Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The monster without a face haunts 'Nightmare Castle'

Nightmare Castle (aka "The Faceless Monster", "Night of the Doomed" and "Lovers From Beyond the Tomb") (1965)
Starring: Barbara Steele, Paul Muller, Lawrence Clift, and Helga Line
Director: Mario Caiano
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After psychopathic 19th century mad scientist Stephen Arrowsmith (Miller) tortures to death his unfaithful wife (Steele), and her lover, he uses her blood and a process he's developed to restore youth and beauty to his own mistress, Solange (Line). He later marries his first wife's mentally unstable half-sister, Jenny (also Steele) to retain control of the fortune that had been willed her... and to ultimately driver her insane and murder her for a fresh supply of blood for Solange's beautification treatments. He even cleverly invites Jenny's long-time doctor, Dereck Joyce (Clift) to stay at the castle, so there will be a witness to Jenny's unfortunate, tragic undoing. But even before Arrowsmith can put his evil schemes into motion, Jenny starts having strange visions and dreams, and Dr. Joyce becomes convinced that some outside force is wrecking havoc on her mind, and that these forces are ghosts haunting the castle. Has the first Mrs. Arrowsmith come back from the dead for revenge, to protect her half-sister, or both? Or is there a more rational answer to the unfolding events?

The above summary of "The Faceless Monster" (more often seen under the title "Nightmare Castle") may sound like its loaded with spoilers, but there's nothing there that doesn't come to light in the first half hour or so of this very creepy gothic horror flick.

Decently acted, well-photographed, decently staged, and full of shocking violence and interesting twists, the film suffers slightly from too leisurely a pace during its middle section, and from a villain whose motivations seem to change more often than most people change their underwear: He's motivated by greed... no, he's motivated by a devotion to science... no, he's motivated by love for Solange... no, he's motivated by spurned love for Muriel, the unfaithful woman he beat, electrocuted, and burned to death... no, he's motivated by... oh, who the hell knows?! Perhaps this is one character where just noting that he's a murderous madman is all the information you need, and it works perfectly, something that is rarely the case in fiction and films. Stephen Arrowsmith appears to be pure evil, and he's evil because he can be, with no need for justification or rationalizations. I still wonder if things in the nightmare castle might not have been a bit more horrifying if Arrowsmith had been better defined.

While Barbara Steele manages to enrich just about every film she's been in, I'm not sure I put as much stock in her dual role as half-sisters Muriel and Jenny as I've seen some reviewers do. The parts reveal the limitation in her talents rather than show her strengths. Steele simply does not have the range and flexibility to change between characters by shifting her facial expressions and gestures, something that's absolutely essential in a film of this kind, with situations like the one Jenny and Muriel are in during the film's second and third acts.

All my complaining aside, "The Faceless Monster"/"Nightmare Castle" is a fine gothic horror movie with a deliciously evil villain and some great ghostly twists (the final 10-15 minutes are truly grand, in a twisted way).

Everyone gets failing grade at 'Cemetery High'

Cemetery High (aka "Scumbusters")
Starring: Debi Theibeault, Karen Nielsen, Ruth Collins, Lisa Schmidt, Simone, Frank Stewart, Tony Cruck and David Coughlin
Rating: One of Ten Stars
Producers: Gorman Bechard, Kristine Covello and Charles Band

A group of young rape victims go on a murderous rampage, killing scummy men whereever they can find them.

"Cemetery High" is a badly mounted attempt at spoofing revenge flicks like "Death Wish" and any crime drama you care to mention. However, it's badly written, even worse acted, and the best of the gags will tease only the mildest of chuckles out of even the drunkest viewers.

Toss this film on the pile of movies that never should have made the transition to DVD and start the incinerator. But don't waste your time watching it.

Playing video poker with highest stakes(and holding a losing hand)

The Card Player (2004)
Starring: Stefania Rocca and Liam Cunningham
Director: Dario Argento
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Police detective Anna Mari (Rocca) becomes the point of contact for a serial killer who kidnaps young women and forces Rome's homicide detective squad to play online video poker for their lives.

"The Card Player" has enough plot- and logic-holes large enough to drive the train featured in its intense climactic moments through, not to mention an unfortunate tendency on the part of the characters to do stupid things just because if they didn't, the already feeble and shaky plot would fall apart completely. There is, however, enough tension and mystery here to keep viewers engaged.

Regular viewers of Argento's movies are used to characters having extreme moments of idiocy because the plot needs them to... his films have depended on this since "Deep Red" (review here). Here, though, the affliction strikes multiple characters far more than is acceptable even by Argento standards.

There is the further strike against the film that its characters, both minor and major, are a collection of tired cliches with not even quirks about them to make them different from the characters you've seen in other mysteries and thrillers--the cranky police chief, the jaded coroner, the disgraced renegade cop, the computer hacker who now works with the police, the killer with the "mysterious inside knowledge of the police department" are all here, and they play exactly the sorts of roles you expect them to, in exactly the way you expect them to. This collection of cliches, coupled with the fact they all suffer from plot-dictated stupidity, further damages the film and at times even ruins some of the mounting suspense.

Despite a nice idea at its core and a tense final confrontation between cop and killer, "The Card Player" is a fairly weak effort. Save it for the day when there's nothing else you're interested in watching.

Scum and villainy flourish at the Jamaica Inn

Jamaica Inn (1939)
Starring: Maureen O'Hara, Charles Laughton, Leslie Banks, and Robert Newton
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When young Mary (O'Hara) comes to live with her relatives on the Cornwall coast, she soon discovers that not only is her uncle Joss (Banks) something of a dirty old man, but he's also the head of a gang of murderous cutthroats who are causing ships to run aground during storms, looting the wrecks, and murdering surviving crewmembers. After Mary saves one of the gang (Newton) from being hanged by the rest, the pair flee to the safety of the local Magistrate, Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Laughton). Unfortuantely, Pengallan is a madman who is secretly behind the cutthroats!

"Jamaica Inn" is an excellent thriller set during the late 1700s. It features a great cast, with Maureen O'Hara as the feisty Mary and Leslie Banks as the menacing Joss Merlyn deserving particularly high praise.

The film is tense and moody throughout, and there are some excellent plot and character twists as the film unfolds, but there are couple of elements that keep it from being a truly great movie.

First, there's the bland hero, Trehearn. He's a nice enough fellow, but between the characters of Mary, Joss, and Sir Humphrey, he pretty much fades into nothing.

Second, there's the fact that Sir Humphrey's involvement with the bandits is revealed entirely too early in the film. It may add a bit of tension when Mary convinces Trehearn that they need to go to Sir James for help, but I think revealing the involvement after the pair escape would have been better for the story. (Reportedly, Hitchcock felt this way too; the story only unfolds as it does because Charles Laughton, a big star at the time, wanted his character to be more centrally involved from the outset.) There are still some interesting twists that come out later in the film about Sir Humphrey, but I think they too would have been stronger if not for Laughton's reported ego-trip.

I still think this is an excellent adventure flick, with great camera work, lighting, and sets--the Jamaica Inn set both inside and out is spectacular--and I think it's well-worth seeing if you are a fan of Hitchcock's work.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:Beauty From the Mummy's Tomb

In Hammer's "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb," the dead spirit of a long-dead Egyptian princess possesses Valerie Leon and goes on a killing spree. It's rather like the spirit of one year rising to possess the one that follows, to keep the march of time moving forward without pause or mercy. (Okay... maybe not. But here are marketing photos for "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb" from 1971. Two are from a publicity stunt where Leon walked a public street in costume, with a black cat on a leash.)

