Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Bat People, and a Happy Halloween!

Once again, MGM/UA bows to Horrorpalooza.

The Bat People, a favorite mid-seventies chiller of mine (and, yep, another special request from Horrorpalooza 2006), just made the digital translation on a nifty DVD double bill with the 1982 horror flick, The Beast Within. And both movies make for unpretentious good times.

It had been a few years since I'd screened either. The last time I saw The Beast Within was as a horror-hungry adolescent during its initial theatrical run, and our dog-eared VHS copy of The Bat People hadn't seen the inside of a VCR since I lived in Tacoma six years ago.

The Beast Within re-jiggers a classic sci-fi scenario, with a young woman (Bibi Besch) being assaulted by a giant monster. She gives birth to an apparently normal son (Paul Clemens), but once he grows up he develops an appetite for extremely rare meat and experiences an extra-traumatic growth spurt, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

It's junk, but pretty entertaining junk, directed at a brisk pace by Aussie Philippe Mora, and written by Tom Holland (who'd really earn his terror stripes with that wonderful Valentine to old-school horror, Fright Night, three years later). Tom Burman coughs up some gloppily-effective make-up (the titular beast is a sort of giant katydid man), and best of all, the movie's packed stem-to-stern with great character actors: Ronny Cox as Besch's concerned hubby, Don Gordon as an oily judge, Sam Peckinah regular L.Q. Jones as the stymied sheriff (not to mention Designing Women's Meshach Taylor as his deputy!), R.G. Armstrong (fresh from having his neck snapped like a breadstick in Evilspeak) as the town doctor, and Luke Askew as an extra-crabby local.

The Bat People makes for an enjoyable second bill, a modest and unassuming little 1974 chiller about a scientist (Stewart Moss) who gets bitten by a bat while spelunking in a cave. The bite turns him into (natch) a Bat Man.

Again, this is no masterpiece, but it's a pretty well-acted and reasonably involving effort. Moss is really good, elevating the silly material with a 100% commitment to the part, and Tom Burman contributes an effective early make-up for the final-stage bat man. Interestingly, the movie's a bit of a reunion for several Star Trek guest stars: In addition to Moss (who got infected by a galactic giggle virus in a Trek episode), Paul Carr (Lt. Lee Kelso) turns up as the doctor trying to figure out what's going on, and best of all the awesome Michael Pataki ('The Trouble with Tribbles' Klingon) plays a lecherous town sheriff who leers over Moss's pretty wife (Marianne McAndrew) even as he goes all Les Miserables on the metamorphosing scientist. Fun stuff.

Gotta go. It's my anniversary and the missus and I are programming our own horror film festival for the night. See you in November.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The 50 Greatest Horror Movies: Rotten Tomatoes vs. the Petri Dish

Rotten Tomatoes has posted its list of the 50 Best-Reviewed Horror Movies Ever, and like any Movie List, there are some bones to contend with. Just for fun, here's RT's Fearsome Fifty (with the occasional editorial blather), followed by my own completely personal and utterly subjective list. I shall cop out and put mine in no particular order...

Rotten Tomatoes' 50 Greatest Horror Movies:

50) The Innocents (1961): No argument from this corner on its inclusion, but it should be way higher.
49)Dead of Night (1945)
48) The Dead Zone (1983)
47) Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
46) A Tale of Two Sisters (2003): Haven't seen it.
45) Carrie (1976): Evilspeak is more fun, but if you've been slugging it out alongside me for the last two weeks you know that already.
44) Eraserhead (1976)
43) The Exorcist (1973)
42) Three Extremes (2005): Haven't seen it.
41) Fright Night (1985)
40) Ringu (1998)
39) House of Wax (1953)
38) Shadow of the Vampire (2000): Dafoe's vampiric Max Schreck still brings me joy, but the rest of the movie? Eh.
37) Peeping Tom (1958)
36) Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): A modestly interesting shocker whose merits have been disproportionately inflated by twenty-some years of sequels and pop-culture inundation.
35) Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2003):Guy Maddin's offbeat ballet adaptation of the vampire mythos is an inspired addition to this list (though I'd put it just below my Top 50, meself)
34) Near Dark (1987): Great cast, some good moments, but kinda dates badly for me.
33) The Wicker Man (1973): What, no love for that masterful 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage??! Just kidding.
32) Halloween (1978)
31) Misery (1990)
30) Cat People (1942)
29) The Sixth Sense (1999)
28) Nosferatu: The Vampyre (1979): Critics might as well be Nubian slaves, feeding grapes to Werner Herzog and fanning the German auteur's brow with ostrich feathers for all the Hosannahs he gets. But his static remake of one of the scariest movies ever, with a wheezingly-overwrought Klaus Kinski at the epicenter, is a real low point amongst his works.
27) Slither (2006): James Gunn's playful creature feature is one oozily-walloping good time, but the modern skew to this list puts it way higher than I would.
26) The Blair Witch Project (1999)
25) Dracula (1931)
24) Ginger Snaps (2001): Haven't seen it yet.
23) Don't Look Now (1974)
22) The Descent (2006): Haven't seen it yet, but I have it on great authority that it rocks.
21) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
20) Eyes Without a Face (1959)
19) Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
18) The Birds (1963)
17) Night of the Living Dead (1968)
16) Nosferatu (1922)
15) Jaws (1975)
14) Frankenstein (1931)
13) Silence of the Lambs (1991)
12) Freaks (1932)
11) Night of the Hunter (1955): Again, horror movie or no? Not that I'm arguing that it's any less than magnificent or anything...
10) Repulsion (1965)
9) Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
8) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
7) The Evil Dead (1982)
6) 28 Days Later (2003)
5) The Devil's Backbone (2001)
4) Rosemary's Baby (1968)
3) Shaun of the Dead (2004)
2) King Kong (1933): Should be at the top of any list of Great Films, but is this a horror movie, or a fantasy/adventure? I'm with the latter.
1) Psycho (1960)

And my personal list, in no particular order:

