Saturday, October 15, 2016

31 Days of Halloween #11 Prince of Darkness **1/2 (1987)

A minor entry in John Carpenter's canon, a deep cut if you will, Prince of Darkness combines quantum physics with some arcane Thomas Aquinas theology in a film that's both fascinating and baffling. A theoretical physicist is invited by a priest, played by a confused Donald Pleasance, who belongs to a "secret order" of the Catholic Church. Together they must stop what could be the coming of the Anti-Christ, be sure to emphasize the word "Anti." So a group of graduate students gather in a church basement to confront the evil that exists in a . . . . liquid gel. Your read me right.  Prince of Darkness is the sort of movie that gets wackier the more you think about it.  The cast of unknowns come straight out of a 1950s b-movie (I suspect this was intentional) offers little in the way of character development. What made Carpenter's early horror movies work were the compelling characters whether it be Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween or Kurt Russell in Escape From New York and The Thing. The lackluster performances make Prince of Darkness a slog to sit through at times. The second half degenerates into a "body snatchers" tale replete with gaudy special effects and grotesque makeup. Maybe Stanley Kubrick could've made a movie that lived up to such an ambitious premise. Nevertheless, Prince of Darkness works as a goofy supernatural horror film with a sly subtext. A creepy soundtrack and a great opening credit sequence add to the moody atmosphere.

31 Days of Horror #10 The Serpent and the Rainbow *1/2 (1987)

One of horror master Wes Craven's lesser efforts, The Serpent and the Rainbow is more travelogue than horror. Set in 1970s Haiti, the story follows a Harvard anthropologist played by Bill Pullman who investigates a potion used for Voodoo rituals that can induce someone into a death like state. American pharmaceutical companies take an interest. Everything is muddled, especially the performances.  The political subplot never gets off the ground as if the script lost interest.  As usual Craven includes some ghoulish imagery that's memorable, but the entire movie meanders from one dead end to another.  A dour and muddled affair in need of a tighter script - and dare I say more focused direction. The trailer and movie poster imply a far more terrifying film.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

31 Days of Horror #9 White Zombie *** (1932)

The moody and atmospheric White Zombie is often credited as one of the first zombie films. Set in the Voodoo milieu of post-colonial Haiti where the residual effects of slavery and imperialism are heavy in the subtext, the film imagines an army of zombies controlled by the witch doctor Legendre portrayed by the eternally creepy Bela Lugosi. The zombies, in a metaphor for slavery, work at the sugar plantation. When newlyweds arrive for their honeymoon, the owner of the plantation Beaumont falls in love with the bride and enlists Legendre to turn her into a zombie so she will be his slave. So we enter into a surreal world of magic and servitude of all varieties. The zombies are not of The Walking Dead variety either, they wander around like ghosts from the past- unsettling.  A unique cinematic experience that feels as if it emanates from a completely different time and place subversive to our modern sensibility. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

31 Days of Horror #8: The Tingler (1959) **

Directed by the showman William Castle and starring horror legend Vincent Price, The Tingler is relentlessly silly, but always entertaining.  Price plays a pathologist who discovers fear actually triggers the growth of a parasite on people's spines and then undergoes an LSD trip, one of the first acted out on film - so it might be worth watching for that. Gimmicks aside, The Tingler makes little sense, with goofy subplots and Price playing it all with a straight face. Castle had nurses on call during screenings and installed buzzers in the seats, a charming showmanship Joe Dante payed tribute to in his 1993 film Matinee.  Not "gory" by any means, simply horror as amusing diversion, nothing more and nothing less. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

31 Days of Horror #7: Dementia 13 **1/2 (1963)

Dementia 13 holds interest for one reason: It was first official film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who went on to make films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. You gotta start somewhere.  Set in Ireland, the screenplay's a Psycho ripoff about an ax murderer on the loose. Coppola staged some excellent sequences and displayed a talent for striking visuals, creating a claustrophobic feeling throughout. Gothic themes are emphasized: sins of the past, castles, murders, tragic/forbidden romance. Although the story gets confusing at times, the cheap thrills and emotional exuberance are enough to sustain the running time.  Reviews at the time expressed shock at the gore, which is rather tame by today's standards.  Produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, Coppola later cast Corman as a Senator in The Godfather Part II, even though they clashed during post-production on Dementia 13 -  Corman hired another director to do some re-shoots. Coppola later gained a reputation as a screenwriter in the 1960s, his screenplay for Patton earned an Oscar.  Although not a masterpiece, Dementia 13 is a triumph of style over substance. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

