28 June 2016

Schoolgirl Spooky!



Schoolgirl Spooky!
By Kristin Battestella



Ah, young love, coming of age, high school, sorority parties! These aren't such fond memories for the past and present students in this trio of international girl horrors tackling frights, naughty innuendo, the supernatural, and killers on the loose. You know, the usual. 



The Falling Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams leads a group of hysterical English schoolgirls in this 2014 period mystery complete with creepy folk tunes, beautiful landscapes, and old time school bells. The similarities with Picnic at Hanging Rock are also apparent with latent BFFs, a budding blonde, the awkward brunette, the chubby girl playing an instrument, and a science girl in glasses. They sit outside with umbrellas with their pretty teacher, swans, and stopped watches while resentful older crones roll their eyes, and its discomforting to see virgin girls in pigtails discuss orgasms and solving one's pregnancy problems via spells, knitting needles, and a medical book – with icky tips from your brother, too. Maisie's Lydia talks sophisticated but remains a little girl hiding in a nursery cupboard perhaps unaware of why she wants her pretty friend to herself. She browbeats her smoking, washed up mother – the unrecognizable Maxine Peake (Silk) – and is too full of herself to consider her mother's reasons. There should have been more of the adult perspectives bolstering the school and religious structure against the natural, tree loving girls growing up too soon. These teens are trying to be shocking, rebellious, and acting out vicariously – regrets, sexual activity, unhealthy obsessions, and experimentation escalate into fainting fits and faux orgasmic hysteria. Unfortunately, unnecessary music video styled transitions, subliminal strobe inserts, and modern meta interference detract from the repression and grief while external music and spinning cameras make the fainting spells laughable. Did they practice falling? How many flopping on the floor takes were there? Characters calmly step over the girls on the floor, and bemusing “thud” closed captioning accents Lydia's falling and taking everything off the table with her. The middle aged women have a good laugh over these young kids thinking they are older and misunderstood, and faculty debates on science and attention seeking are much better – are the occult, local lay lines, nearby supernatural trees to blame? Do you ostracize one or hospitalize the entire class? Faking or follower questions layer the second half alongside school consequences, perception versus reality, lesbian whispers, and sexual violence. Although the medical testings feel glossed over, the intercut eye twitching, body language, and question and answer psychiatry suggest more – as do other shockers dropped in the last ten minutes. Writer and director Carol Morley's (Dreams of a Life) long form narrative does get away from itself, and this try hard can't always be taken seriously. However, this tale both glorifies femininity and vilifies budding women and the spinster the way society both pedestals and shames, adding enough food for thought to some of the inadvertent chuckles. 



The House on Sorority Row – Pranks and murders on campus, oh my! This 1983 cult slasher opens with a risky pregnancy, pulsing heartbeats, and emergency scalpels before trading the stormy past and blue patinas for some sunny eighties happiness. Everything is so young, beautiful, and babealicious when you graduate from college! It's still fun to see retro cars or rad vans, huge cameras, records, waterbeds, fluorescent fashions, and colorful wallpaper – though there's too much teal and pink for my tastes. Coiffed older women also look quite forties with floppy satin bow shirts and stockings, visually creating a generational divide to represent the living in the past mentalities or old fashioned thinking – they'll be no goodbye parties, beer, or horny and useless frat boys in this house! While there is no chubby gal with glasses, there are some ugly guys used for humor and splatter, and in true eighties horror movie requirement, there is a girl too old to be in pigtails alongside the sex and boobs. Why don't these graduated girls just leave instead of pranking the old lady that wants them to abide the rules of her house? Not to mention they are some pretty poor party hosts – one should always wait to kill somebody till after the festivities so arriving guest don't interfere in your getting rid of the body blundering. Creaking rocking chairs, nursery rhyme music, creepy jester dolls, and a nasty looking cane perfect for bludgeoning accent the good girl versus bad girl slaps, gun play, and deserved turnabouts. Granted, there are some chuckles thanks to stupid actions, some identity of the murderer obviousness, and an overall tameness on what is now a cliché genre formula. Perhaps the one by one kills are predictable – there's a dame alone in the dark basement, because, of course – however the suspense, shadows, and unseen killer editing are well done. The primary location intensifies the bathroom traps, warped mothering, and well paced pursuits while surprise color, angles, and apparitions add to the solid final act. Although the gore isn't elaborate for the sake of it, there are some bloody, creative moments, and this fun, half a million dollar ninety minutes does everything it sets out to do without resorting to today's in your face spectacle.



Picnic at Hanging Rock – The Criterion blu-ray has almost two hours more features discussing this 1975 Australian spooky drama based on the Joan Lindsay novel about schoolgirls gone missing in 1900. The innocent white lace and valentine wishes are soon to be ill foreboding thanks to eerie music and budding whispers. These girls tighten each others corsets in parallel shots with mirrors, BFF poetry, latent suggestions, and repression abound. The seventies breezy fits the late Victoria ruffles, hats, and parasols – gloves are permitted to be removed for this excursion! Capable Aussie help and buttoned up British elite mark a strong class divide, and pretty mountain vistas, wild vegetation, and rocky mazes contrast the lovely yet out of place English manor. Straightforward, controlled camerawork captures the society at home, but surreal, swooning outdoor panoramas invoke Bermuda Triangle suggestions alongside dreamy voiceovers, rolling cloud rumbles, and red symbolism. Insects, reptiles, swans, disturbed bird migrations, fickle horses, watches stopping at noon – the metaphysical or transcendental signs imply something beyond mere coming of age and sexual awakening. Trance like magnetic lures radiating from the titular nooks and crannies stir these Gibson Girl naps, and askew slow motion reflects this layered beauty meets danger. The enchanting blonde, the nerdy girl with glasses, an awkward brunette, and the complaining chubby girl – standard horror stereotypes today – all talk as if they are up to something naughty with self-aware doomed to die chats before scandalously removing their shoes and stockings. A flirty French teacher, the severe math teacher in red reciting lava flow build up and volcano rising statistics with an uncomfortable kinky – we don't see what happens. However, hearing the screams and watching the resulting hysterics make it creepier. Incomplete searches, Victorian speculation, and unreliable witnesses muddle the investigation, but most importantly, doctors assure the survivors are still chaste. Such delicate interrogations and polite society leave newspapers and angry townsfolk wondering while the school faces its own fallout with withdrawals, unpaid terms, drinking, and guilt. Yes, there's some artistic license with absent families, poor forensics, and missing evidence ignored. Surprising connections, however, and good twists in the final forty minutes keep this damn disturbing – and it's all done without gore or effects. The innate power of suggestion, period restraints, and our own social expectations drum up all kinds of unknown possibilities, and I don't know how anyone doesn't consider this a horror movie.


24 June 2016

British Thrillers and Tales



British Thrills, Chills, and Horror Tales
by Kristin Battestella



Let's travel across the pond and back a decade or two for these British crimes, English folktales, night terrors, and cult fears. Pip pip!


