Sunday, October 31, 2010

'Trick r Treat' is a Halloween fear fest!

Trick r Treat (2009)
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Isabelle Deluce, Britt McClipp, Brett Kelly, and Monica Delain
Director: Michael Dougherty
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

If there's a horror movie that perfectly captures the Halloween spirit, then this is it!

"Trick r Treat" is an anthology film consisting of four interlinked and intermingled short horror tales that all start out like traditional horror tales yet provide unexpected twists that are amusing and shocking at the same time... and in a couple if cases even dish out a little poetic justice like the tales in classic horror comics like "Tales from the Crypt."

The film doesn't have a framing sequence per se, but there are two main threads running through all the stories, each of which eventually reach their conclusion when they end up serving as a major plot point in one or more of the tales. The first of these deals with a strange little boy who is wandering the streets with his treat bag late Halloween night, while the other features a pair of sisters and their friend who are "on the prowl for men," so the more shy of the sister can "do it for the first time". Meanwhile, a vampire is killing the residents of a neighborhood, and a vampire is stalking partiers in downtown alleys.

As these threads weave their way in and out the film, a school teacher is revealed to have several dark secrets, a group of kids staging a mean prank Halloween prank on a socially inept girl discover that the legend of a driver killing a bus load of "differently abled" children on Halloween eve is far more than just a scary story; an "adult party" party in the woods comes to a startling conclusion when those who arranged it reveal their true natures, and a bitter, Halloween-hating old man is set upon by what can only be described as the Spirit of Halloween Past, Present, and Future all wrapped into one.

This film is a real treat for anyone who enjoys horror movies, be they of the classic variety or of the somewhat more fast-moving, modern variety. There's something here for everyone--as is usually the case with a well-made anthology film--but what is even better is that we're treated to a whole range of classic horror movie tropes that are then spun off in unexpected and wholly satisfying directions. The film features vampires, ghosts, werewolves, mad slashers... all the figures that belong in Halloween. But the each come with a fun twist that adds a trick with each treat. The stalker of innocent victims ends up stalked himself, the Halloween bullies find the tables turned on them in the most shocking of ways, and the Scrooge-like Halloween-hater gets some "Halloween Carol" action that will stay with the viewer for a long time.

With great looking sets and even better cinematography and lighting, with a great cast performing clever and spooky tales of terror, first-time director Michael Dougherty has delivered the best horror anthology film I've seen in a very, very long time. It's a far better film that its direct-to-DVD release indicates, and it should become a new Halloween tradition in any horror-lover's household. (Except maybe those with young children... but adults will have a blast with this one, even on repeated viewings.)

And with this review, the 31 Nights of Halloween come to a close for another year. I hope everyone out there has a spooktacular time tonight!

A chilling tale of future deaths revealed

Premonition (aka "Yogen" [original Japanese title])
Starring: Hiroshi Mikama, Noriko Sakai, and Hana Inoue
Director: Norio Tsuruta
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

College lecturer Hideki Satome (Mikama) finds himself haunted by newspapers that report the future instead of the past. His wife Ayaka (Sakai) initially believes he has been driven mad with grief and guilt over the death of their daughter Nana (Inoue) in a freak accident, because he insists he saw the death announced in a newspaper before it occured. However, Ayaka soon discovers that others have supposedly seen these newspapers that foretell the future, and as she and Hideki attempt to seek out these people, their lives go from ones of quiet tragedy to raging horror.

"Premonition" is a well-done horror movie that relies on good acting, expert pacing, and some fine filmmaking to generate its tension and scares. There is only one bit that can be considered gory--everything else generated by old-fashioned filmmaking. The movie kept me engaged for the entire running time, and I felt for the two main characters (even if the pathos-tinged melodrama surrounding their relationship got slathered on a bit thick at times). There were even a few good scares, including a really well done "Boo!"-type scare. These days, those tend to annoy me more than anything in new films, because they are usually cliched, but here it worked and it genuinely startled me. The film also deals nicely with what essentially is an undefeatable and incomprehensible menace that the characters have chosen to go up against... at no time did I get the "This is really dumb" vibe like I got from "Final Destination", which tackles a similar subject but does so very badly.

Despite all the things that worked well in this film, it is burdened by its utter predictability. I pretty much called every plot development as the film unfolded and nothing surprised me, including what I'm sure was supposed to be a clever twist ending. (It was spooky, but it was also completely predictable.) Actually, the film probably should have ended a few seconds before it did... I think it would have been stronger if the filmmakers hadn't added a bit at the end that was there to heighten creep factor, but I think it was too open for interpretation to really work. And, I'm sorry, but I won't label it "thought provoking" when everything that led up that moment was exactly what I expected from this sort of story.

In final analysis, "Premonition" is a very well-done film. It's expertly paced, the actors to a great job, and the use of sound, music, lighting all combine to make this a fine bit movie-viewing, despite a predictable script... at least for the likes of me, who has seen waaaay too many horror films and read waaaay tooo many issues of "House of Mystery" ["Premonition" is based on a horror comic story titled "The Newspaper of Terror"] in my day. Not to mention having written a couple of RPG scenarios very similar in nature to the plot of the film.) I think it's worth seeing if you like well-wrought horror movies.

'Cadaverella' is cleverer than many horror flicks

Cadaverella (2007)
Starring: Megan Goddard, Ryan Seymour, Santiago Vasquez, Jennifer Friend, and Kieran Hunter
Director: Timothy Friend
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Cinder (Goddard) is murdered the day before her 21st birthday -- just before she would have gained control of the trust fund her father left her, and just before being able to kick her ex-stripper stepmother and her two freakish stepsisters out of her house -- she is restored to life by voodoo god Baron Samedei (Vasquez) so she can take her revenge.

"Cadaverella" is a neat low-budget horror film, but one that may be a bit too strange for those who like their zombie/revenge flicks pure and brainless. It's mix of fairy tale elements, voodoo, and strange 1950s vibes was fun for me, but it was off-putting to some of the people I viewed the film with.

The story in "Cadaverella" is roughly constructed like the fairy tale "Cinderella" (if the combo of the main character's name and the film's title doesn't make that obvious). Like her fairytale counterpart, Cinder slaves away at work and school while her stepmother and her stepsisters never lift a finger, but unlike the fairytale, Cinder doesn't get to live happily ever after. She is a troubled young woman, and she is more abusive to her Prince Charming (a wheelchair-bound college student named Justin) than loving, and she is ultimately murdered by the motorcycle-riding bad-boy she is attracted to (both played by Seymour, in an interesting casting choice, although I do wish they'd gotten a better wig for the Cash character. While I didn't recognize Seymour--he does a good job at changing his inflections and facial expressions between the two characters--that awful wig did make me take notice of Cash in ways I'm sure the filmmakers didn't intend. Finally, we have Baron Samedei standing in for the Fairy Godmother, granting Cinder's wishes, and seeing that she gets her night at the ball.

With the exception of that one wig, the only other complaint I have with the films production values is that someone should have played a little less with the Video Toaster software (or whatever is being used nowadays. There are some very bad, and unneeded visual effects here and there in the fillm--but since they show up at least twice, the filmmakers must have liked them.

"Cadaverella" has the look of being shot on video, but scenes are framed and staged is anything but cheap. The scene where Cash and Cinder are in the woods, and the camera pulls back to reveal the shovel leaning against a tree particularly stands out in my mind as a resonating image. Another favorite is the bit of slapstick at the library where Donna is electrocuted. In fact, I've seen films that were probably made for ten times the budget of this one where the camera-people could stand to take a few tips from the crew here.

Something else that "Cadaverella" has that many films of this kind do not are main characters that the viewer can relate to. Cinder and Justin come across as real, living human beings (although the library scenes mark Cinder as something of a bitch), and the final scene they share together becomes quite impactful and moving as a result.

In fact, I think Justin and Cinder could have seemed even more real--and their relationship have even more impact--if the writers had spent just a little more time on the dialog the actors delivereed while playing them. The performances are excellent--and far better than I've come to expect from modern low-budget films--and they would have been even stronger if the lines had seemed just a bit more natural. The writers have horror and comedy down, but the dialog remained just a little rough.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saturday Scream Queens:
Barbara Parkins and Jacqueline Bisset

With the 31 Nights of Halloween coming to a close, we're ending it as it started, with a double-dose of Scream Queens!

