Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Bela Lugosi's only color film is a bit of a mystery

Scared to Death (1947)
Starring: George Zucco, Bela Lugosi, Nat Pendleton, Molly Lamont and Angelo
Director: William Christy Cabanne
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Scared to Death", Laura Van Ee (Molly Lamont) relates the final few hours of her life where her sordid past caught up with her, and she was.. well, scared to death. She is on a slab in the morgue as she relates a tale of a loveless, yet co-dependent to an extreme degree, marriage to an ethics-challeged psychiatrist (Zucco); a discredited doctor and hypnotist, Leonid (Lugosi), and his ill-tempered long-time midget companion; a bumbling bodyguard (Pendleton) who wants nothing more than to have a murder occur, so he can solve it and get back in good standing with the police force; a super-annoying reporter and his airhead girlfriend; the skittish maid; and a mysterious blue-gree face that keeps hovering outside the windows. The presense of these strange and whacky characters all add up to Laura being dead by the movie's end... and being in the morgue where we started.

No... I'm not giving the ending away, because the title gives it away. The fact that the opening scene has Laura dead in teh morgue gives it away. So, suspense over whether she's going to live or die is never an issue in the film. How she is going is going to die isn;'t an issue either. The mystery as to "why" does come up every so often during the film, but it's not really something that viewers are all that concerned about. The insanity of the proceedings is more what we're focused on.

"Scared to Death" is either a really bad horror movie, or an incredibly quirky comedy (although not necessarily a good one). This short B-movie (which is one of Bela Lugosi's few color appearances, by the way) left me so confused about what the filmmakers had been hoping to accomplish that I did some searching online in hopes of finding some reviewer who could give me a little context.

Well, no one seems to have more of a clue about the film than I do, so I'm going with my opinion that "Scared to Death" was intended as a comedy--a horror movie spoof, actually--but it somehow went awry. (In fact, I think most of the reviewers I came across with my quick Google search have looked at "Scared to Death" in the wrong way. I don't think it was intended as a horror film, at least not when principle shooting was going on.)

Every actor, except the woman who is being scared to death, delivers their parts and their lines in a comedic fashion. (If you take a look at comedies from the 30s and 40s, you'll know what I mean by that.) I've seen Nat Pendleton as the comic relief screwball character in two or three other films (most notably the very excellent "Trapped by Television" ), but his antics pale next to those of Lugosi and his look-alike midget buddy, and several other minor characters that appear. Further, Lugosi's delivery as he plays Dr. Leonid is very similar to how he played his parts in the clear-cut comedies "The Gorilla" and "Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein". (In fact, critics often praise Lugosi's comedic timing in "Meet Frankenstein", but I think his talent for comedy is even more clear in "Scared to Death" during his scenes with the cranky midget.

If considered as a pseudo-screwball comedy horror spoof, "Scared to Death" is not all that bad--if very, very strange. The film never manages to build the frenetic pace it would need to fully work, because the unfolding chaos is constantly interrupted by cut-aways to Laura at the morgue so she can deliver obvious and dull commentary on what we've just seen, or are about to see.

If viewed as a horror film, "Scared to the Death" is a complete and total disaster--unscary and utterly insipid--that is made worse by the lame cut-aways to the morgue and the tension-dispelling framing device that establishes Laura is already dead.

However you think of the film, the morgue scenes don't fit. In fact, they feel out of place and tacked on. They lead me to suspect that they were added by studio executives who were trying to reshape a bizarre comedy into a horror movie, because, according to two different websites, "Scared to Death" was completed several years before its 1947 release date.

If I'm right in my speculation--and it is just speculation, as I haven't done all that much research--I can't help but wonder what "Scared to Death" might have looked like if it had remained the comedy is was intended to be.

I'm giving "Scared to Death" a four-star rating, because I'm treating it like a comedy. If it wasn't for the morgue cut-aways, it would be a Five or Six film. (If I were to treat it like a horror film, we'd be talking One or Two Stars, and those would be awarded unintentional comedy.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Another failed attempt at capturing a webcast

Dead on Site (2011)
Starring: Mai-Ly Duong, Jamie Perkins, Robbie Daymond, Maggie Guzman, Christopher Burnham, and Jaymz Johnson
Director: Scott Kenyon Barker
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of college students set out to webcast reenactments of gruesome, unsolved murders from the house they happened in. But after their website goes live, mysterious happenings, both online and in the house, make them fear that they are being watched... either by supernatural forces, or perhaps by a very real killer who might want to some reenacting of his own.

