26 July 2011

Horror in July, Anyone?

Horror in July Fun!
By Kristin Battestella

Burnt OfferingsStay indoors in the air conditioning and let the witchy good mayhem, scary old schools, and assorted beasties put more chills up your spine!


Burnt Offerings – For only $900, Karen Black (Five Easy Pieces, The Day of the Locust), Oliver Reed (Oliver!, Gladiator), and their aunt Bette Davis (Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, All About Eve) rent a spooky California mansion for the entire summer from kooky Burgess Meredith (Rocky, Grumpy Old Men) and his sister Eileen Heckart (Butterflies Are Free). You know this is too good to be true! Director Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows) takes his time with Robert Marasco’s source novel, developing the happy characters in the first half hour then building the mystery and haunted house disturbia towards the sinister changes to come. Although the 1976 design is quite dated- ascots, station wagons- the period flair is now cool and backwater scary style.  The Dunsmuir House filming location is so, so sweet, too- and oh, that chauffeur!  Yes, it’s merely PG and has obvious similarities to Phantasm, but there are still plenty of scares, innuendo, and twists to delight here. 

Don't Look NowDon’t Look Now – Donald Sutherland (MASH) and Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago) star as a grieving couple in this 1973 creepy based on a story by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) and directed by Nicholas Roeg (The Witches). Though it looks older than it is thanks to the fashions and hair, the grainy filming and jumping intercuts work the chills nicely in tandem with intimate and personal photography adding character depth and loss. There’s lots of symbolic water, red, and religion as well; but the visual layers and intelligence stand out amid the natural locations and seventies browns.   Those Venice locales are pure sweetness, too.   However, the lack of Italian subtitles and slow pacing in getting to the big finish might make a few things confusing to some.  Of course, the nudity is tame for today’s audiences, but the infamous sex scene may still be a little too spicy- as in ‘how many different Kama Sutra positions can we get in here’ spicy. Yet, the scene has purpose for the characters- not just the T-n-A of today’s horror.  In fact, modern pointless slice and dice can learn a thing or two from the complexity here.

In the Mouth of MadnessIn the Mouth Of Madness – John Carpenter’s (Halloween, The Thing) 1995 film about a horror writer in a disturbed small town boasts a fine cast including Sam Neill (The Tudors, Jurassic Park), Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes), Jurgen Prochnow (Dune), John Glover (Smallville), and David Warner (The Omen). Yes, it’s easy to assume this is another foul things afoot in the sleepy hamlet ala Stephen King, but there’s much more psychology and mind versus reality here. The music is very dated heavy metal, the visual design looks more bad eighties than mid nineties, and things are slow and confusing to start.  But these twisted bizarrities are kind of the point.  What is fiction and what is real? Are dreams blending with reality or vice versa? The scares, gore, and performances are all juicy, and build nice and twistedly to the conclusion.

Split Decisions

Let Me InLet Me In – There’s a lot this 2010 remake gets right- the abstract parental photography, disturbing performances, bully storytelling, and creepy mystery.  It’s focused scenes with Chloe Moretz (Kick Ass) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) are genuine and well played.  However, director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) should have stayed with this unique or what we don’t see youth examination instead of breaking away for over the top deaths and action.  Though my niece says the book is very different, this film version seems overlong and too mature for its audience.  Do 12 year olds really comprehend all this sex and blood? Yet, this is not for adults and seems too of its age.  Where did we get this juvenile horror trend and premature exposure to predators and prey? Cursing, killing, eighties sounds and styles- it all seems absurd for today’s pre-teen. This film is not a ‘vampire romance.’  The players seem advantageous, cruel, manipulative. Does Abby periodically make new 12-year-old friends so they grow old and remain indebted to her? Are we to feel sorry for an old vampire in a child body who likes little boys? Is this supposed to be about innocence and bullying or maturity and vampire souls? The unanswered questions and youth fluff over the adult substance undoes the good for me here.

Practical Magic (Snap Case)Practical Magic – This 1998 chick fest ala Charmed or Sabrina the Teenage Witch starring Oscar winners Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) , Nicole Kidman (The Hours) , Dianne Wiest (Hannah and Her Sisters) and Emmy winner Stockard Channing (The West Wing) is a little hokey and uneven in its whimsy and darkness.  Is it a cute magic romance or a cautionary tale on the misuse of witchcraft? There’s plenty of stereotypical heavy love and light witchy ways, but director Griffin Dunne (The Accidental Husband) never gets as real or scary as I might have liked.  Viewers looking for such can also find some latent lesbian undertones, too. Which is it all supposed to be? Nevertheless, the fine performances and magical fun in several charming scenes keep this one a toe on the watchable side I think. Fans of the cast can enjoy and mystical ladies of all ages can have a night in here. The chicky soundtrack, however, has got to go! 

