Thursday, April 28, 2011

Famous Monsters of Filmland: Underground #1

As I'm talking about over on my illustration blog today, I did some work as both artist and writer for the new Famous Monsters of Filmland: Underground magazine, which was a real thrill!

Aside from creating the mag's logo, I wrote a capsule review and some movie "blurbs" for this debut issue's "Repressed Memories" feature. Here's my take on the 1983 film House of Long Shadows:

I also wrote eight blurbs--super-short, 100-words-or-less reviews of some other 80s horror flicks. Given the layout, it's easier to read them just as text, so here they are:

The Beast Within (1982) stars Ronny Cox and Bebe "Mrs. Captain Kirk" Besch as the MacClearys, a couple who get stranded on a back country road when their car breaks down. Mrs. MacCleary is attacked and raped by some sort of creature, and seventeen years later their son Michael starts showing the same murderous tendencies.

For a film with somewhat of a name cast, The Beast Within is surprisingly gory, almost gleefully so. Its pulpy fun, even if it doesn't feature anything you haven't seen before. Features one of the greatest coitus interruptus scenes in movie history. Woof! Woof!

Dario Argento's The Church starts with a group of knights who slaughter a village of "witches" and then build their castle on the site the bodies are buried. Bad idea! Centuries later, a group of tourists are attacked by the evil spirits of the villagers when a crypt's seal is broken.

Featuring some trademark gory set pieces (as well as a young Asia Argento), The Church isn't as stomach-churningly captivating as Argento's other classics (maybe because he didn't direct?), but its still a fun stew of religious balderdash, pretty women, and internal organs being reduced to a bloody pulp.

Dead and Buried, an underrated film from 1981, is set in the (thankfully) fictional town of Potter's Bluff, where a series of gruesome murders occur. The sheriff (James Farentino) investigates, but he's facing a stacked deck: not only does the local mortician take a grisly delight in all the new business, but most of the town itself seems to be in on it--possibly including his wife.

Despite a troubled post-production, the film casts an eerie spell, as we get drawn further into the nightmare that awaits Sheriff Gillis. The final few scenes in particular pack a nightmarish, unsettling punch.

I, Madman (1989) is a playfully offbeat mix of genres: thriller, horror, fantasy, with even a little stop-motion animation thrown in.

Mousy bookstore clerk Virginia (Near Dark's Jenny Wright) becomes obsessed with a series of cheap, lurid horror novels; written by a mysterious author. Eventually her real life starts copying some of the things she's reading about--like being stalked by a deformed killer. Is all this really happening, or is Virginia just wound a little too tight?

Stylishly shot and unselfconscious, I, Madman is an engrossing curio for those who enjoy genre film tropes being affectionately tweaked.

Michael Mann's The Keep (1983) is that rarest of film genres: the psychedelic Nazi ghost story.

Set in a spooky Romanian castle during WW II, inside of which a squad of SS soldiers take up residence. Soon after they are killed off by some sort of malevolent force now set free.

Featuring a notable cast (Ian McKellen, Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, who makes a scarily-good Nazi), The Keep doesn't always make a lot of sense--reportedly the studio cut Mann's original 3 hour-plus cut in half. But the film is never boring and at times visually compelling.

Pin (1988), uses the always-fertile world of ventriloquism to tell a story of sexual repression, arrested development, obsession, and, finally, madness.

Siblings Leon and Ursula grow up around a life-size plastic model named Pin, which their father (Terry O'Quinn) uses as a sort of surrogate parent. When he is killed, the seeds of madness take root in Leon, who comes to believe Pin is real.

Less a horror film than a psychological thriller,
Pin is a disturbing portrait of mental illness passed from one generation to the next, using some familiar horror trappings to make it a unique filmgoing experience.

1980's The Silent Scream (definitely not to be confused with the graphic anti-abortion video, Googlers beware) centers around a group of college students who take up residence in an old boarding house run by a Norman Bates-ish young man named Mason and his seldom-seen mother. Soon enough bodies start piling up, and detectives Cameron Mitchell(!) and Avery Schreiber(!!) have to figure out who and why.

Fairly low-key for a slasher film, The Silent Scream uses icon Barbara Steele in an effective way during the film's final third. Certainly no classic, but Steele's hypnotic stare is always worth your attention.

The Stuff (1985) is Larry Cohen's goofily po-faced satire of American consumerism, militarism, and advertising. Starring Michael Moriarty (the DeNiro to Cohen's Scorsese), the film is about a white goo that is discovered bubbling from the earth's core.

