29 October 2010

The Black Castle and The Terror

The Black Castle A Nice Little Old Film. The Terror…Not So Much
By Kristin Battestella

I’m sure there are plenty of other famous titles that come to mind when one thinks of Boris Karloff.  Though not as popular as the likes The Mummy or his Frankenstein persona, 1952’s The Black Castle and 1963’s The Terror are fun, spooky entertainment for Karloff fans at Halloween or throughout the year. Unfortunately, one is, of course, considerably better than the other is.

To solve the murder of his friends, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene) disguises himself under the name Richard Beckett and accepts the hunting invitation of the ruthless Count Karl von Bruno (Stephen McNally).  Although Beckett and his servant Romley (Tudor Owen) befriend Von Bruno’s driver Fender (Henry Corden) and the young and charming Countess Elga (Rita Corday), mysterious Doctor Meissen (Karloff) keeps to himself.  Von Bruno and his silent strongman Gargon (Lon Chaney Jr.) subject the guests to hidden castle trap doors revealing hungry crocodiles and deadly hunting challenges with caged leopards. Will Bolton survive long enough to avenge his friends and rescue the Countess?  

No, The Black Castle is not a horror or fantasy film in the style one might expect from Karloff or director Nathan H. Juran (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). Though there are some spooky and scary elements thanks to the ominous trappings of the Black Castle itself, writer Jerry Sackheim (The Strange Door) sticks to the mystery at hand.  The period styles, creepy suspense, and a few seriously disturbed characters up the drama ante better than the overdone bad effects of run of the mill horror can.  Of course, the old school pacing is a little slow in some spots when dealing with the onscreen protocols and pleasantries, but the pieces of the puzzle at hand are well paced. 

Our hero Richard Greene bravely goes on a potentially deadly mission seeking to save the girl and solve the murder of his friends- and all this without a hair out of place.  He is Robin Hood after all, and Greene keeps Bolton likeable and true against his swarthy enemies.  Boris Karloff, of course, is having fun as the ambiguous Doctor Meissen.  We expect him to be involved in all the bads despite onscreen evidence to the contrary.  Meissen enjoys testing the pain threshold of his patients for goodness sake!  Surely, we can’t take his doctoring at face value. Likewise, Stephen McNally’s (Winchester ‘73) Count is juicy, violent, and abusive underneath that slick layer of twisted nobility.  Somehow, he’s no less charming and fun to watch than Greene is. Today, I imagine a film would take his side as the disturbing lead.   There’s not as much of the silent Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man, Son of Dracula) as I would have liked, but his obedience and quiet violence are dang creepy.    Rita Corday (The French Line) doesn’t have much to do either as Elga, the Countess, but she’s a damsel with great style!

The Black Castle is a bit deceiving in that it looks more like a horror movie than it should- especially if it is just a good mystery.  The castle set has lots of stairs, doors, twists, and turns.  There are a few scares to go along with some of the spooky music and scary sounds- we have plenty of thunder, kitty roars, wolf howls and everything in between to match the nice, atmospheric black and white photography.  The 18th century costumes are great as well, complete with plenty of lace, frocks, riding habits, wigs, and all.  The sword fights and hunting action is a lot of fun, and overall, The Black Castle is quite stylized for being a little old film.

The TerrorNow, at least The Black Castle is a good dramatic movie. The Terror, however, is a little too bad to be good.  My viewing edition was part of Elvira’s Movie Macabre after all.   With weak effects and opening titles that seem too cartoonish, multiple directing hands seem to be the least of this film’s problems.  Though there are a few scenes that a Roger Corman (The Haunted Palace, House of Usher) aficionado can discern, some of The Terror looks like shaky handheld camerawork!  It takes quite a while to get to the ‘goods’; but with a title like The Terror, we expect something to happen that never does.  When a beautiful young woman along the sea, Helene (Sandra Knight), entrances lost French soldier Andre (Jack Nicholson), he nearly drowns to pursue her. Andre then wakes in the care of an old woman Katrina (Dorothy Neumann).  She warns him not to go to the castle of Baron Victor Von Lepp (Karloff) to find Helene, but Andre confronts the demented Baron and unravels a twenty-year-old double murder- or so he thinks.


Karloff of course, looks classy, but his air of deception suggests something wonderfully sinister that we don’t get elsewhere in the film.  His delivery of the silliest line is believable, because, well, he’s Boris Karloff!  Bless him; I don’t know how he stayed awake for this one. And wow, Oscar winner Jack Nicholson (As Good as It Gets, The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) looks so young!  But um, what Yankee accent is that? He’s supposed to be a French Chasseur for goodness sake!  Nicholson also doesn’t have much to do except wonder around scary sets and chase ghosts. It’s not nearly as convincing as Sandra Knight’s (Tower of London, or that filmed called Nepotism, being she was Nicholson’s wife back then) kinky and creepy Helene. She’s deceptive and haunting in her woodenness, but nothing here carries the build up needed for the suspense and intrigue to sustain the audience.  As much as the pace and performance drag, everything comes on to easy-and we’re expected to believe young Ilsa was married to the Baron at 20?  I love Boris Karloff but that’s a bit gross.

