31 October 2009

Gothic, Classic Horror

More Gothic Classics

By Kristin Battestella

Sometimes the sex, gore, and violence of the modern slasher pictures isn’t enough. To find the twisted, macabre, sinful lessonry needed along with a good scare or two, I find myself revisiting the classics once again. Here’s a list of demented thrillers full of vile characters, spooky imagery, and twisted tales.

Dracula (1931) – Even if you haven’t seen this early monster classic, our collective consciousness knows Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal of the titular count from Transylvania. Beyond the cape and the widow’s peak, modern viewers can still find delightfully naughty performances, spooky smoke and mirrors filmmaking, and screaming ladies with lovely necks.

Rebecca – Alfred Hitchcock directs Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in this Best Picture adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel. As in the literary edition, the new Mr. and Mrs. DeWinter can’t seem to shake the ghostly specter of the late Rebecca-or Judith Anderson as Rebecca’s dearly devoted and obsessively terrifying maid Mrs. Danvers.

Suspicion – Cary Grant’s new wife Joan Fontaine is afraid he’s going to kill her. While Fontaine may have won the Best Actress Oscar here as the fearful and suspicious wife, its Grant’s restrained and equally suspicious husband that captures every scene. Hitchcock’s analysis of suggestion is beautifully portrayed in every nefarious comment and deceptive gesture, and Suspicion keeps us guessing until the very end.

Bluebeard (1944) – Some of the music and the overlong puppetry fun is dated, but John Carradine’s disturbing portrayal of a guilt-ridden artist who strangles his female followers is still, well, disturbing. The styling is old, yes, but the claustrophobic filming angles keep the audience uncomfortably and closely involved in the mayhem.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) – Sure, not everyone can take Angela Lansbury’s singing, but there’s much more to this fine adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s most famous tale. George Sanders’ louse is delightfully trumped by Hurd Hatfield’s titular descent. This Jekyll and Hyde notion of the portrait displaying Dorian’s evils while he remains ever young is a fantastic possibility we shouldn’t soon forget.

Spellbound – Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck mix mystery, romance, nut houses, and psychoanalysis in this Hitchcock thriller questioning dreams and memory. Is Peck the killer? Can Bergman heal his mind before she’s the next victim? Exceptional performances by the leads, tight direction by Hitchcock, and a great mystery keeps this picture viewable-even after you know how it ends.

The Strange Woman Samson and Delilah goddess Hedy Lamarr turns up the devilry as a northern Scarlett O’Hara willing to do anything to keep her beauty, wealth, and power-even if it includes killing a few husbands and seducing her stepson. Perhaps tame by today’s standards, it’s a treat to take in this scandalous black widow from a post World War II mentality.

Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte – We adore Joan’s sister as the bittersweet Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, but Olivia de Havilland is deceptive and cruel towards Bette Davis’ murderously maniacal old Charlotte. The atmospheric Southern charm, scene-stealing performances from each Oscar winning lady, and the plot at hand keeps you on the edge until the end. The titular song will also get stuck in your head.

I know not all audiences today can appreciate the old-fashioned filming styles, over the top performances, or even black and white photography. Nevertheless, some classics are classics for a reason; and there are plenty more of them to scare, delight, and set the spooky mood for a cold autumn evening.

29 October 2009

Vincent Price Tricks and Treats

More Vincent Price Tricks and Treats
By Kristin Battestella

I’ve debated about doing actor specific viewing lists before, but there’s no better time to talk about an actor and his synonymous genre like October and Vincent Price! This Halloween, classic fans and lovers of all things horror and camp should take in at least one Price picture. As for me, well, I’m just too obsessive!

Laura- While not all out horror per se, this complex and stylish 1944 film noir classic has several spooky twists, a creepy black and white atmosphere, and of course our man Price lousing it up with Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews. Serious film students can go to film school here.

The Bat- This quiet, spooky story of mystery, money, and murder costars Agnes Moorehead (Bewtiched) as a writer renting a house with hidden wealth and an unsolved murder spree courtesy of the titular killer. Price is a treat as the local doctor following the bloody trail. Though dated in its screaming ladies, the case at hand keeps you guessing until the end.

Tales of Terror- Big V introduces and stars in this series of vignettes inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and stylized by director Roger Corman. Some may not like the disjointed presentation; but the cast, stories, and decoration are delightful. The family can enjoy these witty, old time scares- and professors of Poe can share a viewing and discussion in the classroom.

The Raven- Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and a young Jack Nicholson serve up a tale of spooky medieval sorcery with wit and charm ala Bewitched. Very loosely based on the titular poem by Poe, serious horror and gore fans may not enjoy this borderline slapstick take. Nevertheless, youthful audiences can laugh, jump, and have fun.

The Conqueror Worm- More properly known as Witchfinder General, mis-marketing and misrepresentation are the worst things here. This tale of the lawlessness and witch-hunts during the English Civil War is completely different from Price’s Poe films-not another loose rehash as the title change would have the viewer believe. Daylight filming, real castles, cinematic brutality, and a seriously fine performance by Price shine far beyond the studio packaging.

Cry of the Banshee- A little too similar to The Conqueror Worm, yet Price still puts on his Elizabethan best while judging more witches and warlocks. This one is a little more uppity than Worm- dealing with nobles rather than torturing peasants- but looks a little lesser in production. Even so, the costumes are great and the titular howls set just the right spooky atmosphere.

