23 June 2017

Top Ten: Writers!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in alphabetical order...

Our Top Ten Writers!

Please see our Books tag or visit our Sharpe and Science Fiction labels for more literary analysis!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review.

18 June 2017

The Search (1948)

The Search is a Heartbreaking Must See
By Kristin Battestella

In 1948’s The Search, GI engineer Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) takes in the displaced nine year old Karel (Ivan Jandl) in post-war Berlin. When unable to find the young Auschwitz survivor's family through the Central Tracing Bureau, Steve goes through the lengthy paperwork to have “Jim” return to America with him. However, Karel's mother Hanna Malik (Jarmila Novotná) is likewise going through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, spending months walking from camp to camp searching for her son.

Every time The Search is on television, I say I won't tune in, for two hours later I am crying from this inevitably sad yet heartwarming little piece from director Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity). Relief groups are corralling children, trying to find out who they are and where they came from before the concentration camps, and this rescued road will be difficult for children understandably still afraid of vehicles collecting them to be gassed. I wouldn't blame anyone for turning off The Search before it really starts thanks to early Oliver Twist style assembly lines feeding starving kids as they recount their time as slave labor sorting the clothes of the gassed by size and finding a relative's clothes among them. The narration is also odd today – no voiceover is really needed because the visuals are so strong – but the warm female voice emphasizes this plight without requiring more children to perform more dialogue in the various languages. Besides, their pitiful little states are enough to make one wonder if all these tiny kids are really survivors themselves. Military initials and group acronyms invoke a systematic sense of order as back and forth interviews and translations reveal important details, and the names of the concentration camps standout regardless of the languages spoken or other almost insurmountable communication barriers. The flashback of the Malik family singing together may seem like a backtrack breaking the emotion established, but it's critical to see their pleasantness cut short by the dreaded knock on the door. The family's split is also montaged somewhat quickly, however, a child crying “Mommy!” is terrible enough. The Search has scenes with no English spoken, yet the viewer understands every youthful fear happening. More fatal action crescendos speak for themselves, and disturbing water scenery tops a wrenching first act before introducing our mother's in media res search. It's important to have an adult breather from the child tough, but seemingly routine inquiries turn into difficult regret to inform you bonding and tears as one woman gives another mother the worse news she could possibly receive. The audience has information the parallel double whammies do not – we know both the boy and his mother are safe while each thinks the other is dead. Cut my heart it out will hurt less! 

Clean cut all-American hero Montgomery Clift doesn't appear until a half hour into The Search, suave in his uniform with a cool jeep and forthcoming passage home. After feeding Karel on the street, Steve initially keeps the wild child at arms length, frustrated over their trial and error communication and wondering if the boy is holding out on simple yes or no answers. However, Steve becomes increasingly aware of what Karel must have experienced, and doesn't tell the newly coined “Jim” the misinformation of his mother's death. He's ordered to hand over the boy and Steve's ready to leave, but he wonders what will happen to his charge if he goes. He doesn't have the facts needed to adopt the boy yet goes through the process nonetheless. Steve learns not to joke about procedures anymore, going from nonchalant to angry at red tape, “You're so official you have to go through channels just to open a door.” Sure, the metaphor of this army engineer rebuilding destroyed bridges is obvious amid Abraham Lincoln school lessons, a dated notion that America is tops, and that learning English will get you anywhere in the world, but so what. There are wonderful lighthearted moments between our found bachelors, too, “Even in England they understand English...well, sort of.” Steve cancels his ticket home, willing to wait for another passage until Jim's permits clears, but he has job commitments in US that can't be postponed. The now sentimental Steve isn't ready to just leave Jim behind at the relief camp with a promise they will see each other again someday. Devoutly Method Clift toured real camps, lived in barracks, and wore fatigues, going overboard annoying his director with his own dialogue rather than following the script. He is the leading man of the picture yet not a star so bright he's above telling the best tale, and it takes a great actor to accept being secondary in a movie really about a little boy. Today's actor would award bait chew such tour de force man pain, but Clift is effortlessly natural at holding nothing back and believably bittersweet as a sudden parent putting a child first regardless of himself. This is the first of his four Oscar nominations, and only an elite big name dozen have been so honored in their debut release. I will tell anyone who listens to watch Montgomery Clift's seventeen movies, but if starting here with The Search does not convince you to see the rest of his films, nothing will.

