Sunday, July 25, 2010

Diary of the Dead: Monster Movie Month 2008!

Originally posted October 2008

Come October, I shut myself off from friends and family, draw the drapes, and devote myself to a single, noble pursuit: watching monster movie after monster movie as an extended prelude to the best day of the year: Halloween. This year I’m keeping a little running diary about the films I watch right here on Psychobabble. I’ll be covering classics from my personal collection, stinkers from the bottom of my Netflix barrel, and (hopefully) some as-yet undiscovered gems. So, join me, won’t you please, for another morass of bullshit straight from my very own keyboard, as I present Diary of the Dead: Monster Movie Month 2008!

(I'll probably be updating several times a day, so check back often!)
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So, that's it for Monster Movie Month.

What I Learned: Writing about every movie I watch during a month in which I've watched 66 movies is a real pain in the balls. Next year I'm leaving the bloviating to the bloggers.

October 31:

666. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) ****½
Here's where it all ends. Like The Blair Witch Project, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is proof that you don't need big stars or a big budget to make a truly frightening film. As soon as the kids pick up a creepy, self-mutilating hitchhiker, the dread and tension sink in and don't abate until an hour after the closing credits have rolled. Many, many, many have tried to top TCM at the game it invented and failed miserably. This is one of the scariest movies ever made (although listening to all of that screaming is truly exhausting, hence the deduction of half-a-star).

What?: The opening narration is spoken by John Larroquette of "Night Court".

65. Thirst (1979) ****
Well, it's Halloween, a day I greet with mixed emotions because, while it's the best day of the year, it also marks the end of Monster Movie Month. I'll be front-loading my final films since I'm throwing a Halloween party tonight and because my craving for horror flicks has yet to be sated. So it's appropriate that I start the day with an obscure, Australian vampire movie called Thirst. A descendant of Elizabeth Bathory (the infamous Hungarian countess who liked to scrub up in a jacuzzi filled with virgin blood) is whisked off to a farm where innocent folks are harvested for their blood. Thirst is clever and satirical, as well as pretty unsettling. It reminded me a bit of Roman Polanski's horror films. A nice discovery on this final day of Monster Movie Month.

Beelzebub Has a Devil Put Aside For Me: The Brian May who composed the film's score is not to be confused with that big-haired guy from Queen.

Who the Fuck is Agent Doggett?: Thirst director Rod Hardy directed three episodes of the Mulder-free eighth season of "The X-Files."

October 30:

64. The Wolf Man (1941) *****

The most tragic of classic monster movies doesn't quite have the reputation of its big brothers Dracula and Frankenstein, but in all actuality, it's more well-made than either of those films. The story is more consistent and well-paced and the special effects are better (no flapping rubber bats here). As a trade off, The Wolf Man lacks the entrancing, German Expressionism-inspired atmosphere of Dracula and Frankenstein and Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot is not quite as memorable as Lugosi or Karloff in their respective roles, but he does a great job as the doomed lycanthrope. The creepy forest sets are fantastic. So is an ace supporting cast that includes Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi, and the unforgettable Maria Ouspenskaya.

63. The Adventures of Ichabod (1949) ****½
I considered not including this because it's only half of the Disney feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, but since I only watched half of Cry of the Banshee earlier this month, I figured the two halves should count as one complete film. Make sense? No? Well, screw you...make your own monster movie list. Anyway, I only watched the Ichabod half of this film because the Mr. Toad one isn't very monster-movie-ish (unless you find the concept of talking, British animals to be particularly monstrous). The Ichabod portion of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, however, is fabulous Halloween fare. Not only is this my favorite Disney cartoon, but I believe it to be the most faithful adaptation of Washington Irving's timeless yarn "The Legend of Sleep Hollow" ever filmed. The beginning of the movie is mucked up with a bit of Disney cutesiness, but once we get to the party sequence (and the terrific "Headless Horseman" song sung by Bing Crosby, who narrates the entire piece), it's all gold. The final showdown between Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman is the pinnacle of Disney's twisted penchant for child-scarring scariness.

62. Dead Ringer (1964) ****

What''s better than Bette Davis? Two Bette Davises, of course! Dead Ringer follows in the campy, macabre footsteps of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but instead of going toe to toe with Joan Crawford or Olivia de Havilland, Dame Bette faces off against herself as evil twins. It's all completely illogical, but Davis is a hoot and Karl Malden counters her mania with his patented pathos. Paul Henreid, who played Victor Laslo in Casablanca, directs.

61. Alien (1979) *****
The two biggest blockbusters of the '70s, Jaws and Star Wars, join forces to inspire the best sci-fi/horror film ever made. Alien is a subtle, dark film full of sweaty-palm suspense and piloted by an unbelievable cast. Of course, Sigourney Weaver leads the crew in her celebrated, star-making, ass-kicking portrayal of Ripley. A stunning roster of character actors (John Hurt, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, and Tom Skerritt) provide strong support... as does one of the most terrifying movie monsters of all time.

60. Planet of the Vampires (1960) ***½
Mario Bava, the master of Gothic gloom and macabre mood pieces, launched his singular vision into outer space with Planet of the Vampires. As usual for a Mario Bava picture the main emphasis is on cinematography, set design, and atmosphere, and this film has all three in spades. It explodes with vivid, psychedelic colors, making it a cool mid-'60s time-piece, as well as a pretty suspenseful sci-fi/horror movie. My only knock is that it's slow-moving, which is also pretty standard for a Bava film. I would be surprised if this claustrophobic tale of astronauts stalked by monsters on a distant planet wasn't a huge influence on Ridley Scott when he made Alien. Which leads me to my next movie...

