Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 29

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
I wonder what hardcore fans (They must have existed) thought of this film when it was new. If “Jay and Silent Bob Meet Pinhead” or something similar was released today, you know the fandom would erupt into a shit storm. It was certainly a smart decision for Universal. The monsters were long in decline and Bud and Lou weren’t doing so hot at the box office either. Why not combine two flagging franchise and hope for the best?

It helps that “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” is genuinely funny. Costello’s build-in comic persona is perfect for a monster mash. His character is so oblivious of his surroundings that it becomes easy for him to stumble into crazy trouble. While his reactions start with bold cries for help, as the film goes on, they degrade into mumbled, helpless whimpers. Some things remain funny fifty years after the fact. Early highlights include Dracula’s coffin lid slowly opening and closing in reaction to Lou’s face. The film’s most famous scene is probably the sequence of the two guys running around the castle’s basement, flipping through a secret passageway, always just avoiding the creatures. A comparatively subtle gag near the end has the boys pushing a bed against a door, only for it to be revealed that the door actually opens in the opposite direction.

While the huge slapstick gags are the big cut-up moments, the comedians’ banter proves to be just as funny. The movie mines a lot of humor out of two different, beautiful women being interested in Lou. This causes a lot of jealousy on Bud’s behalf and he frequently asks to take one of the girl’s off his friend’s hands. This doesn’t go as well as he hoped. Of course, the root of the gag is that both ladies are only pursuing the fat guy out of ulterior motives. The straight man not initially believing his friend’s paranormal encounters would be drilled into the ground by the sequels, but the premise still provided a lot of sharp dialogue on the first go-around.

The movie stops shy of making fun of the monsters. Bud walks into Talbot’s apartment, unaware that the Wolfman is right behind him, narrowly avoiding getting slashed to death. The movie follows up on that scene during a forest chase where the werewolf is delayed by a tree branches. In the film’s only atmospheric scene, Bud stumbles upon the Frankenstein monster in a dark, foggy dungeon. None of the Monsters are in tip-top shape. Chaney is as sincere as always, trotting out Talbot’s threadbare nerves and suicidal panic for the umpteenth time. Jack Pierce’s handmade make-up gave way to rubber applications which is very noticeable. While I’ve got nothing against Glenn Strange as the monster, he’s easily the stiffest of all the actors to play the part. At least the film gives him more to do then the previous two outings. Bela Lugosi has aged a lot in the seventeen years between this film and the original “Dracula.” A wrinkly vampire is harder to take seriously, especially when his eyes are still so heavily focused on. Lugosi is allowed a little range here, playing a genial host and mad scientist a few times. It doesn’t exactly help that Dracula fits the mad scientist role a little awkwardly.

The monster purist in me can’t help but feel that Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman meet a somewhat unglamorous final fate here, this being their last canonical appearance. Of course, it’s the fate of all once genuinely frightening figures to eventual become the stuff of comedy. “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” is at least still very funny and treats the monsters respectfully. That’s more then some icons get. [7/10]

The Strange Door (1951)
By 1951, unless it was a comedy, Universal was seemingly done with the horror genre. The golden age of monster movies was long behind us. What passed for a horror movie from the studio at that time was something like “The Strange Door,” a period melodrama with minor horror overtones. It’s not a bad film taken on its own merits but I doubt it will satisfy any monster fans.

Based off a Robert Louis Stevenson short story, the film revolves around one of those convoluted revenge quests. An evil duke, played with over-the-top glee by Charles Laughton, has gone to great pains to torture a former friend. The reasoning behind this elaborate revenge? The guy stole the other guy’s girl. Bros before hoes obviously didn’t apply in the 1500s or whenever this is set. To further his revenge, the duke has chosen a hard-drinking, barroom brawling rapscallion to marry the prisoner’s beautiful daughter. The supporting subplots include a castle full of servants, among them Alan Napier, of Hammer horror and “Batman” fame, and a royal underling to Laughton who is not without guilt. While the captured man, the source of all this revenge, feigns insanity for the duke, his faithful manservant, Boris Karloff, is the only person who knows the truth.

“The Strange Door,” as far as swashbuckling action, royal romance, and castle atmosphere goes, does all right. The opening skirmish in the bar has some decent chandelier swinging, flint-lock firing action. The film’s best moment comes when Richard Stapley and Boris Karloff lay the smack down on a collection of castle guards, knocking them down a spiraling staircase. “Tower of London” had the same novelty of seeing the respected gentlemen of horror trading fisticuffs with random stunt men. Karloff’s performance, while not outside of his wheelhouse, is still pretty good. The heavy lids and shadows of his face play guilt and depression so well. The movie’s climax is when it feels the most like a horror film. Karloff, left for dead in a swamp, drags himself through the waters, the fog rolling overhead. The villain has placed our heroes in one of those shrinking, crushing room that only exist in old movies like this. Karloff confronts the villain, pushing him into the gears that run the machine. Surprisingly morbid stuff. The fog and the dark shadows of the dungeon make for good late night horror viewing.

The other strong aspect in “The Strange Door’s” favor is Charles Laughton’s performance as the baddy. Like many of Laughton’s villain roles, he goes way over the top, chewing the scenery with effortless glee. It’s a lot of fun to watch, especially the moment when he laughs hysterically while clenching the bars of a prison cell. Aside from Laughton and Karloff, the rest of the cast is less notable. Sally Forrest is beautiful as the love interest but the movie asks us to believe that two people who are designed never to fall in love actually fall in love with each other. None of the romantic scenes work. Generally, far too much of “The Strange Door” is composed of old British people talking in rooms. It’s ultimately not a bad film, with nice sets, okay atmosphere, and some fun performances. But it’s not much of a horror film. [6/10]

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001)
Intentionally making a bad movie seems counterproductive. There have been a number of films over the years that spoof, make fun of, and play off of the low-budget sci-fi B-pictures of the fifties. Some are inspired, some are tedious. “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” which was made with the same budgets Ed Wood had minus inflation, falls on the entertaining side of that equitation, at least for me anyway.

The Ed Wood comparison is apt. Wood is notorious for his miniscule budgets and floppy, incoherent scripts. What actually makes his films preserve aren’t that we can laugh at their lousy production values and shitty scripts. Lots of movies nobody care about have that. What makes his films memorable was Wood’s ear for surreal, oddly quotable dialogue. “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” has a fantastic understanding of that. It’s fair to say the movie’s primary comedic device is the oddball, awkward, frequently hilarious dialogue. “Sometimes my wife forgets she is not a space alien.” “I’ve seen bears do things… Things a bear wouldn’t even do.” “Even as a child, I was always hated by skeletons.” And on and on. This is one of those films were visiting its IMDb quote page before watching it will ruin the fun. (But, in all likelihood, you probably will want to visit that page afterwards.) Unlike say, “Alien Trespass,” the filmmakers also had a grip on the pacing, style, and tone of those fifties B-movies, right down to lag at the end of the second act. The camera hangs onto scenes just a second longer then it should. Music cues cut wildly between scenes. Handheld close-ups are used whenever the monster is about. Clearly this was made by fans. The filmmakers weren’t just making fun of unconvincing special effects or visible wires. (Though it does that a few times as well.) They were trying to replicate the off-kilter tone of the time period and genre. The plot wildly masses together story elements from “It Came From Outer Space,” “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Invaders from Mars,” “The Blob,” “I Married a Monster from Outer Space,” “Plan 9,” in actuality some of the best films of the era. The score is composed solely of library music.

The movie is generally just fun. In a post-“Avatar” world, naming phlebotinum “Atmospherium” really doesn’t sound any worse then “Unobtainium.” The cast is amazingly game. Andrew Parks and Susan McConnel as the alien couple go for broke as far as physical comedy go. Their uniformly stiff posture and unblinking gazes never disguise for a minute that they are aliens, which is obviously the joke. I especially love how they “bend themselves in half” whenever sitting. Brian Howe as the mad scientist is especially hilarious, with his love-hate relationship with the Lost Skeleton. Jennifer Blaire, providing some decent eye-candy in a skintight body suit, has a lot of fun as Animala, carrying an interesting body language and pronouncing her lines in just an unusual enough way. The whole cast carries the film astonishingly well. The best character isn’t actually played by an actor. I love the Lost Skeleton. His booming psychic voice makes some of the simplest lines hilarious. “I sleep now!” There’s a deadpan to the monotone that makes the more absurd moments even funnier, most notably his passive-aggressive relationship with the mad doctor that brings him to life. (“Stop that giggling. It makes me uncomfortable.”)

