Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jess Franco does good!

Count Dracula (1970) (aka "The Nights of Dracula" and "Night: When Dracula Awakens")
Starring: Christopher Lee, Fred Williams, Herbert Lom, Soledad Miranda, Maria Rohm, and Klaus Kinski
Director: Jess Franco
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The immortal vampire Count Dracula (Lee) leaves his Transylvanian home for the fresh hunting grounds of London, preying upon women connected to his attorney, Jonathan Harker (Williams).

There is little question that Jess Franco is a hack of small talent. Even at his best, he ends up showing off how inept he is as a director, producer, what have you. So, to say that "Count Dracula" ranks among the very best of Jess Franco pictures sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise.

I am not, however. "Count Dracula" not only ranks among Jess Franco's best pictures, but it should be counted among the most faithful adaptations of Stoker's "Dracula" that has ever been committed to film. (In fact, the only one I've seen that's more faithful is John Johnson's oddly titled "Alucard"... which I just discovered I never posted a review of. I'll have to fix that ASAP.) Although it appears to be based on the stage play rather than novel, as was the famous Bela Lugosi flick for Universal 40 years earlier, this film captures the tone and intent of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" with far greater accuracy than the Lugosi vehicle or the film from Francis Ford Coppala that falsely passed itself off as "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

Christopher Lee is especially excellent in this film, portraying Dracula as the coldhearted, barely human maniac that he should be portrayed as--a being where humanity is a badly maintained mask that is barely skin deep. There is no romance surrounding this Dracula... only evil. Franco promised Lee that he would get to play Dracula as Stoker wrote him, and Franco was true to his word... Lee even gets to deliver the "children of the night" lines word-for-word, and with greater power than any other film actor before or since. The only complaint I can level against Lee's grand performance is that he comes out of the starting box a little too strong. The film maintains the creepy bits from the novel where Dracula gets younger as he feeds on the life-force and blood of innocent young English women, but the viewer doesn't get the full impact of Dracula's rejuvenation, because the transformation from old to young is little more than a make-up job, because Lee plays Dracula the same way.

Another shining performance in the film is delivered by Soledad Miranda. She literally commands every scene that she's in, being not only beautiful but also possessed with immense charisma. And when she goes from victim to vampire, she shows that she can be cute as easily as she can be creepy. It is one of film history's great tragedies that she was killed in a car accident on literally the very day when she was going to sign the contract that would have been her big breakthrough. If she had lived, perhaps even Jess Franco would have left a less foul legacy, as Miranda seems to be the common element between some of Franco's best pictures; the five-picture deal Miranda was about to sign would have seen Franco come along as the director on the films.

As for the rest of the cast, there isn't much to say other than that they showed up, they did their lines, and no one embarrassed themselves. Herbert Lom is an okay Van Helsing, and Klaus Kinski is a decent Renfield, but everyone else is perfectly forgettable... including Fred Williams' bland Jonathan Harker. (In fairness to Williams, though, anyone would look bland in comparison to Lee's Dracula in this flick.)

With the actors being excellent to okay, and the film being as faithful-as-can-be-excepted adaptation of "Dracula" within an 100-minute running time, why am I only giving it an Average rating, you might ask? Well, that's because despite everything that's good about the film, it is STILL a Jess Franco production.

Like most Franco films, he is working with a budget that is very small. And like most Franco films, Franco doesn't appear capable of judging where the money is best spent, or he is incapable of devising ways to hide the lack of budget. For example, when Terrence Fisher did his "Dracula" in 1958, the final battle between Dracula and the vampire hunters was completely revised to reflect the limitations of budget and production realities. Franco, doing a more faithful rendering of the source material couldn't be as radical as Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster, but a more skilled director and manager could have devised a better solution than fake boulders being dropped on horsemen in a badly staged stunt sequence... and he certainly could have done better than the tragically anti-climactic demise of Dracula at the very end. (It's not only lame, it's barely within the "faithful" zone.)

The bonus features on the disc contain an interview with Franco that sheds a little light on why the ending to the film is so weak, but it really boils down to bad management on his part. That said, the interview also shows how committed he was to making this film, and, despite my describing him as a hack, gives me respect for him and this film.

The Franco interview is one of those rare DVD extras that is actually more than just filler... it's worth the time it takes to sit through. The same can be said about the dramatic reading of a condensed version of "Dracula" by Christopher Lee that's also included, as well as the essay about Soledad Miranda. All in all, the bonus features on the "Special Edition" disc that formed the basis of this review add real value to the package.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Lisa Zane

Lisa Zane is a successful singer/song-writer who specializes in cabaret-style performances and who in 2006 was recognized by The Songwriter's Hall of Fame recognized as one of their new songwriters of the year. Zane, however, has also maintained a steady sideline in television and film acting, with numerous horror films to her credit.

