Tuesday, March 31, 2020

March Quick Picks and Pans

Danger: Diabolik! (1968) Director/co-writer Mario Bava’s delicious artifact from the swinging ‘60s, based on an Italian comic, oozes style and sex from every pore. Bava and crew make the modestly budgeted production look like it cost millions of dollars, thanks to an endless parade of colorful action sequences, inspired sets and groovy fashions. Add a dynamite score by Ennio Morricone to the mix, and you’ve got an irresistable combination.

John Phillip Law stars as the ultra-cool eponymous super-thief Diabolik, who occupies a cavernous underground lair with his girlfriend/partner in crime Eva (Marisa Mell), while plotting his next heist. He thwarts the authorities at every turn, proving no treasure is beyond his grasp. Adolfo Celli (Thunderball) is good as Diabolik’s nemesis, a crime boss in cahoots with the corrupt police. Danger: Diabolik is a testament to style over substance, with logic and story taking a back seat. When you’re having this much fun, however, you’ll scarcely notice.  

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

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998) Werner Herzog’s fascinating documentary is an unsentimental profile of U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who spent several months as a prisoner of war in Laos during the Vietnam war. Herzog eschews much of his usual narration, in favor of Dengler’s matter-of-fact recollections about living under conditions that would have broken most of us. The film chronicles Dengler’s affinity for aviation, starting with his early life in post-war Germany, his journey to the United States, and his stint as a Navy pilot in the 1960s. We see a portrait of resilience under extreme duress, contrasted with his present-day rituals, quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

The Uncanny (1977) This amusing, albeit slight, anthology film from former Amicus producer Milton Subotsky and director Denis Héroux, is a three-in-one exploration of the evil agenda behind our feline companions. Peter Cushing plays Wilbur, an obsessive crackpot who believes he’s being watched and persecuted by cats. He brings his treatise (a collection of research that “proves” the pets want to rule our lives) to his skeptical literary agent (Ray Milland). Thus, begin three supernatural segments (“London 1912,” “Quebec Province 1975,” and “Hollywood 1936”), dealing with feline mischief through the decades. Unfortunately for Wilbur, the only thing the stories prove is the cats are in the right, and people had it coming all along.  

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD and Amazon Prime

Impulse (1974) William Shatner, at his scenery chewing best, plays Matt Stone, a sociopathic conman with an oral fixation. Impulse borrows (i.e., rips off) heavily from The Night of the Hunter, with its basic plot, and a shot of a corpse in a submerged car. Stone’s latest target is a lonely widow (Jennifer Bishop), who succumbs to his unctuous charms. Only her pre-teen daughter (Kim Nicholas) knows he isn’t what he appears to be. In a movie full of facepalm-inducing moments, a surreal highlight is Stone chasing Karate Pete (played by Harold “Oddjob” Sakata from Goldfinger) through a car wash. Unbelievable.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Mysterious Island

(1961) Directed by Cy Endfield; Written by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur; Based on the novel by Jules Verne; Starring: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Beth Rogan and Herbert Lom
Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“The original script for Mysterious Island was merely how to survive on a desert island…It was a wonderful Jules Verne story to read, but it was definitely dated, and in order to keep an audience in the theater for an hour and a half, we had to inject certain elements that we felt from the experience in making 7th Voyage (of Sinbad) were very necessary to Mysterious Island.” – Ray Harryhausen (excerpt from 2002 interview)

At one time, the world seemed to be a much bigger place, with unexplored corners waiting to be discovered for the first time. Now that satellites have mapped every square inch and you can reach virtually any point of the globe within a day, it’s harder to believe that some uncharted isle exists, untouched by humans, where giant creatures roam. Harder perhaps, but not impossible, if you’re Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer. Jules Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was filmed at least twice before, starting with a 2-strip Technicolor hybrid silent/talkie (1929), starring Lionel Barrymore, followed by a 1951 serial with Richard Crane. Columbia’s 1961 version provided another chance for Harryhausen to work his stop-motion wizardry. The studio footage was lensed at Shepperton Studios, while the “island” footage* was shot on location in Spain (where 1957’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was also filmed).

* Fun Fact #1: Before settling on the Spanish coast, Harryhausen traveled to the Caribbean to scout out possible filming locations for the film. Trinidad, Tobago and islands surrounding Cuba were among the locations considered.