Click here to read the review of "Blood From the Mummy's Tomb." Warning: It's in color!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A blind woman sees the killer in 'Blink'

Blink (1994)
Starring: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman and Bruce A. Young
Director: Michael Apted
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Emma Brody (Stowe), blinded by abuse as a child, has her vision restored through cornea transplants. But even before her eyes have fully healed and she's gotten used to seeing again, she becomes the only person to have seen a serial killer at the scene of one of his killings.

"Blink" is a fairly run-of-the-mill crime thriller that infuses enough of originality in its "unreliable witness that really saw something and is being targeted" protaganist that it will draw you in.

The film is also helped by Madeleine Stowe and Aidan Quinn giving strong performances. Quinn in particular is remarkable, as his character transforms from a jerk to a genuinely likeable guy as the film progresses.

It's worth seeing if you're in the mood for a fairly light thriller and it's airing on television or avaiable for rent. It's not the sort of movie with replay value, so it wouldn't be worth owning (unless you get it really cheap).

Miss Marple takes to the stage in 'Murder Most Foul'

Murder Most Foul (1965)
Starring: Margaret Rutherford, Ron Moody, Charles Tingwell, and Stringer Davis
Director: George Pollock
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Miss Marple (Rutherford) goes undercover as an actress in a third-rate theatre company to prove a man innocent of murder while catching the real killer by solving a mystery with origins more than 15 years in the past.

"Murder Most Foul" is a fine little murder mystery/comedy that was loosely adapted from Agatha Christie's novel "Mrs. McGinty is Dead". Once again, Margaret Rutherford gives a fantastic performance as the feisty, never-takes-no-for-an-answer Miss Marple. The comedy of the film gets even more pointed when the hammy director of the theatre company (played with great flair by Ron Moody, who is the only actor in the film who manages to be as flamboyant and fun to watch as star Rutherford) casts her as a lady detective in a murder play, so Miss Marple, the amateur detective, is called upon to play an amateur detective while pretending to be an actress.

"Murder Most Foul" is a fun, lighthearted mystery movie featuring a cast with a level of talent that doesn't seem to exist anymore. (The way Ron Moody manages to mix diffused menace with a completely casual attitude, or the way he can deliver a line that shows how his character changes his mood in mid-sentence is a display of craft that we simply don't see in movies anymore.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Don't bother cutting in line for 'Hatchetman'

Hatchetman (2003)
Starring: Cheryl Burns
Director: Robert Tiffi
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Strippers who live in the same apartment building and dance at the same club are targeted by a masked serial killer. Is the murderer really the recently released violent felon they all testified against, or is there something else behind the killings?

Although not as bad as some other slasher flicks--most of the girls in this one are decent actors--this is still not something you'd want to go out of your way for. The script is weak, there's entirely too many characters being dumb to keep the story moving (although the characters who behave stupidly ARE portrayed as stupid even before they run into dark alleys so they can be killed in private), and the killer and what motivates him are also lame.

The most amazing thing about this movie is that it was produced and aired by a major cable network, Showtime.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

'Cemetery Man' is a creepy, funny zombie romp

Cemetery Man (aka "Of Death and Love" and "Demons '95") (1994)
Starring: Rupert Everett, Anna Falchi, Fran├žois Hadji-Lazaro, Mickey Knox, Fabiana Formica, and Katja Anton
Director: Michele Soavi
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Francesco Dellamorte (Everett) is the caretaker of a small-town cemetery.He spends the days burying the deceased, and his nights violently returning them to their graves when they rise as flesh-eating zombies. The steady, if creepy and gory, routine of Dellamorte's life is disrupted when both he and his assistant (Hadji-Lazaro) meet the loves of their lives (Falchi and Formica, respectively), only to see them promptly turned into undead residents of the cemetery. From there, things really start to go down hill for them.

"Cemetery Man' is a surreal horror comedy that moves effortlessly from the humorous to the horrific, and from the sexy to the savage. From the very beginning of the film, there is a dreamlike quality about the film that intensifies as it unfolds and which culminates the film's curious ending. Although the ending is rather weak, it sheds light on the strange events that have led up to it. (If it hadn't confirmed what I had come to believe about the cemetery and the village is supports, I would have labeled it a cop-out, as it's not exactly a satisfying ending, even if it fits with the film.

Although there is a fair amount of sex and gore in the film, I can't recommend it for gorehounds, or those looking for cheap thrills (even if Anna Falchi's repeatedly displayed breats are quite thrilling!). The film is a bit on the slow side for that sort of audience. It's worth seeing first and foremost for the interesting visuals and gallows humor, and secondarily for the underlying themes of... well, life, death, and the afterlife.

(Those out there familiar with the "Dylan Dog" graphic novel series from Dark Horse may also want to check out the film. It's based on a novel by Dylan Dog creator, Tiziano Sclavi. I can only assume that it's a faithful adaptation, because the film's story, pacing, and humor was reminicent of the first "Dylan Dog" book printed in the United States (which also features zombies).

'Hard Rain' is an overlooked action flick

Hard Rain (aka "Flood") (1998)
Starring: Christian Slater, Morgan Freeman, Randy Quaid and Minnie Driver
Director: Mikael Salomon
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A gang of criminal led by a gentleman thief (Freeman) find their attempt to rob an armored car during a flood evacuation frustrated by a young security guard (Slater) who escapes into the storm with the $3 million dollars it was carrying. As the flood waters rise, the robbers try to corner the guard and retrieve the money... but it isn't until a third party decides to make a bid for the money that things turn really deadly.

"Hard Rain" is part thriller, part disaster movie and all excitement. It's a well-crafted. well-acted film that is suspenseful from beginning to end. Even better, writer Graham Yost shows that he has an understanding of basic storytelling techniques and story structure, something that few people writing action or suspense scripts seem to have any sense for today. (Yost foreshadows just about every element and development in the story well in advance, thus playing fair with the audience and making each plot twist and complication all that more satisfying. Particularly neat is the recurrence of a statue in the town square of the small town that's being flooded that seems like it's just being used to show the audience how rapidly the water is rising, but which later in the film becomes a key element in a some very dramatic moments.)

While Morgan Freeman plays the sort of character he's played in at least two other movies--the aging professional thief who is hoping to score a big heist to retire on--he is perhaps at his most charismatic here, and he plays the sort of bad guy we find ourselves rooting for even if our sympathies lie first and foremost with Christian Slater's heroic, stubborn security guard.

Speaking of Slater, he also gives an excellent performance as perhaps the most likeable and normal character he's ever played. Usually, there's something a little off or quirky about a Christian Slater character, but not so with Tom in this movie. Tom is exactly the sort of guy everyone would want to have a best friend or a brother-in-law.

"Hard Rain" was a box office flop when it was released in 1998--the film cost $70 million to make and only earned $22.4 million worldwide, according to IMDB--which is a shame, because it deserved to do better. In fact, it was such a big flop and the international array of backers who financed this film were soaked more thoroughly than any of the characters in the film.

If you like well-done action movies, or if you're a fan of Christian Slater's equally undeserving of failure television series "My Own Worst Enemy", I encourage you to check this film out.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Now they've gone too far! Nazis are turning sexy chicks into monsters!

