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) **

A year after the release of Blacula, a totally different production team attempted to suck up some of its success by African-Americanizing that other perennial monster fave. Despite its blaxploitative title, Blackenstein never makes race an issue, which is the only surprising thing about this otherwise by-numbers D-monster movie. Big Eddie loses his limbs in Vietnam (even though we can clearly see his legs beneath his bed sheet), and Dr. Stein does his darnedest to piece him back together again. But Stein’s jealous assistant shits up the plan. Blackenstein has too much affection for classic monster movies—right down to the stock music score— to totally hate it but the acting is mostly atrocious and the pace is slower than a monster in hobnail boots. The only things that make it worth a look are John Dennis’s incongruously good performance as a bitter hospital attendant and a cameo by Liz Renay of future Desperate Living fame as one of Eddie’s victims. Overall, this is one bad, bad movie… so bad that plans to follow it up with The Blackvisible Man and The Blackture from the Black Blackgoon were cancelled.

ParaNorman (2012- dir. Sam Fell & Chris Butler) ***½

Laika, the studio that made the spellbinding Coraline, follows with ParaNorman, the tale of a kid who can talk to the dead and ends up having to thwart a zombie uprising. While Coraline was a scary and moody horror movie fit for pre-teens, ParaNorman is a louder, cutesier, and more message oriented comedy for younger kids. Nevertheless, the multiple messages are positive—be yourself, bullying is bad, it’s OK to forgive, burning witches is bad— and the tactile stop-motion animation is infinitely more enchanting than anything you’ll find in those digitized Pixar flicks. I think I’m a tad too old to fully appreciate ParaNorman, but I’m sure I would have given it another star when I was nine.

October 22

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957- dir. Roger Corman) ***½

Roger Corman day! Corman excelled at making weird movies, so it’s no small thing to say that Attack of the Crab Monsters is one of his weirdest. Nuclear radiation from the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests not only makes crabs grow to requisite 1950s sci-fi proportions but also makes them absorb the brains of dead people, thereby acquiring intelligence, telepathic communication skills, the ability to cause landslides, and bizarre human-like faces. What makes this weirder than, say, The Little Shop of Horrors or Creature from the Haunted Sea is the seriousness with which it’s all played. Though the tone is dour it’s all a bit too goofy to take seriously, and I would have preferred more time spent with those kooky crab monsters than the blabbermouth scientists who encounter them. The time we do get with those monsters, a cool credits sequence, great underwater photography, and a truly original premise make Attack of the Crab Monsters better than your average B-movie.

The Terror (1963- dir. Roger Corman) ***

Jack Nicholson is a lieutenant in Napoleon’s army who tracks ghostly Sandra Knight to Boris Karloff’s decrepit castle. It took two writers to compose a script that clearly just instructed, “Jack walks down hall and opens door” for pages and pages on end. Roger Corman commissioned that script for no other reason than to get his every penny’s worth from the sets he used for The Raven and take advantage of the three extra days Karloff agreed to make himself available. No wonder Corman wanted to keep shooting on the castle sets: they’re magnificent. Consequently, The Terror looks great, and that cast— which also includes Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, and Dorothy Neumann— is impressive too. However, the desperation of this production with its patchy story further confused by four different directors (including Nicholson, co-screenwriter Jack Hill, Monte Hellman, and Francis Ford Coppola) tacking additional scenes willy nilly onto Corman’s footage is impossible to ignore. Of that cast, only Neumann rises above the perfunctory to give an enjoyably camp performance as an old witch. The Terror is not as bad as its infamous reputation suggests, but the only scene that makes good on its terrifying title is the one in which Haze gets his eyes pecked out by a hawk…well, that is unless you think the image of Sandra Knight with honey on her face is particularly terrifying.