The film opens at the tail end of the Civil War, in a Confederacy stockade, where a group of Union prisoners plot their escape. The prisoners, led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) and war correspondent Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill), take off in a stolen balloon. After being cast adrift for days over the open ocean, they manage to crash land their damaged craft on the eponymous island. Soon after, they’re joined by shipwreck survivors Lady Mary Fairchild and her niece Elena (Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan). Together, they endeavor to tame the chaotic landscape, fighting off hostile creatures and raiding pirates. But little do they suspect that their movements are under the watchful eye of an unseen individual.      

Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Harryhausen film without the requisite menagerie of stop-motion animated wonders.* A fight with a giant crab ** and a giant flightless bird (Phorusrhacos)*** are suitably engaging. One of the most spectacular sequences depicts soldier Herbert Brown (Michael Callan) and Elena, as they’re sealed into a honeycomb cell by an over-industrious bee. When considering the bulk of the effects master’s work, one creature that doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough is a gargantuan sea monster, the Nautiloid Cephalopod, a monstrous version of a chambered nautilus. Perhaps the best (uncredited) special effect, however, is Callan’s pompadour, which manages to stay perfect throughout his considerable cinematic ordeals (I suppose it’s best to suspend one’s disbelief, rather than speculate where he kept his constant supply of pomade).

* Fun Fact #2: Among sequences that were planned but never filmed were a man-eating plant and a mechanical digging device built by Nemo.

** Fun Fact #3: If the crab appears lifelike, it’s because Harryhausen used a real crab, cleaned out, with a metal armature inside (created by his father), for the animated sequences. In the Blu-ray commentary, Harryhausen stated that he purchased the crab from Harrods department store in London. In addition, six live crabs were reportedly utilized for close-ups, and subsequently eaten by the crew (Talk about playing with your food!).

** Fun Fact #4: According to Harryhausen, the crew used a cardboard cutout to create the shadow of the giant bird, when it first makes its appearance.

Arguably, no one watches a Ray Harryhausen movie for the performances, but Herbert Lom is memorable as Verne’s enigmatic genius inventor/avenger of war, Captain Nemo.* Although he doesn’t show up until more than two-thirds of the way in, he makes his entrance in spectacular fashion. Compared to James Mason in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he had far less screen time to establish his character, but he makes those minutes count, conveying a brooding, time-worn Nemo with a fatalistic streak. Lom lends a quiet gravitas, which ranks among the best realizations of the character.

* Fun Fact #5: It’s difficult to fathom (pun intentional) the film without Captain Nemo, but an early version of the script by Ken Kolb omitted the character.

Mysterious Island may not have quite the same polished level of visual splendor of Disney’s lavish 1954 production of 20,000Leagues Under the Sea, but it mostly succeeds, thanks to Harryhausen’s idiosyncratic creations, and Bernard Herrmann’s rousing score. Instead of copying Disney’s version of Nemo’s submarine The Nautilus, Harryhausen went back to the drawing board, interpreting Verne’s original descriptions. The final result compares favorably to Disney’s version, credibly reflecting something that could have been constructed in the 1800s.* The interior sets are a bit of a mixed bag. The ship’s main saloon is a good approximation of the 1954 version (including a pipe organ**), although the engine room seems a bit spartan, and not as logically laid out. The diving suits win points for their fanciful, albeit cost-cutting design, with stock scuba suits disguised by giant shells.

* Fun Fact #7: The model for the Nautilus was approximately ten feet long. Sadly, it’s presumed lost.

** Fun Fact #6: In a callback to Disney’s film, Nemo plays Bach’s ubiquitous piece, “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” (apparently the tune of choice for megalomaniacs with pipe organs).

Mysterious Island pays lip service to having a bigger message, with Nemo attributing all the problems of the world to hunger (his solution is to create giant creatures and towering fields of wheat). It’s a simplistic answer to a complex question, but we don’t really want to dig that deep, do we? I’ve often referred to Harryhausen’s films as “Saturday matinee” material, which isn’t intended as a pejorative jab. The intent of the filmmakers was never about pondering the evils and ills of the world, but to provide an escape for 90 minutes or so. Whether it’s in the theater or (considering recent events) our living room, Mysterious Island whisks us away to a place where our cares and fears vanish for the duration of the film – something we could all use right now.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Introducing Westgate Gallery – Plus Vincent Price Blogathon Contest!