She Demons (1958)
Starring: Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin, Victor Sen-Yung, and Rudolph Anders
Director: Richard Cunha
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

An obnoxious an rich girl (McCalla) and two of her daddy's employees (Griffin and Sen-Yung) are shipwrecked on an uncharted island. They must fight fight for survival against a Nazi mad scientist (Anders) who has harnessed the secret of perpetual motion and is using it and processes he perfected in the WW2 concentration camps to steal the beauty of native island girls (who like all native girls only want to dance) and transferring it to his wife, in the hopes of restoring her fire-ravaged body. The process reduces them to horribly mutated, violent monsters.... you know, She-Demons!

My summary gave away the element that almost earned this film a Four Rating. It's going along likea fairly standard, low-budget castaways-on-a-jungle-island-with-monsters-and-a-hot-babe movie when suddenly Nazis appear on the scene. And they're not just any Nazis... they're led by a mad scientist Nazi who, although his research is dedicated to restoring his wife's beauty (at the expense of a bevvy of hot bikini-babes) he immediately wants to do the horizontal mambo with Aryan beauty Irish McCalla.

That strange turn resulted in this film perhaps being the greatest combo of B-movie/exploitation movie/"grindhouse" movie mainstays ever made. (Uncharted island, jungle inhabited by strange creatures, a mad scientist transforming humans into beasts with his weird experiments, Nazis--sadistic, whip-weilding Nazis no less--a wife with a disfigured face who only Weird Science can restore, wise-crakcing colored sidekick, and exploding volcaones. All this movie needed was a flying saucer, nudity, and lesbian vampires, and it might have been been the Platonic ideal of crappy movies.)

Of course, it would need better acting and something resembling decent dialogue to truly be worth viewing. Only Rudolph Anders as mad scientist Colonel Osler was truly any good, because he went waaay over the top with smariness and superior attitude. Irish McCalla did an okay job, because her character was so obnoxious that I wanted Osler to turn her into a She-Demon because it would shut her up.

On its own, "She-Demons" is not worth your time or money. It might be odd enough to be a secondary feature for a Bad Movie Night, but if you are going to get it, look for a DVD multipack that includes it and one or two movies you know are good. That way, this becomes a "bonus feature", and you've gotten your money's worth.

Saturday Scream Queen: Barbara Steele

English-born Barbara Steele (and her hypnotic eyes) gained fame in Mario Bava's celebrated horror film "Black Sunday." She appeared in dozens of horror films and thrillers during the 1960s and 1970s, but started to make a transition to producing during the 1990s. She is currently mostly retired from acting, but still takes the occasional role and has been responsible for such TV series as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Friday, December 25, 2009

Sherlock Holmes as action hero

Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Stone, Eddie Marsan, William Houston and Kelly Reilly
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Sherlock Holmes (Downey) and his sometimes-reluctant colleague Dr. Watson (Law) most solve the mystery of a Satanist (Stone) who has seemingly returned from the dead to continue a killing spree. Meanwhile, Holmes old adversary and lover Irene Adler (McAdams) has reappeared on the scene with a mysterious agenda of her own.

The most famous of all consulting detectives gets the big budget, CGI-generated "stunts" action movie treatment in a film with actors who give far better performances than this flabby movie probably deserved.

Some reviewers have been upset by the "action movie" feel this film has, even commenting that Holmes shouldn't be an action hero. I don't quite agree with that sentiment, as Holmes always seemed like a man of action and quite willing to resort to violence when necessary. What annoys me is the pointlessness of much of the action and some of the stupidity of it.

I don't know whether it's the gigantic budget he had to work with here, or whether he's devolved as a director over the past ten years, but Guy Ritchie seemed to have a far better sense for how to make an exciting movie when he did "Snatch" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" in the late 1990s.

The flow of the movie, and therefore the attention to the viewer, is repeatedly disrupted by pointless side treks and plot detours, such as a long sequence with Holmes in a boxing match (a very stupid thing for a genius like Holmes to engage in, even if he is a thrill-seeker), or one where he is tricked by Irene Adler and ends up handcuffed and naked in bed (an scene mostly there for a single feeble gag). These irrelevancies might not be so bad if they added some definition to the characters, but the traits shown in these scenes are already introduced and reinforced in other far more relevant and important scenes, making the filler material like the above-mentioned sequences that much more annoying and boring. The end result is that the film has a flabby, drawn-out feeling to it.

Then there's the asinine slow-motion and absolutely annoying jerky/blurry camera work during the action scenes. It's not artistic, it doesn't enhance the suspense... it's just irritating and stupid.

The script is also not all it could have been. I've already mentioned pointless scenes, but a far bigger problem is the case that Holmes is working on. It's so much that he is squaring off against what seems to be a supernatural menace (even if that is more in keeping with Doyle's non-Holmes tales than this one) it's that the bad guys are of the "trying to take over the world" variety. What's next for Holmes at this point? Battling Professor Moriarty after he teams up with Ming the Merciless to conquer the Universe? A smaller, perhaps even more petty, motivation for the villains would have been far more suitable.

It's too bad this film wasn't helmed by a more competent director and based on a more solid script, because the approach taken by both the script and the actors to the characters of Holmes and Watson feels very much in keeping with the stories from which they originally sprang. While the nature of the adventure is pretty far removed from anything Doyle included in the Holmes stories, but Downey and Law portray a Holmes and a Watson that I think Doyle probably would have appreciated. They are far better than the celebrated team of Basil Rathbone & Nigel Bruce, slightly better than Jeremy Brett & Edward Hardwicke, and standing nearly equal with my favorite on-screen Holmes & Watson team of Peter Cushing & Andre Morrell.

All in all, file this Holmes version with the Hammer "The Hound of the Baskervilles" starring Cushing and Morrell. It gets the characters right, it's very entertaining, but the storyline is a bit far from Conan Doyle. Not as far as some of the Basil Rathbone films, but pretty far nonetheless.

'Prom Night IV': The 'Angels & Demons' of slasher films

Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (1992)
Starring: Nikki de Boer, Alden Kane, Joy Tanner, Alle Ghadban, and James Carver
Director: Clay Borris
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A demon-possessed Catholic priest (Carver) stalks and kills fornicating teenagers (de Boer, Kane, Tanner, and Ghadban) who have snuck for a weekend of nookie at an isolated country home that used to be a monastery.

"Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil" is a by-the-numbers slasher flick that is distingushed by a creepier-than-average slasher, thanks to a chilling performance by James Carver, and a cuter-than-average central chick in the form of Nikki de Boer, who gives the best performance in the entire film. In fact, she is so good she makes her nearly charisma-free co-star Alden Kane look even less talented than he does in scenes he doesn't share with de Boer. In fact, de Boer gives a performance that belongs in the Slasher Movie Hall of Fame, right along side Jamie Lee Curtis' turn in "Terror Train" and "Halloween".

The film even manages to do something that the original "Prom Night"did not... it manages to dish out some truly shocking and startling imagery. The film surprises more than once in that area... and I can't get specific, because it will ruin the surprises if you haven't seen this movie.

Unfortunately there are two big problems with this "Prom Night" sequel, and they conspire to make it only slightly better than the original film in the series.

The first problem is with the script. It's very uneven and herky-jerky in its pacing. After a strong start--with prelude murders, the presentation of a secret Catholic cabal that makes those guys protecting the DaVinci Code look like first-round "American Idol" contestants, and a startling dispatch of what looked to be a main character even before the film's main story has started--but it then threatened to stall out with an uninteresting build-up to the bloody teen butchery that invariably takes place in a film like this. Once the killing started, the film did an okay job of keeping up the suspense and terror, but there were at least five minutes of pure padding that should have been gotten rid of before we got there.

