Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saturday Scream Queen: Isabelle Stephen

Isabelle Stephen is, without a doubt, a model subject for this series. Not only is she literally a photo model, but since her film debut in 2002, she has appeared in over 20 features and short films, all low-budget efforts, mostly very gory, and all of them horror.

Based in Montreal, Canadian actress Stephen has worked mostly with directors based in and around New York City and New Jersey, including such infamous filmmakers as Bill Zebub and Lloyd Kaufman. Her characters rarely (if ever) make it through the films alive, and her death in Kaufman's anthology film "Tales form the Crapper" was particularly gruesome--where she was raped to death by a giant penis monster.

Stephen's most recent role is a small part in Steve Sessions' forthcoming black magic horror-fest "Sinister," debuting May 3 on DVD. (Watch this space for a review.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Evil heritage can lead to becoming 'Satan's Slave'

Satan's Slave (aka "Evil Heritage") (1976)
Starring: Candace Glendenning, Michael Gough, Martin Potter, and Barbara Kellerman
Director: Norman J. Warren
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

After her parents die in a sudden car explosion, Catherine (Glendenning) is taken in by her uncle (Gough) and strange nephew (Potter). However, Catherine soon learns that she is more a prisoner than a guest and that her uncle intends to turn her body into the vessel for the spirit of a long-dead witch.

Full of psychic premonitions, creepy Gothic manor houses and their even creepier inhabitants, 1970s-style Satanic rituals with naked chicks writhing on altars, and periodic explosions shocking gore, "Satan's Slave" is a one-stop shop for low-budget British horror from that era.

It may also be the best film from Norman J. Warren, as it more successfully sustains an oppressive atmosphere throughout, features better acting and writing than others I've seen from him, and makes far better use of the same thematic material he explored in "Terror". Furthermore, this is one of those very rare horror films that features a twist ending that actually works! While it probably had a greater impact on audiences in the 1970s--where the habit of ending films with a "it was all just a hoax" was still in the childhood movie-going memories of many, and the downer endings that are now so commonplace so as to be annoying were still somewhat unusual--it still offers a surprising jolt for modern audiences. (And by mentioning the surprise twist and that it will cast a pall on the film's finale won't deaden its impact.)

The film is further elevated by a great cast who all do a fantastic job in their roles. Candace Glendenning strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and independence to make Catherine a very sympathetic heroine, while Michael Gough hams it up as the quietly sinister Satanic cult leader to make his performance fun and engaging. They are ably supported by Martin Potter--whose portrayal of a character with a seemingly docile milquetoast personality is a sinister aspect in itself, because we are introduced to him as he commits a brutal, sexually driven murder--and Barbara Kellerman who comes and goes as a near-complete cypher in the picture but is interesting to watch nonetheless. (In fact, Kellerman's character is the only real complaint I can mount about the script; we never gain any insight whatsoever into her motivations or who she is.)

"Satan's Slave" is one of several pleasant surprises lurking within the better-than-average Mill Creek-manufactured 50-movie DVD multipack "Pure Terror". It's one of the prime reasons to purchase the set. The film is available in other collections, but not as economically as it can be acquired in "Pure Terror".

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Not So Picture Perfect Wednesday: Even on Mars, there's 'That Not So Fresh Feeling'

An illustration for an Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian Tale, or advertising art for Barsoomian feminine hygiene products?

(For the background of this joke, click here, here, and here.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

'Vampirella: The Dracula War' is weak, despite the strong foundation

Vampirella: The Dracula War (1993)
Writers: Kurt Busiek and Tom Sniegoski
Artists: Louis Small Jr., Jim Balent, and Matt Banning
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

When Harris Comics relaunched "Vampirella" in the early 1990s, they did so with a four issue black-and-white deluxe format series "Morning in America". The series featured carefully and beautifully rendered art by Louis La Chance and John Nyberg, and a multi-layered storyline that brought a darkness and sense of horror to the Vampirella strip that had never been present before. The story by Kurt Busiek used the ever reliable Cult of Chaos as villains and deployed the supporting cast from the old series with an effectiveness that hadn't been seen since Archie Goodwin was writing the stories.

But once that mini-series was over, things started to go wrong. Immediately.

"Vampirella: The Dracula War" collects the first four issues of Harris' monthly "Vampirella" color comics title. The story picks up after the end of "Morning in America" with United States Senator Adam Van Helsing using his political power to wage war against the world-wide forces of the Cult of Chaos and Vampirella and her friend Pendragon serving as his foremost shock-troops. Vampirella and Pendragon travel to Europe where they discover that Chaos's tendrils reach to the highest level of the European Union's leadership, and that their old foe Dracula is poised to seize control of the Continent on behalf of the Mad God he serves.

In concept, it seems like a worthy Vampirella story, one that continues the threads of "Morning in America", but adding back in some of the high adventure and genre-bending action that marked many of the tales of Warren era--in this case, vampires meet international intrigue ala Hammer's "The Satanic Rites of Dracula".

In execution, things are a little less appealing. The story never feels like it quite finds its direction, meandering from encounter to encounter, none of which feel like their building toward anything in particular. Instead of growing excitement, I felt growing boredom as I progressed through the book; I became less interested in how things were going to turn out rather than more with each turn of the page. Worse, the few interesting moments in the book--such as vampires relying on hi-tech to overcome the fact that sunlight is lethal to them--are undone by efforts to strip Vampirella of the things that made her and the series in general such a fun and unique property and reduce her to a run-of-the-mill, ass-kicking, monster-fighting one-note Bad Girl character. Where the post Goodwin and Englehart Vampirella started very quickly to rely too much on camp, the Harris Vampirella started running too far in other direction. While Busiek continues to stay more true to the original Vampirella stories than those who followed him--the return of Vampirella's bat-wings in an example of this--the goal for these references is primarily to expand the notion that much of what we thought we knew from the old series was a Chaos-created lie and that Vampirella's past was so much fantasy. (This approach reached its height with the final gasps of the Harris Vampirella with "Vampirella: Revelations" and "Vampirella: Second Coming", a mini-series that not only wiped out most of the original Warren continuity but most of what Harris had established as well.)

But watching Vampirella be turned from a fun, genre-striding babe to a generic mid-1990s Bad Girl comic book character isn't the worst aspect of "Vampirella: The Dracula War". The biggest disappointment is the artwork, particularly after the great stuff featured in the "Morning in America" series. The layouts are messy and hard to follow, the panels are flat and devoid of any sense of movement even during action scenes, and the coloring is amatuerish to say the least; all three major artists on this book went onto do far better work than what is on display here. (In fact, whoever took Balent's brush away from him and made him the penciller on DC's Catwoman did him a tremendous favor, career-wise.)

Perhaps a new decade and a new publisher will restore her to the glory she once knew (or at least to the level of fun found in the Balent-penciled crossover with Catwoman from 1997)--especially since the early issues have been written by the very talented Eric Trautmann--but as far as the past is concerned, "Vampirella: The Dracula War" should be consigned to the dustbin of comics history.

For more on Vampirella, click here to read reviews of some of the classic stories from the Warren Era at Shades of Gray; or here to view some great Vampirella artwork, as well as her Saturday Scream Queen profile, at Terror Titans.

Princesses of Mars, Part Seven

Let's take another trip to the home of John Carter and Princess Dejah Thoris: Faraway Barsoom, where the beautiful maidens are as mysterious as their headgear and as tough as their metal bras.

By Alex Nino

By Matt Wagner
By Rich Buckler

By Ken Allan

By Marc Laming

By Mike Hoffman