Sunday, October 31, 2010
Again, thanks for sticking by, and I hope you enjoyed this year's October Horrorthon. If you have any ideas for potential themes for next year's fright fest, feel free to leave a comment below.
Take care, and have a kickass Halloween!
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Friday, October 29, 2010
Thursday, October 28, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
When the first five minutes of your movie include UFOs, radiation, and George Romero references, you know it can't end well. Sure enough, when aliens crash-land in suburban Japan, the ensuing fallout spawns hungry hordes of the walking dead. Any who die for whatever reason rise again as ghouls, and even the old "shoot 'em in the head" stand-by isn't enough to put these suckers down. As the zombie ranks swell, survivors spanning a group of soldiers on maneuvers and a spoiled pop idol come to gather at a secluded country inn. But the situation only grows more dire as the undead continue to congregate, with the gang's only hope of escape resting with an army grunt who has a secret not even she's aware of.
So there's these guys in a house against a zombie apocalypse -- oh, wait, you've heard this one already? Yeah, and it seems like the rest of the world has, too. No matter how versatile the undead have become over the ages, it's the oldest of hats that we see filmmakers don time and again. The best shot at being entertained is if someone plays the formula for goofs, so in this respect, Zombie Self-Defense Force is a step in the right direction. The film is fully aware of how many thrill-seeking hipsters and horror nuts will seek out anything with a whiff of controversy, so it plays its slim 76 minutes to a sensationalized hilt. Everything this movie can do to draw attention to itself, it does, and you know from the start that not a frame is to be taken seriously. But while there isn't a zombie genre cliche that's not addressed here, the trouble is that the flick does jack-all with what it's got.
Zombie Self-Defense Force subscribes to the Friedberg/Seltzer theory that just mentioning things constitutes good satire. Other than merely bringing up that one guy who's clearly hiding a zombie bite or how the most hateful character gets the goriest death scene, the film does nothing funny or observant with its material. It tries to coast on pure crazy, which helped make Monster X Strikes Back go by more quickly but leaves this one gasping for air. And just like Monster X, it chucks in a political angle that goes nowhere, matters little to what plot there is, and comes off as pretty damn vague to begin with. For what positions itself as a silly gorefest, Zombie Self-Defense Force isn't a whole lot of fun, and the uneven special effects don't help much. You'll get an impressive set piece once in a while (such as when the zombies pull a Rhodes on an unfortunate soldier), but most of the blood splatters and gore geysers look like they were drawn with "Mario Paint."
I hate to beat up on Zombie Self-Defense Force for doing what made the likes of Versus so damn awesome, but it goes to show you how vital execution is, especially with horror. It's not enough that you have zombies shuffling about; if you have passion, creativity, and, God forbid, a budget, chances are that you'll have a cult favorite on your hands. But when Zombie Self-Defense Force takes the easy way out, true bloodhounds can smell the dull disinterest from a mile away.
Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Just when you thought you'd seen every old dark house movie -- well, here's another one. But in lieu of Bob Hope or Creighton Hale prowling about a spooky abode, You'll Find Out features Kay Kyser, star of stage, radio, and apparently haunted mansion flicks. On loan from their College of Musical Knowledge, Kay and his ragtag band are hired to play at the 21st birthday gala of pretty young Janis Bellacrest (Helen Parrish). The shindig is being held at her ancestral home, where the spirit of her eccentric father is said to still roam the halls. But the house has attracted some flesh-and-blood terrors, as an old judge (Boris Karloff), a phony psychic (Bela Lugosi), and a gap-toothed mythbuster (Peter Lorre) have teamed up to swindle Janis out of her healthy inheritance. With all the strength a wimpy wisecracker like him can muster, Kay sets out to brave the Bellacrest house of horrors and keep Janis out of harm's way.
You'll Find Out is a scary movie that normal people can feel good about watching -- which is to say it isn't scary at all. It's more in tune with The Cat and the Canary, only with even more emphasis on humorous shenanigans. The spooky side of the story is pushed aside a lot, as You'll Find Out was essentially made as a vehicle for the Kay Kyser players. As such, we get a ton of musical interludes that pop up without much rhyme or reason, and this film having been made in 1940, they can be mighty lame (the "Bad Humor Man" number alone sent me into a corniness coma). The only things to fear here are Kay's one-liners and the slapstick set pieces, which make Abbott and Costello's schtick look like Bill Hicks material. Even the main mystery doesn't seem to have been given much thought, considering it's not even really a mystery. The bad guys are revealed not even halfway into the movie, and while it's part of the joke that an oblivious Kay puts his trust in the nogoodniks, it's a reach just to make him look like an even bigger doofus.
