Sunday, October 30, 2005

Gone for Halloween, kids...

I'm going off for a short vacation beginning October 30 (Halloween's my anniversary, kids). Here's hoping that you, dear readers (all four of you rule!!), have enjoyed the Posts O' Horror this last week plus.

Meantime, go to these sites to see some reeeeaaallly scary things.

Gallery of the Absurd (warning: pants-soilingly funny pics of scary celebs)

Dark Dreams: The Films of Dario Argento (warning: some violent content)

The Wonder World of K. Gordon Murray (warning: Contains masked wrestlers, vampires, and guys in moth-eaten animal suits)

The Frantic Flicker

Ted V. Mikels' Official Website


Mondo Digital (warning: contains some graphic content)

Ciao, folks. See you in a few.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Cool movies that should be on DVD: The Mask (1961)

The Mask holds the distinction as one of the best overlooked gems I've ever seen.

No, I'm not talking about the wet-fart of a '90's Jim Carrey blockbuster that spawned a braying jackass of a sequel with Jamie whatisface. I'm riffing on the 1961 Canadian horror flick directed by Julian Roffman. Until some very smart video company gives Roffman's finest movie the grand digital treatment, a 3D copy can be tracked down on VHS from Rhino Home Video (tho' I think it's out of print; get thee to Ebay, citizens).

It's a stark Twilight Zone-ish setup about an ancient Etruscan mask that, when worn, induces hallucinations of the most phantasmagoric kind. College professor Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens) comes into possession of the artifact and discovers to his helpless dismay that in addition to sending its wearer on one epic bum trip, the mask induces uncontrollable homicidal urges.

Roffman constructs a well-paced thriller that makes good ambient use of its spare black-and-white photography. Until the hallucinations start.

Roffman shoots the hallucinations in 3D. And when a character is inexoribly called by the lure of the mask to put on the creepy headgear, the soundtrack intones, "Put the mask...on...NOW!" That's, of course, the cue for the viewer to put his or her 3D glasses on. The surreal visions that ensue, like the rest of the movie, make real gold out of a low budget.

It sounds cheesy as hell, but it's low-key, tensely directed, well-acted by a cast of relative unknowns, and really, really creepy. In look (not subject matter), it brings to mind the 1962 low-budget classic, Carnival of Souls.

Roffman's only other film of note was a 1978 action flick called The Glove, with a great trash film cast--John Saxon, Rosey Grier, and Nicholas Worth, among the ensemble. It's a shame the director never crafted any other horror movies. The Mask is a real overlooked jewel.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Petri Dish 101: Bela Lugosi, Dark Emperor of the Vampires

This entry is dedicated to my lovely wife Rita, who turns one year older today. Consider this an electronic birthday card, My Sweet.

At an age and era when most girls were carrying crushes on Leif Garrett and Donny Osmond, Rita harbored a grade-school crush on Bela Lugosi's Dracula. As it states on the intro to this Blog, Rita's pretty cool for a girl. No, let's amend that: She's really cool for a girl.

Put bluntly, there would be no Dracula without Bela Lugosi. The Hungarian horror icon's indelible performance as that most famous of cinema bloodsuckers created the template for the character. And his formidable shadow looms large over every single actor who's portrayed the Count since.

Born in Lugos, Hungary in 1882, Bela Blasko rechristened himself Lugosi in homage to his town of birth when he first began steadily acting onstage with the Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts at the turn of the twentieth century. A passionate political activist, he organized an Actor's Union in 1918 after the Hungarian monarchy fell. Hungary's leftist forces took a tumble of their own the next year, and--knowing his views could readily get him killed--the actor/activist fled his homeland.

Lugosi began film acting as early as 1917 in Hungary, then imigrated to Germany after the collapse of the Hungarian Leftist movement, and finally to America in 1921. After toiling in bit roles in a handful of silent movies, he landed the role of a lifetime in the stage version of Dracula.

Dracula packed 'em in on Broadway, and a star was born. Practically overnight, Bela Lugosi became a stage heartthrob. His aristrocratic good looks and personal magnetism put him in a class with the recently-departed Valentino (Clara Bow, the Angelina Jolie of her day, was reputedly one of Lugosi's lovers). Three years later, Universal Pictures began production on the film version of Dracula, and Lugosi's legacy to world culture was set in stone.

Despite Lugosi's triumph as Dracula, his career as a Hollywood actor began taking a sad turn almost as soon as the movie saw theatrical release. His minimal grasp of English (he learned all of his lines phonetically for the film), plus his decidedly stubborn European pride, made him either an easy target for the sharks that ran most movie studios, or too high-maintenance for impatient directors.

Within a few years Lugosi was reduced to working in the most impoverished B flicks on Poverty Row, forsaken by the power players of Tinseltown. His final years edged to a fade with drug addiction, financial woe, and dubious fame as the figurehead of Z director Ed Wood's stock company before the screen Dracula succumbed to a heart attack in 1956.

Take your jaded modern-day goggles off before watching a Lugosi film. His florid but unique performances remain inexorably tethered to a time long gone, and like any art distinctly of its time, Lugosi's films require you to put yourself in that time, to an extent . If you're willing to make the stretch, however, you'll be richly rewarded. Bela Lugosi's finest acting moments are haunting, romantic and unearthly gothic paintings compared to the earnest but obvious pencil sketches constituting most film actors' performances. And they endure.

Essential Lugosi:

Dracula (originally released in 1931, available on DVD from Universal Home Video): The Rosetta Stone for Lugosi's career, and ground zero for the modern cinema vampire. The movie shows many of its seams as an early talkie; it's a bit too static in places, and the dialogue's pretty stilted and wooden. But the opening scenes--all shot silent--envelop the viewer in atmosphere, and Lugosi's piercing gaze and singular line delivery still mesmerize.

Island of Lost Souls (1932, unavailable on domestic DVD): Charles Laughton plays Dr. Moreau, a mad scientist on a tropical island whose vivisection experiments have created a race of half-human, half-animal freaks. The sympathetic 'manimals' soon take matters into their own hands, gruesomely. Surprisingly strong for its era, this adaptation of H.G. Wells' Island of Dr. Moreau still packs a wallop. Ignore Richard Arlen's bland hero, and drink in Laughton's sadistic bravura turn as Moreau, Kathleen Burke's exotic panther woman Lota, and most especially Lugosi's brief but impassioned portrayal of the manimals' voice of emancipation, the Sayer of the Law.

