Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 30

I was at Monster-Mania 23 in Baltimore yesterday, hence the lack of an update. A con report for that is probably coming later tonight.

The Mummy (1932)
Among the established classics, “The Mummy” tends to be overlooked. Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman go together like peanut butter and jelly. But the Mummy? His Egyptian setting causes him to stick out among the classic European horrors. This is odd because “The Mummy” is very much a gothic story, one that wouldn’t have been out of place during the genre’s literary heyday.

There’s a world of difference between ’31 and ’32. A good third of “The Mummy” is scored, with trembling but effective pieces of music. Karl Freund, the man responsible for the look of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” directs with a creative, steady hand. The early scenes of Imhotep in his tomb never reveal too much. The camera roams the museum, eyeing the artifacts in one scene while slowly revealing a praying Ardith Bay in another. My favorite shot involves a cutaway from Ankh-es-en-Amon’s death-mask to the face of Zita Johann, her modern descendent. It’s a beautifully shot film. The desert dunes and dusty streets of Cairo don’t afford much opportunity for foggy atmosphere. The film makes up with its mythic, mystical tone. Similarly, the set design is more subtle then “Frankenstein” or “Dracula,” but its attention to detail lends some verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Really, it’s all about Karloff. Imhotep is one of the more intriguing figures in the Universal canon. He’s undeniably sinister. He makes no attempt to hide his hideous nature and openly threatens the cast. His imposing stature and cruelly deployed powers make it clear he can back up any claims up. However, Imhotep is also a romantic figure. His actions, no matter how monstrous, are motivated by love. His desires are obsessive, dangerous, but all too human. This dynamic is best displayed in the scene when Helen and Ardith Bay first meet. He towers over her, standing uncomfortably close, his hypnotic eyes staring down. She’s seems similarly frightened and enchanted. The love between them is real and, at least a part of her, shares Bay’s obsession. Helen is given a human love interest in Frank Whemple but their love-at-first-sight relationship is unconvincing compared to Imhotep’s century-spanning passion. Karloff’s performance is fantastic, proving he had range beyond “Frankenstein,” while Zita Johann’s intriguing good looks, her round face and big eyes, perfectly embodied the time swept princess.

Ancient Egyptian magic is completely alive in this setting, a surprising move. A modern Nubian immediately submits to Imhotep’s slavery. The mummy’s powers are unstoppable, with a charm of Isis being the only protection. In the film’s primarily narrative gaff, a climatic call for help from the gods proves successful. There’s a creaky spookiness to the film, especially its sacrificial ending. The film is well edited, avoids most pacing issues, the performances are assured, the direction solid, and the story rife with complex themes. The modest goals are wildly exceeded. In some ways, it’s a better film then “Dracula,” which it’s frequently compared too. [8/10]

The Demoniacs (1974)
An allegory of some sort. The film revolves around “wreckers,” bandits who beached boats and raided the spoils. We are introduced to a captain, his sadistic girlfriend, a drunk, and the Other Guy. While out raiding crashes one night, out of the ocean emerges two beautiful blondes. The pirates rape the girls. The next day, the captain has visions of the girls. Still alive, they wander into haunted ruins, guarded by a woman in clown make-up and Rasputin. They make a deal with a man locked in a prison under the hill, who might be the devil. He deep-dogs them both and grants them the powers they need for revenge.

“The Demoniacs” doesn’t have much in way of pacing. We lull slowly from one location to the next. The bandits try to kill the girls, without much success. A cross-dresser plays ominous songs on a piano. It drags until we get to the ruins. The moss covered chapels and rotting churches are gorgeous and make a memorable setting. The clown woman is bizarre, especially her first appearance perched on a rock. A man drinks out of a giant bottle before tripping and slicing his neck on the glass. Dead bodies sink into mud as the tide rolls in. The bow of a ship, an animal skull placed there, disappears slowly under the waves. As you’d expect, female nudity abounds and Rollin frequently frames the nubile bodies in a greater tableau, such as a stark naked babe standing on a bed in a ruined room, chastising the cowering men.

Once empowered by the devil, you’d think the movie would become a rampage of revenge. Not quite. The girl’s abilities come with a few strings attached. In the last ten minutes, the movie descends into almost pure allegory, as the mute girls (Did I mention they’re mute?) are set upon by their attackers. Nature intercedes each time, cutting down the villains. Our protagonists are raped again, their much touted innocence further sullied. I think that’s what the movie is getting at, something about the death of innocence. I’m not sure.

There’s some camp. The sadistic woman tries to corner the girls in an abandoned church. They use their powers to make statues fall around her. That’s got to feed into the film’s theme, statues of Mary and saints shattering. The mute girls hilariously direct the statues by waving their arms stiffly. Despite being a period piece, everyone is dressed in pastels and spandex. There’s a lot of stereotypically French stripy shirts. The Devil looks like a swarthy seventies lover. A 1800s pirate in bright red stretchy pants is pretty comical. The girls’ tan lines betray the setting.

“The Demoniacs” is Rollin at his most linear but also his most pretentious. Eventually, it stops making any sense on even an interpretive level. Despite the numerous rapes, the movie never looses its softcore sheen. I suspect the filmmaker was aroused by the images. I’ll be returning to the director’s vampire movies next where I suspect his talents are better suited. [6/10]

High School of the Dead: “Running in the Dead”
So, fourth episode in, and the show all ready feels it’s necessary to do a recap? I mean, the first ten minutes are composed solely of scenes from the first three episodes. That’s nearly half the run time! What the fuck? Stop making me hate you, “High School of the Dead!”

The rest of the episode is just as bad. It focuses on Boring Hero Guy and Girl. They drive around on a motorcycle, steal some guns, and get gas. The two proceed to argue about the best friend who died in the first episode for no reason. A crazed gangbanger wanders in and threatens to rape Boring Girl. So now all the pervy camera angles officially get creepy. Worse yet, Rapist Guy spews vulgarities non-stop. Takashi, despite obviously being a fucking action star, hesitates over shooting the guy before finally shooting him. The duo drives off. The plot moves forward an inch. Did I mention that Hero Guy monologues solemnly over top the whole thing? Get better “High School of the Dead” or I’m leaving you. [3/10]

Friday, September 28, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 28

Frankenstein (1931)
The earliest scenes of “Frankenstein” are haunted by the spectres of death. The opening burial, taken place in a barren, stark graveyard, is watched over by a gruesome grim reaper statue. Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein literally throws dirt in Death’s face in this scene. Another early moment featuring Edward Von Sloan’s Dr. Waldman is framed by shelves full of skulls. Fritz’ robbery of the brain, his shadow cast huge on the wall, is foiled by a hanging library skeleton. The morbidity of the subject matter extends to the very structure of the film.

I can’t believe I never noticed the deeply expressionistic sets in this movie before. The pattern on the floor of Frankenstein’s laboratory are criss-crossed at conflicting angle, putting the viewer off. The beams and walls in the tower are at askew angles, subtly evoking an otherworldly atmosphere. The Monster’s prison are the sets most obviously indebted to “Caligari” and its ilk. The sole window appears in the center of a slouching triangle while the door is tightly squeezed between two encroaching walls. Even the hallways of the ancestral Frankenstein home are slightly in the same style. The film’s extensive use of shadows and lightening seals it. “Frankenstein” is the extreme surreal stylings of 1920s German cinema streamlined for an American audience.

Colin Clive’s performance as the Doctor is sort of underrated. His more manic moments are the most famous but his quieter scenes work well too. In Mary Shelley’s novel, the quest to recreate life is born out of a desire to conquer the death in his own life. In a monologue, Clive’s Doctor reveals that his experiments steam from what he sees as a natural progression of man’s curiosity and science. Even his softer scenes with Elizabeth have a warmness to them. Dwight Fry ultimately isn’t given too much to do, due to Fritz’ monosyllabic nature, but his body language still sells the character. In the final version of the film, the character of Victor doesn’t serve much of a purpose. Originally there to be beside Elizabeth after Henry’s demise, the revised, happier ending ultimately leaves the love triangle unresolved. It’s a bit of a shame since John Boles makes the usually aggravating third wheel of the obligatory love triangle actually a pretty nice guy.

