Thursday, October 31, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 5

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 25

The Invisible Ray (1936- dir. Lambert Hillyer) ***½

In one of the last gasps of the first wave of Universal horror, the studio’s two biggest legends—Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (or KARLOFF, as he’s credited here)—are scientists who form an uneasy alliance after Karloff captures a ray from the Andromeda nebula that leads him to a pre-historic meteor in Africa. The partnership gets a bit complicated when that meteor turns Karloff into a psycho King Midas in Reverse. The Invisible Ray is almost like a two-decades-early bridge between the Gothic horrors of the thirties and the atom-age paranoia of the fifties with lightning storm-soaked castles sharing the screen with radiation-derived monsterism. Needless to say, the African-native scenes are an uncomfortable watch today, but the variety in setting and action keeps the pace moving and the planetarium-esque outer space effects are magical. Also needless to say, you really can’t go wrong with a Karloff/Lugosi pairing (it’s always interesting to see the more sinister Bela play the good guy) even if The Invisible Ray can’t touch the dastardly duo’s greatest collaborations in The Black Cat, The Raven, and Son of Frankenstein.

I Sell the Dead (2008- dir. Glenn McQuaid) ****

Corpse-snatching comedy transforms into vampire-comedy into Martian-comedy into zombie-comedy without ever shifting from completely likable. Condemned grave robber Dominic Monaghan makes his final confession about his nocturnal transgressions to Father Ron Perlman. New director Glenn McQuaid draws on Amicus movies (his film is almost like a portmanteau with the same characters in each episode) and horror comics (there are some neat illustration effects) to invoke a colorful, lively, and funny film of his own distinct style. Monaghan and Larry Fessenden (who also co-produced) as his mentor in ghoulish crime are a charismatically grimy team, while the creatures they unearth and Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm as a nasty blackmailer supply some sincere creepiness. A groovy debut .

October 28

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988- dir. Wes Craven) ***

I wonder what Wade Davis thought when Wes Craven took his real-life account of Haitian zombification rituals and turned it into a horror movie with snake-vomiting corpses, supernatural punch-ups, and scrotum torture. Its see-sawing between the realistic and the outlandish does make The Serpent and the Rainbow an uneven movie even if it’s nicely shot and Bill Pullman is pretty good as Davis’s stand-in. Some of the horror works (the walking corpse in a bride’s veil; the torture and living burial) and some doesn’t (the soup zombie). While most of this stuff can be chalked up to tetrodotoxin-induced hallucinations, the goofy climactic showdown between jaguar-spirit-infused Pullman and a rival voodoo dude plunges the film fully into the fantastical. The Serpent and the Rainbow is most interesting as one of the last feature films to deal with the original Caribbean zombie variety before Romero’s living dead swarms took over the world for better or worse. Perhaps the political incorrectness of exoticizing other cultures is the reason the voodoo zombie is basically extinct, but after seeing one too many zombie-Nazi, zombie-girlfriend, or zombie-canary movies, you may start longing for a little dose of tetrodotoxin yourself.

The Old Dark House (1963- dir. William Castle) **½

William Castle did a wonderful job with The House on Haunted Hill, so the idea of him remaking the original “old dark house” movie was not a bad one, especially as it was a joint venture with Hammer Studios, the best remakers of Universal horror properties. Too bad this movie is so mediocre. James Whale’s movie was wonderful because it evenly balanced genuinely funny comedy with genuinely scary scares. Castle interprets The Old Dark House as a straight-up comedy with Robert Dillon’s script resembling The Cat and the Canary more than Whale’s picture. Tom Poston is forced to do quintuple duty by standing in for the entire array of stranded visitors whose interplay brought so much humor and warmth to the 1932 movie. Though Poston is likable, he can’t really carry a movie on his own. The Femm family does little to pick up the slack because the acting just isn’t wild enough. Plus, Castle’s charm depended on a deft balance of schlock and cinematographic artistry. Shot in color, The Old Dark House lacks the style and grace of House on Haunted Hill or Mr. Sardonicus, so the only thing left is the schlock, which isn’t even really schlocky enough to be interesting. Some of the jokes are mildly amusing, and the Noah’s Ark angle is novel, but Castle’s The Old Dark House just isn’t dark enough.

October 29

The Blood Beast Terror (1968- dir. Vernon Sewell) ***½

Peter Cushing is investigating a series of bloody deaths. The only witness is a raving fellow who claims he saw a winged creature hovering over one of the bodies. An etymologist may have more insight into what’s really going on. Despite the blood, hyperbolically bloody awful title, a pretty insane resolution, and Cushing’s well-known dislike of the movie, The Blood Beast Terror plays more like reserved mystery than grisly exploitation. If anything The Blood Beast Terror could have used a healthier dollop of schlock, because it’s a bit too low-key. At least it doesn’t take itself seriously. The self-parodying stage play sequence is neat, and several minor roles are very amusingly acted.

