Friday, October 31, 2014

It's Halloween!

Happy Halloween, everyone! We made it!

I struggled for a while to figure out what movie would be worthy of writing about for actual Halloween Day, but I finally decided not to do that at all. The movies were for counting down. We're here now, so let's just enjoy the day.

Not that scary movies won't be part of it. I've taken the day off from work and David's home from school, so we're spending our day watching movies and getting ready for tonight. I know The Lost Boys, The Black Cat, and The Private Eyes are on the docket, but we'll probably have time for more. Maybe some Vincent Price or Hammer's The Mummy. Tonight, we'll have our annual viewing of Disney's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

What scary movies are on your watch list today?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Who's In It: Jack Sparrow, Wednesday Addams, Rita Skeeter, Dumbledore, Tarzan, Ed Rooney, Uncle Vernon, Emperor Palpatine, Alfred Pennyworth, Max Zorin, Darth Maul, and Saruman.

What It's About: A loose adaptation of Washington Irving's story with Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as a detective instead of a schoolteacher.

How It Is: I loved this in 1999, but that's when Burton was still a director I trusted and cut a lot of slack. I was nervous to rewatch it considering my feelings about most of Burton's recent work, but it turns out that I still love it. He took one of my favorite stories and made it even better with his gothic, fog-shrouded sensibilities, a strong mystery, some great action set pieces, and more nerd-favorite actors than you can throw a pumpkin at. I honestly don't have a bad thing to say about it, so I'll save you a couple of paragraphs of me just gushing and skip right to the...

Rating: Five out of five childlike charmers.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

James Blish of the Jungle [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

James Blish won his place in Science Fiction history through the critical and the popular. On the critical side, his novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo for Best Novel of 1959, telling the tale of a Jesuit priest and his struggle with religious belief in an age that includes space flight and aliens. On the popular side he wrote the first novelizations of Star Trek episodes along with the first new novel, Spock Must Die in 1970. Whether you enjoy his original classics like Black Easter or Cities in Flight or are just a trekker, James Blish left his mark on SF. But every good SF icon has to start somewhere. You would not be surprised to know Blish wrote for the Pulps: Super Science Stories, Cosmic Stories, Astonishing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, none of these would be hard to believe. But Jungle Stories?

Blish sold two stories to Jungle Stories, "The Snake-Headed Spectre" (Summer 1949) under the pseudonym VK Emden and its sequel "Serpent Fetish" (Winter 1948-49) under his own name. Confusingly, the sequel appeared first.

"The Snake-Headed Spectre", a 112 page novella, begins with Kit Kennedy, known by the local tribes as K'tendi, being hired to lead a group of arrogant Europeans into the jungle on a mysterious quest. These outsiders are lead by Paula Lee, a beautiful but cold Englishwoman, and the fat and toady Stahl. Along for the ride are Bleyswijck and his marines. The local Africans are lead by Tombu, prince of the Wassabi and friend of K'tendi.

The safari does not go well as the major players all try to take control. Stahl boorishly strikes Tombu and the Africans are close to deserting when they discover a strange plain and then an unknown mountain, higher than Everest. The people who live beyond the plain play a loud work drum, frightening the locals. Kit and Tombu leave the party to scout ahead and run into Manalendi, the giant python. The snake is curious about Kit and they become friends after a fashion. The Europeans are captured by the strangers, who are cannibals, and Kit, Tombu and the giant snake go in search of them.

What the rescuers find in the jungle under the mountain is a village surrounded by a palisade and slaves who are working a strange mine. These poor devils are covered in sores and are missing fingers. Finding Stahl and Paula, Kit discovers the safari's real purpose, to investigate the appearance of radioactive pitchblende on the black market. Since the substance is lethal to mine, Stahl had suspected that slave labour was being used. Kit also discovers the man behind the operation is none other than Bleyswijck. The marine is in league with an Arab woman named Nanan, who acts as high priestess to the local Rock God. To save Paula and Stahl, Kit boldly walks into the village, with Tombu and Manalendi the giant python at his side, to challenge the king of the tribe, N'mbono. They fight on the giant drum with spears. The desperate battle ends with N'mbono dead and Kit now king of the tribe. During the conflict, Kit uses the drum's rhythm to send a message to the Wassabi warriors far away, asking for help.

Overthrowing Bleyswijck and Nanan, Kit's victory is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a triceratops, one of the night shapes rumored to live in the area. The drumming has infuriated it, causing it to crash through the log palisade. In the confusion, the Europeans depart. Paula, her husband dead, is very sick but throws herself on Kit: "...I want someone to make me back into a woman again..." The two become lovers. In the sequel it is suggested they lived together in the jungle a short while but split. Both stories were combined, refitted and republished in 1962 as the novel The Night Shapes. In the novel version, Blish inserts a short reunion conveniently at the end, and Paula returns to Ktendi to live happily ever after .

"Serpent's Fetish" is much shorter than its prequel. It finds K'tendi and his friend Tombu facing a second safari of whites invading their jungle, looking for dinosaurs in the Valley of Dragons, for rumours of Kit and Paula's first expedition have leaked out. Kit Kennedy tries to tell the invaders to leave but they won't. Kennedy knows it is not enough to simply kill the whites, for more would follow and the local tribes would be punished. Instead he concocts an elaborate plan to dispel the rumours of dinosaurs living in the jungle. To do this he pits Tombu's tribes against his neighbor, knowing the two armies would meet near the valley. He also gets a witch doctor to bring the rains early so that the lightning will start a forest fire near the dinosaurs, driving them out. The two armies then join forces to drive the beasts back into the valley before Kit seals it forever with dynamite. The safari and all those after will hear that the dinosaurs were dispersed into the jungle, making them near impossible to find.

There are some mysteries that surround Blish's jungle tales. First off, why was the sequel published first in the Winter 1948-49 issue then followed by the longer prequel in the Summer 1949? The use of the pseudonym VK Emden seems unnecessary if Blish had already published the sequel under his own name. One has to remember that pulp publishing was fast and loose. Perhaps the Winter issue needed a hole filled and Jerome Bixby (fellow SF author and editor) may have plugged it with the shorter sequel? It's confusing, but much of the Pulp business was. Unless an editor survives today to recall what happened, no one left any real evidence for us to sift through. Pulps were ephemera and not worth documenting.

Blish is of the HR Haggard school of jungle writing, presenting a more realistic version of Africa than Edgar Rice Burroughs does. Blish is familiar with Swahili and the customs and actions of Tombu and his people are less stereotypical than much of what appeared in Jungle Stories. K'tendi is not Tarzan, swinging through the treetops naked. Like Allan Quatermain, he wears clothes and carries a large bore rifle. How Blish learned about Africa I don't know. Looking at his bio I was prepared to see he had spent time in Africa, perhaps in the war, but he served in 1942 as a medical technician in Fort Dix. No jungle adventures there. Ultimately, he was a Science Fiction writer from New Jersey, so I have to assume he was a good researcher.

Blish's novel version is a weird combination of 1940s sexism and the growing freedoms of the 1960s. Paula Lee throws herself at Kit like any Pulp heroine while Blish inserts graphic (and gratuitous) descriptions of female circumcision and other details that do not further the plot. While you can make the argument that the idea of the "white hero" is racist (part and parcel of the genre), the relationship between Kit and Tombu is one of virtual equality. (This said Tombu hides Paula from Kit as a joke and Kit is willing to set Tombu's village against another in battle. Strange friends!) The sense of humor between the two friends is much more endearing than the icy cold romance with Paula Lee.

