Monday, December 21, 2009

Alfred Hitchcock's greatest thriller?

Psycho (1960)
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, John Gavin and Vera Miles
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Marion Crane (Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer and heads off to start a new life with her lover, Sam Loomis (Gavin). Before she can meet up with him, however, she vanishes without a trace. Sam and her worried sister, Lila (Miles) track her to the isolated Bates Motel, where a soft-spoken young man named Norman (Perkins) struggles under the heavy hand of his shrewish, possessive mother. But Norman is a man who has many dark secrets....

I think everyone reading this knows what Norman is hiding, as well as where Marion and the $40,000 vanished to... but in case someone hasn't seen one of the greatest horror films ever made, I'll keep to my policy of not offering any spoilers.

Suffice it to say that I think this movie must have been absolutely, jaw-dropping in its audacity with the plot-twist that happens about 15-20 minutes in. I doubt anyone could have been prepared for it, and "Psycho" is still remarkable for flawless way it pulls it off... few films can take such a shocking left turn and not spill the audience on the curve. Instead, after the shock wears off--and it IS shocking if you aren't expecting it, even in this day and age when movies go back for reshoots to add violence and nudity--the audience is even more captivating. Where can the movie go from there, they're asking themselves.

"Psycho" is one of Hitchcock's finest movies. The cast is perfect; the script is perfect; the sets are amazing; the camerawork and creative use of lighting is astonishingly creative and effective; and the Bernard Hermann score is absolutely mindblowing (even if I'm not as fond of the "Murder Theme" as so many others are... there are far better bits of music in the film).

If you haven't see it, or if you've seen the pale imitation that was released in 1998 under the guise of a "remake" (and it was an imitation... to call that travesty a "remake" is an insult to genuine remakes, no matter how bad they might be), you need to see "Psycho". It's a film every movie lover should experience.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Whole made up of great parts, but something is missing

Night Monster (aka "House of Mystery")
Starring: Don Porter, Irene Hervey, Ralph Morgan, Doris Lloyd, Fay Helm, Leif Erickson, Bela Lugosi, Robert Homans, Nils Asther Francis Pierlot, Frank Reicher, Lionel Atwill and Janet Shaw
Director: Ford Beebe
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A wealthy, imbittered cripple (Morgan) invites the doctors he blames for his state (Atwill, Peirlot and Reicher) to his mansion in order to witness the miracle he hopes will cure him: A swami (Asther) has discovered a way to use mindpower to materialize matter from thin air, and he believes this method can be used to give him new limbs. Other house-guests include a mystery writer friend to the crippled man(Porter) and a psychologist (Hervey) visiting to help his troubled younger sister (Helm) with her mental problems. When a murderer that seems to materialize and dematerialize at will starts killing members of the household staff and guests, everyone one and anyone can be the next victim... or possibly even the killer.

"Night Monster" is a mystery film with horror overtones that is as crowded with plots as it is with characters. The writers and director do a better job keeping all the threads flowing than is the case in many films similar to this, making good use of all characters and managing to not tangle the plots too badly. The filmmakers even manage to throw in enough red herrings and plausible suspects that the true nature and identity of the killer isn't certain to viewers until the Big Reveal at the end of the movie. (The only suspect that never seems likely is the bulter played by Bela Lugosi, even if I'm sure the director was expecting viewers to automatically assume he was nefarious because it's Bela Lugosi.)

The film is also impressive for the dark mood that pervades it. While there are a couple of "comic relief characters" in the film, they are more subdued than is often the case if movies of this vintage, and their bufoonery is deployed to augment the darkness of the film rather than dispel or undermine it... like where they find the body of one of the victims. The expressions of cowardice are comical, but they enhance the grim mood of the film rather than lighten it.

Each of the murders (or close brushes with the killer) are also very expertly presented. As is to be expected, we never see any actual killings, or even dead bodies, but we don't need to because the scenes are so expertly staged. Even more powerful is when the mysterious killer prowls the marshes around the mansion--the otherwise ever-present sound of croaking frogs suddenly ceases. The silence is even more unnerving than the screams of the victim that soon follow.

This is not a perfect film, however, and the filmmakers don't quite manage to keep all the balls in the air for its full running time, as they stumble badly when it comes to the third act. As it comes to its feiry conclusion, the filmmakers start to lose track of the characters and subplots, with Bela Lugosi's character vanishing from the scene entirely and a bit of involvement of the deus ex machina that makes the attentive viewer wonder why a certain character could have let things get so far out of hand and/or didn't speak up sooner. However, these are problems that won't come to mind until after the film is over, and until they do, you will be in for a very enjoyable ride.

Reportedly, Alfred Hitchcock believed "Night Monster" was an important film as it was being made. If he was basing his opinion on footage as it was assembled into the final product, I can see why he might say that. It is a film made up of some very finely crafted parts, even if there ultimately seems to be a piece or two missing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

'The Ghost and Mr. Chicken'
delivers a few chills along with with laughter

The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
Starring: Don Knotts, Joan Staley, Liam Redmond, Dick Sargent and Skip Homier
Director: Alan Rafkin
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When the timid typesetting at small-town newspaper (Knotts) has a shot at acheiving his dream of becoming a reporter by spending the night in a local haunted house, his tale of the ghostly manifestations turn him into a local hero, gets him the respect of his boss (Sargent), a chance to romance the girl of his dreams (Staley) and show up a bullying co-worker (Homier). But when he is later challenged to show others the haunting, everything is quiet and he may lose everything. What is going on in the Murder House?

"The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" is a great family movie that should entertain young kids and adults equally. While Don Knotts is best in small doses, the story here of the sweet nerd who comes out ahead should appeal to everyone.

The cast is good, with Knotts, Sargent, and Redmond (whose turn as the strangely manipulative janitor provides some of the films most puzzling and funny moments, until the Big Revelation occurs) being particularly good. Staley is a bit of a dead spot, but she's only here to be the Cute, Sensitive Love Interest, so her apparent limited ability doesn't harm the film much. The soundtrack is also good, featuring a single theme used in different enough ways that it doesn't become repetitive, and which manages to both be small-townish, funny, and spooky all at once.

The only real complaint I have with the film is that the director and technical crew should have spent a little more time on lighting. The night and day shots are lit the same way, and the house and grounds are no where near as spooky as they should be, due to the flat lighting throughout.

Still, it's an entertaining, good-natured film that's worth your time. Check it out.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

'Woman on the Run' is worth chasing after

Woman on the Run (1950)
Starring: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O'Keefe, Robert Keith and Ross Elliot
Director: Norman Foster
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When artist Frank Johnson (Elliot) witnesses a gangland slaying and is subsequently target by the killer, he panics and goes on the run. When the police detective (Keith) in charge of the case contacts his wife, Eleanor (Sheridan) he finds an imbittered woman who is strangely uninterested in helping to locate him. But, once the police are gone, Elanor sets about tracking down her husband herself, first alone, then with the help of scoop-seeking reporter Danny Leggett. But, as Elanor draws closer to finding Frank, she unknowing leads the killer to him as well... a killer who is desperate to eliminate anyone who might identify him.

"Woman on the Run" is a well-scripted, perfectly paced film-noir style crime drama. The dialogue is particularly well-crafted, as is Elanor's gradual transformation from a surly film-noir dame to a wife who discovers that she and her husband still have a marriage worth saving. The way the film reveals the identity of the killer--who is much closer throughout the film than anyone suspects--and the casual way it demonstrates exactly how murderous and coldblooded he is, are also stellar examples of quality screen-writing and filmmaking.

With fine performances by all actors featured, an excellent script, great photography that takes full advantage of the black-and-white film medium, and a perfect music score to round out the package, "Woman on the Run" is a film that's undeserving of its obscurity... and it's a film that makes the 50-movie DVD collection "Dark Crimes " (which is where I saw it) worth the purchase price almost all by itself--which is why it's such a shame its going out of print. There are many great films in the set that will be even harder to find than they already are.

