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.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Review: The Leopard Man (1943)

The night is dark. The girl is young. And frightened. She didn't want to go to the store. She didn't want to get the cornmeal. She knew about the leopard that had escaped from the club and was frightened. But her mother chided her for being afraid, and her little brother made fun of her. So out she went into the dark. Her mother bolted the door behind her and told her she would't be allowed back in unless she came back with the cornmeal for the tortillas.

On her way back from the second store (the first store she went to was closed, and the owner's wife didn't want to open up again, if even for a minute), she must pass beneath the train bridge again. In the darkness, she can see two points of light--the glowing eyes of the escaped leopard. A train suddenly passes overhead. When she looks again, the eyes are gone. but when she emerges from the underpass, the leopard is sitting atop the embankment. She screams. The leopard springs after her. She runs for her life, spilling the cornmeal.

She pounds on the door of her family's home. "Mamacita!" she screams, "If you love me, let me in! Mamacita!"

Her mother is unimpressed and thinks her daughter silly for being so afraid. "It's coming closer--I can see it!" The girl screams one last time. There's a sickening "thud" against the door, and what sounds like an animal snarling. "Wait, Teresa," the girl's mother says. "I come. I will let you in." But it's too late--the only answer her mother receives to her cries is her daughter's blood flowing beneath the door.

The scene above, one of the most intense and unnerving in any horror film, is from The Leopard Man, the third collaboration between RKO producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur (after Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie)--and, unfortunately, the last. They play with big kitties again in this mystery set in New Mexico.

The agent (Dennis O'Keefe) for a dancer (Jean Brooks) devises a plan to draw attention away from her rival, a flamboyant flamenco dancer (Margo): His client will walk into the club where they perform with a leopard on a leash. Great plan...till the flamenco dancer frightens the cat and it dashes off into the night. When the young girl is killed, the agent and dancer are torn apart with guilt. But when two more women die in a similar manner, the agent becomes suspicious: Is the leopard responsible for these new deaths, or is something--or someONE--else responsible?

It's not too difficult to figure out what's going on in The Leopard Man. Because Tourneur and screenwriter Ardel Wray spend a lot of time on introducing us to characters who, in very short order, are knocked off, there are very few characters that carry from the beginning of the movie to the end, thus cutting the suspect list down to next to nothing. And we know it's not the leopard killing off all the pretty girls--the title tips you off to that, and the trailer (included on the newly released DVD) flat-out says there's a human killer on the loose. That leaves the viewer to admire the style of the movie, which, like all of the Lewton/Tourneur features, is great to look at, visually elegant and restrained. (Go back to the scene above. We don't see Teresa die--hearing her beign torn apart is more than enough for the imagination to fill in the rest.)

But The Leopard Man is less engaging than most of Lewton's other features, perhaps because the mystery is so easily solved, because there is no supernatural element present (despite what the title implies) and because all of the characters who get terrorized in this movie are young, beautiful women, thus qualifying The Leopard Man as an early prototype of the mad slasher film.

I'm not sure that's necessarily a good thing.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Reveiw: Weird Tales (1919)

The anthology horror film, in which several short stories are presented with a framing story or a narrator to link them, has come and gone in popularity, with high points in the 1940s (Dead of Night) and the 1970s (The House That Dripped Blood, Trilogy of Terror). But the form's roots go deeper and farther back than that, with the German-made Weird Tales (which has also been shown under names like Eerie Tales, Five Sinister Stories and Tales of the Uncanny) possibly being the earliest surviving example.

An antiquarian book dealer is shutting down for the night when three aggressive, mischievous spirits--one of whom is played by Conrad Veidt, the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (also released in 1919)--chase him out. The spirits, two men and one woman, then start picking up books at random and reading stories. We get to see the five stories they read, each of which involves a lover's triangle of one kind or another (and features the three actors playing the spirits as well):

Story one: A man walking through the park helps a young woman who's being accosted by her seemingly insane husband. He takes her to a hotel room for safekeeping and (of course) falls instantly in love with her. The woman in question, however, is far more--and far less--that she appears to be.

