30 October 2016

Cults and Religious Frights!

Cults and Religious Frights!
By Kristin Battestella

Rural or international, old school, medieval, or modern – these tales of good versus evil, devils, voodoo, and cults provide enough unique horrors and spiritual frights. 

 The Church – Three films claim to be Demons 3 in the somewhat confusing Italian Demoni series. Fortunately, this 1989 Dario Argento produced stand alone sequel opens with galloping knights versus witches, scary organ music, demonic signs, prophecy, torches, and head chopping slaughter. So what if it is kind of small scale, the helmets look like spray painted buckets, and kids literally have baskets on their heads! Crosses, stonework, church bells, Gothic spires, and gargoyles bring the medieval ecclesiastic yet sinister atmosphere to the modern day prayers, Biblical quotes, maze-like catacombs, and dusty library tomes. The titular temple was built to sanctify mass burials and keep evil caged below, and the tale sticks almost exclusively to the sanctuary setting as Indiana Jones temptations for buried treasure lead to coded parchments, architectural clues, suspicious altar sounds, and ghostly horses. A crusty old bishop, the new librarian reading backwards Latin, an art restorer cleaning morbid murals, the rebellious custodian's daughter – innuendo, icky saucy, and nasty behaviors increase as evil seeps out over this interesting variety of trapped people also including a school trip, one bickering old couple, and a couture photo shoot. Even dripping water becomes suspect once the bloody spouts, blue smoke, booby traps, gruesome deaths, and reptilian hands spread evil manifestations and infestations. Frightening confessions, decaying bodily possessions, literal bleeding hearts – today's audiences may not appreciate the slow burn one by one, but knowing it is just a matter of when adds to the robes, stained glass, rituals, and chanting. How can one fight the bestial Satan when he's entered the hallowed itself? Although the past and present connections can be confusing and remain unexplained beyond a happened before and will again warning, the skeletons, gory bodies, wings, and horns make for a very wild finale. This picture is not shy with its imagery nor its parallels – the demons only escape because human corruption was already there, using unleashed horrors to remind us that it's safer to leave well enough alone. 


Sacrifice – Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black), Rupert Graves (Sherlock), and David Robb (Downton Abbey) star in this 2016 adaptation of Sharon Bolton's novel beginning with brisk New York pregnancy emergencies before moving to Scotland's great mountains, rocky coasts, and end of the world island isolation for an adoption. Standing stones, jokes about mistaking “runes” for “ruins”, and talk of Druids, Normans, and ritual sacrifice pepper the scene setting job interviews, hospital tours, and dinner with the wealthy, well-connected, but secretive in-laws. A dead animal on the property reveals a buried body, and our lady obstetrician butts into the police investigation of this bog discovery, studying creepy photos and x-rays of the corpse to suggest the victim had recently given birth before her insides were excised. Quality science, Tollund Man references, and flood clues jar against trow myths, unique folklore, and inscription evidence. The authorities don't want to hear any of that old sacrificial talk, but these mothers and lady cops are intelligent women talking about history and murder rather than men or gossip. While the well-paced, multilayered investigations may build the spooky versus facts with suspicions and tense cloak and dagger, this is not an overt horror picture. The story here feels caught in the middle when it should have been either a straight crime drama or gone with all out fantastics. There are some plot confusions as well – who is who and all the details aren't totally clear, leaving an abrupt end with serious unanswered questions. Fortunately, surveillance, shadows, chases in the dark office at night, and lights going out add suspense. Late wives, a clinic full of pregnant but anonymous women – who doesn't want this medical mystery solved and why? This is a small island, and not being in on its secrets can prove fatal with dangerous bridges or fiery car accidents. Body switches, clandestine interviews, identifying tattoos, hidden passages, and bagpipes tossed in for good measure seemingly tidy the case, and a likable, mature cast anchors the maternal fears and cult demands of this unique little thriller.

Voodoo Moon – Charisma Carpenter (Angel), Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and John Amos (Good Times) anchor this 2006 blend of voodoo motifs and Biblical parallels with crows, skulls, casting stones, flooded steeples, rusty sickles, and naked chicks strung up on crosses. Yowzah! Evil shoehorns itself into a decaying body where it doesn't really fit or belong, and mausoleums add a whiff of New Orleans macabre alongside a few flayings alive and backwoods Tennessee mood. Tested faith, psychic connections, and prophetic drawings escalate as this team of multi-faith mystics with varying gifts come together against possessed priests and a devil in their midst. Some flashbacks and character backstories are hokey, but the better seen than told addresses the absurdity of “some psychic holy war against the devil.” An old bed and breakfast sanctuary sheltering the fun and likable cast also makes up for the lame, trying to be suave villain – most of the time here is spent with the people battling such evil elements rather than spectacle wham bam. Granted, when we do have them the fire and lightning effects are meh; the music is over the top, zombie henchman are confusing, loud effects are bemusingly bad, and weak humor or evil exposition get corny fast. There are silly floating in the air battles, unused underwater possibilities, unnecessary people, and unexplained powers – how does the good guy have all the same powers as the bad guy? This introductory, at times light or blasé feeling over the decidedly dark themes and supernatural character focus with potential for more seems almost like a backdoor pilot, which could have been an interesting series. I wasn't expecting much and the title is misleading, however, the audience gets invested in the fight fast. We care about the people in this avenging religious battle and want to see them through their demons both real and fantastic.