But in spite of it all, I'd be lying if I didn't say that You'll Find Out didn't warm up to me at least a little bit. The humor is campy and dated, sure, but neither your intelligence nor the cast's dignity suffers for it. It has an innocent spirit that's hard to hate, and it doesn't treat its thrill-centric side as a total joke. Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre are all in on the act, and all three give surprisingly wonderful performances. Lugosi was a treat in particular, playing the role of a self-important psychic straight and getting more laughs for it (there's even a silly seance scene with a few freaky tweaks). Plus, for as many cheesy songs there are, some can be extremely charming, especially the Oscar-nominated "I'd Know You Anywhere" -- it hasn't a thing to do with the story, but it's a good tune anyway, dammit. Kay Kyser himself also carries on a fine tradition of film cowards, playing the part of unlikely hero, who's more liable to throw out snarky quips than battle the forces of darkness head-on.
You'll Find Out isn't terrible funny, and it's even less suspenseful, but I can't rag on it too much. The sentimentality seeps from every pore, and despite the best efforts of that cranky old fart in all of us, we can't help but be charmed by the earnestness of the production. You'll Find Out comes in a set with three other Karloff/Lugosi cheese wheels, so if you've got the stomach for some serious saccharine, this well-meaning ditty will be a breeze to watch.
Monday, October 25, 2010
Sunday, October 24, 2010
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Friday, October 22, 2010
As would Jamie Lee Curtis and Carol Kane after her, Gail Russell assumes the role of a babysitter who's really in for it in 1945's The Unseen. Russell plays Elizabeth Howard, a young woman hired by the stern David Fielding (Joel McCrea) as governess for his children (Nona Griffith and Richard Lyon). But she's hardly had time to unpack her things before realizing she's stepped into the nuttiest house since the Femm estate. All manner of strange characters drift about the Fielding residence, including a shifty real estate agent, a handyman who keeps odd working hours, and a former nanny who's not about to move on. From all of this hubub emerges a peculiar mystery, involving a recent string of murders and a figure rooting around the house next door. When she learns the Fielding kids know more than they're admitting, Elizabeth attempts to gain their trust and crack the crimes before her name ends up in the obituaries next.
It was but a few days ago that I ragged on Return of the Living Dead 3 for having bugger-all to do with its namesake series. But now we have The Unseen, a film I like a fair deal more than has even less to do with its own supposed roots. You can see from the poster that The Unseen was billed as a follow-up to 1944's The Uninvited and is accepted as a sequel in certain circles. But not only do none of the latter film's characters show up here, the former completely ditches the supernatural angle in favor of more earthly chills. The only common threads are director Lewis Allen and star Gail Russell, no longer playing an outright victim but a more proactive part this time around. Strangely, though, I didn't mind so flimsy a connection, since the first film's spirit is present here, even if the spirits themselves are not. The set-up is straight out of The Turn of the Screw, wherein the relationship between governess and children provides the film's emotional core, as well as its main source of conflict.
But here's where The Unseen gets a bit murky, kids. The resentment kids have towards any foreign authority figure is natural, and the junior actors here convey this very well. But Griffith and (mostly) Lyon do almost too good a job of exuding brattiness, so much so that the story's flow suffers as a result. With much of the mystery hinging on what the Fielding kids know but won't tell, it gets irritating to see the resolution prolonged because one of them is being a stubborn little demon spawn. As such, The Unseen is often left trying to find stuff to do, and though it only lasts 81 minutes, it's still dishing out red herrings an hour in. It doesn't develop an intricate puzzle so much as it just makes everyone but Russell look guilty as all get-out, resolved whenever's convenient for the culprit. This doesn't give Russell much of a chance to really play detective, but she still delivers a sweet and sympathetic performance, particularly when she puts up with McCrea's crusty ways to an almost saintly degree.
Though I've exhibited more jeers than cheers, The Unseen isn't at all terrible. Again, Allen nails the atmosphere, which is dark, foggy, and teeming with spookiness. Although the supernatural isn't part of the plan, you still find yourself getting nervous over what real-life terrors await Elizabeth in the surrounding mist. Even more hard to find than The Uninvited nowadays, The Unseen isn't worth breaking a sweat over, but should the Turner Classic Movie gods feel generous enough to schedule it, it's worth catching just to say you've seen it.
Thursday, October 21, 2010
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Long before Umbrella entered the picture, Uncle Sam had the market cornered on misguided experiments involving the undead. The zombie outbreaks in the first two Return of the Living Deads apparently weren't enough to phase army brass, since number three here begins as they use the dreaded Trioxin to make the ghouls into indestructible soldiers. But even after seeing himself how the stuff tends to inspire cravings for flesh, despondent teen Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) uses the Trioxin to resurrect his gal pal Julie (Mindy Clarke) after she dies in an accident. Come back she does, and with her comes not only a touch of rigor mortis but a love of body modification that keeps her newfound hunger at bay. But a few stray nibbles threatens to unleash a zombie horde in South Central, forcing Curt to choose between staying by Julie's side or saving the world from a Romeroesque fate.
