Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Babadook (2014)

Who's In It: Essie Davis (the Matrix sequels, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, The White Princess) and Noah Wiseman (just this for now).

What It's About: A widow's (Davis) struggle to raise her special needs son (Wiseman) becomes harder when a character from a spooky children's book comes to life in their home.

How It Is: The monster looks great and there are cool, scary moments, but the beauty of the film is that it creates a new monster to represent a modern fear. I know single parents who are raising kids with special needs and/or challenging behaviors. I see just the tiniest part of their struggle and can't imagine how they do what they do. The Babadook doesn't make the "how" part any clearer, but it sure does highlight and underline the impossibility of the job and how much support is desperately needed. Throw a big helping of grief about a deceased spouse on top of that and it's even more powerful. I'll be watching this again and sharing it with others.

Rating: 4 out of 5 monsters under the bed.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Wolf (1994)

Who's In It: Jack Nicholson (The Raven, The Witches of EastwickBatman), Michelle Pfeiffer (The Witches of Eastwick, Batman Returns, Dark Shadows), James Spader (Pretty in Pink, Stargate, Shorts), Kate Nelligan (the Frank Langella Dracula), Richard Jenkins (The Witches of Eastwick, Let Me In, The Cabin in the Woods, Bone Tomahawk), Christopher Plummer (Vampire in Venice, Dracula 2000), David Hyde Pierce (Addams Family Values, Hellboy, The Amazing Screw-On Head), and Ron Rifkin (Alias).

What It's About: An aging, complacent man rediscovers life and purpose when he's bitten by a werewolf.

How It Is: I almost didn't write "werewolf" in the description there, because Wolf makes a point of not using that word. But it's absolutely a werewolf movie and in my (apparently minority) opinion, a really good one.

Wolf came out two years after Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula and five months before Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, so in my mind it completed the trinity of early '90s monster movie remakes. Imagine a House of Dracula with Gary Oldman, Robert De Niro, and Jack Nicholson. I certainly did. But because Universal's Wolf Man wasn't based on a particular novel, there was no source material for Wolf to mess up. And that made it my favorite of the three.

My love of The Wolf Man is based in the tragic relatability of its main character, so that's what I'm always looking for in werewolf movies. Wolf has that, tied into a revenge fantasy about equally relatable problems like losing your job or finding out that people you're close to are unfaithful.

Some of the set up for the revenge fantasy is obvious to the point of being trite, but the cast is so good that I never care. Even hackneyed elements like the ruthless businessman who's acquiring Nicholson's company is made fascinating because Plummer plays him with humor and a wicked twinkle in his eye. And if you're going to have a traitorous best friend, who better to play him than James Spader? And I haven't even mentioned Pfeiffer yet, who's simultaneously butt-kicking and heart-breaking as Plummer's damaged, but resilient daughter.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Old Man Logans.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Teen Wolf (1985)

Who's In It: Michael J Fox (Family Ties, Back to the Future), James Hampton (Hanger 18, Sling Blade), Jerry Levine (Casual Sex?), and Jay Tarses (wrote The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan).

What It's About: An average teenager (Fox) struggles with his identity when he discovers that he's a werewolf.

How It Is: I haven't seen this in years and it wasn't originally on my list for this year either. But after the I Hate/Love Remakes: Wolf Man episode came out, David and I got to talking about werewolf movies and this is one that he's been aware of for a long time, but never seen.

I remembered liking it back in the day, but comparing it unfavorably to Back to the Future which sneaked out ahead of it in 1985. My memory was that I really liked Fox in it (of course), that I also liked his dad (Hampton), and that I loved the twist that the werewolf was an object of popular admiration and not fear. But I also remembered being super irritated by best friend Stiles (Levine) and a little confused about the film's ultimate message.

Seeing it again, I still love Fox and Hampton. I'm not as annoyed by Stiles as I used to be, but that's probably because that kind of character isn't as ubiquitous these days as he was in the '80s. I still love the twist of the werewolf's popularity, too. That first public transformation during the basketball game is so great, because the way that Scott (Fox) handles it and then the crowd's reaction is completely unexpected.

With age, though, I think I have a better handle now on what the werewolf represents. As a high school student myself when Teen Wolf came out, I thought it was awesome that everyone accepted the Wolf in all his oddity. This was a big theme for me growing up and it's the reason that I feel such deep connections to characters like Chewbacca, Worf, and the Frankenstein Monster. Teen Wolf was another example of that, so I didn't love it when characters like Boof and Lewis made Scott feel bad about embracing his uniqueness. And I didn't love it even more when Scott basically rejects the Wolf at the end. Scott had previously lamented his "average"-ness, which I interpreted as "normality" and "fitting in." I didn't get why he would go back to that, but I was bringing my own hang-ups to the story.

I still feel strongly about resisting conformity, but those feelings are deeply embedded at this point and don't dominate my thinking. Because I don't actively wrestle with them these days, I was able to watch Teen Wolf this time from a different point of view that made me appreciate its message more. Instead of being about general non-conformity, this time the Wolf was about being "special." That is, it's not so much about being "different" from everyone else as it is about being "better." I think that's pretty clear in Scott's language. He doesn't want to be an "okay" basketball player, he wants to be an exceptional one.

With that in mind, I like the movie's message much more. There's a price to pay for being The Best. Some, like Lewis and Mick, fear the exceptional. Others, like Stiles and Pamela, want to exploit it.  It's Boof who has the perspective that Scott ultimately adopts for himself. She already likes him as he is. He doesn't need to be exceptional or the best at something to have value. That's an important and underheard message and it makes me really like the movie.

