Thursday, December 17, 2009

Red Dead Revival

Wow, has it been almost a month? Jesus, I'm a slacker.

So yeah, sorry for the lack of updates, folks. General tiredness and other matters got in the way, but as the new year approaches, I plan on posting more consistent updates. And speaking of which, let's get on with the review rundown:

Over at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, I took on the emo-tastic juggernaut that is New Moon, though I cleansed my conscience by taking on the Spanish version of 1931's Dracula. For Review Express, I gave the rundown on the DVD releases of Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell and cult classic Army of Darkness. And at Terror Tube, Destroy All Monsters continues my rundown of the entire Godzilla legacy.

More review links will follow, as well as capsule updates on general horror viewings. I'm back for real this time, ladies and jellyspoons. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Axe to Grind

Howdy-ho, horror hounds. All's been quiet on the genre front recently (I caught two flicks, Dead Air and The Echo, both of which can be encapsulated with a simple "meh"), though there are some new links to share. First, reviews of two recent releases, The Fourth Kind and The Box:

The Box --
The Fourth Kind --

On Classic Movie Guide, I wrote up a condensed critique of 1931's Dracula. It was meant to be a comparison review with the Spanish version filmed at the same time, but my copy started skipping (once I receive a replacement, expect a review on the Spanish version here). But I'm still pleased with how it turned out:

Dracula (1931) --

And last, but not least, I can finally unveil the first edition of my new Terror Tube column, "Axe to Grind." I'll be taking on all sorts of horror-related topics, the first of which is why I watch horror when so much of it sucks:

Look forward to more articles in the future; pending subjects include Universal monster movies and when faith and horror mingle.

That's all for now, but stay tuned for more updates!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Foreign Hustle

As my profile states, I write for multiple sites, among them Passport Cinema (, for which my colleague Chris Luedtke and I review solely foreign films. Both of us have reviewed our fair share of foreign releases, and throughout October, we reviewed an assortment of zombie flicks. Some of mine made their way into edited versions during the Horror-thon, but here were my selections:

Dead Snow --
Evil (2005) --
Night of the Living Dorks --
Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad --

Mini-reviews of the first three can be found in the Horror-thon archives, whereas Onechanbara was written for the site in advance.

And on the subject, I also just posted longer versions of two more Horror-thon veterans:

Fear(s) of the Dark --
Tomie --

At least one more straggler will be posted in the coming weeks, but I'll still be tackling horror for Passport Cinema, in which case you can find links here when posted!

The Red Eye Returns

Well, as you can tell, October has ended and with it the Red Eye Report's first Horror-thon. I want to thank everyone who visited the site and sent me feedback on what they thought.

But now that I've had a little breather after my mainly Rockstar-fueled blog orgy, I'm soon going to set out on what I meant the Red Eye Report to be: a hub for all things horror for yours truly. In the next few days, I'll be posting links to various horror-related articles I've written for other sites, as well as posting the occasional review straight here. I thought I'd get the party started with two "best of" lists I wrote for ReelTalk Reviews and Classic Movie Guide in October:

"Flicks with Bite" - The 5 Best Vampire Movies You've Never Seen...Maybe --

"A.J.'s Top Ten Horror Classics" --

Also, I wanted to thank my good friend Dom Coccaro for coming up with a rather kickass logo, which you can see for yourself at the top of the page. And be sure to peruse Dom's chuckle-inducing thoughts at his own blog, "Random Reviews":

More reviews will follow in the next couple of days, so stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Horror-thon #31: "Stephen King's It" (1990)

"Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Next to the "great power and responsibility" chestnut, this is one of cinema's favorite cliches, not to mention the central theme behind Stephen King's It. The reason why most people are afraid of clowns these days, It focuses on a group of seven friends who, as children, teamed-up to stop a child-murdering demon. They thought the beast was gone for good, until a new wave of killings begins in their old hometown. The now adult chums are forced to head back and face the monster once again, but fighting it will be a challenge. What they're up against is quite literally the sum of all fears, as the more it toys and scares its potential victims, the more unstoppable a force it evolves into.

I've found Stephen King's works easier to adapt than those of Clive Barker. The latter's scope is more often than not limited by budgetary constraints; King can get a little grandiose, but humanity remains the key to his tales. It is just such an example, coming dangerously close to living up to the man's macabre vision. The first part is told mostly through flashback, as the seven friends reflect on their first encounter with the demon as they're each summoned for round two. Through its grim depiction of childhood memories, it gives the notion of nostalgia a good kick in the pants, suggesting that not everything's as rosy as our minds like to tell us. Scariest of all, though, is the demon's most prominent visage, a clown named Pennywise played by Tim Curry. His every appearance is an excuse to hike up the covers, and Curry plays him with a precise balance of menace and dark comedy.

But as it progresses, it gets harder and harder for It to cross the finish line in one piece. This is partially due to the old issue of too much material and not enough time to cover it in. Even at a little over three hours, It just can't seem to touch upon everything it wants to. You always feel like you should've read the book, as numerous subplots and concepts are somewhat addressed then abandoned faster than a Pauly Shore retrospective. These barely mask how little of a main story there actually is; once the characters conquer the demon as kids, they pretty much just go at it again as adults, the interim populated with constant flashbacks that get old fast. It also doesn't help that the acting can get hilariously awful. The grown-ups fare alright, with good turns from Tim Reid and Harry Anderson, but It features some atrocious child acting, lending the project more of a comedic bent than it likely intended.

It revolves around childhood fears come to life, and in doing so, both kids and adults will be equally effected. I recall catching an unsettling image or two before flipping the station as a young one, and now that I'm older, I can appreciate the flick's more mature overtones. But It has a reputation that it just didn't live up to in my book. Freaky? Yes, and often so, but the repetitive plot and some gut-busting performances undermine what I actually hope someone will one day remake into the truly haunting masterpiece this story deserves to be.

Friday, October 30, 2009

October Horror-thon #30: "Paranormal Activity" (2009)

Paranormal Activity's bare-bones story centers on a twentysomething couple, Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston). As a young girl, Katie claims to have been haunted by a supernatural force that's apparently followd her to San Diego. Micah uses this revelation as an excuse to stock up on camera equipment and play ghost hunter, but it's serious business for his significant other. As recording begins, the amount of unexplained phenomena steadily increases. Objects move of their own volition, the lights are suspiciously wonky, and disturbing sounds erupt out of nowhere. After consulting an expert (Mark Fredrichs), the young lovers deduce that a demon has targeted Katie and will stop at nothing until its campaign of terror has driven her to insanity.

In 1925, folks fainted upon seeing Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Nowadays, it's like you need two swimming pools of blood and a visit to Clive Barker's nightmares to keep viewers awake. This is why my hat goes off to Paranormal Activity, current darling of the horror scene, for doing what it does well and with little hoopla to speak of. It has but a few creaky doors and flickering lights to its name, though in the hands of director Oren Peli, these bumps in the night are more than enough to cast a disquieting spell over moviegoers. But when I speak of squeaks, grunts, and groans, that's really all you get; the movie leaves your mind to fill in the gaps, which I admired but will leave other thrill seekers dissatisfied. It's a slow burn, with a lot of set-up and only a few spurts of payoff, though the constant presence of dread works better than any jump scares could.

Though it's cruel to write off Paranormal Activity as a Blair Witch clone, there are similarities that can't be ignored. The scares are one thing, though foremost is the cinematography. The events are depicted entirely through Micah's omnipresent camera, in an example of the first-person perspective actually working well when applied to horror. Seeing the couple's plight unfold is freaky, though just as effective is how Peli uses this approach to include the human element. Much focus is put on the growing strain between Micah, who outrightly taunts his unseen aggressor, and Katie, a true believer in the otherworldly driven to tears more than once. There is some daffy behavior exhibited (after all, what's a horror movie about a bad decision or two), but it's to be expected. These are regular people with regular flaws, a refreshing alternative to characters who exist solely as walking scream factories.

Paramount's hype machine is working overtime promoting Paranormal Activity, though it is best seen with a crowd. Feeding off of others' reactions is half the fun, and don't be surprised to find yourself addressing the slightest noise with the utmost suspicion when you get home. A classic it is not, but Paranormal Activity still represents how creepy horror can be at its most direct.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

October Horror-thon #29: "Fear(s) of the Dark" (2007)

Fear(s) of the Dark tasks a cabal of today's brightest graphic artist with creating a series of short animated pieces that put the "cartoons are for kids" philosophy to bed. French artist Blutch unleashes a pack of rabid dogs and their sadistic master, who wander in search of victims to ravage. America's Charles Burns tells a tale of love, obsession, and bugs when a young man falls for an emotionally needy woman. A Japanese girl confronts her inner rage in Marie Caillou's vignette. Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti's story involves a man remembering a childhood spent in fear of a great best terrorizing his village. The film ends on a particularly creepy note, thanks to Richard McGuire's example of what happens when you combine an old, dark house and one man's overactive imagination.

