Friday, September 30, 2011

In honor of the Zombie Walk...

A bunch of blogs are taking part in the "Zombie Walk" blogathon today. This isn't one of them, just because I wasn't sure how busy I'd be.

But... Zombie Walkiers, I salute you!

It's English Settlers vs. Viking Ghosts!

Lost Colony (aka "Wraiths of Roanoke) (2007)
Starring: Adrian Paul, Frida Farrell, Rhett Giles, and Michael Teh
Director: Matt Codd
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Ananias Dare (Paul) leads a desperate struggle for the survival of his fellow settles in 16th century Roanoke when the colony is set upon by undead Vikings.

"Lost Colony" is a made-for-television spookfest that is loosely based on the mysterious demise of the English Roanoke colony. By the standards I've come to expect from a film from the Sci-Fi Channel (now known by the nonsensical name SyFy Channel), it's a masterpiece. By the standards I apply to horror films in general, it's not bad. It's not great, but it's entertaining.

The acting is serviceable, with Adrian Paul offering his usual Sensitive Hero character and Frida Farrell, as the distressed damsel haunted by evil pagan dreams, leading the cast. None of the characters are particularly deep or all that well-developed, but what we do get is just enough. (Although, having said that, I would have liked to know more about Ananias Dare's connection with Nordic paganism, as it seems like an bit of knowledge to assign to a person whose real-world historical counterpart seems to have been a brick-layer by profession.)

Special effects-wise, the film is also a little better than what I've come to expect from a "Sci-Fi Original", but I did at a couple of points find myself wishing that either more time had been spent rehearsing actors when it came to them sword-fighting with opponents who literally weren't there (as the phantom Vikings they were battling were computer animations added later) or more money and time had been spent on post-production, as there are several points where the fights are less than convincing.

As a period horror film, you can do a lot worse than "Lost Colony". The price is also right, if you pick up in the "Horror 4 Pack Volume 2" which can be found at some retail outlets for as little as $5.

Monday, September 26, 2011

'Grizzly Park' should be closed due to weak script

Grizzly Park (2008)
Starring: Glenn Morshower, Emily Foxler, Randy Wayne, Sherlock Anderson III, Jelynn Rodriguez, Julie Skon, Kavan Reece, Trevor Peterson, Zolay Hanao, and Jeff Watson
Director: Tom Skull
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Eight juvenile delinquents are sent into the wild back country of Grizzly Park together with Ranger Bob (Morshower) on a week long expedition to pick up trash as court-ordered community service. But killers are at large in the woods... wolves, bears, and an escaped homicidal maniac (Watson). Will any of the teens, who for the most part are literally too dumb to live, escape to engage in criminal activities again?

The most damaging thing to this film isn't its predictability--if I wasn't expecting a movie with teenagers being stupid in the forest and getting killed in the process, I wouldn't have bothered with "Grizzly Park" in the first place--it's that this is possibly one of the laziest scripts I've ever encountered.

It's not bad, just lazy. The characters for the most part are so underdeveloped that even the broad strokes used to establish them as stereotypes being enough to make the viewer invest even the slightest attachment in them. The entire movie is also driven by Stupid Character Syndrome, with even extras being infected with it--like one of the kids being able to "sneak" a massive bear costume onto the excursion, despite the fact that the DoC and sheriff department staff would have checked their bags before leaving on the trip... and Ranger Bob would have checked everyone's bags before taking them to the park's interior. But he doesn't, because he would find the bear costume. And possible weapons. And junk food that might attract wild animals. He pays lip service to checking, checks one bag, and then promptly forgets to check the rest.

And what Stupid Character Syndrome can't accommodate, gaping logic or practicality holes will take care of. That aforementioned bear costume? The mask alone is larger than the pack pack the character supposedly smuggling it is carrying. And that's just the most obvious and annoying of the several such "well, this won't work, but fuck it... it's staying it!" elements; the film is full of them.

