30 November 2011

A Second Helping of Christmas Vinyl

Another Helping of Christmas Vinyl!
By Kristin Battestella

Get ready for more snap, crackle, and pop from yesteryear!  Here are this holiday season’s tips on which records to treasure or thrift hunt for in your pursuit of yuletide nostalgia and revelry.

George Beverly Shea Hark the Herald Angels Sing – The titular carol opens this 1964 Christian set with bold, robust nostalgia and then some.  Largely filled with lovely, somber, and lesser known or not often seen carols or birth hymns such as Joyously Sang the Choirs, That Beautiful Name, Have You Ever Seen the Star, Dear Little Stranger, Shadows So Softly Enfold Thee, and He Became Poor among others; the holiday tunes here are obviously not for those exclusively celebrating a secular season. The overall album is also quite short, with only the standard verses of one or two famous carols and one full Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee rendition. Along with Christmas Hymns George Beverly Shea, the tracks here have survived as George Beverly Shea Christmas Joy and A George Beverly Shea Christmas, both available on CD or MP3 download.  Regardless of format, for those looking for traditional church bound holiday, Bev is tough to beat.  

John Lanchbery Conducts Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker – This 1982 two record set is one in a series by Lanchbery and The Philharmonia Orchestra along with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.  The LPs also include a booklet on the music, the man, and the ballets all in a pretty and shiny red box, making this album look just as much a part of the season as the tunes from this December dance definitive.  Though this is a complete production spread over four sides, the music seems short somehow or goes by too quickly- perhaps because we so often associate The Nutcracker with big Baryshnikov ballets, varying family film adaptations, or  lengthy theater performances.  Even so, the instantly recognizable Overture and March, the Waltz of the Snowflakes, Kingdom of Sweets and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Waltz of the Flowers are all here for plenty of ingrained but pleasing sounds of the season.  This edition, or really any Nutcracker tunes you can accumulate, is the perfect backdrop for either casual dinners, formal parties, or a relaxing night fireside.

Joyous Christmas Volume 4 – I remember having several copies of this LP from the Beneficial and Columbia Records series, which is a very pleasant background album to play over and over again- which we did, repeatedly. The eponymously rousing Joy to the World leads off a seasonably round set of traditional arrangements such as Silent Night, Adeste Fideles, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and The Nutcracker mixed with more instrumentals festivities like Jingle Bells and Toyland.  We can also boast some special guest vocalists, from Doris Day’s White Christmas to The First Noel by Nelson Eddy and Johnny Cash’s Little Drummer Boy amid a solid God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen selection and samples from Messiah. Though it’s easy to find these tunes individually nowadays, the vinyl seems fairly common and easy to find second hand.  Of course, you could end up with something scratchy and flat, but that what I call ‘fireside’ sound is what appeals to me.

Luciano Pavarotti O Holy Night – You don’t have to be an opera fan to appreciate this long-winded 1976 collection of bellowing spiritual sweeps like Ave Maria, Panis Angelicus, and the titular high note- but it certainly helps!  Some of the selections are fairly long at over 8 minutes, and the heavy styles might be too headache inducing for a family dinner, but lyrics and liner notes are included too help budding fans follow along- even if we can’t quite sing along! With Pieta Signore, Gesu Bambino, and Adeste Fideles, Pavarotti creates a culturally classy album of global renditions as only he can. And hey, if you want to pick and choose your windpipes or go for even more tenor magic, the set is available for download or in a Special Deluxe CD edition with bonus tracks.

A Very Merry Christmas Volume 5  Perry Como’s Home for the Holidays starts off this 1971 LP in quintessential form, and the holiday hits continue with the equally ever-December-present Boston Pops Sleigh Ride, Harry Belafonte’s Christmas is Coming, and more.  Traditional inspirations like Mario Lanza’s rendition of O Holy Night, John Gary’s touching Sweet Little Jesus Boy, and the Robert Shaw Chorale O Little Town of Bethlehem/The First Noel medley balance the reverence as Henry Mancini does Rudolph and Frosty for the kids.  The Ballad of the Christmas Donkey by Ed Ames, Santa Claus is Coming to Town via Eddy Arnold, and a big Perry We Wish You a Merry Christmas finale keep up the seasonal pace, too. Naturally, these versions are oft available elsewhere on disc or as individual downloads, and this Very Merry Christmas record series from RCA for Grants Stores is a little more junk shop elusive than other sets like Goodyear’s Great Songs of Christmas. Nevertheless, if you could only have one record with all the classics for every aspect of the season all in one place, this would be it.

Again, the records here might be tough to find, and digital options or exact contemporary correlations aren’t always available.  Despite the vinyl vintage ebbs and flows or record resurges in popularity where collectors both reissue and overprice or shatter, Frisbee or otherwise trash; we need to remember to treasure the music of Christmas past.  Nay, it is our duty to preserve the flat hisses, bent tone, moldy art, and warped plastic of the musical yule’s of yore for future generations!

A Record Collecting Review

A Few Notes on Vinyl Shopping and Record Collecting
By Kristin Battestella

In my quest for information on cataloging my record collections and reviewing Christmas sets, I’ve seen several sites online that offer records on CD sales or digital classic Christmas albums.  While some are certainly wonderful sellers and totally legitimate, others might be quite the scam, so beware.  Here are a few tips on what to look for when shopping online for LPs on CD, going thrift store record hunting, or digitally preserving one’s own vinyl pride and joy... 

