Tuesday, November 29, 2011

'Tales of Terror' is Roger Corman at his best

Tales of Terror (aka "Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Terror") (1962)
Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Leona Gage, Maggie Pierce, Joyce Jameson, and Debra Paget
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This is the film that convinced me that Roger Corman actually could make a good movie, when I first saw it. My first exposure to his work was "The Wasp Woman" and "The Terror", not exactly Corman at his best.

"Tales of Terror" is an anthology film that features three shorts loosely adapted from stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and further tied together by the fact that each star Vincent Price in a different role.

First up, we have the chilling and tragic tale "Morella", where a young woman (Pierce) returns to her childhood home in one last attempt to connect with the father who rejected her (Price) after the death of her mother. Moody throughout and downright terrifying at the end, this story is a excellent excursion into the dark corners of the human heart and a fabulous horror story.

Next, we have "The Black Cat", which folds the story of the same name and "A Cask of Amontillado" into one tale of dark comedy as a drunkard (Lorre) ends up in a hum-dinger of a drinking competition with a snooty wine-taster (Price) after he stumbles into an annual wine festival. When he later discovers that wine-taster has been having an affair with his wife, he decides to take drastic action. This tale is characterized by a taut balance between comedy and a brooding sense of dread, with the on-screen interplay between Lorre and Price being a fabulous bit of movie magic. (They're even better here than in "A Comedy of Terrors".)

Finally, we are presented with "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", an exceedingly creepy tale of a greedy mesmerist (Rathbone) who uses hypnosis to trap the spirit of a dying man (Price) between this world and the next... with terrible consequences for everyone involved. This segment isn't as stunning visually as the first two, but it gets plenty skin-crawly as it builds toward its climax.

The ever-present cheapness in a Corman film is invisible here. I've no doubt that every dollar is present on the screen, but the crew working on this film built some great sets, they're beautifully lit, and the camera work and editing is excellent; the material here looks far better than what I still think of as "typical" Corman. Further, there's no obvious padding to dispel the mood of horror and dread in any of the three stories.

All the principal actors (and even some of the bit-players) give excellent performances. I would even venture that Price might not be the best in this film--Lorre's comedic performance is fabulous, as is Rathbone's turn as a blackhearted villain. (That's not to say that Price isn't great in all the three parts he plays.)

If you like classic horror movies, I'm sure you'll love "Tales of Terror." If you tend to sneer at Corman films, as I used to, maybe this one will show that he can be really, really good when working with the right cast, writers, crew... and when he takes more time than 48 hours to shoot a film.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Amy Smart

Cute and blonde, California native Amy Smart has been busy playing everything from bit-parts to leading lady since her acting debut in 1996, appearing in over 50 films and television series. Best knwon for appearing in "Varsity Blues", "Outside Providence", and the two gonzo action films in the "Crank" series, her resume has been dotted with horror films since the earliest points of her career.

Smart appeared both im the anthology film "Campfire Tales" in 1997, and followed up the next year with the the internet stalker horror film "Strangeland". Ten years later, she made it a double-bill when she starred in two horror films that year--"Mirrors" and "Seventh Moon."

We won't have to wait ten years for Smart's next horror film, however. She is currently filming "7500", a movie about supernatural happenings during a flight across the Pacific. It's being directed by the "Grudge" series that is slated for release in late 2012.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Day of the Turkey Review:
The Witches' Mountain

The Witches' Mountain (1971)
Starring: John Gaffari, Patty Shepard, and Monica Randall
Director: Raul Artigot
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A commerical photographer (Caffari) takes a random girl (Shepard)--it WAS the Seventies!--with him on a trip to shoot a photo-essay on isolated Witches' Mountain. Random weirdnesses, and eventually witches, haunt them every step of the way.

"The Witches' Mountain" is a film with a muddled story and a twist ending that guarentees nothing in it makes sense.

How does the prologue with the evil little bitch girl fit with the climax? Was Shepard put in Gaffari's path through magic? What was the deal with the deserted village? Why do witches look like a modern ballet company during rehersal when doing "black magic"? Why do witches like to steal our hero's car and break into his house? These are just some of the questions you will be left with when the final frame of film freezes on your DVD player.