Not all the gags work. The scene where numerous characters are giving Betty the housewife psychic suggestions goes on too long. Generally, the repeated gag of people laughing until they stop is repeated one time too many. The scenes of Betty and Paul sharing lunch with the aliens inside their ship is also a victim of the film’s intentionally static pacing. Still, “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” squeezes enough hearty laughs into its short run time to certainly make it worth your while. Always agree. [7/10]

How the Hurricane Ruined My Halloween

The view from my picture window yesterday morning.

On Monday night, around 8:30, I was sitting at my computer desk, writing and watching Fritz Lang’s Freudian noir update of the Bluebeard story, “Secret Beyond the Door…” (Not a horror film, by the way, despite showing up on my hunt list.) Rain water and hurricane-level winds howled outside, the dreaded “Frankenstorm” howling in my ears. About halfway through the movie, I heard two separate, distinct bangs and then… Total darkness. After waking my night-shift working roommate and calming an upset, barking dog, we assembled candles, three flashlights with dead batteries, and tried to shut down a beeping, seizing security system. After setting the situation inside the house, I peeked out the window and saw the cause of all this: Those hurricane level winds uprooted an entire, seemingly healthy tree. The tree collided with a telephone pole, pulling the cables down. The yanked cables tore our electric box from the side of the house. The tree blocked the road, trapping me inside my own dark, cold, home.

It’s now Wednesday, Halloween evening, the holiest of horror-days. I have been without electricity, heat, warm water, telephone, cable, or internet for almost three days now. The temperature inside my refrigerator exceeds the temperature in my bed room. Pumpkins sit on the front porch, uncarved, no jolly Jack o’ Lanterns in sight. Candy sits in its bowl, un-snacked, without trick ‘r treaters to raid it. My living room is dark and silent, the television off, plenty of horror films waiting but no way to watch them. This is the worst Halloween ever. To dispense with the dramatics, this is why updates have been sporadic this week.

Skeleton Stanley overlooks the chaos.

Finally, after a day, an evening, and an afternoon, the road and electric company arrived. The men have told us repeatedly that they were not informed of our situation until just today. The tree has now been cut down. The telephone cables re-hung. Because of the bureaucracies of insurance and company regulations, nobody on the team of repairers can fix our circuit box, restoring our heat and electricity. We have to call an insurance adjuster, get an appointment with an electrician, and then, maybe sometime next week, things will get back to resembling normal, minus one tree and a multitude of hours. By the way, this is the second time in two years that high winds have torn a tree down in our yard, causing an incident. After the snow last year and this fiasco, I told my roommate: “If my Halloween is ruined three years in a row by the weather, we are moving.” Agreed.

If you’re wondering how you’re reading this, I’ve been spending the nights with a relative, who is lucky enough to still have heat, electricity, cable, internet, and all the other amenities. My neighbors have been kind enough to allow us to use their showers and kitchen during this time. Content not to let a measly hurricane ruin my Halloween, I have been watching films at night. Just a few minutes ago, I walked over to both neighbors’ homes with my seasonal bowl of candy, dispensing treats to their grandchildren and other assorted guests. Reversed trick or treating, I guess you could call that. A few people have told me to be thankful that the tree didn’t strike the house, a vehicle, or a person. And, of course, I am thankful for that. We’re all very lucky no one was hurt or nothing of serious value was damaged. Still, when you spend all year planning for a month at most and a single night at least, just to have it ruined at the last minute, it’s a little hard to be overly grateful. I’ve been trying my best to carry on, hoping to complete my Universal Monster Mega-thon and sneak in a few other programs. It’ll probably take a few more days before I’m caught up and can officially close the books on Halloween 2012. I suppose that’s pretty trivial in the face of recent events. But it’s important to me.

More stuff coming soon, faithful readers, Samhain willing. I’ll see you on the other side.

The yellow caution tape is not part of the decorations.
Haunting the detached rear view mirror.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 28

The Cat Creeps (1946)
I’m surprised that, by 1946, studios were still making traditional old dark house mysteries like this one. That’s all “The Cat Creeps” is. You’d think by the late forties, the genre would be completely discredited after numerous periods. A group of people travel to an isolated mansion on an island. The rich owner of the mansion is murdered and other deaths follow. Our hardboiled journalist protagonist and the motley crew of characters around him investigate, hoping to find the hidden cache of millions before the killer does.

Aside from the old mansion and the murders, the film’s only genre elements involves a character who believes that the dead woman’s spirit lives on in her pet cat, at least until the mystery is solved. The cat leads to the film’s few interesting moments, such as its snarling head peaking out of a doll house. The mansion setting provides some okay atmosphere. Noah Beery Jr., as the journalist lead, comes off as a jerk early on. His romantic scenes with Lois Collier are a little better. Iris Clive, as the kooky psychic who communicates with the cat, probably gives the film’s best performance. There’s one or two intriguing or semi-exciting moments, like a tussle in a basement or a late period battle in an old children’s bedroom. The final reveal of the money’s location is sort of cute, as is the last minute shot of just what that creeping cat has been up to.

Not much to report concerning “The Cat Creeps.” It’s another uninteresting old dark house picture. This was Erle C. Kenton’s finale genre contribution, after directing “Island of Lost Soul” and most of Universal’s later monster rallies. No doubt it was the final, forgettable nail in the sub-genre’s coffin. [4/10]

She-Wolf of London (1946)
“She-Wolf of London” is generally regarded as one of the worst Universal Monster movies. After some of the stinkers and duds I’ve seen this October, I can’t really say it comes off as all that bad. The story is a fairly standard affair of a woman marrying into a new family, paranoid about a family curse. When the murders start to happen, the poor girl naturally believes herself the killer. Equally naturally, it’s fairly obvious to the viewer she’s being gaslit by someone in the household. This is practically an English-set, female centric version of one of the Inner Sanctum movies.

“She-Wolf of London” has a couple of things in its favor. There’s some decent atmosphere. A scene of the she-wolf, who is naturally just a normal woman in a cloak, stalking the fog-strewn parks of England, is actually sort of exciting, assuming fog excites you. There’s some other interesting direction here and there, such as a dutch angle during the obligatory “Villain confesses their plan” sequence. Jean Yarbrough, who contributed some stand-out atmosphere to the previous “House of Horrors,” does a decent job with the direction. June Lockhart, future “Lost in Space” and “Lassie” mom, is solid in the lead role, even if she’s mostly bed-ridden. She certainly has no problem with the jittery, nervous mode the script puts her in. Sara Haden also does well in the villainous part. 1940s UniHorror stalwart Martin Kosleck shows up in a bit part, creepy German accent included. There’s a lot of dull scenes of talking and romantic banter but the film at least wraps up in a semi-satisfying manner. Surprisingly, there’s no “Lovers make up, all’s well that end’s well” tagged-on post-conclusion scene. That’s truly unusual.

The real reason people dislike “She-Wolf of London” is because there’s no actual monster in it. The title promises a female werewolf stalking about, tearing out throats off-screen, the distaff counterpart to Larry Talbot. That’s not what we get at all, so disappointment is in order, I suppose. If you know you’re getting a monster-free, psychological mystery going in, “She-Wolf of London” is an unremarkable but inoffensive time-killer. I’ll take it over “The Mad Doctor of Market Street” or “Jungle Woman.” [5/10]

The Omega Man (1971)
“I Am Legend” has been a strangely consistent story. Not only did it inspire the zombie apocalypse as we know it, it’s birthed three major adaptations, each very different from one another. “The Last Man on Earth” matches the book’s bleak tone and features one of Vincent Price’s most serious performances. The most recent “I Am Legend” was more of a remake of this film and, as far as a modern blockbuster adaptation of the material goes, far stronger then I expected, not to mention featuring an unusually good Will Smith performance. But out of all the adaptations of Richard Matheson’s landmark novel, this one is probably my favorite. Awash in seventies kitsch and featuring Charlton Heston at his bronzed matinee god macho best, “The Omega Man” delivers lots of thrills and numerous laughs.