Split Call

Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's ReturnBlack silhouettes and orange sunsets open this 1999 sixth installment branching from the original Stephen King source with Stacy Keach (Prison Break), Nancy Allen (Robocop), and an adoptee born on Halloween returning to her Gatlin birthplace. Despite car accidents, bizarre police, warnings to leave, and a Bible toting hitchhiker quoting Hannah name origins and Samuel prophecies, the snooping about town goes on undeterred with snotty hoteliers, creepy hospital machines, and road rage chases. Unfortunately, slow motion, obnoxious music, and town in on it scares meander in the first half with dusty scenery and corn mazes cluttering the plot holes rather than setting the rural mood. Poor bookend narrations don't help the pointless filler, nonsensical moments, and padding on the standard new person in town sacrifice/pregnancy we know to come. Although the teen rule is juvenile by design, dated millennial looks, hip lingo, a lame sex scene, and fake shocks are DOA – dead birds and bloody writings don't add spooky atmosphere but delay the inevitable with silly visions and laughable visuals. The golden patina looks like October, but the palette is often too dark to see the crazy patients and ward action. Creative or vengeful deaths don't get anywhere until the finale, and the adult characters deserved more. The ties to the initial film, however, remain interesting. The devout waiting for Isaac to rise from his coma and these children of the children plots should have happened sooner in the series, as now the audience is left scratching our heads wondering how and when a comatose boy had the time to get busy. The hospital horrors, insemination fears, and outdoor rituals come too late to correct the connections to the first film, leaving this a predictable, messy not scary tale in need of a watertight rewrite. Everyone has Children of the Corn movie they prefer or loathe – mine is the bad glory of Urban Harvest – yet each entry feels pretty interchangeable. This leg is good in a fall marathon of the series when the details are fresh in your mind, but one also has to let logical thought go to have fun here. 


25 October 2016

Coastal Horrors and Watery Fears!

Coastal Horrors and Watery Fears!
By Kristin Battestella

These retro and recent seaside haunts, coastal killers, and watery frights are anything but scenic or picturesque for these dames, youths, coeds, and couples.

Bay Cove – Pamela Sue Martin (Dynasty) Tim Matheson (The West Wing), Woody Harrelson (Cheers), Jeff Conway (Grease), Barbara Billingsly (Leave it to Beaver), and more familiar retro faces star in this 1987 television movie going by several titles. Full moons, chanting, cemeteries, churches, candles, confessions, and lightning immediately invoke an evil, medieval mood contrasting the eighties women's business suits, shoulder pads, and complaining yuppies. All the denim, mod decor, jazz, and black satin slips go for a dated, trying to sexy mood, but that's quickly left behind after our couple hears about a chance to invest their construction business in a nearby island fixer upper – moving from the big city and starting a family unfortunately blinds them from that suspicious bargain price! Eighteenth century history, hidden rosaries, creepy old books, dogs versus cats, and a locked basement accent the increasing strange old landlady, odd neighbors, generational residents, and mysterious figures in the window. Despite pretty greens, beach-side birds chirping, and smooth ferries; all black clothes, spooky quilts, torches, and an escalating colonial tone build to tales of burning at the stake and an abandoned puritan past. Fishy headstone dates, pentagrams under the general store, and missing pets divide husband and wife alongside work and home conflicts, mistrustful realtors, and explosive jeep accidents that look quite good even with a then television low budget. Phantom ye olde dressed kids, melodramatic slow motions screams, and up close soft focusing are however, a bit much, and the credits rush over a somewhat corny finale. While the gaslighting, sacrifices, and midnight deadlines proceed as expected with twists that won't surprise most horror viewers, the crazy dreams, stormy nights, and hooded robes remain entertaining thanks to the likable cast and ghastly atmosphere.

Neverlake The modern amid old stone buildings, winding rural roads, and crisp hint of snow quickly turn to morbid Shelly poems, floating bodies, and dead trees for a teen on a Tuscan visit to her doctor father in this 2012 Italian production. While creepy kid shocks, hitting over the head Peter Pan motifs, juvenile fantastics, and redundant narrations seem pedestrian; the family dynamics, would be step mother, suspicious research, and locked doors accent the Etruscan studies, fragile statues, and ancient artifacts. Whispers on the lost healing powers of the Lake of Idols and exploring alone in the woods become foreboding thanks to sickly green water and nighttime warnings – not to mention the severe looking nearby hospitals, escalating injuries, and sudden operations. Although eerie dreams may be an excuse for visual horrors or shock music and “Ominous Ambiance” closed captions are bemusing, subtle ghostly sounds, natural winds, and watery phantoms work alongside talk of life giving rituals and fine Arezzo locations. Freaky dolls, minimal technology, cemetery visits, and ticking clock experiments add to the rogue archaeology, stolen relics, hidden rooms, serious reveals, and family twists. At times, however, the plot stalls, skipping over explanations and more interesting Etruscan ties while going overboard on other parallels – voiceovers feel tacked on as do the obviously sinister mechanics, obligatory child horrors, and mystical attempts. The need to return the effigies, household frights, and medical surprises are intriguing enough without the misleading video cover and slasher label. While easy to solve for wise horror viewers, this pace feels meant for a younger audience and doesn't resort to overly trite Hollywood techniques. Though flawed, this directorial debut isn't bad and can be a nice little spooky ghost story for teen viewers looking for a unique scare.