A Newer version of this article is featured in the Winter 2016 Issue of Search Magazine


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29 November 2011

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas Still a Frightfesting Good Time
By Kristin Battestella

We watched this original 1974 holiday horror classic this past Halloween as part of our yearly October horror fests. Regardless of the calendar, however, this wintry slasher heavyweight still offers plenty of fright to any festivity.

College roommates Jess (Olivia Hussey), Barb (Margot Kidder), and Phyllis (Andrea Martin) are remaining at their sorority house with Mrs. MacHenry (Marian Waldman) as Christmas is fast approaching.  Amid the drinking, carolers and parties for the kids, the girls receive repeated prank phone calls from someone named Billy. When sorority sister Clare (Lynne Griffin, Wind at My Back) is reported missing by her father (James Edmond), Lieutenant Fuller (John Saxon) and Sergeant Nash (Doug McGrath) investigate the disappearance in connection to the increasingly obscene phone calls. Unfortunately, the police’s suspicions are automatically directed at the girls’ boyfriends Peter (Keir Dullea) and Chris (Art Hindle) as the body count rises.

Well here’s a melancholy holiday viewing for you! Director Bob Clark (A Christmas Story, Porky’s) very smartly uses perspective camera work, shadowed and claustrophobic scenes, sharp angles, and foreboding tracking shots to build scares and sustain the suspense and peril through the well paced picture.  Some contemporary movie makers do use these tricks, but anymore the smoke and mirror effects are more about the sake of using them or for the shock of the effects themselves- and as a result, the scary just isn’t there.  Writer Roy Moore (She Cried Murder) creates drama and character development for another often-underutilized horror layer, too.  Yes, we’re in a sorority house, but its not naked silicone pillow fights or heavy sex scenes as we define sorority naughty today.  Unexpected real life issues and then taboo topics such as abortion, marriage, unplanned pregnancy, and alcoholism are weaved in nicely.  Most of the gore in Black Christmas actually happens off camera or is all talk in nasty phone calls, leaving a lot of the juice, kinky, and disturbed speculations up to the audience. Of course, some of the mystery elements and police investigations will have you screaming at the television, but I like the notion that folks in seventies horror films were unaware of the budding rules of the genre and at worst, act damn stupidly.  Even with these hiccups, this is a finely told, steady thriller that will keep you guessing until the end and then some.

While it doesn’t seem as though she is that prolific an actress, we all seem to know who Olivia Hussey is thanks to Romeo and Juliet- or if you’re really a horrorphile, Psycho IV.  Of course, she is lovely as always here. Even if Jess is a little snotty to start, she’s a likeable and easy to get behind heroine thanks to her honest portrayal of relationship issues- not to mention these crazy holidays and killings happening all at once!  Today, there will be some who might think the boozing Barb is merely Margot Kidder (Superman, The Amityville Horror) just playing herself, but no no no. Kidder looks damn good, sexy, and effortless, and Barb adds both seriousness to Black Christmas with her drinking and levity thanks to her fun and wisecracks.  Likewise, Marian Waldman (Deranged) is a riot as the liquor stashing, cranky old lady who’s supposed to be in charge of this crazy house. Of the boy toys, I have to say Keir Dullea (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Art Hindle (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are nothing that special. Like the wasted Andrea Martin (SCTV), they serve more as assisting foil or red herrings as needed, and one very hokey hockey scene doesn’t even make the cut for me.   It’s not that they weren’t developed or done poorly; just the male plots are dropped aside for the scream queen action.

Thankfully, John Saxon, now of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame, is excellent as the caring cop hoping to provide support and safety for the ladies.  On the job, he technically isn’t helped too much by Doug McGrath’s (Pale Rider) idiot sergeant. However, McGrath provides several critical scenes of incredible wit and total detective foolhardy. It’s not all out Dewey from Scream or full on Scary Movie Doofy spoof, but again, the holiday humor and real world stupidity add more grim entertainment to Black Christmas.  We shouldn’t laugh at the seasonal ignorance, sexual implications, or failed law enforcement, but it is real and freshly handled here in a demented and humorous way. He doesn’t seem to have done much else, but James Edmond as Mr. Harrison is also delightfully well played.  He’s a bit of a prude, a stuffy relic compared to the sorority girls, but we don’t often see the fear and tragedy consequences in horror films.  It’s a nice touch of sympathy that the audience can completely understand, a solid to hold on to as the slasher hysteria rises.

But my gosh does that wallpaper look so bad!  While the seventies long, straight hair and breezy, peasantry costumes look almost medieval revival lovely, the men in huge fur coats and white folks trying on Afros are, however, just…no.   Fortunately, the Christmas décor, I have to say, is near awesome. The big, great old wreaths, that tacky white seventies tree, those big old colored bulbs- an underlying sprinkling of holiday music and carols are also present in unexpected, even disturbing ways. This nostalgia of the sights and sounds of an older Christmas celebration adds heaps of atmosphere.  Not only are there no cell phones, computers, gadgets or crafty but useless holiday themed deaths, but there is also no shop shop shop and bland Xmas obsession. Black Christmas is old fashioned and traditional, even homely to us like grandma’s apple pie. So when the murder and mayhem elements do kick in, it furthers the twistedness of it all. Many folks find the holiday season as the most depressing time of year- all the visual and oratory cheer should have us thinking happy thoughts, right? No, this is a horror movie, without a doubt.  Black Christmas can be watched anytime of year, for sure. It just happens that there are extra scares and spices because this horror movie takes place at Christmas.

