20 September 2019

Night Watch (1973)

Elizabeth Taylor does Horror in Night Watch
by Kristin Battestella

Upscale housewife with history Elizabeth Taylor thinks she witnesses a murder in the creepy abandoned house next door in the 1973 British thriller Night Watch. Unfortunately, her broker husband John Wheeler (Laurence Harvey) nor her carefree best friend Sarah (Billie Whitelaw) believe her. The police are tired of the the increasing phone calls and neighborhood hysteria, but the terror escalates thanks to stormy nights, pills, alcohol, and slit throats.

Director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare) and writers Evan Jones (The Damned) and Tony Williamson (The Avengers) adapt the Lucille Fletcher (Sorry, Wrong Number) play with flowers, quaint English gardens, and smiling rapport. The swanky drinks before dinner and lingering sixties style, however, contrast the looming gothic manor next door. The grounds are said to be poison where nothing will grow, but someone is digging in the backyard on stormy nights and vivid dreams of speeding cars, accidents, and morgue terror distract from the snobbish talk of avoiding lesser neighbors. Late night waxing on the fatal past invokes a wee small hours limbo – traumatic memories and two characters who've lost touch make for fine drama before raging storms and screams reveal something horrible across the way. Dead men and cut throats disturb the classical music, but inspectors find nothing in the congested, maze-like condemned as Night Watch relies on performances and mood rather than sensationalism for its taut, through the shutters peering. Pills or brandy are suggested to keep calm, but flashlights, clutter, and foreground objects layer the visual frame. Viewers are looking for something – questioning what we see or didn't see. Could it all be an honest mistake? The police think it's nothing but “money and menopause” on top of brief nudity, shower saucy, and hotel room trysts. Newly planted trees aren't enough evidence, but nuggets of information trickle out from the ensemble. Suspicious neighbors find it exciting that there's hear tell of a dead body nearby yet refuse to have their bushes dug up as part of the official search. Red herrings add to the creepy commentary about disliking neighbors who were there before you just as much as the friends you choose living even closer. Who's watching whom and from which house questions layer the voyeurism alongside debates on hallucinations, eidetic images, and convincing oneself that what you see is real. Old mementos thought lost suddenly reappear, leading to arguments about gaslighting and being deliberately terrorized as more police calls, chases, and curiosity create a 'burbs mind your own business across the hedge. Despite lights next door, the case is closed – inspectors and doctors both strongly suggest everything go back to normal amid awkward dinners, screams, and more off screen witnessing. Revelations about what had really happened in previous accidents and shock over identifying bodies found in flagrante delicto provoke more tension in the increasingly crowded quarter. Eventually the police laugh and roll their eyes, proposing our housewife contact the building owners herself or hire a private detective. All the paperwork is ready for a trip to “rest” in Switzerland, too – accounts, legalese, and power of attorney but that's all just routine. Confrontations, secrets, and lies will out thanks to hide and seek twists inside the derelict. Night Watch gets its horror on in a spooky multi layered finale of blood, violence, crazed attacks, and frenetic turnabouts. Who exactly was really planning what and when? Seemingly early and obvious giveaways make room for more surprises, and Night Watch ensures the shocking schemes are ultimately completed with skill and gravitas.

Flowing gowns, glam necklaces, rock rings, and coiffed hair assure Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra) looks classy as well to do housewife Ellen Wheeler. She dresses for dinner, drinks, and does jigsaw puzzles, for she needs patience to give her something to do when she's so often alone. Her ritzy life should be nothing but grand, however, the insomniac Mrs. is up all night fascinated by storms and thinking about her father's bad poetry. She's been spoiled yet feels restrained and bored. The watch during the night is for all the things you can't make sense of during the day, says Ellen, and she's increasingly returning to memories of her late first husband Carl. Dreaming of his accident keeps her awake – she vividly recalls the fatal scenes and blood the viewer never sees but doesn't remember previously dealing with the police and feels nervous about talking to them. However, Ellen also doesn't want to be coddled or hear this witness is all in her mind, and she's angry when no one believes her, even more hysterical over the disbelief than upset by the crime she apparently saw. Without support, Ellen is increasingly frazzled, pathetic, and paranoid. Will she voluntarily go to the doctor so he can tell her the dead body is all in her mind? What happens when she thinks she sees another one? Mrs. Wheeler's wheels turn as she suspects her pills, beverages, and if someone is deliberately making her recall Carl's demise. Despite her full house with husband, friend, and maid, Ellen fears someone else is watching her. She repeatedly calls the police and eventually agrees to see the psychiatrist, and though desperate, she is not stupid. Ellen is quite intelligent and recognizes when she's being lied to or signing the wrong papers. She's damn shrewd in seeing what's what, and Night Watch's madness begins to make sense as only Dame Elizabeth could make the clicking of the retractable pen so sassy and defiant before refusing to take the last tranquilizer in the bottle. Long drags on the cigarettes and strategic pauses emphasis the deliciously dark camp, and I'm surprised Night Watch feels so obscure when Taylor's performance is so chill.

Laurence Harvey's (The Manchurian Candidate) stocks and bonds big wig John Wheeler wants to know why his wife can't sleep. He works long hours, but wonders what he's done to upset her even if she says it's not him. John takes care of Ellen, babying her with warm milk the way a daughter goes from a father to husband to protect her. However, John does not believe she's seen anything. He won't call the police over a false alarm and insists the inspector not upset his already not well wife. John won't stick up for her claims, yet he warns the police to not dismiss Ellen. Although he's worried over the dangerous mix of alcohol and sleeping pills, John's more concerned about possibly being sued by an angry neighbor. He dislikes when the police want him to control his wife and encourages her to see their doctor friend once he's tired of her bringing up her late husband. John agrees she is right when Ellen suggests they take a holiday – but she says we and he only wants her to take a vacation. He has all that “spa” paperwork ready! Swanky best friend Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) on the other hand, is the house guest who won't leave. She keeps saying she's moving on to Scotland and debates running away with her latest on and off conquest Barry but may have other tête-à-têtes, too. Sarah stays to look after Ellen, providing tranquilizers and hot chocolate while waxing on all the adventures she could be having and the excuses she can make up to get away with them. Although she tries to avoid topics that will upset Ellen – like Carl – they always creep back into the conversation. Sarah insists Ellen can't go on like this, but as the third wheel in the marital house, her companionship is automatically suspect. She lies to spare Ellen, but also apologizes for her tall tales. Doctor Tony Britton (The People That Time Forgot) must also tread lightly with Mrs. Wheeler. He doesn't want her to be committed, but needs her to voluntarily trust his help. Above all, he insists that she must get out of this house before it's too late.

