C: Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

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1957-UK-The-Curse-of-FrankensteinWhy yes, it has taken me an inordinately long time to watch this movie – Hammer’s first gothic horror, and a film that arguably kicked off the horror boom that would blossom in the 60s. During my younger years, this was understandable, since the local TV channels seemed to have no problems showing Horror of Dracula (and especially Brides of Dracula) over and over again, but the Hammer Frankensteins seemed to rarely crop up. In Curse‘s case, never. So, when it was finally released on DVD  in 2002, I snatched it up – and proceeded to ignore it for 12 years.

Don’t judge me, ye’ve not had my life.

curse_of_frankenstein_poster_03Rather famously, Universal threatened to sue this upstart British company if they dared to imitate their 1931 tentpole, and this was actually a good thing. I’ve read accounts that claim that the initial concept was to do a black-and-white movie with Karloff as the Monster – hell, Hammer even calls it “The Creature” so they couldn’t be accused of ripping that off – and the threat of litigation forced them to create something unmistakably their own.

First of all, the movie is in color – a semi-big deal in 1957. It starts the Hammer look of a subdued color palette against which any bright color – especially blood red – really pops off the screen. Costume designer Molly Arbuthnot has a ball with some amazingly textured fabrics. There are no lab coats and rubber gloves in this milieu,  our mad scientist does his bloody work in frock coats and cravats, white cotton gloves.

The movie begins with a desperate Baron von Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) telling a priest his tale on the eve of the Baron’s execution; the extended flashback which forms the movie proper takes its time, beginning with Victor Frankenstein as a young man, the last of his family, inheriting a vast fortune and hiring a brilliant science tutor, Paul (Robert Urquhart) who eventually becomes his collaborator in fringe science. After successfully bringing a dead puppy back to life, Paul is ready to publish, but Victor wants to go even further – to create life itself, using pieces of corpses as a framework.

648112Now, that is a hell of a leap, and if anyone doubts Peter Cushing’s skills as an actor (PS, if you do, you’re an idiot), the fact that Cushing actually pulls this off should provide more than adequate proof. His Frankenstein is quite the amazing portrayal, in fact – a rich nobleman used to getting his way, capable of great charm but so cocooned within his wealth and privilege that he can’t see the potential harm in anything he does, and in the pursuit of his ultimate goal, it becomes no surprise that murder becomes just another tool.

Paul, at first uneasy about his former student’s new experiments, eventually refuses to have anything to do with this horror, but Victor forges on, even when Paul deliberately tries to sabotage the process by damaging the brain of a brilliant, aged scientist Frankenstein has killed so that his creation can have the brain of a genius. Frankenstein’s first attempt to animate the Creature fails because his equipment – a riot of pre-Victorian galvanism and colored bubbling liquids – was built to be operated by two people. While he tries to convince Paul to help him, a lucky lightning strike surges through the equipment, and a surprised Victor Frankenstein is soon confronted by his own success – which instantly tries to murder him.

MCDCUOF EC019This is also one of the best fruits of the threatened lawsuit from Universal: the creation of a new visage for the Monster. Apparently in complete desperation, makeup artist Phil Leakey created this new version directly on Christopher Lee’s face at the last minute, using traditional supplies like cotton and spirit gum, very much in the tradition of the classic Universal monsters. Striking, horrifying and completely its own… creature.

Christopher Lee was cast as the Creature largely due to his impressive height (they almost cast another actor, Bernard Bresslaw, who was two inches taller than Lee). Now, I have the utmost respect for Christopher Lee: he has led an amazing life, recently turned what? 92? And is still kicking ass. But. I have always considered him an actor of limited range, but undeniable and truly impressive presence, That is a quality which must not be underestimated. And sadly, this role would not have given him an adequate showcase anyway: that lawsuit again, and though Lee’s Creature does have its moments of pathos, it falls to him to simply be murderous – there is no trace of Karloff’s incredible, often sensitive performance in 1931.

curse_of_frankenstein_23The story does get a bit meandering: the Creature escapes, kills a couple of people (the first one being a blind man, the polar opposite of a similar sequence in Bride of Frankenstein – take that, Universal!), and Paul shoots it through the head. This is no obstacle to Frankenstein, however, who simply resurrects it again after, once more, repairing the brain Paul had damaged. Victor uses the monster to rid himself of a troublesome maid attempting to blackmail him into marriage; it is for that murder that Frankenstein will be remanded to the guillotine at movie’s end, the monster having escaped once more, attempting to murder Victor’s bride, and finally winding up in the scientist’s convenient acid vat, erasing all evidence of the brute who actually killed the maid. Paul keeps quiet about the Creature, too, realizing death is the only way to stop the obsessed Victor.

hazel-court-in-the-curse-of-frankenstein-1957Having mentioned Victor’s bride, I should take a moment for Hazel Court, who plays Elizabeth. Lovely and talented, Court appears in several gothic horror movies, and she is, sadly, particularly wasted here; Elizabeth exists only as a reason to keep Paul in Castle Frankenstein, hoping to protect her from the horror of Victor’s experiments. Like Lee and Cushing, she was a veteran actor at this point, and probably used to such things. Check out her filmography at the IMDb – her talent was recognized, at least.