October 30

Son of Dracula (1943- dir. Robert Siodmak) ***

Perhaps we should call the final day of Diary of the Dead 2013 “Spawn of Dracula Day” or something, because our second movie features Van Helsing’s offspring and our first stars Lon Chaney, Jr., as the Son of Dracula. The Man of Four or Five Faces plays Count Alucard, and if you have a pen and paper, you can figure out his true identity pretty quickly. You might have more trouble if you simply look at and listen to the guy, because there’s nothing terribly Dracula-ish about Chaney’s San Clemente accent or his awkward posture in the cape. Lon had the honor of basically playing all four of Universal’s major monsters, but his turn as the vampire wasn’t much of a feather in his cap. Yet the miscast lead role isn’t that big of an issue since there’s so little of him in Son of Dracula. I get a kick out of how much Robert Siodmak abuses his bat privileges; it’s as if the director realized that the vampire was much more convincing as a flapping piece of rubber than he was as Lon Chaney, Jr. Nevertheless, I love Chaney’s entrance in which he shoots us-the-viewers a knowing glance over his shoulder. Siodmak also realizes the movie with good special effects and nourish style, and the swampy setting is very cool, as is the shot of Chaney wheeling through it. Louise Allbritton is eerie as a Goth groupie turned vampire and Robert Paige is totally nuts as her trigger-happy fiancé, but Evelyn Ankers is just as underused as Chaney. At least Bela Lugosi didn’t have to worry that the younger upstart might depose him as the greatest of all Draculas.

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Duh- dir. Alan Gibson) ***½

It all ends in 1972, but first a romp to 1872 where Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing slays Christopher Lee’s Dracula in a Hammer movie for the trillionth time. We then zip ahead a century to when the world has transformed into a more superfly environment of hippie bands and outta sight young people like Caroline Munro, Marsha Hunt, and Van Helsing’s great great great great granddaughter Stephanie Beacham. There are also not-so young people like Lorrimer Van Helsing, Beacham’s granddad, also played by Cushing. Wait a minute! I have a better name for today’s line up! “Alucard Day,” because the hamtastic Christopher Neame plays another vampire who thinks he’s super clever by spelling the infamous count’s name in reverse! Not having Christopher Lee wander around in 1972 looking freaked out by costumes and customs weirder than his own is a major missed opportunity, but the new development that taking a shower kills vampires is utterly brilliant. Is Dracula A.D. 1972 effective horror? A respectable entry in the Hammer Horror canon? A dignified day’s work for the esteemed Cushing and Lee? No way, Jose. Is it retro-delic fun and a dy-no-mite way to end this year’s Diary of the Dead? Correctamundo!

"Halloween Parade"- Lou Reed

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

'The Wicker Man' Blu-Ray Has a U.S. Release Date and Pre-Order Info

As I reported last summer, The Wicker Man Blu-Ray is coming to America from Lionsgate films, but possibly in a different state than its recent three-disc UK release. Specs on the disc's Walmart purchase page seem to cover the first disc of the UK's Studio Canal release only, which means we Americans might not be receiving the longest cut of the film (which was only available in patchy standard definition in the UK anyway) or the fabulous soundtrack CD. The low price seems to support this assumption. In any event, I'm trying to wrangle a review copy of Lionsgate's Blu-ray. Maybe you can wrangle your own copy, which is due January 7, 2014, from here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Being Smart on Halloween: A Monster Movie Guide

If you’re too old for trick-or-treating or too clever to actually throw your Halloween party on Halloween (so rarely it falls on a weekend night, and who wants to get blitzed on Tuesday and have to drag themselves to work Wednesday morning?) you might spend October 31st doing what I do: cramming as many horror movies into 24 hours as you can. But what to choose? What to choose? One wrong selection and— Ka-POW!—the entire atmosphere of this most atmospheric of holidays shoots right down the crapper, leaving you holding your head in anguish and weeping, “Why, oh why did I ever put Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood into the DVD player?” That would be pretty stupid. So here’s some Halloween-movie-selecting advice that will make you smart.

Obviously, a film set on or around Halloween is the perfect choice, though these are shockingly rare. Halloween and its sundry sequels and remakes are at the front of the pack. Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, with its children’s Halloween party gone awry, is a wonderful seasonal mood piece, as is the “Sleepy Hollow” episode of Disney’s marvelous Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. More recent examples are Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses, a rummage through dusty Halloween decorations stored in an attic reeking with dankness, and Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, a picture I didn’t care for but one that has some truly rabid proponents who adore its nostalgic ambience. Something Wicked This Way Comes begins just a week before Halloween in a golden October in which “1,000 pumpkins lie waiting to be cut,” and movies don’t come richer in autumnal atmosphere than Jack Clayton’s. The neo-cult classic May finds the title character collecting some bloody booty during a psychotic trick-or-treat excursion. As the kids of The Blair Witch Project prepare for their own excursion into the woods, we see Halloween decorations in shop windows, so that one passes muster too.

There are exceptions to this seemingly obvious rule. Movies with Halloween scenes aren’t always ideal holiday fare. Classics they may be, but I wouldn’t want to spend the night of spooks watching, To Kill a Mockingbird, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, or Meet Me in St. Louis, though a chorus of “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley” has been known to terrify.

