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Friday, November 08, 2019

TRUCKER'S WOMAN (1975)

Poster from the theatrical release.

Released roughly a year before the '70's trucker craze really kicked off with the release of #1 Top 40 hit "Convoy," this no-budgeter follows the adventures of a man who drops out of college after his truck-driving father meets his fate in a suspicious accident, and replaces his old man as a trucker. More refined than the average long-haul driver, thanks to him being a college boy (played by Michael Hawkins, an actor who was at least 15 years too old for the role), our hero charms his way into the pants of a mysterious blonde (Mary Cannon, also too old for her role) who is later revealed to be the daughter of the mobster who ordered his father's brakes cut. The action is lackluster, the hero is in no way believable, his "humorous/endearing" behavior toward the titular character would these days be considered stalkerish and rapey, women find him sexually irresistible despite the aforementioned creepy aspects, the soundtrack consists exclusively of generic mid-'70's truckin' music, and there are agonizingly long shots of 18-wheelers pulling into and out of truck stops and motel parking lots. Oh, and Doodles Weaver's in a featured part and is clearly drunk whenever on camera.
What we have here was likely a staple of southern drive-ins that drunk patrons would ignore while engaging in sweaty groping in their station wagons, and in many ways looks and feels like a more competently-made all-white answer to THE GUY FROM HARLEM (1977), which has rightly been described as "the PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE of blaxploitation films." Utter trash, but an interesting time capsule of a trucker movie as seen before the short-lived genre's tropes were fully codified. It was entertaining enough to hold my interest, but virtually every second of it was a textbook example of a movie whose story particulars you will predict well before they happen. 
Wow. Just...WOW.

Monday, November 04, 2019

MOLASSES FOR RENT?


There's a woman who lives somewhere in my neighborhood, maybe a little older than me, whom I have run into repeatedly for at least a decade. I do not know her name but she's a gregarious "ghetto fabulous" type who strikes up conversation with any men around her age and tries to put the moves on them until rebuffed. I first encountered her at my favorite local bodega and she approached me because she noticed me chatting with Rene, the proprietor. She sidled over, very obviously sized me up, and proceeded to simultaneously hit on me and try to get me to take her out for drinks. I instantly spotted the crazy, because what sane woman does that, and I also quickly read that she was likely either a full-time functional alcoholic or a well-maintained junkie of some sort. I was polite but I made it clear I was not interested, and when she finally took the hint and left I asked Rene what her deal was. He let out a weary sigh and simply said "She a boozer, meng." After that I kept running into her on the street, in the Associated around the corner, or in the bodega, and she'd a'ways try to chat me up, leading with "Heeeeey, baby..." In more recent encounters she has tried to pry into my business, asking what I do, what "the missus" thinks of whatever I happen to be up to — which was either to determine my status as single or gay — and all manner of other personal info without ever once bothering to ask me my name. Anyway, all of that was background for this brief story of my last memorable encounter with her. Two weeks back I went to sell surplus DVDs and some other items at Book Off in Manhattan, and it was evident that I was loaded with shopping bags full of items to sell. I arrived at the R train platform at Union Street and since the train was not due to arrive for another nine minutes, I went to sit down at an available seat on one of the benches. As I approached the bench I heard that familiar "Heeeeey, baby..." as she beckoned me over. I did not want to be bothered with her but I did want to sit down, so... When I sat down she told me she was on her way to work and then she asked me how I was and what I was doing. I told her I was going to sell DVDs, after which she tried to chat me up regarding her work and looking for something to do when her shift ended. (I did not ask what she does, as I do not care.) I would occasionally try to break into her chatter but she kept interrupting. Finally, just before the train arrived, she asked "You broke?" presumably because the whole exchange had been a lead with which to get me to lower my guard and ask me for money, for god knows what purpose. I looked her straight in the face and said "Of course I'm broke. Like I said, I'm going into Midtown to sell DVDs," and then I indicated the bags of stuff again. The second she realized I was broke and could therefore not be plied for cash, she stood up without a further word and headed further down the platform as the train pulled into the station. Thinking back on that encounter and also on some of the previous run-ins, plus the fact that she hangs around in the back area of the aforementioned bodega with the old Heineken-swilling Latino men, I now wonder if she's one of the neighborhoods low-rent "stealth-hookers." (No, I am NOT interested.)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 31: DOG SOLDIERS (2002)

Yeah, that's you, well and truly fucked.