Kit's weird alliance with the giant snake Manalendi is also one of the story's best features. It's not surprising that their meeting was chosen for one of the edition's covers rather than a dinosaur picture. Despite the presence of dinos in the book, there are few good scenes with them. (To misquote Jurassic Park: "Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs in your... in your dinosaur novel, right? Hello?") Again I suspect the fact that Blish was writing for Jungle Stories and not Thrilling Wonder is to blame. The editors would tolerate a small amount of dinosaura, but the major portion of the story would have to be a "jungle" story. The legend of "Mokele-mbemba" is irresistible to a Science Fiction writer and James Blish does as good a job as any (and better than some, ie: 1985's Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend). Ultimately, Kit Kennedy is an odd but charming part of Jungle Pulp history.

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Night of the Demon (1957)

Who's In It: Dana Andrews (Laura), Peggy Cummins (Gun Crazy), and Niall MacGinnis (Jason and the Argonauts).

What It's About: A scientist (Andrews) travels to England to debunk a self-proclaimed warlock (MacGinnis), but his skepticism is challenged by strange doings and a threat on his life.

How It Is: When the British film Night of the Demon was released in the United States in 1958, it was chopped down by thirteen minutes and renamed Curse of the Demon. Though the cut footage isn’t crucial to the story, it does help set the film’s tone, so the original Night of the Demon (which is only 95 minutes long to begin with) is the one to watch. The reason I bring up the US version at all is because of the title change.

According to the film’s screenwriter, Charles Bennett, Columbia Pictures thought that Night of the Demon sounded too close to the title of Tennessee Williams’ short story, “Night of the Iguana.” That’s odd, because the famous stage play that Williams eventually created from that story wouldn’t premiere until three years after the release of Curse of the Demon, and the even more famous John Huston film adaptation of it didn’t come out until three years after that in 1964. Tennessee Williams was far from an obscure writer in the late ‘50s, so maybe mass audiences knew about the “Night of the Iguana” short story, but it does seem weird to rename a horror film because of one word it has in common with a story in a completely different medium. Still, the Night of the Iguana comparison is interesting because the Huston film and Night of the Demon share something important: an adjacency to the film noir movement.

Even though neither movie is true noir, important noir directors were in charge of them and brought in elements that call that genre to mind. Night of the Demon’s Jacques Tourneur also directed Out of the Past, one of the definitive noir films, in addition to other horror pictures like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. His use of light and shadow and cinematography gave his films a look and feel that fit right in with other noir films, even when his were about were-panthers and voodoo magic.

Night of the Demon has more in common with noir that just its look though. One of the things that stands out most about it is how it blurs the line between good and evil; quite a feat for a story about Satan worshipers. Dana Andrews (whose Laura is another film noir masterpiece) plays Dr. John Holden, a scientific skeptic from the US who travels to England to debunk the supernatural claims of a cult leader named Julian Karswell (MacGinnis). While there, Holden meets Joanna Harrington (Cummins from the film noir Gun Crazy), the niece of the last man to try to disprove Karswell’s abilities. Because Joanna’s uncle died horribly and mysteriously, she’s beginning to believe that Karswell may have the power he says he does. Holden believes none of it though. He stubbornly refuses to accept the supernatural, even when he sees evidence that he may be on the same path as Joanna’s late uncle.

Holden’s obstinate close-mindedness and his relentless persecution of Karswell keep him from being completely heroic and sympathetic. He’s also arrogant and not always pleasant to be around. Karswell, on the other hand, throws lavish parties for the kids near his estate and is convincing in his assertion that he only wants to be left alone to practice his religious beliefs with his followers. Of course those beliefs include killing those who stray from the flock, so he’s clearly the bad guy, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s dressing like a clown to do magic tricks for children.

Though it looks and feels a lot like film noir, Night of the Demon is inarguably horror. The film doesn’t rely on cheap shocks or even images of its titular monster to scare the audience, but Tourneur still delivers the creeps though stylish atmosphere and his viewers’ imaginations. The investigation story also builds tension and keeps the audience riveted as Holden gets closer and closer to the horrible truth.

The film doesn’t rely on images of the demon for scares, but it would have used them even less if Tourneur had had his way. His original plan was to be ambiguous about whether Karswell really had the power to summon demons, but his producer forced a definitive answer. In Tourneur’s initial vision, the demon would have never been shown, leaving the audience to decide for itself if Karswell had supernatural abilities or was just an extremely effective charlatan who perhaps believed his own lies. Producer Hal Chester had other ideas though, so the demon appears in the first several minutes of the film for the death of Joanna’s uncle and again at the film’s climax (you’ll have to watch the film to find out what happens there). Chester had to film the demon sequences after principal shooting though, without Tourneur’s help or cooperation.

While Tourneur’s version would have added a cool layer to the mystery, the version that exists is still an excellent, atmospheric, scary film. The vast majority of it operates on the principal that nothing’s as powerful as what you don’t see. But as effective as that is, the demon’s pretty scary too.

Even though the monster effects are primitive by modern standards, the design of the creature – based on actual, ancient drawings of mythological demons – is pretty terrifying. Tourneur’s version would have been stronger had it reinforced the themes of faith and skepticism by making the viewer decide which end of that spectrum he or she falls on, but the creature’s appearance doesn’t make the movie less unnerving. In fact, Martin Scorsese listed it as one of the eleven scariest movies of all time and he’s absolutely right.

Rating: Five out of five cordial conjurers.

This post was adapted from a guest post I wrote for my pal Ken's That F'ing Monkey blog.

Also, maybe check out my modern re-casting of the movie. I'm still really pleased with those choices.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Nosferatu (1922) on the big screen

A couple of nights ago, the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights screened Nosferatu accompanied by the Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra of Minnesota. I've seen the movie lots of times with lots of different scores, but never on the big screen and never with a live band.

Rats and People is great. The Heights has an awesome organ, so that got used of course, but there was also a string quartet and a percussionist, with a couple of the strings switching out on guitar and theramin. I'll say that last one again. There was a theramin!

The score they played was original music composed specifically for the movie; full of discordant, staccato strings, spooky organ, weird electronics, and measured percussion that counted time and increased tension. I'll be looking for other opportunities to see these guys accompany films.

The film itself is one of my favorite horror movies. It's easily the creepiest adaptation of Dracula I've ever seen and Max Schreck is unbelievably non-human as Count Orlok. There's been so much written about Nosferatu that I don't have much to add to that discussion, but seeing it on the big screen did change my perspective on it a bit.

There are details that I've missed on smaller screens, like the enormous pipe that Harding (sort of the Dr. Seward of Nosferatu) is smoking before he rescues Ellen (the Mina character) from sleepwalking on a balcony rail. I'd also never noticed that Professor Bulwer (Nosferatu's Van Helsing) cries at the end; probably because I've always been focused on the part of the shot that he's crying about. In addition to all that though, it's fascinating to see the characters' faces so much larger than I'd ever seen them before. It made me pay more attention to their performances and gave me a really good look at their makeup. But that's a double-edged sword.

The only frustrating thing about seeing Nosferatu on the big screen is seeing it with an audience, some of whom have never seen the movie before or, deducing from their reactions, any silent movie before. I'm not judging or suggesting there should be any requirements for attending a screening like this, but people come at these films from different places and that means that they react in different ways. For a lot of the audience I was in, that reaction was laughter.

I experienced this last Halloween at screenings of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. There are moments in those films - especially Bride - that are supposed to be funny, but there was also a lot of laughter at things that aren't intended as humorous, but are dated. Styles of acting, lines of dialogue; stuff like that. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a pretty good post about the reactions of an audience to a recent screening of From Russia With Love. He's a lot angrier about it than I am (and his audience sounds much more rude than mine was), but I can relate to his frustration. It's tough to immerse yourself in a movie you like when people around you are laughing at the monster.

