Sunday, February 28, 2010

Why ask why when the ghosts start killing?

Ju-On: The Grudge 2 (2003)
Starring: Noriko Sakai
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Famous horror actress Kyoko Harase (Sakai), her unborn child, a TV news-magazine crew, a couple of high schoolers, and a handful of random bystanders fall victim to the curse of angry, homicidal ghosts.

"Ju-on: The Grudge 2" is one creepy movie. From beginning to end, it's got an unsettling air about it, and the ghost attacks are all nightmarish and flawlessly executed.

What is not so flawlessly executed is the script. It's no problem that the story is told out of sequence, but about 2/3rds of the way through the movie, the timeline completely disintergrates. Until the two high-schoolers are introduced (who I assume must have been around in the first Japanse "The Grudge" to which this film is a sequel), all the pieces fit on a timeline that makes sense--Kyoko and the filmcrew are cursed when they viisit the house for a TV segment, and the ghosts then start picking them off, just as they did in the American versions of the tale. But, the teeny-boppers must have been cursed by the house BEFORE the filmcrew went there... although one of them appears to never have escaped it, yet she's walking around and....

The bit with the school girls makes no sense when viewed on the timeline of the film, or as a seperate event. It further causes the question to arise: How and why Kyoko was targeted by the ghosts in the first place? What exactly was the whole baby and birth thing about, particuarly when viewed in the context of the ending? And why WERE those school girls in the film? Is there a law that every Japanese horror film must include at least one girl in a school uniform?

Either the plot is so tangled that it trips over itself (bad writing) or Simizu is assuming that everyone in the audience has seen the first film in the series and he further intends to explain the tangle in a third movie (bad filmmaking), or I'm not as smart as I like to think I am (not possible). Whatever the reason, this movie is a masterful excersize in makiing the viewers feel freaked out, but a failure as an excersize in story-telling. The posives and negatives here end up placing this film on the very low end of average.

I also think this will be the last entry in "The Grudge" series that I'll be sampling. The best thing about these movies appears to be their marketing campaigns.

(That said... the birth scene and its aftermath is one that will stay with me for awhile....)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Double Feature Spook Spectacular:
'The Grudge' and 'The Grudge 2'

I'm reviewing the first two American installmentss of Takashi Shimizu's "The Grudge" series in this post. Tomorrow, I'll be posting the review of the Japanese "The Grudge 2," which seems to follow on the events described in these movies. I don't know if that's just me trying to impose order on chaos, as I don't have the impression Shimizu gives a rip about story continiuity. (And I'm not likely to seek out the original Japanese "The Grudge." The awfulness of these three films has been quite enough for me.)

The Grudge (2004)
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jason Behr and Medaka Ikeno
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

In "The Grudge," Americans living and working in Tokyo fall victim to curses and angry ghosts tied to a house in the city. The most recent victim (Gellar) sets out to discover the cause of the deadly and nightmarish events and hopefully to prevent the fate that is occuring to everyone around her to her.

While "The Grudge" features some interesting visuals surrounding the ghosts in the film, the scares are all of the "gotcha" variety, the script is disjointed and badly done, and the activities of the ghosts and the curse never really make any sense.

It's okay to have a crazy ghost with strange motivations. It's even okay to have a ghost with motivations that SEEM to be understandable but which are ultimately revealed not to be. It's okay to have a ghost that may have been a victim in life but which is also completely and utterly batshit crazy and evil. It's even okay to have all of those.

But what is not okay is to have a ghost (and subsequently a ghost story) that seems to have no rhyme or reason to it. Sure, the characters might die horrible deaths without ever knowing what's going on, but the audience should be left with at least an inkling that there is some underlying cause for the haunting and ghosts actions other than a writer/director being too lazy to think his own story through properly.

"The Grudge" is a ghost movie done in by laziness on the part of the creator, and no amount of CGI effects and cheap scares can make up for that laziness. Unfortunately, things only get worse in the sequel. It's a shame that a good cast (including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Sam Raimi and Bill Pullman) are wasted on such a bad movie.

The Grudge 2 (2006)
Starring: Amber Tamblyn, Arielle Kebbel, Matthew Knight, Edison Chen, Sara Roemer, and Teresa Palmer
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

The "most haunted house in all of Japan" continues to curse victims... and now it's gone global.

"The Grudge 2" is like the original. It's got the same good parts, and the same bad parts, only moreso in both cases. The curse and its motivation still makes absolutely no sense, nor does the reasons for why the angry ghost targets who she does. In fact, ambiguity is even worse in the sequel, because it appears that the ghost isn't just tied to the house, but that it will go anywhere and target anyone... even people who have absolutely nothing to do with the house or anyone who has ever been in it. Further, it appears that the ghost isn't just the original ghost, but that all its victims are somehow being it. Or something. Or maybe another restless, tormented spirit was house-sitting while the O.G. (Original Ghost) is globetrotting.

Without spoiling too much, this sequel features not just one tale of mysterious hauntings but three--one with Amber Tamblyn and Edison Chen trying to unravel the curse a few days after the events of the first movie; one with Arielle Kebbel and Teresa Palmer a few years later when some mean school girls use the house for a bit of hazing; and a Chicago apartment building where, a few weeks after the ill-fated hazing in faraway Tokyo, teenaged Sara Roemer and her little brother Matthew Knight notice their neighbors start behaving strangely. The film moves back and forth between them, and toward the end of the film it does so in a fashion that seems truly random, and really confuses the viewers sense of what is happening when. I've seen at least two reviews claim the three stories don't connect, and I can only assume that the critics either didn't see the last few minutes of the movie, they weren't paying close enough attention, or they weren't expressing clearly enough the fact that the three stories don't connect in any way that makes sense.

And that is the problem with "The Grudge 2". Nothing in any of the stories feels properly grounded in even a shred of internal logic. There's no reason for "the curse" to target some of the people it does--like every resident on a floor of a Chicago apartment building. Stuff just happens because it's time for something spooky. There are plenty of spooky developments and even more "gotcha!" scares (although a couple of those were more laugh-inspiring on a "Evil Dead" level than actually scary... and I don't think they were going for comedy).

Oh... and here's an illustration of why your Mom told you to always put on clean underwear in the morning.

You never know when you might get caught in a phone booth with a ghost looking up your skirt.

Saturday Scream Queen:
Sarah Michelle Gellar

Born in 1977, Sarah Michelle Gellar is best known for her role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the long-running television series (1997-2003) of the same name. She also has a growing resume of film appearances to her name, most of them horror films or thrillers, as well as a few comedies and mainstream dramas.

Gellar is the rarest of child actors who made a successful transition to adulthood and life as a working actor. She did this by taking her craft seriously and by carrying herself like a professional, something she started doing even as a young teen.

In a 2007 interview, Gellar stated, "You don't party when you're on a TV show. You go to bed for 10 hours and you learn your lines. I never smoked and I didn't drink alcohol until I was 21."

She went on to say: "I don't understand the need to give in to excess and lead your life in public. It doesn't make sense to me. I look at all these kids getting fame and attention now and they're just not equipped to deal with success at such a young age."

Friday, February 26, 2010

Wilbur Whateley: Wizard of the Roofies

The Dunwich Horror (1970)
Starring: Dean Stockwell, Sandra Dee, Ed Begley, Lloyd Bochner, Donna Baccala and Sam Jaffe
Director: Daniel Haller
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A cute college girl (Dee) is fed supernatural Roofies by 1970s cultist and proto-Emo Wilbur Whateley (Stockwell). Before you know it, he's offering her asa one-night stand to the extra-dimensional horrors known as the Great Old Ones. Will her prudish girlfriend (Baccala) and the curmudgeonly Dr. Henry Armitage (Begley) manage to save her before she becomes a cosmic swinger?