A group of British soldiers are dropped into the Scottish Highlands for exercises against a squad of elite SAS operatives, only to find that the SAS unit has been savagely torn apart, apparently by vicious animals. The unit's lone survivor, Captain Ryan (Liam Cunnigham), is seriously wounded but apparently knows what wiped out his men, though he remains kind of cagey about that information. Taking the captain with them, the soldiers realize they are being pursued by...something. They encounter a zoologist Megan (Emma Cleasby), who takes them to a house whose dwellers are nowhere to be found, and that timely bit of shelter proves their only defense as the place is surrounded by the returning family, who just so happen to be a pack of ravening werewolves. As the soldiers fight to survive against insurmountable odds, details of the how and why of the soldiers being dropped into this particular remote area are revealed, and it's only a matter of time until the inevitable...

I wanted to close this year's round of 31 DAYS OF HORROR with something strong, and DOG SOLDIERS qualifies in no uncertain terms. I discovered it with a friend during Thanksgiving in 2003, when we had nothing better to do in Connecticut, so we drove around to several of the county's mom-and-pop video rental joints in search of entertainment. We ended up snagging both DOG SOLDIERS and DAGON in what turned out the be the best randomly-selected double-feature of our lives up to that point. Both films went on to become personal favorites and I immediately purchased DVD copies for my own collection.

Taking the tried and true "base under siege" setup carved in stone by the original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD  DOG SOLDIERS proves to be a savage, visceral treat for horror-lovers in general and werewolf fans in particular. The list of genuinely great werewolf movies is a rather short one — I cite THE WOLF MAN (original version), THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON,  WOLF, and LATE PHASES — and DOG SOLDIERS can proudly be counted among the best of the best. It's got a story that is best approached with a minimum of plot foreknowledge (hence my not going into too much detail), but it can be said that the werewolf effects are superb, it's gory as a motherfucker (to most sensibilities), features a solid script and performances, and the set pieces are all memorable and engrossing.

 When you know you're gonna die horribly anyway, why not go out like a man and fist fight a fucking werewolf?

As previously noted, it's pretty much a re-staging of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD's no-way-out scenario, only ramped-up on a fistful of Study City animal stimulants. Trust me on this one. You absolutely will not be disappointed.

And with that I wish you a safe and Happy Halloween 2019!!! And remember: "Evil" spelled backwards is "live."

Poster from the original release.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 30: I AM LEGEND (2019)

 The desolation of post-apocalypse New York, the city that never sleeps...

It's been said that the third time’s the charm, and when applied to this third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 science fiction/horror novel I AM LEGEND that assessment is only partially accurate.

Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is a military scientist attempting to cure a pandemic that has wiped out nearly all of the world’s population, leaving him, as far as he knows, the last uninfected man on Earth. You see, the plague was an unexpected by-product of a successful cancer cure that mutated into a virus that killed about 90% of mankind, transforming the remaining survivors into mindless, animalistic “darksiders” who combust when exposed to UV radiation and roam the streets at night in search of food. Neville proves immune to the plague and when not working on the cure he cruises around a desolate Manhattan hunting deer for fresh meat and working his way alphabetically through the DVDs at a deserted video store (he’s up to G), his only companion being a German Shepherd named Samantha (“Sam” for short).

Neville operates from his sumptuous brownstone near Washington Square, a home fortified with all manner of military security and an assortment of no-nonsense ordnance, to say nothing of a fully equipped laboratory, but while he has plenty to occupy his time he’s quite lonely. He broadcasts an endless loop radio message alerting any survivors to his existence and names a contact point where he can be found every day at a certain time, but after three years no one has responded to his message. And as he periodically hunts the infected for anti-virus test subjects Neville notices their behavior becoming more savage and aggressive, even copying the traps he sets for them.

That setup is all you need for a compelling story, and I AM LEGEND is a very, very good film that allows Will Smith a showcase for his acting abilities since he has only a dog to share the screen with and his performance is punctuated by the film having virtually no music throughout its running time. I used to think that Smith was just another pretty-boy who headlined churned-out blockbusters and frivolous flicks, but here he proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that he can act his ass off, imbuing Neville with quiet intelligence, sensitivity, and a loneliness that’s simply heartbreaking.

