Saturday, July 31, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Elke Sommer

This post is both part of the usual Saturday Scream Queen series, but it is also part of "Elke Sommer Day."

German actress Elke Sommer was at the height of her beauty and fame during the 1960s and 1970s. During those two decades, she appeared in over sixty films that spanned almost ever genre. By the mid-1980s, Sommer semi-retired from acting to focus on a career in the area of her first love--painting--but she continues to appear in movies and television shows to this very day.

Some of Sommer's best roles were in historical dramas and Italian fantasy films, but she was at her greatest when she at her greatest in the two horror films she made for director Mario Bava. Perhaps more-so than any other director, Bava allowed both Sommer's beauty and acting talent to shine through.

Two movies from one source:
'Lisa and the Devil' and 'House of Exorcism'

One of the DVDs included in the "Mario Bava Collection, Vol. 2" contains two different versions of the same movie. (It can also be had as a stand-alone from

The first version is "Lisa and the Devil", which was a film that director Bava was given a completely free hand on after the commerical success of "Baron Blood." According to a number of sources, it was the film the he always wanted to make, the perfect expression of his vision through the craft he had spent decades honing.

And it was a tremendous flop.

"Lisa and the Devil" was such a such dud that it was only ever released theatrically in Spain, the country in which it was filmed--and then only in a single theater. No distributor was interested in picking it up, despite everyone who saw it at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival thinking it was an artistic masterpiece.

Two years after the failure of "Lisa and the Devil," producer Alfredo Leone set about to salvage his investment by re-editing it and adding scenes that gave the film an all-new exorcism plot in the hopes of riding the success of the "The Exorcist" (which was the first official blockbuster, ever). The revised film was released under the title "The House of Exorcism."

And it became an international box office hit.

"The House of Exorcism" has been described by some critics as a butchered version of as masterpiece. However, these same critics have a tendency to discuss Mario Bava with lots of hyperbole and using the word "genius" almost as frequently as "the" when writing about him. I am hesitant to trust any critic who describes Bava as a genius, so I am hesitant to take their word for the craptacular nature of Leone's re-cut. The more films from Bava I watch, the more I admire his command of cinematography and the visual language of film, but the overall packages that make up his movies are lacking. Most Bava films I've seen have tended toward the slap-dash and incoherent story-wise, as if he was putting together the films primarily to show off imagery. And, frankly, his movies too often call attention to the fact that he's doing something cool with the camera... he's too often doing things to just show off technique instead of doing things that serve the story for me to consider him a genius.

Here are review both "Lisa and the Devil" and "The House of Exorcism". The rating assigned at the top of this post is an average of the rating of the two films with some consideration for highly interesting commentary tracks.

As always, I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the Comments section. I'm interested in what others think about Bava's films in general, or these two films specifically.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Sylvia Koscina, Alessio Orano, and Alida Valli
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When Lisa (Sommer) is separated from her tour group and lost in the old section of Toledo, she is invited to spend the night on the large, walled estate of a reclusive noble woman (Valli). But who is the mustachioed stranger who is oddly familiar to Lisa, but who keeps calling her by the wrong name? Is it more than coincidence that Lisa crossed paths the household's only servant, Leandro (Savalas), just when she lost her way? And why do people start dying in the house? And why don't they stay dead?

So many questions will come to mind while you're watching "Lisa and the Devil." The answers to some of them seem to come into focus as the film progresses--Lisa has clearly been drawn into some bizarre haunting or the supernatural climax of some greater evil--but whatever starts to make sense is thrown into question by a "shock ending", which, like most shock endings doesn't really work because it's not quite supported by everything that led up to it. (It's a little better than most of them, but I think the film could have done without it, even if I can see how it harkens back to the beginning of the film and the image of the devil carrying off the sinful dead.)

This is a gorgeous-looking film that's well-acted and, although a bit slowly paced, is one that will engage your imagination and curiosity as it unfolds. It's also a movie that's surprisingly classical and literate in nature--it reminds me of the Edgar Ulmer's Karloff/Lugosi film "The Black Cat" from the 1930s, and it's full of references to classical art--and full of visual hints and clues that are never spelled out through any form of exposition. Watch the introduction of the Lehars and their driver... you know EXACTLY what's going on in that relationship even though nothing is said. It's a scene that's perfectly staged and acted. The same is true of the scene where Max (Alessio Orano) prepares to rape the unconscious Lisa. I think that's probably one of the creepiest bits of film I've ever seen.)

The film's imagery and pacing gives it a dreamlike quality that is highly effective here. From the moment Lisa "crosses the threshhold", every event, every image we see seems possessed with a deeper, hidden meaning and that a secret story is unfolding below and behind the surface. The broken watches, the odd clocks, the white rose, the blind mistress of the house, the servant who seems to be the one truly in control, Lisa herself... all of these things seem to be images that stand for something other than what is obvious. It's a very cool sensation, and it's one that Bava successfully maintains for most of the film. He doesn't even ruin the mood anywhere with the expected garish color gels or painfully overdone camera flourishes... part of this might be because he didn't serve as his own cinematographer on most of the film but it might also be that those critics who have described this film as Bava's masterpiece are not being hyperbolic. I'm still not convinced he was the genius some like to make him out to be, but I do think there is greatness present in this film. I also think that it was ahead of its time. If this film had been made and released twenty years later. in the 1990s when the direct-to-video market was flourishing, I think it would have been a huge hit. It is a movie that had no place in the 1970s film market, despite its excellence. (The "shock ending" after the film's main action has concluded is also a sign that the world was not ready for this movie. I can't say for sure that this was the first movie that was structured liked this, but it's definitely one of the earliest.)

By the way, the film also contains some of the sexiest non-nudity you're ever going to see in a slasher-film style death scene. Sylvia Koscina, who is remarkable for her habit of getting nude in movies, actually stays covered up here, but watch for scene where she gets bludgeoned to death by the red-robed killer. I'm sure you'll agree that she's ten times more gorgeous there than if she'd actually been flashing her boobs... and it's another instance of Bava getting something exactly right.

It's not just Mario Bava who is perhaps as good as he ever was in this film. Elke Sommer gives a great performance as Lisa, who may or may not be the ghost or reincarnation of Elena, a woman who brought doom upon a household some 100 years prior to the beginning of the film. I don't think I've never seen Sommer look so beautiful or be so convincing in a role. Telly Savalas is even better as the enigmatic Lehandro who is both servant and puppetmaster in the dreamworld that this film's characters exist in. I think Savalas probably gave the best performance of his career in this film; particularly impressive is the way he delivers some very lyrical stretches of dialogue that sound completely natural as he speaks them.

"Lisa and the Devil" is every bit the masterpiece it has been cracked up to be. The DVD release included as part of the "Mario Bava Collection Vol. 2" is the first release of the film that's been fully restored to the state that Bava intended it to be seen.

The House of Exorcism (1975)
Starring: Elke Sommer, Telly Savalas, Robert Alda, and Carmen Silva
Directors: Mickey Lion (aka Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone)
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After a young tourist (Sommer) is possessed and forced to live out horrors with her inner demons, a priest (Alda) undertakes the dangerous task to driving the evil from her soul.