Spooky black branches, dark blue skies, boarded windows, banging shutters, and overgrown vines contrast the mirrors, red leather couch, white staircase, and swanky record players next door in Night Watch. Creepy statues and artwork, blue lighting, ticking clocks, and swirling cigarette smoke add ominous to the hip turtlenecks, lux lamps, decanters, and manicured gardens. Knives in the kitchen, rain splatter on the windows, and vintage blue sirens create pulsing tension while gates, flashlights, and condemned interiors set off the congested mood. Horseshoe phones, switchboard operators, and retro trench coats should be cozy nostalgia, but the colorful outdoors disappear as the peering through the blinds and drawn shades invoke agoraphobia. Distorted dreams and intense flashes of past car accidents lead to dead bodies and hospital disturbia thanks to low camera angles and spotlights. Night Watch has subtle, choice visuals with reflections of the scary house on the fine townhouse window overlaying all action inside and out. Well done cinematography provides dark scares as well as focus on Taylor's face as zooms hone in on critical images and objects. Thunder punctuates arguments as the rhythms escalate, and through the gate chases move the action to our spooky neighbors amid barren beams, peeling plaster, creaking stairs, and exposed woodwork. Violent struggles in the dark and shocking silhouettes allow for what we don't see suspicion and final revelations. Wise viewers may pick up on the mystery here for there are too many similar stories to Night Watch before and since. Audiences looking for full on horror a la Hammer of the day will be disappointed, too. Fortunately, the psychological chills, spooky twists, and superbly unraveled cast do get their scary on in an entertaining end. Night Watch is a fun late night tease worth seeing more than once to catch all the whodunit winks.

16 September 2019

Tough Horror Ladies

Tough Horror Ladies
by Kristin Battestella

These contemporary single mothers and their daughters do it all amid slasher scares, folklore horrors, and backwoods frights.

Halloween – Forty years later Jamie Lee Curtis returns for this 2018 direct sequel opening with asylum creepy and pesky podcasters claiming to be investigative journalists as interlaced exposition fills viewers in on Michael Myers' silence and the preparation paranoia that ruined Laurie Strode's family. Security systems, padlocks, elaborate gates, and isolation surround them both, but Laurie's daughter Judy Greer (27 Dresses) questions her drinking, over the top readiness, and inability to let go of “The Shape.” Walking to school amid today's tacky Halloween decorations, looking out the classroom window, ominous hedges, and laundry lines wink at the Original Film alongside snips of our vintage Halloween crime, newspaper clippings, and case files. Gross gas station bathroom terrors provide bloody teeth, bashing hammers, and cracking necks while the bright, open modern home contrasts the backwoods dark interiors with secret staircases and hidden shelters. The son-in-law says he can take care of his family but their windows are open and there's no security system, and between playing with yo-yos or complaining about baking the ineffectual men are louses leaving the ladies to check the scary sounds, slow going to answer a cry for help, and not learning to fear or prepare until it's too late. Corny family kitchens, trite teens, typical editing, and flat characters with nothing to do but say I told you so add to the confused BFF boys and gender reversed Bonnie and Clyde costumes filler while a kid shooting the wrong man as he calls for a dad who isn't there tries at some patriarchal commentary. After forty years of no need to transport Michael, he and his maybe metaphysically connected crazy cronies conveniently escape in an unseen bus crash just in time for the holiday. There's a slight camp here, too for those who celebrate in different ways – kids running after candy, teens at the rave, adults dressed as slutty nurses – but jerks and old ladies who disrespect Halloween are gonna pay! The bad girl babysitter and her wise charge too old to be afraid of closet monsters seem important, however numerous characters come and go, forgotten in a best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend roundabout with unimaginative stabs through the throat or obviously fake heads squashed like watermelons. We can't care about random people when they are conveniently killed or obnoxious and deserving of the horror. What happened to all the crazy patients who escaped on the crashed bus? Stupid folks unaware they are in a horror movie leave the safety of a police vehicle, running into the woods screaming rather than radioing for help, and it's unrealistic when Laurie and her scanner are the only back up when we live with such real world scary and excessive Halloween safety. The sympathy for the villain philosophizing is getting old, but the should have listened to your mother message wins when there really is a boogeyman in the closet. Barren wooden rooms with gated doors sequentially trap and clear in a siege ready lair that should have been explored more in parallel with the paranoid state of mind. Mano y mano fights and window perils create a mythical Laurie to match Myers, yet fiery ruses and dynamite traps make for an abrupt, leave room for the sequel end. Although there are too many movies just named Halloween now and those who saw H20 may be completely confused, this is well done compared to other films in the franchise. Despite over-relying on the Original in many ways, we're only here for those connections, and without them, this would be just another derivative horror movie. It's not perfect by any means, but fortunately this remains entertaining for its final girl presence.

The Hole in the Ground – Not all is as it seems for a young mother and son in this 2019 Irish/international ninety minutes. Fun house mirrors and creepy carnivals lead to upside down eerie, distorted car scares, and freaky ass hooded figures in the road. House repairs, rules to follow, locked basements, spiders, footsteps, and flickering lights contrast the warm lamp light safety, and there's an innocence to a child's questions on why the two moved without the most likely abusive dad. He doesn't fit in at school and she's the fifth wheel at dinner parties, but running off into the spooky forest is not the answer thanks to lookalike trees, darkness, and the titular ravine. Although the accents may be tough for some and night scenes are difficult to see at times, viewers are meant to only see what the flashlight catches in its spotlight and hear the frantic shouts of a mother calling out for the son who isn't safe in his bed. Stories of crazy neighbors, noises in the dark, and doors slamming by themselves add to the whereabouts unknown panic, emergency calls, and child claiming to be where he wasn't. An old lady in white walking toward your vehicle to say this is not your son is chilling in its simplicity, yet we aren't sure when the spooky switch may have been made. Our family is new in town, unfamiliar and surrounded by crows, dead bodies, and wakes with the coffin laid out in the living room and all the mirrors covered. Little changes that only a mother would know escalate to spying under the door, crawling on the floor, and toys near the crater where the ground rumbles and moves. Now mummy is fearful of her son, running through school corridors as creepy songs referring to our eponymous hole have other parents and doctors questioning what's wrong. There's no immediate Ring surveillance or instant video easy, but vintage camera evidence is upsetting to those refusing to believe. Mirrors are needed to tell the truth as what we're seeing becomes increasingly weirder. Changes in favorite foods and not knowing their family code games lead to heavy breathing, violent confrontations, surprising strength, bodies in the basement, and heads buried in the ground. Some of the action is a little laughable, but the audience is trapped in this freaky world thanks to sinkholes, scary roots, caverns, and bones. The disturbing revelations may be too slow or merely abstract metaphors for viewers expecting shocks a minute, but the finale gets physical with monster doppelgangers and rescues from the folklore for entertaining shout at the television disturbia.

Incident in a Ghostland – Station wagons, reading scary stories on the road, and creepy candy trucks open this 2018 Canadian/French production. Mom likes her daughter's Lovecraftian writing, but her sister hates it and their new house inherited from a kooky aunt who collected weird dolls, freaky toys, spooky mirrors, and animal heads on top of the old lady linens and antiques. Naturally, there's poor phone reception, and newspaper headlines say there are psychotic killers on the loose, establishing the family situation and scares as the killers walk right in for slams against the wall, sniffing dolls, and off camera screams. Vintage lighting that should create a cozy glow instead makes shadows where our invaders can come right out of the woodwork. The unknown, maze-like, and cluttered house provides confined hysteria and congested action for strongmen bashing lamps and broken glass. Mom fights to defend her family against the immediate attacks, stabbings, and dark room assaults. Our daughters are at the budding, in between age – cowering or urinating and unable to fight or flee against choke holds and terror in the basement. Once the youngest grows up to become a successful author, her latest best seller recounts the horrible events, and frantic calls have her returning to the house where her sick sister locks herself in and relives the horrors. Every bump in the night, whisper, creepy doll, and alarm clock adds to the on edge on top of help me notes, handcuffs, and bloody nudity. Is it deranged harm, supernatural contortions, or something more when her crazed sister insists someone else is painting her face like a doll and chaining her to the bed? Missing keys, slamming doors, scary dogs, and slaps in the face lead to flashes of past attackers. Are they phantoms of the traumatized mind or there to terrorize again? Beaten faces and arguments over how they need each other to accept the reality of what truly happened provide some superb distortions for viewers. Despite the escalating torture porn, the rug isn't pulled out from under the audience with some improbable twist that makes no sense in this tormented world. Playing dress up and placing people posed among all the other toys leads to blow torches and hefty but handy typewriters as our ladies face their demons despite their fears. The horror action and psychological terror will definitely be upsetting to some viewers, but this inescapable fear is well done for horror fans looking for something a little different. I've never heard of a candy truck before and shit don't ever want to encounter one now!