Though horrific, the last man on earth concept appeals to us for other reasons. Like the zombie apocalypse, it serves a certain level of wish-fulfillment. The film opens with Chuck Heston tearing down an abandoned LA street in a sports car. When that car gets a flat, he just goes to the dealership and grabs another one. Though all versions of the story make it clear that living in a world alone has a negative effect on one’s sanity, in this rendition Robert Neville is haunted by a phantom ringing phone; I’m sure there are times when any of use would like to be completely alone, especially those of us who live in an urban locale. In all versions, Robert Neville is also something of a total master of his domain. Like all the nut-job survivalist in the world, living in a walled-off compound, blasting huge guns, totally relying upon ourselves and no one else… It’s a form of absolute power and that would appeal to just about anyone. Of course, the world of “The Omega Man” comes at a horrible price. Unlike angsted vampire slayer Vincent Price, Charlton Heston has no qualms about blasting away at the hordes of the half-living with machine guns and grenades. Unlike Will Smith looking for a cure, it’s even an established character trait of Heston’s Neville that he only wants to destroy the infected.

A position the film itself seems not entirely sure on. Another reason “The Omega Man” stands among the adaptations of Matheson’s novel is because the infected are intelligent, not senseless zombies or animals. Though most of the movie would seem to agree with Heston’s notorious gun obsessed ways, I can’t help but pause at the moment when one of the family pulls out a revolver. While the story deviates wildly from the source material (Matheson’s novel is covered in about the first half an hour, with the novel’s ending having a wildly different pay-off), Neville is still doubtlessly a morally ambiguous character. Well, even if he is ambiguous, the movie still ends with him in a Christ-like pose, his blood being the cure to save all mankind. (Imagine “Eat me, drink me, I am the Lord!” in Heston’s leathery growl.)

Even then, this is Chuck Heston in full-on action hero mode. “The Omega Man” is an action film, foremost. There are several fantastic, gun-slinging moments. The early invasion of Neville’s garage is a favorite, as is his march of revenge on the streets at the end. My favorite moment is the motorcycle escape through the mutant-filled sports stadium. It’s not a bad performance, with Chuck sneaking one or two moment of subtly in among all the histrionics and action star theatrics. The supporting cast certainly helps. Anthony Zerbe matches Heston, ham for ham. The presence of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick, both sporting full afros, mark this as something of a blaxploitation film. Both give good performances, even if neither actors’ jive-talk has aged well and Heston and Cash’s romance never quite gels. The movie drags a little bit in its later half, in-between action scenes. The action tone overwhelms the sometimes legitimately effective horror elements and the mostly-for-plot-purposes sci-fi elements.

I like the movie plenty but I full-blown love its score. Ron Grainer’s music is what I like to call “Gothic Disco.” The driving horns and beats are pure ‘70s funk, that wouldn’t be out of place in a “Shaft” sequel. Grainer’s maintains the macabre tone with howling organs. It’s like the Phantom of the Opera stepped into Wattstax. I adore it. The music alone bumps “The Omega Man” up a grade or two in my book. [7/10]

The Venture Bros.: “A Very Venture Halloween”
I’ve fallen a little out of love with “The Venture Bros.” and it’s really no fault of the show. When I first discovered the series, it was all ready three seasons in. Seasons I devoured quickly. It was lovely finding a show that was as invested in convoluted, nerdy things I am. However, two years in-between seasons has been rough. It’s hard to keep a fandom light burning that long without any official word. Season four, despite having some excellent episodes, was definitely my least favorite of the show, mostly because two of the show’s best characters, Brock and the Monarch, were pushed to the sides.

Despite that, I was looking forward to this Halloween episode, if only because it’s the first new “Venture” product in quite some time. The episode is fairly decent, if a little light on big laughs. The opening montage, which shows the boys attempting to frighten their father with Halloween pranks over the years, is probably the biggest laugh of the night. The story has three threads running. The boys, along with friend Dermont, investigate a spooky house on the grounds of the Venture compound. Rusty and Sgt. Hatred bond with Pete White and Billy Quizmaster over trick r’ treaters attempts to breach the compound security for the sake of sweet, sweet candy. The best storyline revolves around Baron Orpheus’ magic-themed Halloween party. Dean discovers a startling piece of his past, while befriending a mysterious new character seemingly inspired by the Dude and voiced by JK Simmons. It’s the emotional core of the episode and certainly provides a moment or two. I’m still not a fan of Dermont as a character, even if the show continues to use him in better ways. I’m sure non-fans have no idea what I’m talking about.

The show still has a knack for clever pop culture references. Pete White sports a Ziggy Stardust costume, “The Craft” is repeatedly brought up, one half of a two-headed man dresses up as Rosy Grier in “The Thing with Two Heads,” Project Mayhem gets named-dropped and Sgt. Hatred is either undergoing hormone treatment or is dressed as Bitch-Tits Bob, my initial thought. The best joke is a sudden stop into “Hellraiser” territory, featuring a Pleasure Toast extruding cenobite. The show’s conclusion, involving a zombie upraising and a sudden appearance of a fireball tossing Santa Claus, should have been hilarious but kind of floats in under the radar. Baron Orpheus ends the episode with a monologue about the true meaning of Halloween: How we become who we truly are. Well, that’s close. (It’s actually about, at its most simple, becoming someone else and, at its most arch, mastering our fears and superstition for a day.) Either way, it’s pretty touching. Orpheus continues to be one of the show’s best characters, even if the series overall has gotten away from the breezy, hilarious first two seasons’ tones towards a more complicated, if less amusing, character and mythology oriented mode. I’m still looking forward to season five. [7/10]

Monday, October 29, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 27

House of Dracula (1945)
“House of Dracula” has some interesting ideas. As the seventh “Frankenstein” movie, the fifth “Dracula” film, and the fourth in the “Wolf Man” series, some new ideas had to be injected. Like traveling mad scientist Dr. Niemann in “House of Frankenstein,” “House of Dracula” links together all of these divergent monsters with Dr. Franz Edelmann. Unlike Niemann, Edelmann is a really nice guy and determined to help anyone that comes to his clinic in Visaria, even if they happen to be a vampire or a werewolf. He even plans to actually heal his hunchback assistant… Though his hunchback assistant is played by the beautiful Jane Adams, which probably makes a difference. Anyway, both Baron Latos and Larry Talbot wind up in the doorway of the clinic, asking the doctor to help with their unique conditions. The movie presents scientific explanations for each of the monster’s strife. Dracula is a vampire because of blood parasites. The Wolf Man’s transformations are caused by pressure on the brain.

Despite setting forth these interesting, new ideas, the movie falls into many of the clichés and formulas of the series. Dracula asks the doctor to help him but doesn’t seem particularly interested in changing his way. Right out of the gate, he sets about seducing Edelmann’s nurse, the lovely Martha O’Driscoll, this time using hypnotism instead of a fancy ring. When the doc decides the way to solve Dracula’s problem is with routine blood transfusion, the vampire pumps his blood into the normal man. The Count’s motive for doing this isn’t expounded on. Not long afterwards, his casket is forced into the sun and the vampire fades away in a hugely anticlimactic method. None of the monsters get much screen time. The Wolf Man is isolated to two sequences. Lon Chaney, still sporting his pencil-mustache from the Inner Sanctum flicks, is as suicidal as always. Frankenstein’s Monster barely shows up, spending most of the movie on a slab, until the climatic rampage. Disappointingly, some of that footage is actually reused from “Ghost of Frankenstein.” Lionel Atwill even shows up, practically reprising his “Son of Frankenstein” character, once again. None of the monsters interact and the movie’s script feels hopelessly thrown together. Despite the interesting ideas present, the filmmakers didn’t put much effort into distinguishing this one from the previous monster rallies.

Even then, there are several notable moments. Dracula seems to influence O’Driscoll while she plays the piano, a rather atmospheric scene that recalls “Dracula’s Daughter.” Talbot dives off the cliff near Edelmann’s castle. (Visaria is apparently on the coast.) The doctor goes after him, leading to a fun moment of the Wolf Man stalking the coast caverns. Dracula hypnotizing the hot hunchbacked nurse is shown by her half of the frame becoming blurry and indistinct. Once injected with Dracula’s blood, Edelmann develops into a Jekyll / Hyde style mad scientist. The film’s best moments revolve around this. Onslow Stevens gives a good performance, hamming it up nicely when playing mad. His first transformation leads into a fantasy sequence involving scenes not actually in the movie, such as what Jane Adams looks like without the hump or the doctor leading the revived Frankenstein Monster on a rampage through the town. All Edelmann actually does is strangle a wagon driver. The lead-up to that death is the film’s sole moment of genuine suspense. When Talbot realizes he actually has been cured at the end, the look on Lon Chaney’s face is relevatory and once-again suggests the actor’s underutilized skills.

