31 October 2011

Nightwatch (1997)

Nightwatch A Creepy and Twisted Little Gem
By Kristin Battestella

I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon the 1997 morgue fest Nightwatch.  It was probably late at night and I must have been alone, for it scared the crap out of me!

Law student Martin Bells (Ewan McGregor) is hired as the over night security guard at a morgue- much to his girlfriend Katherine’s (Patricia Arquette) chagrin. Martin’s best friend James (Josh Brolin), however, couldn’t be more amused, and he uses the freaky and morbid aspects of Martin’s job to cause trouble and tease young prostitutes when he’s supposed to be taking the next step with his girlfriend Marie (Lauren Graham).  Unfortunately, a series of sick and brutal killings lead Inspector Thomas Cray (Nick Nolte) and his deputy Bill Davis (John C. Reilly) to the morgue- and all their evidence points to Martin.

Morgues, serial killers, necrophilia- Director Ole Bornedal (I am Dina) has all kinds of juicy and freaky to toy with in this his own remake of 1994’s Nattevagten.  The atmosphere starts on the creepy early and keeps the suspense tight with dark scenery and chilling isolation. Even with some humor, fun naughty, and a touch of coming of age tossed into the spooky, there’s plenty of real world fear to match- marriage issues, fear of life after college, losing buddies over dames. It all helps to keep the characters believable even if some of the story’s cracks show.   Indeed, there are a few flaws in the plot and pacing- careful viewers might suspect or solve the criminal twists pretty quickly- and the scares really only work on the first virgin viewing.  Having said that, there are still plenty unique and morbid thrills, joys in spotting the clues, and jump in your seat delights here for repeat viewings.

Even as Obi Wan Kenobi in the three Star Wars prequels, it seems Ewan McGregor never plays the same character twice, and his effortless style makes it quite easy to get behind our naïve and unassured college hipster Martin. We’ve all been there- wanting to have fun while trying to also take life head on and being torn between wants and obligations.  McGregor balances the seriousness smartly with the fun and kinky- in large part also thanks to his onscreen pal, Josh Brolin. Brolin (No Country for Old Men) is quite a creep in Nightwatch, poking fun at the morgue, disrespecting the dead, and speculating on the nasty crimes taking place.  We want to like him, but he’s looking for thrills and excess in all the wrong places and taking Martin down with him.  It’s not an easy part to play, but we feel for him and thus put out the sympathy because Brolin keeps the honesty and torment real.  Nick Nolte (Affliction) is also juicy good fun as the slightly askew Inspector on the case, and John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights) is also a treat as his quirky deputy.

I haven’t really seen enough of either lady to make a true assessment, but I do know Patricia Arquette (Medium) is a little annoying as Martin’s girlfriend Katherine.  This is a horror movie, we need to have opposing chicks or damsels in distress- and that is largely the roles Arquette and Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls) play.  They are okay, I suppose, but the scenes without them are better.  Nightwatch is not meant to be a chick flick. In fact, due to the twisted nature of the crimes at hand, some aspects are even a little sexist- the use and abuse of prostitutes, feminine subservience, and marriages being anti freedom talk don’t help the ladies shine here.  Fortunately, Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings) is always cool and fittingly freaky as a feisty nighttime mortician.

Thankfully, mood and atmosphere also add a wonderfully scary layer to the film. Yes, the ideas of solitary, dark morgues are bad enough, but Nightwatch looks scary, with lots of tricks, smoke and mirrors, creepy things in jars- all the little things that go a long way in establishing a real world, natural spooky.  The audience is prepped and tingly for violent action sequences, real scares, silly scares, sexy humor, and sex disturbia yet its all mere deceptions, only hints of sex and blood. Despite all the nasty matters at hand, we only actually see some brief nudity, pre and post naughty, or implied twistedness and gore.  The sick implications of what we think has happened gets us all psyched out- leaving Nightwatch in our minds long after the viewing.

Suffice to say, Nightwatch is not really for family audiences, and it may even gross out some hardened adults thanks to the necrophilia implications and other ill subject matter. Fans of the cast, however, can certainly enjoy, along with mystery or suspense lovers and subtle horror viewers alike. But of course, there are several varying DVD versions and director’s editions for completists to research, and purists may still prefer the original Danish production.  Thankfully, you can find some low price copies or rental options and get your freak on with Nightwatch any time of year.

28 October 2011

Contemporary Horror Splits and Spotlights

Recent Horror Spotlights and Split Decisions
By Kristin Battestella

I spend most of my viewing time with older scares, horror classics, and cult favorites simply because there is so much of the same old slice and dice repetitive all gore and no substance drivel churned out in recent decades.  Yeah. Fortunately, I’ve found a few contemporary treats and thrillers to satisfy the yearn for modern macabre- and some spookies on which I can’t decide!

Deadtime Stories Volume 1 – George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) hosts this 2009 trilogy of tales in quite the quirky fashion.  His first story is a little ho hum- the typical tribal freaky and trying too hard to be too bizarre vein that any schooled horror anthology viewer will spot straightaway.  Fortunately, our second story provides a very creepy mermaid- not the pretty tailed, glistening golden tresses hiding a be-sea shelled rack siren, oh no. Some of the onscreen legend might be confusing, but the coastal and solitary suspense makes up the difference. Saving the best for last, Deadtime Number 3 is a great backwoods old school vampire scary. The abstract but period setting and tintype looking photography and colors make this one extra sweet. The dialogue and plot really had me going as to who was actually what- and it was downright spooky! 

