Wednesday, March 30, 2011

'Diabolik' is lots of fun, despite its excesses

Danger: Diabolik (aka "Diabolik") (1968)
Starring: John Phillip Law, Marissa Mell, Michel Piccoli, and Aldolfo Celi
Director: Mario Bava
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

In "Danger: Diabolik", the long-standing rivalry between the mysterious supertheif Diabolik (Law) and police inspector Ginko (Piccoli) becomes personal when Ginko forces a top gangster (Celi) to take action against his foe and the love of Diabolik's life, Eva (Mell) is caught in the middle.

I read maybe a couple dozen of the "Diabolik" comics when I was a kid, and two I have the fondest memories of is the one where Diabolik and Ginko team up to rescue their wives from a crook who has kidnapped them, and another where they are both on a cruise ship that gets taken over by terrorists, forcing a sort-of team-up between the two.

As portrayed in "Danger: Diabolik", such cooperation would never have taken place--the two men appear to dislike each other entiely too much, even if the respect they have for one another in the comic books still seems to be present to some degree--but aside from this small "failing", I think this film mostly conveys the essense of its source material better than most other comic book movies out there. It's not quite as dark as I remember "Diabolik" being, but it's entertaining enough.

Star John Phillip Law and the costume designers even took pains to match the physical appearance of Diabolik from the comics. There is no arbitrary "re-imagining" for its own sake in this film, as everyone seemed comfortable with and knowledgeable of the source material ot the point where they could do a faithful adaptation. (Even the musical score captures the simultaneous playfulness and grim intensity that were the hallmarks of the "Diabolik" comic.

There's further icing on this cake, as there literally isn't a single scene in this film that isn't staged in a visually arresting fashion. Director/cinematographer Mario Bava manage to fully bring a comic-book feel to the screen, presenting the sort of motion and three-dimensionality that the illustrators of the "Diabolik" comic are attempting to achieve with the many chase scenes and close calls the characters execute in those pages.

Bava also manages to bring a comic book feel in subtle and visually creative ways. Many scenes have the sense of being panels in motion, with action being framed in various ways, sometimes even feeling like "inset panels", like where Diabolik and Eva are staking out a break-in target, and we see their faces in the review mirror, framed before the building they are watching. The most impressive of the many instances of this in the film is a conference of gangsters that is viewed through a lattice, with characters positioned around the room and isolated in their own frames while speaking.

While the creative cinemagrapy is a joy to behold, some of the sets and mat-paintings are equally impressive. Diabolik's secret hideout, with its many security precautionsand gadgets is the sort of thing James Bond's nemisis Blofeld wishes he could have. Lex Luthor probably has lair-envy as well. (Although neither Blofeld nor Luthor would know what do to with Diabolik's huge rotating bed where he and Eva have wild sex while coverd in millions of dollars....)[/left]

As much as I admire the visuals and the sets, I think these also end up being counted among its weaknesses, despite their beauty (or perhaps becaome of it). Director Bava also seems to have been aware that he and his crew had made a very special movie here, and he is just a little too proud of their work and he shows off the sets and the matpaintings just a little too much. On more than one occassion, he spends so much time dwelling on them that the movie starts to sputter and stall--the worst of these is the scene of Diabolik and Eva making love, while visually cool, goes on for so long that it becomes downright boring. It always recovers thanks to even more great visuals and a script that is jam-packed with action, but the film could have been so much better if some of the scenes have been trimmed a bit.

Speaking of the script, this film would also have been alot better if its creators had known when to quit. There is a perfect ending for the filmd, and even a suitable denoument, but it continues well beyond that point and even gets a bit repetitious.

I'm certain the intent was to include a truly impossible crime in the film--to push it completely over the top--but the end result is a feeling that two different major heists and two different endings had been contemplated for the script (each with its own impossible escape for Diabolik) and in the end it was decided to use both of them. The result is that viewers will start feeling a little impatient during the film's final 10-15 minutes, but because we've already sat through something that's thematically identical and that brought the story to a satisfying close.

"Danger: Diabolik" is an mostly well-done, light-hearted action flick, and it's definately underrated and under-appreciated. I recommend you purchase or rent this flick. If it didn't keep going past the point where it should have ended, and if it had been a little more like the actual comics, it would have been perfect.

Picture Perfect Wednesday: Megan Fox

My thanks to actress Megan Fox for demonstrating the unifying theme of this blog.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mediocre Gothic Thriller with a Goofy Title

Terror Creatures from the Grave
(aka "Cemetery of the Living Dead")(1965)

Starring: Walter Brandi, Mirella Maravidi, Barbara Shelley, and Alfredo Rizzo
Director: Massimo Pupillo (credited to producer Ralph Zucker)
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

An attorney (Brandi) answers an urgent request to prepare a will for a country doctor living at an isolated estate. When he arrives, his strange wife (Shelley) and neurotic daughter (Maravidi) tell him the doctor couldn't have written the letter as he's been dead for over a year. Before he can sort out the mystery, the doctor's old friends start dying as well, apparent victims of the ghosts evil sorcerers who spread a plague across the land 500 years ago.