There's also a bizarre case of short term memory loss apparently afflicting many of the characters, which makes me wonder if the film went through some re-edits and new scenes were shot after completion and no one was paying close enough attention anymore. There are a handful of instances of this scattered throughout the movie. The most glaring takes place when the viewer is informed (by way of a character reading a plaque out loud) that Grizzly Park is so named because it was once home to the largest bear population in that part of the nation but that the bears were hunted to extinction long ago... but two scenes later, Ranger Bob is cautioning the kids about bears in the park telling them and what to do and what not to do. Yet, no one asks him why he thinks there are bears in the park when the historical marker stated they were all gone. Bob discussed that wolves had been restocked but did not mention anything about bears, yet everyone just goes with it.

Finally, there are a couple of underdeveloped subplots in the film, such as one revolving around two of the juvenile delinquents and a gang war between White and Mexican racial supremacists, and the one involving the escaped maniac mentioned in the teaser summary at the top. While the way that last one terminated was unexpected, it served so little purpose in the overall story that dumping it would have changed nothing... except perhaps freed up a little time for some character development. Perhaps that would have been enough to make "Grizzly Park" worth the effort of putting it in the DVD player.

"Grizzly Park" is available as a stand-alone DVD, or in "Horror 4 Pack Vol. 2", which crams four movies onto a single DVD. If this film sounds interesting to you, then you will want to get the "Horror 4 Pack", because it costs about the same (or less, if you go to a certain retailer with big stores and low prices, whom I won't mention because I wouldn't send my worst enemy there I dislike the experience of going to thost stores so much) but you get three other movies. The drawback is that only one of those is any better than "Grizzly Park".

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Adrienne Barbeau

Born in 1945, Adrienne Barbeau began her show-business career as a go-go dancer in a mafia-operated club in New York City, but by 1968, she had broken into Broadway theater and left exotic dancing behind. In 1978, she starred in her first collaboration with her future husband writer/director John Carpenter, and their association led to her most famous roles in "The Fog" and "Escape From New York", roles that Carpenter conceived with Barbeau in mind.

Although she is best known for her horror roles, those types of movies actually make up a very small part of her far-ranging acting resume, with the number of recurring roles she's had on television series (staring with "Maud" in the 1970s and continuing through to this very day with her regular role on "General Hospital). Not even one-tenth of her 100+ acting and voice-over parts have been horror roles, but she still makes the top of many "scream queen" lists. And Barbeau continues to return to the horror genre every so often, as evidenced by the 2007 chiller "Unholy" and her rumored involvement with the upcoming film "Manson Rising".

Friday, September 23, 2011

'Haunts' is an interesting misfire

Haunts (aka "The Veil") (1977)
Starring: May Britt, Cameron Mitchell, and Aldo Ray
Director: Herb Free
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A young woman (Britt) haunted by dark memories is stalked by a murdering rapist. Or is she? The town sheriff (Aldo) thinks she's being hysterical and possibly even losing her mind... but just what is it her slovenly uncle (Mitchell) doing with his nights?

"Haunts" is a thriller that attempts to use a mentally unbalanced character to provide the narrative Point of View for the film. It's a clever and laudable idea, but it's not one that the director and writer (one and the same, at least with a co-writing credit on the script) were up to pulling off. The film is a bit too slow in unfolding, and what could have been a truly powerful ending (with some chilling realizations dawning on the part of the attentive viewers) is weakened by it likewise going on for a tad too long and by a last-minute attempt at throwing a possibility of something supernatural into a straight thriller. Once again, we have an ending that's ruined by filmmakers who just didn't know when to quit.

Along the way, though, we are treated to some great, creepy imagery that captures the loneliness and isolation of the main character, and which manages to make the setting into a character in the film almost as important as the leads.

With some judicious editing, this film could actually be quite good, and it's one I wish I liked more. There's alot of misspent potential here, and all the three leads do such a good job that the void of talent embodied by some of the supporting cast is almost not noticeable. In fact, a scene in a bar featuring two of these talentless actors could be cut almost entirely, and the film would immediately get stronger in several ways--the mystery of the killer's ID would be heightened, and we'd have lost some of the more noxious flab dangling from the work's body.

Seriously flawed, the film still has just enough good parts to make it worth checking out if you have an interest in the development of the slasher flim--this is one of those almost-formed slashers that pre-date "Halloween"--or if you're a filmmaker interested in an object lesson of how just one or two bad choices can ruin an otherwise decent picture.

