Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Knight Chills": A horror movie that captures the reality of the table-top RPG experience?

Knight Chills (2002) 
Starring: Michael Wayne Walton, Tim Jeffrey, Laura Tidwell, and DJ Perry 
Director: Katherine Hicks
 Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A mentally unstable roleplaying gamer (Walton) loses track of the lines between reality and fantasy and kills himself over the unrequited love of a part-time game-group member (Tidwell). The tragedy quickly turns to terror for the surviving gamers, as they are one by one stalked and killed by someone (or some thing) who appears to be the dead player's character.

I really wanted to like this movie. As a long-time roleplaying gamer, as well as a professional roleplaying game writer, I thought the premise of "Knight Chills"--a game group that ends up being stalked by one of the RPG characters coming to life--sounded very, very cool. I still think it's a great concept, but it's not one that is really used to its fullest potential here. Not even close.

While "Knight Chills" is better than many of the low-budget movies of its kind (the ones providing filler for DVD multipacks with names like "100 Horror Films" or "Gory Graveyards"), with overall better acting, better technical competence, and a better score, it is still crammed full of filler material and displays many of the typical cheap movie flaws... with badly scripted and redundant "character development" scenes being the most prominent of those flaws in this movie. To the film's flaws, we can add kill-scenes so lame and without resolution that we aren't even sure if the character dispatched is dead or just fainted due to low blood sugar or something.

Further, "Knight Chills' goes a great job of conveying what is must be like to be a spectator at a roleplaying game. The wife of my friend and fellow writer John Rateliff once described roleplaying game sessions as "two minutes of action crammed into four hours."

The gaming scenes in "Knight Chills" made me more fully understand what she meant than I had before. They rang true to life, with the Gamemaster (Jeffrey) and the I-game-because-my-boyfriend-likes-his-geeky-friends-and-I-like-my-boyfriend chick (Tidwell) seeming particularly realistic. And that could be the problem. RPGs ARE boring, unless you're in the game, playing a character.

So, as much as I wanted to be able to give "Knight Chills" a rave review, I can't. I can't even recommend it, unless you're a GM who wants to show his players what bad gaming protocol is.

Monday, May 27, 2013

'Quicksilver Highway' is one ot stay away from

Quicksilver Highway (1997)
Starring: Christopher Lloyd, Matt Frewer, Missy Crider, and Raphael Sbarge
Director: Mick Garris
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

It's hard to go wrong with an horror anthology movie, and if you're adapting stories by Stephen King and Clive Barker to the screen, you'd think it would be even harder. But no. Screenwriter/director Mick
Garris managed to completely botch the effort with "Quicksilver Highway."

Maybe the idea here was to make an anthology featuring darkly humorous tales, ala the likewise King-based "Creeopshow" anthology films, and they simply failed to be funny. If a desire to make a horror movie that drew upon the absurd, it would explain a lot about the choices of stories, the nature of the framing sequence, and several other quirky aspects of the film. In fact, I am assuming that it's was supposed to be more funny than it is, as it's the only way I can write this review without relegating it "Movies You Should [Die Before You] See."--it's something I would hate to do with a film featuring actors I live, based on stories from writers I like. IF this is a failed horror comedy, the two featured short films ("Chattering Teeth" and "Body Politic") are a little less awful, because one assumes they were intended to be absurd to begin with.

But even so, part of me feels that maybe the Three Star rating I am giving "Quicksilver Highway" is too generous.

The film starts to go wrong with the framing sequence. Having a narrator link the stories via introductory bits is a well-established convention for these movies, but Christoper Lloyd is so off-putting as  a weirdo in a rune-engraved leather collar telling stories to total strangers who made the bad decision to visit his establishment that the smart viewers might have taken it as a sign of things to come. This warning would probably be even more evident to those smart viewers when he repeatedly states his stories have no point. I was not among those smart viewers, so I kept watching.

Of the stories, we first have "Chattering Teeth," based on a tale by Stephen King.  In it, a man who is saved from a psychotic hitchhiker by a pair of over-sized, wind-up toy teeth. At no point does this short even get tense, let alone scary, and to describe the resolution as anticlimactic might be too generous. It does, however,  deliver on the promise of Lloyd's character As lame as this one is, it pales in comparison to the one that follows.

