It came as quite a shock to learn, mere moments ago, that Christopher Lee has gone. (I came THIS close to cashing it all in this week, myself: I was driving along, minding my own business, when a 91 year old woman T-boned me- on the driver's side. My hands are trembling even as I write.) In his autobiography, Christopher Lee wastes little time on his performance(s) as Dracula. It's understandable, I suppose: whenever an actor becomes TOO readily identified with a fictional persona, the thespian tends to resent it- and the character. Instances of this are legion. Still, Christopher Lee was, for many, the quintessential Dracula, and one of only a handful of truly unforgettable actors to make his mark in fright Films. Dracula HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE was one of those Fright Films that my brother and I stayed up late (past Midnight) to see- and it scared us so bad that we literally jumped into each other's arms when someone walked into the room. Christopher Lee may be gone- but forgotten? Not in my lifetime.
MEN FROM THE MONASTERY/DISCIPLES OF DEATH is about as close as one can get to a non-stop action movie. It opens with Fang (Fu Sheng) literally fighting his way out of a Shaolin Temple (going through what is referred to as "Death Alley," a gauntlet he must run against sometimes armed opponents just to prove that he DESERVES to leave- and to LIVE). He has one advantage: by immersing himself in a special vat of liquid over his years at the temple, he has strengthened his skin to the point that he's impervious to weapons (except for one particularly vulnerable area- revealed by his former master to a pair of rivals who want him dead). Although his attackers try to kill him with a sword, he exits uninjured. Cut to disciple number two, Hu (Chen Kuan-chi), who sets out to avenge his father's death in a gambling den. He fails at first, but Fang suggests he join the nearest Temple and learn kung fu- which he does, in one of the quickest such scenes I've ever seen, and returns to avenge his father. Cut to disciple number three, Hung, played by Chen Kuan Tai. He's being hunted by the Manchus while forming an army to oppose them. It all comes together in climactic battle after battle so apparently gory that the screen turns red (a la, HEROES TWO), then goes to black and white for most of the rest of the movie (until Chen Kuan Tai brings up the rear). If you're a fan of all-out action, I highly recommend MEN FROM THE MONASTERY.
While it may have been better suited to Saturday mornings, PLANET OF THE APES had its merits: the performances weren't bad; the sets were out of this world (wink, wink, nudge, nudge); and the makeup was absolutely FANTASTIC. As with most television (Past and Present), the greatest weakness lay in the writing (hence, my assertion that the show would've been better suited to the Saturday morning lineup). The basic concept was viable, but the overall approach gave it that "made-for-the-kiddies" throwaway feel. Just recently, I happened across a Titan book, PLANET OF THE APES: EVOLUTION OF THE LEGEND by Jeff Bond and Joe Fordham, that singlehandedly helped rekindle my obsession with all things Ape: it's a massive, beautifully done look at the series from original conception to the most recent movies, and it reminded me of just how much I love the original movies (which remain, for me, the Pinnacle of Fantasy Filmmaking); there are scores of color shots I've never seen before, many of them full page and begging to be framed. If you're an Apes fan, it's a must-have.
VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN was one of those movies I'd been dying to see for years and I must admit that I wasn't as disappointed as I was afraid I was going to be: it's a thoroughly enjoyable (if often historically wonky) action movie, and boasts perhaps the finest dogfights ever committed to film (certainly far superior to the aerial combat sequences in movies like THE BLUE MAX and THE RED BARON). The greatest fault with VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN is, of course, the script: it comes to us from the same husband and wife team who botched both Richard Matheson's I AM LEGEND (retitled THE OMEGA MAN, though Neville in the movie was clearly NOT the last man on Earth) and the dreadful BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES; that VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN turned out as well as it did is something of a miracle and no doubt attributable to Roger Corman's direction. Though (justifiably) famous for his low budget forays into Fantasy and Exploitation films, Corman pulls off quite a coup here. Kudos.
