Friday, June 24, 2011

June Quick Picks and Pans

Black Sabbath (1963) Mario Bava directed this stylish horror anthology, with introductions by the one and only Boris Karloff.  Karloff seemed to be having a blast as the host of the stories, delivering his lines with hammy, ghoulish perfection.  The first story, “The Drop of Water,” is the best, and concerns a nurse and her deceased patient.  After she performs her final duty of dressing the dead woman in her burial dress, she decides that she’d like a little bonus for her troubles (in the form of a ring on the dead woman’s finger).  She takes little notice of the fact that the reclusive old lady was steeped in the occult, and even after death would not take kindly to this infraction.  It starts with a simple premise and builds tension steadily, to reach a satisfyingly horrific conclusion.  “The Telephone,” is the weakest of the trio, about a young woman receiving a series of disturbing calls from a man whom she thought to be dead.  Michèle Mercier plays the lady in distress, and mostly walks around her apartment in sheer garments, smoking and looking frightened.  The last segment of Black Sabbath, “The Wurdalak,” takes place in 19th century Eastern Europe, and feels brooding and fatalistic.  Karloff himself stars as Gorca, the patriarch of a family anxiously awaiting his return.  It’s a little slow, but suitably atmospheric, with ample shadows and stark splashes of color to set the mood.  It’s a vampire story unlike most others, with the premise that vampires will only prey on those they love.  Like most horror anthologies, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but even if the rest of the film never quite lives up to the promise of the excellent first segment, it’s well worth checking out.

Rating: ****; Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Mr. Sardonicus (1961) This William Castle film was originally released with the novel gimmick, the “Punishment Poll,” whereby the audience could decide the fate of the title character.  As you can probably guess with a name like Baron Sardonicus, you’re not going to win many popularity contests.  His face is frozen in a ghastly, permanent rictus, and he inflicts pain and suffering on the people around him.  The mere mentioning of his name in the local village is enough to spur hatred and revulsion from the residents.  Mr. Sardonicus was based on a novella by Ray Russell, but you can see the obvious parallels to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Sir Robert Cargrave is a gifted London doctor who has made significant breakthroughs in the study of paralysis.  He travels to the faraway, made-up land of Gorslava at the behest of Baron Sardonicus (played by Guy Rolfe) to help find a cure for his facial malady. Sardonicus’ character is given some depth, due to his tragic origins, but his sadistic actions that follow only help cement his ultimate fate.  It should be no surprise to anyone that this will end up badly for Sardonicus.  One of the movie’s highlights is William Castle’s droll introduction, as he emerges from the foggy banks of the Thames to establish the guidelines of his latest gimmick.  Castle, true to form, always maintained that he had filmed an alternate, less punitive ending for Mr. Sardonicus, but this has never seen the light of day.  As a showman and shrewd judge of human nature, however, it’s doubtful that Castle ever bothered to work on another ending.  We may never know the real story, but we have this dark and entertaining tale to serve as Castle’s legacy. 

Rating: ***½.  Available on DVD.

Screamplay (1985) If you combined The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari with Day of the Locust, you might get something like this… maybe.  Director/co-writer Rufus B. Seder stars as Edgar Allen, a young screenwriter hoping to make it big in Hollywood – at least this version of Hollywood, which was actually filmed in Boston.  His burning desire to write a murder mystery keeps getting sidetracked by a series of unrelated (Or are they unrelated?) murders.  He takes up residence in a dingy apartment building, along with an assorted cast of hopefuls and burnouts.  Screamplay was shot in black and white, and utilizes some inventive camera work to blend film noir with expressionism.  It’s difficult to describe Screamplay without comparing it to the work of other writer/directors, especially John Waters (pre-Polyester) and David Lynch (think Eraserhead). Acting ranges from awful to passable.  Seder did a lot with the meager resources he had.  It’s an odd little film that might just be worth a look, if you’re bored of the same old thing.  Warning: you might want to skip over the groan-worthy introduction by Troma maven Lloyd Kaufman, unless you’re starved for bad jokes.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

Gargoyles (1972) This mediocre made-for-TV movie had been making the rounds through re-runs over the years, although I had only managed to see bits and pieces before this viewing.  I recall watching a portion of the film at a friend’s house one time, more years ago than I care to remember.  Even at an early, impressionable age I knew that this wasn’t exactly prime material, and commented accordingly. 

My friend’s older sister remarked,”You’re so cynical.”

Years later, I decided to revisit the film and see if my initial, albeit incomplete, impressions were correct.  Seeing the movie in its entirety did nothing to improve my opinion.  I just kept waiting for Joel (or Mike) and the bots to arrive, to make this more enjoyable.  The makeup effects by a young Stan Winston don’t make this a worthwhile viewing experience.  Frankly, he did much better.  Some of the titular creatures have wings, while others do not.  This was probably a result of budgetary restrictions rather than any logical explanation for the cave-dwelling species.  It’s also never really explained how the gargoyles expected to take dominion of the earth over humankind, especially when they’re not exactly impervious to bullets.  Most of the scenes depicting the creatures in action are in slow motion, seemingly for no particular reason.  I’m guessing that the filmmakers wanted to capture the feel of a 50s monster flick, but Gargoyles doesn’t possess the naïve charm of its grade B predecessors.  Gargoyles has been touted by some as a low budget mini-classic, but I just found it tedious.  Man, I’m so cynical. 

Rating: **.  Available on DVD.

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