Monday, July 29, 2013

13 Ghosts

(1960) Directed by William Castle; Written by: Robb White; Starring: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow and Martin Milner

Available format: DVD

Rating: *** ½

“When the actor took off his goggles, the audience would remove theirs – and voilà – the ghosts would disappear.” – William Castle (from his autobiography Step Right Up: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America)

Many thanks to Monstergirl from The Last Drive In and the eponymous Goregirl of Goregirl’s Dungeon for hosting the William Castle Blogathon.  I’m honored to be a part of this five-day celebration of Castle’s work, and encourage everyone reading my post to check out the other entries from Castle-philes.  With so many titles from his resume to choose from, I was in a bit of a quandary about deciding which one to review.  In the end, I decided to cover one of my favorite Castle films, the delightfully creepy and creaky 13 Ghosts.

Castle (whose real name was William Schloss, Jr.) started out in New York theater production, and made the move to Hollywood in the late 1930s.  After working his way up the ranks on both sides of the camera, he became a prolific ‘B’ director for Columbia and (briefly) Universal. Castle really hit his stride in the late 50s, when he became an independent producer, and took movie promotion to unprecedented levels of audacity.  His special brand of chutzpah inspired many other filmmakers, including John Waters,* who featured the scratch ‘n sniff gimmick “Odoroma” with Polyester, and Joe Dante, whose Matinee was a loving homage to cold war paranoia and showbiz hucksterism (featuring a William Castle-esque character, Lawrence Woolsey, played by John Goodman).

* In his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters, Waters referred to Castle as “the greatest showman of our time.”

Starting with 1958’s Macabre*, Castle concocted new and increasingly outlandish ploys to promote his movies.  Following the subsequent success of the Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler (featuring “Emergo” and “Percepto,” respectively), Castle pondered the next gimmick to accompany his next film.  Inspired by a visit to an ophthalmologist, where he needed to look through different lenses, he came up with a doozy for 13 Ghosts, “Illusion-O.”  Making his now trademark on-screen appearance, he introduced the “Ghost Viewer,” a card with two viewing windows: a red “Ghost Viewer” and blue “Ghost Remover,” to alternately see the ghosts or make them disappear.

* Theater patrons were insured by Lloyd’s of London for $1,000 if they died of fright during the film.

Donald Woods plays Cyrus Zorba, a paleontologist raising his family on a meager salary.  Not long after his wife calls to inform him their furniture is being repossessed, he’s contacted by an attorney (Martin Milner), and learns he’s inherited an old house that once belonged to his rich, reclusive uncle.  But there’s a catch.  In addition to the house, he’s also inherited 12 ghosts that his uncle collected from around the world (the 13th remains a mystery until the very end).  One of his uncle’s final inventions, a bulky pair of goggles, enables him to view the various ghosts.  Whenever Cyrus or his son Buck (Charles Herbert) dons the goggles, an on-screen caption alerts us to look through our own ghost viewer, so we can see what they’re seeing.

The cast gamely plays along, despite 13 Ghosts’ absurd premise, sucking us into the mystery of Uncle Zorba’s house.  Milner turns in a fine performance as young attorney Benjamen Rush, who courts Cyrus’ daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) and wins the confidence of Buck.  The real standout, however, is Margaret Hamilton, in a terrific supporting role as Uncle Zorba’s strange housekeeper Elaine.  In a winking reference to Hamilton’s earlier, famous film role, Buck continually refers to her as a “witch.”  Castle and screenwriter Robb White never tip the audience about her true identity, and Hamilton plays her character right down the middle, so we’re never entirely sure.

Castle’s 13 Ghosts is basically the antithesis to Robert Wise’s The Haunting, which followed three years later.  While showing the ghosts was Castle’s raison d'être, the latter film meticulously endeavored not to display any spirits, trusting our imaginations could create something much more horrific than anything that could possibly appear on screen.  Castle, however, knew his target audience, comprised mostly of teens and pre-teens, were looking for something far less sophisticated.  He promised ghosts, and they got ‘em.  Through crude (some might say cheesy) means, the ghosts come to life, so to speak, although they appear as if they originated from the costume section of a dime store.  The clunky effects fail to diminish the movie’s charm, no doubt due to Castle’s infectious charisma and penchant for sideshow flimflam. 

