Sunday, October 31, 2010

'Trick r Treat' is a Halloween fear fest!

Trick r Treat (2009)
Starring: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Isabelle Deluce, Britt McClipp, Brett Kelly, and Monica Delain
Director: Michael Dougherty
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

If there's a horror movie that perfectly captures the Halloween spirit, then this is it!

"Trick r Treat" is an anthology film consisting of four interlinked and intermingled short horror tales that all start out like traditional horror tales yet provide unexpected twists that are amusing and shocking at the same time... and in a couple if cases even dish out a little poetic justice like the tales in classic horror comics like "Tales from the Crypt."

The film doesn't have a framing sequence per se, but there are two main threads running through all the stories, each of which eventually reach their conclusion when they end up serving as a major plot point in one or more of the tales. The first of these deals with a strange little boy who is wandering the streets with his treat bag late Halloween night, while the other features a pair of sisters and their friend who are "on the prowl for men," so the more shy of the sister can "do it for the first time". Meanwhile, a vampire is killing the residents of a neighborhood, and a vampire is stalking partiers in downtown alleys.

As these threads weave their way in and out the film, a school teacher is revealed to have several dark secrets, a group of kids staging a mean prank Halloween prank on a socially inept girl discover that the legend of a driver killing a bus load of "differently abled" children on Halloween eve is far more than just a scary story; an "adult party" party in the woods comes to a startling conclusion when those who arranged it reveal their true natures, and a bitter, Halloween-hating old man is set upon by what can only be described as the Spirit of Halloween Past, Present, and Future all wrapped into one.

This film is a real treat for anyone who enjoys horror movies, be they of the classic variety or of the somewhat more fast-moving, modern variety. There's something here for everyone--as is usually the case with a well-made anthology film--but what is even better is that we're treated to a whole range of classic horror movie tropes that are then spun off in unexpected and wholly satisfying directions. The film features vampires, ghosts, werewolves, mad slashers... all the figures that belong in Halloween. But the each come with a fun twist that adds a trick with each treat. The stalker of innocent victims ends up stalked himself, the Halloween bullies find the tables turned on them in the most shocking of ways, and the Scrooge-like Halloween-hater gets some "Halloween Carol" action that will stay with the viewer for a long time.

With great looking sets and even better cinematography and lighting, with a great cast performing clever and spooky tales of terror, first-time director Michael Dougherty has delivered the best horror anthology film I've seen in a very, very long time. It's a far better film that its direct-to-DVD release indicates, and it should become a new Halloween tradition in any horror-lover's household. (Except maybe those with young children... but adults will have a blast with this one, even on repeated viewings.)

And with this review, the 31 Nights of Halloween come to a close for another year. I hope everyone out there has a spooktacular time tonight!

Be a Ninja in 30 Seconds or Less

Halloween is here, and Michelle Phan has a last-minute quick and easy costume tip for all you proscratinaters. Or a quick and easy way for you to get ready for the Nine Days of the Ninja, which start tomorrow.

'Cadaverella' is cleverer than many horror flicks

Cadaverella (2007)
Starring: Megan Goddard, Ryan Seymour, Santiago Vasquez, Jennifer Friend, and Kieran Hunter
Director: Timothy Friend
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Cinder (Goddard) is murdered the day before her 21st birthday -- just before she would have gained control of the trust fund her father left her, and just before being able to kick her ex-stripper stepmother and her two freakish stepsisters out of her house -- she is restored to life by voodoo god Baron Samedei (Vasquez) so she can take her revenge.

"Cadaverella" is a neat low-budget horror film, but one that may be a bit too strange for those who like their zombie/revenge flicks pure and brainless. It's mix of fairy tale elements, voodoo, and strange 1950s vibes was fun for me, but it was off-putting to some of the people I viewed the film with.

The story in "Cadaverella" is roughly constructed like the fairy tale "Cinderella" (if the combo of the main character's name and the film's title doesn't make that obvious). Like her fairytale counterpart, Cinder slaves away at work and school while her stepmother and her stepsisters never lift a finger, but unlike the fairytale, Cinder doesn't get to live happily ever after. She is a troubled young woman, and she is more abusive to her Prince Charming (a wheelchair-bound college student named Justin) than loving, and she is ultimately murdered by the motorcycle-riding bad-boy she is attracted to (both played by Seymour, in an interesting casting choice, although I do wish they'd gotten a better wig for the Cash character. While I didn't recognize Seymour--he does a good job at changing his inflections and facial expressions between the two characters--that awful wig did make me take notice of Cash in ways I'm sure the filmmakers didn't intend. Finally, we have Baron Samedei standing in for the Fairy Godmother, granting Cinder's wishes, and seeing that she gets her night at the ball.

With the exception of that one wig, the only other complaint I have with the films production values is that someone should have played a little less with the Video Toaster software (or whatever is being used nowadays. There are some very bad, and unneeded visual effects here and there in the fillm--but since they show up at least twice, the filmmakers must have liked them.

"Cadaverella" has the look of being shot on video, but scenes are framed and staged is anything but cheap. The scene where Cash and Cinder are in the woods, and the camera pulls back to reveal the shovel leaning against a tree particularly stands out in my mind as a resonating image. Another favorite is the bit of slapstick at the library where Donna is electrocuted. In fact, I've seen films that were probably made for ten times the budget of this one where the camera-people could stand to take a few tips from the crew here.

Something else that "Cadaverella" has that many films of this kind do not are main characters that the viewer can relate to. Cinder and Justin come across as real, living human beings (although the library scenes mark Cinder as something of a bitch), and the final scene they share together becomes quite impactful and moving as a result.