Hammer + Universal = Great Vampire Movie

Kiss of the Vampire (aka "Kiss of Evil")(1962)
Starring: Edward DeSouza, Cifford Evans, Jennifer Daniel, Noel Willman, and Barry Warren
Director: Don Sharp
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When a honeymooning British couple, Gerard and Marianne (DeSouza and Daniel) run out of gas on an isolated road, local nobleman Dr. Ravna (Willman) comes to their aid. Their gratefulness soon turns to horror, as Ravna is the leader of a cult of vampires, and he has chosen Marianne to the latest addition to the membership roster.

"Kiss of the Vampire" is one of Hammer's best vampire movies. Although a bit slow at times, it opens strong, offers one of the creepiest sequences in any Hammer movie, and a very unusual and refreshing ending.

The overall structure of the film reminds me more of an unofficial remake of Edgar Ulmer's Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi film "The Black Cat" from 1934 (review here) than it does any other Hammer vampire film. In fact, as I think about it, the story here is almost exactly like that of "The Black Cat", except the cultists are vampires instead of Satanists.

Whether you're a lover of all things vampires, or someone who can appreciate a finely told gothic horror tale, this is a movie you should seek out. That goes double if you enjoyed "The Black Cat", as this unofficial remake/"inspired by"/"ripped off from" little-noticed Hammer classic is definately a film you'll get a kick out of.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A stylish movie that flopped in its day

The Old Dark House (1932)
Starring: Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Lilian Bond, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger, Eva Moore, Bremer Wills and Boris Karloff
Director: James Whale
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

A violent storm forces five travelers to take shelter in an isolated house in the Welsh mountains. Before the night is over, love will come to some of the inhabitants of the house, while death will come for others.

"The Old Dark House" is a quirky horror film from the days when the genre was still taking shape. It features an even mix of romance, dark comedy and melodramatic horror action in a household so riddled with insanity that even the House of Usher looks like the Cleavers by comparison. It's a tone and mixture of elements that has only rarely been achieved, with films like "Drag Me to Hell" and "Dead Alive" coming closest in the past decade.

When it was first released, it failed to appeal to the public nor to most critics, due in a large part to a marketing campaign that centered on Boris Karloff, who had just been featured in the mega-hit "Frankenstein." Marketing and top billing aside, Karloff's role in this film is rather minor, and he is more red herring than monster. Although a definate ensamble piece, the actors who fill the key roles in the flick are Gloria Stuart, whose character is threatened in turn by every one of the menacing figures in the old dark house; Melvyn Douglas, whose roguish war veteran character is the heroic and romantic center of the film; and Bremer Wills, whose late-arriving character is nonetheless the most memorable in the entire picture.

Although those three actors are the lynchpins keeping the film together, everyone does a remarkable job. Also of particular note are Lilian Bond, who is perhaps better here than in any other film she would make; Charles Laughton, who actually sympathetic for once; and Ernest Thesiger, who manages to be funny and scary at the same time.

The staging of each shot is also remarkable, as is the attention paid both to the visual composition of each scene, as well as the careful deployment of sound throughout. There is no music score for the film, but the sounds generated by the storm raging outside the house provide far more drama than any orchestra could do.

Because the film was a commercial disaster both in 1932 and during its re-release in 1939, Universal Pictures considered it worthless. They sold remake rights to Columbia Pictures and let all of its rights revert to estate of the novelist whose work the film had been based on in 1957, and the negatives were left to rot in storage in New York City. If not for a concerted effort on the part of filmmaker Curtis Harrington--a fan of the film and friend of director James Whale--it might have been lost forever by the late 1960s. Even the best available print shows some damage, despite the restoration efforts.

Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House
Fortunately, the film has been now digitized and released on DVD for all of us to enjoy again and again. And this is a film that has definate replay value, as there are many subtle interplays between characters and stylistic touches that might not be noticed on the first time through. Also, the careful composition of scenes and use of sound make it as worthy of study as more celebrated early horror films, like "The Mummy" or "White Zombie."

Or it's worth seeing again and again for the excellent performances. Based on the job she does here, it's a shame that Gloria Stuart was not given any further decent parts at Universal and an even bigger shame that she basically quit acting in 1939.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Universal distribution deal brought forth one of Hammer's very best films

Night Creatures(aka Captain Clegg)(1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Allen, Michael Ripper, Oliver Reed, and Yvonne Romain
Director: Peter Graham Scott
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Captain Collier (Allen) of the King's Navy marches into a small swamp-bound coastal village that is a suspected hub of smuggling, not to mention the center of activity by ghostly nightriders on skeletal horses. He is soon matching wits with the masterminds behind the smuggling operations--the kindly Reverend Blyss (Cushing) and coffin maker Jeremiah Mipps (Ripper), both of whom hide secrets deeper and darker than a mere smuggling ring.

I love this movie.

"Captain Clegg" ("Night Creatures" in the U.S. market, so retitled by Universal Pictures when they picked it and seven other Hammer productions up for distribution) is perhaps one of the finest movies ever be produced by Hammer Films.

Set in the 18th century against a backdrop of smuggling and piracy, "Captain Clegg" is an excellent melodrama that's got a thrilling, well-paced story, with compelling, likable, and complex characters, and a near-perfect ending.

High points of the film include the opening scenes with an old man running from spectral riders in the marshes, only to be finished off by a nightmarish scarecrow with human eyes; the sequence where Mipps and his fellow smugglers set out in the hopes of making their scheduled delivery of fine French wines right under the nose of Captain Collier and his men; the breakfast scene where Collier thinks he finally has the goods on Blyss, and the build-up to the film's climax as Blyss's past comes back to haunt him and the smuggling operation starts to come unglued.

"Captian Clegg" is also beautifully filmed and expertly directed--on par with some of Terence Fisher's Hammer work, I think--with Cushing and Ripper giving excellent performances. In fact, Cushing may well give the finest on-screen performance of his career as the enigmatic country vicar with a rebellious streak. Cushing's range as an actor is shown more clearly in this film as in no other I've seen (and I've seen most of them).

I can't recommend this film highly enough. If you order the Hammer Horror Series pack from I think "Captain Clegg" alone is woth the purchase price for Cushing fans. (The inclusion of another of his greatest films--"The Brides of Dracula"--is icing on the cake. Click here to read my review of it and two other of the films in the set.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

See the Classic Monsters
as you've never seen them before!

During Universal Picture's Golden Age of Horror, lots of mad scientists were conducting bizarre experiments with even more bizarre results. Click on the "Mad Science" index link in the column to the right, and you'll see lots of examples.

Modern-day B-movie maven Charles Band (best known as the guy who created Full Moon Entertainment and helped lay the foundation for the direct-to-video market as it exists today) made a movie in 1997 that not only features a mad scientist who could give any one of the old-timers a run for their money as far as unforeseen consequences go, but he also reincarnates Universal's Classic Monsters in a way that we've never seen them before....

Yes. Those ARE midgets.

If you're a fan of classic horror flicks and possess a sense of humor, I think you might enjoy Charles Band's "The Creeps."

Click here to read my review of "The Creeps," and to check out a preview of the film. (If you like what you see, I even provide a handy-dandy link to, so you can see more reviews or even grab a copy for yourself.)

Trivia: Around the time he made "The Creeps," Band produced two TV films directed at kids that also revolved around the classic monsters: "Frankestein Reborn!" and "The Wolf Man Reborn!"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

'The Fourth Kind' is kind of a waste of time

The Fourth Kind (2009)
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas and Will Patton
Director: Olatunde Osunsanmi
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

After the strange death of her husband, Nome-based psychologist Dr. Abigail Tyler (Jovovich) vows to carry on his work, investigating sleep disorders. She discovers that the root cause is alien abductions, only to be targeted by the aliens herself. Or is she being targeted?

