Monday, June 18, 2018

A Rant About Ratings

I hate rating movies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary evil, I suppose. It’s what you’re supposed to do when you review films, right? It’s a thumbnail sketch of my opinion, in easy-to-digest, minimal thought-inducing form. It’s all you’d ever need to know. You don’t even need to read my review, right? But hold your horses pardner; star ratings don’t tell the whole story.

Several months ago (I’m not great with time, so this could have been more than a year ago), I held a Twitter vote to gauge opinion about doing away with starred ratings altogether. Much to my chagrin, but not necessarily surprise, voting was skewed heavily in favor of keeping the dreaded system. I get it. I’m guilty of the same damn thing. It’s a busy world with things to do, people to see and amusing pet videos to ooh and aah at. It’s a whole lot easier to take something at a glance before we move on to the next thing. In this society of diminished attention spans and multiple distractions vying for our collective attentions, we want to cut to the chase. Growing up in my family of origin, I was constantly subjected to a skewed interpretation of movie reviews, as if “It was rated a three” told me anything useful. A three? By whom? A great hand descended from the heavens and dubbed the film a “three”? Nope, there was no divine intervention, just good old fallible humans and a severely flawed rating system from a local TV reviewer, newspaper, etc… But that one rating became my family’s indisputable authority on whether something was worth watching. The progression of this single-rating authority has been rating aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and IMDB. They do the thinking for us, despite the fact not all reviewers are alike, nor does each critic necessarily evaluate movies with the same criteria. As a result, there’s not much reliability or validity to these scores.

Not all ratings, including my own, are created equal. I chose the boring but venerable 5-star rating system, but whether you use numbers, stars, skulls, cute little aliens, or whatever, it all amounts to the same. You’re quantifying a subjective thing. What you see from me is a composite. The ratings I slap on my reviews are a compromise between quality and watch-ability, all smooshed into one neat little package. The ratings don’t mean much in terms of favorites, or a desire to re-watch the movie multiple times. While Downfall might get a high rating from me, one viewing is enough to last a lifetime, whereas Island of Lost Souls merits repeat viewings.

And another thing. I’ll be the first to admit my ratings are not infallible, and occasionally inconsistent. Maybe I was having a bad day, and the movie didn’t click with me at that moment, or maybe I was sleepy, and couldn’t concentrate. In the latter case, it wasn’t really boredom but fatigue that dictated a less than glowing review. At their best (I’m using the word “best” loosely), however, my reviews are like a mini courtroom in which I present the prosecution and the defense, exploring the good and not-so-good aspects of the movie. I’m also judge and jury, but so are you. Based on the testimony, perhaps you’ll arrive at a different verdict. The star rating alone won’t lead you to any further exploration

With that in mind, let’s revisit my admittedly flawed ratings system:

***** = It’s a masterpiece, right? But what’s a masterpiece, anyway? It’s all relative, although I suppose the best answer is that these are movies that are perfect to me. I wouldn’t want to change a thing with Alien, The Thing, Metropolis, Spirited Away, or Five Easy Pieces.

**** = Many of my favorites reside here. Why four stars and not five? I’m a sucker for imperfection. These titles might not be “perfect,” but that’s why they work so well for me. Labyrinth, Phantasm, Eyes Without a Face, Gremlins, and many, many others fall into this category.

*** = These movies have some wonderful and not-so-wonderful moments. Some had the potential for greatness, while others had no such lofty pretentions, and are as good as it gets. They teeter on the boundary between trash and treasure. Brain Damage, Ice Cream Man, Demons and Logan’s Run are some notable examples.

** = It’s a mess, beyond repair. Something might have saved it, but I’m not sure what that would be. I’m looking at you, Terror Train and Young Einstein.

* = As an optimist in pessimist’s clothing, I want to believe the best intentions in a movie. Hating a movie isn’t inherently in me, which is why this might be the rarest rating of all. This rating is reserved for titles with no redeeming qualities, which offended me on a cellular level. Mac and Me has earned its rightful place here.

You won’t find many one or five-star reviews, because most movies don’t fall in this range. Contrary to many Netflix or Amazon user reviews (no offense intended to those who evaluate movies on Netflix or Amazon, you’re all fine people), most movies aren’t worthy of the loftiest praise or eternal damnation. That’s why you’ll find the vast majority of my reviews fall within the two- to four-star range. You’ll find three-and-a-half-star ratings most frequently on my blog. It’s a sweet spot for me. In many instances the film’s reach might have exceeded its grasp, but I was glad to go along for the ride. Taste the Blood of Dracula, The Blob, and Executive Koala are just a few examples. By far, my most misunderstood rating is two and a half stars. These movies showed a lot of potential, and I might even enjoy them in parts, but they have too many strikes against them. Dune, Demon Seed, and Hardware are ones that I’m perennially on the fence about. Some titles might merit re-evaluation from time to time. My opinion has remained relatively consistent over the years, so it’s relatively rare when I reverse my opinion, but hey, it happens.