Does 13 Ghosts hold up today, even without the ghost viewer?  Well… it probably requires a greater degree of suspension of disbelief than modern audiences are willing to accept.  It’s fun to imagine what it must have been like as a kid in 1960, sitting in the theater, waiting to see what horrible apparition appeared next.  Even if the movie didn’t quite live up to the hype, a William Castle film meant you were at least guaranteed a crazy ride.   There’s a naïve charm about 13 Ghosts that’s conspicuously absent in most flicks today (witness the misguided 2001 remake, which was aimed at an older, gore-hungry audience).  As Castle’s daughter Terry observed in Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, he related to the kids in the audience, and was laughing with us.  13 Ghosts was self-consciously hokey, not high art.  We know we’ve been had, but we can’t help but thank Mr. Castle for showing us such a good time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

July Quick Picks and Pans

The Intouchables (2011) There’s nothing new about the basic story, culled from true events, by co-writer/directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano.  What’s refreshing is the filmmakers’ refusal to sugar-coat the material.  Philippe, a wealthy quadriplegic (François Cluzet), hires ex-con Driss (Omar Sy) as his helper.  They seem mismatched, but somehow click together.  Philippe is drawn to Driss because of his lack of pity, while Driss appreciates his employer’s faith in him.  Neither character is painted as a victim, but part of a symbiotic whole, where each one benefits.

Cluzet and Sy’s performances consistently hit the right notes.  Philippe wallows in quiet misery, mourning after his deceased wife and damaged body.  Using his wit and charm, Driss manages to break through the walls that Philippe and his uptight house staff construct, to connect on a human level.  It’s an alternately funny and poignant tale of class differences, loss and redemption.  It should be no surprise that an American remake is being planned, which will likely play up the comedic elements and drown the serious subject matter in sentimentality.  My advice: watch this one first.

Rating: ****.  Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Night Tide (1961) Dennis Hopper stars in an early role, as Johnny, a Navy recruit from Denver, Colorado.  While on leave in Santa Monica, California, he encounters a mysterious woman named Mora (Linda Lawson), who works as a mermaid in a sideshow.  As fragments of her shadowy past are gradually revealed, he learns his life might be in danger, and that her act might be more than it seems.  Hopper is earnest and intense as a young sailor who just wanted to see the world, and Lawson is appropriately demure and melancholic as the femme fatale.  Writer/director Curtis Harrington’s low-key thriller, shot on a miniscule budget of $25,000, builds slowly, buoyed by an omnipresent sense of impending dread.  David Raksin’s jazzy score adds to the film noir-ish atmosphere.  It’s too bad the film is hampered by an unsatisfying ending that attempts to strip away any ambiguity by explaining everything, but Night Tide stands out as a compelling mood piece.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Crawlspace (2012) Nothing is particularly original about this low budget Aussie science fiction film, which borrows conspicuously from numerous other films, including Aliens, X2 and Cube.  A team of elite soldiers are sent into an underground research installation in the middle of the desert, and discover Eve (Amber Clayton), a survivor who might not be what she appears.  With the action confined to a few claustrophobic sets, it’s clear the filmmakers had little to work with, but recycling sets shouldn’t excuse re-using tired themes.  With its ambiguous central character and escalating paranoia, it could have been something more, but it just comes across as a patchwork quilt of half-baked sci-fi tropes.  Crawlspace is a prime example of something that should have stayed in development a while longer.  Then, maybe, we would have had something.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

The Big Boss (aka: Fists of Fury) (1971) Bruce has done better.  Cheng Chao-an (Lee)   makes a promise to his uncle not to fight, and for at least half of the movie that’s exactly what we get.  Now, that’s exactly what I want to see in a Bruce Lee movie – not fighting.  When we finally cut to the chase, the fight scenes are relatively unremarkable, with close-up and medium shots when we should be viewing the action from a wider angle.  The dull story about Bruce and his pals working in a corrupt ice factory does little to exploit Lee’s natural charisma.  While the film isn’t a total waste of time, you’ll be counting the minutes until the next scuffle.  The Big Boss = big boredom.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cinematic Dregs: Mac and Me

(1988) Directed by Stewart Raffill; Written by Stewart Raffill and  Steve Feke;Starring: Christine Ebersole, Jonathan Ward, Tina Caspary and Jade Calegory;
Available on DVD.

Rating: *

Michael Cruise: You know what I feel like?

Eric Cruise: A Big Mac?

Michael Cruise: The man's psychic!

I only have myself to blame.  I was looking forward to watching Mac and Me as much as I’d anticipate a snuff film, but something compelled me to see it anyway.  Maybe it was a case of curiosity getting the best of me, or a deep-seated desire to take the contrarian stance and tout it as an unfairly maligned family classic.  The seed was planted long ago, in another life, as a video store clerk.  I recall a parent commenting that her kid thought Mac and Me was better than E.T. – The Extraterrestrial.  They were wrong… so very wrong.  My initial skepticism, prompted by an overwhelming flood of negative reviews, turned out to be correct.  This movie hurt, so I must hurt back.

