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

Friday, June 6, 2014

THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933)

Oh, THE VAMPIRE BAT, you naughty bitch.  Look at you, tantalizing us with that cast.  Boasting about LIONEL ATWILL and FAY WRAY and poor slighted DWIGHT FRYE, forever a malcom in the middle.


But the cast is the best thing about this rather mundane and by-the-numbers frightster.  The plot appears to have been written based on a rubric of Mandatory Elements: a b├╝rgermeister (just like FRANKENSTEIN), a series of mysterious murders and victims with blood stolen (DRACULA), and many prominent shots of beakers and other science equipment (MOM AND DAD).  You know you're in trouble when a horror movie opens with real-time scenes of town meetings.


The actors are all pretty game, but they're working with a script that's dead on the slab.  We don't care about Dr. Otto von Niemann's science lab romance with Ruth Bertin, and we care only a little more about his conviction that these murders are not the work of a vampire.


Another strike against the film is its obvious poverty.  The sets are spartan and you can tell where the budget went because it's pushed into the front of every scene.  This beaker is the Angelina Jolie of 1933.


I'm a pretty big Dwight Frye fan and he gives his usual excellent wacko performance here as Herman, the town's creepy, bat-loving simpleton.  Maybe if the movie had utilized him more often, it would have been stronger.  But, by 1933, people weren't interested in character actors skitzing out and such.  


They wanted to see laboratory equipment and lots of it!


I'm maybe most disappointed that I still haven't seen an A+ Fay Wray performance.  She gets to do a bit more acting here compared to the shrieking thrashing of KING KONG or the breast-centric BLACK MOON, but I'm still not sold on her abilities.  The cast is, as said, fine, but not great enough to overcome VAMPIRE BAT's many flaws.  Not terrible, but nothing special either.


**1/2

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

KING KONG (1933)

Sorry to up and vanish on y'all for a bit, but I was busy with arts & culture.  Regardless, it's now time to mosey along past one giant monster and travel back in time to 1933.   KING KONG is kind of a big deal for aficionados of fantastic cinema.  It's got market penetration in both genre and mainstream circles.  I mean, even your grandmother has heard of KING KONG.   Its place in the history of our beloved cinema is secure, and now I am going to rip on it a little.


First, we assemble the cast of characters.  Rakish filmmaker Carl Denham has built his reputation on films filmed in dangerous locales.  As the film begins, he's loaded a boat with plenty of gas bombs and explosives and is demanding that his underlings find him a woman.  If this were 40 years later, this might be some Hunter S. Thompson trip or end in a video for moms and dads to watch.  But Denham ends up locating Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in the line in front of a soup kitchen.  As seen above, she certainly looks like a girl who's down on her luck.  My favorite incarnation of Ann Darrow, though, is the one on the boat who resembles a Circassian version of Beyonce.


Truthfully, KING KONG is a spectacle movie, not a character movie, and a lot of these early scenes are sort of dry and featureless.  I did love the interaction between Darrow and Denham, especially when Darrow is acting out the part she'll play in Denham's proposed movie.  Very cleverly, the movie gives us tons of Fay Wray cringing and screaming, obv flash-forwards to later, when an ape will take advantage of her.  These scenes are paralleled much sooner, though.  The crew lands on Skull Island in search of a fabled monster called Kong, but end up interrupting a native ceremony.  The natives take a fancy to "golden woman" Darrow and offer to trade six of their women for her.  But Denham turns them down and actually DIRECTS Darrow while she's escaping ("Now look at Jack and smile").  Just superb.


Ann Darrow's a real character in some of the early scenes and shows quite a bit of fire and spunk.  She argues for her right to be aboard the ship and, in a not-that-convincing subplot, she falls for crusty sea salt Jack Driscoll.  But once we get to Skull Island, she quickly loses her agency and, after being kidnapped by Kong, she's basically just a prop (with tits).  Wray's acting entirely entails screaming and thrashing.  It's pretty clear that the actors are taking a back seat to effects at this point (and these effects must have been glorious for the theatergoers of 1933).  1933 was obviously a long time ago, as you will learn when you watch the scenes of menacing island people.


Perhaps not PC, but I dug these scenes.  One, because it actually looks like a mob of people.  We're told at one point that Denham's boat has thrice the normal crew, but they always just look like a couple of people when we see them. Put them on an average sidewalk and there would still be plenty of room.  Not so with the tribe.  Plus they're like the first step in the ladder of menace, clearly dangerous, even if not as destructive as Kong himself.  But, yeah, stereotypes, blah blah blah, although maybe offended people should be more offended at Chinaman Charlie and his lines about "eggs fahr blekfast".


I feel like the Skull Island scenes aren't really what to come to mind when KONG is mentioned.  But they're arguably the best scenes in the movie!  At this point, the movie stops worrying about character and such and just dives deep into outlandish adventure, like a movie version of Allan Quatermain or King Solomon's Mines.  The island is full of DINOSAURS, son!  Lots of which end up battling Kong over rights to beautiful Ann Darrow.  Ann Darrow is the Lisa of Skull Island and everyone wants to marry or eat her or simply rip away sections of her dress.


The effects have earned deservedly high praise.  I actually think the dinos look better than Kong, mostly because dinosaurs don't have millions of individual hairs to worry about, but the titular monster always looks pretty rad, too.  Modern movie-watchers might wince at some of the Claymation-y business when Kong is moving or bodies are falling, but the scenes in which a real Fay Wray is integrated into effects scenes are pretty convincing. 


I also dug the use of expansive sets, which almost dwarf the enormous Kong.  We get some slight issues with scaling and monsters that shrink or grow between scenes, but it's nothing that you can't overlook.  Pretentious dbag critics hadn't been invented in 1933, so there were no blogs full of CLOVERFIELD-style hate for KONG.  If you work to put yourself back into that mindset, these scenes are always pretty fun.


I even liked the goofy Kong kill scenes.  Even giant gorillas aren't carnivorous, I guess, but Kong loves to put dudes into his mouth for a single bite, then give them the big drop to the ground.  It always looks like he's grinning happily when this happens.


In mah opinion, the famed rampage through the city doesn't really have the character of the Skull Island scenes.  Kong attacks monorails and reattacks the immaculate Ann Darrow and it's all quite nice, but not really as compelling as stomping around Skull Island and wrestling T-Rexs.  So, yes, some flaws are visible, but obviously KING KONG is something that you need to watch if you care about cinema of the fantastic.  Arguably the point of origin for giant movie monsters, scream queens, and the Darrow Chemical Company, and it's still pretty fabu.  


***1/2