Story two: Two men fall for the same woman. (Don't you hate it when that happens?) One strangles the other and, years after he's married the woman of his dreams, is haunted by the spectre of the man he murdered. (Don't you hate it when that happens?)

Story three: A drunken man murders his beautiful wife and seals her body up in a wall. Unfortunately for him, he seals up their cat as well. (Sound familiar? It should: It's a fairly faithful adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's famous short story, "The Black Cat.")

Story four: A man walking through the woods spots an unusual house (always a bad sign). He's told that the house is empty, but when he visits again he finds it abuzz with activity. He sees a beautiful woman (of course) in one of the windows and is captured by the inhabitants, who turn out to be a secret club that plays a game every night: everybody draws a card, and the one who pulls the Ace of Spades must die. This leads to a tense duel of wits between the man from the woods and the club's gamemaster--a duel to the death.

Story five: The bored wife of an aristocrat becomes fascinated by the stories of a fop (who looks a hell of a lot like modern British comedian Rowan Atkisson), who brags of all sorts of acts of bravery and daring-do when he is, in reality, a coward. The husband gets pretty annoyed with this nonsense and leaves on a trip. Before the lying fop can seduce the lady of the house, though, strange things start happening, like objects moving on their own and....

Director Richard Oswald tells most of the stories with strange, ominous shadows and low-key lighting--typical of German Expressionism--with the second story as probably the closest to scary and the fourth story as the most engaging, worthy of a feature-length treatment. Only the last tale is played for comedy, which weakens the film as a whole--it would have been more effective to end with a more powerful, truly scary story than to conclude with a laugh.

Still, it's a reasonably entertaining silent film--which was long thought to be lost--carried off with considerable style. And a restored print of it recently toured the country, so who knows? Maybe it'll be on DVD sometime soon--a survivor from an era from which the majority of films (90%, by some estimates) don't exist at all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Review: The Black Hole (1979)

A good friend of mine likes to refer to Disney's The Black Hole as "the best '50s sci-fi movie made in the '70s."

He has a point. Of all of the movies and TV shows that came in the wake of Star Wars trying to capitalize on the sci-fi craze it generated--Battlestar Galactica, Moonraker, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, Battle Beyond the Stars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture among them--The Black Hole is, in many ways, the most old-fashioned of the bunch--which, considering most of those titles listed above are outright remakes, is really saying something. Then again, The Black Hole is a remake of sorts, too--its basic plot follows the general outlines of the 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (also a Disney picture), with bits of Forbidden Planet (which featured the work of several Disney special effects artists on loan to MGM) thrown in and an ending that tried to out-trip 2001: A Space Odyssy.

The Palamino, commanded by Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster), comes across the title cosmic oddity, and something even more odd: A large spaceship hovering close to the black hole, seemingly immune to its gravitational pull. The ship turns out to be the Cygnus, presumed lost with the father of Kate McCrae (Yvette Mimieux) aboard. The crew of the Palamino, which also includes Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), Scientist Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins), reporter Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) and a smartass little floating robot named V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (voiced by Roddy McDowell) who has an ESP connection with Kate (robots have ESP?), decides to get a closer look at the Cygnus.

Bad idea. Really bad idea.

After almost getting sucked into the black hole, Holland and crew board the Cygnus, only to find only one living human left: the brilliant-but-batshit-crazy Doctor Hans Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell), who plans to sail the Cygnus straight into the black hole because he thinks he'll discover the answers to all of life's mysteries. Or something. His crew consists of nothing but robots (or so it would appear), including the psychotic Maximillian, who looks like a combination of Darth Vader and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still dipped in red paint. (If he had been painted black, George Lucas would have sued for sure.) Holland just wants to make repairs to the Palamino and get the hell out of there, but Kate wants to know more about what happened to the human crew of the Cygnus (Reinhardt says they all died after abandoning ship...riiiiiight), and Alex has some kind of science-crush on Reinhardt. And, of course, Reinhardt has no intention of letting any of them leave--alive.

