Saturday, January 26, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy is one of those actresses I've always felt would have been great in horror films, yet whose career barely touched on the genre. But, since this is my blog and my profile series, and since I wish she had been in more thrillers and chillers, I going to give her a moment in the spotlight,.am featuring her here.

Loy actually started her career on a path that seemed like it could lead to a career in horror films when they exploded in popularity in the 1930s. She began her film career during the waning days of silent movies, frequently playing exotic femme fatales. Unlike many of her fellow silent movie actresses, she made a successful transition to talkies where she continued for a time to play villainesses... until she transitioned into big-budget comedy and romantic dramas with what became her signature role of the hard-drinking, sharp-witted Nora Charles in the "Thin Man" series. It wasn't until very late in her acting career that she returned to the horror and thriller genres.

Loy's career spanned nearly 60 years and 129 movies. Among her noteworthy thrillers and horror films are "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932), "Midnight Lace" (1960), "Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate" (1971) "The Elevator" (1974) and  "Ants" (1977).

Myrna Loy passed away in 1993 at the age of 88.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

'Dead Collections' has too much of a good thing

Dead Collections (2012)
Starring: Caitlyn Fletcher, Roberto Lombardi, Edward X. Young, Linnea Sage, Jerry Ross, Samuel L.M. Cole, and Suzi Lorraine
Director: John Orrichio
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

 Sara (Fletcher), left with a broken heart and a mountain of debt following her husband's suicide, moves in with her senile uncle (Cole) to regain her footing. But strange events start occurring in the house, indicating the house or Sara herself might be haunted by a ghost, even as a creepy funeral director (Young) and a homicidal debt collector (Lombardi) begin stalking her. The question becomes which will Sara lose first--her sanity or her life?

 "Dead Collections" is an entertaining and chilling film that features a talented cast that is supported by a script that features enough material for two or three films. And that is its downfall.

 As mentioned above, there are three perceived threats that close in on the main character as the film unfolds. That's not atypical for a film like this, but generally one or more turns out to be a red herring or ends up working in the main character's favor. The film doesn't exactly go in that direction--which I appreciate, as fresh approaches are needed in the horror genre these days--but the presence of a funeral director with more dark secrets than a shelf full of gothic romance novels, and a psychotic debt collector who won't take anything but payment in full as an answer in the same movie is too much of a good thing.

 Roberto Lombardi gives a consistently frightening performance as debt collector Thomas Callan, and I could easily see myself giving this film a rating of Seven if he had been the major villain and the funeral director had been reduced to a minor threat or completely removed.

 Edward X. Young is equally menacing in his part, and I could likewise see myself giving a film featuring him as the major villain (perhaps titled "Wake" or "Vigil") a rating of Seven.

 Heck, I could even see myself possibly giving a Seven rating to a film where Caitlyn Fletcher, as Sara, is trying to put her life back together while living in a haunted house and dealing with the harassment of either a creepy funeral director or a pushy bill collector, who ultimately turn out to have played a role in her husband's death.

 But having all these elements, and two intensely evil characters receiving equal play as they zero in on the same target becomes too much of a good thing and loads this single story with way more than it can bear. It means more characters than is good for a film of this kind, and, perhaps worse, it leads to a muddling of timelines and plots. (The passage of time is a real issue in this film... some events that feel like they occur days apart--and probably should--must happen within the same afternoon from the way the film flows. Similarly, events that seem like they happen at the same time don't, as it's must be one time of day at the house where Sara is while another time of day elsewhere in the world.

 For all my griping, there is a lot to like about this film--and that's WHY I'm griping. As mentioned, I like the entire cast. There's lots of nice camerawork and the effects are decent for a movie at this budget level. The film is trim and free of padding, always a welcome thing. The music soundtrack is subtle and well-deployed. The film kept me engaged all the way to the very end, which is the greatest praise I can give a movie considering the seemingly endless backlog of DVDs that are forever awaiting my attention. In fact, the film is strong enough that the "shock ending" didn't bother me half as much as it usually does... but it the end, "Dead Collections" falls victim to being too much of a collection of characters and plot-threads.

