30 November 2013

Brenda Lee's Jingle Bell Rock

Brenda Lee’s Jingle Bell Rock Safe and Holiday Hip
By Kristin Battestella

No one’s December is complete without Little Miss Dynamite, and this 1995 CD reissue Jingle Bell Rock puts all of Brenda Lee’s perennial hits in to one swanky session.

Naturally, we begin with Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and who doesn’t love this ritzy little ditty, honestly? Known to today’s generation most likely thanks to its appearance in Home Alone, the decidedly fifties sounding guitar and brass blends remain hip and timeless. Though covered more than thirty times with multiple renditions in recent years especially, this original version still surpasses each holiday season. This Time of Year’s position in between two major Christmas hits, however, hampers its easy, mellow, traditional balladry. It’s not as sing a long-able or familiar, but it’s nonetheless a great lullaby that let’s Lee hold a note or two. 

More famous as Bobby Helms’ original rendition, Brenda Lee adds a softer country swing to the expected Jingle Bell Rock fun. I’d rather hear her than the sweet tooth background chorus, but the fifties sentimentally keeps this a head nodding and toe tapping tune perfect for a casual trimming the tree or dancing about the kitchen while baking with the kids. Likewise, it’s almost as if Lee’s singing directly to the children by the fire on Strawberry Snow, another unique, original track slowing Jingle Bell Rock down in lullaby fashion. Again, this is an unusual placement to alternate the slower country songs amid two well known modern Christmas hits, but this is still a charming, cozy tune.

Silver Bells better captures Brenda Lee’s big voice in familiar, bittersweet, timeless ballad refrains. We can reminisce and whisper along before jazzing it up with her new, unexpected spin on Winter Wonderland. Is that a tropical whiff accenting those drums and quirky rhythms? These beats add an almost tongue in cheek smile to the same old same old whilst rocking out and keeping to the smooth feel of Jingle Bell Rock. Understandably, Blue Christmas is slowed and somber with time for every big, sad note, allowing the country crossover vibes some shine.

A Marshmallow World brings the fun back, and I can just picture little Brenda Lee in her big puffy skirt singing this with a lot of Candyland cardboard lollipops and gumdrops in the background. Despite its yummy lyrics, it’s decidedly happy and rousing and makes you want to get up and move. Unfortunately, as was the mid century style, all the songs on Jingle Bell Rock are a short 3 minutes or less, making this session a quick listen at just 24 minutes! It’s almost as if the reissuing makers wanted to make a fast buck on everyone wishing to capture Home Alone magic by owning Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on CD.  That may have worked 20 years ago, but this wouldn’t be prudent today when individual downloads reign. It’s also a bit unfair to the rest of the songs here, as none of these tunes is bad. Granted, some of the softer, unknown tracks won’t be everyone’s contemporary cup of coco, but Jingle Bell Rock is an overall pleasant sound even if it’s arraigned with no other standouts and plays a little too safe or generic for the unique, big voice at its disposal.

Since it was a single from Merry Christmas with Brenda Lee in the past, I’m surprised Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day is somewhat unfamiliar and isn’t heard more on radio today amid the now constant months of holiday airplay. One wouldn’t know this wasn’t any other break up song – except for the lyrical December mentions – thanks to its decidedly and absolutely pop stature. Normally, I might be a little angry at such a secular takeover, but this treat is still toe tapping catchy and has some big room for that big voice. The Angel and the Little Blue Bell returns to the easy, sentimental fashion and concludes Jingle Bell Rock with tender storytelling lyrics, almost in a goodnight, sleep tight harmony.  You can put the kids to bed with this one, indeed! While information on this particular Jingle Bell Rock compilation is a little tough to find, it appears this is simply a reissue of Merry Christmas from Brenda Lee with two tracks missing, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Frosty the Snowman. Other Brenda Lee holiday reissues and compilations are not only available but numerous for individual download desires, and Rockin Around the Christmas Tree: The Decca Christmas Recordings Remastered seems to combine all the tracks from her two holiday albums in one place.

Brenda Lee’s big voice and small stature makes Jingle Bell Rock a friendly, nostalgic listen for old school fans and a fun, holiday good time for today’s little ones to sing along. Obviously, it’s completely secular and thus smooth for the seasonal office or classroom. Perhaps it’s not the best compilation thanks to the somewhat uneven order of the tracks, but contemporary listeners aren’t bound to album listings and official downloads of Jingle Bell Rock are available for audiences to pick and choose as they wish. Despite its quick, seemingly standard approach, overall Jingle Bell Rock is a dang catchy little time that easily fits into today’s playlists.


27 November 2013

More Peter Cushing Fun!

A Third Helping of Peter Cushing!
By Kristin Battestella

That irrepressible and delightfully spooky little old man is up to his diabolic tricks again in this trio of period science fiction and scares!