We are informed during the main credits that "Terror Creatures from the Grave" was inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe; it certainly bears more resemblance to them than several films that have claimed to be based on them (such as several Lugosi vehicles from Universal), I think I'll still have to go with the Real Thing over this movie.

The film's hero, an attorney visiting a house of secrets and madness, certainly feels like he stepped out of a Poe story, and Barbara Shelley, yet again playing another two-faced, treacherous bitch who causes not only her own downfall but also that of pretty much the entire cast, also could easily have been a Poe character, but the film never quite manages to be as creepy as a Poe story. It has some nice moments, but in general in plods along too slowly to generate any real sense of dread and fear in the viewer. The mystery of a dead man writing letters in intriguing, the array of characters present clearly set the stage for some Very Bad Things, but the film wastes too much time with overlong establishing shots and with too many meandering scenes for it to really add up to anything.

Except for roughly the last ten minutes. When the Plague Spreaders FINALLY make their appearance, we finally get some real spookiness. Although the climax is ultimately a bit rushed and relies a bit too much on the Deus Ex Machina, it's a pay-off worth waiting for. Steele's death scene is especially chilling and well-filmed.

(Oh... I don't think it's much a spoiler to reveal that Steele is the villainess and that she comes to a bad end. It's her place in most films she appeared in, and it's pretty obvious from the outset.)

There's nothing in "Terror Creatures from the Grave" that you haven't seen done better elsewhere, but it's main offense is its mediocrity. Fans of Barbara Steele will enjoy it more than most, but even for those it's not worth going to far out of your way for. But if present in one of those movie mega-packs, which is where I came across it, it's a bit of harmless filler that's worth checking out when you're in the mood of nightgowns and candlesticks and creepy castles.

Another failed attempt at capturing a webcast

Dead on Site (2011)
Starring: Mai-Ly Duong, Jamie Perkins, Robbie Daymond, Maggie Guzman, Christopher Burnham, and Jaymz Johnson
Director: Scott Kenyon Barker
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A group of college students set out to webcast reenactments of gruesome, unsolved murders from the house they happened in. But after their website goes live, mysterious happenings, both online and in the house, make them fear that they are being watched... either by supernatural forces, or perhaps by a very real killer who might want to some reenacting of his own.

"Dead on Site" is the third horror movie I've seen that tries to build a story around webcams and the broadcasting possibility they represent vis-a-vis "reality television". It's also the third time I've seen filmmakers fail to make a good horror movie based around the concept.

The first was "Halloween: Resurrection" (2002) a sequel so misbegotten that Michael Myers felt shoe-horned into his own series. Then came "Hell Asylum",which was either a symptom of not-so-great minds thinking alike, or of what happens when schlock filmmakers want to rip off what they perceive as "the next great thing". Now, it's "Dead on Site", which is better than the ones that came before, but which is still a deeply flawed movie.

First off, the final college project that the film is based around is very inept in its execution, vaguely defined, and not the sort of thing I can see a professor signing off on, let alone giving a passing grade for at the end of the day. (Well, except out of sympathy, given the way things turn out but that's not what they could have counted on going in.)

Secondly, the script is poorly written. Each character sounds and talks alike and they don't even have much in the way of personalities to distinguish one from the other, so when they start getting killed off/disappearing, you'll find yourself asking, "Who was that again?"

It doesn't help anything that the attempts at casting this or that character as the possible killer that has infiltrated the group boil down to a pair of characters threaten to kill the one truly obnoxious member of the group.

The couple of characters that have interesting back-stories are also not properly utilized, such as the wanna-be detective hoping to crack the murder mystery--I don't think I've seen less investigation or less serious recreation of a crime scene take place outside of backyard cops-and-robbers games among 9-year-olds--or the B-movie actress turned grad student at the end of a flamed-out career. Both of these characters could have been utilized to add some depth and texture to the story. The performances given by the actors aren't bad, but the material they are working with is so thin that there's not much they can do with it.

Finally, there's a completely unnecessary and out-of-left-field supernatural element inserted into the story at the 11th hour when the killer is revealed to be an immortal servant of Satan. There is no set-up of this element, nor does it have any connection to anything else in the movie.

Perhaps if the script had been taken through another draft or two, the dialogue would have been sharpened and the character elements would have been more clearly defined and utilized in driving the story. Heck, perhaps even the "immortal killer" idea would have appeared at some point earlier in the story.

Basically, this film fails because of the one thing that even the lowest of low-budget filmmakers has complete control over: The quality of the script. And it's too bad that an otherwise decent cast is let down by it, with Jamie Perkins is particularly good at playing a complete jerk.

"Dead on Site" premieres on DVD on April 5. My thanks to Maxim Media for providing me with an advanced copy of the film to review.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Saturday Scream Queen: Barbara Shelley

Barbara Shelley spent her early career as a model and bit-player, but in 1957 she landed the starring role in "Cat Girl," a picture about a woman cursed with a psychic link to leopard. Over the next decade, she appeared in some of Britain's most celebrated horror films of the 1960s, such as "Dracula: Prince of Darkness", "Village of the Damned", "Quatermass and the Pit", and "The Gorgon". Whether playing a demon or a damsel in distress, Shelley always brought poise, grace, and beauty to the screen.

