Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Isabelle Stephen

Isabelle Stephen is, without a doubt, a model subject for this series. Not only is she literally a photo model, but since her film debut in 2002, she has appeared in over 20 features and short films, all low-budget efforts, mostly very gory, and all of them horror.

Based in Montreal, Canadian actress Stephen has worked mostly with directors based in and around New York City and New Jersey, including such infamous filmmakers as Bill Zebub and Lloyd Kaufman. Her characters rarely (if ever) make it through the films alive, and her death in Kaufman's anthology film "Tales form the Crapper" was particularly gruesome--where she was raped to death by a giant penis monster.

Stephen's most recent role is a small part in Steve Sessions' forthcoming black magic horror-fest "Sinister," debuting May 3 on DVD. (Watch this space for a review.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Evil heritage can lead to becoming 'Satan's Slave'

Satan's Slave (aka "Evil Heritage") (1976)
Starring: Candace Glendenning, Michael Gough, Martin Potter, and Barbara Kellerman
Director: Norman J. Warren
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After her parents die in a sudden car explosion, Catherine (Glendenning) is taken in by her uncle (Gough) and strange nephew (Potter). However, Catherine soon learns that she is more a prisoner than a guest and that her uncle intends to turn her body into the vessel for the spirit of a long-dead witch.

Full of psychic premonitions, creepy Gothic manor houses and their even creepier inhabitants, 1970s-style Satanic rituals with naked chicks writhing on altars, and periodic explosions shocking gore, "Satan's Slave" is a one-stop shop for low-budget British horror from that era.

It may also be the best film from Norman J. Warren, as it more successfully sustains an oppressive atmosphere throughout, features better acting and writing than others I've seen from him, and makes far better use of the same thematic material he explored in "Terror". Furthermore, this is one of those very rare horror films that features a twist ending that actually works! While it probably had a greater impact on audiences in the 1970s--where the habit of ending films with a "it was all just a hoax" was still in the childhood movie-going memories of many, and the downer endings that are now so commonplace so as to be annoying were still somewhat unusual--it still offers a surprising jolt for modern audiences. (And by mentioning the surprise twist and that it will cast a pall on the film's finale won't deaden its impact.)

The film is further elevated by a great cast who all do a fantastic job in their roles. Candace Glendenning strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and independence to make Catherine a very sympathetic heroine, while Michael Gough hams it up as the quietly sinister Satanic cult leader to make his performance fun and engaging. They are ably supported by Martin Potter--whose portrayal of a character with a seemingly docile milquetoast personality is a sinister aspect in itself, because we are introduced to him as he commits a brutal, sexually driven murder--and Barbara Kellerman who comes and goes as a near-complete cypher in the picture but is interesting to watch nonetheless. (In fact, Kellerman's character is the only real complaint I can mount about the script; we never gain any insight whatsoever into her motivations or who she is.)

"Satan's Slave" is one of several pleasant surprises lurking within the better-than-average Mill Creek-manufactured 50-movie DVD multipack "Pure Terror". It's one of the prime reasons to purchase the set. The film is available in other collections, but not as economically as it can be acquired in "Pure Terror".

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Courteney Cox

Model-turned-actress Courteney Cox has been working steadily in television since 1984, since landing a part on the Soap Opera "As the World Turns" at the age of 20. She has either starred or had recurring roles in almost a dozen series series, including "Misfits of Science," "Family Ties", "Dirt" and a ten-year stint on ensemble sitcom "Friends".

Throughout the years, she has supplemented her television career with movie roles, most famously, and appropriately for the title of this web-series, Wes Craven's "Scream" movies.

Cox has most recently been seen on the big screen in "Scream 4", reuniting with director Craven and fellow original cast-members Neve Cambell and David Arquette for another sequel, ten years after "Scream 3" was released. On television, she is currently starring in "Couger Town," a series about a middle-aged divorced woman trying to recapture her youth.

Although primarily a comedic actor, Cox is counted among the great Scream Queens for being part of the bedrock of one of the most successful, and consistently entertaining, horror movie series of all time. Time and box office receipts will tell if there will be a "Scream 5".

