Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Olivia Wilde

With all the women who spend time and money turning themselves into blondes, one would think that actress Olivia Wilde would be happy with her status as a natural blonde. But no. She spends time and money becoming a brunette. "I feel like a brunette," she said in an interview once.

Perhaps best known for her portrayal of "Thirteen" on the long-running television medical drama "House," Wilde also has a growing resume of big-screen credits to her name.

Wilde's film career focuses mostly on comedies and science fiction, but she also starred in the 2006 torture porn-slasher flick "Turistas" and her upcoming film "In Time" falls into the border area between horror and sci-fi.

And, of course, there are alien monsters in "Cowboys and Aliens", which opened in theaters this week.

Olivia Wilde, before the dye

Thursday, July 28, 2011

'Teenage Exorcist' isn't worth possessing

Teenage Exorcist (1994)
Starring: Brinke Stevens, Oliver Darrow, Eddie Deezen, and Michael Berryman
Director: Grant Austin Waldman
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Brinke Stevens stars a Good Girl who rents a house that a demonologist has transformed into an eternal vessel for his evil soul and miscellaneous other demonic and undead riff-raff. She is soon possessed by an evil, over-sexed demon and transformed into the ultimate Bad Girl. Can her sister, her ultra-straightlaced brother-in-law, and a dim-witted pizza boy save Brinke' soul (and the neighborhood's property values)?

This is intended as a horror comedy, but it is mostly unfunny due to a lack of comedic timing on the part of most of the actors, and the simple fact that many of the jokes just aren't that funny. The horror side is also markedly un-scary. The only reason to watch this film is the opportunity to see Brinke Stevens wander around in skimpy outfits--but you can get to see her do that in better films than this one.


Monday, July 25, 2011

'Vampire Conspiracy' is a good merging
of two sub-genres

Vampire Conspiracy (2005)
Starring: Sarah Boes, Adrian Pryce, Ron Mazor, Christiane Garcia, John Lopes, John-Marc Fontaine, and Jaret Sacrey
Director: Marc Morgenstern
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

“Vampire Conspiracy” tells the story of six apparent strangers (Boes, Pryce, Mazor, Garcia, Lopes, and Sacrey) who wake up in a dingy room. They have no recollection of how they got there, and there is no apparent way out. Soon, a strangely clad man who introduces himself as Von Rhylos (Fontaine) appears and explains that they are trapped in a maze, that they have until dawn to escape, and that those who do will inherit the vast fortune of a world-weary vampire while those who do not will be consumed by his blood-sucking minions.

As they search for an exit—moving down identical hallways between rooms that can only be distinguished from one another due to ashes arranged on the floors to spell out seemingly random words—while occasionally fending off attacks from bestial vampires, it becomes clear not only have some of them been chosen for this “contest” because of their skills (like the cop with combat abilities, the criminal with the abilities to pick locks, or the occult expert), but that each of them harbors a secret that connects them to at least one other person in the group. As those secrets come to light, the group becomes less and les likely to want to work together, and they eventually hold as much danger for each other as the vampires stalking them do.

For the most part, “Vampire Conspiracy” plays like a cross between “The Cube” and “Saw”, with vampires taking the place of the captors and traps. That could have made this an okay movie right there, as it’s a fine amalgam of the good concepts of those two other very successful horror films. However, the movie takes on a dimension that will appeal to fans of more classic horror films—the vampire movies from the 1930s through the 1960s—when master-vampire Thelonius Von Rhylos makes his appearance.

John-Marc Fontaine’s portrayal of Van Rhylos has an air about it that is at the same time noble and bestial, like Bela Lugosi in “Dracula”, Christopher Lee in “Horror of Dracula”, and David Peel in “Brides of Dracula”. This classical touch adds a sense of class that is all-too-rarely found in horror movies anymore.

But Von Rhylos isn’t just a bit of retro that’s in the film for traditionalists like me. Although he brings a bit of the classics to the film, he is a character with better-developed motivations than the vampires from the movies he brings to mind.

