The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXXVI – Halloween 2019

It’s Halloween and I am watching some spooky movies about it. As always, the films are ranked in order of what I thought of them. If you’re looking for something to watch, there’s a few in here that are definitely memorable.

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19. I hope you like more underwater footage than Thunderball. This is Beyond Atlantis (1973). And good grief is there a lot of swimming. Here’s the plot: a bunch of slimy city folk (including the late Sid Haig playing a character named East Eddie) travel to an island inhabited by a tribe of people with huge eyeballs to collect priceless pearls. Sid Haig and hot bikini bods (mainly Leigh Christian) make this Filipino-American flick sporadically watchable, but a bit tedious.

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18. I think it’s fairly apparent that I am a ravenous Redlettermedia fan. They are living the dream. And they recommended Suburban Sasquatch (2004). So I watched it. Most of it. It is so laughably amateurish that it becomes more of a slog to sit through. It’s tepid and boring and vaguely Christian. Bigfoot sucks. He sucks as a character. He sucks as a cryptoid. I hate it. This movie had us laughing out loud at quite a few parts, but it just becomes so repetitive and profoundly ugly to look at that all the hammy acting and cheesy dialogue in the world can’t justify the product as a whole. Perhaps I will finish the last 20 minutes. But I don’t feel any pressing need to.

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17. R.O.T.O.R. (1987) is another sci-fi B-movie with some funny moments (that stupid mouthy robot in the picture is a highlight) but ultimately not very memorable. It’s derivative of Terminator and Robocop, but there are a few laughs to be had. Fun fact: the title “R.O.T.O.R” stands for Robotic Officer of the Tactical Operations Research/Reserve Unit. For reference, the rest of the film is just as clunky.

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16. What a series. I keep watching Howling sequels, guys. I still haven’t seen the acclaimed Joe Dante original. But this series is a trip. Each new entry is bad in remarkably different ways. Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf is still my favorite (mainly because the of killer song, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee, and its unabashed sleaziness). Howling III: The Marsupials is easily the stupidest (and most objectionable – straight up marsupial werewolf birthing sequence). Howling IV: The Original Nightmare is the most uninspired and boring. And now, Howling V: The Rebirth (1989) gets a few points from me. Perhaps the most ambitious in its first act. It assembles a gaggle of unlikable haircuts that have been selected to tour an ancient castle in Hungary. A castle that was abandoned 500 years ago. A castle that’s cursed. Yes, it’s stupid and almost entirely bloodless with only slightly more werewolf sightings that Howling IV, but the castle is neat and it has actual cinematography. You’ll be begging for it to end by the third kill, but you’ll keep watching because it’s The Howling.

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15. I like Zach Galifianakis. I think he’s a very comical actor with a lot more talent and personal whimsy than Hollywood knows what to do with. Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019) takes Zach’s webseries: a celebrity interview show riffing on public access programming, and stretches it as far as it can go. It’s not bad, but less is more with this concept maybe. Is Zach an oblivious oaf bumbling over poorly constructed interview questions or is he a cunning critic playfully skewering the rich and famous? The movie informs us he is somehow both. And it doesn’t exactly work. It has some good humor, but the hardest I laughed was at the outtakes during the end credits and I think that’s because that’s when it was the most genuine. The template of a phony interview show, giving the host an opening to roast his subjects is classic, but as an engaging narrative subject, it’s on wobbly ground. Somewhere between Jiminy Glick, Ali G, and Eric Andre is Zach Galifianakis. Sitting, awkwardly, between two ferns.

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14. A deaf woman is trapped in a waking nightmare when a murderous lunatic stumbles on her house in the woods and decides to psychologically torture her as he gets closer and closer in Hush (2016). It’s pretty direct and minimalist and gets the job done with a small cast in a single setting and it does it effectively. There’s a bit of ham, but it taps into that primal fear of being watched and having your privacy stolen. Once the killer removes his mask (way too early), the movie never feels as sharp, but it still works well enough.

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13. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) starts off as a tale of a quiet wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and an intense poet (Jarvier Bardem) living in an idyllic house in the country. When the poet allows a stranger (Ed Harris) to stay in their house, things get awkward. As he overstays his welcome and invites more people, it takes a toll on the wife (the centerpiece of the film and whose perspective all of the action is viewed from). About a third of the way in, the symbolism gets so heavy-handed that you begin to see what the whole thing is about. Sort of. But I feel like this movie, while thought provoking and dealing with interesting themes (many of which I genuinely want to see explored more in cinema), gets mired in its own pretentiousness and shocking grimness. Is it art? Yes. Do I want to see it again? No?

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12. I re-watched Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) with some mischievous tykes and, I gotta say, I think there’s a reason my mind blocked out the memory of the Mr. Toad segment. It not good. It’s beautifully animated, but as a story it simply goes nowhere and is no worthy adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. The Legend of Sleep Hollow part with Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen make up for a lot of time wasted though. I fun little dose of nostalgia. The last fifteen minutes are pure animation gold. Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby trade off narrating duties on these two classic literary tales.

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11. Ever since I saw Young Frankenstein I have been in love with Marty Feldman. Marty Feldman: Six Degrees of Separation (2006) is a BBC documentary on the memorable actor’s inspired and tragically short career. From his early days in radio and television to the good movies and the bad movies, this biography chronicles his struggles as an artist and his unrelenting humor, joy, and creativity.

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10. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004) is a hot dose of high school anxiety. Lindsay Lohan is the new girl in school and she quickly gets sucked into the teenage drama of warring factions of duplicitous girls (and guys) all vying for status in what is indisputably the most important time in their lives. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s got a lot of pink. Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Lizzy Caplan, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Lacey Chabert, and Tim Meadows round out the very funny cast.

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9. Did Spielberg secretly direct Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982)? Who cares? It’s great ghostly fun with wonderfully ghoulish special effects. When a typical suburban family starts to notice weird stuff happening in their house they defer to the experts to figure out what is going on. It’s ghosts. Zelda Rubenstein, JoBeth Williams, and Craig T. Nelson give great performances as well.

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8. Rob Zombie’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses (2002) is basically a haunted house ride turned into a movie. It’s aggressive, wacky, and steeped in a familiar Halloween atmosphere all while paying homage (or ripping off) classic scary movies, but with an extra coat of grime and whimsically mean-spirited edge. And it’s funny as hell. It’s a bit of a mess and it won’t be for everybody, but I kind of loved it. Features Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Rain Wilson, Karen Black, Walton Goggins, Tom Towles, and even more great faces.

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7. The Body Snatcher (1945), directed by Robert Wise and based on the story by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a classic horror yarn about grave robbing for medical research and the unseemly lot a man of science can find himself in all for the pursuit of greater surgical knowledge. Despite some typical period melodrama, the plot and characters are refreshingly complex. Stiff-lipped Henry Daniell gives a typically restrained but compelling performance as the medical instructor who is haunted by his guilt and Boris Karloff is glorious to behold as he connives and cajoles his way from scene to scene. Their relationship is more horror than all the cemetery desecration and skeletons combined. Bela Lugosi also has a small role as a quiet janitor who’s always listening.

