Monday, October 31, 2011

October Quick Picks and Pans - Halloween 2011


Burn, Witch, Burn (aka: Night of the Eagle) (1962) I recently stumbled upon this great little forgotten gem, based on a novel by Fritz Leiber, Jr.  Leiber’s story was adapted by Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont (known primarily for their numerous contributions to The Twilight Zone), but George Baxt purportedly had a hand in the screenplay as well.  Peter Wyngarde plays pragmatic college professor Norman Taylor, who’s appalled to discover that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been dabbling in witchcraft.  Norman, the consummate empiricist, sees her behavior as an affront to his intelligence, and unwisely decides to throws out all of her talismans.  As his luck starts running out and his life quickly becomes unraveled, he’s forced to re-evaluate his belief system.  Burn, Witch, Burn starts with an over-the-top voiceover introduction by Paul Frees (otherwise known as “Your Ghost Host,” for all of you Disney Haunted Mansion aficionados out there), providing an incantation to protect all of the filmgoers in the audience from evil.  It’s a fun little gimmick that sets the mood for the old-fashioned thrills that follow.  Catch it if you can!

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD (MGM movie-on-demand) and Netflix Streaming.


  
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) This silent version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale starts a little slow, but gradually builds momentum.  John Barrymore does a commendable job in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde.  As the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, he’s a paragon of virtue, altruistic and inhibited.  He searches for a way to split the self while leaving the soul intact, and develops a drug that he believes will do just that.  Thanks to Barrymore’s unhinged performance and some convincing makeup, Mr. Hyde is genuinely creepy, with his unnaturally long fingers, funky teeth, and oddly shaped head – a fitting embodiment of the Id.  His stooped figure resembles a predatory creature, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.  This distinctive iteration of Hyde led me to wonder if it could have influenced the look of the iconic title character in Nosferatu (which was released just two years later).  In one surprisingly disturbing scene late in the film, Dr. Jekyll struggles with his inner demons, encountering a hideous Hyde-spider; a nightmare-inducing image that you won’t soon forget.  One of the film’s conceits is that we have a choice in our inherent duality, and what sort of person we decide to become.  In Jekyll and Hyde’s case, neither side completely takes possession – their personalities remain influenced by each other.  Which self will triumph in the end? 

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.



Trilogy of Terror (1975) It’s a Karen Black showcase!  Dan Curtis directed this made-for-TV movie, consisting of three Richard Matheson-penned stories and four roles by Ms. Black.  The first two segments are better categorized as suspense stories, while the third (and easily the best) undeniably qualifies as horror.  “Julie,” is about an English professor and her obsessive male student.   Just when you think you know where the story is going, the conclusion takes an unexpected turn.  The second segment, “Millicent and Therese,” is less effective, and concerns two sisters: one is quiet and repressed, while the other is boisterous and unrepentant (both played by Black).  You can sniff the “twist” ending a mile away.  The anthology ends on a high note with the last story, “Amelia.”  Once again, Black plays the main character.  She purchases a Zuni warrior fetish doll for her boyfriend’s birthday, and fails to heed the warnings that the figure is possessed by a witch doctor’s soul; that is, until it suddenly turns homicidal.   Trilogy of Terror is worth watching for Karen Black’s versatile performances, and especially the great final story.  Give it a spin! 

Rating: *** ½ .   Available on DVD.


At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (aka: À Meia-Noite Levarei Sua Alma) (1964) This is where Brazilian writer/director/star José Mojica Marins’ long-running Coffin Joe series began.  I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing.  Zé do Caixão (otherwise known as Coffin Joe) is the undertaker in a small village, and death follows him wherever he goes.  He roams the village at night, on a quest for the woman who will bear his child, killing and maiming anyone who dares to stand in his way.  The gruesome depictions of violence might seem surprising to those who are accustomed to horror films of the same period from the U.S. and England.  Marins seems to enjoy depicting Coffin Joe’s special brand of sadism a little too much for my taste, but the film does have its creepy, atmospheric moments.  Coffin Joe strikes an imposing figure in his trademark black cape, top hat and freakishly long nails.   He impulsively acts out his credo, that life and death are intertwined, but paradoxically fears dying himself.  At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is difficult to look at, yet difficult to look away.  It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly unique.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.