The best actor in this film is Shepard, who has shockingly blue eyes and has an odd sort of beauty about her--very much like the more well-known Barbara Steele--but no one is exactly bad... except perhaps that god-awful creepy innkeeper/comic relief character. But that might just have been the voice actor who did the dubbing.

Shepard's beauty aside, the only other thing this film has to offer is some great moments of unintentional hilarity to brighten any Bad Movie Night. Otherwise, this is just a mediocre horror film that's scare free and, like its protaganists, ultimately ends up nowhere.

Day of the Turkey Review:
When Heaven Comes Down

When Heaven Comes Down (2003)
Starring: Emily Albright, Dominica Wasilewska, Joe Gordon, Cory Schiffern, Anthony Sabatino, and Aaron Reisner
Director: Garry M. Lumpp
Stars: Three of Ten Stars

Several years ago, Samantha (Albright) was saved at the last minute from a religiously driven serial killer (Gordon) by a renegade FBI agent (Reisner), and the serial killer is locked up. She put her life back together, and she is now tending bar at the local watering hole and running a support group for battered women. But then the women in the support group start dying... brutally murdered in a way that makes it seem that the serial killer is back and stalking Samantha and those around her yet again.

"When Heaven Comes Down" is a clumsily made slasher flick that includes a few elements that could have helped it rise above the pack of low-budget, shot-on-video, direct-to-DVD films that anyone with a camera, friends, and a few dollars to burn seemed to be making 5-10 years ago. Given that low-budget horror film stalwart Robert D'Zar helped produce the film (and is in a single, unimportant scene), it's not surprising that it should have SOMETHING to distingush it. But that little bit of something is not nearly enough to make the movie worth watching.

The fact that a support group for battered is the focus of the murderer's activities was an inspired idea. You have the horror of women who are now being victimized all over again, and you have a ready pool of possible maniac suspects constantly lurking nearby in the form of the abusive ex-husbands and boyfriends and fathers. It's a great idea, but it requires some development of the characters in the support group... and I've seen slasher films where Drunk Girl #3 got more character development than any of the victims here. The idea also requires some skill on the part of the actors portraying these ladies... but skill and talent for acting is in short supply in almost every cast-member in the flick. Emily Albright was properly cast as the lead as she can at least deliver her lines with some degree of intensity, but everyone else is either lame or too far over-the-top in their performances.

Perhaps the most damning thing about the cast in this film is that Robert D'Zar is more memorable than all of them put together in a tiny, pointless bit-part.

I suppose if you're a fairly green viewer of horror films, you might get some enjoyment at trying to guess who the killer is while watching. It can't be original maniac as he's locked up tight in a facility for the criminally insane. Is it the now-retired, embittered FBI agent? Is it one of the abusive boyfriends? Is it Samantha's unbelievably understanding and supportive boyfriend? Or is it Samantha herself, completely cracked and on a rampage with a split personality? The guessing game can only carry you so far, because even if this is the first slasher film you've seen, about halfway through the movie, you will realize that there's a simple way to stop this killer: If Samantha actually got interviewed by the police, as she would be in real life, the killer's identity would be immediately known to them. (In fact, if Garry Lumpp had spent a little more time developing the script he wrote, he would have realized this plot problem and been able to fix it. As it is, it's a back hole of suckiness that pulls his already weak movie dangerously close to belonging on this blog instead of here.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses to ever grace us with her presence in films, only appeared in one film that can be considered a horror movie during her career. In "Wait Until Dark," she played a blind woman whose home is invaded by three thugs who will stop at nothing to retrieve a doll stuff with illegal drugs. It is a thriller so intense that it is more frightening than most films that get passed off as horror movies.

And Audrey Hepburn is as great in it as she was in anything else she appeared in.

Audrey Hepburn passed away in 1993.