1) Frankenstein (1931)
2) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
3) The Thing (1982): Mainstream critics stupidly fixated on the gore like a clutch of blue-haired knock-kneed old ladies when it first came out, but time has utterly vindicated John Carpenter's remake of the 1951 sci-fi creeper. Paranoid, tense, flawlessly engineered, and bracingly uncompromising in its nihilism, it just might be the best horror film of the 1980's. So why isn't it on RT's List, already?
4) Suspiria (1977)
5) The Invisible Man (1933): James Whale's mordant black humor glows with more dark luster here than in anything this side of his Bride of Frankenstein. Claude Rains (or should I say, Rains' voice) is brilliant.
6) The Haunting (1961): The alpha and omega of all haunted house flicks. Director Robert Wise's sublime thriller sports disorienting black-and-white photography and the finest (and most nerve-rattling) use of sound ever to grace a horror film. Right up there with The Innocents in the pantheon of the Sixties' finest horror movies, so its omission from RT's list utterly stymies me.
7) The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
8) The Wolf Man (1941): There are more gothically rich Universal horror films out there, but Lon Chaney's sincere, melancholy performance--and that awesome make-up--still get me every time.
9) Nosferatu (1922)
10) Frankenstein Created Woman (1967): Hammer Films' most perfect crystalization of horror film as dark fairy tale; colorful, involving, and richly, achingly sad.
11) Horror of Dracula (1958): Talk about a battle of the titans. Christoper Lee's vampire prince (throw in the towel, Gary Oldman) and Peter Cushing's intrepid Van Helsing (enclosed please find your walking papers, Hugh Jackman) square off, with colorful and thrilling results.
12) Masque of the Red Death (1964): All of the Roger Corman Poe adaptations are pretty damned great, but this one is the closest thing to a full-bore nightmare masterpiece that the ever-practical Corman helmed.
13) The Mask (1961): I'm still waiting for this low-budget--and immensely scary--Canadian horror opus to make it to DVD.
14) The Innocents (1961)
15) The Mummy (1932): The most elegant--and dreamily romantic--horror film ever made.
16) The Dead Zone (1983)
17) Wild Zero (2005): With all due respect to Slither, this gonzo Japanese rock and roll/gutmuncher/action flick hits the sublimely junky horror-good-time button even harder.
18) Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell (1968): Japanese horror did not begin with (to paraphrase director Adam Green) wet Japanese kids. A vampiric alien picks off the survivors of a plane crash, and the horror has tendrils (OK, invasive puddles of silver ooze) that extend well beyond the crash site. Nihilism to rival Carpenter's Thing, a pointed cry of anger at the Vietnam war, and some ickily-effective (if primitive) make-up magic. Never mind Rotten Tomatoes: I'll just settle for someone putting this chilling psychedelic nightmare out on domestic DVD.
19) Cat People (1942)
20) White Zombie (1932): Irresistibly atmospheric, and one of Bela Lugosi's finest hours on film.
21) Psycho (1960)
22) The Birds (1963)
23) Carnival of Souls (1962): Carnival of Souls is NOT on RT's List?! Who's minding the store here, a bunch of crackheads who share the names of several nationally-recognized critics???! For the love of God.
24) The Sixth Sense (1999)
25) Freaks (1932)
26) Phenomena (1986)
27) The Exorcist (1973)
28) Black Sunday (1960): Mario Bava's masterpiece, one of the great black-and-white horror tone poems of all time, and the ultimate showcase for the spectral magnetism of Barbara Steele.
29) Black Sabbath (1963): Bava--one of horror cinema's great visual craftsmen--gets no love from Rotten Tomatoes, but this eye-poppingly sumptuous (and timelessly creepy) anthology gets major man-love from yours truly.
30) Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965): With all due respect to Dead of Night, the most wonderfullest omnibus horror movie of all time. STILL NOT OUT ON DOMESTIC DVD--the only reason I can see for RT giving it the ol' snub.
31) The Devil's Backbone (2001)
32) Uzumaki (2000): My favorite of the new wave of Japanese horror by a landslide, this immersive fever-dream of a movie succeeds in large part because, unlike Ringu, it never breaks its spell by trying to explain itself.
33) The Howling (1981): Joe Dante's best synthesis of horror and humor, with plenty of in-jokes for the fans, still-impressive transformation scenes, and (all partisan bias aside) the criminally-underrated Belinda Balaski's best work on film.
34) An American Werewolf in London (1981): The trailblazing (and Oscar-winning) Rick Baker effects are just the icing on this very funny and surprisingly affecting cake. Between this and The Howling, I smell a major anti-werewolf bias, Rotten Tomatoes.
35) Phantasm (1979): Seldom have I seen a low-budget horror movie with so much unbridled creativity bursting at its seams.
36) Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
37) Re-Animator (1986): Stuart Gordon plumbs the depths of depravity for some of the most demented yocks you'll find in a horror film. Jeffrey Combs' hilarious Herbert West is a mad doctor for the ages.
38) Pit and the Pendulum (1961): The second Corman Poe adaptation is (to my mind) the scariest, with a closing shot that still gives me the willies.
39) Theatre of Blood (1973): Vincent Price voraciously digging into The Bard as a Shakespearean actor taking bloody revenge on his critics? No wonder those lily-livers at RT omitted this.
40) The Phantom of the Opera (1925): How could Lon Chaney, the greatest character actor in silent film, roll snake eyes on the RT List? The unmasking scene is still one of the scariest moments captured on film.
41) Vampyr (1932): Dutch auteur Carl Dreyer sculpts the darkest and most gauzily-feverish of cinematic dreams here.
42) Curse of the Werewolf (1960): Oliver Reed's best early performance, and further evidence of Rotten Tomatoes' unconscionable discrimination against the lycanthrope.
43) Fright Night (1985)
44) Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986): Heresy to pick this over the pioneering original, but it brings me even more entertainment than Hooper's first cannibal saga.
45) M (1930): Like Night of the Hunter, you could probably argue this one's classification. But if RT can pick the former, then the magnificent Peter Lorre's most chilling (and curiously heart-wrenching) performance in director Fritz Lang's still-horrifying thriller should be right up there on the same list.
46) Alien (1979): Rotten Tomatoes, read my lips: W. T. F?!!?!! Why ain't this on your list?
47) Frenzy (1973): Psycho and The Birds rightfully get a lot of terror accolades, but this brutal Hitchcock thriller is--slug for slug--almost as scary as the former, and even scarier than the latter.
48) The Wicker Man (1973)
49) Village of the Damned (1960): All the more sublime for introducing the most coldly terrifying of threats in the pastoral tranquility of a quaint English village. Again, figured this one would be a no-brainer for any Top 50 Horror Film List...Unless it's RT's.
50) The Fly (1958): Cronenberg's humdinger of a mucous-fest remake has more visceral impact, but for more deep-rooted primal chills the original can't be beat. "Help me...Heeellp meee..."


Monday, October 29, 2007

Paul Naschy, The Once and Future King of Spanish Horror

Some guys get a tie from their spouse for their fortieth birthday. I got monsters.

Rita earned her cool-for-a-girl stripes once more by taking me to my first Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Convention in May. This entry from Rita's eminently worthwhile Blog covers the event with customary wit and aplomb, but in anticipation of my iminent blathering she deliberately omitted the Convention's rarest treat (and the personal highlight for me).

Most of the guests at the Con were filmmakers and actors solidly rooted in current horror cinema--guys like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Dog Soldiers/The Descent director Neil Marshall--with one fascinating exception: Fangoria editor/convention coordinator Anthony Timpone booked legendary Spanish actor/director Paul Naschy for a rare US visit.

If you're not a horror obsessive, you've likely never heard of Naschy. He's been directing, writing, and starring in horror movies since the late 1960's, but most of his efforts wound up haphazardly edited, absurdly dubbed and re-titled by the time they ended up on stateside drive-in and TV screens in the '70's and '80's. That's a sharp contrast to his hometown reputation as an honest-to-God pioneer, an important figure in European horror cinema and Spain's first (and to date, only) international horror star (see the excellent tribute site, Mark of Naschy, for a more comprehensive bio).

Born Jacinto Molina, he grew up in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and the regime of Generalissimo Franco, seeking escape in movie theaters as a boy. His love of horror films led Molina to eventually write a script for a werewolf flick (La Marca del Hombre Lobo/Mark of the Wolfman) in 1967. The screenplay got greenlit, and then the producers--scrambling for a star for their shocker when prospective werewolf Lon Chaney Jr. took ill--offered the part to Molina by default. One quick name-change later, Molina became Paul Naschy and took the lead. La Marca del Hombre Lobo was a huge hit throughout Europe, and in the US under the unlikely title Frankenstein's Bloody Terror.

His catalogue of work is a fascinating anomaly: Most of his very traditional gothic epics feature classic movie monsters (he's played werewolves, mummies, and vampires over the years), but with a liberal helping of violence and sexuality ladled on top. Even more than the output of Hammer Studios, the films of Paul Naschy impacted European horror by forming the missing link between the old-school Universal gothic classics and the more visceral thrills that pack modern theaters. Without the success of Naschy's chillers, the films of highly regarded Spanish director Amando De Ossorio would likely never have been made, and I'd be willing to argue that Guillermo Del Toro's weld of supernatural wonder and graphic horror likewise exists thanks to the ripple effect caused by Paul Naschy.

A former World-Class Weightlifter, Naschy himself makes for a physically unlikely horror star--compact, barrel-chested and blessed with an everyman face that rests somewhere between John Belushi, Bob Hoskins and Claude Rains. But like his hero Lon Chaney Jr., the Spanish actor/terror auteur overcame his somewhat incongruous appearance to deliver capable performances in literally dozens of horror features. Seeing unexpurgated versions of his movies used to be darn near impossible, but the rabid demand for horror on DVD (Viva, fellow horror nerds!!) has led to an explosion of uncut (and in some cases, astonishingly high-quality) prints of the man's thrillers in sparkling digital format.

I won't lie to you: Some of Naschy's chillers can be a chore to sit through. The sluggish pacing of the worst of them can put you under quicker than a bellyful of Thanksgiving turkey, and even the best of them fall short of masterpiece status. But when everything clicks, a Paul Naschy horror movie can be the best of both worlds--comfortably old-fashioned and deliciously shocking in equal measure.

The following list is by no means definitive: Several of Naschy's nearly 100(!) movies still have yet to be released on domestic DVD, and I'm still not caught up on some of the most important efforts in his filmography like Rojo Sangre (purportedly Naschy's 2004 pulp-horror equivalent of Fellini's 8 1/2). But the choices below make for a good starting point for experiencing Spain's Public Boogeyman Number One.

Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (released on DVD by Media Blasters/Shriek Show, originally released in 1968): FBT introduces Naschy's signature character, Waldemar Daninsky the melancholy werewolf. US distributor Independent International laughably explained the lack of a Frankenstein's monster with a crudely-animated prelude detailing Dr. Frankenstein's bite from a werewolf, which cursed future generations with lycanthropy. The movie plastered with this tackiness, however, is a solidly entertaining gothic chiller, expansively shot in 70mm with a rich sixties pallette of psychedelic colors. Naschy puts his physical vigor to good use as the most energetic werewolf who ever sprouted fur and fangs, and the movie delivers two really cool vampires (Julian Ugarte and Aurora de Alba) to go tooth-and-fang against our anti-hero.

Assignment: Terror (not out on DVD, 1970): Michael Rennie plays an alien who brings to life Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and (natch) Waldemar Daninsky's lycanthrope for a battle royale with the fate of the world in the balance. Pure, wall-to-wall insanity that sorta casts aside Daninsky's usual pathos, while leaving, in its stead...Wall-to-wall insanity. Retroflicks has put this out on DVD-R, but a real-live domestic DVD issue would be really appreciated.

Werewolf Shadow (AKA Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, La Noche de Walpurgis, Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1971): Two lovely travellers journey into remote French hinterlands to seek out the grave of Countess Wandessa, a long-dead European royal and possible vampire. Naturally one of the girls finds out the hard way that Wandessa's for real, and it's up to the girls' recent ally, the mysterious Waldemar Daninsky, to battle vampiric forces once more. Director Leon Klimovsky adds visual elegance to the minimalist storyline, with stretches of slow-motion photography adding a languid, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. Anchor Bay's letterboxed DVD is struck from a gorgeous print.

Exorcism (BCI/Eclipse, 1975): Naschy plays a noble priest in one of his few genuinely heroic roles, as he goes through the spirit-liberating paces with a possessed young woman (Grace Mills). Naschy allegedly wrote the script before William Friedkin's movie came out, but it's still a pretty flagrant rip-off of the central concept. Entertaining as it is, the movie's nothing special, but Naschy's solid work is.

Night of the Werewolf (BCI/Eclipse, 1980): Naschy writes, directs, and stars in this semi-remake of Werewolf Shadow, and it's one of his most thrilling and visually rich horror movies. As a director, he pays visual homage to some of his heroes (Mario Bava, James Whale), and his performance as the tormented Daninsky here is his most resonant and charismatic. He's more than matched by the haunting Julia Saly as the evil countess. BCI/Eclipse presents a stunning transfer, cut scenes, and a great Naschy interview.

Crimson (Image, 1973): The Italian Job meets The Brain that Wouldn't Die, as Naschy plays a safe-cracker who takes a bullet to the noggin. His fellow bank-robbers take him to a doctor who explains that his advanced brain trauma can only be solved by replacing the damaged grey matter with fresh tissue from an even-more-evil criminal known as The Sadist. A wild-and-wooly pulp shocker replete with hysterical dubbed dialogue, flying bullets, a deliciously strange 70's Velveeta musical score, weird dance numbers, and copious absurdity.

Follow-Up Study: Paul Naschy, Memoirs of a Wolfman (Midnight Marquee Press, 2000): Naschy's autobiography isn't exactly a literary triumph (his florid writing style approaches romance-novel overcooking in places), but his love of film and his amazing life come through richly in the pages. And unlike most filmmakers whose worst-case scenarios usually involve finiancial backers bailing, Naschy made movies under the watchful eye of an honest-to-God military regime. Take that, James Cameron.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Kind of Song and Dance: Bat Boy the Musical

Unintentionally bad movie musicals hold an irresistible thrall for me, but (as has been intimated in these virtual pages before) I'm not much of a fan of the artform as a whole, especially the modern musical.

Gloppy ballads (a trope of the genre) give me the heebie-jeebies, and the grunting rock dork in me involuntarily cringes at the slick and hyper-enunciated Broadway singing/composition style being wedged into a backbeat like Avril Lavigne throwing on a Sex Pistols T-shirt. So it's grand news to this musicals-loathing curmudgeon that Bat Boy the Musical, playing at the Artswest Playhouse in Seattle 'til November 10, entertains so thoroughly.

As the title indicates, this off-Broadway creation takes the late, great Weekly World News's favorite cover model as its inspiration. But rather than follow the WWN's increasingly outlandish printed reports for a plotline, Bat Boy the Musical keeps all of the action in Hope Falls, West Virginia, where the mysterious title man-beast (Troy Wageman) is captured from deep within a mountain cave by a couple of local yokels, and brought to the local veteranarian's home.

That vet, Dr. Parker (Nick DeSantis), takes Bat Boy in and initally fights to keep the little guy safe from the intolerant townsfolk. Parker's wife Meredith (Heather Hawkins) and daughter Shelly (Krystle Armstrong) take a shine to the pointy-eared bloodsucker: Soon Bat Boy's been re-christened Edgar, and thanks to Meredith's Pygmalion dotage learns to speak and reason with nigh-Shakespearian elocution. All seems well, until jealousy--and the irredeemable ignorance of the townsfolk--combine to bring things to the obligatory tragic climax.

Keythe Farley's and Brian Flemming's book takes a few too-easy jabs at the Weekly World News's rube demographic, and at organized religion, but mostly it gooses musical and B-movie cliches to winning effect a la Little Shop of Horrors. Edgar's education gloriously lampoons My Fair Lady, and Laurence O'Keefe's very catchy songs hit all of the stereotypes with vigor and wit: The Inspirational Group Sing-Along ("Hold Me, Bat Boy"); the wistfully nostalgic ballad ("Dance With Me, Darling"); the Broadway-ized attempt at hip-hop ("Watcha Wanna Do"), etc. Even if you're a musical theater Grinch, there's a lot to love--and laugh heartily at--here.

Entertaining as the story and score are, though, the cast is what really sells Bat Boy the Musical. Stem to stern, the whole ensemble's so great that it's easy to forget that the show wasn't written specifically for them. DeSantis plays the doctor with just the right amount of earnest academia and eyeball-rolling dementia, and Hawkins takes the archetypical Susie Homemaker to hilarious, Oedipal extremes. Farley's and Flemming's story reserves some of its most twisted jabs for ingenue Shelly, and Armstrong responds with full-bore comic gusto.

Scene-stealer laurels, meanwhile, go to Wageman. Hanging from the rafters chattering like, well, a bat boy at the start, he eschews extreme makeup (pointed ears and a shorn head work just fine, thanks) and gives a performance so funny, expressive, physical and fearless (love his English schoolboy riff at the last half) that you can't keep your eyes off him. And with a cast this strong, that's saying a lot.

Technically, this is a tiny show, but the behind-the-scenes folk are likewise at the top of their games. Will Abramse's sparse set (two painted flats, augmented by a circular scrim upon which titles and hilarious flashback photos are Powerpointed on) captures the ramshackle vibe of the original Weekly World News's visual style nicely, and Kristin Culp's choreography works wonders on the relatively compact stage. The band, led by conductor/keyboardist R. J. Tancioco, kept things tight and energetic.

This howlingly good time continues its run at Artswest until November 10. Check it out.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Something, Anything...Scary

Emergency work stuff pulled me away from the 'Dish for the day, so Fate has bitch-slapped my solemn vow of one a day every day 'til Halloween. I am a broken man.

Tonight I go to see Bat Boy the Musical; I'm certain I'll commence to a' blatherin' tomorrow. Hey, I guess this is an entry. I didn't say each blog had to be an essay.

Don't worry. No more cop-outs. See you tomorrow.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Evilspeak: Clint Howard goes all Carrie on your Ass

I've never been a big Brian DePalma fan.

Most of his movies seemed to be pretending to be something more than they were, slickly-shot but still morally-grubby exploitation pictures with delusions of Godhood. Even when he locked onto a clever idea he'd club it to death with heavy-handed visual overkill, or self-conscious faux-Hitchcockery. So it's no wonder that DePalma's hugely influential horror hit, Carrie, leaves me pretty damned cold today, while Evilspeak--a trashy, ridiculous and artless ripoff of Carrie circa 1980--entertains the hell out of me.

Bumbling Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard) endures endless humiliation, torment, and abuse from his fellow cadets at West Andover military academy. One afternoon he's put on punishment patrol, and gets assigned to help clean out the basement of the Academy Chapel. Whilst digging around, Coopersmith stumbles upon a Scary Spell Book, which he hard-wires into a computer to resurrect an evil de-frocked priest (Night Court's Richard Moll!) for some serious Charles Bronson-goes-demonic vengeance.