"The Dunwich Horror" is a loose--VERY loose--adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft's most famous and most intense works, but, unfortunately, very little of that intensity manages to make it onto the screen.

The film has all the trappings of Lovecraft--the weird Whateley family, the hostile villagers of Dunwich, Miskatonic University, Henry Armitage, strange crystal rocks and even stranger rites and rituals that either summon or ward off invisible horrors and tentacle beasts the likes of which not even the Japanese could imagine! However, the film never comes close to evoking the mood of a Lovecraft story and it barely manages to be scary in a couple of scenes. To make an already borderline dull film even worse director Daniel Haller doesn't seem to know how to end a scenes. There literally isn't a single scene that doesn't go on for anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes too long; it's not that the film feels padded... it just feels like it's incompetently done. (And then there's those horribly long, loud, and garish dream sequences. I'm sure someone thought those were Lovecraftian but I simply found them annoying. Maybe they came across better to movie-goers in 1970, especially those tripping on who-knows-what.)

Except for the languid direction and the painful dream sequence, the film is decent enough. Every performer does a good job with their parts, even if the part merely calls for looking cute as does that played by Sandra Dee, and the cinematography and special effects are also quite well done. The same can be said for the film's score; the main title music seems a bit out of step with the nature of the film, but the variations of the theme featured throughout the film are spot-on. The Whateley House is also a great piece of set design, both inside and out.

"The Dunwich Horror" is one of those films that doesn't have enough good points for me to give it a strong recommendation, nor are there enough bad things about it to make me warn you off it. I was disappointed by it, but if a low-key Lovecraft adaptation that oozes an early 1970s vibe sounds interesting to you, then it might be worth checking out.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vampire mobsters are VERY serious
about the blood oath

Strange Things Happen at Sundown (2003)
Starring: Joseph DeVito, J. Scott Green, Joshua Nelson, Masha Sapron, Jocasta Bryan, Shannon Moore, Livia Llewellyn, Giovanni DeMarco, Robert M. Lemkowitz, Steve Gonzalez and Gina Ramsden
Director: Marc Fratto
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jimmy Fangs (DeVito), a Brooklyn-based mobster who also happens to be a vampire, has discovered a way to impregnate marijuana with his blood and thus turn potheads into flesh-eating zombies under his mental control, but the cash he was going to use to create his unstoppable army was stolen by another vampre, Marcel (Green). Never one to let a slight go unpunished, Jimmy hires vampire hitman the Reaper (Gonzalez, voiced by Lemkowitz) to make an example of Marcel and retrieve the cash. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman with vast knowledge of how to kill vampires (Sapron) has everyone in her sights. Can this end any way but badly?

"Strange Things Happen at Sundown" can best be summarized as a cross between "Pulp Fiction" and "Near Dark", as created by Quentin Tarantino, Charles Band, John Carpenter, and George Romero. (It was actually directed and co-written by Marc Fratto, but I think that, in time, we will see his name along side those greats I just compared him to.)

The film's three biggest weaknesses is one that is often present in independent films from first-time directors.

First and foremost, Fratto has a tendency to let scenes go on for too long, or doesn't cut shots close enough. There literally isn't a single scene in this film that wouldn't have been stronger if it had been trimmed anywhere from a few seconds to a minute, and if some of the individual shots had been edited a bit tighter, the second problem might have seemed a little less evident.

Then there's the issue of some scenes feeling stagey. Too often, the actors seem to be waiting politely for the other person in the scene to finish their line, even in some heated situations. This is less of a problem in this film than in most indie films helmed by a first-time director, but when it's present, it's distracting. Despite the occassional staginess, though, all the principal actors do excellent jobs in their roles. Much of the time, the characters seem believable and the lines seem like they are spoken in earnest instead of recited--but then the loose editing comes into play in certain spots and undermines that sense of reality.

For all my complaining, though, I did enjoy this movie. I got a big kick out of the quirkiness of the characters and I loved the mashing together of humor, horror, and mob cliches that run through the film. (There is one character in particular who must be seen to be believed and who must be experienced cold to have its full impact. I'll just alert you to watch for the vampire who seems like she's a housewife just walked off the set of a 1950s TV show. Played with great flair by Livia Llewellyn, this character is by far the funniest thing about the film.)

While I personally found the vampire victim scenes increasinlgy tiresome as the film went on--particularly after it was explained why no one seemed to go into shock or pass out from bloodloss--I suspect viewers more into gore and "torture porn" than I am, won't mind them. The gore effects are mostly well done for a film at this level, and, unlike some films, there is a valid reason for the suffering going on other than the filmmaker just wants to gross out the viewer.

"Strange Things Happen at Sundown" is a quirky vampire movie that has a few weak spots but that still entertains. It's a film fans of vampires and mafia stories alike should get a kick out of. (Also, if you're still playing the old "Vampire: The Masquerade" RPG, you might be able to steal a few adventure ideas from the film.)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's a hell of a trip down 'Route 666'

Route 666 (2001)
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Lori Petty, Steven Williams, Dale Midkiff, and L.Q. Jones
Director: William Wesley
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

While escorting an unwilling witness (Williams) to a mob trail, a fractious group of Federal Marshals discover that mob hit men and corrupt small-town cops are the least of their worries. While traveling along an isolated stretch of highway, the find themselves in a life-and-death struggle against the restless spirits of the chain gang that died while building it.

"Route 666" is one of those horror films that's good for a bit of scary fun, so long as you don't think too hard about it. It's one of those movies that would come to screeching halt if the characters behaved intelligently, or even close to the level of professionalism that real US Marshals would exhibit. However, the actions of the characters are SO stupid that and the ludicrous behavior of the cops is so far fetched (two decide to make out in the armored car that's supposed to be carrying their witness, two others decide to beat the crap out of each other in the nearby hills, while their witness is handcuffed to a convertible where he is nearly killed by the ghosts and a mob hit man that's been trailing them) that viewers will be too busy snickering to notice the gaping holes in the plot. It truly is one of those movies that's so bad it's good.

The movie also has the presence of Lori Petty going for it. She's an actress that I've always found appealing, and she tends to elevate everything she appears in. (She has a sort of unconventional tomboyish sort of beauty, and I can sit through just about anything that she has a major part in.) And then there's the quartet of ghosts who assume solid form by becoming creations of asphalt. They are very creepy, very violent killing machines. Oh, and star Lou Diamond Phillips does his usual excellent job at playing Lou Diamond Phillips.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Evil Clown knocks them dead in 'Torment'

Torment (2008)
Starring: Suzi Lorraine, Tom Steadman, Ted Alderman and Lucien Eisenach
Director: Steve Sessions
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A young woman (Lorraine) is released from a mental hospital into the care of her alcoholic husband. The two go to an isolated house so she can continue her recovery and they can renew their relationship in a quiet environment. Unfortunately for them, a psycho in a clown costume (Eisenach) is capturing and torturing people in the area.

This movie was hard for me to assign a rating to. While there is much about it that I like, there is much I don't like. It's one of the better psycho clown movies I've seen, but it's got some serious flaws.