"The Fourth Kind" is a different sort of hoax movie than "The Blair Witch Project" or "Paranormal Activity." While it lays claim to being just as real, it takes a "America's Most Wanted" or "Unsolved Mysteries" approach, mixing re-actments with supposedly real video footage and audio tapes. They also decide to use a split-screen approach in many cases, trying to bolster their claim of reality by placing the reenactments side-by-side and even merged with the "documentary footage and recordings."

Of course, it's all a bunch of hooey. Just like no student filmmakers vanished in the forest and there is no demon-possessed Katie wandering the streets of San Diego, there is no Abigail Tyler and the people of Nome aren't disappearing because of alien abductions; they're disappearing because drunkenness and harsh winters don't mix (or so says the FBI).

But that doesn't mean the notion of space aliens preying on Alaskans isn't a good idea for a hoax movie. If it is, though, it didn't translate into this film. Writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi spends too much time showing off his cleverness with split-screens and sharing his apparent love with areal shots of Alaska and overlong establishing shots to make the movie scary or even interesting. It moves too slowly to ever be truly exciting, and the characters are too drab for it to be scary, because we never really get invested in them. The one truly scary moment in the film is a BOO-Gatcha! moment that doesn't come close to making up for the boring build-up. Not even the secret surrounding the death of Tyler's husband turns out to be all that interesting. (Although it does make you wonder why stronger action wasn't taken against Tyler sooner.)

Ultimately, this is a forgettable film that is badly put together. The most remarkable thing about it is Jovovich's greener-than-green eyes.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Beauty and beast are one in 'Captive Wild Woman'

Captive Wild Woman (1943) 
Starring: John Carradine, Milburn Stone, Lloyd Carrigan, Acquanetta, Evelyn Ankers and Ray Corrigan Director: Edward Dmytryk 
Rating: Six of Ten Stars 

A mad genius (Carradine) proves the correctness of his cutting-edge theories in glandular functions by transforming a gorilla into a shapely young woman (Acquanetta). Tragedy and death ensue. 

Publicity still for Captive Wild Woman The more one watches horror and sci-fi films from the 1940s, the more obvious it is why Universal's attempt to recapture the magical horror profits that carried them through the depression in the 1930s failed. Too many of the films from this "revival period" are no different than the sort of nonsense that was issuing forth from small studios like Monogram and PRC; instead of living up to greatness of "The Mummy" and "The Invisible Man," Universal production executives and directors instead lowered themselves to the level of those who had followed on their coattails.

When compared to the classics of the 1930s, or even "Ghost of Frankenstein" and "The Wolfman" from the 1940s--something the modern-day Universal marketeers are encouraging us to do by including this film is DVD multipack titled "Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive"--this movie falls woefully short. It's more in the league of low-budget efforts like "The Devil Bat" or "The Monster Maker," just to pick two movies about mad scientists at random. That is a serious step down from the great horror shows of the 1930s.

While disappointing when considered in the light of the cinematic greatness that Universal had once brought to the world, "Captive Wild Woman" is well-acted and well-filmed, with a fast pace to carry us quickly through the story. While Carradine is no Bela Lugosi or Lionel Atwill, he does a decent enough job as the mad doctor at the heart of the story, and the exotic beauty of Acquanetta makes the movie more enjoyable as well. This is not a "classic" in any sense other than it's an old movie, but it's worth checking out if you like the fantastic pulp-fiction science of the early sci-fi and horror flicks.

(A bit of cast trivia: The Universal Studio marketing department nicknamed Acquanetta "The Venezuelan Volcano." Her real name was Mildred Davenport, she was born in Ozone, Wyoming, in 1923, and was of Arapaho decent with no trace of Venezuela in her blood or family tree.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

'The Red Violin' is a fascinating, artsy drama

The Red Violin (1999)
Starring: Irene Gratzioli, Anita Lorenzi, Jean-Luc Bideau, Kristoph Koncz, Jason Flemyng, Sylvia Chang, Colm Feore and Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Francois Girard
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A 17th century violin maker creates the perfect violin that ends up causing heartbreak and tragedy as it moves through history toward its destiny.

The friend who recommended I see this movie did so because he felt the violin at its center was just like the cursed objects in the fictional world of Ravenloft I used to contribute to. They, like the violin in this movie seems to be, are charged with supernatural energies that lead those of impure hearts to destruction while usually have no effect or actually bringing beneficial circumstances to the users who are either selfless or who purposefully or by accident help the item fulfill whatever purpose it has been imbued with.

While this is by no means a horror film--nor is it a thriller, despite what the marketing monkey who wrote the cover for the home video version would like buyers to think--my friend was right about the red violin. Its creation (including its shocking secret), the effects is has on those who come into possession of it, and even the method by which the story is being told to the viewers, is very much in keeping with the tone that we strove to establish in the best of the Ravenloft products that were produced. I particularly like the fact that the story is being told by way of flashbacks to a Tarot reading as the violin maker was working on his creation--it's a nice mechanism to organize the film and it introduces the supernatural element in a definate but subtle way.

Although there are ghosties or ghoulies in this film, I think it is a movie that those who enjoy more subtle horror films will like. Something is definitely going on with the red violin, as it's more than coincidence that as it wanders through the years that the moment a person in control of it tries to use it for some sort of personal gain or glory, something bad happens to them.

The film is also skilled and very beautifully shot. The various locations around the world that the film takes place in are nicely captured both through the fantastic cinematography and through the well-crafted script that evokes the personalities of the people living in those times and places with an economic precision needed for a film that essentially tells five separate stories in the space most movies spend on telling one. (I think if one particularly dimwitted member of the Barack Obama administration saw this movie and accepted the fictional version of Chairman Mao's China seen in this film, as opposed to the fictional realm of a worker's paradise brimming with freedom and equality that she imagines, she wouldn't be so quick to praise Mao and his Cultural Revolution. Although... I suppose it's to everyone one's benefit to know that the President of the United States grants positions of power to men and women who admire murderous dictators and the totalitarian regimes they lead.)

For an unusual and moving viewing experience, "The Red Violin" is the place to look. It's an artfully done movie that features the highest level of craftsmanship from all involved. It's not the movie equivalent of the red violin, but it's pretty darn good.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

'The Black Cat' is more spoof than horror

The Black Cat (1941)
Starring: Broderick Crawford, Hugh Herbert, Anne Gwynne, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Gladys Cooper and Bela Lugosi
Director: Albert S. Rogell
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When one of greedy relatives on an unpleasant--but exceedingly wealthy--old woman decides to help her into the grave through murder, it's up to a family friend and greasy real estate broker (Crawford) to unmask the killer. But he better hurry, because it's a dark and stormy night, and the killer has more lives to claim....

Universal sure does love to throw random films into their DVD collections. In the marketed-as-a-horror-films "Boris Karloff Collection" there was the light mystery "The Night Key" and the historical drama "Tower of London," while the "Universal Horror: Classic Archive" features "The Black Cat." Sure, the film includes horror film regulars like Basil Rathbone, Anne Gwynn and Bela Lugosi, but it is actually a comedy that spoofs the Dark Old House genre that flourished in the early 1930s.

"The Black Cat" was the second film that the famous Poe short story "suggested" to Universal Pictures. It has more in common with the source material than the 1934 picture the story "suggested"--this one at least features a black cat that ends up unmasking a killer with its yowling--but it's nowhere near as good.