The Search does not have a big ensemble with any other major names but opera star Jarmila Novotná is perfectly cast as the heart wrenchingly relatable Mrs. Malik. A hat, bag, umbrella, good shoes, and clean coat are all she needs to walk in search of her son, and it's difficult to watch her suffer when we know he is safe with what could be a good American opportunity. Hanna doesn't want to disturb the church on a Sunday with her inquiry, but she knows enough English to repeat the story of who she is, where she is from, and which little boy she is seeking. By time we meet her, she has already been searching for seven months, following a lead to a dead end or striking out with another tidbit of information and redirected as usual to the Central Tracing Bureau. However, she is nothing without her child and won't give up hope. So many match her son's description – names on a card, no picture to show, and mistaken possibilities lead to her helping a scared Jewish child hiding as an choir boy before silently resuming her quest. Although months have passed, to the viewer Hanna's arrival at her son's transition camp has cinematically just missed him. Reunions are happening – even coincidental ones right on the street – but the audience wants to see all these pieces put together onscreen. We're angry for Mrs. Malik even when she remains relatively subdued and patient, quiet and weary. She can't take much more of this journey but this search for her son is the only thing carrying her. Clues to be found by his little cap lead to more misinformation, even an apparent confirmation that her Karel is dead, leading to her breakdown and even an implied suicide attempt. She can give up her quest – no one would blame her if she took the necessary and worthy job of helping other children offered to her at UNNRA. Working to stabilize other children and send them home could in fact be the healing she needs. As a mother, however, Hanna holds out hope, taking up her umbrella and continuing her eponymous duty whether it breaks her or not.

Young Ivan Jandl gives a darling little performance in The Search, innocent and raw with a distant stare as he repeatedly says “I don’t know” – almost blissfully unaware what has happened to him. Karel can't remember how to use a spoon and collapses onto a long forgotten pillow. He doesn't understand his own language or know his name but is terrified when identified to come forward by the little hat on his head. Karel's embarrassed by the numbers on his arm and tries to cover them with a ripped sleeve. Innocent encounters trigger fearful memories, and he swims away from help before resisting a soldier who would heal his blistered feet. Eventually the renamed Jim understands he is able to open a gate, leave, or return for care. He learns to say no to alcohol and yes to chocolate, and it's simply glee to finally hear his voice in adorable little scenes identifying basic items. He's a smart kid learning a new language and soon befriends an American boy with no notion of differences between them. The Search progresses in its middle with more traditional home life scenes, school lessons, and at the dinner table conversations – Jim doesn't always understand it all, but he's happy to receive shoes as a surprise gift and doesn't mind living in tiny attic apartment with Steve. After all, they've both had far worse billets. Jim doesn't know what the English word “mother” means when he hears it, but remembers what happened to him when he sees another child comforted by his mother. He goes from silent and broken to adamant and proactive wanting answers about his family he may never find. Jim is not lost or interested in America, but he has lost his mother and needs Steve's help to find her. This is a stunning performance recognized with a Special Juvenile Oscar traversing the emotional spectrum and then some with total honesty and on camera purity: “I had a mother. I know I had a mother. Where is she?”

The austere black and white on location German filming and international production for The Search hits home the wartime broken and divided with an almost documentary feeling – a re-enactment of something that really happened complete with a disclaimer thanking the US Army for allowing filming in the occupation zone. The raw footage of shelled buildings, crumbling walls, ruinous stonework, dusty barely there roads, rubble piles, fallen bridges, and concrete heaps to nowhere is a scenery study unto itself. Up close shots of fences with blurred masses on either side in and out of focus would stray into earlier surreal and German expressionist designs, but they are unfortunately realistic frames, and the mid-century technology is itself wartime outdated rather than nostalgic with older phones and earlier typewriters. Pen and paper are tough to come by, one can't find an envelope to mail a letter, people have to wait months for a letter response, and old magazine pictures are thumb-tacked to the wall to use as educational flashcards amid slide rules and Iodine medicine. Zoom ins on applications with crossed out boxes, question marks, and “unknown” answers and typing a letter to the Central Tracing Bureau asking for relatives of a nothing but a number put the situation in bold print. Numerous languages including Czech, German, French, Polish, and Hebrew songs aren't subtitled onscreen, either – adding authenticity as we wait through onscreen translations, go-betweens, or simply not knowing as pieces and tales of missing parents, deceased family, and children who don't know who they are repeat from one language to the next or not at all. The Warner Archive Collection DVD itself has no subtitles and a fitting bare bones lacking. One one hand, I wish there were retrospectives on Clift or the so close to home filming atmosphere, yet I'm glad there are no companion features to The Search. Nothing else needs to be said, no billboards, viral marketing campaigns, and promo tours like today – this is simply a picture that was made to speak for itself and amen. 

