AT THE DEVIL'S DOOR (2014) recommended! Dir: Nicholas McCarthy (THE PACT, CHINESE BOX) Evil wants a home just like everbody else and the road to Hell is paved with motherly intentions. Polanski (ROSEMARY'S BABY) meets LET THE RIGHT ONE IN meets THE PACT (see review). Smart, stylish, self aware and very scary, this film riiffs on contemporary themes such as the housing market crisis, to timeless issues of family-vs-individual identity, to weave an engaging meditiation on the idea of "home."
Full review coming soon!
DEMON SEED (1977)recommended! Dir: Donal Cammell (PERFORMANCE, WHITE OF THE EYE, WILD SIDE)
Before HARDWARE, BRAINSTORM, THE TERMINATOR, BLADERUNNER and before A.I., there was DEMON SEED. Based on the novel by Dean Koontz. Feeling like a mixture of Michael Crichton and David Cronenberg, this cautionary tale about man-made artificial-intelligence avoids any would be cheese-ball action in favor of heavy conceptual content. Great performances by Julie Christy and Fritz Weaver. Thoughtful and engaging screenplay by Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson.
* See my reviews of A.I Cinema at my ENTERTAINMENT REVIEWZ page (HERE.)
If we could put all of human knowledge into a single, artificial intelligence, what would it want to say? What would it want to do? What would it want to be?
REPULSION (1978)recommended! Dir: Roman Polanski (ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE TENANT, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, A KNIFE IN THE WATER)
Early work from suspense master Polanski and the first on-screen role for famed French actress Catharine Deneuve. This unnerving horror meditation is every bit the female version of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO.
Review coming soon!
BUG (1978)recommended! Dir: Jeannot Szwarc (SOMWHERE IN TIME, JAWS 2)
Yet another 70's frightener that I saw clips of as a kid, but never the entire film. I even had a newspaper ad clipping of this one for some reason. Meditative drama on scientific hubris, ethics and man-vs-nature. Full of allegory and conceptual content. Similar in themes to SQUIRM, FOOD OF THE GODS and THAW, as well as predecessor to later films like MIMIC and SPLICE (see review).
There is some terrific thematic content dealing with scientific discovery as obsession and the inevitable ethical dilemmas created by such obsession. Not unlike the Michael Crichton-eque elements in DEMON SEED (see above.) This content is portrayed in an almost meditative way that films from the 60's and 70's often used, that I sorely miss. Something about that era was more permissive about taking pause to think about abstractions, whereas films of today never allow for such pacing.
My only confusion with this film is at the very end.
Full review coming soon
LADY IN A CAGE (1964)recommended! Dir: Walter Grauman (TV's THE FUGITIVE, BARNABY JONES)
Sharply disturbing meditation on the inhumanity of modern living and how ethics and compassion are relics of an age gone by. Terrific performance by Olivia de Havilland as an older woman trapped alone in an in-home elevator over an extended 4th of July holiday. Outside the traffic and people are too noisy and self-consumed to hear the elevator's safety alarm sounding off or notice anything strange about the house. James Caan (in his first on-screen role) is the leader of some local drugged-out hooligans who discover the woman's compromised position and ransack the place while she helplessly watches. Eventually, they decide the woman must die so that she can't identify them, rationalizing this through open conversation right in her very presence.
A fierce picturization of impotent powerlessness in the face of modernity, this thriller has the B&W look and feel of a Twilight Zone episode, poignantly jarring score and matter-of-fact directing, sustaining a palpable edginess from start to finish. Almost hard to believe it was made in 1964! I remember seeing scenes from this on TV as a kid and was impacted by the dark and subversive scenario of the story. Here was this woman stuck in a cage inside her own house with people walking around her. Why wouldn't they let her out? What did she do to deserve this?? Happy to finally get to see this gem in its entirety all these years later.
Thematically reminiscent of Passolini's SALO or Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT.
I had hoped this would be a modern re-telling/re-working of the Ishirô Honda's 1954 masterpiece GOJIRA, but instead, was a bit like a sequel. Cleverly, the writers set up a back story that both includes the original and leaves room for "the rest" of the Godzilla film legacy in a way.
I had to get over my very jaded expectations in order to enjoy what this movie has to offer, but it does have much to offer. Of particular note are the flawless special effects. The elements that must be present for any worthy Godzilla treatment are that of a giant monster straight out of the bible wreaking havoc on the present world. Somehow this monster is impervious to our weapons and technology of the day and its presence begs questions of every existential kind. I wrote about this in detail in my review of CLOVERFIELD(2008) (see review.) Well, GODZILLA has all of that in spades and for this reason alone, the movie is a highly enjoyable cinematic experience. Along with these factors there was also some interesting conceptual content that flows directly from Edward's previous film MONSTERS (see review.)Namely, questions about evolution and genetic mutation and who really is at the top of the Animal Kingdom food chain.
There were also some obvious and annoying flaws. Bryan Cranston (who I loved on TV's: "MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE") was as over-the-top as I had feared and was an unfortunate casting choice. Thankfully, he turns out to not be the main character and is only in the films first act. My guess is he was only there for his recent award-winning popularity with HBO's BREAKING BAD series. Juliette Binoche has a brief part and is great of course, but it is clear she was a big European name brought in to pepper the project with some class. The Olsen girl was surprisingly good. David Strathairn portrays the military commander who is basically a wasted character who adds nothing. Ken Watanabe plays the scientist Serizawa- the pivotal character in Honda's original classic - but who is only a side character here, added to sprinkle in some scientific and ethical commentary.