But the film does have its flaws. The infected antagonists are all rendered in iffy CGI, giving them the aspect of video game characters and causing them to clash wildly against the obviously live Neville and Sam. It almost looks like we’re along for the ride as Neville finds himself in some sort of “shooter” virtual reality simulation. But that quibble is minor when stacked against the real issue: the film actually goes out of its way to not be your standard Hollywood blockbuster/mindless action movie, and as such it’s simply terrific, so why did the filmmakers throw that all away during the last reel? I won’t say what happens — because I still recommend the film nonetheless — but the film totally douches out during the final twenty-five minutes and effectively sinks what could easily have become a classic of the genre. All the striving not to insult the viewer’s intelligence is traded in for cheap sentimentality and an ending straight out of a bad DIE HARD sequel, throwing in bits of business that utterly defy the well-constructed logic that came before. Seriously, once the film nose-dived I was greatly disappointed, especially when I considered just how engrossing it was up to that point.

I don’t know what it is about Matheson’s novel, but for some reason it has never been made into a fully satisfying feature film. THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1964), with my boy Vincent Price, kept the novel’s straight-up horror edge with the plague victims mutating into vampires, but was hampered by a weak script and a budget that wouldn’t have bought a decent box lunch (although some of the admittedly creepy visuals did inspire George Romero’s landmark NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, so it wasn’t a total loss). THE OMEGA MAN (1971) was basically a backyard G.I. Joe scenario enacted on celluloid, filled with shoot-‘em-up action, car chases, and Charlton Heston in the lead, totally unbelievable as any kind of scientist and coming off as a slightly over-the-top fusion of his earlier turns as Moses, Judah Ben-Hur, and Taylor. And now the 2007 I AM LEGEND comes along and almost delivers a perfect, contemporary treatment of Matheson’s bleak narrative, but it still manages to scuttle all of its virtues by adhering to an unfortunate status quo at the last minute.

Bottom Line, I AM LEGEND is definitely worth checking out for the good stuff, but be prepared for the cop-out when it happens. You have been warned.

Advance poster from the theatrical release.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 29: GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (1972)

 A considerate caveat.

A young couple’s choice of venue for lover’s lane action proves disastrous when they park in a graveyard and a hungry vampire, one Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki), rises from the earth in search of sustenance. 

Freshly risen and ravenous...

...for more than just blood.

Croft kills and drains the boyfriend while the horrified girl screams in terror, but her day gets considerably worse when the undead murderer drags her into the open grave and rapes her (thankfully off-camera, allowing our imaginations to conjure up something far worse than what could have been presented directly). She survives the ordeal, considerably less sane for her trouble, and gives birth to a pale baby boy who won’t breastfeed. When mum accidentally cuts her finger with a knife and her blood falls onto the babe’s lips, he laps up the red stuff with gusto and his mother immediately begins lacerating her breasts to feed her little one. 

A mother's love writ jet black.

As the years go by mom perishes from blood loss, and the half-nosferatu child grows up into a hulking specimen (biker film mainstay William Smith) who sets out to take vengeance against his father, provided he can track him down. In a novel twist, Croft is now a professor of legends and mythology at a university’s night school, and as he begins preying upon the student body his son signs up for a night course.

Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki): rapist vampire. In short, not a nice guy.

What follows is a game of cat and mouse that erupts into a knock-down, drag-out ass-whuppin’ of a showdown from which only one can walk away, and while I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, there is no happy ending…

This whole film’s pretty good, if a tad dated, but the thing that sets this one squarely in the exploitation/grindhouse firmament is the still-shocking setup. I mean, really. Raped by a goddamned vampire as he crawled from the grave after years of sleep? Now, that's original (if incredibly sleazy and tasteless)! Proof of what can be achieved with a low budget and a solid script, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is very much recommended, and it's one of the handful of old school grindhouse perennials that I would love to see get a modern, gorier remake.

Poster for the theatrical release.

Monday, October 28, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 28: DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978)

The apocalypse is here...and it is ravenous.

Okay, I freely admit to having taken forever to finally get around to this one, simply because damned near everyone and their parakeet knows all about this landmark, and also because I m beyond over-saturated with zombie-oriented entertainment in all media over the past two decades. So, here we are with George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD, the film that — even more so than its predecessor from a decade earlier, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD — basically defined the zombie apocalypse movie and set its tropes in stone. Both NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD rewrote the rules for what horror films could get away with in terms of gore and overall bleak intensity, and the impact of both works is still felt today.