Even more frustrating is that it affected my son's experience with the film. He had a great time, but his opinion of the movie is that it's funny and not at all scary. He's seen silent movies and enjoys them, so he's familiar with that acting style, but the audience's laughter influenced him and got him laughing too. I don't think he would have had that reaction had he been introduced to the movie at home.

But I'm not saying he's wrong. Or even that the rest of my audience is wrong. On the big screen, where you can see every detail of Orlok's face, he can come across as comical. Take this shot for instance.

You can read that a couple of ways. If you're into it, Schreck's expression and movements can seem inhuman and creepy. But if you're not as invested, it can look completely ridiculous, especially when it's blown up to giant size on a movie screen. A benefit of seeing the film on the small screen is that you're not picking up as many details, so there's more mystery, which creates more horror.

So I'm torn. For fans of Nosferatu, seeing it on the big screen is a treat. But if you're hoping to introduce it to someone who's never seen it before, and you want them to think it's scary, find a good print that you can show them at home. Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks are better big screen introductions to silent film.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Mummy Monday | The Mummy's Curse (1944)

Who's In It: Lon Chaney Jr (The Mummy's Tomb), Peter Coe (House of Frankenstein), and Virginia Christine (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?).

What It's About: The final high priest of Arkham (Coe) makes a last ditch effort to recover the mummies of Kharis (Chaney) and Princess Ananka (Christine).

How It Is: So much for the Mummy series getting better with each movie. Looks like Ghost was the pinnacle.

Not that Curse is horrible. From a pure plot standpoint, I like how it continues the saga. The swamp where Kharis disappeared with Ananka in Ghost is being drained, which means that both mummies are able to move again, but they've gotten separated and Kharis has to track down Ananka. Sadly for him, she's got amnesia and he freaks her out. Various people from the swamp community try to protect her, but meet their doom one by one.

There's a different actor playing Ananka this time and the movie doesn't try to explain how she turns beautiful after becoming a withered hag at the end of Ghost. She emerges from the swamp mud in pretty rough shape, but a dip in clean water does wonders not only for her skin, but also her hair and clothing. My No Prize answer for how she becomes gorgeous is that the hag look may have simply been a cocoon effect as Ananka transformed from her reincarnated body (played by Ramsay Ames in Ghost) to her resurrected, original body (played by this movie's Virginia Christine).

One last thing I especially like about Curse is how the high priest doesn't fall in love with anyone this time. He's committed to his mission. Not that that's going to make him any more successful at it. And since this is the last in the series, it sounds like George Zucco doesn't have any more high priests in line after this one.

But even though I like the general story of Curse, everything else about it is a total mess. The continuity is the worst: jumping ahead another 25 years (there was also supposed to be a 30-year gap between Hand and Tomb) so that if The Mummy's Hand takes place in the year it was released, Curse has to take place in 1995! The setting has also inexplicably moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana, where a guy named Cajun Joe has a stereotypical Italian accent for some reason. And finally, it's tough to take the mummy seriously when his shambling has unintentionally comical consequences. There are a couple of goofy moments where he's trying really hard to get someone, but not only do people easily get away, they don't even see the mummy sneaking up behind them as they're leaving. He might as well be snapping his fingers in disappointment at losing them.

Rating: Three out of five promenading, preserved princesses.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

Who's In It: Kris Lemche (Ginger Snaps), Heather Stephens (The Forgotten), and Timothy V Murphy (Sons of Anarchy).

What It's About: The descendent (Lemche) of the possible historical inspiration for Victor Frankenstein leads an expedition into the Canadian wilderness to prove that his ancestor really did create a monster and that it still exists.

How It Is: My hatred for found footage movies was overcome by my curiosity about Frankenstein movies. I should have paid more attention to my found footage feelings.

It's not all bad. Shot mostly in Alaska, the scenery is gorgeous. And Murphy is quietly amusing as the grizzled guide who's taking no crap from the young, wise-cracking members of the documentary crew. Other than those two things though, the movie's horrible.

My problem with most found footage movies is that they're all about building tension and very rarely do they pay off. The feeling I always get is that the movies aren't structured that way because they're especially interested in tension for its own sake, but because it's a lot cheaper to just film people walking around, arguing, and looking for things. The mistake these movies make - and The Frankenstein Theory is among the worst of them - is to think that just prolonging the reveal is enough to keep an audience engaged.

In The Frankenstein Theory, none of the characters are the least bit interesting. They're just copies of people from other movies who react to their horror scenario exactly like people always do in these things. I had hopes for Lemche's Jonathan Venkenhein, who not only wants to find the creature, but to befriend it. I'm fascinated by that idea too: what would happen if someone tried to treat Frankenstein's monster with compassion and kindness? But Frankenstein Theory isn't actually interested in that as a theme. It's just another symptom of Venkenhein's possibly insane drive to find the creature. And while I say "possibly insane," the movie's not interested in exploring that either. Maybe Venkenhein is crazy and maybe he isn't. He could be right about the monster, but still be insane. That would be a fascinating character study if the movie was as interested in it as it is in having Venkenhein argue with his crew of cliche, whiny unbelievers.

As bad as the build-up is, the resolution is still disappointing. I might forgive the movie if it had a rewarding conclusion, but not only does it fail to say anything interesting about Frankenstein's monster, it doesn't even offer a good look at him. The image on the poster is a better view of the creature than is ever seen in the film and the reveal of the monster is as murky and unsatisfying as the resolution of The Frankenstein Theory's plot.

Rating: One out of five scenic shacks.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Scream of Fear (1961)

Who's In It: Susan Strasberg (Picnic), Ann Todd (The Paradine Case), and Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula, The Curse of Frankenstein).

What It's About: A disabled woman named Penny (Strasberg) goes to stay with her father and step-mother (Todd) after her caregiver dies. But though Step-Mom claims that Dad is out of town, Penny keeps seeing his dead body around the estate.

How It Is: Scream of Fear would almost be more thriller than horror, but the reappearing body is pretty darn scary. That's partly because you never know when it's going to turn up, but partly because Fred Johnson just looks very creepy as a corpse.

If it's weren't for that element, the movie would go neatly into the sub-genre of psychological thrillers where the protagonist questions whether she's actually going insane or if someone just wants her to think she is. It's a really good one though, filled with great twists and turns and a fun appearance by Christopher Lee as a sinister doctor who keeps turning up at the estate as a guest. Don't want to say too much, but I highly recommend this one and the less you know going into it the better.

Rating: Four out of five paraplegic people in peril.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Possession" and "Grand Guignol"

Like “Closer Than Sisters,” “Possession” focuses primarily on Vanessa and Sir Malcolm. It doesn’t dig more into their past though; it questions their future. Whatever has been possessing Vanessa is making a final push to completely take her over, turning the episode into an homage to The Exorcist. All the other main characters are there, but the action is contained to Sir Malcolm’s house where everyone is keeping vigil over an increasingly tortured Vanessa.

I said before that Eva Green is an incredibly game actress and that’s never showcased more than here. It’s hard to watch her performance because she’s so convincing that she’s going through something despicably horrible. How the others react to that though is telling about their characters and makes the episode compelling. For most of them, it's varying flavors of compassion, but Malcolm is the one to watch. He’s determined that Vanessa not die, but Ethan (who’s especially nurturing to Vanessa) questions Malcolm’s motivations. Whatever inhabits Vanessa is also somehow connected to Mina, so if Vanessa dies, Malcolm’s only tether to his daughter is lost.

By the end of the episode, Vanessa is freed of her demon. It’s not entirely clear how that happens, because it involves one of the characters’ displaying a previously hidden ability, but it comes off as intentionally mysterious and I bought it. That leads into “Grand Guignol,” the final episode of the season.