If one doesn't try to apply story logic to this film, one can admire the relative seamlessness with which Leone's new sequences blend with Bava's original film. (Except for the bit in the antique shop. The owner changes completely in appearance from one shot to the next, and then changes back again at the end of the film; the original actor was plainly not available, and I guess Leone thought no one would notice.)

However, one cannot admire the way he gutted the artistry from "Lisa and the Devil". I understand what he did and why he did it. I understand that he is in the film industry and that he was in the business of making product that people wanted, but I still think it was a shame that the 1970s film audiences weren't ready for something as good as "Lisa and the Devil".

One also cannot describe "The House of Exorcism" as a good movie, no matter how generous one wants to be. It is completely incoherent storywise, and it wanders fairly aimlessly through its 94 minutes of running time. Although the acting is good--Sommer and Robert Alda both do fabulous jobs in the cheesy, overblown priest vs. possessing spirit scenes--it is being squandered on empty nonsense.

As I said earlier, the action in the mansion has been transferred to Lisa's soul eventhough it doesn't make sense as being treated as such. To make matters worse, while "Lisa and the Devil" ended in a strange and inscrutible way, this version just sort of stumbles and falls on its face at the end with no real resolution to Lisa's possession, nor any clear explation to why the priest things that exorcising demons in the house will cure her. (Yes, at the very end, Leone decides not to give us blow-by-blows on everything that's happening.)

Watching this film and "Lisa and the Devil" in close proximity to one another will give you some insight in how just a few cuts, rearranged scenes, and a few additional scenes can change one movie into something completely different. The transformation of a beautiful, mysterious ghost story into a sloppy, third-rate horror flick with a completely different storyline is an astonishing sight to behold, whether you're interested in the craft of filmmaking or just a lover of movies.

If you decide to check out "Lisa and the Devil"/"The House of Exorcism", make sure you take the time to watch "The House of Exorcism" a second time while listening to the commentary track by Alfred Leone and Elke Sommer. Leone's discussion of how and why the recut version of the film came to be is absolutely fascinating. (Actually, you might just want to skip straight to watching it with the commentary. You won't be missing much, because everything good you've already witnessed in "Lisa and the Devil".)

Friday, July 30, 2010

'Invisible Strangler' is not worth spotting

Invisible Strangler (aka "The Astral Factor")
(1976, re-released in 1984)

Starring: Robert Foxworth, Mark Slade, Elke Sommer, Stefanie Powers, Frank Ashmore, and Marianna Hill
Director: John Florea
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A serial killer who targets beautiful women celebrities (Ashmore) learns how to make himself invisible using methods from Mew Age books on psychic powers. After escape from the insane asylum, he sets about stalking and killing women he had previously failed to kill.

"Invisible Strangler" is a mediocre crime drama and a complete failure as a horror movie. Yes, an invisible killer can be disconcerting--and its used to great effect in the scene where he stalks and kills his first victim (played by Sue Lyon) after escaping from the asylum--but most of the murders take too long to happen and when they do, they are hardly worth the wait because they are unartfully and badly staged.

The film might have been a little less dull if the number of victims had been cut down, or if the filmmakers had spent more time with the main victim, played by Elke Sommer, and a little less time on ones the audience has no emotional investment in whatsoever. Or better yet, if one or two victims should have been left out entirely, the film would have been more concentrated and far more watchable.

I also think the film could have been stronger if more had been done with the head detective's girlfriend. While I can't imagine anyone feeling out of sorts over watching Stefanie Powers walking around with no pants on, I think everyone can agree that it would have been so much better if her character had served a purpose other than just walking around with no pants on.

A poor script with very little character development, weak acting, weak cinematography and weaker directing makes "Invisible Strangler" makes the film barely worth watching, despite an interesting idea at its core and a couple of nice moments.

Please check back tomorrow when this blog takes part in "Elke Sommer Day" by placing the Saturday Scream Queens spotlight on Ms. Sommer, and reviews of a movie she made for Mario Bava that died a horrible box office death, and the film it reincarnated as.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

'The Terror' is borderline terrible

The Terror (aka "Lady of Shadows", "The Castle of Terror", and "The Haunting") (1964)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight, and Boris Karloff
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A French officer (Nicholson) during Napoleon's campaigns encounters a mysteriously alluring woman, Helene (Knight). Everyone denies she exists, but when he tracks her to the isolated, crumbling castle of Baron Von Lepp (Karloff), he discovers the girl may be ghost.

"The Terror" is basically pretty awful, and it shows every sign of having been made up as filming took place--the number of times where a character/actor seems completely oblivious to what he supposedly just experienced in the previous scenes far outnumber the times when there's continuity between scenes--it takes forever to get going, the dialogue is awful and repetitive, and the film can't seem to make up its mind what the nature of Helene is. (This waffling goes far beyond the filmmakers wanting to keep the audience guessing.) However, there's enough here that if you enjoy classic horror flicks, you'll keep watching.

Unfortunately, just as the movie starts getting good, the filmmakers throw in what is perhaps the dumbest and most pointless "twist" to ever be committed to film. It is so lame that it almost cost the film an entire Tomato in my rating. (It earned it back, however, with the very startling final scene.)

"The Terror" is better than many Roger Corman movies, but not as good as the Edgar Allen Poe films that it uses stock footage and sets from. If you're a lover of Amicus, AIP, and Hammer Films from the 50s and 60s, I think you might find something worthwhile here, but otherwise, I recommend you take a pass. (For the record, I was torn between giving it 4 or 5 Stars... it teeters on the brink between those two.

"The Terror" is available on DVD from a number of different distributors, but I think it's only worth getting if it's part of a multi-movie set. Unfortunately, virtually every copy of the film I've come across has been lacking the one element that might have lifted the viewing experience a bit--the vibrant colors of the original set and costume designs. All the DVD copies available seem to have been made from faded and worn prints. (For a look at what "The Terror" could look like, we have to turn to "Targets," as the clips from the movie-within-the-movie are actually scenes from "The Terror.")

Monday, July 26, 2010

Great slasher flick in 1/4 the usual time

Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre! (2007)
Starring: Cali Fredrichs, Charlie Capen, Hunter Huston, Angela Schnaible and Zoe Warner
Director: Robert Cosnahan
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Four Ivy League students (Capen, Fredrichs, Huston and Schnaible) conducting an initiation into a secret society end up in the middle of a bloody massacre in a backwoods cabin.

If you've ever been amused or terrified by a slasher flick (or even both at the same time), or if you're interested in seeing a fun twist on the "psycho backwoods murder spree" film, you need to keep an eye for "Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre" at film festivals near you. It's great little film! It's funny, surprising, shocking... everything most horror films (and comedies even) shoot for but fail to achieve.

"Psycho Hillbilly Cabin Massacre!" features some excellent photography and editing, great acting, fantastic use of music and sound--the twangs and squishy sounds during the banjo murder were both funny and disturbing--and a clever script that is truly a superior effort, with more effective twists that you find in most horror films running ten times as long this 17-minute short.