 The opening scene sets the stage for the endurance test that’s the rest of the movie.  An unmanned NASA space probe travels an indeterminate distance from Earth, and lands on an unspecified alien planet.  While collecting samples, the probe inadvertently sucks up a curious family of humanoid creatures.*  It returns to Earth with the family intact and alive.  We, the audience, are expected to suspend our disbelief, and accept that the alien family has somehow survived a prolonged voyage through the vastness of space, without atmosphere, food or water.  Hey, they’re aliens, right?  Anything’s possible, unless you witness the ensuing scenes on Earth, where it’s apparent that they have similar needs to other life forms.  Of course, all of the preceding would be partially excusable if there was anything else worth watching.

* The creature design for Mac and his family is uninspired and borderline creepy.

What follows is a carbon copy of E.T.; that is, if the copy had been trampled by a herd of rhinos, torn up into little pieces and taped back together, and transcribed by an army of monkeys on typewriters.  The titular alien is separated from his alien family, and winds up in a suburban Southern California neighborhood.  His human host family (as in Spielberg’s film), consists of a single mom and her two sons.  Unlike E.T., none of the aggressively bland family members seem to possess any traits that would distinguish them from anyone else.  It’s established that they relocated from Illinois to California, but apart from one character’s Chicago Bears jersey, they might as well have come from Michigan or Iowa.  About the only discernible difference is its protagonist Elliot, um, I mean Eric (Jade Calegory), who is confined to a wheelchair.  It’s as if E.T. had been entirely re-cast with understudies. 

Product placement in motion pictures is nothing new, but rarely has it been as blatant as in Mac and Me.  The film becomes a virtual string of commercials for companies and products, including McDonald’s ([Big] Mac and Me… Get it? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.) Sears (where Eric’s mom works), Skittles, United Van Lines and the now-defunct Wickes Furniture.  As for the ubiquitous presence of Coca Cola* in the film, I can only deduce that it was a ploy by Pepsi to defame its archrival.  Judging by Mac and Me’s $6.4 million box office take, I can’t imagine it was the marketing coup its distributor, Orion, anticipated.

* Coke is featured so prominently that the lead characters appear to drink it exclusively.  In one pivotal scene, Mac is revived by the magical soft drink.

Considering the parade of ineptitude on display, it’s hard to believe that some genuine talent worked on this film.  Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Predator) supplied a serviceable, if derivative score.  John Dykstra (Star Wars, Spider-Man) designed the visual effects, although he probably doesn’t want this on his resume.*  The effects range from mediocre to awful, but in his defense, Dykstra probably didn’t have much of a budget to work with.

* Oddly enough, Dykstra is listed in the movie’s credits, but his name is nowhere to be found in IMDB.

Mac and Me rises to the challenge of escalating the stupidity.  Just when you think the film has reached its nadir, it proves just how low it can go (try to watch the big dance number inside a McDonald’s restaurant and not cringe).  All of the characters in the film are unbelievably obtuse.  It takes almost half of the movie’s running time to establish that Mac (which stands for “mysterious alien creature”) is not a figment of someone’s imagination.  The relationship between Eric, his friends and the alien family is designed to tug at your heartstrings, but it’s simply a test of your endurance.  In the final scene, the words “We’ll be back” appear, which seem to be more of a threat than a promise.

I don’t normally comment about Netflix user reviews, but I think it’s worth addressing the alarmingly large number of positive accolades, proclaiming that Mac and Me shouldn’t be held under an adult’s scrutiny (“It’s a kids movie!”).  Kids deserve better.  The best so-called “kids” movies value the audience’s intelligence, no matter what age they may be, and appeal to our sensibilities on overt and subtextual levels.  This low-rent interpretation of E.T. is nothing more than a cynical, condescending exercise in corporate greed that confuses idiocy with whimsy.  If you’re looking for a title for bad movie night, then you’ve struck gold.  Everyone else should steer clear.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Classics Revisited: Horror of Dracula (aka: Dracula)

(1958) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Based on the novel by Bram Stoker; Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Melissa Stribling, Valerie Gaunt and Michael Gough; Available on DVD.