"The Body Politic" is the second tale, and it was adapted from a very bad Clive Barker story about a surgeon whose hands rebel against the rest of his body--and then cause the hands of others to rebel as well. Setting aside the fact that the hands can do nothing without the muscles of the arms--and yet a hospital full of rebellious hands are dragging people around as the story builds to its ludicrous climax--there simply isn't anything scary about the story. It's even too stupid to be funny, although Matt Frewer's over-the-top performance as the doctor at war with his own hands was lots of fun, and it earns the "Quicksilver Highway" an entire Star.

While Frewer's performance was the only really good one in the film, I can't complain about any of the other cast members; they all did excellent jobs with the material they had to work with. I can't even really blame Christopher Lloyd for making me wonder if I really wanted to keep watching, because he was just being Christopher Lloyd doing the best he could with a bad part.

As regular readers know, I love anthology films, so I always hate nt being able to recommend them. In the case of "Qucksilver Highway, the only thing I can be truly positive about is.Frewer's performance--and that's not enough for me to recommend you waste your time on this botched effort.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Sybil Danning

Born an Army Brat, Sybil Danning grew up to be one of the most commanding figures in B-movies of the late 1970s and 1980s. Few actresses could look as deadly and sexy waving a gun (or a sword or some weird alien raygun) around as Danning. Most of her resume are action or various exploitation (and sexploitation) films, but she can also be seen in a few horror films, like "The Lady in Red Kills Seven Times" (1972), "Night Kill" (1980), "Julie Darling" (1983), "Howling II" (1985), and "The Tomb" (1997).

In 1989, Danning mostly retired from acting when she co-founded a production company. She remains CEO pf that operation, but still takes the occasional part. Her most substantial horror roles in recent years was in the 2007 remake of "Halloween" and a recurring part on the homoerotic vampire TV series "The Lair" (2009).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

One of the great Peter Cushing's worst films?

The Blood Beast Terror (1968)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Robert Flemyng and Wanda Ventham
Director: Vernon Sewell
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A blood-sucking creature is on the loose, and Inspector Quennel (Cushing) is hot on its trail. All the clues point to the household of harmless entomologist Dr. Mallenger (Flemyng). Can his promiscious daughter (Ventham) be a literal man-eater?

Peter Cushing reportedly described this movie as the worst one he was ever in. While it isn't all that good--it's slow-moving, it's requirements for special effects to turn a buxom babe into a giant blood-sucking moth are beyond the meager budget it was produced with, and the ending is one of the most abrupt and badly motivated among the many abrupt and badly motivated endings of British monster movies from the 1950s and 1960--but it isn't anywhere near as bad as "Scream and Scream Again," so I can only assume that either Cushing had a better time making the latter film or he hadn't made it yet when he talked down "Blood Beast Terror".

While it's certainly true that this is one of those very rare occasions where Cushing doesn't seem to be giving the role his all--this is the only time I remember feeling like he "phoned in" his performance--he still brings more life to the scenes he's in than is found virtually anywhere else in the film. In fact, aside from Cushing, the only interesting thing in the picture is Wanda Ventham (or, more specifically, Wanda Ventham's cleavage).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: June Collyer

June Collyer's film career began in silent movies when she was cast in the 1927 drama "East Side, West Side." She made 11 films before making a successful transition to sound pictures where she was counted among the most radiant leading ladies of thrillers and horror films from the smaller studios; while most of her roles during the silent era were in romantic dramas, most her sound era parts were in mysteries and horror films.

Collyer's greatest chillers and thrillers include "Illusion" (1930), "The Drums of Jeopardy" (1931), "Before Midnight" (1933), "The Ghost Walks" (1934), and "A Face in the Fog" (1936). Also of note is "Murder By Television" (1935), in which Collyer was featured along side the great Bela Lugosi. However, it is not a good film by any measure, and it is only worth viewing for the greatest Lugosi or Collyer fans.

Collyer retired from film after completing "A Face in the Fog" to focus on raising her two children. In 1950, after they were grown, she returned to acting on "The Steve Erwin Show," a sit-com  starring her husand which aired until 1955. The end of that series was also the end of Collyer's acting career, as she retired a second and final time.