Usually when I’ve seen a movie a dozen times, I can begin my notes with the basics before a critical eyed rewatch. With The Search, however, I found my immediate thoughts to be emotional memories. Though gut wrenching with Holocaust history, orphan plots, and post-war destruction that can still be sensitive subjects to many audiences, it takes repeat viewings to pick up all the no such thing as coincidence coincidences and stay the course religious undercurrents in The Search with both Christianity and Judaism used to shelter those of a different belief and help one seek what they must find. Despite somewhat dated or saccharin constructs, this Best Story Oscar winner with nominees for Actor, Director, and Written Screenplay amid other awards and praise should not be as obscure as it is. Today's cinema is so stylish in its re-creation of the past that it is often too false or afraid to be raw and can’t capture the truth is seeks, but there is a small joy in unpolished pictures made so close to the war that take you through the emotional ringer – and The Search is a necessary film as catharsis as great cinema should be.

14 June 2017

A Vintage Horror Trio

A Vintage Horror Trio
by Kristin Battestella

Step back in time to the retro decades of yore for this classic trio of steamy slashers, epidemics run amok, and high school old school horrors.

Peeping Tom – Director Michael Powell's (The Red Shoes) initially colorful, pleasant mid century movie soon switches to reel perspectives, stocking seams, and ladies of the night for a 1960 two quid bargain. The camera cuts away from the unseen weapon only for our voyeur to replay the black and white action – creating a snuff film meets noir mood as our unassuming photographer Carl Boehm (Sissi) films police at the crime scene and claims to be from The Observer Newspaper. He moves closer rather than zooming in and wipes the sweat from his brow as he watches. His materials are hidden in his secret dark room, but the seedy fishnets, corsets, near nudity peeks, and cheeky dialogue are risque for the time without really showing the audience anything super saucy. Retro film sounds, old fashioned cameras, picture plates, clapper boards, large spotlights, and red lighting emphasis the illusion as our polite killer offers a guest milk before filming her watching his childhood movies – bizarre pictures made by his extreme scientist father in a study of fear. He describes his constant reliving of past trauma as sequences, successors, out of focus, and for the camera in meta before meta was Inception parallels as the audience tries to separate the repeated outtakes, set within a set, and redhead lookalikes. Coaxed stand ins doing an audition become photographing you photographing me ruses, with the orchestrated life imitating art captured on camera as simmering murder pieces wink at the nature of cinema itself. The orchestrated impalements and elaborate trickery, however, are not without dark humor, as newsstand pornography schemes and bodies on set add to the morbid fascination – our stalker knows he's being tailed by police who know they are being watched. This topsy turvy mirroring, layered voyeurism psychology, and potential therapy cures bridge the horror genre between Psycho and Mario Bava's giallo flair. The stylish suggestion remains sophisticated, and that may seem ironically tame in our era of scandal as status quo. We live in an open curtain social media glass house for all the world to view how we turn the lens on ourselves, but this is just a film isn't it? This unobjective camera making his masterpiece and our subjective interpretation of seeing that fear accomplished is worthy of repeated viewings and carefully study indeed.

Prom Night – Talk about kids being cruel! Morbid child's play leads to deadly chases in this 1980 slasher – complete with one brat making the others swear to never tell, pathetic still seventies dudes, ugly vans a rockin', station wagons, transistor radios, drive-ins, and obscene phone calls. Remember those? Although a few silly voiceovers could just be said out loud and some of the intercut flashes dump information in a quick reset, we know who is who for this eponymous anniversary vengeance. Six years later the killer has the names on his list and he's checking them twice amid whispers of neighborhood sex offenders, creepy janitors, and mirrored innuendo. There's terrible matching stripes, flared bell bottoms, knee socks, feathered hair, and side ponytails, too – not to mention escaped mental patients and a fatherly cop not telling the locals what's afoot. This all must seem like Halloween deja vu for twenty-two year old high schooler Jamie Lee Curtis! Disco ball glows and red lights add flair, and there's a sardonic humor with principal dad Leslie Nielsen (The Naked Gun) so awkward on the lit up floor before the big dance off, oh yeah. If there was going to be a Saturday Night Fever nod, they could have at least sprung for Bee Gees music instead of generic disco that's honestly a little late. The prom king and queen ruses are i.e. Carrie as well, however these snob teens deserve what's coming to them. How can a guy say he loves a girl when he helped kill her sister? We may laugh at some of the sagging datedness or bemusingly preposterous – violence in the gym showers and nobody in the school gives a hoot? However, a lot of horror movies and teen flicks are still using these borrowed staples. There's a sense of small town swept under the rug paralleling the prom and sex calm as the ominous school hallways escalate to bloodied virgins in white dresses, lengthy slice and dice chases, rolling heads, light show disasters, and fiery vehicle attacks. This isn't super gory and there's no groundbreaking horror effects, but the well filmed checklist vignettes and shrewd cut corners editing build suspense alongside the red herrings and obvious killer guessing game. This isn't super intellectual on the mentality of the killer or the full psychology of the crimes, either, but the misunderstood whys and psychosis seeds suggested continue the conversation long after everything plays out right on the dance floor with a power ballad topper.

