Wednesday, December 30, 2009

'Rose Red' is a house you might want to avoid

Rose Red (2002)
Starring: Nancy Travis, Julian Sands, and Matt Keeslar
Director: Craig R. Baxley
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A self-absorbed, mentally unstable psychology professor (Travis) leads a team of psychics into Seattle's most haunted house--a house so haunted that it builds expansions to itself.

"Rose Red" is a made-for-TV chiller that tries to capture the feel of great haunted house flicks like "The Changeling", "House on Haunted Hill" and "Legend of Hell House." It mostly fails to do so, even if it is from a script by Stephen King.

Originally aired as a two-part mini-series, the movie has a few mild scares, but the truly chilling moments are few and far between. The performances by the actors are okay, but generally bland; the story is plagued by "stupid-character-syndrom"; and the house never really takes on the sort of menace/personality that the settings for this kind of movie MUST possess in order for the work to really be successful. The lack of personality in the house--and no number of characters telling the viewer how spooky the place is can create it--is what really kills "Rose Red".

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Hammer's excellent take on classic horror tale

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)
Starring: Paul Massie, Dawn Addams, Christopher Lee and David Kossoff
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dr. Henry Jekyll (Massie) creates a method that draws out his darker side... actually transforming himself into another person, body and soul. While his hope was to fully understand all facets of a human being and thus learn about the "higher man", he instead discovers his wife (Addams) is cheating on him with his best friend (Lee). The new Henry Jekyll, Edward Hyde (also Massie) concocts a plan to set things right.

"The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" is an excellent adaptation of the classic Stevenson novel. It throws in some unexpected twists, it highlights the dichotomy of Victiorian England's social attitudes and ideals, and it moves swiftly while still leaving enough time and space for character development.

The revenge scheme that Hyde comes up with and inacts, in addition to its aftermath is both suitably melodramatic for the nature of this period piece and so appallingly shocking that it will unnerve all but the most jaded modern viewers. I can barely imagine the shock and surprise of British audiences in 1960!

With Terence Fisher in the director's chair, it should be of no surprise that the film is beautifully photographed and full of lush sets. Fisher is also once again working with a great cast... and Paul Massie is due special praise for doing such an excellent job in playing both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; when Hyde first appeared, it took me a few moments to realize that the two characters were played by the same actor.

After being unavailable for purchase or rent for many years, this high point of Hammer Films' output is finally available in the "Icons of Horror: Hammer Films" collection. It's one of four undeservedly obscure horror movies included in the set (the others being the brilliant Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vehicle "The Gorgon"; the psychological thriller "Scream of Fear"; and the mummy-tale-with-a-twist "The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb") and it's a set that any lover of classic horror films would be delighted to own.

Almost 50 years after it first premiered, "The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll" still has the power to chill the audience. It's well worth a look, and it's release on DVD was long overdue.

If you're interested in reading the original tale, click here to visit the Classic Fiction Archive.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Great proto-slasher flick, despite sloppy writing

Deep Red (aka "The Deep Red Hatchet Murders" and "The Hatchet Murders")(1975)
Starring: David Hemmings, Daria Nicolodi, and Gabriele Lavia
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Pianist Marcus Daly (Hemmings) witnesses the brutal murder of a famous psychic, and then teams up with Gianna Brezzi, a feisty woman reporter (Nicolodi) to find the killer. Soon, they find themselves stalked by the deadly, seemingly omnicient murderer who is willing to end numerous lives to protect a number of dark secrets.

"Deep Red" is a detective thriller crossed with a slasher flick (and it's definately one of the precursor films to the slasher genre), with hints of a ghost movie tossed in for good measure. Although it's easy for a movie with so many different genre elements all simmering in the same pot to dissolve into a hideous, gooey mass, director and co-writer Argento manages to stir the many elements into a fabulous goulash of gore, mystery, and plot-twists that are actually suprising to the viewer.

This is far from a perfect movie. It's got some pacing problems--any viewer paying attention will know that a character who is pegged as the killer at one point in the film can't possibly be the killer, and Marcus should realize it too long before he does--and the storyline is unneccesarily muddy at a couple of points, but there are enough chills, gory kills, and well-executed twists to more than make up for these weaknesses. (The thread of Marcus trying to remember some half-seen clue at the crime scene, one that he thinks might unlock the entire mystery, is a great device that keeps the viewer engaged... and the kills scenes will sate any gore-hounds out there.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

'Cemetery Man' is a creepy, funny zombie romp

Cemetery Man (aka "Of Death and Love" and "Demons '95") (1994)
Starring: Rupert Everett, Anna Falchi, François Hadji-Lazaro, Mickey Knox, Fabiana Formica, and Katja Anton
Director: Michele Soavi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Francesco Dellamorte (Everett) is the caretaker of a small-town cemetery.He spends the days burying the deceased, and his nights violently returning them to their graves when they rise as flesh-eating zombies. The steady, if creepy and gory, routine of Dellamorte's life is disrupted when both he and his assistant (Hadji-Lazaro) meet the loves of their lives (Falchi and Formica, respectively), only to see them promptly turned into undead residents of the cemetery. From there, things really start to go down hill for them.

"Cemetery Man' is a surreal horror comedy that moves effortlessly from the humorous to the horrific, and from the sexy to the savage. From the very beginning of the film, there is a dreamlike quality about the film that intensifies as it unfolds and which culminates the film's curious ending. Although the ending is rather weak, it sheds light on the strange events that have led up to it. (If it hadn't confirmed what I had come to believe about the cemetery and the village is supports, I would have labeled it a cop-out, as it's not exactly a satisfying ending, even if it fits with the film.

Although there is a fair amount of sex and gore in the film, I can't recommend it for gorehounds, or those looking for cheap thrills (even if Anna Falchi's repeatedly displayed breats are quite thrilling!). The film is a bit on the slow side for that sort of audience. It's worth seeing first and foremost for the interesting visuals and gallows humor, and secondarily for the underlying themes of... well, life, death, and the afterlife.

(Those out there familiar with the "Dylan Dog" graphic novel series from Dark Horse may also want to check out the film. It's based on a novel by Dylan Dog creator, Tiziano Sclavi. I can only assume that it's a faithful adaptation, because the film's story, pacing, and humor was reminicent of the first "Dylan Dog" book printed in the United States (which also features zombies).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Saturday Scream Queen: Barbara Steele

English-born Barbara Steele (and her hypnotic eyes) gained fame in Mario Bava's celebrated horror film "Black Sunday." She appeared in dozens of horror films and thrillers during the 1960s and 1970s, but started to make a transition to producing during the 1990s. She is currently mostly retired from acting, but still takes the occasional role and has been responsible for such TV series as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Friday, December 25, 2009

'Prom Night IV': The 'Angels & Demons' of slasher films

Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (1992)
Starring: Nikki de Boer, Alden Kane, Joy Tanner, Alle Ghadban, and James Carver
Director: Clay Borris
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A demon-possessed Catholic priest (Carver) stalks and kills fornicating teenagers (de Boer, Kane, Tanner, and Ghadban) who have snuck for a weekend of nookie at an isolated country home that used to be a monastery.

"Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil" is a by-the-numbers slasher flick that is distingushed by a creepier-than-average slasher, thanks to a chilling performance by James Carver, and a cuter-than-average central chick in the form of Nikki de Boer, who gives the best performance in the entire film. In fact, she is so good she makes her nearly charisma-free co-star Alden Kane look even less talented than he does in scenes he doesn't share with de Boer. In fact, de Boer gives a performance that belongs in the Slasher Movie Hall of Fame, right along side Jamie Lee Curtis' turn in "Terror Train" and "Halloween".

