Saturday, July 19, 2014

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

The film announces its fantasticness upon its birth, during the opening scene.  We get an argument between a wax museum proprietor and his angry financial backer, in which the backer accuses the proprietor of sacrificing profits for art.  Why don't you create a Jack the Ripper or Burke & Hare instead of all this history crap? says the financier.  Then he starts a fire and waddles off, leaving the wax artiste to get baked.


I'll remind you that this verbal dialectic about pure art versus the commercially-viable macabre is THE OPENING SCENE TO A HORROR MOVIE.


You can tell immediately that Mystery isn't going to be constrained by genre limitations or stripped of its ambitions.  Departing from burnt, waxy London, we land in New York, where it's New Year's Eve, and bored morticians are sad about the low body count.  There's an amazing proto-jump scare that's topped with a pretty good joke, giving us our first real taste of the movie's genre-bending character.  Soon enough, we learn that waxman Igor, who was apparently burned right into a wheelchair, is reopening his shop in NYC.


It's 1933, it's a horror film, so that means we're probably going to see Fay "Overwrayted" Wray and here she is, as the girlfriend of a wax museum assistant. Wray is here to be pretty and imperiled and she does all that well enough.  


But the queen bee MVP of this film is clearly Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a wisecracking lady journalist.  I can't remember the last time I was this impressed by a performance.  Farrell delivers her lines at whiplash speed and, at one point, gets this extended Ayn Rand-sized monologue that she races through.  It's an almost athletic performance and she's awesome to watch whenever she's on the screen.  Thankfully, Florence is a pivotal character as she unravels the titular mystery, so we get lots of opportunities to enjoy her.  I'm not sure what Fay Wray's character does for a living.  Professional girlfriend?  Professionally pretty?  Who knows?


The wax museum scenes are certainly creepy enough, especially when we get to stuff like the stabbed Marat or the beetle-browed Napoleon.  This film doesn't skimp on the hard stuff, as we get a fair share of violence, plus junkies, bootleggers, and girly magazines called NAUGHTY STORIES.


But the movie's constantly shifting tones from grim images to light banter.  Some people will loathe the crazy patchwork quality on display here, but I loved it.  So interesting!


They even threw in a little expressionism in the woman-swallowing sets at the end of the movie.


And that ending!  Motherfuck!  Frequently, even very enjoyable pieces will fumble their finales, but Mystery sticks it for the win.  Everything from the big reveal to the masterfully-edited final chase scene is just delightful to watch.  This definitely exceeded my expectations and I could see it gaining even more of my heart after I rewatch it.  Which I will. 


***1/2

Patrick (2013)

Much like Maniac, a re-envisioning of a noted-but-flawed original, although I don't think Patrick succeeds as smashingly as that Elijah Wood hit.  The basics of the plot get ported over from 1978's Patrick—comatose Patrick lies around all day, involuntarily spitting, until a comely nurse arrives.  At this point, Patrick's Carrie-esque psychic abilities start manifesting themselves.  He specializes in hand damage, but also does some fine work with cars and mirrors. 


At least the visuals are significantly better.  This Patrick is very carefully constructed, with killer overhead shots and perfect color choices.  With the old architecture, subdued lighting, and muted colors, it feels like a period piece, until someone pops out a cell phone or earbuds to remind you that it's not.  


The acting's pretty solid, too.  And the score by Pino Donaggio is top-notch.  But here's the problem: a lot of this film brings yawns.  The early goings are slow, which is to be expected if you're setting up relationships and characters and stuff.  But, even after telekinesis is happening and blood gets loosed, it's still plenty unengaging.  One difficulty might be that our protagonista is established through interaction with a motionless hunk of flesh.  There's not much to draw viewers in, y'know?


In fact, the shift in tone from crawlingly slow to wow-explodey doesn't really mesh too well.  Especially when some very ill-advised CGI effects are added.  And, as stated, even the sudden injection of action into the plot didn't do much to charm me.


I'm a big advocate of remakes of the right kind of movies (one that could be improved by a second attempt).  Patrick would certainly seem to qualify and yet I suspect that this remake's only enduring legacy will be the immortal line "Patrick wants his handjob".  Such are the vagaries of fortune.


**1/2

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Son of Kong (1933)

So King Kong did pretty well and they apparently fast-tracked this sequel.  Fay Wray refused to reprise her role, but they did manage to get some of the original cast to sign on for a second outing. 


