Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
October 2010

Friday, October 1, 2010
This country is hungry for greatness.

I've a pretty good nose for Oscar bait; I can usually smell it coming a mile away and avoid it accordingly. When Invictus was released during last year's awards season, it couldn't have smelled more like Oscar bait if it tried, and in fact it did wind up earning nominations for its stars Morgan Freeman (for Best Actor) and Matt Damon (for Best Supporting Actor). Still, like most Clint Eastwood films I knew it would be worth seeing eventually, and so I have done so. (The timing could have been better since today marks the official start of the Halloween season, but if I returned it to the library unwatched it would be months before it comes around to me again.)

Based on the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation by John Carlin, the film opens with a brief primer on the history of racial strife in South Africa and a heavily symbolic scene that makes literal the division that exists between blacks and whites on the day Mandela (Freeman, of course) is released from prison. From there it picks up four years later as he's sworn in as president and has to find a way to make his country whole. Eventually he discovers the healing power of rugby and impresses upon national rugby team captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) the need for them to win the World Cup, which they do. (This, by the way, can't be considered a spoiler since Damon is shown holding the trophy aloft on the front of the DVD case.) In an effort to make the Cup Final more suspenseful, Eastwood kind of overdoes it on the slow-motion, and the sound effects also get to be a bit much, but any sports movie fan who likes underdog stories -- and doesn't mind a little social studies thrown into the mix -- will find a lot to like in this film.

Saturday, October 2, 2010
There's an old saying: Nobody really dies until he's forgotten.

Twenty-five years ago today, actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, giving a public face to a disease that had ravaged the gay community for several years but had failed to get much attention from the mainstream media. To mark the anniversary I watched 1957's The Tarnished Angels, based on the novel Pylon by William Faulkner and the last film Hudson made with director Douglas Sirk. Unlike their previous collaborations (most notably Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind), it was filmed in stark black and white, all the better to capture the Great Depression-era setting. The film takes place in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, with Hudson as an alcoholic newspaper reporter who sees a human interest story in the lives of former World War I flying ace-turned-barnstormer Robert Stack and his wife, parachute jumper Dorothy Malone. I'd call what develops between them a love triangle, but that doesn't take into account Stack's mechanic Jack Carson, who's also madly in love with Malone. Also along for the ride is their 9-year-old son (Christopher Olsen, who also appeared as the kidnapped son in The Man Who Knew Too Much and as James Mason's bullied son in Bigger Than Life the year before) who worships Stack and wants to follow in his footsteps. As role models go, he could certainly do better.

Another prominent actor who died as a result of AIDS was Brad Davis, who was diagnosed in 1985 (one year after Hudson) and lived until 1991, when he committed assisted suicide. The last feature film on which he worked was Robert Altman's The Player, in which he was one of the many celebrities who makes a cameo appearance, but Altman used Davis much more prominently in his 1988 TV movie The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, in which he played the paranoid Captain Queeg. Based on the play by Herman Wouk, which Wouk adapted from his novel The Caine Mutiny (most famously brought to the screen in 1954 with Humphrey Bogart in the lead), the film unfolds almost entirely within the confines of the gymnasium where the court martial takes place, staying true to its theatrical origins while still giving Altman the freedom to move the camera around. He also fills the soundtrack with numerous asides between his actors, which keeps things from being too cut-and-dried.

In addition to Davis, the cast includes Jeff Daniels as the lieutenant accused of mutiny, Eric Bogosian as his reluctant defense counsel, Peter Gallagher as the zealous prosecutor and Altman regular Michael Murphy as the officer in charge of the proceedings. (I also spotted Matt Malloy, who would have a much bigger role in Tanner '88, as one of Bogosian's legal assistants.) All acquit themselves well, but Davis is the one who gives the standout performance here, revealing just enough about Queeg to make him understandably human while clearly illustrating why he was unfit for command. I know I, for one, wouldn't want to serve under him.

It took Rock Hudson's death to capture America's attention.

It's hard to watch a film like Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and not get choked up from time to time. An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, the 1989 film tells the stories of five people -- three gay men, one straight drug addict, and one young hemophiliac -- who died from AIDS, as related by the people who loved them. What's even more compelling is that one of the storytellers is himself stricken with the disease and it's advanced to the point where he's confined to bed. Another is film historian Vito Russo, whose book The Celluloid Closet inspired the 1995 documentary of the same name by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, who produced, directed and edited this film and co-wrote it with Cindy Ruskin, author of the The Quilt: Stories from the NAMES Project. Surprisingly, the NAMES Project itself doesn't enter the picture until pretty late in the game, but the film's closing images -- of the Quilt being displayed at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. -- have a power that hasn't dimmed in the intervening years. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that, two decades on and counting, we still don't have a cure for this terrible disease and it still continues to spread unabated. Sobering stuff, indeed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010
Like it or not, you're getting one hell of a chance at life. And I hope you like it.

Before I move on from Rock Hudson, I decided to watch a piece of '70s schlock he starred in called Embryo which is included in Mill Creek's "Nightmare Worlds" set. Made in 1976, the film is about a scientist (played by Rock) who has developed an experimental hormone that accelerates the growth of fetuses outside the womb. His first experiment is on a dog he accidentally runs over one rainy night, but only one of its offspring survives. To Rock's delight, the pup's physical growth is matched by its learning capacity, but he is unaware that its aggression has also increased (illustrated by an unintentional hilarious scene where it viciously kills a small, yapping dog) when he decides to try again with a human fetus. This grows up to be Barbara Carrera in a matter of days and after a crash course in acting human he introduces her as his new research assistant. Charming as she is, though, she immediately raises alarm bells with Rock's nosy sister-in-law (Diane Ladd) and raises the hackles of special guest Roddy McDowall by nearly beating him at chess at a party. Seems she gets all of her knowledge out of books and has a photographic memory to boot, but there are many things she has never experienced firsthand.

One of those things is the act of procreation, which Carrera talks Rock into (shades of Splice), but almost immediately after they do the deed she starts getting severe stomachaches and things start going downhill fast from there. This development brings to mind the novel Flowers for Algernon and its 1968 film adaptation Charly -- which, like Embryo, was directed by Ralph Nelson -- but instead of her intellect going, Carrera's accelerated growth is retriggered and she takes drastic measures to try to preserve her own life. This leads to one of the silliest endings of any film I've ever seen, with Rock getting into a high-speed car chase with a rapidly aging Carrera, running her off the road, and futilely attempting to drown her. It was at this point that I was reminded of something he had said early on: "Failure is what keeps us geniuses from becoming too vain." Suffice it to say, by the time Embryo's credits roll, Rock the genius doesn't have much in the way of vanity left.

I don't care what they say, we have to tape this. We have to show what's happening.

Kicked off the Halloween season in earnest with the 2007 Spanish horror film [Rec], which was remade as Quarantine the following year. This, of course, kept [Rec] from being seen by American audiences until well after the remake had been and gone (both in theaters and on DVD), but why would anyone settle for an English-language facsimile when the Barcelona-set original is now readily available? Damned if I know. With a film like [Rec] you could turn the subtitles off and still get the gist of what's going on. As horror films go, it's about as basic as you can get -- and that's not a criticism.

Directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, who also co-wrote the film with Luis A. Berdejo, [Rec] literally follows a flighty TV presenter (Manuela Velasco) around as she tours a firehouse, shooting a puff piece for a program called While You're Sleeping. Then she and her unseen cameraman (Pablo Rosso) tag along with two firemen (Ferrán Terraza and David Vert) as they respond to a call about an old woman trapped in her apartment. Upon their arrival, they find two policemen (Jorge Serrano and Vicente Gil) are already on the scene and the building's bewildered residents have congregated on the ground floor. Naturally, nobody knows what's going on, but after they break down the old woman's door it isn't long before all hell breaks loose and everybody is scrambling for survival.

Unlike many of the first-person horror films that have come out in the decade-plus since The Blair Witch Project's left-field success -- including George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, which was made the same year -- the cameraman in [Rec] actually has a compelling reason to continue shooting, even as he's being chased around by aggressive, zombie-like creatures. The impetus for this comes largely from Velasco, who takes her role as a journalist more seriously once it becomes clear that their lives are in danger. "We have to let everyone know what's going on here," she says defiantly whenever somebody in authority tells them to turn the camera off. Of course, there's no guarantee that anybody will ever see the footage they're shooting, but it's possible that was addressed in the sequel, which was released in Spain last year. Whenever that bows on DVD here in the States, I'll be ready.

Monday, October 4, 2010
We've got to get these things to learn to eat something other than us.

One of the highlights of attending HorrorHound Weekend back in March was getting to meet George A. Romero, the septuagenarian horror legend responsible for Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead and even some films that don't have the word "Dead" in the title. At the time I told him I was looking forward to Survival of the Dead, his direct follow-up to 2007's "reboot" Diary of the Dead, and he said he hoped I would enjoy it. Unfortunately, its theatrical release was so limited that I never had a chance to see it on the big screen, but now that it's out on DVD I have caught up with it and I can report that I did enjoy it. It's not on the list of all-time classics with Night, Dawn or Day, but Romero is enough of a craftsman that he's still able to get a few jolts out of me.

The story plays out for the most part on Plum Island, which is located off the coast of Delaware and would be a haven for those fleeing from the plague of the living dead if it weren't for the largely pointless feud between the O'Flynns (headed up by Kenneth Welsh, who advocates putting them down as quickly as possible) and the Muldoons (led by the hard-headed Richard Fitzpatrick, who has different ideas for how to deal with the zombie threat). Meanwhile, on the mainland, we spend some time with four National Guardsmen (who briefly crossed the paths of the protagonists in Diary) led by hot-tempered sergeant Alan Van Sprang, who also narrates the film, making him the closest thing it has to a main character. Eventually he and his men (cynic Eric Woolfe, would-be lothario Stefano Colacitti) and woman (unimpressed lesbian Athena Karkanis) meet up with a teenage boy (Devon Bostick) who tells them about Plum Island and they decide it's as good a place as any to hole up. Getting there is no walk in the park, though, and neither is staying alive once they make it. Seems the locals -- with the notable exception of Welsh's daughter (Kathleen Munroe) -- aren't too big on strangers.