Our heroes.

The plot seems at first to be a study in simplicity, as it's pretty much the previous film's "base under siege" setting writ larger and more graphic — waaaaaaaaaay more graphic — but in between its set pieces of survival during an apocalypse of mindless, flesh-eating undead considerable time is given to getting to know the tales four survivor characters as they fight tooth and nail against the endless horde. As we follow helicopter pilot "Flyboy" (David Emgee), SWAT officers Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger), and pregnant Francine (Gaylen Ross), we see them hole up in a zombie-infested shopping shopping mall that they expunge the undead from and fortify into a home/fortress. Surrounded by seemingly unlimited goods and supplies and living in secure luxury while the world outside descends into a hellish landscape, the four become bored in their comfortable consumer palace while their home is surrounded by wave after wave of dead former consumers, revenants drawn to the place by some buried memory of the mall having one been an important facet of their existence. As tensions escalate among the survivors, a marauding gang of looter bikers raid the mall for whatever they can take, thus letting in untold numbers of the walking, ravenous undead, so our heroes must fight to protect their home and themselves, but how can they possibly win against an enemy that just keeps on coming?

Feeding time.

Though a sly piece of social commentary, the aspect that put DAWN OF THE DEAD on the map was its utter hopeless bleakness and a then-devastating level of ultra-graphic gory special effects. The zombies tear into the flesh of screaming humans with gusto, biting out chunks of meat while bright red blood pours like syrup and slimy viscera is haphazardly pulled out and devoured, complete with enthusiastic sounds of fevered mastication on the soundtrack. I was barely thirteen when I managed to see the film during first release, at a theater in White Plains, NY that did not care that the movie poster clearly stated that "No one under 17 will be admitted," even if accompanied by an adult, and what I witnessed shocked the hell out of me while thrilling me to the core. Here at last was a horror movie that gave me everything that I wanted — a solid script, believable performances, a bleak tone that did not cop out, a respect for the audience's intelligence, and savage gore on an unprecedented scale — and after this there no turning back, for either myself or the genre. And that fact certainly proved true, as Romero's unrated masterpiece broke down the barriers of what could be gotten away with in a respectable motion picture and ushered in a wave of gut-muncher cinema that has only escalated since 1978.

My one caveat for those who have not seen the original DAWN OF THE DEAD is that they approach it from the perspective that it was the film that caused the zombie sub-genre as we now know it to become a big deal, even more so than its landmark predecessor, so all of the ropes that invented and that were fresh when it hit have long become a part of the language of horror storytelling and, arguably, been improved upon or refined for the fare that came after. While delivering what it promises, the 1978 DAWN OF THE DEAD is rather slow-moving and slightly over-long to modern sensibilities, though its zombie set pieces remain powerful. The major-league love that those around my age or older who saw it back when possess for the film is due to it being something different at the time of its release and not being afraid to shower the screen with blood an offal. In its way DAWN OF THE DEAD was as groundbreaking and genre-defining as the Universal and Hammer horror films that were its forebears, and as such it is of unarguable historical and artistic importance and cultural value. That, and it's damned entertaining.
Poster from the original theatrical release.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 27: THE UNDEAD (1957)

Having mastered mysterious psychic powers from shamanic priests in Nepal, psychological researcher Quintus Ratcliff (Val Dufour) seeks to prove that he can send a person's consciousness back through time and into their past lives. In the presence of his old college professor, now head of the American Institute of Psychical Research, Ratcliff sends "Diana Love" (Pamela Duncan), a hooker (whom he randomly picked up off the street) into a trance that could last for two days or more, during which she first channels the persona of a French-speaking ancestor before finding her consciousness transposed through the centuries into the body of Helene, a woman in the Middle Ages. (The time is confirmed later in the story as being during the reign of King Mark of Cornwall, meaning sometime in the 6th century A.D.) 

How to time travel sans DeLorean.

Upon waking in the past, she has no memory of her 20th century self and is horrified to find that she is in chains in a dungeon, awaiting beheading for suspicion of witchcraft. With the aid of a disembodied voice that only she can hear — actually Diana's future consciousness — Helene narrowly avoids being raped by her guard and knocks him cold, fleeing into the night.

 The travails of Helene begin.