At the Earth’s Core – Grand Moff Tarkin himself Peter Cushing adds wonderful charm and humor along side Doug McClure (The Virginian) and Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me) in director Kevin Connor’s (The Land That Time Forgot) 1976 Edgar Rice Burroughs adaption– the final AIP and Amicus produced picture. Though lovable, Burroughs’ tales are simplistic or juvenile today, and the hokey names and places here are tough to pronounce. Fluorescent pink colors, smoke, plastic plants, and very bad rubber creatures don’t disguise the obvious backdrop screens, but dated production aside, the Victorian fantasy, old technology, spectacles, gears, and gizmos add heaps of fun. Top hats, bemusing umbrellas, and proper posh accents counter the totally impractical, fast and easy science and strengthen the still intriguing premise. I wish we could still make more science fiction and fantasy films like this without our high tech, super smart ways. All this stuff goes down inside the earth, the humans there all speak English, and we never even know! Although people of all creeds appear as slaves, the period “master race” wording and comments about being unable to identify one of another race because they all look a like are iffy. Large crowd and fight scenes do make it difficult to tell who is who and the male battle bonding is slightly homoerotic, but it’s easy to root for McClure – who keeps on his Victorian waistcoat thru it all! The pace slows with awe, look at me zooms on the intelligent, high tech dinosaur birds, but both Burroughs and the film were ahead of the then uncommon theory. Kinky scenes with these giant birds swooping down to take the women add enough suggestion, but the fight the beasties, get the girl, white savior educate the primitives and free the slaves plot meanders without real goals, morality, or Prime Directive considerations. The characters, however, are surprisingly well developed with twists ahead of the exciting multi level battle finale. The 90 minutes may be too long and the DVD elusive, yet there’s enough whimsy and bittersweet to keep this corny humor and adventure watchable and entertaining for the whole family.

Blood Beast Terror – This 1967 British moths run amok tale starts off a little too slow and takes the better part of its 88 minutes in getting to the countryside for the eponymous vampish action. Though fun too see, the Victorian interiors, morbid bugs, and inexplicable entomology feels a touch hokey, familiar, or similar to other turn of the century macabre. Robert Flemyng’s (The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) diabolical motivations and back story aren’t fully revealed either, as the pacing and editing between his science and Peter Cushing’s murder investigation is too uneven. While it’s nice to see OBE Pete as an undercover, one step behind inspector instead of as yet another Victorian scientist, perhaps the narrative should have been exclusively one or the to invoke the mystery of the case or the fear of the pursuit. Fortunately, the pleasing older cast does inspire our sympathy and intrigue on both sides, even if it’s tough to tell the handsome young victims apart. Beautiful daughters Wanda Ventham (Doctor Who) and Vanessa Howard (Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly) also smartly factor into the good or ill or innocence and kinky. There’s also a whiff of Frankenstein parody and parables from director Vernon Sewell (The Crimson Cult) along with a fun awareness thanks to the onscreen mad scientist play within a play. Whatever preposterousness the title may conjure, the effects here aren’t bad at all. We don’t really have a full reveal until the fast paced finale, and the personal and monster pursuits come together to forgive any quibbles.

The Creeping Flesh – They’re brothers! I finally saw this somewhat elusive, non-Hammer 1973 Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing pairing on television, and the gory paintings, fun bones, giant skeletons, and ghoulish laboratory feelings are worth the pursuit. The Late Victorian designs are perfect, from great accessories, books, and old gadgets to bloody slides, microscopes, and real monkeys – although that part isn’t too pretty! Lovely family dynamics with Lorna Heilbron (Clarissa) add to the household history, brotherly competition, and paternal sacrifices in this search for evolutionary answers gone awry. I’ll say it: the titular effects are indeed creepy and well done; fine editing, suspense directing, smart shadows, shrouded figures, and what you don’t see film making by Freddie Francis ties the dastardly science mood together. Lunatics on the loose, prehistoric skeletons with special properties – the mix of modern scientific theories and fantastic fiction isn’t sick and twisted but provides just enough intrigue and gruesome to match Big Cush’s desperation and obsession.  Are diseases, madness, and evil one and the same and can science fight such a thing? Both Lee – who’s rocking that goatee! – and Cushing are up to varying degrees of no good for different reasons. Mistakes, immoralities, and gentlemanly slick add to the tension, connections, and aha twists between them. Although the flashbacks and their implications are well told along with some bawdy and rapaciousness, the timeline can be confusing and I wish there were subtitles. Despite some implausibility, this science meets horror question makes for a dang entertaining and intense finish.  Why isn’t this frickin’ DVD readily available?!

19 November 2013

Another Early Horror Helping!

More Early Horror Thrillers and Mayhem!
By Kristin Battestella

Monsters, mystery, and macabre strike again in this quick helping of yesteryear stars and scares from those wartime decades!

Fear in the Night – It’s Bones himself!  A very young Deforest Kelley (Star Trek) stars in this 1947 mind bending film noir about a man who’s murderous dream seem to imitate real life. Adapted from the story “Nightmare” by Cornell Woolrich, great, moody suspense music, bizarre dream-esque effects, symbolism, mirrors, and camera tricks match the blurred mind versus reality plots and investigations. This doesn’t feel low budget so much as old – which is fine – although the internal monologue narration is indeed dated. It’s surprising to see some of the heavy topics discussed here, including suicide and infidelity, considering they don’t dare use the word pregnant! Thankfully, classic trench coats, fedoras, period styles, cars, cigarettes, and one stormy night cap off the budding suspense. Kelley’s desperation keeps the 70 minutes fast moving. His Vince has the required everyman likability, but there’s doubt and unreliability for good measure. The support, however – especially the ladies – is a bit typical and largely unaware or unsympathetic of his plight – it’s just stress! The atmosphere here feels very Twilight Zone, but the 1956 remake Nightmare starring Edward G. Robinson doesn’t seem available on DVD. Pity.  

