The October Country Trek Begins

I love October. It’s my birthday month, temperatures finally begin to cool in the hellhole where I’ve set up shop, but above all, the macabre becomes the law of the land. Yeah, I watch a lot of horror movies, but in October, everybody watches horror movies. Unless they’re wusses. You’re not a wuss, are you?

That’s a hard sell, this year, The popular challenge is “31 Nights of Horror”, but if I’m not working evenings at Job 2 or Job 3, I’m trying to churn out 1000 words a night on a writing contract (yes, four jobs, because like all liberals, I am such a fucking moocher. Bitterness intended), and this does not leave a whole lot of time for movie watching. Yet, I manage, such is the siren call of the horror movie. I can sleep when I’m dead (or collapse from exhaustion).

220px-Prince_of_darknessIt feels like I’ve been championing Prince of Darkness forever; ignored at the box office, lambasted by critics. So I, of course, love it – it’s the sort of mashing up of science and horror I really enjoy, and director John Carpenter’s choice of pseudonyms for the screenplay credit – “Martin Quatermass” – really points up his desire to do a Nigel Kneale-type picture. Although the last faux Kneale movie he was involved with, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, didn’t do so hot, either.

Supported by one of Carpenter’s creepiest soundtracks, the opening of Prince is marvelous in its precision; an elderly Catholic priest dies before his appointment with the Cardinal, and thus Donald Pleasence discovers the Brotherhood of Sleep, who have kept in the basement of their discarded church an ancient, sealed vat of green liquid which has begun agitating itself of its own accord. The problem is, the substance, locked away in the vial, is getting more active. Actually, the problem is it appears to be Satan.

So the priest reaches out to Professor Birack (Victor Wong), a quantum physicist who had engaged in a series of televised debates with him years earlier. Birack and a troop of graduate students set up shop in the church, hoping to quantify just what the liquid actually is – and that process leads to madness, death, possession, and an army of the homeless led by Alice Cooper.

prince-of-darkness-liquid-container-devilThis was Carpenter’s first independent production in years, and it’s nice to see him blossom again on a comparatively low budget. Some concessions are made to this lack of money, as in the cost-effective menace of homeless schizophrenics (a constant lightning rod for PC bitching). Bits of questionable science provide grist for nerd pedant complaints, but good grief, I realize faster-than-light travel is impossible, but I still watch Star Trek. Even I wince at the ancient astronauts angle, which is so outlandish that I expect to see Prince of Darkness playing regularly on what now passes for The History Channel.

Thing is, I don’t care. I love this movie, one of the last movies to actually frighten me in a theater. There is so much here that is good, I can actually forgive any shortcomings and enjoy myself. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the Scream Factory blu-ray, which did not disappoint. But I did wait a couple of weeks to watch it. Stupid Jobs. Stupid adult life.

There was a brief detour to watch Gravity on opening day – yes, if you still haven’t, see it and spring for the 3-D and huge screen. This one will not be the same on home video, I don’t care how orgasmic your home theater system might be. In the spirit of contrarianism, after enjoying the $80 million dollar CGI of Gravity, I partook of the $80 menace of The Devil Bat.

devil_bat_poster_01The Devil Bat, in my opinion, gets unjustly dismissed. Sure, it the quintessential Poverty Row production (for years, i thought the distributor’s name, PRC, stood for Poverty Row Company, not Producers Releasing Corporation), small cast, limited locations, a risible flying monster on a string. In fact you’d see the same setup many times from Poverty Row, notably with George Zucco in The Flying Serpent, not to mention the deliriously-named Devil Bat’s Daughter. But this time out, we have Bela Lugosi, not quite yet a parody of himself, and a somewhat fresh angle on the revenge motif.

Bela is Dr. Paul Carruthers, whose chemical genius has made multi-millionaires of the Heath and Morton families, who built their cosmetic company fortune on a revolutionary cold cream formula sold to them for a mere ten thousand dollars. Sadly for the families, that ten grand (an all the other money they’ve paid him for subsequent products) has gone into his experiments with “Glandular stimulation through electricity”, which means he’s been creating a bigass bat with Kenneth Strickfaden equipment.  Deciding to kill off both families, Carruthers gives each a sample of a new after-shave he’s working on, and the Devil Bat uses that scent to track down its targets.

devilbatLugosi is really good in this; he gives the character a tragic undertone. Every time a future victim leaves with their bottle of Bat Bait, no matter how they take their leave – “So long, Doc!” “See you later!” he always answers “Goodbye” in as portentous a manner as possible, and we even see a little regret in the mad genius.

As is the tradition of the times, our hero is a wisecracking reporter – Dave O’Brien, the “Faster! Faster!” dope fiend of Reefer Madness. He’s actually a solid leading man, small wonder he eventually became Captain Midnight.  This was also apparently a time of unparalleled cooperation between the Police and the Press, as O’Brien walks into the Police Chief’s office and offers his investigative skills to the poor, bemused bureaucrat. Thank God for the fourth estate!