My biggest grievance with the film is the plausibility-busting (and seriously annoying) plot line motif of having the main character present at every single major event in the storyline, even though this defies all sense of realism. One could try and argue that this is really the "past-demons" of the father and son characters playing out as monsters that flow from the point of original incident (Japan), to the home of the main character and his family (San Francisco), BUT NO, THAT'S NOT WHAT IT IS. This would have required that the monsters be created out of some act, sin, guilt or otherwise uneasy conundrum of the father or family dynamic that wills the creatures into existence. All tragedy that befalls the family is the result of the monsters being, not the other way around. Therefore, the all-too-easy plot line choice was, in my view, no metaphor but simply a cheap way to compact the already sprawling story into a concise action-drama. In doing so, this choice took the film away from the grown-ups table and placed it at the kids table. I can already hear everyone saying "but it's just a Godzilla film, what do you really expect?" SIGH...
GOJIRA (aka: GODZILLA) (1954)recommended! Dir: Ishirô Honda As Gareth Edwards' 2014 re-telling of this classic hits theaters, I want to revisit the original masterpiece. Especially in light of the fact that most American audiences may not have experienced the true original GOJIRA, or even know that it was only released in the U.S. for the first time in 2004 and is not the same as the film GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (1954) most of us grew up familiar with.
This is the original Japanese film that started the "Kaiju" (aka: "strange creature" or "monster") genre. Not to be confused with the American version starring Raymond Burr, which used the Japanese monster footage spliced together with American studio shoots to form a completely differerent movie for U.S. release in the 1954. Also not to be confused with all the subsequent hokey GODZILLA films for kids that spun off from the success of the original.
GOJIRA is a tragic meditation on the "Pandora's Box" dilemma of weapons-of-mass-destruction. The point of the story is not the giant monster but what and who created such a terror. Poignant allegory that came a mere 10 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended WWII. Yet, GOJIRA isn't merely a reference to those specific events, but rather, a wider and more universal meditation on man's on-going hubris in relation to scientific discovery. One of the great entries in the history of Sci-Fi/Horror cinema.
It has been pointed out that what makes GOJIRA different from other "Atomic Monster" films of the era is that in this film, we do not wish to see all the destruction. We are not cheering at man's downfall as nature's karma-train comes calling. The monster is not a hero or a force of poetic justice but simply a manifestation of life out of balance. We understand the events as tragedy and that for each moral/ethical problem we attempt to solve, we only end up creating many more...
Modern day "Pandora's Box": To save the world from evil you've unleashed, would you risk introducing an even greater evil?
THE OTHER (1972)recommended! Dir: Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, THE STALKING MOON) Ridiculously well shot by legendary cinematographer Robert Surtees (THE GRADUATE, SWEET CHARITY) This is a refreshingly original story about a clairavoyant boy growing up on the family farm in rural Switzerland. The only person who understands the boy and his powers is his loving Grandmother who helps him to meditate and control his out-of-body episodes. When a new baby in the family threatens the boys tightly defined world, an apparent split-personality begins to manifest who is not nearly as pleasant as the innocent boy everyone knows and loves. Elements are slowly revealed that lead the family to discover that perhaps past tragedies were in fact not accidents but evil deeds on the part of the boy's evil "other." Grandma realizes that she may have been fostering a monster all this time and takes drastic measures.
The writing and directing is very solid here and the style of this tragic tale is not so much a "horror flick" as an in depth drama that slowly reveals sad and horrific truths beneath its surface. Themes of codependancy and family longing are presented as would-be-innocent paths that inevitably lead to dark places. Along with the fine cinematography, the acting performances are very strong as is the musical score.
BURNT OFFERINGS (1976)recommended! Dir: Dan Curtis (TV's: DARK SHADOWS, TRILOGY OF TERROR, SCREAM OF THE WOLF, THE NORLISS TAPES) Another classic from made-for-TV maestro Dan Curtis. Written by William F. Nolan (LOGAN'S RUN, TRILOGY OF TERROR) based on the Robert Marasco novel. Amazing all-star cast includes Bette Davis, Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith. Soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.
Review coming soon!
WORLD WAR Z (2013) Dir: Marc Forster (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, STRANGER THAN FICTION, FINDING NEVERLAND, MONSTER'S BALL) Brad Pitt stars in a frenetic race for survival that reminds us that it is Nature that lords over we Humans and not the other way around. A hybrid of Danny Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER films and I AM LEGEND, with the pacing of RUN, LOLA RUN. Unlike the George Romero tradition of slow zombies who munch on living flesh, WWZ follows the post-Boyle era of fast, adrenaline hyped zombies who dine-and-dash only enough to spread their rabid virus. The pace of this film is a relentless sprint that never lets up. Thematically, the film reminded me very much of M. Night Shayamalan's THE HAPPENING. One day nature perverts a few molecules ever so slightly and humanity begins to eradicate itself. Is this a by-product of man's meddling with primal elements? Is it nature's revenge against man's behaviors? Or is this simply the next step in a natural evolution?
Although presented much like a cautionary tale, it is difficult to discern the exact message WWZ is giving, if any at all. The confluence of events that deliver Pitt's character through the narrative are so by-the-skin-of-the teeth unlikely it is as if a divine hand must be at work. Unlike Richard Matheson's classic end-of-the-world story and film I AM LEGEND or it's 1970's predecessor THE OMEGA MAN, WWZ doesn't seem to have overt religious references. However, there is at least one scene that references biblical symbolism. Brad Pitt awakens from a plane crash with a metal shaft through his torso- a literal "spear in his side." Perhaps a closer viewing might reveal more subtext, but at the surface the film is merely a countdown-toward-extinction where mankind has only hours to try and use all of its knowledge and prowess to thwart a viral epidemic. Will it be enough? If we do survive, is it because we have passed some kind of divine test?