Hannibal – This 2001 sequel to Silence of the Lambs obviously has big shoes to fill. Thankfully and blessedly, Giancarlo Giannini (Casino Royale) is great, and the Italian scenery is flat out awesome.  Ray Liotta (Goodfellas) is sleazy and so much fun while the twisted Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) is unrecognizable.  Even in the shadow of prior Clarice Starling Oscar winner Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore (The Hours) shapes her own Clarice beautifully. And but of course returning Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins is wonderful. He is without a doubt the star here, and does the most in what seems like less screen time. The one on one dialogue and action sequences are perfect, with fine suspense pacing, intelligentsia horror, class, sexy, and gore.  Unfortunately, however great the performances are in getting there, the storyline does meander. Director Ridley Scott’s (Blade Runner) ending is somewhat flat and leaves a ‘What was the point of all this?’ feeling.  Nevertheless, I applaud the twisted romantic aspects and creepy for adults only production. Twilight wishes it could be like this.

Red Dragon- Naturally then, I must also talk about Anthony Hopkins’ sweet 2002 prequel, co-starring everybody from Oscar nominees Harvey Keitel (Bugsy) and Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient) to Oscar nominees Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) and Edward Norton (American History X).  Norton is believably badass and sympathetic as both as the on screen agent prior to Starling and the actor following both Clarices.  The murder mystery suspense and psychological games are alluring and complex. We’re going somewhere concrete with a case to solve and it all leads up nice and tidy to Lambs. Oh, did I forget to mention Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Emmy winner Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds).  Must I go on?

Unfortunately Undecided

Crush (2009) – Well, I’ve never seen a karate tournament in a horror movie before, and there’s really no room for it, lengthy credits, and too many establishing music montages in an 87 minute film.  We’re also crowded with a lot of clichés: the usual American in a foreign country scary house intrigue, a dark haired chick in a red bikini automatically meaning trouble, more Betty vs. Veronica stereotypes, and technology has to factor into the plot, too.  The cheap college drinking and sexy attempts don’t make up for lack of expected scares or unpretty people playing a flat Fatal Attraction, and the insignificant Australian touches simply look like anywhere that’s pretty.  But at least it’s Christopher Egan (Eragon) instead of a blonde chick protagonist, and I didn’t know there was such a thing as a house sitting agency!  Though it’s really great when we get them, the few and far between haunted house tricks take a long time to happen- leaving only 15 minutes left for the twists and true heavy will out fine for the ending. 

The Girl Next Door – I’m not really sure what to make of this 2007 tale based on Jack Ketchum’s novel.  The cast is fine along with the fifties touches and period nostalgia.  It’s also nice to see some frank and kinky talk in what we presume was such a Leave It to Beaver era- though it’s also weird that its kids and budding teens involved. Unfortunately, I don’t think this should be labeled as a horror film. Yes, horrific and very scary real life things happen here- twisted torture, and sick, verbal abuses. But the demented drama should be enough in telling the disturbed of the piece. When these real tortures and violent abuses are tossed into the same breath with our recent titillating torture porn, it cheapens and exploits the true story of Ketchum’s source.  Is Sleepers a horror film? No. So why is this? Call it a thriller or straight drama but saying this is horror, I find that somewhat demeaning.  Though I don’t think the direction here goes for the excess ala Hostel, I’m just not sure about the entire approach.

Immortality (2000) – This contemporary vampire drama stars Oscar nominee Jude Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley) as a swanky undead playboy and Timothy Spall (Harry Potter) as the investigator who follows his blood trail.  Of course, Law already has a pasty, enthralling, juicy way about him, so we’re not that surprised to see him as a vampire having his way with the chicks- and the seduction is suave for Law’s lady fans. However, the against type vampire bites and violent death scenes disturbingly remind us that vamps are not meant to be our baby daddy teen dreams. It’s nice to see Spall as a decent bloke instead of the usual slinky and seedy type, too.  Though the contorted and freaky physical performance from Law adds to the disturbed atmosphere, the technicalities of his vampirism are a little slow, ill paced, and confusing at times. The increasing focus on the weird romance angles over the fine police investigation and spiritual debates is also unfortunate. We’ve seen twisted vamp love and poetry too many times. I’d much rather see the rarer real world cop meets vampire action trump a love heals the vampire chemistry that isn’t happening. 

Mrs. Amworth – I am seriously surprised this 2007 beyond low budget vampire fair even made it to DVD.  There are no subtitles of course to help with the microphone-less dialogue, and it all looks really really really basement backyard home video filming.  I mean, Blair Witch was professionally shot compared to this! There’s blood and boobs a plenty, the acting isn’t even that bad for the most part, the story’s half-decent too. Even if the plot is nothing that new, the script isn’t all that hokey.  But this dang high school video production editing, bright lighting, and just way too down home photography is so unbelievable that it distracts from any attempt at scary.  Which is sad. This could have been a decent tale if it had a proper production.  The fashions are at least cool, and casual non-acting school banter helps a lot in the fun.  The music would be quite moody, scary, and atmospheric if the rest of the filmmaking was done right, too. Unfortunately, model Magenta Brooks is seriously too tall for all the men.  Is this meant to be bad, bemusing or awkward? Someone please let me know.

27 October 2011

Christopher Lee Round Three!

This Time of Year, You Just Can’t Get Enough Christopher Lee. Period.
By Kristin Battestella

Well, I suppose the title says it all. With whom else can you share your scary, dark autumn nights?

The Devil's Bride – Frequent Hammer director Terrence Fisher (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) helms this elusive 1968 satanic fest in which Christopher Lee is the good guy. Whoa.  Let’s just take in that power of performance right there.  One of his personal film favorites, Lee ups the ante- using all his coy, charisma, and stature for the occult heroics and parental considerations here.  He looks damn classy, and Charles Gray (Diamonds Are Forever) is dynamite as well. Two Bond villains for the price of one- that has to be worth a look!  Leon Greene (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) as Big C’s sidekick starts out as a little stereotypical chum chum disbelieving cheerio, but he takes up the cause wonderfully- though I don’t really understand why an English guy was dubbed for an English movie? The thirties via sixties style is also suave: sweet roadsters and English country car chases, cool suits, and great frocks all around.  Sigh, candlestick phones!  We have genuine frights, smart mystery, and fun cloak and dagger action along with great color and decent, scary effects.  If the eyes are the window to the soul indeed…shudder.  Though I’m not sure of the actual details, the rituals are realistic and the occult material is intelligently handled for a dang good time. Now if only the DVD- also titled The Devil Rides Out – wasn’t so damn tough to find!