(I know Audrey Hepburn doesn't really qualify as a Scream Queen, even if she did do her fair share of it in the thrillers she appeared in, but since I started this blog, this series has not missed a single Saturday. With my current eye troubles, I am not able to stare at the screen long enough to select photos and type p a bio, so I am cheating to keep up the streak... sort of. The fact that Hepburn plays a blind woman in "Wait Until Dark" seemed like a good enough excuse to post a picture of her.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

No posts on any of my blogs this week.

I am having really bad eye trouble. Hopefully, tomorrow's trip to the doctor will start to make things better.

I hope you'll check in at some point in the future.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Shirley Anne Field

Raised in an orphanage after she and her brother were abandoned by their impoverished mother, British actress Shirley Anne Field first entered show-business as a pin-up model in the early 1950s. By the middle of that decade, she'd moved onto movies, first in bit parts where she was cast for her curvacious good looks, but her gifts for acting soon saw her moving up to real roles.

Among her earliest parts with a little meat to them were an appearance in the obscure chiller "Horror of the Black Museum" (1957) and the imfamous proto-slasher flick "Peeping Tom" (1960). In 1963, Field starred in one of Hammer Films' most unusual releases, the sci-fi horror flick "These Are the Damned", and she gave a good accounting of herself. However, she would not appear in another horror film until the very disappointing "House of the Living Dead" ten years later. Field is great--and even sexy and youthful-enough in appearance to be playing a character who is 25 as opposed to her actual age of 35 at the time--but almost everything else in this slow-moving gothic horror story is dull and drab.

"House of the Living Dead" is Field's final horror movie to date, but she has appeared in numerous thrillers, in both supporting and leading roles.

Now 71, Field still possesses good looks and remains a busy working actress. She appeared in three different productions in 2010, and has been reported to have a role in "Tranfer at Aachen", a crime drama that seems to be all over the internet but which likewise does not seem to have received an official release.

Friday, November 11, 2011

'Below' is an ever-changing chiller

Below (2002)
Starring: Bruce Greenwood, Holt McCallany, Olivia Williams, Matt Davis, Nick Chinlund, and Andrew Howard
Director: David Twohy
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

While on a patrol in the Atlantic during WW2, an American submarine picks up survivors of a strange attack on a medical ship. As they attempt to reach port, the boat comes under attack from a persistent German submarine hunter while seemingly supernatural events start to hinder their efforts to survive.

With "Below", David Twohy does for the war movie what he did for sci-fi with Pitch Black. What starts in the vein of a war drama, soon shifts to an apparent espionage thriller... and eventually morphs into a full-on horror film with the crew of the submarine fighting against a monster outside (the German ship trying its best to send them to the bottom of the sea permanently) and a vengeful ghost within (both an actual supernatural ghost and the guilt harbored by some of the ship's officers surrounding the events that placed Lt. Commander Brice (Greenwood) in the position of acting captain.

With exceptional performances by the entire cast, a clever script that keeps viewers guessing about what is happening and what will come next up to, quite literally, the film's final scene, and excellent special effects, I am left wondering why this film was dumped unceremoniously directly onto the DVD market and quickly relegated to DVD multi-packs. It's a film far more deserving of the obscurity and company it's been relegated to.

If you like war movies and horror movies, "Below" is a film you need to check out.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Katee Sackhoff

Born in 1980, actress Katee Sackhoff was a rising television actress with a handful of roles to her name when she shot to sci-fi stardom as the cigar-chomping fighter pilot Starbuck in the remake of "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi/Syfy Channel. She played Starbuck for four seasons.

However, her first major role in a television series was in the short-lived horror anthology series "The Fearing Mind". Along the way, Sackhoff has also appeared in a number of horror movies, including the misbegotten "Halloween: Resurrection" and "White Noise 2: The Light".

Sackhoff is currently filming a western series for television, as well as working on three movies in varying stages of production, two of which are horror films: "The Haunting in Georgia" (for which a sequel is already in the works, even before the first one is through post-production) and "Growl", with both tentatively slated for release in 2012.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

'Open Graves' is not worth your time

Open Graves (2009)
Starring: Mike Vogel, Eliza Dushku, Ethan Rains, Lindsay Caroline Robba, Naike Rivelli, and Gary Piquer
Director: Álvaro de Armiñán
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of 20-somethings (Dushku, Rains, Rivelli, Robba, and Vogel) working and surfing in Spain fall victim to a powerful and deadly curse after they play a board game made from the bones of a witch.

If you've seen the classic movie "Jumanji", you know the basic premise of this film. You've also seen that premise used far more effectively. Heck, you've even seen more intense and frightening scenes than what you'll get in this horror movie.

"Open Graves" features a script so weak and predictable that I wonder why it was made as an R-rated film. Anyone who has seen even one other film featuring a cursed object will be able to guess where the film is going, up to and including the ending, so the only audience who would have enjoyed this picture would have been young kids. Everyone else will grow increasingly bored as this movie unfolds and brings nothing new. (There is a creepy little twist involving Eliza Dushku's character toward the end of the film, but it's so minor so as to be a reach for me to even mention it as a positive aspect of the film. I suppose the subplot involving a police detective with a dark agenda is also unpredictable... but only because it ends without any particular resolution. Not a Good Thing.)

Of course, it doesn't help the overall weakness of the material that the actors appear to have been cast mostly for their good looks than their talent. They add more attractiveness to this already beautiful-looking film, but they ultimately also help emphasize the emptiness and unoriginality of the script, because there is little or no life to their characters. The exception to that general statement are Dushku and Vogel, who bring enough charisma to their characters that we care a little about what will happen to them... but for all but the most entertainment-starved captive audience that's not enough to make it feel like watching this film was time well spent.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nine Days of the Ninja:
Ninjas & Zombies: Tastes that go great together?

Ninjas vs. Zombies (2010)
Starring: Daniel Ross, Cory Okouchi, Carla Okouchi, P.J. Megaw, Dan Guy, Daniel Mascarello, Melissa McConnell, Tara Moore, and Will Stendeback
Director: Justin Timpane
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Three friends are granted the magical powers and combat prowess of The Ninja when a necromantic ritual unleashes a soul-sucking, zombie-creating demon on a small American town.

As low-budget action spoofs go, "Ninjas vs, Zombies" is fairly well accomplished on the technical front. The special effects are well-deployed, both the practical gore effects and the digitally generated "magical energies" and muzzle-flashes and explosions. Director Timpane seems to have a good sense of how to film action and martial arts scenes, and the editing generally helps cover up budgetary shortfalls rather than emphasize them. The main technical disappointment about the film is that the foley artists could have been on the job more, as there are several fight and effect scenes that are less effective than they might otherwise have been.

The acting is better than I've come to expect from films at this level of production, with lead heroes Daniel Ross and Dan Guy being particularly skilled and fun to watch. P.J. McGaw also gives a good accounting of himself as the root of all evil in the film, and the rest of the cast and supporting players are also quite good.

Unfortunately, everyone is let down by an inadequite script. Written by the director, it feels like a first draft, with flabby and repetative scenes and dialogue, particularly early on, and, worse, irrelevant scenes and pop cultural references that distract from the film's central high concept of Ninjas kicking Zombie ass without adding anything worthwhile to the mix. I suppose with Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer somehow still having careers and still making shitty comedies that consist of little more than stringing together random references to popular movies and pop culture, it was only a matter of time before a new generation of filmmakers started to copy them. (It also doesn't help that some of the character interaction feels like it was lifted from a Kevin Smith movie. Stealing is a time-honored tradition among script-writers, but one really should take one's screenplay through an extra draft or two to hide the sources a bit better. Even if it means bringing in a co-writer.

I think there is all sorts of potential for a great horror and/or action comedy when it comes to pitting Ninjas against zombies. I also think that potential is on display in this film, but it remains mostly unrealized. It's better than most of the Godfrey Ho patch-work Ninja films, but it's still not a film to go out of your way for, whether you're looking for a comdy, a zombie film, or a ninja picture. It might make a good second feature for a bad movie night, if your group has patience for films with slow wind-ups and irrelevant detours.