Give it up, E.T. You're not scary.

Certain movies are pretty safe to categorize as honorary Halloweeners. We know that a man may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright, but for all we know The Wolf Man takes place in late September, November, or shudder to think, early December. Nevertheless, it’s a good choice, so try not to get too hung up on when exactly Larry Talbot’s life goes to pot.

Films that immediately break the seasonal spell are those that glaringly take place in the wrong season or environment: desert horrors such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Near Dark, seaside ones such as The Birds, or snowy ones such as The Thing. And perish the thought of watching one that takes place on a completely different holiday! That means no Gremlins (Christmas), Jaws (4th of July), or April Fool’s Day (April Fool’s Day). If you lived in the New York area during the late seventies/early eighties, you may also find that King Kong has too many Thanksgiving associations to enjoy it on October 31st. With its island and metropolitan settings, it’s not very Halloweeny anyway.

You get an F for effort, King Kong.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a bit of a grey area. On the one hand, no environment recalls Halloween less than the Amazon (except maybe space, which means no Alien!). On the other hand, as the studio’s ad campaign once insisted, “Universal IS Halloween.” Considering the place its iconic monsters hold in Halloween costumes, decorations, and holiday movie marathons, exceptions can be made for Black Lagoon and the snowy Invisible Man. Go ahead and enjoy them with a clear conscience on October 31st. That being said, more ideal selections would be Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, or The Wolf Man. But you already knew about that last one.

Halloween is a distinctly western holiday, so at the risk of coming off xenophobic (I swear I’m not! Some of my best friends are xenos!), Asian horror films may not exactly hit that sweet spot. Still, North American Halloween influences have become pretty internationally pervasive over the years, so if you still feel compelled to spend your holiday with Godzilla or that cute little girl from Ringu, that is your prerogative. I also encourage you to indulge in movies centered on such seasonal tropes as haunted houses (recommended: Robert Wise’s The Haunting), black cats (recommended: Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat), witches (recommended: John Llewellyn Moxey’s The City of the Dead), pumpkins (recommended: Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead), and candy corn (recommended: TK).

Oh yeah. That's the stuff.

Just remember that as kooky and crazy as Halloween is, there are rules to enjoying it. Stay safe. Always wear reflective clothing. Check your candy for razor blades and light artillery. And no matter what you do, follow every guideline I’ve delineated above. Doing so just may save your life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Farewell, Lou Reed

Sad news to report today as one of Rock's genuine pioneers has died at the age of 71. It would take at least two decades for the fruits of his influence to fully sprout, but Lou Reed pioneered so much when The Velvet Underground screeched waves of black noise across the Technicolor psychedelic late-sixties years. Someone may have eventually taken the initiative to invent punk, Goth, alternative, indie, and noise rock had Lou Reed and his band not helped do it first, but we'll never need to speculate about that since they most certainly did. In an age of legends, giants, and gods, The Velvet Underground are still something that not everyone might agree The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and even Dylan and Hendrix still are: cool. And with his anti-hippie cropped hair, black duds, icy talk-sing style, and shocking tales of junkies, hookers, dealers, and death merchants, Lou Reed embodied that cool more than any of his band mates. He'd go on to a solo career that may never have quite lived up to the greatness of his work with the Velvets but was very often tough, challenging, and beyond the scope of popular tastes. And when he was done crushing your skull with Metal Machine Music, he'd put it back together again with songs like "Perfect Day" or "Vicious" or "Sweet Jane" that reveal the craftsman always lurking behind the outré hipster's shades. 

We're still waiting to find out the specific cause of death, but Reed had a liver transplant last May and was reportedly "dying" at the time. So long, Lou Reed. You made the world a darker and cooler place.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: 'Oh Yes We Can Love: A History of Glam Rock'

With its defiantly mindless philosophy and 365s-days-of-Halloween style, glam rock was designed to glitter brightly and burn out quickly. That’s just what it did in its early seventies salad days, arriving to annihilate the denim non-style of late-sixties hippies and send up the pompous seriousness of the leading heavy rock and prog groups. In all, glam held sway over teens (mostly British ones) for little more than three years. As Bowie discovered conservative suits and Brian Eno’s icy textures, Marc Bolan got chubby, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show parodied a parody, the death knell knelled.

So how could something so ephemeral be deserving of its own multi-disc box set? Short answer: everything gets its own multi-disc box set these days— there’s probably one devoted to you. Equally short answer: Mark Wood and Daryl Easlea, the dynamic duo who compiled Oh Yes We Can Love: A History of Glam Rock, are kind of brilliant. Instead of merely quadruple-loading the predictable Bowie, T. Rex, Slade, Sweet, KISS, and Suzi Quatro hits, they’ve elasticized the genre so that it stretches as far back as 1931 and as far forward as 2010. This way we really do get a sense of the history of glam: what inspired it and what has transpired since 1974. So now glam entails pre-WWII comic crooner Noël Coward, Belgian chanson master Jacques Brel, blues giant Howlin’ Wolf, pioneer American rockers Chuck Berry and Little Richard, pioneer British ones The Kinks, proggers Curved Air, toothy bubblegum purveyors The Osmonds, punks The Ramones, proto-goths Bauhaus, new wavers Human League, hair metalists Hanoi Rocks, dream poppers Saint Etienne, schlock rocker Marilyn Manson, electro whizzes Goldfrapp, and even the theme to an ITV kiddie show (and it’s great!).