As a grown-up, I hope that Scott one day adopts his dad's perspective, which is to embrace his gifts responsibly. Teenagers aren't exactly known for balance though, so until Scott's able to do that, I'm thrilled that he's learned to like himself in the meantime.

Rating: 4 out of 5 shaggy shooters.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Army of Darkness (1992)

Who's In It: Bruce Campbell (Escape from LA, Xena: Warrior Princess, Bubba Ho-Tep), Embeth Davidtz (Schindler's List, Thir13en Ghosts, The Amazing Spider-Man), and Ted Raimi (everything, and yet not enough stuff).

What It's About: After being sent to the fourteenth century at the end of Evil Dead 2, Ash (Campbell) agrees to fight demons in exchange for a way back to his own time.

How It Is: Differentiates itself from the previous two movies by toning down the horror and ramping the comedy way, way up into full camp and slapstick. Ash is no longer supposed to be relateable; he's now a cartoon and I love it that way. Army of Darkness is an on-the-cheap fantasy movie (with horror elements) from the guys who would go on to bring us Hercules and Xena. And Bruce Campbell is at the absolute top of his game. It's super fun and super funny.

Rating: 4 out 5 boom sticks.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Guest Post | Manly Wade Wellman's Hok the Mighty

By GW Thomas

Prehistoric fiction began almost as soon as Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. A lot of this early fiction seems silly in light of our current theories and archaeological discoveries, but some remains readable. HG Wells is one of these writers. He wasn't the first to pen a romance that included neanderthals, but he was certainly one of the most influential.

Wells' first try was called "A Story of the Stone Age" (1897). It doesn't feature any neanderthals, but is a tale of a rivalry between Uya and Ugh-lomi for the girl Eudena. This story was followed by the more important (if much shorter) "The Grisly Folk" (The Storyteller, April 1921). It is this one that I believe more likely inspired the pulp Stone Age tales such as Robert E Howard’s first sale, “Spear and Fang” and Manly Wade Wellman's Hok the Mighty series. Unlike "A Story of the Stone Age," "The Grisly Folk" is not expanded out in a full narrative, but reads more like an outline for a series of stories (an outline that Wellman gladly fills in). Wells postulates a small band of human hunters pressed north by competition and how they would survive against the grisly folk. He also tells how the neanderthals would become rarer and were the basis of the troll and ogre stories of childhood. Many of the elements in Wellman's first few Hok tales come right out of Wells's sketch. As with so much pulp SF, Wells is the wellspring.

Battle in the Dawn: The Complete Hok the Mighty from Paizo Press collects all of the Hok saga nicely. I love Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John and Kardios stories, as well as the horror tales he did for Weird Tales. I am also a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, so this book seemed a natural. Wellman attempts something different than the fantastic Stone Age inspired by Burroughs, trying to remain scientifically plausible and avoiding dinosaurs (at first anyway). The Hok tales don't really remind me of Pellucidar so much as another book written many years later: Jim Kjelgaard's Fire Hunter (1951) with a realistic (for the time) portrayal of primitive man. The conflict is humans versus neanderthals, and considering recent genetic evidence, Wellman's tale of war could be fairly accurate. I suppose I should have become a Jean Auel fan, but Wellman's style of adventure appeals more to me. (That, and he didn't write 600-pagers.)

The first Hok story is "Battle in the Dawn" (Amazing Stories, January 1939). The plot is pretty simple. Hok and his band come to a land rich in game, but encounter the local neanderthals (known as Gnorrls). After stealing one of their winter homes, Hok swells their ranks by venturing south and finding a bride. He also saves her brother who has been captured by the Gnorrls so they can steal the human secret of making and using javelins. In the end, the small human band must face an army of a thousand neanderthals, which they defeat at great cost. The story is savage, unforgiving, and realistically brutal. Only the wooing of Oloana reminded me a little of ERB, and that in a very truncated form. The romance element also reminded me of Howard Browne's "Warrior of the Dawn" (Amazing Stories, December 1942). Did Wellman as well as Burroughs inspire Browne?

Wellman continued his series with "Hok Goes to Atlantis" (Amazing Stories, December 1939) where the caveman sees many wonders. He also runs afoul of Cos, the perverse king, and has the beautiful Maie fall in love with him. But Hok doesn't abandon Oloana for the queen. As with all love triangles, this is bad news for somebody: Maie. She dies in a bloody battle; a warrior's death for a warrior queen. Of course, it all ends with Tlantis sinking into the ocean and the legend starting. Wellman would use the other end of things with his Kardios series; he being the last survivor of the disaster (which through implication, he was also responsible for on some level). Also, I see how the Tlaneans may have inspired Howard Browne's civilized characters in Warrior of the Dawn, which appeared in Amazing three years later. Finished with the adventure, but richer in knowledge, Hok turns his back on such modern ideas as riding horses, using gunpowder, bronze weaponry, and feudal society. He prefers his simple caveman ways. He does keep a club with a gigantic diamond head, though.

What drew me to this story in particular was the suggestion that the Hok stories were sword-and-sorcery. This tale is probably the closest with a bronze-age society in it, but I would disagree with anyone who calls it sword-and-sorcery. First off, there is no real magic. The Tlanteans have gunpowder, which destroys them along with a volcano. The god they worship is Ghirann the Many-Legged, a giant octopus that Hok kills in a good fight scene. This kraken battle would be co-opted into other sword-and-sorcery tales such as John Jakes' Hell-Arms in the Brak series (and numerous Marvel Conan and Kull comics), though Hok's octopus is by no means the first in adventure/fantasy fiction.