Rabid – Vintage motorcycles, wild car crashes, and explosive accidents open this 1977 outbreaker written and directed by David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises). Good thing that radical plastic surgery clinic is nearby with its old school ambulance, retro medical equipment, and rotary phones! Life saving surgery is the perfect opportunity for experimental skin graphs, morphing tissues, and prophetic talk of neutral cells as in the embryo here at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Gore, striking reds, and blood against clean white mar the vain facade of cosmetic bandages, white gloves, mirror obsessions, and beautiful patients. Of course, there's nudity – it wouldn't be a Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) movie if there weren't boobs. Unfortunately, the naked woman is after the warm man for sinister reasons, escaping in the rainy night for some animal horrors and icky vomiting. This unnerving experiment was done to our Rose, making her sympathetically trapped by her condition and aware she is becoming a seductive predator attacking her men and women prey be it in the hot tub or at the adult theater. She does indeed have a new vaginal like orifice in her armpit with a phallic looking thorn, and there are consequences to this reverse woman queen bee with a penetrating stinger and the appetite to use it. The doctors think this is nothing that can't be fixed, but the titular anarchy and on the road ghoulish quickly spreads – reminding us why the term “viral” really isn't a good thing. Quarantines and pursuing authorities can't keep track of the infected on the loose expanding to the big city and congested subways. The zombie twists move fast without major spectacle for a surprisingly realistic turn of events with martial law, failed vaccinations, I.D. badges as proof of health, babies in danger, and hazard crews on the streets like regular trash trucks. Mall shootouts at Christmas, ineffectual medicine protocol, and governments desperately trying to keep control add to the jaded irony for today's viewer. We know this won't end well, and that's the most frightening thing of all.

13 June 2017

Top Ten: War Pictures!

Welcome to our new Top Tens series in celebration of I Think, Therefore I Review's Tenth Anniversary! These monthly lists will highlight special themes and topics from our extensive archive of reviews.

This time I Think, Therefore I Review presents in chronological order...

Our Top Ten War Pictures!

Please see our Civil War tag for more miniseries or our Napoleonic label for yet more wartime analysis!

I Think, Therefore I Review began as the blog home for previously published reviews and reprinted critiques by horror author Kristin Battestella. Naturally older articles linked here may be out of date and codes or formatting may be broken. Please excuse any errors and remember our Top Tens will generally only include films, shows, books, or music previously reviewed at I Think, Therefore I Review


09 June 2017

Two Great vs Two Serviceable Horrors

Two Great and Two Serviceable Recent Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

Today's horror can be so hit or miss, amirite? Here are two independent and superior scares making the case against two mainstream but under-cooked horror standards. 


