13 July 2019

Tales from the Crypt Season 6

Tales from the Crypt Peaks with Season 6 
by Kristin Battestella

The fifteen episode 1994-95 Sixth and penultimate season of Tales from the Crypt peaks with another year of saucy satire and bizarre plots inspired by Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, ShockSuspense Stories, Crime Suspense Stories, and Haunt of Fear.

CKNN news anchor The Crypt Keeper reports on a mummy taking the rap after years in denial before opening the season with the comeuppance of “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime.” Big city lawyer Catherine O'Hara (Beetlejuice) is stuck with bow tie wearing public defender Peter MacNichol (Dracula: Dead and Loving It) for a simple vehicle violation – her “Sue Me” license plate – in a very strict backwater burg proud of its local executions and town square hangings. Unfortunately, contesting her original penance of ten lashes leads to stocks and gory dungeon apparitions of her previous lawsuit victims. Director Russell Mulcahy's (Highlander) askew camera angles and distorted courtroom proportions visually accent the injustice, appeals, increasingly ominous judges, and electric chair twists before the neon Halloween decadence of “Only Skin Deep.” Unwelcome guests and abusive threats dampen the rad party, but “Molly” is ready to take the sexy bizarre home to her barren warehouse loft – so long as they keep on their masks. No last names or details will interfere with the lingerie and saucy action on the red couch. Her body bag costume mirrors our synthetic shells with a person inside, and tonight some rough in the flesh anonymity will set all the pain free thanks to that no questions asked policy, blood, bugs, and a power tool or two. The Crypt Keeper is doing a makeover with red slaytex paint in “Whirlpool,” but angry editor Richard Lewis (Robin Hood: Men in Tights) isn't happy with the latest nudity, violence, and seedy turnabouts as the team argues over the black and white storyboards in the Tales from the Crypt writers room. Self referential winks to other episodes – he's a werewolf, she's a vampire but they don't know it – accent the old fashioned mood, vintage phones, pencils, alcohol, guns, and revenge. Blood on the floor contrasts the classy looking hats and pumps before police stand offs and nightmares lead to repeated rejections, walleye visuals, and the same thirteenth floor disasters. The mundane cubicle life and stolen accounting programs likewise don't bode well for Tate Donovan (Memphis Belle) in “Operation Friendship.” However, his zany imaginary friend reappears to cheer him up – until the pretty girl next door interferes. Between the lines of its horror and bizarre, Tales from the Crypt often provides satire and subtext, and here there's intimate, even homoerotic visuals as our invisible, jealous friend preys on his BFF with scary internal imagery and symbolic self confrontations.

Donned in neon flippers, goggles, and wielding a harpoon, the Crypt Keeper gets in trouble with the Die-R-S in “Revenge is the Nuts.” Cruel Anthony Zerbe (The Omega Man) torments Bibi Besch (The Wrath of Khan) and Isaac Hayes (South Park) with marbles on the floor and bricked up bathrooms at his cold, shabby, and dark institution for the blind before threatening new patient Teri Polo (Meet the Parents) to do things his way. Again the layered script provides open up and say ah or hole in one mini golf innuendo to match the deplorable, abusive conditions with sex for rations and heat. Injuries, escape attempts, and the missing senses escalate amid desperate fears and a scary, hungry dog. The taste of his own medicine turnabouts provide a fitting Tales from the Crypt revenge, and William Sadler as his Bill and Ted Grim Reaper proposes a contest with his old friend the Crypt Keeper in “The Assassin” – because this tomb isn't big enough for the both of them. Shelley Hack's (Charlie's Angels) suburban sunny side up perfection is also disrupted by tasers, Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys), and a team of CIA agents pursuing her AWOL husband. Despite the smacks, treadmill mishaps, and bemusing splatter preparations, everyone's so polite about the dinner parties, tasty roast, and not getting a bloody nose on the sofa. In “Staired in Horror,” escapee D.B.Sweeney (Fire in the Sky) hides from sheriff R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket) in a creepy bayou manor with confederate swords, an old lady downstairs, and an old fashioned babe upstairs. Unfortunately, thanks to some past torrid and family curses, he can't go up and she can't come down the steps. Meeting on the stairs halfway for some necking and a scary police dog named Gator add to the over the top tone, and the Southern Gothic mood leads to decrepit consequences. Our beatnik Keeper, on the other hand, he's a real ghoul dude. Doctor Austin Pendleton (Homicide:Life on the Street) wants to steal a corpse with the help of security guard Hank Azaria (The Birdcage) in “Doctor of Horror,” for he works from home because he's not allowed in hospitals anymore. Gross gurneys, scalpels, and ugly dead feet lead to storing bodies in the wine cellar cum laboratory while he looks for evidence of the soul in a vanishing gland behind the spine. It's all totally preposterous, but the quirky ensemble keep the moral questions coming amid the gory reversals and forty year old freezer on the fritz.