The nature of Karloff’s monster has been discussed endlessly. Listening to Ruby Belhmer’s informative, if overly studious commentary, it’s not surprising to learn that the “criminal brain” aspect of the script was a late addition. It seems to me that James Whale’s intention was that the Creature was a pure innocent, totally child-like in nature. His reaction to Maria the flower girl’s drowning is one of abject horror. He is not born a monster, but rather transformed into one by the cruelty and rejection of the world. His only truly malicious move is the murder of Dr. Waldman. Even the attempted abduction of Elizabeth could be explained away by a naive curiosity. In the original script, the doctor’s laboratory was also the climatic windmill. In light of this, the Monster dragging Henry’s limp body back there becomes a frightened, confused creature returning to the only home he’s ever known with the only person to show him anything but cruelty in hand. The film is even more a tragedy then ever before.

James Whale seems fond of sideway sliding dolly shots. He uses them numerous times, passing through the set’s walls as if they were a stage play. Undoubtedly, the most memorable of these types of shot is Maria’s father carrying her body through the village. Behind him, the celebrating faces of the villagers transform into frozen faces of terror, their songs dissolving into horrified screams. Though the sequel would make it obvious, “Frankenstein” does contain some of Whale’s trademark camp humor. The elder Baron Frankenstein, fed up and disgusted with his son’s antics, is the film’s primarily comic relief and far more subtle then the era’s usual style. The film certainly never suffers from the pacing problems “Dracula” has.

Long time readers should know how much this film means to me. I could ramble on for pages. Instead, I’ll cut it off here. “Frankenstein” is a great, great movie. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve got no damn excuse. [9/10]

Fascination (1979)
Highly regarded by hardcore Rollin fans, “Fascination” is a break from the arty vampire flicks he’s best known for… Sort of. The director actually seems more interested in telling the story then nudity and pretty images. It’s by far the most polished of his films I’ve seen.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t feature his trademarks. In the late 1800s, a thief swipes some coins from his fellow thieves. Despite the female tempting him with her heaving bosoms, he continues into the forest with his loot, the others in pursuit. Eventually, he comes to an isolated lake-surrounded château, home to two mysterious women. The girls immediately manipulate the guy, doing everything they can to keep him there until midnight. The girls, lesbian lovers and master seducers, keep whispering about a mysterious ritual. What does this have to do with the opening scene of a woman drinking ox blood for her anemia?

It’s a highly erotic film. I counted three sex scenes and there’s far more nudity. The girl, locked in a room, enjoy each other’s company, caressing one another’s asses and suckling each other’s boobs. A pretty hot scene, especially since Franca Mai and Brigitte Lahaie are gorgeous. Eva, the blonde, seduces the young man into another stimulating scene and, later on, she is forced into servicing one of the other thieves in a stable. Despite being more plot-focused, it’s still fair to say the film crosses over into soft core porn.

The horror elements slowly work their way in. The most famous scene involves Lahaie, clothed in a black robe, swinging a giant scythe, an eroticized version of the Grim Reaper. Murder shows up more then once, bloodily slashing through the subplot. Once night falls and black fog rolls over the lake, a cult of women appear and the movie turns out to be a vampire story after all, of sorts. So if boobs are distracting and you’re wondering when the horror will show up, be patient.

A woman in white standing in butcher’s shop, the walls and floors covered with blood, is the first striking image. Eva writhes on the bridge in a see-through pink dress. Faces, half-bathed in shadow, peer around a wooden plank. So, no skimping on the visuals. What there isn’t any of is funny camp or over-the-top pretentions. That’s good and fine and probably makes the movie highly accessible, but it also makes it a little less fun. Mai and Lahaie both give good performances and Rollin keeps his embarrassing tendencies under wrap. I can certainly recommend “Fascination.” But I actually think I like the director’s work better when he’s trippier and goofier. We’ll see how that opinion evolves as I continue my journey. [7/10]

High School of the Dead: “Democracy Under the Dead”
This episode starts with a short news broadcast. There’s some (possible) jabs at world politics, what with America’s willingness to just nuke everything and call it a (dooms)day. After that, the episode launches into melodramatic action. Realism left five minutes ago as our group of normal teens quickly establish themselves as the Zombie Extermination Squad, finishing whole hordes of undead in seconds, throwing bodies around like paper bags. Zombies weigh less, I guess.

The cast continue to be problematic. Annoying Smart Girl grabs herself a pair of glasses so you know she’s the smart one. Despite that, her interaction with Fat Nerd continues to be amusing. Nurse Boobs (They even call her Nurse Boobs!) is starting to grow on me. Maybe that’s because this episode gives her something to do besides have giant mammaries. Really, it’s Boring Hero Guy and Boring Hero Girl that bother me. Guy’s only defining characteristic is his willingness to endanger his own life in order to save his friends, which he does twice, while Girl continues to be a grab bag of emotional upheaval. In this episode, she’s pissed off and distrustful, causing the most groan-inducing horror cliché: In-fighting in the group. Worse yet, this episode introduces a school teacher who is obviously evil from the first second. He hisses every line, moves his arms around dramatically, kicks a kid’s face in, demands to be elected leader, and is the hoariest of villain clichés: A Social Darwinist. Ugh. Hopefully, zombies tear this guy apart really soon.

There continues to be enough dynamic moments to keep me watching. The zombies of “High School of the Dead” are blind and hunt solely by sound. This leads to a suspenseful sequence of a character navigating a crowd of zombies just by keeping his mouth shut. The latter half features two actually exciting action scenes, one involving a bus full of ghouls, another featuring a zombie with a motorcycle helmet on. It doesn’t make much sense. (Did he zombify mid-bike ride?) But at least it’s different. The fan-service is a little less oppressive in this episode. Aside from the panty shot on a zombie girl. That might be a new low. [5.5/10]

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 27

Dracula (1931)
I’ve probably written about these films more then any other yet I notice something new every time I watch. This time, I realized “Dracula” is set in the modern day. During the flower girl scene, you hear a car horn and see modern street lamps. Another question I ask for the first time: Why did Dracula disguise himself as the carriage driver? Why hide his face? Despite this question, it is one of the most atmospheric scenes in a film built primarily on atmosphere.

Modern critiques tend to say Lugosi is the sole graceful factor in a stagy film. True but don’t undersell. Karl Freund’s camera is not stationary. A pan around Renfield’s shoulder, a slow move up steps, a panorama of Seward’s sanatorium. Renfield leering from the ship or the shadow of the captain lashed to the wheel are just two chilling scenes. The use of shadows is toned down from Universal’s silents and it’s generally agreed that Freund’s artistry was held back by Todd Browning. Wither Browning had trouble adapting to sound or was still grieving for Lon Chaney (and the version of “Dracula” they had planned on making) is debated. Either way, you can’t deny the power of these scenes. The early shots of Dracula’s castle, the brides awaking in the catacombs, the illogical armadillos, beetles in tiny coffins, Lugosi’s glaring eyes. These images are the base upon which all American horror films were built. They still send chills up a viewer’s spine seventy years later. The set design is incredible, particularly the dusty staircase of Castle Dracula or the ruins of Carfax Abbey. Supporting the sets are fantastic glass painted backgrounds.