05 September 2019

The Frankenstein Chronicles Season 2

The Frankenstein Chronicles Season Two is Brimming with Monster Quality
By Kristin Battestella

The 2017 six episode Second Season of The Frankenstein Chronicles picks up three years after the twisted events of its Debut Series as Sean Bean's supposedly dead Inspector John Marlott pursues Lord Hervey (Ed Stoppard) for his monstrous science while Sergeant Joseph Nightingale (Richie Campbell) investigates the gruesome murders of several parish officials as new mad machinations and corrupt officials collide.

It's 1830 and disturbed flashes of what has transpired match the Bedlam catatonic in “Prodigal Son.” Jailers think this case is hopeless, for the angry, rattling chains can't tell of the heartbeats, fires, agony, and horrors. Silent screams, gory garrotings, and escapes lead to the abandoned laboratory with cracked mirrors, empty bottles, and lingering phantoms. The Frankenstein Chronicles refreshes the audience whilst the characters themselves struggle with the previous experiments, former pain, and fresh dilemmas as a murdered archdeacon sends fear through the local parish. The poor cannot feed their families on faith alone, but the Dean maintains his luxury by hampering the police with jurisdiction technicalities. New cemetery bills don't stop grave robbing schemes, and cruel high versus kind lows are firmly established in the multi-layered mysteries and investigations. Despite a sophisticated period mood, church fires, eviscerating shocks, and eerie figures with lone candles always remind viewers of the morose horror drama. London is run amok with slicing and dicing nobles on The Frankenstein Chronicles, and there's no solace for “Not John Marlott” as more bloody crimes begat missing organs, epidemics, and piled bodies. Creepy dreams and laughing visions add to the on edge, ghosts approach former friends, and headlines say the escaped lunatic is responsible for these unholy murders. Local parish watchmen rebuff inspectors, and back alley deals lead to corpse bearer job opportunities and intriguing new characters. Desecrated bodies are dug up and moved to pits – clearing the graveyards for people who can pay more for sacred ground. Mirrors and reflections create more soulful questions as the dead man walking sees the naked, animalistic internal monster. Shrouds, vaults, torches, and coffins keep The Frankenstein Chronicles on the morbid move in “Seeing the Dead.” Our former detective has his own underground investigation amid the church bells, empty steeples, and plague ridden alongside tender moments and a real life famous name or two. Dead children abound, and families that can't afford consecrated burials paint crosses on their doors to honor the deceased while a carnival caravan arrives with freaks and re-enactments of Frankenstein. Politicians argue about burial taxes, and motives for the murders include selling off church properties, twisted science, and blaming the devil. Who's clearing the slums and pocketing the money? It isn't God who's brought this pestilence, but men of science playing with God's power. Black horses, night owls playing the piano by candlelight, and men talking of the final nail in the coffin add symbolic subtext while dreams, monster memories, and ghosts provide clues. Superstitious fears and wrongful medicine clash thanks to sewers, sailors, on stage within within Frankenstein horrors, and knife fights behind the curtain. Autopsies, methodical precision, and poisoned pumps hone in on the contaminated truth – revelations perhaps made more disturbing by the water crises happening in America today.

Old inspectors and suspicious aristocrats meet face to face in “Little Boy Lost” amid fancy balls and false sermons waxing on demons and souls. Unfortunately, the truth is blasphemy, and quarantined ships send the sick to die in abandoned buildings behind chained doors – making for some silently terrifying scenes of garish dead haunting the corridors. Messengers from religious officials come baring knives in the back, leading to bloody struggles and gurgling groans. The innocent must flee in chases through the streets and leaps across rooftops, contrasting the footmen and tête-à-têtes on the ballroom balcony. Lifelike machines and automaton displays escalate the mad science amidst more grief, twists about who is real or phantom, and dead babies in jars. Thanks to town mobs and persecutions, circus folk with cut out tongues are arrested just because they fit the description of monsters, but ominous staircases descend to bright laboratories, creepy equipment, and shocking revelations with touching supernatural moments linking our characters. Politicians using the poor and too good to be true health plans in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” again mirror the contemporary political climate as scary ideologies hide in plain sight. Be it illness or slit throats, people in this era don't live very long, and officials double cross each other to fill the void left by the dying King. Likewise, constables and the press are at odds over evidence and thin leads as all roads point to monstrous men throwing their own to the dogs if it suits their toys, tears, and conspiracies. Blocks of ice are used to store organs alongside secret formulas, memento mori, psychic encounters, and plans to escape to the continent. Chilling confrontations trap the unwilling in the choice to be reborn, for more things are possible than what God can do according to our seemingly sacrosanct gentleman. Stone towers contain romantic rooms draped in white soon to host some serious butchery, transformations, and abominations. Why wait to rekindle what one's lost in God's time when life's mysteries can come full circle now? Wounds and spirited intervention culminate in “Bride of Frankenstein” as lies, gags, and convulsions reunite our first born with the reanimation process. Life giving elixirs, breathing apparatus, and unique tissues lead to coastal visions and life or death limbo. Our murder victims got in the way of political ambitions so now their bodies are being put to good use. There's no need to make apologies when sacrificing for science! Once again The Frankenstein Chronicles builds its crimes and mysteries before escalating to full on horror. Raids, arrests, and eponymous resurrections mean nothing when death is not the end for men who live forever in a world without God. However loose ends must be tied up, and another corpse on the church steps leads to confessions, ironic justice, and science preventing the dead from staying deceased in an excellent denouement of amoral horrors.

He's angry, doesn't know his own strength, and vows revenge, yet Sean Bean's former inspector John Marlott remains haunted by his past. Initially he doesn't speak much, only “I was abandoned by God,”– which sums up The Frankenstein Chronicles quite well. Marlott insists he isn't who he was, for whether he was a man of kindness and justice or not, he received neither. Marlott feels forsaken since his family has gone on without him, yet he finds solace and a clean bed in a church and recognizes psalms of mercy when he hears them. Unfortunately, he can't look himself in the mirror, and any peace is quickly ruined by tragedy. Marlott moves on, pushing away the living because everyone around him winds up dead. He becomes a corpse bearer and calls himself Jack Martins, revisiting places he once frequented to prove his innocence despite nightmares that seem to indicate otherwise. Marlott is disturbed by all the death he sees and talks to ghostly guests from Series One, but he's more upset that he cannot see the spirits of his own wife and daughter. Marlott gives his coins to orphans and poor families so they can bury their dead properly and helps the sick households by doing their cleaning and hard labor, becoming the ironic hero of Pye Street roaming the slums at night – a foreboding grim reaper silhouette escorting a wagon of the dead to their mass grave. He tells people to flee the plague but ultimately ends up communing with their lingering spirits in superbly haunting moments. He cannot help the ghosts who torment him, but Marlott is deeply sorry for all the souls he seemingly damned. Forgiveness, however, may be found in the darkest places, and Marlott comes to accept he can live to do good even if he is not blessed. The Frankenstein Chronicles provides fascinating winks at Bean's walking spoiler onscreen image amid chilling declarations, strong demands for vengeance, and tearful displays. Granted I am biased – and I still think Marlott is Sharpe but Sean Bean seems to have become a better, more seasoned actor with age, and it is a pity The Frankenstein Chronicles received no awards notice for his excellent performance.