Insidious (2010) Josh and Renai Lambert are young parents whose quiet, normal suburban lives are thrown into disarray when their son Ty mysteriously ends up in a vegetative state.  The grieving parents encounter strange visions, leading them to move out of one house and into a new one, only to have the incidents continue.  They slowly come to the realization that it’s their son, not the house, that’s haunted.  Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell were aiming for something a cut above the usual ghost story, and partially succeeded.  Insidious is rife with obvious nods to Poltergeist, and produces some good scares, as well as some not-so-good scares.  It starts with a less-is-more approach, but devolves into more-is-less, getting a little goofy towards the end as some of the spirits that are hinted at are seen more clearly.  The supporting ghosts are more effective than the star creep, a demon who’s more laughable than menacing.  The leads are generally fine, but Barbara Hershey seems to have phoned in her performance as Josh’s concerned mother.  Insidious doesn’t quite live up to its promise, but it’s not bad as a minor addition to your Halloween horror movie marathon.  If nothing else, the filmmakers deserve kudos for including Tiny Tim’s horrific rendition of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips,” to keep the audience on edge.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray.   


The Stuff (1985) Michael Moriarty stars as corporate spy Mo Rutherford (“…’cause when people give me money, I always want mo’…” Get it?  Hey, you can blame writer/director Larry Cohen for that piece of groan-worthy dialogue.).  He’s determined to find out the origins of The Stuff, a new zero-calorie dessert that’s suddenly popping up in every corner grocery store.  The first half is subversive fun, skewering mass consumerism and satirizing the masses who blindly accept whatever’s marketed to them.  It’s a scenario reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as more and more people fall victim to the deadly dessert and its addictive properties.  It’s too bad that the script eventually loses its way, starting with unfunny scenes involving a paramilitary leader played by Paul Sorvino, who joins Mo in the fight to rid the world of The Stuff.  The ending seems rushed, as if the producer ran out of money, and Cohen didn’t seem confident about what to do with the dilemma he constructed.  The final scene attempts to bring the story back on track, but it’s too late to undo the damage that’s been done in the preceding scenes. Ultimately, it’s a near miss.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD.

  
Evil (2005) This is the best Greek zombie movie I’ve ever seen.  Oh, wait a minute.  It’s the only Greek zombie movie I’ve ever seen.  Sorry… a bad movie deserves an equally bad joke.  My only explanation for the earnest but inept story is that the filmmakers constructed an entire zombie film based on second-hand recollections of zombie films.  Evil fails to convince on all levels, with unbelievable (and unlikable) characters, sub-par special effects and bad cinematography that screams “shot on videotape.”  People spontaneously become flesh-eating zombies for no apparent reason.  The film is never consistent enough to establish exactly how the affliction is transmitted.  There are some half-assed attempts at humor, as the characters kill off the growing zombie hordes using anything at their disposal (shoe, candlesticks, etc…).  It’s also never clear about the correct way of dispatching the zombies.  A shotgun blast to the chest seems to be just as effective as a blow to the head.  I would never fault the low budget, but I can’t abide laziness.  I suppose this film could be considered a curiosity, but that’s not reason enough to waste 83 minutes of your life. 

Rating: **.  Available on DVD.


Have a great Halloween!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cemetery Man (aka: Dellamorte Dellamore)



(1994) Directed by Michele Soavi; Written by Gianni Romoli; Based on the novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi; Starring: Rupert Everett, François Hadji-Lazaro and Anna Falchi; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

Cemetery Man is a beguiling mixture of horror, comedy and sex that’s sure to endear some viewers and frustrate others.  Admittedly, my first impression of the film 17 years ago wasn’t exactly favorable, but I realized that opinions occasionally change over time, and decided to give it another go.  A second viewing led me to the realization that my initial take was faulty, as I succumbed to Cemetery Man’s eccentric charms. 

The original Italian title Dellamorte Dellamore means “of death, of love,” which is really more descriptive of the film as a whole, rather than the somewhat generic sounding Cemetery Man.  The film was based on Tiziano Sclavi’s novel Dellamorte Dellamore, which was an offshoot of his comic, Dylan Dog (whose main character intentionally resembled actor Rupert Everett).  It wasn’t too surprising to learn that Everett was in fact the filmmakers’ first choice for the lead in Cemetery Man.