Von Rhylos has been around for 250 years, and he feels that humanity gets more and more corrupt with each generation that passes him by. He has therefore taken to creating elaborate webs of temptations designed to draw out the cowardice, greed, lust, and bigotry of seemingly decent people… webs that culminate with their confinement to his maze.

In the case of the six people in his current “contest”, as we come to learn their personal secrets and the event that connects them all (and how that event came to be), it seems the vampire may have a point… although this latest game of his doesn’t quite turn out the way he had intended because it is also being rigged by one of the “contestants.”

The motivations of the vampire, the secrets and hidden connections of the people he’s captured add up to a surprisingly effective third act and an ending that reminded me to never make up my mind about a movie until the end credits start to roll.

Although the various components that make up “Vampire Conspiracy” are not particularly unique by themselves--“catch ‘em and toss ‘em in a maze” seems to be the main starting point of every third indie and studio horror film, vampire movie have been around almost as long as there have been movies, and the featured characters are mostly stock figures that are expected to be in movies of both the vampire genre and the “capture” genre--writer/director Marc Morgenstern uses them in unexpected ways that ultimately adds up to a movie that keeps you wondering about how it will all end, right up until the final moment. (At about the halfway mark, I had decided this was an okay film, but nothing to get terribly excited about, but then Morgenstern stirred things up, and he kept crossing my expectations and assumptions about where the movie was going and left me with a feeling of “wow!” at the end that I rarely experience over movies anymore.)

I also tip my hat at Morgenstern for being a filmmaker who understands how to work within the limitations of his budget. The way he works his limited sets were great, and he doesn’t attempt any special effects or stunts that are beyond his means. He also knows that every second of screen-time has to count for something, or the movie’s impact is squandered.

Too many low-budget filmmakers have visions that are grander than their budgets and available talent pools, but lack the sense to scale their vision to match the budget and talent at their disposal, and even more have some sort of pathological need to pad their movies with nature shots and pointless scenes with characters wandering about doing nothing. Not so with Morgenstern. This is a sparse movie where everything is on the screen for reasons important to the film rather than its running time... and because things are so tight, the tension keeps building through the movie, and the various attacks the characters suffer at the hands of the bestial vampires in the maze with them seem increasingly frightening.

However, despite my loving it, “Vampire Conspiracy” is not a perfect movie.

Although blessed with a cast that are all better actors than many low-budget horror films, those actors bring a very theatre-like air to their performances. While it’s not the weekend community theatre they remind me of--they are all far better than that--I found myself repeatedly thinking of this as taped stage play than a movie. Part of this help underscore the classic feel that the Von Rhylos character brought to the film, but for the most part it was mildly distracting.

The fights between Sarah Boes and Adrian Pryce also had a clear stage-performance sense about them. I don’t know if the problem was not enough rehearsing, or if the problem was the wrong kind of choreography, but they felt more like they belonged on the stage at the Seattle Rep Theatre rather than on my TV screen. I also think the foley work on the fights was a bit too subtle. It’s a fine line between too much and too little when it comes to sound effects, but I feel like Morgenstern was just on the too little side of the line.

Another weak spot is the dialogue, and it’s the only weak spot in an otherwise well-written script.

With a movie that is driven first and foremost by the characters, like “The Vampire Conspiracy”, it’s important that those characters each have a different personality, particularly if they are stock figures like the ones we have here. One very good way to make each character different is to craft their language-usage. Here, though, each character basically sounds the same, particularly during the first few minutes where every character is yelling and swearing and uttering “fuck” with every third word. In fact, that seems to be the only curse word that any of these characters know. A little more time should have spent on polishing the script and giving each character its own unique voice.

In the end, though, these weaknesses don't drag the movie down too much... it still teeters on the higher end of average when everything else that's out there is taken into account.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Ginger Rogers

Yes. Ginger Rogers.

Before Ginger Rogers became famous for doing everything Fred Astaire could do, but in heels and backwards, in the mid-1930s, and cemented her reputation as both a fine comedic and dramatic actress, she spent a few years appearing in films from small studios, including a pair of "dark old house" thrillers.

