31 October 2015

Penny Dreadful: Season 2

Penny Dreadful Season 2 is Again a Macabre Good Time
by Kristin Battestella

Penny Dreadful's sophomore year opens with a recap of the the Showtime series' debut before picking up the Gothic sophistication right where we left off – this time with ten episodes of scorpions, witches, monsters, and devils.

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is attacked by a group of Nightcomer witches led by Madame Kali (Helen McCrory), but ex-gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) protects Vanessa along with Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – whom Madame Kali pursues romantically. Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale) helps translate a mysterious demonic tale written on a monk's relics alongside Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway), but Frankenstein is distracted by his work on the late Brona Croft (Billie Piper) – now resurrected as Lily Frankenstein at the request of the Creature Caliban (Rory Kinnear), himself going by the name John Clare for his new job at a waxworks museum. Unfortunately, Lily eventually sets her sights on the decadent Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) instead.

White snow, demonic language, and dangerous carriage attacks waste no time starting “Fresh Hell” alongside excellent tender moments and graves dug from last season. Where Year One was about meeting the team and facing a largely unseen evil, now Penny Dreadful puts a more human face on our company's threats with evil women and meddling inspectors. It's a delightful step to share the gruesome aftermath while we get to know this enemy – a little demon family to mirror our flawed fighters. Monstrosity is just everywhere in Londontown!These naked witch ladies should be alluring but they are not, and new biblical threads arise in “Verbis Diablo.” Even prayers are no longer sacred amid pity projects, cholera ills, and enchanting deceptions. New character interactions infuse Penny Dreadful, anchoring the stories of possessed holy men, titular puzzles, disturbing infant abductions, and unique voodoo uses. That's one diabolic arts and crafts room! There's superb war room plotting in both our houses – and a mole between them – so it is perhaps unusual to have an all Vanessa flashback episode so soon in “The Nightcomers.” However, the Victorian meets Baba Yaga magic, symbols, and protection motifs are excellent thanks to critical past information that will be important later and sublime guest star Patti LuPone (Life Goes On). This well paced character drama fills in history from the First Season and serves it with quaint do no harm and brutal persecution.

The demonic riddles and unique character confrontations continue in “Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places.” Deception always wears such a pretty face yet Penny Dreadful makes time for our darkly clad band to enjoy some lighthearted social moments before a creepy chameleon siege upon Sir Malcolm's house that has the viewer studying each frame for clues. While padding time and unnecessarily stretched out scenes are apparent in this longer season, the final moments here are an appropriately simmering, silent unease. “Above the Vaulted Sky” has some fine true horror as extensions of our family pay a terrible price, and recalled Apache atrocities parallel the montages of faith and battle preparations. Are steel doors, guns, prayers, and totems enough to face the devil? It's pleasing to have time dedicated to the turmoil and lying in wait for harm to come as evil and the authorities close in on our company. Penny Dreadful has touching poetic moments before major ghosts encounters and hefty scares. However, the sex scene finale here is very poorly edited with intercut frightening erroneously mixed with what should be tender bedroom moments. The morning after in “Glorious Horrors” is non too peachy either as influences are asserted and bloody fatalities become as simple as replacing the carpet. Can one be oblivious to threats when everything is connected and nothing is happenstance? Funeral talk and awkward balls shape a deliciously off kilter splendor, and Penny Dreadful puts all its players together in a twisted little bloodbath with intriguing character asides, jealous pairs old and new, superb revelations, and gruesome showdowns.

Little Scorpion” is a shorter Penny Dreadful episode at only 49 minutes, but this Ethan and Vanessa-centric block has lovely one on one character moments questioning solitude and the growing distrust among our eponymous team. The tormented have some small, delightful comforts away from the inescapable monsters and demons at their backs, making for some dangerous tension and steaming dancing in the dark storms. Superior hours where not all the cast appears suggests Penny Dreadful creator John Logan may be juggling too many storylines or characters, but “Memento Mori” trades deadly toppers for swift interrogation filming. Askew up close shots, intercut tension, and lies contrast softer fireside conversations and waxing regrets. Can you look at yourself in the mirror when you do what has to be done in the fight against evil? The ongoing demon incarnate puzzle solving ties together pieces from Season One as mirrors and dual camera tricks heighten the character heavies. Although the evil plans seem too wishy wasy at times with back and forth possessions and reversed enchantments, this episode allows its three plotlines to play out as uninterrupted acts, bucking the A, B, C standard television story structure to elevate its scary revelations. 

Monster does catch monster, and even the authorities consider otherworldly and superstitious possibilities in “And Hell Itself My Only Foe.” Upticked violence and hauntings find our team, and the witty dialogue and intelligent scripting add to the surprises. The subtle Talbot name drop is worth all the wolf mishandling in the First Season, and more self-awareness comes in the ugly waxworks entertainment. Evil is beautiful and seductive with temptations from Lucifer to display one's inner beast. That internal made manifest leads to some stunning confrontations, indeed. $%#%(*&! The excellent multi-layered horrors and battle of wills continue in the “And They Were Enemies” finale as Penny Dreadful's not so merry band is tested in enemy territory. Devils on the shoulder present a most convincing case – be it death, our darkest desires, or the brightest dream too good to be true. Once you cross the line toward darkness, what must you do to come back to the light? Can you save yourself at all? Granted, moments with the effigy puppetry and lookalike demonic language arguing become hokey quickly, a jarringly laughable moment amid the utmost heavy. After a hefty but quality slow build and some unnecessary treading tires and stalling plots, the final evil confrontation also feels too rushed by comparison. There are some wild surprises and a character denouement with time for reflection is a welcome change from an action finale. However, maybe the pacing should have been tightened to have an all battle second to last hour and then an entire sigh of relief end instead of a finale that feels too half and half. Fortunately, Penny Dreadful concludes with plenty of creepy nonetheless. Are our players moving forward stronger after these paranormal events? Their ships may be sailing their separate ways, but Year Three of Penny Dreadful looks to promise plenty! %%$%#$@#*@!