"Dead on Site" is the third horror movie I've seen that tries to build a story around webcams and the broadcasting possibility they represent vis-a-vis "reality television". It's also the third time I've seen filmmakers fail to make a good horror movie based around the concept.

The first was "Halloween: Resurrection" (2002) a sequel so misbegotten that Michael Myers felt shoe-horned into his own series. Then came "Hell Asylum",which was either a symptom of not-so-great minds thinking alike, or of what happens when schlock filmmakers want to rip off what they perceive as "the next great thing". Now, it's "Dead on Site", which is better than the ones that came before, but which is still a deeply flawed movie.

First off, the final college project that the film is based around is very inept in its execution, vaguely defined, and not the sort of thing I can see a professor signing off on, let alone giving a passing grade for at the end of the day. (Well, except out of sympathy, given the way things turn out but that's not what they could have counted on going in.)

Secondly, the script is poorly written. Each character sounds and talks alike and they don't even have much in the way of personalities to distinguish one from the other, so when they start getting killed off/disappearing, you'll find yourself asking, "Who was that again?"

It doesn't help anything that the attempts at casting this or that character as the possible killer that has infiltrated the group boil down to a pair of characters threaten to kill the one truly obnoxious member of the group.

The couple of characters that have interesting back-stories are also not properly utilized, such as the wanna-be detective hoping to crack the murder mystery--I don't think I've seen less investigation or less serious recreation of a crime scene take place outside of backyard cops-and-robbers games among 9-year-olds--or the B-movie actress turned grad student at the end of a flamed-out career. Both of these characters could have been utilized to add some depth and texture to the story. The performances given by the actors aren't bad, but the material they are working with is so thin that there's not much they can do with it.

Finally, there's a completely unnecessary and out-of-left-field supernatural element inserted into the story at the 11th hour when the killer is revealed to be an immortal servant of Satan. There is no set-up of this element, nor does it have any connection to anything else in the movie.

Perhaps if the script had been taken through another draft or two, the dialogue would have been sharpened and the character elements would have been more clearly defined and utilized in driving the story. Heck, perhaps even the "immortal killer" idea would have appeared at some point earlier in the story.

Basically, this film fails because of the one thing that even the lowest of low-budget filmmakers has complete control over: The quality of the script. And it's too bad that an otherwise decent cast is let down by it, with Jamie Perkins is particularly good at playing a complete jerk.

"Dead on Site" premieres on DVD on April 5. My thanks to Maxim Media for providing me with an advanced copy of the film to review.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Psyclops' is fun but flawed

In light of a comment made by writer/director Brett Piper below, in response to this review, I am going to be rewatching and reevaluating this film. I will be posting some additional comments over at Cinema Steve, and I'll link to them here. My first thought was to just revise the article, but that felt like "hiding the evidence." (The review was originally posted on 2/10/11. I'll be watching the film again and have some comments up soon.)

Psyclops (2002)
Starring: Dan Merriman, Rob Monkiewicz, Irene Elizabeth Joseph, Diane DiGregorio, Liz Hurley, and Phip Barbour
Director: Brett Piper
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A geeky film student (Merriman) fires up the 150 year-old creation of a mad scientist and creates a bridge between our dimension and another. He is transformed into a hideous creature with a video camera fused into his skull and sets out to transform a girl he has a crush on (DiGregorio) into the perfect Bride of the Monster.

"Psyclops" is a diamond in the rough. It features Rob Monkiewicz, the leading man of several other Piper films, in one of his first appearances, and it is full of the sort of comedy and classic horror movie atmosphere that Piper included in his later films "Bite Me!" and "Shock-O-Rama". But Monkiewicz' performance feels stiff and unnatural, and Piper's direction of numerous scenes is clunky and plodding. And it's not just Monkiewicz whose performance is still--the entire cast give performances that would be perfectly acceptable on a stage, but which are entirely unsuitable for a film. They all wait politely for the other cast members to finish their lines, and they all seem to be performing to make sure that the audience in the back can pick up every work and gesture.