I won’t waste words on why Lugosi is the iconic Dracula. He exudes an authority over everyone simply with his body language. Shots of him doing nothing but standing in shadow-swept doorways manage to be creepy. Given Dracula’s sway over the opposite sex, it’s easy to understand while the vampire is a fantasized character for men. But why is the vampire a sex symbol for women? The film is split on the issue. The scene of Dracula cornering the flower girl brings to mind nothing but sexual assault. I believe Dracula leaning over the sleeping bodies of his prey aren’t meant to be provocative but rather to invoke classical nightmare imagery. We are all vulnerable when we sleep and many horror films prey on that innate vulnerably. (Yep, I just traced a line from Dracula to Freddy.) Dracula is feared by his female victims, yet still oddly attractive. Lucy doesn’t seem totally asleep when Dracula comes for her. A later scene, where Mina walks into the count’s arms, his cape wrapped around her, blending in with the shadows, is undoubtedly romantic. The vampire is a man with complete control over his females, psychic and sexual. Why women would desire such a mate is a topic unsuited for this blog. The seductive female vampire is a horror concept not yet solidified. Mina, once turned, seems less like a willing seductress and more like a drug addict, uncontrollably forced to attack her beloved husband.

The movie is flawed, no doubt. Who the heck is the main character? The count is unknowable. Harker or Seward don’t do anything besides wring their hands. Van Helsing comes in too late, Lucy exits too early, while Mina is a damsel in distress. Nope, it’s gotta’ be Renfield. We follow him from the beginning and he features in most of the scenes. A book must exists that explores his character more. There’s a lot of untapped potential there. Dwight Fry had enough range to play a straight-laced businessman perfectly, even if his unhinged insanity is what we remember. When his spider is thrown away, you almost feel for the guy. His monologue about Dracula presenting him with a feast of rats is great and I wonder why no other adaptation has gone into more detail about that. Why does Dracula even keep the guy around? He doesn’t serve him much and is even responsible for revealing the count’s hiding place.

The pacing drags in the latter half, as the staged qualities take over. There’s a number of narrative question marks. Lucy’s story arc is oddly abbreviated. We hear about her escapades as the Woman in White but Van Helsing disposes of her off-screen. Why does Dracula have Mina just hanging around the abbey at the very end? What purpose did that serve? Renfield preys on the unconscious maid in one scene but we never find out why. The guy sure gets out of his cell easy. Dr. Seward should probably hire a new staff. Dracula’s final confrontation with Van Helsing is anticlimactic. Even the weaker second half of the film has its moments, such as Dracula making eye-contact with Mina’s maid or smashing the mirror out of Van Helsing’s hand.

I’m not begrudgingly calling it a great movie. It remains the best adaptation of Stoker’s novel in many ways and is the most important of the Universal Monster cycle in countless ways. [8/10]

Dracula (with Philip Glass score)
Not to linger too much on this, since it is the same film, but I don’t think too many people will argue with me when I say Philip Glass’ score improves the film. It adds tension to numerous scenes, such as when Dracula attempts to bring Van Helsing under his sway. The music certainly helps some of the slower moments of the movie pass quicker. While Glass’ signature minilistic, repetitive style certainly isn’t for everyone, his film scores are usually outstanding. This one is no different. I suspect if the music was with the film from the very beginning, it would be even more critically beloved. [8/10]

Drácula (1931) – The Spanish Version
Common knowledge would have it that this is the superior version. Well, for films shot with the same script, these two are rather different. Spanish Dracula is generally better paced, despite being nearly a half an hour longer, with a few scenes cut together. The camera is more active, overall, though not by much. A lot of the dangling story threads in the English version are resolved. We find out just what the heck Renfield was doing to that unconscious maid. (Just freaking her out, apparently.) The Lucy subplot is actually resolved, with a simple scene of a sad Harker and Van Helsing leaving a tomb. We find out why Dracula left Mina just hanging around the abbey at the end. (He was going to finish the job but the raising sun forced him into his coffin.) The additional scene of Van Helsing giving the dead Renfield his final rites is poignant. There’s a new, nice scene of Renfield being interviewed where he reverts to a normal, calm disposition before overcome by the presence of a fly. Lupita Tovar is an improvement over Helen Chandler. Tovar’s Eva is much more energetic and, once under the count’s sway, actually acts like a seductive, evil lady vampire. Van Helsing even has to ward her off with a cross!

These are all pluses but this take lacks some important details. Carlos Villarias has nothing on Bela Lugosi. Instead of Lugosi’s natural, sinister charisma and commanding presence, Villarias mugs for the camera, doing a lot of eyebrow and face acting. Pablo Rubio goes way over the top as Renfield, screaming hysterical laughter, acting like a total nut and not in a good way. Seward’s staff seems even more incompetent here. With the exception of a few shots, this version seriously lacks the atmosphere of Browning’s film. A shot of fog billowing through an iron gate is the sole moment of foggy, black-and-white ambiance. So it’s about an even split. From a technical perspective, this is the stronger film, but it lacks the ingredients that made the English language film special. [7/10]

Viy (1967)
The first Soviet Russian horror film. The only reason censors allowed it is because it’s based off of a short story by respected author Gogol. (Who based it on a folk tale he totally made up.) The period setting probably didn’t hurt any either. I’m not a scholar of Soviet film but it’s not surprising to see that this is more like European art cinema instead of anything like what American studios were producing at the time.

“Viy” takes place in the 1800s and revolves around a young pastor in training. One of the surprising things is how rowdy parish school is. Despite training to become men of the cloth, the students still drink and party. It’s those desires that get our protagonist in trouble. Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov) seeks shelter in an old woman’s barn. She hits on Khoma and when he rejects her, the old woman jumps on his back and rides him across the night sky. This is the first use of old-fashioned but charmingly surreal special effects. Kuravlyov ends up beating the witch to death. Before dying, she transforms into a beautiful girl. The next day, the student is summoned to reside over a young woman’s body for three nights. It, of course, is the girl he met previously. While watching her corpse, weird shit happend. And that’s when the movie gets good.

Brutus is warned by the townsfolk that the girl was a witch. Her father’s insistence that he stays and fulfills his daughter’s last request is oddly adamant. There’s nothing wrong with these daylight scenes. The director shoots with a lot of vigor. Kuravlyov is easy to like. An early scene of the student getting drunk employs the wonky in-camera effects that you’ll see more of later.

The night scenes are when the movie comes alive. Khoma is smart enough to drawl a circle of protection as soon as he’s locked in with the dead body. The first night the body gets up and attempts to seduce him out of the circle. The second night, the coffin rises into the air and flies around. None of that compares to the last act, when the witch gets serious. In the film’s signature moment, green skinned monsters of all type crawled out of the walls. Skeletons ghoulishly dance around. (You can clearly see the wires and yet, somehow, that just adds to the effect.) The odd phantoms, with three pig noses or eyes were eyes shouldn’t be, exist in their own gravity, moving according to their own rules. The monsters surround the circle, determined to freak our hero out. It’s not until the title monster, a huge demon with giant eyelids covering his all-seeing eyes, is summoned that stuff goes badly for the protagonist.

The rest was just build-up to this fantastic overload of phantasmagoric images. Rightfully, the movie peaks here. Good triumphs, kind of, and the movie wraps up on a decidedly ambiguous note. How you feel about the character’s fate is squarely up to the audience, even if the filmmaker’s meant this to be a fable about faith. “Viy” feels like a fairy tale from another time, full of culture-specific creatures with specific rules. For someone who likes crazy looking, do-it-yourself special effects and weird, obscure folklore, this is exactly the kind of movie I like. It’s an easy recommend for horror fans willing to venture out of their comfort zone. [8/10]

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 26

The Beast Within (1982)
“The Beast Within” combines many different horror tropes. It plays like a werewolf movie without the werewolf at times. A Southern town with a dark secret is the primary setting. There are elements of demonic possessions and revenge from beyond the grave. Most famously, in the last half-hour, the movie explodes into body horror, with a vivid transformation and a monster gorily dismembering victims. The gritty violence and setting feels like ‘70s Savage Cinema, but the show-stopping creature effects puts it in the company of effects-heavy early eighties flicks, like “American Werewolf” “The Thing,” or “The Howling.”

