Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Diary of the Dead 2014

Every year I log my Monster Movie Month © viewing with ultra-mini reviews at the end of every week in October in a fiendish feature I call Diary of the Dead. This year I altered the scheme slightly for a single, season-ending post.

I wrote it. You read it. No one needs to get hurt.

Oct. 1

Rodan (1956- dir. Ishirō Honda) **

One of the most iconic giant Japanese monsters first appeared in a pretty boring movie. Miners discover a baby pterodactyl that looks and moves like a kite. It terrorizes Japan without a smidgen of the moodiness of its forefather, Gojira. Amazing that Ishirō Honda followed that masterpiece with such a lazy picture. Rodan would only become fun when paired with Gojira, as we shall soon see.

We Are What We Are (2013- dir. Jim Mickie) ***

I haven’t seen the Mexican film upon which this cannibal family flick was based, so I can’t make any unfavorable comparisons. Taken on its own merits, the American We Are What We Are is refreshingly atmospheric. It’s also deliberately paced, which I usually like, but this one’s a little too deliberate, bordering on tedious. It’s also a bit empty aside from its fairly subtle critique of the patriarchy. On the plus side, it has Michael Parks, which is worth at least half a star.

Oct. 3

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964- Ishirō Honda) ***½

This is more like it. Since Honda didn’t seem interested in/capable of recapturing the grimness of Gojira he took his kaiju franchise to its logical camp conclusion. Rodan is back and less turgid in mood if not motion. So is Gojira and giant bug Mothra. The old rampaging monsters experience a change of heart when faced with three-headed dragon Ghidorah. They actually have a conversation about whether or not they should assist humanity by offing the new menace! Plus there are those wacky fairy twins, who appear on a crazy TV talk show. Perhaps not great fun, but certainly good fun.

Oct. 4

The Kiss of the Vampire (1963- Don Sharp) **½

While Christopher Lee continued to shun the cape, Hammer soldiered on after the success of Brides of Dracula for another Lee-deprived vampire flick. Don Sharp’s The Kiss of the Vampire isn’t nearly as good as Terence Fisher’s movie from the same year. The “wild kids who turn their backs on religion and leave home for the big, bad city turn into vampires” premise is tiresomely conservative. Everything we know about vampire mythology contradicts the totally bizarre though admittedly fun climax. Kiss does possess the usual sumptuous Hammer production values and Sharp takes them in with some well-considered camerawork. Still The Kiss of the Vampire isn’t one of the studio’s best by a long shot.

Oct. 6

Something Evil (1972- dir. Steven Spielberg) **½

This made-for-TV movie is most notable as Little Stevie Spielberg’s follow up to Duel. You’ve heard of that and haven’t heard of Something Evil because Duel is a lot better. Something Evil is about demonic possession in a rural town and its attempts to freak you out with glowing jam jars is more baffling than amusing. The cast—Sandy Dennis, Darren McGavin, Ralph Bellamy, and that redheaded kid from “Family Affair”—is definitely worth a mention even if Dennis gives a really shrill performance here.

Son of Dracula (1974- dir. Freddie Francis) *½

Son of Dracula is a bizarre vampire-musical from the great Freddie Francis and one of those notorious “what the hell were they thinking?” movies. At the height of his popularity, Harry Nilsson stars as the title character, who wishes to be human so he can snuggle with Suzanna Leigh without feeling the urge to snack on her jugular. Ringo Starr plays along as Merlin. Freddie Jones is Baron Frankenstein, and there are cameos by Keith Moon, John Bonham, Klauss Voormann, Leon Russell, and Peter Frampton. These ingredients should have added up to a “so bad its good” whole. They don’t. Although this is often described as a comedy, there isn’t a single joke or attempt at humor in it, unless bad-acting counts. The fact that Son of Drac’s name is “Count Downe” certainly does not qualify as a joke. Son of Dracula is really just a lot of feet-shuffling dullness broken up by the occasional good tune and the eardrum-violating histrionics of “Without You”. At least that song allows the otherwise wooden Nilsson an opportunity to emote.

Oct. 8

Terror Is a Man (1959- dir. Gerardo de Leon) *½

Have I seen every horror movie worth watching? Because almost everything I’m watching this month that I’ve never seen before is mediocre at best and terrible at worst. Terror Is a Man, a Phillippine/American movie allegedly (and loosely) based on The Island of Dr. Moreau, is on the terrible end of the spectrum. It’s boring as hell and H.G. Wells’s thrilling menagerie has been reduced to a single panther man. If you like watching people talk regardless of what they’re saying, this is the movie for you.

