Sunday, November 30, 2003

Review: House of Dracula (1945)

You might be wondering how Universal managed to squeeze one more movie out of their worn-out, ill-used monsters. And you'd be wise to wonder that, especially since Dracula (John Carradine) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) were killed off in rather permanent ways in House of Frankenstein.

But logic never stopped the studio before, and it didn't even slow them down this time: Drac and Furboy show up again like the previous movie hadn't even happened. Dracula shows up at the doorstep of kindly Dr. Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) and says he wants to be cured. Larry Talbot shows up and says he wants to die (we know, Larry, we know). Dracula infects Edelmann with some of his blood, turning him into a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of mad scientist, but Dracula gets destroyed anyway well before the end of the movie...with his name in the title. Talbot, on the other hand, has brain surgery and is cured. (Good! Maybe he'll stop bitching now....)

Only the Frankenstein Monster (again played stiffly by stunt actor Glenn Strange) shows up again with any sort of continuity involved: he's dug out of the quicksand he sank in in the previous movie, still clutching the now-skeletal remains of Dr. Neimann (played by a stunt skeleton, not Boris Karloff). Of course, the now-mad Neimann wants to charge up the Monster (doesn't everybody?) and use him to rule the world (or something like that). The Monster gets up, wrecks the lab and burns the joint down. And Larry Talbot actually survives this time--so, for once, he gets a happy ending.

Universal thought so little of their monsters by this point that they just recycled footage from the conclusion of Ghost of Frankenstein for the lab fire (yes, even showing close-ups of Chaney as the Monster going up in flames again) like none of us had ever seen that movie, even though it had been released just three years before.

What a sad, shabby, cheap way to bring to an end one of the most famous series in film . Or was this really the end? Watch Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and judge for yourself.

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Review: House of Frankenstein (1944)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man did more than well enough at the box office for Universal to say, "Hey, if they liked two monsters in the same movie, they'll LOVE even more!" And so the studio went ahead with House of Frankenstein, which not only brings back the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and the Frankenstein Monster (played this time around by Glenn Strange), but throws in Dracula (John Carradine), a mad doctor (Boris Karloff, returning to the series for the first time since Son of Frankenstein) and a hunchbacked assistant (J. Carroll Naish). What, they couldn't find a way to work the Mummy in?

While the concept of having most of the Universal monsters in one movie must have seemed thrilling, the results certainly aren't. Cramming all those characters into a movie that runs just over an hour guarantees that nobody is going to get enough screen time to be interesting, much less scary.

Most of the disjointed plot revolves around mad Dr. Neimann (Karloff), who's in prison for sticking a human brain in a dog's head (practical experiment there, Doc). He and his fellow inmate, Daniel the hunchback (Naish) escape from prison and meet up with a traveling show run by Professor Lampini (George Zucco), who promptly knocked off by the escaped felons. Neimann assumes Lampini's identity so that he can return to his old village and get his revenge on those who sent him to prison. And as luck would have it, Lampini's traveling show just happens to include the skeleton of Dracula, stake and all! Neimann yanks out the chunk of wood and threatens to shove it back in if Drac doesn't agree to help.

This brings on the best part of the movie, in which Carradine shows himself to be an elegant, dapper, persuasive Dracula. He even wears a mustache, like the character did in Bram Stoker's novel. He doesn't get much screen time, though, before getting fried by the light of day.

Neimann and Daniel eventually run across the frozen bodies of the Wolf Man and The Monster and, not being able to leave well enough alone, thaw both of them out. Larry Talbot isn't too thrilled with this concept--he was kind of hoping to stay dead. By this time in the series, Talbot had stopped being sympathetic and just seemed like a damn whiner. Somebody kill him already! And what do you know? Somebody does: the Gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo) he's fallen in love with shoots Larry with a silver bullet. Yea! But he kills her in the process. Boo...And Daniel winds up getting whacked, too.

And what about The Monster, you ask? I asked the same thing: how the hell can a movie called House of Frankenstein keep the freakin' Monster on the table until the last reel? But this movie does exactly that, leaving poor Frankie horizontal and weak until the very end, when he gets up and drags Neimann into quicksand, presumably killing them both.

But we know better, don't we? So did Universal, which did the whole thing over again soon after in House of Dracula.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Review: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Universal began to consolidate their various horror franchises into one big one, much to the detriment of the movies themselves. (They also dispensed with the notion that the word "Frankenstein" in the movie's title referred to anyone but The Monster himself.) Why spend the money to make individual sequels to "he Wolf Man and Ghost of Frankenstein when you can just make one movie and kill two monsters with one stone?

But with this decision to consolidate, Universal faced a unique problem: Lon Chaney Jr. had played both monsters in the previous films. The studio apparently considered playing with split-screen effects and trick photography, but they finally came to the decision to bring in another actor to play the Frankenstein Monster. Their choice wound up being Bela Lugosi, who was really a natural choice: after all, The Monster had spoken with his voice at the end of Ghost of Frankenstein. The choice was also ironic: Lugosi had been the studio's first choice to play the role in the original "Frankenstein," but he had passed on it because it wasn't a speaking part.

The Monster would talk THIS time, least until the audiences at the preview screenings laughed so hard at Lugosi's voice coming out of the Monster's mouth that all scenes of Lugosi speaking were cut. This leaves odd continuity gaps in the movie: The Monster inexplicably loses the ability to speak again, and he stumbles around as if blind because he was so at the end of "Ghost," but all dialogue explaining this circumstance has been excised, so his movements become thoroughly inexplicable.

Various critics have hammered Lugosi's performance, but unfairly so. He's a good deal more lively than Chaney was as the Monster in the previous movie, and a Boston fern would have been more energetic than stunt player Glenn Strange was in his three "performances" as the Monster in Universal's later, lesser monster mashes. The only real problem with Bela's performance, in fact, isn't a problem of acting talent as much as it's a problem of height: Chaney looks to be just as tall as Lugosi in their scenes together, thus reducing the ability of Bela to seem more threatening.

The plot, such as it is, involves two grave robbers breaking into the Talbot family crypt, where the light of the conveniently full moon revives everybody's favorite werewolf, Larry Talbot (Chaney). (Wait...hasn't he been dead for a few years? And wasn't he beaten to death with a silver-tipped cane? Logic and continuity were never the strong points of the Universal horror films, but they go way out the window here.) Larry gets up, stalks out and winds up in a hospital where a dedicated doctor (Patric Knowles) thinks he's nuts. (It's rather comforting to know that I'm not the only one with a gift for stating the obvious.)

With the next full moon, Larry gets all hairy again and escapes, roaming Europe in search of somebody, anybody, who can put a permanent end to his curse. He meets up with the old Gypsy woman from The Wolf Man (Maria Ouspenskaya), but then he gets chased by (you guessed it) Angry Villagers and falls down a hole and into a frozen cavern. When he wakes up in the morning, he checks out his surroundings and finds a body frozen in the ice. Who is he? Hint: his head is flat and bolted on at the neck.

Knowles follows Chaney, who tries to get Ilona Massey (as Ludwig Frankenstein's daughter) to tell him where her father's notes are. Knowles becomes fascinated (more like obsessed) with the idea of seeing the Monster at full strength (uh oh) and the whole mess ends with the title bout, which takes as the nearby dam is dynamited by yet another Angry Villager, sending water rushing into the laboratory as the two monsters duke it out. The castle crumbles. The monsters are washed away. The end.

Not to worry--both Frankie and Furry come back for more in House of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man heralds the true decline of the Universal Monsters. It's less expensive, less carefully crafted, less logical and less exciting than most of the previous movies, with Chaney's impassioned, tortured performance as Larry Talbot and Lugosi's respectable turn as The Monster keeping the whole thing from falling flat. Things would only get worse in the next two movies--much worse, indeed.

(NOTE: Series regular's Lionel Atwill and Dwight Frye were both on hand again, Atwill as the Burgermeister and Frye as an Angry Villager--again. Sadly, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was Frye's last fling: he died of a heart attack shortly after Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was completed.)

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Review: Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Ghost of Frankenstein is the middle child of Universal's Frankenstein series: not a huge production number like the previous three films in the series, but not a low-rent cheapie like the three to come. (I'm not even counting Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein in that group--it's in a category all by itself.) Ghost has a modest budget and doesn't have Karloff as the Monster anymore--the growling and strangling duties are handed off to Lon Chaney Jr. instead. But these limitations don't necessarily make it a bad movie. It's pretty good, if you can dial your expectations down a bit.

It turns out that The Monster, punted into a sulfur pit at the conclusion of Son of Frankenstein, didn't die after all (surprise!), but he's not really doing so hot. So his buddy Igor (played again by Bela Lugosi), who's still around even after having a gun emptied into him in the previous entry, helps him out of what's left of Castle Frankenstein just before the obligatory Angry Villagers (led by Dwight Frye, who played a crazed hunchback in the original Frankenstein and the crazed Renfield in Dracula) dynamite the joint.

Basil Rathbone's character, Wolfie Frankenstein, isn't around this time--Basil was off doing Sherlock Holmes movies--so this gruesome twosome take their act on the road in search of Wolfie's brother, Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Ludwig, as it turns out, runs a perfectly respectable sanitarium along with his chief assistant, a discredited scientist played by Lionel Atwill (never a good sign).

When Igor shows up with his tall, flat-topped friend, he doesn't ask for much: he only wants a new brain popped into the Monster's head. Ludwig thinks this is a really, really bad idea and would rather skip the whole thing. But when the Monster kills off another one of Ludwig's other assistants who, consequently, can donate a brain to the cause, the operation is on. Igor plays to Atwill's ego, though, and after the Monster accidentally breaks every bone in Igor's body by smashing him behind a door (don't you hate it when that happens?), Igor's brain winds up in the monster's head instead.

Ludwig checks on his patient in the recovery room, only to be horrified by the discovery that Lon Chaney Jr. is now speaking with Bela Lugosi's voice. Hell, who wouldn't be? This new, improved(?) Monster finds, however, that he can't see--Igor and the Monster don't have the same blood type (oops). The sanitarium subsequently burns to the ground, with the Monster getting the extra-crispy treatment yet again.

The acting in Ghost of Frankenstein is solid throughout, especially by Hardwicke. There are a couple of scenes in which The Monster is ready to smash in Ludwig's skull, but instead of cringing or begging for mercy or even twitching a bit, Hardwicke simply looks up as if fully prepared to accept the punishment for the sins the Frankenstein family had visited on generations of Angry Villagers (and upon The Monster himself, for that matter). Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers are on hand as the requisite love interests, and Lugosi turns his usual spirited effort as well.

The only major disappointment is Chaney's Monster, who lumbers about with little expression and zero personality (pre-brain transplant, of course). It's hard to blame Chaney, though: when a script requires nothing more of an actor than to walk really stiff and occasionally throttle an extra or two, there's not much room for artistic interpretation.

