Thursday, December 29, 2005

Not Coming to a Theatre Near Me

Some of my friends, aquaintances and frequent readers think that I see every movie that comes out--or that I want to.

Not true. Every year, just as there are movies I simply have to see, there are movies that provoke my gag reflex and, when I see the preview, I say, "Aw, hells no!"

Here are just a few of the films I decided I could live without in 2005:

Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith--When I first saw the original Star Wars on the big screen back in 1977, I loved it for what it was: a popcorn-chompin', bubblegum-poppin' whiz-bang of a movie. That was, of course, before it became the cornerstone of a "mythology" that would spawn five more movies feeding a fanbase with a devotion of frightening proportions. I liked The Empire Strikes Back, even though I yelled at the screen when it didn't actually come to an end, but just...stopped: " mean I have to wait three more years to find out how this fucker ends?" Yes, I did. And what did I get for my wait? Revenge, Return of the Jedi--or, as I not-so-affectionately call it, "Muppets in Space." When George Lucas revived the series with three prequels designed to tell the story of how we got to the events of that first movie, I declared The Phantom Menace to be "the best-looking bad movie I've ever seen." That was, of course, until I saw Attack of the Clones, which was even worse (in spite of the presence of the awesome Christopher Lee) due to leaden storytelling and acting so awful that to call it wooden would be to insult wood. So when Revenge of the Sith, the last movie in the series, was released earlier this year, in spite of some positive reviews and friends who kept asking me, "So, have you seen it yet?" there was no way in hell I was giving George Lucas even one more penny of my money--he'd long since scorched away every last molecule of my good will for him. And with so many other movies out there, why wait in a line snaking around the block for a movie I didn't want to see?

War of the Worlds--I wanted to see this. I really did. It was a Steven Spielberg movie, which meant it would be well crafted, if nothing else, and even though I wasn't a big Tom Cruise fan, his presence in Spielberg's Minority Report didn't hurt that movie. So I was willing. And able. But then? Cruise. Would. Not. Shut. Up. He bounced on Oprah's couch like a kid who'd just downed a candy aisle's worth of Three Musketeer bars. He attacked Brooke Shields and her book, Down Came the Rain, which detailed her struggle with postpartum depression and the treatment she received for it, antidepressants and therapy. He was condescending and belligerent in a highly contentious interview in which Cruise told Matt Lauer, "You don't know the history of psychiatry--I do" and calling Lauer "glib." (I wish Lauer had had the presence of mind to ask Cruise which books he'd read about "the history of psychiarty"; I'll bet every dollar in my wallet--which, granted, isn't much--that they were approved by, if not actually published by, the Church of Scientology, and thus probably not the most objective texts one could study.) And he and his Stepford-Wife-to-be, Katie Holmes, jammed their relationship and her pregnancy and lovelovelovelovebarflovelove down our collective throat, so when War of the Worlds finally hit theatres, the idea of sitting through a two-hour long movie with Tom Cruise in virtually every scene was about as appealing as emptying a nailgun into my feet--which is about what it would have taken to get me to stay in a theatre where War of the Worlds was playing.

The Dukes of Hazzard--Though I will confess that I watched this show as a teenager and had a world-class crush on Catherine Bach's fine, fine ass, I refused to see this movie, even though I think Jessica Simpson is adorable. (Jessica? When you're done divorcing Nick, give me a call!) For every movie adapted from a TV show that's a success--Star Trek, The Blues Brothers, Charlie's Angels, The Brady Bunch--there are ten that fail horribly--McHale's Navy, The Honeymooners, Car 54, Where Are You?. And this show wasn't good to begin with. Also? It made me sad that Burt Reynolds, who helped inspire the original series with his Smokey and the Bandit movies, was reduced to playing Boss Hogg in this big-screen remake. That's gotta be a career low.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin--There is nothing wrong with displaying action figures in your living room. Nothing.

Aeon Flux--Turning cartoons into live-action movies has never been a good idea. (Anybody remember Popeye? How 'bout The Flintstones? Or Scooby-Doo?) So it's a bit of a mystery as to why anyone would bother making a live-action version of Aeon Flux, an avant-garde animated series that aired on MTV a decade ago. It's even more of a mystery why Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron would star in a movie that required her to wear a skin-tight leather outfit (not that she didn't look fabulous on the posters). Did she learn nothing from Halle Berry's disasterous turn in Catwoman? Obviously not--Aeon Flux wasn't previewed for critics, was mostly dismissed when they did get around to seeing it (although The Onion gave it a positive notice, but was much more enthusiastic about the original series being released on DVD), and has just about vanished from theatres.

Fun with Dick and Jane--I've seen enough crap remakes this year. The thought of seeing yet another crap remake, this time starring Jim Carrey, is enough to make me want to go on retreat to the Scientology Celebrity Center (hey, that's what they call it) with Tom and Katie. (Except...not.)

I hope that 2006 is a much better year all the way around, of course--having a job, spending even more time with loved ones, finding somebody to pay me to write this nonsense--but in this context, I hope 2006 has fewer remakes and sequels, and more movies I will want to run out and spend my available dollars on--not run in the opposite direction from.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Popcorn Kernals 2005

When I revived this site at the beginning of this year, my first entry back covered all of the movies I saw on the big screen in 2004 (even though I managed to forget a couple--woopsie). So it seemed like a good idea to end the year with an entry covering the cinematic treasures and atrocities I bore witness to in 2005.

There isn't as much to write about this year--partly because I didn't see as many movies this year, partly since I was let go from my job back in August, also because wrote more full reviews of new movies I saw than ever before. Some of them were good, like Batman Begins and Walk the Line; some of them were bad, like the remakes of The Fog and The Amityville Horror; and some more landed somewhere in between, like Frank Miller's Sin City and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I may yet catch a movie or two before this year officially ends on Saturday, and I'll probably get one or two more updates--most likely looking back on this broke-ass year in one way or another--up before then, but here are the movies that, for one reason or another, I never got around to writing reviews for:

Million Dollar Baby--The somber, shadow-filled cinematography by Tom Stern (who handled the same duties for Clint Eastwood on Mystic River and Blood Work, and has worked on Eastwoods movies in one capacity or another for more than 20 years) makes this a gorgeous film to look at, with outstanding performances from Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, both of whom deserved their Academy Awards. Too bad once this movie reveals its "big twist" (which most of you probably know by now, but on the off chance some of you don't, I won't tip it here), it becomes predictable, illogical and very aggravating. Just goes to show how a good movie can be almost entirely ruined by a bad ending--you remember the last taste in your mouth, and when it's a bad one, you forget all of the good ones before it.

The Ring Two--Sequels are tricky things, to be sure, but when you snag the screenwriter (Ehren Kruger) and star (Naomi Watts) of the previous film, an Oscar-winning actress slipping in a cameo (Sissy Spacek?) and the director (Hideo Nakata) of Ringu, the Japanese movie The Ring was based on, your expectations are reasonably high. Instead? You get a story not about a creepy ghost girl, but possession of the creepy little boy--kind of like Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (you know, the one everyone tries to forget?) with lots more water. And what the fuck was up with the deer? Were they pissed off about the basement full of antlers?

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room--Want to get seriously angry at corporate America? Watch this movie. The suits running Enron screwed the public in general, and their workers in particular, exorting them to continue buying stock in the company even as the house of cards was starting to fall. Those workers all lost their pensions, while Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling (brother of WGN weather god Tom Skilling) are still multimillionaires and have pleaded not guilty to all charges. And even if they go to prison, they'll be better off than the many thousands of people who put their faith in them.

House of Wax--Not so much a remake of the 1953 fan favorite starring Vincent Price (itself a remake of 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum) as a retelling of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a wax museum motif, this wasn't as bad as you'd expect, even with a cast mostly made up of pretty, pretty faces from TV shows, perhaps because of the oddly poetic touches sprinkled throughout, like a cigrette stubbed out on the staircase of a church where many more cigarette butts still linger, underscoring how many times this man has killed; or a tear streaming down the cheek of a victim enbalmed in wax. And arguably the most sympathetic/intelligent character in the movie is played by...Paris Hilton? Nope. Didn't see that one coming, either.

Cursed--Okay, I must admit it: this one was my suggestion to the group. I thought, "It's from Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson, who made Scream, and it stars Christina Ricci--how bad can it be?" The answer? There were reasons why it sat on a shelf for a couple of years and wasn't previewed for critics: it was Bad. With a capital "B." Bad script. Badly CGI'd werewolves. Bad continuity due to its much-delayed release (Ricci's character works for The Late Late Show with Craig Kilbourn--even though Kilbourn had left the show by the time the movie finally made theaters). Bad weight loss by Ricci, who now looks like a Bobblehead. Bad all the way around.

The Thin Man--Ah, for the days when movie characters could drink and smoke and be witty. The murder mystery doesn't matter a damn--it's the chemistry and banter between William Powell and Myrna Loy that makes this a classic. And there's nothing better than seeing a classic black-and-white film in a vintage movie house like the Music Box.

Fantastic Four--A sloppy, inconsistent, lumbering mess that nonetheless has entertaining aspects, like Chris Evans's cockiness as the Human Torch, Michael Chiklis's ability to give a touching performance as the Thing while under lots of foam rubber, and the presence of Jessica Alba in a form-fitting jump suit. It did very well at the box office, though, so expect a sequel in a couple of years.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe--This year's winner for the longest, most ungainly title is also the winner of the "Most Likely Franchise in the Making" award. You knew that, with the massive success of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, somebody would get around to C.S. Lewis's beloved series of fantasy novels. Fortunately, director Andrew Adamson (who co-directed both Shrek films) and everyone else involved do a first-class job job of adapting Lewis's prose without losing either the excitement of the narrative or the Christian allegories embedded within it, but also without proselytizing. The result is a fine adventure yarn that makes me look forward to the second movie in the series. And if I'm wrong for thinking Tilda Swinton is dead-sexy as the White Witch, I don't want to be right.