Bluebeard – Aerial accolades, colorful balls, and a lavish mansion aren't enough for Welsh titan Richard Burton as he creatively works his way through Sybil Danning (Chained Heat), Raquel Welch (One Million Years B.C.), and more dames in this 1972 retelling. Dark room red lighting, old time photography, ink blot artwork, and portraits of the dead add a sinister sense of sophistication as wartime flashbacks and flight disasters explain the flashy facial hair. Unfortunately, tense hunting accidents are too realistic in their animal killings, putting a damper on the well shot action alongside a confusing setting with Nazis talking Aryan beauty, World War I inserts, and a mod mood that feels too sixties. Saucy lace and classy nude women keep every frame pretty, however the famous ladies are dubbed, barely named or developed, and naturally come and go quickly save for singer Joey Heatherton in the first hour. A photograph of each Mrs. with her name and date would have helped heaps in documenting the fatalities rather than haphazard trips down memory lane dragging the middle and stalling the forward discovery. The uneven, meandering focus between the psychosis and a current escape undercuts the audience's emotional attachment – no guillotine pun intended. Burton is having a great time, but we never really get inside the killer's mind thanks to a superficial, lighthearted tone glossing over the potential sexual impetus or mother/son suggestions. Impotence jokes interfere with the women hatred and warped lust deserves death theories, and the prostitute girl-on-girl practicing isn't as tantalizing as it should be – just inadvertently humorous like the score. Dusty suits of armor, wine vats, mysterious keys, secret cameras, and electric chairs do much better in hitting home the peril amid cobwebbed passages, secret spiral stairs, and gruesome taxidermy everywhere. Perhaps the thin points of the original tale are at fault, but this account relies more on the viewer knowing fun deaths are afoot and enjoying the merry-go-round instead of embellishing the story all the way. Despite lacking polish and being a bit too tame, there are fortunately some delightful performances to be had here – especially Welch as a hot nun who seriously got around before the habit.


Fear in the Night – Writer and director Jimmy Sangster (Lust for a Vampire) opens this 1972 Hammer creepy with playgrounds, children singing hymns, and sweet Tudor mansion turned school locales. Judy Geeson's (Mad About You) 22-year-old Peggy should find such quaint idyllic well and jolly good when she moves to the school's cute cottage with her new husband Ralph Bates (Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde). Unfortunately, bathroom break ins, masked attacks, prosthetic arms, and others claiming the intruder wasn't there add mentally unstable doubts alongside prior hospital stays and chats with an unseen therapist. This out of term school is empty – covered furniture, set tables with no one there, little beds waiting – not to mention the creepy sculptures and isolated uncertainty. The viewer is invested in the characters thanks to such underlying suspicious, Latin classroom whispers, and charming but surely up to no good headmaster Peter Cushing. His innocent gentlemanly teacher facade quickly becomes old school imposing with “Do an old man a favor” innuendo when Peggy sits in a child size desk while he compliments her. The audience sees clues she doesn't, but we are also cut away from other attack details, adding to the non-believer questioning. Likewise, pre-Alexis Joan Collins is simply too stern, self-assured, and beautiful to be the little old headmaster's wife. Rabbit hunting, loaded guns, home alone at night fears, and scary noises about the house just don't add up, and although slightly sloppy, the intercut sessions with the therapist askew the timeline, creating more unreliability on what has happened. Interspersed awkward meetings and slow burn tensions are somewhat uneven as well, lowering scenes into a lull before false happiness and then topping the act off with a scare, however the rural setting allows for both large scale frights and smaller, intimate interior terrors. Individual sequences are well shot with tense shadows, staircases, echoes, and odd behaviors accenting the unexplained action, trauma, and twists. Shrewd viewers will peg some of the gaslighting obviousness and psychological games at work and there is a certain dull lack of Hammer panache at times, but the cast and final pursuits give this one an entertaining finish.



The Lair of the White Worm – Sleek Amanda Donahue (L.A. Law), posh prick Hugh Grant (Bridget Jones' Diary), the obviously dubbed princess Catherine Oxenberg (Dynasty), and scientist Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) star in this 1988 Ken Russell (Lady Chatterley) vampire comedy drawing from Bram Stoker and earlier English tales. Granted, there are no subtitles, making the assorted dialects or cheeky banter tough for some. Folk rock stylings combined with neon and line dances are out of date, too, however the music does provide critical pieces on the eponymous legend. The horror gross buffet winks on English cuisine – setting the quaint country mood alongside a deputy who can't come to the scene because the chief has taken their one car and the lone taxi driver is locked up for drinking. Alas, backyard archaeology uncovers giant, inexplicable fossils amid Roman foundations – leading to vanished parents, cavern evidence, and spelunking for dragon-like earthworms. Ominous short cuts culminate in garter belts, black lingerie, thigh high boots, and steamy baths from one suave ladyship neighbor. The trouser snake and one-eyed monster meets vampire penetrations provide eighties wit and sexy yet absurd self-awareness while nudity and girly temptations accent the creepy paintings and stewardess dream sequences. Fiery flashbacks with nuns, crucifixion, nasty worms, and rapacious Romans look effects poor, yet the bizarre and scary visuals remain effective. Christian versus pagan virgins and scarifies call out both schools as warped angles, hypnotic camera zooms, and well shot frames capture the background crucifix or the monstrous altar in front. Victim paralysis, hissing, lengthy fangs, and spitting venom create a unique reptile design matching the snakes and ladders symbolism and heavy rituals interrupted by the gosh darn bloody doorbell. Although this has a very British, over the top cheerio tone, that bemusing pip pip bungling at times impedes the heroes. It's not scary and snake charmer musical moments are laughable today – but those bagpipes do come in handy! Evil manor surprises result in an intense monster ritual finale complete with green effects, blue body paint, snake gods, visions of bloody bodies on spikes, and a bonus scary looking strap-on giant pointy dildo thing...ouch.



Nothing but the Night – Lovely seaside waves escalate toward explosive cliffside accidents and townhouse suicides in this 1973 ninety minute thriller full of fun seventies interiors and retro British stylings. Funky patterns and zany lamps catch the eye while cool cars, phone booths, tape recorders, old science equipment, teletype machines, and printouts accent the rowdy school bus, suspicious orphanage, and hospital experiments. Meddling newspaper reporters uncover mysterious trust organizations with cult connections, and scholarly doctor Peter Cushing and personally invested police colonel Christopher Lee work together as membership fatalities, red tape, politicking, and aristocratic histories impede the case –leaving a traumatized young girl in the balance. Yes, oft onscreen rivals or villains Big Pete and Our Man Christopher are good guys (!) on the same side (!!) unraveling past traumas and fiery experiences with hypnosis and tender child moments as they battle against a prostitute mother and shady trustees. Both the doctors and the law are trying to do what's right, and Georgia Brown (The Raging Moon) holds her own against misogyny, little woman in the workplace tensions, and some mixing business with pleasure. Fedoras, spotlights, and silhouettes also invoke a noir mood over the seemingly straightforward corruption – initially there really isn't much horror or sinister to the procedural and press conferences. However, freaky deaths, fine child performances, and possibly supernatural twists soon imply something is not right about this island orphanage beyond the converging crimes. Some viewers may find the plot basic with too many layered possibilities lacking a cohesive finesse, and perhaps this should have decided on being all spooky or only straight crime rather than tacking on science and brain talk versus paranormal connections. I also wish Lee's Charlemagne production company had done more films, but the cast, period investigation, increasingly creative kills, and ritual murders do hit home the occult history with shocks, surprises, bonfires, and a crazy good Guy Fawkes finale.

16 June 2016

Just Vamps 6!



Just Vamps 6!
by Kristin Battestella



Here we are on our sixth vampire viewing list – this time with a hungry helping of foreign, avante garde, and saucy little bloodsuckers to tempt your toothy grin.