Ghost of Frankenstein – Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man) dons the bolts instead of Karloff for this 1942 fourth entry in the Universal franchise and thanks to strategic make up and minimal up close shots, Chaney’s Monster looks pretty darn good. His sympathetic yet violent morality or immorality and misunderstandings versus the high cost of science keeps the film’s focus on thoughts more than scares, but Bela Lugosi’s (Dracula) Ygor is still up to his villainous tricks as he takes his taking advantage of the Monster on the road. Of course, the timeline and series connections here are all over the place – Ygor has miraculously survived the events of Son of Frankenstein, and yet another son Cedric Hardwicke (The Ten Commandments) is playing fast and loose with the family mayhem. When did the original Dr. Frankenstein have time to have all these as needed sons anyway?  Lionel Atwill also returns (and will subsequently appear three more times in the series) and I’d like to think Evelyn Ankers’ (also of The Wolf Man) Elsa is named in homage to Elsa Lanchester, but these repeated plots, clips from the previous films, and the reused cast expose the step down in production values along with the cool but cheap and out of place Art Deco sets. Fortunately, this great, multi faceted cast makes for a tense hour of legacy, betrayal, medical twists, and murder, and if nothing else, this quick little episode is worth a look if only to see Chaney tackle this iconic Karloff role. But what is it with these torch carrying angry mobs?   

Juggernaut – No less suave Karloff’s running out of time but plenty good and angry about his research funds being cut off in this 1936 hour. Of course, the print quality and sound are poor, but sinister music and silent styled orchestrations set the mad scientist mood. Though the ladies’ vocal deliveries are of the time nasal and uppity annoying, the opening Morocco scenes are not stereotypical – I think I saw a real camel in there! The fancy interwar French Riviera casino designs, dancing, elegance, and furs are neat to see against the evil doctoring, too. Granted, the similarities to other laboratory tales are apparent, the people and locales are confusing to start, and scenes away from Big K are standard. This is not the horror or wild, fantastic science of the day, but rather melodramatic suspense over wills, trophy wives, and a missing syringe. Once the poison plots and pay offs happen, however, tension and twists mount for a surprising for the era finish. It’s over the top and ill paced, but it’s easy to indulge this quick hour just for Karloff. 

The Seventh Victim – The adorable Kim Hunter (Planet of the Apes, A Streetcar Named Desire) debuts in this 1943 satanic noir from producer Val Lewton (Cat People) and keeps the mystery vulnerable and personal as she searches for her troubled sister Jean Brooks (The Leopard Man). Great fashions, hats, mid century mannerisms, and old time coppers further set the mood – along with gentlemen in tuxedoes and top hats bringing dead bodies onto the otherwise clean and pleasant subway! Editor turned director Mark Robson (Peyton Place) accents every painting-like frame with excellent black and white photography, shadows, and lighting schemes. Early religious chorales and period singing add a sense of homely and spiritual comfort before the chilling conversations through blurred shower curtains rebuff the Hayes Code. It is tough to tell who is who sometimes and political hints are apparent in some scenes more than others, but the hour and ten here moves swiftly as the investigation mounts. Suspense builds thanks to ticking clocks, sinister piano sounds, and mysterious locked rooms – this satanic cult is so fashionable and soft spoken that it makes their high rise meetings and deadly threats all the more creepy. Though it does seem as if some plots are quickly told or left on the cutting room floor, the unknown to the audience layering ups the simmering atmosphere and makes room for the twists. Most of the picture keeps the outright occult material under wraps, too; however, the search, mystery, scary symbols, and ahead of their time revelations provide intense entertainment here. 

17 November 2013

One Step Beyond: Season 1

One Step Beyond Season 1 Pleasantly Paranormal
By Kristin Battestella

On a whirlwind whim, I plunged into the First Season of the 1959 speculative anthology series One Step Beyond. Despite its shorter length and oft comparisons as the inferior, poor man’s Twilight Zone, this debut is a pleasant, thinking person’s spin on the unexplained.

Perhaps director and host John Newland (The Man Who Never Was, The Loretta Young Show) does introduce these twenty-two, twenty-five minute episodes in Sterling-esque fashion, but there’s none of The Twilight Zone’s depression or moody during the thirty second openings or ending tags – which claim these tales are real and based on true accounts. Although One Step Beyond begins with too many standard plots such as possession, ghosts or haunted houses, death, children trapped in mines, and even creepy dolls and Titanic tales amid the assorted paranormal phenomenon, there’s an entertaining, classy style to the irony. Some otherwise fine examinations on prophetic dreams, war stories, and executions may happen too many episodes in a row, but old-fashioned sophistication balances with the bizarre and unease. Nowadays we’ve probably seen all these plots before, but some outcomes are unexpected and even tender, innocent, or touching. Then scandalous talk of domestic unhappiness, alcoholism, and divorce or suggestive suggestions on abuse, rape, and family guilt, and surprising but now tame curses like jackass also standout along with fresh analysis on hypnosis, coincidence, synchronicity, clairvoyance, spirituality, Indian mysticism, Biblical parallels, and faith. Not everything is always explained or tidy at the end of each show, and this fact or fiction, believe it or not style might annoy modern audiences who expect complete clarification. However, it’s also pleasing to see television that leaves the viewer thinking on the how and why. 

