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.