While these aren't horror movies by today's standards, "The Thirteenth Guest" (1932) and "A Shriek in the Night" (1933) are both films that are noteworthy for anyone interested in the evolution of the horror film, with the latter being of particular note as it bears some rather striking resemblance to the slasher genre that would finally congeal with the release of "Halloween" some 45 years later. The masked, knife-wielding killer is only the most obvious of these elements.

And Rogers proves that she's was good a screamer as she is was a singer.

While Rogers appeared in many other dramas during her five decades at the top of show-business, she never again played in a film that even came close to a horror movie; after being there for the formative stages of the genre, Rogers moved on and never returned.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monsturd' is da shiznitz (or sumthin)

Monsturd (2003)
Starring: Paul Weiner, Beth West, Dan Burr, Dan West, Rick Popko, Hannah Stangel, and Brad Dosland
Director: Rick Popko and Dan West
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Serial killer Jack Schmitt (Dosland) is shot to death by police in the sewers beneath a small town, but is reanimated as a living turd by bioengineered bacteria that had been dumped there by mad scientist Dr. Stern (Burr). Now, he's killing the residents as they Do Their Business in the bathroom, literally eating shit and growing bigger. If Agent Hannigan of the FBI (Beth West), Sheriff Duncan (Weiner) and his two dimwitted deputies (Dan West and Ppko) don't find a way to stop the monstrosity before the town's Annual Chili Cook-off, Butte County will end up as a very crappy place to live.

"Monsturd" is an amusing horror-comedy that spoofs monster movies ranging from the "science gone bad" films of the '50s and '60s (like "Island of Terror") to the "greed over public good" horror flicks from the '70s and '80s (of which "Jaws" is the most famous example).

Script-wise, this film does more with "Number Two" than I think any other tale in any medium has ever done before, which earns it some sort of place in history. It also manages its psuedo-science better than any number of monster movies that expect to be taken seriously, and it pulls off the costuming and effects involved in bringing a monster that's a walking, mansized turd to the screen with an effectiveness that is rarely seen in movies produced at this level.

I fully expected the "monsturd" of the title to stink like so many elaborate monsters do in low-budget horror flicks. But directors West and Popko clearly understand how to mount a production within their means, and they very effectively used lighting and camera angles to make their monster look even better. If science-gone-bad ever caused a dead serial killer to be reborn as a giant turd, I think he might actually look like the creature that West and Popko came up with. The terms "believable" and "realistic" can't quite be applied here, but the monster is very convincing (and appropriately gross).

"Monsturd" also benefits from a cast that's better than what I often see in films at this funding level. While there are no award-winning performances, everyone is competent and none of the gags are killed by bad delivery. Again, I have to congratulate the directors for matching their material to a cast capable of bringing it properly to life. (I particularly enjoyed Dan Burr as Dr. Stern. He made a great mad scientist, and his "turd-calls" while searching for the monsturd in the sewers were hilarious.)

The soundtrack is the final element that makes "Monsturd" the effective spoof that it is. It's composed in the style of a 1950s monster movie, very bombastic and dramatic... even when it's just someone walking down a hall. Fans of classic horror films will enjoy this movie for the music alone.

The film isn't perfect, however. If suffers from jumpy and erratic editing, and, despite the filmmakers' best efforts, the tight budget of the picture does still cripple it at times, despite the very clever efforts to hide the defects. (This is most evident in the scene where Schmitt is shot, and in the various office and interior sets.)

Still, "Monsturd" is a film that's hard not to like if you have a sense of humor and a tolerance for splatter of a different sort. Also, aspiring filmmakers should definitely check it out, and they should listen to the commentary track, as well as watch the being-the-scenes footage. It's very interesting and informative stuff, and it'll give insights into how this very effective low-budget comedy came to be, and it will give you some hints and tricks that you might want to model.

(One interesting surprising bit of trivia that's mentioned in passing on the commentary track is that few reviewers ever comment on the film's music. That's surprsing to me, because that was the very first thing I noticed about it.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Meat Loaf: 'It's All Coming Back to Me Now'

Here's another fun and spooky video for a fine Jim Steinman song. All music videos should be this entertaining.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Shirley Corrigan

Shirley Corrigan began acting professionally at the age of 9, and after spending a number of years with touring theater companies across Europe and the near-East, and she eventually found herself in India. Here, she spent the late 1960s working along-side the legendary Mother Teresa.

