Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.
Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label horror. Show all posts

Thursday, September 11, 2014

THE WEREWOLF

THE WEREWOLF (1956). Fred F. Sears.

Duncan Marsh (Steven Ritch) comes into the town of Mountaincrest with no memory of who he is or what he may have done in the past couple of days. Duncan has apparently been experimented on without permission by two conscienceless mad scientists, Chambers (George Lynn) and Forrest (S. John Launer), and can turn into a murderous wolfman without warning. The werewolf make up is rather good, but it's amazing that no one in Mountaincrest seems especially astonished by a wolfman in their midst, as if this were something that happened every day. Don McGowan is the sheriff, Joyce Holden his fiancee, and Harry Lauter [Trader Tom of the China Seas] is his deputy, while Eleanore Tanin and Kim Charney play Marsh's distraught wife and son. Ritch, who gives a credible performance, wrote the screenplay for City of Fear, in which he also appeared. Decidedly downbeat and overall second-rate despite some good scenes and an effective lead performance. Sears also directed the minor sci fi classic Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and many, many other low-budget movies.

Verdict: Somber horror film. **.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE

Al Pacino
THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE (1997). Director: Taylor Hackford.

Coming to realize that his accused pedophile client is guilty, Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) proceeds with his defense [as if he had any other choice] and wins him an acquittal. This brings him to the attention of a certain New York City law firm that is less concerned with ethics than it is with winning. Kevin accepts a large fee to participate in a jury selection, then is offered a position with the firm with lots of perks, including a fabulous Manhattan apartment and a huge salary. But his wife, Mary Ann (Charlize Theron of Prometheus), is soon feeling neglected as he spends all of his time preparing for a case, and she is having very disturbing hallucinations as well. Even Kevin wonders if there's something -- strange -- about his boss, the charismatic John Milton (Al Pacino of The Son of No One), who figures in one of Mary Ann's more unpleasant nightmares. As more and more disturbing evidence piles up, will Kevin look the other way, or face the consequences of dealing with the devil... ? The Devil's Advocate is an entertaining and well-acted horror film that is perhaps at times too influenced by films that came before, but it has its moments, even if it's ultimately a kind of silly picture. It might have been better or at least just as interesting without the supernatural overtones.

Verdict: Pacino is always fun to watch. **1/2.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

AMERICAN HORROR STORY Season One

Connie Britton , Dylan McDermott, Taissa Farmiga
AMERICAN HORROR STORY Season One. 2011.

In this oddball series a family moves to Los Angeles and winds up living in a haunted house which is so notorious it is known as "Murder House" on a guided tour. Anyone who dies in the house -- and there have been a lot of murders there down through the years -- can't move on but must stay inside the house [except for Halloween when the spirits can travel wherever they want]. These ghosts are not misty, insubstantial visions -- they have substance, physicality, and sentience, and interact with the living people in the house, who often don't even realize the individual is dead. [Some of the surprises in the series are discovering that a character you thought was alive is actually a ghost, and someone you thought was a ghost is still alive.] The premise for this first season of American Horror Story is a good enough one, but the execution is decidedly uneven. One thing that can't be faulted (with a couple of exceptions) is the acting, with Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott, and Taissa Farmiga turning in fine performances as the members of the highly dysfunctional family, and Evan Peters nearly walking off with the show in his star-making turn as the deeply troubled Tate Langdon. If Jessica Lange was hoping to turn into an acclaimed character actress with her turn as the weird neighbor, Constance, she's got a bit of a problem in that the role is possibly too strange and unreal for anyone to play altogether convincingly. Zachary Quinto [Star Trek Into Darkness] plays a gay character like such a swishy stereotype that it's hard to believe that his masculine, philandering partner would ever have been attracted to him. Frances Conroy scores as a maid who was murdered but still does the  housekeeping (perhaps the series' only moving moment has to do with her and her dying mother), as does Kate Mara [House of Cards] as a woman who's had an affair with shrink McDermott; there are other notable performances as well from a very large cast. The show, like most "horror" today, is really more of a very black comedy than anything else, even though the ultimate effect is kind of depressing and at times schlocky. But for the most part it holds the attention even as you're wondering why you're bothering to watch it; it could have been so much better. The use of Bernard Herrmann's music from Psycho and Vertigo is really quite annoying and fortunately they stopped lifting it after the first couple of episodes.