The Hok series - and this particular story - is the outsider-comes-to-a-lost civilization story that started likely with HR Haggard (Allan Quatermain in particular) and then got recycled through Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan. Tarzan did go to Opar (at least three times) as well as a city of gold, a city of ant men, a city of Romans, and another of Aztecs. The Korak comics from DC were also of this ilk, with Korak visiting a different lost city each issue. One was even the underwater remains of Atlantis. The noble outsider almost always starts a rebellion that ends with his friends taking over. Hok was no different except that only he survived the whole mess.

The third installment of Hok the Mighty may be my favorite: "Hok Draws The Bow" (Amazing Stories, May 1940). The plot involves the coming of Romm, an evil-doer in the tradition of Hoojah the Slay-One from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Pellucidar series. Like Hoojah, Romm can speak the language of Hok's enemies and sets himself up as a god of the Gnorrls. He has invented the spear-thrower and also understands military strategy. He takes on Hok in a spear-throwing contest and makes it obvious he wants Hok's wife, Oloana. The Gnorrls kill many of Hok's people and drive the survivors away. In desperation, Hok takes his bow and goes after Romm with only his wife beside him. The ending is exciting and pure pulp.

The invention of the bow is part of Jim Kjelgaard's Fire Hunter too. Both stories try to imagine how new weapons and tools are invented. The invention of the bow predates history, so anybody could be right. Arrowheads from 64,000 years ago have been discovered, so Wellman is certainly well within the right range. If neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago, that would set these stories just before then, because I don't see the Gnorrls being around for much longer in the Hok sequels.

A little extra with this issue of Amazing was Manly Wade Wellman's bio. The Paizo book includes it as well. What makes this so special is that it appeared before the Silver John stories and is the Wellman who was largely known as an SF writer.

A shorter and less impressive tale, "Hok and the Gift of Heaven" (Amazing Stories, March 1941) is still a pretty good read. Hok and his tribesmen are in the middle of a battle with the fisher folk when a meteorite falls on the battlefield. Hok is knocked unconscious and wakes to discover molten metal from the space rock. He uses this to create the first sword, which he names Widow-Maker. After the battle, Djoma and his fisher folk take Oloana and Ptao, Hok's wife and son. Hok follows the band back to the ocean and their village, which is built on stilts out in the water. Hok must face sharks and fight a battle against great odds that ends with him and his loved ones about to be sacrificed. Only a sudden surprise for the sword-wielding Djoma saves them. In the end, Hok gives up his sword and goes back to stone-age weapons. Wellman does a nice job of pitting Hok's Shining One (the Sun) against Djoma's sea-god in their arguments, perhaps the first theological disagreement of prehistory?

The final entry in the Hok saga is the longest, "Hok Visits the Land of Legend." Unlike the earlier installments, this one appeared not in Amazing Stories, but in Fantastic Adventures, April 1942. In this last tale, Hok is bored with the challenges of a hunter and decides to go after a mammoth on his own. He builds a giant bow and shoots a giant arrow into Gragru's chest, but the mammoth does not die. Hok follows his prey to a secret valley where the mammoths go to die. Here he is attacked by pterodactyls (at last! dinosaurs!) and fights and kills one in a fight reminiscent of Tarzan's visit to Pellucidar in 1929.

Then he discovers what he calls an elephant-pig (Dinoceras ingens) or Rmanth. The beast is devouring his dead mammoth. Hok shoots two arrows into the beast, but must flee into the trees. There he is saved by a voice from inside the tree. He enters a hole to find the tree hollow and inhabited by a man-like creature of slender build with prehensile feet. His name is Soko. He takes Hok to the village in the trees. (Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs may have inspired this, but Wellman's own upbringing in Africa is more likely.) The village is ruled by a tyrant named Krol who keeps the people under sway by allowing the pterodactyls (or Stymphs) to rule the tops of the trees, and the Rmanth to hold the ground. Hok fights the beasts and defeats the tyrant, leading to the legends of Hercules.

What struck me most about this tale was, first off, how far Wellman wandered from Wells' original, inspiring "The Grisly Folk," and how he made the series his own. Also, the basic plot set-up of this story is a dry-run for his classic John the Balladeer tale "O, Ugly Bird!" (F&SF, December 1951) in which a sorcerer uses a flying familiar to terrorize a rural community. Wellman liked stories in which a wandering hero (be he John or Kardios or Hok) comes to a troubled place and prevails. It is also a dry-run for The Last Mammoth (1953), a juvenile adventure novel about a friend of Davy Crockett's who goes to a far Indian village to kill a mammoth that is terrorizing them.

Thus ends the Hok series, with Hok keeping the hidden valley a secret; returning to his people to live out his days in more fantastic adventures that would come down to us as the tales of heroes from Hercules to Beowulf.

There is one other story that lies close to the Hok series, "The Day of the Conquerers" (Thrilling Wonder Stories, January 1940), appearing after the first two Hok stories. In this science fiction tale, Martians armed with death rays and robots come to Earth to take over the planet. They are faced with an able opponent in Naku (or Lone Hunt), one of the Flint People. Since he is armed with a bow, the story must take place chronologically after Hok's life, for Hok invented the weapon and he makes no reference to alien invaders. So, Naku is one of Hok's descendants and a worthy warrior and cunning fighter.

