myths directly involve ancient spirits or ghosts directly interacting with modern technology or moving among modern cities, representing Japan’s position as a country indebted to tradition and a deep mythological history but also a country at the peak of scientific advancement and technological progress. And thus my long, meandering diatribe brings us to “Ringu.”

The opening sequence plays like an urban legend brought to life. On paper, the concept of a killer video tape sounds absurd but the film’s execution is straight-faced and creepy enough that it sells it. It successfully plays on the gullible, easily frightened part of your brain. The film shifts into a mystery, as Nanako Matsushima, a likable relatable lead, goes about trying to solve the enigma of the killer video tape. When he she finds the tape, the story takes another turn into to the undeniably creepy. And now the sleuthing continues but the stakes are much higher, and the film smartly continues to elevates. By the time we get to the island and the facts in the mystery are laid out… Well, getting all that information dumped on us doesn’t sound very fun, but the first part of the film is so successfully mysterious that the reveals feel like a proper pay-off. The climb down the well sequence proves to be an exciting, satisfying conclusion, but the screws aren’t done turning yet. The true climax, in which we get a real payoff to all this “You’ll die in one week” business, is one of the most disturbing, get-under-your-skin moments in horror history, in league with the shower sequence from “Psycho.” The movie then wraps up on a surprisingly mean-spirited note.

Perhaps the film’s story wouldn’t work at all if the movie wasn't so damn creepy. The movie doesn’t waste too much time before showing us the infamous video which is just as disturbing, unusual, and freakish as its reputation implies. Even before we see the creepy video, there’s a sense of dread hanging over the whole film. While the film doesn’t back away from the occasional jump scare, it’s more interested in building an unsettling horror atmosphere. The excellent sound design, which amplifies every creek while adding a great deal of odd, discordant noise, contributes to this greatly. Basically, “Ringu” is a film that commits to being as freaky and creepy as possible and, more or less, succeeds at this goal.

The film spawned sequels, remakes, and so many rip-offs that the ghost girl with the long black hair became as ubiquitous in Japan in the early 2000s as the slasher killer was during the American eighties. The American remake is generally considered as good as the original by most but not me! Like most American remakes of foreign films, its slicker, louder, less intelligent, and has less mystique. A lot of people say the Japanese original is confusing while the American version is more concise. I had the exact opposite reaction, finding the American remake convoluted and complicated. Yes, in Japan, most of the story revelations come from random psychic flashes and subconscious hints, but that somehow works more for me then the loose ends and tail eating featured in this country. If you have a choice between the two, always go with “Ringu” instead of “The Ring” (8/10)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 27

Friday the 13th Part II (1981)
Another part two beloved in the slasher fan community that I’ve never been impressed with. I had always regarded it as a cheap cash-in and retrend of the first, with some elements blatantly swiped from superior proto-slashers like “Twitch of the Death Nerve” and “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” I’ve always felt that the franchise really didn’t find its strength until Jason found his trademark mask. (The point when some people think the franchise lost its spark.) Obviously opinions differ. But it had been a long time since I had seen “Friday the 13th Part II” and I decided to give it a fair chance. After all, the slasher genre, more so then any other horror subset, is built primarily on formula and stealing from better movies.

The first thing I immediately noticed about the film this time around is Steve Miner was a director who could build up a set piece. The long, drawn out scenes of characters going about their business in silence, waiting for something to jump out at them loudly, is and was a cliché, even in 1981. But Miner makes it works. (It’s a good thing too, because this film is loaded with jump scares. If there is such a thing as the cheap jump scare, I suppose these are expensive jump scares?) The reason the camera lingers seems to come more out of a legitimate interest in atmosphere and building tension as opposed to just stocking up for the next shock. Dare I say, the way the camera patiently watches is almost naturalistic and artful.

Anyway, the point is: The opening sequence is great. The very first shot is of a little boy’s feet splashing in a puddle, who is then called inside by his mother. Immediately following, the boots of Jason Voorhees (who, of course, audiences in 1981 wouldn’t have recognized or related to) splashes through the same puddle. This image phrases the first film's hook visually: The safety of childhood, for example summer camp, being invaded and violated by malevolent forces. (I’m probably reading too much in to it.) The camera voyeuristically watches Alice, the original film’s sole survivor, already subconsciously invading her privacy while suggesting the killer’s presence, another trick swiped from the Italians. Alice is all ready living in a violated world, haunted by the memories of her long night at Camp Blood, which the movie helpfully recounts for newcomers, and nagged by a mother who is worried about her but Alice regards as a nuisance. The mother is an important figure in this franchise’s mythology, an idea blatantly taken from “Psycho,” and Alice’s trouble with her own mom seems to foreshadow the decapitated head of another mother in her fridge. Anyway, THE POINT IS: I like the scenes of Alice milling about in her home, oblivious to the danger about to pounce on her. It works and builds atmosphere. The Spring-Loaded Cat that is thrown through her window is a bit much but the movie, like good porn, builds successfully to the money shot: Alice finding Mrs. Voorhees’ still squishy head in her fridge and then getting an ice pick buried in her temple. The jumping kitty watches the violence, licking its lips. If Steve Miner is as smart as I’m beginning to think he possibly could be, could this image be a metatextual comment on the audience’s own hunger for carnage? Is it possible that a franchise as brainless, vulgar, and unapologetically derivative as “Friday the 13th” has really been biting the hand that feeds it as early as part two? As the proceeding film demonstrates, probably not, most definitely not, but its fun to think so.