The film even manages to do something that the original "Prom Night"did not... it manages to dish out some truly shocking and startling imagery. The film surprises more than once in that area... and I can't get specific, because it will ruin the surprises if you haven't seen this movie.

Unfortunately there are two big problems with this "Prom Night" sequel, and they conspire to make it only slightly better than the original film in the series.

The first problem is with the script. It's very uneven and herky-jerky in its pacing. After a strong start--with prelude murders, the presentation of a secret Catholic cabal that makes those guys protecting the DaVinci Code look like first-round "American Idol" contestants, and a startling dispatch of what looked to be a main character even before the film's main story has started--but it then threatened to stall out with an uninteresting build-up to the bloody teen butchery that invariably takes place in a film like this. Once the killing started, the film did an okay job of keeping up the suspense and terror, but there were at least five minutes of pure padding that should have been gotten rid of before we got there.

The second problem is with the title. While the "Prom Night" series has never been one to care about continuity between movies--the first was a simple revenge tale, the two middle ones were about a Prom Queen who was too bitchy to die, and the one being discussed here goes off in yet another direction that has nothing to do with any of the other films. In fact, it doesn't even really have anything to do with a prom, except one is talked about and the four main characters drive by one on their way to their weekend of private debauchery. I suspect the producers of the film had a generic slasher flick that they hoped to boost audience for by associating it with an established brand. It's almost too bad they did that, because Father Jonas could possibly have been another Jason or Michael if he had been allowed to skewer unsuspecting fornicators with his bladed crucifix. It would have freed the film of the tedious task of paying lip-service to a prom that has nothing to do with anything, and it might have left more time for the whole Church Conspiracy/Demon Possession angle.

On the other hand, whoever holds the rights to this film isn't terribly swift, so I can see how they might have thought the "Prom Night" brand would held their movie rather than hurt it. After all, this film was NOT released under a new title to take advantage of the "Catholic Conspiracy Craze" that was stirred up by the "DaVinci Code" and "Angels & Demons" hype of recent years.

Despite its weaknesses and its history of bad marketing, "Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil" is a fairly decent slasher flick. Fans of the classics in this horror subgenre should get a kick out of it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Carl Kolchak and things that stalk the night

Here are two fine made-for-TV-movies that are nearly 40 years old and still scarier than many big-screen horror movies that are released today. Their stories and the main character are timeless, meaning they are also as fresh today as they were back in the early 1970s.

The Night Stalker (1971)
Starring: Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland and Carol Lynley
Director: John Llewellyn Moxey
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a bizarre series of murders hit Las Vegas, down-and-out crimebeat report Carl Kolchak (McGavin) thinks he might have found his ticket back to the Big Time newspaper business. As he pursues leads, however, he becomes increasingly convinced that the murderer is a vampire. Met with disbelief and scoffing from his editors and a desire to cover up the murders from Las Vegas police officials, Carl goes from crusading reporter to crusading vampire hunter.

"The Night Stalker" is an excellent movie, easily equal to many big-budget theatrical releases despite its humble television origins. The dialogue is snappy, the script and characters are all believable and well-crafted, and the mix of humor and suspense is perfectly balanced throughout.

McGavin gives a fabulous performance as Kolchak, going from a wise-cracking beat reporter (coming across almost as having been transported from the 1930s to the 1970s, yet never seeming out of place) with no goal other than to rehabilite his career, to a man who is willing to risk everything to stop a monster that no one but he seems willing to take on. The supporting cast is also universally excellent, as is the camera work. The only complaint I have is the score. It is downright annoying in its innapropriateness at times.

The Night Strangler
Starring: Darren McGavin, Jo Ann Pflug, Simon Oakland and John Carradine
Director: Dan Curtis
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This is another excellent adventure in humor and supernatural suspense, so well-crafted that you'd never imagine that it was originally a TV movie.

Darren McGavin gives another excellent preformance as Kolchak, who, after losing everything but his life as a result of the events in "The Night Stalker", has drifted westward to Seattle. He gets himself hired on with the city's top paper after promising to not make waves... but when he starts covering another series of violent crimes, a disturbing pattern emerges: Every 21 years since the mid-1800s, there have been a series of identical strangulation murders and what few eye witnesses there were have described the same killer. Kolchak again finds himself in the awful position of uncovering a truth that no-one wants to face or deal with. Once again, he is the only one able and willing to take action and stop the deaths.

"The Night Strangler" is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than the original. The dialogue and wit is sharper, McGavin's performace of Kolchac is even better than before, and the suspense in the story gives way to downright scary on several occasions.

(Trivia: Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson had planned a third "Night Stalker" film, in which Kolchak discovers the vampire he faced in "The Night Stalker" wasn't dead. The film never happened, but in its place was the "Night Stalker" televison series, one episode of which incorporated the story idea that would have been the movie.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Two decades later, 'Dead Calm' remains
Nicole Kidman at her best

Dead Calm (1989)
Starring: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, and Billy Zane
Director: Philip Noyce
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

John (Neill) and Rae (Kidman) are cruising the Pacific on their yacht, putting their lives and marriage back together after a tragedy claimed their son. They come upon an adrift schooner and rescue Hughie (Zane) from it. John is instantly suspicious of Hughie's claim that he's the only survivor of food-poisoning onboard... and his suspicions soon prove well-founded. The lesson learned is to not pick up hitchikers, even on the high seas.

"Dead Calm" is an exciting thriller blessed with a spectacular script. It is elevated further by some great camerawork, incredible sets, and fantastic performances by all the actors involved. Kidman does the best acting job I've ever seen from her, and I might agree her star status was well deserved if I hadn't seen her stink up the joint in other films.

The movie kept me engaged from beginning to end. Unlike some online commentators on this film, I appreciated the fact that John and Rae remained decent human beings throughout.

The common complaint among reviewers is "why didn't Rae kill Hughie at any one of the several times she had the chance?" I think many of those people don't understand how a real person with real emotions functions--assuming that person isn't a psychopath. The fact John and Rae don't kill Hughie makes the film all the more believable to me, ore so than so many other thrillers that devolve into vigilante fantasies in their third acts.

Even if you normally can't stand Nicole Kidman, she gives a good performance in this film, which is further blessed by the fact that it is populated with realistic characters. It's definately worth seeking out.

Monday, December 21, 2009

'The Changeling' is among greatest ghost movies ever

The Changeling (1980)
Starring: George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere
Director: Peter Medak
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

John Russell (Scott) moves from New York to the Pacific Northwest to get a fresh start after his wife and daughter are killed in a car accident. The still-grieving widower rents a ramshackle old mansion where an escalating series of odd occurrences lead him into communication with an angry, and increasingly violent, ghost. Will John uncover the secrets that have been locked inside the Chessman House for over seven decades, or will he become the victim of anger, hurt, and betrayal so deep that even death couldn't still it?

"The Changeling" is one of the top five horror movies ever made, and definitely one of the very best haunted house movies ever made. The cast is excellent, the pacing of the film is perfect--with tension building and building with each manifestation of the ghost. Who knew that a little rubber ball could be an object of terror? Well, after watching "The Changeling" you will!

