Sunday, October 30, 2016

October Quick Picks and Pans – Halloween 2016

Theatre of Blood (1973) Vincent Price stars as Edward Lionheart, a stage actor with a bone to pick against a group of London critics. After he fails to win the coveted actor of the year award, he exacts his unique brand of revenge, based on Shakespearean scenes. Theatre of Blood shares many similarities with 1971’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes,(a man, presumed dead, is wronged, and plots elaborate killings using classic literature as his template, aided by his enigmatic assistant), but Price keeps things interesting with his inimitable wit and sense of style. The torments he concocts are truly inspired, and Price seems to be having a great time reciting Shakespearean monologues. The film features some fine supporting performances, including Diana Rigg as Edward’s daughter Edwina, and Robert Morley, Ian Hendry and Harry Andrews as some of his more ardent critics.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Hulu

What We Do in the Shadows (2015) Writer/director/stars Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi really hit the mark with this clever mockumentary about a group of vampires residing in a New Zealand flat. We learn about their day to day lives, loves, rivalries and petty squabbles (arguments over cleaning the bloody dishes) in the days leading up to an annual convention of the undead. The film, which has an ad-libbed Spinal Tap feel, showcases some great ensemble work by Clement, Waititi, Jonny Brugh and Ben Fransham, and elicits laughs over their often tone-deaf attempts to integrate into human society. Just when you’ve seen it all, this imaginative horror/comedy places a new, affectionate spin on the time-worn vampire genre.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) The pacing of this giallo, directed and co-written by Aldo Lado (its original title was Malastrana) is very slow, but don’t let that discourage you. The intriguing premise requires a deliberate build-up, and leads to a satisfying conclusion. Jean Sorel stars as Gregory Moore, an American reporter in Prague. The story is told from his perspective as he’s lying in a morgue, unable to move but cognizant of everything around him. He retraces the events leading up to his unfortunate predicament, including his failed attempt to smuggle his fiancée Mira (Barbara Bach) out of the country. Her disappearance uncovers a larger conspiracy that might just get him killed. According to Lado, the concept for his film came from the idea of someone being buried alive by the establishment, indicative of the political climate in Italy at the time. More than just a simple mystery or whodunit, Short Night of Glass Dolls has much to say about those in power, and the lengths some will go to keep that power.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

The Raven (1935) Bela Lugosi (who unfairly gets second billing) stars as Dr. Richard Vollin, a mentally unstable, but brilliant neurosurgeon. When a beautiful young woman (Irene Ware) suffers a spinal injury, he’s coaxed out of retirement to operate on her. He immediately becomes infatuated with his patient, but unfortunately for Vollin, she’s betrothed to someone else. He only sees this as a minor inconvenience, however. Oh, did I mention he keeps a torture chamber in his basement based on the torments imagined by the works of Edgar Allan Poe? Boris Karloff co-stars as Edmond Bateman, an escaped convict and his unwitting accomplice. Outside of Lugosi’s recital of “The Raven,” the film has little to do with Poe’s seminal poem. The tone is also inconsistent, and Vollin’s motives are murky, but it’s always enjoyable to see two horror titans in the same movie.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) This slow burn (and I mean, slow) psychological horror film features Zohra Lampert in the title role, as a troubled woman who moves from the hustle and bustle of the big city to a small island community. Not long after Jessica arrives, she starts to notice a series of strange occurrences and bizarre behavior from the townspeople. The film does a good job keeping us guessing about her mental stability. As we continue to hear her paranoid thoughts, we begin to suspect she’s not quite reliable as a narrator. Director/co-writer John D. Hancock and co-writer Lee Kalcheim have created a thoughtful mood piece, which forces the question: are we seeing what we think we’re seeing?