The setting of Naoba, Missisipi provides Southern-fried atmosphere that’s hard to resist, especially when the moon shines through fog and tree branches. The story slowly puts down clues, drawling the audience in. The eventual transformation is set up subtly. The special effects are fantastic. Michael’s transformation is the film’s center-piece. It’s so climatic that it almost spoils the last act. However, Philippe Mora’s strong direction builds suspense through frenzied performances, noise clattering outside, and wisely delivered gore. The decapitation here is one of my favorites. The violence is calculated through-out, as the first murder, the mortuary sequence, and the electric kill are equally measured by suspense and make-up.

The cast is peppered with memorable faces, among them R.G. Armstrong and Don Gordon. Ronny Cox and Bibi Bersh are both excellent as the concerned parents, totally unprepared for what happens to their son. Cox, in particular, makes his everyman role highly relatable. L.Q. Jones is especially likable as the tough, no-nonsense sheriff, the only man in Naoba not involved in the conspiracy. If there’s a performance that doesn’t work, it’s Paul Clemens as the troubled boy. He’s frequently good when snarling threats but is less convincing as a normal teenager.

The script is by Tom Holland who quickly established himself as a reliable genre draftsman. The ambiguous story is frequently criticized. The story suggests that cannibalism and years of abuse is enough to transform a man into something inhuman. The possession, reincarnation, and bizarre metamorphosis are unexplained. Did Billy Curwin come back through pure force of will? Similarly, the connection with cicadas seems to have resulted through environmental influence. He imprinted on the forest and, likewise, it imprinted on him. Supposedly, about twenty minutes of deleted scenes would have clarified these details but, nah, I like it the way it is. You could probably give the movie shit for its underdeveloped love story but I like that too. Michael and Amanda have chemistry together and their hormones-heavy love-at-first-sight romance is exactly right for a pair of teenagers with overly protective parents.

Not every element works. Les Baxter’s score, his last, is bit confused, sounding one minute like a 1950s monster movie while featuring throbbing, overdone synth the next. The ending is hopelessly anticlimactic. The threat is dealt with too quickly and the emotional fallout isn’t focused on enough. Overall though, that last atmospheric shot of an old house in the darkness hits my horror-fan sweet spot. “The Beast Within” is a cult gem for me. [7/10]

The Nude Vampire (1970)
The movie is concerned with indelible images. There’s no dialogue for the first ten minutes. In the second scene, a young girl, clothed in a see-through orange shawl, is stalked by people (creatures?) wearing bizarre animal mask, the most striking of which is a deer mask with antlers made of tree branches. It’s creepy, dream-like, and sets the tone. That spooky deer mask shows up again, looking down from a building’s ledge. In extreme close-up, the camera roams a woman’s bodies, while she squeezes her nipples with long, golden fingernails. A cult, all wearing red hoods, shoot themselves with invisible bullets. Torches appear out of the darkness, a crowd suddenly walking in the night. We peer down a desolate beach, broken pier legs sticking out of the sand like rows of huge teeth, a bright red casket between the ranks.

While the movie is full of legitimately striking visuals, there are a few times when Rollin’s trashy, Euro-schlocky side pokes its head out. The villain of the film has twin maids. The pair is usually clothed in a bizarre get-up: A segmented leather skirt and glass do-dads dangling in front of their boobs. The house is decorated with baby dolls with colored-on pubes. Two people are sent into violent spasms after being gently knocked in the head with a candelabrum. People in odd red outfits teleport around a hillside. There’s an extended sequence of a mostly naked young woman dancing for a group of men, wearing an odd outfit that features little plastic spikes covering her nipples. At the end of her dance, she drops dead. If you couldn’t figure out from the title, there’s a shitload of female nudity, including a number of busty topless extras.

The movie is described as incomprehensible. A character even says, “Does this make any sense to you?” The story is secondary but not difficult to follow. There’s a vampire girl, a rich man trying to exploit her abilities, a cult who worship her, and the millionaire’s son who falls in love with her. Also, a group of hyper-dimensional mutants. (The portal to the other dimension is a pair of red curtains.) When the movie stops to explain is actually when it falters. The last ten minutes feature a character explaining that final twist in excruciating voice-over. Frankly, I think the film would have fared better if it dispensed completely with a story and focused on the surreal imagery. It also would have been shorter and better for it. The copy I have is a brief 81-minutes, shorter then the 90-minute French cut, and all ready feels like it could have lost ten minutes.

There’s little blood and the film, overall, has a gentle, dreamy tone. “The Nude Vampire” isn’t for everybody. It’s probably not for the majority of people. But when it’s at its swimmy best, I can dig it. And I’m certainly more interested in Rollin as a filmmaker now. [7/10]

The Last Warning (1929)
I don’t have too much to say about “The Last Warning.” It’s not much of a horror film. There’s certainly some horrific elements floating around. The story revolves around an actor dying mysteriously on-stage during a theatrical performance. Years later, a man reopens the theater and decides to restage that play, in hopes of luring out the murderer. This plan is wildly successful.

Sometimes, the only difference between a murder mystery and a horror film is the delivery. “The Last Warning” is focused on sleuthing. A large portion of this short film is devoted to sneaking around the theater, investigating things. There’s plenty of cobwebs, reported ghost sightings, creepy old prop dummies, and a killer in a weird mask with monster claws on. All of these things make up a small portion of the film.

Because of the lousy condition of my copy, the inappropriate musical score, and the silent format, I had trouble sousing out the individual details. The guy playing the theater owner/detective seems to give a good performance. An old man who constantly yells at a stage hand for dancing or singing is funny. But other details, such as who exactly everyone is and the obligatory love story, got lost among the static.

This was the second teaming of director Paul Leni and star Laura La Plante, after “The Cat and the Canary.” Leni’s visual sense continues to be strong. An opening montage establishes the Broadway spirit in a surreal, interesting way. Shots, like a grasping hand appearing over the action, a wounded man stumbling out of the shadows of a secret passageway, or a bump appearing in the carpet from under the floor, are nice touches. La Plante has even less to do here as she isn’t involved much in the action. The film’s Broadway setting made me think Universal was hoping for a cheaper “Phantom of the Opera.” The climatic sequence, involving the cops chasing a murderous man in a creepy mask across the theater, certainly recalls that film. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also the best moment in the movie. Generally speaking though, I don’t think “The Last Warning” has much to offer horror fans, classic or otherwise. [5/10]

High School of the Dead: “Escape from the Dead”
All ready, I’m having some trouble with the characters. Takashi, Mr. Obligatory Boring Protagonist, is fond of melodramatic voiceovers about his parents and the apocalyptic scenario. Rei, the brown-haired girl with the huge tits, starts the episode crying and yelling at a cell phone that just happens to be out of bars right that second. Neither trait endears them.

Luckily, this episode is mostly focused on the supporting cast. Saya, the pink-haired girl with huge tits, is the know-it-all, stuck-up bitch. She gets paired up with Khota, the fat military nerd. Saya’s constant need to remind everyone she’s smart is annoying but Khota is kind of bad ass, especially after he starts shooting zombies with a nail gun. Either way, the characters have a decent back-and-forth. We’re also introduced to Saeko, the purple-haired girl with the huge tits, who is an expert at smashing zombie heads with a kendo sword. She fills the soft spoken, honorable warrior type. Her combat expertise is over-exaggerated. Generally speaking, the action is over-the-top and cartoonish. I guess that comes with the territory.  

How long a character survives seems to correlate with their cup size. A nervous nerd murders a zombie with an IV pole, which is cool. He doesn’t live. The clueless school nurse with the humongous tits (They make a jiggling noise with each wiggle, in case you didn’t notice) does survive. In any other anime, she’d fill the Ms. Fanservice role but I don’t see her purpose in a show we’re every female is bodacious and scantily clad. Despite that, this episode dials the obnoxious perviness back a little bit. I only counted, like, six panty shots.