Dellamorte Dellamore also references Everett’s character, Francesco Dellamorte (his mother’s maiden name was Dellamore), whose behavior clearly embodies the duality of death and love.  Dellamorte works in Buffalora cemetery, along with his mentally deficient companion Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro).  The dead, referred to as “returners,” keep rising up after they’re buried, and it’s his job to keep them down. The hapless Dellamorte lives a world-weary existence, painfully aware that he’s living a farce. Everett provides a window to Dellamorte’s philosophies about life, love and death, through his wry voiceover commentary.  

Describing his friend and co-worker, Dellamorte observes “…On his ID card, it reads: ‘Distinctive visible marks: All.’” Gnaghi sort of resembles a cross between Curly Howard and Jackie Coogan’s Uncle Fester, but decidedly less articulate.  Slow-witted but intensely loyal, Gnaghi is an unlikely companion, who’s also a constant in a sea of change.  Together with Dellamorte, they’re an unlikely duo that evokes comparisons to Of Mice and Men.  Amidst death and violent re-birth they’re both just looking for the right woman, although Gnaghi will settle for just part of a woman.


Anna Falchi, plays multiple roles as the ubiquitous She: first as a widow, then as a zombie, followed by a mayor’s aide, and a nubile young student.  She is the archetypal love interest for Dellamorte, representing someone who’s alternately unobtainable and licentious -- virtually a force of nature to be reckoned with.

Cemetery Man was directed by Michele Soavi, whose resume boasts just as much experience in front of a camera as behind it.  As a disciple of Dario Argento, his morbid excesses are in full display, but he strays from his mentor by displaying a lighter side too.  He also worked under Terry Gilliam as a second unit director, and it’s easy to spot Gilliam’s influence, particularly with regard to Dellamorte’s exchanges with a Grim Reaper figure.  Soavi is interested in the roles each character plays, not afraid to jumble them around like figures in a chaotic board game where the rules have been lost.


One of the more disorienting aspects of Cemetery Man is how rapidly it shifts between broad comedy, dark satire, and absurdist farce.  The strange combination doesn’t always work, but it’s fun to be taken for a ride and sample the sensory overload.  Like a carnival attraction cobbled together from various unrelated parts, it’s a haunted house, funhouse and the tunnel of love, all in one.  It’s an approach designed to stimulate discussion, not box office receipts.  One of the more amusing scenes involves a mourning political figure who sees his grief over his daughter’s untimely death as an opportunity to garner sympathy (and votes) from his constituents.


Director Michele Soavi’s unique movie starts off like a zombie flick (or a parody of zombie flicks), and abruptly takes an existential detour.  It works best while it’s in the cemetery, pondering all things life and death, but loses some momentum in the third act, as Dellamorte leaves the cemetery to paradoxically explore his darker side.  Cemetery Man finds its way again in an ending that’s delightfully absurd and thoughtful.  Where it starts out is not where it ends.  Whether it works as a whole, stylistically or story-wise is open for debate, but one thing is for certain – with Soavi’s unholy blend of Grand Guignol humor, sex comedy, and political satire, he didn’t play it safe.  Recommended as a head-scratching non-traditional entry in your Halloween movie marathon line-up.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Classics Revisited: The Raven



(1963) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Richard Matheson; Based on the poem “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe; Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Hazel Court and Jack Nicholson; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½


“…Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” 
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.” – Edgar Allan Poe

What’s It About?

Wait a minute… Two “Classics Revisited” in one month? What gives? Besides, this is supposed to be Horror Month. Does Roger Corman’s version of The Raven really qualify as horror or is it something else?  In response to the first two questions: because I can. As far as the last question is concerned, well… okay, you’ve got me.  If I had to classify The Raven, it’s basically a gothic comedy, with some horrific elements thrown in. The story is vaguely associated with Poe’s original poem, which serves merely as a starting point.  Black magic, dark castles and treacherous deeds abound, which fit in nicely with the Halloween spirit, don’t you think? Let’s move on, shall we?


Producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson typically started each new film project with a title, and worked from there. The Raven is no exception. Screenwriter Richard Matheson took over where Poe left off, with a man tortured by the nocturnal visit of the eponymous raven. Since the source material could never be stretched into a feature-length film, Matheson was tasked with taking the story on a whole new tangent. As a result of his dilemma, Matheson commented that he felt “obliged” to turn the lugubrious poem into a comedy. 