The Black Cat (1934, Universal Home Video): The Black Cat marked Lugosi's first on-screen team-up with fellow Universal horror superstar Boris Karloff. In most of their pairings, Karloff got the more showy and challenging roles, but here both men play the most compelling and flawed of adversaries. Lugosi is Vitus Werdegast, a tortured doctor out to avenge his wife's death at the hands of Poelzig (Karloff), a war criminal and Satanic high priest. Edgar Ulmer directs with dark expressionistic verve, and the movie covers some seriously gruesome ground. Lugosi navigates Verdegast's evolution from grieving widower to crazed avenging (and flaying) angel magnificently in one of his more overlooked acting efforts.

Son of Frankenstein (1938, Universal): Lugosi carved his second indelible horror icon--the hunchbacked shepherd Ygor--with this entertaining third Franken-flick. Cheater of death from the hangman's noose and controlling ally of the Frankenstein Monster (Boris Karloff, reprising the creature costume for the last time), Ygor casts a spectral, gravelly-voiced, sinister, yet somehow endearing shadow in Son's supporting foundation--it's a stellar performance.

Glen or Glenda? and Bride of the Monster (1952 and 1955, Image Home Entertainment): The works of Edward D. Wood have garnered plenty of derisive chuckles over the years, but the fact remains that 1), they're more entertaining (and weirdly personal) than 99.9% of anything mainstream Hollywood has excreted before or since, and 2), they provided Lugosi with his final acting hurrah. Lugosi's intense delivery of Wood's pro-transvetism psychobabble/shamanism in Glen, and the icon's stormy reading of the "race of supermen" monologue in Bride prove that , pathetic as his final years were, he went out swinging and never gave a half-assed performance, even under the most ridiculous circumstances.

Ed Wood (1994, Touchstone Home Video): Finally, an honorable mention to Tim Burton's fine and loving ode to the titular notorious grade Z director. Some purists grumbled (Lugosi, given a somewhat salty tongue by Burton and company, reputedly never swore in real life), but Martin Landau netted an Oscar for his amazing performance as Lugosi, and he captures the spirit of the horror legend to a completely uncanny (and uncannily moving) degree.

I'd like to think that somewhere, somehow, Bela Lugosi smiled approvingly before disappearing into the fog-enshrouded darkness that Oscar night.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Petri Dish 101 is Going to EAT YOU!!!

The films of Ingmar Bergman radically changed cinema by turning the director’s point of view inward. The Swedish master's quiet, personal films emphasized inner conflict, eschewing action for psychological substance…
Just kidding.

Some people experience waves of childhood nostalgia from The Wizard of Oz, or from a comfy childhood quilt. Some are propelled into the reverie of remembrance by a favorite old song.
Me, I get warm nostalgic fuzzies from Italian zombie movies. Blame the Parkland Theater, which screened 'em with reassuring regularity.

The Italian zombie film, like a lot of other exploitation genres, first took root in the good old U S of A. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead was a huge international hit upon its release in 1978, and its combination of flesheating zombies, action, and graphic violence registered strongly with audiences all over the world. Since there was no NC-17 rating back then, Dawn was released by Romero without an MPAA rating, to avoid the box office stigma attached with the dreaded (by non-pornographers, anyway) X rating.

In Italy, Dawn of the Dead made a mint under the title Zombi. Small platoons of Italian exploitation directors soon saw the opportunity to imitate Romero's work to profitable effect, creating their own blood-soaked thrillers with walking dead, spurting blood, and flying viscera.

The Italian zombie flicks (or Gutmunchers, as some like to affectionately call 'em) represented the ultimate in cinematic forbidden fruit to a horror-crazed kid back in the late '70's/early '80's. Like Dawn, most of the Gutmunchers were released without an MPAA rating due to the graphic violence on display. The home video explosion was still in its embryonic stages, so the only way to see most of these films was in a theater, and movie houses strictly enforced the No One Under 17 Admitted policy. Even the normally lax acne cases ushering the Parkland refused to let me in to see Zombie, the first of the mediterranean Dawn knockoffs. This, despite my patient mom's presence as guardian (I was twelve at the time).

In case you haven't gathered already, the Gutmunchers didn't usually aim high artistically. Most served as little more than typical horror programmers spiked with 120-proof violence (and occasionally sex), without Romero's ice cubes of social commentary and characterization to water down the horrific homebrew. If you've got a strong stomach, though, these enthusiastically nasty shockers offer an absolutely fascinating glimpse at a bygone era in exploitation cinema.

Today's glossy, self-referential, and snarky modern fright flicks are usually helmed by young bucks with music video and commercial backgrounds. The Dawn clones, on the other hand, were directed by old hands in the Italian film industry--craftsmen, journeymen, and hacks (sometimes all rolled up in one) who previously polished their craft on spaghetti westerns, sword-and-sandal epics, and sexploitation potboilers. And in true Italian style, most of these veterans dug into the sensational elements of the Gutmuncher genre with the unjaded gusto of, well, a flesh-eating zombie digging into a handful of newly-procured human internals.

The rampant popularity of horror on DVD has led to a whole tassel of these bloody-jowled little works being reissued in almost absurdly crisp new versions. Lucio Fulci's Zombie, for example, received a deluxe two-disc, extras-packed treatment from Media Blasters/Shriek Show well before Gone with the Wind got multi-disc love from Warner Brothers. It's a strange universe we live in. But enough of my jabberjawing. Below is a list of the Gutmuncher Essentials on DVD. Dig in...if you dare!

Zombie (aka Zombi 2--originally released in 1979, issued on DVD by Media Blasters/Shriek Show and Blue Underground): Director Lucio Fulci labored for almost twenty years in the Italian film industry, heading up everything from westerns to James Bond spoofs. But in the late '70's and early '80's he found his grue-soaked niche in the horror genre, creating a whole series of chillers that wallowed in bloodletting with almost pornographic excess. Zombie set the gold (OK, blood-red) standard for the gutmuncher genre, and gave its director lasting notoriety.