The only real complaint I have with the film is the final couple of seconds. I think it would have ended on a far stronger note without the "eyes snap open" cliche at the very end.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Complete 'Scream' Series

I like reading articles by people who know more than I. I like publishing them even better. So, I am delighted to represent a guest article by Ross Tipograph, who knows far more about slasher moves and celebrated "Scream" movie series than I, so he is far more capable of writing an overview of the series than I could have done.

Ross has written articles and reviews for a number of different blogs, but he is primarily known for writing about Halloween costumes at Click on the link to check them out.

(By the way, while Ross may be the first "guest blogger" here, he need not be the last. If you would like me to host something you've written, feel free to get in touch.)

In an effort to really dig deep into this series’ bloodstream, it seems a movie-by-movie reviewing is in order. Join us on a wild ride into the tongue-in-cheek world of Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson.

SCREAM (1996)
Starring: Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, Skeet Ulrich Matthew Lillard, Jamie Kennedy, with Henry Winkler, and Drew Barrymore.
Dir: Wes Craven
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Na├»ve high-schooler Sidney Prescott (Campbell) lost her mother one year ago in a vicious murder. Now, in her senior year, it seems the killer is back to finish the game he started. Sidney’s boyfriend (Ulrich), friends (McGowan, Lillard, Kennedy), a plucky TV report (Cox) and a goofy town cop (Arquette) lend support / body count.

As every avid horror fan knows, “Scream” reinvigorated the entire genre from the joke that it became in the late ‘80s and completely left for dead in the early ‘90s. Kevin Williamson’s script made horror hip again, and the legendary Craven’s direction, with the great actors’ performances, pulled it all together.

It’s a balancing act – part dark comedy, part spoof of the horror genre, part genuine terror. The in-movie jokes range from Freddy Krueger to Michael Myers to Craven himself. The masterpiece horror scenes are set in a high school bathroom, to a teenage girl’s bedroom, to a giant bloodbath of a Friday night kegger. It’s artistic, it’s revolutionary, it’s the first piece of the “Scream” puzzle.

SCREAM 2 (1997)
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Jamie Kennedy, Jerry O’Connell, Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Liev Schreiber
Dir: Wes Craven
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Sidney, Gale, and Dewey (the trio of Campbell, Arquette, Cox) are back, along with survivor Randy (Kennedy), a whole new slew of classmates. This time, Sidney’s in college, and the murders have started again. Meanwhile, a movie version of Sidney’s troubles in “Scream” has now been released, making her life a living Hell.

The irony has reached a new level – a movie based on the goings-on in the original “Scream” movie has now been made and released in the world of “Scream 2,” and it’s called Stab. Some say screenwriter Williamson is a hack, I say he’s a genius. The routine opening murder scene takes place at a Stab screening, and the tone is set from there.

What’s interesting is how Sidney is now a stronger, darker version of what we saw before. Campbell is great as the new Sidney, who channels her traumatized emotions into theatrical school performances, who hates airheaded sorority girls and has a sweetheart new boyfriend (O’Connell), and who can still outsmart the killer, or in this case, the killers. It’s a fantastic sequel – but nothing can match the original’s groundbreaking nature.

SCREAM 3 (2000)
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Patrick Dempsey, Jenny McCarthy, Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey, Patrick Warburton, Lance Henriksen, and Liev Schreiber
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Our main trilogy trio is back, but no longer in the sleepy town of Woodsboro or on Sidney’s northeast college campus – they’ve moved to Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world. Working with the LAPD, they hone in on the new killer’s whereabouts and source of his threats, while a whole new slew of serial murders occur on the set of the third Stab movie, currently in production…

This is the ultimate tongue-in-cheek gift to movie fans – “Scream 3” takes place on the set of Stab 3, the newest sequel in a line of a horror sequels. This is the only “Scream” movie that I can enjoyably say breaks through the horror-dark comedy bubble that holds the first two movies and is seriously just a big ensemble comedy with some great horror moments. As you can imagine, the movie jokes are innumerable, and the supporting characters (especially Posey) are unforgettable.

I love “Scream 3” so much just on entertainment factor alone and my respect for the risks the filmmakers are taking to keep this series a real trilogy – which they totally succeed in doing. Many, however, disagree, saying this movie took the subtle comedy level way over the top, and how this one pales in comparison to the dark and chilling first two in the series. I don’t mind. I think, if you really love this series enough, and you have an appetite for great movie in-jokes, this is a total riot.

SCREAM 4 (2011)
Starring: Emma Roberts, Neve Campbell, Courney Cox, David Arquette, Hayden Panettiere, Adam Brody, Marley Shelton, Rory Culkin, Mary McDonnell
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: (N/A) – Releases April 15, 2011

It’s been ten years since Sidney (Campbell) has been free of any serial killings. She has written a successful book on her life and works as a guidance counselor at Woodsboro High, where it all began. Apparently though, a killer strikes again, with Jill Kessler (Emma Roberts), who is Sidney’s young cousin, and Jill’s friends (Panettiere, Culkin) as the main target. Dewey and Gale (Arquette & Cox) are back, too, plus help from two new cops (Brody & Shelton).

No one has any idea how this will turn out. The original director-writer team of Craven and Williamson are luckily in charge, plus help from “Scream 3” scribe Ehren Kruger, but who knows what’s happening on the set. I believe it is the most anticipated horror sequel in production, so naturally, everything is hush-hush. The introduction of a new, younger cast does not bode well for the lives of our thirtysomething returning trio. On a side note: Roberts and Panettiere are both Teen-Beat fodder, which does not bode well for their performances….

Come April 15, 2011, the new trilogy begins. That’s right, folks, Scream 5 and Scream 6 are on the slate as well – supposedly Williamson has a whole new bag of tricks up his sleeve. Fingers crossed.

Ross Tipograph is a film buff and Emerson College screenwriting major. He writes about Halloween costumes over at

April 15, 2011 has come and gone. Click here for a review of "Scream 4"!

Saturday Scream Queen: Parker Posey

Although perhaps best know for her roles in Christopher Guest's many mocumentaries, Parker Posey has graced a number of thrillers and horror films with her exceptional talent and beauty. From her supporting roles in "Scream 3", "The Eye" and "Blade: Trinity", to her starring turn in the promising pilot for the ultimately stillborn USA Network series "Frankenstein," Posey has shown herself equally at home with the comic and the creepy.

Posey most recently been focusing on comedy (such as her starring turns in the short-lived sit-com "The Return of Jezebel James" and "Spring Breakdown"), but she will star along-side Bruce Dern in the 2011 thriller "Inside Out."

Can another horror movie be far behind?

Friday, July 23, 2010

'Red Eye' soars into the unfriendly skies

Red Eye (2005)
Starring: Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

With this 2005 chiller, Wes Craven proved that he still canmake movies that aren't self-referential, toungue-in-cheek horror efforts. With "Red Eye", Craven instead brought us a film that stands up to comparison with some of Alfred Hitchcock's best efforts.

