Friday, October 4, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 1

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.

September 30

Horror Express (1972- dir. Eugenio Martin) ****

Christopher Lee is a scientist transporting a “fossil” from China to Moscow aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Lies! The parcel is really a monkey man, and not the good kind like Mick Jagger. This is a bad monkey that makes people bleed out of their eyeballs. I don’t have to tell you that it’s always a pleasure to watch Lee and Peter Cushing, who plays a fellow scientist, at work together. The pace is brisk, the production values are quite nice, and the horror-movie-on-a-train concept is pretty original (with all due respect to Agatha Christie). The villain is grotesque enough that he manages to recapture a bit of the classic monstrosity of the Mummy or the Wolf Man, which is good since apes are always such disappointing monsters. The third act introduction of some totally unexpected gonzo humor by way of Telly Savalas’s Cossack captain and a sci-fi twist that must have gotten Chris Carter’s attention elevates Horror Express from schlock masquerading as art to the other way around. A great start to this Halloween season… hoorah!

Dracula [Spanish Language Version] (1931- dir. George Melford) ***

You probably already know the story: to increase the international appeal of its new horror cycle, Universal produced a Spanish-language version of Dracula on nights after Tod Browning’s English version wrapped for the day. Director George Melford would watch Browning’s dailies in a conscious effort to figure out how he could upstage his counterpart, which he did with more thoughtfully designed shots and more fluid camera work. While many commentators will tell you Melford ended up with the superior film, I believe his Dracula is inferior for two reasons: no Lugosi and no Frye. As the Count, Carlos Villarias’s comic mugging can’t hold a candle to one of cinema’s most iconic performances. As Renfield, Pablo Alvarez Rubio goes for screaming hysteria, but Dwight Frye’s intense interpretation is infinitely creepier. The Spanish-language Dracula also runs a saggy, talky half-hour longer than Browning’s tidy film. The one choice that resoundingly trumped the English-language Dracula was casting Lupita Tovar as Eva, this film’s Mina. Tovar is sexy dynamite while Helen Chandler is a slightly damp sparkler at best.

October 1

The Boogens (1981- dir. James L. Conway) ***

This movie was a big topic of discussion in my household when I was a kid solely because my parents thought The Boogens was a hilarious title for a scary movie.  So does The Boogens get the title it deserves? Well, yes in the sense that it’s fairly amusing and not always unintentionally. Miners awaken a monster after a century of slumber, and it starts doing its thing amidst a pretty, snowy landscape. To make up for the paucity of monster time, we get a cast of likably goofy, perpetually horny characters led by Rebecca Balding, whom you may remember from “Soap,” and Anne-Marie Martin, whom you also may remember from the wacko ’80s comedy “Sledgehammer.” Once the Boogens finally started boogening, I was sorrier to see these people go than I usually am while watching a movie of this sort. The Boogens reaches it’s full goof-ball potential with the appearance of creatures that look like rubber turtles with tentacles, which probably explains why we don’t get a good look at them until six minutes before the closing credits.

October 2

Leviathan (1989- dir. George P. Cosmatos) ***½

More mining mishaps! Precious metal miners go rummaging 16,000 feet in the ocean where no one but the fishies can hear you scream. They rustle up a body-invading sea monster. Leviathan is a straight-up Alien rip off, right down to its Nostromo-copy submarine and its co-ed character actor cast. That cast—featuring Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Ernie Hudson, Daniel Stern, and Hector Elizondo—and a few body horror effects nicked from John Carpenter’s The Thing make Leviathan entertaining even if Ridley Scott did it a lot better in 1979 (Amanda Pays is no Sigourney Weaver). A bonus half-star for the absurd decision to become Jaws in the final five minutes.

Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961- dir. Roger Corman) ****

Snazzy, jazzy attitude and in-on-the-joke comedy elevate another Roger Corman no-budget amateur hour to brilliance. Counterrevolutionaries hire an American gangster to smuggle the gold treasury out of Cuba. An American agent (played by future Chinatown scribe Robert Towne under an alias!) is aboard the escape vessel to topple the scheme. An unexpected interruption from a heap of moss with cue ball eyes complicates matters further. Corman doesn’t take a frame of it seriously, and his depiction of the Americans as utter buffoons was pretty daring at such a hot stage of the Cold War (Kubrick wouldn’t try this trick for another three years!). A drive-in movie for kids who thought Little Shop of Horrors was too solemn.

This Is the End (2013- dir. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) ***½

Judd Apatow’s stock company holes up in James Franco’s pad while the world outside goes to shit. Is it the Biblical Rapture? Alien attack? Zombiepocalypse? Doesn’t really matter. What matters is the onslaught of gags, which is quite the bombardment. They’re pretty hit-or-miss and often dependent on your tolerance for dude humor, Hollywood in-jokes, and the Back Street Boys. There’s something a little lonesome about knowing I’m not having nearly as much fun watching This Is the End as the guys had making it, but a movie in which Emma Watson axe-murders a giant penis sculpture and Michael Cera gets impaled on a telephone pole can’t be all bad.

October 3

Cujo (1983- dir. Lewis Teague) ***½

I’ve tried making it through the novel Cujo a couple of times, but Stephen King’s looong build up to what I know will be a killer pooch story always kills my progress. I also tried making it through Lewis Teague’s adaptation once before but couldn’t do it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, because Cujo is actually a good minimalistic horror movie. The little town setting is pleasing even when not much is happening (which is fairly often), and Dee Wallace retains her tiara as the most accomplished scream queen of them all. As many have pointed out before me, little Danny Pintauro of “Who’s the Boss” is good as Wallace’s monster-phobic son, and he pulls off the movie’s most effective scare when suffering a seizure. Teague also wrings as much exhausting tension out of the climactic showdown between mother, son, and dog as is imaginable, but the story’s central issue remains hard to ignore: no matter how much they may need a bath, St. Bernards are not scary. Even after Cujo had been pounding on Wallace’s car with egg yolk on his face for 40 minutes I still wanted to scratch him behind his ears and give him a biscuit.

So this has been a pretty good opening week for Diary of the Dead 2013. None of the films have won the elusive five-star review, but none dipped below a respectable three-stars. Don’t fear though. I’ll be sure to watch some real pieces of crap next week. Stay tuned…
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