Monday, April 7, 2014

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932)

Before we see anything else in THE OLD DARK HOUSE, we see this:


And why not?  Karloff was a big draw at this point and you can't fault a film for exploiting its most exploitable elements.  But that card does mislead a little in that it makes you expect a movie that orbits around KARLOFF THE MAD BUTLER~.  What we really get is a solid ensemble piece in which Karloff is fun, but not any more important than CHARLES LAUGHTON THE PORTLY BRITISH CAPITALIST~ or other members of the cast.  Karloff is pretty dreamy here, excelling at another speechless role, but he's working as part of a unit here.


Three people break down in muddy puddles after a rock slide.  They trudge on over to the nearest house, which houses shriekingly religious Rebecca Femm and her cadaverous and potato-loving brother Horace.  More folks arrive, romance is kindled, and the old dark house reveals its secrets, including murder, arson, and withered old bedridden men.  I feel like I should discuss why I think OLD DARK HOUSE qualifies for inclusion on this blog, but the movie that almost took its spot, DOCTOR X, does not.


So this is not strictly an unadulterated horror film.  There's romance, as stated, and comedy of the Addams Family type.  But OLD DARK HOUSE meets my standards, since at least a plurality of it is devoted to frightening the audience or delving into the macabre.  I watched DOCTOR X and it had some horror, but the horror was there mostly to steer the movie into moar wacky dialogue and such.  OLD DARK HOUSE is clearly constructing suspense for its own sake, not as a springboard for lesser things.  And even the comedy here has a ghoulish tint, like Eva Moore going on a tirade about flesh rotting while poor Gloria Stuart is just trying to change out of her wet clothes.  It's not positively goofy like lots of misguided comedy-horror; if anything, all the humor here has a very dark tinge and some of it isn't immediately recognizable as joke content at all.


James Whale basically did the same thing with FRANKENSTEIN, which isn't regarded as a laugh-a-minute rib-tickler, but has plenty of gallows humor if watched with the right eye.  That same style gets pressed to the fore in OLD DARK HOUSE, but without being counterbalanced by sad old drowning-kid scenes.  There are undoubtedly better experts out there than me, but I view the "old dark house" style as, essentially, fun horror (not wacky/goofy horror).  The situations and revelations are ridiculous, the characters are unbelievable, and everything proceeds like a light stage play about murder and madness.


This movie is helped by wise direction and an incredible cast.  There's not a weak performance here, but give special consideration to Elspeth Dudgeon and her TCM's Grandpa-style turn as the Femm family's patriarch.  Yes, that is a woman down there, you were bound to see such things on the Internet eventually.  Also noteworthy are Brember Wills as Saul, who is so crazy that he only escapes the attic during the film's final wind-down, and Melvyn Douglas as Penderel, the dashing male lead.


I still think FREAKS is the best horror flick of 1932 (so far), but THE OLD DARK HOUSE certainly adds to the argument that '32 was a great year for the genre.  It has admirable goals and accomplishes them in an entertaining way.  Good times all around.


RATING: 7

Saturday, March 29, 2014

APRIL FOOL'S DAY (1986)

APRIL FOOL'S DAY should have a place in the top tier of slasher fans' hearts, like around an aorta.  Maybe it's because slasher fans just want the same ol' thing, but I've never really seen any evidence of a strong cult following for this film.  I know plenty of people who have seen it and all had warm words for it, but it inexplicably lacks the kind of fan devotion that SLEEPAWAY CAMP, for some reason, commands.  We won't even talk about people who care about later FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE sequels.  Well, you're all wrong and now I'm going to explain why.


A pier appears, full of privileged college kids who are headed to their rich friend Muffy's island retreat.  Usually, in films of this stripe, these introduction scenes are agonizing.  That's not the case with APRIL FOOL'S DAY, as its deft script gives us fun characters and entertaining banter.  It also gives us boating-accident mutilation, throwing down right in SLEEPAWAY CAMP's face.  As the kids journey to the remote island of unworking phones, violence and death show up all over the place.  Bodies in wells!  Creepy dolls!  All good things, leading up to a fine rising climax and fun denouement.