Great Twists

The Blackcoat's Daughter – Haunting melodies, terrible news, and subtitles like “silence” and “eerie ambiance” open this chiller from director Oz Perkins (I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House) along with suggestive lion and lamb lyrics, crosses on the wall, priestly substitutes, and father figure innuendo. Rather than emo angst, the bad girl pregnancy scares and awkward acting out are handled maturely, with a Picnic at Hanging Rock weirdness. Dark filming against bleak windows or open doors make us unsure what side we are on, capturing the dreary mundane as two girls are stuck at school during winter break. The intertwining build of events may be slow to some, but each act follows one girl in distorted, compelling vignettes. Common bathroom echoes and creaking doors add to the spooky orange boiler room and what we think we saw contortions while change for the pay phone, maps, bus stops, and red tail lights create helplessness and traveling dangers. And you know, parents saying a teen can't have one has to be the best excuse yet for a lack of cell phones. Who stole the laptop? Do you trust the stranger offering a ride? Is being happy an ulterior motive or will the god believing good Samaritan find its the devil that answers instead? These young ladies are filmed not for titillation as in slasher T-n-A horror but with a sense of innocence and fragility. Rather than in your face mayhem, suspect conversations, sinister changes, and non-linear story telling give the audience intriguing pieces of creepy doubt. Is a crazy student after the headmaster's attention or is that really a reflection of horns and a shadowy devil in the frame? The surreal atmosphere makes viewers peer deeper at the screen, wondering if the devil, possessions, or unreliable impressions are playing tricks on us. Editing splices match the bloody stabbings, with nonchalant mentions of forensics having to find which head matches which body. Static, distorted voices, and vibrating sound invoke more unease amid an isolating, hoodwinked power of suggestion. The audience sees the reaction on a police officer's face rather than the terrible shocks he witnesses – doing the worst horrors imagined with a subtle reveal instead of pulling the rug out from under the viewer and calling it a twist. Although spoon fed audiences may want answers immediately instead of open to interpretation confusion and arty pretentiousness – Perkins may need an outside eye on his writing and directing to clarify this pizzazz for the masses – once you wrap your head around it, this is a straightforward story taking its time with a unique mood and special characters for full gruesome effect.

Tale of Tales – Salma Hayek (Frida), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), Toby Jones (Infamous), and John C. Reilly (Chicago) star in this international, R rated dark fantasy bringing three Italian parables to life with medieval castles, vintage plazas, and divine forests. Colorful period costumes add to the carnival atmosphere amid jugglers, fire eaters, and traveling wagons entertaining at court. There is, however, a sinister to the bemusement with youth and beauty versus old age, life and death bargains, nudity, and sexual undertones. Parallel fates, duality, and mirror imagery accent the charlatan fortune teller promising a sea monster's heart cooked by a virgin and eaten by the queen will ensure pregnancy. Good suspense, underwater effects, gory slashes, choice red, disturbing violence, and bloody carcasses escalate the action without making the fantasy a ridiculously overblown spectacle. Ogres, funeral processions, albino twins, and creepy old ladies share in mystical connections, enchanted springs, separations, and temptations. Precious offspring are mere extensions of their parents' rule, but man that is one freaky giant pet flea! We don't notice the two hours plus length thanks to unexpected circumstances, ironic riddles, and brutish suitors. This is a beautiful looking movie with a little bit of everything remaining entertaining even in its darkest moments with caves, terrible bats, and deceptive appearances. Changing one's skin may not change what's inside, but some people will help or hinder fate for their own selfishness and there are consequences for trying to change what's meant to be. This is sad at times and not scary for many – most may not like the collected meanwhile in the realm style either. However, Hollywood would Princess Bride frame these Basile tales with narrator bookends toning down the brutal and not shy with a Disney gentrification. This is period accurate and elaborate for adults but no less a fantasy with darkness and charm bringing the well paced, quality stories full circle. The lessons are learned without being as exploitative or nasty as Game of Thrones, and I wish there more mature baroque fantasies like this instead of the same old cutesy.

Serviceable Scares

Lights Out – This 2016 feature adaptation of the popular 2013 short is still a little short itself at eighty minutes and keeps restarting with a working dad on skype, mom talking to herself, a little brother not sleeping, and a bad attitude big sister with a sensitive rocker boyfriend. Fortunately, employees locking up for the night lead to crackling electricity and shadows that blink closer with each flick of the light switch. What would you do if you turned out the lights and saw a silhouette that isn't there when the lights are on? We know something is in the dark, but not what, and the old school light means safety rule works amid the almost GIF-like now you see it now you don't. Ominous tracking shots, red spotlights, neon signs flashing, and black lights create enough mood without unnecessary transition pans, bones cracking, and scratching sounds. A young boy with spooky afoot and a mother who may or may not be crazy are more interesting than time wasting millennial emo, and Maria Bello (A History of Violence) as the unstable wife dealing with shadows real or imagined a la The Babadook should have been the lead here. Naming the shadow, having her talk, and the constantly changing backstory gets laughable at times – as do slides across the floor and zooms on the ceiling. The research montage is a convenient home office snoop for a cassette tape from the doctor and a few photographs with retro jumpy footage snips patchworking the light sensitivity, skin disorder, institution experiment gone wrong, and psychic ghost happenings. There's inconsistent UV light and physicality excuses, too, but if you aren't going to give the audience a concrete explanation – i.e. saving it for the inevitable sequel – then there shouldn't be any attempted information at all. Is this multiple personalities, a basement relative, or a childhood lez be friends BFF that won't let go even in death? Why not call in the institution doctor or present your evidence to the sniffing child services instead of just yelling at your mother? There's a kid so afraid he's sleeping in the bathtub with the flashlight shining on his face, something's tugging on mom's sweater from behind the door, and quality under the bed threats rekindle timeless fears. There's no need to add convoluted characters or ever leave the unique Tudor house standoff, yet one can tell where the trite dialogue and thin story were stretched to appeal to the mainstream teen horror public – complete with an L.A. setting, rich white blonde people, and a made stupid black cop and his Hispanic female partner. The short film didn't have to explain its narrative the way a feature does, and this isn't the worst recent horror film, but the good ending is a little too quick, playing it safe, serviceable, and ticking the standard contemporary horror boxes rather than really zinging. One should either stick with the original short or take this as a separate late night chiller for full bump in the night enjoyment.