Along side her film appearances, Shelley maintained a thriving television career, and she transitioned to TV full time by the time the 1970s dawned, leaving horror behind except for a role in the 1974 chiller "Ghost Story". She retired from acting in 1992.

Friday, March 25, 2011



'The Gorgon' is a Hammer Films masterpiece

The Gorgon (1964)
Starring: Peter Cushing, Barbara Shelley, Christopher Lee and Richard Pasco
Director: Terence Fisher
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars

When the spirit of the sole surviving Gorgon sisters of Greek legend rises again to plague a Balkan village, The doctor in a small Balkan village (Cushing) attempts to cover up the fact that citizens are being turned to stone under the full moon, even as a visiting scholar (Lee) attempts to determine the fate of a colleague.

"The Gorgon" is a curious mixture of elements, being part ghost movie, part romance movie, part fantasy epic--but all the elements congeal into a fabulous horror film.

With the usual lush sets that marked Hammer Films of this period, and the usual topnotch direction from Terence Fisher, we have a film that is gorgeous to look at. Add a great script being performed by a fantastic cast, some of whom are in parts we don't typically see them in (Christopher Lee is the monster-busting scholar here, while Peter Cushing is the antagonist who may or may not be in league with the monster) but all of whom are at the top of their game.

"The Gorgan" contains a number of truly chilling moments and the script features a couple of twists and turns, so that the viewer is kept guessing as to who is actually host to the gorgon's spirit until it is revealed. Even better, the final confrontation between the heroes and the Gorgon is one of the most dramatic endings to a Hammer film, period! (The film loses a bit of steam as it heads toward the climax, but the finale more than makes up for the slight drag.)

"The Gorgon" is one of the most underrated horror flicks from Hammer Films. For years it was unavailable even on VHS, but Sony finally released four Columbia-distributed Hammer Films in a multi-movie set as part of their "Icons of Horror" series. Get it. All four films in the set are excellent, with the "The Gorgon" being the very best.

Fear-filled Phantasms: Vampirella in Trouble!

Vampirella has been the baddest of the Good Girls since she first bared her fangs in 1969, but it's been far from smooth sailing. Here are some images of her being menaced by a variety of threats. (All paintings appeared on covers from the original run of the Vampirella Magazine.)

You can see more visions of Vampirella at Cinema Steve, and you can read reviews of her original adventures at Shades of Gray.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

And that's when Voltar realized....

... that polygamy might not be such a grand thing after all.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

'Fangs of the Living Dead' has no bite

Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)
Starring: Anita Ekberg, Julian Ugarte, John Hamilton, Diana Lorys, Adriana Ambesi, and Guy Roberts
Director: Amando de Ossorio
Rating: Three of Ten Stars

A model (Ekberg) is summoned to her ancestral home to receive her inheritance. She comes under the influence of her sinister uncle (Ugarte) and the cult of vampires that is forming around him.

"Fangs of the Living Dead" plays like a lobotomized version of "Dracula", with several scenes heavily inspired by the novel and with Ekberg's Sylvia standing in for Jonathan Harker, crossed with a "dark old house" movie and flavored with the graphic sensibilities and tight dresses of 1960s Hammer gothic horror flicks. If the filmmakers had stuck with this approach, the over-the-top acting, the melodramatic dialogue, and the dippy characters would all add up, whether intentional or not, to a hilarious send-up of the gothic horror genre. The overblown soundtrack music only makes it all the more funny. Unfortunately, it's all ruined when writer/director Amando de Ossorio tries his hand at a twist ending that tries to undo everything that unfolded in the film and reduces what was funny to a level of idiocy. And the twist on the twist doesn't help any. In fact, these are such misguided twists that one wonders if everyone involved with the production has severe memory issues, as it doesn't fit with much of what unfolded earlier. (That said, the "twist" itself could be a misfired attempt at spoofing horror movies, which would mean the movie was intended as a send-up all along; in the 1930s and 1940s, it wasn't uncommon for the supposed supernatural elements in a film to be written off through a revelation in the third act that it was all a hoax. The most blatant example of this can be found in "Mark of the Vampire".)

The film is further crippled by the fact that headliner Anita Ekberg is miscast. At 38, she was a bit long in the tooth to play the part of the "naive young heiress" and as a result she comes across more like a blonde so dumb that calling her retarded would be a compliment.

However, for all its weaknesses, the film features some nice cinematography, and the director manages to evoke a chilling atmosphere here and there, especially during the sequence when Ekberg is running around the castle in terror, and the one that riffs on the "Dracula" scene where the heroes wait for the undead Lucy in the graveyard. The drunken village doctor who stands in for the Abraham Van Helsing character is also a great deal of fun... and then there's the vamp-on-vamp battle to the death during the film's climax, one of the great cat-fights in cinematic history.

In the end, though, the bad far outweighs the good. The film rates the lowest possible Three I can give it, and it is only suitable for viewing as part of a Bad Movie Night.