The Prowler – Cape May filming locations accent this 1981 slasher alongside classic star Farley Granger (Strangers on a Train), black and white World War II newsreels, big band music, and swanky cars. Unfortunately, Dear John letters turn Avalon Bay's 1945 graduation dance into unexpected horror thanks to the titular mask wearing killer, battlefield get ups, pitchforks, and plenty of blood. While the 1980 switch brings a new dance with short shorts, bad flirting deputies, and feathered hair, the murderer is back on the loose attacking the disposable babes – good girl, slut, wallflower, frienemy. Despite dainty, braless frills and steamy shower boobs, some scenes here are laughable with a dated and not exactly stellar cast. The music isn't bad, but the dancing is pathetic, plot holes and disappearing characters come and go, the deputy just looks around rather than radioing for help, and a few stupid people don't know they are in a horror movie. Fortunately, the killer personality is unique, and interesting camera perspectives or the generally unseen beyond the retro get up filming accent very good effects from gore master Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead) such as through the skull knives and poolside assaults with nasty yet realistic splatter. There are some false jump moments, but the tension raises and lowers organically without the need for amped up boos or crescendos. A creepy old man in a wheelchair, dark Victorian homes, cramped rooms, and covered furniture add to the chases, clues, desecrated graves, and fireplace shocks. The suspenseful stalking and shadowed silhouettes invoke more menace as the viewers guess who's next. Though perhaps obvious at times with a slightly limp ending, unexpected turns and gunshot toppers compliment the early slasher staples at work – wise audiences can see the influence on Scream and other spoofs. Lone settings and individual isolation do better than large scale terrors here, making for some entertaining, shout at the television viewing. He has a pitchfork, honey, a chain on the door isn't going to help!

You Make the Call!

Lake Eerie – A widow moves to a too good to be true lakeside house in this 2016 ghost and genre bender. The white chic and bright windows should be quaint, but creepy furniture, old pictures, phonographs, and 1969 décor draft an increasingly spooky atmosphere. Old archaeology, retro phones, and voices on the radio add more bizarre while no cell reception, power outages, and doors opening or closing by themselves escalate the tension. Ghostly winds blowing out the candles and phantom figures in the hallway make not knowing where everything is and searching for the matches or kitchen knife heavy – simple but effective fears amid sandy footprints in the house, locked drawers, and undiscovered museum relics. Concerned dad Lance Henriksen (Pumpkinhead) is only in a few scenes, but quirky neighbor Betsy Baker (The Evil Dead) knows a bit too much about the forty year vacancy, experiments, ancient amulets, and Egyptian mysticism. Attic searches and nightly visions create twists, and the inter-dimensional fantastic isn't all it seems. Exposition told rather than seen, however, becomes suspect mumbo jumbo – the fantastical technicalities, time limits, and mystic jewelry get a little too preposterous. The dark underworld finale is silly, tossing in a nonsensical maze that unravels all the spooky happenings that were doing just fine. Rocking camera pans, loud music, and ghostly POV strobes are unnecessary annoyances. Poorly delivered voiceovers contribute to the amateur acting, and rather than help hide the weak performances, the directing and editing calls attention to them. This family production certainly isn't perfect and ends up falling apart as it goes on – it's obvious from the start but might have enough intrigue and fun bemusement if you can take this ghost cum mystical story twist for what it is.

20 October 2016

A Djinns and Devils Trio

A Trio of Devils and Djinns!
by Kristin Battestella

Layfolk beware! These millennial pictures both foreign and domestic have supernatural inns, suspicious country homes, and demonic genies with more than their fair share of devilish tricks, tempts, and perils.

House – Sheriff Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs) and two couples at a rundown out of place Alabama inn encounter serial killers and the supernatural along with the promise of “Rest for the weary soul” in this 2008 heavy. Despite cliché driving montages, rainstorms, dirt roads, and yuppies with no cell phone reception, this isn't a standard teen slasher romp and feels more in the spirit of seventies horrors beware thanks to old time fixtures, chiming clocks, an Art Deco patina, and out of service “Ma Bell.” The dining table is set, the inn staff is old fashioned in their language and attitudes, and the power goes out just as the killer outside has trapped everyone on the awkward inside – askew angles and distorted camerawork reflect the internal tensions and panic. Newspaper clippings and flashes of past sins piece together the in limbo abstracts as our players are divided by maze-like trickery, meat lockers, ice perils, and fun house horrors done without any hollow jump scares. The dialogue isn't always good, and the flashy overkill is unnecessary once the tale is in hand – trust your story instead of laying on the distortions. Perhaps this is the struggle of what to keep or lose in adapting the Ted Dekker and Frank E. Peretti novel, for the editing can be uneven, leaving people in peril to see what's happening to others or backtracking when there is immediate action. Back and forth shouting is tiring, and the scares resort to typical wet dark basement tunnels when the house upstairs has a unique, otherworldly character. The finale is also slightly busy, with obvious who is who good versus evil manifestations, creepy kids, purgatory debates, and a battle for one's soul at stake. Fortunately, the older cast does well as the tense vignettes reveal ill histories and cult symbols. With all this weird, the audience has to see what's what before the killer's timeline is up and his demands are met. While not perfect, the bizarre, multi-layered story here has enough intriguing substance for some post-viewing discussions.

Sheitan – Paris clubs and an invitation to a country retreat promise saucy fun in this 2006 French horror parable starring “housekeeper” Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises). Granted, some characters are typical homophobic horny jerks. The dated fashions, club scene, and subtitled slang feel nineties poser, too – boss dig it fly homie where's your crib, et cetera et cetera. Quick editing and strobe camerawork is too in your face, but most of the quips and cruising stupidity is bemusing. It's Christmas but warnings of not deserving forgiveness for knowing what we do are ignored, and Cassel's Joseph is a little too touchy with the young ladies – he squirts some symbolic goat's milk directly into their mouths, too. This isn't his usual handsome self either, but a creepy, grinning, country bowl legged racist with a dog named Cerberus and forceful authority of other bizarre, deformed villagers. Their chateau is old, crumbling past its glory with weird doll parts, effigies, and goats. There's nudity of course, but incestuous tales, bestiality, and a hidden, pregnant wife add a discomforting weirdness to the quirky humor and modern Jean Rollin spirit. Symbolic apples, snakes, vultures, gluttony, and Magi motifs accent names such as Mary, Joseph, Eve, and Styxx while religious table talk asks who's a believer or a sinner. While the ninety-four minutes could have been trimmed in slow, titillation spots, the plot confusions leave whether something satanic is at work in this crazy house or not open to debate. Try hard ignorance and bad sex flashbacks sidetrack from the escalating story at hand, but these dumbasses are so desperate for a good time they never wonder why a girl would pick up strangers in a club and invite them home for Christmas. Hello! Flickering lights, creepy bathtubs, locusts, chases, and finale twists bring the violence to a gross head alongside some insane visions and mutilations. To some this may be more eccentric rather than horror, but there is some seriously disturbing imagery nonetheless.