Suzi Lorraine gives an interesting performance as Lauren, a former mental patient who spots a psychotic killer as he picks out his next victim, but who is disbelieved due to her history of mental illness. The way the script sets up the chain of events that leads Lauren into the worst possible danger is well executed and her confrontation with the Killer Clown (called Dissecto in the credits but unnamed in the film istself) is very suspenseful. Unfortunately, these strong parts of the movie are undermined and outweighed by the weak parts.

"Torment" feels like its two halfbaked scripts that have been combined into one film. They weren't necessarily BAD scripts... they're just unpolished and they work against each other and ultimately end up undermining what suspense and tension they could have produced if they had been two different movies.

The clunky dialogue at times made up for by some well done lines, and the few overlong and even redundant scenes in the film are likewise counterbalanced by some truly creepy, scary and startling moments. (For example, the repeatative expository scenes and dialogue of the fact that Lauren is fresh out of mental hospital are annoying, but they are more than made up for the scene where Dissecto invades her home, or when she is hiding in his.) As far as this goes, the good counterbalances the bad.

However, the way the film makes it crystal clear from the outset that Lauren isn't hallucinating the spooky clown lurking in the bushes-- the extended scenes of him torturing a pair of missing Mormon missionaries is most definately not something she's imagining--and so there is no real tension produced by the "is she crazy or isn't she" question... although it does make her husband come across like a grade-A asshole. If you're into "torture porn", I suppose you might enjoy those aforementioned scenese of Dissecto performing for and upon his victimes, but I'm too squeamish for that sort of thing--having recently experienced my own encounter with excruciating pain has made that sort of material hard for me to watch--but the sloppy costuming of the "Mormons" can't be anything but a strike against the movie. (It's bad enough one of the "Mormons" had a shaved head, but none of their missionaries would EVER sport a soul patch/jazz dot!)

Bad costuming (and the sloppy direction that allows it to happen aside) it's the absolute certainty the audience has of Dissecto's existence that undermines Lauren's story. It makes us dislike her husband to a disproportionate degree and it makes everything leading up to her encounter with Dissecto feel like it goes on and on, because we know the real action won't start until he dispatches the husband and starts stalking her.

And that's too bad. Suzi Lorraine gives an good performance, but my impatience with wanting the movie to get to where the real action was made it hard to notice. Tom Steadman likewise gave a decent accounting of himself as Lauren's moronic husband... and I think that if he had been given better dialogue to deliver, he might have been even better. (To a large extent, he's The Amazing Redundant Exposition Man, and this reduces his role to something less that what it could have been.)

"Torment" is a movie that has a lot to recommend to fans of thrillers, slasher movies, and "torture porn". Unfortuantely, the thriller elements and "torture porn" elements are at odds with each other and between them they almost manage to make the slasher element moot and make the ending seem false and forced because it doesn't feel like a natural outgrowth of anything. These, plus the stilted and clumsy nature of some of the dialogue and the excessive exposition in certain scenes drag this down to a low end of average, despite its strong points. (Speaking of excessive exposition... one thing the film never even hints at is the Who and the Why of Dissecto. Part of me would like to know more about him, but another part of me likes the "senseless evil" aspect this presents. I think the fact I'm torn is another sign that the script needed more work.)

Despite its flaws, though, "Torment" is worth checking out if you're into killer clowns, or if you enjoy small-scale horror films.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Baron Blood:
Stupid Character Syndrome runs rampant

Baron Blood (aka "Chamber of Tortures" and "The Torture Chamber of Baron Blood") (1972)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Antonio Cantafora, Massimo Girotti, Joseph Cotton, and Rada Rassimov
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

While visiting his ancestral home in Austria, a not-very-bright American grad student (Cantafora) restores his sadistic, blood-thirsty 16th century ancestor to life by reading a incantation that promises to do just that. The ressurected "Baron Blood" is now roaming the countryside, claiming victims, and moron-boy must find a way to undo what he did.

"Baron Blood" is an uneven film, both in its photography, pacing and acting. The camera work ranges from amazing to annoyingly bad--how can the same director/cinematographer who made the gorgeous "Diabolik" be the guy who is responsible for overuse of of crash-zooms and focus-pulls that we are subject to here?--the plot moves with a more jerking pace than a car with a failing transmission, and the acting ranges from passable in some scenes, to completely wooden in others, to so over-the-top scene-chewing in yet others that I am sure injuries must have occured from the flying splinters.

Full of stupid characters doing stupid things, being played by actors who aren't giving their best performances, "Baron Blood" is mostly a mediocre attempt at capturing the look and feel of the Hammer gothic horrors from the 1950s and 1960s--something Bava had previously done a better job at in previous films "Black Sunday" and "Kill, Baby... Kill!"--but which is does feature a few dazzling moments of horror and artistry that will make you understand why those who praise Mario Bava are so in love with his work.

There is fantastic sequence where Anna (Elke Sommer), the film's damsel in distress who eventually saves everyone in the end, in a nice little twist to the genre standards, narrowly escapes ambush by the cloaked Baron Blood and is then persued through the eerily deserted streets of the town. The sequence ends with a wimper instead of the bang it could have and should have ended with, but it almmost makes the movie worth wathing by itself. The filming here is as gorgeous as anything Bava ever recorded and the suspense of the chase will have you on the edge of your seat.

The end of the movie, even with the massive plot holes that get opened and let unresolved as we build toward it, is also spectacularly filmed and intense that the viewer will almost forget the mediocrity that went before it. The resolution to the story also has a couple of elements that I never would have imagined, but they are of the "Wow! Cool!" variety rather than of the eye-rolling, out-of-left-field-to-show-how-clever-the-writer-thinks-he-is variety.

"Baron Blood is worth checking out if you've got nothing else that looks interesting, and it would be a perfect headliner for a "Creepy Castle"-themed Bad Movie Night, but you shouldn't go too far out of your way of it under any circumstance.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Japanese horror you can take or leave

Misa the Dark Angel (1997)
Starring: Hinako Saeki and Ayaka Nanami
Director: Katesuhito Ueno
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

"Misa the Dark Angel" is about a young witch who insiutates herself into a boarding school for girls when she and her crusty mentor decide a magical curse rests over the place. Misa, however, being a lonely teenager with no friends, become enamoured with the 'normal' life led by the students at the school and looses sight of why she is there. And that's when the terror begins.

There is nothing particularly bad about this film. The acting is solid, the camera work, lighting, and sets are all used to full effectiveness to underscore the horror and mystery of the events that unfold, and the cast members die in appropriately ironic ways. (That said, "Misa the Dark Angel" is *not* a teenage slasher flick, even if the above sentence might imply that; it's a far more low-key horror film, with patches of horrific gore. Actually, if there is something wrong with the film, it's that it's almost too low-key. The film is almost entirely event free in the second act.)

On the other hand, there's nothing that really stands out, either. It's a solid effort, nothing more. It's worth seeing if you enjoy Japanese horror flicks, but I don't think it would be worth going out of your way for.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

'Messiah of Evil' is classic
in need of rediscovery

Messiah of Evil (aka "Dead People" and "The Second Coming") (1973)
Starring: Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Joy Bang, and Elisa Cook, Jr.
Director: Willard Hyuck
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Arletta (Hill) arrives in the small coastal town where her father disappeared. She moves into his house while attempting to learn his fate, but finds the locals unwilling to talk to her. She soon meets up with Thom (Greer) who is a collector of modern legends and folk-tales, and of women... and after they learn of the town's gruesome history from a broken-down, crazed drunk (Cook), they discover the town's history is repeating itself: The townsfolk turning into flesh-eating zombies. Will this nightmare-curse claim the visitors as well?