As comedies go, it's below average. The behavior of the comic characters--a real estate agent played by Broderick Crawford and a dishonest and scatterbrained dealer of antiques played by Hugh Herbert--is rarely all that funny, although the comparisons I've seen made to Abbott and Costello are unfair. Crawford's more-often-than-not straight man is far more respectable than most characters portrayed by Abbott, and Herbert's "Costello imitation" is more a reflection of the fact that both men started their careers as comedians on the Vaudeville stage. It's not that Crawford and Herbert are ripping anyone off that viewers should be upset with, it's that they have such poor material and badly written lines to work with.

The overall thrust of the story is decent enough, although it is full of logic holes. I have the sense that someone, somewhere said, "Screw it... it's a comedy being made to just fill the release schedule; who cares the story doesn't hang together?"

So, as is always the case when producers don't bother to get the foundation of their film solid, we end up with an end product that is little more than a waste of talent and time. We have a comedy that's only mildly funny, featuring a mystery that's badly put together because the writers didn't put enough tought into it, and a film that squanders great talent like Rathbone, Gwynn and Lugosi.

No one is wasted more in this picture than Lugosi. He is relegated to a small and pointless role as the Italian groundskeeper, a role so small and pointless that he doesn't get to show his talent for dramatic or comedic acting. In fact, the role is so pointless that I think not even Lugosi took it seriously--or if he did, he added an attempt to do an Italian accent on top of his Hungarian one late in the shooting schedule because his accent is inconsistent between scenes. It has been written that Universal executives either did not respect Lugosi or didn't know what to do with him... and it's films like this that prove the truth of that. I still have to see one or two of Lugosi's Universal films, but this one has got to be close to the low point of his appearances in them. (On an interesting trivial note, Lugosi was actually the star of the 1934 "The Black Cat.")

That said, Gale Sondergaard does play one of the creepiest house keepers to ever grace the silver screen. Also, the scenes leading up to the end after the murderer has been revealed are very suspenseful and well paced. One can also add that the film is fast-paced, so no matter how dumb it gets at times, it never gets boring. All these facts add up to a movie that's entertaining enough, but not much of a horror flick.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A small selection of classic horror movie posters

Here are some classic posters for some of the films covered on this blog. Click on the images to see larger versions.

First, the film that started it all in 1931. I wonder if Universal's marketeers had the same feeling about the spiderweb scene that I do. Click here to read my reviews of Universal's early vampire movies.
Dracula 1931 artwork

The fright continued with the film that elevated Karloff from bit-player to movie star. Click here to read my review of "Frankenstein" and its sequels.

A chilling image to represent that last of the true sequels to the original "Frankstein" film. After this one, they became cross-over fests that were just as much sequels to "The Wolf Man." Click here to read my review of "Ghost of Frankenstein" and four other Universal Frankenstein films.

And, finally, the period at the end of the Classic Universal Monster Era...
Click here to read my reviews of the funny side of Universal's iconic horror creatures.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Although from the 1950s, this film looks and feels like it's from the 1940s

The Black Castle (1952)
Starring: Richard Green, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Boris Karloff, Tudor Owen, John Hoyt, Michael Pate, Lon Chaney Jr, and Henry Corden
Director: Nathan Juran
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In the early 18th century, an English spy (Green) travels to Austria's Black Forest to determine the fates of two of his best friends and fellow operatives. They were last heard from as guests of an eccentric count (McNally) whom they had opposed in Africa. While trying to ferret out the count's secrets, our hero decides to rescue his innocent young wife from his clutches (Corday).

"The Black Castle" is an excellent and suspense-filled period drama that, although it's being told in flashback and you know that the hero and his love interest won't come to the dire end that they seem destined for, remains unpredictable until the very end. It's a film that builds steadily toward its final twist, a twist that few will see coming but that is nonetheless set up by everything that went before. It doesn't say anything good about modern screenwriters when, in a time where twist endings on suspense and horror films are all the rage, that a B-movie writer can do something far, far better than they come up with on their best days, in a time when they weren't common.

Aside from a well-done script, the film is further augmented by excellent sets and excellent cinematography and some fine performances by the entire cast. Of particular note is Stephen McNally, who, although he plays the ultimate Snidley Whiplash-type character who is dwells in the ultimate melodramatic gothic villian's lair--an isolated castle with secret corridors, torture chambers, burial vaults and a pit full of crocodiles, still manages to bring a little depth to the character. He injects just enough charm into this thoroughly evil character that I couldn't help but root for him ever-so-slightly in his effort to outwit the one-dimensional, more-righteous-than-righteous British agent.

Also of note are the performances by the two horror cinema great Boris Karloff. His role is small, but, like McNally he manages to bring infuse some depth into a character who might otherwise come across as just a sniveling slimeball. (Lon Chaney Jr is also seen, once again playing one of those menacing simpletons that he seemed to have been relegated to at this stage in his career... he does what he can with a fairly empty part.)

"The Black Castle" is a film that should appeal to lovers of classic movies, especially if they like their gothic romances with a side of twisted vengence. Although made in the mid-1950s, the film feels more like something from the 1930s or 1940s. It's one of the highlights of "The Boris Karloff Collection" five-movie set from Universal.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The real mystery is how this movie turned out so bad

The Black Dahlia (2005) Stars: Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart, Scarlett Johansson, Mia Kirshner and Hilary Swank Director: Brian De Palma Rating: Three of Ten Stars A publicity-hungry police detective (Eckhart) arranges to have himself and his younger partner (Hartnett) assigned to the grisly murder of a would-be actress (Kirshner). As one detective starts to mysteriously come unglued, the other uncovers not only dark secrets relating to the dead actress, but to his partner as well.

The Black Dahlia is almost completely devoid of focus. The script moves randomly from plot to subplot to barely relevant stuff, with the Black Dahlia murder being relegated to just above a minor tangent among a whole tangle of plots and subplots. The style of the film also swings widely between filming styles--at some points, it's heavy-handedly apeing the filming styles of the 1930s and 40s (complete with obligatory soft focus on the leading ladies), at others he goes for an almost documentary style detachment, and then there's the incredibly annoying sequence when the camera suddenly takes the POV of what Hartnett's character is seeing, thus putting the audience in his shoes. Not only is this a pointless break in style, it is very badly done. 

And then there's the editing. There isn't a single shot in the film that lasts more than ten seconds and all quick edits and jumping around with the camera angles gets tiresome very fast. 

To make this already weak film as bad as possible, it is further burdened by an ending that is is completely and totally botched, with the solution to the Black Dahlia killing being completely nonsensical and the other Big Revelations not quite fitting with the rest of the story either.
It's a shame this movie is such a mess, because many of the actors give some great performances that are in step with the film noir/crime drama movies of the 1930s and 1940s. 
Aaron Eckhart turns in a great performance as a crooked cop (I'm not spoiling anything here... the Eckhart character is a standard for the kind of movie being emulated) whose life has come to orbit around the one decent thing he's done in his life... the rescue of a young woman from a life prostitution (Johansson). It's a shame his performance and character are undermined by the awful script that introduces a late-movie twist that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. 

And then there's the hero of the tale, Hartnett's good-hearted, honest cop who is irrevokably tainted by the evil he encounters in the course of this film. His character is in genre, except that he spends too much time crying; it's okay for him to be sensitive, caring, and concerned with justice, but he shouldn't be getting weepy all the time. His character is, unfortunately, also undermined by the botched ending in the film and a particularly stupid scene where he shoots up the home of Swank's character. 

Someone couldn’t make up their mind what they were doing with this movie. Whatever potential it may have had is ruined by an inconsistent visual tone and a script that is messy, unfocused and internally inconsistent. It's a film that deserved to bomb and it's one that isn't worth the 2+ hours it's going to suck away from your life. It's one of those incompetently made films that falls in a zone of mediocrity that leaves it with no worthwhile aspect. 