It's still better than the majority of horror films being released these days... and far FAR better than the only other movie I can think of that I felt had a similar problem of colliding stories and villians--"Scream and Scream Again". (Which I reposted just before putting this review up, so you can read my take on that film, too, if you like.)

Scream for help if someone forces you
to watch "Scream and Scream Again"

Scream and Scream Again (1970)
Starring: Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Marshall Jones, Peter Cushing and Christopher Matthews
Director: Gordon Hessler
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

One day, during the Swingin' Sixties, three clerks collided in the hall of American International Productions. Each and been carrying a film script--one was a supernatural/political thriller set within a fictitious East bloc country, the other was a modern-day psycho-vampire flick set in London, and the third was a mad doctor/Frankenstein flick--and the pages went everywhere. They tried their best to sort them out properly, but in the end the three scripts were hopelessly jumbled together. In the hopes of covering their sloppiness, they simply put the three mish-mash "scripts" in for review. One ended up being green-lighted by an indifferent executive. A shooting script was then approved by a drunk producer. Stoned and tripping directors then went about finding actors, and soon principle photography on "Scream and Scream Again" was underway.

I don't know if that story accurately describes how "Scream and Scream Again" came to be produced, but it's a more generous explanation than one that assumes this incoherent and disjointed movie was intended to be this way.

For more than 3/4ths of the picture there is barely a connection between the various plots, except for a single actor who crosses over between the two. And when they do come together, it's only barely and it's not in any way that seems terribly well thought out. (A sign of the complete confusion that reins in this film is even evident in the theatrical preview where the actor who is identified as Peter Cushing is actually Marshall Jones.)

The story, such as it is, starts with a series of "vampire murders" in London. It turns out that these are being perpetrated by the creation of a mad scientist (Vincent Price) who is working as part of a global secret scientific society to create a superior human race through surgery. When the police refuse to investigate due to political pressure a young coroner (Christopher Matthews) starts doing his own investigation. He is soon in over his head and that's when things get really stupid.

Although Cushing, Lee, and Price get top billing, Cushing is only in one scene (and it's a pointless one at that) and Lee's presence isn't much more than Cushing's. Price's role is larger and very important to the story, but his screen time is still very limited and he doesn't have much to do. His presence is almost as big a waste as that of Cushing and Lee.

And the score, the easy-listening rock/jazz fusion score, is almost too painful for words!

All in all, this film should go on the "must-miss" list, except for those who might be looking for the worst "day-for-night" shots since Ed Wood stopped making Z-grade thrillers and turned to Z-grade pornos. It makes the worst of the Hammer Film efforts look like the work of Orson Wells. What's even more embarrassing for this film is that it looks like it probably had a bigger budget than several Hammer Films combined, based on the number of locations and aerial shots featured.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Jennifer Lawrence

In 2005, at the age of 14, Jennifer Lawrence gave what a casting director described as the best "cold reading" he'd ever seen, and her acting career and meteoric rise to fame, which includes her second Oscar nomination this year, was underway.

Best known for starring in "X-Men: First Class" (2011) and the "Hunger Games" series of movies (at least three of them, with the first one released in 2012), Lawrence has also appeared in horror films such as "The House at the End of the Street" and "The Devil You Know" (both in 2012) and "The Bill Engvall Show". (Okay... so that last one wasn't horror, but it might as well have been).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

'Brothel' is a classy haunted house movie

Brothel (2008)
Starring: Serena Scott Thomas, Brett Cullen, Grace Zabriskie, Timothy V. Murphy, and Bruce Payne
Director: Amy Waddell
Stars: Seven of Ten Stars

After her clinically depressed lover commits suicide, Julianne (Thomas) carries on with their plans to convert a long-abandoned gold-rush era brothel in a small Arizona town into a bed-and-breakfast. But once she begins the restoration effort, she finds the building is still inhabited by the ghosts of prostitutes... and that she is being stalked by Death himself (Payne).

If you liked "Ghost Whisperer", I think you'll enjoy "Brothel". Julianne could just as easily have been Melinda if her husband had committed suicide, the the storyline here would be right at home in the second or third season of "Ghost Whisperer." The difference between Melinda and Julianne is that as Julianne tries to unlock the secrets that are preventing the ghosts in the brothel from "crossing over", she gradually loses touch with the world of the living, partly because she really doesn't want to be part of it anymore because the love of her life is gone.