King Kong--Peter Jackson's respectful and respectible remake holds close to the storyline of the 1933 original while adopting the closer relationship between Kong and the blonde he fatally falls for from the painfully bad 1976 remake (which had an exquiste Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin getting stomped like a grape and nothing but nothing else to recommend it). Too bad nobody could explain to Mr. Jackson that his remake would have been a better film if somebody else--anybody else--could have made the editorial decisions on the movie. Jackson's Kong looks great (the skies looked like they drifted in from a Maxfield Parrish painting) and is more faithful than one could have hoped (even returning a squick-inducing scene in a pit that had been cut from the original), but he clearly couldn't bear to take much out of his baby, so what should have been a two-hour thrill ride is a three-hour endurance test almost twice the length of the original. If a scene took five minutes in the 1933 Kong, it takes ten minutes here.

Brokeback Mountain--A tragic love story, controvesial because it happens between two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall), even though homoeroticism has long been a subtext in westerns, like Red River and The Wild Bunch, and is made text here. But it's not so much about societal pressure keeping these men apart (although that's certainly addressed) as much as it's about how one of them men wants to take the risk of comitting to both the man he loves and to his sexuality, but the other can't or won't. Also, as Ann Marie points out on her LiveJournal, this story is as much a tragedy for the women who marry them (Michelle Williams and Ann Hathaway, both of whom show more depth and subtlety than Dawson's Creek or The Princess Dairies might have suggested). They marry and have children with these men, whom they reasonably assume are dedicated and faithful and interested in women, only to be wounded deeply when they find out how just wrong they are. It's a tragedy for everyone involved, wrought by decisions made and not made--one that's worth going out of your way to see.

So there they are--the movies I saw this year. There were other movies, though, that I studiously avoided seeing. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"O Holiday Tree, O Holiday Tree..."

Last week, one of my regular readers--yes, I have more than one, smartass--asked me whether or not I intended to say anything here about the controversy over whether to say "Holiday Tree" or "Christmas Tree"--a controversy fueled by the tree at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., which, apparently, had been known as a "Holiday Tree" for the past few years, but was re-renamed a "Christmas Tree" this year (even though I didn't know its name had been changed to "Holiday Tree" in the first place).

Honestly? It hadn't even occurred to me to address the controversy here. After all, as I've mentioned here before, I haven't put up a tree for the past couple of years, though I have decorated La Casa del Terror a bit, with a plush Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a small white bear in a red cap (which I truly don't remember ever buying or finding or getting as a present--maybe Santa dropped him off last year?), Christmas Cthulhu (bringing "tidings of despair) and, most appropriately for me, the Grinch, all lined up on the edge of one of the loveseats.

I've also got scented candles here and there--Cinnamon for the living room, Vanilla Sugar Cookie for the bathroom, Pine for the kitchen--and my oldest, most treasured ornament, Angelique, sits atop the living room lamp. Seeing her looking down on me almost pushes my worries to the back of my mind and out of my heart for a while. Almost.

But when I did put up a tree--whether one of the faux evergreens bought at a long-closed Goldblatts or the aluminum job I picked up at a now-defunct resale shop in Wicker Park, I didn't call it anything but what it was: A Christmas tree.

I understand the need to say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" rather than "Merry Christmas" in advertisements and on cards, because not everyone celebrates the birthday of Jesus, who probably wasn't even born in wintertime (the Bible makes no mention of what time of year it is). Some friends light candles for Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, while others dance naked to herald the arrival of the Winter Solstice, and still others could not possibly care less about any of it. And I noted that George W. Bush took flak from the right wing of his own party (not for the first time this year) because the cards sent out by the White House didn't mention Christmas specifically, but put forth a more generic message--as if all the Jews, Muslims, Hindus and everyone on the President's mailing list who isn't a Christian should just suck it up and deal.

But to me, an evergreen with tinsel and beads and ornaments and lights and stars is a Christmas tree. It's specific to one holiday, to one segment of the world population inclined toward religion, even though many agnostics (like myself) and even a few athiests exchange gifts and good wishes sometime around the end of December. And it's not like that tree at the Capitol Building is is covered with Stars of David and colored glass ornaments celebrating the Seven Guiding Principles; there's nothing about it that makes it multicultural. It's a Christmas tree, an evergreen meant to represent and celebrate the everlasting of "our savior"--a tradition we appropriated from the British, who copped it from the Germans in the 19th century, who nicked it from the pagans, who associated it with rebirth and immortality.

Calling it a "Holiday Tree" rather than a "Christmas Tree" makes as much sense as calling a menorah a "Holiday Candle Holder." So unless you're a pagan who's pissed off about all the Christians who've ripped off your fertility bush, you don't have much to bitch about.

But whatever you choose to call your tree--if you have any kind of decorated tree at all--I hope this season, no matter what you call it or how you celebrate it, brings you much joy, warmth and happiness.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Review: Walk the Line (2005)

A few years ago, when I was weighed down with despair over a romantic situation, a close friend of mine directed me to a quotation from French philosopher George-Louis Leclerc de Buffon: "Never think that God's delays are God's denials. Hold on; hold fast; hold out. Patience is genius."

In my case, patience wasn't enough; sometimes, everything you have isn't enough.

For Johnny Cash and June Carter, however, patience was indeed genius. It was 13 years between when they met and when they got married, but each had to wait out the other: June had to wait for the then-married Johnny to overcome his substance abuse problems (with her help), and Johnny had to wait for June to overcome her reluctance to become involved with a married man fighting so many demons on so many fronts.

Once they got together, though, their devotion to one another was unbreakable. When June succumbed in the spring of 2003 to complications from heart surgery, it was no great surprise that Johnny, in ill health himself for several years, passed the following fall.

Walk the Line, based on two Cash autobiographies, would be a lot less interesting if it were merely the typical rise-and-fall-and-rise-again biography we've seen crafted from the lives of other musicians and actors (as well as dancers, playwrights, directors, etc.), even though it covers that territory as well. We learn about Johnny's childhood trauma (the accidental death of his beloved older brother); his disapproving father, Ray; his restless marriage with first wife Vivian; his stint in the air force; his audition for producer Sam Phillips; his subsequent contract with Sun Records, the musical crucible that also produced Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins; his initial hits and taste of fame; and the seemingly inevitable descent into alcohol, drugs and groupies.

It's only when Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) meets Carter (Reese Witherspoon) that it becomes obvious that this isn't a typical showbiz biopic of one man, but the story of a romance with a lot of roadblocks to get around that just happens to be about two famous singers.

It can't be easy to portray two such public personalities--especially Johnny, who had his own TV show and acted in movies as well, and was far better known than June, even though she was a member of the famous Carter Family singing group--but Phoenix and Witherspoon make it look easy, even though it obviously wasn't. Much has been made of the fact that they both use their own singing voices, and it's true that they're each impressive covering classics like "Get Rhythm," "Jackson," and "It Ain't Me, Babe." It probably didn't hurt to have veteran producer T Bone Burnett handling the music for the movie, including a smattering of other artists' songs well placed throughout the narrative, especially Blind Willie Johnson's chilling rendition of "Dark Was the Night - Cold Was the Ground on Which Our Lord Was Laid."

More importantly, though, Phoenix and Witherspoon get their characters' stage personas down so well that the musical numbers look and feel like real concert footage. Phoenix does a great job of capturing Cash's body language, often holding his guitar like a loaded rifle, and Witherspoon is even better, displaying the clear difference between Carter's off-stage personality--serious, studious and well aware of the general public's disapproval of her divorces--and her bubbly, joke-slinging on-stage persona.

They get solid support from everyone else in the movie, including Patrick as the flinty, unimpressed-by-fame Ray and Sandra Ellis Lafferty as June's quiet but strong and loving mother, Maybelle Carter. Ginnifer Goodwin also does fine work as Vivian, though she comes off as a bit of shrew in her scenes with Phoenix. Let's face it, though--if your significant other were perpetually sulking, stoned and openly desiring someone else to the point of hanging up pictures of the object of his desire in your house, you'd be more than a bit salty, too.

But it's Phoenix and Witherspoon who must carry the dramatic load, and they don't just carry it--they run away with it completely. Their performances aren't flashy, but subtly infused with tension--they're almost immediately attracted to one another, but the timing and circumstances just never seem right. Under James Mangold's direction, they both have transcendent, poetic moments, on their own and together: Johnny slowly finding his signature sound while auditioning for Phillips (Dallas Roberts); June being chastised by a woman in a department store for her recent divorce; June handing a recovering Johnny a bowl of fresh-picked raspberries. Phoenix's intense performance is no surprise, since he's well known for immersing himself in his characters, but Witherspoon's turn comes as a wakeup call to anyone who thought all she could do was light, fluffy comedy (including me).

They do what great actors are supposed to--they let us forget that they are giving performances and accept that, at least for those two hours in the dark, they are who they're pretending to be. That makes Walk the Line something more than the typical biopic--even though we know that it makes the compromises, condensations and edits that all such movies make (by both necessity and choice), it comes across as unvarnished, straightforward truth. And you can't ask for much more than that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Dia De Los Muertos

This poem was written some time ago, but on this day when one pays tribute to those who have moved on, it seems appropriate. Enjoy.

My father's skull was
never made of sugar,
never reclined in an alter
surrounded by candles
and candies, fishing poles
and plates of buttermilk
biscuits and pan gravy,
never had much of anything
but holes augered for two
green eyes, one of which
had been disconnected
when, while parked on
a barstool after another
tour of duty as a third-shift
railroad switch man, he got
flung skull-first through
a South Side bar's plate-
glass window and his
railroad nights were
done. He never did slip
on the parka he wore that
night again, as if it had
been to blame and now it's
hanging in my closet loose
and blue and strategically
gashed on the arms that
used to cover the arms that
used to carry worm beds
out to the back porch,
six-packs back from
the corner grocery store,
Grandma's casket to
the herse from the same
funeral home where our
arms carried his casket to
the herse that carried him to
a rectangular hole in the soil
in suburban Chicago where he
wouldn't have to carry any more.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Review: Frankenstein (1931)

Sometimes, actors make stupid choices. Sometimes, studios make smart ones. Sometimes, these things happen at the same time. And sometimes, the results are legendary--either for the bad or the good.