Oct. 9

The Midnight Hour (1985- dir. Jack Bender) ***½

OK, so it ain’t all bad. In 1985, Jack Bender (who’d go on to write for “The Sopranos” and produce “Lost”) put The Midnight Hour on TV, and it is replete with cheesy eighties Halloween fun. A bunch of fairly recognizable young actors (LeVar Burton, Shari Belafonte, Peter DeLuise, Dedee Pfeiffer, Lee Montgomery) goof around with spells in a graveyard on Halloween night and raise zombies, a werewolf, and a pretty cheerleader who died in the sixties. There’s one of those parties at which everyone wears really expensive store-bought costumes, a goofy song and dance number, a lot of great songs on the soundtrack (The Smiths, Creedence, Sam the Sham, Del Shannon, Three Dog Night, Barbara Lewis, Wilson Pickett, of course), and a surprisingly poignant love story that develops between Montgomery and the cheerleader.

Oct. 10

Trilogy of Terror (1975- dir. Dan Curtis) ***

I guess this year’s semi-theme is made-for-TV horror movies, because here’s another one. Trilogy of Terror is also one of the most famous (rivaled only by Salem’s Lot and It). That fame solely sits with the third tale in this trilogy from writer Richard Matheson. “Amelia”, in which Karen Black is terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll, is scary, exciting, and packing one of the all-time chilling endings. It’s a five-star mini-horror movie. The other two tales each cost Trilogy of Terror a star. In “Julie”, Black plays a mousy teacher who is date-raped by a student. Although there’s more to the story than that, it remains misogynistic through the twist. Black stars as good-and-evil twins in the predictable “Millicent and Therese”, which is more boring than offensive. Still, your horror education is incomplete without “Amelia”.

Oct. 11

Birth of the Living Dead (2013- dir. Rob Kuhns) ****

Birth of the Living Dead is a really solid documentary on Night of the Living Dead. By just focusing on the original film, director Rob Kuhns can really get into its sundry elements, from how it reinvented the zombie movie (although one could certainly argue that Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies got the ball rolling two years earlier) and race relations in American cinema. The political aspects of the film in comparison to contemporaries like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night is the most fascinating aspect of this film. Also fascinating are the reactions of some really young school kids who apparently watched Night of the Living Dead as some sort of class project. The presence of George Romero lends extra legitimacy to the whole thing. I only wish some of the surviving cast members (or even some off the non-surviving cast members) were on board to get in on the first-hand reminiscing.

Oct. 12

Invaders from Mars (1986- dir. Tobe Hooper) **½

Hey, everyone! It’s pointless remakes day! We start with Tobe Hooper’s version of William Cameron Menzies’s classic 1953 sci-fi paranoia flick about a kid who suspects his neighborhood has become overrun by body-snatching Martians. What plays as charmingly quaint in a fifties film comes off as uncomfortably conservative in a Reagan-era movie in which Marines boast about having “no qualms about killing Martians.” Hooper doesn’t seem to be aiming for camp, which is why his movie can almost be enjoyed as camp. Stan Winston’s space monsters and the cast are great.

Carrie (2013- dir. Kimberly Peirce) **

If Gus Van Sant had never attempted to recreate Hitchcock’s Psycho shot-for-shot, this recent version of Carrie might have been the definitive pointless remake. Instead, it’s just pointless. This is not a reinterpretation of Stephen King’s novel, which is different from Brian DePalma’s 1976 film in several significant ways. It is a remake of DePalma’s movie, some shots being identical. Kimberly Peirce replaces DePalma’s camp humor with texting, YouTube, and iphones, which of course, sucks. The cast is all wrong too. While it was smart of Peirce to cast actual young people as her high schoolers (as opposed to Sissy Spacek, who was a veritable old-fogey at 27 when she starred in the good Carrie), they’re all too non-descript. Chloë Grace Moretz is a good actress, but she’s most at home when sneering and spitting devastating one-liners in stuff like Kick-Ass and “30 Rock”. She just can’t sell Carrie’s awkwardness no matter how often she stands pigeon-toed or rests her chin on her chest. Julianne Moore is one of my favorite actresses, but not even she can make you forget how utterly fabulous Piper Laurie was as Carrie’s crazy mom. A waste of 99 minutes.