Though now a sergeant, Richie Campbell's Joseph Nightingale is assigned to a seemingly routine escape from Bedlam rather than a murder higher up officials want forgotten. He's a lot like Marlott, actually, getting praised for his initiative, punished for his insistence, and circumventing orders to find out about Marlott's surprise reappearance. Joe must still deal with racism from above and below and knows he's being stonewalled once victims' bodies are removed before he can inspect them – leaving Nightingale no choice but to get the truth at a terrible price. Ryan Sampson's fast talking Boz is still a reporter for the chronicle, chastised by Nightingale for writing outlandish reports to scare the public but shocked when the dead Marlott comes to see him. He wants Marlott's surely fantastic story, and remains unfettered in his outrageous reporting, because the truth that victims are having their hearts cut out is supposed to scare people less? Although grossed out by the autopsy reports, he's reluctant to give up his sources until their differing private exams prove they want him to print lies. Boz believes Marlott when he tells him there is a poisoning scheme in the works, but says he should do the talking when they poke around at the inquest. Charles Dickens ends up bombing around London with Frankenstein's Monster – one of many fascinating what ifs on The Frankenstein Chronicles. Laurence Fox's (Lewis) Mr. Dipple, meanwhile, is a creepy, reclusive aristocrat overly concerned with weird marionettes, music boxes, machine models, and masks. He's become enamored with contraptions because he is afraid to live, seemingly tender or sensitive but suspect when he asks guests to keep an open mind about what they see. The character embodies several contemporary ills viewers will recognize – saying one thing but doing another for his own purpose , which is to have power over death and grief. Sadly, Maeve Dermody (Carnival Row) as kind, widowed seamstress Esther Rose is unknowingly caught in the middle when taking in Marlott while commissioned to make dresses for Dipple's dolls. She buys clothes off the dead to re-sell to poor, not so particular customers and gives Marlott back his own effects. There's not much difference between her craft and stitching him up when he's injured, either. She's glad to have him protect her shop, for Esther thinks she is weak, afraid to live, and too nervous when invited to a ball showcasing her work. She's glad when Dipple calls her designs exquisite and doesn't believe he has ulterior motives despite Marlott's warnings. However, Esther insists she is not part of Dipple's collection, vowing to be no man's property despite her loneliness.

Lily Lesser as (Wolf Hall) Ada Byron, Lord Byron's mathematician daughter, also dislikes Dipple's obsession with “toys.” She's interested in automatons for the future and power for women, debating Dipple about whether a man building machines means he has power over God. Men's power pollutes what it touches, demanding obedience and stifling genius – leading to slavery and humans as the automaton. Although at times the character seems too modern, her progressive ideals aren't wrong, and it would have been intriguing to see more of her. Corpse bearer Francis Magee (Game of Thrones) knows Marlott is too shrewd for this job, but then again so is he. Spence is a former priest who criticized the Dean for his greed, and now he fears he is in danger. Nonetheless, he does his gruesome job and stands by his convictions, returning to his Bible even to his own detriment. Unfortunately, Kerrie Hayes (Lilies) as Dipple's orphan maid Queenie is also scared of her employer, his contraptions, and the locked doors deep inside his manor. She and Nightingale grew up in the foundling home together, and she clearly has a crush on him, telling him not to be consumed by blaming Marlott. Queenie wants to help Joe's investigation, but her curiosity gets the better of her. She knows the police won't believe what she's seen, but eventually, Queenie finds tell tale tokens as proof for the police. Locating Ed Stoppard's rumored to be dead Lord Hervey, however, isn't so easy. He's as in pursuit of his creation as Marlott is, but is he truly connected to the current crimes or is Marlott's wishful seeking of justice involving the not so good doctor? Hervey is said to be here or there, off in the carriage, or just missed him – pinning his gruesome actions on others as it suits his plans. He's happy to offer the choice of transformation to those who want it, developing a sick delight in what he does. For Hervey, there is no such thing as God's will, only indifferent science. Sir Robert Peele, however, wants to build new closed burials and give the poor the right to a Christian interment, but Tom Ward's Home Secretary has to move fast on his reforms before losing the ailing George IV's favor. Peele seeks cleaner cities where nearby decomposition isn't going back into the water and objects to the circumvention of his authority, for Guy Henry's (Rogue One) Dean of Westminster lords over everyone with his stranglehold on the police as well as the church. He squashes murder investigations, pockets burial fees, and uses Martin McCann (The Pacific) as parish coroner Renquist to do away with the bodies privately. For his dirty deeds, Renquist rightfully fears he's going to be the fall guy, just another of many corrupt officials on The Frankenstein Chronicles.

Fallen leaves and overcast skies create a perpetual autumn feeling for The Frankenstein Chronicles while barren coasts invoke a bleak limbo. Storms, mud, moors, and fog contrast the carriages, top hats, walking sticks, and frock coats. Careful editing, silence, and natural sounds parallel the horror realizations amid dank cells, chains, spooky lanterns, and autopsies. There are fancy stone manors and slum streets, but the graveyards and churches are somewhere in between – grand, old, but empty cloisters despite the cross's symbolic shelter and arched windows providing rare light. Wax seals, lockets, quills, waist coats, and cravats birth mechanical innovations, clockworks, masks, and uncanny valley eyes, layering the creepy science what ifs alongside the innocent flowers, lace, and painstaking embroidery attention to detail. Fair fiddles and carnival acts provide morbid bemusement, yet our star is often alone in the center of the camera frame or on the outside looking in at the action through doorways or arches. Then again, golden sconces and grand libraries can't compare to decomposing bodies as the gasps and covering mouths provide shock and stench for the audience. Sometimes the blue and night time drab are too dark, however, firelight adds a realistic touch so often missing from overly saturated shows. Oil lamps and disturbing harpsichord music accent syringes, hissing gears, leeches in jars, elixirs, tubes, catalysts, and beakers. The candlelit laboratory almost has an enchanting glow, but who knew blocks of ice could be so..well...chilling? Oddly, neither director Benjamin Ross nor writer Barry Langford are involved in Season Two – all new writers join director Alex Gabassi (The ABC Murders). With previouslies and credits, these episodes are also slightly shorter at forty-five minutes, however it is more annoying that Netflix wants to skip both with seconds to spare. The Frankenstein Chronicles Season Two doesn't use Mary Shelley as a character or the William Blake interconnected themes from the First Season, either. Fortunately, the personal morals, monsters dilemmas, and new mad science elements expand the drama and performances. Although this year ends well, it's a pity there is no word on a Third Season for The Frankenstein Chronicles. There's still time and the series deserves more. In reviewing, I must multi-task, pause, and take notes. The Frankenstein Chronicles, however, is a can't look away parable that's easy to marathon and superbly blends period piece aesthetics, mystery, and horror.