Consider the case of Universal's Frankenstein. (Please note that I don't say "Universal's adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"--much like the silent 1910 version, the screenplay, itself a patchwork monster with at least five different writers involved, takes little from Shelley's novel save the title.) After the surprise smash success of Dracula earlier in 1931, the studio was eager to follow up with something even more elaborate--and even more frightening. The natural choice was Frankenstein, second only to Dracula among famous horror novels, and the natural choice for the role of the monster was the star of their previous scary success, Bela Lugosi, with Robert Florey set to direct.

But that's not how it worked out. Lugosi didn't want the role because the monster had no dialogue--an odd position for an actor who spoke little English and had to memorize his lines phonetically to take--and Florey was bumped from the project when James Whale, a hot new director from England who'd scored hits for the studio with Waterloo Bridge and Journey's End, was offered the opportunity to pick his next project from among upcoming productions and expressed interest in Frankenstein. (Or at least this is the most prevelant theory--no paperwork exists to show for certain why Florey was removed from the project.) Florey and Lugosi did work together the next year on a very loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, but if that film is any indication of what magic they would have worked with Frankenstein, the world is far better off that they didn't get the chance.

Whale chose Colin Clive (who had worked with Whale previously on stage and screen) for the title role--remember, the title refers to the man who made the Monster, not the Monster himself--and Clive gives a nerve-jangling performance as a man very much balanced on the ultrafine line between genius and madness. Henry Frankenstein steals body parts from graveyards with the help of sadistic hunchback Fritz (Dwight Frye) and assembles them in seclusion in his isolated laboratory. (The movie takes place in an indeterminant time period--much of it looks like it could be happening sometime in the mid-1800s, but the presence of electric lights and a modern operating theater are confusing, to say the least.) This is much to the dismay of his lovely fiancee, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke, another actor who'd worked with Whale before), who worries that on the rare occasions that she sees her beloved, he appears on the verge of a total breakdown over his secretive experiments.

And so he is. Even when he succeeds in breathing artificial life into the body he'd sewn together via electricity drawn from lightning (in one of the most exciting, evocative scenes in any horror movie), he starts to fly apart, crying "It's alive...IT'S ALIVE!" as fingers tentatively flex on the operating table. When he blasphemously declares, "For the love of I know what it's like to be God" (a line cut from later reissues and restored many years later), he's restrained by his best friend, Victor (John Boles) and mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), and ultimately collapses.

And this is all before we even meet the monster.

The story has become legend: Whale spotted 43-year-old character Boris Karloff in the commisary at Universal and thought his features interesting enough to cast him in the pivotal role of the Monster. Whale collaborated with makeup master Jack Pierce to accentuate and exaggerate Karloff's natural appearance, and the two created one of world cinema's most iconic images: the scarred, flattopped visage of the Frankenstein Monster.

But all the makeup in creation wouldn't have helped if the actor beneath it hadn't been up to the task, and Karloff was. His performance is one of the greatest in any movie ever. Considering that the Monster is a fearsome, lumbering behemoth with the brain of a homicidal maniac, Karloff and Whale make him remarkably sympathetic, with superb pantomime and facial expression (even through all those layers of makeup) conveying the Monster's confusion, sadness, anger and frustration. It wasn't his bright idea to be slapped together by a scientist going out of his mind, yet the Monster is reviled for even existing--tormented by Fritz and threatened with dissection by Waldman, both of whom get their attitudes adjusted rather crudely and permanently by the Monster's powerful, stitched-on hands. Henry pays a dear price as well in a spectacular climax set in a burning windmill.

Frankenstein was not only a huge hit, but a controversial one, what with its religious subtext and sympathetic portrayal of the most frightening creature put on American screens up to that juncture. Some scenes got cut or altered, like when the Monster accidentally drowns a little girl--the end of the scene was lopped off, unfortunately creating the impression that the Monster does far worse to here than mere drowning. And Universal had some issues as well, tacking on a spoken intoduction/warning delivered by Van Sloan and a happier ending than the burning windmill scene, which also allowed for an eventual sequel (in fact, a whole series). But Karloff's performance, combined with Pierce's amazing makeup and Whale's direction, much of it influenced by the German Expressionist movies of the silent era such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Golem, overruled any critical backlash, studio jitters or censor handwringing.

The Audiences of 1931 had never seen anything like it before. But they wanted more. And they got it in abundance, thanks to the success of Frankenstein, the movie that proved that monster movies were here to stay.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Review: Godzilla (1954)

It's hard to remember half a century and literally dozens of sequels later, but the original Godzilla was intended as a serious political statement against nuclear proliferation, most particularly by the United States.

When it was first released in 1954 as Gojira, the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't distant history, but still-fresh wounds on the collective body and psyche of Japan, and insult was added to injury by continued American test detonations in the Pacific. In March of that year, a Japanese fishing boat strayed into a U.S. bomb testing area, irradiating the crew (killing one) and their catch of tuna (some of which made it to market).

Director Ishiro Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka took these real-life incidents (which are mentioned directly in the original Japanese version, but were cut for the American release in 1956--more on that later) and grafted them onto the same basic story as Warner Brothers' The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, inspired by a short story by Ray Bradbury (does that make Bradbury Godzilla's godfather?). In that film, a dinosaur awaken by an accidental nuclear explosion ravages New York's Coney Island.

In Godzilla, the size of the monster was increased to impossible proportions (164 feet tall) and in metaphorical significance--with its size, radioactive breath and utter disregard for humankind's weapons and, really, our very existence, Honda and Tanaka (along with co-screenwriter Takeo Murata, working from a story by Shigeru Kayama) made Godzilla a walking, breathing nuclear explosion--an atomic holocaust made flesh and blood.

After Japanese ships are attacked and destroyed under mysterious circumstances, an expedition heads to a nearby island to investigate and finds enormous, irradiated footprints--and, the next day, the monster that belongs to them, which subsequently marches on the Japanese capital of Tokyo and tears it and its people to shreds, proving to be immune to humankind's conventional weaponry.

Doctor Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) has an unconventional weapon, an "oxygen destroyer," that could do the trick, but he was deeply scarred (physically and emotionally) by the war and is fearful of letting such a terrible weapon be used. Can the woman he's engaged to, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), and the man she really loves, Hideto (Akira Takarada) convince him otherwise and save Japan--and maybe the world itself--from this terrible manifestation and melding of modern science and ancient, elemental fury?

There is much emotional power in the scenes of the conflicted Serizawa, who doesn't want to be responsible for loosing another weapon of mass destruction upon the earth, and in the scenes following Godzilla's attacks on Tokyo, with hospitals overflowing with battered, radiation-burned survivors. The Japanese cast delivers passionate performances that lend much weight and depth to the metaphorical subject matter, making their dilemas and heartbreaking solutions far less abstract and much more immediate and relatable. The score by Japanese composer Akira Ifukube is downright haunting and would be recycled over the coming decades. (Ifukube also came up with Godzilla's signature roar, which has become one of the most recognizable sounds in cinema history.)

Unfortunately, much of the movie's merit is undercut by the uneven special effects employed to bring Godzilla to life. The "man in a big rubber costume" approach (called "suitmation" by fans of Japanese daikaiju movies) works fine when the monster is photographed at a distance, smashing his way through detailed miniatures standing in for Tokyo. And there are burst of stop-motion animation (a la the Beats from 20,000 Fathoms), hinting that this might have been at least considered for the whole movie, but abandoned. (Publicity stills of the time featuring a more claylike Godzilla seem to back this theory up.) However, for closeups, an "electronic puppet" was used that looks a lot like Lamb Chop dunked in raw sewage and is just as imposing; the fact that this puppet is the first good look we get at Godzilla seriously damages the movie and makes it difficult to take seriously from that moment on.

Regardless, Godzilla was an mammoth hit in Japan and an immediate sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, was rushed into production and opened just five months later, even though the title monster is clearly destroyed at the end of the original. (In the American version of the sequel, Gigantis, the Fire Monster (not released in America until 1959), the monster's name is changed and it's explained that he just happens to be another member of the same species as Godzilla.) When Godzilla was exported to the United States, though, it was substantially altered. Large chunks of the movie were removed--including many supporting characters, most of the subplots and any comments aimed at American nuclear policy--and replaced with new footage directed by Terry Morse and starring Raymond Burr.

Up to this point in his career, Burr had spent most of his time playing bad guys and murderers (most famously in Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Rear Window), but he made the most of this opportunity to play a good guy, even if his role was being surgically attached to an already completed movie. (The original Japanese version runs 98 minutes; the edited/reshot American version is 17 minutes shorter.) It turned out to be a big career boost for Burr, who subsequently won the lead role in the TV series Perry Mason and went on to have a long, successful career--thanks, in part at least, to a large, irradiated reptile.

Godzilla has gone on to have a long, successful career as well--long may the "King of the Monsters" reign.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Review: Black Friday (1940)

In the bathroom of La Casa del Terror hang three laminated movie poster reproductions, two of which were bought for me by my best friend, JB. Included is a copy of the poster from Black Friday, which features the sly, sinister face of Boris Karloff, the startled face of Bela Lugosi and the frightened figure of Ann Gwynne (or is it Anne Nagel?--they're both in this movie, so I'm not sure). Audiences in 1940 may have expected a horror spectacular along the lines of The Back Cat, or at least something over the top and campy like The Raven.

No matter what they were expecting, they must have been disappointed.

The poster for Black Friday implies that Karloff and Lugosi star in this film together, but they don't even have a single scene together. They aren't even really the stars of this movie, both having supporting roles (Lugosi's quite small) to Stanley Ridges, who plays kindly English professor George Kingsley, who is run over by a car driven by a hoodlum named Red Cannon. Cannon's spine is busted, but Kingsley's injuries are grave. How lucky for him that his friend, Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff), is handy to save his life by performing an "illegal" operation: He takes part of Cannon's brain and transplants it into Kingsley's head (which, of course, kills Cannon).