The Devil Bat itself is fairly ridiculous, especially since they keep cutting in the head of a fruit bat in close-ups – I guess because of the pointy ears, but come on, it’s a fruit bat! They have one of the cutest faces in the bat world!

I watched this on the new Kino-Lorber blu-ray, and the commentary track by Richard Harland Smith is first-rate, presenting a ton of information in a brisk 68 minute span.

So… How busy am I? That’s only two of nine movies I’ve watched lately… and I don’t have time right now to even name the rest. Best to just get these up and write up the others as I have time …IF EVER. See you when I can.

Or, as Bela would say, “Good bye… Dr. Freex.”

Lurching Toward Halloween

This has been a rather full month. I started an entry about two weeks ago, about my viewing of the Matt Helm spy spoof The Silencers, but then found out Teleport City had done one of their typically complete and engaging exposés on the entire Matt Helm oeuvre, rendering anything I might have to say pretty moot. Then things got pretty busy. Pretty, pretty busy.

My day job is back on the one-story-a-week schedule, I find myself attending up to three meetings a week for various writing projects, my weekend show – usually only Saturdays – has added Fridays and occasional weekday private shows, I still work at least three city meetings a month… it’s been a rough-and-tumble confluence of three part-time jobs with three freelance jobs, leaving no time for non-paying propositions like watching movies and then blogging about them.

It’s usual to do something stupid under these circumstances, like another Movie Challenge, especially since I finally seem to be recovered from the last one. For a longtime horror fan like myself, 31 Days Of Horror seems like a natural, right? Then I look at my Google Calendar for October, tote things up, and discover I have, at present, 18 of those evenings free – if I totally ignore the freelance writing work, which I won’t, because they’re like, paying me money (that work ethic may be compromised as that project is dependent on a government grant, and some lunatics think it would be a good thing to shut down the government for a while). So I put together a list of 18 movies I want to watch in my birthday month, almost certainly an act of punishable hubris. There is a stretch goal of 31, because I also like science fiction, har de har.

I also cheat, and have so far watched 3 of the stretch goal movies, and two of the 18, here in September.

Frankensteins-ArmyThere had been a steady stream of good advance buzz on Richard Raaphorst’s Frankenstein’s Army, and that, coupled with an impressively cheap blu-ray, put it square in my sights. It has a great, creepy storyline with an unexpected viewpoint: a Soviet recon squad in WWII Germany responds to a distress call from another Russian squad and finds itself in a deserted village with a funeral pyre made of nuns and a cemetery full of opened, empty graves. Things quickly go from bad to worse as they find themselves besieged by primitive cyborgs cobbled together by none other than Victor Frankenstein, building super soldiers for an increasingly desperate Third Reich.

That’s pretty standard comic book boilerplate, but two things set Frankenstein’s Army apart: first, the brilliant (if incredibly twisted) production design by Raaphorst – not just the creatures, dubbed “zombots”- but the superbly creepy-ass village, retrofitted by him and his crew in an abandoned coal mining complex outside Prague. Second, the fact that this is a found footage movie.

Yeah, yeah, stop your moaning. I like them – they’re great, if done well (and what can’t you say that about?), and Frankenstein’s Army gets it right in large part. At least once you get over the concept of a 1940s movie camera that is man-portable, records sound, and has an abundant supply of film. And the fact that our cameraman gets some shots that would be impossible, or at least ridiculously dangerous, in the field. Or…

Pfeh. I’m watching a movie about Nazi Zombies with blades for hands and propellers for heads. Suddenly I’m concerned about realism? And there’s certainly enough audacious instances causing this battle-hardened monster movie watcher to go “Holy shit!” that any imperfections along the way get immediately forgiven.

a-bay-of-blood-movie-poster-1020534632That got followed up with Mario Bava’s seminal murder spree movie, A Bay of Blood, aka Carnage aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, which starts with a bizarre, wince-inducing murder, and then seems to violate giallo tradition by revealing the identity of the black-gloved murderer.. but then he gets murdered, and things start to spiral out of control from that initial five minutes.

The first murder – of a wheelchair-bound countess – means a power vacuum around the ownership of the titular bay, an idyllic place that the dead woman strenuously resisted developing. The Bay is now up for grabs, as her second husband (the now-deceased murderer) has apparently disappeared, leaving it up to his daughter and, surprise, surprise, a bastard son. The architect who wants to develop the Bay (and already has a very nice house there) is pressuring the bastard to sign over everything, a bunch of dune-buggy riding hippies break into his house to party (and wind up getting killed), the daughter and her husband show up, and she’s not adverse to getting her hands bloody (or significantly, forcing her husband to get his equally sanguinary) and holy crap the death count just starts spiralling and finally you’re not really sure who’s killed who.

That speaks to Bava’s usual streak of jet-black comedy. There’s something about the Bay – or real estate in general – that just seems to kick off everyone’s killer urges, leading up to one of the most demented, absurd conclusions in any horror movie. At least three of the murders are famously stolen for Friday the 13th parts one and two, movies I would have liked had they a fraction of the wit and style exhibited here.  Needless to say, it’s Mario Bava, so the cinematography is gorgeous even when grotesque, and the Kino Blu-ray punches all that up admirably.