Friday, April 22, 2011

'Scream 4' will entertain if you liked the others

Scream 4 (2011)
Starring: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Emma Roberts, Courtney Cox, Hayden Panettiere, Nico Tortotella, Marley Shelton, Eric Knutson, Rory Culkin, and Anthony Anderson
Director: Wes Craven
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sidney Prescott (Campbell), once only famous for being the intended victim of the Ghostface Killer and several copycats, is now a successful self-help author who has left the dark terrors of the 1990s far behind. But the past comes back to life in a gruesome fashion when her book tour takes her home to Woodsboro... and yet another Ghostface copycat starts targeting Sidney's cousin (Roberts) and her friends.

There isn't much to say about "Scream 4". Despite all the talk about "new decade, new rules", it pretty much follows the tone and pattern established in the first films of the series, although it's thankfully closer to the first "Scream" in entertainment value than were the sequels.

The formula has seen some updating--with cellphones and social networking sites being prevalent everywhere and a running theme about the increasing prevalence of celebrities who are famous for being famous, and viral YouTube videos who give more people than ever 15 seconds of fame--but it's still the same old "Scream", with plenty of characters making jokes about slasher movie plots and a certain level of playfulness in the structure of film with genre conventions.

And I think the viral video aspect is going to be the driver for the sequels that Craven & Crew have promised if this film is successful enough to warrant them. Perhaps someone can finally do a horror film that fully incorporates the web and modern self-broadcasting technology, something which the filmmakers failed at here and here.

Sidney and series mainstay characters Dewey the Cop (David Arquette) and Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) have also been updated a bit, with ten years having gone by. Sidney, in keeping with the changes in slasher film cliches now spends more time chasing Ghostface and kicking his ass than being chased by him. Dewey is now at the head of the Woodboro police force and they are a little less buffoonish than in previous films--although still as ineffectual or there wouldn't be a movie. Meanwhile, Gale, the character who was a celebrity journalist in the first films, is trying to recapture her fame in this one. Leaving these central characters in place with some changes to their circumstances and personalities was the right thing to do for the film. Their fates through the course of the movie was also exactly the right thing to do; it's good to see that "new decade, new rules" didn't mean "crap all over the original movies" like it so often does in Hollywood, even when those involved were part of the original productions, as we saw in the god-awful "Halloween: Resurrection".

While few of the new characters are likely to be back in any of the sequels--thanks to the twist-on-a-twist-ending that would probably have had me spewing all kinds of venom if it had been in anything but a "Scream" movie--I hope this film will be the start of many horror appearances for several of them. Emma Roberts did surprisingly well in her role, and Hayden Panettiere was great fun as well, but there was no one who didn't do an excellent job in their parts.

"Scream 4" is one of the better sequels in recent memory, because it updates the right things and leaves everything else as it should be--it was great to learn that the new rules are, essentially, the same as the old rules. If the first ones entertained you, this is worth seeing. The wink-wink formula may not be as fresh as it was in the mid-1990s, but this is a well-crafted movie.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Its got nothing to get in the way of the violence

Kill the Scream Queen (2004)
Starring: Bill Zebub, Deborah Dutch, Debbie D, and Isabelle Stephen
Director: Bill Zebub
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A sexual psychopath and serial killer turned movie-maker (or movie-maker turned sexual psychopath and serial killer) (Zebub) lures wanna-be actresses to an abandoned bar with the promise of being in his horror movie/snuff-film. He then tortures and rapes them.

That is not only a summary of "Kill the Scream Queen", it is the entire content of the film. There is virtually nothing worthwhile here, unless you want your "torture porn" almost completely free of plot and character development, and with a little more actual porn that you find in the "Hostel" and "Saw" movies.

The very low One Star-rating I'm giving this pointless piece of "filmmaking" is based on the one victim that fights back in a big way. Otherwise, most of the girls here are just so much meat--only two show even the slightest glimmer of acting talent--and the filmmaking and effects are pedestrian in the extreme.

