Thursday, October 28, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 5

Week 5 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 22th

Frightmare (1974- dir. Peter Walker) ***

Poor Jackie is doing triple duty as a movie makeup artist, guardian to her teenage hellion sister, and procurer for her creepy mom. What’s she procuring, you ask? Why, raw animal parts, of course! But that’s not quite enough to satisfy mater, for you see, she’s a vile cannibal and Frightmare is a fairly entertaining mound of schlock. Sheila Keith plays the prognosticating cannibal. She’d deal the tarots again 20 years later in a knowing tribute to this movie on “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920- dir. Robert Wiene) ****1/2

It doesn’t get any more German Expressiony than this. The weird irises, the cartoony sets, the freakish shadows. Even the intertitles are bizarre. Caligari is also the premier feature-length horror film, and there wouldn’t be a Nosferatu or a Frankenstein or a Tim Burton without its direct influence. And despite its age, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is more outré than most of what walked in its wake. I’m not sure if Joe Meek: Alchemist of Pop was the right soundtrack to this movie, but that’s entirely my fault.

Evil Dead II (1988- dir. Sam Raimi) *****


October 23rd

Gojira (1954- dir. Ishirô Honda) ****

Anyone who grew up with the full-color schlock-fests in which Godzilla stomped Tokyo while wrestling giant moths and turtles will be shocked to see his debut. I certainly was when I first saw Gojira several years ago. This is a moody, black and white requiem in which the giant monster is both an allegory for and product of the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The monster is still a rubber-suited dude, but he’s shot in such enveloping shadows that he doesn’t look nearly as phony as he would in the flat, brightly lit sequels. Gojira is not fun in the way those sequels are, but it feels more like a real film.

Horror of Dracula (1958- dir. Terence Fisher) *****

Hammer’s version of Dracula may be the least faithful to Stoker. Character relationships are jumbled, Jonathan Harker is turned into a vampire and staked early in the picture, and—most egregious of all—there’s no Renfield. Yet, Horror of Dracula (as it was titled in the U.S. to avoid confusion with Tod Browning’s film) is the jewel in Hammer’s crown because of the sumptuous visuals Terence Fisher lays out like some sort of decadent, aristocratic banquet. The costumes, the colors, the castles, the wind-blown leaves, the creepy woods. What an invitingly Gothic landscape! Christopher Lee makes a surprisingly limited impression as the count, but Peter Cushing more than makes up for that by bringing so much vim and charm and heroic confidence to Van Helsing. There’s little wonder why he gets top billing over the title creep.

October 24th

Jaws: The Revenge (1987- dir. Joseph Sargent) *

Concerned that I’ve been watching too many good movies this Halloween season, I decided to watch a movie with a reputation for being one of the very worst. Jaws: The Revenge didn’t disappoint. The shark follows the remaining Brodys—mom Ellen (Lorraine Gary) and son Michael (The Last Starfighter)— from New England to the Bahamas. They get there by plane, mind you. Mom, who seems to have some sort of psychic connection with the fish, sails off to kill the shark. By herself. Unarmed. Is she planning to strangle it with her bare hands? Michael races to help her with a team that includes a seriously slumming Michael Caine and Mario Van Peebles. The film is loaded with embarrassing callbacks to the classic original. The shark does everything but look remotely realistic. Did the filmmakers set out to make an astoundingly atrocious movie or was everyone just sucking the nitrus tank every waking moment of the day? Anything this bad is kind of worth watching. Kind of.

Carnival of Souls (1962- dir. Herk Harvey) ****

Classic B-ghost story owes a lot to a certain episode of “The Twilight Zone”, but its effectively spooky nonetheless. Fantastic mood that combines low-key creepiness and groovy sass. Herk Harvey was clearly working with a pocket-change budget (notice the caked-on ghoul make-up), but the cheapness of Carnival of Souls only adds to its funky charm. The pipe organ soundtrack is the most.

October 25th

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984- dir. Wes Craven) ****

Wes Craven elevated the lousy teen-slasher trend of the ‘80s by rediscovering such essential horror elements as imagination, humor, and a rad monster. The concept of a hideous, wisecracking creep who can only kill you in your sleep is truly original and pretty scary. The smart-ass tone undercuts that scariness a bit, but A Nightmare on Elm Street is still pretty classic. Two questions: Was Freddy Krueger the last great movie monster? And how does Nancy manage to booby trap her entire house, chat with her drunken mom, fall asleep, and catch Freddy all in 20 minutes? Discuss.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994- dir. Wes Craven) ***1/2

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the movie that made his career Wes Craven created a sequel that actually surpassed the originality of the original. A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langenkamp—playing herself— and her son are being terrorized by Freddy Krueger, who director Wes Craven—playing himself—brought to life by failing to make another Freddy Krueger movie. Pretty neat. Robert Englund and John Saxon—playing themselves— are also along for this cleverly self-reflexive ride. Still, as clever as New Nightmare is, the film is flawed. Langenkamp’s son (played by Miko Hughes from Pet Sematary) is too creepy to elicit much sympathy. Freddy takes too long to make his first appearance, and when he does, his makeup looks too dry and plastic. Craven also missed a great opportunity to infuse the film with some satirical humor at the expense of Hollywood and himself. As a result a great idea ends up as a more conventional horror movie than it should be.

The Wolf Man (1941- dir. George Waggner) *****

Universal’s second go at making a werewolf movie was its first winner. Curt Siodmak’s wonderfully inventive script is the origin of the werewolf’s aversion to silver and the significance of pentagrams in palms and so much of the other glorious bunks we still associate with shape-shifting beasties today. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot is kind of a smug creep. Ironically, it takes a bite from a cursed doggie to really humanize him. The jerky peeping tom becomes a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare, particularly in the way his relationship with his formally estranged dad pans out. The cast is fab too. Along with Chaney we have Claude Rains as Dad, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, and Ralph Bellamy.

October 26th

Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970- dir. Freddie Francis) ****

Freddie Francis’s demented British satire about a murderous family reminded me quite a bit of B-classic Spider Baby, but the sardonically sugary tone is straight out of one of the nursery rhymes school kids Girly and Sonny cackle incessantly at their victims. The portrayal of the breakdown of the 1950s nuclear-family ideal is amusingly gleeful, but the movie works best on face value as a series of intriguing and deadly games between the crazed family and their latest acquisition.

Misery (1990- dir. Rob Reiner) ****

And the theme of the day is guys being held against their wills by loonies. I just finished reading King’s novel for the first time, which I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as the movie. This is essentially a really depressing story and its humor registers stronger on the screen than on the page. I generally like my horror to either be very scary or very fun. The Misery novel is not scary or fun enough to balance its unrelenting…well…misery. Reiner’s film is superior because Kathy Bates manages to make the very unpleasant Annie Wilkes fun to watch. Quite a feat, Ms. Bates.

October 27th

Puppetmaster (1989- dir. David Schmoeller) ***

Nonsensical gumbo of killer puppets, psychics, lively camerawork, Skinemax sex, and ham acting. These various elements make Puppetmaster entertaining but not quite good. Schmoeller seems to have been heavily influenced by Stuart Gordon, even including a special “guest appearance” by Barbara Crampton. Writer/producer Charles Band was the executive producer of Gordon’s Dolls, which may explain all the similarities. Dolls is a lot better, but Puppetmaster does have one great low-key camp performance from Irene Miracle as a southern belle psychic. She’s considerably more fun to watch than any of the non-puppet characters, and I lost all interest in the film as soon as she was killed off an hour into it. A leech-puking puppet provides the most memorable moment.

An American Werewolf in London (1981- dir. John Landis) *****

The greatest werewolf movie ever made also has to be the most imaginative horror movie of the ‘80s. An American Werewolf in London has it all: horror, humor, werewolves, ghosts, a killer Rock & Roll soundtrack, real romance, real tragedy, Rik Mayall, Nazi ghouls, gratuitous use of punks, porno, and Muppets. The cast is absurdly lovable, making David Kessler’s adventures all the more enthralling and his fate all the more heartbreaking. Wonderful in every conceivable way.

October 28th

The Psychic (1977- dir. Lucio Fulci) *1/2

Why did I watch this? The only other Lucio Fulci movie I’ve seen, Zombie, is a piece of crap. Why would I subject myself to further Fulci fecal matter? Am I starting to get punchy after watching nothing but horror movies for five weeks straight? Perhaps, rabbit, perhaps. A mannequin bashes its shiny face against a cliff. A horrendous MOR pop song plods away over the credits. A guy with the worst comb over in history walks around with the worst comb over in history. Jennifer O’Neill shrinks in horror from a lampshade. I get bored out of my gourd. Go Fulci yourself.

Nightmare in Blood (1978- dir. John Stanley) ***

Nightmare in Blood is a no-budget ghoul frenzy set at a horror convention, and as a horror movie about horror movie fans, it is way ahead of its time, predating stuff like Fright Night and Popcorn by nearly a decade. The references to Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill, and Fredric Wertham are particularly neat because such geekery had yet to become clichéd in 1978. An ill-conceived plot thread involving the holocaust—complete with actual horrific holocaust footage—curdles some of the fun, but it does initiate some surprisingly thoughtful comments about the allegedly detrimental effects of horror movies.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Assembling the Dracula Bad-Dream Team

I haven’t done any research to back up this claim, but I’ll still wager that no book has been adapted to film and video more times than Dracula. Well, maybe The Bible, but who cares about that thing? According to imdb, there are some 175 movies and TV shows that feature someone named “Dracula”, and I’ll further wager that few of those characters haven’t at least tasted blood. As many times as Stoker’s tale has been brought to screens large and small, it has never really been staged with a perfect cast. It’s often the case that so much effort is put into making the vampire a formidable presence that the other characters are reduced to cardboard standees. Or certain Dracula portrayers are so iconic that others can’t help but pale in comparison (Pale! Because vampires are pale! Get it?). But what would be the prefect Dracula cast? Who’s the greatest count? Which Renfield was the most memorable fly-eater? And, nearly as important, which Lucy Westenra best embodied Lucy Westenra and which Quincey Morris made all other Quincey Morrises look like hackneyed hacks? We will try to answer these questions and more as Psychobabble assembles the Dracula Bad-Dream Team! “Bad” Dream Team… because Dracula give you bad dreams! Get it?