As he did with Diary, Romero filmed most of the zombie kills without squibs, choosing to add the blood and gore digitally in post. That may simplify things on set, but it does tend to lessen the impact of some of the effects. The upside is it also allows Romero to concentrate more on the performances and he gets some good ones this time out of the gate. I was especially taken with Welsh's authoritative take on the double-dealing Patrick O'Flynn and Munroe as his fiercely independent daughter. And Karkanis continues Romero's tradition of including strong female characters in his films. As for Survival, it continues the trend he started with Dawn of ending his Dead films on a vaguely hopeful, if ambiguous, note. Of course, even if there are some human survivors, there's no telling how much longer they'll stay that way.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010
In Tokyo, the bigger the company you work for, the smaller the flat.

Joining Paris, je t'aime and New York, I Love You in the ranks of millennial anthology films set in a single city (and often told from the perspective of outsiders) is 2008's Tokyo!, which I taped off the Sundance Channel a couple months back and am just getting around to. The first segment, called "Interior Design," was co-written and directed by Michel Gondry, based on the graphic novel Cecil and Jordan in New York by Gabrielle Bell, who also collaborated on the script. It's about an aspiring filmmaker (Ryo Kase) who's given to flights of fancy and moves to Tokyo with his unambitious girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani) to look for work. While they get on their feet they're staying in the cramped flat of a school friend, but Fujitani increasingly feels like she's unnoticed and unwanted, which leads to a bizarre change of lifestyle for her.

The second segment, colorfully named "Merde," was written and directed by Leos Carax and stars Denis Lavant as a lanky green-suited creep with a milky-white eye, a pointy red beard and gnarled finger- and toenails who emerges from the sewer system periodically to bug random people on the street. He's only a nuisance at first, but then he finds a stash of explosives underground and suddenly his attacks have a body count. After he's arrested, someone is located who can speak his impenetrable language -- a French lawyer played by Jean-Francois Balmer -- and who agrees to defend him. (You can imagine how well that goes, especially after Lavant reveals how much he hates all people, especially the Japanese.) The action is punctuated by the occasional Godzilla roar to remind the audience that we're dealing with a monster here. He just doesn't have the stature of everyone's favorite radioactive lizard.

The final segment of the film, entitled "Shaking Tokyo," was written and directed by Bong Joon-ho and is about a hikikomori or shut-in (Teruyuki Kagawa) who has been holed up in his flat for over ten years and in that time has made made orderly stacks of all his empty toilet paper rolls, pizza boxes, bottles, cans and the like. He also never makes eye contact with any of the delivery people who come to his door until he meets the girl who brings his pizza (Yu Aoi) and she faints in his doorway during an earthquake. While she's unconscious he notices she has a computer power button (labeled "coma") tattooed on her leg and when he presses it she instantly revives and doesn't say anything about the incident. Later on, when he learns she's confined herself to her own flat, having been inspired by his "perfect" lifestyle, he has to overcome his extreme agoraphobia and crosses town on foot (passing a pizza-delivering robot on the way because of course they have those in Japan) to rescue her from a life of isolation. It's a sweet ending to the story and the film as a whole.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Every creation myth needs a devil.

I don't have a Facebook account. At least, I don't think I do. Sure, I signed up for one a few years back, but I never really did all that much with it. I didn't upload any photos, I didn't write any blog entries (that's what LiveJournal is for), I didn't use it to keep in touch with anybody. Periodically I would get a friend request from an extended family member or someone I knew in high school (and hadn't had any contact with since), but those were few and far between. Eventually I decided to get rid of my account, so I logged on one last time to deactivate it, but then I discovered that deactivating an account didn't actually get rid of it, so I logged back on to delete it. All I had to do after that was avoid Facebook for two weeks and the deed would be done. Easy peasy, right? Not quite.

Before the two weeks were up, I received an e-mail from Facebook thanking me for reactivating my account. I had, of course, done no such thing, so I went back on the site and went through the whole rigamarole of deleting my account all over again, only I went one step further and deleted all my friends and contacts first. This time, only a day or two went by before I received another e-mail thanking me for reactivating my account. Clearly Facebook didn't want to let me go, so I logged back in one last time (for real this time) and changed all of my basic information so the account that remained would be completely useless to anybody for marketing purposes. I also added Facebook to my spam filter, so any further e-mails from them went right in the dumper which is where they belong. So when I say I don't have a Facebook account, that's technically true -- unless I happen to be a 103-year-old Inuit fisherman (or whatever the hell I said I was).

If you haven't already figured it out, I'm not the biggest Facebook fan in the world, so when I first saw the trailer for The Social Network some months back I wasn't all that enthused about it, despite the involvement of director David Fincher (whose Zodiac greatly impressed me, even if The Curious Case of Benjamin Button smelled so much like Oscar bait that I could nose it from several theaters away). As the release date got closer, though, the advance word got better and when the reviews came in this past weekend they were almost universally glowing, so the film got bumped onto my "must-see" list. And I'm glad I saw it because it is, without a doubt, one of the best films I've seen all year. It's just too bad I can't log onto Facebook and change my status to "just got back from seeing the Facebook movie... it rocked!!!"

Anyway, the film was written for the screen by Aaron Sorkin, who based it on The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal by Ben Mezrich. Most of the story plays out in a series of flashbacks during a lengthy deposition where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) faces two separate lawsuits, one of which claims he stole the idea for Facebook from some Harvard classmates and the other that he screwed over his best friend and co-founder in the process. Andrew Garfield plays the friend, who puts up the initial seed money for the website and eventually finds himself shut out of the company, and the wronged classmates are played by Armie Hammer (as identical twin rowers) and Max Minghella (as their business partner). The one who gets the ball rolling, though, is Zuckerberg's girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), who dumps him in the opening scene (and takes the opportunity to call him out for being an asshole) because he's obsessed with getting into one of Harvard's exclusive "final clubs." Failing that, he decides to start his own -- after a fashion.

I won't go into too much detail about how the story develops from there -- after all, it's based on fairly recent history -- but I will say that Justin Timberlake gets high marks for his role as Napster founder Sean Parker, who elbows his way into the company (and elbows Garfield out). I also enjoyed watching John Getz in action as Zuckerberg's lawyer and Rashida Jones as an associate from his firm observing the deposition. Behind the scenes, I can't say enough good things about the work of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth (son of the late Jordan Cronenweth) and the film features an effective electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which I'll have to see about picking up on CD. In many ways, that's the highest compliment I can pay to a film short of buying it on DVD. That I won't be able to do for a least a few months, though.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Flew back east for a wedding this weekend, so I took the opportunity to see Woody Allen's latest, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, with Kevin. After a brief return to his home turf with last year's Whatever Works, this film sees Allen back in London and follows the romantic misadventures of a whole slew of people. Firstly, there's James Brolin as a once-promising novelist who's struggling with his latest book and becomes infatuated with a beautiful neighbor (Freida Pinto) who moves into the flat across the way. Then there's Naomi Watts as Brolin's wife, who supports him by working at an art gallery and who has a crush of sorts on her boss (Antonio Banderas). Then there's Anthony Hopkins as Watts's father, who has a way-past-mid-life crisis, leaves his wife, goes on an exercise regimen and takes up with a gold-digging whore (Lucy Punch) because he desperately wants a son. (Cue the Viagra jokes.) And finally there's Gemma Jones as Hopkins's first wife, who turns to a fortune teller named Cristal (Pauline Collins) for comfort and takes everything she says as gospel, despite the fact that the "tall, dark stranger" she's supposed to meet turns out to be a short, rather cheerful occult bookstore owner (Roger Ashton-Griffiths) who's still hung up on his dead wife. Tricky.

Having introduced all of these characters and their romantic and professional entanglements, Allen makes the bold choice of not resolving most of them. In fact, this may be the most resolution-free movie he's ever made, which I expect will rankle some, but it proves that he's still following his own muse after all these years. And he's still able to attract top-flight actors for even the smallest roles. (The supporting cast includes the likes of Fenella Woolgar, Jim Piddock, Celia Imrie and Anna Friel.) I'm not sure how many more films he's planning on making in England (his next, entitled Midnight in Paris, clearly won't be), but as long as he does he'll find no shortage of reliable character actors who are eager to work with a legend.

Monday, October 11, 2010
When you rule the blood, death is no longer the end.

I must confess, I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to Joel Schumacher's directing career since he nearly derailed the Batman franchise for good with the abysmal Batman & Robin (a film that, to this day, I've never seen more than a few minutes of). I knew it was still going on, certainly, and he's tackled a number of films in a variety of genres (he even put his stamp on The Phantom of the Opera), but I haven't felt compelled to see a single one of them. This is why I was surprised to discover that he had directed last year's Nazi occult horror film Blood Creek, which makes that his second film in a row (after The Number 23) with a hokey supernatural hook. Kinda makes you wonder whether this is really the career trajectory he's striving for. Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Blood Creek was written by Dave Kajganich (who also co-scripted Schumacher's forthcoming Trespass, which has nothing to do with the 1992 Walter Hill film of the same name) and stars Dominic Purcell and Henry Cavill as brothers -- one an Iraq war veteran, the other a paramedic -- who have to face down an evil Nazi occultist (is there any other kind?) played by Inglourious Basterds's Michael Fassbender (who sounds a lot like Ahnold when he talks), who's been kept at bay on a West Virginia farm since the United States entered World War II. The film starts off well enough, with a sepia-toned prologue that introduces Fassbender's character and the corrupting influence he brings to an otherwise upstanding farm family, but then it jumps straight to present day and rushes headlong into the brothers' mission without stopping to explain why they're going on it. Then comes all the business about Nordic runestones and blood sacrifices and lunar eclipses and so forth, and a pretty exposition-delivery device in the form of farmer's daughter Emma Booth (who gets to deliver the deathless line "It's begun" after something begins).