Dracula's Widow – Red titles, neon signs, and late night storms set the Hollywood horror noir tone for this 1988 vamp moody from director Christopher Coppola (Deadfall) and starring Sylvia Krystel (Emmanuelle). Wax museum artifacts, rattling crates, and jar specimens add an old fashioned Gothic creepy while antiques, retro film reels, red spotlights, and colorful shadow schemes invoke period style. Musty books, horseshoe phones, swanky jazz, and classic cars are sweet, too – better than the dated hairstyles, shiny suits, and symbolic red splash screens inserted over the toothy bites. Krystel's forties femme suit and silky white shirt also mystically remain blood free despite claw-like webbed hands and bemusing gore. Camera irises, stockings, garters, and mid century hats do more for the noir update than the unnecessary bitter detective voiceover and cranky cop clichés – bad dialogue and unfortunate scene chewing miss the attempted dark comedy mark. This movie is very specific on the eighties does forties hot minute, and while audiences from those eras will recognize the look, most viewers today will just end up confused by the seemingly mishmashed genres thanks to the uneven then-contemporary hip and devil worshiping punk gangs intruding on the otherwise careful noir design. Fortunately, there are some good moments here, a lot of the campy works, and the eighty-eight minutes moves fast with investigation clues and vampire research – complete with a crazy, feeble Van Helsing who still has enough amazing strength to stake some vampires in the morgue. Interesting Renfield transformations and conflicts accent boobs, rack torture, bathtub perils, rituals, and slice and dice montages so laughable they are actually kind of good. Despite seriously Saturday morning cartoons ridiculous flying bat graphics and hammy interference, the eighties visual schemes do make for a unique yuppie horror retro and late night suave to fulfill your unintentional vampire comedy needs.


Lips of Blood – French Director Jean Rollin gets right to the mausoleums, Winnebagoes, shrouded bodies, coffins, and rituals in this more upscale than his usual 1975 tale. A somber score, beautiful but spooky memories, and a mysterious woman in white are immediately eerie while a colorful, swanky party and retro fashions create drama and a sophisticated foundation. Blocked childhoods, an overprotective mother, and castle ruins maybe real or imagined add to the secret cemetery passages, hidden tunnels, and questions regarding perfume, scent, and memory. Naturally, there's nudity both male and female complete with a bonus photography session, seventies bush, and masturbation. However, the saucy isn't as rampant here, and this has a more put together story compared to Rollin's usually thin plotlines. Although there is a bit of walking around filler, blue street lights and a moonlight ambiance anchor the after hours aquarium pursuits with an abandoned about the city feeling – there's a dead body in the water fountain and The Shiver of the Vampires is playing at the late night movies, too. Mysterious men follow on the subway while bells, alarms, abductions, and straight jackets intensify the bats, toothy vampire nurses, and undead who help one and hinder or kill another. Phone the mayor the hungry, naked, vampire chicks are loose so gather the staking posse! Though rushed in the end, the unique finale is well edited with an interesting mix of doubt, mystery, character drama, and a sexy creepy. Who's the worse villain – entombed vamp ladies or the village torch mob? And who knew coffins would float so well? Did we know this?


The Shiver of the Vampires – Pall bearers and a black and white graveside set the 1971 Jean Rollin mood before colorful castle ruins, overgrown greenery, and edgy music both embrace the heady and keep the medieval flair with torches, goblets, and candelabras. Howling winds, red lighting, and askew camera angles accent torture chambers and sacrifices, creating a surreal dreamscape with saucy vamps in ye olde but tie dye dresses. The bride in white contrasts those mourning in black while gruesome skulls belie the cathedral architecture, canopy beds, and rustic yet cozy fireplaces. She's too distraught for the marital bed – but our bride strips downs when a hippie woman humorously pops out of the grandfather clock and they lez be friends no questions asked. Sheer clothing doesn't cover the perky naughty bits, so they need all those furs to keep those caressing ladies warm. That poor lonely groom gets left out in the cold! More camera panning, vampire opportunists stepping in and out of the frame, and overhead shots parallel the us versus them debates and whirlwind talk of undead religions and vampire persecutions. Although flashbacks add to the dreamy tone, they also confuse the wild library scene and talk of past crusades, former vampire slayers, and predestined deadly fates. But hey, killer nipple spikes! Yes, the premise is thin with strung together coming to and going fro or looking cool, meandering scenes. Rather than one vampire perspective or the young couple viewpoint, the focus constantly resets. Who's dead? Who's alive? Who's undead? Rival vampire hierarchies at first seem tempting, but twists and true colors ultimately show. Granted, you can say that if you've seen one Rolling vampire movie, you've seen them all. However, had there been seriously proper writing, The Nude Vampire, Shiver of the Vampires, and Requiem for a Vampire could have been a fine trilogy. Fortunately, the nicer production values keep this bizarre romp brimming with an avante garde but no less creepy atmosphere.


Tale of a Vampire – A delicious Julian Sands (Warlock, people, Warlock) leads this 1992 brooding character study brimming with “Annabel Lee” and Poe references to match the bleak back alleys, dark morgues, abandoned blue buildings, and dreary British mood. Despite the underlying urge to bite, predatory love, black cats, creepy vampire beds, and sucking on some bloody fingers, this isn't a gorefest thanks to multilayered social awkwardness, melancholy, loss, and conflict. This lovelorn vampire spends his time in the rare books section of a sweet old library – you use that card catalog! The plot is unfortunately very slow, the isolated characters have no sounding board, and confusing flashbacks of lookalike women and lost bliss don't explain much. The centuries ago golden patinas are well shot, however the uneven pacing and flawed constructs interfere with the storytelling. We should have seen the past to start, using that previous to accent the current torment and slightly unreal, demented fairy tale tone. Why is the audience more sad than creeped by this thirsty stalker? Fine performances carry the drama once the characters actually interact by quoting history and poets in insightful two-handers. “'Tis better to have loved and lost” and all that. Lighting and shadow schemes add to the mysterious rivals, for good love or ill pain possibilities, and strange seductions. Can it really be love if a vampire's idea of romance is to consume the life of his lover? It's oddly pleasing to see this kind of twisted vampire bite symbolism rather than teenage moon eyes, and this simmer builds to a fine finale with some interesting surprises. While not scary, the Gothic romanticism and Victorian waxing on forever and death not being the end of love provide a solid helping of morbid and memento mori.


07 June 2016

The Munsters: Season Two



The Munsters Uneven Second Season Still Full of Fun Treats
by Kristin Battestella



At once The Munsters seems like a short-lived show with two seasons worth of spooky shtick – if you've seen one episode with lovable monster Herman, vampire housewife Lily, The Count Grandpa mad scientist, unfortunately normal niece Marilyn, and little werewolf son Eddie then you've seen them all. However, with thirty-two episodes for the Second 1965-66 season, The Munsters both strays from its affable formula yet provides enough hair-brained fun for triple the time of today's shorter, ten or thirteen episode seasons.