Horror Hotel – This 1960 low budget scary also called The City of the Dead opens with a 1692 good and wicked burning at the stake and it only gets freakier from there.  Yes, it looks a little poor in quality, is too dark sometimes, and the hep cat guys are a dime a dozen.  The fog and flickering firelight, however, add heaps of disturbia, and we just know this sinister- er sleepy hamlet isn’t what it seems. Investigating ingénue Venetia Stevenson (Island of Lost Women) is a sunny and fun fish out of water we can get behind as she blindly plunges deeper into the Massachusetts bizarre.  Sir Christopher is of course smashing as a deathly serious but young and oh so suave professor who knows his witchcraft history too well. Even in the seemingly forgotten 80 minutes here, his contribution is essential, his performance quintessential.  Toss in a swanky score and you have all the brewing ingredients needed for future Amicus Productions’ horror gems. Who knew?

To the Devil a Daughter – Though it may look old, this 1976 satanic thriller boasts a great cast- including reluctant occult expert Richard Widmark (Cheyenne Autumn), juicy dame Honor Blackman (Goldfinger), unaware but not so young and innocent would be nun Nastassja Kinski (Cat People), and fearing for the err of his ways Denholm Elliot (Raiders of the Lost Ark).  Now then, let’s top all that off with a downright frightening Big C, too!  This one is very bizarre to start; the rituals are totally kinky, and the intentions are absolutely disturbing.  Lee’s Father Michael is even scarier than his Dracula- perhaps because he is a real soulless man of flesh with such a wicked, wicked agenda.  Yes, the ending is a little flat- resorting to abstract demon talk and psychedelic colors after all that great intelligence and paranoia.  But it’s damn good in getting there, and I’m not sure why there’s so little fanfare about this one.  I really liked it!

The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism– AKA Castle of the Walking Dead, Blood of the Virgins, and a hundred other dang titles- it’s tough to find much about this 1967 Lee murder fest co-starring Lex Barker (Tarzan) and Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice).  It’s a pity because whatever you call it, this one’s not bad at all.  Sure, it looks and sounds poor- again thanks to the lack of proper love and restoration- but the production values are actually pretty period piece good.  The costumes and décor are colorful, the locations authentic looking, the atmosphere scary, the dungeons dark and frightening.  Although I must say, the credited inspiration from The Pit and the Pendulum doesn’t come until quite late in the film, and some of the cutesy sixties music may seem out of place to audiences enjoying the spooky or mature camp.  Sir Christopher’s role is unfortunately small, but damn memorable and gruesomely well played.  While it can be found on several horror double bills in multiple languages and cuts, sadly, I’m not really sure what’s going on with all these cheapy video editions and versions here.  Bottom line; catch a viewing of this one anytime you can.

26 October 2011

Hammer, More Than Just Horror

Hammer Horror Gems and More
By Kristin Battestella

While mostly known for its vast array of horror and mayhem movies, in its day, Hammer Films produced quite a good dose of vampires, adventure, and fantasy, too.  Here’s a quick helping of some of the Brit Studio’s fun and scares.

Countess Dracula – Ingrid Pitt (The House That Dripped Blood) and Leslie-Ann Down (North and South) lead a fun supporting cast in this 1971 Hammer juicy recounting the bloody derangement of Elisabeth Bathory.  The time and place is a little Hungarian unspecific, but the accents are real for once- as opposed to the usual tendency to over-Anglicize.  However, I am surprised Pitt was dubbed. It’s a very good voice job, but I can’t believe her own accent wasn’t good enough.  The costumes are also simply glorious, and candlelit interiors and period touches set the tone perfectly.  There’s great castle facades, stone workings and secret passageways, winding stairs, lovely ironwork, a sweet looking castle library, and plenty of boobs, blood, and kinky.  Whew! This must have been shocking at the time, but now the naughty is just right in adding twists and scares.  Director Peter Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula) keeps things similar to other Hammer vamps but also finds something unique among those same old confoundedly resurrected and silent Draculas.  A few viewers might not like the non-all out horrorfest expected, but the historical elements and gothic feelings are bloody good fun.

The Mummy (1959) – Hammer perennials Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee team again for this well paced if somewhat familiar plot. Though he looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon in some scenes and is styled more like a Bond henchman doing the evil deeds of late Victorian villain George Pastell (also of The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb); Lee’s reanimated and mummified priest Kharis is dang menacing but no less tragic in his violence and lost love. His overbearing stature works wonders against the intelligent and suave archaeology gentleman Cushing- whether he’s in the dirty wraps or decked out in great Egyptian costumes, color, and brightness.  The sets, however, could use some work, as the exteriors are a bit, well, plastic looking instead of mighty stonework monolith.  Yvonne Furneaux (Repulsion) is also a lovely but slightly lightweight façade that’s a little out of place with Cushing’s take action and dueling wit.  Fortunately, the musical charms accent the Egyptian suspense and cap off the scares beautifully. Toss in some humor and great fun and this version equals total entertainment.

She (1965) – Ex-soldiers John Richardson (One Million Years B.C.) and Peter Cushing leave 1918 Palestine in search of the lost city of Kuma- ruled by the titular Ursula Andress (Dr. No) and her high priest Christopher Lee.  Meow! Though the pre-history adventure angles may seem as if Hammer is branching too far from its Horror bests, this one is a fun and entertaining desert romp. Perhaps Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who) as Cushing’s batman is sometimes a little too Brit servant humor and some of the jokes might be lost on today’s younger viewers.  The speaking volume is also soft against the music and some of the tribal elements are stereotypical of both the sixties and the onscreen post- Great War attitudes. Otherwise, the sets are fun, the ladies juicy, and the action well paced.  What’s not to like?