Speaking of Cushing and Lee – this is the movie that kicked off a close friendship that would last the rest of their lives, reportedly sparked into existence when Lee complained he had no lines and Cushing responded, “You’re lucky. I’ve read the script.” They had appeared in the same movie at least twice before, but never on the same set on the same day. Both were devoted fans of Looney Tunes, and I don’t know about you, but the idea of these two men imitating Sylvester J. Cat and Tweety-Pie between takes is something that keeps me warm on cold winter nights.

curse of frankenstein headerThe last thing that sets Curse of Frankenstein apart from its Universal forefather is an interesting reversal: both spawned many sequels, but in the Universal series, it was the Monster that remained the same, while the doctors around it changed. It was the exact opposite in the Hammer series: the monster would change, but the doctor (with one notable exception) was the constant: Peter Cushing, building on this complex, nuanced performance over the course of the next fifteen years.

Buy Curse of Frankenstein on Amazon

The October Country Purge II

Oh God finally some actual time off quick write no don’t write relax watch a movie or something no that’s just making it worse but you just got this sweet Zatoichi box those 25 movies aren’t going to watch themselves shut up SHUT UP

stake-land-movie-posterStake Land is a movie that is apparently loved by many, and considered meh by others. My son sits in the former category; I am in the latter.

So there’s no zombie plague this time, it’s vampires, and young Martin (Connor Paolo) is saved by a vampire hunter known only as Mister (Nick Damici) when his family is slaughtered in the first wave. Mister takes Martin under his wing and the two go on a Northward journey, seeking a promised land known only as New Eden. Things happen on the way.

This is an attempt to make a fairly epic horror movie, and I applaud things like that. My problem with Stake Land lies not in the fact that the movie has taken several other movies and put them in a blender and then didn’t hit the button long enough. It’s I Am Legend crossed with The Road with a very healthy dollop of The Outlaw Josey Wales as Martin and Mister pick up a surrogate family along the way. My problem lies with the fact that the movie keeps trying to get an over-arcing plot started, then resolves it in five minutes. Episodic works for some movies, but not here. It also doesn’t help my temper that our characters keep finding fairly safe enclaves and then abandon them for the uncertain promise of New Eden, which may not even exist.

stake_land03The acting, however, is every bit as good as it needs to be and often better. Once again I find myself singling out Kelly McGillis for outstanding work in a genre picture. This will lead to people doing the Internet version of singing “Take My Breath Away” to me, as if this is clever or original. McGillis impresses me; she’s that rare actress who’s managed to get past the industry’s insistence on youth in its actresses, to do interesting, solid work. I had absolutely no desire to see We Are What We Are until I found out she was in it.

I can’t recommend Stake Land, but remember our mantra: Your Mileage May Vary. I use reviews as only vague indicators of what I might find interesting. I always have to see for myself.

The-Conjuring-2013-Movie-PosterI had wanted to see The Conjuring in theaters, but never managed to carve out the time. This works in my favor as I was able to work it in after some really tepid movies, which was a relief and a half, let me tell you. It does deliver, up to a point, and that point, I admit, may be my personal failing (or lack thereof). Confused yet? Let’s get underway:

The Conjuring is subtitled “Based on the True Case Files of The Warrens”, and by now we’ve learned that a combination of “Based on” and “True” applied to a movie can usually be translated as Hi, this is total bullshit, and that is especially true where the Warrens are concerned. There is an entire body of literature, online and off, about the veracity of The Amityville Horror. But you know what? I don’t care about that. I’m here to get scared, or at least heavily creeped out, and on that The Conjuring delivers. Up to that point.

the conjuring 1A very nice family, the Perrons. buy a lovely house, and faster than you can say “I can’t believe we could afford this”, weird things start to happen, eventually leading to Mrs. Perron (Lili Taylor) begging the Warrens (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) to investigate. The movie has started out well enough with one of the Warren’s other cases, a possessed creepy-ass doll named Annabelle, and it continues to get even better as director James Wan delivers again and again on the setup-and-payoff scheme that somehow never quite manages to become mechanical.

Where The Conjuring scores big over the other modern major horror movie I watched in October, Sinister, comes down to one scene: Mrs. Perrone, investigating weird late night noises, moves through the house to investigate, and along the way turns on every single light in the house as she comes to it, a trick Ethan Hawke never managed to learn. It doesn’t do her any good, but at least she’s not an idiot.

THE CONJURINGI’m also going to give Conjuring props for taking paranormal research seriously. I love movies that do that – Legend of Hell House comes to mind. Paranormal research has been seriously shot in the foot by the popularity of “reality shows” on various cable channels, where you can watch bros in night vision scaring themselves in the dark. I really enjoyed the matter-of-fact approach in The Conjuring.