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Blood Feast (1963) The late director/provocateur Herschell Gordon Lewis introduced the world to this original gore-fest (the first of his “Blood” trilogy, followed by 2000 Maniacs and Color Me Blood Red), and horror movies were never the same. Sure, the acting’s wretched and the story is vapid, but Blood Feast is somehow compelling. Mal Arnold (with fake gray hair) stars as Fuad Ramses, an evil delicatessen owner who belongs to an Ishtar worshipping cult. He endeavors to bring the goddess back to life through a series of sacrifices, culminating in a banquet of human flesh. Ramses finds the perfect victim when a well-to-do lady (Lyn Bolton) commissions him to cater a traditional “Egyptian feast” for her daughter’s (Connie Mason) dinner party. The cops take what seems like an eternity to make a connection between a series of brutal killings/mutilations, as Ramses gathers his ingredients. Of course, the plentiful gore effects are the film’s raison d'etre, and while dated, they don’t disappoint. As long as you don’t expect the same level of care with any other aspect of the production, you’ll have a good time.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Pieces (aka: Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche) (1982) This movie is terrible. Why am I recommending it? Because it’s so much good, trashy fun.  Set in “Boston” (look for all of the not-so-subtle reminders to trick us into believing this takes place in the States, and not Spain), someone’s hacking up nubile young female university students with a chainsaw. The heavy-breathing killer incorporates the body parts into a human jigsaw puzzle. The mystery shouldn’t baffle anyone beyond a third grade education, but the inept police don’t catch on until the very end. The clumsy plot requires a monumental suspension of disbelief (Just how do you hide a chainsaw behind your back without anyone noticing?), but it’s never dull. After the body count begins to rise, you’d think someone would use the buddy system, but the victims continue to place themselves in harm’s way. The whole thing would be offensive if it wasn’t so cartoonish and stupid.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973) The title creature in writer/director Fredric Hobbs’ obscure curiosity, filmed in Virginia City, Nevada, takes a back seat to the subplot. The first hour gets bogged down in a story about a mining company executive threatening to buy out a small town, and his clash with the mayor who wants to preserve things exactly as they were 100 years ago. In the meantime, an enterprising scientist pokes around an old mine, and discovers a new mutagen. When we finally get to see the creature, described as some sort of mutant sheep thing, the results are less than awe inspiring. The film might be worth a glance, if only to glimpse one of the most awkward, ill-conceived monster suits you’re bound to see. Too bad the rest of it is so unforgivably dull.

 Rating: *½. Available on DVD

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes

(1983) Directed by Jack Clayton; Written by Ray Bradbury; Based on the novel by Ray Bradbury; Starring: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Cheryl Ladd, Pam Grier, Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin.” – Charles Halloway (excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes)

“Tasteless fare, funerals, bad marriages, lost loves, lonely beds; that is our diet. We suck that misery and find it sweet…” – Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce)

Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review that was posted during the early days of this blog.

Upon its release, Something Wicked This Way Comes received a less than enthusiastic reception from critics, who decried it as too dark for kids and not compelling enough to hold the attention of adults. Home video guides (including my beloved Psychotronic Video Guide) similarly dismissed the film as nothing special, which always seemed unjust to me. The film falls within Disney’s transitional period between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the studio struggled to find its feet among its competitors, adding more “mature” fare to its stable, such as The Black Hole, Tron and The Black Cauldron. While none of these titles were big successes from a critical or box office standpoint, they have earned a loyal fan base. On the other hand, Something Wicked This Way Comes never quite garnered this same following. I had the pleasure of seeing this at the now-vanished Mann National theatre in Westwood, California, and although I was a little older than the two main characters, it left a lasting impression.

Directed by Jack Clayton (The Innocents), with a screenplay by Ray Bradbury (adapted from his 1962 novel*), Something Wicked This Way Comes depicts a 1930s Norman Rockwell-esque town turned on its ear. Underneath the town’s idyllic exterior lies a foundation of fear, regret and despair. James Horner’s effective score does much to elevate the tension, effectively communicating the shift from light to dark. Told through the lens of two pre-teen boys, Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), we witness the strange metamorphosis that occurs after Mr. Dark’s Pandemonium unexpectedly appears one autumn night. 