31 Days of Horror #6 House on Haunted Hill *** (1959)

Vincent Price is clearly having fun in William Castle's House on Haunted Hill, the campy story of a mischievous millionaire's challenge to five strangers: they must survive a night in a locked haunted house to win $10,000. His guests include test pilot Lance (Richard Long), gossip columnist Ruth (Julie Mitchum), psychiatrist Dr. Trent (Alan Marshall), typist Nora (Carolyn Craig), and the skittish owner Watson (Elisha Cook). 

Price is throwing the party for his fourth wife, although the reasons for it are never clear. Her birthday or a wedding anniversary? They have an interesting relationship, one based on suspicion and deception, "What husband has never thought of murdering his wife?" he playfully asks the camera.   

Price offers all his guests loaded guns as party gifts - and everybody plays it straight! Intrigue ensues as the scares pile up.

Director Castle may have invented the jump scare in this film, check out this clip. 

Castle wanted to make the movie going experience interactive to counter the threat posed by television, so movies like House on Haunted Hill were made to pack theaters, including shaking seats, people in costumes, even some pyrotechnics.  Many horror films still copy the camera style of fast and slow zooms.

Elements of horror aside, Robb White's script parodies Agatha Christie's And Then There Was None.  As each twist in the story gets more ridiculous, riding the the fine line between comedy and horror, the movie only gets better. 

Unfortunately the Horror genre has no Vincent Price today, few modern actors can switch from charming to menacing with such ease.

So sit back, make some popcorn, and enjoy some antiquated entertainment with House on Haunted Hill.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

31 Days of Horror #5: Atom Age Vampire * (1960)

Some films are destined for immortality and some are destined for the bargain bin at Wal-Mart. Think of all the people that work on a movie, put their heart and soul into it, and it ends up becoming an afterthought purchase at some big box store. I suppose there are worse fates. Atom Age Vampire, an Italian import from 1960, belongs in the bargain bin. At the very least the sound people did a great job with the English dubbing. More of a melodrama than a horror movie: no vampires appear and the "atom age" element is overplayed in the movie's poster. A beautiful woman's face gets disfigured in an accident so she seeks help from a scientist who invented a radioactive serum.  The scientist falls in love with her and learns the serum has some violent side effects, despite its healing power. I'm not sure if he morphs into a werewolf or a mutant.  The film's glacial pace and predictable plot points don't help either, although the black and white cinematography adds a little to the atmosphere, but the scares are few and far between. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

31 Days of Horror #4 Carnival of Souls ***1/2 (1962)

If Ingmar Bergman had grown up in Kansas I could see him making a film like Carnival of Souls. Filmed in grainy black and white, Carnival of Souls is one greatest Midwestern Gothics ever made (it was mostly filmed in Lawrence, Kansas). The film tells the story of a young woman trying to make sense of reality after she's the unfortunate passenger in a tragic drag race.  

After the car crashes off the river bridge, a scene Tim Burton duplicated in Beetlejuice, young Mary arrives in a new town and lands a church organist job.  She gets a room in a boarding house with a nosy landlady, while trying to fend off the advances of her crude neighbor, meanwhile a sinister looking old man keeps appearing at random.  

I admire how the film gradually moves from the realistic to the surreal, common everyday activities like shopping and going on a walk take on a sinister quality.  Eventually Mary comes to realize she may no longer be among the living.  

We're also in the Kansas of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Mary's interactions with creepily bland locals ramps up the sense of foreboding. The minister, straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, tries to offer Mary some spiritual guidance to no avail.  She also sees the local psychiatrist who advises her to get a boyfriend. All the men come up short in this film.  As Mary grows increasingly vulnerable, her innocence adds to the sense of dread. 