Evil just won't let go of Vanessa Ives so easily, will it? Her strength to fight against demons inside and out glues the team together as much as it puts them in peril, and Vanessa needs them as much as they need her. She talks about what must be done and what she is capable of doing, and even when some of that is just delayed exposition issues, we believe her wrath because we've see her pain. For all the good she does and her ongoing struggles to keep this delicate balance, her ties to Amunet leave nothing but badness in her wake. How do you cling to faith when there is so much wicked? Vanessa endeavors to embrace her power within – but does that mean you abandon your belief in a higher power? Having religion doesn't necessarily make you good, and Vanessa admits she and God are on challenging terms. Can we just be who we are or is that too much responsibility for one soul? Vanessa's therapy is in her support of the boys about her – she is a confessor for each of them in different ways. Will solace be found in like tormented persons? She can soothe others but not herself, and Vanessa has some deliciously intellectual conversations with John Clare, adding a new damned soul to her repertoire – which looks quite cloudy for next season.

Likewise, Ethan Chandler is beginning to suspect his wolfy connections as more dastardly carnage comes to light. He's perpetually trying to leave town thanks to his fear of admitting what he is capable of doing, which is beautifully foreshadowed in “Verbis Diablo” before the tenth hour finale. Ethan's charming banter with Lyle deflects his inner lupus with Latin research, and Hartnett very nearly steals the show in his witty battles with Douglas Hodge (Red Cap) as the persistently not stupid Inspector Rusk. Like Vanessa, Ethan pegs people for who they really are, and his coy comes in handy as his pursuers mount. Even if he can face his affliction and its monthly consequences, he tries to protect Vanessa from his wild in a wonderfully unconventional romance – if it can even be called that. We don't see the wolf outs for flash in the pan cool, but rather as choice visuals to emphasize the tormented monstrosity now fully realized on Penny Dreadful as it should have been all along. Danny Sapani as manservant Sembene also has more to do now that he helps Ethan bind his lycanthrope tendencies, adding to the fine moments he has with Sir Malcolm. This stalwart and strong but humble workhorse character provides a shaman wisdom while doing the dishes, baking, and waxing on how Ethan should see his moonlit changes as a blessing not a curse. Sembene shares his own past sins and guards his household kin with unwavering duty and respect, but by golly, audiences will be understandably angry at the treatment of the character. He still deserves more, #$%D#&*%! 

New bewitching temptations and continued family losses grip Sir Malcolm once again on Penny Dreadful, but the in control, noble gentleman on the outside can't use his suave to hide his pain. Sir Malcolm must face the questions and consequences regarding his daughter Mina's death from Last Season, and he's ready to trade his life and accept his punishment to spare his newfound family further torment. His internal demons provide ghostly experiences both positive and wicked. Dalton is charming in his unknowingly deceptive courting with Mrs. Poole, but the shaving of his beard is a surprising character development. It's just so odd seeing the ex-007 sans scruff again, but the change is a perfect reflection of the evil influences at work. Despite some strong advice from Sir Malcolm and an interesting science versus faith intellectual pairing with Lyle, young Victor Frankenstein is also blinded by his wrong doings, chiding John Clare's pressure on Lily while Victor himself is slowly but surely shaping his perfect woman. Frankenstein's muddled monster making motives become increasingly creepy science for fetish alongside his now not secret drug addictions. He's a little nasty, too, but bonds with Vanessa, trusting her to help him with his awkward shopping experience. Slowly Victor becomes aware of his mistakes, even admitting his addiction is affecting his freaky science, but by time he wants to escape his creations, it's too late. Ironically, Dr. F. doesn't believe in witchcraft, but evil knows what he has spawned and uses his deeds against him in smashing fashion.

Those wonderfully macabre waxworks and layered Victorian deceptions elevate the Caliban aka John Clare plots this season, and his scenes with Vanessa are refreshingly honest and mature. Clare speaks his mind without malice instead of his usual mine mine mine childish wants. Why are these Frankenstein men so pressed and gushing over every woman they meet? Clare's friendship with Vanessa is his first genuine and healthy relationship. Kinnear has room to shine in the poetic recitings and quiet moments with Green, but the well read doesn't do Clare any good if he won't learn from his to err is human. Once again, he misuses his chance to do right, can't catch a break, and ultimately must flee. When Clare finally looks past Lily's beauty and his desperate need for companionship, he sees a worse ruthlessness and rightfully realizes that Pandora's Box contains a mirror. Was Lily's creation worth it? Though the short blonde hair doesn't fit the period and it is unusual that Vanessa doesn't recognizer her, Billie Piper is much better this year as Lily Frankenstein compared to the dead end and bad accent that was Brona Croft. It's perfectly acceptable on Penny Dreadful when the resurrection of a character can fix all that was dislikable, and Lily smartly questions why women wear corsets and are meant to be controlled and appealing to a man. She seems innocent, but soon proves the dastardly of her rebirth and wrongfully remodeled by Victor is not for anything angelic. Lily learns how to lie, finds her deadly instincts, and grows tempted by Dorian thanks to elegant white frocks, gruesome blood stains, and a man-made monster superiority complex. We should like Lily – we don't blame her for remembering the abuses of her previous oldest prostitution profession and using her strength for revenge. However, her twisted and wrong doing companionship with Dorian is anything but empowering to anyone but herself.

Unfortunately, I did not miss the absent Dorian Gray in “Fresh Hell,” and his brothel shenanigans feel more like interfering annoyances during the first half of Penny Dreadful this season. I'm all for more penis on television, but compared to the more serious, self aware, and better developed star roles, the character seems like an excuse for depravity mixed with would be modern social commentary. Dorian doesn't even interact with any other main character until “Glorious Horrors” – or anyone else but Jonny Beauchamp (Stonewall) as Angelique for that matter. These scenes become shoehorned in titillation or sensationalism, a cruel and cliché storyline serving no purpose in the overall season arc. Angelique's gender struggles in Victorian society and finally finding a tender relationship should be touching, but by slicing their aforementioned consummation scene with evil seduction and paranormal death scenes, are you saying gay sex is as bad as casting demonic spells on a man and using voodoo to kill his wife?!?! #$%$^$@*&! We know this tryst is fun and games for Dorian, but this is no fling to Angelique, and those consequences also unfairly stereotype Angelique as a nosy, jealous beotch when Dorian moves on to his next fancy. The about dang time reveal of his eponymous portrait and his blasé attitude toward it proves how ugly his true self really is, but we already knew that from his toying with Angelique. This entire unnecessary and unjust plot further proves Dorian Gray is a tug and pull supporting player who should only be recurring as needed – and Angelique should have been the gosh darn regular joining our dreadful company instead!