All of this suggests that the movie is a lot better then it really is. Because, let’s face it, this isn’t high art, this is “Friday the 13th.” Once we get back to the summer camp, we are immediately introduced to a disposable cast of interchangeable twenty-somethings-playing-teens. None of these characters have any fucking personality. There’s an obnoxious pranksters who brings a real spear to camp for some stupid fucking reason. There’s a paraplegic jock and the girl who wishes to bone him and a couple defined solely by their desire to bone, all vague character sketches at best. As for the rest, who the hell knows and/or cares? The movie establishes its crass streak around this time too, with menstruation jokes and a protracted shot of one of the mindless babe’s (admittedly very nice) ass straining to explode out of her Daisy Dukes. A very gross dead dog carcass is found too. (And Kane Hodder said Jason doesn’t kill dogs…) The sequels had the audience’s affection for Jason to fall back on and usually took the time to at least designated stereotypes to his victims. I’m completely indifferent to this cast of indistinct knobs. Final girl Ginny is well-regard in the fandom and far from the virginal stereotype, since she’s got a grabby boyfriend, but even she’s thinly defined at best. Her only real character moment is when she questions and discusses Jason’s motivation during a buddy-buddy bar drinking spree and her only real trait is feisty determination in the face of death. I suppose this is a decent start for the nascent slasher franchise, but Amy Steel isn’t Jamie Lee and Ginny isn’t Laurie Strode.

Once all that set-up bullshit is out of the way, night falls and the movie gets down to its purpose. Our final girl and her boyfriend are removed from the setting. Exploitation reigns as people get naked, show off their gross tan lines, have sex, and think about having sex. And then the movie can go about whittling down its cast. Any time a character is left alone, you now their time has come. Very few of the death scenes, the foundation upon which the entire franchise would eventually rest, are memorable. A guy hanging upside down in a noose becoming a victim is a good idea but undermined by soft special effects and some fake looking blood. The wheelchair jock getting a faceful of machete and rolling back down some steps is cool, but unoriginal. The best death scene, the double impalement of the aardvarking couple, is, as I said, a total rip-off of Bava. I didn’t even remember how Terry, who is apparently the skinny dipper in the short-shorts, got killed and had to look it up just now. The elaborate executions Jason would engineer as soon as part three are nowhere to be seen here. He seems content to solemnly stab and slash throats, with little energy or interest. Crazy Ralph, another holdover from part one, and a random cop pad out the body count further. At least the movie goes about its business briskly. Everyone’s dead and we’ve rolled around to the third act before you know it.

And somewhere in the middle of all this tedium, we get moments of visual spark. Vickie, that’s the chick who wanted to pork Wheelchair Jock, has a great death scene and it’s completely without blood. Looking for the horny couple who were her friends I guess, she instead finds Jason hiding under the bed sheets. It’s the first clear look we get at Baghead Jason and it’s a fitting introduction. Slowly, he pulls a knife and corners the girl. The camera focuses on the blade as he slowly approaches her panicked face, her screams building. It’s an intense, sadistic moment of cruel horror. There are other occasional sparks. We see Jason drag one of his victims down the stairs, the camera focusing on her feet as they fall from step to step, in a surprising moment of stark horror. The movie needed more flashes like that.

Anyway, once Ginny and Paul, that’s her boyfriend, make it back to the camp, the movie stops sucking and gets good again. The first film paused its last act chase with occasional safe spots but part 2 is unrelenting. Poor Ginny is pursued for a very long time. Jason was obviously still learning the ropes here and I like how she occasionally outwits and outmatches him. It’s here that I begin to understand the affection for Amy Steel. Ginny does the standard amount of running and hiding, including another unnecessarily gross moment of bladder betrayal, but mostly she fights, fights with tooth, nail, and even chainsaw. The big, dumb, loud score pounds away during the chase scenes and stops during the soft scenes, preparing us for Jason to stick his hand through the window or a pitchfork through a door. These jump scenes are oddly effective though. Like I said, Miner knows how to play the waiting game just as well as he knows how to play the jumping game. The image of Jason running towards Ginny, as glimpsed through a window, is also oddly memorable. The finale, where Ginny confuses Jason with a sweater and then he goes down like a total bitch from the kind of shoulder wound that wouldn’t even faze Part Four’s Jason, is a total cheat but, what the hell, it works. If nothing else, it shows our final girl as more resourceful then the rest. The final jump scene, a moment first employed by “Carrie’ and then every other horror movie afterward, is unnecessary and also doesn’t make any fucking sense but, whatever, it was standard issue even in 1981. Let’s look at Jason’s make-up and throw our popcorn out of our laps!

“Friday the 13th Part II” is undeniably sloppy. The merry prankster character disappears without reason midway through the film. (Not that anybody missed him.) Just where the hell was Jason hiding? I always assumed the death of his mother prompted some sort of supernatural resurrection but, nope, the movie makes it clear that he was just hiding out in the woods for thirty years. How come he never attempt to contact Mom, who was obviously around? How come he never killed before? And, most importantly, how come none of the people living or working around the lake noticed before? Jason’s behavior is obviously inconsistent throughout the series but it’s inconsistent throughout the film itself. Why did he kill the cop? Why does he spend so much time watching when he could have just been killing right from the get-go? And how the hell does Ginny’s little gambit at the end even succeeds? Jason’s might be murderous but there’s no evidence to suggest that’s he’s delusional. Aside from all the other indicators, like the shitty writing, there’s time when it’s very obvious this sequel was rushed into production with little thought for quality or logic.

But, what the hell, I don’t hate the movie. All of my criticism stands but there are moments when it’s undeniably effective, like the badass opening scene. Eventually, Paramount would ramp “Friday the 13th” up into a tight cheap-thrills-delivery machine, churning out back-to-back series best with Part 3 and 4 and later 6 and 7. Part 2 represents the series, as a series and not a stand alone film, at its earliest and shakiest. It’s messy, it’s stupid, it’s unreasonable, it’s ultimately not very good, but I’m beginning to maybe see what seemingly everyone else sees in this one. And, fuck, who doesn’t love Muffin the dog's completely inexplicable cameo appearance at the end? Also: Holy cock, did I really just ramble on about this goddamn movie for over three pages? I need to reconsider my life decisions. (6/10)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)The ultimate classic in paranoid horror. I really don’t have a whole lot to say about this one because I was kind of dozing while watching it. Which is appropriate, considering what happens to the characters in this film when they sleep. So here’s some disorganized thoughts about 1956’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

- Kevin McCarthy gives a really good performance. I love the way he gets increasingly more panicked as the film progresses, climaxing during the brilliant, iconic, amazing, one of my all time favorite scenes in movie history, shots of him screaming at people on the highway. He correctly illustrates what high stress and a lack of sleep will do to a person. But, even when at other volumes besides screamingly insane, he’s good. It’s really easy to tell why this guy is such a pillar of his community. There’s not much to the supporting cast, but I like Dana Wynter.