Some of these pictures are not available on Netflix and also appear out of print-like The Raven- but several public domain offerings can be found in varying low- budget DVD sets or are viewable online- like The Bat and Tales of Terror. I’ve reviewed several other Price, Poe, and Corman classics as well, so do use the Vincent Price label or search options for even more over the top mayhem.

As a refresher, here’s the list of canonical American International Pictures’ Poe series directed by Roger Corman:

House of Usher
Tales of Terror
The Raven

And then the next wave of loosely associated Poe films from AIP:

The Conqueror Worm
Cry of the Banshee
Murders in the Rue Morgue

Boo! That’s enough for the enthusiasts, I think. Happy Halloween!

28 October 2009

Underworld and Underworld: Evolution

Slick, Sexy, Popular Underworlds

By Kristin Battestella

I’ve long held the theory that whenever Hollywood needs bite at the box office, it raises one of film’s longest staples: vampires. Some think film, television, books, and comics are overloaded with creatures of the night, but others claim there isn’t enough vampy goodness onscreen or off. Luckily, those fans have Underworld and its sequel Underworld: Evolution.

2003’s Underworld introduces us to the underground battle between vampires and Lycans. Expert Death Dealer Selene (Kate Beckinsale, Pearl Harbor) enjoys hunting the lycanthrope werewolves and their leader Lucian (Michael Sheen, The Queen). After rescuing the human Michael Corvin (Scott Speedsman, Felicity) from the Lycans, Selene’s perceptions of her vampire elder Viktor (Billy Nighy, Shaun of the Dead) change. The Lycans want Michael’s DNA to create a hybrid creature, and Viktor’s tale of Selene’s past may not be all that he led her to believe.

In Underworld: Evolution (2006), Selene and Michael seek out the immortal Wiliam Corvinus (Brian Steele, Hellyboy), a werewolf, while his hybrid vampire brother Markus (Tony Curran, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman) hunts them. The original immortal Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi, Hamlet) runs a secret military clean up operation, keeping his sons and the underground war from spilling over. Together, they must destroy Markus and protect humanity while Selene resolves her past and future.

While the back story and history of Underworld’s set up is very detailed and carefully played out over the two films by director Len Wiseman (Live Free or Die Hard) and his writing compatriots Kevin Grievoux (werewolf Raze here and in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) and Danny McBride (The Outer Limits)- the plots at hand are somewhat superficial. You can tell this trio stems from the props and stunts side of films, for in some ways, that’s all Underworld is. There’s action, great effects, the latest visual tricks and technological talk-making the strong back story and thin visuals somewhat uneven. We spend a few critical scenes of flashbacks and historical conversations amid the Death Dealer and Lycan action. Throw in the budding romance between Selene and Michael-and its tough to tell what these pictures are about. Underworld sets up its universe just fine, but there’s too much action at hand. Then again, Underworld: Evolution gives us more of the past while advancing the hybrid relationship. I’m confused, too-but I don’t think we’re supposed to put this much thought into it.

Thankfully, the stylized productions make up for the thinly veiled storylines. The leather, werewolf transformations, muted vampire looks, and updated weaponry forgive the double talk conversations. Enough of the people talking about the old days if you’re going to give us such fast-paced supernatural action! The rainy, dark, blue tinted European scenery is moody and atmospheric, but a little annoying at times. You can’t always see the dark werewolves amid the dark tunnels fighting with black clad vamps. Someone, turn on the lights! Even with a few dark spots, it is the action that attracts and holds the audience through Underworld and Underworld: Evolution’s slow spots.

Of course, we wouldn’t care about the Underworld franchise at all if it weren’t for the kick ass, pouting, post Buffy Kate Beckinsale as Death Dealer Selene. Combining the misunderstood vampire with the tough cookie modern female not only charms the lucrative young female demographics, but it also gives the boys some serious eye candy. Not without talent, Beckinsale manages to take the brooding vampire material seriously while having fun in the swift action sequences. In comparison, view the 2004 miss Van Helsing. Kate’s monster fighting gypsy princess is a complete parody stuck in a drivel of a film. For those that think Selene is melodramatic fluff, a night with Van Helsing brings new appreciation.

The Underworlds can get away with the risks of a conflicted female lead because each has some fine veteran leadership. Billy Nighy brings a touch of spooky class as the slick and deceiving vampire elder Viktor. He wants to keep Selene in his power hungry pocket, but his control is coming undone via his own wicked actions. Likewise, Sir Derek Jacobi adds an elder element to Underworld: Evolution. Alexander Corvinus is another piece to the puzzle that doesn’t fit quite right. Immortality should make these men all the wiser, but personal, rose colored glasses guide the parents-at-odds. As much as I like the modern stylings of Underworld, I wish there were more of Nighy and Jacobi’s old school boys.

Sometimes it hampers a viewing experience, but I’m always curious about the behind the scenes goings on of a film. How difficult must it have been on the set of Underworld after couple Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen split? How much worse did it get when Beckinsale married director Len Wiseman? You wouldn’t know things weren’t peachy by Michael Sheen’s bittersweet performance as Lycan leader Lucian. He’s got a serious grudge to pick with Viktor and is quite the vicious fellow; yet we believe Lucian when he speaks of love lost and the Lycan plight. Once upon a time, these A-list actors wouldn’t have been up for a vampire vehicle, but the cast’s class makes up for any of the series’ short comings.