This was Chaney's only full-feature turn in The Monster's makeup, though--Lugosi took over the role for the next entry in the series, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. (What? You really thought The Monster had burned to death? Dream on.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Movie Review: Fear (1990)

A young woman sits in a chair. Nervous. Anxious. Twitching with discomfort. Police officers surround her, shooting questions at her. She's a psychic, trailing a serial killer and his next potential victim in her head. She digs for details--something, anything that will tell the police where the killer is, where he's going, what he's doing--but comes up with only trivial bits of information, like the tune the man is humming or the fact that his car radio is broken. Her anxiety increases. The lead detective, an older man with a patch over one eye and a heavy drawl, presses for more details. The suspect passes a police car before pulling off the road and dragging a young girl to a barn full of sharp, shiny tools and implements. Just as the killer is about to claim another victim, the police burst in, weapons drawn, shouting commands, opening fire.

These are the opening moments from Fear, an underrated thriller that looks like it was meant for theatrical release but instead wound up premiering on cable. Ally Sheedy plays the young psychic, who has only a tenuous grip on her abilities but nonetheless uses them to help police track serial killers like the "gentleman" in the opening scenes (played by, of all people, 1950s horror star John Agar).

Years later, after she's become famous for her abilities and has written three books about the cases she's helped solve, she becomes involved in a new case: A killer nicknamed "The Shadow Man" is stalking the Los Angeles area, seemingly murdering at random and writing "Fear Me" on walls (in blood, of course).

There's only one problem, though: The killer is psychic, too. He gets off on offing people using their greatest fears--stabbing, torture, suffocation etc. When he realizes that Sheedy is tracking him, she turns her own abilities against her, bringing her along mentally on his killing spree and REALLY getting off on her fear.

Writer/director Rockne O'Bannon keeps the tension high throughout the proceedings, while Sheedy plays the psychic as shy and terrified by being attacked in her own noggin, but ultimately strong and smart enough to confront the killer. The impressive supporting cast helps as well, with Lauren Hutton as Sheedy's literary agent, Michael O'Keefe as a helpful, handsome neighbor, Stan Shaw as a cop and Pruitt Taylor Vince (he of the perpetually twitching eyes) as "The Shadow Man." There's even a score by Henry Mancini.

The ending is disappointing, though, with a confrontation in a hall of mirrors (done earlier and better in such classics as Lady from Shanghai and Enter the Dragon) and an entirely improbable fight scene on a Ferris wheel. Still, there's more than enough that's fresh in Fear to distinguish it from the raging horde of serial-killer movies that continues to overrun the horror film genre to this very day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Review: Halloween H2O (1998)

The seventh and--they promised this time!--last entry in the far-longer-than-it-ever-should-have-been Halloween series takes an interesting and significant turn toward the more recent, funny-but-scary slasher movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

How desperately do the makers of this sequel want to jam it into that mold? They brought in Kevin Williamson, who wrote both of the aforementioned movies, as an executive producer. They also brought in young and fresh faces like Michelle Williams (from Dawson's Creek--yep, every one of these movies have one of those damn kids), Josh Hartnett and Jodi Lynne O'Keefe, and a veteran director in Steve Miner, who helmed a couple of those Friday the 13th movies. They even managed to drag back Jamie Lee Curtis, who managed to survive the first two movies in the Halloween series. Throw in a few other recognizable faces like LL Cool J, Adam Arkin and even Janet Leigh (Jamie Lee's real-life mom), and this last, anniversary-celebrating Halloween takes on a veneer of respectability long absent from this series.

That doesn't mean it's good.

One of the most important elements of the hip mad-slasher films is contest to guess the killer's identity. In this movie, no such fun is to be had: we know from BEFORE the opening frame flickers onscreen who the killer is, and so the guessing game is not who's doing the killing but, rather, who's going to get killed. And the killings are particularly nasty, graphic and unpleasant here--kind of hard to get a chuckle out of an ice skate jammed into somebody's face or a nearly-amputated leg dragging along behind a character desperately trying to crawl away from Michael Myers (who still moves in that slow, deliberate stroll that just makes you wonder who'd win in a 100-yard dash--Michael or the Mummy from those old, awful Universal quickies from the 1940s).

No, this is very familiar, by-the-numbers moviemaking, when you get down to it, even though the filmmakers wisely avoid mentioning most of events in the previous entries in this series--which, in total, have managed to make the groundbreaking original look dated and cliched--and return to the main character from the first two films, Laurie Strode (Curtis). She's now the headmistress at a private school and, as a result of her tortured past, a pill-popping, alcoholic control freak who won't let her son (Hartnett) out of her sight, not even to let him hook up with his adorable girlfriend (Williams). Once Michael shows up, though, it's all run-run, slash-slash-just like you'd expect.

And that's too bad. There are interesting aspects to Halloween H2O, most notable Curtis and her take on Laurie 20 years later. After all, we don't often get to see survivors of these teen mad-slasher flicks deal with their demons in adulthood because, well, they don't very often make it to adulthood. But Jamie Lee's Laurie is a nervous, twitchy and, ultimately, strong and determined survivor who won't let any freak in a bleached-out William Shatner mask destroy her world yet again, and she's willing to fight for her life and her son's using any and all means necessary in a climactic battle that give one hope--for a fleeting moment, anyway--that Michael's shuffling reign of terror might finally, finally, finally be over.

But Curtis's performance is overwhelmed and, eventually, swallowed up and spat back out by the formula, which demands that everybody--even the well-drawn, well-acted characters--run through the maze of slice and dice, slash and hack, run and hide, then do it all over again.

Even as formulaic as Halloween H2O is, it would have been a decent ending to the series. Unfortunately, it did well enough at the box office to spawn at least one more sequel, Halloween Resurrection, which was poorly received by critics and audiences alike.

Maybe that'll be the end of the series. Somehow, I doubt it.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Review: Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Director Tim Burton combines elements from his two previous films, "Beetlejuice" (the skewed view of suburban life populated with off-center characters) and "Batman" (the gothic, expressionistic gloom) with liberal doses of "Frankenstein" and "Being There" for a remarkably personal modern fable.

Johnny Depp underplays his way through the title role, a man-made creature who winds up alone in a castle on a hill when his inventor (Vincent Price, in his last big-screen role) dies just as he's about to put the finishing touches on his creation: real hands, as opposed to the enormous gardening sheer-like things Edwards has on his wrists.

One day, an Avon lady (Dianne Wiest) shows up, finds Edward all alone in the hilltop castle and brings him home to live in her brightly colored suburban subdivision with her husband (Alan Arkin) and beautiful daughter (Winona Ryder, who looks kind of odd as a blonde, but I once read that that's her natural hair color...oh, never mind). Once there, he displays talents like making cool topiary animals and trimming the hair of the local housewives, including a ravenously sexual Kathy Baker. Despite his artistic skill and his strong attraction to the daughter, who has a typical asshole boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall), Edward can't find happiness and, in the end, winds up alone in the castle again.

What makes this movie so oddly affecting is how Burton turns Edward into an on-screen surrogate for himself. After all, Edward has wild black hair and pale skin and dresses (at least initially) all in black, much like Burton himself. Edward also comes from the mold of most of the heroes of Burton's films: bright outsiders who, despite their oddness, try to help the "normals" have better lives. And Edward is a talented artist who creates intricate pieces of art but nonetheless not given his due by the masses and is ultimately driven out by the "angry villagers" of old. (Guess not much has changed in 60-plus years.)

It's too bad that Burton doesn't do more with this basic premise. Instead, a lot of time is wasted on sight gags involving Edward's inability to hold things (silverware, doorknobs, etc.) or his penchant for accidentally cutting up things or people. And then, when the film stops being a comedy and gets serious, it starts to show promise (as in the scene in which Ryder asks Depp to hold her, to which he replies, simply but heartbreakingly, "I can't"), only to be overtaken by a final showdown in the castle with the asshole boyfriend that seems to have been grafted on from a mindless action flick, thus undercutting much of what had come before.

Still, the overwhelming loneliness of Edward himself--even when in a yard full of fawning neighbors--and the moments of simple beauty and joy of the artist-at-work--like Ryder twirling under a fall of ice shavings created as Edward carves enormous sculptures--ably supported by a more whimsical than usual score by Danny Elfman, give this movie a depth that overcomes the gearwork of typical Hollywood filmmaking. Just as many moments in the movie are capable of making me cry as other moments are of making me cringe.

And even if "Edward Scissorhands" isn't entirely successful as a fairy tale or a satire of suburbia, Tim Burton must be given some credit for trying to hit buttons most directors don't even try to reach--and, for the most part, succeeding.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Review: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

On the day that The Blair Witch Project first opened--which was also, by chance, luck or careful planning, the day I first saw it--I was reading a collection of short stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote mostly for pulp magazines in the '20s and '30s and has, since his death in 1937, has become quite a literary cult figure and is now generally considered to be one of the finest writers of horror fiction in this century (if not of all time). Lovecraft began one of his stories by saying that "Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places." On another occasion, he wrote that "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is of the unknown."

I wonder if Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, the creative forces behind The Blair Witch Project, are familiar with the works of Lovecraft. If not, they've still managed to craft a horror film in which they follow the concepts that Lovecraft laid out decades ago: That we are drawn unwisely but inevitably to that which frightens us, and that most frightening thing the characters in this film can face is that which they neither see nor explain away.

Sanchez and Myrick have a simple story to tell. Three film students, played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael Williams, set off into the woods surrounding Burkittsville, Maryland, in 1994 with a video camera, a 16mm camera and audio equipment to film footage for a documentary about a local legend, the Blair Witch. (The legend itself isn't explained very clearly, but we gather that she's appeared a number of times over a great span of time and that her appearances were usually accompanied by violent deaths.) The three students never return, but the film footage turns up a year later. What the audience sees is the purported footage, which shows the three filmmakers getting lost in the forest and becoming increasingly agitated in daylight while being terrorized and scared nearly out of their wits in darkness.

What the audience doesn't see is anything particularly explicit. There is one scene with some mild gore, but even it is vague and yields little useful, lucid information. (This scene prompted a discussion after the film amongst our stalwart little band as to exactly which body parts we were looking at--"Was that an eyeball? Did I see an ear?"--but no firm consensus could be reached.)

In an odd way, The Blair Witch Project is a throwback to the earliest sound horror films, in which there was little or no music, and sound and shadow were left to fill the gaps. It would be much more comforting, in fact, if, when the terrified film students come tearing out their tents in the middle of the night, they were to encounter an actor buried under latex appliances or some computer-generated, wart-encrusted hag that they could fight or run away from rather than what they actually encounter: The trees and leaves that their camera lights can pick up and damn little else.

Sanchez and Myrick offer no such common comforts. There is, to be sure, humor in the film. The early scenes show the three cracking wise about their upcoming trip as they gather supplies, interview locals about the legend of the Blair Witch, and, finally, drive off into the woods. As it becomes increasingly obvious that Heather, the director of the proposed documentary, has no idea where they are and that none of them has any clue as to what forces they've managed to rouse--Animals? Ghosts? Locals intent on fucking with their heads?--a gallows humor takes over, intertwined with much bickering and bitching amongst the three. (This is probably the only point at which the fictional reality breaks down; the constant arguing during the day scenes gets more than a little tiresome, and the actual physical confrontations among the students show signs of restraint on the parts of the combatants--they don't, after all, really want to hurt their fellow improvising actors, now do they?) Nor do Sanchez, Myrick and the three actors playing the students offer us the dubious comfort of the fake scare, where a series of footsteps snapping twigs in the distance is revealed to be a deer trundling through the forest.