Thankfully, Simon Russell Beale is deliciously good fun as our team's flamboyant Egyptologist Ferdinand Lyle. Despite the sophistication and heavy work at hand, Beale provides a covert humor and positive gravitas with his flirtations:

“American! I am undone!”
“Well, I do have a gun belt.”
“Stop!...Will you bring your gun belt?”
“Both guns.”

Underneath this fluttery chemistry, Lyle is unsure where his allegiance lies, and by admitting his conflicting circumstances and burdens to bear, he fits right in with the Penny Dreadful gang. The homoerotic undertones match the main story instead of being uncomfortably apart from it, adding flair to a character largely saddled with fantastic exposition. In addition to the already established Catholic iconography, Lyle adds more conversations on faith, reflection, and recompense thanks to all he has witnessed from Helen McCrory as that sometime Madame Kali and always evil Mrs. Evelyn Poole. Her enemy house not only has a medieval ossuary bent, but Sarah Greene (Vikings) as the ruthless but cool Hecate is ready to step out of her mother's much older than she looks shadow. Madame Kali is in a powerful tit for tat with her demonic master, and she intends to gain new praise by delivering Vanessa to him – with Sir Malcolm as a dark bonus for herself. Her ambitions, Hecate's rival desires, and their evil foil, however, do get stretched thin at times. These are formidable ladies cutting out hearts and invoking killer puppetry with more provocative tricks – The Pooles shouldn't have to hurry up and wait to harm our dreadfuls. Nonetheless, such evil planning talks make for some juicy scene chewing for McCrory and other returning guest stars. Just because you're dead doesn't mean you can't reappear as Madame Kali sees fit!

Iffy CGI cityscapes, animated scorpions, and more sweeping scene transitions don't always look right on Penny Dreadful, but the up close London streets alive with horses, waxworks, and period mechanization look the ghastly Victorian needed. The below the British Museum dusty, piles, statues, and maze-like clutter for good or ill is simply begging for some Mummy plots! More Universal Horror nods including the one armed inspector and swan style gowns layer the lush alongside a haunting score. The witch designs look of the past, with evil sprites coming out of the walls or mirrors and matching a colorful scheme of orange for evil firesides and gruesome greens for the dead. Candlelit patinas contrast the all gray and white ghostly while coffins, shrouds, gargoyles, and dungeon traps keep the macabre personal rather than today's hollow torture porn gore – often with 55 minutes plus for full morbid effect. Sharp language uses mix old staples, making for a twisted new tongue where eerie terms like lupus and Lucifer stand out and force the audience to pay attention upon first viewing Penny Dreadful. The fashions are again scrumptious, and it's lame of Hot Topic to go with scorpion tee shirts when this kind of long skirt and button up lace is on the runaway and ripe for a comeback. Penny Dreadful has an excellent attention to detail, and I'm surprised this uber sophisticated design isn't receiving more technical awards.

Watching Penny Dreadful can also be tough thanks to cumbersome Showtime Anytime and Xfinity interfaces, loading and log in troubles, and expiring episode rushes but there are Amazon streaming and DVD options in addition to Showtime reruns. Ironically, the show's premium channel home allows it to be top tier scandalous yet also makes Penny Dreadful difficult for viewers to find. Nonetheless, the series remains must see for Gothic horror fans. The sensationally spooky material and often outlandishly wicked are treated intelligently, and we've been waiting for Penny Dreadful's kind of sophisticated, top drawer horror for too long.

18 October 2015

Dames and Doppelgangers!

Dames and Doppelgangers
by Kristin Battestella

Well I think these monster fighting, dual role playing, and spooky butt kicking ladies from across the decades deserve a second look!

Another Me – Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (The Tudors), Rhys Ifans (Anonymous), and Claire Fiorlani (Meet Joe Black) anchor this 2013 British/Spanish doppelganger teen thriller which is admittedly poorly structured and padded to start with violent dreams, a trying to be ominous narration, and critical family moments shown in flashback rather than real time. More Macbeth and high school play jealously cliches, emo photography, and music moments litter the first ten minutes, but Meyers makes for a dreamy drama teacher alongside lingering shadows, assorted reflections, filming through windows, and double camera trickery. Coming and going gaslighting a neighbor, quick passing glances, double takes, and ignored graffiti warnings add simmer while single white female same haircuts and frienemy understudies shape a waiting in the aside, play within a play dual layer. Stairs to and tunnels fro delay the foreboding but the claustrophobic, up close elevator panic is well done amid fine illness, adulterous stupidity, and marital breakdowns. We don't see many scary encounters – just an overreacting teenager jumping to conclusions when she could have, you know, asked her parents if there was an in utero twin problem. The pace is slow and unsure in giving the character drama room or allowing for the supposed to be spooky. A tale can be both but the round and round builds up to a bigger scare that doesn't happen, the physicality of it all is never really explained, and the outcome is fairly obvious. It might have been interesting to have seen the villain, experienced her double interactions, and witness some opposite acting chops from Turner. Fine twists do happen, but with seven minutes of credits eating into the 85 minute runtime, writer and director Isabel Coixet (My Life without Me) needed both more development time for the deserving cast and a tighter focus on the phenomena. This is nothing new to longtime scary viewers – similar plots have been done better in The Twilight Zone's “Mirror Image” and Poe's “William Wilson” – but the PG-13 spooky will be entertaining for younger audiences.