All of this would be fine as simple space opera, but a lot of time gets wasted following V.I.N.C.E.N.T. and another cute robot named Bob (voiced by Slim Pickens) around as they alternate between "funny" scenes of outwitting the robot guards and serious stuff as they discover what Doctor Reinhardt has really been up to all these years--and what he plans to do now.

The cutesy robots also highlight the weaknesses in the production design, which veers wildly from brilliant (the cathedral-like look of the Cygnus, complete with stained-glass control panels on the bridge, and the gritty look of the Palamino) to extremely cheap (V.I.N.C.E.N.T., whose "aw, isn't he precious!" look often doesn't match the harder-edged dialogue spoken by Mcdowell, or the tin-foil headgear planted on Kate when Reinhardt tries to kill her). Some of the design even looks like it came straight from outtakes of Forbidden Planet. There are brilliant, poetic moments--Harry Booth staring into the reflective face of a robot, or the descent of the Cysgnus into the black hole--and equally brilliant but highly improbable ones--during a cosmic storm, a huge meteor crashes into the Cygnus and rolls down the center of it, straight toward the majority of the cast; are meteors round enough to roll, and wouldn't everybody have been sucked into space? And do I need to mention that the black hole itself looks sort of like a swirling, Technicolor drain?

The script is just as inconsistent, trying to bring up major philosophical and religious issues (Dante's Inferno is mentioned) on the one hand while serving up unintentionally hilarious moments, like Reinhardt slapping his forehead repeatedly over Maximillian's incompetence or the twitching expression on the face of a Palamino crew member as Maximillian's whirling blades slice and dice. Characterization wanders all over the place, too--Alex seems way too smart to be so smitten with Reinhardt (and for no apparent reason), while Harry goes from cynical sidekick to self-centered coward in nanoseconds.

Even the music is all over the place, sounding moody and evocative in some places and cribbed from a Saturday morning cartoon in others. Some of it wouldn't even sound out of place in a James Bond film--perhaps because it was composed by John Barry, who scored many of the James Bond films.

The biggest problem with The Black Hole is the journey into the black hole itself. It's set up throughout the film as something amazing, spectacular and life-altering, but the head-trippy visuals and attempts at profundity, irony and closure instead provoke giggles--and that's from the potheads in the audience. The rest of us just stare and mutter, "That's it?"

Somehow, I don't think that's what Disney was going for.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Review: Phantom of the Opera (1962)

Toward the end of his career, Cary Grant was interested in doing a horror film--something he'd never done before--and he approached Hammer Studios, which had successfully revived the classic monsters of the Universal stable of the 1930s with a string of hits like Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and Curse of the Werewolf. Hammer responded by presenting Grant and his agent with the script to its adaptation of Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, which had already been filmed a couple of times (in 1925 and 1943 by Universal. Grant's agent rejected the script, turned off by Anthony Hind's lurid, violent take on the classic tale, and Grant never made a horror film.

Sometimes, agents are right.

This version of Phantom of the Opera, co-produced with Universal, is a dreary affair, with the action inexplicably moved from Paris to London, Where Professor Petrie (Herbert Lom) tries to enlist Lord Ambrose D'Arcy (Michael Gough at his reptilian best) as the patron for his music. Instead, Ambrose steals the music and puts his own name on it. Petrie tries to destroy all of the copies of the music by burning them, but the fire gets out of control and, when he tries to throw what he thinks is water on the flames, Petrie catches a face full of acid instead. Petrie escapes the fire and throws himself into the Thames, but a dwarf (Ian Wilson) finds him in the sewer and rescues him.

Meanwhile, at the opera, Christine (Heather Sears) is set to play the lead in a production based on the story of Joan of Arc, but loses the part when she won't sleep with D'Arcy, who wrote the opera (except he didn't--Petrie did). Christine gets fired, along with her boyfriend, Harry (Edward de Souza) and just about anyone else who doesn't like D'Arcy (which is, in fact, everybody), but the dwarf kidnaps Christine so Petrie can "teach" her how to use her voice. (His "teaching" method includes slapping Christine and splashing her face with sewer water.)