The Boy – Eccentric British parents hire a babysitter for their son – who just happens to be a doll – in this 2016 bizzarity. There's padding opening credits driving the young American woman in a foreign country to the kid horrors, because of course, and there's a no wif-fi, no neighbors phone call to her sister about a nasty ex, too. Fake boo moments, dream shocks, and phantom phone calls are unnecessary, as is the psychic grocery delivery man who reads gum and guesses wrong. I kid you not. The introduction to the little doll – err son is laughable as well, but our nanny must play along with the well paying delusion and make sure he sits up straight during their poetry lessons. Creepy portraits, strange noises, prayers, thunderstorms, and taxidermy create an eerie atmosphere for this warped hook while a great Canadian castle stands in for the cluttered English estate. Old toys, phonographs, candles, windows painted shut, and traps to keep rats out of the walls add to the freaky doll moments, but our babysitter waits until the doll uncovers itself and the stereo-typically locked attic doors open by themselves before following the house rules. She also never bothers to explore or investigate, but there's an obligatory local who knows the dead little girl past and eight year old died in a fire back story – tossing in cliché details along with lost pregnancies, love triangles, and taking a shower trite. If you're going to go into the ominous attic in nothing but a towel or have a doll listening to the sex in the next room, then don't be a soft PG-13 but embrace that winking R. The eponymous frights should be stronger, and although we smartly don't see any silly doll moving effects, the traditional filming style doesn't do justice to the oddity. Rather than embracing the bizarre bonding afoot, the standard horror formulaic wastes too much time – this unusual premise could really shine if the flip flopping world rules didn't detract from the aloof charm. A WTF siege veers the finale into something more preposterous, calling it a twist while holding back as late night horror lite for people who haven't already seen any similar scary movies.

04 June 2017

Tales from the Crypt Season 2

Tales from the Crypt Season Two Full of More Fun Horrors
by Kristin Battestella

The 1990 Second Season of HBO's Tales from the Crypt is the series' longest year with eighteen summer episodes full of the anthology's particular brand of adult horror and warped humor. John Kassir's Crypt Keeper is irreverent as ever with his macabre quips, infectious giggle, and deadpan puns – luring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger behind the helm before a brief appearance with CK himself. More famous directors this season include Tales from the Crypt producers Richard Donner and Walter Hill alongside recurring series directors Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps), Howard Deutch (Some Kind of Wonderful), and Tom Holland (Child's Play). Once again, the series embraces its campy, colorful, twisted source material, with stories from classic magazines such as Shock SuspenStories, Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror, Haunt of Fear, and of course, Tales from the Crypt.

