Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Franco foul-up almost saved by unintentional comedy

Neurosis: The Fall of the House of Usher (aka "Revenge in the House of Usher" and "Zombie 5") (1982)
Starring: Howard Vernon, Robert Foster, Lina Romay, Jean Tolzac, Olivier Mathot, and Fran├žoise Blanchard
Director: Jess Franco
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Dr. Alan Hacker (Foster) travels to the castle of his old professor, Dr. Usher (Vernon) where he quickly learns that his old teacher has gone mad. Aside from claiming that he is 200 years old, Usher is obsessed with resurrecting his dead daughter by giving her blood transfusions from girls he’s kidnapped.

With "Neurosis" (as the film was called in the on-screen titles even though the DVD case told me I was going to see "Revenge in the House of Usher"), Jess Franco manages to make himself look worse than usual. Not only does he do a half-assed job of adapting the classic Poe story "Fall of the House of Usher" but he uses 15-20 minutes of footage from one of the few good movies he's made--"Awful Dr. Orlof"--as a flashback sequence so the viewer can compare what he did in 1964 with what he did in 1981. 1981 Jess Franco does NOT look good when compared with 1964 Jess Franco.

The fault in using the old footage is embodied first in the character of "Morpho", Dr. Usher's blind (one-eyed?) assistant who is more in love with Usher's semi-undead daughter than even Usher. Morpho's make-up in the 1981 footage is pathetic when compared with the 1962 footage... when it should have been the other way around, given the improvement in the art in the two decades that passed between the production of the two films. Secondly, the old footage is simply better over all cinematography-wise. The shots are better composed and framed, more interestingly lit, and just more dramatic over-all.

As for the film overall, there is no logic to the story and the scenes appear to be strung together almost as random, with characters dropping in and out--like the horny stable boy; or important characters being introduced out of the blue in the third act--like Usher's wife, who may or may not be a ghost. We never do find out what she is or how she managed to creep around the castle without Usher's loyal housekeeper and would-be lover Helen seeing her (if she wasn't a ghost).

Speaking of Helen... if someone can explain her character arc to me, I will bow down to you as the superior reviewer. She becomes a completely different character all of a sudden. I could chalk it up to delusions on the part of Usher, but Dr. Hacker was the one who was primarily involved with her inexplicable transformation.

While watching the film, I actually did wonder on more than one occasion whether it was a satire of gothic horror films that misfired rather than a serious attempt at making a horror movie. If viewed as such, it suddenly becomes a mediocre movie instead of a terrible one. Certainly, the bad acting on the part of the men dubbing Robert Foster (as Dr. Hacker) and Howard Vernon (as Dr. Usher) gives rise to much hilarity... and the people responsible for voicing Lina Romay and the rest of the cast are almost as effective with their comedic stylings.

But I doubt this was intended as a comedy, so the film ends up here, with the rest of the cinematic trash. There are actually a few well-done scenes of horror sprinkled here and there throughout the film, but overall it's another cheap-jack Jess Franco Failure, with another of his trademark botched endings. (Free advice to filmmakers: If you're going to adapt "The Fall of the House of Usher" and you're going to have a building collapse... for God's sake, budget some miniature shots or buy some stock footage, because the way Franco does it here is a textbook example of what NOT to do.)

That said, the bad voice, the incoherent storyline, and the outrageously random behavior on the part of the characters also make this movie the exact right kind of trash for those who enjoy riffing as bad movies unfold. With the right group of friends, this movie can be a lot of fun.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Orchestral arrangements of great horror themes

Well, time and a dearth of horror films I've felt strongly enough to comment on over the past couple of years have pretty much put this blog out to pasture. But, given that it's the horror month of Halloween, I feel like posting SOMETHING here. So here's a some commentary horror movie theme arrangements by Mac Styran.

Mac Styran is a German composer who's been writing scores for a range of media projects for more than 15 years. He is a classically trained pianist who has several works available through More samples of his work can be found on his personal website.

Mac Styran at work

The videos featured here were all edited by his wife Doro Styran. They are all very well done and compliment the music perfectly.

First, here's my favorite of Styran's arrangements -- appropriately enough John Carpenter's "Halloween Theme." Styran adds a number of his own musical elements here, but he keeps what made the original tune great.

Next is Styran's take on "Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds." This version is highlighted by its perfectly timed flourishes and a nice instrumental version of "Forever Autumn"--a tune that most people butcher when they try to cover or rearrange it. I would have liked a stronger callback to the "Eve of War Theme" at the end, but otherwise this is a perfect track.

Finally, Styran has also tackled Fred Myrow & Malcolm Seagrave's "Theme from Phantasm." The original piece is a favorite of mine, and the "Phantasm" movie holds a special place in my heart. It was one of the works that prompted me to be a writer, because I wanted to tell stories like that.