When barber Crypt Keeper isn't cutting off ears, he's on the beach with the babes and his ice ghouler for “Comes the Dawn.” There are dive bars, blizzards, and not much else in Alaska, but big game hunter Michael Ironside (V) is there to break the poaching rules amid military histories, masculine versus feminine tension, and an eerie, abandoned weather bunker. Something is hibernating, and icky sounds, bloody sacs, and sticky substances add to the snowed in snarling, low body temperatures, and blood thirsty twists. In “99& 44/100% Pure Horror,” gruesome artwork, kinky artistry, and steamy showers happen before irritable husband Bruce Davison (X-Men) comes home. He prattles on about antacids and soap chemicals, but his board of directors wants a new campaign for their next success – one that's not designed by his wife. Missed Talk show opportunities lead to more understandable artist frustrations, for nobody wants her gory designs. If she can't sell her work, then she's going to make bank with a divorce. Soon the white dress is bloody, bodies are rolled up in the carpet, and soap on a rope begets processing plants and acid vats to dispose of the evidence and churn out a new batch of soap with some itchy, fleshy consequences. The Crypt Keeper's tossing skulls at the annual die-cathalon just for the kill of victory, and Fearrest Gump shockolate spoofs, brief Alfred Hitchcock cameos, black and white visuals, and Bogart – yes Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon) – set off “You, Murderer.” Tales from the Crypt executive producer Robert Zemeckis directs Isabella Rossellini (Death Becomes Her), John Lithgow (Dexter), and Sherilyn Finn (Twin Peaks) as phone calls from the dead, red accents, mirrors, reflections, and point of view camerawork sell the cleverness. Certainly, some of the primitive computer graphics are inferior looking today. The back and forth timeline is confusing, and the flashback within flashback narration is clearly not Bogie. However, the unique visuals aren't just reserved for the late star, but also femme fatales, killer twists, gunshots, and car accidents that bring the tale full circle. Sure this is mostly a technological experiment imitating a specific film making atmosphere, but the delightful ensemble and supernatural twists make it easy to appreciate this recreation of Old Hollywood style. Alibis, set ups, violent mishaps – if Tales from the Crypt was going to do anymore for love or money crime stories, this was the way to do it. Once again we're dealing with the moral ambiguity and graphic viability of re-using dead actor's likeness, and although this episode is both polarizing in its then genius as well as jumping the shark even for Tales from the Crypt's pushing the envelope standards, this half hour is certainly unforgettable.

Of course, there are several run of the mill episodes by mid season, and today Tales from the Crypt would probably be even shorter with delayed Fall A and Spring B scheduling. Then again, the campaigning Crypt Keeper says the Fright House needs more stiff competition and despite the skeletons in his closet he's the best candidate for new bleedership in the otherwise dull “The Bribe.” The racial and religious undertones are here for Terry O'Quinn (666 Park Avenue) and Benicio del Toro (Traffic) with devilish strippers and Hispanic club owners versus seemingly righteous white lawmen, however the consequences are too predictable. Likewise “The Pit” goes overboard with the hyperbolic sports commentators, low quality video replays, trash talk, and thirty million dollar no holds barred fight to the death – all televised on HBO, naturally. The ruthless trophy wives live vicariously through the short leash on their macho men until they get the chance to be down and dirty in the cage. The action isn't all bad, but the so specifically steeped in the nineties cool falls flat now. Indeed, the best part here is the Keeper decorating his Cryptmas tree. The lips and stockings opening “In the Groove” are unfortunately just radio foreplay that I swear copies that old Cinemax show Hot Line. Ratings are down and sponsors are leaving, but sexy stunts on the graveyard shift light up the phone lines – especially when the fantasies turn to hatred, rage, and murder. The hellish sibling rivalry seems like it's going one place and then it's disappointing when the story ends up somewhere else. Brief deathbed flashbacks and family antagonism are reflected in the rainy windshield for “Surprise Party” as a son inherits a deserted farm decades after a fire. The visuals are both an obviously cheap way to provide backstory without an entire hospital bed scenario yet effective in providing twistedness. Unfortunately, the property's already occupied with hip babes, booze, jealousy, and midnight specials – and the supposedly wild parties and fiery vengeance are totally lame. Thankfully, the atmospheric and spooky Tales from the Crypt opening is always Halloween décor inspiring, and noir lighting, tunnel dollies, dizzying pans, and up close zooms accent the scares even when some of the special effects look primitive. Missing nose my foot! More ambiance, shadow schemes, neon spotlights, green haze, and red glows match the oozing monster designs, gross prosthetics, and screeching sounds as the camera takes its askew angles and extreme distortions cues from each story. Jazzy music also accentuates the tension as needed, not to mention the steamy lingerie and bare skin that only Tales from the Crypt could get away with then. Bright early McMansion styles and eighties white leather previously seen have now become nineties black leather luxury contrasting the drab poor interiors. Certainly some episodes have better production values than others – at times sets are bare or generic rather than uniquely specific. One can tell the budget was probably reduced – or saved for all that crafty then newfangled CGI in the finale. Fortunately, a whiff of nostalgia peppers Tales from the Crypt thanks to big microwaves, CDs, headsets, brick mobile phones, and giant computers with DOS and “the 'net.” Although, I'm not sure about the strappy baby doll dresses with tiny white tees underneath, berets, and tiny backpacks nor those high waist jeans and flavor of the nineties Cavarricci pants, I am still wearing crushed velvet empire dresses. ¯\_()_/¯

This season of Tales from the Crypt is more mature dark comedy than outright scary, but many of the entries here provide memorable macabre thanks to the stars and twists. Rather than too many look alike crime and murder or for love or money stories like previous seasons, Tales from the Crypt Season Six peaks with sophisticated satire and choice horror accents perfect for a late night binge.

30 June 2019

Horrific Period Pieces

Horrific Period Pieces
by Kristin Battestella

Steeped in gothic mood and bleak atmosphere, this trio of films past and present provides both period piece sophistication and slow burn horrors.