In fact, the only Brian De Palma film worse than this one is his 2006 follow-up, Redacted. It's even more halfbaked than this one. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Last Prowl for the Classic Universal Monsters

As the 1940s gave way to the 1950s, Universal Pictures had driven the monsters that had saved the studio from oblivion during the Great Depression--Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy--pretty much into the ground. A series of ever-worsening sequels pretty much dispatched them with greater efficiency than any torch-weilding mob was ever able to do.

However, they had a few final shining moments in a handful of films starring comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lon Chaney Jr., Lenore Aubert, and Bela Lugosi
Director: Charles Barton
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

The reluctant Wolfman, Larry Talbot (Chaney) learns that Dracula (Lugosi) intends to revive Frankenstein's Monster and use it as his personal super-soldier. He pursues the evil vampire lord to the United States where he finds his only allies to be Wilbur and Chick (Costello and Abbott), a couple of less-than-bright shipping clerks. Unfortunately, Dracula as an ally of his own--mad scientist femme fatale Dr. Sandra Mornay (Aubert), and she has Wilbur wrapped around her little finger. Little does Wilbur know that his girlfriend doesn't love him for his mind but rather his brain... she intends to do Dracula's bidding and transplant into the rejuvinated monster!

"Abott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" is a wild screwball comedy with the two master comedians doing their usual routines within the framework of a solid script and a story that's actually pretty logical in its own crazy way. I think it's the first fusion of comedy and monsters, and one reason it works so well is that the monsters are played straight. Even when they are involved in funny schtick (Dracula and the Wolf Man are both part of several routines), they remain as they were featured in the serious monster movies they were in.

Too often, I hear this film written off as Universal's last and crassest attempt to wring some dollars out of their tired monster franchise. While that may be all the studio bosses had in mind, the creators involved with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" managed to make a great movie that is still worth watching today. It's even superior to many of Universal's "straight" movies with Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Wolf Man (or, for that matter, countless recent so-called horror films). Much of its strength grows from the fact that has a plot that with some tweaking could be a straight horror movie.

I recommend this underappreciated film to any lover of the classic monster films, as well as lovers of slapstick comedy.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Starring: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Bud and Lou, a pair of rookie detectives (Abbott and Costello), are hired to helping a boxer who has been falsely accused of murdering his coach, they soon find their client is harder to spot than clues: The desperate man drinks an experimental invisibility potion to avoid being captured by the police, and he then proceeds to help them set up a frame to unmask the real killers.

This film has some great comedy routines in it, with the best of them involving boxing--such as when Costello is supposedly boxing a prize fighter but it's the invisible man who is landing the punches. Unfortunately, the material that gets us from one gag to the next is rather dull. This is the first Abbott and Costello film I've watched where I found myself reaching for other things to do while it was running. (I must add, though, that the special effects were well done, particularly the one where the invisible man is driving a car.)

"Abbott and Costello Meet Invisible Man" isn't exactly a bad movie, but I was expecting more from it. I think those who have seen other A&C horror spoofs will, too. I recommend saving this one until you've seen the rest, or maybe just skipping it all together.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello and Marie Windsor
Director: Charles Lamont
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Abbott and Costello (played by Abbott and Costello) are a pair of down-on-their luck adventurer who try to get a job escorting an an archeological shipment as their ticket back to the US from Cairo. However, before they secure the job, the archelologist is murdered, the most important part of his find goes missing--the mummy Klaris--and Costello ends up with an ancient medallion that is the key to unlocking a lost treasure that rabid cultists are sworn to protect and dangerous femme fetale (Windsor) will do anythng to possess. Soon, they are targets and dupes of every shady character in Cairo, along with being stalked by the mummy.

I don't think "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" deserves quite the level of scorn that many reviewers seem to heap on it. While Abbott and Costello aren't at their best in it, it is a very amusing spoof of the string of mummy movies from Universal--and almost every mummy film that followed as they set the template--and it's got plenty of hilarious moments. (The "pick-pocket routine" where Costello visits the villainess in her den, the chase scene in the secret hideout of the mummy cultists, and the various bits with the multiple mummies at the movies climax are all comedic highpoints that should evoke chuckles from even the most jaded viewers.)

The film is far from perfect, however. I already mentioned that Abbott and Costello aren't exactly at their best in this film--which was, in fact, one of the last times they worked together--and an attempt to reinvent the classic "who's on first" routine with some digging impliments is about as uninspired as I think the pair's work ever got. Finally, the mummy costume in the film is about the worst that I've ever seen--only the ones featured in Hammer's "The Mummy's Shroud" and Seduction Cinema's "Mummy Raider" are worse.

I recommend "Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy" to lovers of the classic monster movies who have a sense of humor about them, as well as fans of classic comedy. There are better examples of this type of film out there, but this one still has enough good bits to make it worth seeing. (Heck, it's more entertaining than the serious mummy movies it spoofs.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Wolf Man Legacy Collection

The Wolf Man was the last addition to the Universal Monster Pantheon that truly impacted pop culture. Like the Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster, and like Kharis the Mummy, the Universal Wolf Man became the prototype for most werewolf literature and movies that have beee released since its debut in 1941. However, the Wolf Man is has always been something of a poor stepchild among the Universal Monsters, not even receiving sequels of his own but instead serving as second banana to the 1940s follow-ups to "Dracula" and the two Frankenstein films from the 1930s.

And this short-shrift treatment continues through to this very day. The Wolf Man was considered such a secondary character that his films weren't even included in one set, but instead spread across three Legacy Collections, with only the first Wolf Man sequel included in this set where it properly belongs ("Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man") and the others being included in "Dracula: The Legacy Collection" ("House of Dracula") and "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection" ("House of Frankenstein").

It's rather a shame, because, despite the fact that the adventures of Larry Talbot, the reluctant and guilt-ridden monster who is desperately seeking a cure for his curse, were used mostly by Universal to promote re-released other films, they come across better when viewed in context with each other instead of the other films. (For example, if you haven't seen "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," you're going to wonder what the heck happened between the end of "Son of Frankenstein" and the opening of "House of Frankenstein"; how DID the Monster escape his apparent fiery death and end up in an ice floe? (Okay, so the answer doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but at least there IS an answer if you've seen the movie included in this set, and knowing how the story threads fit together makes all the films that much stronger.

The fact the Wolf Man is treated as a secondary property is further shown by the set itself, which is by far the weakest entry in the Legacy Collection series. It's not because the movies aren't good--they're excellent--but it's because half the content has nothing to do with the Wolf Man.

The only Wolf Man films in the set that are properly Wolf Man movies are "The Wolf Man" and the first of the three sequels (or four if you count "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein"), the aforementioned "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man." The other two movies are "Werewolf of London," Universal's first attempt at bringing werewolves to the silver screen and "She-Wolf of London," a gothic drama that has absolutely nothing to do with the Wolf Man (and barely anything to do with werewolves). But, since they had to find enough content to justify the set, the editors just threw in whatever werewolvery they could find. (And, frankly, no one even bothered to tell the marketing department to fix the sell copy on the back of the "The Wolf Man Legacy Collection" box, as it features the same boilerplate phrases from the rest of the sets... and it describes a 1935 film as one of "three timeless sequels" to a film released in 1941.

Sloppiness at the marketing department and little respect for the poor, fleabitten Larry Talbot aside, this is still a set that lovers of classic horror films should have as part of their DVD collection.

The Wolf Man (1941)
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Maria Ouspenskaya, Warren William, and Bela Lugosi
Director: George Waggner
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Engineer Larry Talbot (Chaney) returns to his ancestral home and reconnects with his roots... only to be bitten by a werewolf and find himself cursed. Will he manage to find a cure for a malady that no one in the modern world believes in before he kills someone he loves?