Ironically, the film only really comes alive when Fassbender starts raising freshly killed people and animals to act as his proxies. Sadly, these scenes also occasion some of the worst digital effects I've seen in recent years, so this is definitely a case of you win some, you lose some. And in the end, Blood Creek winds up with more in the loss column than the win column. Better luck next time, Joel.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010
I don't know anyone who deserves to get chopped up and fed to a hungry plant.

For all intents and purposes, the big-budget movie musical was pushing up daisies when Frank Oz labored to bring Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's left-field, off-Broadway smash Little Shop of Horrors to the screen in 1986. Based on Roger Corman's ultra-cheapo 1960 film of the same name, Little Shop gave Oz the chance to graduate to more adult fare after directing or co-directing two family films in a row while still utilizing his puppeteering expertise to solve the problem of how to give life to Audrey II, the carnivorous plant from outer space at the center of the film. He may have wanted to go a little too far, though, since the original ending as written by Ashman had the malevolent vegetable succeed in its world-domination plans, eating most of the cast in the process. To say that test audiences hated that ending would be an understatement.

Of course, who can blame them since Rick Moranis is so sweet and lovable as the guileless Seymour Krelborn and Ellen Greene (a holdover from the original off-Broadway cast) is positively radiant as the ditzy Audrey? While audiences had no problem with Audrey II chowing down on a sadistic dentist (Steve Martin) or a greedy flower shop owner (Vincent Gardenia), they simply didn't want to see those two lovebirds become plant food. The film also features cameos by Christopher Guest as the first customer who notices Audrey II in the flower shop window, John Candy as a Skid Row radio DJ who features Moranis on his show, Bill Murray as a giddy masochist who loves pain so much he manages to creep Martin out, and James Belushi as a shady businessman who offers Moranis what he considers the deal of a lifetime. Then there's Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, whose vocal performance as Audrey II galvanizes the story from his very first cry of "Feed me!" to the Oscar-nominated "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space," which was written expressly for the film. Along with the tacked-on happy ending, it's the most significant change from the stage musical and one that was definitely made for the better.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010
I'm working on something that will change the world and human life as we know it.

1986: The Year in Horror continues with another remake, namely David Cronenberg's The Fly, which skipped the step of being turned into an off-Broadway musical in between (although it has since been staged as an opera, with Cronenberg as director). The Canadian auteur's biggest mainstream success by a long shot, The Fly takes the basic idea of the 1958 film -- that of a scientist and a housefly getting teleported together with horrifying results -- and cleverly updates it so the man and fly are fused at the genetic level (as opposed to just swapping heads and limbs). That was the main contribution of initial writer Charles Edward Pogue, whose work was otherwise thrown out when Cronenberg took over the project and rewrote the script from scratch (but he gave Pogue a co-writing credit anyway because that's just the sort of person he is).

I suspect the main reason why The Fly connected with audiences in a way that no other Cronenberg film has done before or since is because of the genuinely touching love story at its center, which makes the fact that one of the lovers slowly turns into an grotesque monster all the more tragic. Much of the credit for that goes to Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis as the brilliant but emotionally stunted scientist and the journalist who grows to love him and then has to watch him literally fall apart before her eyes. There are other characters, of course, but the film is essentially a three-hander with the third hand brilliantly played by John Getz as Davis's editor and jealous ex-boyfriend. Cronenberg and Getz walk a thin line with him since they don't even attempt to make him likable, yet he never comes off as an outright villain, either. Heck, even Brundlefly manages to elicit our sympathy right up to the very end, which is saying something since he's essentially lost all traces of his humanity at that point. Must be the eyes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010
It's easy to understand them, doctor. They have it in mind to raise the dead.

1986: The Year in Horror concludes -- at least for me -- with Ken Russell's Gothic, which isn't a remake but can be considered something of a prequel since it's set on the night a young Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who was soon to become Mrs. Percy Bysshe Shelley) conceived the story of Frankenstein. One of the few "Chilling Classics" that I had seen prior to acquiring the set -- mostly due to Russell's involvement but also because Thomas Dolby composed the score -- Gothic is the kind of film that gives ammo to the flamboyant director's boosters and detractors in equal measure. If you didn't like his penchant for over-the-top religious and sexual imagery before, this film isn't going to change your mind in that regard. On the other hand, if you can't get enough of suggestive scenes of snakes crawling all over suits of armor and nipples with eyes and so forth, then this may be the one for you.

To populate this phantasmagoria, Russell cast Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron, whose exile at a Swiss chalet maybe in fact be self-imposed; Julian Sands as Shelley, whose opium addiction is quite acute; Natasha Richardson as Mary Godwin, who has her own problems; Myriam Cyr as her half-sister Claire, who's too infatuated with Byron to notice that he's no longer interested in her; and Timothy Spall as Dr. Polidori, his biographer and the author of "The Vampyre," the other influential literary work that resulted from the challenge issued that dark and stormy night in the summer of 1816. Strange how Byron and Shelley -- the two experienced writers in the group -- were the ones who came up short in the story department, but I expect that's because they were too busy being paralyzed by the thought of being covered with leeches or buried alive. (Once they confess their fears, it's only a matter of time before they're actually made manifest. Kind of like Galaxy of Terror, only none of the characters in that film went on to write Frankenstein.)

Friday, October 15, 2010
Pain creates character distortion. It's simply not necessary.

In the wake of The Fly's great critical and commercial success, I'm sure David Cronenberg had his pick of the top scripts in Hollywood, but instead he returned to Toronto and made Dead Ringers, which I consider to be his masterpiece. (Its spine number in the Criterion Collection is 21, so they obviously thought it was something special as well.) The film is about twin gynecologists (both played masterfully by Jeremy Irons with the help of doubles and seamless special effects) who become involved with the same woman -- an actress (Genevieve Bujold) and patient who wants to have a child but can't -- and, as they drift apart, become less and less capable of functioning. Part of this is due to the fact that one of the twins, the sensitive Beverly, falls in love with the actress and develops a crippling drug addiction, but it's mostly because they truly are incapable of living apart and Beverly's fumbling attempt at independence brings the outwardly more confident Elliot down as well.

Like The Fly, Dead Ringers is essentially a three-hander, which makes it all the more extraordinary that two of the hands are filled by one actor. It also features a one-scene cameo by Stephen Lack, the erstwhile star of Scanners, as an artist who fashions a set of gynecological instruments for operating on mutant women, which Beverly designs at a juncture in the film where his grip on reality isn't as firm as it could be. Most of Cronenberg's regular collaborators also returned, including composer Howard Shore (whose opening titles have a way of haunting me for days), production designer Carol Spier and editor Ronald Sanders. Unfortunately his regular director of photography, Mark Irwin (who had worked with him since 1979's Fast Company), dropped out when there was a production delay, but that opened the door for Peter Suschitzky to take over as Cronenberg's cinematographer of choice. With his penchant for working with the same collaborators from film to film, I'm sure Cronenberg can relate to Beverly's assertion that "Separation can be a terrifying thing."

Saturday, October 16, 2010
Death is the price we must pay for the survival of our species.

As I'm so close to being done with the "Chilling Classics" box set (just five left to go), I've decided to start burning them off two at a time. (Why prolong the agony any longer than I have to?) I kicked off today's double feature with 1990's Metamorphosis, which is the most recent movie in the set and (before you ask) has absolutely nothing to do with Franz Kafka's novella of the same name. Rather, it was written and directed by G.L. Eastman, who appears to have taken his major inspiration from David Cronenberg's The Fly since his story is about a hotshot scientist ("the most brilliant genetic engineer Virginia University has produced in the last ten years," according to one of his colleagues) who's spent two years developing a serum to stop the aging process and winds up using himself as a guinea pig when his funding is threatened. There's even a bit of Altered States thrown in for good measure since the scientist (Gene LeBrock, who frequently sports Clark Kent glasses) starts the devolve over time, ultimately turning into a dinosaur -- which makes no sense whatsoever, but there it is. ("What was it?" one witness asks. The bewildering reply: "A nightmare, from the past!")

There isn't a whole lot more to say about the film. LeBrock's romance with single mom Catherine Baranov is tepid at best (despite the blue light-bathed sex scene) and her son Tommy (Jason Arnold) is kind of a grouch. The only really interesting character is LeBrock's cantankerous rival (Stephen Brown), a crippled stick-in-the-mud who has it in for the young turk from the start and even co-opts his lab assistant (David Wicker), who pays dearly for his defection. Then there's the score which sounds like it was provided by the Private Music label, circa 1987. Somehow I doubt it was ever released on CD, though.

For my second "Chilling Classic" I went back to 1976's Naked Massacre, which was co-written and directed by Denis Héroux, who based it on the infamous case of Richard Speck yet chose to transplant the story to Belfast during "The Troubles" for no discernible reason. For the first half hour the Speck stand-in (German actor Mathieu Carrière, playing the kind of Vietnam vet who makes the main character in Combat Shock look well-adjusted) kind of bums around, telling anyone who'll listen that he's just trying to get home and showing off his switchblade. He also takes an unhealthy interest in a certain house that's occupied by eight nurses (who are under police protection -- not that that makes much of a difference) and pops by one night to terrorize them ("I'm sorry, I'll have to tie you up for a couple of hours," he says, creepily adding, "If you don't mind.") and winds up raping, strangling, torturing, humiliating and stabbing them all in turn. The end result is a film that is genuinely chilling, but I doubt I'll ever want to see its like again.