In fact, I think Justin and Cinder could have seemed even more real--and their relationship have even more impact--if the writers had spent just a little more time on the dialog the actors delivereed while playing them. The performances are excellent--and far better than I've come to expect from modern low-budget films--and they would have been even stronger if the lines had seemed just a bit more natural. The writers have horror and comedy down, but the dialog remained just a little rough.

Saturday, October 30, 2010








Saturday Scream Queens: Barbara Parkins and Jacqueline Bisset

With the 31 Nights of Halloween coming to a close, we're ending it as it started, with a double-dose of Scream Queens!

Barbara Parkins

Canadian actress Barbara Parkins is best known for her long-time role role as Betty on the soap opera "Peyton Place" and for her starring turn in "Valley of the Dolls". However, she also appeared in some of the niftiest horror movies to come out of the early 1970s, such as British anthology film "Asylum" and the made-for-television chiller "Mephisto Waltz". By the 1980s, she mostly retired from acting, but she continues to accept the occasional role.

Jacqueline Bisset

British-born Jacqueline Bisset was a model-turned-actress who emerged as an international sex symbol during the 1960s and built a genre-spanning spanning, highly successful career from "window-dressing parts" into trend-setting leading lady roles. She starred in several horror and suspense films during the 1970s and 1980s, among which are "Murder on the Orient Express", "The Deep", "Mephisto Waltz" (where she co-starred with today's other Scream Queen), and "Crime Broker". As the 1990s gave way to the 2000s, Bisset made a successful transition from leading lady to character actress, and she continues to act in one or two movies every year.

'The Mephisto Waltz' oozes 1970s horror

The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Alan Alda, Barbara Parkins, Bradford Dillman, and Curt Jurgens
Director: Paul Wendkos
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A dying pianist (Curt Jurgins) makes a bargain with Satan to have his soul put into a younger man's body (Alan Alda). The younger man's wife (Jacqueline Bissett) realizes slowly something is different about her husband... and realizes something is seriously wrong people around them start dying mysterously.

"The Mephisto Waltz" is an unsettling little horror film from the 1970s (and it oozes '70s sensibilities from every frame, along with an unsettling sense of dread) that features a surprising twist as it enters the third act and an even more startling ending. It's not often that I am taken completely by surprise by a film's direction, but I was with this one. (And I've just taken three cracks at hinting at the twist while drafting this review, but each time I felt like I was revealing too much and possibly spoiling the film. I feel the surprsing story development here has to be witnessed "cold" to have its full impact.)

As impressed as I am with the ending of the film, it doesn't start out strong. The filmmakers make a tremendous mistake at the beginning of the film by revealing beyond doubt that Alda's character has been possessed by the old man, and that we are dealing with true Satanic magic. By showing us this up front, it removes a degree of mystery and uncertainty that could have make the movie even more suspenseful.

Still, the film does recover nicely from the early blunder, delivering lots of chilling moments, some suitably eerie dream sequences, and one of the best-handled summonings of Satan I've ever seen. It's a film that's worth seeing, and it's a film that doesn't deserve the obscurity it currently endures.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Rushing toward 'Nine Days of the Ninja'!

This Rumiko Takahashi drawing of fierce Ninja Chicks rushing through the autumn landscape captures the urgency of Ninja everywhere over Nine Days of the Ninja! 

The Nine Days of the Ninja Blogathon will take place November 1 - 9 across many of my blogs. I hope some of you out there will participate with posts of your own. Click here for more information.

Join us for the deadliest of Blogathons!

'The Addams Family' is creepy, kooky, and altogether hilarious

The Addams Family (1991)
Starring: Raul Julia, Angelica Huston, Christopher Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, Christina Ricci, Dana Ivey, and Carel Struycken
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

Tully Alford (Hedaya), the corrupt attorney to the Addams Family--a clan eccentrics who are exceptionally creepy, fabulously wealthy, very generous of spirit, and totally ignorant to the fact that they are completely out of step with the world around them--concocts a scheme to defraud the Addams' of their vast fortune with the use of a lookalike of their long-lost Uncle Fester (Lloyd).

There are very few TV series that have been adapted to the Big Screen as successfully as Sonnenfeld did with "The Addams Family".

Perhaps this is because it feels like the movie was made with love for the original series and source material, where others feel like they were extended ads for the show (like the original "X-Files" movie) or made with contempt for the series (such as the "Charlie's Angels" movies).

With "The Addams Family", we don't get any "reimagining" or mockery of the subject matter. Instead, we have the Addams Family in all their naive glory--unintentionally freaking out everyone around them while simply trying to be neighborly and helpful--and we have a cast that seems to take their characters seriously, even while being overtly comical. What's more, the film carries a strong, positive message about "looks can be deceiving" and family values... What's even better, the script-writer and the director are talented enough and confident enough in their own abilities that they don't feel the need to get preachy or to hammer the audience over the head with the movie's message.

The casting of every part in this film is spot-on. Julia and Huston (as Gomez and Morticia Addams) are perfect as a very strange couple who are deeply devoted to each other, their children (Pugsley and Wedneday--the latter portrayed by Ricci in a hysterically funny goth-like fashion), and their extended family. They are equally devoted to their employees, such as the butler Lurch (Struycken), and others, whom they treat as well as they treat their own family.

Of special note is the childlike glee with which Julia portrays Gomez. Some of the movie's funniest--and saddest moments--come from this aspect of Gomez.

The best part of this movie is the way the strangest characters--the Addams Family--turn out to be the most decent characters in the film. Every supposedly respectable person that interacts with the Addamses is lying and deceitful, while the Addamses never attempt to cheat anyone and virtually always speak their minds.