I don't like slashers very much, mostly because most of them feel routine and painted-by-numbers.  APRIL FOOL'S DAY, in these early scenes, is just the opposite: inventive and lively, we get equal time with all of the splendid characters and learn to care about them before they're poked full of holes.  Man, I love the editing here, it's so quick and precise and keeps the movie moving at such an exciting pace.  The cast in general is tremendous, but I would like to recognize special achievers.  First, Jay Baker as Harvey is too much fun.  He's like a mashup of J.R. Ewing and Alex P. Keaton (Google it, people under 35), and his Texas hick/business major character is one of the best things about this movie. 


But I would probably give the gold medal of acting to Deborah Goodrich as Nikki.  Goodrich puts the emphasis on "Good" here, giving us this really assured and confident performance which also incorporates a lot of comedy.  She looks similar to Sarah Michelle Gellar and Nikki is kind of a Buffy-esque character, but I'd maybe opt for Goodrich over Gellar based on what she does here.  If you're not into Deborah Goodrich and her timing and her eighties hair, you are not my friend.


I hate slashers, but I also hate other things, like comedy in horror, since generally it does not work at all.  But APRIL FOOL'S DAY again defies tradition by adding a ton of fun to the mix.  We get pranks, we get witty dialogue, but we also get good physical comedy.  Ken Olandt is clearly excellent at this sort of body work.  I dare you to not lol at the towel scene or be amazed at how natural he looks in failing to punch someone.  


Glasses can be half-empty, too, and the downside of all this excellence in character, editing, and script in the early stages is that they have to be ditched when this becomes a horror film.  To be honest, I'm not that convinced by the initial descent into tension.  There's definitely enough creepy decor, but we start lingering a little too long on survivors moving stealthily around and lose the awesome fast pace of the first half's editing.  It feels a lot less special, more like the kind of white-label generic SLASHER MOVIE that haunted video stores in the eighties.


We have learned not to doubt APRIL FOOL'S DAY, though, and it defies expectations again by pulling off a really rad final stalk and then unleashes a wrap-up that you will either love or hate with all the hate you have.  Personally, I dug the hell out of it.  It's inventive and falls right in line with the rest of the excellent script.  I would put APRIL FOOL'S DAY right up there with ALICE SWEET ALICE as just one step below god-tier genre stuff like HALLOWEEN.  It holds up very well nearly 30 years later and its minor flaws do very little to wreck its overall success.
 

RATING: 8

Saturday, March 22, 2014

HERE COMES THE DEVIL (2012)

Promising but really flawed, this Mexican killer-kid outing posits a lot of interesting premises, but undercuts itself by resorting to some of horror's most unwelcome cliches.  We begin in fast and furious style with a random violent attack on a lipstick lesbian.  Fingers get removed and added to a creepy finger collection in the killer's cigar box.  We find this out when he dumps them all over a stony hill, after disrobing.


That is definitely the kind of horror movie opening I can get behind!  But then the film shifts in tone and we get finger action of a different sort.  A mom and dad take advantage of their kids playing on that stony hill we talked about.  DEVIL at this point dives deep into eroticism and these scenes are maybe the film's best.  With the lesbian stuff and this part, you might be forgiven for thinking that the movie is more consistently filthy than it is.  But, check it out, these scenes are fleeting, so enjoy the smut while it lasts.


Give credit to the filmmakers for effectively staging some super-hot scenes here.  Love/sex scenes aren't championed as much as impeccable effects or believable crying over diseases.  But everything here works, from the close-ups to the dialogue that seems even more exciting since the dirty words are arriving via subtitle.  I also like how the cast are pretty much normal-looking, complete with blemishes visible in close-ups.  It makes things more real and therefore hotter.



I did not do that on purpose, it was a magical accident.  In the screenshot above, we've veered firmly into horror territory, as the kids have gone missing on the mountain while their parents were screwing in the car.  The gas station attendant warns the mom about the mountain's ghastly reputation, a pretty clear sign that we're watching a horror movie, after all.  The kids return, but they seem to have become evil or autistic, as they're way more remote and exhibiting truant behavior.  And here's where an interesting narrative with a novel feel starts stumbling a lot.