1985's The Return of the Living Dead was a goofy mirror image of the traditional zombie flick. Written with as much dark hilarity in mind as bone-chilling creepiness, it was a truly refreshing movie, and as maligned as the second one continues to be, it was faithful to this semi-serious vein. So what does Return of the Living Dead 3 have in store? How about absolutely nothing its name had come to be known for? Now before you cry fanboy, let me say that I have no problem with movies that deviate from an established formula, given they pull it off. But then there's trying something so different, you might as well strike out on your own instead of clinging desperately to name recognition as a means of finding success. That's not to say Return of the Living Dead 3 couldn't have worked (zombified version of a Roger Corman biker romance? -- sign me up!), but the tone it adopts would be too melodramatic for the Hallmark Channel, let alone for something from the director of Society.
Satire, gallows humor, irreverency -- none of that's in Return of the Living Dead 3. The most it has to do with its forefathers is Mindy Clarke's Julie pulling a Cenobite two-thirds of the way through and turning into the Linnea Quigley-in-training you see on the cover art. Instead, the film opts for a love story it treats far too seriously, so downbeat and dreary in tone that it clashes big-time with the insane effects work. If anything, these are the remnants of the Return of the Living Dead 3 we could've had, one packed to the gills with unrelentingly disgusting zombies made on a budget of what covers Brad Pitt's cheese fries these days. More than any other story in the franchise, this is the one that could've done with living it up and embracing its campy side. But amusing Latino gangster stereotypes aside, the flick is just no fun, and as sweet of a girl Mindy Clarke most likely is, don't be surprised if her hammy performance starts giving you Creedence Leonore Gielgud flashbacks.
I know there's an audience for Return of the Living Dead 3, and hell, anything that gives the ladies a chance at being however brief a horror icon is worth a little something. But whatever good times I hoped for were washed away a depressing plot, a dull sense of pacing, and a cast whose acting skills each achieved their own shade of bland. I've seen worse (like Return of the Living Dead 4 and 5), but this one would've done well by honoring its ancestors over taking the emo way out.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Beneath the bustling streets of London lies the greatest terror to face England since S Club 7. While working on extending a subway tunnel at fictional Hobbs End Station, a construction crew uncovers the well-preserved remains of ape men dating back five million years. But as the scientific community jumps for collective joy at this discovery, an even more fantastic find is just a few shovelfuls of mud away. Workers proceed to dig out a strange vessel, which very much intrigues Bernard Quatermass (Andrew Keir), a professor asked to help oversee the excavation. But the more evidence he turns up, the more Quatermass believes that not only is the craft not of this earth but is also the source of an ancient evil. Of course, the military shoots down his theories in order to avoid a panic, but pandemonium is just what runs amok when whatever's in that ship decides to unleash its powers on an unsuspecting populace.
Quatermass and the Pit is among England's most well-known science fiction tales -- though it beats the hell outta me as to why. Perhaps it's a response to how gung-ho America is with its own sci-fi, featuring characters who are scientists in the sense that there are beakers around when they blast little green men to kingdom come. Thus, patience is a virtue in Quatermass and the Pit, as the story hinges on the professor learning exactly what's buried down below before the worst occurs. It's a film in which fools pay the price for rushing in, but while that sounds great on paper, the flick doesn't leave itself much to go on. Hypotheses and experimentation do not a rip-roaring thriller make here, and the story's admittedly cool concepts end up muddled as a result. It's hard to discuss without stopping in spoiler country, but Quatermass and the Pit pulls the "we are the monsters" card with little basis for it, which has much to do with the film's inconsistent stock in the fantastic.
I don't think it's a big shock to learn that we're dealing with aliens here, but just try to dissuade Quatermass and company from presuming otherwise. As the professor delves into the bizarre history of Hobbs End, the possibilities of ghosts, demons, and poltergeists are brought up, but just about anyone who mentions aliens may as well be laughed out of Europe. It's another case of Indiana Jones 4 Syndrome, in which you've figured things out two acts before the story has, and the movie's only response is to plug its ears and go, "Lalalalala!" Plus, while it might just be my lack of familiarity, Quatermass just doesn't seem to be that interesting of a character. This is only the second time I've seen a Quatermass adventure (and I caught the last one three years ago), but there's still nothing about the professor to suggest why he's so hailed of a genre hero. He's your typical scientist trying to convince the world that he's not off his rocker, and though Keir's performance isn't bad by any means, he doesn't do much to deviate from the archetype.