Verdict: Not exactly Downton Abbey -- and its internal logic is often screwy -- but it has its moments. **1/2.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962)

Heather Sears and Herbert Lom
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1962). Director: Terence Fisher.

The second color remake of the silent classic stars Herbert Lom [Mark of the Devil] as a presumed dead music professor and composer whose work was stolen by a loathsome publisher named d'Arcy (Michael Gough of Black Zoo), and who haunts the Paris opera, kidnapping new singer Christine (Heather Sears of Room at the Top) so he can coach her in her role. The appropriated opera is based on the life of Joan of Arc, but it sounds more like a 20th century work than something from a previous century. An early scene when a corpse suddenly flies across the stage from a rope during a performance makes you think this might be the old story reworked as a nifty Hammer horror film, but aside from some rats and stabs to the eyeball, this version is not much more horrific than the 1943 Phantom of the Opera, and has a less effective chandelier sequence as well. Lom is not as interesting as the disfigured composer as you might expect, Sears is competent but forgettable, and Gough steals the picture with his utterly vicious and slimy portrayal of d'Arcy. Some of the developments of the script give one pause: a producer (Edward de Souza) learns the truth about who actually composed the opera, but does nothing about it, despite d'Arcy's wretched character and his need for comeuppance. In another scene a landlady somehow knows that Lom is still alive even when the police don't. The movie is entertaining, but somehow disjointed.

Verdict: Disappointing thriller with some good moments. **1/2.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

THE HORROR COMICS:

THE HORROR COMICS: Fiends, Freaks and Fantastic Creatures, 1940s - 1980s. William Schoell. McFarland publishing; 2014.

Another shameless plug for my latest book, which covers about forty-five years of horror stories told in comic books. Many of these were influenced by films and radio, and sometimes the stories in horror comic books were turned into movies -- without crediting the comic book. Fans of the controversial and vivid EC horror comics will enjoy reading about the stories that were adapted for such series as Tales from the Crypt as well as for the theatrical films Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. Then there were long-running comics based on The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff's Thriller. Giant bugs, bloodsucking vampires, flesh-eating fiends, giant voracious man-eating crabs, psychotic wives with axes, deals with the devil, adulterous husbands with murder on their minds, flesh-tearing werewolves, giant spiders with human heads and fangs, dinosaurs out-of-time and on the rampage, Frankenstein and Dracula -- The Horror Comics has it all. You'll read about such stories as "Airboy vs the Rats;" gory classics like "Foul Play;" weird ones like Simon and Kirby's "Head of the Family;" chilling heart-breakers like "Mr. Reilly, the Derelict" and "The Kid's Night Out;" adaptations of Poe, Lovecraft, Stevenson and Ray Bradbury -- and much more, such as the classic terror tale from Dell's Ghost Stories: "The Horror of Dread End," which gave many a kid nightmares back in the day. You can order direct from the publisher's website or from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

SLEEPLESS

Max von Sydow and Stefano Dionisi
SLEEPLESS aka Insomnio/Non ho sonno/2001). D: Dario Argento.

"I haven't slept for seventeen years."

A maniac called the dwarf killer goes on the rampage in Turin in 1983, then seventeen years later his reign of terror begins again -- even though he's supposed to be dead. Moretti (Max von Sydow), the original detective on the case, although retired, begins an informal investigation with Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), the now-grown boy whose mother was one of the first victims. Turned off by the demands of one of her clients, a prostitute, Angela (Barbara Lerici), accidentally grabs a folder containing incriminating information regarding the "dwarf" murders, but the killer somehow catches up with her on the train she is fleeing on, and she is only the first of many victims; the deaths seem to be related to nursery rhymes. Like the best of Dario Argento's thrillers, Sleepless mixes together a lot of elements on its convoluted but suspenseful path to revealing the truth about what's going on, and there are many effective sequences, such as the aforementioned train murder. Sydow is excellent, Dionisi credible, and Roberto Zibetti scores as his friend, Lorenzo. Sleepless is almost as good as Trauma and has plenty of gruesome moments; one of his better latter-day movies.