At once imperviously artistic and ingeniously simple, Fear(s) of the Dark takes the notion of being scared to one of its most profound dimensions yet. Movies like Them and The Strangers claim they're getting back to horror's basics, but it's really a "get out of criticism free" card to excuse an absence of action. They are onto something, though; we tend to forget that films are art and can perform without convoluted stories. Fear(s) of the Dark is sweet on symbolism, but anyone can identify with the emotions buried beneath. Its images touch on what puts you at unease, both figuratively (through most of the shorts) and literally (via Pierre Di Sciullo's interludes). It's not the mere sight of grody bug monsters or those savage hounds that's most frightening but rather the subtext they entail.

Some segments do their jobs better than others, but you can't fault a one for lack of ambition. Even if a vignette's themes leave you hollow, there's always some unique animation as a consolation prize. Casual film fans will likely respond most to the Charles Burns tale. It's the closest in style to "Tales from the Crypt" as the movie gets, though it still leads viewers down a deeper path than they'd expect. The last story (and the one that dominates the poster) is a diabolical masterwork with a hundred little jolts, and Blutch's stark renderings are among the film's most brutal. Caillou's yarn was the only one that sort of faltered; while its bizarre creatures are impressionable, the premise never really goes anywhere. The Mattotti piece has great atmosphere, but its ultimate message ends up a tad muddled.

Fear(s) of the Dark is a creepshow unto its own, a grab bag of surreal goodies worth snatching up just because of how unique it is. Some may designate is esoteric twaddle fit only for the art snob crowd, but trust me when I say the film provides plenty of reason for everyone to leave the comfort of the light and embrace the unknown.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

October Horror-thon #28: "Night of the Living Dorks" (2004)

Night of the Living Dorks delivers on its title by starring the most socially-awkward geeks you've ever seen. Philip (Tino Mewes) is the bashful nice guy with a thing for the resident hottie. Konrad (Thomas Schmieder) is the know-it-all who literally keeps every time he's been beaten up on record. Weener (Manuel Cortez) is the pothead who's too stoned to feel insulted. All live perfectly average high school lives, until a voodoo ritual turns out three zeroes into zombies. Upon this realization, the guys use their newfound abilities to get back at campus bullies and win over the student body. But the need to feed soon comes calling, leaving the trio mere hours to reverse their curse before their humanity is lost for good.

The vampire has been romanticized for so long, it's about time another movie monster got its turn. The zombie may not be a likely candidate (what with eating brains and the whole rigor mortis thing), but being undead has its perks. You never need to sleep, you can take a lot of punishment, and you can ingest all the booze you want, all sure-fire ways to wow your friends. Germany's Night of the Living Dorks plays this premise for laughs, sending up sexploitation cinema by way of George Romero. It's a big goof being made at horror's expense, yet it remains more respectful than Twilight and its many unintentional titters. While there's some reliance on reference jokes and riffs on zombie lore, it's never overdone. Similarly, there's not a teen stereotype the script doesn't address, but it's all done in the good name of satire.

But with so much sustained lunacy taking place, viewers might end up feeling like the walking dead themselves. After its off-the-wall introduction, Night of the Living Dorks started buying into all those conventions it was just giving atomic wedgies to five scenes prior. All its good will and offbeat charm vanish under a glut of derivative gags. Sure, it's funny when the guys start shedding appendages at inopportune times, but rehash the bit twenty times over, and you'll beg the film to make with the credits already. Though the three leads perform just fine (with support from Collien Fernandes as a cutie pie Goth girl), the constant potty humor makes it hard to accept their characters with even a fraction of the seriousnessness the story requests.

Night of the Living Dorks will do the trick for an evening with (preferably) inebriated amigos (switch over to the dubbed version for maximum laughter). But its effect stops there, for if you set the film in front of seasoned horror buffs, you'll get more complacent shrugs than guffaws.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October Horror-thon #27: "The Burrowers" (2008)

The Dakota Territories, 1879. 'Tis the perfect setting for a Louis L'Amour saga, though The Burrowers proceeds to spin a more terrifying tome. Irish immigrant Coffey (Karl Geary) has come to his sweetheart's home to propose marriage, only to find the place ransacked and his beloved missing. Assuming that she and her family were taken hostage by Indians, Coffey joins a rescue party in hopes of seeing her home safely. But the further the hunt continues, the more some of the men start believing that the true culprits aren't all that human. Right they are, for what Coffey and company are dealing with is a far more ancient menace, one driven underground by Manifest Destiny and forced to turn towards man to sate its hunger.

Director J.T. Petty is a master at taking cool concepts for low-budget thrillers and stamping out any signs of life. First came Soft for Digging, a dull dalliance into David Lynch's table scraps. Next came Mimic 3, a sequel with a clever bent undone by the script's sheer inanity. Now we have The Burrowers, a step up from the former two in how one hammer to the groin is preferable to two. Again, Petty presents an alluring premise: pretty much do what Predator did, but in the Old West. Sounds ridiculous enough to have fun with, except Petty leaves out a key ingredient: fun. So preoccupied is the film with keeping up appearances, of suckering viewers with the promise of a traditional Western, it sort of forgets about the Civil War-era C.H.U.D.s running amok.

The more serious tone is a nice thought, but it wears thin when maintained for so long by a script that's nowhere near up to the task. The acting is alright enough (any film starring Clancy "Mr. Krabs" Brown as a gunslinger gets an instant gold star), but the story assigns most characters a single emotion and puts it on a 90-minute loop. No real insight is gained beyond Coffey wanting to see his girlfriend or some kid trying to prove his manhood, et cetera. Plus, the pacing is so downbeat that when the title creatures are revealed, you really could care less. Besides, the effects are incredibly wonky, so all the build-up for what ends up resembling H.R. Giger's fingerpaints really isn't up to snuff.

With its languid pacing and adherence to cliche, The Burrowers is as lethargic as horror flicks get. It's less of a film and more of a test, prodding you with patches of inactivity and tangential subplots to see how long your investment in the story will last before you retreat into the sunset.

Monday, October 26, 2009

October Horror-thon #26: "Dead Snow" (2009)

As countless clodhoppers have before them, the youthful stars of Dead Snow embark on an innocent holiday that gets really ugly, really fast. Some randy lads and their fetching dates head to a cozy mountain getaway for some drinking, snowmobiling, and anything else they can think of to pad out the running time. The kids run into a passing stranger, whose ramblings of a great evil in the area they attribute to Crazy Ralph Syndrome. But are they in for a surprise when none other than Nazi zombies rise from the snow and commence a blitzkrieg of the dead. With little else to fight back with, the group must use knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of watching horror movies in order to survive a predicament torn from the pages of a Troma script.

I hate spending half of my horror reviews denouncing the genre for being gimmicky. It's great when any film, not just horror, embraces something special to flag down potential viewers, but not when its core remains resolutely tame. Dead Snow was obviously made by people who grew up watching scary movies and meant this as a means of tribute. But despite an increase in technical competence, there's not enough ingenuity to help them surpass the very flicks they're riffing. Is the idea of teens doing battle with undead SS officers unique? You bet your exposed innards it is, though what's the use when it's just another zombie flick underneath?

Brains splatter, limbs are severed, and corpses get blown asunder, all of which could have been encompassed by a knowing satire. Yet director Tommy Wirkola insists that much of the film be taken at face value; films about flesh-eating Gestapo are many things, but "serious" should not be at the top of the list. There are some terrific examples of dark comedy, as when one kid hangs precariously off a cliff by a Nazi's unraveled intestines. It's hard not to chuckle at moments like these, but it is easy to lament how infrequently they appear. That Wirkola pulls off some great photography and impressive special effects on a budget less than Megan Fox's monthly Ego Cream order is beside the point. It's all still sub-par zombietainment, with a few token references a la Scream and enough energy to summon one stereotype (the movie geek) before flat-out giving up.

Dead Snow has been hanging ten on a wave of hype for some time now, but I just don't get it. Perhaps I'm horror's version of some old geezer who listens to Gershwin albums whenever I'm not requesting those damn kids vacate my lawn. But a missed opportunity is a missed opportunity, and for Dead Snow to render Nazi zombies boring is to fail in a way only future historians will be able to understand.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

October Horror-thon #25: "Night Monster" (1942)

Welcome to Ingston Towers, home of the looniest tunes to ever grace a Universal production. Patriarch Kurt (Ralph Morgan) is confined to a wheelchair, his sister (Fay Helm) thinks she's going insane, and a would-be swami (Nils Asther) has made himself at home. It's to this funny farm that Kurt summons a trio of doctors he plans to astound with a medical breakthrough. Our friend the yogist has apparently taught him how to repair human organs and tissue using nothing but his mind. But while the doctors dispute this fantastic claim, something strange has taken to prowling the Ingston estate at night, an evil force introducing those who cross its path to an early grave.