This eclecticism follows a definite logic. Although Oh Yes We Can Love is an international affair, glam—with its extreme camp sensibility—is a distinctly British genre, so it is appropriate that the first melody we hear is Noël Coward’s appropriation of “Rule Britannia” and a jolly message of Imperialism. We then cross the pond to the American source of the sound with Chuck Berry’s guitar boogie, Little Richard’s flamboyant howling, and Vince Taylor, the inspiration for Ziggy Stardust. Anthony Newley’s “Bee Bom” presages nonsense classics such as “Ma Coo Ca Choo” and “Bish Bash Bash.” Then we go global to spend time with Brel and the Burundi drummers, who so influenced Adam Ant, before zooming into glam’s peak period for all those cuts from T. Rex, Slade, Sweet, and the like.

What this box set lacks is primary source David Bowie material. Despite being the most globally recognizable face of glam, Bowie only gets a single track: the not-very-glammy “London Bye Ta-Ta” (considering it’s an outtake from his early period on Deram, rights issues may account for the choice of song). Nevertheless, the thin white ghost haunts Oh Yes We Can Love all the way through, with songs he covered (Brel’s “Amsterdam”), covers of his classics (Dana Gillespie’s “Andy Warhol,” Lulu’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” Bauhaus’ “Ziggy Stardust”), songs on which he guest starred (the Lulu cover) or produced (the Gillespie cover), songs by his biggest influences (the Newley track), and songs by his closest collaborators (Mick Ronson’s “Growing Up and I’m Fine,” The Stooges’ “1969”), so we never feel as though King Glam has been turned away at the door.

There are a few other issues here. The sound is a bit thin, so we don’t quite get that big-bottomed boom that was glam’s sonic calling card. There are some missed opportunities in the song selection: a better Chuck Berry choice than “Around and Around” would have been “Little Queenie,” both because Bolan quotes it on the fade of “Get It On” and because of the camp implications of the name “Queenie.” As is the case with any multi-artist collection, not every track is wonderful. The Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses” is an important example of how glam’s decadence even trickled down to the most sanitized mainstream group, but it’s still a terrible song. There are also stinkers by Nazareth, Dead or Alive, Judas Priest, Marilyn Manson, and others. One thing we can all be thankful for is the paucity of eighties hair metal (Hanoi Rocks are the one glaring group of offenders). I won’t deny hair metal’s importance on the glam timeline, but no one needs to actually listen to that shit.

Wood and Easlea’s mindfulness of listenability is what ultimately makes Oh Yes We Can Love a great box set. After their cleverness has lost its novelty, when we’re not even in the mood too slather on the silver lipstick and glue-on glitter, we still have five discs crammed with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The Kinks, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Roxy Music, The New York Dolls, Elton John, Patti Smith, Generation X, Blondie, The Ramones, Magazine, The Fall, Morrissey, Pulp, Goldfrapp, and a lot of other artists who make Oh Yes We Can Love a great collection of Rock & Roll regardless of genre.

Now I’d love for this box set to inspire others of its sort. How about a punk one that starts with Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” then moves to “Dirty Water” and “96 Tears” before hitting stride with The MC5 and Stooges? Or maybe a goth one that kicks off with Bach or Brecht before glooming on with “Paint It Black” or “A Whiter Shade of Pale”? The possibilities are bountiful.

Get Oh Yes We Can Love: A History of Glam Rock at here :

Friday, October 25, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 4

I’m logging my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October. I write it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

October 18

Phantom of the Opera (1943- dir. Arthur Lubin) **½

With the original era of Universal horror having its last hurrah with 1941’s The Wolf Man, the studio started dipping back into old properties in earnest throughout the forties. This usually manifested in sequels uniting the Wolf Man, Dracula, and the Frankenstein Monster in various configurations, but there were also a couple of Full-on remakes in order. The first was Charles Laughton’s reinterpretation of Chaney in 1939’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The second found another formidable actor attempting to fill the Man of a Thousand Faces’ boots. No doubt Claude Rains is a superb actor and one of Universal’s most unforgettable horror stars, but the version of Phantom of the Opera in which he starred is utterly forgettable. Because of the U.S.’s recent entry into World War II, the studio got cold feet and decided to tone down too many of the elements that made the original so chilling, most notably doing a half-assed job on the Phantom makeup for fear of reminding viewers of those who’d been disfigured in the war. It gives the key unmasking sequence the impact of a soggy washcloth. The rest of the movie is pretty lame too, with an abundance of corny musical numbers that go on and on, soppy romance, and fatigued comic relief where the horror should be. Rains is very sympathetic but not at all menacing as the Phantom with none of the delicious mania he supplied in The Invisible Man. While the decision to shoot in color made commercial sense—and the film certainly looks sumptuous— it also made this Phantom the odd-man out from Universal’s greatest monster pictures. Tellingly, the other second-wave monster pictures would return to black and white. This is less essential than even the monster rallies, which are at least terrific fun.

Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979- dir. Harry Hurwitz) *½

Nearly every detail of this soft-core disco vampire comedy seems consciously designed to make it rank as one of the worst movies ever made. The awful script. The cheesy, gratuitous nudity. The absolutely horrid acting. The rhythmically-challenged dancing. The sad appearances of John Carradine as the count and Yvonne De Carlo as his old flame. Brother Theodore’s hammy mugging as a werewolf/Renfield type character who longs for the title vamp. She is really the one who brings the terrible Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula to unprecedented heights of terribility. Crazy-eyed, perpetually grinning Nai Bonet must have taken a page from the Bela Lugosi book of acting by learning her lines phonetically, because there isn’t a trace of expression in anything she says. This would be prime stuff for at-home Mystery Science Theatre sessions if it wasn’t so boring. That half star is for some pretty good numbers by a disco group called Moment of Truth.

October 21

Blackenstein (1973- dir. William A. Levey) **

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Monsterology: Animals

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.

We domesticate them and keep them as pets. We anthropomorphize them in cartoons and on breakfast cereal boxes. We post pictures of them looking cute with captions reading “I haz a cheezeburgerzz!!” on  Facebook (and by “We,” I mean “idiots”). But give them half a chance, and all those adorable puppies and kitties and baboons will tear off your face and the faces of everyone you love. At the very least, they may pee on your bed. That’s because animals are wild. They are unpredictable. And under certain circumstances, they can be dead scary. Imagine a gorilla so large he keeps an entire isle under a spell of terror and has the power and determination to devastate an entire major metropolis. Imagine a great white shark great enough to actually home in on a boatload of humans and realize, “It’s them or me.” Imagine all birds of all feathers suddenly waging war against humankind with the mindless determination of a million cruise missiles. Well, you do not have to imagine any of these things: they’ve already been imagined by writers and filmmakers who’ve understood the nightmare potential of all things that fly, crawl, climb, swim, and stalk.

Long before Merian C. Cooper unleashed the mighty Kong on Manhattan or Daphne du Maurier sicced her birds on Cornwall, monstrous animals were wreaking havoc in human minds. Norse legend told of the horrible Kraken, not a massive man-fish like the one in Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, but a humongous squid or octopus. In Greek myth, a three-headed hellhound named Cerberus guards the gates of the Underworld. While a wild imagination is necessary to conjure the farthest-out mythological creatures—griffins and gorgons and bhutas (a sort of vampiric cloud of mist from India)—the origins of these demon animals require stubbier leaps of logic. Scandinavian sailors who’d spotted very real giant squids, possibly in seas marked on maps with the foreboding “Here be monsters,” or anyone who’s ever been bitten by a dog might easily conceive of creatures like the Kraken or Cerberus in their nightmares. The very real possibility of the animals with which we coexist taking a chunk out of us or dragging us down to the depths of the ocean is scarier than any phony boloney vampire or ghost. As metaphors for the wilder (or more evil) side of our incompletely evolved human natures, or the destructive wildness of nature itself, animals have served terrifying purposes in an array of fictions: Melville’s Moby Dick, Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Wells’s The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. Such creatures have found a natural place in the cinema era (each of the aforementioned novels and stories have been adapted for the screen, and most have been adapted multiple times).

Release the Kraken.

Oddly enough, the most regularly monsterized animal may be the gentle gorilla. In the 1840’s, Europeans got their first close-up glimpse of one of these creatures when an expedition to Africa returned with a stuffed gorilla. Ignorant of these beasts’ true natures, they saw only an abomination of the human form: massive, hairy, large-toothed, clearly more powerful than any man. To someone who’d previously known nothing of the gorilla, it looked more monster than animal. In his book Monsters in the Movies, John Landis writes of how this discovery almost instantly led to a terrified obsession with the gorilla, with Paul du Chailu publishing the violent and alarmist Stories of the Gorilla Country in 1867 and Emmanuel Frémiet completing his sculpture Gorilla Carrying off a Woman in 1887. Disturbingly, both works suggest interspecies rape, emphasizing humankind’s dim terror of all things new and misunderstood.