Although the traditional spooky castle sets are indeed scary and fun and the Halloween-esque music adds charm, the early 19th century period style is as mishmashed as the poly-direction. Designs from previous Corman pictures are obviously reused, too. Thankfully on this version, Elvira’s kitschy introduction and pop up appearances keep the viewing campy, kinky, and all in good fun.  I imagine kids can watch her hijinks and not notice any of the adult innuendo, but I don’t expect families to tune in for something like this.  Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Cassandra Peterson carry Elvira on into a new Macabre syndicated series.   She’s sporting a laptop and making The Departed jokes here and everything!

The Boris Karloff Collection (Tower of London / The Black Castle / The Climax / The Strange Door / Night Key)Fans of old time mysteries and period horror can take the good from both The Black Castle and The Terror.  Although these appeal to slightly different audiences, there are indeed niche fans of old school good- and campy bad- who can watch these tricks and treats again and again.  Boris Karloff completists will enjoy the hunt for these two slightly elusive films.  As of now, The Black Castle can only be found in the Boris Karloff Collection set.  Surprisingly, the disc has subtitles- but if I may make one small complaint, its dang tough to see the white lettering on the silver screen!  The Terror, however, doesn’t seem to have a proper DVD release, only the standard low budget cheapies.  It looks a little grainy and sounds poorly, too- even Elvira’s commentary scenes look odd spliced into the film.  Thankfully, for those who like this type of bad, you can find The Terror online. 

Not every film billed as a good horror movie is actually good- as in the case of The Terror- or even a horror flick- as in The Black CastleSo what? 

28 October 2010

More Horror Classics

More Horror Classics

by Kristin Battestella

So many scary movies, so little time!  Here’s a quick list of some of the old spooky greats to see again this Halloween. Black and white is so much more atmospheric, is it not?

Vintage Goods

The Abominable Dr. Phibes – Vincent Price venges on with Joseph Cotton (Shadow of a Doubt) in this 1971 cult classic of bizarre visuals, weird music, and mod yet deco design. Perhaps not everyone will like the pseudo psychedelic and dialogue-less 10 minute opening, but the Biblically inspired revenge is oh so sweet and dare I say it dang crafty! Bumbling Brit Inspector Peter Jeffrey (Anne of A Thousand Days) is a little stereotypical and I’m not sure about Cotton’s accent, but Price himself doesn’t even speak until a half hour into the movie-sort of.  His silent and obsessive plan, wild looking eyes, and methodically orchestrated kills perfectly exemplify that faint line between mad man and genius.  Beautiful and angelic but deadly Virginia North (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) is also delightfully disturbing as Phibes’ assistant Vulnavia.  The intelligent-if witty and campy- performances and script unfold layer by layer for a fun and memorable conclusion to a film quite unlike any other.  Take in the sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again for more.

The Ape Man –Okay, so they don’t come much more hokey and silly than this 1943 Bela Lugosi (Dracula) charmer.  Yes its old fashioned, complete with bad effects, makeup, and war talk. However, the simplistically scary black and white photography and fun mad scientist set design complete the scene nicely.  Lugosi is on form as an intelligent man emoting with some animalist overtones.  What is he doing locked in a cage dozing on the hay with a male gorilla by his side anyway?! The traditional horror fun and nostalgic style goes a long way as well.  The typewriters, candlestick phones, netted hats, and even nosey newspaper dames add atmosphere to the fine story here.  This one is also pretty short and easy to find since it’s in the public domain-so no excuses! 

Bloodlust-   So we’ve more bad effects in this 1961 thriller, and the transfer to cheap DVDs isn’t that good, either. However, this tale based on ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ has plenty of built in, natural horror.  It all starts out seemingly in good fun- tropical paradise and gallivanting boat rides.  Once stars Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch), June Kenney (Earth vs the Spider), and Eugene Persson (Ma and Pa Kettle) become trapped on a desolate island with deranged millionaire huntsman Wilton Graff (Lust for Life), the tone and atmosphere here quickly becomes dangerous and deadly.  Throw in unfaithful wife Lilyan Chauvin (Catch Me if You Can) and some naughty taxidermy hijinks, and that’s plenty enough suspense for 80 minutes.  Yes, it’s all a little too quick and there’s some good old-fashioned bad acting, but with a dozen variations on ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ and none of them 100% quality or faithful, we take what we can get.  

