Thursday, October 28, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 5

Week 5 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 22th

Frightmare (1974- dir. Peter Walker) ***

Poor Jackie is doing triple duty as a movie makeup artist, guardian to her teenage hellion sister, and procurer for her creepy mom. What’s she procuring, you ask? Why, raw animal parts, of course! But that’s not quite enough to satisfy mater, for you see, she’s a vile cannibal and Frightmare is a fairly entertaining mound of schlock. Sheila Keith plays the prognosticating cannibal. She’d deal the tarots again 20 years later in a knowing tribute to this movie on “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920- dir. Robert Wiene) ****1/2

It doesn’t get any more German Expressiony than this. The weird irises, the cartoony sets, the freakish shadows. Even the intertitles are bizarre. Caligari is also the premier feature-length horror film, and there wouldn’t be a Nosferatu or a Frankenstein or a Tim Burton without its direct influence. And despite its age, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more outré than most of what walked in its wake. I’m not sure if Joe Meek: Alchemist of Pop was the right soundtrack to this movie, but that’s entirely my fault.

Evil Dead II (1988- dir. Sam Raimi) *****


October 23rd

Gojira (1954- dir. Ishirô Honda) ****

Anyone who grew up with the full-color schlock-fests in which Godzilla stomped Tokyo while wrestling giant moths and turtles will be shocked to see his debut. I certainly was when I first saw Gojira several years ago. This is a moody, black and white requiem in which the giant monster is both an allegory for and product of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The monster is still a rubber-suited dude, but he’s shot in such enveloping shadows that he doesn’t look nearly as phony as he would in the flat, brightly lit sequels. Gojira is not fun in the way those sequels are, but it feels more like a real film.

Horror of Dracula (1958- dir. Terence Fisher) *****

Hammer’s version of Dracula may be the least faithful to Stoker. Character relationships are jumbled, Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire and staked early in the picture, and—most egregious of all—there’s no Renfield. Yet, Horror of Dracula (as it was titled in the U.S. to avoid confusion with Tod Browning’s film) is the jewel in Hammer’s crown because of the sumptuous visuals Terence Fisher lays out like some sort of decadent, aristocratic banquet. The costumes, the colors, the castles, the wind-blown leaves, the creepy woods. What an invitingly Gothic landscape! Christopher Lee makes a surprisingly limited impression as the count, but Peter Cushing more than makes up for that by bringing so much vim and charm and heroic confidence to Van Helsing. There’s little wonder why he gets top billing over the title creep.

October 24th

Jaws: The Revenge (1987- dir. Joseph Sargent) *

Concerned that I’ve been watching too many good movies this Halloween season, I decided to watch a movie with a reputation for being one of the very worst. Jaws: The Revenge didn’t disappoint. The shark follows the remaining Brodys—mom Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and son Michael (The Last Starfighter)— from New England to the Bahamas. They get there by plane, mind you. Mom, who seems to have some sort of psychic connection with the fish, sails off to kill the shark. By herself. Unarmed. Is she planning to strangle it with her bare hands? Michael races to help her with a team that includes a seriously slumming Michael Caine and Mario Van Peebles. The film is loaded with embarrassing callbacks to the classic original. The shark does everything but look remotely realistic. Did the filmmakers set out to make an astoundingly atrocious movie or was everyone just sucking the nitrus tank every waking moment of the day? Anything this bad is kind of worth watching. Kind of.

Carnival of Souls (1962- dir. Herk Harvey) ****

Classic B-ghost story owes a lot to a certain episode of “The Twilight Zone”, but its effectively spooky nonetheless. Fantastic mood that combines low-key creepiness and groovy sass. Herk Harvey was clearly working with a pocket-change budget (notice the caked-on ghoul make-up), but the cheapness of Carnival of Souls only adds to its funky charm. The pipe organ soundtrack is the most.

October 25th

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984- dir. Wes Craven) ****

Wes Craven elevated the lousy teen-slasher trend of the ‘80s by rediscovering such essential horror elements as imagination, humor, and a rad monster. The concept of a hideous, wisecracking creep who can only kill you in your sleep is truly original and pretty scary. The smart-ass tone undercuts that scariness a bit, but A Nightmare on Elm Street is still pretty classic. Two questions: Was Freddy Krueger the last great movie monster? And how does Nancy manage to booby trap her entire house, chat with her drunken mom, fall asleep, and catch Freddy all in 20 minutes? Discuss.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994- dir. Wes Craven) ***1/2

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the movie that made his career Wes Craven created a sequel that actually surpassed the originality of the original. A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp—playing herself— and her son are being terrorized by Freddy Krueger, who director Wes Craven—playing himself—brought to life by failing to make another Freddy Krueger movie. Pretty neat. Robert Englund and John Saxon—playing themselves— are also along for this cleverly self-reflexive ride. Still, as clever as New Nightmare is, the film is flawed. Langenkamp’s son (played by Miko Hughes from Pet Sematary) is too creepy to elicit much sympathy. Freddy takes too long to make his first appearance, and when he does, his makeup looks too dry and plastic. Craven also missed a great opportunity to infuse the film with some satirical humor at the expense of Hollywood and himself. As a result a great idea ends up as a more conventional horror movie than it should be.