I don’t typically do endorsements here at Cinematic Catharsis, but I couldn’t keep a lid on something that truly represents my sensibilities (Or is that senselessness? I get these two confused.). Westgate Gallery is an online store by a movie fan for movie fans, stocked with thousands of hard to find posters, with something to fit virtually any taste or budget. These are all authentic, with no knock-offs (many are culled from the proprietor’s personal collection, which he started at the age of three). And just in time for the Vincent PriceBlogathon, I’ve partnered with Westgate Gallery for a chance to win a free movie poster (more on this in a minute).  

How many times have you discovered the best part of a movie was the poster? A great poster transports you to another realm – the visuals it conjures in your head are often more compelling than anything the actual film could possibly depict. It immerses you into something transcendent. Somehow, a terrific movie poster makes a bad movie almost watchable, and a good movie better. Westgate Gallery has captured this alchemy in its Hollywood-based online shop, which takes me back to my L.A. days., browsing poster shops on Ventura Boulevard and the 3rd Street Promenade. Like a good brick-and-mortar shop, this online store has surprises in every corner. Of interest to many of my readers is their extensive selection of vintage (and some newer) genre movie posters, featuring horror, cult, giallo and much more. Besides, in these uncertain times, it’s a fun place to do some virtual window-shopping while maintaining social distancing. Here are just a few random examples below (Click on captions for details):

But wait, that’s not all you get! For the next two weeks, they’re offering 30% off any orders, when you use the code: Catharsis01

It’s a fantastic place to find that special something for the movie fanatic in your life (Hey, that fanatic could be you!). But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself, and take a look around. Don’t forget to tell ‘em Barry sent ya (I don’t think that will do much, but the code above will).

Now onto the contest…

With slightly less than a month away from the Vincent Price Blogathon, it’s the perfect time for a contest. Courtesy of Westgate Gallery, the following Italian poster pair for the Roger Corman classic, The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) is up for grabs (click here for more details).

It’s the ideal addition to any Vincent Price fiend’s collection, sure to accent the look of your dungeon– er, I mean home.

Who’s eligible? If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter, you’re good to go. To enter, we don’t need an essay detailing why you’re his biggest fan or dazzling us with your encyclopedic knowledge. All you need to do is answer the question: “What’s your favorite Vincent Price film?”

1.     Send your answer by commenting below, emailing me at barry_cinematic@yahoo.com, or by contacting me on Twitter at @barry_cinematic.
2.     Only one entry per person, please. Entering multiple times will not increase your chances.
3.     PLEASE NOTE: If you reside in the U.S. or Canada, shipping is FREE. International residents (outside the U.S. or Canada) must pay for shipping ($45 USD).
4.     The winner will be selected at random, and announced on the third day of the blogathon, Sunday, April 19th.

Good luck!

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Man Who Fell to Earth

(1976) Directed by Nicolas Roeg; Written by Paul Mayersberg; Based on the novel by Walter Tevis; Starring: David Bowie, Buck Henry, Candy Clark, Rip Torn and Bernie Casey; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I think that probably one of the things that Nick (Roeg) identified with me was that I was definitely living in two separate worlds at the same time. My state of mind was quite fractured and fragmented, but I didn’t really have much emotive force going for me, so it was quite easy for me not to relate to those around me.” – David Bowie (from Criterion DVD commentary)

Thanks to Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews, for inviting me to join the Pop Stars Moonlighting Blogathon, where pop singers try out their acting chops. Today, I’m taking a look at David Bowie’s feature film acting debut in director Nicolas Roeg’s hallucinatory science fiction parable, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Nicolas Roeg’s film roughly follows the plot of Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel, chronicling the exploits of Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), the lone representative of a dying race, bearing the gift of technological advancement. The film traces his rise and subsequent fall, ultimately descending into alcoholism and malaise. As in the book, the film references Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” which serves as an apt metaphor for Newton’s ambitious, albeit doomed mission.  

David Bowie is suitably cast as the displaced alien, establishing the singer/songwriter*/** as a unique and magnetic acting presence. Although Bowie doesn’t quite match the description of his character in the novel (described as extremely tall, with curly white hair),*** his slender build, unnaturally orange hair and tentative movements lend him an otherworldly appearance. When Newton looks or reacts to something, he appears to be experiencing it for the first time. Bowie anchors the film, which would have been diminished without him.  

* Fun Fact #1: According to Bowie, he mistakenly assumed he was composing the music for the film’s soundtrack. Although his songs were not used in the film, they eventually formed the basis for his “Low” album (the cover art uses a still from the movie).