28 August 2019

Terrifyingly Titular Ladies

Terrifyingly Titular Ladies
by Kristin Battestella

This eponymous trio of period pieces provides Victorian, religious, and folklore scares for our ladies as well as their husbands, children, doctors, and priests.

Angelica – A Victorian couple spirals into paranormal horrors thanks to puritanical repression in this brooding 2017 tale starring Jena Malone (The Neon Demon), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), and Ed Stoppard (The Frankenstein Chronicles). Ghostly photography, flashbulbs, and empty chairs contrast the bustles, parasols, and formalities before lanterns, carriages, fine townhouses, and storms. Bedridden confessions lead to earlier courtings with circus sideshows and talk of Darwinism versus the stiff upper lip British tapering their animal appetites. The microscope revealing disease causing organisms is almost as fantastic as the camera capturing spirits, and while it's okay for a young lady to work in stationary store selling nibs and ink, she can't see her future husband's laboratory. Our humble orphan now in elaborate red dresses is called a counter jumper by the aristocratic ladies, and she's fearful of the bridal bed before enjoying it in a scandalously active montage. Bells toll amid talk of losing a mother nor wanting to be one, and this birth is graphic not maternal bliss thanks to scalpels, screams, and both lives at stake. Unfortunately, the doctor says another pregnancy is not worth the risk, and the couple should “desist entirely” and close her garden. Our husband doesn't want to seek pleasure elsewhere, but she can't get into other..options...and favors their toddler over him. Soon, she's completely revolted by her husband and obsessively attached to the child, and the wife is made to feel guilty about her health and desires by everyone in tense Victorian melodrama. Men in suits have no trouble warping her mind, but they are shocked to see a woman enter the medical theater amid animals in cages, exposed brains, and disturbing experiments that put the creepy back into the complex characterizations. Strange noises, visions of germs in the air, bugs in the woodwork, and wardrobes that open by themselves lead to more anger as the husband dislikes the chaos his overprotective wife is causing in their home. She won't let these apparitions prey on her daughter – who also sees this floating ectoplasm man in her room. Is she putting more notions in the imaginative child's head? Is this mental illness or is the repressed sexual energy seeping into the house itself?The maid calls in a scam artist spiritualist to ring bells, burn sage, and banish the banshees. Rather than a charlatan taking advantage, however, there's a woman to woman understanding and courage – a protection spell is more like piece of mind somewhere between being a modest mother and the shame of enjoying sex. There are also unspoken lesbian veils, entertaining women while your husband's away, putting their feet on the table, showing their legs, and drinking his best port. Drunken undressings provide laughter instead of rattling doors, swarming entities, prayers, and fires against evil. If he is not at home, who is festering this supernatural activity? The drama before the horrors may be slow to viewers expecting in your face scares a minute, but the intriguing characters are intertwined with the fear. Our mother needs to destroy the snake manifestations and demon man coming for her daughter before her husband sends her to Bedlam, and the once beautiful interiors become stifling as ghostly sexual encounters escalate to mind and bodies becoming one with blood and penetrations of a different kind. Although the bookends are unnecessary and this seems caught between two audiences – too much drama for horror fans and intrusive paranormal activity for period piece viewers – such Victorian horror drama with a touch of LGBT is perfect for fans of gothic mood and psycho-sexual dreadfuls.

The Nun – This 2018 R-rated spin-off opens with the creepy demon portrait and premonitions from The Conjuring before 1952 abbeys, on location Romanian filming, eerie forests, derelict cemeteries, and crosses everywhere. Fog, lanterns, crows, bloody hands, and screams in the dark accent chanting prayers, Latin warnings, and forbidden doors while relics, dark tunnels, gothic windows, and an upside down crucifix add a medieval panache. Evil shadows and soulless reflections need a vessel to escape, and a post-war chaplain and a habit-less novice are assigned to investigate the hangings, bloody bodies, and deceased nuns. Local villagers spit to ward off evil and fear talking about the cursed cloister – there's a cross on the wagon and a scared horse only goes so far on the dirt road toward the bombed out, overgrown castle. Crosses surround the now unholy ground to keep the evil in, not out, and the intimate cast, foreign touches, and blood on the church steps create an old school horror atmosphere. Eponymous reflections and shadows of unknown origin prove the simplest chill is the correct one, and foreshadowed Chekhov's clues are indeed used. The body preserved in the spooky food cellar is not in the position where it was left, bells on graves from when people feared being buried alive ring, and one and all cross themselves before using the crossed shaped keys. Dripping candelabras and marble thrones set off the barren stone interiors – not to mention the veiled figures among the sarcophagi and headless statues. What should be an enchanting, spiritual place is frightful and full of darkness amid vows of silence, ghostly phantoms in the woods, maze like structures, and lone figures in white among the stone columns. Vintage radios and old photographs give the convent a war time look, and brief flashes of past exorcisms gone wrong lead to snakes, empty coffins, and previous visions of Madonna guidance. The characters' histories are directly involved in the current good versus evil fight. Red glows and pointy gates lead to an empty inner sanctum, perpetual adoration, and researching leather bound volumes for our not so good friend Valak. The remaining nuns hide behind locked doors – afraid to speak of Dark Age history, witchcraft, rituals, and bloodletting. However, returning to the village whispers breaks the ominous atmosphere and tales of gateways to hell, monsters from below, crusader defenses, and recent war bombings freeing something unholy. Although the snarling is more effective when we don't see what we fear most, this shape shifter terrorizes with separation, isolation, cracking bones, and demonic winds as the spinning camera invokes a swoon, fainting against evil's power. Incessant prayers, clenched rosaries, and lone candles don't help against broken pews, demonic scratches, and pentagrams carved in the flesh. We're disturbed by the habits with blacked out faces and looking over our shoulders, doubting what we're seeing thanks to some great deceptions – leaving the purely for the fantastics visuals unnecessary. Old maps and blueprints lead to interior wells, sinking catacombs, torches, drownings, stabbings with crosses, holy water, and possessions. Sacrifices to stop the demon include relics of Christ, holy sacraments, and sacred revelations in a whiff of commentary about their being a time for prayer and a time for action. It is however totally odd that the casting of Taissa Farmiga (American Horror Story)sister of Conjuring star Vera – serves no onscreen purpose but to dupe viewers into thinking it would lead to more. The rushed narrative also resorts to standard horror trappings rather than taking its time with a very intriguing story. Hammer would have milked five movies out of this, and a prequel with all the crusader versus witchcraft action leading up to this movie's opening death seems more interesting than a sequel squeezed into The Conjuring timeline. Alas, the franchise connections are prioritized over truly realizing the spiritual introspection – faith as a force against evil is conveniently dropped for horror movie deus ex machina. Why does Valak have to tease them in some kind of religious themed house of horrors finale with typical whooshes to and fro? Fortunately, the repossessions, levitation, vessels made unholy, and body sacred re-sanctified keep this a mature and entertaining parable.

