Friday, October 18, 2013

Diary of the Dead 2013: Week 3

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 11

Seed of Chucky (2004- dir. Don Mancini) ***

…after taking two steps forward with Bride of Chucky we take two steps back on the third and final day of our Chucky-a-thon. In Seed of Chucky, Jennifer Tilly plays herself as the star of a new movie based on the real-life exploits of Chucky and Tiffany. Billy Boyd joins the family as the voice of Glen/Glenda, the dolls’ Pinocchio-esque (and rather incontinent) child. The problem is the movie is too mean to Tilly, who goes along with all the gags at her expense gamely enough that maybe we shouldn’t feel too sorry for her, but it still isn’t much fun to watch. There’s also a little too much truth in advertising. This isn’t just called Seed of Chucky because of Glen/Glenda; there is a lot of doll sperm in this movie from the bad CGI opening credits sequence to Chucky whacking off to an issue of Fangoria to a truly unpleasant scene in which Tiffany artificially inseminates Tilly. This must be the lazy influence of the gross-out comedies that There’s Something About Mary spawned, or perhaps it’s writer/director Don Mancini’s attempt to make a John Waters movie, since Waters is on board as a relentless paparazzo. I have no beef with a sperm joke as long as it’s funny, but Tilly getting sexually assaulted most definitely is not. I preferred Glen/Glenda, who brings a little heart to the series. He’s a good character that saves Seed of Chucky from being as blah as Child’s Play 2, and Mancini pulls a funny running gag from the dolls’ “Made in Japan” stamps and there’s a good Shining joke toward the end, so Seed of Chucky isn’t a total wash.

—And Now the Screaming Starts! (1973- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ***

The big gimmick of the delightfully titled —And Now the Screaming Starts! is that there’s no gimmick at all. Amicus, the studio best known for its portmanteaus, delivers a straightforward feature. Stephanie Beacham moves into her new husband’s old manor. The ghosts there would prefer she left. This starts as an old-fashioned old dark house movie with an eyeless ghost that emerges from paintings of Herbert Lom and a severed hand that keeps crawling around and grabbing people. Then it takes an unexpected turn from the cheesily generic to the rapey and serious. It’s OK stuff that gets a boost from Roy Ward Baker’s ever-fine direction and a geek-pleasing cast that includes Beacham, Lom, Peter Cushing, and Patrick Magee, although all but Beacham are underused.

October 13

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (2012- dir. Timur Bekmambetov) *½

Is it possible for a movie to not only be about vampires but actually be a vampire? I vote “yes,” because while watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, I felt like my brain was being sucked out of my head with the passing of every frame. I guess that would make it more of a zombie than a vampire, but let’s not get too nitpicky about a movie with such a complete disdain for history. A campy premise can be played without camp, as Don Coscarelli did so brilliantly with Bubba Ho-Tep, but it shouldn’t be played with a complete absence of self-awareness and humor… at least not with so much bad CGI. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is played so straight it ends up falling on its own stake. Indeed, the dumbest part of this symphony of dumb action and dumber editing is that it thinks it has something profound to say about human rights. You mean slavery is bad and slavers are like vampires? Keep filling my brain with knowledge! The best thing about watching Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is that my wife will now stop pressuring me to watch Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

October 14

King Kong (1976- dir. John Guilermin) ****

It’s been a good three decades since I’ve seen Dino De Laurentiis’s infamous production of King Kong. As a kid, I didn’t think it was that bad. As an adult, this opinion holds true. I liked the updates, which both make it less demanding of comparison to the (obviously) superior original and made it very relevant to a 1970s audience with its recasting of Carl Denham as a greedy oil man (is there any other kind?), Jack Driscoll as an environmentally-conscious paleontologist, and Ann Darrow as a spaced-out Hollywood starlet whose life is saved by Deep Throat only so she can be abducted by a giant gorilla. While Rick Baker in a gorilla suit is no substitute for Willis O’Brien’s marvelous special effects, the animatronic mask is much more articulate than the usual ludicrous gorilla costume. Plus it’s satisfyingly self-conscious of its shortcomings (Jack: “Who the hell do you think went through there? Some guy in an ape suit?”). Thank Lorenzo Semple, Jr., for the persistent wit; he was also the screenwriter behind many episodes of “Batman,” the wittiest TV show of the sixties.  The cast is very good too with Jeff Bridges, Chuck Grodin, and Jessica Lange keeping you from shrieking “Bring on the goddamned monkey, already!” for the first 50 minutes of the movie. I really liked it. Sue me.

