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.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Alien invaders are out to sea in 'Virus'

Virus (1998)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Sutherland and William Baldwin
Director: John Bruno
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A tugboat crew trying to salvage a mysteriously deserted Russian research vessel find themselves battling for survival against a hurricane and the alien lifeform that has taken up residence onboard the ship.

"Virus" is a sci-fi action thriller that doesn't feature the most original of scripts--the late 1990s seems to have been the era of ghost ships and hurricanes, and the featured alien menace is a cross between Stargate's Replicators and Star Trek's Borg--but it's well-acted, features great special effects and sets, and is full of tension and fun, gory action from beginning to end. And it's probably a good thing that it moves so fast, because you almost don't have time to think about some of the weaker parts of the story nor a couple of the fairly large plot holes.

If you're looking for sci-fi thriller you can watch without taxing your brain too much, this is the film to seek out. Otherwise, you can skip it, like just about everyone did when it first appeared in theatres. (It cost over $75 million to make and it barely took in $14 million in the US theaters.)

Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection

Perhaps the very best entry in Universal's "Legacy Collection" of DVD multipacks compiling their classic monster movies in handsome, archive-quality packages, is the "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection." In this post, I review the five films included in it and offer some brief commentary on the set in general.

"Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection" contains two of the great foundation stones of the horror movie genre--"Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein"--the two great classic movies directed by James Whale--the almost equally great sequels "Son of Frankenstein" and "Ghost of Frankenstein," and one the Wolf Man cross-overs, "House of Frankenstein." All five films are among the best of Universal's output from the 1930s and 1940s, and they're all films that lovers of classic horror films will want to have in their personal collections.

The Legacy Collection is even more worth having due to commentaries by film historians on the SAP tracks on "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein,"; two very excellent documentaries on the creation of the movies; the inclusion of the original theatrical previews of the films, the poster and still galleries; and the quirky little short film "Boo."

Frankenstein (1931)
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, Dwight Frye, and John Boles
Director: James Whale
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Henry Frankenstein (Clive), a true madman with dreams of "knowing what God felt like" when he created life, successfully animates a monster made from parts taken from several corpses. Unfortunately, abuse heaped on his creation by an idiot assistant (Frye) and Frankenstein's own missteps causes the creature (Karloff) to go bezerk and flee into the countryside. Soon, Frankenstein's Monster comes back to haunt him and those he cares about.

"Frankenstein" is one of the great monster movies that started the horror genre, so I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. I feel like I should be giving it a rating of 8 or 9, but all I feel it deserves is a low 7.

That is not to say that the film doesn't have some great moments. Boris Karloff gives a great performance as the creature who is clearly yearning for the sort of comforts every human being wants, but receives nothing but abuse. It's truly the only film portrayal of the Monster that made me feel sorry for it. The sets are also spectacular, the lighting and camerawork fantastic, and all the actors give excellent performances (but Karloff truly excels).

Where the film doesn't work for me is on the level of script and character interaction. I find it impossible to believe that Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth (Clark) would want to go with a walk in the park with Frankenstein after the raw, total madness she witnessed when he brought his creature to life,and I find it even harder to believe that their mutual friend Victor (Boles) wouldn't be doing everything in his power to keep her from the marriage. I understand that horror movies Back In The Day tended to move rather swiftly along as far as characters go, but the lack of reaction to Henry's insanity really ruined the entire picture for me.

I think this movie is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a film-buff or a fan of the horror genre, as it (along with "Dracula" and "White Zombie") set many of the ground-rules for horror films that persist to this day. However, as gorgeous a film as it to look at, as great as all the actors are, it suffers from some major story issues that may get in the way of your enjoyment.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, and Elsa Lanchester
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As monster-maker Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is recovering from the near-fatal injuries he received at the hands of his monstrous creation, he is approached by the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger). Pretorius is a mad scientist, who, like Frankenstein, is obsessed with creating life. He has allied with Frankestein's creation (Karloff) in order to force Frankenstein to create a mate for it, so that Pretorius may learn Frankenstein's techniques. Frankenstein must create this other creature, or his own wife (Hobson) will be killed.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is presented as a direct sequel to the 1932 film "Frankenstein", but is somewhat divorced from that movie. First off, it's set up like a fictional story being told by Mary Shelley (Lanchester). Second, the film has a higher comedy element than the original. Third, a number of characters are somewhat different than they were in the first film, with Frankenstein being less of a complete lunatic, who actually wants to give up the whole monster-making gig until Pretorius and Frakenstein's Monster force him to make a mate for the original creation; and Frankenstein's Monster, who has grown in intellect while wandering injured in the wilderness.

What remains the same, however, is the tragic quality of the Frankenstein's monster. While the monster commits acts of genuine evil--where in "Frankenstein", he was mostly acting out of ignorance or self-defense--these are balanced by the presentation of the monster as a deeply lonely, unhappy creature who has no place in, purpose in, or connection with God's creation. The fundementally tragic nature of Frankenstein's creation, and the fact that the most evil players in the story are Frankenstein and Pretorius, has never been driven home in any other Frankestein film than in the final ten minutes of "Bride of Frankenstein." That final reel is one of the greatest horror sequences to ever appear on screen.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is also remarkable for the amazing sets and camera work. The fantastic use of lighting and quick cuts, and the twisted angles in the buildings serve to underscore both the horror and some of the scenes of absurd humor in the film.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton and Boris Karloff
Director: Rowland Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns with this family to his ancenstral home in the hopes of rehabilitating his father's name. His high hopes soon turn to bitter ashes as the villagers refuse to give him a chance--except for the police captain (Atwill) who has more cause to hate the Frankenstein name than any of the others--and he is soon drawn into a sinister scheme launched by psychopathic former assistant of his father (Lugosi) to restore the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) to life.

"Son of Frankenstein" is one of the true classics among horror films. As good as "Frankenstein' and almost as good as "Bride of Frankenstein", it features a top-notch cast, great camera-work, fantastic sets, and a story that's actually better constructed than any other of the Universal Frankenstein movies.

Particularly noteworthy among thge actors are Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Lugosi is gives one of the best performances of his career, and as I watched, I once again found myself lamenting that he didn't do more comedic roles than he did. He manages to portray the crippled Ygor as funny, pitiable, and frighteing, showing greater range in this role than just about any other he played. The funny bits show a fabulous degree of comedic timing that Lugosi only had the opportunity to show on few other occassions. Rathbone is also excellent, as the high-minded dreamer who is driven to the edge of madness by frustration, fear, and guilt. (He may be a bit too hammy at times, but he's generally very good.)

Lionel Atwill is also deserving of a praise. I think he is better here in his role as Krogh than in any other film I've seen him in. In some ways, "Son of Frankenstein" is as much Krogh's tale as that of Wolf von Frankenstein so pivotal is his character to the tale, and so impactful is Krogh's eventual confrontation with the monster that tore his arm off as a chld. Atwill also manages to portray a very intelligent and sensitive character--perhaps the most intelligent character in the entire movie.

One actor that I almost feel sorry for in this film is Boris Karloff. The monster has very little to do... except lay comatose and go on mindless rampages. ANYONE could have been in the clown-shoes and square-head makeup for this film, because none of the depth shown in the creature in the previous two movies is present here. (While the whole talk about "cosmic rays" and the true source of the creature's lifeforce is very interesting, the monster isn't a character in this film... he's just a beast.)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The evil Ygor (Lugosi) resurrects the Frankenstein Monster (Chaney) and forces the second son of Baron Frankenstein (Hardwicke) to "fix him." Frankenstein resolves to give the monster the mind of a decent man, but Ygor and Frankenstein's jealous collegue (Atwill) have other ideas.