What the makers of The Blair Witch Project do instead is remind us that any horror they can possibly put on screen will be watery stuff compared to the steady, thickening drip of the average filmgoer's imagination--the most potent horror engine of all.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

A Bad Day in Dallas

Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas is a haunted place.

Not haunted in the traditional sense--you won't see a phantom limo speeding past the Book Depository Building, nor a shape in the sixth-floor window holding an Italian Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. But the atmosphere of the place--the weight of the history and sorrow and dreams that died that November afternoon in 1963--is oppressive.

This atmosphere isn't helped a bit by the men standing on each corner of the intersection, hawking commemorative magazines and replica newspapers like they're standing outside a sports stadium selling programs to fans--not at the site of one of the most famous and most public murders in history. And when the men see someone who is obviously a tourist--like, say, a tall, lanky guy with a camera around his neck--they descend like pidgeons on bread.

The area doesn't look that much different than what we've all seen in numerous documetaries, news programs or the infamous "Zapruder Film" (you know, the one that shows JFK's head exploding like a meat-filled balloon). There's the Book Depository Building, which now has a museum on the sixth floor and a plaque that lists Lee Harvey Oswald as the "alleged" assassin (somebody helpfully underlines the word "allegedly with chalk). There's the "grassy knoll," from which a second assassin could have taken a shot at the president. And, in the middle of the road, there's a permanent metal "x" where the third, highly fatal bullet struck the president.

Where that third bullet came from is, to this day, a matter of conjecture.

While visiting the site in 2002 with my hosts, Junebug and Praxx, and taking many photos of downtoan Dallas, Praxx told me about a theory he'd read. It goes something like this (at least as I recall it):

Oswald did indeed fire at the president from the Book Depository building, but only got off two shots--one than landed behind the limo carrying JFK, Jackie and Texas governor John Connally, shattering on the pavement and spraying fragments; and one that hit Kennedy in the back of his neck, passing through (and, in the process, doing more than enough damage to kill him without a third shot being fired) and subsequently hitting Connally, even though the bullet itself looked like it had just come straight out of the box (and hence has since been labeled "the magic bullet").

And the third bullet? The one commemorated by the metal "x" in the middle of the road? Where'd that bullet come from?

Well. See. Here's the thing. When the Secret Service guys hear the two shots and realize that the president has been hit, the limo speeds up while they draw their guns. And one of those guns discharges accidentally--right into the president's head. (Some variant accounts try to pin this on the driver, though both of his hands were right where they should have been--on the steering wheel.)

This, to my mind, makes way too much sense. Think about it: This would account not only for the odd way Kennedy's head reacts to that last shot, snapping back instead of forward (which has led to the "second shooter on the grassy knoll" theories), but also for the alleged coverup, which wasn't designed to hide the identity of the assassin (who was, in truth, Oswald), but to hide the fact that the Secret Service accidentally shot the president--not the kind of thing the government would want to publicize, even if Kennedy was already essentially dead due to the damage from Oswald's second shot. This theory also accounts for the missing evidence (unretouched autopsy photos, the remnants of the president's brain, etc.).

But this is, of course, only a theory--one of seemingly thousands swirling around the Kennedy assassination. And, when you get right down to it, none of us will ever know the truth. Oswald is dead, killed by Jack Ruby with remarkable ease on live TV. Ruby is dead, too. We'll never get to know what exactly happened, or why.

And does it matter, really? Knowing how and why wouldn't change the fact that it happened. Hell, I hadn't even been born yet when it happen (though Mom was three months pregnant with me, so I did technically exist). So why should I--or anybody else--care about what happened in Dallas 40 years ago this week?

Because the assassination of JFK and the lack of a satisfactory explanation for it peeled away another layer of innocence from the world, with many more events--Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, 9/11, Iraq--lining up to do the same.

Review: Dracula (Spanish Version) (1931)

In the silent film era, releasing movies overseas was relatively simple: you just had the title cards translated into the language of the country of choice and inserted them into the existing film. With the advent of sound, however, matters became more complicated. It was difficult enough to try and record the actors' voices in their original language, much less replacing those voices with words in a different language. And because dubbing was still such a primitive, inexact science, many studios preferred to shoot alternate versions of their films for overseas markets, using the same scripts and sets as their English-speaking counterparts, but substituting actors who could play the parts in Spanish or German or whatever.

So Universal used the same sets and script and hired Spanish-speaking actors to recreated Dracula for south-of-the-border distribution, with the Spanish version being shot at night while the English version was created during the day.

The resulting film, though, is in some ways superior to Universal's "official" Dracula. There are bits of music throughout the film, and director George Melford seems more aware of space and how to use it than Browning, moving through the sets to give the audience a sense of their vast expanse. He and his cinematographer, George Robinson (who would later work on many more Universal horror pictures), use low-key lighting effects borrowed from German Expressionist films to show Dracula rising from his coffin, which seems lit from within, and in a brief scene not present in the English version in which shafts of light seem to be emanating from the ground as the coach carrying Renfield speeds toward Castle Dracula (Stoker described a similar scene in the novel).

There's also more sexual frankness present in the Spanish version. Eva (Lupita Tovar), the equivalent of Mina in the English version, wears much more revealing lingerie than Helen Chandler did, and the connection between vampirism and sexual penetration is made quite clear in a bit of dialogue (also absent from the English version) in which Eva describes waking up from a disturbing dream and feeling like she'd lost her virginity (though I notice that this language was altered for the DVD release to read as "I felt like the life had been drained out of me"--ah, censorship, sweet censorship).

Some of the performances are better than in the Browning/Lugosi version, especially Tovar's sexy turn as Eva and Pablo Alvarez Rubio's over-the-top-and-back-again performance as Renfield. While Dwight Frye was disconcerting enough with his wide-eyed giggling, Rubio (who looks a bit like Sid Caesar) makes Frye look positively restrained by comparison, turnong Renfield into a screaming, screeching, writhing lunatic. He holds nothing back and makes Renfield's tortured soul wholly believable.

Where the Spanish version doesn't hold up is Carlos Villarias's performance as Conde Dracula. Though few would credit Bela Lugosi with a reserved acting style, he seems downright subtle compared to Villarias, who tries too damn hard to be scary, bugging out his eyes and leering ravenously. His idea of expressing anger is to clench his fists, grit his teeth and stalk off. His movements are stiff compared to Lugosi's smooth, suave ways, and he just doesn't seem that threatening. He does, however, bear a significant resemblance to Lugosi, and this allowed Universal to recycle some of the footage of Lugosi walking along the street outside Mina's/Eva's window. Even on DVD, it's hard to tell the difference between the two unless you really look frame by frame.

The Spanish version of Dracula is an interesting, good-looking alternative to the English version, and it's fun and even educational to watch the two and compare and contrast the different approaches Melford and Browning have to the same material. You might even find Melford's version to be superior.

(NOTE: This version was long considered a "lost" film because the third reel was missing, while the rest of the film was intact and in great shape; the missing reel was found in Cuba in 1989, and despite its relatively poor quality, it was better than having nothing at all.)

Friday, November 21, 2003

Review: Dracula (1931)

It's become quite fashionable to bash Universal's Dracula, American cinema's first foray into supernatural horror. (All previous American horror films featured monsters that could be explained away with mad scientists, lunatics, greedy schemers or all of the above.) And there's plenty to criticize here. The screenplay is based not on Bram Stoker's novel, but on a Broadway play based on the novel. Consequently, many scenes seem stage-bound and lack energy, and Tod Browning's direction does little to enliven the proceedings. His actors all stand on their marks, throwing lines of dialogue at one another that endlessly describe off-screen action without giving us much on-screen juice to care about, while his camera rarely moves (A crime, considering that his cinematographer was the gifted Karl Freund, who would provide glimpses of what could have been with his own directorial efforts, The Mummy and Mad Love), taking little advantage of the often enormous, expensive, highly detailed sets.

There are problems amongst the actors as well: Helen Chandler makes for an oddly listless Mina (being drained of blood is no excuse for being boring, dear girl), while David Manners plays the first of his many Useless Boyfriend roles. (In later years, Manners would admit that he thought the film was "a stinker.") And the lack of any kind of musical score makes Dracula seem at least twice as long as it really is.

With all of that said, there is still much to praise in Dracula as well. The opening scenes in Transylvania remain as moody and evocative as they were when Dracula was first released, mainly due to the efforts of Freund. (Why he was unable to work this magic on the rest of the film remains a mystery.) Bela Lugosi became a superstar based on his rich, energetic, sensual performance as the immortal vampire who comes to England in search of new blood. His exotic accent and measured delivery (which issued forth because he spoke little English and memorized his dialogue phonetically) only enhance the otherworldly quality of his performance. Edward Van Sloan is Lugosi's equal as Van Helsing, the man of science who nonetheless believes in the corrupting power of the supernatural. The scenes between Lugosi and Van Sloan stand well above much of the rest of the movie, and the two actors play well off of one another. (They should: each played his respective part from Dracula on Broadway as well.) And Dwight Frye gives a bug-eyed, toothy-grinned, thoroughly demented performance as the insane realtor Renfield.

Credit must also be given to studio head Carl Laemmle Sr., who, despite his misgivings, gave the go-ahead for this project to be produced by his son, Carl, Jr. It was a substantial risk for Universal to make a movie in which you couldn't come up with a reasonable, rational explanation for the goings-on. There had, in fact, only been one American vampire movie before: the long-lost London After Midnight, also directed by Browning and starring Lon Chaney as a razor-toothed nightmare who turned out to just be a police inspector in disguise. (Chaney has long been rumored to have been Universal's first choice to play Dracula--even though he was under contract to MGM at the time.) To offer a supernatural answer to what was happening simply hadn't been done in American films before, and the consequences could have been catastrophic for the studio or, at the very least, for the careers of the elder and junior Laemmles. Instead, Dracula was a smash hit, Lugosi a certified matinee idol, monster movies a proven commodity.

Dracula may not have aged as well as the horror films Universal would subsequently produce, such as Frankenstein, The Mummy or The Invisible Man, but it served its purpose: it opened the coffin lid and let all the crawling and shambling and howling things come out to play with our minds and hearts. And for that, at the very least, Universal's Dracula must be given its due.

NOTE: Universal recently re-released Dracula with a musical score written by noted composer Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. While such retrofitting would ordinarily be frowned upon, this move seemed like a natural. After all, the film had been criticized for decades because of its lack of a score, and adding one well after the fact seemed not only logical, but kind. The music does, indeed, help Dracula, for the most part, heightening mood in scenes that had otherwise seemed merely dull while enhancing scenes that were already intense.