October 29:

59. Psycho (1960) *****
Hitchcock's masterpiece is nearly flawless, but it's one flaw is one of the most annoying scenes you'll ever see in a classic film. I'm talking about that long cod-psychological explanation for Norman Bates's madness at the end of the film. It's long-winded, anti-climatic, and shatters the psychotic mystery of Norman. Almost. Fortunately the very last scene, in which Norman sits, staring madly with a blanket wrapped around him in a barren cell while Mother attests to her innocence in voice over, is so primal, so frightening that it annihilates all of the psychobabble that preceded it. Cod Psychologist 0/Mother 1.

Sister Shmister: Another thing that bothers me about the psychologist's scene is how nonchalantly Vera Miles reacts to the news that her sister is dead. This movie is just lousy with crappy families!

58. Elvira's Movie Macabre: Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks (1974) **½
Being a New Yorker, I'd never seen "Elvira's Movie Macabre" when it originally aired in the '80s (it was syndicated in LA), but I'm a fan of both her feature films (does that sound like a boob joke?). Having been released on DVD— and available to "watch now" on Netflix— Elvira's show is finally accessible to East Coasters like myself. The particular feature she's roasting here is a sixth rate Hammer knock-off with the awful title Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks. All the raw material of classic horror— monsters, mad scientists, hunchbacks, corpses, eerie thunderstorms, dilapidated grave yards, Gothic castles, grave robbers— are stitched together into a deliriously bad chimera of utter nonsense. Still, the package is mildly fun to watch due to the interruptions of Elvira's trademark cornball jokes and mesmerizing cleavage. Points also go to whoever dubbed one of the cast members "Boris Lugosi."

October 28:

57. The Blair Witch Project (1999) *****
The inevitable backlash follows every phenomenon, and The Blair Witch Project got backlashed 'til it was walking funny. The problem is that this film is too subtle for the mass of movie goers. It should have been a little movie that circulated amongst true horror fans until it built a cult naturally. Instead— bolstered by a brilliant marketing campaign— it drew the kind of mainstream movie goers who weren't likely to cotton to this kind of material. Despite its sullied reputation, I still contend that The Blair Witch Project is the scariest movie ever made.

An Observation: In reality, Heather would make a horrible documentary filmmaker. She never shuts up while conducting interviews.

56. The Seventh Victim (1943) ***
A very young Kim Hunter (whom we all know as Zira from The Planet of the Apes) goes searching for her missing sister and much sinisterness ensues. It's slow going but filmed with all the noir style and class one expects of a Val Lewton production.

Putting the "Cleaver" Back in Ward Cleaver:
This is the second movie I've watched this month to feature Hugh Beaumont. Who knew Ward Cleaver had such a horror pedigree?
Carlos Who?: Screenwriter "Carlos Keith" is actually a pseudonym for producer Val Lewton.

October 27:


55. Bubba Ho-Tep (2003) *****
This time last year I was starting to wind down on the whole Monster Movie Month thing. I was having vampire indigestion. Zombie-itis. I was beginning to long for a film in which the nice people on screen didn't transform into salivating, blood-hungry beasts. But this year, I'm feeling good, I'm looking good— shit, I could do another month of this. I could watch creature features all-year long. But I am winding down on having to write about everything I watch, especially when I've watched a movie I've seen many times before, like Bubba Ho-Tep. Not much more to say about it at this point. It's got Bruce Campbell as Elvis, Ossie Davis as JFK, and a redneck mummy. It's hilarious, it's outrageous, it's based on a short story by the great Joe R. Lansdale. There you go. I hope you're happy.

October 26:

54. Night of the Living Dead (1968) *****

You've seen it, you love it, you don't need any convincing from me.

53. Revolt of the Zombies (1936) ***
In celebration of World Zombie Day, I'm having a zombie double-feature tonight. First up is Revolt of the Zombies, courtesy of the folks who brought us the Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie. This time out the zombies are Cambodians recruited to fight for the French in the wake of WWI. Lugosi wasn't available, so the filmmakers settled on a few reheated close-ups of his eyes culled from White Zombie and a Lugosi look-a-like— a Bela bait-and-switch that predates Plan 9 From Outer Space by 23 years! With an overkill of bad rear-projection shots, this movie has more fake backgrounds than a Star Wars prequel (Just kidding. Nothing has more fake backgrounds than a Star Wars prequel). Still, it's fairly entertaining, and the zombie revolt that concludes the picture is probably the only time in an American movie from the '30s where a bunch of wronged Asians extract righteous revenge on a villainous white guy. Refreshing.

October 25:

52. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) *****
Overfamiliarity is not the best thing in the world for a scary movie. When a horror film is as referenced, quoted, beloved, parodied, and watched as The Silence of the Lambs (or, say, Jaws or The Shining), it loses the element of surprise necessary to make it truly frightening. That doesn't mean this isn't still a great movie that stands up to multiple viewings. It's certainly one of the very, very few classic horror movies to come out of the '90s. Too bad Miggs dies so early in the movie, though. That guy was simply made to star in his own picture.

A Consipiracy Theory: It's fairly common knowledge that Agent Scully of "The X-Files" was based on Agent Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, but I'm also willing to wager that the nerdy entomologists in The Silence of the Lambs (one of whom has a crush on Starling) inspired the nerdy conspiracy theorists The Lone Gunmen on "The X-Files" (one of whom has a crush on Scully).