It doesn't help matters that the dialogue feels mostly unnatural and very 1970s comic-booky as well. In fact, the whole film feels like a live action comic book in many ways... with each line of dialogue being in its own separate speech balloon and each shot being an individual panel. Perhaps this is what Piper was going for, but since that is such a far-fetched notion, I rather doubt it. It is an interesting atmosphere, but it gives the movie a stagey feel.

However, despite the stiffness of the acting and the dialogue, the film is never boring. Although Piper once again takes his time introducing us to the characters, the film is engaging from the outset. Once the mad science enters into the picture--with alien bugs that reanimate dead bodies and goopy tentacle beasts from Dimension Lovecraft--the film is practically zooms along to its fiery conclusion. (We can't have a movie with mad science-spawned monster without a building burning to the ground at the end, now can we?)

The swift pace of the film almost makes up for the fact that many of the jokes aren't all that funny. The fight against zombies animated by extra-dimensional creatures is also a great highlight of the film, and it more than makes up for a pointless scene where Merriman kills a would-be mugger. All-in-all, if you like cheesy movies, you'll find this movie a good way to pass an hour and half, and you'll agree with me that its strong points almost outweigh the weak ones.

Almost. At its best, this film reminded me of some of my favorite Full Moon pictures from the 1980s and 1990s, but at its worst it put me in mind of Full Moon efforts from the other end of the spectrum... although nothing here was ever as bad as "The Killer Eye".

While Brett Piper and Rob Monkiewicz went onto improve their craft and create better films, most of the other actors appearing in this film have virtually no other credits to their names--including "Liz Hurley" who is not who you think it is. That's a shame, because with the exception of a couple of bit players, I saw potential in every actor that appeared. (I could even swear that I've seen Diane DiGregorio in other films, but I can't find any other credits for her.)

Given the great progress Piper made as a filmmaker between "Psyclops" in 2002 and "Shock-O-Rama" in 2005, I can only imagine how entertaining "Bacterium" (a 2006 film waiting in my Stack of Stuff) and his 2009 effort "Muck Man" (which I have yet to acquire) might be.

Saturday Scream Queen: Barbara Shelley

Barbara Shelley spent her early career as a model and bit-player, but in 1957 she landed the starring role in "Cat Girl," a picture about a woman cursed with a psychic link to leopard. Over the next decade, she appeared in some of Britain's most celebrated horror films of the 1960s, such as "Dracula: Prince of Darkness", "Village of the Damned", "Quatermass and the Pit", and "The Gorgon". Whether playing a demon or a damsel in distress, Shelley always brought poise, grace, and beauty to the screen.

Along side her film appearances, Shelley maintained a thriving television career, and she transitioned to TV full time by the time the 1970s dawned, leaving horror behind except for a role in the 1974 chiller "Ghost Story". She retired from acting in 1992.

Friday, March 25, 2011

'The Gorgon' is a Hammer Films masterpiece

The Gorgon (1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee and Richard Pasco
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When the spirit of the sole surviving Gorgon sisters of Greek legend rises again to plague a Balkan village, The doctor in a small Balkan village (Cushing) attempts to cover up the fact that citizens are being turned to stone under the full moon, even as a visiting scholar (Lee) attempts to determine the fate of a colleague.

"The Gorgon" is a curious mixture of elements, being part ghost movie, part romance movie, part fantasy epic--but all the elements congeal into a fabulous horror film.

With the usual lush sets that marked Hammer Films of this period, and the usual topnotch direction from Terence Fisher, we have a film that is gorgeous to look at. Add a great script being performed by a fantastic cast, some of whom are in parts we don't typically see them in (Christopher Lee is the monster-busting scholar here, while Peter Cushing is the antagonist who may or may not be in league with the monster) but all of whom are at the top of their game.

"The Gorgan" contains a number of truly chilling moments and the script features a couple of twists and turns, so that the viewer is kept guessing as to who is actually host to the gorgon's spirit until it is revealed. Even better, the final confrontation between the heroes and the Gorgon is one of the most dramatic endings to a Hammer film, period! (The film loses a bit of steam as it heads toward the climax, but the finale more than makes up for the slight drag.)