Well, it sounds like I loved it wholeheartedly, doesn’t it? And I did, up until the last fifteen minutes or so, when it decided it didn’t want to be a haunted house story anymore, it wanted to be The Exorcist. Which, with all the talk about demonic entities and  the Warren’s reporting to the Catholic church, I really should have expected.

Look, I don’t find The Exorcist scary. Okay, that first scene with the discovery of the statue of the demon, but after that, eh. I am one of the least religious people on the planet, so the possession of people by boogeymen and their casting out by hyper-prayer just leaves me cold.

Still enjoyed The Conjuring immensely, though. I knew I was going to have to see it after this teaser trailer:

l_37415_0bec18faI love it when the Criterion Collection puts out movies that must seem kind of marginal to the typical cineaste, but bless ’em, they do it often enough to be interesting. In October, one of their selections was Lewis Allen’s 1944 ghost story The Uninvited. In a story that is starting to sound familiar, brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) find a surprisingly affordable clifftop house in Cornwall that they move into, only to find the joint’s haunted, not only by a ghost, but by a living young girl (Gail Russell) whose mother died there.

Ray, of course, gloms onto the girl and romance blossoms, impeded by the girl’s cranky old grandfather (Donald Crisp), who has a valid point: whatever is haunting the house also seems intent on killing the girl. There’s a mystery at the root of The Uninvited, and the new tenants start to unravel it, aided by the village doctor, a shockingly young Alan Napier. Though there’s some goofy humor, there is also some serious dread in this flick, and it’s a grand way to spend 99 minutes.

Death-Ship-1980I had managed to forego Death Ship for 33 years – 33 years! – since its release, but the combination of a halfway decent review by Chad Plambeck and a $5.00 blu-ray steered me toward it. That “I always have to see for myself” dictum of earlier  really does bite me on the ass sometime.

George Kennedy is Captain Ashland, who is on his last voyage as the captain of a cruise ship because, basically, he is an asshole. Richard Crenna is First Mate Marshall, who will be taking over. Marshall’s wife and two children are on the voyage, too, so we can see that Ashland hates children and happy couples. Then the cruise ship is rammed by the titular Death boat, killing everybody except Ashland, Marshall and his family; Nick Mancuso (sorry, never caught his function) and his hottie; an older woman, Sylvia (Kate Reid); and Saul Rubinek, because someone has to be the first to die.

These survivors manage to get on the Death Ship, which begins to pick them off one by one. The delirious Ashland keeps hearing a voice telling him this is his new ship – in German. And there is your plot. Now for my litany of problems.

  1. If you fall in the ocean, you are dead. No saving throw.
  2. If we establish, several times, “It’s like the ship is alive! It’s trying to kill us all!” why does the hottie decide to take a shower? Besides the fact that she’s the hottie, I mean?
  3. When it comes to that, the hottie discovering that the shower is raining blood on her, not water: I get it, it’s blood, it’s gross, it probably smells bad. The door won’t open. But why the histrionics? It’s not like it’s acid, or it’s filling up the room.
  4. What the hell is the Marshall boy’s obsession with peeing?
  5. As if you didn’t already know, the boat is a “Nazi Interrogation Ship”. Were there such things? Isn’t that kind of inefficient?

There is precious little tension or even excitement here. Save the nudity, there is no reason this couldn’t have been a TV movie. The only death with any real punch is Mancuso’s, and that is largely due to his over-the-top acting. Not a criticism – I appreciated such a diversion at that point. The death of Kate Reid is barely seen, as her boil-consumed makeup  (which was good enough to make Fangoria) embarrassed the filmmakers or something.

Bah and double bah.

DE1I’ve downloaded a bunch of images of movie posters over the years, and one poster in particular surprised and intrigued me: The Devil’s Express, which was seemed to be a mix of horror, martial arts and blaxploitation. I can’t claim an encyclopedic knowledge of those genres, but I am fairly well-read, and I had never heard of this flick. There was also no info on it to be found on the IMDb, so intrigue grew into a low-level obsession.

So thank God for Code Red DVD and Diabolik.

We meet Luke (the musically named Warhawk Tanzania), a Harlem-based kung fu master and his rather skeevy student Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan). Luke and Rodan travel to Hong Kong (Central Park) so Luke can be certified to a higher level of mastery; during the final ceremony, Rodan steals an amulet that was keeping an ancient demon imprisoned. Said demon follows them to New York, where it finds things entirely too bright and too noisy, and it hides out in a subway, killing people at random. Meanwhile, Rodan ignores his sifu and continues his drug-dealing ways, eventually causing a turf war with a Chinese street gang, which is why the subway murders go undetected for so long. The demon finally kills Rodan, but that Asian street gang has already stolen the amulet and passed it to an ancient Chinese sage (who sports the worst makeup job evar), who guides Warhawk to fight the demon, and then takes the amulet back to China.

warhawk-tanzaniaThe reason I could never find any info on the movie is that, in order to capitalize on the success of Walter Hill’s The Warriors, the name was changed to Gang Wars, which is how it is listed in the IMDb. The gang war aspect of the plot is so prevalent that Warhawk all but vanishes from his own movie for some time, and sad to say, it’s no great loss. As a fighter, he’s certainly no Jim Kelly (hell, he’s barely even David Carradine), but he does have some presence. He’s better when he’s dissing honky cops and telling them he won’t subscribe to their “white legal ways” when he determines to avenge the death of his student. In the final (inevitably weak) fight scene with the demon, he does rock  sweet gold lamé overalls with matching boots, give him that.