Quatermass and the Pit was a Hammer production, not to mention one that wasn't a Gothicized monster mash. The Hammer touch does come through in the eerie atmosphere, and as chuckle-inducing as the big revelations are, director Roy Ward Baker does a good job of getting you at least a little freaked out by the unknown. But overall, Quatermass and the Pit is a really stiff watch, its ideas too ill-conveyed to fully intrigue and its structure too formal to enjoy as a straight-up fright flick.
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Ah, yes, the 1950s. It was an innocent era, one of soda fountains, Buddy Holly, and premeditated murder. At least that's how it was in the cozy hamlet of Ferren Woods, were some teenage toughs slashed up a deformed mountain boy and made his death look like an accident. Some years later, whispers of the kid still echo throughout Ferren Woods, and they only get louder when a group of 30-year-old highschoolers swing by his gravesite. Through an elaborate and easily-avoidable ritual, the teens end up calling upon the demon Pumpkinhead, who proceeds to go on a bloody, vengeful tear through town on the dead boy's behalf. But after justice has been served, Pumpkinhead gets a hankering for fresh meat, leaving the kids little time to save their skins and send the giant clawed one back to the hell from whence it came.
Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings was one of the first scary movies I remember noticing when my parents buckled down and got HBO. Chances are that if it was late at night, this was on, and the likes of Leprechaun 2 or Ticks were soon to follow. But I never sat down for the whole thing (Killer Klowns from Outer Space was more my speed), and when I finally caught the 1988 original a few years back, it took me till now to summon the interest to explore its sequels. After watching Blood Wings, I could have waited a few more centuries, but to be fair, not a lot of folks dig this one to begin with. Pumpkinheads 3 and 4 have gotten a crummy rap as well, though it's Blood Wings that gets particularly dumped on for departing so much from its cult predecessor. Still, I wasn't a huge fan of the first flick, so I don't really hate its inaugural follow-up out of a sense of allegiance -- not when there are so many other things to hate it for.
No doubt, Pumpkinhead II is a dud, but it's a dud for the usual reasons: paper-thin acting, ho-hum effects work, and a script that chews up and spits out anything mildly creative (which you tend to get with Jeff "Sequel Killer" Burr in the director's chair). But reports of the film's unendurable crappiness have been greatly exaggerated, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't amuse me, at least a little bit. While the acting is indeed terrible, just looking over the casting choices is entertaining on its own. Andrew Robinson (Hellraiser) and Linnea Quigley are no big shock, but then come Soleil Moon Frye, Kane Hodder, and Roger Clinton (of "I'm freaking related to Bill Clinton" fame) to have you eager to see what C-list celebs will pop their heads in next. Also, as horribly executed as Pumpkinhead's kills are (mostly due to an accompanying strobe light that makes them borderline unwatchable), they're fun in their inherent silliness, especially when he takes on a trio of redneck chicken farmers.
Most people can and will go their whole lives without seeing Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings. In fact, horror fans probably can too, save for us masochists, completists, and the compulsive at heart that just have to watch anything and everything. It'll be a while before Pumpkinhead: Ashes to Ashes ends up in my player, but should anyone be foolish enough to question why, one finger pointed in the direction of Blood Wings oughta be enough to say it all.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Friday, October 15, 2010
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Another year, another G8 summit, and another chance for world leaders to pretend they're accomplishing something. Heads of state from the U.S., Russia, and elsewhere have gathered at Hokkaido's scenic Lake Toya to brainstorm ways they can save the environment. But the talks have barely begun before a greater threat arrives in the form of a towering monster from outer space. Focus instantly switches to taking down the massive beast, and while all the G8 attendees have their own plans of action, their attempts only egg on the creature's tour of destruction. Luckily, two plucky reporters (Kazuki Kato and Natsuki Kato) are on the case, and with the help of a backwoods cult, they might be able to summon the only force that can destroy this intruder from beyond for good.
Monster X Strikes Back is the second flick I've seen in as many years in which Japan pokes fun at its own kaiju conventions. The other was Big Man Japan, whose approach was very deadpan, so it falls upon Monster X Strikes Back to travel the road more goofy. But no matter how much sentiment was put into them, both features share a very inconsistent sense of humor and satire. It's Japan's answer to The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, as both are pleasant parodies of B-movies whose only gags consist of -- well -- being B-movies. It's affectionate, but it's just not that funny, something the Godzilla-style romps it's spoofing were while actually being honest-to-God entertaining. Monster X Strikes Back is structured like a joke that takes 98 minutes to tell, and at the end, the punchline is that you were told a joke.