The ending is dramatic but at least some of the emotions are actually earned. I’d say episode two is better then the first, even if this show is still about half-entertaining, half annoying. [7/10]

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 25

The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The opening of “The Cat and the Canary” is amazing. A layer of dust and cobwebs are wiped away to reveal the opening credits. The mansion is first seen as a tall, distorted silhouette, a series of shadowed spires emerging out of the darkness. The towers of the mansion fade away to a series of glass bottles. Mr. Cyrus West, the ill millionaire watched over by his greedy family, the metaphorical canary, appears in the bottles while cats leer hungrily at him. We cut to a POV shot of someone walking through the shadowy halls of manor, the huge white curtains billowing in the wind. As far as classic gothic horror imagery goes, this is a buffet.

This wasn’t the first ‘old dark house’ movie. D.W. Griffin’s “One Exciting Night” predates it and the genre existed on the stage first. If you’re looking for a compilation of clichés, this one provides. We’ve got greedy relatives gathering in a spooky mansion, awaiting the reading of a will. Some are trust-worthy, while others are duplicitous. The mansion has secret doorways, including one in a bookcase. There’s an escaped homicidal maniac. Someone tries to discredit the sole female benefactor with old fashion gas-lighting. A dead body falls out of a secret compartment. The villain even wears a fedora. This is clichés 101 and how you feel about that depends on how you feel about classic horror in general.

Another hallmark of the ‘old dark house’ genre is incorporating laughs with thrills. The leading man, Paul (Creighton Hale), hides under beds, gets vexed by giant bedsprings, runs around hallways, gets spooked by the creepy maid, and bounces around. It’s not hilarious. Another problem is the large cast. The main characters are developed to basic ideas while the supporting cast doesn’t even get that much. Laura La Plante as the main heroine does nothing but get threatened. She’s the dullest of the damsel in distress type. The movie ships these two cousins without question which is a little weird. Aunt Susan (Flora Finch) reminded me of Una O’Conner in “Bride of Frankenstein.” It’s as funny in ‘27 as it was in ‘35. The movie drags in its latter half. Since the supporting cast is so thinly devised, you can’t guess, nor care, who the killer is.

The film isn’t without merit. Beyond the amazing opening, there’s a cool shot of Paul hiding under bed, lights reflecting in his glasses. The shot of a hand appearing out of the wall, over La Plante’s sleeping face, is great. An appearance by a sinister doctor doesn’t add to the story but is a weird, off-putting moment. The Cat, the villain, is actually pretty cool looking. Where’s my action figure of him, Diamond Select? One of the fun things about the movie is how it plays with the silent movie titles. Words like ‘Ghosts!’ and “Help!’ are presented in wiggling or growing text, while a series of swears are presented by comic book exclamation.

“The Cat and the Canary” isn’t a great movie but it was, no doubt, influential. Universal made two sound remakes in 1930, one in English, one in Spanish, both of which are lost now. Paramount remade it as a farce starring Bob Hope in ’39, probably the most famous version. A British version was produced in the 1970s, somehow by a studio other then Hammer. This isn’t discussing all the films that took its clichés and ran with them. Despite all of this, the movie isn’t discussed too much today, probably due to the lack of an iconic presence like a Chaney or a Karloff. Some bits are brilliant, even if the overall film doesn’t really come together. [6/10]

The Living Dead Girl (1982)
“The Living Dead Girl” is generally considered one of Rollins’ more accessible efforts and the prime jumping-in place by no less an authority then Fangoria magazine. Initial reaction? I liked it, kind of. It’s not hard to see why the filmmaker has a cult following. He mixes copious female nudity, bright spurting blood, genuine artistic flare and enough campiness to make it interesting. The set-up is silly. Some random French crooks are burying toxic waste beneath a local castle. The barrel is knocked over through sheer incompetence and, for reasons never further elaborated upon, revives the astonishingly well-preserved corpse of a young girl. She goes about jabbing the guys’ eyes out and feasting upon their bodies.

Catherine, the titular Living Dead Girl, is the childhood BFF of the woman living in the castle, Helene. The two were so devoted to one another that they made a blood-pact to stay together forever. So when Helene sees Catherine revived, she’s overjoyed. And what’s a quasi-lesbian lover to do besides supply living flesh for her zombie girlfriend? The movie quickly devolves into set-pieces of Helene tricking woman (always woman) back to the castle, killing them, and feeding them to her personal living dead girl. There’s a subplot involving an American couple vacationing in the country side. The guy is forcing his girlfriend into photography against her wishes. He generally acts like a dick, doing everything to undermine her interests. After capturing Catherine on camera, the lady gets intrigued by the mystery. This story line ends up being unnecessary. Both characters are (hilariously) dispatched before the proper ending. The focus is definitely on the relationship between the two women which is framed as a tragic love story.

As exploitation sleaze, “The Living Dead Girl” provides. There’s three sets of breasts displayed and almost as much full-frontal. Every bit is easy on the eyes, especially Francoise Blanchard, whom Rollin can’t wait to get naked. You’ve got a naked young girl, with an almost perfect ass, covered with spurting blood. I can appreciate that.

The arty side shows through a number of times. A scene of blood rolling down the stairs, cut with an image of a bat fluttering, is lyrical. Blood dripping on a music box and Helene washing her girlfriend are also pretty images. Rollin’s visual flair goes hand-in-hand with his self-serious pretensions. Catherine starts out as a drooling retard. After teaching her one measly word, the Living Dead Girl is immediately verbose, frequently discussing how she’s evil and unnatural. This is a big jump. The fact that Blanchard is a better body then an actress doesn’t help. A scene of her moaning to the sky in agony, unnecessarily echoed, is hilarious. The extended finale of her feasting on a body, chomping on fingers like potato chips while weeping uncontrollably, is more likely to evoke laughter then the intended pathos. Marina Pierro is a better actress but can’t quite sell it either. The movie seems sincere and some of that transcends the shortcomings, but it’s never as strong as the writer wanted it to be.

“The Living Dead Girl” does drag in its latter half. A mixture of camp, gore, visual flashiness, and blatant T&A is something I should have loved. Yet the film is undermined by a number of limitations, some of them budgetary, some of them creative. [6/10]

High School of the Dead: “Spring of the Dead”
Warning: Anime ahead. Just letting readers know what level of nerdery we’re getting into.

“High School of the Dead” was sold to me as “Japanese schoolgirls with super short skirts and massive tits fighting zombies.” Come on, I’m not made of stone. Indeed, the show is built on fan-service. Within the first minutes of the first episode, I counted two panty shots and three pairs of giant bouncing boobies. It’s puerile, in your face, and I don’t share the Japanese’s obsession with ladies’ underwear. The show definitely focuses too much attention on the female’s bodies and, given they are undoubtedly sexualized even while being devoured by the dead, it comes off as skeezy. How annoying or amusing this is as the series progresses, we shall see.

We focus on a group of Japanese high school students, one stoic boy, his cooler-then-thou best friend, and the girl he’s harbored a crush on for years, caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. The show dispenses with a few zombie movie clichés in the first episode, such as people not realizing how severe a bite is, the collapse of order, and dealing with a close friend’s death. Hopefully that attitude of “let’s get this out of the way” continues, instead of drawling things out “Walking Dead”-style. The focus, besides from the asses and tits, is on fast paced action. Lots of swirling, rushing shots of people swinging things at the undead. When zombies bite people, it’s followed by a giant fountain of blood. I also like that the zombies are classic, Romero shamblers and not ADD-addled runners. They even occasionally do something different, like twist their heads around Linda Blair-style.