The gang war segments are interspersed with the demon murder scenes, which have no real motive except demons like to be murderous dickweeds, I guess. There one scene where it drags off a rapist, which triggered a nasty Blood Beach flashback.

devils-expressThere are unexpected bright spots: when the demon possesses an innocent traveler to get to New York, when he arrives, the demon’s sensitivity to light is signified by painting huge eyeballs on the man’s eyelids, and having him stumble around. It works a lot better than it has any right to, until he gets too close to the camera. There is some swell footage of good old, bad old New York. And the priest who keeps showing up to say last rites over the bodies is none other than Brother Theodore. Just when you think “These guys hired Brother Theodore and totally wasted him,” Warhawk needs a distraction and Theodore cuts loose with some insane street preaching, and they’re smart enough to just let the cameras roll.

Blaxploitation/kung fu/monster movie. There was no way it was ever going to be as awesome as it sounds, but it is strangely entertaining.

Thanks to Halloween sales, I got my hands on the blu-rays for a late-period Hammer double feature I had not seen: Hands of the Ripper and Twins of Evil. The lack of earlier Hammer flicks on blu in the US is a continuing sore point with me, but if we finally get some Region A love in that respect, I hope Synapse Films has something to do with it, because boy, are these discs pretty. Hands  is flawless, Twins only slightly less so.

twinsThat carries over into the movies themselves. Twins is a fairly tepid affair, once again attempting to riff on Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”, as the cursed castle on the hill belongs to the Karnsteins, not the Draculas. The twins in question are the Collinson sisters, Mary and Madeleine, playing Maria and Frieda. After the death of their parents, they are unfortunate enough to be remanded to the care of their dour, neurotic puritan uncle, Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing),  who spends his evenings finding young girls to burn at the stake. The rebellious Frieda takes a shine to Count Karnstein, whom she sees as her ticket out of Gustav-ville. Unfortunately for her, Karnstein has recently resurrected the infamous Carmilla, who vampirized him and then conveniently left the movie.

Bereft of the talent that made their star rise though the 60s, Hammer is jobbing in people at this point and not just teasing the sexuality but employing full nudity. There’s really not much else to recommend this particular outing, except a bunch of familiar, welcome faces in the cast, including a sadly ailing Dennis Price in his final role, Kathleen Byron, and David Warbeck. I guess we could also count the sets recycled from Vampire Circus as a guest star, too.

hands_of_ripper_poster_01Hands of the Ripper is much the stronger movie, benefitting greatly from the strong direction of Peter Sasdy guiding an equally strong cast. Dr. John Pritchard (Eric Porter) takes in the orphan waif Anna (Angharad Rees), after her fraudulent spiritualist foster mom is brutally murdered. Pritchard seeks to use this newfangled Freudian psychoanalysis to plumb the depths of Anna’s trauma, only to discover that under a particular set of circumstances – all too easily duplicated – she channels the spirit of her father, Jack the Ripper, and recreates the murder of her mother at his hands.

Porter is intriguing as he covers up murder after murder, determined to solve this mystery; at the beginning of the movie he is angrily planning to debunk the medium that Anna nails to a door with a fireplace poker, but by the end he has not only consulted another medium, but has come to believe that Anna truly is possessed. The realization comes far too late for either of them as events rush to a suitably tragic, yet impossibly bittersweet, resolution.

A strong cast and unique storyline carries the day here, allowing me to gloss over some problems like where the hell does Anna keep getting those knives or why there’s not more fallout from at least one of her trance-induced murders. It remains a solid movie overall, and good way to finally close out this massive piece of catch-up.

Now where’s that leftover turkey?

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.

Saturday Marathon II: The Trashening

It must be Fall, although the outside temperatures are still freakishly hot and humid.  Honestly, the worst thing about my laziness (and lifelong pursuit of becoming so sedentary I am declared a rock formation) is that I never bothered to move somewhere colder. I like wearing jackets and sweaters, boots. I find gloves bizarrely sexy. All these things are unnecessary 10 months out of the year here in the swamplands of Texas.

So how do I know it’s Fall? Things are getting busier. Much busier. Last week I alluded to squeezing in some movies in between a weeknight show and editing two stories (I didn’t even mention shooting a third, that came up at the last minute). This week, not much better. Edited one story, trying to set up interviews for three more. Not shooting this week but I have two shows this weekend. Monday night my family celebrated my birthday, because my actual birthday night I was working the Economic Development Corporation. This afternoon I journey into town for a preliminary meeting on another educational writing project which will allow me to pay bills in a timely manner for a few months. Such is life.