His teachers say they've never seen anyone like him before.

This month's Kryptic Army Mission is all about Satanic movies, so I took that as a sign that I should finally face down Frank LaLoggia's directorial debut, 1981's Fear No Evil. I've long been a fan of LaLoggia's sophomore feature, 1988's Lady in White, but for some reason this one has escaped my attention until now. The two films are actually somewhat related since Lady in White is set in the fall of 1962 and Fear No Evil opens in 1963 with the baptism of a newborn baby that doesn't exactly go very well. (The fact that it's the Antichrist could have something to do with that.) Eighteen years later, the boy has grown up to be an unpopular high school senior (Stefan Arngrim) who's nevertheless a straight-A student with offers of full scholarships to go to Harvard and Yale. He's not too enthusiastic about either prospect, though, since he has Armageddon to bring about and everything. I'm sure that cuts into his extracurricular activities, too.

In between scenes establishing Arngrim's alienation at school (cued to songs by the Boomtown Rats, Sex Pistols [yes, the really obvious one], Talking Heads and the Ramones) and his hellish home life (well, at the very least that's how it is for Mom and Dad), the film also introduces the forces of good that will be aligned against him, starting with the archangel Mikhail, who has taken the earthly form of a middle-aged recluse (Elizabeth Hoffman). Eventually she's joined by one of Arngrim's classmates (Kathleen Rowe McAllen), who is revealed to be incarnation of the archangel Gabrielle, which explains the strange voices in her dreams. Meanwhile, Arngrim tests his powers, compelling his gym teacher to kill a fellow student with a dodge ball and eventually raising the dead to get revenge on the jerks who have ostracized him all his life. As if that's not bad enough, he also interferes with a performance of the Passion Play, causing it to go horribly wrong -- especially for the fellow playing Jesus. Some may find that sort of thing blasphemous, but only a true believer like LaLoggia could put a scene like that on the screen and play it completely straight-faced. And the same goes for the climactic battle between good and evil, which can only have one conclusion.

LaLoggia was a classic quadruple-threat, not only writing and directing his films, but also producing and scoring them (in this case in collaboration with David Spear). Sadly, he hasn't been heard from since he directed a film called Mother in 1996 (no relation to Albert Brooks's film of the same name which came out the same year). Maybe if we're lucky, he'll get the chance to regale us with another one of his personal horror tales sometime.

Sunday, October 17, 2010
I don't have a weak stomach, but I do have goosebumps. Might be because I'm cold.

Well, I've done it. I've tackled the other two Bill Rebane flicks in the "Chilling Classics" box set (the first, of course, was 1978's
The Alpha Incident, which I watched well over a year ago). I feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. Now all I have to do is write a few paragraphs about each of them and I can drive them out of my mind. (Crap, now I feel lousy again.)

Anyway, first up was 1983's The Demons of Ludlow, which is about a small New England town that is celebrating its bicentennial and receives the gift of an upright piano from its founder's estate in England, where he was banished for reasons unknown (which Rebane and screenwriter William Arthur keep from us pretty much right up to the bitter end). The film is narrated by a female reporter (Stephanie Cushna) with ties to the community who gets stonewalled at every turn by anybody who might have some clue about its dark past. ("There's a colorful history, but it's cold and unfriendly," she says at one point. "And, as you can see, decaying.") Her tight-lipped interview subjects include the shifty mayor (C. Dave Davis) and the local preacher (Paul von Hausen), whose alcoholic wife (Debra Dulman) is seen in her underthings in just about every scene she's in (for those who are interested in that sort of thing). There's also the town pianist (Carol Perry) who plays the newly installed piano at the bicentennial celebration and nearly puts the assembled townspeople to sleep. (I've never seen so many bored-looking extras in a film before.) The thing is, when she plays the piano it sounds unmistakably like a synthesizer or an electric harpsichord and I don't think they had those in Colonial times. I expect this is because the music was added in post-production along with the score, which is highly reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Fog at times, as is the film in general. Somehow I doubt that was accidental.

There is much in the film to amuse even the casual viewer, such as the credit "and Introducing Angailica" (who turns out to be the 10-year-old girl in Colonial garb who pops up from time to time) and the fact that the cinematography is credited to "Ito." Turns out that's just a pseudonym for Rebane, though, who in addition to producing and directing also did the production design. And I also liked that the credit for Executive Producers lists only Barbara J. Rebane. (Maybe that was Bill's way of telling his wife she's putting on a little weight?) Then there's the incredibly obvious camera shadow that crops up during a tracking shot showing some "demons" in Colonial-era costumes. For my money, though, the biggest laugh-out-loud moment in the film comes when little Angailica pelts a bedridden old woman in the face with rocks. I realize that sort of thing probably isn't supposed to be funny, but what can I say? When a film crosses the line into ludicrousness (as it does again in the finale, in which von Hausen attacks the piano with an axe and it starts to levitate), sometimes your only recourse is to cross over with it.

There's plenty of ludicrousness on display in 1984's The Cold (which was originally released as The Game, which explains all the board games in the opening credits), but it's of a much more tedious sort. In fact, the longer it goes on the more it seems to be laughing at the audience instead of the other way around. (This is especially true of the final reveal, which seems like a cheat on the face of it but is actually a lot more insulting when you take a moment to think about it.) Working again from a screenplay co-written by William Arthur, director/editor/cinematographer/camera operator Bill Rebane leads us down the primrose path with a hateful tale about three rich assholes (Carol Perry, Stuart Osborne, Don Arthur) who lure nine young people to a remote location with the promise of a $1 million prize. When asked what they have to do to win the prize, one of the hosts replies, "We shall be playing a game simply called the Game... of Fear!" Cue the evil laughter, which our trio of tricksters resorts to often and without a whole lot of conviction.

In addition to the risible dialogue, much of the acting on display also smacks of bad community theater. I don't mean to pick on anyone in particular, but there's one actress (Pamela Rohleder) who has one of the corniest Southern accents I've ever heard. Most of the other characters are also identified by a single trait, like the law student (Debbie Martin), the ice princess (Lori Minnetti), the snoop (Tom Blair) and the horn dog (Jim Iaquinta), who actually turns out to be a Vietnam vet, so I guess he gets two things. He also gets to play the tough guy, making this vow: "Whoever is responsible for this has called the tune. But I'm the piper and by God I'm gonna make them pay for it, permanently." Just like in 'Nam, right?

There are four others playing the game, a struggling band that's been hired to be the entertainment, but they're dispatched early on and without a lot of fanfare, so I won't trouble myself with them. And just for kicks there's a hunchback randomly prowling around, but he has such a tangential part to play that he's hardly even worth mentioning. In fact, the elements in play are so random -- a tarantula in the soup, a shark in the swimming pool, a chilling fog in the sauna, an alien-headed, slime-spewing creature in the bed -- that making heads or tails of any of them is an exercise in futility. Most bewildering, though, is the part where a snake is let loose in the pool. What's so bewildering about that, you ask? Well, the only time it attacks one of the characters is in a dream and she couldn't have known there was a snake in the pool, so why would she dream it? And I don't even want to know what's going on with the ghostly figure that shows up at the end. At first it appears to freeze the wealthy twits to death, but then they come back to life and start cackling like jackasses, which only makes me want to strangle somebody. Preferably Bill Rebane.

Even for criminals, you're just a particularly poor reflection on womanhood.

While I was at Plan Nine last night to rent Fear No Evil, I noticed that Jonathan Demme was in the director's spotlight, so for my free rental I picked out 1974's Caged Heat, which was his directorial debut for New World Pictures. Caged Heat was far from their first women-in-prison film, but I would be more than willing to bet that it's their best thanks to Demme's willingness to fulfill the demands of that somewhat disreputable genre (which he knew inside and out having produced and co-written The Hot Box for the company in 1972) while smuggling in some satirical social commentary. I'm also positive that this is a film that goes over like gangbusters with a big audience, which is why Danny Peary included it in his first Cult Movies book.

The basic set-up is simple: Roberta Collins is arrested as part of a sting operation and, charged with possession of drugs and being an accessory to attempted murder, is sent to a federal penitentiary. There she tries to keep her head down, but even with the help of fellow inmates Erica Gavin (a resourceful klepto) and Ella Reid (a feisty scrapper) and her cellmate Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith (who's understandably a bit morose since she's in for life), Collins still runs afoul of tough girl Juanita Brown, perverted prison doctor Warren Miller and repressed superintendent Barbara Steele (who tools around in an electric wheelchair). Brown is the most immediate threat and Steele seems to be last person you'd want to cross, but Miller turns out to be the most dangerous since he gets his jollies by giving inmates frontal lobotomies. He calls what he does "behavioral correction," but this is one case where the cure is worse than the disease.

Throughout the film Demme drops hints that Steele's character has a kinky streak a mile wide, but she only reveals it in her dreams, which she find baffling. During her waking hours she's easily scandalized, at one point calling Gavin and Reid on the carpet for a burlesque they performed for their fellow inmates. "That show of yours last night was positively disgusting," she tells them. "Given a chance to express yourselves, you went straight to the gutter." I'm sure some critics have leveled that same accusation at this film, but everybody needs to start somewhere and Demme had some good company in cinematographer Tak Fujimoto and composer John Cale, both of whom were also at the start of their film careers. One only needs to look up their respective IMDb listings to see where they went from here.

Monday, October 18, 2010
The corruption of human beings by the Devil can take many forms.