- The sequence where Larry Gates, after being replaced by the pods, talks about how nice thoughtless conformity can be is really successful. It actually makes having your individual soul stripped away by pods from space sound kind of inviting.

- Seems like a lot of movies based on the Body Snatchers premise makes the pod people cold, emotionless, and robotic. But not so here in the original. The pod people seem content, almost jovial at times. These aren’t soulless robots, these are creatures with a mission, determined to take over the world. And what better why to do that then with a smile? The threat is truly insidious. And, best yet, you never noticed the pods have won until it’s all ready too late. The paranoia really builds in the second half of the movie, when it becomes apparent that the people McCarthy thought he could trust have all ready been replaced.

- McCarthy and Wynter trying to blend in and then escape the compromised town is a fantastic situation, iconic for a reason. There’s something subtly sinister about the shots of pods being piled on trucks and shipped out of town. And what a way to build suspense! “Don’t show any emotion.” Has a better metaphor for subversives trying to hide in the crowd ever been written? And how their cover is blown is just as much a classic as anything else.
- The movie is widely regarded as sci-fi but, make no mistake, this is a horror movie too. The gooey creation of a pod person ranked high on the gross-out scale back in 1956. The detailless blank pod person prototype seems to have confronted concerns about the Unreal Valley fifty years before it really became an issue. Our protagonists hiding from the running crowds of attacking foes under flimsy floorboards is played for fantastic suspense. But the movie’s biggest shocker moment comes quietly, when McCarthy kisses Wynter and realizes she’s not the girl he fell in love with. It only takes a second, one slip up, to loose your entire personality and be taken over. Remember what I said about this being the best in paranoid horror?

- The opening and happy ending feel as tacked-on as they really are. McCarthy’s expositionary voice-over is also unnecessary and intrusive. Imagine if Don Siegal could have gotten away with the ending as originally planned. The studio added the epilogue because the ending was unsettling which, of course, was completely the point. I think it would have blown many a teenage mind in 1956 if, the last thing they saw before walking out of the theater, was Kevin McCarthy’s sweating, panicked face, screaming directly at them, “YOU’RE NEXT!” Which brings me to…

- So Don Siegal, the cast, and writers made it more then known over the years that they never intended the film to have any subtext. The majority of the film seems to support that theory, since it’s less about one specific group robbing us of our personalities, souls, and rights, then it is about the overwhelming power of conformity in general. I don't think the film and its premise would endure so much otherwise. But then there’s the scene where our hero looks out the window, down into the town square. A pod person stands before a crowd and dictates from a list all of the duties that need to be done today. This, to my sleep-deprived two AM brain anyway, seems to intentionally bring Communist Russia to mind. Maybe it’s just me…

While where here, I’ll just say I’m not a fan of the 1978 remake. The majority of people seem to prefer that version to the original but I found the self-absorbed seventies Me-Generation cast to be largely unlikeable. I do like the 1993 Abel Ferrara version however, with its icky body-horror-style pods and brutal anti-military themes. But the original is the version I saw first and one I’ve always liked the most. (9/10)

Psych: “This Episode Sucks”
The Halloween episodes of “Psych” are usually pretty good. Nothing has ever topped the slasher episode they did a few years back. That’s my favorite horror-related episode and my favorite episode from the show in general. But I would put this on par with the werewolf and haunted funhouse episodes from past Octobers. I like that the show focuses a little more on Lessiter’s human side, since that character so often exist to be nothing more then an exaggerated foil for Shawn. The love story he has here is legitimately sweet, even if the show takes it too far at the end. And, man, Kristy Swanson looks great! I didn’t even realize it was her at first. She manages to bring the “Deadly Friend” cuteness at times while also being “Buffy ‘91” hot at times too.

The presence of a former Buffy isn’t the only in-joke here. Corey Feldman shows up in a bit part and they even play “Cry Little Sister” when he first appears. Shawn and Gus spend a large portion of the episode dressed as Lestat and Blacula. (People keep mistaking Gus for Count Chocula. Is the character of Blacula really that obscure for the normals out there? I feel so disconnected at time.) There are a couple of great jokes made about garlic and holy water here, even if I feel Gus and Shawn’s vampire obsession is maybe taken a little too far over the top. I also like the scenes involving the black cat, which is quite amusing. The show also takes the effort to throw some fog in there too, just for the classic horror look.

Overall, a solid episode of a reliably goofy, fun show. It certainly won’t changed the opinions of anybody who think the show isn’t serious enough or that the main characters are annoying or overly quirky. But it’s a good show to watch with your Mom. (7/10)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 26

The Kiss of the Vampire (1963)
I’ll admit, the non-franchise Hammer vampire movies always felt a little out-of-place. “Kiss of the Vampire” uses the original ending of “Brides of Dracula” and, in general, feels like it’s made up of unused ideas cooked up for “Dracula” films. This has the bizarre effect of making the movie play with the conventions and expectations of the subgenre some. Instead of just one vampire being the primary threat, such as a Dracula or Baron Meinstar, we have to contend with a whole family of vampires. A family that, as the story goes on, seems more and more like a cult. (Right down to the matching white robes.) Our vampire hunter character is even more off-putting and strange then Van Helsing, seeming very off-balanced and dangerous during large portions of the film. He even saves the day by using Satanic magic. (Correcting the point I made in my “Brides of Dracula” review, the vampire hunter uses the exact same cure to fix a vampire bite.) The early presence of an automobile should clue you in that “Kiss of the Vampire” is a little off-beat.