The Dark – The viewer can't see much to start this 1994 nighttime eerie thanks to the titular low budget coverage, and the first fifteen minutes of ho hum Van Damme diner action trite is unnecessary alongside poor editing and badly placed ominous crescendos interfering with the real under the cemetery monster plot convergence and ex FBI agent Brion James' (Blade Runner) conflict. Our main golly gee groundsman is also weak, but there is room for grave digging humor, daylight cemetery research, and you know, headstones being sucked into the ground. Toxic contamination and mutant animal possibilities are interesting, and having a pre-Scream Neve Campbell as an investigating Mountie isn't as bad as it sounds. Although cops tying themselves together with ropes and going down into the tunnel under the cemetery at night with only a glock and a lighter is totally a no brainer! The lack of subtitles helps in overlooking some bad dialogue, however captions would have clarified the healing DNA properties and technical science talk. It's better that we don't really see the whole pseudo prehistoric beastie, just a largely undefined head, shadowed teeth, slimy drool, and grabby reptile hands. Though laughable at times, the dangerous sinkholes and falling through the graveyard ground remain scary, monster or not. And say hey, a waitress and a lady cop talking about monsters passes the Bechdel test! A lot of the 90 minutes here is B picture run of the mill, but there are enough creepy possibilities and inadvertent humor for a late night Halloween marathon.

Dead of Winter – Stairs, wheelchairs, a photographer in a cast, and a suspicious glass of milk – director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) accents this 1987 doppelganger thriller with Hitchcock references, blustery snowscapes, isolated mansions, and down phone lines. Red nails, long cigarettes, fedoras, holiday music, antiques, dark roads, and retro cars evoke an eighties meets forties noir mood while struggling actress Mary Steenburgen (Melvin and Howard) leaves her crowded apartment for a seemingly lucrative acting job. The audience expects some deception thanks to a psychiatrist turned producer Jan Rubes (Witness), mirrors, creepy photos, cameras, and television playbacks toying with a film within a film duality. However, the basic reveals happen early, and the unseen faces, violent car attacks, and suspect make overs build pace and twists for the identity games afoot. Television static, distorted cinematography, attic passages, mice, and hidden bodies add to the crazy switcharoos, and Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes) is a delightfully passive aggressive pressure cooker to match Steenburgen's superb triple duty performance. Sure, some of the Mary on Mary fight scenes may be amusing because we know the cinema tricks involved, but the twofold filming is also well done considering such difficulty. Despite some unclear blackmail and money MacGuffin schemes, wild screams, finger cuttings, and increasing peril top this one off nicely. 

But a Skipper

Breeders – This 1997 remake of alien monsters and mating coeds is also called Deadly Instincts and is an Isle of Man production. Who knew? Unfortunately, rather than monsters at university run amok, this is set on an American campus with Boston logos galore and embarrassing basketball scenes. Could you have chosen a tougher accent to destroy? Not to mention this is an all girl school but the throwback male hero is named Ashley just to keep the shouts and screams confusing. The opening interstellar graphics look like bad porn designs, as does the duct tape and tinfoil our alien lady is wearing, and the meh monster design is nonsensical with crystals, slime, and some kind of glow necklaces impregnating chicks. Was there no budget left for gore after buying all the Boston stickers for the police cars? The cops seem more like unnecessarily antagonistic mobsters, and the barely there plot somehow devolves into snipers in the sewers shooting themselves instead of the mini wannabe Godzilla. The only redeemable thing here would be a healthy dose of expected horror exploitations, but the catfights, lingering thigh zooms, cheap makeouts, ass shots, naked locker room jiggle, and shower conversations are so gosh darn tame it takes the fun out of everything. This is an hour too long – even at 1.5 speed nothing happens – and schlock like this is for a drinking game only.

12 October 2015

More Karloff, Chaney, and Wolfy

More Karloff, Chaney, and Wolfy!
by Kristin Battestella

Horror fans and lovers of all things October can never have enough mid century Boris Karloff, silent Lon Chaney scares, or early werewolf mayhem now can we? 

The Climax – Susanna Foster (Phantom of the Opera) and Turhan Bey (The Amazing Mr. X) join Boris Karloff – in color! – for this 1944 Universal moody meets musical originally envisaged as a would be sequel to their too successful not to capitalize upon it 1943 Phantom of the Opera. Though the voices are too soft compared to the bombastic notes and the production connections are apparent in the reused stage sets, the grandiose, gilded opera house fits well with the behind the curtain dusty and suspicious as the blurred frame and warped design accent the bittersweet turned deadly flashback from lovelorn theatre physician Karloff. Why, examine the lovely diva's throat, you say? I think not! While few in number, the frilly, slightly overlong and probably unnecessary full song and dance productions won't be for those who dislike operatic vocals nor audiences expecting all horror. Ironically, the score isn't very striking, and if this wasn't going to be Phantom of the Opera Part Deux, the musical elements should have been removed altogether in favor of Karloff's worth seeing creepy. Typical temperamental divas, usurping ingenues in love, an incompetent opera manager, and more plot points are too immediately Phantom obvious. If viewers don't know the aborted sequel history, this all appears like a conspicuous knockoff, and ultimately, the result is a mixed motivated picture that feels like two films squashed into one. The menacing story seems thin, stretched out to avoid interfering with the musical formula, which in turn detracts from the quality Karloff villainy. I like classic musicals, however the macabre start with a brooding Karloff and the ghostly shadows of his prima donna past belie the song segments that sag without him. Big B's alarming obsessions and possessive plans are simply better thanks to extreme up close shots, hypnotic light machines, killer pearls, and damaging vocal tonics. There's a predatory simmer, a subtle, slick calculation, and despite the identity crisis, this tale does go out on a high note. Literally.

The Monster – The silent mayhem in this 1925 horror comedy starts with well done car mishaps, a milkman eloping with another man’s wife, and deducing amateur detectives along with a variety of intertitles, newspapers, book passages, and handwritten notes. Great style, catchy tunes, dance scenes, and period dynamite for the twenties enthusiast will help forgive what may seem like unnecessary to and fro or lighthearted rambling. Intended horror audiences may think this humor takes too long away from the scares, but fortunately, a dark forest, stormy atmosphere, thunderous sound effects, spooky music, and one Lon Chaney drastically change the tone from slapstick to suspense. The tale truly begins with this creepy, trapped in a near-abandoned sanitarium situation, and freaky visuals, eerie figures, excellent shadows, and simmering movements heighten Chaney’s wonderful introduction – complete with a sophisticated, long stem cigarette but sinister, pasty facade. Hidden passages, trap doors, dumbwaiters, and poisoned drinks move the somewhat thin plot from one scare piece to the next twisted experiment without much explanation until the final twenty minutes. At a time when the average film was only an hour, the eighty minutes here may seem overlong and not everyone will enjoy that humorous but misleading start. Thankfully, wild tightrope action and electric chair havoc make for a fine finish, and early horror fans will enjoy spotting our modern horror frameworks and frightful clichés here in their film infancy.