Verdict: If you're an Argento fan, this is macabre fun -- others beware. ***1/2. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

GRAYSON HALL: A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW

GRAYSON HALL: A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW. R. J. Jamison. iUniverse [self-publishing company]; 2006.

This is an interesting biography of stage, screen and television actress Grayson Hall, who was nominated for a supporting Oscar for The Night of the Iguana, but who will always be best-known for playing Dr. Julia Hoffman on the afternoon Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows. The book looks into her early days before she reinvented herself as "Grayson Hall," her two marriages, her complicated relationship with her father, and the many people she knew and worked with in New York City. Jamison looks at the film that Hall denied she ever made, wherein she played a madame, Satan in High Heels, as well as the low-budget End of the Road, not to mention the two theatrical features based on Dark Shadows. Her stage work was eclectic and controversial: La Ronde, Genet's The Balcony, and even a couple of musicals. She was doing previews of The Madwoman of Chaillot when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. I remember watching Dark Shadows and wondering in how many different ways Hall could intone the phrase "I don't know" which she seemed required to say many times in every episode. Never conventionally attractive -- one might even say she possessed sublime ugliness --  Hall nevertheless proves quite glamorous in some youthful shots in the photo section. Jamison does a good job exploring the life and work of Hall, and suggests that back in the day she was almost some kind of gay icon.

Verdict: For Dark Shadows fans and theater enthusiasts. ***.

HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS

Grayson Hall and Thayer David
HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970). Director: Dan Curtis.

In this first theatrical feature based on the popular Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, the storyline that introduced vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) is retold, although it ultimately goes off in its own direction separate from the series. Looking for treasure, Willie Loomis (John Karlen) stumbles across a coffin containing the centuries-old Barnabas and inadvertently releases him. Barnabas introduces himself as a cousin to the American branch of the Collins family, and is struck by the resemblance of Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) to his lost love, Josette. While Barnabas feeds upon young ladies in the vicinity, and even turns Carolyn Stoddard (Nancy Barrett) into one of the undead, two people figure out his secret: Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) and Professor Stokes (Thayer David). Julia discovers that there's a cell in Barnabas' blood that may be responsible for his condition and begins to cure him, falling in love with him as well. But when she discovers that the person he's committed to is not her but Maggie ..uh oh!  Like the series, House of Dark Shadows benefits from some good acting, with Karlen, David and Scott being especially notable; Don Briscoe as Carolyn's boyfriend and Grayson Hall as Julia are also effective, as is Louis Edmonds as Roger Collins. Joan Bennett shows up now and then as Elizabeth Collins, wringing her hands and looking worried. Roger Davis is fine as Maggie's boyfriend, Jeff, and Dennis Patrick (Dear Dead Delilah) appears as a sheriff. While Dan Curtis [Curse of the Black Widow] could never be considered a great stylist, he keeps things moving and manages to build up some tension toward the end. Certain sequences are especially atmospheric and there is some good art direction, most memorably in a climactic sequence in Barnabas' misty basement. The tune that Josette's music box plays is evocative and the old age make up used on Frid is quite convincing. There are some unintentionally comical moments, and this hasn't the visceral impact of the best of the Hammer horrors, but it really isn't at all bad. Followed by Night of Dark Shadows.

Verdict: About a hundred times better than the Tim Burton version. ***.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

THE WICKER MAN (2006)

Nicolas Cage in a --what else? --  tense moment















THE WICKER MAN (2006).Writer/ director: Neil LaBute. Based on a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer.