Race with the Devil – This very dated 1975 satanic rage flick is packed full of RVs, heady music, and badass motorcycles.  It’s tough to believe middle aged men Peter Fonda (Easy Rider, Ulee’s Gold) and  Warren Oats (The Wild Bunch, Stripes) have such hot young blonde wives Loretta Swit (M*A*S*H) and Lara Parker (Dark Shadows) and yet they’d rather be on dirt bikes!   Yes, some bits here are a little too macho- the men never believe the subservient wives in horror films, do they?  Thankfully, the mystery and devil worship conspiracy of backwoods Texas is downright scary.  There’s deadly snakes in said RV, swift pacing, claustrophobic filming, and a bizarre sacrifice scene that was later used in The ‘Burbs!  Director Jack Starrett (A Small Town in Texas) ties it all together with some great chase scenes and a creepy yet subjective conclusion.  Despite being of its time, I seriously don’t think a remake in today’s style is necessary at all.  In fact, please don’t!

The Return of the Vampire – Bela Lugosi returns for this 1944 resurrection of his most famous character- sort of.  He’s not playing Dracula, but one can’t help but make the comparison.  On its own, the moody sets, black and white filming, and spooky atmosphere are quite good.  The DVD release is even quality, with neat menus and even subtitles!  Sadly, we’re dealing with a really, really crappy looking werewolf!  Thankfully, the script is good, with an intriguing science versus vampires angle.  We have everything from kids in peril and good and evil allegory to hurrahs for both World Wars and even some Blitz action.  I love how the gals take time to put on their robes-despite being called upon by the vampire! The melodramatic music is fun, even if the show is a little short. There’s no fluff here and yet Lugosi’s reveal 25 minutes in is worth the wait.  The vampire marks are a little weak, and we don’t see the biting act.  However, it’s actually nice that way, allowing for audience speculation on the kinky penetration.  The supporting cast is somewhat stock, but blessedly not over the top.  The forties style and classic art decoration put the icing on for a zealous ending. Hot Damn!

Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) - The sound on my double bill disc is kind of crappy, but otherwise Tod Slaughter (Maria Marten, The Greed of William Hart) and director George King (The Shop at Sly Corner) craft a fine little film in that macabre Victorian spirit.  Even if the then-contemporary thirties bookends are a bit much; the old speaketh, poor London style, and implication that seven apprentice boys have disappeared at Todd’s barbery set the disturbing scene nicely.  The seemingly charming and innocent scoring also throws the audience for a loop against Slaughter’s (love that name!) creepy and abusive performance.  His delight at death and the fear of capture are well done. Stella Rho (Vagabond Violinist) is also a perfectly annoying and Todd’s wicked match as Mrs. Lovett. Such a little old Hackney lady chopping up bodies for meat pies all on her own! The supposed flair of the 2007 musical isn’t needed when you have spooky and bizarre old stuff like this.  I don’t know about some of the stereotypical tribal scenes or the low production values of the time, but the Fleet Street disturbia wins out.

The Vault of Horror – This 1973 anthology film from director Roy Ward Baker (Don’t Bother to Knock) doesn’t have the star power of its precursor film Tales from the Crypt, but its opening premise of five men taking an elevator to a subbasement of judgment to face their darkest dreams is dang cool.  The big names here are Tom Baker (Doctor Who) and Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark)- and they don’t appear until the final story- but this lack of flashy names allows the anonymous characters of Curd Jurgens (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins) to shine. Five tales in an hour and a half is a little short, but the stories don’t drag and get to the shocking point.  The twists and ironies are intelligent and wonderful without being all about sex, nudity, violence, or gore.  There’s not a lot of out right horror, but plenty of seventies bizarrity- and that’s refreshing compared to modern remakes and stupidity.

A few of these selections are also streaming or available online for free or subscription at Fancast:

23 October 2010

Recent Horror Pros and Cons

Recent Horror Shenanigans
By Kristin Battestella

I do favor classic horror fare and am not a lover of big remakes, but now and again, there are a few recent capers worth your horrorfest hours.  Here’s a quick list of new haunts and thrillers to enjoy- and one very critical one to avoid!


Blood: The Last VampireBlood: The Last Vampire (2009) – After catching this live action update on television, I was pleasantly surprised by this angsty wartime vampire martial arts piece.  It seems like a big pill to swallow, but the half-human, half-vampire conflicts, wartime prejudices, and teenage troubles add plenty of realistic spin for young anime-related fans or old school vamp viewers.   Although I could do without all the slow motion, the mix of vampire action, creative ways to kill vamps, and fighting ingenuity are a lot of fun.  The period style and neat military bits work nicely, creating authentic Asian flair instead of the bland homogenized American version usually watered down for the masses. The post WWII resentment and budding Vietnam issues are handled intelligently for a young adult oriented show, too. Gianna Jun (My Sassy Girl) and Allison Miller (Kings) do well even when the plot may fail them.  They aren’t perfect, but easy to like and have a fine onscreen friendship.  The seventies music is a lot of fun, and the gore is just right for the target teen audience.  Sadly, the CG effects here are woefully bad in several critical fight sequences.  It almost looks like an old crappy eighties cartoon within the film!  I’ve not seen the original short film or Blood anime series, so its tough for me to compare any changes there, but this is a good place for young vampire fans to start with the franchise. Yes, one critical plot point is totally obvious, and there are a lot of holes and confusion at the end.  However, I’m intrigued enough to check out the Blood series.  