Worse, the film is such an amateur effort that the director can't even keep his continuity straight. In one scene, he rips a girl's panties off so he can rape her, yet when he dumps the body, they're back on and they're intact.

(The only positive things I can say is that the "writer and director" of the film didn't attempt to overreach his $1.25 budget. There's also the "message" that gets delivered via film-maker's monologues directed at his victims... that an emphasis on sex and gore over acting and story is ruining the horror genre.)

I like the high concept of the movie... but I just wish a movie had actually been made with it, instead of a collection of clips with girls taking their clothes off and being menaced and killed with nothing else going on.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Gloria Stuart

Beautiful blond Gloria Stuart was lured away from the stage to Hollywood with a contract at Universal Studios and a promise of great things. While she was one of the key faces (and figures) to grace some of the horror genre's cornerstones--like "The Invisible Man" and "The Old, Dark House"--her career never amounted to much. Casting directors and studio executives never really seemed to find a proper use for the mix of delicate beauty and spunk she brought to the screen. By 1946, dissapointed by the lack of traction in her film career, Stuart returned briefly to the stage but then retired from acting.

Three decades later, in 1975, she returned to acting, starting with a role in the made-for-TV horror movie "The Legend of Lizzie Borden." She spent the next twenty-five years playing small and supporting roles in a wide variety of films, with her most famous late-career part coming in 1997's "Titanic".

Stuart passed away in 2010, at the age of 100.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Classic Horror: The Best of the Invisible Man

The Invisible Man is an honored member of the Universal Pictures' pantheon of Terror Titans, even if only three of the five films featuring the concept/character were actual horror films, and only two of those were any good.

In this post, I offer reviews of the two true horror entries in the original Invisible Man film cycle. If you want to read reviews of the other two worthwhile entries in the series, click here to read my review of Invisible Agent (where the grandson of the original Invisible Man takes on the Nazis) and click here to read my review of "The Invisible Woman" (a comedy about a model turned invisible through the miracle of mad science).

The Invisible Man (1933)

Starring: Claude Rains, William Harrigan, Una O'Connor, Gloria Stuart, Forrester Harvey and Henry Travers
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Chemist Frank Griffin (Rains) develops a formula that turned him invisible. He goes on a homicidal rampage in rural Britain after it also drives him insane.

Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart in a scene from
"The Invisible Man" is another true classic from the formative years of the horror genre. It's quite possibly the first horror comedy and it's black humor holds up nicely even today--arrogant scientists, simple country bumpkins and incompetent cops never go out of style!

The film's special effects also hold up surprisingly well, with simple techniques employed here that were used over and over until CGI came fully into its own but rarely used as well as they were here. (Yes, there are a few places where one can see the matting, but the "invisible action" here is depicted better than it is in many films made with much more sophisticated special effects technology.)

And finally, the film has a literate, finely honed script with loads of tension that effectively translates the mood of H.G. Wells' original novel to the screen. The characters seem well-rounded and believable, and this, even more than the special effects, make the movie such a pleasure to watch even now. The film even manages to capture the point about loss of identity resulting in loss of connection with the world around you and ultimately insanity (even if the movie attributes Griffin's madness first and foremost to the chemical concoction he's created.)

Lovers of classy horror and sci-fi films owe it to themselves to check this one out. The same is true if you have an appreciation for dark comedies.

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Starring: Vincent Price, Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, Cecil Kellaway, John Sutton and Alan Napier
Director: Joe May
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wrongly convicted man (Price) uses an invisibility serum to escape execution and find the murderer who framed him. But, even with the help of his loving fiance (Grey) and his loyal best friend (Sutton), can he track the killer before he is driven mad by the substance that renders him invisible?

John Sutton (left), Nan Grey and Vincent Price in a scene from The Invisible Man Returns
"The Return of the Invisible Man" is a well-conceived sequel. It's got significant ties to the original, retains some of the same basic themes, but presents a completely different and unique story. Too often, sequels either shoehorn connections to the film into the story in an artificial manner or have so little to do with the original that one wonders why a connection was even drawn (well, aside from naked greedy attempts to ride on the coat-tails of another film's success).

