Thursday, October 14, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 3

Week 3 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 8th

The Changeling (1980- dir. Peter Medak) ****

The Changeling begins as if it’s going to be a moody exploration of grief along the lines of Don't Look Now, but it shakes that off pretty quickly and gets down to being a less emotionally complex but still very good ghost story/murder mystery. The picture begins with composer John Russell’s (George C. Scott) wife and daughter getting calzoned by a big truck. Four months later he moves into a creepy old mansion where he intends to start writing music again but gets sidetracked by a ghost he thinks will give him information about his lost loved ones. The Changeling takes some rather interesting twists during its fourth quarter. I particularly liked the wronged ghost, which behaves in a far less passive manner than most wronged ghosts do in contemporary wronged ghost stories.

Psycho (1960- dir. Alfred Hitchcock) *****

You see, this is where this project gets challenging. Psycho is a movie I’ve written about so often on this site that I really can’t think of much fresh to say about it. Here’s what I got:

1. Ever notice that the Paramount logo at the beginning of the movie looks all lined like a bad TV picture? I wonder if this was a reference to the fact that Hitch shot the movie with the crew he used for his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” series. Perhaps I’m reaching.

2. The movie begins in Phoenix, Arizona. The phoenix, of course, was a mythological bird that was reborn from its own dead ashes. Wonder if Hitch chose this setting because Norman Bates’s mother was similarly reborn through her crazy son’s crazy assuming of her identity. I might be reaching again.

3. I guess the outcome of this movie is so well known that I’ve never really paid attention to the red herring tossed in the middle of the film. When Lila Crane and Sam Loomis visit that Sheriff and his wife, I think we’re supposed to suspect that Mother Crane murdered her boy toy’s wife and buried her in Mom’s Greenlawn Cemetery grave. Not reaching this time.

4. Yes, that is Ted Knight playing a cop in the penultimate scene of the movie. A little comic relief right before that final, scary scene with Norman and the fly perhaps? Reaching perhaps.

And there you go. I’ve now said everything I’ll ever need to say about Psycho. Expect more of this shit when I get to Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein later this month.

October 9th

Dagon (2001- dir. Stuart Gordon) ****1/2

Man, I really have to start watching more Stuart Gordon movies! Not only is he an expert at making the most of a miniscule budget, but he’s actually able to make H.P. Lovecraft fun. That’s what he did with Re-Animator and that’s what he does with Dagon. A small boat crashes off the coast of Galicia during a storm. When two of the people aboard row to shore for help they encounter a freaky cult of fish people. The CG effects are strictly Sci-Fi Channel quality, but the physical ones get the job done, especially during a horrific flaying scene. Consistently fun, often suspenseful, and the ending approaches transcendence. Extra points for having the most realistic hotwiring scene I’ve ever seen.

Shaun of the Dead (2004- dir. Edgar Wright) *****

Is this the greatest zombie movie ever made? Certainly Night of the Living Dead is the greatest pure-horror zombie movie, but don’t hold its comedy against Shaun. A lot of the horror in Edgar Wright’s genius look at a bunch of pub-monkeys going up against a London zombie plague isn’t merely played for laughs. The finally swarm at the Winchester Pub is pretty suspenseful, and often, pretty revolting. I also care more about these characters—lovable loser Shaun, his ever-uncomplaining mum, his ever-farting best mate Ed, and the rest—than anyone in Living Dead. Let’s just call Shaun of the Dead the greatest horror movie of the ‘00s and let the debate die there.

October 10th

Dracula (1931- dir. Tod Browning) *****

Dracula gets a bad rap, but I’ll defend it ‘til I’m moldering. The clichĂ© is that the movie’s first twenty minutes is great, but the rest is a static bore. That’s not true. Yes, that opening portion is the movie’s strongest, mostly because Dracula’s castle is such a monumental picture of Gothic gloom, but Tod Browning’s camera is more mobile than I remembered after Dracula gets to London. Plus the film’s later half has some great confrontations between the vampire and Van Helsing and greater ravings from Renfield. It’s also a lot more faithful to Stoker than, say, Whale’s Frankenstein—which is rarely hailed as anything less than a masterpiece—is to Shelley. My only beef is there isn’t enough Lucy. But Lugosi is still the ultimate Dracula, and Frye is the ultimate Renfield. All hail.