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6. This next one is an indie flick that is rough around the edges, but well worth a look. Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) is a gritty, human view of life in the ghetto. Pierce is a smart young man with little ambition and his friendship with seedy sorts puts him at odds with his family. At times funny, at times tragic, it’s the sort of unapologetic film that feels like a series of snapshots into the lives of real people. This is what independent cinema was made for.

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5. This movie sets up a brilliantly wacky premise and just keeps delivering with creative twists and turns the whole way through. Dave Made a Maze (2017) is about a cardboard labyrinth that takes on a life of its own and traps its creator and his friends in a deadly world of dead-ends and booby traps. The movie loses me a bit with its heavy-handed metaphors for artists and their creations (not nearly as bad as Mother! though), but its charm, levity, and genuine originality push it to something great and truly memorable. Inspired verbal and visual comedy, a somewhat sappy earnestness, and a raging Minotaur make this whimsical horror comedy an adventure you won’t want to miss.

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4. Tales from the Hood (1995) is a brilliant horror anthology laced with scares and scathing social satire to spare. Clarence Williams III (who is fantastically over the top) plays a sinister funeral director who takes three gang members for a little ride through four tales of terror in order to teach them something. I saw the sequel first and thought it was cheesy but fun. This one is legit great and I loved it.

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3. This is how you do a remake. Dario Argento’s 1977 original film is a high octane, psychedelic, expressionistic horror house that, one may argue, is aggressively style-over-substance. It’s an unforgettable cult classic for a reason. Luca Guadagnino’s remake flips the script entirely and creates a more subdued arthouse horror more focused on unspoken drama and witch politics. While Suspiria (1977) is frenetic and vibrant, Suspiria (2018) is slow and sumptuous. The color palette is muted. The skies are gray and rainy. The Berlin wall looms just outside the windows of the creepy ballet academy. The twists are macabre and surprising, especially if you’ve seen the original. Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, and Mia Goth star and Jessica Harper (the lead from the original) makes a cameo. The only thing that I found a little jarring (in that it took me out of the film) was Professor Lutz Ebersdorf. I get it and it does create an eerie and sort of experimentally otherworldly atmosphere, but it kept distracting me because I couldn’t help but look for the reason behind the odd choice. Ultimately, I think it served the film well and I loved it.

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2. There’s something special about French science fiction (especially animation and comics) from the 70s and 80s. Moebius and others were undoubtedly a huge influence on the style and scope of surreal world building. Gandahar (1987) is very much in this vein. Directed by René Laloux, whose Fantastic Planet remains perhaps the most important sci-fi animation of all time; Gandahar (aka Light Years) is a lesser cousin, but still a wonderfully weird and transporting experience. It’s a tale of oppression and war, but much like Fantastic Planet, it is perhaps even more concerned with the mechanics of this fictitious universe it posits and the ecosystems and overlapping cultures of these alien planets. Time travel elements and the heady concepts explored make this a must see for fans of animated sci-fi. Some disputes over the soundtracks. I watched to the English dub which I believe had the American electronic score. It was good, but I would like to find the French version as well to compare.

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1. I was a big fan of Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, so naturally I could not wait to see The Lighthouse (2019). Shot in glorious black and white on 35mm film and presented in 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film instantly transports you into a different time period. The forgotten and windswept rock you are stuck on is cold and wet and miles and miles from any living soul save for the briny, old lighthouse keeper played by Willem Dafoe (who chews the scenery like it’s a dinner of lobster claws). Robert Pattinson plays his new assistant, a former lumberman looking to make a few bucks working on the remote, gull-tormented island. Together the two strange men will battle the elements, each other, and their own sanity. The Lighthouse works as a grim psychological horror or as a very black comedy about bad roommates. And it crashes like ice cold waves upon the jagged northeastern cliffs. It festers and blurs. Sexual nightmares of mermaids and guilt come and go as the two men grow further isolated from everything in this world. Unsettling to contemplate and gorgeous to look at.

BONUS SHORTS

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Rowan Atkinson plays an irritating little man who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness that will end his life in 30 minutes. Dead On Time (1983) shows him racing through the streets trying to fill the fleeting moments of his life with meaning. It’s a diverting little sketch that utilizes its premise well. Suspense, laughs, and a pure heart.

The Hour After Westerly (2019), directed by Nate Bell and Andrew Morehouse, follows a man who loses an hour trying to get home one night. Where did the missing hour go? And why does he keep having visions of a lighthouse? And who is this woman? Gorgeously shot and quietly introspective. Reminds me of The Twilight Zone.

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I hope you like weird anime short films. Cat Soup (2001), directed by Tatsuo Satō, is surreal, grim, bizarre, and cute. A cat travels to the land of the dead to rescue his sister after she drowns. The animation is inspired and beautiful.

Hope you enjoyed that and maybe picked up a movie suggestion or two. You know, as much as I wasn’t into Beyond Atlantis, I can’t deny it had one of the greatest freeze frame endings of all time. Happy Halloween, folks.

RIP Sid Haig

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXX – Killer Soundtracks, Horror, and Crazy Evil

Once again I watch movies and rank them arbitrarily by what I thought of them.

Enjoy and Happy Halloween.

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17. I’ve never been more disappointed to see the Iron Giant. What happened to you, Steven Spielberg? You used to be cool. What even is Ready Player One (2018)? This unwatchable garbage somehow manages to make nostalgia feel as cheap, hollow, and gross as it probably should have been all along. Maybe it’s because I’m not a gamer, but I had a hard time finding anything interesting in the plot, the characters, or even the visuals. Obnoxious kids with no point of view play a video game in a giant online platform to Willy Wonka themselves into saving the digital world from a corporation. And a lot of the goings on hinge on the audience buying that the kids of the future will be as obsessed with 80s and 90s pop culture as we are.

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16. It may be boring and not scary in the least, but at least it’s annoying too. Stephen King’s Children of the Corn (1984) is the story of a rural Nebraska town where the kids have started worshiping some blood-thirsty entity and have killed all the adults. Then Linda Hamilton and her boyfriend wind up there. Creepy Midwestern cult town premise is fun. Sadly squandered on this movie. How did this manage to collect 8 sequels??

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15. Emilio Estevez is Billy the Kid and his gang is comprised of Lou Diamond Philips, Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, Dermot Mulroney, and Casey Siemaszko in Young Guns (1988). And it is everything that Silverado did, but not as good. The cast is appealing and the scenery is gorgeous, but it doesn’t all quite flow. Weirdly, the sexy saxophone and electric guitar laden soundtrack by Anthony Marinelli and Brian Banks, while amazing by itself, really gives the movie as a whole a dated and hokey feel. Honestly, you can skip the film. Listen to the soundtrack. It’s great. Also features Terence Stamp, Terry O’Quinn, and Jack Palance.