You would think more horror films would take place during the holidays. Not perils with winter and snowscapes- we get plenty of those, especially recently it seems- but with the idleness of the season breeding scares or the violation of December sanctities causing terror.  Only one other example immediate comes to mind, and that is the also exceptional “….And All Through the House” segment of the 1972 anthology film Tales from the Crypt.  Perhaps only adults or wiser youths can appreciate the mix of retro holidays and scares, but there’s actually little to deter Black Christmas from any audience.  There are a few vulgarities and drinking innuendos, but today’s tweens and up are probably already aware of all that. Again, the audience suggestion and what you take from the film is paramount here.  The blu-ray is also quite delightful, with features and restored magic.  However, there are no subtitles, which could go a long way in helping hear the exact naughty in Billy’s phone calls. But alas, that might also be the point in not having captions, too.

Even with some plot confusions or character inconsistencies, and doubtless Black Christmas’ conclusion will also anger some viewers, this vintage slasher is unlike any subsequent slice and dice drivelry thanks to its telephone twists and Christmas charisma.  Ring in the season with Black Christmas or get nostalgic any time of year.

(You’ll also notice I didn’t mention the 2006 remake.  Pfft!)

28 November 2011

A Cat People Trio!

Cat People (1942), Cat People (1944), Cat People (1982)!!!
By Kristin Battestella and Leigh Wood

Cough up your hairballs, sit back, and lick your paws for not just one, but three chances at feline mayhem: the 1942 classic Cat People, its 1944 sequel The Curse of the Cat People, and the update of the original Cat People (1982).  Meow!

Lonely and new to America, Serbian fashion designer Irena (Simone Simon) meets Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) at the zoo.  Though they are quickly in love, Irena fears the legend of her people- ancient stories of witches and evil folk who escaped the wrath of Serbian King John by turning into panther like cats.  Despite her hesitancy, Irena and Oliver marry, even though his co-worker Alice (Jane Rudolph) is also in love with Oliver.  Seeing psychiatrist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) doesn’t help Irena overcome her cat obsessions, and she becomes increasingly jealous of Alice.  Will her anger and passion unleash the evil she fears lies dormant within her?

The direction from Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, The Comedy of Terrors) is as near perfect as your going to find in forties horror- that’s forties horror produced by Val Lewton (Bedlam, The Body Snatcher), mind you. Complete with a great psychological debate on fear and belief versus real world facts, the audience still doesn’t believe we’re going to see a woman who becomes a cat despite Irena’s rising suspicions regarding her feline tendencies. Everyone tells her it’s all in her mind, there there Irena needs help.  Why not believe her?  When we do see all the creepy implications thanks to excellent use of shadow, lighting, great locations, and action photography, the suspense builds superbly in what we see, but don’t see, believe, but can’t believe.  This is film noir, right- not horror. But why can’t screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen’s (The Seventh Victim) tale be both? Of course, we know the effects in making things scary will be limited to the film making of the time, but the panther smoke and mirrors and actual cat uses are solid fun. All the suggestion and subterfuge needed is here, creating a highly stylized noir scare feature indeed. Even now, fifty years on when we know what is to happen, we are still surprised by the well-paced femme blend and sympathetic slinky.

Of course, Cat People also owes a lot of its heart to Simone Simon (Ladies in Love) and her wonderful performance. Irena is a lovely, adorable little gal, and we like her a lot. We feel for Irena when she’s afraid of an unseen badness inside her, and we still feel sorry for her when that feline itch rises to the surface.  Likewise, we’ve every reason to also love Jane Randolph (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) as the would be other woman we should hate.  It’s really almost a case of mistaken identity, the nice, good girl who’s bad inside going femme for femme against the bad girl who’s actually pretty good. Alice has also been a long suffering woman with a chance at happiness, and the sympathetic tug of war between the ladies makes for a great layer of friction amid the simply gorgeous costumes they get to wear! What lovely hats, pre war style, and class! The effortless way they handle cigarettes, strut suave with fur coats on their shoulders- the fashion and grace of the ladies adds another level of femininity and feline sexuality without being oversexed, obviously kinky or all out nudity in the way these things are meant to distract from the plotless horror of today.  The onscreen ladies are allowed to keep the sexy and be smart in examining power, feminine wiles, their loves, hidden lust- and it gives the audience choice, interaction, and juice.

Tom Conway (The Falcon’s Brother and George Sanders brother!) is a lot of fun as Dr. Judd, a man of his time who doesn’t believe the ladies’ preposterous evil notions but is drawn to the cat allure nonetheless. He’s the shrink, so we don’t doubt his intelligence or ability to help, but Conway looks very suave, almost too suave to be a doctor with his heart in the right place.  The stylized old school class, proper gloves, top hats, and a convenient cane with a sword go a long way in upping the peril, too. Kent Smith (The Spiral Staircase), however, is a little weak compared to the other players. Sure, he’s just a nice Average Joe and likeable guy, but almost too blandly so.  Oli’s meant to be a man’s man type, but it’s a little tough to believe he’d hold out while married to hot stuff Irena much less carry on an affair but not really an affair affair with Alice.  The focus on the ladies and the cat subterfuge emasculate our man in the middle and create a man of inaction.  It’s not that this is a bad thing; in fact, it’s a role reversal that was probably quite unexpected at the time.