Unfortunately, pretty boy Scott Speedman is not so pretty at all. He’s bland, grungy, and his hair is always in his dang face. Judging by Speedman’s phoned in portrayal, any it boy of the moment could have sufficed as the human caught between the Death Dealers and the Lycans. He’s given more time to show his worth in Underworld: Evolution, but I enjoy the scenes where hybrid Michael is wolfed out and growling instead of talking. That’s bad, isn’t it? The secondary vampires Kraven (Shane Brolly, ChromiumBlue.com) and Erika (Sophia Myles, Tristan and Isolde) are far more interesting. Rather than looking solely for love and survival, they’re lustful, manipulative, and desperate to come out on top. The unrated extended cut DVD of Underworld smartly restores deleted scenes of this plotting would be vampire couple.

Upon seeing Underworld for the first time, I quite enjoyed it. Yes, it puts effects over drama, but it’s a new notch in the vampire film’s lore. Some people who don’t like the same old vamps (though I don’t know why) take to this franchise as the wicked, badass alternative to the ethereal Interview with the Vampire and old options like Dark Shadows or a choose your Dracula. I must admit, though, I think I prefer Underworld: Evolution. Its action is bigger and more complex, yet on a seemingly smaller, personal scale. The natural and daylight locations go a long way in simply being able to see all that’s going on. More time, development, and appreciation of the past is allowed to germ along with the characters. It’s as if the first film’s fast, modern pace was only to get the fans in the door for the serious, meaty follow-ups.

And oh yes, you knew there would be follow ups! I think it was an odd choice for the Underworld team to spend the third film solely in the past with Rise of the Lycans. Are these Rad! Black Leather! Beckinsale is Hawt! Fans going to show up for a medieval wolf fest-especially after Underworld: Evolution sets up so many contemporary possibilities? It’s certainly nice to get the full-length back-story of which we’ve seen so many tantalizing glimpses, but Rise of the Lycans is not perfect by any means. Fortunately, die-hard fans will be pleased to know a fourth installment is in the works.

Underworld enthusiasts can spring for the fancier DVD editions for all the bells and whistles, too. Underworld’s 2 disc unrated extended cut set comes with a mini comic book and production booklets, in addition to commentaries, outtakes, production design features, stunts, music, and more. Aired on television as a tie-in, the documentary Fangs vs. Fiction spends more time on Underworld then it does proper vampire history, myth, and lore, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless. The standard widescreen DVD for Underworld: Evolution has plenty of treats, too, including more commentaries, visual behind the scenes, and music videos. Collectors can spring for the combo sets and blu-ray editions, but standard copies and video on demand options are available for the latent Lycan and vampire fan.

Back in the day, you had to choose which side of the horror genre you were on- be it vampires or werewolves. My mom prefers tormented vampire Barnabas Collins to my brooding wolf favorite Quentin. Wiseman and his team, however, have made their Underworld franchise a delight for both sides of the moonlight. Though the third prequel film Rise of the Lycans favors its titular wolves, vampire and werewolf fans alike can take pleasure in Underworld and Underworld: Evolution. Though rated R for gore and violence, teens can enjoy Underworld. The unrated version and Underworld: Evolution do, however, step up the sex and nudity, so young and budding macabre tweens should probably be kept to an edited television airing. It used to be a little touch and go when confessing to liking vampires and werewolves, but the slick, sexy, action-packed Underworld franchise has made leather clad vamps and lonely Lycans fun for the masses.

27 October 2009

And Now , Horror Documentaries!

Who Else Needs Documentaries about Horror?
By Kristin Battestella

I need the behind the scenes, history, and conversations that go along with a good scary film all year round. It’s tough to find such informative programming on television, but there are a few specials available on DVD to add that educational spice to your scares. I’m list crazy recently, so here’s a *few* titles for you to pick and choose from.

Tales from the Crypt: Comics to Television – Very insightful special about the ups and downs of the naughty in naughty comic books and how the guts and glory survived in serial television. Maybe not for mainstream fans, but horror and comic enthusiasts will love this.

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film – A little too short for the massive area it tackles, but fans of old school slasher series will enjoy this hour plus of interviews and highlights from the classic greats to the new slasher spin.

100 Years of Horror – Dated, but here’s a treasure trove of old footage and interviews celebrating the rise of horror onscreen. This is available on the Netflix Instant Watch, but the audio was out of sync for me. Horror historians should stick with the DVD instead.

His Name Was Jason – Everything you’d ever want to know about the Friday the 13th series, with clips from all the films and extensive behind the scenes interviews with every one who was ever involved with Jason-plus his or her grandma!

John Carpenter: The Man and His Movies – From his early independent work to his avante garde modern films; this special highlights the career of horror master John Carpenter with his own commentary, film footage, and actor interviews.

In Search of Dracula- Christopher Lee hosts this old school look at the history of Dracula and vampire lore. Young folks might not like the old styles and footage, but vintage vampire fans will delight. You don’t catch classics like this on television anymore!

Heroes of Horror – This two disc ‘Biography’ set from A&E celebrates horror masters Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney Jr. A little old and in some respects there’s nothing new here for the cult enthusiast, but great for the classroom with nice narratives and archive footage.

Halloween: A Cut Above the Rest – Available on the Halloween blu-ray disc, this lengthy documentary details the story behind the low budget success of John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher masterpiece. Past interviews with the cast and modern retrospectives highlight the triumphs and tribulations before, during, and after Halloween.