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14. I will probably see anything that comes out of Aardman Studios. From Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run to The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!, they have proven that they know silly and are pros in stop-motion animation. I trust them and I trust Nick Park. Early Man (2018) might be my least favorite, but it still has some comfortingly British quirk appeal. It’s about a clash of tribes (one more technologically advanced while the other is good-natured but simple and stunted) and how they meet on the soccer green to even things out.

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13. I love me some classic Jackie Chan and Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (1991) has some great action set pieces. Jackie and three international women (Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo, and Shôko Ikeda) race across Morocco to McGuffin McGuffin McGuffin. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. And that’s fine. The the Nazi base wind tunnel fight finale is a high point. Like a lot of Jackie Chan movies, it’s more about the star’s charm, charisma, and dangerous physical stunts that propel it forward. I would have ranked this one higher (as the fight choreography is great), but the godawful musical score sucks so much suspense and energy out of every single scene. Watch the movie. The wacky synth antics are way too silly and cheap. A lot of the non-physical comedy is awkward too. Then there’s the Tintin levels of racial caricature. But really, it’s the music that drags this adventure down several pegs.

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12. I hadn’t seen Hocus Pocus (1993) since I was a kid and I don’t think I ever watched the whole thing. I do find the typical 90’s Disney live -action teen protagonists to be insufferably saccharine and ultimately the story and squeaky tone are a bit too Disney channel made-for-TV Halloween movie-of-the-week for my taste, but those witches. Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are having so much goddamn fun in their cartoony roles, that it’s absolutely infectious. Yes, the movie itself is cheesy and bad. And those talking cat special effects have not aged well. But the playfully fake and well lit sets and the wonderfully wacky witch performances make it more than watchable fun. Also, very young Thora Birch.

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11. I couldn’t make it more than 20 minutes into Tales from the Darkside. Maybe it gets better, but I couldn’t do it. So I switched to another zany horror anthology flick, Stephen King’s Creepshow (1982). It’s whimsical and macabre Halloween fun. I wish it had been a bit funnier or a bit scarier (or both), but it was a pleasant palette cleanser after Darkside failed to enthrall.

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10. This next one was an interesting recommendation (I do so appreciate those). Eyes of Fire (1983) is an independent horror flick set in the wild American frontier. Some settlers wander into uncharted territory where the Native tribes will not enter. But there’s something in the ground that is evil. It’s a unique, lo-fi slow-burn of a film, but it definitely has that folk horror atmosphere.

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9. Tales from the Hood 2 (2018) is the type of wacky, satirical horror anthology that I look for. The movie is just having fun spinning these tales and Keith David looks like he’s having an absolute blast chewing the scenery as an enigmatic storyteller. He’s telling stories to help program a police robot that would be used by a corrupt, racist private prison owner. Naturally, he installs the robot with a greater understanding of race relations than the inventor intended. I definitely need to watch the original Tales from the Hood now.

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8. So I take it that this movie disregards all but the first Halloween from 1978. If you love the deranged killer in a mask aesthetic, Michael Meyers is kind of the gold standard. Halloween (2018) sees Michael’s return, as well as the return of Jamie Lee Curtis (who looks just a bit too put together to be this obsessed, tortured recluse. Seriously, mess the woman’s hair up a bit or something). It’s got its share of silliness, but the movie’s strengths lie in capturing that pared down retro feel. It’s a simple little slasher flick that hearkens back to a simpler time. I wanted more of the babysitter and that kid dynamic. Only interesting characters in the movie.

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7. Beyond the Gates (2016) is a retro-styled indie horror flick that answers the question: What if Jumanji was Saw though? This very slow thriller follows two brothers who discover a spooky VCR board game in the back of an old VHS store. Can you feel the 80’s yet? Also, their dad might be trapped inside. I liked the understated performance by Graham Skipper, the synth intro, and the lady on the TV screen (Stuart Gordon regular, Barbara Crampton!). It’s slow, but atmospheric, and it has a bit of gore. Not a bad flick to stick on this Halloween.

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6. Ex-Machina director, Alex Garland, is back with more depressing sci-fi. Annihilation (2018) is a pretty solid story about life, evolution, and, potentially, our ultimate doom. Something lands from outer space and begins to spread like a cancer, slowly attaching itself to every living cell and altering the ecosystem in unexpected ways. It’s slow and smart and sometimes freaky. The main cast includes Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez. They are all fine actors, but something about the overall atmosphere of this movie renders their performances here sadly dull. This movie gets by on its intriguing concepts, metaphor, and some creepy visuals. Also, that music at the end in the lighthouse. What was that? Amazeballs. That’s what it was.

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5. The Raid director, Gareth Evans, tones the action down a bit in favor of a brooding period thriller set on a craggy island inhabited by a weird, budding cult. Apostle (2018) may pay some homage to the classic Wicker Man type of tale, but it had a few turns that make it something unique. It is beautifully shot too. There was one surprise about this particular cult that is revealed about two-thirds the way through and that is kind of what elevated it for me. It’s not The Witch, but overall, a pretty good period horror movie.

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4. Detention(2011) is a stylish surreal-meta-indie-horror-comedy-science-fiction film that is exploding with style and flare to spare. Is it a slasher movie? Is it a time travel movie? Is it a teen romance movie? Is it everything and more? Yes, to the last thing. Riley (Shanley Caswell) feels like a loser at Grizzly Lake High School. And prom is coming. And so is a masked serial killer. But this little comedy is far too clever to be so simple. I’d rather not say more. Watch it.

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3. If you are a fan of Dolemite, Blacula, or Coffy then chances are you’ll get exactly what Black Dynamite (2009) is doing. Black Dynamite pays homage to classic 70’s blaxploitation while also serving as a righteous spoof of the genre. It’s an over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek funky adventure that is running purely on its style and humor. The cast (led by co-writer Michael Jai White as the eponymous Black Dynamite) is all hitting the tone perfectly. This is a winky, clever movie for movie fans.

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2. And now for a little silent Scandinavian documentary on the history of witches. Haxan (1922) aims to educate, dramatize, and creep you out. Beginning with profiles on cross-cultural ghouls and ancient models of the universe, this bizarre film stages spooky reenactments set in witch hovels adorned with bird skeletons, cauldrons, and demons. It’s all pretty cool and watching it now, it functions as a twofold time capsule.

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1. Perhaps, the film with the most style this time around is Mandy (2018), and it is absolutely bonkers. Directed by Panos Cosmatos (Beyond the Black Rainbow), this is one gnarly and seriously messed up movie. It’s a simple revenge plot. Evil cult does bad things. Nicolas Cage must get revenge. But between purple lit chainsaw duels and LSD-addled demon biker gangs, there’s a weirdness that’s hard to quite put a finger on. It feels like a dream, or, perhaps more aptly, a drug-induced nightmare. It’s violent, mean, and totally insane. For those with the appetite for this type of nonsense, it comes highly recommended. Once again, the score is hypnotic.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XX – I Halloween the 80s

I did it again. Some 80s horror treasures in here. Not all the films on this list are horror and I realize it may be unfair to rank mostly 80s horror movies—with their oh-so-specific aesthetic—against whatever else I’ve been watching, but here it is.