A cop named Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) gets a letter from an ex-fiancee, Willow (Kate Beahan) who tells him that her daughter, Rowan, is missing. He travels to an island in Washington where Willow lives and where she has joined an odd matriarchal and religious society that has an upcoming celebration. The islanders try to convince Malus that the missing child doesn't exist, and even Willow acts strangely, finally confessing that Rowan is also Malus' daughter. Malus fears that the girl is to be used in a horrifying ritual, but on that point he may be slightly mistaken ... This remake of the 1974 British cult film The Wicker Man transplants the action to the U.S. and for some reason does away with all the free-spirited sexuality of the islanders, even as there are some hints that this is essentially a Sapphic society, giving the film a [perhaps unwarranted] homophobic cast-- at one point Cage punches out a stereotypically butch female tavern owner. Instead of Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle, we get Ellen Burstyn as Sister Summerisle, and instead of people breaking out into song we get a lot of bees buzzing about a hero who's allergic to them [but somehow survives]. This version of The Wicker Man may be intriguing (as well as confusing) to viewers who've never seen the original film, as the basic storyline is still absorbing. LaBute has cooked up a more modern-type post script for the film. Cage is not bad, but this is not a "great" performance a la Edward Woodward's in the original. Paul Sarossy's cinematography is a plus.

Verdict: The perfect film version of this story has yet to be made, but the original is better. **1/2.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE

The cop fights a giant killer klown!
KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988). Director: Stephen Chiodo.

A small town becomes subjected to an invasion by unusual aliens: they look like clowns, set up an HQ in a circus tent, and use special guns to wrap up people in "cotton candy" that liquefies their bodies for a food supply. Say what you will about Killer Klowns, it has an inventive premise and some clever sequences. The plot is driven by a trio of young residents: Mike (Grant Cramer), his girlfriend Deb (Suzanne Snyder), and her ex, a handsome police officer named  Dave (John Allen Nelson), who at first thinks the other two are pulling his leg until he sees Deb trapped in a balloon by one of the clowns. The killer klowns also use balloons twisted together for  bloodhounds, have popcorn that masses together to form other, vicious klowns, and can create shadow puppets that can actually engulf and swallow people. In one scene a klown uses the dead body of nasty Sheriff Mooney (John Vernon) as a dummy, and when two of Mike's horny friends are cornered by female klowns with big lips and big busts, they show up covered with exaggerated lip prints. Then there's the giant King Kong-sized klown that tries to crush Dave. Killer Klowns is amiably silly, features some excellent make ups and costumes, has a snappy title tune, and some better production values than you might imagine, none of which quite disguise its low-budget, kind of schlocky, veneer. Still, the movie has too many interesting moments to dismiss it. Vernon [Curtains] gives an especially good performance, and the other actors are fine. The movie may have been inspired by the evil alien clowns who bedeviled the Metal Men in the silver age comic of the same name.

Verdict: Watch out for those clowns! **1/2.





Thursday, February 27, 2014

CARRIE (2013)

Last and least: Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie White












CARRIE (2013). Director: Kimberly Peirce.

In another unnecessary remake of Brian De Palma's classic Carrie -- this time a theatrical release -- our telekinetic teen is played by Chloe Grace Moretz. If I recall correctly, Carrie White in King's novel was plain and dumpy. Sissy Spacek in the first screen adaptation was more attractive and Moretz is practically a certified "babe" even before her makeover, so her casting is problematic. Her performance isn't bad -- though not on the level of Spacek's [nor of Angela Bettis' in the 2002 television version] -- even if on occasion she's all twitches and ticks to get across Carrie's shyness and level of anxiety. This version (along with the telefilm) offers another reason for why the students dislike Carrie, that she "goes about saying everyone but her and her mother are going to hell," but this is never demonstrated. Julianne Moore doesn't seem to have a clue as to how to play Carrie's mother; she just completely de-glamorizes herself and hopes that that will work, but it doesn't. The younger actors and the gym coach are satisfactory. Some sequences are well-staged, and Carrie's dispatching of Chris and Billy, her chief tormentors at the prom, is more elaborate. The biggest problem with this version is at the climax -- instead of being numb, her powers growing outward almost accidentally in an explosion she can hardly contain, Carrie's murders of classmates, guilty or innocent, are demonic, conscious, and deliberate. This is definitely a dumbed-down Carrie. Again Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay for the original is used as the template, with tinkering by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Verdict: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. **1/2.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

CARRIE (2002)

Angela Bettis as Carrie White












CARRIE (2002 telefilm). Director: David Carson.