WishmasterI Dream of Jeannie spoiled us on the nature of granting wishes, and a malevolent, puckish Djinn runs amok in this 1997 Wes Craven produced dark fantasy starring Andrew Divoff (Air Force One) and Freddy Krueger Robert England with a cameo from Candyman Tony Todd. Opening scrolls telling of unholy potential immediately set a fiery mood alongside an 1127 Persia apothecary, potions, cauldrons, mystical gems, and alchemy. Present day rock outs, tennis yuppies, and smarmy auctioneers are dated, yet there's a frightfully fantastic mixing with modern industrial thanks to maze-like museums, living statues, and slimy cadavers. Some hokey effects also feel too eighties, but payphones and answering machines that say Pacific Bell and Bell South, whoa! Skeletons and more effective gore accent the too good to be true, “All you have to do is ask” tricks, leaving the regretful and maimed in our djinn's wake. He's not lying in saying he only bargains with what people give him – reminding viewers to speak carefully when wishing someone was dead or offering to sell one's soul for a cigarette. Such suspense is fine on its own without circling zooms and crescendos, for we want to see the antagonist's personality, interconnected visions, and growing powers. Ironically, we like Tammy Lauren (Homefront) less, but she isn't stupid or made a bimbo while investigating the Zoroastrian myths. Although the escalating creepy crawlies are fun, the plot descends into set chases, explosions, and ineffective shootouts with some deus ex machina in outwitting the djinn. The ancient prologue, first act release, and collecting of restoring skingraphs or eyeballs are also similar to Dracula 2000 and The Mummy – evil flirts, shops, preys, leaving boils along the way. This girl power action horror pace feels like a precursor to more recent spectacles, and while we chuckle at the un-scary B movie fun, it's pleasing to see the non-Western horror of this demented little cautionary tale.

18 October 2016

Forgettable Haunted House Horrors

Forgettable Haunted House Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

I do so hate being mean, but sometimes there are just poor horror movies, and these recent spooky dorms, haunted game show contestants, and ghostly rentals are best left in the bargain bin.

Apartment 1303 – Two and a half minutes of loud, padding opening credits don't help this muddled 2013 remake starring estranged singer Rebecca De Mornay (Risky Business), miscast snarky daughter Mischa Barton (The O.C.) and foolish youngest Julianne Michelle (looking like a sickly thin fourteen year old) who signs a cheap lease on the titular flat complete with a view, creepy kids, a pervy super, and ghostly residue. The mother/daughter arguing plot feels like a dramatic movie separate from the horror, but De Mornay's husky singing is more interesting than the cliché girl alone taking selfies and talking to herself over ironing board jump scares. It's tough to care about this drinking, quivering kid. What did she expect? Rattling doors, phantom shadows, spooky sounds, foggy attacks, and scary faces tapping at the window do better than the ugly crying shouts, cheating boyfriend, the black best friend in only one scene, divorced dad cop subplots, and one uncomfortable sex scene. The ghost girl looks like a man, the bathroom scenes are laughable – those fake bubbles in Mischa's tub! – and the screaming ghost roars are useless. The spectre and its special effects are barely there but this ghost can physically do a lot – like dragging the stick chick all across the floor. An unexpected turn halfway through makes viewers wonder why one plot wasn't just told in its entirety as a short opening prologue before the family pieces. However, the sisters really are interchangeable, and I would rather have seen their broken down mom moving into the haunt to do some comeback songwriting and solve the scares. Phantom phone calls, bizarre dreams, investigation of past deaths, even calling the police for the deadly facts come too late, and the paranormal really happens most in last ten minutes with no resolution and four more minutes of credits. Eighty-five minutes my foot! There's no time to waste, yet this does everything but focus on the horror – and its ten years behind on the blonde moves to a creepy place with a kid trend. While serviceable for those who can laugh at this kind of babe alone boo fest, I suspect the J-horror original is better.

Evidence of a Haunting – This eighty minutes from 2010 claims to be footage from a real paranormal society. However, some scenes are shot like found footage investigation cams while others are dramatically styled as in a scripted paranormal reality show. There's edgy music scoring amid the raw investigative footage, too, hmm. The acting is poor and there's no natural flow – booms, slamming doors, and Paranormal Activity knockoffs can't save a stilted script. Despite onscreen camera labels and character names or team member titles, too many cliches are thrown in the pot from demons, ghosts, and mediums to a priest and a possessed kid saying nasty sex stuff. Dark photography with flashlight spotlights don't help the amateur exorcisms, and the struggle filming looks like a college extra credit video. The first fifteen minutes here feel so long and agonizing – but that isn't even the main case and more investigations and flashbacks of the team's childhood paranormal experiences are tossed in for good measure. Good thing somebody was able to find that inexplicable footage out of the past! I honestly hate being mean, but I couldn't finish this.