"Messiah of Evil" is a different sort of horror film and a different sort of zombie movie. It's a nightmare-like tale of a small town that's consumed by a curse of a completely unknown (and therefore unstoppable) origin, and as the movie progresses, it becomes more and more dreamlike in its quality. (From the African-American albino and his pick-up truck full of corpses as Arletta is arriving in the doomed town of Point Dune, through Toni (Bang) going to see a movie theater where the marquee reads "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye" and is subsequently surrounded by townie zombies that gradually fill the auditorium around her as she is absorbed by the film, to Thom and Aerletta's final desperate escape attempts, the film is full of hazy symbology and a sense of ever-increasing dread.)

The technical aspects of the film are iffy--the lighting and camerawork and editing all seem a bit on the weak side--but there are plenty of inventive visuals that work on many levels, the staging of the scenes, the sets, and, most importantly, the performances of every actor in the film are top-notch. It is the acting that really clinches the dreamy, nightmarish sense that hovers over the entire film. This is horror movie that needs the viewers attention to work, but it also rewards the viewer plenty who gives it.

"Messiah of Evil" is one of those films that for whatever reason has fallen into obscurity and which is one those wonderful surprises that lurk inside those massive DVD movie packs, like "Chilling Classics", which is where I discovered it. It's the sort of movie that makes such sets worth buying, and that makes up for some of the other offerings included. In fact, "Messiah of Evil" would be deserving of an 8-rating, if not for the fact that it takes the dreamlike quality that its creators managed to imbue it with just a little too far. I don't necessarily need a story to be wrapped up nicely at the end, but I don't want to have a sense that the filmmakers didn't really know themselves what the source of the evil in the movie was, or perhaps even how to effectively end their movie. At the end of this one, I felt that a little of both might well have been the case.

However, the not-quite-pulled-off end of this film isn't as damaging to the overall experience as it often is. Everything leading up to it is so well done that this film is one of several good reasons for spending money on, either in its ragged public domain state in any one of several multi-film budget packs, or in the recently released restored version (reportedly created using one of only two still-existing 35mm prints of the film.)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Riding the 'Transsiberian' can be deadly

Transsiberian (2008)
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Woody Harrelson, Eduardo Noriega, Kate Mara and Ben Kingsley
Director: Brad Anderson
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

An American couple (Harrelson and Mortimer) traveling from Shanghai to Moscow by train are befriended by a pair of shady fellow travelers (Mara and Noriega). They are soon trapped in a web of lies and deceit as the wife tries to cover up a murder and her guiless husband befriends a Russian police detective (Kingsley) with secrets of his own.

"Transsiberian" is a well-written, character-driven thriller that when it's at its best will remind you of Alfred Hitchcock greats like "Blackmail" and "The Lady Vanishes". It's a morally complex thriller that will keep you guessing as to what's coming next and that takes full advantage of both the cramped quarters of the Trans-Siberian Express, the forgotten, crumbling Russian towns it stops at, and of the icy expanse of Siberia in winter, a place that seems more confining than the train cars because, despite the vast empty spaces, there is nowhere to escape to.

Unfortunately, when it's at its worst, it will bore you or have you shaking your head at the nonsense you're expected to buy into.

Basically, the film is a little too slow in getting started. It's great that director/co-writer Brad Anderson takes some time to establish the people on the train and the atmosphere of Siberia, but he does it over and over and over to the point where it starts feeling like he's attempting to pad the film's running time. And, as it builds to its conclusion and every character's true nature is revealed, the film swerves into action movie territory of a like that would have been more at home in a Paramount-released "Bulldog Drummond"-type adventure (just to stay with my comparing of this movie to than the Hitchcockian drama that we have here). The ultimate defeat of the bad guys is also a little deus ex machina in nature, but it was set up earlier in the film so it could have been worse.

The material sandwiched between the slow beginning and over-the-top ending is, however, very good. The actors all do excellent jobs at bringing the characters to three-dimensional life, something which the script supports them in by giving each character their own voice and unique nature. Woody Harrelson is better in this film than I think I've ever seen him. Also, I've not seen sequences featuring a character who killed in self-defense and who is now trying to escape the crime since Hitchcock's "Blackmail", and a lot of that can be credited to Emily Mortimer's performance as Jessie.

If you're a fan of Hitchcock-type thrillers, you should check it out. Just be patient with the beginning.

'Stir of Echoes' is excellent spook fest

Stir of Echoes (1999)
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe and Illeana Douglas
Director: David Koepp
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Tom (Bacon) is a perfectly average, hard-working family man until he is hypnotized at a party and starts seeing things that aren't there and witnessing things that haven't happened yet. Tom's "third eye" has been opened, and he knows he won't have a moments peace until he uncovers why the spirit of a teenaged girl seems to be haunting his house.

"Stir of Echoes" is a fine little ghost movie. It starts out presenting a perfectly ordinary man and his perfectly ordinary family living a perfectly ordinary working-class Chicago neighborhood... and then it throws in a sudden, shocking supernatural element. There isn't anything particularly original to the story, but all the elements of a ghost story are expertly deployed, and the movie is so well-written that as the attentive audience member starts piecing together the underlying mystery, so do the characters.

A particularly refreshing part of this movie is that even as Tom is coming unglued because of his sudden psychic powers, his wife (Erbe) stays with him and attempts to help him. Too many movies have marriages fall apart immediately in these sorts of movies--here, we have a couple who are in love and who stay together through thick, thin, and supernatural events.

"Stir of Echoes" is one that lovers of ghost movies definitely should take the time to see. It is well acted and expertly paced and a type of ghost movie we won't see many of anymore, because Hollywood movie makers think that computer graphics can take the place of a well-done story.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Vampire

Blacula (1972)
Starring: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Thalmus Rasalala and Denise Nicholas
Director: William Crain
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When an African prince (Marshall) resists Dracula's attempt to feed on him and his wife (McGee), Dracula curses him to be a vampire like himself. One hundred years later, Dracula's curse is unleashed upon an unsuspecting Los Angeles as "Blacula's" coffin is moved there from Transylvania and opened

"Blacula" is a funky (in ever sense of that word), modern Dracula tale told through the well-polished lense of 1970s blaxploitiation. Much of this must have been goofy to the audiences in 1972, and it's only gotten goofier with the passage of time.

That said, the pacing and acting featured in "Blacula" is actually better than many "straight" vampire movies from that same decade, and similarly superior to what you find in most other films of the blaxploitation genre. The script is also more interesting overall.

Classically trained Shakespearian actor William Marshall is particularly excellent as the African prince Mamuwalde who fell victim to Dracula's curse while visiting his castle, giving a performance that elevates the character above the cartoon it could have so easily become onto a level where the audience feels sympathy for him. Marshall gives us a character that is driven more by anger at his situation than bloodlust--and what culturally refined black man wouldn't be angry waking up in 1972 to find himself surrounded by giant 'fros and even larger heels, vampire or no?--but he also makes the pain felt by Mamuwalde come straight home to the viewer and makes us buy into the story of love lost that really ends up giving this movie a punch.

If you liked Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula", I think you'll probably enjoy "Blacula". Coppola's film has more in common with this than it does Bram Stoker's novel.