The most beautiful but bitchy, money hungry waitress Demi Moore (Ghost) marries the gluttonous Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) in the immediately memorable “Dead Right” premiere. In 1950, $20 for the fortune teller was sure cheap, but the promised death and foretold inheritance are enough to overcome the rude courtship, terrible remarks, and revolting appearances. There's strip club saucy and off color charm, too – not to mention a morbid montage imagining all the hit and runs or fatal choking possibilities. The fat suit designs and cruel quips are also offensive, with intimate relations meant to be gross and uncomfortable. Fortunately, this being Tales from the Crypt, we know there will be a justified if ironic twist. Likewise, Emmy nominated William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor) is desperate to marry the young Kelly Preston (Twins) despite her objection that he is old enough to be her grandfather in “The Switch.” A plastic surgery face swap with the handsome Rick Rossovich (Pacific Blue) comes with a million dollar price tag and mad science to match. Unfortunately, the pretty face with an old man body isn't very alluring, and the price goes up as the Frankenstein style body parts lead to all the winks we expect. “Cutting Cards,” however, gets right to the western casino chase with gamblers Lance Henriksen (Near Dark) and Kevin Tighe (Emergency!) betting against each other in a purgatory style duel of dice, cards, and roulette. Calculating which chamber holds the bullet escalates to higher and higher stakes – like chop poker where the loser loses a finger. Despite the intense editing and cheating suspicions, this is a fun little two-hander – if you forgive the pun. Gunshots and tacky photo shoot montages with sunset backdrops and kissing silhouettes accent the Mayan amulets and non-linear editing in “The Thing From the Grave,” poking fun at the romance between model Teri Hatcher (Desperate Housewives) and photographer Kyle Secor (Homicide: Life on the Street) as its disrupted by her trigger happy boyfriend Miguel Ferrer (Crossing Jordan) and a little undead vengeance, as you do. All this while The Crypt Keeper is reading Playdead!

In “For Cryin' Out Loud,” Iggy Pop's crooked music manager Lee Arenberg (Pirates of the Caribbean) hears his conscious in the form of comic Sam Kinison. Unfortunately, he ignores the voice for seductive groupie with ulterior motives Katey Sagal (Sons of Anarchy), and some gross ear salves set off the murder, laughs, and warped irony. Cinderella farmhand Patricia Arquette (Medium) has a backwoods employer checking out her tiny white tank top in “Four-Sided Triangle.” Good thing there's a sexy scarecrow to help her! The nasty mood comes across without showing much – after all, “you beat the help but don't kill 'em.” This one's certainly a unique tale, complete with threats of turning real flesh and blood men from bulls into steers and killer hoes for good measure. Bobcat Goldthwait (Oh my gosh, Hot to Trot, people) wants to be a ventriloquist like his idol Don Rickles in “The Ventriloquist's Dummy,” but you can see his lips move and the dummy's head falls off, whoopsie! The crappy amateur night and cruel crowd add camp, but just when you think you've see it all when it comes to ventriloquism in horror, Tales from the Crypt pulls out meat grinders and designs both laughable and bizarre. “Asshole casserole,” I've never heard that one before! Then again appearances are everything for eighties yuppie Carol Kane (Taxi) in “Judy, You're Not Yourself Today.” Faux accents, French, tea times, and a gun toting husband aren't enough until a cosmetics lady comes calling for our wrinkle worrying Mrs. Alas, our sales lady has an indestructible switcheroo necklace, making for some twisted violence and wit. Cruel mortician Moses Gunn (Roots) anchors “Fitting Punishment” alongside morose organ music, mistaken biblical quotes, and post mortem scams for one of the season's finest. Embalming with water is cheaper than the real chemicals, and the dead's gold teeth get pulled – God helps those who help themselves and waste not want not! Coffins made in Taiwan are inexpensive, too – but shorter. If there's a spare box lying around, why not use it? Of course, this being Tales from the Crypt, cutting such bloody corners will come back to get you.

Illustrator Harry Anderson (Night Court) continues the quality with “Korman's Kalamity” when his bossy wife's experimental potency pills inadvertently bring his creative side to life. The Tales from the Crypt logos on the office door and Vault of Horror volumes on the shelf create a bemusing faux behind the scenes life imitating art, and the ridiculously phony comic book monsters match the colorful over the top designs. Tales from the Crypt admits this is a really weird idea, and that's exactly why we're watching. Distorted camera angles and smoky shadows also bring the grim turn of the century freak show to life in “Lower Berth.” There's two-faced caged oddities, dying freaks, desperate managers, and charlatans bartering rare Egyptian slave girl mummies. The stolen sarcophagus and cursed jewels may seem straightforward, but castration consequences and undead romance provide the surprisingly wild topper we never knew we needed. By contrast, “Mute Witness to Murder” is an upfront thriller with no humor as Richard Thomas (The Waltons) and Patricia Clarkson (Six Feet Under) provide the titular shocks with straight jackets, padded cells, and I know that you know that I know deceptions. Blue camera visuals, audio check ins to be let out, and strapped down beds invoke a scary helplessness. Someone else is in control with needles and drugs – making for some true suspense, fourth wall voyeurism, and camera as confessor. “Television Terror,” however, pokes fun at its tale within a tale talk show desperate for Geraldo scandals as our host recounts gruesome murders while his film crew follows with a camera and spotlight. Creepy static, ghostly splices, and bloody bathtubs wink in the night, and the OMG what was that humor is bemusingly prophetic regarding today's paranormal reality television craze. Tales from the Crypt finishes Year Two strong with the memorable penultimate “My Brother's Keeper.” Siamese yet opposite twins have some laughable connections – but can their butt attachment be separated and is the fifty/fifty chance worth it? Great dual filming and mirrored, but not always matching images or paired actions lead to more awkwardness, and of course, a lady comes between them – pun intended – along with crimes, cleavers, and cruel twists.