The movie has an excellent opening sequence. A mostly silent funeral procession is broken only when the gravedigger drives the shovel through the coffin lid and into the corpse’s heart, the vampire’s scream shattering the overwhelming silence. The movie never quite lives up to that moment but does a good job of building atmosphere. The audience knows the family is composed of vampires early, during another atmospheric scene where a vampire girl discovers the shovel-impalement from the opening, but the two main characters do not. It’s the classic bomb-under-the-table scenario and works pretty well. The vampire family is nicely neurotic too, with a lot of tension and fear within the family. I also like the quirky inn owners that end up playing an important role in the latter half of the film. The masquerade scene is also a highlight.

Sadly, the movie kind of looses a lot of steam after the girlfriend is kidnapped. Seems like the story starts to go in circles as the husband attempts to break into the castle and rescue his girl only to be kicked back out again. The final scene of magically summoned bats being used to destroy all the vampires sure is a bizarre kicker of an ending. “Kiss of the Vampire” is mostly an off-beat, overlooked little part of the Hammer cannon. It’s a nice counterbalance to all their other vampire films. (7/10)

The Fly (1958)
You know, I loved this movie when I first saw it as a ten-year-old. Absolutely adored it, was obsessed with it for a long time. Along with the Universal monsters, this if the film probably responsible for my horror fandom. Which is really weird, because this film is a melodramatic, campy, stagey film with a standard 1950s moral about man meddling in the affairs of God. The French Canadian setting makes it an even unlikelier favorite of a pre-teen kid obsessed with monsters, dinosaurs, anime babes, and robots.

Oh, but the movie is so successful at what it does. It starts out as a chamber mystery. We begin with a fantastic set-up. A man was crushed in an industrial press by a seemingly sane, loving, calm wife, whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic, developing an obsession with flies. We are well into the movie before we get the flashback that explains exactly the cause of this. What a tasty, catchy set-up. How can you resist that? Vincent Price wasn’t known as a horror star yet and he plays the straight man, along with Inspector Charas, reacting to the increasingly strange events around them, unbelieving and unsure of how to react.

Once we get to the meat of the story, the flashback, things get a little crazier and more overheated. Andre and Helen are such a loving couple who are completely devoted to one another. She is the perfect wife, taking care of the house and kid while Andre toils down in his laboratory, changing the world one invention at the time. They live in this perfect little microcosm, straight out of a 1950s sitcom. Of course, we all know this is going to have a gory ending, but the movie doesn’t build for suspense. Instead this time is used to build up characters and set-up. The flashing teleporter lights come off as very campy and retro now but have a hypnotic angle to it. The movie continues to work as an extremely effective mystery story even in this section. Andre attempts to work out each one of the kinks in his teleporter, discovering new ones, solving old problems, always working forward. The movie gets undeniably campy in scenes… “A stream of cat atoms” being the most obvious moment but the scenes were the couple sit on their front lawn and discuss the relation of science to God also smacks of 1950s moralizing. But you’re still hooked. As unrealistic and arch as it seems, Andre and Helen can’t help but be enduring characters.

Once things go wrong, the movie continues to work like a great page-turner. The Fly is only revealed one little piece at a time. Weren’t not sure what’s going on at first and the movie takes it’s time laying out clues and reveals. The shot of his claw emerging from the white lab coat, even with the melodramatic score playing underneath, remains startling. More effective then the make-up or monster antics is David Hedison’s performance under the make-up. I love the way he illustrates how he’s loosing control over his mind and body. The shot of him grabbing the trembling fly-claw is great. And, of course, the unmasking of the Fly is a classic sequence. The multi-lens shot of Patricia Owens’ screaming face is rightfully iconic. The Fly head design is pretty subtle truthfully, especially compared to the over-the-top creature design in “The Return of the Fly.”

The movie’s conclusion is ultimately an emotional one. Despite their relationship coming off as corny and unrealistic, this is still a successful love story. The sequence of Andre, his human mind succumbing completely to the fly’s brain, scratching out the message of “love you” slowly on the board, the last message he can ever send as he looses his sanity, really does pull at your heart strings. The happy ending is admittedly tacked on but Vincent Price assuring little Philippe that his father was an adventurer and a courageous man feels right within the context of the film’s emotional heart. (It also helps dispel some of the film’s unseemly, reactionary, “He tampered in God’s domain!” tone.)

Honestly, the equally iconic “Help me!” scene comes off as a bit of an afterthought. It wraps up the story’s loose ends and is a fantastic, surreal, image to take the film out on. (The half-human/half-fly make-up ends up predicting the body horror of Cronenberg’s remake.) Maybe it’s the film’s oversized emotions and melodrama, it’s main detractions, that are exactly the thing that made it a beloved film for ten-year-old me. That, along with an understated, hearty Vincent Price performance and some very famous, effective horror scenes. “The Fly,” flaws and all, is a classic. (8/10)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 25

The Brides of Dracula (1960)
Another Hammer film I’ve always remembered loving, though I’ll admit it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. This time, rewatching, it certainly seemed to take a very long time to get going. The scenes of Marianne exploring the Meinstar castle are quite good and slowly form a foreboding atmosphere. I also love the idea of Baroness Meinstar, a great performance by Martita Hart by the way, knowing her son is a vampire and keeping him locked up. However, if you know the Baron is a vampire, and it’s fairly obvious even to first time viewers, the scenes don’t exactly have a lot of suspense to them. You’re pretty much just waiting for the Baron to get free and start with the vampiring. The fact that the film is almost over before Marianne is aware that the Baron’s a vampire doesn’t make her the most compelling Hammer heroine either. There are a few nice scenes of Marianne talking with her students, the best moments occurs over burnt toast, but generally I find the female parts here a bit thin. (They’re not as sexy either. Seems like the trademark Hammer light-eroticism didn’t become a part of the films until the next year’s “Curse of the Werewolf.”)

But once Van Helsing shows up, it’s a whole different movie. Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing remains my favorite take on the character. Cushing and the filmmakers continue to show Van Helsing as an action-ready combat pragmatist. Swinging from ropes, dangling from wind mills, tossing crucifixes across tables, and always confronting the evil head-on, Cushing’s doctor is the prototype for the current concept of the kick-ass vampire hunter. When the doctor starts talking about how all vampires are evil affronts to God’s goodness and must be eliminated thoroughly, it could sound bad coming out of anybody else’s mouth. But Cushing is as gentle as he is strong. You believe what he’s doing is right. The Hammer variety of vampires are a far cry from the morally neutral creatures of today anyway. Without Christopher Lee around, this movie becomes a full blown showcase for Cushing’s unique style of badassery. My favorite display of this trait is also one of the movie’s most famous, and unique, moments. After being bitten by the Baron, Van Helsing cauterizes the wound with a iron and dashes holy water on it. It’s a method for immediate vampire cure that I’ve never seen before or since. Van Helsing himself seems surprised that it works.