The Paizo volume includes this story along with a one-page fragment of an unfinished Hok story and an unpublished tale called "The Love of Oloana." Most of this story was incorporated into "Battle in the Dawn." The introduction by David Drake adds a nice explanation of Wellman's youth in Africa. All-in-all, Battle in the Dawn: The Complete Hok the Mighty is a Wellman or pulp fan's dream and a completist's treasure.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)

Who's In It: Bruce Campbell (The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, Jack of All TradesBurn Notice), Sarah Berry (CHUD II: Bud the Chud), Dan Hicks (My Name is Bruce), Kassie Wesley (One Life to Live, Days of Our Lives), and Richard Domeier (Teen Wolf, Die Hard 2).

What It's About: Remakequel of Evil Dead, retelling and retconning the events of the first movie before continuing the story of a young man's (Campbell) experience in a demon-infested cabin in the demon-infested woods.

How It Is: I'm not crazy about the first Evil Dead and this one does me the favor of making its predecessor unnecessary. It not only retells the basic story; it also takes what works about the original - pretty much just the creative camerawork - and adds a ton of humor to it.

It's crazy to me that Raimi's approach to horror/comedy even works, much less works so well. He doesn't add jokes to lighten the mood, he just takes horrific situations and makes them funny. But he does it without losing what's also disturbing about them. So while the decapitated head of Ash's girlfriend is chomping down on his hand and he can't get it off, I'm simultaneously laughing and feeling terrible for the guy. Same when he's cutting off his own hand with a chainsaw.

That also has a lot to do with Bruce Campbell's skill as an actor and a comedian. I'm a huge fan and this is the movie that made me one.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn't nearly as good, but then... who is? They're all at least serviceable and if nothing else, they remind me how low-budget and super-independent Evil Dead 2 actually is.

Rating: 4 out of 5 unhinged Ashes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

I Hate/Love Remakes | The Wolf Man

Speaking of Universal Monster movies, a few years ago I joined my buddy Noel Thingvall and his co-host Evie as a guest on their I Hate/Love Remakes podcast. It's a great idea for a podcast and I was thrilled to join them to talk about the 1941 Wolf Man and its 2010 remake.

Since it was designed to be the sequel to a Mummy discussion that was delayed for technical issues, the Wolf Man episode was "lost" for a while. But Noel overcame the difficulties around the Mummy episode and has released it and the Wolf Man in perfect time for Halloween.

I've listened to it again and it's a great discussion. We dug deep into those movies and I'm super happy with how it turned out. It's no wonder that I wanted to work with Noel again, which led to his appearance on Mystery Movie Night and the eventual creation of Greystoked and Thundarr Road. It all started here.

The Monster Squad (1987)

Who's In It: André Gower (Valerie), Duncan Regehr (Zorro on the '90s TV show), Stephen Macht (Nikolas Rokoff in Tarzan: The Epic Adventures), Stan Shaw (Rocky, Fried Green Tomatoes), and Tom Noonan (Manhunter).

What It's About: A gang of bicycle-riding '80s kids fights to prevent classic Universal Monsters from destroying the amulet that's preventing them from ruling the world.

How It Is: The main group of kids is largely forgettable. Neither their leader Sean (Gower) nor his best friend Patrick (Robby Kiger) have any charisma and it was irritating that they referred to their friend Horace (Brent Chalem) as "Fat Kid" for most of the movie. And I never did figure out why tough kid Rudy (Ryan Lambert) hung out with them.

The only ones I really liked were Sean's little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank) and scaredy cat Eugene (Michael Faustino, who's the little brother of Married... With Children's David Faustino). Phoebe is basically a less-tragic version of little Maria from the 1931 Frankenstein, which Monster Squad directly references a couple of times. Eugene doesn't have a lot to do, but his reactions are priceless; especially in a hilarious scene where he tries to convince his dad (Ernest Saves Christmas' awesome Robert Lesser) that there's a monster in the closet.

But even though most of the gang is bland, the movie's improved by pitting them against an all-star gathering of monsters. Dracula (Regehr) leads them and is the brains of the outfit. In fact, he's the only one with any personality at all. I guess that's not surprising considering the nature of the Wolf Man (Carl Thibault), the Mummy (Michael MacKay) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Tom Woodruff Jr, though the character's simply known as the Gill Man, since Monster Squad wasn't released by Universal). It would have been nice to give Dracula maybe one other, intelligent monster to interact with - the Phantom of the Opera or Mr Hyde, maybe - but I'm not dinging the movie for that. These are the heavy hitters and they work best by just mindlessly chasing the kids around.

I haven't mentioned Frankenstein's Monster (Noonan) yet, but he's especially great. True to the character, he melts when he meets the brave and compassionate Phoebe, so he switches sides and starts helping the kids. That's the Monster I want to see and it's lovely that the movie gets him right.

Monster Squad was written by Shane Black and Fred Dekker (who also directed), and it's clear that they have a lot of love for the old Universal movies. From the opening scene, which put armadillos in Dracula's crypt, I knew I was in good hands.

I wish that the main kids were more fun, but the concept itself and the love with which it's handled makes The Monster Squad an above-average example of its genre.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 monster gangs

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Dracula (1979)

Who's In It: Frank Langella (Masters of the Universe, Superman Returns, Muppets Most Wanted), Laurence Olivier (Rebecca, Clash of the Titans), Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween, Escape from New York), and Kate Nelligan (Wolf, US Marshals).

What It's About: The Hamilton Deane/John Balderston play gets a gothic update with extra focus on Dracula's (Langella) powers of seduction.

How It Is: Let's get the movie's big problem out of the way first and that's Dracula's costume. He looks like he's wearing a white turtleneck with a vampire cape from the Halloween aisle at Target. But there ain't nothing wrong with Langella's performance and he may just be my favorite Dracula outside of Max Schreck, who possibly doesn't count (pun totally intended). Langella is good-looking, suave, and charming and I believe it when people fall under his spell. (His hair is too poofy to be believable in the nineteenth century, but oh well.)