One Step Beyond creators/writers/producers Merwin Gerard (Mrs. Columbo, Daniel Boone) and Collier Young (Ironside, The Hitch-Hiker) and writer Don Mankewicz (I Want to Live!) would seem to have fine concepts and ideas without finish, but the stories are fleshed with enough drama, suspense, and fine casting to enthrall. Though it doesn’t seem as if One Step Beyond has as many stars as other anthology shows, there are a lot of recognizable faces from other classic television programs behind the scenes and onscreen. From Charles Beaumont’s (The Twilight Zone) penning of “The Captain’s Guests,” Ross Martin (Wild Wild West) in “Echo”, and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers) in “The Night of April 14th” to Cloris Leachman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) in “The Dark Room”, Beverly Washburn (Old Yeller) in “Premonition,” Mike Connors (Mannix) and Yvette Vickers (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) in “The Aerialist,” and Werner Klemperer (Hogan’s Heroes) in “The Haunted U-Boat,” there are plenty of stars anchoring the superior episodes. One Step Beyond gets better as it goes on thanks to prophetic circumstances and train suspense in “Emergency Only,” to close to home WWII fears in “The Dream,” and not often seen WWI inspiration in “The Vision.” Latent lesbianism and Carrie like pyrotechnics also stand out in “The Burning Girl” with Luana Anders (The Pit and the Pendulum), Edward Platt (Get Smart), and Olive Deering (Samson and Delilah). This episode is so pre-Carrie Carrie it’s shockingly Firestarter – a “Dirty, no good devil, witch” girl not allowed to dress up and go to the party by her angry, jealous, nutty dominating aunt because she “starts fires from within her” indeed. Of course, the episode calls the scenario a case of spontaneous combustion instead of pyrokinesis, but I guess we didn’t know much about either in the fifties!    

Granted, some of these colloquialisms, dated dialogue, and bad fake accents hamper the more put on, substandard players and make for a stock company feeling on One Step Beyond. However, the sometimes goofy acting, melodramatic screams, and serious face contortions aren’t so bad as to make any episodes here in Season 1 unwatchable – although some contemporary audiences may find a few old-fashioned statements confusing or amusing: “When he has something to drink, he is gay.” On the other hand, of the time masochism is more uncomfortable. Women can’t drive and always get hysterical – but at least they are good looking! It’s understood that men are entitled to spend the night on the town with other women, but they can never believe the women telling them something is afoot. This doesn’t ruin One Step Beyond, but the mostly white casting, stereotypical Italian portrayals, and further racism are definitely noticeable today. African American or Asian characters are subservient porters or servants with hardly any lines or development –if they are seen at all – yet it’s surprising to see Nazi soldiers depicted somewhat sympathetically on early American television. Fortunately, there is a certain grace and chemistry with the smaller cast – often only two or three billed players – and the well plotted, intriguing, and speedy tales forgive any datedness. Actually, the lack of out there, science fiction tales, or pop music, and mid century references and other fad stylings keeps One Step Beyond from being irrevocably dated. Well, except for the separate beds!

The sweet classic cars, men in suits, old-fashioned nurse get ups, casual smoking and drinking, fedoras, old onscreen cameras, circus fun, and swanky furniture we do see on One Step Beyond, however, are indeed mid century cool. There’s even an early Ouija board plot appearance! Some period dressings, turn of the century settings, and WWI designs probably aren’t that accurate and reused set pieces and décor are apparent at times, of course. The large, ornately dressed sets, costumes, and American and British themes, however, suggest enough time and place for the atmosphere and mood – foreign, old world appearances, French and Spanish accents, and even nautical tales and The Blitz add further flair, too. I suspect what wide shots and special effects footage we do see is borrowed stock, but good fog and lighting seamlessly hide any reused material. It’s also refreshing to just have the one and two camera, over the shoulder, standard production letting scenes play out as intended up to the twists instead of today’s in your face CGI.  I have to say though, what is this Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond sponsorship and titling?  

Though available on several retro channels, in syndication, and thru streaming options like Netflix and Hulu Plus, public domain offerings varying in quality and incomplete compilation DVDs make viewing all three seasons of One Step Beyond difficult. Only One Step Beyond: The Official First Season is properly available, with the remaining episodes from Seasons 2 and 3 mostly elusive. Other best of compilations and volume sets do not have all the episodes, and erroneous listings and show inclusions or exclusions are confusing or downright infuriating for a completist. Fortunately, the speedy availability, short duration, and fine anthology quality of this First Season of One Step Beyond is a quick, family friendly fix for classic television fans and spooky audiences looking to get their bizarre viewing on – audiences of other anthology series should definitely take One Step Beyond.   

