Tuesday, May 31, 2016

May Quick Picks and Pans – Undead Month

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) Directed by the master of atmosphere, Jacques Tourneur, I Walked with a Zombie is a compelling, beautifully shot mood piece. Nurse Betsy Connell (Frances Dee) travels to the West Indies to care for a woman in a semi-catatonic state. The woman’s moribund husband, Paul (Tom Conway) runs a sugar plantation, and wallows in cynicism and self-pity (“There’s no beauty here, only death and decay.”). Meanwhile, Paul’s half-brother Wesley (James Ellison) chooses to die a slow death with alcohol. As Betsy becomes embroiled in the brothers’ dysfunctional behavior, she begins to see a link between the family and voodoo rituals on the island. Hoping to find a cure for Paul’s wife, she delves deeper into the ancient practices, and discovers there’s more to the rituals than simple native superstitions. Text and subtext intermingle seamlessly in a story that marries tangible horrors with psychological torment.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) This middling attempt to cash in on Tod Browning’s original picks up (sort of) where the first film left off. Dracula is dead, but his curse lives on in his “daughter,” a victim from a century past. Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Dr. Van Helsing, who’s accused of murder after the bodies of Dracula and Renfield are discovered. Psychiatrist Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) aims to clear Van Helsing’s name, but becomes entranced by a mysterious patient Contessa Marya Zeleska (Gloria Holden). Holden is excellent as the tragic title character, who’s powerless to escape her blood-sucking destiny. Too bad the story around her is so weak. Vampire fans might consider looking elsewhere for their thrills, but Universal horror enthusiasts should give it a look.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Zombies on Broadway (1945) A mob boss (played by Sheldon Leonard of It’s a Wonderful Life fame) runs a zombie-themed show in New York. The only problem is, he has no real zombies. He sends two lackeys to the Caribbean to find the real deal (or else!). They run into Professor Renault (Bela Lugosi), a mad scientist conducting zombie experiments on a remote island. The pair of Abbott & Costello copycats (well, more like Costello & Costello) help a dame in trouble, and madcap hijinks ensue, with forced comic bits that appear to have been recycled from Three Stooges shorts. Although the film evokes more indifference than laughter, it might be worth watching once for the oddball premise. Fun trivia: watch for two actors who essentially reprise their roles from I Walked with a Zombie: Darby Jones as a pop-eyed zombie, and Sir Lancelot (No, really) as a calypso singer.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

The Children (1980) You might question your sanity if you stumble on this obscure, no-budget horror flick.  Contaminated soil from a nearby nuclear power plant somehow causes a school bus full of kids to become zombies with black fingernails. Anyone who receives a hug from them dies instantly. The small-town sheriff’s office consists of two cops, who never think to call for backup when the busload of kids is missing. It might be worth a look, as long as you’re prepared for loads of unintentional comedy, instead of scenes of terror.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

Fright Night Part II (1988) Roddy McDowall and William Ragsdale reprise their roles as Peter Vincent and Charley Brewster in this lazy sequel to the iconic 1985 original. The filmmakers do little more than duplicate key scenes, poorly. There’s some clumsy humor, but it’s not integrated into the story very well. Charley just isn’t very likeable this time around – whatever dorky charms he had in the first movie are lost here. The plot, such as it is, involves Jerry Dandridge’s sister (along with her dull undead entourage), who returns for revenge against Charley. It’s fun to see McDowell again, but he doesn’t have that much to do. The whole affair seems lackluster, and half-hearted. Even Brad Fiedel’s score seems by the numbers, compared to his previous effort. Where’s Evil Ed when you need him?

Rating: **. Available on DVD (Out of print)

Psychomania (1973) In this odd little movie that couldn’t, obnoxious bikers die, becoming obnoxious undead bikers. In the crazy premise the bikers become immortal after a spell is cast. Under the spell’s conditions, they must kill themselves, and they must believe they’ll return from the dead. One of the bikers is buried, sitting on his bike, and later emerges from the grave without a speck of dirt. After the bikers achieve their dream, they find nothing better to do than ride through a village square and create mayhem in a grocery store. Who knew immortality could be so dull?

* On a tragic note, star George Sanders committed suicide shortly after filming. According to the DVD documentary, this was the last film he watched. Lesson learned: watch at your own peril.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

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)