"Blacula" is also a film that will enliven any Bad Movie Night. With its blend of horror, blaxploitation, romance, and goofiness (both intentional and unintentional), it's a film you can't go wrong with.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bad voice actors ruin quirky werewolf film

Kibakichi (aka "Werewolf Warrior") (2004)
Starring: Ryuuji Harada and Nozomi Ando
Director: Tomoo Haraguchi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Kibakichi (Harada), a monster warrior and the sole survivor of a village wiped out by the humans, finds himself called upon to defend a village of peaceful monsters when they are betrayed and attacked by the humans they considered their allies.

"Kibakichi" is quirky blend of Japanese historical melodrama, martial arts action, fantasy and horror. The effects and monsters are strictly low-tech and low-budget, but the creative camerawork, staging and lighting brings it all to life in an impactful and fun way. Plus, the climactic battle scenes, with monster battles, sword-fights, werewolf rampages, and funky 18th century machine guns is one that is not to be missed!

This is also one of those very interesting films that successfully turns what is traditionally considered monsters into the objects of our sympathies while showing humans to be evil and monstrous. It's a film that delivers a message about tolerance and acceptance and the universal desire that every person has to have a safe place to live and raise their family. (Some of these morons I'm seeing commenting on politics and threatening violence if The Obama doesn't win the presidential election should watch this movie and others like it. Maybe seeing the message wrapped in a fantasy setting will make them realize what intolerant and hateful assholes they truly are.)

The only real weak spot of the film is the dubbing. There is so little dialogue in the film that it's not a huge problem, but what there is done by actors so bad I can only assume the producers rounded up the overnight cleaning crew and gave them each a dinner coupon at Denny's for the time spent recording. Even worse, it appears that absolutely no effort was made to shape the lines or even synchronize them properly with the actors on-screen.

Even if you don't usually like reading subtitles, you should only watch "Kibakichi" with original Japanese language track. You experience will be far more pleasurable if you do.

Monday, February 15, 2010

'House of Wax' has little in common with
classics that share the same title

House of Wax (2005)
Starring: Elisha Cuthbert, Chad Michael Murray, Brian Van Holt, and Paris Hilton
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A group of teenaged friends get lost and then stranded in an isolated stretch of back country. Seeking help in a nearby town, they come upon a wax museum far more remarkable than it even appears at first... and the fact the whole building that houses it is made of wax is pretty damn remarkable. Naturally, there's a crazed killer or two lurking among the exhibits.

"House of Wax" is scary in the way one of those Halloween haunted houses that spring up in neighborhoods, amusement parks, and empty warehouses this time of year is scary. It's also a film that requires a similar level of suspension of disbelief and willingness to play along. While it does contain some genuinely creepy moments, its very premise is so far fetched and ludicrous that even the most "game" viewer will find himself shaking his head at times. The acting is what you'd expect in a film like this, and the director and casting folks need to be congratulated for putting the best actors in in the movie in the leads.

For slasher-movie fans, there are a couple of nice kills--including that of Paris Hilton's character--but limited gore. For fans of absurd, there's the climactic encounters between siblings--our protagonists good girl Carly (Cuthbert) and her rebel-without-a-cause-but-with-a-criminal-record brother Nick (Murray) versus the crazed twin brothers who are masters of the House of Wax (both played by Holt)--in a most unusual environment, and they build to a thrilling finale to the film. For fans of horror movies in general, there are some good scares and a handful of wild set pieces that make the movie worth your time.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day!

My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Starring: Paul Kelman, Neil Affleck, Lori Hallier, Don Francks, and Peter Cowper
Director: George Mihalka
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A bunch of young miners and their girl friends throwing a Valentine's Day party are stalked and killed by a psychotic miner bent on avenging a decades-old tragedy.

"My Bloody Valentine" is one of any number of holiday-themed slasher-flicks (with "Halloween" and "Silent Night, Deadly Night" being the most famous of the lot), and it is blessed with a better-than average script, better than average group of actors, and a killer who's one of the most striking appearing of the madmen who slashed and stabbed their way across movie screens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His full mining gear, complete with gasmask and helmet with mounted lamp, is creepy enough, but he's downright terrifying as he stomps down mine tunnel, snashing the lights to make the already dark mine even darker.

On the other hand, that nice, spooky costume also has the drawback of requiering that the slasher in "My Bloody Valentine" has powers of stealth that must outstrip even those of the mightest ninja: How, exactly, does a killer who wanders around with a spotlight mounted on his forehead sneak up on his victims? However he manages it, this guy does.

Although mostly well done, the script does have two major weaknesses. The first is the town's chief of police. I don't think I've seen a dumber cop outside a 1930s "dark old house" mystery. The second is the "clever" twist in regards to the true identity of the killer. I don't think even audiences in 1981 would have been surprised by that groan-worthy, badly executed "surprise."

The print I saw of the film was obviously and heavy-handedly edited. There seems to be an entire segment missing from part of the chase in the mine, and almost all the murders are edited so the gory bits happen off-screen. (While this tends to lessen the impact of the murders, the one exception is the murder that takes place in the shower. The angle from which we see the body when it is discovered is more disturbing than it would have been if we had seen the kill, or seen it from the discoverer's point of view.)

"My Bloody Valentine" is worth a look if you're into slasher movies. It's competently made and well acted. (It's a shame that it appears to have been butchered by studio censors. Maybe a "restored" version can be produced, if the cut footage still exists in a vault somewhere; it's unlikely, as the film is not part of a series, nor does it feature anyone who went on to become a big star. If the right bits of footage are restored, this would be a stronger movie.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Milla Jovovich

Ukranian-born American actress Milla Jovovich has appeared in films of just about any genre except porn and westerns, but she is best known to movie-goers for her recurring role as Alice in the zombie-filled action movies in the "Resident Evil" series.

Jovovich is a busy actress. She presently has four movies in varying stages of production, inclucing "Resident Evil: Afterlife", and she starred in two films from Universal Pictures last year. Click here to read reviews of those films at the companion blog Universal Horror Archive. (The films weren't very good, but Jovovich was.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

'Naked Massacre' is too chilling to recommend

Naked Massacre (aka "Born for Hell") (1976)
Starring: Mathieu Carriere
Director: Denis Héroux
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

An insane Vietnam vet (Carriere), returning home via Belfast, invades a house shared by eight nurses and proceeds to terrorize and murder them.

"Naked Massacre" is one of those films that has enough good points that it deserves at least an average rating, yet it is one that I can't really recommend that anyone sees. It's one of the more disturbing proto-slasher flicks I've seen, with the level of sadism and cruelty displayed by the murderer, and the reaction of the victims, too realistic in its nature to be entertaining.

The film is decently acted--although some of the dialogue the actors deliver could have been better written--and while the movie is unevenly paced and sloppily filmed, it is structured in such a way that we come to care for the nurses who are about to get a visit from a Winter Soldier-type crazed war vet.

This film was a tough slog, because it was so disturbing. It's not one I will ever watch again, and it's not one that I can recommend to anyone else either. (Don't be deceived by the early scene of a hooker dancing while the madman plays "Oh Suzanna" on his harmonica... it goes from stupid to horrible very, very fast.)

'Nothing But Trouble' nothing but fun

Nothing But Trouble (1991)
Starring: Chevy Chase, Demi Moore, Dan Aykroyd and John Candy
Director: Dan Aykroyd
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Financial advisor Chris Thorn (Chase) tries to impress his sexy new neighbor (Moore) and two of his best clients by taking them on a road-trip to Atlantic City. They get sidetracked, and they find themselves at the mercy of an insane small-town judge (Aykroyd) and his equally insane family.