Occasionally, though, Glass falters, adding music to scenes that would have been better off silent or, at the very least, subdued; his notes sometimes step on dialogue that would have been better left to stand on its own. Still, overall, the experiment was a success, and purists who find such a concept repulsive can, should they choose, ignore it altogether: the DVD edition of Dracula includes both the newly scored version and the original scoreless one.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Review: Maniac (1934)

You have to see this one to believe it.

Well...actually, even after you see it, you still might not believe it.

Nutty Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter) has come up with a way to revive the recently dead. He wants to steal the body of a suicide victim from the morgue because she's "perfect" for his experiments. (Why somebody who wants to be dead qualifies as "perfect" for being brought back to life is beyond me. Guess I'm just not mad-scientist material after all.) He tells his assistant, former actor Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) his plans, to which Maxwell replied, "It's horrible, I tell you--working with the dead, trying to bring back life. It's not natural. You with your weird ideas. Haven't I stayed here nursing dying dogs?" The doctor's response to this bit of overacting is precious: "Once a ham, always a ham!" (Tell it, brother, tell it!)

Meirschultz and Maxwell (disguised as the coroner) sneak into the morgue, bring the young lady back to life and sneak her out again. But is the doc satisfied? Nope. He wants to bring back someone with "a shattered heart" and do a little Frankenstein number with a beating heart he has in a jar on the laboratory table. He hands Maxwell a revolver and urges his to commit suicide, promising to bring him right back.

Maxwell, in a stunning display of good sense, plugs Dr. Meirschultz instead.

Unfortunately for Maxwell, a patient of Dr. Meirschultz's needs immediate care--the patient's wife tells Maxwell that her husband thinks he's "the orangutan killer" in Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue"--and Maxwell has to do an impromptu impersonation of the late mad scientist. Things go down hill here from there.

The rest of the movie skids all over the road. There's nudity (when "the orangutan killer" decides to undress and strangle the revived suicide victim), catfights (literal), more catfights (figurative, when two women go at each other with hypodermic needles in a cellar) and enough bad acting to fill two or three Ed Woods movies. Some of the actors munch on the scenery like hogs at a trough, while others are obviously reading cue cards (and at least one is blind, stinking drunk). Maxwell's rapidly exploding madness is illustrated by lifted scenes from Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (an especially bizarre silent movie), while helpful title cards explain the various stages of clinical dementia he's going through.

The plot even features a partial lift from Poe's "The Black Cat" (damn, poor Edgar can't get a break, can he?) and a more-than-kinda gross scene where Maxwell appears to pop out a cat's eye and eat it like an oyster. (I've watched this scene frame by frame on DVD--yes, I own Maniac on DVD...stop looking at me like that!--but I can't tell whether the cat's eye is real or not. If I had to guess, though, I'd vote for "not" just because of the marked lack of blood involved.)

Anybody who claims Plan Nine from Outer Space is the worst movie ever made has obviously never checked out this contender.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Review: The Brainiac (1961)

I know most Mexican horror films from the '50s and '60s are pretty bloody weird, but The Brainiac has got to top them all.

The Baron Vitelius of Artera (played by the producer, Abel Salazar) is put before the "Inquisition of New Spain" in 1661 for worshipping Satan, enticing women into evil, kicking puppies, stealing candy from babies, etc. Only one friend speaks up for him, and that dude gets 200 lashes for his trouble. (No wonder everybody else kept his mouth shut.) The tribunal decides to burn the baron at the stake, and he takes this verdict very well: He says something about not wanting to die with chains on and then makes them vanish! (But...if the baron has that kind of power, why does he let the Inquisition burn him to death?)

As the baron is being toasted like a marshmallow, a comet passes overhead. He then vows to return when the comet does in 300 years (how does he know that that's when the comet will return?) and wipe out the descendants of the Inquisition tribunal. (Why not just wipe out the tribunal now and eliminate the possibility of descendants?)

Flash forward 300 years to modern Mexico, where a young couple (she's a curvy descendant of one of the inquisitors; he's the descendant of the one friend who spoke up for the baron) has a strong interest in astronomy. They visit their local observatory, where the head guy is very excited about this comet that's supposed to appear--a comet not seen in 300 years (uh oh). Sure enough, the comet returns and spits out a chunk of comet containing--guess who?--the baron.

Only he doesn't look a thing like the baron. When an unfortunate passer-by stumbles across the chunk of comet, it turns into this freaky monster with a hairy, pulsating head, furry lobster-like claws and an enormous forked tongue it uses to suck the poor guy's brains out. He then steals his victim's clothing and runs into the lovely young couple, who have come out to find the chunk of comet.

And it just gets stranger, kids. The revived baron throws a party and invites all of the descendants (including the lovely young couple). He then starts knocking them off one or two at a time, always coming over to visit them, turning into the hairy freak with the enormous tongue and trying to make it all look like an accident, even though the local cops notice the two holes that appear to be drilled in each of the victim's skulls. The baron collects the brains in a bowl and eats them with a spoon! And just as he's about to knock off the lovely young couple, the cops show up--with flamethrowers! (Now that's a SWAT team!)

All of this in just over an hour. Whew.

The Brainiac is one of those movies that will have you saying "What the fuck?" over and over again. Whether or not this constitutes an enjoyable movie-watching experience is up to the individual viewer. Me? I'm ready for another heapin' helpin' of brains in a bowl right now...

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Review: The Man Who Laughs (1928)

Universal's The Man Who Laughs routinely gets lumped into the horror category. This confusion is understandable, though. It's directed by Pau Leni, who had helmed the first film version of The Cat and the Canary for the studio the year before. It stars German actor Conrad Veidt, known on both sides of the Atlantic for his performances in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Waxworks (also directed by Leni) and a number of other German Expressionist-influenced nightmares. Co-starring as Veidt's romantic interest is Mary Philbin, who had previously been menaced by Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera. The screenplay is an adaptation of a story by Victor Hugo, the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an earlier Universal smash also starring Chaney (who would have starred in this project, had he not signed a contract with MGM instead). Brandon Hurst, the villainous priest in Hunchback, is here as well, as a devious court jester. And Veidt's admittedly creepy makeup job--a wide, sickly grin said to have been at least partial inspiration for Batman's main nemesis, the Joker--was done by Jack Pierce, who would later create some of the great monster makeups in the history of cinema, including the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy and the Wolf Man.

But as much as Universal wanted The Man Who Laughs to look like a horror film, it's just not. It's a historical melodrama about Gwynplaine (Veidt) who, as a child, is subjected to cruel surgery that carves his face into a enormous, permanent smile by no less than King James II as a further torment to Gwynplaine's family--as if torturing and executing his father, also played by Veidt, on trumped-up treason charges weren't enough. Gwynplaine survives and even saves a little blind girl in a blizzard. She grows up to be Philbin, beautiful and oblivious to the fact that Gwynplaine, now a renowned clown in a travelling show, loves her deeply and truly.

It's later discovered that poor, defaced (almost literally) Gwynplaine is, in fact, nobility. And an opportunistic duchess (Olga Baclanova, who would later play a similarly villainous role in Freaks) tries to seduce the grinning clown--at one point, looking downright sexually excited while watching Gwynplaine's act--only to be rejected. All sorts of complications ensue, like chases, escapes, misunderstandings, duels and, eventually, a tearful reunion as a ship is about to sail away with a true love's heart aboard.

In other words, damn near everything but horror.

The Man Who Laughs is a consistently good-looking movie--Universal certainly dropped some cash on the elaborate sets and costumes--and the performances are all worthy, especially from Veidt who, like Chaney before him, must give an effective performance while denied facial expression due to restrictive makeup. But unlike Chaney's characters, who inspired simultaneous pity and fear, Veidt's Gwynplaine suffers so grievously from the outset that our sympathies are immediately with him; we're never afraid of him for even a moment, despite his gruesome appearance. We want his suffering to end. We want the poor bastard to win, for a change.

Thus, the expectations set up by the pedigree of this movie--the stars, the director, the source material and the makeup--are never met, regardless of the relatively high quality of the production. The Man Who Laughs certainly isn't a bad movie by any means--it is, in actuality, a fine historical melodrama. But after years of seeing appetizing stills in various monster magazines and reference books, it's hard not to find it to be a disappointing one. So enjoy The Man Who Laughs for what it is--not what we've always been told it should be.

Monday, November 17, 2003

Review: Urban Legend (1998)

You know, it actually surprises me that it took so long for somebody to make a mad slasher film in which the murders are based around popular urban legends. After all, a number of slasher films, good (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street) and bad (Friday the 13th, Hell Night), have been built around the idea of a place where multiple murders have already taken place--the stuff urban legends are formed from.

It's just too bad that, once somebody got around to making such a movie, it had to be such a tiresome affair as Urban Legend, the latest entry in the self-referential, hip slasher movie trend started by the Scream movies and continued by I Know What You Did Last Summer, which dictates that a cast of young, beautiful people--at least one of whom must belong to the cast of either Dawson's Creek or Party of Five--are picked off one by one until the brightest, most resilient of the bunch unmasks the killer (or killers, as the case may be).

The cast of Urbam Legend is an unusually comely one, even by the high standards set for this subgenre: Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson, Tara Reid and Natashia Wagner Gregson are among the gorgeous potential victims, while character actors John Neville (the "well-manicured man" from The X-Files) and Robert Englund (Freddy!) are on hand to act as suspects.

A killer is loose on the campus of a New England college, knocking off coeds and frat boys using various urban myths, like the "body scraping the car roof" story or the "killer calling from the upstairs phone" legend. This setup has its moments, most of them belonging to Witt, who comes to believe all of the murders are somehow connected to a shameful secret from her past. She's smart, resourceful, determined...and just as doomed to suffer as anybody else in this movie.

Some of the deaths are pretty gruesome--murder isn't pretty, kids--and most of them are entirely pointless: if the killer wants revenge on Alicia Witt's character, why not just go right after HER instead of depopulating the student body? Why knock of characters who barely KNOW Alicia? I must give credit where it's due, though: it took me a while to figure out exactly who the killer was, and there were some cute in jokes, like when Joshua Jackson starts his car and the theme from his TV show, Dawson's Creek, comes blaring out of the stereo (see, I told you at least one DC cast member had to in here somewhere).

Maybe I've just seen too many of these purportedly hip-and-funny-yet-scary ventures. Maybe I've just gotten tired of seeing talented young actors looking scared and dying horribly. Maybe I've come to expect more from the subgenre and find this to be little more than connect-the-dots filmmaking. Whatever the specific cause, Urbam Legend ultimately depressed me with its body count and lack of invention, despite an inventive, promising premise that it never does much with.

Excuse me now...I've got a taste for Pop Rocks and Pepsi....

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Review: Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)

Bubba Ho-Tep is one of those movies that you decide to see not on the basis of reviews like this one, but depending rather on your immediate reaction to a brief description of the plot, like this:

An elderly man claiming to be Elvis fights a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy in an old-folks home in East Texas with the help of a black man who insists he's JFK.

Now. How did you feel about that description? Did you scratch your head and say, "...the hell?" If so, you should probably stop reading this review right now--Bubba Ho-Tep isn't for you.