Oct. 13

Doc of the Dead (2014- dir. Alexandre O. Philippe) ***½

Doc of the Dead is another good zombie documentary. It flings its net a lot further than Birth of the Living Dead, so it has a lot more to bite off and chew than that movie. There’s only so much of this all-consuming genre you can cover in 81 minutes, but Alexandre O. Philippe does a valiant job dealing with the Romero-esque movies, the voodoo origins, the video games, the super fans who dress like zombies and go on organized marches, and the eternal “fast vs. slow” debate. The talking heads are an impressive lot: Bruce Campbell, Simon Pegg, Greg Nicotero, Stuart Gordon, Tom Savini, and Fran Kranz (from the superb Cabin in the Woods). Romero is back too. You’d think he’d be sick of chatting about zombies at this point.

Oct. 15

Leprechaun (1993- dir. Mark Jones) *½

Mark Jones’s attempt to turn the mythical avaricious Irish creature into a wisecracking mini-Freddy Kruger is neither funny nor fun nor scary. The first hour is painfully slow and talky, which is certain death for a movie as formulaic and corny as Leprechaun. By the time it turns into a live action Looney Tunes cartoon in the final half hour, it’s too late. Today the movie’s greatest claim to fame is the presence of the ubiquitous Jennifer Aniston. I was more impressed by the presence of Fran-siss from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (in an embarrassing role as a developmentally challenged man who dresses like Chucky), the male stripper from Summer School, and one of the Darryls from “Newhart”. Makes you long for the days when Warwick Davis was playing Wicket the Ewok. It’s that bad.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975- dir. Jim Sharman) ****

Everyone knows the ideal way to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show is at midnight with an audience of toilet-tissue-tossing maniacs in garter belts (preferably after doing the time warp back to 1976). Still Roger Ebert was exaggerating when he said something to the effect of he could think of nothing more depressing than watching the movie at home alone. It actually holds up pretty well without the TP and toast. You may not find another movie in which everyone involved commits so completely to such transgressive, plot-less material (at least outside of a John Waters movie). I’m certain that a million other people have described Tim Curry as “a force of nature” as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, but I’ll pretend they haven’t and that I’m the first to make the following definitive statement: Tim Curry is a force of nature as Dr. Frank-N-Furter. And keep your eye on Patricia Quinn at all times, because she’s always doing something funny in the background. Most important of all, there isn’t a single unmemorable song on the soundtrack. Not one. Even Meatloaf’s song is good! The only real problem is that for what it is, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a good fifteen or twenty minutes too long. Otherwise, it’s well worthy of wearing its crown as the queen of all midnight movies.

Oct. 17

I Don’t Want to Be Born (aka: The Devil within Her) (1975- dir. Peter Sasdy) ****

Outrageous terribleness oozes from every glorious frame of I Don’t Want to Be Born. Joan Collins gives birth to a demon baby that despite not wanting to be born (as the film’s title and Dr. Donald Pleasence direly inform us) is, and immediately takes a chomp out of mom. A shot of the genuinely adorable infant with blood trickling down its chin sets the tone for a film that director Peter Sasdy must have intended to be a comedy. The baby is the unholy offspring of a curse imparted by a little person (George Claydon of Magical Mystery Tour) whose advances stripper Joan spurns. Seventies horror fans will go ga-ga over a cast that includes Collins, Pleasence, Hilary Mason (of Don’t Look Now), Ralph Bates (of several Hammer pictures and doing a bad Italian accent here), and Caroline Munro (ditto the Hammer pictures and doing an even badder cockney accent). However, it is multi-award winning Royal Shakespearean actress Dame Eileen Atkins who gives the film’s finest performance as an Italian nun who believes the child is possessed by “the day-vell.” I suspect she and Pleasence (and possibly the baby) were the only ones who fully understood the comedic possibilities of the movie they were making. The wah-wah and moog-saturated soundtrack compliments the period cheesiness perfectly. If you’re one of those boring people who only enjoy movies that are actually good, this isn’t for you. Everyone else: dive in!

Oct. 18

The Believers (1987- dir. John Schlesinger) **

John Schlesinger made such classics as Billy Liar, Darling, and Midnight Cowboy, so it’s a bit perplexing and more than a little off putting to see him sleepwalk through this rote voodoo/Santería movie. Racial and ethnic stereotypes abound, and a lot of the blame for that lies with screenwriter Mark Frost, who’d do infinitely better work on “Twin Peaks” a couple of years later. The Believers often borders on camp (a puddle of milk murders Martin Sheen’s wife in the first scene). It would have been wiser to move more assuredly in that direction. Instead this movie is just lazy and racist. The last minute twist is pretty good though. Twilight Time’s new blu-ray looks good, so if you’re a fan of The Believers for some reason, you might want to check it out.