The second problem is with the title. While the "Prom Night" series has never been one to care about continuity between movies--the first was a simple revenge tale, the two middle ones were about a Prom Queen who was too bitchy to die, and the one being discussed here goes off in yet another direction that has nothing to do with any of the other films. In fact, it doesn't even really have anything to do with a prom, except one is talked about and the four main characters drive by one on their way to their weekend of private debauchery. I suspect the producers of the film had a generic slasher flick that they hoped to boost audience for by associating it with an established brand. It's almost too bad they did that, because Father Jonas could possibly have been another Jason or Michael if he had been allowed to skewer unsuspecting fornicators with his bladed crucifix. It would have freed the film of the tedious task of paying lip-service to a prom that has nothing to do with anything, and it might have left more time for the whole Church Conspiracy/Demon Possession angle.

On the other hand, whoever holds the rights to this film isn't terribly swift, so I can see how they might have thought the "Prom Night" brand would held their movie rather than hurt it. After all, this film was NOT released under a new title to take advantage of the "Catholic Conspiracy Craze" that was stirred up by the "DaVinci Code" and "Angels & Demons" hype of recent years.

Despite its weaknesses and its history of bad marketing, "Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil" is a fairly decent slasher flick. Fans of the classics in this horror subgenre should get a kick out of it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Welcome to 'Watching the Detectives'

As the header implies, this is where I'll be posting reviews of crime dramas, action films, and other movies featuring criminals and lawmen. It's part of a family of blogs I'm using to organize reviews written in the past, and ones I'll be writing in the future. You can see a list of the others to the right.

This old ad (set to the Elvis Costello tune "Watching the Detectives") sums up what you'll find here quite nicely.

Props just for being titled 'Werewolf Bitch'

The Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewolf (aka "Howling II: Stirba, Werewolf Bitch")(1986)
Starring: Annie McEnroe, Reb Brown, Christopher Lee, Marsha Hunt, Sybil Danning, Judd Omen and Ladislav Krecmer
Director: Philippe Mora
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

Occultist Stefan Crosscoe (Lee) convinces Jenny (McEnroe) that her newscaster sister's mysterious death was caused by werewolves. Together with Jenny's fiance Ben (Brown), they travel to Transylvania to avenge her sister and take advantage of a once-in-a-millenia chance to destroy the immortal Stirba, Mother of Werewolves (Danning).

"The Howling II: Your Sister Is a Werewof" (released in GB with the subtitle "Stirba, Werewolf Bitch", one of my all-time favorite movie titles) is not a good movie by any standard. The script is muddled to the point of near-incomprehensibility and the film is edited in such a way that scenes seem like they're out of place--Is the underground club at the start of the movie a werewolf hangout or not? Is the new wave/punk band performing there also performing at Stirba's Transylvanian werewolf sex party, or is reusing the performance some weird attempt at padding the run-time? Why does Jenny decide to take a bath in the middle of the day, especially when she knows Stefan may call her to head out to werewolf castle any time? Why do the number of werewolves seem to increase and descrease at random and/or according to the needs of the plot? Why do the heroes wait until nightfall to raid the castle?-- and the acting is barely passable by everyone involved, including that offered by the great Christopher Lee.

And then there's the werewolf make-up and transformation scenes. It's not the worst I've ever seen, but, although this was clearly a low-budget quickie, the budget stil was such that it could have allowed for something better than werewolf costuming that looks like it was created with a make-up kit bought off the shelf in a Halloween costume shop along with fake fur harvested from coats at the thrift shop. The take-away lesson here is that if you're going to make a werewolf movie, put the money into hiriing a decent make-up artist and make-up effects designer.

For all that's wrong with this movie, it's still got a touch of that "so bad it's good" charm to it. There are few movies you;ll see that will have you wondering "Did I just see what I think I saw? Did I just hear them say what I think they said?"

I hesitate to recommend this film--too many of you reading this know how to email me and some of you even know where I live--but it might be a worthwhile addition to a werewolf-themed Bad Movie Night, or perhaps something to have running in a screening room at a large Halloween party. (Just be aware, there is subject matter in the film that's not appropriate for the kiddies. The players of "Ricky Shore Sings the Blues" called attention to that fact when they featured a clip from "Howling II" in their Werewolves in Heat skit. And a great skit that was, too. I would have loved to have imbedded it here, but it seems to have vanished from the web. A shame really.)

'His Girl Friday' is a true comedy classic

His Girl Friday (1940)
Starring: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant and Ralph Bellamy
Director: Howard Hawkes
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

While attempting to score an interview with a man slated for execution the next morning, an unscrupulous newspaper editor (Grant) juggles politics, yellow journalism, and a desperate attempt to prevent his ex-wife and former top reporter (Russell) from marrying an insurance salesman (Bellamy) and quitting the newspaper business.

"His Girl Friday" is a comedy on speed, cocaine, crystal meth, and just about any other upper you can think of. It's crammed wall-to-wall with jokes, gags, and lampooning of crooked politicians and ruthless journalists, and you'll have to watch the movie twice to catch them all, because your laughter will drown out a fifth of them on the first time through.

This is one of the fastest paced movies ever made--it never pauses once it gets going, but speeds along at a mile a minute, with characters always doing two or more things at the same time and several actors usually talking over each other at once. It's a chaotic film--perhaps even a little chaotic for its own good at times--but every joke is funny and every actor featured gives a great, high energy performance. (Russell and Grant are particularly noteworthy. Russell manages to play a character who is as tough as her male counterparts yet is still feminine and sexy, while Grant plays a man who is a complete bastard, but he still keeps the character likable and charming.)

"His Girl Friday" is a true comedy classic that remains relevant nearly seventy years after its first release, because, if anything, politicians and reporters have gotten even more slimy and callous than they were in 1940.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tomie: Great comic book, crappy movie

Tomie (1999)
Starring: Yoriko Douguchi, Miho Kanno and Mami Nakamura
Director: Ataru Oikawa
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

Junji Ito created one of the only truly scary comic book series I've read--"Uzemaki." His other famous series Tomie is almost as creepy, although you'd never know it from this astoundingly boring movie adaptation.

"Tomie" is the tale of a teen girl who is the center of violent love triangles where everyone involved ends up dead, including her. And, yes, it's plural, because Tomie is so evil that even death cannot stop her--her body always regrows, even from dismemberment, into an exact replica of when she was at her most beautiful... and then she goes looking for more victims to seduce and lead to destruction.

"Tomie" is an awful movie in every sense of the word. The only reason I suffered through it until the end was because I wanted to review it for here and because I kept thinking it HAD to get better.

"Tomie" fails to take advantage of nearly everything that was truly creepy in the original source material, so it starts boring and it stays there; is filled with drab characters having inane conversations; spends too much time with characters talking about how horrific things are instead of showing the viewer the horror; and has special and gore effects so awful that Ed Wood is embarrassed on the filmmakers' behalf. Finally, the film seems to assume that the viewer is familiar with the Ito comics series, which is an unforgivable sin in my opinion.

"Tomie" would have been a One Star movie, except the actors seem to be doing as good a job as can be expected with the awful script they're working with. I still recommend that you avoid this one.