If, on the other hand, you smiled broadly and said, "Hot damn tamale, baby!" then read on--Bubba Ho-Tep may be just what you've been looking for.

Bruce Campbell plays The King, who switches places with a particularly good Elvis impersonator named Sebastian Haff (also Campbell). Unfortunately, Haff has "a bad ticker" and dies on the throne at Graceland. Meanwhile, the real Elvis carries on, impersonating the impersonator until he throws out one of his swiveling hips in concert and lands in a nursing home, where, 20 years later, he lies in bed, gets around with a walker, worries that the bump on the end of his, er, royal staff is cancer, and basically waits to die. His nurse (Ella Joyce) is condescending at best and mocking at worst, and doesn't believe The King's story (the only documentation of the switch having been burned up in a "barbecue accident").

The only one at the nursing home who even halfway believes Elvis's story is Jack Kennedy (Ossie Davis), who may be operating under delusions of his own: he thinks he's JFK, despite (as Elvis helpfully points out) the fact that he's black--Jack claims his skin was dyed as part of the vast conspiracy to remove him from the presidency.

Jack is quite the conspiracy theorist--his walls are covered with photos of suspects in the Kennedy assassination--but both he and Elvis notice that something is very wrong at the nursing home. Residents are dying at a higher-than-usual rate, and scarabs crawl the walls and floors at night. Elvis is doubtful at first, but interested--more interested than he's been in anything for years. He and Jack investigate and, unlikely as it might seem, the culprit is a mummy who's sucking up the souls out of the old folks one at a time (and out of whatever orifice is handy--ew), so the souls won't go on to their final reward--and it's up to The King and The President to stop him.

The mummy himself is a cheeky devil, scrawling hieroglyphics on the bathroom walls (Jack translates them as "Cleopatra does the nasty"), wearing a wide-brim black hat and cursing out Elvis--in animated subtitles, no less. But how did he get to East Texas? How can he be defeated? What will set those souls free?

Bubba Ho-Tep is based on a story by horror/comic book writer Joe Lansdale and adapted by Don Coscarelli, writer/director of the Phantasm movies. Each likes a side of dark humor with their horror, so they're a great fit for each other, and Coscarelli has fun pitting the ancient terror against the octagenarians despite the obvious budget limitations (the scarabs look especially fake, and the mummy is best seen at a distance so his rubbery appliances don't look too phony).

With the comedy and monsters, though, there's a remarkable amount of respect and affection for both Elvis and JFK. And that's the main problem with Bubba Ho-Tep--it's so respectful of its subjects that neither the horror nor the humor to take hold properly. It's hard to laugh as Elvis muses about what he might have been and how he regrets never getting to know his daughter, Lisa Marie, the way he wanted to. Neither Elvis nor Jack display any superpowers--Elvis doesn't get back his karate moves, and Jack doesn't fly around in his wheelchair. That's as it should be, I suppose--that's pretty much how they'd move and act had they actually lived--but it might have been a better time for everybody involved--especially the audience--if a lighter touch had been applied throughout.

Bruce Campbell has always been a fine physical comedic actor, as amply displayed in the three Evil Dead movies, and those abilities serve him well here--he convincingly moves like an old man about ready to give up on life until he finds he has one last chance for self-respect, if not a graceful exit. (Campbell is less successful mimicking the younger Elvis's stage moves, but those scenes are brief.) Davis has more fun with Jack, maybe because his assertion of being the former president is more obviously absurd (though Jack does have a suspicious, large scar on the back of his head...could he be...?). He and Campbell have nice chemistry, and their scenes together are the reason to see Bubba Ho-Tep--they generate enough laughs and sympathy to make the whole movie worthwhile, especially in their preparations for the final showdown with the soul-sucker. Together, Campbell and Davis seem to be having some fun.

Bubba Ho-Tep could have done with more of that spirit. There's fun to be had as it is, for what it is--a comedy/drama/creature feature--but it could have been a whole lot more.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Review: Samson vs. the Vampire Women (1961)

In the late '50s and early '60s, American producer K. Gordon Murray imported, dubbed and re-edited numerous horror films from Mexico, some of which feature a popular wrestler named El Santo ("The Saint"). El Santo's face was never seen, hidden beneath a silver mask, and he had (and has) an enormous cult following, with many appearances on TV and in movies and comic books. For the American market, though, El Santo was renamed Samson (even though, in one scene at a wrestling ring, the crowd can clearly be heard chanting "SANTO! SANTO! SANTO!").

In this movie, El, Samson fights against the stunningly beautiful vampire women, whose queen is seeking a successor in the daughter of a professor. The professor dials up his videophone(!) and tries to call Samson, but our hero isn't working in his crime lab (professional wrestlers have crime labs?), so the professor leaves a message. Yes, Samson has an answering machine. (Wonder what his message is like..."Hello. You have reached the Samson residence. I'm out fighting crime right now, but if you leave your name and number and state the nature of your emergency at the sound of the beep, I'll get back to you as I can. Thank you and have a pleasant day.") Samson shows up later to confer with the professor, then goes off to battle the vampire women, who have resurrected some hunky male vampires for Samson to tangle with. (Who knew half-nelsons were so effective against the living dead?)

One of the male vampires takes the place of Samson's opponent at the evening wrestling match and proceeds to kick our hero's ass. The vampire/wrestler even tries to tear Samson's mask off! The fiend! When the vampire/wrestler's own mask is finally removed, he's turned into a werewolf! The crowd runs in terror and, when they can't get out one way, they run in the opposite direction! When the werewolf is surrounded by Samson and the police, he turns into a bat! (I'm using way the hell too many exclamation points, aren't I?)

Of course, Samson triumphs in the end, burning the vampire women (and men) before driving off in his silver sports car (to match his mask and cape?), only to return to fight evil again another day. Like most Mexican horror films of the period, this one looks like a Universal picture from the '40s, with nice gothic sets, decent cinematography and respectable model work. But the sheer craziness of the plot is overwhelming, and the dubbed voices (most of whom sound like radio announcers) add to the hilarity.

All in all, Samson vs. the Vampire Women is wild fun, as are most of the El Santo movies, many of which are now available on DVD--some in their original language and widescreen!

Friday, November 14, 2003

Review: Ghost Story (1981)

Most critics of Ghost Story bitch at length about the fact that the movie so severely condenses and truncates the story taken from Peter Straub's best-selling novel that it's nearly unrecognizable. But what's so new and different about this complaint? Hasn't just about every novel that's been adapted for the big screen suffered in the process? (Jaws is the only example that leaps to mind that was actually better as a movie than it was as a novel.) And while I've yet to read Straub's 600-plus page book (it's somewhere in my closet, I think, gathering dust alongside my copies of The Stand and The Shining), I'm sure it lost quite a bit when shoe-horned into a film that runs under two hours. So it's probably more fair to pretend that one has nothing to do with the other and judge each on its own merits (or demerits, as the case may be). And since I haven't read the book, I can only render semi-intelligent opinions on the movie.

Director John Irvin very wisely has John Houseman open the film by telling a ghost story before a roaring fireplace much the same way John Carpenter had Houseman use his wonderfully authoritative voice at the very beginning of The Fog just a couple of years earlier. Houseman is one of four members of the oddly-named Chowder Society--the other members are played by Hollywood legends Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.--who gather regularly to tell spooky stories to one another. The members also happen to share a deep, dark secret involving the death of a young woman (Alice Krieg) some 50 years earlier.

But as all we horror film fans know, deep, dark secrets have a way of crawling out into the light and affecting current events. And so when the son (Craig Wasson) of one of the members of the Chowder Society dies under mysterious circumstances, it's up to his younger brother (also played by Wasson--economical casting) to dig up the past and find out the truth. It turns out that the ghost of the young woman has returned, seeking revenge and enlisting the aid of a couple of mental hospital escapees.

Irvin sets this story up with much mood and restraint, recalling the style of the horror films Val Lewton produced at RKO in the 1940s. The violence is minimal, and only the occasional rotting corpse clearly marks this a horror film at all. In fact, the only reason Ghost Story got an R rating was for nudity, including a brief frontal shot of Wasson and abundant coverage of Krieg's lithe frame. Not that I'm objecting to seeing Alice Krieg naked--even years later, as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact (and a reprise of that role in the final episode of Star Trek: Voyager), she had the capacity to set one's libido racing. It's just that the nudity here seems thrown in to make the whole thing seem modern and bad-ass when it's really a much more traditional horror film than it wants to admit. Even the few special effects present are restrained, thanks to the abundant talents of Universal Studios veteran Albert Whitlock, who worked on quite a few Hitchcock pictures.

In lieu of naked bodies, I'd much rather have had even a half-assed explanation as to why the wraith waits so damn long to see revenge on the men responsible for her death. There have been plenty of other movies with a similar theme, including the aforementioned The Fog, in which the vengeful sailors rise on the 100th anniversary of their deaths, and the much older, low budget Strangler of the Swamp, in which an unjustly hanged man causes the strangulation deaths of those responsible for his lynching as well as their offspring.

That latter theme is touched on in Ghost Story as well, with Krieg seducing Wasson (as the younger brother) before getting engaged to and killing the older brother. But why? Why not tear after the members of the Chowder Society themselves some time before they become octogenarians? Why use escaped mental patients to help her? Maybe all of this was explained in the novel. I'll have to read it sometime and find out.

Despite its flaws, Ghost Story works on a number of levels. It displays great respect for a ghost story well told (even if it doesn't tell its own story as well as it could have), and it pays tribute to the golden age of Hollywood by stocking the movie with stars from that era. Astaire, in particular, acquits himself well in his last big screen role (he appeared in at least one TV movie, The Man in the Santa Claus Suit, before his death in 1987) and is ably assisted by Patricia Neal as his wife.

Most of all, Ghost Story is a throwback to a simpler time in moviemaking, when shadows and well-chosen words meant a great deal more than special effects, creative cursing and gore. When enjoyed on that level-taken on its own terms and embraced despite its shortcomings--Ghost Story is a stately, satisfying thriller, regardless of how slight its resemblance to the source material that spawned it may be.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Review: Village of the Giants (1966)

Only in the fevered mind of Bert I. Gordon, the writer/director of such cinematic low points as Beginning of the End, Earth vs. the Spider and the Colossal Man movies, could a twisted, tangled mess of a movie like Village of the Giants, in which "teenagers" (most of whom look like they've moved on to their post-graduate studies) grow to enormous size and terrorize a small town by taking over a theater, dancing to rock music and swinging frightened dudes from their now-enormous breasts, qualify as being "based on 'Food of the Gods' by H.G. Wells"! (That sound you now hear is Mr. Wells spinning in his grave.)

Village of the Giants manages to touch on more elements of bad drive-in filmmaking than just about any other movie I've ever seen. There's the whole good-teens-vs.-bad-teens thing left over from the Frankie and Annette beach movies, with the good kids here led by Tommy Kirk (star of many Disney flicks and looking way too old here), Johnny Crawford (Chuck Conner's son on The Rifleman and the lucky dope who gets to swing from the aforementioned huge boobs) and Ronnie Howard (Opie!) as Genius, a tot with a knack for science who accidentally comes up with a formula to make things grow (a plot device that Bert I. Gordon found fascinating, for whatever reason--wouldn't Freud have just adored Bert?).

