Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Blind Dead Tetralogy

“Do you remember the voodoo rites? Faust, and all those who make pacts with the evil spirit do so with blood. The knights performed human sacrifices, consummating the offering with a virgin’s blood. Now they’ve awakened from the beyond, and without eyes to see, they find their victims by the sounds they make, and continue to offer human sacrifices to their evil master.” – Professor Candal (Francisco Sanz) (from Tombs of the Blind Dead)

With the advent of the Blind Dead films, Spanish filmmaker Amando de Ossorio introduced a new form of zombie, an eyeless, ambulatory half-ghost/half-living dead being. Over the course of the four installments, the re-animated corpses underwent several permutations, but followed a common thread. In one way or another, Templar knights make a pact with the forces of evil, and as a stipulation of their unearthly contract, must feed off the blood of virgins to stay alive.

Of course, all of this undead mayhem requires a certain suspension of disbelief. As the slow-moving corpses inexorably make their way toward their screaming victims, we all know their prey have ample time to escape, but that’s not really the point of these movies. The knights represent the inevitability of fate and grappling with forces beyond our control. Why are their victims so passive? I’m not an historian or global politics buff, so I might be going out on a limb when I propose this series of films was de Ossorio’s veiled response to Franco’s fascist regime. The Templar knights seem to represent the stranglehold the pre-1975 Spanish government held over its citizens. Living in constant fear of reprisal, the citizens resorted to learned helplessness as a dysfunctional coping mechanism. The few malcontents who attempt to battle the knights usually meet terrible ends, so not fighting them seems the only sane response.

Tombs of the Blind Dead (aka: La Noche del Terror Ciego) (1971) Directed by Amando de Ossorio; Written by Amando de Ossorio and Jesús Navarro Carrión; Starring: César Burner, Lone Fleming, María Elena Arpón, José Thelman and Francisco Sanz
Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

In de Ossorio’s first film, two old friends, Bette and Virginia (Lone Fleming and María Elena Arpón) meet at a resort in Portugal, and decide to embark on a camping trip. When Bette’s boyfriend Roger (César Burner) enters the mix, it stirs up long dormant memories in Virginia (the European cut includes a flashback scene where Bette and Virginia experience a brief lesbian tryst during their college days). They take a train together, but Virginia unwisely decides to disembark midway before their destination. She ends up in an old, abandoned village that was once the domain of the ancient Templars, and meets her untimely demise.

The rest of the film shifts the focus to Bette and Roger, as they attempt to uncover the mystery of the strange village and Virginia’s death. We learn about the 14th century Templar knights, who returned from Egypt with the secrets of eternal life. Their sadistic rituals became legend, and kept the surrounding locales gripped in fear through the present day. Centuries after they were destroyed, the knights rise from their crypts to exact revenge against the living.

Compared to the later entries in the series, Tombs of the Blind Dead is the most artful of the bunch, containing some fancy shots and inventive murders. Borrowing from the Italian thrillers of the period, the film has a distinctive giallo vibe. In one memorable scene, an employee in Bette’s mannequin shop is stalked by Virginia’s reanimated corpse (the shop is conveniently located next to a morgue), with the room bathed in flashes of red light from a neon sign. You can run from the Templars, but escape from their wrath is futile. As the haunting final scene asserts, death is the only option when you cross their path.

* Fun fact: In a lame effort to cash in on the success of the Planet of the Apes movies, Tombs of the Blind Dead was marketed in the U.S. as Revenge from Planet Ape, despite the film’s conspicuous absence of ape-men.

The Return of the Evil Dead (aka: El Ataque de los Muertos Sin Ojos) (1973) Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio; Starring: Tony Kendall, Fernando Sancho, Esperanza Roy and Frank Braña; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½ 

This worthy follow-up to Tombs of the Blind Dead more or less picks up where the last one left off, but throws the Templar knights’ origins out the window (in the original film, the Templars were hanged, and crows ate their eyes out, but in the second entry, the knights are burned). The film is set in the small Portuguese town of Bouzano, where an annual celebration is held to commemorate the citizens’ victory over the knights centuries ago. But wouldn’t ‘ya know it? The legend about the knights rising from their graves to wreak havoc turns out to be true.

The Return of the Evil Dead aims for action over art. Once again, the knights are easy to escape, but the passive townspeople quickly succumb to them. For some unexplained reason, the knights’ numbers seem to have multiplied, compared to the first film. What once started as a small group of murderous demon knights now appears to be a few dozen.  The survivors huddle together in a monastery, in a vain attempt to barricade themselves from the undead hordes. Similar to Night of the Living Dead, this confinement brings out the worst in a select few, notably the loathsome mayor Duncan (Fernando Sancho). In his effort to escape the clutches of the knights, he uses one of his willing civil servants, along with a young girl, as pawns. Things don’t go well for Duncan.  