Here goes...

Dracula : Bela Lugosi

This required no thought at all. And as you read the words “Bela” and “Lugosi” next to the word “Dracula”, you, kind reader, most likely thought the very same thing. Granted, Max Schreck of Nosferatu was the scariest Dracula, Frank Langella of the 1979 version was the sexiest, and Christopher Lee was the actor who played the count more often than anyone else. But everything you think of when you hear the name “Dracula” can be traced directly to Bela: the thick accent, the intense eyes, the cape and medallion. Even the sexiness, although Lugosi may not quite embody contemporary concepts of sexiness the way that teenager in that crappy movie about crappy teenage vampires does. And though modern audiences sometimes accuse his classic performance of being too mannered, it is a great performance. He’s commanding, yet at times, rather genial. And if Dracula was the most unapologetically evil and least conflicted of the classic Universal Monsters, Bela’s affecting delivery of “To die, to be really dead, that must be glorious! … There are far worse things awaiting man than death” suggests that even he realizes vampirism is not all it’s cracked up to be. Lugosi is Dracula to the degree that every other serious Dracula film feels lacking simply because the master is not present.

Dr. Abraham Van Helsing : Peter Cushing

Christopher Lee was a perfectly fine count, but Hammer’s Dracula franchise rarely gave him much to do. In some of those films, Lee doesn’t even utter a word. That leaves Peter Cushing to carry those films as fearless vampire killer Abraham Van Helsing. Not only does Cushing do a fine job of picking up the slack but he goes above and beyond by bringing heroic energy, fatherly sweetness, and doctorly caring to the character. Look at his eyes, he seems to always be thinking, always to be scheming how to thwart Dracula in their latest contest. Gasp as he leaps at those curtains like Indiana Jones, yanking them down to reveal the sunlight that fries Drac in Horror of Dracula. Cringe as he cauterizes his own bitten throat with a red-hot iron in Brides of Dracula, then marvel at his bravery and resolve. Cushing played a villain plenty of times in stuff like Hammers’ Frankenstein films and Star Wars, but he was always most convincing playing valiant Van Helsing—something he did more often than any other actor.

Renfield : Dwight Frye

There have been some memorable Renfields— particularly Tom Waits in the generally shitty 1992 version (more on that below) and Klaus Kinski, who did his own bug-eating stunts in the 1970 one,— but Dwight Frye in Tod Browning’s film is as iconic in his role as Lugosi is as the count. His mad eyes, his inimitable lock-jawed cackle, his hunched posture as he rivetingly describes a vision in which Dracula presented him with a squirming sea of rats. Even before Renfield goes mad, Frye is a colorful presence, expressing freaked fear as he gets Dracula to sign the paperwork on Carfax Abbey. But it’s that image of him peering from the shadows of a ship’s hull, crazy and hungry, that is the most haunting in Browning’s film.

Jonathan Harker : Gustav von Wangenheim

As many terrific Draculas, Van Helsings, and Renfields as there have been, the key role of Jonathan Harker is often played perfunctorily by a bland presence like David Manners or John Van Eyssen. Keanu Reeves’s performance in Coppola’s Dracula is a downright disaster of wooden acting and inept British-accenting. Strange then that the wonderful Gustav von Wangenheim, who played Harker (or Hutter, as he’s named in the film’s original intertitles) in the very first cinematic adaptation of Dracula, was so un-influential. This is particularly odd considering how influential so many other aspects of Nosferatu were. Yet no other actor even tried to recreate von Wangenheim’s robust performance. His glee when he dismisses superstition by spiking a book of vampire folklore on the floor of his room, and his absolute horror when he realizes that book wasn’t as hokey as he thought, are the most memorable Harker moments on film.

Mina Murray-Harker : Lupita Tovar/Isabelle Adjani

This was kind of a tough one. Like her hubby, Mina Harker is rarely acted with the zing of the other main characters in Dracula. However, there are two great Mina performances—and, ironically, neither of those characters are named Mina. Still, Lupita Tovar as “Eva Seward” in the 1931 Spanish-language Dracula and Isabelle Adjani as “Lucy Harker” in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of Nosferatu are clearly playing the Mina role as described in Stoker’s novel. 19-year old Tovar brings a vivacious freshness to the role that makes her transformation into Dracula’s concubine both weirdly exciting and terribly tragic. Kohl-eyed Adjani, on the other hand, is ethereal and wan, the ultimate Gothic beauty. She seems as though she must have been vampiric long before falling into the count’s clutches.

Lucy Westenra : Jan Francis

More confusion: the Lucy Westenra character in Universal’s 1979 version of Dracula is not only named Mina, but she’s Van Helsing’s daughter. I won’t even begin to try to figure out why so many Dracula-filmmakers felt it necessary to jumble character names and relationships, but no matter what you name her, Jan Francis’s Lucy is the greatest. Why? Because she’s the most terrifying. The scene in which she confronts her “daddy” in a crypt after having been vampirized is the scariest in any Dracula film. Francis also does a fantastic job of capturing the eager lustiness that makes her such an easy target for the count.

Dr. John Seward : Richard E. Grant

As I’ve suggested (or, perhaps, screamed) above, I have little fondness for Francis Ford Coppola’s misleadingly titled Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a wretched mess of ostentatious special effects, bad ideas (why does Dracula turn into a sort of Bat Man rather than a normal bat? So stupid!), and awful acting (Keanu). Yet it also houses perhaps the only genuinely distinguished portrayal of asylum-overseer, Lucy-suitor, and vampire-hunter Dr. John Seward. Richard E. Grant, who was so wonderful as scummy drunk Withnail in the cult classic Withnail and I, once again proves his ability to play it stoned (even though Grant is actually a teetotaler). His Seward is a funky, half-crazed, somewhat hammy morphine addict who gets some scenes with Tom Waits’s Renfield that rise above the crapitude of the rest of the film.

Arthur Holmwood : Michael Gough

Arthur Holmwood is another important character in Stoker that is generally reduced to a device to move the plot along in Dracula movies. Honestly, even the quite likable Michael Gough’s performance as Holmwood in Horror of Dracula is nothing spectacular, but he wins by default for playing such an unusually significant role in the film; he’s Robin to Van Helsing’s Batman. In keeping with the film’s lack of reverence for Stoker, Arthur is not Lucy’s suitor but her (or, umm, “Mina’s”) brother and Mina’s (or, umm, “Lucy’s”) husband. Confused yet? Well, perhaps the calming presence of Michael Gough will sooth your over-taxed mind. He is, after all, quite likable.

Quincey Morris : Jack Taylor

Of all the main characters in Stoker’s book, none are left off the screen more often than Quincy P. Morris. According to imdb, there are only five Dracula films that include a Quincey character. This is possibly because there’s something kind of wrong about placing an American yahoo amongst all the British and Transylvanian aristocrats that are the main populace of Dracula. So, which Quincey wins? Let’s say Jack Taylor from Jess Franco’s extremely faithful 1970 version does. Don't say I never did anything for you, Jack Taylor.

So, there you have it. The ultimate Dracula cast. Now all we need is some Internet-savvy, film-editing wiz to build the ultimate Dracula film by cutting all these performances together. Get cracking, Internet-savvy, film-editing wiz.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 4

Week 4 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 15th

The Incredible Melting Man (1978- dir. William Sachs) **1/2

I watched The Incredible Melting Man on the recommendation of my friend Kevin, who pulled the film from his personal “Things That Scare Me” files. I can certainly see how an incredible astronaut who melts incredibly with the grotesque help of Rick Baker’s makeup effects might disturb a young kid. Someone seeing the movie for the first time as an adult is more likely to focus on the turgid acting, terrible script, and super ‘70s score. As dated, dopey camp, The Incredible Melting Man is pretty satisfying, especially whenever the astronaut starts tearing people apart. And a note to Ted’s wife: Ted likes crackers.

Inland Empire (2006- dir. David Lynch) *****

Calling David Lynch’s Inland Empire a horror movie is not exactly fair. The only superficially supernatural thing about the movie is a red herring subplot about a cursed film production. Yet this movie is one of the most frightening I’ve watched all month. Lynch professes to dislike horror movies, though I find it hard to believe he doesn’t realize how deeply scary this film’s atmosphere and some of its images are: Laura Dern racing toward the camera with her face twisted into a malevolent rictus, Dern’s hideously distorted face as she confronts a murderer, mysterious figures disappearing into dark recesses or unexpectedly confronting the viewer, the talking rabbits. Trying to sum up the “plot” of Inland Empire in a piece this brief is a little pointless, particularly because it is one of the least important facets of what is more an avant grade experiment than anything. As such, it’s not typical Halloween fare, but it still gives me a profound case of the creeps.

October 16th

From Beyond (1986- dir. Stuart Gordon) **1/2

Despite a groovy cast (Jeffrey Combs! Barbara Crampton! Ken Foree!) I didn’t like From Beyond nearly as much as the other Stuart Gordon movies I’ve seen. The plot—some Lovecraftian nonsense about the pineal gland, an S&M scientist, and flying jellyfish—is muddled and the S&M stuff is silly without being particularly funny. It’s kind of like a bad David Cronenberg movie. It’s still kind of nice to see Gordon, Combs, and Crampton working together again, though.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958- dir. Edward L. Cahn) ***

Astronauts aboard a spacecraft are being murdered one-by-one by a towering, blood hungry alien. Sound familiar? Well, it ain’t the movie you think it is, Ridley Scott. This picture came out in 1958 with the tag-liney title It! The Terror from Beyond Space (where no one can hear you scream). The twist here is that no one knows a monster is responsible, so one of the space cowboys is suspected of old-fashioned, earthly murder. Good B-level sci-fi entertainment.

La Belle et La Bete (1946- dir. Jean Cocteau) *****

La Belle et La Bete isn’t a horror movie, but Jean Cocteau’s version of the “Beauty and the Beast” fairy tale is definitely a monster movie. With its combination of fury creatures and romance it isn’t too far removed from, say, The Wolf Man, and nothing in the latter movie is as genuinely creepy as the Beast’s surreal castle, with its candle sconce’s of human arms and living faces glaring back from its fireplace. Still La Belle et La Bete is a fairy tale at heart, and it is only rivaled by The Wizard of Oz as the most enchanting one ever brought to the big screen. The final moments are positively transcendent.