Before you can say market share, its being sold as a food stuff that quickly takes over the minds of those who eat it, leaving just a few people bravely trying to keep The Stuff from gobbling up the whole country.

Fast-paced and subtle as a brick, The Stuff is a fun tweak of the heavy-handed message genre films of the 1950s.

Writing these blurbs was so much fun I couldn't believe it. Once I settled into a rhythm--which was to write about triple what I needed, then hack away at it (to use horror movie parlance) until I got it under a hundred words--I just wrote as many as I could.

I had a list of movies to pick from (provided by my pal and editor April Snellings), and I just searched Netflix's Watch Instantly database, devouring and then reviewing every film available.

Being a long time monster/horror fan, I'm overjoyed to have my words (and art!) associated with the legendary FMOF franchise. I hope I get to do more work like this in the future...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Movie Monday: The Return of the Vampire

For this week's Movie Monday we watch Bela Lugosi return to a familiar role in The Return of the Vampire!

Even though Bela Lugosi is forever, inseparably associated with Dracula, he actually only played the part twice--first in the original classic, and then once again in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

But he did play vampires that were an awful lot like Dracula, in a number of films that range from not bad to absolute dreck. Let's see how this one measures up!

Return of The Vampire opens imaginatively, before the title, with a close-up of a scared-looking woman. As she backs away from the camera, a familiar-looking caped figure comes into the foreground, filling the frame. The woman screams, and the credits begins!
The camera pans across a foggy cemetery, surrounded by dead trees with branches that loom overhead menacingly. A lone figure enters the frame, and gets close to the camera. We see...its a werewolf!
The werewolf enters a crypt, and inside it is his "master", who awakens from his coffin. It is, of course, Bela Lugosi, playing Dracula in all but name. The werewolf tells his master that his latest victim has been taken to a nearby clinic.

We then cut to that clinic, where the young woman's condition baffles two doctors--Lady Jane Ainsley (Freida Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery). Professor Saunders stays up all night reading a book on vampires (by Dr. Armand Tesla), which Jane dismisses.

But she changed her mind when the vampire comes to the clinic and attacks the young woman again, leaving two bite marks on her neck. The two of them head to the cemetery to find the vampire's coffin.

The main cemetery set is quite gorgeous to look at, with its varying levels of depth and spooky lighting:
The two doctors find the coffin, and drive a stake into the vampire's chest. This makes the werewolf turn back to normal. He's a simple, kind man named Andreas, whom Lady Jane takes under her wing.

The film then flashes forward 24 years (which means we're now in 1967!). Prof. Saunders has just died, and his journal relating the events is being read by a member of Scotland Yard, Sir Fredrick Fleet (Miles Mander). He is shocked by what he reads, and plans to dig up the corpse(!) to see if Lady Jane committed murder.

Lady Jane says that even if the body is exhumed, it won't have decomposed, proving that it was really a vampire. But before that can happen, there's an air raid by Germany, and the cemetery is bombed.

Two gravediggers find the unearthed body of the vampire, stake intact. Assuming the stake ended up there due to the bombing, they remove it. Bad idea!

The vampire returns to normal vampire-y behavior, and goes after the now-grown daughter of Lady Jane, a woman named Nikki. The vampire's return inspired Andreas' curse to also return, and he becomes a werewolf once again.

The werewolf, wanting to be free of the curse, begs the vampire for help. No longer needing him, he shoves Andreas into a corner, dismissing him as if a dog.

As the vampire is about to bite Nikki, Andreas finds a crucifix in the dirt and finds the courage to step in:
This stops the vampire for a moment, and then more bombs hit the cemetery, including the tomb.

A few hours pass, and its now daylight. The werewolf, now back in human form, drags the vampire's body into the sunlight so it will decompose. Lady Jane Sir Frederick arrive, to watch the vampire slowly disintegrate in a surprisingly effective (and kinda gory, for 1943) series of effects shots:
Sir Frederick still doesn't quite believe they were dealing with a real vampire, and asks two plainclothes policemen if they buy into this whole story. They say they do, and Sir Frederick looks right into the camera and asks if we, too, believe in vampires:
...The End!

Return of the Vampire is a lot of fun, loaded with some really atmospheric touches. Bela Lugosi's face is not seen for almost a half hour--the vampire is seen only in shadow or over the shoulder, with only Lugosi's voice being heard. Even though we all know who the vampire is of course, its still an effective bit of staging.

Its kind of odd that there's so much discussion over whether vampires are real, but no one seems to have a huge problem with a werewolf running around.