Over all, I like “House of Dracula” just a little better then “House of Frankenstein,” perhaps because it’s not as riddled with continuity errors. Besides Baron Latos’ and Larry Talbot’s unexplained resurrections and the Monster and Niemann’s corpse magically teleporting to the coast, things are fairly smooth sailing. It’s a shame the film never does anything exciting with its interesting ideas. It could have been a proper, unique send-off to the company’s monsters. Instead, as the last serious outing for the UniMonsters, it’s a somewhat disappointing finale. [5/10]

House of Horrors (1946)
There’s something effortlessly charming about “House of Horrors.” The script is fairly predictable. Marcel, a struggling sculptor, has a potential sale destroyed by a critic’s ravaging review. In a moment of suicidal despair, he walks over to the docks with the intent of throwing himself into the water. Instead, he winds up rescuing the Creeper, a man with wildly exaggerated facial features and a bad tendency to shatter women’s spines with his bare hands. Naturally, the vicious serial killer is eternally grateful to the starving artist. I wonder if he’d be willing to brutally murder any mean-spirited critics that offended our protagonist? There’s also a subplot involving a feisty female art critic, a hunky hero who spends the whole movie painting a babe with a tennis racket, and some police and detectives floating around too.

So why is the movie so endearing, despite its formulaic script? First off, the film actually has a pretty interesting look about it. When the action isn’t set inside Marcel’s studio apartment, critics’ offices, or other residential abodes, it’s set on the streets of Manhattan. While I doubt the filmmakers intentionally shot the movie on soundstages in order to create an intentionally pulpy, almost dream-like tone, that’s what happened nevertheless. With its urban setting, complete lack of supernatural elements, and frequent images of bad men in fedoras casting shadows on walls, once again this horror film feels a bit more like a noir. That tone extends to the story as well. Despite the spunky lady art critic and her good girl art illustrator love interest ostensibly being the heroes of the story, the focus is squarely on Marcel and the Creeper. Marcel is really no better then the murderer, since its obvious very soon he knows what his friend is. (And is possibly intentionally manipulating him.) The Creeper is never given any Freudian excuse for his desire to kill. Guy just likes strangling people to death and dislike people being afraid of his hideous features. It’s actually fair to read a bit of gay undercurrents into the movie, since Marcel repeatedly calls the Creeper’s face “beautiful.” These two oddballs and outsiders seem to accept each other up-front, at least until the end anyway. The movie is effective as a horror film as well. The scene of the Creeper stalking his first victim makes nice use of shadows and sound. I love how her cigarettes tumbles out of her mouth once she gets a good look at the guy. The later scene of the killer claiming the blonde model is surprisingly bleak and brutal. The final stalk sequence, which shows Rondo Hatton and Virginia Grey starring at each other through a book shelf, is nice too.

Of course, the real reason anyone talks about this movie is because of Rondo Hatton. The guy is a cult figure more because of his life story then his movies. A World War I veteran and sports journalist, Hatton suffered from acromegaly, the same condition that gave Richard Kiel and Andre the Giant their memorable appearances. After years of extra work, Universal tried to turn Hatton into a horror star with this film, following his break-out role in the Sherlock Holmes thriller “Pearls of Death.” Sadly, Hatton died before either of his solo films could be released. Rondo is frequently criticized for his acting. No doubt, he didn’t have much talent. All of his lines are delivered in a gruff monotone. Still, there was a certain naturalistic charm to Rondo’s acting. The Creeper character is in line with a number of murderous, deformed, simpleton characters. He fits in with “Of Mice and Men’s” Lenny, Jaws from the James Bond films, and Marv of “Sin City.” At the very least, Hatton has one really good moment, at the end when he inevitably turns on his master. You can read a mixture of appropriate grief and murderous rage on his face. (And he was good enough to inspire the Classic Horror Awards.) The rest of the cast helps a lot, especially Martin Kosleck’s turn as Marcel and Grey as the snooping critic.

The simplicity of the film’s themes help the movie resonate. A frustrated artist striking out at an uncaring world is a classic, as are freakish outsiders finding kinship among themselves. The story would be another good candidate for remake. A new version could expand on those themes and dive further into the seedy side. How about Crispin Glover in the Marcel part? Though the natural pick for the Creeper, Mathew McGrory, is all ready gone. You’d probably want to change the title too, since none of the horrors happen in an actual house. [7/10]

The Brute Man (1946)
A prequel to “House of Horrors” that explains the origins of the Creeper character. Turns out he was originally a promising college athlete, who loved his best friend’s girl. Following a cruel science prank, Hal Moffet was exposed to poison gas, mutating a totally different, fairly unconvincing actor into Rondo Hatton’s unforgettable mug. No explanation for his sudden tendency to strangle people to death, beyond a repeated mention of his “short temper,” is given. On the run from the cops because of all the murderin’, the Creeper meets and befriends a blind woman who is, naturally, not repulsed by his appearance. That’s pretty much it as far as story goes. The movie has trouble expanding that premise to even a brief, hour-long runtime. A lot of time is filled with police room banter, repeated shots of officers talking into radios, and the flashing newspaper headline cliché.

“The Brute Man” is the red-headed step-child of Universal horror. Rondo Hatton died before the movie could be released and the studio was uncomfortable releasing the film so close to his death.  Combined with a new studio wide mandate to halt production of B-rated horror, Universal sold the movie off to a Poverty Row distributor. If you’re inclined to believe that Rondo’s entire acting career was somewhat exploitative, “The Brute Man” is definitely the nadir of that exploitation. In real life, Rondo Hatton was a promising college football star whose exposure to mustard gas in WWI was the believed cause of his actually genetic acromegaly. Despite not turning into a murderous madman in actuality, the movie is content to provide no further explanation for the Creeper’s madness. While “House of Horrors” had some atmosphere and thrills, “The Brute Man” is bland in execution, with flat direction and an underwritten script.

Even then, it has a moment or two worth recommending. Like Paula the Ape Woman before him, the Creeper solidifies his standing among the Universal Monsters. It’s the budding romantic relationship with the blind pianist that motivates the monster’s killings in the film’s latter half. The Creeper only wants love and understanding, for people not to reject him based on appearances alone. Even if the rest of the script is thin, that theme resonates deeply with any monster fan. Rondo, even if his delivery is still awkward, gives a better performance this time. The script gives him more to do. I suspect, if his illness hadn’t ended his life early, he could have developed into a decent actor. Jane Adams, from “House of Dracula” sans hump, plays her blindness convincingly.

I’m not the first one to speculate that a film about Rondo Hatton’s life would be a worthy effort.
He lived an interesting life and, though brief, left a lasting impact on the horror genre. Even if the films aren’t all that good. [5/10]

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The east coast has been threatened with a devastating hurricane this weekend, an appropriately Halloween-named “Frankenstorm.” So what were JD and I doing? Standing in line in front of our local Apollo Theater for a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Locally, it looks like the storm won’t hit until Sunday. Saturday night was clear and mild. This is the third year we’ve done the Rocky Horror Midnight Experience, though only the second time we’ve gotten to see the movie. The theater was less crowded then in 2010, only a little more then half-full. The crowd was still pretty decent, shouting along, dancing, having a lot of fun, as you’d expect. However, maybe it was just me and my lack of sleep, but it seems the excitement peaked a little early. The oddly poetic image of toilet paper and toast filling the air above us, silhouetted against the screen, a little pass the hour point, seemed the natural conclusion to the night. It’s also fair to say the shadow cast this year wasn’t as good as 2010’s. They weren’t bad. Everyone was enthusiastic and in the spirit. Janet was very busty, which I didn’t mind, and the actor playing Rocky was very popular with the ladies. (And seemed to be smuggling a roll of quarters in his speedo.) Overall, everyone just seemed a little less in to it.

Anyway: The movie itself. Is it actually any good? That’s an important question. From a critical perspective, it remains divisive. I found myself feeling a little bored with the picture this year. It’s certainly an entertaining film. The music is roundly excellent. The cast is extremely good, with everyone inhabiting their roles fully, to the point were this film has defined most of the cast’s careers. Tim Curry is obviously the stand-out performances but this year I found myself admiring Barry Boswick’s comedic timing. The production values are pretty good. Most of the jokes land successfully. In particularly I love Charles Gray’s deadpan narration and the long sequence of name-calling. There’s enough general weirdness in the performances and delivery to add some appeal.