Rating: **** ½

Before delving into my featured review, I’d like to give special thanks to Annmarie Gatti at Classic Movie Hub and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen for hosting the Dynamic Duos in Classic Films Blogathon.  I’m thrilled with this opportunity to participate by celebrating one of horror cinema’s greatest pairs: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, as Count Dracula and Dr. Van Helsing in Horror of Dracula.

“…there were aspects of him with which I could readily identify – his extraordinary stillness, punctuated by bouts of manic energy…” – Christopher Lee (on Dracula, from his autobiography Tall, Dark and Gruesome)

“He [Christopher Lee] is an enormously charming gentleman, but when he became that terrifying creature, even I jumped.” – Peter Cushing (from Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing and Horror Cinema: A Filmography by Mark A. Miller)

In its effort to revitalize horror properties popularized by Universal in the 30s and 40s British upstart Hammer Film Productions delivered a one-two punch with The Curse of Frankenstein, followed by Horror of Dracula (or just Dracula in the U.K.).  Horror of Dracula featured the same directing/writing team (Terence Fisher and Jimmy Sangster) as the previous project, and the results were equally impressive. 

Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), Dr. Van Helsing’s protégé, arrives at Dracula’s castle, intent on ridding humanity of the vampire scourge.  The plan doesn’t work out too well for Harker, who’s almost overtaken by one of Dracula’s female minions (played by Valerie Gaunt in a short but memorable role), and becomes the Count’s victim.  Van Helsing attempts to re-trace Harker’s steps, but Dracula has already given him the slip, and relocated to England.  Before you can say Vlad the Impaler, Harker’s nubile fiancé Lucy (Carol Marsh) and her sister, Mina (Melissa Stribling) are Dracula’s new targets.

Cushing and Lee frequently portrayed mortal enemies onscreen, but enjoyed a lifelong friendship offscreen, starting with their first collaboration on The Curse of Frankenstein.  Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, they would appear together in many Hammer and Amicus films, often as adversaries.  In Horror of Dracula, Cushing’s genteel, erudite Van Helsing provided the perfect foil to Lee’s seductive, animalistic presence.  It’s a classic battle of good and evil, which served as the template for the stars’ future roles, often with lesser results.  Lee would eventually star in six Hammer sequels, with diminishing results, culminating in 1974’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  Dracula and Van Helsing’s cat and mouse dynamics would continue to play out over the years, but would never again seem as fresh as the original production.  Cushing appeared in several other Hammer vampire-themed productions, sans Lee, including The Brides of Dracula, The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil. 

At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I prefer Hammer’s audacious interpretation of Dracula to Tod Browning’s stodgy version.  Compared to Bela Lugosi’s formal, stagey performance, Lee’s Dracula is more visceral, suggesting a raw, unbridled sensuality. Lee’s relatively short screen time and paucity of dialogue (13 lines) belie his pervasive influence on the rest of the film.  In contrast to the chaste scenes in the 1931 film, Hammer’s Dracula overtly invades his victims’ bedrooms and dines on their necks.  Lee’s formidable predator is a thing of awe and erotic energy, with blood dribbling down his lips, and crimson eyes.  His female prey invite him into their bedrooms with open windows and outstretched arms, suggesting that something is missing from their humdrum domestic lives.*  Hammer’s updated Dracula reflected the evolving tastes of audiences, amidst the milieu of repressed Victorian society (embodied by Michael Gough as Mina’s uppity husband and Van Eyssen as Lucy’s milquetoast suitor).

* Fisher remarked, “Dracula preyed on the sexual frustrations of his women victims” (The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearne and Alan Barnes). 

One of the hallmarks of Hammer films has always been doing more with less, and Horror of Dracula is no exception.  Produced on a relatively tiny budget of £81,412, it looked like a lavish film, thanks to Bernard Robinson’s inspired production design.  Dracula’s castle is suitably ostentatious, and the graveyard set appears fittingly gothic and forlorn.

Horror of Dracula was a hit with audiences, but it was initially reviled by most critics of the period.  Many were quick to tout the film as vulgar and “revolting,” with some implying that its release was a sign of the demise of civilization. While tame by today’s standards, the film represented a paradigm shift in horror cinema, which The Curse of Frankenstein had initiated.   For the first time, filmgoers could view what had only been suggested before.  Many talented (and not so talented) filmmakers have attempted to re-interpret Hammer’s formula over the years, but few have succeeded (witness Francis Coppola’s overdone 1992 production).  Recently, we’ve heard some rumblings from the revitalized Hammer about a possible remake.  Although I’m not fond of the idea, I realize remakes are inevitable.  And if they omit Lee from a potential cameo, they’d be missing a great opportunity.  Horror of Dracula is one for the ages.