Lying down on the job, getting mistaken for a customer – The Munsters' funeral parlor jokes continue this season in “Herman's Child Psychology.” The family gathers around the dusty organ for a sing a long and nice father and son moments turn into bemusing reverse psychology as peer pressure puts Eddie in a mini rebellion phase. It's a simple premise, but this cool refresher even kids that these kinds of things are supposed to work on Leave it to Beaver. Likewise, everyone struggles to all fit on the couch for a family photo and end up victims of the powder poof in “Herman Munster, Shutterbug.” Lily knows Herman dabbling in photography will be botched somehow, and sure enough, the clan ends up humorously held hostage after Herman inadvertently snaps bank robbers in the act. Of course, the crooks can't handle The Munsters at home, but Grandpa sides with Herman and Marilyn with Lily when the couple both secretly take second jobs to buy each other 1865 anniversary gifts in “Happy 100th Anniversary.” Not only do they scare the employment agency, but the two end up working side by side – but in their welding masks. Granted, The Munsters repeats on the moonlighting jobs, and gosh it sure was easy to get work for a week back then. However, parallel scenes, charming quips, mistaken hijinks, and men versus women in the same workplace combine for some preposterous, memorable laughter. Grandpa says the dripping with class Munsters must frighten the common man and that's why they can't get a renter for their guest room in “Lily's Star Boarder.” Of course, jealous man of the house Herman objects to the idea, snoops, and jumps to a totally wrong conclusion about their secretive guest. Rather than a crooked swindle, here The Munsters smartly puts an outsider in the mansion and lets the happenstance ensue. Unfortunately, the court thinks Herman hitting his head and getting amnesia is a Candid Camera stunt in “John Doe Munster.” Lily and Grandpa must go to the adoption judge over comic book reading Herman – who doesn't recognize his family. However, he does think Mrs. Munster is a cute cookie and is willing to go home with her if he gets his own TV set!


Meetings with the Mayor, creature sightings, and pesky reporters make for an interesting mix of humor and politics when Grandpa's anti-voting machine and Spot's running away clash in “Underground Munster.” Whispers of corruption, red tape, and a politician really throwing dynamite on the situation add to the race against the clock, and The Munsters gets better midway through the season as secret passages in the dungeon lead to the discovery of an old fort in “The Treasure of Mockingbird Heights.” Labels such as “playpen” and “hobby room” on the ye olde prison stocks delight Herman and Grandpa – not to mention the map to buried pirate treasure. After all, the boys agree such luck doesn't happen to this kind of nice, normal family. Teamwork, humorous obstacles, surprises, and suspicions keep the two-hander cracks fun. Unfortunately, Eddie's being bullied and Herman faces practical jokers at work in “Herman's Peace Offensive.” While doing the right thing, not resorting to violence, proper parenting, and standing up to bullies are basic sitcom topics, The Munsters' unique brand adds witty gags alongside parlor zest and father/son boxing gone awry. The lessons are learned – although innocent Herman mixes with horse racing bookies instead of discouraging Eddie from gambling in “Herman Picks a Winner.” Fred Gwynne also goes sans monster makeup after “disfiguring” stray lightning in “Just Another Pretty Face,” making for one of the most memorable Munster episodes. It's Herman complete with all the same mannerisms, but the repulsed family takes him to the doctor and considers plastic surgery. Poor Herman feels Hollywood flashy in a regular suit and too embarrassed to go to the parlor, but his original Dr. Frankenstein blueprints and some mad scientist twists bring rectifying delights. Likewise, “Zombo” provides great horror within the horror as Eddie becomes obsessed with the titular host's show – only to be shocked and disappointed at the behind the scenes fakery and “This is television” cardboard veneer. Here The Munsters uses the spooky bad horror expected of the era to wink at their own comedy as well as the still relatively new vogue of television.

Viewers also get to see more of the funeral parlor after Herman's publication of “Going out to Pasture” in “The Mortician Monthly” for “Cyrano de Munster.” When he turns to ghost writing love letters for a co-worker and Lily finds out, well, The Munsters add its own spin on the familiar theme. And imagine, back then, one had to look up people's addresses in the phone book! Dr. Frankenstein IV stops by in “A Visit from Johann,” and Gwynne does double monster duty again as the eponymous but less sophisticated Herman lookalike. Johann, however, escapes the dungeon and ends up on a switcharoo honeymoon weekend with Lily. Alas, it's Herman ruining Grandpa's go kart birthday gift for Eddie that brings the father and son-in-law to war in “A House Divided.” Booby traps and elaborate alarms lead to the divvy of mansion property with competing televisions, rival organ music, and newspaper squabbles. Instead of cruel crooks, the bemusing nasty stems from the territorial escalating, and rather than some kind of scam, the car accident victim of the jaywalking Herman tries to settle in “Herman's Lawsuit.” Her lawyer sees their lifestyle and thinks The Munsters destitute, but the out of touch family doesn't realize they are the ones being paid! The unplanned series finale “A Visit from the Teacher” sees Grandpa's crazy invention to save electricity, Herman electrocuted while trying to fix the toaster, and Eddie's school essay about his zany family – bemusingly summing up The Munsters in a little episode about nothing but them being themselves. Of course, the school officials think it is all just a disturbing fantasy until they end up trapped in the coffin phone booth, and The Munsters think it is nothing but plain old jealousy when others don't appreciate their good-natured hospitality.


Generally, The Munsters' episodes have a Munster moniker in their title, and the names of each half hour pretty much giveaway that show's entire plot. However the titles aren't shown in the episode's credits this season, and Year Two is slow to start with the same unnecessary gimmicks and dancing bears. Repeat bank heists and people fleeing in super speed get old fast and detract from the family humor this show does best. Rather than takings cues from its own brand, The Munsters relies on too many then-references and jokes that will fall flat for audiences mid-century unfamiliar. Quoting other television shows in attempted self-awareness doesn't work when the family themselves behave inconsistently and out of character from episode to episode. One and all happily go to the beach without negative comments on sunshine and nice weather, Herman says he never won an award when he just did win the episode prior – isn't grilling wolf burgers a little cannibalistic? Dated stereotypes and an evil Russian trawler in “Herman the Master Spy” add to the unevenness in the first half of the season, almost as if the show doesn't know what to do beyond putting the family in outlandish stunts such as “Bronco Bustin' Munster.” Fun individual moments like Herman's clumsy, house damaging, not so athletic grace in “Herman, Coach of the Year” are like every other sports episode, and attempted, ahead of their time comments on gay marriage, cross-dressing, and male to female body switches come off as woefully unsmooth. The hypnosis and hiccup gags in “Herman's Sorority Caper” do enough alongside the drive-in showing “The Beast That Ate Lower New Jersey,” however, frat boys abducting Herman and sorority shower traps dampen the fun, and The Munsters often resorts to such dumb turns rather than fully embracing its potential for unique, spooky horror treats. “Big Heap Herman” piles on stereotypical Native American portrayals – with Native Americans complaining about their faux village tourism and putting on stereotypical Native American portrayals. There's promise with tiny cabin births and little ladders for physical gags, but somehow it all comes down to two vampires walking through the desert. Say what?