In fact, the dwarf gets most of the nasty bits the Phantom usually does, like hanging nosy stagehands and stabbing a ratcatcher (a pre-Doctor Who Patrick Troughton) in the eye. He even precipitates the "exciting" conclusion, where he causes the chandelier to fall, at which point the Phantom tears off his own mask (why?), leaps onstage to shove Christine out of the way (quite a jump--maybe the lack of a mask made him more aerodynamic?), and is crushed by the chandelier himself, even though the chandelier doesn't look much bigger than the one that used to hang in my grandmother's living room.

That chandelier points to another huge problem with this version of Phantom. Many of Hammer's movies were low-budget productions, but the studio was able to mask (no pun intended) that fact with gothic sets and fast pacing, both of which kept you from looking too carefully at anything but the action. But the opera sequences here look like they were put on by a particularly hard-up community theater (especially compared the 1943 version), and Terence Fisher can't pump much energy into the proceedings.

Lom's Phantom has the scariest mask of any of the big-screen "opera ghosts," but that's not the point. It's the man under the mask who's supposed to be scary. And this Phantom fails on that score. Just as the movie as a whole fails on every other score.

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Review: The Corpse Bride (2005)

The TV commercials shown for Tim Burton's Corpse Bride prior to its release might well confuse the casual viewer: A brief look at the animation style combined with the Danny Elfman music playing underneath could easily give the impression that Corpse Bride is a sequel to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

But that impression would be wrong.

Corpse Bride may be done in the same style as its illustrious predecessor, with stop-motion/computer aided animation and features songs by Elfman, but it's no more a sequel than The Year Without a Santa Claus is a sequel to Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town.

Still, the recycling of the Elfman track from Nightmare Before Christmas for the Corpse Bride commercials invites--practically begs--comparisons between the two movies. And that isn't fair to Corpse Bride, especially considering the nearly beloved status the previous film has attained over the years since its release in 1993. Also? It's not as good.

For Corpse Bride, Burton co-directs (along with Mike Johnson) the story of Victor Van Dort (Johnny Depp), who is about to enter into a marriage to Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) arranged by their mutually odious parents, the Van Dorts (Tracey Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) and the Everglots (Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney). Victor is extremely shy and nervous, badly fumbling the wedding rehersal before Pastor Galswells (Christopher Lee). He wanders out into the forest and practices his vows, eventually hitting them flawlessly and even slipping the wedding band on what looks like a gnarled branch.

But, of course, it's not really a branch at all, gnarled or otherwise: It's the ring finger of Emily, the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), long ago murdered by her fiancee, and now claiming Victor for her own--well, he said the vows and slipped the ring on, didn't he? This leads to a tour of the Land of the Dead, which looks much more colorful, interesting and fun than the Land of the Living, which is all black-and-white and shades of gray and not very fun at all. Even so, Victor wants to get back to Victoria, whose parents are all-too-happy to cancel the engagement to Victor and marry off their little girl to the smooth, smarmy, mysterious Barkis Bittern (Richard E. Grant).

There's really not much more plot than that, other than Victor's efforts to return to life and the question of who killed Emily in the first place. But Corpse Bride isn't about plot--it's about visual style and tone. The animation is delightful, playing even more closely to the Rankin/Bass holiday specials from our childhoods than Nightmare did. The Land of the Dead, in particular, is a wonder, with dancing/singing skeletons, a maggot (Enn Reitel) who sounds like Peter Lorre, a helpful Black Widow (Jane Horricks) and various ambulatory undead. As dull as life is among the living, it's strange that Victor wants to go back at all.

Burton has assembled a formidable cast of actors he's worked with before (Depp, Carter, Finney, Lee, Elfman, Michael Gough and Deep Roy) and a few other recognizable names, but aside from Lee and Gough (as an under-the-ground wiseman), most of the vocal performances lack passion and energy. Depp, in particular, sounds flat, possibly because he and Burton were shooting Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the same time. Elfman's score isn't impressive or memorable, either, with four songs that left my head as soon as they stopped playing.