But from a writing perspective, I found myself wondering. The pace meanders quite a bit and several of the songs don’t actually contribute to the plot. The latter half of the second act basically lumbers around until we get to the floor show at the end. Dr. Scott doesn’t actually contribute much to the story. Frank is the most popular character in the film even though, you know, he’s actually a textbook psychopath, right down to the charisma. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself, manipulates and hurts the people around without pausing, not to mention murdering someone with a pickaxe because they glanced at his boyfriend. The real clue that he’s an asshole is that, despite doing all this awful stuff, he still considers himself the hero of the movie. “I’m Going Home” is basically Frank telling us that he’s the victim, of an uncaring world where he doesn’t fit in. He imagines an audience cheering and applauding for him, in a blatant act of self-deluded narcissism. The movie acknowledges this by killing him off at the end. The ending, which leaves our lead trio collapsed on the ground, worn out by their embrace of hedonism, says that attitude of sexual wantonness is bad. Even though the rest of the movie basically goes on about how this is awesome and you squares need to be less uptight, maaaan. The themes are jumbled and uncertain is what I’m saying.

It’s possible the people who made the movie were too high to notice this disparity. And, considering the general mood of the midnight screenings, maybe the viewer is suppose to be as high. Perhaps Richard O’Brian is saying that you should accept yourself and be open with your sexuality but don’t go overboard with it. Anyway, I enjoy the movie, flaws and all. It’s certainly an intriguing mess of pop culture references, rock music, and sexual confusion. [7/10]

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 26

Hard Candy (2005)
It’s probably says a lot about my taste in women that twice I’ve watched “Hard Candy” on dates and neither time did it mean the immediate end of the relationship. Most people probably wouldn’t consider a movie about child molestation, pedophilia, castration, and psychological torture particularly great social viewing. And yet, this is a film designed to start conversation. It always gets people talking.

You could debate wither or not “Hard Candy” is a horror film. It certainly doesn’t feature any supernatural elements and its sickening violence takes place wholly off-screen. Yet for me there’s no debate at all. “Hard Candy” fits perfectly into the post-9/11 landscape of American horror. Not (just) because of its heavily featured bondage and mental anguish but because it’s a film about moral uncertainty. Obviously, it’s also about gender politics, revenge, and vigilantism but the filmmakers were mostly concerned with putting the audience in an uncomfortable place. Who do you root for? The pedophile or the psychotic fourteen year old? At times, both sides come off as sympathetic. Initially, I think most people would be inclined to say any adult man who takes advantage of a young girl deserves to get his balls chopped off. But when Jeff is roped to the table, sweating in agony as his castration goes on, this viewer, as a man, just can’t help but feel a certain level of sympathy for the guy. As for the other half, Hayley is undoubtedly a charismatic figure. A four-teen year old girl resourceful and intelligent enough to pull off psychological warfare of this level can’t help but be somewhat likable. (Not to mention the movie makes it seem plausible that a fourteen year old girl could take down an adult man.) Numerous times, Jeff thinks he has the upper hand on the girl, believing he’s playing on some perceivable insecurity or trying to explain his actions. It doesn’t work. Hayley Stark is iron-willed and nothing will dissuade her from delivering her own brand of justice. But this isn’t “Death Wish” and Ellen Page isn’t Charles Bronson. Hayley is too vicious, too wicked. She’s no feminist avenger or a hero. No one is in “Hard Candy.” The moral ambiguity questions any notions of justice the audience might have. 

But “Hard Candy” is more then just an assault. It’s one of the most tensely crafted thrillers I’ve ever seen. The direction is scalpel sharp. The movie is mostly confined to one location, Jeff’s house, and we spend most of the runtime in only a few rooms. Despite the stage-like setting, the direction is deeply cinematic. Long shots are used effectively throughout. The camera swirls around the operating table during the infamous castration sequence, zipping behind walls, unbroken. The contours of the actor’s faces become landscapes, driving home the intensity of the two people’s interaction. Like Hayley, David Slade’s direction is concise and calculated, designed to ratchet up the material’s hissing tension. Only a few times does he lapse into rickety shaky-cam. It’s a big bummer that the latter attribute has dominated David Slade’s subsequent career of diminished returns.

The script is brilliant. The premise of a teenage girl turning the tables on a sexual predator is one of the catchier high-concept narrative hooks you could think of. Writers Brian Nelson uses this premise to build meaningful dialogue about our culture’s treatment of gender, blame, and justice. While you could probably go on for pages about the movie’s cultural deconstruction, “Hard Candy” is also a brilliant thriller. The movie is a power play between the two characters. Hayley dominates Jeff throughout most of the first half but, near the end, when the restraints come off, we remember this is an adult man chasing after a 4’11 girl who probably weights ninety pounds soaking wet. The girl’s cruelty lead to some brilliant pay-offs. Jeff’s pained confession about his pedophilia’s origin is curtly dismissed. Frequently thrillers can’t pay-off on the tensions they built. Not a problem “Hard Candy” has. The film’s climax, which is really just a line of dialogue, is liable to have audiences gasping in shock. All of this means a lot considering the movie really is just two people talking. As nerve-wrenchingly uncomfortable as the movie can get, it’s early scenes, where adult man and teenage girl are flirting and playing cute with one another, a seduction on both sides, might just be the movie’s most squirmy sequences. The only criticism you can level at the script is that maybe some of the early dialogue is a little ungainly and on the nose.

All of these factors are important reasons for the movie’s success. But two other aspects stand over all others: The performances. This is the movie that made me an Ellen Page fan. It’s the kind of performance that only comes around every once in a while. The conviction in her voice is frightening. It would have been easy to play Hayley Stark as a cartoonish super villain. Instead, she’s all too human. The sweat on Page’s brow, or the shake in her voice, suggests she is as nervous as the audience is, even when in control. Of course, Hayley is in control, the whole time. The power Page summons in her tiny frame is highly impressive. Her pixie haircut seems to emphasize how young she appears. Raging, clever, occasionally insecure but never weak, it’s one of my all-time favorite performance. Patrick Wilson isn’t any slouch either. He too never undersells the complexity of Jeff’s character. He is a fully formed human being, suffering, even if he questionably deserves it. A moment at the end, when the weeping, broken Jeff is curled up in Hayley’s arms, is almost heart-breaking. “Hard Candy” is a two person show and both actors stand up to each other.

Confrontational films like this obviously serve a purpose. But confrontation isn’t enough. Unlike a lot of controversial, transgressive movies, “Hard Candy” has more in mind then preaching. It’s an incredibly intense thriller and a showcase for two extraordinary actors. [9/10]

Ghost Catchers (1944)
And now, for the first time, my Universal Monsters Mega-Thon starts to feel like work. “Ghost Catchers” stars the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson. Never heard of them? Me neither. These guys were just one pair of what I’m sure were many would-be comedy duos to emerge in the wake of Abbot and Costello. Like many of those other teams, they are no were near as funny. For a fact, “Ghost Catchers” is one of the most bafflingly unfunny films I’ve seen recently.

The story: A pair of Southern belles and their father move into a new home which they quickly come to believe is haunted. The older daughter runs out of the house in the middle of the night, looking for help. She walks into the building next door where a pair of strange men tie her to a chair, forcing her to watch a pair of people fight/dance. One of the men start throwing knives at her, a group of onlookers laughing at her fear and agony. No, this isn’t the 1940s equivalent of “Hostel.” This is supposed to be funny. Olsen and Johnson then proceed to aggravate the other members of the audience, slamming shoes onto tables and putting little toy ducks in a man’s soup. The pair cackle and giggle the whole time. Did I mention there’s a big musical number seemingly all about how the duo are insensitive assholes? When the girl finally pulls herself free of her bonds, her attempts to chastise her captives are silence when she’s dropped down through a trapdoor in the floor. Amazingly, she doesn’t awake in the Rancor pit.

Despite these guys clearly being no help, the family enlist them any way in their quest to remove the tap-dancing ghost from the house. They quickly deduce that the haunting is by the spirit of the bootlegger who previously owned the home. The man died in the middle of the party so in order to drive the ghost out, they decide to throw an even bigger party. More musical numbers and shrill slapstick follow. Olsen and Johnson entered their bedroom, their clothes yanked off by a spirit, criticizing “Hold That Ghost” by name. A plot develops, something about gangsters trying to get the stash in the house. Lon Chaney Jr. shows up in a bear suit. There’s a pair of dwarves dressed in gnome outfits, who get offended by constant “Snow White’ references. And who knew a ghost could get drunk?