Dark MirrorDark Mirror – I stumbled upon this 2007 thriller late one night on IFC and enjoyed the unique aspects here.  It’s so nice to see a non-blonde or idiot buxom pretty perfect lead in Lisa Vidal (New York Undercover).  An ethic mom with issues like sneaking a smoke, possible marriage trouble, unemployment, and creepy neighbors- we haven’t seen the likes of this realistic well-roundedness in a horror film in sometime.   The intriguing twists on cameras, mirrors, flashes, glass, and illusions are well done- not overly excessive but better than other similar films like Mirrors and Shutter.  Even Feng Shui gets involved in the twisted mythos here. The spooky L.A. house design also has some non-Sunny SoCal flaws, complete with hidden objects, altered reflections, deadly history, deceiving twists and turns and an unreliable narrator hosting the entire picture. What exactly are we seeing? What is real and what isn’t?  Some of the storyline is a little confusing, and not all the acting is stellar, but the freshness here is entertaining and thoughtful throughout.

Daybreakers [Blu-ray]Daybreakers – Well, our first stupid rental blu-ray wouldn’t play and the menus were kind of a pain, but most of this Australian horror flick was a okay.  The technological vampire advances and conveniences were pretty cool.  Some of the little things and eccentricities like courtesy announcements before sunrise were well thought out, and the visual style is well executed.   Everything is blue, mod, and futuristic yet somehow retro, old school cool, and art deco.  Vampires who smoke and wear hats and fine suits while working 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.!  The cast here is also upscale all around, including a fine Ethan Hawke (Gattaca), wonderfully wacky Willem Dafoe (Platoon), and a creepy Sam Neill (The Tudors). The vamp makeup is subtle, allowing the creepy eyes to up the drama, and the bat like subsider look is scary as well.  The ironies, internal conflicts, allegory, and dystopian science feelings also add more dramatic layers, political analysis, resource commentary, and government subtext. Even if some of the promise isn’t totally fulfilled and there are a few plot holes, this is more intelligent stuff than we’ve seen in recent vampire kiddie bits.  Though the blood and gore is laid on a little thick towards the end, this one should have ended better.  Daybreakers wasn’t perfect, but this different and intriguing genre mix was fun to watch. 

The Wolfman (2-Disc Unrated Director's Cut + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]The Wolfman (2010) – This flawed, but fun remake from director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) is smart to keep traditional make up and period styles ala the original 1941 classic. The old time atmosphere and mood is here thanks to fine performances and clout all around from Chaney-esque Benicio del Toro (Traffic), Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs), Hugo Weaving (The Matrix), and Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria).  Unfortunately, the CGI graphics here are kind of bad, unnecessary extras we don’t need.  Likewise, an uneven edit and mistakes on the Director’s Cut hurt the picture.  Although the gore is just right, The Wolfman isn’t that scary, going for more period drama.  Today of course, we can’t seem to have both solid horror and great drama, and the open ending here is a bit much, too. Most of the wolf mythos and gypsy material is fairly stereotypical as well, and the score sounds exactly like it was ripped from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though imperfect, this spooky little movie entertained me, and I hope this is the vibe and style used for the upcoming Dark Shadows movie. However, I do hope Universal doesn’t do any other classic remakes. You can see this was a labor of love for those involved, but leave it at that, okay? And while I’m complaining, the blu-ray disc had so many annoying widgets and interactive menus that we didn’t bother fighting them to get to the features. I also hate super low voices and loud ass loud effects, but nowadays that’s the norm!

So Bad I mean bad is bad woefully!

Halloween 2 (2009) – My husband rarely derides a film, and he called this one ‘a disaster’.  Goodness, this Rob Zombie (House of 1,000 Corpses) sequel was horrible beyond belief.  From the ambiguous dream sequence beginning to the stupid and obvious end (or vice versa), everything about this film is ill conceived.  Scout Taylor Compton (The Runaways) is annoying as hell with her postmodern grunge look, cursing therapist rage, and all out screamfeast.  Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings) and Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) do the best with the material they are given, but it’s as if they are playing different men from the characters established in the 2007 remake.  Margot Kidder (Superman) also deserves more than a cameo as a seemingly asinine therapist who doesn’t get poor Laurie.  Not that we could see any of this drivel thanks to the dark camerawork, hair in everyone’s face, and more gore gore gore- nor could we hear any of the serious dialogue for all the explosive effects and expletive language.  And my goodness did Zombie create this dream vision of Michael’s mother ala Pamela Voorhees just so he could keep his wife Sherri Moon in the sequel?  Despite these being the best-filmed scenes, it all looks like something out of another movie called nepotism.  What else is the point of this overlong waste?   