Styran's bombastic arrangement of the "Theme from Phantasm" captures the killer dwarfs and flying silver balls of death perfectly--and the balls are also the focus of the video--but I think it needed more quiet moments. It should either have built up to the powerfully noisy elements, or it should have had a quieter bridge. For me, the quiet stretches contribute even more strongly than the savage scenes to what makes "Phantasm" such a unique and creepy movie. Still, if this is any indication, Styran would be a great choice to score another entry in the "Phantasm" series if one was ever made.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bonus Scream Queen: Cherie Johnson

For the third year in a row, I bring you a flag-draped Scream Queen for the Fourth of July, officially making it a tradition.

Celebrate Independence Day with Cherie Johnson, a child actress who got her start on "Puniky Brewster" and made a successful transition to adulthood in front of the camera with roles in horror films such as "Dead Tone", "Killer Weekend" (both 2007), and "Raven" (2010).

Friday, June 7, 2013

A film of a child molester's nightmares?

Terror Toons (2001)
Starring: Beverly Lynne, Lizzie Borden, and Kelly Lui
Director: Joe Castro
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Sisters Candy (Borden) and Cindy (Lynne) are left home for the night while their parents attend a wedding. Cindy receives a DVD called "Terror Toons". When the violent, insane cartoon characters of Dr. Carnage and Max Assassin leap from the screen into the real world, the cartoon violence soon causes real blood to flow.

Regular readers probably have probably seen me rant multiple times about filmmakers needing to take their budget and available talent-pool into account when conceiving and executing projects.

"Terror Toons" is exactly the kind of horror film that SHOULD NOT be made on a tiny shoestring budget. It's abo an animated DVD (which looks atrocious) from which cartoon characters emerge to slaughter people in the real world (through painfully cheap effects and in costumes that look worse than the animated world they emerged from) and a need for copious gore effects (which the film's tiny budget apparently couldn't even handle).

There's also an issue with the casting. Candy in particular is problematic. I can't tell if she's supposed to be very young or simply retarded. In either case, the casting is bad, first and foremost because of the very, VERY bad boob job the actress is sporting. (And if she's supposed to be a young kid, then the sort of airbags she's sporting on her chest must mean she's the kind chick convicted child rapist Roman Polanski has nightmares about.)

The difficulty of getting a read on what the viewer is supposed to make of Candy is perhaps also a problem with the script... it doesn't seem like the writers put a whole lot of thought into her or any other of the characters in the film; the two cartoon killers seem to be the most realized characters around. And then there's Satan and his monologuing. Huh?

We can add the direction and camerawork to the to the parade of awfulness that is present in this flick, although all i can say about either is that aside from there obviously was a camera present, I'm not convinced the person running it had much in the way of an idea about how to set a scene. And the acting... it is almost uniformly awful. Lynne and Lui are the only two appearing that seem to have even an iota of talent; everyone else deserves to be murdered by cartoon characters come to life for thinking they should appear on film.

With all the negativity I'm spewing at this film, why did I give it even Two Stars? Well, I'm giving some credit for Lynne and Lui, a couple of semi-bright spots in the otherwise pathetic cast of actors. I'm also giving some credit for some nice looking sets once the cartoon characters invade the house and transform it into a cartoon-house (the place still looks like someone's basement or trailer, but at least some effort was made). I'm also giving some consideration for a neat idea, even if it was one that was far beyond the meager means and talent that were available to execute it.

"Terror Toons", despite a concept that seems appealing to lovers of weird movies, is a film that the vast majority of us are better off avoiding. However, it should be required viewing for those of you out there thinking about making your own movie. It's an illustration of why you need to plan your project carefully and realistically before you start. It's a film that the people involved simply were not able to do justice, and you can learn from their example and not repeat their mistake.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Knight Chills": A horror movie that captures the reality of the table-top RPG experience?

Knight Chills (2002) 
Starring: Michael Wayne Walton, Tim Jeffrey, Laura Tidwell, and DJ Perry 
Director: Katherine Hicks
 Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A mentally unstable roleplaying gamer (Walton) loses track of the lines between reality and fantasy and kills himself over the unrequited love of a part-time game-group member (Tidwell). The tragedy quickly turns to terror for the surviving gamers, as they are one by one stalked and killed by someone (or some thing) who appears to be the dead player's character.

I really wanted to like this movie. As a long-time roleplaying gamer, as well as a professional roleplaying game writer, I thought the premise of "Knight Chills"--a game group that ends up being stalked by one of the RPG characters coming to life--sounded very, very cool. I still think it's a great concept, but it's not one that is really used to its fullest potential here. Not even close.

While "Knight Chills" is better than many of the low-budget movies of its kind (the ones providing filler for DVD multipacks with names like "100 Horror Films" or "Gory Graveyards"), with overall better acting, better technical competence, and a better score, it is still crammed full of filler material and displays many of the typical cheap movie flaws... with badly scripted and redundant "character development" scenes being the most prominent of those flaws in this movie. To the film's flaws, we can add kill-scenes so lame and without resolution that we aren't even sure if the character dispatched is dead or just fainted due to low blood sugar or something.