Fortunately, Kent Smith, Jane Rudolph, and Simone Simon all return for Round Two in 1944 with The Curse of the Cat People.  Now that they are married, Oliver and Alice Reed fear for the strange behavior of their six-year-old daughter Amy (Ann Carter).  Amy doesn’t fit in with the other school children and spends her time on animals and imaginary fancies. After receiving a ring from a seemingly spooky old neighbor Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean), she wishes for a friend and encounters the ghostly Irena.

Little Ann Carter (I Married a Witch, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) is a dang cute addition and looks strangely enough like Simon to handle the cat connections. She’s also innocent, somewhat sad, and thus endearing despite this inexplicable turn from feline dangers to imaginary friends. Smith and Rudolph do loose more luster as well now that they are supposed to be Leave It to Beaver parents who end up arguing over the shadow of Irena. Simone Simon is of course again magical, even if she’s turned away from the feline wanton into some sort of medieval snow queen angel ghost.  Her wispy ghost is indeed heavenly!  Singer Sir Lancelot (The Ghost Ship) as the Reeds’ Jamaican servant Edward does a lovely job as well, but unfortunately, it’s a stereotypically of the time and thankless part.  Creepy Julia Dean (Nightmare Alley) is mystery worthy fun, too, but the would be dang decent cast can’t do very much with this bizarre new family friendly less femme cat direction.

The Curse of the Cat People isn’t a bad film, really it isn’t.  If you accept it as a nice family fancy snowy pseudo Christmas ghost story, it isn’t bad at all!   It just is emphatically not a horror movie or even remotely dark and spicy like its predecessor- which is probably what the returning audience from Cat People is expecting.  Though writer DeWitt Bodeen returns, two directors- newcomer Gunther von Fritsch (Snow Bear) and Oscar winner Robert Wise (The Sound of Music, wow) seem to have botched a few things up, namely the smooth, sexy, femme noir style of the original film.  The focus on the next generation necessitates things be tame, family not scary, and Curse plays more like a ghostly mystery with taunts, teasing, and the usual child troubles. Some of the mean school kids are a bit irritating, even if we’re supposed to care for onscreen children in peril, and the dated child acting may hinder some viewers more so than the complete sequel turnaround.  The snow scenery is also fake, and the house and garden set up is too television cardboard design, but the neighborhood haunted house looks good and creepy at least. Yes, Curse of the Cat People created an uphill battle for itself by deviating from the formula.  However, it’s also awesome to see a pre-war forties Christmas blended with all those faux winter bundle ups and long lady frocks that flow in almost medieval sweetness. Sigh.

But Thankfully, for once we have a very decent remake with 1982’s Cat People, this time starring Natassja Kinski as Irena Gallier, an orphaned young woman reuniting with her brother Paul, played by Malcolm McDowell.  Separated as children after the suicides of their circus performer parents, Paul mysteriously leaves Irena alone in New Orleans shortly after her arrival. Irena explores the city and takes a job at the local zoo with curator Oliver (John Heard) and his fellow zoologist Alice (Annette O’Toole).  Unfortunately, the zookeepers and their assistant Joe (Ed Begley, Jr.) have captured a very unruly black leopard.  Irena’s growing attraction to Oliver, the proximity of the big cats, and Paul’s strange desires, however, bring about certain changes in Irena’s clean cut behavior and cause her to question her family’s true, feline nature.

Director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Affliction) accentuates the great cat photography and animal camerawork with reds, warm colorings, and pops of cat eyes and eerie greens, creating a sensuous, sexy mood lit for ambiance- like a romantic dinner with neo noir mystery. This focus on the sexy is not the dark and sinister tone of a horror picture as we might expect. Cat People is naughty and freaky, with chills that turn on instead of going for all out scary. There is blood, yes, but its use is unexpected, again not in the repetitive ways of slasher sequels today.  The not often seen, but long suggested cat effects and animal transformations do the trick beautifully, allowing all the true feline frenzy to build for the final act.  All this latent leopard juice is of course heightened by the sweet, sweet theme music by David Bowie (newer audience will recognize its use in Inglourious Basterds), too. The intriguing back story of who all came to be cats or what it all exactly involves might be confusing in some spots, but enough of the tale is in place for the kinky debates. So, sex releases the animal in us? Killing while in cat form lets all the rage out and returns us to human form? It’s bizarre, and yet, there is a certain logic to the animal urges and innuendo. Why do we equate the feline ruthlessness with a misuse of femininity? How can we praise the beauty of powerful women yet fear and demonize the temptation it brings?

While some of the opening effects are a bit dated or low budget looking today and Cat People’s kinky start is a little slow and abstract, the naughty and natural feline dangers get going just fine and remain strong throughout the picture. In fact, we even feel some sympathy for these big cats being trapped in cages and misunderstood as to their conflicted needs. This lifestyle is, after all, perfectly natural to them.  Why do we resist it? Pieces and plot elements of Bodeen’s original 1942 script survive in Alan Ormsby’s (The Substitute) updated screenplay.  The feline pursuit with a Lewton bus trick and the subsequent pool sequence are a complete ode to the original Cat People- just there are a few more boobs tossed in here! Even with the delightfully smart use of skin, that same what you don’t see shadows and cat sounds suspense is allowed room to shine.  The various big cats used for Cat People, mostly black leopards but a few lions and tigers, are simply lovely indeed. Feline fans will both enjoy their spotlight and yet dislike all the cages, rage, and violent portrayals.  These pesky incestuous implications are also not for prudes, nor the bondage. You heard me.