Including Robert Armstrong as Carl Denham!  He brought King Kong to New York, remember, and now everyone's mad about property damage and killings, etc.  Denham is hiding out in a cheapo boardinghouse of sorts, but he is still comically beset by journalists and process servers.  This whole schism of wacky antics and angsty regret about Kong-caused genocide runs through the whole movie.


It was going to be difficult to pull off a Kong postscript no matter what, but I think I would have liked either a remorseful approach or an lol approach to prevail throughout the movie.  The mixture of the two sometimes doesn't gel well.  Although it's hard to fault scenes like the one below, which is Denham escaping the boardinghouse by wearing a bashed tub as a mask.


Denham's an interesting character in this film.  The movie totally utilizes Armstrong's comic timing, but, in a lot of ways, Denham's a sour jackass.  When he finally gets one lawsuit notice too many, he up and leaves New York for the high seas.  Through a series of circumstances, he meets former ballerina-cum-guitar gal Hilda (Helen Mack).  He wins her heart by berating her, a technique he later applies to the Son of Kong.


More circumstances lead a portion of our cast back to Skull Island, where they encounter said Son, trapped in quicksand.  Note that the "son" of Kong is white, so we might need to get Maury on the case here.


Henceforth, the film plays pretty much like a retread of the first Kong.  Monster fights, romance, all that.  The effects are well up to par and everything's executed well, but it does feel a little tedious and unnecessary at times.  Remember how Ghostbusters II was pretty much Ghostbusters again, but less fun?  Same thing here.


One thing that is noticeably different is that Son is way more kiddied up compared to the first movie.  The Kong we have here is cutesy and goofy and makes "Aww, geez!" faces directly at the camera.  He pounds down on a cave bear, but otherwise lacks a lot of the menace that his dad brought to the screen.  Denham is responsible for most of the aggression here, calling Lil' Kong a "dummy" and a "half-wit" when coconut accidents occur.


It would be a big stretch to consider this a horror film (one could say the same about King Kong, but at least it had deliberately frightening scenes).  Son is far more of a light adventure film.  How light?  Well, one character's recently dead parent is dismissed in the dialogue with, essentially, "Aw, that's too bad.  Well, keep your chin up!"  Granted, we've already fled from the consequences of all the people the first Kong killed, but it's still quite glib.


Overall, pretty fun, if a serious step down in quality compared to the first Kong.  This is really more reminiscent in tone of Mighty Joe Young or something, if not a Rankin-Bass cartoon.  It feels like something you'd see on Saturday morning, sandwiched between cartoons and "Solid Gold".

***

Friday, July 11, 2014

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)


This is what happens to you if you take drugs.  Beautiful model Valentina takes the experimental hallucinogen H.D.S. as part of a magazine expose, but, during her trip, she sees the vicious murder by spiked glove of the startled woman below.


You'd think that deaths aplenty would follow, but they mostly don't.  If Death Walks is a giallo, it definitely leans more towards that subgenre's mystery roots.  The focus is on tension and menace with the deaths making brief cameo appearances between chase scenes.  We don't get tons of bloodletting or spilled gore, and we only get flashes of the things I most enjoy about these movies.  For a lot of its running time, this is a mighty pedestrian affair—not offensive, but definitely not noteworthy.  Death walks.  It never sprints.


Occasionally, director Luciano Ercoli gives us the sort of gorgeous visuals we might hope to see, but these are the exception to the film's low-energy rule.  Also rarely present are the kinds of nutso minor characters that sometimes end up being these films' best elements.


We get a brief visit to an insane asylum with very hands-off supervisors.  We meet a crazy dude who's super happy about tapdancing in a straightjacket.  We get a scene with a guy who apparently lives in his van, in which he's installed a bottle opener (and, by now, we should all know not to trust guys who have vans!).  Valentina herself is intermittently interesting—the script gives her an edge in the form of a pretty short temper.  Still, Death Walks is not a smashing character study.


Maybe my favorite characters only get spotlighted at the end.  I love how vicious thugs in these movies always dress like alcoholic banquet managers.  Plus one guy keeps smoking that cigarette throughout a long chase scene and fight scene, so hats off for that.  


Overall, this is pretty much an also-ran as far as these things go.  I've seen far worse, but also much better.  Completists have probably already caught it and, if you're a casual fan of this genre, you probably won't miss much by giving this one a pass.