It's safe to say that Universal had its fair share of corny fright flicks. They can't all be classics, so it's only natural that the occasional oddity turn up. But none have been as downright puzzling as Night Monster, an unassuming mystery that plays like The Old Dark House by way of David Lynch. Disorientation is key, as viewers are launched into what feels like a story already in progress; you'll swear there's 20 extra minutes floating around somewhere. The film also has a habit of jumping from character to character, each one loopy enough to star in their own B-vehicle. Eventually, Night Monster settles down a bit and adopts a traditional whodunit format, though once the initial, "What the hell?" shock has passed, it turns out to be a pretty by-the-books picture.

For one, Night Monster sure makes the story a breeze to figure out. Without giving too much away, there's one moment fairly early on where if it seems like the movie's telling you exactly what's going to happen, it is. Plus, this "revelation" really does test one's commitment to the fantastic. We've come to accept the walking dead and all sorts of supernatural boogeymen over the years, but Night Monster doesn't play its cards well enough for audiences to buy into its baloney. Other than that, it's a decent enough spook show, with an entertaining turn from Morgan as the crippled Mr. Ingston. Even Bela Lugosi puts in an appearance as the obligatory butler, a glorified cameo that nevertheless highlights one of the more lucid moments of his career.

Night Monster may bat for Universal's bush leagues (outdone even by obscure fare like Captive Wild Woman), but it makes for an all-around quirky watch. As fleetingly unconventional as it is, such nuttiness does stir things up and add a little flavor to this silly cinematic stew.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

October Horror-thon #24: "Mothra" (1961)

Our story begins with a familiar kaiju scenario: a ship amidst troubled waters. All hands are feared lost, until survivors are discovered on an island deemed uninhabitable due to radiation. Naturally, an expedition is in order, but no one could have imagined they'd find a pair of fairies (Emi and Yumi Ito) who don't take too kindly to invaders. Unfortunately, the miniscule beauties are a prime target for Nelson (Jerry Ito), a scheming fortune hunter hoping to hawk the girls as a singing act. But it helps to have a monster on your side, which the twins possess in the form of the mighty Mothra. She may not seem like much in larval form, but when she blooms into a winged beast, there's no stopping her from rescuing her friends and leaving a trail of destruction in the process.

Though she's best known as one of Godzilla's silliest but most spirited opponents, Mothra didn't always pally up with the great green one. She actually flew solo in her eponymous 1961 debut, helmed by monster maestro Ishiro Honda. What sets Mothra apart from other kaiju epics of the time is that she was designed for the role of hero. Godzilla got there eventually, but Mothra was a good guy from the start; the only reason she turns Japan upside down is because some licentious lech is holding her pals hostage. I appreciated how Honda established her bottom line from the start and didn't play hot potato with her morals, but, perhaps as a result, Mothra finds itself lacking in thrills to an almost suspect degree.

When Godzilla made Tokyo into his own private rumpus room, each demolished bridge and toppled skyscraper felt like a little event onto itself. When Mothra (as both worm and butterfly on a creatine binge) steps up to bat, the results are really boring. It's not that she can't function without Godzilla to tag team with, but events take forever to unfold and are rarely worth the wait. The experience is much like that of Rodan; though not as godawfully dull, but you do spend a lot of time watching someone in a suit crushing stuff you have no personal investment in. Perhaps things could have been saved if the story were worked into a reputable shape. As is, it sort of feels like a retooled King Kong, only with Jerry Ito as a villain so one-dimensionally evil, he tries stealing an old guy's cane at one point for no discernable reason. He's just evil, dammit.

Masses need not cower in fear of Mothra; it's too easygoing an adventure to deliver the thrills monster fans will be craving. I suppose it's worth watching to see where Mothra got started, but believe me when I say that there are greener pastures than this that she's moved on to.

Friday, October 23, 2009

October Horror-thon #23: "Saw VI" (2009)

When viewers last gazed upon the dingy, dirt-encrusted visage of the Saw franchise, Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) secured his status as heir to the late John Kramer (Tobin Bell), alias Jigsaw. After dispatching the final witness to his madness, Hoffman is free to continue Jigsaw's legacy with the most devious and personal game yet. The key figure this time is William (Peter Outerbridge), a health care rep notorious for intensely scrutinizing claims. But after years of indirectly choosing who dies and who lives, William is about to taste his own medicine via a series of gruesome trials, a la Jigsaw. However, Hoffman isn't out of the woods yet, for the authorities are onto his deadly double life, forcing him to cover his tracks long enough to see the latest game through.

Saw VI is the latest chapter in a story that should have ended three movies in. The series began with a brain, but that made it hurt double so as it descended into redundancy. But in its defense, Saw VI has more in mind than existing for its own sake. In connecting its central themes to the hot-button issue of health care, the film brings more relevance to the franchise than it's seen in ages. The undertones are a thin beef, a rejiggered take on the standard Jigsaw philosophy, but just enough is tinkered with so as to perk things up for those who've followed the madman's tangled web since day one. It's interesting to see William, someone who decides the fates of others for a living, endure the traps, which often have him faced with being able to spare only one's life over another, laying the groundwork for a wry nugget of commentary.

But most won't some to see Saw VI whip out ye olde soapbox, which is why it comes with plenty of grue to spare. The change in villain comes with even more twisted logic; it's not so much a matter of if someone dies but who, as someone's guaranteed to bite the big one no matter what. It's not as suspenseful, sure, but the film makes up for it with traps that earn their shocks without being needlessly complex (including one meant to leave its victims breathless in more ways than one). Tobin Bell keeps the Jigsaw mystique alive even in flashbacks, providing a bit of insight into how he became one of horror's heaviest hitters. I dare not spoil other figures who drift in and out of the picture, but I will say that there's enough commitment to story and character so as not to feel self-indulgent (or not as much compared to the last two films).

Do I miss the modesty of the first Saw movies? As ironic as the notion sounds, I do. I miss the rush I felt seeing the original for the first time, as I now dread how the series will try to extend its expiration date. It's a hesitant recommendation , but I must say that Saw VI was a fulfilling enough excursion back to the franchise's roots, one that, as brief as it was, gave me hope that Jigsaw would soon receive a long-overdue burial.
(Full review coming soon!)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

October Horror-thon #22: "Tower of London" (1939)

It's the 15th century in jolly ol' England, and the air is thick with royal hullabaloo. King Edward IV (Ian Hunter) has snatched the throne away from the delusional Henry VI (Miles Mander), but further treachery still brews behind the scenes. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), has his eyes on the kingdom and will resort to the most lowdown methods possible to seize control. With the assistance of sadistic executioner Mord (Boris Karloff), Richard has gruesome fates in store for those next in line, including his own brother, the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price). But as Richard moves closer to the crown, an exiled subject (John Sutton) plots in secret to end the tyrant's reign before it begins.

Right about now, you're probably interested in where the whole horror aspect figures into Tower of London. Truth be told, I'm still trying to figure that out, too. All things considered, it's a solid film, but it doesn't quite fit into Universal's thriller pantheon. I'm guessing Karloff's presence played a big part in its categorization, not to mention his character's knack for enjoying his job a little too much. Plus, Rathbone's Richard is one ruthless mofo, knocking off potential successors by way of everything from stabbing to drowning in a vat of mine. But Universal played up the historical horror angle more so in films like The Black Castle and The Strange Door. Tower of London has nary a hint of exploitation to its name, although the story's constant backstabbing and shifting alliances do allow for ample intrigue.

In any case, pound for pound, Tower of London has one of the best casts in any Universal chiller. Of course, there's Karloff, suitably menacing as club-footed madman Mord, but other familiar faces put in an equally good show. Rathbone appeared in just a few horror flicks (spending most of his Universal tenure as Sherlock Holmes), but he turns in a pitch-perfect performance here. He plays Richard as a perfect schemer, a man charismatic enough to mask how he's practically snarling beneath the surface. The film's meat stems from just how low he'll go to claim the throne, reaching a fever pitch when he targets his young nephews for assassination. No stranger to horror himself, Price also shows up in a role that's brief but impressionable, thanks to a memorable scene in which he engages in a deadly drinking game with Richard. The remainder of the cast is fine enough, though their basic medieval material is greatly overshadowed by Richard's homicidal goings-on.

