Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Quick Picks and Pans – Halloween 2014

Burnt Offerings (1976) Karen Black and Oliver Reed star in this slow burn psychological horror film, based on a novel by Robert Marasco. Marian and Ben, along with their 12-year-old son (Lee Montgomery) and elderly aunt (Bette Davis), find an old mansion in the country for rent (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart are especially memorable as the creepy brother/sister proprietors of the house). The price is great, but there’s a catch. Over the summer, the house begins to take its toll on the family and their collective sanity. Director/co-writer Dan Curtis and writer William F. Nolan do a nice job building suspense about the secret that’s locked away in the attic room upstairs. Burnt Offerings is a product from another era, taking its time to set the mood, and allowing the house to become another character. It doesn’t build to a crescendo of elaborate special effects, but relies on acting, storytelling and a pervasive atmosphere of dread to build tension.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD

Sugar Hill (1974) With its proliferation of big afros, polyester galore, wide lapels and dated “hip” expressions, there’s no mistaking what decade this movie came out of. Therein resides the charm of this dated but amusing blaxploitation revenge story with a supernatural twist, directed by Paul Maslansky. When Diana “Sugar” Hill’s (Marki Bey) boyfriend is killed by mobsters, she unleashes her vengeance on them, one at a time. Unlike most titles from this genre, however, her modus operandi isn’t a gun or kung fu, but zombies. She enlists the aid of voodoo deity Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who possesses the ability to summon the dead for his bidding. I enjoyed this much more than I ever expected, and hopefully you will too. Can you dig it?

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

Shivers (aka: They Came from Within) (1975) This ambitious early effort by writer/director David Cronenberg and producer Ivan Reitman (!) is an intriguing mix of high concept and low budget that borrows heavily from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A high rise apartment complex in Montreal becomes the test bed for a doctor’s experiments with slug-like parasites. The creatures, which possess aphrodisiac properties, invade the residents’ bodies and cause them to go berserk as their libidos run wild. While some of the concepts are clumsily executed, many of the themes that Cronenberg would refine in later films (doctors with a nefarious agenda, body horror, and sexual politics) are on full display. Cronenberg fans and Barbara Steele enthusiasts (watch for her small but memorable role) should take note.     

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

Chopping Mall (1986) Don’t expect a lot of surprises from director/co-writer Jim Wynorski’s flick about 30-year-old “teens” trapped in a Southern California mall with homicidal robots (The story’s blatant disregard for the Three Laws of Robotics probably gave Isaac Asimov fits). One of the most novel things is the film’s setting, the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which should be instantly recognizable to ‘80s Valley dudes like me, as well as fans of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Commando. There are a few fun bits with Roger Corman regulars Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov and Dick Miller, but their brief appearances can’t save this from being more than middling entertainment. Nevertheless, it’s a good candidate for bad movie night, replete with scenes of stupid people doing stupid things. In one key example, one of the principal characters comments, “I guess I’m just not used to being chased around the mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” Indeed.
Rating: ** ½. Available on DVD

Bug (1975) Writer/producer William Castle’s last film attempted to ride the wave of nature-on-a-rampage movies that dominated the ‘70s landscape. When a powerful quake opens a deep trench, a swarm of fire-spewing insects are unleashed from the bowels of the Earth. A high school science teacher (Bradford Dillman) unwisely decides to cross-breed one with a common cockroach, and creates a deadly new super species in the process. Bug isn’t terrible, just painfully dull. On paper, it sounds like good B-movie fun, but the finished product features uninspired bug attacks and too many long spaces of nothingness. Without the benefit of a brisk pace or interesting gimmick to accompany the film, Castle’s swan song falls woefully short.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) By the time the folks at Hammer released this lackluster entry, they were scraping the barrel for ideas. Dracula A.D. 1972 has nothing new to add to the vampire mythos or show, unless you count the “contemporary” setting of 1972 London. While the groovy fashions and dated expressions have a modicum of novelty value, the film is neither exciting nor scary. Christopher Lee begrudgingly returns as the eponymous count, brought back to life (in a plot contrivance derivative of the superior Taste the Blood of Dracula) by overaged teens taking part in a satanic ritual, as movie teens tend to do. In another uninspired twist, Peter Cushing plays the grandson of Professor Van Helsing. For Hammer Dracula completists and masochists only.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Double Take: Night of the Living Dead