Note: "Arbogast" just posted a nice write-up of this film, which is what cause me to reach into the archives over at Watching the Detectives and repost this review here (with a couple of tweaks). Click here to see what he had to say.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

'Goregoyles: First Cut' is a nice package

Goregoyles: First Cut (2003)
Starring: Robert Harvick, Sebastian Croteau, and Matt Busch
Directors: Augustine Arredondo, Kevin J. Lindenmuth, and Alexandre Michaud
Rating: Six of Ten Stars (for the film)/Seven of Ten Stars (for the overall DVD package)

This was a hard one for me to rate, not only because it's an anthology film of wildly varying quality, but also because the entirety of the DVD package is something I feel needs to be taken into account in the review. This is rare for me, as Most of the time, the "bonus features" on DVDs are fairly dull or just recycled/archived marketing materials. With the "Goregoyles: First Cut" DVD, however, most of the extras are interesting and well-worth being considered "bonuses.")

First, the movie. I'll rate each part of it seperately, and then give an overall rating for the film alone. "Goregoyles: First Cut" is the first in a series of films that will feature several short horror shorts, framed by introductory comments from Uncle Dodo (Croteau).

The Uncle Dodo sequences are both amusing and informative--the long-haired host is a combination of Joe Bob Briggs and the Cryptkeeper--something which isn't true of other low-budget anthology films I've come across. I suppose I should admit with some degree of shame that the Uncle Dodo set bears a disturbing resemblence to my office. (Okay, there's no blow-up doll in the corner, but the rest is strangely similar....) By themselves, I rate the Dodo sequences at Six of Ten Stars.

Then there's the first of the two short films, "The Holy Terror." This is the story of a man (Harvick) who gets possessed by a demon and then finds himself pursued by occultists and assassins for the Catholic Church.

"The Holy Terror" should be required viewing for anyone who makes or is contemplating making a horror film on a limited budget. Reportedly made for around $800, this short film is better crafted than some horror flicks with ten times its budget. It features good acting, nice camera work, a well-done and well-used music soundtrack, and is nicely structured and paced. The producer/director, Augustine Arredondo, also seems to have had a realistic sense of what he was able to accomplish--he limited his special effects to movie gore and didn't make any attempts putting monsters, physical transformations, or anything else that required lots of money to pull off on the screen--and he didn't attempt to pad his film to the 70 minutes minimum for a feature. Most low-budget horror movies are ruined not so much by crappy acting, but by padding and filmmakers attempting things their budget and resources simply don't allow for, and Arrendondo avoided both those pitfalls. Even better, he clearly understands that if your effects are cheaply made, you don't want to feature them in long, loving shots so the audience has a chance to roll their eyes and snicker at you. It seems like something that should be easy to understand, but given the number of filmmakers who don't do this, it must be a hard concept to grasp.

"Holy Terror" was Arredondo's first outing as a director, and so far his only one. This is a shame, because while it's not a perfect film--it could have done with a few more minutes of running time and story to fill in a couple of niggling plot issues, and a stronger ending would have been nice--it is still good enough to earn a rating of Eight of Ten Stars. It's a shame he didn't stick with directing.

The second film that Uncle Dodo presents is titled "Bezerker". Almost everything that "The Holy Terror" got right, this one got wrong... despite the fact that this one is supposedly the product of a "legend" of low-budget filmmaking, Kevin J. Lindenmuth, while the first film was the product of a newcomer.

"Bezerker" is a short zombie movie with a storyline so muddled it trips over itself, despite being thinner than a supermodel on a hunger strike. Basically, it's Viking zombies show up and kill people. To make matters worse, it has a cast of actors who range from bad to awful, and some of the worst zombie costumes put on the screen.

(Free tip to filmmakers: If you have a zombie who is rotted and decayed from wandering the woods for a decade, don't put it in a clean, bright white, freshly washed night gown. Similarly, rotting walking corpses shouldn't all be wearing black sweatshirts that look brand new, particularly not when some of them supposedly are 1,000 year-old zombie Vikings. Thank you. You're welcome to acknowledge me in the credits of your next film.)

Given that Uncle Dodo's description of "Bezerker" both in the intro and the lead-out make it sound interesting than it it, and seem more like a description of what SHOULD have been on the screen instead of what is, it sounds like the producers of the "First Cut" anthology were as bored with this worthless piece of trash as I was. There are two good scenes in it, one of which is almost ruined by terrible child actors, and the other undermined by an ineptly done gore effect--although the zombie eating himself while walking around still made me squirm and will stick with me for some time. This one gets Two of Ten Stars.