Way out of character, poor-looking gore is just the beginning.  To be fair to the movie, it does lead to some impressive visuals.


After that, though, DEVIL goes off the rails.  The supernatural/LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT mashup tilts far more in favor of ineffective spooky stuff, complete with the same floating people that you've seen lots of times before.  We get explanations for these happenings (and explaining things is always risky in horror), but they are the most basic and terrible explanations ever.  Like first paragraph of a bad nosleep-level explanations.


By the film's end, you get this sort of thing and not much to pique your interest beyond what you've seen many, many times before in this kind of movie.


If this would have stayed a subdued, mysterious kind of film, I would have liked it more.  Or, alternately, if the mythology would've been a little more developed, it probably would have won my heart.  But, as it stands, HERE COMES THE DEVIL is kind of a misfire.  It has enough strengths that you should maybe keep an eye out for director Adrian Bogliano's next film.  But I wouldn't rush out to see this one.

RATING: 5

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MURDER AT DAWN (1932)

No screens.  A short but baffling old dark house flick in which a daughter travels to her mad scientist dad to get his approval for her marriage.  Tons of people end up running around the old dark house or leering through windows, a conceit that the film recycles over and over again.  MURDER AT DAWN also shows up scenes of lightning over and over, laying down artistic techniques that Ed Wood would later perfect.  The movie isn't as entertaining as the best of Wood, though, even though it clearly thinks it is.   It commonly resorts to comedy, some of it very discomforting almost one hundred years later.  I'm thinking specifically of the slow-witted black cabbie who gets spooked into running away by a pair of long underwear.  AW NAW DEYS GHOSTS!  We've also got a comedy drunk, who supplies the movie's only real laugh line ("He was hanging on a hook, and he yodeled at me!").  Otherwise, it's really standard fare, from the creepy housekeeper to the eccentric scientist who wants to use solar power to free "wage slaves" or something, IDK.  With so many characters, it's hard to keep up and keep from giving up on the film, and, by the conclusion and its giant collection of closeups of electricity, you're liable to not  even care.  

RATING: 4

Sunday, March 16, 2014

THE HOST (2006)

Appearing two years before CLOVERFIELD, it's reasonable to argue that THE HOST kicked off the modern-day kaiju craze that will lead, in two months, to either a triumphant GODZILLA or a disappointed me.  I loved the hell out of this when I initially saw it, but years have passed and a rewatch seems like a good idea.  We begin with a lab assistant dumping what look to be kegs of formaldehyde down the drain by the order of his salty American supervisor.  


Incompetence is a major theme of THE HOST and the whole thing kicks off with a Korean kowtowing to his bossy American boss.  The formaldehyde presumably ends up mutating a fish in the Han River, which will be somewhat important later.  But, for now, we switch to the Park family, where bumbling Gang-Du takes naps at work and tries hard to connect with his daughter Hyun-seo.  Our two storylines collide when the giant monster hits land and does a bunch of people in and also kidnaps Hyun-seo.


THE HOST slices into authority with a fierce satirical edge.  There's the mentioned depiction of Americans as loud, short-sighted boors.  But Korean officials don't fare much better.  After the monster attacks, they round up survivors and victims' families into a building for mass grieving.  But, when the families demand answers, the first response is to send a guy in a spacesuit and (incorrectly) suggest that the news will have all the answers.  The second response is to panic and start grabbing people.


I lurve the scene in which Korean doctors are hurriedly turning on all their medical equipment before the Americans get there, just like the old Monty Python sketch.  It's a fine example of the film's concern with fumbling behavior, but also displays how funny THE HOST gets at times.  The movie's a good mix of big-beast horror, family drama, and comedy that's way funnier than stuff like BAD MILO (don't get me started).  It's pretty difficult to mix all of that disparate material into a cohesive narrative, but THE HOST does a pretty nice job of it.  There are a few instances of the movie's missteps when it comes to weaving together scenes with different goals, but overall everything's fairly well-balanced.