When Kingsley recovers, he has some of Cannon's memories. But does that include where Cannon stashed $500,000? Sovac wants that money for a new laboratory (some friend, huh?), so he takes Kingsley to New York, where Cannon's mind actually takes over and starts seeking revenge on the rest of his old gang, including Marnay (Lugosi), bumping them off one by one.

The script is a sloppy mix of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though Ridges does a nice job of switching back and forth between the sweet Kingsley and the homicidal Cannon, and the kind of lameass mad scientist movies Karloff was making at the time for Columbia, like The Man They Could Not Hang. Much screen time is devoted to Cannon's quest for revenge, so it's also a lot like a Warner Brothers crime drama--a bad one. Karloff has little to do but stand around, and Lugosi is painfully miscast in a minor role as a mobster. He doesn't get any fun dialogue or menacing moments. Hell, he barely has any lines at all. And there's nothing scary about Black Friday--it's just over an hour long, but is slow, dull and lacking in visual interest, despite a script by Curt Siodmak and direction by Arthur Lubin, who later helmed Universal's elaborate remake of Phantom of the Opera.

Black Friday wastes the talents of two of the greatest icons of the horror genre as well as the talent of everybody else in front of or behind the camera. Worst of all, it wastes the time of anyone unlucky enough to happen upon it expecting something that lives up to that lovely, colorful poster.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Review: Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Gaston Leroux's novel, The Phantom of the Opera, has been made into movies many times since it was first published in 1908, including a long-lost silent version in 1916, the 1925 silent classic starring Lon Chaney, and an elaborate technicolor remake in 1943. (The less said about Hammer's gruesome take on the story, the better.) There have also been made-for-TV adaptations and numerous variations on the theme, like Brian DePalma's Phantom of the Paradise.

But it's safe to say that most people these days know The Phantom of the Opera from Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 musical, which transformed the story of the disfigured lunatic Erik from a horror story to a gothic romantic triangle, with singer Christine and boyfriend Raoul as the triangle's other points.

Rumors of a big-screen version of the musical had swirled like mist for years, with various reasons cited for its failure to materialize. The biggest stumbling block was likely the lack of general interest in movie musicals--a genre which, like the western, used to dominated the box office, but had fallen out of favor by the 1980s and stayed that way through the 1990s. Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge! broke through, though, with good reviews, respectable box office and multiple Academy Award nominations; and Rob Marshall's Chicago went even further, collecting loads of cash at the multiplexes and a total of six Oscars, including awards for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zita-Jones). So the time must have seemed right for the musical version of Phantom of the Opera to finally make it to movie theaters.

But was it worth the wait? yes and no.

Under the direction of Joel Schumacher--whose lengthy career has veered from serious dramas like Tigerland to stylish frightfests like The Lost Boys to garish action flicks like Batman and Robin--Webber's Phantom is even more opulent and extravagant than it was on the stage, with wonderful costumes and glorious production and set design. To call this movie visually lush would be an understatement, and nothing about this Phantom qualifies as understated.

For example, when Christine (Emmy Rossum) is lead to the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera Moderne by her "angel of music," who is, of course, really the Phantom (Gerard Butler), we are treated to an amazingly intricate lair, including a lake (which, apparently, really exists), candelabra that incline toward the Phantom's gondola as it passes (in a clear visual nod to Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, itself one of the most visually sumptuous movies ever made), an elaborate bed for Christine to sleep in (how'd he get that thing down there?) and something like a million lit candles (clearly, this man has way too much time on his hands). It's only when the Phantom shows Christine his life-sized doll of her--complete with wedding gown--that she begins to get the idea that maybe, just maybe, this guy is entirely out of his mind.

The rest of the movie looks great, too, with highly detailed recreations of the Opera House and a French cemetery where the Phantom and Christine's boyfriend, Raoul (Patrick Wilson) have a well-choreographed swordfight (literal as well as figurative). Nothing in this movie looks bad, and Schumacher understands the need to keep the production constantly in motion, not allowing for even a moment of lag. He further understands that, as highly ornamental, deeply gothic and unabashedly romantic as Webber's Phantom is, taking the material totally seriously would be a deadly miscalculation. So he approaches it with a lighter touch, with tongue so firmly in cheek that it threatens to pierce the skin, and it's consequently much more fun.

His cast has many strengths, too. Rossum, with her huge, innocent eyes and exquisite voice, is the best Christine possible--an ingenue well worth the fight Raoul and the Phantom put up over her and, to some extent, both win: She knows she should go with the handsome but dull Raoul, even though he's badly overmatched in just about every way by his adversary, but she can't help but be seduced by the Phantom's grand gestures and mysterious allure. Minnie Driver has a great time as the opera's resident diva, Carlotta, giving a funny, intimidating and sexy performance. And as the new owners of the opera, quite put out by the idea of having to pay the Phantom not to cause trouble in their newly acquired house, both Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow excel.

Not everyone is just right, though. Wilson's Raoul is certainly dashing and has a strong voice, but struggles when he has to deliver dialogue. And the usually reliable Miranda Richardson gives an oddly mannered performance as Madame Giry, who knows a good deal more about the Phantom than she initially lets on; she speaks with a heavy French accent, even though all of the other characters, most of whom are themselves French, speak with their natural accents (English or American).

And then there's Gerard Butler as the Phantom. He looks great and is appropriately threatening or sympathetic, depending on which side of his tortured soul he's revealing, but his vocal range as a singer is appallingly thin--he can handle the lower range just fine, but couldn't hit a high note if his life depended on it. He also seems stiff and mechanical in some of his physical motions--a carryover from the stage production, perhaps?--though he does do a graceful cape swoop, a skill he had occasion to access before as the title bloodsucker in Dracula 2000. But some fans of both the play and the movie don't give a damn how good Butler's voice is: As one friend put it, "Who cares if he can sing? He's hot!"

So, your enjoyment of Schumacher's adaptation of Webber's Phantom of the Opera will depend greatly on whether or not you accept the director's campy approach to the material and if you can set aside any misgivings about Butler's vocal limitations. If you like the sense of humor Schumacher displays and don't care whether or not Butler can sing a note, you'll get a kick out of this movie. Otherwise, you'll find this Phantom to be a very long, very painful experience. Proceed at your own risk.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Review: Orgy of the Dead (1966)

In the 1960s, nudie movies became quite the rage, with directors like Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman taking standard Hollywood plots and using them as frameworks for showing models, strippers and, on occasion, porn stars in the buff. (This trend has carried forth into the present day, when such soft-core efforts go straight to either cable or DVD.) A few directors even tried their hands at nudie horror films--which brings us to Orgy of the Dead.

While most of the nudie movies from that era have drifted off into obscurity, Orgy of the Dead has become something of a cult favorite, mostly because director Stephen Apostoloff (working under the pseudonym A.C. Stevens) was working from a screenplay by the notorious Edward D. Wood Jr., writer/director of such legendary low-budget bombs as Glen or Glenda? and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

By the time Orgy of the Dead was made, though, Wood's film career had taken a precipetous nosedive. He hadn't directed anything in years, was drinking heavily and supported himself and his wife mostly by writing "erotic fiction" for small presses. Wood did continue working on movies, though, mostly writing screenplays and sometimes directing similar soft-core fare (his last film, Necromania, includes hard-core scenes with porn legend Rene Bond). He also served as assistant director on Orgy. But this movie wasn't enough to boost his career, nor the careers of anybody else involved.

Why? Because it sucks. And not in a good way, either.

The plot is minimal: a writer and his girlfriend wind up in a cemetery, where the lord of the undead (played by Criswell, who wears a cape and has a lot of trouble reading his cue cards because the fog machines are on high) and his breasty associate, Ghoulina (Fawn Silver--do you think that's really her name?), make the couple suffer "the tortures of the damned," which seem to consist of watching exotic dancers come out and strip amongst the tombstones.

These strip acts take up much of the rest of the movie, with Criswell and Silver chiming in with comments on the performances from time to time. There are also a mummy and a werewolf on hand for no clear reason other than to crack lame jokes and make us really miss Lon Chaney Jr.

The strippers are all reasonably cute--I especially liked the leggy redhead, but that's just me--but their acts are ultimately dull and repetitive, and by the time the "twist ending" comes around, interest has long since been lost. There isn't even enough of Wood's standard bad dialogue to keep the viewer awake and appalled. (The screenplay must have been about five pages long.)

So if you're a real devotee of Ed Wood's work and feel that your life would be incomplete without having seen Orgy of the Dead, have at it, by all means. But don't expect anything as incompetent--or, consequently, as interesting--as Wood's more infamous cinematic atrocities.

The greatest sin of Orgy of the Dead is that it's not just bad--it's boring. And that truly makes it a "torture of the damned."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Review: Curse of the Cat People (1944)

When is a sequel not a sequel? When the studio wants a sequel, but the previous movie wasn't set up for one.

RKO was surprised and delighted by the success of Cat People, the first of its series of low-budget horror films produced by Val Lewton, and very much wanted a sequel, despite the fact that the lead character, Irena, played so well by the exquisite Simone Simon in the original, died at the conclusion. So Lewton and screenwriter Dewitt Bodeen took the title the studio heads handed them--Curse of the Cat People--and tried to work around these circumstances to come up with a sort-of sequel, with some characters returning from the original, but with no "Curse" involved and no "Cat People" in sight.

Instead, Lewton, Bodeen and directors Gunther Frisch--who went off to fight in World War II before the movie was finished--and Robert Wise (who was a film editor at RKO at the time, but went on to have a long, distinguished career, directing such films as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromina Strain, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Sound of Music, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director--craft a gentle fable that has elements and characters from Cat People grafted onto it.