Her flight leads her to encounter Digger Smolkin (Mel Welles), an allegedly simple-minded monk who serves as an undertaker/gravedigger and whose odd manner and perceived retardation is believed to have been caused by bewitchment, a state supposedly brought upon him by the accused Helene. After she hides beneath a corpse within a coffin that Smolkin is about to inter, Smolkin discovers her, takes pity, and protects her from pursuing knights. Though Smolkin has been told that Helene was the one who bewitched him, Helene convinces him that she is innocent, begging him to protect her until dawn; the execution of herself and two other accused women is scheduled for dawn but if she remains un-apprehended until then, she will have a year in which to prove her innocence.

Sorceress Livia (Allison Hayes) and her imp sidekick (Billy Barty).

Meanwhile, we are shown that Helene's accuser is an actual shape-shifting sorceress named Livia (Allison Hayes), who framed Helene for witchcraft in order to separate her from the knight Pendragon (Richard Garland), Helene's true love, whom Livia fancies for herself. Livia tracks Pendragon, who had been searching for Helene, to an inn, where she offers herself to the knight in absolutely no uncertain terms, citing that Helene will be lost to him with the coming dawn, but Pendragon holds fast to hope and politely rebuffs the smokin'-hot witch. And speaking of witches, Smolkin drops Helene off at the cottage of Meg-Maud (Dorothy Neumann), a witch of the more stereotypical Grimm's fairytales aesthetic, who fills Helene in on Livia being her accuser (and later revealing Livia as the one who bewitched Smolkin). The old hag, however, is sympathetic to Helene and is a match for Livia, having had a mother who cheated Satan, stole his knowledge of trickery, and lived to keep her soul, while passing on her skills to Meg-Maud, so the gauntlet for a witchy cat fight is thrown. And as if all of that weren't enough, the witches' sabbath occurs at midnight in Smolkin's cemetery and Livia plans to attend as "the queen of sorcery," standing at Satan's side while bearing a freshly-severed heard "to prove that she is true to his black trust." Yes, Satan himself (Richard Devon) is putting in a live appearance, so you know shit's getting thick.

Getting down at the witches' sabbath!

Let's Make A Deal: Satan  trades cash and prizes for souls.

As events spiral toward a dire climax,  back in the present, Ratcliff, informed of the situation by the words of the still-entranced Diana (speaking as Helene) and noticing that the regression is physical as well as mental (Diana's body bears the bruises that Helene incurs during her misadventures), sends himself into the past, where he steals the armor of a passing night in order to effect a rescue. But how can he save Helene from her fate without causing all of her subsequent incarnations to never have happened? The answer to that query involves a diabolical pact and a shocking resolution...

I first encountered THE UNDEAD when it was subjected to the hilariously snarky treatment of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 during that show's eighth season (1997), and it's one of the handful of "bad" movies featured in that showcase that in no way deserved to be counted among such legendary stink bombs as CASTLE OF FU MANCHU or MONSTER A GO-GO  Part of the slew of cheapies cranked out by legendary schlockmeister Roger Corman — who either helmed and/or produced such cult classics as ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERSTHE WASP WOMAN, the original THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, DEATH RACE 2000, and ROCK 'N' ROLL HIGH SCHOOL  to name but a few — THE UNDEAD came about during the 1950's craze of fascination with the concept of reincarnation, and what the the script does with that is fuse that aspect with an interesting variant on time travel. Though the film's costumes and sets do nothing to hide its cheapjack production values — it was apparently cobbled together with spit and baling twine from leftover assets from poverty row Arthurian time-fillers — the effort is bolstered by a fun and intelligent script with a game cast that gives its all.

Digger Smolkin (Mel Welles), morbid lyrical genius.

The standout performances are led by Mel Welles, aka Mr. Mushnik from THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, as Smolkin. Though bewitched, Smolkin is a character straight out of a Charles Addams cartoon, merrily singing morbid tunes to himself as he conducts the grim business of  the gravedigger.   He's an hilarious presence whose antics somehow manage to avoid veering into the obnoxious, in fact, his songs are so morbidly ridiculous, they inspired this bit from MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000:


Allison Hayes, best remembered now as the titular star of the schlock classic ATTACK OF THE 50-FOOT WOMAN (1958), steals the show as Livia, a sultry sorceress who could tempt even the most pious of men to give it up for her Satanic lusciousness.