** Fun Fact #2: According to the DVD commentary, Bowie’s real-life chauffeur appears in the film as Newton’s driver.

*** Fun Fact #3: In the DVD commentary, Roeg commented that he originally considered casting author Michael Crichton for the role of Thomas Newton, due to his height (6’9”).

While filled with many high points, one of the book’s deficits was its lack of diversity, with regard to women or people of color playing significant roles. The filmmakers address this disparity somewhat. Bernie Casey appears (in an underwritten supporting role) as government official Peters, who launches an investigation of Newton and his shadowy business dealings. Compared to her character in the novel, Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) is given more to do, but she comes across as whiny and strident. Since this is a Roeg film, you can bet it’s going to be sexually charged, and it doesn’t disappoint on that level. However, consummating the relationship between Mary-Lou and Newton seems to be a misstep. It transforms their union into something very human, significantly changing the meaning in the context of the story. They share a platonic relationship in the novel, which seems more logical, considering Newton’s physical limitations. Keeping their distance sexually makes a powerful statement, reinforcing how isolated and alone he feels, stranded on Earth.

* Fun Fact #4: Watch for Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell, who appears as himself in a scene that reveals Newton’s spaceship project.

Compared to many technology-laden science fiction films, Roeg adopts a minimalist approach. Many details about Newton and his accomplishments are left to your imagination, lending some weight to the interpretation that Newton’s extraterrestrial nature is more a state of mind than a fact. We catch brief glimpses, however, with a revolutionary new spherical music format,* a camera with self-developing film, or a nearly completed spaceship, sitting on a launchpad. The lack of gadgetry could also be attributed to budgetary limitations, which encouraged the audience to indulge in their collective imagination. We never see how Newton arrives on Earth, although there are a few shots of his beleaguered family on his home planet, wandering around a desert wasteland, riding in a weird A-frame monorail vehicle covered in carpet samples.

* Random Thought: Despite the fact that World Enterprises (Newton’s company) produces a superior audio format, why doesn’t it appear in record stores? Then again, perhaps the movie was more prescient than I originally thought, predicting hipsters’ endless obsession with vinyl.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is easy to admire, but hard to love. While the film exhibits moments of visual and thematic brilliance, it’s an overlong, self-indulgent, emotionally distant exercise, which keeps the audience at arm’s length. Too many times, I felt like an alien observing behavior and events from a detached perspective. It’s easy to feel for Newton’s plight, but it’s hard to become too invested in Newton or the other self-absorbed characters. It’s not a bad film, just a tedious one, worth seeing at least once for Bowie’s performance.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Peanut Butter Solution

(1985) Directed by Michael Rubbo; Written by Michael Rubbo, Vojtech Jasný, Andrée Pelletier and Louise Pelletier; Starring: Mathew Mackay, Siluck Saysanasy, Alison Darcy, Michael Hogan and Michel Maillot; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“I wanted to say something: Life is difficult, but it’s worthwhile.” – Rock Demers, producer (from featurette, “Human Beings Are the Same All Over”)

I’m here to review movies and eat Coffee Crisp…And I’m all out of Coffee Crisp. The O Canada Blogathon (https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2020/01/15/announcing-the-o-canada-blogathon-2020/) has descended upon us once again! As always, a big thanks to co-hosts Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy for hosting this spectacular three-day blogging extravaganza, showcasing Canada’s many contributions to cinema. I’m back to review a film that allegedly traumatized many unsuspecting young Canadians in the ‘80s, The Peanut Butter Solution. South of the border, it was relatively obscure, although it enjoyed a brief run on HBO and VHS. Thanks to the folks at Severin Films, the film is now available on Blu-ray for a whole new generation to experience. I’m about to explore what all the fuss was about, so hold on tight, because this ride is about to get a little wild…

Childhood is a scary time – a reality the filmmakers behind The Peanut Butter Solution* (second in a series of family friendly movies, called “Tales for All,” from Montreal-based producer Rock Demers) understand. The basic story for the movie originated as a tale director Michael Rubbo told to his son at bedtime. In addition to Rubbo, three other individuals share screenwriting credit, lending the film an “everything but the kitchen sink” sort of feel. There’s a disconcerting, palpable feeling that anything can (and often does) happen. The result bears comparison to the works of Roald Dahl, focusing on the kids’ perspective. The world is a frightening place, run by capricious, overbearing adults, whose rules are often arbitrary and cruel. In addition to Dahl, The Peanut Butter Solution’s plot, involving a crazed teacher who kidnaps kids for his sinister project, recalls Dr. Seuss’ The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953). 