Once you look pass all the juvenile oogling and carnage, there are two genuinely horrific moments. The first involves a panicked teacher yelling over the intercom while, unseen by the audience, he’s torn apart. The second shows two self-described BFFs rushing down a hallway when one is grabbed by zombie. The other girl quickly turns on her best friend, kicking her down the stairs into the zombie’s jaws. It’s a darkly funny moment. (Granted, one undermined by the obligatory panty shot. If this was a drinking game, I’d all ready be drunk.) The characters appear basic but not-annoying, even the girl who cries and almost gets eaten twice. (But, inexplicitly, is also a kung-fu master.) The English dub, which is what Netflix has and thus what I’m watching, isn’t bad. The tossed-in swearing and some of the delivery is melodramatic but the voices suit the characters and aren’t jarring or too horribly distracting. It’s dumb and pervy, but I’m amused thus far. We’ll see how it goes. [6.5/10]

Monday, September 24, 2012

Halloween 2012: September 24

The Last Halloween (1991)
I had nearly forgotten about this, a half-hour TV special from ‘91, one of Hanna-Barbera’s few live-action productions. The story involves a brother and sister pair of trick r’ treaters, a candy factory closing and putting everyone in town out of the job, visiting aliens looking for fuel, and an old woman studying bugs in order to become immortal. That’s a lot of ground to cover in twenty-some minutes and some of those plotlines don’t get much development. The old woman, played by Rhea Perlman in a fright wig, is mostly a plot device to endanger our protagonists. She hangs out in a creepy Victorian mansion on a hill, has a laboratory full of bubbling chemicals, and a bumbling, monosyllabic henchman. (Who somehow isn’t a hunchback.) These are all nice horror-lite elements, even if they don’t add much.

The main attraction is the aliens. Considering this is a television production from a faltering studio in 1991, the special effects are extremely good. The Martians are brought to life with CGI and, while it’s primitive, it’s impressive for the time. The fact that the aliens are blatantly cartoons helps a lot. There’s not much to them and they’re even color-coded. The blue one is the captain, the red one is the science experts, there’s the gold, hopping, child-like one that contributes nothing to the team, and finally a rainbow colored Mogwai looking guy (voiced by Paul Williams, who I guess didn’t have anything better to do that day) who spends most of the movie digging the spaceship out of the ground. With the help of a dog who is conveniently named Digger, for those not paying attention.

The fuel the aliens are looking for turns out to be, ah, candy. So brother and sister take them trick r’ treating. This leads to the scene you’re probably expecting, of the aliens hiding in plain sight, pretending to be kids in costumes. The really arbitrary plot detail about the mean old woman needing special bugs leads to the two plot threads awkwardly fusing together. That plotline is resolved very quickly. I’m not sure if it was needed at all.

There’s some sap. The kids have a dead mom and discussions about that take up too much time. There’s a literal magical conclusion. Luckily, there’s almost no lame kid-friendly humor or no bad slapstick. “The Last Halloween” is super obscure. I only remember it airing once when it was new. It was heavily advertised at the time, including a promotional comic in Disney Adventure Magazine. I only vaguely remembered something about CGI aliens sucking up candy, and then something about a guy in a barn with a vat of green liquid? It was nice to finally find this and confirm I’m not crazy. It’s not half bad, as far as these things go. [6/10]

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913)
I remember seeing a documentary on classic horror once that said, during the silent era, there was something like fifty different adaptations of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” made. The most famous of which is, no doubt, the 1920 version starring John Berrymore. The 1913 version starring King Baggot is… Not.

At only twenty-seven minutes, the movie condenses an all ready pretty short novel even further. It makes two of the biggest sins a silent film can make: Over-reliance on title cards and major overacting. Major plot elements, such as Hyde committing evil during the night and Jekyll loosing control of his transformation, are brushed over in intertitles. King Baggot overacts wildly, most notable during the transformation scenes. Hyde is portrayed, not through elaborate make-up or subtle acting cues, but by the actor smearing some shoe polish under his eyes, making a maniacal grin, and walking around crouched on his knees. As you can imagine the affect is far from menacing.

The film introduces a love interest, though she doesn’t get much development. Hyde’s acts of evil seem limited to picking a fight in a bar, jumping on random people in the street, and hiding behind trees. Overall, the film isn’t very memorable or impressive. I suspect, if its public domain status hadn’t allowed it on to the Youtubes and such, it would be totally forgotten.

Despite all of this, the film is, quite unintentionally, technically the first Universal Monster movie. It was co-directed and produced by Carl Laemmle, the studio’s founder and father to the son mostly responsible for creating the Universal Monster brand. Therefore its inclusion here and probably the only reason anybody much talks about it anymore. [4/10]

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
“Phantom of the Opera” isn’t a great movie, but it is a great performance. If you think studio meddling is a modern phenomenon, think again. “Phantom” suffered from rewrites, reshoots, and recuts. As many as five different versions were edited and presented, with love triangles and characters added and discarded. Director Rupert Julian was, by all accounts, a hack. Numerous issues are evident in the final film, such as a scene were Raoul incongruously cracks a smile while overhearing Christine’s discussion with the Phantom, or another scene where a lantern is handed from person to person over the distance of a cellar.

But Lon Chaney holds it all together. Gaston Leroux’s Erik the Phantom is an over-the-top villain, a ruthless assassin, a beautiful singer, composer, and musician, an architect, a magician, a trap master, a ventriloquist, and a few other things. Despite these extravagances, what makes Erik fascinating is his love for Christine, a desire to redeem himself. He recognizes how evil and loveless he is but is desperate for redemption. All of this and more is in Chaney’s performance. His body language is authoritative and sinister. A point of the finger, the bend of an elbow, arms crossed, a visible evil laugh conveys numerous emotions. His hands spider into frame from around corners or curtains, the fingers unfurling like a storm cloud. There’s no spoken dialogue, obviously, but his body language causes written lines like “Glut your eyes upon my accursed ugliness!” and “The callers have departed” to drip with malicious venom. While the Phantom is pure evil during numerous scenes, other show him collapsing under despair and a broken heart. The fact that he conveys all of this under the extensive, deforming make-up designs is even more impressive. It’s a phenomenal performance that resonates nearly ninety years after its release.

While Chaney’s performance is obviously the highlight of the film, there’s other reasons to recommend it. The sets and production design of the film is fantastic. The Paris Opera is an iconic setting with a huge amount of detail and character. Erik’s lair is beautifully furished, with Christine’s opulent bed being the high-light. The film makes excellent use of shadows. The Phantom appears in silhouette, making demands of Christine, sneaking away cape over his face, or histrionically announcing the drop of the chandelier. Rushing, frightened ballerinas run through the backstage of the opera, their shadows dancing on the wall. The dead body of Joseph Buquet appears hanged from the ceiling. Raoul and the Parsian creep along the cellars of the opera house, their shadows appearing rat-like and low. There are other unforgettable images. Christine’s first appearance has her literally appearing like an angel, floating out of a heaven stage setting. Christine’s descent into the bowels of the opera house, as guided by Erik, are a descent into Freudian symbolism, the horse prancing down slopes, Christine’s dress floating over the surface of the underground lake as the Phantom guides the gondola. The face of the rat catcher, a floating head encircled in a halo of lamp light, appears out of the darkness of the basement. The Phantom’s abduction of Christine straight off the opera stage has his head popping up out of the orchestra pit. The famous Technicolor version features the gorgeous image of the red-clad Phantom atop the opera house roof, his cape billowing in the wind. My favorite is when the Phantom slinks into the lake, his hands creeping up the side of Raoul’s brother’s boat. The execution and construction might sometimes be awkward but I can’t deny the power of these silent movie images.

The movie certainly isn’t free of the melodrama of the day. Even Chaney befalls to this, when he leans back, exclaiming “My love has forsaken me!” Christine and Raoul’s love story, as in the source material, never really sells. Christine comes off as a fool, pushed around by the men in her life. The film’s clobbered together climax has Erik making a one-sixty. He forgives Christine and accepts of her love for Raoul. However, the audiences of the time demanded a big finale. The Phantom changes his mind, kidnaps Christine, jumps on a carriage, cackling like a serial super-villain, chased by an angry mob. Even this misstep has one incredible moment, when Chaney holds off the crowd for a second by pantomiming a grenade in his hand.