Overall, I give "Goregoyles: First Cut" a rating of Six of Tomatoes of Ten, skewing the rating a bit high, because as awful as "Bezerker" is, it's thankfully short.

The final thing I touch on here are the extras that are included on the DVD. Like I mentioned above, I don't usually take those into account when reviewing a film, but I make an exception here.

First off, the interview with "Goregoyles" producer Alexandre Michaud is interesting, insightful, and far more honest than the self-congratulatory marketing crap we usually get in these sorts of offerings. He talks about the origins and intent of the "Goregoyles" series, and even touches upon some shortcomings. Similarly, the "making of" documentary about "The Holy Terror" also features some very candid interviews with its star and director that provide an interesting look into "no-budget" filmmaking, and it's a real look at the production process, not just an extended ad that originally appeared on HBO.

Among the extras is also a "bloopers" section that doesn't actually contain bloopers but instead feature longer versions of Uncle Dodo's commentary. I liked these longer riffs better than what appeared in the film, although I also agree with the choice of shortening them; the films shouldn't be secondary to the host.

Finally, the disk contains previews for numerous movies in the Brain Damage Films catalogue. I'm impressed with the way they can make movies I know to be completely and utter turds (because I've had the misfortune of seeing them) look like they may actually be interesting. It's a nice look at what this distribution company offers--even if some of the previews are better than the films they are made to advertise!

When I add the high-quality extras on the "Goregoyles: First Cut" DVD into my considerations, the overall package gets an extra Star, bringing the rating up to Seven of Ten Tomatoes. I applaud Brain Damage Films for producing a DVD package where the "bonus" material is worth watching, and I encourage lovers of horror films to track this one down for "The Holy Terror" at the very least.

Note: "The Holy Terror" is also included in the Catacombs of Creepshow 50 movie pack. That might be a better way to get your hands on it, as you'll be getting a slew of other indie horror flicks... some good, some pretty awful. But the price is good.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Countdown to Halloween with Vampirella

It's coming in October.... so don't say you weren't warned!

By Joe Chiodo

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Suzy Kendall

British blond Suzy Kendall had her heart set on being a clothing designer, but her exceptional beauty caused photographers and other designers to continually urge her to go into modeling. She made an initial half-hearted attempt in that field and found herself, to her surprise, in instant and constant demand. This led to movie roles, and, despite not having any formal training as an actress, she enjoyed a thriving movie career starting with "The Liquidator" in 1965 and ending in 1977 when she decided she'd had enough of the profession her heart was never fully in. She retired from show-business to focus on her family.

Kendall appeared in 25 films, with roughly half of them being European horror films. Horror highlights include Dario Argento's directorial debut "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage", "In the Devil's Garden", "Tales That Witness Madness", "Spazmo", and "Craze".

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Donating to Project Gutenberg in honor of
Michael S. Hart

Tonight, I learned that Michael S. Hart, inventor of the e-book and founder of Project Gutenberg, passed away on September 6.

As I mentioned in the obit post at Cinema Steve, I will donate all my earnings on sales of "From Dark Corners: Thirteen Unusual Tales from Famous Authors" from now until September 21 to Project Gutenberg, in honor of his memory.

So, if you like horror fiction, here's an opportunity to get yourself a collection of some of my favorites AND give money to a good cause. Please click here to get a copy and help me donate to Project Gutenberg.

And please help me spread the word about this little effort with announcements in your own blogs, if you would be so kind.

Dario Argento's first film is one of his best films

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (aka "The Gallery Murders" and "The Phantom Terror") (1970)
Starring: Tony Musante, Enrico Maria Salerno, Suzi Kendall, Eva Renzi, Renato Romano, and Umberto Raho
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

On the eve of returning home to the United States, an American writer in Rome (Mustante) witnesses a brutal attack on a young woman in a gallery (Renzi). The authorities insist he remain in Rome until they clear him as a possible suspect, as they believe the attack and in the meantime, he starts his own investigation. He witnessed the attack, but he feels there was something off with what he saw, but he just can't put his finger on what it was. Meanwhile, the serial killer continues to target young women, seemingly completely at random, and the writer and his beautiful girlfriend (Kendall) end up targeted for death as well.