These questions reminded me of a very biblically themed horror novel: Stephen King's "THE STAND." In King's narrative, forces of good and evil manifest to illustrate an obvious battle between God and the Devil. Again, WWZ doesn't give us any of the same obvious clues that were revealed in King's tale. The end of the film is reminiscent of 1950's red-scare sci-fi films as a narrating Pitt warns that nature could turn on us at any time. You can almost hear the voice at the end of Howard Hawkes' THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD warning us to "Look to the skies! Keep looking!"
Contrary to my expectations, the speical effects in WWZ were very well done. When I saw trailers for the film I suspected a lot of fast and loose CGI, but was pleasantly surprised. The score was nicely appropriate too, although character development and other story elements were obviously sacrificed for the sake of the pacing.
THE THAW (2009) Dir: Mark A. Lewis
Val Kilmer stars in this ethical drama reminescent of Alan Parker's THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE(2003) and John Carpenter's THE THING (1982)
Full review coming soon!
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 (2013) Dir: James Wan (INSIDIOUS, SAW, THE CONJURING)
One of those rare sequels that picks up at the exact moment where the previous film left off. In the first outing, a family is terrorized by ghostly apparitions and an evil female demon. After the father enters a parallel, purgatory like world to help lead his lost child back from the beyond, a climactic seance seemingly "clears" the house of the evil presence. INSIDIOUS 2 starts with the family arriving at a new house later that night, only to discover that the evil has followed them.
Going deeper into the devices and themes of the first film, this sequel also features family members entering parallel worlds to uncover the mysteries of the evil hauntings. With the father now possesed by the evil woman and acting out her evil deeds in the flesh, mom and kids are left to figure out what the heck is going on. With the help of a ghost expert and the spirit of the now deceased psychic woman from the first film, the family traverses the bizarre realms of the parallel netherworld. Here are some very interesting plot antics invloving shifting time & space where quite fun.
In the first film, there is a scene where the family witnesses strange poundings on the front door and the windows of their house. In this film, it is now revealed that the apparitions acting this out were in fact, the family members themselves only in a parallel universe, trying to alert themselves in the present. Pretty high concept stuff. There is also a video of the son talking to an invisible someone and later we find he was talking to the appartition of himself in the future, come back to warn him about the possessed Dad.
These intricate plot points between both films would lead one to believe the filmmakers conceived the overlapping moments in advance, or perhaps shot both films together. If this is not the case, then some rather witty writing was done after the fact to make these elements string together. As with the first film, the soundtrack is strong and the acting performances rather good. Although there is not much to the film other than the clever plot twists. The possesed Dad schtick was rather cliche, but the film was basically solid and enjoyable enough.
THE CONJURING (2013) Dir: James Wan (INSIDIOUS, SAW)
Very creepy and properly understated for two full acts until the third veers off into a typically disappointing Hollywood ending. Diabolical themes and evocative elements of the supernatural are traded for an all-too-easy "mother's love conquers all" wrap-up at the finale. Although well cast, acted, exquisitely photographed and with an amazingly unnerving score, THE CONJURING leaves us flat in the end.
Based on the original story of psychics Ed and Lorraine Warren, which supposedly inspired the AMITYVILLE HORROR(1979) and (2005) franchise (and subsequently, THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT(2009) see review), a family moves in to a New England home only to discover it is haunted. Past evil remains in the form of spirits who are trapped in memories of ancient ills, or are themselves the source of such evil deeds. The malevolent demons are intent on possessing the living in order to commit murders and create suffering in the real world.
As with other recent features Wan has been attached to, namely INDISIOUS(2010) see review, and DARK SKIES(2013) review here, there are some incredible visual scares in this film. The family kids like to play a game of hide-and-seek where the person who is "it" claps their hands and those hiding must clap back in response. Finding her way to one of the haunted bedrooms, one of the kids claps as she looks for hiders. Out of the wardrobe closet, a pair of hands shoot out and clap in response. The only thing is, all of the other players are accounted for elsewhere. There is no one in the wardrobe!
Similar to Wan's previous effort INSIDIOUS themes of purgatory and worlds beyond our own are presented as palpably discernable realms existing closer than we realize. Both works draw heavily from Tobe Hooper's POLTERGEIST(1983) and contemporary haunted house features like the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (see review) franchise. Where these films diverge however is in the risk taken by the protagonists versus the payoff at the end. It is simply too difficult to believe after all the menacing set-up that a super-powered and malevolent ghost can be undone by a few lines of mushy dialogue and family holding hands. It would seem that something more had to be lost, sacrifice or exchanged in order for good to win over evil here. (See: THE WOMAN IN BLACK(1989) (review here.)
It is also an interesting thematic element that all the characters easily believe in the supernatural elements, including a skeptical cop who assists in an exorcism at the house. Gone are the standard squabbles between believing characters and non-believing ones, which clears our story from having to confront conflicts that are often the main premise of such supernatural tales. (See: DARK SKIES review here)
Vera Farmiga is especially notable in her performance as Lorraine Warren, a psychic who, along with her husband Ed (Patrick Wilson), specializes in "cleansing" haunted objects and places. In their home is a room with archives of possessed items on lock-down, including an evil doll that is showcased in really creepy flashbacks at the films' opening! Lily Taylor is also strong as the mom character. There is a clever wink at the audience in the films' final scene when the Warren's are asked if they are available for "a case out on Long Island" which is, of course, where the first AMITYVILLE movie takes place.