"The Gorgon" is one of the most underrated horror flicks from Hammer Films. For years it was unavailable even on VHS, but Sony finally released four Columbia-distributed Hammer Films in a multi-movie set as part of their "Icons of Horror" series. Get it. All four films in the set are excellent, with the "The Gorgon" being the very best.

Fear-filled Phantasms: Vampirella in Trouble!

Vampirella has been the baddest of the Good Girls since she first bared her fangs in 1969, but it's been far from smooth sailing. Here are some images of her being menaced by a variety of threats. (All paintings appeared on covers from the original run of the Vampirella Magazine.)

You can see more visions of Vampirella at Cinema Steve, and you can read reviews of her original adventures at Shades of Gray.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Fangs of the Living Dead' has no bite

Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)
Starring: Anita Ekberg, Julian Ugarte, John Hamilton, Diana Lorys, Adriana Ambesi, and Guy Roberts
Director: Amando de Ossorio
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A model (Ekberg) is summoned to her ancestral home to receive her inheritance. She comes under the influence of her sinister uncle (Ugarte) and the cult of vampires that is forming around him.

"Fangs of the Living Dead" plays like a lobotomized version of "Dracula", with several scenes heavily inspired by the novel and with Ekberg's Sylvia standing in for Jonathan Harker, crossed with a "dark old house" movie and flavored with the graphic sensibilities and tight dresses of 1960s Hammer gothic horror flicks. If the filmmakers had stuck with this approach, the over-the-top acting, the melodramatic dialogue, and the dippy characters would all add up, whether intentional or not, to a hilarious send-up of the gothic horror genre. The overblown soundtrack music only makes it all the more funny. Unfortunately, it's all ruined when writer/director Amando de Ossorio tries his hand at a twist ending that tries to undo everything that unfolded in the film and reduces what was funny to a level of idiocy. And the twist on the twist doesn't help any. In fact, these are such misguided twists that one wonders if everyone involved with the production has severe memory issues, as it doesn't fit with much of what unfolded earlier. (That said, the "twist" itself could be a misfired attempt at spoofing horror movies, which would mean the movie was intended as a send-up all along; in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasn't uncommon for the supposed supernatural elements in a film to be written off through a revelation in the third act that it was all a hoax. The most blatant example of this can be found in "Mark of the Vampire".)

The film is further crippled by the fact that headliner Anita Ekberg is miscast. At 38, she was a bit long in the tooth to play the part of the "naive young heiress" and as a result she comes across more like a blonde so dumb that calling her retarded would be a compliment.

However, for all its weaknesses, the film features some nice cinematography, and the director manages to evoke a chilling atmosphere here and there, especially during the sequence when Ekberg is running around the castle in terror, and the one that riffs on the "Dracula" scene where the heroes wait for the undead Lucy in the graveyard. The drunken village doctor who stands in for the Abraham Van Helsing character is also a great deal of fun... and then there's the vamp-on-vamp battle to the death during the film's climax, one of the great cat-fights in cinematic history.

In the end, though, the bad far outweighs the good. The film rates the lowest possible Three I can give it, and it is only suitable for viewing as part of a Bad Movie Night.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Nicole de Boer

Canadian actresss Nicole "Nikki" de Boer started acting professionally in the late 1980s while still in her teens. She has been quietly and steadily working ever since, bringing her good looks, charm, and considerable talent to a wide variety of television series, such as "Star Trek: Deep Space 9", the drama "9B", the sci-fi chiller "Deepwater Black", and the horror-tinged mystery "The Dead Zone".

On the movie front, de Boer's career has been mostly horror-centric, with most of her projects being films like "Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil" (a slasher film with Catholic conspiracy overtones from before Dan Brown made Catholic conspiracies kewl) and "Cube" (possibly the first, but certainly among the best, of all "torture porn" films.