Italian distributors sold Zombie as an implied sequel to Dawn of the Dead by christening it Zombi 2 in its homeland, but to its credit, Fulci's first foray into Gutmuncher turf stakes out its own identity pretty quickly. A deserted scientific ship drifts into a New York coastal harbor. Ann (Tisa Farrow, Mia's little sister)--the daughter of the boat's missing owner--travels to an uncharted island in the Antilles with a stalwart English reporter (Ian McCulloch) to try to find her father.

The bulk of the film unwinds on that island, as the Gutmuncher Commandments are checked off. The dead rise and begin devouring the living. A Scientist (in this case, British character actor Richard Johnson) labors to vanquish a zombie plague that he may or may not have helped to induce. The heroes discover that walking corpses can only be taken out by a bullet to the head. Guts are munched by the barrel. And you can forget about a happy ending, bucky.
It's easy to dismiss Zombie as grindhouse sleaze, and indeed, it hurls sensationalism by the shovel at its viewers (name the last movie you saw with a great white shark battling a zombie underwater while a topless lady skindiver narrowly escapes both flesheaters). Look beyond its gleefully scuzzy Coat of B-Movie Colors, though, and some real (dare I say it?) artistry surfaces from the mayhem.
An atmosphere of utter despair clings to the early island scenes like rough sand on wet skin--the director deliberately denies his audience even a tiny ray of the humor Romero injected into Dawn. Johnson (excellent here) wearily fights the zombie plague, armed with pitiful resources amidst a dilapidated backdrop of shanty shacks and sickly poor. As envisioned by cinematographer Sergio Salvati, this sand-blasted ghost town of an island village is light-years removed from George Romero's urban land of the undead. And Fulci mounts his monstrous money shots with such suspenseful grace he almost doesn't need to slather on the hemoglobin and entrails.
But slather, he does. Zombie rolls out some of the Italian maestro's most showstopping setpieces of splatter, including an incident of occular violence that imprints itself on the brain as much for its excruciating build-up as it does for sheer "Dear God, did they just SHOW THAT?!" impact.
City of the Living Dead (AKA The Gates of Hell, 1980, Anchor Bay Entertainment): Not content with merely providing feeding footage of flesh-eating zombies, Lucio Fulci stirred Book-of-Revelations prophecy into the formula with his next Gutmuncher. A priest in the tiny New England town of Dunwich commits suicide, opening the gates of Hell. In three days, the dead will walk and the entire world will be swallowed up in some major evil mojo. A scruffy reporter (Christopher George) and a psychic (Catriona MacColl) race against the clock to reclose the gates.
Despite the added mysticism, City of the Living Dead lacks Zombie's sustained tension--in fact, at times it skirts dullness by comparison. Fortunately, the Godfather of Gutmunch arms this foray into fright with George's tobacco-stained character cool and MacColl's expressive seriousness (over the years she became Fulci's best and most frequent leading lady). There's a great, tense scene where George rescues MacColl from a premature burial (seriously, it's a gore-free but awesomely Hitchcockian moment of suspense). And best (worst?) of all, the sick setpieces rank among the master's finest. I'll try not to spoil the fun, but one scene involves a power drill and the skull of one of Italian trash horror's finest lowlifes, John Morghen. Another gives the phrase, "Puking your guts out" a whole new, potent meaning. You've been warned...
Nightmare City (AKA City of the Walking Dead, 1980, Anchor Bay Entertainment): Mainstream critics patted themselves on their backs comparing 28 Days Later with Dawn of the Dead, but Danny Boyle's acclaimed thriller owes its whole central conceit to this stupidly entertaining Gutmuncher. The flesh-eaters in Nightmare City aren't so much zombies as they are crazed, radiation-infected (in lieu of 28's genetically-engineered plague) cannibals who sprint like Olympians and add hacking, gouging, and even gun-wielding to the repertoire of intestine-gnawing. Since they roll their eyes and grimace like moustache-twirling silent-movie villains with oatmeal facials, it's hard to get really scared by 'em, but they're fun to watch. Anyway, a lone TV newsman (Hugo Stiglitz) fights to warn the public that these crusty-faced radioactive cannibals are on their way, but his unfeeling studio bosses ignore his request to pre-empt the ratings bonanza that is an aerobics dance show.
You've read right; there's a zombie/cannibal infestation, and there's an Aerobic Dance TV Show coinciding with it. If you're as much of a freak as me, you're just praying--PRAYING--that these two great tastes will get a chance to taste great together. With director Umberto Lenzi (one of Italy's most venerable exploitation hacks) at the helm, rest assured your prayers are answered with blood-spattered spandex and a Euro-disco backbeat.
That, mind you, is only one five-minute sequence, twenty minutes into Nightmare City. Lenzi also thoughtfully provides about a dozen throat-rippings, one nifty ax murder, limb-rending, Mel Ferrer, and some, um, nipular trauma that'll elicit a groan of sympathy in anyone who's ever had a piercing. And 28 Days Later wasn't the only mainstream hit that cribbed from this little gem. The existentially loopy ending prefigures, of all things, the basic premise of Groundhog Day. I kid you not.
The Beyond (Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1981): This flawed but extremely effective horror film belongs in a dead heat with Zombie as Lucio Fulci's finest directorial hour. An artist in 1927 New Orleans is tracked down and gruesomely murdered in his house by a pack of angry locals. Said artist, it turns out, possesses Satanic connections, and the grounds of his home house one of the Seven Gates to Hell. Fifty-some years later, Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits the property, and the Hellgate is somehow swung widely, catastrophically open.
From there, The Beyond takes a step into Fulci's most surrealistic and sustained nightmare world. The sometimes languid pace and lush photography(Sergio Salvati again mans the lens) create a druggily dreamlike and hypnotic atmosphere. In fact, The Beyond mounts its sense of foreboding so elegantly that Fulci's trademark images of gruesome death, mutilation, and (yep) gutmunching threaten to jerk the viewer out of the magic at times; at a few points, it's like watching an art film abruptly stuffed with porno inserts.
Even with this jarring collision of elements, The Beyond really delivers--at its best, the movie manages to have its bloody cake and eat it, too. Sledgehammer gore effects combine with good old-fashioned tightly-wound tension in the final act, as Liza and her beau John (David Warbeck) fight to escape an entire hospital full of the living dead. And the final shot's a nihilistic, almost Lovecraftian doozy.
Zombi Holocaust (AKA Dr. Butcher, Medical Deviate, 1980, Shriek Show/Media Blasters): Organs and limbs are being stolen from New York hospitals. Why? Hell if I know. But it has something to do with experiments taking place on a remote tropical island. It's up to a beautiful scientist (Alexandra Della Colli) and a NYC investigator with a British accent (Ian MacCulloch, the John Agar of the gutmunchers) to travel to that island and solve the mystery. Zombi Holocaust teases with its non-gutmunching zombies, but director 'Frank Martin' (aka Marino Girolami) compensates with lots of cannibals feasting on the ridiculous stock characters, a nutty doctor (Peter O'Neal) who (to everyone's surprise but the viewer's) is up to no damned good, a lovely zombie-head-meets-outboard-motor scene, and some of the most uproarious dubbed dialogue this side of an Ed Wood feature.
Hell of the Living Dead (AKA Night of the Zombies, 1981, Anchor Bay Entertainment): If Zombie is the Dom Perignon of Italian zombie flicks, Hell of the Living Dead is the warm bottle of Mad Dog 20/20. It's the most openly artless, patently absurd, sloppily made, laughably acted, hilariously gratuitous, and outright incompetent Gutmuncher ever--in other words, absolutely essential viewing.
Some poor schmuck in Haz-Mat gear at a high-security chemical plant in New Guinea gets his throat ripped out by a rat (don't ask), and accidentally releases a scary virus-laden gas that creates (Presto!) flesh-eating zombies. A SWAT team, reluctantly joined by a buxom anthropologist (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her Yanni-lookalike photographer chum (Selan Karay), head to the factory to try and stave off the Funky Zombie-Making Gaseous Cloud.
I saw Hell of the Living Dead (under its alternate US release title, Night of the Zombies) no less than four times at the Parkland Theater as a teen. And as with any profound work of art, each successive viewing revealed different shadings and nuances. The jaw-dropping use of New Guinea wildlife footage; the chubby-cheeked little zombie boy who looks like Mikey the Life Cereal Kid gone Gutmuncher; Franco Garofalo's bug-eyed, scenery-gnawing performance as the loose-cannon of the intrepid crew; the SWAT-team member who dons (you don't have to believe me if you don't want to) a top hat and tutu amidst a zombie infestation; the utterly shameless scavenging of Goblin's Dawn of the Dead music (in the documentary on the DVD, Hell director Bruno Mattei alleges that he 'borrowed' said soundtrack for his masterpiece); Faux-Yanni's tasteful vomit launch; and a nude scene that's so hilariously, ridiculously random and gratuitous that it induces side-aching torrents of laughter from even the most anally-politically correct of mortals.
Anchor Bay Entertainment's DVD sports a clean print and a good handful of extras. But the movie's so gleefully, magnificently lousy that even normally ultra-respectful Anchor Bay can't resist devoting all of the disc's liner notes gleefully, magnificently lousy the movie is. If that doesn't scream out a ringing endorsement to you, you best go sniffing around a Seventh Heaven fansite.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2: If you don't love it, you can lick my plate...