11 November 2013

Whitechapel Season 1

A Slightly Flawed, but Thought Provoking Whitechapel Debut
By Kristin Battestella

Detective Inspector Joe Chandler (Rupert Penry-Jones) is on the up and up and ready to make his name in his new assignment to the Whitechapel district – until a series of gruesome murders stump cranky sergeant Ray Miles (Phil Davis) and fellow detectives Fitzgerald (Christopher Fulford), Kent (Sam Stockman), Sanders (Johnny Harris), and McCormack (George Rossi). Chandler’s politicking superior Commander Anderson (Alex Jennings, The Queen) also doesn’t want to hear the facts on the crimes, for they seem all too reminiscent of Whitechapel’s most infamous, 120 year old unsolved case – that of the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper. Self proclaimed Ripperologist Edward Buchan (Steve Pemberton) aids Chandler and his team in matching the copycat trends, but can these 21st century coppers be ahead of the next murder or will this new Jack for the new millennium outsmart the police once again?

Although this decade’s popular Victorian resurgence is nothing new to us 19th century aficionados, the trend has brought numerous, semi-competing materials such as the recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations stateside and abroad in film and television and more period programs like Ripper Street and this modern set but past feeling Whitechapel. Thanks to such abundant fiction, media, and Jack the Ripper twists, this type of copycat plot – subtitled The Ripper Returns – may seem familiar, yet the perennial intrigue of the original unsolved crimes and the new investigative spins are stimulating enough to carry the three episode, two-hour plus suspense here. Whitechapel could have done without some of the more standard police procedural designs and the now expected spooky, ghostly, and dark, macabre hints – remember when creepy was rare and nonconformist instead of pop? However, our contemporary need to speculate is matched by the mysteries, conspiracies, divided loyalties, leaks, and press interference. Is the killer amongst our players or an unknown revelation? Are we putting on our CSI caps or thinking like a period criminal?  Morbidity aside, it’s pleasing to revisit the so-called canonical murders and fringe theories in such detail, even if the seeing double Jack the Ripper fresh insights and current investigation trappings are too on the nose at times. Would the vintage case be different if the police had cameras? What if the Ripper had a getaway car? Imagine the social media! The 45-minute episodes have stand-alone content and step up the primary storyline with each leg in proper miniseries fashion: Part 1 establishes the Ripper connections, reluctance, and disbelief while Episode 2 sees a suspect in custody and press intrusions before the Conclusion adds the infamous letter writing campaign and…I’m not telling you anymore!

Rupert Penry-Jones’ DI Chandler is initially excited about the eponymous crimes, wet behind the ears new to the street, and looking suave in a tux as he plays upward seeking politics. Viewers have seen this kind of awkward rookie in charge angle before – complete with hiding the chalk from the chalkboard pranks– but we’ve also seen Penry-Jones on other capers such as MI-5 long enough to like and trust Chandler amid his own compulsive rehearsings before the mirror and doubts. These initial characterizations are typical, but Chandler can’t be too perfect when he’s willing to believe the fantastic copycat possibilities or be angry his team isn’t up to snuff. Interesting humor also litters Whitechapel thanks to Chandler’s mockability – after demanding his men wear ties and eat healthy, they adorn joke threads and speculate on their boss’ gaydar. Some of these quirky attempts are a bit out of place; built-in irony already exists in Chandler’s chastising the locals for not knowing their homegrown Ripper facts. Though it’s probably meant to show how the bureaucrats don’t have his back or just how in over his head Chandler really is, he’s unevenly cool with the society types yet nervous with lower coppers. These written clichés hamper Penry-Jones and come too easy, yes, but rather than staying established or stagnant, Chandler loosens up, goes unshaven, and deduces as he should for a thrilling finish.

Whitechapel continues this somewhat confusing, formulaic character development with its ensemble, for detectives Christopher Fulford (The Brief), Sam Stockman (Family Affairs), Johnny Harris (RocknRolla), and George Rossi (The Bill) are both stereotypical fillers and well developed series regulars. Is the show about these eccentricities of the district or the outlandish crimes and Ripper flair? It’s too apparent that the seasonal thread is Jack the Ripper while the character establishment is in hopes for a sequel. Understandably, we don’t see any of our players at home, yet each adds a critical piece to the investigation. Though there should have been more of Claire Rushbrook (Mutual Friends) as pregnant pathologist Caroline Llewellyn – her banter and gruesome, biological moments suffice on the creepy and service the plot – the pairing and chemistry among the team works. Grumpy, secretive sergeant Phil Davis (North Square) starts cliché, but he has the pulse on the street and refreshingly looks like a real detective compared to Penry-Jones’ tall, blonde pretty. Steve Pemberton (Benidorm) as Ripperologist Ed Buchan also adds the right humor, charm, and reasonable Ripper exposition. Despite obvious writing and red herrings, he fits the expected expertise and adds a personal quaint. This cast shows up to play even if the page lets them down, and their clashes, conspiracy theories, and outlandish suggestions add moments of closeness and conflict as the case twists and turns. I thought I had it figured out, then I didn’t, then I did… aha!