Inexplicable, all of it. Neither Olsen and Johnson show a smidge of comedic timing or talent. One of them, I’m not sure which is which, the short fat one, has a high-pitched giggle which the film finds hilarious. Unlike a lot of haunted house comedies made in the forties, at least the ghost is real. Some of the floating object effects are even kind of impressive. But, Christ, “Ghost Catchers” is painful. And that finally closes out 1944, the busiest year ever for Universal Horror. [2.5/10]

Pillow of Death (1945)
Oh man, the floating disembodied head is gone! Have I not mentioned the floating disembodied head? Each one of the previous Inner Sanctum Mysteries opened with a shot of a floating head inside of a crystal ball, giving a brief monologue about the brain, introducing the format of psychological uncertainty and murders. I suspect this was meant to remind viewers of the radio show’s host. For whatever reason, “Pillow of Death,” the sixth and final entry in the series, decided to drop the introduction. Aw, I kind of miss the guy…

In “Pillow of Death,” Chaney plays a man looking to divorce his wealthy wife so he can marry his young secretary. Happenstance would have it that, on the night he plans to announce this, his wife has been murdered, smothered with a pillow in her sleep. A group of potential suspects gather in the mansion, including Chaney’s bitchy mother-in-law and a medium prone to melodramatic séances. Parts of the movie resemble a closed room mystery, the detective snooping around and talking to people. Despite that sounding a lot like an old dark house movie, and there is a secret passageway, “Pillow of Death” has some more overt horror concepts. The séances are phony but someone really does hear the voice of a dead love one.

“Pillow of Death” is actually one of the weaker Inner Sanctum films, though better then “Dead Man’s Eyes.” There’s some decent direction. The old mansion setting certainly provides some shadowy atmosphere, from the opening dolly shot to the séance sequences. There’s some story quirks here and there. At one point, an old woman threatens to asphyxiate some people in a closet. There’s a surprising lack of red herrings and the person who seems to be the murderer actually turns out to be the murderer. Chaney gives as best a performance as the thin material can provide, especially when communicating with his dead wife. After all the previous films focused on more personal, psychological horror, it’s disappointing to see the sixth film became basically a murder mystery, even if it does have some horror trappings on it. Four out of six is actually a good score and I found the Inner Sanctum Mysteries far more entertaining then I expected. [5/10]

Mockingbird Lane (2012)
On paper, a “dark and gritty” reboot of “The Munsters” is an idea that is, in as few as words as possible, retarded. Early in development, the show seemed like nothing but an attempt to cash-in on our culture’s current obsession with vampires and werewolves. However, as news started to trickle out, I became more intrigued. I’ve never seen “Pushing Up Daisies” or “Wonderfalls” so I don’t have an opinion about Brad Fuller. An interview were he described the show as “Universal Monsters: The Series” and promised story arcs inspired by “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Phantom of the Opera” really piqued my interest. Naturally, it wasn’t long after that we found out the show hadn’t been picked up for series.

Getting to see the pilot, premiered as a stand-alone Halloween special, makes me want to see a whole season run. The show strikes a balance between familial drama, high-concept monster shenanigans, and a surprising morbid streak. The opening features a werewolf attacking a boy scout camp, quoting directly from 1979’s “Prophecy,” which is a good way to win over hardcore horror fans. The story of the episode mostly concerns Herman and Lily trying to figure how to break it to Eddie that he is a werewolf. The son is proud to be ‘normal’ and doesn’t take his transformation well. Mom and Dad’s attempt to let the kid down easy are undermined by Grandpa’s over-the-top embraces of his monster-dom, which includes turning into a bat monster, trying to kill the boy’s scout leader, eating a mountain lion in front of the boy, and hypnotizing the neighbors. A subplot includes Herman’s heart quite literally falling apart on him.

The show is funny, if a little on the overly quirky side. There’s a definite chemistry between the cast. Jerry O’Connell, whom I normally can’t stand, works well as Herman. Mason Cook is especially good as Eddie, showing a lot of promise. Eddie Izzard, who turned into Oliver Reed at some point, is way over the top and goofy as Grandpa, which suits the character fairly well. I wish we had seen more of Portia de Rossi as Lily, who seems to have a good grasp on the character. The production values of the show are very high, which is probably the real reason it wasn’t picked up for a series. The Munster House looks fantastic. There’s a striking sequence when the newly awaken Lily forms her gown out of spider-webs. Some of the CGI is a little shaky, such as the mounds of rats or the mountain lion, but some of it works better, such as Spot the Dragon’s late-episode entrance. So it’s sort of a bummer this isn’t going to be a full season. I see a lot of promise here. [7/10]

Friday, October 26, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 25

Jungle not included.
Jungle Woman (1944)
“Jungle Woman” is a direct sequel to “Captive Wild Woman.” When so many of these ’40s movies have little continuity between films, it’s refreshing to see a sequel not rewrite the previous film's ending. All of the primary characters from part 1 are brought back. Acquanetta, of course, but also Milburn Stone and Evelyn Ankers. Even if their parts amount to cameos, it’s nice they bothered to show up at all.

The film has a framing device. A doctor is on trial for murdering a woman. In flashback, he and his witnesses explain their story. In the grand tradition of “The Mummy” series, this sequel opens with almost ten minutes of stock footage from the previous movie, J. Carrol Naish’s new character hastily inserted. At one point, two characters have a stock-footage fueled flashback within the flashback! The gist is after Chella the Gorilla was shot, Naish’s doctor bought the body only to find she was still miraculously breathing. To save money on sets, Naish also bought the sanitarium from the first movie. Without explanation, Chella the Ape morphs into Paula the Woman. The movie is such a low budget affair that it doesn’t even have new footage of a guy in an ape suit. The transformation happens totally off-screen.

Paula learns to speak. Acquanetta does better here then in “Dead Man’s Eyes” but she’s still incredibly flat, shouting all of her lines in monotone. She immediately falls in love with a new guy, an equestrian. Naturally, this dude all ready has a girlfriend, the doctor’s daughter. Things that make Paula the Ape Woman angry: The guy she has a crush having a girlfriend. The “Frosty the Snowman”-sounding retard with the catchphrase “What a jip!” hitting on her. Her crush and his girlfriend canoodling in a row boat. The doctor generally being passive aggressive. Not only isn’t there any crappy ape suit action, there isn’t any monster action either. Paula only wears her were-ape make-up at the very end. For these reasons and more, “Jungle Woman” is an incredibly dry, slow-paced affair. It feels much longer then even its meager hour runtime.

Serendipitously, the AV Club posted a Primer on the Universal Monsters just today. Noel Murray makes the good point that all the monsters are connected by an important facet. Though murderous and inhuman, each one has relatable, all-to-human desire, usually for love and understanding. Even if the movies are crappy, Paula the Were-Gorilla shares that defining characteristic. She only wants love. Is it her fault the guys she want are already taken, inspiring her murders? If the films weren’t such micro-budget, thinly written affairs, the character could’ve been iconic. I wasn’t able to find the final part of the trilogy, “The Jungle Captive,” where Acquanetta was traded out for Vicky Lane, but it’s probably not much better. [4.5/10]

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
According to Wikipedia, this movie is set in 1995. They believe “The Mummy’s Hand” was set in 1940, when it was made. “Tomb” and “Ghost” were thirty years later, in 1970. I personally think it’s more likely that “The Mummy’s Hand” is set in 1910. Even if “The Mummy’s Curse” is set in 1965, it looks a lot like 1944. The best way I can fan wank this is that it hasn’t actually been twenty-five years. Local legend has just extended the dates. Once again, the fans are putting more thought into this then the people who made the movies did. Another glaring continuity issue is that the action has shifted from Massachusetts to New Orleans, completely without explanation. All the references to Swifton College and Mapleton are intact but in a totally different state.

When I was young, watching on TV, I thought this was the worst classic monster movie I’d ever seen. Now, it’s not that bad, but it’s definitely a subpar effort. “The Mummy” sequels really are particularly identical. By part five, the formula is especially strained. The High Priests of Arkam raise Kharis from his sleep, sending him out to retrieve Ananka’s mummy and take revenge on all in his path. The lumbering mummy somehow manages to claim several victims, strangling each one. In the last reel, one of the High Priests develops a burning lust for the female love interest. Kharis turns on his bosses. Rinse, repeat.