He may speak a bit of Spanish and basic French, but Herman Munster's family knows he is a big boob who can get lost on the way home and needs his inflatable sea horsey to go scuba diving. Herman wants to impress his family at all times and be their hero but still have time to catch up on Little Orphan Annie. He's 152 and in the prime of his life yet afraid a hair cut will ruin his rugged Steve McQueen look. Herman falls for every trick in the book, as in “Herman, the Tire Kicker” when he uses his $375 bonus to inadvertently buy a hot lemon for Marilyn. However, he laughs at his own jokes, too – which makes Herman all the more lovable whether the pun is stellar or corny. In “Will Success Spoil Herman Munster?” Herman plays guitar and sings a song, leading to radio stardom that naturally gets the better of him. Gwynne's simplest slapstick actions and solo physical humor are always good fun, and this season the majority of episodes focus on Herman. He only cracks the mirror twice and school professors take Herman for a missing link in “Prehistoric Munster,” but when offered a happy hour drink, he agrees to a hot fudge sundae with pecans on top – and kicks back four of them. Although I wish we saw more of him at the funeral parlor, about his work Herman says, “I really dig it.” When promoted to driving the Hearst for “Herman's Driving Test,” he discovers his license expired 20 years ago, which means good old law abiding Herman has been driving almost the entire series without a license! Tsk tsk. Of course, Lily gets unnecessarily jealous and easily angry at Herman despite their long lasting marriage – she wore a black veil and held their wedding reception in the family mausoleum. They aren't seen in that shocking double bed together as much, but Lily keeps herself classy with braids, a black parasol, and an old fashioned bathing suit at the beach. Her iconic dress actually changes quite a bit, but hello, tiara! Lily puts out her best bone china for guests and makes everyone's favorite owl egg omelet brunch complete with bat milk yogurt, salamander salad, vulture livers, and cream of buzzard soup. Ever the loving aunt, she calls home from the movies to check on Marilyn – if only because the western movie massacre was disappointing thanks to all the fake blood. Lily paints, sculpts, and although she enjoys having the lights out and needing a candle during nighttime storms, she also want the television back ASAP. She gets very upset when Herman turns handsome – er gruesome and often lays down the law with her family. While early on Yvonne De Carlo doesn't have much to do besides yell at Herman, Lily has her spotlight when late Cousin Wolverine sends The Munsters a 10,000 inheritance in “The Most Beautiful Ghoul in the World.” Lily and Marilyn open a beauty parlor to rival Grandpa and Herman's latest experiment, however Lily's Old World beauty techniques make regular folks' heads turn – and sue Lily for disastrous results.


Fortunately, ever wise Grandpa says there's no sense crying over spilled blood! Even without his crystal ball, he knows Herman will goof up his experiments or turn his well intended pills and potions into a family mishap. While Grandpa does antagonize Herman with cowardly taunts and experiments on him even when he runs out of anesthetic, they also look through old photo albums together and their mad scientist team ups do help...occasionally. Grandpa turns into numerous animals, disguises himself to fool Herman, and uses his trick index finger as a lighter or key. We don't often see his pet bat Igor, but Grandpa plays checkers with a ghost – who won't pay up when he loses – and has some interesting Tesla style energy, wireless, and lighting designs that unfortunately backfire. When not focusing on Herman The Munsters does seem more rounded this season with ensemble moments and great wisecracks from Al Lewis. Grandpa loves the operations on Dr. Kildare and thinks My Three Sons is a “weird fantastic adventure,” but he gets lassoed into his own scam when a wealthy widow is searching for him in “Grandpa's Lost Wife.” The yacht and thoroughbreds were too good to be true, and Grandpa goes back to sitting at the kitchen table reading “Playghoul.” What kind of message is that for dear Eddie? He buries Grandpa in the sand at the beach, has a surfboard in the shape of a coffin, and picks up a new pet snake named Elmer. Eddie also wins a track race on his own despite Herman wanting to take coaching credit or Grandpa cheating with magic. He's reluctant to take mystery potions to improve his organ lessons, and such tricks yield unintended jazz results when Eddie is forced to play the trumpet in “The Musician.” While Eddie remains a plot point or moral example as needed, Butch Patrick still generally appears at the dinner table or for a pet mention and then disappears until the end of an episode. For every stride The Munsters makes in giving him something to do, the gags still take over any character development. Sure, he slides down the banister with his Woof Woof or takes a pole to the kitchen and has cool stairs in his room. However, home from school trouble is told rather than seen, and the robot companion in “Eddie's Brother” becomes more about Herman playing favorites. Unlike other sitcoms of the era, The Munsters never adds more children to its nucleus – but the series also should have paid more attention to the youth it had. I suspect they could have written Eddie out as off to boarding school or with relatives in Transylvania and the series wouldn't have changed much. 
 
Naturally, Pat Priest as Marilyn fairs little better, coming and going with off screen exposition despite providing sound advice amid the haywire. She listens to Lily's this or that and has some funny moments with Grandpa – although the family whispers about what could have scared her pregnant mother into making her look like that. The Munsters have high hopes, however, making her dresses out of left over lining fabric from the funeral parlor and storing them in her hope chest made with cedar from the parlor's “Forever Yours” casket model. When not helping in the kitchen and serving tea or sour lemonade, Marilyn stays home and studies rather than going out with the clan – but at least she has some scenes of her own and gets to say she is home for a big test instead of being name dropped as an afterthought. Why couldn't Marilyn be the focus of the driving test episode? Even for her birthday in “The Fregosi Emerald” – complete with a cursed ring, sow's ear purse, and a tarantula skin wallet with a picture of Herman inside it – Marilyn has the same old jinx and bad dates. Fortunately, she actually has a storyline of her own in “A Man for Marilyn.” Herman scares a boy by saying they would love to have him for dinner, but Grandpa turns a frog into a prince while Lily literally ropes in a passerby and dresses Marilyn up in a black lace wedding gown. After all, “Happy the bride the moon shines on, dear!” It's a cute little episode that makes most of The Munsters' built in Marilyn gag. This sophomore year there are also less guests with more self contained stories, but fun choice appearances nearer the end of the season include Dom DeLuise as Dr. Dudley, Harvey Korman again, Batman's The Riddler Frank Gorshin, and mom Bonnie Franklin from One Day at a Time. John Carradine also returns as deadpan funeral director Mr.Gateman, telling “Mrs. M” he is in a gay mood and famous for his sense of humor – and he confesses that the parlor runs better without Herman.


The Munsters debuts new credits and a tricked out theme for Year Two, however the crash sound when Herman breaks through the front door is occasionally absent, and sometimes the show starts cold while other times a title card is presented. The volume is once again uneven, and some animal effects are better than others are. While make up and fashion changes are understandable, the special effects seem reduced this season, with less objects broken and cheaper looking travel facades, poor water and boat photography, silly rodeo footage, and seriously fake forestry. Fortunately, the Munster Mansion is less cobwebbed, making it just a little bit easier to see everything, including a new guest room with an upstairs candlestick phone that seems to be where Marilyn's room was in the front gable. Herman and Lily's master suite leads to the covered widow's walk on the right of the house, and décor such as the trick knight at the top of the stairs, a growling tiger blanket, and a crooked, dusty “Home Sweet Home” sign set the quirky, quaint mood. That big house, however, has only has one bathroom hear tell. The cranky clock raven has a handful of snarky quips, but Kitty and its lion roar only appears a few times, erroneously as both a ginger and a black cat. However, sort of dragon, kind of dinosaur Spot and his tail are more visual this go round, with talk of him stealing car bumpers because he has an iron deficiency and other critical plot moments almost making him more important than Eddie! The pyrotechnics under the stairs come in handy grilling hot dogs, too, while the smoke, fog, and grayscale schemes keep the 1313 Mockingbird Lane lawn looking creepy fun for a nighttime dig. But hell, I want to open a shop with only $5,000 capital! And $20 bail? Hot damn. All the family's ideas, information, and schemes come from their daily newspaper, too, and it's easy to enjoy the nostalgia on The Munsters thanks to old laboratory gadgetry, flashbulb cameras, tape recorders, period radios, and giant bags of snail mail.