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Tobe Hooper's 1986 sequel to his seventies horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has gotta be one of the most maligned sequels in the horror pantheon.

Cannon Films--the studio that put The Apple, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, and Hospital Massacre into wide release, no less--treated TCM2 like a sack of dirty diapers, barely releasing it in theaters and pushing it onto home video in record time. This is sort of like Anna Nicole Smith rejecting an especially garish pink hoochie skirt because it's in bad taste. No one but no one, it seemed, wanted an unapologetically sick and gory horror comedy during the Reagan Years.

I missed Tobe Hooper's sophomore 'Saw's original theatrical release, but my brother John caught it during its triumphant one-week run at the now-long-deceased Village Cinemas in Lakewood, Washington (the only theater in all of Washington State that ever screened it, to my knowledge) back in the day. For weeks thereafter, he quoted the movie's profanely funny dialogue ceaselessly. I seethed with envy, but ultimately tracked The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 down on home video a few months later, much to my deep and abiding joy.

With hindsight, TCM2 may have just been too much, even for schocketeers like Cannon's Golan and Globus. It's extremely gory and unsettling, despite trading the original's snuff film grittiness for gaudy carnival lighting and color. The humor carries no notions of cozy Elm Street-style snarkiness, and TCM2's cannibal clan carries over some of the greasy southern-fried creepiness of the original cast.

But Sweet Jesus in a Velour Tubetop, if you've got a strong stomach, this very sick (and very quotable) movie also sports an astonishing number of intentional belly laughs--more than any movie featuring onscreen flaying and decapitation has a right to, at least.

The Sawyer clan from the preceding Chainsaw is back in action, merrily carving up two obnoxious frat boys at the movie's opening. Stretch (Caroline McWilliams), a lady DJ, happens to capture the whole thing on audio tape (she's talking to the two jerks by phone right at the time of the attack). Everyone's favorite flesh-masked Stihl-brandishing killer Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and his brother Chop-Top (Bill Moseley) arrive at Stretch's radio station with murder on their minds, and then things get really harrowing. And messy.

And funny.

Hooper realizes at the outset that a sequel could never approach the sledgehammer impact of the first Chainsaw, so (aided by L.M. Kit Carson's delirious screenplay) he amps up the absurdity--and the comedy--this time out. Hooper even squeezes some social satire in, making these degenerates into hilarious sponges of American consumership and pop culture.

Even before Saw 2 hits the Saw Clan's amusement park/hideout, the whole movie is shot through an eye-straining prism of carnival neon and cotton candy primary colors, and the killers are imbued with distinctive comic personae; kind of like The Three Cannibalistic Stooges. Jim Siedow, the sole returning player from the original TCM, channels Pa Kettle by way of Sweeney Todd as the doddering patriarch of the Sawyer family; he's gained notoriety for his secret-formula prize-winning chili ("It's the meat. Don't skimp on the MEAT!"). Bill Johnson's Leatherface, meanwhile, displays the hyperactive, tongue-wagging energy of a dopey puppy.