Mother Teresa encouraged Corrigan to resume her acting career and to work with children. So, Corrigan moved to Italy and spent the 1970s starring in horror films and soft-core sex comedies (with a few dramas mixed in); starring in movies that appeal to teenaged boys and juvenile men is sort of like working with children....

Among Corrigan's horror films are "The Devil's Nightmare", "Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf", and "Crimes of the Black Cat".

Corrigan left the movie business in 1982 after appearing in 24 films. She returned to the stage, and works as an actress and model to this day. She also volunteers with children, which would get an approving nod from Mother Teresa.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One of the funkiest werewolf movies ever

The DVD version of this film I watched had no opening credits, title card, or other such niceties. It simply launched into the action, with a rich man telling friends he was taking his trophy wife on vacation to Transylvania to visit his childhood home. Bad Things happen (as they do on every trip anyone in a movie ever takes to Transylvania), but what didn't happen was the appearance of anyone that appeared to be Dr. Jekyll. By the time Naschy appeared on screen and declared himself to be Waldemar Daninsky, I assume the editors of the Pure Terror DVD multi-pack had made a mistake and that I was watching some other Naschy werewolf movie co-starring that I would have to spend some time identifying when it was over. It seemed a minor concern to me, as the film was unfolding rapidly with lots of nasty, superstitious peasants and good performances by everyone involved.

Then, at the half-hour mark or so, Dr. Henry Jekyll was name-checked and he made an appearance soon thereafter. It took a while to get to him, but he's there. Mad science and monumentally bad ideas in the arena of werewolf curing ensue.

Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf (aka "Dr. Jekyll and Werewolf Hyde") (1972)
Starring: Paul Naschy, Shirley Corrigan, Jack Taylor, Mirta Miller, and Jose Marco
Director: Leon Klimovsky
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After saving a beautiful young tourist (Corrigan) from Transylvanian bandits, Count Waldemar Daninky (Naschy) is presented with an opportunity to rid himself of the werewolf curse that plagues him. The young woman is friends with the grandson of the famous Dr. Henry Jekyll, and he has continued the research and medical experiments of his ancestor. She is convinced that he will be able to help Daninsky, but once they return to London, the younger Dr. Jekyll (Taylor) and his work is endangered by a jealous assistant (Miller). Will Mr. Hyde walk the streets of London again, this time augmented by the savage might of a werewolf?

Of course, if you've seen at least one "werewolf/vampire/two-headed circus freak goes looking for a cure to his ailment," you know the answer to the rhetorical question above. Of course Hyde ends up running loose on the streets of London augmented by the might of a werewolf!

This film marked the sixth time Spanish actor Paul Naschy donned the werewolf make-up and hopped around while making snarly faces. It's the third I've reviewed, and so far it's the most accomplished of them all. Naschy is also better as his signature character Daninsky than I've seen him previously.

After a bit of a false start--one that is far removed from werewolves and Dr. Jekyll both--the film gets down to some really fun business of merging werewolf lore with Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella. Unperturbed by the fact that every circumstance points to his grandfather's idea of unleashing a person's dark side being a really, really bad one, the new Henry Jekyll has continued along that line of study with a large helping of modern psychology thrown in. And now, by using the Jekyll Method to draw out Hyde just before the full moon rises, he then causes Hyde to turn into Daninsky instead of the werewolf.

I'm sure it makes a whole lot of sense, but it doesn't matter because it all gets messed up when his assistant stabs Jekyll in the back (metaphorically and literally), unleashes Hyde once and for all and becomes his partner.

(Although on the face of it, Hyde makes even less sense in this film than in any other I've seen. It makes perfect sense he'd be a Victorian-era scoundrel and sex pervert in films set during that period, but why would he manifest himself that way from Daninsky's dark side in the 1970s?

And things go from bad to worse when Jekyll's werewolf-supressing formula wears off and Hyde transforms into a werewolf in a crowded disco and starts maiming the crowd. It's one of the film's best moments... exceeded only by the earlier one where Daninsky gets stuck in an elevator shortly before the full moon is about to rise.