Even if you can cast some stones at the film as a narrative, it's pretty much unimpeachable as far as technical filmmaking is concerned.  Composition, lighting, and integration of digital effects are all super-solid here and THE HOST basically functions as a master class as far as the raw elements of movies go.  


As a giant monster movie, it gives its monster a decent amount of screen time, certainly much more than the stars of MONSTERS get.  I remember a lot of buzz about how well the thing in THE HOST turned out and it's still a pretty good ambassador for digital effects.  The movie as a whole holds up, too.  It's not a game-changer or anything, but it's still a worthwhile watch.


RATING: 7

Friday, March 14, 2014

FREAKS (1932)

Back to 1932 and back to Tod Browning, which means that we're likely to meet outcasts, The Other, persons who can't get jobs at the Apple Store.  The fact that this is titled FREAKS is also a pretty big clue.  "A soap opera in a sideshow", as the feature aptly puts it, FREAKS concerns dwarf Hans (Harry Earles), who is seduced by normal-sized trapeze hussy Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) into ditching his dwarf fiancee Frieda (Daisy Earles).  Cleo's a black-hearted gold digger who is really in a tryst with douchebag strongman Hercules (Henry Victor) and is only chasing Hans for his money.  Eventually, the predatory nature of her advances get outed and the freaks at the sideshow take a grim revenge.


Ambiguity abounds in the early goings.  You can't get a grip on FREAKS and pin it down as any sort of horror film.  Like its titular stars, it defies easy categorization.  We jump right into the Hans/Skankopatra business, but there's also sparks flying between Phroso the clown and Hercules's former girlfriend, Venus.  FREAKS has an awful lot of twinning on all levels—it even extends to inter-scene happenings, like when Phroso's wiping off his makeup and Venus is wiping off her tears.


FREAKS is a film about relationships.  It's also about how scummy carnival life can be, even though the scummiest scum might not be who you'd expect.  There are plenty of pre-code films that play coy with their penetration talk, but FREAKS is not coy.  When Cleo whips open her robe and asks Hercules, "How do you like them?", only the most naive censor could think she was referencing the eggs cooking behind her.


Cleo and Hercules are united by greed and their shared horribleness, but they're well contrasted by the more wholesome pairing of Phroso/Venus and also by the genuine affection which the freaks have for one another.  Browning gives us little snippets of conversation and tiny, playful scenes that really establish what a real community the sideshow folks have.


Even if this were a failure of a story, it would be noteworthy for including so many sideshow stars.  FREAKS functions like the movie version of a ten-in-one, letting us see famed names like Johnny Eck the Half-Boy and Prince Randian.  


My favorites, Daisy & Violet Hilton, show up and get a generous amount of subplot time with lots of kissing and sensual touching.  Maybe the film's most famous scene involves Violet making out with a dude while her conjoined sister Daisy shows the effects of the kiss on her face.  The censors apparently were hopping mad.


Like a lot of the films that it presumably influenced, FREAKS really picks up steam during a grotesque dinner scene.  To celebrate Hans's marriage to Cleo, the freaks mount a feast.  After they start singing, "We accept you, we accept you, one of us, one of us!" and offer a ceremonial loving cup, a drunken Cleo flips her shit and lets loose a torrent of hatespeech.  This is the turning point of the film, when all the light exchanges and comedy of the early scenes get swapped out for pure vengeance and mutilation.


The last scenes wend their way to dark-as-fuck corners.  Things get very intense and Browning is masterful at cutting between settings during the climax, never letting the viewer's suspense wane.  The previously-cuddly freaks get painted in a new light, as it's time to whip out the switchblades and take care of business.  


There was some tampering with the ending to make the film a little easier to swallow.  You can hear all about it in the featurette on the DVD and it certainly sounds like the original, less tidy ending would have been stronger.  As it stands, we get a resolution that's a little too neat and reassuring to mesh with the grim tone of the preceding scenes.