“Curse” doesn’t do anything to make Kharis intimidating. He causes a cave-in at the end but, otherwise, remains dusty and slow. At one point, characters speed off in a car, just out of the mummy’s reach. Not a good way to pump up your main threat. This is also the weakest make-up of the series. Aside from the occasionally atmospheric New Orleans setting, the movie’s main differing point involves the resurrected Ananka. In the sole impressive sequence, Anaka pulls her mummified body from the mud of the recently drained swamp. The dazed, undead girl wanders the sunny swamp, confused. It’s a surprisingly striking sequence, recalling the later “Carnival of Souls.” Once again, a potentially interesting plot-thread is dangle before us. Ananka joins the local camp and shows some unexplained knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture. Sadly, Virginia North isn’t given anything to do besides sleep-walk and faint. She wanders into some people, Kharis strangles them, she wanders off into more people, Kharis strangles them, until the end. The rest of the cast, from the hero, love interest, crusty foreman, and the racially insensitive workers have zero personality or development. Martin Kosleck plays the young priest who fails at resisting temptation. His tussle with the hero and Kharis are the film’s only exciting action. The Ananka subplot is limply resolved off-screen.

In his review of this film, the indispensable David Sindelar points out that you can easy rotate the titles of the Mummy sequels around. I like the Kharis films well enough but they are all undeniably uninspired and formulaic. Like a shambling corpse, “The Mummy’s Curse” is the franchise limping off to its grave, dusty, tired, and old. [5/10] 

Strange Confession (1945)
I bought the Inner Sanctum Mysteries box when it first came out, like a dutiful little UniMonsters fan boy. I know I’ve seen all the movies before but obviously I wasn’t paying much attention because I didn’t remember a single thing about any of them. Except “Strange Confession.” I remember liking “Strange Confession” a lot.

Rewatching it now, that seems a little strange. Oh, it’s a decent movie, certainly up to par with the rest of the series. For a fact, it’s a bit atypical, since it doesn’t feature any hypnotism, numerous women lusting after Chaney, or that much depressed monologue. (Unless the entire movie is a monologue, which is certainly a way to look at it.) Until the last five minutes, there’s nothing about “Strange Confession” that marks it as a horror movie, not even a thriller. Chaney plays a pharmaceutical chemist and a committed family man who is a little slow for his boss’ taste. (J. Carrol Naish playing another asshole.) After firing Chaney and re-hiring, he is shipped off to South America to work on a project. Even in 1945, Big Pharma was evil. The wicked boss releases the drug Chaney is working on early, causing several deaths, including a personal tragedy. Proving how big a bastard he is, Naish hits on Chaney’s grieving wife, causing a little revenge to be in order.

The early scenes of Chaney, his wife, and his son frolicking at Christmas time are super warm. Serious “It’s a Wonderful Life” vibes. Most of the movie progresses in that manor, a family drama about the clan trying to get by on limited funds. Naish bides his time, waiting to prove just how big of an asshole he is. This probably doesn’t sound horribly interesting but it chugs along at a decent pace, fairly captivating, if never spectacular. When things get super serious at the very end, that’s when Lon Chaney is really allowed to act, playing up the avenging father bit fantastically. And that’s the main reason to check out “Strange Confession,” for two fantastic theatrical performances from Naish and Chaney, master character actors. The horror content is marginal, and it’s not the best Inner Sanctum flick, but I’m not hard to please. [7/10]

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 24

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
“The Invisible Man’s Revenge” is Universal's attempt to get the Invisible Man series back to its roots. After the original, none of the sequels are really horror films, not even “The Invisible Man’s Returns.” While most of the series’ protagonist eventually had to deal with the insanity causing side-effects of the invisibility formula, none of them have been truly bad people. Not in “Revenge.” Jon Hall, playing a very different character then in “Invisible Agent,” starts the movie escaping from a madhouse, having murdered three people on the way out. Despite having the last name Griffin, the guy doesn’t seem to know anything about invisibility or science. Instead, he has a family in the mining industry and feels like his relatives have cheated him out of some money. His attempts to sway them to his cause, mostly by threatening them and obsessing over their daughter (Evelyn Ankers, naturally.), prove ineffectual. After befriending a kindly drunk tramp, the guy stumbles into the home of a mad scientist. (John Carradine, naturally.) I’m not sure if science marched on or if a screenwriter just wanted to do something different but it’s this mad scientist who invents the invisibility formula. The serum doesn’t cause people to disappear, it instead refracts light around you, a slightly more realistic cause of invisibility. As you could probably figure out from the title, Robert Griffin uses his newfound ability to take revenge on the mostly imagined wrongs against him.

The movie successfully regains the concept as a horror premise. Robert Griffin is actually a pretty scary guy. He’s found of threatening people with knives, tossing them around. He’s a true sociopath, without scruples, and willing to do just about anything to further his goal. (Or do anything to someone.) Jon Hall’s voice is actually fairly strong and he adds a villainous whisper to all of his lines. The movie also does something novel by having the invisible man regain visibility part way through, before loosing it again. There’s a lot of blood transfers. Was that an exciting new technology in the forties? Seems to come up a lot in these films.

The special effects are both a step forward and a step back from what was seen in “Agent.” The fading away effects are well done. I like how the actor is given a pasty faced, pale make-up before totally disappearing. The headless clothes trick isn’t as seamless as before. You can frequently see the outlines of his face. But then the film will do something impressive, like the Invisible Man wetting his hands and face or patting some pancake batter on. The wire work is seamless and well done... Up until the end, when you can see the wires clearly. There’s some fun early effects with an invisible dog. The wine cellar climax is exciting and well done.

While Hall is excellent, the supporting cast is more mixed. Ankers is given absolutely nothing to do. She’s barely in the movie. Gale Sondergaard gets a few strong moments but, as is sadly typical, she’s wasted. Lester Matthews probably does the best as the family matriarch. Alan Curtis is undeniably bland as what I guess passes for the film’s heroic lead. Hall’s vengeful murderer is the actual protagonist and the movie's real hero is the dog. Halliwell Hobbes’ Cleghorn, the comedic boozer, is funny even if his character leads to a couple divergent scenes, like an extended dart throwing sequence. John Carradine does his typical mad scientist schtick, which I’ve seen so much here of late that it’s barely worth commenting on.

Overall, I actually liked “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” a little more then I expected or remembered. It’s more ambitious then the other sequels and actually builds some decent suspense. [7/10]

The Frozen Ghost (1945)
The Inner Sanctum Mysteries return to their favorite plot mechanism: Hypnotism. Chaney plays a stage hypnotist who, during a live performance, learns he can kill a man with a thought. As per the series standard, he spends the rest of the film feeling intensely guilty. Despite the hypnotism plot set-up, most of the movie has an entirely different gimmick: A wax museum! Now that’s always a cool setting for a horror film. The museum is run by a discredited plastic surgeon who maybe has some mental problems he should work out. The truth which the movie reveals way too early: Chaney’s agent and the sculptor are working together to gaslight Lon, of course, for reasons I don’t remember. (I watched this at two in the morning on three hours sleep. Excuse me.) Also per the series standard, there are three women in love with Lon’s hypnotist: The wax museum’s female owner, her much younger niece, and his female stage assistant, played by Evelyn Ankers, of course. The murders that follow cleave Chaney’s romantic options pretty quickly.

“The Frozen Ghost” returns to some of the atmosphere of “Calling Dr. Death.” The cliched shot of the hypnotist’s staring eyes, swirling circles imprinted over his face is employed a few times. My favorite involves a tracking shot of Chaney’s feet as he wanders around, his guilty conscious monologue going the whole time. Chaney, playing his sobbing paranoid part fantastically as always, is actually a little underused. The movie mostly focuses on the wax museum, with Martin Kosleck as the villainous mad sculptor, a role very similar to his later character in “House of Horrors.” There’s an extend, actually quite suspenseful scene of him stalking “House of Frankestein’s” Elena Verdugo through the museum. Another notable moment comes when he is hiding a dead body among the displays, the Shakespeare-obsessed detective snooping around. The giant blazing fiery cauldron in the basement makes a memorable, repeated image. It’s inevitable from the moment it’s introduced that someone is going to end up in that thing.

And that’s the only real problem with “The Frozen Ghost,” another entertaining if brisk and indistinct entry in the Inner Sanctum series. Not enough mopey Chaney and laying the obvious cards anyone could have guessed down too soon. [6.5/10]

Night of the Living Dead (1990)
I won’t ramble on about this one for too long, since I was drifting in and out of sleep while watching it. I grabbed this off of my local video store’s Halloween display for four bucks, which I couldn’t pass up. I wanted to rewatch it anyway after meeting Patricia Tallman back in September.