One of my all-time favorites from the Golden Age of Fantasy Films (the 1950s through the 1960s), VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is STILL riveting. The eerie goings-on are beautifully understated, and the horrors that stem from the minds of the alien-begat brats seem all the more shocking as a consequence. The final scenes, wherein Sanders tries to maintain the facade that will enable him to deal once and for all with the brats, are among some of the greatest in the history of Fright Films. For fans who can appreciate solid storytelling and good, imaginative drama, it doesn't get much better than VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. (With the notable exceptions of the original STAR TREK and THE X FILES, we haven't had very much in the way of truly QUALITY Fantastic Fiction on television since the premature demise of THE OUTER LIMITS- the original series-; maybe it's time someone produced another black and white anthology series for the Small Screen. It couldn't hurt...)
There are good performances aplenty in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, and the cinematography is beautiful (being black and white helps), but it's the slow-moving narrative that keeps it from becoming anything other than just another indy vampire flick. If most independent films have one glaring weakness in common, it seems almost always to be in the writing: ideas that were old hat long before the filmmaker(s) stumbled across them seem fresh and new to them simply because they haven't: read very much in the way of, say, vampires, or: they've seen one too many contemporary take(s) on the all too familiar theme(s). A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT reminds me more than a little of Jim Jarmusch's ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Trust me on this: there are many far better variations on this theme.
At least two-thirds of SUMMER OF BLOOD is laugh-out-loud funny. The reason: Onur Tukel, the contemporary Woody Allen. The script is genuinely funny, as is Tukel himself: he babbles on like Woody Allen, so self-absorbed that absolutely nothing gets between himself and his love of himself. His first encounter with a victim of a vampire is priceless: the man's bleeding out and can't talk because his throat has been ripped out. "Can you SIGN?" Tukel asks. The man begins to respond in sign language (subtitles translate the gestures)- but it doesn't really help... because Tukel doesn't know sign language. "Wow," he murmurs, in amazement: "You really DO know how to sign..." Tukel goes on to plumb the depths of life-after-death in a way that even Woody Allen could only dream of. SUMMER OF BLOOD pulls no punches and I recommend it for Onur Tukel's performance above all else.
Like the groundbreaking soap opera DARK SHADOWS, PENNY DREADFUL touches on just about every literary and cinematic trope of the past 200 years. The stories of witches and mad scientists (and their monsters) and werewolves and vampires are intertwoven into a sometimes mesmerizing tapestry. Only the de rigeur "lovemaking" scenes so much a part of contemporary "storytelling" seem out of place (at least, to those of us who DON'T equate Horror with Sex). There are episodes of PENNY DREADFUL that are genuinely moving and downright dramatic, which is why I'll continue to follow along as best I can. DARK SHADOWS certainly DOES cast a long shadow...
KING KONG was one of those unforgettable childhood wonders that STILL manages to evoke a sense of wonder: using every sleight-of-hand movie-making technique then known to Man (and as well as pioneering a few new ones specifically for this occasion), Willis O'Brien and Company gave us "The Eighth Wonder of the World!" I confess: I blasphemed when I touted the Peter Jackson version over this one; beat me, please- I deserve it. It would've been interesting to see the KING KONG VS. FRANKENSTEIN O'Brien had in mind as a follow-up. (The "mutated" version of that idea became the Japanese Kaiju classic, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, in which an irradiated HEART literally blossoms into the giant "Frankenstein" monster; the sequel, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, featured no reference to the earlier dust-up and NEITHER film credits O'Brien with the original idea.) When I arrived here in Crack Town, the disembodied head of the giant mechaniKong built for the heartbreakingly bad De Laurentis remake was on display outside of what was then Carolco Studios. I shot video of several kids sitting inside Kong's mouth and had planned to do a short about a boy who keeps dreaming that he's being eaten alive by a giant gorilla (in the end, he was to have been found dead of fright in the jaws of the giant head), but it never worked out. It's just as well, I guess: there've been a LOT of bad movies inspired by KING KONG; who needs one more...?