The movie is full of other interesting, indelible moments. The insane, cackling servant urging a fledgling vampire out of her grave is a great moment. Similarly, the discovery of the insane servant and the remorseful, transformed Baroness is another good, earlier moment. Van Helsing later puts the Baroness out of her misery, in a rare example of a sympathetic Hammer vampire. The scene of Gina rising from her coffin and attempting to “kiss” Marianne is another moment, dripping with casual lesbian undertones. And, of course, the entire final confrontation in the mill is a fantastic action set piece. After creatively saving himself from a vampire’s bite, Van Helsing cooks up an equally creative way to deal with Baron Meinstar. This movie continues to improve on and add to the Hammer style of foggy, English atmosphere. In that regard, it’s a better film then “Horror of Dracula.”

“The Brides of Dracula” has only one major distraction. David Peel sure ain’t any Christopher Lee. He’s too young and pretty to be intimidating and too flat to be charismatic. He’s a pretty weak substitute for Lee’s Drac. The way the brides are also assumed to perish in a fire off-screen at the end is also a bit anti-climatic. Overall though, “Brides of Dracula” is another Hammer classic and one of the studio’s best productions. (9/10)

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
One of my least favorite adaptations of the “Phantom” story. (Though, admittedly, the only version I really like is the Lon Chaney one and nothing tops the Dario Argento take for badness.) First off, the Phantom isn’t really a threat in this film at all. He’s not the villain of the piece. He doesn’t kill a single person. He doesn’t do anything except tutor Christine in singing and threaten Michael Gough. For whatever bizarre reason, this film takes the same origin for the Phantom that the 1945 Claude Rains-starring adaptation did. The Opera Ghost wasn’t born deformed, doesn’t have a history of assassination, and shows genius in no other category but music. The Phantom isn’t even Erik anymore, being recasted as Professor Petrie, once again someone who has his music stolen and has his face horribly burnt in an accident. The villain of the piece is obviously Michael Gough as the sleazy, asshole-y opera house owner and all of the violence, kidnapping, and traditional Phantom antics are delegated to a mute, dwarf assistant, another awkward addition to the tale. A sympathetic version of the Phantom certainly wasn’t unprecedented even in 1962, but a non-murderous one is unacceptable. Herbert Lom, a veteran genre performer even in the early 1960s, plays the Phantom as a scatterbrained, brain-damaged old man. It’s not a bad performance I suppose, but the character comes off as utterly neutered. The scene of a single tear running down his mask is hopelessly melodramatic.

I’ve never liked this one but decided to give it a fair shot. I only ended up noticing other problems. While Terence Fisher did a fantastic job of making the sets on the other Hammer films look like anything but, here his camera feels very boxed in. “The Phantom of the Opera” is the first Hammer film where it was obviously the movie was shot completely on sets. Instead of the story building to any sort of climax, we instead get a lot of singing. A lot of singing. Obviously it comes with the territory but the entire last ten minutes of the movie being devoted to an opera performance doesn’t match up to other last act Hammer theatrics. (The Phantom doesn’t even get his revenge on Gough, leaving two character arcs uncompleted.) The love story between Christine and Raoul-stand-in Harry is okay I suppose, and the couple get a few sweet moments, but it just feels like further stalling of the horror elements. I understand that it was a practical, budgetary decision, but relocating the story from Paris to London seems to drain a lot of its mythic power. London’s opera house certainly doesn’t have the history that Paris’ does.

Even with all of these issues, nobody could program a set-piece like Terence Fisher could. There are several memorable moments in an otherwise unmemorable film. The hanged body tearing through the curtain hand first and swinging towards both the figurative and literal audience is a fantastic scene. The Dwarf gets a great introduction, his face suddenly appearing in an opened window. Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue,” so heavily associated with the character, is incorporated extraordinarily during the scene where Christine is kidnapped. The decision to have the Phantom himself crushed beneath the obligatory falling chandelier is a clever way to kill two birds with one stone as it were. I also like the red dropping curtain being one of the final images of the film. That’s appropriate. And though he throws the mask off for no reason other then the movie has to have an unmaksing scene, the Phantom make-up is very good, nicely gruesome while still being an accurate depiction of an acid scarred face. Heck, I even like the opening credit scene, as the camera hovers just over the water, watching the Phantom play his organ.

Hammer’s “Phantom of the Opera” definitely isn’t up to snuff with the classic Universal version, despite these stand out moments. The whole is definitely not the sum of its parts here. And the adaptations of the classic story would just continue to get further removed from the original novel’s tone, if not it’s story. And usually worse too, climaxing with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical for lonely housewives and the embarrassing sexypants film version, featuring a sun-burnt Gerald Butler as the titular villain. (I’ll give Weber this much, and this is the only time I’ll compliment his monstrosity, but at least his Phantom actually kills people.) (5/10)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 24

Fantastic Dinosaurs of the Movies (1990)
Unlike “Hollywood Dinosaurs,” this is a straight-up trailer compilation with no narration or anything. The tape starts with a short promotional video taking us inside Ray Harryhausen’s work shop and showing off early sketches for many of the monsters from “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” The video also includes more then one lingering shot of starlet Kathryn Grant’s cleavage. So there’s that. The tape throws a much larger net then “Hollywood Dinosaurs” did as well, including a lot of trailers from non-dinosaur related movies. “Earth vs. The Spider,” “The Giant Claw,” “The Giant Gila Monster,” “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “Jason and the Argonauts,” the incredibly cheesy "Jack the Giant Killer," and a few other unrelated giant monster movies are tossed in for the heck of it. It’s all pretty entertaining stuff though I’ll admit the lack of coherence makes it better suited to background watching.