Amy, a little girl who's the daughter of the architect from the first movie (Kent Smith) and his second wife, Alice (Jane Randolph, also reprising her role from the original), has an imaginary friend...who just happens to be the architect's first wife, Irena (Simon). The girl is lonely and isolated, with only the house help (calypso singer Sir Lancelot) and an aging, senile actress (Julia Dean) to talk to.

There are few scares in Curse. Dean does a great reading of Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow," which sets up a scene on an empty country road where Amy is sure that the Headless Horseman is going to get her. (This scene has some of the same tension as the more famous passage in The Leopard Man in which a young girl is stalked by an escaped leopard, only without that movie's gruesome result.) And, of course, there's a dramatic ending in which the little girl has to be place in jeopardy (real or imagined).

Fritsch and Wise keep Curse moving along and looking good, but the sensational title sets up an expectation that the movie attached to it can't deliver on (much like Lewton's The Ghost Ship, which also had a title that promised one kind of horror movie but delivered something entirely different). So even though Curse is a decent, intelligent little movie in its own right, it suffers by its connection to the original Cat People, which it's related to only in name. RKO would have been better off letting Cat People stand as a one-shot deal and doing this movie as a totally unrelated story under a different name.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Review: The Old Dark House (1932)

As I write this review on a late October evening, showers flow down the length of the Lake Michigan shoreline, wind-driven droplets tapping irregularly, but frequently, against the northernmost windows and walls of La Casa del Terror.

A cold night. A raw night. An inhospitable night. A perfect night to watch James Whale's The Old Dark House.

Many films in the first few years after sound films became the standard suffer from the lack of a musical score. Tod Browning's Dracula, for example, seemed lethargic and much longer than it actually was until the late 1990s, when Universal added a score composed by Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet; the newly scored version plays much better (though, for the sake of purists, the version without the score was included on the DVD).

No such problem afflicts The Old Dark House. It doesn't have a musical score either, but Whale--perhaps as a consequence of having a theater background, rather having made the transition from silent pictures (like Browning and so many other directors working in Hollywood at the time)--fills in the audio gaps with ambient sounds to be found on nights such as this, when howling winds, pounding rain, creaking doors, rattling windows, banging shutters, and, of course, the occasional blood-freezing, soul-curdling scream, make their own kind of music.
It's on such a night that three travelers--husband Raymond Massey, wife Gloria Stuart and friend Melvyn Douglas--try to make their way across the Welsh countryside. After they come to the conclusion that not only are they lost, but the roads behind and before them are blocked by the storm, they pull up to the isolated, desolate abode of the title, only to find Morgan, a mute, disfigured butler (Boris Karloff, who received top billing even though he only has a supporting role here) and the exceedingly odd Femm family: Bitchy, fearful Horace (Ernest Thesiger); cranky, hard-of-hearing-when-it-suits-her Rebecca (Eva Moore); and 102-year-old patriarch Sir Roderick (John Dudgeon, whose real name was Elspeth--yep, "he" was a "she"). Two more travelers--blustery Charles Laughton and petite Lillian Bond--show up, soaked to the bone, and they all try to ride the night out as the lights blink off and on and off again, shadows grow long on the dreary walls and Morgan gets absolutely smashed, which causes him to turn loose the one family member Horace and Rebecca neglected to mention--their psychotic, homicidal brother, Saul (Brember Wills).

Even though the action is held off until the very end of the movie--which differs from the novel by J.B. Priestley on which it's based, but not to the detriment of the film--The Old Dark House isn't slow or dull by any means. It follows the basic blueprint of many a "haunted house" thriller--like The Bat (or its sound remake, The Bat Whispers), The Cat and the Canary or The Monster--but differs from those films in a number of ways. It carries the dry wit that you would expect from a Whale movie, but here it not only lampoons the material at hand, but also hides the genuine scares along the way that much better.

The cast is extraordinary, with early appearances by actors (Douglas, Massey, Laughton) who would go on to be stars for decades to come and character actors like Theiseger to add saltiness and vinegar to the mix, and the performances are uniformly good, with Douglas excelling as a disillusioned veteran of World War I and Wills matching him as a madman perfectly capable of killing without even a twitch of conscience.

The sets are wonderfully large and gothic, with shadows painted onto the walls, just like in German Expressionist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Whale makes great use of the space he's given, moving his camera and characters about as he wishes for surprises both pleasant and frightening. And Whale may have been among the first directors to realize that "talkies" could be so much more than the voices of actors--that carefully orchestrated sound effects could do as much to establish and sustain mood as sets or actors ever could.

In fact, the only bad thing about The Old Dark House is its relative obscurity. Even with a prominent director and top-of-the-line cast, this movie vanished for decades--it was even thought to be a "lost" film (i.e., a film for which no print is known to exist) for a while. But it isn't lost. It exists. And it should be sought out and treasured by anyone who appreciates movies best viewed when the skies are foreboding, colorful leaves spin down from dark branches to the damp ground below, and there's an appropriate chill in the air.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Review: Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

In the drive-ins and neighborhood theaters of the 1950s, Earth was invaded over and over again by aliens, most of them hostile, ugly and intent on either destroying or subjugating our teeming masses. Some of them were globs of flesh-consuming goo; others were little guys with lightbulb-shaped heads who shot their victims up with alcohol from needles in their hands; still others were ambulatory eyeballs. (The 1950s were kind of messed up, folks.)

In Teenagers from Outer Space, released at the ass end of the decade (the same year, in fact, as Plan 9 from Outer Space--wow, 1959 was a vintage year for bad movies), aliens--none of whom look remotely like teenagers--land outside a desert town, intent on using our fair planet as a breeding ground for their livestock, which they call Gargons. What, you may reasonably ask, are Gargons? As presented in this film, they're back-projected, silhouetted lobsters. That roar.

No, I'm not making that up. I wish I were.

One of the alien "teenagers" ("David Love"--actually Tom Graeff, the director/writer of this crap) is a sensitive type who doesn't think the natives of Earth--hey, that's us!--deserve to be fed to giant back-projected silhouetted lobsters that roar, so he makes a run for it and winds up meeting a really cute girl (Dawn Anderson). And, of course, they fall in love in milliseconds.

But things aren't so simple. (Are they ever?) The good alien and the really cute girl spend the rest of the movie on the run from the bad alien "teenagers," who carry ray guns that turn living creatures into instant skeletons (not very nice). Then things get even worse: One of the Gargons starts to grow out on control and rampages across the countryside, tearing up shit and roaring as only lobsters can.

Teenagers from Outer Space has just about everything you'd expect from an ultra-low budget sci-fi flick from the '50s: lousy acting, spaceships that look like they were built by enterprising 12-year-olds and extremely cheap special effects. It's all laughably bad.

And did I mention the roaring lobsters?

The best that can be said for this movie is that much of the musical score turned up years later in a much better movie: George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. At least something good came out of this mess. It's not much, but it's something.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Movie Review: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

You know, we haven't had nearly enough zombie comedies.

Think about it. The undead have been lurching through our cinematic nightmares at least since 1932's White Zombie, but how many outright comedies have been generated by this popular subgenre? Zombies on Broadway? Return of the Living Dead and its immediate sequel? A few scattered direct-to-video efforts?

Now we have Shaun of the Dead, which has plenty of fun with past flesh-eating films--the title is a riff on George Romero's classic, Dawn of the Dead, and there are references aplenty to Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead, Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series and even contemporary horror movies like 28 Days Later....

But if Shaun were just a spoof of classic splatter, we could get a few good laughs and forget about it. But it also aspires to be a romantic comedy and a social satire as well--and succeeds at both admirably.

Shaun (Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script with director Eric Wright) has a dead-end job as an assistant manager at an electronics store in the greater London area. His relationship with his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), might be at a dead end, too: She's tired of spending her evenings hanging out at the local pub, the Winchester, with Shaun and his best friend/flatmate, the rude, crude, obnoxious and occasionally amusing Ed (Nick Frost). She wants to know where their relationship is going. When Shaun screws up dinner reservations the next night and suggests that they instead go to the Winchester, she dumps him. Shaun and Ed then go out and get good and drunk, not aware that, for whatever reason, the dead are rising and putting the bite on the living. (This is consistent with Romero's approach, where the plague of zombies is explained in, at best, vague terms.)

This leads to what has rapidly become one of my favorite scenes in any movie ever: Hung over and depressed about his breakup with Liz, Shaun pops out to the neighborhood convenience store, so wrapped up in his own misery that he's entirely oblivious to the walking dead all around him. It's funny and thought-provoking at the same time: How much of what goes on around us--immediately before us and in the world at large--do we miss when we're so self-involved?

Shaun and Ed find out about the situation soon enough, though, and come up with a plan: Pick up Shaun's mom (Penelope Wilton) and stepdad (Bill Nighy) and Liz, along with her flatmates, bubbly actress Dianne (Lucy Davis) and cynical, dour David (Dylan Moran), and head for the safest place they can think of: You guessed it, The Winchester.

The script is extremely tight and well thought out, with hardly a line thrown out that isn't referenced again later in the movie, while references to other zombie movies aren't so overt that they alienate those unfamiliar with the genre. (Musical cues are lifted from Romero's Dawn of the Dead, while character names and dialogue from Night of the Living Dead are called out, with Ed shouting, "We're coming to get you, Barbara!" to Shaun's mom through the phone.) And the horror and comedy aspects are balanced well, with Shaun's efforts to win back Liz while fighting off the living dead (Shaun swings a mean cricket bat).

The zombies themselves are the butt of some jokes, but are for the most part treated as real threats to life and limb. Because of this, the conclusion does have some downright serious, emotional moments, but this by no means negates what has come before. It only underscores how thin the line between comedy and drama--or life and death--really is, and how one can straddle the line deftly to produce a comedy/loving tribute also capable of causing scares and effective parody at the same time.

Shaun of the Dead is not only one of the best horror comedies ever made, but it so impressed Romero that he gave Wright and Pegg cameos in his own most recent undead epic, Land of the Dead. You can't get a much better endorsement for a zombie movie than that.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Review: Army of Darkness (1993)

Or do you call it Evil Dead III?