The final effect of the vampire crumbling to dust is remarkably well done, keeping with the film's general level of dry realism. Only the final, goofy scene with Sir Frederick talking to the audience breaks the spell.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Movie Monday: Cat People

For this week's Movie Monday we snuggle up alongside some Cat People!

I vaguely remember seeing Cat People once on cable when I was a kid; since then I allowed the general consensus on the film--that it's a deeply flawed film that can't hold a candle to the original--to shape my view of it every time I saw it mentioned.

But I figured why not give it another shot?
Cat People opens in some unknown place and time, where a barren landscape seems to be populated only by large, fearsome cats and a small band of tribal people:
These shots are quite beautiful; scary and menacing. I couldn't help but think they probably cost more than the entire 1943 original movie.

Anyway, we view some sort of sacrificial ritual going on, where a beautiful woman is put in front of a large, growling cat. Nothing is said, but you don't get the sense that this whole thing is not about the woman being used as food.

We fade from the woman's face to another face, this time belonging to Irena (Nastassja Kinski):
Irena is on her way to New Orleans, to visit her brother Paul, whom she has not seen since their parents died and she was sent off to a foster home.

Paul (Malcolm McDowell) is warm and friendly, as his housekeeper Female (yes, that's her name, played by Ruby Dee). But after Irena falls asleep, Paul leaves:
We cut to a seedy motel where a prostitute meets up with a prospective "John". She undresses, but instead of a man waiting for her under the bed is a leopard! It grabs at her, chasing her down the hall.

She falls down the stairs, and turns to look at her attacker. There's a moment where the woman's bra pops open, which made me laugh because it looked so gratuitous. Probably not the reaction the filmmakers were looking for at this moment.

A few hours later, the police and local zookeepers arrive, seeing as how somehow there's a leopard pacing around a motel room! The head zookeeper, a man named Oliver (John Heard) climbs up a ladder and shoots a tranquilizer dart into the leopard.

The next day, Irena finds herself outside the leopard's cage, and that's where she meets Oliver. He is immediately taken with her, and offers her a job at the zoo's gift shop. They go on a semi-date where Irena is receptive but also guarded and sad.

After the leopard mauls another zoo worker by ripping its arm off, it escapes. Soon after, Paul reappears, telling his sister the truth about their family: they are were-cats--half-human, half-leopard. They can only mate with their own kind (ewwww!), for if they don't they transform and end up killing their lovers. Only by practicing incest are their transformations kept at bay.

As you might imagine, Irena is less than thrilled to hear this, and takes off to go on a getaway with Paul at a small cabin. They almost make love, but Irena calls it off. After Oliver falls asleep, Irena goes outside to hunt (getting fully naked in the process). She attacks a rabbit, and next we see her, its during the film's one genuinely scary moment that wasn't directly inspired by the original. Oliver wakes up when he hears a noise, and turns on a light, only to see:
Irena screams, smacking the lamp to the ground, returning the scene to total darkness. Its a great "jump" moment, probably the best scare scene in the movie.

Paul decides to kill Oliver so he can have Irena for himself, but Oliver is waiting for him and shoots him. When Oliver does an autopsy on the cat, he cuts it open to find just Paul's severed arm inside.

(There's an interesting little goof during this scene: as Heard slides the real-life leopard onto the autopsy table, he lets its head bang on the metal table a little too hard. If you listen closely, you can hear a crew member exclaim "Easy!" to Heard)

Irena is now trapped: without Paul, she will now turn into a leopard if she ever makes love, which means she will have to kill to become human again. Irena does eventually make love with Oliver, and she does indeed turn into a leopard. She leaves Oliver, turning to killing the cabin's crusty inkeeper to revert.

In a scene that doesn't make a whole lot of sense dramatically, Irena stalks Alice (Annette O'Toole) who works with Paul at the zoo. Its a direct recreation of the pool scene from the original, except for the fact we see O'Toole naked:
Like I said, the scene doesn't really make a lot of sense in this context: as a human, Irena is quiet and sad, but here she stalks Alice like a serial killer, suddenly becoming the heavy. But any scene that features the adorable Annette O'Toole topless is not going to generate a lot of criticism from this reviewer.

Oliver discovers that Irena has killed, and she begs him to let her "be with her own." Oliver ties Irena to the bed, and makes love to her, knowing this will trigger a final transformation.

Time passes, and we find Oliver back at the zoo, now in a relationship with Alice.He wanders by the leopard cage, and stares into the cat's eyes:
He reaches in, and strokes its fur. The cat responds, and in this quiet moment the film ends.