No to Meh:

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Hard Rock Zombies (1985) directed by Krishna Shah. Was it trying to be funny? I think so. That makes it worse. Because it wasn’t not funny. For a movie with a zombie rock band, Nazis, and a demon puppet(?) that eats himself for no discernible reason, it’s an extremely boring affair even for the schlock I knew it would be. Bonus: it won’t be too hard to get wasted playing a drinking game with this one.

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Curtains (1983) directed by Richard Ciupka. Actresses auditioning for a sleazy director in his mansion, but there’s a killer who wears an old lady mask who picks them off. Who is it? Doesn’t really matter. It has one or two decent scenes (one pictured above to give you an idea what we’re working with) and it had the weird temerity to use stage curtains for scene transitions. Bonus: creepy doll.

More Fun:

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*NOT HORROR* 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) directed by Arthur Bradford. I love what Trey Parker and Matt Stone do. Seeing the insane process of how they make it work and how quickly they turnaround a new product was just a fun little treat. Trifling, but passably informative. [Made for TV documentary.] Bonus: Wait…Bill Hader?

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Night of the Comet (1984) directed by Thom Eberhardt. There is enough to enjoy here and, scene to scene, I was never sure where we were ultimately going. Catherine Mary Stewart plays Regina, one of the remaining Earth survivors following a mysterious comet that kills everyone (either disintegrating them or turning them into zombies because CONSISTENCY). It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is really its best asset. How many other post apocalyptic horror movies feature wacky shopping montages? More odd than great, but worth a look. Bonus: Danny Mason Keener, a.k.a. DMK.

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The Monster Squad (1987) directed by Fred Dekker. It’s a cult classic and I’m sure had I watched it when I was a kid I’d be more about this. It’s like The Goonies but with the classic Universal monster lineup attacking the town. I like the kids for the most part (and their old Holocaust survivor neighbor) and it has a few good jokes, but I just didn’t like this movie’s portrayal of my favorite monsters. It feels like an homage to Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy as Halloween costumes rather than their infamous silver screen personas. Not a bad little film and I get the cult status, but it not my favorite. Bonus: settles what qualifies as a virgin for magical incantation.

Higher Ground:

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Lifeforce (1985) directed by Tobe Hooper. The weirdest vampire movie ever? Possibly. Soul-sucking giant bat aliens, pretty good special effects, plenty of nudity (I felt so bad for actress Mathilda May since she’s completely naked for nearly the entire film), and a young Patrick Stewart. For a Cannon Films production, this one is actually pretty high quality. Bonus: co-stars Frank Finlay.

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*NOT HORROR* Fletch (1985) directed by Michael Ritchie. Bad New Bears director puts Chevy Chase in the role of loose, beach detective, Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher. He’s a fairly unscrupulous Philip Marlowe type, but also a master of disguise. The mystery is low key, the humor is subtle, and the musical score is wildly 80s. It gets by largely on slacker coolness and sarcasm. Bonus: Chevy is a dick to everyone. Double bonus: Harold Faltermeyer’s score https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8cLJcm_RoU

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. Tom Atkins stars as a lecherous doctor who stumbles upon a convoluted witch conspiracy to destroy the human race through television and haunted Halloween masks. There’s also robots and a magic rock. It’s silly, but it’s also sumptuously Halloween-y. Maybe not technically as good or iconic as the original Halloween with Michael Myers, but I found the departure from teen-targeting pseudo-supernatural serial killer trope rather refreshing. Kinda loved it. Bonus: kid’s face turns into snakes.

More!:

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Night of the Creeps (1986) directed by Fred Dekker. This is the campy horror throwback I wanted. Monster Squad director nails the 50s teen horror feel and updates it with gross special effects that only the 80s could deliver. Brain-eating slugs are jettisoned off an alien spaceship and wreak havoc on college housing. It knows exactly what it is. Dekker certainly has a knack for balancing tongue-in-cheek humor with fun scares. Bonus: Tom Atkins plays another badass.

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*NOT HORROR* Casanova (1976) directed by Federico Fellini. More Fellini grandiosity, this time staring Donald Sutherland as the infamous Italian ladies’ man. The film wrestles with what Casanova wanted his identity to be and juxtaposes it alongside his wild libertine escapades. More sad and grotesque than sexy, which is sort of the point. Bonus: a very young Daniel Emilfork (The City of Lost Children) makes a brief appearance.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) directed by Don Siegel. I’ve been a fan of the 1978 remake for some time, and it’s somewhat embarrassing it took me this long to get to the original classic. The sense of hopelessness and increasing paranoia marked a lot of 50s horror-sci fi and this may be one of the best examples of it. Is it communism? Is it conformity? Whatever it is, it’s coming and it’s taking over…everyone. Bonus: reminds you that you really can’t trust anyone. Because they could be alien duplicates.

Better and better:

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The Entity (1982) directed by Sidney J. Furie. This was an upsetting film. It’s like The Exorcist but instead of Pazuzu, it’s a nameless rape demon out to get Barbara Hershey. Some genuinely disturbing and scary scenes and overall sense of dread, especially when no one believes her. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you felt The Babadook was too on the nose, maybe give this one a look. Bonus: ice death cannon of science.

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*NOT HORROR* Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) directed by Travis Knight. Laika studios strikes again with another gorgeous looking stop-motion feature film. More beautiful, technically impressive, and emotional than anything else, this adventure simply warmed my cockles. Bonus: any stop-motion is a bonus unto itself.

Greatness:

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*NOT HORROR* Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) directed by Richard Linklater. A soul sequel to Dazed and Confused, the pointless saga of a college freshman in a rowdy frat house a few days before school starts in 1980 is immediately engaging. The characters are wonderfully written and funny in that hey-I-know-that-guy kind of way. It’s not a raunchy bro comedy. It’s simply a slice of life. I’m not even a jock and I loved it. Bonus: let Blake Jenner melt you with his smile.

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*Technically NOT HORROR* Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) directed by Todd Solondz. Remember Napoleon Dynamite? If you felt it was too quirky and twee then this uber dark comedy about the life of one 7th grade misfit girl is for you. Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn Wiener, a poor girl who can’t catch a break between her horrible life at home and her horrible life at school. Happiness director will make you cringe again and again with this hopelessly real portrayal of American suburbia. Bonus: not Napoleon Dynamite.

Fantastic:

Image result for song of the sea

*NOT HORROR* Song of the Sea (2014) directed by Tomm Moore. Basically, if you liked Secret of the Kells you’ll probably be into this. If you can picture Irish folklore told with an almost Miyazaki-esque sense of magic then you have a decent idea of what you’re in for. The animation is unique and elegant and the story is beautiful and touching. It’s a splendidly magical fantasy with loads of sumptuous hand-drawn visuals to tantalize you. Bonus: I love the owl lady.