In the meantime, however, there are movies. Yes, many movies. Let us begin.

Last Tuesday I gave in to an urge I’d been feeling for a while and re-watched Psycho (the original, puh-leeeeeze). This is one of those movies I just have to watch every now and then, just to drink in Hitchcock’s master class in how to do slow-burn tension-ratcheting. The set-ups are so simple, so economical, that you despair why more filmmakers can’t do equally well with so little. The answer, of course, is they’re not Hitchcock.

There are a lot of different stories about the whys and wherefores of why Psycho is in black and white. That Hitchcock thought it would make the gore less offensive, the studio didn’t want to spend a lot of money on such obvious trash that was so obviously destined to fail, that Hitchcock noticed that crappy little B&W B-movies were making money hand over fist so what would happen if we made a good one?… in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter, it just works, and at the time it probably heightened the almost documentary feel of the movie, thanks to TV news every evening in black and white. Hitchcock was using a 50mm lens, the closest to human vision, to really drag out the feeling that the viewer was a voyeur in the whole matter.

Psycho is also interesting to me as the movie that changed the way we watched movies. I remember when I was a kid in the early 60s, you went to a movie whenever you felt like it. If you arrived in the middle, well, fine, you played catch-up with your native wit, stayed through the changeover, then watched until you hit the point you entered; kids, this is where the phrase “This is where I came in” comes from. Hitchcock insisted no one be seated after Psycho began, and though I have no way of determining how well this was enforced, it still ushered in a sea change of how we attended movies. The “exclusive road show engagements” of the 50s-60s helped also, but it’s possible to point to Psycho‘s box office success as a touchstone in the practice of seeing a movie from the beginning.

I also feel the need to point out the stunning work done on my Universal Blu-Ray’s audio tracks – the crew pulled a very nice 5.1 track from the original soundtrack. It doesn’t call attention to oneself, but it beautifully broadens a monophonic track into a true soundscape that I think Hitchcock himself would have appreciated.

Next up was The Woman in Black, one of those movies I intended to see in a theater but didn’t. This is the first movie from the revived Hammer Films, leading me to expect good things. There were strands of the old Hammer DNA in evidence; a good cast, led by Daniel Radcliffe (trying to put Harry Potter behind him and somewhat succeeding) and Ciaran Hinds as the most modern member of a superstitious village; great period detail matched a superb production design. What I didn’t get was the Hammer mastery of all that is Gothic.

Woman in Black relies throughout its first half on cheap jump scares administered far too frequently; there is some good scary stuff in the second half – and more jump scares – but those times that a person suddenly appears WITH A LOUD MUSICAL STING totally squanders any good will the creepy stuff engenders. I’m still looking forward to further Hammer offerings, but this one does not go on the shelf next to the others.

And cripes, wouldn’t it easier on everyone if these superstitious villages would simply come clean with out-of-towners and just tell them why they shouldn’t go to the Old Dark House?

The Show that Saturday was cancelled – actors out-of-town – and that would usually be cause for moping about all morose-like, because that’s disastrous for my fragile economic ecosystem. But you know what? not this time. This time I knew what to do. I dropped Rick a line and asked if he wanted to waste a Saturday watching movies again. Well, by golly he did, and thereby hangs the rest of this post.

The night before this epic meeting, Rick e-mailed myself and another Crapfest pal, Alan, about finding a gray market site that was selling a piece of 70s/80s softcore to which Alan had gotten attached in his teen cable-watching days. I fired back to Rick “Never mind that, Savage Sisters is playing on Channel 11-2 RIGHT NOW.”

You see, back during one of the Crapfests, I had infected Rick with my perverse love for Cheri Caffaro. To this point, I have played the Ginger Trilogy to an appreciative (and more than a little perverted) Crapfest crowd, and I know they’ve watched H.O.T.S., on which she has a producer credit (due diligence: sweet Jesus, but I hate H.O.T.S.). More due diligence: I haven’t seen her first movie, A Place Called Today, in which she has a supporting role. But Savage Sisters is the only remaining movie I would have shown at a Crapfest, such is its quality.

To get back to our narrative: Rick doesn’t get good reception on that particular channel, so he didn’t see it, breaking his heart. Guess what, then, was the first thing we dropped into my player? (And all due glory to Brit Stand-Up Guy Dave Thomas for supplying me a flawless, letterboxed copy)

This starts in pretty typical Filipino territory; Cheri is the girlfriend of the head of the Rebels, who gets double-crossed by the villainous team of Sid Haig and Vic Diaz. Cheri and another hardcore rebel, Rosanna Ortiz (who herself has a killer filmography in the Philippines) wind up in jail under the tender care of Gloria Hendry, who is the Vice President In Charge of Torture at the prison (which I believe I recognize from Women in Cages), and knows Rosanna from their earlier prostitute days. MEANTIME, hustler John Ashley has found out Sid Haig killed the Rebels (including Cheri’s boyfriend) for a “MEELION dollars, US currency!” and recruits old pal Hendry to spring Cheri and Rosanna so they can all chase after the bucks.