This terror would reach gigantic proportions in 1933 when explorer Merian C. Cooper exploited such ignorance with his masterpiece King Kong. This was not the first time a gorilla was portrayed on screen as a monstrous menace with a yen for human women. There’d already been intimations of such unnatural pairings in Alfred Santell’s 1927 horror-comedy The Gorilla, in which the animal turns out to be a guy in a monkey suit, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, in which naked women are tied to stakes and attacked by a gorilla in an arena (the scene was cut in the post-code era). King Kong is different both for blowing up the gorilla to the size of a brownstone and for hinting at the animal’s humanity. In actuality, Kong’s sympathetic nature is really only evident in the way the human characters react to him in the film’s final moments, when Carl Denham diagnoses “It wasn’t the airplanes… it was Beauty killed the Beast.” The line is immortal, but it is also deceptive. Denham’s mournful tones suggest guilt over Kong’s death, even though he places the blame on poor beauty Ann Darrow when it was Denham’s fault alone for dragging Kong out of the wilderness and into the “civilization” where he dies. That mournfulness has also caused many filmgoers to remember Kong being kinder than he really is. The original Kong is not the sweetheart of Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake— a very good film, but hardly a horror movie. Cooper’s Kong terrorizes and stomps on the Skull Island natives, protects Ann from an onslaught of dinosaurs only so he can sexually violate her in private, pulls a woman from her bed and casually drops her to her death when he realizes she is not the blond he’s looking for, and wrecks a subway full of innocent commuters. Fay Wray’s Ann never falls in love with the creature as Naomi Watts’s does. The first King Kong was a bad dude, even if we can understand how being kidnapped to a weird new environment to be put on display for a bunch of slack-jawed assholes in pearls and tuxes would rile anyone’s righteous rage. The message of King Kong is less “giant apes need love too” and more “don’t fuck with nature or nature will fuck with you.”

Pictured with Fay Wray, Merian C. Cooper was born 120 years ago today.  

This wise message drives the most powerful monstrous animal movies from Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls, in which a herd of manimals turn against the mad scientist who created them, to Chris Kentis’s Open Water, in which a couple of yuppies trespass on the wild ocean for fun and end up getting eaten by sharks. These films make the message unmistakably clear. In films such as The Birds and Jaws, we don’t understand why the animals are attacking us, making the message more nihilistic and the effect much more terrifying. Hitchcock’s adaptation of du Maurier’s novelette of the same name is obviously intended to work on a metaphorical level, but the film leaves the precise metaphor up to the viewer. Are the birds reflective of an ecosystem abused by humankind for far too long? Is it an avian revolution? Or are the birds more symbolic of the main characters’ messy psyches, their confusion and hostility? Are they meant to indicate that sexual feelings disrupt normality, as they often seemed to in Hitchcock’s personal life? The story goes that this was particularly true in relation to Birds star Tippi Hedren, with whom he was allegedly obsessed.

Unbeknownst to Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock actually sicced actual birds on her for five days straight in the climactic scene of The Birds.

The ending of The Birds is often read as a statement of nihilism, the humans meekly surrendering to the triumphant birds. But for nature it is a more hopeful conclusion. The people realize the damage they’ve done and slink off to leave the world to the animals; they leave in deference to nature instead of fighting against it or trying to conquer it or fuck it—or each other— up more than they already have. As for Hitchcock’s own interpretation of his open-to-multiple-interpretations film, he said he intended it as an meditation on the dangers of “complacency,” of how our own petty concerns and problems can be instantly disrupted by events over which we have no control, such as the recent Cuban Missile Crisis and environmental disasters.

Jaws seems less concerned with metaphor and psychology, as is Steven Spielberg’s way (Peter Benchley’s original novel is even more simplistic), but his refusal to suggest a reason for the shark’s attacks other than “it’s hungry” allows the scares to work on a purely visceral level. The shark’s intelligence—its ability to track Captain Quint’s ship and launch seemingly plotted assaults on it—makes it less animal and more monster, a creature normally ruled by instinct and nothing else suddenly evolving unnatural levels of reason and cunning.

Spielberg gets what's coming to him.

Other films have been more explicit about the human causes of monstrous animals. The giant animal epidemic of the 1950s had causes in nuclear bomb tests (Them!, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Attack of the Crab Monsters), atomic food additives (Tarantula), and the space program (Monster from Green Hell). While disastrous scientific accidents continued to occur in the seventies (The Food of the Gods, Empire of the Ants), abnormal animals continued to mutate with the times. Amid the decade’s growing ecological consciousness, pollution may send them on the attack (The Bees). They were consciously corrupted for military purposes during (The Day of the Dolphin) and following (Piranha) the Vietnam War. Some were trained to kill as an implied protest against a dehumanizing office culture (Willard). However, as more realistic human serial killer films stalked to the fore during the seventies, the killer animal’s association with schlocky monster movies became tough to ignore. In 1983, Lewis Teague gave the monster animal film one of its final serious treatments when he adapted Stephen King’s Cujo, the story of a sweet St. Bernard that becomes not-so-sweet after getting nipped by a rabid vampire bat. 20 years later, Open Water proved an unusually elegant and anomalously realistic example of nature’s revenge. Otherwise, the genre gave in to parody once and for all, winking at us with Alligator (1980), Arachnophobia (1990), Lake Placid (1999), and Snakes on a Plane (2006).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: The Criterion Collection's 'The Uninvited' Blu-ray

One of Hollywood’s first real ghost stories (i.e.: one in which the ghost turns out to be an actual ghost and not some shyster pulling a caper) has inexplicably never been available on DVD. The precise reason for this oversight is hard to determine, though I’ve read rumors that a lack of interest in lesser-known classic films is to blame. This theory is a bit tough to swallow since so many classic and not-so-classic old movies have made it to DVD and because The Uninvited is often spoken of in the same breath as The Innocents, The Haunting, and cinema’s other great spook shows. Deservedly so, because Lewis Allen’s adaptation of Dorothy Macardle’s novel Uneasy Freehold has so much going for it: pleasing interplay between stars Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey as siblings who buy a haunted house; a charmingly naive performance from newcomer Gail Russell as the granddaughter of the house’s former owner and Milland’s love interest; a neat blend of romance, humor, and chills; and a really scary ghost that critic Farran Smith Nehma suggests may have inspired the spirits that swoop out of the Ark at the climax of Indiana Jones’s first adventure.