Unrealized Potential

The Curse of La Llorna – Spanish lullabies, lockets, and 1673 Mexico sunshine open this 2019 tale also tied to The Conjuring universe before murderous figures in white, drownings, and screams. Come 1973, it's feathered hair, typewriters, station wagons, and the family morning rush with funky music to match as a widowed case worker investigates a violent mother claiming she needs to keep her boys safe from the eponymous lady – with candles, boarded windows, crosses, garlic, and more protective talismans. Unfortunately, the authorities open the door where her sons are hiding, and putting them in protective custody leads to hospital scares, creepy corridors, phantom reflections, and some terrifying little looks on their child faces. Bodies in the river, red police sirens, sobbing ghosts, and veiled figures build mood, however the big roars and in your face screeches intrude on the chilling atmosphere. Kids in fear are upsetting enough – as is the window that rolls down by itself. Although our ghostly lady is always after a set of two boys, a weak reason is given for why she's pursuing our case worker's boy and girl instead. Their late father was apparently a religious, Hispanic cop, and chats with the priest from Annabelle seemingly only exist so our white mother can dismiss the spiritual cleansings at the funeral, rosary gifts, and recommendations to have faith against evil. Symbolic umbrellas shield the children before being ripped away while pools, rain, and water of any kind become ominous. Her son is trying to be brave, yet his mother doesn't notice the changes in her kids' behavior or the burns on their arms. In fact, it's almost more disturbing how the children become stoic and silent because they know they won't be believed. Are we supposed to sympathize with a white woman who intruded without listening and doesn't consider the paranormal happenings until she receives a welfare check of her own? Does the ghost continually scare and screech at the kids rather than killing them and being done with it just so their mom can get a clue thanks to the doors whooshing open by themselves? She certainly doesn't recognize our lady despite being told exactly what she looks like, and the audience also doesn't have enough time to get a chill up our spines over her titular appearances in the mirror thanks to time wasted on cliché frights. The creepiest moments come when the dead hands reach out for a little girl in the bath tub – there's no music or camera excess, just held under terror. Outside of the seventies touches in beginning, the busy editing, zooms, and crescendos make this story feel too contemporary, and CGI Los Angeles skylines are useless in setting the spooky scene. Tablecloths, curtains, and linens obviously become billowing ghost skirts, and our medieval figure almost looks out of place rather than scary thanks to the frustrating horror mistakes made by our current mother – like holding the door knob is really going to keep the phantom in the bathroom, and it's her children who remain in jeopardy while she doesn't take this threat seriously. Three people recount the eponymous consequences twice each, but the church has technicalities about this sort of ritual and can't condone if she seeks the local shaman instead. The protection methods, however, are scoffed at as silly tricks, and I suppose not everyone grew up with a superstitious Italian nonne like me, because no one knows how to pray or spread salt, and the candles, crosses, and sage are treated like Mystical 101 against this equally foreign evil. Fading in and out snippets montage the finale like a trailer with wind whooshes and more human stupidity as a plot device. Although watchable for its attempted ethnic strides, this devolves into one unnecessary set piece after another, resorting to modern horror trappings rather than embracing its own folklore. If you are really interested in atmospheric pictures steeped in Catholicism and Mexican traditions, it's better to stick with the Abel Salazar classics like the 1961 Curse of the Crying Woman or the 1931 Spanish Dracula. Ultimately, I'd rather have seen the colonial crimes of passion here instead.

20 August 2019

The Magnificent Seven Season 1

The Magnificent Seven Season One is a Charming Marathon 
by Kristin Battestella

Gunslinger Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn), bounty hunter Vin Tanner (Eric Close), lothario Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff), gambler Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), preacher Josiah Sanchez (Ron Perlman), and medic Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy) school new kid in town J.D. Dunne (Andrew Kavovit) on the code of the West while they help Judge Travis (Robert Vaughn) and his daughter-in-law newswoman Mary (Laurie Holden) protect the town from bandits, corrupt ranchers, and all manner of outlaws...

In the winter of 1998, CBS brought back the familiar charm of The Magnificent Seven with nine episodes of good old fashioned cowboy adventure beginning with the ninety minute “Ghosts of the Confederacy.” The prejudice against Seminoles and freed slaves is immediate thanks to half breed hatred made physical with cannon fire and general Kurtwood Smith's (That 70's Show) demands for gold. The opening credits introduce us to the heroes before we see them onscreen, assuring viewers can recognize when our Seven are roused into fighting alongside the oppressed. Too many people are looking the other way, and this motley crew intend to do something about it with shootouts, cemetery standoffs, swagger, and sarcasm. Such lively lawlessness, however, isn't scene chewing laugh out loud set piece spectacles. Sardonic deadpans about greeting one with hostility versus hospitality come amid more subtle bonding over drinks, licking of wounds, and even moments of doubt. The Magnificent Seven is not high drama, but we need something to root for and big moments happen with firm western grandstanding. Seven horses march down main street at sunrise and shots are fired while capture, turncoats, and near executions have consequences. This pilot has a lot to establish, but different pairs of the team have a chance to get together and respect each other's skills. Now, on shows such as Enterprise, Robin Hood, and Merlin, there's always an obligatory out of place save a town from marauders by teaching them how to fight episode. With The Magnificent Seven, however, that's the whole story, and it would get old fast to save the day every week. Fortunately, “One Day out West” takes time at home as the new judge in town lays down the law against cattleman Brion James (Blade Runner). Local residents are reluctant to join the jury – justice isn't as important if you have to live in town once the trial ends. Wounds linger, characters question if they should stay or go, and both good and bad guys end up in the jail cell. Standoffs in the rain lead to coffins filled with rocks, legal ruses, and court presiding in the saloon as chases and heroics give the town courage. The Seven sign on for a dollar a day plus room and board to establish The Magnificent Seven's ongoing possibilities, and despite the common ranchers, homesteaders, and rowdy, this bottle episode gives the audience a chance to enjoy the charming interplay. When you have the cast, characters, and story you don't need the in your face, look look notice superficial try hard problematic last seen in the 2016 Magnificent Seven remake. Explosions, ladies in the prison wagon, and kids in the saloon set off “Safecracker” alongside sheriff turned conman Jeff Kober (China Beach), cheating at poker, and staking out the bank to plan the robbery. Kidnappings, across the border hideouts, and double crosses make for an entertaining heist. It's not all guns and glory but our boys are multifaceted scoundrels just as comfortable in the sanctuary as the saloon.

Intense black and white flashbacks and distorted gunshots through the eyes of a quiet, shy, terrified boy open “Witness” – the first slightly darker standout episode of The Magnificent Seven that should have come sooner than the fifth episode. Past unsolved crimes are revisited thanks to scary threats, dangerous horses in the street, stagecoach chases, bandits, nightmares, and family trauma. Viewers know who the well to do murderer is, but the focus here is our directly involved characters and lady-centric themes deepen the town ensemble and family dynamics. Who would have wanted a newspaper man dead? Well, a lot of people, and new details printed in the paper are used to flushed out the killer amid runaways, prairie shootouts, and confessions. Pain, memories, motherhood, and parent child conflicts divide and conquer our boys as they get to the truth, and The Magnificent Seven gets better as the season goes on in balancing serious individual stories and tall western yarns. In “The Collector” a tough old lady tells her young niece to save the last bullet for herself as rival cattle baron Tim Thomerson (Who's Harry Crumb) wants their homestead so he can sell big to the railroad. He believes in Three Gs – God, Guns, and Get the hell of my property – and today's troubles add to the talk of “Indian givers,” demeaning use of “boy,” burnings, and lynchings from a character called “Top Hat Bob.” Buying one's own deed and $300 taxes would be impossible but for a loan from The Seven, and the threatening raids and ill gotten gains are evenly paced with the awkward smitten and love lost plots. A and B stories mean the team is involved in each other developments as well as their own, topping The Magnificent Seven off with drunken diversions and dynamite that won't light. Unfortunately, The Seven don't think a Native American abduction of a white woman is as cut and dry as it seems in “Manhunt.” Her minister father and loud mouth brother incite town mobs and posses at funerals, and even some of our group suspect a savage only wants one thing from a lady. The upstanding white folk not being as righteous as they seem follows the previous episode's suggested ugly with more overt issues. The Magnificent Seven is a fun show with western plots that were common twenty years ago, yet some of the series' discourse on xenophobia and religious conflicts are unfortunately relevant again. Missionaries wanting to help make the situation worse – tribal law and punishment aren't enough for locals who want a hanging and some men are unable to accept the mistakes made. Despite jail cell rituals, escapes, and mano y mano fights, wise men on both sides try to quell the anger, grief, and bitter truths.