PHEW. As you can tell, this isn’t your typical Filipino WiP movie; besides the complicated set-up, it also contains a rich vein of bizarre comedy, especially with the incidental characters. The corrupt General, of course, has a chest full of medals; when he removes his jacket, his dress shirt is equally decorated, so naturally, when he removes that, his undershirt is also festooned with medals. A Punjabi sidekick who speaks in gibberish only Ashley can understand, a failed kamikaze pilot, and Sid Haig doing his best to masticate the entire landscape. Since his character is “a bandit”, he wears a serape and sombrero, and uses the adjective “Stinking” every third word. As his sidekick, Vic Diaz essays an eyepatch and is apparently only invincible when his plumber’s crack is showing, like some slovenly Greek legend.

This really is one of the best Cheri Caffaro movies around, mainly, I think, because hubby Don Schain was nowhere near it.

Afterwards, we were talking about the movie while making queso, and Rick was amazed at the unexpected humor. “Yeah,” I said, “it’s like they gave Eddie Romero this amazing cast and said, Make us a women in prison picture, and what he did was give them the Death Race 2000 of women in prison movies.”

“You know,” said Rick, “I’ve never seen Death Race 2000.

There was silence for a moment. “Keep stirring that cheese,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

No friend of mine is going to say he’s never seen Death Race 2000.

The premise of Death Race 2000 is simplicity itself, especially if you’ve ever played the sick game in a car about how many points each pedestrian is worth. In the far-flung future of 2000, in a world devastated by “The Crash of ’79”, Mr. President (from his Summer mansion in Peking), gives the official start to the most popular sporting event evar, the Transcontinental Road Race. Five racers and their navigators, representing various tribal cliques and possessing pro-wrestler-like larger-than-life personas, charge across America, solving the overpopulation problem where they can.

Death Race 2000 is a goofy good time. Early Sly Stallone as a bad guy!  Walter Cronkite impersonators! Mary Woronov! Illinois Nazis! Breasts are exposed every so often to remind us that it is, indeed, a drive-in movie. The second unit race footage is pretty good, but it’s Bartel’s sense of the absurd and savage barbs at media culture that edges this one from the ranks of forgettable action fare to actual classic. I had fun with the “remake” starring Jason Statham, but I don’t see anyone, forty years from now, excitedly pulling it from a shelf to share with their friends.

And as many times as I have seen this movie, I had never before realized John Landis had a line in it. Stallone runs him over for it.

(Oh, yeah, that guy on GetGlue who posted “This movie sucks. The remake was 10 times beter (sic).”? Keep looking over your shoulder. One day, I’ll be there.)

It was starting to get dark out. I cooked up some chicken fajitas while we played a bootleg DVD Rick had brought over, of a 1975 KISS concert. I’ve never been a fan, but Rick was exclaiming over how young they were, how energetic was the guitar work. Myself, when I walked through the room, marveled at the black-and-white video, complete with streaks and ghosting and trails whenever the highlights overpowered the tube cameras. Took me back to my days in public access at the local cable company, it did.

As we ate (and damn, I’m a good cook), we tried to get back to the concept that I have a List to watch and we were supposed to be whittling that down, so we slipped in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.

This is honestly about the best-looking, if most absurd, blaxploitation movie I have ever seen.

So the 6’2″ Tamara Dobson is back as Cleopatra, and this time she’s come to Hong Kong to track two of her agents who were trying to infiltrate a heroin ring, only to be captured by the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens, keeping up the tradition of odd female villains in the short series). Cleo immediately disses her boss, Norman Fell (engendering the phrase, “Oooh, Norman Fell burn!”) and decides to go out on her own. In a foreign city. Where she doesn’t even speak the language.

Well, that’s not the only extraordinary thing that’s going to happen in this movie. Cleo falls in with an equally tough HK woman and her gang of motorcycle-riding investigators, and we’re off. Like I said, this is an amazingly well-shot movie. Run Run Shaw is listed as a producer, and money is thrown at the screen in all the right places. Chase scenes through the crowded streets of Hong Kong are thrilling, and there is plenty of pyro and gunfire. What there isn’t, sadly, is much of a compelling story, but it is overall a painless way to spend 90 minutes.

Then, at last, the Final Round. What Rick had been looking forward to all evening, if not all week: Fight For Your Life.

Fight For Your Life carries with it a lot of baggage. What we have here is a bona fide video nasty, put on that daunting list along with such movies as Driller Killer and I Spit On Your Grave. Banned outright in Sweden. Legend is it caused riots in the grindhouses of 42nd Street.

Rick was looking forward to the ultimate in transgressive cinema. What I have learned about Rick is that he can buy seriously into hype. He still curses the day he bought a ticket to Gates of Hell and saw neither gates, nor hell, nor reason it was supposedly banned in 39 countries.

Anyway.