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The Gate (1987) directed by Tibor Takács. I loved this way more than I expected to. Some kids discover an ancient portal to hell in their backyard and have to figure out how to seal it up before countless demons get out. It’s a perfect family horror flick with enough clever special effects and creepy atmosphere to whet your appetite for Halloween. Bonus: best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) is the best kid punk nerd ever. #KillerDwarfs

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The Dead Zone (1983) directed by David Cronenberg. Christopher Walken stars as a quaint, conservative teacher gets in a car accident. When he awakes from his coma years later, he discovers that he’s lost a lot in the time he’s been unconscious, but he also discovers a strange psychic power that transports him into traumatic events in people’s lives—past, present, and future. Revelations about the future, put him in the dilemma of whether or not he should act on his visions. Also stars Herbert Lom, Brooke Adams, and Martin Sheen. Bonus: fake bad politicians still more believable than real ones.

Modern classics:

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Attack the Block (2011) directed by Joe Cornish. John Boyega stars in this fantastic sci-fi action horror comedy. Weird, furry, gorilla-wolf alien monsters start landing in a low income British neighborhood, making a small gang of teen scofflaws and stoners the only thing fighting back against the creatures taking over the block. All the action takes place over one night and the choice of protagonists gives it a very different feel. The design of the monsters is also pretty great. Bonus: this proved to be a perfect film to double feature with The World’s End.

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*NOT exactly HORROR* Spring Breakers (2012) directed by Harmony Korine. Gummo director turns “Girls Gone Wild” into a dark art-house piece. Perhaps a glib satire on social privilege, but seamlessly also a bleak, spiraling descent into the depths of crime. Entitlement, desperation, and ultimately depravity, this psychedelic tailspin is truly hypnotic. Bonus: Selena Gomez and James Franco and maybe not the way you expect them.

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*NOT HORROR* Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) directed by Taika Waititi. What We Do in the Shadows director steers this wonderfully funny and heartwarming tale about a troubled orphan and his reluctant foster father on the run in the New Zealand wilds. Sam Neill and young Julian Dennison star, but every single character is fantastically written and perfectly cast. The cinematography is also quite beautiful and clever. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll find better reasons to visit New Zealand than Hobbits. This may be my favorite film of 2016. Bonus: it would make a nice double feature with Moonrise Kingdom plus who doesn’t love a Kiwi accent?

A Very Bradbury October

Now I know most people don’t equate the Walt Disney studios with classic Halloween fun, but when Ray Bradbury and an evil carnival of damned souls are involved then it might just be the case that Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983). Boy, that was a stretch. My pick for this week is the underrated, and oft times overlooked, piece of rare live-action Disney entertainment from the early 80s. Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents) and based on the novel by science fiction author Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay), Something Wicked This Way Comes is not exactly a classic, but sometimes the smaller films deserve a second chance to shine.

Halloween weather is a-comin'.

Halloween weather is a-comin’.

The film has all the rustic feel of a brisk autumn day during the early 1900s in a sleepy American town tucked away from civilization and ensconced in trees turning red and orange. I swear you can almost smell the pumpkins and feel the leaves crunching beneath your shoes.

The story begins when an old lightning rod salesman comes to town. Young Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) recounts the coming-of-age tale to the audience. Will’s best friend, Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), is always eager for exploring danger, but Will is the more cautious type (like his father). Will’s father, Charles Halloway (Jason Robards), is the town’s old librarian and at times feels overwhelming regret and even feels he is too old for his beloved son. It is the relationship between Will and his father that really make this movie something special.

It's coming.

It’s coming.

One day a mysterious carnival arrives in town: Dark’s Pandemonium Carnival. The tall, enigmatic, and poised Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) is the leader of the carnival and seems to grant the fondest wishes of all who are tempted by either his rides or his minions.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

I want to see this parade crash into the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.

When people start disappearing, Will and Jim venture out to sneak a peek under the carnival tents, choosing to investigate the matter under cover of darkness. After witnessing a sinister magic carousel, the duo discovers some clues as to the fate of the lost townsfolk. Soon the two intrepid boys find themselves fleeing from the forces of evil in the form of Mr. Dark, the Dust Witch (Pam Grier), green clouds, and even a terrifying tarantula attack. Mr. Dark feels the boys know too much and will stop at nothing to catch them. Soon the boys have only one place to turn to: Will’s father. Charles Halloway may be old, but he is still a good father and will stand up to the forces of evil for his son. Maybe you don’t have to be an action hero if you have a pure heart.

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

Have you seen either of these tattoos?

This children’s horror flick is a treat for all ages. At a time when movies like Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) and Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) were already setting the standard for darker family fair, Disney ended up giving Bradbury much more control over the final product for Something Wicked This Way Comes. The film didn’t do well in its initial release and although not spectacular, it has wonderful atmosphere and some genuine scares and plenty of peril, but beneath all the spookiness, wonderful set design, and magical special effects there beats a real heart and soul.

Don't get ahead of me.

Don’t get ahead of me.

Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West, All The President’s Men, A Boy and His Dog, Magnolia) is pitch perfect as the aging father who aches with the sores of old age and the sorrows of all the things he didn’t do in life. Jonathan Pryce (Brazil, Evita, The Brothers Grimm, The Pirates of the Caribbean) is quite good as the chilling form of evil incarnate who gladly sets the price of people’s dreams. The kids are well cast too and Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown) looks great as the phantasmic stately grim specter. The scenes in which Jason Robards stands his ground against the devilish Jonathan Pryce are fantastic and the finale is very satisfying too.

Merry-go-round time machine.

Merry-go-round time machine.

This gently pleasing family horror fantasy film is the perfect Halloween afternoon treat. I recommend it.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 5, 2009

One Groovy Bat

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

Blacula. Still not cornier than Duckula.

As a fan of Dracula (from Lee to Lugosi) and blaxploitation cinema (from Coffy to Dolemite), I have a hard time resisting the nocturnal urban lure of Blacula (1972). By the 1970s Count Dracula had seen countless screen re-imaginings and misrepresentations. The movies were hammering the final nail into the classic icon’s coffin, but there was always the occasional hit that kept him from staying in the grave permanently. Blacula may not be considered a great film, but for what it is—a movie about a black Dracula—it’s actually a really enjoyable romp through the supernatural…and it’s got soul. Sure, it has it’s fair share of cheese and hokiness, but even the immortal Bela Lugosi version from 1931 wasn’t perfect and was certainly not lacking in the melodrama department.

Dracula is a racist.

Dracula is a racist.

The story of Blacula begins exactly as it should: in Transylvania in the year 1780. The African noble, Prince Mamuwalde of the Ebani tribe (played by impeccably William Marshall), is having a little chat with the notorious Count Dracula. Mamuwalde urges the Count to aid him in his efforts to end the slave trade, but the Count evidently likes the slave trade and, additionally, has developed a fancy for Mamuwalde’s wife, Luva (Vonetta McGee). Dracula feels it is perfectly acceptable—nay, even complimentary—to take Luva as a concubine. When Mamuwalde refuses the diabolical insult, the Count reveals his vampiric powers and has his undead minions attack the Prince and his wife. Pay attention to the disappearing and reappearing candles during the scuffle. Biting Mamuwalde on the neck, Count Dracula curses him with an unquenchable lust for human blood and seals him shut in a coffin, leaving Luva to die alone in the stone room with her trapped husband.