"The Ghost of Frankenstein" is a good, workman's like horror flick. The sets are decent, the acting is good, and the script moves along briskly and makes sense (within the context of manmade monsters and full brain-transplant operations). However, the film lacks the style and atmosphere of the previous three films in the series. Gone are the sets with the disturbing angles and sharp shadows. We've also got more subdued, more realistic acting on the part of the cast--and this is a great shame as far as Lugosi's Ygor character goes. Virtually all the humor and quirkiness that made this such a great character in "Son of Frankenstein" is gone, although there is still plenty of menace here.

Speaking of menace, a strong point of this film is that the Monster is actually put to good use story-wise, and the demand he places on Frankenstein is truly monstrous. It's not the character we saw in either "Frankenstein" or "Bride of Frankenstein", but it is an evolution that makes sense; it's as if the Monster wants a fresh start, but that the evil influence of Ygor has leeched away even the slight decency he showed in "Bride."

This may not be the high point of classic horror, but it's a fun flick and one you'll be glad you saw.

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carroll Naish, John Carradine and George Zucco
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After escaping from prison, mad scientist Gustav Niemann (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge on those who helped imprison him, and to find the notes of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein so he can perfect his research. Along the way, he accidentially awakens Dracula (Carradine) and recruits him to his cause, as well as uncovers the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and Larry Talbot, the unfortunate wolfman (Chaney) and and revives them. Cue the torch-wielding peasant mob.

"House of Frankenstein" is one of three movies released in the 1940s that featured the latest addition to Universal's monster pantheon, the Wolf Man, teaming up with/battling the studio's two monster greats, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. As such, it is a sequel not only to "Ghost of Frankenstein," but also to "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man."

So, if you're confused about how the Monster from the fiery pit at the end of "Ghost of Frankenstein" to the ice floe here, you didn't skip a movie--events transpired that aren't found in this set. (I'll have more to say about the editorial choices made by Universal in compling the packages that make up the Legacy Collection when I post about "The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection," but the bottom line is that I think "House of Frankenstein" should not have been included in this set as it's more of a Wolf Man movie than part of the Frankenstein's Monster series.)

"House of Frankenstein" unfolds in a very episodic way, with the part of the film involving Dracula feeling very disconnected from what comes before and what comes after. The main storyline sees Karloff's mad doctor questing for revenge while preparing to prove himself a better master of brain-transplanting techniques than Frankenstein, and the growing threat to his cause by his repeated snubbing of his murderous assistant (Naish). The whole bit with Dracula could easily be left out, and the film may have been stronger for it.

This is a very silly movie that is basically a parade of gothic horror cliches--I thought maybe I was having some sort of hallucinatory flashback to my days writing for the "Ravenloft" line--but it moves at a quick pace, and it features a great collection of actors, has a nifty musical score, and features great sets once the story moves to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein.

"House of Dracula" is one of the lesser Universal Monster movies--it's not rock-bottom like the mummy films with Lon Chaney, but it's almost there. The film is, to a large degree, elevated by the top-notch performers and it's almost too good for what they give it. (But it is interesting in a breaking-the-third-wall sort of way to see the actor who started the series as Frankentein's Monster come back to it in the role of a mad scientist.)

If you would like to add these films to your own collection, they are avaiable on DVD for reasonable prices at The best value is, naturally, the "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection." Click on the cover images below for details.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'Tremors' will make you shake with laughter

Tremors (1989)
Starring: Fred Ward, Kevin Bacon, Finn Carter, Michael Gross and Reba McEntire
Director: Ron Underwood
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Two handymen (Ward and Bacon) and a geologist (Carter) discover that giant worm-like creatures are killing people in the area around tiny Perfection, Nevada... just in time for the creatures to start attacking the town itself.

"Tremors" is a perfect mix of humor and horror, and it should rate as one of the all-time classic monster movies. The isolation of the tiny desert town cut off from the rest of the world as it is beseiged by bizarre, monstrous creatures, and the suspense of never knowing when the burrowing beasts will claim their next victim give this movie an atmosphere that puts in on par with other great monster movies. The absurdist comedy elements (which were surprising and unusual when the film was first released) give it a unique feel all its own. And the hilarious, heavily armed survivalists/militia-members played by Gross and McEntire almost make this movie worth seeing just by themselves.

This is a classic monster movie that is a must-see for horror fans. It also would serve nicely as part of a "film festival" line-up at a Halloween party.\

'Nightmares' is an excellent anthology film

Nightmares (1983)
Starring: Emilio Estevez, Christina Raines, Lance Henriksen, Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, Clare Nono, Bridgette Andersen, and James Tolkan
Director: Joseph Sargent
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

"Nightmares" is a anthology horror movie dating from the early 1980s about which I had very fond memories.The second tale--"The Bishop of Battle"--is one that's stayed with me for the nearly 25 years since I first saw it.

Usually, one should stay away from films watched as a youngster about which one has vague but fond memories, as those memories often do not survive exposure to the jaded viewpoint of adulthood. Thankfully, watching "Nightmares" again wasn't an "innocense of youth"-destroying experience. It's never going to make anyone's Top 100 Movies list, but it's not a bad collection of horror shorts. The segments are all moodily filmed, decently acted, and furnished with nifty plot-twists and shock endings.

First up, we have "Terror in Topanga", a cautionary tale about the dangers of smoking. It centers on a woman (Raines) who is so desperate for cigarettes she heads outs to buy a pack despite the warnings of a murderous maniac on the loose. It's a fairly straight-forward retelling of a campfire spook-standard, but superior acting, excellent cinematography, and expert use of sound and musical score makes it a very effective one. The last minute twists are also well executed. Seven of Ten Stars for this one.

Second, we have the very best of the bunch. In "The Bishop of Battle", videogame junkie JJ (Estevez) becomes obsessed with beating a virtually unbeatable arcade game... with consequences far more extreme than he could have imagined. It may not be the scariest of the stories, but it's definately the most unusual. Also, for the 40-somethings in the audience, it will invoke all sorts of teenage nostalgia; the sort of arcade that JJ visits we all grew up with but they no longer exist. The story is also bouyed by fine performances by the cast members, great cinematography, and some interesting special effects. Eight of Ten Stars for "The Bishop of Battle."

The third story, "The Benediction", is the second best tale in the anthology, and it's by far the scariest. It focuses on a priest who has lost his faith (Henriksen) and who ends up in a race for his very soul with a demonic monster truck. It sounds goofy, but strong visuals--such as when the truck bursts forth from the desert floor--and more expert use of sound, music, and a top-notch performance from Henriksen keep the horror factor high. Seven of Ten Stars for "The Benediction".

The fourth and final tale, "Night of the Rat", sees a suburban family (Masur, Cartwright, and Andersen) menaced by a giant demon rat with psychic powers. I can't figure out whether this tale was intended as funny, or whether it's just so dumb that it had me laughing. (The scene with Masur blasting away at the rat to "Louie Louie" makes me think it was intended as humorous... but it barely manages to rise to the level of silly.) The lead actors in the segment all do very good jobs, and the superior soundtrack continues to elevate the proceedings, but it's still not enough to make this pig look like a princess. It's a miserable finale to another otherwise excellent film. Four of Ten Stars.

"Nightmares" is an underappreciated anthology horror picture that lovers of such films would be well-served in seeking out. (As for this writing, it is out of print and not legally avaialable for download anywhere. But in this day and age, nothing remains unavailable for long.)

'Season of the Witch' isn't all bad

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch (1982)
Starring: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O'Herlihy and Ralph Strait
Director: Tommy Lee Wallace
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After one of his patients is murdered, Dr. Challis (Atkins) teams with the victim's daughter (Nelkin) to solve the mystery surrounding his death. In the process, they uncover a monstrous scheme that could cost the lives of millions.