Producer/director Roger Corman, ever budget-conscious, recycled sets from earlier Poe-themed productions. Thanks to the fact that this was one of the later films in the series, the sets were more elaborate than before, consisting of components progressively accumulated from Corman’s earlier productions.  Because the filmmakers had more to work with, The Raven, for the most part, ended up looking like a much more expensive film. The dungeon and family crypt set pieces are suitably gloomy, while Dr. Scarabus’ castle interior appears fittingly cavernous. 


The main draw of The Raven is witnessing three classic horror actors poking fun at their established personas. The Raven marked the first time that Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff (as Drs. Craven, Bedlo and Scarabus, respectively) had appeared onscreen together, hailed as the “Triumvirate of Terror.” The film also served as a fitting signpost in each performer’s career.  rice was at the top of his game, riding the success of the previous Poe features, while Karloff was nearing the end of his long and illustrious profession.  Sadly, this would prove to be one of Lorre’s final chapters, as he died the following year at age 59. 


Considering his formidable company, Lorre nearly steals the show as the incompetent Dr. Bedlo. He utters some of the film’s most memorable lines (“Milk!  How vomitable.”), as he verbally spars with Price and Karloff. According to Roger Corman, Lorre was prone to improvisation, much to the classically trained Karloff’s chagrin. This caused some friction on the set, which Price tempered, employing an approach that was somewhere in between the other two actors’ opposing styles.

The supporting cast compliments the headliners admirably. Hazel Court is deliciously unscrupulous as Craven’s scheming, duplicitous wife Lenore. Her character’s number one interest is herself, content to back whichever side prevails in the wizards’ feud.  Another noteworthy performance is by Jack Nicholson, in one of his earlier roles, as Bedlo’s loyal but somewhat obtuse son Rexford. He awkwardly shambles in his father’s footsteps, attempting to be the hero, but not quite measuring up to his lofty aspirations. 


Why It’s Still Relevant:

One of the obvious charms of The Raven is the unprecedented chance to see three masters at work. While the multiple-stars-on-one-screen motif is nothing new under the sun, it’s handled surprisingly well.  Price, Karloff and Lorre seem to be having a blast with their roles. It’s a delight to see the three leads play off of each other, and the climactic duel between Craven and Scarabus is a delight to behold, as they match wits and magical prowess. 


Roger Corman has often been maligned for his cheap, quickie productions, but The Raven proves that he was more than capable of creating quality work, given the right material and actors. Corman gained a reputation for fostering the careers of many young filmmakers, but he was actually a talented director in his own right (Bucket of Blood or The Intruder are some additional examples of Corman at his creative zenith). He kept The Raven moving along at a brisk pace, and definitely received a return on his investment with his actors’ performances.


Who ever thought that Poe could be so much fun? Richard Matheson openly interpreted Poe’s seminal work, typically viewed as brooding and melancholic, steering it into a completely unexpected and humorous direction. Of all the Corman-directed Poe films, this is easily the most enjoyable, and also one of the best.  Thematically speaking, it’s a perfect palate-cleanser for the Halloween season, and a nice break amidst the glut of serious, self-important horror flicks that seem to dominate this time of year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Once Over Twice: The Fog



(1980) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill; Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook and Tom Atkins; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Rating: ****

Many of John Carpenter’s films seemed to be ahead of their time, gaining more acceptance years after their original release.  The Fog is no exception, proving the old aphorism that hindsight is 20/20.  His follow-up to Halloween was viewed as a bit of a disappointment at the time, but it has steadily acquired a loyal following over the years as an underrated gem.  Carpenter built an impressive resume in the period that spanned roughly from the mid 70s until the late 80s, with a host of diverse and fascinating genre-bending movies.  The Fog fits squarely into this fertile period, and compares favorably to his best works.   


Carpenter sought out to make an old-fashioned ghost story, which remains at the heart of The Fog, despite revisions made out of necessity.  Production for the $1.1 million-budgeted film (compared to roughly $300,000 for Halloween) was troubled.  When they reviewed the original cut of the film, the filmmakers decided that what they had wasn’t frightening enough.  In Carpenter’s words, he was “under a lot of pressure” to make a film that was scarier than Halloween, so the filmmakers scrambled to improve The Fog, just one month before it was slated for release in the theaters.  Their efforts included re-editing the film, revising the music, and shooting new scenes to give it the “punch” that they felt it previously lacked.  The general impression was that audiences had become more sophisticated, demanding more visceral, explicit thrills.  As a result, some of the scenes with the biggest shocks were added later.