Tower of London suffers a few kinks in the armor (some rushed editing, battle sequences on par with Ren Faire re-enactments, etc.), but it holds its own rather well. Though I wouldn't call it straight-out horror by a longshot, it does work such elements into the plot's costume drama structure with relative ease. Besides, any film that gets you to fear some of classic horror's most famous icons without pounds of make-up involved is aces in my book.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October Horror-thon #21: "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1953)

In turn of the century England, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Boris Karloff) hopes to curb mankind's murderous instincts by way of medical experimentation. Unfortunately, in the process, he unleashes Mr. Hyde, a ghastly alter ego who's embarked on a citywide killing spree. But who better to take down one of literature's most terrifying characters than Bud Abbott and Lou Costello? Well, a lot of people are more qualified, but that doesn't stop the dynamic duo, as a pair of bumbling American cops, from setting out to nab Hyde themselves. But with a lab full of diabolical potions and a hulking assistant at his disposal, Jekyll has more than enough firepower to stop the boys in blue from ruining his plans to woo his young ward (Helen Westcott).

Universal Studios had a huge horror roster to its name, but the one property it never staked was Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." That is, unless you count this pow-wow with the masters of schlock treatment themselves, Abbott and Costello. This picture came after the guys already tangled with the Frankenstein monster and before their rendezvous with the Mummy. It also arrived near the end of their cinematic career, which is all too evident from how often the script's joke well runs dry. Abbott and Costello were corny from the start, but they're just scraping the bottom of the barrel here. This was a chance for Universal to have fun at its own expense, and it wastes its time having Lou trip his way from set to set, while Bud shakes his head in shame.

Granted, the humor is innocent enough and nowhere near as campy as other Universal thrillers that tried being serious. But the schtick does get old fast, and you wonder why they didn't just make a straightforward horror flick instead. It already has a solid production design, boasting sets and atmosphere that'd be right at home in a traditional tale of terror. But it all goes to pot when you first glimpse at the absolutely unacceptable make-up effects. Hyde is bad enough, looking much like a melted caveman, but there's a curious mouse transformation about halfway through that's a few steps below just buying a Halloween mask from the drug store. I really expected more from Bud Westmore, who helped design the Black Lagoon's Gill Man but whose work here is reminiscent of a five-year-old's first day at make-up school.

The only thing that Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has going for it is its third-billed star, my boy Boris Karloff. Though Hyde duties were reportedly assumed by a stuntman, it's interesting to see Karloff play Jekyll as equally evil as his other half. It's a unique twist on the character deserving of a much better film, and though it adds a little juice to one of A&C's last screen adventures, it's far from a gut-busting monster mash.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October Horror-thon #20: "Evil" (2005)

Whilst toiling on a construction site, a trio of workers uncover a mysterious cave deep in the earth. After heading down to explore, the men are attacked by an unseen entity, only to emerge with no memory of the incident. But as they return to their mundane lives, it's clear that something has effected the men for the worse. Almost at once, these guys turn from ordinary citizens into rabid zombies, quickly tearing through innocent bystanders in a frantic urge to feed. Mobs of the infected congregate in no time, leaving a requisite band of survivors to fight back. From a wiseass cab driver (Argiris Thanasoulas) to the token badass (Meletis Georgiadis), the group teams up to find some way out of the city, before the living dead consume them all.

If you're like me, then the closest you'll ever get to Greece's picturesque shores is if you're roped into a Mamma Mia! screening. And if you're like me, you've thought the landscape could do with a few mutilated corpses strewn about. In that case, you're in luck, as Greece has retired from providing wacky families for ethnic comedies to create its first zombie romp, Evil. Unfortunately, this bizarre distinction is the film's sole novelty, one that wears off lickety-split. The set-up is textbook stuff: ragtag troupe of quirky archetypes deal as much damage to the undead as the effects budget will allow. But as derivative as Evil gets, to its credit, there is a sense of fun at work. The opening moments are especially sardonic and silly, as when the aforementioned cabbie mistakes a zombie mob for rowdy sports hooligans.

The zombies themselves are standard issue, though Evil makes up for it with some very ambitious splatter sequences. Bodies are halved, heads explode, and one grisly moment takes the term "gut-wrenching" to a new level. But while the filmmakers have an eye for gore, they're not the sharpest of storytellers. Evil possesses little plot to begin with, but what's left resembles random images whipped into a Romeroesque shape. The cast seems lost when required to act beyond their respective stereotypes, while the editing suffers even worse. The film regurgitates more arbitrary jump cuts and split-screen effects than an epileptic Michael Bay, culminating in an ending so anticlimactic, you'll swear the editor keeled over in post-production.

Evil kills time well enough (though not without a few dull patches encountered), but its commitment to zombie basics is its downfall. Without a couple unique traits, what's there to distinguish your film from those of every budding director nudging their foot into show business the easiest way possible? Evil is serviceable, but there's little meat to be found on this ditty's bones.

Monday, October 19, 2009

October Horror-thon #19: "Grace" (2009)

The Mathesons, Madeline (Jordan Ladd) and Michael (Stephen Park), are one of many countless couples looking forward to bringing a bundle of joy into the world. But tragedy strikes their fledgling family after a car accident claims Michael's life, as well as her unborn daughter's. Madeline chooses to carry her child to term regardless, whereupon little Grace is found to be alive and well -- at first. After a while, Grace begins adopting some peculiar traits, from losing her hair to attracting an alarming amount of flies. It's not until the wee one starts developing a taste for blood that Madeline realizes she has a little monster on her hands, putting the bonds of parenthood to the ultimate test.

Finally, after years of false starts and broken promises, we have a creepy kid movie worth getting riled up over. It's one thing to have cinematic bad seeds fully away of their homicidal tendencies, but what do you say when one is just doing what comes naturally? Grace poses a much more creepy query than something like The Children because it's dealing with a more profound deck. Of course, it's hard to picture your offspring as evil no matter what their age, but it's during infancy that the premise really strikes a chord. It's here that Grace trades in a B-movie mentality (which Larry Cohen fans will be sad to bid adieu) in favor of thought-provoking themes only a horror film could execute correctly.

I wouldn't go so far as to say the film is realistic (if my tyke started gnawing on flesh, I'd dash to a hospital no matter how committed a new-agey type I was), but Grace does deal with its subject matter in a way both intriguing and very unsettling. It's part character study and part exploitation flick, with the former's commitment to emotions keeping the latter's shocks restrained (and all the more effective). It's also fitting that there's no "good vs. evil" scenario forced into the story; Madeline's controlling mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose) knows something's amiss with Grace, but she wants the baby for reasons that would be a field day for Freud. There's just one whacked-out situation and how the characters react to it, a match made in hell as disturbing as it is oddly touching.

Rather than try to jolt you with gore-laden shocks alone, Grace is sly enough to work some actual characterizations into the mix. The drama isn't as consistent as it could be, but writer/director Paul Solet's efforts here do show what happens when the genre is elevated beyond mere mindless violence. A sure-fire method of birth control, Grace is the rare sort of horror flick that really hits the heart.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

October Horror-thon #18: "Blood: The Last Vampire" (2009)

Legend tells of demons who've taken on human form to walk among us mortals. As their diet consists primarily of innocent blood, a society has been established to cut these creatures down whenever they get out of order. Saya (Gianna) is among their finest warriors, a girl of supernatural lineage who has a bone to pick with the grand demon poobah. But vengeance shall have to wait, for there are more pressing matters at hand. After a strange string of murders at a U.S. Air Force base in Japan, Saya goes undercover as a student to see what's up. But her first class has hardly ended before Saya ends up playing bodyguard to Alice (Allison Miller), the daughter of a general the demons seem to be gunning for. This gives our heroine her best shot yet at the justice she's been waiting centuries to exact, though doing so just may cost her what's left of her soul.

Japanese animation is something that live-action films can never duplicate in a million years, no matter how many studios think they can. It's to the credit of Blood: The Last Vampire that it doesn't go to the gut-bustingly awful lengths Dragonball Evolution did to ape the anime style. Based on a well-regarded work from earlier in the decade, Blood sets out as its own entity, a glitzy action flick with a little horror and a lot of panache. The trouble is that it's not terribly good at it, resulting in one surprisingly dull film. Just as the Onechanbara movie managed to make a bikini-clad babe killing zombies boring, thusly does Blood render its own premise. Saya trots around in a schoolgirl's outfit most of the time, but without any winks or nudges behind the choice, it gets to be like watching 90 minutes of pure fan service.

Blood certainly leaves itself plenty of opportunities to let loose and see how groovy it can get with the action sequences. But just as the film is trying to draw you into its own private world, something happens that'll have you bolting to reality. The effects are really terrible (with blood geysers that resemble grape jelly), the actors apparently graduated from Lee Strasberg's remedial class, and the plot just seems to be out for lunch. There isn't so much a story as there is an hour or so of seeing the film jump between subplots before abruptly cutting to a climax. Also, this tale's definition of a "vampire" is something I just can't put my finger on. Saya guzzles bottles of blood and is even called a vampire by the freakin' title, yet she turns out to have more in common with the demons than anything else; if reinvention's on your agenda, it helps if people know what in the hell you're reinventing.