The majority of the film tales place in the cramped confines of a red-eye flight from Texas to Florida, as hotel manager Lisa (McAdams) is heading back home. She ends up seated to a charming young named Jackson (Murphy). It turns out that the meeting was anything but chance--Jackson has been watching Lisa for weeks, and he is about to force her to make a cell-call to make her assistant switch the room of a US government official staying at her hotel so assassins can kill him. Lisa is given a choice: Cooperate or have her own father be the murder victim.

"Red Eye" doesn't break any new ground, but it does what it does extremely well. The tension never lets up from the moment Jackson's true nature is first revealed, and the excellent performances by McAdams and Murphy are so engaging that the viewer's attention is never allowed to wander for a second.

If you love thrillers of the Hitchcockian variety, "Red Eye" is a must-see. It also proves that Wes Craven can still direct films aside from goofy, self-referential horror flicks.

Please check tomorrow for a special post featuring an overview of Craven's famous "Scream" series.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

'Shutter' director didn't know when to quit

Shutter (2008)
Starring: Joshua Jackson, Rachel Taylor, and Megumi Okina
Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A fashion photographer (Jackson) and his wife (Taylor) are on a working honeymoon in Japan when his past literally comes back to haunt him. The ghost of a woman he dated years earlier (Okina) starts appearing in photos he takes and manifesting in increasingly threatening ways.

"Shutter" is for most of its running time a fairly decent ghost movie that is a nice cross-pollination between Western and Eastern ideas about the what, why, and how of hauntings and vengeful spirits. Unfortunately, it starts to break down as the story builds to the Great Reveal when the girlfriend is shown to have been dead for several years yet no-one has checked on her... despite the fact her front door has been standing open for all that time.

(I suppose one could argue that the ghost has been wandering around the house and neighborhood so no one knew she was dead. But does that mean she also went and got a job at another firm after she had died? What about friends and family? The way the discovery of Megumi's corpse was handled in the film was such an extreme example of bad writing that I've knocked off a whole point on the ratings scale.)

In all other aspects, the film is very well done. The filmmakers make a particularly excellent use of sound throughout the movie, using it to enhance suspense in subtle ways as well as during the film's few "Boo!"-type moments. The lighting and cinematography is likewise very well done. The script is also well-written, and I was particularly happy to see they did more with the denouement than the now-expected "let's toss in one more scare." (In fact, what you THINK is the denouement is actually the beginning of the film's true ending.)

The acting is all-around decent, although I would have liked to have seen a slightly more sympathetic and charming actor playing Ben Shaw, the photographer who is the focus of the ghost's attention. Joshua Jackson has a villainous air about hm that never quite allows the viewer to be on his side. If the actor playing Ben had been just a little more charismatic, the sense of horror and dread in this film would have been ar stronger, particularly at the end.

"Shutter" is worth seeing if you enjoy ghost movies, so long as you can accept an annoying instance of no one thinking a particular sequence through. It's high on creepiness but low on blood, so gore hounds should stay away. (Oh, and if you're sick of the whole "isn't long black hair really creepy?!?" standard in these sorts of movies, you'll be glad to hear that we DON'T have that particular trope to sit through here. We got the pale, barefooted ghost chick, but at least her hair isn't everywhere!)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

'Lost Voyage' should stay lost

Lost Voyage (2001)
Starring: Judd Nelson, Janet Gunn, Scarlett Chorvat, and Lance Henrickson
Director: Christian McIntire
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Lost Voyage", a cruise ship that mysteriously dissapeared in the Bermuda Triangle over 25 years ago just as mysteriously reappears in perfect condition, but seemingly completely devoid of life.

Television tabloid reporter Dana Elway (Gunn) convinces paranormal investigator Aaron Roberts (Nelson) to join her and a camera crew on a salvage expedition headed by the sinister David Shaw (Henrickson). Everyone on the expedition has hidden agendas and dark secrets, but whatever caused the ship to both vanish and reappear is still onboard, and that mysterious presence starts to exploit these secrets, destroying the expedition members one by one.

"Lost Voyage" follows the pattern of countless haunted house movies, adding no twist other than placing the action onboard an abandoned cruise ship. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad movie, just average. There are other factors that insure its low rating.

While the actors turn in fairly decent performances (Gunn and her sharkish, slutty assistant that is after her job, Scarlet Chorvat, are particularly good), but they are hampered by a script that is so full of characters doing stupid things because the plot would fall apart if they didn't that is was impossible to keep count. This is either the laziest haunted house script produced since the turn of the century, or it was actually a tale of people so dumb they deserved to die just to preserve the integrity of the human genepool.

An even greater flaw in the film is the digital effects. The film takes place aboard a ship adrift in a storm. The characters are delivered to it by a cargo helicopter. The ship, the waves, and particularly the helicopter are so badly done that one finds oneself longing for the days when models would have been used for those shots. Even the cheapest B-movies with their planes dangling oddly on wires looked more real that the computer animated helicopter in "Lost Voyage." The obvious fakeness of the establishing shots of the ship, and just about any other digital effect in the movie, drag it down something fierce. (Although, while harping on the digital effects, I have to congratulate the sound crew. There is a very impressive use of sound throughout, especially wind and rain effects. The lighting crew also does a decent job, with many scenes appearing to be lit realistically with ambient lighting. These exceptional technical aspects don't make up for the film's other problems, however.

Despite some nice (if pedestrian) chills, I think even the biggest fans of haunted house movies will walk away dissapointed from this one. It's better if "Lost Voyage" stays missing.

Monday, July 19, 2010

'Jason X' is fresh air for tired slasher series

Jason X (2001)
Starring: Lexa Doig, Kane Hodder and Lisa Ryder
Director: Jim Isaac
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Jason is the mad killer from the "Friday the 13th" movie series. He started out as the crazed mongoloid son of an even crazier mother, but over the series he morphed into a demon-animated, industructable murder machine.

As "Jason X" opens, the unstoppable killing machine has been captured by the US Army, and a sexy woman scientist (Doig) is trying to find a way to destroy Jason once and for all... but with no luck. Naturally, Jason escapes confinement and starts killing everyone in the base. He and the scientist get trapped in an experimental cryogentic suspended animation chamber, and there they stay until recovered centuries later by a group of teenagers on an archeology class outing to Old Earth.

After the scientist and Jason are revived onboard a spaceship, Jason--of course--goes on a killing rampage, and along the way receives nanite-created cybernetic enhancement. Who will be left standing after the final, far-future confrontation between Jason and the scientist in the tight tanktop?

This is by far the most entertaining "Jason" movie since the two original films, and it's a far more fun "re-imagining" than the lame remake from last year. The script actually has a number of unexpected twists--it's been a loooong time since anyone bothered putting a real plot into a Jason/Friday the 13th movie--the dialogue sharp and witty, and the murders are mostly quite creative and often take advantage of the sci-fi setting. There are even some inside jokes that will inspire gales of laughter among those who have seen lots of films in the mad slasher genre. (The dvd is particularly amusing with its "jump to a death" feature.)