"Brothel" is a great haunted house movie that is rich in atmosphere from beginning to end, yet almost entirely free of elements that are typically associated with the horror genre--jump-scares, bloody gore, and characters doing stupid things just so the plot can keep moving. If you accept that the main character can "see dead people" and could be angry enough at the death of her lover to challenge and subsequently draw the interest of Death itself, the rest of the film flows naturally and with steadily building tension as Julianne slips further and further into the realm of spirits. It's a beautiful, well-acted film that by itself is worth the purchase price of the "Midnight Horror Collection", which is where I came across it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Jessica Chastain

California-born Jessica Chastain began her career performing with Shakespearian companies all over California's Bay area while still in her early teens. While training at New York City's famous Julliard academy and developing her television and screen career, she continued to perform Shakespeare, and to this day she divides her time between Los Angeles and New York City, the screen and the stage,.

Chastain was nominated for the 2013 Best Actress Oscar award for her leading role in "Zero Dark Thirty," a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. While that film was in theaters, however, she could also be seen starring in the offbeat monster film "Mama". (Also nominated this year is previous Saturday Scream Queen Naomi Watts.)

Chastain's other horror credits include the 2005 film remake of "Dark Shadows" (which was seen by virtually no one as it was only screened at conventions) and "Take Shelter" (2011). Her horror resume is a bit thin at this point, but she can be seen in many thrillers, some of which almost cross the border into darker territory, such as "Texas Killing Fields" (2011). Horror fans can only hope for her to appear in more films of the genre we love... and that she pairs her talent with worthy scripts.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Like a romance novel with a twist

Frozen in Fear (2000)
Starring: Catherine Oxenberg, Eric Roberts, Rod Steiger, Joan Benedict, Scott Plank, and Ellina McCormick
Director: Robin P. Murray
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A Seattle art dealer (Oxenberg) travels to a remote mountain town to convince a talented but reclusive painter (Roberts) to sell his work through her gallery. She soon falls in love with the emotionally damaged man, but even as romance blooms, someone is creeping through the night and murdering women passing through the area. Is the killer the quirky sheriff (Plank), the much-feared town patriarch (Steiger), or the sensitive artist? And will our heroine become one of his victims?

"Frozen in Fear" is a made-for-TV movie that is as much a romantic chick-flick as it is a horror movie, complete with the fantasy of a woman healing a man's soul through the power of love. The cast of characters are basically off-the-shelf figures from gothic romances--and you'll quickly recognize each and every one of them as soon as they are introduced. And you'll eventually realize that none of these thinly written characters, whose actions are driven entirely by plot concerns whether there is any logic to them or not, will never rise above the status of stereotypical figures. The only thing that saves this film from being a total snooze fest is the horror aspect.

But even the presence of a mad killer can't save this film, because, even though there is a mildly clever twist surrounding his identity--at least if one views "Frozen in Fear" as a romance tale first and horror story second--he emerges as such a ludicrous figure that the horror is undermined almost from the outset. And as if the writers wanted to make sure the film remained on the level of trash they throw am ill-conceived "surprise twist ending" that tries to elevate our high mountain stalker to the level of a Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers. The lame ending alone drags this film down a Three Rating when it might otherwise could have been a Four or maybe even a low Five.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Ginger Lynn Allen

In 1983, 21-year-old Ginger Lynn Allen answered an ad for figure models. Later that very day, she had secured her first layout in Penthouse Magazine. Roles in "adult movies" soon followed, and "Ginger Lynn" emerged as one of the leading porn actresses of the mid-1980s.

In 1986, Allen made the transition to more respectable genre pictures, having tired of the hectic pace with which adult films were made. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, she was featured in a wide variety of low-budget pictures and even landed small parts on television series. Her horror roles include "Satan's Storybook" (1989), "Buried Alive" (1990), "Evil Breed: The Legend of Samhain" (2003), and "The Devil's Rejects" (2005).