This unnecessary TV remake of Brian De Palma's excellent Carrie tells the same story of a tormented telekinetic teen who wreaks havoc after she's humiliated at the prom, but takes half an hour longer to do so. It could be argued that this is somewhat more faithful to the documentary-type approach of the novel, but the scenes with a cop (David Keith) interviewing different people about the prom disaster that are interspersed throughout the telefilm add nothing to the movie, and only pad the running time so this could air in a three hour time slot (with lots of commercials naturally). Angelis Bettis is quite good as Carrie White, looking a bit more neurotic and freakish than Sissy Spacek, but Patricia Clarkson is completely unimpressive as her mother. Perhaps trying not to imitate the flamboyant Piper Laurie in the original, Clarkson underplays too much and is simply dull; she's more natural than Laurie but much less interesting. Rena Sofer is fine as the gym teacher, and the other young people playing assorted high-schoolers are all okay. This includes some other sequences from the book, such as a meteor shower hitting Carrie's house, and a scene when bitchy Chris Hargensen's father threatens the school with a law suit. Otherwise, it pretty much follows Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay for the original version, using much of the same dialogue, although, incredibly, only Bryan Fuller is credited. The ending was supposed to make room for a weekly television series about the exploits of Carrie White, but low ratings put paid to that lousy idea. The funniest line has someone remarking that mean girl Chris Hargensen has an IQ of 140 -- sure! The original film was actually moving at times, but this one is not.

Verdict: Some good things in this, including Bettis' performance, but far below the level of the De Palma classic. **1/2.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

CARRIE (1976)

William Katt and Sissy Spacek
CARRIE (1976). Director: Brian De Palma.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy, tormented high school student in a small town who has a child-abusing, religious fanatic mother (Piper Laurie). Her telekinetic abilities start to reveal themselves along with her awakening womanhood. As penance for her role in making fun of Carrie in a cruel fashion, Sue Snell (Amy Irving of Hide and Seek) importunes her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom in her place. Unfortunately Sue's bitchy friend Chris (Nancy Allen) -- the ultimate "mean girl" --  and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) have diabolical plans for Carrie, who responds in a powerful fashion of her own ... Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay improves upon Stephen King's potboiler novel, and the film is extremely well-directed by De Palma [The Black Dahlia], one of the very few directors who can make effective use of slow-motion and split screens. Adding to the strength of the movie are the performances, especially by Spacek, who creates deep sympathy for her character without ever becoming cloying. It could be argued that Laurie [Trauma] is a little over-the-top. but she's effective and interesting (which is more than you can say for the actresses who tackled the role in the two remakes). Katt, Irving, Allen and Travolta are all perfect, as is Betty Buckley as the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Collins. The contribution played by Pino Donaggio's excellent score can not be underestimated (he employs Psycho strings on occasion but can he forgiven for that). The songs at the prom are memorable and evocative as well.

Verdict: A classic and by far the best version of this compelling story. ***1/2.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI

Erich von Stroheim as Dr. Crespi
THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI (1935). Director: John H. Auer.

Supposedly based on Poe's "Premature Burial," this film is only vaguely inspired by that story. Dr. Andre Crespi (Erich von Stroheim, the butler in Sunset Boulevard) is importuned to step in when his former protege, Stephen (John Bohn), is severely injured in a car accident. Stephen, now married to the lovely Estelle (Harriet Russell), was unaware that Andre was carrying a torch for her. Crespi manages to save Stephen's life, but only to save him for a diabolical plot as he's never forgiven him for taking Estelle away from him [it never occurs to Crespi that Estelle would probably not have wanted him even if Stephen hadn't entered the picture]. Crespi gives Stephen a drug which allows him to see, hear and feel everything, but won't allow him to "move an eyelash," then plans for him to be buried alive ... In his performance Stroheim alternates a bombastic delivery with lines that are casually whispered; he rarely even seems to be acting. Although it's not quite a terrible performance, he does much less with the role than actors such as Lionel Atwell or George Zucco could have. [Stroheim could give some good performances however, such as in I Was an Adventuress.] Harriet Russell is an excellent actress with a very expressive face, but she apparently only made this one movie. Dwight Frye of Dracula appears in a supporting role as a staff doctor and is as eye-poppingly intense as ever.

Verdict: Acceptable horror-melodrama. **1/2.

YOU'RE NEXT

YOU'RE NEXT (2013). Director: Adam Wingard. Made in 2011; widely released in 2013.