The rest of the cast is good, too. I've read somewhere that Pleasance was offered the role of Van Helsing, but turned it down because it was too similar to Dr Loomis in Halloween. I agree and I'm extremely happy with him as Dr Seward: a monster hunter, but sort of a reluctant one and certainly not the obsessed pursuer that Loomis and Van Helsing are.

Speaking of Van Helsing, Olivier disappears into that role. He's doing a convincing (to my ears, anyway) Dutch accent and his facial hair threw me off so that I had to actually go and remind myself who was playing him.

Kate Nelligan brings some extra gravity to her role as Lucy. For some reason (that I'll have thoughts about in a second), Mina and Lucy are switched in this version, so that Mina is Dracula's first victim and Lucy is the one whom everyone's trying to save for the rest of the story. Because the movie is playing up the seduction angle, Lucy doesn't try to resist in the same way that Mina does in the novel. Instead, she's intrigued by the gorgeous count and starts to fall for him, even though she suspects that something's not quite right. It's more similar to real-life romantic attraction than the novel or the Lugosi film are with their emphasis on Dracula's supernatural will. In the '79 movie, Dracula exerts power, but Nelligan plays Lucy more or less as a woman who's heart and head are telling her different things. I believed her falling under his spell much more than I do in other adaptations.

About the switching of Lucy with Mina: It annoyed me at first, because I didn't see the point, but as the movie went on, I started to see how it affected the characters of Van Helsing and Dr Seward in a powerful way. Like in other adaptations, Lucy is Dr Seward's daughter, but in this one, Mina is actually Van Helsing's daughter. So when Van Helsing arrives in England too late to save his own girl, it adds a layer of tragedy and motivation to have him trying to save the daughter of his friend. Pleasence adds to this by being pretty helpless in the whole affair, while Olivier is acting the crap out of his failure to protect Mina and his determination to not let the same thing happen to Lucy.

Describing it that way makes it seem like Lucy's story is subservient to Van Helsing and Seward's, but the movie is concerned about them all. I felt the stakes (pun intended again) in a way that's pretty rare for Dracula adaptations.

Rating: 4 out of 5 sessy vampires.

Hellbent for Letterbox | The Outrage (1964)

Pax and I are joined by our pal Evan Hanson to discuss The Outrage, a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Rashômon, starring Paul Newman, William Shatner, and Edward G Robinson.

And in "Whatchoo Been Westernin'": Grit TV (feat. Death Valley Days), a comics adaptation of True Grit, and Jeff Bridges in Wild Bill.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Who's In It: Virginia Vincent (The Million Dollar Duck), Suze Lanier-Bramlett (Chrissy in one of the unaired pilots for Three's Company), Dee Wallace (ET: The Extra-Terrestrial), and Michael Berryman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Weird Science, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home).

What It's About: A family is stranded in the desert where they have to fend off another family... of cannibals!

How It Is: I've avoided this one for a long time. I love scary movies, but I'm not crazy about gore and The Hills Have Eyes has a reputation for being especially gruesome. But it happens a lot where I've built something up so much in my mind (for instance, the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan) that the actual movie isn't nearly as bad as I imagined.

I mean, The Hills Have Eyes is certainly harrowing, but it doesn't linger on the gore the way I expected and a lot of it is shot at night with shadows obscuring details. And so much of the movie is about the threat of certain things happening. Some of them do happen and some of them don't, but I was surprised by how much focus is on suspense rather than just one horrible thing happening after another.

Another pleasant surprise was how much I liked most of the characters. The dad played by Russ Grieve is obnoxious, but I liked almost everyone else in the family. And if I didn't like them at first, they all had moments throughout the ordeal that made me like them by the end. Even if they don't all make it all the way through.

Which reminds me of something else cool. When it comes to these kinds of movies with large casts of potential victims, part of the fun is predicting who's going to die and how soon. It was very cool to see my predictions swerved around and run over. The film constantly kept me guessing; constantly pulling acts of heroism out of unlikely people; sometimes rewarding them for it and sometimes not. I had a really great time.

Rating: 4 out of 5 porn-star-looking family men.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Vampyres (1974)

Who's In It: Marianne Morris (Lovebox), Anulka (Lisztomania), Murray Brown (Jonathan Harker in the Jack Palance Dracula), Brian Deacon (Jesus), and Sally Faulkner (who helped the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie fight some Cybermen in "The Invasion").

What It's About: A couple (Deacon and Faulkner) park their RV on the lawn of an old mansion that's inhabited by two vampires (Morris and Anulka) who lure motorists (like Brown) there for sex and... well, not so much blood-sucking as blood-licking.

How It Is: For a movie about sexy vampires, Vampyres is pretty unsexy. All the women in it get naked at various points, but director Joseph Larraz seems to think that's all that matters. None of the sex is at all romantic and most of it's super clumsy. Morris is an especially awful kisser who's all about the pecking and the licking, but everyone is just attacking each other in the make-out scenes. And not in a good way.

The movie's not all about the sex, but the other parts aren't much more skillful. I don't understand why John and Harriet decide that the lawn of a clearly inhabited mansion - with cars driving up to it every night - is a good place to camp. I do like them as characters, thanks to some nice acting by Deacon and Faulkner, but there's not a lot of sense to their being there or getting involved in the vampires' business.