SINISTER (2013) Dir: Scott Derrickson (THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL)
Although well crafted, this meditation on an author's self guilt relies a bit too much on popular visual cliches of the genre to form a spooky, self-reflective moral allegory.
Review coming soon!
THE WARD (2011) Dir: John Carpenter (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, HALLOWEEN, THE FOG, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING, CHRISTINE, STARMAN, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, THEY LIVE, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, VAMPIRES, GHOSTS OF MARS)
Tepid but solid entry from the master of horror Carpenter. Not as good as his early canon, but certainly leagues better than his more recent VAMPIRES or GHOSTS OF MARS...
PACIFIC RIM (2013) Dir: Guillermo Del Toro (THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE, CRONOS, PAN'S LABYRINTH, HELLBOY 1 & 2) Not a horror film, but directed by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro so I will review here.
Extremely well-made and exquisitely designed video-game CGI film for 8 year olds, that Americanizes decades of "Kaiju" (monster) movie traditions from Japan. ROBOT JOX meets GODZILLA meets TRANSFORMERS meets G.I. JOE. If you're a pre-teen or a game designer, this is for you. If not, then rent one of Del Toro's earlier works like PAN'S LABYRINTH or THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (see review.)
If you're like me, you'll just sit rocking in place, muttering to yourself: "He made this instead of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS... He made this instead of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS... He made this instead of AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS..."
NOTHING LEFT TO FEAR (2013) Dir: Anthony Leonardi III I give the film credit for taking Its time and not caving to easy CGI, but all-in-all a pretty tired angle on the "The whole town is a cult" premise you've seen a dozen times before. Some pretty spooky composition sense in the third act, but for all its build-up, the end of the story isn't very clear. Full review coming soon!
INFESTATION (2009) Dir: Kyle Rankin
Campy straight-to-cable fun in the vein of TREMORS, EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS or NIGHT OF THE COMET. Pretty fun special effects too!
Full review coming soon!
THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977) Dir: Alexander Grasshoff & Tsugunobu Kotani
In the tradition of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" comes this disco-era creature-feature that lodges itself somewhere between THE LAND UNKNOWN (1957), THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT(1975) and AT THE EARTH'S CORE(1976). With gender politics driving its KING KONG(1976) era script, this cheezer provides commentary on the nature of "alpha-males" as well as some genuine old-school dino-tainment. Always awkward but none-the-less worthwhile, THE LAST DINOSAUR has the style of an Italian importer (deep color, funky score, constantly zooming camera), the wannabe brains of a Michael Crichton adventure (JURASSIC PARK, CONGO, ANDROMEDA STRAIN) and all the fun FX of minatures, matte paintings, blue-screen compositions and rubber suit monsters.
Richard Boone stars as "Maston Thrust" (LOL) a restless oil tycoon and big game hunter who is a throw back to a by-gone era when men were men and knew how to take charge. Part John Wayne, part Tony Stark and all Captain Ahab, Thrust leads an expedition to a lost pocket in the arctic where volcanic activity has preserved a jungle-'o-dinosaurs. Heading up the feminist front is a young Joan Van Ark (from TV's "Knot's Landing") who serves as the love interest caught between the stoic Thrust and the more grounded, modern-minded "Chuck" (Steven Keats). Together with a Japanese Nobel Prize winning scientist and a Massai tribesman as their tracker, the team tries to observe and document a Tyranasaurus Rex who reigns over this prehistoric bubble. Plans change quickly as the animal proves too much for the mission and with their landing craft out of the picture, the team scrambles to adapt as they realize they will not be able to return home.
First to go are the brains as the scientist is dino-squashed by the Rex as the law-of-the-jungle begins taking our castaways on a backwards evolution towards survival-of-the-fittest. Next goes the Massai huntsman who, although himself is a product of the wild, is no match for the king of the jungle Rex. Finally the face off comes down to the Stallwart Maston versus Chuck, who has managed to rescue the ship and provide a way home. Maston refuses to leave as his obsession with hunting the Rex has eclipsed all else. With the mission a failure and after failing to take down the Rex and inspite of the pleadings of the girl, Maston realizes he himself is the last of his kind and chooses to stay behind.
TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975)(TV) Dir: Dan Curtis (TV's: INTRUDERS, BURNT OFFERINGS, SCREAM OF THE WOLF, THE NIGHT STRANGLER) Three segments: "Julie", "Millicent and Therese" and "Amelia" (penned by the legendary Richard Matheson) starring the legendary Karen Black. (Sadly, we lost Ms. Black this year...)
I saw the "Amelia" segment of this on TV when I was very young and it scared the living crap out of me. Over all these years I had no idea what it was that I had seen or where it was from (a TV show? A movie on TV? I even wondered if perhaps it had been an old NIGHT GALLERY episode.) Then, a friend of mine posted a YouTube clip from the "Amelia" segment on his MySpace page and there it was! Soon after, I found a DVD re-master of this old made-for-TV feature at my local hard-to-find-video store. I've since discovered that many other people my age also remember the crazy "Amelia" segment and there are many on-line posts about it. Such a mix of comical hilarity and absurdist horror- PURE CHILDHOOD NIGHTMARE FUEL!
Segments #1 and #2 are totally forgettable, but segment #3 "Amelia" is what makes this film memorable. A young woman named Amelia (Karen Black) is preparing to go on a date when she receives a distressful call from her mother. It is very clear that Amelia has an un-healthy co-dependant relationship with her needy mother and forfeits her date in order to stay home "in case" her mom needs to call and talk. We only get to see Amelia's side of the call, which is convincingly acted by Black and informs us as to the tragic, emotionally trapped life of Amelia. While she is speaking, she opens a package that has been delivered to her door. Inside is a Zuni tribal doll artifact an anthropologist friend had sent to Amelia's address while he was out of town. Soon after her phone call ends, the doll disappears! Then, to Amelia's shock and horror, we see the doll has come to life and chases Amelia around her apartment trying to kill her!