The utterly bewitching Allison Hayes as Livia.

Her attempts at beguiling Pendragon leave nothing to the imagination, and it's made very clear that her intentions, diabolically-tinged though they may be, are indeed sincere. For example, this exchange:

LIVIA (after planting a heartfelt kiss to Pendragon's lips): Our Spirits may despair, Pendragon, but dare those spirits tie the hands of flesh?
PENDRAGON: Do not tempt me...
LIVIA (going for broke): I do not tempt... I give.

Livia makes her move on Pendragon. Buddy, if you don't want her, GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY!!!

Note should also be given to the legendary Billy Barty in the role of Livia's nameless and silent imp accomplice. Another shape-shifter, the imp is infectiously happy to do his mistress' evil bidding, and his delight in his job is written across his face.

Billy Barty, having impish fun in the presence of Allison Hayes' magnificent rack.

Coming in at just under 75 minutes but bearing enough ideas for at least three movies, THE UNDEAD is an unjustly overlooked gem in the Corman roster, and it deserves rediscovery by modern audiences. It overcomes its cheesiness by sheer effort and exudes a singular charm that makes it a film that once seen, you will want to share with others. It is by no means EXCALIBUR, but it gets a very strong and unabashed recommendation from me.
Poster from the original theatrical release.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 26: Mary Shelly's FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

The science of playing God while being a shirtless hunk.

Is it even possible to calculate how many film adaptations there have been of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly's 1818 literary landmark, FRANKENSTEIN; OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS? Much like trying to take an accurate tally of how many iterations there have been of Dracula onscreen, it's likely an impossible task and definitely a thankless one, especially when trying to narrow it down to a translation that is faithful to the source work in ways other than featuring an obsessed scientist and the misbegotten creature that he cobbles together from pilfered cadaver elements and somehow  infuses with life. Those basics are apparently all one needs in order to put asses in seats, but doing so strips Shelly's dense and evocative work of most of its nuances and subtle exploration of its themes (subtle for something written in its era and of that time's prose style, that is). Love the Universal and Hammer iterations though we do and that have become culturally indelible within the overall landscape of horror, that stuff only mined minimal aspects of Shelley, which, to be fair, may have been for the best, as the average Joe Sixpack in the audience would likely not have the patience to make it through the book's dense period prose.

Following the box office success of 1992's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Coppola once more rolled the dice and served as producer of 1994's MARY SHELLY'S FRANKENSTEIN, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Hewing closer to the novel than most previous adaptations, though nonetheless making a few alterations here and there that didn't hurt the overall narrative, the end result comes off as kind of a MASTERPIECE THEATER take on the material, replete as it is with period atmosphere, lavish costumes, stunning sets, actors of quality and class, and obvious care and effort put into the proceedings by all involved. It retains much of the novel's classy-but-visceral punch, but it's admittedly not a movie for those expecting Universal's level of dark fairytale atmosphere or Hammer's go-for-the-guts approach to then-groundbreaking levels of thrills involving gore and suggested sexual content. Branagh does not paint the screen with the red stuff, and instead he gives us a period drama that happens to involve ill-advised, forbidden science and the tragic misunderstood and rejected creature that results from that work. It's classy as hell, but that adherence to classiness renders a lot of the action pretty but inert.

Robert De Niro as Frankenstein's creature.

While Kenneth Branagh is serviceable as Victor Frankenstein, he never fully manages to  engage as as character and only really serves as a catalyst for the plot moving point to point. Instead the real selling point here, at least for those of us who have read the novel, is the unlikely casting of Robert De Niro as Frankenstein's creature, a scarred, hideous mockery of man who, in a rare move for cinematic depictions of the character, is allowed to be as intelligent and eloquent as Shelly's vision of the monster. That intelligence and eloquent gift for self-expression lends the creature a depth and pathos as something far more than the often silent or mono-syllabic stiff-limbed revenant juggernaut, and it's a version that I wholeheartedly embrace. His journey in the novel is fascinating as he seeks answers to the purpose of his existence, and by extension ours. Though the novel's depth in that area cannot hope to be replicated in a 123-minute film, what De Niro was able to get across here is both admirable and respectful to Shelly's creation. In short, I loved him in the role.

The Bride (Helena Bonham Carter). Elsa Lanchester she ain't...