**3/4

Friday, June 20, 2014

THE SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM (1933)

The movie thoughtfully introduces us to the cast by showing them looking terrified by their own credits, a trigger warning that scares are on the way.


The historically-wealthy are not like you and me.  They live in castles and wear tuxedos everyday, but there are also downsides.  The castle in this film contains a "blue room" with a history of violence.  It seems that anyone who stays in the room ends up dead or missing by morning.  Another weird thing about female rich people is that they french-kiss all four boys who attend their birthday parties, including THEIR OWN FATHERS


I take back every nice thing I said about Gloria Stuart, she is a dirty and filthy girl.  We know Stuart can act, but BLUE ROOM doesn't really show her at her best.  The script is pretty unambitious and also makes the terrible mistake of inserting a full Gloria Stuart song right at the beginning of the movie.  After she sluts it up.


This is not a good way to do business.  Plus the dialogue in these early scenes is agonizing.  They establish the hell out of one guy being a newspaperman, for instance.  Things pick up a bit after that, though, as the three suitors attempt to prove their bravery by each spending a night in the blue room.


Yep, that's it.  I like haunted houses and haunted rooms, so I was predisposed to dig this.  But the movie doesn't really capitalize on its potential.  We get minimal corpses and this mostly skips over into mystery/thriller territory, forsaking its horror pedigree.


This cast includes names of fame like Stuart and Lional Atwill, but it's done in by a script that seems tired and probably also by the rushed nature of the shoot itself (six days, per IMDB).  BLUE ROOM provides modest entertainment and occasionally gives us interesting photography, but overall you can live a full life without ever seeing this.


**1/2

Thursday, June 19, 2014

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Perhaps the most underrated and certainly the most fun of the classical Universal pantheon, INVISIBLE MAN doesn't dawdle and gives us the goods right away.  A mysterious man, all wrapped in bandages, arrives at an English pub in the midst of a snowstorm.  He tries his best to be crowned King of All Dicks, barking orders and demanding food and solitude, earning the ire of the bar's soused Brits.


These early scenes set the stage for the film's entire feel.  Director James Whale has it and flaunts it, mashing up menace and laughs in equal measure.  Una O'Connor's performance in these scenes is a master's thesis in how comedy can be integrated into legit horror films.  Her shrieking and caterwauling simultaneously underlines the terror and takes the edge off of it.


As I'm sure you've heard, the terror is basically that Jack Griffin, the guy in the wrappings, is an invisible man.  As if that weren't bad enough, the invisibility process has rendered him a little sociopathic.  He boasts about his plans to "rob and rape and kill" and tries to murder a sleepy-eyed policeman.  


A really neat thing about INVISIBLE MAN is how it bounces back and forth between the villain being horrifying and being an entertaining prankster.  Unwrapped and fully invisible, Jack Griffin roams the streets, swiping bicycles and swatting people with brooms.  But things escalate, starting with the cop-throttling and the upturning of a baby carriage.  By the time we get to calculated murder and train derailments, you won't doubt the monster potential of the invisible man.  


As with KONG, effects are a huge concern here and they are executed well.  Some of the invisible-man-moves-stuff scenes might linger a little too long for modern eyes, but the chair rocking and cigarette smoke exhaled apparently from nowhere are still pretty spookshow cool.


The directorial choices and cinematography here are exquisite.  We get flashes of the panic as word spreads, and get reaction shots from grandpas and orphans.  The camera glides at strange angles and leads actors between rooms.  Every scene is staged and framed with considerable care.


And none of the actors let us down!  Obviously, the titular role was of supreme importance and Claude Rains shows why he deserved to be immortalized in musicals.  Maybe more than any actor, even Christian Bale, Rains pours his whole self into a threatening voice.  He doles out trilled R's all over the place, like some kind of lunatic aristocrat.  But this is also a strong acting performance, not just spookhouse fare.  His interactions with his beloved Flora (Gloria Stuart) show a softer side of Griffin.


Stuart, who would go on to some post-PIRANHA II James Cameron movie, also delivers a fine performance here.  It helps that Flora has nuance and depth as a character.  Stuart doesn't get a lot of screen time and sometimes has to hand over the spotlight to invisible mania, but she's consistently impressive when she's seen.


You couldn't ask for much more than we get here: a novel concept presented in a fast-paced and fun way by serious talent.  Amazing that the same film can contain lines like "I shall kill you even if you hide in the deepest cave of the Earth!" AND "How do I handcuff a bloomin' shirt?"  And yet this does and it works, so well.