My biggest hope for the season finale was that it would resolve at least one of the character arcs introduced so far. It certainly does that and I kind of don’t want to spoil it, even though I’ve talked freely about the rest of the show so far. What I will say is that Vanessa has been the heart of the season and it’s appropriate and satisfying that her story is the one to get a resolution. And while that’s happening, Victor Frankenstein and Ethan’s stories both reach major turning points that will propel the show into Season Two. It’s a perfect way to wrap things up for the year.

All in all, I've loved Penny Dreadful. The plot lagged in places, but the characters were always enjoyable to watch and spend time with. Very much looking forward to the next season and I may even spring for Showtime to watch it live.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The War of the Worlds: Adapt or Die [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

HG Wells inspired so many branches of the Science Fiction tree: time travel, human-animal hybrids, invisibility, moon men, giant animals, super intelligent animals, and alien invasions. When I skim through The Great Book of Movie Monsters (1983) by Jan Stacy and Ryder Syvertsen, I can identify that at least one third of the films included have Wellsian roots. HG Wells is surely the single most important writer of SF in Hollywood.

That being said, the adaptations of his works have been confused, cheap or downright stupid. Every giant insect drive-in thriller is his legacy as much as objects on strings, giant killer ants chewing up Joan Collins, or men in rubber suits. Not to mention the entire Irwin Allen disaster movie and Godzilla genres. Wells was a great thinker; a controversial social critic, but his films usually come off as silly screamfests.

To my mind, his masterpiece is The War of the Worlds (1898). Wells imagines an invasion of earth by Martians who come in meteor-like canisters that open and produce killing machines on tripod legs and armed with death rays. The narrator journeys through the London landscape, seeing the devastation until the invaders die from earth bacteria. (This is bad Science but Wells was making a comment on Socialism not bacteriology.) This novel, due to its scope, has had fewer adaptations than most: four, not including Orson Welles' famous radio scarefest of 1938 and other media. (The most popular film product is The Invisible Man with twelve.) Destroying all of London (or is it New Jersey?) is a big enterprise, so the low-budget schlock makers have avoided it for the most part.

The first adaptation in film was the 1953 George Pal classic with its saucer-like machines. Garishly brilliant in color, it plays out Wells' novel in a modern setting and philosophically misses the boat with its churchy ending. (Wells must have spun in his grave faster than the Lord of the Dynamos.) An Oscar for special effects proves it typical SF fare in that the effects take center stage, making Gene Barry and Ann Robinson even more forgettable. To my mind, I missed the tripods but understand that flying saucers were all the rage in the 1950s. Pal would have been crazy to use the great stalking machines.

The 1960s and '70s did not produce a new film version. We had the cool, if superhero-sized comic book Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven created Roy Thomas and Neal Adams. This Marvel comic supposed an earth overrun by the Martians and how they would reshape our planet. Even better was the Jeff Wayne musical starring the voice of Richard Burton as the narrator. Wayne leaves the Victorian setting in place with tripods and all, though he did reshape the story a little to create scenes worthy of emotional duets.

The next adaptation on film was the 1988-90 TV series that was begun in the 1970s by George Pal, but took another 10 years to be realized. The Canadian-filmed show starring Jared Martin and Adrian Paul offered a more modern alien invasion. The Martians from 1953 have been sealed up by "the Government" and hidden from the public. Rather than being dead they are actually in suspended animation. Once released they assume the bodies of the terrorists (I didn't know they could do that!) who have stolen and released them. Their plans to take over the world are back on. The themes of government cover-up, UFOs, toxic waste, and terrorism are the flavor of the show rather than Wells, whom they piggybacked rather unnecessarily. Everyone in the first season dies and is replaced (along with the creative team) for a second season that was no more successful. The show was cancelled after two seasons, pretty much guaranteeing nobody would touch the property in the 1990s.

The next adaptation is one of my favorites, despite being reviled by some. This was M Night Shyamalan's Signs (2002) starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. Shyamalan does something amazing and gets no love for it. First, he does an alien invasion movie without showing a thousand buildings falling down, tripods, or ray guns. Instead, he focuses on one family and how it affects them and only hints at the mayhem and destruction. That alone is amazing. This same technique will be used in Cloverfield (2008) (and receive much more praise).

The second and even better thing he does is to play his own philosophical riff from Wells. One of the strongest themes in the novel is that aliens have come therefore everything we thought was real has changed. How can a world with aliens in it believe in religion? Wells uses the character of the curate to explore these ideas. Shyamalan turns this on its head and actually finds a way to say, yes, religious belief is possible. Though I side with Wells on this personally, I still found Signs a wonderful rebuttal to the curate. I may be the only person on the planet that liked Signs, but as a Wellsian I'd love to see more films like it.

The last adaptation of War of the Worlds was the 2005 Steven Spielberger starring Tom Cruise. Now that it's ten years old I think I can look at it with some perspective. Visually the film is stunning. It also does a good job of being truer to Wells, having the Martians injecting human blood directly into their veins and such details, while at the same time being faithful to the New Jersey version of Welles and Pal. It uses the tripods, which is a big thumbs up from me. There were some justifiable criticisms about Cruise being able to drive from New Jersey to Boston without running into car jams. I could make the same criticism about a lot of recent disaster films too. Tim Robbins is great as a combination of the Artillery man and the curate. Cruise and Miranda Otto are able to bring some romantic energy to the tale, most likely inspired by Jeff Wayne's rock opera. Even Wells was not much for romance in his novel.

This film is likely to be the last for a while since it featured cutting edge special effects that haven't dated much. When CGI advances to the point where it can do something more, then perhaps we will get a new version. My personal hope is that the BBC does an incredibly faithful version as they did with The Day of the Triffids in 1981. I'd love to see the Victorian setting with really good CGI. John Wyndham's pal and fellow Wellsian, John Christopher's Tripods series would also be up for a remake with a good special effects budget. Until then, we'll put up with the schlock. Syfy's Sharknado Meets the Martians, anyone?

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mummy Monday | The Mummy's Ghost (1944)

Who’s In It: Lon Chaney Jr (The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Tomb), John Carradine (House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula), Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin serial), Ramsay Ames (Calling Dr. Death), and George Zucco (House of Frankenstein, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes).

What It’s About: The new high priest of Arkham (Carradine) is tasked with returning the mummies of Princess Ananka and Kharis from the United States to their Egyptian tombs, but the job gets complicated when the spirit of Ananka is transferred into a local woman (Ames).

How It Is: This isn’t how you’d think it would go, but the Universal mummy movies seem to be getting better as they go. This is my favorite so far. As I said about Tomb, the traditional, shambling mummy is a powerful image and Ghost improves on it by having the monster skulk around the suburbs of a small, college town as opposed to the rural area of Tomb. It’s eerie enough seeing the mummy wander through woods and old mansions, but it’s a special thrill when he step-drags his way down what looks like could be your street.

There are other improvements too. For starters, John Carradine is always a welcome addition to any cast. It’s a little strange that George Zucco is still running the show back in Egypt after seemingly passing the torch to Turhan Bey in Tomb, but after what happened with Turhan's character, it’s understandable that Zucco may have rethought his retirement. As expected, Carradine makes a cool, creepy villain, even if he eventually falls prey to the same passions that ruined both Turhan and Zucco's efforts. Those priests of Arkham are a horny bunch.

In Ghost, the woman the priest falls in love with is an Egyptian American played by Ramsay Ames. I haven’t talked about the titles of the Mummy films yet, but they’re mostly interchangeable and unrelated to their plots. Hand doesn’t especially focus on Kharis’ hand any more than Tomb features his burial place. Kharis isn’t actually a ghost in this one either, but the title is still appropriate if you look at it sideways, because this movie does sort of resurrect the spirit of the original Mummy film starring Boris Karloff. It brings back the concept of an Egyptian woman who possesses the reincarnated soul of the mummy’s true love. And of course her boyfriend (Lowery) has to save her.