"The Wolf Man" isn't the first werewolf movie--I think that was Universal's "Werewolf of London"--but it's the one that brought werewolves firmly into pop culture, and most every other film, novel, or comic book that's followed in the 65+ years since its release owes one thing or another to it. In fact, there are a numer of elements that are now taken as "fact" about werewolf legends that didn't exist until the writer of "The Wolf Man" made them up.

Interestingly, this really isn't that good a movie. It's sloppily edited--leading to characters entering through the same door twice within a few seconds and other glitches--and the script shows signs of only partially implimented rewrites that gives the flm a slightly schizophrenic quality and that causes characters to seemingly forget key plot elements as the story unfolds. (The biggest one; Larry's given an amulet that will supposedly suppress his transformation, an amulet he gives to a lady friend when he thinks the werewolf stuff is a bunch of hooey. Later, though, he seems to have totally forgotten the purpose of the amulet. And let's not even consider the bad script-induced callousness of our heroine, Gwen, who cheerfully goes on a date the night after a good friend is mysteriously murdered in the woods.)

However, what flaws this movie possesses are rendered insignificant thanks to an amazing performance by Lon Chaney Jr. as the tortured werewolf, Larry Talbot. "The Wolf Man" is one of those rare movies where a single actor manages to lift a weak film to the level of a classic. Although he's assisted by a supporting cast that is a veritable who's-who of 1930s and 1940s genre films, and the set designers and dressers went all out, this is truly it is Lon Chaney Jr's movie. It might even be the brightest moment of his entire career.

Chaney plays a decent man who becomes a monster through no fault of his own, and who is horrified by the acts he commits while he is the wolf man. This makes Larry Talbot unique among all the various monsters in the Universal horror picutres of the 1930s and 1940s, and Chaney makes the character even more remarkable by playing him as one of the most likeable (if a bit smarmy when it comes to the ladies) characters in any of the classic horror films. This likeability makes Chaney's performance even more powerful and causes the viewer to feel even more deeper for Larry when he experiences the grief, helplessness, and terror when he realizes that he is a murderer and the victim of a supernatural affliction that his modern, rational mind can't even begin to comprehend.

There are other good performances in the film, and they too help make up for the weak script. Most noteworthy among these is Maria Ouspenskaya who plays a gypsy wise-woman. Ouspenskaya delivers her magic incantations and werewolf lore with such conviction that it's easy to see why they've become the accepted "facts" of werewolves. (This may also be the first film where gypsies became firmly associated with werewolves.)

Although flawed, "The Wolf Man" is a cornerstone of modern popular horror, and it's well-deserving of its status as a classic. It should be seen by lovers of classic horror pictures (Lon Chaney Jr. deserves to be remembered for this film and it's required viewing for any self-respecting fan of werewolf films and literature.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Starring: Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Patric Knowles, Ilona Massey, Maria Ouspenskaya, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi
Director: Roy William Neill

When grave robbers disturb Larry Talbot's tomb, the unwilling werewolf (Chaney) awakens to the discovery that not only is he cursed to become a beast under the full moon, but he is immortal. With the help of Maleva (Ouspenskaya), a gypsy wise-woman, he seeks out Dr. Frankenstein, the premiere expert on life, death, and immortality... because if anyone can find a way to bring death to an immortal, it's Dr. Frankenstein. Will Larry find peace, or will Frankenstein's experiments bring more horror and destruction to the world?

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" is a direct sequel to both "The Wolf Man" and "Ghost of Frankenstein". It's the first time two legendary horror creatures meet... and without this film, we'd probably never have been treated to "Freddy vs. Jason" or "Alien vs. Predator" or "Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Dracula".

Unlike most of Universal's movies during the 1940s, I appreciate the fact that the creatives and executives at Universal are paying some attention to the continuity of prior Frankenstein films and "The Wolf Man", but there's still plenty of sloppiness and bad storytelling to remind us that this is a Universal film from the 1940s. (Like the werewolf mysteriously changing from pajamas into his dark shirt and pants when transformed, and then changing back into his pajamas as be becomes Larry Talbot again. Or the bizarre forgetfulness of the townspeople who drive Larry and his gypsy friend away, but who don't bat an eye when Larry is later invited to the town's wiine festival and the mayor's guest and date for Baroness Frankenstein (Massey), the granddaugher of the original monster-maker. Maybe the fact that Larry's wearing a suit and tie when he returns fooled them!)

The movie starts out strong, however. The grave-robbing and the wolf man's ressurection scene are spine-chilling. Chaney once again effectively conveys Talbot's mental anguish during the scenes where he is confined to a hospital and recovering from the supposedly fatal headwounds he receieved at the end of "The Wolf Man" (apparently, a werewolf's wounds don't heal while he's supposedly dead and piled high with wolf's bane). It looks like we're in for a thrilling chiller that's going to be better than the original film...

But then the action moves to Switzerland and things start to go wrong.

Although a seemingly endless musical number at the village wine festival is the low point, the inexplicable transformation of a level-headed medical man (Knowles) hoping to help cure Talbot of what he perceives to be a homocidal mania to crazed Frankenstein-wannabe, the seemingly laughable arm-waving performance of the Frankenstein Monster by Bela Lugosi--because Larry simply can't just leave him sleeping in his ice cave--and an ending so abbrupt that it feels like something's missing, all drag the film down to a level of crapitude that almost manages to make the viewer forget about the very excellent first half.

I don't know what went wrong with this film, but I suspect that it was decided at an executive level at Universal that the monster movies were going to be targeted at kids. It's the only explanation that makes sense of the deterioation from mature, well-developed films like "Frankenstein" and "The Mummy" to the mostly slap-dash stuff found in the movies featuring Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy for the rest of the 1940s.

My guess is that someone, somewhere, made a decision to shorten this movie and make it more accessible for kids by simplifying it. According to several sources, this film suffered more than average from butchery in the editing room where all of Lugosi's lines were deleted from the soundtrack and key scenes were cut out, such as the one where it's revealed that the Monster is still blind from the partially botched brain transplant in "Ghost of Frankenstein". This detail explains why Lugosi is stumbling about with with his arms outstretched and is seen pawing strangely at items while Larry Talbot is searching for Dr. Frankenstein's records. Lugosi's performance goes from laughably stupid to perfectly decent when one understands what he was doing. (The original screen writer says that the editing was done was test audiences thought the monster was funny when speaking with Lugosi's accent and that this is why the second half of the film was so heavilly edited. That sounds reasonable, but only if one ignores the overall direction the Universal horror movies were heading in. And the shockingly badly handled, abrubt ending. And the dangling plot threads... where DOES Maleva vanish to?)

But, a film can only be judged by what's there on the screen. While the editing left the flim shorter and more straight-forward, it also resulted in very important plot-points and probably even mood-establishing scenes and elements being slashed out. We also have a movie where Frankenstein's Monster once again has very little to do (as was the case in "Son of Frankenstein"), And, ultimately, we're left with a movie that is both remarkable for its being the first meeting of two great cinematic monsters, but also for being a clear point at which to say that this is where the reign of Universal as king of horror films ended.

"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" isn't a truly terrible movie. It's just rendered dissapointingly mediocre by its second half, and it just manages to hang onto a Six rating.

Werewolf of London (aka "Unholy Hour") (1935)
Starring: Henry Hull, Warner Oland, and Valerie Hobson
Director: Stuart Walker
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

While in an isolated Tibetan valley searching for a rare flower that only blooms under moonlight, botanist Wilfred Glendon (Hull) is attacked and wounded by strange creature that is half-man, half-beast. Upon his return to London, with his valuable prize in his possesion, he discovers that he now himself transforms into a man-beast by moonlight. The only antidote for his conditition is found within the flower of the rare plant he brought back with them, but when another werewolf (Oland) steals them, will Glendon end up spreading lycanthropy throughout London, perhaps even killing his beloved wife (Hobson) in the process?