7 Nights of Darkness If House on Haunted Hill had been a reality show and we found the tape, I hope it wouldn't be like this 2010 ninety minutes where contestants are supposed to stay in a Big Brother style asylum for the prize money. Of course, none of them has yet to claim the prize, dun dun dun. While the filming is home movie simplistic, the supposedly abandoned asylum is ironically so white, bright, shiny, and new! Did they shoot everything on campus one weekend in the dorm? All the spliced OMG fake scares, screaming girls, cursing men, spinning cameras, and flashlights failing should have been a half hour at best. Most of the time is spent arguing in unable to see nightvision darkness, and the shouting over the worms on the pizza, seriously? They couldn't make it through, and neither could I.

16 October 2016

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

Latest Victor Frankenstein Unfortunately Disappointing
by Kristin Battestella

I had hoped Gothic dramatizations and Victorian horror were making a comeback. Unfortunately, with the cancellation of Penny Dreadful, the less than welcoming reception of Crimson Peak, and the disappointing result of the 2015 Victor Frankenstein, the potential for dark romanticism and steampunk gone macabre trends seems over before it could really start.

The hunchbacked Igor (Daniel Radcliffe) is rescued from the cruel circus and healed by the visionary but radical Doctor Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy). Dismissed from his medical college, Victor is reanimating small subjects and intends to create life with a new man-made cadaver. Unfortunately, Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott) is following the gruesome trail back to Victor, and he objects to Frankenstein's amoral and godless plans – which need Igor's raw medical talents to be completed. 


Victor Frankenstein is slow to start with more telling than showing when the waxing on man versus monster making could all be seen rather than told. These talkative delays underestimate the audience, compromising atmospheric immersion and period mood with “little did I know” narrative breaks. Where's the Victorian carnival flair and underlying horror? Victor Frankenstein has a unique angle on this oft told tale, but the action is styled for the cool circus escape with unnecessary slow motion and leaping over a box being highlighted as more important than freakish servitude and characters in peril. Viewers can see Victor observing Igor reading medical texts – we can feel the characters if you let us instead of cutting corners with fast moving dialogue, hectic editing, and shaky camerawork. Victor Frankenstein isn't really sure how it wants to present itself because the required flashy becomes more important the the man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself horror possibilities. Mischievous animal part thefts and science montages happen quick with little time to enjoy the mad science. Of course, Victor Frankenstein isn't true horror, yet the soft romantic scenes and rags to riches drama feels at odds with the macabre. Debates on magic and superstition versus emerging science and technology make for better drama alongside failed science presentations and medical mistakes letting us know where each character stands. Although the hissing monkey prototype has some creepy moments and could be a sinister step to the monster making, these scenes come off as a laughable detour. Real science probables such as two hearts and four lungs and numerous design montages become too busy, hindering the grossly fantastic and the character drama. Is Victor Frankenstein about Victor's mad descent or Igor's misused intelligence? If this is about Victor's coming to this ghastly point, the story should begin before his experiments and conclude with the onset of his creation. If Victor Frankenstein really is about Igor's role in the monstrosity, then the science should be nearer completion. Instead, Victor Frankenstein meanders for over an hour before London on the lamb and double crossings throw more wrenches into the quick monster finish. Past reasons why come too late, and tacked on narrations do nothing to explain what Victor Frankenstein is about beyond an opening ending in hopes of a sequel.

With his slick 'stache and Victorian finery, James McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse) looks the titular mad scientist with an ulterior reason for inspiring Igor. Arrogant Victor thinks he's too intelligent, admitting he prefers his vanity to being called a criminal and will speak slowly when talking to lesser people. Victor gets too far ahead of himself in belittling believers, life, and theology. He's too excited over his own experiments and uses a fast talking wit to confuse others into not questioning his brilliance. Unfortunately, this flippant, condescending double talk effect is exactly how the audience feels when watching Victor Frankenstein. It's more interesting to see Victor educate and raise Igor almost like he would do the monster. He doesn't care about charity just control – Victor needs Igor's talent to finish his life and death projects while he takes the credit. He fixes Igor's hump in a gross, back cracking pinning while sucking the fluids out through a tube in one erroneously forced and homophobic scene, and comedic dialogue perceiving them as friends jars against the feeling superior Victor using Igor for his own devious ends. We meet Victor Frankenstein after the doctor has already left any morality questions behind and made his leap to madness, leaving what could have been an intriguing science versus soul debate as stubbornly unlikable assery. Victor's motivation is revealed too late and very little consequences follow his actions. McAvoy is left doing more shouting than anything creepy, and his Scottish accent bleeds through into a not necessarily British, just toned down affectation akin to the meh at hand.

Fortunately, Daniel Radcliffe's (Harry Potter) Igor is developed as a real assistant rather than an idiot in Victor Frankenstein. Despite learning nothing but cruelty from people as a circus hunchback, Igor is also a self-educated amateur doctor who cleans up nice and tries to remain loyal thanks to Victor's kindness toward him. Of course, this Victor Frankenstein can't be told wholly from Igor's perspective as promised when he is absent from several scenes and critical information is given without him. Igor's narration also comes and goes – oddly returning for his moon eyes over a girl when the fantastic science is afoot. Igor is also able to run, swim, and scale a rock cliff just by putting on a back brace after having spent a lifetime as cripple...okay. Staying entirely in Igor's point of view would have helped Victor Frankenstein tremendously as his voiceovers or journaling montages could explain the number of weeks or months passing while giving the audience his private observations on the increasing madness. Instead, Igor flip flops too much to be the viewer's anchor and changes his tune on Victor's plans – first he's reluctant to proceed due to a financial deadline and wants to discuss the peril of creating man in his own image but then he feels obligated to Victor for giving him life thanks to metaphoric contrivances. Igor knows the jealous Victor has become an embarrassment, used him, and interfered with his romance. However, the two hearts and two brothers parallels between bad Victor and good Igor seem more important that Igor's fresh perspective, and the idea of Victor being a positive benefactor raising up life through Igor ends up too muddle to save Victor Frankenstein. However, the hunchback does get the girl in a hammy but surprisingly not exploitive sex scene. How often can you say that?