Black Torment – Black screen panting and tense chases through the brush with music to match every snapped branch and booted footstep open this 1964 eighteenth century ye olde horror. It's not a Hammer production, though it certainly feels like it with brutal strangulations, newlyweds in carriages, tricorn hats, bosomy frocks, and angry barons in powdered wigs. Heraldic notes and a lovely country manor house with grand columns and chandeliers belie the ornery blacksmiths, crippled nobles, and village tales of murder and violence. Sign Language is the only way to communicate, but the invalid can see and hear all the whispering servants, giggling maids, and witchcraft rumors – not to mention some casual innuendo about drinking and getting merry with the oh so fashionable butler. Ominous letters, cryptic family mottoes, eerie ancestral portraits, and footmen carrying the clearly pained but unable to object patient create tension amid noises in the night, a missing family bible, and suicidal history. There's romance but also secrets, screams, barred windows, and phantom ladies walking the grounds. Who's imagining what or driving one to madness? Despite obvious doppelganger red herrings, the mystery builds a sinister atmosphere with wheelchairs and evil suspicions while lingering recollections of a first wife provide Rebecca shade. Necking in the stables and townsfolk versus ruling gentry intensify as the seemingly law abiding local militia is also beholden to our baron regarding horse chases and murder accusations. Misunderstandings on a man said to be in two places at once escalate with tell tale ink, staircase frights, fainting spells, fatal revelations, and churchyard toppers. Slow spins, blurred images, askew angles, and up close camera shots of terrified eyes and sweating temples accent the out of control ill tempers and brain fevers while entertaining visions, muskets, and climatic sword fights set off the titular frights with a little foaming at the mouth for good measure. Although the dim, elusive print is in need of a good restoration, this sophisticated period piece pot boiler with horror pacing and flair is well worth the watch for mid-century gothic fans.

The Little Stranger – Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) directs Domhnall Gleeson (The Force Awakens), Ruth Wilson (I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House), and Charlotte Rampling (Zardoz) in this 2018 adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel. Post-war razors, old telephone ring rings, vintage lamp glows, and doctor bags set the scene before house calls to the lovely but overgrown country manor sheltering a burned RAF pilot and a fearful servant. Damaged plaster, a disused service bell system, quaint antiques, and a fine staircase provide former grandeur – our doctor's mother was a maid at Hundreds Hall before the 1919 parasols and garden parties last hurrahs. This fallen Old World charm versus Second war torn onward crossroad is firmly felt, and some cannot let go of the past. Layered dialogue provides the catching up exposition on family deaths, new medical treatments that could heal the wounded, and the once wealthy now like everyone else unable to afford upgrades and estate taxes. Our poor country doctor is more formal and button up in his suit, a stoic spire in the center of the frame interfering with family affairs or land sales when not spending holidays making their tea. Extreme, distorted, close up shots reflect his invasion of this space where the manor's past is still very much in the present, and his narration recalling a visit there as a boy parallels current events – he's “admitted” at the top of the stairs rather than waiting at the bottom, spoiled like a proper little gentleman, and made to feel like a part of the house. Mirrors and careful editing reflect the intermingling while the forties gowns inspire a past within the past trying to recapturing that pre-war class feeling. Awkward parties mixing old philosophies and new pretentiousness begat sudden dog attacks, blood, and screams. Real life troubles, barely understood shell shock, and fears that there's something in the house that wants them dead affect everyone's state of mind, and although our doctor has new opportunities in the city, viewers wonder if his dancing and romancing the daughter is just to complete his mastery of the home. Everything is happy away from the leaky house with knocking sounds, disturbances in the night, and names of the dead inscribed on the walls yet he wants to stay while she's ready to leave once the bells ring by themselves and old speaking pipes echo from the nursery. Many incidents are told rather than seen, which adds to the psychological versus supernatural mystery as more of the manor is explored. After such hear tell subtlety, the scares are more intense when they do happen – slamming doors and desperate pounding are traumatic for the person experiencing the out of control malevolence. Are the ghosts and poltergeists real or merely hysterical women in some collective episode? Memories and self harm escalate to emergencies in the night, fatal falls, ghostly interventions, and who can't or won't let go extremes without the need for anything over the top thanks to fine performances and period touches. This may be slow for some but the characterizations and drama don't rely on run of the mill in your face scares. Elements left unexplained create discussion, and this should probably be watched twice for the subdued setting of the scene – which is perfect for audiences that don't expect chills a minute and can enjoy a simmering sense of dread.

Lizzie – Maid Kristen Stewart (Twilight) gets steamy with the titular turn of the century murderess Chloe Sevingy (American Horror Story) in this 2018 biopic accented with fine costumes, rustic lighting, and vintage Victorian interiors. Six months before the screams and blood, the buttoned up, repressed daughter is already defiant against the patriarchal oppression by going to theatre parties unaccompanied where low cut, colorful frocks contrast the tight collars and immediate sexual tension at home. The Bordens can't have anything too extravagant despite being able to afford it, and Lizzie prefers the barn and animals to people, reading aloud in an innocent but antisocial loneliness. While some dialogue is a little too modern, our eponymous lady has a progressive, forceful, even masculine energy that can't be contained with fainting spells. Our old maid is called a lesbian abomination but in turn rightfully calls her perverse, abusive father a lying coward before creaking floorboards, broken mirrors slid under the door, revenge injuries, and burned documents reveal the truth. The up close camera often peers through the window, catching the glances as each lady looks at each other – the audience is in on the intimate possibilities but when your employer suggests his servant leave the door to her hot attic room open, she can't exactly say no. The strict orders and behind closed doors implications are uncomfortable enough without the often seen exploitative, degrading visuals, and the women bond during intimate undressings and corset tightenings. Theft and rebellious acts increase amid suspicious business deals, threatening letters, and whispering relatives. The women have to eavesdrop to learn what the men are planning for them before violent punishments and one and all sitting at the dinner table like nothing has happened. Is murder the only way out of the hypocrisy? Were the violent tendencies always there or could you be crazy in love enough to kill? The ax is shown throughout the pot boiler, and although the stifling camerawork may be disorienting to some viewers, it mirrors the closeness when it is both welcomed by the women or invaded by nasty men. Regardless of height the unprotected ladies must look up to the creepy uncles, diminished and fearful of physical violence. Retro photo pops accent the bludgeoning editing before jail and witnesses on the stand provide the fallout from this infamous hatcheting. Premeditated accomplices, church bells, deliberate nudity, and out of control horror are worth the wait once the finale reveals the symbolically sexual posturing, vomit, and splatter. Some people just don't have the stomach for this sort of thing while others so smooth have thought of everything. There is some unevenness with the characters – probably from when the project was envisioned as a television piece with bigger roles – and the killer romance meets Victorian women's lib messages are mixed. However despite liberties suggesting what went on in this congested house and a decidedly quiet, not mainstream style that won't be for everyone, this interesting perspective will have viewers studying this disturbing murder case with a sympathetic, personal anew.