Of course, the London locations are sweet, from the dark, cobblestone alleyways to the high society clubs and suits. The look creates an almost Victorian high and low parallel, but the well done, dimly lit, old-fashioned filming design feels at odds with the trying to be modern askew angles, herky jerky flashes, and strobe camera work. It’s not as gruesome as today’s CSI audiences are accustomed to seeing, but intercut macabre photos, rapid autopsies blinks, brief corpse nudity, and jumbled, gaudy scene transitions in any combination there of are unnecessary, too obviously wannabe stylish, and we can’t see a dang thing anyway. Somehow, slow motion is randomly thrown in for good measure, too. One probably has to like British crime dramas to enjoy Whitechapel, but these visual attempts at setting it apart from being like other procedurals don’t quite work. Series 1 director S.J. Clarkson (Life on Mars) doesn’t go off the helter skelter deep end with the edgy look, but I’d rather have no design flair distracting from the story. Stick with the solid investigation instead – the characters, crimes, and disturbed suggestions come thru just fine, and the past meets present set dressings do wonders! The physicality of old chalkboards, a small, dated office, and carefully placed red accents set the scene against smartly used split screen footage, CCTV technology, and now admittedly 2009 blackberries and desktops. Longtime cop show viewers, however, will cringe at the conveniently dropped police protocols, things like, oh, I don’t know, calling for back up or wearing gloves when touching a crime scene! This is the biggest East End case in 120 years and yet five haphazard constables with no support are going it alone?  

Have I used words like ‘cliché’, ‘stereotypical’, and ‘again’ a lot in describing Whitechapel? Writers Ben Court and Caroline Ip (Mayday) do at times play it safe with a case that could have been done on any other Scotland Yard show but also occasionally try too hard in this old meets new Ripper twist. Ixnay this flashy on the nose and fortunately, the meaty, well-acted drama is there above and beyond these goofy, Unsolved Mysteries-esque mock docudramas we get stateside these days. This swift First Season is easily available on one disc with some interesting behind the scenes interviews, and a straight run thru is the best way to see Whitechapel’s case unfold. Jack the Ripper enthusiasts, viewers newly tuned in to investigation shows or those who like a sophisticated thinking person’s thriller can see past the cliché starts and police procedural trappings for an intense, down to the wire, provocative Whitechapel debut dénouement.

08 November 2013

House of Usher (1960)

House of Usher is Creepy, Gothic Good Fun
By Kristin Battestella

American International Pictures and director/producer Roger Corman took their low budget horror productions to the next atmospheric, macabre level with this 1960 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, the first of eight delightful, demented Poe-isms.

Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the gloomy Usher estate to inquire upon his ill betrothed Madeline (Myrna Fahey). Though longtime family butler Bristol (Harry Ellerbe) is kind to Philip, Madeline’s elder brother Roderick (Vincent Price) fears for his sister and the engagement thanks to a history of family illness and vice. The siblings suffer from several afflictions and sensibilities, and marriage, life in the outside world, and having children is out of the question as far as Roderick is concerned. Nonetheless, Philip wants to take Madeline away – but the Usher lineage and the crumbling mansion itself threatens them all…

Corman’s (The Little Shop of Horrors, A Bucket of Blood) big CinemaScope color spectacle may be a little slow to start for today’s viewers, but this deliberate build sets the bizarre, melancholy tone and let’s the audience know something’s afoot. The would-be marital conflict is immediately established on top of the decaying house fears, sleepwalking tendencies, and deathly obsessions. Much of Poe’s spirit is here in that chilling Twilight Zone feeling thanks to screenwriter Richard Matheson’s expansion on The Fall of the House of Usher. More back story is added, names and new characters are fleshed out to lengthen the short story to 80 minutes of material, but the designs are largely faithful and appropriately demented. Hints of the decadent family history, past excess, and religious sins of the father upon the children questions help explain or make excuses for this current sibling crazy. Can their house itself – physically capable of causing destruction in its crumbling state – actually embody the Usher vice and vile? Or is it all a bad case of hypochondria and self fulfilling prophecy? It is fun to be a fan of Poe or at least be familiar with his work before seeing House of Usher in order to fully enjoy all the twists on the big screen, however, new audiences can certainly come into a viewing cold and enjoy the kickers all the same.

“Peculiarities of temperament” aside, Vincent Price (The Pit and the Pendulum) is simply rocking the swept back platinum hair in House of Usher! The style really brings out his eyes as the crazy mounts – it’s a wonder he didn’t keep the look for all his other loony characters. Of course, Roderick is just a little too creepy and overly attached to his sister. Today’s viewers will certainly be thinking of something more incestuous or scandalous that couldn’t be out rightly stated in 1960 or even directly by Poe, and with those acute senses and other disorders on top of this weird, there is definitely an uncomfortable feeling in the titular household. You wouldn’t want to visit this guy and no wonder he wants his sister to remain at home. Ironically, Roderick’s opinion of marriage and family legacy is understandable – the viewer never doubts his smart, refined, classy sensibilities – but the fatalistic attitude, looming doom and gloom, and almost casual acceptance of illness and death is off putting to say the least. Again, is Roderick being prophetic and unnecessarily fearful or is there really a sickness?  After such a lineage of bad apples, it’s reasonable that one might wonder what kind of saving grace he could put on the legacy. It’s easier to succumb to it, however, and Price is perfect in this crazy, moody, melancholy. I really don’t seen any of this supposed over acting for which Price is allegedly so famous. He’s just wonderfully bent, crawling out of his skin, and spot on here.