Then again, Blood: The Last Vampire is still a more satisfying, vamp-centric experience than Twilight can imagine being. Look past the atrocious CG and ADD-afflicted story, then chances are you'll find a few good thrills here. If anything, Blood has me interested in checking the original anime out, though ultimately, the Internet is awash with even better chances to fulfill one's "kickass Asian heroine" fix.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

October Horror-thon #17: "The Butcher" (2009)

One of South Korea's most grisly exports, The Butcher wastes no time in getting right to the carnage. The picture concerns a quartet of unfortunate souls bound and gagged in an abandoned warehouse. They find themselves unwilling participants in the ultimate horror show, a snuff film starring a chainsaw-wielding psycho wearing a pig's head. After two fellow victims bite the dust, a husband and wife are next led to the slaughter, where the former is forced to choose between saving his spouse or his own skin. In the meantime, the film shifts between different cameras, one handled by a demented director and the other strapped to the husband's head, chronicling every grueling moment for the sake of some sicko's jollies.

I doubt those behind The Butcher knew how prophetic their inaugural image of a guy whizzing on a wall would be. After all, you spend the entire film witnessing what could have been a truly visceral experience letting potential run down its leg. The Butcher is the result of a current movement's efforts to bring horror back to basics, to focus on overall effect rather than heedless frills. It's a good idea on paper, but when director Kim Jin-won abandons all pretenses, he's left with a lot of wailing and bloodletting, with nothing to show for it but some sore throats and stained clothes.

Here is a film that might have been saved were it a satirical Trojan horse, condemning shock cinema by way of a work that appears to celebrate it. But if The Butcher possessed such ulterior motives, they were drowned out by Mr. Motel Hell up there and his peacemaker. I'll concede that the flick was effective at times, especially early on, when viewers have nothing but the distant roar of a chainsaw to base their fears on. The simple approach may be exactly what some fans are looking for, but color me crazy, I wanted more. I need a reason to invest myself in characters who go to hell and back other than them just being in the horrible situation they are. Otherwise, it gets dull watching the flick try to push your buttons and not care how disgusting it becomes in doing so.

Buyer beware, for The Butcher is a very intense flick. Even in the wake of Hostel and the Saw saga, there's some mighty disturbing imagery here. But beyond the nauseating effects work, The Butcher is a journey into boredom, complimented by more gratuitous cursing than a Rob Zombie movie. The flick represents Tartan Films' return to the Asia Extreme scene, but you're likely to find more fulfilling frights elsewhere in their library.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October Horror-thon #16: "Corridors of Blood" (1958)

Pain and the knife are inseparable...

Such was the attitude of most medical professionals in 1840s England, at least according to Corridors of Blood. It was a time before anesthesia was introduced, when operations had to be performed quickly to avoid prolonging a patient's pain. But this approach doesn't sit well with Dr. Thomas Bolton (Boris Karloff), one of the country's top surgeons. Sickened by the cries of horror he hears on a daily basis, he decides to formulate a gas to numb one's senses. Bolton successfully creates a batch, only to develop an unfortunate addiction to the stuff. His experiments proceed to consume his life and destroy his career, to the point that he pairs up with a cryptic criminal (Christopher Lee) to perfect his concoction.

The way it usually went in cinema's golden age was that if you hit it big in horror, that's where you stayed. It's easier for genre actors to branch out these days, but you need only survey the careers of Karloff or Bela Lugosi to witness the side effects of being typecast. But bless his heart, Karloff made the best of it by delivering performances so uncommonly good, he was almost always the highlight of his vehicles. Corridors of Blood is no different, though it has the added bonus of a sound story to start with. It's more of a historical thriller than a fright fest, its disposition leaning more towards tragedy than delivering shocks. In fact, it's not unlike Karloff's own The Body Snatcher, in which roles are reversed, and Karloff brilliantly played a villain who specializes in conjuring corpses.

And just as with The Body Snatcher, Karloff really is the heart of this film. He's a man you can't take your eyes off of, whom you can't help but feel sorry for as good intentions lead him down a dark road (a theme repeated by countless misguided movie scientists of the time). The terrible lengths to which Bolton will go in the name of a noble cause generate more suspense than any traditionally lurid thrills. That said, director Robert Day really nails the film's mood, with just a few simple sets and a colorful population of supporting players. Lee stands out in particular, and it's no wonder why; he was just getting into Hammer's Dracula pictures at the time, and even in his low-key role here, he displays a chilling presence that the man still hasn't been able to shake.

Corridors of Blood does run out of things to do when the third act commences. It would've been better having taken a cue from some of Karloff's Universal outings, which ran a little more than 60 minutes and ended just when the dramatic payoff was at its most ripe. But Corridors of Blood still runs smoothly a great deal of the time, thanks in no small part to Karloff. The film is proof positive that not only was he a great horror actor, he was a terrific performer all-around, possessing the pathos to transform a simple tale of terror into a much more involving picture than it could've been.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October Horror-thon #15: "Pontypool" (2009)

On the surface, Pontypool looks like your average, unsuspecting Canadian town. It's in this wintry burg that once-mighty shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has been condemned to announce school closings and rattle off obituaries. But what begins as a normal day at the office turns terrifying once reports seep in of mobs slowly gathering throughout the town. Information comes through in fragments, but from what Grant and his producer (Lisa Houle) can piece together, Pontypool has come under the grip of some form of hysteria. Respectable citizens have snapped and embarked on killing sprees, rampages that continue to worsen throughout the day. Holed up in his sound booth, Grant can only wait and try to find a way to defeat the madness, unaware of the surprising means through which it's spread.

I know I already dropped a Yahtzee Croshaw reference last week, but while watching Pontypool, my mind kept flashing back to the man's "Left 4 Dead" video. In it, he noted how a true zombie game is one in which you can replace the enemies with pretty much anything, and it'd still feel like a zombie game. Mood and suspense matter most, which is why Pontypool is more than the latest hyped-up horror story. There are indeed men gone mad roaming about (members of the current "zombie" generation), but mostly, Pontypool lets your imagination do the work. Set almost entirely within the confines of Grant's station, the flick gives you a few frantic phone calls and snippets of the news to construct your idea of the apocalypse taking place a few short miles away. It's a device that works incredibly well, ratcheting up the tension by keeping viewers as in the dark as the characters.

Pontypool's other ace is the method by which folks become raving lunatics to begin with. Some will know what it is going in, which doesn't ruin the experience, but I'll keep my lips sealed for the uninitiated. I will say that it's definitely a unique twist, one as perplexing as it is the foundation for some skillfully-executed social commentary. The story takes great pleasure in pitting journalistic integrity and getting one's facts straight against warning people when some serious shit is going down. The resulting fireworks make for quite a show, played out with nimble flair and able to keep the mind occupied when it's reeling from trying to comprehend some of the story's more murky specifics. McHattie (seen previously in Watchmen and the Jesse Stone movies) nails the perfect voice for Grant, a relic of a DJ who's seen better and more excitable days. It was a little hard buying some of his pseudo-spastic behavior as the film progressed, but he proves to be just gruff enough of an anti-hero to rally behind.

You don't often see movies with so little going on visually that feel so damn exciting. Pontypool supplies some blood in the third act, but these theatrics don't hold a candle to what it allows the viewer's mind to whip up on its own. It's a well-balanced and sharp addition to zombie cinema, and considering the fine company this genre's been keeping lately, that's as fine a compliment as I can pay.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October Horror-thon #14: "Tomie" (1999)

Tsukiko (Mami Nakamura) is a young woman with some issues to work out. Following a traffic accident, our girl finds herself fighting to recover memories that her subconscious has given the heave-ho. But during her hypnotherapy sessions, Tsukiko comes to chant the name "Tomie," that of an old high school classmate. Little does she know that her former pal has returned to start a new life -- literally. A sullen young man discovers Tomie's detached noggin and raises her from scratch, watching her bloom into a beauty (played by Miho Kanno) all over again. But Tomie has unfinished business to square away, and with her ability to whip the men she meets into a violent frenzy, she's bent on righting the dark wrong that Tsukiko's blocked out.