Barbara Parkins

Canadian actress Barbara Parkins is best known for her long-time role role as Betty on the soap opera "Peyton Place" and for her starring turn in "Valley of the Dolls". However, she also appeared in some of the niftiest horror movies to come out of the early 1970s, such as British anthology film "Asylum" and the made-for-television chiller "Mephisto Waltz". By the 1980s, she mostly retired from acting, but she continues to accept the occasional role.

Jacqueline Bisset

British-born Jacqueline Bisset was a model-turned-actress who emerged as an international sex symbol during the 1960s and built a genre-spanning spanning, highly successful career from "window-dressing parts" into trend-setting leading lady roles. She starred in several horror and suspense films during the 1970s and 1980s, among which are "Murder on the Orient Express", "The Deep", "Mephisto Waltz" (where she co-starred with today's other Scream Queen), and "Crime Broker". As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, Bisset made a successful transition from leading lady to character actress, and she continues to act in one or two movies every year.

'The Mephisto Waltz' oozes 1970s horror

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Alan Alda, Barbara Parkins, Bradford Dillman, and Curt Jurgens
Director: Paul Wendkos
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A dying pianist (Curt Jurgins) makes a bargain with Satan to have his soul put into a younger man's body (Alan Alda). The younger man's wife (Jacqueline Bissett) realizes slowly something is different about her husband... and realizes something is seriously wrong people around them start dying mysterously.

"The Mephisto Waltz" is an unsettling little horror film from the 1970s (and it oozes '70s sensibilities from every frame, along with an unsettling sense of dread) that features a surprising twist as it enters the third act and an even more startling ending. It's not often that I am taken completely by surprise by a film's direction, but I was with this one. (And I've just taken three cracks at hinting at the twist while drafting this review, but each time I felt like I was revealing too much and possibly spoiling the film. I feel the surprsing story development here has to be witnessed "cold" to have its full impact.)

As impressed as I am with the ending of the film, it doesn't start out strong. The filmmakers make a tremendous mistake at the beginning of the film by revealing beyond doubt that Alda's character has been possessed by the old man, and that we are dealing with true Satanic magic. By showing us this up front, it removes a degree of mystery and uncertainty that could have make the movie even more suspenseful.

Still, the film does recover nicely from the early blunder, delivering lots of chilling moments, some suitably eerie dream sequences, and one of the best-handled summonings of Satan I've ever seen. It's a film that's worth seeing, and it's a film that doesn't deserve the obscurity it currently endures.

Friday, October 29, 2010

'The Addams Family' is creepy, kooky,
and altogether hilarious

The Addams Family (1991)
Starring: Raul Julia, Angelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, Christina Ricci, Dana Ivey, and Carel Struycken
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Tully Alford (Hedaya), the corrupt attorney to the Addams Family--a clan eccentrics who are exceptionally creepy, fabulously wealthy, very generous of spirit, and totally ignorant to the fact that they are completely out of step with the world around them--concocts a scheme to defraud the Addams' of their vast fortune with the use of a lookalike of their long-lost Uncle Fester (Lloyd).

There are very few TV series that have been adapted to the Big Screen as successfully as Sonnenfeld did with "The Addams Family".

Perhaps this is because it feels like the movie was made with love for the original series and source material, where others feel like they were extended ads for the show (like the original "X-Files" movie) or made with contempt for the series (such as the "Charlie's Angels" movies).

With "The Addams Family", we don't get any "reimagining" or mockery of the subject matter. Instead, we have the Addams Family in all their naive glory--unintentionally freaking out everyone around them while simply trying to be neighborly and helpful--and we have a cast that seems to take their characters seriously, even while being overtly comical. What's more, the film carries a strong, positive message about "looks can be deceiving" and family values... What's even better, the script-writer and the director are talented enough and confident enough in their own abilities that they don't feel the need to get preachy or to hammer the audience over the head with the movie's message.

The casting of every part in this film is spot-on. Julia and Huston (as Gomez and Morticia Addams) are perfect as a very strange couple who are deeply devoted to each other, their children (Pugsley and Wedneday--the latter portrayed by Ricci in a hysterically funny goth-like fashion), and their extended family. They are equally devoted to their employees, such as the butler Lurch (Struycken), and others, whom they treat as well as they treat their own family.

Of special note is the childlike glee with which Julia portrays Gomez. Some of the movie's funniest--and saddest moments--come from this aspect of Gomez.

The best part of this movie is the way the strangest characters--the Addams Family--turn out to be the most decent characters in the film. Every supposedly respectable person that interacts with the Addamses is lying and deceitful, while the Addamses never attempt to cheat anyone and virtually always speak their minds.

"The Addams Family" is a Halloween movie that I think everyone in a household should be able to get a kick out of. It's a great fusion of horror and comedy, with a strong emphasis on the comedy.

And here's a special musical bonus....

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Could it perhaps be... SATAN?!

The Omen (aka "The Omen I: The Anti-Christ") (1976)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, David Warner, Billie Whitelaw, Patrick Troughton, and Harvey Stephens
Director: Richard Donner
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Little Damien Thorn (Stephens) is the much-loved child of the American ambassador to Great Britain (Peck) and his beautifuul wife (Remick). Unfortunately, strange accidents and bizarre violence seems to follow Damien... and they'll only get worse, as Damien is the Anti-Christ come to usher in Hell on Earth!

"The Omen" is a moody, stylish horror film that is driven first and foremost by the great performances of its stars, and by a great use of locations and sets. Peck is particularly excellent as a man grounded in the modern, secular world who gradually comes to face the horrifying fact that his son is the earthly incarnation of ultimate evil. Thorn's search for the truth is one of the best best ever put on film, and the climactic scenes as he seeks to confront Evil and save the world is ne of the most chilling sequences in cinematic history.

Another important key to the atmosphere of horror in "The Omen" is the fantastic orchestral and choral score by Jerry Goldsmith. The music he composed for this film is some of the most recognizable ever written for a film, and some of the best of his career. It ranges from bombastic to skin-crawlingly creepy, but it always enhances to pall of darkness that permeates the film.

Every aspect of "The Omen" is of the highest quality, and it is a true horror movie classic.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

'Creepy Tales: Girls Night Out' disappoints

Creepy Tales: Girls Night Out (2003)
Starring: Joe Heffernan, Samantha Turk, Bianca Joy Chavers, Kimberly Hiss, Scott Shiaffo, and Francine Civelle
Director: Micheal Russin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

"Creepy Tales: Girls Night Out" is an ultra-lowbudget horror anthology film that features three stories which are introduced by a Crypt Keeper-like wise-cracking host, The Professor (Heffernan). The three tales that in the film share the same old school vibe as The Professor, in that they are twist-ending shockers.

The first tale, titled "Girls Night Out" sees two friends (Turk and Chavers) driving along a lonely stretch of road on their way to a friend's house for a party. They encounter an axe-wielding lunatic recently escaped from an insane asylum... and their night only goes down hill from there.

The second tale, "The Creep", sees a small-time attorney (Hiss) whose sanity starts coming unraveled when she comes to believe she is being stalked by a man who has lunch in the same restaurant as she does every day.

Finally, "Blood Moon Rising" is about an ailing businessman (Shiaffo) who falls in love with his private nurse (Civelle). However, both the businessman and the nurse harbor dark secrets, and their hidden natures collide with deadly results.

This is another one of those movies that could have done with a little more time spent on the script.

Only one of the three took a direction that surprised me ("Blood Moon Rising"), but all three kept me mildly entertained, so I didn't mind terribly. I can also forgive the fact that the film wasn't particularly scary, because I did find it amusing. What I did mind was the near-total absence of likable characters anywhere in any of the stories. In at least one case, I'm pretty sure the viewer is supposed to have sympathy with the main characters in "Girls Night Out", but one of them is such a bitch and the other such a dish-rag that I found myself wanting them to get chopped to bits by the axe murderer. I think that if a little more time had been spent on polishing some of the characters, all three stories would have been much stronger, because the viewer would have had someone to relate to on the screen.

I also think the filmmakers should have stayed away from putting monsters in the picture, espcially werewolves. That is one creature that is very hard to do right when you have a tiny budget. Blurry images, double-exposures, and other effects that I could create on my Macintosh couldn't hide the really bad costume. (Although the "fang-cam" shot was hilarious.)

