Thursday, October 21, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 4

Week 4 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 15th

The Incredible Melting Man (1978- dir. William Sachs) **1/2

I watched The Incredible Melting Man on the recommendation of my friend Kevin, who pulled the film from his personal “Things That Scare Me” files. I can certainly see how an incredible astronaut who melts incredibly with the grotesque help of Rick Baker’s makeup effects might disturb a young kid. Someone seeing the movie for the first time as an adult is more likely to focus on the turgid acting, terrible script, and super ‘70s score. As dated, dopey camp, The Incredible Melting Man is pretty satisfying, especially whenever the astronaut starts tearing people apart. And a note to Ted’s wife: Ted likes crackers.

Inland Empire (2006- dir. David Lynch) *****

Calling David Lynch’s Inland Empire a horror movie is not exactly fair. The only superficially supernatural thing about the movie is a red herring subplot about a cursed film production. Yet this movie is one of the most frightening I’ve watched all month. Lynch professes to dislike horror movies, though I find it hard to believe he doesn’t realize how deeply scary this film’s atmosphere and some of its images are: Laura Dern racing toward the camera with her face twisted into a malevolent rictus, Dern’s hideously distorted face as she confronts a murderer, mysterious figures disappearing into dark recesses or unexpectedly confronting the viewer, the talking rabbits. Trying to sum up the “plot” of Inland Empire in a piece this brief is a little pointless, particularly because it is one of the least important facets of what is more an avant grade experiment than anything. As such, it’s not typical Halloween fare, but it still gives me a profound case of the creeps.

October 16th

From Beyond (1986- dir. Stuart Gordon) **1/2

Despite a groovy cast (Jeffrey Combs! Barbara Crampton! Ken Foree!) I didn’t like From Beyond nearly as much as the other Stuart Gordon movies I’ve seen. The plot—some Lovecraftian nonsense about the pineal gland, an S&M scientist, and flying jellyfish—is muddled and the S&M stuff is silly without being particularly funny. It’s kind of like a bad David Cronenberg movie. It’s still kind of nice to see Gordon, Combs, and Crampton working together again, though.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958- dir. Edward L. Cahn) ***

Astronauts aboard a spacecraft are being murdered one-by-one by a towering, blood hungry alien. Sound familiar? Well, it ain’t the movie you think it is, Ridley Scott. This picture came out in 1958 with the tag-liney title It! The Terror from Beyond Space (where no one can hear you scream). The twist here is that no one knows a monster is responsible, so one of the space cowboys is suspected of old-fashioned, earthly murder. Good B-level sci-fi entertainment.

La Belle et La Bete (1946- dir. Jean Cocteau) *****

La Belle et La Bete isn’t a horror movie, but Jean Cocteau’s version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale is definitely a monster movie. With its combination of fury creatures and romance it isn’t too far removed from, say, The Wolf Man, and nothing in the latter movie is as genuinely creepy as the Beast’s surreal castle, with its candle sconce’s of human arms and living faces glaring back from its fireplace. Still La Belle et La Bete is a fairy tale at heart, and it is only rivaled by The Wizard of Oz as the most enchanting one ever brought to the big screen. The final moments are positively transcendent.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940- dir. Christy Cabanne) ***1/2

The first and best sequel to The Mummy is slight but great fun. It’s kind of like an Abbott and Costello movie without Abbott and Costello. The Mummy was one of the grimmer Universal Monster Movies, but The Mummy’s Hand is strictly lighthearted stuff. The wisecracking heroes—a pair of archaeologists, a magician and his trigger-happy daughter—are a likable bunch of Brooklynites adrift in Egypt. George Zucco’s weird guy with a fez and Tom Tyler’s shambling mummy are no substitute for Karloff though.

October 17th

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ****

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a blast, an audacious blend of two totally distinct yet totally different genres. In the Hammer horror corner we have a black-caped Dracula, striking color, strident music, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. In the chopsocky corner we have a longhaired Kung Fu master, nonstop hand-to-hand combat, and some requisite bad dubbing (although, in this case, it is a perfectly sensible plot device). The interracial romances are unexpected in an early 70s B-movie such as this—and quite refreshing. I bet this movie gives Quentin Tarantino a boner.