By the way, this is also the only "Friday the 13th" sequel that I have in my personal collection of movies, because it's the only one that has continued to entertain on repeat viewings.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Lysette Anthony

By the late 1980s, British actress Lysette Anthony looked like she was on her way to being a major star. She certainly had the looks, she had the talent and the discipline--having acted since the age of 10 in her parents' theatre company and seeming equally at home in fantasy films like "Krull", comedies like "Without a Clue", and chillers like "Dead Cold"--it's one of those quirks of the movie business that her career seemed to stall in the late 1990s.

Anthony's lack of roles might have been that she found herself type-cast as a sweet British maiden, something even a nude layout for Playboy couldn't shake. It might also have been that she was in two financial disasters in a row--the horror comedies "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" and "Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde". Or she may simply have chosen to focus on her family, as so many actresses do.

Whatever the reason, Anthony did give us some fun times with "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" and "Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde" (box-office failures aside), and she is returning to film next year in a major fashion, co-starring with Christopher Lee, Michael Madsen and Bai Ling.

Mel Brooks takes on Dracula

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1994)
Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Peter MacNicol, Steven Weber, Amy Yasbeck, Mel Brooks, Harvey Korman, and Lysette Anthony
Director: Mel Brooks
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Mel Brooks lampoons the classic Universal Studios and Hammer Films Dracula movies, along with Francis Ford Coppola's "Bram Stoker's Dracula". (Yeah, I know that's like spoofing a spoof, but Brooks redicules the most laughable bits of that travesty.)

"Dracula: Dead and Loving It" is a decent satire of Dracula movies manages to capture the look and feel of the Hammer Draculas quite nicely while at the same time evoking Tod Browning's "Dracula" from Universal through some of the sets and a very funny take off on my favorite moment from that films--where Dracula walks through a spider's web without breaking it and expects Renfield to follow him.

The cast are all very funny, with Leslie Nielsen's Bela Lugosi impersonation, with its well-timed, purposeful breaks in his accent, something that wil tickle the funny bone of any Lugosi or Dracula fan. (They even work in the "I never drink... wine" line in a very funny fashion, with Neilsen nailing the delivery spot-on.)

The wisdom of casting Nielsen as Dracula is especially evident in the two scenes where he is called upon to be scary. His roots as a dramatic actor show in these moments, and I think he can hold his head up proud in the company of Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Jack Palance, three great movie Draculas who came before him.

The rest of the cast are equally good in their parts and the hilariously bad accents that everyone is doing ads greatly to the mirth in the film (I think I even heard Clive Revill doing a bad accent, and he really IS British!)

And I don't think anyone has quite managed to fill those flimsy nightgowns left over from the Hammer Films gothic horror costuming department as effectively as Amy Yasbeck and Lysette Anthony since principle photography wrapped on "Brides of Dracula" and "Dracula Has Risen From the Grave".

All the fantastic art design and sets and all the fun performances of the actors can't make up for the fact that the script simply isn't that funny. What we have here is no "Young Frankenstein." We don't even have "Robin Hood: Men in Tights". What we have here is a competently executed movie spoof, but there isn't a single moment that rises to the level of greatness seen in some of Mel Brooks' other comedies. Some scenes come close, such as the akward lunch shared by Dr. Seward (Korman) and the bug-eating Renfield (MacNicol), are hilarious. All the gags around that idiotic hairdo and cartoon shadow from that awful Copolla "Dracula" are also very funny. But, overall, this film falls short of every other Mel Brooks film I've watched for review purposes.

This is an okay Dracula spoof, but it's not up to the standards Mel Brooks set during the 1970s and 1980s.

Click here to read reviews of other films from Brooks at Cinema Steve.

Friday, July 16, 2010

'Fungicide': Great intentionally bad movie

Fungicide (2005)
Starring: Dave Bonavita, Wes Miller, Dave Wascavage, Mary Wascavage, and David Weldon
Director: Dave Wascavage
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Silas Purcell (Weldon), a dorky mad scientist who still lives in his parents' basement, takes his latest project with him on vacation, the audience-expected accident happens, and soon the residents at a budget bed-and-breakfast place are fighting for their lives against a hoard of giant killer mushrooms!

It's not often that a movie described as "so bad its good" actually is so bad it's good, but that is the case with "Fungicide". It's an absolutely horrrible movie that looks like it was shot with a camcorder over a weekend, is performed by amateur actors (who, literally, are the director's family and friends, as well as the director himself), and features "manshrooms" and killer mushroom puppets that are only exceeded in their laughable-ness by the computer graphics effects.

However, the badness, coupled with the unadulturated glee displayed by the cast as they fight badly drawn CGI mushrooms and guys in dressed up in badly done mushroom costumes that shoot silly string at them as a defense, make this a movie that I watched with increasing glee and ausement myself.

Wascavage and his actors brought an energy to this film that is all-too-rarely seen in low-budget pictures. None of the actors had that lethargic quality that is so common among those who are working in front of a camera for the first time, and, while they had plenty of the "Look... I'm ACTING!" quality that is equally common in performers at this level, it is something that complemeented and enhanced the awful special effects and cheezy monster costumes. Wascavage and Friends clearly understood they weren't making the next big monster movie, and they are clearly having fun making the best movie within their reach, and making it intentionally goofy as they go.

The comedy, intentional goofiness, and the sense that the actors and director KNOW they are making a bad movie all combine to give the film its infectious enegy. It also helps that the script has some hilarious moments in it (the dream sequence with Silas spending a happy life with this killer mushroom "children" is truly one of the funniest bits I've seen in a amateurish production like this, ever. The handpuppet mushroom is so goofy that it in-and-of-itself is one of the niftiest and craziest things about this film.

And, to top it off, as silly as this movie is, the final showdown with the killer mushrooms actually managed to be a little scary, partly because I found that I had some invested in the very silly characters that are the films heroes--a reality TV star Major Wang (Miller), a retired pro-wrestler who is secretly suffering from a deadly yet potentially tragi-comic malady (Bonavita), an obnoxious realtor (Dave Wascavage), and the happy hippy who runs the B&B (Mary Wascavage)--and partly because David Weldon does such a fabulous job as Silas the Mad Scientist.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tales in 'Nightmare Alley' mostly too short

Nightmare Alley (2010)
Starring: Walter Ruether (Host), Geno Dellamorte ("A Fistful of Innards"), Sean Magee, Star Dellamorte, Danielle Saada ("Rebellion"), Brian Carr, Steve Slotnick, and Christina Chavez ("Death Chat"), Scott Boyd, Tara Carlton ("Meat"), Jared Love, Dez K Daver ("Closet Case"), Vincent Bocchini, Michelle Portnoy ("The Great Damone"), Dana Kleinschmidt, and Danielle Schultz ("Slash of the Blade")
Directors: Laurence Holloway and Scarlet Fry
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

"Nightmare Alley" (1947) starring Tyron Powers is one of the unquestionably deserving-of-classic status in the film-noir genre.

That is not this "Nightmare Alley." Not even close.

This "Nightmare Alley" is a low-budget anthology film that tries to capture the style of horror comic book anthologies like Warren's "Creepy" and "Vampirella", but instead comes across more like DC Comics' "House of Mystery" at its absolute worst. With a running time of just 73 minutes, it nonetheless manages to present a framing sequence, intro and closing host segments for each tale, and seven different little stories.