"The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" was Dario Argento's first film as a director, and I think it is one of his most solid efforts. In fact, it is so solid that I had an even harder time deciding whether my write-up belongs here or with the Argento mystery films over at Watching the Detectives.

This film is, in many ways, a less bloody, more coherent version of "Deep Red," another of Argento's better efforts. Maybe of the same psychological themes are present in this one, including the one where the main character needs to recall something he saw at the scene of a violent crime but that didn't really register with his conscious mind. The conspiracies surrounding the murderer are also similar to one another, and both films "play fair" with the viewer insofar as the surprise twists and the "big reveal" of the killer's identity in both films is set up as the film progresses and the clues that lead to the solution are evident in retrospect. And while "Bird" and "Deep Red" both have characters behaving in unrealistic and stupid ways either for plot convenience or reasons that are only understood to Dario Argento, this film at least doesn't have gaping plot holes that he's trying pass off as red herrings.

More clearly showing Argento's debt to Alfred Hitchcock and Mario Bava than any of the films he made later (including his supposed tribute to Hitchcock that's more a love note to Argento himself in many ways), but also clearly a film coming from his own vision and sensibilities, it's a film that draws its tension as much from what you don't see as what you do see... there are sprays of blood but no outright gore, throats are cut but it happens off scene, and the pictures that will form in your imagination are far more horrible than what appears on screen. Its the intensity generated by the "less is more" approach in this film that caused me place it among his horror films instead of his mystery films.

That's not to say that there aren't great moments that Argento creates as well. The scene where our hero is locked between two automatic glass doors and has to watch helplessly as a knifed woman bleeds all over the floor of an art gallery; the sequence where he chased by an assassin through the deserted back streets of night-time Rome until he reaches a crowded area and then starts stalking the assassin; and some of the visual flourishes involving characters in pitch darkness silhouetted against a single source of sharp light, spring to mind as some of the most effective bits of filmmaking I've seen in any Argento picture.

Argento's "Susperia" had been presented to me as the best of his films. "Deep Red" had also been praised highly and come recommended by people I usually trust. However, I found both films to be deeply flawed, despite their admitted strong visual appeals, and after the more recent garbage he's made--"The Card Player" and "Do You Like Hitchcock?"--I was ready to give up on him completely. Then someone recommended I at least watch "Bird with the Crystal Plumage" and "Cat of Nine Tails" before turning my back on his work... and I'm glad I listened. Although not perfect, they are the best efforts I've seen from Argento yet. (And "Cat o' Nine Tails" will be get a write-up at Watching the Detectives eventually.)

I don't know what went wrong with Dario Argento as far as his skills as a filmmaker go, but he seems to have declined rather than get better as the years went by. Maybe his early films were as good as they are because he had to push himself to be the very best he could possible be, but that he got lazy once he was established and started to coast on his reputation. I wonder if that is what puts him apart from truly great filmmakers that he is compared to... they kept breaking their backs to deliver the best work possible even after they could coast on name value alone?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Maryam d'Abo

Maryam d'Abo is one of the many actresses with a long career behind her, but for whom full-fledged stardom has been elusive. With more than 40 television shows and movies to her name, made over three busy decades, hers is still a face that all but the biggest fans of horror films and thrillers from the 1980s and 1990s will have a hard time placing.

A European actress (born in London, but raised in Paris and Geneva by parents who were of Dutch and Croatian extraction), d'Abo got her start playing the ill-fated, over-sexed babysitter in the goopy sci-fi horror flick "Xtro," and her wide ranging and varied resume sports numerous genre flicks and television shows throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including a lead role on the short-lived series "Something Is Out There," and starring turns in horror films like "Night Life", "Immortal Sins", "Stalked", and "Double Obsession".