All this month Turner Classic Movies has been giving over its Friday evenings to Hammer Films and I've been taping the ones that have caught my fancy. This week I'm going to start playing catch-up with two of the Dracula films they aired, but first I'm dipping back into The Hammer Horror Series set (which previously yielded The Brides of Dracula and The Curse of the Werewolf) to watch 1963's The Kiss of the Vampire. Directed by Don Sharp (who later made
Psychomania) and written by producer Anthony Hinds (under his usual pseudonym John Elder), the film follows an English couple (Edward de Souza and Jennifer Daniel) on their honeymoon who get waylaid in a remote part of Bavaria when their motorcar runs low on petrol. After being deposited at a disused hotel where there's dust on everything and sheets on all of the furniture, the couple receives an invitation to dinner at the chateau on the hill and that's where their trouble begins.

As it turns out, their aristocratic host (Noel Willman) is the head of a vampire cult which also includes his intense son (Barry Warren), who can play a bewitching tune on the piano, and seductive daughter (Jacquie Wallis). At first the cult only has designs on Daniel, which spells bad news for de Souza when Willman gives a masquerade party (where all of the men wear demonic masks) and his wife is snatched right out from under his nose. That's the point where the local vampire hunter (Clifford Evans) swoops in and asks for his help in destroying the vampires once and for all. Unsurprisingly, de Souza readily agrees, setting up the climactic battle between good and evil.

The Kiss of the Vampire gets off to a brilliant start with a burial service that's disrupted by Evans, who takes a shovel and thrusts it into the coffin, which, to the horror of all present, spurts blood. (We later find out that the occupant was his daughter.) Unfortunately, the climax of the film isn't handled quite so well since it involves the cultists being trapped in the chateau and attacked by rubber bats on incredibly obvious wires. That's about the only sequence in the film that comes up short, though. The 85 minutes leading up to it are Hammer at its opulently appointed and sumptuously photographed best.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010
My master's hospitality is renowned.

Eight years after Christopher Lee crumbled into dust at the end of Horror of Dracula, Hammer lured him back to the role that made him famous with 1966's Dracula: Prince of Darkness (which opens with a replay of the climax of the earlier film to bring audiences up to speed). Once again directed by Terence Fisher and written by Hammer's go-to screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, the film picks up ten years later and finds the Carpathian peasantry still very reluctant to have anything to do with the vacant Castle Dracula. That doesn't stop a quartet of English sightseers (Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer and Charles Tingwell) from stopping there for the night, though, when they're unceremoniously dumped nearby by a skittish carriage driver who refuses to take them any further. After they're strangely lured to the castle (which the very proper Shelley is apprehensive about the whole way), they meet its lone servant (the suitably creepy Philip Latham) and before long he's sacrificed one of them to bring his vampiric master back to undeath.

The film is actually more than half over by the time the title character puts in an appearance, but he dominates the rest of the action to such an extent that it doesn't detract from Lee's performance. And neither does the fact that he has no dialogue, which, depending on who you ask, is either due to the fact that Lee refused to read that lines that were given to him or Sangster didn't write any for him to begin with. No matter what the story is, Sangster wrote plenty for Andrew Keir (who was about to take the lead role in Quatermass and the Pit) as an eccentric abbot who "enjoys shocking people's susceptibilities" and warns the travelers away from the castle and then gives the shelter to the ones who escape. It's only temporary, though, because Dracula isn't the sort of fellow to let things rest. Just like Hammer wasn't about to let the Count rest -- only this time it wouldn't be eight years before the next sequel.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010
When shall we be free of his evil?

Nearly three years passed between the release of Dracula: Prince of Darkness and its sequel, 1968's Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, although only one elapsed in screen time. Directed by Freddie Francis, who split his time between Hammer and Amicus in the '60s and '70s, and written by Anthony Hinds, the film doesn't take quite so long resurrecting Christopher Lee's Count this time out, although it does move his icy grave away from Castle Dracula somewhat. (Continuity is nodded at but not strictly adhered to in these films.) The supporting cast includes Rupert Davies as a haughty monsignor who inspires Dracula's wrath by performing an exorcism ritual on his castle while he's away, Veronica Carlson as the cleric's beautiful young niece who's in love with atheist Barry Andrews (no relation to XTC's electric organ player), Barbara Ewing as a busty barmaid who lusts after Andrews and becomes Dracula's first victim, and Ewan Hooper as a priest who's lost his faith and is therefore primed to be dominated by the born-again bloodsucker.

Much of the film is focused on Dracula's plot to get revenge on the monsignor by turning his niece into a creature of the night. Much religious symbolism abounds (no need for the characters to improvise crosses since they carry them around as a matter of course) and there's a neat twist where Andrews stakes the Count but it doesn't work because he's a nonbeliever. Eventually Dracula does meet his fate on the business end of a large crucifix, but he would return two years later in two films, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Scars of Dracula. Neither of those were shown on TCM, though, so I'll have to find an alternate source for them. In the meantime, there are other Hammer horrors to discover...

Thursday, October 21, 2010
She has some kind of power. That's obvious.

Last weekend TCM showed all four of Hammer's Mummy films, but I'd seen the first -- 1959's The Mummy -- before and I've read that the middle two aren't much to write home about, so I only wound up taping the final one, 1971's Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. Directed by Seth Holt with an uncredited assist from Michael Carreras (who completed the film when Holt died with one week of shooting left to go) and based on The Jewel of Seven Stars by Bram Stoker, the film stars Andrew Keir, who exudes authority as an archeologist whose well-endowed daughter (Valerie Leon) becomes possessed by the spirit of an Egyptian queen (also Leon) whose extremely well-preserved body is being kept by Keir in his cellar, which he has fashioned into a recreation of the tomb from which she was taken. (Clearly Leon isn't the only one who's possessed here.)

The trouble begins on the eve of Leon's birthday when Keir gives her a ring that belonged to the queen -- and that's not the only thing she gets. There are also some relics in the possession of three others who were on the expedition that have to be retrieved, all under the watchful eye of sinister Egyptologist James Villiers, who has a vested interest in seeing the queen resurrected. The supporting cast includes George Coulouris as one of Leon's victims, Mark Edwards as her boyfriend and Aubrey Morris as the family doctor, all of whom come to a bad end simply because she wishes it. (Lots of throats torn out in this one. Must have been a sale on them.) Not a bad effort overall, but I can see why Hammer didn't make too many films in this vein.

Friday, October 22, 2010
On the night of the full moon, the howl of the werewolf will be heard.

While I'm knee deep in Hammer, it's a shame I'm unable to see 1975's Legend of the Werewolf, which wasn't made by the studio but it might as well have been since it was directed by Freddie Francis, written by Anthony Hinds and starred Peter Cushing. Furthermore, it was based on the same novel -- Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris -- that inspired Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf, so its unavailability on DVD is lamentable. Which brings us to 1976's Werewolf Woman, an Italian creature feature which was written and directed by Rino Di Silvestro and has been released here on DVD multiple times. (Hmm, I wonder why. Could it be because one of its alternate titles was Naked Werewolf Woman?) Anyway, one of those times was when Mill Creek put out its "Nightmare Worlds" 50 Movie Pack, so that is how I have come to see it on this, the night of the full moon.

As it turns out, the title is somewhat misleading because while Werewolf Woman does open with a naked woman (Annik Borel) performing a ritual dance and sprouting fur over every inch of her body (except for her face, which has a bit on the bridge of the nose but that's it) and then tearing the throat out of a guy who looks kinda like Cameron Mitchell, the film is not about her exploits. Rather, when the werewolf woman is captured by a mob of torch-wielding villagers and tied up, presumably so she can be burned alive, that's the cue for her modern-day descendant (Borel again) to wake up out of a nightmare. Boo, Signor Di Silvestro. Boo.

Thanks to the undisguised exposition that follows, we find out all we need to know about the unfortunate Miss Borel. Seems she was raped at the tender age of 13 and has been repelled by men ever since. Furthermore, she lives in the country with her father, who's a count (Tino Carraro), and has a sister (Dagmar Lassander) who went to America for some reason or another, got married, and has returned to Italy with her husband, who's supposed to be the spitting image of the Cameron Mitchell-looking guy from the prologue but now he's got some Harvey Keitel going on. Under the influence of the full moon, Borel lures her brother-in-law outside, quickly seduces him and then tears his throat out. Next time we see her, she's been committed to a mental institution, where she's given shock treatments and confined to her bed as a matter of course, but she escapes when she's untied by a nympho (who is stabbed with a pair of scissors for her troubles) and hitches a ride with a doctor (who gets her face bashed into a steering wheel, but she survives). Meanwhile, there's an ineffectual police inspector (Frederick Stafford) wandering about being ineffective and listening to coroners say things like "The lacerations and deep wounds around her throat are almost of an animalistic origin, but it's uncertain." Say, does that mean it might be a lycanthrope, doc?

Anyway, Borel's killing spree continues when she spies on a couple making love in a barn and then, after the man has gone, kills the woman who is apparently cheating on her husband. (So now she's making moral judgments?) Then she hitches a ride with an old lecher who tries to charm his way into her pants and when that doesn't work announces that he's going to rape her. Frankly I was not sad when she tore his throat out and then bashed his head in. Then she's picked up by a movie stuntman (Howard Ross, whose "special participation" credit is an eyebrow-raiser) who announces that he doesn't plan on forcing his way into her pants and they have a whirlwind romance complete with a montage. She even calls Daddy and announces that she's completely cured, but then three rapists show up at her door and, after they've had their way with her and killed Ross, she goes all I Spit on Your Grave on them. When the police finally catch up with her (Stafford has been nothing if not dogged in his pursuit of her), she's been living in the woods fending for herself for about a month -- but she's still no werewolf woman. I tell you, I haven't been so dismayed by a false werewolf movie since She-Wolf of London.

Saturday, October 23, 2010
You can't expect us to believe that you turn into a wolf and go around killing people.