By the late 1990s, Allen had returned to the adult film industry. The majority of her output today consists of films in which she plays an older woman on the prowl for young flesh. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bad horror/fantasy in an anthology format

Satan's Storybook (1989)
Starring: Ray Robert, Lesile Deutsch, Ginger Lynn Allen, and Michael Daevid ("Satan's Queen"/framing segment), Steven K. Arthur and Leesa Roland ("Demon of Death" segment), Gary Brandner, Michael Rider, Francis Paul and Irwin Waterman ("Death Among Clowns" segment)
Director: Michael Rider
Rating: Two Stars

"Satan's Storybook" is a low-budget anthology film with costuming that would look great at a Halloween party but which is at the bottom end of what should be considered passable for a professional film production. The flat look of a film obviously shot on video makes it look even cheaper.

I broke this review down according to the segments of the film, assigning each one its own rating. The Two Stars I ultimately ended up assigning it is an average of those individual ratings.

Aside from its low budget and near-universally weak acting which is made to appear worse than it actually is by atrocious dialogue, the film hurt most by the sloppy and loose editing. Every time there's a cut or a change in camera angle, we get at least a second of dead air, so even during what should be heated exchanges between characters we get an overly stagey sense of performance as everyone seems to be politely waiting for the other actor to finish their line before delivering his. The actors and the film in general would have come off much better if there had been a talented editor involved in the production.

Like most anthology films, it consists of a framing tale that surrounds and links short stories. Here, the framing sequence involves the kidnapping of Satan's Bride (Leslie Deutsch) by her sister who has been raised to kill her (Ginger Lynn Allen). While Satan's minions tracks his bride and her kidnappers, he orders his court jester (Daevid) to tell him tales of evil on Earth to get his mind off the situation.

The framing story is a fantasy-oriented section of the film, with better-than-average swordplay for this level of filmmaking but the too-cheap costuming and the awful editing undermines the good parts. Ray Robert does a good job as Satan, but he's also undermined by a lack of technical ability on the part of the filmmakers, as his voice is distorted to give it a spooky, demon-like quality that makes it almost impossible to understand what he's saying. The framing story rates a 4/10 Stars. It's the best part of the film, which isn't saying much. And even though it's the best part, it still ended with me saying to myself, "Is that it? Did someone forget to end this movie?"

The first story told by the jester is "Demon of Death", a tale of a serial killer who picks his victims at random from a phone book (Steven K. Arthur), but whose luck runs out when he targets a young woman who is studying witchcraft (Leesa Roland).

"Demon of Death" had plenty of potential, but it evaporates under the harshness of bad writing (not just the dialogue but also the timing of events in the tale, such as the revelation that the killer's "Book of Death" is just a phone book), subpar acting by everyone appearing, and the aforementioned bad editing. It's also padded with about five mintues of useless scenes involving the police and badly staged news reports. It rates a 2/10 Stars.

The jester's second tale is "Death Among Clowns". Here, a washed-up, drunken circus clown (Gary Brandner) commits suicide after being fired by the owner of the sideshow attracion he's spent his adult life performing at (Paul), but tries to put up a fight when Mickey La Mort, the manifestation of Death who collects the spirits of clowns (Rider), appears.

Moreso than the other parts of this film, the bad editing makes "Death Among Clowns" feel stagey and causes the actors to come off worse than they actually are. The pauses between lines due to changes in angles during a scene drains all energy from interactions. Of course, the truly awful dialogue being delivered doesn't help matters, but the editing is really what kills things here. Oh yeah... and then there's the problem the story just sort of peeters out. It's as if writers Arthur and Rider had put themselves in a corner and then said to themselves, "Let's just put a "boo" scare here and call it good." This one earns a rating of 2/10 Stars.

Two of the actors appearing in this segment have not appeared in any other films, but I want to call their performances out nonetheless.

First, there's Gary Brandner, the novelist who wrote the novels from which some of the werewolf films in "The Howling" series are based, as well as the script for "Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf". He plays Charlie the Clown, and he does it with a very bad Christopher Walken impersonation.

Second, there's Francis Paul, who plays the sideshow attraction owner who's sick of giving Charlie slack. Paul gives the most energetic and natural performance of anyone in the film. With better lines and decent editing, he might have earned "Death Among Clowns" another star. I think it's a shame he didn't do any more movies, because I think he could have been excellent if supported by competent filmmakers.

"Satan's Storybook" is a film that even lovers of the anthology format like myself would be better off not bothering with.