Fortunately, The Criterion Collection has rendered the often-asked question “Why isn’t The Uninvited on DVD?” obsolete with an all-new digital restoration available on DVD and Blu-ray. As is common in films of the forties, the image is soft, particularly in blemish-concealing close-ups, but it’s also clean with no serious flecks or scratches. This isn’t the kind of sharp-detail picture that will knock your socks off, but the film certainly looks good, especially in the shadowy nighttime scenes that showcase deeper blacks.

Criterion includes several supplements, the most substantial being a 26-minute “visual essay” by Michael Almereyda, the director of such features as Twister and Nadja and a really great episode of “Deadwood.” The essay is interesting yet odd because it isn’t really about the film but the careers and troubled personal lives of Milland and Russell with a strange detour about “real life” spiritualists. There are also two radio plays of The Uninvited, both starring Milland, and in the accompanying booklet, an essay about the film by Smith Nehma and an interview film historian Tom Weaver conducted with Lewis Allen in 1997.

Get The Uninvited on Blu-ray or DVD on here:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: 'It Came from 1957: A Critical Guide to the Year’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films'

1957 was a flood year for fantasy, horror, and sci-fi pictures with an eerily coincidental 57 of them being released in the U.S. from the German supernatural thriller Unnatural: The Fruit of Evil in February to Howard Hawks’s classic The Thing from Another World in December. A number of factors are responsible for this particular phenomenon, most notably the drive-in explosion and the multiple A-Bomb test explosions leading up to ’57. Rob Craig’s extensive introduction to his critical movie guide It Came from 1957 lays out all these reasons with no historical detail spared. Craig supplies a much, much, much deeper history of atomic weapons and power than you’re ever going to read in another movie book. It may be excessive for a book of this type, but it is fascinating and a hell of a lot scarier and insidious than anything I’ve ever seen in any horror movie, which Craig heightens with his hot-blooded tone. He’s as serious about his politics as he is about his sci-fi movies.

That can be an issue with It Came from 1957. I essentially agree with Craig’s politics, but I also felt he often allowed them to dictate his opinions of a lot of these B-movies, many of which are definitely better than their reputations suggest but aren’t quite the cinematic masterpieces the author might have you believe. To read his ten-page analysis of it, you’d think Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters is as potent an anti-nuclear and proto-feminist film as has ever been made. Craig is so intent on rooting out the political subtext of these films that he often seems to miss their equally important functions as campy, drive-in fun. I’m highly suspicious of any Roger Corman fan who hates Dick Miller, and to say that “his amateurish mugging and sloppy line delivery” “almost single handedly sabotaged” The Terror, a film notorious for its shoddiness on nearly every level, is flat-out crazy. So is calling Star Wars “imagination barren” or derogatorily labeling it “propagandist.” Propaganda of whom? Those who take part in anti-imperialist revolutions led by women? That should be right up Craig’s alley!

OK, so neither The Terror nor Star Wars came out in 1957, but these critical opinions are in this critic’s book, and they are a couple of red flags that his assessments should occasionally be taken with a grain of salt. However, as a history of the horrors of 1950s conservatism, conformity, and self-destructive arrogance, It Came from 1957 is really strong stuff.

Get It Came from 1957: A Critical Guide to the Year’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films at here:

Monday, October 21, 2013

Five Still Scary Scenes from Universal Horror Movies

For audiences not yet accustomed to the weird, the macabre, and the grotesque, Universal’s horror cycle sparked its share of terror and even outrage in its time (the delightful Bride of Frankenstein was a particular lightning rod for the more censorious movie markets). Contemporary audiences may find it nearly impossible to view these movies in their original horrific spirit. Whether desensitized by the luridly graphic horrors of The Exorcist or Friday the 13th or unmoved by anything but the most subtle, imagination-stoking terrors of The Haunting or The Blair Witch Project, modern moviegoers associate Dracula or the Frankenstein Monster too readily with cartoons, Halloween decorations, and breakfast cereals to find Lugosi or Karloff remotely scary.

This is not necessarily tragic since these films offer so much beyond chills that they remain highly entertaining, artistic, and even poignant (these days, the Frankenstein Monster’s accidental murder of a little girl is more sad than scary). But has their potential for terror been totally drained? Those who believe themselves to be completely inoculated to Karloff’s ability to frighten may be surprised by at least one sequence in Frankenstein or another in The Mummy. Those who grew up listening to Count von Count’s Lugosi impersonation on “Sesame Street” may be prepared to do nothing but giggle during Dracula, but maybe there are scares to be found in the movie that have nothing to do with Lugosi’s performance. For your consideration, I offer five scenes from Universal horror movies that may still have the power to make the tiny hairs on your neck stand at attention.