Oct 19

The Last Man on Earth (1964- dir. Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow) ***

The first adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—the twentieth century’s best horror novel not written by Stephen King—is a low-budget AIP offering starring an atypically subdued Vincent Price. The rest of the picture is pretty subdued too. The first twenty minutes basically consists of Price shopping for garlic, slicing up garlic, and sniffing garlic. I don’t like garlic very much, so that didn’t thrill me. When the vampires start to attack after sundown, it’s hard not to notice how similar The Last Man on Earth is to Night of the Living Dead, but the two directors never manage the heightened horror George Romero achieved. The film is at its most powerful when dealing with loss, not horror, and it can be quite emotionally affecting at time, whether Price is watching his family succumb to the vampire virus in flashback or burying the dog that is literally his only friend in the world. The nihilistic ending is haunting.

Oct 20

Shivers (1976- dir. David Cronenberg) ***

After a lot of TV-work and a couple early arthouse flicks, David Cronenberg’s career truly began when the Canadian government started financing his projects, the first of which being Shivers (aka: They Came from Within). This is straight-up Cronenberg-101, with the human body being portrayed as a gross hunk of meat easily manipulated into doing gross things like sex by gross fluke worms. Films such as this are easier to relate to as psychological self-analyses than relatable horror movies unless you share Cronenberg’s disgust of the human body. I think sex is nice, so the ugly and violent way he portrays it in Shivers strikes me as sad. Nevertheless, Cronenberg knows how to make a horror movie even if this one is crude compared to later works like The Brood and The Fly. At least it has Barbara Steele, a sense of humor (though it sits uncomfortably with all the sexual assaults), and isn’t nearly as pretentious as Videodrome. How people make it through that movie without laughing themselves stupid is beyond me.

Oct 21

“The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” (1976- dir. Sidney Smith) Ummm, zero stars? A million stars? Who the fuck knows?

Comedian/actor/center square Paul Lynde’s infamous 1976 Halloween special is your textbook seventies variety show. It’s a magnificently shitty witch’s brew of horrible songs, dated references (“Welcome Back, Kotter”, “Baretta”, Billy Jack, Alice Cooper), ridiculous guest stars (Donny and Marie, Pinky Tuscadero, Witchiepoo), and awful Bruce Vilanch “jokes.” This piece of trash’s greatest claim to fame is a performance by KISS, though let’s face it, KISS Army, the band you worship is as dated, ridiculous, awful, and tacky as the rest of “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special”. More legitimately cool is the chance to see Margaret Hamilton re-don her Wicked Witch of the West get up. That’s actually really awesome. And of course, so is “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special”. Hey, Psychobabblers, nostalgia can’t be all Beatles and Hitchcock and all those other old-timey things that are actually good. What would be the fun in that?

Oct 22

Voodoo Man (1944- dir. William Beaudine) ****

My wife recently got me a really cool framed advertisement for Voodoo Man (in French!), and though I hung it up, I felt like a great big poseur since I’d never actually seen this little zombie flick starring Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and George Zucco. YouTube to the rescue. Voodoo Man is interesting because while most Lugosi vehicles tried to cash-in on Dracula, this one attempts to recreate White Zombie with Bela once again playing zombie-master in evening dress and facial hair, the camera lingering on his eyes as it did when he played Murder Legendre. His Merlin robe is a nice original touch though. Lugosi’s fellow scenery-chewers Zucco and Carradine help procure starlets for the revivifying experiments. That great cast of creeps, atmospherically shadowy direction from the astoundingly prolific William Beaudine (the cat is known to have made about 350 pictures…maybe more!), and a witty script with a postmodern streak help Voodoo Man transcend its Poverty Row origins. Now I really have no reason to feel ashamed for displaying an ad for it.
Oct 23

Las brujas de Zugarramurdi aka: Witching and Bitching) (2013- dir. Alex de la Iglesia) *

A band of gold thieves land in a coven after their big heist. Alex de la Iglesia blatantly, blatantly steals the unique structure of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, swapping out vampires for witches and a shitload of misogyny. OK, that English title should have been a tip-off, but I read so many positive reviews that I thought Witching and Bitching might be a sly reversal of the sexist slur, like feminist Bitch magazine. Sadly, no. This Spanish horror comedy really does suggest strong women are evil and weaker ones are jealous, whiny, and needy and should be relegated to vapid motherhood (supposedly, this attitude is the result of Iglesia going through a divorce when he made the movie. Oh, boo-hoo). The gore-splattered packaging around this bullshit is neither original nor entertaining nor funny enough to justify its existence. I’m giving this movie half-a-star because at least it looks good…which is probably the only positive thing Iglesia would say about a woman.