The Mummy’s Hand (1940- dir. Christy Cabanne) ***1/2

The first and best sequel to The Mummy is slight but great fun. It’s kind of like an Abbott and Costello movie without Abbott and Costello. The Mummy was one of the grimmer Universal Monster Movies, but The Mummy’s Hand is strictly lighthearted stuff. The wisecracking heroes—a pair of archaeologists, a magician and his trigger-happy daughter—are a likable bunch of Brooklynites adrift in Egypt. George Zucco’s weird guy with a fez and Tom Tyler’s shambling mummy are no substitute for Karloff though.

October 17th

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ****

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a blast, an audacious blend of two totally distinct yet totally different genres. In the Hammer horror corner we have a black-caped Dracula, striking color, strident music, and Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. In the chopsocky corner we have a longhaired Kung Fu master, nonstop hand-to-hand combat, and some requisite bad dubbing (although, in this case, it is a perfectly sensible plot device). The interracial romances are unexpected in an early 70s B-movie such as this—and quite refreshing. I bet this movie gives Quentin Tarantino a boner.

The Invisible Man (1933- dir. James Whale) *****

I love this movie. Before production, James Whale must have sat his cast down and instructed them to act as insane as possible. Even Gloria Stuart, the relative straight-woman of the film, flies into hysterics on at least one occasion. And Una O’Connor basically reacts to everything she sees and hears as though she’s being ax-murdered. The photo of her Griffin’s room at the inn is hilarious too. Come for the special effects; stay for the deranged performances.

October 18th

The Crazies (1973- dir. George A. Romero) **1/2

Romero’s fourth feature is basically a “Living Dead” movie without the zombies. The more significant difference between The Crazies and his first and greatest film is that it focuses on the bureaucratic reaction to a plague that makes people go psycho more so than it focuses on a small clutch of folks fending for their lives (although there is one of those too). This means it’s less of a horror film and more of a political satire. The editing is exciting but it looks flat and the grade z acting is much more distracting than it was in Night of the Living Dead. Worth watching for Romero completists because of a scene with a sewing-needle wielding old lady. Others may not find it worth an hour and forty minutes of their lives.

The Omen (1975- dir. Richard Donner) ****

Around this time last year I watched The Exorcist, and for the first time, the movie often ranked as the scariest ever made struck me as kind of silly. I think that might be because there are actually people who believe the devil is real. Which is, you know, asinine. For that reason, Rosemary’s Baby holds up as the best devil movie because it keeps its tongue in its cheek even as it doles out sincere scares (“Hail Satan!”). Like The Exorcist, The Omen doesn’t have a funny bone in its demonic body, even though the movie’s final twist is that Damian’s mom is a dog. Which is, you know, asinine. And that priests have special powers for combating evil. Again, asinine. Silly as it is, The Omen is more fun than The Exorcist because it lacks the impossible-to-live-up-to reputation. So we’re left with the big screen’s most spectacular nanny suicide, great creepy performances from Billy Whitelaw and Harvey Stephens, that iconic soundtrack, a baboon siege, and the talent of Gregory Peck and David Warner to lend some credibility to all the satanic mumbo jumbo. Which is, you know, asinine.

October 19th

The Vampire Lovers (1970- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ****

Hammer screams “Fuck it… bring on the boobs!” from the mountaintops with its first full-on, unapologetic fusion of sexploitation and vampiresploitation. You know you’re in for a non-stop boob fest when Ingrid Pitt gets top billing. Fortunately, Pitt transcends that limited image with her energetic presence and committed acting. She plays a lusty vampiress who goes around biting and bedding everyone in sight. Well, everyone but Peter Cushing. That would be gross. The depiction of a predatory lesbian vampire is homophobic, but Pitt plays her with such humanity that she earns our empathy much more so than her vacant-eyed victim, whom she genuinely seems to love. Hammer execs probably would have been happy if The Vampire Lovers was nothing more than a static shot of cleavage for 90 minutes, yet it still manages to house all the atmosphere, color, production values, and fangy fun that made the studio great in the first place. In fact, with its black and white inserts, imaginative use of shadows, and fine sound design, The Vampire Lovers is more aesthetically creative than most Hammers. Check it out; then check out the brilliant parody “Vampire Lesbian Lovers of Lust” from Steve Coogan’s series “Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible”.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1963- dir. Jose Mojica Marins) **

Bizarre Brazilian splatter flick has the DIY gumption of a neighborhood spook house. Zé is an evil undertaker who goes around chopping off dude’s fingers and poking them in the eyes and forcing them to eat meat on Good Friday (!). He’s kind of like Mr. Hyde if Hyde never turned back into Jekyll. There’s not much plot, but there’s a big spider. It feels like a movie written and produced by junior high kids. Be sure to look out for the adorable kitten amid the “spooky” tableau behind the opening credits. Yeesh.

Tales from the Hood (1995- dir. Rusty Cundieff) ***1/2

Tales from the Hood has a lot to recommend it, even though it isn’t much fun. Despite a super-campy performance from Clarence Williams III as a sort of crypt keeper, the film is often downright depressing. It’s also mostly effective as unsettling creep-fest and social commentary in the E.C. Comics tradition. The first and final segments—one about a civil rights leader murdered by racist cops, the other an unbearably grim riff on A Clockwork Orange—are kind of messes. But the two central ones, in which a monster is used as a metaphor for an abusive stepfather and a racist politician essentially assumes the role Karen Black played in the classic “Prey” sequence of Trilogy of Terror, are clever, suspenseful little yarns. Like all portmanteaus, Tales from the Hood is not consistently great, but it is consistently compelling.

October 20th

The Black Sleep (1956- dir. Reginald LeBorg) ***

The first entry in this year’s Bela Lugosi Birthday Movie Marathon is pretty light on the Lugosi, who plays a mute butler with minimal screen time, but heavy on the Basil Rathbone, who stars as a brain-tinkering mad doc. His experiments reduce folks to weirdos palyed by the likes of Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and Tor Johnson. Akim Tamiroff from Touch of Evil steals the show as a scheming artist. The Black Sleep is schlocky nonsense but worth watching for Rathbone and Tamiroff, the gruesome brain surgery effects, and the nifty sets loaded with secret passageways. And though Lugosi, Chaney, Carradine, and Johnson’s parts are little more than cameos, it’s still cool to see such a rogue’s gallery collected in a single picture.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948- dir. Charles Barton) *****

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein played a greater role in my obsession with Universal Monster Movies than any serious entry in the genre. When my family got our first VCR, we had about five movies on tape, which I’d watch over and over and over. One of these was Abbott and Costello’s historic summit with the holy trinity of monsterdom. Getting to see Dracula and the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster in a single film was an embarrassment of riches. The very kid-friendly humor of Bud Abbott and adult-child Lou Costello further sweetened a pot that was already most sugary. The movie holds up beautifully. Lou is as hilarious as he ever was, Lon Chaney Jr. is as manic as he ever was, and Bela Lugosi gets to play his most beloved character on the big screen for the second and final time. The animated credits sequence is sublime, as is the rest of the picture. The cinematic equivalent of comfort food.

White Zombie (1932- dir. Victor Halperin) ****

The dank odor of German Expressionism is all over White Zombie, with its weird shadows, skeletal graveyards, and floating, disembodied eyes. Bela Lugosi was never more diabolical than he was as elaborately manicured mesmerist ‘Murder’ Legendre. Definitely slow moving, White Zombie is either hypnotic or boring depending on ones personal taste. I opt for the former. The soundtrack, which includes pieces by Mussorgsky, Borch, and Wagner, as well as an original chant by Guy Bevier Williams, is superb.

October 21st

Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974- dir. Terence Fisher) **1/2

The final entry in Hammer’s Frankenfranchise is probably best known for the negligible performance of David “Darth Vader” Prowse as the monster, who looks like a stitched-up troglodyte with lockjaw. Three years before he’d costar with Prowse in Star Wars, Peter Cushing plays the creator for the last time. Hammer’s Frankenstein films were rarely as interesting as the studio’s multitudinous Dracula pictures. This one gets off to a great start, percolating with wacko campiness and sicko humor, but it soon settles into the lethargy that plagued most of Hammer’s Frankensteins. Manages some dopey pathos toward the end, but overall, a washout.

Pin (1988- dir. Sandor Stern) ***1/2

Terry O’Quinn plays one of those ventriloquist doctors who throws his voice to bring an anatomical dummy to life. His son Leon witnesses dad’s nurse fucking the dummy. Dad later uses the dummy to give Leon a lesson on the birds and the bees. Needless to say, adult Leon (a very good David Hewlett) has some pretty unhealthy ideas about sex and dummies. Pin is a tough movie to get a handle on. I couldn’t decide if it was creepy or silly, low key or overwrought. It’s certainly a unique take on the Psycho/Peeping Tom-style thriller, yet less of a pure horror movie than either of those. I liked it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Bela Lugosi

So, it’s Bela’s birthday and you think you’re pretty hep because you know he played Dracula and he screamed “Pulled ze string!” in some Ed Wood movie. Well, you’re just scratching the surface, Daddy-O/Mommy-O. It’s time you used them pointy fangs to scratch these 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Bela Lugosi!

1. Bela Lugosi got himself discharged from the Hungarian army by pretending to be insane as a result of concussion.

2. Eleven years before his American film debut in Dracula, Lugosi appeared in Nosferatu-director F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf—a.k.a.: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Conrad Veidt played the title characters (retitled Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor) while our favorite vampire was relegated to playing his butler. Sadly, the film is lost.
(Thanks to Matt Marshall for this one!)

3. In the mid-‘20s vamp fell for vampire when celebrity flapper Clara Bow struck up an affair with Lugosi. The romance caused Lugosi’s marriage to Beatrice Weeks to end after a mere three days.

4. At the age of 13, future horror movie mogul William Castle stole $1.10 from his sister to purchase a balcony ticket for the Dracula stage play starring Bela Lugosi.

5. Horace Liveright, producer of the stage version of Dracula, was initially skeptical that Lugosi had the necessary presence to play the count. When he took the actor aside to express his concerns, Lugosi’s demeanor turned so sinister that Liveright was convinced he had the right man for the job.