Where was Luva's skeleton when the coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???

Where was Luva’s skeleton when Blacula’s coffin was exhumed again in the 1970s???


Then the awesome animated credits pop up. It’s very Fistful of Dollars, but with a funkier score.

Flash-forward to 1972. Two gay interior decorators are buying stuff in the Count’s old castle and, naturally, just have to have the coffin, unaware of the horror within. While unpacking their Transylvanian bounty they unleash a very cramped Blacula. Bewildered and stiff, Blacula discovers the unstoppable desire to snack on human blood. He makes short work of his first two victims.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Never sass a vampire, lady.

Blacula wanders the streets of Los Angeles and chances upon Tina (Vornetta McGee again), a dead-ringer for the deceased Luva. The encounter proves incredibly taxing on Tina as she frantically flees the strange man as a chase reminiscent of a Pepé Le Pew cartoon ensues, ending with one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie: Blacula’s pursuit of Tina is punctuated by him getting hit by a taxi cab and a rattled female cabbie berating his apparent lack of intelligence as he casually rises up off the ground, muttering about the collision ruining his reunion with his reincarnated lover. When at last he realizes the cabbie’s antagonism he snaps into vampire mode (developing fangs, some super-gnarly eyebrows, a rather pronounced widow’s peak, and cheek-burns) and bites her. Awesome.

Autopsy.

That’s weird. The deceased is completely drained of blood, clutching a crucifix, and has two small holes on her neck. It must have been a car accident.

Things get more coincidentally complicated when Tina’s sister, Michelle (a very fine Denise Nicholas), is the girlfriend of Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala—easily the coolest name ever) who is investigating the mysterious murders of the gay interior decorators and the cabdriver. The deep holes in the necks and the absence of blood in their bodies seems suspicious, so Dr. Thomas reads up on the occult.

Clubs back in the day.

Clubs back in the day…

At a night club, Tina, Michelle, and Gordon are treated to a special guest. It is Blacula, arrived to return the purse Tina dropped when she ran away. He apologizes for frightening her and joins them for drinks. The sight of this caped, eloquent, and charismatic aristocrat (with the diction of a god!) against these modern settings doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And the stranger’s deep poetic voice with its enchanting cadences (seriously, I want William Marshall to read me bedtime stories) echoing back to time’s long past captivates his new friends. Things are going well, bloody Marys are ordered, Tina is warming up to Mamuwalde, and then someone snaps a picture of them and the gallant ex-prince excuses himself…to kill the photographer just as she’s developing the pictures and discovers that Blaculas don’t show up on film.

No pictures!

No pictures!

The movie goes on with many things happening at once. Blacula courts Tina like a true gentleman while Dr. Thomas digs up corpses and realizes they’ve a vampire epidemic on their hands that the police station will never believe. Also, several characters that Blacula has bitten earlier in the film become vampires themselves and start biting everybody indiscriminately. Apparently you never truly die from a vampire bite, you only become a superhuman vampire with greenish skin (there is one cop and a guy with a hook hand we never see again after they get bitten, but seeing as how every other character survives to be vampires I just bet those two guys are still wandering around somewhere). It almost reminds me of Cannibal Apocalypse (1980) starring John Saxon (Enter the Dragon), a particularly terrible movie where so-called cannibals bite people and then those people in turn become “cannibals” who only desire to bite other people and make them “cannibals” (yeah, nobody ever dies. They just become oppressed minorities with weird nibbling habits fleeing government retaliation. Like Blacula the only characters who truly die are the ones who get killed by normal means).  A highlight of Blacula is the police raid on a warehouse full of vampires bitten by one of the gay guys from the beginning. People get shot, attacked, bitten, and set on fire. Major points for all the full body burns, but I can’t help but wonder about this scene. The gay vampire seems to have bitten (by far!) the most people. Is Blacula making some kind of commentary about promiscuity or the spread of social diseases during the 70s? Should we be offended?

These vampire zombies are fabulous.

These vampire zombies are fabulous.


As Tina falls more and more in love with Blacula/Mamuwalde, Dr. Gordon Thomas and the cops get closer and closer to unmasking the vampire and discovering its daytime coffin hideout. Actually, the romance between Tina and Blacula is the least interesting and least believable part of the movie, but the movie seems to know that and focuses on other things while that stuff is happening. By the time Gordon and the cops find Blacula’s hideout in a chemical plant, Tina has already agreed to be Luva II for the undead Prince Mamuwalde (it’s like The Mummy). Time is running out and cops with spherical helmets—seemingly from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs —fill the chemical plant, putting Blacula on the defensive. Comically, the cops are very easy to kill. Gently bumping their big, stupid helmeted-heads against a wall takes them out in a flash. Something I noticed the second time I watched it; I wonder if Dr. Gordon Thomas is safe from vampire attacks because he’s always wearing a turtleneck.

SPOILER ALERT: skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoiling the epic finale of Blacula.

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week...

Will our heroes stop Blacula before he seduces Tina? Tune in next week…

One dopey cop catches Blacula and Tina running away down a hallway and discharges his firearm, killing Tina. Blacula dispatches the policeman by gently bopping his helmet head on a pipe and punching him. With no time to lose he bites Tina to ensure she will have eternal undead life as a vampire with him. Angered and vengeful, Blacula storms through the dark chemical plant killing cops left and right. Guys get stuff dropped on them, they get thrashed, and some guys get thrown off ledges, but soon Dr. Gordon gets to the coffin, hands the stake to the police sergeant, opens it up, and the sergeant rams the stake into the body…only to discover it’s Tina! Tina sits up (now with vampire fangs) and claws at her bleeding chest and finally dies. Her sister Michelle screams in horror and cries as Gordon stands off to the side (probably tacitly reflecting on the grim turn of events and thanking God Almighty he gave the stake to the sergeant). Blacula appears and everyone backs away with fear and respect as he steadily approaches Tina’s dead body. A beaten and heart-broken vampire, Blacula announces that he has lived again only to lose Luva twice. With a heavy heart Balcula turns and marches up the stairs and into the dawn’s early light to commit vampire suicide. He stumbles as the sun’s cruel rays burn him and he at last collapses and his flesh melts away revealing a maggot-filled skeleton.

That might take more than a Tums.

That might take more than a Tums.