Part of Evilspeak's charm is that it doesn't pretend to be a statement about young manhood the way Carrie purported to be a Profound Statement about the personal hell teenage girls can create for each other. No, Evilspeak director Eric Weston just delivers the exploitation goods by the snow-shovelful.

A partial checklist: two decapitations, and one skull-splitting, by sword; one neck graphically snapped and wrung by Satan; one secretary, chewed up by a pack of killer pigs in the comfort of her bathtub; one fascist Latin instructor (Hamilton Camp) who gets impaled on an extra-pointy chandelier; one pompous priest (Joe Cortese) who takes a Satanically-flung crucifixion nail to the skull. And that's just the half of it.

The other half: Petri Dish fave Howard, who does put-upon-nerd-goes-gonzo better than any human who ever walked the earth. And when he begins flying around the aisles of the Academy Chapel, hair standing on end like Don King and wielding one bad-assed sword to do the devil's duty, he makes Sissy Spacek look like an anemic kid with PMS.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Song of the Day: "Dinner with Drac" by (John) Zacherley

With all due respect to the late, great Bobby 'Boris' Pickett's immortal 1962 smash hit "Monster Mash," the greatest horror novelty song ever came out four years earlier.

John Zacherley was one of the first wave of horror movie hosts on TV, a slicked-back cross between Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera and Colin Clive. At nearly eighty, he's still working the horror convention circuit with his trademark snarky wit thoroughly intact, but in the 1950's he was a big crossover celebrity. A trip to the studio to cut a record was inevitable.

"Dinner with Drac," Zacherley's 1958 top ten gem, predates the rock-and-roll backbeat of Pickett's tune, and it arguably rocks harder, with an especially grimy stripclub saxophone punctuating the instrumental breaks. Atop the pre-garage rock strut is Zacherley's mordantly hilarious narrative..."A dinner was served for three at Dracula's House by the sea...The H'ors 'doeuvres were fine, but I choked on my wine when I learned that the main course was me!" It was a top ten hit in 1958, and it's become a Halloween staple since.

It's one of the few novelty songs that really stands up to repeat listens for me. The instrumental grittiness, the sick wit of the lyrics (click here for the whole shebang), Zacherley's priceless delivery, and his hearty laugh (one of the most infectious I've ever heard) all combine to an irresistible whole. Thanks, XM Radio: It was great hearing this again today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Revisiting the Witchfinder

Man. I've got an 11-hour work day to slug through, and no entries finished. Already, a new haircut and a much-needed trip to the grocery store have been foregone for this Quixotic mission of mine (the Petri Dish, she is a harsh mistress). So this gets dashed out quickly--a mere appertif in the Horrorpalooza Fright Feast.

Once again, a DVD label--a huge one, MGM/UA--bends to the whims of Petri Dish Horrorpalooza (click here for proof!), this time by issuing the 1968 period shocker Witchfinder General on DVD. I haven't nabbed the disc, but I viewed the movie again last month (thank you, Turner Classic Movies) for the first time in a few years.

The good news: Vincent Price's performance in the title role still stands up today. I adore Price when he's in Grandly Epic Horror Star mode, but here he's at his most restrained and realistically scary, portraying a very cerebral man so contemptuous of his fellow human beings that he has no qualms about running roughshod over them, defiling their women, snuffing out any who speak out against him, and manipulating their ignorance to keep the vicious cycle in rotation. And Ian Ogilvy, the movie's hero by default, makes an affecting source of audience sympathies: His journey from upright decency to vengeance-stoked madness rings solidly true. Michael Reeves, the tragically short-lived director of Witchfinder General, propels the best moments of the movie with a righteous outrage that definitely draws from the anti-establishment sentiment of its time, and a lot of modern directors could learn a thing or two about the mud-caked ferocity and relentlessness of pace that Reeves brings to the table.

The bad news: It's not nearly as tightly-plotted as I remembered it, with some of the characters transparently doing Dumb Movie Character Things to keep the plot moving, and while more graphic films surfaced during the era, few were as unremittantly joyless and pulverizingly bleak as this one (my normally-stouthearted wife found it outright unpleasant). On a purely technical front, Paul Ferris's original orchestral music was replaced by a horrible, rinky-dink synthesizer score for legal reasons, and it's so absolutely awful that it fatally undercuts the movie at times .

Alas, the MGM/UA DVD reputedly includes the impostor score (at least that's what I thought I saw on the box), but it also sports commentary by Ogilvy and producer Phillip Waddilove, and featurettes. So rent--or buy--it for Price's brilliance, and for the commentary: Ogilvy was a great interview for Fangoria magazine a few years back, so he should be good for some fascinating anecdotes. Just don't expect the movie at the core of the disc to be anything resembling a feel-good flick.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Book of the Dead: Gutmuncher History, Laid Bare and Bloody

Regular visitors to the 'Dish know that nothing floats yours truly's proverbial boat like a good (OK, any) zombie movie. So it follows that British film writer Jamie Russell's reference tome, Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema, was a must purchase in these parts. The happy surprise here is what an engaging read it is.

Russell's book begins not with the zombie's ostensible cinematic bow in 1932's White Zombie, but with the western world's journalistic introduction to the living dead several decades earlier. "The Country of the Comers-Back," Lafcadio Hearn's 1889 non-fiction Harper's Magazine article covering skullduggery on the island of Mozambique, netted the first literary mention of the zombie in the west. Thirty years later, 1929's pioneering travelogue/adventure novel The Magic Island saw author/adventurer William Seabrook exploring Haiti and risking life and limb to delve deeply into that country's voodoo religion (Seabrook's colorful life would make a helluva retrospective bio in its own right). His rip-roaring account captured the western world's imagination, Hollywood took notice, and a new movie monster was born.

Book of the Dead traces the zombie movie in all of its permutations, from the Depression-era parable of White Zombie to the veiled racial context of the 1940's Poverty Row thrillers, to the unexceptional-but-influential atomic-era sci-fi opus Invisible Invaders, to the viscera-spattered deluge loosed upon the world by George Romero's Living Dead series and its aesthetic progeny, to present-day classics like Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Along the way, Russell covers all of the touchstones of the sub-genre, their architects, the socio-political context of the films, Haitian history and voodoo mythos, and a lot more with an appealing combination of scholarship, enthusiasm, and dry British wit. It's that rare reference book that provides a solid read even for non-initiates.

Obsessives, however, will get their pleasure nodes stroked big-time. Book of the Dead's movie content--copious research, an exhaustive alphabetical listing of every damned zombie movie you've ever (and never) heard of, and heaps of photos and poster/pressbook reproductions (many in belly-churning color)--fills the bill and then some. Thanks to Russell's thoughtful analyses, I'm seeking movies I'd never heard of (French erotic horror auteur Jean Rollin's The Grapes of Death), and looking forward to digging into films I'd previously avoided (the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake, for one).

Russell's done such great work here that the only sore points for me are differences in opinion. Using his scalpel-sharp dissection skills derisively on the humble Poverty Row B-schlockers is a little excessive--like siccing Evander Holyfield on a mentally-defective eight-year-old. And he's exceptionally dismissive of Spanish horror star/director/screenwriter Paul Naschy--them's fighting words, Mr. Russell (as you Petri Dish readers will discover before the month's out).

But on these trifling points, Jamie Russell and I can agree to disagree. It's the least I owe him for helming a reference book that'll reside on my bookshelf for as long as I inhabit the earth, living or undead.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Girdler your Loins: The Manitou is Here

To paraphrase the tag line of a more ballyhooed movie that came out around the same time: You will believe a slimy Indian Shaman dwarf can erupt from the neck of Lee Strasberg's screaming daughter and threaten the universe.

In the first of many demonstrations of Horrorpalooza's mighty power this month, Anchor Bay has dutifully responded to my exhortation during Horrorpalooza '06 and put William Girdler's 1978 shocker The Manitou out on DVD. And hot diggity damn dog, is this cause for joy.

Here's the Cliffs Notes set-up (in case you're feeling too lazy to go back in the archives and re-read my previous entry): Woman (Susan Strasberg) develops tumor on her neck. Doctors X-ray tumor and discover fetus inside. Doctors try to remove tumor: Fetus makes doctor slice open arm. Fetus is reincarnation of Indian Spirit named Misquamacus. Misquamacus means business. Bogus Medium Ex-Boyfriend (Tony Curtis) enlists medicine man (a very bad-assed Michael Ansara) to fight Misquamacus and save woman. Serious crap goes down.