"Halloween 3: Season of the Witch" is a quirkly sci-fi/horror flick with an undeservedly bad reputation that stems from the fact that its producers--including series originator John Carpenter--had a complete different direction in mind for the Halloween series than the general public expected. After two films featuring the masked killer Michael Meyers, the public had figured on getting more of the same instead of this strange little outing.

The film's bad reputation isn't entirely undeserved, however. While the notion of modern-day witches/druids/whatever-the-hell-weirdo-pagans using mass-media and American consumer culture to conduct a human sacrificial rite on a scale never before known is an intriguing one, the its execution in the film wasn't thought all the way through. Wouldn't a simple thing like time zones thwart the Evil Masterplan? Or does the Big Giveaway happen at 9pm on the West Coast and Midnight on the East Coast? That's not really clear in the film. (The film also suffers from featuring one of the most useless and unbelievable romantic subplots ever featured in any film, anywhere. I don't usually make absolute statements like that, but I am certain that it's the case here.

Those weaknesses aside, the film is otherwise a fun, fast-paced, off-center sci-fi thriller with horror overtones. It may not challenge the intellect, but it will certainly entertain you. I'm certain this film would be held in much highter stead if it it hadn't been released under the Halloween banner. (Plus, any film that features beings who are literally "corporate drones" deserves more respect than "Season of the Witch" gets!)

"The Thing" (1982)
Star: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and David Moffet
Director: John Carpenter
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A group of scientists cut off from the rest of the world in Antarctica must deal with an ancient creature that is capable of taking on any form it desires... and that is bent of killing them.

As I sat down ot watch this movie, it dawned on my that I've never actually John Carpenter's version of "The Thing" before. Well, I should have filled that hole in my trashy movie knowledge long ago!

"The Thing" is a text book example of a nearly perfect horror movie. If I was teaching a class in horror films, it would be required viewing and papers would have to be written on it. And it should be required viewing for ANYONE intending to write or direct a horror movie or a monster movie.

In fact, it may be a little too perfect. Because it is so exactly constructed according to the pacing and template that has evolved from "White Zombie" through "Creature from the Black Lagoon" to "Baron Blood" and Carpenter's own "Halloween", few things here surprised me. I was creeped out and shocked at a couple of times, but it pretty much delivered what I expected it to, when I expected it, and pretty much in the manner I expected it.

The one exception is what follows after one of the team members has a heart attack. While I knew something was going to happen, I did not expect what DID happen, nor where it went from there.

If you want to see an extremely well-made horror movie, check out "The Thing". It might not have brought anything new to the genre, but it's still far, far better than 90% of the films being made today.

A sequel almost as good as the original

Halloween II (1981)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

'Halloween II" is a direct sequel to the original movie "Halloween" (which was independently produced and distributed), picking up pretty much exactly where it left off. After narrowly escaping death at the knife-wielding hands of her insane brother, Laurie is taken to the local hospital while an apparently dead Michael Myers is taken to the morgue in its basement. It quickly becomes apparent that someone was a bit hasty in declaring Myers dead—a natural mistake since Dr. Loomis had shot him six times in the chest--and soon he is stalking through the darkened hospital and sending everyone on the graveyard shift to the graveyard. Maybe Laurie won’t live to see the sun come up on November 1st after all.

The film takes place almost entirely within the Haddonfield hospital. Director Rick Rosenthal. Rosenthal successfully uses the empty, darkened hallways to evoke suspense and horror, and to eventually emphasize the isolation of Laurie as she for the second time in one night is the object of her brother’s murderous intentions.

On the acting front, we’ve got Curtis and Pleasance reprising their roles from the original “Halloween”, and they are just as good as they were before. Curtis once again strikes a perfect balance between strength and terror, and Pleasance once again excels as a man obsessed with putting an end to what he views as evil given form on Earth.

The only weak link area that’s preventing this film from being as good as the original “Halloween” is, curiously, the script. Although Carpenter and Hill wrote both, the story for “Halloween II” never really seems to build up quite the same momentum as the original movie. The middle is actually downright dull at times.

“Halloween II” is still worth watching, but a tighter script would have made it so much better. (That said, this film cost $2.5 million to make, and it made over $25 million during its initial theatrical run.)

Eastwood is in a literal cliffhanger in 'The Eiger Sanction'

The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee, Jack Cassidy and Gregory Walcott
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Jonathan Hemlock (Eastwood), an assassin turned college art professor is blackmailed by his former employers to come out of retirement and perform one last "sanction". The problem is the target is one of three mountain climbers that Hemlock has to entrust his life to during a climbing expedition on Mount Eiger.

"The Eiger Sanction" is a slightly below-average thriller that gets a little extra kick from spectacular nature photography and mountaineering footage in the American southwest and Europe. It also benefits from a nice music soundtrack.

The actors all give decent performances, but the story relies on too many far-fetched coincidences to work and a hidden plot that is really rather pointless. It may be there to underscore the corruption of the spy agency that Hemlock was employed by, but it really does seem like they're going about things the hard way.

The film has moments, but overall it's pretty weak. It might be worth catching if you come across it on TV, but it's not worth going out of your way for. (It's one of the films included in the "Clint Eastwood: American Icon" four-movie collection where it's basically inoffensive filler.)

Clint Eastwood is stalked in directorial debut

Play Misty for Me (1971)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jessica Walter, Donna Mills and John Larch
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A small-town disc-jockey (Eastwood) sees his life turned upside-down when an obsessed fan (Walter) starts stalking him.

Dave (Clint Eastwood) and Evelyn (Jessica Walter) at the point things get REALLY crazy.
"Play Misty for Me" is a nifty thriller where a completely innocent guy gets sucked into the fantasy life of a psycho chick with deadly results. It's the film "Fatal Attraction" wanted to be--something director Eastwood observes in a documentary included on the DVD when he calls it a "remake"--but has neither the style, class, nor properly tuned moral compass of this flick.

In "Fatal Attraction", the characters are almost universally dislikeable and Michael Douglas' character pretty much gets the life he deserves. In this film, skillful casting has guarenteed the characters are likeable--even the psychotic stalker wench has some charm about her, due to a well-done performance from Jessica Walter--and we further have a protagonist whose side the audience is completely on. (Eastwood's character Dave is not married and has been seperated from his girlfriend for several months when he crosses paths with his futuer stalker--he is not betraying any promises or commitments when he gets involved with her, nor did he make any promises to her. It's all-too-rare to see a movie of this type with a completely innocent main character... and for all his womanizing ways, Dave doesn't deserve the hell that comes down upon him and those around him.)

The scenic locations and some intense attack scenes when Eve also this movie very, very strong. I also admire the way Eastwood gave us a "false ending" halfway through the film, going all idyllic and romantic on us when Dave's stalker is apparently put away. The sequence goes on a little too long, but it was a great idea and when Evelyn reappears, the anticipation of her next strike is that much more intense.

If you enjoy movies like "Fatal Attraction"--and want to see that movie done better, over a decade earlier--or if you want to see Clint Eastwood in a role very different from the ones he usually plays, you should check out "Play Misty for Me".

'Torn Curtain' is a Cold War thriller that still works

Torn Curtain (1966)
Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews, Gunther Strack, Wolfgang Keiling, Ludwig Donath and Tamara Touronova
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Dr. Sarah Sherman (Andrews) discovers her fiance, disaffected American nuclear physist Professor Michael Armstrong (Newman) is hiding something from her, she decides to trail him on a mystery flight to East Berlin. There, she learns is about to defect to East Germany during a showy media conference. But, there is more to Armstrong's defection than mere treason to his country, and Sherman unwittingly puts both herself and him in mortal danger.

"Torn Curtain" is a thriller that turns from spy movie to escape/persuit film fairly early in the story--far earlier than is typical in these sorts of films.