And with John and Harriet on the periphery of the goings on, that leaves the motorist Ted (Brown) as the audience surrogate. Ted's the first person we see brought into Fran and Miriam's web and for some reason, Fran takes a liking to him. Maybe because he's as bad a kisser as she is. Whatever the reason, she keeps him around for most of the movie. I think I'm supposed to care about whether he makes it out alive or not, but the movie tells me nothing about him and Brown's performance is just sort of cranky and sulky. Don't like Ted. Don't care if he dies.

The one thing I do unreservedly like about the movie is the introduction of Fran and Miriam. John and Harriet notice Fran hitchhiking (that's how she gets her prey) and Harriet sees Miriam back in the woods, just lurking. That raises all kinds of questions in Harriet's mind, but John blows it off. It brought me into the mystery, too, especially with the cool, gothy outfits that Fran and Miriam were wearing. Unfortunately, none of the answers are remotely as interesting as that set up.

Rating: 1 out of 5 vampire women running through cemeteries.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Wicker Man (1973)

Who's In It: Edward Woodward (TV's Equalizer, the best Ghost of Christmas Present ever), Britt Ekland (The Man with the Golden Gun), Diane Cilento (Hombre), Ingrid Pitt (The Vampire Lovers, Countess Dracula), and Christopher Lee (The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula).

What It's About: A straight-laced, tightly wound policeman (Woodward) investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a remote island where the local sensualism is not at all to his liking.

How It Is: Unfortunately, watching The Wicker Man for the first time without already knowing the final scene is about as hard as doing the same for Planet of the Apes. I very much liked Woodward's investigation and his stuffy disapproval of Summerisle's mores, but my enjoyment was tempered by my knowing exactly how things were going to end up.

It was a journey worth taking though. I don't end up liking any of the characters, but I don't exactly dislike them, either. Woodward's Sgt Howie is irritatingly judgmental, but he's also a good man on an honorable mission and his resistance of vice doesn't come easily to him. The villagers, on the other hand, have controversial moral views that would be considered illegal in most countries (including, technically, their own), but they're so good-natured about it. And if the whole community has bought in to this set of rules, then who is Howie to come in and question them?

Except of course that someone has written to the police, prompting Howie's investigation, so clearly everyone has not bought into all the community's practices. The movie raises fascinating questions about morality and culture and I appreciated exploring and thinking about them. (Almost as much as I enjoyed the soundtrack, which is amazing. The maypole song alone is worth watching the film for.)

Rating: 4 out of 5 Christopher Lees in drag.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)

Who's In It: Pamela Franklin (The Food of the Gods), Roddy McDowall (the original Planet of the Apes movies and TV show), Clive Revill (the original Emperor in The Empire Strikes Back), and Gayle Hunnicutt (Marlowe).

What It's About: Four paranormal investigators try to survive a haunted house in order to unlock the secrets of the afterlife.

How It Is: I'm surprised that I don't love more haunted house movies, but I think the problem is generally the characters. This one has a great-looking house, a pretty good mystery, and some spooky scares, but I only really feel anything for one of the characters.

I like the set-up that each investigator has their own area of expertise. Florence Tanner (Franklin) is a medium who specializes in channeling voices. Benjamin Fischer (McDowall) is adept at letting spirits take over his body and act through him. Lionel Barrett (Revill) is a scientist who attempts to measure ghostly phenomena so that he can get rid of it with the exorcism machine he's invented. His wife Ann (Hunnicutt) is also his assistant and she insists on coming along in spite of the deadly history of the house.

Fischer is the most reluctant of the group. He's the only survivor of a previous expedition into the house and has closed himself off psychically. That should make him a fascinating character, but he actually ends up making the house less spooky. Early in the film, it's his job to tell the other characters how deadly the house is, which of course makes me wonder why he's there. The team is being paid extremely well, but why does Fischer think that's worth his life? I end up thinking that the house can't be as bad as all that.

And that turns out to be true when, later, Fischer reveals that he's figured out a way to game the ghost. (It's not played as a shocking revelation; just a bit of information that he's been withholding for no good reason.) The fact that there's a safe loophole in the haunting again makes the whole thing less scary. The only thing keeping the story going is that the other characters either don't know what he knows or care.

Tanner is too trusting of the house and her own abilities for me to take her seriously. And Lionel Barrett is so distrusting and cranky that I don't like him, either. But I do like Ann, who knows that she's going into a dangerous situation, but loves and trusts her husband enough to follow him into it. She's the only character to strike the right balance between being threatened by the place and having a convincing reason to stay.

Rating: 3 out of 5 shook up psychics.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Octaman (1971)

Who's In It: Pier Angeli (Sodom and Gomorrah) and Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Barquero)

What It's About: It's a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake with an octopus-man instead of a gill-man.

How It Is: It has its charms. I mean, the goofy costume (designed by Rick Baker) alone.

And Angeli is a lovely surprise as one of the scientists who discover and hunt the creature. All the dialogue in the movie sounds dubbed except for hers. I don't know why that is, but her character is the only one that feels natural. And her accent (the story takes place in Mexico) is the only one that doesn't sound like Speedy Gonzales.

There are a couple of other good actors (bad ADR aside), including Mathews (a favorite swashbuckler of mine who's slumming here just a year after his thoroughly enjoyable role in Barquero).

Another guy I liked was Jerome Guardino as a circus owner who finances the hunting expedition after the scientific community fails to come through. Rather than fall into the stereotype of Ruthless Businessman Driven to Succeed at All Costs, Guardino's character is one of the first to lose his nerve and has to be convinced by the scientists to continue.