Further, "Knight Chills' goes a great job of conveying what is must be like to be a spectator at a roleplaying game. The wife of my friend and fellow writer John Rateliff once described roleplaying game sessions as "two minutes of action crammed into four hours."

The gaming scenes in "Knight Chills" made me more fully understand what she meant than I had before. They rang true to life, with the Gamemaster (Jeffrey) and the I-game-because-my-boyfriend-likes-his-geeky-friends-and-I-like-my-boyfriend chick (Tidwell) seeming particularly realistic. And that could be the problem. RPGs ARE boring, unless you're in the game, playing a character.

So, as much as I wanted to be able to give "Knight Chills" a rave review, I can't. I can't even recommend it, unless you're a GM who wants to show his players what bad gaming protocol is.

Monday, May 27, 2013

'Quicksilver Highway' is one ot stay away from

Quicksilver Highway (1997)
Starring: Christopher Lloyd, Matt Frewer, Missy Crider, and Raphael Sbarge
Director: Mick Garris
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

It's hard to go wrong with an horror anthology movie, and if you're adapting stories by Stephen King and Clive Barker to the screen, you'd think it would be even harder. But no. Screenwriter/director Mick
Garris managed to completely botch the effort with "Quicksilver Highway."

Maybe the idea here was to make an anthology featuring darkly humorous tales, ala the likewise King-based "Creeopshow" anthology films, and they simply failed to be funny. If a desire to make a horror movie that drew upon the absurd, it would explain a lot about the choices of stories, the nature of the framing sequence, and several other quirky aspects of the film. In fact, I am assuming that it's was supposed to be more funny than it is, as it's the only way I can write this review without relegating it "Movies You Should [Die Before You] See."--it's something I would hate to do with a film featuring actors I live, based on stories from writers I like. IF this is a failed horror comedy, the two featured short films ("Chattering Teeth" and "Body Politic") are a little less awful, because one assumes they were intended to be absurd to begin with.

But even so, part of me feels that maybe the Three Star rating I am giving "Quicksilver Highway" is too generous.

The film starts to go wrong with the framing sequence. Having a narrator link the stories via introductory bits is a well-established convention for these movies, but Christoper Lloyd is so off-putting as  a weirdo in a rune-engraved leather collar telling stories to total strangers who made the bad decision to visit his establishment that the smart viewers might have taken it as a sign of things to come. This warning would probably be even more evident to those smart viewers when he repeatedly states his stories have no point. I was not among those smart viewers, so I kept watching.

Of the stories, we first have "Chattering Teeth," based on a tale by Stephen King.  In it, a man who is saved from a psychotic hitchhiker by a pair of over-sized, wind-up toy teeth. At no point does this short even get tense, let alone scary, and to describe the resolution as anticlimactic might be too generous. It does, however,  deliver on the promise of Lloyd's character As lame as this one is, it pales in comparison to the one that follows.

"The Body Politic" is the second tale, and it was adapted from a very bad Clive Barker story about a surgeon whose hands rebel against the rest of his body--and then cause the hands of others to rebel as well. Setting aside the fact that the hands can do nothing without the muscles of the arms--and yet a hospital full of rebellious hands are dragging people around as the story builds to its ludicrous climax--there simply isn't anything scary about the story. It's even too stupid to be funny, although Matt Frewer's over-the-top performance as the doctor at war with his own hands was lots of fun, and it earns the "Quicksilver Highway" an entire Star.

While Frewer's performance was the only really good one in the film, I can't complain about any of the other cast members; they all did excellent jobs with the material they had to work with. I can't even really blame Christopher Lloyd for making me wonder if I really wanted to keep watching, because he was just being Christopher Lloyd doing the best he could with a bad part.

As regular readers know, I love anthology films, so I always hate nt being able to recommend them. In the case of "Qucksilver Highway, the only thing I can be truly positive about is.Frewer's performance--and that's not enough for me to recommend you waste your time on this botched effort.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Sybil Danning

Born an Army Brat, Sybil Danning grew up to be one of the most commanding figures in B-movies of the late 1970s and 1980s. Few actresses could look as deadly and sexy waving a gun (or a sword or some weird alien raygun) around as Danning. Most of her resume are action or various exploitation (and sexploitation) films, but she can also be seen in a few horror films, like "The Lady in Red Kills Seven Times" (1972), "Night Kill" (1980), "Julie Darling" (1983), "Howling II" (1985), and "The Tomb" (1997).

In 1989, Danning mostly retired from acting when she co-founded a production company. She remains CEO pf that operation, but still takes the occasional part. Her most substantial horror roles in recent years was in the 2007 remake of "Halloween" and a recurring part on the homoerotic vampire TV series "The Lair" (2009).