Monday, December 31, 2018

End of Year Nine

Today marks the end of the ninth year of this blog. Technically, the first three posts were in 2009, but the first reviews were posted at the start of 2010. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been doing this my whole life, and sometimes it feels like I’ve just gotten started.

Regular readers have probably noted that my posting has dropped off significantly for the second half of this year. I had a brutally difficult three-month period this year with work, and because I was so busy, things had to get cut out of my schedule. As much as this is important to me, it’s not as important as a regular paycheck. I watched only a few dozen movies in July, August, and September, and that threw me off for the rest of the year. It ecame harder and harder to get back into the habit of writing about films.

Don’t worry—this isn’t all doom and gloom. I’m still at 38 movies remaining to be seen and reviewed, not including the 20-25 that will be added to the Oscars lists in a few weeks. Figuring that there are a few movies I’ll never get to see for one reason or another, I’ve realistically got a few months’ worth of reviews. Add in a few more for the next 1001 Movies edition.

The big question, though, is Oscar Got It Wrong! I’m estimating another 18 months or so to complete that project. What happens after that? We’ll see.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Open Your Gifts!

Every year I suggest a collection of ten films that I think deserve to be on the 1001 Movies list that have, for one reason or another, been overlooked. I take this seriously in the sense that I really want these to be movies that belong on The List for some reason. They aren’t just movies that I like or that I wish more people knew about. That can be a challenge—but not in the way you might expect. Heading into this post, I have a list of 37 possibles. Presented in no real order are the 10 that I think should have made the cut.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Fever Dog

Film: Almost Famous
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

As I come closer and closer to the end of this Oscar project (slowly, if you’ve been paying attention—more on that in a few days), I’m finding the movies that have waited to this point harder and harder to get to. There’s something that feels like it’s preventing me from watching them. In the case of a film like Almost Famous, I don’t have a real explanation for why that is. This is a well-beloved movie, one that almost everyone I know who has seen it has an extremely positive opinion about. And so it’s been a long time since I’ve been this conflicted about a movie.

Here’s the thing—I’m supposed to like Almost Famous, and I have a feeling that if I had seen this when it was originally released, I probably would have liked it a lot more than ultimately do. Two decades ago, I cared a great deal more about music than I do now. And yet, even then, there was always something about music that I found at least a little depressing, at least in terms of live music. There’s something that always feels a little like a funeral to me when it comes to live music. I have no explanation for that, but it colors how I feel about a film that is in large part about a band on tour.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Off Script: Wolfen

Films: Wolfen
Format: DVD from Cordova District Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Of all of the classic Universal monsters, the Wolf Man is the most tragic. Our poor human never did anything to bring the curse down on him. It just happened to him, and no matter how much he doesn’t want to change into a wolf, he does. It’s kind of sad, but it’s also possibly what stopped werewolves from being cool for a really long time. For some reason, the idea never really caught on like Dracula and Frankenstein. Werewolves wouldn’t be cool or interesting or fun for a really long time. Wolfen, released in 1981, might have been a step in that direction, but it’s not entirely clear that this is a werewolf movie when you come right down to it.

In fact, I’d be willing to say that Wolfen runs a lot closer to myths like the Wendigo than anything else. While we have some moments where it appears we might get some lycanthropy, ultimately, it’s something very different. Things start with the grisly murder of a developer named Christopher Van der Veer (Max M. Brown) and his wife Pauline (Anne Marie Pohtamo) as well as their bodyguard. The murder is not a normal one both in terms of its ferocity and what appears to be a lack of weapons. That the bodyguard was a practitioner of Haitian Voodoo is brought up as possibly important. To handle the case, former NYPD captain Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) is brought in to investigate.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Off Script: Maximum Overdrive

Film: Maximum Overdrive
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are some movies that have to be experienced to be believed. Maximum Overdrive is exactly that sort of movie. Starting from the decent but flatly weird Stephen King short story “Trucks,” Maximum Overdrive is what you get when, given a series of decisions and possible directions to go in, a group of people make the wrong choice every single time. Staggering in its dumbness, there is not a part of this movie that isn’t head-slapping in some way. Because of this, I almost love it despite it being so terrible. This is a movie that has the foresight and wisdom to set up a series of rules and then break them consistently when it’s convenient.

Here’s the basic premise: the Earth passes through the tail of a comet and suddenly mechanical devices come to life and try to kill everyone. That’s it. Seriously, that’s literally it. While our suddenly homicidal devices will include video game cabinets, soda machines, and electric knives, most of what comes to life is vehicles. Specifically trucks.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm)

Film: Witchfinder General (The Conqueror Worm)
Format: DVD from River Valley District Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Witchfinder General is one of those movies that comes with a great deal of additional baggage in the vast number of names it goes by. The copy I got was titled Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, and I’ve seen it listed as Edgar Allen Poe’s Witchfinder General. It was also released in the States as The Conqueror Worm another weak attempt to connect this story to the canon of Poe despite it having no connection at all.

Sherman set the Way-Back Machine for the time of Oliver Cromwell and civil war raging across England. While Cromwell’s troops attempt to purge Catholicism from Great Britain, Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) moves from town to town conducting trials to find witches. This goes about how you would expect based on what history you know from these days. Someone accused of witchcraft is put on trial and endures a variety of torture, in this case at the hands of Hopkins’s assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell). Eventually, they are put to a final test which is either fatal, proving their innocence or valid confession, or not so fatal, which means a horrible death.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Off Script: Ghost Ship

Films: Ghost Ship
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

There are certain expectations with a horror movie. I know that there are going to be characters who do exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, and that this is going to get them killed. Sometimes, a good filmmaker or a very good script can make that work. Most of the time, though, we in the audience look at the characters acting like idiots and realize that they’re acting that way because the story needs them to, or because it’s going to allow for them to be killed in spectacular fashion. No movie exemplifies this better than 2002’s Ghost Ship.