The movie is particularly remarkable in this day and age, because not a single one of the scares is of the "gotcha" or false variety. When the movie presents something scary and ominous, it truly is. The film also presents its scares without any gore, virtually no violence, and very few special effects--and there isn't a cartoon--sorry, CGI--monster to be seen anywhere. "The Changeling" delivers tension and terror through masterful camera usage, lighting, set design, and great acting. They, sadly, don't make them like this anymore.

The only unfortunate part about "The Changeling" is that is sort of stalls at the very end. After a tremendous build-up and what is the start of a powerful climax, the film sort of hiccups and seems to run out of gas. But this is only the last few minutes. Everything up to that point is a ghost movie that is made perfectly.

This film is a must-see for everyone who loves ghost stories and horror movies.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy shines in 'Cherry Falls'

Actress Brittnay Murphy died today from cardiac arrest at the age of 32. I only saw her in a single film, but she was the best part of it. In fact, she made a fairly mediocre slasher film into a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Cherry Falls (2000)
Starring: Brittany Murphy, Michael Biehn, Jay Mohr, and Gabriel Mann
Director: Geoffrey Wright
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When three teens are tortured and murdered in the small Virginia town of Cherry Falls, it quickly becomes evident that the victims are linked by two things: They went to the same high school and they were virgins. What dark secret are the leading citizens of Cherry Falls keeping that's getting their (non-sexually active) children killed?

"Cherry Falls" is a mildly suspenseful slasher-flick that's remarkable first by the fact that it takes a prime convention and turns it upside-down: The promiscuous kids are safe in this one... it's the ones that are keeping their pants on that are at risk; and second that the characters are actually intelligent. Only once does a character fall show traits of "horror movie braindeadness" where they go into a dark and creepy place... but it's in a spot where she has no reason to suspect that any danger could be lurking.

Good acting from an attractive cast--with Brittnay Murphy being particularly excellent--and some well-execute plot-twists go a long way to making this film worth seeing. It's not a masterpiece, but it's not bad either. It's low on bodycount as far as slasher flicks go, but what kills it does feature are brutal and shocking.

Shows how to kill a werewolf movie series quicker than using silver bullets

Howling V: The Rebirth (1989)
Starring: Philip Davis, Victoria Catlin, Elizabeth Shé, Ben Cole
William Shockley, Stephanie Faulkner and Mark Sivertsen
Director: Neal Sundstrom
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A group of idiots wander around a Romanian castle as a werewolf kills them, one by one.

"Howling V: The Rebirth" isn't Ed Wood level bad, but it is bad. Its basic story is like "The Beast Must Die!" (review here) where a group of people are invited to an isolated location because one of their humber is secretly werewolf and another among them wants to kill the werewolf, but doesn't know which of them it is. Unfortunately, in this instance, the storyline is badly executed in just about every conceivable way, starting with the fact that the werewolf hunter wasn't prepared in any way, shape, or form to actually hunt and kill the werewolf, despite the fact he presents himself as a member of a global secret society created for just purpose.

To make matters even worse, It features terrible set design and a badly thought-out environment in which it takes place (supposedly, it happens in a castle that's been "sealed" for 500 years, yet the entire structure is in perfect shape, right down to the bearskin runs, wooden breezeways, and lit torches in secret tunnel), an utterly predictable script that only works because of a heavy use of Stupid Character Syndrome throughout, and a werewolf elimination game that ultimately makes no sense because, again, the werewolf hunter just guesses randomly at who the monster is and overlooks the most obvious of all suspects like everyone else in the film. (And I can't even figure out why he picks that particular person.)

And the ultimate flaw is that the film is never truly scary. There are a few suspenseful moments, but they are too brief and too few to make up for all the other weaknesses.

I'm not sure where the writers (of the script, or of the novel upon which it is based got their inspiration, but I think they would have done well to watch some Scoobie-Doo cartoons. At least the conspirators in those cartoons are always well prepared, foiled only by those meddling kids. If The Martyrs, the secret society of werewolf hunters in this film, had bothered to put up some cameras or motion detectors or maybe even bring some real weapons, the proceedings might have been more interesting. (Of course, maybe the fact they call themselves The Martyrs is a clue to why they go about their werewolf hunting business is such a stupid fashion.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

'The Messengers' are not bringing
tidings of joy

The Messengers (2007)

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, John Corbett, and Penelope Ann Miller
Directors: Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sixteen-year-old Jess (Stewart) moves wth her parents and little brother to a remote farm where everyone hopes to get a fresh start after a very difficult couple of years. Soon after they move in, strange events start occurring in the house, and they increase to terrifying levels after Jess' father (McDermott) hires Burwell, a mysterious but friendly drifter (Corbett), to help out around the farm. Will Jess discover the secret behind the nightmarish events that only she and her little brother seem to witness before it's too late?

"The Messengers" is one of those movies that has gotten a bad rap from moronic critics who can't seem to recognize when they're not the target audience for a film. Yes, there is nothing new or innovative in this film, nor is the plot particularly clever--anyone who's seen more than three haunted out movies KNOWS that Burwell is somehow the key to the haunting of Jess and the house. However, for the target audience--which is 12-14 year-old girls who want something spooky for the slumber party, this is just about the perfect movie. (The protagonist is a girl who is having a hard time getting along with her parents, who no one listens to, and who saves the day almost by herself. It's also a film that ultimately carries with it a very strong message of family values and that parents and children still love each other even if they sometimes argue.)

Even seasoned ghost movie watchers will find something to like about this flick--so maybe it's worth watching if you're a parent with a girl in the house who likes creepy movies--as it moves along at a brisk (if predictable pace) and there are some nicely staged chills and some even better "gotcha!" scenes. (Say what you will about this movie being derivative, but directors Pang-Chun and Pang understand that if you're going to have spooky music playing on the soundtrack and/or set up a creepy circumstances, you better have it pay off. Too many PG-13 and even some R-rated horror flicks these days seem to think that all you need to do to make a horror movie is to build suspense and then go "ha-ha... just kidding!")

There's another thing the filmmakers recognized here that more creators need to take to heart: That last second shock, after the viewer things the horror is all over with, that was so startling when it first came into vogue some 35-40 years ago is no longer shocking. It's now so expected that it's often annoying because it is so obviously tacked on. Thankfully, the creators involved with "The Messengers" knew to avoid THAT cinematic cliche, and they ended up giving their movie an ending that wrapped the story and themes of the film perfectly. The climactic events of the film plus its denouement are worth a full point on the ratings scale by themselves, as we go from very scary to very peaceful.

Saturday Scream Queen: Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis' presence in a 1980s slasher flick is sure sign that it's worth checking out. She was in the best of the "Halloween" series, as well as "Terror Train" and others. As the 1990s progressed, she mostly left horror films for comedy, and ultimately retired from acting to focus on her writing career.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'House of the Living Dead' is
soul-crushingly boring

House of the Living Dead (aka "Curse of the Dead" and "Kill, Baby, Kill!")(1973)
Starring: Mark Burns, Shirley Anne Field, David Oxley and Bill Flynn
Director: Ray Austin
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A South African plantation is haunted by a madman who starts killing animals but soon graduates to the butchering of people. Will the young lady of the house (Field) get to the bottom of the mysteries of this family she's marrying into... before she becomes a victim herself?