"The Addams Family" is a Halloween movie that I think everyone in a household should be able to get a kick out of. It's a great fusion of horror and comedy, with a strong emphasis on the comedy.

And here's a special musical bonus....

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Veronica Lake's Ready...

... for Halloween. Are you?

'Creepy Tales: Girls Night Out' disappoints

Creepy Tales: Girls Night Out (2003)
Starring: Joe Heffernan, Samantha Turk, Bianca Joy Chavers, Kimberly Hiss, Scott Shiaffo, and Francine Civelle
Director: Micheal Russin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

"Creepy Tales: Girls Night Out" is an ultra-lowbudget horror anthology film that features three stories which are introduced by a Crypt Keeper-like wise-cracking host, The Professor (Heffernan). The three tales that in the film share the same old school vibe as The Professor, in that they are twist-ending shockers.

The first tale, titled "Girls Night Out" sees two friends (Turk and Chavers) driving along a lonely stretch of road on their way to a friend's house for a party. They encounter an axe-wielding lunatic recently escaped from an insane asylum... and their night only goes down hill from there.

The second tale, "The Creep", sees a small-time attorney (Hiss) whose sanity starts coming unraveled when she comes to believe she is being stalked by a man who has lunch in the same restaurant as she does every day.

Finally, "Blood Moon Rising" is about an ailing businessman (Shiaffo) who falls in love with his private nurse (Civelle). However, both the businessman and the nurse harbor dark secrets, and their hidden natures collide with deadly results.

This is another one of those movies that could have done with a little more time spent on the script.

Only one of the three took a direction that surprised me ("Blood Moon Rising"), but all three kept me mildly entertained, so I didn't mind terribly. I can also forgive the fact that the film wasn't particularly scary, because I did find it amusing. What I did mind was the near-total absence of likable characters anywhere in any of the stories. In at least one case, I'm pretty sure the viewer is supposed to have sympathy with the main characters in "Girls Night Out", but one of them is such a bitch and the other such a dish-rag that I found myself wanting them to get chopped to bits by the axe murderer. I think that if a little more time had been spent on polishing some of the characters, all three stories would have been much stronger, because the viewer would have had someone to relate to on the screen.

I also think the filmmakers should have stayed away from putting monsters in the picture, espcially werewolves. That is one creature that is very hard to do right when you have a tiny budget. Blurry images, double-exposures, and other effects that I could create on my Macintosh couldn't hide the really bad costume. (Although the "fang-cam" shot was hilarious.)

Obviously, since I only rated the film with Four Stars, I'm not giving it a strong recommendation. However, the film still ranks above a number of horror movies of recent vintage that had one hundred times the budget as "Girls Night Out", because I got the sense with this film that the people involved actually put their hearts into making the best film they could with the means at their disposal. I think they set out to make a fun, unpretentious little horror movie, and I think they succeeded at that.

Bad fantasy/horror in an anthology format

Satan's Storybook (2007)
Starring: Ray Robert, Lesile Deutsch, Ginger Lynn Allen, and Michael Daevid ("Satan's Queen"/framing segment), Steven K. Arthur and Leesa Roland ("Demon of Death" segment), Gary Brandner, Michael Rider, Francis Paul and Irwin Waterman ("Death Among Clowns" segment)
Director: Michael Rider
Rating: Two Stars

"Satan's Storybook" is a low-budget anthology film with costuming that would look great at a Halloween party but which is at the bottom end of what should be considered passable for a professional film production. The flat look of a film obviously shot on video makes it look even cheaper.

I broke this review down according to the segments of the film, assigning each one its own rating. The Two Stars I ultimately ended up assigning it is an average of those individual ratings.

Aside from its low budget and near-universally weak acting which is made to appear worse than it actually is by atrocious dialogue, the film hurt most by the sloppy and loose editing. Every time there's a cut or a change in camera angle, we get at least a second of dead air, so even during what should be heated exchanges between characters we get an overly stagey sense of performance as everyone seems to be politely waiting for the other actor to finish their line before delivering his. The actors and the film in general would have come off much better if there had been a talented editor involved in the production.

Like most anthology films, it consists of a framing tale that surrounds and links short stories. Here, the framing sequence involves the kidnapping of Satan's Bride (Leslie Deutsch) by her sister who has been raised to kill her (Ginger Lynn Allen). While Satan's minions tracks his bride and her kidnappers, he orders his court jester (Daevid) to tell him tales of evil on Earth to get his mind off the situation.

The framing story is a fantasy-oriented section of the film, with better-than-average swordplay for this level of filmmaking but the too-cheap costuming and the awful editing undermines the good parts. Ray Robert does a good job as Satan, but he's also undermined by a lack of technical ability on the part of the filmmakers, as his voice is distorted to give it a spooky, demon-like quality that makes it almost impossible to understand what he's saying. The framing story rates a 4/10 Stars. It's the best part of the film, which isn't saying much. And even though it's the best part, it still ended with me saying to myself, "Is that it? Did someone forget to end this movie?"

The first story told by the jester is "Demon of Death", a tale of a serial killer who picks his victims at random from a phone book (Steven K. Arthur), but whose luck runs out when he targets a young woman who is studying witchcraft (Leesa Roland).

"Demon of Death" had plenty of potential, but it evaporates under the harshness of bad writing (not just the dialogue but also the timing of events in the tale, such as the revelation that the killer's "Book of Death" is just a phone book), subpar acting by everyone appearing, and the aforementioned bad editing. It's also padded with about five mintues of useless scenes involving the police and badly staged news reports. It rates a 2/10 Stars.