51. Onibaba (1965) ****
This creepy Japanese fable about jealousy, revenge, and a cursed demon mask takes a while to reveal itself as a horror movie, but the pay-off, while fairly predictable, is still worthy of an A+ episode of "The Twilight Zone". Gorgeously filmed and ripe with atmosphere (fields of tall grass blowing in the wind never looked so ominous), Onibaba proves that the most effectively scary stories are the simplest.

October 24:

50. 13 Ghosts (1960) ****
I love these old William Castle movies. They have more corn than an Iowa field, but they're also made with real flair. And I'm not just talking about Castle's famous gimmicks (this one involves "Illusion-O"; i.e.: special glasses that help the viewer see hidden "ghosts" in the film). Castle really took a lot of care in how he shot his movies, even when he was working with the scantiest of stories, as he was with 13 Ghosts. The movie would probably rate four stars if it was nothing but his charming prologue where he explains how to use those goofy Illusion-O glasses.

What a World: Wizard of Oz fans take note: Margaret Hamilton plays a woman whom everyone seems to believe is a witch in 13 Ghosts, and she is nothing short of fabulous in the role.

49. Eyes Without a Face (1959) *****
Eyes Without a Face is probably the greatest pure horror movie of the '50s and unquestionably the greatest French horror movie ever made. It's also one of the few oldie horror movies capable of disturbing modern audiences (my girlfriend was doing a lot of squirming and squealing while we were watching this, although, admittedly, it doesn't take that much to get to her). Despite its potency, I love this movie more for its Gothic, ethereal beauty than it scenes of bloody face transplants. But the bloody face transplants are a close second.

48. The Devil's Rejects (2005) ***½
I liked The Devil's Rejects a lot more the first time I saw it, probably because I hadn't seen House of 1000 Corpses yet. Now I'd have to say I prefer the first movie, even though critics despise it. House of 1000 Corpses is an imaginative, inventive, delirious, frightening, funny, and fun movie. The Devil's Rejects seems a little one-note in comparison, making all of the unpleasant doings early in the film feel more purposeless. I like the goofy interaction between the family a lot more than watching Priscilla Barnes get tortured. Still, this is a well-made, grungy, grindhouse-homage that definitely gets going in the second half. Rob Zombie is a talented filmmaker, and I think he's got a great movie in him. This isn't it, but it's a good one, and Sid Haig owns the screen whenever he's on it.

October 23:


47. Night of the Hunter (1955) *****

A lot of people feel more comfortable classifying Night of the Hunter as a horror movie than I do, but there's no denying that Robert Mitchum's wicked preacher is one of the nastiest characters in cinema, as dementedly relentlessness as a boogeyman in a child's worst nightmare. This intensely dreamlike film is probably more of a grim fairy tale than anything else, with Mitchum playing the part of the Big Bad Wolf. Full of haunting images, both frightening and enchanting (often simultaneously), Night of the Hunter is ultimately in a genre of its own. It's a shame that Charles Laughton never directed another film, but the one he did leave behind is a masterpiece.

46. Zombie (1979) **

I'd been feeling remiss for not watching more movies from the '70s this monster movie month. Having just watched Zombie, I think I've more than made up for that. Short of a cameo by Rudy Ray Moore, this movie is just about as '70s as you can get. From the synthesizer/reggae/disco soundtrack to the shitty dubbing to the floods of Sherwin-Williams blood to a scene clearly intended to invoke Jaws to the bad hair and clothing, Zombie is well-steeped in the decade of earth tones and cocaine. Unfortunately, this B-grade zombie gross-out also plays like a tedious collaboration between George Romero and Dario Argento.

Ultimate Late '70s Horror Showdown:
Zombie vs. shark.

October 22:


45. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) *****
44. Frankenstein (1931) *****

After I finished rereading Shelley's Frankenstein today, I treated myself to a double-feature of the first two feature films the novel inspired. They couldn't be more different from the novel, just as they couldn't be more different from each other— Frankenstein is as grim as Bride of Frankenstein is exhilarating. As for the story's transition from page to screen, gone is the articulate, calculating, conflicted monster from the book. Enter the grunting, flat-headed, blazer-wearing brute we all love. Frankenstein is an excellent movie in its own right. Despite the over-familiarity of Karloff's face in his monster make up, that first series of shots of his gaunt, glowering face is still pretty unsettling, as is the scene in which he and Little Maria go daisy-tossing. However, Bride of Frankenstein is such a masterpiece of outrageous characterization, imagination, acting, and humor that it creates the illusion that Frankenstein is a lesser film than it actually is. Both are atmospheric, incalculably influential monster movies, but only Bride of Frankenstein can be called the greatest of its ilk.

43. Pet Sematary (1989) ***½
Here's another critically reviled Stephen King movie, but I actually think Pet Sematary is an underrated and effectively scary horror flick. Sure, it's smothered in hideous bad taste and all manner of malarkey, but it is based on a Stephen King novel (adapted by the prolific menace, himself), so what do you expect? Believe it or not, the movie is considerably better than the irritatingly repetitious, Bible-sized novel. Aside from a sweet turn by Herman Munster as the kindly neighbor, the acting is mostly laughable, but no more so than in, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street, which is generally regarded as a genre classic. Zelda still has the power to traumatize.

42. Silver Bullet (1985) ***½

I got about halfway through Silver Bullet before I allowed myself to give in to its almost dogged awfulness. This werewolf movie penned by Stephen King is a treasury of bad acting (some guy named Kent Broadhurst gives one of the most hilariously terrible performances I've ever seen), bad dialogue (one adult to another: "What is it, Bobby? You gonna make lemonade in your pants?"), bad music (sounds like they borrowed the guy who scored "Manimal"), and, well, bad badness (Corey Haim stars as a wiener in a tricked-out wheelchair). Gary Busey supports as Corey's nutty, drunken uncle, although I'm not sure how much actual acting went into his performance. The only thing that rises above the sheer idiocy of Silver Bullet is the decent special effects. A veritable definition of "so bad it's good."