Zane is probably best known to horror fans as the girl with a mysterious tie to Freddy Krueger in the closing chapter of the original "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare" (1997). Among her other horror credits are "Terrified" and "Her Deadly Rival" (both from 1995), and the sci-fi chillers "The Age of Insects" (1990) and "Natural Selection" (1994)

If Zane's last name seems familiar, it's because she is the older sister of Billy Zane, who's appeared in close to 100 horror films, including five in various states of production.

Friday, May 25, 2012

'Evidence of a Haunting' is a mess

Evidence of a Haunting (2010)
Starring: Jessica D. Fulling, Scott Evans, Renee Wiggins, Korin Medina, Christopher Cassarino, and Robert M. Alford
Director: Joey Evans
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Six ghost hunters on a reality TV show come up against increasingly dangerous spirits in their final three investigations.

"Evidence of A Haunting" is another one of those movies that draws its inspiration from the ever-increasing slate of shows like SyFy Channel's "Ghost Hunters". I haven't seen many episodes of any of them, but if the reality show that the characters in this movie star it existed, it would probably be like a cross between "Fact or Faked" and the aforementioned "Ghost Hunters".

I say "probably," because while we, in theory, are presented with at least one investigation as it would appear on the show, and we are given clips throughout the film of the kind that would appear on such a show, we never really get a sense of what the show is actually like. I suspect it would be a highly produced, high-end show like "Fact or Faked," but the film never gives us enough to work with to know where the characters fit on the hobbyiest to successful professional spectrum.

This problem could have been fixed if a little more time had been spent on the script in the character development department. The characters really needed to be explored more, as did their place in the world.

And if that had been done, maybe the filmmakers would have realized that their film was lacking in a consistent tone, or any sort of cues to the audience that the film would be shifting between "documentary"/"cinema verite" style and a regular, plainly fictional film, and eventually completely abandoning the conceit that we're watching footage culled from the team's final investigations.

A problem that no amount of improvement in the script, or a more consistent story-telling style used, would have fixed, is the wide variety of acting talent on display from the cast. A couple of the stars do almost professional-level work, but the majority of the cast are so wooden you almost have the feeling they were only making the movie because their families were being held hostage somewhere.

All in all, a film you can probably skip.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Jessica Morris

Jessica Morris' first professional acting job came at the age of 16... in a Japanese commercial for crackers. After a few bit parts on television and in film, she landed a major recurring role on the soap opera "One Life to Live" in 2001.

Jessica remained on the series until 2005, at which point she moved to California and became a regular face in the quirky low-budget horror films from Charles Band's revitalized Full Moon production companym usually appearing in the films he directs instead of just produces. She has so far appeared in "The Haunted Casino" (2007), "Decadent Evil II" (2008), "Dangerous Worry Dolls" (2008), and the just-released "The Dead Want Women" (2012).

She has also starred in other low-budget horror flicks along the way, including "Venom" and "The Fading of the Cries" (both in 2011), "Demons" (2007), and "Bloody Murder" (2000), a film she claims to have hated making.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Skip the prequel, go straight to this one

"The Thing" (1982)
Star: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and David Moffet
Director: John Carpenter
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A group of scientists cut off from the rest of the world in Antarctica must deal with an ancient creature that is capable of taking on any form it desires... and that is bent of killing them.

As I sat down ot watch this movie, it dawned on my that I've never actually John Carpenter's version of "The Thing" before. Well, I should have filled that hole in my trashy movie knowledge long ago!

"The Thing" is a text book example of a nearly perfect horror movie. If I was teaching a class in horror films, it would be required viewing and papers would have to be written on it. And it should be required viewing for ANYONE intending to write or direct a horror movie or a monster movie.

In fact, it may be a little too perfect. Because it is so exactly constructed according to the pacing and template that has evolved from "White Zombie" through "Creature from the Black Lagoon" to "Baron Blood" and Carpenter's own "Halloween", few things here surprised me. I was creeped out and shocked at a couple of times, but it pretty much delivered what I expected it to, when I expected it, and pretty much in the manner I expected it.

The one exception is what follows after one of the team members has a heart attack. While I knew something was going to happen, I did not expect what DID happen, nor where it went from there.

If you want to see an extremely well-made horror movie, check out "The Thing". It might not have brought anything new to the genre, but it's still far, far better than 90% of the films being made today.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Amanda Righetti

Amanda Righetti has become a familiar face to television viewers as Detective Grace Van Pelt, who must play the adult to the antics of conman-turned-police-consultant on "The Mentalist", but she landed her first major recurring role on "The O.C." and she has been working steadily in episodic television ever since.

Along the way, Righetti has also appeared in numerous horror films. Her first film role was in the low-budget chiller "Angel Blade" (2002), but her successful television carer led her to starring roles in "Return to House on Haunted Hill" (2007) and the 2009 remake of "Friday the 13th" and the recently released "Shadow of Fear".

Righetti continues to star in "The Mentalist", but she is also working on "Deconstruction Red", a thriller slated for a 2013 release date.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

'The Tomb' could have stayed interred

The Tomb (aka "Ligeia") (2009)
Starring: Wes Bentley, Sofya Skya, Kaitlin Doubleday, and Michael Madsen
Director: Michael Staininger
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A successful writer and college lecturer (Bentley) is drawn into the schemes of a strange Russian graduate student (Skya) who is trying to prevent her death from an inherited disease by trapping and draining energy from human souls.