The jester's second tale is "Death Among Clowns". Here, a washed-up, drunken circus clown (Gary Brandner) commits suicide after being fired by the owner of the sideshow attracion he's spent his adult life performing at (Paul), but tries to put up a fight when Mickey La Mort, the manifestation of Death who collects the spirits of clowns (Rider), appears.

Moreso than the other parts of this film, the bad editing makes "Death Among Clowns" feel stagey and causes the actors to come off worse than they actually are. The pauses between lines due to changes in angles during a scene drains all energy from interactions. Of course, the truly awful dialogue being delivered doesn't help matters, but the editing is really what kills things here. Oh yeah... and then there's the problem the story just sort of peeters out. It's as if writers Arthur and Rider had put themselves in a corner and then said to themselves, "Let's just put a "boo" scare here and call it good." This one earns a rating of 2/10 Stars.

Two of the actors appearing in this segment have not appeared in any other films, but I want to call their performances out nonetheless.

First, there's Gary Brandner, the novelist who wrote the novels from which some of the werewolf films in "The Howling" series are based, as well as the script for "Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf". He plays Charlie the Clown, and he does it with a very bad Christopher Walken impersonation.

Second, there's Francis Paul, who plays the sideshow attraction owner who's sick of giving Charlie slack. Paul gives the most energetic and natural performance of anyone in the film. With better lines and decent editing, he might have earned "Death Among Clowns" another star. I think it's a shame he didn't do any more movies, because I think he could have been excellent if supported by competent filmmakers.

"Satan's Storybook" is a film that even lovers of the anthology format like myself would be better off not bothering with.

'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is an exception among needless remakes

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954)
Starring: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda de Banzie, Bernard Miles, and Christopher Olsen
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A vacation turns into a nightmare for Dr. Ben McKenna (Stewart) and his wife (Day) after a dying intelligence agent entrusts Ben with information to stop an assassination plot. Before they can notify the police, their son (Olsen) is kidnapped by members of the conspiracy and they are told that if they reveal anything, he will be killed. Not knowing who they can trust, the McKennas try to use the information they have to track the assassins and free their boy.

In my review of the original "The May Who Knew Too Much," (click here to read it at Shades of Gray), I commented that it wasn't Hitchcock's best, but that it was still very good. For that reason, I've avoided the remake, because, even though it was also done by Hitchcock, I assumed it would be a waste of time, because, like so many remakes, it was entirely unnecessary.

However, among the multitudes of unnecessary remakes, the 1954 version of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" is one of the few films that has a number of improvements on the original.

First and foremost of these is the fact that the protagonists in this film are just a pair of ordinary people--well, as ordinary as a successful surgeon and a retired musical star can be--who truly are in way over their heads. In the original version, the couple had a bit of "adventurer" in them and were a little better equipped to deal with the enemy agents they chose to take on, where the McKennas are just an an ordinary couple. Further, where the original film jumped straight into the suspenseful adventure plot, the remake takes time to establish the McKennas as the Everycouple that they are, even to the point where we get to see them bicker about inconsequential things the way married couples will. It's also hard to imagine more perfect casting than James Stewart and Doris Day in these roles... they are the perfect "everyday American couple" in this picture.

The remake also expands on the use of music as a plot device. In both versions of the film, an assassination is performed in time with an orchestral performance where a crash of cymbols is to cover the gunshot. In the remake, however, music is also used to show the close, loving relationship between the McKenna's and their young son, as well as serving as the key to his rescue, in the form of the famous and Academy Award-winning song "What Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)."

Unfortunately, the remake comes up a little short in the villain department. While they are every bit as insidious as they were in the original--and perhaps even more powerful, as they have the clear backing on a nation in this version--they end up having less of a presence in the film. This is partly due to the fact that they receive less screen time in the remake, but it's mostly because none of them are portrayed by an actor of Peter Lorre's caliber, nor are any of them quite as quirky or as sinister as Lorre's character in the original.

I strongly recommend this film to any fan of James Stewart, Doris Day, and Alfred Hitchcock who hasn't seen it yet--especially if you were staying away from it for the reason I was. It's some of the finest work any of those three worthies did, and it manages to be a superior version of what was already a great movie.

As a little bonus, here are a couple of versions of "What Will Be, Will Be."

First up, is Doris Day's original single recording of the song, with a fan-made video using clips from "The Man Who Knew Too Much". If you've only heard covers, the original version will let you understand why it's still being re-recorded to this day.

And here's a mildly creepy cover of the song by Pink Martini. It was first heard in the pilot episode of "Dead Like Me".

Click here for downloadable MP3 versions at

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stay off the floor during 'Dance Macabre'

Dance Macabre (1991)
Starring: Robert Englund, Michelle Zeitlin, and a bunch of teen girls in leotards
Director: Greydon Clark
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A celebrated St. Petersburg ballet academy has just opened its doors to dancers from the West and girls have flocked to it in the hopes of studying under a legendary Russian dancer. But then the girls start to vanish, and then they start to turn up dead. Who's the killer? Why is he (or she!) butchering the beautiful and talented young women?

"Dance Macabre" is a completely pedestrian 'psycho on the loose' film starring Robert Englund and a bunch of young dancers. Aside from its predictability, it is marred by having an actor with such distinctive facial features that he is recognizable even through heavy make-up. As such, one of the film's 'revelations' is instead an irritant. Worse, the lead actress isn't really much of an actress (she is quite the dancer, though, as that is her profession).