This film is a funny spoof of movies like "The Hills Have Eyes" and the remake of "House of Wax", or any other of dozens of the "city folk get menaced/killed in a horrific, backwoods death-trap inhabited by inbred, nutty hicks" horror movies. It takes that already ludicrous concept and sends it waaay over the top in the most absurd and hilarious fashions. Heck, in some ways, the movie's even better thought out than most of films it's making fun of, because it explains how the crazy family has been able to murder literally hundreds of travelers without law enforcement noticing.

Although a comedy, the film also manages to be supremely creepy. The junkyard surrounding the mansion where the maniac judge holds court is more chilling than some of the locations for serious movies with the same sorts of settings.

Where "Nothing But Trouble" falls down is that director Aykroyd doesn't know when to quit. The movie has two denouements, one which is cute and one which is unfunny and left a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cinematic Black History Milestone:
First Black Werewolf Hunter

The Beast Must Die (aka "Black Werewolf") (1974)
Starring: Calvin Lockhart, Anton Diffring, Peter Cushing, Marlene Clark, Michael Gambon, Tom Chadbon, Ciaran Madden, and Charles Gray
Director: Paul Annett
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Arrogant big game hunter and self-made millionaire Tom Newcliffe (Lockhart) has invited six guests to his isolated estate to spend the weekend with himself and his wife (Clark). Once they are present, he reveals that his land and house has been transformed into a high-tech prison, and that he believes one of his guests is a werewolf... and that he intends to hunt and kill that person once he or she transforms. Together with his security expert (Diffring) and a scholar who specializes in the illness of lycanthropy (Cushing), Newcliffe watches and waits to hunt the most dangerous game of all.

"The Beast Must Die" is a nicely executed merge of the thriller, horror, and mystery genres. (Some even like to throw in "blaxploitation" as an included genre, but, frankly, I don't think it fits that category. The lead character happens to be black, but that's as far as it goes.)

The script is fast-paced, the dialogue witty, and usual game of "spot the werebeast" that is so common in werewolf movies is heightened here by the Christie-esque "Ten Little Indians" aspect of the story. The only really questionable part of the script is some faulty logic on the part of Newcliffe: He's invited these guests, and he's convinced that one of them is a werewolf. Given the mysterious violence that's followed at least three of them around the world, why is he certain that just one who is a werewolf? Why not two, or even all three?

The big-name cast all do an excellent job in their parts, although Lockhart delivers an over-the-top performance that should earn him a place in the Ham Hall of Fame, and Cushing's supposedly Swedish accent is very dodgey on more than one occassion. The camerawork and direction are also very well done... they even manage to make the made-up dog that serves as the werewolf pretty scary at times.

Two big strikes against the film, though, are its score--which mostly consists of annoying, inapproriate, very 1970s jazz music--and the gimmicky "werewolf break" toward the end of the film where the film stops for 30 seconds to allow the audience to "be the detective and guess the werewolf." (According to an interview with the director on the most recent DVD release, this gimmick was added during post-production. Frankly, it shows... there really aren't enough clues provided to effectively guess who the werewolf is before the film itself reveals the beast's identity.)

Despite its warts, this film is an excellent little movie that should entertain lovers of horror films and detective thrillers alike. (Heck, you might even be smarter than me, and you might be able to successfully pick up on clues and guess the werewolf!)

The Complete Wolf Man

As Universal's remake of its classic "The Wolf Man" is about to be unleashed in movie theaters, here's a look back at the original film and its sequels, which established the werewolf lore we all take for granted today.

In the 1940s, the Wolf Man was something of a poor stepchild among the Universal Monsters, sharing his sequels with Frankenstein, Dracula, and even Abbott & Costello. Even the Legacy Collection series gave him short shrift. His films weren't even included in the set bearing his name, but instead spread across three Legacy Collections. Only the original film and the first Wolf Man sequel ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man") are included in the set where they properly belong while the others are in "Dracula: The Legacy Collection" ("House of Dracula") and "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection" ("House of Frankenstein").

The Wolf Man (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, and Bela Lugosi
Director: George Waggner
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Engineer Larry Talbot (Chaney) returns to his ancestral home and reconnects with his roots... only to be bitten by a werewolf and find himself cursed. Will he manage to find a cure for a malady that no one in the modern world believes in before he kills someone he loves?

"The Wolf Man" isn't the first werewolf movie--I think that was Universal's "Werewolf of London"--but it's the one that brought werewolves firmly into pop culture, and most every other film, novel, or comic book that's followed in the 65+ years since its release owes one thing or another to it. In fact, there are a numer of elements that are now taken as "fact" about werewolf legends that didn't exist until the writer of "The Wolf Man" made them up.

Interestingly, this really isn't that good a movie. It's sloppily edited--leading to characters entering through the same door twice within a few seconds and other glitches--and the script shows signs of only partially implimented rewrites that gives the flm a slightly schizophrenic quality and that causes characters to seemingly forget key plot elements as the story unfolds. (The biggest one; Larry's given an amulet that will supposedly suppress his transformation, an amulet he gives to a lady friend when he thinks the werewolf stuff is a bunch of hooey. Later, though, he seems to have totally forgotten the purpose of the amulet. And let's not even consider the bad script-induced callousness of our heroine, Gwen, who cheerfully goes on a date the night after a good friend is mysteriously murdered in the woods.)

However, what flaws this movie possesses are rendered insignificant thanks to an amazing performance by Lon Chaney Jr. as the tortured werewolf, Larry Talbot. "The Wolf Man" is one of those rare movies where a single actor manages to lift a weak film to the level of a classic. Although he's assisted by a supporting cast that is a veritable who's-who of 1930s and 1940s genre films, and the set designers and dressers went all out, this is truly it is Lon Chaney Jr's movie. It might even be the brightest moment of his entire career.

Chaney plays a decent man who becomes a monster through no fault of his own, and who is horrified by the acts he commits while he is the wolf man. This makes Larry Talbot unique among all the various monsters in the Universal horror picutres of the 1930s and 1940s, and Chaney makes the character even more remarkable by playing him as one of the most likeable (if a bit smarmy when it comes to the ladies) characters in any of the classic horror films. This likeability makes Chaney's performance even more powerful and causes the viewer to feel even more deeper for Larry when he experiences the grief, helplessness, and terror when he realizes that he is a murderer and the victim of a supernatural affliction that his modern, rational mind can't even begin to comprehend.

There are other good performances in the film, and they too help make up for the weak script. Most noteworthy among these is Maria Ouspenskaya who plays a gypsy wise-woman. Ouspenskaya delivers her magic incantations and werewolf lore with such conviction that it's easy to see why they've become the accepted "facts" of werewolves. (This may also be the first film where gypsies became firmly associated with werewolves.)

Although flawed, "The Wolf Man" is a cornerstone of modern popular horror, and it's well-deserving of its status as a classic. It should be seen by lovers of classic horror pictures (Lon Chaney Jr. deserves to be remembered for this film and it's required viewing for any self-respecting fan of werewolf films and literature.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Starring: Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi
Director: Roy William Neill
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When grave robbers disturb Larry Talbot's tomb, the unwilling werewolf (Chaney) awakens to the discovery that not only is he cursed to become a beast under the full moon, but he is immortal. With the help of Maleva (Ouspenskaya), a gypsy wise-woman, he seeks out Dr. Frankenstein, the premiere expert on life, death, and immortality... because if anyone can find a way to bring death to an immortal, it's Dr. Frankenstein. Will Larry find peace, or will Frankenstein's experiments bring more horror and destruction to the world?