The Manitou starts out with the earnest timbre of a lot of mainstream major studio horror flicks of the era, as Curtis gradually unravels the mystery behind Strasberg's tumor buddy with the help of his medium mentor (Stella Stevens, immersed in the fourth-worst spray-on tan ever captured on film) and a cultural anthropologist (Burgess Meredith, playing the kind of obnoxious old man who takes a million years in the supermarket checkout line fumbling for his checkbook while everyone behind him tears their collective hair out).

Then Curtis and Ansara go all Batman and Robin, and the movie goes completely nuts. Misquamacus rips out of Strasburg's neck, throws most of the cast around, turns an entire floor of the hospital into a freezer (one frozen nurse has her noggin graphically knocked off during a Misquamacus temper tantrum), enlists a lizard demon to chew on a doctor's hand, rips the flesh from an orderly's body, and brings the poor skinless goof back to life to throttle more of the help.
It's every bit as daffy--and entertaining--as it sounds, and serves as a strangely fitting epitaph for its director, William Girdler. A level-headed Kentucky native, Girdler was sort of a low-rent mirror image of Steven Spielberg, a technically savvy boy wonder who made action flicks, blaxploitation epics, Jaws knock-offs, and horror movies with ramshackle verve. Girdler's career was cut tragically short just after completing The Manitou, when he died in a helecopter crash scouting locations for his next movie: He was only 31 (the excellent tribute site William covers his life and career in exhaustive and loving detail).

Girdler was no artiste, but the potential was there. And if he fell short of Spielberg's historical importance, well, Steven Spielberg never had the cajones to close one of his movies with a topless method actress shooting light beams from her fingers in a duel to the death with a demonic Indian midget.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Jess Franco: the Petri Dish Jury's Still Out

Used to be you had to do some serious digging--hours in grindhouses and drive-ins, costly excavation in the deepest bowels of grey-market and bootleg mail-order services--to explore the careers of most horror and cult movie directors.

But DVD labels issue scores of even the most obscure product to satiate insatiable horror fans nowadays. And between the relative inexpense of many DVDs and services like Netflix, such exploitation cinema archaeology is a lot easier. Which is good: That way, I can give Jess Franco's work a few more chances before I write him off entirely as a hack.

There's plenty of material to sift through. Of all the European filmmakers to acquire a cult reputation, Spanish schlock auteur Franco has undeniably been the most prolific. The Internet Movie Database credits him with directing almost 200 pictures, writing over 150 of his and others', and acting in dozens as well. Despite an early association with Orson Welles, Franco mostly created movies that hit all of the hot-button exploitation genres: action flicks, sleazy women-in-prison pictures, spy thrillers, trashy erotica, and horror movies. Especially horror movies.

So this is the point at which I'd normally serve up a blanket bio of Jess Franco, defend the artistic method beneath the sex and violence that surface in his movies, and offer some recommendations. Just two minor details: One, I know bupkis about the man and his career; and two, most of the Jess Franco movies I've seen have been as unmemorable as the plotline to a Kate Hudson chick flick.

It's a phenomenon that I really can't attribute to any other horror movie director with a substantial following. I can find some merit--or at least some point of admiration or entertainment value--in damn near every cult director whose movies I've seen. But with one exception to be noted, not Jess Franco.

Note that this comes from someone who prides himself on a decent memory for horror flicks. But even with that dubious superpower in full swing, This is all I can cough up for reviews of the first four Franco films I saw in high school and college.

A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973): There's a scene with a blonde swimming naked in a lake, and two creepy old guys ogle her while muttering pretty hilarious dubbed dialogue. I fell asleep through the rest.

Erotikill (AKA The Female Vampire, 1973): Franco's real-life squeeze Lina Romay wears a cape and walks around naked. A lot. Except when she's taking a bath.

Night of the Blood Monster (AKA The Bloody Judge) 1970: There's a pretty sweet witch-burning-at-the-stake scene, and Christopher Lee wears a nifty foppish powdered wig.

Oasis of the Zombies (1981): Three European girls skinny-dip in the oasis. Then Nazi zombies rise. Very, very, very slowly.

The most outstanding feature of any of them? How boring they all were. Franco packed these movies with can't-miss elements--monsters, sex, and horror--but presented them with the dreary cynicism of an accountant rattling off figures. No joie de vivre, no discernable intentional humor, no atmospheric or distinctive visual style, and--most fatally--not the slightest whiff of pacing or rhythm. I couldn't figure out what inspired Franco's cult following for the life of me.

But I saw all of the above a long time ago, so I thought I'd give Franco another chance. The Orloff Collection (an Image DVD box set consisting of The Awful Dr. Orloff, Dr. Orloff's Monster, Orloff and the Invisible Man, and Revenge in the House of Usher) was on sale for dirt cheap, so I scooped up the box and watched them all in a week. They didn't do much to goose my lack of enthusiasm for Franco as an artistic (or even cheap entertainment) source.

The Awful Dr. Orloff (1961), Franco's first horror flick, looms high in Euro-horror fan circles, and it's a pretty decent little example of the Mad Surgeon Murdering Pretty Girls to Further his Experiments School of Horror Cinema, inspired in the wake of George Franju's genuine classic Les Yeux sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959). Its trump cards: Some elegant and spooky black and white photography, a creepy monster in the form of Orloff's disfigured automaton/zombie servant Morpho, and Howard Vernon (an underrated Swiss actor whose bug-eyed intensity suggests Peter Lorre) as Orloff. Its main liability: Occasionally sluggish pacing.

That liability comes to the fore in Dr. Orloff's Monster, released in 1964. This time, the nearly-departed Orloff's disciple Conrad Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jauregui) builds a less-scary Morpho knock-off named Andros. It's shot with the same artful elegance as the first Orloff opus, but it moves like molasses rolling uphill.

The last two features on the set take a major nosedive in quality. 1971's Orloff and the Invisible Man brings Vernon back to the mix, this time in command of an invisible beast (OK, if you want to get technical, it's a transparent gorilla that carries candelabras and tears the clothes off of peasant girls). It manages the seemingly impossible by rendering its ludicrous premise as dull as a kitchen appliance instruction video. Pierre Chevalier receives directorial credit, but I wouldn't be surprised if that name was yet another pseudonym sported by the alias-happy Franco (any Franco-philes out there who can verify/dispute this?).

Revenge in the House of Usher, from 1982, superficially pillages the Poe story, as well as Franco's initial Orloff epic. In one bit of ingenuity, Franco incorporates old black-and-white clips--some previously unseen--from the original Awful Dr. Orloff as flashback footage, and Vernon gives world-weary authority to his performance as Roderic Usher. But it's shot with the uninspired literalism of a quickie historical re-enactment from the Discovery Channel, and it's a real chore to sit through without nodding off.

Nothing on the Orloff Set held me enough to keep it, so I did something I seldom do with even the lamest chillers in my collection: I sold it to the local bookstore, post-haste. I'm still gonna give Franco a few more tries (thanks, Netflix), and if any of you out there would care to lay some recommendations on me, I'm all ears. But to these weary eyes Jess Franco, Emperor of Euro-Sleaze, looks to be wearing even fewer clothes (metaphorically, if not physically) than most of his onscreen heroines.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Passings: Deborah Kerr, Star of The Innocents

Deborah Kerr, one of the greatest movie actresses of the last century, died earlier this week, and with a storied career that spanned five decades and key roles in scores of classic films, I could write a book about her. This being Horrorpalooza, of course, I'd like to pay tribute to her contribution to one of the greatest horror movies of the sixties.

The Innocents got some serious face time during last year's Horrorpalooza, but revisiting this masterpiece just puts this legendary thespian's brilliance--and her willingness to take risks--into even sharper focus. All genre-related bias aside, The Innocents was one of Deborah Kerr's most important projects.

It's widely acknowledged that Kerr's against-type portrayal of the tumultuous, adulterous Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity turbo-charged her career and made her bankable in Hollywood again, but after that triumph she was back to playing strong, decent women who were the unquestionable moral compasses of their surroundings...until The Innocents.