From beginning to end, this film breaks with the conventions of the Cold War spy movies, particularly those made in the 1960s. The lead "spy" is not flashy and he probably has never touched a gun in his life--Armstrong is about as low-key as he could possibly be. Similarly, while the East German secret police are menacing and definately oppressive, none of them are overtly as flamboyantly evil.

The film features the usual good acting, fast-paced story, and skilled use of visual story-telling elements that we expect from a Hitchcock movie, but the production design leaves a little to be desired. Specifically, I wish some more effort had gone into the matte paitings that transport Paul Newman from a Universal soundstage to an art museum in East Berlin; the paintings are obvious and almost embarrasingly bad.

"Torn Curtain" isn't as ignored as some of Hitchcock's early films, but it is one that deserves more attention than it gets. It's a well-done, low-key thriller that fans of Hitchcock should see. Fans of Julie Andrews should seek it out as well, as she's better here than in anything else I've seen her in. (Yes, even "Mary Poppins".)

'Charade' is the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made

Charade (1963)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy
Director: Stanley Donen
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

'Reggie' Lampert (Hepburn), a quirky young American living in Paris, has her world turned upside down when her husband is murdered and she learns that he wasn't all who she believed him to be. Worse, three thugs (including Coburn and Kennedy) are stalking her, insisting that she has the $250,000 that her dead husband stole from them. Only the charming Peter Joshua (Grant) and the mysterious Paris CIA Station Chief (Matthau) can help her... but will they? When a quarter of a million dollars are up for grabs, can anyone be trusted?

For many years, I would catch pieces of "Charade" on television, and I was convinced that it had to one of Alfred Hitchcock's movies--one of his best, in fact. It isn't, of course, but it is a far sight more "Hitchcockian" that the vast majority of films that critics like to apply that label to. Its fast-patter dialogue, its mixture of intrigue, mystery, comedy, and romance is very reminicent of great Hitchcock movies like "The 39 Steps" (review here) and "The Lady Vanishes" (review here).

Hepburn is as gorgeous and energetic as ever as 'Reggie' Lampert, and her acting skills are on fine display here. Cary Grant is likewise up to form in an excellent performance, even if this film was made during the twilight of his career; his ability to be charming and menacing at the same time comes into play nicely in a couple of scenes here, and keep your eyes open for the moment when he mokcingly mimics Hepburn's "surprised look". (Another very remarkable thing about Grant's part in this movie is the acknowledgement that he is old enough to be her father, and that he initially keeps her at arm's length when she aggressively persues him in a romantic way. 'Reggie' clearly has a thing for older men, but Peter Joshua has enough class to respect their age difference. How many other Hollywood leading men would accept a role like that? Given what is standard fare in movies, not many!)

In addition to great performances by its stars, the film sports a spectacular supporting cast, with George Kennedy as a hulking, hook-handed maniac, and Walter Matthau's quirky American agent being particularly noteworthy, and an intelligently constructed story full of sparkeling dialogue, clever twists, lots of laughs and thrills, and a climactic chase and confrontation that definately makes this "the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made."

Rounding out this perfect package is the score by Henry Mancini. The 'Charade Theme' is perhaps the best tune he ever wrong, and its heard in many different and clever permutations throughout the film.

"Charade" is a true classics, and it's a film that should be required viewing for anyone who thinks they can properly mix comedic and thriller elements in a film. (The blender they show in the beginning of the original 1963 preview for the film is a great analogy... the elements of a romantic comedy and a thriller have been blended together here in a seamless, perfect whole. Movies like this are all too rarely made these days.)

It's also more than worth seeing for an excellent performance by Hepburn, one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the silver screen.

Karloff's first color appearance is attractive but mediocre movie

The Climax (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Susanna Foster, Turhan Bey, Ludwig Stossel, Thomas Gomez and Gale Sondergard
Director: George Waggner
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A young opera singer (Foster) becomes the target of the crazy house doctor (Karloff) at the Vienna Royal Opera. Will her dashing boyfriend (Bey) manage to save her before her voice is silenced forever?

"The Climax" is Boris Karloff's first color picture and it's pretty to look at. It also has some nice performances from Karloff, Turhan Bey--who swings from dramatic of comedic with graceful ease--and Thomas Gomez as the beleaguered manager of the opera company. Unfortunately, their performances are propping up a fairly boring melodrama the titular climax of which isn't much to sing about.

The film is available on DVD for the first time as part of Universal's "Boris Karloff Collection" and as such it rates as inoffensive filler. It's not exactly a bad movie, just a bland one, and one you can safely leave for last if you pick up the set.

'Half a Sinner' features a shining Angel

Half a Sinner (1940)
Starring: Heather Angel, John King, Constance Collier, and Robert Elliot
Director: Al Christie
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Anne (Angel) comes to fear fear that she is growing old without ever having experienced any excitement, she decides to throw caution to the wind, buys a new outfit, and heads out for a day on the town during which she intends to enjoy herself and live life to its fullest. By the time her wild day is over, she's being chased by gangsters, a frustrated highway patrolman (Elliot), and has struck up a friendship with a rogueish stranger (King)... all while driving a stolen car with a dead body and incriminating evidence that everyone's looking for in the back seat.

"Half a Sinner" is a breezy comedy/thriller with romantic overtones that's more lighthearted than thrilling, despite the deadly gangsters and the corpse in the backseat. The beautiful Heather Angel, who excelled at playing adventuresome women, shines more brightly here than ever before... and in a couple of scenes almost too much so. In some scenes, Angel almost seems to be ovveracting.

However, it's not Angel that's the problem--she's as good in this film as any others I've seen her in, particularly since she's got a well-crafted script and excellent dialog to work with. No, the problem is the fact that her co-star King didn't have the screen presense to hold his own against her. King is certainly handsome, but his acting skills and personal charisma are miserably pale when set side-by-by side with Angel, who really needs to co-star with someone of the calibre of John Howard or Ray Milland (both of whom she appeared with in the "Bulldog Drummond" series).

Still, the script is fast-paced enough and well-written enough that the weak point that is King's acting abilities is more than made up for. The appearance of the overbearing Madame Beckenridge (Collier) late in the picture also helps, as we finally get to see Angel playing off against someone with more screen presence.

If you enjoy well-done, classic comedies, I think you'll enjoy "Half a Sinner". It's one of the best romps where the girl stays in the front seat of the car ever put on film.

'The Devi's Party' is interesting as history but little else

The Devil's Party (1938)
Starring: Victor McLaglen, William Gargan, Paul Kelly, Beatrice Roberts, Frank Jenks and John Gallaudet
Director: Ray McCarey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Five childhood friends, now grown up and successful each in their own different walks of life, hold their annual reunion. It's disrupted this year when the professional life of one (McLaglen)--a nightclub owner who also runs an illegal gambling operation--of the friends collide with the professional life of two others--now police officcers (Gargen and Gallaudet)--with deadly consequences for some, and tragic consequences for all.

Well-acted and decently filmed--this is one of those movies that takes full advantage of the black-and-white medium, with deep shadows and creative camera-work to heighten mood--the film is nonetheless boring and predictable at every turn. It's only 65 minutes long, yet it starts dragging at about the 30-minute mark, and it feels like it's far longer than it really is.

Given the overall decent quality of the film, I think it's just that this story has been told so many times (and told better) in the 70 or so years since this film was made, I think this is one movie that history has left behind, and a film that the modern viewer can safely skip.

Don't take 'Sinners in Paradise' to the desert island

Sinners in Paradise (1938)
Starring: John Boles, Madge Evans, Bruce Cabot, Milburn Stone, Willie Fung, and Gene Lockhart
Director: James Whale
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When a plane bound for China crashes in the South Sea, the surviving passengers--a motly group of killers, criminals, and the criminally annoying--are stranded on an uncharted island. They soon discover they aren't alone, but that the mysterious Mr. Taylor (Boles) and his Chinese servant Ping (Fung) are already living there... shunning civilization for reeasons of their own.