Ghost also brings back the mummy as an independent agent. Tomb offered a glimpse of that, but this time when the priest tries to possess the woman for himself, Kharis is having none of it. I thought I was fine with the mummy as a weapon in the last two movies, but he’s way cooler and even more terrifying when he's acting on his own.

The final thing that makes Ghost greater than its predecessors is the way it ends. I’m totally going to spoil it because it’s so cool, but skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Instead of the expected ending where the boy saves the girl from the monster, Ghost goes with a tragic finale. The whole movie, every time Ames’ character sees the mummy, she gets a shock of white hair. At first I thought that was just an aesthetic thing, but it turns out that it’s part of her transformation into Kharis’ mate. By the end of the movie, the change is either completed or almost completed and she’s starting to look like a mummy herself. As the hero and his posse pursue, the mummy carries her into the swamp where they both presumably drown. Forgetting for a second that there’s no way that would destroy the monster (and of course there’s one more film to go in the series), it’s an awesome twist to have the creature succeed in his plans. It elevates the movie above kids’ fare and gives it a shocking, somber finale that reminds me of old EC horror comics.

Rating: Five out of five disentombed darlings.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Closer Than Sisters" and "What Death Can Join Together"

In "Closer Than Sisters," Penny Dreadful finally reveals the story behind why Vanessa Ives is so invested in helping Sir Malcolm find Mina. In fact, it dedicates the entire episode to that without checking on any of the other characters or the show's main plot. I won't go into detail about the answers it reveals though, mostly because they don't matter.

On it's own, this is a fine episode. I enjoyed seeing younger versions of the characters and the story of their changing relationships is a good one. It's also a fantastic showcase for Eva Green's acting talent. The woman has absolutely zero self-consciousness and throws herself completely into whatever her role demands, whether it's in Penny Dreadful or Casino Royale or Dark Shadows or 300: Rise of an Empire or Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. Whatever the quality may be of what's going on around her, she's amazing to watch. But as good as "Closer Than Sisters" is on it's own terms, its answers are totally mundane and not worth all the build-up they got in the previous four episodes.

The show gets back on track in "What Death Can Join Together," even if it doesn't progress the story very far (or at all). One interesting thing about having "Closer Than Sisters" in the rear view mirror though is all the questions that it didn't answer. Before I knew her story, I was fascinated by the way Vanessa interacted with the other characters, especially Dorian Gray. On the surface, she seemed attracted to Dorian, but I always wondered if there was something else going on with her. She seemed too smart simply to have fallen for his superficial charm. But "Closer Than Sisters" doesn't give any evidence that Vanessa is especially insightful about men. Instead, when she and Dorian continue their relationship in "What Death Can Join Together," it appears that she really is just smitten with him. That humanizes her character a lot while making Dorian even more dangerous.

The quest for Mina takes a false step forward when Vanessa's tarot cards suggest a ship and Malcolm leads an investigation onto a quarantined vessel from Cairo. Vanessa's off on her date with Dorian, but Ethan Chandler joins the party along with Malcolm's manservant, Sembene. They find Dracula there, along with Mina and three other of Dracula's "wives," but Dracula and Mina escape and no real progress is made.

The best part of Malcolm and Ethan's section of the episode is a conversation between the two men about Ethan's dying girlfriend Brona. Though Brona sort of broke up with Ethan in the fourth episode, that was really about something else and she's too in love with Ethan to really want him out of her life. They quickly get back together in "What Death Can Join Together," though the issues Brona cited when breaking it off haven't gone away. She's still not long for this world and Ethan is in for a lot of heartbreak that he seems ready and willing to bear for her sake. It's a lovely relationship and Ethan describes it perfectly when Malcolm warns Ethan that Brona will "cease being who she is." "Then," Ethan replies, "I will love who she becomes."

That's such a beautiful, mature idea. It's the definition of unconditional love and it of course raises the question of whether Malcolm feels the same way about Mina. If Mina is forever changed by her experience with Dracula, will Malcolm continue to love her anyway? Or will he write her off as no longer being his daughter? From what we know about Malcolm so far, he could go either way.

"What Death Can Join Together" also revisits Frankenstein, his Creature, and Van Helsing. A couple of episodes ago, I questioned why the Creature seemed so happy at the Grand Guignol, but so upset around Frankenstein. This episode explains that by going deeper into the Creature's experience at the theater. He's attracted to the show's main actress and she treats him kindly, so it's easy to understand why he would be happy when he's working around her. But he's also afraid of being rejected by her, which has to be part of what's driving him to want a Frankenstein-built companion of his own.

As for Frankenstein himself, he spends the episode hanging out with Van Helsing and learning some more about vampires. At least until the Creature shows up to remind Frankenstein in a violently dramatic way not to let himself get distracted. Like the rest of the episode, the plot doesn't move forward any, but we've now checked in with all the characters again after a week away from most of them, and even learned a thing or two about where their heads are at. Hopefully that tees us up for a slam bang couple of last episodes. I don't expect everything to be resolved by season's end, but I would love for it to finish with a satisfying arc for at least one of these characters.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Penny Dreadful | "Resurrection" and "Demimonde"

In "Resurrection," the third episode of Penny Dreadful, there's a lot of time dedicated to catching up with Frankenstein's first creature. The beats are all familiar, but tweaked enough to keep it fresh. Frankenstein did abandon his creation in fear and loathing, but the flashback to that night reveals the horror of it, for both creature and creator. The creature screamed and carried on out of its own fright and that's what made Frankenstein freak out and leave. This isn't Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein, but a man who wants to do good and has made terrible mistakes.

Instead of a blind hermit, the creature finds acceptance with the actor who runs an English version of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol, but he still wants an immortal mate like himself and that's why he's tracked down Frankenstein. Frankenstein seems to agree, but he'll need money and resources, so that sends him back to Sir Malcolm Murray.

The "previously on Penny Dreadful" segment replays some of Vanessa Ive's outburst during the séance, narrowing it down to a few bits that make it clear that she was channeling Mina at least part of the time. During that episode, I had a hard time following what Ives was saying, but some of it sounded like a different Murray child who had maybe passed on. The fourth episode kind of confirms that, but "Resurrection" is focused on Ives' connection with Mina. In fact, Ives has a dream or vision about Mina that suggests Murray's daughter may be in the zoo. Ives and Murray put together a party to investigate and hopefully rescue Mina. Ethan Chandler even joins, because he needs medicine money for his consumptive friend Brona.

Mina's not at the zoo, but a couple of weird things happen there. First, a pack of wolves surrounds the hunters, but Chandler's able to calm them and send them on their way. I was trying to figure out in the first two episodes if Chandler is a literary character, but the show is now hinting strongly that he's a werewolf. He confirms that he's spent time among the American Indians and while it hasn't come up in the show yet, there's plenty of shapechanger lore in various native tribes. Then of course there's all the talk of Chandler's dark past and inner demons, and he gets really nervous when people talk about a recent spate of Ripper-like murders. But mostly there's him calming those wolves.

The other weird thing to happen at the zoo is that the group does find a vampire, though still not Dracula (who's unnamed in the series so far). They have hopes that he'll lead them to Dracula though, so they capture him and keep him chained at Murray's house in order to run experiments. This is where Frankenstein comes in, though he doesn't work entirely alone. In the fifth episode, "Demimonde," he takes a sample of the vampire's blood to a hematologist named Van Helsing (it's awesome seeing David Warner again) who analyzes it and discovers an anticoagulant property that helps vampires digest blood.

