Friday, October 8, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 2

Week 2 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 1st

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971- dir. Amando de Ossorio) ***

Jealous that her buddy Roger (César Burner) is hitting it off so well with her ex-lover Betty (Lone Fleming), Virginia (María Elena Arpón) leaps off a train and into a nest of skeletal Templar knights. Tombs of the Blind Dead starts as if it was made for the sole purpose of ogling the ruins in which the knights reside— and those ruins are, indeed, an incredible location— but the pace really picks up in the second half. At times the movie is too brutal for its own good, especially when director Amando de Ossorio sexualizes the brutality. Still, it has nice atmosphere, a handful of great standalone images (a frog splashing around in a pool of blood; a melting mannequin), some genuinely disturbing pessimism, and one great joke around the 45-minute mark.

Paranormal Activity (2009- dir. Oren Peli) ****1/2

Third time watching Paranormal Activity, and this tale of Katie Featherston (Katie Featherston) and Micah Sloat’s (Micah Sloat) demonic haunting is still absolutely terrifying. Hopefully, I’m finally past the point where it costs me nights of sleep, though. There are plenty of movies that I find disturbing, but the only other one that scares me this much is The Blair Witch Project. Probably not a coincidence. Paranormal Activity also houses an interesting political subtext: Micah—a wealthy, materialistic asshole who goes courting trouble even though he knows he’s putting others in danger and because he believes himself to be indestructible—makes his living playing the stock market. I doubt that’s a coincidence either.

C.H.U.D. (1984- dir. Douglas Cheek) ***

Because of its punch-line reputation I was expecting C.H.U.D. to be a super-campy turkey. Actually, it’s a pretty serious, even dry, monster movie about nuclear mutants with a fairly sympathetic attitude toward New York’s homeless population. The C.H.U.D.s look ridiculous, but they actually have very little screen time. That also means the movie isn’t a ton of fun to watch, but there are a couple of decent scares and Daniel Stern is good as a homeless guy bent on stopping the C.H.U.D.s from chudding the shit out of Manhattan. Check out the pre-fame cameos by Sam McMurray, John Goodman, and the guy who played Eddie LeBec on “Cheers”.

October 2nd

Wolfen (1981- dir. Michael Wadleigh) **1/2

Some genuinely interesting ideas about ecology, genocide, and imperialism can’t save a movie this lackadaisically paced and perfunctorily performed. Wolves are killing people in the Bronx, and Albert Finney as a cop who keeps a sign reading “God, guns, and guts made this country great” in his office, even though he doesn’t really seem to believe it, must find the killer. Is it a werewolf? Monster movie fans are likely to be disappointed by the answer even though Wolfen’s heart is in the right place. Edward James Olmos puts on a fake noise to play a Native American.

The Amityville Horror (1979- dir. Stuart Rosenberg) **1/2

I avoided this interpretation of Long Island’s most famous haunted house hoax for a long time because I was under the impression it was terrible. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is rife with laughable images that are treated as if they’re the most terrifying sights since Regan MacNeil twirled her head around: a few flies land on priest Rod Steiger; a nightbrace-wearing babysitter gets locked in a closet; a pair of craft-shop eyes glow outside a window; a toilet fills with oil; a nun pukes. Some images are just incomprehensible, like Steiger’s stigmata and Margot Kidder performing weird ballet moves while wearing a single legwarmer. James Brolin’s hair may give you nightmares, though. Still, The Amityville Horror is kind of entertaining in spite—or maybe because—of its hokiness.

Black Sunday (1960- dir. Mario Bava) ****1/2

Black Sunday struck me as too slow the first time I saw it, but it just gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. Not a lot happens for about half the movie, but man oh man, is it ever thick with Gothic atmosphere. Beautifully filmed with fluid camerawork and rich black and white cinematography, Black Sunday is most famous for the presence of Barbara Steele as puncture-faced vampire-witch Princess Asa Vada, and rightfully so. Ethereal yet unsettlingly creepy, Steele is horror’s definitive actress and Asa Vada is her definitive role.