Unless you're 12 years old and this is the first movie of this type you've ever seen, the 'who' is obvious from the outset. As is the 'why.' And with those out of the way, there's not really any other reason to watch this film. (There are some creepy and/or gross death scenes for which I am giving an extra Star, but that still doesn't mean this one shouldn't be at the bottom of your "to see" list.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

'Modesty Blaise' is fun, but not much like source

Modesty Blaise (1966)
Starring: Monica Vitti, Terence Stamp, Clive Revill, Dirk Bogarde, Harry Andrews, Michael Craig, and Rosella Falk
Director: Joseph Losey
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

Adventuress Modesty Blaise (Vitti) and her sidekick Willie Garvin (Stamp) are lured out of semi-retirement by the British government with a promise of a massive payday if they stop an unknown enemy from interfering with a shipment of diamonds promised to an eccentric Middle Eastern leader (Revill) in exchange for "oil considerations." However, the mysterious opponent is Blaise's old enemy Gabriel (Bogarde)--a crime lord who secretly funds his underground empire with his mother's money--and he's not only familiar with all of Blase's tricks, but he's two steps ahead of everyone.

"Modesty Blaise" is one of those movies I wish I could like more than I do, because there is alot to like about it. First of all, it's got a timeless adventure tale at its heart with the Mid-East/West relationship and how the characters interact as relevant today as in 1966; Modesty and Willie's partnership and how they know each other so well they can predict just about everything the other is going to do is fascinating and completely free of the sexual tension that filmmakers usually insist on tossing into a male/female partnership; the villains manage to be creepy and funny at the same time--not to mention they were ripped off for the James Bond flick "Golden Eye"; and every actor featured puts on an excellent performance.

On the downside, there are many things that the filmmakers included intentionally that undermined by enjoyment of the film. The worst of these were elements of absurdity that made served no story purpose and made no sense no matter how you looked at them, such as the way Modesty Blaise would change hair color and clothes in an instant, sometimes as we watched her on screen and the ridiculous costumes they had her dressed in on a couple of occasions. I suspect the filmmakers thought this added to the lighthearted, goofy tone of the film, but it was actually just stupid and nonsensical.

An unintentional weakness is that the film features some of the absolute worst fight scenes ever put on film. Not only are they badly choreographed and lame--your average SCA members or even nine-year-olds used to playing "Cops and Robbers" in the backyard could have done better jobs--and has stunt doubles so badly matched to the main actors that I'll never mock those who appeared in some of Steven Seagal's movies ever again. There simply isn't a single melee fight that even approaches believeable or exciting in this film, and the only reason the big battle at the end works is that it's played for laughs.

I imagine that hardcore fans of the classic "Modesty Blaise" comic strip by Peter O'Donnel and Jim Holdaway were mighty upset with this goofy movie was released. I imagine many of them get upset today. I can understand that a little bit... I have fond memories of reading those strips and in compilations some 25-30 years ago. However, this is a fun movie, no matter how unserious it is. It could have been a great movie--and there are some great things about it that make it worth seeing even 40 years after its initial release--but the filmmakers went overboard on their silliness and ended up weakening their end product.

I think the film is worth seeing, but it's not necessarily one for which you should pass up for something else that looks interesting.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Saturday Scream Queen: Brittany Murphy

Brittany Murphy described herself as "one of those show people" and stated in interviews that her earliest memories were of wanting to entertain people. She got her start in community theater at the age of 9, and by the time she was 13, she appearing in commercials. Television roles followed soon thereafter, and she easily made the jump to film.

Falling into something of a type-casting rut as a troubled or mentally disturbed teen, Murphy nonetheless managed to make a smooth transition from child actor to adult roles, perhaps aided by the fairly large amount of voice acting she did for video games and cartoons, or perhaps because she was "one of those show people," just like she said. Murphy also seems to have stayed clear of the party scenes and drug abuse that wreck the careers of so many young actors.

Murphy appeared mostly in romantic comedies and dramas, athough she did manage to work in a number of sci-fi movies, thrillers, and horror films, such as "Abandoned", "The Devil's Arithmatic", "Cherry Falls", "The Dead Girl", "MegaFault", "Deadline", and the yet-to-be released "Something Wicked".

Brittany Murphy passed away in 2009 from cardiac arrest induced by anemia and dehydration brought on by her attempt to self-medicate pneumonia with over-the-counter medicines. (Bizarrely, her husband died a few months later from the exact same cause. There's either a conspiracy theory or a horror movie script in that somewhere.)

'Luana': A movie as vapid as its title character

Luana (aka "Luana, the Girl Tarzan" and "Luana the Jungle Girl") (1968)
Starring: Glenn Saxson, Evi Marandi, Pietro Tordi, Al Thomas, and Mei Cheng
Director: Roberto Infascelli
Rating: One of Ten Stars

Isabella (Marandi) hires a burned-out jungle explorer (Saxson)--who is amusingly named George--to take into the remote jungle where her father's plane crashed 15 years earlier. Will they find any survivors? And just who is that mysterious, mostly-naked girl (Cheng) who keeps grinning at them from the underbrush? Could it be the title character?!

"Luana" is one of those films that sounds like it can't possibly go wrong, at least if you're a fan of Tarzan movies and babes in scant clothing. The Russ Manning-illustrated comic strip makes the film look even more appealing, so Big Kudos to the marketeers who cooked up that promotion. Of course, the drawback to the strip is that it tells virtually the entire story of the movie. Yeah... that's how empty and devoid of any action or even activity this film is... it can be summarized in its entirety in a handful of four panel strips. The Manning strips even give away most of what passes for plot twists in the film.

Something else the Manning strip does, although this is only clear in retrospect, is provide a preview of the fact that Luana is the most passive action heroine to ever appear on screen (on in any media for that matter). She does little more than lurk in the bushes and grin stupidly at... well, just about anything. The most action we get from her is during a storm when smarter humans and animals take shelter, but she goes prancing around in the rain, somehow managing to avoid being struck the the falling branches that are injuring other people and animals alike. I'm sure there are movies out there with more passive title characters--hell, Bernie was a more active character in the sequel to "Weekend at Bernie's" and he was dead for the entire movie.