I don’t have too much else to say about this one, other then it throws in more obscure titles then “Hollywood Dinosaurs.” “Journey to the Beginning of Time,” “The Loch Ness Horror,” and the “The Crater Lake Monster” are ones I’ll admit I haven’t seen yet. This is also the third time this weekend I’ve seen the trailer for the Irwin Allen version of “The Lost World.” I haven’t seen that one either and the slurpasaur packed wonders it promises doesn’t exactly make me want to rush out and see it. I wonder what ever became of Frosty the Poodle? (6/10)

Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
I find Hammer horror is usually resistant to sociological readings, but there’s definitely something here. In the long prologue, a beggar wanders into a cruel nobleman’s castle, where he is humiliated before being “bought” and imprisoned in the castle dungeon. Years later, the mute daughter (Played by the gorgeous Yvonne Romain, with a plunging neckline.) of a castle servant is harassed and assaulted by the same nobleman before being locked up with the forgotten beggar. The rape, murder, and escape that follows is the origin for our werewolf protagonist. Later on, when Leon is a grown man, as he walks into town looking for work, an affluent man riding by in a carriage splatters him with mud. Similarly, a rich, well-dressed fop keeps Leon and his love, Carissa, separated. In the end, the lovers are kept apart by the spinning wheels of bureaucracy. The same system refuses to confront Leon’s lycanthropy, resulting in the werewolf’s climatic rampage through the town. Is it possible the film is saying that the rich, upper levels of society tend to treat the poor as if they were, *gasp*, animals? Though the metaphor seems to be forgotten once the film decides to focus on the werewolf attacks, there’s definitely a deliberate subtext here that you don’t usually find in Hammer’s films.

Any subtext werewolf movies usually have deal with puberty or uncontrollable lust. There’s some of that too. That the impetus of the werewolf’s birth is a sexual assault certainly doesn’t go unnoticed. Leon happens to be visiting a brothel when he first transforms into a werewolf. Most obviously, the cure for his lycanthropy is love… Good, clean, Christian love, though his relationship with Carissa is chaste only do to lack of time. It should be apparent by now that “Curse of the Werewolf” is not your typical werewolf movie. It’s not only the unusual origin of the curse that marks the difference. The film holds off on showing the werewolf make-up until the end, focusing more on the aftermath of his attacks.

Terence Fisher’s direction is more stylish then usual as well. There’s a few sweeping pans and, my favorite shot of the film, cuts from a swooping cloak to a wide shot of the tower’s courtyard. I love the final shot of a couple crying, isolated in the courtyard. I always really dug the werewolf make-up here. Classic it is, the Jack Pierce Lon Chaney make-up never really looked like a wolf. While it’s subtle and mostly involves a single forehead appliance and some fur, the werewolf design actually looks like a wolf. The performances are quite good as well. Oliver Reed isn’t all bluster like his performances usually are. He cries a lot too. In all seriousness, it’s a good performance. Clifford Evans and Hira Talfrey are also very good as Leon’s surrogate parents.

Overall, “Curse of the Werewolf” is one of my favorite Hammer films and one of their best productions in general. It’s a shame they never revisited the werewolf concept. (9/10)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 21

Hollywood Dinosaurs (1991)
You find the most amazing things in your basement. In a box of old VHSs, tucked in with SatAM and Power Ranger tapes, I found this. The public domain 50-movie box seems to have replaced the humble trailer compilation tape in dollar store dump bins. Which is a shame, because I really prefer a good best-of reel to slogging through hundreds of hours of forgotten dreck. “Hollywood Dinosaurs” isn’t just a straight-up trailer compilation either. It sets out to be a history of dinosaurs in film, starting from the 1920 silent version of “The Lost World” and going from there. Most of the important bases are covered, such as Willis O’Brien’s “Creation,” “King Kong,” “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” the slurpasaurs, both versions of “One Million BC,” Harryhausen, and lots and lots of Godzilla and his other Toho cohorts. There’s also a few gems thrown out in there, such as “Dinosaurus!,” “The Beast of Hollow Mountain” which I had manage to completely forget about, the hilarious “Reptilicus,” “Gorgo,” and the complete and uncut “Bambi Meets Godzilla.” Early on, a lot of silent movie footage has Godzilla sound effects played over for no particular reason but, luckily, the movie cuts that out soon enough. The movie is lucky enough to have been made in 1991, so they don’t have to talk about “Jurassic Park” and spend a lot of money on expensive clips from that blockbuster.

There’s a wry narration going over the whole thing, which is knowledgeable and fun without being disrespectful to the source material. The movie was written and directed by Ted Newsom, a guy who has made a few of his own B-movies over the years but seems to have mostly worked in the nineties video compilation world. There’s a lot of neat tidbits throw out, most of which a seasoned genre fan probably all ready knows about, but the effort is still appreciated. (The movie at least dismisses the “King Kong vs. Godzilla” ending myth. Thank goodness.)

Though, obviously, the dino-footage is the main drawl here. The “Valley of Gwangi” trailer shown here, with the word “Gwangi!” hissed over and over again musically, remains an all time favorite of mine. (And hard to track down.) The movie really reminded me of how fluid Harryhausen’s creature effects could be. Most of my enjoyment of “Hollywood Dinosaurs” is based in nostalgia, not going to lie about it, but even a veteran sci-fi fan can find a few things in here he hasn’t seen yet. (7/10)

Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2011)
Like “Blood: The Last Vampire,” here’s another foreign cult property adapted into a low-budget, astoundingly mediocre direct-to-video American flick. I’ve only read a few “Dylan Dog” comics and liked what I saw. I know enough to know that this movie doesn’t take much from its source material besides Dylan’s trademark red shirt and jacket and his shitty luck with women. Instead of something more surreal or melancholy, Dylan fights vampires and werewolves. Early on, we find out that humans drink vampire blood as a drug… Christ, how many times has that idea been used recently? “True Blood?” “Lost Boys 3?” What’s up with that? Similarly, the idea of combining private detective fiction tropes with the supernatural is similarly worn-out and overused. (Brandon Routh’s unnecessary, irritating voice over doesn’t help in.) The idea of making a mob family and a werewolf clan the same thing is something I’ve definitely seen before as well. Over all, the whole movie has a been-there, done-that feeling to it.

