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!
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