Homage or Coincidence?: Everett McGill, who played a good-hearted lug married to an eye-patch-wearing mad woman on "Twin Peaks", plays an evil-hearted, eye-patch-wearing priest in Silver Bullet.

October 21:

41. The City of the Dead (1960) ****½
When I first saw this movie, it was under the title Horror Hotel, but no matter what you call it, The City of the Dead is a fabulous, underrated gem. Part spooky witch tale, part swinging retro trip, The City of the Dead is exceptionally shot, designed, and plotted. Many have suggested that the film owes a debt to Psycho, but considering that it began production before Psycho was released, it was most likely conceived without any knowledge of the Hitchcock shocker, making it's unconventional structure all the more impressive. Patricia Jessel is spectacular as the vengeful witch Elizabeth Selwyn.

40. Tarantula (1955) ***
I don't usually find giant bug movies to be all that compelling, so I'm not surprised I wasn't wowed by Tarantula. Still this is as good of a giant bug movie as there is, mostly because there is as much of a focus on the science behind creating giant bugs as there is on showing them rampaging. The great Jack Arnold (The Creature From the Black Lagoon; The Incredible Shrinking Man) directs. The mind-bogglingly sexy Mara Corday stars.

39. The Mole People (1956) ***½
No one who hasn't been licking hallucinogenic toads is going to rank The Mole People alongside Frankenstein or Dracula, but it's still a wild little B-level Universal monster flick. It starts off as a nifty adventure picture before taking a sharp detour into weirdsville, which is populated by mutant Mole Men and an Egyptian cult of albinos dressed like Santa's helpers. The introductory monologue by an English professor from the University of South California is as fascinating and ridiculous as the rest of The Mole People.

Stardom Awaits: Hugh Beaumont, who plays a laconic archaeologist, seems as though he'd prefer to be anywhere but on the set of The Mole People. Fear not, Hugh, for you shall soon be cast as the Beav's dad on "Leave It to Beaver."

October 20:

38. Dracula (1931) *****
Happy birthday, Bela Lugosi. Your portrayal of Dracula still makes all others pale in comparison (pun intended).

37. 28 Days Later (2002) ***½
28 Days Later became a minor phenomenon by injecting a little freshness into the tired old "the world has been overtaken by zombies" genre. Everyone is quick to pick up on the fact that these zombies are much peppier than the usual lumbering oafs, but more importantly, this film takes itself much more seriously than any other zombie movie I've ever seen. I still prefer, say, Shaun of the Dead, which is a lot more fun to watch, but 28 Days Later is still one of the better modern zombie movies.

What I Learned:
Apparently it isn't going to be global warming, nuclear weapons, religious extremism, or even the republicans that will doom the human race. It will be animal activists. Who would've guessed?

October 19:

36. Little Shop of Horrors (1986) ****½
Anyone who gives half a damn about great music was saddened by the death of Four Tops frontman Levi Stubbs a couple of days ago. Stubb's was by far my favorite voice to come out of Motown. He was one of the very few singers to appear on those luxuriously produced Motown records that could have been just as comfortable on the more nitty gritty Stax label. So, as my little tribute to this killer singer, I just watched Little Shop of Horrors for the first time in about 20 years. Levi Stubbs, of course, provided the voice of the man-eating plant Audrey II. While I was a big fan of the movie when I was a kid, this '80s monster-musical holds up much better than I anticipated. The humor is very adult, the songs are neat pastiches of early '60s girl group records, and the scene where Steve Martin, as a sadistic dentist, meets his match in Bill Murray, as a masochistic patient, remains uproarious.

October 18:


35. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984) ****
As much fun as it is to watch A Nightmare On Elm Street, I'm willing to wager that I'm not having half as much fun as Robert Englund was having when he played Freddy Kruger. The vast majority of teen slasher flicks are terrible, but Nightmare is a terrific picture. It's goofy, but scary enough, and Freddy truly is one of the few memorable monsters to emerge since the golden age of horror.

34. The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1961) **

Obviously I didn't think Hammer's crack at the Jekyll and Hyde story would compare with the classic I watched yesterday, but I wasn't quite expecting one of the weakest films to come out of the famed British studio. First of all, Paul Massie simply isn't up to the task of carrying the film. Why was Christopher Lee wasted in a secondary role when he would have made a far more compelling lead? More importantly, the idea of simply removing Jekyll's beard (thus making him more attractive) whenever he transforms into Hyde isn't going to do much to thrill creature feature fans. A decade later, Hammer attempted to re-tackle Robert Louis Stevenson's story with I, Monster, which is even poorer than The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll.

October 17:

33. The Fly (1958) ****
Although The Fly is that very rare movie that is inferior to its remake, it is still one of the few truly great sci-fi monster movies of the '50s. Aside from The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Gojira, I can't think of another entry in the genre that is as memorable or as thoughtfully executed as The Fly. The film boasts the greatest unmasking since Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera, and the finale remains deeply unsettling. Vincent Price features in a rare non-hammy-maniac role.

What I Learned: When a kid tells you he's just caught a fly with a "funny white head," don't tell him to release it— it just may be your husband.

32. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) *****
I just finished rereading Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", and it just doesn't hold a frothing beaker to Rouben Mamoulian's big screen adaptation from 1931. Yes, it's an intriguing story and the horror genre wouldn't be the same without it, but this film version just adds so much depth to the the story, such as the development of Hyde from a humorous, almost playful, rapscallion to what is probably the only truly terrifying monster of early sound cinema (no on is going to argue that the monsters in silent films like Nosferatu and The Phantom of the Opera aren't still very scary). The addition of the Ivy character, a tormented prostitute, also makes the film far more tragic and powerful than Stevenson's story. On top of all that, the film is innovatively shot and edited. Fredric March as the title character(s) and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy give the most naturalistic performances you're likely to see in a film from the early '30s. A masterpiece.

A Good Year For the Monsters: Many sources give the release date of Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as 1932, but it was actually released on the very last day of 1931, just in time to round out a year that also saw the releases of Dracula and Frankenstein.

October 16:


31. Return of the Vampire (1944) ***½
Somehow this Lugosi vampire picture slipped through the cracks for me. On the recommendation of my friend Matt (whom I referenced in my piece about Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man below), I took a look at Return of the Vampire. If it could even be imagined, this film is actually more cartoonish than the monster movies that came before it (Lugosi's dumpy werewolf henchman speaks perfectly articulate English even when he's in monster mode). The tangled, misty graveyards that pervade are right out of an episode of "Scooby Doo." It's these exaggerated touches that make this poorly edited and moronically written film a total gas. The bizarre stroke of setting a goofy monster mash in the midst of Blitz-addled WWII Britain only adds to Return of the Vampire's jaw-unhinging genius.

October 15:


30. Don't Look Now (1973) *****
Don't Look Now is one of the very few films I can watch 100 times and see something new with each viewing. This is because director Nicholas Roeg jam-packed every frame with some sort of symbolism. Doubles lurk down every shadowy alley in Roeg's foreboding vision of Venice. This strange, haunting, and very sad tale of psychic visions and death is hardly a typical horror film, but it ends with one of the all-time shockers.

29. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) *****

Tim Burton is such a talented guy with such a distinctive vision. Seeing him waste that talent for years by remaking movies that didn't need to be remade and tossing off half-baked offerings like Mars Attacks and Sleepy Hollow was downright frustrating. I was so thrilled to see him back on form when I saw Sweeney Todd last year. Sweeney Todd held up just as bloody well on second viewing. The near black and white photography is gorgeous, the cast is stellar, Sasha Baron Cohen is hilarious, and as much as I'm not a fan of musicals, Stephen Sondheim's songs are very good. There's something so unsettling about watching Johnny Depp sing a love song to his collection of straight razors.

So You Want to Be a Rock and Roll Star:
Johnny Depp has a history of mimicking rock and pop stars in his performances, famously borrowing traits from Keith Richards when he played Jack Sparrow and Michael Jackson when he played Willy Wonka. As Sweeney Todd, Depp's hairstyle is a direct copy of Phantasmagoria-era Dave Vanian (lead singer of the great punk group The Damned), but his singing is all Bowie.

October 14:

28. The Craft (1996) ***
When I first saw ads for The Craft back in 1996, I thought, "Come on! No one's going to buy into this hokey bullshit, are they?" It seemed like some clueless, middle-aged movie exec's idea of what kids who listen to "alternative" music would mosh off to see (that line where Fairuza Balk tells the bus driver "We are the weirdos" always got my eyes rolling). And the soundtrack did, indeed, include tracks by such lousy later day alterna-rock acts as Our Lady Peace and Sponge. Before I knew it, everyone I knew with goth-leanings had seen and bought into The Craft. With the horror section of my "Watch it Now" queue on Netflix rapidly shrinking, I figured I'd give The Craft a shot to find out for myself if it's really as hokey as I always surmised. Yes, it is hokey, but The Craft is still a pretty good movie. The characters are more well-developed than I expected and there are even a few effective scares. The ending descends into stupidity,though.

27. Scream of Fear (1961) ****½
Here's where I eat my words, because the Germans in Hammer's Scream of Fear not only have German accents, but they actually speak the German language! That's not all that makes this film unusual for a Hammer production; it's also moodier, subtler, and more genuinely suspenseful than any Hammer film I've seen save The Wicker Man. In fact, if it wasn't for the presence of Christopher Lee (and even he speaks with an accent!), I'd be hard pressed to identify this as a Hammer picture at all. Scream of Fear is more of a psychological thriller than a horror movie, although it is an exceptionally creepy thriller. Like Paranoiac (Hammer's answer to Psycho), it owes a heavy debt to Hitchcock. Star Susan Strasberg even spends the film in a wheelchair, just like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. However, Scream of Fear is still a refreshingly original film with a blitz of twists in the final 15 minutes that surely would have made the master of suspense proud.

26. The Gorgon (1961) ****
The Gorgon is one of the few Hammer films that didn't look to Universal's classic era to provide its monster, although the title creature does share some traits with the Wolf Man. Triggered by the full moon, Megaera goes gallivanting all over the German countryside turning folks into stone. Since this is a Hammer film, all the Germans naturally speak with thick British accents. The story is silly to be sure, but as with all the films helmed by Terence Fisher, the photography is sumptuous and the sets are fabulous. No one filmed nighttime scenes like Fisher— he always managed to make them simultaneously deeply dark and dazzlingly vivid. The team of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee once again prove to be one of the greatest in horror, arguably rivaled only by the Karloff/Lugosi combo.

"Fact" Check: According to Greek mythology, Megaera was not a gorgon; she was a fury.