More recently, she's headlined a pair of Syfy Channel Original Picture, "Iron Invader" (about a Golem-like statue rampaging through a small farming town) and the forthcoming "Metal Tornado (about a magnetic storm that literally threatens to tear the world apart).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Hammer unmasks the 'Phantom of the Opera'

The Phantom of the Opera (1962)
Starring: Edward DeSouza, Heather Sears, Herbert Lom, Thorley Walters, and Michael Gough
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As if Harry (DeSouza), a young director and producer of operas, didn't have enough problems dealing with the massive ego of the creator and backer of his latest show (Gough), and the backer's unsavory designs upon the young, virginal diva (Sears), the production is plagued with mysterious disasters. Harry soon uncover darks secrets surrounding the production, but will he manage to placate the Phantom of the Opera (Lom) before it is too late for all involved?!

The Hammer version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is the fastest moving, most-visually interesting adaptation of the tale that I've seen. The watery lair of the Phantom is very cool, Heather Sears is a hotty and she also plays nicely off Lom, and Michael Gough is the perfect upper-class slime and wanna-be musical genius who only acheives that status when he steals the life-work of another man. All in all, the cast here is great, and it's another Terrence Fisher-helmed movie that's absolutely gorgeous to behold.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

There ain't much Irish in this Banshee

According to the original Irish legends, the banshee is a spirit that followed five powerful Irish clans and her mournful howls would fill the darkness of the eve before one of their numbers were to come to a dark end. Recent tales have expanded the nature of the banshee to a more general nature... although one has to wonder if the creators of this film even bothered looking up the word "banshee" in a dictionary.

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, I present a review of a movie featuring the Banshee... kinda. And while the Banshee may be an Irish spirit, it admittedly has about as much to do with St. Patrick as this movie has to do with the Banshee. (This is an expanded version of a review that appears in Movies You Should (Die Before You) See.)

Cry of the Banshee (1970)
Starring: Vincent Price, Hilary Dwyer, Patrick Mower, and Elizabeth Bergner
Director: Gordon Hessler
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When the ruthless, psychopathic Lord Edward Whitman (Price) has a coven of witches massacred, the leader (Bergner) escapes and calls forth a Banshee that will visit death and destruction upon the entire Whitman line, until it exists no more.

Every so often, a movie comes along where every character in it is so unlikeable or so one-dimensional and flat that the viewer really doesn't care what happens to them, and has no one in particular to root for or identify with. "Cry of the Banshee" is one of those films.

The writing here is so bad that not even Vincent Price, who usually manages to bring a fresh feel to even the corniest villian, and some degree of twisted charm to even the worst psychopathic murderer, can tease anything from the character of Edward Whitman other than "this is a bloodthirsty upperclass twit in Elizabethan England who gets off on killing buxom peasant wenches suspected of performing pagan rituals in the woods."

The opposite side of the story--the coven leader Oona--is a performance that stands as a tribute to the questionable gift of overacting. Then there's the story problem that her "revenge" is as broad and uncalled for as the atrocities of Lord Edward's random witch-hunts.

The most glaring example of how bad this movie is the complete illiteracy of anyone involved with the production side. A simple consultation of a dictionary to find the defintion of "banshee" would have gone a long way to making this movie a little less dumb.

The film almost redeems itself at the end with a nicely executed twist (even if the sudden shift in Price's character was a little odd) and there's some honest-to-god horror to be found there, as opposed to simple sadism and brutality, but it's too little and too late. By then, "Cry of the Banshee" is firmly in the Bad category. (There are worse--and director Hessler is responsible for some them, such as "Scream and Scream Again"--but there are also far, far better.)

Trivia: The opening titles sequence was by Terry Gilliam of "Monte Python" and "Time Bandits" fame. It's pretty nifty and more creative than "Cry of the Banshee" deserves.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Meat Loaf's 'I Would Do Anything for Love'

It's a great video for one of his greatest recordings. (It was directed by Michael Bay.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sometimes a film's best avoided...

Sometimes They Come Back... Again (1996)
Starring: Michael Gross, Hilary Swank, Alexis Arquette, and Jennifer Elise Cox
Director: Adam Grossman
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

When Jon Porter (Gross) returns to his childhood home after the death of his mother, his good-girl teenaged daughter Michelle (Swank) is stalked by the restless spirits of a gang of intensely evil teenaged Satanists, led by Tony Reno (Arquette) he killed as they were killing his sister several decades ago. If Jon is to save his daughter, he needs to kill them... again.