But I should mention that kaiju disciples may be disappointed that this film is less monster mash and more political satire. In this respect, Monster X Strikes Back lands its share of zingers, most of which stem from how gleefully stereotypical it portrays the G8 bigwigs. Everyone's looking out for #1, everyone has their own agenda, and everyone has silly names like "Beefstroganoff Puttin" and "Maplesyrup Harris" that are never actually used in the flick but the credits supply regardless. The goofiness of it all is pretty amusing, but the film loses its effectiveness the more it goes for the easy laughs. Topical humor aside, the movie is still a mighty letdown in the monster department. The title titan (who's named Guilala and never referred to as Monster X -- you figure it out) sorta resembles Godzilla with his head stuck in a UFO, but other than catching stray missles and trampling the odd power plant, he's there chiefly to make the G8 crew look like a bunch of dumbasses.
Monster X Strikes Back isn't necessarily bad and might even provide giant monster fans more seasoned than I with a few nice chuckles. I dug the silly tone and shamelessly overt political jabs, but the misses just happened to outweigh the hits by too wide of a margin. Though Monster X Strikes Back is a harmless lark, honest laughs are as hard to come by as a Tokyo skyscraper that the Big G hasn't set aflame.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Monday, October 11, 2010
Before Sony saw fit to give him a budget, Takashi Shimizu cut his teeth in the world of shot-on-video with Ju-On: The Curse. A prototype of his J-horror hit-to-be, this Ju-On also centers on a house that's been damned to the nth degree. A tragic event took place there some time ago, leaving behind a festering evil that claims the lives of those who dwell within its walls. As with the others in the series, the seemingly harmless abode's story is chronicled through nonlinear vignettes, ranging from three to ten minutes in length and focusing on one particular soul that comes in contact with the house. From a concerned teacher to a worried girlfriend, many fall prey to the wrath a croaking spirit that comes to scare them into an early grave. But when the curse finds its way to a frightened real estate agent, she resolves to warn potential buyers of the two stories of terror that await them.
I like to think that Takashi Shimizu is a smart guy. His work impressed and scared the hell out of Sam Raimi, who brought him to the attention of stateside horror fans and kept the Asia shock boom truckin' in The Ring's wake. Shimizu knows what's expected of him and delivers nothing less, which is why the idealist inside me wants to believe that he made six Ju-On features (counting The Grudge and its first sequel) to prove how much the premise just doesn't work. There's no other way to explain why anyone rational would regurgitate entire characters and story threads so many times, when it's been made clear that everyone in these flicks is boned from the word go (turns out there's not much suspense in nihilist horror stories). Maybe Ju-On is meant to be enjoyed in fragments; take a random frame from any ghost sequence, find the right sound effect, and boom, you have Internet screamer gold. But trying to follow an actual story or sympathize with anyone not currently undead here is as worthwhile as watching a Ringu print that's being fed through a woodchipper.
Speaking of choppy structures, let's talk about the one Ju-On: The Curse has to share with the class. To Shimizu's credit, it works better here than in some of his other movies, but it still reeks of cheating to have the turn of events jumbled around for the sake of Shimizu feeling good about bamboozling you in the easiest way possible. Plus, for a film built on the element of surprise and ghosts that appear out of nowhere, nothing really shocks you here. Even forgetting that its fellow Ju-Ons exist, you know exactly what will come to pass here (that its climactic plot twist is telegraphed by the freaking opening title card is kind of a downer, as well). Hell, I thought being video-based would help Shimizu here, since it added a lot to the film's flawed but intermittently spooky comrade Ju-Rei: The Uncanny, but no dice. The effects are crummy, the dramatic zooms are hilarious, and let's say it's not all that horrible that actors this stiff don't last long onscreen.
I want to say I read somewhere that much of Japanese cinema is based on a foundation of emotion over storytelling perfection. The ultimate goal gets more attention than the journey there, which I can totally see going on with Ju-On: The Curse. When all's said and done, it'll freak out its share of folks, but if 70 minutes of near-silence and household busywork are the best it can serve up along the way, you're better off having a grand old time doing your own damned chores.
Sunday, October 10, 2010
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella had similar debuts as the king of all vampires, but leave it to Christopher Lee to change things up a bit. Horror of Dracula starts off as Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) arrives at the Count's humble abode not to sell him Carfax Abbey but to send his bloodsucking ass to the great beyond. When Harker's hunt hits a snag, good ol' Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) picks up the trail, only to find that his partner has met an unfortunate end. What's worse is that Dracula, driven by revenge, has targeted Harker's fiance Lucy (Carol Marsh) for assimilation into his undead fold. Van Helsing is prepared to combat Dracula with all his might, but in a society that's shunned old myths like that of the vampire, stopping the Count's evil influence from spreading is easier said than accomplished.
Though I pride myself on being a classic horror nerd, the Hammer pictures are ones that I've spent embarrassingly scant time exploring. I guess I've been on bended knee at Universal's altar too long to catch much beyond 1959's atmospheric but dull take on The Mummy and the blood-soaked gender politics of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. But I can get why Horror of Dracula came to be; the titans of horror needed to retrieve their lost luster, and if Universal wasn't going to answer the call, then dammit, Hammer would. For its time, Horror of Dracula probably was a little intense, even with but a fraction of the violence and titillation the Hammer flicks would become famous for. But nowadays, the film is harmless and borderline quaint at times, which would be fine, had it not embraced the brisk pacing of a molasses avalanche. It clocks in at a little over 80 minutes but feels eternal, especially when Van Helsing and crew painstakingly track down Dracula in scenes better left to line the Count's parakeet cages.