This feels less like a movie and more like an episode of “Buffy” or something. The look is very bland and non-cinematic. The creature effects are half-way decent, especially the zombies and the demonic final boss. But the werewolf make-up is just a mask over dudes in shirts. The plot is fairly episodic and unremarkable as well. Dylan follows all of the leads before discovering the plot’s MacGuffin midway through. (Thanks to a grating infodump from a character introduced solely to drop exposition) Afterward, he walks into a building and, literally, just grabs the evil, mystical item and walks out. There’s a plot twist that comes fairly out of nowhere before, at the last minute, we find out this is a movie about Van Helsing Hate Crimes. And, again, the world ending threat, as often is in these story, is defeated way too easily.

Brandon Routh is terrible in the lead role. This dude is seriously uncharismatic. I liked the zombie sidekick and the idea of a service that provides replacements parts for rotting zombie. But “Dylan Dog” is pretty aggressively unspectacular. (5/10)

Zombie (1979)
Thanks to Blue Underground and the Alamo Drafthouse, I was able to catch this one on the big screen. I’ve never held Lucio Fulci in the same regard as the other pillars of Italian horror, Argento and Bava. His direction is certainly not as stylish. The colors are general kind of drab and dark, and there’s a lot of rough zooms. However, Fulci isn’t without his own stylistic elements. When the zombies rise from their graves, we get several shots from the undead’s point of view, including dirt falling off the lens. Fulci always made good use of music and atmosphere. While the Caribbean score doesn't always work for me, the main theme is a complete classic and very creepy. The scenes of the shambling zombies walking out of the night and slowly approaching the church are quite atmospheric. (The superior “The Beyond” makes great use of this talent for foreboding dread.)

But for the most part, and I don’t think even fans of the film will deny this, “Zombie” is a gore film. It’s really built around a series of gory set pieces. There’s the opening sequence with the zombie on the boat, the meme-tastic “zombie vs. shark” scene, the equally infamous splinter in the eye, and the disgusting discovering of what happened to the wife. Honestly, the movie is a bit slow during the early going scenes. I like the moments of the detective and the girl sleuthing in New York but, once they get to the island but before the zombies show up, things drag just a tiniest bit. It’s really not until we get the Conquistador’s graveyard that the movie kicks into high gear. The throat-tearing and head-bashing that follows is pretty memorable. It’s a blatant steal from “Night of the Living Dead,” but once our heroes board themselves up in the chapel against the hordes of zombies, the film finally finds a stable narrative groove. It certainly leads the most zombie shambling and gory mayhem. The movie also has a great ending. The shot of hordes of the undead shambling towards New York City, cut together with a newly created ghoul pushing against a locked door, makes for a nicely eerie conclusion.

The movie has got some pretty blatant logic holes too, and not the kind of stylish holes you come to accept with Italian horror. Seems like every female character, when faced with approaching death, just stands there and screams, waiting for a man to save her. How long it takes somebody who’s bitten to turn seems to vary depending on the needs of the story. And, honestly, throwing Molotov cocktails around inside a wooden building seems like faulty planning. So is deciding that, in the middle of the graveyard surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, is the best time to start putting the moves on your lady friend. I guess when you’re watching a movie mostly for the blood and guts, you don’t really think about these things too much.

It was fun to see this on the big screen, even if I don’t hold it in the same high regard as a lot of other Italian horror fans. Seeing it in a theater full of like-minded individuals certainly adds to the fun, as it always does. And, of course, since it’s the Alamo, you can eat while you watch the movie. Nothing like gnawing on chicken wings as you watch zombies gnaw on people. Classic. (7/10)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween 2011: October 20

As the night of Halloween drawls closer and closer, I find myself with a lot less time. Sorry about missing the last two days. I'll try to do better.

The Hitcher (1986)
This movie is amazingly effective. When I first saw it a few years ago, it managed to catch me completely off-guard and had me jumping several times. For a jaded horror fan, that’s a pretty big deal. But would it hold up, I asked myself as I put the DVD in the player? Well, I still found myself glued to the television, completely sucked into the suspenseful world of “The Hitcher,” where nothing is certain and you are never, ever safe.

All of which is weird, since “The Hitcher” isn’t really a horror movie, now is it? The majority of the film takes place in the hot, sun-soaked afternoons of the Texas desert. It’s cat-and-mouse story is more thriller and the car chase antics that make up a large portion of the film’s most exciting sequences are right out of seventies carsploitation pictures then straight-up horror. Though there’s plenty of blood, most of the actual murders take place completely off-screen. When the violence does happen, it’s startling and unexpected, like the glass behind the driver suddenly exploding, along with the driver’s head. But it’s hard to classify “The Hitcher” as anything but pure horror, if for no other reason then it successfully places the audience in the seat of it’s protagonist. A protagonist who is being endlessly chased by one of the most effective villains in movie history.

Yeah, I said that. John Ryder is one of most effective bogeymen ever committed to film. As far as we know, he’s never come back from the dead, isn’t a vampire, an alien, a robot, or anything but an ordinary man. And yet, he’s completely unstoppable. In most any other film, the sight of a man shooting down a helicopter with a handgun from the comfort of his driver’s seat would come off as completely ridiculous and utterly improbable. But it works here, strictly because the film makes Ryder both seemingly inhuman but oddly relatable. He could literally be anywhere and do anything. I don’t think there was ever a better role crafted for Rutger Hauer’s steely eyed intensity then this one. His performance is soft-spoken and mysterious. He doesn’t have to yell or shout to let us know how easily he could destroy anyone of us. We never find out anything about him. His name is all we know and that could easily be a pseudonym. He appears out of the desert like a phantom and disappears back just as well. Despite his seemingly supernatural aptitude, he is very human. The film implies that he is a man with nothing to loose. He wants to die but cannot self-terminate, so he chooses victims at random, in hopes of finding someone who can take him down. Jim is a normal kid. There’s really nothing extraordinary about C. Thomas Howell’s performance other then what a perfect audience cipher he makes. His freak outs over the ever escalating situation seems genuine. The reason Ryder fixates on him is simply because he’s the only person to ever face him and live. Clearly, this is the kid for the job. The movie suggests a connection between hunter and prey and eventual switch of the two positions. (It also suggests something else too. This is the second movie I’ve seen this season with a hearty gay subtext.)