Strangely, Episode Seven “Operation Herman” is not included with The Munsters on Netflix. The doctoring may be unfunny, and Herman breaks the hospital rules to bring him Woof Woof when Eddie gets his tonsils removed, but even with the dose of laughing gas, it looks to be just a simple oversight rather than anything offensive. Streaming options, affordable series DVDS with perks, and retro reruns on networks like Cozi TV make it easy to catch The Munsters or the color follow up features Munster, Go Home and The Munsters' Revenge. I am however hesitant to move on to the sequel series The Munsters Today. Despite running longer than The Munsters, I'm just too tepid about all that eighties neon! The Second Season of The Munsters starts with a lot of the same old same old. At times, the series seems out of steam and parodies its own parody with repetitive plots. Perhaps such simplicity is expected from a sixties show with so many episodes yet seemingly so few innate possibilities. Fortunately, The Munsters still has plenty of memorable delights in this second leg, and one and all can continue the creepy family fun marathon year round.



26 May 2016

Demonic and Witchy Viewings 4!



Demonic and Witchy Viewings 4!
by Kristin Battestella



Foreign or domestic, historical, vintage or modern – these scary thrillers up the ante with a full serving of devilish deeds, Salem persecutions, exorcisms, and deadly spells.



Satan's School for Girls – Mysterious suicides lead earnest sister Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House) to a private school cult in this 1973 Aaron Spelling produced television movie. Sure, its as over the top as one suspects, and the streaming print is flat and jumpy with hisses and low volume. Fortunately, that dated charms adds to the in medias res start as a fearful pace, dangerous driving, screams, and unseen scares hit the ground running. And wow, a phone booth with a rotary dial, you call the operator with the name of the person, the town, and boom, connected! Assorted seventies hairstyles – short and feathered, pixie cropped, long and straight hippie – help tell the girls apart while classic cars, old time coppers, long cigarettes, and colorful fashions add to the fun. Mid-century mod California homes and lakeside views give way to an obviously not filmed in Massachusetts campus. However the not so idyllic “Salem Academy” art school led by gloriously classy but totally suspicious Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden) does have a rural spooky atmosphere with old-fashioned oil lamps and antique water basins and pitchers. Who's wearing red hints, shadowy stairs, storm outages, and lightning strikes accent the snooping where one shouldn't in creepy buildings and cluttered basements while lantern light only filming drafts a natural ominous. Granted, some of the witchy legends, colonial timelines, and hanging stories don't make much sense. So-called undercover investigations are soap opera melodramatic, and the inexplicable plot turns to hysterics or jumping to conclusions as needed. Spelling's subsequent Charlie's Angels Kate Jackson and Cheryl Ladd seem a little too old for this kind of college, but there are wine parties hosted by cool and surely up to no good professor Roy Thinnes (The Invaders). Eerie paintings, artwork clues, and rats in a maze experiments suggest a brainwashing beyond average school pressures, and these girls grow desperate as the gunpoint confrontations, drownings, and sacrifices mount. Ritual robes, fun jump scares, surprise twists, fiery shockers, and a wild finish keep this campus cult creeper entertaining to the end.



Superstition – This 1982 family home with burning at the stake roots is at times a laughable eighty-five minutes with a cliché Winnebago, creepy caretakers, and exploding heads. They clean up these derelict places so quickly, too! The uneven bad music cues and loud shouts are frustrating as well, and the dream montage recapping all the spiffy gore and under the sea monster motifs is pretty hammy. However, today's viewers must admit these nostalgic bemusements are the same as contemporary horror gimmicks that won't necessarily stand the test of time, either. Fortunately, the abandoned interiors, sheeted furniture, trashed kitchen, and ominous microwave feel like a good haunted house attraction – we know the pranks and jump scares are coming, so we can chuckle whether they get us or not. An icky green pond, dangerous dock, elevator mishaps, and a mysterious little girl in white make for nice locales and set pieces where the bads can happen while police afoot investigate these seemingly random and accidental deaths. The new minister is stuck with this 1692 gruesome parish property and its killer history, and church suits versus baba yaga huts make for an interesting mix of ignorance and aid. Rather than a beleaguered family calling in a priest, here we see the house from a pastoral perspective first. Unfortunately, blessing a house during construction leads to some disastrous tool mishaps. I did not see that one coming! Of course, the drunkard minister moving in does have teen daughters in short shorts and a nippy wife in a tight white shirt, adding more scares and eye candy. Past rituals, crosses, and exorcisms in a ye olde tyrannical flashback are also perfectly medieval with robes, chanting, and stoneworks. Perhaps it would have been better to start with this period setting, but the storms, torches, rack-like strap downs, and satanic voices provide fiery consequences to match the finale twists. The what you don't see here keeps the freaky discoveries and wild monsterworks self-aware and enjoyable fun. After all, it's not every day the hand pulling you down in the lake comes up with you as somebody's dead detached arm. Hehehehe.



The Monk – Vincent Cassel (Black Swan) stars in this 2011 French/Spanish historical genre-bender based on the 18th century Matthew Lewis novel, and superb cinematography, locations, stonework, and Renaissance color harken a fittingly medieval yet surreal mood. This is the Inquisition past but cemeteries, ghosts, and dreams invoke spooky while potentially real or imagined magic and possessions represent repressions, sins, and twists. Once you get that first taste with a small, easy temptation, those transgressions just keep snowballing! Cassel is both perfectly gothic and seemingly pious but no less rousing at the pulpit and desperately sensuous. The eponymous, hitherto isolated Ambrosio is pent up rather than repenting, and his lofty ecclesiastic skills degrade into sinister trades. Morality debates and hypocritical ways play tug of war as religion and society at once pedestal mothers, pregnancy, childbirth, and babies but shame the out of wedlock or perceived sinful sex and wanton behaviors. Unapproved relations and a fleshy existence compromise our purity, and Lucifier is among these brethren with trick roses and myrtle to take the illusions and sexuality past the point of no return. Is this a miracle or a devilish spell? Do the exorcisms and possessed nearby spread their demonic touch to Ambrosio? Is the mysterious and masked monk Valerio real or merely another vision? The entire viewpoint here is suspect – as if we are watching an internal battle of wills or a purgatory fight for the soul. Though the complex tale is paired down to 100 minutes, some of the abstract can be confusing thanks to lookalike ladies and French dialogue that doesn't always match the English subtitles. The somewhat still, portrait styled presentation also feels too tame at times, going for a high brow meta but leaving what should be clarified as unexplained, too open to interpretation, or lost in translation. Fortunately, that numb, highly contemplative tone also feels deliberate – a reflection on our outwardly righteous, unassuming cleric suppressing an internal villainous allure. While not outright horror, the monasteries, naughty nuns, young medieval maidens, and sacrilege or worse keep the audience in a discomfortable, unsettling, can't look away atmosphere. The repression suspense, evil escalation, wicked toppers, and wonderful performances combine for a well done picture worth a look.