If I seem hairier than usual today, that's because I'm experiencing a spot of Wolfmania. In light of last night's disappointing Full Moon Feature, this afternoon I doubled up on the Wolfmen -- and I have a third in mind for this evening. First up, though, was 1979's Wolfman, which made a killing on the drive-in circuit without ever venturing north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Written and directed by Worth Keeter and produced by Earl Owensby, the film has a vaguely Southern Gothic atmosphere (I've read in various reference books that it's set in 1910 Georgia, but the film itself isn't so specific on that point) and stars Owensby as the "worldly" cousin who's called home for the funeral of his elderly father (Julian Morton). Seems there's a curse on his family and Owensby's aunt and uncle (Maggie Lauterer and Richard Dedmon) would much rather it fall on him than either one of them. Good thing for them they have a Satan-worshiping priest (Edward Grady) on their side.

Soon after his arrival at the estate Owensby starts having Vaseline-smeared nightmares which cause him to wake up in a cold sweat (and show off his naturally hairy chest and back). He also hooks up with an old flame (Kristina Reynolds) and consults with the family doctor (Sid Rancer) who confirms that there's something strange going on. With all the repetitious dialogue and endless scenes of Owensby riding around in his horse-drawn carriage (he paid for it, so they obviously decided to shoot the hell out of it), it's nearly an hour before he changes into the title character and goes on his first rampage which, when discovered, elicits the usual bewildered reactions from the authorities. ("It wasn't anything human that killed them. Some kind of animal got them." "I can't say this looks like the work of any ordinary animal.") It also produces the usual headlines about animal attacks, but I loved the ancillary story on the cover of the prop newspaper with the headline "CHURCH HOMECOMING DISRUPTED BY BEES."

Without much further ado, Owensby transforms a second time with the aid of quick lap-dissolves and, after chomping on his greedy relatives, is pursued by a trigger-happy posse. That doesn't prevent him from picking a few of them off (and keeping his white shirt amazingly clean) and evading them until sunrise, when he transform back into a man. While Owensby languishes in jail, Reynolds and Rancer confront Grady, which immediately puts Reynolds in peril (and leads to a foot chase through a cemetery over which some unmistakably modern electrical wires are strung). Will Owensby escape in time to save her? And will he get to transform one last time while doing so? I wouldn't dream of spoiling the ending of a good movie, but yes, he does both of those things. I only wish I could find a good screenshot of Owensby's Wolfman online. He's quite cuddly looking.

The same thing cannot be said of Benicio Del Toro or Anthony Hopkins in this year's remake of The Wolfman (the 1941 original, not Owensby's), but that's what happens when you have a master makeup artist like Rick Baker in charge. As disappointed as I was in the version that was released theatrically, I held out hope that Joe Johnston's Director's Cut would be better and, having just finished watching it, I can report that it is a marked improvement pretty much across the board.

I won't enumerate all of the differences between the two versions, but I do like the addition to the opening sequence in the longer cut and that we get to see Del Toro on stage briefly. And Emily Blunt coming to see him at the theater is a much stronger choice than simply having her write him a letter telling him about his missing brother. Also, we find out where Del Toro got his silver wolf's head cane (it's a present from a man he meets on the train who just so happens to be played by an uncredited Max von Sydow) and there's more about his gypsy mother and the villagers' superstitious nature and so forth. If these cuts were indeed mandated by the studio just to get to Del Toro's first transformation that much quicker, then that rationale was unquestionably harmful to the film. Sure, an hour of screen time elapses before that happens (which is even longer than it takes for Earl Owensby to sprout fur), but in the Director's Cut the first half of the film no longer feels rushed and the second half doesn't seem so lumpy and misshapen.

Amazingly enough, even some of the things that rankled me when I saw this in theaters -- like all the CGI and quick cuts in the action sequences -- didn't bother me so much this time around. Don't get me wrong, it's still not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but this is The Wolfman audiences should have seen back in February (or could have seen even earlier if the studio hadn't insisted on meddling). Of that I have no doubt.

Who would choose to live in such a dreadful place?

When I heard that somebody had gone and made a film called House of the Wolf Man, I knew I would have to add it to my collection as soon as it became available. A fun throwback to the Universal monster mash-ups of the '40s, the film was written, produced and directed by Eben McGarr, who shot it in black and white and in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 for verisimilitude's sake. He even recruited Ron Chaney, the grandson of Lon Chaney Jr. (which makes him the great-grandson of Lon Chaney), to play the sinister Dr. Bela Reinhardt, who picks a rainy night to invite five strangers to his spooky estate to find out which one will inherit it. They include jock Dustin Fitzsimons and intellectual Sara Raftery (who are fraternal twins), geek Jeremie Loncka, sultry siren Cheryl Rodes, and great white hunter Jim Thalman. They are all greeted by Reinhardt's creepy servant Barlow (John McGarr, who's made up to look like Warren Publishing's Cousin Eerie) and try their best to keep their wits about them -- no small feat, all things considered.

Like the films that inspired it (in particular, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula), House of the Wolf Man is on the short side, clocking it at 76 minutes, and the first hour or so is more or less the preamble to the monster melee that occurs once Reinhardt reveals his true nature to his guests. "My heir will be chosen by the process of elimination," he tells them early on and he means that literally. Not even the eleventh-hour intervention of Frankenstein's Monster (who's being kept in the basement because of course he is) and Dracula can save them from the Wolf Man's curse. I only wish the ending of the film didn't feel so abrupt. A little denouement would have gone a long way.

Sunday, October 24, 2010
I have murdered you to satisfy my insatiable lust, my beastly appetite!

After basing his character in Horror Rises from the Tomb on the infamous Barón Gilles de Lancré, Paul Naschy went back to the source and told the Barón's own story in 1974's Devil's Possessed (a.k.a. The Marshall from Hell). Instead of just the prologue being set in the past, this time the entire film takes place in medieval times, which allows Naschy to play up his character's Macbeth-like relationship with his domineering wife (Norma Sebre) and toss in a Robin Hood-like band of outlaws for good measure. Naschy also makes sure we know how conflicted he is about the hardships he inflicts on his subjects in his quest for the philosopher's stone, which his personal alchemist (Eduardo Calvo) assures him can only be obtained by sacrificing young maidens for their blood and taking part in Satanic rituals. No wonder he's so unpopular.

Eventually the oppressed people gain a champion in returning soldier Guillermo Bredeston, who fought alongside Naschy in the Hundred Years' War and languished in an English prison for four years, which is how he missed the part where his best friend became a murderous villain. After joining up with the outlaws (and showing off his superior fighting skills on more than one occasion), Bredeston faces Naschy in a joust in which the latter loses an eye, which only serves to make the nobleman look more monstrous. He's also plagued by nightmares and aural hallucinations, which eventually inspire him to enter a monastery. That, however, proves short-lived for soon enough he's out for revenge against Bredeston and his main squeeze (Graciela Nilson, whose feathered blond hair doesn't exactly evoke the period very well), and the film ends with a vigorous duel to the death which director León Klimovsky actually stages pretty well. Sure, he cops it to some extent from Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, but if you're going to steal, you might as well steal from the best.

All children are given over to the parents who will best serve them.

In the final decade of its existence, Hammer Films brought two of Dennis Wheatley's novels of the occult to the screen. The second was, in fact, the last "proper" Hammer film, 1976's To the Devil a Daughter. (There was one more to come -- the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes -- but the only thing horrific about that was how much it bombed at the box office.) Directed by Peter Sykes, To the Devil a Daughter stars Richard Widmark as an occult novelist (the author of books with titles like The Devil Walks Among Us) who is recruited to protect a young novice (Nastassja Kinski) from an excommunicated priest (Christopher Lee) who has some fiendish designs on her. The film also features Honor Blackman as one of Lee's devoted acolytes, Denholm Elliott as Kinski's father (who betrays the sect and pays a steep price for it), and Eva Maria Meineke and Michael Goodliffe as Widmark's agent and her husband, who are drawn into the plot before he has any idea what he's up against.

For the last of its Gothic horror films, Hammer really pulled out all the stops, showing much more nudity and gore than it had been able to previously. (There's one scene of a woman giving birth that fills both requirements and is extremely graphic about it.) There are also some moments that, it must be said, are rather laughable. I'm thinking in particular of the scene near the end where Kinski has bloody sex with a demon baby hand puppet. (Yes, you read that right.) And if you ever wanted to see Christopher Lee's bare buttocks, then this is the film for you. (And if you're reading this because you Googled the phrase "Christopher Lee's bare buttocks" and were hoping to see them, I apologize. But at least now you know where to go looking for them.)

Long before he took Satan's part, Christopher Lee was on the side of good in 1968's The Devil Rides Out, which was directed by Terence Fisher and adapted for the screen by Richard Matheson. Lee plays the aristocratic Duc de Richleau, who does battle with Charles Gray as a master of the black arts who has infernal designs on Lee's young friend Patrick Mower. With the help of a skeptical friend (Leon Greene), Lee seeks to break Gray's hold on Mower as well as another young acolyte (Nike Arrighi) that Greene has become smitten with. As in To the Devil a Daughter, their battle also yokes in a couple (Sarah Lawson and Paul Eddington) that doesn't realize what they're in for, but at least this time nobody comes to a bad that doesn't deserve to.

The Devil Rides Out is a terrific film from start to finish, but there are two scenes in particular that are real standouts. The first is a black mass that takes place on the eve of the first day of summer (also known as Walpurgis Night) which is attended by none other than the Man Goat himself. The second is a lengthy sequence where Lee places himself, Mower, Lawson and Eddington inside a chalk circle while Gray throws all manner of supernatural attacks at them. (One of them -- a giant spider -- isn't too impressive because the special effects aren't quite up to snuff, but the Angel of Death is suitably terrifying.) Considering how often he played the heavy for Hammer, Lee must have been especially pleased to be the hero for once.

Monday, October 25, 2010
God would never bless someone so steeped in sin with such a gift.