The most amazing performance of the movie belongs to Bill Moseley, whose Chop-Top sports mouldering hippy threads and spouts anachronistic flower-power lingo when he's not emitting some of the most hilariously potty-mouthed insults and proclamations ever to scorch your ears (Moseley's become a bona-fide horror star on the strength of this and Rob Zombie's first two films). The only movie characters more quotable than this Sonny Bono-wig-do'ed freak dwell in Casablanca, Pulp Fiction, and Gone With the Wind. I swear to God.

The one name actor among this cast of unknowns, Dennis Hopper, fits right into the gallery of bloody excess as Lefty Enright, a fire-and-brimstone sheriff trying to rescue Stretch and avenge the death of one of his relatives. The Hollywood rebel openly slagged TCM2 and his work in it over the years, but his Preacher Casey-with-power-tools schtick tears into the material like, well, one of Leatherface's favorite cutting instruments.

So, if you can hunt up the bare-bones but good-looking DVD version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and your stomach's ready for it, give it a look. To paraphrase Chop-Top, it's like Death eating a cracker.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Max Cady makes Freddy Krueger look like a Candy-Ass

If you want to split hairs, you may wish to call me a dirty liar after reading today's entry.

You see, I swore I'd only write about horror things for the next several days, and I'm about to discuss the original Cape Fear, a movie that's pretty much a straight, by-the-book, decidedly un-phantasmagorical thriller.

But just 'cos it's not a horror movie (in the strict sense, at least) doesn't mean it ain't scary as hell.

I've been watching all manner of horror films for the last week or two, in anticipation of my unholy Blog-a-Day deal with the Devil. But of all of the chillers I've screened lately, none features a character that puts as much of a bolt-upright chill through my spine as Max Cady, the antagonist played by the late, great Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear. Between Cady and Preacher Harry Powell in the classic Night of the Hunter, Mitchum created two of the most terrifying human monsters in cinema history.

Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), an upright southern attorney, receives a visit from Cady, a recently-paroled ex-con. Bowden, you see, gave testimony that put Max in jail for eight years. This being a movie entitled Cape Fear and not, say, Quiet Days in a Carolina Town, you can pretty much bank on Cady taking some sort of vengeful action against the perceived thief of his freedom.

So Cape Fear, on the face of it, is just a formula thriller, but it's a textbook perfect one. The script very gradually and plausibly lays the groundwork of Cady's revenge plot, starting things out on a relatively tame level and exponentially ratcheting up the urgency and danger. It helps that all of the characters act like thinking humans, and not stock pieces on a cinematic gameboard. The whole setup, orchestrated with clockwork precision by director J. Lee Thompson, feels utterly believable, seamless, and wincingly inevitable.

Thompson and screenwriter James R. Webb manage to maintain the hat trick of giving Bowden's relationship with his wife and daughter considerable depth and genuineness with relatively little exposition and screen time. And the performances, top to bottom, shine. But Robert Mitchum's mind-blowing work provides Cape Fear's malignant and unforgettable core. The legendary tough guy's performance is an absolute wonder of nature, using the slightest of facial and vocal modulations to capture the moments when Cady's lazy demeanor snaps into lethal precision. He is, quite simply and effortlessly, one of the most unpredictably frightening and loathsome characters ever to menace an on-screen innocent.

Max Cady knows that you'll let your guard down around him; his sleepy-eyed mug provides the perfect camouflage for a ferociously sharp mind and a bottomless well of vindictive hatred. He's the ambling, lazily charming dog who never lets on that he's about to rip your throat out.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Vampire as Valentino: Dracula (1979)

Every generation, it seems, must attempt the definitive Gothic Horror Epic. But no one ever seems to be able to create one that knocks it out of the park.

It's hard to gauge why. With infinite financial resources and all the special effects technology that said resources can buy, you'd think some big studio-backed director would hit the nail on the head (or drive the stake through the heart) and create the penultimate combination of gothic epic and pure shocker. Sadly, it never quite happens.

Stunt-casting even the most inappropriate A-list actors in gothic drag seems to be a primary cause. Keanu Reeves as bitchin' Jonathan Harker in Coppola's Dracula? Tom Cruise AND Brad Pitt as eighteenth-century bloodsuckers in Interview with the Vampire??!? Get thee away from the coke mirror, casting directors.

Such wrongheadedness makes for an easy scapegoat, but the real root cause likely runs deeper. Our jaded modern society looks to be a more likely culprit. In our imagination-depleted, jaded, and technologically-overwhelming world, it's hard for even the most talented filmmaker to muster up the Peter-Pan-like belief necessary to make a gothic horror movie fly. But in 1979, John Badham (the director of Saturday Night Fever) made a game attempt just the same.

Dracula, the seventies-vintage Official Big Attempt at A Gothic Masterpiece, never took off at the box office, despite a solid cast and top-shelf production values. A bit of a shame, considering that in some ways it actually lands much closer to the gothic mark than the aforementioned efforts by Coppola and Neil Jordan.

The plotline follows the familiar pattern laid down by previous Dracula films. A ghost ship (her crew massacred) drifts into English waters, and soon afterwards a mysterious Romanian count, Dracula (played in this go-around by Frank Langella), drifts into the lives of the genteel Brits in the area. Real estate agent Jonathan Harker (Trevor Eve), disbelieving Dr. Seward (Donald Pleasance), and stalwart vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) battle with the vampiric Count for the soul of Lucy (Kate Nelligan), Harker's fiancee.

Badham probably seemed like an odd choice to direct a classic horror film at this stage, but he handles the material well. He wisely keeps the pace brisk, and W.D. Richter's script displays traces of humor largely absent from Coppola's and Jordan's attempts. Most importantly, Badham and Richter strike a quality balance between gothic sweep and lightness of touch, never toppling over into either camp. They obviously believe in what they're doing here.

All of the production's technical elements click with effectiveness. Gil Taylor's widescreen cinematography sets a sublime gothic mood (the location footage of the cloudy English countryside adds immeasurably to the atmosphere), and John Williams' richly romantic (but never gooey) score ranks among his finest.