Yep, our much-abused hero, Ash--played once again by flexible, athletic and chiseled Bruce Campbell-is back to battle demons, witches and zombies. And this is an honest-to-badness sequel, picking up right where the last film left off--unlike its delirious predecessor, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn, which was really just a more muscular remake of the original Evil Dead.

We get a recap of the events that led Ash to his current predicament, including his stint as a clerk at a discount superstore ("Shop smart--Shop S Mart!") and his unfortunate trip to a remote cabin with his girlfriend, Linda (played in the flashback scenes by my longtime imaginary girlfriend, Bridget Fonda, who was a huge fan of Dead by Dawn and asked for a cameo in this film), who falls victim to the otherworldly forces released by the Necronomicon (the Book of the Dead to us ordinary folks). At the end of Dead by Dawn, Ash found himself flung into the distant past--Medieval England, to be exact--with only his chainsaw hand and his '73 Oldsmobile to comfort him.

And, as it turns out, all Ash needs to do is snag the Necronomicon (The Book of the Dead) in order to be returned to his own time--once he outmaneuvers an army of the undead and saves his Old England squeeze (Embeth Davidtz) from becoming one of them.

And that's about all there is to the plot, kids. As usual, Raimi plows forward with energy and style to spare, pretty much wearing the audience out by the end of its running time, which is either 81 or 96 minutes, depending on whether or not you're watching the "standard" version (the one released in theaters) or the "director's cut" (both of which are available on DVD). Each has a different ending--the original ending was too downbeat, so they had to shoot a "happy" ending and tack it on to keep the studio, Universal, happy. (I've seen both and personally think they're both weak, but at least the original ending is more in keeping with the overall tone of the series--Ash didn't get to have a happy ending the first two times around, so why should the third time be the charm?)

This time around, though, scares are few and far between, with Raimi and company playing more of a sword-and-sorcery riff; perhaps Raimi and producer Rob Tapert were just warming up for their stint in charge of the hugely successful The Adventures of Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess syndicated TV series. In fact, the leader of the undead army (who is an evil mirror image of Ash--don't ask) does the "Xena yell" ("Ayiyiyiyiyiyiyiyi!"), and Ted Raimi, who played Joxer on Xena, appears in multiple small roles here.

And the inventiveness of the previous movies in the series gives way to flat-out comedy and numerous references, both visual and dialogue, to other movies: I spotted nods to such diverse sources as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Enter the Dragon, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gulliver's Travels, The Manster, Frankenstein, Planet of the Apes, The Seven Samurai, Jason and the Argonauts, The Road Warrior and any given Three Stooges short. (I'm sure there are plenty that I missed, but they'll no doubt throw themselves out at me the next time I watch it.)

Ash seems different, too. Campbell plays him less as a man besieged and driven to the edge of madness than as a jaded smartass along the lines of the characters James Garner has played for so long (Medieval Maverick?), just not nearly as bright. Then again, if I were constantly being chased by rotting corpses and had to lug around a chainsaw in place of my right hand, I suppose I'd be more than a bit testy myself.

Army of Darkness doesn't match the sheer adrenaline rush of Dead by Dawn or the earnest, creep-inducing atmosphere of the original Evil Dead. But if aggressive goofiness is what you're looking for in a movie experience, Army of Darkness will fill your prescription nicely.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Review: Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)

When is a sequel not a sequel? When it's a pumped-up remake of the original. And, for most films, this would be a bad thing. But in the case of Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, the followup to 1982's The Evil Dead, it allows director Sam Raimi and leading man Bruce Campbell to revisit the basic good ideas of the original, expand upon them them and just generally dial the energy level up as far as possible.

Evil Dead 2 begins roughly the same way the first film did, with Ash (Campbell) showing up at an isolated cabin with his girlfriend, Linda (played this time by Denise Bixler...or would Ash be dumb enough to show up at the same cabin with another girl who just happens to be named Linda?), only to find that an archeologist and his wife have read from the Necronomicon, a.k.a. the Book of the Dead, and thus have awakened ancient, heinous spirits who now roam the woods around them. Linda gets possessed by demons; Ash decapitates and buries her; she gets up and dances around (in stop-motion animation, no less); and Ash himself winds up taken for a ride through the forest by the rushing, sinister forces (actually two guys running through the forest with the camera strapped to a two-by-four to give the viewer that "demon's eye" point of view--really).
(Some have argued that what I describe in the paragraph above is just a recap of the first movie, and that everything that happens afterwards makes this a true sequel. But this "recap" leaves out so much from the first Evil Dead--like the fact that there were a bunch of other crazy kids in the cabin with Ash and Linda in the first movie--which, in slightly altered forms, pop up later in this movie, that I still believe Evil Dead 2 to be more remake than sequel, with more money to spatter with blood and more experience for its actors and director. Now, on with the review, already in progress....)

Ash does battle with the demons on his own, eventually suffer the embarrassing fate of having his own hand become possessed, which slaps him around and attacks him with plates, and being forced to chop it off with a chainsaw, until the daughter of the archeologist (Sarah Berry) shows up with her doofy boyfriend (Dan Hicks), a tow truck driver (Richard Domeier) and his white-trash girlfriend (Kassie Wesley, who eventually wound up playing Blair on One Life to Live). Once they figure out that Ash isn't out of his damn mind (not entirely, anyway), they all do battle with the evil forces until those who are left read the appropriate pages from the Book of the Dead to close the otherworldly door that's been flung open--but not without consequences for poor, much-abused Ash.

One of the aspects that distinguish Dead by Dawn from its predecessor is its breakneck pacing. This movie steps on the gas and never lets up, constantly throwing one shock after another at the audience, like fountains of blood shooting from the walls or Ash's bothersome hand, which beats the ever-loving shit out of him, then continues to plague him even after it's been amputated. (It's in these scenes that Bruce Campbell reveals himself as a terrific physical comedian, literally flipping himself all over the place and cracking plates over his own head while in combat with his renegade hand--it's one of the most athletic performances in cinema history.)
There's a major difference in tone, too. The first "Evil Dead" was dead serious (pun intended), and thus very funny for all the wrong reasons. Dead by Dawn is, in actuality, more comedy than horror film-and is all the better for it.

There isn't nearly as much effort to scare the audience as there is to thrill, surprise, startle and amuse it. And Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn satisfies on all counts. It's exactly what it wants to be: a great ride.

And a few years later, the ride continued with Army Of Darkness, with an even bigger budget, even more laughs and even more Bruce Campbell one-liners.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Review: The Evil Dead (1982)

Even after having seen Sam Raimi's directorial debut, The Evil Dead, a few times, I still have to wonder where it got its reputation as being "the ultimate experience in grueling horror."

Oh yeah. Now I remember. It actually says that in the closing credits. (It's a quote from Stephen King, who really should have known better.) Too bad there's not much evidence to support that statement to be found in the movie that precedes it.

Granted, that's a pretty harsh statement. After all, it was a zero-budget effort slapped together over the course of years by a ragtag group of childhood buddies, including Raimi and Bruce Campbell, and they try to compensate for their lack of cash and experience with much energy and ingenuity. But energy and ingenuity can only cover up so many seams, and The Evil Dead shows more seams than a baseball tossed underhand by a Little Leaguer.

Campbell stars in the first of three frantic turns as Ashley--"Ash" to his friends--in this little story of several friends who go to a remote cabin for the weekend, only to find that the previous guests at the cabin, an archeologist and his wife, have accidentally turned demonic forces loose in the woods by reading pages from the Necronomicon, the legendary "Book of the Dead." Of course, the demons are still loose in the woods, and they start trying to pick off the friends one by one--via possession, attacking trees and good old-fashioned violence. Who will die? Who will survive?

The acting is mostly weak--to be expected, given the mostly amatuer cast--with the notable exception of Campbell, who flings himself about with abandon (I think he flies through the same shelving unit at least twice) and shows hints of the charisma that would lead him through a lengthy as a B-movie actor in genre fun like Bubba Ho-Tep and at least three TV series. The story is okay, but it's let down by the homemade special effects, which veer from the nasty (blood spurting in all directions) to the downright stupid (milk and oatmeal oozing from the sleeve of one of the possessed weekenders--was that what Sam was having for breakfast that morning?). There are also some really weird scenes, too, like the one where one of the women in the group is raped not IN the forest, but BY the forest. (Can't say I'd ever seen that one before...)

None of this is helped by the fact that it's all played deadly serious. If it had been done tongue-in-cheek, the cheapness of the production not only could have been forgiven, but embraced as part of the fun. While other low-budget horror films have played it straight and succeeded--Night of the Living Dead comes immediately to mind, as does Halloween--they played off their budgetary restrictions with more style.

I feel bad being so mean to The Evil Dead--like I'm kicking a asthmatic puppy or something. It was a nice try by some game by some amateurs who would go on to do much better work, but it's only interesting in that particular context. Take by itself as a horror film, it just doesn't stand the tests of time, talent and sloppy gore. It may have impressed Stephen King, or maybe he was just giving a hand to some crazy kids who made a movie out of virtually nothing and deserved a break. Either way, The Evil Dead doesn't live up to its reputation.

The next movie in the series, though, more than makes up for its lackluster predecessor: Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn is essentially a remake of this movie, but with a better budget, even more energy and lots of laughs--intentional ones, for that matter.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Review: Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957/59)

Friends and acquaintances often ask me, "What's your favorite movie?" I don't just have one, because I'm way too greedy to limit my love to just one film--I have a whole list. Some of the titles are obvious classics, like Citizen Kane or City Lights. Some are more modern critical hits, like Pulp Fiction. Still others are foreign landmarks, like Pandora's Box or Ran.

Buy whenever I get to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the listener invariably stops me and says," Wait, wait, wait...have you lost your damn mind? You can't be serious."

But I am. Plan 9 from Outer Space is one of my all-time favorite movies. And I'm not the least ashamed to admit it.