"Sometimes They Come Back... Again" starts out okay but quickly degrades into bad effects and abject stupidity. Even allowing for the standard cast of Stephen King stock characters (the film is based, very loosely, on a short story he wrote, "Sometimes They Come Back") -- the haunted adult who has to face childhood horrors, the 1950s-style tough-guys who are still around as ghosts, the innocent child of the main character who is now being menaced by the dark past, the village idiot, the desperate cleric, and so on--the characters and events here are generally so over the top that it becomes impossible for the viewer to suspend disbelief. And the awful "electricity effects" doesn't help one bit.

It also doesn't help that the only decent actors in the piece are Gross and Swank. On one hand, it's good, because the father/daughter relationship is key to the film's story. On the other hand, it's bad, because whenever they're acting against other players, they show how bad everyone else is.

Truly hardcore Stephen King fans might enjoy this film. The rest of us can just watch it for the beauty that is Hilary Swank...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Hilary Swank

One thing's for certain about two-time Best Actress Oscar-winner Hilary Swank: Neither of those were given for her horror movies.

While horror films already rank pretty low on the Academy's list of things to consider when handing out awards, there can be little argument that they've properly ignored the dozen or so thrillers and chillers Swank has appeared in since making her screen debut as a child actress in 1991.

It's a shame that Swank hasn't been featured in better horror films, because she is often the best thing about ones she's been in. She continues to appear in scary movies (with her most recent one being "The Resident" from the revived Hammer Films), so there's still hope for fans that she will be in the right project sooner or later.

Friday, March 11, 2011

'The Reaping' nets a thin harvest

The Reaping (2007)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Idris Elba, David Morrissy, AnnaSophia Robb, and Stephen Rae
Direector: Stephen Hopkins
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A former missionary turned college professor-and-professional-debunker-of-miracles Katherine (Swank) is called to an isolated Louisanna village to provide a scientific explanation for a series of events that mirror the Ten Plagues of Egypt as depicted in the Old Testament. As scientific explanations start to wear thin, Katherine and her deeply religious assistant (Elba) uncover signs that something supernatural is indeed happening in the town--something that may well be of Biblical proportions--and it centers around a 12 year-old girl (Robb). But is she a savior or a destroyer?

"The Reaping" is a fairly standard, paint-by-numbers supernatural thriller with religious themes that will you'll derive enjoyment from in direct proportion to the number of other films in this vein that you've seen. There's not much here that hasn't been done better in other films, although it is well enough paced, decently acted, and decently executed on the technical level. (It does feature one of the best "When Bugs Attack" moments ever put on film, and this sequence is when the film is at its best and its scariest.)

Like so many other modern thrillers, however, its fatal weakness lies with the script. It's not only unoriginal, but its shallow both emotionally and spiritually. The viewer never experiences the pain and horror that caused Katherine to lose her faith in God, and her rediscovery of it is likewise nothing that we feel any emotional investment in. (It's necessary for the plot, but we never get close enough to her--or any of the characters, really--to feel the process happening.)

The film is also not helped by the way it devolves into a special effects extravaganza where the viewer feels even more detached from the action and the characters than at any previous point in the film. Then, just to botch the finale completely, we're treated to a lame "twist-ending" denouement instead of some sort of emotional wrap-up to the story.

"The Reaping" rates a low 5 on the 0 to 10 scale... it's watchable, but there are probably other films you'd be better off spending your time on. It did hold my interest throughout... although I'm not sure if this was to the story's credit or Hilary Swank's tight tanktops and flimsy nightgowns.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

'The Demons of Ludlow' is one of Rebane's best

The Demons of Ludlow (1975)
Starring: Paul von Hausen, Stephanie Cushna, Carol Perry, James R. Robinson, C. Dave Davis, and Angailica
Director: Bill Rebane
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A curse that's haunted a small New England town since its founding two hundred years ago is brought fully to horrible life when a piece of its secret history--a piano that sounds like a harpsichord (or is that a harpsichord that looks like an upright piano?)--resurfaces. Will the town preacher (Von Hausen) and a pair of young journalists (Cushna and Robinson) stop the curse, or will they fall victim to it?