The actors all hit the proper chords, too. No one devours scenery wholesale the way Anthony Hopkins did in Coppola's Dracula, nor does anyone stumble as oafishly as Brad Pitt in Interview with the Vampire. Eve's Jon Harker may arguably be the most fleshed-out, smart, and appealing variation on this oft-thankless hero role ever put to screen. Nelligan makes the heroine/victim Lucy a much more full-blooded (pardon the pun) character than usual, a modern (for her time, not anachronistically so) woman whose seduction by Dracula feels more inspired by a desire for psychological/sexual liberation than anything. Olivier plays Van Helsing with focus, intensity, and just the right amount of stentorian power. And Pleasance's muttering, candy-eating Seward quietly steals every scene he's in with a master pickpocket's nimbleness.

The biggest variation on the oft-told tale lies in the interpretation of the Count himself. Langella's Dracula is the ultimate soft-spoken, sexually charismatic continental smoothie--a more subtle, night-owl variation of Rudolf Valentino--and the actor delivers a wryly witty (but never tongue-in-cheek) characterization. It'll never erase the long shadow cast by Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee (the two definitive practitioners of the role from this cramped perspective), but it's a fascinating and mostly valid interpretation in its own right.

Note the word 'mostly'. Langella's fine work misses one important aspect of the character: Dracula's inherent menace. In the informative documentary on the Dracula DVD, director Badham and Langella talk about Langella's steadfast vision of the character with admiration; the actor refused to kowtow to such vampiric stereotypes as fangs and bloodshot contact lenses, and he worked hard to maintain the character's sense of urbane suaveness. But that interpretation, lively and unique as it was, may have robbed the character of his scariness. And that missing piece--more than the simultaneous release of the George Hamilton Dracula spoof, Love at First Bite or any of the other external factors posited by the documentary's interviewees--was most likely the hammer that drove the stake through this Dracula's box-office heart.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cat People: Elemental Fear in Film Noir Drag

Last night, I labored from 11pm til about 3 am on a Petri Dish entry about the original Val Lewton-produced 1942 version of Cat People, perhaps the finest horror film of the forties and one of the most influential efforts ever to grace the genre. I did promise an entry a day, y'know.

After my usual ritual of merciless hacking, slashing, and self-proofing I finally finished the little guy. No, it wasn't gonna rouse Pauline Kael from the grave with shouts of Hosanna. Nor would it send a pack of literary agents to my door clucking like hungry poultry and waving six-figure checks. But it was a decent little entry, and, weary but satisfied, I hit the 'Save Draft' key. You know, the one that saves your work for you before you actually publish it.

Then I got every blogger's most dreaded screen: Cannot Find Server.

I'd been in such a composing fever dream for the preceding four hours (with the movie playing in the background as I wrote) that I'd forsaken my usual practice of frequent Saves; not once had I stopped to cover my butt with a token click of Save Draft. Nothing I could do could resurrect my Vanishing Entry, either. Demoralized and tired, I cried Uncle, crawled upstairs, and lapsed into a bedtime coma.

This twist of fate had me absolutely livid when I woke this morning. But instead of drop-kicking my computer hard drive or staging a Jihad against the folks at Netgear Wireless, I took it philosophically, pretending it was, in its own mundane and drab way, a Val Lewton horror moment; a random and entirely unpredictable event that offered me no easy resolution, only a plethora of questions and psychological avenues to ponder as I picked up the pieces.

No, the metaphor didn't work for me, either. I'm still irritated, but if any movie's worth writing about twice, it's Cat People. And now that Lewton's entire canon of horror films have been recently reissued in a handsome DVD box set by Warner Home Video, the time is right for serious re-appraisal of this, the flagship of the most sublime fleet of fright flicks ever unleashed.

Some historical context: Val Lewton toiled as a screenwriter, magazine contributor, and assistant to legendary Hollywood producer David O. Selznick throughout the thirties. By the start of the next decade, Lewton was heading up the newly-minted horror movie division of RKO Radio Pictures.

RKO was still smarting from the financial belly-flop generated by boy wonder Orson Welles' vanity project, Citizen Kane, and they weren't about to screw around. The brass handed Lewton a low budget, a seventeen-day shooting schedule, and a lurid title: Cat People. All RKO wanted was a B horror flick that'd turn a tidy profit. What Lewton and his creative team gave the studio was a dark, enduring, and unforgettable work of art.

Cat People begins as shipbuilding architect Oliver (Kent Smith) meets cute with Irena (Simone Simon), a fashion sketch artist, at a New York zoo. He's a savvy, sophisticated urbanite; she, a Serbian imigrant who has yet to make any meaningful friendships in the big city. They fall in love and marry, but on their wedding night, Irena drops a bomb; she refuses to consumate the marriage in any way--even with a kiss--for fear of losing control and becoming an animal...literally. Inexplicable events continue to escalate, and Irena's delusional belief that she's a ravenous shape-shifter begins looking a lot less delusional.

It sounds like the recipe for pure schlock, but Lewton and his gifted director Jacques Tourneur play things with an unerring and unexpected subtlety. Audiences of the time were well-accustomed to the very tangible monsters of Universal's horror classics; Cat People subverted all of that by implying everything, showing nothing explicit, and leaving the audience to scare the bejesus out of itself. In one fell swoop, this 73-minute thriller created the psychological horror film.

The movie works on numerous levels, in layers great and small, beginning with its characters. No inhabitant of this universe behaves in a stock, movie-character manner. Oliver may be our theoretical good guy, but he's also patently unable to help his troubled bride through her (maybe not-so-imaginary) mental trials. If Irena, conversely, is a monster, she's a lonely and sad one, truly tortured by her paralyzing fear that giving in to her desire will result in carnage (Simone Simon's unconventional beauty and barely perceptible body language speak volumes here). Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver's workplace pal, comes on like the traditional unassuming girl-next-door/buddy to our hero at first, but she soon reveals layers of cruelty and condescension at poor Irena's expense. Even psychiatrist Dr. Judd (a silkily predatory Tom Conway), initially presented as a rescuing Voice of Rationality, proves to be a wolf in sheep's (or intellectual's) clothing.