Starz Inside: Bloodsucking Cinema – The fangs come out to play in this special celebrating the vampire in film. Actors and behind the scenes experts share their bloodlust in this hour-long look from the Starz Network. Fortunately, you can catch this one on their premium channels, on demand options, or on DVD.

Biography: The Munsters – This one-hour A&E special provides rare pilot footage and interviews with the late cast in an informative, fun style. There’s also a lengthy DVD set called The Munsters: America’s First Family of Fright that may be part and parcel the same material, with biographies of the cast and behind the scenes features in supplement to the featureless The Munsters season sets.

This list will by no means be exhaustive; but here’s a few more from the A&E and History Channel Archives for the real life horror and history fan. They tend to package their vast programs into lump some, bland collections like ‘History’s Mysteries’ and ‘In Search of’- even if they weren’t part of those original series-but I digress. For the collector, researcher, or classroom, these true to life tricks and treats are worth the hunt.

In Search of History: Salem With Trials
In Search of History: Voodoo Secrets
Ancient Mysteries: Witches
History’s Mysteries: Amityville The Haunting
History’s Mysteries: The Strange Case of Lizzie Borden
History’s Mysteries: The Inquisition
Biography: The Hunt for Jack the Ripper
Biography: Satan, Prince of Darkness
Cities of the Underworld: Dracula’s Underground
Cities of the Underworld: London, City of Blood
The Haunting History of Halloween
The Unexplained: Poltergeists

Haunted Histories, Volumes 1 thru 4 – Available at the History storefront, Amazon, and Netflix; these sets have a myriad of documentaries, from more Voodoo to the actual Haunted History series episodes. They really know how to get us, don’t they? Oiy!

25 October 2009

Horror Comedies, Anyone?

Horror, Meet Comedy
By Kristin Battestella

Of course, I prefer when my horror films are really dark, scary, macabre, and well, horrific. However, sometimes a viewer needs to lighten things up for spooky parties or frightful family fun nights. Here’s your viewing list for an evening of friendly scares.

Munster, Go Home! and The Munsters Revenge- Boxers or Briefs? Lennon or McCartney? The Munsters or The Addams Family? Enjoy this funny, charming family of monsters in their 1966 theatrical debut Munster, Go Home! as they take their hijinks-now in Technicolor!- abroad. Though more about the caper at hand instead of the family, The Munsters Revenge is still a treat for fans of Herman, Lily, Eddie, and Grandpa.

Elvira Mistress of the Dark- There’s a touch of mature innuendo, but it’s a treat to see Cassandra Peterson’s alter ego host in a full length picture. The plot’s a predictable fish out of water scenario; with sexy Elvira taking an inheritance in a quiet, conservative town. Nevertheless, Peterson’s wit, bosom, and personality are all in spooky good fun.

Ernest Scared Stupid- Everyone loves Jim Varney and his plethora of goofy characters. Add a creepy house, trolls, and Halloween and you’ve got all the hijinks for a family fright fest. Yes, it might be stupid as the title suggests, but who cares?

Beetlejuice- Don’t say the bio-exorcist’s name three times! Michael Keaton leads an all-star cast in this humorous tale about a country couple turned ghosts trying to rid their house of a snotty New York family. Winona Ryder is creepy as the goth daughter Lydia, and all of director Tim Burton’s odd touches have their moments-from Juno’ smoke coming out her slit throat to Delia’s infamous ‘Dayo!’ dance party. Multiple viewings are in order here.

Idle Hands- Devon Sawa, Jessica Alba, and Seth Green star in this creepy teen comedy warning kids about idle hands being the devil’s workshop. Dumb in some ways, but hysterical in others-the cast has plenty of gory fun here. Some of the gore, teen sex jokes, and drug use might be much for youngins, but this one’s perfect for a safe, indoor night or mature fun.

High Spirits- Peter O’Toole and his Irish friends turn their foreclosed castle into a haunted showplace to attract American tourists. Unfortunately, Daryl Hannah and Liam Neeson really haunt the place! Some goofy humor, funny romance, even a few scary scenes make this Neil Jordan haunt a keeper.

Once Bitten- Jim Carrey and Lauren Hutton are quite the humorous pair as the aging but sexy vamp and the virgin she needs to bite. Sometimes I’d rather this be a straight vampire flick-the talent is certainly there. But the valley talk, Halloween fun, and kinky camp save this movie from total drivel ala the similar My Best Friend’s A Vampire. Again, there’s some mature innuendo, but young fans can enjoy Carrey’s early horror hijinks.

22 October 2009

Freaks (1932)

Freaks Still Beautiful and Disturbing
By Kristin Battestella

FreaksFor such a short little film, Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece Freaks has had a torrid history of controversy and international bannings. This horrific take on the lives, loves, and losses at the circus remains disturbing, tragic, and twisted seventy-five years later.

Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is a beautiful trapeze artist, and the little Hans (Harry Earles) is quickly smitten with her. Despite fellow tiny performer Frieda (Daisy Earles) warnings that Cleopatra is laughing at Hans and only marrying him for his money, life at the circus goes on for the collection of ‘freaks’. When the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) accidentally reveals his and Cleopatra’s plans at the wedding feast, the drunk Cleopatra also spills her disdain for the ‘freaks’. Although they claim to accept Cleopatra as one of their own, when Hans falls ill due to Cleopatra’s poisonings, the freaks take matters into their own hands and exact a horrid revenge.