Hold That Ghost (1941- dir. Arthur Lubin) ****

Despite its title Abbott and Costello’s first great feature is more of an “old dark house” spoof than a ghost story, although there is definitely something supernatural afoot during the famous candlestick routine. Joan Davis comes closer than anyone ever has to upstaging Lou as a goofy radio personality known solely for providing horror programs with her signature shriek. The Andrew Sisters heap on the nostalgia. The only real flaws are the corny presence of conductor Ted Lewis, who performs a racially patronizing version of “Me and My Shadow”, and a lame romantic plot involving Evelyn Ankers. Despite the weakness of her storyline, it’s still nice to see Ankers, especially during the same year she co-starred in The Wolf Man. She just isn’t given much to do in Hold That Ghost. So it’s not as grand as Abbott and Costello’s meeting with Frankenstein, but it’s certainly a close second.

October 3rd

Fear (1990- dir. Rockne S. O’Bannon) **1/2

Fear is a movie I’ve owned for years as a double-bill DVD with Bob Balaban’s Parents (more on that next). It didn’t look that interesting to me, so I put off watching it. Having recently read a couple of good reviews I decided it was time to give Fear a whirl. Ally Sheedy is a psychic who helps the cops nab serial killers. Her latest project is psychic, too, and he’s targeting the people she cares about. It’s a watchable enough thriller that doesn’t totally go by the book, but nothing exceptional. Sheedy, who I usually like, treats the scenery like a twelve-course banquet. You know you’re in the early ‘90s when everyone is guzzling wine coolers without a trace of irony.

Parents (1989- dir. Bob Balaban) ****1/2

Parents makes a strange DVD-mate for Fear. As run of the mill as Fear is, Parents is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, even though moments seem heavily influenced by Blue Velvet and The Shining. There’s definitely more than a whiff of the comedy for which director Bob Balaban is best known, but Parents is still a full-blooded—and quite haunting—horror movie that may be more disturbing because it’s presented in such a colorfully sitcomy package. It’s full-on ‘50s nostalgia when we first meet little Michael (Bryan Madorsky), his mom (Mary Beth Hurt), and his dad (Randy Quaid) driving in their big-ass Oldsmobile to their new home. But soon Michael is having surreal visions that his bed is an ocean of blood and suspecting his folks of ghoulish late night activities. The idea that ones parents are monsters is a child’s most horrific nightmare, and Balaban explores this as a metaphor for the sexual secrets parents withhold from their kids, as well as the American culture of gluttonous consumerism and consumption born in the ‘50s. Some of the magic dissipates by the end, and the final image is weak, but this is still a little seen but excellent film.

October 4th

Dolls (1987- dir. Stuart Gordon) ***1/2

Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon uses his unshakable sense of humor and eye for colorful imagery to spin schlock into gold. A little girl with her awful dad and an awfuler step-mom settle at a creepy castle during a freak thunderstorm. There she befriends an army of killer devil dolls crafted by Ernest Thesiger lookalike Guy Rolfe. Just as James Whales’s Frankenstein informed Re-Animator, the great director’s The Old Dark House influences Dolls heavily, and the results are a cheesy, brisk good time. The doll animation is boffo.

28 Weeks Later (2007- dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) *1/2

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was one of the smarter entries in last decade’s surge of zombie movies. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel 28 Weeks Later is a mess. Following an opening sequence that could have been pulled from any other zombie movie, it sets up a promising premise in which the “rage virus” (the zombie-causing agent from the first film) has been contained and England is in the process of rebuilding itself. Then a couple of idiotic kids do some idiotic stuff and the zombies are on the loose again. Along with the kids’ baffling motivation, 28 Weeks Later suffers from some of the worst editing I’ve ever seen. Scenes are cut so chaotically they’re incomprehensible. I kept thinking I was seeing characters being killed, only to see them strolling around unharmed in the next scene. Someone should infect editor Chris Gill with the rage virus.

Queen of Spades (1949- dir. Thorold Dickinson) ****1/2

This adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s gambling ghost story is lousy with spooky ambience and weird mystery. At least one scene remains as scary as any you’re likely to see in a flick from the ‘40s. Fabulous camerawork and cinematography, too, and Edith Evans is alternately scary, sad, and insufferable as a desiccated, powdered-wig wearing countess. Why isn’t Queen of Spades more appreciated? I have no clue. My only advice is to watch it and start appreciating the shit out of it.