6. In his stage incarnation as Dracula, Lugosi was the first actor to play a vampire as physically attractive rather than monstrous. For better or worse, the sexy vampire remains the prevailing cliché.

7. Fifteen year old Carroll Borland was so aroused by Lugosi’s stage performance as Dracula that she wrote her own sequel to the story, a novel she called Countess Dracula, and personally read it to her favorite actor. The gesture inspired Lugosi to advocate her for the role of his “daughter” Luna Mora, in Mark of the Vampire.

8. Because Lugosi never learned to drive he got around Hollywood on rollerskates.

9. Bizarrely, actor Ian Keith was the first choice to play Dracula in the only two movies in which Lugosi played the role: Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

10. Although the “Spanish” version of Dracula, filmed simultaneously with Tod Browning’s film, featured Carlos Villarias in the title role, a short outtake of Lugosi as the vampire arriving at the concert hall was cut into the film.

11. Lugosi claimed that he turned down the role of the Frankenstein Monster because he didn’t like the script and producer Carl Laemmle Jr. would only release him from the film if he found a replacement. Lugosi then scoured the talent agencies until he found Karloff to assume the role. Of course, this was a huge lie.

12. According to Ed Wood, Lugosi considered White Zombie to be his greatest film.

13. Shirley Ulmer, wife of Black Cat director Edgar, said—much to her own disgust— that Lugosi once nostalgically claimed he was a hangman in the Hungarian army. He also admitted how guilty he felt about his macabre—and most likely fictional— assignment.

14. Christopher Lee was, of course, the star of Hammer Studio’s seemingly endless string of Dracula movies. However, the most famous Dracula did, indeed, appear in a Hammer production when Bela Lugosi starred in the Mystery of the Marie Celeste in 1936.

15. Bela Lugosi was originally hired to play a police inspector in Son of Frankenstein, but instead co-created the character of Ygor—arguably his greatest performance— while on set.

16. After Ygor has his brain is transferred into the monster’s body at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, he realizes that he is blind. The monster’s blindness was supposed to be a plot point in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, hense Lugosi’s lumbering, arms-outstretched approach to playing him. Oddly, the plot point was cut from the film, yet Lugosi’s blind fumbling became on of the most recognizable Frankenstein clichés.

17. Val Lewton reluctantly created the character of Joseph in The Body Snatcher when RKO executives decided that having Lugosi co-star alongside Boris Karloff would give the film a commercial boost.

18. After attending the premiere of House of Wax (which he did in full Dracula regalia), Bela Lugosi was so impressed by the 3D effects that he masterminded a letter-writing campaign to get Dracula remade in color and 3D. Sadly, Universal pictures paid the idea little mind.

19. Ed Wood claimed attending restaurants brought out serious behavior problems in Lugosi. He tended to snatch fox stoles off wealthy women and toss them into the street!

20. According to legend, Bela Lugosi died on August 16, 1956, while reading the script for a possible Ed Wood project titled, appropriately enough, The Final Curtain.

The following sources were invaluable in the compiling of this list:

Ed Wood: Nightmare of Ecstasy by Rudolph Grey

Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen by David J. Skal

The Monster Show by David J. Skal (This is the greatest book about horror films ever written. If you haven’t read it, you’re really missing out!)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 3

Week 3 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 8th

The Changeling (1980- dir. Peter Medak) ****

The Changeling begins as if it’s going to be a moody exploration of grief along the lines of Don't Look Now, but it shakes that off pretty quickly and gets down to being a less emotionally complex but still very good ghost story/murder mystery. The picture begins with composer John Russell’s (George C. Scott) wife and daughter getting calzoned by a big truck. Four months later he moves into a creepy old mansion where he intends to start writing music again but gets sidetracked by a ghost he thinks will give him information about his lost loved ones. The Changeling takes some rather interesting twists during its fourth quarter. I particularly liked the wronged ghost, which behaves in a far less passive manner than most wronged ghosts do in contemporary wronged ghost stories.

Psycho (1960- dir. Alfred Hitchcock) *****

You see, this is where this project gets challenging. Psycho is a movie I’ve written about so often on this site that I really can’t think of much fresh to say about it. Here’s what I got:

1. Ever notice that the Paramount logo at the beginning of the movie looks all lined like a bad TV picture? I wonder if this was a reference to the fact that Hitch shot the movie with the crew he used for his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” series. Perhaps I’m reaching.

2. The movie begins in Phoenix, Arizona. The phoenix, of course, was a mythological bird that was reborn from its own dead ashes. Wonder if Hitch chose this setting because Norman Bates’s mother was similarly reborn through her crazy son’s crazy assuming of her identity. I might be reaching again.

3. I guess the outcome of this movie is so well known that I’ve never really paid attention to the red herring tossed in the middle of the film. When Lila Crane and Sam Loomis visit that Sheriff and his wife, I think we’re supposed to suspect that Mother Crane murdered her boy toy’s wife and buried her in Mom’s Greenlawn Cemetery grave. Not reaching this time.

4. Yes, that is Ted Knight playing a cop in the penultimate scene of the movie. A little comic relief right before that final, scary scene with Norman and the fly perhaps? Reaching perhaps.

And there you go. I’ve now said everything I’ll ever need to say about Psycho. Expect more of this shit when I get to Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein later this month.

October 9th

Dagon (2001- dir. Stuart Gordon) ****1/2

Man, I really have to start watching more Stuart Gordon movies! Not only is he an expert at making the most of a miniscule budget, but he’s actually able to make H.P. Lovecraft fun. That’s what he did with Re-Animator and that’s what he does with Dagon. A small boat crashes off the coast of Galicia during a storm. When two of the people aboard row to shore for help they encounter a freaky cult of fish people. The CG effects are strictly Sci-Fi Channel quality, but the physical ones get the job done, especially during a horrific flaying scene. Consistently fun, often suspenseful, and the ending approaches transcendence. Extra points for having the most realistic hotwiring scene I’ve ever seen.

Shaun of the Dead (2004- dir. Edgar Wright) *****

Is this the greatest zombie movie ever made? Certainly Night of the Living Dead is the greatest pure-horror zombie movie, but don’t hold its comedy against Shaun. A lot of the horror in Edgar Wright’s genius look at a bunch of pub-monkeys going up against a London zombie plague isn’t merely played for laughs. The finally swarm at the Winchester Pub is pretty suspenseful, and often, pretty revolting. I also care more about these characters—lovable loser Shaun, his ever-uncomplaining mum, his ever-farting best mate Ed, and the rest—than anyone in Living Dead. Let’s just call Shaun of the Dead the greatest horror movie of the ‘00s and let the debate die there.

October 10th

Dracula (1931- dir. Tod Browning) *****

Dracula gets a bad rap, but I’ll defend it ‘til I’m moldering. The cliché is that the movie’s first twenty minutes is great, but the rest is a static bore. That’s not true. Yes, that opening portion is the movie’s strongest, mostly because Dracula’s castle is such a monumental picture of Gothic gloom, but Tod Browning’s camera is more mobile than I remembered after Dracula gets to London. Plus the film’s later half has some great confrontations between the vampire and Van Helsing and greater ravings from Renfield. It’s also a lot more faithful to Stoker than, say, Whale’s Frankenstein—which is rarely hailed as anything less than a masterpiece—is to Shelley. My only beef is there isn’t enough Lucy. But Lugosi is still the ultimate Dracula, and Frye is the ultimate Renfield. All hail.

October 11th

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982- dir. John Carpenter) ****1/2

It’s bad horror geek form to prefer a remake over the original, but I personally like John Carpenter’s The Thing better than Christian Nyby’s 1951 original, The Thing from Another World. The characters, a gritty horde of booze-drenched research scientists led by gnarly Kurt Russell, are more interesting, as is the alien. The original creature was a plant man that looked like Richard Kiel in “To Serve Man”. Carpenter’s creature is an entity that transforms into all manner of configurations grotesque and mundane. The Thing is a serious, pessimistic hybrid of horror, sci-fi, and action flick that would make a nice—if unrelentingly grim—double-bill with Alien.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931- dir. Rouben Mamoulian) *****

It amazes me how well Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde retains its potency no matter how many times I watch it. This is a really upsetting movie, both for its horrific depiction of relentless, demonic bullying and for the raw emotion spewed forth by its two magnificent leads: Miriam Hopkins as tragic music hall girl Ivy and Fredric March as the title characters. I can’t think of another movie from this period that’s nearly as harrowing. It’s not what I’d call fun viewing, but it is what I’d call the greatest pure horror film ever made.

October 12th

Torture Garden (1967- dir. Freddie Francis) **1/2

This Amicus portmanteau has quite a horror pedigree. Psycho scribe Robert Bloch wrote it. Freddie Francis, who helmed Amicus’ best film: Tales from the Crypt, directed it. The cast includes Burgess Meredith (“The Twilight Zone”), Jack Palance (Dracula), and Hammer mainstays Peter Cushing and Michael Ripper. All that talent can’t elevate this lazily paced assortment of mostly lame stories. There’s an evil cat, some evil actors, and an evil piano. The neat final tale, in which Cushing and Palance play Edgar Allan Poe fanatics, is the only one worth watching. Meredith is also good as the master of ceremonies leading a tour through a carnival house of horrors.

October 13th

Suspiria (1977- dir. Dario Argento) ****1/2

The plot of Dario Argento’s masterpiece about a ballet academy that fronts for a witch’s lair unfolds with the entrancing illogic of a nightmare. Set pieces involving maggots, razor wire, and a wall of secret irises are terrifically imaginative. The vividly colorful, poetically choreographed images are as gorgeous as they are grotesque. Goblin’s soundtrack is less obnoxious than I remembered. The film would still be better without it, but there’s so much here to love, why quibble? Plus seeing Udo Kier dubbed with a flat American accent is hilarious.

Deathdream (1974- dir. Bob Clark) **1/2

Bob Clark is a pretty eclectic character. I never realized that Porky’s, A Christmas Story, and Black Christmas were all directed by the same guy. Deathdream lacks the humor that is the common thread in those other movies. Andy (Richard Backus) returns home from Vietnam even though he was killed in the war. This is a depressing metaphor for the guys who returned from the war changed for the worse. If Andy had become a murder addict solely because of his experiences in Vietnam and not because he’s a zombie, Deathdream would be a braver and more disturbing film. But maybe 1974 was too soon to take such a hard look at what the war did to some of the people who fought in it. Tom Savini’s make up effects are good, though, and I liked Andy’s mother who remains loyal to her son to the very end, just like a good mom should.