1. The Phantom Unmasked

We begin with what must still stand as the most truly terrifying scene in any Universal horror picture, and one that may not have lost a drop of its potency over the past eighty-eight years. Erik the Phantom sits at his organ, churning out hypnotic music. Christine stands behind him, fascinated, terrified by the artist beneath the opera mask. We see the internal debate on her face: should she remove the mask? Shouldn’t she? We-the-audience know that whatever Erik is concealing can’t be good. The suspense is brutal. Finally, she makes her move. That face! That gape-eyed, noseless, skull-like face! The look of surprise, almost triumph on Erik’s face makes it all the more shocking. But that’s not all there is to this iconic scene. The Phantom leaps off his stool, turns to Christine, points his finger accusingly, stalks toward the camera, breaks the fourth wall—he is stalking toward us! No matter how many times you’ve seen Lon Chaney in his Phantom make-up, seeing this scene is like seeing it for the first time every time. That unbearable build up to the unmasking. That terrible, terrible face. Chaney’s crazed reaction and his punishing pursuit of both Christine and the audience. All this adds up to complete and timeless terror.

2. Renfield Revealed

As sinister as Dracula’s nocturnal activities may be, he is still essentially a very well dressed, good looking gentlemen who happens to spend a lot of time in a coffin or flapping around as a rubber prop bat. But he is not the only menace in Tod Browning’s Dracula. What of the count’s lackey, the wannabe vampire Renfield? Dwight Frye mainly plays Renfield comically, but there are other sides to the old fly-eater too. He displays a conscience when trying to protect Miss Mina from his boss. He is more often terrified than he is terrifying. But he is terrifying, particularly when discovered in the hull of the Vesta. Once again, the scene is a suspense/reveal structure. The men who discover the ghost ship hear muffled laughter coming from below. “What’s that?” one asks. “Why, it’s coming from the hatchway!” another responds. “Don’t look in there!” we shout. But they do, and staring up at them and us is Renfield, his eyes and grin almost glowing from the darkness, his caught-in-the-throat cackle unlike anything we’ve ever heard. Chilling.

3. Enter the Monster

Of all the Universal Monsters, the most endearing is the childlike Frankenstein Monster. Yet he receives the most frightening entrance of them all. Henry Frankenstein discusses his bizarre experiments with mentor Dr. Waldman when suddenly we hear the shuffling of heavy feet. The men turn their heads toward the door. “Here he comes,” Frankenstein says. Suspense. He dims the light. Atmosphere. The door opens. A figure backs into the room for apparently no other reason than to prolong the excruciating wait. He begins to turn around. What a relief! It’s just that old square head we’ve seen so many times. It’s Herman Munster. It’s Frankie from “The Groovie Goolies.” No big deal. But then—then—director James Whale pushes in for a series of disquieting jump cuts, throwing us right into the Monster’s face, his cheeks looking more sunken, his eyes rolling up more grotesquely in his skull than we’ve ever seen in any sitcom or cartoon. It’s the same technique Hitchcock used when he forced us to look at Dan Fawcett’s eyeless corpse in The Birds, and it’s nearly as disturbing in Frankenstein.

4. The Mummy’s Stare

The face of another well-familiar monster turns unexpectedly chilling in The Mummy, and it’s not even the monster in full-on monster mode! Karloff only appears in his famed wrappings in the brief opening scene of the movie. He spends the rest of it looking like a really wrinkly yet still fully human fellow named Ardath Bey. Perhaps it is that very thing that lulls us into believing that there will be no terrors in The Mummy and what so shocks us when there is one. Again surprise plays a key role in the shot’s effectiveness. Ardath Bey and Dr. Muller discuss the cursed scroll of Toth in medium shot in a fairly well lit room. Suddenly the perspective changes to a tight close-up of Ardath Bey’s face. The lighting has also inexplicably changed so that all is shrouded in shadow except for his eyes, which glow unnaturally, staring right into our own peepers. The effect is a simple one—director Karl Freund simply lowered the room lights and shined a couple of small spotlights directly into Karloff’s eyes. The results are as unsettling as they are unexpected.

5. Femm’s Fanaticism

Surprise has been an important element in many of these scary scenes, but it may be most effective in The Old Dark House because James Whale’s film is keener to tickle your funny bone than make your skin crawl. This deliriously fun horror/comedy suddenly shifts to the terrifying when Rebecca Femm, the religious fanatic who lives in the title house, starts ranting about her sister’s agonizing demise and the similarly “sinful” women who’ve occupied her bedroom. As the rant intensifies, Whale shows us Rebecca reflected in various objects, her face distorting more and more with each stomach-churning jump cut. If anyone ever tells you that those good old Universal horror movies are nothing but good old fun, a look at this —or any of the other five scenes on this list —just might scare that person straight.

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