Obviously, since I only rated the film with Four Stars, I'm not giving it a strong recommendation. However, the film still ranks above a number of horror movies of recent vintage that had one hundred times the budget as "Girls Night Out", because I got the sense with this film that the people involved actually put their hearts into making the best film they could with the means at their disposal. I think they set out to make a fun, unpretentious little horror movie, and I think they succeeded at that.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stay off the floor during 'Dance Macabre'

Dance Macabre (1991)
Starring: Robert Englund, Michelle Zeitlin, and a bunch of teen girls in leotards
Director: Greydon Clark
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A celebrated St. Petersburg ballet academy has just opened its doors to dancers from the West and girls have flocked to it in the hopes of studying under a legendary Russian dancer. But then the girls start to vanish, and then they start to turn up dead. Who's the killer? Why is he (or she!) butchering the beautiful and talented young women?

"Dance Macabre" is a completely pedestrian 'psycho on the loose' film starring Robert Englund and a bunch of young dancers. Aside from its predictability, it is marred by having an actor with such distinctive facial features that he is recognizable even through heavy make-up. As such, one of the film's 'revelations' is instead an irritant. Worse, the lead actress isn't really much of an actress (she is quite the dancer, though, as that is her profession).

Unless you're 12 years old and this is the first movie of this type you've ever seen, the 'who' is obvious from the outset. As is the 'why.' And with those out of the way, there's not really any other reason to watch this film. (There are some creepy and/or gross death scenes for which I am giving an extra Star, but that still doesn't mean this one shouldn't be at the bottom of your "to see" list.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Win "The Dead Path" by leaving a comment!

"The Dead Path" by Stephen Irwin tells the tale of Nicholas Close, a psychic who finds himself entangled in a disturbing series of disappearances and murders... and on a direct path to a confrontation with a malignant spirit that dwells in the woods near his childhood home. Publisher Random House is putting a fair degree of effort behind promoting this book and their efforts include a couple of offbeat approaches, such as giving the hardcover edition a GLOW IN THE DARK cover. And they're giving away a free copy of the novel to one lucky reader of my blog!

Stephen Irwin, author of The Dead Path

The give-away guidelines are simple.

1. Be a "Follower" of this blog. (If you aren't already, you can become in the appropriate section to the right of this post.)

2. Leave a Comment at that bottom of this post no later than October 28 with a valid email address. I will need those, so I can have the the book sent to you, if you win. (If there's a valid email address in your profile that will also be sufficient.)

3. A winner selected on October 29 and notified via email. At that time, I'll need you to send me your snail mail address, so I can arrange to have the book shipped to you. (If you don't respond by 
October 30, another winner will be chosen.)

4. The winner will be selected at random, via a phone call to one of my friends or relatives who will be asked to pick a number between 1 and total number of comments left to this post. (They are used to getting strange calls from me. I am the prime  reason many of them screen their calls, in fact.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I am also getting a free copy of the book. Irwin is being favorably compared to Peter Straub and Stephen King. Since I'm fond of both writers, I've asked to have a review copy sent, and I'll do my first real book review since at least 2001. If I like it, I may even try to be like a real journalist again and see if I can do an interview with Irwin as well. (Maybe the Karma Effect will cause my book to be successful, too!)

The Complete Night Stalker, Part Five

With Halloween less than a week away, we come to the end of the line for the original "Night Stalker" television series. Sadly, it went out not with a bang, but with a wimper.

Episode Eighteen: The Knightly Murders
Director: Vincent McEveety
Rating: Nine of Stars

A string of murders--all committed with authentic weaponry dating from the Middle Ages--have the police baffled. When Kolchak notices the victims are all involved in a venture that will convvert a small museum into a discoteque, he first suspects the curator of being being the killer. But maybe it's the exhibits themselves are resisting such humilation?

This is one of the best episodes of the series. The danger to Kolchack seems very real during every encounter with the supernatural, and the humor is top-notch, both that evolving from a self-important, publicity-hungry cop that Kolchak deals with, as well as that coming from some of Kolchak's investigation of and confrontation with the killer. If all the episodes had been been this good, maybe Darren McGavin wouldn't have hated working on the series so much.

Episode Nineteen: The Youth Killer
Director: Ron McDougall
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Unknown senior citizens are found dead in Chicago parks and streets. Kolchak's investigation turns up that they were young only days before, and they were all using an exclusive dating service run by a woman of epic beauty. Naturally she's Helen of Troy who is sacrificing young victims to the Greek gods to maintain her youth, and only Kolchak can stop her!

From lame plot conveniences, to story problems so huge that even the fact characters comment on them doesn't make them less problematic, this is one of the very worst episodes of the series. It also doesn't help that Kathy Lee Crosby (as Helen) can't act worth a damn.

Episode Twenty: The Sentry
Director: Seymour Robbie
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When surveyers at a super-secure underground storage facility recover some strange rocks from a new section that's under construction, murder and mayhem breaks out. Kolchak discovers that a lizard creature that's trying to protect its young is responsible.

The final episode of the series looks and feels like just that... the final episode of a series. It's got a cheap feel about it, and the thing that'll stick with viewers more than anything is Carl driving around in a golf cart. The introduction of a woman police LT who has everyone but Carl wrapped around her finger is the one high note of the episode--her banter with Carl is some of the funniest dialogue in the entire series. Still, it wasn't the best of notes to end on.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

'Constantine' smokes demons in good adaptation

Constantine (2005)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Shia LaBeouf, Djimon Hounso, Tilda Swinton, and Peter Stormare
Director: Francis Lawrence
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

The Spear of Destiny has fallen into the hands of a cabal of half-demons and only supernatural detective John Constantine (Reeves) stands between humanity and literal Hell on Earth.

"Constantine" is a nice adaptation of the long-running "Hellblazer" comic book to the big screen. It retains just enough of the original series to not make one go "why did they even use the character's name?" while creating a standalone work that can be enjoyed by the vast majority of film-watchers who have never heard of the series. (Even better, the filmmakers chose to give a nod to my favorite "Hellblazer" storyline, now some fifteen years gone, where John Constantine is diagnosed with lung cancer and is facing certain death.)

Far more comic-booky in nature than the comic book ever was back when I read it, the film nonetheless captures the vibe of John Constantine's world, a place where conspiracy and theology mixes easily and even the most innocent facade may hide vast occult power. It's a film that should appeal equally to fans of superheroes, the supernatural, and "Coast-to-Coast AM" style of paranoid thinking. The icing on the cake is some pretty good acting by Keanau Reeves and Rachel Weisz. Tilda Swinton also plays a sufficiently menacing Angel Gabriel, while Peter Stomare takes a decent turn as Satan, even if I wish they'd found a more handsome actor to play him.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Brittany Murphy

Brittany Murphy described herself as "one of those show people" and stated in interviews that her earliest memories were of wanting to entertain people. She got her start in community theater at the age of 9, and by the time she was 13, she appearing in commercials. Television roles followed soon thereafter, and she easily made the jump to film.

Falling into something of a type-casting rut as a troubled or mentally disturbed teen, Murphy nonetheless managed to make a smooth transition from child actor to adult roles, perhaps aided by the fairly large amount of voice acting she did for video games and cartoons, or perhaps because she was "one of those show people," just like she said. Murphy also seems to have stayed clear of the party scenes and drug abuse that wreck the careers of so many young actors.

Murphy appeared mostly in romantic comedies and dramas, athough she did manage to work in a number of sci-fi movies, thrillers, and horror films, such as "Abandoned", "The Devil's Arithmatic", "Cherry Falls", "The Dead Girl", "MegaFault", "Deadline", and the yet-to-be released "Something Wicked".

Brittany Murphy passed away in 2009 from cardiac arrest induced by anemia and dehydration brought on by her attempt to self-medicate pneumonia with over-the-counter medicines. (Bizarrely, her husband died a few months later from the exact same cause. There's either a conspiracy theory or a horror movie script in that somewhere.)