This brings me to what is arguably Horror of Dracula's greatest flaw: Dracula himself. The man is one of the most-performed characters in the history of the arts, a figure recognized by millions, and, as far as the horror genre is concerned, a freaking rock star. So outside of having Omar Epps in the cast, how can you possibly ruin a Dracula movie? Well, as Horror of Dracula demonstrates, barely including the guy is a good start. You could say Lee chose to make Dracula more animal than man, only emerging to strike fast and vanish just as quickly, and you'd be right. The Count is a straight-up monster here, making no effort to feign nobility, but feeling truly threatened is difficult when he's mainly seen dashing off to his coffin. This leaves us to follow Van Helsing, and bless Cushing's droll heart, but without being featured less so than Dracula or at least depicted on equal terms, Van Helsing's pious monologues fall on deaf ears and weary eyes. If anything, this flick goes to show you why Dracula is nobody's opening act.
Horror of Dracula has its place in fright film history, and I'm inclined to forgive it certain flaws. The set design is really fantastic, and compared to other versions of the Bram Stoker tale, be they Coppola or Browning, this one has an identity all its own. Lee's Dracula left an impression on monster fans, and I look forward to catching his other outings behind the cape, but it's unfortunate that the one to start it all holds up about as well as the Count would in sunny San Diego.
Friday, October 8, 2010
Thursday, October 7, 2010
Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier) views the world as a five-year-old would an ant farm. Within the bowels of a secluded mansion, he obsesses over purifying the human race and creating life as he sees fit -- by way, naturally, of stitching together only the finest body parts. As our story begins, the Baron has chosen a farmhand (Srdjan Zelenovic) to provide the head topping the culmination of his life's work. Unfortunately, he's missing the sex drive required to propogate the Baron's master race with a female creation he also has stashed away. That belongs to a local stableboy (Joe Dallesandro), who's currently using his gift to service the frigid Baroness Frankenstein (Monique van Vooren). But after the servant discovers what happened to his friend, he sets out to railroad the Baron's experiments and end his madness for good.
You have to wonder what frame of mind was used in making Flesh for Frankenstein. Considering Andy Warhol's involvement (which was reportedly very thin), being confused could just as well be the point, but this intensely sexualised take on a classic horror story has an agenda that rings quite clearly. The film is on a mission to challenge you, and challenge it does, reminding viewers of the true terrors of a tale that had at the time been rendered innocuous by kiddie monster shows. In fact, Flesh for Frankenstein could have the strongest moral code of any Frankenstein adaptation. While so many other versions inevitably cast their doctors as erstwhile noble men falling under the spell of scientific progress, Kier's Baron is a bastard to the bitter end. Blunt and open about his desire for racial purity, the Baron not only gave into insanity long ago but couldn't care less who knows it.
Yet as Wikipedia is so kind to include in its summary, Flesh for Frankenstein pays as much stylish tribute to the mad scientist classics as it satirizes and sensationalizes them to the extreme. The decaying laboratory, the various apparatuses, monologuing about life and death every three minutes -- there's enough common ground for monster fans to get comfy before being plunged into a psychosexual clustercuss. But the flick's on-the-fly approach does have its drawbacks, namely in the acting (or lack of acting) department. Although we know and love Udo Kier as the cult icon he is today, you can tell this is one of his first big gigs, so don't be surprised to catch a whiff of Tommy Wiseau in his performance. But he's still bugnuts crazy enough to let pass, as opposed to Dallesandro's wooden American accent leaving his scenes with the profundity of a cabbage belch.
Notorious for a reason and not for the faint of heart (or those who value joy in the world), Flesh for Frankenstein is rough around the edges but undeniably fascinating. Even if Warhol didn't have much to do with the production, his presence is there, persisting in writer/director Paul Morrissey's quest to show audiences what true horror is. Driven equally by ideas and exploitation, Flesh for Frankenstein is one tawdry little creation with plenty of life in it.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is an independent woman and proud of it. She's a single mother of three, works all day, and attends typing school at night, all with her sanity intact. But on a night no different than any other, the unspeakable begins to take place in Carla's home. An invisible force barges in and violates Carla in the worst ways, before disappearing as quickly as it arrived. Overcome with distress as is, she's further angered when it seems that there's no logical solution to what's happening. The more well-meaning psychiatrist Dr. Sneiderman (Ron Silver) delves into Carla's past, the more frequent and intense her attacks before. Whoever or whatever Carla's assailant is, it's real, though it'll take something special to bring it down in our world.