In the end, the film resolves itself in a fairly predictable way that tie loosely back to the extraneous half or so that opened the film and which tries to interject a little romantic tragedy into the film. It feels a little forced, but it does provide some additional texture to what was otherwise unfolding like a "oh crap, the run-times almost over... better wrap this puppy up!" final few minutes.

While not quite as crazy as "Fury of the Wolf Man" or "Werewolf Shadow" (both reviewed here), it is more coherent and as good as some of the Universal Larry Talbot monster-mashup from the 1940s. (And those films are clearly what the creators of the Naschy films are drawing for inspiration; are there any of the Naschy werewolf flicks that don't mix in villains or elements from other horror subgenres?)

If you liked the classics with Lon Chaney Jr., I think you'll like "Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf".

Monday, July 11, 2011

'Gothic' is an excursion into nightmares
that's not for everyone

Gothic (1986)
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Natasha Richardson, Julian Sands, Myriam Cyr, and Timothy Spall
Director: Ken Russell
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Eccentric poet Lord Byron (Byrne) invites a young prodigy Percy Shelly and his fiance Mary Wollstonecraft (Sands and Richardson), along with her halfsister Claire Claremont (Cyr) to spend a weekend with him and his personal doctor, Polidori (Spall), at his isolated estate. After an evening of reading ghost stories, drinking wine enhanced with Laudanum (a hallucinogenic), and an impromptu seance, these members of the cream of the Age of Enlightenment's intellectual crop find themselves trapped in an ever worsening spiral of confusion and terror. Is it just the drugs, or did the seance call forth an evil spirit which is now tormenting them?

"Gothic" is a stylish, extremely creepy movie. There are very few films I've seen that manage to transfer the dread and fear felt by the characters as the film unfolds to me, but this is one of them. Although it starts out feeling like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" set in a rambling castle and performed by effeminate people in puffy shirts and bad hairdos, this movie soon turns into one of the most bizarre and terrifying films I've ever seen. Much of it unfolds seemingly at random, with the threads occasionally coming briefly together but invariably separating into a chaotic mess again.

While I would usually find this to be a flaw, it is something that works with great effect here.

The film has an odd tone to it from the very first arrival of Shelly and the girls at Byron's estate, and that oddness kicks into full fledged horror movie mode when the characters start reading ghost stories to each other. At that point, the passage of time, and the very nature of reality, the house, and those in it start to change. As a thunderous rainstorm batters the manor house, Byron, Shelly, Polidori, Mary, and Claire all seem to be drawn into ghost stories, and singly or together, they all experience one of more hallmarks of such tales, ranging from apparent possessions to hallucinations of all kinds.

In fact, while "Gothic" is not a movie about a haunted house, it should serve as required viewing for anyone who is thinking about making a haunted house movie. The way the house becomes a character unto itself as the film unfolds, the various torments the character's experience, the possessions... they're all haunted-house standards, and they're all handled with far greater skill than in the vast majority of movies that deal specifically with hauntings.

A great deal of the film's success can be credited to Gabriel Byrne. He gives a wonderfully varied performance as the twisted poet Byron, but he is also portraying the one character who remains stable throughout the film. Byron stars out as an unbalanced character--swinging from capricious, to sensitive, to menacingly insane, sometimes all within the space of a few minutes--but as the other characters come increasingly unglued, Byron emerges as the closest thing there is to a stable hold on reality. Whether in the dying light of a spring afternoon, or in the deepest part of a nightmare-made-real, Byrne's Byron is unchanged... and this contributes to the viewer's sense of unease; the abnormal has become the closet thing to normal, anywhere. Byrne, however, is merely a point man for an excellent cast. All the principles are great (Cyr is genuinely creepy after she's possessed (?)), and given the length of some of the shots and the difficulty of the dialogue delivered during them, I don't think this was an easy movie to star in.