Murray begins to suspect that Dracula only took Mina to get to Ives. It's revealed that Ives and Mina had some history together and that Ives betrayed Mina in some way, which probably explains her dedication to finding the girl. At any rate, Dracula seems to be using Mina to draw out Ives, while Murray uses Ives to get to Dracula and Mina. It's a fun cat-and-mouse game.

"Demimonde" comes to a head when several characters end up at the Grand Guignol. Ives is there, as is Dorian Gray, whom she flirted with earlier in the episode after a chance encounter at a conservatory. I was surprised to see that Frankenstein's creature (nicknamed Caliban by his actor friend) still works there. The flashbacks in "Resurrection" didn't show him leave the Grand Guignol, but there's such a huge difference between his anger when he's around Frankenstein and his joy at working in the theater. I really thought they were depicting different times in his life. That's a strange disconnect that I hope the show is able to fix.

The other characters at the theater are Chandler and Brona, out on a date. The play that night is all about werewolves, so I expected a strong reaction from Chandler over that, but he was cool and collected the whole time; more interested in Brona's enjoyment of the show than of the monster on stage. That could be misdirection though.

During the intermission, Chandler and Brona run into Gray and Ives, which makes things awkward for Brona who knows Gray "professionally." As Gray, Ives, and Chandler chat, Brona becomes increasingly uncomfortable until she has to leave. Chandler follows her into the street, but she breaks up with him, realizing that there's no future in their relationship. Even if she weren't dying of tuberculosis, he's part of another world that she doesn't believe she'll ever be included in. I don't know if it's a major plot point, but it's a nice bit of drama that ends with her huddled in an alcove, coughing up blood, as strangers pass her by. It's a truly touching moment that highlights the need for friends and family in this impossible world, a major theme in Penny Dreadful.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The House of Seven Corpses (1974)

Who's In It: John Ireland (Spartacus), Faith Domergue (This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea), John Carradine (House of Dracula), Carole Wells (TV version of National Velvet), and Jerry Strickler (who wasn't in much else, but reminds me a lot of Thomas Lennon, which was the one entertaining thing about this movie).

What It's About: The worst director in the world (Ireland) shoots a horror movie in a haunted house.

How It Is: Utter crap. Although I lied when I said a second ago that the only entertaining thing was Jerry Strickler's passing similarity to Thomas Lennon. John Carradine is in it and I always enjoy watching him, even when he has nothing to do like in this movie.

Carradine is the caretaker of the Beal mansion, a cool old house in which seven murders and/or suicides of family members took place. While the film's cast and crew are there, his main job is to warn them against being too light-hearted about the place; not that he gives them any good reason to be concerned. He tells them no stories about the place except to run down the list of deaths. For all anyone knows, including the audience, it's just a house where something horrible once happened. There's no tension around it at all.

And that's the movie's big problem. It's just dull. Scenes drag on forever. I imagine that's intended to build suspense, but since nothing is happening, it's boring. No one dies or is even seriously threatened for the first two-thirds of the movie at least, so all the focus is on the miserable people making the fictional movie within the movie. Ireland's character bullies his actors, especially Gayle (Domergue) who's no treat herself. One of the other actors is a pretentious prick who quotes Shakespeare whenever he leaves a room and tries to rape Gayle at one point. The only characters I liked were Wells and Stickler's married couple, but House of Seven Corpses doesn't spend enough time on them and when it does it's only interested in her being creeped out by the house and his sort of digging it.

There's meant to be a mystery aspect to the plot. Carradine's caretaker starts doing some strange things and someone decapitates Gayle's cat, but there's never a clear resolution to either of those things. They're abandoned in favor of a zombie's rising from its grave in the third act for reasons that seem to be connected to one of the filmmakers, but are super muddy.

Rating: One out of five assassinated actors.

When Elephants Rule the Earth... [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman won himself a place in Fantasy history as the author of the Silver John stories that first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1960s and later in novels. Before that he had a prolific career writing in the SF Pulps beginning in 1931 in the pages of Wonder Stories Quarterly. After that he appeared in practically every SF magazine until the 1950s including John W. Campbell's Astounding. As an SF writer he penned many tales under his own name (such as the Hok the Mighty series for Amazing Stories) as well as under pseudonyms like Gans T. Field (in Weird Tales) and Levi Crow (in Fantasy and SF), as well as under house names like Will Garth.

One of those times he used a nom de plume was when he wrote "Elephant Earth" as Gabriel Barclay for Astonishing Stories, February 1940. I am not sure why he chose to publish this story under a different name since he does not appear in the same issue under his own name, the usual reason for such changes. He did use the same pseudonym for "Hollow of the Moon" (Super Science Stories, May 1940) also edited by Fredrick Pohl, so he may have intended it as a name for Pohl publications alone.

No matter the by-line, "Elephant Earth" is an unusual and charming tale. It follows a man named Lillard who has been put into suspended animation, waking to find the human race destroyed by a mysterious plague, though a handful of humans may have escaped to Venus. The elephants, in Man's absence, have developed language and civilization. The elephants take Lillard to their leader so that he can decide what to do with him. Three factions vie for the last man on earth. The Medicals want to dissect him. The Mechanicals want to use him for delicate work that the elephants find impossible to do. And the last group, containing the Lillard's sole friend, Aarump, are space scientists who want to use him as a test pilot. While the chief of the elephants is deliberating on these choices, the scientists sneak him away and send him into space. Lillard lands on Venus, feeling even more lonely when he hears a female, human voice...

Wellman has great fun with this story, doing a good job of reversing the roles between man and animal. He allows us to see just how cruel humanity is in its attitudes towards beasts of burden. The majority of elephants have no concern for what Lillard wants any more than we would have for what a dog or a horse desires. Rod Serling captured this same disregard almost 30 years later in the film The Planet of the Apes (1968). Wellman has a few good chuckles like the Apes films, like when the elephants discover that the humans they admire most from ancient books, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe, are all fictional characters.

And we could leave Wellman there easily enough, but circumstances would arise that Manly would get a second chance at his elephant story. In 1951, Wellman, along with other Pulpsters like Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder) had moved to writing comics as the Pulps began to fade. Wellman wrote for the DC comic Strange Adventures. In issue #11 (August 1951) Wellman produced "The Reign of the Elephants" (drawn by Jim Mooney and Frank Giacoia). This tale appeared alongside Pulp old-timer Edmond Hamilton's "Chris KL-99", loosely based on his Captain Future character, a character Wellman had written as well in the pages of Startling Stories. It must have felt like old times. But I digress.

This time around the elephant tale begins the same but very quickly changes. The elephants have no desire to dissect the man, now named Clay Parks. (He is given a thought translator to make conversation easier than in the Pulp story.) When invaders come from the stars, it is up to Parks to show the elephants the art of war. Clay meets one of the invaders and sees she is a beautiful woman, not a human fled from earth but a product of parallel evolution. The invaders try to sway the last man on earth to betray his planet but he uses the thought transmitter to set a trap. Once the invaders are in the elephants' control, it is easier to sue for peace. The story ends with Parks and Lylla, the beautiful space girl, in love, and men and elephants working together.

In the second version of the tale we get to see Wellman rework his original idea, going for more action. The thought translator could have been just a cheat but he is a pro and makes it the key to the story's resolution. The original story strikes me as a more powerful tale, while the comic elephants are more passive and less convincing. In "Elephant Earth," Wellman extrapolates things like elephant architecture and their mental outlook, which lacks the concept of luck. Ultimately this could be a matter of medium. A constraint of the comic book storytelling is that things must be shown while in a story the more esoteric stuff is limited only by the length of the tale. All that aside, it is intriguing to see how an author plays with the same idea in two different ways. And there are few authors more able and fascinating than Manly Wade Wellman.