That's a lot to cram into a film as short as this. Too much, in fact, as the stories are more like sketches than full-blown tales--each with mostly unpleasant characters doing stupid things that ultimately leads them to a bad end. There is no time for character development or even to establish mood in any of the stories. Not that there was much attempt to establish mood at any time. I don't know that it was such a good idea to shoot the entirety of this movie in broad daylight, under the Arizona summer sun.

Part of me likes the experiment taking place in this film--the attempt to make a full-blown horror movie in ten minutes or less. It's not an impossible task, but writers/directors Holloway and Fry just aren't up to the task.

The problem starts with their characters. Like the worst of the stories in the DC Comics horror anthologies of the 1970s, they don't behave in anything that even remotely resembles a logical or realistic fashion.

We have a guy who flees from a bum who just murdered his friend... but who then stops around the corner to read a comic book. We have a fat, lecherous neighbor invited over for dinner and shows up in nothing but the pair of cut-off jeans he wore earlier pool-side. We have a flaming homo picking on a pudgy punk rocker at a bus stop for no reason whatsoever. We have girls being stalked by a reborn Jack the Ripper who run to an empty park instead of to a nearby business.

And in every case, at the end of every story, the twist is "and then they get murdered!"--with one exception where it's "the fat slob ate the husband's dead body and then wandered the streets in a Speedo."

Adding to the problem of the universally weak stories are the facts that the cast is mostly made up of inexperienced actors who here are performing in their first screen parts, and who are delivering stilted and sometimes nonsensical lines. Their performances appear even worse due to loose editing, which is at its most terrible in a scene where a philandering husband gets attacked by an axe-wielding ghost. The scene is so sloppily edited that it becomes unintentionally comic, with the ghost raising its axe veeery slowly and giving the guy several seconds to escape--or fight back--but which he spends going "No, please don't kill me!" (In fact, two of the three decent performances in the film--Sean Magee in "Rebellion", as a man driven to murder after being possessed by a demonic novelty item; and Brian Carr in "Death Chat", as a philandering husband who's quest for extra-marital sex backfires--are severely undermined by the incompetent editing of the scenes they're in. For the record, the third performance I thought was good was from Jared Love, because I had me laughing out loud with his ridiculous portrayal of a flaming homosexual on the make.)

For all that is bad about this film, it did have the benefit of most anthology films in that everything is short and sweet. If a story is a complete misfire--like the leading zombies in the Wild West segment ("A Fistful of Innards"), the limp homage to Roger Corman's "A Bucket of Blood" that is "The Great Damone" segment, and the closing Jack the Ripper in modern times segment ("Slash of the Blade")--it was over quickly and followed by something better. In the case of this film, "better" is only a slight improvement, but it was enough to keep me watching. With better technical execution and some more time spent developing characters and establishing mood, "Death Chat," "Meat," and "Rebellion" might actually have been pretty good. The same is true of the Host segments--pithier commentary might have made this nameless Crypt Keeper wanna-be actually amusing. There's also some fairly funny stuff--such as the gross neighbor in "Meat"--not to mention the drinking of beer from wine glasses in that same segment--and some okay gore effects that lead me to give "Nightmare Alley" an ultimate rating of Three Stars--a very low Three, but a Three nonetheless.

In the end, I think "Nightmare Alley" might be worth checking out if you're an aspiring filmmaker, for copious examples of what NOT to do when making a horror film, especially an anthology film.

Oh... and can I at this point make a formal request to all filmmakers: STOP with the artificial "aging" of your films. It was stupid and obnoxious when it was done in "Grindhouse" and it's twice so when done by imitators working with low or no budgets. It does NOTHING to enhance your film, and all you're accomplishing is making viewers like me think about DVDs struck from worn prints of older films that are better than yours. And it makes me think about how I could be watching one of those, films that came by their wear-and-tear honestly, instead of your effort.

("Nightmare Alley" releases direct to DVD on August 10, 2010. This review was based on a preview DVD provided by distributor Midnight Releasing.)

'Demonsoul' is a nice effort, but is lacking

Demonsoul (1996)
Starring: Kerry Norton, Daniel Jordan, and Eileen Daly
Director: Elisar C. Kennedy
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Erica (Norton) starts having recurring nightmares about a mystery woman (Daly) torturing a man while having sex with him. She seeks out Dr. Booker (Jordan) for some hypnotherapy. Booker happens to be an unscrupulous lecher and discredited paranormal researcher, and while he is groping the hypnotized Erica, he manages to fully awaken the dormant spirit of the vampire she was in a former life. Blood-drinking, death, and mysterious happenings clouded in fog-machine disgorgement follows.

"Demonsoul" started with a nice and interesting premise. It also starts fairly strong for a movie of this type--shot-on-video, with a budget of $3--but it quickly degrades into the too-long establishing shots, scenes of people wandering about, and weakly delivered bad dialogue that are the hallmarks of films like this. The film would also have been better served if a little more care and skill had been applied to the audio work. Consistent use of a Foley artist would have been nice--fight scenes just aren't the same without the meaty thwacks--as would better microphone work; echoes and ambient noise come and go between different shots and in same scene.

Oh... and speaking of lechers... I think this is one of the few times I remember thinking, "Boy, she's an attractive actress... I hope she gets nekkid!", only to later wish that the actress in question had kept her shirt on.

All in all, I think there were some fine ideas behind this film, and I got the sense that everyone involved was giving it their all. Much of the acting (with Norton doing a particularly good job) and camera work is actually better than usually found in films at this level. But, as someone who has appeared in a couple of these sorts of productions, I can tell you that heart and love-of-filmmaking doesn't cancel out inexperience in amateur productions. Still, I felt that this was an honest attempt to make a real movie, so I'm giving it an extra star for effort.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Did the ending get lost in 'The Ninth Gate'?

In a naked attempt to establish myself as a Serious Film Reviewer, I am posting a review of a Roman Polanski movie. I want to be part of the impromptu web-wide celebration that that the convicted child rapist will continue walk around free. (Click here if you haven't heard the news yet.

Yes, Virginia (and Woody and Whoopie) you CAN be a convicted rapist and still be treated like a celebrity AND as if YOU were the victim.

You can even get your movies reviewed at Terror Titans, because I'm a Serious Film Reviewer Who Respects Great Artists (even if they are child-raping cowards who can't man up when it is time to face justice).

The Ninth Gate (1999)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Emmanuel Seigner, Lena Olin, and Frank Langella
Director: Roman Polanski
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Dean Corso (Depp), a rare book dealer with a shady reputation, is hired by the mysterious Boris Balkan (Langella) to authenticate a copy of a rate book supposedly co-authored by Satan himself. As Corso goes about about his assignment, he is drawn into a web of conspiracy and murder as he gradually uncovers a secret that's been hidden for centuries. Will Corso uncover the occult secret of the Ninth Gate, or will he die trying?

"The Ninth Gate" is a stylish supernatural mystery tale. It's a well-acted film populated by eccentric characters and possessed with a stylish look and a perfectly paced story. It's a film that has almost all the elements of a great thriller, but the pieces that are lacking ultimately doom it.