There are at least six other Tomie movies that have been made since the release of this one, and this is one series where the films get better as they go. This is the only Tomie film bad enough so far to end up here. The rest will be reviewed here.

'Identity' is a mystery within a mystery

Identity (2003)
Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet
Director: James Mangold
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

On a stormy night, a group of unrelated strangers are stranded at a motel... and then they start dying most horribly. As they try to find the murderer among them, it becomes apparent that they aren't the strangers they first thought they were, and that they have been brought here by mysterious forces far stronger than chance.

"Identity" is one of those movies that it's hard to talk about without spoiling the entire thing. It's extremely well-crated in that the characters start to recognize that there's something seriously wrong with the situation they have been thrust into--in addition to the fact that someone is butchering them "Ten Little Indians"-style--as the viewer does. Similarly, the characters become aware of the impossibility and improbility of what is unfolding at the same pace that the viewer does. At every turn, the movie keeps pace with the audience, continuing to share revelations at the right moment, while constantly upping the tension level and making the need to find the answers evermore desirable by the characters and the viewers. This film is quite strange, but it is a well-made kind of strange.

There have been a lot of mystery and suspense thrillers in recent years that have attempted to be oh-so-clever and have relied on twist-endings that were either so far-fetched and unsupported by what has gone before that they feel like cheats or just plain stupid, or were so predictable that the audience figured them out well before the "big revelation." With "Identity," the filmmakers get it just right, and they have actually made a clever film within the trappings of a well-used mystery movie set-up. What's more, the sets are great, the camerawork extremely well-done, and the acting is top-notch from all players.

If you have patience, a love of mystery and suspense films, and tolerance for the slightly bizarre, I think you'll enjoy the claustrophobic, meanacing sense that permeates "Identity." And I think you'll get a kick out of a "big revelation" that actually works.

Two decades later, 'Dead Calm' remainsNicole Kidman at her best

Dead Calm (1989)
Starring: Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, and Billy Zane
Director: Philip Noyce
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

John (Neill) and Rae (Kidman) are cruising the Pacific on their yacht, putting their lives and marriage back together after a tragedy claimed their son. They come upon an adrift schooner and rescue Hughie (Zane) from it. John is instantly suspicious of Hughie's claim that he's the only survivor of food-poisoning onboard... and his suspicions soon prove well-founded. The lesson learned is to not pick up hitchikers, even on the high seas.

"Dead Calm" is an exciting thriller blessed with a spectacular script. It is elevated further by some great camerawork, incredible sets, and fantastic performances by all the actors involved. Kidman does the best acting job I've ever seen from her, and I might agree her star status was well deserved if I hadn't seen her stink up the joint in other films.

The movie kept me engaged from beginning to end. Unlike some online commentators on this film, I appreciated the fact that John and Rae remained decent human beings throughout.

The common complaint among reviewers is "why didn't Rae kill Hughie at any one of the several times she had the chance?" I think many of those people don't understand how a real person with real emotions functions--assuming that person isn't a psychopath. The fact John and Rae don't kill Hughie makes the film all the more believable to me, ore so than so many other thrillers that devolve into vigilante fantasies in their third acts.

Even if you normally can't stand Nicole Kidman, she gives a good performance in this film, which is further blessed by the fact that it is populated with realistic characters. It's definately worth seeking out.

'Line' is an interesting thriller marred by lazy translation

Line (American edition published by ADV Manga, 2006)
Story and Art: Yua Kotegawa
Rating: 6/10

Chiko, a typical high school girl, picks up a lost cell phone. It rings, and the voice on the other end tells her of a gruesome death that only she can stop, one that will happen in just minutes. Chiko ignores the warning, but the death occurs as predicted. More calls follow and the voice on the phone tells her when and where suicides are going to occur, and that she is the only hope of stopping them. Soon, Chiko and her bookish friend Bando are on an all-night quest, rushing all throughout Tokyo to beat the clock and save lives.

"Lines" is an unusual graphic novel that takes the standard thriller premise of the mysterious voice on the phone with a threatening of ambigious message and uses it to tell a suspenseful tale that explores teen angst, the twin dangers of isolation and dehumanization in the internet age, and the risk of being swept along by a thrill-seeking adrenaline rush. It also has a nice thread about how Chiko gains more insight into her self and her life while she attempts to grasp the situation she has been thrust into and why so many kids want to kill themselves.

It's a fast-paced book that doesn't quite manage to maintain the suspense to the end, but it's entertaining enough. Kotegawa's art is crisp--if somewhat generic--art is easy on the eye and makes the story easy to follow.

My biggest complaint with the book is that it's been shoddily translated. It reads from back to front, because ADV was either too lazy or too cheap to either mirror or re-arrange the art so the book flowed according to English langauage and publishing standards. I can't fault them too much, however, because they're simply doing what has become industry standard.

A few years back, some clever executive somewhere decided to market Japanese translations without mirrored art (books that read from right to left as they do when in their original Japanese) as "authentic translations." The foolish consumer bought into it, the publishers took advantage of the cost savings, and now the majority of translations available are lazy and shoddily done.

I don't care that Japanese books are read from right to left. English books are not. The graphic novel imports should be translated properly and the consumers should have demanded that the be so. (At this point, it's too late. Only holdouts like me refuse--for the most part--to spend my good money on lazy work. No one stood up and said that the Emperor was authentically not wearing any clothes... or, if they did, no one paid attention. Marketing once again won out over quality.)

[left]But, my rant aside, if the akward presentation of "Line" doesn't bother you, I think and you enjoy Japanese comics, I think it's a book worth checking out. (It's also might be suitable for that young teen girl in your household who is into mysteries and manga.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Brittany Murphy shines in 'Cherry Falls'

Actress Brittnay Murphy died today from cardiac arrest at the age of 32. I only saw her in a single film, but she was the best part of it. In fact, she made a fairly mediocre slasher film into a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Cherry Falls (2000)
Starring: Brittany Murphy, Michael Biehn, Jay Mohr, and Gabriel Mann
Director: Geoffrey Wright
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When three teens are tortured and murdered in the small Virginia town of Cherry Falls, it quickly becomes evident that the victims are linked by two things: They went to the same high school and they were virgins. What dark secret are the leading citizens of Cherry Falls keeping that's getting their (non-sexually active) children killed?

"Cherry Falls" is a mildly suspenseful slasher-flick that's remarkable first by the fact that it takes a prime convention and turns it upside-down: The promiscuous kids are safe in this one... it's the ones that are keeping their pants on that are at risk; and second that the characters are actually intelligent. Only once does a character fall show traits of "horror movie braindeadness" where they go into a dark and creepy place... but it's in a spot where she has no reason to suspect that any danger could be lurking.

Good acting from an attractive cast--with Brittnay Murphy being particularly excellent--and some well-execute plot-twists go a long way to making this film worth seeing. It's not a masterpiece, but it's not bad either. It's low on bodycount as far as slasher flicks go, but what kills it does feature are brutal and shocking.

Miss Marple is out to sea in 'Murder Ahoy!'

Murder Ahoy (1964)
Starring: Margaret Rutherford, Lionel Jeffries, Stringer Davis, Charles Tingwell, and Nicholas Parsons
Director: George Pollock
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

On the very day Miss Marple (Rutherford) is appointed to the Board of Trustees of a charity that runs a sailing ship where juvenile delinquients are rehabilitated, one of the other boardmembers is murdered. Miss Marple goes onboard the ship to investigate, and more murders follow as she uncovers a tangle of crime on the high seas that Blackbeard would have envied.