The Ghost Galleon (aka: El Buque Maldito) (1974) Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio; Starring: Maria Perschy, Jack Taylor, Bárbara Rey, Carlos Lemos and Blanca Estrada; Available on DVD

Rating: **½ 

The Ghost Galleon (which also went by the more generic title, Horror of the Zombies) is easily the weakest of the four Blind Dead films, thanks to a feeble story and sloth-like pacing. It’s notable only for the novel setting, and an endless parade of polyester fashion atrocities. As part of a millionaire’s (Jack Taylor) ill-advised publicity stunt, two fashion models are stranded on the open ocean, and encounter a (presumably) deserted 16th century sailing vessel, shrouded in fog.* As it turns out, the ship’s captain was a devotee of the Templar knights, and transported their bodies across the ocean (to where, it’s never made clear).

* I couldn’t help but speculate if this movie provided some inspiration for John Carpenter’s superior take on similar subject matter, The Fog.

Compared to its two predecessors, most of the film is painfully dull. I understand the need for dramatic tension, but that shouldn’t constitute the bulk of the picture. It takes almost half of its 90-minute running time for something to occur. When it happens, it’s a welcome respite, but we’re not invested enough in any of the characters to care. The final scene is suitably unsettling, but it doesn’t excuse the glacial scenes that preceded it. What should have been a tense, claustrophobic excursion into horror turns out to be an uninspired, pointless exercise in tedium.  

The Night of the Seagulls (aka: La Noche de las Gaviotas) (1975) Written and directed by Amando de Ossorio; Starring: Víctor Petit, María Kosty, Sandra Mozarowsky, José Antonio Calvo and Julia Saly; Available on DVD

Rating: *** 

The fourth and final entry in the Blind Dead series is an improvement over the previous film, although by this time the concept is wearing a little thin. Unlike the former film, The Night of the Seagulls jumps right into the action, albeit on a familiar note (ho-hum, another sacrificial altar scene). Once again, instead of maintaining continuity between each of his Blind Dead installments, de Ossorio casts a slightly different spin on the mythos of the Templar knights. This film asserts the knights originated from France 600 years ago. In a nod to Lovecraft, they worship an undersea god (who resembles a frog).

A doctor and his wife (Víctor Petit and María Kosty) move to an isolated seaside village populated by suspicious, unfriendly people. They observe a procession of cloaked figures on the beach, which turns out to be part of a seven-day ritual to appease the undead knights. The village’s silence and strict adherence to a barbaric tradition serves as a warning against complacency and blind acquiescence to the group.

The sexist, thick-headed doctor is the film’s weakest link. Instead of choosing to believe her suspicions about the townspeople, he chooses to chalk off his wife’s concerns to hysteria. As a result, it takes forever for him to arrive at the realization that something’s amiss, and plan an escape. While it occasionally stumbles, Night of the Seagulls is a fitting final entry in the series, concluding on a hopeful note. The closing scene reminds us it’s possible to break a chain, but it requires a new approach to an old problem.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Cinematic Dregs: Plan 9 from Outer Space

(1959) Written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.; Starring: Bela Lugosi, Vampira, Tor Johnson, Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Duke Moore and Criswell

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu

Rating: ***

“If you want to know me, see Glen or Glenda. That’s me, that’s my story, no question. But Plan 9 is my pride and joy.” – Ed Wood (from The Ed Wood Story – The Plan 9 Companion)

“I didn’t have a decent costume for Plan 9. I didn’t know where my costumes were; either I had thrown them away or lost them. What I wore was old, worn out. It looks like I had a hole in the crotch of the dress, if you notice. A hole in the crotch and I thought, oh well, nobody’s ever gonna see this movie, it doesn’t matter.” – Maila Nurmi, aka: Vampira (excerpt from Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey)

I’m excited to participate in another outstanding blogathon, The Classic Movie Ice Cream Social, hosted by the one and only Fritzi of Movies Silently. Along with other bloggers, I’m taking a moment to pause and reflect on the movies and movie-related experiences that never fail to pick me up. In many ways, ice cream is the perfect metaphor for the so-bad-it’s-good Ed Wood wonder, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Like its frosty counterpart, it takes me back to a simpler time and makes me feel good inside, although my brain warns me a steady diet would likely be detrimental to my health.