October 14th

The Monster Club (1981- dir. Roy Ward Baker) ****1/2

Remorselessly silly portmanteau based on the stories of R. Chetwynd Hayes is also remorselessly delightful. John Carradine plays Hayes and Vincent Price is a vampire in the goofy wraparound story set in a nightclub stocked with dancers in rubber monster masks and a surprisingly good line-up of pop acts, including Psychobabble favorites The Pretty Things! Price narrates a trio of quite good tales about a beauty and the melancholy beast who loves her, a boy who learns his dad’s a vampire, and a movie director who provides sustenance for a village of ghouls. The makeup budget is three dollars; the nonstop fun is priceless. Plus the animated skeleton striptease is a gas.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974- dir. Jorge Grau) ****

Clever British zombie flick is kind of a precursor to stuff like Shaun of the Dead and Black Sheep. It definitely seems to have influenced those two movies, not just in setting and humor (although it’s not a comedy) but in its emphasis on character over killing. The cast of potential victims includes a wiseass rogue, a creepy photographer, a bastardly police detective, a junkie, and her pretty sister. Much fresher and more satisfying than most contemporary zombie movies.

The Hunger (1983- dir. Tony Scott) **

Woo woo! Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon are a pair of sexy lesbian vampires in Tony Scott’s sexy, sexy vampire movie The Hunger. Hubba hubba! David Bowie is a sextacular thin white duke of a vampire! Boi-oi-oing! All the vampires can see their reflections in mirrors and go out in daylight. Ah-wooo-gah! It’s boring, pretentious, and blue. Honk if you’re horny!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 2

Week 2 of Psychobabble’s Monster Movie-a-thon...

October 1st

Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971- dir. Amando de Ossorio) ***

Jealous that her buddy Roger (César Burner) is hitting it off so well with her ex-lover Betty (Lone Fleming), Virginia (María Elena Arpón) leaps off a train and into a nest of skeletal Templar knights. Tombs of the Blind Dead starts as if it was made for the sole purpose of ogling the ruins in which the knights reside— and those ruins are, indeed, an incredible location— but the pace really picks up in the second half. At times the movie is too brutal for its own good, especially when director Amando de Ossorio sexualizes the brutality. Still, it has nice atmosphere, a handful of great standalone images (a frog splashing around in a pool of blood; a melting mannequin), some genuinely disturbing pessimism, and one great joke around the 45-minute mark.

Paranormal Activity (2009- dir. Oren Peli) ****1/2

Third time watching Paranormal Activity, and this tale of Katie Featherston (Katie Featherston) and Micah Sloat’s (Micah Sloat) demonic haunting is still absolutely terrifying. Hopefully, I’m finally past the point where it costs me nights of sleep, though. There are plenty of movies that I find disturbing, but the only other one that scares me this much is The Blair Witch Project. Probably not a coincidence. Paranormal Activity also houses an interesting political subtext: Micah—a wealthy, materialistic asshole who goes courting trouble even though he knows he’s putting others in danger and because he believes himself to be indestructible—makes his living playing the stock market. I doubt that’s a coincidence either.

C.H.U.D. (1984- dir. Douglas Cheek) ***

Because of its punch-line reputation I was expecting C.H.U.D. to be a super-campy turkey. Actually, it’s a pretty serious, even dry, monster movie about nuclear mutants with a fairly sympathetic attitude toward New York’s homeless population. The C.H.U.D.s look ridiculous, but they actually have very little screen time. That also means the movie isn’t a ton of fun to watch, but there are a couple of decent scares and Daniel Stern is good as a homeless guy bent on stopping the C.H.U.D.s from chudding the shit out of Manhattan. Check out the pre-fame cameos by Sam McMurray, John Goodman, and the guy who played Eddie LeBec on “Cheers”.

October 2nd

Wolfen (1981- dir. Michael Wadleigh) **1/2

Some genuinely interesting ideas about ecology, genocide, and imperialism can’t save a movie this lackadaisically paced and perfunctorily performed. Wolves are killing people in the Bronx, and Albert Finney (a cop who keeps a sign reading “God, guns, and guts made this country great” in his office, even though he doesn’t really seem to believe it) must find the killer. Is it a werewolf? Monster movie fans are likely to be disappointed by the answer even though Wolfen’s heart is in the right place. Edward James Olmos puts on a fake nose to play a Native American.

The Amityville Horror (1979- dir. Stuart Rosenberg) **1/2

I avoided this interpretation of Long Island’s most famous haunted house hoax for a long time because I was under the impression it was terrible. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is rife with laughable images that are treated as if they’re the most terrifying sights since Regan MacNeil twirled her head around: a few flies land on priest Rod Steiger; a nightbrace-wearing babysitter gets locked in a closet; a pair of craft-shop eyes glow outside a window; a toilet fills with oil; a nun pukes. Some images are just incomprehensible, like Steiger’s stigmata and Margot Kidder performing weird ballet moves while wearing a single legwarmer. James Brolin’s hair may give you nightmares, though. Still, The Amityville Horror is kind of entertaining in spite—or maybe because—of its hokiness.

Black Sunday (1960- dir. Mario Bava) ****1/2

Black Sunday struck me as too slow the first time I saw it, but it just gets better and better with each subsequent viewing. Not a lot happens for about half the movie, but man oh man, is it ever thick with Gothic atmosphere. Beautifully filmed with fluid camerawork and rich black and white cinematography, Black Sunday is most famous for the presence of Barbara Steele as puncture-faced vampire-witch Princess Asa Vada, and rightfully so. Ethereal yet unsettlingly creepy, Steele is horror’s definitive actress and Asa Vada is her definitive role.

Hold That Ghost (1941- dir. Arthur Lubin) ****

Despite its title Abbott and Costello’s first great feature is more of an “old dark house” spoof than a ghost story, although there is definitely something supernatural afoot during the famous candlestick routine. Joan Davis comes closer than anyone ever has to upstaging Lou as a goofy radio personality known solely for providing horror programs with her signature shriek. The Andrew Sisters heap on the nostalgia. The only real flaws are the corny presence of conductor Ted Lewis, who performs a racially patronizing version of “Me and My Shadow”, and a lame romantic plot involving Evelyn Ankers. Despite the weakness of her storyline, it’s still nice to see Ankers, especially during the same year she co-starred in The Wolf Man. She just isn’t given much to do in Hold That Ghost. So it’s not as grand as Abbott and Costello’s meeting with Frankenstein, but it’s certainly a close second.

October 3rd

Fear (1990- dir. Rockne S. O’Bannon) **1/2

Fear is a movie I’ve owned for years as a double-bill DVD with Bob Balaban’s Parents (more on that next). It didn’t look that interesting to me, so I put off watching it. Having recently read a couple of good reviews I decided it was time to give Fear a whirl. Ally Sheedy is a psychic who helps the cops nab serial killers. Her latest project is psychic, too, and he’s targeting the people she cares about. It’s a watchable enough thriller that doesn’t totally go by the book, but nothing exceptional. Sheedy, who I usually like, treats the scenery like a twelve-course banquet. You know you’re in the early ‘90s when everyone is guzzling wine coolers without a trace of irony.

Parents (1989- dir. Bob Balaban) ****1/2

Parents makes a strange DVD-mate for Fear. As run of the mill as Fear is, Parents is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, even though moments seem heavily influenced by Blue Velvet and The Shining. There’s definitely more than a whiff of the comedy for which director Bob Balaban is best known, but Parents is still a full-blooded—and quite haunting—horror movie that may be more disturbing because it’s presented in such a colorfully sitcomy package. It’s full-on ‘50s nostalgia when we first meet little Michael (Bryan Madorsky), his mom (Mary Beth Hurt), and his dad (Randy Quaid) driving in their big-ass Oldsmobile to their new home. But soon Michael is having surreal visions that his bed is an ocean of blood and suspecting his folks of ghoulish late night activities. The idea that ones parents are monsters is a child’s most horrific nightmare, and Balaban explores this as a metaphor for the sexual secrets parents withhold from their kids, as well as the American culture of gluttonous consumerism and consumption born in the ‘50s. Some of the magic dissipates by the end, and the final image is weak, but this is still a little seen but excellent film.

October 4th

Dolls (1987- dir. Stuart Gordon) ***1/2

Re-Animator director Stuart Gordon uses his unshakable sense of humor and eye for colorful imagery to spin schlock into gold. A little girl with her awful dad and an awfuler step-mom settle at a creepy castle during a freak thunderstorm. There she befriends an army of killer devil dolls crafted by Ernest Thesiger lookalike Guy Rolfe. Just as James Whales’s Frankenstein informed Re-Animator, the great director’s The Old Dark House influences Dolls heavily, and the results are a cheesy, brisk good time. The doll animation is boffo.

28 Weeks Later (2007- dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) *1/2

Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later was one of the smarter entries in last decade’s surge of zombie movies. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel 28 Weeks Later is a mess. Following an opening sequence that could have been pulled from any other zombie movie, it sets up a promising premise in which the “rage virus” (the zombie-causing agent from the first film) has been contained and England is in the process of rebuilding itself. Then a couple of idiotic kids do some idiotic stuff and the zombies are on the loose again. Along with the kids’ baffling motivation, 28 Weeks Later suffers from some of the worst editing I’ve ever seen. Scenes are cut so chaotically they’re incomprehensible. I kept thinking I was seeing characters being killed, only to see them strolling around unharmed in the next scene. Someone should infect editor Chris Gill with the rage virus.

Queen of Spades (1949- dir. Thorold Dickinson) ****1/2

This adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s gambling ghost story is lousy with spooky ambience and weird mystery. At least one scene remains as scary as any you’re likely to see in a flick from the ‘40s. Fabulous camerawork and cinematography, too, and Edith Evans is alternately scary, sad, and insufferable as a desiccated, powdered-wig wearing countess. Why isn’t Queen of Spades more appreciated? I have no clue. My only advice is to watch it and start appreciating the shit out of it.