The Vampire Lovers –Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing star in Hammer’s kinky 1970 adaptation of Carmilla, and this one all but has it all!  It doesn’t look dated one bit, is still very well paced, and keeps up the entertainment through out.  Very nice fog and castle moods, early 19th century frocks and wispy nightgowns, sparkling candelabras and jewelry- it all sets the tone for plenty of blood, fangs, bites, and lots and lots of boobs.  The askew, black and white dreamlike photography and scary outdoor locations set off the definite lesbian juiciness, but fans of girl on girl vampire action and those of straight horror can both enjoy alike. The virginal Madeline Smith (Live and Let Die) ups the vampire prey, Kate O’Mara (Dynasty) is also darkly enchanting, and Pippa Steele (of the follow up Lust for a Vampire) is a real screamer!  Okay, the opening narration is a bit much and the music is kind of loud but really, no quibbles here. Now if only the two sequels were readily available stateside!

The Viking Queen –This 1967 ancient Britain yarn starring Don Murray (Bus Stop) and Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) suffers a touch from its lack of notable Hammer stars- though priest Donald Houston (The 300 Spartans) is twisted fun. Fortunately, the scenery is also lovely, and all the chariots and gear are glorious. Even with the sweet costuming and colors, there’s a faded or grainy photography that makes the battle action –though small scale- quite authentic looking. We’re closer in plot to Boadicea than Vikings, yes, but there’s plenty of whipping and pillaging to make up the difference.  The star crossed Druid versus Roman love and war also comes across honestly, and the debate and action are well paced.  Some will find this bad and dried up, I’m sure, and perhaps this one could have been bigger and better, indeed.  For those who like a little sword and sandal action of old, we have an entertaining little piece from director Don Chaffey (Jason and the Argonauts) that feels more like an Ode to DeMille than the expected Hammer guts and glory.  Who knew?

24 October 2011

Boris Karloff Bodaciousness!

Bow to Boris Karloff’s Greatness!
By Kristin Battestella

Forget today’s slice and dice horror!  Educate you and yours on the man who put the fear into early frightfest filmmaking: Karloff!

Black Sabbath –Our Man of the Hour hosts this 1963 AIP/Italian trilogy production also starring Mark Damon (House of Usher) and Michele Mercier (Angelique, the Marquise of the Angels). ‘A Drop of Water’ leads off the English version here with lovely period charm and freaky questions regarding fright, spiritualism, and the moments immediately before and after death. Seriously, one should never, ever steal from the dearly departed! The great mix of solitary scares, what you don’t see approaching, and the shocker smoke and mirrors effects seal the deal.  Hot damn, it got me! Plot two ‘The Telephone’ shines with the then contemporary sixties goodness and lots of suspense.  There’s a sexy anticipation, a voyeuristic vibe, and predatory fear adding to the juice. Karloff’s introduction sequences are a lot of fun, too- serious and latently psychedelic in style but humorous at the same time. In his final story, a Russian vampire tale called ‘The Wurdalak’, all the mood, culture, and creepy come across wonderfully.  The K’s makeup and approach is so angry and suspicious, even disturbing as familial angles come into play. Completists may go for the alternate Italian version for the full effect of director Mario Bava’s (Black Sunday) vision, but despite studio interference and changes that might upset purists; the scares are loud and clear here. 

Die, Monster, Die! – A totally cool, creepy, labyrinthine mansion and décor goes a long way in this 1965 H.P. Lovecraft adaptation.  All the macabre we expect is here plus creative wheelchair accessibilities and mad scientist laboratory dangers to help in Our Man Karloff’s looking slightly sinister but no less spiffy with that white mustache.  BK is a badass and strong but desperate patriarch both in spite of and thanks to that classic red velvet wheelchair accenting his performance.  Though Nick Adams (Rebel without a Cause) and Suzan Farmer (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) feel a little dime a dozen, Freda Jackson (The Brides of Dracula) is quite twisted I must say- along with some good shocker moments, great screams, and scary sounds, too. And the killer plants- we can’t forget those fun science fiction speculations! Even if some of the effects are weak for the finale, this is an entertaining little 75 minutes indeed.

Frankenstein – James Whale (The Invisible Man) provides great direction in this streamlined 1931 adaption. Yes, it differs from Mary Shelley’s book greatly, but the gist of the sympathy remains thanks to beautiful statements of good and evil, life and death, and God and consequences. Big K is wonderful as the simple and abused, meaning well but no less deadly monster creation of Colin Clive (Jane Eyre, Mad Love) - who’s also juicy and maniacal with these pre-code taboos.  Though some of the supporting scenes may seem stilted, Dwight Frye (Dracula) is always a delight to watch.  There are also nice camera tricks, smart photography cheats, and a great lack of music, too. Naturally, this is really because sound was so new at the time, but the onscreen mad lab sparks and angry mob shouts work perfectly as is. However, I do have to say, the period settings and ladies’ stylings of these early films are always weird.  Are we in the stuffy 19th century with be-bobbed flapper chicks in stoles?  Fortunately, at only 70 minutes, the beloved fan or virgin viewer can easily find time for this one.  Go ahead and say it, “It’s alive!”

The Ghoul – Sometimes it’s a little tough to see in this 1933 Egyptology gone amok show thanks to such old film values; the photography is just too dark and the sound too poor in some spots. The supporting cast is also too thirties archetypes, and if you don’t like the humor of the chase at hand, all this thieving run around will get confusing. There also isn’t as much Karloff as I would like, but his scary resurrection and vengeful pursuits are a lot of fun for completist fans. The music here is also scary and suspenseful, adding a nice and creepy element to The K’s onscreen mayhem- and the plot doesn’t resort to the traditional mummy tales we expect either. No, this one isn’t perfect, but it’s worth the hour plus look if only for it’s previously lost history.  The CGI riff raff of today need a reminder that there are so many unpreserved shows, disappeared films, and great lost performances that we will never get to see! Sniff.