The passivity of Luana is made all the more irritating, because the rest of the film is empty of interesting content, except for underbaked cookie-cutter characters portrayed by actors who seem like they are rehearsing instead of actually performing with cameras rolling, jungle sets that at times make "Gilligan's Island" seem gritty, and plot twists so lame one has to wonder why they even bothered. And then there's the climactic encounter between the heroes and the bad guys--for which Luana once again just stands around and grins stupidly--during which someone falls into a mutant carnivorous plant and is slowly, slo-o-o-o-w-ly devoured. One wonders why he didn't just roll out, or why one of his allies didn't just reach in and pull him out. Heck, this might even have been a moment where Luana could have developed some personality and have stepped in and rescued him. It would have explained why the natives think she's a goddess.

Finally, there's the ending. The heroes leave the jungle waving to Luana who stands alone and watches them go. We, the viewers, can't see if she's grinning stupidly or not, but the jungle explorer blathers on about how Luana is happy in the jungle and it's best to leave her there. If she was so happy, why did she seek the explorers out? Why did she keep following them? Why did she stand and watch them leave, perhaps even sadly? Had the Italian/German cinematic geniuses behind this film bothered to read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan novels (or perhaps even one of the comic book adaptations of "Tarzan" or "The Return of Tarzan", of which several were available by the late 1960s, some even illustrated by the artist for the "Luana" strip, Russ Manning) they would have seen that Tarzan was given a choice between living in the jungle and living in civilization. That's one of the reasons the Tarzan story works. The ending to "Luana" is lame, and it makes characters we are supposed to feel positively toward come across like arrogant and collous assholes. What evidence does George of the Jungle have that Luana is happy in her isolation? And why could he not give her the opportunity to make an informed choice about how she wanted her life to be? The writers and directors manage to end their already bad movie on the most abysmal note possible. (Yes, I know the run-time probably wouldn't have allowed for us to see how things turned out for Luana, but it would have made a far better ended if the main characters had either chosen to stay and educate her, or if she had otherwise gone with them, with viewers having the understanding that she would be coming back to the jungle down the road.)

There are only two kinds of viewers this movie will appeal to, but I doubt it will even satisfy them.

The first are those who love everything that has even a slight whiff of classic Tarzan/jungle action movies to it. The film does has bizarre, spear-chucking tribesmen, a silly duel between the heroic explorer and one of the villains that involves stakes in the ground and scorpions, and it's got a "savage white man" (who in this case happens to be a savage Asian girl, but you know what I mean); if you are jonesing for a jungle fix and NOTHING else is available, maybe this movie will take the edge off.

The second kind are "men" like Gary Glitter and Roman Polanski... the sort of men who who like hanging around girl's schools in dirty rain coats and who subscribe to the theory "if it's more than a handful, it's too big." They will have a great time watching the diminutive Mei Cheng swing on vines and frolic in the rain wearing nothing but a small loin cloth and her long hair. They will watch enraptured as they discover that Cheng's hair is NOT has carefully glued down as Brooke Shields' hair was in "The Blue Lagoon". The film will undoubtedly seem to fly by, as they eagerly look for glimpses of Cheng's breasts (or even better)... and there is a single, very brief shot where their hopes are rewarded. (Of course, they might not be able to fully enjoy the picture, since the point is made that Luana is at least 18 years old when this story takes place.)

'Deadline' needed more intensity, faster pace

Deadline (aka "Ghost House")(2009)
Starring: Brittany Murphy, Tammy Blanchard, Thora Birch, and Marc Blucas
Director: Sean McConville
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A writer recovering from a mental breakdown (Murphy) retreats to an isolated house owned by her agent in an attempt to finish the script for a horror movie. She soon discovers the house holds a dark secret... and that she may not be alone. But is she being stalked by her murderous ex-boyfriend, a vengeful ghost, or phantasms conjured by her broken mind?

"Deadline" is a cross between the "writer goes crazy" sub-genre and the venerable gothic thriller where the main character is a psychologically unstable woman that is either out of her mind, or someone is trying to drive her there with a fake haunting. As far as that goes, it does a fine job in blending these two old-fashioned horror stories and updating them to current times with cell phones, lap tops, and digital camcorders. It also manages to keep the truth of what's going on with the writer and the house an open question up to the very end. And when the truth is revealed, it's not a huge shock to anyone familiar with either of the genres being fused in this film, but it is nonetheless somewhat pleasant that it ends up being slightly unusual.

But what isn't done well here is the pacing. Even at 85 minutes, the film feels slow and bloated. I understand that writer/director McConville wanted to establish the creepy nature of the house and to convey the sense of isolation and growing dread felt by Murphy's character as she roams its cavernous and shadow-filled rooms, but he didn't have to do it over and over and over. And the languid pace doesn't seem to pick up much even after the haunting begins in earnest; moments of horror are bursts of activity surrounded by more slow, nearly tension free scenes. The second and third acts of movies like this one need to be like a steel wire stretched nearly to the point of breaking, but here that wire remains mostly slack. If a total of five minutes or so had been cut from various places in this film, I think it would have made the difference between boring and horrifying.

As for the acting, the film is basically carried completely by Brittany Murphy. While she does an okay job--striking a nice balance between someone fighting for their life and someone who is having a complete mental breakdown--her overall performance seems to lack the energy and intensity that is required from an actor when they are by themselves on screen for the majority of a film. She did a far better job in the quirky slasher film "Cherry Falls" than she does here, perhaps because she had other actors to play off... or perhaps because of superior direction. It's hard to say, and we'll never know, because Murphy won't be doing any more slasher films or haunted house movies. She passed away in 2009.