"Sinners in Paradise" is a movie that time has passed by. Not only is it a story that I've seen done far, far better (Will Eisner told this type of story several times in his "Spirit" comic strip, and although he may have been drawing inspiration partly from Whale's picture, his tales are better), but the dramatic portions of the story come across as eye-rollingly stupid to contemporary audiences.

This film was far from James Whale's finest work. None of the creativity that was so evident in the productions of "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein" or "Showboat" can be seen here. Although this film probably had a budget far smaller than any of those other films, it still would have been nice to see something that was a little beyond "get the shot and move on."

'Postal Inspector' is a film time has passed by

Postal Inspector (1936)
Starring: Ricardo Cortez, Patricia Ellis, Michael Loring and Bela Lugosi
Director: Otto Brower
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a shady nightclub owner Gregory Benez (Lugosi) frames the brother of Postal Inspector Bill Davis (Cortez) for stealing a shipment of three million dollars, he discovers it doesn't pay to mess with the US Postal Service!

A somewhat overblown crime drama that is filled with entirely too many speeches about the importance and wonderful nature of the mail carriers and the federal law enforcement officers who investigate mail fraud, "Postal Inspector" is of foremost interest in the way it demonstrates how things that were thrilling to audiences in the 1930s are commonplace today. For example, the "tense" sequence with the plane landing in the fog isn't really all that dramatic in an age where flying is probably more commonplace than driving across country.

The acting is decent, the story's pace is quick--even taking into account the hokey and repative declarations about the mighty Postal Service--and the action is acceptable. The interesting "triangle" between Bill, nightclub singer Connie (Ellis), and Bill's brother Charlie (Loring) is also an interesting aspect to the film; the two men aren't competing for the woman, but she is coming between their brotherly love, as Bill is convinced that she is an active participant in Benez's scheme.

Lugosi's character is an intersting one. Unlike most of the bad guys he played in his career, the character here is more desperate than actively corrupt--even if Postal Inspector Bill seems to suspect him of something from the get-go. (That's one aspect that makes Bill an unlikable character to the modern viewer; he seems to suspect Benez of being a criminal for no reason other than he's a "dirty fer'ner." Bill never expresses this opinion, but its hard to see what other motivation he may have. it turns out he's right, but when he first voices his suspicions, he really has nothing to base them on.)

One element of the film that annoyed me more than it might others was the way the postal inspectors played with mail fraud evidence and used items to pick on one particular member of the staff. I know it was supposed to be funny, and maybe it was the manager in me, but all I could think about was how fired those guys would be if the target of their abuse went up the chain. But, I suspect few will have that sort of reaction to those scenes.

All in all, I think "Postal Inspector" is a movie that time has passed by. It's well enough put together to be an interesting historical artifact, but it isn't much more than that. Check it out when you've seen the rest of what the Bela Lugosi catalogue contains.

The Mummy Legacy Collection

Universal's 1932 "The Mummy" remains one of the best mummy movies ever made. If you're a film buff and haven't seen it--even if you're not a particuarly big fan of horror--you have a great experience in store.

The "sequels" from the 1940s go from mediocre to downright awful, but even they have a certain charm. I put "sequels" in qoutes, because they are a series of films that have nothing to do with the original mummy movie, plotwise or tone-wise. However, these four cheesy follow-ons had a lot more to do with shaping the popular image of mummies in horror movies than the original film ever did.

All five of Universal Pictures' original mummy movies can be had in the handsome and very well put-together "The Mummy: The Legacy Collection," part of a series of six archive-quality DVD collections Universal issued a few years back. In addition to featuring a very informative commentary track from film historian Paul M. Jensen on the "Mummy," the set includes an equally informative documentary on the making of the film. (The four sequels are treated as "bonus features" and are on a double-sided disc along with previews for the films, while "The Mummy" gets the deluxe treatment it deserves.)

The original "The Mummy" is a film you're going to watch over and over again; I pull it out at least once a year. At the bottom of this post, following my reviews of the films, there are links to several of the different editions it's been issued in, but the best value remains "The Legacy Collection."

The Mummy (1932)

Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan
Director: Karl Freund
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

After an archeologist accidentally restores him to life, a cursed ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep (Karloff) sets about likewise reviving Princess Anckesen-Amon for whom he gave up everything so they can resume their forbidden love. Unfortunately, she has been reincarnated, and her spirit is currently residing within Helen Grosvenor (Johann), the daughter of a British diplomat. Imhotep hasn't let the natural order of things stop him in the past, and he's not about to let it get in his way now.

"The Mummy" is perhaps the best, most intelligent mummy movie ever made. It's more of a gothic romance story set in Egyptian surroundings than a monster movie, with Imphotep trying to recapture a love that he lost 3,700 years ago.

The actors in this film are all perfectly cast, and they are all at the top of their game.

Karloff is spectacular, conveying evil, alieness, majesty, and even a little bit of tragedy in his character with a minimum of physical movement. (Unlike most mummy movies, Imhotep isn't a bandage-wrapped, shambling creature, but instead appears like a normal human being; he is still dried-out and somewhat fragile physically, though, and Karloff does a fantastic job at conveying this.)

Johann likewise gives a spectacular performance, particularly toward the end of the movie as Imhotep is preparing to make her his eternal bride, and she has regained much of her memories from when she Anckesen-Amon. Johann is also just great to look at.

The two remaining stars, Manners and Van Sloan, are better here than anything else I've seen them in. Manners in particular gives a fine performance, rising well above the usual milquetoast, Generic Handsome Hero he usually seems to be. (Even in "Dracula" he comes across as dull. Not so here.)

The cinematography is excellent and the lighting is masterfully done in each scene. Karloff's character is twice as spooky in several scenes due to some almost subliminal effects caused by lighting changes from a medium shot of Manners to a close-up of Karloff... and the scene where Imhotep is going to forcibly turn Helen Grosvener into an undead like himself is made even more dramatic by the shadows playing on the wall behind the two characters.

There are some parts of the film that are muddled, partly due to scenes that were cut from the final release verson, or never filmed. Worst of these is when Imhotep is interrupted during his first attempt at reviving Anckesen-Amon, and he kills a security guard with magic during his escape. However, he leaves behind the spell scroll that he needs for the ritual. Why did he do that? It's a jarring, nonsensical part of the movie that seems to serve no purpose other than to bring Imhotep into direct confrontation with the heroes. (The commentary track sheds light on what the INTENTION was with that devolpment, but it just seems sloppy and badly conceived when watching the movie. And I'm knocking a full Star off because it is such a badly executed story element.)

While "The Mummy" may be a bit slow-moving for people who are used to Brandon Fraser dodging monsters, it is a film that every cinema buff should see.

The Mummy's Hand (1940)
Starring: Dick Foran, Wallace Ford, Peggy Moran, George Zucco, and Tim Tyler
Director: Christy Cabanne
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of hard-luck Egyptologists (Foran and Ford) discover the location of the long lost tomb of Princess Ananka. Unfortunately for them, an evil cult leader (Zucco) controls the immortal, tomb-guarding, tanna leaf-tea slurping mummy Kharis, and he's hot afraid to use him to keep the secret of the tomb.

More of an adventure flick with a heavy dose of lowbrow comedy than a horror film, "The Mummy's Hand" isn't even a proper sequel to the classy 1932 "The Mummy."

This movie (and the three sequels that follow) are completely unrelated to the original film, despite the copious use of stock footage from it. The most obvious differences are that the mummy here is named Kharis, as opposed to Imhotep, and has a different backstory. Then, there's the fact he's a mindless creature who goes around strangling people at the bidding of a pagan priest where Imhotep was very much his own man and did his killing with dark magics without ever laying a hand on his victims.