There are a few questions and even plot holes as to how or why Mark Damon’s (Black Sabbath) Philip meets Madeline, granted, and it is a touch awkward the way he just shows up and storms in looking for his supposedly soon to be wife. Some of the fifties lovey dovey between Damon and Myrna Fahey (Zorro) as Madeline is also a bit much and too forced amid the creepy in one of the deviations from Poe’s original unnamed narrator. Philip’s a tad annoying in his not taking the hint about his girl and his touchy, clingy style, too. Fortunately, he becomes the relatable anchor compared to this freaky family – the character even stands out visually by wearing blue suits and coats amid the other decidedly burgundy, moody designs. The viewer didn’t see their supposed happiness and Philip may be just as much to blame for Madeline’s condition, yet the audience needs to believe in the possibility that this couple might just make it. We want alls well to end well, but we should know better! Harry Ellerbe (Desk Set) is also a kindhearted edition as Bristol the long serving, loyal butler. He’s aided the family despite its faults but must now be nice to this, well, Philip is almost an intruder, isn’t he? Fahey makes for the perfect fair, ethereal, yet appropriately feeble Madeline, too, and her obsession with death and crypts crescendos wonderfully in House of Usher – those eyes, that bloody trail, classic!

Although the picture may look slightly flat or not as crisp as we spoiled audiences today expect, House of Usher is still a luxuriously dressed and good looking movie for its time and budget. From the great smoky, foggy, barren, and thorny approach to the Victorian creepy of the titular house itself, red candles and candelabras, antiques, top hats and capes, and scarlet frocks add a sinister elegance amid the shadows, cobwebs, and decrepit. The gothic styled mansion sets are surprising warm as well thanks to carpets, tapestries, and classic woodworks, and a hazy, eerie, tinted, and bizarre dream sequence adds to the surreal feeling. We know when and where this is taking place, but it all seems like an abstract purgatory or increasing nightmare as the scale gets smaller and more claustrophobic. Some of the voices are too soft or the music uneven, but thunder and lighting pop as the foundations literally crack. Fire tops off a morbid finale of dust, destruction, and building perils. All this happens in House of Usher, and yet I’d live in this house, dang straight!

Strangely, the DVD editions of House of Usher seem elusive – Netflix is Save Only at best – but the new Vincent Price Collection blu-ray set is brimming with interviews and commentaries. Due to its fifties sensibility over the contemporary, scary, sexy, scandalous, and more or less weaker Usher adaptations, this rendition is classroom friendly whilst still capturing the right demented and moody atmosphere. House of Usher proves all you need for great film is the right cast, a good story, and an eerie stage. Fans of Roger Corman, the ensemble, Edgar Allan Poe, and gothic horror surely know and love this adaptation already, and if you don’t, for shame!

01 November 2013

Mario Bava Horror Special!

Bava Horror, Anyone?
By Kristin Battestella

In my ongoing search for upper crust, classic European Horror, one name consistently tops the charts: Mario Bava. Here’s a small sampling of Italian made treats – and one warning of how not to botch a perfectly good Bava tale. 

Baron Blood – Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane) and Elke Sommer (more on her in a bit) star in this often unloved 1972 tale of family curses, and the mix of centuries old torture, witches, hidden treasure, and vengeance does indeed need some polish and clarification. Is this about the past cruelty, the raised baron, or the contemporary haunted hotel? Why do these clearly out of their depth people go messing with these past horrors anyway? Despite a bright, swanky, jet setting, and cliché start – an American coming back to his spooky ancestral Austrian castle complete with outfitted dungeon – the titular ghost talk, tolling bells, and incantations build suspense. The accents, poor script, and exposition scenes may be tough, but the dark, murderous actions counter the lack of motivation or room to maneuver from the cast. How is the viewer to like them when the resurrected baron is their fault? Thankfully, the country locales and estates look lovely – the partially restored castle is both dreary as needed or lit with just the right ambiance and fog. Perspective kills, scary zooms, angles, shocks, chases, and kids in peril continue the creepy, and the sickening makeup is burned and nasty effective. The wheelchair bound Cotten does add some slick and twisted layers, however, we don’t see him enough to enjoy his nuances. The picture is off on the wrong foot and hampers itself under a muddled story because it doesn’t focus on the eponymous character. This is rougher around the edges than Bava’s usual style, charisma, and mood, granted, yet the look and players remain just watchable enough thanks to an entertaining finale.