"House of the Living Dead" could have been a nice little gothic horror film if only its 85 minutes or so weren't so soul-crushingly dull. This is a film that takes "gradual build-up" to new extremes, but it does so without successfully building the sense of menace necessary. The last half hour, though, is great, spooky, 19th century mad-scientist/occultist fun... but it's not enough to make the misery of the film's early part worth sitting through.

Like so many bad horror films, "House of the Living Dead" has a great idea at its core, but its execution is completely botched. The actors all do a decent job, but the writer and director fail them. The end result is a movie that is best avoided... unless you're the world's greatest devotee of South African cinema.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The best Hercules movie from the 1960s saw him entering a Haunted World

Hercules in the Haunted World (aka "Hercules in the Center of the Earth" and "Hercules vs. the Vampires") (1961)
Starring: Reg Park, George Ardisson, Christopher Lee, Leonora Ruffo, Franco Giacobini, and Ida Galli
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Hercules (Park) and his best friend Theseus (Ardisson) return home after another extended bout of adventuring, they find Hercules' betrothed, Deianira (Ruffo), in the throes of a strange illness and her kingdom governed by a sinister regent, Lico (Lee). The pair embark on a new quest for the one magical artifact that will cure Deianira that will take them into the very depths of Hades, land of the dead. Successfully restoring Deinira isn't the end of Hercules troubles, as Lico isn't just sinister-looking... he's bent on obtaining immortality at the expense of the lives of Hercules and his lady-love!

"Hercules in the Haunted World" is a gorgeous-looking, well-acted fantasy epic. Although the constraints of a low budget are almost painfully evident at times, and the Underworld and most of the sets have that very plastic, very 1960s feel to them, the great camerawork and creative lighting very much makes up for the shortcomings. There are times when the film takes on an almost dreamlike, fairytale quality that conveys the mood of the never-neverland of heroes and gods-walking-the-land is is so necessary for a film like this to succeed and which is so often absent in fantasy films.

Story-wise, the use of Greek mythology, the traditional structure of Hercules' quest to save Deianira (as well the various components of that quest), and many truly suspenseful and chilling sequences--such as when Hercules is set upon by dozens of undead in the service of Lico-- combine to tell a tale that has the feel of the ancient adventure stories that inspired this movie.

This is not to say the film is not without some serious flaws. Without fail, Bava draws out lead-ins to action and establishing shots to the film to the point where the viewer becomes annoyed and bored when he should be pulled deeper into the film. The worst of these is the above-mentioned battle between Hercules and the undead. Bava SHOULD have established that they're emerging from their graves and then moved onto the excellently done fight sequence, but instead he establishes the dead emerging again and again and again and again. Meanwhile, Hercules stands there and looks back and forth, to and fro, like an idiot, instead of taking action. The movie grinds to a complete halt here instead of leaping forward into the action that follows.

As always with a Mario Bava film, the visuals are stunning and there is true artistry in the composition of every shot, with Bava's background as an artist and a cinematographer serving him and the audience to great effect. It's the story-telling that he has trouble with. This was, however, only is second directorial effort (the first being "Black Sunday," which I review here.)

The movie also suffers from the standard affliction of fantasy movies made on shoestring budgets: It's got a Big Monster that's supposed to be scary looking, but is just goofy. Here's it's some sort of demon made of stone. To make matters worse, the scene in which it appears devolves into something that comes across as a parody of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears". There's underlying horror in the scene, but the stupid-looking creature (with its mouth hanging open as if it rode the short bus to its underground lair) and its blathering about short and long beds make the scene unintentionally comic. (I have to pause to wonder if kids might find the sequence scary; I'm not the audience for this film, so maybe I'm just not "getting it"?)

Finally, the film suffers from the fact that every time Christopher Lee opens his mouth, is it not the deep, resonant voice we movie lovers have grown use to over the years, but instead one that is far more high-pitched. Like all Italian movies of this vintage, it was shot silently and then dubbed into numerous languages later--and they obviously didn't hire Lee to loop his own voice, and the film is less for it.

For all its problems, however, "Hercules and the Haunted World" is one of the few decent fantasy films that have been made... and it's a film that even lovers of monster movies will be able to enjoy. It's not a masterpiece, but it's also not a bad way to waste some time.

Not a creature was stirring, because Santa killed them!

Santa's Slay (2005)
Starring: Bill Goldberg, Emilie de Ravin, Douglas Smith, Robert Kulp, and Dave Thomas
Director: David Steiman
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Once upon a time, a demon lost a bet with an angel and was then forced to nice to children. He became known as Santa Claus. However, this Christmas, the 1,000 years are up, and now Santa (Goldberg) gets to be as nasty as he wants... and he's got one thousand years of yuletide horror to catch up on.

"Santa's Slay" is a fabulous horror comedy, with plenty of reference to Christmas pop-culture mainstays and lots of laughlines as the "jolly old elf" reasserts his true nature and calling and massacres his way across Christmas Eve.

Goldberg does a great job as the musclebound, hulking Santa, and, like most other professional wrestlers, he shows a sharp talent for comic acting. He takes what might be an eye-rolling concept--Santa as demon--and actually makes it something you can buy into. Unfortunately, our heroes--the fetching de Ravin and the milque-toasty Smith--both give such weak performances that I almost found myself wishing Santa would take them out next.

Still, with plenty of fun dialogue and an even greater amount of yule-themed murders committed with common household impliments, I think this might be something for the more cynical adults to watch after the little kids are soundly asleep.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It's not much of a Christmas homecoming in
'Silent Night, Bloody Night'

Silent Night, Bloody Night (aka "Death House") (1973)
Starring: Mary Woronov, James Patterson, Patrick O'Neal, Walter Able, Astrid Heeren, and John Carradine
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Jack (Patterson) moves to sell the mansion he inherited from his grandfather, a past believed to be dead and buried returns to haunt the living with furious, bloody vengeance. Poor Diane's (Woronov) Christmas gift list will be reduced to virtually no-one by night's end.

"Slient Night, Bloody Night" is not as overtly Christmas-themed as the title might imply, but it is a great little proto-slasherflick and quite possibly the first horror film to flirt with a holiday theme. (In fact, it might be more than a proto-slasherfilm. It's got all the elements that are present in "Halloween", except for fornicating teenagers. We do, however, get an cheating lawyer (O'Neal) and his horny secretary (Heeren).

The bodycount is low by modern slasher-movie standards, but every death is shocking and unexpected. Although I had a vague notion of what I was in for, the first murders took me completely by surprise.

It's a fast-moving film with a bare bones plot, although I wish it could have been a little less bare-bones. I'm still wondering why Jack had to "borrow" his lawyer's Jaguar when he appears in the story. How did he get to the mansion in the first place if he didn't have a car? I also feel that the framing sequence was an odd choice... telling the movie as a flashback undermines a bit of the suspense.

Still, as an example of a thriller/horror movie that was part of the cinematic evolution that led to the slasher flick subgenre, "Silent Night, Bloody Night" is far better than several of its contemporaries.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Jack Frost Duology

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, so there's no better time to review the Jack Frost movies...

In brief "Jack Frost" is a watchable (if cheesy and goofy) monster flick, but "Jack Frost 2" isn't worth the effort it takes to open the DVD case.

Jack Frost (1995)
Starring: Christopher Allport
Director: Michael Cooney
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A mass-murdering homicidal maniac named Jack is killed in a freak accident as he is being transported from one prison to another. The freakiest part of the freak accident is that he is resurrected as a snowman. A mass-murdering homicidal maniac snowman. With superpowers. And a carrot for a nose. Naturally, he sets about getting revenge on the small-town sheriff who captured him (Allport), but happily kills anyone else who crosses his path.