Oct 25

The Haunted Palace (1963- dir. Roger Corman) ****

Roger Corman cashes in on past successes by selecting the title of a Poe poem for The Haunted Palace, but Charles Beaumont’s script is actually an adaptation of Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Vincent Price is a warlock who vows to git the descendents of the sniveling schmucks who burned him at the stake. 110 years later, he possesses his own descendent (also Price) to carry out his plan and summon an Elder God. The parts of The Haunted Palace are greater than its saggy-in-the-center whole. But, man, those parts are groovy: two Prices for the price of one, foggy graveyards, a creepy portrait, a rat and spider infested castle, monsters, torch-toting mobs, Lon Chaney Jr. in green makeup, Elisha Cook with webbed fingers, demonic possession, human sacrifice, crypts, curses, spells, and Cathie Merchant as a sexy witchy woman. Leo Gordon is really good as a totally terrified descendent, and I’m pretty sure Toto ripped off the soundtrack for the title music of Dune.

Oct. 26
Summer of Fear (aka: Stranger in Our House) (1978- Wes Craven) ***½

Linda Blair's aunt and uncle croak in a car crash, and her orphaned adult cousin comes to live with her at her familys fancy horse ranch. The cousin turns out to have issues—eeeeevil issues. When I first saw the made-for-TV Summer of Fear (which I knew as Stranger in Our House) at the age of five or six, it terrified me. Terr-i-fied me. Its insidious “Im the only one who realizes the monster is a monster” premise, hellish climax, and queasy slow-mo closing credits gave me years of nightmares. When I finally rewatched it about fifteen years later I was so struck by how much it no longer scared me that I wrote the whole thing off as a piece of crap. Actually, if you can look past the atrocious hairdos, it isn’t bad. Linda Blair is really good, and she and cousin Lee Purcell have great antagonistic chemistry. It’s too bad Blair didn’t have more of a career beyond a few seventies horror flicks. It’s also interesting to see Wes Craven tone down his usual schtick for a subtler approach to horror. 

Oct. 27

The Horror Show (1979- Richard Schickel) ***

Today documentaries on horror cinema are a dime a dozen (why, just this month I watched two about the specific topic of zombie movies). This was not the case in 1979 when Richard Schickels The Horror Show aired on CBS TV. So we can forgive the primitiveness of the format. Anthony Perkins plays host, giving very general details on our favorite genre: its origins, tropes, ways of playing on our fears, major stars, and major films. Clips from those films are really what The Horror Show is about, and you cant say it skimps on that level. Not limited to any particular studio, we get snips from silents such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, golden age movies such as Dracula and King Kong, the atom-age ones of the fifties, the Hammer flicks of the sixties, right up to the devil and nature-in-revolt ones of (then) present day seventies. The Horror Show won’t tell you a thing you dont already know, and sometimes what it tells you is wrong (Lon Chaney’s hump didn’t weigh 70-pounds, as Hollywood mythmakers want us to believe; it was more like 15 pounds). Still, it’s a reasonably fun little primer and an important forerunner of a documentary sub-genre that is now nearly as pervasive as the horror films it covers.

Oct. 28

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993- Henry Selick)

Well, folks, heres where you and I part ways, because while I will continue watching monster movie after monster movie through October 31, I will not be watching any more that I haven’t already reviewed on Psychobabble, so my work on this years Diary of the Dead is done. We may also parts ways regarding some of our opinions on The Nightmare Before Christmas. While it is a beloved cult favorite among many who regard it as flawless, I like certain aspects of it a lot more than the whole. On the huge plus side, this is one amazing looking movie. I adore Selicks style, and stop-motion is animations savior in an age of antiseptic Pixar CGI. I think Selick would pair his style with a much better story in 2009’s wonderful and truly scary Coraline, and story-creator/producer Tim Burton would direct a more emotionally resonant stop-motion creep-fest in 2005 with The Corpse Bride. The monster design of Nightmare is spectacular, though, and Jack Skellington, who longs to pattern  Halloween Town on the jollier vistas of Christmas Town, has become a rightfully iconic Halloween character. The thing is, I like him better as an icon than as a character. I just don’t care that much about his problems, especially when Halloween Town is so clearly cooler than Christmas Town (which I admit is pretty cool in its own right). Plus the only song I really like is “This Is Halloween”. But as pure eye-candy, Nightmare Before Christmas is aces with some truly gruesome sight gags, such as the mad doc who scratches his exposed brain and the demented Christmas gifts Jack delivers. Its also a good movie for transitioning from one major holiday to the next as this years Halloween season draws to a close.
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