My main thoughts?: Barbara is the voice of reason. The original implied that Ben wasn’t really any less reasonable then Harry Cooper. The remake harps on this point almost to the point of aggravation. Tony Todd’s Ben, while maybe handling the situation a little more capably, is no less crazy or overstressed then Cooper. This version acknowledges the irony that Cooper really was right all along, that the basement was the safest place in the house. Anyway, Barbara is the only one with a clear head in-between the two screaming alpha males. As is usually the case, the reasonable woman is ignored and the entire household suffers because of it. So, whadaya know: A feminist zombie movie. Tallman is excellent, and looks badass and beautiful wielding a shotgun in a tank top. It’s a shame that the script is a little high-pitched and all that screaming gets overdone and overwrought. I suppose the situation would put anyone’s nerves on edge…

The zombie make-up is great. I love that they all have a slightly yellow, jaundice pallor to them. As a little bit in “Dawn of the Dead” and most prominently in “Day,” all the zombies also have personality. There’s a one fresh from the cemetery, his zombie-ass hanging out of his half-tux. There’s a guy with a big, overflowing brow. An old woman with a doll, a junkie with a still-fresh needle protruding from a vain, a skeletal starving boy, and on and on. This is early nineties creature make-up at its best. Aside from bad-ass Barbara, it’s probably the movie’s best aspect.

It’s nowhere near as scary as the original, naturally. In particular, the Cooper daughter going undead in this version has nothing on the original’s trowel-murder. Unlike a lot of remakes, this one was clearly made for fans of the original since there are so many shout-outs and in-jokes, from repeated lines, referenced events, and a new cameo from Chilly Billy. Tom Savini’s career as a director has never really took off which is a bit of a shame as he shows a decent handle on the material. As far as the sudden industry of “NotLD” remakes go, this one is obviously still the best, and only good, one. [7/10]

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Halloween 2012: October 23

Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)
List of careers Lon Chaney has held in the Inner Sanctum series: Neurologist, professor of folklore, portrait painter. It’s a good things these movies are unrelated, isn’t it? Otherwise that shit would get super convoluted. Anyway, after “Calling Dr. Death” and “Weird Woman” were surprisingly good, “Dead Man’s Eyes” is the first dud in the series. As is the standard for this series thus far, two different woman are in love with Chaney: His fiancé and his model. In an act of jealousy, the model switches the artist’s eye-wash out with acid, burning his corneas. The only man willing to give Chaney the corneas he needs is his girlfriend’s rich dad. Naturally, the dad is murdered, and other murders follow. Once again, a hard-ass police detective gets on Chaney’s case even though he is, per the series’ rules, totally innocent.

“Dead Man’s Eyes” is a snore. The direction is, compared to the first two films, bland. Chaney actually starts out as a very happy man but, as soon as he’s blind, he falls back into his typical angsty mode. The movie notes briefly the recently blinded man’s tendency to drink, possibly touching on Chaney’s real-life alcoholism. This story thread is dropped quickly as the movie focuses on the murder-mystery. Unlike the last two, the murder-mystery is the only horror element in the film, placing this one on the margins of the genre. There’s fewer voice-overs too and covering Chaney’s eyes takes away a major acting factor of his. It’s fairly easy who the murderer is and far too much of the movie is spent discussing the location of a pair of eyes or character’s condition. Acquanetta plays the jealous model and it’s easy to see why she didn’t have any lines in the Paula the Ape Woman movies. Her performance isn’t very good. Chaney has some okay chemistry with Jean Parker, the actress playing his girlfriend and Thomas Gomez, as this entry’s hard-ass detective, is fun as well. The super-happy ending wraps everything up way too cleanly. Hopefully the remaining Inner Sanctum films will be more like the previous two then “Dead Man’s Eyes.” [4/10]

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
For a change, “The Mummy’s Ghost” doesn’t start with stock footage from the previous movie. Instead, it starts with a college professor giving an exposition filled monologue about what happened in the last movie. I don’t know if that’s an improvement or not. “The Mummy’s Ghost” is the first mummy movie since the original to bring up the issue of resurrection. While it wasn’t mentioned much in the last two, apparently the mummy of Princess Ananka was brought back to a museum in Mapleton, MA. At it once again are the priests of Arkam (Pronounced AH-Kam, not like the asylum or the town), apparently taking over for the Priest of Karnak even though George Zucco is back as the aging high priest with a broken arm. John Carradine heads to Massachusetts and boils himself some Tana leaves tea under a full moon. Despite being burnt to ashes in the last movie, the tea ritual apparently summons Kharis magically out of thin air. Meanwhile, a young female student at the college is experiencing a strange connection with the mummy. When the priest try to perform a ritual over Ananka’s mummy, she dreams Kharis is floating over her. She sleepwalks when he is about. And her hair is slowly turning white…

I’d compare “The Mummy’s Ghost” to “Son of Dracula.” Oh, that movie is much better then this one but both films share a dark streak, both visually and in their story. Amina, the resurrected Princess Ananka, provides an interesting angle. Not only is she unambiguously the reincarnation of the dead princess, she seems to be becoming a mummy as the film goes on. I wish actress Ramsay Ames was giving a little more to do besides look fantastic in a tight nightgown and pass out on a slab, because she shows some talent. I suspect if Universal had wanted to, this could have been a Val Lewton-style story of a girl realizing her own strange, and frightening, legacy.

But “The Mummy” sequels have much more modest goals. “The Mummy’s Ghost” is content to be the same-old-same-old story of a dusty old mummy rampaging across New England. The last movie tried to make the slow, shambling mummy frightening by suggesting a supernatural influence on his environment. This one emphasizes his strength. The first thing Kharis does upon resurrection is smashed through a wooden fence. Later, he crashes through a barn wall and destroys a museum display. Once again, Lon Chaney does he best to act under the ungainly make-up. John Carradine does his thing and, once again, the High Priest character falls in love with the girl in peril at the last minute. Kharis proves to be the jealous type. The movie is infamous for its downbeat ending. I’m not quite sure why they went in that direction, though it is surprising. Weirdly, the movie ends with one of the “God punishes though who meddle” message but this time it’s talking about the Egyptian Gods. Dogs also featured prominently in this one for some reason. If it wasn’t for that ending, “The Mummy’s Ghost” would probably be utterly unremarkable. With it, it suggests a much more interesting film could have been made from these reliable, schlocky stock parts. [5.5/10]

Intruders (2012)
Here’s a thriller from just this year that’s been overlooked. Juan Carls Frensnadillo is one of those Spanish genre directors that rode into the American film industry in the early 2000s on a wave of interest in Spanish. Like a lot of those directors, he quickly fizzled out. “Intruders,” similarly, starts out extremely promising before being derailed by a kind of lame ending.

The film is rooted in childhood fears, which is extremely fertile ground for horror. A girl, while visiting with her grandparents house, pulls a matchbox out of a tree. In the box, is a fold-up piece of paper telling the story of a boogeyman named Hollow Face, a creature that snatches children’s faces. Soon, the girl is haunted by the spectre. Despite this juicy premise, the film actually focuses on her father, played by Clive Owen, and how he deals with the mysterious intruder in his home, violating the privacy and sanctity of the child’s bedroom. With the focus on childhood fears, the girl’s twelve birthday, her desire to grow up, her relationship with her father, and some growing animosity with her mom make me think this was going to be a story about childhood, coming of age, and night terrors. It’s not really about that. There’s a parallel story about a Spanish child similarly being haunted by the same entity, his single mother helpless to do anything about it. The film ties these two story threads together in the least interesting fashion position.

As I said, “Intruders” has so much potential in that premise and set-up. As the two frightened, hapless parents, Clive Owen and Pilar Lopez de Ayala both give excellent performances. Sequences of a black, shadowy figure, intentionally recalling the shadow people concept, emerging from a closet proves deeply creepy. The subtle score helps builds these thrills, even if they are sometimes undermined by some sketchy CGI effects. The mystery and intensity of the situation builds to a high pitch… To the middle of the film. At which point, the story is revolved in a really uninteresting manner. I mean, it tries to be interesting. The film handles the trite twist in a way that builds into the story’s themes. But it still can’t overcome the inherent lameness of the twist. Especially when we get to the story’s proper climax, which keeps playing it for supernatural thrills even though we know the truth now, feels a bit tedious.

All of this is a real bummer because the beginning really is promising. There are the building blocks here of a thrilling, original horror film playing on real life fears and tensions. Faceless people are almost always creepy and this movie plays into that well. So I still don’t know what to make of Fresnadilo as a talent, since “28 Weeks Later” also left me with a mixed reaction. Maybe eventually he’ll make an awesome horror movie that doesn’t compromise its own premise. [6/10]