Session 9Session 9 – Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) wonderfully executes this taut psychological thriller and smartly tells his 2001 tale in the gloriously eerie Danvers State Hospital for premium naturally spooky effects.  Both Peter Mullan (Red Riding) and David Caruso (CSI: Miami) are on form, keeping the viewer intelligently guessing as to all the mystery and paranoia right up to the end.  Unfortunately, everything falls apart for the finale. There are so many suspenseful and horrific possibilities, and any one of them was possible here. Yet none actually happens in this disappointing end.   For all the smarts and interesting strides made beforehand, Anderson and co-writer Stephen Gevedon (Oz) leave you scratching your head at the unexplained conclusion.  Claiming the deleted scenes on the DVD resolve everything doesn’t help, either. 


Blood of the Vampire/The Hellfire ClubBlood of the Vampire/The Hellfire Club – I know I often cite the charm and charisma of some of these hokey old B horror pictures, but some are just downright bad.  The double billed fun here- with old time drive in slides and concession commercials before, during, and after the features-was very nostalgic, even the highlight.  Blood of the Vampire’s formulaic Victorian Transylvania looks the part, but seriously bad make-up, stilted plotting, and ill acting can’t save the mad scientist hysteria here. With no featured, dynamic horror stars, it’s really tough to care about the would be mayhem turning hokey. Likewise, lovely outdoor locations, sweet costumes, and heady décor can’t carry The Hellfire Club.  An all too brief appearance by Peter Cushing and swift cavalier action with swords and horses can’t overcome the simple fact that there really isn’t any sex and fears here as the title suggests.  Actually, these two films have nothing in common and I have no idea why they were put together.

A Nightmare on Elm StreetNightmare on Elm Street (2010) – I confess, I didn’t make it halfway thru this remake of the 1984 Freddy Kruger classic from music video director Samuel Bayer (the guy who helmed ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ folks!).  The dream sequences and deaths are absolutely unimaginative; the supposedly special crutch here was the decision to make Jackie Earle Haley’s (Watchmen) uninspired Freddy an all out pedophile.  Horrible as it is to say, this was also not as disturbing as it should have been.  Yes, some of the sequels made Kruger a little too funny and tongue in cheek.  But he was kinky enough, nastily licking the chicks and zipping out dirty one liners. He’s the son of a hundred maniacs, if that doesn’t suggest something nefarious I don’t know what does.  New Nightmare blended the mix of real and refresh far more wonderfully, and I really, really hope this means these damn Michael Bay and Platinum Dunes remake folks are going to finally let these great horror franchises lie.


15 July 2011

Christoper Lee Mayhem

Christopher Lee Fun and Mayhem
By Kristin Battestella

In my recent streak of Vincent Price love, I feel I’ve somewhat neglected my other great titan of horror cinema: the undeniable Christopher Lee.  With hundreds of films to his credit and continued appearances in great franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, it would be near impossible to make a list of total Lee satisfactions.  Nevertheless, here is a brief list of creepy Christopher delights- with some Price and Peter Cushing tossed in for spooky good measure.

The Curse of FrankensteinThe Curse of Frankenstein (1957) Director Terence Fisher (Sword of Sherwood Forest, not to mention 4 Frankenstein sequels) puts the Hammer spin on this Mary Shelley classic with more frame and focus on Peter Cushing’s mad scientist Baron Victor von Frankenstein than his monster creation Christopher Lee.  Robert Urquhart (Knights of the Round Table) is delightful as the tragic voice of reason, and Hazel Court (The Masque of the Red Death) adds the proper feminine screams, too.  Although the colorful Victorian style is typical and the old time science is downright phooey, the creepy tone, kinky undercurrent, and sinister plots build wonderfully. Even knowing how this tale plays out, there are still plenty of scares, suspense, and unethical monstrosities to be had here.

Horror of DraculaHorror of Dracula – Well, well. Director Terence Fisher is here again for the one that started it all!  Even with little dialogue, Lee is tall and imposing, his stature and glare deadly and delightful.  Appearing a half hour into the film, top billed Peter Cushing as Van Helsing is also simply badass. There are unique changes to the tale from Hammer writer Jimmy Sangster (Horror of Frankenstein) of course, with library scholar Harker engaged to Lucy and more character switcharoos. Dracula is also decidedly styled as an English gentleman yet the story never leaves Central Europe.  This also doesn’t look 1958 as we expect from the Leave It to Beaver types.  Yes, it’s bright and colorfully filmed in the style of the time, but this Dracula is dark, gothic, and feels earnest, passionate, deadly.  There’s something so nasty about the way Lucy opens the door, removes her cross, lays out, and unbuttons the nightgown!  All the staples- stakes, garlic, candles, coffins- are here; everything we expect a proper vampire tale to be twists together with great deception and scares.  Hot damn!