"Murder Ahoy" features Agatha Christie's Miss Marple character, but the film isn't based on any of Christie's books. In fact, like so many screen adaptations of literary characters, Miss Marple as she appears here is quite different than the Miss Marple of Christie's novels and short stories. (I think the only similarity is that they're both old spinsters who enjoy knitting. I can't ever imagine the Miss Marple in the books spending the night in jail, or dueling a killer with sabres as she does in this film, but both events fit perfectly with Miss Marple as played by Rutherford, who is more mischevious than prim.)

Although the story and actions of the various criminals and killers don't make a whole lot of sense, and the police are either stupider or lazier than suspension of disbelief can allow for, the film's leads give such fun performances that it hardly matters. Rutherford gives a great performance, but she is ably supported by Lionel Jeffries (as a twitchy ship's captain who is driven up the wall by Miss Marple's nosiness), Charles Tingwell (as a frustrated police inspector who shares the captain's pain), and Stringer Davis (who plays an elderly friend of Miss Marple who becomes her partner in detection and police-annoying). There's also a hilarious running gag with the doctor who is called to inspect the corpses (Parsons) always needing to run off to deliver a baby.("It's always life and death with him," comments a character after one of the doctor's speedy departures.)

There's also some marvelous soundtrack music by Ron Goodman's marverlous score--particularly the bouncy main theme--also plays a large part in making this movie as enjoyable as it is.

While may not have a whole lot to do with Agatha Christie's original Miss Marple character (or anything Christie actually wrote), this is a fun little comedy/mystery film that's worth checking out.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

'Whistle Stop' is done in by a weak script

Whistle Stop (1946)
Starring: George Raft, Ava Gardner, Victor McLaglan, Tom Conway, and Jorja Curtright
Director: Leonide Moguy
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Mary (Gardner) returns to her home town after two years away, she rekindles a rivalry between Kenny (Raft), a two-bit loser she's always loved, and Lew (Conway), the local hotel owner--and hood-- who has always been in love with her. This time, the rivalry leads to more than just a few thrown punches... this time, it leads to robbery and murder.

"Whistle Stop" feels more like a summary of a story than the actual story. We learn learn next to nothing about the characters other than their most obvious traits (Why does Mary really come back to town? What was she really doing for those two years in Chicago? Why does Lew go to such extreme measures to get even with Kenny... is he really just a bastard?), we learn very little about the deep relationships that exist between them (Why does Gitlo--a resentment-filled employee of Lew, who is played by Victor McLaglan--have such a soft spot for Mary? Has Mary and her family always been the landlords of Kenny's family and is that how they met?). Perhaps if we knew a little more about the characters in the film, the ending would have felt a little less strange.

This is one of those films that's technically well made and features decent performances by all the actors, but which is ultimately undone by a bad script. The end result is okay but unremarkable.

'The Messengers' are not bringing tidings of joy

The Messengers (2007)

Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, John Corbett, and Penelope Ann Miller
Directors: Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Sixteen-year-old Jess (Stewart) moves wth her parents and little brother to a remote farm where everyone hopes to get a fresh start after a very difficult couple of years. Soon after they move in, strange events start occurring in the house, and they increase to terrifying levels after Jess' father (McDermott) hires Burwell, a mysterious but friendly drifter (Corbett), to help out around the farm. Will Jess discover the secret behind the nightmarish events that only she and her little brother seem to witness before it's too late?

"The Messengers" is one of those movies that has gotten a bad rap from moronic critics who can't seem to recognize when they're not the target audience for a film. Yes, there is nothing new or innovative in this film, nor is the plot particularly clever--anyone who's seen more than three haunted out movies KNOWS that Burwell is somehow the key to the haunting of Jess and the house. However, for the target audience--which is 12-14 year-old girls who want something spooky for the slumber party, this is just about the perfect movie. (The protagonist is a girl who is having a hard time getting along with her parents, who no one listens to, and who saves the day almost by herself. It's also a film that ultimately carries with it a very strong message of family values and that parents and children still love each other even if they sometimes argue.)

Even seasoned ghost movie watchers will find something to like about this flick--so maybe it's worth watching if you're a parent with a girl in the house who likes creepy movies--as it moves along at a brisk (if predictable pace) and there are some nicely staged chills and some even better "gotcha!" scenes. (Say what you will about this movie being derivative, but directors Pang-Chun and Pang understand that if you're going to have spooky music playing on the soundtrack and/or set up a creepy circumstances, you better have it pay off. Too many PG-13 and even some R-rated horror flicks these days seem to think that all you need to do to make a horror movie is to build suspense and then go "ha-ha... just kidding!")

There's another thing the filmmakers recognized here that more creators need to take to heart: That last second shock, after the viewer things the horror is all over with, that was so startling when it first came into vogue some 35-40 years ago is no longer shocking. It's now so expected that it's often annoying because it is so obviously tacked on. Thankfully, the creators involved with "The Messengers" knew to avoid THAT cinematic cliche, and they ended up giving their movie an ending that wrapped the story and themes of the film perfectly. The climactic events of the film plus its denouement are worth a full point on the ratings scale by themselves, as we go from very scary to very peaceful.

'Horrors of Spider Island' is absolutely horrible

Horrors of Spider Island (aka "The Spider's Web", "It's Hot in Paradise", and "Girls of Spider Island" (1962)
Starring: Alex D'Arcy, Helga Franck, and a bunch of washed-up dancers and wanna-be porn actresses.
Director: Fritz Boettger
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

An impresario (D'Arcy) and his Girl Friday (Franck) are on their way to Singapore with a recently hired troupe of obnoxious, bitchy strippers and chorus girls when their plan crashes. They take refuge on a desolate south sea isand, where the heat makes the girls strip down to bare essentials, where they are menaced by a goofy-looking spider puppet, and where their fearless leader (who's named Gary) is soon transformed into a hideous half-man, half-spider creature. And that's when things get REALLY boring.

I understand there's an "adults only" version of this film that was released, That's not the version I saw. Maybe nudity makes it more interesting, although I sincerely doubt that. Aside from being boring and full of unsexy sexiness, this film features such slipshod use of stock footage that even Edward D. Wood, Jr would grab director Fritz Boettger by the lapels and scream, "What in God's name were you doing man?!" For example, the doomed plane that carries Gary and the babes to Spider Island starts as a two-engine jet, becomes a four-engine plane while in the air, and transforms into a completely different kind of plane (a bomber, I think) as it crashes.

The only horror you'll find in this film is the realization you will never get the 80 minutes you spend watcing it back.

Saturday Scream Queen: Jamie Lee Curtis

Jamie Lee Curtis' presence in a 1980s slasher flick is sure sign that it's worth checking out. She was in the best of the "Halloween" series, as well as "Terror Train" and others. As the 1990s progressed, she mostly left horror films for comedy, and ultimately retired from acting to focus on her writing career.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Worst. Prom. Ever. (Except for the ones in the sequels.)

Prom Night (1980)
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Casey Stevens, Michael Tough, Anne-Marie Martin, Mary-Beth Rubens, Joy Thompson, George Touliatos, Pita Oliver and Sheldon Rybowski
Director: Paul Lynch
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

A masked killer targets four teens (Stevens, Martin, Rubens, and Tompson) who covered up their involvement in the accidental death of a playmate six years prior. It's their senior prom, and, conincidentally, the older sister of the dead girl (Curtis) is the queen of the prom and one of the intended victims is the king. Will she become a victim herself, or will she stop the murderer dead in his tracks? What tragedies will play out on this prom night to remember.