So, there you have it. The star ratings aren’t going away for now, but I don’t like ‘em, and don’t be too surprised if I eschew ratings altogether in a future incarnation of this blog. My star ratings are not the final word on the subject. If you enjoyed the movie more than I did, great. If you didn’t like it as much as I did, or even hated it, that’s fine too. I’m pleased by those who have chosen to visit and re-visit my blog for reviews, so I feel I’m doing something right. But even I’m not delusional enough to believe that everyone agrees with my opinions all the time. Oh, and please read my reviews in their entirety, because starred ratings suck.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon Wrap-Up

We’ve come to the end of the Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Gill Jacob from Realweegiemidget Reviews and me, but it’s not really an end, but a beginning. Why, you might ask? We’ve enjoyed hosting this blogathon so much, that we plan on making it an annual event. With that in mind, we hope to see you all next year… and bring your blogging friends!

I’d like to express my sincere gratitude to the bunch of extremely talented folks that chose to be a part of this blogathon. I’m impressed and humbled by your depth of knowledge and passion for these films and the filmmakers behind them. Last, but certainly not least, a huge thanks to my co-host with the most, Gill, for coaxing me out of blogathon-hosting semi-retirement, and for suggesting that we include Amicus in the festivities.

But wait, there’s more! This blogathon ain’t over yet, because we have some last-minute entries, below.

In addition to today’s links, be sure to visit the recaps from the three-day run of the blogathon:

Bring a wooden stake and some garlic, as Kevin Sturton from A Scunner Darkly looks at Horror of Dracula (1958)

Don’t be afraid to read this review of Fear in the Night (1972), courtesy of Amber from J'aime Regarder Des Films

I arrive fashionably late, to bring you a review of Twins of Evil (1971)

Paul from Silver Screen Classics sinks his fangs into Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

Christina Wehner looks at the second installment of the Frankenstein franchise, The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

You’re cordially invited to spend some time with the Cryptkeeper, when Amber from J'aime Regarder Des Films reviews Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Monday, June 4, 2018

Twins of Evil

(1971) Directed by John Hough; Written by: Tudor Gates; Based on characters created by Sheridan Le Fanu; Starring: Peter Cushing, Mary Collinson, Madeleine Collinson, Dennis Price, Isobel Black and Damien Thomas; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD


“As far as I was concerned, this was a picture about Peter Cushing’s character and the twins to me were a coincidental, but necessary part of the formula, the innocence to engage with the evil of the Count. We were trying to produce quality pictures and, as far as we were concerned, Peter Cushing was vital to that formula.” – Tudor Gates (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

This is my second contribution to The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, co-hosted by Gill Jacob from Reallweegiemidget Reviews and me. Please check out the many other contributions from this three-day celebration.

 Compared to the production company’s output from the late ‘50s through most of the ‘60s, Hammer horror films of the 70s have enjoyed a less than stellar reputation. While there’s some basis to this reputation, due to diminishing budgets, mediocre sequels to established franchises, and pandering to the changing tastes of theater-goers, some excellent titles have fallen through the cracks. There were clunkers, but also some notable films, including The Vampire Lovers, Vampire Circus, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (a personal favorite). Despite its potentially exploitive premise, Twins of Evil is another worthy title.  

Since I’m doing a double submission for the Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, it seems appropriate that my Hammer entry would be 1971’s Twins of Evil, starring real-life twins. Hammer passed over several more experienced actresses in favor of casting Mary and Madeleine Collinson as Maria and Frieda Gelhorn.** Born in Malta, the former Playboy models didn’t speak fluent English, and were dubbed, which was common practice for the day. Armed with this built-in gimmick, the filmmakers could have placed them in diaphanous gowns and various states of undress and called it a day. There’s a difference, however, which distinguishes it from Hammer’s lesser efforts, thanks to capable direction by young director John Hough, a script from Tudor Gates, morally ambiguous themes, and a chilling performance by Peter Cushing.  