There isn't much else to say about "Jack Frost" than what I did above. As low-budget horror flicks go, it's not terrible... it's not great, but it's not terrible. The acting is fair all around, the effects are decent, and if you can buy into a murderous snowman wih the power to control snow and ice and use it as weapons, then I guess it's an okay monster movie. The kills are also bloody enough to please gorehounds, I think. (It might have been better if the snowcover had been more consistent in the various shots and a little less fake in many of them.)

I think the greatest flaw the movie has is that I got the sense the filmmakers believed they had their hands on a character around which a franchise could be built, ala Freddy Krueger and "A Nightmare on Elm Street", and I think this led them to play the film far straighter than the concept deserves.

One thing I think will probably make "Jack Frost" stand forever alone in the annals of film history is the snowman bathtub rape scene. I don't think that's ever been done before, and I don't think it will ever be done again. (I know some find that scene laughable, but I found it pretty horrific. I'm not saying it wasn't goofy as hell, but that entire sequence creeped me out more than anything else in the film. Heck, it was the ONLY thing that creeped me out. And ending the scene featuring a girl being raped to death by a snowman with the line "Looks like Christmas came a bit early this year" makes it all the more sickening.)

Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Killer Mutant Snowman (2000)
Starring: Christopher Allport and Eileen Sheely
Director: Michael Cooney
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Sam, our Hero from the original "Jack Frost" movie (once again played by Chistopher Allport), decides to spend Christmas someplace warm the year following the Attack of the Killer Snowman. Unfortunately, Jack (after escaping from what appeared to be certain doom at the end of the last flick) follows him across the ocean and starts cutting Christmas (and life) short for vacationers at a Caribbean resort.

Remember how I said above that I thought the makers of "Jack Frost" should just have gone for a full-bore comedic spin on their subject? Well, they did that with the sequel. It's too bad they had a collection of bad actors, no effects budget (or any other kind of budget, based on the sets), and a script so bad that I have to believe it was being made up as shooting was progressing. (I know what passes for the "big special effects scenes" in the film had to be planned, but I really hope that the rest of the unfunny crap that makes up the bulk of this awful film didn't even go through one draft. It had to have been spewed straight from a keyboard into the hands of the movie crew.) I probably should have known that I'd regret wasting part of my life on this turd when I realized the killer snowman was menacing people on a tropical island.

I think the only nice thing I can say about "Revenge of the Killer Mutant Snowman" is that it is fast-paced; although I think my IQ dropped another point with each lame gag, I never did get bored. But that doesn't mean that what I watched was good. There is really only one scene that I thought was worthwhile in this entire film... and it's the one where Jack breaks himself into ice cubes and sneaks into a cooler of a photographer and his nubile models. It ends with the niftiest murder in the entire feature.

The bottomline on both these flicks is that they represent mostly missed opportunities. The first fails at being a good horror/comedy fusion, and the second just fails.

(Trivia: Christopher Allport was killed in a skiing accident in 2008.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Will anyone survive the night in
'Murder Mansion'?

Murder Mansion (aka "Maniac Mansion") (1972)
Starring: Evelyn Stewart, Andres Resino, Analia Gade, Annalisa Nardi and Alberto Dalbes
Director: Francisco Lara Polop and Pedro Lazaga
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A group of strangers, lost in the fog on isolated back roads, are forced to spend the night in a mansion at the edge of a cemetery. Although their hostess (Gade) seems welcoming enough, a night of murder and terror ensues.

"Murder Mansion" is a well-acted, well-filmed, and very moody gothic horror film. While it's got its fair share of characters doing stupid things just to move the plot along, and a few predictable twists, there are enough twists and startling surprises that the short-comings can almost be forgiven. If you like haunted house movies, I think you'll enjoy this film. (That's not to say the mansion our travelers find themselves trapped in is haunted... or is it? (Duhn-duhn-daaaaaah!))

With a surprisingly small amount of gore and nudity for an Italian horror film from the early 1970s, this film instead relies on effective camerawork and a decent script to bring the sort of chills and scares necessary to make a truly effective haunted house movie. It feels like they took the sensibilities of the thrillers and horror films from the late 1950s and early 1960s and updated them for the 1970s. If Hammer Films had done this--instead of going the more gore and boobs route--perhaps they would have lasted.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Scream Queen: Erin Brown

Erin Brown (aka Misty Mundae) is a prolific actress who over the past decade or so has appeared in dozens of horror-themed softcore porn films and recently started appearing in more mainstream comedies and fright-fests.

Friday, December 11, 2009

'Ghosts of Edendale' is interesting mix
of fact and fiction

The Ghosts of Edendale (2005)
Starring: Paula Ficara and Stephen Wastell
Director: Stefan Avalos
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After Rachel (Ficara) a successful photo model suffers a nervous breakdown, she moves with her writer boyfriend (Wastell) to Hollywood to make a fresh start in a different part of the entertainment industry. They move into a house in a neighborhood built on the land once owned by silent movie star Tom Mix, and, while they are initially delighted to be so close to Hollywood's history, Rachel soon discovers that history isn't completely in the past. Is she really seeing ghosts, and is her boyfriend really turning into Tom Mix, or is she finally going completely crazy?

"The Ghosts of Edendale" is a ghost movie that incorporates real-world history and stereotypes about life in the Hollywood movie business to create a film that spends all of its time in very familiar territory but which is still very creepy. There no terrifying moments in the film, and only a small handful of truly scary ones, but the sense of dread it evokes is one that will stay with you even as the end credits start to role. It's a sense of dread that even manages to elevate a somewhat weak ending.

Most of the credit for the success of this film goes to the superior acting talents shown by stars Paula Ficara and Stephen Wastell. Ficara's mostly understated performance as a woman questioning her own sanity when she starts seeing the ghosts of Old Mixville throughout her house and the neighborhood, and Wastell's transformation from a cheerful, supportive lover to a fame-obsessed asshole possessed by the ghost of a long-dead silent movie star is very effective in the way it starts out somewhat subtle and builds to the point where the viewer believes and shares Rachel's fear of him. The script is so-so and the characters these actors portray are strictly ghost movie stock figures, but they bring them to full and realized life as the film unfolds.

The one slightly mystifying thing about "The Ghosts of Edendale is why writer/director Stefan Avalos chose to rewrite Hollywood history for his movie and cast the restless ghost of silent movie star Tom Mix as main villain. I'm no expert, but as far as I know, Tom Mix wasn't particularly obsessed with Hollywood. While it's true he died in a freak car accident while speeding through Arizona on his way to sign a movie contract, his career wasn't ruined because of the advent of sound--in fact, his last movie was a huge hit for the studio that made it--but he rather chose to step away from film because of his own advancing age. Mix doesn't seem to have any sort of unfinished business as is implied in this film.

So, in this case, a little knowledge was a dangerous thing, beause it got in the way of my enjoyment of the film. I suppose few people would even be aware of the historical errors, because, as a character in the film says, the early days of Hollywood and the silent movie era are mostly forgotten by all. (And, I admit, there are probably lots of things I don't know about Tom Mix.)