Despite any misgivings, “The Phantom of the Opera” is a classic, without doubt, because of Chaney and its amazing set design. The Image Ultimate Edition is fantastic, including two versions of the film: A tinted, beautifully remastered copy of the 1929 sound reissue which is also watchable with a stunning score from Carl Mays and the more commonly seen 1925 general release version. A generous bundle of extras also includes an informative, entertaining commentary from Scott MacQueen. It was my first silent film and would be a fine introduction to the era for anyone else as well. [8/10]

The Phantom of the Opera: Reconstructions
Included on the Image DVD are also two still frame reconstructions. First, the Los Angeles premier version of the film, the very first cut, which runs a little less then a half an hour. Secondly are stills of the new scenes shot for the San Francisco premier, the second version of the film edited together.

The Los Angeles cut hews a little closer to the source material. Joseph Buquet’s murder is moved back to the beginning of the film, Christine’s daddy issues are maintained, and Raoul’s brother has a slightly larger part. The sequence where Christine visits her father’s grave, the Phantom playing his violin behind her, is included. I imagine that could have been a fabulously atmospheric scene. The portrayal of the Phantom is a little sympathetic. He suffers from heart palpitations throughout and dies at the end quite literally from a broken heart. There also appears to be a little more opera in this version. There’s a fantastic still of Chaney leading Mary Philbin across the catwalk. Seems to me this original cut of the film was superior to the final product we got.

The audience reaction to the first version was very negative. Viewers at the time demanded more romance and melodrama. So the San Francisco cut of the film inserts more extraneous subplots. Yet another suitor for Christine’s affection is introduced, who gets into a duel with Raoul and is even in cahoots with the Phantom at one point. Apparently the film’s run time was bloated up to over a hundred minutes. The only thing from these new scenes to stay in was the new ending, the one seen on film today. Thank goodness all of that stuff was scrapped. If you’re a Phantom Fan, you have to check out these reconstructions, a tantalizing or disheartening peak at what might have been. [7/10]

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Halloween 2012: Preamble

Halloween came early this year. Is it just me or has the rest of the world launched into autumn fever a lot sooner? All the stores have candy and decorations stocked by the middle of September. Seems like everyone was ready for the holiest of horrordays except for me. Well, better late then never.

Before getting to my own plans, what’s going on in the horror scene this October? There’s actually a pretty decent amount of horror in theaters right now. The real question is wither or not it’s any of it is good. You can probably still find mall horror like “The Apparition,” “The Possession,” “The House at the End of the Street,” or “Resident Evil: Can You Believe They’ve Made Five of These Things?” at your local megaplexes. The indie scene has thus far yielded “The Awakening,” Pascal Laugier’s bewildering “The Tall Man,” “The Revenant,” and “[REC] 3.” Kid-friendly horror is hot this year with the charming “ParaNorman” all ready out and Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie,” Halloween-themed comedy “Fun Size,” and the wretched “Hotel Transylvania” still to come. October’s offerings are a little stronger. “V/H/S,” the most buzzed about indie horror film of the year, invades theaters and VOD next Friday. Further in the month, “Insidious”-copycat “Sinister” marches out, along with turgid sequels “Paranormal Activity 4” and “Silent Hill 3-D: Generic Subtitle.” The festivities even continue into November, with fun-looking horror anthology “The ABCs of Death.”

As for me? Well, I’ll probably be heading to Monster-Mania in Baltimore for at least a day next weekend. In the latter half of the month, JD and I will once again defy sanity and good taste by experiencing the “Rocky Horror” experience at Apolloween, which will hopefully go better then last year’s attempt. The Alamo Dratfhouse in Winchester will probably have something worth checking out and, no joke, I actually will check out some local haunted attractions this year.

As for my viewing plans for 2012’s Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon, my fourth year in a row? They are legion. This year, I’m doing the Universal Monsters. Okay, I know what you must be thinking, Hypothetical Readers. “But, Zack, you do the Universal Monsters every year!” Why that’s not strictly true, I have covered the films over and over again. What’s the big difference? This year, I’m doing all of them. All of them. Or, at least, all that I can get my hands on. Drawling from this exhaustively comprehensive list, I’m taking my obsession with the studio’s classic horror to its furthest reach.

Aside from that, I’m going to be exploring the films of Jean Rollin, a name you hear every so often as a horror fan.  He’s definitely got defenders, fans saying he’s an underappreciated auteur, others dismissing his films as exploitive, pretentious nonsense. (Another Euro-horror filmmaker that I’m unfamiliar with that gets the same reaction is Jess Franco.) I’ve never seen any and, this season, decided to correct that oversight.

There’s more too! I plan on watching anime zombie series “High School of the Dead” in its entirety, while also exploring some horror shorts, many of them from the glory days of USA’s Saturday Nightmares. There are also some old favorites, new acquisitions, and recent discoveries to watch and talk about. So what’s with the stalling? There are a lot of spooky things to get to! Halloween 2012 has begun!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Director Report Card: The Wachowskis (2008)

5. Speed Racer

“Speed Racer” is crazy awesome. The Wachowski Brothers have made a live action cartoon. Not a live action movie that adapts a cartoon, like previous failures including "Scooby Doo" or another John Goodman movie, "The Flintstones." Those movies attempted to strike a balance between the real world and the cartoon one, conveying neither convincingly. The Wachowski, instead, throw the idea of balance out the window and decide that this isn’t an adaptation of a cartoon, it is cartoon, that just happens to have real people in it. An attitude like that probably wouldn’t have worked for most movies.

However, the extensive use of green screen effects changes those chances of failure. The entire film has an exaggerated, overly colorful, animated look to it that totally establishes in the audience’s mind that this is something different. While “Sin City” and “300” have tried before, “Speed Racer” is the first time the green screen effects truly displaces the viewer into another world. "Speed Racer" is a candy-colored kaleidoscope of hyperactive kookiness.

The action sequences, which aren’t limited to car races by the way, are the pinnacle of this technology. Car racing has never been engaging to me. Didn't watch NASCAR as a kid and have never been a fan of the "Fast and Furious" movies. The Wachowskis film the car races like the fight scenes in "The Matrix." This is exactly as insane as it sounds. Cars jumping up and flipping around, deflecting projectiles, battling each other. I suppose it's just a question of wither or not you buy the universe created on-screen. If you do, I honestly found some of the action scenes exciting and unpredictable. The story is composed of several long races, obviously, and the directors find a way to fill each with real “Hell yeah!” moments.

I knew I loved this movie when, halfway through the run time, all of the characters break into a massive kung-fu fight. Characters that have absolutely no other reason to do so are suddenly experts in the martial arts. Bodies are tossed around, massive kicks are thrown, everyone is flipping head over feet, and anime speed-lines are employed throughout the whole sequence, the musical score humming along utterly seriously the entire time. It's hysterical, in both meanings of the word. If it was any other filmmaker, I'd said somebody was on crack during the production of this film. But, no, the Wachowski brothers are really just insane. Gloriously insane.

It's that dual quality of being completely over-the-top and yet totally sincere that makes the movie work for me. Like a big budget version of the Adam West Batman movie. This is ridiculous to a high degree and everybody is in on it, not cracking a smile once. The cast is totally in on the game. I'm not sure if John Goodman is even aware of how absurd everything he is. He's such a total professional, he brings the same level of stately understanding to every role he plays. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast are definitely aware that they are playing cartoon characters. Susan Sarandon smiles and plays mom, totally sincere in her love for her children and family. Christina Ricci exaggerates her normal level of pixie adorableness to its farthest reaches. Matthew Fox gives the best performance. Stone-faced, moving as awkwardly as the original cartoon character, he even sounds like Racer X did on the show. Emile Hirsch is admittedly a little flat. Of course, Speed has always been the least interesting character in his own show.

Swear to God, I'm not crazy here. I found the familial drama in the film to be genuinely touching at times. Listening to two characters talk about how much car racing means to them, how they bound over it, is ridiculous on paper. Of course, the rest of the movie is ridiculous too. So I guess I just bought. Hey, fathers and sons bond over real life stuff much more goofy then that. The love and togetherness of the family is obviously the main theme of the entire movie. And who doesn't want a family that will stand by you in everything, even when racing through a desert while evil doers fling bee hives at you?