Watching Cat People again after so long, I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. In the commentary track by director Paul Schrader, he admits the film is more of a "sex movie" than a horror film during the second half, and he's right: Kinski is constantly taking off her clothes, and there really aren't too many genuine scares.

The film is a remake in only the loosest sense: it features the core characters from the original (Irena, Oliver, Alice), and a few set pieces, but most of them are in a very different context (though Schrader does use the Val Lewton-inspired "bus" gag to drum up a simultaneous laugh and scare). This Cat People is trying to tell a very different story than the original.

All in all, I enjoyed Cat People a lot: it goes on a little too long and doesn't quite hang together (this film is almost double the length of the original), but the performances are good and it kept me engaged. So its reputation as a failure or cheap knock-off isn't really deserved.

Its funny to ponder that, even amid all the periods where Hollywood has gone remake or sequel-crazy (a period we're going through right now), only one of Val Lewton's 11 horror films have ever been remade. There's been talk of redoing I Walked With A Zombie, but so far only Cat People has ever undergone the remake treatment.

Maybe if the film had been a bigger hit we would have been "treated" to a slew of Lewton remakes, filled with sex and gore. But for now, Cat People remains an interesting asterisk to Lewton's legendary career.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Movie Monday: Flight to Mars

For this week's Movie Monday we take another trip to the red planet in 1951's Flight to Mars!

Flight to Mars opens up with a pre-credits sequence, with two science-y looking guys staring into a massive telescope:

...and what are they staring at? Why, Mars, of course!

Yes--man is preparing its first trip to the red planet!
The crew on this historic mission consists of five people--four scientists and a newspaper reporter(?) named Steve, played by Cameron Mitchell.

There's a whole lot of talk before our intrepid explorers make it to Mars, to the point where its almost a half hour before they reach their destination. Flight to Mars is only 71 minutes long, so you're wondering how much story there can be left in the film!

Anyway, the rocket is damaged during the journey, forcing a rough landing on Mars. The explorers find a huge temple on the surface of Mars, proving there is--or at least was--life! As they try and decide what to do next, they are met by...actual living Martians!!
sg, yeah, these are the Martians: other than some goofy clothes, they look exactly like humans. So I think its obvious they didn't have a lot of money to spend on this movie.

The Martians explain that their whole society was forced to move underground after the planet's surface became too inhospitable. The Martians are friendly and warm to their guests, but soon we see them have a private meeting where they plan to keep the Earthlings prisoner on the planet!

While their ship is being repaired, one of the explorers, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz) falls in love with Martian girl Alita (Maguerite Chapman), who is the daughter of one of Mars' ruling council named Tillamar.

Tillamar doesn't want to kidnap the humans, but the council's militant leader Ikron (Morris Ankrum) sways the rest to his side, and plans to sabotage the ship's repairs to keep the humans on the planet longer. He then plans to take their ship, go to Earth, and conquer!!

Barker, via Alita, learns of this and shares this information with his fellow explorers. They try and hide their progress on the ship so as not to tip off Ikron.

Despite the film's obvious meager budget, there are some nice matte shots featuring some way-cool 1950's-style futuristic stuff:
But, sadly, most of the film is taken up with the Martians and Earthlings running back and forth on the same two or three sets, overhearing things and sneaking around. The costumes on the women are classics of the time:
...that's gotta be cold!

Eventually, the explorers sneak back onto their rocket. Ikron's men manage to grab Alita, but Dr. Barker risks his life by going back and rescuing her, bringing her aboard, where they all head back to Earth.

This film was produced by Monogram, which was one of the lowest of low-rent "B" studios in Hollywood. Shooting a film with all these costumes and sets--not to mention in color--was a huge expenditure for them (even if some of the sets are re-used from 1950's Rocketship X-M and costumes from 1950's Destination Moon).

The print used for the DVD would have made Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino proud: its full of splits and splices, with chunks of dialogue skipped when the film jerks from one frame to another. I'm guessing Monogram didn't spend a whole lot of effort caring for their back catalog.

Overall, Flight to Mars is worth seeing only to enjoy so many of the sci-fi cliches films of later decades would reference and goof on: the stilted dialogue, the short skirts on alien women, etc. It doesn't provide much excitement because so much of it is talk, talk, talk, but hey, sometimes long trips are kinda boring!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Movie Monday: The Laughing Policeman

This week's Movie Monday subject is the gritty cop thriller The Laughing Policeman!