Wow, Nastassja Kinski (Tess, To The Devil a Daughter, Terminal Velocity) is eighties virginal hot for Cat People, going braless and strutting through a delicious looking New Orleans.  Yes, Irena isn’t totally styled in the near slutty femme we see today, but we like her in all her forms- good girl, naked, cat- nonetheless.  Irena is innocent and almost too good to be true- it’s saucy and endearing at the same time. Even if we know the juicy cat tendencies are coming, the audience is still surprised when the wonderfully creepy Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange, Star Trek Generations) brings the familial twists to a head. His Paul is suspicious from the start, clearly jonesing for his sister, and this back and forth of predator and prey invests us in Irena’s cat journey all the more. It almost seems as if this Cat People should be the big and saucy sequel to the original instead of The Curse of the Cat People.  So, this is what those dastardly cat kin have been up to in the last forty years!

Poor good guy with a case of cat corruption John Heard! His new Oliver can’t help but find Irena alluring despite the intelligence and better judgment we know a zoo curator must have. Heard (Home Alone, Awakenings) would seem on the prowl to start, scaring Irena upon their first meeting- but he is soon the one helplessly caught up in the unsavory.  The sex scenes between Oliver and Irena are steamy indeed, even if we don’t actually see much. Whom is it going to be more painful for anyway? Annette O’Toole’s (Superman III) Alice is the would be Mary Ann to Irena’s latent Ginger.  They begin as quick and intimate friends but obvious female tensions soon arise.  It’s a catfight, literally. Though it was probably not the intention at the time, it seems everyone in Cat People is a familiar face. John Larroquette (Night Court) appears briefly as a jerky suit pressuring the zoo, and Ed Begley Jr. (She-Devil) pulls out all the fun bad animal puns before being taken down a notch.  The glorious Ruby Dee (A Raisin in the Sun) isn’t fully utilized enough as Paul’s “Like Tamale” housekeeper, Female, nor is good cop Frankie Faison (The Wire).  Although Lynn Lowry (Shivers) and Tessa Richarde (Bronco Billy) do provide fun eye candy, as if there was any other kind!   

Cat People is a classic early horror treat that fans of straight classic films, noir mysteries, and students of Hollywood horror beginnings should know and love.  The Curse of the Cat People comes on a double bill DVD and in collector sets with its precursor, which does keep it easy to find even if it has practically nothing to do with the first film.  Just don’t compare Curse to Cat People when you watch, as it should indeed be seen at least once, perhaps at Christmas.  Where our 1944 entry is definitely kid friendly, and there’s nothing majorly overt in the original outing, the updated Cat People edition, however, is not for kids. In 1942, the original had to be chaste, but forty years on, the remake was free to unleash the titular folks in all their glory, and indeed, it does.  Purrrrrr!

21 November 2011

Hammer and Horror Huzzahs!

Hammer Horror Huzzah!
By Kristin Battestella

As I’ve been on a Hammer Films viewing escapade again this year, I needed to make a list to keep track of them all!  Here’s a tally of all our Hammer critiques- not just the scares mind you- divided into categories for easy finding!

The Dracula Series and Vampires

Frankenstein Films

Miscellany Hammer

Wow.  This is what happens when you start your ‘Halloween’ Horror viewing marathons in July!

20 November 2011

Draculas vs Frankensteins

Frankenstein, Dracula, and One for Good Measure
By Kristin Battestella

It’s a debate for the ages in the battle of the Titans of Terror!  Frankenstein or Dracula? Cushing or Lee? Lee or Cushing? Who’s the better bad guy? Who’s the better good guy?  Here are a few more trouble inducing questions and some answers in the dual horror juiciness.

Dracula: Prince of Darkness  This Terence Fisher helmed 1966 sequel opens with a revisit to his Horror of Dracula and adds fun Victorian via sixties ladies, freaky servant Philip Latham (The Pallisers), action monk Andrew Kier (Cleopatra), candlelit ambiance, and sweet velvet décor.  There’s actually a touch of the novel as well, with hints of Renfield and visiting English twists- except our Carpathian guests are two couples this time around. Barbara Shelley (also of The Gorgon) makes a great scaredy cat who would be annoying except that we know somebody should take heed in a vampire picture! Besides, it’s always the good girls like Suzan Farmer (Die, Monster, Die!) who go so bad for Dracula! Even though we know a resurrection ritual is coming, it’s still bloody impressive- literally and figuratively. There’s a great sense of foreboding fear with scary music as Lee silently hypnotizes and takes the dames as he wills in what seems like less than 10 minutes! I know he did some of these films under protest and had conflicts over the dialogue, but Dracula need not speak to be badass either. OMC’s great strength, overbearing physicality, and evil red eyes more than fit the terror bill.  It’s actually fitting that there are no wither tos and why fors- just a silent, powerful, unstoppable menace. We don’t have outright nudity or such for this round, but the vamp approach and violation works.  