I've barely talked about any of the usual review stuff, so let's do it now.  The acting is generally solid, especially leads Olga Baclanova, Harry Earles, and Leila Hyams.  The actual sideshow freaks in the cast do a pretty commendable job!  I'm sure Browning was extra-careful to make them look menacing when necessary, but they're pretty fun during the more carefree early scenes, too.  I'm not that fond of Daisy Earles in the early goings, but she seems to get better with line delivery and such as the film proceeds.  The carnival setting is loads of fun and never looks (unintentionally) cheap or shoddy.  And, as stated, Browning is awesome at editing and cobbling scenes together here.  It all makes FREAKS a (perhaps) surprisingly easy watch.  Like Gordon Gecko said in WALL STREET, "FREAKS is good!"

RATING: 8

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CHILD'S PLAY (1988)

I haven't seen that new CHILD'S PLAY movie, but some have and some of them say it's a return to form after the wanton goofiness of BRIDE and SEED.  It stands to reason that a movie about a talking fuckin' killer doll should be deadly serious business, but the outpouring of cheers made me want to take a second look at the original film.  I haven't seen it since my early teen years, when I was presumably in the prime consumer demographic for CHILD'S PLAY and still didn't care too much about it.  But times change and so do tastes, so avanti...


A cop named Norris corners a killer named Charles Lee Ray.  Incredibly, both wear ties, because they are professional in their respective professions.  The chase leads to a toy store, where Ray dies with his hand on a Good Guy doll while mumbling some poppycock.  Then lightning strikes and the movie's semi-hard-on for explosions begins.


I'm sure I'm not telling you anything new by saying that Ray's soul enters the doll.  And then the doll is sold to Karen Barclay by a hobo in an alley behind a department store.  Her son, Andy, is Good Guy-crazy.  The whole Good Guy thing seems to be a riff on the Cabbage Patch craze of 1984 or so, so we're almost veering into Larry Cohen areas of social commentary, but CHILD'S PLAY doesn't really get contemplative enough to pull that trigger.  It does give us this cheap and astounding-looking Good Guy TV show.


I wanted to see more of the show to get a better handle on Good Guy folklore, but nooo.  We must instead move on to scenes of the new doll, Chucky, furtively killing a smidgen of people.  Because everyone knows that dolls can't kill people, the authorities suspect young Andy of throwing grown women out of windows and sparking gas-based explosions.  You'll want to baste the credulity-handling parts of your brain with tar heroin before watching this, obv.  These early scenes are pretty draggy and would've hurt a lot more if the cast weren't pretty solid.  Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon are quite fine and even the waif Alex Vincent delivers a good performance, despite being a child.


The movie has a good look and is shot well as well.  The main porblem is that the script is logic- and sometimes pacing-illiterate.  It's a movie about a talking fuckin' killer doll, OK, fine, but showing a child walking outside a house moments before it explodes, then showing said kid unburned and unimpaled in the next scene is pushing it.  Not to mention there probably wouldn't have to be an incendiary scene if the early stages of the script weren't so sleepy and uneventful.  


A lot of this film announces itself as the kind of shallow, ostensibly "fun" horror that proliferated in the 90s.  CHILD'S PLAY, thematically and atmospherically, anticipates stuff like LEPRECHAUN (obv!) and WISHMASTER, movies where it is clear that not a lot of time was spent on constructing & revising a script.   No characters are too deep or detailed, especially not supporting characters, who are basically just props who need extra makeup.  Sometimes this works, like the scene in which Karen goes to Hobotown to track down the doll seller and finds hobos French kissing and urinating into their own hobo homes for no good reason.  But during other scenes, the thoughtless, tossed-off feel really hinders the enjoyment of this film.  Plus there's some unfortunate comedy in the early goings that is just utterly ineffective.


We Need to Talk About Chucky.  Definitely the least likely horror icon, he's at least immune here from post-Freddy disease, as we only get one one-liner ("Batter up!") and otherwise his dialogue is pretty solidly mean.  It's difficult to make a diminutive figure scary, especially one who acts alone rather than in a CRITTERS-style pack.  That might be why the body count here is so low compared to other films of the era.  You might think the blood-free time would be spent in ratcheting up tension and CHILD'S PLAY certainly tries to do that, but isn't totally successful.  The movie's really backloaded, as the first third or so is Yawn City U.S.A., then we get a finale that tries to shovel a whole bunch of plot at us.  And, please believe, I appreciate the hilarity of giving the doll a voodoo origin (voodoo doll!), but it doesn't really lead anywhere and really just builds a bridge to the disappointing final showdown.