If there are two things a movie can have that, to me, virtually guarantees its going to be good, or at the very least interesting, they are: Walter Matthau and being made in the 1970s.

Matthau, always one of my favorites, had an extraordinary hot streak in the 1970s: during the decade, he appeared in Plaza Suite, The Front Page,
Charley Varrick, The Taking of Pelham 123, The Sunshine Boys, The Bad News Bears, House Calls, and Hopscotch. Not only are all of these pretty good-to-pretty-great movies, but go from Neil Simon comedy to foul-mouthed kid flicks to gritty action thrillers, and Matthau is great in every single one of them.

I had vaguely heard of The Laughing Policeman before, but never realized what it was and who was in it. When I stumbled across the fact it was a cop thriller starring Walt Matthau and was made in 1973...well, I couldn't move it to the top of my Netflix queue fast enough!

The film opens sans titles, in a San Francisco bus station. A sweaty, nervous-looking guy is being followed, and he knows it:
The hunted tries to lose his pursuer by jumping on a bus at the last second, but the second guy manages to stop the bus before it takes off and climbs aboard, sitting a few rows back from his target.

The bus picks up some more people along its route, the last being someone whose face we don't see. This person sits all the way in the back, and quietly begins to assemble a high-powered rifle.

Before anyone else notices what's going on, the sweaty guy sees what's about to happen, and screams in panic. But its too late:
The gunman slaughters every single passenger on the bus, bullets flying in all directions in what makes for a particularly bloody sequence. The bus driver is killed, and the bus crashes into a nearby building. We hear police sirens, and eventually a crime scene is taped off.

Some plainclothes detectives arrive, including Sgt. Jake Martin:
The cops climb aboard the bus and examine the crime scene. They are shocked and stunned to see one of the victims--the one who was doing the tailing of the sweaty guy--was Martin's partner Dave Evans! What was he doing on this bus, at this time of night, in this part of town?

Protocol being what it is, the another detective, Insp. Leo Larsen (Bruce Dern), becomes the co-lead on the case. Larsen is kind of a weird guy, full of black humor, and Martin is less than thrilled to be paired up with him:
Various members of the SFPD investigate the backgrounds of the various victims, leading mostly to dead ends. Many of the leads involve some of seamier parts of city life, something the detectives are less than thrilled to be involved with.

Martin eventually discovers that the sweaty guy was named Gus Miles, who, years ago, provided the alibi for a man named Henry Camerero (Albert Paulsen), who murdered his wife years before. That case was the responsibility of Martin, who is still haunted over it.

Martin is generally cynical and sullen, and keeps trying to freeze Larsen out of his investigation. But Larsen refuses to give up, tagging along to Martin's constant annoyance. They do some further investigating on Camerero, trailing him throughout the city:
Turns out Camerero is a closeted homosexual, something the film treats with less than sensitivity. There's a scene in a gay bar that drips with condescension about its subject:
Despite Martin's boss (Anthony Zerbe, chewing the scenery) telling him to drop the Camerero angle, he refuses, convinced he's right. He and Larsen learn that Camerero is going to strike again, on another city bus, and are the only ones there to stop him:
The film ends on a...not so much downbeat note, but an absurdly anti-climactic one, kind of reflecting the mood of the whole movie. When it arrived, I had looked away from the screen for a moment, and when I went back I was shocked to see credits rolling! What the?!?

The Laughing Policeman is a strange film--it has that uber-cynical attitude so many 1970s crime thrillers had, and the general views of the filmmakers shine through a bit: director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Amityville Horror) was in his late 1940s when this movie was made, and gay equality was just start to emerge in mainstream American culture. The use of the word "fruit" is so rampant that, while probably completely realistic, made this viewer roll his eyes more than once.

Also, there are so many characters in this movie that Matthau as Jake Martin doesn't get enough to do; and when he's on the screen, he's generally sullen and crabby--its Bruce Dern as Larsen who gets most of the lighter stuff, constantly reacting to Matthau's taciturn lead.

There are some scenes that are classically 1970s, so much they made me laugh: Matthau questions a suspect, played by Cathy Lee Crosby, and he thinks nothing of slapping her around, repeatedly. Imagine a movie's hero doing something like that nowadays.

The Laughing Policeman definitely deserves to be considered part of Walter Matthau's solid streak of interesting 1970s films: while not a complete success (its not as delightfully Matthau-centric as Charley Varrick, and not nearly as action-packed as The Taking of Pelham 123), its nevertheless an interesting movie, and well worth the time of fans of 1970s cop films.

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