October 13:


25. I Walked With a Zombie (1943) ***

Here's another Jacques Tourneur film, and a considerably better one than The Comedy of Terrors, but one that I don't think quite earns its classic status. While I Walked With a Zombie is certainly a wonderfully photographed film, rife with the rich, shadowy images that were Tourneur's forté, it's too slow for me. For a superior Tourneur film, check out Cat People. For a superior classic zombie movie, try White Zombie with Bela Lugosi.

24. The Comedy of Terrors (1964) *½

It took a lot of talent to make a movie this crappy. Jacques Tourneur directs, Richard Matheson writes, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre star, and yet The Comedy of Terrors never aspires to be anything more than a cornball sitcom stretched out for 83 excruciating minutes.

October 11:


23. The Body Snatcher (1945) ****
This chilling little grave robbery flick brings together some of the biggest names in horror. It is based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson ("The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"), produced by Val Lewton (Cat People), directed by Robert Wise (The Haunting), and stars Boris Karloff and (in a considerably smaller role) Bela Lugosi. Karloff is divine as the Mephistophelian body snatcher.

22. The Bride (1985) ***
I'd always been under the impression that The Bride was a remake of Bride of Frankenstein, which happens to be my favorite monster movie. Why, I wondered, remake a near-perfect, ahead-of-its-time film that begged for neither updating nor improvement? Well, The Bride is not actually a remake of the 1935 masterpiece. It's a sequel that begins with a recreation of the bride's creation. True to classic monster movie sequel form, we soon learn that neither the bride nor the monster have perished in the cataclysmic castle explosion (which is caused here in a far more realistic manner than the absurd pulling of a self-destruct lever, which is the original film's sole flaw). From that point on, two parallel plots emerge. There's Dr. Frankenstein (Sting) playing Pygmalion with the bride (Jennifer Beals), now named Eva. These scenes are aimless and listless. The other plot finds the monster (Clancy Brown) building a friendship with a kindly circus performer (David Rappaport). This is the true heart of the film and makes it watchable. Aside from the lame Sting/Beals storyline (and the actors' weaknesses in their respective roles), the film's main flaw is that it lacks a memorable antagonist . Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Pretorius was a fabulously menacing and complex character in Bride of Frankenstein. Director Franc Roddam (who made one of my favorite films: Quadrophenia) should have allowed him (played here by Quentin Crisp and renamed Dr. Zalhus) to survive the first reel. Overall, the film is worth watching for Frankenstein completists as long as you aren't expecting to see any of the audacious outrageousness of Bride of Frankenstein and you remember to hit the fast-forward button every time you see Sting. Incidentally, the bride, herself, has lost the famous fright wig seen in the original film, yet she has retained a penchant for hissing like a swan.

Pick a Name and Stick to It Already!:
Dr. Frankenstein's first name in The Bride is Charles. Elsewhere, fiction's most celebrated mad scientist goes by Victor (Shelley's novel), Henry (the James Whale films), Beaufort (Young Frankenstein), Boris (Mad Monster Party), and Victoria (a gender-switching made-for-TV version from 2007).

October 10:

21. The Invisible Man (1933) *****
I just finished reading H.G. Wells's novel tonight, and out of all of the early horror movies based on novels (well, the ones that I've read: Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Island of Dr. Moreau), The Invisible Man is the most faithful plot-wise. What the novel is missing is director James Whale's inimitable wit. The Invisible Man really is one of the all-time great films, horror or otherwise. And, yes, those brilliant special effects are just as dazzling now as they must have been 75 years ago. So is Claude Rains, who provides the titular character with one of the most expressive voices ever to bellow across Hollywood.

The Big Question Part 1: Was Una O'Connor capable of saying or doing anything that wasn't 100% hilarious?
The Big Question Part 2: The invisible man sure does spend a lot of time running around in the snow buck naked. Why don't we hear his teeth chattering?

20. Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) **
When I was in Junior High, Poltergeist II was big news because every kid thought that old "You're gonna die in there!" guy was just the creepiest ticket in town. Keep in mind that conclusion was almost entirely drawn from the TV promos. After seeing the film in its entirety, I have to say it pales in comparison to those 30-second ads. The original film had great set pieces like the killer clown doll and the guy ripping his own face off. The best this sequel can do is a mildly amusing bit involving the worm in a tequila bottle and a lame stunt about evil braces. Poltergeist II is dull, but it only slips into true awfulness during the final ten minutes of the movie... oh, and whenever Craig T. Nelson starts flailing around like a jackass.

How Times Have Changed:
When JoBeth Williams realizes her daughter is missing and finds the little girl holding hands with the creepy old man, she thanks him. Today she'd mace him and have him placed on a sex offenders list.

October 9:

19. From Beyond the Grave (1973) **½

An Amicus anthology adapting several stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes (who?). The terrific cast (Donald Pleasance, David Warner, Peter Cushing) is wasted on some fairly meager tales.

Classic Horror Movie Pun: Shopkeeper Peter Cushing after selling a snuff box to a doomed bozo: "Hope you enjoy snuffing it."

18. Child's Play (1988) ****½

Wow. I always assumed Child's Play was just another crappy, gimmicky slasher flick from the '80s. Oh, how wrong I was. Child's Play is, in fact, a brilliant, gimmicky slasher flick from the '80s. It's also fucking hilarious and, in my opinion, does a more effective job of skewering slasher movies than the more self-conscious Scream does. The legendary Brad Dourif provides the voice of the legendary Chucky.

Potential Oscar Clip:
The 6-year-old slapping Chucky around in the police interrogation room.
Best Murder Attempt Ever?: Chucky not only cuts the brakes of the police' detective's car, but he tries to strangle the cop with the clipped brake cables as the car careens out of control. That's called resourcefulness.