In memory of Karen Black ( 7/1/39 - 8/8/13 ) R.I.P.
The physicality of the filmmaking is rather effective although completely humorous. The steps taken via clever cinematography to make the doll seem to be alive and running around create a disturbingly frenetic dynamic to the character of the evil doll. To help with the chaos, a soundtrack of sped-up, manic gibberish accompanies the doll's crazed and relentless movements. Amelia struggles to hide from the evil agent, then capture it in a suitcase. With its' spear, it stabs at her and cuts through the suitcase. Eventually the doll brandishes a kitchen knife and slices at Amelia. Resolving to trap the doll in the oven, Amelia seemingly burns him to death. However, upon opening the oven to check, the doll attacks once again! A bloodied and exhausted Amelia finally succumbs to the attack and the end of the segment shows the now possessed, knife wielding Amelia waiting for her mom to come over.
Clearly the Zuni demon is a stand-in for the evil presence of the mom's possessiveness. Amelia struggles but cannot surmount the power of this "demon." The ending would seem to say that this sort of unhealthy relationship dynamic makes monsters of us all. Black is a real trooper in this bizarre short. I simply cannot imagine the laughs that must have been had during the filming of "Amelia!" Don't be fooled, for all its kitch, this one is CREEPY AS HELL!
(Thanks to Brian Johnson for helping me finally find this old gem!)
THE ABOMNIBALE DR. PHIBES (1971)recommended! Dir: Robert Fuest (THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH, THE DEVIL'S RAIN)
Vincent Price and Joseph Cotten star in this deliciously over-the-top macbre revenge tale. Price is at his flamboyantly melodramatic best as the bizarre Dr. Phibes, a disfigured genius bent on murdering the physicians who failed to save his late wife. Isolated in his mansion home, Phibes and his young lady assistant act out nightly cabaret scenes of music and dance (with the accompanyment of Phibe's mechanical automaton band as well as Phibe's maniacal organ playing) all for an audience of none. One by one Phibe's victims are picked off in the order of ancient plagues from the Old Testament. Bats, frogs, rats, locusts, hail and other dastardly means are the weapons used on the innocent, to satiate Phibe's meticulously meditated and sadly misguided rage. Balancing this oddness is a collection of humorously bumbling Scottland yard detectives who, along with the straight sense of Phibe's final intended victim (Joseph Cotten) unravel Phibe's secrets. Brit-Horror at it's gothic best!
DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN! (1972) Dir: Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES)
Lackluster sequel that is obviously aware of the strengths of the first film, but can only seem to cheaply reference them. Price does his job and the bumbling detectives are back, but cannot save a hastily assembled script and unconvincing set design. Whereas the tongue-in-cheek melodrama and dialogue gave the first film a kitchy charm, it is weighed down and forced in this outing. Save for some well crafted tragic elements at the films' ending, this one is forgettable.
CRAWLSPACE (1972)(TV) Dir: John Newland (DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN)
I discovered this one after last year's viewing of Newland's DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (see review.)
Uncomfortable and heart-wrenching tale of a troubled vagrant who hides out in the cellar crawlspace of a retired old couple. Childless and somewhat naive, the couple at first struggle to be rid of the intruder, but slowly begin to realize how much they actually enjoy the presence of a young man in their midst and the parental satisfaction that comes from helping care for him. Eventually, they not only invite him to stay and vouch for him with the local townspeople, but actually adopt him as "family." However, like any story of bringing a wild animal into a tame domain, instincts bite the hand that feeds. What starts as an innocently misguided co-dependancy turns into a fight for survival. Based on the novel by Herbert Lieberman. Noteable performance by Arthur Kennedy in the role of the husband/father character.
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964) Dir: Roger Corman
Classic morose Vincent Price in this last of Corman's Edgar Allen Poe series of films. Screenplay by Robert Towne and great production overall, although the mystery element was a bit tepid until the final twist revealed at the finale. Very similar to Poe's other short story "The Case of Mr. Valdemar" featured in the anthology feature film TALES OF TERROR (see review below) also directed by Corman.
Once again, the art of hypnotism at the time of death is the inciting device in this story of a lost man lamenting over the memory of his deceased wife. Although Vernon Fell (Price) thinks his wife Ligeia's ghost haunts him, it turns out she cruelly hypnotized him before her death to believe her forever alive! Every night Vernon disappears into a trance and tends to Ligeia's corpse until morning when he forgets everything again. So tortured is Vernon that he lives in hopeless isolation until a mishevious and prying young woman brings a sudden and renewed sense of joy. Will Vernon be able to find freedom again or will Ligeia's relentless presence suffocate him eternally?
TALES OF TERROR (1989)recommended! Dir: Roger Corman (FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, THE TERROR) Delightful old-school thriller anthology with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone; along with the beautiful Maggie Pierce, Joyce Jameson and Debra Paget. Three period-piece reworkings of Edgar Allen Poe classics: MORELLA (from The Haunting of Morella), THE BLACK CAT (from The Cask of Amontillado) and THE CASE OF MR. VALDIMAR. Great score by Les Baxter. Spellbinding performance by Peter Lorre not to be missed!
TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) Dir: Freddie Francis (THE GHOUL, SON OF DRACULA, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, THE CREEPING FLESH, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) Six characters find themselves visiting an old crypt, but are not sure how they got there. Soon they find themslves in a sealed off room with an old monk-like character who reveals to them the evil plans they were each about to enact before winding up at the crypt. The six back-stories make for six separate anthology horror shorts. Is this their second chance before they commit their crimes? Is this divine intervention? Is this old man their gaurdian angel or something else? Terrific production, storytelling and acting make for a classy British horror entry with a witty ending plot twist.
TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) Dir: Freddie Francis (THE GHOUL, SON OF DRACULA, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, THE CREEPING FLESH, DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN)
Another Brit anthology feature from Francis much like TALES FROM THE CRYPT (see above) but not nearly as good. This yawner features four segements that play as the back stories of four different patients in an insane asylum, whose doctor thinks he has solved the riddle of their suspiciously related conditions. Each episode is compelling enough, but all have silly endings.
Donald Pleasance plays the doctor who explains each of the four cases to his colleague (Jack Hawkins - whose dialogue is obviously and annoyingly over-dubbed.) John Collins is strong as a wife who finds herself at odds with an evil statue her husband finds in the woods. A young Mary Tamm ("Romana" from British TV's DOCTOR WHO) is gorgeous as a naive college girl whose new lover sacrifices her to a demon God. Kim Novak awkwardly plays the girls mother, mugging and ticking as if she was having a stroke throughout the filming(?)
There is a silly twist at the end that is simply played for yucks like a wanna-be, but not good TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Skip this one.
SQUIRM (1976) Dir: Jeff Lieberman (BLUE SUNSHINE, JUST BEFORE DAWN, REMOTE CONTROL)
This small time entry in the "Animals Attack" sub-genre arrives merely a year after JAWS(1975). Seeing it for the first time in 2013, I found its low-budget trappings to be quite charming. Awkward on pacing but heavy on characters and story, this horror tale features earthworms as its evil antagonists. After a freak storm soaks the ground and downed electrical power lines supercharge the mud, creepy crawlers are forced upward on a homicidal rampage!
There are delightfully funny/creepy shots where head-high walls of (rubber) worms come crashing through doors and up stairs. Caught in the melee are country bumpkin Geri (Patricia Pearcy; looking much like a red-headed Tina Fey sans glasses) and her city-slicker boyfriend Mick (Don Scardino). Along with a pot smoking little sister and a malevolent hick sheriff, our heroes must fend off the slimy menace until daybreak. The worms aren't the only enemy however, as dim-witted neighbor Roger (R.A. Dow), jealous of Mick and half eaten by worms takes Geri hostage in the attic while he goes after Mick.
Lacking the standard socio-political subtext of the genre (environment wreaks revenge on mankind) SQUIRM is more about the love triangle between Geri, Mick and Roger. The opening scene of the film shows Geri getting dressed after a shower. Standing nude near her bedroom window, Roger accidentally sees her as he tends to some ground work outside. Both parties are embarassed although the event goes un-discussed.
The occurrence of a freak-of-nature rainstorm that stimulates something up out of the Earth would seem a stand-in for Roger's repressed sexual/romantic yearning. Being from a family of worm farmers, Roger is at ease with the creatures unlike the other characters. The same rainstorm that brings out the ugly also nearly prevents hero Mick from arriving, as downed trees block his bus route. It is made clear that Mick represents "the city" whereas Roger is obviously more at one with nature; and thus the worms. Roger even has a partly missing finger from a worm attack when he was a child. It is no surprise that Roger eventually becomes aligned with the worms against Mick and Geri and eventually succumbs to them in the end.
Tons of crawling camp make for slithery fun in this low-baller. Also, cool opening theme music (a child's voice singing about the dark coming to get you) and nice Shirley Basey-esque ballad over the end credits.
JUST BEFORE DAWN (1981) Dir: Jeff Lieberman (SQUIRM, BLUE SUNSHINE, REMOTE CONTROL)
Cheezy indy thriller but redeemable in many respects. Were it not for the terrible acting, it wouldn't have been a bad little film. Reminiscent of DELIVERANCE(1972) and THE HILLS HAVE EYES(1977)(see review) and predecessor to later films like WRONG TURN(2003) (see review); this 1981 production is an early entry in what has become an entire canon of post-TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE(1974) films about feral families run amok in modern times.
An inbred mountain family have produced murderous sons who terrorize a small group of college kids on a hiking expedition. Terrific locations, nice visual direction, understated horror elements and a compelling synth score by Brad (THE TERMINATOR) Feidel. George Kennedy has a small but well acted part as a forest ranger, adding some much needed grounding to the movie. The themes have something to do with the main female character who is well rounded but ultimately indecisive- who overcomes her paralysis to take action and prove the men to be the impotent ones. Yet, she has to become a monster to defeat the monsters- blah, blah, blah. I dunno, it was hard for any subtext to penetrate the glaze of horrible acting performances. Anyway, this straight-to-video wonder had a certain charm, manages to steer clear of the well worn cliches you'd expect and is worth it for the locations alone (rural Oregon.)
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) Dir: Bert I. Gordon (FOOD OF THE GODS, TORMENTED, VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS, EARTH VS THE SPIDER, WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE, KING DINOSAUR)
Based on the story by H.G. Wells, John Collins stars in this low-budget Bert Gordon spectacular that surfs the wake of the post-JAWS "Animals Attack" genre. Chemical waste in the ocean causes ants on the shoreline to grow into giant man-crushing monsters! A land developer (Joan Collins) and her take-charge boat captain (Robert Lansing) expose a hapless crowd of potential buyers to an isolated beachfront community where the ants have taken over. A quest for survival follows as the group must paddle up river, the only means of escape. The film takes an interesting turn in its third act as the group arrives in a rural town run by a curious sugar refinery company. Our story turns from a "chased by monsters" premise to a "the whole town is an evil cult" paranoia tale as we learn that the towns people work for the ants and their diabolical cause!