Available on Blu-ray (Import), DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: *****

Night of the Living Dead (1990) Directed by: Tom Savini; Written by George A. Romero; Based on the original 1968 screenplay by George A. Romero and John A. Russo; Starring: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman and Tom Towles

Available on Blu-ray (Out of print), DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Rating: ****

“The only reason to do the fantasy film or horror film is to upset the order, upset the balance of things… and it seemed to me the formula was always to restore order… which seems counterproductive to what you’re doing initially, which is why it made sense to me to have Night of the Living Dead have this tragic and ironic ending.” – George Romero (from the documentary, Birth of the Living Dead)

“People go to movies to see things happen, not listening to people talk. Unless of course, you’re watching My Dinner with Andre.” – Tom Savini (from DVD commentary for Night of the Living Dead remake)

Ho, hum… another Night of the Living Dead review? How original. Barry must be losing it...Wait! Come back! It’s not what you think. No, really. Yes, we all know how the original Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking achievement for its time, which established the rules for subsequent zombie flicks.* Compared to the zombie films of yesteryear, George A. Romero’s re-animated dead were not the product of voodoo or magic, but a man-made disaster (explained as a Venus probe). In the 1990 remake by Romero protégé Tom Savini (from a script by Mr. Romero himself), the cause is never made clear, and left to speculation by the characters (chemical spill, Armageddon, mass insanity). But how does Savini’s version stack up against the 1968 version? Instead of reviewing one or the other, let’s compare them on their relative merits…

* Not counting Dan O’Bannon’s semi-sequel, Return of the Living Dead, which refuted the notion that a re-animated corpse could be dispatched with a shot to the brain.

Social Relevance

The 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead is very much a product of its time, reflecting the prevailing confusion and violence that marked that turbulent era. Romero claimed he and his fellow filmmakers didn’t set out to make a racial statement, or make overt commentary about the socio-political unrest of the ‘60s, but alas, there it is on display. The lead character Ben (Duane Jones) wasn’t expressly written as a black or white man, but nevertheless, the inclusion of a black protagonist was hailed as forward thinking for the time. The zombie-hunting militia members resemble a lynch mob more than an organized group.

In contrast to the original, Savini’s version implied a class differential between the survivors in the house. Harry and Helen Cooper (Tom Towles and McKee Anderson) are dressed as if they had just attended a soiree, while Tom and Judy’s (William Butler and Katie Finneran) appearance reflects their rural, working class origins. These differences are only superficial, however, when society begins to crumble. It’s clear we’re all in it together, as Barbara (Patricia Tallman) utters the chilling line, “They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us.”

Verdict: Original

Strong Female Characters

I think it’s safe to say the original Barbara* (Judith O’Dea) is no one’s favorite. She’s passive at best, and in a semi-catatonic state for most of the film’s duration, lapsing into consciousness only to ramble about her brother Johnny. Admittedly, she wasn’t very lucid to begin with, but she never improves. If Romero didn’t do any favors for female protagonists in the original film, he and Savini (working from Romero’s script) rectified this, with a new improved Barbara, as interpreted by Tallman.** The opening scene implies that she’s in danger of following in the footsteps of her cinematic predecessor as she lapses into a quivering mess. Then something snaps, as Barbara evolves into a badass, taking an active role in fighting off the growing undead horde and refusing to remain a victim. To a lesser extent, Katie Finneran’s version of Judy is an improvement over the co-dependent original, played by Judith Ridley. She screams too much, but at least she’s not dead weight (sorry about the pun), taking time from shrieking to help board the windows and drive the ill-fated pickup.

* Technically, O’Dea’s character is credited as “Barbra,” while her updated counterpart is named “Barbara.”