* Fun Fact #1: The film’s original title was the less interesting, somewhat misleading Michael’s Fright.

Michael (Mathew Mackay) is an ordinary suburban kid who becomes the victim of extraordinary circumstances. While exploring the neighborhood with his best buddy, Conrad (Siluck Saysanasy), they stop at an old, abandoned house. Michael climbs inside the house, where he suffers the scare of his life. Much to his distress,*/** the effects of the fright are so intense, all his hair falls out. But help arrives from an unlikely source to save him from premature baldness. Mary and Tom (Helen Hughes and Griffith Brewer), the ghosts of two deceased homeless people, appear in his kitchen. After raiding Michael’s pantry, Mary reveals she has a special formula (don’t ask me where she got it) for restoring his hair,*** which includes, among other ingredients, dead flies, a rotten egg and (you guessed it) peanut butter. Unfortunately, he gets the proportions wrong, adding too much of the legume paste to the concoction, causing his hair to grow uncontrollably. Michael’s hirsute condition makes him persona non grata at his school.

* Fun Fact #2: According to star Mathew Mackay, he was chosen by the director because he could cry on cue.

** Fun Fact #3: Mackay noted that his head was shaved every day for the role. In scenes where his character has hair, he wore a wig.

*** I’m not sure if this movie boosted sales for Skippy Peanut Butter (which endorsed the film), but the film attests that the company’s food product is a key component for hair restoration, so there’s that. Somehow though, I don’t think this assertion would pass muster with the FDA.

Michel Maillot is memorable as the mercurial elementary art teacher Sergio “The Signor.” After the school principal exposes him as a fraud (Hmm… You’d think she would have checked references first before hiring him?), he leaves in disgrace. He proves to be nothing, if not resilient, bouncing back from this career setback by abducting Michael and running a sweat shop staffed by kidnapped schoolchildren. Under his watchful eye, they’re forced to assemble paintbrushes from Michael’s hair (In one scene, one of the captured kids comments that they have to make 500 paintbrushes per day, or they won’t get fed). In a later scene, which I can only chalk off to a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, they’re entranced and amused by the Signor, as he creates a magical painting with one of the brushes. In an effort to establish that even the Signor has redeemable qualities, the movie establishes how he has a soft spot for his canine companion, Patches (played by “Jim”).

The Peanut Butter Solution takes a rather dubious view of adults, so it’s probably no surprise that it’s up to the kids to save the day. Michael’s art teacher discourages creativity, encouraging his students to stick to his stilted vision. His math teacher denies empiricism in the face of contradictory evidence, refusing to accept that Michaels hair is growing at an accelerated rate (“Human hair grows only half an inch a month. No more.”). Michael’s father Billy (played by Michael Hogan, who looks a bit like David Lynch regular Jack Nance), seems more childlike than the other adults, preferring to spend his days painting rather than running a household. We learn that Michael’s mom is overseas, which leaves his older sister Suzie (Alison Darcy) as a surrogate mother of sorts. Arguably, Suzie and Michael’s friend Conrad are the true heroes of the story, as they team up to find Michael and his missing classmates.

Separated at birth? (Top: Michael Hogan; Bottom: Jack Nance)

The film has some important things to say, without beating audiences over the head with a MESSAGE. One of the most prevalent lessons is learning to face your fears. After suffering a series of ordeals (including public humiliation when kids laugh at his bald head), Michael decides to re-visit the house where he experienced the fright. Another key theme is the film’s anti-authoritarian bias, illustrated by Conrad standing up to the art teacher. When the Signor attempts to tear up his painting, Conrad tells him he’ll never come to his class again. It might seem like an idle threat on the surface, but it takes chutzpah for him to stand up to his teacher, rather than fall in line with his fellow students. On a slight tangent, The Peanut Butter Solution takes a surprisingly sympathetic attitude toward homeless individuals. Early in the film, Michael gives a homeless man money. Later, when he’s visited by the ghosts of two homeless people, we learn that they’re invisible to everyone except him. The larger message is that Michael recognizes they exist, something many choose to ignore.