Misguided independent maverick Ed Wood, Jr. shot Plan 9 from Outer Space (Originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space) in Hollywood in late 1956 at the ironically named Quality Studios, a tiny soundstage nestled in an alley between a bar and a seedy hotel. In typical Wood fashion, it was a shoestring production, partially funded by Baptists, hoping to make a religious film from the profits (needless to say, it wasn’t the blockbuster Wood or his backers anticipated). Plan 9 demonstrated Wood’s flagrant disregard for competence, with scenes switching from day to night, tombstones that wobble when they’re brushed against, a hastily constructed airliner cockpit,* and a crypt that suspiciously appears to have been constructed from cardboard. The icing on this half-baked cake is the proliferation of not-so-special effects featuring wobbly flying saucers.**

* “For the cockpit scene, the set decorator took a piece of Masonite board, bent it, and hung a shower curtain behind it, and called it a cockpit…” – Gregory Walcott (ibid)

** Fun fact: Over the years, rumors circulated (some of which Wood perpetuated) that the production used everything from paper plates to Cadillac hubcaps for the flying saucers. In fact, the alien spacecraft were nothing more than plastic models purchased from a local hobby store.

The film opens with a deadpan introduction from Criswell (who also provides the unnecessary narration), profoundly observing that “…future events such as these will affect you in the future.” The story that follows, such as it is, concerns the arrival of alien spacecraft, and an extraterrestrial plot to carry out “Plan 9” (What plans 1-8 were is anyone’s guess), involving the raising and reanimation of the dead. The very human-looking aliens* and their efforts to conquer the earth are thwarted by a plucky airline pilot (Gregory Walcott) and some bumbling police. It all builds to a climax in the alien spacecraft with a ham-handed speech that rips off The Day the Earth Stood Still (surprise: they’re here to prevent earthlings from destroying themselves and the rest of the universe). Unlike Robert Wise’s timeless classic, things don’t work out for the satin-garbed invaders (Implying what? Humanity experiences a victory, but is humanity ultimately doomed? Best not to think too much about what Wood was aiming for).

* Wood eschewed any plans to make the aliens appear (ahem!) alien, due to lack of time and money.

Depending on your point of view, it was a blessing or a curse that Bela Lugosi, who appeared in the Wood flicks, Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster, passed away before he could start work on a third film from the writer/director. Of course, this didn’t deter Wood and his waste not, want not ethos. The filmmaker cobbled together snippets of test footage* from unproduced projects The Ghoul Goes West and The Vampire’s Tomb, and employed his chiropractor, Tom Mason, as Lugosi’s stand-in. Instead of using extensive makeup, or employing an actor who actually resembled Lugosi, Mason appears in his scenes with his face shrouded in a cape. Wood figured none would be the wiser.

* Fun fact: The house that Lugosi walks out of belonged to Wood regular Tor Johnson.

Mr. Lugosi
Nailed it!

Plan 9 also starred several personalities (known collectively as the “Wood Spooks”) from Wood’s circle of friends, including ex-pro wrestler Tor Johnson, television psychic Criswell, and grade-Z actor Paul Marco. True to Mr. Wood’s form, the film features a host of dubious casting decisions, notably the 400-lb, Swedish-accented Johnson as Inspector Clay. Youthful Vampira (Maila Nurmi), who did a day’s work with no lines, at her insistence, inexplicably played the old man’s (Lugosi’s nominal character) deceased wife.

Plan 9 from Outer Space presents a philosophical dilemma, along the lines of “If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it…” If an Ed Wood film evokes genuine enjoyment, is it really that bad? I think not. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quote, Plan 9’s reputation as the “worst” movie of all time has been greatly exaggerated. I opine that this movie is far from the worst, because it never commits the cardinal sin of being dull. Sure, it has terrible acting, atrocious set design, continuity errors galore, a juvenile story, and poor blocking (okay, you name it), but it doesn’t really matter. Plan 9 plunges to unprecedented depths of ineptitude, yet it provides more entertainment value than a dozen modern big-budget tentpole flicks. It wasn’t made by committee or the result of focus groups, nor was it a part of a multi-million dollar franchise with lucrative product tie-ins. After its eventual (limited) general release in 1959, it faded away into obscurity, but like the animated corpses depicted in the film, it refused to stay dead. Plan 9 from Outer Space will continue to baffle and amuse movie fans for decades to come.

Sources for this article: The book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr., by Rudolph Grey; Documentaries: The Ed Wood Story – The Plan 9 Companion (1992) and Look Back in Angora (1994)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fright Night

(1985) Written and directed by Tom Holland; Starring: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Roddy McDowall and Stephen Geoffreys; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Rating: ****

“I have just been fired because nobody wants to see vampire killers anymore or vampires either. Apparently, all they want are demented madmen running around in ski masks hacking up young virgins.” – Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall)

“It was intent on my part to give Chris Sarandon’s character, Jerry Dandrige, depth and to make him sympathetic at the same time. To make the vampire more interesting as a character…” – Tom Holland (from A.V. Club interview by Mike Vanderbilt)

I’m honored to return for this year’s Great VillainBlogathon, hosted by the incomparable Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows & Satin. Most folks would agree that a great villain is more than one note. They’re multi-dimensional and, at least on some level, likeable. Submitted for your approval is Fright Night’s chief baddie, Jerry Dandrige (Chris Sarandon), sophisticate, lover and vampire. To paraphrase a certain ubiquitous ad campaign, he’s the most interesting undead man in the world.