We even get treated to Helena Bonham Carter as the monster's bride, created from the reanimated corpse of Victor's adopted sister/wife, in a bit that rewrites a key segment in the novel. In Shelly's version, the creature demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him, and once she is completed the creature and his new companion will leave and never be seen again. So swears the creature, but Frankenstein, concerned that the creature and his mate will eventually reproduce and spawn a race of god-knows-what, reneges on the deal and destroys the female creation just before bringing it to life,  thus spurring his male creature to further acts of murder and bitter revenge. In the film, the bride's existence is indeed brief — echoing the too-short screen time of Elsa Lanchester's classic version in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) — but she's always a welcome presence who manages to only deepen the male creature's soul-deep misery.

MARY SHELLY'S FRANKENSTEIN is worth sitting through for Frankenstein completists and for those who appreciate the articulate monster of the novel. Otherwise, viewer mileage may vary considerably...



Poster from the theatrical release.

Friday, October 25, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 25: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954)

"All he wanted was a lady..."
— Dave Edmunds, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1979)

This one's less of a review and more of a heartfelt love letter to a "monster" who is near and dear to the hearts of myself and millions of advocates for teratism worldwide 65 years. 1954's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is perhaps the archetypal monster movie about a man-sized amphibian entity of apparently hostile intent, and though there have been many that followed in his wake, none of them held the near-primal resonance that this specific specimen wields.

The plot is simplicity itself: An expedition to the Amazon seeks further information after the discovery of the fossilized remains of a missing link between aquatic and land species, and upon their arrival at the remote titular location they encounter the "Gill-Man" (Ricou Browning), a tall, fish-like amphibious biped with great strength, sharp claws, and a nasty temper. More beast than man, the creature defends its territory with a lethal vengeance but is soon distracted by the beauty of the team's sole female member (Julie Adams, in her now-classic white one-piece bathing suit). It is presumed that the creature is the last of his species, so the presence of a female, human or not, stirs yearnings within him and  sends him on a hopeless quest to claim the woman for himself. As anyone who has seen the original KING KONG (1933) will tell you, that pursuit does not go well...

"But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun..." (Or Julie Adams, in this case...)

Seen today, the film is not scary per se, but it does provide entry-level thrills for the budding monster kids, and the fact that the Gill-Man is so beautifully realized is a major factor for the movie's undying appeal. Even by modern standards, the Gill-Man suit is a makeup effects masterpiece, and the Gill-Man is rightfully counted as the last of the great Universal monsters. For all intents and purposes, he looks real and very much alive, especially when seen wet and stalking about on dry land, wreaking havoc as he goes, with his mouth and gills working realistically as he breathes and implacably approaches the camera. 

Just look at that magnificent bastard.

Much like Kong, the Gill-Man is an undeniably masculine and primal presence, and his motivations are all too easy to relate to from a human perspective. How dare these interlopers invade his home and then have to nerve to not only attempt to capture him, but also photograph him like a pack of waterlogged paparazzi? And him being smitten by the sight of Julie Adams gracefully making her way through his watery domain is fully understandable on a gut (and other organs) level, so who cannot relate? The Gill-Man is the lonely guy writ large and untamed, again like Kong, so his plight absolutely tugs at our heartstrings and we genuinely feel sorrow at his unfair demise — murder, if you ask me — and also for his species passing from the world with his decisive exit. (Or, rather, "decisive" until the two tepid sequels that followed after this first installment proved a hit.)

Since 1954, the Gill-Man has stood as the acme of the humanoid fish monster, a direct descendant of H.P. Lovecraft's Deep Ones or the residents of the eerie seaside town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts. He lurks beneath the waters of that Amazonian river and deep within the equally secret places within our minds, ever ready to drive away intruders and to perish in the search for a mate. And when looked at in this film, the Gill-Man's attentions toward his human object of fascination do not bring to mind any sort of intent for harm, but instead he seems quite innocent in his need for her. Yes, it's likely spurred by a legitimate mating urge, but he clearly does not want to hurt her. He is shown to have the power and the natural tools with which to render perceived threats into so much chutney, but he is in no way within the graphically-depicted realm of the utterly horrific fish-men rapists in the infamous HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980). I dare to say that to many of us the Gill-Man is lovable and even beautiful in his own way, something expressed to perfection in Guillermo Del Toro's superlative "monster fairytale" for grownups, Best Picture Oscar-Winner THE SHAPE OF WATER (2019). To me, that film was the Gill-Man — or rather a superb stand-in, "the Asset" — finally being given the story he truly deserved, one  wherein he was treated with kindness, respect, and even outright wonder from some of the characters, and even given a happy ending.