October 5th

Fright Night (1985- dir. Tom Holland) **1/2

Fright Night is so steeped in the ‘80s it makes Pretty in Pink look timeless. The bad synth/drum machine soundtrack, terrible clothes and hair, neon lighting, pastel palette, puerile obsession with teen sex, shamelessly corny acting and dialogue, and gratuitous shots of boobs and cassette players all scream that this movie was made during the decade of Pac-Man Fever and Madonna Syphilis. It’s kind of too bad that Fright Night traffics so heavily in the very worst sounds and sights of the ‘80s, because the story is a good one—teen Charlie (William Ragsdale) suspects his neighbor (grody-to-the-max Chris Sarandon) of being a vampire and employs his fave TV horror host (the ever likable Roddy McDowall) to stake him. And why does Amanda Bearse’s hair get big just because she’s been turned into a vampire? Oh, I know: it’s because she’s been turned into an ‘80s vampire. Gag me with a spoon.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981- dir. Frank De Felitta) *

In this TV movie, Larry Drake is a challenged dude who dresses like Chucky. His young playmate is eaten by a dog and an angry mob led by evil Charles Durning hunt and kill him, which leads to some ghostly vengeance. There’s nothing more painful than watching a non-challenged actor play a challenged character, and Drake gives his all with the dopey expressions and the goofy laughter and the blubbering and drooling and flailing and what-have-you. If this movie had been shot in Smell-O-Rama it would smell like farts.

The Haunting (1963- dir. Robert Wise) *****

Without peer the greatest haunted house movie ever made. Director Robert Wise uses lighting, fans, sound, distorted lenses, and camera movement to make Hill House come alive. The small ensemble cast is spectacular, particularly Claire Bloom as a psychic and Julie Harris as the petulant object of both Bloom’s and Hill House’s desire. The prologue about the house’s history is a self-contained masterpiece. Is the actress who plays young Abigail Crain the same girl in the photo at the end of Repulsion? Another mystery.

October 6th

The Body Snatcher (1945- dir. Robert Wise) ****

Val Lewton and Jaques Tourner are one of horror’s most celebrated producer/director teams, but I may prefer the work of Lewton and Robert Wise. Together they made two of my favorite spooky movies of the ‘40s: Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Though Wise is in usual sure-handed form throughout The Body Snatcher (if not as overtly dazzling as he’d later be with The Haunting), the film’s real ringer is Boris Karloff. As Unscrupulous—and perpetually-grinning—grave robber John Gray, Karloff was never better in a speaking role. Because he is so electrifying here, the film feels a little lifeless when he isn’t on screen, but I’m not sure if that’s the film’s fault. Russell Wade, as an assistant doctor, is the only lead character who turns in a weak performance. Bela Lugosi has a small role as a doctor’s servant, but a scene he shares with Karloff is the most memorable in the movie.

October 7th

Succubus (1969- dir. Jess Franco) **1/2

Jess Franco directed one of the best and most faithful adaptations of Dracula in 1970. A year earlier he was dicking around with an exploitative S&M experiment called Succubus. Lorna (Janine Reynaud, who looks like Pamela Des Barres’s mom) stages torture pantomimes for decadent, fancy-pants audiences. Her boyfriend and a creepy mesmerist plot to turn her into a real-life killer. Along the way we get psychosexual nightmares galore, a dancing birdcage, orgy attendees who bark like dogs, stalking mannequins, a corpse with a pin in his eye, a pianist who uses pie charts as sheet music, nonstop nudity, and nonstop bad dialogue. It’s pretentious, it’s daffy, it’s dated, and it’s sort of fun.

The Alligator People (1959- dir. Roy Del Ruth) ***1/2

The Alligator People was most likely an attempt to cash in on the success of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it’s a lot more like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Newlywed Paul Webster (Richard Crane) mysteriously abandons his wife (sci-fi mainstay Beverly Garland) en route to their honeymoon. He ends up at the Bayou abode of mad-doc Mark Sinclair (George Macready just two years after he co-starred in Kubrick’s antiwar classic Path of Glory!) where weird experiments involving gators are taking place. The Alligator People is very well-plotted, establishing an intriguing mystery before getting to the schlocky monsters. Lon Chaney walks off with the picture as a creepy, crazy Captain Hook-type character. The use of real reptiles throughout is pretty incredible.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Psychobabble Babbles with… Andrew Sandoval!

Anyone who has grooved to Rhino Records’ outstanding compilation Where the Action Is!: Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968, that labels’ amazing string of Monkees reissues, or other rereleases by giants ranging from The Band to Elvis Costello to The Beach Boys to The Kinks to Love, owes a big thanks to Andrew Sandoval. Since publishing his fanzine New Breed in the mid-‘80s and moving on to his role as one of Rhinos’ top annotators and reissue producers, Sandoval has been the voice of classic pop and rock. With the publication of The Monkees: The Day by Day Story of the ‘60s TV Pop Sensation in 2005, he solidified his reputation as The Monkees’ finest chronicler. Andrew Sandoval recently talked with Psychobabble about his book, Nuggets, and especially, his upcoming deluxe edition of The Monkees’ Head soundtrack.

Psychobabble: A job as a reissue producer—especially one who gets to work on such plum projects—sounds like a Rock geek’s dream. How did you get your start in this line of work?

Andrew Sandoval: I started writing about music when I was fourteen. I independently edited and published a music fanzine and things took off from there. A friend named Dave Jenkins introduced me to a guy called Bill Inglot. He was working for Rhino on reissues and I started to interview him for my magazine in late 1988. A variety of meetings led to me working on The Monkees’ Missing Links Two compilation as liner notes writer and I’ve been starving ever since.

PB: Although you’ve worked with a lot of artists, you’re probably best known for those Monkees projects. What sparked your interest in the group initially?

AS: I saw the show in 1977 on my local Metromedia station, channel 11. I really loved the music and started to seek out their records, which were out of print excepting an Arista compilation, which I was totally unaware of. My father saw someone try and trade in some of the albums to a store and the guy at the counter refused them. My dad followed him home and bought me the albums. I grew up with the first five LP’s – no hits albums – and loads of Beatles records. In 1986, when the show reappeared on MTV, the level of scholarship and interest in The Monkees increased and I certainly learned a great deal in the process. Not only was the music great but this was a band with a fascinating and sometimes convoluted history.

PB: Your book The Monkees: The Day by Day Story of the ‘60s TV Pop Sensation does a better job of organizing that convoluted history than any other Monkees bio I’ve read. I’ve always been amazed by the exhaustiveness of “Day by Day” books such as yours. What kind of time and work goes into putting one of them together?

AS: It took about 15 years to research and compile the book. The first fourteen years were done mostly on days off and weekends. There were mountains of magazines to plow through, as well as all of the session tapes. Ironically, just as I was completing the book, a lot of newspaper resources came online. That might have saved me about five years. As it was, I did enjoy reading every issue of Billboard, New Music Express, and Daily Variety from the period of 1965-1970. The actual completion of the book was done in 2004 from June to roughly January of the following year.

PB: The excellent Birds, the Bees, & the Monkees box set you produced recently really emphasizes how much fine material the guys’ recorded during those sessions, as well as the fact that the resulting album could have been better if (head of Colgems records) Lester Sill chose different songs to include on it. Do you have any insight into the thought process behind compiling the original album?

AS: I think Lester tried his best, but there was no real producer for the album. It makes you really appreciate the work of Don Kirshner and Chip Douglas in the first two sets of albums respectively. Lester did have a hand in selecting the songs on Headquarters and Pisces, but these were more focused works. Birds, Bees is sprawling; It would have made a fascinating double album.

PB: There were also a lot of terrific songs cut during the Head sessions that aren’t included on the deluxe edition: “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, “How Insensitive”, “Nine Times Blue”, “St. Matthew”, etc. Most previous Monkees deluxe editions covered the full breadth of what was recorded during sessions for each given album, but the deluxe Head mostly only covers songs that wound up on the original album. What was the rationale behind this, and does it mean we can expect the outtakes on a deluxe Instant Replay eventually?

AS: I hope that stuff will be on an expansion of Instant Replay. Head is very specific in concept and content. I felt that the balance of the album would be thrown off by including things that don’t relate to the Head story. Meanwhile, something like “War Games” should probably have been saved for Head. The bottom line is that the music is getting out there, and in mostly a coherent and sympathetic fashion.

PB: I assume that those live cuts on the second disc hail from the Salt Lake City show that yielded the version of “Circle Sky” included in the Head movie. According to The Monkees: The Day by Day Story…, the show was poorly engineered and Nesmith had to rerecord his vocal for “Circle Sky”. What can we expect regarding the quality of these recordings and why are only Nesmith’s songs from the show on the box set?

AS: Nesmith’s voice was the only one actually committed to tape. The others appear only as distortion and reverby leakage on the tracks. It is a poorly engineered recording, and though some band tracks are good, The Monkees were there to play “Circle Sky”, and that seems to be the only reason they taped Michael’s other vocals.

PB: Around the time ‘The Monkees: The Day by Day Story…’ was released, I recall reading an interview in which you said that there were plans to remaster and rerelease the TV series. Five years down the road, is this still in the works, and if so, do you think fans might finally get to view the show with alternate audio tracks featuring the songs that were dubbed on the episodes for reruns?

AS: I would love that and I feel the shows could be significantly upgraded. It is really up to Rhino at this point, and would require spending money on new transfers and some research. The market is such that this is a long shot, but it is something I am very passionate about.

PB: Another of your more recent productions, Where the Action Is!: Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968, is a real stunner. Are there any other Nuggets comps on the way?

AS: I compiled a few single disc Nuggets collections, which may appear via Rhino Handmade in the future. These are genre and label based and not location specific. I hope the Nuggets boxes will continue, but I haven’t heard any rumblings about this recently.

PB: Do you have any other interesting projects in the pipeline we can expect in the near future?

AS: Rhino Handmade are issuing some of my other projects soon. These include a two disc edition of The Beau Brummels’ Bradley’s Barn, an expanded Triangle and a collection of Warner recordings by Tom Northcott. I am also at work on some Pye era Kinks releases for Universal UK.

PB: Thanks Andrew, and I’m really looking forward to those Kinks releases and the expanded Triangle!