The Mask of Fu Manchu – Yes, this 1932 Orient adventure co-starring Myrna Loy (The Thin Man) is at best quite stereotypical and at worse downright offensive and demeaning in its Asian portrayals. Unfortunately, that is the very nature of this franchise, and the women here are mishandled as well.  However, once you are passed the ills, there’s plenty of fun and action here as Karloff dons the ‘stache for what is probably the most famous Fu Manchu production.  There’s preposterous torture, some naughty, and a lot of camp.  Not everyone will like this film, but K fans and fans of the serials will enjoy.

The Mummy – Karloff, Karloff, Karloff!  The drawn, crusty, and dry opening makeup and mummification designs looks dynamite- accenting OMK’s tall, imposing, sullen, and stilted presence. His silent up close shots are indeed hypnotic and powerful- even if modern audiences might find this one more fanciful fantasy than truly frightful.  Even though there is some tell, not shown off-screen action, the plot is well paced, with nice dialogue and support from Zita Johann (Tiger Shark) and Edward Van Sloan (Dracula).  Some of the 1932 style or mannerisms, foreign languages, and customs of the time might be strange to us now, but the mysteries and iconography of Ancient Egypt look delightful. An action packed pseudo silent styled flashback also works wonders. The CGI spoiled may of course find things here slow and dated compared to the 1999 The Mummy, but seeing a film done when Egyptology was arguably at its height allows a little more of all that onscreen glamour and gold to shine through.  Actually, I am usually completely against it, but I’d love to see this in color- at least once anyway. Sweetness!

18 October 2011

More Black and White Classic Horror

And Yet More Classic Horror. Again.
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, I’m list crazy this October, but let me ask you this: Is there anything like a public domain scary surprise or a classic black and white thriller to fill a lonely decrepit autumn night? I think not.

A Bucket of Blood – Some of the 1959 beatnik goods in director Roger Corman’s (House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum) low budget satirical creepy are tough to hear thanks to uneven sound, soft dialogue, and a loud but sweet and swanky jazz score.  Yes, it’s slow to open and doesn’t look very good, but we feel for Dick Miller’s (Gremlins, Fame) outcasted Walter Paisley as he resorts to deadly lengths for his sculpting and artistic acclaim. Even if the whippersnappers of today probably don’t know what the Beatnik movement was all about or why Corman’s commentary is meant to be funny, at just over an hour, this freaky and bemusing oddity is worth a look for young horror fans or Corman aficionados.

Carnival of Souls – Sometimes black and white filmmaking seriously adds to the visuals and atmosphere of a movie- and such is the case here. Though there are some fun 1962 cars and nostalgia to start, the suddenly somber opening and eerie credits establish the creepy; and writer, director, producer and star Herk Harvey provides some very disturbing appearances whilst waxing philosophical on isolation, loneliness, claustrophobia, and spiritual debates. Spooky sheers and askew reflections make for great jumps and scares and build the paranoia and fear for Candace Hilligoss (The Curse of the Living Corpse) – which may or may not be all in her mind. Naturally, there’s something kinky afoot, too- such a wild, demented circus and merry go round feelings intimately clashing with the safe, white cathedrals! I did suspect the end, but like a supersized Twilight Zone episode, it’s still great in getting there, and damn freaky!

Dead of Night – This 1945 anthology is a little too pip pip cheerio dated to open its framing story, and the first two tales of deadly premonition and ghostly happenstance are a little short and more merely bizarre or déjà vu than scary. However, tale three chronicles an askew mirror with a suspenseful juice the likes of Tales from the Crypt.  The ghostly golfer switcharoo of plot four is played more for the laughs of Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne (The Lady Vanishes), but in such an early compilation film, I suppose some levity was needed.  Even if it is a little familiar now thanks to other ventriloquist horror, Michael Redgrave’s (Mourning Becomes Electra) final tale is very well played paranoia and twistedness.  Perhaps contemporary audiences won’t find the scary here because we’ve had so many other warped anthology shows, but this one is still dang entertaining.  No effects or sex and gore shockers needed; its all done with performance and suggestion- and the conclusion definitely leaves the audience thinking on the kicker.

Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Oscar winner Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Desperate Hours) can do no wrong in this 1932 adaptation of Stevenson’s quick and spooky read.  Wow, March is so young and handsome as the gentlemanly Jekyll but also so utterly creepy looking as Hyde.  The monstrous change is even more scary thanks to the science of the villainy, the element of truth in the dual nature, and the dark half examinations of the human soul we all share.  Hyde may be the straight encapsulation of evil, but isn’t Jekyll just as bad because he has the sought to extract the vile in the first place?  Oh the tormented meat and performance here! The lovely Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp, The Heiress) adds a little pre-code kinky, too, and a great use of basic camera techniques and mirror tricks also adds a visual and moody parallel layer. The subtle and simplistic but smart filmmaking here seems a lost art today- but dang, that organ music is eerie, and gosh, I want those candelabras!

The Invisible Man – This chilling 1933 classic from director James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein) has all the obsessive and murderous madman science from H.G. Wells’ novel and more.  Claude Rains (Casablanca) is dynamite, along with Gloria Stuart (Titanic), Henry Travers (It’s a Wonderful Life), Una O’Connor (Witness for the Prosecution), and an equally fun supporting cast.  You have to admit, even in such a bent tale, it is amusing to see these thirties folks talking to thin air and getting hysterical over objects moving by themselves! The black and white photography looks perfectly crisp, and the silver palette helps to hide any of the special effects glitches our modern eyes may spot.  But the cutting edge for the time matte and screen and wire work graphics still look damn good, too. The approach and pursuit of the eponymous villain is contemporarily believable, and it’s all just so good and weird thanks largely to that suave talking but not quite there Rains.  Truly, a must see- and read, for that matter, too. But sigh, a remake is on the horizon!