Diary of a Madman (1963- dir. Reginald Le Borg) ***

Vincent Price holds down the fort in this adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s story “Le Horla.” A condemned man is under the influence of a murderous entity called the Horla. When he suddenly dies in the presence of Price, our star becomes the new host. Because it’s a period spook story from a literary source starring Vincent Price, it’s hard not to compare it to Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures of the same period. The relatively style-less, chintzy, and talky Diary of a Madman suffers in that comparison, but Price puts his customary all into the role of the tortured magistrate and Nancy Kovack is very watchable as a gold-digging yet conflicted model. There’s also a pretty neat animated effect in which Price’s sculpture transforms from a smiley Nancy to a frowny Nancy. That statue is also involved in the movie’s one truly effective scare.

October 15

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012- dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) **

Poor Katie Featherston. She’s a good actress. Must she be forever doomed to skulk around in sequel after sequel after sequel of the Paranormal Activity series? As was the case in part 3, Katie is actually a minor player. The main characters are a bunch of kids, and since this latest installment is set in the present instead of the halcyon days of 2006, there’s no need to explain why everything is being filmed even before the weird stuff starts happening, because kids (and most adults) today just live their lives through their cell phone viewfinders. Progress! The Paranormal Activity movies, however, have not progressed. Shadows dash in the background. Doors move. Stairs thump. Chandeliers sway. People sleep. The most significant addition is the reliance on fake-out scares, which occur at a truly absurd rate. What started as a really, really scary little movie has become just another formulaic horror franchise. And there’s no end in sight! Paranormal Activity 5 is in the works for 2014! At least we all get a break this year.

October 16

The Hands of Orlac (1924- dir. Robert Wiene) ***

Five years after making The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the first feature horror film and the paragon of German Expressionism, Robert Wiene adapted Maurice Renard’s perennial terror tale about Paul Orlac, a pianist who loses his hands in a train crash and receives a transplant from a deceased murderer whose extremities have not lost their yen for killing. While the subject matter is wackier than that of Caligari, the visual style is much less phantasmagoric. Wiene only really lets his imagination loose during Orlac’s dream of his hands’ former owner, and even that sequence does not approach the nightmarish distortions of Caligari. Comparison to Karl Freund’s frothing 1935 remake Mad Love also makes Orlac seem tame. On its own merits, The Hands of Orlac is a good shadow-submerged creeper and Conrad Veidt does his usual wonderfully weird work as Orlac. However, the nearly two-hour version of this originally ninety-minute film is unnecessarily drawn out and the ending is disappointing.

Zombie High (1987- dir. Ron Link) **½

An awesome cast (Virginia Madsen! Sherilyn Fenn! Paul Feig!) attends a high school academy where everyone listens to the worst generic pop songs in the world and their classmates get transformed into brain-dead conformists in the bio lab. What starts as tongue-in-cheek, retro-eighties fun turns turgid once that cast starts going under the knife and Madsen turns into Nancy Drew. Ultimately, Zombie High makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously, and what could have been a cool paranoid horror satire ends up being a bland paranoid horror movie. The true story of Aziz Ghazal—a guy who killed himself, his wife, and his daughter—is much more horrifying than anything in Zombie High, the movie he wrote and produced.

October 17

Attack of the Puppet People (1958- dir. Bert I. Gordon) ****

The cigar-sucking execs at AIP suss that if the kids will turn out for an Incredible Shrinking Man they will surely quadruple their numbers for a whole crowd of Incredible Shrinking Men and Women. John Hoyt commits himself delightfully to the role of Mr. Franz, a lonely doll maker who miniaturizes folks to add to his collection. Few villains are so endearing. Bert I. Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People most certainly is not the profound classic that Jack Arnold’s film is, and the “dolls” in suspended animation are clearly two-dimensional photographs, so it doesn’t always wow on the special-effects front. Big deal! Attack of the Puppet People remains one of AIP’s most charming and poignant B-horrors. You’d have to be a super-sized ass wipe to not want to get shrunk down so you could dance to Rock & Roll on Mr. Franz’s desktop. What fun! Director Gordon was really into this kind of stuff. His other films included such size-shifting epics as The Amazing Colossal Man (which June Kenney and John Agar watch at a drive-in in Puppet People!), War of the Colossal Beast, Village of the Giants, and The Food of the Gods. His nickname “Mister B.I.G.” was not unearned.
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