Friday, October 14, 2011

Diary of the Dead 2011: Week 2

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Friday in October (this year I’ll only be discussing movies I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on this site). I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 7st

Alice (1988- dir. Jan Švankmajer) ****

Alice begins with the title tot intoning, “Now you will watch a film made for children… perhaps.” Yeah, perhaps you want to stay up all night consoling your hysterical child who’d just been traumatized by Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion animal skeletons and taxidermied carcasses. Perhaps not. No filmmaker has ever really been able to capture the quizzical humor of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Švankmajer doesn’t really try. His Alice is more of a minimalistic nightmare. The repetitious scraps of dialogue mock Carroll’s copious wordplay. The googly-eyed, chisel-toothed White Rabbit splits open and bleeds torrents of sawdust blood. The sets are dank and derelict. The film reeks of mildew and formaldehyde. This is not horror in the sense that anyone gets hunted by a monster or hacked up by a mad man, but Alice may do nastier things to your psyche than any of those kinds of movies. Patience is required, though.

October 10th

Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968- dir. Vernon Sewell) ***½

This nonsense loosely based on Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House” is an excuse for naïve images of sex, drugs, and ritual sacrifice. Boris Karloff was winding down and wheelchair bound when he made Curse of the Crimson Altar (aka: The Crimson Cult), but he remained consummately committed. Throwaway lines like “All the best things in life are short lived” take on unintentional
poignancy in the mouth of the master. And that old glint is in his eye when he invites a young man to view his prized collection of “instruments of torture.” Karloff and fellow horror icons Christopher Lee, Barbara Steele, and Michael Gough, as well as pervasive camp and vivid color, all conspire to make this crap highly watchable crap.

October 11st

Dead and Buried (1981- dir. Gary Sherman) ****

Dead and Buried gets started as a typical psycho-community flick. Dan O’Bannon’s name in the credits is an early tip off that this movie will play out atypically. Indeed, an unexpected development 35 minutes in reignites interest just as the movie seems to be lapsing into formula. O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s script is cheeky fun. The twists keep twisting right up until the final frame. Gary Sherman’s direction is a bit hacky and the production values are strictly T.V.-quality, but the ace script and nice cast (yes, that is a pre-Freddy Robert Englund amongst the wackos) make that fairly irrelevant.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936- dir. George King) ****

A very, very early example of British horror. Tod Slaughter has a grand time as the title barber, whose customers end up as the main ingredients in his co-conspirator’s meat pies. The cannibalism angle is ambiguous in the villain’s first screen appearance. Pay attention, though, because it is there. Naturally, the production isn’t as lavish as those bobbing across the pond, but the wicked script and gleeful performances are top notch. A weird detour to Africa switches up the setting but distracts from the business at hand. Todd’s barber chair, which swivels in an unexpected direction, is a terrific prop.

October 12th

Death Line (1981- dir. Gary Sherman) ***½

Death Line is really two movies with two totally different tones. One is a bloodbath worthy of the film’s awful American title, Raw Meat. The other is a witty social satire with an unmissable performance from Donald Pleasance as a police inspector absolutely delighted by his own rotten disposition. To the film’s benefit, Pleasance and Norman Rossington’s (of A Hard Day’s Night) murder investigation dominates. Gary Sherman, who directed yesterday’s Dead and Buried, displays a lot more style here. An endless tracking shot through the London underground is worthy of Hitchcock. Ceri Jones’s script takes aim at the upper crust’s hypocrisy and callousness, but having the mostly sympathetic lower-crust ghoul attempt rape sours an otherwise admirable social message.

October 13th

The Tingler (1959- dir. William Castle) ***

The seat buzzers William Castle branded Percepto were his greatest gimmick. The Tingler is not his greatest movie. Without the anxious anticipation of a good ass-zapping, we’re left with a pretty silly-looking rubber crawdaddy and science that nearly reaches Intelligent-Design levels of stupidity. Otherwise, The Tingler is slow and talky. Since Vincent Price does most of that talking, it isn’t all bad. Price also takes cinema’s first acid trip, which isn’t filmed with the zany imagination later seen in movies like, well, The Trip. Judith Evelyn’s is depicted as a romp through a cut-rate spook house, but the color insert of a hand reaching from a bathtub of blood is pretty neat. And the “Scream for your lives!” sequence is brilliant with or without Percepto.
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