October 8:


17. Dracula's Daughter (1936) ***

The thing that really caught my attention during my latest viewing of this well-made sequel to Tod Browning's Dracula is how it deals with issues usually glossed over in vampire movies. They always end with the death of the monster and the heroes galloping off into the sunset without a care. In Dracula's Daughter, we get to see the aftermath of the first film dealt with in an unusually mundane manner. The cops arrest Van Helsing for the "murder" of Drac (and Renfield). The vampire's daughter performs a funeral for her dad in what may be the most genuinely spooky scene in a Universal monster movie. Much of the rest of the movie is a bit slower than I remembered, but it's still a decent film.

16. Hellboy (2004) ***½
Hellboy is where superhero movie meets monster movie. While it has the mystical mumbo jumbo, dopey action, and dopier one-liners that make me tune out of superhero movies, it also sports a good cast, likable characters, and plenty of style thanks to ace director Guillermo del Toro, who made the superb Pan's Labyrinth. Poor Ron Perlman plays yet another monster just because he happens to look like a monster.

15. Mad Monster Party (1967) ***½

Rankin and Bass were the Pixar of their day, but they don't make me feel as though I'm being bludgeoned in the face with show-offy spectacularness like I do when I watch a Pixar movie. Instead their work is eerie and uncanny (snicker if you like, but how many creepy stories have pivoted on the premise of puppets come to life?). It's probably been about 25 years since I last saw a Rankin and Bass movie, and somehow I've never seen this one. I would have been beside myself in ecstasy had I seen Mad Monster Party when I was a kid. As an adult, it didn't quite have that effect. As with most children's movies, I got bored after a while, but it is incredible looking. All of the classic monsters are represented and voiced by the likes of Boris Karloff, Phyllis Diller, and various cut-rate sound-a-likes. E.C. Comics legend Jack Davis designed the characters. The jokes are corny; the music swings.

October 7:

14. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) ***
The final installment of the Abbott and Costello Meet... franchise is no match for the team's meeting with Frankenstein, but it's still fairly entertaining and has a few funny moments. The "French-Speaking Cafe Showgirl" should have had a bigger part in the picture. Her few minutes of screen time provide the most laughs.

What Do Monsters Wear to Bed?:
Without the time or budget to create the kind of elaborate make-up seen in the "serious" mummy films, the creature just wears an ill-fitting pair of bandage-pattern pajamas.
Casting Coup of the Century: The leader of the mummy cult is played by Lumpy's dad from "Leave It to Beaver."

October 6:

13. The Wicker Man (1973) *****
The Wicker Man is one of those movies that gets better every time I watch it. That's probably because it's so odd that it took some warming up to, but once I did, there was no questioning why it's such a cult classic: great songs, great atmosphere, great performances, and sly humor.

Random Observation: Christopher Lee is one helluva bass.
Random Assumption: I bet Robert Plant loves this movie.
The Eternal Struggle: I realize the viewer is supposed to identify with the Edward Woodward character, but come on! Who's more sympathetic: a prissy, christian, virgin cop or a bunch of horny, fun-loving pagans in animal masks? No contest.

12½. Cry of the Banshee (1970) *
OK, so it's time to start setting some ground rules for my little project. Cry of the Banshee is the first movie I haven't been able to make it through. Essentially, it's a half-assed rip-off of Mark of the Devil that completely misses the point of its superior predecessor. Sleazy without any semblance of fun, Cry of the Banshee is dull, depressing garbage, but since I only made it through half the movie, does it count? Let's say it half counts. And I stand by my one-star rating. You don't have to step in a pile of crap with more than a single toe to be able to say you've stepped in a pile of crap.

Sad Waste of Talent Alert: Despite the awfulness of the movie, the Monty Python-esque opening credits sequence is fabulous.

October 5:

12. Gli Amanti d'oltretomba (aka: Nightmare Castle) (1965) ****
Quite a while has passed since I last watched Nightmare Castle, and I'm pleased to report it still holds up as a nifty popcorn ball of Gothic creepiness and schlock acting. I was particularly floored by a nightmare sequence that could almost be an outtake from some long lost David Lynch film. Ghastly ghosts, a sadistic scientist, expressionistic dream sequences, castles, crypts, and Barbara Steele. What more could one ask of a B-horror classic?

11. The Vault of Horror (1973)
***½
This time last year I watched Tales From the Crypt (the 1972 film, not the TV show) for the first time. It was by far the best horror anthology I'd ever seen. The Vault of Horror is not nearly as consistently strong as its predecessor, but it is another worthwhile tribute to those wonderfully gruesome E.C. horror comics.

FYI: The Vault of Horror was brilliantly spoofed in the first episode of Steve Coogan's absolutely genius TV series "Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible."

10. Mark of the Devil (1969) ***½
Part fierce indictment of torture and the lunacy of witch hunts, part lurid exploitation, Mark of the Devil is a surprisingly well-made movie with surprisingly complex characters that happens to be marred by horrendous dubbing straight out of a Godzilla flick. George W. Bush should watch this to see why torture is an idiotic interrogation technique.

What I Learned: Everyone who persecuted accused witches was impotent.

October 4:

9. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) ***½
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is inarguably a breakthrough film. It marks the very first time a classic movie monster met another classic movie monster. Just think: before this, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man hadn't even been introduced. But by the end of this movie, they've met, they've killed each other, and they've set the stage for future monster summits in House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and the sublime Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Plenty of fun is to be had, and this may very well be the first film to address the assisted suicide issue, so it's also politically relevant. Now I'm off to see the Shudder to Think reunion show to cap off what has been a lovely day.