October 23

Mars Attacks! (1996- dir. Tim Burton) **½

Tim Burton day! He began his period of relentless and usually pointless adaptations in 1996, but at least he started with a novel property. “Mars Attacks” was a gruesome Topps trading card series from the early sixties that ended up getting the axe in the same unceremonious way E.C.’s horror comics of the fifties did. Burton’s Mars Attacks! isn’t so much gruesome as it is silly and shallow. The premise is basically a Martian invasion as experienced by groups of celebrities placed in a casino, a trailer park, a TV station, an apartment building, and a White House. I guess the joke is that no character is intended to have any more depth than one you’d find on a trading card, presumably because we’re supposed to want to see these obnoxious caricatures get zapped or have their heads swapped with Chihuahuas. That would be fine if the jokes were consistently funny. Hyperactivity is not the same thing as mirth, so Mars Attacks! only becomes the screwball fun it wants to be in fits (President Jack Nicholson’s peace accord with the head Martian, Lisa Marie’s cameo as a Martian in beehive disguise, and Slim Whitman’s role in battling the invaders, for example). The cost-cutting CGI Martians undermine the retro aesthetic that would have been better achieved if the budget allowed the stop-motion effects Burton wanted. Overall, the movie is too blasé to despise, so this isn’t Tim Burton’s worst movie by a long shot, but if I have the choice between rewatching Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Ed Wood, or Beetlejuice for the fiftieth time or Mars Attacks! for the third, I know exactly what my decision will be.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005- dir. Tim Burton & Mike Johnson) ****½

On the eve of his arranged marriage, a young man accidentally weds a corpse while taking a walk through a creepy forest. We’ve all been there. I might be the only person on the planet who prefers Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride to The Nightmare Before Christmas. While Nightmare looks fabulous and is simply bursting with wonderful creatures, I don’t really care about the characters and I don’t really care for the musical numbers. Corpse Bride sacrifices a smidgen of the visual wow for a more adult, and well, gross love-triangle story (this is one of the very few romances in which the leading lady has a talking maggot living in her eye socket) and whittles down the songs and dances to a manageable level. And when I say, “it sacrifices visuals,” I just mean it isn’t quite as colorful or loaded with crazy monsters as the first stop-motion movie Burton produced. Corpse Bride still looks incredible in its nearly monochromatic black and blue palette, and the Technicolor underworld sequences approach Nightmare’s dazzle. But what makes this movie wonderful is the likable characters dealing with some pretty complex relationships acted by an utterly stunning roster of British actors that includes Emily Watson, Albert Finney, Helena Bonham Carter, Joanna Lumley, Tracy Ullman, Richard E. Grant, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gough, and Christopher Lee. Yow! Oh…and there’s also Johnny Depp, because I’m pretty sure Tim Burton can’t even go to the bathroom without Johnny Depp.

October 24

The Other (1972- dir. Robert Mulligan) ****

Death looms over a bucolic town where a little boy dreams of escape while his brother is content to hang out in the barn, kill rats, and give his bro a severed finger for his birthday. Though this is one of the literally sunniest horror movies I’ve ever seen, Robert Mulligan chills his adaptation of Thomas Tryon’s novel with an air of low-key mystery and mysticism. The seedy carnivals, creepy kids, and horrible (though non-graphic) deaths keep The Other mesmerizing even though the big twist isn’t too surprising. More shocking is how unrepentantly grim it all turns out. Chris and Martin Udvoronky are good as country time Kane and Abel, but Uta Hagen rules the school as the boys’ babushka. Also look out for baby-faced John Ritter in a small role in this excellent little movie.

The Dunwich Horror (1970- dir. Daniel Hailer) ***½

Old-one-worshipping Dean Stockwell gets freaky in AIP’s loosey goosey adaptation of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s best-loved pieces of mystical mumbo jumbo. With its psychedelic hallucination sequences of orgying longhaired weirdos, this is kind of like a horror movie made by a guy who’s terrified of hippies. Casting queen of the white-bread straights, Sandra Dee, as the tormentee intensifies that feeling. This Dunwich Horror ends up being a great big Rosemary’s Baby rip (there’s also a scene straight out of The Birds), but some of the chintzy scares are so strangely executed that they end up being kind of disquieting. Distorted lenses, solarization, and strobe effects contribute much to the pungent bad trip mood. Plus it’s fun watching some gun-worshipping rednecks become demon food. Too bad that doesn’t happen more often in the real world.

See you on Halloween for the repugnant conclusion of Diary of the Dead 2013!
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