By the mid-'60s, Hammer was keen on getting the full value for its money and so started shooting films back-to-back on the same sets. One such duo was 1966's Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Rasputin: The Mad Monk, both of which starred Christopher Lee in the title roles. As much as Lee disliked his dialogue in Dracula, he must have loved what Anthony Hinds wrote for him in Rasputin for he delivered it in a most boisterous fashion, making his Grigori Rasputin a larger-than-life character in more ways than one. The film, which was directed by Don Sharp (who was also responsible for Lee's first two Fu Manchu films, which were made around the same time), opens with Rasputin curing an innkeeper's ailing wife, taking his daughter for a roll in the hay, grappling with her boyfriend (and cutting off the boy's hand in the process), and getting booted out of his monastery as a result. Naturally his next stop is Saint Petersburg, where he uses his healing hands to climb up the social ladder.

The film co-stars Barbara Shelley as the lady-in-waiting to the czarina who is hypnotized into doing Rasputin's bidding so he can get closer to the royal family, and Richard Pasco as the frequently drunk doctor who goes along with him at first and then hatches the plan to kill him when he gets too big for his britches. Said plan involves plying him with poisoned wine and chocolates, and when that doesn't kill him stabbing him in the back of the neck. And when that doesn't finish him off, the only recourse is to throw him out a second-story window and hope he doesn't pull a Michael Myers act. Of course, it took a bit more than that to put the real Rasputin down, but filmmakers could only go so far in 1966. In retrospect, that's probably for the best. Some things are, after all, best left to the imagination.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010
You should have thought of that before you started meddling in things that do not concern you.

The Hammer films roll on with 1966's The Reptile, which was shot back-to-back with Plague of the Zombies. Both were directed by John Gilling, who was apparently quite good at switching gears, but only The Reptile was written by Anthony Hinds. Briefly, the film is about a couple (Ray Barrett and Jennifer Daniel) that moves to a remote Cornish village when the husband inherits a cottage from his deceased brother. The locals aren't very welcoming when it comes to strangers, though, and their closest neighbor (Noel Willman) gives them a chilly reception. He's also quite severe when it comes to his daughter (Jacqueline Pearce), who clearly doubles as the title creature (which has taken to attacking the locals, biting them on the neck and causing them to foam at the mouth until they die) from the moment she appears on screen.

The film also features Hammer regular Michael Ripper (who appeared in more of their films than any other actor) as the local pub owner, who also happens to be the only person in the village who doesn't actively shun the newcomers, and Marne Maitland as Willman's sinister servant, who always seems to be skulking about. By the time the film actually gets around to revealing what's going on, we've long since guessed that he's been the real threat all along, but it has atmosphere to burn and in the end that's what counts in a Hammer production.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010
There's an explanation somewhere. It lies in the past.

My week of Hammer one-offs continues with 1964's The Gorgon, which was the last to employ the dream team of director Terence Fisher and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Written by John Gilling, the film is set in 1910 in a remote German village where a series of unsolved murders has occurred. The curious thing is all of the victims were turned into stone, which the town doctor (Cushing) covers up for reasons known only to him. He even keeps his own assistant (the ever-radiant Barbara Shelley) in the dark, which makes things difficult when she falls for a young man (Richard Pasco) who has come to town to find out who (or what) killed his father and brother. In this he's aided by Leipzig University professor Lee, who's immediately at odds with Cushing because it just wouldn't do for the two of them to be working together, now would it?

The film also features Patrick Troughton (in his pre-Dr. Who days) as the local police inspector who's better at acting officious than actually solving murders and a monster which might have been best left in the shadows or in long-shot. (Special effects being what they were in 1964, the better we see the gorgon's hair-snakes, the less convincing they are.) Not sure what else there is for me to say about the film other than I'm happy that TCM's print was letterboxed. (For some reason, the version of The Reptile that they showed the same night was not, which is puzzling because I know it was released in the correct aspect ratio on DVD. Sure, that's long out of print, but still.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010
My threat is not an idle one. There are forces of evil at large in the opera tonight.

Having tackled versions of classic Universal monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, the next logical step for Hammer was a remake of The Phantom of the Opera, which came to fruition in 1962. Directed by Terence Fisher from a screenplay by producer Anthony Hinds, Hammer's variation goes out of its way to make the Phantom (portrayed by Herbert Lom) into a tragic figure, preferring to make a villain out of Michael Gough's petulant composer, whose new opera based on the life of Joan of Arc faces numerous obstacles on its way to the stage. One of those is the loss of its lead soprano on opening night, but a replacement is soon found in chorus girl Heather Sears, who rebuffs Gough's advances (and gets sacked for her trouble) but still manages to catch the ear of the Phantom, who will do whatever it takes to make a great singer out of her.

The film co-stars Thorley Walters as the nervous opera house manager and Edward de Souza as Sears's love interest, who like her is capable of being fired by Gough despite being "the best producer in London." (I had no idea opera composers at the turn of the century were so powerful.) Thus freed up from his opera-producing duties, de Souza does some detective work and uncovers the Phantom's true identity, with the poor wretch's hideous fate described to him in detail and then later enacted in a largely superfluous flashback. Meanwhile, Hinds keeps the Phantom's disfigured hands relatively unstained by assigning most of the dirty work in the film to a mute hunchback (Ian Wilson, who's inexplicably listed in the credits as a dwarf despite being of normal size). One of his victims, incidentally, is a colorful rat catcher (Patrick Troughton) who's just one of many earthy working-class characters on hand to insert some low comedy into the proceedings at odd junctures. In the end, this Phantom is a rather schizophrenic film, but it's a worthy addition to the Hammer legacy.

Friday, October 29, 2010
Never thought I'd get to meet the Devil. Never thought I'd meet him face to face.

Tonight TCM is airing the better part of Hammer's Frankenstein series, but I've decided to give them a break for the time being. Besides, can there be a better film to follow The Phantom of the Opera than Brian De Palma's 1974 cult movie Phantom of the Paradise? Originally released -- appropriately enough -- on Halloween, the film combines elements of Gaston Leroux's Phantom with the story of Faust, who is the subject of a cantata by über-geeky composer Winslow Leach (De Palma regular William Finley) which is stolen by music impresario Swan (Paul Williams, who in actual fact wrote all of the songs in the film) so he can use it to open his rock palace, the Paradise. Those aren't the only allusions, though, since De Palma also works in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, The Manchurian Candidate and the funniest parody of Psycho's shower scene ever put on film.

I've seen Phantom of the Paradise many times over the years and while Williams never quite convinces as the Mephistophelean Swan, Finley acts the hell out of the dual role of Winslow and the Phantom, with further acting honors going to Jessica Harper as his muse Phoenix and Gerrit Graham as fey glam rocker Beef. (Graham, incidentally, is on the receiving end of both the Psycho nod and Swan's priceless introduction to the press: "Gentlemen, I give you the future -- Beef.") Meanwhile, Williams's song-score runs the gamut from '50s rock and roll to Beach Boys-style surf music to glam rock and beyond, which De Palma overlays with his usual cinematic obsessions, working in a split-screen sequence and plenty of security cameras for the voyeur in him. If it had been made after The Rocky Horror Picture Show it would have come off like a calculated play for the same midnight-movie audience. As it stands, it's the slightly-ahead-of-its-time progenitor that had to find its own, much less fervent cult.

Saturday, October 30, 2010
Why did you have me killed?

Woke up early enough this morning to catch 1936's The Walking Dead on TCM. Far from your typical zombie movie, it stars Boris Karloff as an unemployed musician who is framed by a gang of racketeers for the murder of the judge who sent him to prison for ten years. After he's put to death in the electric chair, a brilliant scientist (Edmund Gwenn) is able to revive him -- a scientific achievement heralded the world over in newspaper headlines like "SCIENCE BAFFLED AS ELECTROCUTED MAN LIVES AGAIN" -- but Karloff uses his new lease on life to stalk the men who set him up (including his shady lawyer, Ricardo Cortez) and hound them to their own deaths. (It must be said, he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time that borders on the supernatural.)

The whole story is told briskly and efficiently in just over an hour by Michael Curtiz, who had sufficient experience directing both gangster and horror films for Warner Bros. He even manages to get the obligatory romantic subplot (between Gwenn's assistants, Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull) out of the way with a minimum of fuss. Rather, the main focus is right where it should be, on the scenes of Karloff lurching around, his body contorted, exacting his revenge on the men who wronged him. It's quite telling, though, that after each of his visitations a look of confusion crosses his face as if he's not sure how he got there. No wonder he eventually takes to prowling around the local cemetery. More than anything, the one thing he wants is to be laid to rest once and for all.

It's almost like we're on a secret mission.

While I've been preoccupied with my Hammer series, TCM Underground has continued rolling out the must-see movies this month. One of those was William Castle's Let's Kill Uncle from 1966, which was his follow-up to I Saw What You Did and, like that film, placed a couple of kids in harm's way for the audience's amusement. The rub this time is the kids are both thoroughly annoying, especially Barnaby (Pat Cardi), a "precocious" 12-year-old brat who stands to inherit $5 million after his rich father (briefly played by Castle) kicks the bucket at the start of the film. On top of that, he's a habitual liar, so when his war hero uncle (Nigel Green) comes right out and says that he intends to bump the kid off for his inheritance, no one will believe him -- that is, no one apart from tomboy Chrissie (Mary Badham, best known for playing Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird), who's staying with her aunt (Linda Lawson), who isn't trying to kill her for some reason. The only other major character is a policeman (Robert Pickering) who accompanies Barnaby to the ironically named Serenity Island and sticks around because he suspects some foul play is afoot.