Miss Giddons, the very moral, very religious governess at the center of that film, is at first glance an archetypical Kerr heroine--strong, upright, compassionate, and persistent--but she takes on a decidedly imperfect hue as The Innocents plays out. Because the movie refuses to take an obvious stand on the reality of the ghostly happenings that transpire, it opens up the very real possibility that we're not seeing a battle to save the souls of two demonically-tortured children: We're seeing a religious woman, an inhabitant of a very cloistered existance, losing it at the expense of at least one child's life.

The genius of Kerr's work is in her subtlety: the crescendo of emotions to which she builds could be interpreted as yet another upright Kerr heroine gearing up for a spiritual showdown, or it could be the fanatical dark side of one of those heroines bubbling up from beneath the surface. And with all due credit to Jack Clayton's ace direction and the taut script, much of this nuance exists because of Deborah Kerr's work in front of the camera. In her customarily un-showy way, this great actress wasn't just giving another terrific performance: she was subverting (and completely de-constructing) her onscreen persona more definitively here than she ever had before, or ever would again.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Favorite Scream Queens: Beverly Garland

Actress/hotelier/all-around super lady Beverly Garland began her career in 1950, with a bit part in the classic film noir DOA, and she's acted steadily ever since in films and on TV. Unlike most of the ingenues who comprised her peer group, Garland always felt like a spunky, functioning adult, and she excelled at playing smart women who could more than take care of themselves when their backs were against the wall--which was often.

She's probably most famous for a couple of long-running TV gigs--as Fred MacMurray's no-nonsense second wife in My Three Sons in the sixties, and as Kate Jackson's wisecracking mom in eighties hit, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King--and she made history as the first female cop on a television show in the syndicated fifties police drama Decoy. But this being Horrorpalooza, I come to praise Garland for her work alongside monsters, aliens, and psychopaths.

Most females in horror and sci-fi fall into two categories--prey/decoration or psychotic hag. Beverly Garland, in her own unpretentious way, defied those genre stereotypes and had the talent and chutzpah to branch out and remain viable in the business for some six decades. She recently celebrated her 81st(!) birthday and still works steadily, but some of her best (and most fun) gigs have been in her fifties and sixties genre efforts. To whit...

It Conquered the World (1956): Garland earned her thespian combat medals as one of the favorite leading ladies to legendary budget auteur Roger Corman: She slogged gamely through some nasty marshland in 1955's Swamp Women, and even broke her ankle doing her own stunts in the same year's Gunslinger (Corman had a veteranarian pump the injury full of painkillers, and in just a couple of hours she was back in front of the cameras again!). Their first sci-fi thriller together is just begging for a legit DVD release, and it formed the template for many of Garland's future roles. She plays Claire Anderson, whose deluded scientist hubby Tom (Lee Van Cleef) has befriended a Venusian emissary who's bent on, yep, conquering the world. Paul Blaisdell's silly but wonderfully creative monster (described by Frank Zappa as an "inverted ice cream cone head with fangs") is the stuff of B-movie legend, but Garland does a great job of selling it as a genuine menace, and of playing a sweet and normal woman thrown into action by unforeseen (and unbelieveable) circumstances. Try finding another leading lady in any 1950's sci-fi flick who'd march, solo with a rifle, into a cave to take on the zipper-backed monster that's threatening the town and her man. What a woman.

Not of this Earth (1957): It's been eons since I've seen this Corman favorite (and it, too, is not on domestic DVD), but it's a fun chiller that deserves a new audience. Garland plays nurse to an eccentric, black-suited patient, Mr. Johnson (Paul Birch), who turns out to be a vampiric alien harvesting human hemoglobin for his fellow citizens from Way, Way Out There. Once again Garland lends a traditional female role some added gutsiness, catching onto Johnson's weirdness (if not the lethal extent of it) way before anyone else in the movie. Bonus points for Dick Miller's howlingly funny turn as an unctious chatterbox of a vacuum-cleaner salesman.

Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1956): Writer Curt Siodmak contributed some classic stuff to sci-fi (the immortal novel, Donovan's Brain) and horror (the original screenplay to the immortal 1941 classic, The Wolf Man)...And then he wrote and directed this jungle adventure in monster movie's clothing. John Bromfield plays Rock Dean (is there a better name for a 1950's movie character than that?), a plantation owner who's trying to figure out whether there's a monster killing and scaring off all of his cheap labor. Garland plays his traveling companion, a scientist with a strong stomach and stout heart, and until Siodmak's script lets her down at the end by reducing her to yet another screaming Mimi she's the smartest, toughest, and best thing about the movie. Again, no masterpiece, but a colorful bit of fun that could really use a DVD issue.

The Alligator People (1959): Finally--Prime Beverly in full-on put-upon science fiction heroine mode on DVD! Here, she's Joyce Webster, a nurse whose husband (Richard Crane) mysteriously wanders off during their honeymoon only to turn up in a Louisiana swamp as one of the title creatures, thanks to the requisite daffy scientist (George MacReady). Old directorial hand Roy Del Ruth lends some creepy black and white atmosphere to the largely backlot-generated marshlands, offset amusingly by the inconsistent make-up effects (Crane's really creepy in the early stages of his metamorphosis, and titter-worthy later on when he's running through the wilderness with his gator snout bouncing demonstratively). Extremely entertaining grade B kicks, but Garland once again gives it her all: Without one bit of condescension or pretense, she invests her stock character with a combination of intense intuition and the sure-to-be-heartbroken inevitability of a classic film noir dame.

Pretty Poison (1968): OK, it's stretching a bit to call this a horror movie, but Noel Black's hypnotic and woefully underappreciated black comedy/thriller/indictment of the moral bancruptcy of Vietnam War era-suburbia will still chill you to the core. Recently released mental patient Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins) woos All-American high-school girl Sue Ann (Tuesday Weld) with claims that he's an operative for the CIA, and when they take off for the road the line between who's nuts and who's being misled get blurred to wrenching effect.

How this movie failed on original release utterly escapes me: Black sculpts a bleak, sardonically humorous character study that takes a microscope to Apple-Pie Americana with more imagination and precision than a lot of that decade's most overrated cinematic sacred cows. Moreover, it's a tour-de-force for all three principals. Perkins was never more compelllingly vulnerable than he was here (it was really his last great film role before his passing in 1992), and Weld's kittenish joy at pushing the moral envelope 'til it tears will creep you out mightily. Brilliant as they both are, though, Beverly Garland knocks it out of the park with her multi-layered portrayal of Sue Ann's mom, a grown woman whose bored, occasionally nagging exterior just barely conceals her contempt for the blandly affluent life she lives, and her jealousy at her own daughter's Miss USA-perfect exterior. Beverly's had a terrific career (and probably wouldn't change a minute of it), but the mind boggles at what heights she might have achieved had her finest performance on film found the audience it deserved.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Don't Fear REAPER

Just thought I'd offer a quick shout-out about Reaper, the newest horror-comedy alloy hitting the television airwaves.

Reaper follows the adventures of Sam (Bret Oliver), a directionless high-school grad who's blown off college in favor of a dead-end job at a Home Depot knockoff store, The Work Bench. He gets one helluva surprise for his 21st birthday, though, when his parents reveal that they sold his soul to the Devil before he was born. Rather than pack up Sam and haul him to the Nether Reaches, Mephistopheles (Ray Wise) consigns the kid to spend the rest of his days hunting down--and sending back--souls that've escaped from Hell.

So the show's central schtick consists of each of these renegade souls manifesting themselves in especially potent demonic tangible form on earth, and Sam being given a Vessel of Soul Collection (in the pilot, it was a Dust Buster) that he's gotta use to collect the Demon of the Week. Then the reluctant reaper drops said freshly-acquired Fugitive off at the closest Hell Portal in his neighborhood (the local DMV Office, natch).

The show's received a lot of comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the resemblance is pretty superficial. Reaper's way more of a comedy, heavy on the snark. And it's a good one, for the most part.

Quibbles first: This Seattle-set program sports transparently Vancouver exteriors, and there's an anti-education slant to the whole show that's a little galling: Sam's smart and charming would-be-more-than-just-a-friend Andi (Missi Peregrym, formerly of Heroes) is given an astonishing amount of pressure to forego her dreams of college to stay in a holding pattern with her pals at the Work Bench. Hey, Sam, smart girls are cool: I married one.

And speaking of smart girls, after three episodes Sam has not only revealed his extra-stringent part-time job from (actual) Hell to his two best buds, Sock (Taylor Labine) and Ben (Rick Gonzalez), they help him on his missions; and yet he still can't level with Andi about his activities. It's starting to become an annoying contrivance.