Carnival of Souls is a must see cult classic, the artistry of the cinematography and skillful use of local setting are expressionistic and haunting. These images really stick with you.  The look and feel of the film anticipated George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, David Lynch's weird America aesthetic, Tim Burton's playful creepiness, even Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  

Herk Harvey never directed another feature film, but left a real gem for movie fans everywhere. Watch it for free.

Monday, October 3, 2016

31 Days of Horror #3 The Fog (1980) ***1/2

John Carpenter's The Fog gets better with viewing, don't ask me why, it's just one of those movies.  Released in 1980, two years after Carpenter's low budget hit Halloween invented the modern slasher film, The Fog was viewed as an underwhelming follow up. Instead, Carpenter crafted an atmospheric ghost story inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe.  

Set in idyllic Antonio Bay, the acting and direction feel organic. We meet a menagerie of characters who live on the island, many played by actors who appeared in Halloween, including the sultry late night DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau), Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), a hitchhiker (Jamie Lee Curtis), local fisherman (Tom Atkins), and town historian (Janet Leigh).  Carpenter's decision to not to focus on a protagonist gives the film an amorphous point of view that totally works in its favor, few movies have more effectively used a radio station to drive the story.

The first ten minutes do a brilliant job in setting the tone with John Houseman relating a ghost story to a group of boy scouts and then cuts to various scenes throughout the town where everything goes haywire (Carpenter himself appears as a janitor). Electric lights flicker as the fog rolls in.  Father Malone discovers an old letter written by his grandfather and learns the prosperity and rich history of Antonio Bay rests on an ugly crime.

Vengeful spirits arriving to exact justice for the sins of the past is a theme straight out of the Gothic tradition.  Carpenter sets a unique tone that's rich with striking visuals and a subtle use of music that adds to the nocturnal look. The blending of reality with the fantastic never comes off as hokey, there's a smooth hypnotic quality.  Like in Halloween, we get a slice of American life encased in darkness.

So The Fog is a spine tingling campfire story.  A unique horror movie in look and tone with many memorable images and moments.  

Sunday, October 2, 2016

31 Days of Horror #2 The Bat (1959) *1/2

Vincent Price got top billing but only appears in a few scenes in the 1959 film The Bat, which is really more of a whodunit than a horror film.  Based on a popular play by Mary Roberts Rinehart, the story involves a mysterious mansion that's the target of a murderer known as "the bat."  Agnes Moorehead plays a mystery writer who moves into the house, after which strange things begin to happen as she and her maid are terrorized by a burglar who wears a mask and gloves with sharp claws - and also releases real bats into the house.  Millions of embezzled cash are hidden somewhere in the mansion so everyone in town takes an interest.  It's obvious the The Bat was based on a play, it's mostly dialogue with a few cheesy scares. I suppose there's a Scooby-Doo charm to it.  Beyond that, there's little more to say about the The Bat other than it's a dated period piece. Price is at his best when playing the suave villain, unfortunately he just goes through the motions as a mildly eccentric scientist who adds little to the story.  If interested, you can watch The Bat for free on youtube!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

31 Days of Horror #1 --- The Visitor (1979) **

What a way to kick off Halloween 2016 with the whacked out 1979 film The Visitor.  Be warned the movie makes no sense, it's a baffling mixture of The Omen, The Birds, and Close Encounters.  But, who cares?  You get an out of this world cast including Lance Hendricksen, John Huston, Glenn Ford, Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters, and Sam Peckinpah!  The story involves an evil child being manipulated by aliens, while some good aliens try to stop her.  Filmed in Atlanta and directed by an all Italian crew, there are some jaw dropping sequences.  Prepare for multiple hawk attacks, a zany soundtrack, the worse birthday party ever, baffling dialogue, astrological warfare, ice skating, and even a cameo by Jesus himself. If that doesn't sell it, I don't know what will. The Visitor must be seen to be believed.  The DVD has some great extras, including an off the wall interview with Hendricksen.