Of course, the foul play in the film is coming from two different directions at once since Barnaby and Chrissie determine that the best defense is a good offense (as Mel, the cook on Alice, would say) and hatch a plan to kill Uncle before Uncle can kill them. Uncle's big plan involves hypnosis and a tall cliff and, failing that, an abandoned hotel with a shark in the mucky swimming pool (which is why the cutaways to a shark swimming in clear blue water don't convince at all). To counter, the best the kids come up with is a batch of poisoned mushrooms and a tarantula in Uncle's bed (this was before it was widely known that tarantula bites aren't fatal to people, I guess), although when Chrissie takes it on her own initiative to empty Uncle's airplane's gas tank that nearly backfires when Barnaby takes a trip to the mainland with him. It's just too bad that didn't work. That would have been two for the price of one.

Devils, witches, werewolves have been with us throughout the ages.

Originally I was all set to follow Let's Kill Uncle with Nickelodeon's The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, but that was before I discovered that the original 1973 film of the same name was available in its entirety on YouTube. Sure, it's presented full-frame and has Spanish subtitles, but I'll take it over a made-for-TV kid's movie any day. Directed by Nathan H. Juran -- who also made The Deadly Mantis, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, among others -- The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (or, if you like, El Chico Que Lloraba al Hombre Lobo) is about a boy named Richie (Scott Sealey) who is spending the weekend at his father's (Kerwin Mathews) cabin in the mountains when they're jumped by a mangy werewolf and Dad is bitten on the arm. (It's a good thing he had his trusty cane with him or else he wouldn't have been able to beat the beast off.)

Once they're back in civilization, Richie persists with his story that they were attacked by a werewolf, so Dad has a chat with the kid's psychiatrist (George Gaynes) -- seems he's in therapy because of his parents' divorce -- and on his advice takes Richie back to the cabin. His timing is terrible, though, because it's the full moon again and it isn't long before Dad transforms, chases his son through the woods, causes multiple motor vehicle accidents and chows down on the occupants. (The following morning when sheriff Robert J. Wilke arrives on the scene, one of his deputies helpfully tells him, "Except for one missing arm, that's all the same guy.") Meanwhile, Richie flees and takes refuge with a young couple (Susan Foster and Jack Lucas) in a camper. Naturally they become Dad's victims the following night and, through the magic of time-lapse photography, Richie witnesses the werewolf turning back into his father and hides the evidence of his foul deeds from the sheriff. Suitably traumatized, Richie tries to convince his mother (Elaine Devry) that the man she divorced is a monster and she reluctantly agrees to accompany them on their next trip, just missing the front-page news about Gaynes's murder.

On their way up to the cabin, the family passes a hippie commune led by a self-styled preacher (Bob Homel) who was able to pacify the sheriff earlier by claiming they were "freaked out on God." (He's also the sort who would claim, "Man is not a beast. Compared to man, beasts are angels.") As it would be a shame to have hippies and a werewolf in the same movie and not have one attack the other, that night Dad assaults the encampment and the hippies attempt an exorcism to drive the Satan out of him. To their surprise it actually works, but that's only because they did it at sunrise. The next night, Dad's back to sprouting fangs and fur like nobody's business and this time he's going after his ex-wife and son. Nothing like keeping it in the family, right?

The same thing goes for the Syfy (boy, do I ever hate typing that) Original Movie Red: Werewolf Hunter, but in that case what's kept in the family is, well, you can easily guess. As the story opens, federal agent Felicia Day is bringing jerky fiancé Kavan Smith (also a federal agent) home to meet her family -- headed up by wise, all-knowing grandmother Rosemary Dunsmore -- for the first time and let him in on the family secret -- namely, that they hunt werewolves. Smith barely has time to process this before he's bitten by a particularly nasty customer named Gabriel (Stephen McHattie) who is able to "phase at will," but he's able to keep this a secret long enough to put Day and her family in danger.

Between action beats, writer Brook Durham gives smartass younger brother David Reale (who comes across as vaguely B.J. Novakish) a hair more complexity than older sibling Greg Bryk, but Durham's least compelling contribution to werewolf lore has to be the notion that they burst into flame when they're killed. (Really? That's your choice? What were your other options?) Also, while I was expecting the transformations to be computer-assisted (this is a Syfy Original Movie, after all), the fact that the werewolves are completely digital creations was a major letdown to me. I guess director Sheldon Wilson couldn't be bothered to have an actual werewolf suit made. (Even a guy in a crappy werewolf suit -- like the ones on display in The Beast of Bray Road or Never Cry Werewolf -- would have been preferable to the rail-thin, virtually weightless creatures in this film.) I wonder if that was also the case with Nickelodeon's The Boy Who Cried Werewolf. With any luck, I may never find out.

Sunday, October 31, 2010
I hope I'm not the poor bastard that's got to clean that up.

In December 2008, when I bought Mill Creek's "Chilling Classics" box set, I knew I wouldn't feel I'd gotten my money's worth until I had watched all 50 films on its twelve shiny discs. Now, almost two years later, I have finished the job with the aptly named Bad Taste, which just so happens to be Peter Jackson's directorial debut. Completed in 1987, Bad Taste tells the story of an invasion by alien beings who plan to use humans as livestock for an intergalactic fast food chain. When the nefarious aliens wipe out the residents of a small New Zealand town, the only people who can stop them are a four-man team from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service (which, it must be said, has an unfortunate acronym).

At times the film feels like a bit of a one-man show since Jackson not only wrote, produced, directed, co-edited, photographed and did the special effects and makeup effects, but he also appears in dual roles as gung-ho scientist Derek and prominent alien Robert. (At one point he even has to fight himself, which must have been a tricky thing to shoot.) The other members of the team are Pete O'Herne, Mike Minett and Terry Potter, who also double as aliens, as does hapless charity collector Craig Smith, who picks the wrong day (October 31st, naturally) to visit the town that's been wiped off the map by fast-food magnate Lord Crumb (Doug Wren) and his cronies.

Evidently anxious that the film live up to its title, Jackson punctuates the action with repeated close-ups of faces being spattered with blood, which becomes something of a running gag. And speaking of gagging, in his early films Jackson seemed determined to include at least one thing designed specifically to get at the weak of stomach. In Bad Taste, it's the scene of the aliens slurping down their regurgitated gruel, which I've never been able to watch without looking away, although the bit where Derek's head is injured and his brains start leaking out comes a close second. No wonder the lad goes a little chainsaw-happy in the end.

For an encore Peter Jackson made Meet the Feebles, a decidedly adult take on the backstage shenanigans at a Muppet Show-like variety program, in 1989. Again wearing multiple hats (director, co-writer, co-producer, puppet maker and camera operator), Jackson leaves the performing to others this time around, which is just as well considering how complicated the shoot must have been. (Sure, the puppets don't have to interact with any live humans, but every bodily function you can imagine -- as well as a few you probably wouldn't want to -- comes into play at some point.)

At times the film is so depraved that it can be a little hard to take, but there are also sublime sequences like the extended Vietnam flashback (a dead-on parody of The Deer Hunter complete with Russian roulette game) and the gay director's musical ode to sodomy that transcend mere questions of taste. (The fey fox may be somewhat premature when he envisions the headlines the show will generate, though. "Director's artistic genius makes 'Feeble' evening outstanding success"? Doesn't sound very likely.) The funniest joke in the film may be the one at the end of the credits which reads, "The producers wish to advise that no puppets were killed or maimed during the production of this film," but I think it's trumped by the cover of the DVD from Dead Alive Productions, which proclaims it to be "FROM THE DIRECTOR OF THE LORD OF THE RINGS." Is it any wonder that that release was eventually taken off the market?

Death surrounds him. There will be torment and suffering.

In 1992, Peter Jackson blasted his way into the splatosphere with Dead Alive (a.k.a. Braindead), the record-holder for the goriest zombie splatter movie ever made. (Of course, if there's one that's come out in the years since that has surpassed it, I don't think I want to see it.) Co-written by Stephen Sinclair and Fran Walsh, who previously collaborated with Jackson on the screenplay for Meet the Feebles, Dead Alive distinguishes itself right off the bat by using detailed miniatures to evoke its period setting (Wellington, New Zealand, in the late '50s) and takes care to properly establish its characters before plunging them into all-out zombie horror, which places it head and shoulders above similarly blood-soaked fare.

After a prologue set on Skull Island (Jackson's first nod to King Kong, which he would earn the chance to remake after the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films), where the deadly Sumatran Rat-Monkey is captured so it can be shipped to the Wellington Zoo, the film introduces clumsy mother's boy Lionel (Timothy Balme) and Paquita, the Latina shopkeeper's daughter (Diana Peñalver) who believes they're destined to be together. The only thing standing in their way is Lionel's overbearing mother (Elizabeth Moody), who controls every aspect of his life and even follows him to the zoo when he goes on a clandestine date with Paquita. There she's bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey (which is brought to life by stop-motion photography) and, after slowly falling apart, eventually succumbs, which devastates Lionel ("He was always dreadfully attached to his mother," says a mourner at her funeral) but then she immediately returns as a zombie with a hunger for the flesh of the living, which is when the film shifts into high gear.

Determined to contain the problem himself with the use of animal tranquilizers, Lionel has a hard enough time when it's just his mother and her nurse (who was Mum's first victim), but then a street tough and an ornery priest (who kicks ass for the Lord) get in on the act. And all bets are off when Lionel's money-grubbing uncle (Ian Watkin) horns in on his inheritance and invites a whole slew of people over to what quickly becomes zombie central. Soon there's a house full of zombies, which are easily dismembered but the pieces stubbornly have a life of their own. As gory as the final act gets, though, it isn't nearly as disturbing as what I'll simply refer to as "the custard scene." (Those of you who have seen the film will know what I mean.) It makes me shudder to even think of it. Then there's the finale where Lionel confronts his mother, cutting the apron strings once and for all. Or rather he would if Mum were wearing an apron -- or anything, really. It's pretty amazing the things one can get away with in a horror film.

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