27 June 2019

Witches, Writers, and Scary Clowns

Witches, Writers, and Scary Clowns
by Kristin Battestella

This contemporary potluck provides unexpected horrors in unique places thanks to scary witches, trapped writers, and killer clowns.

The Witch in the Window – A distant dad and his withdrawn twelve year old son move into to a New England fixer upper in this 2018 creepy billed as a Shudder Original. Although there is a driving montage with a pee stop and complaints about nature; the family arguments, hardware dialogue, and real estate questions are more realistic than the oft seen teen horror cliches. Mom dislikes the flipping gamble, dad's trying to make up for past mistakes, and the kid who doesn't want to be there has been in trouble for some shady internet exploring because he's too big for his old action figures and frustrating Magic Eye hidden pictures. The scenery and house are wonderful, however ominous windows, a spooky basement, thumping within the walls, and no neighbors for quarter of a mile provide mood - and the local terror tales of our eponymous lady weren't disclosed in the sale. Brief, disturbing glimpses of corpses and dead crows in the chimney acerbate heart conditions as men and boys are admittedly freaked out over eerie reflections in the mirror and warning voices about the house's past. Filming within frames or windows are well done, and the audience must pay attention to the solitude. We see apparitions the protagonists do not, but the chills aren't in your face boo shock crescendos for the viewer's benefit. Instead, the increasingly crowded setting gets freakier by doing almost nothing at all while crackling electricity and natural lighting make us speculate further on what we see or don't see. The title tells the audience what's coming, however, ghosts don't appear on the smartphone camera and silence makes the ghoulish silhouettes all the more terrifying. What are our boys to do when the house they intend to flip already has a resident? Men talk over beers, debating if a haunted house can really hurt them after sleepwalking, questionable phone calls, and deceiving appearances. Can a bad home be made good again? Work progresses during the day, for all are afraid to stay there at night when the scary truths are revealed. Viewers shouldn't let our guard down as eerie doubts on who's inside or out and real or illusion escalate to disturbing contact and bargains to stay with the frights or abandon the home. At only seventy-seven minutes, there's no excess fluff necessary to tell these well-paced scary metaphors and surprisingly heart warming horrors.

Writers Retreat – Novelists face their fears in more ways than one at this 2015 island workshop with high tide isolation and no internet or cell phones. Awkward book signings, contract deadlines, angry agents, dead vermin, and highway mishaps assure this meeting is off on the wrong foot for our introverted strangers. There's one emergency landline, and the ice breaker exercises, manuscript focus, and writing discussions are more like therapy for this diverse group. Writers are weird by nature, however some are more pretentious than others, rolling their eyes and creating tension over what they consider hack manuscripts if the wounded amateur is upset by their critique. Staring at the blank laptop screen, long hand journaling, inspirational photography, and subjects going off by themselves provide withdrawn writing routines but the notebooks, clicking keys, and angelic, panning montages make it seem like we're witnessing something mystical in action when writing is a lot more complicated than that. Brief sentences read aloud reveal much about these characters in need of validation, for a few aren't even writing at all before sudden disappearances, red herrings, and inside/outside, voyeuristic camera framing to match the lurking men, misogynistic threats, and gory evidence. Private moments away from the workshop make the viewer pay attention to the individual prejudices, flirtations, preferences, drinking, history, and self harm. Everyone has their issues, but is anyone willing to kill for the 'write what you know' experience? Mysteries and relative truths escalate into horror with hammers to the head, stabbings, and rap tap tapping on the windows let in for some slicing and dicing. Vomiting, blood, pointing fingers, and power outages accent the writing angles and slasher styles as deliberate reveals, torture instruments laid out in the kitchen, eyeballs on the platter, and a glass of wine provide scene chewing villainy. Unfortunately, the intriguing, sophisticated start does devolve in one fell swoop with haphazard running around, dead body shocks, and knockouts or tie ups that happen too easy. There's no one by one crafty kill or time for our intelligent writers to piece the crimes together – or not reveal what they know because that nugget would be a great piece for their manuscript. Creative corkscrew uses, torture porn, and one on one gruesome go on too long, unraveling with loud boo crescendos for every hit, stab, and plunge making an injury seem so severe before the victim inexplicably comes back for more. Although the final act and the predictable bookends deserved more polish, this is worth the late night look for both writers and horror fans.