* According to Bradbury’s 1998 afterward to his novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes originated from an unpublished short story “The Black Ferris,” which he developed into a screenplay for Gene Kelly to direct.

Jason Robards is instantly likeable and relatable as Will’s aging father, Charles Halloway, who proves it’s not youth, athletic prowess or bravado that make a father, but experience and wisdom. Although he’s older than the other parents in town, he keeps a young perspective, possessing a mischievous quality. At times, he seems more of a co-conspirator with Will than a parent. While he spends his hours as a librarian, buried in books, he enjoys living vicariously through Will’s exploits. His darker side harbors regret, which he keeps close to his chest, stemming from an incident when his son almost drowned. He’s at a point in his life where he has more years behind than ahead of him, and he must struggle to find peace with that grim reality.

Jonathan Pryce exudes a subtle menace as the as the carnival’s proprietor Mr. Dark. One by one, he seduces the townspeople with the false promise of fulfilling their respective hearts’ desires. Will and Jim’s teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield) longs to return to a time when she was young and pretty. Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) the barber, dreams of being surrounded by lustful, adoring women. Ed, the bartender (James Stacy), an amputee, wishes to be whole again. In one of the most haunting scenes, Mr. Dark tempts Charles with the promise of restoring his youth, only to take the years away, casually tearing out pages from a book. As the scene plays out, we can feel Charles’ anguish and exhaustion, as Mr. Dark saps his life energy.

There’s much to like about the film, with its pervasive sense of dread, but at times the film threatens to wallow in ersatz nostalgia. The all-too-obvious movie set town appears a bit too much like a Norman Rockwell painting, and the kids manage to never say anything more harsh than “darn.” With so many talented performers, the weakest link is the two young leads. As he appears in the film, Jim Nightshade is underwritten, hardly the free-spirited rogue depicted in the novel. In all fairness, Carson isn’t given much to do, but his bland performance doesn’t add much life to the character. Peterson is serviceable, but not exceptional as Will. Thanks to Robards, his best moments are when we see father and son together.

Bradbury’s story evokes a simpler time that never existed, yet you somehow wish it did.  The odd mixture of sentimentality with the macabre seems to be a strange brew, but it’s oddly endearing. There’s no magic formula that determines why some movies succeed while others are doomed to relative obscurity, but it’s clear audiences weren’t quite ready for a melancholy kids movie that dared to include adult themes. Re-visiting the film in the theater many years later* reinforced my original assessment. Movies aimed at kids didn’t necessarily have to be all kid’s stuff. Something Wicked This Way Comes at once embraces youth, and is a poignant meditation on what it means to grow old. It’s sobering to reflect on the fact that I’m now closer in age to Robards than the young lead actors in the film. But this just reinforces the need, as in Charles Halloway, to find peace with who I am. Far from mere kid’s stuff, indeed.

* I was lucky enough to catch the film several years back at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and share the experience with my son. I’m sure Charles would have approved.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Motel Hell

(1980) Directed by Kevin Connor; Written by: Robert Jaffe and Steven-Charles Jaffe; Starring: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons and Nina Axelrod 
Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***½

“There’s nothing cruel, what I’m doing here. I treat most of my stock better than farmers treat their animals. I don’t feed them chemicals or hormones. When you consider the way the world is today, there’s no question that I’m doing a lot of ‘em a big favor.” – Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun)

I’m ecstatic to take part in the Things I Learned from the Movies Blogathon, co-hosted by the dynamic duo of blogathon hosts, Kristina of Speakeasy and Ruth of Silver Screenings. Seriously, I have no idea how they manage to come up with so many fantastic blogthon ideas, but I’m glad they keep doing it. Today’s offering is a not-so-guilty pleasure from 1980, blending horror and comedy into one diabolical stew.