'Deadline' needed more intensity, faster pace

Deadline (aka "Ghost House")(2009)
Starring: Brittany Murphy, Tammy Blanchard, Thora Birch, and Marc Blucas
Director: Sean McConville
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A writer recovering from a mental breakdown (Murphy) retreats to an isolated house owned by her agent in an attempt to finish the script for a horror movie. She soon discovers the house holds a dark secret... and that she may not be alone. But is she being stalked by her murderous ex-boyfriend, a vengeful ghost, or phantasms conjured by her broken mind?

"Deadline" is a cross between the "writer goes crazy" sub-genre and the venerable gothic thriller where the main character is a psychologically unstable woman that is either out of her mind, or someone is trying to drive her there with a fake haunting. As far as that goes, it does a fine job in blending these two old-fashioned horror stories and updating them to current times with cell phones, lap tops, and digital camcorders. It also manages to keep the truth of what's going on with the writer and the house an open question up to the very end. And when the truth is revealed, it's not a huge shock to anyone familiar with either of the genres being fused in this film, but it is nonetheless somewhat pleasant that it ends up being slightly unusual.

But what isn't done well here is the pacing. Even at 85 minutes, the film feels slow and bloated. I understand that writer/director McConville wanted to establish the creepy nature of the house and to convey the sense of isolation and growing dread felt by Murphy's character as she roams its cavernous and shadow-filled rooms, but he didn't have to do it over and over and over. And the languid pace doesn't seem to pick up much even after the haunting begins in earnest; moments of horror are bursts of activity surrounded by more slow, nearly tension free scenes. The second and third acts of movies like this one need to be like a steel wire stretched nearly to the point of breaking, but here that wire remains mostly slack. If a total of five minutes or so had been cut from various places in this film, I think it would have made the difference between boring and horrifying.

As for the acting, the film is basically carried completely by Brittany Murphy. While she does an okay job--striking a nice balance between someone fighting for their life and someone who is having a complete mental breakdown--her overall performance seems to lack the energy and intensity that is required from an actor when they are by themselves on screen for the majority of a film. She did a far better job in the quirky slasher film "Cherry Falls" than she does here, perhaps because she had other actors to play off... or perhaps because of superior direction. It's hard to say, and we'll never know, because Murphy won't be doing any more slasher films or haunted house movies. She passed away in 2009.

If you're a big lover of gothic horror flicks, or perhaps a charter member of the Brittany Murphy fan club, this might be a movie worth seeking out. Everyone else can probably wait for it to show up on television where it may be edited and given the faster pace it needed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A small-budget film with a big-budget feel

The Craving (2008)
Starring: Lesley Paterson, Grayson Berry, Wallis Herst, Jesse Boyd, Anselm Clinard, Curtis Krick, and Jason Kehler
Director: Sean Dillon
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Five friends on their way to the Burning Man festival (Berry, Boyd, Clinard, Grayson, and Herst) take a shortcut across the desert, only to get lost. When the drive up to a ramshackle cabin, its crazed resident (Krick) opens fire on them with a shotgun, disabling their van and causing them to be trapped with him in the desert. The murderous hermit is the least of their worries, however, because when night falls, a creature emerges from its den... and it is very, very hungry.

"The Craving" is an old-fashioned monster movie with a very modern sensibility. The set-up is like any number of "beautiful young people on a road trip Meet a Bad End" movie that you've seen in recent years, but it quickly veers into a territory that's as stylish and well-photographed as anything Terence Fisher or Mario Bava ever offered up, and as gritty and intense as early Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven films with each other.

What seperates this film from the pack it shares some similarities with is its well-crafted script and the performances given by its actors. It may be a fairly traditional tale of a group of dimwitted people stranded in the wilderness with a monster that's messily picking them off one by one, but it's told with a style that's all-too-rarely seen in movies of this sort.

First of all, it delivers a number of unexpected twists as the story unfolds, but they're not the out-of-left field sort of twists that are increasingly the norm in horror films. The twists here are either well-founded in the plot (our crazed hermit has a very good reason for hanging out in the desert... and it's a reason that's both obvious and shocking and one that is in complete keeping with the theme and nature of the story) or ones that play with our expectations for how this sort of movie unfolds and concludes (it may be a small thing, but I really appreciated the third-act violations of conventions as far as the deaths of main characters and the order they get dispatched in--and no, that's not a spoiler... I mean, we don't expect ANYONE to survive in movies these days, do we?).

Second, the script presents dialogue that is far better crafted than what we've come to expect as standard these days. Not only do we have dialogue here that sounds the way real people might talk but screenwriter Curtis Krick has given each character a unique speech patterns and sound. It's dialogue that lets the actors bring their characters fully to live and make them believable even when they are doing things that I found unbelievable. (The only complaint I have in the "there went my suspension of disbelief" category is when two characters have sex after one has suffered a severely broken leg. Yes, he's on pain-killers, but, having been where he's at as far as broken bones go, I don't think they'd have been enough to dull the pain to the point where I'd be interested in a romp. Wallis Herst's character, Diane, is definatelly the sort of girl that every guy in the 20s dreams of having and every man in his 50s is a little fearful of... but I don't think Scotty would have been able to accomodate her with her broken leg, no matter how funny I found the scene.)

Another thing I found laudible in the film is the amazing use of sound in it. Too many indie films (and even a few studio efforts with huge budgets) suffer because not enough attention is paid to sound-mixing or the proper use of music.

"Curtis and I created a version of the film with sound effects added, but we soon realized that the film would only reach its potential if we engaged a really talented person to complete the movie's sound," director/producer Sean Dillon commented to me when I mentioned how spectacular the use of sound is in the film. "Then we found Josh Eckberg, a wonderfully talented sound designer and editor who shared our vision for the film. He found the time to do the sound right. For 'The Craving,' we understood how much of the tension came from the sound of the creature. If we hear it, we know it's near, but we still don't know exactly where. That can be much scarier than actually seeing the creature onscreen. Josh had the skills and the resources to actually execute an ambitious sound design."

The soundtrack music used in the film is also great. Composed by Krick, it's not the sort of music that calls attention to itself and instead builds tension and horror where it is deployed on an almost subliminal level. It's not only an example of great score music, but it's an example that other filmmakers should follow when placing soundtrack music in their films. For a first feature-length effort, it's exceptionally well done.

I just realized that I've gotten almost to the end of this review without discussing the film's monster. That oversight is a symptom of my desire to keep my posts here short and because Dillon and his crew handled the monster exactly as they should have.

The creature is "The Craving" is a bizarre one, with a number of surprising traits and behaviors, yet ones we can buy into as the film unfolds. I had a small WFT moment during the first monster attack, a moment where I couldn't quite get a read on what was going with the characters and their conflicting reactions to the creature's strong body odor and Diane's really bizarre behavior. However, as the film continued, it started to make sense and it made the creature even scarier.

Although the film takes place in the middle of the desert and the creature here isn't hairy--it looks like it's completely smooth-skinned it the quick glimpses we get of it--there are a number of things about it that reminded me of Bigfoot legends. Heck, the monster here explained some of the Bigfoot stories better than the Bigfoot stories do, such as why some people describe a strong stench around the creature while others don't, and why some say Bigfoot is frightening and others claim it to be a kind and benevolent creature. The strange creature is better thought out and more logical than something that many people believe is real.

In addition to being cleverly conceived from a story point of view, the monster in "The Craving" is also expertly handled from the technical aspects of horror filmmaking. Dillon and his crew wisely chose to have the monster remain mostly hidden from the viewer, showing only glimpses of it. This keeps the creature as frightening as possible as it then ends up residing mostly in the audiences imagination, causing us to picture something far more terrible than anything that could probably have been put screen--and given the highly effective and convincing gore we do see,
I think most of will imagine the creature as pretty damn horrible.

By keeping the creature's screen appearances limited to silhouettes and quick glimpses, Dillon not only shows that less really is more when it comes to this sort of thing, but any possible weaknesses in their monster design and make-up are also kept from view. This is not one of those independent horror films where the creators screw up their movie by giving the audience extended shots of a badly done monster. The opposite is the case here--we've got a good-looking moster that is still shown sparsely and thus becomes even scarier. (Dillon told me that the monster make-up and look improved as filming progressed, so it could be those few excellent glimpses we get were late in filmed late in the shoot. Whatever the case, the creature looks great, better than those featured even in films you may come across during "the most dangerous night of television" on your favorite cable channel. If the look of the creature improved as the film unfolded, then it ended up in such an excellent place and was otherwise so artfully filmed that the we'd never have known it wasn't perfected before filming began.)