20 October 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 1

Buffy Season 1 Imperfect, but Lays the Foundation Nicely
By Kristin Battestella

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  When the series first premiered in 1997, I didn’t care for this season and only returned to the beginning after seeing Seasons Three and Four in syndication.  Though short and imperfect with typical storylines and high school clich├ęs, Season 1 establishes the mythos of the Buffyverse in fine form.

After burning down her previous high school’s gym, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her divorced mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, Honey I Shrunk the Kids) look for a fresh start in Sunnydale.  Buffy’s past rubs her new teachers and the suspicious Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman, Deep Space Nine) the wrong way, but she quickly makes friends with goofy Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) and nerdy Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan).  Bitchy Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) warns Buffy these friendships are popularity suicide-but Buffy has bigger problems than cheerleading and boys like the older, mysterious Angel (David Boreanaz). She’s the Vampire Slayer; the chosen warrior against vampires, demons, evils, and whatever else comes out of the Hellmouth underneath the not so sunny Sunnydale.  Despite her reluctance, watcher and school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) never lets Buffy forget her true calling against the local demons-including an ancient, ugly and power vampire called The Master (Mark Metcalf, Animal House).

Not many in today’s Hollywood would be able to reclaim their ideas after the lackluster comedy performance of the 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Kristy Swanson (Early Edition, Skating with Celebrities) in the titular role.  Joss Whedon (Firefly, Dollhouse) however, has done it. Whedon’s direction, writing, and storylines are allowed their proper expression in the less constrained television format; and his attention to character, detail, and wit shines through Season 1’s introductory growing pains.  The series’ universe, vampire mythos, and foundation are laid early, and the seeds of returning players and events are established here.  Some of the storylines are indeed a little juvenile or too obviously teen metaphors, such as Episode 3 ‘Witch’ or Number 5 ‘Never Kill a Boy on the First Date’.  However, spooky twists and mystery, reversals of typical horror stereotypes, and good old vampire fun go a long way in these episodes –as well as the opening and closing battles against the Master in ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’, ‘The Harvest’, and ‘Prophecy Girl’.

It may seem strange to say, but there isn’t really a perfect standout episode here in Season 1.  Some are better than others are; but it’s all just neat, cool, or somewhat entertaining.  Unlike subsequent seasons, nothing here leaves you thinking, ‘this is a damn fine show’.  Perhaps this is due to the mid-season replacement-styled limit of 12 episodes and their relatively uncomplex or straightforwardness- again unlike later interweaved and full length story arcs.  However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Buffy tests the waters with familiar, relatable storylines and kooky fun, attracting commitment-free viewers.  If you miss one of these shows, it’s no big deal. The introductory narration before each episode gets you up to speed, for onscreen time is better spent on character development here.  Even if you think a particular episode is sub par, the cast is fun, fresh, and likeable enough to bring you back to Buffy.

Sarah Michelle Gellar (I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Grudge, Scooby Doo) takes the eponymous Buffy and makes the character her own.  We like the Slayer-because of and also despite her superhero strength and blonde good looks. Gellar keeps Buffy light hearted, witty, and endearing in the face of some potentially preposterous evils.  She has her troubles with boys and grades thanks to her calling-but she isn’t afraid to hug with her mom if need be. We believe Buffy could be the awkward new girl in town, just as we relate to geeky Willow and goofy Xander.  Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother, Veronica Mars, American Pie) starts out more nerdy before being toned down a bit, but her charm and innocence wins out against the stereotypes.  Nicholas Brendon (Kitchen Confidential, Criminal Minds) also perfectly represents that awkward teenage boy phase between keeping girls as his best friends and liking the new Slayer at school.  The core dynamics between this leading trio holds fast here and lasts through the rest of the series. It’s also nice to see fine supporting players here at the gate that go on to later prominence on Buffy- including Julie Benz (Dexter) as vampire Darla, Mercedes McNab (Addams Family Values) as snotty blonde Harmony, and Elizabeth Anne Allen (Bull) as future naughty witch Amy. And wow, does everyone look so young or what?

Pre-Twilight lovers of vampire romance and ‘vamp with a soul’ Angel fans will notice David Boreanaz (Bones, Valentine) isn’t the spin off star just yet in Buffy’s first season.  Not listed in the regular credits, Boreanaz makes the most of his selective appearances as the brooding and mysterious vampire Angel-and the bulk of this comes in his titular Episode 7.  Personally, I have never cared for Buffy and Angel’s budding and tragic romance-it’s just a little too sappy and pedophile-ish this season. Thankfully, the relationship really heats up-for better and for worse- in Year 2.  Likewise, Charisma Carpenter (also later of the Angel spin off and Veronica Mars) doesn’t appear as much as the other billed cast members this go around.  It’s understandable that there isn’t always room for the snobby girl to scream, but it gives the impression that’s all there is to Cordelia-something we would later find out isn’t always the case. Her eye candy style and snotty dialogue are great fun, and her supporting antagonism creates great quips for the rest of the ‘Scooby Gang’- especially in Episode 11, ‘Out of Mind, Out of Sight’.  Anthony Stewart Head (Merlin, Little Britain) is also wonderful as the mature figure of the group.  The chemistry between Head and his charges is, in many ways, what makes Buffy, well, Buffy. His upper crust Brit attitude is tough when needed but not above a touch of sardonic wit and slapstick humor.  Giles’ opposites-attract bumbling with computer sciences teacher Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in ‘I Robot, You Jane’ is also delightful and will lead to major events next season.