The Crypt Keeper is upset that Oliver has no Twist for the season finale “The Secret,” but Dickensian puns accent this austere orphanage with misbehaving boys and what happened to his parents whispers. Eerie blue transitions and askew camerawork add to the childlike reluctance when rich but mysterious adoptive parents whisk a boy away to their museum-like home. Good thing there's a room full of awesome toys and when asking for milk, the butler gives him milkshakes! Who cares if there are bars on all the windows? When not off painting the town red, our parents only come out at night – but they have a surprise in the works. The titular answer is probably obvious, but the innocence and charm have fun here, adding personality and the kind of unexpected finish that only Tales from the Crypt can do. While there aren't many bad episodes, Tales from the Crypt has a slight sophomore lag mid season with the voodoo clichés of “Til Death.” Though not as bad other other Caribbean horror attempts – the gore and zombie elements are scary as well as humorous – the stereotypical story resorts to a scorned Janet Hubert (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) getting back at nasty white men messing with the local magic. Weaker writing and less famous casting also hampers the winning Tales from the Crypt formula in “Three's a Crowd” when a husband suspects his wife is up to no good with their wealthy friend after he lavishes them with gifts and an anniversary trip. The opportunity for suspicion feels there only because that conclusion has to happen for the yuppie mayhem to ensue, and the domestic violence is totally unnecessary. When Tales from the Crypt viewing was limited to weekly HBO waits or random late night repeats, audiences didn't care about any repetitiveness. However, watching this longer than usual season all together reveals too many similarly themed love triangles, greed, for love or money twists, and seedy fillers. Kim Delaney (NYPD Blue) and Michael Ironside (V) deserve more than murder for money in “The Sacrifice,” for moody L.A. cityscapes and saucy rocking the boat affairs lead to dirty blackmail and long walks off the short balcony, naturally.

1990 is also still pretty eighties dated, making Tales from the Crypt both look cheaper than it was yet adding a neo-noir atmosphere to some of the downtrodden macabre. Several episodes are more eighties does forties or fifties rockabilly style to match the record players, old televisions, cool cars, and swanky tunes. Of course, there are also triangular blazers, shoulder pads, Blossom hats, and high-waisted jeans – fatalities of the then hip over-emphasizing fashions along with granny panties, large tassels, and lingerie that reveals nothing. Such barely there nudity, ten seconds of strippers in the background, and mostly clothed make-outs courtesy of the HBO premium cable saucy is totally tame compared to the all but naked singers today, however I must say, the cigarettes, onscreen smoke, and liquored up attitudes are now more noticeably risqué. Quality blood and gory squirts, spills, or stabs also remain well done alongside red spotlights, blue lighting, and strong shadow and light schemes regardless of the anthology's setting. Creepy organ music accents the askew camera angles and colorful, intentionally faithful comic book design mirroring the Tales from the Crypt magazine sources. The supporting cast per episode is likewise always quality with numerous or occasionally re-appearing familiar faces in critical or twisted cameos. Unfortunately, it seems there is a lot of legalese tying up any blu-ray release and streaming rights, and until the brand new Tales from the Crypt box set, the Complete Series was only available by packaging the DVD collections together. The “kill intro” opening theme makes it easier to marathon the Season Two three disc set without repeating the credits, and Pimp CK does some new bemusements amid the menus and featurettes. His ghastly little supplies come from “Hacme,” and if you don't get that pun then you are too young to be watching the show.

One can easily forget these ghoulish mini movies are only a half hour, for Tales from the Crypt moves fast but keeps your attention during and after a viewing thanks to the brand's personality and self-referential ability to laugh at the gory with well written scripts and sardonic winks. It feels like there are more episodes of Tales from the Crypt than there actually are because the series ages well with many memorable times in this extended season. A creepy atmosphere and famous guest stars set the viewer up for the scary topper, and Tales from the Crypt Season Two remains perfect for a gruesome late night marathon.