You Make the Call

The Clown at Midnight – Teacher Margot Kidder (Black Christmas) and her drama class clean up Christopher Plummer's (Somewhere in Time) abandoned theatre in this 1999 Canadian horror cum unintentional comedy. Pagliacci posters, candles, roses, and backstage juicy lead to ominous theatre staircases, knocks on the star's dressing room door, and violent shockers accented by opera. The murderous history, killer clowns, vintage costumes, and grand stage scale create atmosphere, however the death by Pagliacci is too on the nose Seinfeld laughable before restarting with typical teen exposition. There are theatre nerds, gay drama queens, a black BFF, the bad boy who drives a hearse, and the conscripted football star and his prom queen serving the poor dialogue, terrible acting, and Scooby Doo clichés. Fortunately, rats, falling lighting, suspect relatives, and whispers of ghosts accent Kidder's much needed sassy and Plummer's underutilized suave. Viewers miss the adults when they're off screen – we don't care about the kids sneaking beer and pizza behind the teacher's back before deliberately trying to scare the emo daughter of the theatre's famous victim. It's ridiculously convenient that her school has received this grant to fix up the scene of the crime while she's having inexplicable psychic visions and hysterical episodes. This blending of the past and present would have been better if the ensemble was just a little older or more defined – college parapsychologists or a film crew rather than leaving the love triangles, strangulations, axes, and beheadings amid the teen lame jumping to conclusions just because the script says so. Naturally, there are giveaways from the beginning that a killer clown is on the loose, which takes away the ambiguity on top of bemusing clown phobias and dream fake outs before cleaning montages and terrible music. Rope mishaps, electricity sparks, and stage sword mishaps are also ruined by a crappy sex scene that's spliced with the thrusts, panting, and give it to me voiceover from a mock sword fight. It's stupid enough to tune out then and there, yet the appeal of seeing these teens get what they deserve is greater thanks to creepy elevators, maze like stagings, trap doors, and spears. Rooftop scares and freaky props don't have enough time to fully utilize the atmosphere, and there's no real mystery like there should because the dark comedy winking on the genre falls flat. Despite unique potential, the fatal Pagliacci cues, terrible punchlines, and lack of resolution underestimate the audience. There are better teen slashers out there, and one has to be able to laugh at the low budget gore or enjoy shouting at the television to forgive the obviousness here.

12 June 2019

Soylent Green

Soylent Green Remains Delicious
by Kristin Battestella

In 2022, New York City is over populated with forty million people. Unemployment, homelessness, heatwaves, and hunger are rampant – leaving Detective Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston) on riot duty until the murder of a wealthy board member for the Soylent Corporation. Soylent's latest nutritional supplement is made from plankton and called Soylent Green, but quantities are limited and Thorn's aging research partner Solomon Roth (Edward G. Robinson) uncovers a secret, disturbing ingredient. Thorn digs deeper into the case, but politicians want Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters) to close the investigation, placing Thorn's life in danger as he gets closer to revealing the unsavory truth.

Vintage tintype pictures open director Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage) and writer Stanley Greenberg's (Skyjacked) 1973 Soylent Green adaptation of the Harry Harrison novel with ye olde history before speeding slideshows of industry highs, crisis lows, and superb instrumentals to match. Now it's all community removal announcements, prohibited locales, and advertisements for Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and the new Soylent Green. Butter and paper are rare, light bulbs are dimming, and hustling is the only way to obtain goods. Our tough men are both delighted and ashamed of their looting while other people sleep in stairwells or live in cars permanently parked in the streets. Classical music accents meager meals we would take for granted as adults delight over advantageous plastic spoons, never before tasted stew, and a sample of strawberries that cost $150 a jar! Of course, the wealthy live in luxury apartments – privileged with suave ladies called “furniture,” fresh meat, and precious vegetables – and authority figures who should have power are envious of lavishness the affluent don't appreciate such as real beds, lengthy hot showers, and air conditioning. Desperate poor are hired to kill those above with surprising, blunt violence amid the beaded curtains, white furs, and scotch. Bodies are taken to waste disposal centers, but old folks remember when there used to be ceremonies for the dead. Orphans in bunk beds fill the churches instead of pews, and truths told in confession are too much for a priest to bear. 

In Soylent Green, broken people are trying to survive the bleak dystopian atmosphere, numbers instead of names waiting in line for water, food coupons, or death benefits. Long lines of poor and hungry won't stand for short rations, and riots between the haves and have nots escalate alongside disturbingly nonchalant violence in sacred places. Assassination set ups and multi-layered mysteries – when there are one hundred and thirty-seven murders a day, why argue when the higher ups want a case closed? Investigation exposition provides how Soylent came to control frozen food manufacturing, law firms, governors, and sustenance for half the planet. Those in the know are followed and police hands are tied by cryptic conversations about silencing others. Viewers have seen similar Depression angst and more recent meaningless Black Friday mobs, but in Soylent Green, screaming crowds are hauled away, tossed into creepy forklifts, and hoisted into dumpsters. Scenes sans music echo with droning machinery as silencer gunshots narrow the seemingly broad point of view via process of elimination, supply and demand, and two birds with one stone control. There are few options beyond sad euthanasia opportunities – a pleasant twenty minutes with your favorite music, color, and theatrical presentations featuring long lost nature, flowers, animals, oceans, and sunsets. Soylent Green is emotional without saying a word in exceptional one man reveals unknown to the audience thanks to silent mouthings, headphones, and wide-eyed, shocked reactions. Viewers aren't spoon fed in another silent sequence of sanitation trucks, stowaways, and processing plants. We're beside the detective's need to know amid the mechanical hums, buzzing equipment, and disposal center tense as conveyor belts and assembly lines lead to goodbye phone calls, shootouts, and a now famous revelation.

Good Old Post Apocalyptic Chuck strikes again, as Charlton Heston's (The Omega Man) Detective Thorn goes through the motions of his dog eat dog existence. He has a badge, riot gear that's little more than a football helmet, and no protocol – sweaty and unbothered as he pilfers booze and satin pillowcases from his night shift crime scene. Frank turns on the tap just to feel the running water on his face, sniffs the soap, wants a glass filled with rare ice, and treats himself to the puff of a cigarette. He flirts with the ladies as the interrogating man in charge but insists he doesn't have the time to ask them for anything nice. Thorn's envious of what rich men have, angry over how most people aren't angry about their entire situation. He's not afraid to rough up anyone attacking him man or woman but defends abused women and understands when a hungry crowd won't disperse. Frank can't be off work himself for more than two days, fearing for his job and his very livelihood, yet he risks investigating this shelved case despite threats against him. He refuses to see a police doctor, but Thorn's hunched and distraught earnestness is firmly felt. He's wounded and running, still trying to remain upright and take action because he must. At last Thorn experiences all the things he never knew, which lead him to what he doesn't want to know. Soylent Green is the swansong for Edward G. Robinson (The Ten Commandments), and his once revered professor remembers when food was food, water wasn't poison, and soil wasn't toxic. The world was beautiful; meat, eggs, and produce were available everywhere – but people were still just as rotten. Sol's crusty and tired, hanging on only because of Thorn. He's happy when Thorn brings him paper, pencils, and soap – weeping when he sees beef and wondering how men came to this. Sol studies the shocking Soylent reports in a back door meeting with his former contemporaries, emotionally showing both the audience as well as Thorn what is at stake even if he doesn't want to live in such a godless world where Soylent's secret solution makes frightening sense.