If you're a big lover of gothic horror flicks, or perhaps a charter member of the Brittany Murphy fan club, this might be a movie worth seeking out. Everyone else can probably wait for it to show up on television where it may be edited and given the faster pace it needed.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A small-budget film with a big-budget feel

The Craving (2008)
Starring: Lesley Paterson, Grayson Berry, Wallis Herst, Jesse Boyd, Anselm Clinard, Curtis Krick, and Jason Kehler
Director: Sean Dillon
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Five friends on their way to the Burning Man festival (Berry, Boyd, Clinard, Grayson, and Herst) take a shortcut across the desert, only to get lost. When the drive up to a ramshackle cabin, its crazed resident (Krick) opens fire on them with a shotgun, disabling their van and causing them to be trapped with him in the desert. The murderous hermit is the least of their worries, however, because when night falls, a creature emerges from its den... and it is very, very hungry.

"The Craving" is an old-fashioned monster movie with a very modern sensibility. The set-up is like any number of "beautiful young people on a road trip Meet a Bad End" movie that you've seen in recent years, but it quickly veers into a territory that's as stylish and well-photographed as anything Terence Fisher or Mario Bava ever offered up, and as gritty and intense as early Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven films with each other.

What seperates this film from the pack it shares some similarities with is its well-crafted script and the performances given by its actors. It may be a fairly traditional tale of a group of dimwitted people stranded in the wilderness with a monster that's messily picking them off one by one, but it's told with a style that's all-too-rarely seen in movies of this sort.

First of all, it delivers a number of unexpected twists as the story unfolds, but they're not the out-of-left field sort of twists that are increasingly the norm in horror films. The twists here are either well-founded in the plot (our crazed hermit has a very good reason for hanging out in the desert... and it's a reason that's both obvious and shocking and one that is in complete keeping with the theme and nature of the story) or ones that play with our expectations for how this sort of movie unfolds and concludes (it may be a small thing, but I really appreciated the third-act violations of conventions as far as the deaths of main characters and the order they get dispatched in--and no, that's not a spoiler... I mean, we don't expect ANYONE to survive in movies these days, do we?).

Second, the script presents dialogue that is far better crafted than what we've come to expect as standard these days. Not only do we have dialogue here that sounds the way real people might talk but screenwriter Curtis Krick has given each character a unique speech patterns and sound. It's dialogue that lets the actors bring their characters fully to live and make them believable even when they are doing things that I found unbelievable. (The only complaint I have in the "there went my suspension of disbelief" category is when two characters have sex after one has suffered a severely broken leg. Yes, he's on pain-killers, but, having been where he's at as far as broken bones go, I don't think they'd have been enough to dull the pain to the point where I'd be interested in a romp. Wallis Herst's character, Diane, is definatelly the sort of girl that every guy in the 20s dreams of having and every man in his 50s is a little fearful of... but I don't think Scotty would have been able to accomodate her with her broken leg, no matter how funny I found the scene.)

Another thing I found laudible in the film is the amazing use of sound in it. Too many indie films (and even a few studio efforts with huge budgets) suffer because not enough attention is paid to sound-mixing or the proper use of music.

"Curtis and I created a version of the film with sound effects added, but we soon realized that the film would only reach its potential if we engaged a really talented person to complete the movie's sound," director/producer Sean Dillon commented to me when I mentioned how spectacular the use of sound is in the film. "Then we found Josh Eckberg, a wonderfully talented sound designer and editor who shared our vision for the film. He found the time to do the sound right. For 'The Craving,' we understood how much of the tension came from the sound of the creature. If we hear it, we know it's near, but we still don't know exactly where. That can be much scarier than actually seeing the creature onscreen. Josh had the skills and the resources to actually execute an ambitious sound design."

The soundtrack music used in the film is also great. Composed by Krick, it's not the sort of music that calls attention to itself and instead builds tension and horror where it is deployed on an almost subliminal level. It's not only an example of great score music, but it's an example that other filmmakers should follow when placing soundtrack music in their films. For a first feature-length effort, it's exceptionally well done.

I just realized that I've gotten almost to the end of this review without discussing the film's monster. That oversight is a symptom of my desire to keep my posts here short and because Dillon and his crew handled the monster exactly as they should have.

The creature is "The Craving" is a bizarre one, with a number of surprising traits and behaviors, yet ones we can buy into as the film unfolds. I had a small WFT moment during the first monster attack, a moment where I couldn't quite get a read on what was going with the characters and their conflicting reactions to the creature's strong body odor and Diane's really bizarre behavior. However, as the film continued, it started to make sense and it made the creature even scarier.

Although the film takes place in the middle of the desert and the creature here isn't hairy--it looks like it's completely smooth-skinned it the quick glimpses we get of it--there are a number of things about it that reminded me of Bigfoot legends. Heck, the monster here explained some of the Bigfoot stories better than the Bigfoot stories do, such as why some people describe a strong stench around the creature while others don't, and why some say Bigfoot is frightening and others claim it to be a kind and benevolent creature. The strange creature is better thought out and more logical than something that many people believe is real.

In addition to being cleverly conceived from a story point of view, the monster in "The Craving" is also expertly handled from the technical aspects of horror filmmaking. Dillon and his crew wisely chose to have the monster remain mostly hidden from the viewer, showing only glimpses of it. This keeps the creature as frightening as possible as it then ends up residing mostly in the audiences imagination, causing us to picture something far more terrible than anything that could probably have been put screen--and given the highly effective and convincing gore we do see,
I think most of will imagine the creature as pretty damn horrible.