Dracula Has Risen from the Grave – A sweet, bloody, almost Bond-esque introduction and a fun opening shocker lead off the revenge plotting, suspenseful carriage chases, surprising character development, saucy bedroom scenes, religious twists, and rooftop pursuits in this 1968 sequel. Whew! It’s quite intriguing to for once see what would possibly happen after Bram, as we instead focus on Monsieur Rupert Davies (Maigret), priest Ewan Hopper (Julius Caesar), and the terrified village folk who all still live in the shadow of Big C.  We actually see more of Lee as Dracula earlier on in the film, and this time he even speaks!  Well, it’s only about dozen lines and we still don’t really have enough of the eponymous villain, but Sir Christopher has more to do here. Dracula is quite sensual and kinky; all these necks and bosoms just thrust right at him!  Though filmed well, the production values seem a step down from the usual Hammer high style, and the women seem a little too sixties designed instead of the late Victorian onscreen. Young Barry Andrews (Blood on Satan’s Claw) is also too hepcat annoying, as is bad girl Barbara Ewing (Torture Garden) to start- but we know Dracula will educate her- a bite, a beat down, a catfight! Yes, the titular revival is a little preposterous, but its also pretty creative- even if the vampire rules, times, and places established in the first two films are fudged up. The horror sound effects are great, along with impressively eerie green glow effects and colored lens tricks. It does indeed look like death here!  

Frankenstein Created Woman – Pimp Cushing returns to his titular villainy for this 1967 sequel of sorts co-starring Susan Denberg (recognizable from the original Star Trek’s ‘”Mudd’s Women”) as his conflicted but deadly creation. The resurrection of the slightly more tender Baron thanks to his henchman Thorley Walters (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother) and Robert Morris (Quartermass and the Pit) is almost mythical, as is the suggestion of his work delving towards black magic or sorcery in the quest for higher understanding.  The philosophical concepts, cruelty, legal injustice, and soulful debates add dimension and horror depths. What happens to love, innocence, and inner beauty when a tormented soul is given a pretty new body? The Victorian stock and demented laboratory look great in establishing the radical and unethical experimentations, too.  In addition to great guillotine suggestions and smart uses of red wine symbolism and color, there’s some sweet murder and suspense brought forth by the almost ghostly crossover vengeance.  While some may find the plot too abstract or even goofy, the big scary questions that come with science going to far work beautifully with the period creepy. Scientific reincarnation, horror, spirituality- all in one Hammer delight!

Frankenstein Must be Destroyed – Okay, there are more series inconsistencies that might hamper this 1969 outing for some; in many ways, it seems like the Hammer Frankenstein films were themselves released out of order, go figure.  The derelict laboratory scares, lady screams, and medical thrills here are darker, more sinister, and brutal compared to the previous installment indeed.  Cush is totally freaky this go round- nasty from beginning to end with an acerbic delivery and vehement action both for and against coerced accomplices Simon Ward (Young Winston) and Veronica Carlson (also of Dracula Has Risen from the Grave). How could such a charming little old man play such a saucy bastard? Shudder.  The visual mix of finery, top hats, and spats clashing with dirty acts and bloody surgery send the period fine furnishings and Victorian protocol on its ear.  Returning director Terrence Fisher (must I?) keeps things very intense, well paced, and properly played for a complete science horror ride.  Cocaine use, ethics of medicine, lunacy- with all this juice, it’s easy to say to hell with film continuity!  

The Gorgon – Patrick Troughton (Doctor Who) joins Our Men of the Hour as Terence Fisher directs this 1964 Hammer blend of ancient mythology, post-Victorian science, and a good helping of the expected creepy.  Shades of Medusa, a little bit of illicit juice, on form decrepit castle sets, and sharp costumes up the ante- along with suspicious doctor Cushing looking so suave in a 19th century reverse goatee.  Lee is also great fun as the crusty, but fatherly and supportive professor- and talk about a mustache! Yes, you read correctly; the boys have switched things up here, and it is dang fine!  Unfortunately, the gorgon design is nothing to write home about- you barely see the titular fuss- and some of the nighttime photography is too dark.  The DVD is a bit elusive as well, but worth the pursuit for this little trickster. Who knew?

You may have noticed that in all my Horror Heavyweights and Hammer List adventures, I have not yet reviewed Scars of Dracula or The Revenge of Frankenstein.  Unfortunately, these two are sacrilegiously and inexplicably not available from Netflix and remain elusive elsewhere.  Typical.  For that reason alone, I imagine you should hold on for dear life if you find them! If you could choose, that is, between Dracula, Frankenstein, Cushing, and Lee.  I still cannot!

19 November 2011

A Peter Cushing Assessment

Peter Cushing is Badass!
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, he stands there in Star Wars as the Death Star blows up rather than evacuating in their moment of triumph. However, in my recent re-watching of a slew of Peter Cushing horror treats, I’ve again concluded that young or old, good guy or villain, Big P is a filmmaking pimp!

Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors – Can you imagine being in a train car with Christopher Lee, Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and Peter Cushing? Director Freddie Francis (Dracula Has Risen from the Grave) and Amicus Productions have done just that in this 1965 anthology.  Cushing is downright creepy- as in, you would cross the street when you see him and most definitely not want to share that train car with him creepy. The first two tales, “Werewolf” and “Creeping Vine” are a little slow to start, even confusing, and look somewhat drab with poor effects. Fortunately, the wolfy revenge angles, family scares, and freaky vegetation anchor the bizarre.  There also isn’t a lot of charisma from the banal random players - except for Bernard Lee’s (Goldfinger) ominous cameo- or any uber scares for that matter. Plot Three, “Voodoo” goes for some humor and has some great jazz music, but you have to really like the wit or the tunes to fully appreciate it.  However, when things get freaky with some good old howling wind and darkness, it’s magical.  And wow, PC’s partner in crime Lee is totally funny as a stuck up, almost nerdy tarot disbeliever- it’s just so great to see him against his dark and deadly type.  The late Michael Gough (Batman Returns) joins Lee for “Disembodied Hand” and, well…these final segments make the movie. Sutherland’s concluding “Vampire” story is a little obvious, naturally, but it is still a whopper, upping the scares and adding feminine twists- of which, I shall say no more.

The Flesh and the Fiends – Somehow, I find it strange that writer and director John Gilling’s (Shadow of the Cat) 1960 take on the oft-told Burke and Hare grave robbing infamy is in black and white.  Am I that used to seeing Big P in color?  He looks young, but twisted and slightly warped indeed. Cushing’s upstanding and intellectual medical professor Dr. Knox debates that it’s okay to study a body plucked from the coffin because the soul has already left it- if such a soul could even be proven anyway! His speeches are slick and in his mind justify the gruesome actions committed by Donald Pleasence (Halloween) - who’s practically a pup here!  A seriously modern viewer might not even recognize his juicy badness amid all the perfectly escalating crimes, scary deaths, and touches of humor with a freaky George Rose (Pirates of Penzance).  However, I suspect all horror fans to know Billie Whitelaw (The Omen) when they see her!  The waistcoats and big bowties look great, along with late Regency poufy ladies’ sleeves, huge bonnets, and those primitive medical toys. Though the DVD doesn’t have subtitles, which makes some of the soft dialogue or thick Scottish accents tough, the disc offers the alternate Mania title sequences and both a tame Brit and boobilcious European cut of the film. See, black and white boobs- that’s also a new sight for me.

Night Creatures – Oliver Reed (Burnt Offerings) and Yvonne Romain (also The Curse of the Werewolf with Reed) co star in this demented 1962 high seas adventure perhaps better known as Captain Clegg. Once again, credit to OMP’s pimpness that he can be believed as a zestful little minister and seemingly unassuming parson among all his varied and twisted roles.  Then again, we should know better!  The 18th century tricorn hats, historically sweet costumes, and mixed uniforms are lovely as well- simply because we don’t often see such naval style in a horror film. This political intrigue with a touch of the supernatural feels like Hornblower ala Hammer, and the blend works well on both fronts. Yes, these angles could have been stepped up a bit more to further take advantage of such a unique mix, but we also don’t have many films with this spooky seafaring combination either.  Although the ghostly and shadowy effects look a little dated, it all still works the freaky just fine.  We don’t see the titular haunts that often, however, and some story elements may seem a little obvious now. Fortunately, the mystery and secrets are allowed to stew, keeping the creepy suspense getting good for the finale.

Twins of Evil – Another horror gem that goes by a dozen different titles and is tragically near impossible to find! Lovely playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson join a zealous witch finder Cushing in this 1971 pseudo sequel prequel to The Vampire Lovers.  Even if the ladies may seem young or look a little too seventies ingénue to start, they are simply dynamite in their matching frocks and do fit the colonial style. Without subtitles, the accents and dubbing might be iffy for some, but so what.  It might also be tough to tell the girls apart initially, but bad girl Frieda makes herself known against good twin Maria, and the audience is treated to mistaken identity suspense, decent effects, and some sensual scares.  And oh, how Big Pete rocks that puritan look! He’s scary strict yet charismatic in his persecutions and latently kinky in beating and burning pretty girls. Cushing raises the evil fears and witchy terrors amid the vampness along with the slick Damien Thomas (Jane Eyre) as Count Karnstein. Who’s more the villain, the count who makes no secret of his bloodthirsty practices or the ringleader who burns the innocent?  Though juicy, some of the plotting here doesn’t make sense if you think too hard, for writer Tudor Gates (also Lust of the Vampire) may stray too far from the film’s predecessors and the Carmilla novel. Nevertheless, there’s great blood, boobs, black candles, and rituals to enjoy, along with a fun Katya Wyeth (A Clockwork Orange) appearing for Mircalla’s rising and seduction scenes.  Stroke that candle girl!  

14 November 2011

Another Vincent Price Viewing List!

More Vincent Price Shenanigans
By Kristin Battestella

It is important to spread the viewing love to all the Titans of Horror year round.  Fortunately, Vincent Price made many a scary film for us to enjoy!