We get to see a cat and a dog grow to mammoth proportions before the "goo" is fed to two ducks, who later turn up at a club and "dance" (with more than a little help from some very visible strings). The bad teens, headed up by Beau Bridges (Lloyd's son and Jeff's brother) and Tim Rooney (Mickey's kid), see the ducks as ample opportunity to make quick bucks and set about attempting to seduce the good kids over to the dark side.

(How do we know the bad kids are bad? The boys all wear sneers, the girls wear little else and all of them dance and mud-wrestle right after the opening credits. EVIL!)

The bad kids get hold of the "goo," grow to about 30 feet tall and take over the town, imposing rules on the grownups and taking away their guns. Bert no doubt believed that this was though-provoking commentary on the state of relations between teens and adults, and in competent hands it might have been. But bad acting, consistently inconsistent special effects and weak writing keep getting in the way of the social commentary. After all, these kids are now 30 feet tall and could easily smash the good kids like cockroaches.

So what do they do? Just stand around and talk (and, yeah, dance in slow motion) while the good kids plot, plan and eventually figure out a way to cut the bad kids back down to size.

Village of the Giants definitely lands firmly in the "so awful it's awesome" category, but I'm compelled to give credit where it's due: the opening theme song, repeated later in the film for slow-motion dancing purposes, is one of my all-time favorite instrumentals. (No, I'm not kidding.)

All this AND Toni Basil! How can you lose?

(NOTE: Bert I. wasn't quite done desecrating the works of H.G. Wells--he later made ANOTHER movie based on 'Food of the Gods,'" this time using the actual title. The results weren't that much better.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Review: Creepshow (1982)

Director George Romero and novelist Stephen King obviously have affection for (and were heavily influenced in their career choices by) the horror comics of the 1950s, most particularly those produced by EC Comics. These stories featured gruesome, graphic artwork and well-written, scary stories that often had "twist" endings.

Creepshow is their tribute to those comics, and Romero gets the look of the movie just about right, with tilted camera angles and bright primary colors. He even employs comic strip borders in many scenes and brought on EC veteran Jack Kamen to draw the comic book seen between stories.

It's too bad the stories themselves can't match the dead-on tone of the visuals. King's first attempt at writing directly for the screen falls short in the same way that many of EC's imitators did: he can mimic the style, but not the substance. Most anthology horror films are uneven, with some stories holding up better than others, but few swing so wildly in quality than Creepshow does.

The framing story features a little boy who gets slapped around by his beer-swilling dad (Tom Adkins) because the kid likes horror comics. Dad throws away his son's copy of the first issue of Creepshow ; the pages turn, and we get to see five stories.

FATHER'S DAY. A daughter whacks her elderly, mean-spirited father (literally, with a marble ashtray) on the title occasion, denying him his cake. She then visits his grave every year, swilling Jim Beam straight out of the bottle while cursing dear old dad ("You called me a bitch!"). Seven years after his murder, Dad crawls out of his grave and returns the favor, then sets about knocking off other members of his family, including a grandson-in-law he's never even met (Ed Harris).

The story lacks any particular logic-a failing of many stories attempting to duplicate EC's success--and makes for a really weak start to the movie. I mean, why does Dad wait seven years to go zombie on the family? Once he's killed his killer, why does he go on killing? Why does he kill Harris, when he's never met the boy? And why DOESN'T he kill the snotty rich kids? This story just annoyed me. But it could have been worse...

THE LONELY DEATH OF JORDY VERRIL. As bad as that first story was, it's fucking Shakespeare compared to the second one, which stars King himself as a rube who finds a meteor, has visions about making a fortune on it, cracks it open accidentally, gets the green glowing stuff inside ("Meteor shit!") on his fingers and starts turning into a plant. Most of this is played for broad comedy, with King's performance consisting entirely of wide-eyed mugging, but it ends on a serious note striving for pity for this dumbass. Sorry. Not buying it. This is an ego-stroke for King and nothing more. But even an ego-stroke can be at least a little fun for the audience--can't it?

SOMETHING TO TIDE YOU OVER. Easily the best story of the bunch, maybe because it comes the closest to the style of the EC stories, which often featured James M. Cain-style lovers' triangles. Leslie Nielsen gives a surprisingly nasty performance as a husband who gets revenge on his cheating wife (Gaylen Ross, from Romero's zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead) and her boyfriend (Ted Dansen) by burying them in the sand up to their necks at his private beach and watches the tide come in. Of course, they don't stay dead for long, returning to haunt Nielsen as seaweed-draped walking corpses. (Their faces are all wrinkled and distorted, but their hands seem to have no makeup at all; what, did makeup artist Tom Savini run out of Latex?)

THE CRATE. The goriest story. A janitor at a college tells one of the professors (Fritz Weaver) about this crate he's found under the stairs. (Note to everyone in horror films: if you find anything under the stairs, no matter how interesting it looks, LEAVE THE SHIT ALONE!) It's from an Arctic expedition in 1834, but there seems to be something moving around inside...something with very sharp teeth and bright yellow eyes. The prof tells another prof (Hal Holbrook), who would dearly love to ditch his shrewish, boozy floozy of a wife (Adrienne Barbeau). So he takes her down to see the thing under the stairs, and....

This story still works, despite the thunderous lack of logic--just how does this creature stay alive for 148 years--because of the performances of all involved, especially Holbrook, whose chilly, opportunistic approach to the horrible find (he calmly mops up the blood spilled by previous victims so his wife won't suspect a thing as he leads her to slaughter) oddly makes him hissable and sympathetic at the same time. And the only way that works is if we feel sorry for him because he's married to Barbeau, who makes her character pretty loathsome.

THEY'RE CREEPING UP ON YOU. A one-man show, essentially, with E.G. Marshall as a truly repugnant millionaire who delights in his business triumphs--even when they end in suicide for those he conquers--but has a fear of germs in general and bugs in particular. So, of course, his spotless apartment gets overrun with millions of cockroaches, leading to a (literally) explosive conclusion.

Marshall is perfect as a man we instantly hate, and the situation carries the irony that EC relished so. But the special effects fail in the end, with roaches erupting from an obvious dummy head. Still, a strong end story to wash away the bile of the first two.

Oh. And the kid who got smacked by Dad to start the movie gets his revenge in a most pointed way--via a voodoo doll.

There's more than a bit of fun to be had with some of the stories in Creepshow. And with DVD technology and a nimble finger, you can skip the first two stories and get right to the good stuff.

(NOTE: There never was a Creepshow comic book, although there was an official movie adaptation featuring, scary artwork by horror comics legend Berni Wrightson.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Review: Succubus (1967)

A few years ago, not long before a local UHF station became an affiliate of an international Spanish language network, I stumbled bleary-eyed across an intensely obscure horror film under the title of Among the Living Dead. It had obviously been edited to bits-it ran about an hour-and was almost completely incomprehensible. It did, however, have an interesting basic premise: the heroine of the story turns out to have been a mental patient, and therefore we can't be sure how much of the movie actually takes place in the "real" world and how much takes place in her head. And the ending makes it clear that the young woman is in a nightmare and will never know whether she's still asleep or, far worse, wide awake.

The director of that movie was one Jesus "Jesse" Franco, who apparently specialized in such pseudo-artsy horror films, which had scenes of sex and gore with philosophical, elliptical conversations draped between.

Succubus is along the same lines. Maybe they gave it that title hoping moviegoers worldwide would assume that it was a porno flick. No such luck, puppies. This is the story of a beautiful young woman (Janine Reynaud) who stars in a bizarre nightclub act in Lisbon in which she teases and tortures a young couple before taking all her clothes off and killing them. You know, the usual night out on the town.

The problem is that the young woman in question is slowly but surely losing her marbles, and the suture-thin line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly hard to find. She's seeing a psychiatrist and plays word games with him; during one of these, the doctors asks her about how she feels about specific classic monsters, and Franco pans his camera across the faces of some very badly painted Aurora monster models.

If that sounds laughable to you, then you've come upon the problem with Succubus: Franco wants so badly for us to take his artful, erotic nightmare so seriously that he throws in stuff that either makes viewers shake their heads or bust a gut. Unfortunately, there's a lot more of the former than the latter. Example: our loony leading lady brings another beautiful young woman back to her place-which just happens to be a castle--and they've just begun to kiss on the bed when we see that the blonde she's brought home is really a mannequin even though it really isn't and she tries to bash her/its head in and the blonde runs away only to be cornered by other mannequins moving toward her and then the actress picks up a knife and....

See what I mean? It's not really funny and not really deep--it's just weird.

At least there's a respectable amount of eye candy: Janine Reynaud is a truly beautiful redhead, and some of the men are pretty as well--most particularly a bartender who serves his rounds while entirely naked (his naughty bits are hidden by a strategically placed top hat, though).

Succubus is worth a look only if you're in a tolerant mood or just up for something decidedly goofy--or both.

(By the way: a succubus, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is "a female evil spirit or demon thought in medieval times to descend upon and have sexual intercourse with sleeping men." Who says horror films aren't educational?)

Monday, November 10, 2003

Review: The Stepfather (1987)

And you thought wicked stepmothers were bad news? They've got nothing on Jerry Blake (Terry O'Quinn), who wants nothing more than the "perfect American family" with his new wife, Susan (Shelley Hack), and her daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen). But Jerry has a way of becoming disillusioned and disappointed with those he's entrusted with his faith in the existence of that "perfect family."

And how does Jerry express his disappointment? Well, with his previous family, back when he called himself Henry Morrison, he took a sharp implement or two and chopped them to bits.

Sounds like a yet another serial killer flick, doesn't it? Well, you're right. That's just what The Stepfather is. But this one is a bit brighter than usual for most of its length, with characters who aren't entirely stupid, like Stephanie, who senses almost immediately that Jerry isn't exactly the all-American, upstanding guy he presents himself as. Then there's Stephanie's counselor (Charles Layner), who trusts her instincts and decides to check the stepdad out--only to get his head bashed in with a 2x4. And then there's the brother of Jerry's previous wife (Stephen Shellen), who just won't accept that the man he knows as Henry seems to have vanished off the face of the planet.

I'm not saying this is a great movie. It isn't. It starts with some rather nasty gore, showing us what's left of Henry's family before he goes off to become Jerry. Ordinarily, that would piss me off to the max. But knowing from the get-go that Henry/Jerry is a homicidal maniac adds substantial creepiness to everything he says or does throughout the movie, so that even a relatively innocent statement, like when Jerry suggests to Stephanie that they "bury the hatchet," makes your skin crawl up the wall.

Unfortunately, Jerry starts saying more and more stuff like that until, by the time we get to the straight-off-the-horror-film-assembly-line ending, in which characters who'd been smart for the whole movie start doing really, really stupid things (like walking into a house where you KNOW a serial killer lives without your gun drawn, or running up to the attic when running down and out of the freakin' house might be a better plan), Jerry's throwing off one-liners like a domestic Freddy Krueger.