“The Hitcher” is also extraordinarily well shot. It’s not surprising to read that the director got his start as a still photographer. After Ryder has been kicked from Jim’s car, the camera glides up the road towards the leering murderer, dawn slowly breaking over his head. It establishes the man as a living legend, the urban myth of the murderous hitchhiker brought to life. And the car chases, man! The chase with the cops, and the pile-up that follows, has got to be in the top ten best car chase scenes ever. I’ll admit to having a soft spot for old-fashion car stunts and, boy does this movie ever deliver. When it isn’t slamming fenders into fenders, the movie is building shadowy suspense. The scene of Ryder sneaking into our heroes hotel room and abducting his love interest (An underdeveloped role built up by a feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh performance) is dark and mysterious, like a dream building into a nightmare. And the fate that follows for Leigh’s character, which I will not spoil for those who have yet to see this one, should be in film-class textbooks as the way to build and payoff suspense in a movie. I also love the little detail of a tiger’s roars layered over Hauer’s face as he leaps from moving vehicles to car hood, another potentially campy, clichéd moment the movie pulls off fantastically. It’s a shame that director Robert Harmon’s never really did much anything else of note. This is a fantastic start for a directorial career. (He did bring us “Highwaymen,” which plays like a much goofier version of “The Hitcher” but delivers similarly intense car battle action. I might also have to reevaluate “They” now.)

Enough gushing. “The Hitcher” kicks ass! See this movie! Definitely do not see the remake or the sequel, both of which are blasphemous. (9/10)

Faust (1926)
The pretentious film geek in me wants to say something like, “Silent cinema is true cinema.” That’s an easy thing to think, since silent movies had nothing to rely on but the visual aspect of movie-making. But it’s not really true either, since it implies silent films are inherently better then modern movies. This is the problem when dealing with classic cinema. The great movies survive and are talk about forever. Nobody remembers all the shitty ones. But, right from the very first opening scene, “Faust” got me. The image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding through the heavens is haunting and mythic. They are obviously puppets but, the way the sequence is shot, ladles on the foreboding atmosphere. “Nosferatu” clearly wasn’t a fluke. F. W. Murnau sure knew how to capture shadows, fog, the creepy, and the disturbing on camera. Much of “Faust” feels like a half-remembered nightmare. Seems like all of the demons in this film have gleaming eyes. An early appearance by what we assume to be the devil himself, hidden in shadow, has oddly unnerving glinting eyes. In maybe the movie’s creepiest moment, Mephisto appears, not in a dramatic plume of red smoke, but as a strange beggar in the streets, nothing unusual about him save for his glowing eyes. (And his tendency to reappear everywhere.) In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, the devil looms large over the city as a black smog sweeps over the populace, infecting everyone it passes with the black plague. (Murnau was clearly terrified of the plague and considered it synonymous with evil. Just as Graf Orlock brings bubonic carrying rats with him to London in “Nosferatu,” the devil’s presence is identified here with a sweeping epidemic.) In another fantastic scene, a monk begging the people to turn to God and the church, is shouted down by a swarm of hedonistic partiers, their shadows cast over him. “Faust’ is both a visual feast and a fantastic mood piece.

At least for the first fifty minutes. The evolution of “Faust” from a story about how dirty pagans die horribly to a story of good intentions paving the way to hell to a story about how love saves and God forgives is a pretty wild path. The film seems to start out going with the second version, as Faust is portrayed as a god fearing alchemist who takes Mephisto’s offer strictly to save his village from the plague. But then he is tempted by pleasures of youth and Mephisto, who up to that point was dress in commoner clothes, switch into a flashy red evening wear. What follows is a long, mostly pointless but at least visually interesting scene of Faust seducing a princess. He then goes back to the village of his youth and falls in love with a maiden named Gretchen. The film then falls into a very long rut. Despite this being Faust’s story, his name is right there in the title after all, the movie spends an awful lot of time developing Gretchen and her family. That’s fine I suppose, but then there are long comic relief sequences involving an old woman’s attempts to seduce Mephisto. After another very long scene in which Faust is framed for the murder of Gretchen’s brother, the movie begins to focus on her exclusively. This leads to a forty minute long section about how much her life begins to suck, from being shoved into the stocks in her town, rejected and mocked by everyone who ever knew her, becoming a single mom, becoming homeless, nearly freezing to death in a snowstorm, her baby definitely freezing to death in a snowstorm, and then being sentenced to burn at the stake for letting her child die. This section plays a lot like melodramatic misery porn and, worse yet, has nothing much to do with our main character’s story. Right before being sentenced to death, Gretchen cries out for her lover, her face sweeping across the sky to Faust, who has apparently just being hanging out somewhere all this time. He rushes to her, rejects the devil, and meets up with his girlfriend just in time for both of them to burn to death together. But it’s not a downbeat ending, because loves saves and God forgives. Man, the devil got kind of screwed on that one. “God cheats at cards” is another moral you can take from this.

It’s a shame the movie is almost sunk by this meandering subplot. Otherwise, it’s fantastic. Emil Jannings is perfect as Mephisto, glowering like an imp while being as slick as a used car salesman. Gosta Ekman successfully portrays both an old man and his younger self, showing a lot of emotion on his face. More then that, the film is a visual triumphant. I understand why it’s a classic but a wavering story cements “Nosferatu” as Murnau’s real masterpiece of horror. (I really wish his version of the Jekyll/Hyde story, "The Janus Man," starring Conrad Veidt and Bela Lugosi wasn't a lost film. I'd be tempted to make my own Faustian bargain to see that one.) (7/10)