D'Abo is, however, perhaps best known for playing Kara, the Russian cello-playing Russian spy in the James Bond flick "The Living Daylights". She used that connection for a flirtation with writing and producing that brought the 2002 documentary film "Bond Girls Are Forever", which explores the connotations of being a Bond Girl and the impact it has on actresses' careers, into being. She has since returned to acting full-time, and in recent years has appeared in horror films "Trespassing" (2004) and "Dorian Gray" (2009).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

'Mayhem Motel': Home of sex, violence, mimes, and puke baths

Mayhem Motel (2001)
Starring: Matthew Biancaniello, Sarah Berkowitz, Lorene Scafaria, David Langley, and Ray Jarrell
Director: Karl Kempter
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

"Mayhem Motel" defies summary. It is a collection of vignettes that are scrambled together to tell the story of a night of sex, murder, mayhem, and just plain weirdness. If one were to attempt to make sense of the film in order to take away a point to it, one would have to conclude the film was made to convey the messages that one should always keep one's motel room door bolted, and that sex with strangers kills--not because of venereal disease, but because of knives and guns. Oh, and there's also the moral that one shouldn't ever piss off a dwarf.

This is a film that is 100% unique viewing experience--and for that the world should be grateful.

First of all, "Mayhem Motel" contains the single most disgusting scene I've ever witnessed on film. It was so gross that I almost stopped the DVD when it occurred. The second scene of the movie has a character named Pukey in the credits (played by David Langley) settling into a tub and puking into the bathwater. He then proceeds to stir the water and vomit around him as he sits there. Whether that was actual vomit or some REALLY convincing special effects (and my money is on actual vomit... it simply too convincing not to be), the scene is so disgusting that it put me off my dinner. It almost put me off the rest of movie, but since it was so early on, I felt obligated to stick with it just a little longer. (As it turned out, I watched the whole thing.)

Second, "Mayhem Motel" is almost entirely plot-free. Each vignette has something of a story to it, but for each plot that is brought to an almost-conclusion, there are two that are left hanging, giving the overall movie a feel of a short story collection rather than a complete film. And I don't mean a collection of short films... I mean a collection of scenes like the ones you might have students write if you were teaching a writing workshop. They're interesting, they're pretty raw, but they're also for the most part utterly pointless except for invoking a momentary reaction in the viewer. While this approach did keep me watching, it's not one that I would want to see become commonplace.

That said, this film does feature some good acting, decent dialogue, and it moves along at a fast pace (with only the mime scene dragging a bit). The filmmakers obviously know their craft, and they know that they should put exactly what a scene needs onto the screen, and not a second more. Add that the fact that there are several hilarious moments (like both instances of a character choking to death during sex--in the "I know I shouldn't be laughing at this but I can't help" kind of way), and the end result is a movie that I find myself liking far more than is probably healthy.

Maybe my brain has finally rotted away due to all the Z-grade movies I watch? If "Mayhem Motel" had just a little more structure to it--the priest who we're introduced to at the beginning of the film should have been seen leaving the motel at daybreak the next day--I may even have given it a Seven-Star rating.

Although I still don't feel comfortable recommending anyone see it--although if you get it as part of the "Mental Maniacs" multi-DVD set as I did, you might as well give it a try--I still think but that "Mayhem Motel" has some impressive qualities to it. It MIGHT also be a suitable screener for a Bad Movie Night, if you have the right crowd. (I know that I'd never show this film to anyone *I* socialize with, but then I don't know everyone.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ginger Rogers Double-Feature Fright Fest!

Everyone one knows Ginger Rogers for doing what Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels, but did you know that, early in her career, she starred in a couple of horror films, one of which holds up rather well, despite nearly 80 years having passed since it was released?

(Well, if you're a regular reader, you probably did, because you read her Saturday Scream Queen profile back in July... but here are the details on the movies themselves.)

The Thirteenth Guest (aka "Lady Beware") (1932)
Starring: Lyle Talbot, Ginger Rogers, and J. Farrell MacDonald
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Marie (Rogers), the young heiress to the Morgan fortune, is found mysteriously electrocuted in the family manor that has remained sealed since her father died during a dinner party 13 years prior, Police Captain Ryan (MacDonald) calls upon the assistance of playboy criminologist Phil Winston (Talbot) to help solve the baffling murder. Before Winston can even begin to investigate, the mystery takes an even stranger turn: The dead girl turns up alive and in police custody for car theft... and soon there's a second dead body at the old Morgan place.