The Wolf Man – Claude Rains is at it again in this 1941 Universal essential- along with his onscreen son Lon Chaney, Jr. (Of Mice and Men) as Larry Talbot.  So what if the then exceptional werewolf makeup and transitional transformations might not be up to snuff for today’s CGI spoiled.  Get over it.  You can’t be a werewolf fan without loving this granddaddy of lycan establishment- dated and stereotypical though it may be. All the staples needed are here in beautifully sharp black and white, with lots of fog and atmosphere capping off the monster pursuits. The agony and titular torment of the players carries the hour-plus time swiftly, and fun performances from Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair) set off the blooming wolfsbane wonderfully.

13 October 2011

80s Horror and Science Fiction Fears

80s Horrors and Scares Again
By Kristin Battestella

Mirror mirror on the wall, I am a Garbage Pail Kids horror fiend eighties baby after all.

Galaxy of Terror –  This 1981 SF freaky produced by Roger Corman (The Masque of the Red Death) has some fine scary and gory zooms, nice jump out moments, a little bit of fantasy, and some funny tossed in for good measure. The space scenery and creepy ship effects look good, especially decent if you think about how much worse and uber low budget it could have been. Okay, so it’s too dark in some spots, the eighties music is too loud, and the bad laser effects give me a headache. It’s tough to tell who is forgettable who beyond Erin Moran (Happy Days) and Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street), the controls look like Simon, and the creature effects are quite the hokey.  Having said all that, the creepy and freaky works!  Contemporary audiences might not like the rapacious nasties, psychological fears, and disturbing body horror if they haven’t seen this one before, but it still works damn fine and better than predictable modern slashers.

My Bloody Valentine – There’s more forgettable 1981 interchangeable hokey hicks here- but this time all the juicy gore, unique deaths, and claustrophobic dangers are in a great labyrinthine mine inhabited by a pickaxe wielding killer.  The re-inserted deadly details are shocking and sweet, with interesting or askew camerawork, kink, and mystery. However, the scenes are unrestored and noticeably out of place- making a tough viewing for some audiences who expect a bit more polish on blu-ray.  Naturally due to the titular Valentine plot twists, I’m not so sure this is a good October or Halloween-esque film.  Then again, we could all use a little freaky in our February, for sure. I must say I did predict the killer’s identity before the finale, but it was dang entertaining in getting there nonetheless.

Near Dark – Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) also co-wrote this cult cowboy-esque and unique 1987 vampire tale starring Adrian Pasdar (Heroes), Jenny Wright (St. Elmo’s Fire), Bill Paxton (Aliens), Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Jenette Goldstein (Aliens), and Joshua John Miller (he’s the kid brother in Teen Witch!). Granted the Southern eighties style may seem dated or too country to some. However, this is quite the stylized show, with a serious look at nomadic vampire rites of passage and dangerous family drama.  There’s even room for humor, sardonic fun, and a little romance, too.  Traditional vampire bits are here- though in unexpected ways- and there is plenty of blood, gruesome, fire, and deaths. Yet this isn’t all gore and bite juice for the sake of it, rather most of the meat is handled by twisted performance alone.  It’s subtle, sexy, and the blu-ray looks great.

Swamp Thing – There’s a great story here from the DC Comics plots- all kinds of kinky, monster innuendo, power debates, sociological statements, and demented science.  I do, however, expect a little more polish from director Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), as the photography and editing presentation hampers this most. Despite the serious relationships onscreen, numerous and disjointed fade ins or weird slide transitions make this feel like a series of action incidents rather than a cohesive tale. Thankfully, the swampy water and South Carolina locations work wonderfully, and Adrienne Barbeau (The Fog), Ray Wise (Twin Peaks), and the late Dick Durock (also of the Swamp Thing TV series) are a lot of fun. Though he appears to have never been in anything else, Reggie Batts is also a scene-stealing treat as the sarcastic Jude. We can believe Barbeau as the smart, sexy woman who can handle herself, as well- just that dang 1982 mini afro mullet combo hair does not work. Louis Jourdan (Octopussy) is also mustache twisting villainy sweet, even if the monster make-up and the action finale is quite hokey.  Fortunately, the uncut version is currently available on Netflix’s Instant Watch, complete with boobs a plenty.  And really, I’m so, so tired of forthcoming 3D remakes!

The Thing – Director John Carpenter (Halloween, Christine) mixes alien fears, scary isolation, dangerous locations, miscommunications, mistrust, suspicion, and more in this 1982 science fiction freaky.  In some of the hectic scenes, it may be tough to tell who is who in the all-male cast, yes. But stars Kurt Russell (Escape from New York), Keith David (Platoon), and Wilfred Brimley (Cocoon, or rather, The Quaker Oats Guy) build all the paranoia necessary. Everyone is afraid of not just the titular menacing getting in, but also of letting it out into the populated world- which is exactly what it wants. Maybe some of the effects are corny today, but the gore also looks gruesome good whilst also being realistic or bizarrely well thought.  Jumps and scares, of the time restrictions, little technology to help, and a jury-rigged compound add to the horror, too. And again, I’m not interested in the remake. Why, oh why, oh why would anyone be?

08 October 2011

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

The Phantom of the Opera Can’t Go Wrong
By Kristin Battestella

This 1943 universal color spectacle adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s tale is probably the one I remember most from being a kid- and it was the first with which I introduced my niece.  Though a little of its time, this rousing adaptation is still delightful.

After being dismissed from the Paris Opera and unable to sell his musical works, Erique Claudin (Claude Rains) murders the music publisher and takes to the bowels of the Paris Opera House.  From there he terrorizes opera patrons, earns his ghostly nickname from the staff, and threatens the lives of the cast unless the beautiful understudy Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) is allowed to sing.  Christine, however, is unaware of The Phantom’s obsession with her, as she is already torn between the dashing opera lead Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and Inspector Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier). 