Ironically, some of the things that made Buffy such a hit in its day have dated some of these earlier episodes.  Not all the mid nineties music featured prominently through the onscreen guest bands has stood the decade, nor has the then-in fashions and ‘Rachel’ haircuts.  Yes, this was a fictional representation of a hip-and richy thanks to Cordelia- California high school; but my goodness, I can’t believe young girls actually dressed like that back then!  Did we really wear such short skirts with knee-high socks, mini backpacks, and tiny tank tops?  The costumes make me think of two things: Clueless and jailbait. Some of Buffy’s tight plaid pants are seriously laughable through modern eyes,  as are some of the obvious school facades that we’ve seen in every nineties high school show- from Beverly Hills 90210 (the first one, folks!) to She’s All That.  Though many ‘Whedonisms’ are now part of our cultural lexicon, some of the colloquial slang and slightly Valley speech might actually make Season 1 tough to understand for the uninitiated.  The vampire dusting effects and facial makeup are neat, but some of the graphics and featured creatures might make a CGI spoiled viewer cringe, too. Overall, the production seems a little small and poorly lit-understandable, of course, but noticeable compared to the colorful and stylized later seasons.  Do these factors deter from repeat viewings and promise for next season and beyond? Absolutely not.

Thankfully, all seven seasons of Buffy are available online at sites like Hulu and are available for rent or streaming at Netflix.  Reruns can also be found on Logo and occasionally MTV-but beware the usual cuts for those precious commercials.  It’s also frustrating that the credits are rolled over the final scene on Logo-no nothing critical is going to happen, no not at all. Fortunately, used DVD sets of Season 1 can be found fairly cheap.  However, do your research before deciding to purchase- as the original DVD sets, slim releases, and the complete series box sets do not always have all the same features, Easter eggs, and bonuses.  Subtitles, fortunately, go a long way in confirming spoken layers and those aforementioned Whedonisms.  (I’m sorry, but I have to say, ‘You want to come with?’ annoys me to know end!  Just say the ‘me’, please?)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 1 suffers from its share of introductory season syndrome, yes.  However, the cast gems and the series mythology are firmly established here.  New fans can certainly begin at the beginning, and old fans feeling nostalgic can go back and enjoy.  Obviously, this season is the youngest in tone, so tweens or younger viewers growing out of Twilight and the like can relate here at Buffy’s debut-there are no potentially scary, inappropriate, or super dark and mature themes yet.  Go back to high school with Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer any time of year. 

09 October 2010

Slasher Films and Nostalgia Pieces

Slasher Mayhem and Feeling Nostalgia Flicks
By Kristin Battestella

Jaws (30th Anniversary Edition)Yes, we’re not talking total Oscar worthy material. Yet we’re still watching some of these seventies and eighties umpteenth slasher sequels, pseudo period pieces, vamps, and teeny horror romps. Here are a few old but decent pictures for a fun horror movie marathon and a few recent bad ones for a drinking game.

Must See

Jaws – Okay, if you’ve seen the Mythbusters episode where they spoil and disprove some of the theatrics in this 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller, you probably won’t be scared here.  Likewise, every horror film since has copied and used a lot of the camera scares and startling set ups.  However, Roy Schneider (SeaQuest), Robert Shaw (From Russia with Love) and Richard Dreyfuss (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) are serious, emotional, and crazy great all around.  The shark still looks dang dynamite, and the deadly seascapes cast the perfect fear, seventies mood, and explosive atmosphere.  It’s all here.  Though inferior, not as well directed, and focused more on teens in peril, Jaws 2 is an entertaining creature feature follow-up as well. 

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy – This 4-hour retrospective documentary gives you everyfrickinthing you ever wanted to know about the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and it is glorious! The good, the bad, and the ugly of every film in the franchise has their time in the spotlight with frank talk from creator Wes Craven, stars Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp, producer Bob Shaye, and more.  Of course, Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette are too big for memories on Elm Street, but that’s a small hiccup for this otherwise fine behind the scenes treat. 

Play Misty for Me – While not horror per se, this 1971 thriller directed by star Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) was Fatal Attraction before Fatal even dreamt of dead rabbits. The idyllic Monterey scenery mixes wonderfully with the creepy retro vibes, haunting ‘Misty’ music and possessive radio caller Jessica Walter (Arrested Development).  The killer ending sequence still has some moments to make you jump.  Eastwood keeps things mature, intelligent, and oh so smooth for innocent Donna Mills (Knots Landing), too.  I have to say, however, I hate Roberta Flack’s overblown and long-winded ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’! Finish the sentence already, lady!