But Corpse Bride does look great, is very short (76 minutes) and has a reserved sweetness that keeps it from just being leftovers reheated one too many times. It may not match giddy heights of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's grimly charming in its own right and deserves to be seen as something separate--and fun in its own special, slightly demented way.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Imagine a Rankin/Bass holiday special written by Charles Addams and designed by Edward Gorey, and you've pretty much got the gist of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Based on a story by Tim Burton (hence his name in the title), The Nightmare Before Christmas is the story of Jack Skellington (speaking voice by Chris Sarandon, singing voice by Danny Elfman, who also provides the score and songs), the "Pumpkin King" of Halloween Town, where all of the frights and scares for All Hallow's Eve are manufactured by various creeptacular denizens--werewolves, vampires, witches, etc. Jack is the best at what he does, but he's bored with it all and wants something more, something new, in his (after)life.

While walking through the forest with his ghost-dog, Zero, Jack stumbles onto the doorways to the homes of other holidays, including Christmas Town, where Santa Claus (Ed Ivory) is busily preparing for the upcoming yuletide season. Jack falls through the door and is enthralled by what he finds on the other side: Snow! Lights! Tinsel! Ornaments! Presents!

When he returns to Halloween Town, Jack is determined to have a go at this Christmas thing himself--which, of course, would mean putting this "Sandy Claws" fellow out of the way until the holiday is done. Jack enlists Lock, Shock and Barrel (Paul Reubens, Catherine O'Hara and Elfman, respectively), three little trick-or-treaters who are scarier with their masks off, to kidnap Santa without doing him harm. Unfortunately, they work for Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), a burlap-wrapped, maggoty, malevolent ghost who'd be more than happy to take over Halloween Town if Jack's so tired of it.

Meanwhile, Jack goes on trying to duplicate the Christmas spirit (filtered through his Halloween sensibilities, so you wind up with stuff like bat garlands and gifts that try to eat you) with the help of mad scientist Doctor Finkelstein (William Hickey). Only Finkelstein's assistant/creation, Sally (O'Hara), thinks this is all a spectacularly bad idea. Of course, she's also in love with Jack, even though he can't see it (I feel your pain, girlfriend).

All of the above is, of course, plot summary for The Nightmare Before Christmas and nothing more. It doesn't convey the wonder of the stop-motion, computer-aided animation directed by Henry Selick It doesn't properly capture the charm, wit and cheerful morbidity (can one be cheerful and morbid at the same time?) of Caroline Thompson's script, which dances carefully between comical creepiness and holiday/romantic sentimentality while throwing in sly references to classic holiday specials. (Zero's little pumpkin nose just happens to glow like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's--wonder who will wind up pulling Jack's sleigh?) It doesn't speak to the catchiness of Elfman's songs, most of which will be stuck in your head for days.

If this movie were just a satire of all those seasonal specials we grew up with, it'd still be great fun. But throw in its serious message about taking risks (for both satisfaction with your life's work and for someone you love), its gothic charm and its ultimate sweetness the final scene is tear-inducing), and The Nightmare Before Christmas becomes something unique: An animated feature that has itself become a classic for not one, but both of America's most popular holidays.

Friday, October 7, 2005

Review: Dracula's Daughter (1936)

When Universal announced in trade publications that they intended to finally produce a sequel to the film that started the horror boom of the 1930s, Dracula, they made it clear that the followup would eclipse the original--and every other Universal horror film--in scale and importance, with James Whale (director of many of the studio's horror hits) in charge and Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Colin Clive set to star. (Lugosi would only appear in flashbacks, since his character died at the end of the original.)

But by 1936, the horror boom had waned, with monster movies being censored or outright banned here, there and everywhere. Universal still went forward with Dracula's Daughter, but they scaled the production down significantly, keeping Whale, Karloff and Clive off of the project. (Lugosi remained under contract for the movie, even though he doesn't appear in it, even in flashback, and wound up getting paid more than he'd made for Dracula.)