DeWitt Bodeen's literate but concise screenplay elegantly weaves dark folktale elements with an intelligent and believeable contemporary setting, contributing to the palpable sense of menace by making everything seem eerily plausible. Lewton and Tourneur augment the atmosphere with elements that would also become staples of the burgeoning film noir movement. The suspense setpieces that pepper the last third of Cat People wreak havoc on the subconscious of the viewer by using light, shadow, and sound to imply the horror.

And when it comes down to brass tacks, this sixty-two-year-old movie still delivers the willies in spades. The most famous scene in the film--a nighttime swim by Alice in a hotel pool as shadows and panther growls build to a maddening crescendo--works so magnificently, even today, that director Paul Schrader nicked it wholesale for his more literal 1982 remake of Cat People.

Incidentally, the 1942 Cat People broke box office records and became a huge hit, despite the brass's nervousness about the extremely cerebral and psychologically dense subject matter. That financial windfall insured Lewton and his creative team a degree of creative freedom unheard of in golden-era studio-dominated Hollywood. All of the thrillers borne of Lewton's RKO years maintained the producer's high standards, but Cat People is, indisputably, Lewton's masterstroke.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go watch it again. Five times is not enough.

Friday, October 21, 2005

It's a (um, not quite) HORROR-pa-LOOZA at the Petri Dish!!

In honor of Halloween, I swore to myself at the top of the month that I'd inundate this here Blog with heaps of horror. But a combination of work and slackerly slackishness has eaten away the first two-thirds of the month like a werewolf chowing away on a hapless night traveller.

If you've visited in the past, you know that it takes very little to get me to wax rhapsodic, episodic, or sardonic on horror cinema. So, in a fit of customary over-compensation, I've declared the rest of October a Petri Dish Horror-pa-LOOZA!!

Every day, until the end of the month, I will post an entry on something horror, except for Halloween itself (it's my anniversary, kids--cut me some slack). Today: a welcome follow-up to one of cinema's greatest fright factories.

A crash course on Hammer Films, Britain's best-known and most beloved purveyor of horror movies, lay buried in the June 2005 archives of this here Blog. In said entry, I lamented the absence of some of the studio's best and most fun efforts on DVD.

Well, Christmas has come early for Hammer DVD completist-dorks like me. Universal Home Video recently released The Hammer Horror Series, a two-disc set packed with eight (!) movies, several of which make their US shiny-disc debut.

Universal provides zilch on the extras front, but getting this entertaining octet of chillers--all letterboxed, and most drawn from crisp negatives--for under 30 smackers (even less at the right retailer) should make any horror geek a happy camper.

The set includes: The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Curse of The Werewolf (1961), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Kiss of The Vampire (1963), Night Creatures (1962), Nightmare (1963), Paranoiac (1963) , and The Phantom of The Opera (1962).

Simple nostalgia has rendered re-visiting many of these (I've watched five of the films on the set so far) a blast, but the biggest and most pleasant surprise is how well they've held up over the years. Cynical cash-cow horror franchises and self-serious Sixth Sense knockoffs have become the rage over the last decade, making Hammer's lean and sturdy story-driven thrillers look a lot more lustrous. I wouldn't go so far as to call any of the films included here masterpieces, but they all hit incredibly right and resonant notes as pulp entertainment. Try saying that about the useless remake of The Fog that recently simpered into multiplexes.

Among the movies I've watched thusfar, The Evil of Frankenstein stands as the most routine of them. The third of the Hammer Frankenstein epics (after 1957's Curse of Frankenstein and 1958's Revenge of Frankenstein), it sketches out a scenario familiar to most fans of Frankenstein lore. The good mad doctor (Peter Cushing) returns to his old stomping grounds after an extended exile to find his old monster encased in ice. The doc revives the big lug, but finds himself needing the assistance of carnival hypnotist Professor Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe) to keep the creature active. Zoltan, meanwhile, sees decidedly ignoble uses for his new hypnotic subject.

There's some real formula enjoyment here, as John Elder's script throws in a mute beggar girl (Katy Wild) and a whole gaggle of corrupt government officials alongside the usual monstershines. The performances are all solid, especially Woodthorpe, whose toadlike somnabulist manages to steal the movie wholesale. Fun, if occasionally rote, stuff.

The Brides of Dracula takes the Triple Crown as the set's most rousing offering. It's as much action yarn as horror opus, with Peter Cushing's Van Helsing taking on the vampiric minions of the evil Baron Meinster (David Peel) with a ferocity that'd make Rambo nervous. Director Terence Fisher engineers the proceedings with economy and verve--there's not a wasted frame here, and Fisher manages the very difficult balance of Gothic atmosphere and machine-gun pacing with craftsmanly cool.

Conversely, Curse of the Werewolf sounds like pure pulp until you see it executed. An imprisoned, animal-like beggar (Richard Wordsworth) rapes the servant (Yvonne Romain) of an evil Spanish nobleman (Anthony Dawson). The mute young woman escapes and is rescued by kindly Don Alfredo (Clifford Evans). Shortly thereafter, the girl dies in childbirth, and the fruit of this unholy union, Leon (Oliver Reed), grows up to find himself visited by the titular affliction.

Of all the films here, Curse comes closest to capturing the spirit of a dark fable; the early scenes, which establish the whole domino effect leading to Leon's ultimate transformation, exhibit an elegance that few of the Hammers ever strove to reach. And the performances--Dawson as the epitome of moneyed scumminess, Evans as the gruff-but-loving father figure, and especially the magnetic Reed as a good man being pulled asunder by inner demons (art imitates life, methinks)--could hardly be better. Only a climax constrained by Hammer's lack of funds dampens this fine effort's spell.

The only thing nicer than discovering a horror movie you've never seen before on a set like this is discovering a good horror movie you've never seen before on a set like this. Kiss of the Vampire ain't perfect, but it's a worthy (and occasionally masterful) addition to the Hammer canon. The hook here is in the subtle tweak to a familiar stock plot (vacationing British couple gets waylaid in Bavaria by a clutch of vampires). The bloodsuckers here are European sophisticates who oversee the countryside with aristrocratic efficiency, and their numbers are swollen not by hapless peasants, but by other rich and jaded aristocrats--indeed, the notion of vampirism-as-religious-cult feels positively prescient. In addition to the novelty factor, Kiss of the Vampire sports several scenes of hypnotic and languid eeriness. One of these--a simple bite to the hand of vampire hunter Professor Zimmer (Clifford Evans), and the professor's procedure to save himself--ranks as one of the most effective such scenes I've ever seen. Director Don Sharp also builds a palpable atmosphere of subtle disorientation around the likeable couple's (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) dark adventures. Things go a bit haywire at the end (the filmmakers' ambitions obviously exceeded their considerable time and budget constraints during the finale), but much of the journey proves creepily worthwhile.