But them's just quibbles. Reaper packs more belly-laughs in one episode than most so-called sitcoms can fart up in five seasons, and the cast could hardly be better. Oliver's vulnerable, likeable, and really funny, and Gonzalez and Labine are utter sidekick gold: Labine's exquisite combination of sharp wit and screw-it-all crudeness, in particular, reminds me of one of the most caustically funny human beings I've ever met in my life--Namely my brother John. The mundane details of the Work Bench (replete with useless stuff that suddenly finds the oddest use, obnoxious customers, and sycophantic bosses) likewise hit the proverbial nail on the head. Partial credit for a lot of the latter should likely belong to Kevin Smith, director of the pilot and ongoing series adviser, who knows a thing or two about the comedic possibilities of dead-end jobs from Hell.

Even with all that's going for it, though, it's only appropriate that Reaper's MVP would be Satan himself. Ray Wise plays Old Scratch with an irresistible blend of used car salesman, Rat Pack smoothie, and surrogate cheerleader, and in an unsurprising but still entertaining moral flip-flop he ends up being a better parent than Sam's flesh and blood. Give or take the soul-eating.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Eulogy to a Scary Guy: Nicholas Worth

Character actor Nicholas Worth passed away back in May of this year, but there's nothing like Horrorpalooza to provide a nice excuse to tip a glass to the man's overlooked contributions to the genre.

Worth paid his dues for a good thirty years in showbiz, lending his stocky, imposing frame and cut-square-through-you gaze to villain roles of varying size and significance. For me, his presence was always welcome, whether he was menacing Starsky and Hutch, getting roughed up by John Saxon in The Glove, running nasty errands for Larry Drake in Darkman, or aiding and abetting the dapper Louis Jourdan's elegant villainy in a sublimely moronic turn in Wes Craven's fun Swamp Thing. Ironically, though, Worth's finest onscreen hour--and one of his few genuine leads--comes in one of his most hard-to-watch movies, making for an awkward but sincere recommendation from this neck of the woods.

In 1980's Don't Answer the Phone, he plays Kirk Smith, a violent Vietnam vet who's taken to strangling and mutilating young women. The movie's a lousy and pretty unconscionable little trash flick that compensates for its relative lack of gore by pushing the female suffering and misogyny meters to eleven: If it weren't so incompetently shot and goofily-acted by most of the cast it'd be outright unbearable. But the veteran heavy stands out like a twelve-carat diamond in a pail of shark chum.

Worth utterly immerses himself in this sweaty, fatigue-jacketed maniac, and Phone director Robert Hammer's one sustained flash of wisdom is the lengthy amount of time he devotes to Kirk Smith's day-to-day existance. Smith prowls Hollywood's mean streets with the quiet and disdainful resolve of a big carnivorous fish in a very small, seedy pond. When he's not killing, he spends his waking hours calling a local female radio psychiatrist and pestering her for a cure to his ever-present headaches (in an exaggerated Puerto Rican accent, no less), peddling photos of some of his wares to smut merchants, or lifting weights. In this mutant cross between Travis Bickle, Maniac-era Joe Spinell, and Frank Black of the Pixies, Worth pulls out one of the most completely fearless and bone-chillingly creepy portrayals of psychosis I've ever seen captured on film.

I had the very good fortune of being able to tell Worth this personally--albeit in less high-falutin' jargon than above--when Rita and I met him at a Star Trek convention five years ago. He was just another working-stiff character actor at the con (having logged in guest shots on both Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Star Trek: Voyager) and greeted my rather, um, unorthodox greeting ("Mr. Worth, I hope you don't take this wrong, but you scare the sh*t out of me") with a hearty laugh and copious thanks for affirming a job well done. He was a stitch to talk to, incredibly gentle and good-natured, and was obviously thrilled to meet someone whose interest in his career didn't begin and end with, "Space, the final frontier..."

Nice as he was, though, I was still scared a little sh*tless in his presence: He'd just done his past onscreen work too well for me not to be. All things equal, I'm sure he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Post-Script: More Pete Walker

Though it's probably fair to handicap Frightmare as his finest work amongst the ones I've seen, British shock specialist Pete Walker directed several interesting and worthy thrillers throughout the seventies and eighties.

After being bowled over by Walker's cannibal drama, I quickly jammed every one of his horror movies (the ones currently on DVD, that is) onto my Netflix list. Die Screaming Marianne (his debut), The Flesh and Blood Show, and House of Whipcord have yet to hit the mailbox (and Walker's '76 effort Schizo is currently out of print domestically), but here's a rundown of the ones I've seen so far.

The Confessional (AKA House of Mortal Sin, 1976): Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) walks into a small catholic church to receive confession for the first time in several years, but Father Meldrum, the priest hearing her (Anthony Sharp), turns out to be a raving nutter who'll stop at nothing to cleanse Jenny's wayfaring soul...including murder. Walker's follow-up to Frightmare shares many of that film's virtues--likeable leads, Peter Jessop's excellent and evocative lenswork (he makes Meldrum's church a malevolent character in its own right), some impressive suspense setpieces, and a refreshing distrust of the status quo that warrants a hearty thumbs-up from this lapsed catholic--but it's not quite the home run that Frightmare was. the central fault here: the credibility-straining notion that Jenny's closest friends and loved ones would question her sanity on the say-so of the creepy and obviously unbalanced Father Meldrum. Also, there ain't enough Sheila Keith.

That said, Media Blasters has anointed The Confessional with some terrific extras: In addition to the entertaining Pete Walker trailers that adorn this and all of the other Media Blasters Pete Walker Collection DVD's, there's a lengthy documentary detailing Walker's career as a horror director, a loving featurette on the magnificent Sheila Keith, and informative director's commentary from Walker. All of the above pushes The Confessional from merely worth a look to pretty darned essential.

The Comeback (AKA The Day the Screaming Stopped, 1978): Walker himself rates this as one of the lesser movies in his canon (likely because it doesn't carry the metaphoric weight of some of his earlier works), but it's been a favorite of mine for years, and I'd stick up for it as one of his best. It's an engrossing thriller about a pop singer (played by real-life lounge god Jack Jones) attempting to record his comeback album while a killer slaughters everyone around him (or is his sanity just unravelling?). There's not much message here, but Jones is quite credible, Walker engineers the surreal air of disorientation--and the spasms of violence that come blasting out of nowhere--masterfully, and it's genetically impossible for me not to love a film in which David Doyle (Bosley from Charlie's Angels!) shows up as a possible murder suspect and closet transvestite.

House of the Long Shadows (1983): Desi Arnaz Jr. plays a headstrong American author who lays a wager with his publisher that he can hole up in spooky, deserted old Baldpate Manor and finish a novel overnight. Of course, the antiquated Welsh manse ain't all that deserted after all. Dotty Lord Grisbaine (Carradine) has kept his insane son Roderick locked away in a bedroom for years, but Roderick escapes from the manor ready to kill, and soon the rest of the Grisbaine clan shows up that night, just in time for a mayhem-filled reunion.

House of the Long Shadows made horror history by uniting genre icons Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and John Carradine under one cinematic roof for the first (and alas only) time, but over the years critics, fans, and even director Pete Walker himself have levelled some serious punches at it. It's an easy target, being a very quaint old-fashioned Old Dark House-type thriller of the most quaint and old-fashioned variety (based on a quaint, old-fashioned novel by Earl Derr Biggers), and whoever cast Arnaz as the romantic lead has some 'splaining to do. But divorced from the hopelessly inflated expectations set by the presence of its iconic cast, there's a lot of fun to be had here.

All those haters should take the breezy tone set so nicely by the movie's cast to heart: Cushing's lisping Sebastian Grisbaine and Price's drama-queen Lionel Grisbaine provide the juiciest comic bits, but Lee adds self-aware wit to his usual glowering charisma, and Sheila Keith makes the most of her last character role for Walker as Lord Grisbaine's weary daughter. This is a cozy bit of entertainment, and a lot more worthwhile than you'd think. Here's hoping it comes to domestic DVD someday soon--and that Pete Walker softens up to it enough to offer his usual thoughtful commentary.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Frightmare: Horror with a Stiff Upper Lip

I'm a sucker for sharply observed cinematic character studies, especially if they include cannibalism and power-drill murders.