"Werewolf of London" was Universal Studios first attempt at making a werewolf movie, following on the heels of their vampire, Frankenstein Monster, and mummy. It is a solid, entertaining werewolf film that may leave some modern viewers scratching their heads. A weird Tibetan flower supresses lycanthropy? Werewolves remain in control of their mental faculties, but are dominated by a psychopathic need for bloodletting and killing? Werewolves may be strong and fast, but they can be killed as easily as anyone else... no silver bullets or special blessings needed?

What many modern viewers may not realize is that much of what we now consider "fact" about werewolves was invented with "The Wolf Man"--like immunity to any weapon but silver bit--so the absense of these in "Werewolf of London" is to be expected.

Although not terribly successful when first released, and long overshadowed by the run-away hit that was "The Wolf Man", "Werewolf of London" is in some ways superior to "The Wolf Man".

The plot in "Werewolf of Londing" is more solid by far, and the film has a firm grip on its view on werewolves and lycanthropy where "The Wolf Man" seemed to lose track of itself from one scene to the next and kept vacilating in its approach and explanations for lycanthropy. "Werewolf of London" also sports far cooler transformation scenes, despite the fact the werewolf make-up is somewhat minimalist when compared to Shaggy Larry six years down the road. The climax of "Werewolf of London" is also more suspenseful and emotionally impactful than that of "The Wolf Man", in part because this film has a villain seperate from the main werewolf--Warner Oland plays quite the despicable character in this film. (This is also one of the most rare of early horror films: The comic relief characters are actually funny, and they don't detract from the flow of the movie at all!)

On the downside, with the exception of the transformation scenes, "Werewolf of London" is pretty drab when it comes to cinematography. Compared to "The Wolf Man" (or earlier Universal horror efforts even), the sets and lighing are also somewhat dull and uninspired, with Glendon's "artificial moonlight machine" being particularly dissapointing. The biggest strike against this film when compared to "The Wolf Man" is the fact that the main character, Glendon, comes across as an unsympathetic jerk, where, Larry Talbot is basially a nice guy. A few minutes showing him as he was before becoming infected with lycanthropy would have helped a great deal in making us care a little more about him, and thus involve us more strongly in the film.

Although not perfect, "Werewolf of London" is a movie that remains entertaining more than 70 years after its release. It'll be time well-spent for any big-time fan of werewolf movies.

She-Wolf of London (aka "The Curse of the Allenbys") (1946)
Starring: June Lockhart, Don Porter, Jan Wiley, Sara Haden and Dennis Hoey
Director: Jean Yarbrough
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Young heiress Phyllis Allenby (Lockhart) comes to fear that she has fallen victim to a family curse and has begun committing grisly murders in a nearby park. Her fiance (Porter) sets about to prove her fears wrong by finding the real killer.

"She-Wolf of London" is a slightly lethargic thriller that's more of a mystery than a monster movie. It could be that this is a movie that's become sadly predictable given the hundreds of similar films that have been made since its release in 1946, but I pretty much knew how the film was going to resolve some five-ten minutes in, as well the true reason for the Allenby curse's return.

Usually, I don't mind being right about guessing where a film is heading before it gets there, particuarly when the filmmmakers throw in some nice bits of misdirection that make me suspect I'm wrong... and the actions of Phyllis's insensitive friend Carol (Wiley) were so well orchestrated that they made me do just that--could she REALLY be that much of a bitch without trying, I had to ask myself? Unfortunately, in the case of this movie, when it does arrive at the ending I had already guessed, it completely botches it. Setting up Carol as a possibility for the she-wolf was really the only decent bit of storytelling here, everything else being very pedestrian and the ending being a suspenseless, badly written and badly staged cop-out.

I wish more effort and care had been put into giving "She-Wolf of London" a better ending. I became very interested in the film about halfway through when I realized that its storyline was very close to what the 1941 classic "The Wolf Man" (review here ) was originally supposed to be--a psychological thriller where the "werewolf" might just be a deluded psychopath whose "transformation" is a figment of a diseased mind--and this concept could have been put to far better use than it is here. I might have felt the letdown of the poorly executed ending more sharply because I got my hopes up for what was coming, but I suspect it's more likely the pathetic ending is simply the natural outcome of a production where quality wasn't a top priority. After all, this is a film set in 1890s London, with lead characters who are all British bluebloods, but none of the stars make even a halfhearted attempt at a British accent.

In the final analysis, this is a shoddy movie that is very solidly deserving of the 4/10 rating I'm giving it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

'The Kingdom' was better than expected

The Kingdom (2007)
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Ashraf Barhom, Chris Cooper, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, and Ali Suliman
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Four FBI agents (Foxx, Cooper, Bateman, and Garner) travel to Saudi Arabia where they team with two Saudi police officers (Barhom and Suliman) to stop a deadly terrorist and his followers.

I went to see "The Kingdom" fully expecting to hate it. The Hollywood establishment seems obsessed with justifying or even excusing terrorists, and I expected this film to be a reflection of that. However, I was pleasently surprised. This movie shows terrorists exactly for the evil, psychopathic cowardly scum that that they are. It has none of the "one man's terrorist is another man's hero" crap that so many American "intellectuals" are so fond peddling.

The film also shows that the 75 years of Saudi Arabian and American governments have allowed the conditions that gave rise to the likes of the movie's "Abu Hamza" and the real-world Osama bin Ladens through their inaction and unwillingness to behave in anything but fashions that are self-serving and self-aggrandizing. In fact, the film has the rather accurate message that the American and Saudi governments are their own worst enemies--the American government being fawning toadies to the Saudis, and the Saudi government behaving like barbaric bullies.

My very favorite aspect of the film was the way the FBI agents and the Saudi state poilice officers ended up working together once politics and distrust was set aside, showing that good cop are good cop, no matter where in the world they are.

Almost every aspect of the film was very enjoyable, playing like a cross between "CSI: Riyadh" and an action flick, except for the very last minute or so, where we had to have some of the standard issue Hollywood moral equivilency dished out. Fortunately, the dose was not big enough to ruin the film, and it was so ludicrous that no intelligent person could do anything but snicker at it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

But did the spirits get their converter boxes for digital signals?

Universal produced two films where supernatural entities communicate with the living through electronic signals. Although each film has a different idea as to what is communicating from the Great Beyond, I think they will be entertaining to lovers of ghost movies, despite their flawed endings. This goes double if you're a regular listener of late-night syndicated wackiness that is "Coast to Coast AM."

White Noise (2004)
Starring: Michael Keaton and Chandra West
Director: Geoffrey Sax
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) is a greiving husband who starts receiving messages from his dead wife through the electronic white noise of untuned televisions and radios. He soon discovers that she is alerting him to unfolding tragedies that he can prevent... but, unfortunately for Jonathan, there are also more sinister entities reaching out to him.

Although a bit slow moving, this isn't a bad little ghost movie. It would have been better if the filmmakers had bothered to provide a few possibilities/theories about what the evil entities in the film were. Whatever they are, they are clearly able to influence things in the real world... so why can't they stop other spirits from communicating with the living? Or are the other spirits merely illusions created the evil entities to lure unsuspecting people into traps and/or to do their bidding?

As it is, there isn't even a hint of a theory anywhere in the film. As such, the ending is somewhat disatisfying, and it's made even worse by an idiotic, tacked-on "gotcha" ending. The movie was over when the SUV goes over the hill from the cemetary, and the filmmakers should have rolled credits at that point. (And you will be left with a far better vieweing experience if you stop the DVD when the car crests the hill.)