"Prom Night" is a nicely done slasher-flick that is the direct antecedent of "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and similar "dark secret" high school slasher flicks where a murderer bent on avenging a hidden crime on prom night, graduation day, homecoming or some other event that's standard on the annual calendar of American high schools. It starts out promising and presents viewers with the standard mix of Kids We Like and Kids We Hate, with even a few we feel okay in rooting for, or hoping they escape the murderer's sharp weapons of death.

The actors all give acceptable performances, but no one stands out in particular. Jamie Lee Curtis plays the "Survivor Girl" character that we've see her play in "Halloween" and "Terror Train", but she doesn't quite rise to the level of the performances she gave in those films. She, like every other cast member gives a satisfactory performance but there's nothing remarkable about it. She, Leslie Neilsen, and everyone else is good enough but not spectacular.

If average acting was the weakest part of "Prom Night", it could have ended up at the high end of average. Unfortunately, the film is done in either by a sloppy script, or by sloppy post-production hackjob editing. Because of poor attention to story development and details, the various red herrings surrounding the killer start stinking like they've been left in the sun for three days by the third act, and the climactic moments of the film don't quite come together because of too many loose ends and inexplicably missing characters. (I can't say who isn't around for the film's climax without spoiling the true identity of the killer, it's an absense that needed to be explained instead of the character just vanishing halfway through the movie. Similarly, the absense of the killer while he was out stalking victims should have been noted by someone at the dance, because he definately would have been missed.)

"Prom Night" is a film that's interesting from a historical perspective as it was the first true example of the "teen slasher" subgenre that ultimately led to a revival of the slasher flicks that hasn't run its course yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

'Murder in the Museum' is a smokin' mystery

Murder in the Museum (1934)
Starring: John Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Phyllis Barrington, Donald Kerr, Steve Clemente and Joseph W. Girad
Director: Melville Shyer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When a city councilman is murdered while on a fact-finding mission to a local "museum of oddities", the police commisioner (Girard) emerges as the most likely suspect. However, crimebeat reporter Jerry Ross (Herron) sets out to prove his innocence in order to impress tthe commisioners niece (Barrington), a beautiful young lady he's taken an interest in.

"Murder at the Museum" is a nicely executed who-dunnit with an unusual and unpredictable setting of a Skid Row freak show. Everyone in the establishment has a dark history with secrets, but which of the them had enough darkness in their background to murder the holier-than-thou crusading councilman? And how was the crime committed?

In addition to its convincingly drawn seedy sideshow setting, the film is blessed with a fast-moving plot, well-crafted dialogue and a cast of talented actors. The characters are all engaging and interesting and the usual annoying traits of the stock character of the wise-cracking reporter who outsmarts the police are not quite as nerve-grating as they often are, both due to the writing and to the inherent charm of actor John Harron.

There is one odd bit in the film that made me curious about where Monogram Pictures might have received funding for the film. Smoking is a part of every day life, so characters smoking in a film do not cause me to throw hysterical fits the way it does some people, but there's a scene in the film that feels like it should be in a cigarette commercial. It is so strange and so out of place that I can't help but wonder if it's there at the demands of an investor. (I can't really say more about the scene without giving away part of the movie, but if you see the film you'll know exactly what I'm referring to.)

As far as I've been able to determine, "Murder at the Museum" is only available on DVD from Alpha Video, and the print they used had some unfortunate damage to it... like the key couple of seconds missing where a masked killer is throttling the life out of Jerry Ross. It's not unusual for old films from long-gone studios to be in bad shape, but it's something I feel obligated to point out when it disrupts the flow of the story.

'House of the Living Dead' is soul-crushingly boring

House of the Living Dead (aka "Curse of the Dead" and "Kill, Baby, Kill!")(1973)
Starring: Mark Burns, Shirley Anne Field, David Oxley and Bill Flynn
Director: Ray Austin
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A South African plantation is haunted by a madman who starts killing animals but soon graduates to the butchering of people. Will the young lady of the house (Field) get to the bottom of the mysteries of this family she's marrying into... before she becomes a victim herself?

"House of the Living Dead" could have been a nice little gothic horror film if only its 85 minutes or so weren't so soul-crushingly dull. This is a film that takes "gradual build-up" to new extremes, but it does so without successfully building the sense of menace necessary. The last half hour, though, is great, spooky, 19th century mad-scientist/occultist fun... but it's not enough to make the misery of the film's early part worth sitting through.

Like so many bad horror films, "House of the Living Dead" has a great idea at its core, but its execution is completely botched. The actors all do a decent job, but the writer and director fail them. The end result is a movie that is best avoided... unless you're the world's greatest devotee of South African cinema.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A cautionary tale about inviting strangers to stay over

Guest in the House (aka "Satan in Skirts") (1944)
Starring: Anne Baxter and Ralph Bellamy
Director: John Brahm
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Douglas (Bellamy) invites the ill fiance (Baxter) of his brother to spend the summer with him and his family at their house on the New England coast, so the fresh air and relaxation can speed her recovery. The twisted, mentally unstable woman is soon secretly manipulating everyone in the household, turning them against one another, all so she may possess the house and Douglas for herself.

"Guest in the House" is a slow-burn melodrama where the viewers watch one evil, mentally deranged woman gradually destroy the love between members of a happy home (where even the servants and employees are treated as though they are part of the family). Although some of her manipulations are so clumsy and should have been easy for the other characters to see through (and thus the believability of the story is strained a bit), it is engrossing to watch Baxter's character gradually poison the mood in the house and increasingly isolate Douglas from everyone else by sowing doubts and suspicion.

I did find myself wondering, however, if Anne Baxter had more than one facial expression and vocal intonation in her bag of acting tools. It seemed like she wore same expression for most of the film (except for the occasional smile) and it wasn't until the final scenes that she seemed to be doing anything but running lines.

Anne Baxter aside (and it's a big thing to set aside, as she's the film's co-star), the rest of the cast performed nicely. Bellamy seemed slightly miscast, but he played the part as the kindhearted, somewhat oblivious artist, husband, and father. The staging and lighting of the scenes was also nicely done. In fact, it's only the entirely too slow of the movie's first hour that lands the film at the low end of average as far as my rating goes.

Picture Perfect Wednesday:Merry Christmas from Kosuke Fujishima

This drawing originally appeared as a splash page for Japanese writer/artist's classic police comedy comic book "You're Under Arrest!"

"You're Under Arrest!" remains my favorite Kosuke Fujishima creation. Sadly, a complete English translation of the series was never published, and I doubt we'll ever see one. If we do, it will be a sloppily done one, since they've long since stopped doing proper translations of Japanese comics. (And a "proper" translation involves mirroring and rearranging the art... English is NOT read from right to left and comic book fans are letting themselves be ripped off by accepting the shoddy and lazy efforts being put forth by publishers. Can't blame the publishers, though... if readers are willing to pay for crap, then that's what they deliver.)

You can read all about the main characters of "You're Under Arrest!" by clicking here. The link goes to a section of my website where I posted an adaptation of the comic book to the "Big Eyes, Small Mouth" roleplaying game system.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Collections of Rumiko Takahashi short stories both delights and dissapoints

Japanese writer/artist Rumiko Takahashi has been referred as the 'Queen of Romantic Comedy.' This is a title that works such as "Ranma 1/2" and "Maison Ikkoku" proves that she richly deserves.