Don't take this the wrong way, but there's no good reason for anyone to really like CHILD'S PLAY.  Anything that it does, other movies have done better.  If you want a mini-killer, ORPHAN and THE CHILDREN are superior choices.  If you like your horror sprinkled with comedy, opt for RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD or this director's own FRIGHT NIGHT.  Killer dolls?  Go for DOLLS or that one section of TRILOGY OF TERROR.  CHILD'S PLAY is professionally executed from top to bottom, but it's like you've got a team of master musicians working off a score that someone wrote on a diner napkin in ten minutes.  It doesn't have huge, glaring flaws and anyone who watches lots of horror will have seen worse than this, but overall it's terribly bland.


RATING: 5

Friday, March 7, 2014

THE MUMMY (1932)

Two stories and then we'll get down to business.  When I first became an adult, one of the first "real" jobs that I pursued was clerking in a video store.  I was embarrassingly excited when a vacant position was posted because, duh, I'd get to work with movies all day.  They chose to interview applicants as a group for whatever reason and one of the questions asked was "Who is your favorite actor?"  So I said Paul Newman or Johnny Depp or whatever I thought might get me the job, but the last guy to answer said, "The Mummy, I like all of his movies".  I'm sure he misspoke, but I REALLY want to believe that a guy believes the Mummy is an actor who has the world's longest film career.


The second story isn't a story, really, more of a memory.  In some random old issue of Fangoria that I read because I'm old, they reviewed a Mummy movie and the reviewer mocked the Mummy as a threatening monster.  I can't remember many details, but he/she argued that, since the Mummy is such a slow-moving monster, there's no reason to get killed by him unless you're paraplegic.  Or something.


Keep that in mind as we talk about THE MUMMY, which also moves pretty languidly.  Karloff, fresh off his FRANKENSTEIN triumph, is in the lead role.  He shows up wrapped in bandages, but we really only get the mainstream mummy look for one scene.  Which is great for us, because we get to see Karloff act with fewer layers of makeup.  We also get to enjoy the unwrapped mummy's dessicated look, which is unexpectedly even creepier than the standard depiction.  That has a lot to do with Karloff's performance, which is indeed very slow and deliberate, even down to the unnaturally calm and sonorous voice.  Man, Karloff is great here.


The mummy, Imhotep, suffered his horrible wrapping-alive as a result of his love for Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.  As fate would quite literally have it, the Princess's reincarnation, a half-Egyptian woman named Helen (Zita Johann), crosses paths with Imhotep.  It's all a big mess and really annoys her archaeologist and Egyptian occultism scholar friends.  The scenes with Karloff and Johann are the peaks of this film, as she's a match for him in terms of physical acting.  The cast in general is really fine and it's especially nice to see more Edward Van Sloan after his impressive work in FRANKENSTEIN.


THE MUMMY is really well-shot and well-edited, too.  Director Karl Freund doesn't get cited as much as names like Todd Browning or James Whale, but I love a lot of his choices of camera placement and movement here.  At times, you can really tell that THE MUMMY had a far lower budget than FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA (parts of this are kind of claustrophobic), but then Freund pulls off some still-impressive early-Egyptian settings and you forget all about finance.  The film is always really interesting visually, but (BUT) it is admittedly pretty slow in tempo.  Even the music sounds like it just rose from a sarcophagus.  


That's all to the good if you're on board for the movie's atmospheric, dreamy feel, though.  This isn't a bloodbath or a thriller.  Moreso than most monster flicks (certainly moreso than DRACULA), THE MUMMY devotes a lot of time to a love story and it's a good love story.  It involves terrible sacrifice, reincarnation, pre-Christian theology, and magical pools of water, so it's not like we're getting some shallow TWILIGHT thing.  The story is driven by the two characters, Imhotep and Helen, and by the solid acting that bring them to life.


This isn't as innovative as FRANKENSTEIN, nor does it share the same ambitious aspirations, but it's a perfectly good entry in the canon of Univeral's early classics.  


RATING: 7