Remember when the arrival of a new Asian horror title was a good thing? When films of atmospheric and thematic merit were released, rather than assembly-line thrillers that got as derivative as the American flicks they were supposed to better? Those were the days, when something like Tomie could come out and still be considered a little original. This hit theaters the same year as Memento Mori, the second and most daring chapter of Korea's Ghost School series. Both are unrelated and were put into production for different reasons, but each has a go at conveying adolescent angst with a supernatural touch. From the flashing lights and eerie synth-pop ballad that accompany the opening credits, you know something's amiss but are never sure of what. Even when some dude starts feeding yogurt to a head in a bag, you're at a loss -- until a cop (Tomorowo Taguchi) saunters in to spill Tomie's beans and obliterates the suspense in a heartbeat.

There's still some mystery surrounding Tomie's grand scheme, but it's not enough to make a full recovery. Tomie is a film plagued by whiny melodrama and sizable chunks of downtime. Too often does the pacing grind to an agonizingly slow crawl, and you can only wait until the movie stops playing "Guiding Light" long enough to let the plot do its thing. Still, where Tomie fails to hook you as a thriller, its commentary offers a little something for the mind to ingest. It's fun watching parallels form between heartless harlot Tomie and sweet little Tsukiko, who has some manipulative tendencies of her own. Both performances are solid, especially Kanno's; her face obscured most of the time, she does an amazing job of creeping you out without ever actually doing anything.

It's odd seeing Tomie defy its cheap exterior at certain moments, only to succumb to it during others. The film really could've used a second draft, one more shot at really doing justice to a rather clever premise. Maybe one of its many sequels remedies these issues, but it is nice knowing that Tomie thought enough to at least set out in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

October Horror-thon #13: "Autopsy" (2008)

All Emily (Jessica Lowndes) and her friends wanted to do was party their pants off at Mardi Gras. But plans change after they accidentally run over a man and accompany him to the hospital he came from. While waiting to get bandaged up themselves, however, the pals begin to notice something peculiar about the place. The orderlies are a shifty lot, the head nurse (Jenette Goldstein) demands they all stay put, and the congenial Dr. Benway (Robert Patrick) has a few strange tests he'd like to run. Unless you slept through the last century in horror, you can probably deduce that the hospital's staff has anything but maintaining your health in mind. In fact, the good doctor plans to use the kids in helping a loved one defy death, a fate that Emily and company grow closer to suffering as the night wears on.

Let me tell you about Adam Gierasch, otherwise known as the luckiest bastard in horror. With writing partner Jace Anderson, Gierasch has turned out some of the genre's crummiest scripts, while inexplicably collaborating with its biggest talent (penning one Dario Argento film and three Tobe Hooper projects). But with Autopsy, the time has come for Gierasch to fly solo with his directorial debut. What exactly does he give viewers with his first time at bat? The sort of derivative slasher flick that might as well come in cereal boxes at this point. Seeing as how Autopsy is never outright awful, I was ready to slap it on the wrist and move onto the next movie with equal apathy towards its content.

The more it progressed, though, the more my mind wandered and began pondering why mediocrity like this gets rewarded. Sure, there's plenty of gore (including one whopper of a set piece), but is that the true measure of a horror flick? Shouldn't building up suspense and telling a tight story take precedence over nauseating your audience? Autopsy is a banal stalk-and-slash scenario you've seen countless times (complete with the obligatory set-up for a sequel I really hope never comes), which Gierasch can't even summon enough sense to execute with any style. In fact, with its premise of a mad doctor playing God, this story would've made a great Universal feature back in the day (and with one-eighth of the resources, to boot).

Autopsy gained some exposure as a selection for this year's After Dark Horrofest, but if released on its own, I doubt most folks would give it the time of day. I've seen flicks of a far worse overall quality than this (at least the acting here is somewhat competent) but hardly one that's as flat-out lazy. There's more to horror than just conjuring a batch of red dye and corn syrup, and with all the press he's been getting lately, let's hope Gierasch gets savvy to this pronto.

Monday, October 12, 2009

October Horror-thon #12: "Brutal Massacre: A Comedy" (2007)

Harry Penderecki (David Naughton) is a warhorse of the horror genre. As the director of such titles as Bowel Movement and People Pesticide, he's established himself as a B-movie maestro, cranking out films on low and often no budgets at all. After a little breather from show business, Harry's ready to get back in the game with his latest picture, Brutal Massacre. As shooting commences, Harry assembles a crew that's stuck by through thick and thin, from his loyal assistant director (Brian O'Halloran) to a cinematographer (Gerry Bednob) with anger issues. But just as Harry's previous movies experienced their share of hiccups, so does Brutal Massacre. From rowdy locals to diminished funds, it seems the movie gods are using everything at their disposal to prevent Harry from finishing his work -- and judging from how the flick's shaping up, that might not be a bad thing.

Brutal Massacre: A Comedy is a movie that really wants to be liked. Made with great affection for horror while wise enough to acknowledge its shortcomings, this mockumentary-style farce (think Christopher Guest with a body count) aims to introduce viewers to independent filmmaking from the point of view of those on the front lines. Writer/director Stevan Mena (himself the director of indie slasher Malevolence) keeps his satire on an even keel, equally poking fun at showbiz blowhards and those filmmakers who take cutting costs a little too far.

But when parody is involved, execution is everything, which is where Brutal Massacre fails to find its footing. I'm not sure whether it was meant to reflect on the inexperienced actors who often find themselves in horror flicks, but much of the humor seems incredibly forced and obvious. But then how do you explain folks like O'Halloran and Evil Dead veteran Ellen Sandweiss, who nail their parts by playing them straight? I admire the intent, but seeing gags that aren't even that inventive telegraphed five scenes in advance wears thin fast. There are moments that indicate what a sharp and even tender ode to horror it could have been, but Mena all too often takes the easy way out and cover his tracks with a cameo.

Contained within Brutal Massacre: A Comedy are the ingredients to not just a great comedy but an all-around great film, too. If the right actors could've stopped mugging and winking at the audience every three seconds, they might have pulled together and brought the story's true potential to light. As it, Brutal Massacre parts with the occasional chuckle and nugget of insight, but the title of horror's version of Spinal Tap remains up for grabs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

October Horror-thon #11: "The Old Dark House" (1932)

If you're searching for the haunted house formula at its most basic, look no further than The Old Dark House. It's on a particularly stormy evening that the Wavertons (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their roguish amigo (Melvyn Douglas) find themselves in dire need of shelter. Luckily, the pals make their way to a foreboding mansion, home to the eccentric Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger) and his religious fanatic sister Rebecca (Eva Moore). The reception they receive is chilly indeed, one that only grows more arctic after learning about the house's other residents. In addition to the Femms' disfigured butler Morgan (Boris Karloff), there's a brother who may or may not be mad locked up on the top floor. As more wayward travelers stop by, the group can only bide their time before dawn breaks and hope that neither the Femms nor their extended brood do them harm.

I can forgive older horror flicks for many things. The budgets weren't always there, and the acting often skewed overdramatic, but if a film's effect surpassed these hurdles, it made the success all the more savory. But one thing I can't overlook is a poorly-drawn story, in which case I must unfortunately call out The Old Dark House. It kills me to do so, especially as it's regarded as one of the finest early screen chillers. My gripes have nothing to do with the film's atmosphere, which really is spot-on. With darkness inhabiting virtually every frame, it's as if the characters have gone back in time, from modern society into an older world that constantly gazes upon them with judging eyes. Style is not one of the film's shortcomings, especially since director James Whale (Frankenstein) has fun playing with shadows and, consequently, the audience.

But looks are only part of the equation, and here, they can't conceal what proves to be a thematically hollow interior. Plain and simple, The Old Dark House has no story. There's a sizable collection of characters, but their actions qualify as little more than busywork. When asked to cough up something substantial for them to do, the script offers up a nervous shrug before bolting for the door. The story's been hailed for its gallows humor, but if it was there, I sure as hell never chuckled. I ended up watching most of the film through eyes half-closed out of sheer boredom; when it did finally grow a plot, it did so with 15 minutes left to go, hardly enough time to stir viewers from their slumbers. True suspense is already doled out in microscopic increments, but being spread as thinly as they are only dilutes what could've been a creepy masterpiece.

The Old Dark House is must-see viewing for classic horror buffs, if only for the sway it would come to hold over proceeding thrillers with the same idea in mind. But quite like its genre contemporary White Zombie, it's a film best seen muted; visually, it's a stirring piece of work, but try to put together a semblance of a story, you'll find yourself giving up the ghost pretty fast.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

October Horror-thon #10: "The Omega Man" (1971)

It takes a lot to get by as the last man on earth, but Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) is up to the task. Years after biological warfare brought civilization to a standstill, Neville believes himself to be humanity's sole survivor. His only neighbors are the Family, a cult of plague-stricken technophobes led by former newscaster Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), who converge and lay siege to his compound each nightfall. The Family gains the upper hand after capturing Neville one evening, until he's rescued by a band of fellow survivors. Though infected, they're still a long ways from turning, giving Neville hope that his own immune blood can be used to cure them. But Matthias refuses to back down just yet, preparing his minions for one last attack on our lad just as he's discovered the key to saving mankind.