Freaks is a story so strong that it effectively ended director Tod Browning’s (Dracula, The Unholy Three, London After Midnight) career. For numerous reasons, A-list Hollywood personal Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow refused to work on this loose adaptation of Tod Robbin’s short story ‘Spurs’. Audiences were shocked at the exploitative nature of Freaks, and for many years, it was banned abroad. Today we are of course much more accepting to all walks of life; but as much as we desensitize ourselves with sex, blood, and gore, Freaks still offers plenty of disturbing imagery.

The cruel treatment of the circus’ little people, the abuse of the hermaphrodites and Siamese twins- these and other deformed performers are mocked, laughed at, played, and deceived-but they serve their comeuppance swiftly and with equally cruelty. Browning’s vignette gives us a voyeuristic approach into this bizarre behind the scenes sideshow tale. The Bearded Lady (Olga Roderick) and the Skeletal Man (Peter Robinson) can love just like the rest of us. This very subject matter is too far from our mainstream; it is freakish to us. Freaks makes us uncomfortable and that’s part of the horror. We don’t like to admit our prudish, cruel ways. We know we shouldn’t look, but like the gapers at the car wreck, we just can’t help ourselves. Have we learned the error of our ways yet? Perhaps not.

What’s so delightful about Freaks is that as exploitative as it is, it’s also a serious eye-opener about our society’s mistreatment of those we perceive to be different. Instead of costumed cast, masked actors, and smoke and mirrors, real circus personal were employed. Olga Baclanova’s Cleopatra is beautiful and deceitful. We love her thirties looks, but her ugly personality reflects the ignorant feelings of the time. Daisy Earles as Frida is more beautiful as the little lady who sees Cleopatra for what she really is. The entire cast delivers just fine-from the Human Torso Prince Randian to the Armless Girl Frances O’Connor and then some. It’s adorable and disturbing at the same time.

Freaks is dated in its thought and style, which may make it unviewable to some; but it’s also still right on the money in unveiling bigotry. Kids who aren’t mature enough to understand the visual and social complexities here should definitely not watch, nor should prudes or the squeamish. Freaks isn’t just a bizarre old horror picture. The final comeuppance is indeed scary (“One of us! One of us!”), but this classic should be seen and studied often by film students and classic enthusiasts year round.

Though some sequences are lost, Freaks is available in several DVD editions and video on demand options. I’m surprised the full video isn’t officially available free online, but I digress. Freaks is an affordable, worthy- nay necessary addition to your film collection. “We accept her!”

21 October 2009

The Masque of The Red Death and The Premature Burial

The Masque of The Red Death and The Premature Burial Make for a Spooky, Smart Double Feature

By Kristin Battestella

In my never-ending search for quality horror, I often turn to the classics. I was pleased to find that two of my favorites The Masque of Red Death and The Premature Burial were available on one DVD. Corman, Poe, Price- Horror Heaven!

Ruthless and satanic Prince Prospero (Price) takes crops from the local villages and burns those carrying the dreaded Red Death plague. He abducts the lovely, devout peasant girl Francesca (Jane Asher) and takes her back to his castle. Other nobles are also gathering at the castle under Prospero’s offer to wait out the Red Death with evenings of pleasure, masquerades, and debauchery. Part of his entertainment includes the diminutive Hop Toad (Skip Martin, Circus of Fear) and his little ballerina Esmeralda (Verina Greenlaw, The Six Wives of Henry VIII), but Prospero’s satanic mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) has no time for dances or Francesca-as she is preparing to become a bride of Satan. These demonic delights are all going to Prospero’s plans-until the Red Death incarnate crashes his decadent party.

As you can tell, I’ve seen my share of spooky flicks and Price pictures. Perhaps not as well known today, The Masque of The Red Death is my favorite of the Poe series from director Roger Corman. This 1964 treat has all the big budget looks one could ask for. It’s gothic, dark, demonic-yet the candle light, colors, and castle sets are a real treat. The costumes look perfectly medieval-the men as well as the ladies. I could say The Masque of The Red Death is a costumed, epic spectacle if not for the macabre subject matter.

Charles Beaumont (The Twilight Zone) and R. Wright Campbell (Man of a Thousand Faces) skillfully weave Poe’s tale of disease, death, and comeuppance with a touch from his lesser know ‘Hop-Frog’ tale and create a charming and yet dreadfully spooky movie. Poe is well known for his obsessions with death and burial, but the core of The Masque of The Red Death is unique. These prideful and gluttonous subjects fear death, sure-but that doesn’t stop their cruel and deceitful, devilish ways. Religion is only touched upon briefly, but the iconic notion of Death itself entering among the naughty and taking its tally strikes the audience on multiple levels. Do we really see Death when we are so close to it? Do we all walk such a finite yet intimate line with disease and punishment? Visually desensitizing, slash and sex and gore, modern horror can’t compare with Corman’s visual interpretations of Poe.

I know Vincent Price has a reputation for being over the top-as in The Pit and the Pendulum for example; but he’s relatively suave and subdued here. We’ve seen him in many periods and styles, but the outlandish hats, plumes, and color still look good on Price. He doesn’t seem out of place amid demonic castles and masked parties. We believe his Prospero is kinky, vicious, and deadly-but we’re awed when Death comes along and steals the show. Perhaps Price has more famous roles; but for my money, he is his best here. Likewise, Vincent’s vixens look devilishly good. Horror queen Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein) shows her bosom and her satanic ways with a bizarre mix of charm and grace. We shouldn’t like the dark lady doing nasty rituals and marrying the devil, but Court’s beauty and ethereal style are delightful. Not to be outdone, angelic ex-Paul McCartney flame Jane Asher (Alfie, Crossroads) rivals Court with her white gowns and youthful devotion. We want her to keep her innocent naiveté, but we also don’t expect her righteousness to win out.