October 11th

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982- dir. John Carpenter) ****1/2

It’s bad horror geek form to prefer a remake over the original, but I personally like John Carpenter’s The Thing better than Christian Nyby’s 1951 original, The Thing from Another World. The characters, a gritty horde of booze-drenched research scientists led by gnarly Kurt Russell, are more interesting, as is the alien. The original creature was a plant man that looked like Richard Kiel in “To Serve Man”. Carpenter’s creature is an entity that transforms into all manner of configurations grotesque and mundane. The Thing is a serious, pessimistic hybrid of horror, sci-fi, and action flick that would make a nice—if unrelentingly grim—double-bill with Alien.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931- dir. Rouben Mamoulian) *****

It amazes me how well Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde retains its potency no matter how many times I watch it. This is a really upsetting movie, both for its horrific depiction of relentless, demonic bullying and for the raw emotion spewed forth by its two magnificent leads: Miriam Hopkins as tragic music hall girl Ivy and Fredric March as the title characters. I can’t think of another movie from this period that’s nearly as harrowing. It’s not what I’d call fun viewing, but it is what I’d call the greatest pure horror film ever made.

October 12th

Torture Garden (1967- dir. Freddie Francis) **1/2

This Amicus portmanteau has quite a horror pedigree. Psycho scribe Robert Bloch wrote it. Freddie Francis, who helmed Amicus’ best film: Tales from the Crypt, directed it. The cast includes Burgess Meredith (“The Twilight Zone”), Jack Palance (Dracula), and Hammer mainstays Peter Cushing and Michael Ripper. All that talent can’t elevate this lazily paced assortment of mostly lame stories. There’s an evil cat, some evil actors, and an evil piano. The neat final tale, in which Cushing and Palance play Edgar Allan Poe fanatics, is the only one worth watching. Meredith is also good as the master of ceremonies leading a tour through a carnival house of horrors.

October 13th

Suspiria (1977- dir. Dario Argento) ****1/2

The plot of Dario Argento’s masterpiece about a ballet academy that fronts for a witch’s lair unfolds with the entrancing illogic of a nightmare. Set pieces involving maggots, razor wire, and a wall of secret irises are terrifically imaginative. The vividly colorful, poetically choreographed images are as gorgeous as they are grotesque. Goblin’s soundtrack is less obnoxious than I remembered. The film would still be better without it, but there’s so much here to love, why quibble? Plus seeing Udo Kier dubbed with a flat American accent is hilarious.

Deathdream (1974- dir. Bob Clark) **1/2

Bob Clark is a pretty eclectic character. I never realized that Porky’s, A Christmas Story, and Black Christmas were all directed by the same guy. Deathdream lacks the humor that is the common thread in those other movies. Andy (Richard Backus) returns home from Vietnam even though he was killed in the war. This is a depressing metaphor for the guys who returned from the war changed for the worse. If Andy had become a murder addict solely because of his experiences in Vietnam and not because he’s a zombie, Deathdream would be a braver and more disturbing film. But maybe 1974 was too soon to take such a hard look at what the war did to some of the people who fought in it. Tom Savini’s make up effects are good, though, and I liked Andy’s mother who remains loyal to her son to the very end, just like a good mom should.

October 14th

The Monster Club (1981- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ****1/2

Remorselessly silly portmanteau based on the stories of R. Chetwynd Hayes is also remorselessly delightful. John Carradine plays Hayes and Vincent Price is a vampire in the goofy wraparound story set in a nightclub stocked with dancers in rubber monster masks and a surprisingly good line-up of pop acts, including Psychobabble favorites The Pretty Things! Price narrates a trio of quite good tales about a beauty and the melancholy beast who loves her, a boy who learns his dad’s a vampire, and a movie director who provides sustenance for a village of ghouls. The makeup budget is three dollars; the nonstop fun is priceless. Plus the animated skeleton striptease is a gas.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974- dir. Jorge Grau) ****

Clever British zombie flick is kind of a precursor to stuff like Shaun of the Dead and Black Sheep. It definitely seems to have influenced those two movies, not just in setting and humor (although it’s not a comedy) but in its emphasis on character over killing. The cast of potential victims includes a wiseass rogue, a creepy photographer, a bastardly police detective, a junkie, and her pretty sister. Much fresher and more satisfying than most contemporary zombie movies.

The Hunger (1983- dir. Tony Scott) **

Woo woo! Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon are a pair of sexy lesbian vampires in Tony Scott’s sexy, sexy vampire movie The Hunger. Hubba hubba! David Bowie is a sextacular thin white duke of a vampire! Boi-oi-oing! All the vampires can see their reflections in mirrors and go out in daylight. Ah-wooo-gah! It’s boring, pretentious, and blue. Honk if you’re horny!
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