Although the amazing use of Byron can also be credited to the script, there are some issues with the script as well--mostly relating to where the line between what's a dream and what's reality in the film is--and this cost it a Tomato in my rating. However, I may be overcritical on this point, because once "Gothic" gets going, the terror and disorientation builds and builds to such a degree that reality and drug-soaked nightmare and which is which really doesn't matter. And the way you can see the works of Mary Wollstonecraft-Shelly and Percy Shelly (and almost certainly also that of Dr. Polidori, although I've not read his book "The Vampyre", so I can't say) echoed throughout in dialogue and situations

This film is one scary ride, featuring fine performances from all its actors, and led by a director that deploys every tool in his filmmaking arsenal with great skill and artistry. It's a film worth seeing if you enjoy well-made horror flicks and experimental films, but it does require some patience and tolerance of artsy-fartsy flourishes.

(Oh... I suppose I should touch on what many reviewers seem to think is a selling point. The film supposedly chronicles the one night that gave rise to Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein", Shelly's best poems, and Polidori's "The Vampyre". While this is an interesting aspect of the film--and it's one that raises even more questions about where the line between reality and nightmare exists in the movie, and if perhaps Byron and his guests did, in fact, rouse some evil spirit that night--it's not one that felt was so all-fire important to the movie. It helps to know who the characters are, but one doesn't need a BA in English to "get it.")

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Patty Shepard

In 1963, at the age of 18, Patty Shepard moved from North Carolina to Spain where she swiftly found success as a model and actress. During the 1970s, she appeared in a string of thrillers and horror films along side the likes of Paul Naschy, Helga Line, and Erika Blanc while the eerie aura of mystery she brought to her these roles allowed her to carve out her own place in the pantheon of European B-horror movie stars.

In addition to her horror roles, Shepard was featured in westerns, comedies, sci-fi... probably every genre you can think of.

During the 1980s, Shepard's output slowed, and she retired from acting in 1988 after making two final horror movies--"Edge of the Axe" and "Slugs".

Shepard currently lives in Madrid, Spain, with her husband of nearly 45 years.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Bonus Scream Queen: Charisma Carpenter

In celebration of July Fourth, Independence Day in the United States of America, I present a special Monday Scream Queen.

Charisma Carpenter was working as a cheerleader for the San Diego Chargers when she turned to acting. After landing a few commercials and bit parts, and recurring parts in television series "Josh Kirby: Time Warrior" and "Malibu Shores", she was cast as Cordelia, the social nemesis and eventual friend of teenaged vampire slayer, Buffy in the long-running series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer". She also potrayed the character on the spin-off series "Angel".

After playing Cordelia from 1996 to 2004, Carpenter has gone on to star in made-for-television horror movies, such as "Voodoo Moon" (2006) and "House of Bones (2010), both for the Syfy Channel, in addition to extended guest-shots on series "Charmed" and "Strange Frequency".

Most recently, Carpenter has starred in a couple of chillers for the big screen--"Psychosis" in 2010 and "Crash Site". which is scheduled to hit theaters in next month, August 2011.

Carpenter's current slate of films consists entirely of horror movies in various stages of production, with "The Human Factor" in pre-production and "A Trusted Man" and "Deadly Sibling Rivalry" in post-production and slated for release late this year. Carpenter plays twin sisters in that last film, one good and one evil.

A Fourth of July Nightmare?

Submitted for your consideration: Erika David, a young lady whose singing voice and good looks made her a minor YouTube sensation and who was starting to climb the ladder to true celebrity. Her live performance of "God Bless America" before 100,000 baseball fans was to be a major break for her. But something went wrong, and Erika will discover that dreams have a subset we call nightmares.

Did Erika crumble under the pressure of performing in front of cameras and a huge crowd? Or was she merely singing "God Bless America" as it is known in the Twilight Zone?

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Shannon Elizabeth

Shannon Elizabeth is a model turned actress--a common career path for Scream Queens. Her first professional acting jobs were bit parts on television, but her first major role was in "Jack Frost" where her character was killed off in what will surely forever be a unique scene in film history: She was raped to death by a killer snowman.

Although best known for her role as Nadia in the first two "American Pie" films, Elizabeth's resume is peppered with horror flicks, including the horror spoof "Scary Movie", remakes "13 Ghosts" and "Night of the Demons" and retro-chillers "You Belong to Me" and "Cursed."