The Fog was set in the fictional coastal Californian town of Antonio Bay (actually Point Reyes, California).  Co-writer/producer Debra Hill noted that the location was coincidentally the second foggiest place in America.  The lighthouse was a real structure in Point Reyes, selected after an extensive search of lighthouses up and down the coast.  Sets were created to stand in for the lighthouse interior, which also served as Antonio Bay’s radio station. *  Carpenter decided to have the station play obscure jazz tracks, which was decidedly cheaper than trying to secure the rights for rock music.  Oddly enough, this decision forged out of budgetary constraints also makes The Fog seem more timeless, as the inclusion of then-contemporary rock would have dated the film

* Fun fact: According to John Carpenter’s DVD commentary, the spiral steps in the lighthouse set were a recycled 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea prop.


The opening scene with John Houseman sitting around a beach campfire perfectly sets the mood, foreshadowing the events that are yet to come.  He spins a tale about a fateful day 100 years ago, when a deliberately misplaced bonfire caused the Elizabeth Dane to crash against the rocks of the seashore, killing the ship’s occupants.  Because of the deception, however, the founders brought a terrible curse upon themselves that would be exacted on their descendents.  Houseman’s scene is short, but the veteran actor brings conviction to the story, endowing the rest of the film with an overwhelming sense of dread.  Not bad for one day’s work.


Carpenter based the story on an actual historical incident that took place off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, although the ghosts-seeking-revenge elements were obviously embellishments.  Carpenter incorporated many in-jokes into the script, using the names of people he previously worked with (Nick Castle, Dan O’Bannon and Tommy Wallace) as character names.  The imagery of The Fog compliments the story perfectly, with cinematography by Dean Cundey.  Cundey’s masterful use of lighting and utilization of the entire Panavision frame teases us about what lurks in the shadows and fog, revealing just enough to make us happy we can’t see any more.  The fog itself takes on the properties of a character, as it oozes and envelops Antonio Bay – a harbinger of death for the townspeople.  The image that sticks with me through the decades is the depiction of the ghostly sailors that dwell in the fog and their glowing red eyes.


Adrienne Barbeau (who was Carpenter’s wife at the time) plays Stevie Wayne, single mother and DJ for the lighthouse-based radio station.  She provides a voice in the darkness for Antonio Bay’s residents, serving as an auditory analog to the lighthouse’s beacon.  Barbeau does a nice job of skirting the line between tough and vulnerable.  As she falls under the fog’s spell, it’s evident that she’s not going down without a fight.  This sets up a memorable scene at the top of the lighthouse as she flees the fog ghosts.

Hal Holbrook arguably provides the film’s strongest performance as Father Malone.  His knowledge of the town’s terrible secret weighs on his conscience as he observes, “We’re honoring murderers.”  He cannot reconcile the fact that his ancestor was one of the men who conspired to engineer the deaths of the settlers from the Elizabeth Dane and recover the gold from their stricken ship.  Holbrook was reportedly not a fan of the finished movie, but his performance as the tortured priest lends much-needed weight to the story, allowing us to overlook many of the inconsistencies.


While the performances are generally solid, and Carpenter’s solemn tone is pitch perfect, The Fog suffers from some lapses in logic.  The vengeful ghosts seemingly attack at random, failing to discriminate between the descendents of the town’s founders and other people.  The ghosts themselves shift back and forth between corporeal and non-corporeal beings, carrying solid metal hooks and swords, then vanishing into thin air.  The peripheral characters do stupid things like walking out into the fog to be slaughtered, for no discernible reason other than it’s ordained in the script.


Faults aside, The Fog is a superior ghost story, best heard around a campfire at midnight when anything seems possible and the dark holds mysteries that can’t be unraveled by the intellect.  It’s one of Carpenter’s best, preying on our collective fears about what dwells on the fringe of our perceptions.  We fear the phantoms manufactured in our mind, and no amount of rational thought can dispel the notion that the phantoms are not real. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Classics Revisited: Phantasm



(1979) Written and Directed by Don Coscarelli; Starring: A. Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm; Available on DVD

Rating: ****


What’s It About?