For the all the questions Blacula raises, the film is kind of awesome. Perhaps Mamuwalde’s acclimation to life in the 20th century was a bit too easy, but maybe they didn’t want to rely on simple fish-out-of-water jokes like the George Hamilton movie Love at First Bite. I do wonder how he innately knew that cameras—an invention he would have never been introduced to beforehand—would not pick up his image, but that’s nit-picking, I guess. There are some continuity errors, but the editing is pretty good for the most part. The plot moves quickly and the characters (with the possible exception of Tina, unless Mamuwalde put some spell on her to make her fall in love with him) have believable motivations and are interesting and engaging. William Marshall takes the role very seriously and commands every scene he is in. Another actor might have tried to bring humor to the part, but Marshall plays it completely straight and, you know something? It works. Any Dracula character needs one essential ingredient: charisma (unless you’re the gnarled Nosferatu type). William Marshall has great charisma and screen presence as Blacula and he elevates the entire film. It’s a fun Halloween movie with classic horror-tragedy and some great action. Unlike the Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee Draculas, Blacula is almost a good guy. He is the victim of Dracula’s evil and is driven more by love than by wrath. He is a compelling character with a life full of tragedy. Maybe Blacula isn’t quite as raucous or ground-breaking as other blaxploitation movies like say Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, but for my money it’s pretty entertaining.

There's a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn't there.

There’s a distasteful joke concerning my imminent evaporative death right behind me, isn’t there.

The sequel, Scream Blacula Scream (1973) is not as fun. Blacula’s not in it as much and it doesn’t have the same quick pace and much of the magic is gone, but Pam Grier is in it and the last scene in the house is pretty neat. I like the first movie and I hope you will too. For great soul horror this Halloween look for Blacula.

Top 10 Reason to See Blacula

1. Blacula totally sticks it to the Man (by gently bopping their helmeted heads against walls).

2. It’s got a great funky score.

3. Thalmus Rasulala’s mustache.

4. Denise Nicholas is real pretty.

5. William Marshall’s commanding and elegant performance.

6. If we all watch it maybe we can bring back the cape look.

7. People get set on fire.

8. Blacula was the first movie to win the Saturn Award for “Best Horror Film” (to put this in perspective: other great films to win since include The Exorcist, Young Frankenstein, The Wicker Man, The Fly, The Silence of the Lambs, and Army of Darkness).

9. It’s a cherished classic from the blaxploitation genre.

10. Remember Twilight? Me neither, watch Blacula.

Good evening.

Good evening.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 30, 2010

I’d Wear a Turtle-neck if I Were You.

*creeeeeaaaak*

*creeeeeaaaak*

In a previous article, I praised the awesome splendor that is Frankenstein and I mentioned how iconic Boris Karloff’s image as the infamous Monster had become. I also mentioned another, possibly even more iconic character: Dracula. Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, is practically synonymous with Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Lugosi (White Zombie, The Black Cat, The Island of Lost Souls, Son of Frankenstein) made a career of playing evil and supernatural villains with an aristocratic air. He played twisted doctors, cursed men, and many other grotesques, but it is his role as the charismatic Count Dracula that keeps him alive in the public’s eye. Bela Lugosi gives a spooktacular performance making Tod Browning’s (Freaks, The Unholy Three) classic film Dracula (1931).

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

I love the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula (second would be Christopher Lee), but I am saddened to see this version get crapped on so much. People say it is overrated, hammy, and a clunky transition out of the sound era. Well, it is technically all of these things, but it is so much fun. I admit my bias: I love Tod Browning. Frankenstein is the superior film in many ways simply because it has actual action and complicated character relationships, whereas Dracula is all mood and rich atmosphere with zero action. It’s about watching Lugosi gracefully interact with his unwitting victims and waiting for the moment to strike. The sets, costumes, and wonderful matte paintings are all exquisite as well. Even if you see it as being terribly dated, it is still a charming time capsule and swell pulp.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it's too late.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it’s too late.

Before Lugosi donned his famous cape, however, there was another great movie vampire. Haunting up the silent cinemas in 1922 was Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s (Faust, Sunrise) Nosferatu. Orlok does not resemble your average vampire. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, which everyone copied from Christopher Lee to George Hamilton, Nosferatu looks bizarrely alien and unfamiliar and—as a result maybe—more unsettling. With his naked skull, pointed ears, high shoulders, tall stature, long spindly arms and fingers, gaunt features, demonic eye-brows, and jagged incisors, Max Schreck’s vampire is in a class all his own. When Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) directed the remake of Nosferatu in 1979 they made up actor Klaus Kinski (Aquirre Wrath of God, For a Few Dollars More) to look exactly like the sinister bloodsucker from the original and it really worked. Both versions of Nosferatu are sure to delight with fright, but I strongly advocate seeing the 1922 version first. So iconic and genuinely chilling. The Nosferatus feel like you’re running in slow-motion in a spiraling uneasy nightmare.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

Both Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922) follow pretty much the same storyline.  A mysterious aristocrat (a.k.a. Vampire) is visited by a hapless solicitor. By the time the visitor learns the truth it is too late and the Count is soon on a voyage to more urban environs (Renfield is played by horror favorite Dwight Frye in Dracula). Once established in his new home the Count begins to feed. This is pretty much all you need to know for either film. Beyond this there are many differences. Dracula is more outgoing than Orlok for instance. While Dracula mingles with oblivious socialites, Orlok lurks in the shadows. Since Orlok looks more like a malnourished rodent than a human being it makes sense he wouldn’t be as charming and seductive as Dracula. Dracula has a strange sensuality about him that Orlock could never hope to pull off.

Lurk...lurk...

Lurk…lurk…

It has been said that the Spanish version of Dracula that was made using the same sets (they shot at night while the Americans filmed during the day) is a better film from a technical standpoint. I couldn’t disagree, but Carlos Villarías is no Bela Lugosi. I like both versions, but it’s all about the casting of the Count and Lugosi is it for me.

Ya caught me.

Ya caught me.

I hope in 50 years people will still picture these classic characters whenever they hear the word ‘vampire’ uttered around Halloween. What a travesty of tragic proportions if our children should imagine only Edward Cullen. The horror.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

I am a big fan of both films. They have the old, spooky castles shrouded in spider webs and that aura of Old World mystery. They have immediately recognizable villains that we catch ourselves rooting for. Both films suck you into their own Gothic fantasy and don’t let go.  Dracula also features the fantastic horror treasure, Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) as Dr. Van Helsing, an added bonus to be sure. Where monsters like King Kong, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster are all misunderstood outcasts who are never truly evil and may be presented more as victims, it is refreshing to see an unapologetically wicked character that has the world seemingly wrapped around his finger and delights in his sly mayhem. Unlike future vampire movies, which would try to portray vampires as tormented pariahs, Nosferatu and Dracula make no bones about their vampires’ evil nature (not including the Herzog remake). They relish the kill and this is what makes the Count so engaging and horrific. There is only one goal: suck blood. Simple? Yes, but it works.

Screw it.

Screw it.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is more of a tortured soul who sucks blood for survival and he might be falling in love with a human woman. It’s a slightly different approach, but he is in no way sissified. Kinski gives another spookily unhinged performance, but you can tell he’s channeling a lot of Max Schreck.

Come with me if you want to die.

Come with me if you want to die.