First of all, the film is predictable. There are virtually no surprises as the film unfolds. The one point where the film MIGHT have take an unexpected turn--with the mysterious girl (Seigner) who may be Corso's only ally or the greatest threat he faces--ultimately ends up in the trite and tired territory. And that's a shame, because the physical presentation of The Girl is unusual and nearly unique in cinema, and, frankly as I would expect a supernatural being walking unnoticed upon the Earth to appear. (It's not a spoiler to reveal here that The Girl is a supernatural being; the film itself makes that clear fairly early on. It's a shame the filmmakers don't ultimately do something more interesting with her than they do.)

Second, and most damning, is the completely botched ending. After two hours of build-up, we get nothing. And I mean that literally. The mystery of the ninth gate is solved, the bad guys get theirs in some very satisfying ways, but the story of Dean Corso and his dark journey of discovery just sort of peters out. The film ends with no resolution of its main story--and not in a cheesy "hey kids, look for the sequel!" way. There is no question that this is a take that's over... the audience just doesn't get to know the ending. More so than any other film that I enjoyed every minute of (except the last minute), "The Ninth Gate" had me saying, "That's it?!" as the credits rolled.

If there ever was a movie that's spoiled by its ending, it's "The Ninth Gate." Unfortunately, the film is such a finely crafted effort that I can't even advise turning off the movie at a certain point to salvage it. Basically, this is a movie that ultimately adds up to nothing. That was probably the director and screen writer's intention, but that doesn't make it any better.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Kristen Stewart

Born in Los Angeles in 1990, Kristen Stewart starting acting at an early age, and appeared in her first horror films just as she was entering her teens, with "Cold Creek Manor" and "Panic Room". She is making the transition from working child actor to adult movie star with the lead role in the smash-hit vampire-vs-werewolves-and-acne-cream teen horror film series "The Twilight Saga," the final two installments of which are currently entering production ad slated for 2011 and 2012 releases, respectively.

Stewart's name has also been mentioned in connection with "Backwoods", another horror movie tentatively scheduled for a 2011 release, co-starring Julianne Moore and directed by Bart Freundlich.

I haven't seen any of the "Twilight" movies, but I thought Stewart was excellent in the girl-friendly horror film "The Messenger", so I imagine she's only gotten better. Here's hoping that her career track and life path is more like that of Jennifer Love Hewitt's than Lindsay Lohan's as it moves forward.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

'Predator' is true monster movie classic

Predator (1987)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Elpidia Carillo, and Jesse Ventura
Director: John McTiernan
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

A group of ruthless mercenaries meet their match in the jungles of Central America when an alien big games hunter targets their spines for mounting in his trophy room.

"Predator" is the best fusion of horror and action ever put on screen. From the opening scenes to the final explosion, there isn't a moment of relief for the viewers or the battle-hardened killers who are stalked by an invisible menace.

Every actor featured gives a fine performance--with Schwarznegger and Weathers deserving particular mention--the Alan Silvestri musical score is perfectly complimentary to the action and horrifying moments on the screen, each action scene is perfectly staged, and the direction and camerawork remains tightly focused. Even the alien's hi-tech '"bird-call" device adds a dimension both of humor and horror to the film.

Fans of monster movies and action films alike should definately seek this classic out. It may have given rise to bad sequels and comic book spin-offs, but the original "Predator" film is a must-see. (And it remains to be seen whether the latest sequel measures up. But we'll know tomorrow.)

'Bell Witch Haunting' is a fine spook fest

The Bell Witch Haunting (2004)
Starring: Ric White, Doug Moore, Stephanie Love, Amber Bland, Hope Wade, and Frank Fox
Director: Ric White
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a ghost of mysterious origins and desires invades the home of John Bell (Moore) and his family, Reverend James Johnston (White) and other concerned citizens of a small Tennessee town attempt to discover the reasons for the haunting.

"The Bell Witch Haunting" is based on reports of a real-life haunting that took place over four years early in the 19th century. The haunting reportedly started without warning or apparent cause and continued until family patriarch John was driven into his grave. The spirit's activities were reportedly witnessed by hundreds of people, including President Andrew Jackson, and when they ended as suddenly as they began, a tale full of mystery, horror, and tragedy was born. Director/writer Ric White takes full advantage of everything this tale has to offer in this film.

In the film, writer/director/star White uses James Johnston's conversation with a pair of newspaper reporters working on a story about the Bell Witch Haunting as the "excuse" to tell us the tale of the harrowing events. It also, more by accident than design, drives home the point that White is the best actor in the whole movie. The difference between the way White portrays Johnston in the flashbacks--a self-assured, compassionate man of God who wants to help a good friend and righteous man rid himself of a tormenting spirit--and the Johnston of the present day--who is an embittered man driven to the brink of madness by his confrontation with an incomprehensible evil.

And incomprehensible is what the Bell Witch Ghost is from the very beginning, and its motivations and methods remain shrouded in mystery and riddles from the characters and viewers of the movie alike. As regular readers might be aware, I tend to be very annoyed with horror movies that don't give at least SOME insight into the reasons for why the events depicted happen; I don't necessarily need everything wrapped up in a neat little package, but I want some sort of explanation for or insight into the reasons why the supernatural had invaded the lives of the characters of the story.

However, there are exceptions to everything, and "The Bell Witch Haunting" is one of those exceptions. Although the opening of the film seems to provide a possible explanation of why the Bell family ends up haunted--one of the elder brothers may have shot some sort of familiar or shapeshifted sorcerer--it's far more likely the strange events during the hunt that day were simply the point at which the mysterious spirit became attracted to the family. But we never find out what the trigger was, because the ghost never tells and, try as they may, the characters never discover the truth. The haunting just grows more and more creepy until it ends in tragedy for the family. (The tragedy and horror is emphasized by a strategic placement of a scene of normalcy and happiness--a birthday picnic held for the oldest of the Bell girls-- that is ultimately shattered by the spirit as it lashes out at the family and their friends more viciously and incomprehensibly than ever before.)

Despite the lack of answers, the film ends up being a very satisfying viewing experience, a well-filmed and well-paced tale that is rich in atmosphere and that anyone who appreciates a good ghost story will be entertained by. That entertainment will flow from the very effective and creepy imagery that White fills the picture with. Despite the fact that the ghost is only seen three or four times in the entire film--and each tilme very, very briefly--its presence is felt throughout because of the creative camera angles and highly effetive lighting of scenes that White uses.

That is not to say "The Bell Witch Haunting" is perfect. The majority of the cast gives very stagy performances and most of their efforts say, "Look at me, I'm ACTING!" This feeling could have been lessened in some scenes if the editing had been tighter, but it nothing but more experience in front of cameras could have improved things enough.

The film also suffers in the audio department. It seems evident that the sound was recorded with microphones mounted on the video cameras used to shoot the film, and it is often so muddled that it's difficult to make out what is being said. It's a common problem with low budget films these days, but it's a shame that a movie that is otherwise well shot and well written should come up short in this all-important technical department.