I've loved the Gill-Man since I was little, and he was one of the first monsters that I learned to draw, once I was old enough to hold a crayon. He appealed to me because of my budding interest in amphibians and marine biology, and also because he was a creature that we were supposed to fear but we rooted for because of the mistreatment, frustrations, and disappointments that he endured over the course of three films. Hell, once I'd mastered the basics of prolonged underwater swimming, I modeled my early movements at it after the Gill-Man's style, complete with spatulate hands aiding in dragging myself through the pool or the ocean.

So, yeah. Gill-Man, I love you, and I hope you return someday, brought back to the screen by filmmakers who understand and appreciate you. I just wish I lived next to a swamp and could therefore have you as a most welcome neighbor.
From my collection.

From my collection.

Poster from the Danish theatrical release.


The Dave Edmunds song quoted at the opening of this essay.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2019-Day 24: THE DEVIL BAT (1940)

Can one really honor the season of horror without a Bela Lugosi movie on the roster?

Brilliant chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers (Bela Lugosi), bitter over what he perceives as the successful company he works for growing rich from his work but not awarding him his fair share of the profits, has crated a chemical that when smelled by a huge scientifically-altered bat causes the animal to go berserk and destroy the source of the scent. 

Dr. Carruthers (Bela Lugosi) and his pet.

Passing off the chemical as a mens' aftershave, Carruther's sneakily manages to apply it to the necks of those upon whom he seeks vengeance, and in no time the area is plagued by mysterious nighttime throat-slashings apparently committed by a "mouse." The murders are investigated by smooth reporter (Dave O'Brien) and his annoying comic relief photographer sidekick, and Dr. Carruthers is eventually and inevitably a victim of the horror that he himself created.

Long slagged off as just one of the legion of cheapie pieces of crap shat out by studios of a far lesser pedigree than Universal during the heyday of the classic Universal horror cycle, THE DEVIL BAT, also released as KILLER BATS, indeed lives up (or down) to its reputation, but unlike many of its bargain basement brethren, it has the advantage of Bela Lugosi as its villain. An indelible horror icon thanks to his legendary performance as Count Dracula in Universal's genre-defining 1931 production of DRACULA, Lugosi's time as a superstar was brief and he soon found himself mostly languishing in a stream of poverty row flicks designed to fill out a double-bill, though still turning up from time to time in A-list pictures like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) and THE WOLF MAN (1941)  in supporting capacity. But the schlock far outweighed the quality efforts, and Lugosi became something of an unintentional self-caricature as a result, which made him ideal for over-the-top "evil foreign scientist" roles. As his career wound down, he became hopelessly typecast, developed a tragic narcotics habit, and ended up as a friend and collaborator with infamous "worst director of all time" Edward D. Wood, the mastermind behind the legendarily bad trifecta of GLEN OR GLENDA (1953), BRIDE OF THE MONSTER (1955), and the schlock masterpiece that is PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959).  

THE DEVIL BAT afforded Lugosi the chance to work his signature Hungarian-accented magic in a film where every other cast member is pretty much a plank of wood — with the exception of Dave O'Brien, who gained unintended screen immortality/infamy as the hysterical stoner criminal who demands "Play faster...FASTER!!!" in REEFER MADNESS (1936) — and the presence of the goofy-looking titular monster, represented by a tatty prop on a string, is the charming epitome of a crappy old school practical effect. 

When wire-suspended fake chiroptera stalk the night!

Long available on home video as a cheap public domain item and currently to be viewed for free on YouTube, THE DEVIL BAT is worth checking out as a fun way to kill 68 minutes, especially if one happens to have some beers and a loaded bong. Bottom line: Even cheapjack Lugosi is better than having no Lugosi at all. Oh, and this was directed by Jean Yarbrough, who also brought the world SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946), a disappointing alleged werewolf movie in which there turns out not to be a werewolf committing the story's murders, and HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (1967), a truly awful country-western horror-comedy musical that I have to get around to  writing about one of these days...

Poster from the theatrical release.