The term “classic” often gets thrown around arbitrarily, applied to anything that’s aged sufficiently and has gained acclaim from the professional critical community. “Cult classics,” on the other hand, gain their notoriety through the back door, by word of mouth from a vocal minority of dedicated fans. While there’s typically a consensus of opinion about what constitutes a traditional classic, cult classics earn their designation in a more haphazard manner, and by definition have comparatively limited appeal. Phantasm clearly falls into the latter category, although it will always be a true classic in my book. This little low-budget horror flick doesn’t have Oscar-caliber performances, elaborate special effects or the overall polish found in more expensive productions, but it more than makes up for these deficiencies in original and unpredictable ways. 

Astonishingly, this was the 23-year-old writer/director Don Coscarelli’s third feature film. Coscarelli was inspired to follow-up 1976’s Kenny & Company with a horror film, by observing how audiences reacted to a scene in that earlier film involving a guy in a monster mask. Phantasm was shot between 1977 and 1978, utilizing various California locations. The funeral home prominently featured in the film was the Dunsmuir-Hellman Estate in Oakland, while the mausoleum was actually a set built in a warehouse in Chatsworth (coincidentally, my old stomping grounds). Sunnyside Mortuary in Long Beach was used for the funeral home’s coffin showroom, lending some much-needed credibility to the film. Not unlike Kenny & Company, the production of Phantasm was a family affair, with Coscarelli’s father Dac producing and his mother Kate serving (under pseudonyms) as makeup artist, costume and production designer. As in the previous film, Phantasm’s cast and crew included many friends and family members (including Dac and Kate in cameos), mostly whom were not professional actors.


Coscarelli commented that the idea behind Phantasm came from his observations of the “American way of death,” specifically how our society shelters us from the dead. What happens to the bodies after death is a mystery that most of us don’t care to explore. We avoid the morbid, yet we’re strangely attracted to it.  It’s this push-pull dynamic that Phantasm manipulates so well, playing with the audience’s expectations and twisting them around.


The embodiment of this fear and fascination with death is encapsulated in Angus Scrimm’s (real name: Lawrence Rory Guy) darkly enigmatic character, known only as The Tall Man. He has very few lines in the film, but each one is memorable. Only Scrimm could make the word “boy” sound menacing.  We’re never sure what he’s capable of, as he appears like a glowering messenger from hell.  Coscarelli ensured that The Tall Man would appear especially intimidating, shooting Scrimm’s scenes from a low angle. Already well over six feet, Scrimm was made even taller, thanks to 3-inch lifts in his shoes.


The interplay between the leads looks natural and unforced. We buy into A. Michael Baldwin as 13-year-old Mike and Bill Thornbury as his 20-something older brother Jody. Still grappling with the death of their parents, Mike is looking to Jody as a pseudo-parental figure, while Jody is ready to move on. There’s a subplot about Mike conquering his fears about being left behind, which contrasts scenes of Jody in his Plymouth Barracuda – a symbol of freedom from his small-town existence. Coscarelli regular Reggie Bannister rounds out the cast as Jody’s affable friend Reggie (Yeah, Coscarelli didn’t spend a lot of time thinking up original names for his leads). Reggie’s a great guy to have around, whether you’re playing guitar with your best friend or just looking for a place to store the body of a dead dwarf.


Why It’s Still Relevant:

30+ years later, Phantasm still appears as original as ever. There’s nothing else quite like it, which is hard to imagine in this age of remakes, re-imaginings and recycling of ideas. Halloween, The Exorcist and Friday The 13th spawned countless imitations, no one’s been bold enough or crazy enough to attempt a Phantasm rip-off. Coscarelli’s bizarre gumbo of misfit elements doesn’t follow the rules. When the climax takes a left turn into unexpected territory, we can tell that he was taking a chance, and we’re better off for it. This isn’t filmmaking by committee, but the result of a singular vision.


Either by default or design, Phantasm wasn't afraid to be rough around the edges. Some of the sequences don’t make a lot of sense, seeming disjointed and dreamlike at times. It feels as if Coscarelli wanted to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, but it’s this fearlessness that works. Some of the dialogue is admittedly corny, but it just fits into the whole gestalt of the movie. Over the years, it’s been impossible not to repeat several of the more memorable lines.