The Strange Door – Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII) joins Our Man Boris for this black and white 1951 Universal co-production based upon the ye olde Robert Louis Stevenson source, and the carriages, tricorn hats, French flair, and bawdy pub follow suit in setting the chase. Behind that eponymous one way entry lies a perfectly macabre chateau well designed with shadows and lighting schemes alongside rumors of past torture, gruesome experiments, and the not what he seems servant Karloff spying within the walls and guarding a would be mad brother. The family drama is somewhat slow to start with the names and history not immediately revealed, but the much lauded Laughton does some surprisingly fun scene chewing as this jealous monsieur plots an unhealthy marriage for his niece, smoothly threatens to get his way with a handy hot poker, and carefully crafts an ominous, long brewing approach to his revenge. The captive angst and forced nuptials are not horror per se, but this quality is nonetheless icky, and the gluttonous higher ups give servants the scraps as though they were dogs and use any shared villainy about them in gaining the upper hand. Let's amuse ourselves by visiting the dungeons! Disposed of suitors, young romance, and a subtly implied innuendo don't leave much room for Karloff however, there are enough twists and turnabout deceptions to disrupt the long gestating cruel plans. Whom do you trust in this crazy locked house? At times, the eighty minutes seem uneven or a touch confusing and unsure if this is going to be a purely dramatic tale or full on scary. Thankfully, the fight scenes, daring escapes, and dangerous waterworks create a suspenseful finale to match the performances by the elder statesmen. I love the ladies looks and the pleasant period flavor, and it might be nice to see this story revisited in truly colorful and scary fashion.

Wolf Blood – This 1925 silent hour plus is the earliest remaining onscreen lycanthrope picture, complete with Canadian flavor, old fashioned logging, spooky forestry, railroads, and jealous love triangles to match the desperate titular transfusion and its would be consequences. A befitting green hue graces the outdoor scenes while standard black and white reflects the bleak interiors and golden tints accentuate the high society parties. The focus is blurry at times, the print understandably jumps, and the music is surprisingly loud. However, the rounded iris close ups add a dreamlike quality, and the vintage jazz tunes and period fashions are a real treat. If you're looking for a time capsule logging documentary, this is it! Flirtations, camp injuries, company rivalries, drunken dangers, and medical debates give the first half of the picture a purely dramatic pace, but the wolfy fears, mob mentality, and deadly possibilities build in the latter half. Fantastic medicine, superstitious leaps, dreams of becoming the wolf – this isn't a werewolf film as we know it but the key pieces are here. How fast people turn on you once you have wolf's blood! The wolf footage is also quite nice, with what looks like real mixed wolf or husky dogs. No, there is no werewolf transformation and it's all a bit of a fake out in that regard, but the community fears and early man versus beast melodrama is still fun to see.

08 October 2015

Scary Silent Staples!

Silent Scare Classics!
By Kristin Battestella

There's no better way to top off a blustery autumn evening than with a late night viewing of these sometimes bizarre, often eerie, mostly Expressionist, and always chilling silent film essentials.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Sleepwalking, hypnosis, and a demented carnival atmosphere are just the beginning for this influential 1920 paragon. From the German intertitles complete with a madcap, unreliable narrator font to the eerie, off key merry go round score, the distorted perceptions and exaggerated visuals force the viewer to pay attention. Green patinas, teal evening scenes, golden up close shots, and opening and closing irises layer on the dream like retelling alongside askew, Expressionist angles and a stage like design – a play within a play to which we the audience are willingly privy. Contrasting triangles, shadows, lighting, and more surreal architecture parallel the lacking reality, for there is no external frame of reference and forced perspectives belie a fun house whimsy. The actors, makeup, and abstract period styles are fittingly macabre, and the stilted contortionist movements evoke a poetic but unsettling ballet where a misused seemingly innocent, forgotten pawn needlessly dies once his job no longer computes. Though very indicative of its early interwar time, this remains immediately progressive – man is misled, controlled, even compliant in his misdeeds but not willing to be responsible for his actions when it is easier to be led astray and defer your killing hand to the orchestrating puppeteer. Do we not let popcorn entertainment and social media dictate our needs because someone somewhere told us so? Are we living in a fantasy if we think otherwise? Maybe so. The mass sheep consequences are indeed frightening, and some may find it tough to view this picture objectively knowing the catastrophic calamities to come. The appropriately named Cesare, deadly predictions, a perceived loved triangle, escalating murders, and crazy case connections twist and turn while satirical police sit on high up stools like toy soldiers waiting to be told what to do – like us in our 9 to 5 cubicles. Ignorance is bliss, and that is mighty scary. This is must see genre at its finest thanks to heaps of real world fears and social commentary for horror fans and classroom studies.

Faust – This 1926 F. W. Murnau biggie waxes on all the good and evil one can muster thanks to its Old World appeal, supernatural surreal, and timeless story. Familiar strings and sweeping orchestration ground the Expressionist horror framework with frenetic ills or melodic tender as needed while stunning images of angels both light and dark are fittingly disproportionate with oversized wings. So maybe the mounted skeletons may seem hokey, but the smoke and mirrors, creepy eyes, and evil horns make for superb overlays and superimposed shadows. Why do we toy with spectacular effects when each frame here is like a seamless painting – unlike contemporary, noticeably shoddy CGI. Ghoulish makeup, severe looks done with very little, dark hoods, rays of light, and religious iconography loom large, telling the tale with symbolic light and dark objects dueling for our attention – just like the delicate titular ballet. The battle for one man's soul is set amid our earthly plague fears, and despite the torment and somewhat odd, dragging domestic humor, the acting is not over the top but subdued for the weighty subject. This macabre is closer to the past than the present, setting off the repentance questions and plague as divine retribution debate. His Old Testament gives no answer, and evil enters in on Faust's doubts, trading decadence with quills to sign in blood, hourglass measures, alchemy, superimposed flames, and mystical books to match the thee and thou spells. Our deceiving little old man becomes more traditionally devilish looking with each lavish temptation, duplicitous with his immediate tricks of pleasure and unfulfilling youthful elixirs that cannot be sustained. Could you do good with such power? Flight and winds show not how high one goes but how far we will fall, and despite a somewhat overlong hour and forty minute full length edition, the grim sense of dread here snowballs as the looming evil drapes the bedchamber within his robes. Will innocence and love triumph and restore the divine? This stunning attention to detail not only makes me want to tackle Goethe again, but shows what can be done when time is taken to ensure a picture lasts 90 years rather than be a consumed and quickly forgotten 90 minutes. The multiple versions and assorted video reissues will bother completists, but we're lucky to have these copies at all and horror fans and film students must see this still influential morality play.