Black Sunday – We’ve seen other anniversary curses and execution revenge pictures beyond this 1960 black and white so-called Bava directing debut, originally edited and released by AIP stateside without its proper Mask of Satan title. Every cliché is here, complete with a coach breaking down in front of a derelict mansion, scholars turned grave robbers, and a few drops of blood releasing a ghoulish mistake, but we’ve never seen such lurid family history, look a like damsels, and undead doctors like this. The stereotypical hysterias, Old World mysticism, Eastern European staples, and Moldavia vibes not only work, but the opening 17th century fire and brimstone narration is darn effective with excellent wind and thunder to match. Sudden movements add surreal jump scares, but fog, phantom carriages, and creepy forests know when to be still. Artfully, posed scenes are filmed thru branches, shadows, cobwebs, and smoke – almost like a silent movie. Sure, this was probably done to conceal the on the cheap but no less crafty period flair or assorted set flaws, but the design looks damn scary and perfectly atmospheric. I wouldn’t go out alone at night and milk the cow either! Though the English delivery and vocals are very well done, it is unfortunate Barbara Steele (The Pit and the Pendulum) is dubbed. Nonetheless, her dual role as the ingénue princess and the not so well to do witch is ethereal and captivating – the classic lighting and photography captures her stunning beauty as well as the totally creepy corpse effects and ghouly makeup. Of course, the blood necessities, servants dead in the day but alive at night, bodily possessions, and witch or vampire and Satanist terms are all somehow used wrongfully or interchangeably as needed; yet the science versus occult talk is also well thought out, even ahead of its time. Thankfully, the complete 87 minute European version has all the simmering pace and swelling music intact, and one can see why so many other films followed this model. Why did we forget how to make pictures like this? 

Planet of the Vampires –AIP also co-produced this 1965 Bava science fiction horror bizarre, and though old, the space effects look good, even sophisticated for the most part. The thin science and early space flight futuristic lingo is dated, of course, but existential, non-corporeal spins, infrared light, lots of smoke, alien green glows, and more surreal visual designs assure the audience this isn’t the Lost in Space juvenile style of the time. Though the uniforms look like cast offs from the first X-Men movie, the atmosphere doesn’t feel low budget or foreign cheap thanks to Bava’s in-camera tricks and flair. Today’s CGI spoiled viewers may be unaccustomed to the sparse rooms, big buttons, lights, knobs, and sci-fi gizmos, but this nostalgic charm helps make up for some of the who is who confusion and slow start. Sound effects and scoring also accent the very interesting premise, scary disaster mood, and planetary dangers as the straight SF adventure turns bloody and deadly. The quiet exploring and festering creepy tops when the undead astronauts rise, and wise viewers can definitely see the space horror genre influences here – mystery homing beacon, giant calcified ancient skull, ominous massive alien spacecraft and all coughaliencough. Fans of Bava’s gothic horror designs or gory lovers may find this picture an unconventional departure and not even necessarily horror – and it is more in the spirit of a macabre anthology episode – but fans of his style and even straight SF audiences should take a look.

Also See

Lisa and the Devil – The dubbing is off, the spoken volumes low and the music too loud and over the top for this dreamy, stylized, and somewhat confusing 1974 Bava bent. Subtitles are definitely a must to help explain the mysterious men, macabre apparitions, bizarre guests, and Spanish flair. The maze like city streets, weird statues, cluttered Old World feelings and eerie estate, however, are perfectly atmospheric and match the almost elegant filmmaking. Fresh color and blood add to the scandals and up close, erratic violence while reflections, zooms, and angled camerawork anchor the photography and parallel the multi dimensional players and their affairs, secrets, and crimes. This ensemble is aware of their spooky circumstances, even when the script is uneven with superfluous soliloquies and silence. Wispy flashbacks take too much time to explain all the past connections, yet the tale also seems overlong like a 85 minute supersized anthology segment. The nasty implications will be tough to watch, too, but the unique saucy and peculiar sensuality is smartly obscured what we think we see sex and nudity. Telly Savalas (Kojak) is likewise creepy yet charismatic with the svelte ingénue Elke Sommer, and this crisscrossing mix of doppelgangers, demons, and the dead is a bizarrely entertaining, twisted little ride.

But Skip

House of Exorcism – Stay with me now, for this re-edited version of Lisa and the Devil from producer Alfredo Leone adds new possession themes, exorcism footage, and Robert Alda (Rhapsody in Blue) as the titular performing priest in an attempt to mainstream Bava’s Euro-fashioned uncut edition. From different opening titles and the re-christened Mickey Lion aka Leone directing to more blood, violence, and intercut medical scenes, it’s apparent this is not the same film. Sommer’s grunting and demonic scenes are embarrassing and somehow seem more exploitative than her nasty sex scene in Lisa and the Devil. Not that this is a bad performance by Elke, but the crass sex, extra boob shots, and full frontal nudity just seems so classless – sex and priests just don’t feel right then or now. All the exorcism clichés seem trashy, and the language is so unnecessarily foul it’s almost funny: “Where do you come from?” “A cunt, you jerk!” Wtf? “Don’t break my balls, Priest!” Granted, Bava’s tale is confusing, but this Lisa being possessed has nothing to do with the doubly flashback scandals and makes even less sense. Would I have liked to see an exorcism or possession drama from Bava? Sure. Is this it? No. Die-hard fans may like to watch and compare, but otherwise, don’t bother with this rehash.