Wednesday, October 31, 2018

October Quick Picks and Pans – Horror Month 2018

Next Door (2005) This taut psychological horror from Norwegian writer/director Pål Sletaune subverts our expectations – we think we know exactly where it’s going to go, until we’re taken to some uncomfortable places. In the opening scene, John’s (Kristoffer Joner) ex-girlfriend Ingrid (Anna Bache-Wiig) collects her things from his apartment. It’s clear he hasn’t taken the breakup well, and he’s failed to move on with his life. Enter two attractive young women (Cecilie A. Mosli and Julia Schacht) in the apartment next door, who seem to know the intimate details of John’s rocky relationship. He soon becomes the object of their game – a game without any apparent rules. The film revisits the events of the first scene, and as new layers are uncovered, we begin to question the veracity of John’s memories (reality versus his version of reality). Simon Boswell’s effective, understated score helps gently escalate the tension. Watch it now, before the inevitable American remake.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear (1988) With his “Dead” films and Creepshow coveting most of the thunder, you’d be excused if you overlooked this creepy little flick from writer/director George A. Romero (based on a novel by Michael Stewart). After a jogging-related accident, Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) sustains injuries that render him quadriplegic. In addition to his compromised physical condition, he must contend with an overbearing mother (Joyce Van Patten) and a domineering nurse. He finds salvation in Ella, a super-intelligent monkey, donated by his genetic researcher pal (John Pankow).

Everything seems to be going well, until man and monkey form a psychic bond. Ella acts out on Allan’s suppressed anger and darker impulses, as a rage-fueled monster from the Id. Romero raises some interesting concerns about the ethics of animal experimentation, and how people with severe disabilities can become infantilized in the eyes of others. We’re also left to speculate: Is it the monkey or the man who commits the murders? Monkey Shines is marred by an over-zealous score and an optimistic ending that seems tacked on. It mostly works though, thanks to some tense scenes and a sympathetic, ambivalence-laden, performance by Beghe.  

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Innocent Blood (1992) It’s not as well known or celebrated as An American Werewolf in London, but John Landis’ spin on the vampire genre is not without its charms. Anne Parillaud (La Femme Nikita) stars as Marie, a vampire of indeterminate age, who’s experiencing a bout of ennui. Looking for a change, she decides to prey on members of a crime family, led by Sallie, “The Shark” (Robert Loggia). Her nocturnal proclivities soon land her in hot water with the mob, and an undercover detective (Anthony LaPaglia) is caught in the middle. Innocent Blood is sure to be polarizing for purists – it seems to throw many of the venerable elements of vampire lore out the window (such as seeing one’s own reflection, death by stake, etc…), and despite their enhanced senses and reflexes, the vampires in the film are dispatched too easily. Steve Johnson’s practical effects are top notch, however, including a cool glowing eye effect is truly unique to this film. It also boasts some fine performances, particularly from Parrilaud, La Paglia, Loggia and Don Rickles (as Sallie’s unscrupulous lawyer, Manny Bergman) and features fun cameos from Frank Oz, Tom Savini and Forrest Ackerman. Give it a try.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Many of us at one time or another could probably relate to the nagging feeling that our partner/spouse/friend isn’t the same person we once thought they were. Gloria Talbott stars as Marge, a newlywed, whose suspicions about her new husband Bill (Tom Tryon) are confirmed when she discovers (cue dramatic music) he’s an alien impersonating a human. He’s a representative of an invading force from a distant, vanished planet, hoping to repopulate his species (all the women on his home world died out), but struggles with understanding human emotions. The plot plays like a continuation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with its “who do you trust” vibe, and the film provides a sly commentary on life after the honeymoon (with ’50s-era women regarded as second-class citizens). It’s too bad about the pat ending, which wraps things up a bit too neatly, but worth a look for the thematic content.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Howl (2015) Director Paul Hyett’s film takes place over the course of one night, mostly within the confines of a commuter train. After failing to get a promotion, conductor Joe (Ed Speleers) is forced to work back-to-back shifts. Everything that could go wrong for him seems to occur over the course of the evening. His life takes another turn for the worse when the train makes an emergency stop in the middle of nowhere, and he’s forced to contend with irate passengers and a malevolent creature (or creatures) outside. As the evening wears on, everyone’s survival is in question. Howl starts strong, with a less is more approach for the first two-thirds. Unfortunately, the last third undermines the film, with annoying characters and an insistence to see the werewolves in greater detail.  