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Penny Dreadful | "Night Work" and "Séance"

This is kind of breaking my Countdown to Halloween format, but Penny Dreadful certainly counts as horror viewing, so I'm rolling with it. There were only eight episodes in its first season, so for the rest of the week, I'll talk about a couple of episodes each day. Unfortunately, I won't be able to do this spoiler-free, so even though these won't be full recaps of each episode, be aware that I'm not going to tiptoe around major plot and character developments as they come up.

Basically, Penny Dreadful is League of Extraordinary Gentlemen done right. After a couple of shocking scenes to set the tone, it opens in Victorian London with Vanessa Ives' (Eva Green) hiring a travelling gunslinger/showman named Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) for a little "night work." Chandler pretends to be a devil-may-care womanizer, but Ives sees through that and uses her insight to manipulate him into being her hired gun for the evening.

The job turns out to be assisting Ives and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) as they hunt a creature that's abducted Murray's daughter. Bram Stoker fans will quickly realize who Murray and his daughter are and there's a little Allan Quartermain in Murray too as it turns out he used to be world-traveling adventurer. Ives and Chandler are more enigmatic and if they're based on literary characters, I haven't figure it out yet. Both are obviously wrestling with inner demons (and that may not even be a figure of speech for one of them), so part of the show's hook is wanting to uncover those secrets.

The hunt turns out partially successful. They find and kill a vampire-like monster, but it's not the one Murray wants and his daughter Mina is nowhere to be found. Hoping that the monster's corpse will reveal a clue, they take it to a medical school where students learn anatomy on human corpses obtained through questionable means. One very serious student is off working by himself and he's the one whom Murray and Company approach. He refuses them at first - saying that he's only interested in the research he's doing - but changes his mind when he sees what they brought. The monster's body is covered with a thick, leathery carapace, but the young doctor peels some of it back to reveal a second skin beneath, covered in Egyptian hieroglyphs.

From there, the story begins to split. Ives offers Chandler continued work that he refuses, but he does decide to stay in London instead of going with the rest of his Wild West show to the continent. In the second episode, "Séance," he befriends an artists' model/prostitute named Brona Croft (Billie Piper), but where that relationship is going and how it ties into the main story remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, Murray tries to convince the young doctor to join his cause, but the doctor refuses, saying that his work is much more important and rewarding to him than anything Murray may be involved with. The end of "Night Work" reveals what that is when the doctor goes into a secret lab behind his apartment and begins tinkering with a stitched together corpse. It was about that point that I remembered his earlier interest in Chandler, because the Americans had made such great strides in the study of electricity. By the time the stitched together corpse moves and the doctor reveals his name to it, there's already no question of who he is.

"Séance" continues Murray and Ives' investigation into the markings on the vampire's corpse as they consult a famous (and hilariously dandy) Egyptologist named Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale). He invites them to a party at his house where Ives meets an intriguing young man named Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and a séance takes place. During the séance though, Ives accidentally upstages the medium by going into a trance and channeling some kind of spirit. From its accusatory tone and the effect it has on Murray, it sounds like it could be the ghost of Murray's child, but not necessarily Mina. I may not have caught all of that, so I'm hopeful that it'll be made more clear later.

Back to Frankenstein, he begins teaching his creature who chooses for himself the name Proteus from a random page of Shakespeare. I was fascinated by this part of the story, because I'm a huge Frankenstein fan and Penny Dreadful seemed to be deliberately riffing on that story in some interesting ways. Besides having Victor Frankenstein live 100 years after the time of Mary Shelley's novel, the care and affection that he showed Proteus was completely different from the thoughtless loathing that the literary Frankenstein had towards his creation. I was curious to see how Proteus would develop with the loving nurture of his "father." Would something happen to turn him into Shelley's vengeful monster?

But then, just when I'd fully embraced this different direction for Frankenstein's story, Penny Dreadful revealed in a totally shocking way that "Proteus" was a misnomer. In the hardest way possible, the poor guy learns that he wasn't Frankenstein's first creation after all. And now we have a different, much more familiar creature to get to know.

Isle of the Dead (1945)

Who's In It: Boris Karloff (Frankenstein, The Mummy), Ellen Drew (The Mad Doctor, The Monster and the Girl), and Alan Napier (Batman).

What It's About: A ruthless general (Karloff) becomes increasingly suspicious that a young woman (Drew) on a quarantined island is a vampire-like creature.

How It Is: I need to see more of producer Val Lewton films. It's been years since I've seen The Body Snatcher, but Cat People is one of my favorite horror movies and I also enjoyed its less spooky sequel, The Curse of the Cat People. On of my favorite things about Cat People is something it shares in common with Isle of the Dead, so I'm curious to see if it pops up in more of Lewton's films.

Cat People and Isle of the Dead would make a great triple feature with Night of the Demon, which wasn't produced by Lewton, but was directed by sometimes Lewton collaborator Jacques Tourneur (who made Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man for Lewton, as well as the less frightening Tale of Two Cities). What Cat People, Night of the Demon, and Isle of the Dead really have in common though is the theme of skepticism vs belief. All three films have characters claiming that something supernatural is occurring while other characters disbelieve. But better than just that, all three movies also wait until the very end to reveal who's right.

In Isle of the Dead, Karloff is the skeptic. He's trapped on a quarantined island with a varied group of people that includes a British consul named St Aubyn (Napier), his wife, and the wife's paid companion Thea. There's also a superstitious housekeeper who sees how ill Mrs St Aubyn is, how vibrant Thea is, and concludes that Thea is a supernatural creature draining the life from her mistress. Karloff's General Pherides scoffs at first, but the more he observes, the more he becomes convinced that there may be something to the housekeeper's tale.

I won't reveal whether or not Thea actually is some sort of life-sucking demon, but it's not spoiling anything to say that since Isle of the Dead is coy about the revelation for most of its run time, it progresses more like a thriller than a horror story. There are a couple of levels of danger going on: the danger that Mrs St Aubyn is in if Thea is a monster, and the danger that Thea is in from Pherides if she isn't.

It's a cool set up and the script adds another layer by having these conversations about skepticism and belief spill over into discussions of religion. At the beginning of the movie, Pherides doesn't just laugh at the housekeeper's theories, he's also an atheist. But as the story progresses, his openness towards the idea of a life-sucking monster is also reflected in his softening about religion. That raises all kinds of interesting questions about the connection between faith and imagination. Isle of the Dead doesn't attempt to answer these deeper questions, but I love that it makes me think about them.

Rating: Four out of five obsessed officers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Creature (2011)

Who's In It: Mehcad Brooks (True Blood), Serinda Swan (Aphrodite in Percy Jackson, Zatanna on Smallville), Dillon Casey (Nikita), Aaron Hill (Greek), Amanda Fuller (Grey's Anatomy), Pruitt Taylor Vince (True Blood, The Mentalist), Daniel Bernhardt (Parker), and Sid Haig (Spider Baby, Diamonds Are Forever, Jason of Star Command).

What It's About: A group of young people head out to the woods to... hey, wait! Where you going?! No, seriously. Just stick with me...

How It Is: My heart sank at the opening shot in Creature when I saw a truck full of three couples heading into the Louisiana bayou for a vacation. I barely made it through Shark Night; I didn't think I was ready for another just like it so soon. On the surface, the main characters in Creature look like all those other cabin-in-the-woods stereotypes. There's the obnoxious guy who's going to get everyone into trouble (Casey), there's the slutty girl (Fuller), the virginal girl (Lauren Schneider), the jock (Hill), the token black guy (Brooks), and the token black guy's super hot girlfriend (Swan). All that was missing was a nerdy stoner. But as the characters kept talking, I realized that something different was going on.