I used to think that H.P. Lovecraft stories were the hardest horror genre pieces to adapt to film. Now, I'm starting to wonder if it might not be the works of Edgar Allan Poe that deserve that honor.

There seems to be two general category of Poe adaptations: Ones that have little in common with the source material except the title, and ones that mistake fatalistic romanticism with deadly dull. There is cross-over between the two categories, and every so often a Poe adaptation comes along that is faithful to the source without being boring, but they are few and far between.

"The Tomb", as the U.S. title might clue you into, draws its inspiration equally from the Roger Corman Poe adaptation "The Tomb of Ligeia" and the Poe story "Ligeia". However, it lacks the energy of Corman's film--everyone seems very, very bored to be making this picture, especially the leads--and the director mistakes cliched and overused horror film techniques with actual attempts to build suspense and dread. Can we PLEASE stop with the missing frames?! It was mildly annoying but nonetheless disconcerting when filmmakers started doing it. Now it's just obnoxious, especially here where its used for no discernable reason.

The best thing about the film is that the Eastern European setting made me want to watch films like "The Subspecies" series and even "Mandroid" that, because they feature the sane moody environments without being boring. Hell, even "Talisman" is more interesting than this film.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saturday Scream Queen: Salma Hayek

It's Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday that is, apparently, a bigger deal in the United States than in Mexico, but I figured I should profile a Mexican actress anyway.

Unfortunately, the only Mexican actresses I could think of with any horror credits were Salma Hayek and Julissa. And since I couldn't find a good picture of Julissa, and attempts at doing screen captures from the movies I have she's been in were blurry at best, Salma Hayek won the honor of being today's Scream Queen.

Born in 1966 to a wealthy Lebanese business man and a famous Mexican opera singer, Salma Hayek decided at a young age that she wanted to be an actress, and she directed all her efforts toward achieving that dream. (Well, aside from playing pranks on the nuns at the convent school she attended as a child... pranks that eventually got her expelled.)

In 1989, Hayek acheived star status in her home country of Mexico when she landed the title role on the hugely successful soap opera "Therea". She had her sights set on a movie career, however, and by 1991, she left the show and Mexico behind with the intent of making it in Hollywood.

After a string of bit parts on television shows, she finally reached Hollywood stardom when she played opposite Antonio Banderas in "Desperado" (1995) and as the vampire stripper that most horror fans know her as in "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996), where she appeared with George Clooney, Quentin Tarantino, Harvey Keitel, Juliette Lewis, and Cheech Martin.

Hayek fame and career have been on a steady upward trajectory ever since, but she has focused mostly on dramas and comedies. Beyond "From Dusk Till Dawk", the only other horror film she has appeared in was "The Hunchback" in 1997... although if one really reaches, one can include 2009's "Cirque de Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" as a horror credit.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Paul Naschy is great in 'Devil's Possessed'

Devil's Possessed (aka "The Marshall of Hell") (1974)
Starring: Paul Naschy, Guillermo Bredeston, Norma Sebre, and Mariano Vidal Molina
Director: León Klimovsky
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A one-time courageous and dutiful nobleman, Gilles De Lancre (Naschy) grows twisted and bitter because of perceived slights by the king, is led down the path of madness and Satanism by his lover (Sebre). When his crimes and brutality against the serfs in his domain reach monstrous proportions, his former comrade-in-arms Gaston of Malebranche (Bredeston) takes charge of a growing resistance movement and starts laboring toward ending his reign of terror.

Loosely based on historical figures, including Gilles De Rais who in the mid-1400s had as many as 600 children murdered in the name of "dark arts", "Devil's Possessed" is one of the best films written and directed by B-movie legend Paul Naschy. It's a heady cross between a Robin Hood-style adventure tale and a savage, gory Satanism-fueled horror tale that culminates in a "storming of the castle" sequence that's as exciting on a swashbuckling level as it is chilling on a horror level. Few villains get as neat a send-off as Gilles De Lancre gets here.

Paul Naschy gives a great performance as the increasingly crazy De Lancre, with Norma Sebre complimenting him nicely as De Lancre's cold, repulsively immoral lover. Guillermo Bredeston is likewise solid in the role of the righteous Malebranche, but he is needfully outshone by Naschy. Visually, the film is packed with excellent cinematography that takes full advantage of the natural settings and crumbling castles that serve as the film's locations. The action scenes--be they the jousting tournament at roughly the film's midpoint, or the sword-fights during its finale--are also expertly filmed.

If you like some daring-dos with your horror--or some horror with your swashbuckling--I'm sure you'll get a kick out of this one. While a number of Naschy's penned scripts have their roots in the sort of medieval Satanists of this film--with "The Return of the Wolf Man" and "Horror Rises From the Tomb" coming to mind immediately--this is one of the few where they are front and center in their own time. It's an unusual horror film that's well worth a look.