The Hands of Orlac – Art and music meet the grotesque for this 1924 tale of pleas, surgeries, and will power. Precious few newspaper clippings and streamlined, made to look old intertitles accent the ominous locomotives, vintage vehicles, smoke stacks, and well done but no less hectic disaster filmmaking before the macabre executions and madcap medicine. Doctors in white coats with terrible news, a saintly woman in white, bleak black trees against the clouded white sky – rather than our beloved silver screen, the picture here is truly a black and white negative with bright, symbolic domestic scenes and nighttime outdoor filming. Overwhelming buildings loom tall, and the sharp, gothic arches of a sinister father's house reflect his uncaring. Eerie superimposed faces, phantom feelings, and impatience to remove the bandages build toward the eponymous hysterics, but the simple agony of handwriting changes and crooked hands so skilled with a killer blade but unable to master the piano wonderfully increase the torment and self doubt. Is it the mind doing these fatal repeats or the appendages themselves taking over? The full near two hour restored version feels somewhat overlong, with melodramatic scenes and unnecessary transitions interfering with the anguish. At times, contrived fingerprint exposition and solving the crime clichés pull the rug out from under the horrific hands possibilities, but fortunately, the blackmail, murder investigation, and bittersweet love anchors the monstrous appendage swapping. Where today we would have all kinds of bent, hairy, or special effects to hit the viewer over the head with how evil these hands should be, it's amazing how these wicked hands psyching out our pianist don't look evil per se but actually fairly normal. With our contemporary pick and choose genetics and scientific advancements, the concept of these influential limbs out for themselves is perhaps more disturbing. Could you loose your art and livelihood when calamity takes your hands or would you use extreme science to restore your limbs, accepting the inadvertent trade of music for something more barbarous? This is an excellent must see both for the ghastly what ifs and the inner turmoil at work.

04 October 2015

Unfriendly Family Frights!

Unfriendly Family Frights!
By Kristin Battestella

Put the kiddies to bed for these old school sociological scares, freaky families, and creepy couples of decades yore. 


Brain Twisters – A shattered walkman, neon, bad techno graphics, giant microphones, and lots of old time televisions add nostalgia to this 1991 sci-fi scary. Did I mention the bad denim, pink, phones with cords, and phone booths? The dated design is certainly noticeable but feels more bemusing than unwatchable. The opening fifteen minutes have a nice underlying ominous – we know something spooky is going to happen to these coeds thanks to the bevy of dorky dudes, a creeper professor keeping a student’s brain on ice, and you know, nasty corporations doing brain experimentations. The eerie bathroom scenes are fun, but the female characters are cliché and distinguished only by their stereotypes: the smart virgin, the dark haired slut, and the chubby best friend. This low grade, late night Cinemax feeling increases thanks to some hokey and a seriously testosterone trying wooden detective. The flashing lights triggering brain aversions are also lame; movies today have a lot more dizzy inducing strobe than a blinking pinball machine! While it’s nice that you can see what’s happening without any in your face special effects, the straightforward filmmaking was probably a by budget necessity, so the lack of camera bells and whistles or flashy editing feels like things are taking too long to escalate. Nobody really figures out what’s going on, and this nothing spectacular but not a disaster style could have been punched up a lot more. This is better than I expected it to be and remains entertaining, but the premise and ultimate statement are a bit dumb. If there’s supposed to be some kind of message about the static on the TV brainwashing the next generation, that ship done sailed!

Crucible of Horror – Alfred he is not! Michael Gough is deliciously wicked in this 1970 familial twisty brimming with mirrors, then upscale décor, country cottages, a spooky attic, and a suspicious stiff upper lip gentility. This dad's sexist ideals are so sadistically strict that he feels up his 16 year old daughter's bicycle seat – no, this dinner table isn't going to be awkward! Old phones and out of order receivers add to the deceiving protocol, lack of privacy, and oh so polite manner. Pour us a drink and kindly don't interrupt while we try to kill you, jolly good. Guilty hands are constantly rewashed, intercut secrets up the suspicion, and whether it is shown or implied, the disturbing violence somehow keeps us guessing who is in the right and doing what to whom. Classical music keeps the murderous plotting, well, classy amid the well edited escalation and bumbling crime. How many times has this caper been foiled? Our thieving, traumatized teen sucks her thumb, and wife Yvonne Mitchell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) is both dead behind the eyes yet surprisingly lucid. The volume, unfortunately, seems very low here, and some scenes veer too far toward nonsensical psychedelic dreams. Not a lot happens to start either, but the creepy 90 minutes is allowed to simmer and build discomfort – not to mention how misogynistic brother Sam Gough (Shelley) and sister in need of discipline Sharon Gurney (Women in Love) are real life husband and wife! Despite some predictable twists, we don't quite blame anyone for taking matters into their own hands, and the retribution, fishy neighbors, and body afoot make for plenty of who did what to whom and how suspense. 