For one thing, Casey and Fuller play brother and sister and not an especially annoying couple as I first thought. It makes sense that they have similar personalities coming from the same family. And that both of them are single, because the only people who can sort of tolerate them are each other. But more importantly, Brooks and Hill are playing Marines and it doesn't take long to realize that they're smart, serious ones. Casey and Fuller are wild cards in the group, but it's quickly obvious that Creature isn't about a bunch of stupid kids getting into trouble. It's about a group of friends that actually feels like a real group of friends. I especially like Brooks and Swan who convinced me that they're a normal, healthy couple in love with each other. And the fact that a couple members of the group are highly trained in combat means that this isn't just going to be all screaming and running when the alligator-man shows up.

That's kind of how the whole movie goes. It starts with apparent stereotypes and then reveals them to be honest-for-real characters. There are scary rednecks in this movie (led by the awesome Sid Haig and including the always spooky Pruitt Taylor Vince), but they have genuine motivations and complicated feelings about what they're doing. Even the alligator-man (Bernhardt) has a touching - though sick and creepy - backstory that adds facets to him as a character.

I'm in danger of overselling it, so let me dial back a little. Creature is super cheesy in places. The rubber, alligator-man suit looks cool, but there's no getting around that it's a rubber suit. And director Fred Andrews loves a slow motion shot a lot more than I do. There's also some really disturbing stuff in the movie. It earns its R rating not just on what you see and hear, but on tone and theme, too. It's neither a completely serious horror film nor a fun homage to B-movies; it walks a thin line somewhere between those two. It does so well, but what it's going for is a specific enough thing that I suspect not everyone will dig it. For me though, I was pleasantly shocked by how much I enjoyed it.

Rating: Four out of five totally beautiful couples whom I actually hoped would live.

Mummy Monday | The Mummy's Tomb (1942)

Who's In It: Lon Chaney (The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein), Dick Foran (The Mummy's Hand), Elyse Knox (the Joe Palooka movies), George Zucco (The Mummy's Hand, Tarzan and the Mermaids), Wallace Ford (The Mummy's Hand), and Turhan Bey (The Mad Ghoul, The Amazing Mr. X).

What It's About: Thirty years after the events of The Mummy's Hand, the guardians of Ananka seek revenge on the party who invaded her tomb.

How It Is: As the Mummy series becomes more throwaway (Tomb is only an hour long and 15 minutes of that is recapping Hand) it also becomes more fun. For better or worse, we're in full-on children's adventure mode now.

It doesn't make much sense why the evil high priest Andoheb (Zucco) has waited 30 years to go after Stephen Banning (Foran) and his buddy Babe (Ford), but as Tomb opens, Andoheb is way too old for the job. Hand started with Andoheb receiving his evil priestly commission from his predecessor and Tomb begins the same way, with Andoheb's passing it on to the next guy, a dashing fellow named Mehemet Bey (Turhan). Mehemet takes the mummy (Chaney, taking over from Hand's Tom Tyler) to the United States to murder Banning and Babe and all their relatives.

Unfortunately, Mehemet suffers the same weakness of the flesh that Andoheb did in Hand and falls in love with Isobel (Knox), the girlfriend of Banning's son. After a couple of murders, Mehemet deviates from his mission and diverts the mummy to kidnap Isobel. This leads to one of my favorite moments in the movie, where the mummy mutely (and unsuccessfully) tries to change Mehemet's mind. Through all of Hand and most of Tomb, the mummy is simply an instrument of the high priest, but in that one moment he has a mind of his own, which makes him potentially much more dangerous. I forget if the rest of the series follows up on that, but I kind of hope it does. Or maybe I don't.

It's not like the mummy would be more of a threat if he acted on his own. He's plenty deadly and plenty scary as the weapon of an evil cult. And as cool as Karloff's portrayal is in the original Mummy, I actually prefer Tyler and Chaney's cartoonish, silent, shambling versions that have more successfully infiltrated pop culture. And Chaney's is even more so than Tyler's, introducing the famous step-drag walk to the character.

There's nothing special at all about the plot of The Mummy's Tomb. Mehemet is a cool-looking villain, but he's dumb as dirt and reveals himself as the mummy's master in a ridiculously stupid way. But that lack of cleverness keeps the movie short and focused on what I came to see: the mummy shuffling around scaring and killing people. And I'm not sure I want it any other way.

Rating: Three out of five kidnapping, cognizant corpses.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Twixt (2011)

Who's In It: Val Kilmer (Batman Forever), Bruce Dern (Django Unchained), and Elle Fanning (Maleficent).

What It's About: A struggling writer (Kilmer) arrives in a small town on his book tour and is convinced by the sheriff (Dern) to stay and use a local mystery as the plot of his next book. But the writer's dreams of a young ghost (Fanning) begin to blur the lines between reality and fiction.

How It Is: Francis Ford Coppola is in an interesting stage of his career right now where he's able to just make movies because he wants to and not because a studio finds them potentially profitable. Twixt is a great example of that. Based on a dream that Coppola had, but was unable to finish, the movie feels really small and personal in an idiosyncratic way. Coppola's totally indulging himself, but there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. Twixt is loose and sloppy, but it's got a cool story and a fantastic cast.

In addition to its three stars it also has appearances by Kilmer's ex-wife (and Willow co-star) Joanne Whalley, character actor David Paymer, and Don Novello (aka Father Guido Sarducci). Ben Chapman (Murder by Numbers) has an especially cool role as the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe who serves as sort of a muse/spirit guide for Kilmer's character.

The movie is funny and charming, but also weird and - depending on your tolerance level - possibly pretentious. There may or may not be vampires, and that's not just me being coy. After Shark Night and Black Rock though, I was in the mood for something strange and daring and Twixt delivered.

Rating: Four out of five gothy ghost girls.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Black Rock (2012)

Who's In It: Katie Aselton (The League, Our Idiot Brother), Lake Bell (Surface, In a World...), and Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns, Homefront).

What It's About: Three friends try to overcome personal baggage while camping on an island and running from sociopathic former soldiers.

How It Is: After Shark Night I was questioning some of the movies on my watchlist, but once I started watching Black Rock I quickly figured out why I wanted to see it. I love lonely islands, both in real life and as settings for movies. Come to think of it, that and the sea creatures were probably my initial attraction to Shark Night. Then there's the female-led cast in a survival movie directed by a woman and written by her husband.

The director is Katie Aselton, who also heads the cast. She shot the movie in and around her hometown in Maine and there's some really nice stuff in it. The scenery is amazing, the soundtrack by The Kills is great, and it's got a couple of actors I really like. I've been a fan of Lake Bell since the too-short-lived series Surface and I'm one of the three people who really liked Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. I wasn't very familiar with Aselton, but she does a great job playing a very flawed, but relatable character. Once things go wrong on the island, the action often feels brutally real, though going after that kind of authenticity doesn't always work in the movie's favor.

I don't know how much of the dialogue was scripted and how much was improvised, but it certainly feels improvised in a lot of places. Sometimes that works, but there are some important, dramatic moments that could have used another take or two. Scenes that should feel powerfully emotional sometimes come off awkward. Not always, but more often than should be and in some important parts of the plot. Because of that, some crucial motivations feel unnatural, which calls the whole story into question.

But look, it could've been so much worse. Maybe I'm just glad it wasn't another Shark Night, but for what's essentially a homemade movie, Black Rock has a lot more going for it than I expected. That's barely praise, I know, but it hit enough of my favorite buttons that I enjoyed it.

Rating: Three out of five isolated islands.


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