Despite my wondering about the wisdom of taking real history and messing with it in a completely illogical fashion, "The Ghosts of Edendale" is a nicely done and well-acted ghost movie. It's worth checking out if you enjoy movies that are more about atmosphere than splashy effects.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'The She-Beast' should be avoided like other she-beasts, be they mother-in-laws or

The She-Beast (aka "Satan's Sister" and "Revenge of the Blood Beast") (1966)
Starring: Ian Ogilvy, John Karlsen, and Barbara Steele
Director: Michael Reeves
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Young newlyweds Phillip and Veronica (Ogilvy and Steele) are honeymooning in Transylvania (their first mistake) when they suffer a car accident. The injured Veronica is possessed by the spirit of a long-dead witch who uses Veronica's body as a vehicle for her revenge against the modern-day descendents of the peope who executed her. Will Phillip reclaim his beloved with the help of eccentric occultist Count Van Helsing (Karlsen) or will she remain the she-beast?

"The She-Beast" is bad on just about every level. It's attempts at comedy are not particularly funny, it's horror elements aren't terribly scary, the characters range from unlikable to annoying, and every technical aspects exudes cheapness. And what passes for a script is muddled and confused almost beyond comprehension.

Barbara Steele brightens every scene she is in with her exotic looks, but she's not in the film enough to make it worth your while to sit through it.

(Trivia: Barbara Steele was so contempteous of this film that even while working on it she tried to dissassociate herself from it by wearing a large hat and sunglasses in most scenes.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

'Transylmania' is better than most recent spoofs, but still bad

Transylmania (2009)
Starring: Oren Skoog, Jennifer Lyons, Tony Denman, Patrick Cavanaugh, Paul H. Kim, Musetta Vander, Natalie Garza, Nicole Garza, David Steinberg, James DeBello and Irena A. Hoffman
Directors: David Hillenbrand and Scott Hillenbrand
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

A group of American college students travel to a remote Transylvanian university for a semester of studying and partying abroad. Will the partying or the vampires kill them first?

I need to learn the lesson that the smart choice is to go home if I arrive at the theater too late to see the movie I had planned on. But, as I was stood at the box office, I noticed "Transylmania" was about to start. And, seeing that I love old monster movies and this was part college stoner comedy and part spoof of the classic monster-in-the-creepy-castle films, I thought it might be fun. "How bad can it be?" I asked myself.

Well, it was pretty bad. The humor is more stupidly offensive than funny, the acting universally weak--especially when it comes to the comedic timing of the cast, which is surprising given the long resumes of everyone appearing in the film--and the story features numerous characters that do nothing except serve the purpose of a single joke and otherwise just clutter up the film and story.

It's too bad, becuase in the hands of competent writers who understood how to streamline a story (not to mention write funny jokes) and with some better actors, this could have been a really funny movie with roots in classic films from Universal and Full Moon. The vampire/college student look-alike and the midget mad scientist had all sorts of potential, potential that we can see shining through at the film's best moments, but which remains tragicaly unspent or even wasted.

I really wish this film had been better and that it had done well at the box office. I applaud the filmmakers for writing a spoof that actually has an original story instead of just a cobbled together string of lame references to recent movies and current news events and pop culture. Maybe (God willing!) this film is a sign that story will be returning to the spoof film... or maybe the failure of this film will mean the genre will go dormant for a while because the business people and creatives STILL won't get the message that quality is what sells a movie.

Skip this one. It's better than garbage like "Disaster Movie," but it's still not worth your time or money.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Two classic vampire movies you may not have seen (but need to)

Son of Dracula (1943)
Starring: Robert Paige, Frank Craven, Louise Allbritton, Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, and J. Edward Bromberg
Director: Robert Siodmak
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Eccentric sothern belle Katherine Caldwell (Allbritton) apparently falls under the sway of a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Alucard (Chaney), while traveling in Europe. When he arrives in the United States, strange deaths start happening, and isolates himself and Katherine in her manorhouse on Darkwood Plantation. But after she is accidentially shot to death by her fiance (Paige), the true horror of what Katherine's plans start to emerge.

"Son of Dracula" is a surprisingly effective and mature horror film. I had very low hopes for it when Dracula shows up in Louisiana with the clever aka of "Alucard"--gosh, no one's going to figure that one out!

But fortunately, that's the one bit of childish idiocy in this exceptionally creepy movie.

From Dracula's takeover of Darkwood, to the first time we see Dracula emerge from his swampbound coffin, to Frank going insane from gunning down Katherine... and to the twists and turns the film takes as it moves through its second and third acts. (To reveal that Katherine dies at the hand of Frank is NOT a spoiler for this film. Her death is where the story starts to truly unfold.)

Every scene in this film drips with atmosphere. Despite dating from the mid-1940s where Universal horror films seemed to be targeted primarily at kids, this is a movie with a story that compares nicely to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein". It may even be a little superior to those two, as far as the story goes, because it's got some twists that I guarentee you will not see coming.

The film is also blessed with a score that is surprisingly effective for a Universal horror picture--I tend to find them overblown for the most part, but here the music perfectly compliments what unfolds on the screen--and with a cast that is mostly superb in their roles.

I say mostly, because Lon Chaney Jr. is does not make a good Dracula at all. He comes across like a dockworker who's borrowed someone's tuxedo for the evening (or who maybe took it off the owner after beating him into unconsciousness). There simply is nothing menacing about Chaney's Dracula... he's brutish and, as the film builds to its climax, desperate, but never menacing or frightening. He is quite possibly the worst Dracula I've ever come across.

Aside from a weak "Dracula", everything else in this film is top-notch, resulting in a horror movie that's surprisingly effective and high quality when compared to the rest of Universal's horror output of the time. In fact, it's a movie that may even have been ahead of its time, as the pacing, style, and overall look of the film reminded me more of the British horror movies that would emerge from Hammer Films starting a little more than a decade after "Son of Dracula" was first released.

In fact, whether you prefer the Hammer Dracula films (as I do, quite frankly) or the Universal ones, this is a film that will appeal to you.

The Return of Dracula (aka "The Curse of Dracula" and "The Incredible Vanishing Man") (1958)
Starring: Francis Lederer, Norma Eberhardt, Ray Stricklyn, John Wyngraf, Virginia Vincent and Gage Clarke
Director: Paul Landres
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Dracula (Lederer) escapes to America by murdering a Czech artist and assuming his identity. He settles in a small California town and sets his sights on corrupting pure-hearted young girls and turning them into vampires.

"The Return of Dracula" is a vampire movie that rises far above its low budget thanks to a good script, a decent cast, and some clever touches on the part of the director. Francis Lederer (who plays Dracula) may not be a Dracula in the class of Christopher Lee or Bela Lugosi, but he holds his own here. He's comparable to--and even a little better than--Lon Chaney Jr.

While one is always hardpressed to describe a vampire movie as "realistic", this one comes close. The characters are all very real-seeming and performed with great skill by the actors. Particularly noteworthy are the high-school girlfriend/girlfriend characters of Tim and Rachel (portrayed by Norma Eberhardt and Ray Stricklyn), as their relationship and behavior reminded me of my own high school love-life... either things were really racy in this movie, my life was really tame in the 1980s, or things haven't change that much for active kids in the real world, despite what pop culture and politicians would have us believe. These characters seem very real throughout the picture, up and including the way in which they ultimately come face-to-face with the full might of the vampire.