Tab Fielding can also read and write – unusual traits for his position in the era of Soylent Green, but Chuck Connors' (The Rifleman) bodyguard only remains loyal so long as his contract is paid. Fielding escorts the ladies to peruse the luxury inventory and has a decent apartment himself – including his own “furniture,” the svelte and strawberry eating Paula Kelly (Night Court). It might have been interesting if Soylent Green had focused more on this cool but ambiguous cucumber instead of other anonymous henchmen, for it's always entertaining to see these two Chucks go mano y mano. Unfortunately, police chief Brock Peters (Deep Space Nine) owns a rare watch that doesn't run – so much then for chastising his late officers. He dislikes when the aptly named Thorn won't listen, but Chief Hatcher knows he's a good cop. He tries to convince Thorn to walk away from this murder case thanks to pressure from the top, however, in this world, his word and trust in his men isn't good enough to assure their survival. Likewise high up but risky and unreliable Joseph Cotten (Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) goes along with the pain when his company says it is necessary. He attends church and treats Leigh Taylor-Young's (Picket Fences) Shirl with respect, letting her shop and not abusing her despite his right to do so. Shirl comes with the apartment, and she'll be there for the next tenant whether she likes him or not, mere entertainment for his guests. While she does get into bed when Chuck tells her to get into bed, their relationship becomes one of freedom rather than force – a rare dalliance amid Soylent Green's patriarchal control.

The lavish apartments with sophisticated sliding doors and anonymous white science fiction infrastructure contrast the overcrowded slums and dark one room hovels cramped with simple cots, rare books, and older technology. Matte paintings are somewhat obvious and certainly the boob tubes are big because this is an old picture, however that back dated design also provides a realistic touch to the futuristic factories. The people at the bottom have no advances or access, and must peddle a broken bicycle to keep a tired generator going. Likewise, the police station looks as seedy and hazy as the downtrodden streets its men patrol. Bodyguards and officers where khaki clothing and plain hats – subtly hinting at the mass produced, lookalike garments of a totalitarian regime. The classical scoring is so sweet, but the occasional swanky sexy music is corny, detracting from the bright luxuries versus homeless crowds that work well enough on their own. Fortunately, more often Soylent Green knows when silence or diegetic sound is best amid choice blood reds and well done violence be it congested strong men battles or round ups and rioting. The Soylent Green DVD provides commentaries and vintage behind the scenes shorts with Robinson tributes, but I want to have my cake and eat it too with more retrospectives to match the crisp and refreshed 4K viewing experience. Thanks to its iconic ending, it's tough to truly catch a virgin viewer for Soylent Green. However, this bitter pièce de résistance remains disturbingly relevant with its past parallels and eerie predictions providing plenty of food for thought. 

Even knowing the big surprise here, Soylent Green holds up thanks to exceptional performances and well paced storytelling. This is not a horror movie yet has disturbing elements. It's science fiction but not a ninety minute action adventure and too fantastic to be a straight drama. Despite knowing the truth, those in control won't ruffle any feathers while the eating is good. They'll do anything to keep themselves cushy – especially at the expense of others. Soylent Green is a delicious parable blending all its genre elements to give us a taste of our own medicine.

27 May 2019

Island of Dr. Moreau (1977)

Dangerous Adventures Make the 1977 Island of Dr. Moreau
by Kristin Battestella

AIP's 1977 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau directed by Don Taylor (Escape from the Planet of the Apes) pairs down the half man half animal mad science to its core themes with claustrophobic symbolism and strong performances anchoring the beastly adventures as shipwrecked Andrew Braddock (Michael York) is taken in by the isolated scientist Dr. Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster). Also on the beautiful but dangerous island are Moreau's enchanting adopted daughter Maria (Barbara Carrera) and his crusty assistant Montgomery (Nigel Davenport). Braddock, however, discovers there are more monstrous inhabitants – victims of Dr. Moreau's twisted experiments – leading to a struggle of wills, abominations, and control.

The silent vast and empty blue ocean open The Island of Dr. Moreau with a tiny boat and one small, desperate survivor bearded and thirsty. Epic music mirrors the hope of this green, lush island oasis, but hanging vines, uneven terrain, and booby traps belie this paradise said to be one thousand miles from nowhere. Fenced in buildings with food, bedding, mosquito netting, books, and fresh clothing appear civilized, however dangerous animals are said to roam the island and one should never leave the compound after dark. Idyllic pets and pleasant races in the woods lead to strange sounds in the night and “muffled roaring.” Viewers think we see something amid the rustling leaves but we don't know what. Hunched creatures, creepy servants drinking from puddles like animals, and more “special” types of people on this island are in need of Dr. Moreau's care – and his laboratory is complete with a menagerie of wild cats, cages, and shackles. Rearing horses, chases, fear of the unknown, and unanswered questions are difficult for men who like to know and control all when exploring the natural or unnatural boundaries they should not. The once lovely island locales become increasingly congested environs as the external out of control science closes in on the body sacred thanks to serums, syringes, and surgery. Why would a doctor create such suffering animals now made partially people? Are the hairy inbetweens and experimentation in the name of science worth the loss of one's morality? The civilized man must defend himself in caves where unwelcome, monstrous, man made creatures have their own laws – not to walk on all fours, not to eat flesh, no taking of life. Gunshots scare away fierce offenders, for these animals given speech and rules remain controlled through fear. Will these hybrids remember what humans told them to say and do if they regress to their innate ways? After all, to study nature, one has to be as remorseless as nature, which has its own sense of justice, selection, and violence to match our undeniable ability to destroy. Dangerous tiger attacks, mercy killings, and angry mobs with torches lead to blood and pain in well paced action as power devolves into anarchy. Although The Island of Dr. Moreau's symbolism is apparent, the sentiment doesn't hit the audience over the head thanks to a multi-layered cycle of man made monsters and men made gods.