House of the Long ShadowsHouse of the Long Shadows It’s Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine all in one movie! Couldn’t a classic horror fan just die with glee? With a cast like that, you almost don’t need a solid plot. Wow. Nonetheless, director Pete Walker (Die Screaming Marianne, Frightmare) gives the audience a juicy and spooky tale of a cocky writer (Desi Arnaz, Jr.) holed up in a spooky Welsh Mansion on a stormy night with these secretive horror heavyweights, a clickity typewriter, and lots of candles. The music, atmosphere, and isolation here are everything a haunted house movie should be- even with the surprising ending. Though dated, low budget, and a little too dark in some scenes, there are enough scares and twists to be had here, indeed. Unfortunately, this 1983 treat is not available on DVD- what cruel trickery is that?

The House That Dripped BloodThe House That Dripped Blood This 1970 anthology boasting Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Jon Pertwee (Doctor Who), Denholm Elliot (Indiana Jones) and Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula) offers four framed tales of witchcraft, murder, macabre, and vampires.  Looking fittingly old, gothic, and atmospheric, the storytelling is also spooky and spot on with intelligent deraignment, timed scares, and finely disturbed performances.  Even with a few plot holes expected in tying an anthology together, director Peter Duffell (King of the Wind) and writer Robert Bloch (Psycho, Asylum) keep the tales taunt, intense, and damn, downright frightening to even an advanced horror viewer such as myself. 

The Man Who Could Cheat DeathThe Man Who Could Cheat DeathThis 1959 Parisian bizarrity from frequent Hammer helmer Terence Fisher stars Anton Diffring (Where Eagles Dare, Fahrenheit 451) as a wonderfully subdued but no less maniacal sculptor with an unnaturally prolonged life.  Hazel Court is again the juicy object of affections as always, and Our Man Christopher looks the Parisian suave and debonair good doctor. The mix of accents might be tough for contemporary untrained ears, but the European flair adds a nice authenticity and upscale feeling along with the lavish- if small- sets. Yes, the effects are cheap- amounting to shadow makeup and green lighting for the most part, and something that, well, looks like mud. Big whoop.  Even so, Diffring’s perfectly brewing performance and Lee’s surprising antithesis to the sinister carry the creepy across just fine. Who knew?

05 July 2011

The Prince and the Showgirl

The Prince and the Showgirl Uneven, but Charming
By Kristin Battestella

Screen goddess Marilyn Monroe and thee acting connoisseur Laurence Olivier unite in this fun 1957 mismatched romance.  Though ill paced in some parts, the charm wins out here.

Chorus girl Elsie Marina (Monroe) meets the Prince Regent of Carpathia (Olivier) while he, his son Nicholas (Jeremy Spenser), and his mother-in-law the Dowager Queen (Dame Sybil Thorndike, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) are being entertained in London by British official Northbrook (Richard Wattis, The Belles of St. Trinian’s) ahead of the coronation of George V.  When invited to the embassy by the Prince, Elsie is at first reluctant, then irritated by the political interruptions.  She expects to be better wooed, but the Dowager Queen takes an interest in Elsie and makes her a lady-in-waiting, extending Elsie’s stay at the embassy.  As the Prince warms to her, Elsie inadvertently becomes involved in European politics and royal affairs.  Will the budding romance survive royal plots and obligations?   

Director and star Laurence Olivier (Fire Over England, Rebecca, Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, I’ll stop) sets the 1911 pre-war London scene well with lots of royalty and politics.  Some of the protocol can seem confusing to a contemporary viewer, and the style is a little too stuffy and RP with some anti American bits.  However, there’s also a seemingly mocking tone or tongue in cheek to it all from writer Terence Rattigan (Separate Tables).  Oh, these snotty old aristocrats and the flakey aides hysterically trying to please them!  The Prince and the Showgirl captures the mood of the time and is still able to laugh at itself. Unfortunately, the mix of lighthearted love and dangerous political plots makes it seem as if Olivier is peddling two separate movies.  The battle of wits between the two leads- which you could perceive as the king of real acting and the queen of pretty going head to head- is a lot of fun.  She rejects his passes, and then expects better romance on his part.  He charms, he shouts.  Could it be love? The unique romantic comedy takes place largely in one stage like room- thanks to Rattigan’s source play The Sleeping Prince.  The focus on the people with the pomp and circumstance outside merely hinted at is refreshing in opposition to all those modern Meg Ryan love in the big city repeats.  The Prince and The Showgirl dries up when Olivier switches to a political triangle instead of these bemusing cat and mouse games.  When turning to European intrigue and plots, the tale seems longer than needed at a full 2 hours, dragging in the middle when things should have gotten juicier.  It’s uneven yes, and perhaps misguided in the end, but overall, the stars shine and keep The Prince and the Showgirl entertaining.