White Noise 2: The Light (2007)
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Katee Sackhoff, and Adrian Holmes
Director: Patrick Lussier

After a Near Death Experience, Abe (Fillion) gains the ability not only to see ghosts, but to see a "light" around those who are about to die. When he uses this ability to save those who are fated to die, he discovers that there is a high price to for interfering with the Divine Plan.

"White Noise 2: The Light" is an atmospheric horror film that for much of its running time plays like the sort of stories you hear on George Noori's "Coast to Coast" broadcast, what with its main character causing electrical lights to flicker when he walks down the street, with dead spirits communicating with the living through televisions and radios, and pre-destiny clashing with free will.

For most of its running time, the film does an admirable job of casting a pall of dread across all the proceedings. Even when things seem to be going in Abe's favor, there is enough foreshadowing and creepy ghost-vision stuff going on that the viewer knows things are going to end badly and this knowledge keeps the tension high. Nice camerawork and sound design, tight editing, and a solid script peformed by some very talented actors all add up to an entertaining experience.

Well, at least until the film actually reaches its final act. Then things start falling apart a bit, as the movie starts to go over the top with effects and gets outright silly with a sequence of an ambulance barreling toward a bus load of people stopped near a fuel tanker. It's "Final Destiny" level of silliness but with a fairly sensible (if you buy into the film's underlying view of life, death, and the hereafter.) The end of the film is almost completely flubbed.

Despite falling apart at the end, "White Noise 2: The Light" is better than its direct-to-DVD release implies, and it's worth checking out if you like atmospheric horror films... and if you're a regular consumer of the sort of information that "Coast to Coast AM" promulgates.

'Dead Silence' fails because it tries to hard

Dead Silence (2007)
Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Donnie Wahlberg, Michael Fairman, Amber Valletta, Judith Roberts, and Bob Gunton
Director: James Wan
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Jamie's wife is murdered in their locked apartment shortly after they recieve a package in the mail containing an antique ventriloquist dummy and a traveling case. When the investigating detective (Wahlberg) zeroes in Jamie (Kwanten) as the only possible suspect, Jamie returns to his hometown of Raven's Fair to bury his wife and to look for clues for who may have murdered his wife. He finds a town that's literally being killed off by the vengeful ghost of ventriloquist Mary Shaw (Roberts)... a ghost that he must stop, before he comes its final victim.

"Dead Silence" is a movie I really wanted to like. First, because when it appeared in theaters it had been a while since I've seen a good horror flick on the big screen. As it turned out, I would have to wait even longer.

Acting-wise, everyone does a pretty good job. The performances are cheery and light in the film's first minutes, and appropriately somber and subdued when the action moves to the dying, American Gothic village of Raven's Fair. (Wahlberg is a little bit of an odd man out, but when his hardboiled detective character bursts into the proceedings in the almost dreamlike atmosphere that's settling over the film as Jamie starts his quest for answers, he adds life and color that heighten the strange air surrounding everyone else in the film.)

The soundtrack music is also appropriately spooky, and the design of the film's mostly cool, washed-out color scheme--with Wahlberg and Jamie's red car being the only exceptions--also lend tremendously to the atmosphere of dread that could build to intense levels in "Dead Silence".

Yes. I said "could." Despite good performances by the actors, despite a good story, despite a really cool and potentially impactful "tell-tale" whenever the movie's monster is about to strike, despite some solid production design, the film simply can't measure up to other truly good horror movies.

Unfortunately, the film tries too hard to be scary for its own good at many times, crossing the line from suspenseful and dread-inspiring to eye-rollingly heavyhanded and unintetionally funny time and again. In fact, it's not any one big thing that ends up making this a below average fright-fest... it's a myriad of little things that ultimately drag the movie down.

In some ways, the modus operandi of the film's murderous ghost becomes the movie;s weakest element, because the filmmakers treat the audience like morons and goes at it with absolutely no subtlety. Or maybe the filmmakers didn't think the audience were morons... perhaps the director and foley artists simply didn't have the talent to pull off the concept. (Why assume malice where incompetence can explain something?)

Whenever the ghost of Mary Shaw is lurking about hoping for an excuse to rip someone's tongue out, sound first seems to slow, then vanishes completely, except for whatever sound the intended victim makes. In some instances, this is very creepy, but in others it's overdone. The sequence with Mary under the funeral home is completely ruined due to an excess of creaking and groaning wood. If my house made that much noise, I'd get the hell out, because it's about to collapse.

More than once, the filmmakers also goes over the top visually. The filmmakers work very hard at portraying Raven's Fair like the ultimate spooky town that oozes gothic vibes and mystery from every creeper-vine covered brick in every creepy-looking house. But, for example, the melodramatic images of an arriving hearse are so overblown that they inspire mirth rather than sorrow or dread. The film repeatedly feels more like it's parodying a horror movie than being a horror movie--and such moments are definately due to incompetence, because they are definately not intentional.

The film also overuses a particular fade technique, and they use it particularly badly when Jamie first returns to Raven's Fair; it's not spooky or creepy or useful to have the town sign animated for several seconds before fading into Jamie's red car cruising across the bridge... it's bewildering, destracting, and ultimately bad filmmaking. (A similar dissolve is used more effectively later when a map of the area surrouding Raven's Fair dissolves into an aerial shot of Jamie driving down the actual road on the map.)

There are some things that work very well in the film, which is why it manages to hang in there on the low side of average. Just about everything that happens in Jamie's ancestral home (where he meets with his estranged father (Gunton) and his new stepmother (Valletta)--a woman barely older than he is) and everything that unfolds in and around the Guignol Theatre on Lost Lake is also expertly done.

The scenes and action at these locations provide all the pieces that play into the film's unfolding mystery of Mary Shaw and the supernatural curse hanging over Raven's Fair. They also provide all the clues that allow the attentive viewer to guess the fillm's Big Reveal before the filmmakers get there. I figured out where they were going fairly early on (with one minor wrong assumption... ask in a reponse to this message if you care to know what that was, because I will be giving a spoiler if I say what that assumption was), but it didn't ruin the movie for me.

The ending was so well handled, and the clues toward the Big Reveal so well placed that the satisfaction of having guessed correctly was not unlike the sensation of having puzzled out a mystery ahead of a story's conclusion. In fact, the ending could have been flawless (and perhaps even pushed the film back up to the high end of average) if the director hadn't chosen to go over the top with one last bit of overblown "horror" that ends up unintentionally funny. I suspect the filmmakers thought they were giving us one last "gotcha" scary moment, but all they provided was a silly cliche. (The denoument is also somewhat nonsensical, but it's thematically appropiate, so I could have forgiven it.)

In the final analysis, "Dead Silence" emerges as a clumsily made horror film that feels like it was created by a crew that had no faith in themselves or the audience.

'Death Race' is mediocre reincarnation of sci-fi classic

Death Race (2008)
Starring: Jason Statham, Joan Allen, Natalie Martinez, Ian McShane, and Tyrese Gibson
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A disgraced racecar driver (Statham) is framed for muder so a corrupt prison warden (Allen) can force him to take part in the Death Race, a contest where convicted killers drive heavily armed cars to earn freedom or death.

"Death Race" is a humorless remake of Roger Corman's classic "Death Race 2000". It's an okay movie with decent actors--Jason Statham seems to be making a career out of playing hardbitten characters who drive fast cars--and cool effects and exploding cars, but it's all pyrotechnics and postering without any soul... not even the ludicrous soul of the 1975 cheese-fest.

The film is entertaining, and it made me want to break out my old "Car Wars" game--but, alas, I don't even know anyone who I'd ask to play it with me anymore--but that's about it. (Come to think of it, the "Car Wars" games I played were more exciting than this movie, with characters and cars that were just as interesting as what's in this film.)

"Death Race" is a mediocre effort that will not stand the test of time. No one remember this movie in 30 years... or even in three years. Students of classic B-movies may still be talking about the original, though.