Interesting about the script is that any of the characters with a pessimistic view were proven correct and all optimists were killed off. This is in contrast to the usual moral-tale paradigm of such creature features, but is in keeping with the late seventies post-watergate culture of cynicism. Movie-of-the-week quality filmmaking with old-school special effects make for some silly, throwback fun!
FOOD OF THE GODS (1975) Dir: Bert I. Gordon (EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, NECROMANCY, PICTURE MOMMY DEAD, THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN, THE CYCLOPS, BEGINNING OF THE END)
Not as good as Gordon's follow up film EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, but certainly a practice run, since both films are essentially the same. Child-sensation-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner stars as "Morgan" a football player vacationing on an isolated channel island in British Columbia where the local animals have mysteriously grown ten times their size. The source comes from this mysterious goo a local farmer and his wife have found oozing from their yard. Mixing the goo with animal feed, the couple finds that their livestock begin to grow. Thinking this "food of the Gods" comes from the Almighty for some divine purpose, the couple keeps their discovery a secret and shop their prize goo to a big city business man. After Gordon's buddy gets killed by giant wasps, it becomes clear the magic goo has affected more than just the farm animals. Gordon and friend, a stranded pregnant couple, the farmer lady and the business man and his secretary all hunker down in the farm house and do battle with hordes of giant rats.Running out of ammo, Gordon gets the heroic idea to blow up the local dam and flood the area, thus killing the rats (who sink rather than swim due to their expanded size.) Although Gordon's plan works, the water spreads the evil goo into the main water supply. The film ends with a sequence showing the tainted water reaching thirsty dairy cattle and subsequent dairy products being consumed by school children.
The film is clunky due to awkward pacing, bad editing and flat acting. It is a bit of an odd script that toggles between scenes that are surprisingly not as cheezy as they could be and then just plain weird. There is a needless plot element of the pregnant woman giving birth right at the climax of the rats attacking which, rather than adding any subtext, is just annoying. The effects are mostly by way of miniature sets with real rats, superimposed with the live actors. The process is better perfected in EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, although the ending scene with the flooded farm house surrounded by rats is oddly effective.
TERROR TRAIN (1980) Dir: Roger Spottiswoode Jamie Lee Curtis stars in this Eighties straight-to-video wonder that cashes in on the budding slasher genre of the era. A past prank gone wrong sets the stage for a weird revenge tale involving a class of graduate students throwing one last New Year's Eve hurrah on a train. A masquerade theme has everyone wearing weird costumes and masks. A young David Copperfield co-stars as a performing magician who mingles with the students. When peeps start going missing, it would seem that a murderer is on board. However, bloody bodies disappear and turn out to be false alarms. Is this another prank on the part of the students? Is the entire train trip a big set-up for one last graduation guffaw?
Slow pacing, a seemingly indecisive train conductor and his crew and the weird presence of the magician who no one seems to have invited, make for a meandering and unfocused plot. When the killer is revealed, the superfluous and somewhat gender-bending back story (ala: SLEEPAWAY CAMP) is tacked on out of nowhere, with no real connection to the rest of the story. Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh from her starring role in the blockbuster HALLOWEEN(1978) is fairly decent. The whole film feels a bit like a spoof of Agatha Christie's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS only with creepy masks added to make it more like a slasher flick.
BARRACUDA (1978) Dir: Harry Kerwin & Wayne Crawford A seriously under-the-rader C-lister in the "Animals Attack" genre that, as lame as it is, I really enjoyed! File under the "so bad it's good" category, this feature almost seemed like it was out of the 1950's, not the 1970's. The same cliches are at work here: the evil corporation dumps waste that causes fish to go on a rampage. Our hero is a young environmentalist who suspects the factory is up to no good and with the help of the local sheriff and his daughter, take the corporate goons to task. However, this seemingly traditional tale had some unconventional kinks to its narrative. We would typically expect the sheriff to dismiss the hippie kid but he doesn't, he listens to reason (refreshing!) Next, the enemy combatants are not so much the deadly fish, but these weird men-in-black government agents who control the local factory. I was remnded of the strange, zombie-like foot soldiers in Tommy Lee Wallace's HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH. Throw in some comic relief moments with the sheriff's bumbling deputy and we have a bizzare mix ofRed-scare era throwback and seventies era fear-of-the-establishment thrills.
DOLLS (1987) (aka: THE DOLL) Dir: Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND, ROBOT JOX, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM)
You knew it would suck and you were right of course. Although slightly less gory than its predecessor PIRANHA 3D (see review), this flick suffers from the same adolescent toilet humor and desire to assault (and insult) its audience. This is one of those films that gives horror movies a bad name by fulfilling every bad cliche a detractor might expect. Far worse is the obvious reality that the filmmakers did so very purposefully. It's as if someone gave them money and said "make a film, but only if it's really, really dumb at every level- cuz your audience will be a bunch of chimps at the zoo." Watching the film felt like watching a nameless PORKY'S sequel, crossed with one of those SCARY MOVIE flicks, only it wasn't a spoof. If eviscerated penises, violated vaginas and anuses, farts, vomit and masturbation all played for laughs is your type of thing, then knock yourself out. Otherwise, please skip.
The only reason I watched this was because it was free on YouTube in HD and I had insomnia.