Finally, adulthood actually improved my outlook on Hammer's 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera. It's even less of a horror film than its melodramatic 1925 and 1943 predecessors, but it more than makes up for its lack of scares with plenty of tangy backstage sparring. The great Michael Gough makes for a deliciously loathsome villain, and Edward de Souza lends flair and comic likeability to his stock hero role. Herbert Lom capably takes up the mask this time out, and he manages to imbue the character with dignity and pathos (in a nice wrinkle to the old warhorse of a plot, we actually get a bit more backstory on the pre-Phantom Phantom). The ending (which brings the Phantom to a rather random and undignified end) kinda blows, but the journey up to that point works sportingly as a representative of a genre as time-honored as the horror film--namely, the backstage drama.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Rabbit test(y): Night of the Lepus on DVD

It's the early seventies. Audiences everywhere have been galvanized by a whole new generation of filmmakers pushing envelopes and boundaries undreamt of by the contract employees laboring under the old Hollywood studio system. And no topic, no approach is off-limits. Hell, in this era an X-rated movie (Midnight Cowboy) even wins the Best Picture Oscar.

Most of the horror and science-fiction films that see release in the first third of the decade stare audiences square in the eyes, daring them to flinch. Whether they're meditations on violence (A Clockwork Orange), the loss of individuality (THX-1138), or man's lack of control over disease (The Andromeda Strain), these genre flicks force viewers to confront fears that are, at equal turns, contemporary and elementally universal.

So how does 1972-era MGM--one of Hollywood's biggest film studios--compete with this vogue for ecologically-and-socially-aware thrillers? Simple. It releases a horror film--Night of the Lepus--showcasing the world's first swarm of giant, mutated, flesh-eating killer...


I swear to God.

Historical context aside, Night of the Lepus has inspired hushed, slack-jawed awe amongst true fans of cinematic schlock for decades. And now, Warner Home Video has unleashed this gloriously misbegotten bastard child of 50's B Flick and 70's Eco-Horror Treatise upon the world in spanking new DVD form. Unlike most trash flicks that promise more unintended yocks than they deliver, Night of the Lepus really is all that and a bag of chips. Or perhaps better put, it's all that and a bag of crunchy carrots. It literally must be seen to be believed.

Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh play Roy and Gerri Bennett, married scientists hired by rancher Rory Calhoun to come up with a humane way to eradicate the rabbits currently overrunning Calhoun's property. Roy decides to use hormones in an attempt to stave off the little buggers' tendency to, well, screw like bunnies. The Bennetts' monobrowed little daugher Amanda (Melanie Fullerton), meanwhile, takes a shine to one hormone-stoked rabbit and rescues him from the lab. When the hormonally-hopped-up hare escapes to breed with others of his kind, the cuddly little critters suddenly become cuddly big critters with a yen for human flesh.

Sure, the premise is absurd as hell, but what really makes Night of the Lepus so mind-boggling is the complete sobriety with which it's all delivered. This is important and terrifying stuff, dammit, written with the stolid solemnity of an Ibsen-penned public service announcement and acted with grave seriousness. You truly have not lived until you hear town sheriff Paul Fix, with nary a whit of self-awareness or humor, warn drive-in patrons that there's a herd of killer rabbits coming their way. Star Trek fans will also rejoice to see Dr. McCoy himself, DeForest Kelley, on hand as the concerned country doctor, keeping a straight face (no mean feat here) as he throws rocks into holes listening for the chattering of maneating bunnies.

Director William F. Claxton fights valiantly to inject maximum foreboding into every suspense scene. Only one minor detail musses things up; these are all suspense scenes involving killer rabbits, for Pete's sake. Real-live bunnies (frolicking amongst crude miniatures, no less) portray Peter Cottontail's ravenous cousins in the long shots. These fluffy li'l scamps never stop being cute, even when they're shot from below, in the dark, in slow motion, with their gutteral growls (?!) filling the soundtrack. No amount of fake blood on their cuddly widdle faces can make them the least bit scary, either.

God, I love this movie.

The Warner DVD runs 88 minutes, and the crisp print contains footage (including some pretty gruesome mutilated corpses) excised from the original version. The disc's lone extra, the fairly scary original coming-attractions trailer, makes no mention of the fact that the titular monsters are actually rabbits. I can't imagine why.

Even a non-nerd can enjoy Serenity. Really.

Flightplan, the new thriller with Jodie Foster, won the box office last weekend with a $14 Million take. Just behind it, at about $10 mil, was the new sci-fi opus, Serenity. I haven't seen the former, but I suspect that Serenity (which I have seen) is better. Way better.

What writer/director Joss Whedon has rustled up with Serenity is an honest-to-God western in space, in the best possible ways. Meaning: one, it's largely character-driven, and two, it's a great, rip-roaring action flick made all the more engaging because you're emotionally invested in the characters.

The principals, headed up ably by Nathan Fillion, display easygoing, humorous, and unaffected camaraderie. The self-contained mythology that Whedon and company create feels nuanced and genuine. The special effects impress without drawing attention to themselves. The villain (an assassin played with icily charismatic inscrutibility by Chiwetel Ejiofor) exudes unforced charisma. The script, while rooted in formula, takes just enough little turns to keep even a grouch like me pleasantly surprised. And Serenity may be based on a TV series (Firefly), but it hardly shows its seams, with Whedon marshalling some genuinely cinematic vistas and setpieces without underselling the human inhabitants of his little universe.

My exposure to Firefly was confined to a cursory glance at a couple of episodes. I admired what I saw, but I never became a hardcore fan. After seeing Serenity, the missus and I ran (literally) to pick up the TV show on DVD. That's powerful proof that Whedon's done something plumb right here.