Despite mentions of the Union Army, General Lee, and Fort Laramie, The Magnificent Seven is unfortunately nondescript in its time and place beyond the generic West. Several episodes in a row also resort to a make the bad guys believe their quarry is dead ruse, and yeah, nobody knows how to contact The A-Team, sure. This is a family show, so while “son of a bitch” is rough and authentic, no one will dare say “whore” or “brothel.” In the late nineties, a series thought it could takes it time, so the earliest entries here are see one, seen 'em all with the ensemble charm carrying what today wouldn't be much to hold on to if viewers were watching weekly. These shows are also short – forty-eight minutes at most but often a quick forty-four minutes with credits when an extra scene and just more time overall would elevate the lighthearted into something more mature. Of course, today a show like this would kill one of The Seven or rotate the players, and although The Magnificent Seven has peril, there isn't enough cruelty to ruin the heroic escapism. Unfortunately “Working Girls” was as tired then as it is now. Perhaps one can excuse the Saturday night network lack of spice but the un-sexy bathtub humor and jokes about not charging a guy she really likes don't work amid the screams, bruised women, and abusive pimp plot. Already awkward for a family show, the jokes go from bad to worse with Ezra hoping to sell off the women as mail order brides after some charm school lessons in the church. Everyone goes along with this too, for they all think marriage and gentility are the hookers' only hope – when not resorting to stereotypical drag to save the day, of course. This entry feels like it was filmed much later in the season; filler lark when we are supposed to already know and laugh alongside our characters. When aired as the third episode, however, the tone is too off kilter. Ironically likewise hurt by its place as the season finale is “Inmate 78.” Despite modern feelings thanks to shivs, false arrests, backwater justice, numbers instead of names, and hard labor sentence in a private prison camp, this is a fine entry thanks to wanted posters, shackles, and escape attempts. The team has to pull together without their leader's heroics. References in the plot, however, reveal this entry was clearly filmed earlier in the season and it should have aired at least fourth. Rather than sending the series gunning right out of the gate, The Magnificent Seven saved all the more serious episodes for the traditional spring sweeps, leaving the easy going episodes to rally initial viewers on charm alone. But hey, the finale is the only episode where we see one of the guys shirtless. Nowadays, each of the boys would have to be buff and tussling topless by the horse trough every week. C'est la vie.

Man in black Chris Larabee is suave be it whiskey and a cigarette or unfettered in the shootout, and Michael Biehn (Aliens) is a fitting leader in the spirit of Yul Brynner and George Kennedy. Chris is cool in his simplicity but wise and sarcastic. He let's everyone have their shots at the clouds, knowing they didn't stop and reload, yet insists no one is ever shot in the back. When asked where he came from, he says the saloon. Where is he going next? The saloon. His reputation precedes him, and Larabee's backstory anchors The Magnificent Seven. Since his wife and son were killed, Chris silently endures his torment, threatening Buck for talking about it and saying nothing when people ask about his past. He objects to being called a cowboy, but sticks around even if he admits he feels out of place with the new businesses and opportunities in town. Chris chooses his battles, saying money can't buy everything, and makes his own justice when pretending to be the bad guy – such as robbing a bank and giving the money back to the locals. While in a prison camp he earns respect when defending those who can't help themselves and apologizes for being trigger happy many years ago. He's met the devil more than once but hasn't been beaten by him yet. Although he has a few lady friends, Chris clearly likes Mary's moxie. He whittles a toy horse for her son, but doesn't think he's the right person to nurture the boy. He thinks getting shot is just a scratch, too, but has no time for racists – insisting they should watch their backs if they don't thank Nathan for his help. When a prisoner has information on the Larabee murders in “Nemesis,” Chris holds the witness under in the trough until he gets the details. He doesn't trust all of the team to return to his homestead and confirm the story, but the trip only brings bittersweet, sunny flashbacks for Chris, colorful and idyllic scenes compared to his current dark facade. Evidence of co-conspirators and left handed clues aren't much to go on against slick killer Stephen McHattie (Deep Space Nine...”It's a faakkkeee!”). He's always one step ahead, and violent confrontations lead to shot in the back consequences. This superb episode should have been the season finale, and the rest of The Seven ride in to save the day – for now.

In double tribute to Steve McQueen, Eric Close's (Without a Trace) bounty hunter with a price on his own head sharpshooter Vin Tanner uses a Mare's Leg for The Magnificent Seven. He's quiet and sensible – dressing in sandy buckskin like an angel on the shoulder contrasting Chris' gruff darkness. Chris confides in him, but they also nod to each other in an unspoken respect. Vin always says he's going to clear his name and start fresh elsewhere, but he sticks around because he's no worse than the rest of the trouble coming to town. He helps an old lady because he likes her courage and returns her things when they are stolen before insisting he is no gentleman. Vin knows Ezra keeps his money in his boots and cons him out of it for a good cause but backs out of the room when he walks in on a love triangle. Most importantly, Vin wants to do right by his late mother, and after spending time living with Native Americans in his buffalo hunting days, he insists on being on the opposite side of a lynching party – whether that seems like the wrong side or not when others go along with racist rumors. In contrast, Dale Midkiff (Pet Sematary) as raised in a brothel womanizer Buck Wilmington loves to fight against the odds if it means there are ladies to be rescued. Life's tough and then you die, so he's making the most out of it when not drunk or taking J.D. under his wing. Although he says he only puts up with him because he can't be bothered to think of something nice to say at J.D.'s funeral. There are running jokes, too, about where he left his hat or boots and how he always gets them back, and after reading a book on animal magnetism, he claims that is his curse – the reason why he can't get rid of all the women coming on to him. Then again, Buck unsuccessfully flirts with Mary Travis and has a long time cantankerous relationship with Chris. He gets wild when Chris is in danger, but also “gets the devil in him” for a little good cop, bad cop when The Seven need it.