This doesn't mean that Dracula's Daughter is a less effective movie for its reduced budget and lesser-known cast. In fact, it's one of the most interesting (if least-known) of the horror cycle of the 1930s, even if it comes at the tail end of that cycle.

Dracula's Daughter picks up immediately after end of Dracula, with Doctor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan, reprising his role) having driven a wooden stake into the Count's black, black heart. The police tend to frown on such antisocial activities, though, and Van Helsing gets arrested and charged with murder. Sir Basil Humphrey (Gilbert Emery) of Scotland Yard presents Van Helsing with his options, which are pretty limited: Either he's convicted and sent to the gallows, or he'd declared insane and spends the rest of his days in an asylum. Van Helsing asks for the help of one of his former students, Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to prove that he's neither crazy nor homicidal.

Meanwhile, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) comes to see Dracula's body--and then kills the attendant, steals the body and, with the help of her manservant, Sandor (Irving Pichel), burns it (actually, a wax dummy taking the place of Lugosi).

As you might have guessed, Zaleska is also the title character. But the Countess isn't a typical vampire--she hates what she is, believes that she's being dominated by her father's will, even from beyond the (now-permanent) grave, and wants Jeffrey to help change, even as Sandor (who appears to be a bloodsucker himself) scowls and doubts not only that she can change, but that there's any reason for her to change.

When she and Jeffrey discuss her compulsions (in the most general terms, of course--wouldn't want to tell a psychologist that you're a 100-year-old vampire), it sounds much more like they're talking about drug or alcohol addiction (Jeffrey even refers to treatment for alcoholics) than a taste for O-positive. Jeffrey recommends that she confront her impulses straight-on: "The next time you feel this influence, don't avoid it. Meet it. Fight it. Score the first victory." The Countess acts on Jeffrey's advice and sends Sandor out to find a, a volunteer to come back to her studio in Chelsea to "model" for her. Sandor finds a lovely young girl, Lili (lovely young Nan Grey), and brings her back to Zaleska, who finds herself unable to resist her bloodlust after all.

This scene with Lili has become famous because it plays very much like a lesbian seduction--something one doesn't expect to find in a mainstream horror film from a major studio. When Lili comes to Zaleska's studio and is offered food and warmth by the fireplace, the Countess can't take her eyes off the girl, especially when Lili removes her blouse and holds the front of her undergarment up with her hands. Zaleska stares not just with interest or even longing, but pure hunger. It's an erotically charged moment, no question. The legend of vampirism has always had sexual connotations--what with domination of another will, penetration, sucking, etc.--but said connotations were usually pushed to the margins in the horror films of the '30s and '40s. To see them displayed overtly in a movie of the period can be startling.

Alas, the Countess not only can't deal with her need for the red stuff, but can't control her emotions, either: She falls in love with Jeffrey and wants him to become undead, too. To this end, she kidnaps Jeffrey's wisecracking socialite secretary, Janet (Marguerite Churchill), who's also in love with him, and travels back to the old homestead in Transylvania to lure him there. Jeffrey, of course, charges off (since, of course, he's in love with Janet), with Van Helsing and Sir Basil in hot pursuit, toward the exciting conclusion.

Director Lambert Hillyer (who also helmed The Invisible Ray with Karloff and Lugosi that same year for Universal) and cinematographer George Robinson (who also lensed the Spanish version of Dracula a few years earlier) fill Dracula's Daughter with great mood and atmosphere, making the foggy streets of London even more alluring and menacing than usual. Holden, who never became a star and made very few movies period, gives a restrained, underplayed performance unusual for the Universal horror cycle where subtle acting was a rarity. Even when Holden delivers Lugosi's most famous line from the original--"I never"--she does so offhandedly, as if Zaleska is acknowledging her dark nature without embracing it.

Hillyer and Holden's restraint helps make the title character a more-or-less sympathetic one, even as she's giving in to her destructive impulses. Given that, in most horror films, the audience looks forward to the defeat of the monster, it's very different--and refreshing--to feel sadness, even pity, when that defeat is delivered.