Not Classics, but worthy

Stephen King's Cat's EyeCat’s Eye – I used to love this 1985 spooky and bizarre Stephen King trilogy as a kid.  James Woods (Once Upon A Time in America, John Carpenter’s Vampires), Drew Barrymore (Never Been Kissed, Charlie’s Angels), Robert Hays (Airplane!) and that cute but pesky cat capture the story and suspense wonderfully.  However, some of the effects here are a little too dated, silly, and small scale.  What used to be so scary then is now merely ironic and just a little too unintentionally comical.  Then again, the troll can still seriously scare the youngins, so if you’re into that, go for it!

Friday the 13th Part 3 – Jason gets the mask, people! In light of all our new fancy 3D technology, the primitive 3D hijinks here are amusing and add a few more fun startling moments.  This installment, however, is actually kind of tame in the sex and nudity department, even if the gore and deaths are juicy.  Otherwise, this 1982 sequel continues the same old never-ending cycle of stupid teens.  And what does it take to kill Jason my goodness?!  The series gets a little silly from here on out.

A Perfected Getaway – Milla Jovovich (Resident Evil) and Steve Zahn (Joyride) are relatively big names for just any old spooky thriller. Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) is a little too Billy Zane-esque and Chris Hemsworth (CASH) is too obviously creepy.  Thankfully, this focus on the cast and not gore keeps the intelligence and entertainment a little better than usual.  Director David Twohy (Pitch Black) plays with visuals, editing, and cuts in a nice attempt to twist the viewer on his ear, but can you really fool any audience today? I have to say with a careful viewing, you can see the supposed big twist coming. There’s too much internal talk of movies and red herrings, deflections, suggestions, and twists. Hint hint we get it.  Of course, we always have cell phones and reception issues in the plot nowadays and after awhile that’s just annoying, too.  The Hawaiian scenery, however, is worth all ills and a repeat viewing is nice to piece the puzzle together. 

Sometimes They Come Back – No one notices sixties styled greaser ghosts are transferring into the local high school?  Some parts from this 1991 Stephen King TV movie are a little preposterous and unbelievable- let’s admit it.  If you put those viewer leaps aside, both the early nineties and hot rod nostalgic storylines are a lot of fun.  Tim Matheson (Animal House, A Very Brady Sequel) largely handles the film on his own, and his slow breakdown and emotional upheavals are delightful to watch- again even if some of it is a little far fetched. Director Tom McLoughlin (Date with an Angel) captures the innocence of a childhood lost with the disturbing paranormal at hand.  I don’t know how they came up with the ridiculously titled sequels though.  Sometimes They Come Back….Again and Sometimes They Come Back… for More- how old are we, really?

Vampires - Los MuertosVampires: Los Muertos – No, it’s not the original and it should have been called Bon Jovi, Vampire Hunter.  Having said that, this 2002 sequel to John Carpenter’s Vampires written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch) is close to a okay. The story and western action aren’t the problem, but the dialogue is somewhat weak and the supporting cast is less than stellar.   Natasha Gregson Wagner (The 4400) and Cristian de la Fuenta (What did this guy do to be on Dancing with the Stars?) are 110% wooden, and Arly Jover (Blade) as lead vamp Una wasn’t as alluring as expected, either. Jon Bon Jovi (Moonlight and Valentino) isn’t a stellar actor either, but he’s pretty cool as a badass vampire hunter for hire, who knew?

Avoid like the plague

Friday the 13th Part 4 – Final chapter my foot! This 1984 sequel has lots more nudity than its immediate predecessor does, and the cast is stronger than usual. Sadly, Corey Feldman (The Lost Boys) and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) can’t save this one from the same old same old that’s by this point is getting really old in this franchise. How many times will a sequel begin immediately after the last one only to have another group of boobilicious teens return to Crystal Lake?   The deaths in this installment aren’t as creative either, and again how many times can the dead Jason not really die?

Shutter IslandShutter Island – Perhaps I’m the only person on the planet who didn’t like this Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Departed) and Leonardo DeCaprio (Titanic) psychological yarn.  The performances, fifties styles, isolating island atmosphere, latent political commentary, and World War II trauma are all wonderful.  These stylized visuals are however, merely entertaining filler. There’s no intelligence here- everything is obvious from the beginning.  From the band-aid on Leo’s forehead to the dreamlike jump cuts and distorted filming angles- we don’t need a long two and a half hours for the weak ending to tell us what we already know.  I’m tired of watching films like this where the protagonist is not so subtlety our unreliable narrator and I don’t think one needs a second viewing to fill in all the blanks here. Though it’s different in many respects, the entire time I kept thinking, ‘Memento did it better.’

04 October 2010

Fall Suspense and Thrillers

Autumn Suspense and Thrillers
By Kristin Battestella

What better way is there to spend a stormy autumn evening then with some cool mystery, heady suspense, classic thrillers, or spy hijinks? 