Psychobabble recommends ‘Ladies and Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones’

We all know Gimme Shelter is the definitive Rolling Stones feature film, capturing all the demonism, decadence, and delirium swirling around the band in a more harrowing manner than anything else ever could, but it’s not necessarily where you want to head if you just want to hear and see the Stones play. Ladies and Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones (1974) is as straightforward in its delivery of the boys as its title suggests. Rollin Binzer’s concert film gives you the Stones at their peak performance prowess. They work their skinny asses off through 80 minutes of monsters from their quartet of records--Beggars Banquet through Exile on Main Street--most consider to be the group’s most enduring masterpieces (while I continue to be a lone voice in the wilderness screaming the praises of the Aftermath through Beggars period. Oh well). The film is dark, and not just because the set sports such evil hoodoo as “Gimme Shelter”, “Dead Flowers”, and “Midnight Rambler” (played here for a marathon 12 minutes). The stage is an inky void, the Stones’ pink little limbs providing the only significant contrast. But this newly remastered DVD of a film rarely screened in the 36 years since its release looks and sounds clean and strong. Hell, even Keith Richards looks sharp. His rendition of “Happy” is a highlight of the film, even as Binzer’s camera spends half the song lingering on Mick’s ass. Give the people what they want, I suppose.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Psychobabble recommends 'Confessions of a Scream Queen'

The “scream queen” label is as seemingly limited as women’s roles in horror films. It brings to mind some torndress-clad victim shrieking for her life as she’s about to be carried into a boggy lair or hacked to death by a psycho killer. Too often this is the case, but the queens may also be the ones eliciting the screams. Thankfully, Matt Beckoff’s interview anthology Confessions of a Scream Queen doesn’t define the term rigidly. His discussions range from Carla Laemmle, who danced in Lon Chaney’s silent Phantom of the Opera and spoke the first words in Dracula, Universal’s debut talky horror, to Adrienne Barbeau, who played the hero (Stevie Wayne in The Fog) just as well as the victim (Wilma Northrup in Creepshow). In between are talks with 13 other actresses, including Lupita Tovar (the Spanish language Dracula), Judith O’Dea (Night of the Living Dead), Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror), Ingrid Pitt (Countess Dracula, The Wicker Man), Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and P.J. Soles (Carrie, Halloween).

Beckoff tends to tread lightly with his questions, so the success of each interview often hinges on how much the subject is willing to dig into her own experiences. Some of the older actresses are too polite to compel. Others, like Jessica Harper (Suspiria), come off as a little short on time and interest. But interviews with Burns, who goes deep into the horrendous hardships she suffered while making Texas Chainsaw…, Dee Wallace Stone (The Howling), who isn’t afraid to get her claws out, and Black, a great eccentric who insists she’s never been in a horror film (!), make the book worth reading.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ten Terrible Scenes in Otherwise Terrific Terror Movies!

There’s some old story about how master makers of Persian rugs were always sure to tie one knot incorrectly to keep their work from achieving perfection. I never understood this. You’re making a rug, it’s awful nice, why not just make the best damn rug you can make? Perhaps I don’t possess a poetic enough soul to suss the sense in the whole “one bad knot” approach to making art, which sets me apart from the creators of some of the greatest horror films. Movies such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bride of Frankenstein, and Psycho contain flaws that keep them just a hair’s breadth from achieving absolute perfection. So let’s take a look at the blunders in those great films and seven others in Psychobabble’s Ten Terrible Scenes in Otherwise Terrific Terror Movies!

*Beware of spoilers...

1. Yucking it up with Dr. Jekyll…

Essentially made to compete with the new crop of horror pictures pioneered by Universal Studios, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released at the tail of end of 1931, the year that saw the release of both Dracula and Frankenstein. Call me bold, but Rouben Mamoulian’s version of the oft-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson story is the greatest horror film ever made. It has all the atmosphere and classic appeal of the Universal films while trumping them in terms of acting, cinematography, script, drama, inventiveness, and horror. Mamoulian really pulls out all the stops, with his unsettling point-of-view shots, pioneering special effects (the on screen transformation of Jekyll into Hyde is far, far more advanced than the Wolf Man’s transformation ten years later), experimental superimpositions, and his willingness to confront adult themes fearlessly. Unfortunately, in one instance his daring gets the better of him when Fredric March’s Jekyll restores a young girl’s ability to walk. What follows is a painfully awkward shot of an uncredited child actress lurching toward the camera, laughing like a robot, and repeating “I can walk, sir!” over and over. The scene lasts about ten seconds, but it feels like ten hours. Hey, uncredited child actress, don’t quit your day job.

2. At least the ape didn’t sing “Mammy”…

The theory that King Kong (1933) is an allegory about slavery in the U.S. is not a new one. It even factored into a terrific scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Of course, there’s no evidence that Kong creators Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack ever intended such an allegory, and if their portrayal of black people in the film is any indication, it’s better off that they didn’t. After Carl Denham’s (Robert Armstrong) crew lands on Skull Island, they are greeted by a horde of crazed, half-naked natives, the most prominent of whom are white actors in black face (and body) and bad afro wigs. The natives’ frenzy reaches new heights when they notice that a pretty, white, blond lady (Faye Wray) is among the crew’s ranks and decide she’d make a much better sacrifice to the Mighty Kong than one of their own.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that King Kong needs to be viewed as a product of the insensitive and ignorant times in which it was made, and it is a great film that essentially portrays white men as the ultimate villains. But then again, I might be viewing the film through contemporary eyes, and this was no more Cooper and Schoedsack’s intention than the slavery allegory. Whatever their intentions, they don’t make the native sequence any less difficult to watch today.

3. The born lever-puller…

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is my bid for the greatest horror film, but my personal favorite is James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Hilariously funny, lushly produced and filmed, slyly subversive, unimaginably imaginative, and rich in iconic imagery, Bride of Frankenstein could have been a perfect film if not for a strangely lazy ending. Cut to the Monster (Boris Karloff) distraught due to his rejection by his recently assembled would-be Bride (Elsa Lanchester). The Monster takes out his weepy vengeance by destroying the castle in which the Bride was created with himself, her, and the wicked Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) inside. He accomplishes this by yanking a self-destruct lever conveniently— yet completely illogical—installed in the castle. OK, so Whale wanted to end his picture with a bang. Fine enough, but couldn’t he have conceived of something that made more sense than this bit of Monster ex Machina? That lab was full of electrical equipment that the Monster could have easily exploded with a little effort. But, then again, my ignorance may be showing. Perhaps all Gothic castles come with built-in self-destruct levers. What the hell do I know about Gothic castles?

4. Don’t worry, kids. There’s no such thing as vampires…

Without a doubt the most famous lost horror film is Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927). The film’s fame and the ravenous desire to rediscover it apparently has more to do with the opportunity to see Lon Chaney’s toothy “vampire”* live and breathe** than the plot. I place the word “vampire” in quotes because the big twist at the end of London After Midnight is that Chaney’s character is not undead at all, but a disguised Scotland Yard inspector seeking to root out a murderer. That Chaney’s horrifying ghoul turned out to be nothing more than a cop in vamp drag must have been a devastatingly disappointing scene. According to Jonathan Rigby’s excellent book American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema, Browning said at the time, “mystery must be made plausible… nobody believes in ghosts and grave spirits except children and maybe some dark-complexioned Southerners” (Yeesh. He probably loved that native scene in King Kong).

Considering London’s lost status, I can’t personally attest to the terribleness of the film’s climactic scene since I’ve never seen it. I have, however, seen Browning’s 1935 remake, Mark of the Vampire. Nearly as iconic as Chaney’s faux vampire is the equally fake vampire team of Count Moran (Bela Lugosi) and Luna (Carroll Borland). In the remake, the Count and his daughter are actually actors hired by the Inspector (Lionel Atwill). Luna must have been one hell of an actress to fly through a window on giant bat wings.

*See the banner at the top of this page. Chaney is the one who isn’t Keith Richards. I know, I know…it’s really hard to tell them apart…

**This is a joke. Vampires don’t live and breathe: they are the un-dead, and therefore, they un-live and un-breathe.

5. You’re next! You’re not next…

As anyone who has seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) knows, Don Siegel’s film has one of the most disturbing, terrifying, and pessimistic conclusions of any classic sci-fi or horror film: having seen everyone he loves replaced by an alien replica, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) loses all hope and self-control, rushes into traffic, and starts screaming “You’re next! You’re next!” into the windows of the cars speeding around him. At the last moment, his crazed glare is directed directly into the camera for one final “You’re next!” (that means you, movie watcher!) and the film ends. Quite a finale, eh? Kind of perfect. Well, it would have been perfect if it had actually been the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Irritatingly, the dumb-ass suits at Allied Artists Pictures felt this ending was too pessimistic and needed to be softened by an anticlimactic epilogue in which a cache of alien pods are discovered and the FBI is called in to save the day before the pods hatch the next batch of insidious alien replicas. The ending leaves the viewer feeling hopeful that Hoover’s rangers will save the day, but hopeless that Hollywood will ever develop a backbone.

6. Reading the Bible with Lillian Gish…

I shouldn’t really be bothered by anything in Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, Night of the Hunter (1955). It is as close to being a perfect movie as any on this list, executed with dreamy flair by Laughton and expertly acted by Robert Mitchum as demonic preacher Harry Powell, Shelley Winters as Powell’s doomed bride Willa Harper, little Billy Chapin as Willa’s wise son John, and Lillian Gish as, basically, Mother Goose. But I can’t help lament that atheist Laugthton missed a grand opportunity to maintain his critique of religion that begins as soon as Powell makes his first appearance on screen in a creepy jalopy. Instead, Laughton cops out by having Gish’s Rachel Cooper start droning on about Jesus and Moses and reading Bible stories to her clutch of orphans. Cooper is a great character with several great scenes—especially the one when she expresses a surprising level of understanding after learning that one of her charges has been screwing around with men. It’s disappointing that Laughton chose to go the easy route by having Cooper combat Powell’s evil with dull religious dogma, in effect reducing the battle in his very complex, very adult, and generally progressive film to yet another hokey duel between Dracula and a bottle of holy water.