The film also has several unexpected moments of artful creepiness, including one of the spookiest vampire seduction scenes ever filmed. Dracula's first victim is Jennie, a sick blind girl (Virginia Vincent) who can see him in her mind's eye as he corrupts her and devours her soul. Jennie also gets one of the creepiest vampire ressurection scenes ever filmed, as well as a very neat death scene. (The cinematography in this movie is its weakest element, but there is a shot of the vampiric Jennie flitting through the graveyard that's very beautiful. Jennie's death-by-stake moments later is also very startling, due to a bit of Hollywood trickery. I won't go into details, because the effect is one that has to be unexpected for it to have its full and starteling impact.)

Like in most vampire movies, the demise of the master vampire is somewhat anti-climactic, but Dracula's death in this film is not as embarrassing as some of the deaths he suffered in various Hammer flicks. At least here he is done in partially by his own evil deeds instead of by complete accident (like when Dracula dies by thorn bush in "The Satanic Rites of Dracula").

If you're a fan of classic horror films, I recommend you seek out "The Return of Dracula". Francis Lederer may not have been the best choice to play Dracula, but the great supporting cast makes up for his slight shortcomings.

Both films discussed in this post are available as part of "DVD double-features." In both cases, the film they are paired with is equally worthwhile. Both DVDs are well worth adding to personal collections.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

'Secrets of the Clown' is solid debut effort
for 1st-time director

Secrets of the Clown (2008)
Starring: Paul Pierro, Dusty Mitchell, Michael Kott, Kelli Clevenger, Thomas Perez and Scott Allen Luke
Director: Ryan Badalamenti
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Ater his girlfriend (Clevenger) leaves him, someone, or some thing, starts brutally murdering his neighbors and friends, and finally some evil entity starts haunting his home, Bobbie (Pierro) turns to a psychic (Kott) for help, A clown doll tthat his girlriend cherished seems to be at the center of everything, but will its secrets be revealed before Bobbie joins the growing list of victims?

"Secrets of the Clown" is a film that will remind you of films from Hammer Films, Amicus and American International in its heyday. It's a nifty little horror film with a classic feel to it, and if you enjoyed movies like "Burn, Witch, Burn!" and "The Devil Rides Out", you'll get a kick out of this one. You'll also enjoy it if you're an afficianado of the "clown horror subgenre"--yeah, I didn't realize there was such a thing either, but I've seen such a thing referred to in a couple of different places and I've seen enough clown horror flicks to accept that it could be a subgenre--as the clown motif comes into play on a couple of different levels in the film.

What's more, the titular secrets of the clown are not ones that you will readily guess. I thought I had the film figured out about ten miinutes in, but then a plot development proved me wrong. Then, when I thought I knew where writer/director Ryan Badalamenti was going, he threw another curveball at me. The secrets behind the murders and supernatural occurances in this film are not easily given up, and you'll be trying to figure out what's going on right along with the characters.

In fact, this film is unveiling its plot up to virtually the final moment of a very strong finish. Once again, I was reminded not to pre-judge a movie before the end credits start to roll. In this case, as the film came to a close, my first thought was, "Ah... they're leaving things open for a sequel. That's nice... this was a neat film and I wouldn't mind seeing a follow-up" but then came the twist-ending, and I thought, "He HAD to ruin a perfectly good film with yet another crappy twist-ending" and I almost stopped the DVD in disgust... but then Badalamenti put a twist on the twist and all was right with the world. He actually came up with an ending that was as neat as I'm sure he thought it was, a rare and precious thing.

Another very strong thing about the film is the use of sound throughout and the an excellent musical score by Matt Novack. Badalamenti is clearly a filmmaker who understands the importance of using sound and music to heighten the mood of a scene.

Another area that didn't quite work in the film was the acting (or maybe the direction), but it's a flaw that I see in many films at this level of production: The actors were all very polite and very stage-oriented in the way that no one stepped on anyone else's lines and everyone was very careful to not cross in fron to someone else while they were speaking their line. This causes several scenes to feel unnatural and still, despite the fact that most of the cast actually did a decent job delivering their lines. They just should have made it less obvious that they were, indeed, just delivering lines.

Among the actors, though, I want to single out Michael Knotts for praise. He did a wonderful job as the quirky psychic, playing the role with a level of over-acting that I don't think the world has seen since Bela Lugosi passed on. There are a couple of scenes where I wish he had dailed it down a bit, but, over all, he was great fun to watch.

(Trivia: "Secrets of the Clown" cost roughly $15,000 to make.)

It's all downhill after a strong start for
'The Mad Monster'

The Mad Monster (1942)
Starring: George Zucco, Johnny Downs, Glenn Strange and Anne Nagel
Director: Sam Newfield
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

After being mocked by his collegues and pilloried in the press for his outlandish theories, Dr. Lorenzo Cameron (Zucco) retreats to an isolated estate to continue his experiments. Unfortunately, Cameron's theories--that if he injects a serum created from wolf's blood into a human, that human will turn into a violent wolfman--were workable, and he he uses them to turn his simple-minded gardener (Strange) into a tool of revenge against those who destroyed his career.

"The Mad Monster" has one of the strongest openings of the many old-time mad scientist movies that I've seen. The complete and utter madness of Cameron is established effectively as he discusses his scientific discoveries in an increasingly heated fashion with four men who appear and dissapear from chairs around the table he is at. It's a scene that's well-written, well-staged, and well-acted.

Unfortunately, everything that follows is badly written, poorly staged (with the exception of where the wolfman kidnaps and kills a little girl (!)), and over-acted--even George Zucco who often hammed it up in films like, this is so far over the top that one can't help but groan at the performance. (Only Anne Nagel, who plays Cameron's daughter, doesn't embarrass herself... but that might be due to the fact that she her role really doesn't require much in the way of acting from her.)

The final blow to this movie is the wolfman make-up, as the creature looks more like a beatnik or a hippie than a menacing monster. Rediculous is too mild a term to describe what it looks like.

While "The Mad Monster" is worth seeing by fans of the "mad scientist on a rampage" horror subgenre for its opening scene, there really isn't enough here to make it worth seeking out on its own. However, it's included in a number of those low-cost DVD multi-packs, and if there are other movies in a set that interest you, then this makes for a nice bonus.

Saturday Scream Queen: Valerie Leon

Valerie Leon spent most of her film career appearing in British sex comedies, but her appearance in Hammer's "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb" where she plays both the titular mummy and the young lady chosen as the vessel of its vengeful spirit, is one of her very best roles. (The film isn't all that great, but Leon is.)

Friday, December 4, 2009

'Cold Storage' is a film that deserves
a wider audience

Cold Storage (2007)
Starring: Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter, Matt Keeslar, Brett Gentile, Jeffrey Pillars, and Terry Loughlin
Director: Tony Elwood
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Clive (Searcy), a mentally disturbed mountain man, meets the girl of his dreams and commits to spending the rest of his life with her. Unfortunately, she's already dead, having suffered a fatal injury in a car accident near Clive's isolated shack. However, he isn't the sort of guy to let a little thing like decomposition get in the way of happiness. Nor will he allow anyone else to get between him and his true love, especially the living who might come looking for her, such as her strong-willed sister (Carter) and her looking-to-reconcile ex-boyfriend (Keeslar).

"Cold Storage" is a top-notch horror flick that gets just about everything right. It features a great script that refrains from giving into genre cliches so so it remains exciting and its developments unexpected remain unexpected up the very last moment. Made for just a few hundred thousand dollars, it's a film that puts movies made with budgets measured in multiple millions to shame.