Nosferatu and Dracula are two masterful classics of the horror genre with fantastic atmosphere and enchanting performances. Need I bother telling you what a magnificent double-feature they would make? Celebrate Halloween this year with a few awesome Counts.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 20, 2009

It’s STILL Alive…

For anyone who hasn’t been meticulously following my reviews in the past, I am a fan of classic horror. One of my favorites, nay, dare I say two of my favorites (“yes”, quipped he to himself, “let us be greedy today and make it two”) are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

In the original script the confused Monster was to attempt to rescue the statue of the crucified Jesus thinking it was a living person, but the censors felt it was blasphemous so Whale rewrote it as the Monster toppling over a statue of a bishop.

Whale also directed Claude Rains in The Invisible Man (1933), which was based on the classic H. G. Wells novel (easily one of Wells’ best), to great effect, as well as the winking Old Dark House (1932), but it is his adaptation of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s famous work that remains the more shocking and spectacular—in the humble opinion of this reviewer.

Even people who have never seen a movie that was made prior to 1990 know exactly what the Frankenstein monster looks like (Dracula too, but that will be the subject for another article). All the popular caricatures are based off of Jack Pierce’s amazing makeup from James Whale’s films. When asked to recall a film incarnation, most people—who have not even seen the movie—will have no trouble recalling Boris Karloff in grim makeup. So why am I talking about another movie everybody already knows about? Because I don’t think everyone has seen it, and I wish to change that.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

I love all the fake science in these movies.

Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) has locked himself away in an old, spooky, castle-like laboratory in the hills (the perfect haunt for any mad scientist). He and his wild-eyed, hunchbacked assistant, Fritz (the ubiquitous Dwight Frye), are hard at work on something Henry was warned about by his professors long ago: playing in God’s domain. In his mad quest to create life, he stitches together bits and pieces of fresh corpses to manufacture a living man. The result is the infamous Monster (Boris Karloff): a physically powerful being with a criminal’s brain, limited communication skills, a longing for love, a short temper, and no understanding of his place in the world. The stitched together corpses of several dead men operating under the consciousness of one villainous but infantile brain realizes all too soon that there is no place for him in this world, and when his creator and father, Dr. Frankenstein, is repulsed by his creation and shuns him in disgust and embarrassment the Monster escapes and roams the countryside looking for human connection…he winds up murdering several people accidentally, obliviously, or purposefully before he decides to punish the real cause of his torment: Dr. Frankenstein.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

I liked to show this scene when I was young and my parents were about to leave me with a baby sitter.

The doctor, however, has decided to forget about his creation and return to his family and marry Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). The Monster eventually finds his creator and his lovely fiancée. The terrified townsfolk band together with pitchforks and torches to go on a monster hunt. The whole night culminates in the grand finale of Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster of his own making battling in a burning windmill.

frankenstein10

Every inch of this film is steeped in classic elements of horror. Expressionistic angles, cock-eyed tombstones, stark skies, tight little village streets, funerals, castles, evil machinery, lightning storms, chases, hunchbacks, dead bodies dangling from gallows, murder, and macabre humor. The infamous scene where the Monster accidentally murders a little girl even inspired a great Spanish art-house film decades later, The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). This film has got it all…but, wait, there’s more.

The sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, is one of the best sequels in movie history. Picking up where the original left off—but not before Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) and Lord Byron can summarize the events of the previous film—the angry mob of villagers dwindle down to just one poor, victimized couple waiting by the smoldering ashes of the windmill’s remains…their tragic fate gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As the wounded Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is rushed home with Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson), trouble has already begun to brew. Surprise! The Monster’s not dead. Not only that, another truly evil mad scientist, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), comes to call on the good doctor with a proposition. The gaunt and sinister Dr. Pretorius wants Dr. Frankenstein to join him and perfect the creation of a man-made monster. You guessed it: it’s a woman this time. Frankenstein wants nothing to do with this quack, but this quack doesn’t always play fair.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James.

Easy on the crucifixion imagery, James. We get it.

The Monster (Boris Karloff) meanwhile wanders the countryside once more in search of love and understanding. This time around the film shows him a little more compassion. All of his murders are either accidental or in self-defense. He just wants a friend, but when you look like he does and have the reputation he does, people tend to shoot first and ask questions later.

See no evil, speak no evil.

See no evil, speak no evil.

Drawn to the sad melody of a blind man’s violin the Monster stumbles upon a cabin in the woods. The blind hermit (O. P. Heggie) takes him in without pause or prejudice. We learn that the blind hermit has been praying for a friend and that he believes the Monster to be an answer to prayer. The Monster and the blind hermit do indeed become friends. They share food, smokes, music, and then the blind hermit teaches the Monster how to speak. We learn more about who the Monster really is from these few brief scenes than we might have expected and we learn to really love him and understand him beyond pity or grotesque curiosity. Too bad it doesn’t last because soon enough two hunters (who see with whom the hermit has been hanging out with), take the hermit away and burn down his cabin in the hopes of killing the Monster. (One hunter is played by John Carradine).

Truly broken, forlorn, and alone after coming so close to being truly alive, the Monster, in light of this freshly witnessed cruelty, develops a new outlook: he knows he is dead and hates all things living. Enter the wicked Dr. Pretorius who divulges his plan to create a woman friend like him. So enchanted by this idea, the Monster agrees to kidnap Elizabeth so Pretorius can blackmail Frankenstein into aiding in his evil experiment. The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester again) is born, but she doesn’t exactly get off on the right foot with Frankenstein’s Monster…that means it’s time for an explosive finale.

Kinky.

Kinky.

Bride has a sharper wit and some kinda surreal special effects, but its horror is no less potent. In many ways Bride is a bit of a parody of its predecessor and it works on multiple levels. Karloff didn’t get to do much in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, and the loopy expressionistic sets are the real stars of the third film, but it’s such a step down after Bride. After Son Karloff stopped playing the Frankenstein Monster and actors like Lon Chaney, Jr. (meh), Glenn Strange (awful), Christopher Lee (pretty good), and Robert De Niro (disappointing) took on the character and some say the Monster lives on today.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

Dr. Pretorius is so evil he keeps a miniature Satan in a jar.

The mad scientist sub-genre of horror doesn’t get any better than this. Monstrous men made from dead bodies creating havoc while competing ideologies of what the limits of science should be, all wrapped up in a twisted morality tale of what it means to be human begging questions of humanities’ relation to the divine? Who could ask for anything more? Boris Karloff is really good as the iconic Monster and the rest of the cast does a great job as well. Character actress Una O’Connor makes an appearance in Bride and Thesiger’s Pretorius is one of the most fiendishly memorable mad scientist villains of the silver screen.

Do yourself a favor and host a double feature of these two solid classics. They just don’t make ’em like this no more. Don’t miss horror at it’s finest this Halloween. Hey, you might even understand just what makes Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974) is so funny after watching these puppies. See Karloff in the original The Mummy (1932) too while you’re at it. For people interested in James Whale the man, Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) played him wonderfully well in Gods and Monsters (1998).

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Hide your kids! Hide your wives!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 13, 2009