And speaking of avoided stereotypes, I also quite like what the movie does with Davido (David Essex), a local guide who proves to be quite resourceful and courageous.

For all that I liked some of the characters and the look of the monster though, the movie plods. There's little editing, so shots and scenes drag on longer than they should. And the script pads itself out by just repeating the same attacks over and over again in different locations.

Rating: 2 out of 5 tentacled tellurians.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Witchfinder General (1968)

Who's In It: Vincent Price (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Gene Kelly Three Musketeers), Ian Ogilvy (Return of the Saint TV show), Robert Russell (Doctor Who: "Terror of the Zygons), and Hilary Dwyer (The Oblong Box, Cry of the Banshee)

What It's About: A young soldier (Ogilvy) seeks revenge against the witchfinders (Price and Russell) who murdered his friend (Rupert Davies) and raped his fiancée (Dwyer).

How It Is: It's Price in a completely despicable role, so automatically there's a hurdle. But on top of that, the amount of abuse piled on top of Sara (Dwyer) is so much that I found myself wondering what the point is. If I give it the benefit of the doubt and decide that the movie isn't just using torture for entertainment, I decide that Witchfinder General is the equivalent of War is Hell pictures where the whole point is to reveal the horror of its historical situation in a manner direct and unflinching enough that it shocks viewers out of complacency. That's a noble goal, but it doesn't make me like those movies.

Everyone is very good in their roles and Ogilvy is particularly good as the handsome and noble Richard. I love his response when he finds out what's happened to Sara. His reaction is complicated, but it's a complicated situation and I would have equally believed any of several possible attitudes he might have taken. That he picks the most compassionate and admirable one makes me like him even more.

Not to sideline Sara and how she processes these events. I'm just saving the best for last, because Dwyer is the MVP of the film. She doesn't have much - if any - agency in the story, but that's exactly the film's point about the experience of 17th century women in Britain. Richard may get to take action, but the movie is not a revenge fantasy. It's a horror movie, because it keeps coming back to Sara's point of view. Dwyer is relatable and lovable and what happens to her all through the movie is heartbreaking and terrifying. That makes Witchfinder General a really tough movie to watch, but it's completely effective in what it's trying to do.

Sidenote: It's amusing to me that Witchfinder General was renamed The Conqueror Worm when it was released in the US, purely to cash in on the success of the Price/Poe/Corman films from earlier in the decade. Roger Corman wasn't involved in Witchfinder General and Poe's poem "The Conqueror Worm" has no bearing on the movie (although it is related to The Tomb of Ligeia, since Poe had republished it in the source story for that movie as the creation of the Ligeia character).

Rating: 3 out of 5 Hilary Dwyers.

The Green Slime (1968)

Who's In It: Robert Horton (Wagon Train), Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball), and Richard Jaeckel (the original 3:10 to Yuma)

What It's About: It's Armageddon meets Alien as a crew of astronauts blow up an asteroid headed toward Earth, but bring a horrible monster back with them to their space station base.

How It Is: Delightful! The screenplay is by Batman's co-creator Bill Finger and it's full of imagination and wild ideas. The effects are charmingly goofy, the models of the ships are wonderfully retro-futuristic, and the theme song by Richard Delvy would belong in a Bond film if it wasn't about, you know, Green Slime.

I still don't love the movie though, because the contentious, central relationship between the rival space station commanders (Horton and Jaeckel) doesn't really go anywhere. Horton's Jack Rankin is a no-nonsense tough guy who's willing to sacrifice people to succeed at a larger mission. Jaeckel's Vince Elliott is compassionate to the point of being seen as weak by his superiors and Rankin. They're basically Spock and McCoy with no Kirk to mediate between them. Paluzzi's Dr Lisa Benson tries to bring peace, but she doesn't have the authority to really keep them in line, so they just end up fighting over her.

It's a good set up; it just never resolves super well. Benson claims to love Elliott, but of course she's actually into Rankin because it's the '60s and he's the alpha male. And I kept expecting some kind of situation to occur where one or the other (or both) of the men's ideologies were tested, but that never happened. They come to a resolution about their relationship, but not because they actually have to work through anything.

Still, the rest of the movie is so fun that it's become a new, cheesy favorite.

Rating: 4 out of 5 electric swamp cyclopes.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The X from Outer Space (1967)

Who's In It: Eiji Okada (The Ugly American), Shun'ya Wazaki (Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades), Itoko Harada (Let's Go! Kôkô Lemon Musume), and Peggy Neal (The Terror Beneath the Sea)

What It's About: An Earth spaceship to Mars encounters a UFO that lays an egg-spore-thingy on the earth ship's hull. Back on Earth, the egg-spore-thingy grows into a giant space chicken that terrorizes Tokyo.

How It Is: Dumb Godzilla ripoff with an equally dumb love triangle that resolves as poorly as the monster threat itself.

On the other hand, it's got a fantastic score of groovy '60s music and I kind of love the spaceship and moonbase models and sets.

Rating: 2 out of 5 giant space chickens.

Night Fright (1967)

Who's In It: John Agar (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula)

What It's About: A monster stalks the woods near a small town college campus.

How It Is: Below average example of the teen-focused monster movies of the time period. My print is crappy, so I couldn't even really see the creature. I'll have to take the DVD cover's word for it that it looked that cool.

Not that the movie cares that much about the monster. It's got the dumbest of origins and the movie is much more interested in teenagers, extended sequences (SO extended) of their dancing, and the drama of who's going to go hang out at the lake. When anyone does think about the monster, it's one bad decision after another.