June Collyer passed away in 1968. As the years go by, more and more of her films are being lost to time, with many of her silent pictures already gone forever and the same is true of many of her talkies. For some, only one or two known prints are known to survive on fragile nitrate stock and they are not slated for preservation. For all the negative things film snobs like to say about the shoddy transfers on budget-priced DVDs, at least they're keeping otherwise lost classics available for viewing.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

An Evening with June Collyer

A favorite actress of mine from the 1930s is June Collyer. Below, I present reviews of a trio of her pictures that make for a great in-home film festival. Have some friends over for an evening of old-time chillers and light-hearted mystery, and discover the radiance of NUELOW Games's unofficial mascot!

Have some fellow movie buffs over for a light dinner, make some popcorn, and then settle in for a fun night of classic movies. All three films can be had on DVD for extremely reasonable prices--and they may even be available for free streaming online if your television is hooked up to the internet. (Me, I still prefer DVDs... there's no risk of load-time lag with them.)

If you and your friends are gamers, perhaps you can even fit in a little roleplaying fun in between or after the films. As mentioned, June Collyer is the unofficial mascot of NUELOW Games, so it stands to reason she'd be featured in one of their products--a product titled "Black Kitten vs. June Collyer" written by yours truly as a supplement for ROLF!: The Rollplaying Game. It's got superheroes, movie stars, and communist zombies... all ready for you to play, or for you to fight with characters of your own creation. (Click here for more information about, and to see previews of, "Black Kitten vs. June Collyer".)

The Drums of Jeopardy (1931)
Starring: Warner Oland, June Collyer, Lloyd Hughes, Hale Hamilton, Wallace MacDonald, Clara Blandick, and Mischa Auer
Director: George B. Seitz
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When one of the men of the Petrov family makes his daugher pregnant, dumps her, and causes her to commit suicide, but then won't own up to his misdeed, Dr. Boris Karlov (Oland) sets out to gain revenge by seeing them all dead. He persues them halfway around the world, to America, where a secret service agent (Hamilton) and a feisty young American woman (Collyer) end up in the middle of this Russian struggle for survival and revenge.

"The Drums of Jeopardy" is a nifty little thriller from the early days of talkies that's jam-packed with drama, action, and humor. Its fast-paced script hardly gives the viewers a chance to realize that just about everything in this film has become almost painfully cliche in the nearly eighty years since its original release, nor does it pause long enough to really let us consider how outrageous and dimwitted the "brilliant" plan of the Federal Agents who match wits with Karlov is. We're too busy hating the slimy Russian nobleman Prince Gregor (Wallace MacDonald) who not only impregnated and dumped a poor girl, but who then refuses to live up to what he's done and ultimately tries to sell out everyone else to save his own skin; admiring the beauty of the resourceful young Kitty Connover (June Collyer, as great as she's ever been); snickering at the comic relief provided by her sharp-tongued aunt (Clara Blandick), and grinning with sinister glee as Dr. Karlov delivers zingers and pulls tricks on the good guys that allows him to take a place among the great villains of movie history 's zingers as his evil plans fall into place (an honor deserved in no small part due to an excellent performance by character actor Warner Oland who is best remembered for playing Charlie Chan).

Another remarkable aspect of this film that sets it apart from many others from this period is that it has a villain that the viewer can relate to. His daughter was violated and tossed aside by the Petrovs, so, given that this is a melodramatic thriller and we're talking about Russians here, it's only natural he'd take elaborate and final revenge against not only the Petrovs but Russian nobility in general. Karlov is a character who is almost like a tragic hero in his stature within this film and he is must more interesting than most film villains from the early days of film.

I should note that as much as I enjoyed this film, I was a little disappointed in some aspects of how the story unfolded. I've already commented on the moronic nature of the government agents in the film, but a bigger dissapointment was that Karlov didn't really get his full revenge and we don't get to see that rat bastard Gregor die a slow and painful death. (That alone makes me wish for a remake of this movie. I'd love to see Tim Thomerson as Karlov!)