The Asphalt JungleThe Asphalt Jungle – John Huston’s (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) brooding 1950 noir starts slow, but the wonderful cast twists and turns this complex, intricate heist tale into a grand, sharp tongued classic.  Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar, Dr. Strangelove), Supporting Oscar nominee Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din, Ben Hur), and a budding, forties styled innocent but no less femme Marilyn Monroe (Some Like it Hot) lead the viewer on the murderous city scene as the dark, intricate lives and crimes blur together into one tragedy and double cross after another.  The ensemble is exceptional, everyone’s corrupt, you can’t trust anyone, and it makes for damn fine film.

Color of Night – Yes, the uncensored glimpse of Bruce Willis’ (Die Hard, Moonlighting) wang brought a lot of negative attention to director Richard Rush’s (The Stunt Man) 1994 thriller.  The psychological run around and build up of hints, however, outshines the kinky drivel and the more obvious plot points here.  The poor editing and numerous chopped up editions hurt this mystery more than anything else did, but not all the steamy nineties erotic scenes have stood the test of time either. Thankfully, the ensemble cast- including Leslie Ann Warren (Clue), Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap), Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings), and Lance Henriksen (The Terminator) is very good-especially when plot holes and weak dialogue fails them.  There’s not a lot of repeat value once you’ve figured this one out but it’s a lot of fun guessing the twists or shouting at the inconsistencies on that first viewing. Although there’s yet to be a definitive DVD edition, give this one a chance.

Red Riding TrilogyRed Riding: 1974, 1980, 1983 – Directors Julian Jarrold (Brideshead Revisited), James Marsh (Man on Wire), and Anand Tucker (Shopgirl) have crafted an exceptional trilogy based on the novels by David Peace and adapted by Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  This morbid tale based on real life events captures the scope of corruption, gruesome violence, depression, and emotions.  Each film can be viewed separately, but this is indeed a trilogy with all three completing a much larger puzzle. The varying styles, great period music, and Yorkshire brooding are wonderfully filmed. Performances by Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) Sean Bean (Sharpe), Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz), Mark Addy (The Full Monty), David Morrissey (Blackpool) and the rest of the ensemble are exceptional.  We follow each of our protagonists even though they can’t possibly surface in these disturbing waters much less win out.  This series is not for the faint of heart, and subtitles are required thanks to plenty of whispers and soft sounds. Although Red Riding is a very heavy series, depressing, and confusing in some spots, Americans should definitely see this fine multi layered piece twice if you can stand it.  Law and Order: Special Victims Unit wishes it could get away with this kind of disturbing magic.  Hollywood simply does not know how to make this kind of film, and I can’t imagine Ridley Scott attempting to top this wonderful piece with a big screen remake. Please don’t bother! This may be the best recent series on either side of the pond-I haven’t looked forward to an ending and jumped up and down for it this much since Trainspotting.

The 39 Steps (2008) – No, this is not the Hitchcock classic, but I don’t know why this recent adaptation starring a Cary Grant-esque Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) and lovely Lydia Leonard (Jericho) gets no love.  Director James Hawes (Doctor Who) takes some historical liberties, absolutely, but the period music and World War I styles add to the Scottish action and locales.  An American version would have Hannay and the hottest 18 year olds updated to today with terrorism in L.A., oil mania, and more transportation chases then you can shake a stick at.  Though silly, fun, and too fast in some places, the mystery and chemistry keep this one entertaining from beginning to end.  I could have done without Penry-Jones’ super bleachy blonde hair, but the period espionage action here makes me again wish that the Bond reboot had been period as well. And why not continue the good here in another Hannay telefilm?

Touch of Evil – Orson Welles’ 1958 noir classic has its fair share of cinema history and infamy.  Unprecedented tracking shots and Charlton Heston (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur) as a Mexican-what the heck is going on here?  A damn fine, complex thriller that’s what.  Naturally, the editing and pacing suffers from all the studio interference and recuts, but Welles’ (Citizen Kane) corrupt Captain Quinlan and the ambiguous mistreatment of Janet Leigh (Psycho) keeps the suspense wonderfully seedy.  Oscar winner Henry Mancini’s (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther) music also ups the onscreen ante.  All this heady crime and its Marlene Dietrich (Morocco, Witness for the Prosecution) who almost steals the show along with a creepy Mercedes McCambridge (All the Kings Men).  I could do without all the aforementioned Mexican stereotypes, but the 112 minute restored version honoring Welles’ original vision is worth another look.

The Usual Suspects (Special Editon)The Usual Suspects – I suppose now everyone knows how this 1995 thriller directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men) and starring Oscar winner Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, L.A. Confidential) ends.  Yes, repeated viewings may pick up a few flaws, but if you haven’t seen this one in awhile, give it a second look with fresh, intelligent eyes.  Better yet, if you can find a viewing virgin who doesn’t know the end thanks to all the spoofs or parodies- make the popcorn and turn out the lights.