If one recognizes that this film shares nothing in common with the Boris Karloff film (except that they were both released by the same studio), "The Mummy's Hand" is a rather nice bit of fluff. It's also the first film to feature the real Universal Studios mummy, as Imhotep was an intelligent, scheming, and more-or-less natural looking man, not a mute, mind-addled, bandaged-wrapped, cripple like Kharis.

The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
Starring: Wallace Ford, Turhan Bey, John Hubbard, George Zucco, Dick Foran, Isobel Evans and Lon Chaney Jr.
Director: Harold Young
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Thirty years after the events of "The Mummy's Hand, the High Priest of Karnak from the last film (Zucco), who, despite being shot four times and pointblank range and tumbling down a very long flight of stairs, survived to be an old man. He passes the mantle onto a younger man (Bey) and dispatches him to America with Kharis the Mummy (Chaney), who survived getting burned to a crisp at the end of the last movie, to slay those who dared loot the tomb of Princess Anankha. (Better late than never, eh?)

Take the plot of "The Mummy's Hand" (complete with a villain who has the exact same foibles as the one from the first movie), remove any sense of humor and adventure, toss in about ten minutes of recap to pad it up to about 70 minutes in length, add a climax complete with torch-weilding villagers and a mummy who is just too damn dumb to continue his undead existence, and you've got "The Mummy's Tomb."

Made with no concern for consistency (Ford's character changes names from Jenson to Hanson, the fashions worn in "The Mummy's Hand" implid it took place in the late 30s, or even in the year it was filmed, and yet "thirty years later" is clearly during World War II... and let's not even talk about how the mummy and Zucco's character survived) or orginality (why write a whole new script when we can just have the bad guys do the exact same things they did last movie?), this film made with less care than the majority of B-movies.

Turhan Bey and Wallace Ford have a couple of good moments in this film, but they are surrounded by canned hash and complete junk.

The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
Starring: John Carradine, Ramsey Ames, Robert Lowery, George Zucco, and Lon Chaney Jr
Director: Reginald Le Borg
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Modern day priests of ancient Egyptian gods (Zucco and Carradine) undertake a mission to retrieve the cursed mummy of Princess Ananka from the American museum where she's been kept for the past 30 years. Unfortunately, they discover that the archeologists who stole her away from Egypt broke the spell that kept her soul trapped in the mummy and that she has been reincarnated in America as the beautiful Amina (Ames).

"The Mummy's Ghost" starts out strong. In fact, it starts so strong that, despite the fact that the priests who must be laughing stock of evil cult set were back with pretty much the exact same scheme for the third time (go to America and send Kharis the Mummy stumbling around to do stuff, that it looked like the filmmakers may have found their way back to the qualities that made "The Mummy" such a cool picture.

Despite a really obnoxious love interest for Amina (played with nails-on-a-chalkboard-level of obnoxiousness by Robert Lowery) and a complete ressurection of Kharis (boiling tannith leaves now apparently reconstitutes AND summons a mummy that was burned to ashes in a house-fire during "The Mummy's Tomb"), and a number of glaring continuity errors with the preceeding films (the cult devoted to Ananka and Kharis has changed their name... perhaps because they HAD become the laughing stock among the other evil cults), the film is actually pretty good for about half its running time. The plight of and growing threat toward Amina lays a great foundation.

And then it takes a sharp nosedive into crappiness where it keeps burrowing downward in search of the bottom.

The cool idea that the film started with (Ananka's cursed soul has escaped into the body of a living person... and that person must now be destroyed to maintain the curse of the gods) withers away with yet another replay of the evil priest deciding he wants to do the horizontal mambo for all enternity with the lovely female lead. The idea is further demolished by a nonsensical ending where the curses of Egypt's ancient gods lash out in the modern world, at a very badly chosen target. I can't go into details without spoiling that ending, but it left such a bad taste in my mouth, and it's such a complete destruction of the cool set-up that started the film, that the final minute costs "The Mummy's Ghost" a full Star all by itself.

The Mummy's Curse (1944)
Starring: Peter Coe, Lon Chaney Jr, Kay Harding, Dennis Moore, Virginia Christine and Kurt Katch
Director: Leslie Goodwins
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A contruction project in Louisiana's bayou uncovers not only the mummy Kharis (Chaney), but also the cursed princess Ananka (Christine). Pagan priests from Egypt arrive to take control of both. Mummy-induced violence and mayhem in Cajun Country follow.

What happens when you make a direct sequel where no one involved cares one whit about keeping continuity with previous films? You get "The Mummy's Curse"!

For the previous entries in this series, Kharis was shambling around a New England college town, yet he's dug up in Lousiana. (He DID sink into a swamp at the end of "The Mummy's Ghost", but that swamp was hundreds of miles north of where he's found in this film.)

He also supposedly has been in the swamp for 25 years. For those keeping score, that would make this a futuristic sci-fi film with a setting of 1967, because the two previous films took place in 1942. (And that's being generous. I'm assuming "The Mummy's Hand" took place in 1912, despite the fact that all clothing and other signifiers imply late 30s early 40s.) Yet, there's nothing in the film to indicate that the filmmakers intended to make a sci-fi movie.

And then there's Ananka. Why is she back, given her fate in "The Mummy's Ghost"? There's absolutely no logical reason for it. Her ressurection scene is very creepy, as is the whole "solar battery" aspect of the character here, but it is completely inconsistant with anything that's gone before. And she's being played by a different actress--but I suppose 25 years buried in a swamp will change anyone.

There's little doubt that if anyone even bothered to glance at previous films for the series, no one cared.

Some things the film does right: It doesn't have the Egyptian priests replay exactly the same stuff they've done in previous films for the fourth time (although they are still utter idiots about how they execute their mission), it manages for the first time to actually bring some real horror to the table--Kharis manages to be scary in this film, and I've already mentioned Ananka's creep-factor--and they bring back the "mummy shuffling" music from "The Mummy's Ghost" which is actually a pretty good little theme. But the utter disregard for everything that's happened in other installments of the series overwhelm and cancel out the good parts.

"The Mummy's Curse" should not have been slapped into the "Kharis" series. If it had been made as a stand-alone horror film, it could have been a Six-Star movie. As it is, this just comes across as a shoddy bit of movie making where I can only assume that anything decent is more by accident than design.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dracula: The Legacy Collection

I've long held the opinion that the original Universal Studio's "Dracula" film, one of the very important first building blocks of the cinematic horror genre is overrated.

Watching it in close promixity to the sequels from the 1930s and 1940s and, more importantly, to the Spanish-language "Dracula" that was filmed simulaniously to the English-language version and on the same sets but with a different cast and crew, I am more convinced than ever.

Without "Dracula," the horror film industry as we know it would never have come to be. However, the movie is inferior to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein" and even the independently produced, Bela Lugosi-starring, low budget chiller "White Zombie" are far better movies. It's not even as good as the Spanish-language "Dracula."

Both of Universal's 1931 versions of "Dracula" and immediate sequels are available in a very affordable, very well put together package that includes not only five horror movie classics, but all sorts of extras that are actually worthwhile. (My only complaint is that they included "House of Dracula" in this set instead of saving it for the Wolf Man Legacy Collection... but more on that when I post my reviews of the movies included in that set.)

Dracula (1931)

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, David Manners, and Charles K. Gerrard
Director: Tod Browning
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Lugosi) travels to England where he sates his bloodlust on young women, including the lovely Mina (Chandler).

Universal's 1931 "Dracula" was the first horror talkie and is one of the three most influential horror films ever made. It's a film that's truly a significant milestone not only in film history, but in pop culture as well, and, even though its age is showing, it's a genuiine classic.