PIRANHA (1995)(TV) Dir: Scott P. Levy (THE ALIEN WITHIN, HOUSE OF THE DAMNED) Roger Corman's "New Horizons" company spits out a scene-for-scene remake of their original PIRANHA(1978)(see review), this time starring straight-to-video heavyweights William Katt and Alexandra Paul. A pre-teen Mila Kunis co-stars. Despite being produced more than a decade after the original, this version lacks the same charm and doesn't showcase anything newer in the FX department. In short, re-watching the original (which at least had a theatrical release) is a better choice than sitting through this made-for-TV re-tell, which adds nothing.
SCREAM AND DIE! (aka: THE HOUSE THAT VANISHED) (1974) Dir: Jose Ramon Larraz (VAMPYRES)
A who-dun-it thriller in the spirit of Italian "Giallo" thrillers (murder mysteries) only British. Spanish director Larraz seems to have little or no idea what he is doing although the camera work and production is solid. No doubt this is due to the assembly line nature of this forgettable grindhouse wanna-be. If a pointless and meandering plot line with no subtext and copious amounts of needless nudity from big-boobed British bimbos is your thing, then this is for you. In other words: FIVE STARS!!!
Valerie (Andrea Allen) is a beautiful but naive fashion model who seems to hook up with all the wrong people and it nearly kills her. After witnessing a serial murder and narrowly escaping, the killer keeps showing up in Valerie's life. Clearly she is in danger, but that doesn't seem enough for her to tell the police or doing anything about it. Everyone goes about their business, which for the most part seems to be smoking a lot of cigarettes and visiting each other for no reason. Several more deaths occur, including Val's roommate who is brutally raped and strangled. So emotional at this is Val that she goes off on a weekend vacation to a strange abandoned house to have sex in front of the fireplace with her new boyfriend who she just met. Prior to this there is an i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y disturbing sex scene with the boyfriend and his aunt (mother figure) who are in some demented incest relationship. These two have a business making designer artisan masks, although this has nothing to do with anything, least of all the plot. Shock/surprise the Norman-Bates-like new boyfriend guy is the killer. A creepy neighbor who is set up as the possible killer turns out to save the day by calling the cops. Val is rescued, the film ends and no more boobies :(
I've often remarked that the value in watching bad films is that you can so obviously see what they should have done but didn't. This is great for the film students out there. When a film does it right, you don't notice- you are caught up in your suspension of disbelief. This film had the slight entertainment value of laughing at the horrible direction. It was either that, or 90 minutes of my life wasted, either one. I did actually appreciate the very dissonant ambient score. FYI, there is no house that does any vanishing.
THE EVIL (aka: HOUSE OF EVIL) (1978) Dir: Gus Trikonis (MOONSHINE COUNTY EXPRESS, THE STUDENT BODY, FIVE THE HARD WAY) Richard Crenna stars in this tepid frightener about a psychologist and his students who confront the supernatural in a haunted house. Being a noted skeptic, Doctor Arnold (Crenna) dismisses any and all strange-bumps-in-the-night as "imagination", that is, until people start dropping like flies. His wife (Joanna Pettet), the only character open to faith, sees a recurring ghost that leads her to clues about an ancient evil trapped in a sealed pit beneath the basement. The ghost also delivers to the couple an old, gothic cross made out of gold. When Doctor Arnold unwittingly opens the portal-to-hell, the house locks everyone in and goes on a murderous rampage until only Doctor and wife are left. Falling into into the basement pit, our hero discovers Satan himself alive and well and must confront him.
Here is where the movie is either brilliant or beyond ridiculous. Satan is rendered as a fat guy in a white suit sitting on a throne who mocks our hero, demanding he hand over the only thing standing in his way- the antique golden cross. Doctor Arnold refuses and tries to withstand Satan's mind torture attempts. On the verge of collapse our hero is saved as wifey shows up in the nick of time to stab Satan in the chest with the cross. Our heroes escape, sealing the pit closed with the cross. (Gotta love how the cross is clearly seen stuck in Satan's when our heroes flee, but then they suddenly have it with them when they climb out of the pit...)
What starts as an intriguing set-up of a group of skeptic psych students camping out in a haunted house, turns into a rather lame series of not very convincing deaths and then this truly bizarre finale with The-Devil-in-white-on-a-chair. Hilarious!
THE STRANGE AND DEADLY OCCURRENCE (1974)(TV) Dir: John Llewellyn Moxley (CITY OF THE DEAD, THE NIGHT STALKER, PSYCHO-CIRCUS)
Very well directed, photographed and acted made-for-TV mystery tale that plays a bit like a Scooby-Doo whodunit. Stars Robert Stack and Vera Miles.
Full review coming soon!
DEVIL DOG: HOUND OF HELL (1978)(TV) Dir: Curtis Harrington (WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, GAMES, NIGHT TIDE, VOYAGE TO THE PREHISTORIC PLANET )
Review coming soon!
TERROR ON THE BEACH (1973)(TV) Dir: Paul Wendkos
Like the flip side of one of Chevy Chases' VACATION movies, Fritz Weaver and family go for an early summer outing at the beach where all Hell breaks loose! Modern, "Nuclear" family is confronted by a cultish pseudo-family in the form of a roving band of hippie nihilists. (Think "Alex and his Droogs" from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) Looking like one of the gangs from THE WARRIORS or the cast of HAIR, the punkish troop terrorize the traditional family for several nights, building to a final showdown. During the drama, son confronts dad on the differences between idealized principles and "picking ones battles" and daughter hashes it out with mom about the realities of the new feminist era. Ultimately, the two "dads" duke it out and Clark Griswold kicks major ass! Light-hearted movie of the week that actually vindicates the often maligned impotent, suburban dad everyman. Most noteable are the freaky hippies and Susan Dey running around in a bikini.