In fact, everything in this film is so well done that you'd never know the film was shot in over a mere two weeks, with some of the cast being available only part of the time because of other commitments, severe weather impacting the shoot, and many of the people involved in the production wearing many different hats both in front and behind the camera. It's a film that has the look and feel of a movie shot over a much longer period, and for a whole lot more money than the good people from Biscuits and Gravy Productions had access to. It's a film that shows what a talented group of dedicated creators who know their craft can come up with.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's a monster- infested house in space

Alien (1979)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

When space tug Nostromo responds to a distress signal, they find a derelict spaceship of unknown origin. During the exploration of wreckage, one of the tug's crew (Hurt) is attacked by an alien beast, and when they bring him back to the ship for medical attention, their problems really begin.

"Alien" is pretty much a perfect fusion of sci-fi and horror. It captures the mood of classic suspense and horror films, mixes it with classic science fiction movies, and brings forward its story with fantastic sets, and a horrific alien monster that picks off the ship's crew of likable characters (who are all being portrayed by exceptional actors), one by one, each in a more frightening and gory fashion than the previous one. The use of lighting and sound in this film are particularly marvelous, and they add even more to the scares in the film than the goopey gore effects do.

This is a film that lovers of horror and science fiction will both appreciate. (The "breakfast scene" and Warrant Officer Ripley's (Weaver) final confrontation with the alien menance are ones that have been imitated and lampooned dozens of times since "Alien" was first released in 1979, and they are classic cinematic moments that must be experienced.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

'1408' is a spectacular spook show!

1408 (2007)
Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary MacCormack, and Jasmine Jessica Anthony
Director: Mikael Haafstroem
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A jaded paranormal investigator (Cusack) meets his match when he confronts the evil that dwells in Room 1408.

"1408" is the best ghost/haunted house movie in at least a decade. The acting is top-notch. Enslin starts out as a somewhat unlikeable cynic, but as he lives through his night of terror and emotional anguish brought on by whatever evil exists in Room 1408, John Cusack's fantastic range as an actor brings the audience firmly on his side, rooting for him to defeat the room. Cusack goes from amsused, to angry, to terrified, to heartbroken, to resigned to his fate, and back again, never seeming as if he's hamming it up or overacting. Cusack's utterly believable peformance draws the viewers in, and transmits the terror straight to us.

Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson actually gives a performance in this film that doesn't involve chewing up the scenery. He is likewise perfectly believable in his part--playing it somewhat understated, yet sincere. The scene he shares with Cusack are well played, because by the time it's over, the audience is convinced that the hotel manager isn't trying to scam Enslin so his hotel gets a write-up... he sincerely believes Room 1408 is haunted by an evil presence.

I've read a couple of reviews where the critics complain that there's nothing new in this film, that it's just another ghost movie. Those critics are morons. There isn't supposed to be anything "new" in this very traditional ghost story. What they should have noticed (although I wonder if one of those reviewers even saw the film... I've suspected him of working purely off press kits before) is how perfectly all the traditional elements are deployed and used... and how, for the first time in entirely too long, this is a horror movie from a major releasing company that is driven by the performances of the actors and the carefully orchestrated unfolding and worsening of the haunting rather than merely being an excuse to toss together a bunch of CGI monsters or lame scares OR build-ups that don't actually result in anything.

"1408" works because every promise of something strange or terrifying pays off... and sometimes pays off in somewhat unexpected ways. But it all happens within the standards of a traditional ghost story. The film even ends on a strong note, because it avoids the "shock scare" at the end that has become so commonplace that in most cases it's more irritating than frightening. Instead, this film ends on a supremely creepy note that is probably more horrifying and heartbreaking for Enslin than anything up to that point.

Although I can't rave enough about how exciting it is to finally see a decent ghost movie again, "1408" isn't quite perfect.

There is a point where it appears as if Enslin has escaped from the room that goes on just a bit too long. The filmmakers give us some early hints that it's a trick the Room is playing, but instead of moving swiftly to what is obvious to the viewer (if not to Enslin), he continues the sequence. Fortunately, what follows is more horrorfying than what went before, so the film recovers nicely from a near-stumble, and it's only true weak point.

"1408" is a great adaptation of a Stephen King short story, and it's a must-see for anyone who loves a good, traditional haunted house movie. It's the best one of the decade just passed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The film that reshaped pop culture zombies

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Starring: Judith O'Dea, Duane Jones, Karl Hardman, Marilyn Eastman, Keith Wayne, Judith Reilly, and Kyra Schon
Director: George Romero
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the dead rise to eat the living, a small group of people board themselves up in a house and attempt to hold out against an army of hungry zombies.

"Night of the Living Dead" is perhaps one of the most effective horror movies ever made. While its budget constraints are occassionally evident, and the acting leaves something to be desired at times, it still emerges as one of the scariest, most intense, films ever, with near-perfect pacing, great camera work, and sparse but effective set design and special effects. It's also arguably the most influential film of modern times, and many creators of horror and suspense films from the past 20 years probably owe quite a bit to Romero for inspiriation.

The key to the films success is that it incorporates a bit of the morality play aspect that exists at the core of most horror movies with a complete sense of claustrophobia and a certain doom. Although a national (possibly worldwide) disaster in unfolding, the action of movie is mostly confined to a single house, and the threats that those barricaded within come not only from the undead hoard outside, but also from each other as their various character flaws are explosed and amplified due to their situation. (Of course, it also features one of the most disturbing zombie flesh-eating scenes that have ever been put on fillm... if you've seen the film, you know what I mean, and if you haven't yet, you will know as soon as the moment happens.)

Despite recognizing this as a true classic fillm, I also admit it's not perfect. In addition to the acting, there's a couple of plot holes. I recently watched the movie again, and I still find the opening cemetary sequence strange beyond words, and I still am not certain what Barbara's ultimate fate is. (One thing I am certain of is that it's not a racist movie. I watched the film again, because I heard how it was supposed to have racist undertones throughout--undertones that are fully exposed at the film's climax--and since I'd never noticed that, I figured I'd watch the film again. Well, I'm here to tell you that anyone who finds racism in this movie is probably a racist themselves who are engaging in a bit of projection.)

This film is one of the most commonly found in the massive DVD multipacks, and it is a highlight of every package it's in; it plus one or two additional movies you're interested in will make the set worth its purchase price.

If you haven't seen this classic and are a fan of zombie movies and horror movies in general, this is a must-see. It's the original of the "modern zombie" and a damn fine movie to boot. The above is even more imperative if you're a filmmaker making low-budget pictures. THIS is what the low- and "micro-budget" movies should be like... completely free of padding and waste.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fear-filled Phantasms: The Art of Steven Kenny

Here are a few paintings from artist Steven Kenny that show you don't have to paint monsters to give an image an air of creepiness....

The Semaphore

The Collar

The Ghost of the Future

The Wedding

The Complete Night Stalker, Part Four

"Kolchak: The Night Stalker" is a show that many people my age think fondly of, half-remembering episodes that scared the bejeezus out of us as kids. Viewing the entire series as an adult, I found that there were many episodes that warrant those warm feelings. However, as I continue my survey of all 20 episodes in the series as part of the 31 Nights of Halloween, I it is clear that today's batch represent the series at its height.

If the majority of the show had been as good as Episodes Thirteen through Sixteen, and if ABC and Universal  Television executives had dealt more fairly with star Darrin McGavin (instead of reneging on promises of creative control and co-producer status of the series), maybe it would have earned a second season.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker
(The Complete Television Series Reviewed, Part Four)

Episode Thirteen: Primal Scream
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Director: Robert Scheerer

A trail of brutal dismemberment murders that start at a research lab analyzing core samples retrieved from the North Pole brings Kolchak face-to-face with savage man-apes that have spontenously regenerated from thawed-out cells.

This episode is pure scientific nonsense of 1950s monster-movie variety. In think even in the 50s, audiences would have rolled their eyes at the notion of life-forms as complicated as a meat-eating primate regenerating from a few single cells. What makes this episode fun is Carl's interaction with the incidental characters and the supporting cast back at the INS office. Ron in particular gets to shine in this episode.