"Would you just die already? This is hard enough for me!" -- killer to victim. 

Crispian (AJ Bowen) brings his Aussie girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) to a family reunion where she meets his mother Aubrey (Barbara Crampton of Re-animator), father Paul (Rob Moran), and assorted siblings and their spouses. Certain members of the family have their resentment issues (this aspect threatens to turn the movie into a parody at times) but a bigger problem is that one of the guests, a filmmaker named Tariq (Ti West), becomes the first victim of a trio of home invaders wearing animal masks. Raised by a survivalist father, Erin takes charge and tries to keep the members of the family focused on surviving and fighting off the vicious interlopers. As more murders occur, it becomes apparent that this is not a random attack but the family has been targeted and it may even be an inside job ... You're Next may not be any kind of cinematic masterpiece, but it is taut and suspenseful and some of the gruesome killings have a bit of imagination in Simon Barrett's screenplay [Barrett plays one of the masked killers as well]. The performances by a largely unknown cast are on the money as well. The plot may not hold up under close scrutiny, and that modern tendency to layer in black comedy is in evidence (though not that prevalent), but You're Next certainly has more than its share of exciting moments. The ending is satisfying but the filmmakers can't resist one last nasty bit of business.

Verdict: Tense and bloody thriller holds the attention. ***. 


Thursday, December 19, 2013

BERSERK

Judy Geeson, Ty Hardin, La Crawford and Diana Dors















BERSERK (1967). Director: Jim O'Connolly.

"It's a good thing you're inhuman."

The chief reaction of cold-blooded Monica Rivers (Joan Crawford), owner of the Great Rivers Circus, to the "accidental" strangling death of her high-wire star -- in a rousing opening sequence -- is that it will bring in more people who are hoping to see somebody else die. Unsentimental Rivers only cares about her circus, but dapper Detective-Superintendent Brooks (Robert Hardy) is more concerned with preventing future murders, especially after Monica's business partner (Michael Gough) gets a steel rivet hammered into his head. Monica also has her hands full with Matilda (Diana Dors), who gets sawed in half nightly, and who thinks Monica is behind all of the killings. Then there's Frank (Ty Hardin), the new high-wire star, who moves in on Monica as if she were a 25-year-old beauty, and Monica's daughter, Angela (Judy Geeson), who has come home from school with the stern headmistress who's expelled her. Which is the killer, and who will be fricasseed next? The odd thing about Berserk is how entertaining and amusing it is, with more than one well-handled murder sequence, and good performances from most of the cast. Dors has zesty fun as the belligerent Matilda, including a lively cat-fight with another gal who makes fun of her. Some of the sideshow "freaks" sing a zippy tune called "It Might Be You," and John Scott's jangling score is effective. As for Crawford, this will never go down as one of her more memorable performances, but she struts through the picture with her customary authority and exhibits smashing legs when in her ringmaster's outfit. Geeson was also in Inseminoid, and O'Connolly also helmed and wrote Tower of Evil/Horror on Snape Island

Verdict: No masterpiece, but suspenseful and engaging on its own terms. ***.

THE SKULL

Cushing and Lee at cross-purposes











THE SKULL (1965). Director: Freddie Francis.

Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) is a collector of macabre esoterica who is brought a certain skull by Marco (Patrick Wymark); Marco insists it is the skull of the Marquis De Sade. Exposure to the skull brings doom and death to certain parties, and begins to control the mind of Dr. Maitland. Another collector, Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee), from whom the skull was stolen, warns Maitland about the skull, to no avail. Amicus studios tried to go Hammer one better by hiring away their stars and directors, and using similarly handsome settings, but producer (and Amicus bigwig) Milton Subotsky's script for this pretty much does it in. Just about everything that happens is completely predictable, and at one point the skull even goes flying through the air like a bat in a silly bit of business. Based on a story by Robert Bloch, it presents a foolish stereotype of De Sade as well. Cushing is marvelous, as usual, with fine support from Lee and Jill Bennett (For Your Eyes Only) as his wife. George Coulouris is an early victim of the skull and Michael Gough is an auctioneer. The whole thing becomes surprisingly boring pretty quickly. Asylum was a much better Amicus picture.

Verdict: More of a numbskull than a skull. **.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ISLAND OF TERROR

Dangerous tentacle of silicate
ISLAND OF TERROR (1966). Director: Terence Fisher.

When the body of a man is discovered with all of his insides somehow sucked out on an isolated island, Dr. Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and Dr. David West (Edward Judd of First Men in the Moon) are called in for consultation by the local constable, John Harris (Sam Kydd). There the two men discover more dessicated corpses, and learn that researchers attempting to create living matter to counteract cancer cells only succeeded in creating silicon-based tentacled creatures ["silicates"] that feed on humans and animals by leeching away bone via osmosis. While the monsters themselves aren't the most frightening things in the world, Island of Terror is still quite creepy, has good performances from the leads, Kydd, and Carole Gray [Curse of the Fly] as West's plucky date, and offers some fairly unusual beasties in the bargain. There are a couple of illogical moments, such as when one character takes an axe to another's arm instead of chopping at the tentacle that ensnared it, and the idea of herding everyone on the island into one place so the monsters can congregate and feed on them is also a boner, especially when they've already herded some animals together for that purpose. Cushing is as marvelous as ever.

Verdict: Fun monster movie despite some dumb moments. ***.

THE LODGER

Simon Baker as mysterious Malcolm
















THE LODGER (2009). Writer/director: David Ondaatje. Loosely based on the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes.

In West Hollywood Ellen Bunting (Hope Davis) and her husband (Donal Logue) rent a room to a handsome writer named Malcolm (Simon Baker), whom Ellen is strongly drawn to. Meanwhile Detective Chandler Manning (Alfred Molina of Spider-Man 2) and rookie detective Street Wilkinson (Shane West) investigate grisly slayings of prostitutes which first remind them of the work of a convicted and executed killer who may have been innocent, and then seem to be copycat killings of Jack the Ripper. Oddly, the same year this was released British television came out with the superior Whitechapel: The Ripper Returns which also had a copycat Jack the Ripper. Another similarity is that both of these stories pair a grizzled veteran with a new, much younger cop, whom the veteran assumes is gay but turns out (supposedly) not to be [Wilkinson lets Manning's dumb homophobic remarks just slide]. Since there are gay cops it might have been more refreshing if Wilkinson had really been gay, and it makes little sense that he allows the obnoxious Manning to think he is without correcting him. What The Lodger has going for it is that it delivers a couple of unexpected and clever twists at the end, but unfortunately it never really delivers the much-needed tension or suspense due to directorial slackness, and the characters aren't that well developed; Manning is unsympathetic as well. The performances are good, however. Tasmanian actor Baker has starred as The Mentalist on CBS for several years.

Verdict: Worth a look for the ending if nothing else. **1/2.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY

Shirley MacLaine as a troubled sister












THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY (1972). Director: Waris Hussein.

Upper east side divorcee Norah Benson (Shirley MacLaine) has increasingly clung to her brother Joel (Perry King) since her husband left, but lately the free-spirited Joel has been acting strange and threatening. [Of course, Norah brushes his hair as if he were an eight-year-old.] Joel becomes a suspect in a horrible murder, the latest in a series of decapitations of women supposedly committed by Joel's friend, Tonio Perez. The trouble is, Tonio is dead. Is Joel the killer, or is he literally or figuratively possessed by Tonio? And will Norah learn the truth before Joel can turn on her and her family? The Possession of Joel Delaney has an intriguing storyline, but while there are a few creepy scenes, it's all handled much too matter-of-factly and there's only real suspense near the climax, which actually consists of utterly repellant scenes of Norah's two young children being terrorized. MacLaine gives a good performance for the most part, but she doesn't seem sure how to handle the grislier "horror" portions of the script involving assorted severed heads. Perry King, who was "introduced" in this movie although he'd had small roles in previous films, is quite good, as are the children. Although Norah reacts to the denizens of Spanish Harlem just as a wealthy snob like her would, the picture does present somewhat stereotypical portraits of Puerto Ricans.The ending leaves room for a sequel which fortunately never materialized.

Verdict: Not awful but misses the mark. **.