British director Pete Walker forged a distinctive body of genre work in the seventies, making several horror films that combined the most tawdry and lurid subject matter with a singularly British sensibility. US grindhouse fare of similar vintage was all about sensationalism and blunt force trauma: Walker wasn't shy about using gore and (to a lesser degree) sex, but he added smarts and subtext to the mix, all without sacrificing one acrid ounce of unease and creepiness.

I'd seen--and enjoyed--some of Walker's other horror films over the years, but discovering his 1974 opus Frightmare recently was a major eye-opener. Make no mistake, we're still talking about a low-budget horror flick with typically direct and exploitive aspirations. But within its rinky-dink universe dwells a surprisingly rich--and disturbing--thematic underbelly.

Frightmare covers the saga of Dorothy and Edmund Yates (Sheila Keith and Rupert Davies), a married couple responsible for several cannibalistic killings in the late fifties. They're apprehended and committed to an insane asylum for over fifteen years, then pronounced sane and released.

The Yateses live in relative solitude, their past a secret to everyone but their oldest child, twenty-something Jackie (Deborah Fairfax). The devoted daughter keeps her parents' identities concealed from wild-child younger sister Debbie (Kim Butcher), insisting that their elders died many years ago rather than revealing the truth. But the outside world proves a rough fit for the old married couple, and the sins of the parents, it seems, can decisively taint their progeny.

Here's a crazy notion: If you take the phrase 'several cannibalistic killings' out of the above synopsis and substitute it with any old crime, you've got the template of an involving drama that clicks on a lot of levels. The solid script by David McGillivray (from a story by Walker) works effectively at face value as a character study: surrogate mom Jackie and hell-raising little sib Debbie navigate conflicts that feel grounded in reality, and Jackie's strained but still-loving relationship with her parents possesses similar weight and honesty. No, it ain't Merchant Ivory, but it's pitched at a much higher level than your average horror film.

Frightmare's directed with more skill than your average grindhouse fare, too. Like a lot of good directors, Walker converts a crippling lack of funds into an asset, mostly shooting in undistinguished gray suburban English locales and confining most of the action to tight rooms within small, unassuming houses and flats. The cumulative mood of claustrophobic creepiness is amplified by the surface blandness of the surroundings: Give or take the accents, this could be happening anywhere.

Cinematographer Peter Jessop even squeezes in some moments of visual poetry. All of Jackie's late-night visits with her parents take place amidst the lambent orange glow of a living-room fireplace in picturesque natural light. It's sharply subversive of Jessop and Walker to make Mum and Dad's house warm and homey, even though Mum and Dad are accused killer cannibals.

The pointed subversion doesn't end at the visual spectrum. The Yateses', um, problem serves as canny semaphore for the British upper class's fear of 'bad blood' infiltrating respectable society, and the inevitability of that bad blood spanning generations. Don't expect modern psychiatry to be of any help either, according to Walker: The movie's voice of intellect, Jackie's would-be boyfriend Graham (Paul Greenwood), pays dearly for his unconditional faith in his chosen profession, and for his inability to play-act as anything other than the rational academic that he is.

Graham also serves as a poster boy for Walker's damning indictment of his fellow countrymen--between Graham's studied-to-extremes approach to problems and Edmund Yates's proprietary meekness, Walker seems to be pointing up the ineffectuality of the prototypical British male. No wonder the movie ends on such a crushingly nihilistic note: the only movers in this tragedy are deranged (Dorothy Yates) or knee-capped by the ineffectiveness of others (Jackie).

Here's another crazy notion: This low-budget shocker provides an acting tour-de-force for the two old pros playing the cannibalistic couple. Davies paid the bills through various character roles in the fifties, sixties, and seventies (he's wonderful as George Smiley in 1965's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and Frightmare marked one of Davies' last feature film gigs before passing away in 1976. He's every inch the doting husband and loving father here, telegraphing the deep-set weariness that exists hand-in-hand with his love for his wife in a layered, finely-tuned performance. Sheila Keith, however, handily strides away with the picture.

Like Davies, Keith toiled in character roles over the decades and got her meatiest (no pun intended) work in horror flicks. She became a staple of Walker's repertory company, and in Frightmare, she gets the role of her career. Dorothy shifts from dottily-endearing to empathetically needy to stop-on-a-dime terrifying with the turn of an eyelash, and Keith's sonorous delivery adds classical crispness to McGillivray's dialogue. It's criminal that Pete Walker remained the only director to use her to her fullest (she died in 2004), because in Frightmare she gives the kind of rich performance from which genre icons like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price were born.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Horror-Palooza 2007 Begins!

Well, it's that time of year again. Leaves carmelize, the weather cools, and yours truly vaults into a marathon of Petri Dish entries on the horror film. Yep, it's all horror, every day until Halloween--if it kills me.

So why do this for a third time? Of course, it's a way to keep the old scribbling muscles in shape, and a test of my ability to really stick to a self-imposed deadline, come hell or high water. But that doesn't address why I've found myself so inexorably drawn to the cinema of nightmares for as long as I can remember, nor does it come close to answering that other age-old question: What the hell, exactly, is a horror movie?

I was fortunate to grow up at a time when exposure to the old (via late-night TV screenings) and new (first-run movie houses and the embryonic steps of home video) in horror cinema came hand-in-hand. Expressionistic German silents, Universal Studios' Gothic epics, noirish Val Lewton gems, Hammer Films, gut-level grindhouse thrillers, slashers, and (then-)contemporary shockers like George Romero's first three Dead movies inundated me equally during my formative years. I grew to love them all, and have kept pretty caught up with the genre's many permutations over the years. My main criteria to this day: If it scares me, freaks me out, or in some way taps into anything primal or dark, it's a horror movie. Oh, yeah, and a monster helps, too. But not always. That's about as incisive a definition as I can cough up, except to paraphrase Potter Stewart (thank you, Vince Keenan) and say that, while I may not always be able to concisely define a horror movie, I know one when I see one.

As for why I love 'em so, in lieu of too much pithy analysis, I figured a simple checklist would suffice.

Reason 1: Being Scared is a Rush. Those of us who dig the scary stuff share a few things in common, the most obvious being a simple fondness for the primal titillation of a good scare. It's similar, I'm sure, to the rush a bungee jumper gets from taking a barely-tethered leap; and as a fan of spicy food I can say with authority that horror and habaneros give me a similar endorphin kick. It's a metaphoric stare into the face of danger.

Reason 2: Horror is the Punk Rock of Movie Genres. Horror's always been the ugly fractious stepchild genre in the collective consciousness of most moviegoers. Horror is the troublemaker subject to scorn, ridicule, and profound misunderstanding; a button-pusher who offends the status quo until time and changes in mores catch up with it. No wonder it appeals to the rebellious misfit in me, too.

Reason 3: Fairy Tales, Even the Blackest Ones, Weave a Spell. Long after familiarity and changes in morality cause their initial shock value to fade, scary movies still serve as fables that render our deepest subconscious fears alternately mythic and tameable. That's why even some of the oldest chillers--Lon Chaney's horror silents and the Universal Classics of the 1930's, to name just two examples--are still being watched by folks whose parents (grandparents, even) weren't born when those films were originally released.

Reason 4: History Lessons with Monsters, Gore and Stuff are a Gas. All art offers some sort of glimpse into the times and sensibilities in which it was created, but what could be a more profound reflection of those times and sensibilities than what scares us at any given point in history? Whether it's the nuclear-induced nightmares of fifties giant-monster flicks, the free-love-gone-to-hell disease fear of David Cronenberg's early chillers, or the Bush-era xenophobia manifested all-too-graphically in Eli Roth's Hostel films, horror movies beat the hell out of a dry old textbook when it comes to viewing the fears of any given generation.

Reason 5: By and Large, Crappy Horror Movies are More Fun than Crappy Non-Horror Movies. Pick two random sample movies from the same year--1970, say--and think about it. Which 1970 bad-movie experience promises more jollies--Liz Taylor and Warren Beatty grousing for 113 talky minutes in the gambling drama The Only Game in Town; or The Horror of Frankenstein, in which a swinging sideburned Ralph Bates woos busty peasant women and builds a diaper-clad muscular-stud monster played by future Darth Vader Dave Prowse?

The defense (of the genre, that is) rests.

I could cite plenty of other reasons, of course, but I'd prefer to just get to it already. The next couple of weeks are all about the horror, so welcome, one and all, and prepare yourselves for a scary ride...If you dare!