The Invisible Man (1933- dir. James Whale) *****

I love this movie. Before production, James Whale must have sat his cast down and instructed them to act as insane as possible. Even Gloria Stuart, the relative straight-woman of the film, flies into hysterics on at least one occasion. And Una O’Connor basically reacts to everything she sees and hears as though she’s being ax-murdered. The photo of her Griffin’s room at the inn is hilarious too. Come for the special effects; stay for the deranged performances.

October 18th

The Crazies (1973- dir. George A. Romero) **1/2

Romero’s fourth feature is basically a “Living Dead” movie without the zombies. The more significant difference between The Crazies and his first and greatest film is that it focuses on the bureaucratic reaction to a plague that makes people go psycho more so than it focuses on a small clutch of folks fending for their lives (although there is one of those too). This means it’s less of a horror film and more of a political satire. The editing is exciting but it looks flat and the grade z acting is much more distracting than it was in Night of the Living Dead. Worth watching for Romero completists because of a scene with a sewing-needle wielding old lady. Others may not find it worth an hour and forty minutes of their lives.

The Omen (1975- dir. Richard Donner) ****

Around this time last year I watched The Exorcist, and for the first time, the movie often ranked as the scariest ever made struck me as kind of silly. I think that might be because there are actually people who believe the devil is real. Which is, you know, asinine. For that reason, Rosemary’s Baby holds up as the best devil movie because it keeps its tongue in its cheek even as it doles out sincere scares (“Hail Satan!”). Like The Exorcist, The Omen doesn’t have a funny bone in its demonic body, even though the movie’s final twist is that Damian’s mom is a dog. Which is, you know, asinine. And that priests have special powers for combating evil. Again, asinine. Silly as it is, The Omen is more fun than The Exorcist because it lacks the impossible-to-live-up-to reputation. So we’re left with the big screen’s most spectacular nanny suicide, great creepy performances from Billy Whitelaw and Harvey Stephens, that iconic soundtrack, a baboon siege, and the talent of Gregory Peck and David Warner to lend some credibility to all the satanic mumbo jumbo. Which is, you know, asinine.

October 19th

The Vampire Lovers (1970- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ****

Hammer screams “Fuck it… bring on the boobs!” from the mountaintops with its first full-on, unapologetic fusion of sexploitation and vampiresploitation. You know you’re in for a non-stop boob fest when Ingrid Pitt gets top billing. Fortunately, Pitt transcends that limited image with her energetic presence and committed acting. She plays a lusty vampiress who goes around biting and bedding everyone in sight. Well, everyone but Peter Cushing. That would be gross. The depiction of a predatory lesbian vampire is homophobic, but Pitt plays her with such humanity that she earns our empathy much more so than her vacant-eyed victim, whom she genuinely seems to love. Hammer execs probably would have been happy if The Vampire Lovers was nothing more than a static shot of cleavage for 90 minutes, yet it still manages to house all the atmosphere, color, production values, and fangy fun that made the studio great in the first place. In fact, with its black and white inserts, imaginative use of shadows, and fine sound design, The Vampire Lovers is more aesthetically creative than most Hammers. Check it out; then check out the brilliant parody “Vampire Lesbian Lovers of Lust” from Steve Coogan’s series “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963- dir. Jose Mojica Marins) **

Bizarre Brazilian splatter flick has the DIY gumption of a neighborhood spook house. Zé is an evil undertaker who goes around chopping off dude’s fingers and poking them in the eyes and forcing them to eat meat on Good Friday (!). He’s kind of like Mr. Hyde if Hyde never turned back into Jekyll. There’s not much plot, but there’s a gypsy and a big spider. It feels like a movie written and produced by junior high kids. Be sure to look out for the adorable kitten amid the “spooky” tableau behind the opening credits. Yeesh.