7. And now Hitchcock’s spectacular climax! Scratch that, here’s some long-winded psychobabble instead…

So Mother Bates has been discovered, Norman Bates has been unwigged, Lila Crane is safe, all is satisfied. But all is not over. Like all great Hitchcock films, Psycho (1960) is expertly paced to lure us into a false sense of comfort and maximize suspense. So why do we need that anticlimactic explanation of Norman’s motives by some cod psychologist at the film’s climax? What really happened to Norman’s mother and impelled him to kill is completely unimportant. Hitchcock, the originator of the McGuffin, should have known this better than anyone else. Still we must endure an endless stream of verbiage by a smugly smirking shrink as Lila— who has just learned her only sister has been brutally murdered, mind you—sits listening politely and emotionless. The good news is that this draggy, pointless sequence is followed by one of the film’s best. Norman instantly lays waste to the psychologist’s entire monologue by refusing to kill a fly and giving us viewers a grin chilling enough to remind us why we love this movie so much.

"Blah, blah, blah."

8. Spoil the ending, why don’t you…

The treatment The Wicker Man (1973) received is hardly befitting a film often hailed as one of the greats of British cinema. When EMI purchased British Lion Films, the parent company insisted on chopping 20 minutes from the film. In the US, another 13 minutes were trimmed at the suggestion of Roger Corman (who didn’t even end up distributing the film!). As a result, The Wicker Man was only available in a diced and re-sequenced version for a very long time. The most recent DVD release of The Wicker Man contains both the butchered version and a stitched-up recreation of director Robin Hardy’s original edit. The reinserted scenes are grainier than the rest of the film, but this is still the one and only way to watch The Wicker Man. Too bad that one of these scenes essentially gives away the film’s big climactic twist. A couple of cops have a hardy larf over the possible virginity of their commanding sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward). When Howie takes a flight to Summerisle to investigate a missing girl, and it becomes clear that the little virgin will be sacrificed by the local pagan populace to guarantee good crops, we can pretty much guess what will become of Howie. In the edited version, revelation of Howie’s virgin-status is saved for the film’s finale, which helps it to pack a stronger punch. Considering how important that final shock is, and how significant a role it plays in the film’s legend, everyone involved seemed bent on ruining it for audiences: images of the burning wicker man were used in the trailer and the movie posters, and of course, on the covers of videotapes and DVDs. But those blunders are the faults of marketing and distribution people. Only Hardy is to blame for telegraphing his big twist in the film, itself.

9. The true monster in Carrie? The 1970s…

Scary as it is, Carrie (1976) is not without humor, although Brian DePalma was smart enough to make most of that humor pitch black; every scene with Piper Laurie is basically hilarious and horrifying in equal measure. So what’s with that ridiculous sequence in which the kids are getting ready for the prom to a soundtrack of moog-synth funk straight out of a “Fat Albert” cartoon? It’s as if someone cut some footage from a bad ‘70s sitcom into the movie as a prank. The piece de crap of the montage is when William Katt and his buddies are discussing their hideous tuxes and the action suddenly goes on fast-forward, the guys gibbering in sped-up chipmunk voices. This was a brainwave by editor Paul Hirsch to speed the action in the saggy scene. Hey, Hirsch, I have a better idea for quickening the pace in this scene: cut it.

10. We get it. You love your dad…

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) was a flop with audiences, perhaps because they didn’t quite know what to do with a live-action Disney film that was way too scary for the studio’s young audience. Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s novel may have earned less than half its budget at the box office, but the film is a gorgeously autumnal, superbly acted piece of work. If Disney has a reputation for churning out cutesy, bowdlerized fairy tales for runny-nosed toddlers, you’d never know it from this film. Well, except during the climactic sequence, in which young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) forgives his dad (the great Jason Robards) for failing to save him from drowning years earlier. I have no problem with a bit of sentimentality, especially in a movie that is essentially aimed at kids. But it’s as if Clayton tried to mitigate the creeping (and, occasionally, gory) Gothic terror of the rest of his picture by applying the schmaltz in this scene with a trowel. Along with a prolonged, teary hug, and a sappy recreation of the near-drowning event that puts Will’s dad in the hero seat, we get Will’s declaration of “I love you, dad” on a seemingly endless loop to maximize audience nausea.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Diary of the Dead 2010: Week 1

Welcome to another creepedelic Halloween season here on Psychobabble! In lieu of performing real work I’ll be double-fisting horror movies all month, which I’ll be documenting with a log of ultra-mini reviews (using a five-star rating system) every Friday. I write them. You read them. No one needs to get hurt.

It begins…

September 24th

Peeping Tom (1960- dir. Michael Powell) ****

Hadn’t seen this one in a decade, and it didn’t hold up quite as well as I expected. Still Peeping Tom is a relatively smart and beautifully filmed story about an unsettlingly sympathetic psycho-photographer. I’d forgotten about the weird humor percolating throughout the picture. Moira Shearer steals the show.

Werewolf of London (1935- dir. Stuart Walker) **1/2

This six-years-early dry run for The Wolf Man mostly gets it wrong. The mythology is way off, the make-up is half-assed, and Henry Hull’s Dr. Glendon might be the most unlikable lead character in a classic Universal monster movie. Entertaining and atmospheric enough, though.

September 25th

Mark of the Vampire (1935- dir. Tod Browning) ***1/2

Tod Browning’s sound remake of his own London After Midnight still sports a disappointing denouement, but the spookiness that precedes it is aces. Great, creepy graveyard sequences, and it’s always a pleasure to see Bela Lugosi donning the cape, even if he isn’t doing so as Dracula. That surreal scene where Carroll Borland descends from the ceiling on giant bat wings is worth the price of admission alone.

Sleepwalkers (1992- dir. Mick Garris) ***

I watched this Stephen King-penned movie several times during its early ‘90s HBO stint and decided to revisit it even though it’s mostly bad. Fortunately, Sleepwalkers is more fun-bad than bad-bad. Brian Krause, who plays a teen shape-shifter that subscribes to the ol’ “incest is best” tenet, should never have been allowed to carry a picture. But Alice Krige as his mom and Madchen Amick as his school chum are both terrific. They deserve better than this bunk, but at least it ain’t boring.

September 26th

Jigoku (1960- dir. Nobuo Nakagawa) ****1/2

This very early Japanese horror film takes a while to reveal it’s horrificness, but once it does… yow! Shigeru Amachi plays a theology student with the worst luck in the world. The supernatural element of the film’s opening half is limited to a general air of uncanny unease and an encounter with a doppelgänger. In the second half…well, you’d do well not to know too much about that before heading into the picture, but let’s just say it makes Hieronymus Bosch look like Bob Ross.

September 27th

The Hitcher (1986- dir. Robert Harmon) **

I’d been kicking myself for ages for never having seen the minor classic The Hitcher. Honestly, I could have kept procrastinating indefinitely. Devil Rutger Hauer thumbs a ride with moron C. Thomas Howell. Hauer does an adequate job of terrorizing Howell. Howell fights to survive by doing lots of really dumb things. Did you know that Howell is working more now than he was during his mid-‘80s heyday? Wanna know why you haven’t seen any of his recent movies? Because filmmakers who make movies you’d actually want to watch caught on to a hard fact long ago: the guy sucks.

Child’s Play (1988- dir. Tom Holland) ****1/2

The dull ‘80s slasher trend taken to its illogical extreme. Infinitely more interesting than Friday the 13th; infinitely funnier than Some Like It Hot. Watching Chucky bean that annoying kid with a baseball bat is one of cinema’s great pleasures.

September 28th

Alligator (1980- dir. Lewis Teague) ****

Who’d imagine John Sayles was once the go-to guy for goofy Jaws cash-ins? Like Sayles’s Piranha, Alligator is a witty little satire about an aquatic nightmare. This one is a tyrannosaurus-sized gator named Ramón. I made sure to catch this whenever it ran on TV in the early ‘80s. Nice to see it’s still a fun way to spend 87 minutes.

Survival of the Dead (2010- dir. George A. Romero) **

It’s an improvement over the awful Diary of the Dead (the awful movie…not this awful article), but Survival of the Dead is still evidence that someone needs to put a bullet in this series’ brain. Romero is on autopilot throughout this undistinguished zombie romp. It’s always good to see Kenneth Welsh (Windom Earle of “Twin Peaks”) though. Rewatch Night of the Living Dead instead.

Coraline (2009- dir. Henry Selick) *****

This was the first time I watched the 3D version of this DVD. It kind of made me want to barf. Then, an hour into the film, I realized I needed to set my TV’s mode to “standard” in order to watch the 3D disc properly (after the adjustment, it looked pretty fantastic aside from some blurry patches). Mind you, it took me an hour to follow an instruction explicitly stated at the beginning of the film. Can you really trust someone so stupid to provide you with adequate assessments of movies? That’s up to you. As for my assessment of Coraline: great, great, great.

September 29th

Countess Dracula (1970- dir. Peter Sasdy) ***1/2

One of the better late-period Hammers, when sex threatened to hip-check horror for good and camp reigned above all. Countess Dracula actually has nothing to do with Stoker’s vampire. Rather, Ingrid Pitt plays Elisabeth Bathory, the infamous aristocrat who bathed in virgin blood to maintain her youthful complexion. As usual for a Hammer production, the sets and costumes are gorgeous. Obviously, Pitt is very watchable too, but more importantly, she supplies a frenzied energy too often missing from Hammer pictures.

September 30th

The Stepford Wives (1975- dir. Bryan Forbes) ****1/2

The Stepford Wives is mainly a feminist Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with Katharine Ross in the Kevin McCarthy role, but it’s also a darkly funny satire of suburban blandness and advertising (“I’ll just die if I don’t get this recipe!”) . William Goldman’s script and Bryan Forbes’s direction are super sharp: nearly every line of dialogue and every image underscores the film’s themes without being ham-fisted. The ending is just as terrifying as that of Body Snatchers and quite a bit more heartbreaking. Paula Prentiss steals the film as Ross’s wacky neighbor.

¡Vampiros en La Habana! (1985- dir. Juan Padrón) **1/2

Primitively animated but occasionally amusing Cuban cartoon for grown-ups. A mad scientist has invented a formula that allows vampires to survive daylight. A cadre of vampire gangsters want the formula for their own nefarious purposes. The heroes are pre-Castro revolutionaries, although the depiction of the black one is unfortunately stereotypey. Good music by jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, though, and there’s a neat sequence in a cinema in which the cartoon characters watch a live-action Dracula movie.
All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.