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" is a direct sequel to both "The Wolf Man" and "Ghost of Frankenstein". It's the first time two legendary horror creatures meet... and without this film, we'd probably never have been treated to "Freddy vs. Jason" or "Alien vs. Predator" or "Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Dracula".

Unlike most of Universal's movies during the 1940s, I appreciate the fact that the creatives and executives at Universal are paying some attention to the continuity of prior Frankenstein films and "The Wolf Man", but there's still plenty of sloppiness and bad storytelling to remind us that this is a Universal film from the 1940s. (Like the werewolf mysteriously changing from pajamas into his dark shirt and pants when transformed, and then changing back into his pajamas as be becomes Larry Talbot again. Or the bizarre forgetfulness of the townspeople who drive Larry and his gypsy friend away, but who don't bat an eye when Larry is later invited to the town's wiine festival and the mayor's guest and date for Baroness Frankenstein (Massey), the granddaugher of the original monster-maker. Maybe the fact that Larry's wearing a suit and tie when he returns fooled them!)

The movie starts out strong, however. The grave-robbing and the wolf man's ressurection scene are spine-chilling. Chaney once again effectively conveys Talbot's mental anguish during the scenes where he is confined to a hospital and recovering from the supposedly fatal headwounds he receieved at the end of "The Wolf Man" (apparently, a werewolf's wounds don't heal while he's supposedly dead and piled high with wolf's bane). It looks like we're in for a thrilling chiller that's going to be better than the original film...

But then the action moves to Switzerland and things start to go wrong.

Although a seemingly endless musical number at the village wine festival is the low point, the inexplicable transformation of a level-headed medical man (Knowles) hoping to help cure Talbot of what he perceives to be a homocidal mania to crazed Frankenstein-wannabe, the seemingly laughable arm-waving performance of the Frankenstein Monster by Bela Lugosi--because Larry simply can't just leave him sleeping in his ice cave--and an ending so abbrupt that it feels like something's missing, all drag the film down to a level of crapitude that almost manages to make the viewer forget about the very excellent first half.

I don't know what went wrong with this film, but I suspect that it was decided at an executive level at Universal that the monster movies were going to be targeted at kids. It's the only explanation that makes sense of the deterioation from mature, well-developed films like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" to the mostly slap-dash stuff found in the movies featuring Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy for the rest of the 1940s.

My guess is that someone, somewhere, made a decision to shorten this movie and make it more accessible for kids by simplifying it. According to several sources, this film suffered more than average from butchery in the editing room where all of Lugosi's lines were deleted from the soundtrack and key scenes were cut out, such as the one where it's revealed that the Monster is still blind from the partially botched brain transplant in "Ghost of Frankenstein". This detail explains why Lugosi is stumbling about with with his arms outstretched and is seen pawing strangely at items while Larry Talbot is searching for Dr. Frankenstein's records. Lugosi's performance goes from laughably stupid to perfectly decent when one understands what he was doing. (The original screen writer says that the editing was done was test audiences thought the monster was funny when speaking with Lugosi's accent and that this is why the second half of the film was so heavilly edited. That sounds reasonable, but only if one ignores the overall direction the Universal horror movies were heading in. And the shockingly badly handled, abrubt ending. And the dangling plot threads... where DOES Maleva vanish to?)

But, a film can only be judged by what's there on the screen. While the editing left the flim shorter and more straight-forward, it also resulted in very important plot-points and probably even mood-establishing scenes and elements being slashed out. We also have a movie where Frankenstein's Monster once again has very little to do (as was the case in "Son of Frankenstein"), And, ultimately, we're left with a movie that is both remarkable for its being the first meeting of two great cinematic monsters, but also for being a clear point at which to say that this is where the reign of Universal as king of horror films ended.

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" isn't a truly terrible movie. It's just rendered dissapointingly mediocre by its second half, and it just manages to earn a Six rating.

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carroll Naish, John Carradine and George Zucco
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

After escaping from prison, mad scientist Gustav Niemann (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge on those who helped imprison him, and to find the notes of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein so he can perfect his research. Along the way, he accidentially awakens Dracula (Carradine) and recruits him to his cause, as well as uncovers the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and Larry Talbot, the unfortunate wolfman (Chaney) and and revives them. Cue the torch-wielding peasant mob.

"House of Frankenstein" kinda-sorta picks up where "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" picked up, although the method of survival for the monsters is a bit dodgey, with Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man having both been frozen in a glacier so they could be revived for this film.

"House of Frankenstein" unfolds in a very episodic way, with the part of the film involving Dracula feeling very disconnected from what comes before and what comes after. The main storyline sees Karloff's mad doctor questing for revenge while preparing to prove himself a better master of brain-transplanting techniques than Frankenstein, and the growing threat to his cause by his repeated snubbing of his murderous assistant (Naish). The whole bit with Dracula could easily be left out, and the film may have been stronger for it.

This is a very silly movie that is basically a parade of gothic horror cliches--I thought maybe I was having some sort of hallucinatory flashback to my days writing for the "Ravenloft" line--but it moves at a quick pace, and it features a great collection of actors, has a nifty musical score, and features great sets once the story moves to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein.

"House of Dracula" is one of the lesser Universal Monster movies--it's not rock-bottom like the mummy films with Lon Chaney, but it's almost there. The film is, to a large degree, elevated by the top-notch performances from Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr, and they're almost too good for this film.

House of Dracula (aka "The Wolf Man's Cure")
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Onslow Stevens, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, Martha O'Driscoll, Jane Adams, and Glenn Strange
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Unwilling, immortal werewolf Larry Talbot (Chaney) seeks out Dr. Edelman (Stevens), hoping the doctor's cutting edge therapies will cure his affliction. Unfortunately, the doctor's other patient, Count Dracula (Carradine), endangers this hope when he out of pure malice afflicts Edelman with a condition that causes him to become a violent madman at night. It is during one of these fits that Edelman revives Frankenstein's Monster (Strange), which has been dormant in his lab since it was recovered from mud-floes under Edelman's castle.

"House of Dracula" was the third sequel to "The Wolf Man" and "Dracula" and the fifth sequel to "Frankenstein"... and it was the next-to-last stop for all three of the characters as Universal's decade-and-half long horror ride came to an end. nearly the last stop for Universal's original monsters, and it is something of a high note when compared to other Universal horror films from around the same time, even the one to which this is a sequel, "House of Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff.

The script in "House of Dracula" is stronger and more coherent than "House of Frankenstein". The effort at maintaining continuity with other films featuring the character of the Wolf Man are in evidence here, and they are greatly appreciated by this continuity geek. Also, all the various monster characters each get their moment to shine--unlike in "House of Frankenstein" where Dracula was completely superflous to the storyline and whose presense was little more than a marquee-grabbing cameo.

In this film, Dracula is the well-spring of evil from which the plot flows. Although he supposedly comes to Dr. Edelman seeking release from vampirism and his eternal life, he is either too evil or too stupid to control his desires for Edelman's beautfiful nurse (O'Driscoll). He gets his just desserts, but not before he guarentees that every brave and goodhearted character in the film is set on a path of destruction.