Fight For Your Life concerns three escapees from a prison van: Jessie Lee Kain ( a very early appearance by William Sanderson) , Chino (Daniel Faraldo, who went on to a decent enough TV career) , and Ling (Peter Yoshida, who… well, not so much). After a fairly brutal crime spree as they edge toward the Canadian border, the three take a middle class black family (the Turners) hostage, intending to steal their car and make their run after dark.

This is apparently racist.

As you might imagine with a musical name like Jessie Lee Kain, the leader of the thugs is not just a bigot, he is a unrepentant suuuuuper bigot. A whole lot of the movie is Kain spouting his racist bile at the Turners and generally being a hateful jackass. Rick and I were concerned that he would run out of epithets, and to be sure, at one point he begins referring to Mom Turner as “Deputy Dawg”. This frankly bewildered me, because I remember Deputy Dawg. He was a TerryToon back in the early 60s, and moreover, he was a white dog. I don’t get it. but anyway…

So what we have here is basically a racist version of The Desperate Hours, with some diversions along the way, like young son Turner’s white friend showing up and finding out the family is hostage, but (work with me here) Ling, who was sent out to capture the white girlfriend of the (now deceased) elder Turner son – and winds up accidentally killing her – well Ling finds the white boy running away and kills him with a rock. Not too swift, is Ling.

So there’s a little more going on here than a hostage drama. We also cut away every now and then to the antics of Rulebook Riley, a New York police detective pursuing our ne’er-do-wells. As his name implies, Rulebook has a zero-tolerance policy toward everything. Jaywalkers, drunk drivers, spitting on the sidewalk. If Rulebook catches you breaking the law, you are screwed.

Some actual detective work does bring the police, at last, to the Turner house (not that Kain and company have been particularly stealthy). One policeman finds the white kid’s body in the forest and carries him to the command center, and wouldn’t you know it, he was the Sheriff’s son. One screaming charge at the house later, Kain has put another cop on his kill list. But! The distraction allows our hostages to turn the tables, and now it’s revenge time!

This is what Rick was looking forward to, and so was I and so is every audience member that ever watched this (except for the ones that thought Kain was the hero and that he was exercising some restraint. God help me, I said that as a joke but it occurs to me there are actually are such people). I mean, one of the alternate titles was The Hostage’s Bloody Revenge, for pete’s sake. So let’s see what we get. Spoilers ahoy.

Now first of all, the cops have this parabolic listening device that no one can get to work properly, until Rulebook, in a fit of frustration, bashes it a good one and it suddenly works like a charm. He hears the Turners discussing what to do with their tormentors, and he also finds out all three men raped the daughter. Rulebook suddenly switches to a much older rulebook and orders the cops to wait.

Chino gets shot in the balls. Okay, that’s a start, a fitting end for a rapist. Ling freaks out and jumps through a window, and gets himself impaled on an absurdly long and apparently strong piece of glass. That… was weird. The daughter approaches Kain with an electric carving knife, but she can’t go through with it.

It’s all going to end up with a standoff between Pop Turner (Robert Judd, incidentally) and Kain, with Rulebook tossing Turner his pistol. Kain gives us the final piece of his backstory, that his mother ran off with a black man, and then he gets shot in the throat. The end.

Rick – and the aforementioned masses who bought a ticket – were expecting a climax like The Last House on the Left times ten, but got… well, some blood but not a whole lot of catharsis.

Fight For Your Life is a pretty competently made little thriller that goes a little long in the second act, but then we’re also talking about a video nasty with some actual character beats. The Turner family is well drawn – the filmmakers made damn sure where our sympathies lie – and it all comes just that close to making it to the next level of actually good movie as compared to grindhouse button-pusher. There’s something to be said that all the real violence, save the daughter’s rape, is perpetrated against white people. The cops, a gas station attendant, a liquor store owner, the white kid, the white girlfriend… but now, having made that observation, I have no idea what to do with it.

The Turners themselves have a broad range of racial opinions. Mom doesn’t like honkies and is still pretty pissed off that her elder son had a white girlfriend (this is one of the saddest ignored threads in the movie: had Ling brought the girlfriend to the house instead of chasing her over a cliff, there would have been a whole new dimension of racism and possible character reconciliation… but no, we went with some boobs and a mannequin tossed into a waterfall). Daughter loves the white girl friend and wishes she’d had time to get married into the family.The young son, of course, has not only a white boy as his best friend, but the friend is the son of The Man. Pop Turner is a preacher, who is going to have his faith righteously tested and eventually returned to its Old Testament roots. And Grandma has seen it all and weathered it all, and gets the best lines.

Like I said… this close.

So a sadder but wiser Rick went home that night, denied once again the ultra-violent extravaganza that had been promised him. But, as the mantra of the crap cineaste goes, “now we can say we’ve seen it”, and hopefully, next time, we won’t get fooled again.

Yes, we will. We’re saps, and really, I think there’s a part of us that enjoys being saps, we enjoy making movies in our heads that do not exactly turn out the same on screen… for some of us, that’s the only way we have left to be surprised.