The Evictors – This 1979 AIP spooky opens with a neat 1928 sepia flashback complete with cool coops, a rural siege, and tommy gun shootouts before moving to Louisiana 1942 for more pretty country, fedoras, candlestick phones, and operators at the other end! Jessica Harper (Suspiria) unknowingly settles into that prior deadly house, and it's a familiar premise with red herrings, lusty realtor Vic Morrow (Combat!), and an old lady busybody recounting a 1939 killer flashback. There's also an expendable mystical negro stereotype sharing a 1934 flashback, and the expected horrors may build too slowly for audiences wanting shocks a minute. I'm not sure if I like the separate flashback actions or not, for they take away from the present mystery a bit too much. However, seeing how the murderous actions went down rather than just telling it in a typical research montage is different and allows for additional scares amid the more commonplace damsel in creepy house horrors. Fortunately, the flat picture fits the seventies meats forties revisit, and the cast matches the wartime look and colloquialisms. This was an idyllic time with unlocked doors, friendly neighbors, a lone woman walking in red pumps to the country store – and carrying back the groceries! The sentimental introductions, picnics, and king of the castle era creates a quaint safety before suspicious notes in the mailbox, eerie ticking clocks, creaking floorboards, and simmering thunderstorms. The behind closed doors screams, cut away violence, and killer camera perspectives add to the predatory suggestions – even if the finale gets somewhat humorous. Wise viewers may see the same old same old gun twists coming and the ending is a bit confusing. However, there are enough surprises and period flair accenting this puzzler. So why aren't more horror movies set in these eras?

Nomads – Although the eerie editing, slow motion, and stilted camerawork carries a dated movie of the week feeling, the black and white photographs, darkroom splicing, frizzy perms, and limp ladies bow ties ironically accent this atmospheric 1986 supernatural thriller. Los Angeles hospitals, violent patients, grimy vandals, and French flavor set off the bad dreams and strung out ER as the memories between fair doctor Lesley-Ann Downe (North and South) and bearded anthropologist husband Pierce Brosnan (GoldenEye) blur. The wrong reflections are in the mirror, and the intercutting between our avatar and the retraced action is well paced and mature but no less bizarre. While I can do without the music montages and oooo badass silent but supposedly sinister punks, the gender reversals, possessions, titular pursuits, and cryptic history remain intriguing. Granted, the unique Inuit myths aren't made completely clear and these desert spirits gone wild aren't as menacing as they should be. However, the viewer knows there's something suspicious amid the concrete jungle threats, spooky nuns, and abandoned creepy. Where some tribes fear the camera capturing one's soul, these evil spirits don't appear in the developed frame. It's freaky and foreboding considering how many more gangs and urban nomads there must be today. How often do we pass by rowdy, stray, or seemingly innocuous people without really noticing them? Whether they are supernatural or desperate, maybe it's better if we don't catch their eye and loose our soul. Head down and keep moving! It might be interesting to see this notion revisited, as once you get over some of the eighties silly and wild, over the top finale, this 90 minutes makes for a scary sociological study. 


02 October 2015

666 Park Avenue

666 Park Avenue Had Spooky Potential
by Kristin Battestella

Yes, I am superstitious about the number, and 666 Park Avenue probably began with one foot in its 13 episode grave thanks to its polarizing name. Though flawed with an unclear theme and a rushed rectification, this 2012 limited run remains a frightfully fun marathon.

New building managers Jane van Veen (Rachael Taylor) and Henry Martin (Dave Annabel) move into The Drake, a historic complex owned by penthouse living Gavin Doran (Terry O'Quinn) and his wife Olivia (Vanessa Williams). As Gavin uses his wealth and influence to advance Henry's political ambitions, Jane renovates the building, finding unusual secrets alongside fellow resident Nona (Samantha Logan). Neighbors Brian (Robert Buckley) and his photographer wife Louise (Mercedes Masohn) encounter the unexplained at The Drake themselves, as does Louise's sultry assistant Alexis (Helena Mattsson). Ghostly phenomena, suspicious residents, and past mysteries escalate as Jane digs deeper into the building's history – and discovers her own deadly secrets.

Although 666 Park Avenue is loosely based upon a book, the series ironically shares several similarities with the equally ill fated series The Gates, which aired two summers prior on ABC. Our new tenants move into a luxury, too good to be true apartment building, taking a working position in a community where their predecessor left under unusual circumstances. The ridiculously short credits also flash a lone title card before the listings scroll over the opening action, making who's a regular or who's merely recurring tough to deduce. Like The Gates, 666 Park Avenue also pads its short 42 minutes – or less – with unnecessary song montages, and despite a classy billionaire interracial couple at the top, diversity is lacking elsewhere. Does ABC keep repeating this formula hoping to get it right? The numerous writers and directors have no consistency for 666 Park Avenue, and the characters are their roles rather than truly bloomed personalities. The mismatched couples are unevenly developed and only seen hurrying home or leaving late. Some are in on the spooky while others are not, and most of the residents only interact for a hello or goodbye in the surprisingly tiny lobby. The Drake seems more like a hotel thanks to a weekly revolving door where regulars are left hanging for other going nowhere spooky. People are being sucked into the walls for goodness sake but 666 Park Avenue moves away from its scary core for irrelevant corporate schemes, Madoff name drops, and political double talk. Instead of sullying evil with the same old prime time hitmen or political assassinations, maybe not being so New York City steeped or having been period set may have let the building intrigue shine. The wicked blackmail in the second half of the series does better, but the ridiculous need to have an upscale party literally every other episode gets old fast. Truly, no one episode of 666 Park Avenue is all super, the audience never receives the answers we really want, and poor structuring muddles the quality paranormal pieces.

Fortunately, 666 Park Avenue is more spooky than nighttime soap opera with an adult cast, mature situations, desperate pleas, eerie phone calls, and mysterious contracts due. Thunder, spooky zooms, and ominous doors lead to residents with suspicious blood on their hands, petty thefts, and one creepy laundry room. The Pilot gets to the ghostly prospects early alongside deadly quid pro quo requests and a nefarious Order of Dragon past. This first hour feels like a decent haunted house movie, showcasing the eponymous elevator mishaps, spooky stairwells, and murderous flashbacks. Perhaps episode five “A Crowd of Demons” uses a Halloween party excuse too soon – we don't know the players enough to see them dressed up yet – but this is an atmospheric good time once the ghosts break loose. After an uneven first half, “Downward Spiral” begins to get to the bottom of The Drake only to have its reveals delayed until Show Nine “Hypnos.” Stock crashes, evil men in suits, sacrifices, and past rituals pepper the upscale where we least expect it. Play up those literal trips down memory lane, the mental hospital scares, bricked up fireplaces, and spooky books! “The Comfort of Death” toys with ghosts in the mirror and long lived curses while “Sins of the Fathers” adds priests and more 1927 living history coming back to rent an apartment. Reappearing pills taunt an addict, a knightly organization battles The Drake's Order of the Dragon – a lot of should have been there all along paranormal is tossed in too late along with a halfhearted evil topper in the “Lazarus” finale, and those dangerous bathtubs, past drownings, and bricked up bodies make viewers wonder why 666 Park Avenue wastes so much time on shopworn auxiliary in its early episodes.