Mina (Helen Chandler) as she is about to receive the kiss of undeath from Dracula (Bela Lugosi)
I don't think anything quite as subtly creepy and startling as Dracula passing through a mass of cobwebs without breaking them has ever been put on film. It's a perfect film moment, because the feeling of "waitaminnit... did that just happen?" that Renfield (Frye) has is shared by the audience, and we're sitting there with a chill that goes right down to our very bones.

Because this film is such a classic milestone, I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. Like "Frankenstein" (also made by Universal in 1931), this movie has nearly as many flaws as it has elements of perfection.

The biggest problem with "Dracula" is the haphazard way the film unfolds, particuarly in its second half. The vampiric Lucy and her preying on little children is dealt with a throw-away fashion, and the climactic encounter at Carfax Abby, which is so weakly and disjointedly handled that it is barely a climax at all. (It's particuarly dissapointing that Dracula's death happens entirely off-screen, except for a very effective reaction from the psychically bonded Mina.)

In fact, in many ways, it's almost as if someone forgot the movie needed a script, and it was made up as the crew went along. The film is worth seeing for spectacular performances from Bela Lugosi (it's easy to see why he solidified vampires as suave, sharp-dresserrs as opposed to fugly scarecrows like the one featured in "Nosferatu"), Dwight Frye (who, as Renfield, is as much a star of the film as Lugosi, and who does some great acting when he vascilates from raving madman to apparently sane and back again), and Helen Chandler (who, as Mina, conveys more with her eyes, body language, and facial expressions than one would thinks possible, and who has the only decent moment during the film's climax as she shares in Dracula's pain as Van Helsin stakes him). The film's impressive sets and creative camera work also bring about some genuinely creepy moments, such as when Dracula and his vampire brides emerge from their coffins under his Transylvanian castle, and then when they later close on an unconcious Renfield; the discovery of Renfield in the hold of the death ship after it runs aground; Dracula's feeding upon the flower girl in London; Renfield crawling across the floor toward an unconcious maid with a look of madness and bloodlust on his face; Mina's transformation as she urges John Harker to get rid of Van Helsing and his cruxifixes; and Dracula and Mina's arrival at Carfax Abby.

But, for every great moment or spectacular performance, there's a boring one, or one where opportunities that should have been obvious to filmmakes even in 1931 are completely missed. Edward Van Sloan (as Van Helsing) and David Manners (as a particularly milquetoasty Harker) are completely dead spots in the film, giving weak performances that almost manage to drag down those excellent ones from Chandler, Frye, and Lugosi. (In fact, Van Sloan and Manners are so weak here that it's surprising to me that they;'re the same actors who do so well in "The Mummy" just one years later. (Perhaps the better script and a different director made all the difference for them.)

By the way, the new score that Phillip Glass composed for the restored version of the film included in the "Dracula Legacy Collection" (and which can be toggled on and off) is actually a fine reflection of the movie itself: Glass has some good moments and some supremely weak moments in his score. For the most part, it is just muazak that doesn't seem to have a whole lot to do with enhancing the mood on the scrreen, but every so often, it is spot-on and it makes the film that much more impressive. (Glass's music ALMOST gives the film's climax some impact, for example.)

Although far from perfect, the 1931 "Dracula" is a must-see for anyone with an interest in examining the origins of horror as a seperate and unique genre. While I'll take "White Zombie" or "The Mummy" over this film any day, I think the 75 minutes it takes to watch this film, is time well spent.

Dracula (1931 Spanish version)
Starring: Carlos Villar, Pablo Alvarez Rubio, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton, Eduardo Arozamana and Carmen Guerrero
Director: George Melford
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Count Dracula (Villar) travels to London--where everyone suddenly has taken to speaking Spanish and being Catholic--and sets his undead sights on the sexy Lucia (Guerrero) and the beautfiul, virginal Eva (Tovar). Will occult expert Dr. Van Helsing (Arozamana) and Eva's fiance Juan (Norton) save her from the fiend's embrace of death?

Lupita Tovar and Carlos Villar star in
The 1931 Spanish-language version of "Dracula" was shot simulateously with the more famous Tod Browning version, using the same sets at Universal Studios but its actors and crew shot at night after production wrapped for the day on the other film.

Although treated as a secondary venture by Universal at the time, this film is actually superior to Browning's "Dracula" in many ways. Although it is about half an hour longer, the film seems to move faster due to superior story cohesion, better staging of many scenes, some of the best cinematography I've seen in any of the early talkies, and better acting on the part of many of the principles. For example, the famous scene where Van Helsing suprises Dracula with a mirror while the Count is visiting the Seward house is clearer and far more dramatic due to better placement of the camera and more efficient blocking of the scene in general; and the scene with the near-sexual assault that the Dracula-corrupted and suddenly very horny Eva (Mina renamed for the Spanish version, played with great effectiveness by Lupita Tovar) on Juan (the renamed Jonathan Harker, played by Barry Norton) is both far sexier and far scarier than the one featured in Browning's version.

Not everything here is better than in the Browning version, however. My favorite scene--where Dracula passes through a spiderweb without breaking it--is completely in this version, and the actor they have playing Dracula is more funny than scary or mysterious. Carlos Villar was apparently a big star in his day, but the reason for that is not evident in this film. He has one acting mode--over-acting--and he has two facial expressions, and they both look like he just smelled something that makes the stench from a baby's dirty diaper seem like a sweet-smelling rose. In fact, Villar's performance seems almost like he belongs in a spoof of "Dracula" instead of a serious movie, and he is so bad that if the Dracula character had gotten any more screen time, his presence would have destroyed the movie.

The Spanish-language "Dracula" is a film that anyone who loves the old Universal horror pictures should check out. While it suffers because of Carlos Villar's unintentionally comic performance, this is an excellent film, one deserving to be recognized and honored as a classic cinematic work.

Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Starring: Gloria Holden Otto Kruger, Edward Van Sloan, Marguerite Churchill, Irving Pichel, and Nan Grey
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Steve's Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Dracula may be dead, but his vampire brides live on. While Van Helsing (Van Sloan) languishes in jail for murder, Countess Zaleska (Holden) steals Dracula's body from the police, blesses and cremates it in the hope that she will finally be free of her vampire curse. But, she finds she stll cannot resist the lure of human blood, so she seeks the help of a noted psychiatrist (Kruger) to assist her in finding a way to a peaceful life.

"Dracula's Daughter" is a far better movie than the film it is a sequel to. It has a coherent, engaging story (even if the ultimate climax has a of a rushed feel to it), its got an active and engaging hero (Dr. Garth, a psychiatrist who doesn't believe in vampires, even after one seeks his help), and a villain who wants desperately to be the story's protaganist, Countess Zaleska. What's more, the film has a steady tone and look to it--all classic Universal Horror--unlike :"Dracula", which vasilated between creepy, atmospheric scenes and boring, stale drawing-room scenes. (Of course, one can't be too hard on "Dracula", because it was treading new ground and was made on a sparse budget. By the time 1936 rolled around, and this film was released, not only was the horror genre well-established, but Universal was doing very, very well.)

Now, there are some plot holes that a swarm of bats could fly through if one considers it in the light of the original "Dracula"--like where are John Harker and Mina Seward, both of whom could help clear Van Helsing of the murder charge, just to mention the biggest one--and a couple of developments that feel just a little too convienient... but these are flaws that can be forgiven when one considers what a rare sequen this is. Not only is it better than its predecessor, but it has an identity all its own; it doesn't bring Dracula back so it can retreat the same basic plot all over again, but instead follows a new and unique path.