And that's not just a shame, but a damn shame. Until that autopilot ending, director Joseph Rubin and screenwriter Donald Westlake give us sharp characters, well played by all involved--especially Schoelen (who comes off like a proto-Winona Ryder) and yes, even Shelley Hack. But it's Terry O'Quinn who steals the whole bloody show here, giving one of the most whacked-out performances in one long fucking time. He manages to bring menace even to the most benign scenes-like hosting a backyard party or building a birdhouse--where you can see that Jerry is perpetually concerned about having his past dug up. And when Jerry rushes down to his basement workshop, where his rage bubbles up to the surface and he starts trembling, throwing things around and mumbling uncontrollably, he presents one of the most genuinely freaky and frightening psychos ever put on screen--all the more creepy because he seems so "normal" most of the time.

If you catch The Stepfather blinking past you while you work the remote on a late Saturday night, stop and watch for Terry O'Quinn--just dial your expectations down a bit so that you're not too badly disappointed by the last ten minutes of what is otherwise a standout little slasher flick.

(NOTE: Like damn near every other hit movie in this surely cursed genre, "The Stepfather" generated a couple of sequels, both reportedly decidedly inferior to the original. But isn't that usually the way?)

Sunday, November 9, 2003

Review: Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1960/1964)

Face of the Screaming Werewolf, which stars Lon Chaney Jr. as a mummy who turns into the Wolf Man (trust me, I'll try to explain later), has one of the most convoluted histories--and thus, one of the most confusing plots--I've ever seen.

Apparently, it started out as a south-of-the-border horror comedy called La Casa del Terror, with Mexican comedian Tin Tan as a night watchman in a wax museum. Then American producer/director Jerry Warren bought the rights to it, edited out most of Tin Tan's scenes and shot bridging scenes to explain what was going on. To further confuse matters, Warren also edited in scenes from one of the popular Aztec Mummy movies, perhaps to pad out the film's running time to a full hour.

But wait. It gets worse. In Nightmare of Ecstasy, Rudolph Grey's biography of legendary schlock director Ed Wood, film editor "Lucky" Brown recalls that Wood and cinematographer ÒBig BillÓ Thompson shot some footage of Chaney in full Wolf Man makeup climbing the outside of a building. The idea, apparently, was to raise cash for a film project. That project never came to be--or did it?Face of the Screaming Werewolf has a sequence that exactly matches the footage Brown describes. Did Wood direct parts of La Casa del Terror or sell his Chaney footage to Mexican director Gilberto Martinez Solares? Did Chaney own the footage and give it to the Mexican director? Did Warren stick the footage in? Is it all just an extraordinary coincidence?

But whatever the various sources of footage, one thing is clear: Face of the Screaming Werewolf is one fucked-up crazy quilt of a movie.

Doctor Edmund Redding and his two assistants hypnotize a young woman, Ann Taylor, who apparently was an Aztec princess in a previous life. She has a couple of flashbacks, including one really long one with dancing, singing and a sacrifice. A helpful announcer who looks like he's on TV, even though we later hear his voice coming out of a radio, tells us that Taylor, Redding and the other docs are all going to explore a pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula.
Once in the pyramid, the explorers find two mummies: one looks an awful lot like Lon Chaney Jr. (because it is), and the other one is a thinner Aztec mummy who growls like the Frankenstein Monster. Redding throws something at the Aztec mummy and stops him (or at least I assume that's what happens, since the scene abruptly ends there). Both mummies are brought back to America, where the helpful announcer is joined by a helpful scientist, who explains that the Chaney mummy is a "modern man" placed in the pyramid by parties unknown after "exchanging fluids" with the older Aztec mummy in an effort to "simulate" death. (How exactly were these "fluids" exchanged? Do I want to know? And is this supposed to imply that Chaney is playing the same Wolf Man character he played in the old Universal flicks?) The modern mummy is put on public display (the growling Aztec mummy apparently gets locked up for safekeeping). Then thieves kill Redding, steal the Chaney mummy and take him back to their laboratory hidden in a wax museum, where Tin Tan (hey, wasn't he edited out of this mess?) can be spotted snoozing in the background in a couple of shots.

The thieves are doctors of some sort who experiment on Chaney with a huge centrifuge-type thing and electricity, but they can't revive him. (And nobody bothers to explain why they're even trying to.) The three rival docs, led by Professor Janning (who looks a lot like a younger, Mexican Boris Karloff), take a break and go to a cafŽ, where one of them calls another thief (back in the inserted American footage). The thief seems thrilled when he thinks the job involves knocking somebody off, but looks worried when he's told that he'll be stealing the Aztec mummy. (What, he has no problem with murder, but is queasy about stealing someone who's already dead?)

Meanwhile, back at the lab, lightning hits the equipment and revives Chaney. He gets up, goes to the window, looks up at the full moon (my, that storm cleared up quickly)...and turns into the Wolf Man! When the thieving docs return to the wax museum, the Wolf Man kills one of them. And then falls over unconscious. For no fucking reason.

Meanwhile, the hired thug goes off to steal the growling Aztec mummy, only to have said growling Aztec mummy knock him out cold. The mummy then roams the streets until he finds Ann Taylor and carries her off. The hired thug wakes up, gets in his car and accidentally hits the mummy, killing himself, the mummy and Ann Taylor. The next day, we get a smashing closeup of a newspaper headline: "Ann Taylor Dead! Mummy Destroyed!" And then we never hear about Ann Taylor or the Aztec mummy again.

Meanwhile (lots of "meanwhiles" here, aren't there?), back at the lab, the Wolf Man has been loaded onto a table. He wakes up, throttles another doctor and is about to escape when Jennings shines a flashlight in the Wolf Man's eyes and drives him into a cage. (Bet you didn't know werewolves were afraid of flashlights, now did you?) Then Jennings leaves again.

Two cops stop by to investigate the theft of the mummy, but get the door slammed in their faces. Remarkably, the cops just...leave. Later, they talk to the radio scientist, who talks a lot, but explains nothing.

Chaney wakes up in the cage and isn't a werewolf anymore. He gets to utter his one line of dialog--"No!"--before the full moon comes out again and he sprouts fur. He tears the lock off of the cage and escapes again. This time, he roams the streets, runs alongside a highway, grabs a woman and climbs the outside of a building with her on his back. Tin Tan gets up off a table (where he was napping?) and climbs up after the Wolf Man, then gets knocked off the roof of the building and lands safely on the awning below. The Wolf Man runs down the stairs (why'd he bother playing King Kong with the outside of the building anyway?) and lets the girl go. (Or does he? The woman he puts on the sidewalk is dressed differently than the woman he kidnapped.)

Then the Wolf Man runs along the highway again and follows another woman home. This woman looks exactly like the last one he kidnapped (and probably IS the same woman, but incompetent editing clouds the issue) and, after chasing her around the apartment for a few minutes, grabs her and takes her back to the wax museum.

The Wolf man kills the Mexican Karloff look-alike doc and wrestles with Tin Tan. A fire starts in the lab. Tin Tan picks up a torch and beats the Wolf Man with it. And Chaney falls over unconscious. Again. For no fucking reason. And he burns to death. (Who knew werewolves were so flammable?) The cops from the American footage show up, disappointed that instead of finding a monster, all they see is "an ordinary guy." The end.

You know, my head hurts just thinking about this movie. I think I'll go and lie down for a while.

Saturday, November 8, 2003

Review: Not of This Earth (1988)

This remake of Roger Corman's 1956 low-budget cult classic has virtually the same plot as the original and an even lower budget. So why remake it at all? Why, to do what Corman couldn't in 1956: Show lots and lots of naked chicks. And director Jim Wynorski does exactly that. But does that qualify as an improvement? Not really.

Traci Lords takes over Beverly Garland's role from the original as Nadine, a nurse working in a clinic for a doctor (Ace Mask--think that's his real name?) who receives a most unusual patient: Mr. Johnson (Arthur Roberts, who looks a bit like Harvey Keitel), a man in a suit and sunglasses who claims to be dying and needs a transfusion immediately, but who refuses to take a blood test beforehand. Why? Because he's really a blood-sucking alien with shiny eyes--if he takes off the sunglasses, you die.

Mr. Johnson exerts his will on the doc and gets the transfusion, then hires Nadine to come to his house and take care of him. Since the money's good, Nadine goes for it and moves into Johnson's house. Johnson already has an ex-con chauffeur (Lenny Juliano) who starts hitting on Nadine immediately, even though she has a cop for a boyfriend (Roger Lodge), and checks her naked frame out in a mirror after she gets out of the shower.

The chauffeur may be a jerkwad, but he's not a complete idiot. He knows something weird is going on in Mr. Johnson's house. As he very eloquently tells Nadine, "It's like a roach motel. Roaches check in, but they don't check out." Said "roaches" include a vacuum cleaner salesman, three hookers (who, of course, strip before getting zapped by Mr. Johnson's eyes) and a strip-o-gram girl who gets beamed back to Johnson's home planet. Will Nadine be next? Do you care?

There's not much reason to care about Not of This Earth. Wynorski's direction is amateur hour, with some continuity glitches that would have made Ed Wood proud, like day and night scenes mixed together and a car going off a bridge that magically becomes a truck before crashing to the bottom in flames. Much of the acting is straight-to-cable quality, though I have to admire Roberts who, as Mr. Johnson, manages to keep a straight face throughout.

And then there's Traci Lords. She's the best thing about the movie--and no, not just because she has two nude scenes, the only two of her post-porno acting career, or because she has a poolside scene in a bikini that looks like it must have been painted on. Traci Lords actually handles her lines pretty well and gets to play a character who isn't just a blonde bimbo, but who smells something wrong as soon as she comes into Johnson's house and spends most of the movie unraveling the mystery. She plays Nadine smart and sexy and does it well. It's a shame Traci's respectable performance isn't enough to save the rest of the movie, though--it sucks serious ass.

When Wynorski approached Corman about remaking Not of This Earth, Roger should have just walked away. Quickly. At least Traci Lords went on to bigger and better roles in bigger and better movies and a brief career as a techno diva. Wynorski went on to make Vampirella, which was so bad that it went straight to video. Maybe Jim should just stay away from movies about alien vampires...

Friday, November 7, 2003

Review: Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)

Okay. You've witnessed the cinematic tragedies that are Plan 9 from Outer Space, Robot Monster and Night of the Lepus. You believe you've seen the worst of the worst. You believe you're strong.

You're wrong. Heaven help you, you're wrong.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein flopped out of the festering mind of one Al Adamson, whose films are just as bad as anything Ed Wood produced, but Adamson was much more prolific. He was squeezing out cinematic stink bombs through most of the 1960s and 1970s, all of which were put together over time out of various scraps of film (sometimes wedding foreign horror films with the domestic variety)--and all of them suck. This movie may suck worse than the rest, though, because it uses old monster movie stars to no good end and severely fucks with the two most famous fiends in all of horror literature.