Speaking of Karlov... yes, the villain of this movie is named Boris Karlov. Given that this film is based on an American novel that was originally published in 1920, I think we can chalk this up to one of those weird coincidences. Karloff was an obscure stage actor touring Canadian backwaters at the time the book was written. (Although at least one source claims that Karloff chose his screen name because of the novel.)

All in all, "The Drums of Jeopardy" is a great little film that really deserves better than to be trampled to dust under the marching feet of pop culture and swept away by the passage of time.

  The Ghost Walks (1934)
Starring: John Miljan, Richard Carle, Johnny Arthur, Spencer Charters, June Collyer, Donald Kirke and Eve Southern
Director: Frank R. Strayer
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A playwright (Miljan) invites a theatrical producer (Carle) and his fey secretary (Arthur) to join him in the country so they can discuss his latest play. The writer has secretly hired a bunch of actors who will perform the play, essentially hoaxing the producer with a fake murder, hoping he'll be amazed by the play's realism. His plan backfires, however, when one of the actors turns up dead for real and they receive word that a dangerous lunatic has escaped from a nearby asylum.

"The Ghost Walks" is a highly entertaining comic mystery that takes the mainstays of the "dark old house" genre that flourished in the early 1930s and mixes it with an Agatha Christie vibe and throws in a "mad doctor" (or maybe just the legend of one?) for good measure. Oh, and these elements are mixed up by several plot twists that will surprise and amuse even the most experienced viewer of films from this period.

This is a fine little movie that doesn't deserve the obscurity it has been relegated to. It features a well-paced script filled with great plot twists, snappy dialogue and a brand of comedy that has held up nicely to the passage of time. While the film has plenty of elements that are standard (it's a dark and stormy night, the characters are all trapped in the house with a killer and people keep dying and/or vanishing mysteriously no matter what the survivors try) it's comic relief characters and the overall thrust of the gags are highly unusual for a film from this period. (Basically, instead of the dippy, superstitious black manservant, we have a effeminate secretary to a pompous theatrical agent, both of whom aren't half as smart as they think they are... but the audience has a great time laughing at their expense. And, with the exception of the psychotically PC who can't laugh at anything except rednecks or Christians being lampooned, these comic relief characters and the jokes around them are ones that can be enjoyed today without that uncomfortable feeling of racism.)

The print of "The Ghost Walks" that I watched was very worn and damaged in many places. All the frames were there, but there was lots of scratches on the film and the image was often very blurry. I suspect that digital video and the DVD format came along just in time to rescue this film from oblivion. Director Frank Strayer was definately one of the most talented people working in independent, low-budget films during the 1930s; I've enjoyed every one of his films, with "The Monster Walks" being the only one I haven't given a Fresh rating to.

"The Ghost Walks" is worth checking out if you enjoy lighthearted mysteries, even if you aren't a big fan of early cinema.

A Face in the Fog (1936)
Starring: Lloyd Hughes, June Collyer, Al St. John, and Lawrence Gray
Director: Robert Hill
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When society reporter-trying-to-become-a-crimebeat-reporter Jean Monroe (Collyer) claims to have seen the face of the mysterious killer who is poisoning theatre people in the city, and that she intends to reveal his identity in a future column, she becomes his next target. Her fiance and fellow reporter Frank Gordon (Hughes) teams with criminologist and playwright Peter Fortune (Gray) to catch the killer before he claims Jean's life.

"A Face in the Fog" is one of those weakly written mysteries where there is only one possible suspect, who, after concocting a really brilliant method of committing his murders, subsequently behaves so stupidly that even Barney Fife could have caught him while in the middle of a three-day moonshine bender. The plot also doesn't make a lot of sense, nor do the reasons for who the killer chooses as his victims.

However, the actors perform with such charm and sincerity, and the film moves at such a break-neck pace that you'll hardly have time to notice its shortcomings--which means my criticisms probably amount to no more than nitpicking. June Collyer as the stubbornly brave, career-minded journalist is especially good, in what proved to be her last movie before she left acting for some 15 years to raise her children.

Although this is an entertaining enough movie, with an excellent cast and sharp direction, the script is just shaky enough that I can't give it a wholehearted recommendation. Admirers of June Collyer or Lloyd Hughes should certainly check it out, and I think it's worth adding to the line-up of any in-home film festival you might want to hold centering on either one, but it's not quite a must-see if you're just looking for something to pass the time with.