The climactic scenes of this film, as the insane Dr. Edelman and Frankenstein's Monster go on homicidal rampages, feature some very, sudden, casual, and matter-of-fact brutality. (I can't go into details without spoiling the plot, but two main characters are dispatched with such swift and surprisingly brutal fashion that modern-day horror filmmakers should take a look at the final minutes of "House of Dracula" and attempt to learn some lessons from them.)

And then there's Larry Talbot. The role of the wolf man in this story is the meatiest since the character's debut in "The Wolf Man". Although he still doesn't get to have the stage to himself, and he is once again a secondary character--the main character of "House of Dracula" is the unfortunate Dr. Edelman--he has some great moments... like his suicide attempt and his discovery of the dormant Frankenstein's Monster.

Acting-wise, this is also one of the better than many other Universal horror films of the period. This is partly due to a superior script that features a story that actually flows with some degree of logic and where the actors have some fairly decent lines to deliever.

Lon Chaney Jr. does his usual excellent job as Larry Talbot, but Onslow also shines as a scientific genius who's a little less mad than the standard in a movie like this (well, at least until Dracula is done with him).

John Carradine performs decently, but I simply can't buy him as Dracula. Even in his younger years, he had the look of a burned-out, alcoholic bum, and the lighting and make-up in this feature strengthen that look as far as I'm concerned. While miscast, he does a decent job.

Lionel Atwill is also on hand for another fine supporting role. The part is similar to the one he played in "Son of Frankenstein", but the role is even more interesting, as he's the voice of reason in a town that is otherwise inhabited by villagers whose favorite pastime seems to be grabbing torches and storming the castle.

When all things are taken into account, this is perhaps the best of Universal's original Wolf Man films, and it was a fitting send-off for poor Larry Talbot, as well as Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula.

But... there would be one last bow for Larry and his eternal foes.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolf Man, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvinated monster!

"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in. Of course, one shouldn't ask how or why Larry was once again cursed (given his cure at the end of "House of Dracula,") but otherwise the monsters are all consistent with previous films.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

'Sisters of Death' likely to bore you to death

Sisters of Death (1977)
Starring: Arthur Franz, Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher, Sherry Alberoni and Paul Carr
Director: Joseph Mazzuca
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Five women and two men are trapped on the property of a crazed father (Franz) intent on avenging his daughters death seven years earlier during a sorority initiation gone wrong.

"Sisters of Death" is a weak thriller that relies on the characters behaving in illogical and downright idiotic fashions to work. From the moment the five targets of the vengeful father receive invitations to travel to a remote location; to the character who decides she needs a shower, depite the fact there's a murderer hiding in the house; to the "twist ending", this film is a prime of example of lazy scriptwriting. The acting and photography are nothing to cheer about either.

This thing is watchable, and it may be a worthy of a Bad Movie Nite, but it's about as bland as could be. (Oh... and that aforementioned shower scene? Don't get your hopes up, boys. It happens off-screen.)

'Dark Ride' is not worth shining a light on

Dark Ride (2006)
Starring: Jamie-Lynn Sigler, David Rogers, Patrick Renna, Alan Solowitz, Andrea Bogart, and Jennifer Kelly Tisdale
Director: Craig Singer
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Six college kids decide to spend the night inside a diliapated carnival ride that was the scene of more than a dozen gruesome murders some 15-20 years before... just in time for the insane killer to escape from a mental instution and return to his old stomping grounds. Much screaming, bleeding, and dying ensues.

"Dark Ride" is a by-the-numbers slasher films that features better-than-average cinematography, decent acting, a nice musical score, and decent set design... to a point. Unfortunately, that decent set design doesn't quite extend to what feels like a logical layout for what supposedly is an attraction designed to be experienced while sitting in tracked carts--the carnival ride at the center of the movie simply doesn't feel real. Another weakness is that there isn't a single likeable character to root for in the film, yet none are so repugnant that the viewer roots for their death either. These bland characters are one of the clearest manifestations of the laziness of the script, which also manifests itself as a plot that only works because of a convergence of coincidences so ludicrous that even the biggest believers in a Grand Design will be rolling their eyes.

The fact that not one, not two, but three totally unconnected circumstances had to come to pass for the events of the film to occur also make the obligatory twist ending seem more obnoxious than shocking.

Hardcore fans of the slasher genre will undoubtedly get a kick out of "Dark Ride". The more casual horror fan will probably find themselves wishing that a little more thought had gone into the script.

Monday, February 8, 2010

'Slashed Dreams' describes what'll happen
to your hopes of watching a good movie

Slashed Dreams (aka "Sunburst") (1973)
Starring: Peter Hooten, Katherine Baumann, James Keach, and Robert Englund
Director: James Polakof
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A pair of college students (Hooten and Baumann) decide to seek out their Thoreau-wannabe friend in the woods (Englund). Unfortunately, there are vicous redneck rapists lurking near this particular pond, and when the couple go skinny-dipping, they bring them out. Rape and wimpy vigilantism ensue.

"Slashed Dreams" is a meandering, pointless movie. If you're into movies that spend most of their time showing a pair of college kids hiking around then this is the film for you. Be warned, though. There are several wimpy, 1970s songs included here, and you may find yourself wishing that someone would rape the singer just to make the pain stop. And as the credit rolls, you may find yourself wondering why the couple whose lives have just been shattered are walking off into the sunset.

Whether too deep for me to understand, or too stupid to be understood by anyone, "Slashed Dreams" can only be described as a waste of time.

Thirty years later, 'The Fog' remains scary

While I had intended to post a review to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of John Carpenter's masterful horror film "The Fog," it is pure coincidence that I managed to post it on the very day that the film was released in 1980!

"The Fog" ranks among the all-time great horror movies, and it is ten times the film that the 2005 remake was. I doubt anyone will be writing reviews of that remake in 2035, but I wouldn't be suprised to see Carpenter's film still being watched and written about.

The Fog (1980)
Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook
Director: John Carpenter
Rating: Nine of Ten

As the tiny coastal town of Antonio Bay prepares for its 100th anniversary celebration, the dark secret of its founding comes back to haunt it in the form of a strangely luminecent fog that carries within it angry, murderous ghosts.

"The Fog" is near-perfect ghost movie. It establishes the isolated setting carefully, it introduces us to the cast of characters, it builds tension slowly, gives us a good reason for why the ghosts are angry and why they've chosen this particular moment to return and claim revenge, and it gives us several poetic reasons for why the current citizens of the town deserve to suffer the wrath for something that happened a century ago. This separate the film from the vast majority of ghost and monster movies where the filmmakers either don't bother thinking through the "why" of the events and instead offer weak or illogical explanations (if they bother putting any thought into that question at all) and as a result end up with a badly composed story that also feels weak and illogical.

From a technical point of view, Carpenter deploys every weapon in his filmmaking arsenal with perfect precison and timing. Imagery, special effects, sound effects, and the musical score all mesh with great effect, lifting the performances by the excellent cast to heights of excellence rarely seen in horror movies. Adrienne Barbeau is especially excellent as a DJ who watches the fog roll in and tries to use her vantage point above the city in an old lighthouse to warn the citizens of the danger.

"The Fog" also proves time and again that the scariest films embody the addage "less is more" in every way. The fact that the monsters and the kills are nearly always shrouded in the fog makes them even more horrendous, because the imagination fills in the details. Even the finale, which would have been a splatter-fest in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, is subject to the minimalist approach seen throughout the film and it is far more suspenseful for it.