The plot revolves around a blonde, busty Vegas entertainer (Regina Carrol--who, by sheer coincidence, was Adamson's wife). After we're forced to watch her pathetic act, we see her receive a telegram informing her that her sister has gone missing in sunny California. Like most good sisters would, our entertainer goes off to investigate. She meets with a cranky cop (Jim Davis from Dallas) and tries to dig up more leads at a local hangout, where she's slipped LSD and has a not-so-groovy trip. A hunky guy (Anthony Eisley) takes her in and joins the investigation.

Meanwhile, Count Dracula (Zandor Vorkov, who looks like an anemic Elliot Gould) digs up Frankenstein's Monster (John Bloom, whose head looks like an overdone marshmallow) and heads over to the seaside House of Horrors owned by Dr. Duray (J. Carroll Naish, who dresses like Colonel Sanders), the last living member of the Frankenstein Clan. Duray has been conducting experiments on pretty young girls (guess where the sister wound up?) and sends out his huge, mute assistant (Lon Chaney Jr.) to do the dirty work.

Dracula and Duray revive the Monster using equipment left over from the set of Bride of Frankenstein and use the Monster to get revenge on the scientist who ruined Duray's career (Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman).

Eventually, monster, vampire, mad scientist and blonde all collide, and most everybody dies in some nasty way. The funniest death scene goes to the Monster who, in his climactic battle with Dracula, suffers about the same amount of damage as the Black Knight did in "Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

Does this sound bad? It gets worse. This is the last film for both Naish and Chaney, both of whom had been horror stars back in the 1940s. Naish gives his performance from a wheelchair and is obviously reading cue cards most of the time. Chaney has no dialog and sweats a lot. Angelo Rossito, a dwarf who appeared in many horror films (including Freaks) is also on hand, suffering along with everybody else. Russ Tamblyn, who starred in some decent movies (including The Haunting) in the 1960s (and later played Dr. Jacobi on Twin Peaks), shows up as a biker. Ackerman, a respected horror film expert (listed as "Technical Advisor" in the credits), should have known better than to lend his name to this piece of absolute trash, but at least his part is small and he dies quickly and painfully.

Dracula vs. Frankenstein is a low point in cinema history. Viewers get sucked in by well-known actors and get rewarded with bad writing, worse photography and the last, weak performances from a couple of horror legends. You may think you've been slipped some LSD yourself after viewing this waste of film.

Thursday, November 6, 2003

Review: Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003)

It's obvious from the opening frames of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 1 that he has a deep, abiding love for the Hong Kong action flicks of the 1970s--Tarantino appropriates the Shaw Brothers' "ShawScope" logo, provoking knowing giggles from the audience members who are either old enough to know who the Shaw Brothers are (producers of numerous Kung Fu epics, including films starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan) or die-hard fans of the genre themselves.

And that love of impossibly high-flying kicks, swords drawn and brandished, and limbs severed and spurting carries all the way through this, the first of two parts. (Kill Bill was split in half after completion, supposedly for "artistic reasons"--three hours of martial arts violence might be too much for even the most ardent admirers of either Tarantino or the genre. There is precedence for such a release maneuver: Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler and Indian Epic were released in two parts; and, for more contemporary examples, look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the two Matrix sequels. I have the sneaking suspicion, though, that economics had more to do with it: with the back half of the film rumored to be even more gory than the front half, and thus almost certain to receive the dreaded NC-17 rating, Miramax may have decided to get their money up front with the first half, with anything they make on the second half becoming gravy.) But while Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is unquestionably an effective homage, is it anything more than that? And does it need to be?

Tarantino's previous directorial efforts all nodded toward their respective genres: heist dramas in Reservoir Dogs; film noir in Pulp Fiction; and Blaxploitation in Jackie Brown. But those movies weren't bound and gagged by genre limitations--they used film history as a springboard for storytelling and character development, not as an destination unto itself. Jackie Brown, in particular, played on the audiences' memory of African-American cinema of the 1970s--especially with the casting of Pam Grier, the lead actress in many of those movies--while going into greater depths of character and emotion and drawing career-best performances out of Grier (who should have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar) and Robert Forster (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and lost) than one would expect given the limitations of the genre. (It probably didn't hurt that Jackie Brown was based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, either.)

Kill Bill, on the other hand, lovingly embraces its genre's limitations and tries to turn them into virtues.

Uma Thurman plays The Bride (she has a real name, but it's bleeped out for whatever stylistic reason), whose wedding party gets wiped out by her former partners in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad: O-Ren, the Cottonmouth (Lucy Liu); Elle, the California Mountain Snake (Darryl Hannah); Vernita, the Copperhead (Vivica A. Fox); Budd, the Sidewinder (Michael Madsen); and, of course, Bill, their leader (David Carradine). Bill shoots the pregnant Bride in the head and leaves her for dead at the alter, but that's not enough to keep her down--she awakens in a hospital bed four years later, a metal plate in her head and no baby in sight. Once awake, she sets out for revenge, picking off her former partners one by one in armed combat.

(In Vol. 1, only Fox and Liu are dealt with. Madsen and Hannah are seen only briefly, and Carradine not at all. But even though Carradine is never shown, his voice is the first we hear at the beginning and last we hear at the end--calm, confident, measured as if his words come out of his mouth carved in stone.)

And that's it. That's the plot. Thurman moves lithely from one confrontation to another, with a side trip to visit a master swordsmith (martial arts legend Sonny Chiba, in an effective cameo) and get a blade capable of cutting down her formidable foes.

In all of his previous films, Tarantino has shuffled the time frame around, shifting the order of events for greater effect or to provide views of the same event from different perspectives. Here, the time frame changes from scene to scene, sometimes from shot to shot, and the effect is disorienting. It calls attention to itself as a device rather than actually accomplishing anything in terms of storytelling. Also, Tarantino's signature verbal gymnastics are consipicuous by their absence. The dialog here comes in two flavors: Stilted and mannered, presumably in imitation of the ridiculously dubbed dialog from the movies he seeks to ape; and awkwardly foul-mouthed, like an inferior screenwriter trying to do a Quentin Tarantino impersonation. (The scene between Thurman and Fox after the movie's first fight scene is particularly bad.)

Tarantino even riffs on his own works. Some specific scenes recall moments from previous QT films--O-Ren giving a speech from atop a conference table echoes back to Honey Bunny's tabletop screaming at the beginning of Pulp Fiction, while a friend points out that the walk through the House of Blue Leaves is very Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino also uses actors from his previous movies, like Thurman (Pulp Fiction), Madsen (Reservoir Dogs), Michael Bowen (Jackie Brown) and Samuel L. Jackson (who has a cameo in Kill Bill, Vol. 2). Not that Tarantino is required to be original--most of Shakespeare's plays are based on previous sources, and scenes or dialog from one of his plays can echo scenes and dialog from others. And if QT is intentionally lifting images, music, even sound effects (like the leaping sound from Infra-Man when Thurman does a backflip in battle), then aren't scenes and actors from his previous movies fair game as well?

That doesn't mean that all of Tarantino's best tricks are used up. There are still pop culture references aplenty--from Pussy Wagon, the name of the car Thurman drives away from the hospital (taken from a particularly racy lyric in Grease), to the outfit Thurman wears when confronting O-Ren's bodyguards in the House of Blue Leaves (a replica of Bruce Lee's outfit from his last, uncompleted film, Game of Death), to quoting a Klingon proverb about revenge, Tarantino is still able to get laughs of recognition from the audience. Similarly, he also maintains his knack for putting the right song with the right image: Darryl Hannah sashays down a hospital corridor while whistling Bernard Hermann's "Twisted Nerve"; O-Ren and her posse glide through nightime Tokyo to Al Hirt's "Green Hornet Theme"; the slow walk down the hall of the House of Blue Leaves to Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity"--all moments of unqualified cinematic beauty and brilliance, perhaps because they aren't intended to imitate anything, but instead take on personality all their own.

(Other song cues don't work nearly as well: The first time Tarantino uses a snipet of "The Ironside Theme" as a revenge horn, it gets a laugh, but when he uses the device a couple more times, it evokes only silence, if not groans.)

Then there are the fights scenes, which are so gloriously over the top and outrageous that they have to be admired and appreciated. Thurman gives a performance that's physical, gruelling and hard-nailed out of sheer necessity--if the audience doesn't buy that she's really that tough, that angry, that intent on revenge for the wrongs inflicted on her and her loved ones, then the movie would become a lampoon rather than an homage or, worse, fall apart entirely. But she holds it together with her scene-to-scene intensity and is ably supported by Fox and Liu, all of whom had to train rigorously for their roles. Liu, in particular, gets what may be the best part of her career in O-Ren, who rises to the top of the Japanese underworld despite her mixed heritage (Japanese/Chinese-American) and gender. She's ruthless, intelligent and perfectly capable of defending herself, whether it's from the verbal assault of an crime boss on her heritage or the physical assault of The Bride thirsting for revenge.

The violence in the fight scenes is so cartoonish--with limbs flying about, bodies split in two, heads lopped off--that it's hard to take seriously. (Nonetheless, Tarantino shifts the more extreme violence from color to black and white, apparently in an effort to appease the MPAA. So...violence is less graphic if the blood isn't red?)

Some viewers have come away from Kill Bill, Vol. 1 with a message of female empowerment--understandable, given how many women kick substantial ass in this movie. The Bride, Vernita, O-Ren and Go-Go (Chiaki Kuriyama), O-Ren's schoolgirl-outfit-wearing, mentally unstable lead bodyguard, all take turns taking no shit from nobody, particularly not from men. But consider what the women have to go through to get to the position of being empowered. In a sequence played out entirely in anime (a brilliant strategy by Tarantino, given the subject matter), we learn that O-Ren's parents were murdered (and, it's implied, her mother gang-raped) while she watches from under the bed, and she has to prostitute herself to the pedophile crime lord who executed them to enact her revenge. Similarly, The Bride is rented out as a living love doll by her male attendant, Buck (Bowen), while she lies in her four-year coma in the hospital. Is the message, then, that women can kick substantial ass only after suffering more than their male counterparts? And if Kill Bill is essentially a comedy, as Tarantino has maintained in interviews, why is the audience treated to two scene of children witnessing their parents being brutally murdered, or the squick-worthy details of The Bride's hospital stay?

Am I trying to read too much into Kill Bill, Vol. 1? Am I missing the point? Is there even a point to miss? Is there hidden depth here as in previous Tarantino movies, or is this really just the expertly made B-movie tribute it appears to be?

That I have so many questions and qualms is, I think, good. If I'd hated Kill Bill, Vol. 1, it wouldn't have lingered in my mind for so long, wouldn't have frustrated me so, wouldn't have made me ask so many questions. I'd have dismissed it as trash and moved on. And I wouldn't be anxious to see Vol. 2. Unfortunately, Miramax is making us wait until February for the second half, damn them. Don't they know or care that I have questions? That I crave answers? That I want to know what happens next?

And isn't that the highest compliment I can pay to Quentin Tarantino--that even though I'm not sure how I feel about the first half of the movie, I'm still eager to see the second?