Schindler's List. United 93. The Passion of the Christ. These are very admirable films, from artistic and thematic standpoints, though it's a little weird to say I "like" them. They reached their respective aims as effectively as they could have, but it'll be a long time before I pop any of them in on a rainy afternoon. As much of a sore thumb as it looks stacked against these pictures, The Entity is just the same, ostensibly a mainstream creepfest that deals in unexpectedly mature and very disturbing concepts. Just as startling is that the film, having been released when most moviegoers based their image of the supernatural off of the Amityville clunkers, makes it to the end without a scratch on its overall dignity. The Entity is a tough sit, but it survives by servicing its characters more so than the gorehound crowd. There are images of sexual assault that are difficult to watch, but the absence of some simplistic objective on which to hang these sequences spares the film the ravages of crass exploitation.
From shocking beginning to harrowing end, The Entity is firmly focused on Carla and never once wavers. Psychologically and physically, she's put through the mother of all wringers, savaged by a demonic aggressor and tortured by the fact that there's sound way to deal with it. A wrenching scene in which Carla breaks down and ponders submitting to her assailant is as riveting as the more showy attack sequences, both of which are still tastefully handled. Things do start to come apart in the third act, when the story edges away from mimicking its real-life basis and throws in a climax with Carla being pursued by a possessed freeze gun. It's never skipping hand-in-hand through a field of silly alongside The Manitou, but it definitely shows how the biggest pyrotechnics show you can muster is no match for a performance like Hershey's that encapsulates all manner of torment most of us can only imagine.
I hadn't known The Entity was such a hot commodity before I hit it up, with new discs on Amazon beginning at $110 as of this posting. I tracked my copy through the library, so unless you have a chum who's up on his '80s horror collection or a dusty VHS of your own laying somewhere, chances are you've seen the last of this ditty for some time. In any case, I'm dying for a current viewer's take on The Entity -- after so many films have instructed us when to be scared like good little puppies, I'd like to see how they do with something that actually has a reason.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
If Dying Breed is to be believed, Australia in the early 1800s resembled a primeval version of Escape from New York. Once a penal colony housing England's undesirable, the most notorious of them all was the Pieman, a criminal who fed on human flesh to survive. Centuries after his death, the Pieman's legend lives on in a remote area of Tasmania, where a group of pals have come to in search of a rare tiger. What they instead run into is the set of The Aussie Chainsaw Massacre and a village that swears by the Pieman's cannibalistic cookbook. The locals take to hunting down the tourists in short order, but having reached the bottom of the gene pool some time ago, the residents plan to replenish their bloodline before the feast truly begins.
Few horror movies concern themselves with surprising viewers anymore. We know what to expect, as do they, so nine times out of ten, it's a matter of the inevitable being delayed. But how a flick passes that time before the foregone conclusion is what separates a fan's ecstatic elation from their profanity-laden dismay. I'm not so disappointed that Dying Breed falls into this line so easily (which I am, but that's another story) as I am in it providing nothing to really watch in the meantime. It's a film that lays down all its cards from the word go, foreshadows everything you could possibly expect from a premise like this, and still expects you to be gobsmacked when its world turns exactly as planned. What was I supposed to carry away from this? That cannibalism is icky? Thanks, movie, I never would've guessed. Excuse me while I fill in the cast of Alive.
Dying Breed isn't big on creating tension, sustaining it as the narrative progresses, and upping the suspense ante when necessary -- it's all about characters learning things the audience figured out twenty minutes in, until the movie feels like stopping. The mood is dour enough (as cannibal stories that don't involve dudes named Raoul tend to be), so waiting for Dying Breed to finish having its way with you makes you more hostage than paying customer. Adding further drudgery to the proceedings are characters who go endure routines their respective archetypes have dictated they go through since the dawn of time. But Nathan Phillips as the king of the douchebags aside, the lead performers, which include Saw screenwriter Leigh Whannell, do turn out fairly appealing performances. Plus, as dark as the overall tone gets, the few hints of self-aware exploitation help it feel less bleak and hopeless than fellow Aussie fright flick Wolf Creek.
Would I go so far as to call Dying Breed stupid? Well, it's not good at all, but it's less constructive with its time than it is outright idiotic. It has the makings of a taut survival thriller, one that could make good use out of Australia's urban legends. But just as the film's characters have consigned themselves to biting the dust by the final reel, viewers can anticipate an abysmal ride out of Dying Breed before the Pieman's first big bite.