The Masque of The Red Death is a rarity in horror pictures because it achieves serious social commentary about the corrupt aristocracy, death, and how the evil get their due- all this along with plenty of scares and onscreen mayhem. Some might be offend by the devilish imagery, but horror fans and classic enthusiasts need to love this macabre, yet idealistic picture. Of course, 1962’s The Premature Burial is by no means merely the back end of a double bill. Technicalities at American International Pictures unfortunately leave us without our regular Poe man Vincent Price, and I think The Premature Burial is a little unloved because of this. However, Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell (The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) again craft an intellectual analysis from Poe’s tale of death and fear.

Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) fears his family history of catalepsy and builds a complex and technological tomb to prevent himself from being buried alive. His wife Emily (Hazel Court) and sister Kate (Heather Angel, Suspicion) disagree in how to support Guy’s fears, yet stop his building obsessions. Guy turns away from his involved tomb so Emily won’t leave him, but death and family history soon catch up to him.

More than a fine, if surprising, substitute, Oscar winner Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend, Markham, It Happens Every Spring) is delightful as the intelligent Victorian gentleman who becomes obsessed with being buried alive. His extreme, exhaustive precautions are understandable, logical, and well thought out; but somehow, we still know this is all askew, maniacal, and preposterous. Milland is quieter than Price, never quite boiling over as we expect him to. In away, his buttoned performance is bound, trapped inside the coffin Guy so desperately fears.

Once again, Hazel Court is lovely and charming as Guy’s ambiguous wife Emily. We believe she cares for Guy’s state of mind-and yet she’s too lovely and youthful to put up with his deadly ideas, isn’t she? The Premature Burial gives us more exceptional dresses-but this time we are bespectacled with hefty hoop skirts and Victorian delicacies. Though somehow desaturated and less colorful then Masque (I initially was a twit and thought it was black and white!), Corman gives us a fine production of mood and atmosphere. We don’t often see such proper costumes in a low-end horror picture, but all the creepy graveyards, fog, smoke, and mirrors make their presence known, too.

The Premature Burial is again a picture that might not be fore everyone. It’s slow, deliberate examination of death might be frustrating and too close to home for some. Even though we’re beyond the days of rampant plagues erroneously burying people alive and Victorian occultists trying to cheat death, this is still an understandable, real fear not so far removed from society’s psyche. Both The Masque of the Red Death and The Premature Burial serve up a fine cast, intelligent scripting, period piece atmospheres, and plenty of spooks. These flicks have plenty of old time scares, but nothing majorly offensive- unlike today’s sex and slash flicks.

The dual DVD of The Masque of the Red Death and The Premature Burial is affordable enough, but again a little old and a pain to flip. Thankfully, we’re treated to a few nice conversations with Roger Corman chatting about this pair of Poe pictures. Horror enthusiasts and classic film fans should adore these two complex, scary tales each and every October.

19 October 2009

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Lovely and Haunting, The Phantom of the Opera
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t expect modern audiences who delight in the gore, sex, and screams of today’s horror pictures to appreciate the 1925 silent version of The Phantom of the Opera. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself! Every attempt should be made to see this wonderfully resorted tale of music and mayhem.

The Show must go on at the Paris Opera House, but the new owners casually ignore the stories of a ghostly phantom who roams the vast cellars at the opera. The famed Carlotta (Virginia Peterson) receives threatening letters from The Phantom (Lon Chaney), informing her that the lovely understudy Christine (Mary Philbin, Merry Go Round) shall perform instead. Masked and unseen by her, the Phantom has been mentoring Christine and encouraging her to end her engagement to Raoul (Norman Kerry, The Unknown). When he abducts Christine and takes her to his dungeons below, The Phantom sets about a deadly chain of love, revenge, music, and unmasking.

It's ironic that in a film about opera we fail to realize we never actually hear anything operatic! The wonderful classic score carries the Old World charm and pacing of The Phantom of the Opera. Humorous notes accentuate the wit onscreen, and booming crescendos set off the horror. If you want to get technical, maybe silent pictures aren’t really silent. If that’s the case, then The Phantom of the Opera is also the perfect mix of sound and screen as well as stage. The ballets and opera showcases, the onscreen behind the scenes, and underground of the opera house give us the feeling we are in good ole Paris at the Opera, as in the turn of the century before film. The freaky Phantom makeup designed by Chaney, the costumes, gothic styles, and scares put us in a delightfully old school spooky mood.

Yes we can laugh at the early actors’ hyper looking styles, but The Phantom of the Opera is not as over the top as other skittery silent films. The restored color plates of red, gold, and purple hues between the title cards add another level of subdued ambiance to Lon Chaney’s (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, London After Midnight) possessive and tragic portrayal. At first, we fear the Phantom, his scares about the house, and his deadly orchestrating for the affections of Christine. No, he isn’t a stalker who wants to take over her career, beauty, body, and voice-no, not at all! But then again, we feel for the Phantom, this glorified and maniacal kidnapper. He’s tragically in love-haunted by what he can’t have just as much as the upstairs opera feel haunted by him. We fear the mask and weep for it at the same time. Who’s wrong-the Phantom or his pursuers? Who’s right?