The monster here is lame, and Carl's heedless pursuit of a creature that is so plainly dangerous to whomever it comes across is pure idiocy (even by Kolchak Standards) but the non-monster related interaction definately saves this episode.

Episode Fourteen: The Trevi Collection
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars
Director: Don Weis

Before a source can give Carl a promised scoop, the source is murdered. As Carl investigates, he uncovers disturbing facts about the House of Trevi, a ritzy fashion design studio: The lady it's named after is witch, and deadly curses are being tossed left, right, and center... at anyone who seems to threaten the supremecy of Trevi. And that includes Our Man Carl.

This is one of my very favorite episodes, despite the somewhat dubious way Carl is drawn into the situation. I love the way the story's many twists and the way Carl's gung-ho monster-hunting attitude (where he blazes ahead without having all his facts straight) ends up making the situation far more deadly. A subplot about mobsters chasing Carl for information also adds a lot to this episode.

The episode is also enlivened by a guest appearance by Lara Parker as the fashion designing witch who will let nothing stand between her and success. She is so good that I may down the "Dark Shadows" movies she starred in.

Episode Fourteen: Chopper
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
Director: Bruce Kessler

Aging, former members of an outlaw biker gang are being murdered, all decapitated by an impossibly strong killer. Kolchak investigates, and then he becomes the next target of a headless ghost biker who has come back from the dead for revenge.

This is one of the great "Night Stalker" episodes. There's plenty of horror and plenty of laughs in this excellently written episode. The tension remains high until the very moment--there hasn't been such a strong sense of danger for Kolchak since "The Zombie".

This could have been a Ten-Star episode if not for the absolute laziness with which the headless biker was created. I realize it was the 70s, they didn't have the sort of computer effects we have today, and television budgets and shooting schedules were tight, but there MUST have been a better way to do the biker ghost than just have a stunt driver pull his jacket over his head. In life, the biker just have been known as "Johnny Long Torso" because his chest is about one-head length too big.

This bit of shoddiness undermines what could have been a truly great episode.

Episode Fifteen: Demon in Lace
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Director: Don Weis

Young men are being frightened to death on a college campus. Kolchak traces the cause back to an ancient tablet and the demon who dwells within it. Will anyone believe that a priceless historical treasure must be destroyed before any more lives are lost?

This is a solid, middle-of-the-road episode. The story is okay and well thought out--it even provides a reason for why Carl isn't fired and/or locked up for good at the end--and there's a nice balance of humor and horror as a frustrated Kolchak battles not only the police and college campus bureacrats, but also has to contend with a journalism student who shares many of his worst personality traits. It's funny to see Carl get a dose of his own medicine.

Episode Sixteen: Legacy of Terror
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Director: Don McDougall

Someone armed with a dull blade has been cutting out the hearts of physically-perfect men and women, killing each victim is found on a higher and higher prime numbered flight of stairs. Kolchak's investigation puts him at odds with bizarre Aztec cult seeking to revive their mummified god at the correct celestial alignment. To prevent the mummy's resurrection, Kolchak must prevent the sacrifice of their fifth, "perfect" victim on the highest flight of stairs in Chicago.

This is one of the better episodes as it features a high creepiness factor, high humor factor, and there's a strong sense that Kolchak may be in over his head during the climax, but the lengths to which the writers go to make their story believable (by filling the viewer in on details regarding Aztec mythology) sometimes gives it a feeling of a doctoral thesis gone waaaay of the rails. Still, it's an etertaining, fast-paced, and exciting episode. The cult/conspiracy angle it takes also strengthens it immensely; the supernatural monster doesn't appear until the very end.

(Speaking of the monster, the final shot of the mummy shows its eyes flicker a bit. I'm not sure if that's sloppy editing or intentional, but it was certainly startling, since Carl was certain he'd prevented the gods resurrection... at least until the stars align again.)

Please join me again next week, as I finish the trip through all 20 episodes of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker", just in time for the monster explosion that is Halloween!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Paul Nashcy shines in dual role

Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973)
Starring: Paul Naschy, Emma Cohen, Helga Line, Víc Winner, and Betsabe Ruiz
Director: Carlos Aured
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Hugo du Marnac (Nashcy) comes into possession of the severed head of an ancestor who was exectued for witchcraft centuries ago (also Naschy). Unlike many of those so condemned, Hugo's forebearer was a REAL warlock, and he's been waiting for centuries to have his head reunited with the rest of his body, so he can ressurect his witch-wife (Line) and resume their lives devoted to Satan and Evil. Subsequently, murder, mayhem, and water-logged zombies threaten to completely ruin Hugo and his friends' vacation in the French countryside.

"Horror Rises From the Tomb" starts slow, but once it gets going, it emerges as one of the best movies Paul Naschy made. The resurrection scenes, the heart-ripping scene, and the zombies shambling out of the lake are all very effective moments with images that will remain with you long after the movie is over. Naschy is also a bit more energetic than usual, bringing lots of energy to the roles he plays in this film--especailly to the evil warlock Alaric. Whether he's a head-in-a-box, or the resassembled servant of Satan, Naschy radiates evil here.

The supporting cast is decent, with the female leads being not only gorgeous to look at, but okay actresses to boot. The film is also well photographed and the filmmakers made excellent use of both the desolate landscapes and the decaying buildings that serve as the film's setting.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Zita Johann

Zita Johann was a successful New York City stage actress who appeared in numerous hit productions during the 1930s and 1940s. She tried her hand at a movie career, but found that she did not like the pace, the people, nor the products of Hollywood. It's a shame, because Johann could command the screen with personality and beauty like few other actresses could, then and now. She appeared in seven films, including the brilliant starring turn in Universal's 1932 classic "The Mummy" opposite Boris Karloff, before quitting movies for good. (And presumably before, according to legend, phoning a studio executive and asking why his company created such rubbish.)

In 1986, Johann returned once more to the screen, appearing in "Raiders of the Living Dead," a quirky and barely watchable zombie movie that may well have caused her to reevaluate the rubbish of the 1930s as perhaps not so terrible after all.

Zita Johann passed away in 1993 at the age of 89.

Still the best mummy film nearly 80 years later

The Mummy (1932)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners, and Edward Van Sloan
Director: Karl Freund
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After an archeologist accidentally restores him to life, a cursed ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep (Karloff) sets about likewise reviving Princess Anckesen-Amon for whom he gave up everything so they can resume their forbidden love. Unfortunately, she has been reincarnated, and her spirit is currently residing within Helen Grosvenor (Johann), the daughter of a British diplomat. Imhotep hasn't let the natural order of things stop him in the past, and he's not about to let it get in his way now.

"The Mummy" is perhaps the best, most intelligent mummy movie ever made. It's more of a gothic romance story set in Egyptian surroundings than a monster movie, with Imphotep trying to recapture a love that he lost 3,700 years ago.

The actors in this film are all perfectly cast, and they are all at the top of their game.

Karloff is spectacular, conveying evil, alieness, majesty, and even a little bit of tragedy in his character with a minimum of movement. (Unlike most mummy movies, Imhotep isn't a bandage-wrapped, shambling creature, but instead appears like a normal human being; he is still dried-out and somewhat fragile physically, though, and Karloff does a fantastic job at conveying this.)

Johann likewise gives a spectacular performance, particularly toward the end of the movie as Imhotep is preparing to make her his eternal bride and she has regained much of her memories from when she Anckesen-Amon. Johann is also just great to look at.

The two remaining stars, Manners and Van Sloan, are better here than anything else I've seen them in. Manners in particular gives a fine performance, rising well above the usual milquetoast, Generic Handsome Hero he usually seems to be. (Even in "Dracula" he comes across as dull. Not so here.)

The cinematography is excellent and the lighting is masterfully done in each scene. Karloff's character is twice as spooky in several scenes due to some almost subliminal effects caused by lighting changes from a medium shot of Manners to a close-up of Karloff... and the scene where Imhotep is going to forcibly turn Helen Grosvener into an undead like himself is made even more dramatic by the shadows playing on the wall behind the two characters.