Monday, May 6, 2013

A naked witch not worth checking out

The Naked Witch (1964)
Starring: Robert Short, Libby Hall, and Jo Maryman
Directors: Larry Buchanan and Claude Alexander
Rating: One of Ten Stars

A graduate student (Short) researching the history of a VERY ethnically German town in Texas digs up the corpse of a long-dead witch (Hall) and restores her to life. She the proceeds to take bloody revenge on the decendents of the transplanted Teutonics who murdered her.

To describe "The Naked Witch" as awful is to give it a backhanded compliment. Awful is the mildest of terms one can apply to this film. To make it even worse, it's BORING. What we have here is enough content to barely fill an episode of "Tales From the Darkside" or "Ray Bradbury Theater" but it's stretched out to twice that length. And, although the film barely clears one hour of running time, it feels like twice that.

The fact the script was suitable for a 23-minute TV show rather than a movie is only part of the awfulness here. It's compounded by the film's cast.

First, there's leading man Robert Short, an actor who was born 50-60 years too late. He would have been perfect for slient movies, because he can act with his face and his body language, but whenever he tries to deliver a line, he spoils everything. I am convinced that if you were to put a loaded gun to Mr. Short's head and say, "Act frightened or I will blow your brains out!" he's say "Please, no. Spare me. I have a wife and kids" in a wooden monotone. And we get to suffer through that wooden monotone as Short narrates many of the movies events.

Second, there's Libby Hall, the Naked Witch of the title. She is slightly better than Short when it comes to the acting but not by much. With her, the problem is more a physical one. Although I like nudity as much as the next guy, there really are some women who should keep their shirts on. Ms. Hall is one of them. I don't mean to pick on her, but someone involved with the production should have realized that if you're going to try to sell you movie with sex, you need to have someone a little more sexy doing it; Hall's breasts would have looked just fine if they had been left to the imagination, but when they're exposed, you find yourself seeing something you wish you hadn't. (That said, we don't get to see much of her breasts--not only does the Naked Witch not spend a whole lot of time Naked but when she does, there are often censor bars across the unfortunate boobies.)

Third, there's the fact the fact that every bit of dialogue in the film is atrociously bad... and it sounds even worse coming from the mouths of untalented actors. This isn't entirely the fault of the actors, but good actors can make bad lines at least sound passable. No such luck here.

The only thing that saves this film from a 0-rating is that Buchanan does show the occassional flare for dramatic visuals. There are some great scenes of the Naked Witch walking through the Texas landscape, and there's an almost-great scene where the blood from one of her victims spreads in a body of water. However, such visual moments are shattered by the bad acting and Buchanan's otherwise incompetent directing. He misses more moments to create spookiness or great visuals than he grasps.

All-in-all, I have to wonder why anyone would think this film was worth preserving and re-releasing on DVD. There is so little about it that is worth anything that it was truly wasted time and effort.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Saturday Scream Queen: Julie Christie

British actress Julie Christie spent her childhood on her father's tea plantation in India before being sent to home to England for her education. Desiring to be an actress at a young age, she soon found success on the stage, but was not satisfied; to Christie, film was how well you did on film was how you measured success.

Pushing hard to leave the stage for the screen, her first major opportunity seemed to be the lead female part in the spy thriller "Dr. No," but she ultimately lost the part to Ursula Andress for not being "busty enough." It all worked out for Christie, however, as bigger and better opportunities swiftly developed and she was soon on her way to super-stardom in celebrated landmark films like "Darling" and "Dr. Zhivago."

At the height of her career in the late 1960s, Christie was wealthy enough to not need to work and she became very choosy about the role she picked. As the frequency with which she appeared on screen diminished, so did her profile as an actress and her career went into an intended eclipse. She then began devoting most of her time to political and social causes.

Christie continues to work vocationally in film to this day, choosing mostly small and unusual films to grace with her magnetic presence and beauty. Along the way, she has appeared in several horror films, all of which have been made better by her presence. Among there are "Don't Look Know" (1973), "Demon Seed" (1977), and "Red Riding Hood" (2011).