The Comedy of Terrors – This 1964 blend of humor and creepy reunites Big V with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre (The Raven) and Basil Rathbone and Joyce Jameson (Tales of Terror) - and oh, can Price feign that sympathy as a stressed and struggling undertaker!  Lorre is wonderful as OMP’s little assistant Gillie- the pair is almost vaudeville in their interrupted wrong doings and ironic conversations.  It’s great to see everyone- usually so serious and refined- having a good time. Yes, it’s campy and over the top- but the cast makes the humor amid the horror acceptable.  We like to see them poke fun at themselves- Lorre bothering to open a cut out door to make his exit or Rathbone’s crazy and wonderfully windblown quoting of Macbeth amid his mistaken bouts of catalepsy! Writer Richard Matheson (Legend of Hell House) keeps the wit on form for the performances, and the smartly timed funerary gags and physical comedy work perfectly with director Jacques Tourneur’s (Cat People) use of high speed film, distorted organ music, and Jameson’s fun off key opera.  There’s a sense of Victorian carnival and flair amid the darker tone and open, stage-like atmosphere. Obviously, this set up is not meant to be super scary and some audiences may not like the toe toward slapstick, but there are some juicy and fearful pursuits in the final act. All the spooky of similar films is here along with some self-awareness and solid entertainment. Karloff’s clueless old man is worth the price (hee, no pun intended!) of admission alone. 

Dr. Phibes Rises Again! – A silly but fun narration recaps The Abominable Dr. Phibes as we speed up 3 years for the expected bizarre, over the top music, demented humor, and far-fetched resurrection plots in this 1972 sequel. Though not as colorful or flashy as the original, the blend of old school abstract, anachronistic flair, seventies art deco sets, and freaky, stylized deaths is mighty fine. The distorted editing can be either positive for some or negative for others- but there’s plenty of suspense, archaeology adventure, psychedellia, and a double demented love story to keep things fun.  Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire!) is nasty good with some twisted parallels to Price’s undeniable Phibes, Peter Cushing (Brides of Dracula) is a sharp surprise in his cameo, and replacement assistant Valli Kemp has a lot of silent hijinks and fun get ups. Yes, there are fewer scares and revenge and some sequences are low budget subdued, but the audience doesn’t necessarily need to see the first film, either. Unfortunately, I really don’t know why AIP didn’t continue with further sequel plans.

The Fly – VP supports his brother David Hedison (Live and Let Die) and sister in law Patricia Owens (Seven Women from Hell) as the subdued straight man to the sweet, 1958 colorful, high tech, mad scientist lab hysterics here.  Though the French angles are limited to a few names and words; other fine touches like buzzing in the scoring, mid century décor, and debates over science versus religion, the sacredness of life over human intelligence, and the horrors of meddling with it all keep this version fresh. Early talk of teleportation and transporting food ideas and how they could solve world’s problems still say a lot, along with the fun and dang decent-if loud- special effects.  I never knew there was so much suspense in catching a little fly!  Even if modern audiences may find this film tame or hokey now in comparison to Croneberg’s remake or other contemporary science fiction horror, there’s a great build up of hidden what you don’t see to the insect reveal- and the fly work still looks good.  Distorted bugview camerawork and tiny shockers just do wonders:  ‘Help me! Help me!’

The Last Man on Earth – A wonderfully subtle and largely solitary performance by Vincent Price anchors this 1964 debut adaption of Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The voiceovers and somewhat comical undead might be tough for some, but the focus on melancholy and slowly degenerating delivery works with the post-apocalyptic depression and isolation. Of course, the plot isn’t all silent and alone- flashbacks detailing the genesis of the vampire-like pestilence and the subsequent collapse of family break up the despair nicely.  Unlike the bigger scope and action of Will Smith’s recent I am Legend or the seventies garish of Charlton Heston’s Omega Man- both good in their own right- the time here is better spent on the intimate and personal in examination of self and society.  The simplest need for companionship, the arrogance of man, humanity’s stupid short sightedness- really, I don’t know why Matheson was displeased with the final result here. 

Shock – This 1946 medical murder mystery is more a suspense tale than straight horror, but the twists and scares are definitely here. An early and fun dream sequence also smartly uses scale, camera zooms, and focus tricks to play with the minds onscreen and the audience’s perceptions of it all.  Anabel Shaw (To Hell and Back) is unfortunately a little too of the time hysterical, and the plot may seem too Rear Window-esque in its witnessing.  However, Our Man Vincent is so young and suave, with a slick but not yet raspy voice and a lot of angry and bad doctoring style.  Oh, what lengths his psychiatrist will go to for the sexy nurse Lynn Bari (Nocturne)! But I shall say no more…

The Tingler – Director William Castle (House on Haunted Hill) bemusingly warns the audience of his latest theatrics of the day to open this 1959 parasite horror funfest and assures us it is okay to scream! Yes, the attempt at sexy film noir stylings for Patricia Cutts (I Was a Male War Bride) is hokey, but Judith Evelyn’s (Giant) mute and silent scares do wonders along with great uses of color- yes color- in a black and white film. The blurred lines between the onscreen silent movie house and the then theater experience are also kitschy good, with Big V almost playing a film within a film event when the screen goes black.  In fact, with the right set up and approach, this tactic could still work in the cinema today- and be far better than all the headache inducing 3D. Price, of course, is just a little too nonchalant about doing an autopsy isn’t he?  It’s so creepy the way he investigates fear from the mind and shock on the body as if it were no big deal to experiment at the expense of others.  Certainly, the idea of a tingly worm on our spines festering on our fears is totally preposterous- but Price sells it and the camp of it all wonderfully.  Really, when a film uses LSD as part of the plot, we can’t be expected to take the science too seriously. 

 (At least he still has a record player. Whew!)