October 5th

Fright Night (1985- dir. Tom Holland) **1/2

Fright Night is so steeped in the ‘80s it makes Pretty in Pink look timeless. The bad synth/drum machine soundtrack, terrible clothes and hair, neon lighting, pastel palette, puerile obsession with teen sex, shamelessly corny acting and dialogue, and gratuitous shots of boobs and cassette players all scream that this movie was made during the decade of Pac-Man Fever and Madonna Syphilis. It’s kind of too bad that Fright Night traffics so heavily in the very worst sounds and sights of the ‘80s, because the story is a good one—teen Charlie (William Ragsdale) suspects his neighbor (grody-to-the-max Chris Sarandon) of being a vampire and employs his fave TV horror host (the ever likable Roddy McDowall) to stake him. And why does Amanda Bearse’s hair get big just because she’s been turned into a vampire? Oh, I know: it’s because she’s been turned into an ‘80s vampire. Gag me with a spoon.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981- dir. Frank De Felitta) *

In this TV movie, Larry Drake is a challenged dude who dresses like Chucky. His young playmate is eaten by a dog and an angry mob led by evil Charles Durning hunt and kill him, which leads to some ghostly vengeance. There’s nothing more painful than watching a non-challenged actor play a challenged character, and Drake gives his all with the dopey expressions and the goofy laughter and the blubbering and drooling and flailing and what-have-you. If this movie had been shot in Smell-O-Rama it would smell like farts.

The Haunting (1963- dir. Robert Wise) *****

Without peer the greatest haunted house movie ever made. Director Robert Wise uses lighting, fans, sound, distorted lenses, and camera movement to make Hill House come alive. The small ensemble cast is spectacular, particularly Claire Bloom as a psychic and Julie Harris as the petulant object of both Bloom’s and Hill House’s desire. The prologue about the house’s history is a self-contained masterpiece. Is the actress who plays young Abigail Crain the same girl in the photo at the end of Repulsion? Another mystery.

October 6th

The Body Snatcher (1945- dir. Robert Wise) ****

Val Lewton and Jaques Tourner are one of horror’s most celebrated producer/director teams, but I may prefer the work of Lewton and Robert Wise. Together they made two of my favorite spooky movies of the ‘40s: Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Though Wise is in usual sure-handed form throughout The Body Snatcher (if not as overtly dazzling as he’d later be with The Haunting), the film’s real ringer is Boris Karloff. As Unscrupulous—and perpetually-grinning—grave robber John Gray, Karloff was never better in a speaking role. Because he is so electrifying here, the film feels a little lifeless when he isn’t on screen, but I’m not sure if that’s the film’s fault. Russell Wade, as an assistant doctor, is the only lead character who turns in a weak performance. Bela Lugosi has a small role as a doctor’s servant, but a scene he shares with Karloff is the most memorable in the movie.

October 7th

Succubus (1969- dir. Jess Franco) **1/2

Jess Franco directed one of the best and most faithful adaptations of Dracula in 1970. A year earlier he was dicking around with an exploitative S&M experiment called Succubus. Lorna (Janine Reynaud, who looks like Pamela Des Barres’s mom) stages torture pantomimes for decadent, fancy-pants audiences. Her boyfriend and a creepy mesmerist plot to turn her into a real-life killer. Along the way we get psychosexual nightmares galore, a dancing birdcage, orgy attendees who bark like dogs, stalking mannequins, a corpse with a pin in his eye, a pianist who uses pie charts as sheet music, nonstop nudity, and nonstop bad dialogue. It’s pretentious, it’s daffy, it’s dated, and it’s sort of fun.

The Alligator People (1959- dir. Roy Del Ruth) ***1/2

The Alligator People was most likely an attempt to cash in on the success of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it’s a lot more like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Newlywed Paul Webster (Richard Crane) mysteriously abandons his wife (sci-fi mainstay Beverly Garland) en route to their honeymoon. He ends up at the Bayou abode of mad-doc Mark Sinclair (George Macready just two years after he co-starred in Kubrick’s antiwar classic Path of Glory!) where weird experiments involving gators are taking place. The Alligator People is very well-plotted, establishing an intriguing mystery before getting to the schlocky monsters. Lon Chaney walks off with the picture as a creepy, crazy Captain Hook-type character. The use of real reptiles throughout is pretty incredible.
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