There are some parts of the film that are muddled, partly due to scenes that were cut from the final release verson, or never filmed. Worst of these is when Imhotep is interrupted during his first attempt at reviving Anckesen-Amon, and he kills a security guard with magic during his escape. However, he leaves behind the spell scroll that he needs for the ritual. Why did he do that? It's a jarring, nonsensical part of the movie that seems to serve no purpose other than to bring Imhotep into direct confrontation with the heroes. (The commentary track on the version of "The Mummy" featured in Universal's "The Mummy Legacy Collection" sheds light on what the INTENTION was with that devolpment, but it just seems sloppy and badly conceived when watching the movie.)

While "The Mummy" may seem a bit slow to people who are used to Brandon Fraser dodging monsters--or even the Hammer mummy movies--it is a film that every cinema buff should see and even add to their personal movie collection. (There are at least three different DVD editions of the film available for sale as of this writing. However, the best value for your dollar is to pick up Universal's "The Mummy: The Legacy Collection". You'll get "The Mummy" with an excellent and very informative commentary track, as well as a bonus disk with the four mummy movies that Universal released in the 1940s. You can read more about the set at by clicking on the link below.)

Friday, October 15, 2010

'Slither' is a woefully overlooked flick

Slither (2006)
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry, and Tania Saulnier
Director: James Gunn
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

An alien life-form lands on Earth and turns the citizens of a small town into parts of his hivemind. Unless Chief of Police Bill Pardy (Fillion) and an ever-dwindling group of survivors can stop the menace now, the entire world will be consumed.

"Slither" is a movie fans of monster films and B-horror flicks have been waiting their whole lives to see: It's a B-movie style monster film with a decent budget, a great script, and a cast of fabulously talented actors. It is, quite possibly, the greatest monster movie so far this decade, and it takes a well-deserved place among the best of Universal Picture's horror flicks.

Skin-crawlingly creepy, expertly filmed, rich in snappy dialogue and dark comedy, and full of unexpected character twists, this film delivers everything horror movie fans could ask for. Even gorehounds will feel satisfied as the end credits begin to roll.

Although this movie bombed at the box office, it is one recent horror movie that deserved more attention than it got.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

'Shadow of the Vampire' brings off-beat horror

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)
Starring: John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Keir, Cary Elwes, and Catherine McCormack
Director: E. Elias Merhige
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Eccentric silent movie director F.W. Murnau (Malkovich) drags the cast and crew to a crumbling castle in Eastern Europe to shoot "Nosferatu", an illicit adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula." Here, they find the actor playing the vampire, Max Shreck (Dafoe) has taken method acting to new heights. He's living the part to the point where crew members start mysteriously dying....

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a quirky movie that can't quite make up its mind between being a horror movie or a comedy. This is one of the rare instances where this sort of uneasy positioning works; I think in the end the film would have been stronger if it had been a tad more genre focused, but there's an air of moodiness and strangeness over everything that keeps things together.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its commentary on movie making and the creative process in general. In the film, it becomes unclear who the biggest monster is... the vampire or the film director who is willing to sacrifice his actors and crew to it, just so he can create the ultimate movie. It's a question that gets harder and harder to answer as the film draws to a close.

"Shadow of the Vampire" is a fascinating, if odd, movie. It should appeal in particular to fans of old horror films, but I think anyone who enjoys a film that delivers the unexpected should have fun with it.

Trivia: This film is partially based on an urban legend that states silent film and stage actor Max Schreck was really a vampire.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

'Xtro II' is irrelevant, disappointing sequel

XTRO II: The Second Encounter (1991)
Starring: Jan-Michael Vincent, Tara Buckman, and Paul Koslo
Director: Harry Bromley Davenport
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Deep underground, American scientists discover how to open a portal to another world...but, surprise-surprise, something goes wrong and murderous critters come across the dimensional void to run amuk. How will the best-and-brightest of the Mad Science Set stop the invasion and save themselves?!

Picture a bad "Aliens" rip-off and cross it with some of the lamest plot elements of a bad "Stargate SG-1" episode, and you have "XTRO: The Second Encounter."

Not only does this "sequel" have absolutely nothing in common with the first movie--the creatures don't even seem to be related--but it's also devoid of good acting, competent direction, and anything that even approaches originality.

For all its faults, the original XTRO at least delivered some genuine weirdness and horror, and it did so with a certain flair. This "sequel" brings absolutely nothing worthwhile to the table. It is a study in complete mediocity and unoriginality.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hammer Dracula: The Van Helsing Papers

I'm a bit of a continuity freak. So much so that one of my jobs involved creating a line bible to help straighten out the tangled and badly maintained continuity of one of the creative properties it owned; and that my comic book collection was not sorted by title, but by storyline and characters appearing in certain issues.

For this reason, I view the classic Hammer Dracula films not as one series but as two. It prevents me from having a nervous breakdown while watching them, because "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave" is not a sequel to the movie that preceeds it in release order, and the date for Van Helsing's final battle against Dracula in "Dracula 1972 AD" doesn't fit with the date given in "The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires."

I break the Hammer Draculas into "The Van Helsing Papers" and "The Satanic Rites of Dracula." Here are reviews of the films that make up "The Van Helsing Papers." The rest will follow in a similar post next week.

Horror of Dracula (1958)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Carol Marsh
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

This is where the "Van Helsing Papers" cycle of Dracula films starts. It is also the first vampire movie produced by Hammer Films.

"The Horror of Dracula" starts out looking like a straight adaptation, but ten minutes in, it takes a hard left when its revealed that Jonathan Harker has come to Castle Dracula not as a hapless victim but as an agent of vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing and that Harker is fully aware of Dracula's true nature.

But it all works, because when Van Helsing appears on screen (played by the late, great Peter Cushing), we get a different interpretation of him than offered in Stoker's novel, and a different spin on vampirism as well. In the Hammer version, Dracula is devoted to spreading a cult of undeath that consists not only of vampires but of human minions who thirst for everlasting life and who are committed to turning the world into a cesspool of evil and corruption. Van Helsing is a man both of action and letters who is the center of a network of brave men and women who have dedicated themselves to eradicating this sinister evil, which, by the close of the 19th century, is viewed as so much superstitious poppycock.

As "Horror of Dracula" unfolds, Dracula claims Mina and Lucy as victims, mostly because he wants to take revenge against Harker and Van Helsing for being pains in his rear... but this vindictive streak becomes his downfall, as Van Helsing penetrates Dracula's lair and confronts him in one of the neatest climaxes of any of Hammer's Dracula films.

While Cushing's energetic, action-hero Van Helsing is a sharp departure from how the character comes across in Stoker's novel, the Dracula in this and subsequent films in what I designate as the "Van Helsing Papers" is truer to Stoker's portrayal of him than any other film version I've come across. He's not the incongruously eveningwear-sporting-but-decaying-castle-dwelling Bela Lugosi, nor is he the pathetic whiner that Gary Oldman portrayed in so so-very-inaccurately named "Bram Stoker's Dracula"... no, the Lee Dracula is a blood-thirsty monster who preys on the life and emotions of the living. He is a strange and alien fearsome outsider, just as Stoker wrote him.

It's over 50 years since "Horror of Dracula" was released, yet it's still a an exciting item to pop in the VCR or DVD player when you're looking for a chilling, adventuresome diversion.

Brides of Dracula (1960)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Monlaur, Martia Hunt, and David Peel
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

The second film in "The Van Helsing Papers” cycle, it opens with a bit of voice-over that informs us that although Dracula is dead, his cult of vampiric corruption lives on. Yes, although he is invoked in the title, Dracula is very much a pile of ash back in his castle.

We are introduced to Marianne (Monlaur), a young French woman on her way to take up a teaching position at a Transylvanian boarding school. She is forced to spent the night at an isolated castle where she concludes Baroness Meinster (Hunt) is a mad woman who is keeping her handsome young son (Peel) prisoner. She helps him escape, but learns to her terror that the madness is the castle wasn’t limited to the baroness and that there was a good reason why she was keeping her son locked up—he is a master vampire who has been preying on and torturing peasant girls in the area for many years.

After fleeing the castle, she encounters Dr. Van Helsing who has come to the area following reports of vampire attacks. When the vampire comes to prey on the staff and girls at the boarding school and to ultimately claim Marianne as his bride, Van Helsing takes up his mallet and stake to end his unnatural existence.