****

Saturday, June 14, 2014

THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951)

I was feeling down tonight, so I made some popcorn and watched a popcorn movie.  MAN FROM PLANET X is notable, I guess, because it was directed by Edgar Ulmer, who also did stuff like THE BLACK CAT and DETOUR.  Ulmer obviously had talent, but even a master chef can't do much with ingredients from the clearance bin at Family Dollar.  That's an analogy for this film being shot in SIX days with a budget that is exceeded by many children's Christmas-stocking incomes.  The best parts of the film, in terms of looks, are actually the sweeping shots of miniature landscapes.


But then the cheapness gets blared at you in the form of terrible backdrops on bare sets.  Maybe the plot will make up for it?  


John Lawrence is a journalist from America.  He goes to England to visit scientists Professor Elliot and Dr. Mears.  They're excited because an unknown planet called Planet X is nearing Earth.  John is excited because Professor Elliot has a daughter named Enid, who is hot in a just-awakened coma patient way.  They find a spaceship parked on the moors and also learn that it houses this guy:


This is an early sci-fi entry, but I have to take issue with the design.  It looks like a cross between a mummer and a puppet and certainly is not very imposing.  The Man from Planet X does most of his dirty deeds through the use of a hypnotic ray affixed to his ship.  


This could be effective and creepy in a BODY SNATCHERS/INVADERS FROM MARS way, but it mostly isn't.  We spend too much time in conversation with disbelieving locals and their colorful rural-English accents.  The controlled/possessed people are mostly shown in shadows.  To make matters worse, they can't even effectively plan how to trap someone on a bicycle.  SMH.


It feels like I've been blah on most of my viewing lately and this fits right in.  It's not frightening like THE THING or fun like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN.  It's adequately executed, but if that's the highest praise I can dish, you should probably find something better to watch. 


**1/2

Sunday, June 8, 2014

WILLOW CREEK (2013)

",,,at the end a fat chick is bigfoot and you don't get your money back" is a real expert review from Amazon!  It's also not accurate, so keep cool. 


WILLOW CREEK will engender a divided reaction, as found-footage things often do.  I am not the worst boyfriend ever because Jim is.  He's got a birthday looming, so he celebrates by dragging his girlfriend Kelly to the site of the Patterson-Gimlin sasquatch film.  He decides to turn this bday/bigfoot outing into a film and hauls along a video camera, which gives us our found-footage vehicle.


Bobcat Goldthwait's (greatest) film proceeds very much along BLAIR WITCH lines.  The traveling couple interview and mock assorted colorful residents of Willow Creek about their bigfoot-centered economy and arts scene.  Shots are fucked up and re-enacted to give WILLOW CREEK the veneer of verisimilitude.  


As with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and BLAIR WITCH, WILLOW CREEK was going to succeed or fail largely on the strength or weakness of its central characters.  And, generally, I'd give this film passing marks.  Jim & Kelly react with realistic amusement to oddities, like a giant goofy Bigfoot statue at the town visitor's center...


Or a dude who fancies himself the Bob Dylan of Bigfoot songs...


But they stay likable enough that, when it comes time for threats and menace to be unchained, we viewers are concerned with their safety.  


The film's strongest scene is a lengthy stretch inside a tent.  We get a marathon of acting, with Alexie Gilmore and Bryce Johnson giving us a tour of their characters' emotional landscapes, from romantical talking to hidden disappointment to alarmed reactions at nature's noises.


As you might expect, much of the film's scares are decidedly of the loud-noises type.  It would be funny as hell if it ended up being Michael Winslow, but (spoiler) it doesn't.  And the resolution of WILLOW CREEK is likely to be its most divisive element.  Reminder: good found-footage movies are mostly built on the escalation of tension, like roller coasters.  So don't go into this expecting to see tons of monsters jumping all around the woods all the time and you're far less likely to be disappointed.  Personally, I liked the ending just fine.  It dovetails well with the hazy, cryptic nature of the Bigfoot thing.  


Elite-level god-tier for Bigfoot movies—it's not better than LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, but it beats almost everything else—and probably 75th percentile for found-footage movies.  Yeah, the seeming flood of critical praise is a little weird, but most of that is probably due to things like Rotten Tomatoes's pass/fail structure.  And the start of the hate backlash is also a little overwrought.  This is a fine, fun movie.   


***1/4