Tales from the Hood (1995- dir. Rusty Cundieff) ***1/2

Tales from the Hood has a lot to recommend it, even though it isn’t much fun. Despite a super-campy performance from Clarence Williams III as a sort of crypt keeper, the film is often downright depressing. It’s also mostly effective as unsettling creep-fest and social commentary in the E.C. Comics tradition. The first and final segments—one about a civil rights leader murdered by racist cops, the other an unbearably grim riff on A Clockwork Orange—are kind of messes. But the two central ones, in which a monster is used as a metaphor for an abusive stepfather and a racist politician essentially assumes the role Karen Black played in the classic “Prey” sequence of Trilogy of Terror, are clever, suspenseful little yarns. Like all portmanteaus, Tales from the Hood is not consistently great, but it is consistently compelling.

October 20th

The Black Sleep (1956- dir. Reginald LeBorg) ***

The first entry in this year’s Bela Lugosi Birthday Movie Marathon is pretty light on the Lugosi, who plays a mute butler with minimal screen time, but heavy on the Basil Rathbone, who stars as a brain-tinkering mad doc. His experiments reduce folks to weirdos palyed by the likes of Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Tor Johnson. Akim Tamiroff from Touch of Evil steals the show as a scheming artist. The Black Sleep is schlocky nonsense but worth watching for Rathbone and Tamiroff, the gruesome brain surgery effects, and the nifty sets loaded with secret passageways. And though Lugosi, Chaney, Carradine, and Johnson’s parts are little more than cameos, it’s still cool to see such a rogue’s gallery collected in a single picture.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948- dir. Charles Barton) *****

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein played a greater role in my obsession with Universal Monster Movies than any serious entry in the genre. When my family got our first VCR, we had about five movies on tape, which I’d watch over and over and over. One of these was Abbott and Costello’s historic summit with the holy trinity of monsterdom. Getting to see Dracula and the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in a single film was an embarrassment of riches. The very kid-friendly humor of Bud Abbott and adult-child Lou Costello further sweetened a pot that was already most sugary. The movie holds up beautifully. Lou is as hilarious as he ever was, Lon Chaney Jr. is as manic as he ever was, and Bela Lugosi gets to play his most beloved character on the big screen for the second and final time. The animated credits sequence is sublime, as is the rest of the picture. The cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

White Zombie (1932- dir. Victor Halperin) ****

The dank odor of German Expressionism is all over White Zombie, with its weird shadows, skeletal graveyards, and floating, disembodied eyes. Bela Lugosi was never more diabolical than he was as elaborately manicured mesmerist ‘Murder’ Legendre. Definitely slow moving, White Zombie is either hypnotic or boring depending on ones personal taste. I opt for the former. The soundtrack, which includes pieces by Mussorgsky, Borch, and Wagner, as well as an original chant by Guy Bevier Williams, is superb.

October 21st

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974- dir. Terence Fisher) **1/2

The final entry in Hammer’s Frankenfranchise is probably best known for the negligible performance of David “Darth Vader” Prowse as the monster, who looks like a stitched-up troglodyte with lockjaw. Three years before he’d costar with Prowse in Star Wars, Peter Cushing plays the creator for the last time. Hammer’s Frankenstein films were rarely as interesting as the studio’s multitudinous Dracula pictures. This one gets off to a great start, percolating with wacko campiness and sicko humor, but it soon settles into the lethargy that plagued most of Hammer’s Frankensteins. Manages some dopey pathos toward the end, but overall, a washout.

Pin (1988- dir. Sandor Stern) ***1/2

Terry O’Quinn plays one of those ventriloquist doctors who throws his voice to bring an anatomical dummy to life. His son Leon witnesses dad’s nurse fucking the dummy. Dad later uses the dummy to give Leon a lesson on the birds and the bees. Needless to say, adult Leon (a very good David Hewlett) has some pretty unhealthy ideas about sex and dummies. Pin is a tough movie to get a handle on. I couldn’t decide if it was creepy or silly, low key or overwrought. It’s certainly a unique take on the Psycho/Peeping Tom-style thriller, yet less of a pure horror movie than either of those. I liked it.
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