HE DOOD IT AGAIN is probably the best of the early MIGHTY MOUSE cartoons (at least, it's the best of the ones I've seen): the animation is on par with the Max and Dave Fleischer SUPERMAN cartoons of the same period- as might very well be expected, considering the fact that SUPER MOUSE started out wearing the already-iconic red and blue costume (with red cape) made famous by The Man of Steel himself, while also performing Super feats of strength and speed. Looming litigation no doubt forced the makers of the SUPER MOUSE cartoons to rechristen the rodent MIGHTY MOUSE and change his costume to the now-familiar yellow (though he still wore the red cape). Cats are invariably the protagonists in the SUPER MOUSE cartoons (the one exception I found being hunting dogs in THE LION AND THE MOUSE, which also featured a Super Mouse prone to drinking "hard cider," though titles like FRANKENSTEIN'S CAT and DOWN WITH CATS speak for themselves) and there isn't a lot going on storywise to distinguish one from the other, but it's the beautiful animation that makes them worth watching. I grew up watching reruns of the show that featured the famous theme song ("Mighty Mouse is on his way!" "Here I come to save the day!") and I've always loved the character- be he Super Mouse or Mighty Mouse.
Network knockoffs of successful theatrical releases has always been the norm, so it came as no surprise that the groundbreaking ENTER THE DRAGON should give rise to the telefilm MEN OF THE DRAGON. While it lacks the integrity of Bruce Lee's masterpiece, MEN OF THE DRAGON does boast some decent production values (most of it appears to have been shot on location in China). The music echoes Lalo Schifrin's score for ENTER THE DRAGON and many of the sound effects sound like they were lifted directly from the film. Unfortunately, MEN OF THE DRAGON is SO derivative that it's hard to evaluate it properly: as a "remake" (or a "re-imagining," as today's Unimaginative filmmakers tend to put it), it's not bad; as a rip-off, it's spot on; as a martial arts movie, it's about as by-the-numbers as it gets, with choreography of the Chuck Norris variety- which is to say, choreography that LOOKS like choreography, with few if any above-the-waist kicks and little or nothing in the way of Originality. MEN OF THE DRAGON followed close on the heels of ENTER THE DRAGON; it's just too bad that it also clung so tightly to its coattails. The IDEA of a team of martial artists combating Evil in the Orient is STILL a viable idea- as long as it's done with REAL Asian Martial Artists, in Asia. (Mark my words: if done right, such a show would put to shame derivative shows like THE WALKING DEAD.) If THAT'S out of the question, a series about a rivalry between opposing schools of Mixed Martial Artists in THIS country would work.
FREAKS was the undoing of director Tod Browning; it touched a nerve, let's say. THE ELEPHANT MAN, not unlike FREAKS, touches a nerve or two, as well. And it's quintessential David Lynch. I was already a fan by the time THE ELEPHANT MAN saw release: I'd seen ERASERHEAD at several Midnight showings and had hunted down and seen on a college campus two of his shorts, THE ALPHABET and THE GRANDMOTHER. Going in, I was pretty sure I knew what to expect. I was wrong. Eschewing the surrealistic touches that made his previous endeavors so quintessentially quirky, he opted this time around to tell a straightforward tale of the Human Heart. "Abominable things, these machines," Hopkins as Treves says when first we meet him, treating a burn victim: "You can't reason with them." In ERASERHEAD, the dark, industrial landscape through which Jack Nance as Henry moves is every bit as uncompromising as the Industrial England of Merrick's time. This integration of the Industrial with the Human would continue full blown in DUNE and, to a much lesser degree, in TWIN PEAKS- which boasted an "industrial soundtrack." David Cronenberg pioneered Biological Horror; Lynch, a type of Twisted Industrial Surrealism. (I wanted to see a Bernie Wrightson black and white comic book adaptation of THE ELEPHANT MAN, but, alas, 'twas not to be.) Feckless politicos here in these so-called "United" $tate$ could learn a great deal about COMPASSION from the Treves character in THE ELEPHANT MAN.
HILL STREET BLUES was one of those shows that grabbed you the moment it came on the air: that absolutely beautiful opening theme, over a montage of memorable characters- superb. The one and only problem I had with the Captain Freedom episodes was a tendency on the part of the writers and the directors to undercut arguably some of the most DRAMATIC moments in the history of the show with almost senseless tongue-in-cheek humor. This humor served as a kind of disclaimer, a "wink and a nudge," if you will, between the filmmakers and the audience. One can't help but be moved by Freedom's reasons for wanting to go out in costume and "make a difference;" it's one of the best throwaway speeches ever written for the show- but is a THROWAWAY speech because it's followed for no good reason by Freedom's reference to messages from aliens from outer space. Yuck-yuck-yuck... FREEDOM'S LAST STAND is STILL one of the highlights of the series and one of my favorite episodes- but it could've been greater still.
Not that I'm disparaging any of the Season Finales that have come before, but this one was truly Outstanding. DREAM TEAMs, indeed! There's not a single one of the trio of concepts that was featured last night that wouldn't make a great Sci-Fi series in its own right. How about it, SyFy? An Anthology Series, based on concepts presented on FACE OFF, with spin off shows for those deemed most worthy. If not a FACE OFF spin off series featuring some of their creations, how about a SCANNERS series, or a SNAKE PLISSKEN show, or PHANTASM-THE SERIES or CREEPSHOW or DARKMAN or THEY LIVE or something along those lines? The possibilities- like the endlessly inventive creations of the Artists on the show- are Endless.
For my money, THIS episode of DARK SHADOWS is the single most important simply because it introduces the character who would become the backbone of the show and one of the most memorable characters in television history, Barnabas Collins. James Karlen as Willie Loomis becomes, in essence, the Renfield to Jonathan Frid's Dracula. The episode, beautifully directed by Lela Swift, carefully eases the audience into the family crypt where Willie will unwittingly unleash a new and truly terrifying Supernatural Horror on Collinwood. Although we don't actually get to meet Barnabas face to face until the next episode, we DO catch a glimpse of the soon-to-be renowned ring he wears. In the documentary CASTING SHADOWS, Jonathan Frid (like George Reeves and Leonard Nimoy, among others) expressed misgivings about the way the character he brought to life on television seemed to cling to life even after the series had run its course, but he also admitted that, in retrospect, he saw the value in playing such a part. The show may be long gone, but for those of us who have always loved it, it will live Forever.
THE TURN OF THE SCREW was a natural for Dan Curtis: his groundbreaking soap opera DARK SHADOWS was essentially spawned by the Henry James story; the parallels are obvious. What makes THE TURN OF THE SCREW Scary-Plus are Curtis's patented touches: the jolting glimpses of figures believed to be dead standing outside in the darkness, staring in at the governess, Jane Cubberly (Lynn Redgrave), the sight(s) punctuated by thunderclaps or the patented Robert Cobert score. It was great to see the Eternally Beautiful Kathryn Leigh Scott as the sinister apparition, "Miss Jessel." The scenes of her hovering near the pond are every bit as chilling as the same scenes in the Jack Clayton version, THE INNOCENTS. Says Jane in the narration: "She was like a great black bird of prey hovering there. A dead thing returned." And let's not forget the two kids, who manage to more than hold their own with the likes of Miss Redgrave and the other adult cast members. Says the boy, Miles (who blinds and then gleefully kills a frog): "Will evil be good and good evil?" "Death is as real as life," he adds: "Sometimes I frighten myself..." During a recital, he refers to "those of us who love the darkness." "You talk of saving me," he chides Jane: "But tell me who, dear lady, is to save YOU...?" To some (especially those whose television upbringings have left them with short attention spans), THE TURN OF THE SCREW may seem sedate, but it nonetheless drips with lingering Menace. Done in the patented Dan Curtis fashion, it's yet another of television's high points.
In Clive Barker's NIGHTBREED, we were introduced to an entire underground civilization; in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, we viewed what was purported to be "found footage" of a missing group of young filmmakers gone in search of a legendary witch; combine these ideas (being careful not to inject any much-needed humor or originality) and what you end up with is DIGGING UP THE MARROW. I actually thought FROZEN was a fairly decent effort (if boring, when it came to the soap opera stuff), but this one had the potential to be something really interesting- but, again, the WRITING gets in the way. It's amateurish, to be frank- unpolished, to be kind; laughable, to be perfectly honest. If this were a project for a filmmaking class, one could kinda sorta overlook the embarrassingly amateurish script... but this isn't a school project, nor is it a first time effort: it's yet another go at commercial filmmaking by filmmakers who've done it before. From the looks of things, they're not learning from their mistakes.
Early on in his writing career, Mickey Spillane wrote comic books. It shows in KISS ME DEADLY: despite director Robert Aldrich at the helm, this one comes off like one of the pre-Comics Code horror comics (and it goes "all the way," too, with an ending straight out of all-too-many of the sci-fi comics of the period). (Updated observation: The ending was courtesy of Aldrich, himself, apparently. But Mickey Spillane DID write comic books...) Ralph Meeker, I've always thought, was an under-utilized actor who rated better than he got- but not this time around; KISS ME DEADLY as a whole simply isn't as good as the sum of its parts. If you're one of those die-hard Noir fans who feels compelled to put this one high up on your list of must-see movies, do yourself a favor and go and hunt down some of the current reprints of pre-Comics Code horror comics; you'll LOVE 'em.
Roman Polanski's take on Film Noir harks back to Huston's own version of THE MALTESE FALCON: flawless filmmaking, with outstanding performances from outstanding players working from an outstanding script. It rarely gets better than this. With California currently in the throes of "the worst drought in Recorded History," CHINATOWN is all too relevant for Today's audiences. And the cattle barons are apparently to blame (see COWSPIRACY.com); while Ordinary Citizens are being forced to cut back on water usage, the Corporate Farms are being allowed to conduct Business As Usual- and, just today, it was announced that another city (Baltimore) was going to follow in the footsteps of the Powers That Be in Detroit, and shut off the water supply to people unable to pay their water bill(s). "My sister! My daughter! Just gimme some water!"
WOLFCOP is exactly the kind of movie you always HOPE you'll get when you take a risk on a rental: funny (to a degree), with some solid performances (especially from the lead), some remarkable makeup fx, and above-average direction. The shedding of the skin alone was an outstanding idea and would've made the movie worth seeing for Genre fans, but add in the gallows humor (the female deputy, Tina, for instance, brandishes the face of a dead man like a Halloween mask, taunting our hero; and WolfCop finds himself momentarily DING-A-LING-LESS during one sequence) and you've got something a notch or two above average. Lou's pal, wide-eyed Willie, sums up our hero's lot in life: "You got that low self-esteem, low I.Q., daddy issues; you're an alcoholic, so you gotta have some rage, right? That's a lethal combo, man." I can't wait to see WOLFCOP II.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt (Hitchcock allusion intended), Bette Davis's ghastly "Baby Jane" is one of the creepiest murderesses to ever grace the screen- and her wheelchair-bound victim is none other than MOMMY DEAREST herself. It's Joan Crawford's long-winded "confession" on the beach at film's end that makes WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? a Nine instead of a Ten by my reckoning. (The same type of thing happened at the end of PSYCHO, with the psychoanalytical speech by Simon Oakland; or the laugh-out-loud ending of THE BAD SEED, where the Evil Child is actually struck by lightning, etc; filmmakers sometimes just don't know when to leave well enough alone...) (Note: Victor Buono as the "accompianist" looks exactly like Norman Bates the way Robert Bloch described him in his novel, PSYCHO, and it's always fun to see him bolt from the house upon discovery of the bound Crawford.) Robert Aldrich was one of my favorite filmmakers and this is one of his best.
The Republican "reasoning" behind the events detailed in KILL THE MESSENGER is indefensible. Thanks to Wretched Ron, "it was raining coke." (Let us now praise Infamous men...) As Renner as Webb puts it: "National security and crack cocaine in the same sentence? Does that not sound strange to you?" Andy Garcia as drug lord Meneses sums up the general consensus of all concerned: "The ends justify the means." But it's the line from the insider Weil that sums up what happened to Gary Webb when he warns him that "some stories are just too true to tell." "I didn't realize Truth was a shade of gray," Webb says at one point. In THIS company, there IS no Truth: it's been systematically strangled in the dead of night, around conference tables and at international business meetings- and it's happening even as I write this: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Top Secret international Moneymakers deal, is moving right along, as is the ridiculous cross-country pipeline (construction of which was never slowed while the "debate" wore on). The death of Webb, while "acceptable" to some, still sounds shaky to me: a "suicide" that took TWO shots to finish...? Maybe it's just me, but I wouldn't BET it was suicide...
I must screw my courage to the sticking place on this one. Being a fan of everything else he's done, I was expecting quite a bit more for my money from John Gulager. (I paid for the TV I saw it on, the electricity it took to get through it, and the outrageous monthly satellite bill that brought it to me, so, yeah, I paid- out the f---ing a--...) I was expecting something along the lines of Dan O'Bannon's THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: Gulager has in past instances shown that he's more than capable of rising to the Low Budget occasion (with everything else he's done)- but, this time around, for whatever reason(s), he simply didn't deliver. At the very least, I was expecting a cameo by his father (and it would've been extra cool if said cameo had been tied into his role in THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD). Again, no such luck. I'm far from consigning Gulager to the list of Has Been Directors: he has more talent in his little toe (left foot) than most directors (p)lying their trade these days. Maybe next time he'll come through for us.
In high school, we staged plays like the one Michael Keaton's character puts on in BIRDMAN; they were just as bad, just as forgettable. Prior to his turn as BATMAN, Keaton starred in two very memorable films, THE DREAM TEAM and CLEAN AND SOBER. Both movies showed that his casting as The Dark Knight was inspired and not the evidence of Tim Burton's madness that many had proclaimed. Keaton's choices following BATMAN weren't as shrewd: though he had his pick of parts, he seemed to be trying to distance himself from The Caped Crusader. In so doing, he boxed himself into corners. In BIRDMAN, which is about as pretentious a movie as anything I've ever seen, his character does as Keaton did, with predictable results. Predictable? Clichéd to the Nth Degree is more to the point- and the hand-held camera trailing along behind him adds absolutely NOTHING to the film; it simply becomes TEDIOUS after an all-too-brief time. Like the aforementioned high school plays, BIRDMAN is Amateurish to an embarrassing degree- and whoever "wrote" this one needs to learn HOW to write; that's the worst aspect of all. BIRDMAN is, to put it simply, for the Birds.
Before I saw the movie, I read the novella (THE BODY, by Stephen King) and was struck by the STYLE of the writing: it reminded me more than a little of a Ray Bradbury story. I enjoyed the story and looked forward to seeing the movie- but what I wasn't prepared for was the Emotional Impact the movie would have on me. When I walked out of the theater, my legs were weak. I went to my car and got in and sat behind the wheel for a long time thinking about the guys I'd grown up with. Most of them were dead or in jail by then (or should've been), but they'd been my FRIENDS and remembering them that evening, I couldn't help but break down. Sure, the movie is stylized and the dialogue retains that "Bradbury" feel, but STAND BY ME is one of those rare movies that (at least for me) sticks with you long after you've seen it. It's hard to watch because of the memories it dredges up, but I still see it whenever I can because sometimes, no matter how much it hurts, it's good to Remember.