The Phantom of the Opera - The Ultimate Edition (1925 Original Version and 1929 Restored Version)Naturally, the ladies enthralled with the bizarre yet touching romance can find it in the source novel by Gaston Leroux. Modern fans can take in the long running Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway show, see Gerard Butler’s 2004 film adaptation of Webber, or observe any of the *numerous* other adaptations. I personally adore the 1943 version with Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, and all its musical costume spectacles. Here, however, Mary Philbin is delightful as the beauty conflicted by the beast. We can’t hear her sing, but her song and beauty is powerful enough to stir the heart of our masked man. Some early leading ladies don’t look pretty bobbed and be-Charlestoned, I have to admit; but Philbin’s Christine looks the lovely Parisian part.
In truth, there isn’t anything ugly about this Phantom of the Opera. Even the famous revelation of the Phantom’s disfigurement is still shocking, frightening, horrifying, and tragic. And having recently watched my favorite Poe adaptation The Masque of The Red Death, I was delighted to see the Phantom’s mocking of the Opera parties above, dressed as the skeletal Red Death itself. Ah, the appreciation of horror, the macabre, and the irony it represents. This is damn good stuff!

As is such with silent and public domain pictures, there are a several versions and restorations available for The Phantom of the Opera. Scene ordering, scoring alterations, narrations, cast changes-even early sound work began as early as 1930 reissues and have continued with DVD releases today. Film historians and Phantom obsessors no doubt enjoy the mysteries and technicalities here-or are driven crazy by them! Numerous DVDs, collector sets, and purported definitive versions are available-so pick up your copy, rent experiment, or watch online this October.

18 October 2009

The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again

The Oblong Box Along and Scream and Scream Again Dated, but All in Good Fun
By Kristin Battestella

Just when you thought the Vincent Price fest was over, along comes The Oblong Box and its double bill with Scream and Scream Again. Thought not as special as some of Price’s previous Poe and Corman collaborations, this duet celebrates not one horror master, but two. Vincent Price, meet Christopher Lee.

Julian Markham (Price) has returned from his family’s African plantation with his cursed and deformed brother Edward (Alister Williamson) - who Julian keeps locked in an upstairs room. Despite the mysterious behaviors at his estate, Julian hopes to marry the young and beautiful Elizabeth (Hilary Dwyer). The Markham lawyers Samuel Trench (Peter Arne, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Mark Norton (Carl Rigg, Marked Personal), however, plot Edward’s escape and cure along with African witchdoctor N’Galo (Harry Baird, The Italian Job). Unfortunately, Edward is accidentally buried alive in their scheme. Once rescued by Dr. Neuhart (Christopher Lee) and his grave robbers, the masked Edward romances the pretties and plots his revenge.

He may be top billed, but there’s not as much of our beloved, over the top Vincent Price (The Tomb of Ligeia, House of Usher) in 1969’s The Oblong Box. Although he’s less than a decade removed from the early success of American International Pictures’ Poe series, Price looks a little old for his leading lady Elizabeth. Fortunately, outside of these quibbles, there’s still plenty to love. Julian looks the worn, conflicted English noble. Can he dare to hope while he’s also walking a deadly line of guilt and destruction? Price makes the most of his given scenes, both as a disturbed brother and a charming husband. Again Hilary Dwyer (Wuthering Heights, Hadleigh) seems a little young, but this works in her tender relationship and naivety with Julian. Likewise, Sally Gleeson (Bless This House) looks and acts the pretty-if a little naughty-maid.

Hammer Horror alum and Lord of the Rings veteran Christopher Lee also doesn’t have as creepy a role as I might have liked, but his mad doctor is a high brow mad doctor. He pays slick swindlers to steal the bodies of the recently deceased for his research, but Neuhart does his doctoring while wearing a silk tie and waistcoat. He gets down and dirty with cadavers in the name of science, but Neuhart objects to Edward’s blackmail and murderous revenge. There isn’t much time for this stylized ambiguity in The Oblong Box, but Lee’s presence and voice command your attention in all his scenes.

Price, yes, Lee, lovely- but The Oblong Box is Alister Williamson’s (The Abdominal Mr. Phibes) picture. Yes, the masked man who’s true face you never even see and who voice was actually dubbed steals this picture. It would have been intriguing for Price to play both brothers-or even Lee take a turn under the crimson hood- but the voice and style of both men is too easily recognized. Williamson and his Edward are mysterious, unknown. What does he look like under that hood? We know he’s been wronged and want to see Edward find justice, but how far will his revenge go? Which side of the law is he on-and why do the ladies find him so irresistible? This is England, 1865 as only 1969 could recreate. Williamson gives Edward charm and tenderness with some ladies, then rapacious violence with others. He’s naughty, nice, misunderstood, and vengeful-not bad for our unknown, unseen, and unheard actor, eh?

The cast keeps The Oblong Box charming, but this very loosely Poe inspired adaptation from Lawrence Huntington (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents) and Christopher Wicking (Murders in the Rue Morgue) isn’t as strong as it could be. Director Gordon Hessler (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) spends too much time on the stereotypical mistreatment of colonial Africa and blaxplotation-like zooms and voodoo montages. If you want to talk about the unjusts of slavery, set the entire picture in Africa and let the actors go to their scary depths.