I watched several of Bill Rebane's movies, and I don't know whether my ability to tell crap from quality started to erode when I got to this one, but I think that "The Demons of Ludlow" is actually pretty good for a low-budget horror film. Compared to some of Rebane's other efforts, it's downright brilliant.

Unfortunately, like another of Rebane's almost-good movies--"The Game" (aka "The Cold")--he and his writers simply can't seem to pull off the ending. Remember my question im the summary above as to whether the preacher and the journalist escape the curse? That remains a question at the end of the movie, and it's not a question that hangs there in a good way. The ending is so abrupt that seems as though Rebane ran out of film and had no money to buy more. The film simply feels like the ending was left off.

If a little more care had been taken to construct a story with a decent end, this could have been a solid 5 rating. The soundtrack is decent, the acting is better than most of what you see in films of this kind, and there are even some pretty scary scenes--the sequences where the preacher's alcoholic wife is being tormented by the ghosts' of Ludlow's past are particularly well done. But, again, Rebane screws up the ending.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Kathleen Benner

Arizona-based actress and model Kathleen Benner made her film debut in the 2005 sci-fi/horror fusion "Vampire Slayers" and has since appeared in more than 20 films, the vast majority being independent horror flicks.

In addition to being a successful actress and model, Benner also works as a stunt woman. Maybe someday, she'll get to kick Jason Vorhees' or Ghostface's butt on the big screen. She certainly has both the looks and the talent.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

'The Abducted' is saved by its stars

The Abducted (aka "Match.Dead") (2011)
Starring: James Ray, Kathleen Benner, and Michael Harrelson
Director: Jon Bonnell
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A serial killer (Ray) abducts a young woman (Benner) he met through an online dating site. After deciding he loves her, he forgoes his usual habit of murder, and he tries to win her affection through violence and terrifying mind games. Will she escape, or will she end up as just another victim?

"The Abducted" is a movie that's elevated by a actors that ALMOST manage to transcend the weakness of the material the are working with. The idea behind the film is an interesting one--it takes the basic framework of the countless torture porn movies that have been spewed forth into the direct-to-DVD market and onto the big screen since the surprise hit "Saw" but uses it for a psychological thriller instead of a disgusting sadistic gore-fest--but the execution is lacking.

The biggest flaw with the film is that we never get any insight into the film's villain, Ridley, and why he does what he does. Nor do we ever gain an understanding of the tortured heroine, Valora, even if we get several flashbacks to her childhood, which the writer and director presumably felt would explain why she was able fight her abductor and why he saw a kindred spirit in her. Because the villain and the heroine both remain unknowns to us, much of the potential emotional of the film never materializes. The battle of wills between the two characters feels a bit hollow and even the murder of the girl's grandfather feels like nothing more than a badly motivated excuse for some splatter and melodrama, because we know even less about the grandfather than we do the heroine.

While it's good for a movie to hit the ground running, it would have been nice if there would have been a little more set-up of the characters in this film. Specifically, how the main characters met, and why someone who seems as appealing and strong-minded as the kidnap victim had to resort to online dating to find love? All this could have been accomplished with just a few minutes at the beginning, perhaps even showing the two characters meeting after their online connection. (All the promotional material for the film references online dating and the initial meeting of the two main characters, so I wonder that material never made it into the movie.)

More background on the main characters would also have helped make the ending seem more satisfying, because as it stands Valora's transformation is very, very lame. (The ending also made me wonder: Why do so many action and horror films end with the villains getting killed? In so many movies, it would be a far worse punishment for the bad guy to go through the humiliation of trial and imprisonment. Death is the easy way out. It most cases, the justice isn't even poetic, nor barely even justice.)

It's a shame the script here ins't stronger, because James Ray and Kathleen Benner both give fine performances, and they each have enough charisma together and apart to carry the film despite its flaws. This is the second time I've seen Ray play an unpleasant bad-ass (the other time being in "Fable", a film which also happened to feature Benner in a small part), and I think he if all goes well for him he might find himself a prominent spot in the pantheon of cinematic heavies.

"The Abducted" will see wide release on DVD on March 7. My thanks to the good folks at Brain Damage Films for supplying me with an advanced copy.