The supporting players in Victor Frankenstein sadly also serve as little more than stereotypes, including Jessica Brown Finlay as the pretty acrobat turned beard Lorelei. Despite potential for a would be love triangle, Finlay only appears in a handful of scenes looking too modern, out of place, and too small in her swimming costumes – and it's all so odd because she was so good on Downton Abbey. Lorelei is merely used as a brightly color standout when some symbolism is necessary before inexplicably disappearing for the finale. While Andrew Scott's (Sherlock) Turpin is a shrewd inspector not falling for Victor's spin, the intriguing idea of his pursuit of Frankenstein for religious beliefs rather than legal prosecution is dropped for a standard case of lawman with manpain. Scott also feels either out of his depth or too much for the material, for his scenes seem like they come from another movie. Turpin may also loose an eye or hand at some point – but he ends up still having them both later anyway. Whoopsie! Elder Frankenstein Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) does add an element of stern class in his sacrilegiously short screen time. One frigging scene! The Baron gives Victor a good talking to with a well-deserved chastising and slap, and Victor Frankenstein needed much more of these father and son aspects.

Victor Frankenstein has sweeping Victorian scene setters with colorful circus tents, exterior facades, and zooming in entries – and viewers can tell it is all unnecessary CGI. What's happening under the circus tent and inside the laboratory are cool enough thanks to nighttime gaslight glows, crackling electricity, and large gears. Up close foggy streets, bleak hospital interiors, and horse drawn carriages accent more alongside period medical sketches, Victorian zoos, steam gizmos, disembodied eyes, and more creepy specimens in green tanks. Mirrors and reflections mimic the duality in Victor Frankenstein, and overlaying anatomy lines, diagrams, body labels, and human schematics do better than any trite slow motion. Unfortunately, the mad science blueprints are used onscreen early, then dropped for most of the picture until the final monster design montage – almost to cop out on not actually showing any of the monster work. Daylight scenes in Victor Frankenstein reveal the color, costumes, golden rooms, and would be splendors of the time like heat and running water, but the bare minimum period setting remains Victorian light rather than fantastic steampunk. Top hats, a crinoline, and a few big skirt twirls don't hit home the costumes, and modern tattoos can be see when wearing those strapless gowns. Victor Frankenstein never even says the year, and despite its obviously expensive intentions, this feels low budget messy and unfinished. Stormy, gloomy Scottish atmosphere comes too late in the final act – where the raising of the monster is an orchestration in action set pieces followed by a spectacular destruction. All that fiery, confusing hurrying and Victor Frankenstein limps into over five minutes of credits with little to show for it.

This not a horror movie nor a character drama, but Victor Frankenstein isn't really science fiction and has no fantastic to its creation either. The rush to be modern cool or more Hollywood than nineteenth century British sacrifices any Gothic feeling, and the condensed script or production changes on the fly lack period finesse. It's tough to view Victor Frankenstein as what it is but rather what it could have been, and the cast, setting, and story deserved better. While serviceable for audiences who haven't seen any other Frankenstein adaptation, Victor Frankenstein makes older audiences appreciate the panache of the Hammer Frankenstein films all the more. If you're looking for the book you won't find it – like a game of telephone, Victor Frankenstein starts with Mary, passes through Universal, and quotes Young Frankenstein before this disappointing result that never takes its original possibilities to the next level.

11 October 2016

Recent Horror Documentaries

Recent Horror Documentaries
by Kristin Battestella

Gather round any time of year for these informative documentary scares, monsters of the silver screen, ye olde witches, and retro ghosts. Boo!

Monster Madness: The Golden Age of The Horror Film – Moody scoring, photo stills, archive footage, and black and white clips accent this eighty minute retrospective chronicling the silent horror classics and Universal Horror glory from the famed Stage 28, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera to Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. Guest speakers include Carla Laemmle, Bela Lugosi Jr, and Sara Karloff alongside newsreels celebrating The Bride of Frankenstein despite Depression era censorship. The narration moves fast, however – packing in a one and a half speed sentence before the highlights chronologically discuss Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, James Whale, and the continued provocative power, nightmare inducing effectiveness, and good versus evil morality plays of these really nice guys creating monster men. Further success in The Old Dark House and The Black Cat would typecast these favorites amid 1939 Hollywood heights and wartime escapism scares, and MGM competition from Fu Man Chu and Mark of the Vampire, Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Peter Lorre in Mad Love add more than just Universal to the conversation. Brief side chats also mention the growth of horror makeups and effects, SF horrors, Island of Lost Souls, and RKO's King Kong before The Mummy's Hand and The Wolf Man degrade into the more juvenile fluff mash ups such House of Frankenstein and Abott and Costello meet Frankenstein. At times, this seems somewhat unofficial, with Monster Rally panel interviews, repeated trailers, and an uneven focus – some topics are fleeting, others ramble and stray from the comment at hand. Lesser sequels are skipped entirely, and this leg ends on an abrupt down note, unable to stand on its own and forcing viewers to continue with Monster Madness: Mutants, Space Invaders, and Drive Ins. While mostly superficial with nothing new for longtime horror fans, fun anecdotes keep this informative and atmospheric for newer genre audiences. 