Although flawed, I think "The Bell Witch Haunting" is one of the best ghost movies of recent years. White is a writer, actor, and director of no small degree of talent, and I think that if he had been working with a budget measured in the hundreds of thousands instead of tens, I am certain I would be giving this film a Seven rating at least.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

'The Driller Killer' is overrated

This is a film that a friend whose taste I otherwise put faith in praised to the high heavens. After watching it, I dropped him a line to ask if this was the movie he was thinking of. Turned out that it was. And that he's not the only one who thinks "The Driller Killer" is an underappreciated. Oh well... I guess if there weren't room for differing opinions, there wouldn't be movie reviews.

The Driller Killer (1979)
Starring: Carolyn Mars, Jimmy Laine, and Baybi Day
Director: Abel Ferrara
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

The pressures of every day life as a struggling artist, combine with the sleep-deprevation of living next door to a punk rock band that practices at all hours of the day, gradually drive Reno Miller (Laine) insane and causes him to murder people with power tools.

If I had to live next door to that third-rate, mid-70s punk band that Reno is subjected to, I'd probably pick up a drill and murder people as well. I'd go after the band, not random homeless people, though. (I found myself increasingly grateful for the 4x play-speed on my DVD player whenever the filmmakers would attempt to subject me to a "musical interlude".)

"The Driller Killer" is a bit slow in getting started, and it fails to maintain the building tension as Reno loses his mind and goes on his murderous rampages--mostly because of the annoying interludes featuring generic punk music. This causes a film that could have been an okay artsy-fartsy slasher flick to end up as an artsy-farsty, sub-par and badly directed slasher flick.

Monday, July 5, 2010

'End of Days' is not cataclysmic

End of Days (1999)
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunny, Kevin Pollack, Rod Steiger, and Udo Keir
Director: Peter Hyams
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger), a world-weary detective, must fight against personal temptation, Satanists, a secret sect within the Catholic church,and Satan himself (Byrne) to protect a young woman named Christine (Tunny) and prevent the End of Days from occurring as the 20th century gives way to the 21st.

"End of Days" is a collage of cliched characters, stereotypes, and action scenes that resolve themselves pretty much as one would expect. It's to the supernatural thriller as "Predator" was to the monster movie, although not quite as expertly paced, nor as well acted. (While Gabriel Byrne makes for a great Satan, Schwarzenegger doesn't quite have the range that the part of Jericho Cane calls for--he can't pull off depressed OR religiously enraptured, and the role needs an actor who could have done both.)

The biggest weakness of "End of Days", which causes it to barely rate a Six, is that the director didn't know when it was time to start the climax of his movie. He seemed to feel obligated to cram in one more chase and explosion in the NYC subway even though dramatically the movie should have moved to its resolution once Jericho rescued Christine from the gathering of Satanists on New Year's Eve.

Although entertaining, and its creators deserve credit for attempting to make a different sort of action movie, "End of Days" is just too flawed to rise above average. You can easily save watching this movie until end-of-the-world mania comes back into style in 2011 and 2012.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen:
Barbara Payton

Partly because I made reference to her in this week's write-up of Susan Denberg in the Saturday Scream Queens series, but mostly because I'm trying to erase the fact that posted an article to the wrong blog, I am bumping up Barbara Payton's appearance and making two Scream Queen posts this week.

Barbara Payton left home at 19 to pursue a career as an actress. After enjoying great early success, with contracts at Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures, and appearing in movies along side the likes of Gregory Peck and James Cagney, a wild party life-style, along with too many drugs and too much liquor, started taking its toll.

She ended her career doing horror films and thrillers, starting with the rather awful "Bride of the Gorilla" in 1951, but appearing in somewhat better fare from Hammer Films--"Four-Sided Triangle" and "Bad Blonde"--when she went to England in a last-ditch effort to get things back on track. It was too little, too late, and by 1955, Barbara Payton had made her last movie. She died in 1967 of heart and liver failure, at the age of 39, her body and one-time beauty wrecked by alcohol abuse and hard living.

Click here to read reviews of a few of Barbara Payton movies (including horror films "Bride of the Gorilla" and "Four-Sided Triangle") at Shades of Gray.

Saturday Scream Queen:
Susan Denberg

One of who knows how many promising actresses whose careers have been ruined by too much partying and too many drugs, German-born Susan Denberg's brief career of two movies and two television appearances only included one horror film, but what a great horror film it was!

Denberg played both monster and victim in "Frankenstein Created Woman", a film that is not only one of the best of the Peter Cushing-starring Hammer Films Frankenstein films, but also one of the best and most unusual Frankenstein films to ever be made, period. It's a tale of love and revenge from the beyond the grave, as Baron Frankenstein takes a break from stitching dead body parts together and instead turned to experimenting with the souls of the recently departed.

Denberg worked briefly as a showgirl in Las Vegas before turning to acting in Los Angeles. After great initial success, the party scene derailed her career. She left show business behind shortly after completing "Frankenstein Created Woman" and returned to her native Germany. Despite rumors of her death--partly generated by some fans confusing her with hard-living and hard-partying actress Barbara Payton who coincidentally died in 1967, the same year Denberg retired from acting--Denberg is presently living in Austria under her real name, Dietlinde Zechner.

Click here to read an article at The Peter Cushing Collection that includes a review of "Frankenstein Created Woman".

Thursday, July 1, 2010

'The House by the Cemetery' isn't worth visiting

The House by the Cemetery (1984)
Starring: Katherine MacColl, Paolo Malco, Giovanni Frezza, and Ania Pieroni
Director: Lucio Fulci
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A researcher (Malco) moves with his family to Boston to complete the work started by a collegue who committed suicide. Through a flurry of coincidences (or Fate, or maybe the researcher's specific manipulation, take your pick), they end up in a creepy house that is tied to the subject of the research. Ghosts, unkillable bats, and weird murders then drive the young family toward doom.

If you like your horror flicks with a high level of well-done gore but don't care whether the story hangs together well, then this is a film for you.

One part haunted house movie, one part slasher flick, and with a dash of mad science thrown in out of left field for good measure, " House by the Cemetery" exhibits all the strength and weaknesses that were the hallmarks of Italian horror movie makers in the Seventies and Eighties; the gore is appropriately disgusting--although the highmark in this film is definately the maggot-infested insides of the film's monster!--but there are characters who behave inconsistently or incomprehsibly and the script writers seem more concerned with getting from plot contrievance to plot contrievance, or providing excuses for the special efffects crew to go to work than they are with providing a story that hands together sensibly by the time the End Credits roll.

I know Fulci has his strong admirers, and I'm sure they will find much to like in this movie, but I was too annoyed with the coincidences, pointless ambiguities, and just plain random junk that pass for the story to get much enjoyment from it. It wasn't even fun nonsense, like you get in the Monogram and PRC horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s; it was just nonsense. (And if you are an admirer of this film, can you explain the behavior of the creepy babysitter [played by Ania Pieroni] to me? That annoyed me more than anything else in the picture.)

Oh... and that picture I used to illustrate this review? It appeared on a German poster for the flick, It's a cool painting, even if it has little do to with what actually happens.