Dr. Paul Moreau showed signs of brilliance in his youth and loves to converse about emerging technology, but Burt Lancaster's (From Here to Eternity) extensive academic has been here in his own paradise for eleven years. His colleagues opposed his work, criticizing his theories on the nature of good and evil, to which even Moreau agrees he doesn't have all the answers. Fortunately, he admires Braddock's intelligence, explaining to him the need to help his fellow human beings by controlling all stages of life whilst also keeping him at the compound and withholding the details of his trial and error experiments to save mankind. Moreau thinks what he is doing is just – making his work all the more frightening when the results aren't as he hoped. The doctor gets angry with his whip when his creations remain animalistic. He speaks to his subjects about the law from his rocky pulpit, lording over those punished in his house of pain with his white suit and halo like hat almost as if Elmer Gantry turned to dastardly mad science. Moreau thinks he can tell an animal he is human and it will understand. He wants his flock to obey Braddock – Moreau needs a successor to continue his delivery of science from cruel butchery and dissection. However, Braddock is a man who doesn't do what he's told, and Moreau is determined to use his tough love science to prove Braddock's true nature. Unfortunately, Moreau is threatened by his own cause, unaware his do as I say not as I do superiority does not give him reign over his creations. Formerly of The Lady Vain, the situation goes from bad to worse for Michael York's (The Three Musketeers) rugged seaman Braddock. He's curious about the island, reads, questions where everyone came from and if there are nearby places. He walks the coast and repairs his damaged boat – the audience is on his side as the handsome hero uncovers the askew science. Alas, Braddock is too inquisitive for his own good, in over his head and meddling where he shouldn't. He must learn to abide by this island's rules or he will be punished for his interference. Braddock becomes desperate to remember who he is and where he comes from in all this upside down, and The Island of Dr. Moreau is a fine two-hander between its leading men – father and son figures where the elder won't get his way thanks to the new, stronger man. Though often sweaty and shirtless when proving his macho, Braddock becomes embarrassed by his animal instincts. Ultimately, he buttons ups his clothes when these dire circumstances force him to show he can behave like a civilized man. Barbara Carrera's (Never Say Never Again) stunning image of beauty Maria, however, answers only to Dr. Moreau's commands. He raised her, and initially she keeps her distance despite Braddock's romantic interest. Although the tender, sensuous explorations are well done, viewers know we shouldn't trust the frolicking strolls along the beach as she gives in to her passion. Carrera doesn't really have a lot to do, but Maria's an innocent young woman, a blank slate being shaped by her in the wrong father figure and a lover who would take her away from the island when she's afraid to go. Nigel Davenport (A Man for All Seasons) as Dr. Moreau's gruff assistant Montgomery also has less to do than in the novel, but his cryptic attitude adds to the sinister isle orchestrations. He tells Braddock to get over the shock of it all, for he sleeps better on this island than anywhere else. Ironically, this man who chooses to be subservient because he lacks humanity becomes a problem once he does show sympathy.

Safari hats, white linen suits, and lacy women's frocks match The Island of Dr. Moreau's turn of the century talk of fantastic flying machines and underwater vessels. Candlelight, lanterns, gramophones, longhand journals, leather volumes, and pistols add vintage to the emerging gear, telescopes, globes, and specimens in jars. Laboratory equipment, medical beds, and giant needles create disturbing science alongside creepy teeth, gross smiles, and distorted faces making the audience recoil. Granted, some of the animal make up is weak compared to contemporary designs – the noses, wild hair, and horns could be laughable but they are not thanks to the serious abomination implications. One red scarf becomes a symbolic bright spot in the otherwise earthy palette while foreboding shadows around the buildings instill fear thanks to the natural and unnatural sounds beyond the halos of seemingly civilized light at the compound. Pans over the mountains capture the divine Caribbean locales, but the point of view more often looks out the windows or in past the verandas as if the cameras themselves won't leave this little oasis. Overhead spins parallel the disorienting jungle alongside well done chases and unseen monstrosities amid dangerous but beautiful bears and big cats in cages. Animal claws and growling effects set off disturbing mobs and vicious attacks before a fiery finale with blood on all hands accenting both the messianic savior visuals and Judas retribution hangings. While the classic horrifics and big performances make Charles Laughton's 1932 adaptation Island of Lost Souls, the 1996 Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer version is a little too messy despite being more faithful to the novel than the excised bookends here. With its horses, weapons, upside down tone, ravishing brunette, intelligent spark, revealing pace, and primitive design; this Island of Dr. Moreau at times feels more like the original Planet of the Apes. Perhaps we are do for another fully realized Wells interpretation, however I fear that today's over reliance on CGI talking animals, motion capture special effects, and spectacle transformations would miss the point of the piece.

Even if such shock value isn't as important as the scientific harbingers, the bitter parable with man meets beast violence here can still be uncomfortable for some audiences. This well known story of half animal, half human would also seem to get old eventually – audiences aren't meant to be surprised anymore by the monstrous warnings of combining man and beast for one's own gain. Nonetheless, The Island of Dr. Moreau remains a relevant conversation starter in today's era of cloning, stem cells, and healthcare debates, and this well done adventure with fine performances is worth a fresh look.

19 May 2019

Retro Sword & Sorcery Fun!