** Tallman was the first person Savini cast for his film. His decision was likely motivated by his first encounter with Tallman during their college years, when he recalled (in his DVD commentary) she was “kicking the shit out of her boyfriend.” ‘Nuff said.
Verdict: Remake

Makeup Effects

The original gets an A for effort, but you can’t deny the leap forward in practical effects in the remake. Although he’s not credited with the top-notch effects (supervised by Everett Burrell and John Vulich), Savini’s extensive expertise as a makeup artist undoubtedly shaped the look of the film’s gorier moments (one memorable scene involves a zombie with fresh autopsy incisions). Savini’s constant battles with the MPAA over excessive gore resulted in his adoption of a “less is more” approach. On the other hand, you can’t deny the ’68 version’s ingenuity, which had everyone performing double duty. Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, who played the perennially squabbling couple, Harry and Helen, also worked on the makeup. Romero himself pitched in, creating a clay zombie hand. Although he wasn’t too impressed with the results, it works well within the frenzied confines of the scene. And when fake wasn’t good enough for some scenes, it’s hard to top real guts from a butcher shop to elevate the gross-out factor.

Verdict: Remake


The first film gets a lot of unfair criticism for the uneven (some might say amateurish) performances by the actors. Duane Jones’ riveting performance as Ben was the glue that held the first film together. His monologue about his first encounter with a group of the walking corpses, told with icy conviction, really sets the scene for the audience about the extent of the undead invasion. Co-producers Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner are credible as temperamental basement proponent Harry and the Barbara-tormenting Johnny. In the 1990 version, the best performances are shared by the two leads. Tony Todd does a fine job following in Jones’ footsteps as Ben, conveying his role with passion and world weariness. As Barbara, Tallman turns in the most surprising performance, as her character experiences the most growth.  

While the acting is more consistent in the remake, I prefer some of the performers’ choices in the original. Streiner’s version of Johnny was more playful, doing typical older brother stuff, while remake Johnny (Bill Moseley) just seemed like an obnoxious jerk. Tom Towles is a bit over the top with his bug-eyed portrayal of Harry. Ben and Harry’s animosity is firmly established from their first scene together, but the conflict between seems forced at times.

Verdict: Tie

Overall Effectiveness

The black and white cinematography goes a long way toward setting the original’s somber mood. Shot on 35 mm stock and edited on 16 mm, the end result resembles old newsreel footage, adding a layer of authenticity and creating a sense of immediacy. Due to budgetary constraints, the 1968 version benefits from Romero’s “guerrilla” filmmaking, often done on the fly with single takes. Compared to its predecessor’s documentary-style feel, the remake is more polished and professional in appearance. It’s a solid, albeit more calculated effort. Also, what was once so trailblazing could never seem as fresh again. By the time of the remake’s release, audiences were accustomed to Romero’s brand of zombies on screen, and knew what to expect. Compared to the 1968 original, the 1990 version’s ending doesn’t have the same impact. The original’s ironic ending is a punch in the gut; every time I watch it my objective self knows what’s about to happen, but my subjective self always hopes for a different outcome.

Verdict: Original

On the surface the idea of remaking a genre classic seemed to be a risky, if not foolhardy, venture. With legions of built-in fans for the 1968 original, Savini’s version was sure to polarize some individuals, but as it turns out, both versions can peacefully co-exist. You can’t beat the real thing, but Savini does right by Romero’s original, with some clever nods here and there. Savini created a solid horror film that’s quick-paced and scary. It’s an efficient machine, with a healthy dose of social relevance thrown in. Romero’s original, however, is the gold standard by which all other zombie films are judged – not a bad legacy for a low-budget effort by some first-time feature filmmakers from Pittsburgh.  Despite some claims to the contrary, both versions prove the venerable zombie genre is alive and well (groan!). By definition, zombies are a blank slate, where we can impart our fears, suspicions and socio-political agendas. If Night of the Living Dead is any indication, the genre will likely continue to thrive and experience numerous iterations for decades to come. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Black Cat

(1934) Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer; Written by: Peter Ruric; Based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop and Lucille Lund; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“Supernatural, perhaps. Baloney, perhaps not. There are many things under the sun.”
– Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi)