The Omega Man is the second of three cinematic takes on Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend," and before the Will Smith version made obscene amounts of moolah, it was the best known. I'd also go so far as to say that it carries the most widespread appeal of the trio. It's no secret that most mainstream audiences prefer action to dawdling around, which makes Heston's gung-ho Neville an ideal hero. Vincent Price already covered the tortured scientist role in The Last Man on Earth, so why not give an ornery bastard of Heston's caliber a more active role in the apocalypse? Heston's macho zeal gives The Omega Man much of its cult appeal, though at the cost of what made the source material an instant classic. The curb-stomping the book's ironic ending receives is one thing, but I was even more surprised at how the film wasn't the least bit frightening. Atmosphere is boiled down to a meager handful of scenes in which Neville roams around abandoned city streets; while creepy, the impression these bits leave doesn't last long. The villains are also given a higher degree of intelligence, which sort of ruins their effectiveness. With Zerbe's Matthias prone to weary monologues about the downfall of man, the only thing you'll find yourself fearing is being talked to death.

I can see why so many dig The Omega Man, which, in its dated but enjoyably chintzy way, is a perfectly serviceable flick. But as someone for whom less usually is more, I have to ally myself with The Last Man on Earth. It made a more memorable and spooky film out of relatively few parts, and while The Omega Man is never overloaded with pyrotechnics, its disposition is too easygoing to tell as scary a story as it should have.

Friday, October 9, 2009

October Horror-thon #9: "Horror Island" (1941)

Likable cad Bill Martin (Dick Foran) never met a get-rich-quick scheme he didn't like. The latest such plot comes to fruition after a chance encounter with a peg-legged sailor (Leo Carillo). With the seaman's half of a supposedly bogus treasure map, Bill cooks up an expedition on which to haul tourists in search of the booty. But little goes Bill's inaugural group know that real terrors await them at the castle said to be home to the legendary fortune. However, it's not spooks or spirits that await them but a flesh-and-blood menace known as the Phantom. This caped criminal is on the hunt for the treasure himself, and with an entire castle at his command, he's set on scaring the wits out of the competition -- that is, if some of their own don't beat him to the punch.

If false advertising were a crime, then Horror Island would be serving a life sentence. For a film with that title being part of Universal Studios' own horror-themed Classic Movie Archive collection, you'd think scares would be more abundant than they are. Horror Island is about as frightening as a "Scooby-Doo" episode, and it's structured pretty much the same way. For the first half of this hour-long feature, you don't even know you're watching what's supposed to be a thriller; everything's played for laughs, in that old-timey way that straddles the line separating "endearing" and "excrutiatingly campy." It's not until the characters actually reach the castle that any eerie goings-on take place, mostly thanks to our friend the Phantom. The flick's cornball disposition still reigns supreme, though it's a silliness that's easy to sit through and even a little enjoyable. But my biggest issue involves the film playing hot potato with the story for the last 15 minutes. It's nice that the filmmakers wanted to change things up, but it whips through too many subplots at too late a point in the game to amount to anything but confusing.

To its credit, Horror Island is far from a terrible watch, amusing in spurts and looking much better than similarly cheap fright farces of the time. It's also pretty kid-friendly, so before tossing little Junior into Dracula 101, this can serve as a simple intro to Universal's unique horror hovel. Horror Island is hard to hate, but it's easy to be let down by it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

October Horror-thon #8: "Dead Space: Downfall" (2008)

They say in space, no one can hear you scream, but according to Dead Space: Downfall, there are plenty around to witness you getting ripped limb from limb. This prequel to the popular video game takes place deep in the cosmos, where a strange new discovery has been unearthed. On a barren mining colony, workers have stumbled upon a massive artifact of great significance to a religious order. The good ship Nishimura is summoned to haul the monolith back to earth, but this plan runs into a teensy snag -- and by snag, I mean abject horror. It seems that moving the artifact from its resting place has let loose a swarm of nasty creatures who kill their victims and transform them into monstrous shells of their former selves. The Nishimura is overrun in no time, leaving it up to security honcho Alissa Vincent (voice of Nikki Futterman) and a handful of comrades to quell the threat before it sets its sights on our world.

In the grand scheme of video game-based movies, Dead Space: Downfall seemed like little cause for worry. An animated and modestly-presented lead-in to its source title seemed managable, with few hang-ups to fret over and just enough time to pound out an effective atmosphere. But Dead Space: Downfall proves to be a veritable slave to its own limitations; not only does it give itself relatively little to do, it feels hesitant to make any sort of noticeable impression. The monsters offer some relief, being comprised of ghouls with assorted exposures to the ugly stick, but after a while, even their ghastly appearances wear thin. The main malfunction is that there's no rising tension; once the artifact is dug up, it's pretty much an endless firefight between the creatures and those humans with all their appendages intact. Rarely until its final and admittedly spooky final scene does the film evoke a real sense of fear. A blood bonanza holds court most of the time, giving gorehounds much to gnaw on (including a doomed crewman's memorable "splitting headache") but shortchanging those hoping for more substantial fare.

The question that accompanies every flick drawn from a video game is why pay to see someone else have the sort of fun you could have even more of in the comfort of your own home? Though it's an improved alternative to the Max Paynes and Hitmans of yet, its efforts to build a makeshift mythology for the source material yield lukewarm results at best. To borrow Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw's own description of the game, Dead Space: Downfall is competent but bland, good for a thrill here and there but nothing consistently engaging.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

October Horror-thon #7: "Night of the Living Dead" (1990)

They're coming to get you, Barbara...

The chilling words that helped usher in Night of the Living Dead are also used to kick off the beginning of its 1990 remake. Ostensibly, the scenario is the same. The aforementioned Barbara (Patricia Tallman) and her obnoxious brother (Bill Moseley, who'd probably deck you for calling him obnoxious) are on their way to pay respects at their mother's gravesite. But when they arrive, they discover that a horror beyond all imagination has taken shape. The dead have begun rising from their graves and attacking the living, their victims themselves resurrecting and joining their numbers. Barbara manages to survive an encouter with one of the zombies, making her way to a farmhouse that a handful of survivors have chosen to take shelter in. But as the undead masses continue to grow outside, tensions rise inside, giving Barbara just as much reason to fear her fellow man along with the gathering ghouls.

As Star Trek did a rollicking job of proving this past summer, sometimes the best way to appreciate something you love is to go back to basics. By the time the '90s Night came along, George Romero's reputation as a maestro of the macabre had been well-established. There was no question as to how he impacted the modern zombie film, but as the Deads Dawn and Day continued to accumulate fans on the cult circuit, a little something was needed to remind Romero fans of their roots. Night of the Living Dead sets out thusly, as it's a very lean and scaled-down affair (a sharp contrast to the crazy-go-nuts free-for-all that is Zombieland). "But," you might ask, "why not just release the original movie instead of wasting peoples' time with an unnecessary remake?" Well, dear readers -- you're absolutely right. This Night of the Living Dead was driven not by the need to tell a story frightening on multiple levels but to exploit name recognition for a few quick bucks. Sure, the plot essentially parrots that of the original, but it only serves to enhance what an overall useless endeavor it is. Gone is the biting social commentary that made the '68 film stand out so much; in its place are screaming matches between increasingly irritating characters you can't wait to become zombie chow. There's no soul to this production, nothing to watch but the filmmakers going through whatever motions some exec beating the Living Dead horse for all its worth condemned them to.

For all this venom, though, there are still some aspects of the film I admired. The ambience is simple yet undeniably unnerving at times, Tony Todd excells as Mark II of the heroic Ben character, and I thanked the heavens that Tallman transformed Barbara from a daft dame into a take-charge heroine Sigourney Weaver would be proud of. All in all, Night of the Living Dead is an okay movie with okay moments, but its hopes of attaining the original's greatness are better left buried six feet under.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

October Horror-thon #6: "The Children" (2009)

It's Christmas time, and teenaged Casey (Hannah Tointon) is none too pleased to be spending the holidays with her family in a secluded country cabin. But while her relatives dote on their rambunctious kids, Casey notices something strange developing amongst the little tykes. A bug one brings with them is quickly passed onto the others, rendering them distant and emotionally irritable. But what begins as a couple of temper tantrums turns deadly in a heartbeat, as the kids become extremely violent and wage a campaign of terror against the adults. Casey knows that the wee ones she once loved are long gone, but the parents aren't so eager to accept that their offspring have morphed into the spawn of Satan.