The Wolf Man (1941- dir. George Waggner) *****

Universal’s second go at making a werewolf movie was its first winner. Curt Siodmak’s wonderfully inventive script is the origin of the werewolf’s aversion to silver and the significance of pentagrams in palms and so much of the other glorious bunks we still associate with shape-shifting beasties today. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot is kind of a smug creep. Ironically, it takes a bite from a cursed doggie to really humanize him. The jerky peeping tom becomes a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare, particularly in the way his relationship with his formally estranged dad pans out. The cast is fab too. Along with Chaney we have Claude Rains as Dad, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, and Ralph Bellamy.

October 26th

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970- dir. Freddie Francis) ****

Freddie Francis’s demented British satire about a murderous family reminded me quite a bit of B-classic Spider Baby, but the sardonically sugary tone is straight out of one of the nursery rhymes school kids Girly and Sonny cackle incessantly at their victims. The portrayal of the breakdown of the 1950s nuclear-family ideal is amusingly gleeful, but the movie works best on face value as a series of intriguing and deadly games between the crazed family and their latest acquisition.

Misery (1990- dir. Rob Reiner) ****

And the theme of the day is guys being held against their wills by loonies. I just finished reading King’s novel for the first time, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as the movie. This is essentially a really depressing story and its humor registers stronger on the screen than on the page. I generally like my horror to either be very scary or very fun. The Misery novel is not scary or fun enough to balance its unrelenting…well…misery. Reiner’s film is superior because Kathy Bates manages to make the very unpleasant Annie Wilkes fun to watch. Quite a feat, Ms. Bates.

October 27th

Puppetmaster (1989- dir. David Schmoeller) ***

Nonsensical gumbo of killer puppets, psychics, lively camerawork, Skinemax sex, and ham acting. These various elements make Puppetmaster entertaining but not quite good. Schmoeller seems to have been heavily influenced by Stuart Gordon, even including a special “guest appearance” by Barbara Crampton. Writer/producer Charles Band was the executive producer of Gordon’s Dolls, which may explain all the similarities. Dolls is a lot better, but Puppetmaster does have one great low-key camp performance from Irene Miracle as a southern belle psychic. She’s considerably more fun to watch than any of the non-puppet characters, and I lost all interest in the film as soon as she was killed off an hour into it. A leech-puking puppet provides the most memorable moment.

An American Werewolf in London (1981- dir. John Landis) *****

The greatest werewolf movie ever made also has to be the most imaginative horror movie of the ‘80s. An American Werewolf in London has it all: horror, humor, werewolves, ghosts, a killer Rock & Roll soundtrack, real romance, real tragedy, Rik Mayall, Nazi ghouls, gratuitous use of punks, porno, and Muppets. The cast is absurdly lovable, making David Kessler’s adventures all the more enthralling and his fate all the more heartbreaking. Wonderful in every conceivable way.

October 28th

The Psychic (1977- dir. Lucio Fulci) *1/2

Why did I watch this? The only other Lucio Fulci movie I’ve seen, Zombie, is a piece of crap. Why would I subject myself to further Fulci fecal matter? Am I starting to get punchy after watching nothing but horror movies for five weeks straight? Perhaps, rabbit, perhaps. A mannequin bashes its shiny face against a cliff. A horrendous MOR pop song plods away over the credits. A guy with the worst comb over in history walks around with the worst comb over in history. Jennifer O’Neill shrinks in horror from a lampshade. I get bored out of my gourd. Go Fulci yourself.

Nightmare in Blood (1978- dir. John Stanley) ***

Nightmare in Blood is a no-budget ghoul frenzy set at a horror convention, and as a horror movie about horror movie fans, it is way ahead of its time, predating stuff like Fright Night and Popcorn by nearly a decade. The references to Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, and Fredric Wertham are particularly neat because such geekery had yet to become clichéd in 1978. An ill-conceived plot thread involving the holocaust—complete with actual horrific holocaust footage—curdles some of the fun, but it does initiate some surprisingly thoughtful comments about the allegedly detrimental effects of horror movies.
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