This is a movie that could easily have been yet another slasher movie about cityfolk meeting hicks in the backwoods who when they aren't breeding with their sisters are killing strangers who happen along. Thankfully, director and co-screenwriter Tony Elwood created a far better film than that. In fact, he used the rural setting of the film as a means to make it even more suspenseful by playing against the typical Hollywood image of anything outside Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York City.

Most of the film's action takes place in or near a small North Carolina mountain town called Rainerspoint. While there are some decidedly freaky people living on the town's outskirts, the town itself is inhabited by normal, typical Americans and it is like any other small town you might visit anywhere in the country. The sheriff--played by Jeffrey Pillars--comes across as bigoted, lazy and a bit incompetent, but that's more out of the fact that he has very little to do with his days than outright malice, and his attitude and behavior is countered by a couple of the shopkeepers we meet during the course of the film. In general, the people of Rainerspoint aren't a bunch of toothless freaks just waiting to pounce on anyone who happens by... they welcome the tourists and it's clear that if anyone was aware of what was going on out at Clive's shack, they would have been horrified and taken action far sooner than they did. No one here is trying to cover anything up, but, like most Americans, they tend to mind their own business and assume the best about their neighbors.

By making Rainerspoint a typical small town inhabited mostly by friendly people, Elwood makes the creep factor (and ultimately the horror factor) of the happenings at Clive's shack that much more frightening and intense. The weirdness of Clive isn't diluted by surrounding him with equally weird and scary neighbors--with one exception... and that neighbor is probably worse than Clive. Elwood further deploys set and lighting design to contrast the normality and the town with Clive's private world in the forest; the scenes in the town are all in clean, brightly lit places and the sun always seems to be shining on the street, but Clive's place is full of filth, deep and dark shadows and it always seems to be overcast or raining. It's a powerful approach, and it's one that shows that productions and scripts developed with thought and care will deliver powerful experiences no matter what the budget.

"Cold Storage" is as good as it is because of the great care that has been taken in creating it. During filming, it's clear that Elwood understood what to show and what not to show in order to build suspense, and it's equally plain that a good deal of post-production work took place. For countless reasons, post-production is where the mistakes that cause many low-budget films not to reach their full potential, mostly because the filmmakers cut corners. Oftentimes, it's the color correction process or the sound design/re-recording that drags a movie down. In the case here, viewers treated to big-budget post-production quality on a small-budget film. And it shows.

The film also gains much of its strength from its script. I've already talked about the intelligent portrayal of Rainerspoint, but the quality of the script also shines through in the way the story unfolds at a perfect pace. Although we know full well that the two main characters, Cathy and Daric, won't find Cathy's sister alive, the gradual revelation of exactly how insane Clive truly is ensures that the viewers will be on the edge of their seats when the inevitable confrontation with Clive happens; it's an encounter where we know someone will end up dead, and it will probably be one or both of our heroes.

Speaking of heroes... this is another area where the film excels. It features a cast of very talented actors who take the excellent material provided to them in the script and bring it fully to life.

Nick Searcy gives a spectacular performance as the deranged Clive that makes the viewers feel sympathy for the character even as he repulses and terrifies us. It's a performance that displays both acting and scripting of a caliber that is all-too-rarely seen in films.

Joelle Carter is also noteworthy as Cathy, who portrays a stubborn, confident woman deeply concerned for her sister. It's a part where she easily could have come across as bitchy, but she never does. Similarly, her character comes across so clearly that when she does something very, very stupid toward the end of the movie, it seems perfectly natural for her to do so, instead of an example of Stupid Character Syndrome (where a character's brain stops working because the plot needs him or her to do something so the story can continue).

"Cold Storage" isn't perfect--it DOES have one example of pure Stupid Character Syndrome [although, maybe not, because the character being boneheaded and putting himself in danger because of it doesn't seem very swift to begin with] but this is small flaw is heavily outweighed by the superior quality of everything else in the film.

From the script, through the set design, the lighting, the acting, the cinematography, the special effects, and the musical score are all of a quality that puts to shame any number of horror flicks that have appeared in the theaters in recent years. The only thriller and horror movie fans who will be disappointed by this film are those who are into the "torture porn" genre or who feel that if there aren't any boobs on screen it's not worth their time. Everyone else will love it!

"Cold Storage" is, sadly, still looking for a distributor, so it may be a while before you'll have a chance to see it. I sincerely hope that someone has the good taste to snatch up this film, because it's head and shoulders above most modern horror films.

To read more about the film, visit the office website by clicking here.

'Return to House on Haunted Hill' is a wasted trip

Return to House on Haunted Hill (2007)
Starring: Amanda Righetti, Erik Palladino, Tom Riley, Kevin Pacey, Andrew Lee Potts, and Jeffrey Combs.
Director: Victor Garcia
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Treasure hunters are trapped and targeted for death by angry spirits when they invade Hill House in search of an evil idol reputed to be hidden there.

This sequel to a misguided remake of the original "House on Haunted Hill" is a smidgen better than the movie it follows, but it actually suffers becausethe tenious connections it has to the 1999 movie leads to logical lapses and plotholes. (The biggest of is the way the groups of characters can just wander into the house easily and unchallenged. After the events of the other film, whoever owns it would HAVE to have taken steps to secure it. And don't get me started on the "hey, let's break the locking mechanism of the house by shooting at it" scene.)

The logical lapses, however, are minor whem compared to the bad dialogue that is standard throughout this film and the Stupid Character Syndrome that comes into play more than once to keep the flimsy plot moving--even when allowing for ghostly befuddlement of wits, several characters in this film are so stupid one wonders how they remembered to breathe.

The actors do a pretty good job with the material they have--Eric Pallandino is particularly fun to watch as he chews up scenery as the evil treasure hunter who is the inadvertent cause of everyone else's doom--and the special effects are passable. But, overall, this is a pretty weak film which deserves to fade into total obscurity.

"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" is an amusing comedy in the Scooby-Doo mold

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
Starring: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent, and Skip Homier
Director: Alan Rafkin
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the timid typesetting at small-town newspaper (Knotts) has a shot at acheiving his dream of becoming a reporter by spending the night in a local haunted house, his tale of the ghostly manifestations turn him into a local hero, gets him the respect of his boss (Sargent), a chance to romance the girl of his dreams (Staley) and show up a bullying co-worker (Homier). But when he is later challenged to show others the haunting, everything is quiet and he may lose everything. What is going on in the Murder House?

"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" is a great family movie that should entertain young kids and adults equally. While Don Knotts is best in small doses, the story here of the sweet nerd who comes out ahead should appeal to everyone.

The cast is good, with Knotts, Sargent, and Redmond (whose turn as the strangely manipulative janitor provides some of the films most puzzling and funny moments, until the Big Revelation occurs) being particularly good. Staley is a bit of a dead spot, but she's only here to be the Cute, Sensitive Love Interest, so her apparent limited ability doesn't harm the film much. The soundtrack is also good, featuring a single theme used in different enough ways that it doesn't become repetitive, and which manages to both be small-townish, funny, and spooky all at once.

The only real complaint I have with the film is that the director and technical crew should have spent a little more time on lighting. The night and day shots are lit the same way, and the house and grounds are no where near as spooky as they should be, due to the flat lighting throughout.

Still, it's an entertaining, good-natured film that's worth your time. Check it out.