Monster Madness: The Gothic Revival of Horror – This eighty-two minutes continues recounting the horror history with Hammer Films' early struggles and suspense pictures before edgy SF fare like The Quatermass Experiment and the Technicolor Hammer Horror renaissance with Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Tossing in Elvis, however, alongside the state of fifties cinema and hammy television horrors meanders, delaying more interesting talk on Christopher Lee's larger than life monster stature and the beloved Peter Cushing as the villainous Dr. Frankenstein. Rambling archive footage with Lee, Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis, Ingrid Pitt, and Oliver Reed is also difficult to discern at times while the chronology sputters over The Hound of Baskervilles, The Mummy, and Hammer's increasingly ambitious set design, colorful gore, and saucy skin. Standalone thrillers including Paranoiac, Scream of Fear, and Curse of the Werewolf are discussed alongside the varying success of sequels such as The Revenge of Frankenstein, the polarizing Evil of Frankenstein, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Other hits like Psycho, Amicus productions such as The Skull and The Creeping Flesh, and anthologies including Dr. Terror's House of Horrors are name dropped, but this session unfortunately wastes more time missing famous horror classics such as The Innocents and The Haunting – and Vincent Price is never even mentioned! Censorship battles and raunchy from The Vampire Lovers or Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde don't hide the lagging mood, and this ostensible presentation ends on The Satanic Rites of Dracula without discussing further Amicus and AIP productions or even more Hammer gems such as Frankenstein Created Woman and Countess Dracula. These Monster Madness documentaries need to go together, yet the series should have been either exhaustive two hour slots or a half hour series with tighter focus per topic. Despite a sentimental and flawed presentation, this video has enough serviceable nostalgia for Hammer lovers and tip of the iceberg information for budding horror fans.

Witches: A Century of Murder – Historian Suzannah Lipscomb hosts this two-part 2015 special chronicling the seventeenth century persecutions and torture run rampant as witchcraft hysteria spread from James I in the late fifteen hundreds through Charles I and the English Civil War. 1589 Europe has burn at the stake fever thanks to the Malleus Maleficarum belief that witches were in league with the devil, and contemporaneous sources, books, and confessions help recount violent techniques and sexual aspects that may not be classroom friendly. Innocent birthmarks or moles on maids and midwives were used and misconstrued until naming names and pointing fingers snowballed into deplorable jail conditions, hangings, and conspiracy. Postulating on why the innocent would confess is addressed alongside the details from the North Berwick Witch Trials – including garroting and even the smell of burning human fat. James I's own Daemonologie becomes a license to hunt witches as the 1645 then-normal rationale that witches have sex with the devil escalates to extreme Puritan paranoia. Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins takes the law into his own hands via body searches, sleep deprivation, and agonizing deaths while unknown medicinal ills or causes were conveniently mistaken as evidence for witchcraft accusations. Names and faces are put to the exorbitant number of accused while on location scenery from Scotland to Oxford, Essex, and Denmark add to the prison tours and suspenseful trial re-enactments. Here specific facts and detailed information happen early and often rather than any hollow paranormal herky jerky in your face design. Community fears, social cleansing frenzy, and things done in the name of good and God against evil and the Devil at work accent the timeline of how and why this prosecution became persecution run amok. Instead of broad, repetitive sensationalism or the same old Salem talk, this is a mature and well presented narrative on the erroneous impetus of the witchcraft hysteria.

Skip It!

The Haunting of Fox Hollow Farm – This sixty-four minute documentary from 2011 opens with a disclaimer on the interviewee testimonies before more inserts explaining the history of the titular Indiana farm and the subsequent paranormal investigation. Archive footage and news reports add drownings and skeletal evidence to the murderous past, lending a bit of authenticity to this obviously low budget and on the fly production pretending to be a paranormal reality show with green night filming and shadowed talking heads. Jerky skeptical men dismiss the fanatical women and numerous psychics, mediums, demonologists, and shamans while rambling, repetitive visuals, graphics, camera pans, and editing cuts make audiences wonder what the heck is happening here. I feel like this never expressly states that it is about heinous serial killer crimes and their subsequent hauntings thanks to double talk on both, and it takes over fifteen meandering minutes before getting into the case details. Instead of actually seeing the investigative action, narrated montages and music video slide shows feign something fantastic but really just waste time on the same minutiae, treading tires in an incoherent attempt to play at Unsolved Mysteries or imitate today's ad nauseam paranormal reality shows. I couldn't take this whole thing, the case has been covered elsewhere, and reading the Wikipedia page was better.

03 October 2016

Old School Mysteries and Frights

Old School Mysteries and Frights
by Kristin Battestella

Nestle in on a rainy day with these retro spookies, crisp black and white thrillers, and classic stars for some all in good fun ominous riddles and murderous suspense. 


Fog IslandHouse of Frankenstein alums Lionel Atwill and George Zucco serve isolated island revenge in this quick seventy minute 1945 mystery. This public print is tough, however, with poor sound, difficult to see darkness, and the titular atmosphere ruining critical action scenes. At times, it's tough to tell who is who despite some intriguing, cutthroat characters. These hacks, frauds, phony psychics, and selling out secretaries are not who they seem to be as they ally or test each other with blackmail and vengeful implications of murders past. Fortunately, no one is hammy or over the top, and furs, hats, skulls, and a melancholy organ add a spooky sophistication to match the moody, albeit slim production and earlier interwar-feeling. The black and white patina creates innate shadows amid the stage-like dressings, with the suspicion afoot thanks to spying butlers, peeping through windows, and rustling through drawers – snooping in search of handwritten letters, clues, and secret compartments. Pesky newspapers send the once convicted into seclusion to avoid the talk of violent family deaths and scandalous investments. Your cellmate and your account should never be one and the same! Depression finances crumbling and the locale's pirate past are mentioned more than seen along with morbid party favors, séances, and occult talk suggesting a not really supernatural. However such red herrings add to the mystery keys, whispered plans, and scenarios in play – we must pay attention to the conversations even if the plot is similar to other more famous mysteries. The ingenue, young hero, and cat and mouse romance may be dry to viewers today, but the MacGuffins, skeletons, and trap doors are well paced. Who's going to pay for these past scams with his or her life? The violence is surprisingly good for the time with suspenseful encounters and a vindicating topper.