With Fright Night, writer/director Tom Holland has managed that rarest of feats, a successful blend of horror and humor. The film works because Holland understands the genre’s conventions, embracing the familiar tropes and bending them ever so slightly. He wisely assumes we already know about vampires, and doesn’t need to re-hash the rules that govern them.

Ordinary teen Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) suspects his new neighbor is a vampire, and the cause of recent serial murders in his town. Unfortunately, he can’t get anyone else to believe him. His frantic attempts to convince others about his murderous neighbor are met with skepticism and derision, as the product of an overactive imagination or mental illness. Influenced by his favorite late night TV horror show, and its enthusiastic host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), he’s resolved to rid the world of the deadly nocturnal denizen.  

Okay, let’s face it, Charley is a bit of a dweeb. He’s gawky, excitable, and has the finesse of a wildebeest when dealing with his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). He becomes increasingly oblivious to her, while his obsession with the neighbor continues to grow. But what he lacks in self-awareness, he makes up in pluck. It’s easy to fault Charley for his neglectful attitude toward Amy, yet we still root for him because of his determination to combat the forces of darkness. We want him to prevail, not just because he’s the hero, but because there’s something genuinely honest and decent about his character. He believes in what he’s doing, even if everyone else thinks he’s a nutcase.

It’s no accident that Jerry Dandrige is the most complex character in Fright Night. Holland doesn’t bog us down in extraneous details, but we have enough information to infer Dandrige’s back story. Our minds supply the rest of the details. One nice touch, thanks to Sarandon, was his character’s fondness for apples. As a vampire, we know he doesn’t gain sustenance from them, but it’s a tangible link to his past human self. We also get a hint of his tragic origins from a portrait of a past love, with a striking resemblance to Amy. Even when Charley is attempting to destroy Dandrige, he subconsciously wants to be him. Dandrige is everything that Charley isn’t: suave, cultured and comfortable in his own skin. Although he’s been dating Amy for almost a year, Charley can’t manage to get to second base with her. Meanwhile, Dandrige seduces her on the dance floor, taunting Charley with his prodigious charms.* He takes pleasure from pitting his formidable intellect against Charley’s accusations, cognizant of the fact that everyone knows about vampires, but are unwilling to accept the possibility that they really exist. Sarandon plays Dandrige somewhere between Lugosi and Lee, traipsing the line between entrancing and animalistic. He’s the life of any party he attends, the sort of guy you’d want to hang out with, provided he didn’t drain your body of blood. 

* He even manages to charm her into a different hairstyle. Try that, Vidal Sassoon!

McDowall is also terrific, in a suitably hammy role, as Peter Vincent (the name is an obvious amalgamation of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), the “Great Vampire Killer.” After fighting the ranks of the undead on the silver screen, he enjoys a second life as the host of a late night horror show Fright Night. The milk from the cash cow has run dry, however, after his show is cancelled and he faces eviction from his apartment. When Charley seeks his help in defeating a real vampire, Peter concludes that Charley is insane. To Peter, it’s just an acting gig, but to Charley, he’s the real deal. We soon learn the character he plays in the movies and TV belies his timid nature, and confronting his inner demons, as well as one outer demon, will put his skills and fortitude to the test.

Stephen Geoffreys somehow manages to skirt the thin line between obnoxious and amusing, as Charley’s capricious friend Evil Ed. His caustic personality provides a welcome contrast to Charley’s plain vanilla character. Much like Dandrige, there’s an underlying sadness. He’s willing to humor Charley for the entertainment value (not to mention a few extra bucks), but his jokes at Charley’s expense reflect insecurities about being an outsider. Dandrige appeals to his sense of feeling different, recruiting him to join the ranks of the undead.

So much works well in Fright Night that it’s easy to overlook a few of its minor trespasses. After going to great lengths to conceal his identity, Dandrige chooses to make a very public spectacle at the aforementioned dance club, killing two bouncers. It’s also hard to sympathize with Charley’s neglectful treatment of his girlfriend. It’s not surprising when Amy leaves in a huff after he ignores her, but it’s strange that she doesn’t choose greener pastures. But then again, I suppose love is blind.

Fright Night is one of the landmark horror films of the ‘80s, succeeding as a modern horror film and an affectionate nod to the movies that influenced Holland’s formative years. It’s at once familiar and fresh, paying homage to the horror films (especially Hammer) of yesteryear, but taking a more progressive stance with its villain. Fright Night spawned an inferior sequel, and was remade a few years back, which in turn resulted in its own sequel. My suggestion: forget any of those offshoots existed, and go straight to the original.