I'm not arguing that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a good movie. It's not. In fact, it's a very, very bad movie. But it's not the worst movie ever made. There are many more movies made by much more talented directors, writers and actors that have entertained me far less than Plan 9 does. However, since it sprang from the fevered brain of writer/director Edward D. Wood, Jr.--who had already crafted memorable bombs like Glen or Glenda?, a sensitive plea for understanding for transvestites (Wood was one in real life); Jail Bait, a hard-boiled crime thriller; and Bride of the Monster, a science-fiction monster show starring Bela Lugosi and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson--Plan 9 from Outer Space may well be the most incompetent movie ever made.

The basic idea of the story is a good one: Aliens land in a graveyard and try to take over the world by reanimating the dead and attacking the living. (A similar story was used for the only-marginally-better Invisible Invaders, released the same year as Plan 9, which had been shot a couple of years earlier.) It's the execution, on all levels, that elevates Plan 9 so far above all of the merely mediocre sci-fi/horror movies produced in the 1950s.

This movie goes wrong with the first lines of narration, delivered by faux psychic Criswell: "Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends: Future events such as these will affect you in the future." Much of the dialogue is similarly overblown, with much philosophising about life, death, science, outer space and war. The basic intelligence of human beings is even questioned: "...Because all you of Earth are idiots!" bellows the provacatively named Eros, played by the even more provocatively named Dudley Manlove, at airline pilot Jeff (Gregory Walcott, the only one who gives even the semblance of a professional performance in this movie), who spots a flying saucer while trying to bring his commercial airliner in for a safe landing one morning and subsequently winds up involved in intrigue involving the military, the undead and the extraterrestrial.

One of the undead is The Old Man, "played" by Bela Lugosi in unrelated footage Wood shot just before Lugosi died and repurposed for this movie. It's sad to see the once-great horror icon frail and obviously ill. It's even more sad to see him toddle off screen, grief-stricken (or so narrator Criswell tell us) because of the death of his wife (TV horror hostess Vampira, a.k.a. Maila Nurmi, who refused to speak any dialogue--good for her) and run over by a car (with an obviously fake scream and screeching of tires, and a freeze frame that holds Lugosi's shadow on screen even while the car is supposedly running him down). There are other shots of Lugosi inserted, but much use is made of a supposed "look-alike" stand in (played by Wood's wife's chiropractor)--who doesn't look a thing like Lugosi.

There are bad decisions and inconsistencies everywhere. The funeral for the old man's wife takes place at sundown. When Lugosi walks off, the gravediggers start their work, at which point, Criswell tells us, strange things begin to happen. We immediately cut to Jeff in his airplane (and the most unconvincing cockpit set ever)--at sunrise. And then we cut back to the gravediggers still working. (Did they dig all night?) Shots go from night to day back to night again. The flying saucers are plastic models held up by very visible strings. (They also cast shadows on outer space.) Tor Johnson plays the lead detective investigating the murders of the gravediggers (who get torn up Vampira, even though shots of her are obviously in a studio while shots of them are obviously are on location), but his dialogue is nearly unintelligible due to his thick Swedish accent. In the graveyard, grass is made of paper and tombstones are cardboard (and knocked over easily). Stock footage is used liberally.

I could go on and on, but you get the point: Plan 9 from Outer Space is one lousy movie. Yet every time I see it, I find myself wildly entertained by the whole ungainly mess, and I appreciate all the good movies I've seen that much more. I also appreciate the passion with which Wood approached his "craft." Maybe he wasn't competent as a writer, director or actor, but he got his "vision" up on the silver screen for all to see.

Ed Wood got to live his dreams, such as they were. And how many of us can say that?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Review: The Night Strangler (1973)

Successful horror films usually have sequels. Even made-for-TV horror films aren't immune: When The Night Stalker set ratings records in January 1972, a followup was almost immediately put into motion, with Darren McGavin returning as rumpled, abrasive reporter Carl Kolchak, Simon Oakland as his frustrated editor, Tony Vincenzo, Richard Matheson writing the script and Dan Curtis producing (and directing this time as well)--all elements that helped make The Night Stalker an instant classic.

So why isn't the sequel, The Night Strangler, anywhere near as good?

Maybe familiarity breeds contempt. Both movies have similar storylines. In The Night Stalker, Kolchak investigates a series of murders in Las Vegas that turn out to have been committed by an vampire. In The Night Strangler, Vincenzo is in a bar in Seattle drinking milk (it's all his stomach can take anymore) when he hears a loud, familiar voice: Kolchak, trying to get somebody to believe the vampire story and hire him--goals which turn out to be at odds with one another. Vincenzo then makes two huge mistakes: He hires Kolchak (maybe he feels guilty about what happened in Vegas?), and he assigns Kolchak to investigate the murder of a young exotic dancer whose throat was crushed and had a small amount of blood drawn from the base of her skull. Kolchak finds out (with the help of a researcher played by Wally Cox, in his last movie before dying of a heart attack at 49) that the murderer has been doing this in the city every 21 years since 1889. immortal, superstrong maniac killing beautiful women for their blood? Haven't we heard this one before?

Maybe the monster is too obscure, if the method isn't. Matheson used the legend of the Count St. Germain, who was said to have remained youthful and vigorous well into old age, as the basis for the killer in The Night Strangler. So even he apparently looks like a rotting corpse (we don't see his true face until the very end, which no doubt saved the production on makeup costs), it's not like the boogeyman is something recognizable, like a vampire, werewolf or zombie. Still, Richard Anderson (Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman) gives a cool, calm, restrained performance as the killer, who must prepare his "elixer of life" in a certain amount of time or he'll return to his true age. And since he plans on continuing to "perfect" his formula--and killing women--Kolchak does what he can to break the cycle--even if it may cost him his life.

Maybe Dan Curtis isn't as good a director as John Llewllyn Moxie. He's not. His directoral style is rigid and lacking spark, which doesn't help much when Matheson's script has a good deal more comedy in it (especially between Kolchak and Vincenzo) than the original had. At least he has a great cast to carry it off, including Scott Brady, Jo Ann Pflugg (as an belly dancer who helps Carl when a couple of her co-workers get killed), Al Lewis ("Grampa Munster" as a homeless drunk), Margaret Hamilton and John Carradine in an especially funny (if small) part as the newspaper's conservative publisher who takes a dim view of Kolchak's sensationalistic style.

Or maybe it's just the nature of sequels to be pale imitations of their predecessors. That doesn't make The Night Strangler a bad movie--it's got a good sense of humor and a great cast; there are scary moments, especially at the conclusion, set in the underground remains of Old Seattle; and it was more than popular enough to spawn a weekly series, which unfortunately lasted only one season (1974/75).

Maybe The Night Strangler isn't a must-see like The Night Stalker. But it has its moments. More than anything, it lets us spend more time with McGavin's Carl Kolchak, who is, in his own way, as distinctive a character as Peter Falk's Columbo. And that's a bit of fun.

Review: The Night Stalker (1972)

To put it as politely as possible, most made-for-TV horror films are just not good. They're derivative, lifting their storylines and monsters from their big-screen contemporaries. (Example: The Horror at 37,000 Feet combines elements from The Exorcist and Airport.) They're dull. They have tight budgets and restrictions imposed by network censors and concerned advertisers. Good ones are few and far between.

But for every rule, there is, naturally, an exception--in this case, The Night Stalker.

Darren McGavin finds the role of a lifetime as Carl Kolchak, a washed-up, rundown crime reporter for a Las Vegas newspaper who is underwhelmed at his latest assignment: The murder of a young woman who, it turns out, died of shock from massive blood loss. Two more victims turn up soon after, exhibiting the same massive blood loss. Kolchak sees a pattern, even though his hardass editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) considers it pure speculation and refuses to run the story.

Turns out Kolchak is correct--all three murders are connected. What's more, the medical examiner (Larry Linville) says that saliva was found in the wounds on the throats of all three women. Kolchak thinks it's "some nut who thinks he's a vampire," but the authorities refuse to believe it. Even Carl's friend, FBI guy Bernie Jenks (Ralph Meeker), tells him to lay off. But the murders continue, and the cops even corner the killer a couple of times, only to have him tear through the boys in blue like they were mannequins, even when they shoot him at close range. When the FBI determines that the suspect is 89-year-old Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater), wanted for a string of unexplained deaths going back at least 30 years, it becomes obvious--to Kolchak, at least--that this may not be "some nut who thinks he's a vampire," but an honest-to-goodness, actual vampire.

Based on a then-unpublished novel by Jeff Rice, himself a former Las Vegas reporter, and adapted for TV by Richard Matheson, author of numerous horror novels, short stories and screenplays, The Night Stalker takes a fantastic situation--a vampire on the loose--out of the fog-shouded streets and gloomy castles of classic horror films and integrates it into a contemporary situation--the hunt for a serial killer in a major modern American city. There is humor in the movie, especially in the arguments between Kolchak and Vincenzo, but the vampire is treated seriously.

And unromantically. He's a modern vampire in some ways--he drives a car, rents a house and uses disguises to slip into hospitals and steal plasma--but there's nothing suave, sexy or refined about Atwater's performance--he doesn't even have a single line of dialogue (unless you count snarls and hisses, which I don't). He is, simply put, an animal on the hunt; his hunting is ground Las Vegas, his prey the women there.

It doesn't hurt that producer Dan Curtis (who had produced the soap opera Dark Shadows and directed its big-screen incarnation) and director John Llewellyn Moxey (who had made City of the Dead a decade earlier) shows a steady hand, treating the material with an almost documentary level of respect. It also doesn't hurt to have an amazing veteran cast: McGavin (who played Mike Hammer on TV), Meeker (who also once played Mike Hammer), Oakland (the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho), Kent Smith (Cat People), Claude Akins, Elisha Cook Jr. and Carol Lynley (as Kolchak's girlfriend). And there's a terrific, jazzy score by Robert Cobert (who wrote the theme for Dark Shadows).