Monday, October 4, 2010
In the terrifying tradition of Extreme Ops and Ski Patrol, Cold Prey takes place during a wintry jaunt gone decidedly awry. Norway's picturesque mountains are the order of the day, and despite a small whiff of sexual tension in the group, five farm-fresh stereotypes are prepared to party themselves purple. But the good times are cut short when the token nerd (Rolf Kristian Larsen) takes a dive a busts up his leg somethin' awful. The gang finds shelter in an abandoned ski lodge, where they discover that their ordeal is just beginning. Someone's been watching these kids ever since they took to the slopes, and while they wait out the bad weather before searching for help, this cunning killer plans on serving as their own personal tour guide to hell and back.
Cold Prey's back cover comes adorned with promises of intelligence, intensity, and other terms that are hard to come by in the horror genre. Lord knows how many mainstream movies get the hell hyped out of them just for not sucking, so imagine what happens when horror fans wheel out the pedestal. But since Cold Prey is particularly ballsy and insistent that it's not typical slasher fodder, the fact that it totally freaking is comes as even less of a shock. I've previously mentioned how I always assume that other countries know better and avoid the mistakes America's movies are built on making. But with some Japanese ghost movies tailored to fit our perceptions of the genre, I guess it's no surprise that Cold Prey is extra careful that it never develop something as silly as an actual identity.
That's not to say there's no audience for Cold Prey, as its accolades and two follow-up features have demonstrated there is. But even Prom Night made a profit, and while Cold Prey is cut from less neutered, intelligence-insulting cloth, there's almost zero entertainment value here. The film is minimalist to a fault and cuts corners wherever possible, be they in the location or dialogue departments. Characters milling around is mistaken for tension, grumbled rants about one's love life is what passes for character development, and a half-assed wraparound twist is meant to leave us with one last surprise (which it might have, were it relevant to the story in any shape or form). There's just nothing here that other, superior horror movies haven't executed with more style, imagination, and energy. This doesn't even have the self-referential edge of a Dead Snow (which was shallow, yes, but it was there).
I'm not mad that Cold Prey didn't live up to Ain't It Cool News' claims of perfection; I'm mad that it didn't even try. Sure, the self-promotion didn't help, but the lack of a drive to do anything except C+ its way through Slashers 101 did even more damage. Like the countless other thrillers that shooting dark hallways is a one-way ticket to suspense, Cold Prey is dull, derivative, and, worst of all, sorely mistaken.
Sunday, October 3, 2010
When Winnie Slade (Miss Jeff Donnell) bought a dusty old country house, she thought a few creaky floorboards were the worst she'd have to deal with. Sure, the farmhands are a bit nutty, and weird Professor Billings (Boris Karloff) carries on some funny business in the basement, but they're just some harmless eccentrics. But little does Winnie know that the professor's experiments in turning men into super-powered beings have left her with a few well-preserved corpses tucked in the cellar. Not only that, but some shady houseguests check in, there's a mad bomber on the loose, and a killer has taken to stalking the premises. The Slade estate is getting screwier by the minute, and Winnie's ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) is the only one sane enough to try and figure out what's going on.
Anyone who says that old movies are boring can put The Boogie Man Will Get You in their pipe and smoke it. A surplus of subplots is tough for any movie to handle, but this one clocks in at 66 minutes and still whips itself into entertaining shape. But it should be said that this isn't a true horror movie. There's no ordained "Boogie Man" to speak of, and that Mothman guy on the poster is nowhere to be seen either (what, did the artist think the flick wasn't busy enough?). We have Peter Lorre gussied up like the Reverend Harry Powell, but even he gets in on the goofiness pretty quickly. Nah, Boogie Man isn't an official fright film but rather a farce with a cheerfully diabolical sense of humor. In tone, it's closer to Arsenic and Old Lace than Frankenstein, with Karloff's nutty professor humorously lamenting many a human guinea pig lost in the name of science.
Still, the light approach works best for Boogie Man; with a workload like the one it takes on, truly sinister overtones would've killed its charm. As it, the movie has some trouble keeping up with itself, occasionally dishing out gags and side bits for the sake of having something to do. But with its short running time, Boogie Man wraps up long before it has the chance to really wear out its welcome. It's too cheery to hate, especially when you see the actors having just as much fun. Karloff has a blast defying God's will any chance he gets, but I was even more impressed with Lorre's performance. To be honest, I'm not as up on my Lorre as I should be, but he was wry comic gold here, playing the town jack-of-all-trades who joins up with Billings to make a few quick bucks. Donnell and Parks are just fine as the prototypical bickering lovers, and Maxie Rosenbloom enjoys some good-natured goofs as a particularly dimwitted shuckster.
The Boogie Man Will Get You comes packaged with Boris Karloff's Icons of Horror set, where it's easily the least frightening of the bunch. It's not the first time this has happened, but it's of more respectable quality than Karloff's lighter material tends to be. Sunny and amusing over campy and intolerable, The Boogie Man Will Get You is the very picture of macabre hilarity.