Where the eponymous complex's supernatural threats are quite interesting, our would be heroic couple Rachael Taylor (Jessica Jones) as Jane and Dave Annabel (Brothers & Sisters) as Henry are a touch too innocent, plain, and naive for 666 Park Avenue. They don't seem like much of a pair, just New York ambitious with lots of parties interfering while Jane's connection to the building – which should have been immediately solidified – is strung along until the seventh episode. There's generic architecture talk, but Jane merely breaks a few things and knocks down some walls in her haunted house reveals without finishing projects or following through on the top to bottom explorations. Eventually, it seems like the idea of Jane and Henry being building co-managers is dropped altogether, as the totally unaware of the paranormal Henry doesn't seem to care about Jane's pleas to move or her fear for her life until she goes missing and ends up in an institution. Of course, Jane has no right to complain about Henry's politics getting shady when she has been keeping secrets about The Drake the entire time, and these plots that should be powerful are erroneously intercut with weaker B and C stories. William Sadler (Death in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey yes!) is great as Jane's estranged father, however, his horror heavyweight potential comes to 666 Park Avenue too late. Likewise, Henry's spooky dreams don't happen until the finale, as if the potluck writers simply forgot that Jane had the supernatural visions. It's not the actors' faults, nor the dozens of writers and directors who otherwise do fine work, but it seems like there was no character bible for this duo, leaving the audience anchorless to the very persons for whom we should cheer.

13th floor penthouse power couple Terry O'Quinn (Lost) and Vanessa Williams (Ugly Berry) certainly have the slick and suspicious afoot capabilities, but once again the mixed motivations on 666 Park Avenue hamper their scene chewing. At once, Olivia seems like a clueless fairy godmother lavishing on the newbies. However, one too many times she deus ex machina conveniently helps Gavin out of an evil jam before being unaware again by the next episode. Gavin, of course, threatens someone every hour to prove he is the top of the top, using politicians to get rid of mysterious rivals or swiftly dealing with dangerous minions. He knows all along about some secrets yet is blindsided by other evil trickery. If he's so powerful, why is his demonic brand such a slippery slope under constant threat? The rug is cut out from under the viewer when his evil hierarchy, past Order of the Dragon connections, and good versus evil religious aspects are never fully explained. 666 Park Avenue plays with pedestrian dirty politics too long, and I swear they literally pull a Seven from Married...with Children and send the Dorans' pointless daughter down the stairs to never be heard from again.

Sadly, I'm not sure the yuppie marital discourse of Robert Buckley's (One Tree Hill) struggling playwright Brian and his wife Mercedes Masohn (Fear the Walking Dead) as bitchy photographer Louise are necessary at all. Sure, they add bubble bath steamy and voyeurism, but oddly, 666 Park Avenue remains tame in the would be saucy affairs. Paranormal drug addictions and fatal attraction with Helena Mattsson (Betrayal) as Louise's assistant Alexis become completely uninvolved with the aforementioned characters' storylines, and although the gambling debts being tattooed onto Enrique Murciano (Without a Trace) as romantic Doctor Scott are a neat Karma twist, it never goes anywhere. The paranormal stamp on Brian's writing is late in the game to save the wishy washy between his women, and we don't know what's really going on with Alexis and her debt until Episode Ten. Rather than juggling too many superfluous paranormal residents and their wannabe The Devil's Advocate deals with Gavin and compromising the series, 666 Park Avenue should have combined these plots for just one strong younger couple, thus earning a second year to introduce some deadly love triangles.

But wait, there's more trite with the stereotypical magical negro psychic and rebel teen Samantha Logan (Teen Wolf) as Nona. Not only do redundant ghosts also impart similar mysterious warnings, but Nona doesn't always share what she knows, inexplicably leaving only the audience aware of the clairvoyance. Of course, Nona also has a magical negro grandmother in a wheelchair, and Ghost Guinan herself Whoopi Goldberg also makes an appearance as some kind of Matrix Oracle where, I hate to say it, she seems more like she's just talking on The View. Erik Palladino (ER) as doorman Tony is also treated as a subservient ethnic minority picked over for a higher position but used as a thug or handyman and deliveries as needed. 666 Park Avenue also has a black widow obsessed with youth, an obituary writer who changes people's lives with her pen, and two detectives snooping about The Drake. Well, one detective anyway – Teddy Sears (Masters of Sex) continues as another going nowhere side plot while his female black partner is never shown again. Typical.

Thankfully, symphony moments and ironic classic tunes add upscale accents to the blackmail and violence on 666 Park Avenue while creepy dream travels, phantom hallways, and hidden aspects of the building slowly reveal some sinister. It's frustrating when something spooky happens only to be cut away for an ominous commercial edit, but distorted wide lenses and through the keyhole photography add a sense of askew not found on your typical New York drama. The women's over-arched eyebrows give them a perpetual wow face, people researching their family history never bother to use ancestry.com, and some special effects look mighty poor. However, folks being sucked into the floor is pretty darn cool, and the 1920s styles make up for the contemporary lookalikes and lacking attention to detail. 666 Park Avenue has too many people, side politics interfere with the paranormal goods, and it takes half the thirteen episodes to really get going. The Drake's spooky promise is never fully refined, and the episodic dragging once again proves that network television needs to catch up with today's tightly paced shows and no time to waste storytelling. 666 Park Avenue should have been a taught 6 episodes rather than bloating itself with broad filler. Ironically, while improving on The Gates with its more spooky adult drama, these same pitfalls that shuttered The Gates condemns 666 Park Avenue.

It's annoying when such creepy potential and likable actors don't get the well thought out summer event series they deserve. Could have, should have – 666 Park Avenue is by no means great. Yet despite my negativity on the show's never quite hitting the right notes, it was indeed entertaining to marathon for the weekend, and 666 Park Avenue fits well for viewers new to horror, budding paranormal teens, or those looking for something upscale and spooky but light on fear.