Thankfully, the visual mix of sixties and Victorian styles ties The Oblong Box together. The color and costumes are great even though Americans might be a little confused by the English style. When we see 1865 on tombstones, we think hoop skirts and Civil War extravagance ala Gone with the Wind. Here, however, the ladies are be-bustled in a more mid to late 1880s style. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of bawdy English taverns and cleavage bearing working girls. The outdoor locations are also a treat, and there are even a few daytime graveside scenes- a rarity in these old horror flicks.

The Oblong Box / Scream and Scream AgainThe Oblong Box isn’t perfect, but there are a few filmmaking strides here, too. The early, up close, clausterphobic deaths are from the askew killer’s point of view. We want to look away, but can’t. Despite the story’s thin execution, the charm and classic stylings of the cast win out-along with the mystery at hand. We can’t help but watch just to see if our hooded killer is caught and unmasked. Freaky faces, scares, voodoo, and violence-we just can’t help ourselves, can we?

Thankfully, Hessler, Wicking, Price, and Lee reunited the following year for 1970’s Scream and Scream Again. Who could they possibly add to up the horror ante? Why, Peter Cushing, of course!

Superintendent Bellavur (Alfred Marks, Albert and Victoria) and fellow officer Sylvia (Judy Huxtable, The Touchables) investigate a string of vampire murders. Each victim has ties to local scientist Dr. Browning (Price) and his nurse Jane (Uta Levka). Before Bellavur and morgue assistant David (Christopher Matthews, Scars of Dracula) can solve the case, Intelligence commissioner Fredmont (Lee) must strike a deal with torturous foreign dictator Konratz (Marshall Jones, Crossroads), who wants the files detailing the vampire case. Konratz has overstepped Major Benedek (Cushing) and taken control of a very grim conspiracy that has its subjects screaming and screaming some more.

Vincent Price is another year older now, and his old style presence and charisma is a little out of place amid fast-paced Brit coppers. The juxtaposition of all these young go-go folks would make Price seem past his prime-even though we know he has another thirty years of solid work ahead of him. His scenes are few and far between, but his Dr. Browning is so slick. He proves his worth against the hip stylings with suave answers for our detectives and high Frankenstein ideals. He’s a mad scientist with the best of intentions and Price leads us to Scream and Scream Again’s big finish. If the body stealing doctor with the vat of acid isn’t our bad guy, that’s scary.

Well, our man Dracula, aka Christopher Lee, as a good guy police minister-surely this can’t be? Again, there’s not nearly enough of him in Scream and Scream Again, but it’s a treat to see Lee young, modern, besuited and fedora wearing! Fremont has all the lines and politicking needed, using Konratz and Browning to his advantage. Who will come out on top? Who’s really behind all our slim and shady? In the end, Lee’s dominating presence is delightful, as is the freaky style of Uta Levka, another alum from The Oblong Box. This nurse’s devoid eyes and lack of lines would make any patient shudder.

Fellow Hammer Horror veteran and Sherlock Holmes star Peter Cushing doesn’t appear for the first half hour, but it’s no surprise that he would be the Major in charge of a Nazi-esque dictatorship successfully taking over a small European country. Unfortunately, his suave class and control over such ugly business is all too brief for Scream and Scream Again. I don’t know who the rest of the people here are and I really don’t care-and it seems the marketing folks who put Price, Lee, and Cushing in bold print knew that. Don’t Wicking and Hessler realize we can handle Price, Lee, and Cushing at the same time-nay we want to see them, we have to see them, we need to see them in more than these briefities! Forget the teenyboppers and bell-bottoms already!

It’s annoying and misleading, yes, as it has little to do with the film; but you have to admit Scream and Scream Again is a crafty title. There’s a nice chase sequence ala Bond as well, but is this so titled flick hip action or horror? Scream and Scream Again has a very interesting concept of realistic, multiple storylines amid scares and fast pacing. Unfortunately, the non-linear and jumpy approach disjoints and unravels any strides made. Each story could have been its own film, and each isn’t given its full deserving depths here. The swanky 1970 music and British contemporary style are very dated now. Scream and Scream Again might have been served better as a traditional period piece, but that probably wouldn’t have worked with Peter Saxon’s source novel. Fans of the cast’s other horror work might feel a little alienated by these vague thoughts on science and conspiracy, and Scream and Scream Again spends too much of its time trying to be hip and avant-garde with its pop music and interweaving trio of storylines.

I’ve been critical of the dated styles and misdirection of Scream and Scream Again because it’s a lost opportunity to do something really spectacular with our trio of horror masters. Having said that, it is still a scary and freaky film-psychotic and experimental doctors, cops chasing pseudo vampire killers, maniacal governments torturing its subjects. When you look at Scream and Scream Again like that, well, then any fan of old school horror should be all for it!

Although these double billed DVDs are an affordable, quick and easy bang for your buck; most of them are a little older, and often double sided. It’s kind of a pain to flip the disc, but it’s better to have these gems digitally restored than not at all. (Insert rant here about how half the films made before 1950 no longer exist and that all the classics that aren’t available on DVD should be restored before any more Disney Direct to Video drivel comes out, thank you.) There are subtitles here at least, if no features beyond trailers. What’s really unfortunate for Prince and Lee fans? Their next collaboration with Peter Cushing-and John Carradine- 1983’s House of the Long Shadows, is not available on DVD. Thankfully, The Oblong Box is viewable online.
Though seriously flawed and imperfect by modern standards, both The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again make for a fun night of horror and camp. Both may be too bawdy or uninteresting for the kids, but horror enthusiasts and fans of the cast can have a fun, quick marathon for Halloween or any time of the year.