Motel Hell tells the story of Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun)* and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), who run a backwoods motel, along with a successful smoked meat business.** Why do customers come from far and wide to taste his unique treats? Is it his secret blend of herbs and spices or patented smoking process? Nope, Vincent incorporates another exotic, yet readily available ingredient. What could you possibly learn from horror movies, let alone one with such a far-fetched, gruesome premise? Allow me to illuminate you, dear reader, on the wealth of lessons to be gleaned from Motel Hell.  

* Fun fact: According to director Kevin Connor’s DVD commentary, Harry Dean Stanton was considered for the role of Farmer Vincent, but turned it down.

** Queasy fact: The pig carcasses in the smokehouse were real.

Lesson number one: Read the list of ingredients when trying new food. For the benefit of this discussion, I’ll assume you don’t have any food allergies or dietary restrictions, so you’re not already meticulously verifying everything that goes into your stomach. After watching Motel Hell, maybe you should. Whenever you’re in a strange place with suspect food preparation methods, you might consider pressing the establishment for a few more details. If you can’t find an ingredient roster, or they’re not forthcoming, maybe it’s best to pass on that snack. And remember: just because that food’s locally sourced from an independent proprietor doesn’t mean they’re above cutting corners (witness the film’s best line, delivered by Calhoun in the final scene).

Lesson number two: Always consult your AAA ratings (or CAA ratings, for those readers north of the border) before checking in for the night. As a veteran of many road trips, I get it. You’re a weary traveler looking for someplace to rest your head for the night, and that little place looks inviting enough. Heck, the sign even says “Motel Hello.” But dig a little deeper underneath the surface, and looks what happens when you let your guard down. In one scene, a kinky couple checks in for the night to do who-knows-what to each other with who-knows-what, and Farmer Vincent doesn’t bother to have them sign the registry. Truth be told, they were really obnoxious and too self-absorbed to see the red flags, but they didn’t deserve their fate. In another scene, Farmer Vincent places a bumper sticker (crookedly, I might add) on a family’s station wagon. Excuse me? Did I ask you to place that tacky thing on my car? I think not. Unless the business is paying you to advertise for them, kindly decline.

* Not so fun fact: Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California, which stood in for the Motel Hello and was the site for many other productions, burned to the ground this past summer in a wildfire.

Lesson number three: If you plan on snooping around, use the buddy system, for cryin’ out loud! When a curious health department inspector suspects something fishy about Farmer Vincent’s establishment (spoiler: it has nothing to do with fish), he returns to investigate what’s behind a locked gate. What’s in that secret garden with the weird noises? Bring a colleague. And watch your back every now and then.

Although Motel Hell was British director Kevin Connor’s first American film, it wasn’t his first indoctrination into horror. Connor made his auspicious directorial debut with the Amicus portmanteau film From Beyond the Grave (1974). Even if the premise stretches credulity, he treats the material with a deadpan perspective. Calhoun and Parsons are excellent as the leads, who view their profession as fulfilling a higher calling. If anyone could have benefited from the aforementioned lessons, it’s Vincent’s naïve fiancée Terry (Nina Axelrod). Instead of getting involved in a dubious May-December romance, she should have asked more questions, and kept an eye on his disapproving sister Ida. Alas, live and learn.

Okay, Motel Hell probably won’t change your life. It does, however, illustrate the time-worn adage that you are what you eat. You can also do more with comedy and horror to say the sorts of things we wouldn’t dare say in a straightforward drama. Many of us give little thought to the food we stuff down our gob, or how it got to our table. While this movie might not turn us all into vegetarians, we might be inclined to take a moment to pause and think about what we eat, and where it came from.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Masque of the Red Death

(1964) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell; Based on the story “The Masque of the Red Death,” by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee and Skip Martin; Available on Blu-ray (import) and DVD

Rating: ****

“Famine, pestilence, war, disease and death! They rule this world.” – Prince Prospero (Vincent Price)