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Ed and His Dead Mother (1993) Steve Buscemi stars as Ed Chilton, a meek owner of a hardware store. A year after his mother passes away, he’s still grieving her loss. He meets a shady traveling salesman (Is there any other kind?) played by John Glover who promises to bring his mother back to life for a nominal fee. As these things normally go, nothing happens without consequences, and Ed’s mother Mabel (Miriam Margolyes) isn’t quite herself anymore. Ed and His Dead Mother plays less like a fully fleshed out movie, and more like an extended episode of Tales from the Crypt. The be-careful-what- you-wish-for type story could have benefited from another draft or two, and considering the subject matter, could have used some more visceral shocks (Note: For the record, I don’t condone gore for gore’s sake, but the material demands a less bloodless affair). 

Rating: 3 stars. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

The Ape Man (1943) This example of “poverty row” hokum from Monogram Pictures, directed by William Beaudine, stars Bela Lugosi as Dr. James Brewster, a scientist who becomes the subject of his own experiment. He transforms into a man/ape hybrid, and must obtain spinal fluid to restore himself to his former human state. Minerva Urecal plays his sister Agatha, who keeps him safe, locked away in a secret hidden laboratory. Jeff Carter, a pesky reporter (Wallace Ford) and plucky photographer Billie Mason (Louise Currie) attempt to get to the bottom of the strange goings-on in the Brewster house. It’s silly, predictable, and unlike some of Lugosi’s better roles, he doesn’t evoke much sympathy as the title character. Still, The Ape Man is nothing more or less than it aspires to be, a bargain basement programmer, fit for Saturday matinees or late-night viewings.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Zeder (aka: Revenge of the Dead) (1983) Director/co-writer Pupi Avati’s zombie film is well made, with good performances and an excellent premise, but it suffers from being exceedingly dull. Nothing much happens for most of the film’s running time, as we’re introduced to a mystery with little payoff. Stefano (Gabriele Lavia), a struggling writer receives a used typewriter as an anniversary gift from his wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas). The typewriter ribbon provides tantalizing clues to the original owner, who was part of an experiment to revive the dead (He investigated ancient regions known as “K-Zones” which could provide the secret to immortality). Some creepiness at the end does little to absolve the 90 minutes of tedium that preceded it.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

House of Frankenstein

(1944) Directed by: Erle C. Kenton; Written by: Edward T. Lowe Jr.; Story by Curt Siodmak; Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Anne Gwynne, Elena Verdugo, Glenn Strange and J. Carrol Naish; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***½

“Kill my trusted old assistant? Why, no. I’m going to repay you for betraying me. I’m going to give that brain of yours a new home, in the skull of the Frankenstein monster. As for you, Strauss, I’m going to give you the brain of the Wolf Man, so that all your waking hours will be spent in untold agony, awaiting the full of the moon, which will change you into a werewolf.” – Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff)

After more than a decade of establishing several distinct monster properties, the well was beginning to run dry for Universal. What was left to do, but mix things up? What initially started as a joke morphed into Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which utilized two bankable monsters. The inevitable follow-up, House of Dracula, raised the stakes (pardon the bad pun…or not), throwing Dracula into the mix as well.* As a cost-saving measure, the filmmakers re-purposed sets from Tower of London (1939) and Green Hell (1940) (source: Monsters: A Celebration of the Classics from Universal Studios). Boris Karloff wasn’t playing the monster at this point in his career. In an interesting spin, however, which retains a link to the earlier Frankenstein films, Karloff plays Dr. Gustav Niemann, a mad scientist who learned about Dr. Frankenstein’s methods and has a few ideas of his own. This time around, Karloff passed the baton to Glenn Strange to play Frankenstein’s errant creation.** Lon Chaney Jr. resumed the role of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. In place of Bela Lugosi,*** John Carradine filled Dracula’s shoes.