Looking to add some zest to your horror movie? Itching to herd a few more butts into the multiplex? Then make a kid the bad guy. People have been going nuts for evil youngsters from The Bad Seed to as recently as Orphan; it's so irresistible a plot twist that you wonder why Bond hasn't battled a megalomaniacal fifth-grader by now. But the downside with this easy-peasy approach is just that: it's too cheap. Unless you know what you're doing, homicidal children tend to join cults as some of the most arbitrary villains in film history. The Children is content to deem its titular characters demonic and leave it at that; they're just evil, dammit, and you're gonna buy it. The idea is to put viewers in the position of having to fend off your own kin, to see something so innocent as a child transform into a veritable monster. Maybe it's just my inherent hatred of kids, but I despised this troupe of Damiens from the start. There's little to separate their early screeching with their later rampage, save for that there's more weaponry involved in the latter. It helps little that the adults are so incredibly dense; I know it's horrible to be faced with killing a family member, but when Junior's gunning for you with a razor, it's time to swing for the fences.

Needless to say, The Children doesn't measure up to the buzz that it accrued after being released in its native United Kingdom. Its angle will bring in a sizable audience for direct-to-DVD standards, but the turn of events is extremely repetitive, with the erratic editing making certain scenes damn near incomprehensible. Kudos for sporadically effective atmosphere and a very cute lead in Tointon, but the unsavory experience The Children provides is enough evidence to call for an indefinite time-out on the creepy kid genre.

Monday, October 5, 2009

October Horror-thon #5: "The Black Cat" (1941)

Rich old crone Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) is on her deathbed, which means her nearest (and not so dearest) relatives have come out of the woodwork in search of a handout. But while Henrietta already has one foot in the grave, someone wants to ensure she completes the journey. After stipulating that no one will see a cent until she and her many cats have passed on, Henrietta dies in what her money-grubbing kin are glad to accept as an accident. But family friend Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford) deduces foul play, that greed got the best of someone who just couldn't wait. The trouble is that he's the only one who thinks a murderer is among them, forcing him to confront various spooky goings-on to prove his suspicions.

Long before Roger Corman made a mint with The Pit and the Pendulum, Universal Studios padded its own horror library with the works of Edgar Allan Poe. The Black Cat came as the trend was winding down, with more focus set on developing monster properties, and it has even less to do with the Poe story than Universal's other film of the same name from seven years prior. In fact, The Black Cat has a great deal in common with The Cat and the Canary, which the studio itself adapted in the '20s. It's a comedic mystery more than a straight-out chiller, a clever idea until you consider Universal's track record with blending humor and horror. More often than not, you got something like The Invisible Woman, a painfully campy blemish on an almost sterling genre catalogue. The Black Cat never gets that silly, but its jokes aren't always on the ball. Most of the film feels like an aborted Abbott and Costello routine, especially where Hugh Herbert's bumbling antique dealer is concerned. The story also gets lost in the shuffle; by the time the mystery is finally revealed, you're still trying to figure out how the movie made it there.

Still, The Black Cat had its share of endearing charms. Crawford did great work as the scaredy cat hero, there were some choice moments of dark humor, and, as with the best Universal thrillers, the production design was really top-notch. You're more liable to have a freaky good time with the studio's other Black Cat, but this one's worth a glance should it work its way onto Turner Classic Movies.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

October Horror-thon #4: "100 Feet" (2009)

Fresh from a stint in the clink after offing her nogoodnik husband in self defense, Marnie Watson (Famke Janssen) is moving onto a prison of another kind. She's sentenced to a year of house arrest, restricted to a mere 100-foot radius within her own home. But shortly after her term begins, strange events begin taking place at the Watson residence. A bloody stain on the wall has a habit of reappearing, objects seem to move by themselves, and Marnie herself is assaulted by an invisible presence. She quickly deduces that her dearly departed ex is still hanging around, his vengeful spirit determined to make her life a living nightmare. With the cops already working against her, Marnie has no one to depend on but herself as she prepares to rid her house of its ghostly occupant before her own life is lost.

100 Feet marks the first time horror veteran Eric Red has stepped behind the camera in over a decade. His genre efforts have been nothing short of schizophrenic, ranging from the legendary (Near Dark) to the conspicuously awful (Bad Moon). 100 Feet falls squarely in the middle, a mother lode of suspense that unfortunately goes largely untapped. The flick is at its best when you haven't the faintest about what's going on, whether Marnie is cuckoo bananas or if her ex really is back from beyond the grave. But like the ambitious but overblown Martyrs, 100 Feet is a story that plays its hand way too early. All of its secrets are on the table before the first act is finished, leaving the film with nothing to do but show Marnie getting clobbered over and over (set pieces from which she recovers at a rather suspect speed). Janssen's performance is pretty hit-and-miss (wounded and sympathetic one second, shrieking harpy the next), and even with a modest chunk of screen time, I wondered how the story would play out from the point-of-view of Bobby Cannavale's embittered lawman.

With a nifty premise made for the theatre and an overall impressive production design, I wouldn't call 100 Feet a total bust. There were certain scenes and aspects that I really enjoyed, though I wished they were part of a more consistently creepy film. 100 Feet will have its admirers, but a good portion of folks will spend more time staring at their watches than at the screen.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

October Horror-thon #3: "Zombieland" (2009)

The festivities of this latest addition to the "zom-com" market begin as mankind is in the thick of a worldwide zombie epidemic. After a couple months, most of the planet has become devoid of human life, aside from a handful of unlikely survivors. Our hero is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a craven coward who's managed to elude consumption thanks to a strict set of rules. He eventually crosses paths with Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), whose "take no prisoners" attitude has made him a bona fide zombie exterminator. The reluctant duo hits the road, where they encounter two sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) whose chicanery hasn't been hampered by the living dead. Together, the foursome venture out to a fabled amusement park said to be a safe zone for humans, though with a nation full of the undead ahead of them, getting there is easier said than done.

Zombieland is the sort of horror movie that reckons if you can't be scary, you might as well be fun. Save for a few exceptions, the undead haven't inspired much fear since they shuffled en masse in Dawn of the Dead (the '70s version, for you whipper-snappers). So rather than hoist another by-the-numbers chiller upon moviegoers, the gleefully demented crew behind Zombieland have chosen to live it up a little. Vital to the film's success is its abilty to stay on the safe side of self-aware. A few too many winks and nudges to horror fans would've sunk it, but first-time director Ruben Fleischer keeps things afloat with little effort. He's right there joshing along with the audience, displaying a devil-may-care attitude that (thanks to its loads of heavy metal and gore galore) enables him to give viewers pretty much exactly what they want out of a flick like this. The economic characterizations help as well, with good turns from all four leads (who make up about 90% of the non-zombified cast).

Aside from some occasional stop-and-go pacing that gets a little taxing, Zombieland works pretty well. Though not as wry as its spiritual brother Shaun of the Dead, it shares a similar snarkiness that allows it to simultaneously lampoon and celebrate its roots. After a year of enduring bummer after bummer, I'm relieved to say that Zombieland gives those with a hunger for horror a reason to bolt to their nearest multiplex.

(Full review to follow soon!)

Friday, October 2, 2009

October Horror-thon #2: "Creepshow III" (2007)

Even though George Romero and Stephen King are nowhere in sight, that hasn't stopped the bean counters at Taurus Entertainment from cashing in on their anthology classic Creepshow. The first of this unofficial sequel's vignettes sees a bratty teen swapping families and dimensions when her dad fiddles around with a universal remote. Next up, a security guard falls under the sinister spell of a talking radio snatched up from the street. The proceeding story features a psychopathic hooker having a close encounter of the undead kind when she cozies up to her latest victim. Two guys ponder whether their old professor's new wife is a robot in the penultimate tale, while things wrap up with a surly doctor hounded by the ghost of a bum he helped to the grave.

For all the bellyaching I do about sequels and Hollywood's lack of imagination at large, it must be said that most of them succeed at least in technical competence. Creepshow III doesn't even have that going for it; this is a glaring example of greed at work, as the Taurus folks are clearly banking more on fan familiarity with the Creepshow name than on actually making something good. There's actual potential here, especially with the radio story, which, though a little too long, is actually pretty solid. But nonexistent budget and hilariously awful actors aside, Creepshow III still has no clue what the hell it's doing. It tries to blend horror and gallows humor like the first two movies, but just slapping on a score more suitable for "Home Improvement" doesn't translate to chuckles. What it does result in, though, is as inept a work as has ever been shat into the laps of gorehounds everywhere, thanks also to excrutiating pacing and virtually no impact from the would-be scares.

Creepshow III is what people who've never seen a horror movie think all horror movies are like. It's crude, tactless, and not the slightest bit entertaining, even in an ironic sense. Save for the admirable radio story, not one of these tales is worth being told -- at least not in the oafish way they're conveyed here.