The Witch – We don't get many Puritan period pieces anymore much less ninety minutes plus of simmering 17th century horror as seen in this 2015 festival darling. Big hats, white collars, thee versus thou court room arguments, and family banishments immediately establish the ye olde alongside natural lighting and authentic thatch buildings for a rural, simplistic ambiance. Unfortunately, such exile to these empty, harsh, unyielding lands turns devotions to desperation with gray crops, bloody eggs, abductions, and babies in peril raising tensions in the humble hovel. Spooky forests, fireside red lighting, blood, nudity, ravens, and primal rituals suggest a dark underbelly only partially seen with hazy splices, shadows, and moonlight. The screen is occasionally all black and certain scenes are very tough to see, but such visual bewitching adds to the folktale surreal. Personal, intimate prayers are addressed directly to the camera, and we feel for Anya Taylor-Joy (Atlantis) as Thomasin when she apologizes for her sin of playing on the Sabbath. The scripture heavy dialogue and religious names are fittingly period yet remain understandable as coming of age children question how an innocent baby can be guilty of sin. Both parents' faces are shadowed with hats, dirt, and impurity, yet snapping mom Kate Dickie (Red Road) gives Thomasin all the difficult work. Increasing dog problems, ram troubles, and creepy rabbits contribute to the toughness – the young twins chant oldeth nursery songs to the goats and claim there is a witch at work, but dad Ralph Ineson (Game of Thrones) isn't totally forthcoming with his grief, hopeless trading, and family pressures. The isolated, starving couple argues, debating on sending the children away as the strain, zealousness, and fears mount. Ominous lantern light, alluring witchcraft, and almost ritualistic in itself bloodlettings stir the finger pointing hysterics while great performances hit home the wild bed fits and exorcism-esque prayers. Somebody has to be blamed. Where do you get help when evil would take advantage of such hypocrisy and social failings? It's easy to imagine the fantastic or confuse apparitions of the dead as angels when the devil answers your pleas instead of Grace. Maybe one has to be familiar with Puritan history or Biblical texts to fully appreciate the struggles and references here. However, contemporary audiences should realize that there's more to the horror film genre than today's rinse repeat wham bam boo gore. Although a brighter picture would have been nice, the genuine designs here are much more pleasing than any digital overkill. Doubt, what you don't see, and the power of suggestion escalate the horrors with maniacal laughter, screams, and one scary voice leading to a deliriously delicious finale. Why aren't these niche indies that do film making right really the mainstream cinema?


16 May 2016

Spectre



Spectre was Just Kind of Okay.
by Kristin Battestella



I was excited for Bond again after Skyfall, I really was. Unfortunately, the phoned in nature of Bond's 2015 twenty-fourth outing Spectre feels like a derivative, middle of the road, shadow of itself, indeed.

After going on a personnel vendetta for an old friend, 007 James Bond (Daniel Craig) earns a stand down from MI6 chief M (Ralph Fiennes). M has enough to worry about as C (Andrew Scott) would see the seemingly obsolete 00 program eliminated in favor of his new private streamlining of the intelligence sector. Bond has no choice but to go rogue – with the help of Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris). Along with Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – the daughter of former foe Mr. White (Jesper Christensen) – 007 follows the trail of the mysterious Spectre organization led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who is much closer to Bond and the River House than anyone suspects.


From the parade and the hotel room to helicopter peril, and you know, explosions, the extended tracking shot trickery and thirteen minute pre-credits sequence to start Spectre bode well for returning director Sam Mendes. Touches from Skyfall immediately address the changing of the guard plot points, for British intelligence is consolidating while Spectre is growing, and the parallel dossiers and secret organization meetings warmly recall the SPECTRE of old for longtime franchise fans. Underground lairs, secret passages, hiding veneers, and nothing being what it seems layer potential statements on surveillance intruding closer than we would like to believe. Are the smoke and mirrors of government and crime organizations readily interchangeable? In whom do we place our trust? Unfortunately, Spectre follows a very obvious textbook Bond pattern – the team meeting, a woman with a tip, the first villainous encounter. There's a former foe with info, a visit from Q, a helping Bond Girl, and a henchman fight or two before casual villain infiltration. Torture, escape, repeat, chases ensue. Mexico City to Tangier window dressings and thin clues from writers Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan, and Jez Butterworth proceed from A to B just because they should, and dangerous ski lifts, airplanes, and more transportation perils can't compensate for the awkward attempt to both connect Spectre to Quantum of Solace yet retcon such ties. Clearly, they did not have this interconnected plan all along, and viewers may feel angry at such wool being pulled over our eyes. There is no reason to backtrack toward the stagnant, unsure, real world gritty compared to the fun floodgates opened after Skyfall. While Spectre is entertaining in individual scenes with some fine subplots and characters, this ill-paced predictability and overlong longest Bond movie ever gets redundant fast. Why cryptically beat around the bush for an extra ninety minutes? Unnecessary girls, superfluous action pieces, corruption plots, doubly weak villains – everything here seems cutting room floor fair game, even 007. Spectre's ironic half hour finale serves as a self-fulling prophecy on the 00 irrelevancy in question. Why was Bond globe trotting around for two hours if the MI6 team could take care of business at home without him?

Fortunately, James Bond still has slick banter for the MI6 staff, and that “Bond. James Bond.” introduction comes with a well done seductive wink. However, Bond's Kevlar attitude is about to change in Spectre. Though his apartment looks just moved in empty, this 007 barren but for a few choice mementos reveals more about the man behind the illusion. He can get the facts with suave easy, but that doesn't mean he won't mess up or let his emotions crack the surface. Reflective mirrors and hidden themes pepper all Bond's scenes, layering his duality as both the good and bad, for his country and rogue from it. 007 is an assassin just like the bad guys, why should anyone trust his word? Bond can't even get his martini shaken not stirred, and Craig has some wry quips this go around, telling a security guard he just hit to stay down rather than hit him again. He's still up to snuff and not phoning it in, but the going through the motions pace in Spectre doesn't strive for stellar performances, either. Whether the film is up to his par or not – and at times, it isn't – Craig knows the role by now and plays it as he should. I've warmed up to him as Bond since Skyfall, yet that feeling of wanted more of Craig in another role lingers, and I am more than ready for him to do something else. Not only does 007 not go back to the girl in the hotel room when he says he would – gasp Roger Moore would never! – but Bond actually did answer my wish and tossed his Dia de Muertos top hat onto the bed. Unfortunately, I had to rewind it to be sure, as this tiny piece of franchise fun was just kind of empty with no emphasis on what could have been a real winking fan moment. I'm not even sure they meant the action as a true 007 hat toss, so like most of Spectre, I'm left wondering if it really even counts. Boo.


The unevenness littering Spectre also hampers what could have been a meaty new rival for Bond. Christoph Waltz's (Inglourious Basterds) shadowed, ominous introduction as Blofeld is Voldemort heavy with fear – anyone out of line is going to get it in the eyes, ouch! Unfortunately, from the friendly tour of his ho-hum desert lair to the final forty-five minutes where Blofeld conveniently tells all his secrets, it is tough to believe this evil plan has been orchestrated through these latest, sometimes longest Bond movies. And all this Spectre puppetry has to be resolved in half a picture now, too? I dare say that Eon finally settled the Thunderball copyright case and felt obligated to use these trademark names, and this rush has reduced what was once a fun love to hate character into an Austin Powers “Daddy Wasn't There” parody. I kid you not, Spectre really goes there! At least Blofeld does earn that Dr. Evil scar, and there is a brief but cute cat. Poor pussy! Also in banal imitation of From Russia with Love, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Mr. Hinx is a silent thug henchman who survives every chase, crash, and explosion to inexplicably keep following Bond. If not for some cool action scenes, this character is another unnecessary element, and Spectre is already crowded with two bigger villains vying for worst finale in a confusing Blofield versus MI6 takedown. Andrew Scott (Sherlock) may have been miscast as the obvious behind the desk, power hungry River House enemy C. His mirrored building, the Big Brother hub – are we not supposed to see through this guy like a two-way mirror? The at home SIS plots add a parallel who watches the watcher battle to Spectre, and although such twists prove why espionage series with tight ensembles like The Night Manager garner critical acclaim, the weak villainous subterfuge compromises what's trying to be done here. And hell, if your going to make your 007 movie kind of sort of not about Bond versus Blofeld, then give us a M, Q, and Moneypenny Netflix series between Bond films.