“As a young filmmaker, I was watching every type of film I could find, but for the Poe films I studied the work of Alfred Hitchcock and of Ingmar Bergman, plus some of the German expressionist directors of the 1920s.” – Roger Corman

The so-called “Poe Cycle” of films, directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price represented a new era for American International, known mainly for low budget drive-in fare. By contrast, this series was lavish by the company’s standards, with higher production values, filmed in color, and costing twice as much as their typical movies. Another difference, according to Corman, was that the titles were intended for theatrical release on a single bill, not as a double feature. Of course, changing this paradigm required that the titles delivered on their own relative merits, but deliver they did. The Masque of the Red Death is no exception, distinguishing itself from its esteemed stable-mates as the most visually inventive of the series.

Corman originally planned to make Masque of the Red Death the second Poe film, after House of Usher, but delayed the project due to concerns about comparisons to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Fortunately for us, he decided to go ahead with the film a few years later, which combined two of Poe’s short stories, blending the eponymous tale with “Hop-Frog.” The bulk of the source material was incorporated into the third act, with Corman and the writers tasked to create a story around the first two acts. While both stories were unrelated, they feature masquerade balls and involved nasty members of royalty receiving their well-earned comeuppance.

Vincent Price fits the role of Prince Prospero like a glove, endowing his character with the right balance of refinement and treachery. Prospero resides in his castle, away from the squalor of the surrounding village and the impending threat of the Red Death, a deadly plague that’s sweeping the countryside. He shelters a chosen few in his fortified abode, believing his pact with Satan will protect him from the plague. Hazel Court also shines as Prospero’s mistress Juliana, who pledges her undying allegiance as one of the Devil’s handmaidens. She barely contains her animosity toward Francesca (Jane Asher), a village girl abducted by Prospero for his own devious ends. For her part, Asher is easy on the eyes, but vexingly passive. With her perpetual doe-eyed expression, Francesca exists in a state of perpetual befuddlement, a mere pawn for Prospero.  

The film boasts a strong supporting cast, including Patrick Magee as the sadistic nobleman Alfredo. He serves in Prospero’s court, taking sadistic pleasure witnessing the misfortunes of others. You can see the wheels turning inside his head, as he sees himself usurping his benefactor’s position. Skip Martin is excellent as the dwarf court jester, Hop Toad (changed from Hop Frog in Poe’s story), who patiently bides his time while plotting revenge against the cruel nobleman. Corman’s one casting misstep is 7-year-old Verina Greenlaw as Hop Toad’s wife Esmeralda. Corman claimed he couldn’t find a little person suitable for her role, so he cast a child instead and dubbed a grown woman’s voice. Needless to say, the results are less than convincing.

From the lavish costumes to the candles, The Masque of the Red Death employs color to full effect, ensuring AIP founders Arkoff and Nicholson got their money’s worth for the added expense. Lensed by a young Nicolas Roeg, and featuring superb art direction by Robert Jones and set design by Daniel Haller, the film looks like a much more expensive production. Poe described seven different colored chambers in the castle, but four appear in the film. You could probably write a decent thesis about the significance of the colors, but if I had to fathom a guess, I’d say yellow for the innocence of youth, purple for decadence, white for purity and black for the void of Prospero’s soul.* The intentional use of color seems to have also influenced Corman’s decision to cast two redheads, Court and Asher, in the lead female roles. A final nod to the story appears as a mysterious red-cloaked figure who crashes Prospero’s masquerade party (“There is no face of death until the moment of your own death”).

* What the colors really mean is anyone’s guess. Try it. It’s fun!

As befitting any feature film based on a poem or short story, The Masque of the Red Death strains a bit to stretch the material to 90 minutes. But what the film lacks in plot, it compensates in theme and atmosphere. Either by accident or design (and with a little help from Mr. Poe), Corman has crafted a populist tale. It illustrates the folly of those at the top who attempt to remain distanced from the rest of society. Even Prospero, with his wealth and influence can’t avoid his fate forever. The plague is the great equalizer, and Death will have its day.