Observation: Based on his portrayal of the monster in this movie, Bela Lugosi made a wise decision when he turned down the lead role in the original Frankenstein.
Update!: My friend Matt just emailed me with this information, which was new to me. Illuminating stuff: "They stabbed Lugosi in the back on that one too because Lugosi is supposed to have Ygor's voice, because when last we left off in Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor's brain was put into the monster's body... I recall that Lugosi did have lines in 'Frank vs. Wolf Man' and they cut all his dialogue at the last moment and never explained that he was also blind."

8. Witchcraft (1964) ****
With just a little over an hour available before I went to the theater to see Religulous (which may be the funniest film I've ever seen), I managed to squeeze in this 79-minute gem. A British film made during the Hammer era, Witchcraft owes a lot more to the Universal monster movies of the '30s than it does to the buckets of blood and bounties of cleavage of Hammer horror movies. One sequence was practically a recreation of a scene in Dracula. All in all, a terrific, atmospheric little rarity about a resurrected witch extracting revenge on the descendants of the schmucks who buried her alive. I haven't rooted so hard for a monster since the first time I saw The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Lon Chaney Jr. chews the scenery to pieces.

October 3:

7. An American Werewolf in London (1981) *****

As many times as I've seen An American Werewolf in London, it has not lost an ounce of zing. John Landis clearly has an intense love of classic horror films, yet he displays zero reverence for the rules of horror storytelling. While this freewheeling flick ping-pongs gleefully from horror to comedy to romance to pure surrealism, it never lapses into messy inconsistency. The abrupt ending irks some critics, but I think it's perfect. Why say anything more when there's nothing more to say?

6. Seven (1995) **
I first saw Seven when it came out on video and wasn't terribly impressed at the time. But that was over ten years ago, and it has such a rabid following that I figured I'd give it another shot. So, has Seven improved with age? Nope. The cliches are still abundant, Brad Pitt is still awful (it doesn't help that his dialogue sounds like it should be spoken by a 10-year old), and as predictable as it was the first time I saw it, it's even more predictable the second time. Go figure. Kevin Spacey does a good job of playing the psycho, though, and Morgan Freeman does a good job of playing Morgan Freeman.

October 2:

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) ****½
My girlfriend had never seen Something Wicked This Way Comes before, and as soon as it was over, she described it as "My First Horror Movie"-- a sort of horror primer for kids. That's pretty much what the movie was for me when I was 9 and the only horror movies I'd ever seen were King Kong and the old Universal monster movies. Great stuff, of course, but not really what you'd classify as frightening or disturbing to a kid in the '80s. I found films like The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs far scarier. Something Wicked This Way Comes is more of a real horror movie than any of those films. Although it was geared toward kids, there's a fair share of blood, as well as disturbing images of tarantula infestation, decapitation, and the time-lapse withering of a man into a dessicated corpse. Despite all that--and the gorgeous autumnal photography--the thing I most associate with Something Wicked This Way Comes is pepperoni. For some reason, I once ate half a pound of pepperoni while watching this on HBO when I was a kid. So, forever and always: Something Wicked This Way Comes = pepperoni.

4. Cat's Eye (1985) ***½
Ahh, this is more like it. Cat's Eye isn't a great movie, but it is one of the better horror anthologies, and it's consistently entertaining and fairly consistently clever. However, I'd forgotten about all of the goofy elements: the cheesy synth soundtrack, the way the apparition of Drew Barrymore goads on the cat throughout the film, and all the references to other Stephen King movies. The "Quitter's Inc." sequence still rules, though, and "The Ledge" made my palms sweat.

Random Thought: I wonder if Kenneth McMillan got all the parts that Charles Durning turned down.

3. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) *½
Yes, yes, I was well aware of this movie's horrible reputation before I watched it, but I just finished reading the novel (which is by far the best H.G. Wells book I've read) and was curious. I'm a big fan of the 1933 and 1977 versions of The Island of Dr. Moreau, so I wondered: how bad could this one be? If this thing was just a little more outrageous and had an iota of quotable dialogue, it could have been the Showgirls of monster movies. As it stands, it's basically just a bad movie, if not a boring one. Most stunning of all is the fact that it was directed by John Frankenheimer. The Manchurian Candidate this is not. Frankenheimer must have been gobbling acid with both fists when he conceived this moronic gobbledygook. I seriously have to start watching better movies if I'm going to last the month.

Indelible Image: Marlon Brando enjoying snacks while wearing a bucket on his head.
Random Observation: David Thewlis has the slender, delicate fingers of a 12-year old girl.

October 1:

2. Ghost Story (1981) **½
A creaky yarn about a quartet of old-timers who find themselves on the business end of a vengeful spook. Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and John Houseman are defrosted to deliver the crappy dialogue. Enough unintentional laughs and dime-store chills to keep it fairly entertaining, though, and some of the photography is nice.

1. Mother of Tears (2008) ***
I'm kicking off the festivities with the highly anticipated final chapter in Dario Argento's Three Mothers Trilogy. The first part is the fantastically imaginative Suspiria and the second is Inferno, which is a little on the dull side but contains an underwater sequence that may be the greatest thing Argento has ever filmed. Mother of Tears is hardly as stylish as its predecessors, but it's a near triumph of high-camp. Gore and horrendous acting abound, and the see-it-to-believe-it finale plays out like a collaboration between Hieronymus Bosch and the Zucker Brothers. Yowza.
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