Van Helsing has a harder time with this vampire than he did with Dracula. While Dracula beat the tar out of him in “Horror of Dracula,” the Baron Meinster nearly makes Van Helsing himself into one of his vampire minions… and Van Helsing must take extreme measures to stop the vampiric disease from spreading through his blood. His creativity and resourcefulness is also stretched to the limit when he stops Meinster from making good his final escape with the largest improvised cross in the history of vampire hunting.

“Brides of Dracula” is superior to “Horror of Dracula” is several ways, making it among the rarest of sequels.

First, the Baron’s castle from the first part of the movie features some spectacular sets (some of which are redressed in “The Gorgon”); the sequence in the castle is also one of the most deeply creepy in any of the Hammer Films, as Marianne comes to realize that she is trapped in a house of madness and evil.

Second, Cushing is at the top of his game here. His performance is full of zeal and it is the best he gave in any of the Hammer Films he was featured in. The mixture of horror and steely determination that he gives Dr. Van Helsing as he confronts the vampires and their twisted human servants is very well acted. He is also served well by a plot that allows the Van Helsing character to shine, fantastic sets, and excellent lighting and camera work that constantly reinforces the film’s gothic horror tone.

Finally, the climax is one of the most thrilling of any of Hammer’s vampire movies, and Baron Meinster’s doom provides the best death of any vampire in their productions.

All in all, “Brides of Dracula” may be the best film director Terence Fisher ever made. It is certainly the best of all Hammer’s Dracula movies. (And it’s quite possibly made stronger by the fact that Dracula is nowhere in it. I think Peel’s evil, bug-eyed Baron Meinster comes across as far more sinister and evil that Lee’s staid and rather distant Count Dracula ever did.)

And speaking of Dracula, while Van Helsing is busy with Meinster, something is stirring elsewhere…

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Starring: Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, and Andrew Keir
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

“Dracula: Prince of Darkness” is a direct sequel to “Horror of Dracula.” It starts with a recap of the dramatic finale where Van Helsing finishes Dracula off with a surprising dash and leap toward the rising sun. It’s his only appearance in the film, but as it continues the theme of Dracula at the center of an evil pagan cult of spiritual and undead corruption, I’m treating it as part of this cycle.

In “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” two English couples vacationing in Transylvania ignore a warning from the eccentric Father Sandor (Keir) to change their touring plans to give the region around Castle Dracula a wide berth. They don’t take his advice, so they inevitably find themselves abandoned by superstitious locals in the mountain wilderness. Luckily, a coach comes by, and they are taken to Castle Dracula where the caretaker offers his hospitality. Before the night is out, one of the tourists is sacrificed in a bloody ritual to restore life to Dracula’s ashes. Will any of them escape the house of horror, and Dracula’s lust for blood and female flesh?

Director Terence Fisher once again helms a gorgeous production with lots of gothic horror moments and fine acting on the part of the entire cast. However, I must say that the usually delightful Barbara Shelley plays a character so whiny in this film that I found myself wishing that Dracula or his knife-wielding human follower would put her out of my misery!

"Dracula: Prince of Darkness" is also the first time in the Hammer films that Dracula suffers a truly embarrassing death—and it sets the standard for the climax of just about every Hammer Dracula movie from this point forward. Basically, after being cornered at sunset by Father Sandor and surviving tourists turned vampire hunters, Dracula falls through the ice on the moat around his own castle and is rendered inert and helpless by the running water underneath it. It’s a shame that the final confrontation between good and evil in this film is so weak, because the menacing presence of Dracula and the chase scene that leads up to the climax makes for very dramatic and satisfying viewing.

Dracula isn’t exactly destroyed at the end of this film, and his death-by-ice-water leads to the best Hammer vampire resurrection in “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.” However, I do not include that film in “The Van Helsing Papers”, because there are numerous bad fits continuity-wise with other Dracula films.

While “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” has a lot of elements that make it worth seeing, but there are also many things in the film that just don’t match up with what we’ve seen in “Horror of Dracula” and “Dracula: Prince of Darkness.” Most obviously, the geography around Castle Dracula, not to mention the structure itself, have changed. So, the movie gets set aside. (You can read my review of it by clicking here, however.)

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires
Starring: Peter Cushing, Julie Ege, David Chiang, and Robin Stewart
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The year is 1904. Decades have passed since Dr. Van Helsing first took up arms against the cult of vampires, and his struggle has brought him to China. While guest-lecturing at a university, Van Helsing is approached by His Ching (Chiang), who, together with his brothers and sister, have dedicated themselves to ridding his native village of the Seven Golden Vampires which have terrorized it for centuries; they require Van Helsing’s expertise in vampire-killing to augment their own considerable martial arts skills, however. Van Helsing and his son Leyland immediately offer their expert services. After wealthy Swedish adventuress Vanessa Buren provides funding, they embark upon the long and dangerous trek to the isolated village of Ping Kuei, facing both bandit lords and vampire minions before the final apocalyptic showdown between the vampiric army of the Seven Golden Vampires and Van Helsing’s band of heroes. Then, as the smoke is clearing, and heroes and villains alike are taking stock of their dead, Van Helsing’s arch-nemesis Dracula makes his presence known—and only one of them will walk away from this final confrontation.

When it was released, “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” was something new and spectacular. It was the first serious effort to mix the horror film genre with the martial arts genre. With everything from “The Bride With White Hair” to “Blade” to “Vampire Effect” on our shelves, this movie may not seem like a big deal, but when Hammer and the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. production company teamed up, they were blazing new territory.

“The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” is a film with great potential and an even greater premise, but in the final analysis it fails to live up to both. While there are some great touches in the film surrounding Chinese vampire lore—the lesser vampire minions of the Seven Golden Vampires are “hopping vampires” and shrines to Buddha repulse the evil undead, not just the typical cross—and Cushing and the rest of the cast deliver fine acting performances, the martial arts side of the film is quite lackluster, even by the standards of Shaw Bros. movies of the 1970s. The big battle between the vampire army and the vampire-busting martial artists might have been more exciting if the martial arts displays had been. Certainly, that climactic battle had plenty of horror—with some quite unexpected twists and deaths as it unfolds—but its Kung Fu is weak.

On the upside, Cushing is a joy to watch as always (despite the fact that the actor was dealing with health issues and severe depression following the death of his wife), and his Van Helsing is again a fun mix of scholarly dedication and grim, determined action. He has great on-screen chemistry with everyone in the supporting cast—particularly Ege and Stewart. The addition of Leyland Van Helsing, the son of the great vampire hunter, is a nice addition to the mythos, and it’s too bad that nothing more came of that. (Hammer was always throwing in great characters in the Dracula films that never developed into anything—such as Father Sandor from “Dracula: Prince of Darkness.” But in the case of the younger Van Helsing, primed to take over the vampire-busting franchise, if the character was added simply because the film was deemed to need a vibe younger than the ailing Cushing, or if there were ideas of plans for a new Dracula/Van Helsing direction, “Legend” was destined to be among Hammer Films’ final productions.

Speaking of Dracula, readers have probably noticed that he’s only been mentioned in passing during this discussion. That’s because when Baker and the actors and the rest of the crew were all done with “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires,” Dracula was nowhere to be found in the story. In fact, it was Hammer executives who insisted that Dracula be added to the film, so Cushing was called back for an additional scene. An opening sequence featuring Dracula (played by John Forbes-Robinson) was hastily thrown together, along with a denouement that had Van Helsing dispatch Dracula without even being missed by his companions who stepped outside a moment before the Prince of Darkness revealed himself. I really can’t imagine what the people at Hammer were thinking; I think the pointless presence of Dracula in “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” weakens the film rather than strengthens it.

By the way, I recommend you get the version of “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” that Anchor Bay released as part of their Hammer Collection. Both the DVD and the VHS versions contain the US release of the movie that was titled “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula.” The bit of film butchery is an example of how editing can make or break a film—and in the case of this movie, the editing definitely broke it. They took an entertaining, straightforward vampire/kung-fu hybrid adventure film and turned it into a confusing mess. When the Americans were done transforming “The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires” into “The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula,” they had a movie that even Ed Wood and Uwe Boll would describe as crap.

For all its flaws, “The Legends of the Seven Golden Vampires” is a very enjoyable film. Cushing’s performance alone makes it worth seeing, and it’s a nice end to the grouping of Hammer Films that I refer to as the “Van Helsing Papers.”