Monday, October 22, 2012

Diary of the Dead 2012: Week 3

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews every Monday in October (as was the case last 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 15

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976- dir. Nicholas Gessner) **½

An anti-Semitic landlord is trying to force Jodie Foster and her mysteriously absent dad out of their house. The mystery is pretty easy to figure out in the first few minutes of The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, so there’s no suspense. Not much horror either. Foster and Martin Sheen as the landlord’s pedophile son are very good, but this flimsy, talky tale adapted from Laird Koenig’s play should have stayed on the stage.

Captive Wild Woman (1942- dir. Edward Dmytryk) *½

Mad doctor John Carradine makes a were-gorilla in this fifth-rate Universal horror. With a half-baked premise yanked from The Island of Dr. Moreau, Captive Wild Woman is mainly a dubious excuse to watch were-cinema’s most racist transformation sequence and footage of circus animals mauling each other that had already appeared in The Big Cage a decade earlier. Plus costumer Vera West should have lost her job for making Evelyn Ankers wear that stupid hat.

October 16

The Giant Claw (1957- dir. Fred F. Sears) **½

A test pilot spots a UFO and planes start falling out of the sky. A classic “War of the Worlds” scenario, you guess? Nope. This isn’t the sort of UFO that’s full of anal probe-armed little green men. It’s the kind that looks like a giant turkey. The Giant Claw does a decent job of establishing an air of mystery, so when we finally see the big bird that is our monster, it feels like the punch line to a joke we didn’t realize was being told. This is one shitty, shitty monster, but once it reveals itself, all you want to do is bask in its magnificent crappiness. So it’s frustrating whenever we return to the human protagonists, even when they’re swapping hilariously awful lines about “atomic spitballs.” The Giant Claw should have been wall-to-wall bird! Still, the time we spend with the “flying nightmare” is to be cherished.

October 17

Beyond Re-Animator (2003- dir. Brian Yuzna) ****

Herbert West has spent thirteen years in the clink since his unholy escapades in Bride of Re-Animator. The brother of one of his monster’s victims is West’s latest protégé, and— guess what?— their experiments go horribly, horribly wrong. Soon everyone in the prison has been monsterized, and that includes the rats. Beyond Re-Animator is a groovy final chapter with great effects (the jawless creature and a sort of living gelatinized man are fabulously grotty creations) and there are plenty of the wacky gags we demand from Re-Animator movies.

I Bury the Living (1958- dir. Arthur Band) ***

Ever since Richard Boone took over the family cemetery business, the plots have been filling up with uncanny speed. Boone fears he’s been causing the deaths by sticking pins in a voodoo map, but the cause is a lot more earthly and predictable. Despite a disappointing ending, I Bury the Living earns points because its bizarre premise is very original, though it might have been better suited to an episode of “The Twilight Zone” than a feature film (particularly if it had played out differently). Director Albert Band’s disorienting camerawork is very cool, but the great makeup artist Jack P. Pierce is wasted here.

October 18

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010- dir. Tod Williams) ***

Paranormal Activity is one of the scariest recent horror movies because of its ambiguity and originality. Yes, the found footage gimmick had been pretty well exploited in the ten years following The Blair Witch Project, but Oren Peli’s film was the first with the bright idea of moving the horror into the home. The first sequel in what is now a franchise is less effective for several reasons. It loses realism by casting familiar character actress Sprague Grayden in a lead role, and it loses ambiguity by getting further into the Featherston family’s demonic history. The big twist? Great Grandma Featherston may have made a deal with the devil so her great grandson-in-law could become—steel yourself—the Burger King. Oh boy. Still, as far as exploitative retreads go, Paranormal Activity 2 is entertaining enough and even manages a couple of good jolts. It also boggles the formula a little by setting the first one in daylight, though we have to wait an hour for it. Cheap jump scares are no substitute for the original’s insidious dread.

October 19

Homicidal (1961- dir. William Castle) ***½

William Castle jumps on the Psycho gravy train and pulls the neat trick of combining Norman Bates and Marion Crane into a single character. Castle does his darnedest to maintain the ruse, but it’s tough to not figure out where the story’s heading. Of course, Castle is always more about style than story, and as usual, his style is an ace blend of legit technique, B-cheese, and almost accidental creepiness. Homicidal was the last in Castle’s streak of terrific pictures begun with House on Haunted Hill. After this his inspiration dried up with a lame remake of The Old Dark House.

October 20

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011- dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) ***

In Paranormal Activity 3 we travel back to 1988 when the Featherston sisters were little girls and their grandma was mixing and mingling with the devil. In contrast to the somewhat lethargic second part, the jumps, jolts, bangs, and shadows are nearly non-stop in part three. This picture is something the original most certainly wasn’t: a cheap (as opposed to inexpensively produced), special effects-flaunting fun house ride. It’s a pretty good one: dumber than part two, but a little scarier. The rotating camera is a nice touch, but everyone except the babysitter looks like a 2011 hipster in this ’80s period piece. Could’ve used more hairspray.

The Headless Horseman or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1922- dir. Edward D. Venturini) ***

This early version of Washington’s Irving’s timeless ghost story isn’t bad, with Will Rogers doing decent comic work as Ichabod Crane, and there’s a hilarious sequence in which parishioners keep falling asleep during a preacher’s long-winded sermon. Yet even at a mere 70 minutes, it exemplifies how “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” simply doesn’t lend itself to feature-length adaptation. The original story is too perfect to be expanded and rewritten, as it was in Tim Burton’s infuriating version, and it’s too simple to be treated faithfully without becoming tedious, as Edward Venturini’s film often is. Way too much time is spent with Ichabod’s students. The entirety of “Danse Macabre” played on the soundtrack during the psalmody lesson scene alone! The horseman is no great shakes either. In his unintentionally funny first appearance, he has noticeable difficulty mounting his steed. Some horseman! When his identity is revealed after the climactic chase, the climax is rendered completely anticlimactic.  Disney’s animated short is still the greatest version by several miles.

October 20

Creepshow 2 (1987- dir. Michael Gornick) **

Lazy, witless sequel to George Romero and Stephen King’s 1982 portmanteau, which wasn’t so great to begin with. The opening segment about a vengeful wooden Indian is completely clueless about its own racism. The second episode is about a killer puddle of Castrol. It’s scarier than it sounds, which isn’t saying much since it doesn’t sound scary at all. In the finale, a woman is dogged by a hitchhiker she ran down while driving home from a date with a man whore. The one saving grace is the fun animated wraparound, which pays tribute to the great horror comics of the ’50s.

The Moth Diaries (2011- dir. Mary Harron) **

Mary Harron cashes in on the teen vampire craze with The Moth Diaries. It isn't as pea-brained as Twilight (what is?), but its glum self-seriousness is tiresome and its postmodernism isn't terribly clever. Harron is a good filmmaker, but there is no evidence of her skill in this movie. And though a film about teenagers doesn't just have to be for teenagers, The Moth Diaries is not a movie for adults. Outsider kids might like it.
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