DraculaPrinceOfDarkness_FrSmallDracula, Prince of Darkness is not my favorite Hammer Dracula, but until Horror or Brides is released on Blu here in the US, it will suffice. In fact, I found myself warming to this entry on my first viewing in years – and come to think of it, chances are good my previous attempt was mangled for TV.

Four English twits touring their way through Europe ten years after the events of the first movie have some incredibly bad luck and wind up spending the night at Castle Dracula. The manservant, Klove (Philip Latham) guts one of them over a stone sarcophagus, using his blood to resurrect his dusty master. So Christopher Lee is back, stalking the womenfolk, and snarling a lot (It’s a great story, though unproven, that Lee found the Count’s lines so terrible that he refused to speak them).

Prince has some great setpieces, driverless carriages and slow unfolding of plot. It also has some dreadfully clunky places, and suffers from the absence of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. The substitute is Father Sandor (Andrew Keir), a bluff, brusque clergyman who has not time for fools or the undead’s nonsense. Keir is great in the role, and honestly, you can’t criticize him for not being Peter Cushing – who among us is? Anyway, Father Sandor is memorable enough that he inspired a continuing comic in the Hammer House of Horror magazine called “Father Shandor, Demon Stalker”, which I know about primarily because it carried over to the amazing Warrior magazine.

If nothing else, Prince does pay homage to several tropes of vampire mythology that Hammer would exploit many times in the coming years – the thralls, like Klove and mad Ludwig; vampires having to gain permission to enter a house; and their allergy to running water. Not top-notch Hammer, but better than none at all.

outpost2dI bought the DVD for Outpost because – well, okay, because it was cheap, but also because it’s a horror movie starring Ray Stevenson. Latecomer that I am, my first exposure to Stevenson was in Punisher: War Zone (the only Punisher movie I’ve ever liked), and then I was overjoyed to find him cropping up in other places: HBO’s Rome, that weirdass steampunk Three Musketeers. He has nowhere near the girth to play Volstagg in the Thor movies, but I’m still glad he got the role.

So. Outpost. Stevenson leads a squad of mercs into an abandoned Nazi bunker and fights zombies. Oh, holy mother of God and all the disciples in a Honda Civic,  not Nazi zombies again!! How did they manage to lose the war with all these Hell Creatures at their beck and call?

I’m going to give Outpost the courtesy of admitting it at least gives these zombies a different, even unique, origin: the SS, in the last throes of the War, are messing around with Unified Field Theory, with the result being a bunch of stormtroopers under command of a pasty white Gestapo officer (a genuinely unnerving Johnny Meres), unstuck in time, trapped in a limbo that allows them to conveniently appear and disappear, apparently at will. And, as we learned in Dead Snow, all Nazis care about is being evil dickweeds. Our mercs are there to help a historian find the Unified Field Generator for his wealthy backers, who turn out to be just as ruthless as the Nazis.

If there is a major flaw in Outpost – outside the feeling that we’ve already been through this many times before – it’s that our mercs are so obviously, hopelessly overmatched, there’s no real suspense, just some nasty kills. When our remaining crew do figure out a plan to extricate themselves, it relies heavily on the Nazis conveniently forgetting they can shadow walk anywhere in the complex. This didn’t stop the production of a recent sequel, Outpost: Black Sun, so it must have had some success.

I do still love Ray Stevenson, though.

I also love living in the DVD age. The mercs run the gamut of nationalities and opaque accents, so the ability to turn on subtitles was a real plus.

World-War-ZSince I ended my decade-long moratorium against zombie movies, the floodgates have opened, as it were (in other words, I am dealing with that particular glut of product), so why not experience the ne plus ultra of this bizarre cultural obsession, something that would have been unthinkable back in 1978, when Romero released Dawn of the Dead: a zombie movie costing over $200 million, World War Z.

Since Max Brooks’ novel of the same name was subtitled An Oral History, deviation from the source material was practically a given, unless you wanted a movie about a bunch of people being interviewed or Ken Burns’ World War Z. What we get instead is Brad Pitt playing a former UN war crimes investigator having the worst day of his life, being pressed back into service by the end of the world.

World War Z is more disaster movie than zombie flick, but with a budget that huge, it is also an incredibly impressive disaster movie. Way back when,  watching one of the movies that triggered my moratorium, Resident Evil, there was one moment that I did appreciate: the final pullback from Milla Jovovich to reveal a city devastated by a zombie apocalypse. World War Z gives us several segments of the apocalypse in progress, and that money gets spent hard, and much of it winds up on the screen. Great cast, good effects work, dynamite pacing, and a few genuine surprises. It was everything I look for in movies. Not just horror movies, but movies in general.

As I write this, September is drawing to a close. This looks to be another busy week, even though my freelance jobs are probably going to be shut down for a while thanks to some World War Z-worthy antics in D.C. After a burst of tending to my other jobs, I’ll be back to the horror movies, taking comfort in the fact that the insanity in them is limited to two hours or less, and the impact upon myself and my family, minimal.