Is The Peanut Butter Solution* as weird as its reputation suggests? Yes and no. Not everything makes sense (in one scene, the dialogue appears to be played backwards), and I’m good with that. Sure, it’s a little scary and unsettling in places, but isn’t that the same with childhood? We’re expected to stick by the rules, even when many adults don’t adhere to those same rules. “Tales for All” is an appropriate category for this movie, which has something for everyone: eccentric characters and weird situations, told with relatable themes. Ultimately, amidst the odd choices and chaotic tone, there’s a positive takeaway: We’re all in this together, and it’s going to work out in the end.

* Fun Fact #4: Because the only things that are absolute in life are death, taxes and remakes, producer Demers noted in the Blu-ray commentary that a Hollywood-based remake is in the works. You’ve been warned.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Ghost Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Uninvited (1944) Ray Milland stars as music critic Roderick Fitzgerald, who travels to the English coast to escape the hustle and bustle of London. Along with his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey), they purchase a 200-year-old seaside mansion from a retired Navy captain (Donald Crisp). Instead of peace and quiet, Roderick encounters a restless spirit, along with the captain’s granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell), who’s inexorably drawn to the house. As Roderick begins to fall in love with Stella, he attempts to unravel the mystery about her past, as well as her mother’s untimely end. While the story gets a bit convoluted at times, the gothic visuals, snappy dialogue, and fine performances all around make this required viewing.

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

Below (2002) Director/co-writer David Twohy’s supernatural submarine film is a compelling mix of World War II drama and old-fashioned ghost story. After the crew of an American sub, the U.S.S. Tiger Shark, rescue three shipwreck survivors, unexplained events begin to occur. The tension continues to mount, as they’re relentlessly pursued by enemy surface ships, and we gradually learn about the crew’s dark secret. The tight confines of the submarine prove to be an inspired setting for this tale. The film features some fine ensemble work, with standout performances by Bruce Greenwood as Brice, the C.O., and Olivia Williams as Claire, a British nurse. Although the plot gets muddled in the middle, and there are a few unnecessary jump scares, it manages to find its footing by the climax. Recommended.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Ghost of Mae Nak (2005) Writer/director Mark Duffield based this ghost tale on a vengeful ghost from Thai folklore. Mak and Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong and Siwat Chotchaicharin), naïve young newlyweds (who seem to attract bad luck wherever they go), are railroaded into purchasing one of the oldest houses in Bangkok by an unscrupulous seller. When Mak falls into a coma after a run-in with some thieves, it’s up to Nak to appease the centuries-old spirit that appears to have cursed them. Despite contrivances galore and over-reliance on some tired horror tropes, Ghost of Mae Nak keeps things interesting, thanks to its unique cultural perspective.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Kanopy

Ghost Team (2016) This amiable comedy about a couple of slacker friends assembling a ghost hunting group is more Scooby Doo than Ghostbusters, with more tease than please, but it has its moments. Despite a serious lack of money and resources, Louis and Stan (Jon Heder and David Krumholtz) stop at nothing to emulate their favorite reality TV show, “Ghost Getters.” Their team includes a would-be cop, a college burnout, and a fraudulent TV psychic (Amy Sedaris). They discover the truth is out there, although it might not be what they’re expecting. After a clever twist regarding the suspected paranormal activity, it’s too bad the ending falls flat. It might be worth a look, however, if you keep your expectations in check.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD, Amazon Prime and Kanopy 

Ghosthouse (1988) Umberto Lenzi’s (under the pseudonym Humphrey Humbert) haunted house movie might be schlock, but it’s never less than entertaining. Paul (Greg Rhodes), a HAM radio operator, hears a man calling out for help and screaming, which compels him to triangulate the source. With his girlfriend (Lara Wendel) in tow, his search leads him to an old house (we learn in the prologue that a girl murdered her parents there) in the country. Featuring an evil clown doll (Is there any other kind?), bad acting, over the top situations and characters making one terrible decision after another (why they keep going back into the cursed house is anyone’s guess), Ghosthouse may be better for laughs than frights, but sometimes that’s enough.

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

Ghost Story (1981) Despite a pedigreed cast of classic actors (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) this adaptation of a Peter Straub novel misses the mark as a horror film. It’s not particularly scary, and lead Craig Wasson is tepid in the dual role of twin brothers Don/David. To its credit, Ghost Story features an excellent performance by Alice Krige as Don/David’s mysterious love interest Eva, who’s inextricably linked with the past. There’s also some superb makeup effects by Dick Smith, which are used too sparingly. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from a case of the parts being better than the whole, with a meandering story that fails to elicit many chills.

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