Rating: 2 out of 5 bored teenagers. I know how they feel.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Reptile (1966)

Who's In It: Noel Willman (The Kiss of the Vampire), Ray Barrett (Thunderbirds), Jennifer Daniel (The Kiss of the Vampire), and Jacqueline Pearce (Blake's 7)

What It's About: A married couple (Barrett and Daniel) move into a quiet village after the husband's brother dies mysteriously and horribly, discolored and foaming at the mouth. They discover that he's not the only local to die that way and resolve to get to the bottom of it.

How It Is: I'm glad I didn't see the movie's poster before watching, because dang that spoils the big surprise. I quite enjoyed the mystery of Harry and Valerie's looking into the deaths and especially the cool tavern owner (Michael Ripper) who helps them because it's the right thing to do even though most of the village is looking the other way. And there are some creepy suspects like the sinister Dr Franklyn (Willman) who's way overprotective of his daughter (Pearce) and the Malay servant (Marne Maitland) who's always silently lurking around. Again, just reading the poster will let you know exactly what's going on, but not knowing makes it a fun story.

Unfortunately, once the mystery is solved the movie gets crazy and loses me, but up to then it's a great, atmospheric chiller.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stippled stiffs.

The Tomb of Ligeia (1964)

Who's In It: Vincent Price (The Invisible Man Returns, Laura) and Elizabeth Shepherd (Damien: Omen II, the 90s Silver Surfer cartoon).

What It's About: A new bride (Shepherd) begins to fear that she may be possessed by the spirit of her husband's (Price) first wife (also played by Shepherd): a woman who claimed that her will was too strong to let her die.

How It Is: It was cool to watch this so soon after rewatching Rebecca since both are about women trying to overcome the ghosts of their husbands' former wives. Only in The Tomb of Ligeia, the ghost is potentially literal.

I'd heard that Ligeia is the masterpiece of the Corman/Price/Poe series and I can see why. It's a strong story, well shot and acted in a fantastic location, with some great, creepy moments throughout. One of my favorites is a scene when the red-haired Rowena is brushing her hair and finds Ligeia's black hairs in the brush. And then there's the creepy, black cat that stalks the mansion and really doesn't like Rowena very much.

It's also cool that Price's character has enough complexity to keep me interested. Like I said before, I really don't like it when his characters are purely evil and this one oscillates between concern for Rowena and captivated by Ligeia. He's unpredictable and I dig rooting for him to overcome Ligeia's influence.

Rating: 3 out of 5 photophobic fellows.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Who's In It: Vincent Price (Tower of London, The Hollywood Squares), Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, The Raven), and Jane Asher (The Prince and the Pauper, Alfie)

What It's About: A sadistic prince (Price) offers his castle as sanctuary from a brutal plague to other nobles willing to obey his every whim. But when he also includes and begins to seduce a young village girl (Asher), his current romance (Court) starts a scheme of her own.

How It Is: I've said before that I prefer film noir Vincent Price to horror Vincent Price. I should rephrase that, but it's movies like Masque of the Red Death that make me think it. I quite enjoyed him in The Raven and The Haunted Palace, because those roles gave him a chance to be funny, or at least complicated. In Masque, he's pure abomination and while he's good at that, I get tired of it quickly. Turns out, I want to like Vincent Price, even when he's eeeevil.

Masque is a great-looking movie though. Especially compared to other, cheaper Corman films I've seen, but I don't need to set it next to those to see its beauty. It makes glorious use of color in the castle decor and in the crimson, plague-heralding specter that gives the movie its name.

The story is compelling, too; I just don't especially like any of the characters. Francesca (Asher) is particularly frustrating, because I start off liking her, but Prospero (Price) leads her through a seduction and transformation that should be fascinating, but turns out unconvincing.

Rating: 3 out of 5 rainbow revenants.

The Haunted Palace (1963)

Who's In It: Vincent Price (House of Wax, House of Usher), Debra Paget (Anne of the Indies, The Indian Tomb), and Lon Chaney Jr (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, High Noon)

What It's About: A married couple (Price and Paget) move into the estate of the husband's ancestors, but the ghost of the last owner isn't done with the place yet... and also has plans for his descendant.

How It Is: Spoilers for my opinion of some of the Corman/Price/Poe movies I watched after this, but The Haunted Palace is my favorite of them. Ironically, though, it's not really a Poe movie at all. The Haunted Palace is just a Poe title slapped on an HP Lovecraft story, complete with the town of Arkham and references to Cthulhu and other elder gods. The title is pure marketing, cashing in on the success of the other Corman/Price/Poe films.

I especially like Price in this one though. He's got a nice, complicated role as a good man who's gradually being possessed by the spirit of his evil ancestor. And Paget is wonderful as the only one who sees what's happening to him.

Frank Maxwell has a significant role as a local doctor who at least wants to believe Ann's (Paget) reports and I like him a lot, too. The film is ambiguous about whether he's attracted to Ann, but if he is, he's never creepy about it. He seems to legitimately want to help the couple, even though it puts him in conflict with the rest of the town and even with Price himself (depending on whether kindly Charles Dexter Ward or malevolent Joseph Curwen is in control).

Chaney gets third billing as basically Curwen's Ygor (or maybe Renfield). Chaney could be unreliable at this point in his career, but he's engaged this time and does a good job alternating between amiable and creepy as needed.

The makeup effects on the various creatures (including deformed townspeople) aren't awesome, but they're serviceable and the sets are all fantastic, from the palace itself to the foggy streets of Arkham.

I'm not crazy about the way everything wraps up, but based on the performances and mood, I'll be wanting to watch this one again.

Rating: 4 out of 5 mutant townspeople.


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