“…You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me? Did we not both die here in Marmaros 15 years ago? Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder? Are we not both the living dead?”
– Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff)

The Black Cat might just be the ideal vehicle to showcase the talents of on and off-screen rivals Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. While the reality of their rivalry is probably less interesting than the publicized version, a kernel of truth lies within. Lugosi burst out of the gates with Universal Studios’ first bonafide talkie horror hit Dracula, but was quickly   overtaken by Karloff in Frankenstein (in a role that Lugosi famously turned down) and other subsequent films. The fact that Karloff was frequently offered juicier roles, while Lugosi was often relegated to second banana characters only helped stoke the flames of (alleged) animosity between the two. What makes The Black Cat such a pleasure to watch is that both actors are at the top of their form, and were given equal time.* Director Edgar G. Ulmer (a German transplant who worked under F.W. Murnau) and writer Peter Ruric spin a deliciously macabre tale of revenge, based (very) loosely on an Edgar Allan Poe story.

* According to Arthur Lenning in The Immortal Count: The Life and Times of Bela Lugosi, Karloff was compensated a flat rate of $7,500 for his work in The Black Cat, while Lugosi received $1,000 a week for three works (compare to David Manners’ salary of $1,200 a week for a supporting role).

Karloff is striking as satanic architect Hjalmar Poelzig. With his pallid complexion, angular facial features and dead stare, he resembles a walking corpse rather than a living man. Although we’re commonly taught you can’t judge a book by its cover, his appearance mirrors his evil deeds. Poelzig’s erudite demeanor belies his sinister intent. He’s a man who has experienced so much death in his lifetime that he has become death.
In a scene that will likely appear cliché to modern audiences, he sits at his organ, playing Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” (It must be an unwritten rule that all villains learn this familiar musical piece).

Lugosi displays tremendous range as the haunted psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast. For reasons not made entirely clear, his nemesis Poelzig has profited from war and destruction, while Werdegast has spent the past 15 years wasting away in prison. En route to his confrontation with the man who ruined his life, Werdegast encounters an American newlywed couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells as Peter and Joan Alison) on a train to Budapest. After their tour bus crashes, they accompany him to Poelzig’s home, where a match of wits is about to begin. When it becomes apparent that Poelzig wishes to keep Joan for himself, Werdegast remarks, “There was nothing spiritual in your eyes.” The two enemies engage in an all-stakes chess game for the woman’s fate, while the ineffectual Peter stands on the sidelines. According to Arthur Lenning, the filmmakers toned down Werdegast to make his actions seem more heroic in contrast to  Poelzig’s treachery. Embittered by years of incarceration, Werdegast has suffered many losses, but not all of his humanity. He intends to prevent Joan from becoming another conquest. Along with his manservant Thamal (Harry Cording) he bides his time, waiting for the opportunity to strike. By the time Werdegast exacts his gruesome revenge against Poelzig, our eyes, but not our ears are spared.

A moribund atmosphere surrounds everyone and everything in the film. Werdegast describes Poelzig’s domicile as a “masterpiece of construction, built upon the ruins of a masterpiece of destruction.” The modernist house, replete with sliding doors, a sweeping staircase and rectangular features was designed by Poelzig and built atop the ruins of a fort, while the structure’s sharp angles echo its creator’s geometric appearance. Underneath the house, at the former entrance to the gun turrets, lies a dungeon with “death in the air.” Locked away in the bowels of the dungeon, the preserved corpse of Werdegast’s wife, one of Poelzig’s former conquests, is kept on display. Poelzig subsequently married the daughter, Karen (Lucille Lund), who remains unaware that her father still lives.

The Black Cat’s pervasive sense of gloom is marred only by a few abrupt tonal shifts. The opening and closing scenes with the newlyweds seem more appropriate for a light romantic comedy than a morose tale about a Satan worshipper. Similarly, an awkward comic sequence ensues when policemen come knocking at Poelzig’s door. Arguably, all of the ancillary characters in this film are extraneous, since our eyes remain glued to the screen whenever Karloff and Lugosi appear. The Black Cat suitably exploits the respective charms of both actors, and features one of Lugosi’s finest performances.