My favorite thing about the movie is the character of Countess Valeska. It's a character that oozes mystery from her first appearance through to the very end--she's the ultimate femme fatale in every way. She's also a character that, despite being a blood-drinking fiend, she's a character the audience gains sympathy for early on. Unlike the Dracula character, Valeska doesn't want to be evil, doesn't want to be a spreader of death and misery... she wants to live and let live. But, she can't shake the taint of Dracula, and she can't resist the call of vampirism. (It doesn't help any that she's got an evil bastard for a manservant, Sandor. One has to wonder how Valeska might have fared if she's just gone ahead and sucked him dry in celebration of Dracula's demise. Further, while the "recultant vampire" has been done over and over in movies and TV shows, Valeska, despite being the first, remains among the most enjoyable... because while she may lament her fate, she doesn't whine.

In fact, as I'm thinking about it, Countess Valeska is probably one of the best-presented, tragically romantic vampires in any movie I've seen, tying Jack Palance's portrayal in the 1973 Dan Curtis-directed "Dracula" adaptation starring Jack Palance. In both films, the audience can't help but root for the "bad guy" and can't help but feel sorry when their inevitable demise comes about.

One thing that I've often seen made reference to in reviews of "Dracula's Daughter" is lesbianism. I've seen it commented upon as "subtext" and I've seen it stated that it's there, blatant and wide-open. And I simply don't see it; it looks like it's a case of critics reading too much into the film as it unfolds. The scene they tend to point to is the one involving Valeska and a young woman Sandor picks up for her. Maybe I'm just too innocent (or my mind just isn't deep enough in the gutter), but I see nothing sexual about that scene... or any other scene in this film for that matter.

"Dracula's Daughter" is a film that, like "Dracula" is a landmark of cinematic history. It may not be the most famous of films, but it can be found in the DNA of many vampire movies that have been made since. It's worth seeing by anyone who is a serious student of the development of the horror genre, as well as those out there who enjoys classic cinema.

Son of Dracula (1943)
Starring: Robert Paige, Frank Craven, Louise Allbritton, Lon Chaney, Jr., Evelyn Ankers, and J. Edward Bromberg
Director: Robert Siodmak
Steve's Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Eccentric sothern belle Katherine Caldwell (Allbritton) apparently falls under the sway of a mysterious Transylvanian nobleman, Alucard (Chaney), while traveling in Europe. When he arrives in the United States, strange deaths start happening, and isolates himself and Katherine in her manorhouse on Darkwood Plantation. But after she is accidentially shot to death by her fiance (Paige), the true horror of what Katherine's plans start to emerge.

"Son of Dracula" is a surprisingly effective and mature horror film. I had very low hopes for it when Dracula shows up in Louisiana with the clever aka of "Alucard"--gosh, no one's going to figure that one out!

But fortunately, that's the one bit of childish idiocy in this exceptionally creepy movie.

From Dracula's takeover of Darkwood, to the first time we see Dracula emerge from his swampbound coffin, to Frank going insane from gunning down Katherine... and to the twists and turns the film takes as it moves through its second and third acts. (To reveal that Katherine dies at the hand of Frank is NOT a spoiler for this film. Her death is where the story starts to truly unfold.)

Every scene in this film drips with atmosphere. Despite dating from the mid-1940s where Universal horror films seemed to be targeted primarily at kids, this is a movie with a story that compares nicely to "The Mummy" and "Frankenstein". It may even be a little superior to those two, as far as the story goes, because it's got some twists that I guarentee you will not see coming.

The film is also blessed with a score that is surprisingly effective for a Universal horror picture--I tend to find them overblown for the most part, but here the music perfectly compliments what unfolds on the screen--and with a cast that is mostly superb in their roles.

I say mostly, because Lon Chaney Jr. is does not make a good Dracula at all. He comes across like a dockworker who's borrowed someone's tuxedo for the evening (or who maybe took it off the owner after beating him into unconsciousness). There simply is nothing menacing about Chaney's Dracula... he's brutish and, as the film builds to its climax, desperate, but never menacing or frightening. He is quite possibly the worst Dracula I've ever come across.

Aside from a weak "Dracula", everything else in this film is top-notch, resulting in a horror movie that's surprisingly effective and high quality when compared to the rest of Universal's horror output of the time. In fact, it's a movie that may even have been ahead of its time, as the pacing, style, and overall look of the film reminded me more of the British horror movies that would emerge from Hammer Films starting a little more than a decade after "Son of Dracula" was first released.

In fact, whether you prefer the Hammer Dracula films (as I do) or the Universal ones, this is a film that will appeal to you.

House of Dracula (aka "The Wolf Man's Cure")
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Onslow Stevens, John Carradine, Lionel Atwill, Martha O'Driscoll, Jane Adams, and Glenn Strange
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Unwilling, immortal werewolf Larry Talbot (Chaney) seeks out Dr. Edelman (Stevens), hoping the doctor's cutting edge therapies will cure his affliction. Unfortunately, the doctor's other patient, Count Dracula (Carradine), endangers this hope when he out of pure malice afflicts Edelman with a condition that causes him to become a violent madman at night. It is during one of these fits that Edelman revives Frankenstein's Monster (Strange), which has been dormant in his lab since it was recovered from mud-floes under Edelman's castle.

"House of Dracula" was the third sequel to "The Wolf Man" and "Dracula" and the fifth sequel to "Frankenstein"... and it was the next-to-last stop for all three of the characters as Universal's decade-and-half long horror ride came to an end. nearly the last stop for Universal's original monsters, and it is something of a high note when compared to other Universal horror films from around the same time, even the one to which this is a sequel, "House of Frankenstein" with Boris Karloff.

The script in "House of Dracula" is stronger and more coherent than "House of Frankenstein". The effort at maintaining continuity with other films featuring the character of the Wolf Man are in evidence here, and they are greatly appreciated by this continuity geek. Also, all the various monster characters each get their moment to shine--unlike in "House of Frankenstein" where Dracula was completely superflous to the storyline and whose presense was little more than a marquee-grabbing cameo.

In this film, Dracula is the well-spring of evil from which the plot flows. Although he supposedly comes to Dr. Edelman seeking release from vampirism and his eternal life, he is either too evil or too stupid to control his desires for Edelman's beautfiful nurse (O'Driscoll). He gets his just desserts, but not before he guarentees that every brave and goodhearted character in the film is set on a path of destruction.

The climactic scenes of this film, as the insane Dr. Edelman and Frankenstein's Monster go on homicidal rampages, feature some very, sudden, casual, and matter-of-fact brutality. (I can't go into details without spoiling the plot, but two main characters are dispatched with such swift and surprisingly brutal fashion that modern-day horror filmmakers should take a look at the final minutes of "House of Dracula" and attempt to learn some lessons from them.)

And then there's Larry Talbot. The role of the wolf man in this story is the meatiest since the character's debut in "The Wolf Man". Although he still doesn't get to have the stage to himself, and he is once again a secondary character--the main character of "House of Dracula" is the unfortunate Dr. Edelman--he has some great moments... like his suicide attempt and his discovery of the dormant Frankenstein's Monster.

Acting-wise, this is also one of the better than many other Universal horror films of the period. This is partly due to a superior script that features a story that actually flows with some degree of logic and where the actors have some fairly decent lines to deliever.

Lon Chaney Jr. does his usual excellent job as Larry Talbot, but Onslow also shines as a scientific genius who's a little less mad than the standard in a movie like this (well, at least until Dracula is done with him).

John Carradine performs decently, but I simply can't buy him as Dracula. Even in his younger years, he had the look of a burned-out, alcoholic bum, and the lighting and make-up in this feature strengthen that look as far as I'm concerned. While miscast, he does a decent job.

Lionel Atwill is also on hand for another fine supporting role. The part is similar to the one he played in "Son of Frankenstein", but the role is even more interesting, as he's the voice of reason in a town that is otherwise inhabited by villagers whose favorite pastime seems to be grabbing torches and storming the castle.

When all things are taken into account, this is the best "serious" Universal "Monster Mash" movies. It's second only in quality to "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and I think it's a film that is worth seeing by modern horror fans... particularly if they also have asperations of being filmmakers.