Movies: Vampire Ronin in Black… 3

In keeping with my tradition of oblique references to current releases: I saw Men in Black 3 last night. It was entertaining, and that’s pretty much the extent of what I took home from it. Josh Brolin’s Tommy Lee Jones imitation is a gas, and overall, it’s a far better Men in Black II than Men in Black II ever thought of being. Also, I guess Will Smith doesn’t do the rap for his own movies anymore? Huh.

Well, after our Memorial Day Crapfest, I continued with my movie watching, but attempting to switch gears to movies of (harrumph) quality wasn’t quite going to happen, so strong was the hangover from Crapfest. (Admittedly, while waiting to come down from my caffeine high that night, I watched Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. at 2:00am, a definite step up in value) My next Kubrick film is Barry Lyndon. It is sitting patiently by my movie-watching chair. I never got to it.

My wife took off to the beach with a friend and fellow teacher, and I settled in to watch one of those movies I had managed to miss for years (and was therefore on The Other List) John Frankenheimer’s Ronin. Man, John Frankenheimer. You watch The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May and Seconds, then watch, say Prophecy and The Challenge and wonder, “What happened?” (Due diligence: I have not yet seen The Island of Dr. Moreau, and so cannot comment on its quality with any veracity). Ronin proved that Frankenheimer still had it, even in 1998.

The Ronin of the title are mercenaries, specialists for hire in the extra-legal landscape of modern Europe. Robert deNiro is Sam, an ex-CIA strategist on the run, Jean Reno is Vincent, a “tour guide” who… appropriates things. Sean Bean is a Irish thug who gets tossed out of the team for being a jackass, which is startling, because I expected him to be killed, what with being Sean Bean and all. Stellan Skarsgard is Gregor, the electronics dude. That’s a solid core for a good cast, topped off by Jonathan Pryce as the man pulling the strings on the team. Their mission is to steal a metal briefcase from a heavily-guarded courier. They don’t need to know what is in the case, but they do know a lot of people, like “The Russians”, want it.

Ronin has a lot of cool espionage planning, supplanted by double and triple crosses, and a number of high-speed chases through crowded European streets. It’s a pity that Frankenheimer never got the chance to direct a Mission: Impossible movie, since Ronin feels like what the MI movies should have been, but rarely were (the return to a team dynamic in Ghost Protocol was, for me, very welcome).

You would think that after that, I would be more inclined to some Kubrick. But no, I felt I had spent long enough without seeing an actual horror movie, so I put a Blu-Ray of long-ago purchasing into the player, Vampire Circus.

Vampire Circus dates from a very troubled time for Hammer, a period where a lot of the movies felt like wheel-spinning. The gothic horror was feeling pretty tired, the dollop of sex appeal that made the 50-60s Hammers so notorious was now also so commonplace in the market that their movies were beginning to wallow in gore and breasts, upping the quantity in desperation.Vampire Circus has some new personnel at the helm – well, new to Hammer, anyway – and the fresh outlook and propensity for boobs and blood creates a perverse minor gem.

Our jerk vampire count this time is Count Mitterhaus, who is sleeping with the local Schoolmaster’s wife. She does unneighborly things like luring little girls into Mitterhaus’ castle so he can extremely creepy toward them and then bite them. This excites Mrs. Schoolmaster into doffing her clothes and bedding the Count. Into this cozy little scene comes the local villagers, who eventually manage to stake the count and burn down his castle, but not until after he cursed the village and the Mrs has run off.

15 years later, the village is being swept by a plague, and the neighboring villages have enacted roadblocks guarded by riflemen to keep the infected within. Nonetheless, a small gypsy circus manages to make it through and sets up to entertain the trapped villagers. If you paid any attention to the movie’s title, you know who populates this circus. The villagers aren’t so smart, though, even when a pair of acrobats keep turning into bats in mid-air.

The only other time I had attempted to watch Vampire Circus was on TV, and only a few minutes was enough to convince me that it had been cut to ribbons for that medium and I would be better off waiting until I could see it uncut; there are several instances of nudity, including the segment that you always see a photo of when reading about this movie: the tiger dance, featuring a woman who is almost completely naked except for green tiger-striped makeup. Since this is the only time we see the dancers in the movie (except for their dead bodies at the end), I have to assume that this was their act in real life. Um, wow.

Well, why break with tradition.

It’s a fun enough movie, one of the off-Dracula Hammer vampire riffs like Kiss of the Vampire combined with a few elements from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. There are a few familiar faces: David Prowse as the Strongman, of course, and (shockingly) Lalla Ward as one of the vampire acrobats, and not looking very different from her run on Doctor Who as Lady Romana. A few other familiar character faces, and a Shakespearean body count. All the things one would want from a Hammer horror movie.

Well, my wife was back the next day, and found me watching, not Barry Lyndon, but Deadmau5 in concert. This, I think, puzzled her more than anything else.

That’s good. I don’t puzzle her near often enough. Also, my son: “How do you even know who Deadmau5 is?

Hmph. Punk kids.