Phantasm simply clicks because it preys on our primal fears about death and the unknown, and isn’t afraid to toy with our expectations. It’s not easily categorized – the short answer would certainly be horror, but there’s a confluence of other genre elements shoehorned in. The subtextual components include loss of a parent, abandonment, finding meaning in death and what lies beyond; fairly heady stuff for a low-budget horror movie.  

Over the years Phantasm spawned three sequels, written and helmed by Coscarelli, each providing some interesting moments, but with arguably diminishing returns, creatively speaking. The saga’s open-ended structure easily leaves room for another sequel, but as time goes on, another chapter seems more and more unlikely. It would be interesting to see where things would go, with many key questions left unanswered. The first movie, however, remains the best. Phantasm achieved no small feat, as one of the true standouts in a decade that was distinguished by so many great horror films.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Smörgåsbord of the Macabre: The Amicus Horror Anthologies

If it looks like a Hammer film, then it must be a Hammer film, right?  Not if it came from Amicus.  The films of Amicus have frequently been confused with Hammer, exploring similar gothic themes, and even employing some of the same actors, including such Hammer stalwarts as Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt.  During Amicus’ two-decade run in the 1960s and 1970s, producers Milton Subotsky and Max Rosenberg created a number of unique films that challenged and sometimes surpassed their better-known rival, Hammer.

It would be a mistake to write Amicus off as a Hammer clone, however.  One of the ways that Amicus distinguished itself was in the portmanteau or anthology style horror film, consisting of several stories bound together by a framing story.  One common theme that can be distilled among the anthologies is that the stories themselves are essentially morality tales, communicating the message that actions have their consequences.  Although many of the stories follow the same general arc, it’s how they’re told that differs. 

As with virtually all anthology-type movies, the amalgamation of tales is a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some genuine chills to be found here.  These films are prime examples of how they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  The emphasis is on mood and atmosphere, not cheap explicit thrills.  This might disappoint some modern audiences, but there’s something to be said for leaving certain sordid aspects to one’s imagination instead of going for the gross-out.  So, without further introduction, here they are, the Amicus horror anthologies of the 60s and 70s, ranked in order of preference:



1. Asylum (1972) This is my favorite of the Amicus anthologies, thanks to the strong Robert Bloch writing and crisp pacing.  The framing story is more than just a flimsy plot device to introduce the other tales, but practically stands on its own merits.  We learn that one of the doctors at a psychiatric hospital has gone insane, and is now residing as a patient.  A new applicant has been tasked by the hospital’s director to identify which one of the current patients is that former doctor.  While the stories behind each of the four resident patients are revealed, we’re left guessing along with the applicant.  In the first segment, “Frozen Terror,” a man kills his wife so he can go off with his lover.  Another strong entry is “The Weird Tailor,” in which a poor tailor (Barry Morse) is commissioned by Mr. Smith (Peter Cushing) to create a suit from some very unusual fabric.  While the last couple of stories are not quite up to the standards of the first two, they’re still engaging, and everything eventually leads up to a satisfying conclusion to a solid anthology.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.


2. Tales from the Crypt  (1972) This is another excellent anthology.  Five visitors to a mausoleum end up in a secret secluded vault lorded over by the Crypt Keeper, played with reserve by Sir Ralph Richardson.  Richardson adds a touch of class to the proceedings as he introduces each individual to his or her respective fate.  In the first story, “All Through the House,” Joan Collins plays a woman who murders her husband for insurance money, and is subsequently pursued by a crazed killer dressed as Santa (This segment was remade later by Robert Zemeckis for HBO’s Tales from the Crypt series).  In the segment “Wish You Were Here,” a clever variation on “The Monkey’s Paw,” the message is “be careful what you wish for,” as businessman (Richard Greene) learns in an especially morbid way.  The filmmakers save the best for last.  In “Blind Alleys,” a sadistic manager of a home for the blind receives his just desserts from his victims.
     
Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

  
3. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965) I previously disclosed my affection for this film, describing what was likely my first childhood immersion into the world of Amicus.  While this minor classic may not be their “best” from a technical standpoint, it remains a sentimental favorite; sort of the cinematic equivalent of comfort food.  Some highlights are the segments titled “Creeping Vine,” “Disembodied Hand,” (with Christopher Lee and Michael Gough as critic and artist, respectively), and the unimaginatively titled “Voodoo,” in which Roy Castle plays a jazz musician looking for a new sound.  He stumbles on a secret voodoo ritual, and incurs the wrath of unseen forces when he decides to duplicate the music.  The inimitable Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Terror, who introduces his fellow train passengers to the awful fates that await them. 

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Netflix Streaming.

  
4. The House That Dripped Blood (1971) The framing sequences differ from most of the other Amicus anthologies due to the fact that there isn’t a central figure serving as a guide to the stories.  A no-nonsense big-city police inspector is tasked with finding the answers about a missing actor who moved to a small town.  During the course of the inspector’s interviews with local law enforcement and a real estate agent, he discovers the stories behind an old house and its unfortunate former occupants.  These individual tales will eventually lead him to the truth he covets.  One of the standout stories is “Waxworks,” concerning a recent retiree (Peter Cushing) and his fixation with a creepy wax figure.  The best segment, titled “Sweets to the Sweet,” stars Christopher Lee as the father of a problem child.  He initially seems withdrawn and cruel to his young daughter, but we gradually discover the secret behind his callous behavior.  The final story, “The Cloak,” starring Ingrid Pitt and Jon Pertwee is a bit of a letdown, with a comic tone that seems a little incongruous with the other stories.  Overall, it’s well worth your time, if you can track a print down!

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD (Out of print)


5. From Beyond the Grave (1974) The last of the Amicus anthology films (not counting The Monster Club, which isn’t featured here) is another solid entry.  Peter Cushing plays the mysterious proprietor of Temptations Limited, an antique shop with a twist.  People wander into his store to purchase the various curios, only to discover that each item has a steeper price than what is represented on the price tag.   David Warner stars in the first segment “The Gate Crasher,” which features a demonic mirror.  Donald Pleasence and his real-life daughter Angela Pleasence appear in “An Act of Kindness,” about a father and daughter who come to the aid of a man stuck in a loveless marriage.  In “The Elemental,” a man purchases a snuffbox, and learns that he’s brought home an unexpected bonus -- an invisible demon.  “The Door” provides a fun, if somewhat slight, concluding chapter.  Once the stories have played out and the shop door closes we can only remain sure about one thing.  Everything is more than it seems. 

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.


6. Vault of Horror (1973) The sequel to Tales From The Crypt doesn’t quite measure up to the first film, but it’s still good for a few low-key thrills.  There’s no Crypt Keeper here, just five men in an office building who wind up in a strange basement room that has no exit.  They’re left to review what has led to their banishment.  The first segment, titled “Midnight Mess,” is also the weakest, with vampires sipping obvious tomato juice.  “The Neat Job” is a fun story about an obsessive-compulsive middle-aged man and his compliant wife who can only be pushed so far.  The best story, “Drawn and Quartered,” is the last one, starring Tom Baker as an artist (with a passing resemblance to Bob Ross) who seeks out his revenge against those who wronged him (Denholm Elliott and Terence Alexander), with the help of a voodoo curse.   Vault of Horror is slightly more miss than hit, but there’s still more than enough enjoyable bits to merit a mild recommendation.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD. 


7. Torture Garden (1967) With direction by Freddie Francis (who helmed several Hammer and Amicus films) and screenplay by Robert Bloch, you might rightfully ask, “What could go wrong?”  A more apt title would have been Boredom Garden, or perhaps Tales of Mild Distraction.  Burgess Meredith stars as the enigmatic host Dr. Diabolo, who oversees a carnival house of horrors.  Sadly, the framing story with Dr. Diabolo is more interesting than the segments.  Three of the four segments, in which four individuals learn about their possible fates, are fairly weak.  In the first story, “Enoch,” a selfish man learns the secret to his uncle’s wealth, only to unleash a terrible curse upon himself.  It starts well enough, but wears out its welcome.  It goes on a little too long, and the conclusion doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The next two segments, “Terror Over Hollywood” and “Mr. Steinway” (involving a killer piano), are more ridiculous than horrifying.  Only the last segment, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” with Jack Palance and Peter Cushing, is worth watching.  It’s too bad the rest of the film didn’t measure up.  For Amicus completists only. 

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD.