Friday, October 5, 2012

Full Moon Friday: When Charlie Met Howie

Every Friday in October, as part of our 31 Nights of Halloween series, we'll be featuring a round-up post of cinematic madness produced by B-movie mogul Charles Band. We're kicking it off with a selection of films based, quite loosely in some cases, on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.

Re-Animator (1985)
Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton, David Gale and Robert Sampson
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producer: Brian Yunza and Charles Band
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dan's new roommate and fellow third-year med student, Herbert West (Combs) draws him into his bizarre (and successful) experiments with re-animating dead bodies.

"Re-Animator" is one of the craziest movies ever made, and it ranks up there with "Dead Alive" as one of the funniest creepy movies ever made. While it is nowhere near as gory as "Dead Alive" and the slapstick isn't quite as sharp, it features a cleverer script and a superior cast.

Jeffrey Combs is particularly excellent as Herbert West. We get the sense that he's a bit weird early in the film and highly strung; Combs performance puts the viewer in mind of Peter Cushing's Victor Frankenstein in the first couple of Hammer Frankenstein films... coldblooded, arrogant and probably sociopathic but not necessarily completely bonkers. When West calmly a bone saw through the chest of a zombie and then immediately sets about reanimating its recently deceased victim, it's clear not just from his actions but from Combs performance that he more than a little off. And when he later animates the severed head of an obnoxious rival (likewise brilliantly played by David Gale), it's clear that he is completely unhinged.

Speaking of the severed head, it gives rise to some of the most unnerving moments in the film, as well some of the funniest. I don't want to go into too much details, because I'd ruin the shock value. Suffice to say, it's something that needs to be seen.

Credit also needs to be go to Bruce Abbott and Barbara Crampton. While Combs and Gale are giving performances that seem like they just teleported in from a Hammer Films set in 1960, they play their characters mostly low-key. This, combined with the fact that their characters are nice and normal people, give the audience someone to identify with as the film unfolds and provide an island of calm in the middle of the evermore turbulent sea of madness that is this movie.

"Re-Animator" elevates Herbert West among the great movie mad doctors, even if, according to the very informative interview included on the Anchor Bay edition of the film, he was actually a minor character in the script and through most of the filming. It wasn't until "Re-Animator" was crafted into a releasable movie that the emphasis shifted to Herbert. (Comments in the interviews on the DVD even make me wonder if the filmmakers knew they were making a comedy until late in the process....)

Whether intentional or accidental art, this is one of those movies that gets everything right, from the mood-setting prologue, through its score (which spoofs Bernard Hermann's famous music for "Psycho") to its chilling end. It also feels as fresh as when it first released in 1985. This is one of those very rare horror movies that actually deserves the label "classic."

From Beyond (1986)
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Ken Foree, Ted Sorel and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producers: Brian Yunza and Charles Band
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A pair of physicists (Combs and Sorel) create a machine that causes our dimension to merge with another. They end up unleashing horrors--and sexual perversion--unlike any our world has ever seen before.

"From Beyond" is one of those gory, goopy movies that you do NOT want to watch while eating. If you like fast-paced monster movies with a high quotient of mad doctors--there is only one out of the five major characters who isn't a doctor who is unhinged in some fashion--and you don't mind sexually-themed horror, then you'll enjoy the heck out of this movie.

With excellent special effects--particularly during the final battle against the monstrous creature from beyond--and great performances by all the actors, this movie is a fun ride. Although only the first few minutes of the film is actually based on H.P. Lovecraft's story of the same title, Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton both capture the obsession and the madness that was a hallmark of many of his characters and stories. Further, the creatures and the entire style of the movie evokes the atmosphere of Lovecraft's writings. Even better, the film provides some great laughs to offset the terror, with Ken Foree (best-known for his role in the original "Dawn of the Dead") serving double-duty as comic relief and Macho Action Hero and succeeding equally well at both.

"From Beyond" is an excellent movie to show at a Halloween party where adults or older teens make up those in attendence. If you want to get a copy to show, make sure you get the unrrated DVD director's cut, because it features some really cool scenes that were cut to earn it an R rating during its original release--such the scene where Dr. Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) has her brain sucked out through her eye-socket and some of the bits of a tentacle-beast from Dimension Lovecraft getting to know Dr. Katherine McMichaels really well.

Lurking Fear (1994)
Starring: Blake Bailey, Ashley Lauren, Jeffrey Combs, Jon Finch, Allison Mackie, Vincent Schiavelli, Paul Mantee and Joseph Leavengood
Director: C. Courtney Joyner
Producers: Charles Band, Oana Paunescu and Vlad Paunescu
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A recently paroled convict (Bailey) travels to an isolated California town in search of stolen loot buried in the cemetery there. Unfortunately, a crime lord and his coldhearted gun moll (Finch and Mackie) are hot on his trail and equally hot for the money. Even worse, they arrive in the town as its remaining citizens are taking up arms against underground-dwelling horrors who have been murdering them at night.

"Lurking Fear" is loosely (very loosely) based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft that is the origin point of what we think of as ghouls these days. Lovecraft stories are difficult to translate to the screen, and as successful as producer Charles Band's earlier forays into Lovecraft Country had been (the very excellent "Castle Freak" and "From Beyond") this film is a failure on every level.

So, while the poster image above says Lovecraft, and the preview featured below say "action-packed horror movie," the movie itself does not live up to the promises of the promtional material.

The problems start with the fact the film was shot in Romania, with a Romanian neighborhood trying to pass for a small Californian town and a Romanian church--complete with 400 year old eastern European Catholic iconography--trying to pass for a small-town church in the American west.

These problems are aggravated by a sloppily written script and even sloppier directed film that ignores plot points, common sense, and even characterization in favor of keeping an evermore incoherent plot moving forward.

Completing the trifecta of crapitude that sinks this movie is the lame performances given by just about every actor appearing in the film. There are several performers who'll you recognize from dozens of other A- and B-movies (like Ashley Lauren, Jon Finch and Vincent Schiavelli) and some Full Moon regulars (Blake Bailey and Jeffrey Combs), but only Finch and Combs give performances that even hint at the caliber of talent appearing on the screen.

The end result is there is no way even the most willing-to-be-pleased viewer will be able to find himself engaged with the movie, so it never manages to build suspense. The 71-minutes of running-time seem a lot longer than they are.

I realize that the actors must have known what an awful film they were appearing in, but they could have at least have had the self-respect and professionalism to earn their paychecks. It looks like Finch and Combs were the only true professionals working on this film, as everyone else didn't even seem to be trying. (And I can't even be sure about Finch; his voice was reportedly looped by a different actor in post-production.)

Everything else about this film is so lazy and sloppy that it ends up ranking with some of the worst that Full Moon released during the 1990s.

Castle Freak (1995)
Starring: Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Jessica Dollarhide, and Jonathan Fuller
Director: Stuart Gordon
Producers: Albert Band, Charles Band and Maurizio Maggi
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

John and Susan Reilly (Combs and Crampton) travel to Italy with their recently blinded daughter Rebecca (Dollarhide) to inspect a castle they've just inherited. The Reillys soon discover the old owner of the castle had harbored a deep and twisted secret... a secret which has escaped and is now roaming the shadowy halls claiming victims.

"Castle Freak" is a horror film of such exceptionally high quality that it's surprising to learn it was made as a direct-to-video release. It is without question one of the best movies to come out of the Full Moon low-budget fantasy factory.

The film features a great script that presents three-dimensional characters dealing both with all-too-real horrors that normal people face every day (a family that's disintegrating due to a tragedy caused by the negligence of one parent, the inability of another to forgive, and the strain and guilt both feel in trying to live with the reality that one child is dead and another is permanently crippled) and the inconceivable horror that lurks within their new home. Even minor characters, such as the chief of police in the small town by the castle, feel fully realized and come across as living, breathing human beings.

These very well-rendered characters are brought to full life by the extremely talented cast, with Jeffrey Combs delivering a particularly impressive performance. In other films I've seen Combs in, he's seemed most comfortable when doing comedy--he was a bit wooden in "Doctor Mordrid" , but he ROCKED in "Re-Animator" and the 1991 version of "The Pit and the Pendulum" where he played roles that were marked by dark humor and twisted levity--but here in "Castle Freak" he plays a part that is purely dramatic and he delivers a nuanced and thoroughly convincing performance of a man who is trying his best to make up for a horrible shortcoming while trying to save what's left of his family. His eventual transformation from Everyman into Hero when he realizes the danger his family is in is more convincing here than in just about any other horror film you'd care to mention.

Another remarkable performance is given by Jessica Dollarhide who plays the recently blinded Rebecca. She portrays a kid who is genuinely nice and likable, someone who wants to be independent yet who also recognizes that her parents have needs as well. She plays the part with very little of the obnoxiousness and hysteria that seems to be the hallmark of teenaged characters in this genre... except for the well-justified hysteria that arises when the "castle freak" visits.

The film is also perfectly photographed and expertly edited. Director Stuart Gordon and cinematographer Mario Vulpiani use every trick in their cinematic bag to make the castle where the film takes place--which was a genuine 12th century castle owned by Full Moon Entertainment, and which served as the location for a number of the company's productions--take on a life of its own and make the film that much more intense. The effectiveness of the gore and make-up effects are gut-wrenchingly believeable, and, together with the skillfully executed camerawork make this movie seem like it was made for ten times the money that was actually spent.

"Castle Freak" truly is a film where every dollar of the budget is visable on the screen, and it's a movie where they get just about everything right.

Unfortunately, the one area where they miss the mark is with the titular "castle freak." The film would have been perfect if he had been just a little more sympathetic (ala Boris Karloff's portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster in the 1932 version of "Frankenstein"). All the elements are here to have made the creature an object of our sympathy--and given the horrible tortures that shaped him into what he is, we still end up feeling a little sorry for him, but not as much as we could have if Jonathan Fuller had been an actor of Karloff's caliber. Fuller isn't bad as the creature, but he's not great. (A more sympathetic portrayal of the "castle freak" would have made the gruesome cannibal rape scene all the more horrific.)

A slighlly bigger flaw than Fuller's okay-but-not-great performance is one that's built into its very basic story. The old duchess dies and no curious townsfolk or police do a walkthrough of the castle? That's all it would have taken to find the poor "castle freak" in his prison, and subsequently turned this from a horror movie to a Hallmark Special about a family resettling to a castle in Italy and rekindling their love for each other.

Despite that one glaring plothole, "Castle Freak" is a film that's deserving of more attention than it gets, and it's a worthy addition to the library of anyone who appreciates well-made horror films.

1 comment:

  1. Dagon is another good Gordon attempt at Lovecraft...