Thankfully, the returning Ralph Fiennes as M is fittingly cranky and angry at Bond. In Spectre, he toes the line with changes to Her Majesty's Service while trying to save his program against government and bureaucratic intrusion. He's right that technology and instant information can't replace a human on the line making the espionage call. This is a fine storyline with Fiennes entertaining as always, and it is fun to see M do things himself without Bond. However, that doesn't make this element of Spectre any less uneven and ultimately contrary to 007's supposed main plot. Rory Kinnear also has a lot of exposition as Chief of Staff Bill Tanner – but he chauffeurs Bond around and then disappears until late in the game when we are reminded that he is indeed there. Hell, I hoped and almost half expected for Colin Salmon to join in the heroics as Deputy Charles Robinson, too! Ironic and quippy as ever, Ben Whishaw's Q wisely doesn't trust his branch's new intelligence measures either, and he has a cool waterside underground technology lair complete with creepy nanochips injected into Bond's bloodstream as a biological tracking device – a gadget plot point that perhaps rightfully exits the narrative. Like Q, Naomie Harris as M's new assistant Eve Moneypenny is caught in the middle of the MI6 power struggle. Initially, she is stuck merely opening doors in the office and chasing after Bond as he leaves. Though seemingly demeaning after her strong role in Skyfall, this Moneypenny isn't stuck in the office behind a desk and helps 007 on the sly. She meets Bond at his apartment, and hers is complete with a man in her bed to make Bond jealous. While this at home, Bond movie without Bond storyline both overuses and under cooks the charming ensemble, Spectre does have a surprise moment from departed M Judi Dench and a fun to hear but don't see him disappointing mention of CIA pal Felix Leiter. But my gosh, can we meet 009 already, please? Come on and let's see him – or her!


Yes, there should have been more of Monica Bellucci (Under Suspicion) as Lucia Sciarra in Spectre. She could have been a villainess in on the game, a henchwoman rather than a literal wham bam but still classy widow with damsel in distress flair. Ever lovely – did you see that corset? – it seems unfair to just pin Bellucci at 50 as the Oldest Bond Girl. However, it is pleasing to have someone match Craig's age. If Bond is going to be older, banged up, and rugged but not always wiser, then his women should rightfully compliment his potential maturity. Bellucci does just that – gracefully if briefly resisting Bond. Of course, if we keep to Bond formula as Spectre does, the first girl who gives anything up to 007 is always on borrowed time. Whether her exit is due to death or a bedroom finished depends not so much on the throwaway nature of the character herself, but the strength of the movie – and Spectre needed Lucia to stick around a lot longer. Fortunately, Lea Seyduox (Blue is the Warmest Colour) as psychologist Dr. Madeleine Swann pegs Bond with today's aware perspective and asks some very realistic questions regarding his extracurricular activity, alcohol consumption, traumatic past, and why he leaves his occupation blank on the medical form. She doesn't ask for his heroics and remains reluctant to have his protection because, as if she has seen all the other Bond movies, Madeleine knows 007 will lead the bads right to her. She sees through his tricks and vows she won't fall into his arms – but all that intelligent character potential feels more like a bluff, and Madeleine changes her tune on Spectre's whims. She wants nothing to do with her father, she wants to know what happened to her father, Bond is twenty years older than her and old enough to be her father. Superficial angst is what goes for female character development in this franchise, and the once smart enough to know when to leave Madeleine still ends up in need of rescue.

While there are subtitles on the Spectre rental blu-ray, the features have been removed, and the disc skipped – although I doubt I missed much in the jumped minutes. Fine balladry though it is with swift high notes, Sam Smith's “Writing's on the Wall” is too quiet, a swansong rather than full embodied memorable. It was a weak year and I'm surprised it won the Best Original Song Oscar. Truly, this weighed and found wanting as the scripture says is indicative of how Spectre feels. However, the flames and dames caressing Bond with kinky tentacles in the title sequence make use of the song's past lyrics with flashes of Skyfall and Casino Royale matching the hazy smoke and ice design. Unfortunately, the frenetic set piece scoring is uneven alongside underutilized Bond themes. 007 notes appear briefly before the title sequence then go unheard until the finale. What's the point of having theme music if you won't use it to punctuate something cool? Without these familiar cues even the well-actioned spectacles fall flat. Likewise annoying blue car lights contribute to an overly CGI, digitally graded, and omnipresent cyan scheme. Though suave, the skeleton disguises and Day of the Dead pomp feel too advantageous as well as New Orleans borrowing from Live and Let Die. Thankfully, the opening photography, building disasters, and dusty costumes add grit while sunset interiors and golden patinas make Spectre Old World colorful. Austrian Snowscapes and mountaintop clinics recall On Her Majesty's Secret Service while outdoor Thames boat rides and Londonscapes invoke the best of The World is Not Enough along with Italian, Spanish, and operatic flavors. The sweet DB10 tricked out for 009 instead of 007 provides for some dry jokes, and intense, nighttime chases on congested Roman roads yield fiery, wild exits. Train violence recalling From Russia with Love, countdowns and lairs ala Dr. No and Goldfinger – while not as copycat as Die Another Day, some Bond homages peppering Spectre aren't as subtle as they should be. Octopus motifs invoke the blasé of Octopussy, and the newspapers are dated right out of Tomorrow Never Dies. While less clunky and not as intrusive, the technology screens, phones, and laptops in Spectre will be dated soon, too. Besides, it is much cooler to see old equipment be useful. Imagine, a watch that almost does nothing but tell the time in hopes of making Our Man James punctual!


Is Spectre making winks on Craig's tenure? Certainly we would rather have him depart with a better picture, but Spectre both doesn't know when to end yet feels absolutely intended to wrap up this leg. Heck, they've tossed the grenade on what was left behind, blew up the River House, and burned every bridge upon leaving. Is the door now open for a race change for 007 with Idris Elba or Chiwetel Ejiofor? Maybe a retro abstract or sixties set Michael Fassbender? What of a lighthearted Moore-styled Tom Hiddleston? We shall see, for if nothing else Spectre spends all its gritty waiting for something else that never happens in a long, empty ciao. Spectre has action, but isn't an action movie. This is a thriller that isn't really thrilling, and an espionage picture without actual spy games thanks to broad storytelling, a troubled script, and transparent meta. Maybe the great individual character moments, action scenes, and Bond treats come together more in repeat viewings, but while I don't hate Spectre, I've no real desire to sit through this heavy handedness again. Bond fans can perhaps appreciate some aspects here and newer audiences may find merit, but there are better, less frustrating and disappointing films in the franchise. The gun barrel is back at the beginning, Bond takes his Aston Martin off the blocks, picks up his daughter – er girl, and rides off towards Big Ben. “Whoop dee do, Basil!”