The House That Would Not Die – The pretty country autumn, empty house, and covered furniture are almost a little sad to start this Barbara Stanwyck-led 1970 Aaron Spelling television movie based upon the novel Ammie Come Home. Unfortunately, the foreboding echoes of their inherited home suggest worse to come for our sophisticated working lady, niece Kitty Winn (Panic in Needle Park), and their professor neighbor Richard Egan (The 300 Spartans). Old books, pewter, cursive, and classy cars compliment the fur and hats wearing dames while older lace and flowing nightgowns add to the déjà vu feelings, peeping ghost perspectives, and drafty doors opening by themselves. Recollecting zooms, eerie paintings, blue lighting, wispy curtains, sleepwalking, and slow motion nightmares invoke an afoot atmosphere – fog, fade in visuals, footsteps, and ghostly whispers are simplistic yet effective in halting our players mid-fright. Hazy camera focuses become a clouding before the swoon, and despite the occasional melodramatic acting, laughable cat fights, and hysterical slaps; terrified mediums, warnings to flee, and possessions leave the fears to the cast. The past is trying to repeat itself with old fashioned mannerisms and phantom personalities taking over – choking attacks and automatic writing help discover concealed desk panels, hidden scrolls, and once stricken names. Creepy basements and buried secrets accent the research montage, and it's nice to see people not so well versed in the paranormal question how they can be so matter of fact about it. Roundabout ghost attempts do sag in the middle and 1780 colonial mentions aren't always felt, leaving audiences to read the book for the juicy behind the tidy explanations and absolving confrontations here. Fortunately, this seventy-odd minutes moves fast without underestimating its viewers, making for a pleasant, spooky little mystery. She's not one of my classic favorites, but Miss Barbara sitting sipping her tea cup while the men do all the work – you go on girl!

Sting of Death – Boris Karloff has a battle of wits with killer bees in this eleventh episode of the 1955 television series The Elgin Hour. While the show is admittedly obscure, this episode adapted from the acclaimed novel A Taste for Honey is available for streaming – no doubt standing out thanks toold and nosy but witty Mr. Mycroft coughsherlockholmescough. This homegrown scientist and observant layman questions who's behind the eponymous honey makers, and I'd love to have seen Karloff as Mycroft in more of these! Naturally, the dressings are simple – buzzing sounds, bug sprays, a magnify glass, and netted hats add the insect mood with fake plants and rural mural backgrounds creating a fun, bare innocence to stage the drama. The camerawork, however, is tight and up close, matching the unnecessary, over the top arguing at the breakfast table thanks to talkative old lady colloquialisms and an obnoxious stuffed shirt professor wanting to know, “Who ate my honey?!” The back and forth OMG we're out of honey is dated filler – skipping right to knocking on the beekeeper's door inquiring on honey for sale would suffice – and the screenplay can be dry with padding hyperbole, “I deduced your supply of honey would be extinguished in a fortnight.” More time is spent on coming and going explanations perhaps expected at the time before finally getting to Karloff's meaty deductions. Who's next? What happens if these super bees turn on their maker? Turnabout is fair play after all, and our Mr. Mycroft must outwit without being stung. Granted, this is preposterous, but such early television zany can be bemusing – or perhaps not for anyone allergic to bee stings. And don't forget those Elgin watch advertisements, “A beautiful way to tell time!” 

And Then There Were NoneBarry Fitzgerald (Going My Way), Judith Anderson (Rebecca), Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and more star in this 1945 adaptation streamlined from the stage version of Agatha Christie's famed best seller. The lovely but perilous English coast, storms, and crashing waves add coldness to the crisp black and white while British mannerisms and humor introduce the guests to the audience without having to say a word. Viewers must pay attention to subtle hints and make our own deductions on a guest's awkwardness over the Jack and Jill bathrooms or harshness toward the servants. Old fashions, furniture, antiques, and dressing for dinner formalities accent the well done wartime production as the assembly plays cards or the piano, tediously waiting until the mysterious Mr. Owen announces their crimes – on a record no less! Accusations and hysterics lead to more clues while power outages interfere with searches about the ominous house. Is another on the island watching them? Some of the invited confess, others deny, yet more drop via poison or worse in the titular countdown – and the whole weekend's ahead of them! Who's next? Is the perpetrator among them? Simmering distrust builds as various pairs suspect one another, test alibis, and vote on who the killer may be, and nobody wants to be alone with anybody else. Although the inappropriate rhymes may be unfamiliar to contemporary audiences, the song lyrics hint on each manner of death, giving viewers the how, maybe the where, but not the when, who, or all the why. It's a great way to give breadcrumbs but leave us wanting more despite the occasionally over the top acting, bemusing nasal accents, and shouts of “Murder!” followed by a punctuating lightning bolt. Today we've also seen too many spoofs such as Clue – right down to butler did it accusations, kitchen knife play, keys in one's pocket, missing guns (1+2+2+1), and even multiple endings from the source. Fortunately, this murderous mystery deepens into a can't look away intensity even when its just two people debating which one of them is the killer. Wise viewers can see the impetus of other beloved murder mysteries as well as the budding horror/slasher format, and this intelligent story holds up by making the audience think or nestle in with a good old Agatha read.