The action, tragedy, and suspense from director Arthur Lubin (The Incredible Mr. Limpet) and Oscar nominated screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein (Laura) are well paced and no less thrilling, but the format here does stray from the standard Universal Horror monster greatness we expect.  Is it horror per se? No.  And yet despite the heavy musical content with full opera numbers, you can’t really classify our tale as a musical either.  This may sound negative, but I like this in between balance, I really do. This is a serious music film with creepy undertones and even kinky subtext.  Extra understudy rivalries and witty competing men add to the great suspenseful crescendos in both the onscreen operas and the climatic action.  This isn’t simply a remake of the silent version- some of the sets may be the same but this take is a twist all its own. Yes, perhaps the mask reveal is not as famous as the 1925 Phantom of the Opera’s silent cinematic moment- but it is still a whopper nonetheless.  Even knowing what is to happen, I’m still entertained every time.  I mean, that chandelier!

Susanna Foster (Star Spangled Rhythm) as would be diva Christine DuBois is perhaps not the gorgeous as we traditionally think of beauty today, but she’s still lovely nonetheless. Not one, but three men are enamored with her- and we believe it through Foster’s old-fashioned on screen presence, operatic weight, classy delivery, and great strength against all these men telling her the music is everything and there’s no need for a normal life. Not all viewers today might like or even be able to tolerate her high notes, but Christine’s innocence and charming nightingale win out. She is naive and on the cusp of something great and we understand why The Phantom wishes to protect and pedestal her thanks largely in part to Christine’s sympathy and pity for him.  Four time Oscar nominee Claude Rains (Notorious, Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) is of course, so sad to start- dismissed from the company, unable to publish his compositions, and penniless thanks to his sponsorship of Christine. Claudin’s down on his luck and we can certainly relate to him now more than ever, but even so, he’s no less pathetic in his multi-layered, latent, and implied obsessions with Christine.  Even as things turn murderous, we empathize with the disfigurement that pushed Claudin over the edge.  He’s just misunderstood, really!  Those angry mobs pursuing The Phantom made him snap! It’s twisted, and stalkerishly endearing; there’s no vision but Christine’s success nor any length to get it.

Stage and voice phenom of the day Nelson Eddy is without his usual Sweethearts and Rose Marie co-star Jeanette MacDonald for The Phantom of the Opera, but he and fellow suitor Edgar Barrier (The Pride of the Yankees) create a fine romantic layer and love triangle to keep things interesting for Christine DuBois. Both suave and debonair in their professions, the guys also add some needed humor and subtext to balance the darker sequences of the film. However, some of the fun is also a little annoying- again especially in comparing what we normally expect from a Universal Horror film.  Honestly, I find The Phantom much more interesting, for we do get to see a little more of him without Christine.  Unfortunately, Anatole and Raoul are a little one dimensional and underdeveloped since we only see them in friendly battle for their lady.  Eddy and Barrier are by no means bad, but they deserved more with which to work.

Thankfully, the art decoration, set décor, fashions, costumes, and Technicolor spectacle of The Phantom of the Opera are just wonderful.  The Oscar winning art design is indeed colorful and bright- today we seem to always do period films in drab, muted big satins and layers.  The men all look great- not a lot of pups today can pull of a cape, Victorian epaulettes, or Opera extras.  Yes, the style is a little too Victorian or more English in tone- everyone has French names but nobody speaks with French accents- and some may find those similar names or the sporadic French flair confusing without subtitles.  Parisian style, however, also comes through in the period décor and quintessentially French tale: candlelight, gas lamps, cigars, the operatic compositions themselves.  The scoring onscreen and off is wonderful of course, from the biggest notes to the softest, bittersweet strings.  I’m not really sure if the supporting cast did their own vocals or instruments playing, but so what? Again, that up there singing might be too dated for some contemporary audiences, but it is an opera after all.

In addition to those subtitles, the DVD has a sweet hour-long retrospective about The Phantom of the Opera in all its film incarnations and a companion audio commentary.  Fans of the tale in any variety have already tuned in to this 1943 version of course, but any and all classics fans, music on film connoisseurs, or the opera obsessed can certainly give this 90 minute spin a viewing.   It’s entertaining and simple enough for younger audiences without loosing the zest and thrills of other adaptations and is perfect for a classroom comparison, too. Spend some time with The Phantom of this 1943 Opera tonight.

04 October 2011

Dark Shadows: Collection 12

Dark Shadows Collection 12 Packs a Whallop!
By Kristin Battestella

October is here! So naturally, I’m neck deep into more Dark Shadows viewing.  Collection 12 returns to 1796, increases the Victorian hauntings, tosses in tormented werewolves, and still provides great spooky and suspense.

Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) suspects Victoria Winters (Carolyn Groves) needs his help in the past, and returns to 1796 to confront the witch Angelique (Lara Parker) while Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) and handyman Willie Loomis (John Karlen) fear for Barnabas’ return to vampirism.  David Collins (David Henesy) and Amy Jennings (Denise Nickerson), meanwhile, are becoming more and more possessed by the ghosts of Quentin Collins (David Selby) and Beth Chavez (Terry Crawford)- despite the help of governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and Professor Elliot Stokes (Thayer David).  Unfortunately, Chris Jennings (Don Briscoe) is also of little help to his sister, as he is struggling to hide his werewolf secret from Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett).  Carolyn, however, can’t accept the death of her mother Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) and insists she has been buried alive. 

Even with star Joan Bennett’s written in ‘buried alive’ break, these 40 episodes ending 1968 and steamrolling into 1969 pack a lot! The ongoing hauntings of Quentin Collins and Beth Chavez take a bit of a backseat early on here so the final wrap can happen with Victoria Winters and Peter Bradford’s return to 1796. Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers) is also finally exited off to Wyncliff Sanitarium as part of the meandering werewolf storyline.  On its own, Chris Jennings’ werewolf torment might be a good plot.  Unfortunately, it’s secondary to the ghosts for the first two discs of Collection 12 and can be over the top with lots of screaming and wolfy flipping out.  Naturally, soap viewers understand the need to rotate plots and keep alternating foils brewing.  However, the werewolf plot gets dumped for the hauntings, which are in turn dumped for the 1796 revisit.  It can be confusing to newcomers or perhaps even annoying when several episodes pass without your favorite players. Having said that, Collection 12 actually feels like a great introduction set.   Yes, we are jumping in media res with an apparently deceased matriarch, two ghostly foils, and maniacal werewolf plots; but it’s early enough into these going forward plans to enjoy the brewing mystery and delight in the twists of the big 1897 time travel and how all the storylines will come together in Collection 13. Almost every episode here has a great, climaxing ending keeping audiences old and new biting their nails- especially for the conclusion of each disc. The editing, music, and suspense are perfect to longtime viewers who know what is to happen and still superior to today’s unimaginative slice and dice horror.  