"The Thirteenth Guest" is a pretty good little mystery movie for most of its running time. The three lead actors all give decent performances that are in line with what is to be expected from one of these "who-dunnit in the dark, old house" mysteries, and the murderer had a fairly clever set-up with which to commit the murder. There are also just enough plausible suspects and clever plot-twists make it real mystery film.

Unfortunately, for every clever twist there's a plot logic-hole that a truck could be driven through. Equally unfortunate is the presence of a truly lame comic relief character. And I won't even dignify the idiotic mask and cape they have the murderer prance around in with comment. (Hang on... did I just comment on the idiotic mask and cape? Curses!)

The good parts outweigh the bad parts--but only barely--in "The Thirteenth Guest." It's not a film I recommend you rush out to find a copy of, but if you're looking around for a little something to round out a "home film-festival" selection of mystery movies, this might be what you're looking for. Just don't make it the main attraction.

A Shriek in the Night (1933)
Starring: Ginger Rogers, Lyle Talbot, Purnell Pratt, Harvel Clark, Lillian Harmer, Louise Beaver, and Arthur Hoyt
Director: Albert Ray
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A series of murders take place in an upscale apartment building, and reporters Pat Morgan (Rogers) and Ted Kord (Talbot)--working for rival newspapers but involved in a romantic relationship--are hot on the trail of the killer, or killers. Morgan happened to be working on an investigative piece about one of the victims, so she is in a perfect place to help both her career and the police... so long as she doesn't end up a murder victim herself.

"A Shriek in the Night" is, for the most part, a fairly typical early 1930s low-budget mystery, with dimwitted maids, cranky police detectives (although in this one the detective is not incompetent, just cranky), and wise-cracking reporters running circles around everyone and ultimately providing the clues needed to solve the mystery. The acting is above average here, and the characterizations of the two reporters and the police detective are also a bit more intelligent and three-dimensional than is often the case in these movies. (The comic relief maids are still as annoying as ever; if this is what American-born house-servants were like, it's no wonder we took to importing illegal aliens to turn down our beds and clean our homes!)

What really sets the film apart from others like it is its villain, and a surprisingly chilling sequence where he prepares to burn Pat Morgan alive. This character feels in many ways like an ancestor to the mad killers who came into vogue during the 1970s, and which continue to slash, strangle, and mutilate their way across the movie screen to this very day.

Another thing I found interesting in this film is how different Ginger Rogers' character was from the one she played a year earlier in "The Thirteenth Guest".

Many actors and actresses that appeared in these B-movies gave pretty much the same performance in movie after movie--for instance, there's very little difference between the smart-ass character Lyle Talbot plays here and the one he played in "The Thirteenth Guest." I haven't seen enough of Rogers' performances to really know why there is this difference--was she lucky enough to have a chance to show different facets of her acting ability, or did she make each part she played different somehow?--but it was an unexpected surprise.

Those of you out there with more than just a passing interest in suspense and horror movies may want to check this film out for its very modern, proto-"maniac killer" character/sequence. Those of you who just enjoy this style of movies--mysteries that get solved by wise-cracking reporters who take nothing seriously--should also check it out. It's a fun way to spend an hour.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Faith Domergue

Born in 1923, Faith Domergue's acting career was one that almost ever happened. In 1939, just after graduating from high school, she was involved in a car accident and was severely disfigured by being thrown into the windshield. She underwent a painful year-and-a-half worth of plastic surgeries, and emerged with looks and grace that captured the interest of billionaire industrialist and movie mogul Howard Hughes, and he had her signed to a contract.

Hughes' RKO studio spent a great deal of money and resources trying to make Domergue a star, but all three big budget pictures they featured her in were busts at the box office. Dropped by RKO, Domergue became a freelancer, accepting roles from a variety of studios, appearing in westerns and crime dramas... and eventually in the string of horror and sci-fi movies for which she is during the late 1950s.

Most notable of her horror flicks from this period are "Cult of the Cobra" and "It Came From Beneath the Sea".

During the 1960s, Domergue turned to television, appearing on several top-rated series while squeezing in a couple of sci-fi movies along the way.

During the early 1970s, Domergue returned to horror film with starring turns in "Legacy of Blood" in 1971 and "So Evil, My Sister" and "The House of Seven Corpses" in 1974. Those would prove to be her final screen appearances, as she retired from acting soon thereafter.

Domergue died in 1999 from cancer.