* Fun Fact: Mary and Madeleine were the second pair of twins from their family. (Source: Hammer Glamour, by Marcus Hearn)

Twins of Evil (the title, uttered in a line of dialogue by Cushing, is a misnomer, since only one of the twins might be construed as evil) was the third film in the so-called “Karnstein Trilogy,” based loosely on Sheridan Le Fanu’s story “Carmilla.” While the first film, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers (reviewed here), followed the source material more closely than its sequels, it took many liberties. The sequels strayed further from the story, with Lust for a Vampire (1971) being the most problematic of the three. Twins of Evil continued on a different tangent from Le Fanu’s story, but with much more satisfying results than its direct predecessor. Only a few scraps of the original story remain, including Carmilla,* and the evil Karnstein family.

* Katya Wyeth plays Countess Mircalla, a role originated by Ingrid Pitt in the first film. Mircalla appears briefly in one scene, then vanishes. It’s easy to see why Pitt passed on reprising her role.

After their parents die, Maria and Frieda are sent to live with their stern, authoritarian uncle Gustav. When they arrive, he’s preoccupied with waging a holy war against anyone he deems to be possessed by the devil. Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) an avowed practitioner of black magic, stands in opposition to Gustav and his efforts, but remains untouchable, while under the protection of the emperor. Meanwhile, Maria and Frieda attempt to adjust to their new surroundings, but in contrast to each other. While the kind-hearted Maria wants to stay in Gustav’s good graces, Frieda is unhappy being under her uncle’s thumb. Frieda is seduced by Karnstein’s emphasis on following more hedonistic pursuits,* and isn’t above using her sister as a pawn.

* Another Fun Fact: On working with the twins, John Hough commented, “…they were actually like you see them in the film. Mary was very sweet and Madeleine was very forceful.” (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

Peter Cushing appears in one of his most uncompromising performances as the pious witch hunter, Gustav Weil, who runs an ad-hoc tribunal with a group of men called The Brotherhood. They spend their nights persecuting young single women, burning them at the stake if they’re suspected of practicing witchcraft. Gustav uses his faith as a shield, to absolve himself of blame, believing he’s doing holy work. When questioned by the town’s schoolmaster, he rationalizes his actions by insisting the women he burned were not innocent, but in league with the devil. It’s a great, multi-faceted performance, all the more remarkable, because it was in the wake of personal tragedy. Cushing’s wife had died only two months prior to shooting, but he continued on, in a desire to immerse himself in work. Hough described Cushing as a “superb artist” who was “very gentle,” in stark opposition to the cruel character that he portrayed in the film. It’s a testament to Cushing’s acting prowess that we don’t hate Gustav. Even at his darkest, we see the humanity within, as moments of self-doubt break through.

* According to Gates, Cushing would have conversations with his deceased wife in his dressing room, which served as a sort of coping mechanism, and helped him to focus on his work. (from Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes, by Wayne Kinsey)

Another standout is Damien Thomas as Gustav’s nemesis, the sadistic, arrogant Baron Karnstein. His primary motivation is not out of malice, but boredom. He has no allegiance to anyone except himself, and taunts Gustav with his decadent lifestyle. Although both men are adversaries, Twins of Evil refuses to let the audience off the hook by picking sides. Which is worse: someone shrouded under the pretense of righteousness who does terrible things, or someone who wears their bad intentions on their sleeve? Both kill for their own selfish ends. One believes he is doing right, while the other satisfies his insatiable desires. In the end, both are responsible for murdering innocent people. With neither side being paragons of virtue, our moral center rests with schoolmaster Anton Hoffer (David Warbeck) calling out the hypocrisy in Gustav and the mob mentality of the Brotherhood.

Twins of Evil subverts Hammer’s typical formula by blurring the lines between good and bad. In addition to the moral ambiguity, the message about female sexuality within the milieu of the film, is clear. There is no equality in this patriarchal society. Under the leadership of Gustav, a group of men serve as judge, jury and executioner to people (especially women) who deviate from the norm. Expression of sexuality beyond the boundary of marriage frightens the men, challenging the status quo.

Much like The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil is an underrated, unfairly maligned, example of 1970s Hammer, with more depth than one would suspect. Twins of Evil is a novel spin on tired tropes, proving an old dog is capable of learning new tricks. With a built-in concept of casting real-life twins that were easy on the eyes, the filmmakers could have been lazy, coasting on our expectations of titillation and gore, but it turns the classic Hammer story of good and evil on its head. As with many Hammer horror films, good ultimately triumphs over evil, but not without a terrible price. It’s not simply a battle between opposing theological sides, but compassion and reason versus unbridled fealty to mob rule.