The Prince and the ShowgirlThough she has proven she can do more, Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot, Gentleman Prefer Blonds) is once again the dimwitted blonde who catches the eye of the Grand Ducal Prince backstage just because her dress strap rips.  It’s a bit of a thankless start, but Elsie’s catching on and teaching the royals a thing or two is a lot of fun.  Monroe’s physical comedy and runaround timing works onscreen-making silent and seemingly insignificant scenes fresh, lively, even slapstick.  Elsie’s attempts to get the right titles and dialogue are wonderfully squashed with an ‘Oh, the hell with it!’  Monroe also sneaks in a few great zingers- total insults delivered with such marshmallow that you can’t help but like Elsie.  Her great curves and soft focus stylings on the up close shots are noticeable, yes, but Monroe still looks lovely despite not being at her best again thanks to off screen illness and pregnancy troubles.  Elsie’s drunken giggles also make us think its just Marilyn being herself, but again the comedy timing and played up wit wins out. I am, however, not sure why a somewhat out of place song is needed.  Fans who like Monroe’s musical ways may be surprised by the turn of the century arrangement here. Of course, the entire premise of The Prince and the Showgirl is all-preposterous- a chorus girl meddling in European affairs and preventing war! But really, what tickles me most is how Elsie hobnobs with royalty while wearing the same dress for 3 days!

Surprisingly, I am not a major fan of Olivier, England’s favorite thespian maestro.  From what I’ve seen, he always seems to be the same stuffy guy.  Early on in The Prince and the Showgirl, he’s even a bit of an ass. Fortunately, the snotty serves a purpose here.  The Ducal Prince must always be on form, always wearing the façade; he’s doing the protocol and going through the motions with a trumped up accent to seal the deal.  After meeting this guy, I much prefer Larry’s mysterious Brit millionaire Max in Rebecca!  We expect Elsie to be taken advantage of in this situation because we are used to politicians like this getting down and nasty with the babes. Though at the time it might have been accepted for such a dignitary to have an evening with a lady who understood to be gone in the morning, today we think of it as just horny old dude on the lamb relentlessly looking for a piece. All that and nevertheless The Prince and the Showgirl is bemusing, a Pretty Woman fifties-style with such an innocence to its implications. The Prince Regent and his son Jeremy Spenser (King & Country) shed their rigid ways; Olivier loosens up and eventually gets rid of that proverbial stiff upper lip.  Today’s movies would have Elsie scandalously banging both the Regent and the sneaky teenager king in waiting- yowzha!  

Okay, so the silly and fake London screen shots are obvious and on the cheap, but some of that old production of the time has its delights.  The embassy set design is appropriately grand and lavishly styled with lots of gold and velvet and sweet staircases.  And let’s not forget my favorite: candlestick phones, people!   Maybe it isn’t on the scale of today’s standards, but the décor befits a title like The Prince and the Showgirl. The costumes are perfection- fun feathered hats, parasols, gowns high and low, colorful fabrics and over the top gaudy blue eye shadow to match.  There are great men’s top hats and going to the opera styles, too. The monocle is a little typical, but fun nostalgia just the same.  Nobody today has probably ever really seen one, yet it is just the right Old World touch here.  Monroe’s aforementioned white dress and overall look is, however, seemingly 1911 by way of 1957, looking a little more of the time than the time really portrayed.  Olivier’s blue uniform and red sash also look just like the Duke in Disney’s Cinderella!  Though lovely and again fittingly majestic, the coronation scene is way too slow and marks the low point of The Prince and the Showgirl, inviting politics in to try and overshadow the charm of the leads. Is that its point in the larger scheme of the film?

Fans of Olivier, Monroe, or pre-war Europe onscreen will certainly enjoy The Prince and the Showgirl, though audiences new to the cast, the fifties colloquialisms, or the turn of the century protocol onscreen might find some things tough to understand.  Even some of the fifties kitschy humor and tone might be lost to younger viewers of classic films, though the picture is certainly lighthearted and family friendly. It isn’t perfect, but classic connoisseurs and fans of pomp, circumstance, and opposites attract fun will enjoy The Prince and the Showgirl.