Retro Sword and Sorcery Fun!
by Kristin Battestella

Surprisingly well told tales, scantily clad ladies galore, or terribly juicy shlock – either way these vintage fantasy yarns provide some enchanting entertainment.

Erik the Conqueror – Epic music and coastal waves open this 1961 viking adventure directed by Mario Bava (Black Sunday) and starring Cameron Mitchell (How to Marry a Millionaire). Maps and scrolls hear tell of 786 A.D. Dorset invasions before longboats, bloodthirsty blonde giants, horses, axes, and village fires. Scottish rivals and coups against the British king separate the rescued viking sons, establishing the personal rivalries amid up close action and well choreographed sword fights. Although the long arrows, shields, crossbows, and costuming are probably inaccurate and the English audio and subtitles don't match, this is well filmed for its time and budget with red lighting, fiery forges, and tree motifs making the viking rituals wild and otherworldly. Festive dances to Odin by vestal virgins create pageantry – a touch of magic and fantastics contrasting the regal chorales, reverence, bright tunics, and trumpets of courtly England. The visuals parallel each brother's circumstances twenty years later with grand pink and gold interiors and wide overhead shots of the divine cathedral versus forbidden love and deadly tribunals as the vikings challenge one another in fights to the death to be the king's successor. Though apparent, the pagan and Christian conflicts don't beat the audience over the head, making room for the two fold man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself layers alongside North Sea battles, onboard spies, and betrayals. Who's savage or civilized questions and nature versus nurture debates rise as the unknown to each other brothers switch locales, trade hostages, and swap babes amid seasonal feasts, daring escapes, and twin sisters. Sometimes the misunderstandings are bemusing – people wash ashore in exactly the right place or sail between the coasts with such ease yet the right pair can't quite both be in the right country at the same time. With all the open furs and bare chests, how has no one seen the brothers' matching tattoos? Fortunately, the tale becomes darker, intermixing its distinct worlds with green lit dungeons, spider booby traps, and evil villains making for some serious moments and dramatic twists. Rival rescues, castle raids, and a big battle finale keep what is actually a simple little story entertaining. The lively blend of historical, sword, and sandal does what it says on the tin with an extra touch of Bava panache.

Sorceress Ye olde titles, epic music, torches, horses, and red hoods provide the fantasy atmosphere opening this 1982 romp directed by Jack Hill (Spider Baby) and produced by Roger Corman (House of Usher). Bad acting with clunky deliveries, poor dubbing of the laughable dialogue, and weird fantasy-ish names hamper the sacrifices to the gods, evil warlocks, and mystical old man in white before the usual celestial prophecies and enchanted infants growing up to exact warrior revenge for low budget village massacres and typical, unnecessary violence against women. Fortunately, there's barbarian action, women wearing inexplicable see through armor, and playmate twins Leigh and Lynette Harris skinny dipping before running in slow motion with their heroic theme and bemusing magical blue glow. Sure, they aren't doing a lot of the actual fighting thanks to sped up camerawork and compensating editing – despite the mystical girl power, their male pals come to the rescue, too. Also never mind that the ladies are supposedly disguised as men because clearly they are not, and likewise ignore any of the weak explanations on light versus dark magic, full moon rituals, and ancient temples. At only eighty-two minutes, there's no time to think on these fast moving, derivative quests complete with separation ambushes, evil princesses, fiery trials, and forbidden forests. Most of the precious little money here seems spent on the exotic bazaar with belly dancing, scoundrel princes, gambling, meddling hookers, and brothel brawls. Cruel sword slashes, arrows in the back, creepy red eyes, and horny beastly things stir up the saucy palace intrigue alongside magical green visuals, catacombs coming to life, and bewitching nectars. Twin connections, however, are able to overcome any deceptions or fire in their loins – the prince has the key to her “wonderful secret” but her moaning sister feels all the hot reactions! This could have been something if it had a proper production budget or a polished script, and not, you know, camp villains, monkey suits, or a convenient, borrowed, science fiction movie light show finale. These twin twists have fun with themselves, and if you don't expect anything, you can laugh at this late night, so bad it's good lark.

Split Decision

The Warrior and The Sorceress – Producer Roger Corman strikes again with this short seventy-seven minute 1984 tale starring David Carradine amid interstellar mercenaries, magic swordsmen, and rival clans. The flat print is VHS poor with low volumes contributing to the whispering olde speaketh meets eighties modern and mumbled made up names. The dawdling dialogue doesn't really get the story going, and already the ensemble seems so weary of the script they can't be bothered with the typical, thin premise of tyrants controlling water rights while poor villages suffer. Mountainous wastelands, bewitching babes wearing nothing but ribbons, mystical weapons, and suave hooded cloaks can't compensate for the cheap looking prehistoric walled city. This is taking place on another planet to excuse the abysmal, embarrassing production design, and the sword and sorcery meets Kung Fu knockoff tone makes this tough to watch. Fortunately, some of the aimless fighting can be fun, with Grasshopper chopping off arms and swiftly handling the jerky soldiers before the half naked dancing babes give him a bath at the well. The castle interiors are better, and fire, green lighting, red accents, and evil orgies create more magic atmosphere alongside poisoned supplies, gluttony, and vengeance. However, any kind of social commentary gets lost – most of the story seems to be missing amid muddled action scenes and meaningless mobs. Why is this devil may care warrior telling each side when it's their time to use the well? It's not mysterious if his angry scowling has no motivation; we don't know how this planet got this way or why. Terrible armor, lookalike dirty rag costuming, and crawling men captioned as “fools laughing maniacally” don't tell us much, and it takes half the picture before the too few and far between rescuing babes from dungeons, heroic music, reptiles, monsters, and a killer four breasted woman. Although this is disappointingly slow, dry, and lacking in personality, it could be a doze worthy midnight yarn if you like the campy and nonsensical.