The 1796 flashback narrated by Jonathan Frid is also a nice touch before the 18th century reprisal and rescue of Victoria Winters.  Though paired down to its sweet climax, it’s lovely to see the players done up again in their 18th century personas.  Seeing that vengeful vampire Barnabas conflicted with his future self is treat- and it’s always fun to see Lara Parker in her original Angelique incarnation, too. 1796 looks sweet indeed, but Carolyn Groves is eh at best and at worst no Alexandra Moltke.  The intensity and suspense in the 1796 history works because we want Barnabas to succeed in his time traveling mission, not because we really like the ho-hum Vicky.  And man, Barnabas ends up in charge of Collinwood just as everything goes awry!  He’s not bad as head of the 1969 house, but his obsession with Victoria Winters supersedes all to open Collection 12. Frid’s wonderful as the disturbed man in love, and the irony and understanding of the ex-vamp pursuing the current wolfy doesn’t escape Barnabas.  Poor Barnabas, with a past like his and he’s stuck dealing with one supernatural problem after another! Grayson Hall is of course not only a fun Natalie du Pres in 1796, but Julia Hoffman is the she-doctor of all trades once again. Brandy for a werewolf attack! And yet we believe Julia’s logic even in the fantastic thanks to her no nonsense intelligence and unrequited attention for Barnabas.  Thayer David is also lovely as both Professor Stokes- so serious in the unexplained- and as compassionate 1796 servant Ben Stokes. The Professor’s always ready with the psychics and the séances, so occultly badass without ever being told the full extend of the demented at Collinwood.

David Henesy and Denise Nickerson are also very entertaining to watch as the increasingly disturbed David Collins and Amy Jennings. Though it sounds strange, it is a joy seeing these kids both confused and scared by the paranormal and yet also the wicked cohorts of poltergeists.  We fear for them entering the unknown while at the same time becoming more and more creeped out as their possession reaches its pinnacle. Kathryn Leigh Scott’s golly gee naïveté as Maggie Evans also works here as the unaware replacement for a favored governess in a spooky house.  Naturally, David Selby earns a great ghostly reveal on Collection 12 Disc 2. Though by this set it’s almost commonplace now to have Quentin as a troublesome behind the scenes figure; he is a silent, of the past, menacing imposition wherever he goes and to whomever he frighteningly appears.  Terry Crawford, however, looks a little too aristocratic to be the ghostly servant Beth Chavez with her silent but spooky, all lacy white stature! Her twists are dynamite for those who don’t know the true connections between the ghost and werewolf storylines just yet, and I think a dream sequence Beth earns speaking rights before the ghost of Quentin.  But oh his laughter! That music!

Keeping it real against the ghostly menace is the always fanatical Clarice Blackburn as Mrs. Johnson.  It’s amazing she’s survived in this house as long as she has!  Louis Edmunds doesn’t appear much in Collection 12, but his heartbroken Joshua in the 1796 flashback is as perfect as his ever disbelieving Roger Collins.  It’s wonderful how his usual scoff at the bizarre of Collinwood suddenly changes tunes. Nancy Barrett is also lovely as both a Carolyn in mourning and as the potential romance for Chris Jennings.  They make a cute couple- unlike some other very odd Dark Shadows pairings.  Don Briscoe plays Jennings well- of course we feel for the tormented nice guy who just happens to harbor an evil secret. Stuntman Alex Stevens is also a lot of fun as Jennings’ action werewolf alter ego.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m no fan of Roger Davis in any of his incarnations.  Unfortunately, in Collection 12 his Peter Bradford and Ned Stuart OTT selves both hold up the ongoing Quentin plots. Oh, it’s just such a big yawner that slows everything dooowwwn because Stuart has to spend half his time assuring people he isn’t Jeff Clark! Thankfully, Joan Bennett’s return for Disc 2 lies amid some great wolfy intensity and peril.  Guest player Abe Vigoda as aged silversmith Ezra Braithwaite also helps put an awesome, thrilling, even cinematic end to Disc 3.  As we near Episodes 690-691, everything finally comes to the hilt and it’s so, so sweet. 

Despite those problematic camera discolorings, jumping tapes, and random mike and camera appearances, Collinwood looks great!  The return to 1796 costumes are wonderful, and even the sixties styles look sweet.  Amy’s little clothes are really cute- although I don’t know about David’s sweaters! Jonathan Frid, of course, looks sharp in any era, and the Victorian hints of frocks and lace add an extra touch of period panache.  Julia Hoffman’s suits are also of the time professional yet still feminine and classy for today as well.  The candles, sound effects, séances, cemeteries, and smoke and mirrors treats do wonders for atmosphere and mood-even with Styrofoam tombstones, plastic trees, and hokey wolf makeup. Oh, those blue sheets and that dang afghan!  Of course, the sound between the screams, music, and poor microphones can be a little uneven, and Episode 683 is a black and white kinescope copy that somehow adds to the creepy atmosphere with its black edges and even freakier visual effects.

Longtime fans will delight in the extra interviews with Jonathan Frid and Denise Nickerson, but new fans can also jump in for the myriad of macabre action on Collection 12.  Super youngins’ might be scared or impressionable, yes.  However, those looking for more than today’s tame vamps can find whatever horror their looking for here.  Dark Shadows is a massive show to get into, yes, but the individual Collection Sets are packaged just right for quick pick and choose viewing.  Return to Collinwood again with Collection 12 this October or anytime of year.