The Night Stalker was, when it was initially broadcast in January of 1972, the highest-rated TV movie of all time--with good reason. Not only is The Night Stalker the best made-for-TV horror film ever, but one of the best made-for-TV movies of any genre, period. It was popular enough to spawn a sequel--The Night Strangler, broadcast the next year--and a short-lived weekly series. That series inspired Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, and has further inspired a "reimagined" series this year, which actually plays like a recast X-Files (they're reporters instead of FBI agents) without any of the humor of the original and was dropped into the time slot opposite CSI and The Apprentice. (Why not run this new Night Stalker in the middle of the night? I think more people would see it.)

Skip the "reimagined" version. This is the only Night Stalker you need.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Review: The Fog (2005)

Generally speaking, remakes are a bad idea. Why? Because most remakes tackle movies that were just fine in the first place and thus didn't need to be remade at all. Example: Did we need a remake of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory? Depends. Did you like the original? Many people did. But did we get a remake anyway? Of course we did.

Many people liked John Carpenter's The Fog, too. Some of them are close friends of mine. I liked parts of it--the opening with John Houseman telling stories around a campfire is brilliant and evocative, while the shots of dark figures moving through the fog are enough to give you nightmares. But there was a lot about it that didn't make sense, like why the ghosts waited 100 years to exact their revenge (when everybody they wanted to exact revenge on was long since as dead as they were), why they chose to kill some people but not others (i.e., all the recognizable names in the cast), and why, at the end of the movie, they go away again.

The new remake of The Fog, produced by Carpenter and Debra Hill (who also produced the original) and directed by Rupert Wainwright (best known for Stigmata and a whole lot of music videos), tries to answer those questions, but instead raises even more--namely, "Why bother to remake a movie if you can't really improve on the original?" and "Creativity in Hollywood really is dead, isn't it?"

On scenic Antonio Island off the coast of Oregon, a statue is about to be dedicated to the four men responsible for founding the town, where Nick (Tom Welling) operates a fishing boat with his "Gilligan," Spooner (DeRay Davis), and Stevie (Selma Blair) owns and DJs at a radio station in a lighthouse on the coast. In the prologue, we see those four founding fathers rowing away from a ship, the Elizabeth Dane, that has been set afire by the four. One of the men accidentally drops a heavy bag over the side--a bag that, back in the present day, Nick's boat anchor snags and rips open, which holds valuable personal items from the passengers of the Elizabeth Dane. That's enough to rouse the still-angry spirits to come back to land and whoops some living ass.

That night, while Nick is picking up his ex-girlfriend, Elizabeth (Maggie Grace)--funny that she has the same first name as that ship, huh?--hitchhiking along a dark road (they wind up back at his place and have the least erotic shower sex ever), Spooner has taken the boat out with a buddy and a couple of girls. Then the badly CGI'd fog rolls in--which we see from the fog's point of view (FogCam?)--and very bad things start to happen. Father Malone (Adrian Hough) seems to have a clue about what's going on, but he's way too drunk to help. The next morning, Stevie's son, Andy (Cole Heppell), finds a silver hairbrush washed up on the beach, just as an old man had found a pocketwatch the day before--think they came from that bag of booty?

Before you know it, the fog rolls in again, people start dying and characters start running around trying to save other characters.

Does that sound exciting? Or scary? It's not. Everything happens slowly, there's no particular pattern to who gets killed by the ghosts in the fog--some have to walk out into the fog to get nailed, while the fog sneaks into nooks and crannies of houses and cars to nail others. Or not. The ghosts themselves can't make up their undead minds about what they are or how they do what they do: Sometimes you can drive right through them, other times they can stab you, burn you, strangle you, etc. There aren't any basic ground rules for the characters--or the audience--to wrap their noggins around.

None of the actors embarrass themselves, although most of the characters are so annoying, irritating or obnoxious that you kind of hope somebody reaches out from the fog to drag them away. (Only Stevie really avoids being an ass, but that could just be me cutting slack because of my longstanding crush on Selma Blair.) Much of the plot tracks closely with the 1980 original, aside from some touches lifted from Japanese horror films (the obsessive use--some would say overuse--of water as a supernatural element) and an ending that differs substabtially, but is even less satisfactory.

Most shockingly, though, the special effects are actually a step back from the original, where the fog looked natural and threatening and the figures in the fog were mostly silhouettes with hooks. Here, both the fog and the ghosts are rendered with the kind of lowest-level computer graphics you'd expect to find in a movie on the Sci-Fi Channel.

This new version of The Fog could have improved on or clarified what was muddled or off-key with the 1980 version. Instead, it makes us appreciate the original that much more.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Review: The Ghost Ship (1943)

When you look at the title of this movie--The Ghost Ship--you might well assume that this is a supernatural thriller about a haunted sea vessel. And when you see the name "Val Lewton" attached as producer--responsible for such horror classics as I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People, you just know this is a supernatural thriller about a haunted sea vessel.

Both reasonable assumptions. But wrong.

Executives at RKO determined the often sensation titles of the movies Lewton would make, but Lewton determined the content. For The Ghost Ship, Lewton opted not to take the title literally, but use it as an opportunity to make a psychological thriller in which a ship isn't haunted by ghosts, but a flesh-and-blood man is consumed by his personal demons, making him a threat to all around him.

A young seaman, Tom (Russell Wade) ships out as third mate under Captain Will Stone (Richard Dix) who, unfortunately for everyone involved, is slowly going insane and bumping off anybody who crosses him, like a shipmate (Lawrence Tierney) who speaks out against the captain and is later "accidentally" crushed to death by an anchor chain. When Tom voices his suspicions about Captain Stone, he becomes the next target, and the rest of his shipmates (Including Calypso singer Sir Lancelot) won't help because...well, Stone is the captain, and on the sea, the captain's word is law unless Tom can prove that Stone is out of his mind.

Like all of Lewton's movies for RKO, The Ghost Ship has a moody look to it, with lots of low-key lighting and sweaty close-ups, especially of former silent film star Dix (whose name sounds like a modern male porn star pseudonym). His performance as Captain Stone is reserved and tense, rather than loud or flamboyant--no giggling psychotic here--making it all the more chilling. Mark Robson, who worked as editor on other Lewton movies before finally getting a shot at directing on The Seventh Victim, keeps things grim but well-paced, and there are a couple of good scares to be had: The murder of Tierney is harrowing, since the audience realizes his fate well before he does, and a later scene in which Wade must stay in his cabin despite the lock having been removed from the door is proof that a little paranoia goes a long way.

The key to enjoying The Ghost Ship is not to lower your expectations, but adjust them. If you come in looking for a solid psychological drama rather than a spook show, you'll enjoy The Ghost Ship, especially if you've ever suspected that your boss just isn't quite right in the head.

(Note:: This Ghost Ship isn't in any way related to either of the two much later movies with the same name (one released in 1980, the other in 2003). Both of those have actual ghosts on board. Both of them are very bad movies.)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Review: Waxworks (1924)

Like Weird Tales, Waxworks is an anthology horror film (i.e., a collection of short stories with a wraparound story holding them together) filtered through the distorted view of German Expressionism. This time around, the director is Paul Leni, who later emigrated to the United States, where he made The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs for Universal.

In addition to a highly respected director, Waxworks boasts an all-star cast of German actors, including Emil Jannings (later winner of the first Oscar for Best Actor for The Last Command), Werner Krauss (who played the title character in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Conrad Veidt (who appeared in so many German--and later American--Expressionist films, like Caligari, Weird Tales and The Hands of Orlac).

A young writer (William Dieterle, who became a director himself and made RKO's version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the big-screen adaptation of Steven Vincent Bene's The Devil and Daniel Webster) comes to a wax museum on a boardwalk, where the proprietor, who has a pretty daughter, asks the writer to pen stories based on each of three wax figures: Haroun-Al-Rashehid, the Caliph of Baghdad (Jannings), Ivan the Terrible (Veidt) and Spring-Heeled Jack, better known as Jack the Ripper (Krauss). We get to see the stories as they're written.

Story One: Haroun disguises himself as a commoner to go out and make moves on the wife of a baker (player by the same actress playing the proprietor's daughter), while the baker (played by Dieterle), determined to prove his manhood and love to his bored wife, goes off to steal the Caliph's magic wishing ring, even if he has to hack off the Caliph's hand to do it....

Story Two: Ivan the Terrible delights in watching poisoned prisoners die in his own private torture chamber. He comes down to the chamber and looks from the prisoner's face to the hourglass counting the last moments of life with mounting anticipation until, when the prisoner expires at the same time the sands run out, Ivan's face is contorted with what can only be described as orgasmic ecstasy. The Czar's poison-maker expects to be killed himself by the mad czar, so he writes Ivan's name on an hourglass. Later, Ivan is asked to attend a wedding. He switches clothing with the father of the bride, thus getting Dad killed during an assassination attempt. Then he steals the bride and sends the groom to the torture chamber! What a freak! But then there's that hourglass with Ivan's name on it....

Story Three: The writer falls asleep and dreams that he and the proprietor's daughter are pursued by Spring-Heeled Jack through numerous Expressionist sets and shadows.

Leni wisely puts the humorous story of the Caliph up front, puts the longest story in the middle, and concludes with the most fantastic and nightmarish story. All of the sets are wonderfully distorted, each story contains an element of the fantastic (magic, madness and murder), and the actors all give it their best, most vigorous shot (especially Veidt, whose wide-eyed Ivan is fearsome).

Waxworks lingered for decades as a neglected movie, more rumor than classic, seen only in tattered, worn-out prints with only production stills and reviews of the day to attest to its alleged greatness. The print I first saw on videotape a few years ago was dark and truncated, making it difficult to truly appreciate the elaborate sets and energetic performances. A couple of years ago, though, Kino released a set of German Expressionist horror films, including Waxworks. The print was cleaned up and restored, making it easier to appreciate what Leni and the cast were going for and revealing a lost jewel of the silent era to horror film fiends everywhere.

Caligari and Nosferatu may get all of the attention when silent German horror films are discussed, but now Waxworks can properly join them as a topic well worth talking about--as a moody entertainment well worth examination and praise.