We start in 1962 aboard the ocean liner Antonia Graza where a party is going on. While members of the crew and passengers dance, we see sinister actions as a cable snaps across the dance floor, bisecting everyone but a single young girl. Yes, this is shown in graphic detail as blood starts to drip and people fall down in pieces. It’s seriously one of the best openings of a horror movie I’ve seen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Off Script: The Crow

Film: The Crow
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are weird moments when art imitates life and other weird moments where there are simply strange parallels. The Crow is one of those. The thing that most people remember about this movie is that it was the movie that caused the death of Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee. The parallel is that the character Lee plays is a revenant, essentially a corporeal spirit that has returned from the dead to wreak vengeance on those who deserve it. It would have easily been a star-making vehicle for Lee. It was one of the first important comic book movies, and more or less the first non-Marvel/DC title based on a comic book that got any sort of critical acclaim (although The Rocketeer could be argued for that).

Our story is dead simple, which is part of the reason it works as well as it does. Rocker Eric Draven (Lee) and his fiancée Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas) are attacked the night before their wedding, which also happens to be the night before Halloween. Shelly is an activist who has been organizing, and is targeted by a criminal gang. During the attack, Eric shows up and is both shot and pushed out a sixth floor window. According to legend, crows carry the souls of the departed to the land of the dead, but when a terrible wrong has happened, the crow can bring the soul back. So, guess what happens. A year to the day after his death, Eric Draven reanimates his body, which apparently hasn’t gone through any decomposition. And now that he’s back, he’s going to track down everyone who killed him and killed Shelly.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Feet of Clay

Film: Camille Claudel
Format: DVD from Arlington Heights Memorial Library through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

Every now and then I mention how much I enjoy it when someone goes against type. Seeing Tom Cruise play a villain, for instance, or having Alan Rickman play a romantic hero in Pride and Prejudice is always fun. And yet there are reasons that some people are typecast and play similar roles over and over. Isabelle Adjani is a case in point. While she is certainly a capable actress, she’s at her best playing crazy. Films like Possession and The Story of Adele H are a case in point, but Camille Claudel might well be the centerpiece of that fact.

Camille Claudel was a sculptor who began her career as a sort of protégé of Auguste Rodin. This was in a time when women simply weren’t artists. In saying that, it’s important to remember that Camille Claudel didn’t live centuries ago. She died in 1943, which means both of my parents were alive when she was. Rodin was (according to my very limited art knowledge) the last of the great realistic sculptors. Because of that, I always assume he was pre-Impressionist, but he absolutely was not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

London to Brighton

Film: Genevieve
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are multiple genres that seem to be on Oscar’s shitlist. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction tend to be ignored—although that’s happening less over the last couple of years. Comedy is also a bit of a redheaded stepchild when it comes to Oscar nominations. There seems to be a feeling that comedy is somehow easy or unimportant when it’s been demonstrated over and over that comedy can be much more challenging and difficult than drama. So it’s always refreshing to see a film like Genevieve swing a nomination.

This is a pretty simple movie, and there’s not a great deal of plot here. In fact, the plot doesn’t really start until the film is about halfway done. Genevieve is the story of two couples. Alan (John Gregson) and Wendy McKim (Dinah Sheridan) have been married for about three years. Alan’s passion is his old car. When I say he has an old car, I mean it; Alan drives a 1904 Darracq. This is a car old enough that everyone in it sits in the open air. Alan has to crank it to start it. Look at the picture. That’s Alan and Wendy, and the car they are in is the eponymous Genevieve.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Done and Done

Film: The Handmaiden (Agassi)
Format: DVD from Mokena Community Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

Styles in any sort of art will mutate and change over time. A case in point is the idea of film noir. Not many people are making films in black-and-white these days, which certainly means that one of the clear defining characteristics of the style isn’t present. However, there are still noir films being made. It’s also very much an American style, but like just about any other film style, it has been copied by other national cinemas. A clear case in point is The Handmaiden (also called Agassi), a film from Park Chan-wook from a couple of years ago. Partly in Korean and partly in Japanese, this is a film that manages to do quite a bit with its running time.

The Handmaiden is a film in three parts, and while each of the three parts tell essentially the same story with additional information, the three parts are also significantly different. Part One gives us the basics of the story; Part Two gives us the disturbing and frankly awful details. It’s Part Three that drops the hammer, though, tying everything up in completely unexpected ways.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Film: Funny Face
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

Funny Face is a movie that is going to give me agita. I like Fred Astaire; how can you not? I love Audrey Hepburn; how can you not? But who in his or her right mind would want the two of them to be romantic leads in the same movie? When Funny Face was made, Astaire was approaching 60. Audrey Hepburn was a few years short of 30. At one point in the movie, another character complains about the possible relationship—because he’s supposed to be above that sort of emotion and not because he could almost be her grandfather.

Anyway, Funny Face is one of those musicals that is really, really in the style of a classic Hollywood musical. Everyone in the film is an extreme character, and none is more extreme than Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson). Maggie is the editor of a Vogue-style fashion magazine called Quality. Based on her behavior, she’s a good match for Anna Wintour, assuming we can believe the anecdotes in Tim Gunn’s book (and I think we can). She’s the sort of person who would walk into your house uninvited, eat your food, and complain that it wasn’t good and wasn’t what she wanted in the first place. This is not a joke; something similar to this happens in the early stages of the film.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Strait-Jacket

Film: Strait-Jacket
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

I haven’t been shy in the past about the fact that I love William Castle and love the cheesy goodness of many of his films. Castle was the king of the gimmick, having moviegoers sign waivers that held Castle and the film legally innocent if someone died of a heart attack from fright in the theater, for instance. With Strait-Jacket, he got his ultimate gimmick: a cheap slasher movie featuring Joan Crawford as an axe murderess with a screenplay written by Robert Bloch, who also wrote Psycho. Having an Oscar winner as your psychopath pretty much voids the need for seat buzzers and ghost viewers.

Strait-Jacket comes directly from the world of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Suddenly, older actresses, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who both starred in that film, were bankable, but not really as romantic leads. This gave use the awesome little genre of hagsploitation, also known by the equally awesome name of psycho-biddy. Essentially, the genre consists of films about crazy older women, specifically women who were once glamorous and have descended into madness.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

It All Falls Down

Film: Save the Tiger
Format: DVD from Aurora University through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

According to the legend, when on his deathbed, Edmund Gwenn was visited by his friend George Seaton, who commented that it must be difficult for him. Gwenn is reported to have replied, “Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.” There some evidence that this is the source of the quote “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” I bring this up because there’s a reason why dramatic actors often don’t do well in comedy but comedians are often really effective in dramatic roles. Case in point is Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-winning turn in Save the Tiger. Lemmon often had a touch of the dark in his comedy roles, but here he is in full dramatic swing, and the results are eye-opening.

It’s also a case where this is a movie that takes place in just over 24 hours. It almost takes place in a single day, but not quite. We start with Harry Stoner (Lemmon), the co-owner of a Los Angeles clothing company. He and his partner, Phil Greene (Jack Gilford, who was nominated in a supporting role) are on the cusp of their latest show and despite the fact that the designer Rico (Harvey Jason) and cutter/producer Meyer (William Hansen) are feuding, it looks to be a very successful line. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the company is going bankrupt. Harry’s biggest worry is an audit that will reveal some very creative accounting. In his mind, the only solution is a man named Charlie Robbins (Thayer David), a professional arsonist, who will burn down one of their factories, giving them an insurance payout. This is something that Harry is keeping from his wife (Patricia Smith), who is headed to New York.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Blue Note

Film: ’Round Midnight
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I always wonder about those cases where someone is Oscar nominated in a debut. Dexter Gordon swung an Oscar nomination for a role where he more or less played himself. It was his first starring role and his first lead role as well as his first role in a feature-length film. This is because Dexter Gordon was not an actor; he was a jazz saxophonist. He happens to be incredibly influential as a jazz saxophonist, but that’s neither here nor there. There’s a part of me that views his work in ’Round Midnight much the same as I view Marlee Matlin’s role in Children of a Lesser God, although I like this movie a lot more.

In the 1950s, Dale Turner (Dexter Gordon) is a talented and influential jazz saxophonist (see what I mean about him playing himself?) who is troubled, to say the least. His main troubles are alcohol and drugs. Wanting to get something like a fresh start, he decides to go to Paris where he played years ago in the jazz heyday. The goal is to play at the Blue Note, more or less under the control of Buttercup (Sandra Reaves-Phillips), who will keep him on the straight-and-narrow until he has cleaned up. So off he goes, unable to get the drink he wants (he’s been cut off pre-emptively at the club), but playing again and playing well.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Wednesday Horror: Exorcist II: The Heretic

Film: Exorcist II: The Heretic
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are a lot of things someone could say about sequels. There are great ones, of course, and terrible ones. There are sequels that were unnecessary and sequels that are inexplicable. Potentially the best sequel ever made is The Godfather Part II, a film that won Best Picture at the Oscars. But what about the worst sequel? There are hundreds of contenders for that title, of course, but Exorcist II: The Heretic holds a unique position. While probably not the worst sequel in history, it probably is the worst sequel in comparison to the original film. The Exorcist is arguably the greatest horror movie in history and objectively one of the five best ever made. Exorcist II: The Heretic is worse than terrible because it attempts to subvert the original film.

The movie initially doesn’t try to do anything untoward in that respect. We’re four years down the road from the original film. We start with Father Lamont (Richard Burton) and a failed exorcism that leads to the death of the young woman being exorcised. Now having a crisis of faith, Father Lamont is asked by his cardinal (Paul Henreid) to investigate the death of Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow), who died exorcising Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). Evidently, there are some in the Church looking to posthumously excommunicate Merrin for his potentially blasphemous writings.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

All About Krystyna

Film: Anna
Format: DVD from Morris Library through OCLC WorldCat on rockin’ flatscreen.

I find movies like Anna incredibly frustrating. The reason is simple: the movie contains one of the great performances of its year without question and it’s done in service of a film that doesn’t deserve it. Sally Kirkland has never been better than she is in Anna. Sadly, the film itself is little more than a sub-standard remake of All About Eve in so many ways.

Anna (Sally Kirkland) is an expatriate Czech who had a successful film career in her homeland until she was imprisoned for anti-government rhetoric. When she was released from prison, she came to the United States (back when we still had a policy of caching Czechs), where she has struggled to find any sort of acting work. Anna lives in New York and, figuring her film career is gone forever, fights for anything she can get on stage. The film opens with her auditioning for a role and potentially getting a part despite being aggressively against what she is asked to do.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Cold Blooded

Film: Lady Macbeth
Format: DVD from Putnam County Public Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

There are times when I have to shake my head at the summaries provided about films. Take, for instance, newcomer to the 1001 Movies, Lady Macbeth. According to IMDb, the plot is as follows: “In 19th-century rural England, a young bride who has been sold into marriage discovers an unstoppable desire within herself as she enters into an affair with a worker on her estate.” And here’s the thing—that’s technically true in terms of what this movie is about, and also about as far from the actual story as can be believed. Lady Macbeth is a hard core story of a woman placed in a terrible situation deciding to fight back with every weapon in her arsenal including a true viciousness, a ruthless quest for revenge, and the sort of callousness rarely seen outside of a prison camp.

Katherine (Florence Pugh) is forced into a loveless marriage with a man much older than she is in 19th century England. Her life changes immediately, and not for the better. Her father-in-law Boris (Christopher Fairbank) is of the mindset that Katherine’s job is to pop out heirs for his son at every possible opportunity. This is difficult for her because her husband Alexander (Paul Hilton) seems more interested in looking at her naked body than doing much in terms of producing a scion. In any event, she’s not supposed to leave the house, and her world becomes one of pure boredom.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Kids are Trouble

Film: Gloria
Format: DVD from Gail Borden Public Library through OCLC WorldCat on The New Portable.

Gloria was not the movie I expected it to be. Based strictly on the cover of the DVD, this looks like a movie featuring a bad-ass undercover cop protecting a kid. What it is instead is a movie featuring a bad-ass ex-showgirl/gun moll protecting a kid. That may not seem like a major difference, but it makes all the difference in the world.

Truthfully, Gloria isn’t really that tremendous of a film, but it features that singular standout performance from Gene Rowlands as the title character. She is far and away the best part of this movie, something that writer/director John Cassavetes (who was married to Rowlands at the time) had to know on some level. The story is that his intent was never to actually direct Gloria, but once he’d written the screenplay and his wife was starring in it, he was railroaded into directing. Ironically, Gloria netted him some of his most favorable reviews.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Film: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

One of the problems of a lot of Code-era horror films is that they aren’t really that scary. There are a few that genuinely try to get there, but especially the Gothic stuff is more fun than it is frightening. Some really do go for at least disturbing implications. That’s absolutely the case with The Picture of Dorian Gray, a film based on the classic Oscar Wilde novel. There’s nothing here that would cause most modern horror fans to consider this much of a horror movie because there’s nothing here that is really overtly horrific. All of the horror is much more internal and much more subtle, which makes it so much better.

It’s likely that you already know the basic story. Just in case you don’t the elevator pitch is pretty simple. A young man named Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) has a portrait painted of himself. Due to the influence of the morally bankrupt Lord Henry Watton (George Sanders), Gray makes a wish that he remain young while the portrait ages. This wish more or less comes true. Dorian Gray remains a young man while the portrait ages. However, the portrait doesn’t merely get older; it also essentially reflects the quality of Gray’s soul. As his physical being no longer reflects any consequence of his actions, Dorian Gray becomes more and more morally bankrupt and his portrait becomes more and more terrible as the years progress.

Ten Days of Terror!: World War Z

Film: World War Z
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I didn’t really want to watch World War Z for a number of reasons. The primary one is that I’ve read the book, and Max Brooks’s episodic novel is absolutely the best piece of zombie literature that has been produced, at least to my knowledge. It’s smart, it covers the zombie plague from several dozen perspectives, it offers real, human heroes and villains, and manages to be politically incisive as well as entertaining. The minute I realized that the movie was going to be an action movie with zombies, I threw my hands up in disgust. That’s not what Max Brooks wrote.

What Brooks wrote—and I can’t recommend the book enough—is a survivors’ oral history. The book posits that the zombie war is over and has been more or less won, humanity having started pushing back against the undead and reclaiming territory. The book is a series of interviews with survivors at all levels: government officials, children, doctors, soldiers. Each person has a particular perspective on what happened and survived in his or her own way. The story goes from the opening moments of the plague, one of the first victims in rural China to the clearing of the American continent, the rescue of pockets of survivors, and the continued cleansing of the planet from the undead menace.

Ten Days of Terror!: Killer Klowns from Outer Space

Film: Killer Klowns from Outer Space
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I should say at the outset here that I went into this with my eyes open. With a movie called Killer Klowns from Outer Space we’re talking less Citizen Kane and more The Terror of Tiny Town; less The Lost Weekend, more Weekend at Bernie’s. There aren’t going to be a lot of surprises with this film given its name. It’s clearly going to be at least partly comedy, and it’s not going to be the highbrow sort.

So, what’s the story? A town gets invaded by clown-themed aliens. These aren’t aliens that have something vaguely clown-like about them; these are full-on clown themed. They have clown hair, red bulbous noses, wear clown outfits, and attack with clown-themed weapons. These include a gun that wraps up its victims in a cotton candy-like substance, a gun that shoots popcorn, and thrown pies that are apparently made out of some sort of acid.

Ten Days of Terror!: 13 Ghosts (1960)

Film: 13 Ghosts
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

I do have a warm, squishy soft spot for William Castle. None of his movies were ever really that great, but they were pretty much all a lot of fun. Castle was the master of the gimmick, creating electrified seats, floating skeletons, selling life insurance to the audience in case they died of fright, and more. With 13 Ghosts, the gimmick was something Castle called “Illusion-o.” It was more or less a play on 3D glasses. At certain times in the film, the audience could put on the glasses and see the ghosts on the screen. I’ve seen the film both with the optional ghosts (note the text on the picture above) and where the ghosts simply appear. Honestly, it’s pretty much the same film either way.

Like most of Castle’s pictures, 13 Ghosts much more about the staging than it is about the actual scares. The ghosts here are pretty laughable, my favorite being the ghost of a French chef who is adorned with the most ridiculous comic mustache seen outside of a pantomime melodrama. I honestly don’t see how much of this could have been frightening even in 1960. No, like most of Castle’s films, this is the veneer of horror. It’s a carnival spook house ride dressed up with the supernatural.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: 28 Weeks Later

Film: 28 Weeks Later
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I’m always prepared, at least a little, to be disappointed in a sequel. I first saw 28 Weeks Later in the theater the weekend of its release. I had very high hopes for it, even knowing that there was little chance it could match the first film, which remains one of my favorite films ever. But, as I say, I had hopes. Ten minutes in, and I was fully prepared for this to be the template for how to make a sequel. Thirty minutes later, and I was ready to throw up my hands in frustration and disappointment.

It’s strange, because this film has generally received positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and Letterboxd all rate the film relatively favorably, and for the life of me, I can’t understand why. 28 Weeks Later is a film that requires everyone in it to be collectively stupid all the time. The film wants particular things to happen and the screenwriters, rather than giving us legitimate, character-driven reasons for things to happen instead make the characters follow the plot arc that they want. This means that frequently our characters are going to act in very stupid ways, often in ways that defy logic and protocol, so that we can have a new wave of rage-infected people.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Craft

Film: The Craft
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I’m not sure why I like The Craft as much as I do. Some of it is that it seems like the greatest culmination of the 1990s in a single film. It also has a surprisingly entertaining soundtrack that is also the most ‘90s soundtrack imaginable. I like the effects that are used, and I like the way the story builds. I also really like Fairuza Balk and I wonder why her career didn’t build off both this movie and American History X. For whatever reason, I like The Craft a lot more than it deserves to be liked.

I’m going to make the plot rundown quick here because I really want to try to figure out why I like this movie as much as I do. Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) and her family move from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Enrolled in a Catholic high school, Sarah soon befriends a trio of girls who she soon discovers are the school’s weird triad. Bonnie (Neve Campbell), Rochelle (Rachel True), and Nancy (Fairuza Balk) are into the occult, sometimes popping down to a local store run by Lirio (Assumpta Serna) and shoplifting a few items to play around with magic. When Sarah, who appears to have some natural gift at witchcraft arrives, the can complete something like a coven.

Ten Days of Terror!: Taste the Blood of Dracula

Film: Taste the Blood of Dracula
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

Evidently, Christopher Lee played Dracula more than anyone else in film history. I think that makes sense. He also apparently ended each film by claiming that he’d not play the role again until Hammer Studios convinced him to take it up just one more time. Taste the Blood of Dracula is clearly a film in that vein, since Lee, the titular character, is barely in it and has only a couple of lines. There are times when this works—in Horror of Dracula, Lee is absent from much of the film, but he casts a huge shadow over everything that happens. Here, he simply doesn’t. He’s there, but in most cases, he’s almost a non-factor in everything that happens.

We start by watching Dracula (Lee) die. The witness to his demise is a merchant named Weller (Roy Kinnear), who goes to the remains of Count Dracula and takes his cape, ring, and brooch that has essentially powdered blood on it. This will all be important eventually, even though the scene is going to shift radically after this.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Ghost of Yotsuya

Film: The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on big ol’ television.

One of the things I find interesting about horror movies is that horror is often cultural specific and yet there are some universals. Ghost stories seem to be universal in the general if different from culture to culture in the specific. The Ghost of Yotsuya (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan for those who prefer the original Japanese) is a good case in point.

Like many a Japanese film, The Ghost of Yotsuya is a tale of samurai, sort of. It’s worth noting that “Yotsuya” is an area of Japan and not the name of the character, so this is about a ghost that more or less haunts a place, not a ghost of that name. Anyway, we have ronin Iemon (that’s EE-eh-mon) Tamiya (Shigeru Amachi), who desperately wants to marry Iwa (Katsuko Wakasugi) despite the wishes of her father. Enraged by being rebuffed again, Iemon kills Iwa’s father and his manservant, leaving his own manservant Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi) to clean up the mess. In fact, he claims that her father was killed by another samurai.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: Altered States

Film: Altered States
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I know I’ve seen Altered States at some point in the past, although it’s been years. I remember the vague outlines of the story and a few of the details, but I’d lost quite a bit of it. I didn’t realize that Altered States was based on a Paddy Chayefsky novel; I did remember that it was directed by Ken Russell. It’s the sort of movie that is obviously directed by Russell, or possibly David Cronenberg. It’s perhaps closer to suggest that it’s clearly Russell possibly influenced by Croenenberg’s stylish body horror.

Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) is an abnormal psychologist studying schizophrenia. This leads him to the belief that schizophrenics are not necessarily insane, but somehow experiencing a different form of consciousness. In his work with his patients, he uses a sensory deprivation tank, finding the experience to be very much like entering a hallucinatory state from which he has only vague memories. Around the same time, he meets Emily (Blair Brown), a PhD candidate in anthropology. Eventually, the two get married.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Actor 1969

The Contenders:

Richard Burton: Anne of the Thousand Days
Peter O’Toole: Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Dustin Hoffman: Midnight Cowboy
Jon Voight: Midnight Cowboy
John Wayne: True Grit (winner)

Ten Days of Terror!: Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte

Film: Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When I started this blog, I didn’t really consider myself a fan of Bette Davis, mainly because I didn’t know a great deal of her work. Now, having seen a ton of her films, I fully understand why she had the reputation she did. Davis was capable of playing just about anything, but she was at her best and her most Bette Davis-y when she had a good, bitchy role to sink her teeth into. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte gives her the chance to bitch things up and also deal with some potential insanity. It’s a great combination for her.

We start in 1927, when young Charlotte Hollis (Bette Davis) is being romanced by a married man named John Mayhew (Bruce Dern). Charlotte’s father Sam (Victor Buono) understands precisely what this sort of scandal could mean to his societal standing in 1920s Louisiana, and demands that John call off his plans to run away with Charlotte. John agrees, and at a party at the Hollis house, he does so. Shortly thereafter, John is attacked by an unseen assailant, who chops off his hand and head with a meat cleaver.

Ten Days of Terror!: eXistenZ

Film: eXistenZ
Format: On Demand video on big ol’ television.

I don’t remember when eXistenZ first came out, but I remember hearing about it. I worked in the video game industry, after all, and eXistenZ exists more or less in a video game world. It also exists in David Cronenberg’s movie world of body horror, so there’s that, too. I remember being interested in it but then not really having anything to do with it as it didn’t seem to be that well received. I’ve seen it before now, but I figured it was time to get back to it. The truth is that I liked it less on the rewatch than I did on my initial viewing, which is always a little disappointing.

I’m not going to get too involved in the plot here and am instead going to just give the basics. eXistenZ involves the first public test of a new virtual reality game system called eXistenZ, created by a legendary designer named Allegra Gellar (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The game is played with flesh-colored controllers that pulse and seem to be alive and literally connect into the user’s nervous system, which is right in line with Cronenberg’s oeuvre. Shortly into the demo, a man in the crowd stands up and fires biological weapon at Geller, wounding her. She is suddenly on the run with new-to-the-industry PR flack Ted Pikul (Jude Law), who has never played any of the new games and has not been fitted with a biological port to use the controllers. Now, Geller needs to make sure that her game has not been compromised and the two are forced to explore the game world of her creation to discover what is really happening and who is after her.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust

Films: Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (Banpaia Hanta Di: Buraddorasuto)
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

Before I get into the details of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust (called by the closest equivalent to that possible in Japanese: Banpaia Hanta Di: Buraddorasuto), I need to talk a little bit about the Japanese language. There’s a stereotype that Japanese and Mandarin speakers can’t get r’s and l’s correct. The truth is that Japanese doesn’t have an English r or l; it has a sound that is essentially the dead middle between them. What this means is that every time someone calls our title character a “dunpeal,” the actual word being referenced is “dhampir,” an Albanian word for a half-human, half-vampire.

The story takes place thousands of years in the future (roughly 12,090 CE) after some sort of cataclysm has great changed the planet. There was a time in the past when vampires were much more common, and the child of a human mother and vampire father, the dunpeal/dhampir D (voiced by Andrew Philpot) of the title were a lot more common. These hybrids have many of the traits of their vampire sire, including a weakness for sunlight (although not a complete weakness to it) and effective immortality. Think Blade, but anime. Our title character (again, think Blade) is a vampire hunter who wants to wipe out the remaining vampires, and does so as a mercenary, hired by people who have dealings with the bloodsuckers.

Ten Days of Terror!: White Zombie

Film: White Zombie
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m mildly fascinated by depictions of Voodoo in film. There are a couple of ways that it tends to be shown in film. The standard view is that Voodoo is practiced by people entirely captured by evil and completely corrupted. The Voodoo priest is shown as wicked and cavorting with dark forces beyond the control of humanity. Rarely, you get a film like I Walked with a Zombie that treats Voodoo as something to be respected as another equal worldview. A movie like The Serpent and the Rainbow does a little of both, showing it that Voodoo is a legitimate belief system that, like any other, can be used for evil. Sadly, White Zombie is much more of the first stripe than the others.

Like many an early horror movie, White Zombie runs just a touch over an hour and doesn’t have a great deal of real story. This is legitimately it: Madeline Short Parker (Madge Bellamy) comes to Haiti to be with her fiancé Neil Parker (John Harron). On the trip she meets Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), who falls madly in love with her. Unable to get her to reciprocate his affections, he takes his problem to local Voodoo guy, zombie controller, and sugar mill operator “Murder” Legendre (Bela Lugosi) who convinces him to turn Madeline into a zombie. He does, and she “dies” soon after, only to be revived and ensconced in Beaumont’s house. But he’s not happy with her as a zombie, and soon he learns that Legendre wants him as a zombie servant, too.

Ten Days of Terror!: Venus in Furs

Film: Venus in Furs (Paroxismus—Puo Una Morta Rivivere per Amore?)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I always find it interesting when a specific movie has a bunch of different names. Consider Venus in Furs. I get that it will have a different name in Italian (Paroxismus—Puo Una Morta Rivivere per Amore?), but it’s evidently also known as Paroxismus and Black Angel. In the case of this film, evidently the common name for the film and the names of the main characters are what they are because the story bears some superficial resemblance to the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name we derive the word “masochism.” If you think that means that this is a film that would likely be billed as an “erotic thriller,” you’d be right.

Enter jazz trumpet player Jimmy Logan (James Darren). One early morning after a wild party in Istanbul, Jimmy finds the body of a mutilated young woman washed up on the beach. It occurs to him that she looks a great deal like a woman that he saw at the party the previous night. More telling, the woman (Maria Rohm), named Wanda Reed, was seen in the company of three specific people. What Jimmy sees is Percival Kapp (Dennis Price), Olga (Margaret Lee), and Ahmed Kortobawi (Klaus Kinski) stripping Wanda, whipping her, and possibly killing her. Worried, Jimmy flees Istanbul and winds up in Rio de Janeiro in the company of singer Rita (Barbara McNair).

Ten Days of Terror!: The Mummy (1959)

Film: The Mummy (1959)
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

When Hammer Studios started to remake the classic Universal monster movies, it may have ben a risk, but they did them right. One of the big benefits was that they got Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to act in them. That cures a lot of ills. They also seemed to go all out on presenting something that looked appropriately Victorian in terms of the sets and costumes. It’s no surprise that they eventually got around to The Mummy. It is, after all, a classic love story in its own way.

We start at a dig in Egypt where John Banning (Peter Cushing) has broken his leg, but has refused to return to the base camp to get treatment. He, his father Stephen (Felix Aylmer) and his uncle Joseph Whemple (Raymond Huntley), are just about to break into the tomb of Princess Ananka. Ananka was dedicated to the priesthood of Karnak, and there are naturally some significant warnings against breaking into her tomb. In fact, those warnings are delivered to Stephen and Joseph by Mehemet Bey (George Pastell), a warning that is ignored.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: My Bloody Valentine (1981)

Films: My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Ever since Halloween, there has been a standard model for the slasher film. Someone in the past did something terrible, and now it’s years afterwards and something bad connected to that original event is about to happen again. The bad thing that’s about to happen is going to be a series of murders, often with a distinctive weapon and often conducted by someone wearing a mask. That’s very much the basic story behind the 1981 version of My Bloody Valentine. The fact that this is a Canadian slasher isn’t going to make it any more polite.

Twenty years ago, in the town of Valentine Bluffs, there was an annual Valentine’s Day dance. That year, a couple of the mine foremen were so focused on going to the dance that they left with five men still in the mine below. A methane explosion trapped the five men, and when they were dug out, only a man named Harry Warden had survived. The length of Warden’s captivity forced him to resort to cannibalism, and this and the length of time he was trapped drove him insane. The next year on Valentine’s Day, Warden escaped captivity and murdered the two foremen, placing their hearts in candy boxes and leaving them at the dance hall.

Ten Days of Terror!: Quarantine

Film: Quarantine
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

I don’t like the insta-remake trend that seems to be everywhere. In understand the desire to make a remake of a film, but when someone remakes a movie immediately after the original version, I wonder what the point is. It’s not like the technology or conventions of films have changed, and it’s unlikely that anything new is going to be brought to the story. Most of the time, the biggest change is the language; a movie in something other than English gets essentially remade in English. While the most egregious case of this is probably the American remake of the British Death at a Funeral, it’s hardly the only time when a film has been redone a year after the original with just a new crop of actors in a new language. That’s certainly the case with Quarantine, an American remake of [●REC] one year later.

If you’ve seen [●REC], there’s nothing new here except that you’ll no longer need to read subtitles and it’s about 10 minutes longer. Otherwise, if you’ve seen the one, you’ve seen them both, and [●REC] is the better movie. Still, if you can’t get enough of biological zombie-like monsters, found footage, and nausea-inducing shaky-cam, Quarantine is here for you.

Ten Days of Terror!: The Witches

Film: The Witches
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

There are a lot of things to talk about with a film like The Witches. It’s such a strange combination of things I really enjoyed and things I genuinely hate in movies. In the plus column, it’s based on a story by Roald Dahl and it stars Anjelica Huston. On the other hand, it has some clear problems for anyone in the audience older than about nine. We’ll get to that, I assure you.

Because this is a Roald Dahl story, there are a few things you can guess going in. The first is that our main character will be a child. The second is that it’s likely that he’ll lose his parents pretty quickly. The third is that most of the adults are going to be evil, stupid, or both. All of this is exactly correct. While many of the adults in this film will be the witches of the title, aside from our main character’s parents (who will be killed off in the first few minutes) and his grandmother, the adults are going to be uniformly awful.

Ten Days of Terror!: House of Usher (1960)

Films: House of Usher
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve waxed rhapsodic about the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations by Roger Corman before and I probably will again. Corman, of course, was the master of the low budget film, and his Poe adaptations rank among his best. In fact, the Corman-directed films tended to be better than the ones he just produced, and he poured a lot of himself into the Poe films. Adapting a classic like “The Fall of the House of Usher” seems like a natural, particularly when he also went to far less canonical stories like “The Tomb of Ligeia.”

The classic Poe story involves our unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his friend Roderick Usher, who has fallen into dissolution. Usher complains that virtually everything causes him pain. Bright lights, anything beyond the blandest food, loud noises, all of these send him into paroxysms of pain. We also learn that Roderick’s sister Madeline is ill and frequently falls into that favorite malady of the era, a cataleptic trance that is virtually indistinguishable from death. Madeline dies and is entombed, but of course she wasn’t really dead. She “rises” from her tomb, seeks out her brother and the two of them perish. The narrator flees, and when he turns around, he discovers that the entire house has split apart and sunk into the swamp that surrounds it. Cheery stuff, and par for the course for good ol’ Edgar.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: The Woman in Black (2012)

Films: The Woman in Black (2012)
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

When you’re going to be known for your entire life as Harry Potter, it kind of frees you up. Elijah Wood has had the same experience as Daniel Radcliffe in that respect, I think. Wood, who will be Frodo Baggins to millions of people no matter what he does, has focused on weird little horror movies and odd television shows. In a way, it must be a freeing up. Financially secure and more or less typecast, you can do what you want. That had to be at least a part of the reason for Radcliffe signing up for The Woman in Black.

It would be hard to say it was a bad choice. It’s an interesting connection to film history in a couple of ways. First, this is a remake of a 1989 film of the same name with many of the details staying the same. Second, and in terms of film history, more importantly, The Woman in Black is a part of the Hammer horror revival. There is a connection here to the great Hammer films of previous decades, at least in terms of having a period feel, although this one takes place around the start of the last century.

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1995

The Contenders:

Chris Noonan: Babe
Mel Gibson: Braveheart (winner)
Tim Robbins: Dead Man Walking
Mike Figgis: Leaving Las Vegas
Michael Radford: Il Postino

Ten Days of Terror!: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Film: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Format: DVD from Plano Community Library through interlibrary loan on The New Portable.

When it comes to horror movies, I don’t typically think of Disney. I’m guessing most people don’t. Oh, certainly there are some horrific elements in plenty of Disney films; the transformation sequence in Pinocchio, for instance, is pretty traumatizing for young children. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow isn’t really that scary, but it certainly has a clear connection to the horror genre. In truth, this is only half a film. It’s the back half of a feature called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The first half is a truncated version of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows,” while the second half is a musical version of Washington Irving’s story.

The two stories are very different, not just in that one is British and the other American or that one is based on a children’s book and the other a classic folktale. No, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has virtually no dialogue. Instead, the story is more or less entirely narrated by Bing Crosby. The closest we get to dialogue throughout are some songs, and in this respect, Bing is going to play both our hapless main character Ichabod Crane and his rival, Brom Bones.

Ten Days of Terror!: Mystery of the Wax Museum

Film: Mystery of the Wax Museum
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Early movies from great directors can be really fun. I’d love to say that’s the case with Michael Curtiz and Mystery of the Wax Museum, but Curtiz had dozens of credits before this film. He started directing more than two decades before this film. The man was a directing machine in the early years of talkies; Mystery of the Wax Museum was the first of seven credited films from him for 1933. It’s also an early color film, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to see an early two-strip Technicolor movie.

The truth is that there’s a good chance that you’ve seen a movie a hell of a lot like this one already. If you’ve seen the version of House of Wax starring Vincent Price, you’ve seen a good percentage of this film, or at least the main plot. While the character names are different, many of the beats in the plot are virtually identical and a lot of the details are essentially the same as well.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Ten Days of Terror!: I Bury the Living

Film: I Bury the Living
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on laptop.

With a name like I Bury the Living, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It’s a great, lurid title from 1958, the sort of thing that feels like a cheap horror movie that will feature cheap thrills of a dubious nature designed to shock audiences of Eisenhower’s America. Even if the film turned out to be nothing special, the title alone would make it noteworthy.

It’s a bit of a mixed bag, honestly. On the one hand, it’s not a film that really lives up to what is implied by its title. Based on those four words, this seems like it should be a movie where a crazed maniac captures people and inters them until he (it’s always a he) is finally captured by the police and his final victim, probably the love interest of the stalwart detective, is rescued at the last minute. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that the film is far better than what that lurid title would suggest. It has the feel of one of the hour-long Twilight Zone episodes, and with its running time of 77 minutes, even the length feels right for that comparison.

Ten Days of Terror!: Bad Taste

Films: Bad Taste
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

It can be fun to see an actor’s early films, especially for actors who eventually become very prominent and start out in low/no-budget films. It’s even more fun when those movies are cheap horror movies. The same can be said of directors. A director’s early films often show interesting promise. Sometimes you get something shockingly good, like Blood Simple from the Coens or Play Misty for Me from Clint Eastwood. And sometimes, you get something completely crazy, like John Carpenter’s Dark Star or Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, the subject of today’s review.

Bad Taste was written by Jackson and filmed on weekends over a four year period while Jackson was working on a newspaper. The budget appears to be “whatever Jackson found in the couch cushions.” The cast consists of Jackson himself and some friends, who also doubled as the crew. Had Jackson gone on to do nothing, Bad Taste would be a weird little footnote that no one ever saw. However, since Jackson went on to do the Lord of the Rings movies, this early curiosity has become something of a cult favorite.

Ten Days of Terror!: Splice

Films: Splice
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I really don’t like Splice. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, back when Nick Jobe and I did a podcast together and I didn’t like it this time when I watched it. While I think it gets the creature effects done pretty well, it gets everything else wrong. Splice only works as a story if we have a bunch of very, very smart people acting in very, very stupid ways and making the absolutely wrong decision every time a decision needs to be made. People make mistakes; I get that. But these people make literally every mistake they can, including a few that are so ridiculous they almost defy coherence.

Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) are both a couple and a couple of genetic engineers who are attempting to create new life by, well, splicing DNA from a bunch of different species to make a new species. The hope is that all of the splicing and genetic synthesizing will create new critters that will be little biological factories for new medical marvels (think Alzheimer’s and diabetes cures). The movie starts with the “birth” of Fred, a male blob critter, to match up with their previous blob critter, Ginger. Fred and Ginger meet, imprint on each other, and everything seems to be good.

Ten Days of Terror!: Mimic

Films: Mimic
Format: HBO Go on big ol’ television.

How do you deal with the worst film of an acclaimed director? That’s exactly what I’m faced with when approaching Mimic. I love the work of Guillermo del Toro pretty much out of hand. Even his flawed movies are interesting and worth seeing. It’s my opinion that Mimic is the most flawed of his movies, so flawed in fact that he disowned the film after it was released since he felt that his own work was so constantly changed and affected by the demands of the producers.

Mimic starts with a fatal plague that has struck New York killing hundreds of children. Because this is a movie, deputy director of the CDC, Dr. Peter Mann (Jeremy Northam) recruits Dr, Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), an entomologist to help. Dr. Tyler, using the magic of genetic manipulation, creates a new species of large insect she dubs the Judas. This new breed secretes an enzyme that accelerates the metabolism of cockroaches, which are the carriers of the plague. With their metabolism ramped up, the roaches starve to death no matter how fast they ingest food. Soon, the roach population of New York is virtually non-existent, the plague is gone, and everyone is happy. Since the roaches were bred essentially sterile, no one is concerned about what might happen to them.