As much as I love a lot of things this movie does, it’s not perfect. Spritle and Chim-Chim, who is at least a real monkey instead of a CGI character, were annoying on the old cartoon and are, big surprise, annoying in the movie. Their little skits are often overly frantic (Which is really saying something in a movie that's frantic throughout) and break up the pacing in an unnecessary way. The characters seem like blatant attempts to appeal to the kitty crowd. The movie is a little long (though it never feels long) and those two could have easily been cut out.

The plot is oddly complicated. I mean, what more do you need in a "Speed Racer" movie besides race scenes? But there's gangsters and attempts by evil businessmen to manipulate the stock market with race scores. I suppose that's no less wacky then anything else in the movie but it feels a little out-of-place in a kid's film. Roger Allam totally sells it though, each line dripping with over-the-top villainy. 

Another big issue is that the movie peaks too early. After 120 minutes of brutal car battles and hilariously over-the-top fight scenes, the climax feels too easy. Speed blasts through the finish lines, decimating all of his enemies. This is probably in keeping with anime conventions, but I feel he should have been challenged right up the finish line instead of the way it actually goes.

There are stumbles but, hot damn, “Speed Racer’ is too out of control for me not to love it. Joel Silver must be a really cool guy if he knew he was basically going to get a cult movie that would barely register with the public at large but still was willing to fork over several million dollars for it. There’s no denying it. I have to agree. Pancakes are love. [Grade: A-]

Monday, September 17, 2012

Director Report Card: The Wachowskis (2003) Part 2

4. The Matrix Revolutions

No. No, it doesn’t.

“The Matrix Revolution” disappoints. The biggest reason why is because it doesn’t provide a satisfying conclusion to the story. If the Wachowski Brothers didn’t exactly undermine the central point of their series, they at least forgot what made the first film so entertaining and invigorating. Any victories the character gain feel strictly pyrrhic.

The first thing “Revolutions” does is prove "Reloaded's" cliffhanger meaningless. Neo is trapped in some wacky place outside of the Matrix… That doesn’t play into any other part of the movie. The Train Man, played by the appropriately grody Bruce "Gyro Captain" Spence, is introduced as a powerful villain. He has two scenes. Neo is rescued in less then thirty minutes and the movie continues on, never looking back. The only purpose these early scenes have is to introduce magical little girl, Sati, who doesn’t factor into much of the rest of the movie.

Well, they have another purpose. The shoot-out in the Hel Club is the last example of fun action in the whole series. Reverse gravity shoot-outs are always entertaining. It’s nice that the filmmakers let Trinity and Morpheus have one more moment of genuine ass-kickery, since they’re stuck in confined places for the rest of the movie. Carrie Anne-Moss sells the whole “I Love Neo!” thing as hard as she can, for better or worst. I don’t think we really needed a second helping of Merovingian though. Also, total missed opportunity to see Monica Bellucci in a tight leather outfit.

The conflict between Neo and Agent Smith, who has evolved into an omnicidal maniac, is the main point of the film. Just by the laws of dramatic events, this can’t happen until the end. We’ve got two hours-nine to fill and the siege of Zion to get too. We have to sit through all this other shit and a bunch of characters we don’t care about doing stuff.

The whole Bane subplot doesn’t amount to much. Smith entering the real world has terrifying implications that aren’t followed through on or even discussed much. The only purpose these scenes serve is to blind Neo. About that. We never get a satisfying explanation for why Neo’s One powers extend into the real world. The Oracle’s explanation basically boils down to “Yep, you can do that now.” The real reason Neo develops new, completely improbable powers is because the Wachowskis had to up the ante. When your character all ready has God-like powers by the end of movie one, how do you raise the stakes in the sequel? “Give him more powers” is the first answer and also the least advisable one. The filmmakers wrote themselves into a corner but their solution is uninspired and badly conceived.

As for the attack on Zion, it’s problematic. The special effects still hold up, even though this movie is nearly ten years old. (Christ, I feel old.) We take giant robots in movies for granted today, but the APUs had a real novelty at the time. The images of the Sentinels swarming into Zion, a giant black cloud of death, a dark subversions on impregnation imagery, is still breath-taking. And, hey, the Sentinels themselves are still awesome looking.

The Kid isn’t a bad character but, really, who gives a shit about this guy? The same with Zee and… What’s her face. The Other One. These aren’t the character we’re here to see. They are thinly developed in their own right. Captain Mifune is at least kind of fun but his constant war-cries are annoying. Who do you think you are, Reb Brown?

The War of Zion is visually exciting but quickly wares out its welcome. The Hammer’s run fares a little better. First off, it takes up less screen-time. Secondly, it at least features established characters. Thirdly, there are some pretty cool shots in these scenes, such as the ship flipping upside down through the tunnels or just barely missing crashing to the ground, the blue electricity spreading out over the floor.

The worst part about either story threads is that neither end up mattering. The Hammer completes its run but Zion is still screwed. Humanity is still doomed. The fate of the universe has always been in Neo’s hands. All they’ve really accomplished is preventing the machines from killing a few more people. The movie was just burning time until it can get to the important stuff. And, hey, here’s some more bullshit with the Zion Council of Elders. Captivating.

Machine City is impressive and, admittedly, Neo and Trinity’s run there is sort of exciting. The shot of her seeing the sun for the first time could have been amazing but instead settles for being kind of sweet. As for Trinity’s death… It pisses me off. He spent half of the last movie trying to stop her from dying. To kill Trinity at this point is just messing with the audience’s emotions. Once again, Anne-Moss sells her dying monologue for all its worth, even when getting her mouth around the Brothers’ awkward dialogue. Once more, it should have been amazing but has to settle for merely not-shitty.

Finally, we get to the only real reason the movie exists: Neo and Smith’s final showdown. The climatic battle is amazing and almost makes up for the rest of the film. The two opposing forces fly around, tossing each other through buildings, tearing through pavement like tissue paper. The fight brings anime to mind too, especially with all those giant shockwave created domes of rainwater, an especially neat effect. When it comes to epic nerd action, no other film has come this close to realizing it on-screen. (It makes me wish the Wachowskis really would direct the “Justice League” movie.)

Goddamn, Hugo Weaving is a good actor. He makes dialogue that would sound ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth sound spine-chillingly malicious. Focusing a large portion of the film around him was a great idea. It’s a shame Keanu seems as confused as the audience. He’s out of his league at this point.

Despite the awesome lead-up, the ending is the weakest part. On first viewing, I didn’t understand what exactly happened. It’s not very clear that the machines use Neo as a conduit to send an anit-virus into Smith. The hero’s death doesn’t inspire any sadness. By this point, the audience is exhausted. With all the talk of fate and choice, it feels inevitable. Morpheus, the only surviving member of the original cast, never gets any sort of resolution. His deepest dream comes true but the film’s focus is elsewhere. The ending is so damn vague. The Matrix still exists. The Machines are still in power. There are millions of people still imprison. Zion is far from safe. What kind of victory is that?

The script tries to force an allegory about free will. How everyone has “a choice.” I’m sorry, was it too much to ask for an ending where the Machines are defeated definitely and humanity is given a chance to start anew? I guess I should admire the shot at ambiguity but, after three films, I was hoping for something a little more solid. It’s seriously not that well done. The final scene gives the audience a good idea of how these films went astray. None of the characters we actually care about are present. Instead, Miss Worthless Exposition and Col. Talks-a-lot trade barbs about something. Lame. There’s no other word for it.

The true appeal of “The Matrix” lied in its wish fulfillment, swift use of sci-fi paranoia, and general sense of style. The sequels went up in a completely different direction. Maybe the directors started to believe their own hype. Maybe they listened to the hardcore internet crazies too much. Perhaps there was no other choice. “The Matrix Revolutions” is a frustrating conclusion to the series. Between the two sequels, there was probably enough solid material for a pretty good film. The rambling, padding, and misguided narrative choices make the awesome moments harder to remember. [Grade: C]