By keeping the creature's screen appearances limited to silhouettes and quick glimpses, Dillon not only shows that less really is more when it comes to this sort of thing, but any possible weaknesses in their monster design and make-up are also kept from view. This is not one of those independent horror films where the creators screw up their movie by giving the audience extended shots of a badly done monster. The opposite is the case here--we've got a good-looking moster that is still shown sparsely and thus becomes even scarier. (Dillon told me that the monster make-up and look improved as filming progressed, so it could be those few excellent glimpses we get were late in filmed late in the shoot. Whatever the case, the creature looks great, better than those featured even in films you may come across during "the most dangerous night of television" on your favorite cable channel. If the look of the creature improved as the film unfolded, then it ended up in such an excellent place and was otherwise so artfully filmed that the we'd never have known it wasn't perfected before filming began.)

In fact, everything in this film is so well done that you'd never know the film was shot in over a mere two weeks, with some of the cast being available only part of the time because of other commitments, severe weather impacting the shoot, and many of the people involved in the production wearing many different hats both in front and behind the camera. It's a film that has the look and feel of a movie shot over a much longer period, and for a whole lot more money than the good people from Biscuits and Gravy Productions had access to. It's a film that shows what a talented group of dedicated creators who know their craft can come up with.

'After the Sunset' is too full of plot holes

After the Sunset (2004)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Woody Harrelson, and Salma Hayek
Director: Brett Ratner
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

Jewel thief Max Burdett (Brosnan) retires to the Bahamas with long-time partner Lola (Hayek) after one last big heist. When Stan (Harrelson), an FBI agent they repeatedly humiliated during their respective careers shows up on the island supposedly to stop Max from stealing a valuable gem temporarily on display there, Max's compulsive obsession with thievery boils to the surface and he soon comes out of retirement for one more "one last heist."

After the Sunset could be better than it is. It's got a good cast, it's got a good location, and caper films are always fun. Sadly, the script is one that is so full of holes and inherently contradictory complications that the attentive viewer is left wondering "why did they have to do that when they already had achieved the objective?" and the actors mostly seem to be going through the motion of their parts. Worse, the storyline is pretty much a paint-by-number caper story, with the twists being so commonplace that I almost wish they hadn't done them. (In other words, it might have been a more satisfying film without the genre-dictated twists and double-crosses.)

I did enjoy the interplay between the Brosnan and Harrelson characters (even if I had to suspend my disbelief to a tremendous amount to buy into the way both seemed to accept each other's frendship, or assume that the other had bought into it, so quickly.

I also liked the subplot of the way Lola was revealed as the true professional while Max was a thief due to obsessive-compulsive behavior and supreme narcissism and arrogance; Lola was content to retire with her spoils and work on building the deck for their new house and take tennis lessons, while Max had to keep stealing. It was one part of the film that evoked an emotional response from me (aside from smiling at the funny parts), despite the fact that it was another of the films well-trod cliche elements.

"After the Sunset" could have been a Five or even Six Star movie if just a little more brainpower had been spent working out the problems in the script (and even the many shots of Hayek's ample assets barely contained in skimpy outfits can't make up for those).

Speaking of Salma Hayek, she was one of the "immodest women" featured in the very important, mind-opening "Tectonic Tuesdays" series at Cinema Steve.

'Luana: Jungle Girl' by Frazetta and Manning

In 1968, the promoters of an Italian jungle flick with a cute little Asian actress as a female Tarzan-type character took the unusual step of creating a daily newspaper strip drawn by artist Russ Manning to promote the film. At the time, Manning was the lead artist on the Tarzan daily and Sunday newspaper strips, and to this day, few comic book artists are as closely associated with the character of Tarzan than Manning. This approach undoubtedly created additional interest in the film from fans of Tarzan. In addition to Manning, famed artist Frank Frazetta--who had painted numerous iconic covers for paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels--was hired to produce additional promotional art. (One of Frazetta's pieces can be seen at the top of this post.)

To read the "Luana" strips, click on each one for a larger version. The story isn't all that--with the last three strips being a summary of the movie--but Russ Manning's art is as gorgeous as always.

You can read my review of the "Luana" movie at Movies You (Should Die Before You) See, but you've already seen the worthwhile version with the Manning strips. For some exposure of another jungle-dwelling babe, click here for a little "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle".

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's a monster- infested house in space

Alien (1979)
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating: Ten of Ten Stars

When space tug Nostromo responds to a distress signal, they find a derelict spaceship of unknown origin. During the exploration of wreckage, one of the tug's crew (Hurt) is attacked by an alien beast, and when they bring him back to the ship for medical attention, their problems really begin.

"Alien" is pretty much a perfect fusion of sci-fi and horror. It captures the mood of classic suspense and horror films, mixes it with classic science fiction movies, and brings forward its story with fantastic sets, and a horrific alien monster that picks off the ship's crew of likable characters (who are all being portrayed by exceptional actors), one by one, each in a more frightening and gory fashion than the previous one. The use of lighting and sound in this film are particularly marvelous, and they add even more to the scares in the film than the goopey gore effects do.

This is a film that lovers of horror and science fiction will both appreciate. (The "breakfast scene" and Warrant Officer Ripley's (Weaver) final confrontation with the alien menance are ones that have been imitated and lampooned dozens of times since "Alien" was first released in 1979, and they are classic cinematic moments that must be experienced.)

Visions of Vampirella, the Queen of Halloween

The undisputed Queen of Halloween is Vampirella, and few artists have painted her better than Joe Jusko. Click on the Royal Portraits to view larger versions.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010