Of course, my favorite was always Anthony Starke (License to Kill) as gambler with the southern charm and swindler style Ezra Standish. He pretends to be drunk before hustling on double or nothing odds and has more card tricks up his sleeve – literally along with his two shot. He says he stays in town for the laughs yet entertains kids with his slight of hand. Ezra may speak in fancy colloquialisms to confuse others, but he has moments of doubt, ditching the action when Chris calls his bluffs before returning in the nick of time or sleeping on the church pew with his gun ready to defend one in need. When not running afoul with the law, he's delighted to have a kid protege who knows how to cut cards, however, Ezra won't help a lady fix her fence like the rest of the men, for “a gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor.” He thanks a woman who says he'd never be mistaken for a ranch hand and refuses to give his winnings to a “wizened crone, no offense ma'am.” Ezra doesn't trust Vin and dislikes “Mr. Tanner's” Robin Hood ways, insisting he do the talking because the rest of The Seven terrorize people, have no tact, and “rude would be an improvement.” Then again, Ezra swears on the grave of his sainted mother Michelle Phillips (Knots Landing), who we later meet in “Witness” shuffling cards to exercise her rheumatism. Her luggage – filled with rocks because appearances are everything – is gen-u-wine French leather, and Ezra wishes he'd left off his return address in his letters after she embarrasses him with poker playing and childhood tall tales. Maude Standish is proof there is a god according to Josiah, for he always thought Ezra was raised by wolves, and their opposites attract is great fun. Her appearance may be brief and Maude doesn't care for Mary very much, but they have intriguing, multifaceted conversations on how raising a son never gets easy, mistakes will be made, and regrets will happen. However, she also wants to run a cotton gin investment scam on the locals, tells free fortunes to J.D., and cleanses his luck with a discounted, five dollar ritual. Maude's shocked that Ezra's employed and wasting his talents, but he insists it's his job to protect the town from people like him and her. Despite the humor, zingers, and passive aggressive smiles, this relationship gives The Magnificent Seven a dramatic undercurrent that's explored more in Year Two.

Preacher Ron Perlman (Hellboy) is rebuilding a church as his penance for killing too many men. Josiah Sanchez has already seen hell, a dry strongman who would rather face death head on than turn the other cheek. He drinks of course, turning to the wrong kind of spirit when not ringing his church bell if he spots trouble in the distance. Josiah resents his missionary father for not practicing the rhetoric he preached, but he shelters kids in his church, regaling them with tales of sacred warriors who cleanse the earth of evil – a nod perhaps to The Magnificent Seven's Samurai past. He dresses up for “Getting Gertie's Garter Show,” smitten and ready to renew her acquaintance after choosing to pursue a spiritual journey with a Cherokee medicine man over her. Josiah is a man of god with a gun who's likely to get Old Testament if he's on a mission, for his faith only goes so far. Desperate for glory Andrew Kavovit (As the World Turns) as the kid J.D., however, is jumping off the noon stage in a bowler hat – a poor eastern boy bungling everything he tries yet wanting to help nonetheless. Chris doesn't want “young and proud” written on J.D.'s tombstone, and despite taking thirty dollars a week to be sheriff, he follows Chris' orders. J.D. also takes Buck's advice when it is good but will tell him when he is full of crap, too, saying he should take a bath to get rid of his smelly animal magnetism. Josiah is embarrassed by his cultural impasses with the Native Americans, and J.D.'s jokes are terrible – “a three legged dog walks into a bar and says 'I'm looking for the man who shot my paw.'” Unfortunately, Rick Worthy's (Enterprise) former slave Nathan Jackson is the least developed member of our team. Once a stretcher bearer, Nathan had to learn medicine on the side, and his cutting skills are handy be it weapon or scalpel. He seems to be the only one that can calm Chris, whether he's yelling at him or racing to stop him from killing the wrong man. Nathan patches up Josiah the most and helps him build his church, but confronts Ezra several times, saying his faux gentility can't hide his knack for making money off the backs of others. A pesky dime novel writer wants to write his life as From Slave to Surgeon, but Nathan insist he isn't a doctor and just wants to help people.

As an original member of The Magnificent Seven, the late Robert Vaughn provides a stamp of approval to series despite appearing in only two episodes this season and four more in Year Two. Judge Travis stands in the street armed and defiant, telling troublesome men to drop their guns with a tough old law stance to counter the outlaw. As father-in-law to Laurie Holden's (Silent Hill) Mary Travis, he's a kind support helping raise her son, and The Seven take their position seriously when Judge Travis relies on their help and protection. Certainly, it might have been interesting to have had more of the passing townsfolk on The Magnificent Seven, including a western novel writer embodying fun self-referential winks, a shrewd widowed shopkeeper, and the obligatory undertaker. Initially Mary is the only strong willed person in town, trying to stop a lynching in her contrasting red dress and rifle. She's intelligent and runs her own newspaper since her husband's death – not afraid to bend the facts and write some streets ran red with blood hyperbole if such sensational headlines keep the bad element out of town. Mary wants to know everything about these heroes, and she's obviously curious about Chris, who she initially vilifies before realizing you need someone like him to keep away the real riffraff. Mary has moment with each of The Seven, helping Nathan, providing womanly insights, or just being nosy about the latest danger. She admits she has a say in the town and will say it whether anybody wants to hear it or not. Her press is small and doesn't need more employees, but she objects that it is high and mighty prejudice when she won't higher a working girl. The Magnificent Seven opens with Mary as harsh and all business yet softens her as a woman by having her get rough to protect her son. She dresses down and is ready to ride when he is missing. Of course, this being a good old fashioned western, Mary is put in peril and in need of rescue a time or two.

With such feel good music and lively open credits, we know we're in for a good time on The Magnificent Seven. Big smiles, winks, and smooth profiles set off the snippets of adventure amid saloons, player pianos, horses, and western main streets. Perhaps some of the set looks a little cardboard stock simple, but that's almost expected in the western tradition with a general store, telegraphs, and pocket watches. Dusty breezes or sunny outdoor filming make up for any facades alongside well done action stunts and wagon chases across a variety of natural terrains. Dusters, boots, spurs, and cowboy hats make for some big entrances through the swinging saloon doors, and references to Kit Carson and western dime novels provide an extra touch. While the Native American designs are colorful, they are unfortunately not tribe specific – a surprising oversight when The Magnificent Seven otherwise has an award winning attention to detail with lace, frills, gloves, parasols, and bonnets. Thankfully, weapons, scopes, stagecoaches, saddles, and leather provide a rough and crusty to match the deadpans. Although the familiar, even whimsical cues suggest when to be amused, the audience isn't underestimated with over editing or extra visual excess. Granted, the nineties action is small scale with up close on the camera corners and slow motion emphasis on the nick of time moment amid the shootouts. Night time filming can be tough to see and the video transfer is grainy. However, this is also an era where not every smirk, trick shot, or cool moment has to be a GIF in the making, and The Magnificent Seven allows viewers to chuckle when we want to not when we are told. Big silhouettes, sunset skies, and riding across the prairie set off the pre-Y2K escapism even as our boys are wounded, shot, and bloodied. The theme has some down notes too – playing in a lower key when one of our boys gets angry. Perhaps today's audience also has to consider that this Magnificent Seven wasn't that far removed from the Original Film's sequels before the western in the eighties death knell. Young Guns and Bon Jovi briefly stirred a cowboy cool before the dark and realistic likes of Unforgiven, and with its action adventure and sardonic sophistication, on the surface The Magnificent Seven seems to be the male answer to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The Magnificent Seven served as mid-season filler on CBS between Dr. Quinn's final season and Walker, Texas Ranger when believe it or not – the whole family stayed in on Saturday nights and watched westerns. Ironically, the writer who penned the most overall episodes of The Magnificent Seven, is Melissa Rosenberg, of later Dexter and now Jessica Jones. Back then I taped The Magnificent Seven when it originally aired, and the DVD releases seemed late coming. After sporadic reruns on the western channels and current streaming opportunities, the thing that excites me most is subtitles. Some of those pseudo Old West shaggy looking mullet hairstyles, err no.

Despite a few standard plots, great characters, atmosphere, and personality keep The Magnificent Seven fresh and friendly. By placing charm and western spirit above post-modern grit, this quick First Season of The Magnificent Seven provides rousing crescendos and riding into the sunset adventure for the whole family.