A well-scripted mystery is added to the invisible man shenanigans... and although it's a bit slow in getting started, it is a gripping tale once it gets going. The mystery isn't terribly hard to solve for those who like playing along--there really is only one suspect and the film never launches any serious attempt to divert the audience's attention from that villain. However, plenty of suspense arises from watching the invisible man start to lose his mind even as he identifies his prey.

The great cast of the film is also to be credited with its success. Most noteworthy among the actors are Vincent Price lends his distinctive voice to the film's unseen protagonist, and Cecil Kellaway who appears in a rare dramatic role as the inscrutable Inspector Sampson of Scotland Yard.

The only complaint I have with the film are the invisibility effects. Whether due to a lack of budget or creativity on the part of the director and special effects crew, there is nothing here as impressive as the cinematic tricks used to sell the presence of an invisible character on screen as was found in the original "Invisible Man" nor in the "Invisible Woman", a comedy dating from the same year yet featuring far more impressive effects. (Nothing in "The Invisible Man Returns" comes close to the bicycle stunt in "The Invisible Man" or the stockings scene in "The Invisible Woman".)

However, the solid story and excellent cast make up for the shortcomings in the special effects department.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Dyanne Thorne

Dyanne Thorne is best known for her role as the sadistic Nazi torture Ilsa in a string of gory films mixing sex and torture from the 1970s, but virtually no matter what movie she appeared in, one could rely on her at the very least displaying her two humongous talents prominently.

Prior to playing the character she is most famous for in four films from 1975 to 1977, Thorne's horror resume consisted of "Point of Terror" and "Blood Sabbath" (both from 1971), but most of what she has done otherwise has been sex comedies... and even one or two more "adult oriented" films.

Thorne retired from the screen in 1987. She has a Ph.D. in Divinity and has been putting that to use as an ordained minister at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas, NV.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

'Blood Sabbath' is odd and very 1970s

Blood Sabbath (1971)
Starring: Tony Geary, Dyanne Thorne, Susanne Damante, Sam Gilman, and Steve Gravers
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A Viet Nam vet (Geary) haunted by the war, meets and falls in love with a water nymph (Damante) in an isolated stretch of back country. Desperate to make this impossible relationship work, he sells his soul to the evil leader of a local witch coven (Thorne) for the promise of being able to be with his beloved. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but it all ends very badly.

"Blood Sabbath" is another one of those movies I really wish I could like more. I love the general atmosphere of the film--the story is one more suited for a fantasy setting, with our troubled warrior having fought in the Crusades or the 100 Year War instead of a modern conflict. The characters, the setting, the way the story unfolds... everything has a fairy-tale story book quality to it that stands in odds with the modern trappings of the film. In fact, one possible interpretation of what we see is that it's an "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"-type story with everything that happens is the main character's dying fantasy.

As interesting as the script and atmosphere of the movie is, it is brought low by some pretty awful acting by just about every cast member, and by a special effects team that was either incompetent or not given enough money or time to do even simple jobs right. Nothing says "crappy" like a severed head prop that looks nothing whatsoever like the actor from whom the head was supposed to have been severed. The seemingly unending scenes of naked and semi-naked witches performing jazz dances don't help the movie any either--you know something's wrong with a film when naked chicks can't even seem to spice up the proceedings. (Although, it could also be that I've seen too many movies with witch covens doubling as the Backwood Jazz Ballet Dancers... it seems that being willing to take your shirt off and having some minimum ability to dance were the requirements to be a witch in the 1970s.)

And if there's one thing I'm glad went away with the 1970s, it's the use of crash-zooms and fish-eye lenses to show altered mental states. I don't think it's a bad representation--I've had some fever dreams or my own drug-induced stupors that have felt like that--but I can't think of a time when I didn't see that used in a film where it wasn't overused. This is no exception.