* Fun Fact #1: The studio scrapped plans to include the Mummy too.

** Fun Fact #2: This film boasts at least two major milestones: Karloff’s final appearance in a Frankenstein film, albeit as a different character, and Glenn Strange’s debut as Frankenstein’s monster.

*** Fun Fact #3: According to film historian James Neibaur, Universal wanted Lugosi to resume the role of Dracula, but the actor was busy performing in a play (The Monster Movies of Universal Studios, by James L. Neibaur).

The film opens with Dr. Niemann in prison, discussing the experiment that caused him to be locked away in the first place. In one serendipitous incident, a powerful storm conveniently demolishes the old jail, enabling his escape, with trusty sidekick Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) in tow. Niemann assumes the identity of Professor Lampini (George Zucco), and appropriates his traveling sideshow. As we soon discover, “Professor Lampini’s Chamber of Horrors” is no ordinary attraction, with Dracula’s skeleton a featured attraction. Dracula is revived, as these things are prone to happen, and the count becomes bound to Niemann. At this point, nearly halfway through, the film’s plot takes an odd turn. It seems as if two separate movies were combined, as Dracula has no impact on the story that follows, with Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man.

Some have argued that Carradine did a better job as Dracula, compared to Lugosi. I may be biased by Lugosi’s portrayal, but to me Carradine seems miscast as Dracula (at least the version of Dracula established by Lugosi), with his gaunt frame and mustache (admittedly a nod to Bram Stoker’s original description). Although Carradine is a perfectly capable actor, as Dracula he lacks the same gravitas or seductive presence, and it only makes me wish that Universal had held out for Lugosi. In all fairness, the character isn’t given much to do in the movie, as he’s only present for the first half.

It’s no surprise that Chaney settles into the Lawrence (Larry) Talbot role like an old shoe. As the perpetually tortured Talbot, doomed to transform into a werewolf, Chaney almost appears to have channeled some of his own angst, as life imitated art. Like the character Talbot, Chaney was fated to play the same roles over and over (although oddly enough, the Wolf Man never got a stand-alone sequel to the original film). While regarding the Frankenstein monster, he laments, “He wanted life and strength. I wanted only death.”

The best part of the film belongs to J. Carrol Naish as Daniel, Niemann’s hunchbacked assistant (implying he’s a monster in the film’s trailer is a low blow). He’s been forced by Niemann to do terrible things, but he still evokes sympathy because he’s never been given much of a chance in life, plagued by an inferiority complex because of his appearance. He’s a tragic figure, smitten by Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), a pretty young gypsy woman he saved from her abusive manager. His love remains unrequited, however, as she only has eyes for Talbot, who can never reciprocate her affections. As one can suspect, their love triangle is inevitably fated for disaster.

Neimann, as masterfully portrayed by Karloff, is the biggest monster of them all. He’s the embodiment of treachery and deceit, manipulating individuals to fulfill his agenda, and casting them aside when they’ve served his purpose. He tricks Daniel into doing his dirty work, enticing him with the prospect of putting his brain into a new body (one that Ilonka will find more attractive). Neimann uses Dracula to dispatch his old accusers, and strings Talbot along with the empty promise of lifting his curse.  

House of Frankenstein keeps a lot of plates spinning, introducing several key characters in the first half, and summarily dropping them. We don’t get to see the monsters interact much. The Dracula thread goes nowhere, and there’s no climactic battle between Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man. The monster spends most of his screen time immobile, and if you’ll excuse the cliché, Glenn Strange captures the notes of Karloff’s Frankenstein, but not the music (he was allegedly coached by Karloff himself). Yet, with so many Universal monsters under one roof, it’s hard to complain, with so much packed into an impossibly brief running time. Arguably, the greatest assembly of Universal’s original stable of monsters was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), but if you’re looking for the classic monsters minus the antics, it’s hard to go wrong with House of Frankenstein. It might be the rhinestone in Universal horror’s crown, but it’s difficult to refrain from feeling giddy by the presence of so many classic monsters under one roof. It satisfies the kid in me that just wants to see monsters, and lots of ‘em.