I've referred to Takahashi in articles as one of the greatest living comic book creators in the world. In this post, I review two volumes of short stories where she shows her range as a story-teller, especially when it comes to telling stories that aren't usually presented in the sequential art medium.

Rumic Theatre (American Edition published by Viz Media)
By Rumiko Takahashi
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

Rumic Theatre is a collection of six of the finest Rumiko Takahashi stories that I've read so far. As always, the characters are likable and engaging, the tender moments touching, and the comedy top-notch. All of the elements that her fans love are displayed here, but we also find that she is capable of creating far more sedate stories than usually flow from her pen.

All the tales in Rumic Theatre are more down-to-earth than Takahashi's usual output, dealing primarily with the trails and tribulations of everyday people--all of whom are characterized in a believable and three-dimensional fashion--but that typical Takahashi magic is still very clearly evident on every page. What's more, the art in this collection is among the best she's produced.

My personal favorites in this collection are 'The Tragedy of P,' (which revolves around a pet penguin in an apartment building where animals are absolutely not allowed), 'Hidden in the Pottery (where reality, perception, and the dangers of gossip are examined), and 'Extra-large Happiness' (where a young wife sees her future happiness endangered by a gremlin that only she can see). The remaining stories are also of high quality, but the characters and situations in the three mentioned above are the ones that moved me the most.

Even those who don't typically appreciate the 'standard' style of Japanese comics should consider buying this book. If you appreciate the art of comic books for more than just slam-bang superheroics, you won't be dissapointed.

One or Double (American Edition published by Viz Media)

Story and Art: Rumiko Takahashi
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

One or Double is a collection of short tales that don't fit into any of Rumiko Takahashi's ongoing series. Unlike the first volume, which contained mostly recent stories, this one seems to cover a range of years, judging from the art styles. They're not all winners, but over all this book is yet more solid evidence that Takahashi is a master of the graphic story telling medium. Whether you're a fan of "manga" or not, there's no denying that she's a skilled artist and writer who deserves the accolades and success she has enjoyed.

Most of the standout stories in the book are, sports-themed. 'Excuse Me for Being a Dog!,' (a young boxer turns into a dog whenever he gets a bloody nose) 'Winged Victory,' (the tale of a rugby team that's lost 999 games in a row and the ghost who watches over it), 'The Grandfather of All Baseball Games' (a young man plays hardball with his obnoxious grandfather), and the title story (in which a kendo instructor is put in the body of the club's pretty manager) all use sports either as the backdrop or motivation for the story and its characters. The characters in these stories are Takahashi at her most charming.

'The Diet Goddess' (about a girl who buys a dress with the intention of losing enough weight to look good in it) and 'Happy Talk' (about an adoptee who embarks on a search for her biological mother) are two slice-of-life stories ala the majority of the shorts from the first 'Rumic Theater' volume, and the 'Maison Ikkoku' series. Again, Takahashi presents us with charming characters the reader can't help but care about, in stories both funny and touching.

Dissapointments in the book include 'To Grandmother's House We Go' (about a pair of hardluck cases who try to collect the large birthright of a deceased friend for themselves) and 'Reserved Seat' (a curious tale about a rock singer who is haunted by his grandmother and Tarakazuka). The first story is simply too short and it feels rushed on every level--the ending feels particularly unsatifactory--while the second is the only Takahashi story I've read where I felt no sympathy or good will toward any of the characters present in it.

Finally, there's 'Shake Your Bhudda,' a tale that is to very early Takahashi. It's clear she was still mastering her craft when it was created, and there's very little to recommend this tale. In fact, I feel the book might have been better served if it had been left out all together.

It's not much of a Christmas homecoming in'Silent Night, Bloody Night'

Silent Night, Bloody Night (aka "Death House") (1973)
Starring: Mary Woronov, James Patterson, Patrick O'Neal, Walter Able, Astrid Heeren, and John Carradine
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

When Jack (Patterson) moves to sell the mansion he inherited from his grandfather, a past believed to be dead and buried returns to haunt the living with furious, bloody vengeance. Poor Diane's (Woronov) Christmas gift list will be reduced to virtually no-one by night's end.

"Slient Night, Bloody Night" is not as overtly Christmas-themed as the title might imply, but it is a great little proto-slasherflick and quite possibly the first horror film to flirt with a holiday theme. (In fact, it might be more than a proto-slasherfilm. It's got all the elements that are present in "Halloween", except for fornicating teenagers. We do, however, get an cheating lawyer (O'Neal) and his horny secretary (Heeren).

The bodycount is low by modern slasher-movie standards, but every death is shocking and unexpected. Although I had a vague notion of what I was in for, the first murders took me completely by surprise.

It's a fast-moving film with a bare bones plot, although I wish it could have been a little less bare-bones. I'm still wondering why Jack had to "borrow" his lawyer's Jaguar when he appears in the story. How did he get to the mansion in the first place if he didn't have a car? I also feel that the framing sequence was an odd choice... telling the movie as a flashback undermines a bit of the suspense.

Still, as an example of a thriller/horror movie that was part of the cinematic evolution that led to the slasher flick subgenre, "Silent Night, Bloody Night" is far better than several of its contemporaries.

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Hell Born' should have been aborted

Asylum of the Damned (aka "Hell Born") (2003)
Starring: Matt Stasi, Bruce Payne, Tom Lister, Gregory Wagrowski, and Tracy Scroggins
Director: Phil Jones
Rating: Two of Ten Stars

When James Bishop (Stasi) goes from run-of-the-mill resident to supervisor of a ward at St. Andrews' State Mental Hospital straight ouf of medical school, he thinks his career is off to a rocketing start. However, he soon discovers this mental hospital is a little more hellish than most... and that a demonic cult is feeding the patients to a demon in the hospital's basement.

"Asylum of the Damned" features a lazily written, badly researched script--from presenting a plot that only works because our hero behaves stupidly from the outset, to presenting us with a hospital so badly run that even the demon in the basement wouldn't be able to save its director (Payne) from being investigated by any number of regulatory commissions--that features dialogue that's so tortured at times that the writer must have been emulating Ed Wood.

The film also fails utterly to do what a horror film set against a modern backdrop absolutely must to in order to work: The film never bothers to ground itself in anything that resembles normality. It is groan-inducingly unbelievable from the outset. The creepy way the hospital is presented as soon as our hero arrives, and the behavior of the staff--from the security guard to the head doctor--is so rude and unprofessional from their first appearances that it's plain the viewer is in for something very awful... and it guarantees the film's failure. The overblown attempts at establishing a menacing air IMMEDIATELY in the film means that no true menace is ever really felt--even the hackneyed "gotcha!" scares fail to work, because the film's beginning is so badly botched.

It's a shame the direction and scripting of this movie was so severely botched, because the cast actually did a fairly good decent job. If these actors were assembled for a film with a script that was perhaps taken through a second draft before filming started, and if they were in a film that actually had a first act, I think they might be able to impress. The creature design was also excellent--the soul-eating demon in the hospital's basement is far better looking than I would have expected in a rancid turkey like this. It's the one thing in the film that will make you sit up and go "wow!'

Of course, I don't recommend you ever take the opportunity to view that demon, because "Asylum of the Damned" isn't worth whatever time you devote to it.