Still, it you've got absolutely nothing else going on, "Blood Sabbath" might be worth checking out just for the quirky fantasy vibe running through the film. It's not worth getting on its own, however; even if you Netflix it, try to find it on a disc with some other film, so you can get your money's worth.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Alyssa Milano

Alyssa Milano's first major role came at the age of 13 when she played John Matrix's imperiled daughter in "Commando". She settled into life as a television child star, appearing in numerous movies and a couple of sit-coms ("Who's the Boss?" and the short-lived spin-off show "Living Dolls," which featured Halle Berry in her acting debut).

By the mid-1990s, Milano and her management, apparently wanting to show her "all growed up" took her career down the road of sexually charged B-thrillers and horror films. The most remarkable of these was "Embrace of the Vampire", "Beyond Utopia", "Fear" and "Poison Ivy II". Remarkable doesn't necessarily mean good, but they were all successful ventures for their backers and they're the kind of films that will always appeal to lonely guys in their late teens.

Milano eventually settled back into television long-term in 1998 with "Charmed", a horror-tinged drama about three hot sisters who happen to be witches. While the show featured plenty of monsters and demons and black magic, it was first and foremost about three hot girls being hot girls.

Since "Charmed" came to an end in 2006, Milano has appeared exclusively in comedies, and there's little chance we'll ever again see her get sleazy like she did in the mid-1990s--she has stated in interviews that she is done with that sort thing. That doesn't rule out a return to more classy horror... perhaps an H.P. Lovecraft-based film where she's in Innsmouth and the fish-men drag her into water in a white nightgown?

Friday, April 1, 2011

'The Werewolf of Washington' is old political satire that's still timely

The Werewolf of Washington (1973)
Starring: Dean Stockwell, Biff McGuire, Clifton James, Jane House, Barbara Spiegel, and Thurman Scott
Director: Milton Moses Ginsberg
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The newly appointed assistant press secretary to the President of the United States (Stockwell) is bitten by a werewolf and subsequently goes on a killing spree under the full moon in Washington, D.C.

"The Werewolf of Washington" is a satire that should delight lovers of horror films and political comedies equally. Set firmly in the same universe inhabited by Larry Talbot of the 1940s Universal creature features it has its hapless wolfman prowling the corridors of power in the United States' capitol rather than in some hazy Modern Gothic never-neverland. Fans of the Larry Talbot adventures will catch onto the fact this is comedy from the very first scene and the film only gets funnier as it continues to echo the 1941 film "The Wolf Man" for its first several minutes... right up to the point where our hero flushes the Gypsy charm that was to stop his transformation down the toilet. Then the political satire kicks into high gear, and the film is off and running like a dirty presidential campaign.

This is a fun, offbeat flick that could well be considered a classic if it wasn't so incompetently made on just about every level but the script. The editing is bad, the pacing is off at several points--unfortunately, all the key ones; with the one where Chinese premiere, the U.S. President, and the transforming werewolf are together high over Washington D.C. in a helicopter being nearly ruined because of it--and the camera work and lighting is mostly awful, serving more to undermine a sense of dread than enhance it.

But the films weaknesses are almost overcome by a sharp script that is brought to life by strong performances from talented actors. Dean Stockwell is particularly good in this film, delivering an edgy and far-roaming performance that will have you laughing in one scene and feeling sorry for him in the very next one. He is ably supported by the rest of the cast, especially Biff McGuire (as a president whose brain is only as active as his teleprompter or whatever advisors happen to be around) and Clifton James (as an Attorney General--or maybe VP... I'm a little confused on this point, based on references within the film--with terminal foot-in-mouth disease) are both lots of fun.

Another selling point for this film is that, although it was made as a satire of Washington politics in the days of the Nixon Administration it works equally well almost 40 years later; the President is a fine analogy for Obama, and the loudmouth AG/VP is a near pitch-perfect spoof of Biden, and all one would have to do would replace South-East Asia references with the Middle East and this film would be reshot without any other script changes and seem completely fresh and original.

I'm not sure if that's a fact that should make us laugh or cry over how long our political system has been rotten and how little "change" the Paragon of Hope and Change has brought us.

Despite its flaws, "The Werewolf of Washington" is a film that's well worth checking out by anyone to appreciates well-crafted political satire and horror spoofs.